Content info: discussions of addiction, self-harm.
When I met Jackie, he was sitting in one of the tall, slender trees that grew in the slanted ground around the drainage pipe. The time was night, and he was a little drunk; his legs were slung over the low-lying branch like the arms of a wet sweater over the back of a chair. I had heard him shouting, “Come on, come on,” while I was sitting on my porch, and because the shouts were coming from across the way, I knew he wasn’t calling for me.
But that’s who he got.
“Oh, fuck,” Jackie said when he saw me standing by his backpack. He wobbled, drew his feet onto the branch, and reached beneath to take hold. At least the tree’s limbs were steady, even if his weren’t.
“Easy there,” I said, raising my hands. “I’m not here to hurt you, and I don’t want you to hurt yourself up there, either.”
He narrowed his eyes and pointed with his chin at the bag. “That’s my stuff.”
“Sure is,” I said, though I saw the bottle of Goldschläger he had unpacked, fine choice, and doubted his claim to that one. The phone was his, that I could believe.
I was pretty sure the knife was, too. But I went for the phone.
“Guess I should’ve seen something like this coming,” he slurred, his voice barely able to rise above the surface of everything he had poured into himself.
I swiped his phone’s screen and tapped a few icons until I found the camera. “Smile,” I said, “so you’ll have a record of how bad you look shitfaced.” I set the phone back on the ground and studied the boy’s small pile of belongings. For a moment, I worried I wouldn’t be able to find anything to work with, but then I saw it, sticking out of the backpack’s front pocket, which was unzippered and open: a dollar bill folded into the shape of an origami frog. I plucked it out gently, my index finger on one side of it, my thumb on the other, as if it were alive. “Didn’t think kids carried cash anymore.”
“Hey,” Jackie said. “Hey, that’s very not yours.”
He had begun shifting and scrambling, like he was making to jump to the ground, but I stopped him by again raising my hand. “What’s your name?” I asked.
His eyes slipped back into narrow slits, but at least he answered. “Jackie.”
“Jackie, I’m Mark,” I told him, “and I think you know as well as I do that some things you just can’t see coming.”
With that, I crouched low and placed the dollar bill frog on the ground, on top of the flat brown leaves that the earth had been trying to reclaim since fall. Once the frog touched mud, it shook itself alive and hopped toward the skinny little finger of water that ran from the drainage pipe. The pipe yawned like a three-foot-high mouth in the side of the hill. When the origami frog reached its darkness, it took one last leap toward it and disappeared with a wink of light and a quick, audible pop.
“Fuck,” Jackie said for the second time in our brief acquaintance.
I brushed my hands on my knees, stood, and turned to look at the boy. His stickly shoulders made him look young, the black hair spilling into his eyes even more so. “You need a hand getting down from there, Jackie?” I asked.
He shook his head. His eyes were wide, but his lips were locked in a line. I stared at him.
“I know what you were looking for out here,” I told him, “and I live right across the street. As soon as you get down from there, you want to talk about it, you come on over. I’ll be out on the porch.” I turned to walk away, to give him some time. But just because I was letting him have time to think didn’t mean I was letting him have the Goldschläger. Or the knife.
A minute later, I was back on the top step of my porch, both of Jackie’s weapons of choice against himself beside me. I unscrewed the cap on the bottle of Goldschläger and sniffed at the cinnamon liquor inside; I took turns extending and retracting the knife’s angled blade. Across the street, the untamed silhouettes of the forest preserve’s trees spread out against the streetlamp glow of the neighborhood like ink in a pool of water. I waited.
When Jackie finally came out of the woods, it was as if the sun had risen in the middle of the darkness. Of course, he was a skinny boy, so I chuckled, thinking it was just a little sunbeam I was seeing. The light was there, though. The hope inside of him. He crossed the street but stopped when he got to the edge of my yard.
“You make all this stuff?” he asked.
What he was looking at were the assorted creations that, over the years, had found a home on my lawn: the stubby clay sculptures and the handmade dolls, the beaded necklaces left lying on the small hedgerows lining my walkway, the pages of stories and poems that hung on colored string from the crabapple tree like ornaments at Christmas. I smiled and shook my head.
“Not that talented,” I told him. “For a while, I gathered them up from across the way so the park volunteers wouldn’t throw them out. Then people started coming here and leaving them with me. Knew I’d leave them for the ones they were meant for.”
“Who were they meant for?”
I raised my eyebrows. “Pretty sure you know, considering you were out there trying to call them to you.”
That was it. As if an enormous wooden door had opened right in front of him, he took a step onto my walkway and soft-footed his way to the porch. He took a seat on the lowest step and sat silently for a long time.
“You know what it’s like,” he finally said, “to have a fox show up out of nowhere and start talking to you?”
“No,” I said. “Just a big purple lizard.” He turned to me. “I’m from New Mexico,” I added, as if that really began to explain anything.
He sat with that for a minute. Then, “I can’t tell anyone. They already think I’m nuts.”
I shifted on my stair and leaned against the railing. “You must be something special for a fox spirit to come out and say hi, though.”
I could see Jackie trying to smile, I could, but it soon got lost among the heavier lines that had started to crinkle up his face. “It licked my wounds,” he whispered. “Made them stop somehow.” I didn’t have to ask further; I looked and saw the scars running parallel to each other along his forearms like mountain ranges on a map of the desert, showing where the earth had been pushed too far.
I moved down a step. “Goldschläger,” I said. “Not the only answer you could find at home, huh?”
He shook his head and chuckled. “No, just the best.”
“How old are you, Jackie?”
“Eighty-two,” he said. I glared. “Fourteen,” he decided. “You?”
“Older.” I took the knife and began turning it over in my hands while Jackie watched, his eyes following it around and around. “You know, this—” I caught the knife and held it still “—this isn’t the kind of sacrifice the Folk prefer.”
“You know who I’m talking about.”
Jackie nodded. “Then why’d it come before?” he asked quietly, to which I shrugged.
“Maybe they just don’t like waste,” I said.
He stared at the ground as if he were trying to solve a puzzle scratched out on its surface. “But they do like booze, right?” he eventually said. “I mean, I don’t know where to get mead or anything like that, but still.” He pointed at the Goldschläger.
“Not when you pour it all into yourself and try to drown in it,” I said. “Trust me, I know.”
Funny how the thought of ending up like an adult can get kids to thinking seriously. “So what kind of sacrifices do the-the Folk like?”
The best response I had was in front of me, so I raised my hand and gestured toward the yard. “Time. Creativity. A portion of your thoughts and your brain space. Give them some of that.”
But he laughed. “I got nothing like that to offer,” he said, shaking his head so that his hair swept across his eyes like curtains.
So I reached into my pocket for my wallet and pulled out a dollar. “Take this, then. Use it to buy a clue.”
Jackie looked at me then like I was a grenade and the dollar I was holding was the pin that, if pulled, would set me off. I could only guess what it was like living inside the place he called home. I softened my look, raised my eyebrows, and nodded slowly. Something brightened inside him. He took the dollar bill.
Then he began to fold. I don’t know if he noticed the wind starting to stir around him while he worked, but it was there, subtle and light, the kind that fit well on a spring night. I watched him flip the bill over and turn it around the way I had turned the knife, only now there was a feeling much more potent at play. Before long, the bill took on a rounded shape, and five little stumps stuck out from the oval Jackie had made. He set it on the step.
“A turtle,” I said. “Nice.”
“First one I learned how to make.” Together we watched it, and together we waited. Not even the wind made the turtle move, though; it had stopped as soon as Jackie was done working.
“Why isn’t anything happening?” he whispered.
“To be honest, I wasn’t sure anything would,” I said. “Because I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned over the years, and that’s that magic takes time. Sure, you’ve always got it, but learning how to use it? That doesn’t happen right away.”
He rested his forehead on his hands. “Of course not.”
“Jackie,” I said. “Jackie.” The second time he looked at me. “I know it doesn’t feel like it right now, but you do have the time to learn and get better. To make things better.”
Then I picked up the knife once more and held it out to him.
“Do you want the time?” I asked.
Jackie glared at me. If the knife’s blade had been visible, I would have imagined his decision somehow being balanced on its edge.
He stood abruptly. “Keep it,” he said as he began to slump down the walkway. “Just in case.”
“What about the turtle? Figure I owe you a dollar.”
“It’s a gift,” he said, and that’s really when I began to have hope.
The forest preserve across the street from my house isn’t anything like the dusty place where I grew up, and I never would have called the creek bed that catches the drainage pipe’s runoff familiar before I moved here. How I knew that the woods were special all those years ago was beyond me, but some things just aren’t meant to be questioned.
After Jackie left that night, I went back to the spot where I had found him. I lowered his origami turtle into the trickling muddy stream and watched it dip below the surface and paddle away with the current. Like I said, some things.
“Then I stared at the bottle of Goldschläger, which I had brought with me and set on the ground. I stared at it for a long time while the moon paced overhead, occasionally peeking at me through the trees. It took what felt like ages, but I finally got my hand around the neck of the bottle and tipped it, spilling a bit of the nectar inside on the soft ground.
“A gift,” I called as I screwed the cap back on, “from me, but more from a new friend. We’re hoping you’ll put it to better use.”
I saw the eyes appear in the shadows of the brush near the beech tree, blinking like two clean pennies that had caught a wink of sunlight. They were gone just as quickly as they had appeared. So was the Goldschläger.
I know I’ll have to be honest with Jackie the next time we talk: the pain of a rough life and the urge to dull it in the dumbest ways possible never completely go away. Lucky for people like him and me, though, neither does magic, and if that means we live in a world where origami frogs and paper turtles can spring to life, I think that means there’s a chance for us, too.