This book begins with a bad word.
Can you guess which one?
WAIT! Don’t say it out loud. Don’t even think it to yourself. I get into enough trouble as it is.
In fact, if the only reason you opened this book is to find the bad words in it, you will be sorely disappointed. I learned the hard way to keep my writing clean.
Alas, when the hero of this book, Clay, first pronounced this word that I just mentioned, or rather that I most definitively did NOT mention, this swear word, this curse word, this very, very bad word, this word that I am not repeating or in any way revealing, he didn’t know there was anything wrong with it; he was only three years old.
Where would such a young boy learn such a grown‑up word? I have no idea. I certainly didn’t teach it to him.
Maybe his father yelled it when his father stubbed his toe. Maybe his babysitter grumbled it into her phone when she thought Clay was sleeping. Maybe an older boy taught him the word because the older boy thought it would be funny to hear a three-year-old say it.
It really doesn’t matter where Clay learned the word any more than it matters what the word was; it only matters that he said the word when he did.
At the time of this fateful event, Clay was in a crowded elevator, leaving his first dentist appointment. As his brother would tell it later, Clay was happily sucking on the acid-green lollipop he had been given as a reward for his good behavior,* when all of a sudden he took the lollipop out of his mouth and hollered this terrible, terrible word at the top of his little lungs.
Needless to say, everybody in the elevator was shocked to hear such foul language come out of such a small child. A big kid giggled. An old lady frowned. Even her Pekingese lapdog seemed to whimper in distress.
Mortified, Clay’s brother, who was twelve years older than Clay and who was in charge of Clay for the afternoon, leaned in to Clay’s ear and whispered,
“You can’t say that— that’s a bad word.”
Clay looked at his brother in confusion. “Why? What did it do?”
Everybody laughed. The mood in the elevator, er, elevated.
But that isn’t the end of the story.
On the bus ride home, Clay’s brother couldn’t get Clay’s question out of his head. What did bad words do? What made them bad?
Finally, he had an answer: “Bad words are bad because they make people feel bad. That’s what they do.”
Clay nodded. This made sense to him. “And good words make people feel good?”
“And magic words make people feel magic?”
Clay’s brother hesitated. He was an amateur magician and said magic words all the time— mostly while practicing tricks on Clay— but he’d never thought about them in this particular way.
“Um, I guess. How ’bout that?”
“Accadabba!” said Clay, giggling. “Shakazam!”
Sometimes, between siblings or close friends, words take on meanings that can’t easily be explained to other people. They become like inside jokes— inside words, as it were. After the elevator episode, bad word became Clay and his brother’s inside word for magic word. Also for code word and for password and for any other word that had some unique power or significance. For any word that did something.
“Can you think of a bad word for me?” Clay’s brother would ask before making a coin disappear behind his hand or before pulling a scarf out of Clay’s ear.
“What’s the bad word?” Clay would demand, blocking his brother’s access to the refrigerator or bathroom.
As Clay grew older and became more and more adept at magic tricks himself (possibly more adept than his brother, although please don’t tell anyone I said so), bad word maintained its special meaning.
“Hey, bad man, what’s the bad word?” they would ask each other in greeting.
When they left coded messages for each other, they would leave hints about the bad word needed to decode the message.
When they did magic shows for their parents or friends, they called themselves the Bad Brothers.
Bad was their bond.
Then, around the time Clay turned eleven, his brother pulled off the biggest, baddest magic trick of all: He disappeared, with little warning and no explanation.
That was almost two years ago. And still Clay would sometimes wonder what he had done to drive his brother away. What had he said? What bad word had he uttered without knowing it?
And what bad magic would make his brother come back?
Clay was not the type of person who would want a book written about him. I may as well admit that now.
Go ahead, judge me. Call me names. Curse me and the horse I wrote in on. But there it is.
He wasn’t shy exactly, but these days, at the age of twelve, almost thirteen, he liked to keep a low profile. He slouched in his chair. He hid his face in a comic book or skateboard magazine. He wore a hoodie, even on warm days. It wasn’t that he had a big nose or funny ears or horrible acne; I may be biased, but I think he was almost handsome, in a dried-snot‑on‑his-sleeve sort of way. It was just that he preferred not to attract attention. Just being looked at for longer than a moment or two made him start jiggling his knee. I can only guess what Clay would have thought about being scrutinized for almost four hundred pages.
Still, it happens to everyone occasionally. Being looked at, I mean.
On the morning to which I now turn, the morning Clay’s life began to tumble helplessly out of control, on that morning, kids kept looking at Clay, not just once or twice, but repeatedly, and he had no idea why.
It started as soon as he got to school. The staring and the whispering. The first few kids he caught turned away so fast that he almost thought he’d imagined it. But the next few were bolder; they openly ogled and snickered. One girl he knew just looked at him and shook her head. Two boys he couldn’t remember seeing before gave him a thumbs‑up. And that was even more alarming.
After he stowed his skateboard in his locker, Clay ducked into the bathroom and examined himself in the mirror. There were no boogers hanging from his nose. His fly wasn’t open. His hair was a mess, as usual, but it was hidden under his hoodie. He could see nothing wrong. Nothing that wasn’t always wrong, anyway.
Had somebody been spreading rumors about him? Had he been mistaken for someone else? It made no sense.
Clay’s first class, language arts, was on the ground floor with an entrance directly off the school‑yard next to the basketball court. When he walked up, a half dozen kids were already standing around, talking in hushed voices.
While the others took a few steps back, Clay’s best friend, Gideon, stepped right up to Clay.“Okay, yeah, sure, it’s kind of . . . awesome? And I’m kind of . . . impressed?” said Gideon. “And I know I’m always saying you should just do this, like what are you waiting for, but here? Now? At school? Seriously?” Gideon had this odd way of speaking so that it always sounded as if he were in the middle of a conversation; it was a little hard to follow, even for Clay.
“I mean, do you have a death wish?” Gideon persisted. “Or are you just totally certifiable?”
“What are you talking about?” Clay asked. “Why is everybody—?” He faltered. “What the—?”
Behind Gideon, on the outside wall of their classroom, there was a freshly painted graffiti mural, or “bomb” as they are sometimes called.
As soon as he saw the mural, Clay’s leg started to jiggle. He felt dizzy. He thought he might puke.
it said, in big black bubble letters.Underneath was a small tag, the signature of the artist:
“Don’t worry— I took a picture,” said Gideon, holding up his phone. “Yeah, they’ll kick you out of school, and yeah, you’ll have no future, and yeah, your parents will kill you, but at least your words will live forever, right?”
The name, the lettering style, the entire mural was unmistakably, unquestionably, undeniably Clay’s.
The trouble was, the mural wasn’t his. He hadn’t painted it. And he had no idea how it had gotten there.
It was as if the mural had appeared by magic.
Very sucky magic.
While the mural might not have been Clay’s, the now-immortal words MAGIC SUCKS! were very much his own. It was just that he’d written them elsewhere.
On paper. Not stucco.
Like many great works of literature— and for all I know, like many great works of graffiti art as well— Clay’s words (all two of them!) were inspired by the greatest of all wordsmiths, William Shakespeare.
I’m not trying to impress you. Okay, maybe I am trying to impress you. But it’s true nonetheless.
Allow me to explain:
Every spring, the sixth graders at Clay’s school put on a Shakespeare play. Depending on the kind of student you were, it was either the highlight of your educational career or a major source of dread.
For Clay, as you might guess, it was mainly the latter.
Most years, the sixth graders chose to perform Macbeth, because it has witches and bloody hands; or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because it has fairies and a man with the head of a donkey, or, as the students always delighted in calling it, the head of an “ass.”
This year, a new language arts teacher, Mr. Bailey, had come to school. To his students’ chagrin, he had insisted on choosing the play himself: The Tempest. He’d even cast himself as the lead!
It hardly seemed fair.
By now I’m sure you’ve read every one of Shakespeare’s plays many times over. (If you haven’t, I insist you put down this book and start immediately.) But just in case you’re experiencing an inexplicable lapse in memory, I will remind you that The Tempest is about a sorcerer named Prospero who is stranded on a tropical island with his daughter.
There is a storm. There is a shipwreck. There is a monster. There is romance. There is magic. There is mayhem.
The usual story stuff.
Clay liked the play well enough. At least he liked the opening, with all the crashing thunder and lightning and with the big cardboard ship that got destroyed in the first few minutes of the show. (Somehow, the fact that he’d painted the ship himself made the destruction all the more satisfying.)
What he disliked was his part: Antonio, Prospero’s conniving younger brother.
In Clay’s opinion, the best roles were Ariel, the tree spirit who casts spells on everyone (not that Clay wanted to wear Ariel’s green sparkle tights!), and Caliban, the monster who is enslaved by Prospero.
Gideon played Caliban. On opening night, Clay watched in envy as his friend, his face caked with awesomely gruesome Halloween makeup, growled and scowled his way across the stage, cursing everyone in his path.
As Antonio, Clay didn’t get to do much at all. In the play’s last act, Prospero forgives Antonio for having stolen his dukedom, but Antonio never gets to apologize, or defend himself, or even curse like Caliban.
Instead, Clay had to stand on the side of the stage next to the smoke machine, listening to the old sorcerer’s pompous speeches while trying to forget there was an audience watching his every move.
As the play went on and his eyes started to sting from the smoke, Clay felt increasingly fidgety. And increasingly strange.
Whenever he looked at Mr. Bailey, Clay didn’t see his language arts teacher; he didn’t even see the character Mr. Bailey was playing, Antonio’s older brother, Prospero. He saw his own real-life older brother. The brother who had left almost two years earlier. The brother Clay was doing his best to forget.
He could almost hear that funny humming sound his brother made— hmmgh— and his brother’s voice saying, “How ’bout that?” His brother was haunting him— through Shakespeare!
Toward the end of The Tempest, after Prospero has magically manipulated everyone into doing his bidding, as if they were all puppets in his personal puppet show, the magician renounces magic forever:
This rough magic I here abjure,
I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And, deeper than did ever plummet sound,
I’ll drown my book.
“Liar,” blurted Clay. “You’ll never give up magic. You don’t care about anything else—”
“Shh!” Gideon whispered from the wings.
Clay blushed red. He hadn’t realized he was speaking aloud. He wasn’t even sure whom he’d been speaking to: Mr. Bailey or Prospero or his brother. He looked around. Everybody was focused on Mr. Bailey.
As far as Clay could tell, nobody else had heard him.
He sighed— silently—with relief.
“And stop jiggling!” Gideon added.
Clay blushed redder. And willed his knee to stop bobbing up and down.
“You’re jiggling again.”
A week later, Clay and Gideon were sitting next to each other in Mr. Bailey’s class, working on essays about the play. It was almost the end of the year and everyone was writing at top speed, as if every syllable brought them closer to summer vacation.
Everyone except Clay.
Gideon poked him in the leg. “Dude, your knee!”
“Sorry,” Clay muttered.
Clay, as you may have noticed by now, was a jiggler.
For as long as he could remember, he’d had a mysterious restless energy that kept him in constant motion. It wasn’t just his knees. He twiddled his thumbs . . . tapped his toes . . .
“Clay, a pencil is for writing,” called Mr. Bailey from across the room. “Not wiggling!”
. . . and wiggled his pencils.
“Um . . . thinking!”
The exception was when he was skateboarding. With wheels moving below, Clay’s body relaxed and his mind was able to focus. Unfortunately, skateboards weren’t allowed in the classroom.
Holding his knee down with one hand, and his pencil down with the other, Clay made himself look at the piece of paper on his desk. The paper was blank, and the essay was due in ten minutes.
“Nine more minutes, everybody,” Mr. Bailey said to the room.
Make that nine minutes.
Clay glanced at the chalkboard:
Discuss the role of magic in THE TEMPEST. Why does Prospero break his staff and drown his magic book at the end? If you had magic powers, would you do the same?
What was it about this question? Why was it so difficult for him to answer?
And why did it make his leg jiggle uncontrollably?
As the rest of the class filed out, Clay walked over to Mr. Bailey’s desk, which was piled so high with books that Clay had to look over them to see his teacher.
Mr. Bailey was a short, plump man with a pink face and a mutton-chop beard. Today, as was not unusual, he was wearing a knit vest and leather sandals with purple socks. If he looked like a magical character, it wasn’t Shakespeare’s fierce wizard Prospero; it was Tolkien’s harmless hobbit Bilbo.
Mutely, Clay held up his empty sheet of paper.
“What’s this?” bellowed Mr. Bailey, standing up but not taking the paper. “Writer’s block?”
Despite his small stature, Mr. Bailey had a loud, booming voice, developed, he had bragged to his students more than once, during his many years on the stage.
“Uh‑huh,” said Clay, bouncing on his toes (which is a double-leg jiggle, if you think about it).
Mr. Bailey nodded. “Actually, I’ve always thought block wasn’t the right word. It’s more of a knot, wouldn’t you say?”
“Or maybe a net,” suggested Mr. Bailey, philosophically. “A net one gets all knotted up inside.”
“But the point is, young man, you are unable to write.”
“Why?” asked Mr. Bailey, leaning toward Clay across the piles of books.
“Uh‑huh,” said Clay, taking a step back. “Wait, what?”
“Why can’t you write?” asked Mr. Bailey, leaning farther. A few books toppled over, but he took no notice. “Is it the subject?”
Clay squirmed. “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even believe in magic.”
“Do you have to believe in something to write about it?”
“No, I guess not,” said Clay.
“Well then . . . ?”
Clay hesitated. How to explain? “My older brother, when I was little, he used to do all these tricks— you know, card tricks, coin tricks, hat tricks. I figured them all out eventually. Magicians just say a bunch of stuff to make you think they’re doing something they’re not. They’re liars. Cheese-wizards.”
Mr. Bailey laughed, as if this were a great joke. “Cheese-wizards? I think you’re confusing magic-show magic with magic in Shakespeare’s time. In those days, magic was taken very seriously.”
“What’s the difference? The whole idea of magic is fake. It’s all cheese-wizardry.”
“Well, write that, if you must,” said Mr. Bailey.
“I can’t,” said Clay. “My . . . brain won’t let me.”
Mr. Bailey regarded Clay over his desk. “I’ve heard teachers complain that you are developing an attitude problem, Clay. Is this what they’re talking about?”
Clay shrugged, forcing himself not to lookaway. He didn’t think he had an attitude problem; he thought he had an honesty problem. The problem was, he didn’t know how not to be honest.
Clay had exceptionally big eyes as well as wild, furry, half-curly hair. When he stared without blinking— a talent he had developed at a young age to irritate his older brother— the effect was quite startling. He looked like a forest animal.
Discomfited, Mr. Bailey was the first to look down.
“I think I have something that might help—”
From under his desk, Mr. Bailey slid out a large cardboard box. Spilling out of the top was the velvet robe he had worn in The Tempest, and sticking out of the robe was the gnarled piece of wood that had served as his magic staff. For a second, Clay thought his teacher might give him the staff— either that or hit him over the head with it. But Mr. Bailey put the staff aside and started pulling out more props from the play.
“Ah, here we are—”
Smiling, Mr. Bailey handed Clay a smallish book covered with cracked rust-red leather. Inset in the center of the cover was a tiny triangular mirror.
It took a moment for Clay to recognize what he was looking at. Prospero’s magic book. The book Prospero drowns at the end of The Tempest. Clay had never seen it up close before.
“Thanks, but, um, are you sure you won’t need this?” asked Clay. “What if you do the play again?”
Mr. Bailey waved his hand dismissively. “Once I’ve played a role, it’s done. The character becomes part of me.”
Clay opened the book— or tried to. The pages of the book had dried together, and Clay had to pry them apart in order to look inside. Though old and worn, the pages were blank save for a few stains and some yellowing near the edges.
Mr. Bailey told Clay he didn’t have to write about The Tempest. As long as he wrote something— anything— in the journal, he would get class credit.
“Like what?” asked Clay, peering into the tiny mirror. His eye peered back at him. He had the odd sensation that he was spying on himself.
“It doesn’t matter— I don’t even have to read it,” said Mr. Bailey.
“But how can you not read it if you look at it?”
Clay thought his logic was irrefutable, but Mr. Bailey just chuckled. “Believe me, I have a lot of practice ignoring things that students write.”
He sat down and put his sandaled feet up on his desk, satisfied that the problem was solved.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I played King Lear? Now that was a performance! . . .”
As Mr. Bailey told him about the trials and tribulations of playing Shakespeare’s mad king, Clay kept trying to excuse himself.
To no avail.
That afternoon, when he got home from school, Clay leaned his skateboard against the wall of his bedroom and sat down at his desk— which was actually a drafting table.
For somebody with writer’s block, a casual observer might have noted, Clay sure wrote a lot. His desk, his skateboard, the wall his skateboard was leaning against, almost every surface in the room was covered with Clay’s writing.
I say writing, but mostly it was his name written again and again. Or variations, like
Sometimes his name appeared as a simple tag. Other times it was written in twisting three-dimensional letters. In the most elaborate versions, the letter Y was depicted as a fist squeezing clay.
More than anything, Clay’s walls resembled a graffiti artist’s sketchbook. A talented graffiti artist’s sketchbook, I would add. (I’m told hands are notoriously difficult to draw.) But as I said, I may be biased.
As to whether Clay had ever brought one of his graffiti pieces to life somewhere else— on a school wall, for example— the answer is no. At least, not yet.
He pored over pictures of vintage graffiti art. He hunted for murals beneath freeway overpasses. And lately, at Gideon’s instigation, he and Gideon had started following around some older kids who had an active graffiti crew (not that the older kids ever tolerated them for very long). But whether it was due to moral qualms or fear of being caught or just his cautious not-quite-thirteen-year-old nature, Clay had yet to write on a single wall outside of his room.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he didn’t plan to.
Clay pulled the journal out of his backpack and took a pen out of his drawer, ready to write whatever nonsense came to mind.
As soon as he uncapped the pen, it exploded, spraying ink in every direction. A big black splat landed on the red cover of the journal.
The pen was a “magic” pen— a gag gift—given to him by his brother four years earlier.
“Figures,” Clay grumbled.
All the gifts his brother gave him exploded— whether they were supposed to or not.
Shaking his head in annoyance, Clay threw the pen to the floor, then wiped off the journal with a tissue. A smeared, star-shaped stain remained.
He grabbed a fat black marker off a shelf and opened the journal.
he wrote in swollen bubble letters.
As he dotted the exclamation mark, Clay imagined that he saw a blue flame erupt— and for a flickering second he saw the page fill with words. He blinked, and the page went blank again.
I must be getting tired, he thought, rubbing his eyes.
He tagged the page quickly—
— then closed the journal. There was nothing more to say.
When Clay arrived at school the next morning, he still hadn’t decided whether he was going to show Mr. Bailey the journal. It might be wiser, Clay thought, to write something longer, without the word sucks in it.
The last thing he expected was that the whole school would see his journal entry blown up on a wall.
The words on the wall were nearly identical to those he’d written the night before — the only difference being that they were bigger— much, much bigger. It looked as though somebody had scanned Clay’s journal, then run Mr. Bailey’s wall through a giant printer.
Clay couldn’t understand it. Had somebody snuck into his room in the middle of the night, taken his journal out of his backpack, copied it onto Mr.
Bailey’s wall, then returned the journal— all without waking Clay up? He couldn’t think of anybody who hated him enough to go to all that trouble.
He felt weirdly exposed, as if it were a long confessional journal entry, not just two words, that had been copied onto the wall.
When Mr. Bailey found him, the bell was ringing and Clay was still staring at the wall, repeatedly tapping his journal as though it might eventually reveal the explanation for the mystery mural. He snapped the journal shut, but he was too late.
“Give that to me,” said Mr. Bailey, who suddenly looked a lot less like a hobbit and a lot more like an angry middle school teacher.
Biting his lip, Clay handed him the journal. Mr. Bailey opened it to the offending page.
“I’m very surprised, Clay,” said Mr. Bailey, glancing from the journal to the wall and back again. The effort to keep his fury in check was making his cheeks red and puffy. “Writing this in a journal is one thing, but on a wall . . . ?”
“I didn’t do it—”
“Is there something you’re upset about? Something going on at home, maybe?”
“I said I didn’t do it—”
“It will be better for you in the long run if you admit it now,” said Mr. Bailey, his cheeks getting bigger and redder by the second. He was beginning to resemble a blowfish.
“But I didn’t—”
Mr. Bailey held up his hand. “Save it for the Head of School—”
“Can I at least have the journal back?” said Clay. The journal was the one clue he had about the writing on the wall. The one thing that might help him clear his name.
“Administration office, now!” Mr. Bailey exploded, spit flying everywhere.
Clay walked away, his whole body quivering with anger and confusion. He was about to be suspended, possibly expelled, for something he hadn’t done and couldn’t explain.
Before leaving the schoolyard, he took a last look at the graffiti. From a distance, the bubble letters appeared to wriggle, snakelike, in the sunlight. His words came in and out of focus, over and over, taunting him with their message.
MAGIC SUCKS! . . .
MAGIC SUCKS! . . .
MAGIC SUCKS! . . .
An effect, it seemed, of the tears welling in his eyes.