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W I L L YO U S U R V I V E T H E S E

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CH A P T ER ONE

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 snag my thumb on the lunch tray’s metal edge, and a crescent of blood appears beneath my cuticle. It oozes into the cracks surrounding my nail, then spills over to one side, forming a perfect red droplet, almost like a tear. I swear under my breath. The cut stings, but at least I didn’t smear blood across my T-shirt. Nothing says “be my friend” like serial-killer stains on the first day of school. A stack of napkins sits next to the bin of plastic silverware, but the guy in the food line in front of me is blocking it. “Excuse me,” I say, and the guy turns around. He’s good-looking in that athletic, future-frat-boy way where

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he doesn’t really have to try. His brown hair sticks up all over, and he wears a loose, wrinkled shirt, as if he’s just rolled out of bed. Years of being the new girl have helped me perfect my shy half smile. It’s as close as I ever come to flirting. I motion to my bleeding finger. “Can you hand me a napkin?” “Ouch,” the guy says, grabbing a few napkins from the stack. His smile beats mine by a few watts, and I blush. “Hey, do you need a Band-Aid?” asks a girl behind me, and I turn. She has platinum-blond hair cut short, like a boy’s. Oversize black glasses without any lenses sit on her nose, and she wears a neon-pink tank top stretched so thin I can see her black bra through the material. A man’s golden ring dangles from a chain around her neck. “Yeah, thanks,” I say. Next to her, my standard first-day uniform of a gray T-shirt and dark jeans looks comically plain. A few schools ago, I tried layering rubber bracelets around my wrists and coloring on my Converse sneakers with Sharpies, but today my wrists are bare, my sneakers brand-new. It’s time for a change. “Hey, Brooklyn, what’s up?” The boy nods at her. They don’t seem like the kind of people who’d be friends, but his tone is nice enough. Brooklyn slides her tattered

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backpack off one shoulder and reaches into the front pocket. “Hiya, Charlie,” she says to him. “Your brother miss me yet?” The name Charlie fits the cute, athletic guy, and it makes me like him more than if his name were Zack or Chad. A Charlie helps you find your algebra class when you can’t figure out your new class schedule. Chad burps the alphabet. Charlie runs a hand through his hair, leaving it even messier than before. “Miss isn’t the word I’d use. . . .” “Ex-boyfriend?” I interrupt to keep from being left out of the conversation. Asking a million questions is New Girl 101. People love talking about themselves. Brooklyn pulls her hand out of her bag and hands me a clear ­bandage decorated with a tiny picture of a ­mustache. “Ex-boss,” she says. “But he’ll be begging for me to come back any day now. Hey, cool tat.” She points to the crook of my hand, where I sketched a serpent wearing a headdress made of ­feathers. It’s called Quetzalcoatl. When I was little and my mom and I still visited the tiny town where she grew up in Mexico, my grandmother told stories about Quetzalcoatl. Grandmother’s too sick to tell the s­ tories anymore, but I sketch the serpent in my journal sometimes. And on my hand, apparently.

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“It’s not a real tattoo,” I admit, rubbing at the drawing with the palm of my other hand. I’ll have to wash it off before my mom sees it. She’s never liked Grandmother’s religious stories. My mom got her US citizenship five years ago, and she says Grandmother’s spooky Mexican folktales remind her of all the reasons she’d wanted to move away. “Just Sharpie.” “Oh.” Brooklyn sounds disappointed, but Charlie raises an eyebrow and nods in approval. “You drew that? Nice,” he says. Before I can respond, a dark-haired girl stops in the middle of the cafeteria and clears her throat. The talking, laughing students around us fall silent, as if they’ve been placed under a spell. “Can I have your attention, everyone?” she asks, even though everyone’s already looking at her. A group of six or seven people crowd behind her, all holding bags and cardboard boxes. “Jesus.” Brooklyn grimaces, pushing her fake glasses up her nose. Her tone is completely different than it was a second ago, when she offered me the Band-Aid. “Is it time for this shit again?” “I’m Riley, as most of you know,” the dark-haired girl continues in a clear, peppy voice. “And it’s time for the annual school food drive for the St. Michael’s Soup Kitchen. I hope this year you’ll all help me do God’s

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work and bring in food for the homeless. Last year alone, we collected over five hundred cans!” Students around us start to clap. It takes me by ­surprise, and I join a beat too late. The only time kids at my last school clapped for people was when they tripped and dropped their lunch trays. Behind me, Brooklyn makes a gagging sound. “Come on,” Charlie mutters. He’d been clapping with the others, but he breaks off to nudge Brooklyn with his elbow. I bite back a smile. I was wrong; he doesn’t really seem like a frat boy after all. Brooklyn makes a gun with her hand and points it at Riley’s head, narrowing her eyes. “Pew,” she whispers, shooting an imaginary bullet. She blows smoke from the tips of her fingers. I raise an eyebrow as I reach past her for a carton of milk. I’ve hung out with girls like her before, the girls who skip third period to smoke cloves in the bathroom and pierce their ears with safety pins. It’s always exciting for a while, but they never become real friends. I usually spend most of my time trying to prove I’m cool enough to hang with them. Still, beggars can’t be choosers. So when Brooklyn winks at me and says “Later,” I smile and wave back. Charlie shakes his head as Brooklyn walks away, and a few strands of floppy brown hair fall over his eyes.

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His arm brushes against mine as he leans over the food counter to grab a fork and napkin. “Don’t take Brooklyn seriously,” he says, flashing me a half smile. A dimple appears in his cheek. “It’s not so bad here, I promise. See you around?” My heart does a little flip inside my chest as he walks away. I’ve been bouncing around long enough to know my crushes never turn out the way I want them to, but I still manage to fall in love every time I meet a new guy with a great smile. I should have learned by now that high school romance isn’t in the cards for me. My mom’s been a medical technician for the army since moving to the States. I’m at a new school every six months, like clockwork. This time it’s Adams High School, in the tiny army town of Friend, Mississippi. Friend feels like the inside of an oven. The grass is brown, I hear insects buzzing wherever I go, and there are more churches in my neighbor­ hood than grocery stores. I’ve lived in nicer places, but in the end it always comes down to the ­people. I hesitate near the cafeteria doors and glance back over my shoulder at Charlie. Heat creeps up my neck. This place has potential. The students at Adams eat lunch outside, so I take my tray through the side door and head toward the bleachers. Adams High is a one-story-high building ­

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made of cream-colored brick with mud-brown siding. The classrooms are all outdated, with peeling linoleum floors and rickety desks. In fact, the only impressive part of the whole school is its football field, a deep-green stretch of Astroturf surrounded by shiny silver bleachers. Above the bleachers hangs a blue-and-white sign that reads ADAMS HIGH SPARTANS. A Mississippi flag billows in the air next to it. As I look around for a place to sit, a gasp of hot wind blows my curls into my face. I lift a hand to push them away, immediately noticing the smell. It’s like milk gone bad, or moldy cheese. I take a step toward the bleachers, and the smell gets worse. Now it’s chicken that’s been in the garbage all night, fish left out in the heat. I pull my T-shirt over my nose and make my way under the bleachers. That’s when I see it. It’s a cat. A dead cat. Skin’s been peeled away from the cat’s body in strips. Flies buzz around its head and inside its mouth, crawling over its tongue and teeth. Red paint clings to the stiff grass beneath the cat’s body, and candles surround it, cemented to the ground in pools of black wax. It takes a minute for me to see that the paint is in the shape of a star, with a black candle at each point—like a ritual. I don’t notice that I’ve started picking at the skin along my cuticles until I feel a sharp stab of pain and

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look down to see blood pooling around another fingernail. The cat’s clouded gray eyes watch me, and the flies’ constant buzz fills my ears. “What are you doing?” I whirl around, immediately spotting the dark-haired girl from the cafeteria—Riley. Her brown curls pool around her shoulders in perfect spirals, and her eyebrows start wide and taper to needle-thin points, as if they were drawn with a calligraphy pen. There isn’t a single crease in her blue dress. It looks like she never sits down. Riley looks past me, her pale blue eyes finding the skinned body of the cat. One of her eyebrows lifts, but her face remains otherwise unchanged. “Gross.” There’s no inflection in her voice. She could be talking about the lasagna they served at lunch. I take a step away from the cat, nearly tripping over my ­sneakers. “I didn’t . . . I mean, that wasn’t me. I didn’t do that.” Riley turns her eyes on me. They’re so pale they change her entire face, making her dark hair and brows seem severe. If I were going to paint her I’d have to use watercolors—only a drop of cerulean for her eyes, keeping them as light as possible. “Of course you didn’t.” She glances down at the cat and shudders. “You’re new, right? Sofia?” “Yeah,” I say, surprised she knows my name.

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“Riley.” She points to herself and her eyes grow s­ everal degrees warmer. “This is disgusting. I’m impressed you didn’t hurl.” “Me, too.” I wrinkle my nose. “Though I’m not sure I’m past the hurling stage yet.” “Right. Let’s get out of here.” Riley slides her arm around my shoulder and turns me away from the cat. “Come sit with me and my friends today.” She pulls me out from under the bleachers without waiting for an answer, which is probably a good thing because for once I don’t know what to say. Girls I’ve known who look like Riley don’t make friends with the new kid. It’s a law of nature—Earth revolves around the sun, summer follows spring, and pretty, popular girls form cliques that are harder to break into than a bank vault. If attending seven schools in five years has taught me anything, that’s it. But Riley seemed genuine when she made her charity announcement in the cafeteria. Maybe she’s different. Maybe Friend will live up to its name. “We have the best spot for lunch,” Riley explains. A few people smile and wave as we climb past them, and though Riley smiles back, she makes no move to stop and sit. “You can see everything that happens.” “Cool,” I say. Riley steers us over to where only two other girls are sitting.

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“Girls, this is Sofia. Sofia, this is Alexis.” Riley points to a girl wearing all white—white skirt, white tank top, white sweater. Her pale blond hair is long enough for her to sit on, and she has a full, round face and wide eyes. “Hey there,” Alexis says, her voice carrying the hint of a Southern accent. “And this is Grace.” Riley motions to a girl with ­velvety chocolate skin and braided hair that she’s twisted into a complicated-looking bun at the nape of her neck. “Nice tie,” I say, pointing to the polka-dot bow tie Grace is wearing as a necklace. Grace’s lips part in a smile that’s all teeth. “Thanks! They’re all the rage in Chicago.” “Grace is bringing culture to Mississippi,” Alexis adds. “Are you from Chicago?” I ask, sitting down on the bleachers next to them. “My dad was transferred here two years ago,” Grace says. “You ever been?” I shake my head as Riley sits next to me and places her hands on her knees. Even her nails are perfect— trimmed and clean. I curl my hands into fists so she won’t see my ragged cuticles. “You’ll never guess what Sof and I found under the bleachers.” Sof. The way Riley says my name is so personal and

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friendly that I have to bite back a smile. Alexis and Grace lean forward, and Riley grins, a conspiratorial look on her face. She speaks in a whisper. “A skinned dead cat.” “That’s a joke, right?” Alexis asks, fumbling with the lace at the edge of her skirt. With her long hair and wide eyes, she looks like a Disney princess come to life. Riley makes a cross over her heart. “Honest. I bet this is grounds for expulsion.” Grace shudders, nervously tapping a red Converse sneaker against the back of the bleacher in front of her. “They’ve got to at least suspend her. That’s disgusting.” “Wait.” I frown. “You know who killed that cat?” Grace, Alexis, and Riley share a look I can’t interpret. It’s like they’re trying to figure out if I can be trusted. “You know that girl you were talking to in the cafe­ teria?” Riley asks, smoothing a curl behind one ear. “Brooklyn?” I ask, surprised. I didn’t realize Riley saw me talking to Brooklyn. “Right. Brooklyn. She can be a little strange.” “Strange how?” I ask when Riley doesn’t specify. Skinning a cat isn’t strange. It’s criminal. Alexis scoots forward, and one of her knees bumps against mine. “There are rumors about Brooklyn,” she says. “And since you’re going to this school, you should probably know about them. They’re intense.”

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“Rumors?” “Last year she did a séance in the girls’ locker room,” Alexis continues. Her Southern accent gets heavier as she tells the story, and I get the feeling she’s playing it up for effect. “I was in there the next day. The floor was all black—like it’d been burned—and the entire place smelled like sage.” “Or something,” Grace adds, and Riley giggles. “And earlier this year, a bunch of girls heard her chanting in the back of algebra class,” Alexis finishes. “It’s weird.” “Weird,” I repeat. But that doesn’t seem to cover it. Maybe the stories Alexis is telling are just rumors— but that cat was very real. And very dead. I shiver. In slightly different circumstances, I could be eating with Brooklyn right now, probably listening to terrible stories about Riley and her friends. I don’t believe the same girl who offered me a Band-Aid would also kill a cat. “And there’s what happened last year,” Riley adds, “with Mr. Willis . . .” Before she can finish, a scream rolls off the football field. I jump up, jerking my head around to search for the screamer, but then the sound dissolves into laughter and fades away. Just someone messing around. I sit back down, feeling stupid.

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Grace leans forward and puts a hand on my knee. Her bow-tie necklace swings forward like a pendulum. “Guys, stop. We’re scaring her.” “Sorry,” Alexis says, wrinkling her nose. I look down at my hand. I’ve never liked scary stories. Even my grandmother’s stories about Quetzalcoatl gave me nightmares. Absently, I rub the sketch of Quetzalcoatl, leaving behind a smudge of red. Blood from my thumb. I look up and catch Riley watching me. Her eyes follow my finger as I run it over the lines of the serpent sketch on my hand. There’s an odd look on her face, the same cold expression she wore when she first saw the dead cat behind the bleachers. “It’s just a stupid sketch.” I lick one finger and try to rub it away, but I just smear the ink and blood into my skin. Riley shifts her eyes back to my face, her lips lifting at the corners. The effect isn’t the same as it was behind the bleachers, when her smile made her face warmer. This smile doesn’t reach Riley’s eyes at all. They stay empty. “Of course,” she says.

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stand at the living room window, staring at the empty house across the street. A single strand of old Christmas lights dangles from the roof. Half the bulbs have burned out. A woman and her son lived there until this morning. They didn’t even say good-bye, just packed their things and disappeared, like everyone else in this neighborhood. I’m surprised it took them this long. After all, no one wants to live across the street from the murder house. I exhale, fogging the glass. Rain lashes at the window and turns our yard into a swamp. A red Matchbox car floats down the driveway in a muddy river.

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I stare at the churning water and try to breathe, but the air in the house feels thick. It’s like inhaling sand. I cup my hands and place them over my mouth, forcing my lungs to draw in a ragged wheeze. I exhale through my fingers and choke down another gasp of air. Breathe, I tell myself. My eyes flutter closed. It’s just a panic attack. My chest unclenches, and I take a longer drag through my nose. The room stops spinning. I’m in control again. I grab my phone off the coffee table. Mom is the first in my short list of favorites. The rest—Grace, Riley, and Alexis—are dead. I cast another glance out the window. Row after row of empty houses stare back at me, the tattered FOR SALE signs perched in their yards like warnings. I hit Call and a photo of my mom, Sergeant Nina Flores, flashes across the screen. She glares at me over a bowl of cereal, a single Honey Nut Cheerio stuck to her cheek. Normally, her appearance is military-precise, but I caught her before her coffee. The sight of Mom’s face calms me a little. “Chill, Sofia,” I mutter to myself, lifting the phone to my ear. Mom answers her phone mid-ring. “Sofia?” “Mom?” Relief seeps through me. “Where are you?” “I’m still at work, Sof. Is everything okay?”

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I clutch the phone with both hands, shooting another look out the window. “I thought you were coming home early today.” “I told Jodi that I’d cover for everyone who took off early for Thanksgiving .  .  . Why? Did something happen?” “No, I just—” I glance at the empty house across the street. It was different when I knew there was someone living there, even if she kept her curtains closed and averted her eyes whenever she saw me. “I just don’t want to be alone.” Mom is silent for a beat. “Did you have another attack?” she asks, her voice gentle. When I don’t answer, she sighs. “Honey, did you try the breathing exercises Dr. Keller taught you?” I drop onto the couch and take another pull of air. Dr.  Keller is the therapist who helped me realize that what happened last summer was a mental breakdown. In other words: not real. Because of him, I could finally accept that Brooklyn didn’t make blood rain from Riley’s ceiling, she didn’t set fires with her mind, and she definitely didn’t pull out Riley’s heart with her bare hands. He told me that I don’t have evil inside of me. Just guilt. He said that witnessing Riley’s murder traumatized me, and I made up a story to cope. And I want to believe

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Dr. Keller. But sometimes I can still hear the sound of Riley’s heart falling to the ground. I still feel Brooklyn’s lips on my cheek. We don’t kill our own was the last thing she said to me before disappearing into the woods. The police never found her. “The exercises helped, I guess,” I mumble into the phone. Mom exhales. “See? It’s like he said after your last session: the most important thing is to learn how to control your fear so it can’t control you.” I pick at the skin next to my thumbnail. Brooklyn could be outside my house right now. My guilty conscience may have invented some of what happened over the summer. But Brooklyn was real, and she killed my three best friends. Dr. Keller can prescribe all the breathing exercises he wants, but even he can’t keep me from being afraid. “How’s Abuela?” Mom asks. I shift my eyes to the staircase at the edge of the living room. Grandmother’s rosary beads click against her table upstairs like a metronome, slowly counting the seconds. Yesterday, she woke up coughing and gasping in the middle of the night. She had a slight fever and her skin was clammy, but her temperature came down this morning, so we decided not to take her to the emergency

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room. “She’s okay. She’s breathing normally and her temp was at ninety-eight point six degrees,” I say. “I checked when I got home from school.” “Good. I’m glad she’s feeling better.” Mom clears her throat. “And how’s the rest of your day been?” she asks. I frown and tug at a thread coming loose from my jeans. “Fine. Boring.” “What, no big Thanksgiving break party?” She’s trying to be funny, but her voice sounds strained. She knows I don’t have any friends left in this town. Charlie is the only person I still know in Friend, Mississippi, and he hasn’t spoken to me since the night I stole his truck and tried to save Riley. I’ve barely said a word to another classmate since I found Grace’s dead body hanging from our shed. The thread unravels, leaving a tiny hole in my jeans. I press down on the fabric, but the hole won’t magically knit itself back together. None of the holes in my life will. “Mom,” I whisper, the word cracking in my mouth. “Why do we have to stay here?” A sigh echoes through the phone. “Sofia . . .” I blink hard to keep from crying. “Dr. Keller says this environment is toxic for me, and everyone else has already moved away. We could go back to Arizona, or—” “I’m stationed here, in Friend. I have another sixteen months before I can apply for reassignment.”

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“But—” “It’s my job, Sofia. You know how the army works. There’s nothing I can do.” I lay back on the couch, swallowing the rest of my argument. We’ve talked about this before. A lot. Silence stretches between us. Wind presses against the glass of the windows, and thunder rumbles in the distance. It reminds me of a car engine, except cars don’t drive down this street anymore. “Sweetie,” Mom says, her voice a bit softer, “sometimes I wish we could leave, too. Even I get jealous of how everyone else can pack up and go. Our life is just a little more complicated than that. What’s that needlepoint your grandmother has on her wall? Jealousy is cancer, or—” “Jealousy is like cancer in your bones,” I correct her. “It’s from the Bible.” Mom releases a small laugh. “Right. Jealousy will eat you up inside if you let it, so let’s try to look for a silver lining. Do you think you can do that?” I shrug, even though I know Mom can’t see me. “I guess.” There’s a pause. “Look, I might be able to convince Jodi to let me leave a few minutes early,” Mom says. “Everyone’s already left for the holiday, so there’s not much to take care of. How about I swing by China

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Garden to pick up some takeout, and we can watch The Wizard of Oz?” A small smile tugs at the corner of my lips. The Wizard of Oz is my favorite movie. We watch it whenever I have a bad day. “That sounds okay,” I say. “I’ll call ahead and order the usual. See you soon.” “Thanks, Mom. Love you.” “Love you. Now do your homework.” “Roger that,” I say, and we both hang up. Reluctantly, I flip through my dog-eared copy of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and open up my laptop. My last three schools have all done a unit on The Tempest. I could probably recite the entire play from memory. I stifle a yawn and my eye twitches. The cover of The Tempest shows a girl in a blue dress staring out over a stormy sea. She has her back to me, her tangled red hair blowing in the wind. Miranda has been stranded on a deserted island with a crazy magician for twelve years but I’d still trade places with her in a second. Deserted island beats murder house any day. Just looking at her makes my eyelids feel heavy. I’m supposed to write an essay detailing the major themes and, even though I’ve read the play three times, I can’t think of a single thing to write. I stare at the blank Word document on my laptop. The cursor blinks mockingly. The sound of my grandmother’s rosary beads echoes

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down the stairs and, after a second, the blinking and the clicking match up. Blink. Click. Blink. Click. Blink. I tear my eyes away from the screen and pick up The Tempest. The girl on the cover stares right at me, a terrible smile on her face. I jump up, banging my knee—hard—on the coffee table. I wheeze in pain at the shock. The book goes flying and hits the wall with a smack and then drops to the carpet, faceup. My heart is pounding so hard that I want to throw up. I don’t want to look. But I have to look. I lift my head. The cover of The Tempest is normal again. Miranda stares out over the sea, her hair teased out behind her. No demon smile. I unclench my fists and stop holding my breath. The nausea has passed. I sink back onto the couch and pull my computer onto my lap. My knee pulses with pain. I’ll have an ugly purple bruise tomorrow, but I won’t be able to distinguish it from the others. I’ve been so jumpy lately that I’m covered in welts and marks. I lower my fingers to the keyboard and type: Power and enslavement, the favored and the forsaken, lovers and masters. These major themes of The Tempest— My screen freezes. I frown and tap on the keys. Nothing.

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“Shit,” I mutter. I slide a finger over the trackpad, but the cursor doesn’t move. It’s not even blinking. I groan and close my eyes, pinching the bridge of my nose with two fingers. This is just perfect. My knee aches, my brain feels mushy, and now my computer’s not working. It’s like the universe doesn’t actually want me to get anything done. I open my eyes and reach for the power button to restart. A blank window pops onto the screen. “What the hell?” I whisper. A cursor appears. Someone starts to type. Hello, Sofia. Fear curdles in my stomach. This isn’t happening. My eyes must be playing tricks on me. A GIF of a skinned cat opens on the desktop. Flies crawl over its limp, pink tongue, and its cloudy eyes stare out at me from a raw, bloody face. Someone painted a pentagram on the dead grass, and dripping candles form a circle around its rotting body. Every other sound in the house goes silent. I can’t hear the rain or Grandmother’s rosary, but my breathing magnifies in my ears until the ragged gasps overwhelm me. I remember the smell of that cat. Milk gone sour. Fish left in the heat. I press the computer’s power button, hoping to erase the image that’s already seared into my brain. It won’t turn off.

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Another photograph appears. It’s Alexis’s dead body, crumpled beneath the second-story window of the abandoned house. I still don’t know if she jumped or was pushed. The curve of her twisted limbs is deeply unnatural. A beautiful broken doll. She stares up at the sky, a thin line of blood dribbling from her lips. Her fingers curl toward her palms, as though she’s reaching for someone. I jerk away from the sofa and stumble to my feet, the laptop tumbling to the ground. “Stop it,” I whisper. I back up against the wall as more pictures flash across the computer screen. A girl holding a butcher knife. Bloody handprints. Cockroaches racing across the floor. Then a video file pops up, blocking all the other images. A train races toward the screen, headlights flashing. A horn blares, followed by a high, piercing scream. I press myself into the wall behind me, my breath fast and ragged. I’d know that scream anywhere. Karen. The girl I killed. I squeeze my eyes shut and throw my hands over my ears. “Stop it!” I shout. “Please!” Laughter echoes through the house. I open my eyes and spin around, certain I’m going to see Brooklyn standing behind me smiling her terrible demon smile. But I’m alone. The laughing grows louder.

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“Please,” I whisper. My hands start to shake. I curl them into fists and hug them to my chest. “Please stop.” “So-fi-a,” someone says in a singsong voice, making the hair on my arms stand up. The voice is coming from the laptop speakers. “You’re one of us, Sofia,” Brooklyn says. “I’m coming for you.” “No!” I shout, and I jerk awake, gasping. I’m lying on the couch, my computer still balanced on my lap. There’s nothing on the screen except for a blank Word document and a blinking cursor. The storm beats against the windows and my grandmother’s rosary beads click away upstairs. Otherwise, it’s dead quiet. My chest rises and falls as I try to catch my breath. It was a nightmare. Just like all the other nightmares I’ve had since the day Brooklyn killed Riley and revealed my horrible secret. No one else knows that I dragged a girl onto the train tracks at my last school. Not Dr. Keller. Not even my mother. Tears spill onto my cheeks. I try to wipe them away but they come too quickly, blurring my vision and making my breath hitch. I vowed that I would never think about that night again. It was an accident, a moment of insanity. And, after everything that happened with Brooklyn, I’ve more than paid for my crime. I start to do my exercises, but my hands shake so

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badly that I can’t keep them cupped around my mouth. I grab my phone to call Mom again, then pause. The time blinks at me from the home screen: 9:47. I click on my recent calls list. I talked to Mom at six fiftytwo. Almost three hours ago. “What the hell?” I murmur. I wipe the last of the tears from my eyes. “Mom?” I call, pushing myself to my feet. “Are you there?” I listen for Mom’s voice, or the sound of her footsteps. There’s nothing. The doorbell rings, making me jump. Nerves crawl over my skin like spiders. We never get visitors. I take a step toward the door, thinking of vacant eyes and bloody footprints and tattered skin. I don’t want to answer it, but the doorbell rings again.

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iss?” a man calls through the door. It’s a deep, unfamiliar voice. I lower my hand to the knob and turn, holding my breath as I pull the door open. A police officer in a stiff blue uniform stands on our porch, a squad car waiting at the curb. His partner sits in the passenger seat. She holds a walkie-talkie in one hand, barking orders that I can’t hear. Calling for backup, I think, and fear shoots up my spine. “Are you Sofia Flores?” the officer asks. I nod, resisting the urge to slam the door in his face and turn the dead bolt. The last time the cops were here was the night we found Grace’s body.

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I listened for sirens for weeks afterward, certain Brooklyn would tell them the truth about the train accident. But the cops never found Brooklyn, and my secret remains safe. The manhunt for her continues. I watched the rust-colored bloodstains on our driveway fade under the sun and rain until, finally, Mom scrubbed them away with a bucket of bleach and a thick, wiry brush. That’s it, I remember thinking. It’s over. “Miss?” The cop narrows his eyes. Rain drips from his uniform, leaving puddles on the porch. “Are you okay?” “Fine,” I say. I brace myself for the silver flash of handcuffs, for the officer to jerk my arms behind my back and tell me I have the right to remain silent. “What’s wrong?” “I’m afraid your mother, Nina Flores, was in a car accident.” The words fall flat. It takes me a long time to process what he’s saying. “I . . . I don’t understand.” “Sofia, your mother died in the ambulance on her way to the hospital. I’m so sorry.” I stare at the officer’s mouth. His lips are chapped, and there’s a tiny gap between his two front teeth. He’s still speaking, but I can’t hear him. The entire world has gone still. I tighten my fingers around the doorknob and

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focus all my attention on the way my skin feels against the brass. The sweat gathering between my fingers. “Miss?” The officer’s voice jars me back to the present. “Is there someone else here you’d like me to speak to?” I shake my head. “I just spoke to my mother on the phone. She’s fine.” Something passes through the officer’s eyes. Pity. I curl my hand into a fist and bang it against the door. The wood rattles. “I’m sorry—” “You’ve made a mistake!” I shout. But the anger dies as soon as the words leave my mouth. I feel weak. Empty. “Is your father home?” the officer asks. “He died,” I say in a hollow voice. “When I was little.” “What about an aunt or an uncle?” I shake my head, and the officer lifts his walkie-talkie to his mouth. “We’re going to need CPS here right away,” he says. CPS—Child Protective Services. “Roger that, over,” comes crackling over the radio. “That’s okay. I’m okay, thank you.” I close the door before he can say another word. I can still see his shadow through the cloudy glass panes on either side of the door. He stands on our porch for a moment; then I hear the sound of his shoes on the stairs, walking away. He’ll be back. Along with a bunch of strangers who’ll decide what to do with me.

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I press my hand flat against the wall, steadying myself. Your mother died in the ambulance on her way to the hospital. I shake my head. It’s not real. I just talked to her. We’re going to eat Chinese food and watch The Wizard of Oz. I grab my cell phone and I dial Mom’s number. The silly Cheerios photo pops onto my screen. Something in my gut twists. Mistake, I tell myself. This is all a mistake. Mom’s fine. I lift the phone to my ear and hold my breath, waiting for her to pick up. The phone rings. And rings. A hollow space opens inside my chest. It feels as if someone has tunneled through my internal organs, leaving a hole straight through the middle of my body. Mom always answers my calls, even when she’s on duty. I let my mind travel to the dark place. Your mother died. My hands start to tremble. Car accident. A cruel voice echoes through my head. And why was she in the car, Sofia? it asks, sounding eerily like Brooklyn. I swallow, tasting something sour at the back of my throat. Mom was only driving because I begged her to come home early. Because I couldn’t stand to be here alone. The phone slips from my fingers, but I don’t hear it hit the floor. The sound of static erupts in my ears. This is my fault. And now I’m alone—an orphan.

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I don’t remember walking across the living room and climbing the stairs, but when I look up, I’m standing in front of Grandmother’s room. Deep red light spills into the hall. It’s the color of the wine they serve during communion. The color of blood. Rosary beads click against the table. “Abuela?” I push the door all the way open. Grandmother is sitting upright in her narrow hospital bed, sliding the rosary beads through skeletally thin fingers. Several years ago, she had a stroke that left half her body paralyzed. She lost control of the muscles in her cheeks, making her face look like something melted. Skin drips from her face like candle wax, and one side of her mouth curves in a perpetual frown. I see her scalp through her wispy white hair. I step inside the room, shifting around the cardboard boxes of Grandmother’s things. Mom and I always said we’d unpack them, but we never found the time to do more than put away her clothes and lean a few of her pictures against the walls. Her favorite framed needlepoint sits on the table beside her bed. A peaceful heart leads to a healthy body, it reads. Jealousy is like a cancer in the bones. Proverbs 14:30. The pain hits all at once, like a blow to the chest. Mom and I are never going to unpack the rest of Grandmother’s room. She’s never going to pick up my

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calls or eat Cheerios or watch that scene in The Wizard of Oz that she loves, the one where Dorothy falls asleep in the field of red poppies. She’s gone. Forever. Because of me. My legs crumple beneath me, and I sink to the floor, banging my hip against Grandmother’s bedside table on my way down. The needlepoint falls over, sliding back behind the table. I’m shaking all over. I can’t breathe. I cup my hands around my mouth and inhale, but my exhale explodes into a choked sob. I cover my face with my hands and cry. I wish I could go back in time and tell her not to get in that car. I don’t need Chinese food and movies. I’m not scared anymore. I can be brave, just like her. Grandmother stares straight ahead, clutching the rosary to her chest. Her brittle nails curl over the tips of her fingers, all yellowed and cracked. I stare at them for a long time. Painful sobs rattle through me. “Abuela,” I manage to spit out. I wipe the tears from my cheeks with the back of my hand, but they refuse to stop pouring down my face. “Mom is . . . she’s . . .” Grandmother’s neck muscles aren’t strong enough to hold her head straight anymore, and it bobbles, slightly, as she turns. She looks at me with milky, unseeing eyes and I realize she understands. She’s outlived her only daughter.

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I crawl across the floor and rest my head against her mattress. Rain crashes against the window, pounding so hard that I worry the glass will shatter. I think of all the empty houses sprawled around us. Street after street of vacant rooms and overgrown lawns and muddy driveways. I’m suddenly aware that I’m about to get my wish—we can’t stay in this house now that Mom isn’t coming back. I’ll finally get to leave this stupid town. Not that it matters anymore. Grandmother touches my head. Her hand is nearly weightless, and her skin feels almost exactly like crumpled paper. She pats, absently, as if she’s not entirely sure what she’s doing. The heavy grip on my heart loosens, just a little. I close my eyes and rest my head against her leg. The muscles in Grandmother’s hand tighten. She digs her long, cracked fingernails into my skin. Pain shoots through my neck and I jerk away, horrified. “Diablo!” Grandmother says in a thin, raspy voice. She lifts a curved finger that looks like a claw and points at me. “Don’t,” I whisper. “Please, Abuela.” “Diablo!” she says again. I slink away from her and sink back against the wall, shaking with sobs.

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arin woke to a piercing sound. She thought then of the knives below, and of the sharpeners. Marin cursed. The knives. We should have

taken all of them out of the mantel. Slow, heavy footsteps came up the stairs. They sounded much louder than last time. “It’s back!” she shouted. She didn’t dare voice her other thought—it sounded like there were more than just one. In a heartbeat, Marin, Line, and Kana were on their feet. Together they braced themselves against the armoire and dressers that barricaded the entranceway. Then the pounding began—huge, powerful blows. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! There was no doubt about it. Several bodies were trying to force their way in. If it weren’t for the barricade, the door would have blown open. Still, the furniture shuddered ominously. The ferocity of the blows was unmistakable—the things on the other side of the door were determined to get. “Hold!” screamed Line, who was pushing madly against the armoire. “HOLD!” They all focused their efforts on the massive armoire. If it slid away, the dressers behind it wouldn’t be strong enough to keep the door closed. They lined up against the armoire, dug their heels into the ground, and pushed with all the ferocity of those whose lives hung in the balance. The armoire slid forward an inch, and then backward an inch, again and again. The hinge that fastened the top of the door to the wall started coming


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loose. The screws were being yanked out—it wouldn’t be long before the top of the door separated from the wall entirely. But there was nothing they could do about it. The battering at the door continued for several minutes until, suddenly, Kana slipped at the same time that the door bulged inward from a series of ferocious blows. The force of this new attack jettisoned Kana backward. He sprawled across the floor and the armoire slid forward several inches. The door creaked open. Marin screamed. Grunting erupted from the hallway, and the door was under such pressure that it seemed to bend. Kana threw himself against the armoire with tremendous force. His effort seemed almost superhuman and, amazingly, the armoire slid forward by a half a foot and—once again—the door to the room closed. Shortly after this, the battering stopped. One of the creatures bellowed and they heard a splintering, cracking sound. Marin’s heart sank. It was over. “It’s just a knife—the door is holding,” gasped Kana, seemingly reading her thoughts. Then came the sound of squeaking floorboards as the things made their way back down the stairs. Then silence. A long, eerie silence. A minute passed. Then another. Kana, Line, and Marin slumped to the floor, out of breath. More time passed. Finally, they rose to their feet and began to clear the barricade. When the furniture was moved away, they stood at the door and listened. Silence. Line tensed and put his hand on the doorknob. “Ready?” he whispered. “Do it,” replied Marin. Line opened the door in a fluid motion. Kana, out first, confirmed that the hallway was empty. He looked at the door. It was cracked in several places. Directly above each of the three hash marks was a knife stuck into the wood. Line reached up and tried to extract one of the daggers. It wouldn’t budge. Marin stood at the top of the stairs and listened. Kana joined her. “They’re gone,” Kana said. “Or at least they’re not in the house anymore.”


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“They’ll be back,” said Marin. She looked around, taking in the pervasive gloom, polished banisters, walls, floors, and ceiling. A feeling of clarity descended upon her. “Don’t you see? They built this house.” Then she extended both arms and gestured all around. “They built all of this.” “She’s right,” said Kana softly. “Do you think the mayor knew?” asked Line, eyes trained on the floor. “Doesn’t matter at this point,” said Marin. She reached down and began to tighten the laces on her boots. “What matters is, this town is theirs—and they want it back.”

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hey gathered up their possessions and put them in the sack Marin had found. It wasn’t much: their remaining handful of candles, several

lengths of rope, a nearly empty box of matches, a well-used flint, and the leftover food she’d gathered. Marin and Line each carried a knife from the mantelpiece, and Marin had the copper box with the marking scalpels. They walked quickly through the darkness, heading for the hermit’s cottage. It was raining steadily and within minutes they were soaked. The rain was piercingly cold, and Marin was grateful again for the oilskin and the extra clothes. Overhead, the air was alive with the frenzied chirping and fluttering of bats—tens of thousands of them. They had arrived within the last twelve months, following the Night, and their numbers had been increasing steadily by the week. The bats seemed to live in the forest, yet every few days or so, they suddenly appeared near the coast to feed. The rain in particular seemed to enrage them, and now they dove aggressively toward the ground, swooping so close that the three of them had to hunch down to protect their faces. And then, as suddenly as they appeared, the bats vanished. Tiny pellets of ice began falling from the sky. The hail lasted for just over a minute, but


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it was enough to sting their faces and hands before it shifted back to rain. The weather finally cleared and, in relief, they slowed their pace. They were nearing the hermit’s cottage. Since leaving Deep Well House, Marin had thought only of the dark path in front of her. She fully expected something to jump out at them, and she gripped the knife so hard that her hand began to ache. Minutes later, they smelled smoke. “What do you think?” asked Line. Marin looked around and sniffed the air. “His is the only house in this area. If he’s still here, that would be a very lucky break.” “It seems pretty crazy for him to have stayed, unless he really hated the Desert Lands.” Line laughed darkly. “Do you think he’s just hanging around, sipping dandelion wine, making popcorn, and waiting for us to show up?” Marin glanced wryly at Line. “Dandelion wine? Popcorn?” “Dandelion wine and popcorn would taste good about now,” said Line with a smile. “He’s not as strange as people in town think. I talked to him a few times.” Marin was about to respond but noticed Kana’s gait was off, as if he had a pebble in his boot. “Are you okay?” she asked her brother. Kana stopped and looked at her. “I’m fine,” he replied. “Why?” “It looked like you were limping a little,” said Marin. Kana shook his head. They continued walking as the scent of smoke grew stronger and stronger. Finally they rounded a bend in the trail and came upon the hermit’s ramshackle cottage. Smoke billowed from its chimney. This wasn’t the smoke of a dying fire. This was the smoke of a blaze that had just been stoked with fresh wood. One of the windows flickered with a faint light. Kana looked at Line. “Should we knock?” “No,” said Line. “There’s another door around back.”


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The three of them circled the house, walking slowly but deliberately. The place was in terrible disrepair. Several of the windows were cracked, the walls were tilting, most of the gutters were already on the ground, and the roof was so buckled, it looked in danger of caving in. When they finally found the back door, Marin took a step forward and listened for sounds of movement inside. There were none. “I don’t hear anything,” whispered Marin. “Ugh, what’s that smell?” Suddenly, she was aware of being alone. “Line? Kana?” Kana’s voice floated in from the darkness. “We’re behind you—knock.” Marin stepped forward and rapped her fist against the door’s wooden frame. There was no reply. She knocked again, but after a second or two she just grabbed the old brass doorknob and pushed the door open. She stepped into the cottage and was immediately struck by a putrid odor. The first floor of the house was one large room, the dim space partially illuminated by the blaze of the fire that crackled in the stone hearth. “Hello?” called Marin. Silence. “Hello?” Still nothing. Kana and Line joined her inside. “I don’t think he’s here,” she said. “So who built the fire?” asked Kana. He found himself hungry all of a sudden, as if his appetite had awakened with a start. “Probably the hermit,” said Line. “But he spent a lot of time in the forest. Look at this place. Would you want to spend your days hanging out here?” “What could he be cooking?” asked Marin. “It smells disgusting.” The three of them all sniffed the air at once. “It’s not so bad,” said Kana. “And I’ve got the weakest stomach of anyone I know.”


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Together, the three of them looked around the room. It was a labyrinth of clutter. Wooden crates were strewn about, some empty, some filled with scraps of wood. Fishing gear of all sorts—nets, lines, hooks, and buoys— were scattered across a rickety kitchen table. Overhead, hanging from the rafters were strands of dried herbs, musty pelts, fishing rods, rusting animal traps, empty bottles, and coils of fraying rope. In the far corner of the room was a small area that looked like the kitchen. The wood-plank walls were stained with soot. There was a water basin, a stack of tin pans, some well-worn utensils, and a few jars of spices. Line did a quick scan of the area in the hopes of finding some food. There was none. He did, however, find a small trapdoor in the floor, but when he opened it, he saw that it was merely a garbage chute that emptied into a foul-smelling pit. A steaming cast-iron pot hung from a hook over the hearth. Marin walked over to the fireplace to take a closer look at what, exactly, was cooking. At first glance, she thought it was just an ordinary brown stew—with some sizable chunks of meat—until she realized that the chunks of meat were, in fact, the sinew and muscle tissue of bats. She blanched and took a step back. “No wonder he was a hermit,” she said under her breath. “What is it?” asked Line as he walked over to have a look. Kana was on the other side of the room, looking at the front door. “Bats,” said Marin. “Marin! Line! Come over here,” said Kana. They ran to the front door— the one they had opted not to use when entering the house. Kana had opened it and was staring at something. “What is it?” asked Line. Kana stepped outside, walked forward several feet, and then abruptly stopped. He turned back toward the front door, looking grim. “You need to see this.” Marin and Line walked over. Carved into the wood of the door was a hash mark that had been crossed out.


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Kana pointed into the darkness beyond the house. “It gets worse.” Marin had absolutely no desire to go out and see for herself, but she lit a candle and took Line’s hand and, together, they ventured into the darkness. They didn’t see anything at first. In fact, Line almost stepped on it accidentally—then he glanced down and saw the brown grubby fingers, the long bent arm, and the prone body of the hermit. He was lying on his stomach, face pressed into the earth. Line knelt down, grabbed hold of the shoulder, and, with some effort, began to flip him. “Line!” said Kana. “I wouldn’t do that . . .” But it was too late. The body flopped over, revealing the hermit’s front side. Line recoiled instantly. The man’s torso was soaked with the blood that now covered Line’s hands. A trickle of blood still oozed from the hermit’s head and neck, which were marred with a number of small, perfectly round puncture wounds. There was no point in taking the man’s pulse. He was clearly dead.

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hey ran back to the house. Kana immediately locked both the front and the back doors, sealing them shut with sturdy iron bolts. Apparently,

no one told the hermit to remove his locks—or perhaps he just didn’t care. Line walked to the washing basin in the little kitchen and began rinsing his hands, then scrubbing them with a small piece of soapstone. The blood came off fairly easily, but Line continued to scrub for several minutes. As he ran the stone over his skin, Line tried to force the image of the dead hermit out of his mind. He couldn’t dwell on this. It was not useful information. It would not help him get off the island. That’s it. That’s the key. Every piece of information, every fact, every thought—it all needs to be sorted into two simple categories. There are thoughts that will help us


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escape and thoughts that will not. And all thoughts about dead dogs, dead hermits, dead relatives, and missing brothers have to be placed squarely in the unhelpful category. Those unhelpful thoughts have to be blocked out. They don’t exist. Marin walked over to Line and put a hand on his shoulder. He was hunched over, concentrating fiercely on his hands. “Are you all right?” “Of course,” said Line, still scrubbing. “I’m serious,” said Marin. “Are you all right?” “I’m fine,” said Line flatly. “You don’t sound fine,” said Marin. She glanced worriedly at Kana, who was beside her. “How would you like me to sound?” asked Line without looking up. “The dead hermit has holes in his body. That dead dog in town probably had holes as well.” Marin looked grim. Line was right—being confronted with this was horrific. But there was no time to think about it. Whoever, whatever had done this was likely nearby. She needed Line to see the urgency. Finally, several minutes later, Line finished washing his hands, dried them, and then stood quietly, staring into the fire. “We should go,” said Marin. “Yes,” said Line. “That’s a good—” “Shh—what was that?” asked Kana. This time they all heard it—a faint rattling—metal jiggling against metal. They glanced around the house quickly. It was the doorknob to the back door, twisting back and forth. Moments later, the front door started rattling, too. “What do we do?” whispered Marin. Line was one step ahead of her. And a thought had formed in his mind. A good thought. A useful one. The trapdoor. The garbage chute. Line put his finger to his lips, walked back to the kitchen, and gestured for the others


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to follow. He knelt next to the chute, pulled it open, and slid inside. Marin hesitated; now the rattling on the doors had become a pounding. “Come on!” hissed Kana. Marin dropped to the floor, dangled her legs through the trapdoor, and followed Line into the pit. Moments later, Kana came through, then lowered the door, plunging them into complete darkness. They tried to remain as still as possible, which was difficult because they were crouching in piles of rotting fish heads and prickly fish skeletons. There was also a steady flow of something beneath them—water, ooze, sludge, it was impossible to tell. Overhead, they could hear the telltale sounds of wood splintering. Line began pawing through the trash. What we need is a way out. Everything else is a distraction. Ignore the things smashing down the doors overhead. That’s irrelevant. In fact, it isn’t happening. There’s only one good fact. Water on the ground is going somewhere. “Help me!” whispered Line. “There’s water trickling here. It means there’s an opening.” There was an explosion of noise above them. Two heavy thuds, one after another, like rifle shots. The front and back doors landed heavily on the floor. A mist of dirt and soot fell from the floorboards, and Kana had to stifle a coughing attack. Line was still digging, faster now, as if he’d found something. Moments later, they heard the sound of footsteps above them—heavy, plodding footsteps. Marin squeezed Line’s leg to stop him from digging. The footsteps passed directly above. They could hear the floorboards groaning under the weight. For a moment, the footsteps stopped. Marin, Kana, and Line all held their breath. Then the footsteps resumed again and began ascending the steps to the second floor of the house. “The water goes into a tunnel,” whispered Line. “It’s narrow, but I think we can squeeze through. I’ll go first—follow quickly.” Marin grabbed his sweater. “Wait—where does it lead?” “I don’t know, but I can feel fresh air coming out.” Line slithered his way into the tunnel. The entrance was narrow, and the rock scraped him at


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the knees and along his back, but he got through. Kana went next. Finally it was Marin’s turn. As she crawled toward the opening, the sound of the footsteps overhead grew louder. Whoever it was had returned to the first floor. She crawled quickly, and in her haste she felt something slice into her leg. She cried out. Above, the reaction was immediate. Footsteps thundered and the entire house seemed to shake. “Marin!” called Kana, poking his head back into the garbage pit from the tunnel. “Hurry!” Marin moved toward Kana’s voice. Kana reached out, grabbed his sister’s hand, and pulled her toward him. There was a loud creak overhead, the trapdoor opened, and a shaft of murky light illuminated the garbage pit. Marin lunged into the tunnel entrance and pushed herself forward. After several feet, she emerged in a cave barely large enough to sit upright. There was a faint glow at the opening, though, and she could smell the brine of the sea and hear the distant chirping of bats. She and Line crawled toward the opening, but Kana remained in place. Despite his impulse to flee, he wanted a glimpse of what was behind them. The thing, whatever it was, was thrashing around—trying to pass through the trapdoor and enter the garbage pit below. But it was too big to get in. For a split second, Kana thought he saw a foot, although that wasn’t the right word at all, because it wasn’t really a foot. It was a gnarled, greenish claw with five hooked talons—and just a glimpse was enough to send him chasing after Marin and Line.

“G

O—GO—GO!” Kana yelled. He bolted out of the tunnel and crawled to Line and Marin, who were perched at the edge of the

cave entrance and looking down. “Is it behind you?” gasped Marin.


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“I don’t think so,” he said, looking back into the darkened cave. “It’s probably too big to fit, but I can’t be sure.” “Let’s not find out,” said Line. “Kana—can you see a way down the cliff wall?” Kana inched his way to the edge and looked down a steep cliff that dropped nearly a hundred feet down to a rocky beach below. The rain had stopped and the sky was lighter than before. The moon peeked through the clouds. He glanced out toward the horizon. The sea had withdrawn a long ways and in its wake was a vast expanse of rocks, strewn with kelp and seaweed. It was a spectacular, otherworldly landscape. There were great rock formations, canyons, clusters of coral, and the carcasses of thousands of fish. The most pressing matter was getting down the cliff. He examined the edge and saw a chicken head—a bulbous knob of rock sticking out of the cliff face. Lithe as a cat, Kana swung his legs over, grabbed the chicken head, and disappeared over the edge. He hung there for a few seconds as he looked for his next move. Despite the direness of their circumstances, he was pleased by how easily he could maneuver along the wall. He had never climbed as well as Marin, but now he felt supremely confident. “There’s a way down!” yelled Kana as he descended. “Just over the precipice, there’s a nice chicken head— hang from it and then crab-walk to the seam on your right. Farther down, it’ll open into a chimney. Take it slow—the rock is wet and icy in a few places.” They heard Kana continue down the wall. Line nodded at Marin to go next. “No, you go ahead,” said Marin, pushing him gently toward the precipice. “You have to be careful of your ankle—and your arm.” “Go on,” he said. “Please. If I’m in front, I’ll slow you down.” There was a solid resoluteness in his voice. “There’s nothing coming. . . If it was, it’d be here by now.” Marin hesitated, then walked up to him and hugged him close. “Be careful,” she whispered. Then she walked to the edge of the cliff and slipped over


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with practiced ease. Line glanced back at the empty mouth of the cave. He wanted to follow Marin immediately, but knew he had to wait. He was injured. He wasn’t entirely certain how well he could climb; if he fell or slipped, he didn’t want to be right on top of her. Line counted out a full minute to give himself maneuvering room. By the time he’d counted to thirty, he was sorely tempted to fling himself over the edge. He kept glancing back, dreading what he might see or hear, but the cave behind him remained silent. Fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty. Just as Line began descending, Kana’s feet touched the rocky shore at the base of the cliff. Kana had gone incredibly fast, much faster than was prudent. His arms and fingers burned with exertion. He moved several feet away and watched Marin and Line pick their way down the cliff. Marin would be down in no time. Line was slower and the jerky way in which he moved made Kana anxious. “Come on,” he muttered. “Come on, Line.” Then suddenly, way above—at the top of the cliff—a flicker of a shadow caught Kana’s attention. Did I really see it? Is my mind playing tricks on me? No. There it was again. Something was moving across the cliff, toward Line, and quickly. Kana screamed at the top of his voice, “LINE! LINE! ABOVE YOU!” Startled, Line bobbled his grip on the cliff and hugged it even tighter. At first, he couldn’t understand why Kana was screaming. But then he caught a glimpse of it. Something was moving down the cliff. He was at the top of the seam, before it opened up into the chimney. He froze against the wall. He needed to find a better defensive position, but where? The chimney, of course. However, the seam that he was climbing angled downward and did not open into the chimney for another eight feet. The noise from overhead was getting louder. He didn’t have time to inch his way along. Instincts kicked in. I have to move. Now. Line leapt, free-falling for a fraction of a second, and then—using all the strength in his good arm—he


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caught a rock outcropping. Seconds later, he’d pulled himself flush against the chimney. His heart was pounding, all his senses were activated, and for the first time in what seemed like ages, he felt totally and utterly alive. Other thoughts and fears vanished. Francis, the mayor, the boats, the sunstone, the fishing depot—all of it was replaced by complete presence in the moment. The thing was coming fast. It was almost there.

JAKE HALPERN is an acclaimed journalist, author, and radio producer who has written for several publications including The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. As a contributor at NPR, Jake produced one of the most listened-to episodes of This American Life. He co-wrote the Dormia series with Peter Kujawinski and is the author of Bad Paper, a nonfiction book for adults. PETER KUJAWINSKI is an author and diplomat, currently serving as US Consul General for Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. He co-wrote the Dormia series with Jake Halpern and has written for The New York Times.


Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. —Terence

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Dear Reader, The book you hold in your hands is meant for peculiar eyes only. If by chance you are not among the ranks of the anomalous—in other words, if you don’t find yourself floating out of bed in the middle of the night because you forgot to tie yourself to the mattress, sprouting flames from the palms of your hands at inopportune times, or chewing food with the mouth in the back of your head—then please put this book back where you found it at once and forget this ever happened. Don’t worry, you won’t be missing anything. I’m sure you’d only find the stories contained herein strange, distressing, and altogether not to your liking. And anyway, they’re none of your business. Very peculiarly yours,

The Publisher

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For ewor d

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F YOU ARE OF THE PECULIAR PERSUASION— and if you’ve read this far, I sincerely hope that you are— then this is a book that likely needs no introduction. These tales were a formative and beloved part of your upbringing, and you came of age reading them and hearing them read aloud with such frequency that you can recite your favorites word for word. If, however, you are among those unfortunates who have only just discovered their peculiarity, or who grew up in circumstances where no peculiar literature was available, I offer this brief primer. TALES of the PECULIAR is a collection of our most beloved folklore. Passed down from generation to generation since time immemorial, each story is part history, part fairy tale, and part moral lesson aimed at young peculiars. These tales hail from various parts of the globe, from oral as well as written traditions, and have gone through striking transformations over the years. They have survived as long as they have because they are loved for their merits as stories, but they are more than that, too. They are also the bearers of secret knowledge. Encoded within their pages are the locations of hidden loops, the secret identities of certain important peculiars, and other information that could aid a peculiar’s survival in this hostile world. I should know: the

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Tales are the reason I’m alive to write these words now. They preserved not only my life, but those of my friends and our beloved ymbryne. I, Millard Nullings, am a living testament to the enduring usefulness of these stories, though they were written many years ago. That’s why I’ve devoted myself to their preservation and dissemination, and taken it upon myself to edit and annotate this special edition of the Tales. It is by no means exhaustive or complete—the edition I grew up reading was a famously unwieldy three-volume set that weighed, collectively, more than my friend Bronwyn—but the stories contained here represent my very favorites, and I have taken the liberty of annotating them with historical and contextual insights so that peculiars everywhere may benefit from my wisdom. It’s also my hope that this edition, being more portable than previous ones, will be an easy companion on your travels and adventures, and may prove itself as useful to you as it once did to me. So please enjoy these Tales—before a crackling fire on a chilly night, ideally, a snoring grimbear at your feet—but remember, too, their sensitive nature, and if you must read them aloud (which I highly recommend) make certain your audience is peculiar.

—Millard Nullings, Esq., EdD, MBCh

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The Splendid Cannibals

he peculiars in the village of Swampmuck lived very modestly. They were farmers, and though they didn’t own fancy things and lived in flimsy houses made of reeds, they were healthy and joyful and wanted for little. Food grew bountifully in their gardens, clean water ran in the streams, and even their humble homes seemed like luxuries because the weather in Swampmuck was so fair, and the villagers were so devoted to their work that many, after a long day of mucking, would simply lie down and sleep in their swamps. Harvest was their favorite time of year. Working round the clock, they gathered the best weeds that had grown in the swamp that season, bundled them onto donkey carts, and drove their bounty to the market town of Chipping Whippet, a five days’ ride, to sell what they could. It was difficult work. The swampweed was rough and tore their hands. The donkeys were ill-tempered and apt to bite. The road to market was pitted with holes and plagued by thieves. There were often grievous accidents, such as when Farmer Pullman, in a fit of overzealous harvesting, accidentally scythed off his neighbor’s leg. The neighbor, Farmer

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Hayworth, was understandably upset, but the villagers were such agreeable people that all was soon forgiven. The money they earned at market was paltry but enough to buy necessities and some rations of goat-rump besides, and with that rare treat as their centerpiece they threw a raucous festival that went on for days. That very year, just after the festival had ended and the villagers were about to return to their toil in the swamps, three visitors arrived. Swampmuck rarely had visitors of any kind, as it was not the sort of place people wanted to visit, and it had certainly never had visitors like these: two men and a lady dressed head to toe in lush brocaded silk, riding on the backs of three fine Arabian horses. But though the visitors were obviously rich, they looked emaciated and swayed weakly in their 2

bejeweled saddles. The villagers gathered around them curiously, marveling at their beautiful clothes and horses. “Don’t get too close!” Farmer Sally warned. “They look as if they might be sick.” “We’re on a journey to the coast of Meek,” 1 explained one of the visitors, a man who seemed to be the only one strong enough to speak. “We were accosted by bandits some weeks ago and, though we were able to outrun them, we got badly lost. We’ve been turning circles ever since, looking for the old Roman Road.” “You’re nowhere near the Roman Road,” said Farmer Sally. “Or the coast of Meek,” said Farmer Pullman. “How far is it?” the visitor asked. “Six days’ ride,” answered Farmer Sally. 1. An historic zone of exile thought to lie somewhere within modern-day Cornwall.

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“We’ll never make it,” the man said darkly. At that, the silk-robed lady slumped in her saddle and fell to the ground. The villagers, moved to compassion despite their concerns about disease, brought the fallen lady and her companions into the nearest house. They were given water and made comfortable in beds of straw, and a dozen villagers crowded around them offering help. “Give them space!” said Farmer Pullman. “They’re exhausted; they need rest!” “No, they need a doctor!” said Farmer Sally. “We aren’t sick,” the man said. “We’re hungry. Our supplies ran out over a week ago, and we haven’t had a bite to eat since then.” Farmer Sally wondered why such wealthy people hadn’t simply bought food from fellow travelers on the road, but she was too polite

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to ask. Instead, she ordered some village boys to run and fetch bowls of swampweed soup and millet bread and what little goat-rump was left over from the festival—but when it was laid before the visitors, they turned the food away. “I don’t mean to be rude,” said the man, “but we can’t eat this.” “I know it’s a humble spread,” said Farmer Sally, “and you’re probably used to feasts fit for kings, but it’s all we have.” “It isn’t that,” the man said. “Grains, vegetables, animal meat—our bodies simply can’t process them. And if we force ourselves to eat, it will only make us weaker.” The villagers were confused. “If you can’t eat grains, vegetables, or animals,” asked Farmer Pullman, “then what can you eat?” “People,” the man replied. Everyone in the small house took a step back from the visitors.

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“You mean to tell us you’re . . . cannibals?” said Farmer Hayworth. “By nature, not by choice,” the man replied. “But, yes.” He went on to reassure the shocked villagers that they were civilized cannibals and never killed innocent people. They, and others like them, had worked out an arrangement with the king by which they agreed never to kidnap and eat people against their will, and in turn they were allowed to purchase, at terrific expense, the severed limbs of accident victims and the bodies of hanged criminals. This composed the entirety of their diet. They were now on their way to the coast of Meek because it was the place in Britain that boasted both the highest rate of accidents and the most deaths by hanging, and so food was relatively abundant—if not exactly plentiful. 4

Even though cannibals in those days were wealthy, they nearly always went hungry; firmly law-abiding, they were doomed to live lives of perpetual undernourishment, forever tormented by an appetite they could rarely satisfy. And it seemed that the cannibals who had arrived in Swampmuck, already starving and many days from Meek, were now doomed to die. Having learned all this, the people of any other village, peculiar or otherwise, would have shrugged their shoulders and let the cannibals starve. But the Swampmuckians were compassionate almost to a fault, and so no one was surprised when Farmer Hayworth took a step forward, hobbling on crutches, and said, “It just so happens that I lost my leg in an accident a few days ago. I tossed it into the swamp, but I’m sure I could find it again, if the eels haven’t eaten it yet.” The cannibals’ eyes brightened. “You would do that?” the cannibal woman said, brushing long hair back from a skeletal cheek.

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“I admit it feels a little strange,” Hayworth said, “but we can’t just let you die.” The other villagers agreed. Hayworth hobbled to the swamp and found his leg, fought off the eels that were nibbling at it, and brought it to the cannibals on a platter. One of the cannibal men handed Hayworth a purse of money. “What’s this?” asked Hayworth. “Payment,” the cannibal man said. “The same amount the king charges us.” “I can’t accept this,” said Hayworth, but when he tried to return the purse, the cannibal put his hands behind his back and smiled. “It’s only fair,” the cannibal said. “You’ve saved our lives!” The villagers turned away politely as the cannibals began to eat. Farmer Hayworth opened the purse, looked inside, and turned a bit

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pale. It was more money than he’d ever seen in his life. The cannibals spent the next few days eating and recovering their strength, and when they were finally ready to set off again for the coast of Meek—this time with good directions—the villagers all gathered to wish them good-bye. When the cannibals saw Farmer Hayworth, they noticed he was walking without the aid of crutches. “I don’t understand!” said one of the cannibal men, astounded. “I thought we ate your leg!” “You did!” said Hayworth. “But when the peculiars of Swampmuck lose their limbs, they grow them back again.” 2 2. There was a time—a certain long-ago halcyon era—when peculiars could live together, unlooped and in the open, without fear of persecution. Peculiars of the day often divided themselves into groups according to their ability, a practice now frowned upon as it encourages tribalism and inter-peculiar hostility.

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The cannibal got a funny look on his face, seemed about to say more, then thought better of it. And he got on his horse and rode away with the others. Weeks passed. Life in Swampmuck returned to normal for everyone but Farmer Hayworth. He was distracted, and during the day he could often be found leaning on his mucking stick, gazing out over the swamps. He was thinking about the purse of money, which he’d hidden in a hole. What should he do with it? His friends all made suggestions. “You could buy a wardrobe of beautiful clothes,” said Farmer Bettelheim. “But what would I do with them?” Farmer Hayworth replied. “I 6

work in the swamps all day; they would only get ruined.” “You could buy a library of fine books,” suggested Farmer Hegel. “But I can’t read,” replied Hayworth, “and neither can anyone in Swampmuck.” Farmer Bachelard’s suggestion was silliest of all. “You should buy an elephant,” he said, “and use it to haul all your swampweed to market.” “But it would eat all the swampweed before I could sell it!” said Hayworth, becoming exasperated. “If only I could do something about my house. The reeds do little to keep the wind out, and it gets drafty in the winter.” “You could use the money to paper the walls,” said Farmer Anderson. “Don’t be an idiot,” Farmer Sally piped up. “Just buy a new house!” And that’s exactly what Hayworth did: he built a house made of wood, the first ever constructed in Swampmuck. It was small but sturdy

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and kept out the wind, and it even had a door that swung open and shut on hinges. Farmer Hayworth was very proud, and his house was the envy of the entire village. Some days later, another group of visitors arrived. There were four of them, three men and a woman, and because they were dressed in fine clothes and rode on Arabian horses, the villagers knew right away who they were—law-abiding cannibals from the coast of Meek.3 These cannibals, however, did not appear to be starving. Again the villagers gathered round to marvel at them. The cannibal woman, who wore a shirt spun with gold thread, pants buttoned with pearls, and boots trimmed with fox fur, said: “Friends of ours came to your village some weeks ago, and you showed them great kindness. Because we are not a people accustomed to kindness, we have come to thank you in person.”

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And the cannibals got down from their horses and bowed to the villagers, then went about shaking the villagers’ hands. The villagers were amazed at the softness of the cannibals’ skin. “One more thing before we go!” said the cannibal woman. “We heard you have a unique talent. Is it true you regrow lost limbs?” The villagers told them it was true. “In that case,” the woman said, “we have a modest proposal for you. The limbs we eat on the coast of Meek are rarely fresh, and we’re tired of rotten food. Would you sell us some of yours? We would pay handsomely, of course.” She opened her saddlepack to reveal a wad of money and jewels.

3. The source of the cannibals’ wealth? The manufacture of candy and children’s toys.

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The villagers goggled at the money, but they felt uncertain and turned away to whisper amongst themselves. “We can’t sell our limbs,” Farmer Pullman reasoned. “I need my legs for walking!” “Then only sell your arms,” said Farmer Bachelard. “But we need our arms for swamp-mucking!” said Farmer Hayworth. “If we’re being paid for our arms, we won’t need to grow swampweed anymore,” said Farmer Anderson. “We hardly earn anything from farming, anyway.” “It doesn’t seem right, selling ourselves that way,” said Farmer Hayworth. 8

“Easy for you to say!” said Farmer Bettelheim. “You’ve got a house made of wood!” And so the villagers made a deal with the cannibals: those who were right-handed would sell their left arms, and those who were lefthanded would sell their right arms, and they’d keep on selling them as they grew back. That way they’d have a steady source of income and would never again have to spend all day mucking or endure a difficult harvest. Everyone seemed pleased with the arrangement except Farmer Hayworth, who rather enjoyed swamp-mucking, and was sorry to see the village give up its traditional trade, even if it wasn’t very profitable compared to selling one’s limbs to cannibals. But there was nothing Farmer Hayworth could do, and he watched helplessly as all his neighbors gave up farming, let their swamps go fallow, and hacked their arms off. (Their peculiarity was such that it didn’t hurt much, and the limbs came off rather easily, like a lizard’s tail.) They used the money they earned to buy food from the market at Chipping

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Whippet—goat-rump became a dish eaten daily rather than annually— and to build houses made of wood, like Farmer Hayworth’s. Everyone wanted a door that swung on hinges, of course. Then Farmer Pullman built a house with two floors, and soon everyone wanted a house with two floors. Then Farmer Sally built a house with two floors and a gabled roof, and soon everyone wanted houses with two floors and a gabled roof. Every time the villagers’ arms regrew and were hacked off and sold again, they would use the money to add to their houses. Finally the houses grew so big that there was hardly any room between them, and the village square, once wide and open, was reduced to a narrow alley. Farmer Bachelard was the first one to hit upon a solution. He would buy a big plot of land on the outskirts of the village and build a new house there, even larger than his current one (which had, incidentally, three doors that swung on hinges, two floors, a gabled roof, and a

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porch). This was around the time when the villagers stopped going by “Farmer this” and “Farmer that” and started calling themselves “Mister this” and “Mrs. that,” because they were no longer farmers—except for Farmer Hayworth, who kept on mucking his swamp and refused to sell any more limbs to the cannibals. He liked his simple house just fine, he insisted, and didn’t even use it that much because he still enjoyed sleeping in his swamp after a hard day’s work. His friends thought him silly and old-fashioned, and stopped coming by to see him. The once-humble village of Swampmuck expanded rapidly as villagers bought larger and larger tracts of land upon which they built larger and more ornate houses. To finance this, they began selling the cannibals both an arm and a leg (the leg always on the opposite side from the arm, to make balancing easier), and learned to get around on crutches. The cannibals, whose hunger and wealth both seemed inexhaustible,

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were very happy with this. Then Mister Pullman tore down his wooden house and replaced it with one made of brick, which touched off a race amongst the villagers to see who could build the grandest brick house. But Mister Bettelheim bested them all: he built a beautiful house made of honey-colored limestone, the sort of home only the richest merchants in Chipping Whippet lived in. He had afforded it by selling his arm and both of his legs. “He’s gone too far!” complained Mrs. Sally over goat-rump sandwiches in the fancy new restaurant the village had built. Her friends agreed. “How does he plan to enjoy his three-floor house,” said Mrs. Wannamaker, “if he can’t even walk up the stairs?” 10

It was just at that moment that Mister Bettelheim came into the restaurant—carried by a burly man from the neighboring village. “I’ve hired a man to carry me up and down the stairs, and anywhere else I want to go,” he said proudly. “I don’t need legs!” The ladies were astounded. But soon they had sold their legs, too, and all across the village brick houses were being torn down and replaced by giant houses made of limestone. The cannibals, by this time, had abandoned the coast of Meek to live in the forest near Swampmuck. There was no point anymore in subsisting on a meager diet of hanged criminals and accident victims’ limbs when the villagers’ limbs were fresher, tastier, and more plentiful than anything available in Meek. Their forest homes were modest because they gave so much of their money to the villagers, but the cannibals were nevertheless content, much happier to live in huts with full bellies than to go hungry in mansions. As the villagers and the cannibals came to depend on one another,

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the appetites of each continued to grow. The cannibals became fat. Having exhausted every recipe they had for arms and legs, they began to wonder what the villagers’ ears tasted like. But the villagers would not sell them their ears, because ears did not grow back. That is until Mister Bachelard, carried in the arms of his burly servant, paid a secret visit to the cannibals’ forest and asked them how much they’d be willing to pay. He’d still be able to hear without his ears, he reasoned, and though it would make him a bit ugly, the fine house of white marble he’d be able to construct with the proceeds would be beautiful enough to compensate. (Now, the financially astute among you may be asking: why didn’t Mister Bachelard just save up money from the ongoing sale of his arms and legs until he could afford a marble house? It’s because he couldn’t save money, because he’d taken out a very large loan from a bank in order to buy the land upon which his limestone house was built, and now he

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owed the bank an arm and a leg every month just to pay interest on the loan. So, he needed to sell his ears.) The cannibals offered Mister Bachelard an exorbitant sum. Mister Bachelard snipped off his ears, happy to be rid of them, and replaced his limestone house with the marble home of his dreams. It was the most beautiful house in the village, and perhaps in all of Oddfordshire. Though the villagers of Swampmuck talked behind Bachelard’s back about how ugly he’d made himself and how foolish it was to sell ears that would never grow back, they all paid him visits and had their servants carry them through the marble rooms and up and down the marble staircases, and by the time they left, each was green with envy. By this time, none of the villagers but Farmer Hayworth had legs, and very few had arms. For a while they all insisted on keeping one arm so that they could point at things and feed themselves, but then they realized

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that a servant could lift a spoon or a glass to their lips just as easily, and it was not much more trouble to say “fetch this for me” or “fetch that for me” than to point across a room at something. So arms became seen as needless luxuries, and the villagers, reduced to limbless torsos, would travel from place to place in silken sacks slung across their servants’ shoulders. Ears soon went the way of arms. The villagers pretended they had not called Mister Bachelard ugly. “He doesn’t look so bad,” said Mister Bettelheim. “We could wear earmuffs,” suggested Mister Anderson. And so their ears were snipped and sold, and marble houses were built. The village gained a reputation for its architectural beauty, and what had once been a backwater visited only by accident became a tourist 12

destination. A hotel was built and several more restaurants. Goat-rump sandwiches were not even on the menu. The people of Swampmuck pretended they had never even heard of goat-rump sandwiches. Tourists sometimes lingered near Farmer Hayworth’s modest, flat-roofed house of wood, curious about the contrast between his simple home and the palaces that surrounded it. He would explain that he preferred the simple life of a four-limbed swampweed farmer and show them around his patch of swamp. His was the last bit of swamp in Swampmuck, as all the others had been filled in with dirt to make room for houses. The eyes of the country were on Swampmuck and its beautiful marble homes. The homes’ owners loved the attention but were desperate to stand out in some way, as every house was nearly identical. Each wanted to be known as the owner of the most beautiful house in Swampmuck, but they were already using their arms and legs every month just to pay interest on their enormous loans, and they had already sold their ears.

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They began to approach the cannibals with new ideas. “Would you loan me money with my nose as collateral?” asked Mrs. Sally. “No,” the cannibals said, “but we would happily buy your nose outright.” “But if I cut my nose off I’ll look like a monster!” she said. “You could wear a scarf around your face,” they suggested. Mrs. Sally refused, and from her sack she instructed her servant to take her home. Next Mister Bettelheim came to see the cannibals. “Would you buy my nephew?” he whispered, his servant pushing an eight-year-old boy before the cannibals. “Absolutely not!” the cannibals replied, and gave the terrified boy a candy before sending him home.

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Mrs. Sally returned a few days later. “Okay,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll sell you my nose.” She had it replaced with a false one made of gold and, with the money she earned, built an enormous gold dome on top of her marble house. You may have guessed where this is going. The whole village sold their noses and built gold domes and turrets and towers. Then they sold their eyes—just one each—and used the money to dig moats around their houses, which they filled with wine and exotic, drunken fish. They said that binocular vision was a luxury anyway and needed mainly for throwing and catching things which, lacking arms, they didn’t do anymore. And it only took one eye to appreciate the beauty of their homes. Now, the cannibals were civilized and law-abiding, but they weren’t saints. They were living in huts in the forest and cooking their food over

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campfires while the villagers lived in manors and palaces, waited on by servants. So the cannibals moved into the villagers’ houses. There were so many rooms in the houses that it took the villagers some time to notice, but when they finally did, they were angry. “We never said you could live with us!” the villagers said. “You’re dirty cannibals who eat human flesh! Go stay in the woods!” “If you don’t let us live in your houses,” the cannibals replied, “we’ll stop buying your limbs and go back to Meek. Then you won’t be able to pay your loans and you’ll lose everything.” The villagers didn’t know what to do. They didn’t want cannibals in their houses, but neither could they imagine going back to the way they used to live. In fact, things would be worse than before: not only 14

would they be homeless, disfigured, and half blind, but they wouldn’t even have swamps to farm because they’d filled them all in. It was unthinkable. Grudgingly, they let the cannibals stay. The cannibals spread out among all the houses in the village (except Farmer Hayworth’s—no one wanted to live in his crude wooden shack). They took the master suites and largest bedrooms and made the villagers move into their own guest rooms, some of which did not even have en-suite bathrooms! Mister Bachelard was forced to live in his chicken coop. Mister Anderson moved into his cellar. (It was very nice for a cellar, but still.) The villagers complained incessantly about the new arrangement. (They still had tongues, after all.) “Your cooking smells make me sick!” Mrs. Sally said to her cannibals. “The tourists keep asking about you, and it’s embarrassing!” Mister Pullman shouted at his cannibals, startling them as they read quietly in the study.

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“If you don’t move out, I’ll tell the authorities you’ve been kidnapping children and cooking them into quiches!” Mister Bettelheim threatened. “One doesn’t cook a quiche, one bakes a quiche,” replied his cannibal, a cultivated Spaniard named Héctor. “I don’t care!” shouted Mister Bettelheim, going quite red in the face. After some weeks of this, Héctor decided he couldn’t take it anymore. He offered Mister Bettelheim every penny he had left on earth if he would just sell Héctor his tongue. Mister Bettelheim did not reject the offer out of hand. He gave it careful thought and consideration. Without his tongue, he’d no longer be able to complain or make threats against Héctor. But with the money Héctor was promising, he could build a second house on his property

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and live there, away from Héctor, and he’d no longer have anything to complain about. And who else in the village would have not one but two golden-domed marble houses? Now, if Mister Bettelheim had asked Farmer Hayworth’s advice, his old friend would have told him not to take the cannibal’s deal. If the smell of Héctor’s cooking bothers you, come and live with me, Hayworth would have offered. I have more than enough room in my house. But Mister Bettelheim had shunned Farmer Hayworth, as had the rest of the village, so he didn’t ask—and even if he had, Bettelheim was too proud, and would rather live without a tongue than in Hayworth’s sad little house. So Bettelheim went to Héctor and said, “Okay.” Héctor drew his carving knife, which was always sheathed at his side. “Yes?”

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“Yes,” Bettelheim said, and stuck out his tongue. Héctor did the deed. He stuffed Bettelheim’s mouth with cotton to stop the bleeding. He carried the tongue into the kitchen, fried it in truffle oil with a pinch of salt, and ate it. Then he took all the money he’d promised Bettelheim, gave it to Bettelheim’s servants, and dismissed them. Limbless, tongueless, and very angry, Bettelheim grunted and wiggled around on the floor. Héctor picked him up, carried him outside, and tied him to a stake in a shady part of the back garden. He watered and fed Bettelheim twice a day, and like a fruiting vine Bettelheim grew limbs for Héctor to eat. Héctor felt a little bad about it, but not too bad. Eventually he married a nice cannibal girl and together they raised a cannibal family, all fed by the peculiar man in the back garden. 16

Such was the fate of all the villagers—all but Farmer Hayworth, who kept his limbs and lived in his little house and farmed his swamp like he always had. He didn’t bother his new neighbors, and they didn’t bother him. He had everything he needed, and so did they. And they lived happily ever after.

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*** So let’s raise our glasses to the accident season, To the river beneath us where we sink our souls, To the bruises and secrets, to the ghosts in the ceiling, One more drink for the watery road.

When I heard Bea chant the words, it was as if little insects were crawling in under my spine, ready to change it. I was going to crack and bend, become something other. Our temples were sweating under our masks, but we didn’t take them off. It felt like they had become part of our skins. The fire broke and moaned in the middle of the room and the arches above the doors whispered. I don’t know how I knew that Sam’s eyes were closed or that Alice had a cramp in her side. I only knew that I was everyone. I was Alice with her mouth half open, maybe in excitement or fear; I was Sam with his hands in fists; I was Bea swaying in front of us all, her red dress soaked with sweat; and I was me, Cara, feeling like I was coming out of my skin. Bea’s feet struck drum beats on the wooden floor. Her words grew louder. Soon we were all moving and the floorboards were shaking the ceiling downstairs. Wine flew from our glasses and dropped on the floor like blood. When we stamped around the fire in the remains of the master bedroom, we woke something up. Maybe it was something


THE

ACCIDEN T

SEASON

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inside us; the mysterious something that connects every bone of our spines, or that keeps our teeth stuck to the insides of our mouths. Maybe it was something between us; something in the air or in the flames that wound around us. Or maybe it was the house itself; the ghosts between the walls or the memories clicked inside every lock, the stories between the cracks in the floorboards. We were going to break into pieces, we were going to be sawn in two and reappear whole again, we were going to dodge the magician’s knife and swing on the highest ride. In the ghost house in the last days of the accident season, we were never going to die.


1 Elsie is in all my pictures. I know this because I have looked through all the pictures of me and my family taken in the last seventeen years and she is in them all. I only noticed this last night, clearing six months’ worth of pictures off my phone. She is in the locker room at lunchtime. She hovers at the corner of the frame on school tours. She is in every school play. I thought: What a coincidence, Elsie’s in all my photos. Then, on a hunch, I looked through the rest of the photos on my computer. And the ones glued into my diaries. And in my family photo albums. Elsie is in them all. She turns her back to the camera at birthday parties. She is on family holidays and walks along the coast. A hint of her even appears in windows and mirrors in the zoomed-in background of pictures taken at home: an elbow here, an ankle there, a lock of her hair. Is there really such a thing as coincidence? This much of a coincidence? Elsie is not my friend. Elsie is nobody’s friend, really. She’s just that girl who talks too softly and stands too close, who you used to


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be sort of friends with when you were eight and your father’d just died but who mostly got left behind with the rag dolls and tea sets and other relics of childhood. I’ve put a representative sample of seventy-two pictures taken in the last few years onto my phone to show to Bea before class. I want to ask her if she thinks there’s something really strange going on or if the world really is so small that someone can turn up in all of another person’s photographs. I haven’t shown the photos to Sam yet. I don’t know why. In the older pictures, my house looks like a cartoon house: no cars in the driveway, colored curtains framing the windows in hourglass shapes, a cloud of smoke attached to the chimney like white cotton candy. A seven-year-old me playing Steal the Bacon with Alice on the road in front of it. And there, at the side of the frame, a leg, the hem of a tartan skirt, and the heel of the type of sensible brown shoe that Elsie always wears. Those pictures were taken a decade ago; this morning there is no cotton candy smoke coming from the chimney, and the hourglass curtains of the sitting room frame the image of my mother hopping on one leg as she tries to wrestle a boot onto her other foot. Alice, outside, stamps her own feet impatiently. She stalks up to the window and raps on the glass, telling our mother to get a move on. Sam laughs from the hallway, invisible in the morning sun that casts everything past the front door in shadow. I push my fists deeper into my pockets and look up at the sky. There are a few wisps of cloud just hanging there mirroring me leaning against the side of the car. Alice is my sister. She is one year older and a million years wiser than me or so she’d like to believe (and she may be right; how should I know? I am hardly wise). Sam is my ex-stepbrother,


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which is a mouthful to say, but as our parents are divorced, he isn’t technically my brother anymore. His father was married to my mother until he disappeared four years ago. He ran off with a biological anthropologist and spends his time studying gibbons in the rainforests of Borneo. Sam has been living with us for seven years now, so I suppose to all intents and purposes he is my brother, but mostly he’s just Sam, standing tall in the shade of the hallway, dark hair falling in his eyes. Knowing that getting everyone into the car will take some time, I take my hands out of my pockets and pull out my phone again. I flip through the photos for the third time this morning, playing Spot-the-Elsie like in those Where’s Waldo? books. I’d never realized that Elsie always looks worried. Frown lines crease her forehead, and her mouth makes a little pout. Even her hair looks worried, somehow, when her head is turned. That’s quite an accomplishment. I wonder what my hair looks like when my head is turned. The back of my head is not something I see very often; unlike Elsie, I pose when a photo is being taken, and smile. When Alice’s head is turned (when, for example, she is banging on the front room window for the twentieth time to hurry my mother, who has forgotten something—her phone, her bag, her head—and has gone back upstairs to fetch it), her hair looks severe. It is dyed two shades lighter than her natural blond, always right to the roots, perfectly straightened, tightly wound into one of those make-a-bun hair donuts and stuck with two sticks. Alice has don’tmess-with-me hair. My mother’s hair is purple. It tumbles down her shoulders in unbrushed waves as she drives, and swings when she shakes her head. Strands of it stick to her lip gloss; she spits them out as she speaks. Today, she has painted her nails the same color. If it were


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any other time of year on this drive to school, she’d be reaching across to Alice in the passenger seat or fixing her hair, licking the tip of her finger to smooth the edges of her eye makeup or drinking from a flask of coffee like some people drag on a cigarette, but it’s coming up to the end of October and Alice fell down the stairs last night, so my mother grips the steering wheel with whiteknuckled, purple-nailed hands and doesn’t take her eyes off the road. She wouldn’t have driven us, but she’s convinced walking is more dangerous. “How’s your head feeling, honey?” she asks Alice. It’s the thirty-second time she’s asked that this morning (the eighty-ninth since coming home from the hospital last night). Sam marks another line on his hand in red pen. Every time my mother asks this question, Alice’s mouth gets smaller and smaller. Sam leans over and whispers in my ear. “Bet you a ten Alice screams before a hundred.” I hold my hand out to be shaken. Sam’s grip is firm and warm. I silently urge Alice to hold on until we get to school. “You all have your gloves, right?” my mother is saying. “And, Sam, I’ll write you a note for chemistry. Are you all warm enough? You did take your vitamins this morning, didn’t you?” “Sure, Melanie,” Sam says to my mother. He grins at me. Alice will never last under this onslaught. My mother chances the tiniest peek at her before hurriedly looking back at the road. Alice is carefully tying a silk scarf to hide the bandage around her head. She has darkened her eyes with kohl so the bruise on the side of her face seems less severe. She looks like a storybook Gypsy in a school uniform. We come to the intersection before the school. My mother’s hair whips around as she frantically tries to look every way at once


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before crossing the light traffic. We crawl past at a snail’s pace. The other drivers sound their horns. When she has parked, my mother cracks her knuckles and shakes out her hands. She takes off her sunglasses and gives us each a packed lunch. “Now, you will be careful, won’t you?” She squeezes Alice’s shoulder affectionately. “How’s your head feeling, honey?” Alice’s lips disappear. She gives a short, wordless scream without looking at our mother, and storms out of the car and into the main school building. I slump back in my seat. “Cough it up, sister,” Sam cackles. When we’ve gotten out of the car, I reluctantly hand over a ten. We wave my mother good-bye and she drives carefully away. “I’m not your sister,” I remind him. Sam drapes an arm over my shoulders. “If you say so, petite soeur,” he says. I sigh and shake my head. “I know that means sister, Sam. We’re in the same French class.” When Sam heads for his locker to get the books for his first class, I go find my best friend in the main school building. Bea is sitting at the back of the library, her tarot cards spread out on the desk in front of her. She likes to read the cards every morning, so she can know what kind of day she’s getting into. Bea doesn’t like surprises. It wouldn’t surprise her to know that the small group of eighth graders sitting a few desks away from her are snickering and whispering behind her back, so I don’t draw her attention to them. Anyway, I’m half convinced Bea can give the evil eye to anyone who insults her. I take one of my two pairs of gloves off my uncomfortably warm hands (it’s not the weather for hats and gloves, but my mother wouldn’t let us out of the house without them) and pull up the


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chair behind me to face Bea across the little desk. I rest my chin on the chair back in front of me. “Elsie is in all my pictures,” I tell her. Bea and I automatically look across the library toward the window. Usually by this time in the morning Elsie will have opened up her secrets booth for the day. The youngest are always the first to come to her, before the bell rings for assembly, before the janitor opens the locker rooms and the librarian comes out of her office to tell us to get to class. They come one at a time, type up their secrets on Elsie’s antique typewriter, and shuffle out of the library, heads bowed, pretending to be engrossed in the contents of their school bags. Elsie’s box gets fuller and fuller with the things that can’t be said. She isn’t here this morning, though. Maybe she’s running late. Bea turns back to me. “What do you mean?” I take out my phone and show it to her. I point out the mousy hair, the sensible shoes, the worry lines on the brows of every Elsie in every photograph. Bea takes a long time over the photos. Finally she looks up. Her eyebrows are drawn together and her mouth’s a thin line. “Cara, this is . . .” She shakes her head slightly. “A little weirder than usual?” I rest the tips of my fingers against my forehead and close my eyes. Bea reads tarot cards and lights candles for ghosts. She talks about magic being all around us and laughs when our classmates call her a witch. But this is different. Bea goes through the photos again, scrolling, stopping, tapping the screen and peering close. “Do you think it’s real?” I say to her from behind my hands. “Or do you think I’m crazy? Please don’t say both.” Bea doesn’t say anything. Instead, she shuffles her cards and


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lays them out slowly one by one on the desk between us. She looks down at the cards, and up at me, and back at the cards again. When she finally looks back at me, she’s wearing an expression I haven’t seen in a long time. She takes in my woolly hat, my remaining pair of gloves under the pair I just took off, the thick leggings I’m wearing as well as tights under my uniform skirt, the Band-Aid on my finger, the ACE bandage around my wrist, the vague aroma of echinacea and anxiety following me around like a strange sad cloud. Bea sighs and nods; she understands. It’s the accident season, the same time every year. Bones break, skin tears, bruises bloom. Years ago my mother tried to lock us all up, pad the hard edges of things with foam and gauze, cover us in layers of sweaters and gloves, ban sharp objects and open flames. We camped out together in the living room for eight days, until the carefully ordered takeout food—delivered on the doorstep and furtively retrieved by my mother, who hadn’t thought how she would cook meals without the help of our gas oven—gave us all food poisoning and we spent the next twenty-four hours in the hospital. Now every autumn we stock up on bandages and painkillers; we buckle up, we batten down. We never leave the house without at least three protective layers. We’re afraid of the accident season. We’re afraid of how easily accidents turn into tragedies. We have had too many of those already. “Alice fell down the stairs last night,” I tell her. “All the way from the top. Her head cracked on the banister rail on the way down. She said it sounded like a gunshot in a film, only duller.” “Oh God.” “There was no one in the house. They said at the hospital that she had a concussion, so we had to keep her awake, walk her


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around and around.” Bea’s eyes are wide. “Is she okay?” “She’s fine now. Mom didn’t want us to come to school today, but Alice insisted.” I take off my hat and shake out my hair, then try to smooth it down. Unlike Alice, I don’t dye my hair (also unlike Alice, I’m not blond), and it’s too short to straighten, so my perpetually-growing-out pixie cut sticks up in fluffy brown spikes whenever I wear hats. Bea covers my hands with hers. The pinkie of her right hand loops through the wool of the hat I’m holding. “Why didn’t you call me?” she asks; then, as if to answer her own question, she looks back down at the cards. She clears her throat, as if she’s hesitating before she speaks. Then she says it. “I think . . . It’s going to be a bad one, Cara.” She tries to look me in the eye, but I stare down at her cards instead. It takes a minute for me to answer. “How bad?” Bea touches my gloved hand gently. She says it softly. “One of the worst.” She turns one of the cards to face me. On it there is a figure on a bed being pierced by swords. I shiver. My knee knocks into one of the desk legs and I feel a sharp pain. When I look down, I see that my leggings and tights have been ripped by a huge nail sticking out of the wood. A few drops of blood collect around the edges of the tear. I can feel my eyes start to fill. Bea gets up and wraps her arms around me. She smells like cigarettes and incense. “It’ll be okay,” she whispers into my ear. “We’ll make sure nothing happens to you. I promise. We can change this. And I don’t think you’re going crazy. We’ll talk to Elsie. It doesn’t look like she’s in school today, but we’ll talk to her together tomorrow. It’ll be okay.” I squash down the panicky feeling rising in my throat and


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take a packet of pirate-print tissues out of my schoolbag. I blot the blood off my leggings, trying to move my wrist as little as possible. I don’t remind Bea that something’s already happened to me, even if it’s just cut skin from a nail and a sprained wrist getting out of the car last night. It’s always like this: Things happen and things keep happening, and things get worse and worse. I look back across the library at where Elsie’s secrets booth usually is. The empty desk is like a missing tooth.

MOÏRA FOWLEY-DOYLE is half-French, half-Irish and lives in Dublin with her husband, their young daughter, and their old cat. Moïra’s French half likes red wine and dark books in which everybody dies. Her Irish half likes tea and happy endings. Moïra started a PhD on vampires in young adult fiction before concentrating on writing young adult fiction with no vampires in it whatsoever. The Accident Season is her debut novel. Follow her on Twitter @moirawithatrema


BLOOD

CHAPTER ONE

I

don’t remember any of the true, important parts, but there’s this dream I have. Everything is cold and branches scrape the window screen. Giant trees, rattling, clattering with leaves. White rain gutter, the curtain flapping. Pansies, violets, sunflowers. I know the fabric pattern by heart. They’re a list in my head, like a poem. I dream about fields, dark tunnels, but nothing is clear. I dream that a dark shape puts me in the crib, puts a hand over my mouth, and whispers in my ear. Shh, it says. And, Wait. No one is there, no one is touching me, and when the wind comes in around the edges of the window frame, my skin is cold. I wake up feeling lonely, like the world is big and freezing and scary. Like I will never have anyone touch me again. They were sticking students in the cafeteria, over by the trophy cases. They’d hung a curtain to hide the blood-draw station, and it came down almost to the floor, but everyone knew what was behind it. Needles going in, tubes coming out. A

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butcher-paper banner was stretched over the west entrance, announcing the blood drive in giant Magic Marker letters. We’d just come in from lunch. Me, the Corbett twins, and Roswell Reed. Drew Corbett was digging through his pockets for a quarter to show me how he could fix a coin toss. It sounded complicated, but he had a way of taking any trick or sleight of hand and making it look easy. When he tossed the quarter, it hung for a second and I was sure I could see it flip over, but when he showed me the back of his hand, it was still heads. He smiled a wide, slow smile, like we’d just exchanged a really good joke without either of us saying anything out loud. Behind us, his brother Danny-boy was in this ongoing argument with Roswell about whether or not the only local band that was any good could ever get radio play or score spots on late-night talk shows. From far away, you could look at the twins and get the idea that they were the same person. They had the same long, brown hands, the same narrow eyes and dark hair. They were good at the same things, drawing and building and fixing stuff, but Drew was more relaxed. He listened better and moved slower. Danny was the one who talked. “But look at what sells,” Roswell said, raking a hand through his hair so it stood up in messy tufts, rust colored. “What makes you think that the same people who get all frantic for power chords would even appreciate a rarified talent like Rasputin Sings the Blues?” 4

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Danny sighed and grabbed my arm. “Mackie, would anybody really take something that fundamentally sucks over something good?” He sounded impatient, like he already knew he was winning this one whether I backed him or not, so why were they still talking about it? I didn’t answer. I was looking at Alice Harms, which was a habitual behavior, kind of like a hobby. Danny yanked harder. “Mackie, quit acting like a complete stoner and listen. Do you really think someone would pick the bad thing?” “People don’t always know what they should want,” I said without looking away from Alice. She had on a green shirt, cut low so it showed the tops of her breasts. There was a yellow blood-donor sticker stuck to the front of it. She tucked her hair behind one ear and the whole thing was sort of beautiful. Except, I could smell the blood—sweet, metallic. I could taste it in the back of my mouth and my stomach was starting to feel iffy. I’d forgotten all about the blood drive until I’d walked into school that morning and been greeted by the festival of hand-lettered signs. Drew hit me hard on the shoulder. “Here comes your girlfriend.” Alice was crossing the cafeteria, flanked by two other members of the junior-class royalty, Jenna Porter and Stephanie Beecham. I could hear the scuff of their sneakers on the linoleum. The sound was nice and reminded me of 5

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shuffling through dead leaves. I watched Alice but not in any really hopeful way. Girls went for Roswell, not me. He was tall and knobby, with a wide, straight mouth. He was freckled in the summer, the hair on his arms was reddish, and he never got his sideburns even, but he was likable. Or maybe it was just that he was like them. I was the weird one—pale, creepy. Blond hair might have been a strong point on someone else, but on me, it just made it harder to get away with how dark my eyes were. I didn’t make jokes or start conversations. Sometimes, people got uneasy just looking at me. It was better to stay in the background. But now here I was, standing in the middle of the cafeteria, and Alice was coming closer. Her mouth was pink. Her eyes were very blue. And then she was right in front of me. “Hi, Mackie.” I smiled, but it felt more like wincing. It was one thing to look at her from across a room and think about maybe, possibly kissing her. It was another to have a conversation. I swallowed and tried to come up with any of the normal things people talk about. All I could think was how once I’d seen her in her tennis uniform last spring and her legs were so tan I thought my heart would stop. “So, did you give blood?” she said, touching her yellow sticker. “You better tell me you gave blood.” When she pushed her hair back from her face, I caught a flash of something silver in her mouth. She had her tongue pierced. 6

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I shook my head. “I can’t do needles.” That made her laugh. Suddenly, her hand was resting on my arm for no good reason. “Aw, that’s so cute! Okay, fine, you’re off the hook for being a huge pansy. So, are your parents all completely freaked out about the latest drama? I mean, you heard about Tate Stewart’s sister, right?” Behind me, Roswell took a sharp breath and let it back out. The twins had stopped smiling. I fumbled around for a way to change the subject but couldn’t come up with anything on the spot. The smell of blood was sweet and oozy, too thick to ignore. I had to clear my throat before I answered. “Yeah. My dad’s been pretty cut up about it.” Alice opened her eyes very wide. “Oh God, do you actually know them?” “His dad’s doing the service,” Danny said in a flat voice. He and Drew had both turned away. When I followed their gaze, I saw they were watching Tate, who sat alone at one of the long tables, staring out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the sky. I didn’t know her. I mean, I’d gone to school with her my whole life, and she lived down the block from Drew and Danny, and I’d had at least one class with her every semester since junior high. But I didn’t know her. I didn’t know her sister either, but I’d seen them together in the parking lot at my dad’s church. A chubby, smiling little kid named Natalie. Just this normal, healthy-looking kid. Tate scraped back her chair and glanced in our direction. 7

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Her hair was dark brown and cut short, which made her face look strangely bare. From far away, she seemed small, but her shoulders were rigid as she stood up, like she was ready to take a punch. Until two days ago, she’d had friends. Maybe not the whispering, giggling, inseparable kind like Alice, but people had liked her. Now there was an empty space around her that made me think of quarantine. It was unsettling to realize that it didn’t take much to make you an outcast. All you needed was for something terrible to happen. Alice didn’t waste any time on Tate. She flipped her hair over her shoulder and suddenly, she was standing much closer to me. “Just, you never think about little kids dying. I mean, that’s so sad, right? My mom’s kind of been going crazy with the saints medals and the Hail Marys since she heard. Hey, are you guys going to be around on Saturday? Stephanie’s having a party.” Roswell leaned in over my shoulder. “Cool. We might stop by. So you guys got suckered into the blood drive, huh?” He was looking at Stephanie when he said it. “How was exsanguination? Did it hurt?” Stephanie and Jenna both started to nod, but Alice rolled her eyes. “Not really. Like, it hurt when she was putting the tube in—but it wasn’t bad. It actually hurts more now. When she pulled the needle out, it kind of tore and now it won’t quit bleeding. Look.” She held out her arm. There was a cotton ball taped to 8

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the inside of her elbow, covering the needle mark. In the middle, starting under the tape and spreading out through the cotton, there was a red splotch that grew and grew. Iron is everywhere. It’s in cars, kitchen appliances, and those big industrial machines they use to pack food, but most of it’s mixed with other things, carbon and chromium and nickel. It hurts in a slow, exhausting way. I can take it. The blood iron was different. It roared up through my mouth and nose, getting in my throat. Suddenly, it was hard to focus. My heart was beating very fast and then too, too slow. “Mackie?” Alice’s voice sounded thin and fuzzy, coming from far away. “I have to go,” I said. “My locker . . . I forgot this thing and I need to . . .” For a second, I thought one or two or maybe all of them were going to follow me. Alice started to reach for me. Then Roswell put his hand on her arm and she stopped. His expression was tight, like he was pressing his lips together to keep from saying something. He jerked his head in the direction of the hall, just barely. Just go. I made it through the maze of tables and out of the cafeteria without stumbling, but my vision was starting to tunnel and I could feel my heartbeat in my hands and in my ears. It was better once I got away from the sweet, suffocating smell of the blood drive. I took deep breaths and waited for the dizziness to ebb off. 9

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The lockers in the junior hall all looked the same—five feet tall and painted a light, flaking beige. Mine was at the far end, past the hall to the math wing and the doors out to the courtyard. As soon as I came around the corner, I knew something was wrong with it. On the locker door, at eye level, there was a red smear the size and shape of someone’s palm. Even before I got close, I could smell the blood. It wasn’t as bad as Alice’s puncture wound. That had been warm, horribly metallic. This was cold and sticky, just starting to dry. I looked around, but the hall was empty. The doors leading out to the courtyard were closed. It had been raining all day and there was no one on the grass. The smear was a dark, gummy red, and I stood with my hands against my forehead. It was a joke, some kind of mean, stupid trick. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to come up with it—you wouldn’t have to guess. I am notorious for being the guy sitting on the ground with my head between my knees when someone gets a bloody nose. It was a joke because it had to be. But even before I moved closer, I knew deep down that it wasn’t. Someone had gotten creative with a paper clip or a key. They’d scratched the word Freak into the congealing mess. I took my sleeve and scrubbed at it, feeling sick and out of breath. I got most of the blood off, but Freak stayed right there on the door. It was scratched into the paint and blood had settled into the letters so the word stood out dark against 10

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the beige enamel. Looking at it made the rush of static sweep in again. I backed away and almost fell. There was just my slow, stuttering heartbeat. Then my hand on the wall, feeling for the door, the empty courtyard, the fresh air. I was in kindergarten the first time my dad told me about Kellan Caury. The story was short, and he told it over and over, like Winnie-the-Pooh or Goodnight Moon. When my dad told it, I could see the important parts like scenes from an old movie, flickering and grainy. Kellan Caury would be quiet and polite. A grown-up, maybe in his thirties. He was like me. Mostly. Except that he had an extra set of joints in his fingers and I always pictured him in black and white. He ran a music repair shop on Hanover Street and lived above it in a little kitchenette apartment. He couldn’t tune pianos because he couldn’t stand to touch the steel wires, but he was honest and fair and everyone liked him. His specialty was fixing violins. When kids started to go missing, no one thought that much about it. It was the Depression, and no one had enough food or enough money, and kids were always disappearing. They got sick or ran away, or died from accidents or starvation, and that was too bad, but no one really got suspicious or asked that many questions. 11

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Then the sheriff’s daughter disappeared. This was in 1931, just before the end of October. Kellan Caury had never hurt anyone, but it didn’t matter. They came for him anyway. They dragged him out of his little kitchenette apartment and down into the street. They burned out his shop and beat on him with wrenches and pipes. Then they hung him from a tree in the churchyard with a bag over his head and his hands tied behind his back. They left his body there for a month. The first time my dad told me this, I didn’t get what he was trying to say, but by the time I was in first or second grade, I was already starting to understand. The moral of the story is, don’t attract attention. Don’t have deformed fingers. Don’t let anyone find out how amazing you are at tuning strings by ear. Don’t show anyone the true, honest heart of yourself or else, when something goes wrong, you might wind up rotting in a tree. Everyone has a point of origin. A place they come from. Some people’s places are just simpler than others’. I don’t remember any of this, but my sister, Emma, swears it’s true and I believe her. This is the story she used to tell me at night, when I would climb out of bed and sneak down the hall to her room. The baby in the crib: crying, in that anxious, fussy way. His face is shiny between the bars. The man comes in the window—bony, wearing a black coat—and grabs the baby 12

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up. He slips back out over the sill, slides the window down, pops the screen back in. Is gone. There’s something else in the crib. In the story, Emma’s four years old. She gets out of bed and pads across the floor in her footie pajamas. When she reaches her hand between the bars, the thing in the crib moves closer. It tries to bite her and she takes her hand out again but doesn’t back away. They spend all night looking at each other in the dark. In the morning, the thing is still crouched on the lamb-and-duckling mattress pad, staring at her. It isn’t her brother. It’s me.

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The Birds of Azalea Street Nova Ren Suma

When the police questioned me—same as they questioned Paisley and Katie-Marie—they didn’t want to hear about the birds. They weren’t paying attention. None of the adults around here ever did. Even when the body bag was carted out, on wheels, and the wheels got caught in a gopher hole in the lawn, and the stretcher knocked into the tree, and the sudden motion caused a whole host of birds to burst out of the branches, exploding into the blue over our subdivision, and I looked up after them, and the EMTs guiding the stretcher stopped and looked up, and all my neighbors who’d gathered to see what the commotion was about looked up, heavenward, into the sky, even then they thought it meant nothing. “So that’s where the birds have been hiding,” one of my neighbors said. Not one adult could connect it to the fact that Leonard was now dead. I knew the birds were no longer hungry—they’d feasted and had their fill, and now they took off, every last one of them, satisfied. But the adults of Azalea Street, curious about the murder, seeing as it was the first since our subdivision was founded, gathered in knots on our landscaped sidewalk corners to talk. They were hungry for

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information and gory details. They should have looked out of their windows sooner. They should have been watching. We were. Truth is, we’d been watching out for our neighbor Leonard for years. Since we hit puberty, and for some of us, that was way early. Since forever and always, it felt like. Before we saw him bring that girl home in the dead of night, all we knew was that he’d been trying to get his hands on us. My house on Azalea Street was next door to his house, so I’d say I got the worst of it, what with my parents always feeling sorry for him and inviting him for dinner on Sundays. The three of them would sip watery pre-dinner drinks out back by the bug zapper, and somehow my parents would miss how, when he apologized for his stomach growling, the object he had his eyes hooked on wasn’t the cheese plate. It was me. He said things to me sometimes, in the hallway while heading for the guest bathroom. Did I have a boyfriend yet? Did I ever happen to try the kind of kissing that used tongue? Then he’d shuffle away, fast, making me question what I’d heard. When I caught him looking at me later, over the pear tart he’d brought from next door, or over the sugar-dusted strudel, I saw his round black glasses go dim with sweat and fog. Other girls had run-ins with him too. Some of our fathers and stepfathers used to work with Leonard at the plant, before he got downsized and they got to keep their jobs, so they said we had to be civil. Even kind. Our mothers and stepmothers appreciated how he’d bring something fresh-baked for potlucks and fund-raisers, like a Bundt cake or a still-warm pie. None of our parents saw what we could see, which had us decide that growing up into adulthood must mean going blind. Teenage girls know more than we’re given credit for. We sense 2

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danger even when everyone’s telling us it’s fine, he’s a perfectly nice man, an upstanding member of our community, have you tasted his sugar-cream pie? When Leonard’s gaudy lawn came into view, we knew it was time to cross the street. Ever since he lost his job, he liked to feed the birds, and he hung lots of birdhouses, spilled lots of seed. It seemed innocent from the outside, maybe. But out back, from over the white picket fence that separated Leonard’s house from mine, I could swear I heard the shots. Little pops in the air. I was never sure of it, never positive. But one time there was a squawk and a feathered eruption as a bird went down. I can’t prove he shot it, but I did see him hunching over it, kicking it with his enormous shoe. Other times I suspected he used poison in the feeders. This was slower and left them stiff, so when they fell from their perches they dropped to the ground like rocks. I found one over the fence on our side of the lawn once—red-bellied and dark-feathered, its beak open mid-bite—and I buried it in an orange shoebox, the most cheerful I could find, near where we made the cairn for Buster. When the birds stopped coming—not just to Leonard’s house, but to my house and to the Willards’ house across the street, to Aggie’s house a few doors down, to any house I passed on the way to the bus stop and back, all our trees birdless, all our patches of sky clean—I guess he turned to other hobbies. That must have been when he bought the camera. We’d catch him standing on his porch, fancy long-lensed camera trained outward like he was waiting for a finch or a woodpecker. But with all feathery creatures avoiding his feeders, he couldn’t have been aiming for the birds. His telephoto lens was as long as an arm and seemed suspiciously trained at the sidewalk. When Katie-Marie went the birds of azalea street

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past in her field hockey skirt, on the way to my house from her house so my mom could drive us to practice, she swore she could hear his camera snapping. She took off in a run. The last time one of us was alone with him, it was Paisley. She said he cornered her in his kitchen and forced her to bake bread. Her mom had sent her on an errand, wanting one of Leonard’s recipes, and when Paisley knocked on his back door, she found him elbow-deep in flour, prepping sticky coils of corpse-pale dough. “Why, hello there,” he said in his deep baritone. His lips were pink and plushy and we didn’t like to look at them when he shaped words. Paisley told us she could sense the hunger coming off of him, like she was plump and roasting and he hadn’t eaten for a week. She heard a faint titter behind her, a lone bird that had lost its way in the treetops over our subdivision and drifted to the wrong set of branches over the wrong house. Or maybe it wasn’t lost and that was a warning call. Maybe it knew what was about to be set in motion. Paisley stepped inside his house. “What’re you doing?” Paisley had said. I would have asked for the recipe without going in, I would have told my mom to just get Leonard to e-mail it, but Paisley pressed her whole body into his kitchen and let the door shut behind her. She leaned forward on the counter, letting her long hair fall and her split ends dance. She took a finger. With it, she traced a word in the flour dusting the counter for him to see. It said hi. She was testing him. She was testing herself. Leonard lit up. We imagined it wasn’t often a teenage girl started a conversation with him voluntarily. He was pink in the face usually, but at that point he was bright red. He began talking. He kind of couldn’t shut up. He was explaining his method for baking braided bread, and then it became very important, essential even, to teach Paisley how to properly knead 4

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the dough in order to do it herself. She had to put effort into it, use all her strength and not hold back. It’s just that she had such small hands. On the windowsill, while this was going on, the bird was perched, black-eyed and unblinking. Paisley only thought it was weird later. Leonard was behind Paisley, very close, so close, she couldn’t back up and get around him. She felt the bird watching. She smelled Leonard’s yeasty breath. We know our parents wouldn’t believe us if we told them. Leonard was only instructing her. He was only being a kind neighbor, which in these times was a dying breed. That’s what they would have said. They wanted us to have skills beyond phone-scrolling and one-finger texting, like knowing how to bake edible food in the oven and feed ourselves if they suddenly were dead. But we believed Paisley right away. We knew he was too close. We knew how he pressed his front up against her to adjust her technique and how he breathed heavy, shaggy breaths against the nape of her neck. We knew how much he was enjoying this. “Knead,” he told her in a low, careful voice. “Go on, yes, like that. Knead.” He meant the slick mush in her hands, but Paisley had had enough. Out of all of us, she was the strongest, and that went far beyond her arm-wrestling skills against her brothers and the thick runner’s muscles in her legs. She told us she’d only wanted to prove he was a perv, prove it once and for all so there was no longer any question, and with this little bakery demonstration, she had won. She elbowed him in the stomach and whipped a braid of wet dough at his rosy, stubbly face. She dodged him and was heading for the door before the dough was even on the baking sheet, before the baking sheet was even in the blazing oven, before the bread had risen, the birds of azalea street

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before it had browned. She was breathing fast. The bird outside the window flapped its wings in a frantic slap and took off. Behind Paisley, there was a strange sound. A faint, high-pitched whimper. In a moment of weakness, Paisley paused and turned back. He was talking, but his voice was different now. Smaller in his throat. Pathetic. He only wanted to teach somebody something, he called after her. He was sorry, he said, he didn’t mean to scare her, it’s just that he led such a lonely life. The door was open. The sky bare and blank. Paisley held still in the entryway. She was questioning herself, having a peculiar moment of compassion. Sometimes she could be so very live-and-let-live. “Maybe . . .” Paisley started. Leonard pinkened—or else he was standing in direct range of the oven light. “Maybe you should get a dog,” she said at last. “So you’re not so lonely.” He looked down the length of his giant legs to his giant feet. No dogs, he said. Animals didn’t like him for some reason. He shrugged. Paisley smirked. She had a dark streak. “Then you should buy a blow-up doll online and make her your wife,” she said. “I can send you a link.” At this, his mouth gaping open, his cheeks full of flames, she took off. She’d gotten what she came for: Leonard’s sugar-cream pie recipe for her mother was already secured in hand. But so was the thought of Leonard getting himself a girl. It was Paisley, we’ve agreed, who gave him the idea. He couldn’t have her, and he couldn’t have any of the rest of us, but his hunger was still there, eating at him. It was days later when we heard his car pull into his driveway in 6

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the middle of the night. His house was one of the smaller designs in our subdivision and didn’t have a garage, so we could see everything from my bedroom window. There was nowhere he could hide. Usually his car held only him and sometimes a tripod or some grocery bags. That night we noted the questionable shadow in his passenger seat. It was taller than usual. It had a distinctly human-size head. Had he listened to Paisley and bought himself a companion? No. Our illusion was shattered when he circled the car to open the passenger-​side door, and the shadow moved on its own and stepped out. What he came home with that night couldn’t be brought to life with a tire pump. She was already alive and breathing. We would have sworn she was real. She wore a dark hood, and around it was a haze of fur, like she’d just landed in our subdivision from the North Pole and didn’t realize that, down here, it was spring. The problem with the hood was that it hid her face. And her puffy coat hid the rest of her, though it did stop at her hips, and her legs could be made out beneath it. Even from my bedroom window next door, with a picket fence between us and the dark having fallen and the motion sensors not responding to the motion as she walked past where we swore they were. Even with all that, I could see her legs. Her legs were in black stockings, the kind with seams. At the end of her legs were little pointed blades that took to the pavement like ice picks. When she touched grass, her heels sunk in and she stopped and the light from the car door showed us one leg bent to retrieve the shoe. I wanted a leg like that. I wanted to grow up and look like that and have two. Paisley was sleeping over. So was Katie-Marie. “Leonard has a new friend,” Paisley announced. “A lady friend. the birds of azalea street

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Did you know about this, Tasha? You knew, and didn’t tell us?” I shook my head, unable to keep my eyes off the lady in the night. She’d retrieved her shoe, slipped it back on. She was now standing still on the lawn while he was closing the car door. The fur trim on her coat rippled in the wind like a layer of black feathers. Her legs didn’t fidget or pace or shake, showing no hint of nerves. Leonard was right there. He was right there, and she didn’t run. “I’ve never seen her before,” I said. I would have remembered. But there was something about the way she moved. She didn’t seem surprised by the clutter of ugly, vacant dollhouses meant to entice the nonexistent birds. She wove around the mazelike lawn as if she’d been here before. “Is she tied up in the trunk?” Katie-Marie called out from across the room. “Is she bound and gagged?” Katie-Marie couldn’t see the scene outside. She was lying on my bed, an arm draped over her eyes. Before we heard Leonard’s car, we’d been trying to psychically impress boys we liked into becoming our boyfriends by thinking about them with pointed intention and hoping, somehow, across the airwaves, they heard. Paisley had long given up on Georges, and I only halfheartedly tried to psychically seduce Takeshi because I was pretty sure he liked me already and I figured I didn’t have to try so hard. But Katie-Marie really wanted Mike, and her forehead was all scrunched up with effort. The power of the mind was something we experimented with on Friday night sleepovers. Also light-as-a-feather-stiff-as-a-board, and the Ouija, before Katie-Marie’s dad burned it in her backyard. We also tried texting boys alluring emoticons and, on one brave night, posted photos of our faceless boobs to a message board, but then took them down fast when the comments got scary and promised

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among us that we’d never show the photos to anyone, not even Georges or Takeshi or Mike. After Paisley’s visit to Leonard’s house, we had wished harm on him and tried out our psychic impressions to make that happen. We realized it would be easiest if he just went away, so we wished him gone, like to Florida. Then he showed up for Sunday dinner like always, my father sharing a cigar with him in the garage, where he thought we couldn’t smell the stink, and I had to admit our magical thinking wasn’t making any magic. Leonard was still here. All that seemed so juvenile now. Leonard had real live company, and we couldn’t see who it was. “Leonard’s friend is walking on her own two feet,” I narrated for Katie-Marie. “Leonard’s friend’s nails are painted”—I waited for it as she reached up to touch one of his gaudy hanging birdhouses, then recoiled like it stung—“ooh, black.” “No,” Paisley corrected me. “Purple.” She was right. His lady friend had dark, deep-purple-painted nails, and they were long and curling, almost like claws. The hand seemed to lift up and out. It seemed to face us, to be motioning our way, like it was . . . waving. Then the sleeve dropped and hid her hand from view. I blinked. “She has very nice legs,” Paisley said. Katie-Marie finally opened her eyes and crawled over to join us by the window. “I hope he doesn’t bake her in his oven like he tried to do with you, Pais,” she whispered. Paisley nodded solemnly. We lost the will to make jokes or even talk. We watched as Leonard unlocked the front door and his friend entered his house. We

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knew the layout because there were only five different kinds of architecturally approved homes for the subdivision, and his was the one with the front porch and the sunken living room and the two bedrooms that had windows like eyes on the second floor. She must have gone down to the living room, because we didn’t see a light come on. Leonard came out once more and headed for the trunk. He seemed so eager. We watched him lift something out, and at first we assumed it must have been a suitcase, but then we noticed the odd, bulky shape and the way he had to circle it with his long arms. The birdcage was round and empty, as far as we could tell from this distance, and it had a latched and gated entrance that flapped in the wind. He carried it toward the house and didn’t return for more luggage. Her legs had told us one thing. Her lack of suitcase another. But it was the quivering smile on Leonard’s face when he walked under the porch light that told us so much more.

The first night there were no birds, as usual. The first night was dark and quiet. The first night was long. The second night, Paisley and Katie-Marie stayed at my place again, even though Katie-Marie’s house had satellite TV and all the premium channels, and we perched at my Leonard-facing windows. We’d skipped dinner. We were worried for his lady friend and had lost our appetites. She hadn’t come outside all day, which meant we hadn’t seen her leave. We discussed ways of sending over a warning, like slipped in the mail slot, or left on the welcome mat to tell her she should not feel so welcome, but we knew he’d see it before she did. We tried looking up his number and couldn’t find it, so we couldn’t call and feign wrong number if he picked up. We were deep

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in discussion when she appeared at the window across the way. The light came on, a bright spot in the darkness, and we ran to the window, huddling under the sill. One by one, we popped a head up. Paisley said she was prettier than she thought she’d be—a high nine to Leonard’s withering two—but to me, her face was exactly how I’d pictured it, as if I’d selected her from a catalog. Or conjured her up from the Vogue-glossy pages of my imagination and sent her here. In a way it felt like I had. She was all mystery. She had dark, low-lidded eyes and a small, subtle mouth that did not seem capable of making a smile. Her cheekbones reflected stabs of light. Her hair was purple-black, much like her nails. It was wild, ragged, coasting into her eyes. I wanted to get close enough to see her eyes. “Do you think she goes to our school?” Katie-Marie said. We were getting bothered by how young she looked. She wasn’t so much a lady as a girl like we were. The age difference couldn’t have been much. Chop off a couple, and she could have been us. “No,” I said. “No way she goes to our school.” She didn’t look like she lived around here—she didn’t look like any girl we knew. “We should go in there,” Paisley said. “Tasha, your parents made you water his plants when he was away on vacation that one time, didn’t they? We need a key to his house.” I knew where the hide-a-key was kept—it looked like a rock under the fifth shrub. But should we break in right then, in the middle of the night? Should we barge in, guns blazing? The only weapons we had were a field hockey stick and a bottle of slick, sticky leave-in conditioner to aim at the eyes. “We can’t go in there!” Katie-Marie said. “We have to talk to her from here.”

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I nodded. She was in the bathroom window, at the sink. We could tell by the way she bent down, and how when she came up, her face was dripping wet. Cleaned of makeup, she looked even younger. She didn’t see us through the curtain at first, but then our waving must have gotten her attention. She parted his ugly curtains and she put her pretty face to the screen. It pressed against her skin and waffle-ironed her cheeks. She was watching us as we’d spent the weekend watching her. “Tell her to run,” Katie-Marie said. “Tell her to get out of the house right now.” “We can’t yell that,” Paisley said. “He’ll hear.” “Tell her she can come over here,” Katie-Marie said. “You have that extra sleeping bag, Tasha. Tell her.” I hesitated. “We can just yell fire?” Katie-Marie suggested. “Then she’ll know it’s an emergency and come out?” “They both will then,” Paisley said. “And Tasha’s parents and brother will wake up too. And they’ll be like, Where’s the fire? And we’ll have to say there isn’t one.” “Let’s write her a note,” I said. We started off with a simple message. I used my special notepad with the lavender paper and the pink lines, so she wouldn’t be scared, and used marker to write in the biggest letters that could fit on the page so she could see from across the way. WHO, I wrote, ARE YOU? She cocked her head in the frame of the window, eyeing our words. She made no reply. I held my arms as far out the window as I could, waving our sign, but still . . . nothing. 12

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“Do you think she doesn’t speak English maybe?” Katie-Marie asked. “Do you think she’s from another country?” “Oh, everyone speaks English,” Paisley said. “Tell her our names. She’s probably just shy.” PAISLEY, I wrote, with an arrow, and held the sign under the face of Paisley. KATIE-MARIE, for Katie-Marie. Then I shoved my body out of my window and showed her: TASHA, I LIVE NEXT DOOR, HELLO. No change in expression. She bent down once more and came up with a wet face again. She dried her face with a towel. She barely blinked. We offered her my cell number. We asked if she was in danger. We said, Do you need help? Should we call 911? There wasn’t any hint she understood. We stopped, frustrated. Then she made a movement. Sudden, like time skipping. There’d been a screen in the window, but she must have popped it out. Her bare arm, purple-taloned and catching the moonlight, came thrusting out into the open air. In her fist was something white and balled-up, like a hunk of tissues, but when she opened her hand, the white thing cascaded into one long, light expanse and caught the wind and fluttered down and down. I thought for a moment that she was performing a trick—a gasp of supernatural, like that time our few fingers lifted Paisley’s body a whole inch above the carpet and when we removed our fingers, she stayed aloft from our concentrated energy alone. At least it felt like she did. But no. The girl in the window had only thrown something white-colored out through the frame and it landed in a heap over the fence and on my side of the lawn. A bedsheet? No, not a sheet from a bed. A veil. the birds of azalea street

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The kind a bride would wear on her big day. Why was she showing this to us? Was this some kind of clue? The veil drifted languidly in the faint wind, and understanding came over me. “That’s his wife,” I said. The word turned my stomach. “He found some girl to marry him and he brought her home.” “No,” Paisley said in horror. The girl in the window watched us watching her. She did not scream. She didn’t have to. “Oh my freaking god,” Katie-Marie said, and the dread in her voice made our hearts seize and our fear spike. “Do you think he made her marry him? Do you think he stole her passport? Do you think her parents know where she is? Do you think she’s a prisoner?” What did we know? Only that we had suspicions. We had to assume she was here on false pretenses, because who would marry Leonard by actual choice? We suspected we were the only ones alive who were aware she was here on Azalea Street, inside that house. He could have gotten her from anywhere. Maybe he found her in a parking lot. Maybe he picked her up on the side of the road and offered her a ride. Maybe he bought her off the Internet, like Paisley had innocently suggested. Maybe the girl came from nowhere we could name, and would fly off to nowhere we could pinpoint on a map, and maybe, ever after, we would remember her and think about where she could have ended up. She replaced the screen in the window and turned off the light. We couldn’t see where she went in the darkness, but we felt her there, right next door. Our subdivision vibrated with the sense of her, this stranger among us, this caged girl. We didn’t suspect then that she had come as if we’d called for her, as if our magical thinking on the night Paisley still smelled like 14

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yeasty-wet dough had come to fruition, rising up like the browned loaf of bread before it turned charcoal and burned. “We have to help her,” I said.

We tried to stay up all night, making plans that became all the more impossible, until Katie-Marie crashed on one side of my bed and Paisley crashed on the other and there was no room for me to sandwich in between, so I had to take the sleeping bag on the floor. I curled up on the carpet, near the window. Just as I was about to drift to sleep, I sensed stirring over the fence. Something pulled on me, forced me to sit up. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I was right: She’d come outside. I spied the girl through the window. There she was, his new bride, in the backyard of his house. His lawn actually touched our lawn—the same grass grew—but the white wooden fence stood between. Still, seeing her bare feet in the dewy-green blades of grass, mashing her toes in, like she wanted to wake the ants and gather up all the mud, it felt like she was walking my patch of green grass, wandering my backyard. Where was Leonard? Sleeping. The light in his bedroom was off. The girl was out there alone, in her fur-lined coat. Nothing on her feet and nothing holding back her hair. Without the makeup and the stockings, she looked smaller than before. She looked skinned. She turned her face up, and then up some more, and at first I thought she was counting the stars above our subdivision, seeing if the stars here were the same ones she remembered from there, wherever she came from. All this I could see through the window of my bedroom. Then I noticed the sag in her cheeks and the shift-shaping of her the birds of azalea street

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mouth and realized she wasn’t doing what I thought she was. She wasn’t stargazing. She was searching the tree branches. I don’t know why. Each one she came to was empty. She reached the farthest tree. She put one hand, palm out, onto the rough bark and pressed it in, like she wanted the ridges imprinted on her skin. Then she pressed her other hand into a nearby spot. Then she pressed her face, the whole side of her face, cheek and chin and eye-bone and nose bridge and nostril, into the bark of the tree and stayed that way for some time. The sounds of the neighborhood filtered through. I could hear them faintly: Mrs. Abernathy had her car alarm set too sensitive again and the acorns dropping kept setting it off. The Willards across the street were up way too late watching a sports game of some kind, I could tell by the cheers. A dog barked—the Ruiz dog. Another dog barked—that mini screechy one that belonged to the McCoys. A car pulled up, quiet, and a door opened, a giggle emerged, and then so silently like it was lined with cotton, the door closed. That was Aggie home from the party with her boyfriend; her mom would kill her if she knew she’d stayed out till three. All around, the usual things were going on, and down there in Leonard’s yard was the girl we thought could be his child bride, hugging a gnarly tree instead of sleeping in bed with him. It was the saddest thing I’d seen all year, even worse than the time Miranda from school showed us her suicide notes and asked us to pick the best-written one so she could impress her dad. The girl stood still. She looked up in her dark coat at the branches. The clouds moved to cover the stars and not even an owl hooted, but far away, down the street, Mrs. Abernathy’s car alarm sounded again like a sudden, lonely song. I closed my eyes. I told myself to get up, get to my feet, put on 16

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some jeans, they didn’t have to be clean jeans, go outside. Go help that girl. When I opened my eyes, the sky was filled with them. It was night, and they never came out at night, but there they were, a ferocious fog of winged creatures, covering her coat and coating her hair and seeming to beat all around her, to drone a cyclone around her body, to buzz. The birds had come back. I couldn’t have said for how long this went on. A few minutes at least, maybe more. I really had to pee, so it seemed much longer. Then the flock of birds lifted, and the black sky was full of static like a dream had already been long going, and I was asleep and didn’t come to again until sunrise.

We decided to knock on Leonard’s door in the morning. We couldn’t wait. We’d considered calling the police and leaving an anonymous tip to check his house for a missing girl, but then Paisley said we should see her in person first. How many times had we said Leonard squicked us out and our parents responded by saying we were exaggerating, making fun of the poor man, being cruel? If we saw the girl in daylight—better yet, if we could speak to her, face-to-face, if we could introduce ourselves and say a proper hello—then we’d know for sure if she needed saving. It was Paisley’s idea to bring the empty bag of sugar and ask if we could borrow some (we dumped it out in the garbage so it would look like it needed filling), and it was Katie-Marie’s idea to invent a baking project we were doing to raise money for field hockey. We’d noticed how he paid extra-careful attention to us whenever we wore the plaid skirts home from practice. We did look for it in the grass, walking all up and down the white the birds of azalea street

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picket fence trying to find it, but it wasn’t there. The bridal veil. The wind must have blown it away in the night, or else the birds must have snatched it. When we entered his yard through the fence divider, that’s when we noticed them. Birds on the branches above us. Birds all along the bushes and on every shrub. Birds clamoring at his feeders and lining the sloping arc of his roof. Birds on the gutters. Birds perched on the roof of his car. There were so many. Silent. Pointy beaks aimed down on us, following our path to the back door, beady eyes on our every move. Paisley knocked. When he came to the door, he didn’t open it all the way. Through the crack, the Sunday sunlight showed us his pink-tinged face, and his mouth, so fat, it looked swollen. I held up the empty sugar bag but swallowed my words too fast. Katie-Marie grabbed on to my shirt from behind, pulling the neck tight and practically strangling me. “Hi, Leonard. Good afternoon. I mean good morning. Um. We were hoping we could borrow some sugar?” Paisley said, taking over. She talked fast. Bake-sale, she was saying. To raise money for the team. He didn’t need to know that the season was over or that not all of us were on the team. “What are you making?” he asked, and his words jolted us, because we’d forgotten to determine what it was we were pretending to make before we walked over. “Cookies,” Katie-Marie said from behind me while at the same time I said, “Cupcakes,” and Paisley said, “Cake pops.” We shot glances at one another, alarmed. “You’ll need a lot of sugar, then,” Leonard said. “It’s early, so I’m not decent yet. Wait here.” 18

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He closed the screen and then the door behind it. Paisley had her body pressed up against the screen, and it practically scraped off the tip of her nose. She rested an ear to it, trying hard to listen. But she shook her head: nothing. We strained our ears in case the girl was crying for help, and we wondered from where she’d be calling—from the basement? From the broom closet beneath the stairs? The windows were shuttered. The walls were warm. “We need to go in there,” Katie-Marie said. My hand reached out and there was this brave bolt of energy in my body that made me turn the knob. The screen door came open and then there was one more door to open and in seconds we were inside. Leonard was in a pair of boxer shorts and a stretched-out V-neck shirt that horrified us with its display of chest hair. He held a large ceramic container that said SUGAR on one side. His glasses were crooked on his nose. “I told you to stay outside,” he said. What— who—was he hiding? “It’s cold, we were cold,” Katie-Marie started, but Paisley had had it with the lies. “Where is she?” she said. “Who?” Leonard said. He was holding the sugar container in front of his crotch, but believe us, we were already averting our eyes. “The girl. The girl with the purple hair. The girl with the fur coat. The girl we saw you bring inside. Where’s the girl!” He set the sugar down. Outside a bird shrieked. Another followed, and another. The room was very hot, and his oven wasn’t even on. Katie-Marie was so shaken, she’d begun to cry. Paisley was on alert, hands in fists. I held the empty bag up like a weapon and a few grains of sugar rattled inside. We were not prepared. the birds of azalea street

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“What girl?” Leonard said. We watched his pink lips. How carefully he said it, how slow and with a drawl, like he believed that because we were girls ourselves we could be fooled. “We saw her, Leonard,” Paisley said. “We saw her come in.” “There isn’t any girl,” Leonard said. “Apart from you three.” Once he said that, it happened. The sound of rustling from another room. His neck snapped toward the noise, knowing he was caught, then trying to hide it. But he couldn’t hide her. “What’s that!” Paisley shrieked, pointing wildly, vindicated and foaming at the mouth practically, and we kicked open the door and converged on the next room. We expected to find her there, cowering. The girl. She’d be in her coat, pulled up to hide her face. “It’s us,” we’d tell her. “It’s us.” At first she wouldn’t know we’d come to rescue her. But when we landed in the room, it was a room with no other doors out and only the way we’d come in. It was a room with shuttered windows, hiding the view of the neighbors’ houses and all trace of sun. It was a room meant to be the dining room, maybe, but the table was covered with papers, so no one could eat a meal on it, and up above the table, like a centerpiece, was an object hung from a hook in the ceiling, swinging ever so slightly like someone had been here to give it a push. It was a cage built for a bird, the same one he’d carried out of the trunk. The cage was empty. The room was empty too, except for the girls. There were girls everywhere. Girls on every surface. Girls splayed out on the table and girls spilled over the chairs. Girls pinned up against the walls and girls pasted to the back of the closet door. Girls propped up against the shuttered windows. Girls on the floor, some facedown and some faceup staring blankly at the ceiling. As we stood shocked 20

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in the doorway, a few girls skittered through the air as if from the sky itself, like a burst of bad weather, and Katie-Marie startled and stepped on one. We were the girls. These were our photographs. It had been Leonard’s hobby these past months to take pictures of us, from his porch or from his bedroom window, and he must have spent hours printing them all out to collect them—to collect us—together in this room. There was Katie-Marie, bent over on the sidewalk picking up something she’d dropped. The camera focused on what was under her skirt. There was Paisley, in the hammock in my backyard, legs stretched out. The camera looked down her shirt and centered in on her crotch. There were girls I knew from down the street, and girls I knew from across the way, and the girl in the house behind mine, Aggie, slipping a bare leg out of a car in the dark night. There were also photos of me, a great many—as if of all his targets, I was most wanted, I was the star. In some, I was sleeping. In others, I was on my lawn, or on my porch, or in my bedroom, getting undressed. Sometimes I was looking out my window, like he was looking into mine. Leonard’s photography hobby was worse than we’d guessed. What would he do now that he had us all inside his house, in real life? We backed away and got jostled in panic. Paisley bumped into me, and I knocked into Katie-Marie. When we untangled and shot out of the room, Leonard was there, blocking the way through the hallway. None of us wanted to get near enough to touch him. “The three of you,” he said, in wonder. Like we’d fallen from the heavens into his cupped and waiting hand. There were three of us, and one of him. We outnumbered him. We had strong legs from field hockey and track. We had sharp finthe birds of azalea street

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gernails, painted in bright colors. We had knees and elbows and teeth. But something held us back. It was all too real, all of a sudden. We’d suspected. We’d told tales. We’d heightened our stories into gross and grandiose lies. And even with all of that, we never really thought we were in danger. The slithery smile on his face sent us into a tailspin. Until we looked past him. Until we saw what was there. Who was. She was behind him. The black-eyed girl. Right there drinking at his ear, and somehow he didn’t sense her hovering. Then he must have caught something on our faces because he turned. How innocently he turned around to look. She was strong. She grabbed his neck and dragged him back into the kitchen, and we followed the blur. It was hard to keep focus. She was purple-black and without hard edges, like a cloud of static, a mass of feathered fury and fright. She didn’t voice anything to us in any human language, but we heard it all the same. A high-pitched shriek. Something terrible and terribly right. Paisley was shaking—since she’d seen the photographs, she hadn’t stopped. But Katie-Marie was animated. “Get him!” she was crying, drowning out the wails. “Get him, get him!” We were surrounding him on the linoleum, but all we had to do was watch. The sugar container was knocked over and there was white powder everywhere, covering him but also sifting into the air so it got in our eyes, our noses, our mouths, studding our tongues. How sweet it was. She came at him, it looked like with her mouth. The sounds in the room were squishy and made of wet smacks. She was stabbing him, but she didn’t have a weapon, not that we could see. Still, some-

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thing was leaving punctures. Something was bulleting him with small holes. Then quiet through the white haze. Dead calm. Katie-Marie lifted her head. Paisley hiccupped uncontrollably, breaking the silence. We looked down and down. He was quite tall, and his legs took up a lot of space on the floor, so I had to step over him to get a view from a better angle. It seemed like he’d been pecked to death, like from the knife beaks of a horde of birds. None of us could look at where his face had been. None of us wanted to remember his plushy lips, or his certain kind of smile. “I—” Katie-Marie started, and said nothing else. Paisley was hiccupping and shaking. The girl in the black-furred coat seemed fine, though. Black hides blood, so she looked clean, she looked calm. “She—” Katie-Marie tried to say, and said nothing. Through hiccups, Paisley spoke for all of us. “You,” she told the girl. “Killed him.” The way she said the words, it was almost a question. “You have to go,” I said to the girl. She stared me down and made no move. “Can you understand what I’m saying? You have to get yourself out of here. Do you get that?” She only wrapped the coat tighter around herself. Her legs were bare underneath, and she didn’t have shoes. I turned to Paisley, I turned to Katie-Marie. “We have to get her out of here. She has to go.” “How?” Paisley said, and her voice was the smallest I’d heard it. “None of us can drive.” Katie-Marie was holding her nose and trying not to retch in the

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sink. Then she did retch, and I turned to the girl. Her eyes were perfectly black, swallowed by pupils. She didn’t blink. “Who are you?” I said. That had been our first question. She cocked her head to one side, like she was saying didn’t I know already? Hadn’t I known all along? Katie-Marie was hunched over the sink, and Paisley was stunned into an un-Paisley-like silence as if she’d bitten off her own tongue. Only the hiccups shook her. I was the single coherent one left. I led a path through the red-spattered sugar. The back door was open. We’d forgotten to close it when we came in. “Go,” I said. The girl stared at me, black eyes unblinking. Her mouth was covered in blood. “Run,” I said. She must have heard me. But she didn’t run. She didn’t have to. There was a point when she was still in the kitchen with us, the air heavy and sickly sweet with what she’d done to him, and then there was the point when her feet were lifted in the air and her legs, her beautiful legs, shrunk in and shifted. Her coat became a part of her body, or maybe it always was. Her arms—what was left of them—opened wide. A dark streak took off from the back steps and the sky caught it and it was a bird, it was always a bird, she was, and the bird soared up into the clouds, a rapid retreat of wings, until it was a speck, a small seed, a dot, a blink, a memory. I wanted to give her a head start, so I waited a good while before calling my mother to say we’d come over to borrow some sugar and found Leonard stabbed to death on his kitchen floor. I said “stabbed” because we didn’t know what else to call it. My mother was the one who called 911.

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× × × When the police questioned me—same as they questioned Paisley and Katie-Marie—they wanted to know only certain things. Their questions were so ordinary. Why did we knock on our neighbor’s door so early on a Sunday morning? Where exactly did we find his body? What did we do next, after Paisley froze and started hiccupping and Katie-Marie puked in the sink? They didn’t mention the photographs, and we weren’t sure if they were protecting us because they thought we couldn’t handle it, or if they were waiting for us to say it first. I didn’t say, and Katie-Marie didn’t say. Paisley didn’t say either. We didn’t want to give ourselves any motive, now that the girl was long gone. We’d all agreed on that ahead of time. Besides, they couldn’t pin anything on us. No witnesses, no fingerprints that matched ours on the body. No connection, except my house was right next door and my sugar bag was covered in blood on the floor. It was all I could do not to wave my arm up at the blank blue sky and tell them to search there for answers. Except that would have given her away. Then the police had one last question, and it was here that I sat up straight and felt the heart in the cage of my chest pounding. Could I describe the girl who was in his house the night before? I didn’t know who let that piece of information loose, Paisley or Katie-Marie, but to me this question had only one answer. “What girl?” It was easy to deny her. Even as I remembered the blacks of her eyes, and the painted points on the ends of her fingers. That was only my mind making her into what I thought she should be.

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“So there wasn’t ever any girl,” the police said, they made me say, they made me write in some kind of official statement and sign while my parents watched, and I had to do it. I don’t know what Paisley said, and I don’t know what Katie-Marie said. But I said we were mistaken. It’s what we owed her. We thought we saw a girl, but it was dark. It was dark outside and confusing and we were wrong. “So you’re sure?” they said. “I’m sure,” I told them. “I never saw any girl.” Because, could a girl be so terrible? Could a girl tear a man’s face out and could a girl litter his body with holes from the sharpest parts of her red mouth? Could a girl do something so perfect, and then vanish into the clouds? Could a girl come at the exact moment we needed her? Could she come only to protect other girls? I wasn’t lying when I said that to the police. In the end, she wasn’t even anymore a girl. For Leonard’s wake—closed-casket; no one would have been able to stomach it otherwise—my mother made me help her bake his signature sugar-cream pie. His murder would be unsolved for some weeks, and then I guess it fell off the police’s radar, because summer was coming, and the softball tournament was approaching, and we were fund-raising for the dying oak trees now, and at some point our parents said it was safe to canvass the neighborhood and knock on every door. Before his house sold, I ducked under the crime-scene tape and went onto his lawn. I swiped one of his bird feeders and put it on our side of the picket fence, and robins and little swallows started to flock to it. I fed them seeds from my trail-mix packs and sometimes bits of sugar-coated breakfast crunch. Sometimes I’d go out-

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side under the bright beautiful blue and all I’d hear were these little titters, like the birds were trying to tell me something in a language I couldn’t understand. I tried to tell them I knew. I tried to say thanks. I spent a lot of time in the backyard, searching the sky.

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P ROLOGU E

T

he café in the basement of Tisch, the art and film school at New York University, was redecorated this year. After entertaining

a number of ambitious design proposals, including one with a water wall illuminated from within by pulsating LED lights, they decided to go with a retro–New York theme that featured subway-tile walls, stained mirrors, large filament glass lightbulbs, and hand-weathered bentwood chairs. They revamped the menu, too, adding old-school New York deli food, like huge pastrami sandwiches on rye, hot potato knishes, and half-sour pickles the size of a freshman’s forearm. Everyone seemed pretty confident that the redesign would make the space more inviting for students than when it had a 1990s look, with grunge band posters and retro shag carpet and papasan chairs. Nobody ever went down there then. They decided to dress up the wall behind the salad bar with silkscreened reproduction newspaper articles, all collaged together. For some reason most of the collaged newspapers documented long-­ forgotten tragedies, like the Draft Riots in 1863 or the Astor Place Riot of 1849. The decorator’s assistant whose job it was to find and silkscreen the newspapers, they found out too late, had kind of a macabre sense of humor, and had been rejected by NYU. She’s since been let go. Fortunately, nobody ever bothers to read the articles. On the lower left part of the wall, overshadowed by the metal rack


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that holds the cafeteria trays, is the following story. There’s a smear of ketchup across the title, but it’s so low down on the wall that no one has noticed, and the bloodred stain has been allowed to stay.

The New-York Star Sentinel October 28, 1825

TRAGEDY STRIKES CANAL JUBILEE GRAND AQUATIC DISPLAY Dozens Feared Lost as Barge Sinks amid Cannonade New-York— The celebration of the marriage of the waters between Buffalo and the Atlantick reached a tragic climax off the Battery yesterday during the celebration of the Grand Canal Commemoration. The day’s revels began as a grand cannonade announced the entry of the Erie Canal boats into the waters of the Hudson River. There they were joined by steam-ships carrying representatives of the Canal Corporation flying flags of the City, escorted by pilot-boats, barges, and canoes with Aborigines from Lake Erie to see them safely to the waters off New-York. Upon passing the North Battery the flotilla’s arrival was heralded with a National Salute, and it proceeded to round the island and traverse the East River as far as the Navy Yard, where it was met by a Frigate flying the flags of the City, which fired another National Salute. The officers of the Navy then joined the Corporation and their guests on the flotilla proceeding to the Battery, where the Grand Aquatic Display met with the Mayor and the Governor, together with representatives of the Mechanics, Merchants, Military Officers, Citizens, Tradesmen, the Students of Columbia College,


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the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and all the Societies for the Grand Procession throughout the City. All ships and vessels were splendidly decorated, festooned with flags and pennants in celebration of the honor of the day. By special order of the Canal Corporation the Evening Celebration began with the ceremonial illumination of City Hall beginning at seven, together with all Theatres and Public buildings similarly illuminated with suitable bunting and decoration. As the illumination neared its apogee, a grand display of fireworks of entirely novel design ignited over City Hall, with echoing fireworks and Cannonade bursting over the flotilla moored within sight of the Battery’s many thousand spectators. The standers-by agreed such a sight was never before seen in the City of New-York, and when the barge nearest land erupted in a roar of great blue-purple flames, many were heard to remark that the Fire Brigade of the Seventh Ward had outdone themselves with their sponsorship of such a fine display. However, the tragedy of their mistake was soon apparent, as screams pierced the night from the unfortunate barge, which carried distinguished family and guests of the Canal Corporation. Several pilot-boats approached to render assistance, but in vain, driven back as they were by tremendous heat and rains of sparks. As the flames licked into the night sky, the silhouettes of the unfortunate souls trapped aboard could clearly be seen, their hands rending their clothes as they were burned to cinders. Within minutes all that remained of the unfortunate barge were some few charred logs slipping beneath the nighttime surface of the harbor, and the screams of helpless onlookers echoing through the night, as elsewhere in the city the spectacular Grand Commemoration concluded amid applause and universal acclaim when his Excellency the Governor ceremoniously united the waters of Lake Erie and the Great Rivers of the World with the Ocean.


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The New-York Harbormaster refused to speculate as to the cause of the barge’s conflagration, only suggesting that an errant spark had ignited the bunting hung thereon. This correspondent, however, observed what appeared to be anti-slavery sloganeering on the doomed barge, possibly the result of radicalism. The United Brotherhood of Luddites has notified this paper of an imminent statement of responsibility. The Canal Corporation has declined to comment on the record.

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PART ONE

WES

CHAPTER 1

I

’ve been having trouble with time lately. But I must have been thinking about her even before Tyler said anything. “Would you tell her to sit down?” Tyler hisses. He’s squinting through the eyepiece of the camera that we’ve

signed out from the AV department supply closet. It’s a 16 millimeter, so it’s not like there was a waiting list or anything. I’m not even sure they’d notice if we forgot to bring it back. In fact, it’s possible Tyler’s not planning to bring it back. Pretty soon they’re going to be collector’s items. I wonder what one would go for on eBay? A lot, I bet. “What?” I whisper back. “Her. That girl. She’s blocking the shot.” “What girl?” I crane my neck, looking, and the hair on my arms rises. At first I don’t see who he means. It’s too crowded, and I’m too far back in the corner. “Her. Look.” Tyler gestures for me to come look with an impatient crook of his finger. The room we’re in is not much bigger than my bedroom back


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home, and crossing it without accidentally groping somebody is going to be tough. It’s packed with, like, twenty people, all milling around and turning off their cell phones and moving folding chairs to get close to the table in the center. Red velvet curtains cover the walls. It should be bright, because the picture window faces the Bowery, but the window has a velvet curtain, too. Even the glass door to the town house’s stairwell is taped over with black construction paper. There’s a cash register on a counter off to the side, one of those antique ones that rings when the drawer opens. And there’s a door to nowhere behind the cash register, behind a plastic potted plant. That’s where Tyler’s set up the tripod. The only light in the room comes from candles, making everything hazy. A few candles drip from sconces on the wall, too. Other than that, and a cheap Oriental carpet latticed with moth holes, there’s not much going on. I don’t know what Tyler thinks is going to happen. We’re each supposed to make our own short film to screen in summer school workshop, and Tyler’s determined to produce some masterpiece of filmic experimentation that will explode narrative convention and reframe visual media for a new generation. Or else he just thinks using Jurassic format will get him an easy A, I don’t know. I pull the headphones off my ears and nest the boom mike against the wall behind where I’m standing, in the corner farthest from the door. I’m worried something’s going to happen to the equipment and Tyler will find a way to make me pay for it, which I cannot under any circumstances afford. I’m disentangling myself from headphone cords and everything and accidentally bump the back of some woman’s head with my elbow. She turns around in her seat and glares at me. Sorry, I mouth at her. I keep one eye on the microphone, as if staring hard at it will prevent it from falling over, as I edge around to where Tyler’s waiting. The air in here has the gross, wet summer feeling of too many people


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all breathing in a room with no air-conditioning. My hair is slick with sweat. I can feel the dampness in my armpits, too, a fetid droplet trickling every so often down my side. I really hope I don’t smell. I didn’t start wearing deodorant ’til sophomore year of high school, when one of the coaches pulled me aside for a talk so mortifying I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it. It’s a more diverse group than I’d expected in this room. Mom types in khakis, a couple of panhandler guys in army surplus jackets and weedy beards, a girl with tattoos snaking around her neck and straight 1950s bangs, and at least one guy in a suit, like a banker. There’s a black guy in a Rangers jersey and saggy jeans. One really young girl with a hard-gelled ponytail, here with her baby. I’m surprised she’d want to bring a baby here, but there’s no telling with people sometimes. Some of them exude the sharp pickled smell that people get when they’ve been drinking for a very, very long time. I’m climbing monkeylike around the room, trying and failing not to get in everybody’s way, and the woman sitting in the middle, who owns the place, gives me a sour look because I’m being so disruptive. “The angle should be fine from where you are,” I whisper to Tyler when I reach his corner. “Yeah, no kidding, but she’s completely blocking the shot.” Tyler pops a stick of gum in his mouth, which he does whenever he wants a cigarette but can’t have one. Or so he says. I don’t think he really smokes. “We’re going to begin,” the woman in the turban intones, and all the people start settling down and putting their phones away. The camera’s on a tripod, angled down over the circle of heads, right at the center of the table. The table itself is like a folding card table, but everyone’s crowded around it, so at least a dozen pairs of hands are resting there. It’s covered in a black velvet cloth, and between the knotted fingers are a couple of crystals, one polished glass ball that looks like a big paperweight, a plastic indicator pointer thing from a Ouija board, a dish of incense, and some tea lights. The incense


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is smoking, hanging a haze over everything, like the smoke that drifts after Fourth of July fireworks. It’s a total firetrap in here. I don’t know why I agreed to come. But Tyler was dead set on getting footage of a séance for his workshop film. I don’t know why we couldn’t have just staged one with some kids from our dorm. That would have been easier. And he’s not a documentarian, anyway. Not like me. “Spirits are fragile beings,” the woman in the turban continues in a fake-sounding accent, and everyone but us leans in closer to listen. “They can only hear us when they’re ready. When the right person goes looking for them. We must be very serious and respectful.” “Look,” Tyler insists, plucking at my T-shirt. The woman glares at him, but he doesn’t pay any attention. He comes down off the footstool that we brought and gestures with a lift of his chin for me to confirm what he sees. “I’m telling you, man, I’m sure it’s fine,” I whisper as I step up on the stool and screw my eye socket onto the eyepiece of the camera. But when I look, a weird crawling sensation spreads across the back of my neck. It’s so intense, I reach up and rub my hand over the skin to get rid of it. At first it’s hard to tell what I’m looking at. We’ve put a Tiffen Pro-Mist filter on the camera, for extra artistic effects or something, and my pupil dilates with a dull ache when my eye goes from the orange glow of the room to the softened pastel outlines in the filter. It looks like Tyler might have framed the shot too narrowly. He’s aimed the camera right on the woman’s hands in the middle, so it should be showing me her knuckles wrapped around a glass ball, next to a tea light ringed in halos of pink scattered light. But all I can see is what looks like a close-up of the black velvet tablecloth. “Can we talk to, like, anyone we want?” the girl in the gelled pony­tail asks at the same time that I say, “Dude,” while reaching up to readjust the angle. “You’re in way too tight. That’s the problem.”


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“Bullshit I am,” says Tyler. “She got in my way.” “Shhhhh!” One of the mom types tries to shush us. “Who did?” I ask Tyler. I zoom out about 10 percent and then pan slowly across the tabletop, using the tripod handle like Professor Krauss taught us, expecting any second to stumble across one of the crystals magnified to the size of a truck. Tyler thinks he knows how to use this equipment, but I’m starting to have my doubts. “I beg your pardon,” the woman in the middle interrupts us. “Are you boys almost finished?” “Just about,” Tyler says, raising his voice. “Thirty seconds.” To me, he hisses, “Don’t screw up my shot, man. I’ve got it all set up.” Like hell you do, I think but don’t say. “Spirits who are at peace cannot be disturbed,” the woman goes on, trying to talk over our whispering. “Anyone we reach will have a purpose for being here. It’s our job to determine what that purpose is. To help them. Bringing them peace will bring us peace, too.” “So we can’t just ring up Elvis, huh?” the banker jokes, and a few people laugh uncomfortably. I’ve panned the camera slowly across what I thought was the velvet tablecloth, but I come to rest on a small satin bow. I pull my face out of the viewfinder and look up, squinting through the candlelight to find what the camera is looking at. But I don’t see anything. The table looks the same, crystals and Ouija thing and whatever. No bows anywhere. The person nearest the line of camera sight is the guy in the Rangers jersey, who’s bent over his cell phone and not paying any attention to us. “But I, like, wanted to talk to my nana and stuff,” the girl with the gelled ponytail complains. “Huh,” I say. “See her?” Tyler asks. In the camera, outlined in eerie art-filter light, I find the satin bow again. I adjust the focus and zoom out very slowly.


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The bow proves to be attached to the neckline of somebody’s dress, in the shadow of lace against pale skin. I adjust the lens another hairsbreadth. I inhale once, sharply, the way I do when jumping into the lake by my parents’ house for the first time at the beginning of the summer, when the water hits me so hard and cold that it makes my heart stop. Tyler’s right—there’s a girl blocking the shot. A girl like I’ve never seen. “I see her,” I say to him, covering my sudden irrational panic. “It’s not a problem.” “We can reach her, if your nana needs to be reached,” the psychic explains with apparent impatience. “If she has something in this world holding her back.” “Told you,” Tyler says to me. “What, you saying my nana’s not at peace, and it’s my fault?” the girl’s voice rises. “I’ll take care of it,” I say to Tyler. “No, no,” the psychic backpedals. “That’s not what I meant.” “You can trust Madame Blavatsky, sweetie.” One of the mom types tries to soothe the girl with the baby. “But you should let her get started.” The weird crawling sensation spreads across my neck again, but I can’t rub it away because I’m busy climbing back around the periphery of the room to reach the girl with the satin bow. She’s just standing there, not talking to anyone, looking down at her hands. My heart is tripping along so fast, I’m having trouble catching my breath. I don’t want to make her feel weird or anything. I also kind of hate talking to people. But more than that, she’s . . . “Yes, we really can’t wait any longer,” the woman in the turban says. “Spirits only have limited time, once summoned, to resolve their unfinished business. If we don’t act quickly, we risk damning them to an eternity in the in-between.” The medium’s starting to get pissed off. I’m not positive, but I think


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Tyler’s paid her for letting us film. Which we’re not supposed to do for workshop, but whatever. She sounds really annoyed. I don’t blame her. I’m kind of annoyed. At Tyler, mostly, for dragging me along to do sound when I could be working on my own film. Should be working on my own film, especially considering how much is riding on it. In fact, all I want is to be working on my own film. But I find myself pulled into other people’s stuff a lot. I get caught up. “What do you mean, limited?” asks the guy in the Rangers jersey. “Like, they on the clock or something?” Tyler thinks he’s going to be the next Matthew Barney. He’s doing an experimental film of people in what he calls “transcendental states,” using all different film stock and filters and weird editing tricks that he’s refused to reveal to me. I don’t think we’re going to see much in the way of transcendental states in a palm reader shop upstairs from an East Village pizzeria. But we already spent the afternoon with the AX1 filming drummers in Washington Square Park. I think he’s running out of ideas. “Or something,” the medium says, and when she says it, a sickening chill moves down my spine. The girl with the satin bow on her dress is standing on the opposite side of the room from the camera, not far from where I stashed the mike, looking nervous, like she’s doing her best to blend into the wall. She’s awkwardly close to the edge of the table. Nobody seems to notice her, a fact that causes my ears to buzz. Now that I’ve seen her, I feel like she can never be unseen. She looks .  .  . I suck at describing people, and beautiful feels especially pathetic. But the truth is, I don’t understand how I haven’t been staring at her the whole time we’ve been here. As I edge nearer, my blood moves faster in my veins and I swallow, a fresh trickle of sweat making its way down my rib cage. I can feel her getting closer. Like I can sense where she is even when I can’t see her. She’s not paying any attention to me, her head half turned away, looking around at the walls with interest.


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The girl is so self-contained, so aloof from all of us, that she seems untouchable. Watching her ignore my approach, I wonder how you become someone that other people make room for, whether they know it or not. She’s wearing one of those intense deconstructed dresses they sell in SoHo. My roommate, Eastlin, is studying fashion design, and he’s got a sweet internship in an atelier for the summer. He took me to the store where he works one time and showed me this piece of clothing, which he said was a dress, which was dishwater-gray and frayed around the edges, covered in hooks and eyes and zippers and ribbons. I couldn’t really understand what the appeal was. To me it looked like something I’d find in a trunk in my grandmother’s attic. When he told me how much it cost I dropped the sleeve I was holding because I was afraid I’d snag a thread and have to take out another student loan. I’m definitely afraid to touch this girl’s dress. Seeing how she wears it, though, I begin to understand what Eastlin’s talking about. Her neckline reveals a distracting bareness of collarbones. Her hair is brushed forward in curls over her ears in some bizarre arrangement that I think I saw on a few hipster girls in Williamsburg when Tyler took me out drinking there. She must sense me staring at her. Why won’t she look at me? But she’s finished her examination of the curtains, and if she’s noticed me approaching her, she’s not letting on. As I move nearer, near enough that I can practically sense the electrical impulses under her skin, she steps back, retreating from the edge of the table into the red curtain folds along the wall. I glance at Tyler, and he waves to indicate that she’s still in the shot, and I should get her to sit down already. My heart thuds loudly once, twice. Up close, her skin looks as smooth as buttermilk. Milk soft. Cool to the touch. I want to touch the skin at the base of her throat. This thought floats up in my mind so naturally that I don’t even notice how creepy I sound.


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“Hey,” I manage to whisper, drawing up next to her. It comes out husky, and I cough to cover it up. She doesn’t hear me. At least, she doesn’t respond. My cheeks grow warm. I hate talking to people I don’t know. I hate it more than going to the dentist, I hate it more than taking SATs or doing French homework or stalling a stick-shift car with my dad in the passenger seat. “When everyone is seated, we’ll finally begin,” the woman in the middle of the room says pointedly. A few eyes swivel over to stare at me trying to talk to the girl, and my flush deepens. “Listen,” I whisper in desperation, reaching a hand forward to brush the girl’s elbow. The instant my fingers make contact, the girl’s head turns and she stares at me. Not at me—into me. I feel her staring, and as the lashes over her eyes flutter with something close to recognition it’s like no one has ever really seen me before her. Her face is pale, bluish and flawless except for one dark mole on her upper lip, and twin dark eyebrows drawn down over her eyes. As we gaze at each other I can somehow make out every detail of her face, and none of them. When I concentrate I can only see the haze of incense smoke, but when I don’t try too hard I can trace the curve of her nose, the slope of her cheeks, the line where lip meets skin. Her eyes are obsidian black, and when she sees me, her lips part with a smile, as if she’s about to say something. I recoil, taking a step backward without thinking, landing my heel hard against the boom. The microphone starts to fall, and I fumble to catch it before it hits the girl with the gelled ponytail and the baby, and I nearly go down in a tangle of wires and headphones and equipment. “Dude!” Tyler chastises me from behind the camera. He’s laughing, and some of the people around the table are joining in. The guy in the Rangers jersey pulls out his phone and snaps a picture of me glaring at Tyler. The girl with the neck tattoo smiles at me out of the corner of her mouth and starts a slow clap, but fortunately


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nobody joins in and after a few slow claps alone she stops and looks away. “It’s fine,” I mutter. “I’ve got it under control.” “Whatever,” Tyler says, pressing his eye to the viewfinder and panning across the people’s faces. They’ve started to join hands. Once I’ve gotten the headphones back on and the boom mike hoisted over my head, balanced unobtrusively over the table so I can pick up the soft breathing of all the New Yorkers in this second-floor room on the Bowery, I check to see if the girl in the deconstructed dress is still hiding against the velvet curtain. I don’t see her. The woman in the turban has blown out all but the candles in the sconces on the wall, plunging the table into an intimate darkness with everyone’s face in shadow. In my headphones I hear Tyler whistle softly under his breath, and I imagine that the scene looks pretty intense through the softening filter. “Now,” the woman breathes. “We shall invite the spirits to join our circle, if everyone is ready.” I get a better grip on the boom, balancing my weight between my feet and settling in. The woman in the turban told us it would only take about forty-five minutes. But forty-five minutes can feel like an eternity, sometimes.

KATHERINE HOWE is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, The House of Velvet and Glass, and Conversion. She is a lecturer in American Studies at Cornell University. Her books have been published around the world in 23 languages to date. Visit her at www.katherinehowe.com and follow her on twitter @KatherineBHowe


In 1810 the British King, George III, descended into a melan-

choly madness from which he would never recover. In 1811 his son, the Prince of Wales—fat, frivolous, and forty-nine—was declared his regent, and given care of a country that was at war and in deep recession. The new Prince Regent, or “Prinny,” as he was commonly known, immediately gave a sumptuous party for over two thousand members of the upper class, which set the tone for his regency: nine years of staggering extravagance, relentless scandal, and the constant threat of rioting and revolution. In 1812, Prinny had been regent for one year. Britain was on the brink of war with America, and in its tenth year of almost continuous war with France and its emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. None of these countries, however, knew there was another, even older war being waged: a secret battle that had started centuries before against a demonic horde hidden in plain sight across the cities, towns, and villages of the world. Only a small group of people stood in the way of this multitude and its insidious predation upon humankind. London, late April 1812: a month that had seen violent civil unrest, savage battles on the Continent, and the rumblings of aggression from the new American nation. It was also the month in which Queen Charlotte—after a two-year hiatus—returned to the practice of holding drawing rooms for the presentation of young ladies into high society. A battleground of a different kind.

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n the sun-warmed quiet of her uncle’s library, Lady Helen Wrexhall spread the skirt of her muslin morning gown and sank into the deep curtsy required for Royal presentation: back held straight, head slightly bowed, left knee bent so low, it nearly touched the floor. And, of course, face set into a serene Court smile. “Your Majesty is correct,” she said to the blue brocade sofa doing duty as Queen Charlotte. “I am the daughter of Lady Catherine, Countess of Hayden.” Helen glanced sideways at her reflection in the glass-fronted bookcase that lined the wall: the best place in the town house to view the whole of her tall self. The curtsy was good—it should be, after so many weeks of practice—but she sounded far too surly. She tried again. “Yes, Your Highness, I am indeed the daughter of Lady Catherine.” No, too jaunty. She rose from the curtsy and dropped the folds of her gown, opening her fingers into long spreads of frustration. Her aunt had told her to find a tone that acknowledged

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her connection to Lady Catherine but also maintained a dignified distance from it. A great deal of meaning to place upon a few words. She backed a few steps away from the blue silk bulk of the substitute queen. Flanking Her Majesty were two matching brocade armchairs: the princesses Mary and Augusta. Helen eyed the makeshift Royals, already sensing disaster. Tomorrow she would be curtsying to the real Royal ladies, and there could be no room for awkwardness or mistakes. She had to have an answer ready about her mother, just in case Queen Charlotte mentioned the infamous Countess of Hayden. It did not seem likely. Ten years had passed since Helen’s mother and father had drowned at sea. Surely Lady Catherine would not be on the mind of a queen burdened by a mad husband and a profligate son running the country to ruin. Helen pressed her palms together. Even she could not remember much about her mother. Lady Catherine’s name was only uttered as a reproach in her aunt and uncle’s house, and her brother never mentioned their mother anymore. Yet that morning at breakfast, Aunt Leonore had suddenly told Helen to practice a graceful answer to a possible Royal inquiry. Perhaps the Crown never forgot a noblewoman whose name was shrouded in rumor. Especially when those rumors were wound tight around the word treason. One more time, then. Helen held up the edges of her gown and glided into the low obeisance. “Yes, Your Majesty. My mother was Lady Catherine.” That was better; the less said, the smaller the chance of making a mistake. Helen lifted her face to receive the Royal kiss on her forehead, rose from the curtsy, then gathered up her imaginary train and backed away from the sofa—the most difficult maneuver in the whole Court Presentation. Lud, she hoped she did not trip or lose control of her curtsy tomorrow. It was the first official

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Queen’s Drawing Room since the King’s madness had returned two years ago, and there had been a desperate scramble by mothers to secure their daughters a place on the presentation list. Aunt Leonore—who had lost her own daughter and only child at birth—had been at the forefront of the rush, and Helen had duly received her summons from the Lord Chamberlain. What if she wrecked the whole enterprise by stumbling? For a moment she saw an image of herself sprawled on the polished Palace floor, the huge old-fashioned hoopskirt standing up around her like a frigate in full sail. Helen sat on the sofa and slumped against the stiff cushions. It was no good dwelling on possible mishaps; she had done all that she could to prepare for the day. Her dance master had drilled her interminably on every movement of the ceremony. He’d even brought in his dainty wife to demonstrate how to slip a porcelain bourdaloue—shaped, amusingly, like a lady’s slipper—up under the hoop of her Court gown in case she needed to relieve herself during the long wait to be called. Now that was a difficult maneuver, Helen thought, her unruly sense of humor rising into a smile. Especially in a screened corner of a Royal stateroom. What if someone dropped one? Her imagination conjured the sound of smashing porcelain and the stink of warm spreading piss. No, that would not be so funny. And she, for one, was not going to tempt fate. Tomorrow morning she would drink nothing. At least, nothing after her cup of chocolate. On that sensible resolution, Helen turned her attention to the stack of ladies’ magazines her aunt had left on the gilt side table— an unsubtle reminder to find a riding dress she liked. She picked up the new edition of La Belle Assemblée and curled her legs under herself on the sofa, tucking the hem of her gown around the soft soles of her kid leather slippers. Aunt would take a fit if she saw her sitting in such a graceless way, but she felt so twitchy—so unbe-

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comingly lively—that it was best to keep herself folded up as tight as a new parasol. It was a bad case of presentation nerves. Nothing more. She stared fiercely at the magazine as if it could rid her of the knowledge that these nerves had appeared long before any thought of her presentation. They had started at least six months ago, just after her eighteenth birthday, a deep energy that made her follow her curiosity beyond the bounds of propriety. She had made midnight forays into her uncle’s study and his private papers; paid breathless visits up to the silent attic stacked full of chairs; even danced a lone, wild reel in the billiard room. All, she had to admit, for no reason beyond the thrill of it, and the need to rid her body of this unseemly vigor. The other explanation for her nerves sat at the back of her mind like a hundredweight: her mother’s blood. Although never said aloud by her aunt and uncle, the fear that she would have her mother’s wild streak had sat heavily upon their faces when they first took her in. Even then, when she was only eight years old, the implication had been clear to Helen—she must be on guard against her own nature. After all, it had been her mother’s reckless pursuit of intrigue and excitement that had killed her and her husband, leaving their two children orphaned. Helen thought she had escaped that legacy of restless energy. She had read Mr. Locke and found his radical philosophy—that men created themselves from the sum of their own experiences and choices—far more amenable than the idea of a predestined nature. So, she told herself firmly as she turned pages, this worsening of her nerves did not mean she was like her mother. It was just a normal response to the prospect of curtsying before the Queen. She lingered for a moment at a fascinating article about mythology, then resolutely flipped to the fashion pages, stopping at the illustration of an impossibly elongated woman in a bright

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green riding outfit. Helen clicked her tongue. Apparently, the fashions for spring 1812 were to be more military than the army itself. The taste for black braid and frogged clasps had run wild. “Barnett, where is my niece?” Aunt Leonore’s voice carried through the town house hallway to the library. Helen jerked upright. According to the gilt clock on the mantel, only twenty minutes had passed since Aunt had left to view the latest caricatures at Ackermann’s Repository. It was usually a two-hour expedition; something must have happened. She heard the butler’s lower tones directing his mistress to the library, and then the increasing volume of her aunt’s voice as she approached, talking as if she were already in the room. Helen swung her feet to the floor. Three quick flicks smoothed out the telltale creases in her muslin. She positioned the magazine on her lap and gave one last tug at the high waist of her bodice. The double doors opened halfway. Barnett stood for a stately moment in the gap—a well-judged pause in which a person could uncurl herself. But for once Helen was ready. His eyes met hers in warm collusion, then he pushed the doors fully apart and stepped aside. Aunt Leonore entered midsentence, still clad in her scarlet pelisse, working one blue glove from her hand, and trailed by Murphett, her lady’s maid. “. . . you will not credit this, my dear, but I am sure it is the truth. I would not have given it a moment’s notice if only Mrs. Shoreham had the telling of it, but I met Lady Beck, and you know I have the highest faith in her . . .” Aunt Leonore paused, searching for the right accolade. “Her spies?” Helen supplied. She sent a quick glance of thanks to Barnett as he bowed and quietly backed from the room, drawing the doors closed. Aunt Leonore stifled a smile. “You know very well I was not thinking such a thing. Her prudence.” She held out the glove.

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Murphett promptly stepped forward to drape it over her arm. “So what did the prudent Lady Beck tell you?” Helen asked, her curiosity sparking. For an instant Aunt Leonore’s excited smile locked into a strange, stiff grimace. It was such a brief pause in the quicksilver of her expressions that Helen almost missed it. She focused more closely on her aunt’s face: the grimace was gone, replaced by a tiny sideways pull of her mouth and a drawing around the eyes. Some kind of unhappy realization, quickly hidden. Helen knew she was right—reading expressions was her one true accomplishment. When she concentrated properly on a face, her accuracy was startling and a little disturbing. It certainly made her aunt and uncle uneasy, and they had forbidden her to voice her observations about anyone, especially themselves. Girls were meant to paint screens, sob out ballads, and play the pianoforte, not see through the masks of polite society. “It is very cold out today,” her aunt said. “I hope we do not have another spring like last year.” The abrupt change of subject silenced Helen for a moment. Aunt was definitely hiding something. She tried again. “What did Lady Beck say to bring you back so soon?” Her aunt started work on the other glove, her eyes finding La Belle Assemblée on Helen’s lap. “Did you find a riding habit you liked? We must discuss the design with Mr. Duray this week if we want it before the Season truly starts.” The tightness around her aunt’s mouth—a clear refusal— stopped Helen asking a third time. She would wait until Murphett left the room. “I have found nothing I like,” she said. “The gowns this Season are all so overdone.” She wrinkled her nose, belatedly remembering that she had resolved not to do so anymore. She knew it was not her best feature, being a little on the long, narrow side, but

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then Helen was painfully aware that almost everything about herself was on the long, narrow side. As well as being much taller than average, she was scarecrow-thin—according to her older brother, Andrew—although her friends assured her she was celestially slender. Even so, Helen had a mirror, and she knew she was a Long Meg who definitely did not look adorable when she wrinkled her nose. Aunt Leonore pulled the second glove free. “You would dress yourself like a Quaker if I let you.” Helen held up the magazine, still open at the offending illustration. “But look, at least twenty-five frogs on the bodice alone. Is it too much to ask for a dress that won’t scare the horse?” Aunt Leonore gave her loud cackle—the one that had earned her the title Lady Laugh amongst her friends and Lady Hee-Haw amongst her enemies. “Not this Season, my dear. It is all military flimflam.” “Bonaparte has a lot to answer for,” Helen said. “First Europe, and now our fashion.” She flipped the magazine closed and rested it on her lap. “You really do have your mother’s grim sense of humor.” Aunt Leonore lifted her chin as Murphett unbuttoned the bodice of her pelisse. “God rest her soul.” Helen kept her eyes down, feigning interest in the magazine cover. It was best not to show any response to the rare mentions of her mother, especially those concerning shared traits. They were never meant as compliments. “Promise me you won’t make such deplorable jests at Almack’s,” her aunt continued. “No jests,” Helen promised dutifully, but could not help adding, “Perhaps I should not speak again until I am married.” Her aunt gave a soft snort. “That would certainly help my nerves.” She held out her arms, and Murphett deftly pulled the

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scarlet coat free. “No, my dear, I don’t want you to be silent. That would be just as bad. Promise me you will have some proper conversation ready for your dance partners. And make your little quips less political. It does not do for a girl your age to be so aware.” She settled on the sofa next to Helen. “Will that be all, my lady?” Murphett asked. “Yes, thank you.” As Murphett curtsied and exited, pulling the doors closed, Aunt Leonore’s face sagged into the worn pathways of her fifty-four years. She tweaked and smoothed the folds of her blue walking dress, the rearrangements bringing a waft of rose perfume from the fine crepe. Helen saw the fussing for what it was— procrastination—and studied her aunt’s features again. A mix of sadness and anxiety. The sadness disappeared, replaced by irritation. “Do stop staring, Helen.” Helen picked at a loose thread in the binding of La Belle Assemblée. “What is troubling you, Aunt? Something has taken the excitement from your news.” “You read me, didn’t you?” her aunt said. “You know your uncle and I have asked you not to do so.” “I am sorry. I could not help seeing it.” Aunt Leonore sighed, part resignation, part concern. “I suppose I cannot hide the truth; it will come to your ears soon enough. When I came in, I suddenly recalled that you have more than a passing acquaintance with Delia Cransdon. The news is about her, I am afraid. Now, I do not want you to get upset. Tomorrow is such an important day.” Helen stopped pulling at the thread, her hand stilled by a sudden sense of foreboding. While Delia was not her closest friend—that special place belonged to the Honorable Millicent Gardwell—she was nonetheless one of Helen’s cronies from her

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year at Miss Holcromb’s Select Seminary. “Delia is not ill, is she?” “Worse,” Aunt Leonore said, pity drawing down the corners of her mouth. “Three days ago, she ran off with a man by the name of Trent, and there has been no marriage.” Helen’s breath caught in her chest. If it was true, Delia was ruined. “No. That is not possible.” Or was it? Helen thought back over the last few months, and had to admit she had seen despair growing in her friend’s eyes. Delia had made her debut the Season before last, but had received no offers of marriage. She had none of the essential three—beauty, high connections, or fortune—and, at twenty years of age, knew she was coming to the end of her opportunities. She had even confided in Helen and Millicent that all she could see ahead was spinsterhood and its associated humiliations. Had that bleak future forced her to run away with a man who was little more than a stranger? Helen shook her head. “I cannot believe Delia would do such a thing. Lady Beck must be mistaken.” “Her housekeeper had it from the Cransdons’ cook,” Aunt Leonore said, sealing the truth of the matter. “It seems Delia and this Mr. Trent were discovered in a public house, in Sussex, of all places. You know what that means, don’t you? Sussex is in the opposite direction to Scotland—they were not headed toward the border to be married.” She clasped her hands together, the pressure pushing purple into her knuckles. “I suppose I must tell you all, since it will be the talk tomorrow. Lady Beck says your poor friend was found covered in blood.” “Blood!” Helen rose from the sofa, unable to sit quietly alongside such terrible news. “Was she hurt?” “Apparently not.” “Then whose blood was it? Mr. Trent’s?” “My dear, prepare yourself,” Aunt Leonore said softly. “The

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man committed self-murder. He used a pistol, in front of Delia.” Suicide? Helen closed her eyes, fighting back the horror that rose like bile into her throat. The worst crime—the worst sin— of all, and Delia had witnessed it. Unbidden, her mind conjured a vision of her friend’s face splattered with blood, mouth open wide in an unending scream. “And there is something more,” her aunt continued, rescuing her from the terrifying image. “A groom from the public house vows he saw Mr. Trent through the window, lit from within as if he had those new gas candles under his skin. He says Mr. Trent”—her voice lowered into breathy significance—”must have been a ghoul.” “Ghouls do not exist, Aunt,” Helen said sharply, finding comfort in the solid ground of rationality. She did not share her aunt’s fascination with the demons and ghosts of Gothic novels. Yet the shocking image of blood and fear still resonated through her bones. She walked across to the front window and stared out at the everyday activity on Half Moon Street, as if seeing the row of town houses and the aproned oysterman delivering his barrels would somehow rid her of its grisly echoes. Poor Delia. How she must be suffering. “Did she ever say anything about Mr. Trent?” Aunt Leonore asked. “He did not seem to have any connections, and no one has any knowledge of him. It is all very strange. One could even say unnatural.” She clearly did not want to give up the idea of supernatural intervention. “Delia never mentioned a Mr. Trent,” Helen had to admit, “and I’m sure she would have told me if she had a suitor. It cannot be more than a fortnight since I saw her last.” She made a quick count back to the last pre-Season assembly they had both attended. “No, it has been over a month.” She turned from the window. “I saw her despair growing, Aunt. I should have called on her more often, but I have been too busy with these silly preparations.”

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Even as she uttered the word silly, Helen knew it was a misstep. Aunt Leonore drew a deep breath. “They are not silly preparations. Tomorrow must be perfect in all ways. All ways. Come back here and sit down. I have nightmares of you loping around like that in front of the Queen.” Since every move in the presence of Queen Charlotte was strictly controlled by the Palace chamberlains, Aunt Leonore’s horror was not going to come to pass. Nevertheless, Helen returned to the sofa and lowered herself onto the very edge of the seat. Perhaps if she sat very still, her aunt would not be compelled to launch into another lecture about the importance of a young lady’s Court presentation. “Preparation is the key to elegance,” her aunt continued, “and although we may not be beauties, we can be celebrated for our elegance. It lasts longer than beauty and . . .” Helen clenched her hands in her lap, trying to squeeze away the urge to spring up and pace the room as her aunt talked. Poor Delia must be beside herself. “. . . aside from a girl’s wedding day, her presentation is the most momentous day in her life. It is a declaration to society that she is a woman and ready to take on a woman’s responsibilities. Are you listening to me, Helen?” “Yes, Aunt.” Of course she knew that her entrance into society was important. Yet the initial excitement of stepping into the wider world had long been overshadowed by the fact that it was all aimed at her own marriage. Not that she was against marriage—quite the contrary. It brought with it a household and the greater freedoms of a married woman. No, what grated was her uncle’s intention to arrange her betrothal by the end of the year, as if an alliance in her first Season would prove that his good ton had finally overcome the taint of her mother.

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Perhaps she was being singular again, but she wanted more than just one Season to meet the men of her circle. At present she could claim only one truly congenial acquaintance amongst them—her brother’s closest friend, the Duke of Selburn—and while he was very personable, one man of near thirty years of age was hardly a full exploration of possible life mates. It seemed patently obvious to Helen that no one’s real character could be discovered in a few months of balls and parties—even with her special talent to read expressions—yet that was how many matches were made. Millicent, who had also secured a place on the presentation list, had no qualms about a quick betrothal, but poor Delia had understood Helen’s stance. Indeed, when they were all at Miss Holcromb’s—three years past now—it had been Delia who had always tempered their daydreams with the knowledge that once a choice of husband was made, it was final. There could be no appeal to law or family. Helen straightened at the memory of Delia’s caution. What had made her friend forget her convictions and rush into such an unfortunate and tragic alliance? “Aunt, I cannot reconcile this with the Delia that I know,” she said, turning the conversation back to the plight of her friend. “I cannot understand it at all.” “No one can know the secrets of another person’s soul,” Aunt Leonore said. “Perhaps she was unbalanced by her feelings.” “Delia is not the kind of girl to be sent mad by love,” Helen said. She looked at the clock again. It was only a quarter past two—still time to make a call. “I know you want me to rest, Aunt, but may we call on the Cransdons? Please. Delia must be distraught.” “I am sorry for your friend’s unhappy situation, Helen, but you cannot associate with her now. You must know that.” Helen sat even straighter, this time in protest. “I cannot abandon her.”

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“You are a sweet girl, but the family has already left for their estate. I could not sanction a visit anyway. Not now.” Aunt Leonore pressed her hand over Helen’s, the chill of the spring day still on her skin. “You do understand that it is best that she is removed to the country. Her fall is the talk of the town: staying here would be intolerable for her poor family. She would be the object of every quiz’s gaze and society’s disgust.” “I will not let her think I’ve turned my face,” Helen said. Aunt Leonore glanced at the closed doors and lowered her voice. “Write her a letter, then. I can allow that. And I will make sure your uncle franks it before he hears of the scandal.” “But, Aunt, Delia was going to come to my ball. And she was to make up one of my party at Lansdale for Michaelmas.” “I am afraid that is all in the past.” “Please, say she may still come to Lansdale.” “Good Lord, child. After this, your uncle would not hear of it.” “Surely we have enough credit to survive a visit from one girl,” Helen said, unable to hold back the sharpness in her voice. “On Uncle’s own estate.” “I am thinking of you, Helen. I cannot allow you to be associated with such wanton and ungodly behavior.” “But in country society she will not be—” “I am sorry.” Helen saw real regret in the slump of her aunt’s shoulders. “You cannot afford to be associated with any scandal. You know why.” Helen bowed her head. She did know why: the daughter of Lady Catherine would be watched by the beau monde for any sign of bad blood. Even by association. “You do understand, don’t you?” “Yes, of course.” Aunt Leonore patted her hand. “You are a good girl. I have always said it.”

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They both looked up as clattering hooves sounded on the narrow street outside. A smart phaeton passed recklessly close to their front window, two straining grays in the traces. For a moment the brash eyes of the high-seated driver connected with Helen’s, his wild exhilaration leaping across the well-ordered room. Helen found herself leaning forward as if dragged into the wake of such abandon. What if she just ordered one of her uncle’s carriages and caught up with Delia on the open road? A mad idea, but it flared hot for a moment in her veins. “Someone should put a stop to such wicked driving in Mayfair,” Aunt Leonore said, glaring at the now-empty street. She gave Helen’s hand one last squeeze. “Write the letter, but do not dwell on your friend’s disgrace, my dear. You must put it out of your mind.” “I will try,” Helen said, and, as she had done many times in the last few months, quelled the inner fire that rushed through her body. Although she did not want to admit it, she could not escape the thought that it was her mother’s blood that burned within her, nor the fact that it seemed to be getting stronger.

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One

I

FELT HER FEAR BEFORE I heard her screams.

Her nightmare pulsed into me, shaking me out of my own

dream, which had had something to do with a beach and some hot guy rubbing suntan oil on me. Images—hers, not mine— tumbled through my mind: fire and blood, the smell of smoke,

the twisted metal of a car. The pictures wrapped around me, suffocating me, until some rational part of my brain reminded me that this wasn’t my dream.

I woke up, strands of long, dark hair sticking to my fore-

head.

Lissa lay in her bed, thrashing and screaming. I bolted out

of mine, quickly crossing the few feet that separated us. “Liss,” I said, shaking her. “Liss, wake up.”

Her screams dropped off, replaced by soft whimpers.

“Andre,” she moaned. “Oh God.”

I helped her sit up. “Liss, you aren’t there anymore.

Wake up.”

After a few moments, her eyes fluttered open, and in the

dim lighting, I could see a flicker of consciousness start to take

over. Her frantic breathing slowed, and she leaned into me,

resting her head against my shoulder. I put an arm around her and ran a hand over her hair.

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Richelle Mead

“It’s okay,” I told her gently. “Everything’s okay.” “I had that dream.” “Yeah. I know.”

We sat like that for several minutes, not saying anything

else. When I felt her emotions calm down, I leaned over to

the nightstand between our beds and turned on the lamp. It glowed dimly, but neither of us really needed much to see by. Attracted by the light, our housemate’s cat, Oscar, leapt up onto the sill of the open window.

He gave me a wide berth—animals don’t like dhampirs,

for whatever reason—but jumped onto the bed and rubbed

his head against Lissa, purring softly. Animals didn’t have a problem with Moroi, and they all loved Lissa in particular. Smiling, she scratched his chin, and I felt her calm further.

“When did we last do a feeding?” I asked, studying her

face. Her fair skin was paler than usual. Dark circles hung

under her eyes, and there was an air of frailty about her. School had been hectic this week, and I couldn’t remember

the last time I’d given her blood. “It’s been like . . . more than two days, hasn’t it? Three? Why didn’t you say anything?”

She shrugged and wouldn’t meet my eyes. “You were busy.

I didn’t want to—”

“Screw that,” I said, shifting into a better position. No won-

der she seemed so weak. Oscar, not wanting me any closer, leapt down and returned to the window, where he could watch at a safe distance. “Come on. Let’s do this.” “Rose—”

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“Come on. It’ll make you feel better.”

I tilted my head and tossed my hair back, baring my neck.

I saw her hesitate, but the sight of my neck and what it offered

proved too powerful. A hungry expression crossed her face, and her lips parted slightly, exposing the fangs she normally

kept hidden while living among humans. Those fangs contrasted oddly with the rest of her features. With her pretty

face and pale blond hair, she looked more like an angel than a vampire.

As her teeth neared my bare skin, I felt my heart race with

a mix of fear and anticipation. I always hated feeling the latter, but it was nothing I could help, a weakness I couldn’t shake.

Her fangs bit into me, hard, and I cried out at the brief flare

of pain. Then it faded, replaced by a wonderful, golden joy

that spread through my body. It was better than any of the

times I’d been drunk or high. Better than sex—or so I imag-

ined, since I’d never done it. It was a blanket of pure, refined pleasure, wrapping me up and promising everything would be right in the world. On and on it went. The chemicals in

her saliva triggered an endorphin rush, and I lost track of the world, lost track of who I was.

Then, regretfully, it was over. It had taken less than a

minute.

She pulled back, wiping her hand across her lips as she

studied me. “You okay?”

“I . . . yeah.” I lay back on the bed, dizzy from the blood

loss. “I just need to sleep it off. I’m fine.”

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Richelle Mead

Her pale, jade-green eyes watched me with concern. She

stood up. “I’m going to get you something to eat.”

My protests came awkwardly to my lips, and she left

before I could get out a sentence. The buzz from her bite had lessened as soon as she broke the connection, but some of it still lingered in my veins, and I felt a goofy smile cross my lips. Turning my head, I glanced up at Oscar, still sitting in the window.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” I told him.

His attention was on something outside. Hunkering down

into a crouch, he puffed out his jet-black fur. His tail started twitching.

My smile faded, and I forced myself to sit up. The world

spun, and I waited for it to right itself before trying to stand. When I managed it, the dizziness set in again and this time refused to leave. Still, I felt okay enough to stumble to the window and peer out with Oscar. He eyed me warily, scooted

over a little, and then returned to whatever had held his attention.

A warm breeze—unseasonably warm for a Portland fall—

played with my hair as I leaned out. The street was dark

and relatively quiet. It was three in the morning, just about the only time a college campus settled down, at least somewhat. The house in which we’d rented a room for the past

eight months sat on a residential street with old, mismatched

houses. Across the road, a streetlight flickered, nearly ready

to burn out. It still cast enough light for me to make out the

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shapes of cars and buildings. In our own yard, I could see the silhouettes of trees and bushes. And a man watching me.

I jerked back in surprise. A figure stood by a tree in the

yard, about thirty feet away, where he could easily see through

the window. He was close enough that I probably could have

thrown something and hit him. He was certainly close enough that he could have seen what Lissa and I had just done.

The shadows covered him so well that even with my

heightened sight, I couldn’t make out any of his features, save

for his height. He was tall. Really tall. He stood there for just a moment, barely discernible, and then stepped back, disap-

pearing into the shadows cast by the trees on the far side of

the yard. I was pretty sure I saw someone else move nearby and join him before the blackness swallowed them both.

Whoever these figures were, Oscar didn’t like them. Not

counting me, he usually got along with most people, growing

upset only when someone posed an immediate danger. The guy outside hadn’t done anything threatening to Oscar, but the cat had sensed something, something that put him on edge. Something similar to what he always sensed in me.

Icy fear raced through me, almost—but not quite—eradi-

cating the lovely bliss of Lissa’s bite. Backing up from the window, I jerked on a pair of jeans that I found on the floor, nearly falling over in the process. Once they were on, I grabbed my coat and Lissa’s, along with our wallets. Shoving my feet into the first shoes I saw, I headed out the door.

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Richelle Mead

Downstairs, I found her in the cramped kitchen, rummag-

ing through the refrigerator. One of our housemates, Jeremy,

sat at the table, hand on his forehead as he stared sadly at a calculus book. Lissa regarded me with surprise. “You shouldn’t be up.” “We have to go. Now.”

Her eyes widened, and then a moment later, understand-

ing clicked in. “Are you . . . really? Are you sure?”

I nodded. I couldn’t explain how I knew for sure. I just

did.

Jeremy watched us curiously. “What’s wrong?” An idea came to mind. “Liss, get his car keys.”

He looked back and forth between us. “What are you—”

Lissa unhesitatingly walked over to him. Her fear poured

into me through our psychic bond, but there was something

else too: her complete faith that I would take care of everything, that we would be safe. Like always, I hoped I was worthy of that kind of trust.

She smiled broadly and gazed directly into his eyes. For

a moment, Jeremy just stared, still confused, and then I saw the thrall seize him. His eyes glazed over, and he regarded her adoringly.

“We need to borrow your car,” she said in a gentle voice.

“Where are your keys?”

He smiled, and I shivered. I had a high resistance to com-

pulsion, but I could still feel its effects when it was directed at another person. That, and I’d been taught my entire life that

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using it was wrong. Reaching into his pocket, Jeremy handed over a set of keys hanging on a large red key chain.

“Thank you,” said Lissa. “And where is it parked?”

“Down the street,” he said dreamily. “At the corner. By

Brown.” Four blocks away.

“Thank you,” she repeated, backing up. “As soon as we

leave, I want you to go back to studying. Forget you ever saw us tonight.”

He nodded obligingly. I got the impression he would have

walked off a cliff for her right then if she’d asked. All humans were susceptible to compulsion, but Jeremy appeared weaker than most. That came in handy right now.

“Come on,” I told her. “We’ve got to move.”

We stepped outside, heading toward the corner he’d

named. I was still dizzy from the bite and kept stumbling, unable to move as quickly as I wanted. Lissa had to catch

hold of me a few times to stop me from falling. All the time, that anxiety rushed into me from her mind. I tried my best to ignore it; I had my own fears to deal with.

“Rose . . . what are we going to do if they catch us?” she

whispered.

“They won’t,” I said fiercely. “I won’t let them.” “But if they’ve found us—”

“They found us before. They didn’t catch us then. We’ll

just drive over to the train station and go to L.A. They’ll lose the trail.”

I made it sound simple. I always did, even though there

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Richelle Mead

was nothing simple about being on the run from the people we’d grown up with. We’d been doing it for two years, hiding

wherever we could and just trying to finish high school. Our senior year had just started, and living on a college campus had seemed safe. We were so close to freedom.

She said nothing more, and I felt her faith in me surge up

once more. This was the way it had always been between us. I

was the one who took action, who made sure things happened— sometimes recklessly so. She was the more reasonable one, the one who thought things out and researched them extensively

before acting. Both styles had their uses, but at the moment, recklessness was called for. We didn’t have time to hesitate.

Lissa and I had been best friends ever since kindergar-

ten, when our teacher had paired us together for writing

lessons. Forcing five-year-olds to spell Vasilisa Dragomir and

Rosemarie Hathaway was beyond cruel, and we’d—or rather, I’d—responded appropriately. I’d chucked my book at our

teacher and called her a fascist bastard. I hadn’t known

what those words meant, but I’d known how to hit a moving target.

Lissa and I had been inseparable ever since. “Do you hear that?” she asked suddenly.

It took me a few seconds to pick up what her sharper

senses already had. Footsteps, moving fast. I grimaced. We had two more blocks to go.

“We’ve got to run for it,” I said, catching hold of her arm. “But you can’t—”

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“Run.”

It took every ounce of my willpower not to pass out on the

sidewalk. My body didn’t want to run after losing blood or while still metabolizing the effects of her saliva. But I ordered my muscles to stop their bitching and clung to Lissa as our

feet pounded against the concrete. Normally I could have out-

run her without any extra effort—particularly since she was barefoot—but tonight, she was all that held me upright.

The pursuing footsteps grew louder, closer. Black stars

danced before my eyes. Ahead of us, I could make out Jeremy’s green Honda. Oh God, if we could just make it—

Ten feet from the car, a man stepped directly into our path.

We came to a screeching halt, and I jerked Lissa back by her

arm. It was him, the guy I’d seen across the street watching

me. He was older than us, maybe mid-twenties, and as tall as I’d figured, probably six-six or six-seven. And under different circumstances—say, when he wasn’t holding up our desperate

escape—I would have thought he was hot. Shoulder-length

brown hair, tied back in a short ponytail. Dark brown eyes. A long brown coat—a duster, I thought it was called.

But his hotness was irrelevant now. He was only an obsta-

cle keeping Lissa and me away from the car and our freedom.

The footsteps behind us slowed, and I knew our pursuers had caught up. Off to the sides, I detected more movement, more people closing in. God. They’d sent almost a dozen guardians

to retrieve us. I couldn’t believe it. The queen herself didn’t travel with that many.

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Richelle Mead

Panicked and not entirely in control of my higher reasoning,

I acted out of instinct. I pressed up to Lissa, keeping her behind me and away from the man who appeared to be the leader. “Leave her alone,” I growled. “Don’t touch her.”

His face was unreadable, but he held out his hands in what

was apparently supposed to be some sort of calming gesture, like I was a rabid animal he was planning to sedate. “I’m not going to—”

He took a step forward. Too close.

I attacked him, leaping out in an offensive maneuver I

hadn’t used in two years, not since Lissa and I had run away. The move was stupid, another reaction born of instinct and

fear. And it was hopeless. He was a skilled guardian, not a

novice who hadn’t finished his training. He also wasn’t weak and on the verge of passing out.

And man, was he fast. I’d forgotten how fast guardians

could be, how they could move and strike like cobras. He knocked me off as though brushing away a fly, and his hands

slammed into me and sent me backwards. I don’t think he meant to strike that hard—probably just intended to keep me away—but my lack of coordination interfered with my ability

to respond. Unable to catch my footing, I started to fall, head-

ing straight toward the sidewalk at a twisted angle, hip-first. It was going to hurt. A lot. Only it didn’t.

Just as quickly as he’d blocked me, the man reached out

and caught my arm, keeping me upright. When I’d steadied

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myself, I noticed he was staring at me—or, more precisely, at my neck. Still disoriented, I didn’t get it right away. Then, slowly, my free hand reached up to the side of my throat and

lightly touched the wound Lissa had made earlier. When I

pulled my fingers back, I saw slick, dark blood on my skin.

Embarrassed, I shook my hair so that it fell forward around my face. My hair was thick and long and completely covered my neck. I’d grown it out for precisely this reason.

The guy’s dark eyes lingered on the now-covered bite a

moment longer and then met mine. I returned his look defi-

antly and quickly jerked out of his hold. He let me go, though I knew he could have restrained me all night if he’d wanted.

Fighting the nauseating dizziness, I backed toward Lissa

again, bracing myself for another attack. Suddenly, her hand caught hold of mine. “Rose,” she said quietly. “Don’t.”

Her words had no effect on me at first, but calming thoughts

gradually began to settle in my mind, coming across through the

bond. It wasn’t exactly compulsion—she wouldn’t use that on

me—but it was effectual, as was the fact that we were hopelessly outnumbered and outclassed. Even I knew struggling would be pointless. The tension left my body, and I sagged in defeat.

Sensing my resignation, the man stepped forward, turn-

ing his attention to Lissa. His face was calm. He swept her a

bow and managed to look graceful doing it, which surprised me considering his height. “My name is Dimitri Belikov,” he said. I could hear a faint Russian accent. “I’ve come to take you back to St. Vladimir’s Academy, Princess.”

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You are the Hero of your own story. —Joseph Campbell


The first time I slept with Poppy, I cried. We were both sixteen, and I’d been in love with her since I was a kid, since I was still reading monster comics and spending too much time practicing sleight-of-hand tricks because I wanted to be a magician. People say you can’t feel real love that young, but I did. For Poppy. She was the girl next door who fell off her bike and laughed at her bloody knees. She was the neighborhood hero who organized games of Burn the Witch and got everyone to play. She was the high school queen who reached forward one day during math class, grabbed Holly Trueblood’s thick, whiteblond hair in her fist, and cut it off at the skull while Holly screamed and screamed. All because someone said Holly’s hair was prettier than her own. 9


She was Poppy. After we slept together, I started crying. Just a little bit, just because my heart was so full, just a couple of small little tears. Poppy shoved me off, stood up, and laughed. It wasn’t a nice laugh. It wasn’t a We both lost IT together, how wicked of us, how fantastic, I will always love you because we did this One Big Thing for the first time together kind of laugh. No, it was more of a Is that all it is? And you’re crying over it? kind of laugh. Poppy slipped her long, white limbs into her pale yellow dress, like milk sliding into melted butter. She was bonier back then, and didn’t need to wear a bra. She stood in front of the lamp, facing me, and the ray of light shone right through her thin summer clothes, outlining her sweet girl parts in a way I would think of over and over again afterward, until it drove me insane. “Midnight, you’re going to be the best-looking guy in school by senior year.” Poppy leaned her elbows on the window­sill and stared out at the dark. Our high mountain air was thin, but clean, and it smelled even better at night. Pine and juniper and earth. The night smells mingled with the smell of jasmine—Poppy dabbed it from a tiny glass bottle in her pocket, each earlobe, each wrist. “That’s why I let you have me first. I wanted to give it to him. He’s the only boy I’ll ever love. But you don’t know anything 10


about him, and I’m not going to tell you anything about him.” My heart stopped. Started back up again. “Poppy.” My voice was weak and whispery and I hated it. She tapped her fingers on the sill and ignored me. An owl hooted outside. Poppy swept her blond hair back behind her shoulder in that gangly, awkward way she still had then. It was completely gone by the time school started up—she was nothing but smooth elegance and cold, precise movements. “And now no one will be able to say I didn’t have taste, Midnight Hunt, even when I was young. You’re going to be so beautiful at eighteen that girls will melt just looking at you, your long black lashes, your glossy brown hair, your blue, blue eyes. But I had you first, and you had me first. And it was a good move, on my part. A brilliant move.”

And then came the year of me following Poppy around, my heart full of poetry and bursting with love, and never seeing how little she really cared, no matter how many times I had her in my arms and how many times she laughed at me afterward. No matter how many times she made fun of me in front of her friends. No matter how many times I told her I loved her and she never said it back. Not once. Not even close. 11


Every story needs a Hero. Mim read it in my tea leaves the day Midnight moved in next door. She leaned over, pushed my hair out of the way, put her fingers on my chin, and said: “Your story is about to begin, and that boy moving boxes into the slanted old house across the road is the start of it.� And I knew Mim was right about Midnight because the leaves also told her that the big rooster was going die a bloody death in the night. And sure enough, a fox got him. We found him in the morning, his soft feathers stiff with blood, his body broken on the ground, right next to our red wheelbarrow, like in that one poem.

I fell in love with Leaf Bell the day he beat the shit out of DeeDee Ruffler. She was the biggest bully in school and he was the first and 12


only kid to take her down. I’m a bully too, so you might have thought I’d sympathize with her, but I didn’t. DeeDee was a short, wrong-side-of-the-tracks nobody with a mile-high cruel streak. She had a strong, stupid body and a plain, round face and a mean, grating voice, and she’d tried to fight Leaf before, she’d called him all kinds of things—poor, ginger-haired, skinny, dirty, diseased— and he’d just laughed. But the day she called little seventh grader Fleet Park a slant-eyed boy-loving Chink, Fleet started crying, and Leaf snapped. He beat DeeDee into a coma, right there on the school’s cement steps, he pounded her head on the concrete, knees pinning her down by the chest, her boobs jiggling, his red hair flying around his lanky shoulders, the snow-capped mountains in the background. My heart swelled three sizes that day. DeeDee was never the same after Leaf smashed her head in. I’d read about lobotomies in my Modern Woman’s Science class, and that’s how she was now: detached, lethargic, useless. Leaf didn’t get into trouble for that fight, he never got in trouble, just like me. Besides, everyone was sick of DeeDee, even the teachers, especially the teachers. She was as mean to them as she was to everyone else. There was an evil in me too, a cruel streak. I don’t know 13


where it came from and I didn’t really want it, no more than I’d want big feet or mousy brown hair or a piggish nose. But fuck it. If I’d been born with a piggish nose, then I would own it, like I own the cruel and the mean. Leaf was the first to recognize me for what I was. I was gorgeous, even as a kid. I looked like an angel, cherub lips and blushing cheeks and elegant bones and blond halo hair. Everyone loved me and I loved myself and I got my way and did what I wanted and I still left people feeling like they were lucky to know me. No one thinks they’re shallow, ask every last person you know, they’ll deny it, but I’m living proof, I get away with murder because I’m pretty. But Leaf saw right through the pretty, saw straight through it. I was fourteen when Leaf Bell lobotomized DeeDee on the school steps, and I was fifteen when I followed Leaf home and tried to kiss him in the hayloft. He laughed in my face and told me I was ugly on the inside and left me sitting alone in the hay.

14


Every story needs a Villain. The Villain is just as important as the Hero. More important, maybe. I’ve read a lot of books—some out loud to the Orphans, and some just to myself. And all the books had a Villain. The White Witch. The Wicked Witch. The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair. Bill Sykes. Sauron. Mr. Hyde. Mrs. Danvers. Iago. Grendel. I didn’t need Mim’s tea-reading to learn the Villain of my story. The Villain had blond hair and the Hero’s heart on her sleeve. She had teeth and claws and a silver tongue, like the smooth-talking devil in Ash and Grim.

I had an older brother. A half brother. His name was Alabama (to be explained later) and he lived with our mom in Lourmarin, France. My parents weren’t divorced. They just didn’t live together. My mom wrote historical mysteries, and 15


two years ago, in the middle of a blizzard, she decided she would keep writing historical mysteries, but in France instead of here. My dad sighed, and shrugged, and off she went. And Alabama went with her. He’d always been her favorite anyway, probably because his father was my mother’s true love. Alabama’s dad was Muscogee and Choctaw. He ran back to Alabama—the state, not the brother—before my brother was even born. Then my dad came along, with his big heart and weakness for creatures in need. He married my pregnant mother, and the rest was history. Until she gypsied herself and my brother off to a land of grapes and cheese last winter, that is. So my dad sold the dull, spacious, three-bedroom, threebathroom house I grew up in, and moved us into a fivebedroom, one-bath, crumbling, creaking old house in the country. Five acres, apple orchard, sparkling, bubbling creek. Just in time for summer. And I didn’t mind. Not a bit. The house was two miles from town, two miles from Broken Bridge, with its Victorian houses and cobblestone streets and expensive gourmet restaurants and hordes of skiing, snow-bunny tourists in the winter. And it was two blessed, beautiful miles away from Poppy. No more soft taps on my window in the middle of the 16


night from the girl three doors down. No more Poppy laughing as she crawled over my windowsill and into my bed. No more me not knowing whose cologne I smelled all over the front of her shirt. I was done being a sucker. And this old house, nestled between apple trees and pine trees, in a shadowy, forgotten corner of the mountains . . . it was the first step to my freedom. My freedom from Poppy.

I would have given it to Leaf the second he asked for it, except he never ever, ever did, so I gave it to Midnight instead. Midnight and his big droopy eyes, his heart hanging out of his chest, the sighs, the softness, the kisses. I hated him for it, really, really hated him for it, hated hated. Hated, hated, hated, hated. My parents still thought I was a virgin. They never discussed sex in front of me, they refused to acknowledge that I’d grown up because they wanted me to be their stupid little angel baby forever, and it made me rage rage rage inside, all the time, all the time. I wore the shortest skirts I could find, 17


and the lowest-cut tops, oh, how they squirmed, their eyes scrambling to focus on some part of me that wasn’t sexual, so they could keep on thinking of me as they always had. My parents still gave me dolls as presents, ones that looked like me, blond, with big eyes and puffy red lips. And whenever I saw another box sitting on the kitchen table, wrapped in pink paper with my name on it, I knew I would find myself over at Midnight’s window later that night, tap-tap-tapping, wanting to be let in so I could prove to myself how un-angelic I was. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Leaf said that a lot. It was some quote from a tree-hugging hippie who lived a boring life in the woods a million years ago, and Leaf probably thought it would open my eyes and make me wise up and get in touch with my inner deeps, but all it did was make me want to tear off all my clothes and run through the town screaming. If I was going to lead a life of desperation, then it would be loud, not quiet.

18


I watched the Hero as he moved boxes into the old Lucy Rish house. I stood by an apple tree, and I was there a long time before he saw me. I was good at not being seen when I didn’t want to be. I’d learned how to be quiet and invisible from reading Sneaks and Shadows. I hadn’t shown Sneaks and Shadows to my brothers and sisters. I didn’t want them learning how to hide in broad daylight. Not yet. I hoped the Hero would like it in his new house. Lucy hadn’t liked it. She’d been a mean, superstitious old woman who called us witches and clutched her rosary whenever she saw us. And she threw apples at the Orphans if they played too close to her lawn. Her husband had been nice, he was always smiling at us from across the road, but he died three years ago. Felix thinks Lucy poisoned him, but I don’t know. Old people die all the time without the help of poison.

19


FIVE “ G U YS ! ” AYA WO B B LE S OV E R TO A R I C K E T Y wooden chair sitting in front of a dumpster. Her spiky heels dangle from one hand and black gunk stains the bottoms of her feet. Just looking at them makes me gag. “She’s going to get chlamydia of the foot,” Julie says, twisting the onyx ring on her finger. “Maybe we should buy her some flip-flops.” I stare down at a bright blue gob of gum on the concrete. There are probably millions of diseases you could pick up on these sidewalks, but shopping’s not really an option out here. We took the subway into Lower Manhattan, and it looks like a completely different city. The cute brick apartment buildings and tiny community parks have disappeared. Huge, empty office buildings stand in their place, their windows dark. They tower over us, cold and austere. I wrinkle my nose and look away, dimly wondering how much longer we have to do this before officially giving up. It turns out the “guy Woody knows” was just someone he overheard talking back at the Cog. We’ve been searching for the secret entrance to Survive the Night for over an hour. That tingly, excited feeling I had when we left the Cog Factory has faded. This whole thing was supposed to be about talking to Sam, but the only thing Sam’s said to me was “watch out” when I almost stepped in dog crap.


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I sigh, and a strand of hair flutters away from my face. I can just make out Sam kneeling at the far end of the alley as he and Woody try to pry open a manhole cover. I should go over and help them, maybe even find a way to brush Sam’s arm or lean against his shoulder. But the thought of making the first move turns my stomach. I need to find a way to get his attention. I loop my arm through Julie’s. “Are you still going to that SAT tutor?” I ask. “Craig something?” “You mean Chris?” Julie scuffs the toe of her combat boot into the dirty concrete. The boots give her a good two inches of height, but her loose-fitting jeans still drag along the streets. “Right,” I say. Sam glances over his shoulder at us. Before we broke up, he was always saying I needed to focus more on college. I raise my voice. “Chris. Do you think he has room for one more student? I’m a little behind.” Shana stops at the industrial door to one of the warehouses and jiggles the handle. The loud, metallic rattle cuts me off. She’s been doing this for the last twenty minutes, hoping someone left a door unlocked so we can sneak inside and explore. Sam glances at her and shakes his head, then turns back to the manhole cover. Disappointment stabs through me. “Give it up, Shana.” I kick an empty Sprite can at her. It rattles across the alley and smacks into the door. “Where’s your sense of adventure?” Shana asks, jiggling another door handle. “At home with my comfy shoes,” I mutter, glaring down at my studded leather flats. They pinch my toes, and my feet ache from all the walking. A corner booth at IHOP and a stack of strawberry-banana pancakes is sounding pretty good about now.


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“Guys, look!” Aya drops her shoes to the ground and scrambles onto the ledge of a dumpster, flashing us her bright pink panties. “Look! I’m so high.” I glance back over at Sam. He pulls at the manhole cover, grunting. I sigh, relieved that he isn’t paying attention to my friends. “How much did she have to drink?” I ask. Julie shrugs. “I don’t think she had anything. But I gave her one of these.” She pulls a wrapped candy out of her pocket and hands it to me. It looks like a Jolly Rancher, except the wrapper is a plain, unmarked yellow. “Great,” I say, turning the candy over. “What’s in it?” “Nothing. Just a little pot.” Julie takes the candy back from me, unwraps it, and pops it into her mouth. “Barely any. Aya can’t handle her drugs.” Aya stands, spreading her arms out to either side. Her hair falls loose from her chignon, and her cardigan slips off one shoulder. She wobbles on the edge, too close to falling inside with the rotting garbage. “Let me help you down, sweetie.” I grab her legs to hold her steady. She blinks, like she can’t quite remember where she is, and takes my hand, half stepping, half falling into my arms. I groan beneath her weight. Shana jiggles another door handle. This one creaks open. “Oh my God!” She pushes the door all the way open and steps into the warehouse. “Score!” “Shana, don’t.” I stare into the darkness behind her. “You don’t know what’s in there.” “Exactly,” Shana says. “And if you don’t come after me, I could die.”


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She wraps her hands around her neck and sticks out her tongue, backing into the warehouse. She leaves the door open behind her. Sam says something to Woody, and the two of them head farther down the alley. Great. I watch him walk away, then glance back at the warehouse door. “Shana!” I call. Aya starts giggling and tries to climb back onto the Dumpster. My friends seem to be competing over who can embarrass me the most tonight. “You, sit,” I tell Aya, pointing at the ground. “Julie, help her get her shoes back on. I’m going to get Shana.” Then, before either of them can argue, I hurry across the alley and step into the warehouse. Crumpled up magazines and empty McDonald’s containers litter the floor. Silver light slips through the cracks in the cardboard taped over the windows. I hesitate at the door, reluctant to move farther inside. “Shana,” I hiss. It’s too dark to see anything but hulking shadows. A crowbar leans against the wall just inside the door. I grab it and hold it in front of me like a weapon. The cold metal bites into my palms. I take a tentative step inside. For some reason, I’m reminded of Mountainside. After Rachel died, I got a new roommate, this girl named Tanya. Tanya was a sleepwalker. A couple of times a week she’d creep out of bed and disappear into the clinic. The nurses told me I didn’t have to look for her, but I couldn’t help it, not after what had happened to Rachel. I couldn’t sleep if I didn’t know where Tanya was. I’d lie in bed, picturing all the different ways she could die. At night, Mountainside was a chilling place. The floorboards creaked and shadows stretched across the long, narrow


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halls. And then there was the screaming. Withdrawal is worst during the night. Girls would sob and mutter to themselves and scratch at their doors. The sounds echoed around me as I crept past their dorms, calling Tanya’s name. I blink and my eyes start to adjust. I’m not at Mountainside— I’m in a gross warehouse with Shana. A bare mattress lies in the corner, a large black stain spread across its surface. I look away. “Just dirt,” I mutter under my breath, knowing that’s not true. I move farther into the warehouse, tightening my grip on the crowbar. Nerves climb the backs of my legs, making my knees feel weak. Something flickers at the corner of my eye. I whirl around, swinging the crowbar. A cat leaps from the windowsill to the floor, its paws silent on the concrete. Thick yellow pus oozes from a wound on its side and clumps in its fur. My stomach churns. The cat watches me with glassy eyes. “Damn it,” I whisper. I move deeper into the warehouse, careful to step around the trash littering the floor. I listen for movement or for Shana’s familiar throaty laugh. But I only hear my own ragged breath. The crowbar nearly slips from my sweaty hands. The space is smaller than I expected, just one room about the size of a garage. A second door stands ajar at the side wall, sending a sliver of light through the darkness. Something shuffles through the trash next to me. Every muscle in my body tightens. I spin around. “Shana?” I whisper. I hold my breath and raise the crowbar. No one answers. I step forward, wiping a sweaty hand on my jeans. Dimly, I remember the screams echoing through


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Mountainside. Goose bumps rise on my arms. A crumpled-up piece of newspaper rustles. I wrap my fingers around the crowbar again. “Shana? Is that you?” A second cat appears beneath the newspaper and darts for the door. I breathe a sigh of relief. To hell with this place. Shana can live here, for all I care. I lower the crowbar and edge around a pile of blankets. The blankets move, and an arm shoots out and grabs my ankle. I scream, and whip my crowbar around. It slips from my hands and clatters to the floor. A man with a cracked, ashen face peers out from the nest of blankets. He’s missing an eye, and the skin over the socket looks shiny and raw. It grows mottled around his cheekbone and forehead. Flaps of puckered, blackened flesh jut off his face. Fear grips my chest. My heart thuds, and I can’t seem to find my voice. I feel like I’m in a dream where I want to scream but I can’t. Except this isn’t a dream. I glance over at the crowbar, but it’s too far for me to reach. “Your friend went that way,” the man says in a gravelly voice, nodding at the door. He lets go of my leg and burrows back under the blankets. I run for the door. I burst into the cool night air and there’s Shana leaning against the alley wall. She takes a puff of her cigarette and blows the smoke out through her teeth. Another homeless man stands next to her. Dirt and grease line his face, but he’s younger than the one-eyed man I saw inside. Thick blond dreadlocks hang down his back, and he has plastic grocery


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bags knotted around his feet instead of shoes. The tension drains from my shoulders, but adrenaline still pounds through my veins, leaving me hot and jittery. My heart beats like crazy. It’s almost like being high. “I’m going to kill you,” I say, letting the warehouse door slam behind me. Shana flicks her cigarette, sending a shower of ash to the ground. “Then why are you smiling?” she asks. I bite my lip. It’s that giddy thing again. I can’t get scared without grinning like an idiot. Besides, the warehouse was kind of exciting. In a terrifying way. “I want you to meet my new friend,” Shana says. “Casey, this is Lawrence.” The homeless man flashes me a peace sign, quietly humming under his breath. Shana passes him her cigarette, and he takes a deep drag. “Um, hi,” I say. Lawrence tries to hand the cigarette back to Shana, but she waves him away. “Keep it,” she says. “Case, you’ll never guess what Lawrence just told me.” I raise an eyebrow, waiting. “Lawrence was telling me about this alley a couple of blocks over.” Shana stands on one foot, scratching the back of her leg with her boot. “Get this. The alley was singing.” “Humming,” Lawrence interrupts, his voice deep and melodic. He takes another puff of Shana’s cigarette. “The alley was humming, not singing. There weren’t any words.” “That’s right,” Shana says. “Don’t you think that’s crazy, Casey? A humming alley?”


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“Humming?” I repeat. Shana gives me a comically slow, intentional wink and something clicks inside my head. “Wait, you mean there was music playing? Under the alley?” Lawrence frowns. “I guess it could have been music,” he says. I jog to the corner and peer down the opposite alley. Woody crouches in the middle of the street, his head pressed against a manhole cover. The cow costume still hangs from his waist, looking worn. Dirt and grease stain the limp tail and the cow’s white ears. “I don’t think this is it,” he mutters. Sam stands over him, frowning. “I’m telling you, he said Covert Street, not Cooper Street,” he says. “Maybe.” Woody pushes himself to his feet and heads farther down the alley. He kicks a beer can, and it skitters behind a Dumpster. “Guys!” I shout at them. “Shana found something.” Sam and Woody jog over to us, Aya and Julie trailing behind them. Aya’s only wearing one of her shoes and carrying the other. She loses her balance when she tries to walk and stumbles into Julie, giggling. “What’s up?” Sam asks. Woody stares at Lawrence’s grocery bag shoes as Shana repeats the story of the humming alley. Woody pulls his wallet out of his back pocket and removes a twenty-dollar bill. “Lawrence, my man, how’d you like to make some money?” he asks. Lawrence leads us through the darkened Manhattan streets, to another alley several blocks over. Woody walks beside him, but Sam lags behind. Now is my chance. I fumble with my


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turtle necklace and hurry up next to him. “Hey,” I say, nudging him on the shoulder. “Hey,” he says back. Usually his voice is casual, and even a little cocky. Now it sounds strained. I roll my lower lip between my teeth, and silence stretches between us. “So.” I cough awkwardly. “Um, how’s school?” Sam shrugs. His jeans hang low on his hips and his shirt’s a little wrinkled, like he dug it out of the back of his dresser. “Same,” he says. “Any news about James?” I ask. James is Sam’s older brother. He was the one who taught Sam to play guitar, but he’s a meth addict, and he disappeared right before graduating high school. He’s been MIA for a little over a year. Because of him, Sam never touches drugs. He doesn’t even drink. Sam glances up at me. Some of the tightness leaves his jaw. “Nothing new,” he says in a voice that sounds a little more like normal. “Heard he was in California, but who knows?” Sympathy tugs at my chest. “He hasn’t called?” “Once.” Sam pinches the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “It was weird. He didn’t even sound like himself.” I rub my thumb over Myrtle’s shell. Tori Anne, from Mountainside, was a meth addict. She spoke with a lisp because the drug had rotted all her teeth. “I’m sorry,” I say. Sam shakes his head. “Don’t be,” he says. “You didn’t do anything.” Woody calls Sam’s name, and Sam jogs up next to him, leaving me alone. Shana nudges me with her arm. “So cute,” she says. I stare at the back of Sam’s neck, where his hair brushes against his shirt collar. “You never thought so before,” I tell her. Back when we


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were dating, she used to call him “that little puppy who follows you around.” She told me to find him a new home. Shana winks at me. “Oh, yeah. The cow costume’s a total turn-on,” she says, and I realize she’s talking about Woody. The jealousy I felt fades away. “It’s probably the udders,” I say. Shana loops her arm through mine, and the two of us fall in line behind Julie and Aya. “You should have seen how he looked at me,” I whisper when the others are out of earshot. Shana frowns. “Who? Sam?” she asks. I shoot her a look. “Of course Sam.” “How did he look at you?” I shrug, not sure how to explain it. I think of the tightness in his jaw, the strained sound of his voice. “Like I’m broken,” I say finally. Shana raises an eyebrow. “Like I remind him of James,” I add. Shana brushes the hair back from my face and kisses my forehead. “You’re nothing like James,” she says. “You weren’t there,” I say. My voice cracks, and I have to stop and take a breath. I don’t want to cry in front of Shana, not with Sam just a few feet away, but I don’t know how to talk about Mountainside without bringing up all these weird emotions. “Those girls in rehab,” I continue. “They were—” “Stop.” Shana cuts me off. “They might have been broken, but that doesn’t mean you are. You’re stronger than that.” I don’t answer right away. Her voice gets harder. “Do you understand?” I sigh and nod, wanting to believe her. Ahead of us, Julie leans her head back, staring up at the sky. Dark curls trail


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down her back. She hums “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” under her breath. “This is where you belong,” Shana adds. “With us. Tell me you didn’t miss this.” “Wandering around New York in the middle of the night?” I ask. “It’s like eleven. Hardly the middle of the night. And I meant hanging with your friends. Going on an adventure.” Shana elbows me. “Remember that night at the playground?” I groan, thinking about the time Shana showed up in the middle of the night and woke me up by throwing pebbles at my window. She used to do that sometimes, when she and her mom had a fight and she needed to get out of the house to cool down. I had expected her to take me to some illicit party, but instead she drove to the playground two blocks away. She grabbed my arm and pulled me over to the swing set. “Race you,” she said, plopping down a swing. “To where?” I asked. Shana shrugged. “The moon.” Shana swung higher and higher, pumping her legs until the chains groaned and the swing set lurched in place. Then— when she was so high it looked like she’d tip over and fall backward—she jumped. She fractured her ankle in three places. I had to carry her back to the Buick and drive her to the hospital. I called her mom at least seven times, but she never even picked up the phone. My mom answered on the first ring. “I’d prefer not to end up in the emergency room tonight,” I say, leaning my head on Shana’s shoulder. “Maybe this adventure can end with food?”


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“Man cannot live on bread alone, Casey,” she says. “What about pancakes? I’m pretty sure man can live on pancakes.” A rat scurries across the alley, its pink tail whipping behind it. It freezes in the middle of the street and stares at us with red eyes. “Holy shit!” I take a quick step back. Aya screams and stumbles over her feet. Julie bursts out laughing but grabs Aya’s arm so she doesn’t fall. The rat twitches its nose. I flinch. I imagine it darting toward us, snapping its long, sharp teeth. But it creeps along the curb and out of sight instead. I sigh in relief. Shana takes a swig of Jack Daniel’s. “It’s just a rat, guys,” she says, tucking the bottle back into her pocket. “It’s disgusting,” Aya mutters. Julie kicks a soda can into the shadows where the rat disappeared, and something darts across the pavement. Aya releases another high-pitched shriek, and Julie laughs even harder. Suddenly, Lawrence stops walking. He, Sam, and Woody crouch down in the street. “This is it!” Woody shouts, wiping the dirt off a manhole cover. The rest of us crowd around him. “Feel that?” Lawrence asks. Music vibrates through the ground, making the street hum. “Cool,” I say, crouching next to Sam. I’m close enough that I can smell him, the combination of soap and pine needles. The manhole cover’s made of iron, with a City of New York logo stamped over the center. Someone has painted a neon pink X over it. Woody digs his fingers around the sides of the cover and yanks.


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“Are you sure that’s the right . . .” Julie starts, but she lets the end of her sentence trail off when Woody grunts and shoves the cover to the side of the hole. “X marks the spot,” he says, wiping his hands off on his costume. Shana grabs my arm and jumps up and down, squealing. Together, we all peer into the darkness. A rickety metal ladder descends into the black. Far below, I can just make out flickering candlelight and hear the distant sound of drumming. Something drips against the bottom of the tunnel, and the sound echoes toward us. “Well,” Sam says, leaning back on his heels. “Who wants to go first?”

DANIELLE VEGA spent her childhood hiding under the covers while her mother retold tales from the pages of Stephen King novels instead of reading bedtime stories about princesses and dwarves like a normal parent. Now an adult, she can count on one hand the number of times in her life she’s been truly afraid. Danielle has won numerous awards for her fiction and nonfiction, and earned a 2009 Pushcart Prize nomination for her short story “Drive.” She is also the author of The Merciless. Follow her on twitter @DvegaBooks


WRECKED “ YOU HAVE RE ACHED your final destination.” The voice blared over the GPS, startling us both. We’d been on desolate back roads for so long, I think we’d forgotten what technology sounded like. We moved forward another ten feet, then the GPS signal died. It wasn’t a gentle wane; it was abrupt, like we’d just fallen off the face of the earth. “No. No way,” Rhys said, squeezing his phone like he was strangling it. “This is a joke.” He squinted through the bugsmeared windshield. I pulled over into a makeshift lot full of old rusted-out cars. Beyond that stretched nothing but corn. Miles and miles of corn. Rhys flung his phone at the dash. “I told you we wouldn’t be able to find it.” “This has to be it,” I said as I scanned the area. Obviously, it hadn’t rained in some time, giving the landscape a muted palette, much softer than I’d expected. There was something so familiar about the surroundings, but I couldn’t put my finger on it—maybe something from a dream or a Wyeth painting.


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“I need to use the restroom,” Rhys said. “Be my guest.” I glanced over at the towering stalks as I picked up his phone and tried to find a signal. I cut off the engine and found myself staring at hundreds of abandoned cars—every decade was represented. It seemed odd to have a car graveyard in the middle of nowhere, but I guess it was as good a place as any. We’d been driving for nearly twenty hours, and my body felt welded to the seat. I was exhausted, but still felt the adrenaline pumping through me—that and a ton of caffeine. The instant I got out of the car to check on my brother, my hair began to frizz and stick to my neck. I had pulled the black silk ribbon from my pocket to tie my hair back when a rogue breeze kicked in and blew it from my hands. I watched it hover in midair, graceful as a dancer, weightless and free. The black strand swooped in front of me before drifting into the maze of abandoned cars. I hurried after it, my footsteps kicking up clouds of dust as I moved in and out of the stacks of twisted metal. I took in a deep breath. The smell of rust, rubber, and oil filled my lungs, but there was something deeper underneath, something infinitely more appealing. Dark fertile earth, san-dalwood, fresh rain, strawberries, a hint of tang. I maneuvered around a column of hubcaps, following the ribbon as it plummeted like an arrow into the waiting hands of the man standing before me. He wasn’t really a man, maybe about eighteen or nineteen, but he was the kind of beautiful that made me think I might still be hallucinating. “Does this belong to you?” He held out his hand. The ends of


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the ribbon curled around his wrist like a secret caress. He had gorgeous olive skin and refined features, with thick, almost black hair that grazed his shoulders. It curled up slightly on the ends in a sexy, haphazard way. His almond-shaped eyes were so clear, so full of light that it was impossible to tell exactly what color they were. Blue, green, and brown flecks set adrift in a sea of gold. I reached out, taking the ribbon from him, my fingers lingering on his. My pulse quickened as if I were standing on the edge of a precipice. A dizzying flash of heat rushed to my cheeks. This was something new. “Do I know you?” he asked, rubbing the back of his neck. “Maybe from a fashion magazine or something?” At first I thought he was trying to be slick, but there was something distinctly genuine about him. “You read a lot of fashion magazines?” I asked as I tied my hair back with the ribbon. “No, I guess not,” he said. He started to step away from me; I actually prayed to any god that would listen to make him stay. I’d never felt such a strong physical attraction to anyone. Even if it was just for a fleeting moment, he seemed to make all my problems disappear. I wanted to bottle that feeling and carry it around in my pocket. The thought of kidnapping him crossed my mind. He smiled back at me. “Are you looking for something . . . a particular part?” He had an amazing mouth. Perfect lips with a tiny dimple on the right side of his cheek. “Not exactly.” I flashed a grin as I walked through a labyrinth


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of stacked tires. He joined me. “Are you just passing through, then?” “You could say that.” I stole another glance at him as I pretended to inspect the treads. He cocked his head to the side, studying me. “This place is pretty far off the beaten path. Are you lost?” “I don’t think so.” He bit down gently on his bottom lip. I could tell he wasn’t completely satisfied with my answer. “So, I guess you know a lot about cars?” I asked. “A little.” I swore I saw him blush. “Just from the manuals.” “You don’t look like the typical junkyard-worker type.” “I guess I left my undershirt and overalls at home today. That’s what you were expecting?” “No,” I replied sheepishly as I registered his worn linen shirt and pants. “But I didn’t expect you to have all your teeth.” He let out a warm unself-conscious laugh. Standing just a handful of inches above me—at about six feet— he had surprisingly good posture, which made him seem taller. It was clear even through his clothes that he had a well-toned body. Not overly muscular, but athletic, maybe soccer or swimming—a sport that demanded a strong core. Everything seemed effortless for him—the way he moved, the way he spoke. “It’s too bad you can’t stick around. I could show you the sights,” he said, stepping closer. “There are sights?” I teased as I turned down a narrow pathway lined with orphaned fenders. “Sure.” He smiled broadly as he followed close behind. “The


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sunflower field at sunset, maybe we could split a bottle of dandelion wine.” I looked down at the ground, attempting to hide my idiotic grin. “Then I would take you to Windy Point to watch for shooting stars.” “Would we make a wish?” I glanced at him over my shoulder. “You can if you like, but I don’t need to.” He offered that smile again with the tiny dimple. “Sounds like you’ve thought this through.” “It’s not over yet.” He grabbed my waist, stopping me in my tracks. My pulse pounded beneath his touch. He dragged his thumb across the top of my hip bone, and my stomach lurched as if the ground were caving in, sending me into a free fall. “At dawn, we could take a swim at Crystal Pond.” “And then what?” I managed to ask. He pulled me close, whispering in my ear. “You’d never want to leave.” I felt giddy. He removed my sunglasses. I thought he was going to kiss me when he suddenly dropped his hands. “What’s your name?” he asked as he took a deliberate step away from me, his eyes narrowing into slits. “Ash-Ashlyn—” “Surname,” he interrupted tersely. My mind went blank. What was my name? “Larkin,” I answered breathlessly, still reeling from his touch. His eyes went wide before his face turned into a solid block


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of ice. The muscles in his jaw and shoulders tensed. “It’s you,” he murmured as he slowly backed away from me, then took off running into the corn.


INVITATION “ WAIT!” I R AN AF TER HIM , not caring how pathetic I looked. Just as I reached the corn’s edge, Rhys stepped out of the towering stalks, nearly giving me a heart attack. Completely stunned, I stared off into the dense field. Rhys should’ve run right into him. “Ash,” my brother snipped behind me. “Do you mind telling me why some guy’s taking off our hubcaps?” I turned, my heart pounding with anticipation. Was it him? How’d he slip by me? I pushed past my brother to get to the car. When his head appeared over the side of the SUV, my heart fell. An old man, red-faced, wisps of white cotton-candy-like hair shellacked to his skull with sweat. “There you are,” the man said, as if he was greeting a friend. “I was afraid I’d lost you.” Rhys looked at me for an explanation, but I had just as many answers as he did. The old man flashed a grin. “Tanner . . . Tanner Beaumont,” he said as he bent down to put the hubcap back on. “I’ve never seen a spinner like this. Escalade, huh?” Stained wifebeater, overalls, missing teeth. “You’ve got to


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be kidding me,” I said under my breath. This must’ve been my mystery man’s boss. “I think I just met your colleague,” I said in relief as I leaned up against the car. “Goober?” His eyes lit up. “That’s his name?” I winced. He didn’t look remotely like a Goober. “Yeah, he’s a good boy. He didn’t give you too much trouble, did he? Sorry if he drooled on you.” “No, um . . . no, he didn’t,” I answered as I stared off into the corn. “What can I do for you?” He stood up and I swear I could hear every one of his vertebrae grind into place. “I got a bunch of Hondas . . . I even got one of them Priuses.” “Where did all these cars come from?” Rhys asked. “Well, we call this here the Kansas Triangle.” He motioned at the land surrounding us. “You know, like the Bermu—” “Yeah, we get the reference,” I interrupted. “But the cars are all here.” “Oh, it’s not the cars that disappear. It’s the people.” “What?” My brother went ramrod straight. “This land here’s cursed. Used to belong to the Indians. See, people come here looking for Quivira. They come from all over the place . . . weirdo spiritualists, reporters, geologists, historians, even a few of them ghost hunters, and they all disappear. Haven’t had anyone in a while, though, not since that 2012 Camry over there.” “What do you mean they disappear?” Rhys asked, shifting his weight nervously.


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The old man leaned forward like he was telling us a secret. “They go into the corn, and they don’t never come out.” “Have you called the police?” The man grinned, digging his thumbs into the straps of his overalls. “I am the police.” Rhys pressed his lips together and then let out a nervous burst of laughter. “Okay, time to go.” “How do we get there? To Quivira?” I asked. “I suppose you’re lookin’ at it. There’s at least forty-five miles of corn. No roads.” He looked up at the sky, dreamlike. “Sometimes at night, you hear the crows. All them flapping wings sound like helicopters, only there’s no lights. Just like Nam . . .” An enormous balding Saint Bernard jumped out of the back of an old white Cadillac, knocking Tanner to the ground. A huge line of drool dropped from its jowls onto the man’s face. “Goober.” He let out a high-pitched giggle. “That’s Goober?” I said. “I was talking about the boy . . . the man I met here earlier.” He looked up at me in confusion. “How long you been out here, missy? Kansas heatstroke ain’t no joke.” There was no boy or man or man/boy. Awesome. On the plus side, at least the figment of my imagination wasn’t named Goober. “You weren’t planning on going in there, were you?” he said as he got to his feet, squinting into the corn. “’Cuz if you do, save me the trouble and leave the keys. This car would make a fine convertible. I could cut off the top. It’d be good for haulin’ trash.” “Give us a minute, please.” Rhys dragged me toward the back


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of the car. “We have to get out of here and call the police . . . the real police,” he whispered. “You heard him . . . people go into the corn but they don’t come back. Look at all those cars, Ash.” I stepped in front of him to try and block his view. “Maybe those people wanted to disappear. Mom said it was some kind of utopia.” Rhys tried to grab the keys out of my hand. “But he just said—” “The guy had a Vietnam flashback right in front of us. Since when are you so gullible?” He stared out over the corn, a deep crease settling in his forehead. “The summer solstice is only five days away now,” I said as I put my hand on his shoulder. “The sun is getting ready to set. If we’re going to find her it has to be now. We have to try. We can always come back and call the cops if we have to.” Rhys gave me a nearly imperceptible nod. I grabbed the bags from the car before he could change his mind again and set them down in front of the junkyard guy. “Can we park here for a few days?” Tanner twitched his head to the side to spit through the gap in his teeth. “Not for free you can’t.” I peeled off a bill from one of the stacks and stuffed it into the bib pocket of Tanner’s filthy overalls. “Here’s a hundred. I’ll give you another when we come back.” He fondled the cash from outside his pocket. “Sure thing.” He grinned. I put on my backpack, then tossed Tanner the keys. Rhys begrudgingly picked up his duffel and the briefcase.


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“Hey, what’s your name?” Tanner called after me as we walked toward the corn. “Larkin,” I answered. I didn’t have to think about it this time. I felt it all the way to the marrow of my bones. The old man’s face went slack as he turned and scurried away from us up the dirt road. “What the hell,” I murmured. I was starting to get a complex. As Rhys and I stood at the edge of the corn, the sun began to melt into the horizon, casting a golden glow across the field. A breeze blew in behind us, forcing its way through the stalks, revealing a path. Like an invitation. I heard my brother swallow. “It’s good to be afraid,” I said. “It means you still have something to live for.” I took his hand and we stepped into the corn.


CORN THE Y S AY THE FIR S T S TEP is the hardest. But it’s really the third—when you’re too far in to turn back and not far enough to completely commit. Either way, you’re kind of screwed. “This is a bad idea. A really bad idea,” Rhys said as he led the way through the narrow path in the corn. I wasn’t going to argue. It wasn’t worth it. There was no stopping him when he got on a roll like this. Tuning him out, I focused on how dense and lush everything was. It was like stepping into a different world; the world before man. The twelve-foot-high stalks had a thick bamboo-like quality. The leaves, brilliant green, had a beautiful translucence— creating a lacy display of shadow and light. The scent was sweet and earthy—like spring, but with a slight hint of decay. Other than my brother’s incessant complaining, it was eerily quiet. No insects, no wind, not a sound other than my boots sinking into the rich soil. With each step forward, I had the strangest feeling of déjà vu, like I’d walked this path a thousand times before.


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I closed my eyes, dragging my fingers along the stalks, and tried not to imagine what the sunflower field would look like in this light or, more importantly, what he would look like in this light. My junkyard crush. Obviously, my name had set him off, but what made him ask in the first place? It had to be the eyes. What did he and Tanner see in me? Were all the Larkins something to be feared? And in that brief moment of reflection, I found myself alone. There was no trace of my brother. I heard the ground cover depress somewhere behind me. I turned, finding nothing, and everything all at once. I felt an undeniable presence, like the corn was watching me, but that was crazy. Fighting back panic, I looked up at the sky to get my bearings, but felt completely disoriented. North, south, east, and west didn’t exist anymore—only corn. Dizzy and confused, I spun around, feeling for a way out, but it seemed as if the stalks had closed in around me. Something slammed me from behind; I stumbled forward, feeling that strange vertigo again. My hands clenched in the soil, trying to find something to hold on to, but the dirt sifted through my fingers. Even though I was already on the ground, I felt myself falling, the same sensation I’d felt in the library with Katia. A gasp escaped my lips as the crush of memories fell over me like a heavy velvet curtain.


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Leaving his armor behind, Alonso makes his way toward me. Tonight, on the cusp of the summer solstice, he will become my immortal mate. Using my golden blade, I cut the length of his palm. “A kisctsa rauuir tiaticaa kaukuu’.” I then cut a deep slash above my heart. Just as I’m about to place his palm against my chest to bind our fates, Alonso’s head jerks back. Coronado’s deep brown eyes are full of starlight and malice as he sweeps his blade across my lover’s throat. Alonso’s blood falls across my face like rain. Coronado turns his attention to me. I stagger back and start running through the corn. The towering stalks whip my skin, leaving a trail of blood in the moonlight. I don’t know which way to turn. Coronado catches up to me and lunges for my arm. I hit the earth and then he’s on top of me. I lash out with my blade, but he grabs it and uses it to slit his own palm. I can feel my traitorous blood reaching out for his as he presses his wound against the gash above my heart. I writhe and scream, trying to break free, but it’s too late—I can already feel his black soul penetrating mine. I feel his blood coursing through mine and mine through his. We are one, bound in hate, bound in blood.

“Ashlyn.” I lifted my head. The devastation I felt was overwhelming. My mother had told me what happened to Alonso, but seeing it . . . feeling it through Katia’s memories was something else entirely. A strange ripple of energy rushed over the corn, followed by the scent of ozone. I heard my brother calling my name. Fighting against the gravity that wanted to keep me there, I grabbed the stalks, pulling myself up and through the corn, toward the


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sound of his voice. I careened through the field to find my brother kneeling in a twenty-foot-wide patch of scorched earth, the bags strewn around him. “Wait,” he called out with a slight tremor in his voice. “It might be hot.” I studied the alien ground surrounding him. I didn’t feel any heat, but it wouldn’t have stopped me anyway. I couldn’t leave him there, all alone, in that black chaotic void. Charred soil crunched beneath the weight of my footsteps, but it was cool. It reminded me of volcanic ash. As soon as I put my hand on his shoulder, he collapsed into a sitting position. “Oh God.” The color drained from his face when he noticed the blood from the scrape on his knee. “What happened?” I asked as I pulled the first-aid kit from my bag and bandaged his knee. “I don’t know.” He let out a huge burst of pent-up air as he held his head in his hands. “I turned, and you were gone. The corn kept opening up in front of me. It felt like I was running in circles. I couldn’t find you and I tripped and fell. The corn just . . . disappeared.” “Disappeared?” “Like, disintegrated.” He glanced up at me before I had a chance to hide my shock. “I know! It sounds crazy. I think I might be losing it right along with you.”


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“We’re both . . . overwrought.” I chose my words carefully. Maybe Rhys was seeing things, too. “Look, all we have to do is find Mom and get out of here.” “Ash,” my brother said as he stared off into the corn. “Something’s wrong with this place. Do you feel it?” “I don’t know what I feel anymore,” I said as I helped him to his feet, trying not to give in to the fear gnawing away at me. “But we should try to find her before dark.” Suddenly, bringing him here felt wrong, like I’d led him straight into the devil’s mouth. “Which way?” he asked as we stood in the center of the barren patch of earth. As if answering his question, the breeze whipped through the field, revealing a path and a clearing in the distance. Rhys and I walked faster. I think we were afraid the corn would swallow us whole.

At sixteen, KIM LIGGETT left her rural midwestern town for New York City, where she pursued a career in music and acting. While attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Kim sang backup for some of the biggest rock bands of the 80’s. After settling down to have a family, she became an entrepreneur, creating a children’s art education program and a travel company specializing in tours for musicians. She’s married to jazz musician Ken Poplowski, and has two beautiful teenagers. Follow her on twitter @Kim_Liggett


TITLE: 

PRAISE FOR BRENNA YOVANOFF

5.625 × 8.5  SPINE: 1.125

$17.99 ($19.99 CAN)

Brenna Yovanoff

CLEMENTINE DEVORE SPENT TEN YEARS TRAPPED IN A CELLAR, PINNED DOWN BY WILLOW ROOTS, SILENCED AND FORGOTTEN. PAPER VALENTINE: An NPR Best Book of 2013 A Boston Globe Best Book for Young Adults of 2013

Brenna Yovanoff

is the New York Times bestselling author of The Replacement, The Space Between, and Paper Valentine. She lives in Denver with her husband. Visit her online at www.brennayovanoff.com.

Jacket photos courtesy of Shutterstock and Thinkstock Cover design by Vanessa Han

www.razorbillbooks.com www.penguin.com/teens www.twitter.com/razorbillbooks www.facebook.com/razorbill.books An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA)

9781595146380_Fiendish_JK.indd 1

A YALSA Best Book for Young Readers of 2014 A 2014 YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Readers A 2014 Booklist Pick for Best Fiction for Young Readers “A painful but satisfying story that shows off the author’s gifts for writing dark contemporary fantasy.” —Publishers Weekly “Unexpected and thrilling…. This is taut sleuthing, a supernatural ghost story, and a coming-of-age novel; it’s horrific and shrouded in death but also poetic and lifeaffirming. These remarkable juxtapositions will haunt readers long after they’ve put the book down.”—Horn Book “Yovanoff ’s patent-pending blend of weakkneed ennui and crackling nastiness [turns] pages faster than ever. Thrills, romance, gore—what’s not to like?” —Booklist

Now she’s out and determined to uncover who put her in that cellar and why.

THE SPACE BETWEEN: ★ “This confident tale contains moments of beauty, terror, and significant wisdom.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

When Clementine was a child, dangerous and inexplicable things started happening in New South Bend. The townsfolk blamed the fiendish people out in the Willows and burned their homes to the ground. But magic kept Clementine alive, walled up in the cellar for ten years, until a boy named Fisher sets her free. Back in the world, Clementine sets out to discover what happened all those years ago. But the truth gets muddled in her dangerous attraction to Fisher, the politics of New South Bend, and the hollow—a fickle and terrifying place that seems increasingly temperamental ever since Clementine reemerged.

“Painfully romantic and richly imagined, this offering solidifies Yovanoff ’s status as an author to watch.” —BCCB THE REPLACEMENT: ★ “Yovanoff ’s unsettling villains and intriguing moral ambivalence make this effort shockingly original and frequently breathtaking.” —Booklist, starred review ★ “A devastating look at familial love, sacrifice, and loneliness. Yovanoff ’s spare but haunting prose creates an atmosphere shrouded in gloom and secrecy.” —BCCB, starred review

www.brennayovanoff.com ISBN 978-1-59514-638-0

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EAN

New York Times bestselling author of The Replacement

Brenna Yovanoff

FINISH: MATTE

3/12/14 12:34 PM


Part I

Dirt

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The Last Day chapter One

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hen I was little, everything twinkled. Trees and clouds all seemed to shine around the edges. At night, the stars were long tails of light, smeared across the sky like paint. The whole county glowed. Back then, my life was mostly pieces—tire swings and lemonade, dogwood petals drifting down and going brown in the grass. Cotton dresses, bedsheets flapping on the line. An acre of front porch. A year of hopscotch rhymes. On the hottest days, I kicked off my shoes and ran out to the middle of the low-water bridge. The air was warm and buzzing. The creek raced along under me, bright as broken glass. I jumped rope with my cousin, who was older and shiny. Shiny like an opal ring or a ballerina, and Shiny because it was her name. She hooked her pinky in mine and swore how when we were old enough, we’d run away from Hoax County and live in a silver camper on a beach somewhere. We’d be best friends forever. Later, when everything went dark, I tried to think how the bad thing had started, but the pieces wouldn’t come. No

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matter how I walked myself back through that last day, there was always a point where time stopped. A sheet seemed to loom in my mind, and no matter how I pressed my nose against it, I couldn’t see past. There were things I knew. I knew my mama had been making skillet chicken for dinner, because I remembered running out to the garden to pull some onions for the gravy, and how when I crawled down through the vegetable patch, the place under the tomatoes smelled like hay. It was warm and sweet, and for a while, I just sat smelling it, singing the first line of “Farmer in the Dell” over and over because I couldn’t remember the rest, and counting my numbers. The vine above me had four little tomatoes all hanging in a row, and in the middle, there was a fifth one. It was like the others, except not. Because instead of silkworm green, the fifth was gray—heavy as an elephant and made of stone, growing in the garden like a living thing, and I laughed because it was a miracle. I was too little to think a miracle could be anything but good. Later, it seemed that the whole world began and ended with that tomato. Not with the voices of men, or the way every room in the house got hot. But with that one stone marvel in the garden. With the clean white sheet in my head, and a silver needle pinched between someone’s fingers. Hands that reached to close my eyes and a whisper like a spell. Hold still and sleep. Wait till someone comes for you. But no one came. 4

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In the canning closet, the air got hard to breathe. Jars broke open. Cherries splashed my face and arms, hissing on the bricks, but if it was hot, I couldn’t feel it. Then everything got quiet and that was worse. The shouting stopped and the fire burned out. I thought I might be the only person left in the world. Before, I’d never been scared—not of deep water or falling off the swing set, or any of the other things that kids from town cried about. And never of the dark. Dark was my best time. In summer, when the sun went down and the moths flapped against the screen, I sat in my mama’s lap on the back porch, looking out at the tupelo trees, wearing my blue-fairy nightgown and holding my flannel bear. Mama wound the key in its back and sang along— Oh my darling, oh my darling. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how dark the world gets. You can be saved by the smallest thing. I played the Clementine song, turning the key again and again, winding up the memory of her voice until the music turned slow and jangly and the flannel bear wore out like a sock. The closet was in the back corner of the cellar, and I had never liked to go down there. The floor was made of concrete and the air smelled swampy. Spiders lived behind the closet door and in the cracks between the shelves. Now it was the only place in the whole world I was even really sure of. The farm where we lived was on a shallow little branch of the Blue Jack Creek, and the water fed the stands of willow 5

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trees that grew around the house. Before, my mama had always kept them in their place, but now they stretched out, reaching in the dirt. They pushed until the wall caved in. Roots grew over my body. The shoulders of my nightgown let go and my elbows poked through the sleeves. My hair got long, snapping its rubber bands. Sometimes I could feel my bones growing. Every little stitch and seam told me I was changing, leaving behind my old, baby self, but when I tried to think how I must look, the picture wouldn’t come. The more I tried to see it, the harder it was to see anything but that white sheet, and then the voice would rise up in my ear, getting louder, echoing around me. Hold still and sleep. It was easier to turn toward it, to follow it down into a jumble of dreams—hills and creeks and hollows. Trees to climb, fields going on forever. I fell headfirst into a sinkhole of pretty things, and the world inside your eyelids is just as big as the one outside.

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The Girl in the Cellar chapter Two

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he voices came from a long way off, and at first, they didn’t mean anything. They were just mutters in some broke-down cellar, and I had long since stopped being Clementine in the canning closet. In my dreams, I was Clementine running through the grass. I was alone, or else with a boy. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew him from some other time, or maybe I’d only just invented him. We raced across an open meadow, toward a tree covered in blue and purple flowers, which meant it wasn’t real, but I ran to it anyway. Or I might have been someplace else. Maybe sitting in my own living room, listening to the TV and stitching pictures on a quilt square with my mama’s embroidery thread, or standing on a lawn somewhere, watching crowds and colored lights—a party of white tablecloths and paper lanterns. I just couldn’t remember if it was a place I’d been to once, or a life happening far away, or something I was only now making up. I’d been living on dreams so long it was hard to know if any one of the fifteen things happening inside my head was real.

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Then someone spoke, closer than any of the ghost-people at the party, than any of the voices in my dreams. Nothing down here but dry rot and trash. A boy’s voice, with an accent thicker than was common for Hoax County. Almost thick enough to cut. He sounded bored with the trash and with the dry rot. Bored with the whole business—maybe even with himself— and hoarse like he’d been shouting. Also, though, he sounded real. In the moldy dark of the closet, I opened my mouth. The sheet and the sharp, warning voice were there at once, ordering me quiet, saying wait and sleep, but I’d already been waiting for so long. I was done with that. On the other side of the door were real people and I was going to make them hear me. I tried to shout, but it was no good. My throat was too dry to make words. My arms wouldn’t move to pound on the wall. I stood in the dark, with roots tangled in my hair, bits of glass sticking to my skin, still holding the windup bear. The flannel was squishy with groundwater, and I squeezed hard, digging my fingers into the clockwork. The song came whining out, broken from how many times I’d played it. It only clanked one line, Oh my darling, oh my darling, before grinding to a stop. I could hear feet kicking around through junk and broken glass, too many to be just one person. Then they stopped, and the whole place got so still it hurt my ears. The breathless silence went on so long I thought I would 8

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nearly go crazy, and then the first boy spoke again, close to the wall. “Did you hear that?” Someone answered from farther off, and I could hear the way the words rode up and down, saying no. Saying what are you talking about and I don’t hear anything and let’s leave, let’s leave. The roots had all grown over me, twisting around my arms and between my fingers, and the sweetest sound in my life was the ripping noise when I pulled my wrist free. I wrenched the bear’s key a half turn, a full turn. Then the clockwork caught, singing out its broken song, tinkling in the dark. Oh my darling Clementine, thou art lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry Clementine. And I waited. “I’m telling you,” said the first voice, close to the wall. “There’s something in there.” Yes. Yes, there’s something—here, I’m here. Please come find me, I’m here! But no one answered. I could feel myself sinking, running out of hope. Already half-willing to let go, to fall straight back down into dreams. Then came the dry shush-shush of someone running their hands over the wall, feeling along the bricks. “Check this out. I think there used to be a door. Here— Cody, help me get it clear.” There was a scraping noise like chalk on a driveway, and I told myself it wasn’t how it sounded, it wasn’t someone 9

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pulling out the bricks, because if I let myself believe in rescue and it turned out I was wrong, I would sink right down in the cold black dirt and die of the despair. But the scraping got louder. The voice in my ear had stopped telling me to wait. There was a crash, a burst of light against my eyelids, and the bricks fell away in a storm of noise and dust. My heart beat harder, and now he was in the canning closet with me. “Oh my God,” he said, and then his hands were on mine, so warm they nearly hurt. He grabbed my wrists, peeling back the willow roots, yanking so hard my whole body jerked. I tried to help him, but I could barely move. He was touching my face, steadying my head as he unwound the roots in my hair, tearing me away from the wall. Then I was falling. I knew I should catch myself, but my bones felt loose and unstrung. It had been an age since I’d taken a single step, and my legs wouldn’t move. My eyes wouldn’t open. “Jesus,” he said, catching me around the waist. “Would one of you help me? Get her arms!” No one came to get my arms, though, and he dragged me out himself. I could smell his shirt and his hair, like leaves and summer and fresh air. He went stumbling back with his arms around me and we fell hard on the floor. The bump when we landed seemed to knock something loose. My fingers spread wide and then made fists. My arms and legs began to tingle. When I turned 10

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my head, he seemed to glow against my eyelids, and I knew he must be the hero of the story, just like in all the books. This is ever-after, I thought. This is the happily, the end. This is the prince who saved me. I lay in his lap with his knees digging into my back and waited for him to kiss me and break the spell. Instead, he scraped his thumb across my mouth, wiping away the dirt. The rush of fresh air was almost too much to take. I coughed on it, trying to remember how to breathe without choking. “Holy hell,” someone said from over in the corner. “Holy everloving hell. Fisher, what have you done?” He said it loud and quick, sounding so scared that for a second, I was sure they’d leave me there, lying in the cellar with all the bricks and broken glass. “Give me your shirt,” was all Fisher said. “Are you crazy?” said one of the other boys. I thought there were two, but their voices were enough alike I couldn’t tell them apart. “I’m not messing with that. You do it, Luke.” “No way I’m letting anything of mine touch anything like her. Fisher, you don’t know what she is.” Fisher didn’t answer, but there was a shuffling noise above me and this time when he touched my face, it was with a wadded-up cloth. It felt like cotton, warm from the sun, and it smelled like him. “Who are you?” he said. When he leaned down, I could see him printed on the inside of my eyelids, a bright mess of colors like a paint splotch in the shape of a person. “How did you get here?” 11

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I tried to answer, but my voice felt ruined. I wanted to tell him that I was Clementine DeVore and he was scrubbing my face too hard and this was my cellar and my memory was a clean white sheet and what was he doing here in my cellar, but all that came out was a sigh. One of his friends spoke then, slow and soft. “Fisher, this is just too freaky.” “I know,” he said, holding my face between his hands. “Well, how do you know she ain’t some creep downhollow?” Fisher crouched over me, still scrubbing my forehead and my cheeks. “I don’t, so just shut up. God, look at all this soot.” I tried to turn my head, but he had his palms pressed hard against my cheeks. The shape of him was a warm blur on the inside of my eyes, twinkling with gold. “Hold still,” he said. “You have to hold still. There’s busted glass everywhere.” “Look at her eyes,” said one of the other boys under his breath. “If that’s no fiend, I don’t know what is.” The word was ugly, and the way he said it was worse. “I’m not deaf,” I said, and my voice was dry and scratchy, more grown-up than the one I remembered, but it was mine. “And I don’t know how your mother raised you, but mine taught me it was rude to go throwing around a word like fiend.” The three of them got very quiet. I could feel their stillness in the air, the way they had all stopped breathing. 12

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Then Fisher laughed, a short, barking laugh. “Looks like she’s got more manners than you, whatever she is.” He turned away from me, like he might be about to stand, and when he did, the light around him faded. “No,” I said, before I could even think about it. “Don’t go. Come back where I can see you.” “You can’t see me,” Fisher said. “Your eyes are shut.” But he leaned closer, putting his shirt against my face again, and in one long breath, I was nearly swallowed up by all the things I’d lost. I remembered days spent laughing in the knotweed down by the creek, nights out in the fields and the woods, skimming through the long grass like a ghost, a blanket spread over the ground and Shiny, my Shiny, with her fast, flashy laugh and her finger hooked through mine. “You smell like a picnic,” I said, struck again by how strange my voice was—like a picture doubling over itself. “And you smell like mildew.” His voice was rough, but for just a second, I thought I could hear him trying not to smile. He was checking the lace at the edges of my nightgown, sliding his fingers along the insides of my cuffs. He pulled the collar away from my neck, following it around until he found a lumpy knot of cloth that had been pinned there since the world went dark, a strange weight against my collarbone. “What are you doing?” I whispered, but he didn’t answer until one of the other boys said it too, sounding small and scared. “What is that? What’s she got around her neck?” 13

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Fisher tugged at my collar, unfastening the knot. “I don’t know, but it looks like one hell of a trickbag.” The third boy spoke from farther off, and if I’d thought he sounded scared before, it was nothing compared to how his voice wavered and cracked now. “Then don’t mess with it. You don’t know what kind of craft is on that thing.” Fisher laughed that short, dog-bark laugh again and put the twist of cloth into my hand, closing my fingers around it. “The kind that can keep a girl shut up in a basement for God knows how long, and she lives.” “Shit, Fisher! Just—what are we going to do?” “I’m taking her down to the Blackwood place.” Right away, the other two began to argue, talking over each other. “No, no way. You can’t go messing with hexers and fiends. It’s no business of Myloria Blackwood’s that we found some crooked girl down in some burned-out house.” Fisher slid his hands underneath my back. “It’s Myloria’s sister that lived out here, and by my count, that makes it her business. So I’m taking this one down there, and if you’re going to help, then help. If you’re not, you can find your own way home.” Without another word, he scooped me up, one arm hooked at my knees and the other around my waist. When he lifted me, the shoulder of my nightgown split wider. The air felt damp and cool against my skin. “Here,” he said, jostling me higher against his chest. “Grab on around my neck.” “Why don’t they like me?” I whispered, getting my arms 14

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up, feeling around for his shoulder. “What’s wrong with me? I never did anything to anyone.” Fisher was quiet for a second and when he answered, he sounded strange. “It’s not your fault,” he said. “They’re just nervous about how your eyes are sewed shut.”

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PUFFIN LOGO 2004

Front / Back cover

Kept alive as a weapon to destroy the most fearsome witch of all time—his father: the only one with the power to save Nathan’s life.

S ALL Y G RE E N

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SALLY GREEN lives in northwest England. She has had various jobs and even a profession, but in 2010 she discovered a love of writing and now just can’t stop. She used to keep chickens, makes decent jam, doesn’t mind ironing, loves to walk in Wales even when it’s raining, and will probably never jog again. She really ought to drink less coffee. Half Bad is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter @Sa11eGreen

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—THE EXAMINER

— T H E N E W Y O R K T I M E S B O O K R E VI E W

“EDGY , ARRESTING, AND BRILLIANTLY WRITTEN .” — M I C H A E L G R A N T,

NEW YORK TIMES

BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF GONE

“UNIQUE AND UNSETTLING. THIS WILL HAUNT YOU.” —MARIE LU,

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING

A U T H O R O F T H E L E G E N D T R I LO G Y

“BRILLIANT AND UT TERLY COMPELLING.” — K A T E A T KI N S O N ,

NEW YORK TIMES

BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF LIFE AFTER LIFE

“FAST-PACED.” — B O O K PA G E HE HAS A POWERFUL GIFT. IT’S HOW HE USES IT THAT WILL SHOW IF HE’S GOOD OR BAD.

SA L L Y GR EEN

“A THRILLING TALE . . . UNFORGETTABLE.”

— P U B L I S H E R S W E E K L Y , S TA R R E D

REVIEW

“MARVELOUS.”

— B O O K L I S T , S TA R R E D

REVIEW


The Trick

There’s these two kids, boys, sitting close together, squished in by the big arms of an old chair. You’re the one on the left. The other boy’s warm to lean close to, and he moves his gaze from the telly to you sort of in slow motion. “You enjoying it?” he asks. You nod. He puts his arm round you and turns back to the screen. Afterward you both want to try the thing in the film. You sneak the big box of matches from the kitchen drawer and run with them to the woods. You go first. You light the match and hold it between your thumb and forefinger, letting it burn right down until it goes out. Your fingers are burnt, but they hold the blackened match. The trick works. The other boy tries it too. Only he doesn’t do it. He drops the match. Then you wake up and remember where you are.

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The Cage

The trick is to not mind. Not mind about it hurting, not mind about anything. The trick of not minding is key; it’s the only trick in town. Only this is not a town; it’s a cage beside a cottage, surrounded by a load of hills and trees and sky. It’s a one-trick cage.

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Push-ups

The routine is okay. Waking up to sky and air is okay. Waking up to the cage and the shackles is what it is. You can’t let the cage get to you. The shackles rub but healing is quick and easy, so what’s to mind? The cage is loads better now that the sheepskins are in. Even when they’re damp they’re warm. The tarpaulin over the north end was a big improvement too. There’s shelter from the worst of the wind and rain. And a bit of shade if it’s hot and sunny. Joke! You’ve got to keep your sense of humor. So the routine is to wake up as the sky lightens before dawn. You don’t have to move a muscle, don’t even have to open your eyes to know it’s getting light; you can just lie there and take it all in. The best bit of the day. There aren’t many birds around, a few, not many. It would be good to know all their names, but you know their different calls. There are no seagulls, which is something to think about, and there are no vapor trails either. The wind is usually quiet in the predawn calm, and somehow the air feels warmer already as it begins to get light.

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You can open your eyes now and there are a few minutes to savor the sunrise, which today is a thin pink line stretching along the top of a narrow ribbon of cloud draped over the smudged green hills. And you’ve still got a minute, maybe even two, to get your head together before she appears. You’ve got to have a plan, though, and the best idea is to have it all worked out the night before so you can slip straight into it without a thought. Mostly the plan is to do what you’re told, but not every day, and not today. You wait until she appears and throws you the keys. You catch the keys, unlock your ankles, rub them to emphasize the pain she is inflicting, unlock your left manacle, unlock your right, stand, unlock the cage door, toss the keys back to her, open the cage door, step out—keeping your head down, never look her in the eyes (unless that’s part of some other plan)—rub your back and maybe groan a bit, walk to the vegetable bed, piss. Sometimes she tries to mess with your head, of course, by changing the routine. Sometimes she wants chores before exercises but most days it’s push-ups first. You’ll know which while still zipping up. “Fifty.” She says it quietly. She knows you’re listening. You take your time as usual. That’s always part of the plan. Make her wait. Rub your right arm. The metal wristband cuts into it when the shackle is on. You heal it and get a faint buzz. 6   h  S a l ly G ree n

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You roll your head, your shoulders, your head again and then stand there, just stand there for another second or two, pushing her to her limit, before you drop to the ground. one Not minding two is the trick. three The only four trick. five But there are six loads of seven tactics. eight Loads. nine On the look-out ten all the time. eleven All the time. twelve And it’s thirteen easy. fourteen ’Cause there ain’t fifteen nothing else sixteen to do. seventeen Look out for what? eighteen Something. nineteen Anything. twenty N twenty-one E twenty-two thing. twenty-three A mistake. twenty-four A chance. HALF BAD   g  7

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twenty-five An oversight. twenty-six The twenty-seven tiniest twenty-eight error twenty-nine by the thirty White thirty-one Witch thirty-two from thirty-three Hell. thirty-four ’Cause she makes thirty-five mistakes. thirty-six Oh yes. thirty-seven And if that mistake thirty-eight comes to thirty-nine nothing forty you wait forty-one for the next one forty-two and the next one forty-three and the next one. forty-four Until forty-five you forty-six succeed. forty-seven Until forty-eight you’re forty-nine free. You get up. She will have been counting, but never letting up is another tactic. 8   h  S a l ly G ree n

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She doesn’t say anything but steps toward you and backhands you across the face. fifty

“Fifty.”

After push-ups it’s just standing and waiting. Best look at the ground. You’re by the cage on the path. The path’s muddy, but you won’t be sweeping it, not today, not with this plan. It’s rained a lot in the last few days. Autumn’s coming on fast. Still, today it’s not raining; already it’s going well. “Do the outer circuit.” Again she’s quiet. No need to raise her voice. And off you jog . . . but not yet. You’ve got to keep her thinking you’re being your usual difficult-yet-basicallycompliant self and so you knock mud off your boots, left boot-heel on right toe followed by right boot-heel on left toe. You raise a hand and look up and around as if you’re assessing the wind direction, spit on the potato plants, look left and right like you’re waiting for a gap in the traffic and . . . let the bus go past . . . and then you’re off. You take the drystone wall with a leap to the top and over, then across the moorland, heading to the trees. Freedom. As if! But you’ve got the plan, and you’ve learned a lot in four months. The fastest that you’ve done the outer circuit for her is forty-five minutes. You can do it in less than that, HALF BAD   g  9

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forty maybe, ’cause you stop by the stream at the far end and rest and drink and listen and look, and one time you managed to get to the ridge and see over to more hills, more trees and a loch (it might be a lake but something about the heather and the length of summer days says you’re in Scotland). Today the plan is to speed up when you’re out of sight. That’s easy. Easy. The diet you’re on is great. You have to give her some credit, ’cause you are super healthy, super fit. Meat, veg, more meat, more veg, and don’t forget plenty of fresh air. Oh this is the life. You’re doing okay. Keeping up a good pace. Your top pace. And you’re buzzing, self-healing from her little slap; it’s giving you a little buzz, buzz, buzz. You’re already at the far end, where you could cut back to do the inner circuit which is really half the outer circuit. But she didn’t want the inner circuit and you were going to do the outer whatever she said. That’s got to be the fastest yet. Then up to the ridge. And let gravity take you down in long strides to the stream that leads to the loch. Now it gets tricky. Now you are just outside the area of the circuit and soon you will be well outside it. She won’t know that you’ve gone until you’re late. That gives you twenty-five minutes from leaving the circuit—maybe thir-

10   h  S a l ly G ree n

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ty, maybe thirty-five, but call it twenty-five before she’s after you. But she’s not the problem; the wristband is the problem. It will break open when you go too far. How it works, witchcraft or science or both, you don’t know, but it will break open. She told you that on Day One and she told you the wristband contains a liquid, an acid. The liquid will be released if you stray too far and this liquid will burn right through your wrist. “It’ll take your hand off,” was how she put it. Going downhill now. There’s a click . . . and the burning starts. But you’ve got the plan. You stop and submerge your wrist in the stream. The stream hisses. The water helps, although it’s a strange sort of gloopy, sticky potion and won’t wash away easily. And more will come out. And you have to keep going. You pad the band out with wet moss and peat. Dunk it under again. Stuff more padding in. It’s taking too long. Get going. Downhill. Follow the stream. The trick is not to mind about your wrist. Your legs feel fine. Covering lots of ground. And anyway losing a hand isn’t that bad. You can replace it with something good  .  .  . a hook  .  .  . or a threepronged claw like the guy in Enter the Dragon . . . or maybe

HALF BAD   g  11

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something with blades that can be retracted, but, when you fight, out they come, ker-ching . . . or flames even . . . no way are you going to have a fake hand, that’s for sure . . . no way. Your head’s dizzy. Buzzing too, though. Your body is trying to heal your wrist. You never know, you might get out of this with two hands. Still, the trick is not to mind. Either way, you’re out. Got to stop. Douse it in the stream again, put some new peat in and get going. Nearly at the loch. Nearly. Oh yes. Bloody cold. You’re too slow. Wading is slow but it’s good to keep your arm in the water. Just keep going. Keep going. It’s a bloody big loch. But that’s okay. The bigger the better. Means your hand will be in water longer. Feeling sick . . . ughhh . . . Shit, that hand looks a mess. But the acid has stopped coming out of the wristband. You’re going to get out. You’ve beaten her. You can find Mercury. You will get three gifts. But you’ve got to keep going. You’ll be at the end of the loch in a minute. Doing well. Doing well. Not far now. Soon be able to see over into the valley, and—

12   h  S a l ly G ree n

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Ironing

“You nearly lost your hand.” It’s lying on the kitchen table still attached to your arm by bone, muscle, and sinew that are visible in the open, raw groove round your wrist. The skin that used to be there has formed lava-like rivulets, running down to your fingers as if it has melted and set again. Your whole hand is puffing up nicely and hurts like . . . well, like an acid burn. Your fingers twitch, but your thumb is not working. “It might heal so that you can use your fingers again. Or it might not.” She took the band off your wrist at the loch and sprayed the wound with a lotion that dulled the pain. She was prepared. She’s always prepared. And how did she get there so quickly? Did she run? Fly on a bloody broomstick? However she got to the loch, you still had to walk back with her. That was a tough walk. “Why don’t you speak to me?” She’s right in your face. “I’m here to teach you, Nathan. But you must stop trying to escape.”

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She’s so ugly that you’ve got to turn away. There’s an ironing board set up on the other side of the kitchen table. She was ironing? Ironing her combat trousers? “Nathan. Look at me.” You keep your eyes on the iron. “I want to help you, Nathan.” You hawk up a huge gob, turn, and spit. She’s quick, though, and snatches back so it lands on her shirt not on her face. She doesn’t hit you. Which is new. “You need to eat. I’ll heat up some stew.” That’s new too. Usually you have to cook and clean and sweep. But you’ve never had to iron. She goes to the pantry. There’s no fridge. No electricity. There’s a wood-burning range. Setting the fire up and cleaning it out are also your chores. While she’s in the pantry you go to look at the iron. Your legs are weak, unsteady, but your head’s clear. Clear enough. A sip of water might help but you want to look at the iron. It’s just a piece of metal, iron-shaped, with a metal handle, old. It’s heavy and cold. It must be heated up on the range to do its job. Must take ages. She’s miles from anywhere and anything, and she irons her trousers and shirts! When she comes back a few seconds later you’re round

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by the pantry door and you bring the iron down hard, pointed side against her head. But she’s so bloody tall and so bloody fast. The iron catches the side of her scalp and sinks into her shoulder. You’re on the floor clutching your ears, looking at her boots before you pass out.

HALF BAD   g  15

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