The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Summer Springs

If Julian had to stay in this car for one more second, he was going to start screaming. And that would probably make Mom and Dad and Summer sing even more loudly than they already were. Such a thing shouldn’t have been possible—they were practically wailing—but Julian knew from experience that it was.

Julian paused his music and tugged out his earbuds and squashed the hot gummy bubble of anger in his chest.

“Hello?” Julian said. “Are we gonna stop soon?”

road tripBut Mom and Dad and Summer were singing one of those round songs, which meant Julian had to hear the same song sung three different times by three different voices overlapping. It was chaotic, and nobody but Mom could sing worth anything, so it was also kind of painful.

Hello.” Julian kicked the back of his dad’s seat but not hard enough to get in trouble.

Dad stopped singing and looked at Julian in the rearview mirror. “Almost, Julian. Don’t snap at me.”

Dad went right back to singing, but his voice sounded irritated now. Of course Dad was irritated. Mom and Dad and Summer loved the whole road trip thing: the junk food and the singing and stopping at random “special attractions” like oversized spools of thread and the birthplace of General Whoever who fought in Some War Who Cares.

But Julian always got sick in the car. Long trips made him nervous. Books were one thing, but Julian didn’t like going to real new places. Danger in real new places was totally possible. The people in real new places were weird and looked at you funny, and in real new places, you can’t close the book when things get too scary. Not that anything scary had ever happened to Julian, but if it ever did it would definitely be on one of these stupid road trips. Also, Julian was no good at singing so instead he listened to books or music on his headphones the whole time because that helped him relax.

Road trips made him feel both angry and left out. Why couldn’t he just have a good time and not be nervous or sick and just smile and sing lame car songs instead, like normal people did? Like Summer.

Julian looked at his sister and felt his chest bubble up again. He tended to get so angry at Summer. She was about to turn ten years old, and she was all cheerful and golden-haired like a fairy tale princess, and everyone loved her. Summer could make friends with a fencepost, Mom always said.

So what if Julian wasn’t like that? So what if Julian was quieter and wasn’t good at making friends and didn’t like real new places? Julian knew he shouldn’t care. He was smart enough to know that everyone is different and it would be weird if the world was filled with all Summers and no Julians.

But he did care. It made him angry, and that made him feel bad. Summer was a good kid, and Summer understood Julian. She liked that he was quiet, and she was nice to him even when he was mean to her.

Summer put her hand on Julian’s hand and smiled, laughing at some joke Mom said. “Sing with us, Julian. Sing the next song with us?”

“No thanks,” snapped Julian, and snatched his hand away.

Summer darkened, like she was sunlight and Julian was a stormcloud. She curled into a little ball and looked out the window. She wasn’t singing anymore.

In the front seat, Mom sighed.

Dad looked even madder now, in the rearview mirror. “Apologize to your sister.”

“For what? For not wanting to sing?”

“For your tone.”

The bubble burst in Julian’s chest. He wanted to punch the back of Dad’s seat. But Dad had said they would have lemonade and fudge at this place, and Julian was starved, and punching probably wouldn’t get him anything. So he mumbled, “Sorry.”

Summer peeked over at him and smiled and patted him on the shoulder. Her fingernails were dirty. Her front teeth were crooked and goofy. Julian kept his face stony. Summer crossed her eyes and pulled her mouth into a weird shape.

“Dork,” Julian said, and Summer giggled, and Julian turned away, smiling.

Mom pointed, the map flying out of her hands. “There’s the exit!”

Dad swerved hard, and they made it. They passed a sign for Summer Springs, and Summer clapped, squealing. “That’s my name!”

Julian couldn’t even be mad at her. It was pretty cool to share a name with a nature park. It was why they’d chosen this place. Dad smiled and Mom smiled, and Summer traced the letters on the window with her pinkie.

 *

Mom bought four cups of lemonade and four sticks of fudge, so when they started on the trail through Summer Springs, Julian’s stomach was full and his fingers were sticky.

Summer Springs was a park in the mountains, with a whole set of trails built into the rocks. There were stone bridges and rocky passages so small Dad had to suck in his belly to get through, and cliffs that looked out over the countryside. From Lover’s Leap, Julian could see five different states. If he squinted through Dad’s binoculars, he could see white houses buried in trees next to the highway.

But the place did have one weird thing about it: gnomes.

Little stone gnomes with colorful clothes and hats, placed throughout the trails. They dug ditches and planted flowers and stood frozen, waving their shovels at the people walking past.

“This is so . . . random,” said Julian, looking at a gnome in a purple shirt with a rake in one hand and his hat in the other.

Dad laughed. He was really getting a kick out of the gnomes. “People who build these attractions tend to be a bit eccentric, I guess.”

Mom giggled and took pictures of them. “I think they’re adorable! Such ugly little faces.”

“How can something be adorable and ugly?” said Julian.

“Oh, they can. You know, like those pug dogs.”

“Julian,” whispered Summer, tugging at Julian’s shirt. Whenever they passed a gnome, Summer went quiet. She shrank, like she was a flower and the gnomes were icy cold winter. “I don’t like them.” gnome

“Why not?”

“They’re watching us. They have sharp teeth. They don’t like us, either. They’re watching us.”

“They’re not real, Summer. They’re just stupid statues.”

“They smell like . . . skin.”

“Oh, like you can smell the gnomes from all the way over here? The not-real, statue gnomes with their not-real, statue skin?”

Summer tugged on Julian’s arm, pulling him down the path. “I don’t like them,” she kept muttering, and she wiped her face with the back of her hand. “They’re watching us, they’re watching.”

Julian let Summer mutter and freak out or whatever it was she was doing. Sometimes Summer did stuff like this. She liked to daydream, and she didn’t read books because the stories affected her too much. They scared her so much she couldn’t sleep, or made her cry so hard she got sick, or made her so happy she’d get hyper like she did after eating candy on Halloween, except like a hundred times worse.

Summer was just being Summer.

Gnomes that smell like skin. What a dork.

 *

Except for the whole gnome thing and Summer acting bizarre, Julian actually liked it at Summer Springs. The mountain breezes were cool, and that helped Julian’s car sickness. There were lots of trees, and at this one spot a bunch of white deer slept next to a creek.

The moment she saw them, Summer fell in love with the deer. “Julian, look at them!” Then she lay on her stomach to peer over the cliff and started talking to the deer like they were her babies. She even gave them names: Sweetheart, Sammy, Sammy Junior . . .

A twelve-year-old boy can take only so much of that, so after a minute or two Julian let Summer do her thing and looked around through the binoculars. He saw a rabbit, and a family on a wooden bridge with five kids, and an old man leading his three-legged dog up some steps. At the top, he let his dog drink from a bottle of water.

“If I were an animal, I’d want to be one of these,” Summer said, kicking her brown legs. “A white deer with long legs and big doofy ears.”

Julian rolled his eyes. “You already have big doofy ears.”

“Meanie!”

“You’re too close to the edge.” Julian put his hand on her collar.

Summer dusted off her knees and shirt and smiled up at him. “Nice meanie.”

“Weirdo.”

Dad was calling them, waving them over. Mom was taking pictures of a woodpecker.

“What animal would you want to be?” Summer said, squinting. It was really bright on the mountain, sunlight reflecting off the rocks like white glass. “If you were an animal.”

Julian walked toward his parents, Summer hot on his heels. “A monster.”

Summer scrunched up her face. “A monster isn’t an animal. It’s a monster.”

“Well, okay. A monstrous animal, then.”

Summer scratched her left leg with her right foot. “So you could scare people?”

“So people would leave me alone if I wanted them to.”

Summer was quiet. Mom was pointing at the mouth of a cave. “The Enchanted Caverns!” she said. “There are fairy tale dioramas inside. Scenes from famous fairy tales. That’s what the map says.”

“Seriously, so random,” said Julian, shaking his head.

Dad and Mom laughed and held hands.

Julian and Summer followed their parents past a white cottage built into the mountainside. On the cottage’s roof sat a gnome with wide white eyes and a toothy grin, and a purple checkered banner said THE ENCHANTED CAVERNS in faded letters. Julian could hear people laughing and talking inside.

“I wouldn’t, though,” said Summer decidedly. She stopped to pick up smooth dark pebbles and put them in her pocket. She glared up at the wide-eyed gnome. “I wouldn’t leave you alone, Julian, not ever. Even if you were a monster. Not even then.”

Julian took Summer’s hand. It was warm and small, and it made the last of Julian’s car sickness go away. Together, they stepped inside the cave.

 *

At first, Summer was quiet and calm.

She held Julian’s hand as they walked through the Enchanted Caverns behind their parents. They saw other families, and other children, and Julian saw the old man carrying his panting three-legged dog. Twinkly music played from speakers in the ceilings, a dance-like song that made Julian think of one of his books, when the hero’s sneaking through a dark corridor, danger around every corner.

The music turned Julian’s skin into a field of goosebumps.

Creepy blue lights lit up the fairy tale dioramas and bled into the corridor. Julian peeked through each window to see them—the iridescent trees, the glowing figurines, their gnarled, sculpted hands. Red Riding Hood approaching the cottage where the wolf was waiting. Snow White in her glass coffin. Goldilocks, her face in shadows, running from three snarling black bears.

And occasionally, a little meadow of gnomes—gnomes picking flowers, gnomes planting vegetables. A group of gnomes sitting on a shelf in the ceiling, their black boots dangling over Julian’s head.

Through all of this, Summer remained quiet and calm, though her hand gripped Julian’s so hard that finally he ripped it away from her.

“Ow! What are you doing?” Julian hissed. “You’re hurting me.”

Summer grabbed his shirt. “I don’t like it in here.”

Julian was about to yell at Summer for being stupid, but something about the look on her face stopped him. “Well, we’ll just walk a bit faster. We’ll hurry through, and then we’ll be out in the sun again.”

“No, I don’t think so. Oh, no, I don’t think so.” Summer started pulling on her hair. When Julian tried to stop her, she grabbed his hands. “Julian. Julian!”

Julian turned away. He had never seen Summer like this, not even in her strangest moments. Surely someone would come. Surely Dad and Mom would hear Summer screaming and find them, take them by the hands and lead them out.

But Julian saw no one. He heard no one. All he heard was the twinkly music from the speakers overhead, and the soft drip-drip of water against stone. Everyone else passing through the caverns had disappeared. Everything was eerie and blue and dark.

“Dad?” He tried to yell, but no sound came out. His fear had come so quickly that it was like being hit in the stomach, or plunging into icy water. Julian couldn’t speak, or breathe, or move. “Mom?”

Summer threw her arms around Julian’s neck and screamed. “I won’t leave you, I won’t, I won’t. Even with monsters. Even with monsters.”

Julian tried to pry loose Summer’s arms, but she wouldn’t let go. “Summer. What are you talking about?” Julian felt like he wanted to cry. He didn’t understand why his sister was acting like this. He didn’t understand where everyone had gone. This was all happening so fast. “Summer, talk to me!”

“You shouldn’t be here,” came a voice. A whispery voice. A very-old voice. A too-old voice.

Julian whirled, and Summer stopped screaming, and there, at the bottom of the stone steps, crouched a tiny boy. His clothes were torn scraps. He was pale like he hadn’t seen the sun in years, and though his body was small, his face was tired and wrinkled.

Summer took the rocks from her pocket and threw them at the boy. “Get away from us. Get away, leave us alone!”

The boy dodged the rocks like they were nothing. “Shouldn’t be here,” he whispered. “Shouldn’t, shouldn’t. But too late now.”

Julian came out of his shock and grabbed Summer’s hand. He was shaking, but she was on fire. She was blazing hot, and steady. Her eyes snapped hatred.

“Actually,” Julian told the boy, “we were just leaving.”

The boy found a popsicle stick someone in the crowd had dropped. He chewed it until his lips bled and picked his teeth with the splinters.

“You aren’t leaving,” he said. “Neither of you. One to pay, and one to stay.”

One to pay, and one to stay. Dozens of voices said it, from somewhere Julian couldn’t see—from everywhere. They whispered it over and over, and Julian saw shapes moving in the shadows. Pale shapes, dark shapes, deformed shapes. They came into the blue light, little by little. They were all children—some boys, some girls, all bent and broken and backward, with faces too old for their bodies.

Julian backed up until he hit the wall. He kept Summer behind him. “Pay what? We don’t have any money.”

The broken child-things laughed. The first child-thing, the pale boy-thing, smiled a toothless smile. He had a pointed black tongue. His mouth opened too widely.

From behind Julian, Summer took off her shoe and threw it at the boy. He ducked, and it bounced away.

“It’s been a long time,” the boy said, “a very long time, since there has been anyone worth keeping.” The boy smiled, his jaw snapping open. “You’ll make them very happy. And it’ll be nice to have a new friend.”

“Keeping?” Julian felt sick. He could hardly stay standing. He felt the ridiculous urge to shove in his earbuds and turn on his music and close his eyes. That would make this go away. “You can’t keep us. We’re not staying.”

The child-things went quiet. They straightened, and their smiles faded. Now they were the ones looking afraid.

The pale boy pointed into the darkness. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, but you are. One will stay, and one will pay.”

Julian held tight to Summer’s hand, and turned around.

They came in a small, dark, slithering crowd. They crawled and crept, they dragged themselves along by broken yellow claws.

The gnomes, it seemed, were not gnomes at all anymore.

The gnomes, it seemed, had been hiding something . . . else.

Bits of torn bright clothing clung to their brown, bony frames. They had long pointed ears and long pointed snouts. Some had tails and some had rotting, stumpy wings. Some still wore their ruined gnome hats. They carried knives; their teeth were lined with blood.

“I don’t like them!” Summer said shrilly. She took off her other shoe and threw it at them, but it melted when it touched them, and turned into a thick black liquid like tar. The creatures swarmed over it, scooping it up with their hands. They fought over it, smearing it on their faces. They breathed deeply. They were smelling it.

“Smells like,” they growled, licking their lips. “Smells like child.”

“Fresh, frightened child.”

“Young, innocent child.”

Sweating, shaking Julian imagined that he was in a book. Yes. Yes, that had to be it. He was in a book, and the only way to get out of this was for the person reading the book to close the book and put it aside for the day.

“Close the book!” Julian yelled, waving his arms at the ceiling and jumping around like crazy. “Close it! Please, hurry!”

The creatures hooted and hollered. The pale child-things whispered to each other, hiding in the corner.

“You,” wheezed the nearest creature, a great spindly brown thing with limbs like a spider. It moved like a spider too—skittering here and there, crawling close to the ground. “You.” It pointed at Julian. The other creatures and the child-things fell silent. “You will pay.” It pointed next at Summer. It grinned widely, rotten teeth spilling out over cracked lips. “And she will stay.”hand

The creatures began to cheer. They beat on their chests, raked their claws against the stone, gnawed on their torn clothes.

The child-things rushed toward Summer. They were rushing toward Summer. Julian tried to stop them. He kicked them and punched them. He tore at their filthy clothes, and the fabric came apart in his hands like muddy leaves.

It was not enough.

“No!” Julian cried. He reached for Summer and caught her fingers, but the creatures were pulling him away, and he lost her. Their scabby brown fingers wrapped around his legs and arms, dragging him across the floor. Their hooked wings were fluttering over him, scraping his cheeks. They pushed at each other to get closer.

They were smiling down at him. Pay, pay, pay, they chanted.

They were raising their knives. He will pay, pay, pay

“Fine,” said a small voice. “Fine. I’ll stay. I’ll stay here, if that’s what you want.”

The creatures stopped. They lowered their knives and looked away. Julian looked too, scrambling to his feet.

Summer stood there, hands in fists at her sides. She had that weird, faraway look like she used to get when she was allowed to read. She looked small, and angry.

The child-things had swarmed around Summer, their bony pale hands digging into her arms. But now they backed away from her, huddled in the corner and wide-eyed.

“I won’t leave my brother,” Summer said. “I told him I wouldn’t. So of course I’ll stay.” She turned to glare at the child-things, her nose wrinkling. “You don’t need to be so mean about it.”

The creatures stepped back, and back, and back, grumbling, groaning, their too-long arms dragging along the stone.

The child-things stared. The pale boy crept closer to Summer, on all fours like a scared dog.

Julian rushed over and kicked the pale boy in the chest. The boy crumpled, gasping, and put up his hand.

“It’s been so long,” he said, “since anyone was brave enough. Since someone stayed instead of trying to run.”

“So long,” the other child-things whispered. “Years upon years.”

Summer found Julian’s hand. Julian grabbed it tight. “Well,” said Summer, “even if he were a monster, I wouldn’t leave without him.” She shivered and sneezed in the cold. “I said I wouldn’t.”

She looked like a normal Summer again, instead of strange, brave Summer. Or maybe both were the same. Julian wondered: Would he have stayed for Summer? Was he as brave? Maybe instead he would have tried to escape. It was impossible to know, and Julian felt cold and sick again, like in the car with the air conditioning blasting on him and too much junk food in his belly.

“Go,” said the pale boy. He touched Summer’s bare feet and then shrank back like she had burned him. “Go, now.”

The creatures, slinking and shuddering over each other down the corridor, were staring at Julian and Summer with cold dark eyes that glinted in the blue light. They were confused. Julian could see that. But for how long?

“Now,” whined the pale boy. He pushed Julian, and his hands left behind a stinging feeling on Julian’s skin. “Now.”

The child-things howled and ran deeper into the caves, and the pale boy went with them.

And the creatures—the horrible skittering creatures—reared up into a single great shape in the dark cavern. They shrieked and surged forward, spilling over the ground toward Julian and Summer like a wave of black water. Their nails clacked against the floor.

But Summer was fast, and Julian was faster. He led the way, pulling Summer hard, and hands grabbed at their legs and seized their clothes, but they didn’t stop.

When they hit the sunlight, it was like bursting out from underwater. Summer was coughing, and Julian was holding her up. Julian felt a hand grabbing at his leg and kicked back, but when he looked behind him, nothing was there but the mouth of the cave and a cheerful sign that said COME BACK SOON.

Dad found them and clapped them on the backs. Behind him, Mom was taking pictures of blue jays. The three-legged dog was on a bench getting his belly scratched.

“There you are!” Dad said. He was red-cheeked and happy. His shirt was sweaty, and his hat was crooked. “You two were right behind us, and then all of a sudden you weren’t. Thought I was gonna have to come get you.” He knelt in front of them and ruffled Summer’s hair. “Pretty cool in there, huh? Lots of things to see. And kind of spooky, huh?

“Dad.” Julian tried to say it a few times before he found his voice again. “Dad, promise me something.”

“Sure thing. Hey. Wait.” Dad leaned back and squinted at Summer’s face. “You all right, sweetie? Something scare you?”

Summer tried to smile but she didn’t let go of Julian. She held onto his arm and her fingers were white. Her cheek was warm against his arm, and this time, when Julian felt the hot bubble in his chest, it wasn’t gummy or bad. It was full of light, and it held Summer’s name inside it.

“Just promise me,” said Julian.

Dad scratched his head, pushing back his hat. “Well, sure. Anything. What is it?”

“If Summer ever asks me to sing with her again,” Julian said, squeezing his sister’s hand until he felt her squeeze it back, “make sure I do it.”

*

Red Raging Sun

It’s too hot here. You should come to this place in winter, when you’d be happy it’s warm. Not in summer, it’s way too hot. But Dad said Affordable and Mom said Adventure, so we’re here. We’ve been here almost a week.

I don’t like it here. The dirt is yellow on the empty paths that run from the jungle to the beach. The dirt glows hot and yellow back up to the hot yellow sun.

black dog on yellow dirt road

Photo by Todd Campbell.

There’s an ocean, but the water’s hot, and when the sun’s out the beach is too hot to walk on barefoot. The sea breeze feels more like walking past an open dryer, the wind is so hot and damp. The sun is so bright on the water, it gives you a headache.

At night it’s cooler, with better breezes, salty and fishy and dark. When the sun goes down, everybody—not the local people, but the vacation people, like us—everybody walks down to the beach, and they build a bonfire, and we sit around it. It’s the best part of the day, when the sun is gone. The fire is like the sun, but all packaged up and neat, surrounded by rocks, so it can’t jump out and get you.

I like to sit on the warm sand in the dark, just outside the circle of light, watching the fire, listening to the laughing. It’s nice. Mom and Dad sound happy, happier than at home. The three of us walk back singing to the cabin—Mom calls it an Eco-Cabin, which means no glass in the windows, and no doors in the doorways, and a roof made of dry grass. It’s like sleeping outside. Mom and Dad have the bed, and I’m in a hammock by the window, facing the jungle. I swing to sleep like in a rocking boat.

But later that night I wake up, because someone is talking. A light is flashing all around the room like a scared bird. For a second, before I wake up all the way, I think somehow police are in our room, arresting us.

Then I see that it’s Dad. He’s sitting straight up in bed, shining a flashlight all around, all wild. When the light catches his face by accident, I see he’s sweating.

Monkeys, says Dad. His voice is shaking. He’s saying: There were monkeys in here, did you see? Did you see them? I swear, just a second ago, these long-armed . . . They must have been monkeys . . . I swear they were here.

And all the time Mom is saying Shhh, shhh, and Bad dream, and Honey, maybe you shouldn’t have had that margarita. All very soft—she’s trying not to wake me up. That’s nice of her.

The flashlight goes out, click. In a while, I hear their breathing go long and soft again.

But I don’t go back to sleep.

Because for just a second, just for one second, while that yellow light flew around our cabin, I saw something. I did. I saw something long-armed and long-tailed swing over me in the dark, and out the window, into the jungle.

I only saw for a second. I don’t know what it was.

But it didn’t look like a monkey to me.

I’m not hungry for breakfast that morning, and I walk on the beach away from other people. The sun hangs over the sea, burning at me.

In the afternoons we always nap, but I have a bad dream, that there’s an animal in the room with us but I can’t quite see it, only hear its heavy tail dragging along the floor. When I wake up, the cabin smells wrong, a dirty, snakey smell. Mom and Dad are still asleep.

I can’t stay in the cabin with that smell, so I go for walk. I start at the beach, but it’s way too hot, even with flip-flops. The rubber’s melting under my feet. So I start walking back.

But you’re not supposed to go into the jungle, because of snakes, or something. Mom made a big deal out of that, and asked me Did I understand and Did I promise.

Now I’m standing there on the dirt road. I can’t decide what to do. A pale green lizard, only much bigger than the lizards at home, turns its face to me. Its eyes are half open, something pulses at its throat.

Oh: the ruins, I think. I’ll go there.

Sand ziggurat

Photo by Todd Campbell.

The ruins are mostly huge piles of gray stone, lots of thousands of years old. But in some of the piles you can see the shapes of the buildings they were, see the steps leading up to broken temples at the top. I’m not supposed to go to the ruins, either, actually. But it’s not as definite as the jungle. Dad was actually all disappointed, he thought it looked archeological or something. But the people who run this place said It needs repairs, and reinforcements, it’s not safe to climb on. They said how last year a little girl ignored the warnings and fell, and died.

But I’m not going to be stupid and climb on the stones. I’m just going to look around.

As I walk past him, the lizard turns its head to watch me.

I walk for a few minutes. The sound of the waves is nice. But it’s so hot, my head is hurting, and my eyes are squinched up against the brightness. My shirt sticks to my body.

But walking is good. The sun will go down soon. I start to relax. Just a bad dream.

When I’m almost at the ruins, all of a sudden, there’s a dog. There’s nothing around here, I don’t know where it came from. It’s not a huge dog, but it comes up to my knees. It has slick brown hair, peeling off in patches to show gray and purple skin below, and its eyes are blue and round and blind. At least I think it’s blind. It stares just over my head, barking hard, growling in its throat.

Hurt, it sounds like it’s saying. Hurt, hurt, hurt.

The dog walks in front of me on the road for the while, walking backwards, facing me, barking HURT, HURT, HURT, like it’s trying to stop me. But I stay brave, I keep walking, and after a while the dog gives up. I walk through the door of a chain link fence that’s just hanging there, broken, and into the ruins.

The ruins have their back to the jungle. It’s like the jungle made them, kind of, then pushed them out: Here. I made this for you. Come in, come in.

That’s a dumb thought, but it’s what it looks like.

The sun shines hard on the huge blocks of gray stone. They crowd everywhere, you have to sort of pick your way through. Even just one block is taller than my head, and one of the old . . . buildings, I guess is what they are, the one that’s still mostly there, is really tall. A zillion steps are running up the side. That girl who died must have climbed up there, and fallen.

It’s quiet here, a weird kind of quiet, no birds or insects at all. And it’s so hot, the heat is like a fever or a warning, but I don’t know what the warning says.

Hurt, hurt. Hurt hurt hurt.

My parents might be awake my now, I should go see.

But I don’t go see. I keep walking through the stone blocks and towers, the huge piles of stone.

Now a shadow passes across me. A bird? But it’s too big for a bird. I look up. The sky is squinty empty blue.

But then—what was that, out of the corner of my eye? Not a bird, but more like something on one of the stones above me. Something running.

And then behind me—I whip around fast. I can hear a ripple of running feet, high on that one pile of gray stone.

And now that, there—out of the corner of my eye—it’s gone now, but it it seemed like a leg, almost a human leg, but also it had — a tail?
A monkey?

But no monkey has a tail so thick, so heavy, swishing across the stone like a pale green snake.

I should go. It’s time to go. My heart is beating really fast, and I turn back—but I’m not sure where I am now, where the gate is, the stones are so high, and I’m all turned around. I start one way, then turn back and try another.

The skittering sound above me, nails on stone.

I start running. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I have to run.

But I started running too late. When I round the corner of another pile of stones, they are waiting for me, and their hands are on me.

Their hands are scaly with long, sharp nails. Their teeth are pointed and long, and their mouths are open in a horrible smile. Like they’re glad to see me. One of them is holding a cup, like a wine glass, but carved out of the same old stone as the ruins. They hold me, and they force my mouth open, and they pour something burning down my throat.

In a minute, in less than a minute, I can’t move at all. I can’t even close my eyes.

With green, long-nailed hands, they lift me high above their heads. They take me to the steps, and they begin to climb.

My mind is going so fast, so fast in my still body. I see that they were waiting for someone to come. If it had not been me, it would have been someone else. Maybe my mom or dad, come here looking for me. Maybe just some other tourist kid, dumb enough to wander in here.

I think of that as they bear me gently in their long-nailed hands, their thick-muscled arms holding me high above their heads, as if I were weightless. Weightless, paralyzed, and my blood going so fast with fear that it makes everything perfectly, exactly clear. I think: At least it won’t be someone else.

Green, long-toed, long-nailed feet climb the stone steps, and the indentations in the stone match their feet exactly. How many thousands of years have they been doing this?

It’s getting late. The sun is going down, it’s looking straight at me now, and its face is red with anger. Why is the sun angry with me.

Shining, scaly arms lift me high, high, so the sun can see me. The long-nailed hands begin to turn me toward the empty air. The sky darkens around the red, raging sun.

I think of my parents, and I feel so sad. I can’t move my face to cry, but tears leak out and fall far, far to the ground below. In my mind, I can see the search party. I can hear the screams of the ones who find me first. They’ll say I fell, like that little girl. They’ll say they told me not to go to this place, that I must have climbed up on the rocks and lost my footing, and fallen.

But that can’t be right, my mother will say. She will say Too good, too smart, she will say It can’t be, it can’t, as my father cries, big gasping sobs.

And the other vacationers will say, Shhh, shhh: the old rock crumbled, and the child fell.

But they’ll be wrong, I think. I want to shout it, but I can’t shout, but I want to shout: I didn’t fall, I didn’t fall.

I am thinking that, I am thinking all of that, as I fall, as I fall, as I fall.

Clickety-Clack

Lush green leaves with saw-toothed edges brush the top of the skeleton train.

It comes from nowhere, and goes there, too, speeding by in the night, billows of steam rising to join the clouds.

And the tracks go clickety-clack.

Little Stevie March waits in the shadow of a bend, just past the old stone bridge that is slowly crumbling into the rushing water below. He’s heard the stories, but that’s never the same as seeing for yourself. So he sits, scarf tied against the cold, nibbling the cheese he filched from the kitchen on his way out, closing the door so quietly no one else in the house so much as rolled over in their beds.

His ears perk, but it’s only the wanderings of a rabbit–hopefully a rabbit–through the bushes. A yawn nearly splits his face in two, and his eyelids grow heavy.

But there…there it is.

Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.

Quickly, he scrambles to the edge of the tracks, the wind whistling down a tunnel of trees to make him shiver. Muddy shoes dug into the ground, little Stevie March prepares to jump.

Black as soot, dusty, rusty, the skeleton train rounds the bend. The windows of every carriage glow, the light flickering across the trees, and beneath the roar of the engine, Stevie can just make out the sound of the tracks, thumping like his own heartbeat. For a single breath, he thinks of turning away, it’s coming so awfully fast, a blur, and one mistake will leave him a smear on the grass that will rot away with the end of summer.

But he does jump, fingers closing around metal bars, cold and rough with age. Gasping, thrashing, kicking, he hoists himself to the platform between two carriages, standing still as the world rushes past.

And he opens the door.

The skeletons are dancing to violins played with bony hands. Goblets of wine–hopefully wine–slosh with the rocking of the train. All of them are grinning.

“A flesh-child!” cries one, pointing. It has no fingernails. “Welcome, flesh-child! Join the dance!”

“Yes, join us!” the rest cry.

And when they talk, their jaws go clickety-clack.

The train is like no train Stevie has ever been on, not to the city or to visit the aunt his mother doesn’t like, but won’t say so. Real crystal chandeliers swing from the ceiling, plush purple velvet covers the seats, but no one is sitting.

“Tell us your name, flesh-child,” says one, wrapping bleached-bone fingers around his wrist, pulling him into the throng of ribs and elbows. A single long, blonde lock of hair clings to her skull, just behind her forehead. The ragged remains of what was surely once a pretty dress drip from her shoulders.

“Stevie,” he says, laughing because the stories were true. Really true! “Stevie March, ma’am.”

“No need for manners here, Stevie-child, but you must dance, for we are the stuff of night and dreams, and the moment is gone all too soon!”

They spin and whirl, smiling toothlessly, snapping their fingers to the beat. Clickety-clack.

Beyond the windows, mountains and oceans and the square shadows of towns whizz past, sleeping, undisturbed by the passage of the skeleton train. Word must spread to the other carriages, for soon this one is packed so full Stevie can hear the bones scraping against each other, and he has to repeat his name over and over for the newcomers.

Stevie slips, quick as a fish, through a gap between bones and winds his way along the train, through now-empty carriages, past tables full of empty goblets and plates of strawberry tarts and paté. The soles of his shoes squash food into the lovely rug, fallen there because of course the skeletons can’t really eat it. Perhaps they can’t even taste it.

“A flesh-child!” comes the familiar cry when he steps into the compartment at the very front of the train. A navy blue coat with brass buttons is fastened tightly over this one’s ribs, a smart cap with a peaked brim perched jauntily atop a skull round and smooth and thin as an eggshell. “To what do we owe the honor of a visit?”

“I’m Stevie. I heard the stories and wanted to see for myself.”

“Aaaah. Pleasure to make your acquaintance. And do we live up to the tales?”

“It’s even better. No one told me about the dancing or the violins or the food.”

The skeleton grins. Well, he was grinning anyway, but it seems to Stevie that the smile widens, just a bit. “We know how to enjoy ourselves here on the skeleton train, for what is the point, if not joy and revelry?”

“I’m…I’m not sure.”

Ahead, the sky is pink with the first flush of dawn. In that fancy coat, the skeleton’s shoulders fall ever so slightly. “But morning always comes,” he says, the words hissing through the spaces once filled by teeth.

“Why does morning matter?” Stevie asks. The compartment is quiet. Under the floor, the tracks go clickety-clack.

“You’ll see. Go back to the party, little Stevie.”

The party is still a chaos of strings and bones, of rattling laughter and merry jokes. Squeezed by a window, Stevie watches the sun rise over a lake edged with weeping willows in their heaviest throes of sadness. The woman with the lock of blonde hair sits beside him, her cold, smooth hand on top of Stevie’s warm one.

“My daughter wakes up early,” she says, staring at him through empty eye sockets.

“Oh?” It’s an odd thing to tell him, but they’ve all been so welcoming, it’s best to be polite. “Do you miss her?”

The woman doesn’t answer.

She simply fades away.

Rays of light stream in through the windows, plates and forks and goblets drop to the floor, and Stevie is alone. He’s never heard this part of the story, but they are all gone. Up and down the train he looks in vain for any skeletons left on the skeleton train.

The chandeliers blow out, the violins are silent. Outside, there are no towns or mountains or rivers by which to chart, only a blank whiteness, as if the clouds have fallen to smother the train.

Which is just as well, for there are no maps. In fact, the only thing that tells Stevie the train is still moving at all is the sound.

Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. Clckety-clack as the train chugs on, rocking gently back and forth. It’s cold on the skeleton train without the music and the laughter. It’s lonely without the dancing. It’s empty without the land rushing past the windows.

But the seats are still very plush and soft, and Stevie curls up in the corner of one, hugging knees to chest and trying not to wonder what happens next, or think about his parents waking up from their warm bed to find him gone.

He does not dream, and even if he did, he has no one to dream about, no way to bring back even one of the skeletons.

“Flesh-child. Flesh-child.” Thin fingers curl around Stevie’s arm to shake him awake. “It’s about time you went home, isn’t it?”

Stevie blinks. The train is clean, tables crammed with goblets freshly filled. The sky is dark. The violins await. “Can I go back?”

The chandelier’s light bounces off brass buttons thick and round as coins. “Of course you may, now that you know the truth of the skeleton train. Go back, and do not forget to dream of us. Stand between the carriages, I’ll slow it down, unless you want to become one of us before your time.”

“Thank you.”

In the tiny space between compartments, the wind howls, the tracks are loud. The train slows to a crawl, and as Stevie prepares to jump, the music begins to play.

He lands heavily on a bank of grass and rolls down, down, into the river with a splash. The skeleton train is already out of sight, but just ahead is the old bridge, its stones crumbling into the water.

Soaking wet, shaking from the chill, Stevie drags himself out and up toward the road. What a sight he’ll be to his parents when he gets home, though perhaps that doesn’t matter now. He wraps his arms about himself for warmth, but his teeth still chatter.

Clickety-clack.

An Uncharted Journey Through June

Mischievous ones,

There is a certain wicked thrill to venturing off to lands unknown, uncertain as to what you might see there, or to stepping aboard the mode of transport that will take you there. More than at any other time, perhaps, there is a sense in that moment that anything can happen.

Your Curators here in the Cabinet are a worldly and adventurous bunch, and we need to be, for how else would we go forth and collect the objects displayed here? On ghost ships and clackety trains that whisk through the night, we search far and wide for interesting tales.

It is fitting, then, that we dedicate a month – this month – to the theme of TRAVEL in all its many forms. Will it be to a land of faery magic behind that mysterious door in the basement or to discover the story of a naughty child beyond an ocean and just a smidge to the left?

Come on the journey with us and see.

 

Mabel Mavelia

 

There were six things Mabel Mavelia could not abide. The first was toast, the second was tea, the third was parakeets, all sorts, the fourth was her father, the fifth was her mother, and the sixth was the great, tall house on Curliblue Street, in which they had made her live. She hated that one most of all. By way of rebellion she had locked herself in the attic.

She had been fighting with her mother. The fight had begun in the dining room, escalated in the stairwell, and had exploded into a frightful burst of screaming in the third story hallway.

“Why can’t we go back!” Mabel had screeched. “I don’t like it here! I don’t want to live here, and why do we only do what you and father want? What about me?”

“Oh, oh,” Mabel’s mother had said, coming after her, great silk bustles dragging. She was rather breathless, and she kept wringing her hands and reaching out toward Mabel, as if she could not decide which gesture might be more useful. “Don’t cry, please don’t cry. I know the city isn’t what you’re used to, but- Well, if you would only give it some time- “

“No. I want to leave.”

Then Mabel had dashed up the attic stairs and had come upon a little door. Mabel had never seen the door beforethe Mavelias had only just moved into the house on Curliblue Streetbut there was a key already in the lock, and so Mabel had snatched it, waited until her mother was only steps away, and then had screamed and slammed the door with great gusto and twisted the key twice ’round.

“I’m not coming down, and I’m not opening the door, ever.” she shouted at the door. “Also, I hate you.”

Mabel was a strange child. She was sickly and pale, like salt, but a bit sharper, and her gray eyes were so huge in her thin little face that she looked to be in a perpetual state of bewilderment. She was not a bewildered child, though. No. Mabel knew exactly what she wanted, or thought she did, and she knew exactly what she hated, or thought she did.  She hated her parents and she hated the house on Curliblue Street.

She stared about the attic, her hands clenched at her sides. It was an ugly room, squeezed under the eaves. There was a window with four frosty panes in the roof, a desk, and a wooden chair without a cushion. The wallpaper was yellow.

Mabel went to the chair and sat down. She listened for a sound from the other side of the door, but there wasn’t one. Her mother had already left, tutting and smoothing her curls.

Mabel scowled out the window. The City. Chimneys and gables as far as the eye could see, hills and valley and forests of rooftops, rolling on forever. The sky was a gray swirl overhead, like a windstorm about to descend. Mabel hoped a windstorm would descend. She hoped it would sweep the City up and fling into a dustbin and the dustbin would go to an incinerator and. . . and that Mabel would escape suddenly and miraculously and everyone else would become victims of the conflagration.

Give it time, Mabel thought bitterly. She didn’t want to give it time. She didn’t know anyone in Curliblue Street. The people were all tall and gaunt and gray-faced to her, and the city was vast and anonymous, and her new school was full of starched, sallow-faced children who stared at her like cows. Or like her dolls. She always put her dolls in the corner when they looked at her like that, but it was not allowed to put other children in corners.

Far, far below, in the nice part of the house with its red drapes and bric-a-brac, Mabel thought she she heard sounds––the clink of silverware, laughter and conversation. Dinner, going on without her. The sounds made her sad. And then angry. They shouldn’t be talking and eating without her. It wasn’t fair. They should be sad, too, sad about living in this horrid city, sad about living on Curliblue Street. She rapped her knuckles on the desk.

The sound echoed in the room like a pistol-crack. Mabel jerked a little in her chair. She peered over her shoulder. It was perhaps not a very good place to be, she realized. The room was very small. The yellow wallpaper was very hideous. And there was no light, and evening was creeping across the city outside. It was becoming quite gloomy.

Mabel looked about, huge eyes darting. She wasn’t going to be afraid. She was going to stay up here until her parents begged her to come down again. “We’ll bring you back to Heretofore, darling! Whatever you want, only please, please come down.”

But her parents didn’t come up, and so Mabel hated them so much she could practically feel the hate dripping off her skin.

After a while, it began to get very dark in the attic. Almost pitch-black. The only light came from the four small panes in the roof.

Mabel got up to pace. She wasn’t about to leave. But it was getting so very dark. And the door was locked.

She circled the room. She felt the wind tickling across the roof-tiles, like spider’s legs.

She ran her hand over the yellow wallpaper. It was rough and old and rather nasty. She tugged at a rip in it. A long strip of it came away in her hand. And then she saw that there was no wall behind it. No boards or plaster. There was nothing. Emptiness.

Or not.

Behind the thin layer of yellow wallpaper, was another room. A conservatory of sorts, made of glass and full of foliage and flowers. The flowers were very odd to look at. Some were brightly colored, others were gray like rotting meat. They stretched on for what seemed like forever. There were little contraptions, too, like mechanics. Little hands to pat the soil, and little glass tubes to measure the fertilizer, and little chicken-footed watering cans to water the roots. A puff of warm air flew into Mabel’s face and blew back her hair. It was thick air, heavy with damp and earthy smells.

Mabel slipped through the gash in the wallpaper and wandered forward.

She hadn’t known there was a conservatory in the house on Curliblue Street. It wouldn’t have made anything better, but at least her parents could have told her about it. It was just like them, not telling her the good parts.

She stooped in front of a flower shaped like begging hands and sniffed it. She thought it smelled like laziness. She went on to the next one, a rose with an eye at the middle.

And then, all at once, a boy with golden hair stepped from behind a particularly large potted fern and stared at her.

Mabel’s heart leaped. She stared back at him, like a rabbit. Her face twitched a little bit. She didn’t like the look of that boy. He was younger than she was, and yet he had a tiresomely clever, self-satisfied face and golden curls that would take Mabel hours to put up. Mabel thought the boy looked rather haughty.

She regained her composure and lifted her chin. “What’s your name?” she demanded.

The boy said nothing for a second. Then he moved away suddenly, darting among the plants. “Mr. Pittance,” he called, and laughed.

“You’re not old enough to be a Mr. Anything,” Mabel snapped. She really could not abide children who made a show of themselves. She would have to add that to her list.

“Am I not?” the boy asked. And just before he disappeared behind the thick trunk of a tree, he looked at her, an odd sparkle in his eye.

Mabel watched the boy carefully, every move, every swing of his darting hands. When he passed close by again, Mabel made a move to catch him. “What is this place?” she asked, running after him. “Tell me at once. Am I in the next house over? Did I cross the partition wall by accident?”

“No. It is still your house.”

Oh, good, Mabel thought. “Well, what are you doing in our attic then? Are you a thief? Does my mother know you’re in our greenhouse?”

“Your greenhouse?” The boy popped up from behind a pot and peered at her. “It isn’t yours.”

“Yes, it is. It’s in my attic.”

“It’s my skin garden.”

“No, it isn’t, it’s- ” Mabel stopped short. “Your what?”

“My skin garden,” the boy repeated. He stood and lifted a silver watering can labeled “Pity” and laid its spout gently against the roots of a plant. Purple liquid dribbled out and the dirt drank it thirstily.

“What- ?” Mabel cleared her throat. “What’s a skin garden?” It would have been nicer to continue quarreling, but curiosity had gotten the best of her and there was nothing she could do about that.

“It is where I plant things.” the boy said.

“What do you plant?” Mabel glanced around her, at the leaves and up at the ceiling. The night pressed against the glass above. She wondered if her parents would come looking for her now.

“Oh, I plant everything,” the boy said. “Kisses, and faces, and words, and sorrows, and bits of fingernails, and flakes of skin. Drops of tears, and blots of ink, and horrid mistakes and mortifying secrets.”

Mabel squinted at him. It seemed very fanciful.

“It’s my job,” the boy went on. “I make them grow.”

“You’re not old enough to have a job. And no one wants their mortifying secret to grow anyway. What a stupid sort of job.” She hoped that would wipe the haughtiness from the little boy’s face. She was suddenly glad her father had a dull, respectable place at a bank. Perhaps she could throw that at the boy shortly.

“But surely they do,” the boy said, wandering away. “Why would they keep them if they did not want them to grow?”

“Keep what? No one keeps their bits of fingernails.”

“But they grow, don’t they?”

Mabel frowned at the boy’s back. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Does fath- does Mr. Mavelia pay you?”

“No.”

“So you steal these things?”

“You said no one keeps their fingernails anyway.”

Mabel chased after him. She’d had quite enough now. Everything the boy said made a tiny, flitting bit of sense, and then she didn’t understand it at all. Well, Mabel decided to be just as annoying to the little boy as he was to her.

“I bet you don’t make much money. What happens once they’ve grown? The plants. What’s the point?”

“Well,” the boy said. “Everyone has a flower, and- “

“Everyone in the world? Here? In my attic?”

“Don’t interrupt. Everyone has a flower and I simply make the flower grow the way they want it to.”

“Oh.” Mabel thought for a second. Then, “What would happen if you cut them? What would happen if you took those scissors there. . .” She stabbed a finger at a pair of silver shears. “. . .and snipped them all down and made them into a bouquet?”

“What odd thoughts children have,” the boy said quietly, but he did not answer her question, which made Mabel even more curious and more angry.

“Here,” he said, and opened a little box. “I see you don’t understand at all. You may watch me.”

From the box he took three small objects. One appeared to be a handful of words, like printer’s blocks. Another was a few ribbons of musical notes. And the last was a pearl, black as a dead man’s heart.

“See here? I have three things from this house. Your mother read a book, and I do believe it will stay with her many years. And here is the song your father heard the other day on Fangdiddy Street,. There was a gypsy boy with a three string violin, and the sound of it touched your father’s heart like a knife. And here are the words you told your parents, yesterday over breakfast.”

Mabel saw the blob of black, like a spider, wriggling, trying to escape across the boy’s hand.

“You’re going to plant that?” she asked. She didn’t know which words they were, but they probably weren’t very good ones.

“Yes.”

“Why? No, don’t. I don’t want you to.”

“Too late.”

The boy went to a flower and dropped the blob into its roots. It sank in slowly, but then all at once, and was gone, and the flower drooped such a little bit.

“Was that my flower?” Mabel flew to his side. “Was that me?” She felt a bit panic-stricken, though she couldn’t say why.

The flower was frayed and gloomy around the edges. Mabel’s first thought was to be insulted. But then she saw the center of the flower. It was reda lovely, rich red. It made Mabel happy to see it. She stood there in her white dress and smiled a little bit. “It’s very nice,” she said softly.

“Hmm,” the boy said. “It’s not much to look at. The petals need work.” He turned away. It was a simple motion, perhaps not even intended as a slight, but it stung Mabel. She frowned at his back. He was such a short thing. She wanted to clobber him.

“Do you have a flower?” she asked suddenly.

“Of course!” The boy’s face lit up. “Come, let me show you.”

He took Mabel by the hand and drew her toward the far end of the skin garden, to a glass dome veined with spider-web wires. Under it was a single marble pot, and in the pot was the most magnificent flower Mabel had ever seen.

“That’s yours,” she stated, and she said in a flat way because the instant she saw it she was overcome with a deep, wriggling envy. The boy’s flower was far prettier than hers. Its petals were blue, speckled with gold, and its leaves were such a dark green that they were almost black, glossy and smooth as eels. At the flower’s center was a glittering poof of golden pollen, like a brooch pinning a marvelous bow.

The boy walked around it proudly.

Mabel stared at him, and then at the flower. She looked sullen. She was not being sullen, though. Mabel Mavelia’s mind was clicking like a typewriter. She couldn’t stand that boy just then. His nose was in the air, and he had such a perfect know-it-all face, and she hated his careful garden, and she hated that he had a job even though he was just a baby, and she hated everything.

Before she knew what she was doing, Mabel took up the shears on the little chair and charged toward the great flower. The boy’s eyes widened. Mabel’s mouth was pressed into a thin line. She came to the flower and snipped it right through the center. It was like cutting a snake in half. The skin was thick, and as soon as the blades sheared through it a wash of red liquid oozed out, dark and slow.

Mabel turned, breathless, smiling in triumph.

But the boy was just standing there, a look of abject terror on his pale face. He raised a hand, as if to grasp Mabel, as if to stop her. But then the flower fell, its petals tickling Mabel’s neck, and the boy fell, too. He had been cut clean in half.

Mabel’s glee faded a little bit. And then it turned to fear. The boy didn’t have bones and blood inside him. He had many little birds and little music notes and little hopes and dreams, glimmering like stars. And when he fell they all dissipated, flying into the skin garden and vanishing among the leaves.

Mabel dropped the shears. They clattered to the floor. She spun, as if she were afraid someone might have seen her. The flower continued to ooze. And then she heard noises, voices calling her, and something inside her snapped. She picked up the two empty halves of the boy and dragged them to the dirt and laid him in the soft earth. The flower’s ooze was all over her, on her hands and face. She scrabbled and dug. Then she patted the dirt over the boy’s eyes and fled through the garden, under the glass mullioned roofs, past plant after plant that seemed to grasp at her as she went. She came to the wallpaper, slashed through it. She fled the attic and went down the stairs.

Her mother spotted her in the hallway, her little sash disappearing into her bedroom.

“Mabel, dear?” her mother called, but Mabel didn’t stop. She was too busy trying to wipe the plant’s blood from the front of her white pinafore, but it wouldn’t go, and she couldn’t hide it.

* * *

Upstairs, behind the little door, behind the yellow wallpaper, Mabel’s flower stretched its roots into the dirt toward a pale hand buried there. The hand had begun to grow roots, too, from its fingertips and from under its nails. The finger-roots met the flower-roots. Slowly, it began to wrap itself around them.

* * *

The next morning Mabel woke with a start. She’d had such a terrible dream. Her heart was still heavy with it, heavy as a stone. She got up and walked about her room. It was regular, hideous, she thought, with its silly paintings and its silly fireplace. And then she remembered the boy and the dirt closing over his staring eyes. She hurried upstairs and peered into the little attic. It looked quite harmless. The yellow wallpaper was slashed, but there were only boards behind it.

“Mr. Pittance,” she called. “Mr. Pittance?” And then, quietly. “I suppose I’m sorry. I did not want to, but I was so angry with you! Please don’t be dead!”

But if there was a skin garden on the other side of the wall, it did not show itself. Mabel didn’t know whether to be relieved or terrified. If there was a skin garden there was also a beautiful flower with gold-speckled leaves lying on the floor, and a chopped stem, and a little boy with golden hair, buried in the earth together with a pair of shears. And if there wasn’t. . .

Mabel shuddered. She looked out the window. She went to it and sat down and thought.

It was all just a dream. It had to be. She watched the milkmen and the ice-men and the automobiles clogging the streets, and watched the smoke rise from the chimney forests, and it was all so deliciously normal that it convinced her she had done nothing wrong. She had only dreamed it.

She went downstairs and had breakfast with her parents.

* * *

Dinner time in the Mavelia household was salad. Mr. Mavelia had become taken by a new craze, which was to eat only salads and drink prune juice for as long as was humanly possible. Mabel’s mother approved of this craze. Mabel did not.

Dinner was served by the maid. She brought in the tureens, three silver dishes with silver domes. She laid them on the table, one for Father, one for Mother. . .

Mabel got hers, a specially sized little dome with a glass of water, and a glass of prune juice, black as gutter water.

The maid lifted Mabel’s dome with a flourish. And for an instant, Mabel thought there was hand on the bed of salad inside, a pale hand reaching out of the puff of lettuce and onions. Mabel gagged. She tipped from her chair, about to be sick.

“Mabel!” her mother exclaimed and rushed her upstairs, and so Mabel was sick upstairs instead of downstairs.

* * *

Mabel woke that night, ice-cold. She had heard a sound, and it was not a good sound. Slowly, her eyes adjusted to the darkness.

Something was hovering over her bed. A monstrous plant, its long, thorny arms coiling and snaking, black in the night. It had come in through the doorway, and Mabel could see its hide glistening in the hall and all the way up the attic stair. And in the plant, skewered on its thorns, was the boy, Mr. Pittance.

“Go away!” Mabel shrieked. “Leave me alone! I did not mean to! I did not want to!”

“Oh, you did want to,” the boy said, and his angelic face was no longer kind. “You planted me in the skin garden, well, come and pick the fruit that grew.” And here he held out his hand, and in it was what looked like an apple, only it wasn’t an apple, it was a bloody, beating heart.

Mabel leaped from her bed. She took up the lamp and lit it with trembling fingers and hurled it at the boy and the writhing vines. They burst into flames. So did the drapes. The smoke came fast and thick, and then the screams, and Mabel was bundled out into the freezing street, coughing and crying.

* * *

The house on Curliblue Street burned to the ground. Mabel’s parents took her to see a series of doctors. They thought it necessary. Because whenever Mabel looked up or down or anywhere at all, she saw plants climbing the walls of her schoolroom, or filling the streets and choking the City, and the flowers in Pimlico Park always had little mouths with little red tongues, and Mabel could not eat vegetables or fruits because they turned to golden hair in her mouth. She became ill. And then, when she had been like this for several years and her parents had sent her to an insane asylum, she found a little room under the roof, with a little window looking onto the moors. The wallpaper was yellow, ripped and clawed.

“Mr. Pittance!” she shrieked, at the wallpaper. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Pittance! I’m so terribly, terribly sorry!”

Mr. Pittance came out of the wall then. He was just as young as he had been years ago. His hair was golden, and his face was pale and knowing and smug. The only difference was that he had great big stitches across his midsection, and a knotted, gnarled wound.

“Mr. Pittance,” Mabel sobbed, dropping to his feet. “I am sorry.”

The boy wandered into the room and smiled. It was neither a kind smile nor a cruel one. “Oh, but I never doubted you were sorry,” he said. “It was simply too late then. Too late to pull up the roots.”

And he took her tears and he took her scars and planted them in the skin garden. They grew into a pretty, velvety flower, not as tall as her old one, but much hardier, a gray flower with a purple heart. Mabel got better. In fact she became quite merry after that, and whenever new, sad inmates would came to the asylum Mabel would know just how to cheer them up. But when her parents came to visit her they did not let her out. They never let her out.