The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

April is the Month of Tricks

Welcome, curious souls, to a new month at the Cabinet.

In January, if you’ll recall, we shared with you a collection of not-so-sweet stories about cake. In February, love (in all its dark, oft-twisty forms) was our theme. And last month, the theme was luck — bad luck, good luck; luck on the seas and in the circus, luck of a special little girl and luck found waiting in an attic.

And what is the theme this month?

Pull up a chair, brave hearts, and gather ’round — but be mindful of where you sit, because this month, nothing may be what it seems. For this month, you see, the theme is tricks. Our stories, then, might be of something largely innocent — childish pranks and harmless fun — or something darker. Perhaps we shall tell stories of jokes gone wrong, of lies told and illusions spun, of riddles upon which rests the difference between life and death.

We hope you enjoy these tales — and that you come away wiser for having heard them (unlike, to be sure, many of the poor souls within the tales themselves).

Be watchful. Trust no one (except for us, of course). Listen.

For we have another month of stories to tell.

Johnny Knockers

The Misselkree was nineteen days at sea when Johnny Knockers came aboard.

The crew dragged up the long black whale, sliced it open head to fluke, and then there he was, lying among the red, red ropes and glistening offal of the creature’s belly.

He was little more than bones. His skin had been bleached white by the stomach liquids, and all his hair had fallen out. He lay still as could be, staring up through the bloody cleft. Every few seconds he breathed, a quick, shallow breath.

Hooks and paring blades clattered to the deck. The whalers jerked back, growling into their beards, wiping the blood off on their rough woolen sweaters.

“He’s been swallowed,” one of them hissed. “Swallowed alive, like in ’em old stories.”

“Is he breathing? Oh, crikey, he’s breathing. . .”

“Let’s throw ‘im back,” Eli, the cabin boy, suggested, but they were a thousand leagues from the nearest lighthouse, a hundred fathoms above the nearest ship. It would have been murder. Murder was unlucky.

So they kept him.

He had forgotten how to walk, but they lifted him from the whale’s carcass and brought him below-deck. He was slippery as a fish, all knobby, slimy elbows and legs.

They propped him up by the iron cook-stove and fed him broth with arsenic and whiskey. At first the broth dribbled down his chin. Then he swallowed, and all the sailors that had gathered around him let up a shout.

They tried to teach him how to stand and how to speak. They asked him tricky questions to see if he might be a whaler like them. None of it worked.

“Well, we suppose we’ll call you Johnny Knockers,” they said. “Because those knees knock like a drum.” And then they all laughed.

That night, the clouds heaped against a stiff wind. Below deck, an air of anticipation had settled in the narrow galleys. Was Johnny Knockers a gift from the sea? Or a curse. . . The whalers went to their bunks and left him on a bucket next to the cold, gone-out stove.

***

Whaling was good the next day. The water chopped, deep and dark, and a fat whale was caught in the first hour of the watch, which was a rare thing and a lucky one. The men rolled up their chains and stowed the harpoons, and even the look-out was allowed to come in and sit the rest of the day out of the wind. Everyone was given an extra beaker of ale. Everyone except Eli. He was barely fourteen, and not a proper whaler, and so he was given the job of feeding Johnny Knockers.

Eli went over to the stove, scowling. He sat down on a bucket next to Johnny Knockers and began shoveling stew into the pale man’s mouth so hard that the spoon clanked against his teeth. Johnny Knockers didn’t protest, but he looked very sad. 

Eli stopped. He was such a piteous looking thing, Johnny Knockers was, so bony and haunted-looking.

Eli spooned slower. “All right,” he said, “I didn’t mean it about throwing you back, yeh? We was afraid is all. You’re a right frightening chap to look at.”

Johnny Knockers said nothing. But every time he swallowed, his throat clicked like a bird’s, like there was a marble in his gullet.

Eli spooned the broth in silence. Then he said, “I don’t suppose you’d tell where you came from? Where your home’s at? D’you even remember?”

The whalers had tried to find out the first day. They had searched his garment (a shred of bleached cloth, stiff with salt) but all they had found was a long tooth on a leather cord, hanging around his neck, and black scribbles on one arm in some foreign writing. “What language is that?” they had asked, but he hadn’t told them.

And he did not tell Eli. He did not look up. His pale blue eyes were fixed on the floor-planks, worn smooth and glimmering.

Eli listened to the whalers, merry in loud in the next room.

“I’m from Suffolk,” Eli said. “Suffolk by the Sea.”

Spoon, swallow, spoon, swallow.

“Have you been there? Don’t worry if you haven’t. It’s a gloomy place. A nasty place, right up next to the water. Not as bad as this, though.”

Eli felt that Johnny Knockers agreed with him.

***

That night, a storm struck––a vicious, screaming storm, all lightning and waves and a white wind that rushed in the sails. A rope snapped. A barrel of whale blubber was lost, a part of a harpoon station went into the sea. But the men were fresh off the victory of the morning’s catch, and so it was shrugged off as nothing.

***

Eli got the job of feeding Johnny Knockers again the next day. He grumbled in front of the whalers, which confused the cook, because that morning Eli had waited for everyone to leave and had begged him for the job.

Eli took the bowl of stew from the brig and sat down by Johnny Knockers.

Again he spooned for a while in silence. Then he said stoutly, “I’m not always going to be a whaler.In fact, not sure I like it much. Hauling all day, cutting and slicing, and shoveling. It’s right horrid.” Then, with a furtive glance through into the dank brig, he said, “One day I want to be a shoemaker.”

Johnny Knockers said nothing, and Eli didn’t mind. “I’m going back to Suffolk when I’m older and have got enough money. There’s a girl there named Lizzie. I gave Liz a tin of taffy before I went, three years ago, and she gave me a ribbon.” His fingers unlooped a slip of cloth from one of his buttonholes. The weather had faded the blue to gray.

“What, d’you think o’ that, Johnny Knockers? Sound like a plan? Sound like a good thing?”

Eli would have gone on, but then feet hammered the deck above. Shouts split the air. “Well, back to work,” he said, and left the remainder of the stew next to Johnny Knockers’ feet. Eli did not see, but Johnny’s eyes moved a bit as he turned to go, just a flick, and it made a sound inside his skull like a fingernail snagging.

***

Whaling had never been better, but no one spoke that night as they clambered into their bunks. Rations were going bad. Only twenty-four days at sea, and already food was spoiling.

That morning, a great big beast had been spotted going north, and all the whalers wanted the Misselkree to press on, despite there being nothing but rancid stew and tack to eat, and no fresh anything. They were becoming grumbly and lead-footed. The cook had found spiny crabs like spiders swarming the larder. But the whaling was so good, and so the whalers were convinced they were still on a streak of luck.

Still, they weren’t sure of Johnny Knockers, and since no one would go near the bony figure by the stove, Eli had to feed him permanently. Which was all right with Eli.

He liked talking he had noticed. He liked telling someone things, whether he got any answer or not. In fact, it was almost better not getting answers. 

And so Eli talked. Even after the cook had gone to his hammock and the whalers were snoring in their bunks Eli murmured to Johnny Knockers in the dark, told him of Lizzie and how she was very poor and so was Eli, and how neither of them minded. He told of the house on the heath that he wanted to buy in a year or ten. Just a short jaunt from the town, Eli said, a short jaunt that a buggy and an old horse could manage nicely. And no more of the sea. No more fear of drowning, black waters creeping over pale faces, filling your nose, your lungs. You didn’t drown on a dirt road. You didn’t drown in a buggy.

***

The crabs had begun snapping at the men’s toes as they slept. Barnacles were found on the inside of barrels, which was unheard of. But whales continued to be bountiful. They came steadily, one a day, at least, and they were becoming ever larger. Soon the Misselkree would be too full. It was a large whaler, and they had room for many barrels of blubber, but there was only so much space, only so many barrels.

“Perhaps it’s him,” Crickets said one night to the other whalers, as he scraped a strange green fungus off his tack. “Johnny Knockers. Perhaps he’s like a lure to them. To the whales.”

No one agreed at first, but slowly they came to realize: Johnny Knockers was very good luck indeed and whatever was happening around them had to be due to unfortunate weather and bad planning and a no-good blarsted tack-and-flour merchant back in Liverpool. Because yes, indeed, whaling had never been this good, whales never so foolish. And Johnny Knockers was a lure.

So they made him into one.

At the crack of dawn they took him from his place by the stove and dragged him onto the deck. A coil of rope was brought.

“Stop!” Eli yelled, when he saw what they were doing, but the whalers pushed him back. 

“Shut yer trap, boy. It’s more blubber in the barrel, for you too.”

“I don’t want any blubber, stop it!” he screamed, but they only clouted him and shoved him away from Johnny Knockers. Then they tied Johnny to the mast, tight so that he wouldn’t flop about.

A whale came very soon. Its tale slid up out of the water. Then its head dipped up, very close to the ship. Johnny Knockers saw it. His eyes took on a sickly, desperate glaze. He began to strain, pushing against the ropes.

“Stop!” Eli cried again, but no one listened.

The whale approached. The pale man began to make croaking sounds, louder and louder, and then the first harpoon struck the whale in the water and the shriek that came from Johnny’s throat was so ghastly that the sailors very nearly lost their grip on the whale. The beast began to struggle, suddenly, where before it had been calm. It thrashed and Johnny Knockers’s did, too, his voice screeching up and up. The harpoons rained over the edge of the ship. For an instant the water was stained red.

When the whale was at last dead and they were scooping the pearly fat from under its ink-blue skin, Johnny Knockers stopped screaming. He went limp again. They dragged him below-deck, and Eli sat next to him, trying to feed him, because it was the only thing he knew to do, but Johnny didn’t eat. He sat staring out into nothing, and Eli felt sure his eyes were full of hate.

***

The whalers went to their bunks, but not Eli. He stayed with Johnny.

The hours crept past. Eli began to doze. And then a hand crept forward and gripped Eli’s arm. Johnny had not been in the water for days, but somehow his skin was still wet, slippery, as if the water were inside him, seeping out of his pores. The grip was so hard. Johnny’s eyes were wide.

The cook woke at one point to empty the chamber pot and saw them silhouetted by the stove, the boy and the bone-thin Johnny Knockers. Later, when asked, he couldn’t for the life of him remember later if it had been Eli whispering. . . or Johnny Knockers.

***

It was middle of the day, bright as a bell, when Eli came up on deck and wrapped his arms in chains and plunged into the sea. He sank like a stone before anyone could reach him, before anyone could even shout.

The whalers held a burial-at-sea. Ashes to ashes, brine to brine. The captain mumbled from the ship’s damp and battered Bible. They had to shorten it a bit because a humpback had been sighted, so close by, floating calm as you like toward the Misselkree.

***

The hold was filled to bursting, barrel upon barrel of blubber, but there was still one corner left. One last corner with space for a few more barrels. The food was rotting, the men were sick, but it would only take one more whale.

They tied Johnny Knockers to the mast again, to speed things up. One last whale and they would turn keel to the sun and return home. Back to port, and ale-houses, and enough money to live at least until Christmas for those who drank, fairly well until June for those who didn’t. The Misselkree’s hold was very, very full indeed.

That day, a tiny whale came. Johnny Knockers did not thrash or scream this time. He looked at the whale, though. And just before it came within range of the men’s harpoons, it turned and folded back into the ocean. The men cursed and shouted after it. They had been looking forward to the journey back. They dragged Johnny Knockers below and threw him to the floor.

A whale came not too long afterward. They killed it and filled their last barrels. They felt very pleased with themselves, very pleased as they vomited over the side of the ship.

That night, a whaler named Smithy died of dysentery. Several others were too sick even to move. But they were headed home now, headed to port and a year of comfort.

“What an expedition,” said Crickets. “What a lucky expedition.” And everyone agreed.

***

The whales came in the night. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, surrounding the ship. The night was black, the air still and cold, and the men barely stirred as the waves from the whale’s fins began to pummel the ship. It started gently, became stronger. Then the whales struck, head-first on all sides of the ship, like hammers. Leaks sprang. A porthole burst, splashing Crickets in the face.

The men staggered from their bunks with weak shouts. They hobbled on deck in their nightclothes, lanterns swinging, tiny fireflies in a great black ocean. The whales struck again, again. The hull buckled. Men were thrown from their feet. And then the Misselkree split, right down the middle, with a deafening crack. She sank quickly––ten seconds and then she was gone––and all the little fireflies winked out.

But just before the last of it slipped under the waves, Johnny Knockers stepped off into the gurgling water. He did not sink. He did not swim. A whale’s head rose up, a black monolith, blacker than the night. A deep, hollow sound echoed out of its belly. The whale opened its mouth and Johnny Knockers flopped in, curling into the dark and the red like a child into a womb.

***

Far away, a boy struggled up a rocky shore, dragging himself over the stones. He was paler than he had been, just bones. His hair was not as thick as a fortnight ago, and his eyes were somewhat sunken. A ribbon was looped through his buttonhole. Only the faintest threads showed that it had been blue once.

But he would live, years yet, forty, fifty, and he would find roads and travel them, to Lizzie and shoe-shops and houses on heaths.

Not the men on the Misselkree. They lay at the bottom of the sea in a boat full of blubber, and not all the luck in the world could have saved them.

Neither had the whales.

The Tin Man’s Price

Mama always says we should never hurt each other but Mama don’t know nothin.

She don’t know about all the marks on my chest.

She don’t know what Edie and I get up to in the attic these days.

She knows things are goin real swell for us all of a sudden but she don’t know why.

I think Pa knows, but he won’t tell.

I think it happened to Pa too.

*

Edie’s always wakin me up in the middle of the night. We’ve always been opposite of the other. Like Edie don’t sleep much and I can sleep through the end of the world, that’s what Mama says. And Edie eats enough for ten people and I eat like a bird. We’re opposites, Edie and me. Miss Vickers at school says sometimes that happens with twins. One of you’s this way and the other’s that-a-way, and together you make up one person.

I like Edie but I don’t like us being twins. It’s like we were supposed to be one person but we got split up inside Mama and now we’re two people. It’s almost like one of us shouldn’t be alive. Like one of us is a mistake.

So Edie wakes me up in the middle of the night and instead of goin out on the roof to play cards like usual, she says, Someone’s here, Tom. I know someone’s here.

Someone’s where? I say.

In the attic, she says.

How do you know?

I just got this feelin.

Edie’s always getting feelins. Sometimes I think her feelins are real and sometimes I think she’s lyin just cause she gets bored and thinks our town’s dull as mud.tin_man_attic

How do you know someone’s there, Edie?

I just know, why you gotta be such an idiot?

Well I wish I wasn’t an idiot but everyone says I am so I shut up.

We go up to the attic. Pa keeps his old books up here, about geography and outer space and Egypt pyramids and irrigation. Sometimes Edie and me like to sit in the window and look through all these books. They’re hard but we read em anyway. We like to do somethin that Pa likes to do. We like to impress Pa. Pa don’t say much, and Mama says thank god almighty for that, why’d you want a chatterbox around anyway?

There ain’t no one up here Edie, I say, cause there ain’t. Just dust and boxes and old clothes and Pa’s books. Why you always playin tricks?

It ain’t no trick, says Edie. Her face looks stubborn, like Mama when she’s on a tear.

I know I heard something, she says. I felt it.

Cause I know Edie won’t shut up about this till we do it, I say, Okay let’s look around then, and we do. Through the dust and boxes and old clothes. Out the window and on the roof. Under the loose floorboard where we hide our best stuff. Nothin. Nobody.

I’m goin back to bed you scaredy-cat, I say.

Wait, says Edie.

She’s by the chest full of our old toys, the ones we’re too big for now. She pulls out a tall round tin covered with pictures and letters I can’t read cause they’re old and scratchy. It looks like the kinda thing you might could keep candy in.

I ain’t never seen this tin before. It ain’t one of our toys.

It must be heavy, cause Edie drops it and it hits her toe.

Ow, she says.

Then we heard it:

What’re you children doing up here.

What’re you children doing up here.

Why’d you wake me up.

Why’d you touch me.

Don’t touch me.

DON’T TOUCH ME.

We should run I guess but we’re too scared, so we just stand there starin at the tin. It’s shakin on the floor. It’s spinnin faster and faster. Then the lid pops off.

It stinks at first.

Then it smells good.

I don’t know what’s comin out of that tin, but it’s dark and it’s slimy like tar and it’s silky and slow like molasses. It looks kinda like a person but kinda not.

I don’t like it.

Hello, it says, and I guess it’s smilin but it’s hard to tell cause its face is made up of globs and cracks.

I apologize for yelling, it says, but you startled me you see.

Who are you? Edie says. I wanna slap her for bein so stupid. We should be runnin, Miss Smarty Pants, not talkin to it. And they say I’m the dumb one.

I have many names, it says. But you can call me Luck. Because that’s what I’m going to give you.

Good luck or bad luck? I say.

It looks at me. It blinks real slow. When it smiles, I feel sick to my stomach.

Good luck of course, it says.

Edie crosses her arms. Oh she thinks she’s so smart. She’s tryin to be like Pa.

How much? she says. We don’t got a lot of money here if that’s what you want.

I have no need for money, Luck says. All you have to do is follow my instructions. It’s quite simple.

What do you want us to do?

Luck blinks at Edie. It smacks its lips.

I want you to hurt your brother, it says.

Edie looks at me, at Luck, and back again.

What? I say. That’s nuts. Edie let’s get out of here.

How much do I have to hurt him? Edie says. And what’ll you give me for it?

We’ll start out small, says Luck. A little hurt for a little luck.

Edie’s thinkin fast. I see that look on her face. I got a math test tomorrow, she says. And I ain’t studied.

Luck smiles real big. A slap will do for that I think, he says.

Edie’s eyes light up.

Hang on, I say. But Edie’s fast. She runs over and slaps me across my face. It hurts. I get mad and smack her right back, and it knocks her to the floor.

Oh, Luck says. Oh oh oh.

Then Luck shakes, and then it’s not so slimy anymore. Like it figured out how to stand up straight. Now it looks more like a hole, just a hole in the attic where there should be wood and dust and boxes and now there’s nothing there instead, just a dark spot that almost looks like a person if you squint real hard.

That’s good, Luck says. Thank you, darling ones. Now go to bed and when you wake up tomorrow you’ll feel so much better than you did today.

I’ll pass my math test? says Edie. You promised I would.

You’ll make a perfect score, says Luck.

Then Edie says, And what about Tom? He hurt me, so he should get something too.

How clever of you, sweet girl, says Luck. Then it looks at me. What do you want, Tommy Tom Tom?

I don’t feel right. This don’t feel right. Edie’s got a red spot on her cheek. My cheek smarts where her hand hit it.

But I got a math test too. And I need even more help than Edie does.

Idiot Tom. Edie the smart one.

Same here, I say. Math test. I want a perfect score.

Luck smiles. Its mouth drips. Then you shall have it.

*

Our teachers don’t believe us both gettin perfect scores. Especially not me. They think we cheated so they’re makin me do my work on the board in front of everyone. And it’s like my hand isn’t my hand and my brain isn’t my brain, and soon there’s perfect algebra problems written all over that board. I didn’t have to erase once.

At home Edie and I show our tests to Mama and she says she’s so glad we finally started studyin like we should now if only we could peel potatoes faster, that’d be nice.

We show em to Pa too once he gets in from the fields.

He looks at us real strange.

How wonderful, he says.

We run upstairs before he says anything more. It’s like he knows, and I don’t want him to know. I got this feelin he’d make Luck leave if he found out.

I don’t want Luck to leave.

I like having Luck around.

I like it even though that night after Mama and Pa go to bed me and Edie go to the attic and pound on each other while Luck watches. Even though it leaves bruises all over Edie’s arms and all over my chest. Even though it hurts so much I almost pass out and Edie starts to cry.

We don’t stop. We’d do anything for Luck. We go for hours. We pound and bruise and slam and cut. It hurts it hurts but we don’t stop.

Very good, Luck says. It’s not as scary-lookin tonight. It looks more like a shadow than a blob or a hole. And shadows ain’t scary, they’re just places where the light don’t reach.

Luck runs its hands through our hair. It makes me feel even sicker but I don’t complain. I got a baseball game on Friday and I wanna win. Make a double play. Hit a grand slam. Not sit on the bench the whole time for once. And Edie, she’s got a softball game, and she wants a grand slam too. Stupid Edie, always wantin to be the same as me. Just cause we’re twins don’t mean we gotta be the same all the time.

I wanna hurt her again.

Hurt and ye shall receive, says Luck. It’s laughin so I guess somethin’s funny but I don’t know what it is.

*

One day Luck gets tired of watching us.

I want more, he says. I’m bored of you.

We could go into town, Edie says.

She’s cryin because I think I just broke her toe, but she won’t say nothin and neither will I. We won both our games this weekend. We’re gettin good grades for once. Amelia Simmons bought me a milkshake at lunch. Everybody’s lookin at us different, like we mean somethin. Like we ain’t just Tom and Edie those twins who live out on Hillside Farm, no sir. We’re Tom who gets hundreds on tests and Edie who hits grand slams.

 Town, Luck says.

He looks happy to hear that. He moves his head funny like a bird. And I’ve started callin him a he because he looks more like a man now. He’s still dark and fuzzy around the edges and sometimes when he blinks that tar drips out his eyelid but he’s mostly a man. He has a tall hat on and he’s skinnier even than me.

I should very much like to go to Town, Luck says.

So we take him.

And the first person we see, Luck points and says, That one. Hurt that one.

We look. It’s a girl from the junior high school walkin her dog. I’ve seen her before but I don’t know her name.

Edie frowns.

But it’s the middle of the day, she says. We can’t just go up and start punchin her. Someone’ll see.

Luck says, Not if we wait until she’s somewhere hidden.

I don’t like this, I say.

Oh. Oh no.

I didn’t mean to.

It just came out.

Luck, don’t be angry. Don’t be angry, Luck.

I didn’t mean it.

Luck looks at me long and hard. Edie looks at me even longer and harder.

Don’t ruin this for me you idiot, Edie says. Don’t make him mad. We need him.

I’m sorry, Luck, I say. I’ll do it. We’ll do it.

You had better, says Luck. Or I’ll go somewhere else where my gifts are appreciated and then where you will be?

You’ll be back in the rotten no-good place you came from, Edie says to me. You’ll go back to stupid bad-grades on-the-bench idiot Tom. Livin on a farm. Goin nowhere. Is that what you want? Is that you want for us Tom?

Tom, Luck says real soft. Tommy Tom Tom.

No, I say. That’s not what I want.

So we follow the junior high girl through town and all the way to Thistledown Road, where it’s quiet and the grass is high on either side.

We chase her down. She starts screamin and we run even faster. She sets her dog on us and we dodge and the dog runs right into Luck’s open arms and I don’t see what happens to the dog after that.

I don’t want to either.

We’re runnin faster than we’ve ever run before.

Isn’t this great Tom? Edie says. She’s laughin her head off. We’re almost flyin, she says. We’re like superheroes.

Ain’t nothin hero about it. Luck is right on our heels. I think Luck’s helpin us run this fast, tell the truth.

It ain’t a good fast.

It’s like runnin from somethin in a bad dream.

I guess it’s like what the junior high girl feels with us gettin closer and closer. We reach for her arms. We grab em. We pull hard.

It ain’t her fault she can’t outrun us. She don’t have Luck on her side.

*

We get home and eat dinner and go upstairs without sayin a word to nobody. Mama don’t notice cause she ran into Mrs. Jackson at the supermarket and there’s a whole scandal about Mrs. Jackson’s son runnin off to the city or somesuch and Mama’s happy as a clam about it. Finally somethin’s happenin, she says, in this dull as mud town.

Pa watches me and Edie from across the table.

I don’t like him lookin at me.

It’s like he knows.

It’s like he saw us hit that girl. Just the one time is all it took for Luck to shiver and shake and roll around on the ground like he got an electric shock. When he stood back up I could see his eyes real clear for the first time. They were dark and didn’t have no white around em.

I don’t like Luck’s eyes.

Edie stood there twistin her hands.

Oh golly Luck, she said, we shouldn’t’a done that. We shouldn’t’a hurt that girl. She’ll tell on us.

She didn’t see you, said Luck. He smoothed down his coat. He dusted off his tall hat. He kicked dirt off his boots. All she saw, he said, was her fear.

Then he took our hands and led us home.

And now we’re sittin here across from Pa tryin to choke down cornbread and I swear he knows what we’ve done.

I almost say somethin. I can’t help it. This ain’t right.

It ain’t right it ain’t right.

IT AIN’T RIGHT IT AIN’T—

Edie kicks me under the table.

Stupid Tom. Stupid idiot Tom.

I shut up. I don’t say nothin.

I ain’t stupid idiot Tom with the smart sister no more. Not with Luck around.

So I don’t act like it.

*

At first when I wake up that night I think it’s Edie comin to get me cause Luck said when he brought us home before dinner, he said, Darling children I want you to come up and see me tonight.

But we just hurt that girl for you, I said. Ain’t that enough for today?

Luck touched my arm. He squeezed tight till I couldn’t breathe.

It’s never enough, he said.

But it ain’t Edie wakin me up. It’s Pa.

Hurry, he says. Follow me.

Where’re we goin?

To the attic.

I stop cold. Why?

Cause I know what’s goin on and it’s gonna stop tonight.

Pa, ain’t nothin—

I ain’t an idiot Tom and you ain’t either.

But I am an idiot, I say. Ain’t no use lyin. I ain’t a good liar. Edie’s the one who’s good at lyin.

I need Luck, I say. We’re at the attic door. Pa’s holdin the cross from above the supper table like a gun.

I ain’t no good without him, I say.

I’m cryin.

No you got that wrong, Pa says.

He leans down so I can see him. His face got criss-crossed lines all over it. He looks tired but his eyes don’t.

You’re a good boy, Pa says. He holds me tight.

Where’s Edie?

She ain’t comin with us.

Why?

Cause she ain’t strong enough. Ain’t her fault. You could’a been the weak one just as easy.

I’m the mistake twin, I say. I’m still cryin cause that’s what idiots do. I shouldn’t be alive.

That’s right, says a voice.

It’s Luck.

You shouldn’t be alive, he says.

The attic door flies open.

Pa holds out his cross in front of us. He’s got it in one hand and me in the other. He rushes into the attic.

Somethin’s screamin:

You again.

You you you.

Not again.

Get that away from me.

GET IT AWAY.

PUT IT DOWN.

No, Pa says. I ain’t puttin it down.

He grabs that heavy tin Edie dropped, the one Luck lived inside. It’s so heavy Pa can barely lift it. Maybe with two hands he could lift it but he can’t let go of that cross. I know that without even askin.

Tom, he says, help me get it outside.

So much screamin and so much wind. Books and clothes and boxes flyin all over the attic. There’s a kind of dark in here so thick it’s like drinkin cement.

But we lift it together, me and Pa, and we get it outside.

Luck follows us, and there’s dirt flyin in our eyes and the ground’s shakin under our feet but if I look out into the fields it’s calm like springtime. It’s a good thing we didn’t stay in the attic. We might’ve brought the whole house down.

I guess Pa knows that.

How’d you know Pa? I say. How’d you know what we done?

It happened to me too. He has to shout it cause Luck is screamin nasty words so loud I cain’t hardly think.

When? I say.

When I was a boy. Luck found me too.

You should’a gotten rid of it, I say. So me and Edie couldn’t find it. This tin, we found it with our toys.

That’s the thing, Pa says.

He looks at me.

I did get rid of it, Tom.

TOM. TOM. TOMMY TOM TOM.

WHERE WILL YOU BE WITHOUT ME TOM.

Don’t listen, Pa says, real calm.

We’re by the creek now. He’s got the tin in one hand and the cross in the other and he’s tryin to bring em together like magnets that just won’t go. There’s sweat on his forehead and his muscles are big like mine’ll never be, I just know it.

YOU’RE RIGHT TOM, says Luck.

He don’t look like a man no more. He’s all kinds of slime and glob. He’s crawlin on the ground. His hat ain’t a hat no more. It’s just a tall tall head.

YOU’LL NEVER BE AS STRONG AS YOUR PA.

YOU’RE NOTHING WITHOUT ME.

YOUR SISTER COULD MAYBE DO IT. SHE’S SMART ENOUGH. SHE’S PRETTY ENOUGH. SHE COULD MAKE IT WITHOUT ME.

Don’t listen to it, says Pa. He’s sweatin hard. He cain’t hardly breathe. It ain’t nothin but tricks and lies, he says. Luck ain’t real. Luck don’t last.

DON’T LISTEN TO IT, Luck says. He drips black on my feet. He’s real close now. DON’T LISTEN TO IT.

I NEED YOU AND YOU NEED ME.

WITHOUT ME YOU’RE NOTHING.

Then Pa says, Okay Tom. Okay now.

And I say to Luck, You got that backwards. And I’m cryin but I just don’t care.

And Pa slams his hands together, cross to tin.

And Luck shrinks into a smokin black piece of somethin burnt.

And flies into the tin.

And the lid slams closed.

*

With Luck gone everything’s quiet again. There’s crickets in the grass and a coyote out somewhere by the foothills. And there’s me and Pa starin at the tin on the ground like it’s this thing you don’t want to touch cause if you do it’ll blow you to bits.

What’ll we do with it? I say.

What’ll we do without it? What’ll we do without Luck? That’s the question I really feel like askin but I know I probably shouldn’t. I think of all the things I done. I wonder if Pa done those things too when he was a boy. I wonder if anybody ever called him idiot or thought he was the dumb one.

After a while Pa says, We’ll bury it. Far from here. Farther’n’ I did the first time. Deeper too.

We’re walkin back to the house now, me and Pa. We grab two shovels from the barn.

Me and Pa.

Not Edie. Not Mama. And Pa’s lookin at me like I ain’t a boy no more. Real proud, he looks like.

I bet you didn’t count on that did you Luck? I bet you didn’t see that comin.

You thought I was nothin without you.

You was wrong.

I sling the shovel on my shoulder just like Pa does.

I liked having Luck around, I say. It was nice.

I know, he says. I did too.

What’ll we do without it? What if we never get it again?

 There. I said it. I know it’s shameful but I said it.

Well, he says. Well. Then he says, We’ll go to sleep.

We’ll wake up in the mornin, he says. And then we’ll get back to work.

~*~

Lucky Lucky Girl

Isn’t Simran a lucky girl?

When she wants something—when she wants something quite badly—well, then, somehow, something lovely always happens—and she gets it!

Like that awfully hot day when she really wanted ice cream, and she heard the truck, but she didn’t have any money. But then—oh, it was so lucky—the ice cream truck broke down just outside her house. All the ice cream was melting, so the ice cream man shouted, “Free ice cream! Free ice cream for everyone!” And she got as much ice cream as she wanted!

Isn’t that lucky?

Or another time, she wanted a particular pair of shoes in pale blue leather. But her mother said they were ridiculously expensive, and she wouldn’t spend that kind of money on her own shoes, let alone a child’s.

Simran’s mother was a little unlucky just after she said that: she must have bitten too hard into her cheese sandwich, because her tooth broke off, right in the front of her mouth—which was awfully painful, and awfully ugly, too, until she could get it fixed.

But later that same day, Simran had the best luck. A woman had bought those exact same shoes, just in Simran’s size, for her own daughter. The woman had saved and saved for months to buy the shoes, because she knew her daughter had her heart set on them. But—lucky for Simran!—something must have distracted the woman, because she left the package on the roof of her car. When she drove past Simran’s house, the shoes fell right into Simran’s yard, and the woman drove on, never knowing.

How lucky is that?

Or: in 6th grade, Simran liked this boy Jeremy. But he was the most popular boy in school—the cutest, and the funniest, and the best soccer player—and he never noticed her; you know how that goes. Well: Jeremy was in a dreadful car accident. That wasn’t very lucky for him, because he broke both legs. But it was very, very lucky for Simran, because he was in a wheelchair for many months afterwards. No more soccer for Jeremy! And after a while all his cute, popular friends got tired of sitting around with him, and they ran off to play soccer or ride bikes to the mall. Then Simran had Jeremy alllllll to herself.

Wasn’t that totally lucky?

Now poor little Emily: she was not so lucky. Back in second grade, their class play was “Sleeping Beauty.” Simran wanted to play Sleeping Beauty herself, of course—but instead, she was cast as Sleeping Beauty’s mother, a boring role where she only had one line (“Oh! How long have I been asleep?”: blah) and wore a stupid costume made out of a paper grocery bag with jewels drawn on it in crayon.

Emily, with her sky-blue eyes and so-pretty long black hair—she got to play Sleeping Beauty, and wear a real-looking diamond tiara and a long blue dress that matched her eyes. So Simran asked Emily, very, very nicely, if she would trade roles with her.

But Emily said, “No.”

That same day, Emily ran into some very, very bad luck indeed. Something dreadful happened to her—no one knows exactly what, but it must have been quite bad, and quite terrifying. She was missing for three days. And when she reappeared, her black hair had turned pure white, and her blue eyes had emptied, and she couldn’t stop trembling for three days more.

Emily would never say what had happened. In fact, that was way back in second grade, and Emily has not said a single word since the day she disappeared—not a single, solitary word.

It’s pretty sad, really.

On the bright side, Simran got to play Sleeping Beauty after all. Lucky, huh?

It’s funny, actually, when you think about it. Simran’s friends aren’t lucky at all. Her family isn’t so lucky, either, and neither are her neighbors—sometimes they’re pretty unlucky, actually. It’s almost like Simran uses up all the luck in her part of the world!

Like one time the man next door came over to complain about Simran’s cat going to the bathroom in his children’s sandbox. It wasn’t the cat’s fault—a sandbox looks like a litterbox to a cat!—but the neighbor refused to understand that, and said mean things about calling Animal Control if it happened one more time.

But he never got a chance to call Animal Control, because that night, his house very unluckily caught fire and burned to the ground. The family got out okay—well, except for the dad. He was blinded in the fire. He never saw again.

That was definitely some bad luck for him. But, well: maybe he won’t be so mean next time.

(They never did rebuild that house, and now Simran’s cat uses the ashes of their whole house as a litter box. Which is a little funny, as Simran would be the first to point out.)

Another time, Simran’s little sister, when she was only four, was watching some dumb baby show right when Simran wanted to watch Animal Planet. Simran told her very nicely that she had to change the channel, but her sister kicked up an unpleasant, screamy fuss. Her sister might have met some bad luck right then—it’s quite bad luck to scream around Simran, who doesn’t like screaming at all—but just then, their dad came in and swooped Simran’s sister away.

He took the little girl into his room and shut the door. He talked to her in that quiet-but-super-upset voice that parents use to tell small children to stay away from fire, or not to run into traffic. He said: “Look at me. No: look at me, and listen. Never argue with Simran. Never, ever, ever argue with Simran. Do you understand me, honey? Say that you understand me. Just do whatever she says.”

Her father thought Simran couldn’t hear him through the door. She could, though. She was standing right outside, and she heard every word.

But it didn’t make Simran angry. It made her smile to herself, and nod.

So maybe Simran’s dad was a little lucky, after all.

It’s funny that the people around Simran — her family, her neighbors, and Jeremy, and Emily, and that little girl who got no birthday present—even that poor ice cream man, who lost his whole inventory that day, and had no money to replace it, and couldn’t buy food for his family: they were not lucky. They were very, very unlucky.

But it’s okay, because Simran’s always lucky. When Simran wants something, what she wants comes to her—one way or another. So her luck sort of makes up for everyone else’s bad luck, at least in her opinion.

Isn’t she a lucky, lucky girl?

The Circus

They said I was found in an eggshell. That a witch sailed to sea in the shell to whip up a storm that would smash the boats to ribbons on the rocks, and when the shell came back to land, there was I, curled inside.

That’s what they said. Rubbish, of course, but in our line of work, an interesting story was important as the clothes on your back. Maybe more important.

And it’s true I was always lucky, right from a tiny thing, always first to find stones with holes in their middles when we cleared the ground for the tents, or see a cat the color of midnight. Lucky Luke, they called me.

But only once. Tempting fate like that is the height of foolishness, and we are by nature a superstitious lot.

Perhaps that’s what happened.

*

I was seven, possibly eight. Not knowing exactly my birthday on account of the eggshells, it was difficult to say for sure, but that sounds about right. Seven or eight, and there was so much glittering, thrilling fun to be had, ducking under the juggler’s clubs, spitting water back at the elephants. Waiting for the moment when everyone had taken their seats and the whole tent held its breath…

“Welcome, welcome!” Mister Scully, the ringmaster, would cry. The towns changed, some big, some small, at the edges of lakes or swaddled by mountains, but this was always the same. And then I would be wheeled out in a special box, because I was one of the small ones, and the magician would saw me clean in two.

Not truly. But it looked for all the world as if he had.

On one particular day, the animals were tired and grizzly, and the rest of us soaked through from a week’s worth of rain. “Are we there yet?” I asked. I remember this quite clearly.

“Nearly, Lucky Luke!” roared Scully, trying very hard to smile beneath his drooping, dripping mustache. Beside me the fortune teller made a sign to ward off evil spirits.

We turned down a dirt road walled on both sides with trees tall as hills. Somewhere behind my little nest of blankets the lion roared, the tamer rattled his chains.

And the beast was silenced.

Inside the trees, nightfall had come at breakfast time, so dark it was. Leaves rustled, and whatever tiny points of light broke through seemed more like stars than daylight. The forest kept the rain off, however. That was something.

It felt an age that we traveled that dark road, peering ahead for any sign of it ending, and when it did, trees giving way to open space and then a large town of wood and brick, it was as abrupt and surprising as a miracle. As finding a penny beside your shoe the moment you happen to look down.

“Everybody out!”

Everyone has a job, in the circus. In truth, everyone has twenty-seven jobs, all part of a well-oiled mechanism. The acrobats climbed atop the piles on the wagons to grasp tent pegs with their toes. The magicians vanished burlap sacks as soon as they were emptied. I wriggled through the small spaces, ran jackrabbit-quick between the carts and the tent.

With a sweeping arm, Scully donned his top hat and crossed the muddy field to the town. I remember this quite clearly, too, though I could not now say why it made such an impression. He always went to issue a formal invitation, as if the people hadn’t watched our arrival through their windows.

The circus had come to town, and oh, wouldn’t they come that very evening to see what wonders the Big Top held?

Of course they would come. They always came, ready to stamp their feet and clap their hands and hiss like snakes.

Only later, much later, did I realize I hadn’t found a single holed stone, or seen a cat hunting for field mice. I was too busy helping the tumblers with their spangles, tying knots in the trapeze ropes, fetching buckets of sawdust and rainwater.

I wouldn’t realize until later.

*

The tent was full to bursting. I sneaked out and away, far enough that I could see how grand it was, great stripes lit up with torches against the backdrop of that deep, dark forest.

“Luke!”

“Here!” I ran back, back to Maximilian, the magician, ready to tuck me into the box so he might cut me in two again.

“In you go, then.”

It was dark as a bruise inside the box, but I wasn’t afraid. No need for that. Done it a hundred times, hadn’t I?

The tent was dark, too. I couldn’t see, but I knew, it was always dark as I was wheeled out to the edge of the ring in my box. Dark and quiet enough to hear a pin drop. The band silent, Scully in his waistcoat and top hat waiting, waiting until the townsfolk couldn’t stay still for another moment.

And then the lights would burst to life, and the waiting band would play, and Scully would welcome everyone, and the show would begin.

Just another moment, that’s all. Squashed inside my box, I knew it would only take another moment.

That’s when the whistle began. A low, mournful whistle that brought goosebumps to my skin. A trombone made a noise like a cat under a cartwheel. Glass shattered.

“Lights!” Scully ordered. Maximilian flicked the latches with fingers that made the whole box shake. I tumbled out, heart thudding, as the ring of torches flared on our fearful faces. High up on the ladders, Ivan and Cassandra dropped their trapezes to put their hands to their mouths. Juliette dropped her deck of cards that did not foresee this. She would have said.

“Who was that,” Scully whispered, gazing about the tent. “Who whistled?”

No one said a word. He looked terrifying, terrible, inhuman with his wide mustache and goggling eyes.

“It is terrible luck to whistle in a circus tent, you know. Let us not get off on such a terrible foot, my friends. Who was it?”

Still, no one answered. Bunch of cowards, I thought then. Bunch of stinking cowards.

Scully gave a last look around the tent. “All right. Welcome, welcome.” It was not a cry, that time.

It was something more of a warning.

The smashed mirror was swept, cards gathered, latches closed on the box, locking me back inside. For the first time I was afraid as the sword sliced the air, but the trick went off without a hitch. And for the rest, if our hands shook a little more, if our feet were not so steady that evening, who was to notice?

But we would not stay another night, that was decided the instant the tent had cleared. Pack up first thing, be on our way to somewhere more hospitable.

In the morning, the wheels stuck so fast in the mud not even the elephants could pull them free.

That afternoon, bored, restless, Cassandra set up a tightrope between two trees, and Ivan wasn’t quick enough to catch her when she fell.

Sulky and starving, the lion seemed to feel the tamer was taking too long to bring his dinner. A single scream broke the sunset, blood stained the ground.

By nightfall, we were all huddled in a single wagon, Juliette’s cards promising death, and death, and death again.

For these things always came in threes. We stole glances at each other’s faces, wondering.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever know who knocked the candle, and I am the only one left to think of it.

*

I was always lucky. Found in an eggshell, the first to spot four-leafed clovers and make wishes on shooting stars.

The only one to wake as the flames licked and crackled over parched wood and moth-eaten blankets. My screams trapped in my throat, my hands weak. No one stirred when I shook them.

Jackrabbit-quick, I ran. Into the woods, dark, dank, safe. From behind a tree I saw the fire spread down the chain of wagons, heard the lion roar, the elephants stamp their feet and toss their heads, strong enough to break their chains and let them run.

But there was no saving the circus. Nothing to do but wait for the flames to burn themselves out in the hour of sunrise, when the sky matched the burning embers exactly. On knocking knees I walked, edging closer to a sight too terrible to look at, and yet too terrible to look away.

Part of my magic box survived, charred wood held together by silver hinges, surrounded by a pile of spangles and ash. A beautiful, brightly-colored bird, like a fire itself, flew down to perch on its edge.

It turned a beady eye on me, and then on the rising sun. And it began to whistle, sounding for all the world like a man.