The city of Belle-by-the-Sea was the most fashionable place on earth. There was nowhere more polished and up-to-date, no city lovelier, with greener trees or sweeter air or a bluer, more-picturesque ocean that one might look out over, and throw oneself into when hot or melancholy. The citizens prided themselves in being the prettiest, the most modern citizens probably anywhere, and it would take you only a moment in those beautiful streets, with the willows drooping overhead and the people strolling past in bizarrely improbable costumes, to realize the abnormal measures their obsession with fashionableness sometimes took.
It was a marvelous-looking city, there could be no doubt of that. Slow-moving dirigibles floated overhead, and colorful kites wafted in the ocean breezes, and the buildings soared, built of gray stone, but so delicate and fantastical that they looked more like carefully dipped wax, little balconies protruding, and pierced all over with stained-glass windows or diamond-shaped panes, peeping out like eyes. The chimneys were twisted or braided, or carved in the most aesthetically pleasing manner possible. Below in the streets, ladies and gentleman promenaded tirelessly (promenading was the fashion that month, replacing the newly outmoded “jaunting” and the hopelessly prosaic “walking”). Lace parasols bobbed along like the skeletons of mushrooms, pinstripe trousers snipped like scissors, salmon-silk socks flashed, candy-colored shoes darted. The skies overhead were kept perpetually blue and cheery by the weather balloons that floated about, pulling clouds in through their propellers and releasing them white and pure. The gutters and stoops were always clean. Even the urchins were perfectly maintained, their cheeks smudged with just the right amount of coal-sludge, and their suspenders and ratty polka-dot bow ties kept in a careful state of disarray by the city’s Fashion Keepers.
But now you would begin to notice the abnormalities – the desperation, almost, beneath the lacy, silken, parasol-toting façade.
For example, when the newspapers declared that fish-shaped hats were all the rage and in fact indispensable to any well-dressed lady’s or gentleman’s wardrobe for Wednesdays, the hat-shops and milliners of Belle-by-the-Sea were hard pressed to stock their shelves fast enough, and were known to send errand-boys running to the fisherman quays with their fists full of hat-pins.
When an underground pamphlet declared that one ought to be utterly indignant about the state of cat-hairstyles in the neighborhood of Glendaloo, everyone made a point to be righteously outraged over the subject for at least ten minutes a day.
And when some enterprising young fellow discovered he had miscalculated gravely, and had far too many pads of butter in his cooling warehouse, he put up posters all over the city declaring that butter was good for one’s figure and one might dispense with exercising altogether if one ate sufficiently of the butter, and he put this statement on great sun-colored billboards, with appealingly curly, vine-like type, and had it printed with a picture of two lovely people, one slim and one round, and of course they weren’t the same person at all, but my dear, you would be far too busy eating butter to notice.
Enough of that, though. All in all, Belle-by-the-Sea was a lovely place. It was a pleasant life, there in the cool shadows of its arches, and a simple one, too, because after a while no one really knew what was good and what was bad, simply what was fashionable.
One day, something arrived in Belle-by-the-Sea so marvelous that the people were rather surprised, as they thought they had seen everything marvelous already.
It was a massive wagon. Not a regular massive wagon, but a wagon so great and ponderous it was more of a gilt-and-wood castle, balancing on thirty-six massive iron-hooped wheels and pulled by an army of eighty silent, velvet-gray donkeys. The wagon rose almost fifty feet into the air, towers and flags not included, and the sight of it emerging through the dust on that hot summer’s day, well. . . . It was a sight for sore eyes, and fashionable eyes, too.
Behind upper windows, and from balconies, housemaids and children gasped as the wagon pulled slowly into the city and squeezed between the housetops. Housemaid spoke to parlor-maid spoke to housekeeper spoke to master or mistress and soon crowds of powdery rose-and-mint colored promenaders were pouring toward the main square of the city, where rumor had it the wagon was destined to arrive.
The wagon squirmed into the square, went to its center, and there curled like a great worm around the fountain in the middle, falling still with a creak and a sigh, the donkeys closing their eyes without a single bray or stamp of hoof, as if falling asleep.
By this time, word had spread through all of Belle-by-the-Sea, from the mansions to the gutters to the quays and the fashionably-distressed-nautical-chic sailors’ taverns. News arrived of the marvelously enormous wagon lying in wait in the main square, and people left whatever they were doing to see it.
The urchins heard, too, and went running and ducking under the fingers and swabs of the Fashion Keepers, went darting and leaping through the streets. When they got to the square, it was already packed toe-to-heel. It was a large square, and a grand and beautiful square even without people in it, but now, full of all the wonderful figures of Belle-by-the-Sea, with the blue sky spread out overhead, and the gilt glimmering from the wagon’s crenelations, and the eighty donkeys standing silent as could be, it made the urchins stop in their tracks and stare.
Everyone was staring. Everyone was waiting, breathing, silent.
The wagon sat for what felt like a ridiculously long time in the heat, with the weight of Belle-by-the-Sea’s not-entirely-low expectations hanging about like fluffy pink smog. I have already said the wagon was massive, but it was more than that. It had turrets and towers, many windows and little balconies, and on one side was a stage, curtained with luxuriantly rippling purple velvet. There was no sign above the stage, or indication of what might be performed, but the promise was there and so the population of Belle-by-the-Sea waited.
After approximately fourteen minutes, the curtains twitched, and out came a man, marching across the stage. He looked very fashionable, quite as marvelous as the wagon from which he had emerged. He wore a gloriously complicated coat made from many sharply tailored triangles and covered in buttons, brass and seashell, and drooling lace from the throat and cuffs. He had an enormously tall top hat on his head, the most handsome mustache anyone had ever seen, and as he approached, he smiled radiantly down at the masses below. A few young ladies flapped their painted fans, and the gentlemen smirked disparagingly, which is what gentlemen do when they stumble upon other men whom they deem almost as wonderful and debonair as themselves.
There was a moment’s pause when all of Belle-by-the-Sea seemed to hold its breath. Then the man in the complicated coat spoke:
“Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls. Urchins,” he began, and he threw his arms wide, so that the people in the crowd could more fully appreciate the red silk lining of his jacket and the fact that his belt was almost certainly snakeskin, with a little ruby eye at the buckle. (The Fashion-Keepers were scribbling wildly at this point: ruby-eye buckles, dramatic arm sweeps, complicated coats.) “Welcome! To my Palace of Marvels!”
Music sounded from somewhere, a clarion blast of trumpets, violins sawing frantic scales, and a frenzy of clashing cymbals and tinkling bells. At the same moment, a hundred butterflies were released from somewhere behind the wonderful gentleman and spiraled into the air in a beautiful column of iridescent wings, emerald-, wine-, and pearl-colored. The butterflies were sucked into one of the weather-turbines high above and came out the other end considerably smaller, but the audience below was far too busy staring at the complicated gentleman to notice.
“You may be asking yourselves,” he said, his voice carrying effortlessly across the square, “what is this Palace of Marvels? And who are you, Wonderful Gentleman, with your impeccable coattails and well-oiled mustache? Well, fear not! I shall tell you!” Here he smiled again, even more radiantly than before, and his eyes shone, and suddenly and subtly, without anyone really understanding how, the tables had turned. They had already been almost upside down – the impressively massive wagon and the donkeys and the butterflies had done much of the work – but now the entire audience was beholden, enraptured, enslaved to every word the gentleman spoke. He was no longer a traveling performer. He was almost a king, and there was not a person in the crowd who did not desire to know what secret this man had to tell, and what wonders were held within his Palace of Marvels.
The gentleman in the complicated coat seemed to have expected this development as a matter of course: “My Palace has been to all the great cities of the world. No doubt you have heard of it from London. Beijing. Poughkeepsie. Now doubt you have heard tales of the fetes which it can perform. No doubt our reputation has reached this great city years ago. “
Again that smile flashed, and a veritable gale of head-nodding ensued, peacock feathers, silk flowers, and fish-tails shivering in time with their wearers. The truth was, no one in Belle-by-the-Sea had ever heard of him before, but there are some things simply too mortifying to admit.
“I thought so.” The gentleman said and now something new entered his eyes, the tiniest glitter of derision, but no one stood near enough to catch that.
“And yet. . .” he said, his eyes back to twinkling like a pair of bells. “And yet there are no doubt one or two among you who have been living under a bridge your entire lives, or have been recently orphaned, who have not had the cultural education necessary to know of me. You, perhaps, with that hideously old-fashioned yellow kerchief. You have only recently crawled into the light of the sun at the sound of my arrival, yes?”
The man with the hideously old-fashioned yellow kerchief tried desperately to cover it with his hands, but the gentleman only laughed and carried on. “And so for you, for the benefit of you, I will reiterate. “
“I?” He swirled his hands at the wrist and bowed low, and doffed his enormously tall top hat, which was lined inside with blood-red satin that had been printed with smaller top hats. “Am the Lord Doctor, PHD from Wizcombe University, honorary member of the Society of Rednow, recipient of degrees from the University of Juno, knighted by the Queen of Ingrish. I am John. . .” He breathed in, deeply and dramatically, “Smith.”
Rapturous applause exploded throughout the square, ringing and bouncing against the stone faces of the buildings. Again the music started up, trumpets and violins screeching. Again a burst of butterflies were let up into the air and again they were desiccated horribly by the propellers of the weather balloons.
“Thank you,” said the gentleman, and instantly the crowd and the music fell quiet again, and all that moved was the softly drifting wings of the butterflies, raining down like petals. “Now. You are probably wondering: what is such a man as this doing in our town, on a stage? Like a common conjuror, or snake-oil-selling witch-doctor quack! Well. . .”
A spindly brass staircase folded down off the edge of the stage, and the gentleman darted down it, leaning over the railing toward a little child who smiled up at him, brushing bits of Butterfly-guts out of her eyelashes.
“I will tell you,” he said, in a whisper that was somehow not a whisper at all, but loud and cutting enough for all to hear. “I will tell all of you! Nay, better, I will show you!”
The gentleman spun away, back toward the center of the stage, and there he spread his arms. Spotlights affixed somewhere high among the turrets of the wagon ignited, and suddenly the curtain behind him was awash in changing colors, a shifting, whirling cloud of purple and green and dusky blue. The music became mysterious and tinkling.
“I have discovered,” the Lord Doctor Smith breathed, and spread his fingers, and looked away into the distance as if seeing some glorious vision of dewy-hilled Arcadia. Everyone in the crowd sighed in awe. “I have discovered the greatest mystery of all. And I have solved it.
“Yes! I have solved the greatest mystery! You all know what the greatest mystery is. No, not your neighbor’s flawlessly inexpressive face, or where your brother gets all those socks from. Death! Death is the greatest mystery. And I have conquered it.”
Behind him, projected on the curtains, a coffin appeared, and a rather Gothic graveyard, and the spell in the square was rather broken by that. Death was neither a pleasant subject nor a fashionable one, and snake-oil might have been preferable. The shift was instant. Skepticism crept into faces, charged the air and turned it heavy and bitter. And yet the Lord Doctor Smith was unperturbed.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “Murmur among yourselves. Shake your heads. Call it an impossibility, frippery, rubbish! But are you a member of the Society of Rednow? No, I think you are not. I can show you this world. That is what my Palace of Marvels does. I have developed a foolproof way to cross between the world of the living, into the world of paradise.“ Again, the swift swoop of the hand outward, fingers spread.
“It is a marvelous place, a Wonderland, a garden of pleasures. I have been there. I have charted it, and developed a perfectly safe method of traveling between the two plains. All you must do to get in is die.”
He was losing the audience rather quicker now, and he seemed not to care at all.
“You don’t need to believe me of course. Such worldly people as yourselves will want proof. I can give it to you. All you like! I call it Paradise Tourism, and that’s really all it is! Tourism! A jaunt to the world beyond the grave for well-heeled people.”
A few of those well-heeled people were leaving the square just now, indignantly drawing scarves around shoulders and straightening hats. Perhaps the Lord Doctor saw it, or perhaps that was only a bit of dust making his eye dart and glimmer in amusement. Whatever the case, he was not disturbed.
“Behold!” he shouted.
The curtains behind Lord Doctor Smith opened slightly, revealing a woman in a glittering circus costume, bristling with feathers and stitched with so many gilt beads and crystals she practically shone. The woman smiled broadly at the audience. The Lord Doctor Smith smiled at the audience, too. He extended his hand and she took it, and together they both walked across the stage, their eyes clanging like church-bells now, projecting metaphorical lightning bolts of joy and showmanship into the crowd. They stopped in the center of the stage. The Lord Doctor turned his smile on the girl. Then he took a pistol from his breast pocket and shot her in the heart.
The sound was sharp. It pulled the crowd tight like a drawstring, jerking everyone upright and freezing them. The girl fell, blood blooming across her chest.
“Nothing like someone dying to catch your attention, eh?” the wonderful gentleman laughed, flicking the blackpowder from the barrel of his silver gun, while all across the square people’s faces turned to masks of shock and revulsion. “All the books start that way these days, don’t they? So-and-so died. Why should you care? I don’t know, but you should because it’s dramatic. However!” He twinkled at the audience, as if he were telling a joke. “It’s really only remarkable when they come back.”
The audience did not understand this joke. If it was a joke, it was not funny at all. The girl lying on the stage had a bloody wound over her heart, and there is something very primal and horridly unnatural about seeing another person die that ruins the mood of any gathering.
And yet the gentleman was carrying on as if nothing was amiss. “Don’t worry!” he cried, laughing merrily and not at all madly. “Don’t be afraid! Look!”
Here the great curtains parted, and then another pair, and another, three sets of curtains swooping apart in waves – purple-green-red – and there, behind them, was a great circle of bevelled glass, like a lens. And behind that, floating happily-as-could-be in the most marvelous void of multicolored clouds, was the circus girl. There was no sign of a wound. In fact, she looked as if she could not have been happier about her current state. She appeared rather like a goldfish in a bowl, moving languidly about, plucking bits of multicolored cloud and eating them and making delighted faces. Her body remained on the stage, a lump of sequins, white limbs and beads.
“You see?” said the gentleman, very softly. “She is dead. Temporarily. And yet her soul, her essence, all that really matters, has passed into that wonderful place beyond. That is what all of you have been missing! Clinging to this dull old ground. This!” He gestured around him. “This is only half of everything! There is an entire world of softness and joy and wonder, where you are never hungry or sad or too warm or too cold! Look at her frolic! Would it not be worth a moment’s discomfort to frolic through a landscape of multicolored clouds?”
No. The crowd was not entirely convinced that it would. Not to mention, they were still sure they had witnessed a cold-blooded murder.
“Oh, but of course. You are all asking: ‘What of the dear girl? How will she come back! Surely it is not so difficult to die, but how will one return?’ Well, you are darling little thinkers, aren’t you. Let me show you something else.” And here he made an elaborate gesture, and a mechanical arm swooped into the dark behind the bowled lens and drew the circus girl out. However, she left the lens not as girl, but as a wisp of violet steam that somehow did not dissipate or blow away. The Lord Doctor took the wisp by thumb-and-forefinger and placed it elaborately over the dead girl on the stage, and suddenly she was alive again, and there she sat up and smiled rather vacantly, her teeth as white as rabbit-fur.
“There you have it! There she is, in the flesh.” His eyes flashed brighter and merrier than they ever had before. “Now, is that not terribly, terribly fashionable?”
There was still some slight convincing to do, of course. The circus girl roamed about through the square and let people touch her hands, and she smiled at them reassuringly and showed them that yes indeed her wound had entirely healed, and the Lord Doctor continued to flail and gesticulate and prance on the stage.
And now it came, slowly at first, but rising steadily and surely: the most resounding sound came up from the crowd, the loudest cheer you ever heard. This was death conquered. This was new, and exciting, and wonderful, and quite realistic and scientific, didn’t you think, Jeremy? Eating clouds? Frolicking weightlessly? Yes, please.
“But don’t make up your mind just now,” the gentleman cried. “Go home and think on it. We will not run away in the night. In two days, when we open for business, the doors to paradise will be flung wide, and you may enter and leave as you please. Death Tourism, I call it! And you are all . . . WELCOME.”
Everyone went home that evening befuddled, slightly fuzzy and sick-feeling, like the way you are after a carnival. Too much cotton candy and too-bright-lights, and too much wonder can turn nasty very quickly.
But it could not be denied that Lord Doctor Smith had caused a sensation. All through the night, and the next morning, too, the citizens of Belle-by-the-Sea were a-buzz with talk of his great wagon, and the Lord Doctor’s marvelous contraptions. You could even go to the square and watch various members from the Lord Doctor’s troupe being murdered and then appearing behind the glass, leaping through the clouds, being merry. They were such fashionably-clad people, and they looked very happy.
And so two days later, when the little ticket booths opened for business and the spotlights were lit, and the beveled glass lens was polished to a gleam and promising all the wonders of that cloud-filled void, there was a long, long line of people waiting to go in.
Great ladies from the mansions on the waterfront of Belle-by-the-Sea had left cards at their friends’ houses, had met over finger sandwiches at Mademoiselle Fricassee, had passed folded notes while getting their feet chewed upon by dogs, which was the newest fashion in pedicures:
My darling Emily, Die with me, won’t you? The newspapers are saying it’s quite necessary this week, quite indispensable. 12 o’ Clock, Saturday, Town Square.
Yours, fashionably, Lady Meredith Cray
Darling Emily was only too happy to die with Lady Meredith Cray, and so was most everyone else. Within one turn of the clock-hands, much of the population of Belle-by-the-Sea had been convinced this was a revolution, a wonder, and a must-do.
High on the fifth floor of the wonderful wagon, inside one of its drooping turrets, in the hot, stuffy confines of its wooden walls, there sat the circus girl in her sequined costume, fuming on a little velvet footstool and looking as if she were about to explode. The complicated gentleman was there, too, watching the scene below with an air of satisfied disdain.
The circus girl began toeing a crack in the floor, then kicking the corner of a carpet, ever more viciously. Finally the complicated gentleman sighed expansively and turned to her.
“Oh, come now, Bessy, stop your rattling. It’s paying your dinner too.”
Bessy’s head came up like a Jack-in-a-Box, her eyes like two little stones. “What about the little ‘uns! What about the babies left at home, and all the old folk, and the ill, and- ”
“Not my fault. A fool and his breathing-abilities are soon parted.”
“That is not how that saying goes, and you- you- You! There are good people down there! Good people!”
“Darling, I do not doubt it. I’ve been quite convinced of their virtues as well. But why do you scowl at me so? What have I done? I have not lifted a finger against them. That’s the brilliance of it. It’s all entirely up to them.”
“The first judge who finds out, you tell ‘im that and you see if you’re not drawn and quartered for what you’ve done.”
“Well,” said the complicated gentleman. “I think we must simply make sure that never am I caught.” His eyes went the slightest shade darker. “Yes, that’ll do nicely.” He laughed, and turned again to the window.
Here the door to the chamber creaked open and another girl came in. She looked almost identical to the girl on the footstool. They wore the same costume down to the smallest bead and bit of stitchery. They had the same nose, the same dark eyes, the same pale skin and thin face. And yet it would have only taken a moment of looking at them both in close proximity to see they were not the same people at all. They were sisters, twins, and one of them had a splotch of red theater blood above her heart and the other had small hooks hidden about the waist of costume that allowed her to be hung on invisible ropes and appear, from a distance, as though she were floating.
“Is Bessy whining about the poor innocents again?” the girl asked, and she spoke the word ‘innocents’ as though it were not a word at all but a string of spit. The differences could be counted on two hands now: this girl had all of Bessy’s grace, and yet none of that coiled, angry energy. She was somehow sharp beneath her flowing movements – sharp voice and sharp chin, and a somewhat supercilious expression which she employed liberally as she passed the footstool on which Bessy sat. Bessy glared up at her.
“I am,” Bessy said, as if daring her sister to contradict. “And you should be, too, if you had half a heart.”
“Well, I don’t. Not for idiots.”
“Both of you are awful. Both of you are a couple of rotten wormy wicked apples!”
“Hear that, Esmé? Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I’ll be a rotten wormy apple any day, if you’ll be, too.”
And here they took to giggling and poking each other, and Bessy ran from the room, while below in the square an insistent clatter had begun, a clatter, a snap, and a fall.
The massacre had begun. 10£ a piece, the gilt sign by the booths said, and it could have said 100£: the people of Belle-by-the-Sea would have payed it gladly. A gallows had been put up in front of the stage and all the fashionable people payed for their tickets and went up with their little half-heeled shoes, and salmon silk socks and plumed hats, and there they lay nooses around their own necks, looking at each other excitedly, and making little exclamations, and when the trapdoor fell, the attendants and onlookers cheered, and the little shoes and silks went spinning down into the dark, and the rows of people on the scaffold were smiling, too, their faces quite bright and joyful as their necks broke.
Figures began to appear in the wonderful world beyond the glass, indistinct shapes that frolicked about and ate clouds. Row after row stepped onto the dais, and row upon row fell. The Lord Doctor Smith’s coffers became full to bursting, and no one seemed to notice how the shapes were very blurry behind the beveled glass, not like faces at all, but merely silhouettes, drifting farther and farther away.
Late in the afternoon, an elderly gentleman, trembling and solemn-faced, came to one of the booths and said, “My wife went in. When will she be out, please?” And the boy in the booth smiled and said: “I don’t know! But perhaps you would like to join her! Couples go free, naturally.”
The bodies, once they had been hanged, were taken down with the utmost care and hurried behind the wagon. Shoes were gathered and carted away between the wagon wheels by tiny, chittering little creatures wrapped in strips of old cracked leather, with helmets over their faces. And at last, when night came, the Palace of Marvels was closed and the curtains swayed shut.
Not a single person had left the wondrous sky-scape beyond the beveled glass.
The next morning, very early, Bessy woke and threw a cloak over her sequined get-up and crawled out the bottom of the wagon, landing in a heap on the cobbles. She had a small sack over her shoulder and workman boots on her feet, and she stole across the square and into the shadowed streets as quietly as an ant. Then she began to run, out of the city and into the wild countryside, and only when she was far down the road did she slow and look back over her shoulder. Belle-by-the-Sea looked gaudy to her then, a hideous whirl of fakery, the balconies teeth, the chimneys noses, pointing endlessly toward the sky. She turned her face to the road again and began to walk, suddenly loosely, into the dawning sun. She did not look back a second time. There are some things much larger and more complicated than one’s self, like an entire city of fools, and a heartless sister, and a greedy man. But there is always a sun going up somewhere that one can walk into and hope, for a little while, that elsewhere is better.
The urchins of Belle-by-the-Sea watched mountains of fashionably-clad bodies being taken away, pockets emptied of purses and coins, limbs stripped of their silk stockings and candy-colored shoes, milky bodies thrown into the water to sink quickly under the deep blue waves. Later, in the dead of night, when the urchins went around the glass on the stage, they found there nothing of a paradise, and no wonderland of clouds. Only light, sculpted carefully, and sound effects, and strange profusions of steam, that, from a distance, might be mistaken for souls.
At the Library of Dreams, you can conveniently deposit your unwanted nighttime imaginings for the low, low price of twenty-five dollars.
A Librarian will collect, archive, and catalog your dream, but don’t worry—you don’t have to wait around during the boring stuff. As soon as your dream has been safely withdrawn, the Librarian assigned to you will give you a receipt—hold on to this, mind you—and you can be on your merry way.
Now, let’s say you find yourself wanting to re-live your dream—whether that’s because it was a particularly thrilling one, but rather too thrilling to reside permanently in your mind; or because you are thirsty for inspiration and think it could make for a rollicking good story, if only you could remember what it was. Or perhaps you want your dream returned to you altogether, because, on second thought, it unnerves you to think about some figment of your subconscious sitting unused in a drawer somewhere. Well, you’re in luck: Recollection and restoration services are available, with pricing upon request. All you have to do is present your receipt (did you hold on it as you were supposed to?) at the Welcome Desk, and a Librarian will assist you.
Dream harvesting and storage, and excellent, first-class service, all for only twenty-five dollars.
Isn’t it a bargain, though?
But wait! There’s more!
If you will allow your dream to be a matter of public record—that is, freely available for viewing by any registered citizen—we will waive your collection fee, and pay you a sum of one hundred dollars (plus an additional percentage of each viewing). Think of it: Countless others, generations of others, paying to experience your own dreams, long after you’re dead and gone.
Kind of exciting, isn’t it?
Here at the Library of Dreams, we certainly think so.
It was Taja’s first time working the Welcome Desk at the Library of Dreams, and she was nervous about it, but not in the way you might think. She wasn’t nervous because she was the youngest apprentice at the library and was therefore bound to screw up something.
No, she was nervous because, since coming to work at the Library, she’d been content to scuttle around in the shadows and run errands and make coffee for the Librarians, even Madam Jacosa, who was by all possible definitions terrible. Taja had let the Librarians with bad attitudes yell at her and the Librarians with workaholic tendencies ignore her. Basically she’d allowed herself to drift unseen and (mostly) unloved through the Library like the bottom-ranking piece of scum she was, with no complaints.
Even though she was more talented than all of them.
Especially because she was more talented than all of them.
But now, thanks to a scheduling error, and hopelessly flaky Elis having called in sick again, Taja had been hastily reassigned to the Welcome Desk for the day. And at the Welcome Desk, she’d have no choice but to be noticed. And Taja worked very hard not to be noticed.
It was for the good of everyone, really.
The front door dinged and a rather furtive-looking young woman entered, half-hidden by a felt hat and tasseled scarf.
“Welcome to the Library of Dreams,” Taja said. “How may I help you today?”
“Yes, hello.” The woman hunched over the desk, as if protecting her words. She glanced at the five doors marked HARVESTING, RECOLLECTION, RESTORATION, VIEWING, and WAITING. “The thing is, I’ve never been here before.”
Obviously. “You don’t say?” Taja said.
“It’s just I’ve always thought dreams shouldn’t be tampered with, and that the Librarians have far too much power, and that something else is going on here. Something nefarious. Behind the scenes, as it were.” The woman eyed Taja expectantly.
Taja kept her face serene. Another conspiracy theorist. The Library saw at least five a day. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can assure you, we’re far from nefarious here at the Library of Dreams. We’re simply providing a service.”
“I read there was once this king who thought the Library was evil, that it should never have been built. He tried to burn it down, and then he disappeared.” The woman leaned closer. “Under rather mysterious circumstances.”
“Yes,” Taja said calmly, “I’m familiar with the story. Roysius the Third. He was quite mad.”
The woman’s mouth thinned. “You look rather young to be working here. I’m not sure I feel comfortable talking to you. Where’s your supervisor?”
“I’m thirteen, and quite capable, I assure you. My supervisor is Larkin, and he’s busy just now.”
“Oh yes? Busy doing what, exactly?”
Taja’s smile dazzled. “I can’t tell you that. Official Library business.”
The woman scowled, turned away, tapped her foot against the polished marble floor, and turned back. “Fine. Fine.” Then she mumbled something. Taja pretended she hadn’t understood.
“What’s that?” she asked sweetly.
“I said, I would like to view a particular dream. Should be filed under Halon, of the Dower family. He’s my . . .” The woman rolled her eyes. “All right, so he was my boyfriend. I know it’s silly, but . . . Right before he left me, he had this dream. I don’t know what it was about, but it upset him so much he could hardly speak, and then he left me, and I have to know what it is, I just have to. The cousin of his roommate is a friend of my sister’s, and she said he came to the Library the morning after he had that dream, which means it must be filed away here somewhere, and I’m fairly certain it’s public. So . . . I’d like to look at it now. Please.”
Taja waited with her hands clasped on the table before her. “I really didn’t need to know all of that. I just needed to know the service you required.”
The woman gaped, flushing. “And you just let me go on and on?”
“I didn’t want to be rude. Now,” said Taja, and here was where her heart’s steady trot became a gallop, “please let me see your registration, and I’ll get things started.”
The woman fumbled in her purse, muttering to herself. Then she slid her registration card across the desk. When Taja took it, she made sure her fingers grazed the woman’s hand.
All Librarians could see dreams. It only required a slight touch of skin to skin for the dreams to appear, surrounding the dreamer—ghostly shapes, cityscapes, nonsense. The dreamer, flying. The dreamer, falling. The dreamer, outrunning a forest of tornados. Typical stuff, most of the time. Same song, different voice. Recent dreams appeared closer, more vivid. Long-ago dreams were harder to make out and farther away. Sifting through the images to find the long-ago dreams was like fumbling through a dimly lit mirror maze with thousands of people, trying to find what you needed—one particular reflection among millions.
But for Taja, it was different.
For Taja, a touch didn’t mean simply seeing dreams. It meant seeing everything—dreams, memories, wants, fears. Stray violent thoughts. Deepest secrets.
It was a gift, Taja’s mother had said. At first.
Then Taja started telling her mother what she saw every time they kissed and hugged, every time they joined hands and danced in the kitchen while breakfast cooked: What her mother feared. What her mother wanted. What her mother thought of old man Duggan from next door. Where her mother had kissed the banker she’d gone to dinner with the night before. How her mother had hated Taja for a time when Taja was very small.
How her mother had thought of hurting her.
Taja didn’t hold a grudge; she’d long ago learned enough about the way minds worked to know that you couldn’t always control what you thought about. Accepting that was a matter of maintaining sanity, for Taja. She wasn’t insulted or anything.
But, quickly, the reality of this became too much for Taja’s mother. “What am I thinking now?” she would ask nastily, when Taja hugged her good-bye before school. “Tell me what I’m thinking,” she said one night, suddenly, while preparing supper. She grabbed Taja by the throat in a fit of mad-eyed rage, shook her, and then released her.
She watched Taja fearfully from across the room while they watched evening programs on the television. “I’m sorry,” she would sometimes whisper, and Taja would pretend she didn’t hear.
Taja’s mother started flinching, cursing, sobbing every time Taja entered a room, every time she moved or spoke, every moment she existed. Once, she threw a knife at Taja when she came down to the kitchen to help make lunch. “Don’t touch me!” Taja’s mother screamed, and Taja calmly left the room and went to the park to play with whatever kids she could find, because all of them were much happier than she was, and when she bumped into them while playing games, she saw flashes of smiling parents, and birthday parties full of color, and bright, brilliant futures so unlike the one she saw for herself.
Then, one night, Taja awoke to find someone—a gloved, masked someone—dragging her from her bed, stuffing her in a sack. She knew it was her mother because she smelled her rose perfume. In the back seat of the car, she sat silent and blinded. Through the cloth sack’s weave, she saw the faint shape of her mother, driving. Before Taja’s mother threw her over the bridge into the river, Taja’s mother whispered that she would be happier now, without Taja around.
“You monster,” Taja’s mother hissed, her voice choked with tears.
That was the moment, right before she slammed into the icy water, that Taja decided her mother wasn’t worth her time, and that her ability was a gift, not a curse. It was special; it could probably prove useful somewhere. So Taja decided she would live, and find out where that place might be.
“If you don’t mind,” the woman snapped, whipping her hand away from Taja’s, “I’d like only my assigned, grown-up Librarian to touch me.”
“I’m sorry! Sorry. It was a mistake. I— ” Taja paused, collected herself, stared at her desk. “If you’ll please take a seat in the Waiting Room, a Librarian will be along shortly to assist you.”
The woman gave Taja a curt nod and hurried to the Waiting Room. Her heels clacked against the floor like teeth.
Breathless, Taja slid the woman’s ten and two twenties into the cash drawer and dropped the woman’s registration card into the holding file for safekeeping. The truth was, though, that she wasn’t sorry at all. Stealing thoughts like this sustained her. She craved the thoughts of other people more than she craved actual food.
She was no curse. She was a gift.
I am a gift, mother. And I am alive.
What had Taja seen this time? She blew out a slow breath, assessing. An array of images had laid out before her, for that miraculous second. A vastness of books opened to their most vivid illustrations:
The woman customer, kissing a man. The woman, crying in a dimly lit room. The woman, winning the Presidential Award for Notable Contributions to Science. The woman, working in a laboratory. The woman, laughing in a theater with her friends. The woman, kissing a man, kissing a man, kissing a man named Halon Dower. The ex-boyfriend. This woman woman was absolutely miserable about him. Taja couldn’t feel her misery, but she could clearly see it in how many thoughts and memories focused on him.
This, of course, made Taja think of Larkin.
If anyone else existed who could do what Taja could do, and happened to touch Taja at that moment, her thoughts would have appeared to that person like images on a television, and they would have looked something like this:
Larkin, pulling Taja out of the river, exclaiming that she couldn’t be dead, please, not this poor little child.
Larkin, nursing Taja back to health in a tiny, warm room lined with books.
Larkin, giving Taja her blue apprentice’s coat.
Larkin, smiling. Chuffing her shoulder. Ruffling her hair. Looking at her. Singing while he worked.
Larkin, Larkin, Larkin.
Larkin, kissing her. Someday, when she was older, taller, beautiful. He would not ruffle her hair then.
(Her most precious, secret hope.)
The door opened. A man walked in, suited, vested, wearing a dark bowler hat. His suit had long coattails. Taja approved of this, and of his clean, attractive jaw.
“Welcome to the Library of Dreams,” Taja recited. “How may I help you today?”
“I’m here for a recollection,” the man said, sliding a crisp fifty and his card across the counter.
Taja appreciated regulars, and also people with voices coarse and rich, like this man’s. Velvet-textured. Rough around the edges.
“If you’ll please take a seat in the Waiting Room— ”
At that moment, Taja touched the man’s wrist. There was a strip of skin there, between his glove and his sleeve. She hadn’t meant to; she generally tried to limit herself to one touch a day. But she had been distracted by this man’s soft-crackling voice, by her lingering thoughts of Larkin, by a stray memory of her mother.
And so she had touched him. And so she had seen . . .
The city, burning. Her city.
The presidential palace, overrun with crawling shapes. Child-shaped hunters with claws like needles. Winged and scaled, slippery and tough-hided. Gaping jaws and dead eyes and no eyes, jagged beaks and glistening hooves, and—
Smoke and screams, pale wings in the air, fluttering and leathery—
Blood in the streets, a woman tearing at her hair; fat, wet shapes plopping onto rooftops, burning holes through the shingles—
“Is something wrong?”
Taja’s head snapped up. The man was watching her with mild curiosity, his eyes clear and steady.
“No, I— I’m sorry,” Taja stammered. “It’s my . . . it’s my first day.”
“Oh. How exciting for you, I’ll bet.”
Something like that. Oh gods, oh gods. What had she seen? “What is your name, please?”
“It’s on the card, isn’t it?” The man’s smile was a tiny ghost of a thing. “But all the same, it’s Winters. Soren Winters.”
Taja’s fingers shook on the typewriter keys. She was punching in absolute nonsense. Not that it mattered. Even though the name he provided matched the name on his registration card, she had seen the truth in his mind—this was not his true name. He was lying, about that and other things she couldn’t interpret.
“And you’re here for a recollection,” she said, in a casual sing-song. “Sure, sure.”
“Shall I go to the Waiting Room?” Mr. Winters took off his hat, smoothed his hair. It was the color of dust, and impeccable.
Mr. Winters turned, his eyebrows tiny twin question marks. Not surprise so much as Oh?
“No, no, no, not today,” Taja said, hurrying to him with a clipboard in hand, which she hoped made her look at least halfway legitimate. She had no idea what she was doing, but she could not let him go through recollection. “We’re so dead today. I can take you right in.”
Dead. So completely, screamingly dead, like the city in Mr. Winters’s mind.
It hadn’t been a dream, that image. It had been a want. A someday. A desire sharp as hunger and as certain as now—the sensation of this is happening.
Even more certain to Taja was the knowledge that “Mr. Winters” wasn’t just here to recollect a dream.
He was here to steal one.
As far as Mr. Winters knew, Taja was just a Librarian—or most likely an apprentice, judging by her youth—which meant she couldn’t see anything but dreams, and so he had no reason to worry. He had long ago learned how to control his dreams, and had been careful never to dream of . . . particular things.
This girl Taja was a little odd, true, but then, she was thirteen, so what did you expect?
He laughed, once, softly. Thirteen. That had been a good year.
Not for his father, true. But for him, at least.
And soon, all the quiet years between then and now would prove to have been worth it.
Taja led Mr. Winters through the RECOLLECTIONS door and down a series of hallways she was definitely not supposed to be in, ever. Were it not for Larkin, she wouldn’t even know they existed.
“And these are our recollection rooms,” Taja explained, gesturing pointlessly to the dark wooden doors lining this stretch of hallway. The carpet was thick and blood-red. Taja remembered the streets of Mr. Winters’s mind, stained with dead bodies, and felt faintly ill. “You’ll be assigned to one of these, and your Librarian will meet you there. It doesn’t hurt much, despite what people say. Recollection, I mean.”
“I’m familiar with the process. I’ve been here before, remember?”
Taja didn’t look at Mr. Winters, but she heard the hardly-there smile in his voice. “Oh. Right. Sorry, just—”
“It’s your first day.”
Think, Taja, think! But honestly, what was there to do? If she told anyone what she knew, they’d demand how she knew it. If she explained how she knew it, then her secret would no longer be a secret, and who knew what would happen to her then? The more skilled Librarians tended to disappear—it had happened twice during Taja’s years at the Library, once with Phenna Talisin, and then, later, with Garet Azhar, both of whom had just up and vanished one day, at the height of their popularity with patrons. The scandal had monopolized the papers for weeks, and the Library had enjoyed a temporary and not insignificant bump in business.
No one could resist a mystery, especially a grisly one.
Taja had often feared that she would wake up to find Larkin gone from her in this fashion. Everyone knew he was a genius. They called him Dreamkeeper, and whenever they did, he rolled his eyes and said something like, “They make me sound so old. Am I that old, Taja, to be given such a name?”
Once, Taja answered that no, he was not old, he was beautiful, and her cheeks had burned, but she would have said it a hundred more times if she could have, and Larkin had looked at her for a very long time before brushing the hair out of her face.
If she ever woke up to find him gone, she would tear apart the Library until she found him.
Would Taja, should she be found out, disappear? And if she did, would Larkin come looking for her?
“Do you think we’ll keep walking for much longer?” Mr. Winters asked, adjusting his coat. “Or do you have a special room in mind?”
Taja felt suspended in mid-air for an instant, and then nearly fell over her own feet. A special room. Of course. A plan slammed into her like the punch of the icy river water, straight to her lungs. It was wild, it was impossible. It was most likely fatal. But it was the only thing to do.
Mr. Winters could not be permitted to recollect someone else’s dream and steal from the Library. He could not be permitted to leave the Library, either, not with such plans churning in his head, and not on Taja’s watch. The Library had raised her. She had grown up in these unending hallways, ordered here and there by tired, frazzled adults in dusty robes, their eyes bloodshot from too much dreaming. She was to be a Librarian someday, and Librarians did not fear death.
Taja had faced death before, and lived.
“Not much longer,” she said cheerfully. “Sorry for the walk. They’ve been doing work on the front rooms.”
A special room, indeed. She would take him to the most special room of all. She would take him to the Vault of Nightmares.
And she would lock him inside.
Larkin probably didn’t even remember that he had told her. But he had.
It had been that first night, when Taja was six and shivering in Larkin’s arms, river-drenched to the bone. He held her close to the fire and spooned hot broth into her mouth. He sang to her, a lullaby called “The Fairies of Far Westing,” which reminded Taja of her mother and made her gasp with pain.
To soothe her, Larkin had shown her the marvelous things in his office: The rows of books cataloging some of his own, most beloved dreams. The wood-handled silver bell that had been a gift from his father.
And the belt of keys kept in a small drawer, which could only be opened by pressing the wood carvings on the drawer’s face—curling vines and singing birds, a rose with twenty-three petals—in a particular way.
The white key was for the Office of the Head Librarian, upstairs in the Tower.
The red key was for the Fifth Floor Collections, of which Larkin was in charge.
The black key was for the Vault of Nightmares.
The tiny brass key he gave to Taja, and which she wore always on a silk ribbon, hidden beneath her shirt, was her own key to his office. “If you should ever need a safe place to hide,” he had told her, not long after her arrival, “you are always welcome in here with me.” She had taken him up on that, often curling up in the threadbare chair in the corner to study, just to be near him as he worked, just to smell the ink staining his fingers.
He probably hadn’t thought Taja would remember anything about those keys. He certainly couldn’t have imagined that, every time she touched him, she searched his mind for an image of how to open the drawer of keys, until she had the combination memorized.
But Taja remembered.
Taja withdrew her brass key and opened Larkin’s office.
“If you’ll just wait right here,” she said to Mr. Winters.
He nodded, once, and said nothing.
Taja slipped inside the office, shivering. It was obvious Mr. Winters was becoming suspicious. She couldn’t blame him. She had kept him walking for fifteen minutes, and they were nearing the bowels of the Library, where everything was icy cold and the walls were stone instead of paneled wood. Mr. Winters had to have realized by now that this was not standard protocol.
And yet he was not protesting, or demanding to be taken back upstairs. Perhaps he was curious.
She hoped that was all it was.
Taja pressed the wood carvings, in the right order—fifth petal from the right, bluebird, bell, third petal from the top, and so on. She kept her ear pressed to the wood; with each press of her fingers, a tiny click sounded. The drawer popped open. She pulled out the black key and almost dropped it. It crawled. The surface of the key was cold, and wriggled as if from the cycling movement of a thousand tiny legs.
Repulsed, Taja dropped the key in her pocket and grabbed a random stack of papers from Larkin’s desk. The movement jarred a scarf lying there; it slid to the floor, and Taja caught the scent of Larkin—cinnamon (his favorite candies) and smoke (from the fires on this level, which were always lit to keep the Librarians from freezing).
I’ll come back, and I’ll tell you how much I love you, I won’t waste another second, she thought, and left.
“Almost there,” she said brightly to Mr. Winters, locking Larkin’s office behind her. She was surprised to realize she felt no urge to cry at the thought that, if something went wrong with her plan, she would never see Larkin again. She supposed she was too terrified to cry, as she had been on the night her mother had tried to kill her.
“What was all that about?” asked Mr. Winters.
“Just needed some paperwork.” Taja waved the papers with far too much enthusiasm.
“Ah. I see.” Mr. Winters moved his head the barest inch, his eyes looking to the ground, as though he were listening for something. His tongue flicked out, wet his lips.
Taja turned away, though every instinct she had screamed at her not to turn her back to him. There was something abhorrently serene about him.
The weight of the key in her pocket was like a living thing. Cold, and shifting.
The Vault—a nondescript door of weathered wood on the lowest level of the Library, which Taja only knew about through years of touching Larkin whenever she could get away with it. Apprentices were not allowed here; few Librarians were allowed here. The air here was so cold that Taja’s breath came in puffs. The weight of the Library above them pressed on her shoulders.
“How very odd, this place you’ve brought me,” Mr. Winters remarked, his eyes fixed on the door. He seemed different now, the lines of his body sharper, longer. Alert.
“My supervisor told me that, as one of our regular patrons, you get the special treatment this visit,” Taja said, her fingers shaking as she tried to fit the black key into its lock. “It’s like a sort of contest, you see, and you’re the winner.” The key twitched in her hand. Something bit her.
The lock turned, and the door opened. Beyond it, Taja could see only darkness. Right, then. There was no turning back now. Larkin, Larkin.
“Please follow me,” said Taja, stepping just inside. “Your Librarian will be right with you.”
Mr. Winters clasped his hands behind his back and followed her in. Then, Taja froze, considering. The pieces of herself shifted and realigned. She stood there for an instant, for a slow hour. What was she doing? What was she thinking? Her blood was a dull, desperate roar.
She could have stepped outside, slammed the door shut, and locked Mr. Winters inside. That had been the plan. A good plan. A plan to be proud of. But instead Taja flung the key back into the hallway and slammed the door shut, locking them both inside. Something had seized her heart and rooted her here, in this darkness, behind the weathered door.
Something like craving.
She had seen people’s nightmares before, in brief flashes that kept her up for long, sleepless hours—not from fear, but from fascination. Beasts and devils, gods and death. What would a whole vault of them look like? Were any of them, she wondered, as monstrous as she? She would look, only for a moment. And then she would open the door and sneak out before Mr. Winters had even begun to process where he now found himself.
“My curious girl,” Larkin had once called her, his arm loosely about Taja’s shoulders as they sat by the fire. Taja had not been able to stop staring at his long legs, his dear, shabby shoes. “Your mind is a diamond. You’ll make a fine Librarian someday. Even finer than me.”
“Impossible,” Taja had declared hotly. “No one could be finer than you.”
And Larkin had kissed her on the cheek. “Little sister,” he had said, “it’s as if we share a heart.”
My curious girl.
Taja stepped away from the door, hungering.
The Vault was completely lightless—or at least it seemed so, at first. Taja’s breath came thin and fast. Though it had been cold just outside the Vault, inside the air was tropical. Damp, oppressively thick. When Taja’s eyes adjusted, she saw a rocky cavern, tremendous, never-ending and many-roomed. Fires here and there, and piles of luminscent moss, gave everything an eerie glow. The ceiling disappeared into blackness. There was water, somewhere; Taja heard the rush of a current.
The air smelled like burning.
A massive explosion to her right knocked Taja off her feet. She tumbled down the moss-covered ridge and hit her head. Dazed, she looked back up the ridge. The Vault door had disappeared, as had the wall surrounding it. There was only more cavern—fires dotting sky-high cliffs, figures crossing distant bridges. A black lake. A dim blue city.
“Mr. Winters?” Taja tried to call out, but her ears were ringing, and her voice came out strangled.
“What the—? Taja? Larkin’s girl?”
A voice behind Taja made her turn. Her head throbbed, and she nearly threw up. A woman stood there, scarred and sweating, her short hair in spiky braids. She wore thick goggles and carried a gun that crackled with white lightning. On her frayed shirt was a faded, familiar insignia—that of a Librarian.
Taja squinted at the woman’s face; it was spattered with blood, but Taja never forgot the face of someone whose mind she had touched.
“Phenna?” she breathed. “Phenna Talisin? But you’re dead. You disappeared. Everyone was looking for you—”
“Not dead. Not yet.” Phenna yanked Taja to her feet. “Get behind me, and cover your eyes.”
Taja did as she was told, peeking up through her fingers at the top of the ridge, where . . . something . . . was moving. Pale and thin, unthinkably tall, the something unfurled its wings, tearing itself free from what remained of a fine suit and vest, a shell of human skin. It blew out a breath, so hot Taja’s eyes watered. A charred scrap of bowler hat fluttered to her feet.
“All I wanted today was that key,” the thing rasped, in a voice that was part Mr. Winters and part wrath, part fever, part crumble and flay. As it spoke, its words dissolved until they were hardly intelligible, as if he were, right in front of them, forgetting how to form human speech. “But you, child, have given me something even better. You . . . have brought me home. And now, we can begin.”
The thing that had been Mr. Winters reared up to its full height, stretching its wings out twenty feet on either side. Its eyeless face turned to the black sky, and it shrieked to rend apart the world.
Throughout the vast cavern, screams echoed back, followed by two distant explosions.
“Fantastic,” Phenna muttered, cocking her gun. It began to whine, humming higher and higher. “You couldn’t have brought one of the little ones, could you, girl?”
Taja clutched Phenna’s waist, pressing her face against Phenna’s back. “What’s going on?” she screamed over the din.
“War, that’s what,” Phenna spat, “and you’ve just brought the other side a great bloody bomb.”
A low boom above them—the thing that had been Mr. Winters beat its wings once, twice, and rose up to hover, extending its claws. Its tail was a fat whip; Phenna ducked down to avoid it, bringing Taja with her. The thing that had been Mr. Winters shrieked, wheeled about. Its mouth reeked of blood and writhed with worms.
In the flash of time before the world ended, Taja could think of only one thing: The broken-hearted woman, sitting upstairs in the Waiting Room, pining over Halon Dower. The Library? Nefarious? No, madam, you’re mistaken. Sorry to disappoint you. We’re simply providing a service.
Taja burst out laughing. Conspiracy theorists, indeed! Gods bless them all.
The thing that had been Mr. Winters lunged at them. Phenna cursed, raised her gun to her shoulder, and fired.
There was a whispering, a muttering, a hum. There weren’t so many of them that a birthday was an everyday occurrence. Especially not this birthday.
There were worn floors that had seen better days, scrubbed clean by capable hands. The boy followed the others along grooves etched by hundreds of feet, between the dormitories and breakfast tables and school rooms, counting the hours.
There were hearth fires, not blazing enough to reach into every corner, but warm if you stood near enough and never moved, because once you stepped away you’d be twice as chilled as before. The first signs of spring budding on the trees and poking up from the earth had not yet crept indoors.
There were scents, of rain and smoke and something sweet baking in the kitchen.
There was saliva dripping down the chins of those accustomed to watery porridge.
All the younger children looked at the boy with excited smiles. The matrons gazed at him with thin-lipped grimaces.
Well, they would miss him, wouldn’t they. For this was the last time he would hear these whispers and walk these floors and smell these smells.
He was about to receive his Gift.
Af supper, a package would appear, shiny and bright as one of the foul cough drops Nurse gave when the winter winds came and the children could hardly speak. Though it was not needed, a label, on which someone had written his name, would flutter from the ribbon, the whole representing the only two things in the world that belonged to him, and him alone.
Oh, he would be given food, and warm clothing for his journey, but those didn’t count. Everybody had such things, even if the food was barely enough to fill a belly, the clothes full of holes.
He would take his Gift, and Head Matron would take the large brass key from the string at her waist, fit it neatly into the lock of the orphanage’s front door.
The bell rang.
The package was blue, a blue of skies and flowers. He’d seen them in all colors over the years, for as long as he could remember. “Open it,” the others begged, but the boy shook his head. That wasn’t done. He ate his stew in silence, eyes never leaving the small, square box. While the rest of the children exclaimed in delight over the rare cake, he scarcely tasted it. Only a faint impression of sweetness left itself on his tongue.
“It is time,” said Head Matron. The key caught the lamplight. The box was heavy in his hand and the blue paper shimmered.
“Well,” he said, looking up and down the long tables. “Goodbye.”
There was a whispering, a muttering, a hum, and it swelled as he reached the door. They were guessing. In his time, he’d done plenty of that himself, every time he’d watched someone else celebrate this birthday.
Head Matron didn’t say a word. She draped a warm cloak round his shoulders, held out a coarsely woven sack for him to take with his free hand. The boy saw the one who taught him maths wipe her eyes. Well, he was good with his numbers, and he’d always taken care to help the ones who struggled. Perhaps she’d miss him most of all. He gave her a smile, which she returned with a weak one of her own.
It was a long walk down the path to the gates set into the walls that surrounded the orphanage. A second brass key, this one from Head Matron’s pocket, turned the lock with the tiniest of clicks. The gates creaked.
“Thank you,” said the boy, because he felt he should. She had, after all, kept him safe and warm and fed his whole life, or near to it as mattered. He’d kept his bed and table tidy, never been rude at mealtimes, or spoken out of turn in lessons, and thus she had never given him a cruel word.
And now, she gave him none at all. Nodding, she gestured through the gate and, for the first time, he stepped outside the orphanage’s confines, with the entire world spread out before him like an adventure. When the gate swung shut and locked behind him, he barely heard it.
The Gift slipped in his slightly clammy hand. He could open it now, if he wished, but curiously, he did not. Not yet. While it was still wrapped and pretty, it could be anything, and there was a delightful wonder to that, wasn’t there? Certainly, the other children would still be guessing as they made their way to the dormitories and climbed under scratchy blankets.
Some said it was a fat gold coin, enough riches to make life in the city on the other side of the forest that surrounded the grand, old, crumbling house. Others thought it was a map, unique to each child, with which they might find any family left to them. It could be the key to a palace, a blood red jewel the size of a plum. Those with great imaginations and a keenness for fairy stories were sure it was a gift in the truest sense, and that opening the package would grant something wonderful, magical; the ability to soar high above the treetops, or become as invisible as the wind which rippled the boy’s new cloak.
If it would let him fly, he wouldn’t have to walk through the woods, which at the moment looked very deep, and dark, and getting darker with each inch the sun dropped in the sky. Behind him, the windows glowed, and the boy thought for a moment about turning back, asking to stay until morning. But the Gift always came with supper, and nobody ever returned. He would not be the first. He would brave the forest, as every child before him had, and make his way to the city. Yes. He would walk for a while through the trees, and when he became tired or hungry, he would find a clearing and curl up for the night. There, alone, he’d open the package and see what clue to his new life it held.
Looking out from the dormitory window at the vast swathe of green treetops, he’d imagined the forest to be a calm, quiet place, far more peaceful than a house full of children. Now that he was inside it, however, it sang with a symphony of noise; birds and leaves and scuttling creatures. But it was not unpleasant, indeed it felt like a sort of company, so that he was not so very alone.
With no clock, and the moon hidden away, the boy didn’t know how long or far he walked, only that he did so until his feet inside his hand-me-down boots were sore and blistered. On he trudged, peering through the gloom until he saw light, moonlight pouring into an empty circle of trees.
He thanked his luck at such a perfect spot. A large boulder, its surface worn smooth, gave an ideal place to lean against as he sat on the hard ground and placed the blue-wrapped package in front of him. Still, it could be anything.
In the sack was bread and cheese, plus a stoppered bottle of what turned out to be water, still chilled courtesy of the night air. The boy ate and rested his aching feet, drawing his cloak around him as the wind picked up.
There was a whispering, a muttering, a hum.
And it grew louder. Louder. LOUDER.
Wailing, ghostly figures emerged from the trees to surround him. A cry of fright trapped in his throat, unwilling to come out. The blue paper caught the moonlight. It must be something to help him, protect him! With near frozen, trembling fingers, the boy tore open the Gift, paper blowing away across the clearing.
The box shook. The swirling, wispy creatures came closer, closer.
He tore off the lid.
The air filled with a scream, bursting from the box to join the cacophony of sound in the forest. He could not run back, they would chase him and it was too far. He couldn’t warn the others at the orphanage.
The scream kept going, billowing out of the small box that was growing lighter in his hands.
Closer. Closer they came.
He knew the scream.
It was his own.
The school had a story about a gift.
It was a square box, bigger than a candy box, wrapped in old brown paper—very old, greasy from thousands of fingers over the years. Two pink chrysthanthemums had once upon a time been pinned to the top, but long ago they had withered to the color of dried blood.
Every year, on Valentine’s Day, the gift would appear in a different student’s locker. Supposedly, at least. That’s how the story went.
And then that student had a choice.
He or she could leave the gift untouched and, at the end of the day, close the locker, spin the lock, and go home. In that case, the next day, the gift would be gone.
Or he or she could open the gift.
And in that case, the student would never be seen again.
Supposedly. That was the story about the gift. Some people said the whole thing was just a ghost story or something. Some people said it was a prank the older kids kept alive, or even one of the assistant principals? Everyone had a theory.
But supposedly, every year, some kid did actually get the gift. Every year, some kid would swear he’d found the gift in the locker under his sweatshirt—or some girl would say it was right on top of her biology book. And sometimes they’d even have friends back them up.
“But I didn’t open it,” they’d always say. “I mean it’s just a story, but why take a chance.”
Supposedly, the last time someone opened the gift was back in the 80s. One guy said his mother was actually at the school then, and knew the kid who supposedly opened it. And the kid really did disappear that Valentine’s Day, and was never heard from again, according to this guy, according to this mother.
Which is a lot of accordings.
Annie thought the story was probably bogus. It seemed like the kind of bogus thing they told the younger students to keep them in line, so they could laugh at you later.
One thing about Annie: she was as easy to scare as anyone, but she was a lot harder to intimidate.
And so on Valentine’s Day, when she opened her locker and saw a square box in a plain brown wrapper, with dead flowers pinned on top, at first she froze.
Then, inside the freeze, she started thinking.
Not that she really thought she’d disappear, or whatever. But on the other hand, what could be inside this box that would be nice? Whoever was playing this dumb joke wasn’t going to fill the box with iPhones or scarves or Playstation gift cards or anything a person would actually want. Best case, something would come sproinging out at her, if she opened it. Or it would be someone’s long decayed ham-sandwich, moldy and turning to soup—ugh, her stomach turned just thinking about it.
Annie started to close the locker, but a beefy hand held it open. She turned around.
“You got the gift,” Tim Bettner said. His mouth was slightly open. “Oh my god. Oh my god, you got it.”
Tim Bettner played on the football team, because he was huge, not because he was athletic. He was kind of a jerk and used to bully Annie in grade school. She lifted her chin.
“Did you put this in my locker?”
“Oh my god, you got the gift,” he said again. He wasn’t exactly the smartest person in class, either. His wet upper lip curled in an unpleasant smile. “You’re scared to open it.”
“No—“ Annie began.
“You’re so scared. Scared like a girl,” said Tim. He raised his voice. “She’s scared!” he called. The few remaining students in the hall glanced at them.
“I’m late to class,” said Annie.
“Late to scaredy-cat class?” asked Tim. His idea of a hilarious burn.
“Back off,” said Annie. She slammed her locker shut and walked away.
“Are ya gonna open it?” Tim called after her.
“I haven’t decided,” she said.
She strode down the hall toward math class, picking up speed to beat the bell. Just as she reached the door, she heard a voice, half-whisper, half-croon, from the far end of the hall, near her locker.
“Aannnniiieee,” called the voice, soft as a lullabye. “I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”
Her skin crawled. She shook it off. Tim, that stupid jerk.
Halfway through math, finishing up a pop quiz she hadn’t studied for, Annie had forgotten about the gift. She had just, with some reluctance, left the quiz on the teacher’s desk when she heard a voice outside the classroom door.
“Aannnniiieee,” said the voice, low and sing-song. “I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”
Annie felt her hands go cold and her lips go dry. She looked at the class, then the teacher, but they all had their heads buried in their work, except for two girls whispering near the back of the room. Annie walked over to them.
“Did you hear that?” she asked.
“Uh?” said the short one.
Sitting at her desk, waiting for her heart to calm, Annie thought to herself: I’ll show him, I’ll show him, He can’t scare me.
She stormed through volleyball, getting a shout of approval from the surprised coach. She steamed through American history. She had the last lunch period, and was always starved by the time it came around, but this day she stood in the cafeteria doorway, scanning the room for Tim.
The voice, the sweet, cajoling voice again, and now it was coming from behind her.
“I’ve got a presseeeent for you.”
Jaw set, Annie turned on her heel and walked back down the hall to her locker.
Five minutes later, Annie’s best friend Makayla, headed for lunch herself, saw Annie, facing her locker, working at something in her hands. “What’s up?” she asked. “Sit by me at lunch, I have GOT to tell you about—“
“Give me a second,” said Annie. “I’ve gotta do this so I can shove it in Tim Bettner’s stupid FACE.”
“Oh my god that’s what I was going to tell you!” said Makayla. “Tim Bettner’s not even here, he got sent home during first period science, he cracked his head on the corner of a cabinet, oh my god the blood, and he was crying like a—“
Annie’s busy, furious fingers were tearing at the package. “Wait a minute, what?” She turned back to Makayla. “But if Tim’s not here, then who—“ her fingers stopped.
But her fingers stopped too late. The box was open.
Later, over and over, to all the questions from laughing, shivering friends, then annoyed teachers, then anxious principal, then frantic parents, then police—all Makayla could say was that when Annie turned around, she had a box in her hands. Yes, she was sure it was a box, a box covered in torn brown paper, and yes it was open.
And then she was gone.
Yes, she knew what that box supposedly meant. No, she wasn’t playing games. Yes, she would like a kleenex. Okay, she’d start again.
Annie found herself in a vast, dim, empty place. It was cold. Across from her sat a small, pasty creature with tiny red eyes and a black hole for a mouth. The creature might once have been human.
“Who are you?” said Annie softly.
“I am the gift,” said the creature. His voice was like the creaking of a gate in the distance. Now his hole-mouth twisted into a terrifying parody of a sweet, relieved smile. “I was the gift,” he corrected himself. “But now you are.” His expression twisted into something like sadness. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I’m more sorry than I can say,”
“Why are you sorry?” asked Annie. “Am I dead?”
“Oh no, oh my gosh no, that would be so much better,” said the small, pale thing. “You’re the gift. You have one chance a year. One chance to make someone else the gift. Supposedly,” he said. “I mean that’s what I heard.”
Annie looked at him in disbelief. “Are you —you’re the last kid who opened the gift?”
The thing nodded.
“But you don’t look like . . . and anyway how could you . . “ Her lip curled up in disgust.
“Oh, I know what you’re thinking,” the creature said in his flat, tiny voice. “You’re thinking, How cruel, how could you be so cruel, to make someone else live this horrible fate.” He creaked in a broken-bird way that might have been a laugh. “That’s what I thought, too. You’ll see. You’ll see. Anyway,” he added. “You’ll have a long, long time to think about it. After what happened to you, it will be many, many years before anyone is brave enough, or forgetful enough, to open the package again. Thank you for being so brave.”
“But wait, though—“ Annie began.
A few drops of brownish fluid leaked from the creature’s tiny red eyes. “Goodbye,” he said, and crumbled into dust.
Annie sits alone in the vast darkness.
“I am the gift,” she practices saying. “I have a present for you.”
She practices making it sound nice.
She would have a long, long time to practice.
When most people think of February, they likely think about love, or Leap Day, or how unforgivably cold the weather is that time of year, and will we ever feel warmth again? Ever?
(Ahem. Pardon me. I’m afraid your Curators are getting a touch of winter madness about them. Even living in a house the size of the Cabinet does not make one immune to the torments of cabin fever.)
Here at the Cabinet–at least this year–February is about GIFTS.
They might be gifts of love . . . or of hate.
They might be ribboned gifts left on your doorstep . . . containing dark secrets instead of dark chocolate.
They might be whispered secrets wrapped in lies or shiny trinkets lined with terrible curses.
Here at the Cabinet, one never knows what one might find, but a good rule of thumb is this: Just because something looks innocuous enough on the outside doesn’t mean it’s so on the inside. And sometimes the smelliest, foulest, most dangerous-looking things you could imagine contain the most wondrously lovely insides . . . if you know just where and how to open them.
Then again, sometimes the smelliest, foulest, most dangerous-looking things are exactly what they appear to be.
Really, the lesson here is that you can’t trust anyone and probably shouldn’t open any gifts, ever. Just in case.
. . . But that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? We certainly don’t think so.
Come help us unwrap this month, and let’s see what it holds in store.