Corinne does not think she is brave. But she is.
She lives in a small blue house with her older sister, Camellia, and Mama.
Corinne thinks this house is hiding something. Their spotted dog whines every time he passes the door to the basement. But when Corinne tells Mama and Camellia this, they ignore her. Corinne is used to that. Camellia and Mama never see what Corinne sees.
They are too busy whispering.
Camellia and Mama are always telling secrets about grown-up things Corinne doesn’t understand. When Corinne asks them to explain, they say, “When you’re older.”
Corinne wonders, “When will that be?”
Camellia is tall, like Mama. Corinne is short. Camellia is smart, like Mama. Camellia always says the right thing. Corinne never says the right thing. Corinne’s hair is the color of dust, instead of golden, like Camellia’s hair.
Sometimes Corinne pretends Camellia has warts on her skin and hair the color of the dust under the rug.
This makes Corinne feel better. For a while.
It is evening time. Camellia and Mama lie on the bed in Mama’s room, whispering and laughing.
Corinne creeps into the room. She listens to Mama’s voice, which is soft like a song.
“What are you talking about?” asks Corinne shyly.
“Oh,” says Camellia, “nothing, Corinne.”
“Just grown-up talk, dear,” says Mama.
“Nothing you need to worry about,” says Camellia.
“But we would like some privacy, please” says Mama. “Just for a little while.”
“Why don’t you go play with your toys or something?” suggests Camellia.
So Corinne leaves them, feeling very lonely. She wants to cry but doesn’t let herself. Grown-ups do not cry. Grown-ups are beautiful. They whisper and tell secrets.
Grown-ups look nothing at all like short, quiet, dirty-haired Corinne.
Corinne wanders through the house and sees their spotted dog. He paces in front of the basement door, whining.
Corinne scratches his ears and wonders.
“Is there something down there?” she asks, but of course no one answers. And Corinne has always been too frightened of the basement to explore it for herself.
Then—laughter, from upstairs. Camellia and Mama, always laughing together. Why couldn’t Corinne be Mama’s favorite?
Corinne stares hard at the basement door.
“Grown-ups are not afraid of basements,” she tells the dog, who wags his tail doubtfully.
Corinne opens the door. It creaks like rusty jaws opening wide.
She peers downstairs. The air smells like paint and laundry and something else, too. Something . . . dark.
Corinne wants to be brave. She walks downstairs and explores. So what if it is so dark she can hardly see? So what if she hears a scratch-scratch-scratch in the corner?
Grown-ups aren’t afraid of darkness and scratching sounds.
There is the washing machine. There is the clothesline with Mama and Camellia’s frilly things hung up to dry.
But there . . . what is that? Tall and dark, maybe just a shadow?
No. It is a door.
Corinne tiptoes near. She touches the door. Her hand closes around a handle as cold as ice and thin as a tongue. Corinne pauses. Maybe it isn’t smart to go waltzing through strange doors like this.
But would Camellia go through the door? Would Mama?
Yes, of course.
So Corinne does too.
And on the other side, she finds . . .
She finds . . .
Right? Yes? Isn’t that true?
Corinne stops and stares around her. Yes. It has to be.
It looks like the world Corinne knows, and yet different. Here, everything is scratchy and dark, like the world has been drawn by a shaky pen. Here, instead of stars in the sky, there are thousands of blinking white eyes.
In Corinne’s world, people do not have black Xs stitched over their chests. And in Corinne’s world, people speak.
Here, the people do not speak.
“Excuse me,” says Corinne to a boy passing by, “can you tell me where we are?”
But the boy stares at her and says nothing.
Corinne tries again.
“Excuse me,” she says to a girl with red braids, “can you please tell me where we are? There was a door in my basement—”
But the girl only stares. Her eyes are silver and foggy, like the boy’s eyes.
Everyone’s eyes are silver and foggy here.
Corinne is afraid, but . . . but there’s something wonderful about this place, isn’t there?
What is it that’s so wonderful?
Corinne decides to explore and find out.
She explores every night.
Once Camellia and Mama are asleep, Corinne puts on her hat and winter coat and boots and sneaks into the basement. Every night, she explores the world through the door downstairs. She begins to think of this world as her world.
Corinne discovers a giant serpent, lying upside down with its fat white belly in the air. Its jaws are wide open and so are its eyes.
There is a great black X sewn into the serpent’s fat white belly.
Corinne wanders through a forest filled with moaning trees.
There are great black Xs sewn into their trunks.
Corinne watches a herd of strange animals. A bird with tall, tall legs and a beak like a giant silver trap. An alligator with two heads. Brown rabbits with curling sharp teeth.
They all have scratchy black Xs sewn onto their chests.
“How bizarre,” Corinne says to the spotted dog, who quivers in her arms. She lifts him up so they are nose to nose.
“No one knows about this but me,” she says to him.
Mama doesn’t know. Camellia doesn’t know.
This is Corinne’s world.
How wonderful, how grown-up, to have a secret like this.
One night, while exploring, Corinne finds a boy, lying on the ground. His eyes are not quite so silver and foggy as the others’. He points to the black X on his chest. He whispers something.
“What?” Corinne leans close. “What is it?”
“The . . .” The boy gasps. His eyes fall closed. “The . . . Marrowman.”
When he opens his eyes again, they are like everyone else’s—silver, foggy. Blank like clouds.
Corinne hears a thundering step past the moaning woods. The world shakes and shudders.
She sees a flock of black owls with long, red tongues hanging out of their beaks. She sees a family of hairless foxes, pink and wrinkled.
All with Xs on their chests.
All with silver, foggy eyes, all running and flying away from . . . something.
Corinne runs, too. She hears the boy’s words in her mind: The Marrowman.
Who is that?
Corinne finds the tall, dark door in the air that leads back home. She opens it and barrels through, into her basement. The spotted dog is panting in her arms, quite beside himself.
Corinne runs upstairs, jumps into her bed, and huddles under the covers until morning.
When she wakes up, her body heavy and sore . . .
She hears nothing. The house is the kind of quiet that comes after something terrible has happened. The spotted dog hides under Corinne’s bed.
Corinne tiptoes downstairs, into the kitchen. “Mama?”
She tiptoes through the hallway. “Camellia?”
Nothing. No one. Not a footstep. Not a breath.
Corinne looks down into the basement, where a dusty lightbulb flickers. It swings on its string, back and forth, back and forth.
Then Corinne remembers: Last night, she forgot to close the door downstairs.
She clomps downstairs in her boots, and she sees . . .
She sees . . .
. . . something terrible.
Mama and Camellia, lying on the floor by the door downstairs.
The door that Corinne left open. The door to the other world.
They have great black Xs stitched into their chests.
Corinne’s heart is a hammer pounding, pounding away.
“Camellia?” She touches Camellia’s forehead. Nothing. Coldness.
“Mama?” Corinne holds Mama’s hand. It is cold and hard like stone.
Corinne holds their hands and cries. It is her fault this has happened. How careless of her, to have forgotten to close the door. Even if she was scared, that is no excuse. Camellia would never be so scared as to forget to close an important door.
Corinne dries her face and pulls herself up. She kisses Camellia and Mama on their cheeks smooth as marble.
“I will figure out what happened to you,” she declares. “And I will save you, even . . .” Corinne looks at the spotted dog, who is most helpfully cleaning his left foot.
“Even if I don’t know how to save you,” says Corinne. “Even if you never tell me any of your secrets. I would rather have you back and never talk to me at all. I would rather that than see you like this.”
Then she draws her coat tight around her, and steps through the door downstairs.
The world through the door quakes and trembles, like the land itself is breathing. Corinne stands under the sky full of blinking white eyes.
“Where shall I go?” she asks herself.
She sees fields of white bone and many dark, moaning forests. Which way will take her to someone who knows what happened to Mama and Camellia?
The spotted dog sits at Corinne’s feet and whines. He looks to the north, where dark mountains stretch to the sky like long, crooked fingers.
Oh. Oh, yes. Corinne sees it now—herds of creatures, crowds of people. They all have those foggy silver eyes, and black Xs on their chests. Like Mama and Camellia do. Everyone is hurrying south, away from those mountains.
So that, Corinne decides, is exactly where she will go.
She walks for many days, the eyes watching her from the dark blue sky.
As Corinne walks, the world begins to change. She sees fewer red-tongued owls, fewer sharp-toothed hares.
The cold wind grows still. The ground grows slimy, and the air takes on a horrible smell.
Then, Corinne sees him.
It must be him.
He is shaped like a person, but he is as large as a boat. He has wings, and his belly is bulging, and his back has a crooked hump. He is made up of too many things to count, all of them slithering around each other like a ball of worms. He is frightening, but the pieces of him are beautiful.
In the Marrowman’s body, Corinne sees the black wing of an owl, the scaled tail of an alligator, the red sneakers of a boy, the white teeth of a girl, the branches of a tree, a tangle of spiderwebs.
And there—can it be?
There, a flash of gold, just like Camellia’s hair.
But then it is gone.
“You’re a brave thing,” booms the Marrowman. “A brave thing indeed, to come and find me.”
He cranes his long neck down to look at Corinne. A hundred eyes form in the middle of the Marrowman’s face—blue eyes, black eyes, human eyes, cat eyes. The biggest eye is yellow and taller than Corinne.
The spotted dog shakes in Corinne’s arms, but Corinne stands tall.
“I am not a thing,” she says. “I am a girl. Are you the Marrowman?”
The Marrowman smiles. “And what if I am?”
Corinne has to be careful. The Marrowman could crush her. But she needs information.
“I was wondering,” she says, “because I’ve heard the Marrowman is the best at what he does. The best in the whole world.”
The Marrowman puffs up his chest made of scales and bones and leathery skin. “I’m the only one who does what I do.”
“And what is that?” says Corinne carefully.
The Marrowman leans even closer. Corinne can see herself in his yellow eye. His breath smells rotten.
“I steal hearts,” he growls, “and I use them to make me stronger.”
Corinne’s eyes go wide. “Why do you do that?”
“Because I want to know everything,” shouts the Marrowman. “Because I want to be everything. The strongest, the bravest . . .”
“The most beautiful,” whispers Corinne. “The smartest.”
“I want to know everything,” rumbles the Marrowman.
“You want to know everyone’s secrets,” says Corinne.
The Marrowman nods happily. “You understand, then!”
“I do,” says Corinne. “You got tired of feeling lonely, and ugly, and not understanding the things people say.”
“It wasn’t fair!” the Marrowman huffs.
“You got tired of people keeping secrets from you,” says Corinne. A tear rolls down her cheek.
“It was mean of them to do so!” the Marrowman cries.
“I understand,” Corinne says, and she really, truly does. She pats one of the Marrowman’s clawed feet.
“Are you all right, brave two-legged thing?” says the Marrowman. “You are crying.”
“Because I feel like that all the time,” Corinne says.
The spotted dog pushes his head against her leg. He wants them to leave.
“Well,” says the Marrowman, “why don’t you stay? I can show you how to steal hearts and use them for yourself. Then you won’t ever have to feel that way again.”
“Really?” Corinne says, her chest filling up with joy. “You would do that for me?”
“Of course,” says the Marrowman. “Even someone as mighty as me wants a friend now and then.”
Then the Marrowman digs inside his chest and pulls out two orbs of light.
“I can show you how,” he says, with a sly smile, “if you eat these hearts.”
Corinne stares at the orbs of bright white light. They pulse in the Marrowman’s hand. They have a rhythm.
They smell familiar. They are singing soft words Corinne can’t understand.
But she knows those strange, high voices.
Mama’s voice. Camellia’s voice.
Corinne must be very careful, now, and very clever.
She holds out her hands for the hearts. The Marrowman gives them to her. He smiles a smile of a thousand different teeth.
“Well?” he bellows, licking his puffy pink lips. “Go on. Eat them. Quickly. Or we have no deal.”
Corinne thinks, “It would be easy to eat them, wouldn’t it? It would be over in a minute or two. And then Camellia and Mama would be forever inside me. I would know all their secrets. I would be as smart and tall and perfect as they are. I would be their favorite. They would love me best of all.”
Corinne holds the hearts up to her eyes.
Her own heart is being pulled in many different directions.
At her feet, the spotted dog whines. He is ready.
And so is Corinne, for she has made her decision.
It was a nice thought, for a while. To be as powerful and strong and strange and beautiful as the Marrowman. To have her mother’s and sister’s hearts locked up inside her.
But . . . Mama and Camellia are waiting for her, on the basement floor. With Xs over their hearts. With strange, silver eyes.
Mama and Camellia love her. Corinne knows that, even though sometimes they make her so angry she can hardly think.
So Corinne runs.
She clutches one heart in each hand, and runs—back through the tall, dark mountains. Back through the moaning forests. Back across the fields of white bone.
The Marrowman is following her, his footsteps like crashing drums. He is so fast, with all those stolen legs and arms and wings.
But Corinne has a spotted dog. She has the hearts of her mother and sister, too, and they have a small blue house. Corinne thinks of these things, and her feet come off the ground. The spotted dog jumps into her coat, and the hearts she carries grow wings of bright white light.
Her wings carry her safely back to the tall, dark door, waiting in the air for her.
She is through. She is in the basement.
The Marrowman roars and reaches for her with his hundred hands.
Corinne slams the door shut.
Thud, comes the Marrowman’s fists on the other side of the door.
Is he really gone? Or is he just catching his breath?
Corinne doesn’t know. But she knows what she must do.
She kneels between Mama and Camellia. She opens their mouths and gently feeds them their hearts. She pretends they are sick and she is spooning them chicken soup, but instead of soup, it is soft, warm light.
“Slowly, Mama,” says Corinne, as Mama begins to glow.
“Careful, Camellia,” whispers Corinne, as the X on Camellia’s heart begins to fade.
The spotted dog whines and licks their hands.
“Corinne?” whispers Camellia, rubbing her eyes. They are blue now, not silver.
“Corinne? Sweet Corinne?” says Mama, sitting up. Her eyes are brown now. Mama’s eyes, and Mama’s soft, lullaby voice.
No Xs on their chests. Just whole, warm, wonderful Mama and Camellia.
“What happened?” Camellia asks.
“We went somewhere,” says Mama. “I think we did. What happened to us, Corinne?”
“I will tell you at supper,” says Corinne. It can’t be wrong to have this one secret, just for a little while. “But first, we have a job to do.”
They search the basement until they find bricks, a pail of mortar, and a dirty shovel, hidden in the corner.
Corinne thinks, “This is not the first time this has happened,” and she shivers, wondering . . .
But first, they have a job to do. Together, Corinne, Camellia, and Mama hide away the door downstairs.
Summer camp, and me and Matías are walking down to the lake for kayaks, which we don’t like that much. Everyone else is already down there. So when we come to that fork in the path, where you go to the right to get to the lake, we didn’t exactly decide or talk about it, but we just took the left fork instead.
He’s a cool guy, Matías is. We like a lot of the same stuff. He’s like my best friend at camp.
He might sort of be my best friend of anywhere.
So down the left path. And at first I don’t notice, ‘cause me and Mat are talking, but after a while what he’s saying sort of fades out, and I notice how on this path the woods keep getting denser, and the dead leaves under our feet get darker and softer, and you can’t hear the lake at all anymore. You can’t hear hardly anything at all, even the birds are quiet.
The path stops at this clearing, like that’s the place the path was taking us to.
And in the middle of the clearing is a door.
This door is just standing there, surrounded by trees, inside a wooden door frame. It’s painted dark blue, like the darkest midnight blue, and the paint looks old, all cracked and peeling. It has a regular doorknob, brass or whatever.
I mean, it’s just a door. A door in the middle of the forest. At first we just stand there, like: What?
Then Mat starts laughing, like this is the most hilarious thing he’s ever seen. I sort of see why he’s laughing, it is pretty funny—I mean who brought a door out here? or did there used to be a house, and now a door is all that’s left? But for some reason I don’t feel exactly like laughing. I keep noticing all the quiet.
Mat walks up to the door. I say, “Hey, man, maybe you shouldn’t . .” and he stops and looks back at me, smiling, like, “Shouldn’t what?” And I can’t think of what I was going to say, can’t think of a good reason not to touch the door. It’s so weirdly quiet here isn’t a good reason.
Mat picks up a stick like it’s a briefcase. He puts his hand on the doorknob and looks back at me, saying in this fake deep, jolly voice: “Well, goodbye kids, I’m off to the forest office! Forest pizza for dinner tonight!” And he opens the door, still looking at me, and walks through.
I wait for him to come back around from the other side. But he doesn’t. So I guess he’s hiding on the other side, for a joke? and I walk around back there.
And he’s not there.
I look around to see if he’s hiding in the woods. But the bushes and trees are so thick, no way he could have got in there without me hearing him in all this quiet.
I run back around to the other side of the door. I call his name, I yell, “Mat! Matías!” over and over.
Nothing happens except quiet. He’s just gone, Mat’s just gone.
I walk up to the door and put my hand on the knob. Then I put my hand down, because I don’t have to do this, some grownup should do this. I run as fast as I can back up the path, back through the woods, to tell the counselors that Mat disappeared.
But when I get back to camp, all out of breath, before I even get to the counselors’ cabin, I see him. I see Matías. It’s from the back, but he’s the only one at camp with an Astros T-shirt. And I’m so relieved, it feels like I’m standing in a shower of relief and it’s pouring right down from my head to my feet. It was just a crazy Mat joke after all. I run up to him, yelling, “Mat! Hey Mat, I can’t believe you got here before me! You really . . .” And I stop.
Because when he turns around, it’s not Mat. It looks like Mat—same thick black hair that kind of sticks out at the top of his head, same brown eyes, same one ear bigger than the other.
But it’s not Mat, no way it’s Mat. Because the dark eyes are cold and empty, and he isn’t slightly smiling on one side of his face like Mat always is. He isn’t smiling at all. He isn’t even standing right—Mat’s fidgety, he’s always moving around and drumming his fingers or practicing soccer kicks. This boy is standing totally still.
Then he blinks his cold, empty eyes at me one time, and gives a tiny, cold smile. He puts one finger to his lips, and says, “Shhhhhhh.”
All the skin on my arms raises up in little bumps of fear, and I turn around and run. I hear Al the main counselor yelling my name and saying something about “dinner” and “dark soon,” but I don’t stop.
At first I don’t know where I’m running, I’m just running from the thing-not-Mat, which is the creepiest thing I ever saw. But then I know I’m running to the door.
When I get there it isn’t dark yet, but the light is all strange and clear so you know it will be dusk soon, and then dark.
I walk right up to the door and put my hand on the knob.
And then I stop, because: What if?
What if it sucks me in to wherever it took Matías?
What if there’s something waiting on the other side?
Then I remember the creepy thing that isn’t Mat, and I put one hand onto the door frame, holding on just in case, and open the door.
I am looking at a garden, crammed with flowers, dusty blues and bright-fire reds, sunny yellows. A path leads through the flowers to a blue-white sky. I can smell the green and the sweetness from here. I want to go there so bad, I feel my leg sort of pulling up on its own, like it’s going to take a step in.
Is this where Mat is? I don’t see him, but . . . I lean in.
And just as I’m about to really step in, because it looks so beautiful and peaceful there, so much better than this hot, cruddy camp or my shout-y house, I slam the door shut.
I lean my head on the door for a second. I don’t want to open the door again.
But I gotta find Mat. Maybe I could at least call out for him, in case he’s wandering down that path somehow, in case he can hear me.
I open the door again.
But now what I see behind the door is totally different. There’s no garden at all. Now where I’m looking, it’s deep under the ocean, the water hazy and blackish-green. I could reach out one finger and touch the ocean, it goes right up against the doorway and stops. I can smell the salt and fish and underwater snmells.
On the floor of the ocean is the skeleton of a whale. A million little plants are growing up inside and around it, winding around the bones, waving gently in the water, and fishes swim around and inside the plants and the bones. A whole little world in this whale skeleton, far under the sea. I say “Mat,” in a small voice. But if he’s in this place, he can’t hear me.
I remember Mat wasn’t looking, when he walked through this door. He was looking at me, to see me laugh at his joke. He might have walked into anything at all.
I shut the door, and open it again.
This time I see a dark house, cluttered with old and dusty things, broken clocks and fat brown books and thick blood-colored carpets and unlit lamps, and tons more. The only bright part is a window all covered with ice making crystal patterns like frozen snowflakes on the glass.
“Mat?” I say. But the place is all dusty and silent, like no one’s been there in a million years.
I close the door and open it again. I do that over and over, and the door always shows me someplace new. In every place, I call “Mat! Matías!” In every place, he doesn’t answer.
I open the door to a city street drowning in a river of flood water. A wave crashes over the sign on a Chinese restaurant.
I open the door to a gray field, and in the center of the field one tree, with leaves made of smoke that wavers and breathes.
I open the door to a sky blood-red with streaming birds.
I open the door to a dirty alley far below, and two girls in coats, fighting. I hear their tiny angry cries. When I yell “Mat!” one of the girls looks up.
I open the door to 17 butterflies feeding on a dead dog.
Some of the things I see are so beautiful, and some are so horrible. The worst is when I open the door and the whole doorframe is filled up with this big man, with thinning hair and his sleeves rolled up, and he’s looking right at me with an ugly smile. I slammed the door on that man so fast. I didn’t even call for Mat.
The sky is losing color and the light is going away. It’s going to be so dark on that path going back to camp, but I can’t leave Mat wherever he is, and I can’t go back to face that thing that isn’t Mat.
So I open the door one more time.
This time I see a forest clearing, where it’s almost dark. “Mat!” I call. My voice is weak, because I’m tired of calling, and I’m afraid.
But something I didn’t see before, this dark blue curled-up thing under one of the trees, it stirs, it sits up.
And it’s Mat.
“Mat!” I yell. He starts stumbling toward me, calling my name. I realize that he can’t see me. I start talking so he can follow my voice, just saying anything, stuff like “You got this Mat, come on man, you’re almost home, this way,” like that.
Mat’s getting closer—he’s almost here. I hold on tight to the door frame, just in case, and put my other hand through. Mat must see my hand, because his eyes get big and scared.
“It’s me! Just grab my hand!” I say. “I’ll pull you through!”
He grabs my hand. But just at the same time, I feel someone yank my other hand off the door frame and hold it tight. I turn around, and it’s the other kid, the one who looks like Mat, but he’s not. The not-Mat’s mouth is twisted in anger but his eyes are the same cold and empty they were before.
Mat and the not-Mat are pulling hard on my hands, I feel like they’re puling me apart, my arms are stretched out all the way. I pull as hard as I can, I pull both of them close, and pulling them in spins me. I am spinning, turning in this threshold, Mat in one hand, not-Mat on the other. I have to save one, and I have to let go of one, and I have to make sure I stay on the right side of the door.
Finally I open my right hand and shove that boy through the door, and I pull hard with my left hand and don’t let go. I slam the door shut.
There’s a dark head on the ground next to me, where he fell. “Look at me!” I yell. Because I don’t know if I got the right one.
When he looks up, I know right away it’s Mat. I can see him in there, no question, there inside his startled eyes.
We walk back to the camp hardly talking at all, but I’m so happy, so happy and relieved. I run up to Jim and say “Did we miss dinner? Can we eat anyway? because we’re starving and we had this crazy . . . “
Then I stop.
Because when Jim turns to me, it’s Jim’s goofy long face, and Jim’s pale blue eyes. But the eyes are cold as ice and empty. There’s no Jim inside them.
I hear Mat call my name, sounding scared. I turn around.
A bunch of the guys from our cabin are standing in a circle around him. Their empty eyes are like little buttons of black ice, and their faces aren’t happy or mad or anything at all, only unsmiling and cold.
I wonder if my face looks as scared and my eyes look as big as Mat’s.
Now it’s the next morning, and me and Mat are waiting outside the bunk cabin with our bags, because they’re sending us home.
“We’re on the wrong side,” whispers Mat.
“I know,” I say.
“If we could make it to the door . . .” he says.
But Jim is standing over us, the same way he’s been all night.
A car pulls up, and my parents get out. Only it’s not my parents. I sort of knew it wouldn’t be, but I was sort of hoping anyway. Seeing cold horrible empty things that look like Mom and Dad, but are not my mom and dad—it’s the worst thing in the world to see.
“You won’t be seeing Matías again, so say goodbye now,” not-my-dad says, as he takes me by one arm to the shiny car.
I’m sitting in the back. I look at Mat through the window while it rolls up automatically. I think we’re both slight;y crying. I say with my mouth, but not out loud, “goodbye, goodbye.”
The car drives away, and Mat gets smaller and smaller, until he’s gone completely, and I’m alone.
Mama always told me not to answer the door.
It was dangerous, she said. You never know who might be on the other side, she said.
I kept the key in my hand the whole way from school, held it so tight it left a mark that was always gone by next morning and back again next afternoon. I locked myself inside the house at the end of the row, all exactly the same. Red brick and white shutters, pointy roofs and shiny mailboxes.
I’d do my schoolwork, and count the hour until mama came home.
There were seventeen minutes left. I was multiplying nine times seventeen, and I liked how neat that was.
The doorbell hadn’t worked in years. The knock was soft at first. It stopped and came back again, louder.
Nine times seventeen is one hundred and fifty-three.
Finally, the knock went away.
Twelve minutes later, the door opened. “Adam? I’m home.”
“I’m in here,” I said. “Someone knocked a little bit ago.”
“Oh,” said mama. “I’ll check to see if they left a package. Are you hungry yet?”
After dinner, I finished my math and took a bath. That rhymed, and I liked how neat that was.
My eyes were almost closed, blankets pulled up to my chin. A tap rattled the window, like the spindly wooden fingers of a branch, but there were no trees outside my room. Bugs sometimes flew too hard into the glass and I’d find them squished on the sill, messy and disgusting. I pulled the blankets higher and fell asleep.
The key mark was still on my palm. Eight times thirteen is one hundred and four.
“Go away,” I said, much too quietly for whoever was on the other side to hear me. I wouldn’t open it, because of what mama said. It could be anyone.
The same thing happened the next day, and the next. I told mama every time, and she went up and down the street, to all the houses with their red bricks and white shutters and pointy roofs and shiny mailboxes to ask if it was the people who lived there, needing something. But it wasn’t any of them, and they hadn’t seen anybody on our porch. We must have been at work, they said. Helen must have been at school, they said.
The tap on the window was loud enough to wake me up. I climbed out of bed, wriggling my toes in the soft rug before I pulled the curtains apart an inch to look outside. There was nobody there, nobody I could see.
Six times eleven is sixty-six.
I was almost expecting the knock, but I jumped and dropped my pencil when it came, anyway. The lead broke and skittered away across the floor. “Go away,” I said, a little louder this time, still too quiet to be heard through the thick, locked, safe door.
“Please, let me in.”
I ran upstairs, soles of my shoes slapping on the wood, loud, but quieter than my heart thumping fast. I slammed the door to my room so hard the window rattled and that made me jump, too.
“Adam? I’m home!”
“I’m up here,” I whispered.
“Adam?” Mama climbed the stairs and knocked at my door. “Are you in there?”
I stayed curled on my bed, watching the handle turn, even though I knew it was just mama, who smiled when she saw me, and whose smile turned into a frown. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”
I couldn’t tell her, not this time. She’d think I wasn’t old enough to stay home alone for an hour after all, and I’d have to stay at school where it was noisy and messy and impossible to remember what five times nine was.
“I’m not feeling well,” I said, which wasn’t exactly a lie.
“Stay here,” she said. “I’ll bring you some soup.”
All night, something tapped at the glass. “Please,” it whispered. “Please, let me in,” and no matter how many times I told myself it was the wind, I knew that was a lie.
“You still don’t look very good,” said Mama in the morning. “Let’s stay home today.” She called the school to get my work, and I sat on the couch with a fresh pencil that made nice, sharp marks. I liked how neat they were.
Three times seven is twenty-one.
Mama was upstairs, folding away socks. Someone knocked and it was safe, safe to answer while she was home. I listened as I tiptoed to the door, but there was no voice this time. Probably the mailman with a package.
The lock clicked. A breeze blew as I turned the handle and pulled.
There was no one there.
“Hello?” I called, stepping out onto the porch in my bare feet. “Is anyone there?”
The wind blew harder; the door closed with a shattering slam. I saw too late that everything was different.
There were no other houses on the street, no red bricks or white shutters. Beyond the porch was just barren grass, far as I could see, and farther still. Overhead, the sun was hazed with clouds, hot, but the wind was cold.
“Mama?” I called, knocking on the door hard as I could. “Mama?”
She’d been at the back of the house, upstairs. I ran from the porch and onto the grass, pebbles biting at the bottom of my feet, little teeth hidden in the grass. Around the house and into the overgrown backyard. “Mama?”
I called for her until I couldn’t anymore, my throat hot and raw as the sun that was, now, sinking down in the sky. She’d notice I was gone soon, open the front door and find me there, sitting against it, knees pulled to my chest.
The stars began to twinkle. The moon was bright. My eyes dropped closed, and when I opened them, my whole body hurt from sleeping that way, a solid ache from head to toe. The grass was glassed with frost. My stomach rumbled. Mama still hadn’t noticed I was gone.
I knocked until my knuckles were bruised, blue as the morning.
There was still nothing to be seen in any direction, just my house sitting there in the middle of the nothing.
I multiplied things in my head to stay calm, keep my heart from hammering. It was afternoon, I think, when I remembered the ladder, left in the backyard last summer, now covered with moss and mold and snails. Messy and disgusting and I didn’t want to touch it, but I did, now, dragging it as far as I could and propping it against the red brick.
My bare feet slid on the slimy rungs. I tapped at the window, but there was no answer. I knocked at the door again. “Please,” I said. “Let me in.”
I don’t know if it was the next day, or the one after that, or the one after that when the handle turned. I knew I was cold, and my ribs stuck out, and my mouth tasted of the disgusting hose water that had been the only thing to drink.
The wind blew as the door opened.
One times two is two.
I saw myself.
And we both screamed.
There is a long, winding path. Trees stand tall either side.
At the end of the path is a house of crumbling brick and turrets pointing into the sky. At the top of the steps, a door stands open, a door that is one of many. Step inside, and it already smells of secrets and starlight, of wind and mysteries.
Thick layers of dust cover furniture that once gleamed with polish. Cobwebs string the corners light Christmas lights.
Climb the stairs. Note the doors that line the corridor on the first floor, all locked tight. Climb higher.
And higher still.
Floorboards creak underfoot. The door to one of the turrets is open, and the staircase inside is winding, winding.
There is another door at the top, this one locked, too. The key is heavy in your pocket, but you don’t know what lies behind the thick wood, the brass handle.
It could be anything.
Anna-May Reginald’s funeral was held on July 7th, on a harsh, buzzing summer day.
I didn’t cry. You may think me callous as I was only seven then, but you see, I hadn’t liked Anna-May much, and her being buried in a little white box behind the village church did not seem such a bad idea to me at the time.
It wasn’t that Anna-May and I weren’t friends. We were. But affection is not really necessary for friendship when you’re seven, and it was enough that we lived next door to each other on a long, cracked road in a small, green town, and were the same height, and had the same cheap cotton Roebuck’s clothes in cheery colors, and our parents could foist us on each other without too much trouble.
“Go play with that dear little Anna-May from next door, won’t you?” Mama would say, and so I did.
I remember distinctly standing by the freshly turned dirt of the grave on that hot July day. I remember my scratchy, ruffly white dress and I remember the flowers languishing in a heap on top of the coffin, dying in the sun. There was a fly on one the petals. It was buzzing its wings and turning circles, but it never flew off.
I was watching the fly closely. I didn’t look at the coffin, or Anna-May’s parents, or my parents, or the reporters crowding out beyond the church’s little fence. I watched that fly, and I watched the dying flowers, and I remember thinking what a mess all this was.
It wasn’t my fault, what happened to Anna-May. That’s what the police kept telling me, and the nurse lady from the office building in Cleveland, and my parents. Anna-May’s parents sometimes looked at me like they knew, but they said it, too, right along with everyone else: It’s not your fault. Not your fault, sweetie. Not your fault.
I believed them. I still believe them. It’s a lie, but no one ever said you couldn’t believe in lies.
This is how it happened: We were sitting in the Reginalds’ back yard one month earlier, Anna-May and I, eating something. I don’t remember what it was. Madeleines and lemon and something frothy. Playing at tea. I remember being bored and much too warm, watching the clothesline at the far end of the garden. It was hung with bedsheets and pillowcases, all blinding white, and one of the clothes-items was twisting in a very singular way in the slow, hot air. And then, all at once, the wind caught it and it was as if it wasn’t cloth at all but a person, a tall thin person, all white as chalk and linen.
To this day I don’t know if I believed what I saw or if I half believed it, or if I really didn’t care one way or another.
I said: “Anna-May, there’s someone in your garden.”
Anna-May didn’t believe me. She said, “Where?” but she didn’t turn around, so I knew she thought I was bogus.
“By the clothesline. Someone’s there.”
“Mommaaaaa!” Anna-May screamed, still buttering a little piece of madeleine.
No one answered. Mrs. Reginald usually forgot our very existence whenever we were together, as if the two of us cancelled each other out inside her mind.
I looked back toward the clothesline. The wind had twisted the white shape again, and it almost looked as if the figure were waving at us. At me. A white shape, and the softly golden sun, and the green grass. . .
“It’s not Mrs. Reginald,” I said.
That was when she finally turned all the way around in her little chair and squinted toward the clothesline. “Well, who is it?”
She couldn’t see anyone, of course, but for some reason I said: “It’s a man. He’s gone now. He ran into the hedge there.”
Anna-May turned to look at me, her teacup clutched in her fat baby hands. Her eyes were blue and dull. “A man.”
“Yes. A man in a white suit. He was waving at us.”
Anna-May didn’t move for a second. “Was it Pa?”
“No, it weren’t Mr. Reginald.”
“Well, then who?”
“I don’t know who. Let’s go see where he went.”
I said that because I was tired of playing at tea. Anna-May always pretended to know all the rules of etiquette and would correct me, even though she didn’t know a thing.
“All right,” said Anna-May, but she said it a little cautiously, and then she stuffed her madeleine in her pocket as if she were afraid she might starve between here and the clothesline, and we set off. My mind was working furiously by then, clicking and clicking, and our little shoes were squishing through the lawn, which was not mowed but was ragged and very dark green.
We came to the clothesline. There wasn’t anyone there, and all I saw now were a pair of long underwear and a white flannel shirt with its arms pinned up, but it made no difference. And at least we weren’t sitting around anymore.
I poked my head into the hedge. Anna-May followed. We went a few steps in, and it was hot and close, the leaves pressing all around. We walked several more steps and then Anna-May started whining.
“Who could it have been? He ran in here, you said?”
“Yes. I think he might have been one of those drifting tricksters. You know, the ones that live by the railroad tracks and have tropical lizards and tigers and can spit fire? Suppose he was one of those!”
I made that up. I knew about circuses from books and the motion pictures, but they never came to our town.
Anna-May was not aware of this. “Oh, a circus man!” she said, and looked delighted.
“Yes! A magician, maybe!”
“D’you think he’s still close?”
“I don’t know! Let’s see,” I said, pleased that Anna-May was finally interested in something besides tea.
But then Anna-May froze. I don’t know what she saw, because I was facing her, and she was looking over my shoulder. It might have been a trick of the light. It might have been the chalk man hurrying away among the leaves, turning from time to time, swinging his long arms, waving us in, waving us closer.
I spun around, but I saw nothing.
“Come on!” I shouted, and pulled Anna-May hard, and that’s when stupid Anna-May had to get her foot tangled in a root and fall on her face.
I left her in the bushes and ran back to the house and shouted for Mrs. Reginald. It took close to five minutes of bawling at the top of my lungs before Mrs. Reginald realized it, and when she finally did come running down the stairs, it took me ages to get her to come outside.
“What happened!” Mrs. Reginald cried, when I led her to Anna-May.
Anna-May wouldn’t stop crying even long enough to answer Mrs. Reginald, and I wasn’t going to have her think I had pushed Anna-May or something, so I said: “There was a man, right over there by the laundry. We chased him into the bushes, but he got away, and then Anna-May tripped, ma’am, and I got you.”
“A man? What sort of man?”
“Well, he was awful thin, and- and- he had a rope in one hand.”
I don’t know why I said that part.
Mrs. Reginald looked at me sharply. Then she said: “Molly, you’d better go home. I’m taking Anna to the doctor. Come on, Anna, up you go.”
I ran up the street to our house and hid in my room. I watched from my window as Mrs. Reginald carried Anna-May crying and bawling into the house. I felt bad for her, just a little, and then I remembered her stopping in the bushes, refusing to go on, and I wondered why.
I still wonder why.
Did you see him, too, Anna-May? Please tell me you saw him, too.
I saw Anna-May one last time. I was walking down the sidewalk, and she was on the other side of the fence, sitting on a chair, her head propped up with pillows, like she had broken her neck and not just one tiny bone in her ankle. She saw me, but she didn’t say anything, and so I kept walking, and then finally she did call out:
“Molly Pratchett! I need to talk to you, Molly Pratchett!” she yelled, and so I went back and talked to her.
She was far too interested in the chalk man, and by then I had all but forgotten about him. She was interested in the circus. And while I didn’t like Anna-May very much, as I’ve said, I liked telling people things. I liked telling stories.
“They come every summer and stay on the other side of the train tracks,” I tell her. “All the most marvelous folk. And I think that’s where the chalk man was from. He had just wandered up here by accident and into your backyard, but I bet he’s really a magician or a juggler!”
“You think? Why’d he have rope in his hand.”
“To do knot tricks, of course. Or maybe he’s an animal trainer. These circuses have everything. Elephants and tigers and you can’t do anything with them without a rope.”
“I want to see,” Anna-May said dreamily. “D’you think we could go when my foot’s better?”
“Oh,” I said, and I was worried, because if we went, there would be no circus most likely, and so Anna-May would go back to thinking me bogus. So I said: “They won’t be there when your foot’s better. They’re always traveling. They do secret shows for the ones who know, for the people who get cards in the mail or the ones who wander up by accident and then they’re gone again by sun-up. I don’t think you’ll see them.”
“Make a map for me,” she said, and so I made a sloppy one on a handkerchief, my heart pounding. I had no idea how to get to the train tracks as we weren’t allowed to go out of town on our own yet, but I made a forest and a river, and the tracks, and I made a route.
I didn’t think it would matter much, since Anna-May had a broken ankle and wouldn’t be able to wander there anyway.
But she did. She wanted to find the circus, she said. She wanted to see the tigers and the elephants on the other side of the tracks, and see the fire-blowers. She wanted to find the chalk man.
I wonder if she found him. She found someone.
The police came by our house the next day, and Mama was in a state because she didn’t think it was clean enough for an officer of the law. She fussed and wiped her hands on her apron, and I admired the shiny blue car out on the curb.
“Hello, officer, how do you do?” my mama said, and I noticed she didn’t invite him in, probably because she hadn’t dusted all day, and there was garbage right inside the hall.
“Mrs. Pratchett. Good morning. I’d like to ask to speak to your daughter, Molly Pratchett. There’s been an incident, and we think she might know a thing or two.
“An incident?” my mama said, and by the sound of her voice, I knew she was clutching at her cheap costume necklace, her eyes very wide.
“Nothing serious. Just some strange folks been seen around the neighborhood, and apparently your daughter saw one yesterday. We’d like a statement from her.”
“Oh,” Mama said. “ Oh, well, all right then.”
She called me out and stood behind me while I gave my statement.
“He was dressed in white, you said?” The officer’s name was Jim Thomas, and he kept squinting down at me, even though the sun was behind him.
“All in white or just partly.”
“And he was carrying a rope.”
“Yes. One rope.”
“Was he carrying anything else?”
I peered up at Officer Thomas, and I peered out over the street, and I felt quite frightened then, because I didn’t know what to say. A truck was parked on the other side of the street. It had an advertisement on the side for cheap dime store rings. So I said: “Yes. He had rings on one finger. A whole lot of rings. Seven or eight.”
“On one hand?” Officer Thomas squinted harder.
“Yes.” I nodded, still staring at the truck across the road.
“All right, kiddo. Ma’am?” He tipped his cap at mama. “I’ll be going. Thank you for your time.”
We watched him go down the steps, looking at his pad where he had written down everything I said, and when he put his head up my heart gave a little jolt because I was sure he would notice the truck with the rings on its side, and turn around and come back and take me to the police station. But he didn’t. He got in his shiny blue police car and drove away.
The officer had lied, of course. Nothing serious meant Anna-May was dead. No one knew quite how she died, but either she fell or someone pushed her, and there were bruises on her arms, they said, that could be from thick gloves. Or rings.
The police came to my house again, after everything blew up, after the whole town knew and everyone was scared and crying. This time there were two officers and they asked me many, many questions, sometimes twice to see if I would trip up. I did.
“You said the man was wearing all white and a white hat?”
“Last time you said he wasn’t wearing a hat.”
“Oh, he wasn’t. Sorry. He didn’t have a hat.”
“All right. And rings? He was wearing rings.”
The officers took my fingerprints and left, and I thought about the map I had drawn for Anna-May, and hoped no one would ever find it.
They caught a man in a dirty white coat up by the railroads, a drifter from Mississippi. He had no family. He had a bad eye, and a bad mouth, and nobody missed him. They hanged him.
I was in the newspaper the next day. I was everywhere, and people tried to get me to tell them things, and I started crying in front of all those flash bulbs and microphones, and everyone thought it was adorable and tragic because Anna-May and I had been such good friends, but they didn’t know. I didn’t give a fig for Anna-May being dead. I cared about me, and it was almost as if I had made the chalk man come alive and he had killed Anna-May, and it confused me something fierce.
The truth of the matter is, (or, I should say, the way most people would normally think) was that there was no chalk man. There was only Anna-May and me, and a world full of dreadful people, and that world caught Anna-May the way it catches lots of folk. A man in a white coat was hanged for no reason. Maybe Anna-May tripped following my stupid map, or maybe a murderer went on his merry way, and no one looked at him twice, because maybe he was wearing checkers and orange polka-dots, and I had said he was wearing white. Either way someone died because of me.
But that’s not what I believe. If you believe in something, it’s true, isn’t it? For me it is. Maybe for Anna-May it was, too.