Substitutes are the worst obviously, but this one wasn’t so bad. She was pretty, for one thing, with a snub nose and eyes sort of permanently smiling at you. And she was pretty nice, without being goopy. She just seemed regular. We liked her.
Especially I liked her. Our regular teacher doesn’t really like me very much, but the substitute did.
She was there the week we presented science projects.
My friend Mariela went before me. Her project was on lobotomies, where they stick a needle in your eye to kill a bad part of your brain. Or it turns out now they do it in surgery, but in the past they used to stick a needle through your eye into your brain. And this is not like a hundred years ago, but even in the 1960s and 1970s! Gross.
My project was “Extraterrestrial Life—ALIENS AMONG US.” The title was kind of corny because obviously there aren’t real aliens. But some people think there are alien microbes around. In fact some people think that’s actually how life on earth got started even, maybe—some alien microbes landed here and life started growing from them.
“So maybe life just came raining down on us from outer space,” I said at the end of my presentation. “And maybe that’s even still happening now.”
Then I curtsied, which is ridiculous, but whatever, I just did it to show I was done. The class clapped for me, and when I passed her desk to sit down, the substitute leaned toward me.
“I think you’re righter than you know,” she said, and smiled.
The final bell rang, so we packed up to go home. I was kind of glowing. But the substitute stopped me at the door.
“Got a second, Aisha?” she said. “I loved your project. Lovely work. Let’s talk a bit more. Maybe we should consider this project for the district science fair.”
I have always wanted to be in that big fair, and I had worked so hard on this project. I know it sounds stupid, but just, I was excited. I pulled a chair up to her desk and sat down.
“Why do you think alien microbes might still be visiting?” she asked. Her long red nail was sort of drawing along her grade book, like she didn’t notice it. Her eyes were on me, warm and brown. “What do you think they want?”
“Oh, well,” I said. I was stumbling a little because I wasn’t sure what she meant. “They’re just microbes so . . . I don’t think they want or don’t want things.”
When she smiled, her eyes crinkled in such a nice way. “What about Noah’s presentation, though?”
Noah had done his on toxoplasmosis, which is where cats spread this microbe around, and when mice eat the microbe, they start liking cats and being super friendly to them. It’s like this bug whispers in their brains that Cats are the best! No reason to be afraid of cats!
And once they stop being afraid of cats, well, they’re a lot easier for the cats to catch. Which is convenient for the cats. But it’s bad for the mice they kill and eat.
The substitute was leaning over me now, looking at my presentation on my school iPad. Her hair was touching my hair. She put one long pretty finger on my iPad, like she was about to make a point about something there.
I felt weird, like she was too close. Her arms were making a cage around me. And she had pushed in so that my chair was scootched all the way to the desk, so I couldn’t even slip down. My heart started beating a little hard, like it was scared for no good reason. She’s nice, though, I told myself. She’s really, really nice.
She put her lips close to my ear, so close I could feel that the lips were smiling. Then long and slow, with a long, raspy breath, she whispered: “I’m not really nice.”
I didn’t feel anything going in my ear except breath.
I didn’t feel a worm or a bug or anything.
But something must have gone in. Something did go in. What went in me? I don’t know. Maybe it was a microbe.
All I know is now there’s something that’s not me inside my head.
At first I hardly noticed. Our regular teacher came back the next day, and she wasn’t as nice, and she said my science project was Nonsense and not only would I not be going to the district science fair, I would have to start all over with a new idea just to get a passing grade. I couldn’t believe it.
And that same day, this thing in my head started doing things. But it wasn’t me.
I had to go to the library to find a new topic. They let me on the computer for twenty minutes to google around about it. I didn’t really have any ideas.
But then all of a sudden, I did. Or this thing in my head did, this thing that wasn’t me. It made my hands type out “Dr. Cynthia Weinstein new vaccine” in the google box. Which, I have never even heard that name before. And something came up! I was so freaked out from my hands typing on their own I almost got out of the chair, but my body stayed where it was and made me read the first article. Which was hard because it was pretty sciencey, but apparently this Dr. Weinstein had invented a flu vaccine that she said would prevent not just this year’s flu, like most vaccines, but all flu, ever. You take this vaccine once when you’re a kid, and never get the flu!
At first other scientists had said it couldn’t be. But I guess now some were coming around. It was a Debate in the Scientific Community.
Yeah, that would be good for a science project. But: I didn’t want to do a science project on something my hands typed out without my permission. So I tried to get up. But my body stayed sitting. It turned to the librarian, all straight and proper, and this thing in my head said to the librarian, “Miss? I wonder if may I print this article, please?”
Who talks like that? Not me. Not me.
When the librarian gave it to me I rushed out words in my own voice, saying I felt sick, really sick, I had to go home. She called my mom, and when Mom came and saw me, the madness fell off her face.
All the way home I tried not to talk, in case the other voice came out.
For the next week, I fought with the thing in my head. It wanted me to do my science project, but I wouldn’t. I stayed in my room playing Minecraft instead. I stopped looking in the mirror, because when I looked in the mirror I saw my eyes were half scared and half hard and angry. The scared part was me.
But even though I tried, that thing got better and better at using me. It made me hold the back of my neck stiff and hard, so it ached at night. It wouldn’t let me just do things, he had to be mean about it. It talked with my mouth, it sounded fake. It answered in class in its stupid prissy voice and made everyone hate me, even my friends.
One night I before I went to bed, I saw the article. I didn’t want to see it, it was scary, so I flipped it over. But when I did I saw something, and I picked it up after all. The microbe this doctor wanted to use in the vaccine—the name of it, a long scientific name, sounded familiar. I went to get my old science project on the aliens. The thing in my head didn’t WANT me to, it made my fingers so stiff I had to pushed on the iPad with flat fingers.
It’s getting stronger.
But I found the presentation. I saw where that name came from.
It’s one of the microbes this one scientist thinks is alien.
I looked again at that article the librarian printed out. It had a picture of Dr Cynthia Weinstein. And her face had that same look I see in the mirror. Her eyes were scared, with something hard and angry standing behind them.
The microbes want me to do my science project on this new vaccine, I thought. Because they want everyone to take the new vaccine.
Because then everyone will be like me.
I am hardly myself any longer. The words I say are almost never mine. How can’t everyone tell it’s so fake?
But they can’t, even my mom can’t. I think they think I’m the fake—but it’s not me! It’s these imposter microbes or aliens or whatever!
HaHA laughs the imposter. When something wasn’t funny.
While I’m writing this, the imposter in my head says SHUT UP, SHUT UP, STOP. It’s angry.
I have an idea how to kill him, while I can still control my body a little. But will it kill me, too?
My idea is that maybe I could I find the exact spot in my head where the imposter is, and stick a needle in there and kill it. Like in a lobotomy, only I’m not killing MY brain, I’m killing this bad thing inside me.
Supposedly you can do it through the eye. I imagine a long knitting needle sliding in, and part of me is afraid, and part of me is furious and happy.
And I don’t know which part is the me part.
I’m going to kill that lying thing before it destroys me, before it destroys the whole world. While I’m still here to know I’m not that thing, I’m going to kill it. I’m going to kill it. I won’t be a mouse in love with a cat.
And I’ll tell the world, I’ll tell Dr Cynthia Weinstein, I’ll tell everyone how to stop the aliens microbes, and I’ll make them believe me.
I hope it works
Well now, what have we here? A new story, collected from the adventures that have kept us so long away? By carrier pigeon and smoke signal, letters in the sky and messages sent on the wind, your four Curators have kept in contact even as we each traveled to the most far-flung, forgotten corners of worlds both real and decidedly not. We always knew we would return, and that our joyous reunion would be alight with tales of the things we had seen. Stuffed to the gills with cake and thrilled to all be in the same place again, we held our curious new treasures up to the light and debated where each might best fit in our Cabinet. Now, you might well imagine that on our journeys we encountered all manner of people, creatures, and objects, most–if not all–of which were not at first what they seemed to be. For that reason, our newest collection is on the theme of imposters.
Please, do enjoy.
The car pulled up outside a tiny house on a narrow street in a small village. None of it was familiar except Evie’s grandmother, already waiting on the front porch. Evie waved through the window and smushed her face up against the glass as her mother parked in the driveway. Grandma June waved back, a smile eating up all the wrinkles on her face.
The moment the car stopped, Evie yanked off her seatbelt and jumped out, running up to get her hug. Grandma June gave her lots of hugs in the week or two they spent together every summer, but this first one was always the best. Soft and squishy and perfumed with roses and talcum powder.
“Hello, my darling,” said Grandma June, squeezing the very breath out of Evie. “How are you today?”
“Good,” gasped Evie. Grandma let her go, and together they waited for Evie’s parents to join them with Evie’s small, green suitcase. Her mother had originally picked out a pink one, but no, Evie had wanted the green, the color of the apple skins that littered the kitchen counter while the smell of baking pie filled grandma’s house. They always baked a pie on their first day together, and they’d eat it with ice cream for dinner, making a pact not to tell Evie’s parents that there hadn’t been a vegetable in sight.
The pie had fruit in it, anyway. It was healthy.
But it would be a different house this time, a different kitchen counter. Grandma June used to live in a city almost the same size as the one Evie lived in, but a few months ago, she had decided the hustle and bustle was more than she could take in her old age. She wanted quiet, she said, and to go to the shop for milk without a thousand people getting in her way, or huffing rudely because she wasn’t quick on her feet anymore. She had moved while Evie was still in school, so Evie had stayed with her best friend for several days while her parents had helped Grandma June move everything she wanted to keep to this tiny house.
“You planted your flowers,” said Evie’s mother to her mother, pointing at the beds below the porch. “They look beautiful.”
“Thank you, dear. Couldn’t live without them, wherever I am.”
“Are you settled in?” asked Evie’s father. “Enjoying it here? It’s very quiet, isn’t it? We didn’t see a single person on the way through.”
“Oh, yes,” said Grandma June. “Quiet, for certain, but I was after quiet! I do have a new bridge club here with some lovely friends, and a very nice young man comes to cut my grass, though I tell him every time that he’s not to touch my flowers, and the sweet people at the grocery store know my name and fetch the things I can’t reach. Now, will you stay for a drink? We could have it out here,” she said, pointing at the wicker furniture. “It’s such a beautiful summer day, I made lemonade. Mrs. Hill down the road gave me lemons from her tree.”
“I’ll get it,” said Evie’s father, patting his mother-in-law on the shoulder. “You sit down.”
“I’ll help,” said Evie. She wanted to see inside the house. Grandma’s old house, where she’d lived with Granddad before he died, had been big and tall, full of so many rooms that Evie had always been able to pick which bedroom she wanted to sleep in on the trip. This house was only one floor, Evie saw that from the outside, and when she stepped in, she could see practically the whole place from the front door. A kitchen was to the left, and a living room to the right, and ahead was a hallway with two bedrooms and a bathroom leading off it. It was very different, but it smelled like Grandma, all roses and talcum powder, and that was the most important thing.
A big bowl full of green apples sat on the kitchen counter. Evie smiled to herself.
As was tradition, Evie’s parents stayed for a drink and a bit of a rest after the drive, then they kissed Evie and Grandma June goodbye and got back in the car. They would go home, back to their jobs, leaving Evie and Grandma June to get up to whatever mischief they could find to get into. Evie was the only grandchild, so she and her grandmother had all of that special kind of mischief to themselves, just between the two of them. Grandma June had taught her how to knit, and bake, and play chess so well Evie could beat her father at it now, and she was only ten. They did all kinds of fun activities together. Besides making apple pie, the other thing they’d do today is choose a book from Grandma’s shelves, and spend evenings taking turns reading it out loud.
First, however, there was some housekeeping to do. They put the empty glasses in the sink and then Grandma June showed Evie her new bedroom, the empty chest of drawers into which Evie could unpack the clothes from her little green suitcase. All right, so she didn’t have bedrooms to choose from anymore, but she recognized the furniture from Grandma’s old house, and there, in the middle of the pillows, was an old, threadbare stuffed elephant. At home, with her parents, Evie swore she was too grown up for stuffed animals, but it was unthinkable to sleep at Grandma June’s without Henry. Evie looked forward to seeing his ragged trunk every summer almost as much as she looked forward to seeing Grandma June.
They put away Evie’s things and returned to the kitchen, where the bowl of apples waited. While Grandma peeled, Evie mixed together the butter and flour for the crust. The oven heated up, slowly warming the room around it on an already warm day, but it wasn’t unpleasant. It felt cozy, it felt like living inside all the happy memories Evie had of Grandma June, even while they were making a new one.
“How was school, my darling?” Grandma June asked, using a very sharp knife to slice the apples. “I’m not sure your letters told me everything.”
“It was okay,” said Evie. She stabbed at a particularly stubborn chunk of butter with the end of her wooden spoon.
Sometimes, Grandma June knew Evie better than anyone.
“Well,” said Evie, “Beth wasn’t in my class this year. I missed her. I kept getting paired up with Melissa Jones for projects, and she hates me. She pinched me all the time when Mr. Watson wasn’t looking.”
“Did you tell your parents?”
“No,” said Evie. Some things she just didn’t want to tell them, she didn’t want to worry them, but it was safe and warm here. “It’s all right now. Hopefully she won’t be in my class when we go back to school, and Beth will.”
Grandma June nodded in time with the slicing knife. “You are a little ray of sunshine, aren’t you? Always looking on the bright side. You get that from me. Which reminds me, we’re going to have tea with a friend of mine tomorrow. I’ve been telling her all about you since the day I moved here and she was the first person I met in the street, and she’s simply desperate to meet my little Evie.”
“That sounds fun,” said Evie. “Have you made many friends here?” She didn’t want Grandma June to be lonely in this new place.
“Oh, yes,” said Grandma June. “In a small place like this, you get to know everyone in the blink of an eye, and heaven forbid you have a secret! Tell one person, and five minutes later everyone’ll know it.”
“That’s not nice,” said Evie. “People shouldn’t tell other people’s secrets.”
Grandma June chuckled. “They’re not really secrets. It’s nice to feel welcomed here, part of the community. It’s much harder to feel like that in a big city.”
It was time to assemble the pie. Soon, the smell of it cooking wafted through the small house, making Evie’s mouth water.
They ate it for dinner, its warmth melting the scoops of ice cream Grandma put on top of both their slices. Evie licked her plate clean, and Grandma June pretended not to notice. Full and happy, they curled up together on the same flowered sofa that had been in Grandma June’s old house, with a book from the same bookshelves. When the sun set outside the picture window and the room grew dim, Grandma June switched on a lamp and they kept reading until Evie’s eyelids began to droop and she yawned between the words.
It had been a long day, what with packing her little green suitcase and the hours in the car, plus the happy ones with Grandma June since she’d arrived. Evie climbed gratefully into bed, hugged Henry the elephant to her chest, and fell into a deep, long sleep.
Morning came, Evie’s first full day with Grandma June. After breakfast, Evie put on her shoes and took Grandma’s hand as the two of them headed off to see the village. Everything was new to Evie, the shops and little cottages and pretty squares, laid with grass and flowers, ringed with wrought-iron fences.
“Where is everybody?” Evie asked. It had suddenly occurred to her that there should be people about, running errands or simply strolling along in the summer sunshine, as she and Grandma June were.
“Oh, here and there, I imagine. You must remember this isn’t the city, my darling. Not nearly so many other souls here. Can you hear that?” Grandma June tilted her head and closed her eyes.
Evie copied her, but she couldn’t hear a single thing. “I can’t hear anything,” she said.
“Exactly!” said Grandma June.
A bird chirped from a nearby tree, breaking the silence.
“Well,” said Grandma June, blinking, “if it’s people you want, let’s go call on Mrs. Watson, my friend I told you about, remember? Since my company isn’t good enough for you.” She winked to show Evie she was teasing.
They turned the next corner, into a winding lane lined with houses. There was an old, crumbling church, too, with crooked headstones in the churchyard, but the bell in the tall tower was silent.
“June!” A door two houses down opened and a woman stepped out onto the front step, waving. Grandma June waved back, leading Evie to the garden path that ran up to Mrs. Watson’s home.
“You must be Evie,” said Mrs. Watson, coming down to join them. “It’s so nice to meet someone I’ve heard so much about!”
Evie focused her eyes on the little diamonds in the print of Mrs. Watson’s blue dress. “It’s nice to meet you, too,” she said politely, though she couldn’t say she’d heard much about Mrs. Watson. Only that she was one of Grandma June’s new friends here. Mrs. Watson looked to be younger than Grandma; her hair was blonde instead of white, and she had fewer wrinkles, but Evie loved Grandma June’s wrinkles.
“Well, come in, come in. I’ll put the kettle on and we can all have a nice chat. I just might be able to find some cake, too.”
That made Evie smile. Cake was always a reason to smile. Mrs. Watson gave her a knowing look, and Evie relaxed. It would be nice to meet Grandma June’s new friends.
Inside, the house showed a different sort of taste than Grandma June had, or Evie’s parents had. Everything was sleek, modern, in black or white or gray. Evie was slightly afraid to touch anything, and the sofa she perched on was stiff and uncomfortable.
A kettle whistled, plates clinked together. Mrs. Watson came in with a tray, laden with a clear glass teapot and china plates as white as bones.
“Now, Evie, tell me everything about yourself that June here has forgotten to mention,” said Mrs. Watson, handing Evie a slice of chocolate cake. “Oh, and don’t worry a bit about the crumbs, that’s what vacuum cleaners are for. Now, I want to know all about you.” Mrs. Watson leaned forward, her eyes bright, curious.
Evie’s face flushed with warmth. Um. She never quite knew what to say in these sorts of situations. Her parents had friends like this, too, who wanted to seem interested in Evie but weren’t very good at being normal about it. Adults could be very strange sometimes. “Er. I like to read?” she said, as if she wasn’t sure herself. “I play the piano, but not very well. I don’t like broccoli.” That wasn’t everything, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Well, you’re delightful,” declared Mrs. Watson. “And you’re very pretty. Do all the boys at your school chase after you?”
Evie blushed even more deeply and shook her head. Grandma June laughed. “She’s far too young for that kind of thing, Marilyn. Plenty of time for that later.”
“But you and I are running out,” said Mrs. Watson. “Which reminds me, I caught that Mr. Lee at the post office giving me the eye the other day.”
“Oh, did you, now?” asked Grandma June.
Evie ate her cake, being careful of the crumbs. Whatever Mrs. Watson had said, she didn’t want to make a mess. As she chewed, she looked around the room, but there wasn’t very much to see. A few glass vases that were quite like the teapot, really, and a shiny gray bowl filled with odd white sticks.
Grandma June was laughing as she and Mrs. Watson discussed some man at their bridge club. Evie frowned. She’d never seen her grandmother like this before, and it hadn’t been so very long since her grandfather died. Grandma June couldn’t have forgotten him already, could she?
Evie sipped her tea through a frown and waited for the two of them to finish talking. Which, finally, they did.
“We’d best not take up all of your day–you need to go to the post office, after all,” said Grandma June, winking.
“Thank you very much for the cake,” said Evie.
“My pleasure, my dear. Do call on me again before you go home, will you? It’s so nice to have visitors.”
Evie nodded. Time had passed curiously in the house; it felt as if they’d been there ages, but when she checked her watch, it wasn’t even lunchtime yet. Perhaps this was just the way of sleepy little villages.
“Let’s go home a different way,” said Grandma June, taking Evie’s hand. All the quiet, tree-lined streets looked nearly the same to Evie, but she trusted that this was not the way they had come. She could sort of understand why Grandma liked it here, it was indeed very peaceful. The village was surrounded by rolling fields, over which, in the distance, a summer storm was brewing, the clouds dark and coiled, ready to strike.
Evie stopped. All right, not all the houses in the village were the same. That one was strange.
“Who lives there?” she asked, pointing. It sat in the middle of a huge lawn, far back from the road. Weathered shingles threatened to fall off its jagged roof at any minute. Its porch was rotting, sinking into the ground, and starving ivy crawled across the dark red brick.
“Why, every village has to have a creepy old house. Where else would the monster live?” Grandma June laughed. “Oh, darling, I’m teasing. It’s empty, so far as I know. Shame, isn’t it? It’s a lovely old place.”
Evie wasn’t certain about that. She thought creepy was truly the right word.
They made it home before the rain, and sat reading as lighting flashed and thunder crashed and drops pelted the window. When Evie’s stomach growled–the cake had been a while ago, and breakfast a while before that–Grandma June made them sandwiches. Evie didn’t worry about getting crumbs on the sofa this time. Afternoon turned to evening, with dinner and more of their book. This was how Evie liked Grandma June, settled in a cozy living room, just the two of them.
And so the new routine of their summer visit began. Every day, after breakfast, they would leave the house and go for a walk, dropping into the shop to buy milk on their way, or stopping to speak to the rare people they encountered on the street, on errands of their own or walking their dogs. Everyone they met already knew about Evie, and she had to keep coming up with things to tell them about herself. She was nine years old, she wanted to be a librarian when she grew up so she could read books all day, she liked butterflies but not caterpillars. It was certainly different to the visit they’d had only last year. When she’d visited Grandma at her old house in the city they had gone exploring, of course, but to zoos and museums and art galleries, and in a place with so many people they’d almost never run into anyone Grandma knew. Here, though it was so quiet, so seemingly empty, everyone they did meet knew Grandma, and she knew them.
And Grandma June was different, too. Evie couldn’t quite put her finger on how. Perhaps it was, simply, that the setting was new, and so Grandma June was a little bit new, too.
But she was still Grandma June, with her books and apple pies and roses and talcum powder, and that was the important thing.
Evie awoke, Henry the elephant clutched to her chest. It was still dark in her room, and she checked her watch on the nightstand, pressing the button on the side to make the little screen light up. Just after midnight. She didn’t know what had woken her, maybe there’d been a noise outside.
Her heartbeat sped. Maybe there’d been a noise inside.
She froze under the covers. If she lay very still and held her breath, she’d be safe.
But she couldn’t do that. Grandma June was old. What if there was someone in the house? Evie had to protect her. It took all of Evie’s might to force herself from the bed, her bare feet silent on the carpet as she crept into the hallway. Moonlight shone in through the windows, the curtains open everywhere because it was supposed to be safe here in this little village.
Inch by inch, she moved toward Grandma June’s room. The door was ajar, and it pushed open without even the hint of a squeak.
Grandma June was a lump of shadows and blankets in the bed. Evie tiptoed across the floor until her knees touched the mattress.
Grandma June rolled over, and the moonlight hit her face.
Evie’s hand flew to her mouth so fast and so hard she hurt herself as she tried not to scream.
“Good morning, my darling. Did you sleep well?”
Evie rubbed her eyes. “Yes,” she said softly. The nightmare was over, but it had felt so real at the time. She’d never had a dream like that before, where the feeling of being awake and terrified had lasted for hours, all the way until dawn. Now, in the bright summer sunlight of morning, she wasn’t sure whether she’d left her bed at all. She didn’t think she’d ever sleepwalked before.
It had felt so real. She stared into her bowl of cereal, but all she could see was Grandma June’s face…or rather, the blank, featureless mask where her face should have been, lying against a ruffled, rose-printed pillow. It had looked like a face Evie might have sculpted from clay in one of her art classes, smooth and unwrinkled, with little marks from her fingernail for eyes, nose, mouth.
“Are you sure, my darling? You look tired. Perhaps we’ve been adventuring around the village too much. Shall we stay home today?”
Evie shook her head, clearing it of the horrible lingering nightmare. “No,” she said, squaring her shoulders. She’d had bad dreams before–none like that, admittedly, but she’d had them, and they always wore off. No reason to ruin a perfectly good day. “No, I’m all right. Let’s go for another walk.”
“As you wish,” said Grandma June, her smile making all her lovely wrinkles deepen. Evie breathed a sigh of relief. Everything was back to normal, the nightmare was fading already.
They went to the street where all the shops were, and stopped outside one whose entrance was nearly blocked with plants and flowers. A man a little older than Evie’s father waved through the window, and Grandma June pushed open the door.
“You must be Evie!” said the man, smiling down at her.
“Evie, this is Mr. Patel, who helps me find the perfect flowers for my garden.”
“And for you, young lady, I have these,” said Mr. Patel, moving to a nearby table and picking up a pot of the most beautiful lilies, striped with orange. Evie startled. Grandma June must have told him those were her favorites.
“Thank you,” said Evie.
“We’ll plant them this afternoon,” said Grandma June. “Now, Mr. Patel, about my roses…”
Evie wandered around the shop, barely listening to the discussion about how best to keep pests away from Grandma’s perfect flowers. The scent in here was almost overwhelming, but in a good way; she breathed deeply and inspected all the different plants, orchids and sunflowers and spiky little cactuses. The memory of the nightmare was almost completely gone now, but a new thought had replaced it. She thought she might know why Grandma June seemed a little bit new here.
“Do you talk to Mr. Patel about flowers a lot?” asked Evie when they were back out in the street, cradling the pot of lilies in her arms.
“Of course,” said Grandma June. “That was the first thing I did when I moved here, found someone who could help me with everything I needed for the garden.”
“And you talk about the man at the post office with Mrs. Watson.”
“Among other things, yes, but I do believe you’re right, she’d like to find a new husband, that one.”
“And at the grocery store, you told that girl which was the best flour for pie crusts.”
Grandma June gave Evie a look. “And with you, I’m Grandma June,” she said, smiling. “You’re right, you know. I’ve noticed it more too since I moved here. We are all different people to different people, does that make sense? We make friends for all kinds of reasons, and together, all those reasons make up an entire person, like you, or me.”
Evie thought about this for a minute. She had her very best friend; they always went to the library together, but at school, she played hopscotch or tag with other kids. And she thought her next-door neighbor was annoying because he was younger than her, but when he invited her up to his treehouse, he was sort of all right. Those were all different parts of Evie, but they were still all Evie. She was just seeing new sides of Grandma June, here in the new village with all her new friends.
That made sense. Grandma June always made the world make sense.
The sun shone on them all afternoon while they worked in the garden, planting and pulling weeds, spraying water from the hose. Tired and muddy, they ate dinner on the porch as the sky darkened and, in the distance, a light in the empty, creepy old house flickered on and off.
“Did you see that?” asked Evie, pointing.
“See what, my darling?”
Evie blinked and squinted. She was sure she’d seen a light in the topmost window, just visible over the roofs of the other houses. But it was off now.
She shook her head. Maybe it had been a reflection, or a firefly.
That night, the bad dream came back.
It was Evie’s last night with Grandma June. Part of her was sad, and part of her was not. The part that was sad would miss the reading, the gardening, the walks and apple pies. The part of her that was not wanted a good night’s sleep in her own bed, where she never had that dream. Every night since the first time, she had dreamed of waking up, getting out of bed, creeping to Grandma June’s room, seeing the featureless, clay-like face on the pillow. And every night, she had stopped herself from waking up Grandma June in the dream, afraid of what might happen if she did. Would Grandma wake up in real life? Would Evie? Would both of them scream at once?
Moonlight shone in through the windows. The carpet was soft under Evie’s toes. She was asleep, she knew it, but she had to follow the nightmare through to its end. Grandma June’s bedroom door opened without a squeak, and the terrifying, blank face slept on the pillow.
It was her last chance.
Evie reached out her hand.
The voice filled her head, and the room, but it did not wake Grandma June.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were you,” it said.
Evie did scream this time. And it did not wake Grandma June. She wheeled around, peering into the shadowy corners. A ghostly, wispy shape hovered in front of her, its face as blank as Grandma’s.
“It is so lovely to finally meet you properly,” said the shape. “Of course, I have been meeting you in all manner of ways for two weeks now. Evie, who loves lilies but not broccoli, and reading but not the girl who pulls her hair at school.”
Evie’s heart hammered in her chest. This was a nightmare. A very strange nightmare. She just had to go back to bed.
Her feet wouldn’t move. “Who are you?” she asked.
“A good question,” said the wispy thing. “I am everyone. Do you remember the conversation you had with your grandmother? With me? We are all different people to different people. You, my darling, are a prism, each facet of you casting a new rainbow to the chosen few who see it.”
Evie’s mouth went dry. She had to force the words out. “What do you mean, the conversation I had with you?”
The shape shimmered in the darkness. And there, standing before her, awake and smiling, was Grandma June. The Grandma June behind Evie in the bed rolled over and muttered something in her sleep. The shape shimmered again, and there was Mrs. Watson. Again, and there was Mr. Patel from the flower shop. “I had to learn everything I could about you,” it said. “All the different things you’d tell different people, that together make up who you are. Only then could you become part of me.”
And there, in front of Evie, was Evie herself.
Evie, the real Evie–for she was real, wasn’t she? Real and asleep and having the most terrible dream–closed her eyes and ran, stumbling blindly from the room, crashing into the wall, feeling her way to her own bed. She clutched Henry the elephant to her chest and refused to open her eyes until the sun was high in the sky.
Slowly, she made her way to the kitchen. Grandma June smiled at her over a chopping board piled with strawberries.
“Good morning, my darling,” said Grandma June. She looked like Grandma June, sounded like her, smelled like her, roses and talcum powder.
It had all been a nightmare.
“Good morning,” said Evie.
“Your parents made an early start. Eat up your breakfast and pack your case, they’ll be here soon.”
“Okay,” said Evie.
She waited on the porch for the familiar car, glancing between the road and all of Grandma June’s flowers. Her little green case sat beside her, and Grandma June was in one of the wicker chairs, sipping at her tea with a smile. The moment the car came into view, Evie jumped up and ran down to the driveway.
“We missed you too, Evie-girl,” said her father as he climbed out and gave her a big hug. “The house is too quiet without you.”
“We won’t stay,” said Evie’s mother to her mother, “we’ll let you have your quiet back, I can only imagine how busy this one has kept you! Come for a visit in a month or two.”
“I will,” said Grandma June, kissing Evie’s mother’s cheek. “We’ve had a wonderful time here. I’m already planning all the things we’ll do next summer.”
A sick feeling filled Evie’s stomach, but she forced a smile and nodded. She might have the nightmare here again, if she came back. She might have it at home, but she didn’t want to think about that. She hugged Grandma June goodbye. It felt like Grandma June.
Evie buckled herself into the back seat and waved as the car pulled away. She twisted to look through the rear window, at Grandma June still standing on the porch.
With Evie, right beside her.
Rippling tents, the scent of candy floss, a baking sun that threatened to melt the paint off a hundred faces. Inside one of the tents, the largest, jugglers threw and lions roared and spangled acrobats flew from one trapeze to the next.
The fair came every summer, and Ruby’s parents always took her and, usually, her older brother, but this year he’d said he was too old for silly fairs. That was just fine with Ruby, who was quite happy to eat his share of candy floss for him.
Bunting flags snapped. A clown smiled at her with wide, painted red lips that looked as sticky as her own felt. Ruby stepped away, behind her mother, and watched a woman catch a tossed ribbon of flame in a bare hand, her grin never wavering with pain.
“Can we go in there?” Ruby asked, pointing behind the fire lady to a long, low tent. “Please?”
“Last year you didn’t want to!” said her mother. “Are you sure you won’t be frightened?”
Ruby huffed. Her brother wasn’t the only one getting older, and this year, the hall of mirrors would not scare her. Clowns were still strange, because they pretended to be something they weren’t, but the mirrors would pretend to be something Ruby wasn’t. She understood the difference now. “I’m positive.”
“Let’s go, then,” said her father cheerfully, finishing the last of his ice cream in a single bite.
It was quiet inside. Quieter, at least, filled with murmurings and footsteps tapping on the temporary wooden floor. And cooler, definitely, away from the sun. Mirrors faced and angled, gleaming away to the end of the tent. Barely one step in and already she could see ten of her and her parents, each reflection showing a different shape and size. This one made the three of them look as if they ate candy floss and ice cream for every meal, that one stretched them taller than even the man who stalked the fair on stilts. Ruby ran from one to another, her face swirling like an oil painting or dripping down into her socks.
“Stay where we can see you,” called her mother, a silly thing to say in a hall of mirrors. Ruby could see herself everywhere.
Here was a room within the tent, just one gap to step through so she was nearly surrounded. Here it really was quiet, a silence that rang in her ears after a day full of sound as loud as the clowns’ bright wigs, lime green and lemon yellow and purple that has no fruit. It wasn’t simply cooler here, it was cold.
Ruby shivered. She approached the first mirror. It showed her laughing, though she knew she wasn’t. In the next, shining tears ran down her face in the silver surface, so real she reached up to touch her cheek, dry and chilled. The following showed her asleep while she was awake, the one after that, dancing as she stood still. She reminded herself that none of this was truly real, it was meant to be just real enough to be strange. Her whisper bounced off the mirrors and back into her ears.
But the last one was real, or so it looked. Good grief, she had chocolate ice cream on her shirt. She wiggled her fingers and the mirror waved back. Ruby stepped toward it, closer, closer.
And stepped right through.
The sun beat down. People were all around. Oops. She hadn’t meant to find the exit, and she’d better run back to find mum and dad before they noticed she was missing. The door, however–for it must have been a door–had swung shut and locked behind her. She didn’t remember seeing the actual door part of the door. All those mirrors had played tricks on her eyes, and the bright, blinding sun wasn’t much better, but all she had to do was walk round the outside of the tent to where she’d gone in with mum and dad.
She went round the whole thing once. And again, more slowly.
“Excuse me,” she said, trying not to let her voice shake. “Do you know where the entrance is?” If she said she was lost, the lady in front of her would take her hand and shout for help, and Ruby wasn’t lost. She couldn’t find the door, that’s all.
The lady gazed at her, a slow smile growing to a grin and then, a shout. But it wasn’t for help.
“We’ve got a Real!”
All the people stopped what they were doing. Ruby felt the weight of a hundred stares, hotter than the sun. “I…I’m sorry? I just need to go into the tent.”
“Why would you want to do that?” asked a man, nearing her. There was something…odd…about his face. Something odd about the expression he wore. “You could stay here with us.”
There was something odd about the way he said it. Ruby looked around.
She had lived in the same town her whole life. Gone to its schools and played in its parks. Watched the sun set over the flat fields surrounding it that, once a year, gave up a few acres for the fair. “Where am I?” she asked, her gaze climbing, climbing, climbing the tall hills all around. This time, her voice did shake.
“The Uncanny Valley, where we so rarely get visitors, and we do so enjoy them.”
He said it the way a person might say they enjoy breakfast. Ruby backed away until her shoulders brushed the silk of the tent.
“I think…I think you have frightened her, Godric,” said the woman Ruby had asked for help. “Have we frightened you? We are sorry, little girl. We just want to learn from you.”
“Learn from me? No, I need to get back inside and find my mum and dad. They’ll be worried.” The tent rippled under her palm.
“They will see you in the mirrors,” said the woman. “To them, you are still there. But really, you are here. Isn’t that clever? And now you can teach us.”
“Teach you what?” demanded Ruby, whose heart was beating like the ringmaster’s drum she’d heard just an hour ago.
“It is easier if we show you. Ingrid! Fetch a bowl and a cloth.”
From the crowd of staring eyes, a girl near enough Ruby’s age stepped forward. She wore a pretty dress and had long, very straight black hair shielding a tanned face. She disappeared into another tent and returned a moment later, carrying the requested items. At Ruby’s feet, she knelt and scrubbed her face, droplets of water splashing the parched grass.
Ruby could back away no further when Ingrid raised her head again, the stained cloth still in her hands. Stained with her face, or what had seemed to be her face. The long hair fell to the ground with a hiss, frizzy curls of purple (that has no fruit) springing up in its place.
“Clown,” Ruby whispered.
“We dislike that word. It is inaccurate,” said the man, Godric. “We are us. But we learn to be you, because you are very amusing. Show us how you walk.”
“How about that thing, you know, where your head explodes, except it doesn’t?”
Ruby was confused enough to consider the question. “Um…?”
“And there’s a hilarious noise?”
“A sneeze?” she asked.
“That’s the one! The last one showed us that.”
There had been others. Others who had come through the door that wasn’t a door. Had they been allowed to return home? Ruby didn’t ask. She didn’t want to hear the answer.
Apparently, however, she didn’t need to. “Don’t worry,” said Ingrid. “We’ll show you the way, but please help us first? We are always trying to get better at our craft. Come, look.”
There were a hundred of them, at least, all in human clothes, with human bodies and human hands, wide red smiles and big red noses hiding under fake human faces. They gathered in a circle around Ruby as she moved slowly away from the tent and into another, where two long rails groaned, one under the weight of dresses and suits and shirts, the other huge striped outfits with buttons the size of dinner plates. Racks of dainty sandals and loafers stood beside boots Ruby could have bathed in. A long table held brushes and more pots of makeup than her mother could buy in a lifetime.
“All this, to pretend to be human?” she asked.
“It takes a lot of work,” said the woman, leading Ruby back outside. The crowd was still there, waiting. Ruby scratched her head and they roared with laughter. Her arm dropped to her side.
She turned in a circle and they clapped.
She bent over to tie her shoelace and a boy about her brother’s age joined her in the circle, copying every motion. After this, they all began to imitate her, a hundred reflections like in the hall of mirrors. They snapped their fingers, stuck out their tongues, danced on the spot an instant after she did, laughing madly all the while. She did everything she could think of, steps from her ballet lessons and karate classes, shouting instructions as if she was playing an enormous game of Simon Says. The boiling sun slid across the valley floor and over the hilltops.
Their faces looked more human in the fading light.
“Teach us how to be sad,” said Ingrid. Her face, still scrubbed clean, wore its enormous red smile.
“I…” began Ruby. She couldn’t teach them that. Sadness was a thing that happened. You were or you weren’t. She frowned.
“Yes, just like that!”
One by one, their painted faces began to twist, slowly, painfully. They closed their eyes in concentration, trying to force their lips downward. It was the saddest thing Ruby had ever seen, but none of them could get it right.
“What about that thing, where water comes from your eyes? The last one did that because he wanted to go back, and we just wanted to keep him a little longer?”
“No!” Ruby shouted. It had all been almost fun, just for a minute, but now it wasn’t anymore. She couldn’t teach them to cry, and she was suddenly near tears herself, because what if they were lying about her parents not knowing she was gone?” “I need to go back, too!” She pushed her way through the crowd, hands grasping at her, clutching at her ice cream-stained shirt as if they could keep part of her for themselves. She ran to the tent, slapping at the rippling silk with her fists. “How do I get in? Tell me! There was a door, there must have been a door!”
A finger touched her shoulder. “I’ll show you,” said Ingrid. “You all want to leave us. This way.”
Ruby stopped and pointed at Ingrid’s face. “That feeling, that is how to be sad,” she said, and she felt a little happier, despite everything, that she had taught Ingrid this. But not happy enough to stay. When Ingrid parted a section of curtain and revealed the mirrors beyond, Ruby ran inside.
“Find the mirror that is truly you and step through it,” said Ingrid. Ruby ran back and forth, heart hammering, lost in her own twisted reflections. After what was surely far too long, she moved in front of one, ice cream stains and a pale, frightened face.
“There you are!” said her father cheerfully. “We thought we’d lost you for a moment. Are we finished here? Would you like a hot dog?”
Ruby felt a tiny bit sick. “No, thank you. Can we go home now?”
On the way back to the car, she heard her mother saying she’d known Ruby would be frightened by the mirrors, her father saying it didn’t hurt to be a bit scared sometimes. It was a relief to get home, where she could change her shirt and play with the dog and watch television after supper.
Human things. Human things the not-clowns couldn’t do.
The sun set, as it had done in the Uncanny Valley, and Ruby was sent to put on her pajamas, brush her teeth and hair, wash her face. She leaned over the sink, scrubbing away the last sticky traces of candy floss, and raised her head to look in the mirror.
A bone-white face and wide red lips faced her. A single frizzy curl, as bright as her name, fell into the sink and washed away.
Dear fellow Curators,
I came upon the following snippet and of course had to do what I could to discover the truth behind the story–which is never really what we read in the papers, is it? It took some trickery, more than a few potions, and much more time in a diving bell than I’d ordinarly care to spend, but I think I have unearthed the tale.
Hoping you’re all well,
He could not precisely remember the sensation of warmth, but he could remember that there was such a thing, and that was somehow worse. So, too, he couldn’t remember his name, but he remembered that he had one, once.
He could not remember how long he had been in the water.
His eyes worked well in the murky gloom, even if his mind did not. Inside the cave which he had made his home, chasing out several schools of fish in order to make room, he could see his long, slithery, scaly tail. If he concentrated, he could flick many gills that ran down the length of him independently of each other.
That was getting easier. With each day he had to think less and less in order to swim swiftly through the waves.
But he wanted to think. He wanted to remember. He had to.
And he couldn’t just stay in the cave, neither. If he did, he’d never escape the cold. Every day—though it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night so far below the surface, it was simply morning whenever he awoke—he would flick his gills and swish his tail and rise, up, up, up.
George always fished in the same spot. It was a good spot, and he knew some of the older fishermen looked upon it with envy, but there was rules about that sort of thing. Unwritten, because not all of ‘em could use a pencil, and unspoken, because some things just didn’t need to be said. A person’s patch was their own, even if the exact water in it wasn’t the same one day to the next. The spirit of the water was the same, and that’s what mattered.
Course, thinking that things like water have spirits is where trouble always starts.
For now, however, George was untroubled. The sun shone, turning the water into a thousand crystals far as the eye could see, the fish were biting, his belly was still full from a good breakfast.
“Morning, Georgie,” said a voice behind him. George turned on the slippery rock but kept his line steady in the water. It was Old Lewis, who had been old for so long the wrinkles were as much part of his face as scales were part of a fish.
“Morning, Old Lewis,” said George. “Shouldn’t you be off on your boat? I’ll beat you at the count if you don’t get a move on.” The count was a daily ritual, as each fisherman brought his catch to market, hoping to be the one who’d caught the most. It’d been George a few times since he’d started back at the start of summer. The fishing rod had been the only thing for his dad to leave him when the fever’d done its final, deadly work, but that was all George needed. The rod and the patch. With those, a boy could make a life and grow as old as Old Lewis.
“Not today.” Over Old Lewis’s head, clouds had moved in across the sky, but there were still large patches of blue. “Won’t see none of us out today.”
“Why not?” George asked. “Doesn’t look like a storm to me. I’ll get my share of fish and all yours besides.”
“So he didn’t tell you,” muttered Old Lewis under his breath. His old bones creaked as he settled himself next to George on the slippery rock. “Your dad should’ve had a word with you about this day, lad.”
The water rippled. The breeze wandered through the trees along the shore as if whistling for a lost dog. It was another day. George had fished a hundred of them this summer.
Today was the hundredth, in fact, if his sums were right. He had learned his numbers with scales and eyes and fins, and he was good at them.
“We do not fish today,” said Old Lewis. “The seas and lakes and rivers are good to us, and we must in turn be good to them. The spirits who watch from the depths deserve a day’s rest in return for the food they put on our table.”
“Oh,” said George. “Superstition.”
“Aye, and you’d be wise to listen to it.”
“Yeah? And what if I don’t?”
Old Lewis’s bones groaned again as he stood. “Well, then I suppose we must all make our own mistakes in this life, Georgie. But if you pack up your gear, you can come lunch with me and the others.”
For months, George had been waiting for this very invitation. Pride warred with the ever-growling stomach of a young boy. He could stay here and fish, he could show ‘em, but he might never be asked this again. A sign he belonged, that the others saw him as one of their own.
Quickly, he stowed his line and worms, the little box of buzzing flies that some of the nibblers loved and which he trapped with the help of a large spider that lived in the corner of his room. He followed Old Lewis to the hut next to the market in the middle of the village where all the fishermen gathered. Inside, a table was laden with breads and pickles and butter and huge platters of pink-fleshed trout, cooked crisp on the outside just as George liked it. Hands clapped his shoulders as he was guided to a seat that must once have been his fathers.
“Tell me what happens if we fish today,” he said again to Old Lewis, but his voice carried along down the table, and each of the fifty men their put down his fork.
“Terrible things, boy. Terrible things,” said a voice from the shadows.
“Terrible things,” chorused the others.
The cold and dark were terrible. The beast swam through the water, holding on to the few memories he had left. Close to the surface, he kept watch for a lure, a fly, the shadow of a boat. So far, he had seen nothing at all, not in all his time in the water. He knew they must be up there, but he could not see them, or smell them.
He had to find someone. He had to bite, to allow someone to catch him.
As he had caught the last one. He remembered it rising from the waves under the sunset, smiling with a huge mouthful of teeth, joyfully thrashing its fins. Not a fish, a monster wrinkled as Old Lewis, eagerly snapping at George’s lure.
Around him, the waters sang, voices in his ears, the spirits of the seas and oceans and rivers. Today was the day the fish swam safely. Today was the day an enormous sea serpent would try to be caught.
But there were no lines, no flies, no feathers. He swam around the shores, eyes peeking above the surface to the land all around, empty of a single soul. Silent.
Abandoned by those who had heard the warnings.
I know it is nearly the end. The doctor has been to visit more than before, and it is harder to stay awake while he asks me his questions.
The room is cold, no matter how much wood Papa orders for the hearth. I’m in the parlor now, a bed made up for me. They say it’s so I don’t have to climb the stairs, but it’s been days since I could even stand. It’s so I don’t sicken Beatrice and Theo. They have been lucky so far, but the fever needs to take someone.
Outside, hooves clatter on the cobbles and they are loud, but not loud enough to cover the sound of Mama’s soft cries on the other side of the parlor wall.
“I’m sorry, Mama,” I whisper, though it makes no noise when it leaves my dry, cracked lips.
I fall asleep.
And I wake up again.
It might, perhaps, seem odd that the first thing I notice is that my clothing is different. Looking back, I should have noticed the darkness first, or the feeling of being somewhere very small. The strange sound coming from above, too. But, regardless, the first thing is the cuffs of my dress. I know it’s my Sunday best, because the cuffs were too tight right from the first moment Mama buttoned me into it, and the collar itched.
I scratch my neck. My skin is cool, cold even, and in the pitch black I smile widely. The fever has broken! Doctor was wrong, and I will be all right again.
“Mama!” I call. My throat is dry, I need some water from the jug in the corner. Mama will bring me some when she hears me. “Mama!” I call again.
Now is when I notice the noise above, because suddenly it comes with muffled voices. “Shhh, listen! She’s awake! Hurry, lads!” The scraping gets louder, closer, stopping with a very loud bang that seems to fill the whole world.
“We’ve hit it, boys. One, two, three.”
I see stars far above, and four faces closer, but I recognize the stars. Papa taught me all about the pictures of light in the sky.
“Hello,” says one of the boys. “You must be Lily.”
“I must be,” I say, because I’m not quite certain anymore. Before the fever delirium took me, I was a clever girl, and pieces are coming together like in the wooden puzzles my governesses used to give me. “Am I dead?”
“Well now.” The boy exchanges looks with the others. “That’s an interesting question. D’you feel dead?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “What does it feel like?”
I’m breathing and talking, those must be against the rules if I am dead.
“I’ll say this,” he answers, “if you are, you have all the time in the world and beyond, so p’raps the details can wait until we get you up and out of there.”
“Yes,” I say. “Yes, all right then.”
“She’s takin’ it well,” says one of the others. “Remember what you were like, Tim? Wailin’ and blubberin’ all over the shop. ‘Ere, Lily, stand up if you can, reach for Gareth’s hands there.”
I do as I’m told, let the boy who first spoke pull me up, my good leather shoes scuffing on the climb up to the grass. Headstones glow all round like teeth, but I don’t have one yet. “How long was I in there?” I ask. I think possibly my fever hasn’t broken after all, any moment I will wake in the parlor, hot and shaken from this horrible dream.
“You was buried just this afternoon,” says Gareth. “Nice sendoff you got, too. Couldn’t move for carriages and plumes. Never seen so much mourning silk in my life or after. Posh family, you had, eh?”
“I…I suppose.” I would very much like to wake up now.
“Fill ‘er in, chaps,” says Gareth, and the sound of the shovels starts up again, pouring earth back into the hole. “Can’t leave a mess,” he explains, “or someone’ll know we’ve been ‘ere. That wouldn’t do, would it?”
“It’s good to be tidy,” I say, though what I wish to say is, “what is happening? Where am I?” For certain this is a dream, then, that happens all the time in dreams, that you don’t say what you mean to. Gareth puts his hand on my shoulder, next to the scratchy collar of my Sunday best dress. He looks a friendly sort of boy, a bit like Theo, really, though older than both of us by a good year or two.
“You’ll understand soon, Lily. We’ll take you somewhere safe.”
“I want to go home.” I want to wake up.
“I know.” It might just be the odd moonlight, but for an instant his brown eyes are sad before he brightens again and turns back to the grave.. “Nearly done?”
“Be quicker if you helped, lazy bones.”
“Respect your elders, Timothy.” But Gareth picks up his shovel and scoops in bigger clods of earth than the rest. Run, I tell myself, but my legs are dream-heavy, filled with saltwater and sand. I watch them pat the last crumbs in place, faces reddened, streaked with sweat at their brows. “Right, that’s good enough. Rains’ll come in an hour or two, anyways. Ready to go, Lily?”
“Where?” I want to ask, but what comes out is, “Who are you?”
“Ah, yes. I’ve been terrible rude, haven’t I? I’m Gareth. That one there is Timothy, and the one next to him looks like butter wouldn’t melt is Sam.” The one named Sam doffs his cap to me. “And the last is Legs. Not ‘is real name, course. Never says a word, but you won’t beat him in a foot race.”
They’re all as clean as it’s possible to be after digging a hole and filling it again, their cheeks are plump and pink, clothes worn but mended. I see all these things as I follow them to the graveyard gates, watch mutely as Sam neatly picks the lock to let us out. It’s easier to walk than I thought it might be, but I’m worried by Legs if I try to get away.
Besides, they seem friendly enough, for now, and if I run, I am alone. I don’t know this part of London, and the night-chill is soaking through my Sunday best dress. That, and this is a dream so it doesn’t matter. I will wake soon enough.
The city is never silent; everything in it is a creature with a voice, from the shouting people to the creaking buildings, the rustling trees and twittering birds and thundering carts. I can’t say as I’d ever noticed it quite so much before, but dreams are funny things.
The boys lead me through the darkened streets, ducking away from the glow of gas lamps and twisty-turning around so many corners I’m nearly certain we end up back where we began at least once.
“Where are we going?” I ask, and this time the words come exactly as I intend. I still want some cold water from the jug in the corner of the parlor.
“There,” says Gareth, pointing to the face of a bone white building with blood red shutters at the windows. His eyes flick to one of them. “Lovely, Master’s asleep. You’ll meet ‘im proper in the morning, young Lily. We’ll show you the ropes ‘til then.”
“What is this place?”
Hinges creak beneath the weight of the heavy door, its knocker grinning like a fiend. “Welcome,” says Timothy, “To the Institute of Lateness.”
“Are we late?”
Gareth laughs, a dry, hollow laugh. “In a manner of speaking. In another, we are right on time. Come in. Wipe your feet just there, Master does not like mud, though the device takes care of it quick enough.”
As if it was summoned, the most bizarre thing I have ever laid eyes upon shudders and roars at the far end of the corridor and begins to move toward us. I hear a ticking, like clockwork, and steam whistles from pipes atop it, the big copper beast. I back up against the door, pushing Timothy and Legs out of my way, but the thing comes closer, and closer still.
I open my mouth to scream, but Legs clamps his hand over it. “Shhh!” says Sam. “We mustn’t wake the others, they need their sleep. It won’t ‘urt you, promise.”
I do not believe that. I feel it could suck me into its tangle of pipes easy as the mud it clears from the floor. Frozen, I don’t so much as blink until it starts to retreat the way it came.
“W-What is that?”
“One of Master’s inventions. There’s others, plenty of ‘em,” says Gareth. “Come to the kitchens, I’ll bet you wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea.”
I am still very thirsty. I very much want to wake up. Does dream-tea satisfy real thirst? I do not know. I’m taken to the kitchens to find out, but stop in the doorway. The cleaning device seems suddenly far less frightening than what I see in front of me.
I don’t spend much time in the kitchens at home; Cook always chases me out, tells me little hands are nothing but bother. I’m certain, however, that we don’t have a great many of these things. Everything is whirring and bubbling and steaming, with no one to watch over any of it. A pot stirs itself by means of a spoon on a long metal arm, a strange machine atop a long, scrubbed wooden table slowly peels a pile of apples.
The thing Gareth lifts is not any sort of kettle I’ve ever known. I don’t think I wish to drink tea made with it.
“Is it safe to eat and drink in dreams?” I ask. I don’t mean to say it aloud.
“We should tell her,” Timothy whispers to Gareth. “She ‘asn’t–”
“Right, right, but let her warm up first.”
“Tell me what?”
“Drink your cuppa,” says Gareth, giving me a tin mug. It looks like tea. It smells like tea. It’s warm, and I’m chilled and thirsty.
It tastes like tea. I narrow my eyes at the curious machine that made it.
And, all at once, I’ve had more than quite enough, thank you. I want to wake up, which means getting to the very middle of the dream. I slam the cup down on the table. It sloshes over the cuffs of my Sunday best dress in a very real fashion. “Where am I?”
“What first, Legs? Dormitories or gallery?”
Legs holds up one finger; Gareth nods. “Sam, get a lantern. Don’t be frightened,” he tells me, taking my hand. “It’s really all right.”
On the first floor of the bone white manor with its blood red shutters, I’m shown through a door, Legs holding a finger to his lips. I should be quiet as he is.
But when I see the rows of beds, filled each by sleeping children, I wish to scream. “Look at their faces,” Gareth whispers, and I do. One close by shifts, disturbed by the lamplight. His gold curls shimmer, plump lips purse.
“Now, the gallery.” I’m pulled from the room, taken down a corridor to another. In this one, Sam dispenses with the lantern in his hand, pulls a cord hanging from the ceiling and the brightest lights ever to blind me flicker into near daylight. “Oy, watch it, you twit! She won’t be able to see anything.”
But I blink, and I can. The room is close to empty, just a few chairs scattered over the enormous floor. The walls are lined with rows and rows of pictures. A box sits on a three-legged stand, a big glass eye on the front of it watching me, following me as I step forward.
I know what that is.
But I do not understand.
Gareth tugs on my hand. “‘Ere I am.” He points to one of the photographs. He’s not alone, a family surrounds him. “And there’s Sam, and Timothy.” Legs slips past us to gaze at another one. I move to look, beside his is a picture of the sleeping boy with the gold curls. He is in a chair, eyes wide and blank, staring straight ahead.
Tim carefully unhooks one from its nail. “Taken just this morning,” he says, placing it into my hands.
Mama is there, and Papa. Theo and Bea.
I am wearing my Sunday best dress.
The picture tumbles from my grasp, glass shattering into a thousand sharp tears on the floor. I knew Mama and Papa would do this, I had heard them talking when they thought I was too fevered to listen. It was not an uncommon thing to do, one final photograph by which to remember me, and in which I would not appear sick because it was far, far too late for that.
Too late. And I stand now in the Institute of Lateness.
“This is not possible.”
“Master Bartleby is a very skilled inventor,” says Gareth. “Across many oceans, there’s an idea that a photograph removes the soul, just as death do. Master’s special camera gives it back. ‘E pricks you with a needle during the sitting, so’s you don’t wake up again too soon. Best to wait until you’re buried and fetch you again.”
I pinch myself, hard enough to bruise. Not a thing happens. I do not bruise.
My bubbling scream finally fights its way free of my throat. Legs clamps his hand over my mouth once more, though just an instant ago he was half across the room. He lifts me as if I were a feather from one of the birds I watched through the window beside my sickbed and carries me to a chair. My eyes flood, breath comes in desperate gasps. I am still breathing, crying. That must be against the rules!
“Shhh,” says Sam, patting my head. “We’ve all been ‘ere. Sleep, Lily. You will still sleep, and eat, and run about. It’ll look brighter after a rest.”
I fall asleep.
And I wake again.
I’m still in the chair, curled and cramped. Through swollen, bleary eyes, I gaze round and startle to wakefulness.
“Welcome, Miss Lily,” says a man sitting in another chair. His waistcoat is very fine, pocketwatch gleaming. He has a wide moustache, wider even than Papa’s, and bushy eyebrows, but his head shines like a marble in the sunlight. “I do apologize for not being about to greet you when you arrived in the night, but we may acquaint ourselves now that we are fresh. Would you care for breakfast?”
I shake my head. “I would like to go home.”
“This is your home now,” he says, and a knife’s-edge of chilliness slices through his words. “You, see, Miss Lily, were you to return to your fine home in Mayfair, you would not even frighten your parents with your return from the deceased. They would simply not see you.”
No. I am real, and solid, and breathing. They would see me.
“I know you may not believe me, but you will. Your very special qualities as a…formerly alive…child are precisely what make you of such use to me. My inventions cost money to create, and I must create! I will change the world, show them the power of clockwork and steam in ways they have never dreamed. It is now your job to assist me in this.”
“I won’t work for you!” I cry. “I won’t!” I do not even know what it is he means for me to do, but I know I will do none of it.
“You will. Gareth!”
Gareth appears, and now I know the truth, if indeed I am not still dreaming, he looks far less friendly than he did in the night.
“Take her with you today. Legs, too, just in case she gets any funny ideas.”
“Yes, Master Bartleby.”
I do not let Gareth take my hand this time, but I follow, if only to get away from the horrid man. “Are you ‘ungry? Would you like clean clothing?”
The others are waiting, but there are more of them now. All the sleeping children from the dormitory, gathering shoes and coats and forming small groups. “Get a good ‘aul today, chickens,” says Timothy. “This is Lily, you may meet ‘er proper later.”
One of them opens the door and they all rush out, the groups scampering in different directions. “Reckon Knightsbridge is a good place to ‘it today,” says Gareth. “Off we go.”
Legs stays very close to me, close enough I feel I cannot breathe. I try not breathing at all, last a minute before I gasp. He doesn’t say a word, but smiles as if he knows what I have just done, and why.
It isn’t a long walk to Knightsbridge, soon we are enveloped in a crush of finery and leisure. Ladies out for a stroll, gents tapping their walking sticks on the ground. From the corner of my eye, I see Gareth neatly, swiftly unclasp a diamond bracelet and drop it into his pocket.
“Thief!” I cry, but the lady doesn’t turn. Gareth grins widely, Sam holds up a fat purse.
I poke a passing man in the ribs, shocked at myself. His stick taps and he continues on.
“They cannot see us,” I whisper.
“Or ‘ear us, or feel us,” agrees Gareth. “Master Bartleby can, but he refuses to say how. We’ve all tried to trick him into saying, but no dice yet. One day. We’re not short on time to figure it out.”
“Ten years,” he says. “‘Aven’t aged a day. I should be four and twenty by now.”
I take a single step. Legs’s hand curls round my arm, he shakes his head.
I cannot run.
Every day, I watch for a chance never given to me. Someone is always watching, waiting for me to try to escape. I meet the others, take my own bed in the dormitory. I speak very little, but I start to eat. The hunger overwhelmed me. Every day, I am taken out with Gareth, Sam, Timothy and Legs, watch as they gather riches with which Master Bartleby can pay for his many inventions.
I will not go near them. I make tea by boiling water in a pot on the stove, glaring at the machine.
Soon, I have been there a week, then two.
“Today,” Sam says to Gareth. Gareth nods in agreement at whatever they’re talking about. I put on my shoes by the door and go with them. The buildings surrounding the Institute are familiar now. We leave them behind, walk through a strange part of London, and then I know where I am again.
My home is just over there. Mama is on the doorstep with Theo and Bea.
“Mama!” I scream, breaking free of Legs and running, running, running. All the way up to her, Legs an inch too late, Gareth a few feet.
“Come now, children, it’s time for us to take the air again. I know we are very sad, but Lily would not want us to stay shut up inside forever.”
“Yes, I would!” I say.
“We shall go to the shops, and then the park. Does that sound all right?”
“Yes, Mama,” says Theo.
“Take her necklace,” says Gareth. “If she feels you, if you can make her see you, ‘ear you, we will let you go with her.”
With trembling fingers, I reach up. The clasp is fiddly and I can’t get it open at first, but Mama is busy searching for something in her pockets. The chain comes free and falls into my palm. “Mama!” I say again.
“Oh, good, I have it. Time to go, my dears.”
I stare at the twist of gold and diamond as Mama, Theo, and Bea descend the stairs without me. I crumple to the top step, tears streaming.
“Put it on, you can remember her by it,” says Sam. “We all ‘ave something.” He holds up a hand, a shiny ring glints.
“She will never see me.”
Gently, Gareth takes the bauble from me and affixes it round my neck. “I want to go home,” I cry. I stand, and follow the others back to the Institute of Lateness.