The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Iron Rose

This happened on an island kingdom, a long time ago, although not so long ago that everyone has forgotten. I have not forgotten.

On this island stood a bright and flourishing city. Around the elegant palace flowed broad streets full of cheerful people buying and selling fish and shoes and toys and bread and other pleasant things. Near the western edge, the soil was rich, and farmers grew vegetables and herbs.

In the center of the island was a forest, and in the center of the forest was an unusual flower. Some flowers grow in the deep woods, you know, no matter how little the sun. Deep purple violets, creamy foamflower—they can grow among shadows and dappling light.

And deep in this wood, among the bleeding-heart and monkeyflower, among the baneberry and sweet-after-death, grew a flower that needed no sun at all: a flower made of iron.

“Grew” isn’t quite the right word, of course. It had been planted there, long ago, an iron-gray rose in full blossom. Each of its hundred petals was carved in thin and curving metal, and its iron stem bent gracefully, and its thorns were sharp and precise as tiny daggers.

In spring, when the real flowers were just budding, the Iron Rose stood among them, tall and complete. In summer, when the real flowers blossomed out full, the Iron Rose stood unchanged. In autumn, when the real flowers bent low, faces crumpling into death, the Iron Rose stood strong.

And yet the Iron Rose had its own seasons. Spring rains brought the Season of Glistening Like Wet Black Ink Against the Last Snow; then came the Season of Rust, which flaked off in pretty patterns, and floated on the wind like pollen; and then the loveliest season, the Season of Jewels, when the ice made every leaf, petal and thorn into silver and diamond.

And like a real flower, the Iron Rose had its own perfume, or sort of perfume: a warm, metallic scent, like the taste of blood in your mouth.

One late summer day, a woman walked through the woods, swinging a stick in front of her to clear her path. She was a writer of stories, and writers like to walk. She wasn’t thinking about the flowers, and had murdered or maimed scores of them in her irritable passage.

But then her stick clanged against something metallic and hard.

That’s unexpected, deep in a forest. So the woman looked down, and saw it — the lron Rose, unchanging among the blooming and dying forest flowers. She knelt to look closer. The craftsmanship was flawless. The emperor would pay in splendid gold for this.

Careful of the thorns, she tugged at the rose, and it came up as easily as a piece of grass. Holding it gingerly, arm outstretched, she walked home, daydreaming what the gold might buy her— a voyage to Alexandria? a new roof?—and marveling at its extraordinary, intricate craftsmanship. Why, it was almost as if it had been made by magic.

In fact, the Iron Rose had been made by magic, the magic of a very great magician, and a very wicked one. He was so wicked that the emperor, who was a nice if unimaginative man, had many years before banished him from the island kingdom.

But banishment is not always the best weapon against badness. You are no sooner told that you may not have a cookie than a cookie is all you can think of, and it becomes the most gorgeous and desirable thing there is. Where you might have had one cookie, you find yourself sneaking off with seven.

Before he left the island, the wicked magician had made and planted the Iron Rose. It stood in the forest like a time bomb, slowly tick, tick, ticking off the years, until someone found it, as he knew they would, and took it to the emperor, as he knew they would, for he had made this flower the most gorgeous and desirable object ever seen on the island.

It certainly looked gorgeous and desirable to the emperor, who paid the writer all the gold she had imagined and quite a bit more, in order to possess that Iron Rose.

But I think the emperor must have had a cold that day, because he did not notice its faint perfume of blood.

For a while, that was that. The emperor displayed the Iron Rose in a silver vase in his treasure room, and he visited it often—though less often as the weeks went by, as something about its sharp iron petals and even sharper thorns unnerved him.

Then one day, a few months later, as a maid dusted the Iron Rose, a noise startled her. It was only one of the emperor’s cats, leaping off a suit of armor. Only a cat: but still the startled maid’s hand struck against an iron thorn, which pierced her finger—just as the magician had known would happen somehow, some way, to someone.

“Ah!” cried the maid, because it hurt surprisingly much. She held up her finger, saw it welling with red.

Three drops of blood fell onto the Iron Rose.

The dark gray metal softened. Its color deepened, first to something like black, then to something like red. The chief housekeeper, who had come running at the maid’s cry, watched with her. Yes, no question: the iron was reddening before her eyes. Imagine a black-and-white photo turning into color.

But that wasn’t all: the iron was softening, becoming more delicate, more vulnerable, more alive. It was no longer an Iron Rose, but a real flower, red and glorious, at the height of its beauty. It was a real rose now, in every way but one: it retained its faint, metallic, bloody perfume.

Word made its way to the emperor, who soon stood before the flower with the maid and chief housekeeper and all his counsellors, marveling and exclaiming, and having the maid tell the story of how it had happened again and again.

Then the emperor and his counselors and servants all went to bed

The next morning, there were two roses.

The morning maid called the chief housekeeper, who called the chief counselor, who called the chief gardener, but no one had an explanation. They decided not to mention it to the emperor.

The next morning, four roses crowded the silver vase. The maid laughed out loud. This time they did tell the emperor, who wondered in astonishment whether someone was playing a practical joke. A watch was set up, which watched all night, and saw nothing.

But the guards must have fallen asleep, though they swore they had not, for the next morning, there were eight roses. These new roses spilled on the table and floor. The emperor said sharply, “Take them outside.”

You can perhaps guess what happened. The next morning, on the scrap of lawn where the eight roses had been tossed, were sixteen roses. The morning after that, there were 32.

“Well, I like roses,” said the emperor, defiantly.

The next morning, there were 64 roses.

As a boy, the emperor had never paid close attention to his geometry lessons, but his chief counselor had. He understood that a daily doubling of the roses might have quite serious consequences. “We must destroy those roses,” he told the emperor.

The emperor shrugged. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t like them anymore. Whatever you think.”

The counselor ordered the chief gardener to poison the roses with the strongest weed killers he had.

The next morning, there were 128 roses.

The counselor ordered the gardener to dig a deep hole and bury the evil red flowers.

The next morning, there were 256 roses.

The counselor ordered the gardener to build a bonfire and burn the roses until nothing remained but ashes.

The next morning, there were 512 roses. The scrap of lawn where they had been thrown was now ankle-deep in thorny, blood-red flowers.

I will allow you to imagine for yourself how it went over the next two weeks. Despite all their efforts, the roses doubled and redoubled, like the fury of a banished magician. By the 25th day, over 167,000 roses filled the palace. The people of the island, who had at first been charmed by the sight of red roses spilling from the palace windows—it must be a sign of favor from the gods!—were less pleased to see roses scattered through the streets as well. Besides, they were growing slightly ill from that strange, sickening perfume.

Three days later, over a million roses choked the city streets. People stayed in the their houses, because to wade outside was to have your legs torn open by thorns.

The next day, roses carpeted the crops on the western side of the island, smothering them.

The emperor now sat miserably in his palace’s highest tower, crowded among his counselors and servants. People began to panic, to discuss abandoning their island. But it was trading season, and the fish were running, and most of the ships were gone. The few small pleasure-crafts left on the island were now buried under tons of thorny flower.

From the emperor’s high tower, with frantic semaphore, they tried to call back the last big ship to leave—a passenger ship on its way to Alexandria. No one on the ship noticed the tiny, distant flag—except one passenger, a writer of stories. But she couldn’t read semaphore, and turned back to her guidebook.

It was lucky—by which I mean, our world was lucky—that the sea was there to stop the roses. They spilled out onto the beaches, and filled the shallows, and great rafts of them floated out hundreds of yards. But eventually the salt water poisoned and discouraged them enough that they stopped doubling, and began to die.

Or perhaps the magician’s anger was finally sated.

When the trading vessels and fishing boats returned, they found an island buried under a mound of dead and dying roses. The forests, grasses, and people underneath were crushed, and smothered, and dead.

Bodies were discovered bound down by thorns, mouths stuffed with the remains of fat red blossoms.

The boats left quickly, and no one visited the island again for many years. The kingdom was abandoned. Even today, it is rarely visited. When travelers do stop there, they find a ghost island, populated only by skeletons wrapped in thorns. The broad streets and narrow forest paths alike are piled with dry, dusty petals. And everywhere lingers a faint perfume of blood.

May Flowers . . . Don’t Give Them To Your Mother, Child

Hello, dear readers. I write this from my tower room, safely surrounded by shelves of crumbling books, drawers packed with carved wooden boxes holding a variety of interesting powders, and tables lined with jar upon jar of  . . . well. Things.

My tower room is a pleasant haven, where I tend to forget little details like the changing seasons. But earlier this morning, when I peered down through the small, dirty window, I saw, marring the pensive gray and white slush of winter, a few unpleasant dots of color.

Flowers. Ah yes. It is May, and May means flowers: violets, pansies, and petunias, the colors of old bruises and spoiled butter, turning their little faces up to the beaming sun. I presume that soon some toddler will wander by, yank a few from the ground—oh, is that a silent scream, now, from the dumb little open-mouthed flower-faces?—and carry them off in a filthy fist. Mommy! For you!

If you loved your mommy, you icky child—and if you knew what I know about that wilting bouquet—flowers are the last thing you’d offer.

I won’t mince words: I don’t like flowers. I don’t trust their pretty surfaces, their persuasive perfumes. When it comes to flowers, believe me: things can go dreadfully wrong.

This month, the Cabinet Curators will share with you just a few of our many (oh yes: many) stories about the darker side of flowers. I hope you’ll take it to heart, and plow up your gardens, and salt the earth, and this year give your mother a handful of stones or thorny sticks for her birthday. Much safer than flowers, I assure you.

Transcript: Information Provided by an 11-Year-Old Male, Two Weeks After the Incident

It’s my fault. It was because of me. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.

Just tell me again what happened. We’ve been through it before, but let’s just start from the beginning.

It was just a game. Just war, we were playing war, in that field between the school and the woods. It’s so perfect for war, it has these high weeds to hide in, and mounds to climb, and big rocks like boulders you can lay behind.

And right in the middle is this old, dead tree, this creepy tree with twisty dark dead arms going in all directions. You can climb it and see the whole field.

How did it all start?

Allison wanted to play that day. She hadn’t wanted to play in a million years, but that day she said she was bored of what she was reading. I was so psyched. I hated her not playing. She’s one of those people that when she’s around, suddenly whatever stupid thing you were doing seems so cool and hilarious and great. I’ve known her since kindergarten, and she was always so cool like that.

But now we’re 11, and, whatever. She doesn’t play with us so much any more. But this day she was bored of what she was reading, and she came out to play war with me and Tom, like we used to.

It was one against all, no teams, and right away she grabbed the best spot, which is this mound by the dead tree. We didn’t even flip for it—she just ran over and called it, and when I said “So not fair,” she only laughed.

So I was sort of mad about that. She didn’t play with us for six months, and then she grabs the best position, just like she always did, like she could just come back and do that. And she called being America in the war.

That made you angry. 

Well not like angry, but just kind of mad. Anyway, so I took the second best place, a higher mound, but not near the tree. And Tom took the edge of the woods—which is actually pretty good, except you have to keep running so far back and forth. Tom’s a good runner, though.

I still don’t understand how she

It was me, I did it. I mean—but not on purpose that it would end so bad! I was only just playing a trick on her, because of being a little mad.

The thing about that mound that makes it so perfect, besides being by the dead oak, is that there’s this hole in it, so you can crawl inside. Well, I guess you guys know that now.

Yes.

We used to play that it was the opening of a cave, when were kids, even though really the hole doesn’t go back very far. Still, when you’re inside, no one can get at you. It’s the best spot for war.

My trick was that I waited in the weeds on my stomach, until I saw her crawl into the hole. I know her, she always does that first, she loves it in there. Then I waved Tom over, and did that motion of “Be super quiet.”

And then me and Tom moved this big rock in front of the opening, so that she couldn’t get out. We weren’t trying to hurt her, I swear we weren’t. We left a crack for air and everything. We just wanted to scare her—or I did. I wanted to get her back.

Anyway. That rock was heavy, we had to lean on it and push with our legs. But the ground slants down toward the mound, so at the last second it just rolled into place perfectly, like it wanted to go there. Allison’s strong, but we knew there was no way she could roll it out herself, especially from on her stomach inside the cave.

How long did you leave her there?

We were just going to leave her for a minute, I swear, just to scare her, just to get her back for taking the best place and calling being America and never wanting to play anymore. But she got so mad when she realized—she started yelling at us, using pretty bad words. So then we couldn’t let her out right away, or it would be like we gave in.

It was kind of hot that day, so we just leaned against the rock and waited for a breeze, and waited for her to stop yelling.

And did she stop?

She didn’t stop exactly. It was more like . . . the yelling changed. Because at first she was mad, but then she got suddenly so quiet, it was more like she was talking to herself. I thought it might be a trick she was playing back on us. I put my ear up to the crack to listen. And I could hear her voice, like arguing. I heard her say “Stop it, don’t,” a couple of times. I thought she was totally messing with us.

But also, it was sort of working. I did start to feel really creeped out.

And then all of a sudden she started screaming. And it didn’t sound like a trick kind of screaming, it sounded real.

Like something was hurting her? Was she in pain?

I don’t know. Maybe. But more like she was really, really scared. She sounded so scared that it scared us. We started pushing at the boulder. But it was a lot harder now. It had rolled down so easy, but moving it up—and plus she was screaming these terrible screams, screaming for us to move the rock. And we were yelling “We’re are, we’re trying, we’re trying, just wait!”

What happened then?

Then she stopped screaming. And it was so weirdly quiet, but me and Tom kept talking to her, saying “Almost, Ally, we almost got it,” like that. And finally we pushed the stupid boulder out of the way.

And she wasn’t there.

And there’s no way she could not be there. We’ve all been in that tiny cave a million times, since we were little. Back then we could at least fit two of us at a time, but we can’t even do that any more—the rock narrows down to nothing. I mean where could she go?

But she was gone. Both of us stuck our heads in to be sure. And I said, “Do you think it’s like a trick? Is she tricking us?” But Tom didn’t answer. He looked like he was going to throw up. He said, “I’m gonna get someone,” and took off running. He’s fast.

Tom brought his parents to the location of the occurrence, correct? And they called us.

Yeah, I guess. I don’t know.

Tom went to get adults. And what did you do?

I went in. I know it sounds stupid. But I still thought she might be tricking us back.

I went in, I crawled in on my stomach, and—and it was different. It was really different. Where the cave used to end, it didn’t end any more. It got taller and wider, instead of smaller and tighter. And it went down, and down and down.

This is the part that’s difficult for us to believe. Because we sent someone in—

I know.

And the cave doesn’t go back more than a few feet. After that, it’s solid rock.

OK. I know. That’s what it always was before. But I don’t know what else to say. That day, it kept going, and it went down. And I went down with it, to find Allison.

The walls and ceiling and floor were all dirt. I could see that, because there was this cold pale light, like moonlight. Only there wasn’t any moon, because I was underground, so I don’t know where that light came from.

And things were growing from the dirt of the walls and floor and ceiling. All around me, on all sides of me, were these little green stems, and they were sort of gently waving and twisting in the air, and reaching for me, like grabbing at my shirt and pants. It was disgusting. It was the most disgusting thing I ever felt. But I kept walking, and they ripped out of the walls and floors while I walked, but I kept walking down.

And then the passage got wider, and taller. And—I don’t know why I looked up, I must have heard something? I don’t know. But for some reason I looked up, and I saw what I thought for a minute was a tree hanging down. I thought it was that old dead tree, but hanging upside down.

Then I saw that it was roots. It was the roots of that dead oak, and I was underneath them now.

And then—this is the bad part.

Okay. It’s okay.

And then I saw something tangled up in the roots, that wasn’t roots at all.  Up above me, pulled up tight against the earth, something was wrapped up in the viny roots like a moth in a spider’s web. And it was Allison. It was Allison, and she was—I know this sounds dumb, but it was like she was becoming part of the tree. Like the tree was absorbing her. These long snaky roots, all green and dark, wrapped around her, under her arms, around her neck, around her legs. Her mouth was open and—

You can stop if you like. Here’s a tissue.

No, listen, please just listen. Her mouth was open. And this long, snaky root was growing out of her mouth.

All right. Calm down. Just take a minute and calm down.

That wasn’t the worst part, though! The worst part was that she didn’t look dead. She should have been dead, but she looked alive. Her eyes moved, I swear they did. The rest of her all wrapped and cocooned in those roots and vines, and her mouth—but her eyes moved, and they looked at me. And the look in her eye, the way her eyes were, I can’t sleep because my brain keeps thinking about it, and—

Your parents should have a doctor prescribe some medications for that.

I can’t sleep because I ran. I didn’t stay and try to save her. I saw her eyes looking at me, and I got so scared, and I ran. I ran back up that long steep dirt passage, and the little green vines grabbed at me, and I just ran.

I know I already told you guys all this. And I know you don’t believe me.

I wouldn’t say—

Stop, wait, just stop. I came here because I have to tell you one other thing.

My parents basically won’t let me out of the house since this happened. But last night really late, I sneaked out of the house. Or I guess it was early this morning. I just went out the window, I had to go back, I thought I might try . . . . Anyway. When I got to the field it was just being dawn, that gray light and all. But someone had filled up the cave entrance with cement.

We did that. It was a public safety issue. 

It’s horrible you did that. I wish you’d let me in one more time. I wish so hard that you would. But I guess you won’t.

No. We won’t.

I freaked out when I saw that it was blocked. I just sat down hard against that horrible tree. And then I saw something.

This is the thing, this is the main thing I wanted to say. That tree, that dead tree—it has little buds on it now. Every creepy twisty black finger of every creepy dead black branch, they all have these tiny curling greeny-gold leaves now.

That tree was dead. That tree was dead for years, since I was in like first grade, it hasn’t had a single leaf.

Now that tree is full of leaves, all those different colors of green. Now that tree is alive again. And I know it’s her. It’s Allison. That tree ate Allison, to make it alive again. Only she isn’t dead. She’s still alive down there, because her being alive is making the tree alive. And I think she’s going to stay alive, as long as the tree is alive. And you filled the hole up with cement, so she can’t ever get out, and we have to do something, we have to dig that tree up, or blow it up, or burn it down, we have to, if you don’t do it I’ll do it myself, we have to—

Calm down, son. Just calm—can I get some help here? Will someone call his parents again, please? Calm down, would you—Steve, turn that off.

[TRANSCRIPT ENDS]

Lucky Lucky Girl

Isn’t Simran a lucky girl?

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

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

Isn’t that lucky?

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

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

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

How lucky is that?

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

Wasn’t that totally lucky?

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

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

But Emily said, “No.”

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

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

It’s pretty sad, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t she a lucky, lucky girl?

Dark Valentine

People say love is life, is the great thing, makes the world go round, all that. It’s a powerful thing, that’s for sure. And it can lead you to some dark places. And I’m not talking about being sad when you break up, or whatever. I’m talking a lot darker than that. 

This thing happened just a couple of years ago. I still think about it all the time. This boy I knew—he lived in your neighborhood, actually, on one of those streets named after a tree—this happened to a boy I knew. His parents are friends of mine, or they were at the time. They moved away, after all this happened, and no one around here hears from them any more.

Jack was twelve years old, and he was in love with a girl named Mindy. Both of them were dark kids, him with a sweet smile that he only broke out once in a while, and her with a hilarious little frown and a determined walk. People who say you can’t really be in love when you’re twelve? They don’t know what they’re talking about. Those kids were crazy for each other, and tender of each other, and nothing came between them. She went to his cello recitals and he went to her soccer games; and every night, before they went to sleep, they would video-Skype each other from their computers to say good night.

But one day she got sick, and it was the bad kind of sickness, the kind annoying girls who are into tragedy do reports on in health class. The kind you don’t get better from. The second time Mindy went into the hospital, her parents got her a smart phone, so that she could Skype and text with her friends—which mostly meant Skype and text with Jack, of course. And he sold his best comics, did extra chores, and begged his parents and aunts for early birthday money until he could get a smartphone, too. Just a used one, but it worked. 

The last time Mindy was in the hospital, she and Jack Skyped and texted for hours every day. He fell way behind on his schoolwork, but his teachers knew, so they cut him some slack. She was in intensive care, and they wouldn’t let non-family-members visit. But at night Jack would sit on the edge of his bed, staring into the little screen, fingers texting away—or else staring at the grainy, moving Skype picture of her, sickly-pale against white sheets under the yellow hospital lights. Day and night he would talk to her softly, words no one could hear but her, and she would whisper back to him.

But of course, in the end, Mindy died. Most of the school came to her funeral. I went, too. They buried her with her soccer trophy, and her colored pencils—she was a really good artist, Mindy—and her bright purple phone, with the stickers on it from some band she liked, and the head of a unicorn she had drawn herself with black magic marker. 

I saw Jack at the funeral. He didn’t walk past the coffin when his parents did. He sat in the very back corner, staring at the ground, holding his phone in two hands in front of him, staring at the empty black screen.

What happened next I found out about in pieces. Jack’s parents had me over for dinner a couple of weeks after the funeral, after the kids were in bed. Jack had a little sister who was almost three, then—her name was Eleanor, but they called her Booshie for some reason I never quite got. Anyway, Booshie got out of bed that night, came wandering down in her pajamas with a smiley stuffed possum she liked. 

“Booshie!” said her mother. “Back to bed, young lady!”

“Mindy,” Booshie said. 

And the table got quiet.

“No, no Mindy,” said her father, “Get back to bed now, Boosh.”

“Mindy Jack’s phone,” said Booshie. Her parents looked at each other. “Mindy Jack talking,” she added helpfully.

Her mom got up and kneeled down by Booshie. “You’re having a dream, sweetheart,” she said. “Come on, I’ll take you to bed.”

“No,” said Boosh. “Mindy Jack! Where Mindy?” 

(“She loved Mindy,” her dad murmured to me.)

“Honey, you didn’t see Mindy,” said her mom. “Jack’s talking to someone else. Listen to me,“ and she held the kid gently by her little pajama’d arms: “Don’t make up stories about Mindy. Ever. You can’t ever make up stories about Mindy, Boosh. Do you understand?”

She didn’t yell it, her voice was calm, but Booshie must have picked up something in her tone, because she burst into tears and started shouting “I sorry! I sorry!” Her mother scooped her up and took her upstairs. 

Jack’s dad and I sat around in a weird silence for a while. 

“How’s Jack doing, after  . . . everything?” I said, finally.

“Ehhh, not good. Not so great, really. Not good.” We went back to staring at our plates.

And after that I started hearing stories about Jack, from other parents in the neighborhood who heard stories from their kids. About him skipping classes, about him dropping out of orchestra. Sitting alone at lunch, typing furiously into his phone. Some kids claimed they saw him sitting way out in the empty soccer field at lunch, leaning against the goal, holding the phone in front of his face and talking, all excited, like he was Skyping with someone.

“But he doesn’t have any friends, my kid says, so who was he texting and Skyping with?” they’d say. “He never had any friends, really, but Mindy.”

Maybe six months after Mindy died, I had dinner with Jack’s parents again. Their downstairs bathroom was broken, so I went upstairs. And at the top of the stairs, I heard the strangest thing: this voice, only it almost wasn’t a voice—it was like a voice made of static. Whispery, jagged static that had somehow made itself into a girl’s voice. “Love,” the voice was saying. SSshhhhh, hiss, zzt, szzshhhh: Love, love, love, love.

It was coming from Jack’s room, and his door was just cracked open. I walked up to the crack and peeked in. I know I shouldn’t have, but that strange, staticky voice unnerved me. 

Jack had his back to the door, so I could see the phone he was staring into. What I saw—it’s hard to explain, how it hit me in the stomach, how it made me stumble back. 

It was a face, I knew that. It was the face of a girl, but it was the wrong color, purplish and gray, and it was only . . . I don’t know how to say it, but it was only pieces of a face. Or maybe the whole face was there, but some of  the pieces were in the wrong place. A brown eye had slid down too close to the mouth. And the mouth was too wide, as if the lips were peeled back, exposing too much of black and grinning gums. 

And that voice, that whispering, hissing voice, saying “love, love, love.” 

I stumbled back, I stumbled down the stairs. I told Jack’s parents I wasn’t feeling well, and I went home. And I tried to forget about it, tell myself I misheard, I mis-saw—though for the first few days, that gray, grinning, lopsided face made it hard to sleep.

So we’re almost at the end of this story, which is this. A few months later, I was out late, walking our dog. We’d been out to dinner and stayed later than we’d planned, so it was almost midnight. 

I don’t usually walk out beyond the Safeway, on these walks, but the dog hadn’t been out all day, and he wanted to keep going . . . and I forgot, to tell you the truth, I forgot what’s out there. No streetlights, for one thing. No streetlights, but the yellowy light of a low full moon rising just over that little hill . . . that hill that’s part of the cemetery. 

I’d forgotten I was walking past the cemetery. 

And just at that moment, when the sight of all those gravestones in the moonlight was making my skin go cold—just when I was telling myself not to be ridiculous, but still, still wishing I were home—just at that moment, behind me, I heard it again. I heard that voice, that whispering, hissing, staticky voice. 

I froze. My dog pulled forward and whined. I turned around.

He emerged out of the darkness like he was a piece of darkness himself. He trudged down the road, his shaggy head down, staring at a glowing screen. 

“Jack,” I said.

He looked up. He had changed since I saw him at Mindy’s funeral. It wasn’t just the moonlight. He was taller, and thinner, and his face was gray, and his eyes were huge and black in their dark circles. 

“Jack,” I said again.

“I was losing the signal,” he said. I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me. He seemed to be talking into the night, or over my shoulder, or to the moon. “I was losing the signal, I thought it was almost gone,” he repeated. “But then I figured it out. It’s way stronger out here.” He smiled, a wide and unnatural smile. “It’s way, way stronger out here.”

“Jack,” I said, as he passed me. He started to run. “Jack!” I shouted. “Come on, man, don’t—“ But he had already disappeared into the dark. 

I should have followed him. I know I should have, or at least called his parents. I’ll know that for the rest of my life. But I felt so cold all of a sudden, chilled right to the bone, and I turned around to walk home. 

I did look over my shoulder, once. I saw a small, shaggy-haired figure up on that cemetery hill, outlined against the moon, kneeling over a grave.

So anyway. That’s the story. They found him the next morning, lying on her grave, face down. The grave was half dug up, as if he’d dug down with his bare hands. His fingernails were torn and bloody. He couldn’t get through the wood of her coffin, but his hand was pressed flat against the lid. He was dead.

And the weird thing was that when they found him, his phone was still on, was still hissing gray static, like an old TV—like something was still trying to get through. 

They opened her coffin to make sure her body was all right, and found that her bony hand was pressed up flat against the lid, too. You can imagine how her parents felt about that.

So anyway: love. It’s not all pink hearts and flowers. It’s not all sweetness, the way you might think, the way they try to make you feel like it is, on Valentine’s Day. 

I guess that’s all I wanted to say.