The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Queen of Tarts

 

Every Wednesday, shortly before midnight, Jedediah Blacktop went to the graveyard in the north of the town to empty the coffins. He was not a grave-robber. He would not have been pleased had you called him one. In fact, he would have punched out all your teeth and sold them. No, Jedidiah considered himself a recycler.

Wednesday would arrive without fail, and would tick steadily past, and midnight would approach, and then, as if it were part of Wednesday’s inner workings, Jedidiah would open his door and stump down out of his attic like some sort of bedraggled bird from a cuckoo-clock. He would drag his cart out from under the stairs and pull it, softly creaking, through the cobbled lanes and dirt ruts toward the north of the town. He would go to Fenningham Street, where the houses were built with their backs pressed against the bend of the river, and where there was an old church and a graveyard. He would pull his cart into the graveyard, past the good, rich graves in the front. He would slink along in the deep shadows of the church wall, and reemerge on the other side. He would find the freshest, newest graves, where the wooden crosses were still oozing sap and the ground was freshly turned. And he would proceed to dig them up.

He always started with a stick to measure how deep the coffin had been laid (never more than three feet for a poor grave). Then he would graduate to a spade and dig, careful not to scratch the coffin’s top very badly. The body inside would be laid out, and Jedidiah would go on like this until there was a neat row of  corpses, all pale and cold in the grass. The coffins would then be stacked on the cart. When Jedidiah had a full load, he would throw the bodies over the graveyard wall into the river, and take all the coffins to the coffin-shop.

Twice-used coffins went for barely a penny, thrice-used not even a groat, so Jedidiah didn’t get very much, but he always received his handful of coins and returned to his attic quite satisfied.

It was unpleasant occupation, and Jedidiah was an unpleasant person, so it suited him well.

* * *

This particular Wednesday was a bleak, black night in Fenningham Street. The clouds were thick, and the moon hung low in the sky like a dull candle, and Jedidiah sauntered into the graveyard, sucking his long thin cigarette. It was the only spot of color, that glowing tip. Everything else was ink-blue and cat-black, and a deep, unsettling sort of green that comes when shadows are soaked in the leaves of trees.

Jedidiah pulled his cart past the good graves up front. He pulled it along the church wall. He began poking about the pauper’s lots with his stick.

It would be a good week, he suspected. There had been an outbreak of the influenza in the north part of the town and so the graveyard would likely have been blessed with many new arrivals.

Sure enough, Jedidiah got a long row of bodies, some tall, some short, bare feet poking out from under their burial shrouds. He even found a few charms around the pale necks, and some of the older bodies had coins over their eyes, which of course he pocketed. The coins were put there to pay Death, because it was said he would not take you across an imagined river and into the Summer Lands otherwise, but the coins really only payed Jedidiah and he didn’t take the dead people across any rivers; he simply threw them in.

He came to the last grave. There had been eighteen today, a very great number. Jedidiah was already looking forward to the road home, a good rattling handful of coins, enough for tobacco and bread. He started to dig, the spade biting into the earth, tossing the dirt. He uncovered the coffin. It was a small one. A child’s coffin, very fine. Child’s coffins were more expensive than the adult coffins, so Jedidiah whistled through his crooked teeth when he saw it. He pried it out of the wet, damp earth. He lifted it higher, and a few earth worms dangled from its new, sharp corners. The earthworms lost their grip and fell. Jedidiah laid the coffin down on the grass and hooked his iron bar under the lid. He popped it off. And then he started, and his cigarette dropped right out of his mouth. Because inside the coffin, nestled in linens and lace, was a child, bald and paper-pale, its eyes closed as if in sleep. And clutched in the baby’s little hands, tight against its chest, was a long, iron knife.

Jedidiah stared, unmoving. His breath stopped clouding the cold night.

The knife was butcher’s knife. It was wickedly sharp, and curved for slicing hams, and it glinted softly in the moonlight. The child’s hands were so tight around it, clenching it, a tiny knight in snowy dress.

Jedidiah blew out a puff of smoke. He contemplated putting the lid back on the coffin. He contemplated putting it back into the earth and hurrying off. But if he did that he wouldn’t make a profit. He would get 10d 6 shillings, and he still had rent to pay, and so he would have to go without cigarettes and ale and it would be dreadful. But the same time, he did not want to disturb the child. Something in Jedidiah”s cold, toothy heart quailed at the sight of it, so calm and cold in its little bed.

And the knife. Who would bury a child with a knife? If the coins were for Death, who was the knife for?

Jedidiah put the lid back on and stood back, chewing his cigarette and contemplating. He could ask the priest. Or the undertaker. Of course they would want to know why he was digging up coffins, and he would go to jail perhaps, and the coffin-seller with him.

In the end Jedidiah took the coffin back home with him and left it in the cart under the stairs, contents still intact.

And that was where it stayed for five days. When he opened it again he expected to find rot and decay and stench, and the snow-white linens soaked with fluids. But he didn’t, because the child was gone, and there were little scratch marks along the edges of the coffin, and splinters, as if little fingers had torn it up. The knife was gone, too.

* * *

“Marsh?” Jedidiah asked, in the coffin-makers shop. “Marsh, who ordered that child’s coffin you sent out, on the first of last week?”

Marsh spat tobacco onto the floor. “Eech. I’d have to look in the books. Why?”

“Look, then.” Jedidiah turned a circle, glancing around.

Marsh went around the back of his work-table and found a great dusty ledger, and began paging through it. Then he set it down with a snap.

“A family in Winterton.”

“Winterton? What’s a family in Winterton doing at your shop?”

“I beg your pardon?” demanded Marsh, indignant.

Jedidiah left, and went to Winterton.

 

* * *

“We did order a coffin,” said the maid, whispering, half-hidden behind the flapping clothes-line. “For Miss Jenny, the baby.  And yes, she had a knife in her hands.”

“Why? Oh, go on,” said Jedidiah, pulling at his cigarette and glancing around, which is what he did often in the company of other people.

“The mistress wanted it,” the maid said. “She said kept saying, ‘Why, why?’ and cried and screamed, and said, ‘Why did Death take Jenny, when it could have a taken another little girl or another little boy, or no one at all?’ And in the end she gave the baby a knife, and whispered to her the whole night long, though Baby was already dead and cold by then.”

“That’s the daftest thing. What was the child supposed to do with the knife?”

“I don’t know!” said the maid, clipping and un-clipping clothes-pins for no reason at all. And then she said: “Well, little Jenny was not the first to die. There was the influenza. Her brother went, only two days before. And then, as Mistress was sitting down by the river, crying into it, he came back. He floated up to her in the water, and his eyes were open and milky, and he was dead, but he wasn’t. He stared at her and his mouth was opening and closing and Mistress leaped up and screamed, but the boy floated right against the shore. And when the Master came back with a rifle the boy seemed to be trying to flop up the bank, and his eyes were rolling, and his tongue was black. I didn’t see it, but I heard, and it sounded dreadful.”

“That’s the daftest thing,” said Jedidiah again.

“I don’t know,” replied the maid softly, her eyes wide. “All I know is that Death isn’t the end right now. The dead, they’re not staying dead. It’s as if they don’t know, as if they’re lost.”

Jedidiah left in a huff, rolling himself another cigarette and scowling. He went up the streets to his attic. Tomorrow was Wednesday. He wondered what if would be a good one, or poor.

 

* * *

 

Midnight struck. Jedidiah left his attic  He dragged out his cart. He pulled it through the lanes, wheels creaking, just as he always did. He was a bit slower at everything that night, though. Deep in thought. The words of the maid were still loud in his head, ringing like a bell: “It’s as if they’re lost.

He came to the pauper’s lots and began poking with the stick. He began digging.

The first body out was an old woman. He lay her on the grass. Then he went to the next new grave. He dug that one up to. And when he came back with the second body, the old woman was gone. Jedidiah dropped his corpse. He stared at the grave and at the ground. The grass was trampled. There were sliding marks in the mud. But no body.

Jedidiah spun. The graveyard was dark and silent. His hands tightened around the handle of his spade.

“If this is a joke, it ain’t one sort of funny,” he snapped. He wondered if perhaps it was a constable, or a local mourner who, disapproving of his line of work, had decided to get revenge on him. Jedidiah walked a few steps across the graveyard. And then he spotted something out of the corner of his eye. The old-woman-body was on the wall, the graveyard wall, and she was trying to scramble over it with reckless haste.

Jedidiah’s heart leaped. She was not making it over. She seemed strong enough, but she was desperately uncoordinated. He went to her. He stared up.

She did not see him, or if she did, she did not care. She struggled, scraping her hands on the stone, staring frantically forward into the dark, as if her whole life and fortune were lying wait on the other side of the wall.

I want to go home,” she was whispering. “I want to go home. Markist! Markist! Wait for me, Markist!

Jedidiah dragged her struggling and put her back in the coffin and slammed the lid down and buried it again.

Then he dragged his empty cart back to his house and stayed up very late, smoking and wondering.

 

* * *

Jedidiah did not return to the graveyard for three Wednesdays. He ran out of bread, but he still didn’t go. Then he ran out of cigarettes. He went.

He took his cart out, pulled it to Fenningham Street. The graveyard would be so full. And there were reports now, newspaper articles. People were glimpsing their deceased relatives at the windows, staring in, deceased relatives who had been dead  a day, a week, staring with cold eyes at the firelight and the life. Thew news was printed everywhere, headlines all over the country and in large cities:

The Dead Walk!

Death is on Holiday!

Rising Panic as Loved Ones Come Home

No one understood.

But Jedidiah needed to bring a load of coffins in or he would starve, and so he decided not to care.

He began digging quickly in the churchyard, and instead of laying the bodies on the grass so they could wriggle away, he tipped them straight over the wall into the river. They could be the river’s problem. They could be the problem of whomever lived downstream.

He did the rich graves, too. He threw a great big opera singer over the wall after taking all her jewels. He could still hear her singing Puccini, gurgling and weak as she bobbed away down the river. He threw the mayor over. The mayor was still giving orders under his breath, his cold dead breath:

I forbid it. I allow it. I forbid it. Yes. No. They mustn’t. Because I said so.

Jedidiah went behind to work on the pauper’s lots.

And then, when he was almost finished, someone stepped from around the gravestone and stared at him. At first, Jedidiah thought it was a corpse again. He thought he would have to tackle it if it came any closer and hurl it into the river the way he had done with the rest. But it was not a corpse. It was a woman, and she was bizarre. She wore wide, lacy bloomers and red shoes, and she had orange hair in tight curls. Little baubles – birds and cages and mice – hung from it. Under the frizz of hair was a pasty face and a red mouth and blue-striped gloves, and a puffy coat like for a ballgown. When the woman saw Jedidiah she said: “Oh, well then,” in a very low, lazy, slightly scratchy voice.

“Who are you?” Jedidiah barked, and though it sounded very rough he was in particular awe. She was so out of place in the dark graveyard. Like a great colorful bird, and all around shadows and darkness.

“I don’t know,” replied the woman, still very deep, and she began to wander toward him, inspecting him lazily and then moving on to do the same to a nearby tree. “I ask myself it often, but I never get an answer. It’s rude, really. Someone should do something about it.”

Jedidiah stared.

“Rude,” she said again. “You, too. Everyone’s rude.”

She was most likely a dreadful person from the slums, thought Jedidiah. They went mad from diseases sometimes.

“Well?” said the woman. “Where am I?”

Jedidiah regained a bit of his composure. “Look, what’s a tart like you doing around so late in a graveyard?” He glared at her. “Off you go, back to wherever you came from.”

“Tart!” exclaimed the woman, and began to laugh very boisterously. And then she became very serious, and said: “Gooseberries.”

“What?” asked Jedidiah.

“Gooseberry tarts. They’re the cat’s pajamas, quite.”

Jedidiah shook his head. “Go away. I have work to do.”

“Oh, that makes two of us. We should form a company.” She picked up a bit of flower from a grave and tossed it back.

“What work have you got? Nothing honest by the looks of them spotless gloves.”

“Oh, surely not as honest as your work,” she said drily. “But. . . Well, I believe I’ve forgotten. I’m certain it was something.”

Jedidiah peered at her. “You don’t hold with the police, do you?” His eyes went sharp, glittering. Then faded. “I suppose not. Fine then, I will ignore you and go about my business.” He began to dig again. “Good night.”

“Is it?” asked the tart, and peered skeptically up at the pitch-black sky. “I seem to recall the last few nights being dismal and horrid, but everyone said good night anyway.”

Jedidiah dug in silence.

The tart began to wander across the yard, looking at things, picking little bits of mortar from the gravestones and crumbling them between her fingers.

“Have you remembered?” asked Jedidiah after a while. “Your business here?”

The tart sat down on a tree stump. “No. I suppose something went very wrong. I forgot.”

“You’re likely mad, is how I suppose it.”

“Well, perhaps if you told me what I had forgotten I would remember,” snapped the tart, and it was a ridiculous thing to say, but she snapped it with such conviction that it made Jedidiah a little bit ashamed that he hadn’t thought to do so himself. He kept digging, becoming flustered. Then he paused. Lifted a coffin out, and dumped its contents on the grass.

“Well,” he said slowly. “If you hang about in these parts, perhaps you know why the corpses are all strange. Perhaps- ”

“Corpses?” said the woman, and licked her lips. “Where are corpses?”

And then she saw it. On the ground. Pale face.

“Oh,” she said. And then again, “Ooh.” Very deep and scratchy, like from the belly of a cat.

And when Jedidiah looked over his shoulder at her he nearly dropped his spade. The air around her was shifting, snapping, like it couldn’t decide whether it was town-air, or the air of some vast dead country of flame and ash, and with every snap, the lady, for a brief second, seemed to be someone else entirely.

Jedidiah caught a glimpse of inky feathers, a great black cape. A pale face, no, not pale, a face with no skin at all. A face that was a grinning skull, and a bony hand gripping a scythe.

“Yes,” said the woman, and her voice was a dry clack now. “I’ve remembered now.”

Jedidiah stood transfixed. His mouth opened and closed over his coffee-colored teeth. “But-” he said. “But it isn’t! No, it isn’t!”

“It is,” said the tart, who was in fact the queen of all tarts, and Death herself. “I’ve been confused. Several weeks ago I went to an inn because it looked bright and cheery, and I thought I’d kill some people there, but it seems I was waylaid. Goodness, what a headache.”

She put a bony hand to her skinless head. “Ah well. It was a pleasant diversion.- Now to business.”

And she took the scythe and swung it at Jedidiah. It did not touch him, but Jedidiah clutched his jacket over his chest. His eyes went wide. He began to cough. He coughed so loudly it sounded as if his lungs where ripping, ripping. Death swung the scythe again, at a crawling little boy, and a screaming girl, and they fell down, too, though they kept watching Jedidiah with wise, blank eyes.

Jedidiah coughed and coughed until his lungs heaved. And then he fell.

“You know, it’s funny people think themselves so clever.” The queen of tarts moved languidly back toward Jedidiah, whose eyes were rolling, rolling up into his head. “You don’t know a thing about me. And you never will, not until it’s too late.”

The air around her had stopped crackling. She was the tart again, frilly bloomers, and dangles clinking in her orange hair. She stepped over Jedidiah’s prostrate body. She looked down at him. The glowing end of his cigarette was still fizzling weakly in the grass. She put it out with the toe of her shoe.

And then she tucked her scythe under her arm and put her hands in the pockets of her bloomers. She went away down Fenningham Street, and though she peered for a second into the inn she did not go inside.

Bernie Blythe

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes
lives in the swamp where you don’t dare tread
’cause the ones that do, they end up dead

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
was once a kid like you or I
’til one black night he fell and drowned,
his teeth the only things they found

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
a lonely boy with a half-dead mind
If he finds you, he’ll never let go
He’ll drag you screaming down below

*

 

“Shhh!”

“I can’t help it. This is so incredibly stupid.”

“Stop it!”

“Oh my god, seriously. Stop laughing.”

“Why am I even friends with you guys? You’re a bunch of infants.”

“Lucas, shut up right now.”

“He’ll hear you.”

But Lucas didn’t want to shut up. He wanted everyone to understand how brave he was for coming to the Grasshook Swamp—on Halloween, no less. After sundown, too—and not being scared, not even a little bit.

He especially wanted Rhonda to understand. Her Queen of the Undead costume was nothing short of mind-blowing, what with that crown and that ratty ballgown and the zombie make-up and the fake blood. She even had the lurching zombie walk down, and just the right amount of slobbering, groaning noises to be authentic but not obnoxious.

Rhonda was cool, is what it came down to. So cool that Lucas wasn’t sure how he and his friends had ended up trick-or-treating with her and her friends, but he wasn’t going to complain about it or anything.

No, he was going to march right into Grasshook Swamp with his head held high, and not be afraid even a little bit.

Well. Maybe a little bit. But he wasn’t going to show it.

“So how’d he drown again?” said one of Rhonda’s friends, Amy, who was dressed up like a cat. How original.

“Who?” said Lucas, breezily, like he didn’t know who she was talking about. Like he hadn’t been surreptitiously scanning the swamp this whole time for signs of him.
“Bernie,” Amy said. “Bernie Blythe. Don’t be dumb, Lucas.”

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe, has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes,” Rhonda sang cheerfully.

“Oh. That.” Lucas waved his hand. “That’s just a story.”

“No way, man,” said Sam, who had been compulsively eating candy since they stepped over the bridge onto the swamp path. “I’ve heard him.”

Amy and Rhonda’s other friend, Carrie, squealed.

Rhonda just laughed. Lucas laughed, too, even though he didn’t think anything was funny.

“You’ve heard him?” said Dean. He was shuffling along the path, kicking pebbles into the murky water. At each impact, the water gurgled and shifted, like it was this huge beast disguised as water, and the pebbles were in danger of waking it up.

Lucas wished Dean would stop doing that, but he wasn’t going to say so.

He also wished Dean would take off his scarecrow mask. It was this burlap sack contraption with the grinning face scribbled on in black marker, and it was unnerving. Dean’s hands were gloved in ratty gloves, and he was wearing crusty farmer’s clothes and had his neck wrapped in cloth strips stained red.

It was a great costume, really. Lucas wished he’d thought of something like that, because Rhonda had been gushing over how creepy Dean’s costume was all night. Lucas’s debonair vampire costume seemed beyond lame in comparison. As Carrie had scornfully pointed out earlier that night, vampires were so over.

“Yeah, I’ve heard him,” Sam was saying. “I live right on Cedar Crest, you know?

And out my window I can see the swamp, and some nights . . . some nights, I hear him.”

Rhonda was wide-eyed, breathless. “What does he sound like?”

Sam swallowed a particularly large mouthful of chocolate. “He cries.”

“He cries?”

“He cries, and sometimes he howls like he’s hurting.”

Lucas rolled his eyes. “How do you even know it’s him? That could be anyone.”

“Oh,” said Amy, “because people hang out in the swamp all the time.”

“To trick people into thinking they’re Bernie Blythe, they might.”

“I know it’s him,” Sam continued, “because he yells, too. He screams. He says, ‘Not my teeth, don’t take my teeth, stop, stop!’” Then Sam jumped at the girls and shouted, wiggling his fingers.

Carrie and Amy screamed and giggled, and Sam looked pretty pleased with himself, but Rhonda just crossed her arms and stared out at the swamp.

“Poor kid,” she said quietly. “I wonder what happened to him.”

That was when Lucas noticed they’d reached the bridge. The bridge.

He stepped closer to Rhonda. Together they stood at the bridge’s railing.

“This is where they say it happened,” Lucas whispered. “Where he drowned.”

Rhonda nodded.

“Poor kid,” Lucas added, a little too eagerly. He glanced at Rhonda to gauge her reaction. “It’s terrible. Just terrible. Tragic.”

“That’s what I don’t get, though,” said Rhonda, frowning at the water. “The railing here is pretty high. He couldn’t have just tripped and fallen in. The railing would have stopped him.”

Dean walked over to stand beside them. Instead of looking out at the water, he looked right at them. Right at Lucas, it felt like, but of course it was impossible to tell, what with that mask on. That smiling, uneven, sack-and-marker mask; those blood-stained strips of cloth around Dean’s neck.

Lucas looked away, irritated. What gave Dean the idea for such a costume, anyway? Didn’t Dean know Lucas liked Rhonda? Didn’t Dean know that Rhonda liked scary things? Why would he have tried to out-scary Lucas’s costume? Dean didn’t even like Halloween. He scared too easy.

“They say,” Dean said, “that he was pushed. Or dragged under, maybe.”

“Ooo.” Carrie grabbed Amy’s hand. “Who pushed him? Who dragged him? And why?

“Don’t know why. Some people say his friends did it, that it was some trick they were playing that went wrong. Some people say it was this hermit living in the swamp who collected human bones, except for teeth. He didn’t like teeth.”

Amy shivered. Sam ran his tongue along his teeth as if to make sure they were still intact.

“And some people say that there are just places in the world where bad things happen. Places darkness is drawn to. Darkness lives there and snatches people away, and makes them into terrible things.”

“Whatever.” Lucas tapped his fingers on the railing. “I’m so sick of these made-up stories.” He was getting tired of this whole situation. The air in this swamp was heavy and quiet, and had gotten more so since they’d entered it. At the edge of the swamp, they’d heard crickets and airplanes overhead and other people out trick-or-treating—kids laughing and parents talking and the high schoolers on Pine Drive rolling the Johnson house with toilet paper.

Now, he couldn’t hear anything. Nothing except Dean talking, and a sense of something in the air that felt like a great presence holding its breath, waiting.

It made Lucas nervous.

“Bernie Blythe.” Lucas wiped his palms on his vampire cape, trying not to freak out. “What kind of a loser name is that, anyway?”

“You shouldn’t say things like that,” Rhonda admonished him. “It’s disrespectful.”

“Dispectful toward . . .?”

“The dead.” Dean was watching Lucas, his head tilted to the side. “Or the mostly dead. Or the kind of dead.” Then Dean laughed—quickly, quietly. Then he stopped and was silent again.

Sam shook his head and popped another chocolate into his mouth. “Dude, Dean, you’re taking the creepy scarecrow thing a little too seriously.”

“The half-dead,” whispered Rhonda. “That’s what the song says. A lonely boy with a half-dead mind. Can you imagine being stuck in this swamp, half-alive, with no one to talk to?”

“Ew, Rhonda, stop being so weird,” said Carrie. “No one wants to imagine that.”

“I can,” said Dean. He stepped toward Rhonda and took her hand in his. “I can imagine it.”

Something overcame Lucas then, as everyone stared at Dean and Rhonda, and Carrie and Amy laughed nervously, and Sam looked at Lucas and then away, because he knew Lucas wanted to ask Rhonda to the seventh grade social next month, and now Dean was holding Rhonda’s hand in this weird way, and the air on the bridge suddenly reeked of awkward.

“Hey,” Lucas bit out, and marched toward Dean. “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know—”

And that’s when it happened. Because Lucas grabbed Dean’s hand and pulled it away from Rhonda’s, and the glove got caught on Lucas’s long pointy vampire fingernails, and the glove came away—to reveal a hand bloated with swamp water and covered in puckered old blisters.

A hand that was not Dean’s hand.

A hand attached to a Dean that wasn’t Dean.

Amy and Carrie shrieked. Sam dropped his bag of candy, and it rolled down the sloping bridge into the mud.

Rhonda stared.

And Lucas . . . Lucas wanted to know. So he ignored the screaming instinct to run—and fast—and ripped the mask off of whatever not-Dean face lay beneath.

What Lucas saw shouldn’t have surprised him. Not after how strange Dean had been acting, not after considering the new meaning of the weird, sweet-sour stench that had been coming from Dean’s mask all evening, and certainly not after seeing the hand—Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes—but it surprised him anyway. No amount of strangeness could have prepared Lucas for this sight:

A scalp, dotted with chunks of matted hair and skin sloughing off in slimy chunks.

A toothless mouth, leaking sludge and blood and swamp water.

Two eyes, sewn shut.

Lucas tried to scream—his friends, all around him, were screaming—but he couldn’t. Maybe what he was looking at was a mask. Maybe it was legitimate, high-quality movie make-up.

The others tried to run—Carrie, Amy, Sam—but the swamp took them. There was no other way to describe it. Lucas watched, frozen, as something—something, how was this possible?—reached up to grab their ankles and drag them under. Something in the shape of hands. Something in the shape of claws. Something dark.

Darkness lives there and snatches people away, and makes them into terrible things.

If he finds you, he’ll never let go
He’ll drag you screaming down below

Lucas stood crying, listening to his friends scream, watching them dragged under by a greedy, gurgling force that made his skin crawl and grated against his bones like a knife would have—scrape and scratch, bone dust flaking away with the wind.

“Lucas,” Rhonda cried, from behind him.

He turned, even though he didn’t want to. And he saw Bernie Blythe, his arms around Rhonda, dragging her down into the swamp.

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe,” sang Bernie, his voice now distinctly not Dean’s, and rattling in his chest like teeth in a bowl, “has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes. Lives in the swamp where you don’t dare tread, ’cause the ones that do, they end up dead.

“Rhonda!” Lucas threw himself down on the bridge and reached for her. She clutched the railing with all her might, her fingernails scraping, her palms bloody and splintered. He grabbed her arms.

“I’m not letting go,” he cried, but she was sinking down anyway, into the water. Darkness crawled up her legs like vines, and where it touched her skin, it sent up thin curls of smoke. Lucas heard something sizzling, and Rhonda’s choked screams, and even though Bernie’s head was underwater now, Lucas could still hear his song.

He would always hear Bernie’s song. He would never be able to block it out.

Rhonda was almost gone, she was nearly submerged. “Go,” she gasped, crying. Her crown fell back into the water. In an instant, it burned down to thin lines of ash. Queen of the Undead. It was terribly, awfully funny. Lucas wanted to laugh. He was becoming hysterical.

“Go, Lucas,” Rhonda gasped, “while he’s distracted. And tell them it’s true. Tell everyone. Make them stay away.”

“It’s not made up,” Lucas whispered. He was crying. How had everything gone so wrong? There was a social next month in the cafeteria. He was going to ask Rhonda. They would go out for ice cream afterward. Maybe he could even convince his parents to sit at the other end of the restaurant.

“Run, Lucas,” Rhonda screamed, and then her body jerked because Bernie was pulling, pulling, and her arms were slipping, slipping from Lucas’s hands, and then she was up to her chin in the black, black swamp.

And Lucas did. He ran. He hated himself, and he hated Rhonda for getting caught instead of him, and he hated Bernie for doing this. Why? Why?

And some people say that there are just places in the world where bad things happen. Places where darkness is drawn to. Darkness lives there and snatches people away, and makes them into terrible things.

And the trees were laughing at Lucas, he was sure of it—as were the creatures of the swamp, and the water of the swamp, and whatever lay within it. Bernie was laughing too, and his fingers wrapped around Rhonda’s mouth, silencing her voice, and the last thing Lucas saw was Rhonda’s head slipping into darkness.

He ran, and Bernie’s song rang in his head. It would always ring.

And he would tell them. He would tell everyone, even if they didn’t listen. Especially when they wouldn’t listen. He would tell them and they would laugh, and eventually they’d stop laughing and start whispering:

Have you heard about the weird kid who went into Grasshook Swamp with five friends and came out with none?

Yeah, that crazy old man who thinks Bernie Blythe is real. He has for years. They say he lost his mind.

Seriously—Bernie Blythe! You know, that stupid Halloween campfire tale?

*

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
has blistered hands and sewed-up eyes
lives in the swamp where you don’t dare tread
’cause the ones that do, they end up dead

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
was once a kid like you or I
’til one black night he fell and drowned,
his teeth the only things they found

Bernie Blythe, oh Bernie Blythe
a lonely boy with a half-dead mind
If he finds you, he’ll never let go
He’ll drag you screaming down below

What the Mask Wants

That’s a good mask you’ve got on. Scary.

But you want to be careful with scary masks. Just saying. Not that it makes much difference to you now, but still.

You think it’s just a piece of plastic, or something your dad helped you make with cloth and glue. But once it’s on you, it’s almost like a mask is alive. You know what I mean? Like it has its own ideas what to do.

Especially the scary ones, the masks that are practically snarling in rage or fear or hunger. They’re bad that way.

halfmaskYou look at a scary mask and think that’s not you, right? You’re a nice kid! Not like that mask, it’s horrible and hideous and awesome.

But snarling rage and fear and bloody-teeth hunger—you’ve got all those, of course you do. You just locked them up, way deep inside you, in a little closet. ‘Cause you’re such a nice kid.

But the right mask knows how to whisper through the keyhole of that closet. It stirs those feelings up, till you hear them banging on the doors down there, the hunger and fear and rage. Banging and banging and banging down there.

It can drive you a little crazy.

Let me tell you a story. Imagine it’s Halloween night—well, and it is Halloween tonight, of course. So imagine a Halloween like tonight.

A black-dark, chilly, leaf-skittering night.

And you go out, wearing your mask. A mask like mine.

First thing, near the end of your street, you see a low white creature, holy crap, a ghost, flying down the street, just impossibly fast, impossibly smooth. And your heart stops and starts, and you feel scared right down to the ground, because—could that be real?

But as the ghost flies past, you see running behind it is a dad, all dressed in black. He’s pushing a wheelbarrow, and some little kid in a long white sheet is sitting inside, flying down the road.

Okay, good one, you think, and your heart settles down.

Now the dark has wandering lights in it, and voices shouting, laughing. But because it’s so dark, you feel alone until the others are really close. Then suddenly the lights and colors are bobbing around you.

And when they see your mask, some little kids look scared, and grab their moms’ hands, and you feel great.

You see three Spidermen and two princesses. You see Iron Men and fairies. You see vampires and witches and cats.

You see a small girl in a long gray wig and long white dress, running through yards, crying “Dónde están mis hijos?”

You think, Pretty cool. Good Halloween.

You see a really little kid, like four or five, standing on the sidewalk, sobbing. His big sister is trying to get him to put his mask over his face, but he won’t do it. He stands there in his yellow nylon suit, the Frankenstein mask sitting on his head, its stretchy string cutting into the soft flesh of his throat. He’s terrified, crying, “Not on! No, not on my face!”

You don’t realize it, but that kid is smart.

Because you still haven’t learned: you gotta be careful with masks.

I was the one walking around, seeing all that, that Halloween night. I was only a little older than you are now, almost too old to go trick or treating.

And I was wearing this mask, that night. Wow, when I first saw it in the store. It made my heart stop-and-start, that feeling. Its awful mouth. The way the whole face is so horribly twisted, and frozen there, stuck in one moment of terrible time.

It felt like something that had escaped from that little locked-door room inside me, right? It still gives me that start-and-stop heart feeling, whenever I see it, after all these years.

Anyway. That first Halloween with this mask, I felt so alive. I walked through the black-dark night, loving every leaf-skitter, every distant shout and bobbing light.

But then when it got late, and the night sank into silence, things changed.

Because the thing is, I didn’t want to take the mask off.

Or it didn’t want to be taken off. One of those.

I still felt so powerful. I still felt so alive. And the mask told me I should walk through people’s backyards, so I did. It was super, super late. I checked out the toys and tricycles. I stole a swing on a tire. I pushed over a barbecue grill: bang, clatter. Charcoal and ash spilled across the grass. Lights came on inside the house. I ran.

It was fantastic.

This mask wanted me to move, wanted me to break things. It made me ring 3am doorbells, smash eggs against cars, trash people’s lawns.

Well, those are Halloween pranks, right? Not very nice, not very nice kid things to do. But not so bad.

But as the night wore on, as the dark got deeper, the mask made me to do much worse than that. Much, much worse. Things with fire. And things with blood.

I didn’t want to do those things. The mask wanted to.

And after a while, this little part of me said, No. No more blood. No more fire. I have to take this thing off and go home, and go to sleep, and forget this night, forget it ever happened.

Too late, though. Too late for that. Because the mask wasn’t on board with that. The mask was having too much fun. The rage and fear and hunger that mask had freed? They didn’t want to go back into their little closets.

And the mask wouldn’t come off.

It’s wasn’t stuck, exactly. Only without my noticing, it had started to fit my face so well, that .  . . well. It had become my face.

The mask was alive now. And the mask was me.

So the next time you choose a Halloween mask— you won’t, but let’s pretend—be careful. Because that’s what happened to me. You think this is a mask I’m wearing. But this is my face, now. Go ahead. You can touch it if you want, I don’t care.

And I’m not the only one. You wouldn’t believe how many of us there are, with our terrible mask-faces: the blood-dripping teeth, the mad twisted mouths, one eye bulging or dripping down the cheek.

People like us, we can only come out on Halloween, when everyone thinks our terrible faces are only masks.

Man, I love Halloween for that.

And I love that on Halloween, everyone thinks that this axe I’m holding is just a prop, a costume prop.

Just like you thought that.

And I love that on Halloween, everyone will believe that this old cellar is a haunted house, and it might be fun to visit.

Just like you thought it might be fun.

But you were wrong.

I’m sorry. Don’t cry. This isn’t what I want, you know. I don’t want this. The mask wants it.

Sorry. But that’s how it is.

This isn’t a haunted house, it’s an old cellar, and you will never leave.

And this axe is a real axe, ready to cut through your soft flesh.

And this mask, what you thought was this terrible mask: this is my real face.

And this twisted, raging, mad face: it’s the last face that you will ever see.

The Booksellers

 

They came and went from a hole below a tavern in Daggenford Street, in a grimy, moldering part of the town where there were no streetlamps. No one ever caught more than a glimpse of them. Sometimes, a watchful eye or a bloodshot gaze pressed to a window would catch the slither of black cloaks, the gleam of a metal mask, or the flicker of a white finger . . . But nothing more.

Many wished to see them. Over the years, many came to that part of the town, from across the sea, and from far across the countryrich men in crimson waistcoats and poor men in tattered hats, and fine ladies and barefoot children. They all craved to see one, to look behind its mask and learn its secrets. Edgart Viviender was the latest. Bored and clever and rich as Italian damask. He would not be the last.

*

There were no books in Edgart Viviender’s country. Perhaps there were none in the whole world. There were no books because there were no trees, and no paper, and very little leather, and hardly any brains to string words together and make sense of them. Edgart’s house had a room called a library, but no one remembered what it was for; the shelves were empty and they were too narrow for shirtwaists and too wide for china-ware.

And the problem was, Edgart knew how to read. He had practiced the street-signs and the medicine bottles, and he had read all the words stamped on the soles of his shoes, and his options had become rather limited. He wanted more. He wanted deeper. That was when he had begun to gad about, and ask questions, and go on journeys. And that was how he came to Daggenford Street.

That was how anyone came, trickling into the shadowy confines, adventurers and fortune-seekers, and the curious, and the bored. They came to that town based on rumors: that there were suppliers there, purveyors of wondrous things, marvelous things, sparks and flames and rolling shadows. Things to prod the mind and poke the soul. And so Edgart came, and took lodgings in some upstairs rooms in Belheim, and set off every night to search for the booksellers.

*

On this particular night, the foghorns from the docks were moaning and the air was opaque, as if a curtain of oil hung in the atmosphere. The cobbles were slick. The taverns were full. Not loud, but full.

Seven were there, sitting at Edgart’s table, and one of them was a local, speaking in a hushed and grating voice.

“There’s Crow-face and Moon-face and Iron-teeth and Tar,” the old man whispered over the guttering flame of a candle, and the others stared, and Edgart stared hardest of all. He sat between a woman named Mary the Bonneter and a man named Merry the Hangman and they both wanted to find the booksellers, too. Mary the Bonneter leaned over, pulling her headscarf low.

“Where? Where are they?” she said, and her voice was soft and musical, and it made everyone wonder why she was here, and why any of them were here.

The old man answered: “You won’t find them if you look. They’ll come to you. And if they do, they will ask a price. It is not free, the things they give.”

Edgart thought: Well, I am very wealthy. . .

“Have you ever seen one,” Mary the Bonneter asked. “Ever at all? I hear they wear masks- ”

“They do,” said the old man. “And I have. Oh, I wish I never do again.” He shivered, violently, and the candle shivered with him. “I was twelve then. I did not see the face, but the figure reared up before me seven feet tall, wrapped in a black cloak, and his round, silver mask shimmering. . . That was Moon-face. I still see him sometimes, in the far reaches of the night, after I close my eyes.”

Edgart left the table hurriedly. The booksellers would not find him here. Edgart would not learn their secrets by talking to superstitious old boggarts. He went to every tavern in that part of town where there are no streetlamps, and he waited on corners, and he shuffled through gutters, and he slept in the day and walked in the night, and waited.

*

In the end, the booksellers found Edgart. He was stumbling back to his lodgings after a long, cold night, his joints stiff, his waistcoat and cravat a little wilted.

The booksellers were in a group, hunched and moving swiftly down the street, four figures returning from some errand, some shadowy journey through the night.

Edgart was in the middle of the street, and they were coming straight toward him.

He was paralyzed for a moment, frozen in a mixture of fear and anticipation. Then he slipped into a doorway, waited for them to pass, and followed quietly behind.

Moon-face was in the middle. Edgart recognized the round, round mask, mirror-bright, with slits for eyes and a grinning mouth. Then there was Crow-face, who was a woman, and Iron-teeth who was short and stocky, like a boulder, and Tar, which was so tall and thin it was impossible to tell what it was.

They moved with incredible speed, darting and gliding, and yet they did not seem in any hurry. They turned into a narrow lane, scrabbled close along the house-walls. It was difficult for Edgart to keep them in sight. And then they arrived at a tavern with a wordless sign hanging broken above the dooran empty tavern, long deserted.

There was hole under it, a fallen bit of wall where the gutter flowed in.

Crow-face slipped into the hole, a small cackle echoing from behind her mask. Tar and Iron-teeth went next.

And then, just as Moon-face paused, and turned and looked over his shoulder, and was about to dive into the blackness as well, Edgart Viviender stepped into the street.

He didn’t say anything. He simply stood there, and when Moon-face looked at him, all sound seemed to stop. There was no distant clatter of docks and drinking. No dripping gutters. Only a shimmering, silvery ringing, piercing the air.

Slowly, Moon-face straightened.

Edgart stood stock-still, his hands clenched around his trouser-legs.

Moon-face glided toward him.

“Show me,” said Edgart. “Show me, please! Take off your mask!”

Moon-face froze. He did not come closer.

“Do you want something?” Edgart’s voice rose. He took a few steps forward. “Something in return? I will give it to you. Anything you ask.”

Moon-face watched him. The ringing continued, seemed to swell and weave, hypnotic and strangely sickening. And then Moon-face reached up and opened his mask.

Every drop of blood in Edgart’s body turned to fire. He could no longer speak, or move, and his muscles wound tight and his bones locked. The face behind the mask was pale and smooth, the skin so clear and glass-like, as if it had never felt a strong wind or the scratch of a branch. And there were words there. Scrawled on the eyelids, on the cheeks, across the forehead in blood-red ink. So many words, flying at Edgart and pounding him, a thousand words and a thousand stories.

Every happy family is alike-Anna? Anna, where are you going-no one noticed the soldier-and suddenly Edgart was so heavy and full that he reeled back and fell into a doorway and collapsed.

Moon-face stayed perfectly still. Then he reached up slowly and closed his mask over his face, and its hinge creaked like a door. More seconds passed. Somewhere in the distance a cat shrieked.

Moon-face turned and melted into the dark.

*

Edgart lay in the street, shaking and freezing, his eyes open, and when he had recovered enough, he dragged himself back to his lodgings in Belheim. He did not leave them again. He locked himself in, and the landlady heard odd voices from the rooms, as if there was not one, but many different people there. She heard loud thumps, and the casements banged open on windy, stormy nights, and water dripped through the floors. And at some point, when no one had seen Edgart for many, many days, the constable came to break down the door.

They found the rooms in a disarray, and Edgart lying on the floor, laughing, or possibly crying, it was difficult to say. He had gone mad. He had scrawled on the walls with ink and fingernails and worse things, and though very few people knew how to read it, it was a masterpiece.

It began: Why, oh why do the little ones go, laughing and talking, into the snow. . .

*

One week later, in Daggenford Street, Moon-face crept from under the tavern, and found Mary the Bonneter. She was waiting for him, her face alive and bright, and her eyes quivering. Moon-face paused before her, and she promised to pay the price. He creaked opened his mask.

Why, oh why do the little ones go, she read on his eyelids and on his face. . .

Number 87,145

Lizzie doesn’t know what it is about the new kid, but he freaks her out more than pretty much everything except for maybe—maybe—when her brother pretends to be an alien. That’s when he stands around the corner at night, in the dark, and jumps out at her as she walks, sleepy and fuzzy-eyed, back to her bedroom from the bathroom. Which is just not fair, jumping out at a girl as she’s coming back from the bathroom. Lizzie thinks a person should have a kind of safe pass at moments like those. And she’s not sure what makes her brother an “alien” when he does that, but she’s long given up trying to understand him.

The thing is, that’s a jumpy scare, something that comes and goes really fast, and then it’s gone.

The new kid at school is different. This kid—Malcolm Huxley is his name—he freaks out Lizzie in a slow way, a tingling, heavy way like when there’s a storm blowing in, and you just know it’s going to rip the skies open any minute now, but you don’t know when.

It’s something about his eyes. They’re very still. He doesn’t blink much. It’s also, Lizzie thinks, something about the way he smiles at people, how he watches them while they’re talking, how he never blinks his still, dark eyes. He just watches, and smiles his slow smile, and moves his hands from his lap to the table, where he folds them together like whoever’s speaking to him is the most important person in the world, and he’s not even going to mess with his phone while you’re talking to him. That’s how much he cares about your conversation. Isn’t that courteous? Such a rarity, in this technological age.

Lizzie is not even sure he has a phone. He’s old-fashioned like that. He wears neckties to school. And he talks too formally, using words that sound like they should be used only at funerals or in fancy, white-walled modern art museums. Stuffy, cold, lyrical words. The teachers just adore him. They think he’s “refreshingly polite.” They tell him so, too, right to his face, and he folds his hands in front of him and stands there and smiles his slow, perfect smile. “You flatter me,” he says to them. “How kind.”

Lizzie is not impressed by such instances. Gag me, she thinks, rolling her eyes.

But she’ll give him this: He’s interesting.

Lizzie has been waiting for something interesting to happen.

So last week, when Lizzie noticed Malcolm Huxley watching her at lunch from across the cafeteria, she didn’t react. She kept eating her sandwich. And then the lunch bell rang, and she went to math and Malcolm went to choir.

Not a big deal, Lizzie thought. Just Malcolm being Malcolm. Whatever that meant.

But every day since then, he’s been watching her at lunch—staring with his eyes that don’t blink, putting his sandwich down between each bite. Chewing. Swallowing. Watching her. And at first she thought she was imagining things, but today she realizes that every day he has been moving closer to her.

The first day, he was sitting with the cheerleaders. Well, not sitting with them, really, because he seemed so out of it that Lizzie wasn’t sure he even noticed them trying to talk to him.

He was too focused on Lizzie, she guessed.

Freaky.

But still, interesting. It’s been interesting for Lizzie, watching him move from the cheerleaders to the band nerds to the theater geeks to the track team and then, finally, to her. It’s interesting, watching him slide into the seat across from her. Her friends look at her, and then at him, and then back at her.

“Hi, Malcolm,” they say. Everybody knows Malcolm. You can’t wear neckties and speak like an old man and not have people know who you are.

He ignores them. “Hi, Lizzie,” he says to her. He isn’t blinking, and his smile spreads across his face like he knows a secret that Lizzie doesn’t know. And she wants to know.

But she sighs, because she doesn’t want him to know she wants to know.

“Hey.” She says it so it sounds very whatever-y.

“So.” Malcolm pauses, folds his hands on top of the table. “I was wondering if you wanted to come to my house tonight. I could use some help with the unit we’re currently studying in math, and I’ve heard you’re something of a mathematical whiz.”

Meredith, Lizzie’s best friend, elbows her, and Lizzie kicks her under the table.

“I guess.” Lizzie shrugs, but on the inside she is completely thrilled. A chance to figure out the mystery of Malcolm Huxley? Plus a chance to show off her inarguably impressive math skills? She is so in. “I mean, I’m definitely a mathematical whiz, but I guess I’ll help you.”

“Marvelous.” Malcolm stands up and holds out his hand. “Shall we say right after school? We can meet outside by the buses and walk there together.”

Shall we? Lizzie tries not to laugh as she shakes his hand. “Indeed, we shall,” she says, trying to imitate him without cracking up. Meredith is just dying next to her; Lizzie can hear her ready to burst. But Lizzie manages to maintain a serious expression.

“I’ll see you then, Lizzie,” Malcolm says, and he leaves, and once he’s gone, Lizzie’s entire table explodes into gasping and laughter.

“Oh my god. Malcolm Huxley. Oh my god.” Meredith grabs Lizzie’s arms. “He’s cute, in a weird way. Don’t you think he’s cute?”

Cute? Not so much. But interesting? Oh yeah. Lizzie shrugs, playing it cool. “He wears ties.”

Meredith ignores this. Who cares if he wears neckties? That only adds to his mystique. Her eyes go wide. “What will your parents think about you going to his house to study?”

Lizzie is only thirteen, but this whole thing is making her feel older, like a high schooler, like someone who gets away with things. She has never been that kind of person. She has always lived in a very square, very neat box.

She feels her friends’ eyes upon her, and she flips her hair back. “They don’t have to know,” she says in a way that feels dangerous to her, and everyone squeals. She sees Malcolm watching from across the cafeteria, where he’s just thrown away his lunch trash. She waves, trying to flirt, kind of. She’s not really sure how to flirt, but Malcolm’s smile oozes out of him anyway, and he bows.

He bows.

Lizzie thought people only did that in movies.

*

Despite all Lizzie’s hair flipping, she’s pretty nervous about going into Malcolm’s house. It looks normal from the outside—she can see it as they turn onto his street—but there is the whole not-knowing-how-to-talk-to-boys-who-bow-to-you-in-cafeterias thing.

Boys with hair way shinier than hers.

Boys who hold open the door for you and offer to take your coat.

“For real?” she asks him, handing him her coat. “This is your house?” Her voice echoes across marble floors. They’re inside the foyer of Malcolm’s house, and it’s beautiful—old-fashioned (surprise, surprise) with heavy rugs and dark wood and weird sculptures on tables—but beautiful. And big. It didn’t look this big from outside, and it didn’t look this old. It smells old, like an antique store. Like an attic. Like . . .

“A library.” The double doors on Lizzie’s right are open, so she goes in, kind of dazed, and sees shelves stretching from floor to ceiling, and they’re all full of books. There’s a fireplace she could stand in without having to duck, and two red chairs in front of the fire.

“Do you like it?” says Malcolm. He sits in one of the red chairs, folds his hands in his lap, and watches her. His hair is swept to the side in a neat blond wave.

“Are you kidding?” Lizzie isn’t really a book person; she prefers numbers and soccer. But this library is like something out of a fairy tale. It’s enormous—the size of her basement; no, the size of her house. This is crazy. A part of her thinks she should not be so excited about a library that is way too big for the house she saw outside, but she hurries to the nearest shelf anyway. Maybe if she sees what kind of books this boy has, she’ll understand about everything—the ties, the shall we, the slow smile.

But the books are blank. The spines, anyway. No titles, no authors. Just red books and blue books and green books, all of them dusty and worn around the edges.

“I hate to rush this,” Malcolm says from his chair, “but I’m running out of time. So, if you want to sit down, it might be easier.”

“All right, all right.” Lizzie frowns and drags her finger along the blank spines of these books. She wants to pull them out and open them, see what’s written inside.

She also doesn’t want to open them. Thinking about doing so gives her that growing storm feeling, the one she got about Malcolm when she saw him on his first day at school. That slow-building, stomach-twisting scared feeling.

“If you’re really that excited about algebra,” she says, turning around, “we’ll get started on tonight’s homework. But first can I meet your—”

Lizzie stops, staring at Malcolm. He has a book in his lap, and it isn’t his math book. And he’s writing in it.

“How come none of these books have titles?” Lizzie asks, uncertain. But that’s not the question she really wants to ask. Why are you writing in one of them? That’s what she really wants to ask. Because the book in Malcolm’s lap looks like one of the books on these shelves—except it’s not dusty. It’s new, and its edges are crisp, and its pages are clean. Except where Malcolm is writing.

“Oh,” Malcolm says, in that polite voice of his, “because I don’t need titles. I know what they all are.”

“Really? Every single one of them? But there must be thousands. How can you remember all of them?”

“Because I am much smarter than you will ever be,” Malcolm says smoothly. “And there are 87,144 books in this room, to be exact.” He looks up at Lizzie, and this time his smile is quick, like a dart. Like a knife. “Soon to be 87,145.”

He taps the book on his lap with his pen, like he’s inserting a period. The sound is final, like the closing of a lid.

And then Lizzie feels it: She feels herself bending inward, like her arms and legs are folding up into curlicues, like she’s way too deep underwater and her body can’t take the pressure, so it collapses instead.

She looks down at her hands.

They’re fading.

She begins to scream. She runs for the double doors, but they’re closed and locked. She bangs on them, claws at them, but she is shrinking. She is a girl made of screams instead of bones. She is a girl made of pen ink instead of blood.

She is flying across the room because something is pulling her. Her half-vanished fingernails are digging into the carpet. And then they’re not digging into the carpet because they’re gone. She is gone. She is . . . no longer solid. Something pulls her through a tiny hole, a hundred tiny holes—through letters, written in Malcolm’s handwriting.

Lizzie is in a white, clean prison. She tries to hold out her hands, and she sees nothing. She tries to turn around, and can’t. She can think, she can faintly speak, like something is stuck in her throat, but she can’t move, and all she can see is a forever-whiteness—and Malcolm’s face, in front of her.

She sees his face through dozens of tiny windows that are the letters he has written in this crisp, new book with crisp, new edges and a spine with no title.

But Lizzie, too late for her, realizes this book doesn’t need a title. None of these books do. Because these books are not just books.

They are people. This book is her.

She peers through the window of Malcolm’s letters: September 18, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Dale, thirteen years old, mathematics whiz, sarcastic, athletic, pretty.

Lizzie feels like she is looking out of her own tombstone. She tries to scream—a hoarse, whispery sound, because there isn’t a lot of room in her new home for things like voices. She tries to claw her way out through the windows of Malcolm’s letters. But she no longer has use of her arms.

She begins to cry—but there isn’t a lot of room there for tears, either, so she just feels like she’s choking and gasping inside her skin.

“There, there,” says Malcolm, and then he is no longer a boy, but a great, ghastly, scaly thing, a thing with shadows for claws and cold black eyes. His Malcolm-face peels away in curls of skin, and then he is just this terrible thing staring at Lizzie and speaking to her with a high, sweet voice. It is the same voice: Malcolm’s polite, shall we voice.

He bows to her, mockingly.

“Welcome, Lizzie,” he says, his voice hissing on the z’s in her name. “Welcome to your new home. I think we shall be excellent friends.”

Then he slams the book shut, and Lizzie is squished into darkness, which is far worse than the white prison and makes her feel claustrophobic. She feels pinned down and strapped in, and then she feels Malcolm kiss the cover of her book like a parent would kiss its child good night, except his lips are fat and wet with slime.

She feels her book being slid across a surface—onto a shelf?

She feels the snugness of something on either side of this cramped, dark space—other books, beside her?

And she hears whispers—above her, below her, on either side of her, stretching out in all directions as though she is floating in a sea made of terrible words:

Welcome, Lizzie.

Welcome, Lizzie.

Help us.

Help us.

After a time, Lizzie takes up the call too: Help us. Help us. It is a choir of souls.

A choir that no one will ever hear, except for the slithering thing reclining in the red chair by the fireplace. The coiled, hulking, shadow-clawed thing.

It hears, its claws folded in its lap, and it does nothing but laugh.