The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Nursery Rhymes

I’m walking to school all by myself today, because it’s the first day of second grade, and I did it yesterday with Mom but we pretended she wasn’t there, so she didn’t tell me where to go. And I didn’t get lost. That means I’m big enough now.

It smells like apples and pencils this morning. I have on a brand new shirt and pants, and new shoes and socks, well the socks are brand new and the shoes I only wore one time before, on yesterday.

632px-Old_book_gatheringAnd I have a new lunchbox with a peace sign and flowers on and a new notebook which is green, which is my favorite color even though every other girl likes pink and purple. I like green.

My backpack is the same from last year though.

The sidewalk around here has a lot of cracks and pieces missing, Dad says the taxes should have fixed it but I guess they didn’t yet. Anyway so you have to be sure to watch where you’re going and not get dis-racted by an interesting rock or a butterfly or something.

But when you’re watching out for cracks at least you can play Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back.

I forgot: also my brown sweater is brand new.

I like how the air feels today. It feels like if you go to a football game, it’s not really cold but your nose runs a little. The wind is blowing yellow leaves right between my feet.

For Halloween I’m going to be a cat, Mom’s going to help me make it.

Step on a crack. Break your mother’s back. So I don’t step on a–

Oh.

That shouldn’t be there.

A book shouldn’t be on the sidewalk. Especially not right in the middle of a sidewalk, where you could walk on it, if you weren’t playing Step on a Crack.

It looks really old. Really old and huge. It doesn’t look like a school book.

Oh. Oh! I might know, I think. I bet it’s a library book. I bet it came from the library at school. Some big kid must have dropped it or something.

Then I will be the HERO and bring it back. Like this kid thinks they’re going to be in huge trouble and get detention and have to pay for the book, which with this big book would probably be like maybe fifty dollars or something. And then I will show up and say “hey did someone lose this?” and they will start crying they’ll be so happy, even though they’re fifth grade.

I better check to see if there’s a name or something though. The paper is so thin and whispery, it’s like a dictionary, this book. Its title says . . . How to Make Everything Turn Out Okay.

But it doesn’t say the writer.

That’s a really good title though, it makes you want to read it.

Okay, I am not getting dis-racted, I’m going to school, but I’m just going to open it up to the first page. Just to see. Probably it will be too hard or too boring but just . . .

Step on a crack
Break your mother’s back
Step on a hole
Break your mother’s sugar bowl.

I know this one! It’s just a nursery rhymes, it’s not hard! Is this book just nursery rhymes? I think so. It’s funny there’s no pictures though, just all these pages and this tiny writing.

Step on the grass
Miss your favorite class.

HA. That’s funny. I didn’t know that part. I’ll try not to step on the grass!

If the milk you’ve spilled,
Your cat gets killed.

. . . What is that part. I don’t like that part.

Is that true?

Eat the last ice cream
Your friend’s terrible screams.

Wait a minute.

Tear your winter coat
Cut your mother’s throat.

That’s horrible. I don’t like this. What if it’s only, if you tear it on accident!

Forget to wave goodbye
Your mother’s going to die.

What is this book! I don’t like this book.

I waved goodbye to my mother this morning, though, for sure. I DEFINITELY did.

Did I?

I’m shutting it NOW. Wait but I gotta see—what do I do if . . .

Turn three times around
Or your house burns to the ground.

I gotta remember these! I gotta not forget them or—I didn’t know there were all these other ones, all these other rules.

Pick a flower in the bud
Find your friend in a pool of blood.

No. Stop.

Better not oversleep
Or your dolls grow teeth.

I think I should stop reading this book now.

Break your daddy’s phone
Hear the rattling bones

Please don’t.

Let your hand touch the ground
See your little brother drown.

I don’t want to read this book. I hate this book, it’s horrible. But I gotta keep reading. I gotta remember all these and there’s so many pages, there’s like a million . . .

Tell your mom a lie
Hear a dead baby cry
Underneath your bed
Where the blood runs red.

Stop it! Stop it! I will learn them, I will! I will learn all the rules, I will memorize every rule in this book, I promise, just please please stop stop STOP.

—–

“And so this is the children’s ward. You’ll be working the night shift here, Thursdays, though Sundays — sorry, not the greatest hours, but that’s how it goes when you’re new.”

“I don’t care. But man, this place is sad. I didn’t know kids could go so crazy that—“

“Yeah, look, we don’t say ‘crazy’ here—“

“Sorry, right. That kids could go so . . . whatever, that they would have to be locked in rooms like these.”

“You’ll get used to it. So listen, your main job is, besides the paperwork, you walk up and down the halls during the night, looking in these little barred windows, see? Like this one. You make sure the kid inside is okay, hasn’t choked to death or hung himself or whatever.”

“Man, I didn’t know it would be like this.”

“Are you saying you don’t want the job?”

“No, no. I need this job. Sorry. I didn’t mean that. Man, look at this one, with the book. She is reading the heck out of that great big book.”

“She’s been here a couple of years. When she first got here, they tried taking that book away from her. She screamed for three days, and when she lost her voice, she just sat with her mouth open in a silent scream, her face all red and her eyes bulging. It was horrible. Finally, they gave it back.”

“Oh wow, she just got up, turned in a circle three times, and then sat back down to read.”

“Yeah she does that, or little weird jumps or snapping her finger, or knocking wood, or muttering to herself. No one knows why. Anyway. The doctors have looked through that book, cover to cover, to see why she’s so obsessed with it. No one can figure it out. It’s just an old book of nursery rhymes.”

The Forever Book

Dust drifts through the air, landing on old, weathered spines and faded pages. I can do little more than watch from my shelf, wedged between an old dictionary and an atlas full of countries that now have other names.

 

We’re hardly going to talk about dust, even on this long and quiet afternoon, now are we? Not when there are so many other tales to tell each other. Those written on our pages, and the things we have seen from the bookcases and cabinets in which we have spent our years.

 

A great many years, some of us. For me, especially.

 

The customers who enter the shop likely do not know that we, the books, speak to each other. We whisper and rustle, and some of us are terrible gossips–though not me, of course.

 

All books do this, when no one is listening. And no one ever is, because they do not know they should.

 

No, the customers who visit are in search of a gift, perhaps, for a daughter or mother or brother, or in need of something with which to amuse themselves on a cold night by the fire, while the gas lamps outside sputter and spark.

 

The door creaks open, and for an instant the sound of horse hooves on the cobbles outside is quite loud, louder than the two chattering almanacs on the shelf below mine.

 

“Bonjour, Christophe,” says the customer. The words between my covers are English, but one picks up a thing or two. Hello. And I recognize the voice, which is a very good thing indeed. I may relax now; this gentleman won’t pluck me from my cozy spot and regret it forever.

 

This may seem a great exaggeration, but it is not.

 

“Ah! Bonjour!” Christophe says in return, coming out from behind his little desk to lead the man down through the crooked paths between shelves, piled high and teetering. As they pass, Christophe’s glittering black eyes flick up to read my spine, and quickly away again before the customer–whose bald head is gleaming in the dim light–notices and takes an interest.

 

Clearly, I am not kept in the room of rare books into which they disappear, though I should be. Nor am I kept locked away, safe from prying eyes, though I should certainly be that, too.

 

The constant babbling of the other books soothes my charred covers, crisp and ragged at the edges frm the countless times I have been hurled, tossed, gently placed into the flames. My pages crinkle, warped from the waters of every river marked in the atlas to my left.

 

I cannot be burned, or sunk, or torn apart. And so I am here, where no one will think to pick me up.

 

“People will open a book sitting on its own,” Christophe says, in French, but he has muttered this to himself so often I have come to know its meaning. “Here, they will ignore you.”

 

So far, this has worked. And as I say, I am calmed by the ceaseless talk around me. I do not long for a new…

 

…well, I suppose victim is truly the only appropriate word.

 

Cristophe was my last, and this is why he watches me with those obsidian eyes, carefully steering visitors away from my cracked spine. Because he knows. Oh, he knows all too well.

 

The bookshop is muffled, the voices from the back room too far away to hear, but for the bald man’s occasional exclamation over a book full of delicate paintings of birds. I’d forced Christophe to move that one–its chirping was near unbearable.

 

The door creaks again.

 

“Maman! The books!” a child says. There are snowflakes on the shoulders of her scarlet coat, winking like stars in a sky still red from sunset. Up and down the shelves, pages rustle excitedly. Pick me! they say, though of course she cannot hear. She does not know she is supposed to listen. No one does.

 

I am very still between my dictionary and my atlas. It is no thanks to them that I know so many words, so many places. My own adventures are responsible for that, and it has been a long time since I’ve had one.

 

“Oui, Madeleine. Be careful, yes?”

 

“I will!” says the girl, but she is not. Her little shoes kick up more dust from the carpet as she runs back and forth, nearly tipping over a stack of novels having an extremely animated conversation about…cheese, I believe. It’s possible I wasn’t listening quite close enough. For I am watching the girl.

 

Christophe and his other customer are still looking at birds, and I don’t know how I know this time will be different. That no one will steer the girl away, keep her small fingers from plucking me off the shelf.

 

The atlas begins to tremble hard enough to shake the mountains within. The dictionary mutters under its breath, words I surely won’t repeat here.

 

“Not me,” I say. She is still not listening. They never listen.

 

Her head tilts sideways. “The Forever Book, ” she reads. “Maman? What is im-mor-tal-it-y?”

 

“Why, it is living forever,” says Madeleine’s mother. “Never growing old or leaving this world for the next.” She shudders, this woman with a brain, for people do not know what they wish for when they seek this.

 

“Oh!” says Madeleine in her scarlet coat, and I am free, pulled from my cramped place between the dictionary and the atlas. All the other books are quiet now, their whispering silenced by fear.

Her eyes are very blue. My spine cracks and my pages stretch. From the back room, a shout comes, a thump, Christophe falling to the floor as Madeleine, my new owner, perhaps for a great many years to come, begins to read.

The Treacherous Books of September

Hello, friends. (Can I call you friends? Perhaps you bitterly dislike me—how fascinating that would be!) From my high and grimy window, I’ve been watching children skip Septemberishly off to school, if skipping is what you do under a knapsack stuffed with 75 pounds of books.

More of a bent and beaten trudge, perhaps.

It made me think how strange it is that we give books to children. Everyone knows—surely everyone knows?—what treacherous creatures books are. You might as well give a boy a knapsack full of tarantulas, or lovingly tuck a black hole, wrapped in waxed paper, inside a girl’s lunchbox.

Old_book_bindingsYes: books are dangerous. Whether it’s the electronic kind, buzzing around inside your tablet like angry wasps , or the old-fashioned, bulky, jam-stained ones, covered in brown paper upon which you have drawn a race car or a unicorn (incidentally, a unicorn can beat a stock car over a flat 15-mile stretch, and remind me to tell you how I know that, and to show you the scars)—or whether it’s the rather more delicious paperback you’ve concealed behind your schoolbook, hoping onlookers will believe that it’s igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks making your eyes glow and you mouth hang slightly open—whatever kind of book you hold, it’s dangerous.

For example, books can grab you—and I don’t mean metaphorically: I mean a wizened little hand reaches out and takes you by the throat. Or you can fall into books, especially deep ones, and be heard from again only as a faint wail when someone turns to that particular page.

Books can hurt you. Books can change you.

As a public service, we are dedicating the month of September’s Cabinet tales to the horrors that lurk within and without books. First story will appear here this Wednesday—enjoy it, if enjoy is the right word for a feeling of creeping and inescapable dread.

And next time you’re in a library, stay alert. Stay terribly, terribly alert.

Knives

 

“Yabba, where’re my boots?”

The girl stood in the dark of the hovel and raged. She was tiny. Her knees stuck out like knobby fists, and her nose ran, and her fingers were cracked with dirt and cold. Not even the windwhen it came howling through the chinks in the hovel’s doorcould stir the nest of hair on her head, so thick were the knots and tangles. “Where are they?”

Yabba sat in the corner and scowled. He was whittling furiously at a piece of wood.

“Where are they?” the girl snapped again. “What’d you do with them?”

Yabba nicked his finger and hissed, sucking the blood. He looked at the girl. Then his lips curled back. “I sold ’em. Needed the coin.”

The girl let out a screech and flew at him. She’d scratched him halfway across his face before he could even shout.

“You sold ’em?” she screamed. “You sold my boots?”

Yabba regained his balance and threw the girl across the hovel. She crashed into the wall and fell, a heap of rags.

“To the tinker,” he said, wiping his face. “Out back of Olga’s.” He set back to whittling the wood, breathing hard. “Go get ’em if you want ’em.”

The girl sat up. There was blood on her head, but she didn’t seem to notice it. “Those were my boots,” she said, quieter now. “Mam gave them to me ‘fore she left. They were mine, Yabba.” Her eyes were beginning to quiver, glistening in the light of a little cook-fire.

“Well, now they’re the tinker’s,” said Yabba. “And you can just shut up about Mam. She weren’t your Mam any more ‘n she was mine. Go to sleep, and tomorrow you get something valuable, you hear? Something we can use, so that I don’t have go out and sell your grotty boots. Lace, or red berries, or something fancy. I’m going to need it.”

* * *

The girl came back the next day with a bundle of twigs, green and uneven, torn from the shrubs beyond the river-fork.

“That don’t look like lace to me,” Yabba said when he saw it. “What else?”

“Nothing,” said the girl. Her teeth were gritted, but she was not as wild as usual. She had gone rather quiet. “Twigs was all I found. That’s all there was today.”

For a moment Yabba stared at her, as if he couldn’t understand. Then he said, “And what d’you expect me to do with twigs?” His black hair was in his face, sticking to his forehead.

“You could sell ’em,” the girl said. “I don’t know. It’s all I got this time.” The girl wouldn’t look at him.

Yabba threw her out the door and she slept that night under the drooping thatch, her feet in the cold rain. When morning came, she ran away up the hill on the other side of the town and got a knife from under the tree that grew there.

* * *

The girl brought the knife back to the hovel. It was a very fine knife. It had a manticore in red carnelian on its hilt and a sheath of finest leather.

“Yabba!” she shouted, and pounded on the door. “Yabba, I have something! Lemme in! Lemme in, or you can’t have it.”

Yabba opened the door. He took the knife and looked it over. “Should do,” he said. “No more of this twig stuff, now, or you’ll be staying outside permanent-like.” Then he left, and he didn’t come back for a whole day and night.

* * *

Yabba came back with a black eye and two yellow teeth in the palm of his hand.

“They didn’t want it!” he screamed. “They didn’t want your stupid knife. ‘Where’d you get a knife like that?’ they said. ‘Ain’t no place we can sell that knife without getting hanged,’ they said. I want coin! Silver and gold, or I’ll throw you out!” He hurled the knife into the dirt at the girl’s feet. Then he stormed away, slamming the door so hard the whole hut shivered.

The girl picked up the knife and folded it gently into the shreds of her dress.

* * *

Yabba didn’t come back to the hovel for a week. When he did, he wanted coin again. The girl hadn’t got anything. She hadn’t left the house, though she didn’t tell Yabba that. She offered Yabba the knife again, but Yabba just spat. He was afraid, then angry, turning circles and growling like a cornered dog.

“What now? What do I do now? You always get something. A pair of gloves or some honey or lard or something. Now what am I ‘spected to do?”

“I want my boots back, Yabba,” the girl said. Her eyes were on the watery broth she was stirring.

Yabba shouted, going hoarse about the money he needed to pay off some people. The girl kept stirring. Her hand was tight around the wooden spoon.

“Those were my boots,” she kept saying. “Those were my boots, Yabba, and Mam gave them to me and I want them back. I asked at Olga’s. The tinker you sold them to, he’s not there no more.”

“Course he’s not there!” Yabba shouted, before he got really mad. “It’s been a fortnight. He’ll be halfway to the moon by now.”

* * *

The girl knelt on a hill under a solitary tree. A heap of knives lay against its roots. The lower ones were black, gnawed-upon by damp, but the ones close to the top still glinted. They were all very fine, with elaborate sigils in the likenesses of dragons and hens and manticores.

“I got another one for you, Mam. You listenin’? I got another one.”

The girl laid a knife on the top of the pile. It had a bit of dirt on its tip. Then the girl rested her head on her knees and stayed that way until long after the sun had gone down and the wind blew sharp and cold over the back of the hill.

* * *

It was morning when the girl made her way through the town toward the hovel. It had rained during the night, and the day was cold and drizzling. Halfway down the street, in front of the church, she came upon some townspeople, huddled together. They were very silent, looking at something on the ground.

“What is it?” the girl asked, edging up to an old woman who was standing a little apart from the others. The woman looked at her a moment, but said nothing. The girl walked around to the other side of the huddle.

Something was lying on the ground. All she could see of it were the bare feet, white and swollen against the black mud.

“Who is it?” she whispered. “Who’s that on the ground?”

“A tinker,” one of the men said, before going back to staring.

“From up North,” said another.

“No great loss,” said a third. “But for the way it was done. Dreadful. Like some sort of beast, only bigger. Not like anything around here. Not like wolves.”

The girl didn’t wait with the townsfolk. She ran back to the hovel, feet sliding in the mud.

* * *

A woman hurries about the hovel, rushing from corner to corner, wrapping a heel of bread, lighting a lantern. She tries to be quiet, but she is not quiet enough. A girl wakes from the straw in the corner.

“Mam?” she asks. Her voice is scratchy with sleep. “What you doin’, Mam?”

The woman goes very still, her back to the girl. She closes her eyes. Her face is worn and thin.

“I have to leave for a while,” she says. Her hand closes around the warm glass of the lantern, trying to block out the light, but the girl is already standing up in her little bed, shaking.

“Why you going, Mam? Why you taking all those things?”

The woman’s skin is like leather, hardened from winters and summers and falls. She turns and reaches out a finger, brushing it over the child’s face.“Now, deary. No crying. You’ll see Mam again. You’ll see me one day.”

“Don’t leave, Mam. Don’t leave me with Yabba, I don’t like Yabba!”

But the woman is already turning. She’s at the door, heaving her sack. “I have to,” she whispers. “I’m ten kinds of dead if I stay.”

“Why?” the girl cries, and it’s a piercing sound, like a whistle. She looks as if she wants to follow the woman, but she’s still rooted to the bed of straw.

“He’s after me,” the woman says. She pulls up her shawl, black and crimson, shadowing her face. “He’s after me and he won’t ever stop. I stole something from him, see. Years ago. I thought it would be good and help me, but it wasn’t good, and he knows my scent. He’s been chasing and chasing me all these years, and he’s close now. So close. But he won’t have those boots. He won’t have them back. You keep them, all right? You keep them and you use them.”

“Mam!” the girl says, shifting from foot to foot on the bed. “I’ll help you, Mam! He won’t catch you, I’ll take care of you!”

The woman half turns in the doorway, a dark shape against the blue night. The girl can’t see her expressiona sad smile on cracked lips. “Oh, deary. Nothing can save me now. Nothing but a good sharp knife.”

* * *

That night the girl woke in a sweat. “Mam?“ she called.

“Shut up.” Yabba turned over in the thick blackness. “Go to sleep.”

The girl eased up onto his elbows. Her shoulders were trembling. “Yabba?” she said, after several minutes. The word stuck in the dark like a tuft of wool. “Yabba, why’d Mam go?”

“I said, shut up.”

“Why’d she leave, Yabba?”

Yabba lurched up and dragged the younger girl over by the scruff of her neck.

“She weren’t our Mam! She weren’t nothing but a witch, you hear? A good-for-nothing witch. The townsfolk say she was troll’s wife ‘for she ran, and only witches make troll wives. Now shut up about it! I can’t take this no more. I can’t take your stupid talk. Tomorrow you get me something good like you used to, or I’ll burn this place down and run away and you can go house to house and see how they like you there.”

* * *

They found her the next day, face-down in the mud, a half-mile out of town. Something had attacked her on the road, torn her throat out. A lantern lay by her side, cracked open, oil dripping into the wagon ruts. It mingled with the blood, black and crimson.

There was no funeral. A group of townsfolk carried the body up the hill and dug a grave under the yew tree. No one came to mourn. Only a young girl was there, watching as the dirt rustled onto the white, white face.

* * *

Two days later, a constable stood at the door of the hovel, black boots in a mirror puddle, cape billowing in the drizzle.

“No use hiding in there, girl. There’s a town-full of witnesses seen you break into the Strevlov’s house yesterday.”

Yabba stood in the back, cowering. He shoved the girl forward. The girl looked up, her eyes huge.

“Why’d you do it?” the constable asked. “I know why you took the money, but why all those knives? You must have known you wouldn’t get away with selling them here.”

The girl picked herself up, and not looking at the constable. “I couldn’t get ’em no other way,” she said. Her voice was soft. “I had to get something, and I can’t walk far no more.”

“She’s crazy,” Yabba growled, stepping forward and then back again. “Go lock ‘er up. I can’t stand it.”

“You shut your mouth,” the constable barked. He didn’t take his eyes from the girl. His eyes were hard, but not all the way to the bottom. “You’re in a heap of trouble, my girl. Come. You’ll not be staying here.”

* * *

The girl lay in a dank cell. Wind whistled through the cracks in the gray daub-and-mottle walls. Water dripped from the ceiling. An iron bucket caught it with little plinks.

After a day or so, a key ground in the lock. The constable was there, boots freshly blacked.

“We found your stash, child. Up on the hill by old Sheema’s grave.”

The girl said nothing.

“How’d you get all those knives? From halfway ‘cross the country, some of them. And the one on top––from Lord Naryeshkin’s own larder. His castle’s seven leagues from here!”

The girl looked up at the man, then through him as if he were made of glass. She was seeing the tree, and Mam, and Mam was smiling at her, waving her on.

“It weren’t so far,” she said quietly. “I had boots then.”

Jack Shadow

. This story based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Shadow.”

The shadow slipped through the night, hid from the sun, stretched out every morning and evening. Through towns and along roads that stretched for miles, the shadow slid.

You might not think that a shadow would have a name, but this one did, unpronounceable though it certainly was. It sounded a little like a snake slithering over moss, a little like fairy tears hitting the surface of a river.

But we…we shall call him Jack, just for now, because it is easier than snake-slithers and fairy tears, and this story is quite difficult enough to tell.

Jack was hunting. He had been for many years, and hoped it would not take much longer. A shadow, you see, needs a person, and this was the one thing he did not currently have.

Over his time, there had been many, tried on as one might test a new suit for a good fit. The last one, well, he had been nearly right, nearly perfect, but in the end that had made him very wrong.

A city loomed ahead; surely he would find what he was looking for in there, with so many people to choose from. Glass towers stood tall among small houses, reminding him of palaces. Of the days of dragons and kings.

Yes, my friends, our Jack the Shadow is that old, and then some.

I do suppose that now, as Jack edges into the city, mingling with all the normal shadows of sunset, is a good time to warn you that if Jack ever comes seeking to become your shadow, you must run. Run far and fast and do not look back. I only wish I had been able to warn the others, but I, unlike our Jack, am capable of regret.

Then again, you might well never know if Jack, or one like him, has begun to follow, a dark, sharp-edged blade of a thing.

He moved along the bustling streets, alert, careful, almost disappearing behind buildings as the sun dropped lower and lower in the sky. Turning a corner, he entered a quiet neighborhood full of tall, snow-white houses and old trees that spread leafy branches overhead.

This was promising. And you of course will know that when I say promising I mean dreadful, but to Jack, it was very promising indeed.

Up ahead, on the lawn of a large house on the next corner, a young boy kicked a ball, always reaching it just a second before his shadow—a real shadow—did. Jack crept up toward the house.

“Sam!” came a voice from within. “Time to wash up for dinner!”

“Coming!” he called back. Sam’s real shadow made to trail him into the house, but Jack caught it and held it back.

“We won’t be needing you anymore,” he said as the front door closed. Sam’s shadow turned around. It trembled in the breeze.

“No,” it said. “He’s a perfectly good boy and I won’t let you hurt him!”

“Hmmm,” said Jack the Shadow. “Why would you think I would hurt him?”

“I’ve heard of you,” it answered, shaking harder as the wind blew. “I heard what you did to that poor man, following him around for years and years, sucking the very life out of him until he was more of a shadow than you were!”

Jack laughed. It frightened the birds from the trees. He had been particularly proud of that one, but in the end, the man had not been the perfect fit. He had not wanted to become Jack’s shadow, and so there was only one thing that could be done.

“You killed him, and I won’t let you do it to Sam.”

“I do not think,” Jack said, “that you have a choice.” Swiftly, he plucked a strand of cobweb from a nearby bush and with it he slit the other shadow’s throat.

Now, you and I know that you could not ordinarily do such a thing with a cobweb, but shadows are not ordinary, and Jack was extraordinary, in the strictest sense of that word. Shadows do not play by the rules, and so the dead shadow shattered into a thousand tiny, black-winged moths and flew away.

The other shadow had been right about one thing. In fact, he had been right about everything, including what Jack did to the last one, but it was certainly right that Sam was a perfectly nice boy. Jack sat at the table while Sam ate, hid in a corner while he did every last bit of his schoolwork, and listened from the closet as his father read to him each night. He followed Sam to school and kicked a ball around the grass with him before dinner.

Jack was sure it was a perfect fit, that it was simply a matter of time.

Sam grew older, always a good boy, but taller, thinner, paler, his veins blue beneath his skin. His mother took him to the doctor, who said Sam was perfectly healthy, but perhaps a growing boy needed more sleep.

Jack hid under the chair in the doctor’s office and laughed. Goosebumps broke out over Sam’s skin.

“Sam,” Jack said that night, when the lights were out, the house quiet as a tomb.

“Who said that?” Sam asked, sitting bolt upright in bed.

“I’m your shadow.” Jack slid from the bed, over to the patch of moonlight on the floor. He stretched high as the ceiling, leaning over the boy in the bed. “You’ve been very good, but now it is time.”

“T-time for what?” Sam blinked, as if he was unsure whether he was truly awake.

“You are not dreaming,” said Jack. “It is time. I have followed you since you were young, Sam. I have done everything you asked of me, and now you must do what I ask of you. It is your turn to become my shadow.”

“I am dreaming,” Sam replied. “You aren’t real.” He lay back down and closed his eyes, turning his face into the pillow. Jack shook with rage, his whole thin, flat body shivering like the beat of a thousand moth wings. He slipped from the room, down the stairs, to the kitchen drawer where all the sharp knives were kept. Cobwebs did not work on people, and people follow the rules.

I cannot bear what happened next, just cannot bear it. You can imagine, you can close your eyes and picture it, if you so choose, though I wouldn’t choose to. Please forgive me if I don’t tell you every word, describe every drop of blood as it bloomed on the pillow.

I told you already that I wish I could have warned the others, and I only hope this has been enough of a warning for you. And so, rather than go through every last, horrible detail, I will instead ask you to do something for me. Go outside, stand in the sun. Close your eyes and feel it warm your face.

Open them again. Look around.

Is that truly your shadow?

Are you sure?