The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Spidersong

Deep in the forest, where there was only enough light to make shadows, where the air tasted of moss and rain, the spiders sang.

The forest was on the edge of a great city of glass towers and brick houses, of long roads filled with cars, and people. So very many people. They went about their lives, to school and work and home again, occasionally shooing small, scuttling things from kitchens and pillows.

“We wait,” the spiders hissed to each other. “We wait until the time is right.”

Not even a single leaf rustled overhead, the day entirely still. Above the treetops, far on the horizon, clouds moved across the sky.

The city people did not know about the spiders. Not the big ones, at least, in their enormous webs strung so thick they were like clouds, fallen to hang among the trunks and stroke the bark with wispy fingertips. There was no reason for the city people to know, no reason for them to venture so far into the forest.

“Tomorrow,” said the spiders. “Hungry.”

And they began to spin new webs.

~*~

Claudia Davenport hated her little brother, who had chased the dog away, over the fence and into the fields on the other side. She wasn’t supposed to go into the fields alone, and she definitely wasn’t supposed to go into the forest on the other side alone.

But she wasn’t supposed to lose the dog, either, and blaming it on Jamie would only get her sent to bed without dinner, because tattling wasn’t nice, according to her mother. Claudia held different opinions on that, but curiously, nobody seemed very interested in hearing them.

“Max!” she called. A warm breeze rippled the long grass in the field and it was nice, after so many long, hot days when there hadn’t been so much as a breath through the open windows of her house to cool her while she practiced the piano. The grass slapped against her bare, scabbed knees and whipped up dust from dry patches where it was completely worn away. “Max!”

She thought, perhaps, she could hear an answering bark, just inside the trees. On she trudged, feeling the air cool against her shoulders the instant she stepped into the shadows. It was quieter here, all sounds of the city muffled, and darker, though there was still plenty of light.

“Crazy dog, where are you?” Claudia’s voice bounced back and forth, set birds free from their branches. “No treats for you later.”

Footsteps padded along the moss nearby, but they didn’t sound like paws. That didn’t bother Claudia a bit. Jamie would be frightened, because he was a wimp and scared of everything, but Claudia liked all kinds of animals, and they liked her, too.

~*~

Spider legs danced along gossamer strings, spinning and weaving. “We are ready,” they agreed, and they crawled along their webs to sit, poised and waiting, all their many eyes staring in the same direction.

Down, down the strange avenue created by two lines of thick, gnarled trees, old as the ground to which they clung with their twisted roots.

Down the long path that led all the way to the fields and then the city.

Down the tunnel created by earth below and leaves above, through which–when the weather was just exactly right, the wind blew.

~*~

Claudia had never heard music like it before. Like violins, except not. Lower, richer, more like a cello, except not that, either. The melody was unearthly, nothing she recognized, and yet she knew it was music, intentional sound, not simply noise.

“Oh. Hi, Max,” she whispered, quietly enough that it didn’t interrupt the music playing everywhere, but especially inside her head. The dog had licked a large, slobbery patch on her shin. “When did you get here?”

Max whined, and shook a little at her feet. “Come on.”

The dog shook harder. Claudia had to clip his leash to his collar and pull to get him to follow, reluctantly, as she moved toward the music.

Louder, it grew. Louder and louder with every step.

It was weird, the way the trees grew this deep in the forest. As if someone had planted two neat rows and then stopped caring what happened on either side, so they were all jumbled up except for these two straight lines, a dozen feet apart. The toes of Claudia’s sneakers caught on rocks and snapped twigs, and she didn’t stop walking. Behind her, Max dug his little brown paws into the soft earth. She tugged him along.

Was it a harp? She’d seen someone play a harp, once, but it hadn’t made her feel like this, warm and sleepy. Almost floating.

The wind rushed at her back, past her, tossing her hair into her face, hardly broken by a little girl. She followed it, chased it, and stopped, peering through the dimness.

“Welcome,” said a voice. A voice that hissed, a voice with beady eyes and too many legs. The word wove itself into the music, adding another layer to the song. “She is a bit thin.”

“She is enough,” said another voice.

“She is plenty,” said a third.

And the wind blew harder through the spiderwebs. The music swelled. Max whined again. Claudia stepped closer.

“Plenty for what?” she asked, and her voice did not sound quite like her own. Somewhere, deep inside, a flicker of fear grew and was blown out by the wind. She should be scared, but the music was so pretty. Enormous webs spread out in front of her, stretched between the trees, spun in patterns she had never seen before. Nothing like the normal spiders in the basement. She reached out to touch a strand, vaguely surprised when it didn’t snap. Instead, a single clear note joined the melody, ringing through the forest.

“Hungry.”

Max whined again, pawing at her leg, and Claudia squinted. A spider as large as a football hovered just ahead, grinning.

There was another just there. And there. And over there. All around.

“You want…to eat me?”

“There is always one who hears the song when the winds come. Today, we feast.”

~*~

Occasionally, they got away. The little girl’s dog had yelped and snapped and chased her back down the avenue of trees. The spiders waited, sullen and starving, in their musical webs. So close, so very close. But not to be.

“Maybe she came this way,” said a voice, coming closer. “What a strange noise the wind makes in the trees here.”

Yes, oh yes.

“Mommy? Where’s Claudia? I didn’t mean to chase Max out of the yard.”

Two. The spiders grinned again, and bared their fangs.

The Trouble with the Ghoul

It is late July, and Nanny and Jane and Paris and I, though I am very small, are taking the steamer from Belmont, across a chugging blue sea, to a little white town on the coast. This is my first time going. Well, it isn’t really, but I don’t remember the other times; this is my first time going where I am clever enough to know about it, so I’m quite excited.

The steamer whistles and shears ahead, through water that picks at the sun and sparkles badly. I wave at Mama and Father on the shore, and so does Paris, and Jane and Nanny take out handkerchiefs and wave those.

I’m afraid I’ve mostly forgotten about the other summers I went. I only remember bits and pieces of them, like everything inside my head is a glass and I dropped it. I remember the great glossy mango leaves, and dripping lemonade pitchers, and sitting on a step and digging my toes into the hot, dry dust. I remember someone being scolded. But it is all rather indistinct. It doesn’t matter. Last year, quite without me noticing, I shot up like a little plant, and now I am very clever. I can do additions, and I can speak long sentences and not become confused. This summer, when I go to the white town on the coast, I am determined to remember everything.

* * *

We are staying with a Mistress Frobisher, who owns a pretty house a small ways outside of the white town, about a mile from the sea. We had to take a wagon to get there and Nanny’s trunk opened when the farmer loaded it up, and all her clothes fell into the road. It made everyone laugh, except Nanny. The house, I noted when we arrived, had a red roof and white-washed walls and blue, sun-baked shutters. We have only one neighbor, though there are other, similar white cottages scattered along the road leading toward the town.

Mistress Frobisher is a very proper, buttoned-up sort of lady. She is a friend of Mama’s, I think, though she is not a friend of ours. I don’t know why she is Mother’s friend. Perhaps because she has such a nice house. When we arrived, she straightaway gave us a list of rules:

Don’t be too long in the sun, or you’ll bake.

Don’t touch scorpions or bees or anything with teeth.

Don’t track dust into the house.

Don’t scream, or speak too loudly.

And certainly don’t wander by yourself. Not in the tall grass, or in the road. Not anywhere.

I noticed Jane and Paris glancing at each other at that, and smirking, and I glanced and smirked, too, but they didn’t look at me.

* * *

I met Jintzy on my third day after arriving at the white town by the sea.

I had decided to wander by myself, which of course was number five on the list of things I was not allowed to do. We were in a hot part of the country, and Nanny had warned us that there were snakes in the brush, and large spiders, and possibly lions. But I was tired of sitting about on the front step and waiting for Paris and Jane to do something interesting, and since I am six now, I went off behind the house when no one was looking and hurried away into the canopy of green and leaves that edges the back garden.

I wandered for quite a while. I passed a sad little gurgle of a brook, climbed over great boulders, went ever deeper into the green woods. The air buzzed with insects, and the leaves were huge as giants’ faces. The trunks of the trees did not only have bark on them like they did back home, but were also wrapped with snaking vines and clumped with mushrooms. I saw a lizard, and it saw me and blinked. And then I came to a field. There was a cottage in the field. It was a plain, stone cottage with plants climbing the crooked walls. A woman was out front, tending to a patch of a garden. She was dressed in bright, flow-y clothes and she had a cloth wrapped around her head, like a turban. Her stockings were very colorful, red and orange and purple braid, with plenty of frills and bobbins. The woman was far too old to be showing stockings. She was surely twenty, or forty-three. But I didn’t mind. I thought she looked wonderful. She was singing to herself, very prettily, in a high, piercing voice:

 

Rosa, Rosa, lived by the sea

Alone in a cottage built for three.

She never sang and she never danced.

She wouldn’t said why, and I know she can’t.

 

Rosa, Rosa sat in the dark

And gnashed her teeth and broke her heart.

She never ate, and when she did

It was air and shadows and things she hid.

 

Rosa, Rosa, come away quick

They’ll catch you, they’ll catch you and beat you with sticks.

Live in the shadows or die in the sun.

Eat seventy pastries, it’s better than none.

 

But Rosa, Rosa stayed by the sea

And they came, and they caught her; they broke her knees. . . .

 

Now Rosa lives in a new house by the sea.

It’s white and it’s lovely, ‘s’got forty-three keys.

It has so many toys, and it’s so much fun.

But the cottage is built just for one.

 

I suppose whoever wrote the words to that song was quite silly, but I liked the sound of it. The melody was sad, and it curled in the air like silver silk.

I wandered closer.

The woman did not see me. She worked away, plucking beans from soft green tendrils and poking about in the dirt with her stick, and all in such a lively happy way, like everything was her friend. She continued to sing, now something about a cloud and a sailboat and cockroaches. And then, all at once, a large, hairy animal rounded the corner of the cottage. It spotted me, standing in the field. It was a dog, and it began to bark.

I had such a fright. My heart leaped right into my throat and I turned tail fast as I could and fled back to the trees. I did not stop until I was sure the dog was not following me. Then I crept back to the edge of the woods and peered through the leaves at the cottage.

The colorful woman was still working in her patch, picking beans, poking with her stick. . . But although she was very far away I was almost sure she was smiling to herself, a small, secret smile.

* * *

I got a little bit lost on the way home. I walked through those hot green leaves, on and on until I came to a river. It was not the gurgling brook I had encountered on the way there. It was very wide, and I had to cross it on some strange, knuckly sort of logs that moved and shifted under my weight. I found the road again shortly afterward. All would have been well, except Mistress Frobisher was cross when I got back. She had been fretting. So had Nanny. They thought I might have been eaten by crocodiles, the sillies. They both seem to be quite unaware of my developments.

I told Nanny and Mistress Frobisher about the cottage and the lovely, colorful woman, tending the garden patch.

I didn’t think anything of telling them; I supposed I thought if Nanny and Mistress Frobisher knew I had been near people and houses they would not be so frightened, but it was not so. Nanny and Mistress Frobisher exchanged hard, quick glances, and then Mistress Frobisher took hold of my arm very cruelly and said, “You must never go there again. Wicked child.”

I began to cry when she said it, though I didn’t want to. I tried to twist away. “Why not?” I asked.

“It’s Jintzy’s place. You must never go there.”

And then Nanny asked the same question I had, but this time Mistress Frobisher had a better answer:

“Much speculation over that woman,” said Mistress Frobisher, wagging her finger. “By the townsfolk. Much speculation. One time, as I was walking that way collecting- well, collecting things, I saw a goat in the window of her house! A goat, looking right at me, saucy as you like!”

I did not tell Nanny or Mistress Frobisher that the only window I had seen was on the left side of the house, half-hidden behind a twisted, bushy tree, and that Mistress Frobisher would practically have had to press herself to the wall to see in. I said nothing at all.

* * *

Today, Mistress Frobisher took Paris and me to the town to see a collection of performers throw things about in the dusty square. Jane and Nanny stayed behind at the cottage because Jane was complaining of dizziness and nervousness.

We set off just after tea. Paris had run ahead a little way. I was with Mistress Frobisher and she was holding my hand. She thinks I am still a baby, I know it.

We were about halfway to the town, walking under the arching boughs of some trees when we met Jintzy on the road. She was coming from the opposite direction, and it was the first time I had seen her up close. From a distance she had already looked tall and lovely, but up close she was simply magical.

She was like a fairy queen, or a princess out of a storybook. She had a strange, beautiful face, and her eyes were slanted and very bright, as if there were bits of stars in them. Her hair was tied up in a scarf, and as she came up the road toward us, her colored sashes swished in the summer breeze.

“Hello, Mistress Frobisher!” Jintzy called out. She smiled at Mistress Frobisher and then at me, and I thought she smiled at me best.

“Hello,” said Mistress Frobisher stiffly. We paused.

And then Jintzy fixed her flashing eyes on me and clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “Who have we here? What a darling little person!”

“I’m actually six,” I corrected her gravely.

“Of course you are.” Jintzy’s eyes crinkled at the corners. “Silly me.” And then she dropped down in the road in front of me and whispered in my ear, “In fact, I shouldn’t wonder if your cow is a bit jealous of you, what with such a wonderful age as six. You must be very careful not to let her know.”

“My cow?” I said, pulling away, aghast and giggling both at once. “What d’you- ?”

“Shh.” Jintzy put her fingers to her lips. Her eyes were laughing, and I was laughing, too, but when I looked up at Mistress Frobisher, her mouth was like an iron pincer, shut tight.

I stopped laughing. For a moment there was only the chirp of birds. Then Mistress Frobisher said, “Come along, child,” sharp as a pin, and pulled me away from Jintzy. But Mistress Frobisher didn’t begin walking. She simply clutched at me, and we stood in the road, very still.

“Well,” Jintzy said, standing and brushing the dirt from her green and purple knees. “Good day to you, Mistress Frobisher. And you.” Jintzy smiled at me. Then she went on down the road, soft-foot in the puddles and the moss, stockings flashing in the sunlight.

Mistress Frobisher and I stood there a while longer. I looked up at her, confused. She was squeezing my hand very hard.

Finally she gasped, “Those stockings!” and tut-tutted, and pulled me on down the road, so sharply that I protested.

* * *

Today there is a carousel by the sea and we each have a little stub of ticket to go. I’m practically bursting with anticipation for it all. I have never been on a carousel before. Well, I have, but I was a baby then.

Jane, Paris and I all set off in a giggling, skipping gaggle, like a bunch of geese. We are the color of geese, too, in our white linens and stockings, starched and stiff as new paper.

We ran away up the dusty road, far ahead of Nanny and Mistress Frobisher.

“You’ll never catch me!” shouted Paris. “I’m the fastest.”

“No, you’re simply the loudest,” laughed Jane. And then they put their heads together and began whispering to each other and laughing.

I watched, a few steps behind. And then, because I did not know what they were saying and wanted to be a part of it by saying something scandalous, I said, “Jintzy called Mistress Frobisher a cow.”

I said it loudly, because I wanted to be sure they heard the first time, but I did not realize that Mistress Frobisher and Nanny had caught up quite a lot. I did not realize that Mistress Frobisher was standing directly behind me. I realized it very quickly, however, and turned. I looked up at her face and then down at my shoes.

Mistress Frobisher said nothing. She stared at me, her mouth like the iron pincers again. Then she said, “On with you. Get to the sea,” and we children went running up the road as quick as we could. When we rounded a bend, out of sight of Nanny and Frobisher, Paris cuffed me for saying nonsense in front of grown-ups.

* * *

The carousel was grand. For several minutes after the incident with Mistress Frobisher, and after Paris cuffed me, I felt sure the day would be spoilt and that I should be forced to pout for the rest of it. But then Paris, who is such a jolly-jolly, laughed and pinched my arm, and said,”Oh, come now, she is a cow, you just mustn’t say it so loudly or she’ll begin to suspect,” and I laughed and joined Jane and Paris and rode the carousel four times around, which made me quite proud.

One of the little boys fell off. That made me even prouder. I didn’t fall off, and he was just a baby. I held on very tightly.

* * *

On the way home from the carousel, something dreadful happened. Nanny had taken off her shoes to sit with her feet in the sea and she had not buttoned them up all the way for the journey home. And then, as she was walking, she twisted her ankle in the rut on the side of the road and because her boots were very loose, she broke it, the ankle, with a sound like a snapping twig. She screamed very loudly. We children stopped, startled, and were very concerned for her. Mistress Frobisher soothed her and tutted and ran to the nearest house to ask for a buggy and a donkey or a mule of some sort.

She came back with Mr. Brock.

He leaped down into the ditch and tried to help Nanny up, and that was when I saw there was blood on Nanny’s shoe and on her stocking.

I stepped a little closer to Paris.

“What the bl- “ started Mr. Brock, and Mistress Frobisher gave him a warning scowl and jerked her head in our direction, because she did not want him to curse in front of us.

“Look at it,” he grumbled, into his beard. “Look what she stepped in. It’s a small cage!”

And it was. Nanny’s foot had slipped down the side of the root and gotten caught in a little cage, and the wires had caught on her skin.

We were still trying to grasp this, and what it meant, when I saw Jintzy, ambling up the road. She was wearing green stockings today, with little brass bells jingling up their sides, and she had a ring of flowers in her hair, and a basket on her arm.

“Oh dear!” she said, when she saw Nanny crying and screaming in the ditch. Jintzy dropped her basket and ran toward our little group.

We children made way for her right away. But Mistress Frobisher hissed like a cat, and Mr. Brock growled, and said, “We don’t want your help here, keep going.” And so Jintzy did. She gave us children a quick, sad smile, like she was sorry Mr. Brock was such an oaf, and gathered up her basket and all the things that had fallen out of it, and went on down the road without a word.

* * *

“Too much strangeness,” Mistress Frobisher said to our neighbor over the fence that evening. The light was golden and hazy. Nanny was in the kitchen, her foot up and a cold cloth on her forehead. Paris and Jane were writing letters home. I was playing in the acacia tree and I don’t think Mistress Frobisher knew I was there.

“That wicked woman,” she was saying. “It’s her doing, no doubt about it.”

I wondered what wicked woman they were talking about. Wicked people were very interesting.

“I heard she catches little animals with those cages. And what does she do with them, I wonder. It’s anyone’s guess. Imagine if a child should fall in. Living in that cottage all by herself. With a goat. There’s something wrong with that one.”

“Aye,” the neighbor agreed.

“First Jane and then Nanny and then your wife, only days afterward, falling down a hole and skewering her hands.”

“She fell down the hole in Barmsalid- ” the neighbor began, but Mistress Frobisher just said, “It simply can’t be coincidence. It’s too much!”

I watched them both very closely through the knobby branches, and I listened very sharply. But then they started talking of children and the price of coffee and it became rather dull.

I shrugged and left the acacia bush and went and played in the back.

* * *

At dinner, Jintzy was brought up again, this time by Jane. She said, “Jintzy was in our yard today. I was out reading by the orange tree and she passed me and said it was shortcut to the road and she hoped I didn’t mind. I said of course I didn’t.”

I scowled at Jane. I would have preferred it if I had been in the garden then, and that Jintzy had asked me. But I had hardly any time to think about it, because Mistress Frobisher sat straight up in her chair and screeched, “Good heavens, child, you didn’t! Strangers on our property?  What were you thinking?”

Then I was glad Jane had met her instead of me.

“Jintzy’s practically our neighbor,” Paris said reasonably, trying to help out Jane, who was beginning to fumble. “She’s not exactly a stranger.”

But Mistress Frobisher would have none of it. “No! She is a dreadful creature, and everyone agrees. The neighbors and half the town. Laila Ishkeri said Jintzy might well be throwing curses at folk, making people ill and making them hurt.” She nodded at Nanny’s foot, which was still very swollen. “Of course, she doesn’t do it directly. Not in plain in sight. She’s far too clever for that. But Mirka said there was shadow on her window one night, and there’s been talk of creeping things in the town.” Mistress Frobisher narrowed her eyes and when she spoke the next words her mouth was red and wet, like a wound: “If she comes again tell her to put on some reasonable shoes and to take the road like everyone else. It simply doesn’t do to be nice to certain people.”

I thought that very interesting. After a while of silence, I said, “I like Jintzy.”

“No, you don’t!” screamed Mrs. Frobisher. “You’re just a child. You haven’t learnt anything yet, and you don’t know how the world works.”

I thought this very insulting. I was six. I knew about a lot of things, like additions and carousels, and I wasn’t like that baby who had fallen off. I don’t know what Mistress Frobisher was talking about, ‘hadn’t learned’.

* * *

It was Saturday when the most startling part of the summer happened. I had not expected anything startling. I had expected lemonade and peppermint leaves and dust, but I had not expected this.

I was helping Nanny shell peas in the kitchen when I heard it. Her ankle was up on the chair. “A ghoul!” came the shout through the window, faint and dull, but coming closer. “A ghoul in the town hall!”

I sat up so fast Nanny startled and winced, because I may have bumped her ankle.

“What?” I demanded. I hurried quick to the window.

People were in the road, running toward the town. The neighbor woman was stumbling out of her house, tying down her bonnet, and others in the road wore no bonnets at all, and looked quite disheveled and in a great hurry. It was a bright, hot day. Someone, I couldn’t see who, kept screaming, “Ghoul! Ghoul! Ghoul in the town hall!”

I did not know what a ghoul was, though I had heard them mentioned in vague terms in stories. In a flash, I had unlatched the window and was leaning out on my tip-toes.

“A what?” I screamed at the passing people. “What’s a ghoul?” But just then I saw Mistress Frobisher in the crowd, her face gray and determined, like a soldier off to war. When she saw me, she said, “Stay with Nanny, child! Inside with you!” And then she passed by and went along with everyone else.

“Nanny, what is a ghoul?” I asked, hurrying back to her side. I couldn’t stand not knowing. “What is it?”

Nanny was distracted. She kept glancing at the window, and picking at the same pea-pod over and over. “It’s a dreadful, terrible thing,” she said, her eyes darting. “Oh, dear, it’s born of shadows and witchcraft. It eats the dead, I heard, eats their bones and eats their eyes.”

Immediately I thought of the conversation I had overheard in the acacia tree, of the shadows in the town and the creeping things. I thought of Jintzy, and what Mistress Frobisher had been saying about her being a witch. I hoped it wasn’t Jintzy’s ghoul. I hoped she was all right in her little cottage behind the woods.

But even if it was Jintzy’s ghoul, I had to see it for myself. I was six.

I waited until Nanny was very distracted and then fled right out of the kitchen and out the front door. Then I was off, my little feet kicking up scuds of dust from the road.

I came to the town quickly. The houses looked bare and shut-up. No one was out. I raced into the square. It was there I found the townsfolk, crowds of them, jostling and screaming in front of the government hall.

“What is it?” I screamed, worming under arms and around legs. “Where’s the ghoul?”

I saw Paris, standing a bit to the side. “Have you seen it?” I shouted, running up. “Have you seen the ghoul?”

“Yes!” Paris exclaimed, turning to see me. “At least, I think I did. Oh, it’s dreadful. You can’t even imagine. It has so many arms and legs, and they have too many joints, and it has three heads. One’s lovely, and one’s sleeping, and one’s squished like cabbage, and the skin is green and rotting and has so many teeth!”

Paris would have said more, but just then the crowd surged forward and we were separated. I was bounced about until my head felt quite numb. I kept hearing, “How dreadful! Oh, I do hope they kill it! Oh, look!” And while I tried to look, everyone else was much taller, and so I only heard. Dreadful shrieks were coming from the town hall, through the open door. The sound was echoing and bouncing up the white fronts of the buildings and into the bells in the church tower.

Someone shouted, “Be gone! Be gone, evil creature!”

And then I heard a gasp, and everyoneall the tall peoplewent stock-still.

“The ghoul has been transformed!” the shouting voice said. “The ghoul has taken on the form of one of the townsfolk!” It took me several seconds to realize the voice was Mistress Frobisher’s.

“Who?” whispered the crowd. “Who did it change into?”

“That woman!” came the answer. “That Jintzy from behind the woods!”

And that was when pandemonium broke out for sure and certain. The crowd pushed me right into the hall, and I saw Jintzy, or what looked like Jintzy, for a split second, only her hair was disheveled and there was blood on her lip. I saw her bright stockings flashing. I did not see her eyes. They were closed, perhaps in pain. And then one of the ladies caught me and dragged me outside, saying, “Away with you. The ghoul might enchant you straight out of your senses.”

I was brought back to the cottage. Everything seemed dry as a husk. The sun beat down, unbearably hot now. The screams died away.

Later that evening Mistress Frobisher said that the ghoul had been subdued and had been buried with iron and salt and a stake through its wicked heart, that it would not disturb these parts again. And what a vile creature it was,  taking on the form of a citizen.

Everyone breathed a great sigh of relief as we sat down to our peas and pheasant stew. But I couldn’t eat, and I still thought it was too hot, and my collar scratched, and all I wanted to do was go to my room and lie on my bed, though I couldn’t say why.

Just before she brought us to the kitchen for ours baths, Nanny turned to Mistress Frobisher and said, “Rosa, hand me the lamp, won’t you?”

* * *

I never saw Jintzy after that. The times I slipped away from Nanny and Mistress Frobisher and went to her cottage it looked quite bare and desolate, and the garden grew wild, and the half-hidden window disappeared entirely behind the twisted, bushy tree. I wondered often if Jintzy had moved away due to the trouble with the ghoul.

Summer Springs

If Julian had to stay in this car for one more second, he was going to start screaming. And that would probably make Mom and Dad and Summer sing even more loudly than they already were. Such a thing shouldn’t have been possible—they were practically wailing—but Julian knew from experience that it was.

Julian paused his music and tugged out his earbuds and squashed the hot gummy bubble of anger in his chest.

“Hello?” Julian said. “Are we gonna stop soon?”

road tripBut Mom and Dad and Summer were singing one of those round songs, which meant Julian had to hear the same song sung three different times by three different voices overlapping. It was chaotic, and nobody but Mom could sing worth anything, so it was also kind of painful.

Hello.” Julian kicked the back of his dad’s seat but not hard enough to get in trouble.

Dad stopped singing and looked at Julian in the rearview mirror. “Almost, Julian. Don’t snap at me.”

Dad went right back to singing, but his voice sounded irritated now. Of course Dad was irritated. Mom and Dad and Summer loved the whole road trip thing: the junk food and the singing and stopping at random “special attractions” like oversized spools of thread and the birthplace of General Whoever who fought in Some War Who Cares.

But Julian always got sick in the car. Long trips made him nervous. Books were one thing, but Julian didn’t like going to real new places. Danger in real new places was totally possible. The people in real new places were weird and looked at you funny, and in real new places, you can’t close the book when things get too scary. Not that anything scary had ever happened to Julian, but if it ever did it would definitely be on one of these stupid road trips. Also, Julian was no good at singing so instead he listened to books or music on his headphones the whole time because that helped him relax.

Road trips made him feel both angry and left out. Why couldn’t he just have a good time and not be nervous or sick and just smile and sing lame car songs instead, like normal people did? Like Summer.

Julian looked at his sister and felt his chest bubble up again. He tended to get so angry at Summer. She was about to turn ten years old, and she was all cheerful and golden-haired like a fairy tale princess, and everyone loved her. Summer could make friends with a fencepost, Mom always said.

So what if Julian wasn’t like that? So what if Julian was quieter and wasn’t good at making friends and didn’t like real new places? Julian knew he shouldn’t care. He was smart enough to know that everyone is different and it would be weird if the world was filled with all Summers and no Julians.

But he did care. It made him angry, and that made him feel bad. Summer was a good kid, and Summer understood Julian. She liked that he was quiet, and she was nice to him even when he was mean to her.

Summer put her hand on Julian’s hand and smiled, laughing at some joke Mom said. “Sing with us, Julian. Sing the next song with us?”

“No thanks,” snapped Julian, and snatched his hand away.

Summer darkened, like she was sunlight and Julian was a stormcloud. She curled into a little ball and looked out the window. She wasn’t singing anymore.

In the front seat, Mom sighed.

Dad looked even madder now, in the rearview mirror. “Apologize to your sister.”

“For what? For not wanting to sing?”

“For your tone.”

The bubble burst in Julian’s chest. He wanted to punch the back of Dad’s seat. But Dad had said they would have lemonade and fudge at this place, and Julian was starved, and punching probably wouldn’t get him anything. So he mumbled, “Sorry.”

Summer peeked over at him and smiled and patted him on the shoulder. Her fingernails were dirty. Her front teeth were crooked and goofy. Julian kept his face stony. Summer crossed her eyes and pulled her mouth into a weird shape.

“Dork,” Julian said, and Summer giggled, and Julian turned away, smiling.

Mom pointed, the map flying out of her hands. “There’s the exit!”

Dad swerved hard, and they made it. They passed a sign for Summer Springs, and Summer clapped, squealing. “That’s my name!”

Julian couldn’t even be mad at her. It was pretty cool to share a name with a nature park. It was why they’d chosen this place. Dad smiled and Mom smiled, and Summer traced the letters on the window with her pinkie.

 *

Mom bought four cups of lemonade and four sticks of fudge, so when they started on the trail through Summer Springs, Julian’s stomach was full and his fingers were sticky.

Summer Springs was a park in the mountains, with a whole set of trails built into the rocks. There were stone bridges and rocky passages so small Dad had to suck in his belly to get through, and cliffs that looked out over the countryside. From Lover’s Leap, Julian could see five different states. If he squinted through Dad’s binoculars, he could see white houses buried in trees next to the highway.

But the place did have one weird thing about it: gnomes.

Little stone gnomes with colorful clothes and hats, placed throughout the trails. They dug ditches and planted flowers and stood frozen, waving their shovels at the people walking past.

“This is so . . . random,” said Julian, looking at a gnome in a purple shirt with a rake in one hand and his hat in the other.

Dad laughed. He was really getting a kick out of the gnomes. “People who build these attractions tend to be a bit eccentric, I guess.”

Mom giggled and took pictures of them. “I think they’re adorable! Such ugly little faces.”

“How can something be adorable and ugly?” said Julian.

“Oh, they can. You know, like those pug dogs.”

“Julian,” whispered Summer, tugging at Julian’s shirt. Whenever they passed a gnome, Summer went quiet. She shrank, like she was a flower and the gnomes were icy cold winter. “I don’t like them.” gnome

“Why not?”

“They’re watching us. They have sharp teeth. They don’t like us, either. They’re watching us.”

“They’re not real, Summer. They’re just stupid statues.”

“They smell like . . . skin.”

“Oh, like you can smell the gnomes from all the way over here? The not-real, statue gnomes with their not-real, statue skin?”

Summer tugged on Julian’s arm, pulling him down the path. “I don’t like them,” she kept muttering, and she wiped her face with the back of her hand. “They’re watching us, they’re watching.”

Julian let Summer mutter and freak out or whatever it was she was doing. Sometimes Summer did stuff like this. She liked to daydream, and she didn’t read books because the stories affected her too much. They scared her so much she couldn’t sleep, or made her cry so hard she got sick, or made her so happy she’d get hyper like she did after eating candy on Halloween, except like a hundred times worse.

Summer was just being Summer.

Gnomes that smell like skin. What a dork.

 *

Except for the whole gnome thing and Summer acting bizarre, Julian actually liked it at Summer Springs. The mountain breezes were cool, and that helped Julian’s car sickness. There were lots of trees, and at this one spot a bunch of white deer slept next to a creek.

The moment she saw them, Summer fell in love with the deer. “Julian, look at them!” Then she lay on her stomach to peer over the cliff and started talking to the deer like they were her babies. She even gave them names: Sweetheart, Sammy, Sammy Junior . . .

A twelve-year-old boy can take only so much of that, so after a minute or two Julian let Summer do her thing and looked around through the binoculars. He saw a rabbit, and a family on a wooden bridge with five kids, and an old man leading his three-legged dog up some steps. At the top, he let his dog drink from a bottle of water.

“If I were an animal, I’d want to be one of these,” Summer said, kicking her brown legs. “A white deer with long legs and big doofy ears.”

Julian rolled his eyes. “You already have big doofy ears.”

“Meanie!”

“You’re too close to the edge.” Julian put his hand on her collar.

Summer dusted off her knees and shirt and smiled up at him. “Nice meanie.”

“Weirdo.”

Dad was calling them, waving them over. Mom was taking pictures of a woodpecker.

“What animal would you want to be?” Summer said, squinting. It was really bright on the mountain, sunlight reflecting off the rocks like white glass. “If you were an animal.”

Julian walked toward his parents, Summer hot on his heels. “A monster.”

Summer scrunched up her face. “A monster isn’t an animal. It’s a monster.”

“Well, okay. A monstrous animal, then.”

Summer scratched her left leg with her right foot. “So you could scare people?”

“So people would leave me alone if I wanted them to.”

Summer was quiet. Mom was pointing at the mouth of a cave. “The Enchanted Caverns!” she said. “There are fairy tale dioramas inside. Scenes from famous fairy tales. That’s what the map says.”

“Seriously, so random,” said Julian, shaking his head.

Dad and Mom laughed and held hands.

Julian and Summer followed their parents past a white cottage built into the mountainside. On the cottage’s roof sat a gnome with wide white eyes and a toothy grin, and a purple checkered banner said THE ENCHANTED CAVERNS in faded letters. Julian could hear people laughing and talking inside.

“I wouldn’t, though,” said Summer decidedly. She stopped to pick up smooth dark pebbles and put them in her pocket. She glared up at the wide-eyed gnome. “I wouldn’t leave you alone, Julian, not ever. Even if you were a monster. Not even then.”

Julian took Summer’s hand. It was warm and small, and it made the last of Julian’s car sickness go away. Together, they stepped inside the cave.

 *

At first, Summer was quiet and calm.

She held Julian’s hand as they walked through the Enchanted Caverns behind their parents. They saw other families, and other children, and Julian saw the old man carrying his panting three-legged dog. Twinkly music played from speakers in the ceilings, a dance-like song that made Julian think of one of his books, when the hero’s sneaking through a dark corridor, danger around every corner.

The music turned Julian’s skin into a field of goosebumps.

Creepy blue lights lit up the fairy tale dioramas and bled into the corridor. Julian peeked through each window to see them—the iridescent trees, the glowing figurines, their gnarled, sculpted hands. Red Riding Hood approaching the cottage where the wolf was waiting. Snow White in her glass coffin. Goldilocks, her face in shadows, running from three snarling black bears.

And occasionally, a little meadow of gnomes—gnomes picking flowers, gnomes planting vegetables. A group of gnomes sitting on a shelf in the ceiling, their black boots dangling over Julian’s head.

Through all of this, Summer remained quiet and calm, though her hand gripped Julian’s so hard that finally he ripped it away from her.

“Ow! What are you doing?” Julian hissed. “You’re hurting me.”

Summer grabbed his shirt. “I don’t like it in here.”

Julian was about to yell at Summer for being stupid, but something about the look on her face stopped him. “Well, we’ll just walk a bit faster. We’ll hurry through, and then we’ll be out in the sun again.”

“No, I don’t think so. Oh, no, I don’t think so.” Summer started pulling on her hair. When Julian tried to stop her, she grabbed his hands. “Julian. Julian!”

Julian turned away. He had never seen Summer like this, not even in her strangest moments. Surely someone would come. Surely Dad and Mom would hear Summer screaming and find them, take them by the hands and lead them out.

But Julian saw no one. He heard no one. All he heard was the twinkly music from the speakers overhead, and the soft drip-drip of water against stone. Everyone else passing through the caverns had disappeared. Everything was eerie and blue and dark.

“Dad?” He tried to yell, but no sound came out. His fear had come so quickly that it was like being hit in the stomach, or plunging into icy water. Julian couldn’t speak, or breathe, or move. “Mom?”

Summer threw her arms around Julian’s neck and screamed. “I won’t leave you, I won’t, I won’t. Even with monsters. Even with monsters.”

Julian tried to pry loose Summer’s arms, but she wouldn’t let go. “Summer. What are you talking about?” Julian felt like he wanted to cry. He didn’t understand why his sister was acting like this. He didn’t understand where everyone had gone. This was all happening so fast. “Summer, talk to me!”

“You shouldn’t be here,” came a voice. A whispery voice. A very-old voice. A too-old voice.

Julian whirled, and Summer stopped screaming, and there, at the bottom of the stone steps, crouched a tiny boy. His clothes were torn scraps. He was pale like he hadn’t seen the sun in years, and though his body was small, his face was tired and wrinkled.

Summer took the rocks from her pocket and threw them at the boy. “Get away from us. Get away, leave us alone!”

The boy dodged the rocks like they were nothing. “Shouldn’t be here,” he whispered. “Shouldn’t, shouldn’t. But too late now.”

Julian came out of his shock and grabbed Summer’s hand. He was shaking, but she was on fire. She was blazing hot, and steady. Her eyes snapped hatred.

“Actually,” Julian told the boy, “we were just leaving.”

The boy found a popsicle stick someone in the crowd had dropped. He chewed it until his lips bled and picked his teeth with the splinters.

“You aren’t leaving,” he said. “Neither of you. One to pay, and one to stay.”

One to pay, and one to stay. Dozens of voices said it, from somewhere Julian couldn’t see—from everywhere. They whispered it over and over, and Julian saw shapes moving in the shadows. Pale shapes, dark shapes, deformed shapes. They came into the blue light, little by little. They were all children—some boys, some girls, all bent and broken and backward, with faces too old for their bodies.

Julian backed up until he hit the wall. He kept Summer behind him. “Pay what? We don’t have any money.”

The broken child-things laughed. The first child-thing, the pale boy-thing, smiled a toothless smile. He had a pointed black tongue. His mouth opened too widely.

From behind Julian, Summer took off her shoe and threw it at the boy. He ducked, and it bounced away.

“It’s been a long time,” the boy said, “a very long time, since there has been anyone worth keeping.” The boy smiled, his jaw snapping open. “You’ll make them very happy. And it’ll be nice to have a new friend.”

“Keeping?” Julian felt sick. He could hardly stay standing. He felt the ridiculous urge to shove in his earbuds and turn on his music and close his eyes. That would make this go away. “You can’t keep us. We’re not staying.”

The child-things went quiet. They straightened, and their smiles faded. Now they were the ones looking afraid.

The pale boy pointed into the darkness. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, but you are. One will stay, and one will pay.”

Julian held tight to Summer’s hand, and turned around.

They came in a small, dark, slithering crowd. They crawled and crept, they dragged themselves along by broken yellow claws.

The gnomes, it seemed, were not gnomes at all anymore.

The gnomes, it seemed, had been hiding something . . . else.

Bits of torn bright clothing clung to their brown, bony frames. They had long pointed ears and long pointed snouts. Some had tails and some had rotting, stumpy wings. Some still wore their ruined gnome hats. They carried knives; their teeth were lined with blood.

“I don’t like them!” Summer said shrilly. She took off her other shoe and threw it at them, but it melted when it touched them, and turned into a thick black liquid like tar. The creatures swarmed over it, scooping it up with their hands. They fought over it, smearing it on their faces. They breathed deeply. They were smelling it.

“Smells like,” they growled, licking their lips. “Smells like child.”

“Fresh, frightened child.”

“Young, innocent child.”

Sweating, shaking Julian imagined that he was in a book. Yes. Yes, that had to be it. He was in a book, and the only way to get out of this was for the person reading the book to close the book and put it aside for the day.

“Close the book!” Julian yelled, waving his arms at the ceiling and jumping around like crazy. “Close it! Please, hurry!”

The creatures hooted and hollered. The pale child-things whispered to each other, hiding in the corner.

“You,” wheezed the nearest creature, a great spindly brown thing with limbs like a spider. It moved like a spider too—skittering here and there, crawling close to the ground. “You.” It pointed at Julian. The other creatures and the child-things fell silent. “You will pay.” It pointed next at Summer. It grinned widely, rotten teeth spilling out over cracked lips. “And she will stay.”hand

The creatures began to cheer. They beat on their chests, raked their claws against the stone, gnawed on their torn clothes.

The child-things rushed toward Summer. They were rushing toward Summer. Julian tried to stop them. He kicked them and punched them. He tore at their filthy clothes, and the fabric came apart in his hands like muddy leaves.

It was not enough.

“No!” Julian cried. He reached for Summer and caught her fingers, but the creatures were pulling him away, and he lost her. Their scabby brown fingers wrapped around his legs and arms, dragging him across the floor. Their hooked wings were fluttering over him, scraping his cheeks. They pushed at each other to get closer.

They were smiling down at him. Pay, pay, pay, they chanted.

They were raising their knives. He will pay, pay, pay

“Fine,” said a small voice. “Fine. I’ll stay. I’ll stay here, if that’s what you want.”

The creatures stopped. They lowered their knives and looked away. Julian looked too, scrambling to his feet.

Summer stood there, hands in fists at her sides. She had that weird, faraway look like she used to get when she was allowed to read. She looked small, and angry.

The child-things had swarmed around Summer, their bony pale hands digging into her arms. But now they backed away from her, huddled in the corner and wide-eyed.

“I won’t leave my brother,” Summer said. “I told him I wouldn’t. So of course I’ll stay.” She turned to glare at the child-things, her nose wrinkling. “You don’t need to be so mean about it.”

The creatures stepped back, and back, and back, grumbling, groaning, their too-long arms dragging along the stone.

The child-things stared. The pale boy crept closer to Summer, on all fours like a scared dog.

Julian rushed over and kicked the pale boy in the chest. The boy crumpled, gasping, and put up his hand.

“It’s been so long,” he said, “since anyone was brave enough. Since someone stayed instead of trying to run.”

“So long,” the other child-things whispered. “Years upon years.”

Summer found Julian’s hand. Julian grabbed it tight. “Well,” said Summer, “even if he were a monster, I wouldn’t leave without him.” She shivered and sneezed in the cold. “I said I wouldn’t.”

She looked like a normal Summer again, instead of strange, brave Summer. Or maybe both were the same. Julian wondered: Would he have stayed for Summer? Was he as brave? Maybe instead he would have tried to escape. It was impossible to know, and Julian felt cold and sick again, like in the car with the air conditioning blasting on him and too much junk food in his belly.

“Go,” said the pale boy. He touched Summer’s bare feet and then shrank back like she had burned him. “Go, now.”

The creatures, slinking and shuddering over each other down the corridor, were staring at Julian and Summer with cold dark eyes that glinted in the blue light. They were confused. Julian could see that. But for how long?

“Now,” whined the pale boy. He pushed Julian, and his hands left behind a stinging feeling on Julian’s skin. “Now.”

The child-things howled and ran deeper into the caves, and the pale boy went with them.

And the creatures—the horrible skittering creatures—reared up into a single great shape in the dark cavern. They shrieked and surged forward, spilling over the ground toward Julian and Summer like a wave of black water. Their nails clacked against the floor.

But Summer was fast, and Julian was faster. He led the way, pulling Summer hard, and hands grabbed at their legs and seized their clothes, but they didn’t stop.

When they hit the sunlight, it was like bursting out from underwater. Summer was coughing, and Julian was holding her up. Julian felt a hand grabbing at his leg and kicked back, but when he looked behind him, nothing was there but the mouth of the cave and a cheerful sign that said COME BACK SOON.

Dad found them and clapped them on the backs. Behind him, Mom was taking pictures of blue jays. The three-legged dog was on a bench getting his belly scratched.

“There you are!” Dad said. He was red-cheeked and happy. His shirt was sweaty, and his hat was crooked. “You two were right behind us, and then all of a sudden you weren’t. Thought I was gonna have to come get you.” He knelt in front of them and ruffled Summer’s hair. “Pretty cool in there, huh? Lots of things to see. And kind of spooky, huh?

“Dad.” Julian tried to say it a few times before he found his voice again. “Dad, promise me something.”

“Sure thing. Hey. Wait.” Dad leaned back and squinted at Summer’s face. “You all right, sweetie? Something scare you?”

Summer tried to smile but she didn’t let go of Julian. She held onto his arm and her fingers were white. Her cheek was warm against his arm, and this time, when Julian felt the hot bubble in his chest, it wasn’t gummy or bad. It was full of light, and it held Summer’s name inside it.

“Just promise me,” said Julian.

Dad scratched his head, pushing back his hat. “Well, sure. Anything. What is it?”

“If Summer ever asks me to sing with her again,” Julian said, squeezing his sister’s hand until he felt her squeeze it back, “make sure I do it.”

*

Red Raging Sun

It’s too hot here. You should come to this place in winter, when you’d be happy it’s warm. Not in summer, it’s way too hot. But Dad said Affordable and Mom said Adventure, so we’re here. We’ve been here almost a week.

I don’t like it here. The dirt is yellow on the empty paths that run from the jungle to the beach. The dirt glows hot and yellow back up to the hot yellow sun.

black dog on yellow dirt road

Photo by Todd Campbell.

There’s an ocean, but the water’s hot, and when the sun’s out the beach is too hot to walk on barefoot. The sea breeze feels more like walking past an open dryer, the wind is so hot and damp. The sun is so bright on the water, it gives you a headache.

At night it’s cooler, with better breezes, salty and fishy and dark. When the sun goes down, everybody—not the local people, but the vacation people, like us—everybody walks down to the beach, and they build a bonfire, and we sit around it. It’s the best part of the day, when the sun is gone. The fire is like the sun, but all packaged up and neat, surrounded by rocks, so it can’t jump out and get you.

I like to sit on the warm sand in the dark, just outside the circle of light, watching the fire, listening to the laughing. It’s nice. Mom and Dad sound happy, happier than at home. The three of us walk back singing to the cabin—Mom calls it an Eco-Cabin, which means no glass in the windows, and no doors in the doorways, and a roof made of dry grass. It’s like sleeping outside. Mom and Dad have the bed, and I’m in a hammock by the window, facing the jungle. I swing to sleep like in a rocking boat.

But later that night I wake up, because someone is talking. A light is flashing all around the room like a scared bird. For a second, before I wake up all the way, I think somehow police are in our room, arresting us.

Then I see that it’s Dad. He’s sitting straight up in bed, shining a flashlight all around, all wild. When the light catches his face by accident, I see he’s sweating.

Monkeys, says Dad. His voice is shaking. He’s saying: There were monkeys in here, did you see? Did you see them? I swear, just a second ago, these long-armed . . . They must have been monkeys . . . I swear they were here.

And all the time Mom is saying Shhh, shhh, and Bad dream, and Honey, maybe you shouldn’t have had that margarita. All very soft—she’s trying not to wake me up. That’s nice of her.

The flashlight goes out, click. In a while, I hear their breathing go long and soft again.

But I don’t go back to sleep.

Because for just a second, just for one second, while that yellow light flew around our cabin, I saw something. I did. I saw something long-armed and long-tailed swing over me in the dark, and out the window, into the jungle.

I only saw for a second. I don’t know what it was.

But it didn’t look like a monkey to me.

I’m not hungry for breakfast that morning, and I walk on the beach away from other people. The sun hangs over the sea, burning at me.

In the afternoons we always nap, but I have a bad dream, that there’s an animal in the room with us but I can’t quite see it, only hear its heavy tail dragging along the floor. When I wake up, the cabin smells wrong, a dirty, snakey smell. Mom and Dad are still asleep.

I can’t stay in the cabin with that smell, so I go for walk. I start at the beach, but it’s way too hot, even with flip-flops. The rubber’s melting under my feet. So I start walking back.

But you’re not supposed to go into the jungle, because of snakes, or something. Mom made a big deal out of that, and asked me Did I understand and Did I promise.

Now I’m standing there on the dirt road. I can’t decide what to do. A pale green lizard, only much bigger than the lizards at home, turns its face to me. Its eyes are half open, something pulses at its throat.

Oh: the ruins, I think. I’ll go there.

Sand ziggurat

Photo by Todd Campbell.

The ruins are mostly huge piles of gray stone, lots of thousands of years old. But in some of the piles you can see the shapes of the buildings they were, see the steps leading up to broken temples at the top. I’m not supposed to go to the ruins, either, actually. But it’s not as definite as the jungle. Dad was actually all disappointed, he thought it looked archeological or something. But the people who run this place said It needs repairs, and reinforcements, it’s not safe to climb on. They said how last year a little girl ignored the warnings and fell, and died.

But I’m not going to be stupid and climb on the stones. I’m just going to look around.

As I walk past him, the lizard turns its head to watch me.

I walk for a few minutes. The sound of the waves is nice. But it’s so hot, my head is hurting, and my eyes are squinched up against the brightness. My shirt sticks to my body.

But walking is good. The sun will go down soon. I start to relax. Just a bad dream.

When I’m almost at the ruins, all of a sudden, there’s a dog. There’s nothing around here, I don’t know where it came from. It’s not a huge dog, but it comes up to my knees. It has slick brown hair, peeling off in patches to show gray and purple skin below, and its eyes are blue and round and blind. At least I think it’s blind. It stares just over my head, barking hard, growling in its throat.

Hurt, it sounds like it’s saying. Hurt, hurt, hurt.

The dog walks in front of me on the road for the while, walking backwards, facing me, barking HURT, HURT, HURT, like it’s trying to stop me. But I stay brave, I keep walking, and after a while the dog gives up. I walk through the door of a chain link fence that’s just hanging there, broken, and into the ruins.

The ruins have their back to the jungle. It’s like the jungle made them, kind of, then pushed them out: Here. I made this for you. Come in, come in.

That’s a dumb thought, but it’s what it looks like.

The sun shines hard on the huge blocks of gray stone. They crowd everywhere, you have to sort of pick your way through. Even just one block is taller than my head, and one of the old . . . buildings, I guess is what they are, the one that’s still mostly there, is really tall. A zillion steps are running up the side. That girl who died must have climbed up there, and fallen.

It’s quiet here, a weird kind of quiet, no birds or insects at all. And it’s so hot, the heat is like a fever or a warning, but I don’t know what the warning says.

Hurt, hurt. Hurt hurt hurt.

My parents might be awake my now, I should go see.

But I don’t go see. I keep walking through the stone blocks and towers, the huge piles of stone.

Now a shadow passes across me. A bird? But it’s too big for a bird. I look up. The sky is squinty empty blue.

But then—what was that, out of the corner of my eye? Not a bird, but more like something on one of the stones above me. Something running.

And then behind me—I whip around fast. I can hear a ripple of running feet, high on that one pile of gray stone.

And now that, there—out of the corner of my eye—it’s gone now, but it it seemed like a leg, almost a human leg, but also it had — a tail?
A monkey?

But no monkey has a tail so thick, so heavy, swishing across the stone like a pale green snake.

I should go. It’s time to go. My heart is beating really fast, and I turn back—but I’m not sure where I am now, where the gate is, the stones are so high, and I’m all turned around. I start one way, then turn back and try another.

The skittering sound above me, nails on stone.

I start running. I don’t know where I’m going, but I know I have to run.

But I started running too late. When I round the corner of another pile of stones, they are waiting for me, and their hands are on me.

Their hands are scaly with long, sharp nails. Their teeth are pointed and long, and their mouths are open in a horrible smile. Like they’re glad to see me. One of them is holding a cup, like a wine glass, but carved out of the same old stone as the ruins. They hold me, and they force my mouth open, and they pour something burning down my throat.

In a minute, in less than a minute, I can’t move at all. I can’t even close my eyes.

With green, long-nailed hands, they lift me high above their heads. They take me to the steps, and they begin to climb.

My mind is going so fast, so fast in my still body. I see that they were waiting for someone to come. If it had not been me, it would have been someone else. Maybe my mom or dad, come here looking for me. Maybe just some other tourist kid, dumb enough to wander in here.

I think of that as they bear me gently in their long-nailed hands, their thick-muscled arms holding me high above their heads, as if I were weightless. Weightless, paralyzed, and my blood going so fast with fear that it makes everything perfectly, exactly clear. I think: At least it won’t be someone else.

Green, long-toed, long-nailed feet climb the stone steps, and the indentations in the stone match their feet exactly. How many thousands of years have they been doing this?

It’s getting late. The sun is going down, it’s looking straight at me now, and its face is red with anger. Why is the sun angry with me.

Shining, scaly arms lift me high, high, so the sun can see me. The long-nailed hands begin to turn me toward the empty air. The sky darkens around the red, raging sun.

I think of my parents, and I feel so sad. I can’t move my face to cry, but tears leak out and fall far, far to the ground below. In my mind, I can see the search party. I can hear the screams of the ones who find me first. They’ll say I fell, like that little girl. They’ll say they told me not to go to this place, that I must have climbed up on the rocks and lost my footing, and fallen.

But that can’t be right, my mother will say. She will say Too good, too smart, she will say It can’t be, it can’t, as my father cries, big gasping sobs.

And the other vacationers will say, Shhh, shhh: the old rock crumbled, and the child fell.

But they’ll be wrong, I think. I want to shout it, but I can’t shout, but I want to shout: I didn’t fall, I didn’t fall.

I am thinking that, I am thinking all of that, as I fall, as I fall, as I fall.

Clickety-Clack

Lush green leaves with saw-toothed edges brush the top of the skeleton train.

It comes from nowhere, and goes there, too, speeding by in the night, billows of steam rising to join the clouds.

And the tracks go clickety-clack.

Little Stevie March waits in the shadow of a bend, just past the old stone bridge that is slowly crumbling into the rushing water below. He’s heard the stories, but that’s never the same as seeing for yourself. So he sits, scarf tied against the cold, nibbling the cheese he filched from the kitchen on his way out, closing the door so quietly no one else in the house so much as rolled over in their beds.

His ears perk, but it’s only the wanderings of a rabbit–hopefully a rabbit–through the bushes. A yawn nearly splits his face in two, and his eyelids grow heavy.

But there…there it is.

Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack.

Quickly, he scrambles to the edge of the tracks, the wind whistling down a tunnel of trees to make him shiver. Muddy shoes dug into the ground, little Stevie March prepares to jump.

Black as soot, dusty, rusty, the skeleton train rounds the bend. The windows of every carriage glow, the light flickering across the trees, and beneath the roar of the engine, Stevie can just make out the sound of the tracks, thumping like his own heartbeat. For a single breath, he thinks of turning away, it’s coming so awfully fast, a blur, and one mistake will leave him a smear on the grass that will rot away with the end of summer.

But he does jump, fingers closing around metal bars, cold and rough with age. Gasping, thrashing, kicking, he hoists himself to the platform between two carriages, standing still as the world rushes past.

And he opens the door.

The skeletons are dancing to violins played with bony hands. Goblets of wine–hopefully wine–slosh with the rocking of the train. All of them are grinning.

“A flesh-child!” cries one, pointing. It has no fingernails. “Welcome, flesh-child! Join the dance!”

“Yes, join us!” the rest cry.

And when they talk, their jaws go clickety-clack.

The train is like no train Stevie has ever been on, not to the city or to visit the aunt his mother doesn’t like, but won’t say so. Real crystal chandeliers swing from the ceiling, plush purple velvet covers the seats, but no one is sitting.

“Tell us your name, flesh-child,” says one, wrapping bleached-bone fingers around his wrist, pulling him into the throng of ribs and elbows. A single long, blonde lock of hair clings to her skull, just behind her forehead. The ragged remains of what was surely once a pretty dress drip from her shoulders.

“Stevie,” he says, laughing because the stories were true. Really true! “Stevie March, ma’am.”

“No need for manners here, Stevie-child, but you must dance, for we are the stuff of night and dreams, and the moment is gone all too soon!”

They spin and whirl, smiling toothlessly, snapping their fingers to the beat. Clickety-clack.

Beyond the windows, mountains and oceans and the square shadows of towns whizz past, sleeping, undisturbed by the passage of the skeleton train. Word must spread to the other carriages, for soon this one is packed so full Stevie can hear the bones scraping against each other, and he has to repeat his name over and over for the newcomers.

Stevie slips, quick as a fish, through a gap between bones and winds his way along the train, through now-empty carriages, past tables full of empty goblets and plates of strawberry tarts and paté. The soles of his shoes squash food into the lovely rug, fallen there because of course the skeletons can’t really eat it. Perhaps they can’t even taste it.

“A flesh-child!” comes the familiar cry when he steps into the compartment at the very front of the train. A navy blue coat with brass buttons is fastened tightly over this one’s ribs, a smart cap with a peaked brim perched jauntily atop a skull round and smooth and thin as an eggshell. “To what do we owe the honor of a visit?”

“I’m Stevie. I heard the stories and wanted to see for myself.”

“Aaaah. Pleasure to make your acquaintance. And do we live up to the tales?”

“It’s even better. No one told me about the dancing or the violins or the food.”

The skeleton grins. Well, he was grinning anyway, but it seems to Stevie that the smile widens, just a bit. “We know how to enjoy ourselves here on the skeleton train, for what is the point, if not joy and revelry?”

“I’m…I’m not sure.”

Ahead, the sky is pink with the first flush of dawn. In that fancy coat, the skeleton’s shoulders fall ever so slightly. “But morning always comes,” he says, the words hissing through the spaces once filled by teeth.

“Why does morning matter?” Stevie asks. The compartment is quiet. Under the floor, the tracks go clickety-clack.

“You’ll see. Go back to the party, little Stevie.”

The party is still a chaos of strings and bones, of rattling laughter and merry jokes. Squeezed by a window, Stevie watches the sun rise over a lake edged with weeping willows in their heaviest throes of sadness. The woman with the lock of blonde hair sits beside him, her cold, smooth hand on top of Stevie’s warm one.

“My daughter wakes up early,” she says, staring at him through empty eye sockets.

“Oh?” It’s an odd thing to tell him, but they’ve all been so welcoming, it’s best to be polite. “Do you miss her?”

The woman doesn’t answer.

She simply fades away.

Rays of light stream in through the windows, plates and forks and goblets drop to the floor, and Stevie is alone. He’s never heard this part of the story, but they are all gone. Up and down the train he looks in vain for any skeletons left on the skeleton train.

The chandeliers blow out, the violins are silent. Outside, there are no towns or mountains or rivers by which to chart, only a blank whiteness, as if the clouds have fallen to smother the train.

Which is just as well, for there are no maps. In fact, the only thing that tells Stevie the train is still moving at all is the sound.

Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. Clckety-clack as the train chugs on, rocking gently back and forth. It’s cold on the skeleton train without the music and the laughter. It’s lonely without the dancing. It’s empty without the land rushing past the windows.

But the seats are still very plush and soft, and Stevie curls up in the corner of one, hugging knees to chest and trying not to wonder what happens next, or think about his parents waking up from their warm bed to find him gone.

He does not dream, and even if he did, he has no one to dream about, no way to bring back even one of the skeletons.

“Flesh-child. Flesh-child.” Thin fingers curl around Stevie’s arm to shake him awake. “It’s about time you went home, isn’t it?”

Stevie blinks. The train is clean, tables crammed with goblets freshly filled. The sky is dark. The violins await. “Can I go back?”

The chandelier’s light bounces off brass buttons thick and round as coins. “Of course you may, now that you know the truth of the skeleton train. Go back, and do not forget to dream of us. Stand between the carriages, I’ll slow it down, unless you want to become one of us before your time.”

“Thank you.”

In the tiny space between compartments, the wind howls, the tracks are loud. The train slows to a crawl, and as Stevie prepares to jump, the music begins to play.

He lands heavily on a bank of grass and rolls down, down, into the river with a splash. The skeleton train is already out of sight, but just ahead is the old bridge, its stones crumbling into the water.

Soaking wet, shaking from the chill, Stevie drags himself out and up toward the road. What a sight he’ll be to his parents when he gets home, though perhaps that doesn’t matter now. He wraps his arms about himself for warmth, but his teeth still chatter.

Clickety-clack.