The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Generously Donated By…

It is one seventeen in the afternoon, and you are bored. Who cares about mummies and old statues and broken bowls someone found in the dirt, anyway? Not even a whole bowl. Your feet drag, and once again Mrs. Webster’s voice calls, “Keep up, everyone, remember to stay with your buddy!”

Her voice echoes around the drafty museum, and Sabrina Linklater is most definitely not your buddy. She smells like cotton candy and she doesn’t like you. You know this because she’s told you every day since you were both five, so it’s just your luck to be stuck with her now.

“We’re going to see a very special exhibit,” says Mrs. Webster, which means nothing; she’s said this about all of them, all day, and your feet hurt. Nobody listened this morning when you insisted these shoes pinch your toes, too busy trying to make you eat horrible slimy oatmeal and remember your bag for the field trip.

This room is dim, and cool, like the others have been. Spotlights bounce off glass cases and the walls seem to swallow every noise, turning voices down to whispers. A few other visitors are wandering around, stopping in front of each piece before slipping through the swathes of shadow to pop up at the next thing to see.

It’s the statue that makes you pause. There’s nothing special about it, in fact it is another boring thing, just a figure of a small man, cast in white stone.

It looks exactly the same as it did in the last room.

And the room before that.

Which is cheating, really, isn’t it. The museum should try to put different things in all the exhibits, or there’s no point to traipsing through the entire building, and maybe then your shoes wouldn’t squash your feet so much. You’re certain you have a blister, just there, on the outside of your left pinky toe.

But you move toward the statue. The air in the room smells funny, like the second before a lightning strike in the dead heat of summer.

Slotted neatly between two of the statue’s fingers is a small card:

Puck, or Robin Goodfellow
England, c. 1805
Mythical trickster and nature sprite
Artist: Unknown
Kindly donated by Mr. Alistair Harbuckle

Boring. You turn, and a tiny sound breaks the hush that smothers everything else, including Sabrina Linklater’s whiny voice and Adam Beech’s constant questions.

Scrape. Scrape. You’ve made that sound before, striking two rocks together to start a fire—which, you can say with authority, absolutely never works.

Scrape. Scrape.

Scraaaaaape.

You whirl back. The statue is perfectly still, and looks no different, except it must be like that famous painting, because its eyes seem to follow you, and the hairs prickle on the back of your neck.

“This way, kids,” says Mrs. Webster. You can barely hear her.

“That statue is weird,” you say when Sabrina reluctantly falls into step beside you.

“You’re an idiot,” she answers.

The next room is filled with bones and the ghosts of the dinosaurs who wore them, grinning skulls with hollow eyes peering down from overhead. This is more interesting than half an old dinner plate or an ancient chess set, and you move up close to read the names on the little cards, inspect the hinged, talon-pointed feet fixed to the stands.

Scrape, scraaaape.

The statue is in the corner, stone-frozen and smiling, its finger crooked, beckoning you, glowing white in the shadows. Nobody is watching. Your buddy—ha, ha—is way over there, exclaiming over something that would once have had huge, leathery wings. Mrs. Webster is leaning against a pillar, her hair loose from its pins.

Closer, the outline of a door scratches itself onto the wall beside Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, mythical trickster.

And this is not boring. Your heart beats faster and you check again that no one is watching. Just for a minute, that’s all, and then you’ll go back to looking at the bones, but the statue chose you, not stinking Sabrina or annoying Adam Beech, and this is very, very interesting.

“In here?” you ask, and it doesn’t even feel silly to be speaking to a piece of stone, however humanlike it suddenly seems to be.

Scrape. Nod. Scrape.

You push on the wall. It’s cool, but not cold, smooth, but not perfectly, and it gives way without a creak, a doorway just large enough to slip through.

Into a forest. A square, room-shaped forest, but a forest. The sunlight from the ceiling is warm on your face, the earth soft underfoot. It smells like it just rained, fresh and clean. A fat bumblebee buzzes lazily in a cluster of snowdrops, the air is tinged with green so rich and sweet you can taste it. Birds twitter, something clawed scuttles away, unseen. The nearest tree is thick, branches gnarled like an old man’s hands grasping for the sky, and carved into its trunk are the words:

Forest
Elsewhere, c. The Year of the Mocking Mirrors
Generously donated by Lord and Lady Hummingbird-Glass

It is real, the bark rough as bark should be, catching your fingertips when you trace each one of the letters. Fallen twigs snap with each step deeper into the trees. This is a different kind of quiet, here, a silence that is such even though it sparkles with birdcalls and rustling.

At the far side of the forest, between two trees growing right from the walls, another door stands an inch ajar, enough to welcome. The one you came in is too far behind to see, but one more room won’t hurt. This is a clever trick of the museum’s, and maybe the next exhibit will give a clue as to how it works.

This is what you tell yourself.

Mostly, this is decidedly interesting.

The next room is empty. A dull, gray box, bare of the merest smudge or speck of dust.

You begin to laugh. Laugh so hard your eyes water and your belly hurts and you fall to your knees, holding your sides as if the air itself is tickling you.

“Help!” you gasp. “Stop!”

No one comes. It’s up to you to crawl, cackling, to the next door, and the instant you’re through the laughter stops, smothered by the weight of thousands of eyes, watching, all turned to stare.

Paired up in jars, in rows and rows on shelves. Green and blue and brown, floating in water or something like it.

Eyes
Everywhere, c. The Beginning of Time – Who Knows?
Generously donated by: please see labels

Scraaaape.

You jump.

“Would you care to make a donation?” the statue asks. He’s still holding the sign with his name on it in one hand. In the other is an empty jar with your name on it. And a spoon. “Yours are lovely.”

“You mean, these are—?” and there is nowhere in the room that’s far enough away from any of the staring eyes. That jar, right there…one is brown and one is blue. Everything goes dark.

Scrape, scrape.

You uncover your eyes. “Do I have to?”

“Oh, no. It’s not required. Please, enjoy your stay. There is always one who is bored.”

The watch on your wrist has stopped. Perhaps it’s time to go back. You look up from the unmoving hands and the statue is gone.

So is the door from the laughing room.

A tingle crawls slowly down your spine. That thud is your heartbeat. Thud. Thud-thud. Thudthudthud.

Inside their jars, the eyes follow as you walk, then run the length of the room. Through a room of music boxes, each playing a different tune. Another full of spiders, all spindly feather-light legs that crawl over you through the next four rooms, rooms you don’t see because you hate spiders most of all. In the one after that, it’s snowing, the snow of a hundred Christmases. And a room of ghosts, cold and dark, generously donated by…everyone. The next room makes you scream as you tumble inside.

For it has no floor. It is only sky. Generously donated by… and a gust of wind blows the rest of the cloud letters to nothing, tossing you this way and that, soaring, flying, blowing you through a hole in the blue to land on a hard, bruising floor.

This has become, perhaps, a little too interesting.

“Hello?” you call. “I need to go! They’ll be missing me!”

No one answers.

“Puck?”

There is no scrape of stone.

Only laughter. Distant laughter.

“This isn’t funny now! It’s all very interesting, but I need to get back!”

Laughter, laughter, laughter.

You grit your teeth and look around this room. This room that might be the strangest, most wonderful and terrible of all, for it is yours.

Everything as you left it this morning, in the shoes that pinch, belly full of slimy oatmeal.

The sweater you hate is at the back of the closet. The secret thing you don’t tell anyone about is under the bed.

It can’t be.

Outside the window, the sky is pink and orange, the first stars glinting in a tinge of darkness at the edge of sunset.

It can’t have been that long. They’re all going to be so furious. Maybe they’ve even called the police, desperate to find you.

You sit on your bed. Feel the lump in the mattress that’s exactly where it always is. Read the plaque on the bedside table that is the only unusual thing, and stop when you get to your parents’ names.

Not generously donated, no, no.

“Is this all because I was bored?”

Scrape.

“Mostly it’s because I am,” says the statue. More scrapes. He snaps his fingers, two doors appear. “One of these will lead you back out, one will keep you here. If you go through either, you cannot return to this particular room. Your only taste of home.”

Flutter, flutter, your heart beats. “Is this a trick?”

“Yes. No. Possibly.”

And he disappears again.

The doors are identical, down to the knots in the wood, the polished brass handles. No way to tell them apart, so which do you choose?

How can you choose?

You close your eyes.

Reach.

Feel the round doorknob, chill against your hand, perfectly smooth.

The draft as you pull it open.

And you smell…cotton candy.

“There you are,” says Sabrina Linklater. “You’re a terrible buddy. I don’t like you.”

Mrs. Webster is still leaning against the wall, her hair loose from its pins. The rest of the class is clearly tired of the dinosaur bones. The statue stands in the corner, and you wonder if maybe the donation from Mr. Alistair Harbuckle wasn’t the biggest trick of all.

The watch on your wrist ticks away, working just fine.

It is one forty-three in the afternoon. And you are not bored.

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

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

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

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

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

How did it all start?

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

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

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

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

That made you angry. 

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

I still don’t understand how she

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

How long did you leave her there?

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

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

And did she stop?

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

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

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

Like something was hurting her? Was she in pain?

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

What happened then?

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

And she wasn’t there.

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

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

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

Yeah, I guess. I don’t know.

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

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

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

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

I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then—this is the bad part.

Okay. It’s okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wouldn’t say—

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

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

We did that. It was a public safety issue. 

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

No. We won’t.

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

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

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

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

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

[TRANSCRIPT ENDS]

Quicksilver and the Stranger

Nobody in the town of Willow-on-the-River knew Quicksilver’s real name, or where she came from, or who her family was.

All they knew was that she was eleven years old (she proclaimed this, loudly and often, after outfoxing someone who should have known better), that she had an unbecoming piggish nose, and that she had hair as gray as a crone’s. So she was known as Quicksilver, for her hair, and for her cunning, for there had never been a girl with so slippery a nature. Many called her Quix for short. They hissed it like snakes when she managed to trick them, and laughed it wryly when she managed to trick others.

Quicksilver. Quixxx.

They knew to keep especial watch on sour apples and religious artifacts, for canny Quix had a weakness for the former and a fascination with the latter. They knew she lived on the rooftops when the weather was nice and in the ditches when it wasn’t, for then she could cover herself with mud and sticks and pretend to be a poor hapless urchin, and someone would take pity on her, and then before they knew it, she had picked their pockets and slipped away, hooting. (You might think the Riverlings would have learned, eventually, not to trust even the most pitiful-looking urchin, but the Riverlings are kind folk, and Quicksilver was a master of disguise.)

They knew she was all alone in the world, and that she was perfectly happy with that.

But then came a particular autumn day, when Quicksilver awoke to a shadow on her face and a whisper on the wind.

The shadow was far away—on the edge of town, while Quicksilver was high in the church belfry, sleeping barefoot and easy as a bird in a tree. But still she felt the shadow on her cheek like the touch of winter, and shivered in her sleep.

The whisper on the wind, though, was worse. It said her name, her real name, the name that nobody but she herself knew.

Anastazia, said the wind.

Quicksilver awoke, and nearly tumbled onto the roof.

Anastazia.

She blinked, rubbed her eyes, and searched the town below for the shadow she had felt. Or had it, and the voice, been only a dream?

Ah, no, they had not. For there, at the crooked bridge that marked the way into town, stood a hunched dark figure with bright red hair, and though it was far away, Quicksilver knew it was staring right at her.

 *

Quicksilver watched this dark stranger for a long time, as it hobbled into town and patted children on their heads and gave them treats. She watched as the stranger bartered for a space in the town marketplace and sat on a tall stool. And sat, and sat.

Riverlings began approaching the stranger, slowly. Quicksilver squinted at them from her perch on the belfry but couldn’t see anything worth seeing. She was too high up. She paced, tossing coins between her hands. She wanted to go and see what this figure was all about.

But she was afraid.

For ever since the stranger arrived, the voice on the wind, saying her name, had continued:

Anastazia. Anastazia.

No one but Quicksilver knew that was her true name, and yet she felt, somehow, that this voice on the wind belonged to the stranger down below, and that the stranger was here for her. She didn’t know what that meant, but it gave her a peculiar feeling in her stomach.

quicksilverFinally, she was too curious to resist. She pounded her fist against the belfry’s stone, angry that this stranger had already gotten the best of her, making her do something she would rather not do. She clambered across the rooftops until she was right above the stranger, in the shadow of a teetering chimney.

A small crowd had begun to gather around the stranger, for the stranger was doing magic—street magic, of course, not true magic. True magic, Quicksilver knew, as did everyone, had long ago bled from the world. But this magic of card tricks and disappearing coins was useful enough—sleight of hand, was the term. Illusions, and misdirection. Quicksilver knew of such things, instinctively; she used them everyday. They were as much a part of her as her blood and her bones. But she had always wondered if she could do more than simple street tricks, something grander. Perhaps she could learn it here, from this magic-doing stranger. Perhaps, perhaps . . .

With a great, clumsy crash, not-so-canny Quix pitched off the roof and into the stranger’s lap. She had been leaning out too far from her chimney, and lost her footing.

The crowd roared with laughter. Never had they seen their own surefooted Quix have such a fall! So too did the dark stranger with the bright red hair—although the crowd’s laughter was loud, and the stranger’s laughter was silent, and wormed its way into Quicksilver’s throat like a bad smell. The stranger’s long bony fingers curled around Quicksilver’s dirty legs, quivering.

“Little girl,” said the stranger, “have you hurt yourself?”

Quicksilver leapt out of the stranger’s lap and dusted herself off.

“I never get hurt!” she said, and she sounded ferocious and angry, but inside she was more afraid than ever. She could not tell whether this stranger was man or woman. Its red hair was unnaturally bright, a color not found in Willow-on-the-River; its face was so old and lined that flaky white skin fell from the corners of its mouth and eyelids as it spoke.

“Fair enough.” The stranger shrugged and went back to its business of pulling jackrabbits out of old shoes, and whistling tunes that called birds to its arms like a scarecrow, covering the stranger head to finger.

The marketplace of Riverlings applauded and cheered, and tossed copper coins.

Jealous Quix paced and scowled and muttered insulting things under her breath that made a young mother nearby cover her children’s ears. But while Quicksilver muttered and scowled and paced, she also watched. She watched the stranger’s fingers, so frail and yet so sure, spinning tricks out of old cloths and rickety buckets and seemingly ordinary well water. She watched those crumbling white hands pull fresh, fully-grown flowers out of cracks in the marketplace cobblestones.

Once, the stranger snapped, and the crowd gasped, for the movement cut open the stranger’s right thumb in a tiny spray of blood. A shower of sparks rained down from the chimney overhead, and transformed in mid-air to cover everyone in white feathers.

Quicksilver plucked a feather from her shoulder and sniffed it. It smelled of burned things, and she was the only one to notice that the stranger’s blood dried almost as quickly as it appeared, and turned to ash that fell to the street.

The show lasted well into the night, and when the last sleepy child had been herded to bed, Quicksilver was alone with the stranger. For a long time, they stared at each other. The stranger fiddled with a necklace it wore, a dirty, knobby thing that might have once been gold.

Then, the stranger said quietly, “I’m better than you, little swindler. I am a magician. You are just a thief.”

Was that a cracking, splintering smile on the stranger’s puckered face? Was that a challenging gleam in the bleary, watery old eyes?

Proud Quix thought so. Just a thief, indeed. She put up her chin. “You are no magician. There is no magic left in the world. You’re just playing tricks.”

“Ah, but perhaps,” said the stranger, “I have not shown you all of my tricks, Anastazia.”

Hearing her name—not on the wind, but in a real, true voice—took Quicksilver’s breath away. She could not speak for a long time. Then she said, “Teach me.”

The stranger coughed up crusty yellow bits that spotted its collar. “Teach you what?”

Quicksilver frowned. She would have to say it, then; the stranger would make her. “How to do . . . magic . . . like you do.” Quicksilver blushed, to say such a silly thing.

The stranger was quiet for so long that Quicksilver thought perhaps the old rotting lump of a thing had died.

Then the stranger said, “I will do it, if you will answer my greatest riddle. I will even,” the stranger said, leaning closer, “give you three tries to do it. Three chances, one riddle, endless tricks.”

“Magic,” Quicksilver teased, proud of her own cleverness, “not tricks. Remember? You just said.”

The stranger seemed to smile. It looked painful, but pleased. “As you say.”

They slapped hands in agreement, and Quicksilver yawned. Even eleven-year-old master thieves are still eleven years old, and grow tired after such a long day. And Quicksilver had much to think about.

“Well,” she said, tossing her coins about impressively, “good night, then.”

The stranger grabbed her wrist, stopping her. It hurt. The necklace swung heavily from the stranger’s neck. On that neck, Quicksilver saw angry red marks where the necklace’s chain rested.

“But you must answer my riddle,” the stranger rumbled, its throat full of sickness. “Tonight is your first try.”

Quicksilver stamped her foot. “But I’m tired tonight! I will try tomorrow.”

“Tonight. I am impatient, and you should have known better than to agree to a bargain without first setting your own rules.”

The stranger had a point, and sly Quix had been the one outfoxed, for once. It was not a pleasant feeling.

“Fine.” She hopped on a small fence opposite the stranger and made an ugly face. “What is the riddle?”

The stranger spoke swiftly. “How do I know your true name, Anastazia?”

That was it? That was the riddle? Part of Quicksilver felt glad; that was not the mind-twisting riddle she had expected.

But another part of Quicksilver shivered and shook at the stranger’s voice, so hungry and old and dark.

A possible answer came to her mind—too easy an answer, but she was tired, and didn’t realize it. “You used your magic,” she said, “to find it in my mind.”

“Bah!” The stranger spat, shovering Quicksilver off her fence and to the ground. When the stranger moved, a stink followed it, a stink of unwashed skin and creaking houses. “Magic, to do such things? That was a stupid answer. You didn’t take any time to think about it.” The stranger glared runny yellow eyes at Quicksilver, rubbing its necklace with finger and thumb. “How disappointing.”

Quicksilver leapt to her feet, gray hair flying everywhere like a lion’s mane. If anyone else had insulted her like that, she would have done something truly nasty to them—but the stranger was truly nasty, so Quicksilver said, “Fine. Fine. I’ll try again tomorrow.”

“Two more chances,” the stranger growled as Quicksilver scrambled up the roof and away. “Two more chances, stupid thief. Tiny, stupid, precious thief.”

Quicksilver barely heard those last few words, but she did hear them, and thought them odd, and sat awake for a long time beside the cold, silent church bells, thinking.

 *

The next day was cold and pale. Quicksilver stole an old coat trimmed in fur from a traveler at the inn. She wrapped herself in it and sat on the roof above the stranger, watching another day of the stranger’s art—puppets moving on their lonesome, with no hands to guide them, and snow falling on the stranger out of a sunny sky. She watched the stranger pick pockets without ever moving from its stool, and saw a man so bewitched he thought the stranger was a beautiful woman, and said so, and planted a kiss on the stranger’s chalky white lips.

That made the crowd of Riverlings roar with laughter. They slapped knees and wiped away laughing tears, and led the poor confused man to the tavern for supper.

Quicksilver watched it all, focusing on the stranger’s bright red head, listening to the croaking voice that was neither man’s nor woman’s. She paid such close attention that her head hurt, and her eyes watered, and her body ached with stiffness.

Finally, Quicksilver jumped down, silent as a cat, and hurried to the stranger’s side.

The stranger counted copper coins, chuckling. They gleamed red in the light of the setting sun. The necklace the stranger wore also gleamed, despite its coat of filth.

“Well?” said the stranger, without looking up. “Do you have an answer for me, stupid thief?”

Stupid thief. Ah, but the stranger had said precious thief the night before, and the words had stirred something lonely and forgotten in Quicksilver’s hard little heart. At first she hadn’t realized what it was, and then, sometime during the night, she had started to wonder, and this whole day she had wondered, and now she knew. She knew. It had to be the answer, this wondrous, terrible thought.

“I do,” she said, and she smiled, and it was not the smile of outfoxing someone, but a real, honest smile. “You are one of my parents, my mother or my father, and you’ve come to find me at last.”

After the first answer, the stranger had been angry and disappointed. Now, the stranger seemed simply tired. Its shoulders slumped with sadness. The necklace it wore seemed to drag the stranger’s head close to the ground.

“No, child,” the stranger said at last, and when it breathed, the sound was like dead leaves blowing through a storm. “I am not either of your parents. Your parents left you at the doorstep of St. Agatha’s, and never looked back.”

Quicksilver remembered that place, the tiny convent with the dark roof and the darker rooms. She had run away from the silent, stern Sisters as soon as she was strong enough, but one thing the Sisters had taught her was the beauty of prayer and faith, and she had never forgotten it. The statue of St. Agatha, which Quicksilver kept in her pocket, was the only thing she had ever felt guilty about stealing.

She held it now, her fist tight around it in her coat.

She would not cry in front of this stranger, who looked so suddenly sad.

“You ugly thing,” Quicksilver said. “You ugly, horrible thing. You made me think you were . . . ”

The stranger blinked slowly at her. “Did I?”

Of course, the stranger had not made lonely Quix think anything. She had done it for herself, letting herself hope, letting herself wish for a family, for the first time in ages.

“One more chance,” the stranger said, after a moment. “One more chance, and then either we are done, or we are just beginning. So go. Sleep.”

To keep from crying, Quicksilver grabbed a fistful of dirt and flung it at the stranger’s face, and then raced up the rooftops, alone.

*

Quicksilver did not sleep, though she needed it, and it was a good thing, for her exhaustion allowed her to see things more clearly.

All the next day, she paced on the roof, and when the crowds came and went, and it was evening, and the stranger sat alone on its stool, scratching its bright red head, Quicksilver climbed down and stood tall, though she was more afraid than ever.

For she had found the answer to the stranger’s riddle.

The stranger raised tangled eyebrows. “Well? This is your last chance, thiefling. What is your answer?”

Quicksilver remembered all the times she had thought herself brave and clever before, and realized how silly that had been. She breathed in and out. She stared at the stranger’s necklace, instead of at the stranger’s eyes.

“You are me,” she said. “That is how you know my name.”

Though Quicksilver had spoken softly, the words seemed to ring in Willow-on-the-River’s tiny brown marketplace. She held her breath. She counted the seconds, trying to be patient.

At last, the stranger’s mouth grew into a smile that stretched its skin tight like worn leather, across yellowed teeth and black gums. Quicksilver looked for her own face in that folded-over skin and couldn’t find it, and that was the scariest thing of all.

“Aye, child,” said the stranger, “it is I. I am you.”

And as the stranger spoke, telling Quicksilver stories that only Quicksilver could know—stories of St. Agatha’s, of the other orphans poking fun at her head of thick gray hair, of her escape and her traveling on the road afterward—crafty Quix felt a bit like she was floating above her own body. She had thought it was the right answer, but still, to hear this proof out loud was another thing.

“But how?” she whispered.

At that, the stranger’s eyes turned sharp and narrow, lit up in a new way. “You wanted me to show you my magic.”

“Yes. I did.”

“And I said I would, if you answered my greatest riddle.”

Quicksilver drew her stolen coat tighter about her body. “We slapped hands on it.”

“Aye. Then so be it done, at last.” The stranger took a long, slow breath, and then, before Quicksilver knew what was happening, the stranger was on her feet, pressing her necklace into Quicksilver’s sweaty hands, breathing sour breath on Quicksilver’s wide-eyed face.

“Then have it,” this strange, red-headed Quicksilver said. She seemed sorry for something, but also joyous, and determined. “Have it, and go.”

“Go where?” Quicksilver started to say, but the necklace was growing hot in her hands, so hot that it burned her. She tried to drop it, but her hands would not come away. The necklace was melting into her skin; golden light swirled brightly around her.

Through it, Quicksilver saw the stranger melting away, sighing, her eyes closed. The stranger shed first her dark cloak, then her bright red hair, and then her skin itself, like a tired bird shedding old feathers. She was a shriveled husk of a thing. A skeleton. A mirage.

The gold in Quicksilver’s eyes became too thick to see anything else.

Quick-tongued Quix thought, “Funny, for a girl named Quicksilver to die in a sea of gold.”

But Quicksilver was not dead. Not that night.

Not ever, really.

But she did not know that yet.

*

When Quicksilver next opened her eyes, she sensed without even looking around that she was no longer in Willow-on-the-River, but somewhere entirely new.

She knew this because when she breathed, she nearly choked on the air. It stung her lungs and burned her insides. It was too thick, too full of energy, too different.

She did not know, in that moment, that she was breathing in air laced with magic.

She did not realize that the land she had found herself in was old, much older than the land of the kindly Riverfolk.

She did not understand why the people here sported hair in all manner of outlandish colors—blue as electric as storms, and green as bright as springtime, and red. Red as bright as a stranger’s hair.

Red as was Quicksilver’s hair, now.

She saw it in the reflection of a still pond. Somehow, this was the most unsettling thing of all, that her hair had lost its grey and was now this fiery red. For what is a person, without a name, and what kind of name is Quicksilver, for a girl with red hair?

“Why has my hair changed color?” she wondered. “And where has the necklace gone? That stranger’s necklace?” She paused, afraid, looking around at this world glowing with so many colors that her eyes hurt to look at it. “My necklace.”

She did not understand any of this.

But she would understand it soon.

Soon, she would understand that she had traveled to a time before her own, when magic still lived in the world and the people prayed to different gods.

Soon, she would begin traveling, as she had done before, and she would learn real magic, and the poor street tricks she had always performed to survive would seem like dusty memories in the corners of her mind.

Soon, she would take up her true name and become Anastazia once again, and everyone from the poorest thiefling to the richest king would come to her, seeking the cleverness of her magic.

And later, many lifetimes later, when much of the world had changed and grown dimmer, and much of its magic bled away, she would stumble upon a dirty, knobby necklace in the far north of the world. She would hold it and laugh, and be glad, for this meant that her story was both almost over and close to beginning again. Old Anastazia, cleverest witch, would put the necklace over her head, and she would not take it off, not for many years, not even when it rubbed sores on her chalky white skin.

And she would keep an eye out, in those frail days, for a small girl with limbs like a fox, nose like a pig, and hair grey as a crone’s in winter.

For, like the necklace she wore, Anastazia Quicksilver was a circle, and so was the world, and so was everything, though few ever realized it. It was a grand game, the thorniest of tricks, and no one played it better than she.

~*~

Johnny Knockers

The Misselkree was nineteen days at sea when Johnny Knockers came aboard.

The crew dragged up the long black whale, sliced it open head to fluke, and then there he was, lying among the red, red ropes and glistening offal of the creature’s belly.

He was little more than bones. His skin had been bleached white by the stomach liquids, and all his hair had fallen out. He lay still as could be, staring up through the bloody cleft. Every few seconds he breathed, a quick, shallow breath.

Hooks and paring blades clattered to the deck. The whalers jerked back, growling into their beards, wiping the blood off on their rough woolen sweaters.

“He’s been swallowed,” one of them hissed. “Swallowed alive, like in ’em old stories.”

“Is he breathing? Oh, crikey, he’s breathing. . .”

“Let’s throw ‘im back,” Eli, the cabin boy, suggested, but they were a thousand leagues from the nearest lighthouse, a hundred fathoms above the nearest ship. It would have been murder. Murder was unlucky.

So they kept him.

He had forgotten how to walk, but they lifted him from the whale’s carcass and brought him below-deck. He was slippery as a fish, all knobby, slimy elbows and legs.

They propped him up by the iron cook-stove and fed him broth with arsenic and whiskey. At first the broth dribbled down his chin. Then he swallowed, and all the sailors that had gathered around him let up a shout.

They tried to teach him how to stand and how to speak. They asked him tricky questions to see if he might be a whaler like them. None of it worked.

“Well, we suppose we’ll call you Johnny Knockers,” they said. “Because those knees knock like a drum.” And then they all laughed.

That night, the clouds heaped against a stiff wind. Below deck, an air of anticipation had settled in the narrow galleys. Was Johnny Knockers a gift from the sea? Or a curse. . . The whalers went to their bunks and left him on a bucket next to the cold, gone-out stove.

***

Whaling was good the next day. The water chopped, deep and dark, and a fat whale was caught in the first hour of the watch, which was a rare thing and a lucky one. The men rolled up their chains and stowed the harpoons, and even the look-out was allowed to come in and sit the rest of the day out of the wind. Everyone was given an extra beaker of ale. Everyone except Eli. He was barely fourteen, and not a proper whaler, and so he was given the job of feeding Johnny Knockers.

Eli went over to the stove, scowling. He sat down on a bucket next to Johnny Knockers and began shoveling stew into the pale man’s mouth so hard that the spoon clanked against his teeth. Johnny Knockers didn’t protest, but he looked very sad. 

Eli stopped. He was such a piteous looking thing, Johnny Knockers was, so bony and haunted-looking.

Eli spooned slower. “All right,” he said, “I didn’t mean it about throwing you back, yeh? We was afraid is all. You’re a right frightening chap to look at.”

Johnny Knockers said nothing. But every time he swallowed, his throat clicked like a bird’s, like there was a marble in his gullet.

Eli spooned the broth in silence. Then he said, “I don’t suppose you’d tell where you came from? Where your home’s at? D’you even remember?”

The whalers had tried to find out the first day. They had searched his garment (a shred of bleached cloth, stiff with salt) but all they had found was a long tooth on a leather cord, hanging around his neck, and black scribbles on one arm in some foreign writing. “What language is that?” they had asked, but he hadn’t told them.

And he did not tell Eli. He did not look up. His pale blue eyes were fixed on the floor-planks, worn smooth and glimmering.

Eli listened to the whalers, merry in loud in the next room.

“I’m from Suffolk,” Eli said. “Suffolk by the Sea.”

Spoon, swallow, spoon, swallow.

“Have you been there? Don’t worry if you haven’t. It’s a gloomy place. A nasty place, right up next to the water. Not as bad as this, though.”

Eli felt that Johnny Knockers agreed with him.

***

That night, a storm struck––a vicious, screaming storm, all lightning and waves and a white wind that rushed in the sails. A rope snapped. A barrel of whale blubber was lost, a part of a harpoon station went into the sea. But the men were fresh off the victory of the morning’s catch, and so it was shrugged off as nothing.

***

Eli got the job of feeding Johnny Knockers again the next day. He grumbled in front of the whalers, which confused the cook, because that morning Eli had waited for everyone to leave and had begged him for the job.

Eli took the bowl of stew from the brig and sat down by Johnny Knockers.

Again he spooned for a while in silence. Then he said stoutly, “I’m not always going to be a whaler.In fact, not sure I like it much. Hauling all day, cutting and slicing, and shoveling. It’s right horrid.” Then, with a furtive glance through into the dank brig, he said, “One day I want to be a shoemaker.”

Johnny Knockers said nothing, and Eli didn’t mind. “I’m going back to Suffolk when I’m older and have got enough money. There’s a girl there named Lizzie. I gave Liz a tin of taffy before I went, three years ago, and she gave me a ribbon.” His fingers unlooped a slip of cloth from one of his buttonholes. The weather had faded the blue to gray.

“What, d’you think o’ that, Johnny Knockers? Sound like a plan? Sound like a good thing?”

Eli would have gone on, but then feet hammered the deck above. Shouts split the air. “Well, back to work,” he said, and left the remainder of the stew next to Johnny Knockers’ feet. Eli did not see, but Johnny’s eyes moved a bit as he turned to go, just a flick, and it made a sound inside his skull like a fingernail snagging.

***

Whaling had never been better, but no one spoke that night as they clambered into their bunks. Rations were going bad. Only twenty-four days at sea, and already food was spoiling.

That morning, a great big beast had been spotted going north, and all the whalers wanted the Misselkree to press on, despite there being nothing but rancid stew and tack to eat, and no fresh anything. They were becoming grumbly and lead-footed. The cook had found spiny crabs like spiders swarming the larder. But the whaling was so good, and so the whalers were convinced they were still on a streak of luck.

Still, they weren’t sure of Johnny Knockers, and since no one would go near the bony figure by the stove, Eli had to feed him permanently. Which was all right with Eli.

He liked talking he had noticed. He liked telling someone things, whether he got any answer or not. In fact, it was almost better not getting answers. 

And so Eli talked. Even after the cook had gone to his hammock and the whalers were snoring in their bunks Eli murmured to Johnny Knockers in the dark, told him of Lizzie and how she was very poor and so was Eli, and how neither of them minded. He told of the house on the heath that he wanted to buy in a year or ten. Just a short jaunt from the town, Eli said, a short jaunt that a buggy and an old horse could manage nicely. And no more of the sea. No more fear of drowning, black waters creeping over pale faces, filling your nose, your lungs. You didn’t drown on a dirt road. You didn’t drown in a buggy.

***

The crabs had begun snapping at the men’s toes as they slept. Barnacles were found on the inside of barrels, which was unheard of. But whales continued to be bountiful. They came steadily, one a day, at least, and they were becoming ever larger. Soon the Misselkree would be too full. It was a large whaler, and they had room for many barrels of blubber, but there was only so much space, only so many barrels.

“Perhaps it’s him,” Crickets said one night to the other whalers, as he scraped a strange green fungus off his tack. “Johnny Knockers. Perhaps he’s like a lure to them. To the whales.”

No one agreed at first, but slowly they came to realize: Johnny Knockers was very good luck indeed and whatever was happening around them had to be due to unfortunate weather and bad planning and a no-good blarsted tack-and-flour merchant back in Liverpool. Because yes, indeed, whaling had never been this good, whales never so foolish. And Johnny Knockers was a lure.

So they made him into one.

At the crack of dawn they took him from his place by the stove and dragged him onto the deck. A coil of rope was brought.

“Stop!” Eli yelled, when he saw what they were doing, but the whalers pushed him back. 

“Shut yer trap, boy. It’s more blubber in the barrel, for you too.”

“I don’t want any blubber, stop it!” he screamed, but they only clouted him and shoved him away from Johnny Knockers. Then they tied Johnny to the mast, tight so that he wouldn’t flop about.

A whale came very soon. Its tale slid up out of the water. Then its head dipped up, very close to the ship. Johnny Knockers saw it. His eyes took on a sickly, desperate glaze. He began to strain, pushing against the ropes.

“Stop!” Eli cried again, but no one listened.

The whale approached. The pale man began to make croaking sounds, louder and louder, and then the first harpoon struck the whale in the water and the shriek that came from Johnny’s throat was so ghastly that the sailors very nearly lost their grip on the whale. The beast began to struggle, suddenly, where before it had been calm. It thrashed and Johnny Knockers’s did, too, his voice screeching up and up. The harpoons rained over the edge of the ship. For an instant the water was stained red.

When the whale was at last dead and they were scooping the pearly fat from under its ink-blue skin, Johnny Knockers stopped screaming. He went limp again. They dragged him below-deck, and Eli sat next to him, trying to feed him, because it was the only thing he knew to do, but Johnny didn’t eat. He sat staring out into nothing, and Eli felt sure his eyes were full of hate.

***

The whalers went to their bunks, but not Eli. He stayed with Johnny.

The hours crept past. Eli began to doze. And then a hand crept forward and gripped Eli’s arm. Johnny had not been in the water for days, but somehow his skin was still wet, slippery, as if the water were inside him, seeping out of his pores. The grip was so hard. Johnny’s eyes were wide.

The cook woke at one point to empty the chamber pot and saw them silhouetted by the stove, the boy and the bone-thin Johnny Knockers. Later, when asked, he couldn’t for the life of him remember later if it had been Eli whispering. . . or Johnny Knockers.

***

It was middle of the day, bright as a bell, when Eli came up on deck and wrapped his arms in chains and plunged into the sea. He sank like a stone before anyone could reach him, before anyone could even shout.

The whalers held a burial-at-sea. Ashes to ashes, brine to brine. The captain mumbled from the ship’s damp and battered Bible. They had to shorten it a bit because a humpback had been sighted, so close by, floating calm as you like toward the Misselkree.

***

The hold was filled to bursting, barrel upon barrel of blubber, but there was still one corner left. One last corner with space for a few more barrels. The food was rotting, the men were sick, but it would only take one more whale.

They tied Johnny Knockers to the mast again, to speed things up. One last whale and they would turn keel to the sun and return home. Back to port, and ale-houses, and enough money to live at least until Christmas for those who drank, fairly well until June for those who didn’t. The Misselkree’s hold was very, very full indeed.

That day, a tiny whale came. Johnny Knockers did not thrash or scream this time. He looked at the whale, though. And just before it came within range of the men’s harpoons, it turned and folded back into the ocean. The men cursed and shouted after it. They had been looking forward to the journey back. They dragged Johnny Knockers below and threw him to the floor.

A whale came not too long afterward. They killed it and filled their last barrels. They felt very pleased with themselves, very pleased as they vomited over the side of the ship.

That night, a whaler named Smithy died of dysentery. Several others were too sick even to move. But they were headed home now, headed to port and a year of comfort.

“What an expedition,” said Crickets. “What a lucky expedition.” And everyone agreed.

***

The whales came in the night. Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, surrounding the ship. The night was black, the air still and cold, and the men barely stirred as the waves from the whale’s fins began to pummel the ship. It started gently, became stronger. Then the whales struck, head-first on all sides of the ship, like hammers. Leaks sprang. A porthole burst, splashing Crickets in the face.

The men staggered from their bunks with weak shouts. They hobbled on deck in their nightclothes, lanterns swinging, tiny fireflies in a great black ocean. The whales struck again, again. The hull buckled. Men were thrown from their feet. And then the Misselkree split, right down the middle, with a deafening crack. She sank quickly––ten seconds and then she was gone––and all the little fireflies winked out.

But just before the last of it slipped under the waves, Johnny Knockers stepped off into the gurgling water. He did not sink. He did not swim. A whale’s head rose up, a black monolith, blacker than the night. A deep, hollow sound echoed out of its belly. The whale opened its mouth and Johnny Knockers flopped in, curling into the dark and the red like a child into a womb.

***

Far away, a boy struggled up a rocky shore, dragging himself over the stones. He was paler than he had been, just bones. His hair was not as thick as a fortnight ago, and his eyes were somewhat sunken. A ribbon was looped through his buttonhole. Only the faintest threads showed that it had been blue once.

But he would live, years yet, forty, fifty, and he would find roads and travel them, to Lizzie and shoe-shops and houses on heaths.

Not the men on the Misselkree. They lay at the bottom of the sea in a boat full of blubber, and not all the luck in the world could have saved them.

Neither had the whales.

The Tin Man’s Price

Mama always says we should never hurt each other but Mama don’t know nothin.

She don’t know about all the marks on my chest.

She don’t know what Edie and I get up to in the attic these days.

She knows things are goin real swell for us all of a sudden but she don’t know why.

I think Pa knows, but he won’t tell.

I think it happened to Pa too.

*

Edie’s always wakin me up in the middle of the night. We’ve always been opposite of the other. Like Edie don’t sleep much and I can sleep through the end of the world, that’s what Mama says. And Edie eats enough for ten people and I eat like a bird. We’re opposites, Edie and me. Miss Vickers at school says sometimes that happens with twins. One of you’s this way and the other’s that-a-way, and together you make up one person.

I like Edie but I don’t like us being twins. It’s like we were supposed to be one person but we got split up inside Mama and now we’re two people. It’s almost like one of us shouldn’t be alive. Like one of us is a mistake.

So Edie wakes me up in the middle of the night and instead of goin out on the roof to play cards like usual, she says, Someone’s here, Tom. I know someone’s here.

Someone’s where? I say.

In the attic, she says.

How do you know?

I just got this feelin.

Edie’s always getting feelins. Sometimes I think her feelins are real and sometimes I think she’s lyin just cause she gets bored and thinks our town’s dull as mud.tin_man_attic

How do you know someone’s there, Edie?

I just know, why you gotta be such an idiot?

Well I wish I wasn’t an idiot but everyone says I am so I shut up.

We go up to the attic. Pa keeps his old books up here, about geography and outer space and Egypt pyramids and irrigation. Sometimes Edie and me like to sit in the window and look through all these books. They’re hard but we read em anyway. We like to do somethin that Pa likes to do. We like to impress Pa. Pa don’t say much, and Mama says thank god almighty for that, why’d you want a chatterbox around anyway?

There ain’t no one up here Edie, I say, cause there ain’t. Just dust and boxes and old clothes and Pa’s books. Why you always playin tricks?

It ain’t no trick, says Edie. Her face looks stubborn, like Mama when she’s on a tear.

I know I heard something, she says. I felt it.

Cause I know Edie won’t shut up about this till we do it, I say, Okay let’s look around then, and we do. Through the dust and boxes and old clothes. Out the window and on the roof. Under the loose floorboard where we hide our best stuff. Nothin. Nobody.

I’m goin back to bed you scaredy-cat, I say.

Wait, says Edie.

She’s by the chest full of our old toys, the ones we’re too big for now. She pulls out a tall round tin covered with pictures and letters I can’t read cause they’re old and scratchy. It looks like the kinda thing you might could keep candy in.

I ain’t never seen this tin before. It ain’t one of our toys.

It must be heavy, cause Edie drops it and it hits her toe.

Ow, she says.

Then we heard it:

What’re you children doing up here.

What’re you children doing up here.

Why’d you wake me up.

Why’d you touch me.

Don’t touch me.

DON’T TOUCH ME.

We should run I guess but we’re too scared, so we just stand there starin at the tin. It’s shakin on the floor. It’s spinnin faster and faster. Then the lid pops off.

It stinks at first.

Then it smells good.

I don’t know what’s comin out of that tin, but it’s dark and it’s slimy like tar and it’s silky and slow like molasses. It looks kinda like a person but kinda not.

I don’t like it.

Hello, it says, and I guess it’s smilin but it’s hard to tell cause its face is made up of globs and cracks.

I apologize for yelling, it says, but you startled me you see.

Who are you? Edie says. I wanna slap her for bein so stupid. We should be runnin, Miss Smarty Pants, not talkin to it. And they say I’m the dumb one.

I have many names, it says. But you can call me Luck. Because that’s what I’m going to give you.

Good luck or bad luck? I say.

It looks at me. It blinks real slow. When it smiles, I feel sick to my stomach.

Good luck of course, it says.

Edie crosses her arms. Oh she thinks she’s so smart. She’s tryin to be like Pa.

How much? she says. We don’t got a lot of money here if that’s what you want.

I have no need for money, Luck says. All you have to do is follow my instructions. It’s quite simple.

What do you want us to do?

Luck blinks at Edie. It smacks its lips.

I want you to hurt your brother, it says.

Edie looks at me, at Luck, and back again.

What? I say. That’s nuts. Edie let’s get out of here.

How much do I have to hurt him? Edie says. And what’ll you give me for it?

We’ll start out small, says Luck. A little hurt for a little luck.

Edie’s thinkin fast. I see that look on her face. I got a math test tomorrow, she says. And I ain’t studied.

Luck smiles real big. A slap will do for that I think, he says.

Edie’s eyes light up.

Hang on, I say. But Edie’s fast. She runs over and slaps me across my face. It hurts. I get mad and smack her right back, and it knocks her to the floor.

Oh, Luck says. Oh oh oh.

Then Luck shakes, and then it’s not so slimy anymore. Like it figured out how to stand up straight. Now it looks more like a hole, just a hole in the attic where there should be wood and dust and boxes and now there’s nothing there instead, just a dark spot that almost looks like a person if you squint real hard.

That’s good, Luck says. Thank you, darling ones. Now go to bed and when you wake up tomorrow you’ll feel so much better than you did today.

I’ll pass my math test? says Edie. You promised I would.

You’ll make a perfect score, says Luck.

Then Edie says, And what about Tom? He hurt me, so he should get something too.

How clever of you, sweet girl, says Luck. Then it looks at me. What do you want, Tommy Tom Tom?

I don’t feel right. This don’t feel right. Edie’s got a red spot on her cheek. My cheek smarts where her hand hit it.

But I got a math test too. And I need even more help than Edie does.

Idiot Tom. Edie the smart one.

Same here, I say. Math test. I want a perfect score.

Luck smiles. Its mouth drips. Then you shall have it.

*

Our teachers don’t believe us both gettin perfect scores. Especially not me. They think we cheated so they’re makin me do my work on the board in front of everyone. And it’s like my hand isn’t my hand and my brain isn’t my brain, and soon there’s perfect algebra problems written all over that board. I didn’t have to erase once.

At home Edie and I show our tests to Mama and she says she’s so glad we finally started studyin like we should now if only we could peel potatoes faster, that’d be nice.

We show em to Pa too once he gets in from the fields.

He looks at us real strange.

How wonderful, he says.

We run upstairs before he says anything more. It’s like he knows, and I don’t want him to know. I got this feelin he’d make Luck leave if he found out.

I don’t want Luck to leave.

I like having Luck around.

I like it even though that night after Mama and Pa go to bed me and Edie go to the attic and pound on each other while Luck watches. Even though it leaves bruises all over Edie’s arms and all over my chest. Even though it hurts so much I almost pass out and Edie starts to cry.

We don’t stop. We’d do anything for Luck. We go for hours. We pound and bruise and slam and cut. It hurts it hurts but we don’t stop.

Very good, Luck says. It’s not as scary-lookin tonight. It looks more like a shadow than a blob or a hole. And shadows ain’t scary, they’re just places where the light don’t reach.

Luck runs its hands through our hair. It makes me feel even sicker but I don’t complain. I got a baseball game on Friday and I wanna win. Make a double play. Hit a grand slam. Not sit on the bench the whole time for once. And Edie, she’s got a softball game, and she wants a grand slam too. Stupid Edie, always wantin to be the same as me. Just cause we’re twins don’t mean we gotta be the same all the time.

I wanna hurt her again.

Hurt and ye shall receive, says Luck. It’s laughin so I guess somethin’s funny but I don’t know what it is.

*

One day Luck gets tired of watching us.

I want more, he says. I’m bored of you.

We could go into town, Edie says.

She’s cryin because I think I just broke her toe, but she won’t say nothin and neither will I. We won both our games this weekend. We’re gettin good grades for once. Amelia Simmons bought me a milkshake at lunch. Everybody’s lookin at us different, like we mean somethin. Like we ain’t just Tom and Edie those twins who live out on Hillside Farm, no sir. We’re Tom who gets hundreds on tests and Edie who hits grand slams.

 Town, Luck says.

He looks happy to hear that. He moves his head funny like a bird. And I’ve started callin him a he because he looks more like a man now. He’s still dark and fuzzy around the edges and sometimes when he blinks that tar drips out his eyelid but he’s mostly a man. He has a tall hat on and he’s skinnier even than me.

I should very much like to go to Town, Luck says.

So we take him.

And the first person we see, Luck points and says, That one. Hurt that one.

We look. It’s a girl from the junior high school walkin her dog. I’ve seen her before but I don’t know her name.

Edie frowns.

But it’s the middle of the day, she says. We can’t just go up and start punchin her. Someone’ll see.

Luck says, Not if we wait until she’s somewhere hidden.

I don’t like this, I say.

Oh. Oh no.

I didn’t mean to.

It just came out.

Luck, don’t be angry. Don’t be angry, Luck.

I didn’t mean it.

Luck looks at me long and hard. Edie looks at me even longer and harder.

Don’t ruin this for me you idiot, Edie says. Don’t make him mad. We need him.

I’m sorry, Luck, I say. I’ll do it. We’ll do it.

You had better, says Luck. Or I’ll go somewhere else where my gifts are appreciated and then where you will be?

You’ll be back in the rotten no-good place you came from, Edie says to me. You’ll go back to stupid bad-grades on-the-bench idiot Tom. Livin on a farm. Goin nowhere. Is that what you want? Is that you want for us Tom?

Tom, Luck says real soft. Tommy Tom Tom.

No, I say. That’s not what I want.

So we follow the junior high girl through town and all the way to Thistledown Road, where it’s quiet and the grass is high on either side.

We chase her down. She starts screamin and we run even faster. She sets her dog on us and we dodge and the dog runs right into Luck’s open arms and I don’t see what happens to the dog after that.

I don’t want to either.

We’re runnin faster than we’ve ever run before.

Isn’t this great Tom? Edie says. She’s laughin her head off. We’re almost flyin, she says. We’re like superheroes.

Ain’t nothin hero about it. Luck is right on our heels. I think Luck’s helpin us run this fast, tell the truth.

It ain’t a good fast.

It’s like runnin from somethin in a bad dream.

I guess it’s like what the junior high girl feels with us gettin closer and closer. We reach for her arms. We grab em. We pull hard.

It ain’t her fault she can’t outrun us. She don’t have Luck on her side.

*

We get home and eat dinner and go upstairs without sayin a word to nobody. Mama don’t notice cause she ran into Mrs. Jackson at the supermarket and there’s a whole scandal about Mrs. Jackson’s son runnin off to the city or somesuch and Mama’s happy as a clam about it. Finally somethin’s happenin, she says, in this dull as mud town.

Pa watches me and Edie from across the table.

I don’t like him lookin at me.

It’s like he knows.

It’s like he saw us hit that girl. Just the one time is all it took for Luck to shiver and shake and roll around on the ground like he got an electric shock. When he stood back up I could see his eyes real clear for the first time. They were dark and didn’t have no white around em.

I don’t like Luck’s eyes.

Edie stood there twistin her hands.

Oh golly Luck, she said, we shouldn’t’a done that. We shouldn’t’a hurt that girl. She’ll tell on us.

She didn’t see you, said Luck. He smoothed down his coat. He dusted off his tall hat. He kicked dirt off his boots. All she saw, he said, was her fear.

Then he took our hands and led us home.

And now we’re sittin here across from Pa tryin to choke down cornbread and I swear he knows what we’ve done.

I almost say somethin. I can’t help it. This ain’t right.

It ain’t right it ain’t right.

IT AIN’T RIGHT IT AIN’T—

Edie kicks me under the table.

Stupid Tom. Stupid idiot Tom.

I shut up. I don’t say nothin.

I ain’t stupid idiot Tom with the smart sister no more. Not with Luck around.

So I don’t act like it.

*

At first when I wake up that night I think it’s Edie comin to get me cause Luck said when he brought us home before dinner, he said, Darling children I want you to come up and see me tonight.

But we just hurt that girl for you, I said. Ain’t that enough for today?

Luck touched my arm. He squeezed tight till I couldn’t breathe.

It’s never enough, he said.

But it ain’t Edie wakin me up. It’s Pa.

Hurry, he says. Follow me.

Where’re we goin?

To the attic.

I stop cold. Why?

Cause I know what’s goin on and it’s gonna stop tonight.

Pa, ain’t nothin—

I ain’t an idiot Tom and you ain’t either.

But I am an idiot, I say. Ain’t no use lyin. I ain’t a good liar. Edie’s the one who’s good at lyin.

I need Luck, I say. We’re at the attic door. Pa’s holdin the cross from above the supper table like a gun.

I ain’t no good without him, I say.

I’m cryin.

No you got that wrong, Pa says.

He leans down so I can see him. His face got criss-crossed lines all over it. He looks tired but his eyes don’t.

You’re a good boy, Pa says. He holds me tight.

Where’s Edie?

She ain’t comin with us.

Why?

Cause she ain’t strong enough. Ain’t her fault. You could’a been the weak one just as easy.

I’m the mistake twin, I say. I’m still cryin cause that’s what idiots do. I shouldn’t be alive.

That’s right, says a voice.

It’s Luck.

You shouldn’t be alive, he says.

The attic door flies open.

Pa holds out his cross in front of us. He’s got it in one hand and me in the other. He rushes into the attic.

Somethin’s screamin:

You again.

You you you.

Not again.

Get that away from me.

GET IT AWAY.

PUT IT DOWN.

No, Pa says. I ain’t puttin it down.

He grabs that heavy tin Edie dropped, the one Luck lived inside. It’s so heavy Pa can barely lift it. Maybe with two hands he could lift it but he can’t let go of that cross. I know that without even askin.

Tom, he says, help me get it outside.

So much screamin and so much wind. Books and clothes and boxes flyin all over the attic. There’s a kind of dark in here so thick it’s like drinkin cement.

But we lift it together, me and Pa, and we get it outside.

Luck follows us, and there’s dirt flyin in our eyes and the ground’s shakin under our feet but if I look out into the fields it’s calm like springtime. It’s a good thing we didn’t stay in the attic. We might’ve brought the whole house down.

I guess Pa knows that.

How’d you know Pa? I say. How’d you know what we done?

It happened to me too. He has to shout it cause Luck is screamin nasty words so loud I cain’t hardly think.

When? I say.

When I was a boy. Luck found me too.

You should’a gotten rid of it, I say. So me and Edie couldn’t find it. This tin, we found it with our toys.

That’s the thing, Pa says.

He looks at me.

I did get rid of it, Tom.

TOM. TOM. TOMMY TOM TOM.

WHERE WILL YOU BE WITHOUT ME TOM.

Don’t listen, Pa says, real calm.

We’re by the creek now. He’s got the tin in one hand and the cross in the other and he’s tryin to bring em together like magnets that just won’t go. There’s sweat on his forehead and his muscles are big like mine’ll never be, I just know it.

YOU’RE RIGHT TOM, says Luck.

He don’t look like a man no more. He’s all kinds of slime and glob. He’s crawlin on the ground. His hat ain’t a hat no more. It’s just a tall tall head.

YOU’LL NEVER BE AS STRONG AS YOUR PA.

YOU’RE NOTHING WITHOUT ME.

YOUR SISTER COULD MAYBE DO IT. SHE’S SMART ENOUGH. SHE’S PRETTY ENOUGH. SHE COULD MAKE IT WITHOUT ME.

Don’t listen to it, says Pa. He’s sweatin hard. He cain’t hardly breathe. It ain’t nothin but tricks and lies, he says. Luck ain’t real. Luck don’t last.

DON’T LISTEN TO IT, Luck says. He drips black on my feet. He’s real close now. DON’T LISTEN TO IT.

I NEED YOU AND YOU NEED ME.

WITHOUT ME YOU’RE NOTHING.

Then Pa says, Okay Tom. Okay now.

And I say to Luck, You got that backwards. And I’m cryin but I just don’t care.

And Pa slams his hands together, cross to tin.

And Luck shrinks into a smokin black piece of somethin burnt.

And flies into the tin.

And the lid slams closed.

*

With Luck gone everything’s quiet again. There’s crickets in the grass and a coyote out somewhere by the foothills. And there’s me and Pa starin at the tin on the ground like it’s this thing you don’t want to touch cause if you do it’ll blow you to bits.

What’ll we do with it? I say.

What’ll we do without it? What’ll we do without Luck? That’s the question I really feel like askin but I know I probably shouldn’t. I think of all the things I done. I wonder if Pa done those things too when he was a boy. I wonder if anybody ever called him idiot or thought he was the dumb one.

After a while Pa says, We’ll bury it. Far from here. Farther’n’ I did the first time. Deeper too.

We’re walkin back to the house now, me and Pa. We grab two shovels from the barn.

Me and Pa.

Not Edie. Not Mama. And Pa’s lookin at me like I ain’t a boy no more. Real proud, he looks like.

I bet you didn’t count on that did you Luck? I bet you didn’t see that comin.

You thought I was nothin without you.

You was wrong.

I sling the shovel on my shoulder just like Pa does.

I liked having Luck around, I say. It was nice.

I know, he says. I did too.

What’ll we do without it? What if we never get it again?

 There. I said it. I know it’s shameful but I said it.

Well, he says. Well. Then he says, We’ll go to sleep.

We’ll wake up in the mornin, he says. And then we’ll get back to work.

~*~