The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Lucky Lucky Girl

Isn’t Simran a lucky girl?

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

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

Isn’t that lucky?

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

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

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

How lucky is that?

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

Wasn’t that totally lucky?

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

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

But Emily said, “No.”

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

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

It’s pretty sad, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t she a lucky, lucky girl?

The Circus

They said I was found in an eggshell. That a witch sailed to sea in the shell to whip up a storm that would smash the boats to ribbons on the rocks, and when the shell came back to land, there was I, curled inside.

That’s what they said. Rubbish, of course, but in our line of work, an interesting story was important as the clothes on your back. Maybe more important.

And it’s true I was always lucky, right from a tiny thing, always first to find stones with holes in their middles when we cleared the ground for the tents, or see a cat the color of midnight. Lucky Luke, they called me.

But only once. Tempting fate like that is the height of foolishness, and we are by nature a superstitious lot.

Perhaps that’s what happened.

*

I was seven, possibly eight. Not knowing exactly my birthday on account of the eggshells, it was difficult to say for sure, but that sounds about right. Seven or eight, and there was so much glittering, thrilling fun to be had, ducking under the juggler’s clubs, spitting water back at the elephants. Waiting for the moment when everyone had taken their seats and the whole tent held its breath…

“Welcome, welcome!” Mister Scully, the ringmaster, would cry. The towns changed, some big, some small, at the edges of lakes or swaddled by mountains, but this was always the same. And then I would be wheeled out in a special box, because I was one of the small ones, and the magician would saw me clean in two.

Not truly. But it looked for all the world as if he had.

On one particular day, the animals were tired and grizzly, and the rest of us soaked through from a week’s worth of rain. “Are we there yet?” I asked. I remember this quite clearly.

“Nearly, Lucky Luke!” roared Scully, trying very hard to smile beneath his drooping, dripping mustache. Beside me the fortune teller made a sign to ward off evil spirits.

We turned down a dirt road walled on both sides with trees tall as hills. Somewhere behind my little nest of blankets the lion roared, the tamer rattled his chains.

And the beast was silenced.

Inside the trees, nightfall had come at breakfast time, so dark it was. Leaves rustled, and whatever tiny points of light broke through seemed more like stars than daylight. The forest kept the rain off, however. That was something.

It felt an age that we traveled that dark road, peering ahead for any sign of it ending, and when it did, trees giving way to open space and then a large town of wood and brick, it was as abrupt and surprising as a miracle. As finding a penny beside your shoe the moment you happen to look down.

“Everybody out!”

Everyone has a job, in the circus. In truth, everyone has twenty-seven jobs, all part of a well-oiled mechanism. The acrobats climbed atop the piles on the wagons to grasp tent pegs with their toes. The magicians vanished burlap sacks as soon as they were emptied. I wriggled through the small spaces, ran jackrabbit-quick between the carts and the tent.

With a sweeping arm, Scully donned his top hat and crossed the muddy field to the town. I remember this quite clearly, too, though I could not now say why it made such an impression. He always went to issue a formal invitation, as if the people hadn’t watched our arrival through their windows.

The circus had come to town, and oh, wouldn’t they come that very evening to see what wonders the Big Top held?

Of course they would come. They always came, ready to stamp their feet and clap their hands and hiss like snakes.

Only later, much later, did I realize I hadn’t found a single holed stone, or seen a cat hunting for field mice. I was too busy helping the tumblers with their spangles, tying knots in the trapeze ropes, fetching buckets of sawdust and rainwater.

I wouldn’t realize until later.

*

The tent was full to bursting. I sneaked out and away, far enough that I could see how grand it was, great stripes lit up with torches against the backdrop of that deep, dark forest.

“Luke!”

“Here!” I ran back, back to Maximilian, the magician, ready to tuck me into the box so he might cut me in two again.

“In you go, then.”

It was dark as a bruise inside the box, but I wasn’t afraid. No need for that. Done it a hundred times, hadn’t I?

The tent was dark, too. I couldn’t see, but I knew, it was always dark as I was wheeled out to the edge of the ring in my box. Dark and quiet enough to hear a pin drop. The band silent, Scully in his waistcoat and top hat waiting, waiting until the townsfolk couldn’t stay still for another moment.

And then the lights would burst to life, and the waiting band would play, and Scully would welcome everyone, and the show would begin.

Just another moment, that’s all. Squashed inside my box, I knew it would only take another moment.

That’s when the whistle began. A low, mournful whistle that brought goosebumps to my skin. A trombone made a noise like a cat under a cartwheel. Glass shattered.

“Lights!” Scully ordered. Maximilian flicked the latches with fingers that made the whole box shake. I tumbled out, heart thudding, as the ring of torches flared on our fearful faces. High up on the ladders, Ivan and Cassandra dropped their trapezes to put their hands to their mouths. Juliette dropped her deck of cards that did not foresee this. She would have said.

“Who was that,” Scully whispered, gazing about the tent. “Who whistled?”

No one said a word. He looked terrifying, terrible, inhuman with his wide mustache and goggling eyes.

“It is terrible luck to whistle in a circus tent, you know. Let us not get off on such a terrible foot, my friends. Who was it?”

Still, no one answered. Bunch of cowards, I thought then. Bunch of stinking cowards.

Scully gave a last look around the tent. “All right. Welcome, welcome.” It was not a cry, that time.

It was something more of a warning.

The smashed mirror was swept, cards gathered, latches closed on the box, locking me back inside. For the first time I was afraid as the sword sliced the air, but the trick went off without a hitch. And for the rest, if our hands shook a little more, if our feet were not so steady that evening, who was to notice?

But we would not stay another night, that was decided the instant the tent had cleared. Pack up first thing, be on our way to somewhere more hospitable.

In the morning, the wheels stuck so fast in the mud not even the elephants could pull them free.

That afternoon, bored, restless, Cassandra set up a tightrope between two trees, and Ivan wasn’t quick enough to catch her when she fell.

Sulky and starving, the lion seemed to feel the tamer was taking too long to bring his dinner. A single scream broke the sunset, blood stained the ground.

By nightfall, we were all huddled in a single wagon, Juliette’s cards promising death, and death, and death again.

For these things always came in threes. We stole glances at each other’s faces, wondering.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever know who knocked the candle, and I am the only one left to think of it.

*

I was always lucky. Found in an eggshell, the first to spot four-leafed clovers and make wishes on shooting stars.

The only one to wake as the flames licked and crackled over parched wood and moth-eaten blankets. My screams trapped in my throat, my hands weak. No one stirred when I shook them.

Jackrabbit-quick, I ran. Into the woods, dark, dank, safe. From behind a tree I saw the fire spread down the chain of wagons, heard the lion roar, the elephants stamp their feet and toss their heads, strong enough to break their chains and let them run.

But there was no saving the circus. Nothing to do but wait for the flames to burn themselves out in the hour of sunrise, when the sky matched the burning embers exactly. On knocking knees I walked, edging closer to a sight too terrible to look at, and yet too terrible to look away.

Part of my magic box survived, charred wood held together by silver hinges, surrounded by a pile of spangles and ash. A beautiful, brightly-colored bird, like a fire itself, flew down to perch on its edge.

It turned a beady eye on me, and then on the rising sun. And it began to whistle, sounding for all the world like a man.

Motherhood

The woman pushing the stroller was tall and thin, and Amelia-Anne noticed her because her pants were a bit old-fashioned like something out of an old cartoon. The woman’s jacket was brown. Amelia-Anne thought it looked lumpy, like a potato bag. She watched the thin woman’s bell-bottoms drag over the ground and then Amelia-Anne passed her and went to the park and played on the slides until she was tired.

***

The thin woman was back the next day. She pushed her stroller along with all the other moms, but none of them said hi to her. Amelia-Anne wondered why that was. When they were at the playground, the other moms laughed and talked and loaded their babies into swings and bounced them and showed them off to each other.

The thin woman sat by herself, hugging her baby and singing to it softly.

***

Amelia-Anne had to go to a birthday party the next day. She didn’t really want to, and her mom didn’t want to take her. In fact, her parents had an argument about it, but Amelia-Anne was getting dressed so she didn’t hear much of it. Her mom drove her to the party. There were presents and balloons and cupcakes with pink and blue frosting. Ally was turning nine and she wanted to be cool, so she had invited a bunch of fifth-graders. Amelia-Anne thought that was dumb.

After the party, Amelia-Anne was going to walk home, but her mom insisted on coming in the car again to pick her up. All the other moms picked up their kids, too. Amelia-Anne thought that was nice, because it was getting cold.

***

She went to the park the next day and sat on her bench and started to draw with a red crayon on a big piece of paper. There weren’t as many mothers in the park today, but the thin woman was there. She looked around, clutching her baby. She saw Amelia-Anne. She came over and sat next to Amelia-Anne.

“Hi,” said Amelia-Anne, swinging her legs. Then she went back to drawing.

“Hello,” said the thin woman. “Did you see my baby? Isn’t my baby beautiful?”

Amelia-Anne looked at the baby. It looked like all babies, she thought. She went back to drawing.

“Isn’t my baby fabulous?” the thin woman asked. She hugged the baby.

Amelia-Anne thought he was a bit drooly and a bit chubby, and she didn’t want to be rude, so she didn’t say anything. She continued coloring, making a big red circle and drawing a red flower inside it.

The thin woman didn’t seem to mind. “My baby’s the most wonderful baby in the whole world,” she said, and stroked her baby’s head with her long fingers.

Amelia-Anne put a rake inside the red circle, too.

After a while the playground emptied. The sky turned gray and the leaves started to whirl. The other mothers went home. Amelia-Anne headed home, too, but when she left, the thin woman was still on the bench, holding her baby and talking to it.

***

The next day, at the park, the sky was sunny and the birds were out, and so were the mothers, their toddlers stuffed into colorful jumpers and put into strollers or onto leashes so that they could crawl around. The thin woman was there. She was letting her baby crawl without a leash, but she was following it. Amelia-Anne watched them. The baby took about five crawl-shuffles for every one of the thin woman’s long, long steps.

The baby went right up to one of the other mothers and looked up at her. The other mother saw and swooped up the baby, laughing. “Who’s a little deary!” she said. “Whoooo’s a little deary-schnookums?”

The thin woman screamed. She screamed so loud that Amelia-Anne broke her crayon. Everyone on the playground froze.

“Don’t touch my baby!” the thin woman shrieked, and snatched the baby away from the other woman, who stood shocked and mortified.

The other mothers frowned and put their heads together. The mother who had picked up the thin woman’s baby went away.

After a few minutes the playground calmed down again. Most of the mothers left. The thin woman let her baby stay on the ground, crawling as it pleased, and she followed it. Amelia-Anne went home.

***

The next day was dark and rainy, but Amelia-Anne went to the park anyway. Her mother had said, “Amelia-Anne, I don’t want you going out by yourself,” but Amelia-Anne had forgotten and had done it anyway. She went up the gravel lane to the playground and sat down on the bench. The wind gusted around her. She swung her legs. After a while the thin woman came, pushing her stroller. She saw Amelia-Anne and smiled and waved. Her hair was a bit mousy, Amelia-Anne thought. She needed extra-pomegranate conditioner. Amelia-Anne had seen extra-pomegranate conditioner on TV, and she was sure everyone with mousy hair needed it.

“Hello!” said the thin woman, and sat down next to her. She lifted the baby out of the stroller and set it on her knee.

“Hi,” said Amelia-Anne. She didn’t have her crayons with her today. She wished she did.

The wind blew around them.

“Isn’t my baby the most wonderful baby in the whole world?” the thin woman asked.

Amelia-Anne sighed. She swung her legs. “What’s your baby’s name?” she asked. That was good. That was polite.

“I called him Max,” the thin woman said.

“How old is he?”

“A few months.” The thin woman bounced the baby gently. “Isn’t he fabulous?”

“Don’t you know exactly how old he is?” asked Amelia-Anne.

The thin woman looked at Amelia-Anne, smiling. “Isn’t he fabulous?”she asked again, and then the baby gurgled a big bubble of spit right out of his mouth, so Amelia-Anne said yes.

“I just love babies,” the thin woman said, and Amelia-Anne couldn’t be certain, but she thought the thin woman’s eyes looked very dark right then. Very, very dark.

Amelia-Anne went home.

***

Amelia-Anne’s mom wouldn’t let her go to the playground the next day, or the day after, or the day after that. Finally, Amelia-Anne’s mom said they could go, but only if Amelia-Anne’s mom went along. So Amelia-Anne’s mom did.

They sat on the bench. There were a few other mothers at the playground. The thin woman wasn’t there. Amelia-Anne searched and searched for the brown coat and the long, long legs in their cartoon jeans, but she couldn’t see them. Amelia-Anne’s mom talked with some of the other moms. They kept looking over at their toddlers, and at Amelia-Anne, too, as if they wanted to make sure Amelia-Anne didn’t hear. Amelia-Anne didn’t really care what they were talking about and she wished they would stop looking at her.

***

The next day, the thin woman wasn’t at the park either. But that was the day that Amelia-Anne overheard her parents talking about the baby that had been stolen two weeks ago while sitting in its mom’s grocery cart, and how no one knew where it was, and no one knew who had kidnapped it, and how there hadn’t been a ransom note or anything. Police had been out looking for a crazy woman who might have done it, but they couldn’t find her. They had been asking for clues. Amelia-Anne thought of the thin woman, clutching her baby, smiling. “I just love babies,” she had said, so Amelia-Anne knew it couldn’t have been her.

Red Shoes and Doll Parts

The story of Jackie and Mr. Jimmy is similar to that of the chicken and the egg.

Which came first?

Did Jackie start talking to Mr. Jimmy so much because the kids at school made fun of her and called her Wacky Jackie? Or did the kids at school start making fun of Jackie because all she ever did was talk to Mr. Jimmy?

No one really knows; not even Jackie knew.

But she thought she did.

*

She would get home from school and take Mr. Jimmy out of her backpack and sniffle over his cold, wooden head.

“Oh Mr. Jimmy,” she would say, crying into the mirror, which made things all the more awful, because she hated her uncontrollable hair and her pimples and how she looked like a string bean boy in her clothes, “why do they have to be so mean to me?”

And Mr. Jimmy would say something soothing like, “You shouldn’t care so much about what they think, Jackie. Jackie, they’re scum. Jackie, they’re little creeps. I hate them so much. Don’t you hate them?”

But Jackie would shake her head. “No. Hating’s bad. Mom and Dad say so. You shouldn’t hate people, Mr. Jimmy. Please don’t.” And then she’d put Mr. Jimmy away. He frightened her when he said things like that.

One day, though, it was the first warm day of spring, and Jackie had worn the prettiest sundress to school. It had polka dots and ruffled cap sleeves and a bright red belt. She had felt like an absolute princess, like a flower full of petals. But instead of everyone at school being impressed by Jackie’s style, they had poked fun at her—for dressing up too much, for dressing too old-fashioned, for being able to see through her skirt, for trying to be so pretty when she obviously was so not.

Jackie ran all the way home from school, and tore up her matching red shoes.

Her parents weren’t home yet, and she was glad. No one should have to see her like this. No one but Mr. Jimmy. She hugged him tight and cried over his crisp little blue suit.

“Oh Mr. Jimmy,” she said at last, when she stopped crying enough to speak. Her voice was full of hiccups. “I do hate them. I do hate them.”

Mr. Jimmy was quiet for a very long time. Then he said, “Oh? Is that really true?”

Jackie nodded fiercely. “I hate every single one of them.”

“Then we should do something about it. Don’t you think?”

Jackie wiped her eyes and stared. “What do you mean? What could we do?”

“Oh.” And Mr. Jimmy, even though it shouldn’t have been possible, seemed to smile. Not his painted-on smile, but one from deep inside himself. “I have lots of ideas. I’ve had lots of ideas for a very long time.”

“What kind of ideas?”

“We could get back at them.”

“But how?”

doll_parts“Trust me, Jackie. Trust me. I have your best interests at heart. I love you, Jackie.”

And poor Jackie, her face all red, smiled. “I love you too, Mr. Jimmy. You’re the best friend I have in the whole world.”

“And I have been for a very long time.”

“Why, yes.”

“And I always will be. Your very best friend.”

Jackie laughed. “Of course! Don’t be silly.”

“This isn’t silly to me, Jackie.”

There was that tone of voice that sometimes scared Jackie, the tone of voice Mr. Jimmy had when he talked about hating people. But Jackie was too tired from crying to care very much. So she put Mr. Jimmy on his stool and crawled into bed for a nap. It was exhausting to cry so much. She didn’t even stop to take off her ruined red shoes. She nestled into her pillows and stared across the room at Mr. Jimmy’s face until she fell asleep.

And Mr. Jimmy sat on his stool and stared back, which is the only thing ventriloquist dummies are supposed to be able to do.

But Mr. Jimmy was special. Jackie would have been the first to tell you that.

*

The next day, Jackie’s parents heard a slight wooden clatter at the kitchen table, and looked up from their cereal to see Jackie settling Mr. Jimmy onto her old booster seat, from when she was too little to reach the table on her own.

“Jackie,” said Jackie’s mom, “why is your doll at the kitchen table?”

Jackie’s dad frowned and fiddled with his glasses. “Aren’t you a little old for such things?”

“Don’t listen to them, Jackie,” Mr. Jimmy said through his bright white wooden teeth. “Things will be different from now on. People might not understand us, Jackie. They might not understand how much we love each other. But you and I understand, and that’s enough. That’s enough.”

Jackie worked very hard to pretend like Mr. Jimmy hadn’t said anything at all. She had figured out a long time ago that no one else could hear Mr. Jimmy but her. It made her feel special. It made her feel beautiful, like a thing that people wanted instead of a thing people teased, a thing people tripped in the hallways so she would drop all her books, a thing people pinched like she was some kind of ugly toy to be tortured.

“His name, Mother,” Jackie burst out, her cheeks bright red, “is Mr. Jimmy. He’s not a doll. He’s my friend.”

Her mother gasped at the meanness in Jackie’s voice. Jackie’s father stood up and tugged his shirt straight. “Now see here, Jackie-kins . . . ”

But Jackie didn’t listen. She pushed her chair back so hard it crashed into the refrigerator. She grabbed Mr. Jimmy and cradled him against her chest as she ran out the door. She kicked the cat when it got in her way, and as the poor creature yowled and scrambled away, Mr. Jimmy laughed against her ear.

“Such a pretty girl, Jackie-kins,” he said, and his breath was foul, but his lips were smooth. “We’ll show them. We’ll show them.”

*

On the school bus that day, Jackie held Mr. Jimmy in the bookbag on her lap and fussed over him, petting his smooth, painted-on black hair, running her fingers down his smooth, painted-on suit jacket.

“You’re so handsome, Mr. Jimmy,” Jackie said dreamily, although she didn’t say it as quietly as she thought she had, and a couple of boys nearby—Greg and Michael, were their names—turned around to look and point and laugh.

“Me?” said Mr. Jimmy. “You think I’m handsome?”

In answer, Jackie kissed Mr. Jimmy’s bright red lips.

“What are you saying to Mr. Jimmy today, Jackie?” said Greg. He had switched places with Mary, in the seat in front of Jackie’s, so he could bend over the back of the seat and get right in Jackie’s face. He was a handsome boy, and he had secretly always liked Jackie, and was the one who pinched her the most when no one else was looking.

He didn’t understand why Jackie preferred a doll to him.

“None of your business,” Jackie said, turning toward the window.

Mr. Jimmy’s bright blue eyes stared out of the open bookbag, right at Greg.

It made the deep, secret part of Greg—the same part that told him when he was in danger, or when someone was watching him—feel uneasy. But Greg wasn’t good at reading the deep, secret part of himself, so he just got angry instead.

He grabbed Jackie’s arm and twisted her around so she would look at him. Some of the other kids—Michael, and Mary, and Timothy and his sister Elizabeth—gathered around. The bus driver didn’t care; the bus driver never cared.

“Let go of me,” Jackie said, miserably. She was not good at standing up to these people. When they treated her like this, she felt ten times smaller than she actually was. She felt squishable, and dirty.

“No,” said Greg. “Not until you tell me what you’re saying to Mr. Jimmy.”

“Mr. Jimmy!” Michael said, in this high, fake-girl voice, and he batted his eyelashes and made kissy faces. “I love you, Mr. Jimmy!”

Mary laughed nervously. Timothy and Elizabeth watched with their mouths hanging open.

This went on for a while, and soon the whole bus was singing a song Greg had invented: “Jackie and Jimmy, sitting in a tree! One is a doll, and the other’s a fre-eak!”

Mr. Jimmy was very calm in Jackie’s lap. “I’ll bite them. I will, darling Jackie. If you want me to.”

“No,” said Jackie, and her whole body was shaking. “We can’t hurt them. It isn’t right.”

“But yesterday, Jackie, yesterday you said we could hurt them.”

Jackie squeezed her eyes shut and put her hands over her ears, but that seemed to make Mr. Jimmy’s voice even louder.

“Yesterday, Jackie, yesterday you said you loved me.”

Jackie opened her eyes. Mr. Jimmy was very close to her; his eyes seemed alive; his mouth seemed wet. He smelled like something burning.

“I do love you, Mr. Jimmy,” she said, wiping her tears.

Mr. Jimmy did not seem very sorry for her. His voice was cold and rattling. “Then prove it.”

So Jackie stood up in the middle of the aisle, one fist clenched, the other holding her bookbag with Mr. Jimmy’s head poking out.

“I’ll tell you what Mr. Jimmy said,” she announced, and the whole bus quieted because they thought this was going to be good.

“Shut up,” Greg said, punching Michael, who couldn’t stop laughing at his own mean jokes. “Wacky’s got something to say.”

“He told me,” Jackie said, “that he wishes he was alive, so he could hurt you—every one of you—for being mean to me. He said he wishes he could make you cry. He said—he said—”

Jackie’s bravery left her as quickly as it had come, and she sank back onto her seat, hugging Mr. Jimmy.

The other kids sat back down too. They weren’t laughing anymore. The deep, secret parts of themselves were screaming out warnings. It made their bellies feel funny and their skin feel cold.

*

That night, sirens filled the air of Jackie’s neighborhood. She lay in bed, breathing hard under her covers. Her bedroom flashed red and blue. When she got up to peek out the window, she saw the ambulance and the police cars the next street over: Greg’s street. And that house was Greg’s house. And that broken window was Greg’s window.

Was that body, on the stretcher, Greg’s body?

“Mr. Jimmy,” she whispered, “what did you do?”

He was there, at her feet, lying on the ground with his limbs askew. His cold wooden fingers touched her ankle.

“Just what you wanted me to do,” he said kindly. “I did it so you didn’t have to.” And when Jackie went back to bed, she held Mr. Jimmy close under the covers. He whispered how much he loved her against her ear until she fell asleep.

*

“So horrible, what happened to that poor boy,” said Jackie’s mom, at breakfast the next morning.

“I heard he’s going to be all right, though,” said Jackie’s dad. “That’s what I heard from the neighbors.”

“What happened, exactly?”

“A nasty fall. Apparently, he fell right through his window.”

Jackie was shoveling cereal into her mouth like a robot. Mr. Jimmy sat beside her.

Jackie’s mom tried to ignore that smiling, frozen face. She had never liked that doll. She wished they had never visited that antique store that one, hot summer.

“Jackie,” Jackie’s mom said, “are you all right? You look terrible.”

Jackie paused, a spoon of cereal halfway to her mouth, and glared at her mom. “Gee. Thanks.”

“I mean it, sweetie.” Her mother pressed a hand to her forehead. “You look like you didn’t sleep at all. You have dark circles under your eyes. You’re burning up.”

“Maybe you should stay home from school,” said Jackie’s dad.

“No!” Jackie bolted up out of her chair. “I have to go to school.”

“Poor thing,” Jackie’s mom said, concerned. “We’ve been talking about little Greg too much, haven’t we? Don’t worry, Jackie-kins. Your friend will be all right.”

“He’s not my friend,” Jackie said, as she walked out of the kitchen with Mr. Jimmy dangling from her left hand.

“Did her voice sound funny to you, just then?” Jackie’s dad said, after a moment.

Jackie’s mom shrugged. Like most grown-ups, she had not listened to the deep, secret place inside herself for years. “I hope she’s not getting a sore throat.”

*

“He deserved what he got. He deserved what he got.”

Jackie sat in the girl’s restroom at lunchtime, Mr. Jimmy in her lap. The tile was cold against her skin.

“You shouldn’t sit on the floor like this,” Mr. Jimmy said. “It’s probably covered with germs. You will get germs on your pretty legs.”

“Are my legs pretty?” Jackie asked, feeling pleased.

“Of course. You know I think you’re pretty, Jackie-kins.”

Anger exploded inside Jackie. She threw Mr. Jimmy across the room. “Don’t call me that!”

Mr. Jimmy did not break, but the sound of his wooden body careening across the floor was awful anyway. Jackie was horrified with herself. She ran to him and swept him up in her arms.

“Oh, Mr. Jimmy, I’m so sorry,” she said, crying. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“It’s all right, Jackie,” said Mr. Jimmy, very quiet.

“I just got so angry! Thinking about Greg. Thinking about the others.”

“What about the others? That there are so many of them left? They are all the same, you know. They will just keep doing it, again and again, unless we get them first. They are making you angry, and sad. They made you hurt me, just now.”

“Did I hurt you?” Jackie’s face ran wet with tears.

“You did. But I don’t care, because I love you.”

“You still love me.” Jackie clutched him close. “You do, you do.”

“Of course I do. But I feel a bit betrayed now, you understand.”

Jackie nodded vigorously. “I understand, of course. You’re right to feel that way. I was so terrible to you, throwing you like that.”

“I know how you can make it up me.”

“Anything for you.”

Mr. Jimmy’s fingers were cold on Jackie’s neck, on Jackie’s cheek. It made Jackie feel nice. “Anything?”

Anything.”

*

It was Michael’s house this time, which was close to Greg’s—just across the street, in fact. All the children lived close together. All the children rode the same yellow bus.

It was two nights after Greg fell. Two nights later, and the neighborhood once again filled with sirens and flashing lights. There was another broken window. Michael had fallen, too, and this time they were not sure if he would be all right. Michael’s family was richer; Michael’s house was taller.

The police officers did not know what to make of the marks across the paint in Michael’s bedroom. It was like something had dragged him, like he had dug his fingernails into the walls. The marks disturbed the police officers, but what disturbed them even more were the footprints.

Muddy footprints, in Michael’s bedroom. Girl-shaped footprints, with ten girl-shaped toes—down the stairs, through the kitchen, and out the kitchen door. Into the backyard, down the sidewalk.

The footprints were easy to track. It had rained, earlier that very night. The world was wet and sloppy and quiet.

“They go through there,” said one of the police officers to the others. She pointed down a garden path that led between two lovely paneled houses—one white, one yellow. Flat gray stones marked with muddy brown footprints led into bushes and shadows. Sounds met the police officers’ ears—sounds of wood crashing against a hard surface, someone crying, someone in pain. A deep voice, and a high voice.

The police officers hurried into the space between the houses, flashlights first.

“I couldn’t stop him!” It was Jackie, crouching there in the mud, barefoot and still wearing her pajamas. They were painted brown and red—an awful, sticky red. Surrounding her were the parts of a doll—there, a wooden leg; there, a chubby little hand

“Holy smokes,” said one of the police officers.

“Here now, little girl,” said one of the other officers, crouching low, “just calm down.”

“No! You don’t understand!” Jackie backed away, trying to pick up all the shattered parts of Mr. Jimmy, but there were too many of them, and they tumbled out of her arms. She had destroyed him. She had beaten him to smithereens. “He said he needed my help, but I didn’t know, I didn’t think he would—I didn’t think I would—”

Jackie looked up at them, these men and women with their shining white lights. Behind them, Jackie’s mom and dad came out of the house in their robes and slippers. Jackie’s mom put her hands over her mouth.

“Grab her,” muttered one of the police officers. “She looks nuts.”

“But she’s just a little girl!” Jackie’s mom cried.

The police officers took hold of Jackie’s skinny arms and wrenched her out of the mud. She kicked and screamed, she bit at them. She hit them, and her hands scraped their cheeks, because her palms had bits of glass in them, and splinters of wood.

“But I love him!” Jackie screamed. One of the police officers threw her over his shoulder, and Jackie reached behind him, struggling toward the pieces of Mr. Jimmy. “It was only because I love him! He told me to do it. He told me to!”

One blue eye stared back at her from the muddy ground. One blue eye above a shattered red smile.

*

The story of Jackie and Mr. Jimmy is similar to that of the chicken and the egg.

Which came first?

Did Mr. Jimmy come to life because Jackie loved him? Or did Jackie love him because he was alive?

Or maybe it was like the real answer to the chicken and the egg question:

What does it matter? The end result is the same: One loses its head, the other gets cracked open.

~*~

Dark Valentine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mindy,” Booshie said. 

And the table got quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d forgotten I was walking past the cemetery. 

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

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

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

“Jack,” I said.

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

“Jack,” I said again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess that’s all I wanted to say.