Summer camp, and me and Matías are walking down to the lake for kayaks, which we don’t like that much. Everyone else is already down there. So when we come to that fork in the path, where you go to the right to get to the lake, we didn’t exactly decide or talk about it, but we just took the left fork instead.
He’s a cool guy, Matías is. We like a lot of the same stuff. He’s like my best friend at camp.
He might sort of be my best friend of anywhere.
So down the left path. And at first I don’t notice, ‘cause me and Mat are talking, but after a while what he’s saying sort of fades out, and I notice how on this path the woods keep getting denser, and the dead leaves under our feet get darker and softer, and you can’t hear the lake at all anymore. You can’t hear hardly anything at all, even the birds are quiet.
The path stops at this clearing, like that’s the place the path was taking us to.
And in the middle of the clearing is a door.
This door is just standing there, surrounded by trees, inside a wooden door frame. It’s painted dark blue, like the darkest midnight blue, and the paint looks old, all cracked and peeling. It has a regular doorknob, brass or whatever.
I mean, it’s just a door. A door in the middle of the forest. At first we just stand there, like: What?
Then Mat starts laughing, like this is the most hilarious thing he’s ever seen. I sort of see why he’s laughing, it is pretty funny—I mean who brought a door out here? or did there used to be a house, and now a door is all that’s left? But for some reason I don’t feel exactly like laughing. I keep noticing all the quiet.
Mat walks up to the door. I say, “Hey, man, maybe you shouldn’t . .” and he stops and looks back at me, smiling, like, “Shouldn’t what?” And I can’t think of what I was going to say, can’t think of a good reason not to touch the door. It’s so weirdly quiet here isn’t a good reason.
Mat picks up a stick like it’s a briefcase. He puts his hand on the doorknob and looks back at me, saying in this fake deep, jolly voice: “Well, goodbye kids, I’m off to the forest office! Forest pizza for dinner tonight!” And he opens the door, still looking at me, and walks through.
I wait for him to come back around from the other side. But he doesn’t. So I guess he’s hiding on the other side, for a joke? and I walk around back there.
And he’s not there.
I look around to see if he’s hiding in the woods. But the bushes and trees are so thick, no way he could have got in there without me hearing him in all this quiet.
I run back around to the other side of the door. I call his name, I yell, “Mat! Matías!” over and over.
Nothing happens except quiet. He’s just gone, Mat’s just gone.
I walk up to the door and put my hand on the knob. Then I put my hand down, because I don’t have to do this, some grownup should do this. I run as fast as I can back up the path, back through the woods, to tell the counselors that Mat disappeared.
But when I get back to camp, all out of breath, before I even get to the counselors’ cabin, I see him. I see Matías. It’s from the back, but he’s the only one at camp with an Astros T-shirt. And I’m so relieved, it feels like I’m standing in a shower of relief and it’s pouring right down from my head to my feet. It was just a crazy Mat joke after all. I run up to him, yelling, “Mat! Hey Mat, I can’t believe you got here before me! You really . . .” And I stop.
Because when he turns around, it’s not Mat. It looks like Mat—same thick black hair that kind of sticks out at the top of his head, same brown eyes, same one ear bigger than the other.
But it’s not Mat, no way it’s Mat. Because the dark eyes are cold and empty, and he isn’t slightly smiling on one side of his face like Mat always is. He isn’t smiling at all. He isn’t even standing right—Mat’s fidgety, he’s always moving around and drumming his fingers or practicing soccer kicks. This boy is standing totally still.
Then he blinks his cold, empty eyes at me one time, and gives a tiny, cold smile. He puts one finger to his lips, and says, “Shhhhhhh.”
All the skin on my arms raises up in little bumps of fear, and I turn around and run. I hear Al the main counselor yelling my name and saying something about “dinner” and “dark soon,” but I don’t stop.
At first I don’t know where I’m running, I’m just running from the thing-not-Mat, which is the creepiest thing I ever saw. But then I know I’m running to the door.
When I get there it isn’t dark yet, but the light is all strange and clear so you know it will be dusk soon, and then dark.
I walk right up to the door and put my hand on the knob.
And then I stop, because: What if?
What if it sucks me in to wherever it took Matías?
What if there’s something waiting on the other side?
Then I remember the creepy thing that isn’t Mat, and I put one hand onto the door frame, holding on just in case, and open the door.
I am looking at a garden, crammed with flowers, dusty blues and bright-fire reds, sunny yellows. A path leads through the flowers to a blue-white sky. I can smell the green and the sweetness from here. I want to go there so bad, I feel my leg sort of pulling up on its own, like it’s going to take a step in.
Is this where Mat is? I don’t see him, but . . . I lean in.
And just as I’m about to really step in, because it looks so beautiful and peaceful there, so much better than this hot, cruddy camp or my shout-y house, I slam the door shut.
I lean my head on the door for a second. I don’t want to open the door again.
But I gotta find Mat. Maybe I could at least call out for him, in case he’s wandering down that path somehow, in case he can hear me.
I open the door again.
But now what I see behind the door is totally different. There’s no garden at all. Now where I’m looking, it’s deep under the ocean, the water hazy and blackish-green. I could reach out one finger and touch the ocean, it goes right up against the doorway and stops. I can smell the salt and fish and underwater snmells.
On the floor of the ocean is the skeleton of a whale. A million little plants are growing up inside and around it, winding around the bones, waving gently in the water, and fishes swim around and inside the plants and the bones. A whole little world in this whale skeleton, far under the sea. I say “Mat,” in a small voice. But if he’s in this place, he can’t hear me.
I remember Mat wasn’t looking, when he walked through this door. He was looking at me, to see me laugh at his joke. He might have walked into anything at all.
I shut the door, and open it again.
This time I see a dark house, cluttered with old and dusty things, broken clocks and fat brown books and thick blood-colored carpets and unlit lamps, and tons more. The only bright part is a window all covered with ice making crystal patterns like frozen snowflakes on the glass.
“Mat?” I say. But the place is all dusty and silent, like no one’s been there in a million years.
I close the door and open it again. I do that over and over, and the door always shows me someplace new. In every place, I call “Mat! Matías!” In every place, he doesn’t answer.
I open the door to a city street drowning in a river of flood water. A wave crashes over the sign on a Chinese restaurant.
I open the door to a gray field, and in the center of the field one tree, with leaves made of smoke that wavers and breathes.
I open the door to a sky blood-red with streaming birds.
I open the door to a dirty alley far below, and two girls in coats, fighting. I hear their tiny angry cries. When I yell “Mat!” one of the girls looks up.
I open the door to 17 butterflies feeding on a dead dog.
Some of the things I see are so beautiful, and some are so horrible. The worst is when I open the door and the whole doorframe is filled up with this big man, with thinning hair and his sleeves rolled up, and he’s looking right at me with an ugly smile. I slammed the door on that man so fast. I didn’t even call for Mat.
The sky is losing color and the light is going away. It’s going to be so dark on that path going back to camp, but I can’t leave Mat wherever he is, and I can’t go back to face that thing that isn’t Mat.
So I open the door one more time.
This time I see a forest clearing, where it’s almost dark. “Mat!” I call. My voice is weak, because I’m tired of calling, and I’m afraid.
But something I didn’t see before, this dark blue curled-up thing under one of the trees, it stirs, it sits up.
And it’s Mat.
“Mat!” I yell. He starts stumbling toward me, calling my name. I realize that he can’t see me. I start talking so he can follow my voice, just saying anything, stuff like “You got this Mat, come on man, you’re almost home, this way,” like that.
Mat’s getting closer—he’s almost here. I hold on tight to the door frame, just in case, and put my other hand through. Mat must see my hand, because his eyes get big and scared.
“It’s me! Just grab my hand!” I say. “I’ll pull you through!”
He grabs my hand. But just at the same time, I feel someone yank my other hand off the door frame and hold it tight. I turn around, and it’s the other kid, the one who looks like Mat, but he’s not. The not-Mat’s mouth is twisted in anger but his eyes are the same cold and empty they were before.
Mat and the not-Mat are pulling hard on my hands, I feel like they’re puling me apart, my arms are stretched out all the way. I pull as hard as I can, I pull both of them close, and pulling them in spins me. I am spinning, turning in this threshold, Mat in one hand, not-Mat on the other. I have to save one, and I have to let go of one, and I have to make sure I stay on the right side of the door.
Finally I open my right hand and shove that boy through the door, and I pull hard with my left hand and don’t let go. I slam the door shut.
There’s a dark head on the ground next to me, where he fell. “Look at me!” I yell. Because I don’t know if I got the right one.
When he looks up, I know right away it’s Mat. I can see him in there, no question, there inside his startled eyes.
We walk back to the camp hardly talking at all, but I’m so happy, so happy and relieved. I run up to Jim and say “Did we miss dinner? Can we eat anyway? because we’re starving and we had this crazy . . . “
Then I stop.
Because when Jim turns to me, it’s Jim’s goofy long face, and Jim’s pale blue eyes. But the eyes are cold as ice and empty. There’s no Jim inside them.
I hear Mat call my name, sounding scared. I turn around.
A bunch of the guys from our cabin are standing in a circle around him. Their empty eyes are like little buttons of black ice, and their faces aren’t happy or mad or anything at all, only unsmiling and cold.
I wonder if my face looks as scared and my eyes look as big as Mat’s.
Now it’s the next morning, and me and Mat are waiting outside the bunk cabin with our bags, because they’re sending us home.
“We’re on the wrong side,” whispers Mat.
“I know,” I say.
“If we could make it to the door . . .” he says.
But Jim is standing over us, the same way he’s been all night.
A car pulls up, and my parents get out. Only it’s not my parents. I sort of knew it wouldn’t be, but I was sort of hoping anyway. Seeing cold horrible empty things that look like Mom and Dad, but are not my mom and dad—it’s the worst thing in the world to see.
“You won’t be seeing Matías again, so say goodbye now,” not-my-dad says, as he takes me by one arm to the shiny car.
I’m sitting in the back. I look at Mat through the window while it rolls up automatically. I think we’re both slight;y crying. I say with my mouth, but not out loud, “goodbye, goodbye.”
The car drives away, and Mat gets smaller and smaller, until he’s gone completely, and I’m alone.
Mama always told me not to answer the door.
It was dangerous, she said. You never know who might be on the other side, she said.
I kept the key in my hand the whole way from school, held it so tight it left a mark that was always gone by next morning and back again next afternoon. I locked myself inside the house at the end of the row, all exactly the same. Red brick and white shutters, pointy roofs and shiny mailboxes.
I’d do my schoolwork, and count the hour until mama came home.
There were seventeen minutes left. I was multiplying nine times seventeen, and I liked how neat that was.
The doorbell hadn’t worked in years. The knock was soft at first. It stopped and came back again, louder.
Nine times seventeen is one hundred and fifty-three.
Finally, the knock went away.
Twelve minutes later, the door opened. “Adam? I’m home.”
“I’m in here,” I said. “Someone knocked a little bit ago.”
“Oh,” said mama. “I’ll check to see if they left a package. Are you hungry yet?”
After dinner, I finished my math and took a bath. That rhymed, and I liked how neat that was.
My eyes were almost closed, blankets pulled up to my chin. A tap rattled the window, like the spindly wooden fingers of a branch, but there were no trees outside my room. Bugs sometimes flew too hard into the glass and I’d find them squished on the sill, messy and disgusting. I pulled the blankets higher and fell asleep.
The key mark was still on my palm. Eight times thirteen is one hundred and four.
“Go away,” I said, much too quietly for whoever was on the other side to hear me. I wouldn’t open it, because of what mama said. It could be anyone.
The same thing happened the next day, and the next. I told mama every time, and she went up and down the street, to all the houses with their red bricks and white shutters and pointy roofs and shiny mailboxes to ask if it was the people who lived there, needing something. But it wasn’t any of them, and they hadn’t seen anybody on our porch. We must have been at work, they said. Helen must have been at school, they said.
The tap on the window was loud enough to wake me up. I climbed out of bed, wriggling my toes in the soft rug before I pulled the curtains apart an inch to look outside. There was nobody there, nobody I could see.
Six times eleven is sixty-six.
I was almost expecting the knock, but I jumped and dropped my pencil when it came, anyway. The lead broke and skittered away across the floor. “Go away,” I said, a little louder this time, still too quiet to be heard through the thick, locked, safe door.
“Please, let me in.”
I ran upstairs, soles of my shoes slapping on the wood, loud, but quieter than my heart thumping fast. I slammed the door to my room so hard the window rattled and that made me jump, too.
“Adam? I’m home!”
“I’m up here,” I whispered.
“Adam?” Mama climbed the stairs and knocked at my door. “Are you in there?”
I stayed curled on my bed, watching the handle turn, even though I knew it was just mama, who smiled when she saw me, and whose smile turned into a frown. “What’s wrong, sweetie?”
I couldn’t tell her, not this time. She’d think I wasn’t old enough to stay home alone for an hour after all, and I’d have to stay at school where it was noisy and messy and impossible to remember what five times nine was.
“I’m not feeling well,” I said, which wasn’t exactly a lie.
“Stay here,” she said. “I’ll bring you some soup.”
All night, something tapped at the glass. “Please,” it whispered. “Please, let me in,” and no matter how many times I told myself it was the wind, I knew that was a lie.
“You still don’t look very good,” said Mama in the morning. “Let’s stay home today.” She called the school to get my work, and I sat on the couch with a fresh pencil that made nice, sharp marks. I liked how neat they were.
Three times seven is twenty-one.
Mama was upstairs, folding away socks. Someone knocked and it was safe, safe to answer while she was home. I listened as I tiptoed to the door, but there was no voice this time. Probably the mailman with a package.
The lock clicked. A breeze blew as I turned the handle and pulled.
There was no one there.
“Hello?” I called, stepping out onto the porch in my bare feet. “Is anyone there?”
The wind blew harder; the door closed with a shattering slam. I saw too late that everything was different.
There were no other houses on the street, no red bricks or white shutters. Beyond the porch was just barren grass, far as I could see, and farther still. Overhead, the sun was hazed with clouds, hot, but the wind was cold.
“Mama?” I called, knocking on the door hard as I could. “Mama?”
She’d been at the back of the house, upstairs. I ran from the porch and onto the grass, pebbles biting at the bottom of my feet, little teeth hidden in the grass. Around the house and into the overgrown backyard. “Mama?”
I called for her until I couldn’t anymore, my throat hot and raw as the sun that was, now, sinking down in the sky. She’d notice I was gone soon, open the front door and find me there, sitting against it, knees pulled to my chest.
The stars began to twinkle. The moon was bright. My eyes dropped closed, and when I opened them, my whole body hurt from sleeping that way, a solid ache from head to toe. The grass was glassed with frost. My stomach rumbled. Mama still hadn’t noticed I was gone.
I knocked until my knuckles were bruised, blue as the morning.
There was still nothing to be seen in any direction, just my house sitting there in the middle of the nothing.
I multiplied things in my head to stay calm, keep my heart from hammering. It was afternoon, I think, when I remembered the ladder, left in the backyard last summer, now covered with moss and mold and snails. Messy and disgusting and I didn’t want to touch it, but I did, now, dragging it as far as I could and propping it against the red brick.
My bare feet slid on the slimy rungs. I tapped at the window, but there was no answer. I knocked at the door again. “Please,” I said. “Let me in.”
I don’t know if it was the next day, or the one after that, or the one after that when the handle turned. I knew I was cold, and my ribs stuck out, and my mouth tasted of the disgusting hose water that had been the only thing to drink.
The wind blew as the door opened.
One times two is two.
I saw myself.
And we both screamed.
There is a long, winding path. Trees stand tall either side.
At the end of the path is a house of crumbling brick and turrets pointing into the sky. At the top of the steps, a door stands open, a door that is one of many. Step inside, and it already smells of secrets and starlight, of wind and mysteries.
Thick layers of dust cover furniture that once gleamed with polish. Cobwebs string the corners light Christmas lights.
Climb the stairs. Note the doors that line the corridor on the first floor, all locked tight. Climb higher.
And higher still.
Floorboards creak underfoot. The door to one of the turrets is open, and the staircase inside is winding, winding.
There is another door at the top, this one locked, too. The key is heavy in your pocket, but you don’t know what lies behind the thick wood, the brass handle.
It could be anything.
Anna-May Reginald’s funeral was held on July 7th, on a harsh, buzzing summer day.
I didn’t cry. You may think me callous as I was only seven then, but you see, I hadn’t liked Anna-May much, and her being buried in a little white box behind the village church did not seem such a bad idea to me at the time.
It wasn’t that Anna-May and I weren’t friends. We were. But affection is not really necessary for friendship when you’re seven, and it was enough that we lived next door to each other on a long, cracked road in a small, green town, and were the same height, and had the same cheap cotton Roebuck’s clothes in cheery colors, and our parents could foist us on each other without too much trouble.
“Go play with that dear little Anna-May from next door, won’t you?” Mama would say, and so I did.
I remember distinctly standing by the freshly turned dirt of the grave on that hot July day. I remember my scratchy, ruffly white dress and I remember the flowers languishing in a heap on top of the coffin, dying in the sun. There was a fly on one the petals. It was buzzing its wings and turning circles, but it never flew off.
I was watching the fly closely. I didn’t look at the coffin, or Anna-May’s parents, or my parents, or the reporters crowding out beyond the church’s little fence. I watched that fly, and I watched the dying flowers, and I remember thinking what a mess all this was.
It wasn’t my fault, what happened to Anna-May. That’s what the police kept telling me, and the nurse lady from the office building in Cleveland, and my parents. Anna-May’s parents sometimes looked at me like they knew, but they said it, too, right along with everyone else: It’s not your fault. Not your fault, sweetie. Not your fault.
I believed them. I still believe them. It’s a lie, but no one ever said you couldn’t believe in lies.
This is how it happened: We were sitting in the Reginalds’ back yard one month earlier, Anna-May and I, eating something. I don’t remember what it was. Madeleines and lemon and something frothy. Playing at tea. I remember being bored and much too warm, watching the clothesline at the far end of the garden. It was hung with bedsheets and pillowcases, all blinding white, and one of the clothes-items was twisting in a very singular way in the slow, hot air. And then, all at once, the wind caught it and it was as if it wasn’t cloth at all but a person, a tall thin person, all white as chalk and linen.
To this day I don’t know if I believed what I saw or if I half believed it, or if I really didn’t care one way or another.
I said: “Anna-May, there’s someone in your garden.”
Anna-May didn’t believe me. She said, “Where?” but she didn’t turn around, so I knew she thought I was bogus.
“By the clothesline. Someone’s there.”
“Mommaaaaa!” Anna-May screamed, still buttering a little piece of madeleine.
No one answered. Mrs. Reginald usually forgot our very existence whenever we were together, as if the two of us cancelled each other out inside her mind.
I looked back toward the clothesline. The wind had twisted the white shape again, and it almost looked as if the figure were waving at us. At me. A white shape, and the softly golden sun, and the green grass. . .
“It’s not Mrs. Reginald,” I said.
That was when she finally turned all the way around in her little chair and squinted toward the clothesline. “Well, who is it?”
She couldn’t see anyone, of course, but for some reason I said: “It’s a man. He’s gone now. He ran into the hedge there.”
Anna-May turned to look at me, her teacup clutched in her fat baby hands. Her eyes were blue and dull. “A man.”
“Yes. A man in a white suit. He was waving at us.”
Anna-May didn’t move for a second. “Was it Pa?”
“No, it weren’t Mr. Reginald.”
“Well, then who?”
“I don’t know who. Let’s go see where he went.”
I said that because I was tired of playing at tea. Anna-May always pretended to know all the rules of etiquette and would correct me, even though she didn’t know a thing.
“All right,” said Anna-May, but she said it a little cautiously, and then she stuffed her madeleine in her pocket as if she were afraid she might starve between here and the clothesline, and we set off. My mind was working furiously by then, clicking and clicking, and our little shoes were squishing through the lawn, which was not mowed but was ragged and very dark green.
We came to the clothesline. There wasn’t anyone there, and all I saw now were a pair of long underwear and a white flannel shirt with its arms pinned up, but it made no difference. And at least we weren’t sitting around anymore.
I poked my head into the hedge. Anna-May followed. We went a few steps in, and it was hot and close, the leaves pressing all around. We walked several more steps and then Anna-May started whining.
“Who could it have been? He ran in here, you said?”
“Yes. I think he might have been one of those drifting tricksters. You know, the ones that live by the railroad tracks and have tropical lizards and tigers and can spit fire? Suppose he was one of those!”
I made that up. I knew about circuses from books and the motion pictures, but they never came to our town.
Anna-May was not aware of this. “Oh, a circus man!” she said, and looked delighted.
“Yes! A magician, maybe!”
“D’you think he’s still close?”
“I don’t know! Let’s see,” I said, pleased that Anna-May was finally interested in something besides tea.
But then Anna-May froze. I don’t know what she saw, because I was facing her, and she was looking over my shoulder. It might have been a trick of the light. It might have been the chalk man hurrying away among the leaves, turning from time to time, swinging his long arms, waving us in, waving us closer.
I spun around, but I saw nothing.
“Come on!” I shouted, and pulled Anna-May hard, and that’s when stupid Anna-May had to get her foot tangled in a root and fall on her face.
I left her in the bushes and ran back to the house and shouted for Mrs. Reginald. It took close to five minutes of bawling at the top of my lungs before Mrs. Reginald realized it, and when she finally did come running down the stairs, it took me ages to get her to come outside.
“What happened!” Mrs. Reginald cried, when I led her to Anna-May.
Anna-May wouldn’t stop crying even long enough to answer Mrs. Reginald, and I wasn’t going to have her think I had pushed Anna-May or something, so I said: “There was a man, right over there by the laundry. We chased him into the bushes, but he got away, and then Anna-May tripped, ma’am, and I got you.”
“A man? What sort of man?”
“Well, he was awful thin, and- and- he had a rope in one hand.”
I don’t know why I said that part.
Mrs. Reginald looked at me sharply. Then she said: “Molly, you’d better go home. I’m taking Anna to the doctor. Come on, Anna, up you go.”
I ran up the street to our house and hid in my room. I watched from my window as Mrs. Reginald carried Anna-May crying and bawling into the house. I felt bad for her, just a little, and then I remembered her stopping in the bushes, refusing to go on, and I wondered why.
I still wonder why.
Did you see him, too, Anna-May? Please tell me you saw him, too.
I saw Anna-May one last time. I was walking down the sidewalk, and she was on the other side of the fence, sitting on a chair, her head propped up with pillows, like she had broken her neck and not just one tiny bone in her ankle. She saw me, but she didn’t say anything, and so I kept walking, and then finally she did call out:
“Molly Pratchett! I need to talk to you, Molly Pratchett!” she yelled, and so I went back and talked to her.
She was far too interested in the chalk man, and by then I had all but forgotten about him. She was interested in the circus. And while I didn’t like Anna-May very much, as I’ve said, I liked telling people things. I liked telling stories.
“They come every summer and stay on the other side of the train tracks,” I tell her. “All the most marvelous folk. And I think that’s where the chalk man was from. He had just wandered up here by accident and into your backyard, but I bet he’s really a magician or a juggler!”
“You think? Why’d he have rope in his hand.”
“To do knot tricks, of course. Or maybe he’s an animal trainer. These circuses have everything. Elephants and tigers and you can’t do anything with them without a rope.”
“I want to see,” Anna-May said dreamily. “D’you think we could go when my foot’s better?”
“Oh,” I said, and I was worried, because if we went, there would be no circus most likely, and so Anna-May would go back to thinking me bogus. So I said: “They won’t be there when your foot’s better. They’re always traveling. They do secret shows for the ones who know, for the people who get cards in the mail or the ones who wander up by accident and then they’re gone again by sun-up. I don’t think you’ll see them.”
“Make a map for me,” she said, and so I made a sloppy one on a handkerchief, my heart pounding. I had no idea how to get to the train tracks as we weren’t allowed to go out of town on our own yet, but I made a forest and a river, and the tracks, and I made a route.
I didn’t think it would matter much, since Anna-May had a broken ankle and wouldn’t be able to wander there anyway.
But she did. She wanted to find the circus, she said. She wanted to see the tigers and the elephants on the other side of the tracks, and see the fire-blowers. She wanted to find the chalk man.
I wonder if she found him. She found someone.
The police came by our house the next day, and Mama was in a state because she didn’t think it was clean enough for an officer of the law. She fussed and wiped her hands on her apron, and I admired the shiny blue car out on the curb.
“Hello, officer, how do you do?” my mama said, and I noticed she didn’t invite him in, probably because she hadn’t dusted all day, and there was garbage right inside the hall.
“Mrs. Pratchett. Good morning. I’d like to ask to speak to your daughter, Molly Pratchett. There’s been an incident, and we think she might know a thing or two.
“An incident?” my mama said, and by the sound of her voice, I knew she was clutching at her cheap costume necklace, her eyes very wide.
“Nothing serious. Just some strange folks been seen around the neighborhood, and apparently your daughter saw one yesterday. We’d like a statement from her.”
“Oh,” Mama said. “ Oh, well, all right then.”
She called me out and stood behind me while I gave my statement.
“He was dressed in white, you said?” The officer’s name was Jim Thomas, and he kept squinting down at me, even though the sun was behind him.
“All in white or just partly.”
“And he was carrying a rope.”
“Yes. One rope.”
“Was he carrying anything else?”
I peered up at Officer Thomas, and I peered out over the street, and I felt quite frightened then, because I didn’t know what to say. A truck was parked on the other side of the street. It had an advertisement on the side for cheap dime store rings. So I said: “Yes. He had rings on one finger. A whole lot of rings. Seven or eight.”
“On one hand?” Officer Thomas squinted harder.
“Yes.” I nodded, still staring at the truck across the road.
“All right, kiddo. Ma’am?” He tipped his cap at mama. “I’ll be going. Thank you for your time.”
We watched him go down the steps, looking at his pad where he had written down everything I said, and when he put his head up my heart gave a little jolt because I was sure he would notice the truck with the rings on its side, and turn around and come back and take me to the police station. But he didn’t. He got in his shiny blue police car and drove away.
The officer had lied, of course. Nothing serious meant Anna-May was dead. No one knew quite how she died, but either she fell or someone pushed her, and there were bruises on her arms, they said, that could be from thick gloves. Or rings.
The police came to my house again, after everything blew up, after the whole town knew and everyone was scared and crying. This time there were two officers and they asked me many, many questions, sometimes twice to see if I would trip up. I did.
“You said the man was wearing all white and a white hat?”
“Last time you said he wasn’t wearing a hat.”
“Oh, he wasn’t. Sorry. He didn’t have a hat.”
“All right. And rings? He was wearing rings.”
The officers took my fingerprints and left, and I thought about the map I had drawn for Anna-May, and hoped no one would ever find it.
They caught a man in a dirty white coat up by the railroads, a drifter from Mississippi. He had no family. He had a bad eye, and a bad mouth, and nobody missed him. They hanged him.
I was in the newspaper the next day. I was everywhere, and people tried to get me to tell them things, and I started crying in front of all those flash bulbs and microphones, and everyone thought it was adorable and tragic because Anna-May and I had been such good friends, but they didn’t know. I didn’t give a fig for Anna-May being dead. I cared about me, and it was almost as if I had made the chalk man come alive and he had killed Anna-May, and it confused me something fierce.
The truth of the matter is, (or, I should say, the way most people would normally think) was that there was no chalk man. There was only Anna-May and me, and a world full of dreadful people, and that world caught Anna-May the way it catches lots of folk. A man in a white coat was hanged for no reason. Maybe Anna-May tripped following my stupid map, or maybe a murderer went on his merry way, and no one looked at him twice, because maybe he was wearing checkers and orange polka-dots, and I had said he was wearing white. Either way someone died because of me.
But that’s not what I believe. If you believe in something, it’s true, isn’t it? For me it is. Maybe for Anna-May it was, too.
Once there was a powerful girl, though she didn’t know it.
It wasn’t that she could do anything extraordinary. No spells, no curses, no godly telekinetics.
There was simply a map. A hidden map. A map tucked away so deeply inside little pale, night-haired, night-eyed Susanna Gray that she never knew it was there.
Until it was.
She was Suz to her parents; Susie to her older brother; Zanna to her friends, who would never dare call her anything so ordinary as Susanna.
But she was ordinary, even though she desperately wished she wasn’t. She was the kind of girl who went peeking into wardrobes and hollowed-out trees, who clicked her heels together and chased after rabbits and tried so hard to move things with her mind that she had constant headaches, which kept her irritable and sour-colored. She was the kind of girl who tried jumping off of rooftops, hoping she would sprout wings, and ended up only with scraped skin and broken bones.
Susanna was entirely ordinary.
Until she wasn’t.
Once there was a map. It was just a plain map, as any map might be—curling, browned paper with shapes, roads, and cities drawn upon it in dark ink.
It had been drawn, rather hastily, by a famous cartographer, as a record of Everything That Was—right before the end.
For all the libraries, all the schools, all the courts and the cities . . . had been burned. Knocked into dust. Eaten away from the inside out. Imagine a way not just to die—for it was much worse than that—but to be, quite simply, erased.
Think of, if you will, a pair of conjoined twins—linked together and living off of only one heart. This poor, overworked heart can only last so long before . . . well.
They call it survival of the fittest. One twin lives, and one twin fades. And the lone heart beats on, unfeeling.
This is the way with some worlds, the way in which some worlds are linked. There are the worlds we can see, and touch, and taste . . . and the ones we cannot. At least, most of us cannot.
So it was with the cartographer’s home. One terrible night, he sat in his squat cottage on the edge of his city and watched helplessly as it disappeared. Or, more accurately, as it was . . . eaten.
But then, he wasn’t entirely helpless, was he? Our cartographer was no warrior, no leader, and no magician—but he could draw maps. Observing the shape of the world, measuring it, reproducing it on scrolls and globes and even, when he was feeling particularly ambitious, on three-dimensional models.
The cartographer was good at these things.
On that last, awful night, he therefore did the only thing he could do. He saw his city—the last city—being swallowed up. He heard the screams, and he smelled the smoke. He knew that there were now no more libraries, no more schools, no more official archives.
So he drew. Someone had to remember. Someone had to know what had once been.
He drew, and he drew. His hands shook, and his tears fell onto the paper, smearing the fresh ink, and sometimes his house quaked with the force of the thing pulling them all under, but on he drew.
On that last, long, dark night, he found courage in his pen.
And once the last jagged stroke had been drawn, he rolled up the map into a watertight tube, and fled.
He was not sure where to go—was there anywhere else left to go?—but he knew he needed to get away from the thing behind him.
What was it?
And that was the most terrifying part of this Last Year: That he didn’t know—that none of them had known—the cause or the nature of the thing that was killing them.
Maybe some had known.
No. Undoubtedly some had known. The scholars in the city. The binders in their towers. The elders in their temples.
But not lowly cartographers. Not merchants or bakers or seamstresses or farmers. No, the truth had been carefully kept from them.
And now it was too late.
Now there was nothing for it but to run away from the growing darkness, and toward the place on the horizon where there was still a strip of gray light.
The cartographer fixed this spot in his vision and tightened his grip on the tube in his arms.
Someone had to know. Someone had to remember. There had been too many beautiful things in his world for them to fade into oblivion.
Oblivion in the physical sense? Fine, fine. There was no stopping this thing from consuming them. He had to accept that.
But oblivion of the mind? Never. There was power in memory, of that the cartographer was certain.
Someone had to remember. Someone would. He would make sure of that.
And so onward he ran, encroaching blackness nipping at him like thousands of tiny, sharp, white-hot teeth.
On the same night the cartographer fled his home, there stood, a world away, in a much brighter and happier place, a little white house in a neighborhood that was respectable but not pretentious. There was a tidy garden out back, and a spotless white fence in the front. An arrangement of sycamore trees kept the house shaded in the warm months, and bright red flowers sat in clusters along the front walk.
A problem, though, on this bright, happy day, in this bright, happy house—the family car would not start.
This would have been a minor inconvenience on any other day. A call to the mechanic, a few grumbled curse words, an aggrieved assessment of the finances.
But today—today it seemed to the family rather catastrophic.
For young Mrs. Gray, it was the day she would be delivering her second child into the world. A girl. They knew it would be a girl. The wonders of modern medicine!
Modern medicine, of course, that Mr. and Mrs. Gray would have loved to take advantage of, on this clear summer’s day. They had not planned for her to have the baby at home. The idea frightened poor Mrs. Gray, who wept for her doctor.
“One of the neighbors can take us to the hospital!” their five-year-old firstborn, Elliot Gray, suggested.
But the street appeared to be completely abandoned—there was a festival in town that day, in honor of the approaching summer solstice.
“Let’s call Grandmother!” Elliot cried.
But she would not answer her phone. Neither would any of their friends.
(Dead. Napping. In a very important business meeting. Watching television with the volume turned up as high as it would go. Angry at the Grays for letting their dog wander unleashed, staring at the ringing telephone with a sullen, stubborn expression.)
(Isn’t it funny, how coincidences can pile up?)
(Or are they coincidences at all?)
“A taxi! We can call a taxi!” Elliot said finally, desperate.
They tried—but it would not arrive in time.
And so, Mrs. Gray screamed and gripped her husband’s hand, and Elliott stood right outside the door, ready to help if he could, tears filling his eyes at the sound of his mother’s pain.
Hating his soon-to-be-born sister with all his might.
It wasn’t enough that she had to be born at all, and change absolutely everything. No, she had to come into the world like this.
If anything happened to his mother, anything at all . . .
And we can’t blame five-year-old Elliott for the thoughts that came into his head. Violent thoughts, they were—startling and vivid. He was afraid, after all. And if it meant that his mother would survive the day, and that she would stop screaming in this way that made her sound not like his mother at all—why then, he cared nothing for the baby. He didn’t know her; she didn’t know him. She had no face, not even a name—not yet.
So what would it hurt, if he wished horrible things upon her?
Just to save his mother. Only that.
He sat on the ground, his back to the door, piles of clean washcloths at his feet, and wept, and clenched his fists, and prayed, in a jumbled, five-year-old sort of way, for something terrible to happen. Something mighty.
Something that would hurt his sister.
It’s funny, how the heart of the worlds works—that beating heart, joining all things together.
The binders of the cartographers’ world called it sapientia. Some, in other worlds, called it God. And still others called it magic. Whatever name one calls it, it is that darkest, deepest, mightiest of powers that magicians try to capture with spells and musicians try to infuse into their songs and scientists try to uncover by smashing particles together.
It can hear the thoughts of women and men—frantic prayers, desperate wishes; people caught in heartbreak or grief or war or hunger—and do nothing at all.
It can hear the muddled, confused cries of a child, and become unpredictably, deeply interested.
So did the heart of the worlds hear the murderous thoughts of young Elliott Gray, and shift, and thrum, and pulse. And laugh to itself, in its pitiless way. Not out of malicious pleasure, but simply because, even after so many countless ages, it could still find ways to surprise itself.
And all it took was that one moment—that little extra pulse of force. Like an arrhythmia of the human heart—a fluttering, a jolt, a skipping step out of the normal tempo of things.
You want something to hurt your sister, Elliott Gray?
Then you shall have it.
And would everything have happened as it did, if the worlds’ heart had ignored Elliot Gray’s pleas, on that sparkling gem of a summer’s day?
Would circumstances and coincidences have knit themselves together in different patterns, ultimately leading to the same conclusion?
Who is to say?
Maybe the heart of the worlds would know. But it would never tell.
The cartographer had been running for hours. His feet bled, his lungs burned, and his throat was raw from screaming.
The thing. It was following him. It was toying with him. It could have caught him long ago, but instead had chosen to play with him like a fat, smug cat—batting him with its claws on occasion, pinning him to the ground with a hot weight like a thousand summer storms, and then letting him go once more.
Run, little man, the thing seemed to taunt, with a rumbling sound that the cartographer seemed to feel rather than hear. Like a shifting, pounding, scraping presence rather than a voice. Run, if you want. It makes no difference to me.
But the cartographer had found his courage. The slight, familiar weight of his pens, the solid weight of the tube and map in his hands, the smell of his burned city stinging his nostrils—these things kept him running toward the graylit horizon.
And running. And running.
He vomited, he sobbed, he stumbled—but he did not stop.
And then, at last, it was as though the world shifted beneath him—just the slightest shift, like an apathetic shrug. It was enough for him to slide along the ground, lose his footing, step into what felt like the hole of a rabbit.
He fell, and the tube slipped forward into this hole, and was sucked clean of him.
And with the map gone, some sliver of power escaped the world forever, and without this lost sliver, these devoured lands could not ever truly die. And the thing, the ravenous thing that had been chasing the cartographer, realized too late what had happened.
It roared, it shook, it threw itself on the cartographer, smothering him—burning him, hurting him—in a fit of rage. It would rage for years, for decades, and then it would stop, and then it would begin its real work.
But that was later, and this was now.
Soon, the cartographer was gone, as was most everything else of this world—except for the map, and the sliver of power it contained. Except for that. Gone, but still somewhere. Not dead. Not destroyed. Not eaten.
Such a little, ordinary thing, a map.
Until, one day, it wasn’t.
Elliott Gray sat huddled against the door of his parents’ bedroom. He had cried so much, keeping it muffled so as not to alarm his parents, that his throat ached as though he had been screaming for hours.
Then, the bedroom behind him fell silent, and three things happened in rapid succession:
A bright light flashed across his entire field of vision.
A sour smell flooded the air, burning Elliott’s nose, settling a taste upon the back of Elliott’s tongue like he had eaten a rotten vegetable.
And a strange, old-fashioned looking pen with a sharp nib appeared on the floor at Elliott’s feet.
He reached for it hesitantly. How very odd it was, with that curling, singed feather sitting on the top of it. Like something too old to belong in this world.
It was hot to the touch, and when Elliott held it, the house seemed to tilt around him—first one way, and then the other way, before righting itself and becoming level once more.
Alarmed, Elliott’s heart began to pound. What had just happened? Had there been an earthquake? He wanted his parents, but he couldn’t possibly bother them now—
Silence, in the bedroom behind him.
Without thinking of what he might see or what his parents would want him to do, Elliott jumped to his feet and flung open the door, a cry ready to burst from his lips.
Mr. and Mrs. Gray looked up at him tiredly from the bed.
“Come in, darling,” Mrs. Gray whispered. “Come in and meet your sister.”
And as Elliott Gray crept toward the bed, and gazed down at his red-faced, squinty-eyed little sister, and realized that in fact his mother was going to be fine, all thoughts of murdering sisters faded away in an instant (as is the way with five-year-olds), and he found himself grinning.
He even leaned low over his sister and kissed her wrinkled forehead. In response, she shifted in her blankets and made a soft, grunty noise that made Elliott’s heart swell.
What an odd child she was, with those black eyes, wide and serious, as if they saw everything and understood it for what it was. She cried not at all—no screaming, no fussing. Just soft, wondering noises as she gazed up at the world and took it all in.
The family sat quietly together, smiling and bewildered and tired, and it was some time before Mr. Gray remembered to say, “Say, did you see that flash of light, a few moments ago? I could have sworn I saw something like that. Like a lightning flash, only . . . only there’s not a cloud in the sky.”
“Might have been light reflecting off a car outside,” Mrs. Gray suggested, yawning, smiling, gazing starry-eyed at the child in her arms.
But Elliott knew it wasn’t either of those things.
He couldn’t have explained how he knew, but there was something about that pen he found, wasn’t there? And how the world seemed to tilt when he held it? There was something in his gut when he thought about these things—something that snagged onto him and tugged.
That flash of light had definitely been something . . . else.
But after a day of tending to his mother and listening to his father make loads of phone calls and napping and eating and playing with his baby sister, Elliott forgot to think further on the subject.
When he pulled off his clothes before bed that night, he realized that the pen was no longer in his pocket. There was only a bit of dust—black dust that glittered in the glow of his nightlight.
He thought it was weird. He most certainly did. Anyone would have.
But he was tired, and he was five years old. And he woke up the next day with the memories of the pen and the tilting world as only ghosts of shadows in his mind.
And soon, he forgot about these oddnesses entirely.
He couldn’t have known—none of them could have—what had really happened.
That the heart of the worlds—God, magic, the sapientia; whatever one might decide to call it—had heard Elliott Gray’s pleas and decided, on an inexplicable whim, to answer.
That the flash of bright light was a sign of something leaving one world, and entering another.
That often, when things pass between worlds, they . . . change.
That a map made of paper and ink can become a map made of skin and blood.
That at the precise moment Elliott was wishing for his sister’s death, a bleeding, sweating, half-dead cartographer was running toward him from another world.
Elliott Gray couldn’t have known that at the moment his sister took her first breath in their world, a cartographer took his last breath in another.
And that the map in the cartographer’s hands slipped from one world to another and became . . .
And became . . .
Elliott Gray couldn’t have known that when his little sister first opened her eyes, she already had a map—a powerful map, the last relic of a dead world—written into her skin, into her very self, with her own blood.
That the map was hidden, but that one day it would surface.
That his sister would be hunted for the secrets written on her skin. That she would be desired for them, and prized for them, and hated for them.
When Elliott Gray wished for something to hurt his sister, he couldn’t have known that his wish would come true—and certainly not like this.
Many quiet years later, Susanna Gray was twelve years old.
It was an oppressive summer’s day, much muggier and hazier than the one on which Susanna was born. She was scrolling idly through a collection of images online—images of celebrities, models, movie stars, landscapes, fantastical images—not really seeing or caring about any of them.
Her skin was sticky with sweat. She lay on her bed beneath the ceiling fan, the blinds pulled closed and a buzzing whorl of impatience building in the back of her throat. With each passing day, the world seemed less remarkable to her. It was full of computers and televisions and phones that served as both, and people who saw but didn’t see, and too much noise and too much violence.
It was not a beautiful world. And, oh, how she longed for a beautiful world!
As she gazed, blank-eyed, at her phone, her skin began to itch. She scratched her leg, her arm.
It began to itch more severely. She rubbed her back against the bedcovers like a restless cat.
Then her skin crossed from itching to stinging. Susanna sat up, examining her bare arms and legs. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but something was obviously and horribly wrong. It was as though she had suffered a series of bug bites, and then scratched them too much so that they became sore—but she couldn’t see any of them. Her skin looked as it always did.
The stinging sensation magnified, seeming to rise up from within her, until she found herself huddled, panting, on the floor.
Burning. She was burning. She had the bizarre thought that intricate patterns of molten wire were pressing up against her skin from the inside out. Branding her.
Susanna had never been burned before, but she had imagined it many times, being a girl of a vivid and somewhat dark-leaning curiosity—and none of her imaginings had ever come close to this.
She tried to scream and couldn’t.
Her body seized, arching up off of the floor as though she were being pulled up by a hot cord jabbing into her stomach. Her vision turned black and hot; even the dark space behind her eyes seemed to sizzle like coals in a fire.
She lay there for hours—or at least what felt like hours—caught in a merciless fist of heat and pain, unable to move or speak. She felt her skin rippling and shifting as though the heat had melted it into a viscous puddle, being molded and reshaped around the easel of her bones.
All the while, her thoughts ran in an endless loop: “I will die here. I am dying. I am dead.” For a long time, the pain and her certainty of death were all she knew.
And then . . .
“Well, that had to have smarted a bit, eh?”
Though it felt like prying apart mountains, Susanna managed to open her eyes. Above her, she saw a boy, perhaps a bit older than she was, extending his hand toward her.
“Get away from me,” she croaked, trying to scoot away, ignoring the screaming pain of her skin against the carpet. “Who are you?”
“A friend. Promise.” The boy flashed a diamond grin.
“Where . . . ?”
“Where did I come from? Right. Well, this is the slightly awkward part. I’ve been watching your house for a while now. I mean, not only me. I’m part of a team. Although team is a bit too official-sounding for our group. We’re more like . . . an assortment? A lot? A gang!”
Susanna made an impatient sound.
“I’m going on too long, aren’t I? Right. So here’s the thing. Might as well get right to it.” The boy blew out a breath, his cheeks puffing. “You’ve a map on your skin. In your skin. In your blood? They really shouldn’t have sent me for this. I’m only just learning, you know? But they thought, me being close to your age, it’d be easier for you.”
Then Susanna looked at her arms—and screamed. Or tried to scream, but her throat hurt too much for such a sound to escape it. She swiped at her skin, trying to brush away the wriggling, dark shapes that shifted and slid along the angles of her limbs, but each slight touch burned her fingers. She tried to move—to run, but run where? How can you run away from yourself?—but her legs gave out, and she stumbled.
The boy stepped toward her. “Easy now—”
Susanna found the strength to shove herself back. “Get away from me!”
“Look, I know this is startling—”
Then, a gust of air from the window. A chilled feeling oozing across the room like a spreading oil slick.
Both Susanna and the boy turned to see a tall, thin man with neat gray hair watching them. The suit he wore sat uncomfortably about his frame, as though any moment it might fly off of him. He must have climbed in through the window, but—so soundlessly? And from where?
“Get out,” Susanna hissed, wanting to lunge at him, push him right out of the window, but unable to move. Instead, she leaned against the chair at her desk.
The thin man watched her efforts dispassionately. “Is she ready then?”
“Near enough,” said the boy.
“Ready for what?” Susanna rasped. “What’s—what’s happening to me?” She would not cry, though it hurt, though everything hurt, and though her skin was dark with skittering, slithering shapes that moved in and out of her clothes, lazily, as though they floated on the surface of unseen water.
“You’re the Scrollskin,” answered the man, in a voice as flat and toneless as any Susanna had ever heard. His gray eyes flitted down her body and back up. “And you’re going to lead us home.” He paused. His mouth thinned, nearly imperceptibly. “Hurry up. We’re waiting.”
Then he turned and climbed out the window—swiftly, all arms and legs, like a giant, suited spider—and was gone.
The boy smiled ruefully. “Sorry about that. Binders are out of their heads most of the time. It’s hard for them to act normal. Or even kind of normal.”
Susanna could not stop staring at her arms, for she was beginning to see a sort of rhyme and reason to the shapes now covering her. They weren’t just random shapes, as they had appeared in those first few panicked moments.
They were rivers. Mountains and forests. Cities and oceans.
They were a map.
She looked up, meeting the boy’s bright eyes.
“I don’t understand,” she whispered. “What is this? And why—?”
A banging noise interrupted her—sharp, sudden. Someone on the other side of her closed bedroom door, pounding and pounding.
“Elliott?” Susanna cried. “Mom! Dad!”
No one answered. The pounding increased in volume and tempo.
Spitting an unfamiliar string of words, the boy grabbed Susanna’s arm. At his touch, the map immediately vanished, leaving her skin blank—but Susanna could still feel it, shifting there, just beneath her surface. Hiding. Waiting.
The boy drew his lips tight. “Good. That will protect you, at least a little. Now, come on.”
He pulled her toward the open window, but Susanna dug her heels into the carpet. “My parents—my brother—”
“No time! We’ll come back for them.”
Susanna’s thoughts careened wildly. “Do you promise?”
“Yes. Now, move!”
They were at the window, and Susanna wanted to turn back, to fight, to protest, but she was too weak to resist, her body still throbbing and aching from the—from the what?
From the map. That much she knew.
She did manage, once she and the boy hit the ground and began to run across her front yard, to turn back once. Only once.
It was enough.
Some . . . thing . . . was inside her house. Something she could not quite get a fix on, but that was nevertheless shifting the planes of her house as though they were not rooted to the ground at all, but rather simply a flimsy hodgepodge of house-like parts. A child’s tower of blocks, teetering on an unsteady table.
The chimney stretched, bent, toppled. The walls collapsed inward, heaved, and shot out at strange angles, like whatever was inside had many quarreling, tugging hands.
She should turn back. She should try to get her family out of the house before it was too late.
But she didn’t. She couldn’t. The hot wriggling mess beneath her skin that she knew to be the map tugged her onward, a petulant child eager for sweets.
Hurry, it whispered—inside her mind, across and around the slopes of her skull. We must go faster. Hurry, child. Go faster, you idiot girl.
Eyes stinging with indignant tears, shaking with fear for her family, Susanna had no choice but to follow the map’s whispers, to obey the map’s burning will.
The boy with the diamond grin ran beside her. The suited, gray-haired man ran ahead of her. And all around her, other shapes raced through the night—short, fat, tall, thin. People-like shapes. Most of them.
An assortment. A lot. A team!
Whoever they were, they would soon need to answer some questions for her, or she would take herself and her map of skin and run off into the night (if she even could, if the map even let her), and run and run, so they would never find her. And then how would they get home?
Where was home for them?
What was that thing in her house?
And her parents . . . her parents! And Elliott. Obnoxious, hilarious, smelly-footed Elliott. What had she done, leaving them there?
Was it so wrong, to have wanted an extraordinary life?
Never, the map whispered, the thin, unseen fingers of a river stretching lazily, lovingly, around Susanna’s neck. It is never wrong to want more than what you are.
Something about those words chilled Susanna—not a shiver of her skin, for that was still simmering hot, but a shiver of her deepest self, so that she felt newly unsteady, and afraid.
She thought, then, as she ran, of all the times she had peeked inside wardrobes, searching for adventure—and laughed a mad laugh into the night air. An unhinged, breathless laugh that made the boy with the diamond grin glance over at her in concern.
And the map, unheard by all but Susanna, laughed, too.
Such an ordinary map and an ordinary girl, they had once been.
Until they weren’t.