The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

X Marks the Spot

Brendan had to do a report—a stupid, boring report—on Our Town’s Local History. At the public library, the librarian helped him find the numbers for two books that might help. Up some stairs, past some sleeping people, to a distant line of shelves where he was perfectly alone, Brendan found them.

One book was depressingly thick with tiny print and no pictures; the other was a pamphlet, with washed-out color photos, called “Richfield: A SPACE AGE Town!” Pretty sure he was doomed, he pulled them out anyway.

In the empty space behind those books, lying on its side, was another book, a much older book, bound in soft, peeling leather, with gilt letters on the spine: The Lost Treasure of Richfield. 

Now that was more like it.

treasuremapAs he tucked this third book under his arm, he saw something was sticking out of the back. Yeah: stitched in after the last page was a folded—well, it was too soft and thick for paper, maybe like deerskin?

It was a map: hills, creeks, rivers. At the top it said “The Treasure Route followed by Hill & Monk in 1803.” And near the center was a big, circled X.

Which, obviously, marks the spot.

But before Brendan noticed any of that, he saw that someone had scrawled in giant letters across the map. DON’T GO, it said, in some kind of reddish-brown ink.

If a treasure map says DON’T GO in giant letters . . . well, you either really shouldn’t go, or you really kind of have to.

Brendan snapped the book shut and ran down the stairs.

As she was checking him out, the librarian gave him an odd look. “Thought you were just getting two books,” she said.

“I found this other one,” he said. “Might be something good in it.” Acting casual. Not that there’s a treasure map or anything.

“You probably know this, since you’re writing a report,” said the librarian, her eyes on the books as she scanned them. “But Hill and Monk didn’t come here to found a town. They came here looking for treasure.”

“Oh yeah, I think our teacher said,” said Brendan, trying to sound bored.

“And they never found it. That’s the thing.” The librarian handed Brendan his stack of books. “In fact, what actually happened . . .” She frowned. “Wait, what’s this in the back—?“

“Sorry, gotta go,” said Brendan, twisting quickly away, books under his arm. His decision was made now: you kinda have to go.

So after dinner, he filled a backpack with expedition gear: compass, flashlight, trowel from his mom’s gardening box. He printed out a Google map of Richfield and laid it over the old map, using the river on both maps as a guide.

Finally he made a careful X on the street map with a fluorescent green marker. The X was maybe three miles from his house, at the edge of some kind of green space where there weren’t a lot of streets.

“What are you doing?”

Maika, leaning against the door. A year younger: smart, athletic, and nosy. A pain.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

But she was already inside. “This map is like a million years old.”

“It’s just for a stupid history report,” he said, trying to pull the book from her hands. But it was too late.

“Lost treasure?” She leaned over, looking at the X-marked Google map. “You’re going treasure hunting. Did you pack food?” She stuck her face in his backpack. Maika ran track and was always thinking about food.

“You’re not invited,” said Brendan.

“Oh, come ON, though!”

“Nope,” he said. “And do NOT follow me.”

At first it almost felt like Maika knowing spoiled it, somehow. But in the warm early evening, riding his bike past a neighbor’s yard that smelled like roses, he started feeling better. Idly, only sort-of-kind-of half-believing, he pictured a pile of gold and silver, cups and candlesticks and jewelry that would shine even in the dark. Draped around the gold stuff would be strings of pearls and diamonds, and tucked in the cracks would be big rubies and emeralds and also the blue kind, whatever those were they called.

A half hour later, Brendan stopped his bike and leaned on one foot, a little uncertain. The map had led him to a neighborhood under construction—though it looked like whoever was building this neighborhood had given up halfway through. All the houses were half-built, roofless and sometimes wall-less, and the bare wood was weathered by rain and sun.

The X was on a creek, and he didn’t see a creek. But the map and the compass said this house was it.

It was the largest of all the houses, and even had part of a roof, which had mostly collapsed. Crows sat in the empty windows, watching the sun sink away.

A little nervous now, Brendan locked his bike and went inside. His sneakers made no sound on the bare concrete; he could hear a crow ruffle its wings and re-settle. Following his plan, he was looking for a basement door—because treasure has to be buried, right? —and he found one.

The basement echoed with dripping water. Bad pipes? In the muggy blackness, Brendan switched on his flashlight to look for the source of the sound.

And he found it. One cement wall was cracked open, chunks of concrete spilled around it. On the other side of the crack was some sort of long cavern. The sound of bubbling water was an underground stream.

Brendan slipped through the crack in the wall, letting the flashlight lead him down a stony path beside the stream. For a while there was no sound except the burbling water and his own breathing. The air smelled of slime and rotting things.

A rock shifted under his left foot, and he stumbled.

“Beware,” said the rock in a low voice.

Brendan stopped. Had he heard something? He ran his flashlight along the ground. Nothing but river rocks.

“Go back,” whispered another rock. “I tried to go back, too late, too late.”

If Brendan had heard this—if it had sounded like anything but hiss of the bubbling water—he might have been unnerved enough to stop his treasure hunt; he might have run back to his bike and ridden home as fast as he could. But he didn’t hear, because his flashlight had caught something else, something just ahead of him, across a sharp bend in the creek.

Something that shone with gold and silver and every jewel color in the world.

“No,” whispered a third stone, its voice was half-erased by the eager crunch of Brendan’s shoes on pebbles. “Whatever you do, don’t step into the—“

Brendan stepped into the stream. It was cool and slimy and came up to his ankles. He took another step, and another. Now he was only a yard from a great wooden chest, a chest so full of treasure that golden plates and carved silver spilled out onto the ground. Strings of marble-sized jewels made little waterfalls of color.

It was almost his now, all of it. Unbelievable, that a treasure hunt he started mostly to avoid working on his report had brought him to the treasure chest of a cartoon dream. He tried to lift his foot to take that last step.

But somehow his feet would not move. He pulled again. He pulled a third time. Neither of his feet would move.

The backpack slipped off his shoulders as he struggled and twisted. Panic rose inside him.

Now a golden goblet spoke, and this time Brendan heard. Its voice was melancholy and warm, a oboe of a voice. As it spoke, Brendan could almost see a sad-eyed face in the goblet shape. “I followed the map,” he said. “I hunted treasure, and now I am the treasure.”

“I followed the map,” said a swirl of pearls in the shape of a woman’s hair. Her voice was a weary flute. “I wanted the jewels, and now I am the jewels.”

“I followed the map,” said a many-faceted sapphire the size of Brendan’s fist, in a cool alto. “I wanted to make my fortune, and now I am the fortune.”

Brendan twisted his body harder, as hard as he could. Every inch of him wanted to run, to flee. But too late: his feet remained as stubbornly heavy as iron.

Fro across the burbling water came a new voice, now, a voice made of silk and paper. “Welcome, treasure,” it said. “Welcome.”

Brendan flashed his light into the blackness beyond the treasure chest. “Who are you?” he said. His voice shook a little.

Something moved in the darkness, something tall and thin. The white part of its eyes flashed inside wet black rims. A dirty, greenish-yellow hand; a leg like a stick. The creature’s skin seemed stretched thin over nothing at all.

“I am the X,” said that papery man. He rustled as he moved.

“If you found the treasure first, you can just keep it,” Brendan said. His voice was clearly trembling now. “Just let me go, okay?”

The thin, dry creature laughed. “But you are the treasure,” he said. “You thought you were hunting for treasure, but you are the treasure, you yourself. And I think,” he said, moving to the bank of the stream, closer to Brendan, shading his eyes against the trembling flashlight, “I think you’ll make a fine silver broach. Perhaps a carved monkey, with tiny diamonds for eyes.”

The man stretched out a skinny, filthy hand, and Brendan fell backwards into the stream, trying to squirm away. The man moved closer. He put out one long finger with a long yellow nail, and lifted Brendan’s chin.

“Hey, STOP IT,” said a voice from behind Brendan. The papery creature leaped back to the bank. This was no voice from stone or silver. It was a voice Brendan knew very well.

“Maika!” he cried. And then: “Stay back!”

“What is that—what is that thing doing?” she called. Her voice echoed in the watery cavern. He heard her take a step forward.

“Maika, really, don’t! Don’t step in this creek. Don’t, don’t. There ’s some kind of —I don’t know, he can hold you in the water, and a rock told me not to step in”—realizing how crazy he sounded, not caring—“and, but it doesn’t matter, just don’t touch this creek, you’ll never come out?”

“Oh, but come on in,” said the silky-voiced paper man, who had recovered his confidence. “The water’s fine. Don’t you see all the treasures and jewels, little girl? Don’t you wish you were on this side of the creek, running the jewelry through your fingers, burying yourself in all this sweet carved gold and silver? Don’t you wish you were over here with me?”

“Yeah,” said Maika, “I do.”

Then she turned her back and walked away.

Brendan’s heart sank to see her go. For the first time, he actually felt like crying. But still, he was glad, through his own pain and fear, he was glad Maika was getting away, that she wouldn’t be caught here because of him.

“Leaving your brother?” called the paper man. “Cowardly and unsisterly! You are no jewel after all, and I’m—“ and he stopped.

The sound that stopped him had made Brendan, too, sit up in the water, ears alert.

It was the sound of pounding feet, track shoes against a stony path. “Maika!” said Brendan, whether in gratitude or warning he wasn’t sure.

The man’s shifting eyes grew large and fearful, and Brendan twisted around just in time to see Maika—his stubborn, nosy sister, who had taken a regional first in hurdles that spring, with a strong second in the long jump—to see Maika, as she sailed over the creek, two feet first, two feet planted right into the papery man’s chest.

In perfect silence, without even a cry, the papery man crumbled into dust beneath her feet.

“Maika!” Brendan shouted. Somehow his feet were his own again. He ran to her beside the great treasure chest, and they both looked down.

The treasure was softening and changing shape. And as they softened, each separate precious thing sang a long note of joy and relief. The many voices made a whole chorale in perfect harmony. Each object softened into a stream of color, silver and gold and pearl, emerald and ruby and sapphire, and the streams twined together as the voices twined.

And then the voices faded, and the colors faded, and they were gone, and the chest was empty.

Brendan and Maika walked back through the cavern together in silence. For no reason, as they walked they put their arms around each other’s shoulders, until they found their bikes, and rode home.

A few weeks later, before he returned that library book, Brendan ripped out the map and burned it.

Just in case.

Here There Be Dragons

In the ancient, walled city of Oldlight, night had fallen with the snow. Both covered the stone buildings with a heavy hush. All of those who lived in Oldlight had shut themselves safely inside; hearth-fires flickered from every window, catching the blankets of white on the streets outside and setting them to sparkle.

It was beautiful—a jewel of a city. And such a shame, therefore, that no one could visit it.

And no one could leave.

The walls around the city were high, built of huge rocks nestled together so close a whisper would not fit through the cracks. The gates were just as tall, iron bars thick as branches, topped with razor spikes.

There were jokes, that the barriers were all for protection, to keep the dragons out, but only because they had to laugh at something. The dragons never bothered them, though they could occasionally be heard in the distance, growling and snarling. Sometimes, jets of flame lit the sky, two jets that met in crackling balls of flame and eventually became just one that faded away, leaving the scent of scorch behind it to float past on the wind.

Nonetheless, in a way, the jokes were right, as all jokes contain a grain of truth, even if those telling them aren’t aware of it.

By far the nicest of the buildings in Oldlight sat right on the edge near the tall gate that was never opened, itself surrounded by small walls that weren’t meant to keep anyone in or out. The gates to the castle were never closed, and people came and went. The girl who sat in the castle’s tallest turret, watching the snow, was perfectly allowed to leave, if she liked, to explore the city around her.

But she’d done that already, knew every inch of the city, and all the people, too. They called her Princess as she passed, and curtsied or bowed. She had walked every mile of the high walls and stood at the gate, and then returned, sullen, to her turret.

~*~

The snow was worse in the mountains. The boy and the old man shivered over a fire more steam than flame, built of sodden twigs and leaves. They had paper, but it was the one thing they would never burn, sooner they’d set their few bits of clothing alight. The old man kept pulling the scroll further from the sparks, then leaning forward again so as to read the tiny, cramped writing that scuttled over it like a thousand spiders.

“Are we close?” the boy asked. Personally, he thought the old man quite mad. Surely, what he claimed couldn’t be true.

But if it was…

“Closer than I’ve ever managed before,” whispered the old man, a strange fervor in his eyes. “My life’s work, this. And who’d have thought, with nothing but a scrap of a lad for help. Not that I had much’ve a choice, no one else believed any more…”

The old man had said as much when he’d stamped into the orphanage, one gnarled hand on a walking stick topped with silver, the other clutching a fistful of it. A fair price, he said, for an assistant to carry compasses and bread and blankets.

And now, now he said they were close. They must be. The last village’d been more than a week past. Here there was nothing but mountains and bitter wind and, below, a vast, flat expanse of emptiness.

“Get some rest,” said the old man. “Tomorrow we find them. Oh, yes. Tomorrow we’ll see them with our own eyes.”

~*~

The boy awoke. Sleep hadn’t come easy, the cold biting at him, waking him more suddenly than the bell at the orphanage, calling all the children to breakfast.

His stomach rumbled. He turned, and all at once, he wasn’t hungry at all.

It wasn’t right, that color, not on a person. The old man was blue as a summer lake, fingers curled and frozen and stiff around the scroll of paper.

“Wake up!” said the boy, grasping the old man’s shoulder, certain his own shoulders were shaking even harder. “Please, wake up!”

The old man did not wake. He never would again.

It was a dull, gray day, with a sky the shade of bad memories, and no villages had sprouted down on the plains overnight. Even with a spyglass, there was no sign of anyone, anywhere. Alone, the boy sat in the snow, curling his knees to his chin, beside the blackened remnants of the fire. Frozen himself, as frozen as the dead old man, but with indecision. Tears turned to ice on his cheeks.

Right. Well. There must be something down there, something he just couldn’t see, and it’d be closer than the last village, all the way back on the other side of the mountains.

And the old man had been quite mad, but if he was right…

Sniffling, the boy packed up all their things, and did his best to cover the old man with snow. All day he walked and slid down the steep mountainside, his footprints the only ones marking that anyone visited this place. Behind the clouds the sun arced, unseen, on its journey from morning to evening. Now and again, he stopped to check the scroll, still not entirely believing the words written across it.

~*~

The girl sat in her turret after supper, watching the candles wink on behind windows across the city.  She thought about going for a walk, to creep along the inside of the walls once again, but knew her parents would say it was too late. Which was silly, there wasn’t any danger, although in the distance she could see two flames, battling sun-bright in the sky.

“There’s nothing here,” whispered a voice. “He was wrong. Nothing at all.”

She jumped. “Who said that?”

No answer came.

“I demand you show yourself!” she said, checking behind the draperies. Then under the bed. And in a wardrobe full of dresses she never wore.

“Here there be dragons,” said the voice. “Here there be nothing, more like.”

There was something…odd…about that voice. It didn’t sound like any voice in Oldlight, not that she knew each and every one, but still, there was something strange about it. She wanted it to say something else, just so she could be sure.

It stopped talking, and began to make a…a sound. An awful, wet, sniveling sound. She began to follow it, down the stairs and out the front door, along the walls to the tall, barred gate, as it rang louder and louder and louder.

~*~

A noise tore through the night. The boy’s head snapped up and he rubbed his eyes to clear them, his blood turning cold as the snow underfoot. He turned all the way around, and blinked.

A girl stood in the snow. Well, she must be a girl, but there was something…odd…about her. She didn’t look precisely like any girl he had ever seen, but for the moment, the differences weren’t as important as what was behind her. A gate, flanked on either side by high stone walls.

“What–?” he asked, his voice bouncing over the whiteness.

She moved toward him. “I heard you,” she said. “We’re told never, ever to open the gate, but I heard you.”

“Why shouldn’t you open the gate?” he asked. “Who are you? What is this place?”

It was a lot of questions to ask, and he tried to listen for an answer as he fished for the map.

“I am the princess of Oldlight,” she said.

Oldlight. He squinted, and traced the spider-letters all over the scroll with his finger, searching… Searching, and not finding.

He peered at her. At her bright, round, golden eyes, and the lengthened fingernails, and the tiny scales that covered her, glimmering in light reflected off the snow.

Something roared, distant but nearing. The boy looked up, but not before he caught a flicker of fear on her face. “They never come this close,” she said. “Never!”

Here there be dragons, thought the boy as the ground began to shake, hard enough to toss the map from his hand. It flew up on the wind and exploded in a shower of sparks like stars falling to earth. The stream of fire hit the gates, another the buildings just behind. Another and another and another, until all of Oldlight was aflame. The girl screamed and the dragon whipped its head around to stare at her, its eyes enormous versions of her own, just as its scales and talons were. A searing jet of blue-white heat melted the snow in front of her and she screamed again. “We are no longer safe,” hissed the great beast. “For this, we will get our revenge.”

Dark shapes, a hundred of them, began to appear, dark against the night. The boy dashed forward. Her hand was cold, a strangely dry sort of cold.

“Run,” he said, pulling her along as, behind them, leathery wings flapped nearer and Oldlight, the no-longer-hidden land of the dragons, burned. “Run.”

The House of Many People

“Victorian photograph, circa 1880”

A woman was folded into the chest by the front stairs. She was dressed very well, taffeta and black bombazine, with little green birds stitched around the collar. Her hands were crossed over her heart. Her shoes were well-polished. She was curled up a little so that when Detective Greenville opened the lid and found her there, he thought at first she was sleeping. But her skin was too pale, almost gray, and she was too still. Perfectly, utterly still.

He blinked at the woman. Shuffled his feet. Then closed the lid and turned away. “Dom?” he called. “Dom, there’s another one down here. In the chest. Get it tagged, please.”

He walked back into the center of the hall, glancing about. There was nothing to suggest anything but perfect Victorian sobriety in the dark paneling, the dour oil-paintings in muted browns and greens, the quiet flicker of the kerosene lamps. Nothing but the bodies everywhere, stowed in closets, in the kitchen holding bowls, in the dining room, propped against the high backed chairs.

Detective Greenville went up the stairs, past another woman (woman #3, a bit of paper pinned to her collar said) and across the upper hallway, where a third body, a man this time, stood in an alcove, his head against his chest. They were all dead, and recently, too, but they were not like any corpses he had seen before. None of them had started to decay, suggesting they had all been done in recently, and in short succession, and yet not one of them had a mark or cut, not so much as a bruise to suggest what had coaxed them from their mortal coil.

Mr Greenville walked into a bedroom, stiffening as the rattle and pop of an automobile approached up the street outside. He went to the window. It looked out over a cul-de-sac, maple trees and ruddy leaves, skittering over the weary grass of September. The reporters would be swarming soon, demanding statements, flashing photographs, offering bribes for lurid details. . .

But the automobile kept going, around the circle, stopping two houses further on. Mr. Greenville turned away from the window. The longer the silence lasted, the better. He had not yet thought of anything sensible to tell the chief of police yet alone rag reporters.

He looked across the room, at Moon Boy. Moon Boy was one of the more grotesque finds. A lad with a round, pale face, his mouth pulled into a wide smile. He was arranged carefully over a game of chess. His eyes were open, glassy.

Mr. Greenville approached the chess game. There was only the slightest hint of death in the room, a vaguely sour, milky smell, and slipping under the usual odors of dust and lamp-oil. Mr. Greenville leaned down next to Moon Boy. He noticed the body was not looking at the game. Its head was up. He eyed Moon Boy, then brought his own head up, tracing the direction of the body’s empty stare. The opponent’s chair was not occupied – Mr. Greenville wondered if it was reserved for the house’s infamous proprietor – but the body was not looking at the chair either. Not the minutely-carved ivory of his queen. Not the window. Something. . .

Mr. Greenville leaned closer and squinted, imagining the boy was some sort of mannequin instead of a corpse. His gaze traveled from the boy’s hands, slumped heavily on the table, to the pale queen, to. . . His attention jerked back to the hands. One wrist was punctured with many small red dots, as if narrow instruments had been poked into the flesh.

Mr. Greenville blinked. He straightened, and looked about, his eyes half-lidded, expressionless. He was always very distanced about these sorts of things. Horrible things. He saw many horrible things, and if let them affect him they would worm into his skull and break him like a china doll, and so instead he did not care at all. There was no in-between.

He looked again at the boy’s hands. One was lying wrist-up. The other resting, the fingers tucked beneath the palm. All except one. One finger pointed, straight ahead. To the other side of the room. Mr. Greenville flinched.

There was another body in the room. He had not even seen it. And neither had Dom apparently, as it wore no tag. It was the body of a man, and it stood partly in shadow, staring straight ahead. The body had been propped up straight, and though the man was clearly dead, his eyes were open wide, curiously sharp and dark. The irises were blue, rimmed in black.

Mr. Greenville swallowed quickly. The whole house was like this. A nightmarish tableau, some bodies propped up in a semblance of work or amusement, others simply dumped places, as if they were not needed and would be taken out later. But Mr. Greenville had not seen any like this  fellow yet. Not with such eyes.

He took a step toward the body. The man had been exquisitely handsome. His face was sharp, the lines of his cheekbones like razors, his hair combed back over his scalp. But his eyes. Those dead, sharp eyes – they were filled with something, as if behind the deadness and the gone-ness, there was something else, something looking in, like through a window.

Mr. Greenville took another step toward the body. The limpid, cutting eyes. He could feel Moon Boy behind him, the presence of him, picture his smile and his limp, pointing finger.

“Dom!” he called out, and his voice slipped just a tiny bit. “Dom, there’s another one up here. You missed him.”

The silence in the room, in the whole house, was suffocating. Dom did not answer.

Mr. Greenville shook himself and left the room, suddenly cold, and went to fetch his coat and some brandy from the front hall. A bit of brandy would do wonders. It would wake him up, and it would dull the smell, which was perhaps slightly stronger than he had thought.

He went back across the landing and down the stairs, hopping gingerly over the prone shape of woman #3. He took his coat and put it on. Threw back his head for a draft of brandy. Then he crossed the hall and looked into the kitchen, where he had expected Dom to be. No one was there. Only a white-aproned cook, staring at him, wires suspending her arms, holding up a ceramic bowl, a metal whisk, her eyes like cold milk.

“Dom?”

Mr. Greenville closed the kitchen door and whistled a little to calm himself.

“Dom?” he called again, not very loudly. He never spoke loudly. He was a large man, but his voice was always soft and breathy, and even when he thought he was shouting he was not. He passed the chest with the woman in it, went into the dining room, the study.

“Dom, hurry yourself up!”

There had been people missing all over the City for years, but people went missing in big cities all the time. Sometimes they were found. Sometimes they lived, and went home to their families. Sometimes they didn’t. But who would have thought they would end up here, in respectable house on the bay?

Mr. Greenville took another swig of brandy and climbed back up the stairs to the bedrooms. “Dom!” he called out, walking into Moon Boy’s room. “Get out of whatever you’re in and come tag this- ”

The man was gone. Mr. Greenville coughed slightly. Moon Boy still pointed, but there was no one there in the shadows at the end of the room.

Mr. Greenville stood very, very still, staring at the place where it had been. His solid, dependable heart wobble a little. He blinked, confused. He had seen it. He had walked right up to it and stared into its eyes.

He swung about, peering at Moon Boy suspiciously. Moon Boy stared back, and he looked strangely sad, despite his grin. Or perhaps Mr. Greenville imagined it.

He turned back to the place the corpse had stood. He went out into the upstairs hallway.

He heard a sound then, a soft step along the carpet, and wheeled toward it.

“Dom!” he bellowed (or breathed), but there was no answer. A door stood open at the end of the hallway, a bedroom. He walked briskly toward it. It had been closed before. He hurried past man #4, head-to-chist, still as stone. He entered the room.

It was a nursery, snowy white. A small cot stood in one corner, covered by a lace baldachin. There was a toy carousel, a rocking horse, a doll, all sugar-white porcelains and shades of pastel.

He looked about. The owner of the house, according the the records Mr. Greenville had been given by the police, was one William Pynchon. He had been 87 at the last census, some six years ago. He had not had any children. Strange to have a nursery. Of course, Mr. Greenville did not know if William Pynchon still lived here, or if he had not long since joined the ranks of the house’s other inhabitants. But why a nursery?

He went to the cot, lifted the veil. It was empty, thank goodness. The coverlet was neatly made up.

A snap sounded behind him. He spun. “Dom?” he cried, and it was Dom, but he was coming at Mr. Greenville like a bull, and there was something off about him, about his face, and now he was grabbing Mr. Greenville, shoving him backwards.

Dom!” Mr. Greenville crashed into a closet, breaking straight through the thin white wood. He was falling. Falling down into darkness, a shaft inside the closet, the rungs of a ladder rushing past him, and ropes, too, and high above was Dom, looking down.

Mr. Greenville’s hands caught one of the ropes and burned as he slid down it. Air whistled past his ears. And then his feet hit solid ground and the force of it rattled his teeth. He spun, breathing hard.

He was far underground, in the cellar no doubt. There was a new smell here, thick and ripe and horrid, but also sweet.

It was dark as pitch, darker than night, and his heart was hammering wildly. Dom? What is this madness?

His hands rummaged in his pockets and he found a box of matches, struck one. He was in a room, the ceiling low and vaulted, the walls glistening with damp. There was a table. A chair. Papers. Many papers.

His match fizzled out. He lit another.

He hurried to the papers. High above, he heard the creak of the ladder. Dom. Or something else? Something was coming down to him. He leaned over the papers and shuffled through them, trying to find an early date, a useful sentence.

I am increasingly interested in whether or not man has a soul, he read. And if they do what is a soul? Surely if it exists it is the most fascinating part of the human anatomy. It does not control one’s actions, as the heart does, and yet it must be located very close by. How does the soul of a good man look, and how the soul of a wicked one? Or are all souls the same, and only the mind is different? And how much does a soul weigh.

Mr. Greenville read quickly, striking match after match, the walls seeming to press down around him, as if the house above, with its gruesome weight of countless bodies, knew of the intrusion and was intent on burying it. There were so many papers. The ladder was still creaking.

I have my first specimen, Mr. Greenville read, his breath coming in gasps. He is a low creature of the streets, not worth a tot, and in the name of the advancement and betterment of mankind I do not feel bad for taking him. He died too quick, alas, and I could not even glimpse his soul, let alone catch it-

The match’s flame bit into Mr. Greenville’s thumb and he hissed, shaking it out and lighting another. He was running low on matches. He had to get out.

I have it! I measured the weight of the human body the instant before death and the instant after, in a bed set upon a scale, and have come to this conclusion: the body is twenty-one grams lighter after death, after the soul has left it. Twenty-one grams, can you imagine? The weight of two slices of toast. Now, the question is, where have those twenty-one grams gone? And why can I not catch them, see them, touch them? Or perhaps follow them. The moment of death is the moment of realization, the realization of all the knowledge of the world. Suppose I could speak to it? And what of the body it has left behind? It is completely healthy beyond the extraction of the soul, not technically dead at all. But what, exactly, is it?

Mr. Greenville spun toward the ladder, seeing the boots of his assistant clambering, slowly and cumbersomely, down into sight. He turned back to the papers, reading as he stuffed them into his coat.

The human soul is a capricious thing. It will not speak with me and it decays quickly once freed, and departs, to where I do not know. It seems to strain against the bonds of this world, to weep with the pain of it, as if the body was its shield and anchor, and without it it is alone, wishing to be elsewhere. I always let them go. There are other things that interest me now. The bodies left behind. They are not dead. They still have their minds, though they are of little use now. They simply need those twenty-one grams, that invisible weight, and what if it were mine? What if I could pass from shell to shell, like an actor donning different costumes? What if I could be anyone, and everyone? I asked the souls this as they thrashed against my tweezers.  I asked them whether it was logical, a scientific phenomena, or something else. One told me it did not understand, that logic was an idea of man, made to serve man’s ideas, and then it fled. I think it is logical, what I strive to do. I think it is good. Someone is screaming upstairs-

The match went out. Dom was in the cellar. Mr. Greenville struck another, frantically, and as the flame bloomed he saw the devilish man, inches away from him, blue eyes searing a hole into his skin.

“What are you?” Mr. Greenville breathed, and suddenly the man leaned forward, and it was as if Mr. Greenville was being engulfed, eaten up by the those rings of darkness and the ice blue at their epicenter. The mouth opened. A dead breath drifted out of it, a dead voice:

“Another one. How perfect. Little Bobby tried to warn you, but you didn’t listen. You can play chess with him later. He would appreciate that. But come now. Let us see how much your soul weighs. And rest easy in the knowledge that it will be gone from this place soon, even if your body will. . . stay.”

“You are a monster,” Mr. Greenville gasped, fighting against the cold hands, but they were digging in, inhumanly strong, and there was Dom, his eyes blank now, his face sagging, an empty flask of skin and bones. “Monster!” Mr. Greenville cried again, a desperate shriek that echoed in the cellar and melded with the sound of a siren high above, the sound of automobiles, and the flash of a photographer’s bulb.

“I?” said the man, and grinned, his teeth yellow behind the perfect lips. “Oh no. I am a man.”

The Doll Collection

May 14 (Day #3 of being here):

I’m scared, and this is crazy, and I don’t have anyone to talk to. So I’m writing in this diary I got for Christmas, because this place is so weird, and I’m so lonely, and I don’t have anyone to tell.

My mom is housesitting. Or supposedly “we’re” housesitting, because I need to be Just As Invested as Mom is, supposedly. That’s the kind of thing she says now she has this new job. Blah.

It’s her new boss we’re housesitting for. Viv. She’s tall and super beautiful and pale and wears a black velvet coat even thought it isn’t cold outside. When we got here three days ago, she showed us around.

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The house is way nicer than our house and in a way nicer part of town. It’s over a hundred years old, skinny and four stories high, near the center of the city. Viv fixed it up, Mom says. It’s all shiny dark wood and soft carpets and deep colors and window seats.

I don’t like it. The street is noisy, and I’m far away from my friends, and I have to take a bus to school—not a school bus, a city bus, with a bunch of grownups who look like they’re really mad they’re on a bus.

And we had to leave our cat Spooky at home. She’s called that because she’s still kind of wild and shy, even though she’s lived with us for two years. I found her when she was starving, and fed her and petted her till she stopped biting me. Then I let her in our house, and ever since then she hasn’t ever even tried to leave. I really miss her. My friend Mabel is feeding her for $5 a day, but I bet Spooky feels so lonely in our house alone.

I feel lonely in this one. This house has its own cat, a weird one exactly half black and half white, with small, pinky, bloodshot eyes. It doesn’t seem very nice. But maybe it’s just lonely for Viv.

The worst part is my room. It’s supposedly really nice I guess, but the walls are the color of blood—which, in a bedroom?!?? And even though it’s on the top floor, way above the street, at night I still hear cars and drunk people and screamy laughter, or sometimes just screams, and I can’t tell if they’re the laughing kind or not.

But that’s not even the bad part. The bad part is that this room is where Viv keeps her doll collection. As soon as I walked into the room, I felt a giant NO inside me. I said real fast, “Is there another room I could have?” And Viv said Not Really, the only other ones are the master bedroom where Mom’s sleeping, and Viv’s home office, which is Off Limits.

My mom said, “It’s so much nicer than your room at home, honey. Really, it’s all gorgeous, Viv, I don’t know what she’s thinking.”

I think she knew exactly what I was thinking, because she was in a hurry to get out of that room and look at the rest of the house. Anyone would be.

These dolls.

There are like hundreds of them, sitting on these dark wood shelves against the blood-colored walls, sitting on the ledge of the bay window, sitting on the bed, and on the floor, and just everywhere. All different sizes and kinds of dolls, regular plastic ones and old china ones, wooden painted ones and blotchy old tin ones. All different clothes and colors, boys and girls.

All different, except for one thing: they all have big, bright, open-mouthed smiles. Open mouths, where you can see their teeth.

DAY #4, Morning: I am almost 100% sure that when I woke up, all the dolls were one inch closer to my bed. The ones on shelves were closer to the edge of the shelves. The ones at the end of the bed were closer to me.

And the ones on the window ledge–all their heads are turned to look at me.

Night: Just now I was brushing my teeth in the little old-fashioned bathroom by my room. When I looked up into the mirror, there was a doll looking into the mirror too, right behind me, with its big open-mouth smile.

That doll wasn’t on the bathroom shelf before.

I texted Mabel to tell her and she texted back “Now I’m gonna have nightmares weirdo shut up.”

DAY #5, Afternoon: When I woke up this morning, the dolls were closer again, and half of them were upside down, still smiling their giant toothy smiles.

I hate this house.

And I hate my mother’s new job, which is making her weird. She wears a TON of makeup to work now. Her face looks weirdly too perfect. She’s wearing fake eyelashes, they look ridiculously long, it’s embarrassing.

Night: I found a linen closet with extra sheets. I didn’t ask permission. I hung them over the shelves with thumbtacks and I don’t care if the shiny wood is ruined. I draped some towels over the window dolls. The dolls at the end of my bed I stuck under the bed. I am not going to wake up to those horrible dolls again.

Day #6, Morning: Somehow in the night the bedsheets got torn down, and twisted into like ropes, and tied into hard knots around the bedpost. When I woke up, a doll from underneath the bed was halfway up one of the twisted sheets. Like he was climbing it. His big smiling mouth was turned right at me.

I texted Mabel again. She hasn’t texted me back.

The towels I put over the window dolls are on the floor, and soaking wet, but not with water, with something dark and sticky. I threw them in the wash, then I washed my hands for like ten minutes. The water ran the same red color as the walls.

So maybe it was paint?

I gotta get out, we gotta get out.

Day #7, Morning: Last night I tried to talk to my mom about the dolls. She laughed at me, this funny, robot-y sounding laugh, like “HA ha ha ha. HA ha ha ha.” She sounded like the laugher at some creepy fun house.

She was straightening up the living room in this funny stiff way, bending at the hips. like her joints didn’t work so well any more. She is wearing the same lavender-flower dress she wore yesterday. She looks smaller, somehow.

Something about this place.

I couldn’t even write in this diary, I just lay there saying “I won’t cry, I won’t cry,” until I fell asleep.

And then this morning I woke up with three little bloody bite marks on my arm, just like when I was taming Spooky. They sting really bad.

One of the dolls right across from my bed, a big Pinocchio with a long nose and a red hat and a wide smile, has a little streak of blood at the corner of his mouth.

DAY #7, Night: 

After school I saw that my mother is definitely smaller! She’s almost my size now! I asked her what was happening, why she was shrinking?

She said “HA ha ha ha. HA ha ha ha.”

When she tucked me in she had a big wide smile on her face and her eyes with their long fake eyelashes stared right over my head.

I secretly called Dad, which I am not supposed to do except in a giant emergency. I think I woke him up because of the time zones. I told him mom was getting smaller and laughing weirdly and he told me I was having a bad dream, go back to sleep, tell mom to call him later. Then he hung up.

DAY #10

When I woke up yesterday morning the dolls were all around me–some tucked under my pillow, some with their legs wrapped around my arm, some lying on my stomach–but every single one with their faces tilted UP at me. One big doll wearing some kind of peasant costume had her wide, smiling mouth around my hand. Its teeth were resting on my skin. I screamed. I ran downstairs.

Mom was sitting at the edge of the sofa, her legs hanging down. She was maybe two feet tall, still in her pale purple flowered dress, her black hair long and neat. “HA ha,” she was saying, “HA ha.” But like she was tired, like she was winding down.

So I took her home. I put her purse in my backpack. I left a bunch of food for Viv’s stupid ugly cat, a whole bag full on the floor. I held the doll that was my mom in my arms and waited for the bus to come. I asked the bus driver which stop to transfer at to get to our address, and she gave me and my doll-mom a funny look, but she told me.

Last night I slept with my doll-mom, I held her and talked to her and tried to talk her back into being my mom again, but it made no difference. She’s smaller this morning, she’s doll-sized for real now.

All morning I’ve been laying in my room, whispering to the doll, “Mama come back, come back.”

Tuesday I think

We’ve been home alone for a while now. We’re almost out of peanut butter and noodles. I hope I got mom out in time but I don’t know. I don’t know if I did. She can still move one arm a little, and creakily say “HA ha. HA ha.”

But so could those dolls at Viv’s house, right? So maybe she is gone all the way. I don’t know.

I’m lonely, I’m lonely, I’m scared. But I can’t call Dad or Grandma or anyone, and say “Mom turned into a doll.” No one would believe me. They’d take her away from me.

So I don’t answer any texts from anyone.

At night in bed I hold her in my arms, my mommy doll, my mommy doll, and I try not to cry. And every morning I wake up with these tiny little bite marks on my arms, and my mommy doll has blood on her big, smiling face.

But I was thinking, maybe it will be like Spooky. Maybe she’ll bite me and bite me and then see I still love her anyway. And then after a while, she’ll give up biting, and give up being a doll, and be my mom again.

Friday

The most terrible thing happened. The police came, and Viv came with them.

They kept asking where my mom was, or who was taking care of me. I said “she’ll be right back in minute” in this high, obviously lying voice.

The police looked at each other. Viv smiled a tiny, mean smile.

Then she said to me, in this fake nice voice, that she knew I had stolen a doll, this supposedly really valuable doll, worth thousands of dollars. At first I didn’t even know what she was talking about, like I would STEAL one of those horrible things?

But then the police lady starts reading a description that says “long black hair, brown skin, brown eyes, lavender-flowered dress”—and I realize she means my mother. My mother, she means.

Viv wants my mother back for her collection.

I run to my room to get to her before they do. I lock the door, but the police start banging on it, yelling OPEN UP MISS. OPEN UP.

I grab my mom-doll, and now I finally do cry, for the first time this whole time, I cry all over the place. “Mama,” I cry, ”you have to come back, you have to.”

“HA ha,” she say softly, and lifts her hand a little.

“Mama!” I say. My tears are pouring all over her hard little face. I think for a minute–but maybe it’s just because my eyes are full of tears?–that her plastic face starts to soften a little. I think it is softening, though–it’s like the tears are ruining the perfectness of the plastic, and making it a little bit alive again.

But there’s no time to keep watching. I hear the police backing up to smash down the door. So I throw the doll behind me and get ready to fight.

I know it’s useless, but I have to try.

And as the police bust through the door, in that one second, I can see it all happening, the rest of my life: Viv taking my mother away to put in her collection, and I never see her again, never again. And they send me to some place for crazy children, my Dad and Grandma standing in the door crying while they drag me away. And people say “What a shame, poor girl, what a shame.”

The door smashes down. The police stagger in. Then they blink, and straighten up.

“Mrs. Everton?” they say. “We didn’t realize you were here, your daughter said—“

“I was asleep,” says my mother, from behind me. “What in the world is going on? What have you done to our door?”

And behind the police, I see Viv’s face twist up in rage and disappointment. I see her slip quietly away.

And on my shoulder, warm and real and right-sized, I feel my mother’s hand.

The Hills and the Valleys

Creatures live in the hills and in the valleys. They are creatures of smoke and ash, of whispers and misunderstood words, of lavender and poison and hollow bones. Some are so not-there you could put your hand right through them, but if you tried, their very-real fangs would feel very solid indeed, solid and sharp. Others have a laugh that shatters glass…when they laugh.

At night, they run toward the villages. They listen for the sounds of sleep, for breath and snores. They reap their harvest, and return to the hills and the valleys carrying their prizes in talons or on the wind.

A hair, a tooth, a shard of fingernail.

It has no name, the young creature, for names are human things. Ages are human things, too, but it can truly be said that it is young, formed of thistles and lightning the last time the snows had melted and the land had sprung anew with green.

Names are human things, so we shall give it a human name. The hills and the valleys are where the Nightmares live.

The young Nightmare dances across the fields, a crackle of blue and sting, strong enough for the first time to move. It will soon be even stronger. All around, the other, older Nightmares skip and fly and tumble toward the houses, thatched roofs pointed above darkened windows. A dog whines, perhaps sensing something that humans cannot, perhaps simply wishing to fill the silence, for the Nightmares make no noise. No noise, at least, where they can be heard.

Grass gives way to stone under the Nightmares’ feet, and here they all part ways, heading for different places. They slip through window cracks and mouse holes, down chimneys and through letterboxes. Any way inside is good enough, and once they are inside, they cannot be stopped.

The young Nightmare knows what to do. It is knowledge passed from creature to creature by the howl of the storm, by the rustle of leaves—are they just leaves?—in the darkness. It watches the house for a minute, and creeps inside. Up the stairs, past two doors that are not the right doors, and to the one that is. The girl in the bed tosses and turns as the Nightmare nears, her face scrunched at the pictures in her head. The Nightmare knows precisely what the pictures are. She belongs to this Nightmare, and it to her.

She has not recently lost a tooth, and her fingernails are short and smooth, but it is no trouble to take a single long, red hair from her head. She does not even notice. The Nightmare crackles brighter blue. Happiness is a human thing, but this is an important moment, this first collection. It dances back across the fields, the hair streaming behind it. Back in the hills and the valleys, the others have returned to crow over their spoils, and the young Nightmare watches as they grow bigger, stronger from the things they have gathered.

Nightmares are creatures, and creatures must feed. The young one feels itself grow, an inch taller perhaps. Not much, but there is time. Years. The girl’s red hair is cut short, and grows long again. She loses a tooth, and it is replaced by another. One night, a sliver of fingernail is painted pink.

She is alone in the house when the Nightmare, no longer young, climbs the stairs to her room and stops at the landing, for, no, she is not alone. It glows brighter, not from joy at this collection, this time, but rage.

“Mine,” it says, and its voice is the sear of lightning and the burn of a thistle on skin.

The other Nightmare turns from her bedside, empty-handed, but clearly hoping not to be for long. “Mine is gone. It slept the wakeless sleep.”

“Mine,” says the lightning-thistle voice again. “I am gentle to her. She never remembers.”

The girl’s face twists and grimaces as the Nightmares battle inside her head. It is loud, and at the same time completely silent, and when it is over the winner backs away, taking nothing from her tonight and knowing she will not sleep peacefully until it is gone. It crackle-dances over the grass and up the hill to a strange, hollowed-out spot filled with red hair and pink fingernails. “Mine,” it thought once more. She had made the Nightmare strong. “Mine.”

Snows and springs fell over the hills and the valleys, one after another. The girl’s hair turned white, and her fingernails brittle. Once more, she lost her teeth and had them replaced by fake ones that were of no use to the Nightmare at all.

The moon was full, and bounced off the lightning as it moved slowly down to the village. It knew. The Nightmares always knew when the wakeless sleep would come. The house was full of people, speaking in hushed voices the Nightmare ignored as it crept to her bedside.

She opened her eyes, and blinked.

“I know you,” she whispered. “I know you from once, when I was a little girl. I never dreamed again after that.”

The Nightmare thought of its collection. “You did, many times,” it said, and of course she did not understand it, but she nodded, a tiny jerk of the head.

And closed her eyes.