The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Scrollskin

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.

Well.

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.

Why not?

 *

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—

Wait.

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.”

“I—what?”

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—”

“Shut up!”

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!

Well.

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.

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