The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

Carlotta

 

When autumn came, Carlotta’s parents brought in the trampoline from outside and set it up in the living room. “So it doesn’t blow away,” they said, and Carlotta watched from around a door-frame and thought about how she might use these turn of events to her advantage.

Once her parents were outside in the garden, she approached the trampoline slowly, the way one might approach a bear in the woods when one is not sure if it is dead or only sleeping. She bounced on it cautiously at first, small, exploratory bounces. Then she leaped up and came down with all her weight and was hurled high into the air. She smashed through the ceiling and hung for a moment, her head among the mouse droppings and plaster of the crawlspace, her legs kicking in the room below. Then she fell back down and bounced several more times on the shiny black material, staring up at the hole she had made with her head.

She was not hurt, only a little stunned, but it awakened in her the great wish to go back into the space between the floors and crawl about in it. She had seen it for a split second, a hidden world squeezed between the downstairs and the upstairs, and it had not looked bad at all. She had the idea she would find animals there – mice or birds or rattlesnakes – that liked to be alone as much as she did, and paradoxically, that they would want to be her friends. She dreamed of tunnels worming among the beams and air ducts, secret chambers and quiet corners where she could hide. She imagined herself as one of those feral children from books, haunting her family with frightening cackles and knocks. She was always looking for secret places, always looking for small, quiet corners in the great, bleak expanse of the world. Sanctuary: that was the word that always popped into her head when she thought of her mission. She was looking for a sanctuary.

She went quickly to the window and peered out to make sure her parents were still busy. Then, shaking the plaster out of her hair, she fetched a wobbly stepladder from the broom closet. She balanced it on the trampoline, and climbed it, and peeked again through the hole in the ceiling. It was at this inopportune moment that her parents decided to come back in from the garden.

“Carlotta!” they both exclaimed together, when they saw the trampoline, and the stepladder, and their daughter wobbling at the top of it, her head inside the ceiling. “Did you do that?”

Carlotta did not answer. She waited a moment, wondering which direction to choose – up into the crawlspace, or down to face the noise and angry faces of her parents. In the end, the ladder made the decision for her, toppling over and sending her down into the brightness of the living room. She collapsed onto the trampoline and blinked at her mother and father, who blinked back at her, perplexed. Carlotta’s parents never knew quite what to make of their daughter, and Carlotta often thought they would give her back if they could, and exchange her for someone better.

Carlotta,” her mother said at last, gesturing at the ceiling and the scraps of plaster everywhere. “Why would you do that? Use your head.”

Carlotta had used her head. That was what had made the hole in the ceiling. But she knew it was futile to argue, and so she went and got a dustpan and cleaned up the plaster, and then her parents sent her to her room and had a good, long talk.

*

In the end, it was the trampoline that sent Carlotta to school in the country. “It will do you good,” her parents said, the morning they took her little suitcase and put it into the trunk of the red Jensen. “To be away. To be among other children.”

Carlotta’s mother drove the car. She was not a good driver, and this made Carlotta’s father – who did not know how to drive at all – feel obliged to give directions.

“Turn left up here, Lotta,” he said, pointing to a sign. “It will cut our journey in half.”

“I don’t think that leads anywhere. Are you sure, Carl?”

“Quite sure. I have a knack for directions. And Carlotta,” he added, noting his daughter’s dour expression between the front seats. “Don’t worry, darling. St. Ethelburt’s is a good school, a veritable temple to learning-”

*

St. Ethelburt’s might have been a good school for some children, but it wasn’t for Carlotta.

She didn’t like math, and though she had always thought she liked history, the history teacher smelled of chewing tobacco and Violet Mints and sounded like the drone of a lawnmower engine, and so Carlotta decided she didn’t like history either.

Choir was a trial, sport an exercise in humiliation, and nothing Carlotta did seemed quite right by other people’s standards. During outdoor drawing class, Carlotta would walk about in her great green rain-boots, peering at people’s work over their shoulders like a curious, slightly senile old person. The other girls swatted her away, but she only pushed her glasses – round as a pair of coins – up her nose and continued tottering about.

“Carlotta,” the drawing teacher said. “Sit down and make your own picture. Don’t you have any ideas?”

I’m not looking for ideas, Carlotta thought, frowning. She was going to draw a picture of a hand drawing a picture, and was only looking to see whose hand cast the nicest shadow. But when her gaze darted across all those staring eyes, and the pinched face of the drawing teacher, she paused and hunched her shoulders and could not bring herself to explain this.

The teachers at St. Ethelburt’s were confusing to Carlotta. The science teacher, a Mr. Tweedy, would sometimes not teach science, but would assign them reading and then sit in the light of one of the great classroom windows, looking out from time to time, and then leaning over a table and writing desperate letters, his spectacles sliding down his nose. Miss Larch, the maths teacher, had switched schools six times in three years and was rumored to be a fugitive from the law. And the headmistress had broken up with her fellow just a little while ago and all the girls had talked about it for weeks. One day Carlotta caught her in an empty hallway, primping in front of a mirror and crying. The headmistress had seen Carlotta and had smiled brightly and hurried away. She always gave Carlotta little sideways glances after that, as if she were worried Carlotta would tell on her, and Carlotta wondered often about that mirror and what it must have shown the headmistress to make her cry.

Then there was the trouble of Dido Binnington. Unlike Carlotta, for whom the world was like a prickly, scratchy, much-too-large sweater, the world seemed to have been made to fit Dido like a lovely party dress. Dido was the captain of the rowing team and the head girl for that year, and she thought Carlotta shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near her. In fact, whenever Carlotta came clumping past in her galoshes, Dido would make a face as if she smelled something bad, and would whisper something to her friends. Carlotta didn’t know this, but having the world fit you like a lovely dress came with all sorts of its own insidious troubles, and the truth was Dido was not a happy creature. The mere sight of Carlotta, half-blind behind her spectacles, drove Dido to wrath. She didn’t know why. She only knew that when she pushed Carlotta in the hall, or made a comment about her in class that made everyone laugh, she felt a great satisfaction, the sort she normally only felt when squashing bumblebees or stepping on snails.

Carlotta thought Dido was far too old to care whether Carlotta wore galoshes, and really, it was more pathetic that she paid attention to Carlotta at all, when Carlotta was only in Year 3 and Dido in Year 9. Sometimes Carlotta thought the others should notice how silly Dido was, too, how she picked at her hair whenever someone else’s joke got a louder laugh than her own, and how she spoke a great deal about being good at things, but wasn’t. The other girls didn’t seem to notice anything, however, and it only confused Carlotta further. How easily you could trick the world, Carlotta thought. How easily you could pretend to be good, but be all sorts of nasty underneath. It made Carlotta shake her head. It made her want to go away.

*

Carlotta resumed her search for a good sanctuary during her very first week at St. Ethelbert’s. She decided right away that the school’s crawlspace would not be an option. Her parents’ house had been made of plasterboard and had been put together by a crane, and thus was easily permeable. The school, on the hand, was old and built of stone, and Carlotta thought if she placed a trampoline on the floor of one of the rooms and tried to torpedo herself into the ceiling the results would be significantly less successful than they’d been at home.

Instead, she took to the woods that edged the school green, wandering the little glens and picking her way along the stony shore of the lake, just inside the shadow of the pine stands. There was a folly some ways into the woods. It had once been a gazebo of some sort, or a tower, with Grecian pillars and high windows, but either most of it had fallen over or it had never been built in the first place. It had no ceiling, strange writing on the walls in bright paint, and bottles on the ground. It looked as if it hadn’t been used for a very long time. Better yet, thought Carlotta as she entered for the first time, it had a black iron door in one pillar that looked just large enough for her to crawl into.

She lay on her stomach among the dirt and leaves, and peered at the door. It was a bright, warm day, the golden sun piercing the trees and warming the stone. Birds sang and crickets sawed. Carlotta began to pry at the latch. She thought the door looked like a door in Alice in Wonderland, a door meant for small things only, that would sort out all the larger ones and keep them from entering.

The latch did not open at once, but Carlotta was patient. She picked slowly at the rust of the latch, jiggling it every minute or so. She hummed to herself and imagined what she might find behind the door. She pictured a tunnel, sloping downward, growing wider and wider, and then a stair, and then a great, cavernous chamber with a lake still as glass, and a castle at its center. The castle would have spires and diamond-paned windows, and all its window would be twinkling with warm, orange, inviting light. Music would float toward her across that silent water, and soft voices, and the sound of cutlery, for there was a feast to welcome her. We’ve been waiting for you, they would tell her, the strange quiet inhabitants of the castle. We’ve been waiting a thousand years for you to find the little black door in the folly and come to us.

Of course, Carlotta would leave through the little black door every once in a while if she wanted to. She would see her parents on birthdays and holidays, and go to lessons at St. Ethelbert’s when they interested her, and everyone would be very surprised to see her. But then she’d slip away again and return to her castle underground. She would be an enigma, a mystery to the world above, and it would make sense that everyone thought her strange there, because it was not her world at all.

At last, the latch jiggled and slid back, and the small black door creaked open. Carlotta wrenched it wide and wriggled forward to look in. All was dark. There was indeed a space behind the door, a tunnel of some sort, just as she had thought! Carlotta’s heart felt warm and slithery, for suddenly it seemed entirely possible there was a lake and a castle under this folly, that anything might be waiting in the dark ahead.

She wriggled further until her head was inside the door. . . .

*

Back at St. Ethelburt’s, Dido Binnington had watched from an upstairs window as Carlotta wandered away across the green. Carlotta had been swinging a little stick, walking in wide zigzags so that it took her twice as long as would be strictly necessary to get from one point to another. Dido had snorted. But then she had thought, “What is that little creep up to? Where is she going all by herself?” And Dido had run down the stairs and out over the grass, and followed her.

*

Carlotta did not see Dido standing in the space between two of the crumbling pillars. She was much too busy thinking of what lay ahead. Her feet disappeared inside the little black door. The noise of the trees and the birds was faint in there, cushioned by the velvet dark. It was cool and damp, and Carlotta was aware of her uniform becoming soaked with the mud. She wriggled a foot or so more. The tunnel sloped steeply downward, but it did not become any bigger like it had in her mind.

And all at once, she heard a sound behind her: quick footsteps crunching across the leaves and then a pause as someone crouched down. There was no laughter or taunting, no words at all. Only a quick, sharp breath, and then the black iron door swung shut with great force.

Carlotta remained very still for a moment, her chin on her hands, her entire body pointing down into the earth, like a worm. Then she began to back up slowly until she felt the door with her foot. She tapped the toes of her boot several times against the metal. It was certainly closed. Carlotta frowned. She pushed harder. It was closed and locked.

*

Outside, Dido stood with her arms crossed and looked at that small black door. She wasn’t sure what she meant to accomplish by locking the numpty girl inside. But she felt the familiar satisfaction – the crush of bug carapaces, the squelch of snails – and so she only waited, hoping to hear Carlotta scream or panic.

But no such sounds came from that little black door. Only a faint tapping that went on for several minutes and then stopped.

Dido scowled. She smoked a cigarette, and then sat down in front of the black iron door and waited. Then she wrenched it open, saying, “All right, come out, you little freak.”

But there was no one there. She peered in and saw only blackness, a tunnel extending down steeply, and a little trail in the mud that a girl might have made, wriggling along. Dido looked up sharply. She glanced over her shoulder and the trees seemed to be watching her, silent and disapproving. “Carlotta?” she demanded, in a shrill voice.

Carlotta did not answer.

*

Dido went back to the school slowly, feeling sick. She had left the door wide open. It wasn’t her fault if the idiot had gotten stuck somewhere, or suffocated, or. . .

She thought of going to the headmistress. She thought of telling her friend, Opal, who was dull and reasonable and only said things that made Dido feel better. In the end Dido said nothing, because everyone would ask what she was doing at the folly in the first place, and why she had followed Carlotta, and she could not think of anything that wouldn’t sound foolish.

There was a roll call before dinner, and Carlotta was found to be missing. The younger girls in Carlotta’s room looked about in frightened confusion. Dido stared straight ahead. Opal, after a quick glance in her direction to gauge the winds and the currents, did the same.

The school was searched. One of the girls told the headmistress that Carlotta had once spoken of living inside a mattress, like a feather, and so everyone had gone prodding the beds to make sure she wasn’t inside one of them. But she was not in any of the mattresses, or anywhere in the school. The police were called. Dogs barked and the beams of flashlights went wheeling in blinding white arcs across the grounds.

Dido went to bed, but she didn’t sleep. She thought of that dripping tunnel behind the black door, the trees, watching her, the muddy soles of Carlotta’s rain-boots vanishing into the dark. Finally, Dido couldn’t bare it any longer, and she leapt up and went running out across the fields to the folly. She wanted to go to the little black door, scream into it, “Carlotta! Carlotta!”

But when she arrived, the folly was already full of dogs and police men, and the headmistress was speaking to an officer in low tones, and Dido could only stand like a ghost among the trees, listening. “A coal chute,” she heard the officer saying. “For the oven that used to heat the place. A large room at the bottom. It will have been mostly filled with water, and if she went in face-first, well-”

Dido stared at the little iron door. In the night, it looked like a maw, like the oven in a witch’s cottage. Then she turned and went slowly back to her room. She crawled into bed, wide-eyed and white as her pillowcase. She knew Opal was looking at her questioningly from the bed next over, but she did not catch her gaze.

And just as she was closing her eyes and beginning to cry bitterly for what a dreadful person she was, and how she would henceforth dedicate her life to orphans and little freaks like Carlotta to atone for her wicked past, she heard a sound: the rubbery squinch-squinch-squinch of galoshes, damp and muddy on polished floorboards. The door to her room opened, a cold draft brushing her cheek. And there was Carlotta, standing at the end of her bed, drenched and muddy, her hair hanging into her eyes, which were dark and glaring. She stood there for a good twenty seconds, Dido frozen, her sheets clutched to her chin. Then Carlotta reached up and plucked a gobbet of mud from her hair and lobbed it at Dido. The mud struck her square between the eyes. Carlotta lobbed another gobbet at Opal, because she knew Opal liked to be the same as Dido. Then Carlotta shuddered grotesquely and squinch-squinched out of the room, and with one last portentous look, closed the door with a bang.

Dido and Opal sat for many minutes, mud dripping onto their sheets, staring at each other. Then they screamed and screamed and screamed.

 *

As for Carlotta, she took a bath, and the next morning presented herself at breakfast. She did not know why everyone was startled to see her. She’d not been gone half as long as she had intended. The coal tunnel had been an unsatisfactory refuge. It had been dark and chilly. There had been no castle at the bottom, only a small black chamber full of water, and for a moment, when she’d tipped into it, she thought she might drown. But no, she’d found a little ledge and sat there for who-knew-how-many-hours, humming and murmuring to herself and trying to make the best of it. She’d searched the walls for more tunnels, tunnels that went deeper and farther, where castles might still lie. But no matter how hard she searched, she saw no distant lights and heard no voices calling her name. In the end, she’d crawled back up the tunnel, and finding the door open, went out again. It was night by then, and somewhere between the folly and the edge of the woods, she’d decided to play a prank on Dido, who was always so mean to her.

She could not help feeling a little disappointed at the little black door in the folly. But tomorrow the search would continue. There were still plenty of places to look, and she was almost certain there was something marvelous to find in the old school, or in the woods, or if not there then somewhere, eventually. She thought that when you grew up and got older, you could not help but find those places what with all the days and years you had. She watched Mr. Tweedy scribbling his letters, and the headmistress eying herself in brassy gleam of her desk-lamp and tugging at the skin around her eyes, and she waited for classes to end.

Ghost Fox, Ghost Forest

It’s late, too late to be walking my dogs, but I was grading papers and lost track of the time, so by the time Bugsy lays a sad snout on my leg, it’s already dusk. I leash him up, corral Arya, who is yapping hysterically because she saw maybe a spider? And out we go, down the neighborhood streets to the park.

It’s dusk, and the street and houses look like a picture you tried to take in the dark, spooky, hard to make out. Finally the streetlights come on—and right at that moment, about a half a block ahead of me, a fox runs past. But it’s not a regular fox. It’s  . . .  I don’t want to say “ghost fox,” but it looks like a ghost fox, spectral, long, and lithe. It runs up from the creek, crosses the street in front of us, and heads into the park.

ghost fox

Image courtesy of Greyloch on Flickr.

But here’s what’s weird: my dogs don’t notice anything at all.  They don’t bark—and Arya barks at everything, and Bugsy loves to chase critters. They don’t even look up. They just stand there, patient, like they’re wondering when I’ll start walking again.

So I do start walking, start running, actually. We’re heading for the park anyway, and I want to get a better look at that fox.

And now we’re in the park itself, under the dark limbs of some suddenly really creepy-looking trees. It’s ridiculous. I know this park, I’ve been here a million times. It’s just a city park, not a Mysterious Forest.

I thought I knew it, anyway.

Just ahead of us, a low gray shadow flicks up the dirt path, and I follow. The dogs are not only not interested in this chase, they’re actually hanging back a little now. Arya whines. I have to bring them to heel.

We run toward the back of the park, following that slender gray shadow as it runs across the open ground. It’s muggy and hot and it’s time to go home, and both dogs are whining now, and pulling back, but I have to see.

Not so many park lights here toward the back, and the trees are getting thick, elms and poplars and oaks thick with leaves that look black in the darkness. We fight our way through a clump of tall shrubs, my dogs crying high and scared, and come to a clearing where the moonlight falls bright and cold as a knife.

And we stop, and the dogs go silent, because something’s  . . . wrong.

This isn’t the same park.

These aren’t the same trees.

This is a forest. A ghost forest. The trees aren’t low and dark and thick with leaves. They’re tall and slender as bones, white and bare, with twiggy twisted branches like an old person’s hands.

The tree right in front of me is the tallest of all, thicker than the others. And low on its trunk is a great black hole, shaped like an elm leaf, like an inky mouth.

A tiny white hand emerges from this black hole, and grips the side of the tree.

The leashes yank out of my hand, and silently my dogs scatter away.

But I don’t move. I don’t know why I don’t move.

Another little white hand appears, and grabs this other side of the hole. With great effort, the little hands pull and pull until a small white creature spills from tree and staggers out to stand a few yards from me.

The moon is like a spotlight. It’s a child. A tiny child, a young child, maybe four or five years old at most.

And I have a sudden thought, which is: the moon is revealing this child to me.

So that I can save her?

Or to warn me?

But she looks so sad, this child. A sad little girl, tiny and thin in her white-gray rags, white as the moon all over except for the purple around her black eyes and her lank, tangled black hair. I’d say she was a ghost—maybe she is a ghost — except that she smells so bad. She smells like my house the week a rat died in the walls and his body slowly decayed decayed until dust was all that was left, and the smell was gone.

“Are you all right?” I ask stupidly.

She stares at me. Her eyes are like the black hole in the tree.

“You okay, you need . . . ”

Her voice is high and rasping. “You have to take care of me.”

“Of course I will, are you lost?” I say. “Are your parents . . . “ I don’t know how to finish that. I don’t even know where I am, what this place is. Is she even real?

But that smell—well, that smell. She must be real.

“You have to take care of me,” she says again.

She sounds like some little queen. I want to laugh.

“You have to take care of me.” She takes a step forward. Her voice is sharp as a needle now. “You HAVE TO. YOU HAVE TO.”

And then somehow, faster than I can see it, she’s right next to me, and her arms are around my waist. And suddenly she’s climbing me like a monkey, she’s incredibly strong, and her thin little arms  are around my neck like ropes and her mouth is wide open, and inside it’s as black as a cave, black as the hole in the tree, and she’s screaming YOU HAVE TO, YOU HAVE TO.

And then I feel it.

I feel sharp little teeth plunging into my neck.

I feel her little black mouth sucking on my throat, every mouthful a pulse of blood straight from my heart, like she’s a hungry baby and my heart is a bottle of milk she’s draining dry.

I am screaming, I know that. I hear myself, screaming. I am trying to pull her off, but she’s incredibly strong. I hear the crunch of dead leaves under my knees before I realize I’ve dropped to the ground.

“Don’t,“ I hear myself moaning. “Don’t, don’t.” But the hard arms wrap tighter around me, the bone-fingers wrapped in my hair, the wiry little legs like a tight leather band around my chest, and I’m falling, I think I’m falling, the white moonlight goes black, and  . . .

And . . .

Well, I’m telling the story. Aren’t I? So you know I didn’t die, don’t you?

Don’t you?

. . . Did I die?

I don’t think I died. I woke, anyway, later. A snuffling came at my ear. Bugsy, I thought (no way it was Arya, that idiot): he hadn’t abandoned me after all.

But the bright sharp little tongue, and the narrow snout—those weren’t either of my dogs. It was a low gray shadow at my side, the gray fox. The moonlight had left the grove, had moved on, so it was too dark to see. But I stood, I was dizzy as hell, but I stood, and I followed the fox.

It felt like I followed that ghost of a fox all night. It was taking me in circles, I was sure, and I thought again that I would die, this couldn’t be right, it was playing with me.

But one last left turn, and I was standing on the street, with in the bright ugly light of the streetlight. And I started crying, I cried, I was so relieved. I walked and stumbled and ran the few blocks left toward home.

And I’m home, I made it home. But my dogs never came back. I posted rewards, I checked the Humane Society, but I never saw those dogs again. I miss them every day. Even Arya.

And somehow I can’t quite get myself to go to work. I sit in my house all day. I just rest here. There doesn’t seem much reason to go out.

After a few months, I started hearing voices in the house. Voices of people talking, like they live here or something.

Are they ghosts?

Am I the ghost?

Where are my dogs?


(Inspired by my friend Patrick Lopez’s story about a ghost fox. Funny, I haven’t seen Patrick in a while.)

Beware the Hunter

Far out among the hillocks and lumps of a misty moor, there stood a house with three chimneys and four windows and six children who lived there all alone. They were very comfortable. Their house was snug and smelled of violets and clary sage, and its insides were well-stuffed with cushions and coal-stoves and crackly, yellow-paged books. Outside was a hawthorn tree and a wash-barrel and a small square of grass, and all of it was enclosed by a high stone wall, its door kept firmly locked from the outside.

Now and then a woman would emerge from the fog that lay forever around the house, and would bring the children pails of fresh milk and trays of meat pies covered with linen handkerchiefs, but she almost never spoke to the children. When she did, she called them “My little lords and ladies” in a sad sort of voice. She would come very early in the morning, before the sun had risen, and would ring a brass bell to let the children know she had placed the pails and trays inside the door into the garden. Then she would go away again in a great hurry.

The children’s names were Betsy, Wilbur, Elihandra, John, Calendula, and Cripps.

Betsy was the eldest. She was ungainly and strong, and would sometimes pause in the middle of a sentence to ponder her words, which made Wilbur think her foolish, because he seldom paused to ponder anything.

Wilbur was second-eldest, loud and insufferable.

Elihandra was waifish and golden-haired, and liked people to get along, so whenever there was a quarrel, she was the one to comfort whomever was crying and also the one to drag the one who had caused the crying out from under a table to apologize.

John and Calendula were twins, and conspired together against everyone else.

And then there was Cripps, who was very tiny and quiet, and wandered about  smelling the bristly purple flowers in the garden and poking his nose into cupboards and the tops of shelves where only spiders lived, and into the chimneys, where nothing lived, but which were very intriguing. Cripps wondered often what they were all doing in that house on the moor and why the door was always kept locked, and why the woman always went away in a hurry. He had a great deal of thoughts, but he kept them to himself so as not to ruin them.

* * *

After some years, when the children were only slightly older (there were no calendars in the house, or clocks), they noticed the woman had not arrived in several days, and they were very hungry. Their meat pies ran out. Their pantry became bare. Elihandra suggested they grow their own food – she’d read about it in books, and she knew it could be done – but though they placed seeds carefully in the dirt along the north wall of the garden, and watered them, and waited patiently for their food to grow, none did.

After two days, when still no one had arrived, Cripps climbed up onto the wall with the help of Betsy’s shoulders, and looked over. “There’s a shoe!” he called down. “Poking out of the fog!”

“A shoe?” Betsy said. “Is there . . .” She paused to think. “. . .a person attached to the shoe?”

Cripps wasn’t sure. He had gone very still; twenty paces to the left of the shoe, a figure stood, just visible in the mist, facing the cottage.

Cripps shouted at the top of his lungs. “Hello! Please help us! We’re very hungry, and we can’t get out!”

But at the sound of his call the figure only shuddered and twisted, and then there was the sound of feet thudding on the heather, and the figure vanished into the white.

Cripps and Elihandra went back to the other children, and they all sat in their chairs in the parlour, becoming hungrier and hungrier by the hour.

* * *

“We’re going to have to leave,” Betsy said finally, when they were all so thin they could see their ribs and the shapes of the bones in their hands. “There’s no food, and Miss Bell-of-brass hasn’t been here in days.” (Miss Bell-of-brass was what they called the woman with pies.)

Everyone said no, they couldn’t possibly go. Surely someone would help them. But though the children waited and waited for the tinkle of a bell, and knocked and pried at the door in the wall, no one came for them. The sounds of the moor beyond the wall became strange and unsettling where before the children had never noticed them at all. Sometimes Cripps thought he heard hands and bony fingers tapping at the door, and distant voices. Wilbur became more insufferable, and Betsy took even longer to say things, and there were quarrels that not even Elihandra cared to diffuse. After one particular angry spat, Cripps went after Betsy, who was crying, and followed her into the garden. Betsy was scrubbing a shirt at the washboard, though it wasn’t dirty, and Cripps slipped his hands into the soap and helped her. “I think we should go,” Cripps whispered, very softly. “I think we should escape.” But Betsy only cried and cried.

At last, when the very smallest of crumbs were gone, and the children were so tired they simply sat for hours, their stomachs growling . . . then finally did Elihandra and Wilbur and all the others agree.

“We’ll climb over the wall,” said Elihandra. And so they did. The very same day, the six of them built a ladder out of all the chairs in the house, scaled it unsteadily, and leaped down the other side of the wall.

Cripps was the last to go. He waved goodbye to the cottage, and the scrawny hawthorn tree, and the wash-barrel, and the three chimneys and four windows, and then he leaped gingerly from the top of the wall, arms outspread as if he hoped he would fly.

It was a long drop to the moor, but the children steeled themselves and made it without injury, and set off into the bank of fog.

They had not gone more than twenty paces when they came upon the woman who had brought them their milk and pies. She had been mostly eaten. There was blood all down her front, and all over the gorse around her, as if the moor had bloomed briefly in spatters of crimson flowers.

“What d’you suppose happened?” the children asked, gazing down at her solemnly.

“A beast,” said Elihandra. “Or worse. We don’t know what might be out in this fog.”

Cripps knelt and closed the woman’s eyes, which had been staring unsettlingly at the locked door in the wall, and then the children continued on their way.

* * *

After a while, they came to a town. It was crackly, rust-brown and mossy, and all the gables and chimneys leaned in one direction, as though at one point a giant had attempted to flatten the town with a hot-iron. The children walked down its street, staring around them at all the dark, locked-up houses. And though the doors were all closed and the shutters bolted, they were sure the town was not abandoned. They thought they saw figures moving in the mist, and heard people going about their business within the houses.

When they passed a tall, pointed window, they heard a breathless, frail voice from beyond the shutters. “Go away,” it said, delicate as bird bones and rattling with fear. “Go back to your own place. We have nothing to give you.”

The children glanced at each other. They came to a window that seemed to have grown inside a lilac bush, but in fact it was the lilac bush which had grown strong and tall and swallowed a house and window.

A hand went up to the window, and an old face peered out. “Off with you, children,” said an old woman, her cheeks rosy and her eyes black and bright. “You are not welcome here!”

The woman’s hand at the window was oddly purplish and long-nailed, and did not seem to go along with her face. It was as if someone else’s hand was poking from her lacy sleeve.

The children put their heads together and conferred. Then, because Elihandra was the politest, she said: “Could you give us something to eat, please? We’re very hungry.”

“Hungry?” the woman said. “Aren’t we all: hungry and cold. We have our own troubles here. Be gone. And beware the hunter!”

The children did not want to be gone. They were tired and starving, and they could see a fire burning beyond the casement of the old woman’s house, and they supposed if they could have gone inside, they might have been able to beware the hunter better (whoever that might be). They stood below the window in the lilac bush, looking up wretchedly and hoping she would change her mind, but then the old woman came out onto the doorstep, and her two old sisters with her, and they stood there in their starched aprons and clean caps, and shooed the children away, cawing and crying like a trio of ancient birds.

* * *

The children left the town and followed a road, on and on into the fog. Their feet hurt and the slippers they had worn at the three-chimneyed house had gone threadbare and ragged, but there was nothing for them to do but walk. After a while they came upon a gang of boys.

The boys were small and grubby and wild-looking, and their clothes flapped in tatters around them.

“Hurry,” one of them said, soft and desperate. “Hurry! Run! They’ve seen us. They’ll catch us all, and what will they do with us?” And then the entire pack – as if they were one single body – turned and fled into the fog, giggling in a piercing, frantic way, like a cry.

The six children stared after the tattered boys, and then wandered on. They walked for what felt like days. It was difficult to tell, because there was no sun or moon in this fog, and it never seemed to become darker or lighter. They could not exactly sleep, because somewhere at the edge of their senses someone was always murmuring or laughing. Once, Cripps looked over his shoulder and was sure he saw the woman who brought them their milk standing at a break in the drifting mist, her front wet and shiny with blood.

When they had been walking a very long time and were hardly more than bones, Elihandra stopped abruptly with a cry, and felt about her back. Several black strings extended from it, stretching away into the fog. It was as if she had snagged her coat on something and unraveled it on and on behind her. And when the other five children looked behind themselves, they saw that all of them had threads in their arms and their backs, vanishing back into the mist.

“Beware the hunter!” the cry came suddenly very close by, and the children ran as fast they could, the strings hissing through the gorse behind them, unspooling on and on.

* * *

In time, the children slowed again, because nothing had come after them.

“Do you think someone caught us?” Elihandra asked, examining her strings. “Like a fish?”

“The hunter, perhaps?” said Elihandra.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” said Wilbur. “If he caught us, why are we still doing as we please?”

But in the end, they could not agree what the strings were for, and because they could not rip or break them, they decided to follow them to see where they ended. It became a sort of game. They wrapped the coarse threads around their arms until they each had a coil of it, and they began to move more quickly and talk amongst themselves and dart among the hillocks, leaping like sprites, and they didn’t feel quite as tired anymore. . . .

Until all at once, they froze.

There was the hunter, looming in the mist just ahead. He was dressed all in black, and wore a dark hat that drooped over his eyes, and he had a blunderbuss strapped across his back and many large, scabbed knives in his belt, and in his right hand were a pair of small silver scissors of the sort used for needlework.

“There you are,” the hunter said, and he raised the silver scissors, and dove toward the children.

He cut Elihandra’s string first, and she stared in horror at the hunter and then at the other children, and then the mist drifted and swallowed her up, and she was walking away though she didn’t mean to, calling over her shoulder until her shouts and farewells were lost.

Next went John and Calendula, their strings cut at the exact same moment. “Off you go!” the hunter said, almost merrily. “This is no place for you to wander.”

But at Cripps, the hunter stopped. Cripps was standing very calmly, frowning at the hunter, and he said: “Why are you cutting the strings, and where have Elihandra and John and Calendula gone?”

“Onward, silly!” replied the hunter. “And you should, too! And where is the woman? I haven’t found her yet, the poor soul who died at the door to your cottage. They made it look like a wolf did it, but it was so savage, I think only a human could have. I’ll find her soon, and ask her.”

“But what do you mean? Why was she dead? And why were we locked up? And where is onward?”

“She was one of the few who knew you were there,” the hunter said, “far out on Wickham Heath.” The hunter’s eyes skipped across the children, and glimmered not unkindly from under his hat. “And I’m afraid someone wanted there to be one fewer who knew. You’re the kings’ children, that’s the trouble. But kings mustn’t have too many children, and when they do, the children must be hidden far away. Poor things. It’s not your fault, what happened.” And then the hunter said: “I catch all the lost souls and set them free.”

What? thought Cripps. Elihandra was gone now, and even Calendula and John had wandered off, hand in hand into the fog, which now seemed even thicker and colder than before. The remaining three children stared at the hunter. They were very tired. They were gaunt and sleepy, and all they wanted was to find the end of the black strings, and perhaps sleep a while, and so when the hunter approached them, they leaped on him and tore his blunderbuss from his hands and blew his head off.

His body collapsed on the gorse, but he rose from it shortly in a tangle of black string and looked angrily at the children.

“Why’d you do that?” he demanded, but Betsy, Wilbur, and Cripps were already running away, following their strings, looping them haphazardly over their shoulders. They ran and ran and ran, thumping across the moor. They passed through the flattened town again, and they saw the three old sisters with strings extending from their backs, too, sweeping the step of their house inside the lilac shrub. They passed the rowdy boys again, and saw they were all tangled up together, their strings knotted like the tails of a rat king, hurtling through the mist like a desperate comet, shouting: “Get away! Get away, they’ll catch us!”

The children came at last to a high stone wall. The threads went over it and disappeared. The three children stood on each other’s shoulders and pulled each other up and dropped down the other side. There was the cottage, the hawthorn tree, the three chimneys and four windows. Only now there were six skeletons on the chairs in the cottage, and the chairs had not been removed at all, or stacked against the wall. The six children had not escaped. They had sat on their chairs and waited.

“Beware the hunter,” Cripps said, settling himself into his skeleton at the table, which was very comfortable, like an old sofa.

Betsy looked sadly out the window for Elihandra and the twins, but there was only the wall and the fog, and the black strings seemed to drape the cottage now, tying it down and tangling them up with the earth. The three of them curled into cushions, and opened books and spoke to each other softly, and the fog rolled over the house and swallowed it, and they waited for someone to come and feed them.

The Substitute

Substitutes are the worst obviously, but this one wasn’t so bad. She was pretty, for one thing, with a snub nose and eyes sort of permanently smiling at you. And she was pretty nice, without being goopy. She just seemed regular. We liked her.

Especially I liked her. Our regular teacher doesn’t really like me very much, but the substitute did.

She was there the week we presented science projects.

My friend Mariela went before me. Her project was on lobotomies, where they stick a needle in your eye to kill a bad part of your brain. Or it turns out now they do it in surgery, but in the past they used to stick a needle through your eye into your brain. And this is not like a hundred years ago, but even in the 1960s and 1970s! Gross.

My project was “Extraterrestrial Life—ALIENS AMONG US.” The title was kind of corny because obviously there aren’t real aliens. But some people think there are alien microbes around. In fact some people think that’s actually how life on earth got started even, maybe—some alien microbes landed here and life started growing from them.

“So maybe life just came raining down on us from outer space,” I said at the end of my presentation. “And maybe that’s even still happening now.”

Then I curtsied, which is ridiculous, but whatever, I just did it to show I was done. The class clapped for me, and when I passed her desk to sit down, the substitute leaned toward me.

“I think you’re righter than you know,” she said, and smiled.

The final bell rang, so we packed up to go home. I was kind of glowing. But the substitute stopped me at the door.

“Got a second, Aisha?” she said. “I loved your project. Lovely work. Let’s talk a bit more. Maybe we should consider this project for the district science fair.”

I have always wanted to be in that big fair, and I had worked so hard on this project. I know it sounds stupid, but just, I was excited. I pulled a chair up to her desk and sat down.

“Why do you think alien microbes might still be visiting?” she asked. Her long red nail was sort of drawing along her grade book, like she didn’t notice it. Her eyes were on me, warm and brown. “What do you think they want?”

“Oh, well,” I said. I was stumbling a little because I wasn’t sure what she meant. “They’re just microbes so . . . I don’t think they want or don’t want things.”

When she smiled, her eyes crinkled in such a nice way. “What about Noah’s presentation, though?”

Noah had done his on toxoplasmosis, which is where cats spread this microbe around, and when mice eat the microbe, they start liking cats and being super friendly to them. It’s like this bug whispers in their brains that Cats are the best! No reason to be afraid of cats!

And once they stop being afraid of cats, well, they’re a lot easier for the cats to catch. Which is convenient for the cats. But it’s bad for the mice they kill and eat.

The substitute was leaning over me now, looking at my presentation on my school iPad. Her hair was touching my hair. She put one long pretty finger on my iPad, like she was about to make a point about something there.

I felt weird, like she was too close. Her arms were making a cage around me. And she had pushed in so that my chair was scootched all the way to the desk, so I couldn’t even slip down. My heart started beating a little hard, like it was scared for no good reason. She’s nice, though, I told myself. She’s really, really nice.

She put her lips close to my ear, so close I could feel that the lips were smiling. Then long and slow, with a long, raspy breath, she whispered: “I’m not really nice.”

I didn’t feel anything going in my ear except breath.

I didn’t feel a worm or a bug or anything.

But something must have gone in. Something did go in. What went in me? I don’t know. Maybe it was a microbe.

All I know is now there’s something that’s not me inside my head.

At first I hardly noticed. Our regular teacher came back the next day, and she wasn’t as nice, and she said my science project was Nonsense and not only would I not be going to the district science fair, I would have to start all over with a new idea just to get a passing grade. I couldn’t believe it.

And that same day, this thing in my head started doing things. But it wasn’t me.

I had to go to the library to find a new topic. They let me on the computer for twenty minutes to google around about it. I didn’t really have any ideas.

But then all of a sudden, I did. Or this thing in my head did, this thing that wasn’t me. It made my hands type out “Dr. Cynthia Weinstein new vaccine” in the google box. Which, I have never even heard that name before. And something came up! I was so freaked out from my hands typing on their own I almost got out of the chair, but my body stayed where it was and made me read the first article. Which was hard because it was pretty sciencey, but apparently this Dr. Weinstein had invented a flu vaccine that she said would prevent not just this year’s flu, like most vaccines, but all flu, ever. You take this vaccine once when you’re a kid, and never get the flu!

At first other scientists had said it couldn’t be. But I guess now some were coming around. It was a Debate in the Scientific Community.

Yeah, that would be good for a science project. But: I didn’t want to do a science project on something my hands typed out without my permission. So I tried to get up. But my body stayed sitting. It turned to the librarian, all straight and proper, and this thing in my head said to the librarian, “Miss? I wonder if may I print this article, please?”

Who talks like that? Not me. Not me.

When the librarian gave it to me I rushed out words in my own voice, saying I felt sick, really sick, I had to go home. She called my mom, and when Mom came and saw me, the madness fell off her face.

All the way home I tried not to talk, in case the other voice came out.

For the next week, I fought with the thing in my head. It wanted me to do my science project, but I wouldn’t. I stayed in my room playing Minecraft instead. I stopped looking in the mirror, because when I looked in the mirror I saw my eyes were half scared and half hard and angry. The scared part was me.

But even though I tried, that thing got better and better at using me. It made me hold the back of my neck stiff and hard, so it ached at night. It wouldn’t let me just do things, he had to be mean about it. It talked with my mouth, it sounded fake. It answered in class in its stupid prissy voice and made everyone hate me, even my friends.

One night I before I went to bed, I saw the article. I didn’t want to see it, it was scary, so I flipped it over. But when I did I saw something, and I picked it up after all. The microbe this doctor wanted to use in the vaccine—the name of it, a long scientific name, sounded familiar. I went to get my old science project on the aliens. The thing in my head didn’t WANT me to, it made my fingers so stiff I had to pushed on the iPad with flat fingers.

It’s getting stronger.

But I found the presentation. I saw where that name came from.

It’s one of the microbes this one scientist thinks is alien.

I looked again at that article the librarian printed out. It had a picture of Dr Cynthia Weinstein. And her face had that same look I see in the mirror. Her eyes were scared, with something hard and angry standing behind them.

The microbes want me to do my science project on this new vaccine, I thought. Because they want everyone to take the new vaccine. 

Because then everyone will be like me.

**

I am hardly myself any longer. The words I say are almost never mine. How can’t everyone tell it’s so fake?

But they can’t, even my mom can’t. I think they think I’m the fake—but it’s not me! It’s these imposter microbes or aliens or whatever!

HaHA laughs the imposter. When something wasn’t funny.

While I’m writing this, the imposter in my head says SHUT UP, SHUT UP, STOP. It’s angry.

I have an idea how to kill him, while I can still control my body a little. But will it kill me, too?

My idea is that maybe I could I find the exact spot in my head where the imposter is, and stick a needle in there and kill it. Like in a lobotomy, only I’m not killing MY brain, I’m killing this bad thing inside me.

Supposedly you can do it through the eye. I imagine a long knitting needle sliding in, and part of me is afraid, and part of me is furious and happy.

And I don’t know which part is the me part.

I’m going to kill that lying thing before it destroys me, before it destroys the whole world. While I’m still here to know I’m not that thing, I’m going to kill it. I’m going to kill it. I won’t be a mouse in love with a cat.

And I’ll tell the world, I’ll tell Dr Cynthia Weinstein, I’ll tell everyone how to stop the aliens microbes, and I’ll make them believe me.

I hope it works

Here goes.

Red Raincoats

Not a lot of exciting things happened in Bucky Creek, and not a lot of bad things happened either, at least none anyone talked about, and that was very disappointing to Jeanie Kramer because she wanted to catch a murderer.

Jeanie Kramer was eight, and a liar. If you asked her what her name was she would say it was Stella Goldfish, and if you asked her what grade she was in, she would lower her voice darkly and tell you she didn’t have time for school because she was a private eye, and if you asked her where she was going so quickly with mud all over her front and a dripping bag in one hand, she would wave you close and tell you that she had just solved a hot case and there were six dead bodies lying in the streambed at Willow Crossing, and she was on her way to fetch the police.

The truth of the matter was somewhat different: Jeanie had never actually seen a dead body, at least not a human one. The six she had found in the stream-bed were rats that had been surprised in their holes by a flashflood and washed out, all matted fur and yellow, translucent claws. Jeanie had never put anyone in jail either. Her only case so far had been finding old Mrs. Brodzinksi’s cat in the storm-drain, and then running all the way back to Mrs. Brodzinksi’s house and waiting on the rickety porch until Mrs. Brodzinksi came home and telephoned the fire department. But – and Jeanie was quite firm on this – none of that mattered. Just because something wasn’t true now, didn’t mean it would never be true. She would be named Stella Goldfish one day. She would be a detective, and if people laughed at her, well, they would just have to solve their own murder cases.

* * *

Her way to achieve her goals, she had decided, was to catch a killer. Murder was the worst sort of crime you could commit. Even the word sounded dreadful – MURDER – all red and raw and awful. So it stood to reason that if you could catch a murderer you had to be pretty bright. You had to be fearless and brave and better. Jeanie had already imagined many times a scenario in which she found one. They were either great grizzled men with beards, or shivery, wild-eyed women in nightdresses, or sometimes a pumpkin with a knife. (Jeanie didn’t quite believe that last one, but she had dreamed about it one night, and had henceforth always regarded pumpkins with suspicion).

In Jeanie’s daydreams, she would leap onto the scene just as the murderer was about to commit his dastardly deed, and then things became rather fuzzy, but they usually involved the murderer tripping, or Jeanie using a crossbow to shoot him.

Jeanie didn’t have a crossbow in real life, and she didn’t know what she would do in the case that there was no fortuitous clumsiness, but that wasn’t the point. When you got into tough situations, either things went your way, or they didn’t, and Jeanie felt they would go her way, because why would things go well for an evil bearded man or a crazy lady?

* * *

Jeanie’s parents were not best pleased with her pastime. Neither was her older brother, who wore spectacles and ratty sweatpants, and always seemed to find something wrong with everything Jeanie did. He often gave her long speeches about the ill-effects of having morbid interests, but whenever he started on those Jeanie made a point not to listen to him.

At breakfast, her father would look over his newspaper at her. She hardly noticed, was usually busy reading How to Sharpen your Powers of Observance in 10 Simple Steps, whil  her eggs grew cold and congealed in greasy puddles on her plate. He would say, “Jeanie, I think if you found a murderer, you wouldn’t know what to do with him,” at which Jeanie eyed him sharply over the top of her book and said, “It might not be a ‘him’. Ladies kill people, too, sometimes.” At which point her father lost all interest in the conversation.

* * *

Jeanie and her parents and her dull brother lived outside a town that was very small, in one of those brown, scraggly states that no one really talks about except to express dismay at their voting habits. Her house was out on a long stretch of highway, and there were fields around it for miles, no trees, just lots of brown dead grasses, waving like so many dry, thin dancers. Sometimes Jeanie would sit in the yard and peer out toward the fluttering brown sea and imagine what might be going on in there, or just beyond the horizon-line.

It was lonely out here. It was lonely in Bucky Creek, too, because it took ages to become friendly with people. Once you did, you started to wonder whether you really knew them, or whether they simply knew you.

The Kramers had moved into the house about two years ago, after Jeanie’s parents became convinced the city was too dangerous to raise a family. Jeanie had not been happy about the move. The Kramer house was a low, one-story get-up, with a few shingles missing and a screen-door with a too-quick spring that snapped shut on your heels if you weren’t quick enough. There was a patch of lawn and a few dark bushes and a creaky swing-set and not much else. It was exactly the sort of house, that, when you pass by on a long road trip, you wondered with a pang of pity what sort of sad, going-nowhere people must live there, and sometimes when Jeanie walked home she thought the same thing.

She had not been as keen on murderers as a six-year-old as she was now as an eight-year-old. It had happened slowly. The kids at school were farm kids who had so many brothers and sisters they didn’t need anyone else. They didn’t have time for games, and they talked about livestock a lot. None of them really liked detectives. And Jeanie had decided that if she couldn’t fit in, she had to stand out wildly.

She got used to the town. She got used to the library. The house wasn’t so bad on closer inspection, and once you stepped safely through the screen door it was actually quite homey; it had a TV and running water and all that, which some people maybe would not have guessed at first glance.

But there were no murderers. Jeanie had checked. She had even checked the shed far out in the fields behind the house. It had looked very promising, but had proved to be empty.

* * *

Jeanie made a sign and colored it yellow and put it in the driveway. It said, “Stella Goldfish, private-eye, 2$” and unfortunately that had not turned out well. Her brother had laughed uproariously when he saw it, and Jeanie had stared at him, confused, because she thought it was a good sign. When he had calmed down enough to speak, he asked, “What happens when they pay 2 dollars? Do they get to keep you? There’s a no-returns policy, I hope?” And then he started laughing again, and Jeanie shook her head and furrowed her brow and said, “No, then I solve their cases, duh.” But her stupid brother hadn’t stopped laughing.

No one responded to the sign. Maybe the people in the cars driving by laughed, too, when they saw it, or maybe they saw the house beyond, and the brown fields, and had that twinge of pity, thinking, “What sort of sad, going-nowhere people live here?” And it made Jeanie angry because she didn’t want to be a sad, going nowhere person. She wanted to be someone. She wanted people to stop laughing, and she wanted to do something brave and wonderful like Arthur Conan or Nancy Drew. No one ever laughed at them, did they?

And then one day, not to be deterred, Jeanie put on rain boots and a red raincoat and took the bus into town.

* * *

Jeanie went to the library. “Hello,” she said at the desk. “I need some books about murder.” The librarian was a nice-looking person with frizzy hair, who said, “Oh, you mean mysteries. Well, I don’t know if they have murder in them, but let me find you something.” She came back a few minutes later with three small, bright books that had children in sneakers and flashlights on the covers, and titles with exclamation points.

Jeanie looked at the books and looked at the librarian. The librarian smiled at her, waving the books encouragingly. Jeanie sighed. She knew the librarian meant well, but she also knew that these were not the sorts of books she needed.

“Can I look around?” she asked, and the librarian smiled and nodded.

Jeanie found a section on forensics, some illustrated volumes on crimes scenes, and one book full of glossy pages of photographic evidence. She had just gotten comfortable at a table under a window with a large stack of books, when the librarian swooped in out of nowhere and said, “Sweetie, I don’t think these books are good for you right yet,” and started gathering them up and putting them back on shelves before Jeanie could even open her mouth.

Jeanie watched her, annoyed.

“If you really want something on the subject, how about trying these books!” the librarian said cheerily, and set down a few old-looking books. “There’s some tingly local stories in them and you’ll get some history, too.”

Jeanie blew a strand of hair out of her face and picked up one of the history books despondently. She began to read. The history book was surprisingly good. It didn’t tell her the really necessary things, like how victims were identified when they had been dead for a while, or what the police did when they knew someone was guilty but he wouldn’t confess. But there were nuggets here and there that intrigued her. It seemed that this particular county, with its brittle yards and ochre-colored houses, had just as many terrible people as anywhere. The difference was simply that they lived very far apart from one another, and no one ever spoke of the bad things that happened. They knew. Everyone knew. But they didn’t tell outsiders. They didn’t tell book-writers; they didn’t even tell the police necessarily.

Jeanie read about a few cases the book-writer had been able to glean – a woman who drove off a bridge, and a man who stayed in his house so long that when they found him he was covered in dust and cobwebs, still breathing, because his dog had brought him sparrows and blackbirds to eat. Jeanie’s eyes grew wider and wider as she read, and the clock ticked, and the shadows grew longer. The librarian came by once or twice just to make sure she was okay, and probably also to make sure Jeanie didn’t make a run for the Criminology shelf.

And then Jeanie saw it, and her skin prickled. Murder. Murder right here in town. She shivered.

The Raincoat Killer: 22 years ago, in the sleepy town of Bucky Creek, a shocking murder tore through the community. An entire family slain. Remains never found. Perpetrator vanished without a trace, presumed dead. All that was recovered from the crime scene was a shred of plastic, probably belonging to a raincoat.

Jeanie’s heart squeezed. She was suddenly glad for the librarian hovering around and shelving books and making friendly, normal noises. The murderer had been identified immediately, but somehow before the police could arrest him he had gone into the grasslands and no one had ever seen him again. They found some evidence later, but no one ever found the remains of his victims. The murders had taken place in one of the houses in Bucky Creek, and it was still standing, and there was a black-and-white photograph of a knife that-

Jeanie closed the book with snap and looked over at the librarian, who was humming and flipping through a notepad, casting Jeanie nervous glances. Jeanie sat very still, breathing shallowly. Then she scooted off her chair and hurried out of the library.

She didn’t think about what she had read. She was not even sure she had read it. It was half in and half out of her brain, and somehow it was in just enough to disturb her a lot. She thought of the murderer, imagined him a man with silvered glasses walking along the street in his gray raincoat. She thought of the nice people who stopped for him, and she wondered where they might have gone had they not stopped. It made her feel cold and sad and hollow.

She thought about going home, but she felt she ought to investigate now. She was closer than ever. A murder had happened right here in Bucky Creek and no one had ever solved it. One part of her, deep, deep down, was telling her she shouldn’t go snooping anymore, and she wasn’t sure why because it was all she had wanted to do for years now. She wasn’t afraid, not of murderers. But something told her she might be afraid of this one.

* * *

She wandered all up Bucky Creek’s main street, then down its only side street, one called Peachtree Drive, even though there were no peach trees and probably never had been. She peeked in windows and crept over scraggly lawns, quiet and sharp-eyed. She looked everywhere for clues. She saw bad things, that was for sure, things no one should really see, garbages full of glass bottles, quiet fights, and whispered words behind a wood-stack. But it was not enough, and it wasn’t what she needed. After a while, she went to Mrs. Brodzinski’s house and stood with a stick, banging it against the mailbox post. She saw old Mrs. Brodzinski on her porch and walked over. The woman was crying, her white hair stuck to her face.

“Why are you crying?” Jeanie asked, peering at her from below, and Mrs. Brodzinski’s head came up with a start. She didn’t answer, just stared at Jeanie, wide-eyed.

“I miss them,” she said. “I miss them so much.”

“Who?”

“Oh, kiddo,” said Mrs. Brodzinski. “What do you want? Why d’you keep coming ‘round here, causing mischief?”

Jeanie wandered off, but she couldn’t get Mrs. Brodzinski’s words out of her head. It wasn’t mean, the way she’d said it. It was so sad.

* * *

Jeanie went to the bus stop and waited for the bus to take her home. It was a gray, windy evening. She sat down on the bench next to a woman who was chewing gum and flipping through an envelope of static-y, freshly developed photos. The woman smiled at Jeanie, but Jeanie didn’t smile back. She was busy thinking. The police had never caught the Raincoat Killer. Ever. They never found all his victims. This was her chance. She would search the town far and wide, look into windows, use her very sharpest observational skills. She would find him. . .

But what Jeanie didn’t know was that she already had. A third figure was waiting at the bus-stop. Behind the bench where Jeanie and the gum-chewing woman sat, behind the glass of the bus-stop’s wind-break a huge, gray man loomed. He had hunched shoulders and a great, gray coat with a piece missing. She looked back in that direction several times but she didn’t see him, right there on the other side of the glass, standing among the wet leaves and shrubs that grew close and tangled behind the bus-stop.

* * *

Jeanie shivered one last time as the bus pulled up, and climbed in. She didn’t see the figure behind the glass flicker, like film, skipping frames. As the bus took her out of the town and down the road, she thought she saw someone there on the shoulder, blurred by the windows. But the bus was going fast and it was getting dark and she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just a friendly farmer. She did think it was watching her, though, standing still, eyes following the bus as it passed.

She had to walk the last distance from the bus-stop to her house. She got off and started along the ditch next to the road. She didn’t even bother going into the house, which was oddly dark for so late in the day. She went around the back, and pulling her raincoat around her, hurried into the fields. There was that shed, far out back. She had investigated it before, but had she dug in the dirt floor?

She walked through the brown grasses, poking along with her stick. The wind flittered through the top of them. Faraway she heard crows calling, and suddenly she wondered if there was not another sound, a drifting, sighing sound a few feet away in the sea of brown. But she ignored it and began humming, walking, humming, poking with her stick. It was a big field, but Jeanie always kept a compass with her, and she knew which way was home. She walked until she came to a tiny clearing, where there was a twisted black tree. She stopped and stared up at it. The brown grass made a clearing around the tree, and she saw the tree was full of blackbirds, silent, watching her. She crept around the tree and kept going into the field.

And all at once she stepped out from a particularly high clump of shrubs and found herself face-to-face with the shed. She dropped her stick and hurried toward it. It was small, leaning, almost tipping over, its back facing a ditch full of stagnant water, an old creek-bed maybe, overgrown with brush.

She pushed open the door. It was dark in there. The air smelled old, wet. She felt suddenly sick and giddy. . .

She knelt down on the floor, scratching in the dirt. She did not see as the gray figure came and stood in the doorway behind her. She found a bit of a flannel shirt, a hammer, a ring . . . and all the while the figure in the door stood, motionless in that wrinkled gray raincoat, eyes hidden behind silver glasses. The door began to close with a creak.

Jeanie looked up with a start. She didn’t look over her shoulder, but suddenly she felt very cold. She knew, she just knew that the ground under her was a lacework of skeletons, a white tangle of bones extending into the earth. And she knew there was someone behind her.

“Who are you?” she asked, without turning. She kept her voice steady, but her heart was going off like a jackhammer.

The figure didn’t answer. The door was almost closed, the faint gray light from outside becoming narrower and narrower across the floor. Jeanie turned her eyes downwards, watching the triangle turn to a thread. Her breathing sped up.

And all at once the huge man turned and shrank, and his coat wriggled, and then it was a child, standing there in the shadows, her back to Jeanie.

Jeanie stood up and spun.

Who are you?” Jeanie shouted. “Are you-“ She cleared her throat and said loudly, “Are you the Raincoat Killer?”

The other girl began to whisper. Her face was hidden in the shadow of her coat’s hood. Her hands were clenched at her sides. “Your brother is so annoying. So is Mrs. Gilthrope. They’re all so stupid and mean. They laugh. They laugh at you. Gacker-gacker-gacker.”

The girl made a hideous noise, dry and chittering.

“What are you talking about?” Jeanie asked. Something was wrong. This was not how murder investigations went. Who was this girl?

“They all know, Jeanie,” the girl said. “The librarian, Mrs. Brodzinski, that woman on the bus. They see you, but they never talk about it, because nothing bad ever happens in Bucky Creek.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” whispered Jeanie.

“You know. Truth is, Jeanie, you don’t need to go looking for bad things in other people’s yards, because, oh, there’s plenty in your own.”

The girl dropped to her knees and scrabbled wildly at the dirt floor, scabbed fingers clawing at the earth. There were the bones, peeking out, almost gasping for the air, white, white, white in the darkness. . .

A pair of spectacles. Ratty sweatpants. A wedding ring. A brother, a mother, a father, rumpled under a thin skin of earth. And far out in the fields another body, one no one had ever found, even though her coat was bright red, like a stoplight.

“No,” said Jeanie Kramer, putting her hands to her ears. “It’s not me. It’s not me.”

The shed door crashed open. The girl was gone. Jeanie chased her. Back, back through the fields, past the tree full of black birds. Jeanie’s head was buzzing. In the distance – the direction of the house – she heard a sound, a clattering, maybe voices, but it was being drowned out by the cloaked hum inside her skull. She ran faster, faster, and she could have sworn she heard screams, the screen-door snapping open-closed-open-closed as people ran through it in a panic. . .

She arrived at the house. All was silent. There was the girl again, standing still, looking down at the bare earth at her feet. The knife was still in her hand. Jeanie tackled her and the blade spun away, and she ripped the hood from the girl’s head. It was like a string had been cut, like a door had been battered down inside Jeanie’s head.

It was herself she was looking at. Jeanie Kramer, in her favorite red raincoat and muddy galoshes. Pasty and wide-eyed, her lips blue, her skin pocked with black, turning to decay, like old china.

Six dead bodies in the stream-bed at Willow Crossing. The spout of a hose pressed to the black, wet dirt, to the mouth of the warren, rats squeezing out, gasping for breath and then washed away. She had gathered them up and took them though the town, a lonely, desperate ghost, looking for anyone who would listen to her, listen to her whisper about how someone had murdered, someone awful, not her, not her, someone worse.

Why do you come around here causing mischief? What do you want?

She wanted so much. She wanted someone to know what she had done. She wanted someone to find her bones and bury her. She didn’t want people to forget her. She wanted to be a detective. . .

The house was so quiet. The knife was nowhere to be found.

Slowly, Jeanie rose to her feet. Her knees were muddy. Her fingers were red.

“I caught one,” she said crazily, and wandered down the driveway. It looked for a moment as if she were wringing her hands, her dirty fingers pinched tight around each other. But then it became clear that she was gripping her own arm, guiding herself along. “I caught one!”

She stumbled into the road, and then she began to run, on and on along the chipped yellow line. Cars passed her – a sad little ghost in a red raincoat – and the tall grasses began to dance, their scaly heads whispering in the wind, and behind, the house shrank and darkened, a black memory swallowed whole by the gathering dusk.

* * *

Back in town, the librarian opened a book to replace the checkout sticker. The dedication quote caught her eye:

How comforting are our neighbor’s evils, distracting us ever from our own.