The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Dark Itch

I’m not a nature person. I should say that right up front.

Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate nature. I recognize its importance, and I enjoy that it’s there, looking green and fresh as I stare out the window during algebra class, hating life.

(“Nell? Nell. Aren’t you paying attention?”

Obviously not. “I’m sorry, what was the question?”

Giggles. An aggrieved sigh from my poor, aggrieved teacher. I couldn’t care less what they think. I’ve got a novel in my lap, my index finger marking my spot. The open math textbook on my desk is just a farce, and we all know it.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. Nature, and how I appreciate it well enough.

The thing is that I’ve never much seen the point of going out into nature. All that’s there to find are mud and bugs and dead, rotting things. Is it interesting and pleasingly tidy that said dead, rotting things actually fertilize the ground and help new things to grow? Certainly. Good planning, there.

But I’ve never been the type to go hiking or camping or jumping off piers into lakes. Truth be told, I’m not even a fan of picnics. Why would I want to sit there worrying about ants and bees and inconveniently timed gusts of wind while I’m trying to enjoy my food? It’s just not practical.

And yet . . . well, it’s funny. Not the picnics thing; this other thing.

It’s funny because lately I’ve had this itch to explore the woods behind the school. Not for any particular purpose, at least not as far as I’ve been able to tell, when I’ve stepped back to examine this desire. No, I would simply like to walk about in the trees and see what I can see. I’d like to wander and traipse.

The itch resides in my heart, curled up dark and tight. The itch has a particular feeling to it, when I block out all other thoughts and focus on it. It’s a feeling like being pulled. Like a whisper you have to lean closer to hear. The itch . . . itches. Not like a feather tickling your foot or a stray strand of hair against your cheek.

No, it’s more like an itch from a crusty new scab.

I would like to scratch it.


The first time I go into the woods, I’m mostly thinking about how stupid I am. I have my phone, and it’s fully charged, but no one knows I’m here—not that there are many people I could tell. There’s Mom, and Dad, and Mrs. French next door, but that’s about it. Mom doesn’t like to be bothered until she’s had her first cocktail, and Dad doesn’t get home until nine o’clock, and Mrs. French will be too busy watching the news while on the phone with her sister, so here I am, going into the woods with the peculiar feeling that if I disappeared, no one would know for quite some time, and even then, my disappearance would not affect many people.

Perhaps I should feel a bit desolate at this thought, but I don’t. In fact I feel rather exhilarated. I feel something like freedom, I think.

The itch in my chest unfurls.


I walk for some time before I find her. The air in the woods is still and cool, which is a nice change from the world of my school. All those children, whispering and laughing, glancing and touching, sweating and stinking.

“All those children”—as if I’m not one of them. Well I am, of course, but none of them read like I do, and I would wager ninety-nine percent of them care about things I do not care about, like school dances and the Top 40 hits and sneaking kisses in stairwells.

I would also wager that none of them feel this itch like I do. They wouldn’t be able to stop talking long enough to hear it, scratching its tiny-legged way into their hearts.

That is what the itch has started to feel like now—now that I’m in the woods, I mean. It feels like a fuzzy, many-legged creature, burrowing its way inside me, digging deeper as if searching for the source of my body heat.

I come to a stop in a clearing of sorts, tangled with undergrowth. Gnats hover in hazy clouds, lit up by the sunlight shifting through the canopy overhead.

I pull aside my shirt and scratch with one fingernail the spot in the center of my chest beneath which the itch stretches and curls. Scratching my chest does not help, but my fingernail leaves behind a stinging red mark, and that seems to please the itch.

The itch grows. It now feels as though it extends from my sternum up into my throat. Not by a lot, simply a tickling tendril, seeking.

And that is when I see her.

She is a girl, perhaps a little older than me, but the sunlight hits her square in the face, and it is impossible to read any lines in her skin that would tell me such things.

She pauses mid-stride, like a grazing deer who thinks she has heard a hunter. Her body is slender, her hair is a pale golden color, and the way she holds her hands and wrists reminds me of a dancer.

The itch in my chest burns. Writhes. Tugs.

I try to say hello, but my mouth is full of weeds. I find myself reaching for the phone in my pocket, and I manage to snap a picture before she turns and runs away—or, that is, it seems as though she must have run away, but I did not see her go. One moment she was there, and the next she was not.

It is only then that I realize the forest is completely still. No wind moves the leaves. The grass is dense and black. I hear no birds or crickets, not even the sounds of traffic speeding down the nearby highway.

It is night. How is it night?

I turn and run, and I do not stop until I reach my home a few blocks away. Mom has fallen asleep in front of the television, and Dad is warming up something in the microwave. I slip upstairs unseen; he probably thinks I am already asleep, like the good, boring girl that I am.

Only when I am in my bed, cocooned in my quilt, do I take my phone from my pocket. I find the picture of the forest girl, and stare at it, hardly breathing.

I am a terrible photographer, it seems. The photo sits there in my hand, unremarkable. The sunlight that had bathed the girl’s ivory skin in a soft wash of gold looks dim, watery. The forest itself is bland, flat. The girl . . . where are her dancers’ wrists? Her arms hang there, awkwardly. Her cloud of hair is not a cloud but a thatch—dry and lusterless.

I press the phone’s screen to my chest, and press, and press. The edges of the phone dig into my skin.

I am a terrible photographer, but then, I was startled, wasn’t I? I was overwhelmed. I have never seen such a beautiful girl in real life, so naturally I wasn’t prepared to photograph her the way she deserves.

I will go back tomorrow, after school. I will return to the same clearing, with its weeds and gnats, and I will wait until she comes back. The girl, that is. She will come back, if the itch in my chest is any indication.

Every time I think of her, the girl, the itch in my chest gives a throb of affirmation. Yes, it says to me. You must go back.


The next day, algebra drags on for what feels like eons before the bell rings and we are released into the bright afternoon.

I go to my locker, stuff my things into my backpack, and head for the trees as quickly as I can without looking desperate. It’s not as though anyone could be watching me—no one ever does, for I am not the sort of girl worth looking at. That isn’t me fishing for pity, either; I’m perfectly happy with myself and my life, but I know my place in the world, which is more than most people can say.

Still, you can never be too careful. And besides, I find that I don’t want anyone knowing I am here. The forest girl is my secret, and mine alone. I would like to keep it that way.

As I walk into the forest, the sounds of the outside world fade away—no cars, no birds, no planes overhead. Certainly no laughter or playful screaming from my fellow students in the school parking lot. Here, beneath the trees, there is only the sound of my own heartbeat clogging up my ears.

And the slow, scratchy pulse of the itch below my breastbone.

It seems to me that the woods must be much larger than they appear to be from the outside, for already the bits of sky I can see through the trees is purple and soft. The light that does make it through is dim, bruise-colored. Have I been walking for hours? Before I reach the clearing, I know it is near. I know this because the itch flares up, pulling me onward. It feels like I have eaten something too spicy, and my body is rebelling. For a wild moment, I experience an image of myself, digging my fingers into my own chest, peeling aside the skin and scooping out the itch until the entirety of it wriggles in my palm like a fistful of hairy worms.

When I reach the clearing, she is there. My smile is skin-splitting. It’s only the second time I have seen my forest girl, I know this. And yet it feels like I have been waiting all my life to find her, that this is a moment of long-awaited reunion.

She is even more beautiful today than she was yesterday. Her dress is soft, sheer; the fabric looks as though it would slip through my fingers like water. It reveals things to me that are embarrassing, impossible—long legs and soft curves. I don’t think she’s wearing much beneath that gown, and I can feel myself blush. Her body is so completely unlike my own. Since starting middle school, I have examined myself in the mirror, many times, to try and understand what is happening to my body, why it looks nothing at all like the bodies I see on magazines, in movies. I am stubby and awkward; I have acne, and my hair doesn’t ever seem to sit quite right.

But everything sits right on my forest girl. She ducks her head out of the sun, only slightly. I see the curve of her smile and her wide eyes. She opens her mouth, and out comes a sigh.

The itch inside me darkens, twists.

I fumble with my phone, my hands clammy around it. I try to snap a picture, but my forest girl won’t stop moving. There is something unnatural about her movements—she jerks and darts like a creature would, not as girls do. Come to think of it, there is something unnatural, too, about the slim length of her neck and the shape of her ears.

“Please,” I whisper, stones weighing down my lips, “hold still, for just a second. I just want . . . I just need . . .”

“What will you give me for it?” Her voice cuts through the clearing, the lazy fog of gnats, through me like lightning.

The itch jumps up into my throat. I swear I can feel legs tickling the back of my tongue. Something is inside me, and for the first time I wonder if I should be concerned about that, but then the itch heightens, deepens, blazes.

“For . . . a photo?” My voice is awful, croaking. It isn’t good enough for her, but it is all I have.

My forest girl cocks her head, laughs. Her only answer.

I hold the phone between my cheek and shoulder, rifle through my backpack. Mom gave me a bracelet when I turned thirteen, an elegant charm on a silver chain. It was her grandmother’s, and then her mother’s, and then hers, and now mine. I remove it every day before gym; it is the only pretty thing I own.

I hold it up for her to see; dangling, it turns, catches drops of sunlight and spits them back out. I creep forward, place the bracelet on a snarl of twigs. They’ve choked the dandelions beneath them half to death.

I crouch there, like people do in church. When I glance up at my forest girl, she is smiling, a crescent moon made of teeth. It is, I suppose, an acceptance. I could cry at the sight; she is an angel, and I have made her happy, I think. My bracelet will sit on her dancer’s wrist like liquid moonlight.

Trembling, I raise the phone and snap a photo. When I lower the phone, she is gone—and so is my bracelet.

When I leave the forest, it is night again, and once more I am able to sneak into my room without my parents noticing anything is wrong. Of course they wouldn’t. That morning before I left for school, I switched on my bedside lamp. I wrote a note—Gone to bed early, headache—and taped it on my door and pulled the door to.

I suppose they fell for it. If they even bothered to check the door, that is. We long ago reached an understanding, my tired parents and I. I take care of myself; they work and keep food on the table, and then come home and fall asleep in front of the television. This arrangement suits me well enough. I like being left alone.

In bed, I check my phone, and must wipe sweat from my face before I can see the photo properly. I ran hard back home from the woods; I ran all the way, faster than I thought I could run.

But the photo, this second one—it’s all wrong. It’s even more wrong than the first. I peer closely at it, my heart a thudding weight.

My forest girl’s slender lines are bulbous, twisted. Her hair is the color of dust. Her arms and legs are too long, a disproportionate length that makes the lines of my bedroom shift and seem mutated, like I have been looking at the world all wrong, my whole life, and these lines—my forest girl, deformed and crooked—is what the world is, truly.

Her face is the worst thing—one eye larger than the other, teeth stained and misshapen. She leers, quite frankly. Her gown is a mesh of weeds and dirty cloth, her skin a sick white, drawn tight across her bones like a dirty canvas.

But this isn’t right. I know it isn’t. My forest girl is a wild creature—a doe, a bird. She is beautiful and light-footed. My phone must be defective. Of course. Yes. The lens is dirty. There is a glitch in the programming. I go to my computer, check for updates. I turn the phone on and off. I delete from it everything I can—every app, every stupid selfie I’ve tried to take with my sleeve falling off my shoulder and my lips pursed seductively. You’d think I could figure out how to pose like you’re supposed to, how to make myself look appealing, but whatever the secret is, it eludes me.

I delete photo after photo of myself—lumpy, frizzy, forced—with tears and sweat stinging my eyes.

And yet, still, the photo remains the same: My forest girl, warped. False.

I fall asleep in a tight ball, my phone pressed to my heart, the true image of my forest girl appearing behind my closed eyelids. I keep it there, falling in and out of sleep with the sound of her sigh echoing through my half-dreams.

The itch continues unwinding itself. I feel it skittering down my skin and into my toes. Burrowing there. Waiting.

I kick off the covers and twist, scratching and scratching at my chest until I break skin and blood gathers beneath my fingernails.


The next day, I return. Of course I return. My forest girl is a pearl, a diamond, a goddess. I must photograph her as she truly is so that I may carry her with me, always. Who knows if she’ll stay in these woods for much longer? Maybe someday I’ll wake up with a quiet, still heart. An ordinary heart, as I once had. The itch will be gone, and so will she.

But that can’t happen yet, not until I manage my photo. It won’t happen. I forbid it from happening. Others must know, others must see what I have seen. There is a girl in the forest, and she is more beautiful than any of you will ever be, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much make-up you apply, no matter how many designer clothes you buy and prance around in. And she’s not yours. She is mine. She chose me.

She has been waiting for me, I think. When I appear in the clearing, sweating and panting from my mad dash out of school, my forest girl turns to face me. I blink, and she smiles. I blink again, and she is right in front of me, cupping my cheek with a cool hand. My bracelet is a line of light around her wrist. The tips of her nails press into the skin beneath my jaw, and I begin to shake.

I have never felt love before, but this must be it.

Stupidly, I raise my phone. “Can I try again?”

She cocks her head. That same, moon-shaped smile. “What will you give me for it?”

My legs feel ready to collapse. That bracelet was the finest thing I owned. I search the contents of my backpack, and as I do so, my forest girl scrapes her nails across my scalp, sifting through my hair. I wonder what she’s looking for? I almost laugh, and then, with the next breath, I feel ready to start crying. Textbooks, spiral notebooks, change from lunch.

My pocketknife. Dad gave it to me when I started walking to school. “To defend yourself,” he said to me, “in case you should need to.” Then he ruffled my hair and went on his way. The microwave beeped, his leftovers ready and steaming.

I flip open the pocketknife and stare at the blade. I have never used it before; when Dad gave it to me, I rolled my eyes and tossed it into my backpack and forgot about it. We’re not supposed to bring knives to school, but it’s a small school, and I’m a no one, and so who cares, really? No one would think to search. No one would think to search me for anything.

Except for my forest girl. She continues combing my hair with her fingers, her nails dragging trails across my skin. What is she looking for? Will she find it? Whatever it is, I hope I have it.

The itch inside me darkens, a black bloom spreading through my lungs. My chest is on fire; my lungs are twin nests of bees, buzzing.

My forest girl stares down at me, tips up my chin. Her eyes are dark as the night above; it is night, and she is waiting. I have never seen anything so beautiful as the pitch pools of her eyes, waiting.

I am alive. I am awake.

I drag the blade across my palm. As soon as I am finished, my forest girl grabs my wrist, yanks it toward her mouth. She laps up every drop of blood, her teeth grazing my fingers, and when she has finished, and I stand there, cold and dizzy, I snap a picture, even though there is no light, and I can’t possibly have gotten a decent image.

“Did you find it?” I whisper to my forest girl, but she has left me, and the trees around me are made of ink and shadows.

Back home, my parents are laughing in front of the television—sitting side by side, miraculously. I pretend that I have come down from my bedroom for a drink of water, mumble something sleepy at them, return their I love you sweeties with I love you toos.

Upstairs, in my bed, I drop my phone three times before I manage to open my photo library. I nearly drop it again when I see my forest girl staring back at me from the latest photo—a grinning, pale wraith. She is made of sharp lines and swollen limbs. Her teeth are sharp, her eyes are all black—no whites around the edges. Her ears are too long and too sharp, jutting up from her head like a bat’s might.

Her jagged smile mocks me. I throw the phone across the room. “That’s not her!” I try to yell, but it comes out a harsh whisper. “You’re a liar, you’re lying!”

The phone hits the wall and bounces to the floor. I crawl to it, not caring when the carpet’s fibers make my palm sting. Frantic, I pick up the phone, check it over. No cracks; nothing shattered. The photo remains, this perverted echo of my girl, my beautiful girl.

I drag myself back into bed and cradle the phone in my hands like a baby. I do not sleep—I know this, I remember how long the night felt, how many hours I lay there, sweating, nearly hyperventilating, digging the heels of my palms into my eyes so that maybe I would stop thinking about her, how beautiful she looked in that still clearing where the only sound is her breathing and my breathing and the ever-present hum of buzzing gnats—I remember all of this.

But when I wake up in the morning, my sheets are stained with blood from the patchwork of scratches across my chest. Red marks from my own clawing fingernails.

The itch snakes through me, still—heart to limbs, heart to belly, heart to tongue—like a spider with its pincers in my gut.


I don’t go to school the next day. Are you kidding me? What’s the point? There is no point, not to anything but her.

The itch tells me so, and I agree.

Instead I wait until first Dad and then Mom leaves for work, and then I raid everything—their dressers, Dad’s armoire, Mom’s nightstand, her jewelry cabinet. I grab bundles of cash, diamond earrings, Grandpop’s pocketwatch, my great-aunt Willa’s rosary. Everything pretty, everything that glitters.

None of it is good enough for her, but it will have to do. I will get a photo of her, to keep with me always. I will get it if it takes all day, and all night. All the days, all the nights. I will get it if it requires I offer her everything I own, everything my parents own. One photo for each shining, polished piece. One photo for each crisp, folded twenty.

Before I leave the house, I go to the bathroom to find fresh bandages for my chest—and then stop, and change my mind, leaving them open and raw. I change into a tanktop so my forest girl will see them better.

They might please her.

I open and close my palm, making the cut sting and weep. With each clench of my fist, the itch beneath my skin pulses.

Perhaps it’s just my excitement talking, but I think that the itch, whatever it is, is ready to come out.


When I reach the clearing, I am lightheaded, my mouth dry. I should have brought water on such a hot day, and who knows how much blood I lost—was it only yesterday?

My forest girl waits, perched on a stone, looking bored. When I enter the clearing, she straightens and smiles. She opens her white arms wide, welcoming me.

Grinning, giddy, I dump everything in my backpack onto the forest floor—every last dollar, every last jewel—and step back, pleased with myself.

My forest girl rises from her perch like a queen, her gown trailing the dirt behind her. She inspects my offering, sniffs, glares up at me.

I hold up my phone, hopefully. “I only want a photo of you,” I whisper.

She stares at me, waiting.

I hesitate. “It’s because you’re so beautiful. I can’t stop thinking about you.”

One corner of her mouth curls up into a smile. She approaches, wraps me into an embrace that feels like one of those dreams when you can simply push off the ground and fly. “Me?”

Surrounded by her touch, I understand how miserable my gifts are, how inadequate. I flush and gulp down tears. “I’m sorry. It’s all I have.”

My forest girl kicks the gifts aside. The pile of trinkets topples, scatters. “I don’t want them,” she whispers against my ear.

“But it’s all I have!” I am sobbing now, like a little kid with no self-control. I try to hide my face from her; I look terrible when I cry, swollen and splotchy.

“Not true,” my forest girl says, her voice teasing me.

I quiet, grow still. The itch inside me builds and builds, and I realize with this light feeling—a puff of air, a flood of warmth, a sigh—that the itch is not something trying to get out.

It’s something trying to get in.

And the scent of my itch, the feel of it, the taste of it, tickling my tongue—it’s her.

“Me?” I gaze up at her, and I can feel my face morphing into what is no doubt the soppiest, most ridiculous smile there has ever been, but I don’t care, for now I understand, and the itch inside me becomes the sun, burning bright and steady. “You want me?”

“Only you,” purrs my forest girl, tracing the lines of my face with one sharp fingernail. “But you have to say it. You must tell me you’ll do it. You must—”

“Take me,” I blurt out, eager and stupid, grinning and beaming and ready to come apart from happiness. “You can have me.”

Her eyes glitter, shift. She holds out one finger, warning me, teasing me. “Just one photo,” she reminds me.

“And it will really be you this time, in the photo?”

“My true self,” answers my forest girl, her voice a fall of rain, and it is mine, she is mine, she is all for me.

I nod, fumbling with the phone, and as soon as I snap it, as soon as I press the button and lower the phone, the itch inside me bursts.

I fall to the ground, blinded by darkness, choked by it, burned by it. My skin is on fire, it is made of bugs—swarming, pinching. I crawl through it, scratching myself, clawing at myself, and when it is over, I feel that the itch is now a chain, wrapped around my heart, wrapped around my wrists, my ankles, pinning me—pinning me to her.

She yanks me up into her arms, and her skin is cool, still. It soothes me, and I think I may be drunk. I have never been drunk before, but you hear things, you know, in a school full of deviants.

“Try to run,” she hisses against my cheek, “and you’ll feel much, much worse than that.”

Run? I would never run. Not from her. I think that, my thoughts slow and muddy, even as I look up and realize that my forest girl is gone, and it is a creature now dragging me across the mud, toward a fat tree with an opening at its roots. Its claws dig into the soft skin of my upper arm. With each tug across the dirt, the itch through my blood tightens—her chain, woven through me. She grins, her mouth full of fangs. She rips me to my feet with one fierce yank of her arm, and the itch stabs my chest; the chain tightens.

“See?” she growls, her misshapen face hovering over mine. Her pointed ears. The sharp lines of her face. She is not a creature of my world, and I love her for it. There is a part of me that screams how wrong this is, how in danger I am, how she is evil, how I do not love her. She tricked me, she tricked you!

But I am well aware this part of me will soon die. Even now, the itch wraps around that frantic voice, choking away its air.

“Mine now,” she tells me, and I nod, letting myself be dragged across the tree roots into darkness.

“Yours,” I whisper, and the bark tears at my flesh, and we are below, now, in her world, where it is all darkness and unnatural heat, and the shadows shudder and laugh, and the only thing I know is her arms around me and the itch wrapping its coils around me, darkening, darkening—


“Do you think she ran away?”

I roll my eyes. “Where would she go? And with what money?”

“Maybe she stole her parents’ credit cards or something.”

I roll my eyes again. There’s a lot of eye-rolling whenever Darren Wyatt’s around, but I’m not the kind of person to chicken out on a dare, so I’ll have to put up with him. “Maybe.”

“Or maybe she’s still hiding somewhere, trying to freak everyone out.” Darren snorts. “Maybe she’s, like, spying on us all, watching the town go crazy looking for her—”

“Just stop talking, okay? You’re annoying the crap out of me.” Which is true. But more than that, talking about Nell while we’re searching the woods—the same woods into which Mr. Elliott saw her disappear the day before last, while we were all stuck in first period—just seems . . . I don’t know, like bad luck. Speaking ill of the dead and all that. Not that Nell is dead. She could be, obviously, but no one’s saying that out loud yet. At least not around us kids.

Darren mutters something at me, but he can insult me all he likes, as long as we just get in and out of here as quickly as possible. I’ve done stuff before—broken into cars, shoplifted, the usual. Petty stuff. I’ve even gone into these woods before, when Darren and I tried the cigarettes he stole from his mom’s purse.

But the woods are different now. I’m sure it’s just the knowledge of Nell’s disappearance playing tricks on my brain, but still. I don’t want to stay in here any longer than I have to. I hope we find something soon, or at least come up with something we can take back to the guys, something to scare them and start a nice, juicy story.

It’s like the trees were listening to me, because maybe thirty seconds after I think that—I hope we find something soon—I see it: A rectangle of turquoise, lying in the dirt.

I pick it up, and Darren looks over my shoulder. “Dude. Nell’s phone? Do you think?”

“Maybe.” I turn it over, press the home button. I slide my finger across the screen to unlock it, and it doesn’t ask me for a passcode, so the photo shows up immediately.

Darren curses and jumps back. I fling the phone away, and it flies into the dirt.

We stand there, breathing hard.

“What was that?” Darren asks, and when I head for the phone, he grabs my arm, squeezes tight. “Josh. Don’t, man. Evidence, right? That’s some freaky . . . don’t, okay? Leave it.”

But I can’t help it. I have to see it again. I pick up the phone, touching as little of it as I can. I turn it over, and there it is—the monster, staring at me from the last photo Nell took. It’s pale and has long, pointed ears. Its mouth is wide, huge, fanged; its body is all wrong, long lines and sharp bends and swollen joints and what looks like infected cuts.

As I look at the photo, it feels like something crawls into my chest, sliding into it like a worm. It stays there, sticky and fat, like I’ve eaten too much, like I’ve eaten something bad.

There’s a sound, behind me—Darren, running away. “Forget this, man!”

And another sound, in front of me. A flash of white.

I whirl. I think, for a minute, that I see a girl—barely dressed, delicate, beautiful. My chest twists, and my body moves, like it’s ready to run after her. I breathe, I blink, and she’s gone.

Was she there at all?

I tuck Nell’s phone in my pocket and turn to head home. Out of nowhere, the thought comes to me that I should come back. Not today. Maybe not even tomorrow. But someday. Someday soon, I think. I’m distracted by a million different things, but I definitely should. Come back, that is.

Something must have bitten me. A mosquito, maybe. There’s an itch on my chest, and I scratch it, and call after Darren. “Darren? Come on, dude, don’t be such a baby. Seriously? There’s nothing here but trees.”

Old Photo

I found the photograph deep in the woods, half-hidden in a rough porridge of dead leaves and dirt and bits of wet bark. It was a damp, chilly day, and my dog and I had been walking for an hour or two. I swung my black stick as we walked. I’m an old man, and old men like sticks.

I have a little habit of collecting discarded things I find: letters, homework assignments, notes passed in class. Once I found a whole notebook someone had been keeping as a diary. It was half-waterlogged, the fat blue ink had run, the pages were dirty-wet and stained, and person who wrote it was alternately hopeful and heartbroken about a boy.

But this day it was a photograph I found. It’s odd to see a photograph in the woods. It’s such a made thing, a human thing. Coming across an old black-and-white photo on a carpet of dead leaves, while the trees loom around you, watching—it’s like finding a broken doll sitting up against a stump, staring at you.

I picked up the photo and carefully brushed the dirt and leaves away. It was old, almost as old as I am, perhaps. The paper felt soft and thin, as if it had been handled many times over many years.

All the more surprising that someone had thrown it away. Or had it simply been lost? How did it get so far into a forest, on an old path I have walked since childhood, where I rarely see another human being?

I looked again at the photo’s deep blacks and soft grays. It showed a little boy in shorts and a shirt wearing old-fashioned brown leather lace-up shoes and white socks.

I had a pair of shoes like that myself as a boy. So the photo must be old, as old as I.

The boy is sitting in a square stone frame—perhaps a doorway or large window, in an apparently abandoned, crumbling building. The ledge, if it is a ledge, where he sits is thick with dirt and dead leaves. A single bare branch protrudes into the picture from the upper left.

Behind the boy is darkness and stone.

The strangest part is that the little boy is wearing the mask of an old man. It is a full head mask, and much too big for him, a man’s head sitting on the shoulders of a boy. The old man of the mask is wrinkled and balding with thick white eyebrows, but he doesn’t look unkind.

And in his hands, the boy holds a little-boy doll.

I stood in the forest, among the whispering leaves and murmuring branches, among the scents of mulch and mushroom and earth, looking at the photo. It was . . . beautiful is not the right word, perhaps, but compelling.

It was hard to take your eyes off it.

Rusty gave a sharp bark. We had been standing still a long time, The gray clouds above us no longer looked inert, but ominous, heavy and dark with something. A cold wind came up, and the smell around us changed to rain.

I tucked the photograph in my jacket pocket, and we turned back towards home.

Over the next few days, I found myself drawn to the photo again and again. My old fingers traced the lines of the stone that framed the boy. I looked more closely at the doll he held—even got out the magnifying glass I must use now for reading the warnings on medicine labels.

That doll, that doll. Something so familiar about that doll. Did I have one like it, as a boy?

There was something familiar about the whole scene, to be truthful.

Or was it only now becoming familiar, because I had looked at the photo so many times?

One day a repairman working on my balky furnace noticed the photo on the table where I had been studying it the night before.

“That’s crazy,” he said.

I smiled.

“Was that you, some Halloween or something?” he asked.

“Yes, it was me,” I said. “But it wasn’t Halloween.”

After he left, I asked myself over and over: why I had said it was me?

But wasn’t there a time when I was wandering my forest path until it took me to the old, abandoned mill, and wasn’t there a man . . .

The mill. That was where that photo was taken, I was almost sure of it. The old abandoned mill. I’d forgotten it existed, if it did still exist. Hadn’t it been torn down years ago? Surely it had been, to build some new something or other, a strip mall or a hospital or a school?

I put the photograph down. I made my dinner, a small baked potato with cheese, and went to bed, thinking.

The next morning, I shaved myself carefully. In the mirror I saw a balding man with a wrinkled face, thick white eyebrows, not unkind.

Then Rusty and I set off, I carrying a bottle of water in one pocket and a sandwich in another, for it might be a long walk out to the mill.

Not the mill, of course. Where the mill used to be. The mill was gone, it was long gone, I was sure it was.

Was it?

It was hard to remember the way, after all these years. We walked for hours, Rusty and I. As the sun began to drop away, he whined and tugged at me to come back, come back. I made many wrong turns and had to double back often.

But in the end, we walked through a brambly thicket across our path, and found it: the old abandoned mill, favorite lonely playground of my boyhood. The great thick stones of it, each huge square a half-ton at least.

I walked around. The sun was low in the sky, all the colors were clear and strange. I had walked too long, I would have to walk home in the woods in the dark. Rusty cried at my feet.

In a great square opening that had once housed a grain chute, now long gone, a little boy sat.

Yes of course, that’s right, I thought.

He wore shorts and old-fashioned leather lace-up shoes with white socks. In his hands was little-boy doll. He turned it idly, back and forth in his hands.

I wish I had a camera, I thought. Oh but wait: I have my phone.

I pulled out my phone and found the right little colored square to touch. The camera sprang up, and I took the picture. I thought the little boy didn’t notice me. But as I brought the phone down and looked up, he was looking straight into my eyes.

It’s dark now. Rusty is pacing fearfully, up and down, up and down.

I am sitting, now, on the ledge where the little boy sat. I am looking on my phone, at the photo I took. I can’t stop looking at the photo I took.

Because something went wrong, when I clicked that picture, the boy must have moved, or the camera must have double-exposed, can phone cameras do that?

In the picture, the little boy’s head has been replaced by what almost looks like a great mask, that covers his whole head, and is much too big for him: a mask that almost looks like me.

I sit leaning against the stone, knees up, looking at the picture of the boy in my hands, just the way the boy in the photo looks at his boy-doll.

I sit here, an old man holding a photo of himself as a boy, wearing a mask of himself as an old man, who is holding a doll of himself as a boy. I sit here, I sit here.

And there is no one in the world, now, but me and all my many selves.

Somewhere a dog is barking, over and over, trying to get my attention.

But the sound is getting farther and farther away.


Master Bartleby’s Institute of Lateness

I know it is nearly the end. The doctor has been to visit more than before, and it is harder to stay awake while he asks me his questions.

The room is cold, no matter how much wood Papa orders for the hearth. I’m in the parlor now, a bed made up for me. They say it’s so I don’t have to climb the stairs, but it’s been days since I could even stand. It’s so I don’t sicken Beatrice and Theo. They have been lucky so far, but the fever needs to take someone.

Outside, hooves clatter on the cobbles and they are loud, but not loud enough to cover the sound of Mama’s soft cries on the other side of the parlor wall.

“I’m sorry, Mama,” I whisper, though it makes no noise when it leaves my dry, cracked lips.

I fall asleep.

And I wake up again.


It might, perhaps, seem odd that the first thing I notice is that my clothing is different. Looking back, I should have noticed the darkness first, or the feeling of being somewhere very small. The strange sound coming from above, too. But, regardless, the first thing is the cuffs of my dress. I know it’s my Sunday best, because the cuffs were too tight right from the first moment Mama buttoned me into it, and the collar itched.

I scratch my neck. My skin is cool, cold even, and in the pitch black I smile widely. The fever has broken! Doctor was wrong, and I will be all right again.

“Mama!” I call. My throat is dry, I need some water from the jug in the corner. Mama will bring me some when she hears me. “Mama!” I call again.

Now is when I notice the noise above, because suddenly it comes with muffled voices. “Shhh, listen! She’s awake! Hurry, lads!” The scraping gets louder, closer, stopping with a very loud bang that seems to fill the whole world.

“We’ve hit it, boys. One, two, three.”

I see stars far above, and four faces closer, but I recognize the stars. Papa taught me all about the pictures of light in the sky.

“Hello,” says one of the boys. “You must be Lily.”

“I must be,” I say, because I’m not quite certain anymore. Before the fever delirium took me, I was a clever girl, and pieces are coming together like in the wooden puzzles my governesses used to give me. “Am I dead?”

“Well now.” The boy exchanges looks with the others. “That’s an interesting question. D’you feel dead?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “What does it feel like?”

I’m breathing and talking, those must be against the rules if I am dead.

“I’ll say this,” he answers, “if you are, you have all the time in the world and beyond, so p’raps the details can wait until we get you up and out of there.”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, all right then.”

“She’s takin’ it well,” says one of the others. “Remember what you were like, Tim? Wailin’ and blubberin’ all over the shop. ‘Ere, Lily, stand up if you can, reach for Gareth’s hands there.”

I do as I’m told, let the boy who first spoke pull me up, my good leather shoes scuffing on the climb up to the grass. Headstones glow all round like teeth, but I don’t have one yet. “How long was I in there?” I ask. I think possibly my fever hasn’t broken after all, any moment I will wake in the parlor, hot and shaken from this horrible dream.

“You was buried just this afternoon,” says Gareth. “Nice sendoff you got, too. Couldn’t move for carriages and plumes. Never seen so much mourning silk in my life or after. Posh family, you had, eh?”

“I…I suppose.” I would very much like to wake up now.

“Fill ‘er in, chaps,” says Gareth, and the sound of the shovels starts up again, pouring earth back into the hole. “Can’t leave a mess,” he explains, “or someone’ll know we’ve been ‘ere. That wouldn’t do, would it?”

“It’s good to be tidy,” I say, though what I wish to say is, “what is happening? Where am I?” For certain this is a dream, then, that happens all the time in dreams, that you don’t say what you mean to. Gareth puts his hand on my shoulder, next to the scratchy collar of my Sunday best dress. He looks a friendly sort of boy, a bit like Theo, really, though older than both of us by a good year or two.

“You’ll understand soon, Lily. We’ll take you somewhere safe.”

“I want to go home.” I want to wake up.

“I know.” It might just be the odd moonlight, but for an instant his brown eyes are sad before he brightens again and turns back to the grave.. “Nearly done?”

“Be quicker if you helped, lazy bones.”

“Respect your elders, Timothy.” But Gareth picks up his shovel and scoops in bigger clods of earth than the rest. Run, I tell myself, but my legs are dream-heavy, filled with saltwater and sand. I watch them pat the last crumbs in place, faces reddened, streaked with sweat at their brows. “Right, that’s good enough. Rains’ll come in an hour or two, anyways. Ready to go, Lily?”

“Where?” I want to ask, but what comes out is, “Who are you?”

“Ah, yes. I’ve been terrible rude, haven’t I? I’m Gareth. That one there is Timothy, and the one next to him looks like butter wouldn’t melt is Sam.” The one named Sam doffs his cap to me. “And the last is Legs. Not ‘is real name, course. Never says a word, but you won’t beat him in a foot race.”

They’re all as clean as it’s possible to be after digging a hole and filling it again, their cheeks are plump and pink, clothes worn but mended. I see all these things as I follow them to the graveyard gates, watch mutely as Sam neatly picks the lock to let us out. It’s easier to walk than I thought it might be, but I’m worried by Legs if I try to get away.

Besides, they seem friendly enough, for now, and if I run, I am alone. I don’t know this part of London, and the night-chill is soaking through my Sunday best dress. That, and this is a dream so it doesn’t matter. I will wake soon enough.

The city is never silent; everything in it is a creature with a voice, from the shouting people to the creaking buildings, the rustling trees and twittering birds and thundering carts. I can’t say as I’d ever noticed it quite so much before, but dreams are funny things.

The boys lead me through the darkened streets, ducking away from the glow of gas lamps and twisty-turning around so many corners I’m nearly certain we end up back where we began at least once.

“Where are we going?” I ask, and this time the words come exactly as I intend. I still want some cold water from the jug in the corner of the parlor.

“There,” says Gareth, pointing to the face of a bone white building with blood red shutters at the windows. His eyes flick to one of them. “Lovely, Master’s asleep. You’ll meet ‘im proper in the morning, young Lily. We’ll show you the ropes ‘til then.”

“What is this place?”

Hinges creak beneath the weight of the heavy door, its knocker grinning like a fiend. “Welcome,” says Timothy, “To the Institute of Lateness.”

“Are we late?”

Gareth laughs, a dry, hollow laugh. “In a manner of speaking. In another, we are right on time. Come in. Wipe your feet just there, Master does not like mud, though the device takes care of it quick enough.”

As if it was summoned, the most bizarre thing I have ever laid eyes upon shudders and roars at the far end of the corridor and begins to move toward us. I hear a ticking, like clockwork, and steam whistles from pipes atop it, the big copper beast. I back up against the door, pushing Timothy and Legs out of my way, but the thing comes closer, and closer still.

I open my mouth to scream, but Legs clamps his hand over it. “Shhh!” says Sam. “We mustn’t wake the others, they need their sleep. It won’t ‘urt you, promise.”

I do not believe that. I feel it could suck me into its tangle of pipes easy as the mud it clears from the floor. Frozen, I don’t so much as blink until it starts to retreat the way it came.

“W-What is that?”

“One of Master’s inventions. There’s others, plenty of ‘em,” says Gareth. “Come to the kitchens, I’ll bet you wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea.”

I am still very thirsty. I very much want to wake up. Does dream-tea satisfy real thirst? I do not know. I’m taken to the kitchens to find out, but stop in the doorway. The cleaning device seems suddenly far less frightening than what I see in front of me.

I don’t spend much time in the kitchens at home; Cook always chases me out, tells me little hands are nothing but bother. I’m certain, however, that we don’t have a great many of these things. Everything is whirring and bubbling and steaming, with no one to watch over any of it. A pot stirs itself by means of a spoon on a long metal arm, a strange machine atop a long, scrubbed wooden table slowly peels a pile of apples.

The thing Gareth lifts is not any sort of kettle I’ve ever known. I don’t think I wish to drink tea made with it.

“Is it safe to eat and drink in dreams?” I ask. I don’t mean to say it aloud.

“We should tell her,” Timothy whispers to Gareth. “She ‘asn’t–”

“Right, right, but let her warm up first.”

“Tell me what?”

“Drink your cuppa,” says Gareth, giving me a tin mug. It looks like tea. It smells like tea. It’s warm, and I’m chilled and thirsty.

It tastes like tea. I narrow my eyes at the curious machine that made it.

And, all at once, I’ve had more than quite enough, thank you. I want to wake up, which means getting to the very middle of the dream. I slam the cup down on the table. It sloshes over the cuffs of my Sunday best dress in a very real fashion. “Where am I?”

“What first, Legs? Dormitories or gallery?”

Legs holds up one finger; Gareth nods. “Sam, get a lantern. Don’t be frightened,” he tells me, taking my hand.  “It’s really all right.”

On the first floor of the bone white manor with its blood red shutters, I’m shown through a door, Legs holding a finger to his lips. I should be quiet as he is.

But when I see the rows of beds, filled each by sleeping children, I wish to scream. “Look at their faces,” Gareth whispers, and I do. One close by shifts, disturbed by the lamplight. His gold curls shimmer, plump lips purse.

“Now, the gallery.” I’m pulled from the room, taken down a corridor to another. In this one, Sam dispenses with the lantern in his hand, pulls a cord hanging from the ceiling and the brightest lights ever to blind me flicker into near daylight. “Oy, watch it, you twit! She won’t be able to see anything.”

But I blink, and I can. The room is close to empty, just a few chairs scattered over the enormous floor. The walls are lined with rows and rows of pictures. A box sits on a three-legged stand, a big glass eye on the front of it watching me, following me as I step forward.

I know what that is.

But I do not understand.

Gareth tugs on my hand. “‘Ere I am.” He points to one of the photographs. He’s not alone, a family surrounds him. “And there’s Sam, and Timothy.” Legs slips past us to gaze at another one. I move to look, beside his is a picture of the sleeping boy with the gold curls. He is in a chair, eyes wide and blank, staring straight ahead.

Tim carefully unhooks one from its nail. “Taken just this morning,” he says, placing it into my hands.

Mama is there, and Papa. Theo and Bea.

I am wearing my Sunday best dress.

The picture tumbles from my grasp, glass shattering into a thousand sharp tears on the floor. I knew Mama and Papa would do this, I had heard them talking when they thought I was too fevered to listen. It was not an uncommon thing to do, one final photograph by which to remember me, and in which I would not appear sick because it was far, far too late for that.

Too late. And I stand now in the Institute of Lateness.

“This is not possible.”

“Master Bartleby is a very skilled inventor,” says Gareth. “Across many oceans, there’s an idea that a photograph removes the soul, just as death do. Master’s special camera gives it back. ‘E pricks you with a needle during the sitting, so’s you don’t wake up again too soon. Best to wait until you’re buried and fetch you again.”

I pinch myself, hard enough to bruise. Not a thing happens. I do not bruise.

My bubbling scream finally fights its way free of my throat. Legs clamps his hand over my mouth once more, though just an instant ago he was half across the room. He lifts me as if I were a feather from one of the birds I watched through the window beside my sickbed and carries me to a chair. My eyes flood, breath comes in desperate gasps. I am still breathing, crying. That must be against the rules!

“Shhh,” says Sam, patting my head. “We’ve all been ‘ere. Sleep, Lily. You will still sleep, and eat, and run about. It’ll look brighter after a rest.”

I fall asleep.

And I wake again.


I’m still in the chair, curled and cramped. Through swollen, bleary eyes, I gaze round and startle to wakefulness.

“Welcome, Miss Lily,” says a man sitting in another chair. His waistcoat is very fine, pocketwatch gleaming. He has a wide moustache, wider even than Papa’s, and bushy eyebrows, but his head shines like a marble in the sunlight. “I do apologize for not being about to greet you when you arrived in the night, but we may acquaint ourselves now that we are fresh. Would you care for breakfast?”

I shake my head. “I would like to go home.”

“This is your home now,” he says, and a knife’s-edge of chilliness slices through his words. “You, see, Miss Lily, were you to return to your fine home in Mayfair, you would not even frighten your parents with your return from the deceased. They would simply not see you.”

No. I am real, and solid, and breathing. They would see me.

“I know you may not believe me, but you will. Your very special qualities as a…formerly alive…child are precisely what make you of such use to me. My inventions cost money to create, and I must create! I will change the world, show them the power of clockwork and steam in ways they have never dreamed. It is now your job to assist me in this.”

“I won’t work for you!” I cry. “I won’t!” I do not even know what it is he means for me to do, but I know I will do none of it.

“You will. Gareth!”

Gareth appears, and now I know the truth, if indeed I am not still dreaming, he looks far less friendly than he did in the night.

“Take her with you today. Legs, too, just in case she gets any funny ideas.”

“Yes, Master Bartleby.”

I do not let Gareth take my hand this time, but I follow, if only to get away from the horrid man. “Are you ‘ungry? Would you like clean clothing?”


“Suit yourself.”

The others are waiting, but there are more of them now. All the sleeping children from the dormitory, gathering shoes and coats and forming small groups. “Get a good ‘aul today, chickens,” says Timothy. “This is Lily, you may meet ‘er proper later.”

One of them opens the door and they all rush out, the groups scampering in different directions. “Reckon Knightsbridge is a good place to ‘it today,” says Gareth. “Off we go.”

Legs stays very close to me, close enough I feel I cannot breathe. I try not breathing at all, last a minute before I gasp. He doesn’t say a word, but smiles as if he knows what I have just done, and why.

It isn’t a long walk to Knightsbridge, soon we are enveloped in a crush of finery and leisure. Ladies out for a stroll, gents tapping their walking sticks on the ground. From the corner of my eye, I see Gareth neatly, swiftly unclasp a diamond bracelet and drop it into his pocket.

“Thief!” I cry, but the lady doesn’t turn. Gareth grins widely, Sam holds up a fat purse.

I poke a passing man in the ribs, shocked at myself. His stick taps and he continues on.

“They cannot see us,” I whisper.

“Or ‘ear us, or feel us,” agrees Gareth. “Master Bartleby can, but he refuses to say how. We’ve all tried to trick him into saying, but no dice yet. One day. We’re not short on time to figure it out.”

“How long…?”

“Ten years,” he says. “‘Aven’t aged a day. I should be four and twenty by now.”

I take a single step. Legs’s hand curls round my arm, he shakes his head.

I cannot run.


Every day, I watch for a chance never given to me. Someone is always watching, waiting for me to try to escape. I meet the others, take my own bed in the dormitory. I speak very little, but I start to eat. The hunger overwhelmed me. Every day, I am taken out with Gareth, Sam, Timothy and Legs, watch as they gather riches with which Master Bartleby can pay for his many inventions.

I will not go near them. I make tea by boiling water in a pot on the stove, glaring at the machine.

Soon, I have been there a week, then two.

“Today,” Sam says to Gareth. Gareth nods in agreement at whatever they’re talking about. I put on my shoes by the door and go with them. The buildings surrounding the Institute are familiar now. We leave them behind, walk through a strange part of London, and then I know where I am again.

My home is just over there. Mama is on the doorstep with Theo and Bea.

“Mama!” I scream, breaking free of Legs and running, running, running. All the way up to her, Legs an inch too late, Gareth a few feet.

“Come now, children, it’s time for us to take the air again. I know we are very sad, but Lily would not want us to stay shut up inside forever.”

“Yes, I would!” I say.

“We shall go to the shops, and then the park. Does that sound all right?”

“Yes, Mama,” says Theo.

“Take her necklace,” says Gareth. “If she feels you, if you can make her see you, ‘ear you, we will let you go with her.”

With trembling fingers, I reach up. The clasp is fiddly and I can’t get it open at first, but Mama is busy searching for something in her pockets. The chain comes free and falls into my palm. “Mama!” I say again.

“Oh, good, I have it. Time to go, my dears.”

I stare at the twist of gold and diamond as Mama, Theo, and Bea descend the stairs without me. I crumple to the top step, tears streaming.

“Put it on, you can remember her by it,” says Sam. “We all ‘ave something.” He holds up a hand, a shiny ring glints.

“She will never see me.”

Gently, Gareth takes the bauble from me and affixes it round my neck. “I want to go home,” I cry. I stand, and follow the others back to the Institute of Lateness.

Die with Me


The city of Belle-by-the-Sea was the most fashionable place on earth. There was nowhere more polished and up-to-date, no city lovelier, with greener trees or sweeter air or a bluer, more-picturesque ocean that one might look out over, and throw oneself into when hot or melancholy. The citizens prided themselves in being the prettiest, the most modern citizens probably anywhere, and it would take you only a moment in those beautiful streets, with the willows drooping overhead and the people strolling past in bizarrely improbable costumes, to realize the abnormal measures their obsession with fashionableness sometimes took.

It was a marvelous-looking city, there could be no doubt of that. Slow-moving dirigibles floated overhead, and colorful kites wafted in the ocean breezes, and the buildings soared, built of gray stone, but so delicate and fantastical that they looked more like carefully dipped wax, little balconies protruding, and pierced all over with stained-glass windows or diamond-shaped panes, peeping out like eyes. The chimneys were twisted or braided, or carved in the most aesthetically pleasing manner possible. Below in the streets, ladies and gentleman promenaded tirelessly (promenading was the fashion that month, replacing the newly outmoded “jaunting” and the hopelessly prosaic “walking”). Lace parasols bobbed along like the skeletons of mushrooms, pinstripe trousers snipped like scissors, salmon-silk socks flashed, candy-colored shoes darted. The skies overhead were kept perpetually blue and cheery by the weather balloons that floated about, pulling clouds in through their propellers and releasing them white and pure. The gutters and stoops were always clean. Even the urchins were perfectly maintained, their cheeks smudged with just the right amount of coal-sludge, and their suspenders and ratty polka-dot bow ties kept in a careful state of disarray by the city’s Fashion Keepers.

But now you would begin to notice the abnormalities – the desperation, almost, beneath the lacy, silken, parasol-toting façade.

For example, when the newspapers declared that fish-shaped hats were all the rage and in fact indispensable to any well-dressed lady’s or gentleman’s wardrobe for Wednesdays, the hat-shops and milliners of Belle-by-the-Sea were hard pressed to stock their shelves fast enough, and were known to send errand-boys running to the fisherman quays with their fists full of hat-pins.

When an underground pamphlet declared that one ought to be utterly indignant about the state of cat-hairstyles in the neighborhood of Glendaloo, everyone made a point to be righteously outraged over the subject for at least ten minutes a day.

And when some enterprising young fellow discovered he had miscalculated gravely, and had far too many pads of butter in his cooling warehouse, he put up posters all over the city declaring that butter was good for one’s figure and one might dispense with exercising altogether if one ate sufficiently of the butter, and he put this statement on great sun-colored billboards, with appealingly curly, vine-like type, and had it printed with a picture of two lovely people, one slim and one round, and of course they weren’t the same person at all, but my dear, you would be far too busy eating butter to notice.

Enough of that, though. All in all, Belle-by-the-Sea was a lovely place. It was a pleasant life, there in the cool shadows of its arches, and a simple one, too, because after a while no one really knew what was good and what was bad, simply what was fashionable.

One day, something arrived in Belle-by-the-Sea so marvelous that the people were rather surprised, as they thought they had seen everything marvelous already.

It was a massive wagon. Not a regular massive wagon, but a wagon so great and ponderous it was more of a gilt-and-wood castle, balancing on thirty-six massive iron-hooped wheels and pulled by an army of eighty silent, velvet-gray donkeys. The wagon rose almost fifty feet into the air, towers and flags not included, and the sight of it emerging through the dust on that hot summer’s day, well. . . . It was a sight for sore eyes, and fashionable eyes, too.

Behind upper windows, and from balconies, housemaids and children gasped as the wagon pulled slowly into the city and squeezed between the housetops. Housemaid spoke to parlor-maid spoke to housekeeper spoke to master or mistress and soon crowds of powdery rose-and-mint colored promenaders were pouring toward the main square of the city, where rumor had it the wagon was destined to arrive.

The wagon squirmed into the square, went to its center, and there curled like a great worm around the fountain in the middle, falling still with a creak and a sigh, the donkeys closing their eyes without a single bray or stamp of hoof, as if falling asleep.

By this time, word had spread through all of Belle-by-the-Sea, from the mansions to the gutters to the quays and the fashionably-distressed-nautical-chic sailors’ taverns. News arrived of the marvelously enormous wagon lying in wait in the main square, and people left whatever they were doing to see it.

The urchins heard, too, and went running and ducking under the fingers and swabs of the Fashion Keepers, went darting and leaping through the streets. When they got to the square, it was already packed toe-to-heel. It was a large square, and a grand and beautiful square even without people in it, but now, full of all the wonderful figures of Belle-by-the-Sea, with the blue sky spread out overhead, and the gilt glimmering from the wagon’s crenelations, and the eighty donkeys standing silent as could be, it made the urchins stop in their tracks and stare.

Everyone was staring. Everyone was waiting, breathing, silent.

The wagon sat for what felt like a ridiculously long time in the heat, with the weight of Belle-by-the-Sea’s not-entirely-low expectations hanging about like fluffy pink smog. I have already said the wagon was massive, but it was more than that. It had turrets and towers, many windows and little balconies, and on one side was a stage, curtained with luxuriantly rippling purple velvet. There was no sign above the stage, or indication of what might be performed, but the promise was there and so the population of Belle-by-the-Sea waited.

After approximately fourteen minutes, the curtains twitched, and out came a man, marching across the stage. He looked very fashionable, quite as marvelous as the wagon from which he had emerged. He wore a gloriously complicated coat made from many sharply tailored triangles and covered in buttons, brass and seashell, and drooling lace from the throat and cuffs. He had an enormously tall top hat on his head, the most handsome mustache anyone had ever seen, and as he approached, he smiled radiantly down at the masses below. A few young ladies flapped their painted fans, and the gentlemen smirked disparagingly, which is what gentlemen do when they stumble upon other men whom they deem almost as wonderful and debonair as themselves.

There was a moment’s pause when all of Belle-by-the-Sea seemed to hold its breath. Then the man in the complicated coat spoke:

“Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls. Urchins,” he began, and he threw his arms wide, so that the people in the crowd could more fully appreciate the red silk lining of his jacket and the fact that his belt was almost certainly snakeskin, with a little ruby eye at the buckle. (The Fashion-Keepers were scribbling wildly at this point: ruby-eye buckles, dramatic arm sweeps, complicated coats.) “Welcome! To my Palace of Marvels!”

Music sounded from somewhere, a clarion blast of trumpets, violins sawing frantic scales, and a frenzy of clashing cymbals and tinkling bells. At the same moment, a hundred butterflies were released from somewhere behind the wonderful gentleman and spiraled into the air in a beautiful column of iridescent wings, emerald-, wine-, and pearl-colored. The butterflies were sucked into one of the weather-turbines high above and came out the other end considerably smaller, but the audience below was far too busy staring at the complicated gentleman to notice.

“You may be asking yourselves,” he said, his voice carrying effortlessly across the square, “what is this Palace of Marvels? And who are you, Wonderful Gentleman, with your impeccable coattails and well-oiled mustache? Well, fear not! I shall tell you!” Here he smiled again, even more radiantly than before, and his eyes shone, and suddenly and subtly, without anyone really understanding how, the tables had turned. They had already been almost upside down  the impressively massive wagon and the donkeys and the butterflies had done much of the work  but now the entire audience was beholden, enraptured, enslaved to every word the gentleman spoke. He was no longer a traveling performer. He was almost a king, and there was not a person in the crowd who did not desire to know what secret this man had to tell, and what wonders were held within his Palace of Marvels.

The gentleman in the complicated coat seemed to have expected this development as a matter of course: “My Palace has been to all the great cities of the world. No doubt you have heard of it from London. Beijing. Poughkeepsie. Now doubt you have heard tales of the fetes which it can perform. No doubt our reputation has reached this great city years ago. “

Again that smile flashed, and a veritable gale of head-nodding ensued, peacock feathers, silk flowers, and fish-tails shivering in time with their wearers. The truth was, no one in Belle-by-the-Sea had ever heard of him before, but there are some things simply too mortifying to admit.

“I thought so.” The gentleman said and now something new entered his eyes, the tiniest glitter of derision, but no one stood near enough to catch that.

“And yet. . .” he said, his eyes back to twinkling like a pair of bells. “And yet there are no doubt one or two among you who have been living under a bridge your entire lives, or have been recently orphaned, who have not had the cultural education necessary to know of me. You, perhaps, with that hideously old-fashioned yellow kerchief. You have only recently crawled into the light of the sun at the sound of my arrival, yes?”

The man with the hideously old-fashioned yellow kerchief tried desperately to cover it with his hands, but the gentleman only laughed and carried on. “And so for you, for the benefit of you, I will reiterate. “

“I?” He swirled his hands at the wrist and bowed low, and doffed his enormously tall top hat, which was lined inside with blood-red satin that had been printed with smaller top hats. “Am the Lord Doctor, PHD from Wizcombe University, honorary member of the Society of Rednow, recipient of degrees from the University of Juno, knighted by the Queen of Ingrish. I am John. . .” He breathed in, deeply and dramatically, “Smith.”

Rapturous applause exploded throughout the square, ringing and bouncing against the stone faces of the buildings. Again the music started up, trumpets and violins screeching. Again a burst of butterflies were let up into the air and again they were desiccated horribly by the propellers of the weather balloons.

“Thank you,” said the gentleman, and instantly the crowd and the music fell quiet again, and all that moved was the softly drifting wings of the butterflies, raining down like petals. “Now. You are probably wondering: what is such a man as this doing in our town, on a stage? Like a common conjuror, or snake-oil-selling witch-doctor quack! Well. . .”

A spindly brass staircase folded down off the edge of the stage, and the gentleman darted down it, leaning over the railing toward a little child who smiled up at him, brushing bits of Butterfly-guts out of her eyelashes.

“I will tell you,” he said, in a whisper that was somehow not a whisper at all, but loud and cutting enough for all to hear. “I will tell all of you! Nay, better, I will show you!”

The gentleman spun away, back toward the center of the stage, and there he spread his arms. Spotlights affixed somewhere high among the turrets of the wagon ignited, and suddenly the curtain behind him was awash in changing colors, a shifting, whirling cloud of purple and green and dusky blue. The music became mysterious and tinkling.

“I have discovered,” the Lord Doctor Smith breathed, and spread his fingers, and looked away into the distance as if seeing some glorious vision of dewy-hilled Arcadia. Everyone in the crowd sighed in awe. “I have discovered the greatest mystery of all. And I have solved it.

“Yes! I have solved the greatest mystery! You all know what the greatest mystery is. No, not your neighbor’s flawlessly inexpressive face, or where your brother gets all those socks from. Death! Death is the greatest mystery. And I have conquered it.”

Behind him, projected on the curtains, a coffin appeared, and a rather Gothic graveyard, and the spell in the square was rather broken by that. Death was neither a pleasant subject nor a fashionable one, and snake-oil might have been preferable. The shift was instant. Skepticism crept into faces, charged the air and turned it heavy and bitter. And yet the Lord Doctor Smith was unperturbed.

“Yes, yes,” he said. “Murmur among yourselves. Shake your heads. Call it an impossibility, frippery, rubbish! But are you a member of the Society of Rednow? No, I think you are not. I can show you this world. That is what my Palace of Marvels does. I have developed a foolproof way to cross between the world of the living, into the world of paradise.“ Again, the swift swoop of the hand outward, fingers spread.

“It is a marvelous place, a Wonderland, a garden of pleasures. I have been there. I have charted it, and developed a perfectly safe method of traveling between the two plains. All you must do to get in is die.”

He was losing the audience rather quicker now, and he seemed not to care at all.

“You don’t need to believe me of course. Such worldly people as yourselves will want proof. I can give it to you. All you like! I call it Paradise Tourism, and that’s really all it is! Tourism! A jaunt to the world beyond the grave for well-heeled people.”

A few of those well-heeled people were leaving the square just now, indignantly drawing scarves around shoulders and straightening hats. Perhaps the Lord Doctor saw it, or perhaps that was only a bit of dust making his eye dart and glimmer in amusement. Whatever the case, he was not disturbed.

“Behold!” he shouted.

The curtains behind Lord Doctor Smith opened slightly, revealing a woman in a glittering circus costume, bristling with feathers and stitched with so many gilt beads and crystals she practically shone. The woman smiled broadly at the audience. The Lord Doctor Smith smiled at the audience, too. He extended his hand and she took it, and together they both walked across the stage, their eyes clanging like church-bells now, projecting metaphorical lightning bolts of joy and showmanship into the crowd. They stopped in the center of the stage. The Lord Doctor turned his smile on the girl. Then he took a pistol from his breast pocket and shot her in the heart.

The sound was sharp. It pulled the crowd tight like a drawstring, jerking everyone upright and freezing them. The girl fell, blood blooming across her chest.

“Nothing like someone dying to catch your attention, eh?” the wonderful gentleman laughed, flicking the blackpowder from the barrel of his silver gun, while all across the square people’s faces turned to masks of shock and revulsion. “All the books start that way these days, don’t they? So-and-so died. Why should you care? I don’t know, but you should because it’s dramatic. However!” He twinkled at the audience, as if he were telling a joke. “It’s really only remarkable when they come back.”

The audience did not understand this joke. If it was a joke, it was not funny at all. The girl lying on the stage had a bloody wound over her heart, and there is something very primal and horridly unnatural about seeing another person die that ruins the mood of any gathering.

And yet the gentleman was carrying on as if nothing was amiss. “Don’t worry!” he cried, laughing merrily and not at all madly. “Don’t be afraid! Look!”

Here the great curtains parted, and then another pair, and another, three sets of curtains swooping apart in waves  purple-green-red  and there, behind them, was a great circle of bevelled glass, like a lens. And behind that, floating happily-as-could-be  in the most marvelous void of multicolored clouds, was the circus girl. There was no sign of a wound. In fact, she looked as if she could not have been happier about her current state. She appeared rather like a goldfish in a bowl, moving languidly about, plucking bits of multicolored cloud and eating them and making delighted faces. Her body remained on the stage, a lump of sequins, white limbs and beads.

“You see?” said the gentleman, very softly. “She is dead. Temporarily. And yet her soul, her essence, all that really matters, has passed into that wonderful place beyond. That is what all of you have been missing! Clinging to this dull old ground. This!” He gestured around him. “This is only half of everything! There is an entire world of softness and joy and wonder, where you are never hungry or sad or too warm or too cold! Look at her frolic! Would it not be worth a moment’s discomfort to frolic through a landscape of multicolored clouds?”

No. The crowd was not entirely convinced that it would. Not to mention, they were still sure they had witnessed a cold-blooded murder.

“Oh, but of course. You are all asking: ‘What of the dear girl? How will she come back! Surely it is not so difficult to die, but how will one return?’ Well, you are darling little thinkers, aren’t you. Let me show you something else.” And here he made an elaborate gesture, and a mechanical arm swooped into the dark behind the bowled lens and drew the circus girl out. However, she left the lens not as girl, but as a wisp of violet steam that somehow did not dissipate or blow away. The Lord Doctor took the wisp by thumb-and-forefinger and placed it elaborately over the dead girl on the stage, and suddenly she was alive again, and there she sat up and smiled rather vacantly, her teeth as white as rabbit-fur.

“There you have it! There she is, in the flesh.” His eyes flashed brighter and merrier than they ever had before. “Now, is that not terribly, terribly fashionable?”

There was still some slight convincing to do, of course. The circus girl roamed about through the square and let people touch her hands, and she smiled at them reassuringly and showed them that yes indeed her wound had entirely healed, and the Lord Doctor continued to flail and gesticulate and prance on the stage.

And now it came, slowly at first, but rising steadily and surely: the most resounding sound came up from the crowd, the loudest cheer you ever heard. This was death conquered. This was new, and exciting, and wonderful, and quite realistic and scientific, didn’t you think, Jeremy? Eating clouds? Frolicking weightlessly? Yes, please.

“But don’t make up your mind just now,” the gentleman cried. “Go home and think on it. We will not run away in the night. In two days, when we open for business, the doors to paradise will be flung wide, and you may enter and leave as you please. Death Tourism, I call it! And you are all . . . WELCOME.”

Everyone went home that evening befuddled, slightly fuzzy and sick-feeling, like the way you are after a carnival. Too much cotton candy and too-bright-lights, and too much wonder can turn nasty very quickly.

But it could not be denied that Lord Doctor Smith had caused a sensation. All through the night, and the next morning, too, the citizens of Belle-by-the-Sea were a-buzz with talk of his great wagon, and the Lord Doctor’s marvelous contraptions. You could even go to the square and watch various members from the Lord Doctor’s troupe being murdered and then appearing behind the glass, leaping through the clouds, being merry. They were such fashionably-clad people, and they looked very happy.

And so two days later, when the little ticket booths opened for business and the spotlights were lit, and the beveled glass lens was polished to a gleam and promising all the wonders of that cloud-filled void, there was a long, long line of people waiting to go in.

Great ladies from the mansions on the waterfront of Belle-by-the-Sea had left cards at their friends’ houses, had met over finger sandwiches at Mademoiselle Fricassee, had passed folded notes while getting their feet chewed upon by dogs, which was the newest fashion in pedicures:

My darling Emily, Die with me, won’t you? The newspapers are saying it’s quite necessary this week, quite indispensable. 12 o’ Clock, Saturday, Town Square.

Yours, fashionably, Lady Meredith Cray

Darling Emily was only too happy to die with Lady Meredith Cray, and so was most everyone else. Within one turn of the clock-hands, much of the population of Belle-by-the-Sea had been convinced this was a revolution, a wonder, and a must-do.

High on the fifth floor of the wonderful wagon, inside one of its drooping turrets, in the hot, stuffy confines of its wooden walls, there sat the circus girl in her sequined costume, fuming on a little velvet footstool and looking as if she were about to explode. The complicated gentleman was there, too, watching the scene below with an air of satisfied disdain.

The circus girl began toeing a crack in the floor, then kicking the corner of a carpet, ever more viciously. Finally the complicated gentleman sighed expansively and turned to her.

“Oh, come now, Bessy, stop your rattling. It’s paying your dinner too.”

Bessy’s head came up like a Jack-in-a-Box, her eyes like two little stones. “What about the little ‘uns! What about the babies left at home, and all the old folk, and the ill, and- ”

“Not my fault. A fool and his breathing-abilities are soon parted.”

“That is not how that saying goes, and you- you- You! There are good people down there! Good people!”

“Darling, I do not doubt it. I’ve been quite convinced of their virtues as well. But why do you scowl at me so? What have I done? I have not lifted a finger against them. That’s the brilliance of it. It’s all entirely up to them.”

“The first judge who finds out, you tell ‘im that and you see if you’re not drawn and quartered for what you’ve done.”

“Well,” said the complicated gentleman. “I think we must simply make sure that never am I caught.” His eyes went the slightest shade darker. “Yes, that’ll do nicely.” He laughed, and turned again to the window.

Here the door to the chamber creaked open and another girl came in. She looked  almost identical to the girl on the footstool. They wore the same costume down to the smallest bead and bit of stitchery. They had the same nose, the same dark eyes, the same pale skin and thin face. And yet it would have only taken a moment of looking at them both in close proximity to see they were not the same people at all. They were sisters, twins, and one of them had a splotch of red theater blood above her heart and the other had small hooks hidden about the waist of costume that allowed her to be hung on invisible ropes and appear, from a distance, as though she were floating.

“Is Bessy whining about the poor innocents again?” the girl asked, and she spoke the word ‘innocents’ as though it were not a word at all but a string of spit. The differences could be counted on two hands now: this girl had all of Bessy’s grace, and yet none of that coiled, angry energy. She was somehow sharp beneath her flowing movements – sharp voice and sharp chin, and a somewhat supercilious expression which she employed liberally as she passed the footstool on which Bessy sat. Bessy glared up at her.

“I am,” Bessy said, as if daring her sister to contradict. “And you should be, too, if you had half a heart.”

“Well, I don’t. Not for idiots.”

“Both of you are awful. Both of you are a couple of rotten wormy wicked apples!”

“Hear that, Esmé? Sounds nice, doesn’t it? I’ll be a rotten wormy apple any day, if you’ll be, too.”

And here they took to giggling and poking each other, and Bessy ran from the room, while below in the square an insistent clatter had begun, a clatter, a snap, and a fall.

The massacre had begun. 10£ a piece, the gilt sign by the booths said, and it could have said 100£: the people of Belle-by-the-Sea would have payed it gladly. A gallows had been put up in front of the stage and all the fashionable people payed for their tickets and went up with their little half-heeled shoes, and salmon silk socks and plumed hats, and there they lay nooses around their own necks, looking at each other excitedly, and making little exclamations, and when the trapdoor fell, the attendants and onlookers cheered, and the little shoes and silks went spinning down into the dark, and the rows of people on the scaffold were smiling, too, their faces quite bright and joyful as their necks broke.

Figures began to appear in the wonderful world beyond the glass, indistinct shapes that frolicked about and ate clouds. Row after row stepped onto the dais, and row upon row fell. The Lord Doctor Smith’s coffers became full to bursting, and no one seemed to notice how the shapes were very blurry behind the beveled glass, not like faces at all, but merely silhouettes, drifting farther and farther away.

Late in the afternoon, an elderly gentleman, trembling and solemn-faced, came to one of the booths and said, “My wife went in. When will she be out, please?” And the boy in the booth smiled and said: “I don’t know! But perhaps you would like to join her! Couples go free, naturally.”

The bodies, once they had been hanged, were taken down with the utmost care and hurried behind the wagon. Shoes were gathered and carted away between the wagon wheels by tiny, chittering little creatures wrapped in strips of old cracked leather, with helmets over their faces. And at last, when night came, the Palace of Marvels was closed and the curtains swayed shut.

Not a single person had left the wondrous sky-scape beyond the beveled glass.

The next morning, very early, Bessy woke and threw a cloak over her sequined get-up and crawled out the bottom of the wagon, landing in a heap on the cobbles. She had a small sack over her shoulder and workman boots on her feet, and she stole across the square and into the shadowed streets as quietly as an ant. Then she began to run, out of the city and into the wild countryside, and only when she was far down the road did she slow and look back over her shoulder. Belle-by-the-Sea looked gaudy to her then, a hideous whirl of fakery, the balconies teeth, the chimneys noses, pointing endlessly toward the sky. She turned her face to the road again and began to walk, suddenly loosely, into the dawning sun. She did not look back a second time. There are some things much larger and more complicated than one’s self, like an entire city of fools, and a heartless sister, and a greedy man. But there is always a sun going up somewhere that one can walk into and hope, for a little while, that elsewhere is better.

The urchins of Belle-by-the-Sea watched mountains of fashionably-clad bodies being taken away, pockets emptied of purses and coins, limbs stripped of their silk stockings and candy-colored shoes, milky bodies thrown into the water to sink quickly under the deep blue waves. Later, in the dead of night, when the urchins went around the glass on the stage, they found there nothing of a paradise, and no wonderland of clouds. Only light, sculpted carefully, and sound effects, and strange profusions of steam, that, from a distance, might be mistaken for souls.

The Library of Dreams

At the Library of Dreams, you can conveniently deposit your unwanted nighttime imaginings for the low, low price of twenty-five dollars.

A Librarian will collect, archive, and catalog your dream, but don’t worry—you don’t have to wait around during the boring stuff. As soon as your dream has been safely withdrawn, the Librarian assigned to you will give you a receipt—hold on to this, mind you—and you can be on your merry way.

Now, let’s say you find yourself wanting to re-live your dream—whether that’s because it was a particularly thrilling one, but rather too thrilling to reside permanently in your mind; or because you are thirsty for inspiration and think it could make for a rollicking good story, if only you could remember what it was. Or perhaps you want your dream returned to you altogether, because, on second thought, it unnerves you to think about some figment of your subconscious sitting unused in a drawer somewhere. Well, you’re in luck: Recollection and restoration services are available, with pricing upon request. All you have to do is present your receipt (did you hold on it as you were supposed to?) at the Welcome Desk, and a Librarian will assist you.

Dream harvesting and storage, and excellent, first-class service, all for only twenty-five dollars.

Isn’t it a bargain, though?

But wait! There’s more!

If you will allow your dream to be a matter of public record—that is, freely available for viewing by any registered citizen—we will waive your collection fee, and pay you a sum of one hundred dollars (plus an additional percentage of each viewing). Think of it: Countless others, generations of others, paying to experience your own dreams, long after you’re dead and gone.

Kind of exciting, isn’t it?

Here at the Library of Dreams, we certainly think so.


It was Taja’s first time working the Welcome Desk at the Library of Dreams, and she was nervous about it, but not in the way you might think. She wasn’t nervous because she was the youngest apprentice at the library and was therefore bound to screw up something.

No, she was nervous because, since coming to work at the Library, she’d been content to scuttle around in the shadows and run errands and make coffee for the Librarians, even Madam Jacosa, who was by all possible definitions terrible. Taja had let the Librarians with bad attitudes yell at her and the Librarians with workaholic tendencies ignore her. Basically she’d allowed herself to drift unseen and (mostly) unloved through the Library like the bottom-ranking piece of scum she was, with no complaints.

Even though she was more talented than all of them.

Especially because she was more talented than all of them.

But now, thanks to a scheduling error, and hopelessly flaky Elis having called in sick again, Taja had been hastily reassigned to the Welcome Desk for the day. And at the Welcome Desk, she’d have no choice but to be noticed. And Taja worked very hard not to be noticed.

It was for the good of everyone, really.

The front door dinged and a rather furtive-looking young woman entered, half-hidden by a felt hat and tasseled scarf.

“Welcome to the Library of Dreams,” Taja said. “How may I help you today?”

“Yes, hello.” The woman hunched over the desk, as if protecting her words. She glanced at the five doors marked HARVESTING, RECOLLECTION, RESTORATION, VIEWING, and WAITING. “The thing is, I’ve never been here before.”

Obviously. “You don’t say?” Taja said.

“It’s just I’ve always thought dreams shouldn’t be tampered with, and that the Librarians have far too much power, and that something else is going on here. Something nefarious. Behind the scenes, as it were.” The woman eyed Taja expectantly.

Taja kept her face serene. Another conspiracy theorist. The Library saw at least five a day. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can assure you, we’re far from nefarious here at the Library of Dreams. We’re simply providing a service.”

“I read there was once this king who thought the Library was evil, that it should never have been built. He tried to burn it down, and then he disappeared.” The woman leaned closer. “Under rather mysterious circumstances.”

“Yes,” Taja said calmly, “I’m familiar with the story. Roysius the Third. He was quite mad.”

The woman’s mouth thinned. “You look rather young to be working here. I’m not sure I feel comfortable talking to you. Where’s your supervisor?”

“I’m thirteen, and quite capable, I assure you. My supervisor is Larkin, and he’s busy just now.”

“Oh yes? Busy doing what, exactly?”

Taja’s smile dazzled. “I can’t tell you that. Official Library business.”

The woman scowled, turned away, tapped her foot against the polished marble floor, and turned back. “Fine. Fine.” Then she mumbled something. Taja pretended she hadn’t understood.

“What’s that?” she asked sweetly.

“I said, I would like to view a particular dream. Should be filed under Halon, of the Dower family. He’s my . . .” The woman rolled her eyes. “All right, so he was my boyfriend. I know it’s silly, but . . . Right before he left me, he had this dream. I don’t know what it was about, but it upset him so much he could hardly speak, and then he left me, and I have to know what it is, I just have to. The cousin of his roommate is a friend of my sister’s, and she said he came to the Library the morning after he had that dream, which means it must be filed away here somewhere, and I’m fairly certain it’s public. So . . . I’d like to look at it now. Please.”

Taja waited with her hands clasped on the table before her. “I really didn’t need to know all of that. I just needed to know the service you required.”

The woman gaped, flushing. “And you just let me go on and on?”

“I didn’t want to be rude. Now,” said Taja, and here was where her heart’s steady trot became a gallop, “please let me see your registration, and I’ll get things started.”

The woman fumbled in her purse, muttering to herself. Then she slid her registration card across the desk. When Taja took it, she made sure her fingers grazed the woman’s hand.

All Librarians could see dreams. It only required a slight touch of skin to skin for the dreams to appear, surrounding the dreamer—ghostly shapes, cityscapes, nonsense. The dreamer, flying. The dreamer, falling. The dreamer, outrunning a forest of tornados. Typical stuff, most of the time. Same song, different voice. Recent dreams appeared closer, more vivid. Long-ago dreams were harder to make out and farther away. Sifting through the images to find the long-ago dreams was like fumbling through a dimly lit mirror maze with thousands of people, trying to find what you needed—one particular reflection among millions.

But for Taja, it was different.


For Taja, a touch didn’t mean simply seeing dreams. It meant seeing everything—dreams, memories, wants, fears. Stray violent thoughts. Deepest secrets.

It was a gift, Taja’s mother had said. At first.

Then Taja started telling her mother what she saw every time they kissed and hugged, every time they joined hands and danced in the kitchen while breakfast cooked: What her mother feared. What her mother wanted. What her mother thought of old man Duggan from next door. Where her mother had kissed the banker she’d gone to dinner with the night before. How her mother had hated Taja for a time when Taja was very small.

How her mother had thought of hurting her.

Taja didn’t hold a grudge; she’d long ago learned enough about the way minds worked to know that you couldn’t always control what you thought about. Accepting that was a matter of maintaining sanity, for Taja. She wasn’t insulted or anything.

But, quickly, the reality of this became too much for Taja’s mother. “What am I thinking now?” she would ask nastily, when Taja hugged her good-bye before school. “Tell me what I’m thinking,” she said one night, suddenly, while preparing supper. She grabbed Taja by the throat in a fit of mad-eyed rage, shook her, and then released her.

She watched Taja fearfully from across the room while they watched evening programs on the television. “I’m sorry,” she would sometimes whisper, and Taja would pretend she didn’t hear.

Taja’s mother started flinching, cursing, sobbing every time Taja entered a room, every time she moved or spoke, every moment she existed. Once, she threw a knife at Taja when she came down to the kitchen to help make lunch. “Don’t touch me!” Taja’s mother screamed, and Taja calmly left the room and went to the park to play with whatever kids she could find, because all of them were much happier than she was, and when she bumped into them while playing games, she saw flashes of smiling parents, and birthday parties full of color, and bright, brilliant futures so unlike the one she saw for herself.

Then, one night, Taja awoke to find someone—a gloved, masked someone—dragging her from her bed, stuffing her in a sack. She knew it was her mother because she smelled her rose perfume. In the back seat of the car, she sat silent and blinded. Through the cloth sack’s weave, she saw the faint shape of her mother, driving. Before Taja’s mother threw her over the bridge into the river, Taja’s mother whispered that she would be happier now, without Taja around.

“You monster,” Taja’s mother hissed, her voice choked with tears.

That was the moment, right before she slammed into the icy water, that Taja decided her mother wasn’t worth her time, and that her ability was a gift, not a curse. It was special; it could probably prove useful somewhere. So Taja decided she would live, and find out where that place might be.


“If you don’t mind,” the woman snapped, whipping her hand away from Taja’s, “I’d like only my assigned, grown-up Librarian to touch me.”

“I’m sorry! Sorry. It was a mistake. I— ” Taja paused, collected herself, stared at her desk. “If you’ll please take a seat in the Waiting Room, a Librarian will be along shortly to assist you.”

The woman gave Taja a curt nod and hurried to the Waiting Room. Her heels clacked against the floor like teeth.

Breathless, Taja slid the woman’s ten and two twenties into the cash drawer and dropped the woman’s registration card into the holding file for safekeeping. The truth was, though, that she wasn’t sorry at all. Stealing thoughts like this sustained her. She craved the thoughts of other people more than she craved actual food.

She was no curse. She was a gift.

I am a gift, mother. And I am alive.

What had Taja seen this time? She blew out a slow breath, assessing. An array of images had laid out before her, for that miraculous second. A vastness of books opened to their most vivid illustrations:

The woman customer, kissing a man. The woman, crying in a dimly lit room. The woman, winning the Presidential Award for Notable Contributions to Science. The woman, working in a laboratory. The woman, laughing in a theater with her friends. The woman, kissing a man, kissing a man, kissing a man named Halon Dower. The ex-boyfriend. This woman woman was absolutely miserable about him. Taja couldn’t feel her misery, but she could clearly see it in how many thoughts and memories focused on him.

This, of course, made Taja think of Larkin.

If anyone else existed who could do what Taja could do, and happened to touch Taja at that moment, her thoughts would have appeared to that person like images on a television, and they would have looked something like this:

Larkin, pulling Taja out of the river, exclaiming that she couldn’t be dead, please, not this poor little child.

Larkin, nursing Taja back to health in a tiny, warm room lined with books.

Larkin, giving Taja her blue apprentice’s coat.

Larkin, smiling. Chuffing her shoulder. Ruffling her hair. Looking at her. Singing while he worked.

Larkin, Larkin, Larkin.

Larkin, kissing her. Someday, when she was older, taller, beautiful. He would not ruffle her hair then.

(Her most precious, secret hope.)

The door opened. A man walked in, suited, vested, wearing a dark bowler hat. His suit had long coattails. Taja approved of this, and of his clean, attractive jaw.

“Welcome to the Library of Dreams,” Taja recited. “How may I help you today?”

“I’m here for a recollection,” the man said, sliding a crisp fifty and his card across the counter.

Taja appreciated regulars, and also people with voices coarse and rich, like this man’s. Velvet-textured. Rough around the edges.

“If you’ll please take a seat in the Waiting Room— ”

At that moment, Taja touched the man’s wrist. There was a strip of skin there, between his glove and his sleeve. She hadn’t meant to; she generally tried to limit herself to one touch a day. But she had been distracted by this man’s soft-crackling voice, by her lingering thoughts of Larkin, by a stray memory of her mother.

And so she had touched him. And so she had seen . . .

The city, burning. Her city.

The presidential palace, overrun with crawling shapes. Child-shaped hunters with claws like needles. Winged and scaled, slippery and tough-hided. Gaping jaws and dead eyes and no eyes, jagged beaks and glistening hooves, and—

Smoke and screams, pale wings in the air, fluttering and leathery—

Blood in the streets, a woman tearing at her hair; fat, wet shapes plopping onto rooftops, burning holes through the shingles—

“Is something wrong?”

Taja’s head snapped up. The man was watching her with mild curiosity, his eyes clear and steady.

“No, I— I’m sorry,” Taja stammered. “It’s my . . . it’s my first day.”

“Oh. How exciting for you, I’ll bet.”

Something like that. Oh gods, oh gods. What had she seen? “What is your name, please?”

“It’s on the card, isn’t it?” The man’s smile was a tiny ghost of a thing. “But all the same, it’s Winters. Soren Winters.”

Taja’s fingers shook on the typewriter keys. She was punching in absolute nonsense. Not that it mattered. Even though the name he provided matched the name on his registration card, she had seen the truth in his mind—this was not his true name. He was lying, about that and other things she couldn’t interpret.

“And you’re here for a recollection,” she said, in a casual sing-song. “Sure, sure.”

“Shall I go to the Waiting Room?” Mr. Winters took off his hat, smoothed his hair. It was the color of dust, and impeccable.


Mr. Winters turned, his eyebrows tiny twin question marks. Not surprise so much as Oh?

“No, no, no, not today,” Taja said, hurrying to him with a clipboard in hand, which she hoped made her look at least halfway legitimate. She had no idea what she was doing, but she could not let him go through recollection. “We’re so dead today. I can take you right in.”

Dead. So completely, screamingly dead, like the city in Mr. Winters’s mind.

It hadn’t been a dream, that image. It had been a want. A someday. A desire sharp as hunger and as certain as now—the sensation of this is happening.

Even more certain to Taja was the knowledge that “Mr. Winters” wasn’t just here to recollect a dream.

He was here to steal one.


As far as Mr. Winters knew, Taja was just a Librarian—or most likely an apprentice, judging by her youth—which meant she couldn’t see anything but dreams, and so he had no reason to worry.  He had long ago learned how to control his dreams, and had been careful never to dream of . . . particular things.

This girl Taja was a little odd, true, but then, she was thirteen, so what did you expect?

He laughed, once, softly. Thirteen. That had been a good year.

Not for his father, true. But for him, at least.

And soon, all the quiet years between then and now would prove to have been worth it.


Taja led Mr. Winters through the RECOLLECTIONS door and down a series of hallways she was definitely not supposed to be in, ever. Were it not for Larkin, she wouldn’t even know they existed.

“And these are our recollection rooms,” Taja explained, gesturing pointlessly to the dark wooden doors lining this stretch of hallway. The carpet was thick and blood-red. Taja remembered the streets of Mr. Winters’s mind, stained with dead bodies, and felt faintly ill. “You’ll be assigned to one of these, and your Librarian will meet you there. It doesn’t hurt much, despite what people say. Recollection, I mean.”

“I’m familiar with the process. I’ve been here before, remember?”

Taja didn’t look at Mr. Winters, but she heard the hardly-there smile in his voice. “Oh. Right. Sorry, just—”

“It’s your first day.”


Think, Taja, think! But honestly, what was there to do? If she told anyone what she knew, they’d demand how she knew it. If she explained how she knew it, then her secret would no longer be a secret, and who knew what would happen to her then? The more skilled Librarians tended to disappear—it had happened twice during Taja’s years at the Library, once with Phenna Talisin, and then, later, with Garet Azhar, both of whom had just up and vanished one day, at the height of their popularity with patrons. The scandal had monopolized the papers for weeks, and the Library had enjoyed a temporary and not insignificant bump in business.

No one could resist a mystery, especially a grisly one.

Taja had often feared that she would wake up to find Larkin gone from her in this fashion. Everyone knew he was a genius. They called him Dreamkeeper, and whenever they did, he rolled his eyes and said something like, “They make me sound so old. Am I that old, Taja, to be given such a name?”

Once, Taja answered that no, he was not old, he was beautiful, and her cheeks had burned, but she would have said it a hundred more times if she could have, and Larkin had looked at her for a very long time before brushing the hair out of her face.

If she ever woke up to find him gone, she would tear apart the Library until she found him.

Would Taja, should she be found out, disappear? And if she did, would Larkin come looking for her?

“Do you think we’ll keep walking for much longer?” Mr. Winters asked, adjusting his coat. “Or do you have a special room in mind?”

Taja felt suspended in mid-air for an instant, and then nearly fell over her own feet. A special room. Of course. A plan slammed into her like the punch of the icy river water, straight to her lungs. It was wild, it was impossible. It was most likely fatal. But it was the only thing to do.

Mr. Winters could not be permitted to recollect someone else’s dream and steal from the Library. He could not be permitted to leave the Library, either, not with such plans churning in his head, and not on Taja’s watch. The Library had raised her. She had grown up in these unending hallways, ordered here and there by tired, frazzled adults in dusty robes, their eyes bloodshot from too much dreaming. She was to be a Librarian someday, and Librarians did not fear death.

Taja had faced death before, and lived.

“Not much longer,” she said cheerfully. “Sorry for the walk. They’ve been doing work on the front rooms.”

A special room, indeed. She would take him to the most special room of all. She would take him to the Vault of Nightmares.

And she would lock him inside.


Larkin probably didn’t even remember that he had told her. But he had.

It had been that first night, when Taja was six and shivering in Larkin’s arms, river-drenched to the bone. He held her close to the fire and spooned hot broth into her mouth. He sang to her, a lullaby called “The Fairies of Far Westing,” which reminded Taja of her mother and made her gasp with pain.

To soothe her, Larkin had shown her the marvelous things in his office: The rows of books cataloging some of his own, most beloved dreams. The wood-handled silver bell that had been a gift from his father.

And the belt of keys kept in a small drawer, which could only be opened by pressing the wood carvings on the drawer’s face—curling vines and singing birds, a rose with twenty-three petals—in a particular way.

The white key was for the Office of the Head Librarian, upstairs in the Tower.

The red key was for the Fifth Floor Collections, of which Larkin was in charge.

The black key was for the Vault of Nightmares.

The tiny brass key he gave to Taja, and which she wore always on a silk ribbon, hidden beneath her shirt, was her own key to his office. “If you should ever need a safe place to hide,” he had told her, not long after her arrival, “you are always welcome in here with me.” She had taken him up on that, often curling up in the threadbare chair in the corner to study, just to be near him as he worked, just to smell the ink staining his fingers.

He probably hadn’t thought Taja would remember anything about those keys. He certainly couldn’t have imagined that, every time she touched him, she searched his mind for an image of how to open the drawer of keys, until she had the combination memorized.

But Taja remembered.


Taja withdrew her brass key and opened Larkin’s office.

“If you’ll just wait right here,” she said to Mr. Winters.

He nodded, once, and said nothing.

Taja slipped inside the office, shivering. It was obvious Mr. Winters was becoming suspicious. She couldn’t blame him. She had kept him walking for fifteen minutes, and they were nearing the bowels of the Library, where everything was icy cold and the walls were stone instead of paneled wood. Mr. Winters had to have realized by now that this was not standard protocol.

And yet he was not protesting, or demanding to be taken back upstairs. Perhaps he was curious.

She hoped that was all it was.

Taja pressed the wood carvings, in the right order—fifth petal from the right, bluebird, bell, third petal from the top, and so on. She kept her ear pressed to the wood; with each press of her fingers, a tiny click sounded. The drawer popped open. She pulled out the black key and almost dropped it. It crawled. The surface of the key was cold, and wriggled as if from the cycling movement of a thousand tiny legs.

Repulsed, Taja dropped the key in her pocket and grabbed a random stack of papers from Larkin’s desk. The movement jarred a scarf lying there; it slid to the floor, and Taja caught the scent of Larkin—cinnamon (his favorite candies) and smoke (from the fires on this level, which were always lit to keep the Librarians from freezing).

I’ll come back, and I’ll tell you how much I love you, I won’t waste another second, she thought, and left.

“Almost there,” she said brightly to Mr. Winters, locking Larkin’s office behind her. She was surprised to realize she felt no urge to cry at the thought that, if something went wrong with her plan, she would never see Larkin again. She supposed she was too terrified to cry, as she had been on the night her mother had tried to kill her.

“What was all that about?” asked Mr. Winters.

“Just needed some paperwork.” Taja waved the papers with far too much enthusiasm.

“Ah. I see.” Mr. Winters moved his head the barest inch, his eyes looking to the ground, as though he were listening for something. His tongue flicked out, wet his lips.

Taja turned away, though every instinct she had screamed at her not to turn her back to him. There was something abhorrently serene about him.

The weight of the key in her pocket was like a living thing. Cold, and shifting.


The Vault—a nondescript door of weathered wood on the lowest level of the Library, which Taja only knew about through years of touching Larkin whenever she could get away with it. Apprentices were not allowed here; few Librarians were allowed here. The air here was so cold that Taja’s breath came in puffs. The weight of the Library above them pressed on her shoulders.

“How very odd, this place you’ve brought me,” Mr. Winters remarked, his eyes fixed on the door. He seemed different now, the lines of his body sharper, longer. Alert.

“My supervisor told me that, as one of our regular patrons, you get the special treatment this visit,” Taja said, her fingers shaking as she tried to fit the black key into its lock. “It’s like a sort of contest, you see, and you’re the winner.” The key twitched in her hand. Something bit her.

The lock turned, and the door opened. Beyond it, Taja could see only darkness. Right, then. There was no turning back now. Larkin, Larkin.

“Please follow me,” said Taja, stepping just inside. “Your Librarian will be right with you.”

Mr. Winters clasped his hands behind his back and followed her in. Then, Taja froze, considering. The pieces of herself shifted and realigned. She stood there for an instant, for a slow hour. What was she doing? What was she thinking? Her blood was a dull, desperate roar.

She could have stepped outside, slammed the door shut, and locked Mr. Winters inside. That had been the plan. A good plan. A plan to be proud of. But instead Taja flung the key back into the hallway and slammed the door shut, locking them both inside. Something had seized her heart and rooted her here, in this darkness, behind the weathered door.

Something like craving.

She had seen people’s nightmares before, in brief flashes that kept her up for long, sleepless hours—not from fear, but from fascination. Beasts and devils, gods and death. What would a whole vault of them look like? Were any of them, she wondered, as monstrous as she? She would look, only for a moment. And then she would open the door and sneak out before Mr. Winters had even begun to process where he now found himself.

“My curious girl,” Larkin had once called her, his arm loosely about Taja’s shoulders as they sat by the fire. Taja had not been able to stop staring at his long legs, his dear, shabby shoes. “Your mind is a diamond. You’ll make a fine Librarian someday. Even finer than me.”

“Impossible,” Taja had declared hotly. “No one could be finer than you.”

And Larkin had kissed her on the cheek. “Little sister,” he had said, “it’s as if we share a heart.”

My curious girl.

Taja stepped away from the door, hungering.


The Vault was completely lightless—or at least it seemed so, at first. Taja’s breath came thin and fast. Though it had been cold just outside the Vault, inside the air was tropical. Damp, oppressively thick. When Taja’s eyes adjusted, she saw a rocky cavern, tremendous, never-ending and many-roomed. Fires here and there, and piles of luminscent moss, gave everything an eerie glow. The ceiling disappeared into blackness. There was water, somewhere; Taja heard the rush of a current.

The air smelled like burning.

A massive explosion to her right knocked Taja off her feet. She tumbled down the moss-covered ridge and hit her head. Dazed, she looked back up the ridge. The Vault door had disappeared, as had the wall surrounding it. There was only more cavern—fires dotting sky-high cliffs, figures crossing distant bridges. A black lake. A dim blue city.

“Mr. Winters?” Taja tried to call out, but her ears were ringing, and her voice came out strangled.

“What the—? Taja? Larkin’s girl?”

A voice behind Taja made her turn. Her head throbbed, and she nearly threw up. A woman stood there, scarred and sweating, her short hair in spiky braids. She wore thick goggles and carried a gun that crackled with white lightning. On her frayed shirt was a faded, familiar insignia—that of a Librarian.

Taja squinted at the woman’s face; it was spattered with blood, but Taja never forgot the face of someone whose mind she had touched.

“Phenna?” she breathed. “Phenna Talisin? But you’re dead. You disappeared. Everyone was looking for you—”

“Not dead. Not yet.” Phenna yanked Taja to her feet. “Get behind me, and cover your eyes.”

Taja did as she was told, peeking up through her fingers at the top of the ridge, where . . . something . . . was moving. Pale and thin, unthinkably tall, the something unfurled its wings, tearing itself free from what remained of a fine suit and vest, a shell of human skin. It blew out a breath, so hot Taja’s eyes watered. A charred scrap of bowler hat fluttered to her feet.

“All I wanted today was that key,” the thing rasped, in a voice that was part Mr. Winters and part wrath, part fever, part crumble and flay. As it spoke, its words dissolved until they were hardly intelligible, as if he were, right in front of them, forgetting how to form human speech. “But you, child, have given me something even better. You . . . have brought me home. And now, we can begin.”

The thing that had been Mr. Winters reared up to its full height, stretching its wings out twenty feet on either side. Its eyeless face turned to the black sky, and it shrieked to rend apart the world.

Throughout the vast cavern, screams echoed back, followed by two distant explosions.

“Fantastic,” Phenna muttered, cocking her gun. It began to whine, humming higher and higher. “You couldn’t have brought one of the little ones, could you, girl?”

Taja clutched Phenna’s waist, pressing her face against Phenna’s back. “What’s going on?” she screamed over the din.

“War, that’s what,” Phenna spat, “and you’ve just brought the other side a great bloody bomb.”

A low boom above them—the thing that had been Mr. Winters beat its wings once, twice, and rose up to hover, extending its claws. Its tail was a fat whip; Phenna ducked down to avoid it, bringing Taja with her. The thing that had been Mr. Winters shrieked, wheeled about. Its mouth reeked of blood and writhed with worms.

In the flash of time before the world ended, Taja could think of only one thing: The broken-hearted woman, sitting upstairs in the Waiting Room, pining over Halon Dower. The Library? Nefarious? No, madam, you’re mistaken. Sorry to disappoint you. We’re simply providing a service.

Taja burst out laughing. Conspiracy theorists, indeed! Gods bless them all.

The thing that had been Mr. Winters lunged at them. Phenna cursed, raised her gun to her shoulder, and fired.