The Cabinet of Curiosities
Jar of eyes

The Care and Keeping of Lies


Anna-May Reginald’s funeral was held on July 7th, on a harsh, buzzing summer day.

I didn’t cry. You may think me callous as I was only seven then, but you see, I hadn’t liked Anna-May much, and her being buried in a little white box behind the village church did not seem such a bad idea to me at the time.

It wasn’t that Anna-May and I weren’t friends. We were. But affection is not really necessary for friendship when you’re seven, and it was enough that we lived next door to each other on a long, cracked road in a small, green town, and were the same height, and had the same cheap cotton Roebuck’s clothes in cheery colors, and our parents could foist us on each other without too much trouble.

“Go play with that dear little Anna-May from next door, won’t you?” Mama would say, and so I did.


I remember distinctly standing by the freshly turned dirt of the grave on that hot July day. I remember my scratchy, ruffly white dress and I remember the flowers languishing in a heap on top of the coffin, dying in the sun. There was a fly on one the petals. It was buzzing its wings and turning circles, but it never flew off.

I was watching the fly closely. I didn’t look at the coffin, or Anna-May’s parents, or my parents, or the reporters crowding out beyond the church’s little fence. I watched that fly, and I watched the dying flowers, and I remember thinking what a mess all this was.

It wasn’t my fault, what happened to Anna-May. That’s what the police kept telling me, and the nurse lady from the office building in Cleveland, and my parents. Anna-May’s parents sometimes looked at me like they knew, but they said it, too, right along with everyone else: It’s not your fault. Not your fault, sweetie. Not your fault.

I believed them. I still believe them. It’s a lie, but no one ever said you couldn’t believe in lies.


This is how it happened: We were sitting in the Reginalds’ back yard one month earlier, Anna-May and I, eating something. I don’t remember what it was. Madeleines and lemon and something frothy. Playing at tea. I remember being bored and much too warm, watching the clothesline at the far end of the garden. It was hung with bedsheets and pillowcases, all blinding white, and one of the clothes-items was twisting in a very singular way in the slow, hot air. And then, all at once, the wind caught it and it was as if it wasn’t cloth at all but a person, a tall thin person, all white as chalk and linen.

To this day I don’t know if I believed what I saw or if I half believed it, or if I really didn’t care one way or another.

I said: “Anna-May, there’s someone in your garden.”

Anna-May didn’t believe me. She said, “Where?” but she didn’t turn around, so I knew she thought I was bogus.

“By the clothesline. Someone’s there.”

“Mommaaaaa!” Anna-May screamed, still buttering a little piece of madeleine.

No one answered. Mrs. Reginald usually forgot our very existence whenever we were together, as if the  two of us cancelled each other out inside her mind.

I looked back toward the clothesline. The wind had twisted the white shape again, and it almost looked as if the figure were waving at us. At me. A white shape, and the softly golden sun, and the green grass. . .

“It’s not Mrs. Reginald,” I said.

That was when she finally turned all the way around in her little chair and squinted toward the clothesline. “Well, who is it?”

She couldn’t see anyone, of course, but for some reason I said: “It’s a man. He’s gone now. He ran into the hedge there.”

Anna-May turned to look at me, her teacup clutched in her fat baby hands. Her eyes were blue and dull. “A man.”

“Yes. A man in a white suit. He was waving at us.”

Anna-May didn’t move for a second. “Was it Pa?”

“No, it weren’t Mr. Reginald.”

“Well, then who?”

“I don’t know who. Let’s go see where he went.”

I said that because I was tired of playing at tea. Anna-May always pretended to know all the rules of etiquette and would correct me, even though she didn’t know a thing.

“All right,” said Anna-May, but she said it a little cautiously, and then she stuffed her madeleine in her pocket as if she were afraid she might starve between here and the clothesline, and we set off. My mind was working furiously by then, clicking and clicking, and our little shoes were squishing through the lawn, which was not mowed but was ragged and very dark green.

We came to the clothesline. There wasn’t anyone there, and all I saw now were a pair of long underwear and a white flannel shirt with its arms pinned up, but it made no difference. And at least we weren’t sitting around anymore.

I poked my head into the hedge. Anna-May followed. We went a few steps in, and it was hot and close, the leaves pressing all around. We walked several more steps and then Anna-May started whining.

“Who could it have been? He ran in here, you said?”

“Yes. I think he might have been one of those drifting tricksters. You know, the ones that live by the railroad tracks and have tropical lizards and tigers and can spit fire? Suppose he was one of those!”

I made that up. I knew about circuses from books and the motion pictures, but they never came to our town.

Anna-May was not aware of this. “Oh, a circus man!” she said, and looked delighted.

“Yes! A magician, maybe!”

“D’you think he’s still close?”

“I don’t know! Let’s see,” I said, pleased that Anna-May was finally interested in something besides tea.

But then Anna-May froze. I don’t know what she saw, because I was facing her, and she was looking over my shoulder. It might have been a trick of the light. It might have been the chalk man hurrying away among the leaves,  turning from time to time, swinging his long arms, waving us in, waving us closer.

I spun around, but I saw nothing.

“Come on!” I shouted, and pulled Anna-May hard, and that’s when stupid Anna-May had to get her foot tangled in a root and fall on her face.

I left her in the bushes and ran back to the house and shouted for Mrs. Reginald. It took close to five minutes of bawling at the top of my lungs before Mrs. Reginald realized it, and when she finally did come running down the stairs, it took me ages to get her to come outside.

“What happened!” Mrs. Reginald cried, when I led her to Anna-May.

Anna-May wouldn’t stop crying even long enough to answer Mrs. Reginald, and I wasn’t going to have her think I had pushed Anna-May or something, so I said: “There was a man, right over there by the laundry. We chased him into the bushes, but he got away, and then Anna-May tripped, ma’am, and I got you.”

“A man? What sort of man?”

“Well, he was awful thin, and- and- he had a rope in one hand.”

I don’t know why I said that part.

Mrs. Reginald looked at me sharply. Then she said: “Molly, you’d better go home. I’m taking Anna to the doctor. Come on, Anna, up you go.”

I ran up the street to our house and hid in my room. I watched from my window as Mrs. Reginald carried Anna-May crying and bawling into the house. I felt bad for her, just a little, and then I remembered her stopping in the bushes, refusing to go on, and I wondered why.

I still wonder why.

Did you see him, too, Anna-May? Please tell me you saw him, too.


I saw Anna-May one last time. I was walking down the sidewalk, and she was on the other side of the fence, sitting on a chair, her head propped up with pillows, like she had broken her neck and not just one tiny bone in her ankle. She saw me, but she didn’t say anything, and so I kept walking, and then finally she did call out:

“Molly Pratchett! I need to talk to you, Molly Pratchett!” she yelled, and so I went back and talked to her.

She was far too interested in the chalk man, and by then I had all but forgotten about him. She was interested in the circus. And while I didn’t like Anna-May very much, as I’ve said, I liked telling people things. I liked telling stories.

“They come every summer and stay on the other side of the train tracks,” I tell her. “All the most marvelous folk. And I think that’s where the chalk man was from. He had just wandered up here by accident and into your backyard, but I bet he’s really a magician or a juggler!”

“You think? Why’d he have rope in his hand.”

“To do knot tricks, of course. Or maybe he’s an animal trainer. These circuses have everything. Elephants and tigers and you can’t do anything with them without a rope.”

“I want to see,” Anna-May said dreamily. “D’you think we could go when my foot’s better?”

“Oh,” I said, and I was worried, because if we went, there would be no circus most likely, and so Anna-May would go back to thinking me bogus. So I said: “They won’t be there when your foot’s better. They’re always traveling. They do secret shows for the ones who know, for the people who get cards in the mail or the ones who wander up by accident and then they’re gone again by sun-up. I don’t think you’ll see them.”

“Make a map for me,” she said, and so I made a sloppy one on a handkerchief, my heart pounding. I had no idea how to get to the train tracks as we weren’t allowed to go out of town on our own yet, but I made a forest and a river, and the tracks, and I made a route.

I didn’t think it would matter much, since Anna-May had a broken ankle and wouldn’t be able to wander there anyway.

But she did. She wanted to find the circus, she said. She wanted to see the tigers and the elephants on the other side of the tracks, and see the fire-blowers. She wanted to find the chalk man.

I wonder if she found him. She found someone.


The police came by our house the next day, and Mama was in a state because she didn’t think it was clean enough for an officer of the law. She fussed and wiped her hands on her apron, and I admired the shiny blue car out on the curb.

“Hello, officer, how do you do?” my mama said, and I noticed she didn’t invite him in, probably because she hadn’t dusted all day, and there was garbage right inside the hall.

“Mrs. Pratchett. Good morning. I’d like to ask to speak to your daughter, Molly Pratchett. There’s been an incident, and we think she might know a thing or two.

“An incident?” my mama said, and by the sound of her voice, I knew she was clutching at her cheap costume necklace, her eyes very wide.

“Nothing serious. Just some strange folks been seen around the neighborhood, and apparently your daughter saw one yesterday. We’d like a statement from her.”

“Oh,” Mama said. “ Oh, well, all right then.”

She called me out and stood behind me while I gave my statement.

“He was dressed in white, you said?” The officer’s name was Jim Thomas, and he kept squinting down at me, even though the sun was behind him.


“All in white or just partly.”


“And he was carrying a rope.”

“Yes. One rope.”

“Was he carrying anything else?”

I peered up at Officer Thomas, and I peered out over the street, and I felt quite frightened then, because I didn’t know what to say. A truck was parked on the other side of the street. It had an advertisement on the side for cheap dime store rings. So I said: “Yes. He had rings on one finger. A whole lot of rings. Seven or eight.”

“On one hand?” Officer Thomas squinted harder.

“Yes.” I nodded, still staring at the truck across the road.

“All right, kiddo. Ma’am?” He tipped his cap at mama. “I’ll be going. Thank you for your time.”

We watched him go down the steps, looking at his pad where he had written down everything I said, and when he put his head up my heart gave a little jolt because I was sure he would notice the truck with the rings on its side, and turn around and come back and take me to the police station. But he didn’t. He got in his shiny blue police car and drove away.


The officer had lied, of course. Nothing serious meant Anna-May was dead. No one knew quite how she died, but either she fell or someone pushed her, and there were bruises on her arms, they said, that could be from thick gloves. Or rings.


The police came to my house again, after everything blew up, after the whole town knew and everyone was scared and crying. This time there were two officers and they asked me many, many questions, sometimes twice to see if I would trip up. I did.

“You said the man was wearing all white and a white hat?”


“Last time you said he wasn’t wearing a hat.”

“Oh, he wasn’t. Sorry. He didn’t have a hat.”

“All right. And rings? He was wearing rings.”

“Yes. Lots.”

The officers took my fingerprints and left, and I thought about the map I had drawn for Anna-May, and hoped no one would ever find it.


They caught a man in a dirty white coat up by the railroads, a drifter from Mississippi. He had no family. He had a bad eye, and a bad mouth, and nobody missed him. They hanged him.


I was in the newspaper the next day. I was everywhere, and people tried to get me to tell them things, and I started crying in front of all those flash bulbs and microphones, and everyone thought it was adorable and tragic because Anna-May and I had been such good friends, but they didn’t know. I didn’t give a fig for Anna-May being dead. I cared about me, and it was almost as if I had made the chalk man come alive and he had killed Anna-May, and it confused me something fierce.

The truth of the matter is, (or, I should say, the way most people would normally think) was that there was no chalk man. There was only Anna-May and me, and a world full of dreadful people, and that world caught Anna-May the way it catches lots of folk. A man in a white coat was hanged for no reason. Maybe Anna-May tripped following my stupid map, or maybe a murderer went on his merry way, and no one looked at him twice, because maybe he was wearing checkers and orange polka-dots, and I had said he was wearing white. Either way someone died because of me.

But that’s not what I believe. If you believe in something, it’s true, isn’t it? For me it is. Maybe for Anna-May it was, too.


Once there was a powerful girl, though she didn’t know it.

It wasn’t that she could do anything extraordinary. No spells, no curses, no godly telekinetics.

There was simply a map. A hidden map. A map tucked away so deeply inside little pale, night-haired, night-eyed Susanna Gray that she never knew it was there.

Until it was.

She was Suz to her parents; Susie to her older brother; Zanna to her friends, who would never dare call her anything so ordinary as Susanna.

But she was ordinary, even though she desperately wished she wasn’t. She was the kind of girl who went peeking into wardrobes and hollowed-out trees, who clicked her heels together and chased after rabbits and tried so hard to move things with her mind that she had constant headaches, which kept her irritable and sour-colored. She was the kind of girl who tried jumping off of rooftops, hoping she would sprout wings, and ended up only with scraped skin and broken bones.

Susanna was entirely ordinary.

Until she wasn’t.


Once there was a map. It was just a plain map, as any map might be—curling, browned paper with shapes, roads, and cities drawn upon it in dark ink.

It had been drawn, rather hastily, by a famous cartographer, as a record of Everything That Was—right before the end.

For all the libraries, all the schools, all the courts and the cities . . . had been burned. Knocked into dust. Eaten away from the inside out. Imagine a way not just to die—for it was much worse than that—but to be, quite simply, erased.

Think of, if you will, a pair of conjoined twins—linked together and living off of only one heart. This poor, overworked heart can only last so long before . . . well.

They call it survival of the fittest. One twin lives, and one twin fades. And the lone heart beats on, unfeeling.

This is the way with some worlds, the way in which some worlds are linked. There are the worlds we can see, and touch, and taste . . . and the ones we cannot. At least, most of us cannot.

So it was with the cartographer’s home. One terrible night, he sat in his squat cottage on the edge of his city and watched helplessly as it disappeared. Or, more accurately, as it was . . . eaten.

But then, he wasn’t entirely helpless, was he? Our cartographer was no warrior, no leader, and no magician—but he could draw maps. Observing the shape of the world, measuring it, reproducing it on scrolls and globes and even, when he was feeling particularly ambitious, on three-dimensional models.

The cartographer was good at these things.

On that last, awful night, he therefore did the only thing he could do. He saw his city—the last city—being swallowed up. He heard the screams, and he smelled the smoke. He knew that there were now no more libraries, no more schools, no more official archives.

So he drew. Someone had to remember. Someone had to know what had once been.

He drew, and he drew. His hands shook, and his tears fell onto the paper, smearing the fresh ink, and sometimes his house quaked with the force of the thing pulling them all under, but on he drew.

On that last, long, dark night, he found courage in his pen.

And once the last jagged stroke had been drawn, he rolled up the map into a watertight tube, and fled.

He was not sure where to go—was there anywhere else left to go?—but he knew he needed to get away from the thing behind him.

What was it?

And that was the most terrifying part of this Last Year: That he didn’t know—that none of them had known—the cause or the nature of the thing that was killing them.


Maybe some had known.

No. Undoubtedly some had known. The scholars in the city. The binders in their towers. The elders in their temples.

But not lowly cartographers. Not merchants or bakers or seamstresses or farmers. No, the truth had been carefully kept from them.

And now it was too late.

Now there was nothing for it but to run away from the growing darkness, and toward the place on the horizon where there was still a strip of gray light.

The cartographer fixed this spot in his vision and tightened his grip on the tube in his arms.

Someone had to know. Someone had to remember. There had been too many beautiful things in his world for them to fade into oblivion.

Oblivion in the physical sense? Fine, fine. There was no stopping this thing from consuming them. He had to accept that.

But oblivion of the mind? Never. There was power in memory, of that the cartographer was certain.

Someone had to remember. Someone would. He would make sure of that.

And so onward he ran, encroaching blackness nipping at him like thousands of tiny, sharp, white-hot teeth.


On the same night the cartographer fled his home, there stood, a world away, in a much brighter and happier place, a little white house in a neighborhood that was respectable but not pretentious. There was a tidy garden out back, and a spotless white fence in the front. An arrangement of sycamore trees kept the house shaded in the warm months, and bright red flowers sat in clusters along the front walk.

A problem, though, on this bright, happy day, in this bright, happy house—the family car would not start.

This would have been a minor inconvenience on any other day. A call to the mechanic, a few grumbled curse words, an aggrieved assessment of the finances.

But today—today it seemed to the family rather catastrophic.

For young Mrs. Gray, it was the day she would be delivering her second child into the world. A girl. They knew it would be a girl. The wonders of modern medicine!

Modern medicine, of course, that Mr. and Mrs. Gray would have loved to take advantage of, on this clear summer’s day. They had not planned for her to have the baby at home. The idea frightened poor Mrs. Gray, who wept for her doctor.

“One of the neighbors can take us to the hospital!” their five-year-old firstborn, Elliot Gray, suggested.

But the street appeared to be completely abandoned—there was a festival in town that day, in honor of the approaching summer solstice.

“Let’s call Grandmother!” Elliot cried.

But she would not answer her phone. Neither would any of their friends.

(Dead. Napping. In a very important business meeting. Watching television with the volume turned up as high as it would go. Angry at the Grays for letting their dog wander unleashed, staring at the ringing telephone with a sullen, stubborn expression.)

(Isn’t it funny, how coincidences can pile up?)

(Or are they coincidences at all?)

“A taxi! We can call a taxi!” Elliot said finally, desperate.

They tried—but it would not arrive in time.

And so, Mrs. Gray screamed and gripped her husband’s hand, and Elliott stood right outside the door, ready to help if he could, tears filling his eyes at the sound of his mother’s pain.

Hating his soon-to-be-born sister with all his might.

It wasn’t enough that she had to be born at all, and change absolutely everything. No, she had to come into the world like this.

If anything happened to his mother, anything at all . . .

And we can’t blame five-year-old Elliott for the thoughts that came into his head. Violent thoughts, they were—startling and vivid. He was afraid, after all. And if it meant that his mother would survive the day, and that she would stop screaming in this way that made her sound not like his mother at all—why then, he cared nothing for the baby. He didn’t know her; she didn’t know him. She had no face, not even a name—not yet.

So what would it hurt, if he wished horrible things upon her?

Just to save his mother. Only that.

He sat on the ground, his back to the door, piles of clean washcloths at his feet, and wept, and clenched his fists, and prayed, in a jumbled, five-year-old sort of way, for something terrible to happen. Something mighty.

Something that would hurt his sister.


It’s funny, how the heart of the worlds works—that beating heart, joining all things together.

The binders of the cartographers’ world called it sapientia. Some, in other worlds, called it God. And still others called it magic. Whatever name one calls it, it is that darkest, deepest, mightiest of powers that magicians try to capture with spells and musicians try to infuse into their songs and scientists try to uncover by smashing particles together.

It can hear the thoughts of women and men—frantic prayers, desperate wishes; people caught in heartbreak or grief or war or hunger—and do nothing at all.

It can hear the muddled, confused cries of a child, and become unpredictably, deeply interested.

So did the heart of the worlds hear the murderous thoughts of young Elliott Gray, and shift, and thrum, and pulse. And laugh to itself, in its pitiless way. Not out of malicious pleasure, but simply because, even after so many countless ages, it could still find ways to surprise itself.

And all it took was that one moment—that little extra pulse of force. Like an arrhythmia of the human heart—a fluttering, a jolt, a skipping step out of the normal tempo of things.


You want something to hurt your sister, Elliott Gray?

Then you shall have it.

Why not?


And would everything have happened as it did, if the worlds’ heart had ignored Elliot Gray’s pleas, on that sparkling gem of a summer’s day?

Would circumstances and coincidences have knit themselves together in different patterns, ultimately leading to the same conclusion?

Who is to say?

Maybe the heart of the worlds would know. But it would never tell.


The cartographer had been running for hours. His feet bled, his lungs burned, and his throat was raw from screaming.

The thing. It was following him. It was toying with him. It could have caught him long ago, but instead had chosen to play with him like a fat, smug cat—batting him with its claws on occasion, pinning him to the ground with a hot weight like a thousand summer storms, and then letting him go once more.

Run, little man, the thing seemed to taunt, with a rumbling sound that the cartographer seemed to feel rather than hear. Like a shifting, pounding, scraping presence rather than a voice. Run, if you want. It makes no difference to me.

But the cartographer had found his courage. The slight, familiar weight of his pens, the solid weight of the tube and map in his hands, the smell of his burned city stinging his nostrils—these things kept him running toward the graylit horizon.

And running. And running.

He vomited, he sobbed, he stumbled—but he did not stop.

And then, at last, it was as though the world shifted beneath him—just the slightest shift, like an apathetic shrug. It was enough for him to slide along the ground, lose his footing, step into what felt like the hole of a rabbit.

He fell, and the tube slipped forward into this hole, and was sucked clean of him.

And with the map gone, some sliver of power escaped the world forever, and without this lost sliver, these devoured lands could not ever truly die. And the thing, the ravenous thing that had been chasing the cartographer, realized too late what had happened.

It roared, it shook, it threw itself on the cartographer, smothering him—burning him, hurting him—in a fit of rage. It would rage for years, for decades, and then it would stop, and then it would begin its real work.

But that was later, and this was now.

Soon, the cartographer was gone, as was most everything else of this world—except for the map, and the sliver of power it contained. Except for that. Gone, but still somewhere. Not dead. Not destroyed. Not eaten.

Such a little, ordinary thing, a map.

Until, one day, it wasn’t.


Elliott Gray sat huddled against the door of his parents’ bedroom. He had cried so much, keeping it muffled so as not to alarm his parents, that his throat ached as though he had been screaming for hours.

Then, the bedroom behind him fell silent, and three things happened in rapid succession:

A bright light flashed across his entire field of vision.

A sour smell flooded the air, burning Elliott’s nose, settling a taste upon the back of Elliott’s tongue like he had eaten a rotten vegetable.

And a strange, old-fashioned looking pen with a sharp nib appeared on the floor at Elliott’s feet.

He reached for it hesitantly. How very odd it was, with that curling, singed feather sitting on the top of it. Like something too old to belong in this world.

It was hot to the touch, and when Elliott held it, the house seemed to tilt around him—first one way, and then the other way, before righting itself and becoming level once more.

Alarmed, Elliott’s heart began to pound. What had just happened? Had there been an earthquake? He wanted his parents, but he couldn’t possibly bother them now—


Silence, in the bedroom behind him.

Without thinking of what he might see or what his parents would want him to do, Elliott jumped to his feet and flung open the door, a cry ready to burst from his lips.

Mr. and Mrs. Gray looked up at him tiredly from the bed.

“Come in, darling,” Mrs. Gray whispered. “Come in and meet your sister.”

And as Elliott Gray crept toward the bed, and gazed down at his red-faced, squinty-eyed little sister, and realized that in fact his mother was going to be fine, all thoughts of murdering sisters faded away in an instant (as is the way with five-year-olds), and he found himself grinning.

He even leaned low over his sister and kissed her wrinkled forehead. In response, she shifted in her blankets and made a soft, grunty noise that made Elliott’s heart swell.

What an odd child she was, with those black eyes, wide and serious, as if they saw everything and understood it for what it was. She cried not at all—no screaming, no fussing. Just soft, wondering noises as she gazed up at the world and took it all in.

The family sat quietly together, smiling and bewildered and tired, and it was some time before Mr. Gray remembered to say, “Say, did you see that flash of light, a few moments ago? I could have sworn I saw something like that. Like a lightning flash, only . . . only there’s not a cloud in the sky.”

“Might have been light reflecting off a car outside,” Mrs. Gray suggested, yawning, smiling, gazing starry-eyed at the child in her arms.

But Elliott knew it wasn’t either of those things.

He couldn’t have explained how he knew, but there was something about that pen he found, wasn’t there? And how the world seemed to tilt when he held it? There was something in his gut when he thought about these things—something that snagged onto him and tugged.

That flash of light had definitely been something . . . else.

But after a day of tending to his mother and listening to his father make loads of phone calls and napping and eating and playing with his baby sister, Elliott forgot to think further on the subject.

When he pulled off his clothes before bed that night, he realized that the pen was no longer in his pocket. There was only a bit of dust—black dust that glittered in the glow of his nightlight.

He thought it was weird. He most certainly did. Anyone would have.

But he was tired, and he was five years old. And he woke up the next day with the memories of the pen and the tilting world as only ghosts of shadows in his mind.

And soon, he forgot about these oddnesses entirely.


He couldn’t have known—none of them could have—what had really happened.

That the heart of the worlds—God, magic, the sapientia; whatever one might decide to call it—had heard Elliott Gray’s pleas and decided, on an inexplicable whim, to answer.

That the flash of bright light was a sign of something leaving one world, and entering another.

That often, when things pass between worlds, they . . . change.

That a map made of paper and ink can become a map made of skin and blood.

That at the precise moment Elliott was wishing for his sister’s death, a bleeding, sweating, half-dead cartographer was running toward him from another world.

Elliott Gray couldn’t have known that at the moment his sister took her first breath in their world, a cartographer took his last breath in another.

And that the map in the cartographer’s hands slipped from one world to another and became . . .

And became . . .

Elliott Gray couldn’t have known that when his little sister first opened her eyes, she already had a map—a powerful map, the last relic of a dead world—written into her skin, into her very self, with her own blood.

That the map was hidden, but that one day it would surface.

That his sister would be hunted for the secrets written on her skin. That she would be desired for them, and prized for them, and hated for them.

When Elliott Gray wished for something to hurt his sister, he couldn’t have known that his wish would come true—and certainly not like this.


Many quiet years later, Susanna Gray was twelve years old.

It was an oppressive summer’s day, much muggier and hazier than the one on which Susanna was born. She was scrolling idly through a collection of images online—images of celebrities, models, movie stars, landscapes, fantastical images—not really seeing or caring about any of them.

Her skin was sticky with sweat. She lay on her bed beneath the ceiling fan, the blinds pulled closed and a buzzing whorl of impatience building in the back of her throat. With each passing day, the world seemed less remarkable to her. It was full of computers and televisions and phones that served as both, and people who saw but didn’t see, and too much noise and too much violence.

It was not a beautiful world. And, oh, how she longed for a beautiful world!

As she gazed, blank-eyed, at her phone, her skin began to itch. She scratched her leg, her arm.

It began to itch more severely. She rubbed her back against the bedcovers like a restless cat.

Then her skin crossed from itching to stinging. Susanna sat up, examining her bare arms and legs. She didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but something was obviously and horribly wrong. It was as though she had suffered a series of bug bites, and then scratched them too much so that they became sore—but she couldn’t see any of them. Her skin looked as it always did.

The stinging sensation magnified, seeming to rise up from within her, until she found herself huddled, panting, on the floor.

Burning. She was burning. She had the bizarre thought that intricate patterns of molten wire were pressing up against her skin from the inside out. Branding her.

Susanna had never been burned before, but she had imagined it many times, being a girl of a vivid and somewhat dark-leaning curiosity—and none of her imaginings had ever come close to this.

She tried to scream and couldn’t.

Her body seized, arching up off of the floor as though she were being pulled up by a hot cord jabbing into her stomach. Her vision turned black and hot; even the dark space behind her eyes seemed to sizzle like coals in a fire.

She lay there for hours—or at least what felt like hours—caught in a merciless fist of heat and pain, unable to move or speak. She felt her skin rippling and shifting as though the heat had melted it into a viscous puddle, being molded and reshaped around the easel of her bones.

All the while, her thoughts ran in an endless loop: “I will die here. I am dying. I am dead.” For a long time, the pain and her certainty of death were all she knew.

And then . . .

“Well, that had to have smarted a bit, eh?”

Though it felt like prying apart mountains, Susanna managed to open her eyes. Above her, she saw a boy, perhaps a bit older than she was, extending his hand toward her.

“Get away from me,” she croaked, trying to scoot away, ignoring the screaming pain of her skin against the carpet. “Who are you?”

“A friend. Promise.” The boy flashed a diamond grin.

“Where . . . ?”

“Where did I come from? Right. Well, this is the slightly awkward part. I’ve been watching your house for a while now. I mean, not only me. I’m part of a team. Although team is a bit too official-sounding for our group. We’re more like . . . an assortment? A lot? A gang!”

Susanna made an impatient sound.

“I’m going on too long, aren’t I? Right. So here’s the thing. Might as well get right to it.” The boy blew out a breath, his cheeks puffing. “You’ve a map on your skin. In your skin. In your blood? They really shouldn’t have sent me for this. I’m only just learning, you know? But they thought, me being close to your age, it’d be easier for you.”


Then Susanna looked at her arms—and screamed. Or tried to scream, but her throat hurt too much for such a sound to escape it. She swiped at her skin, trying to brush away the wriggling, dark shapes that shifted and slid along the angles of her limbs, but each slight touch burned her fingers. She tried to move—to run, but run where? How can you run away from yourself?—but her legs gave out, and she stumbled.

The boy stepped toward her. “Easy now—”

Susanna found the strength to shove herself back. “Get away from me!”

“Look, I know this is startling—”

“Shut up!”

Then, a gust of air from the window. A chilled feeling oozing across the room like a spreading oil slick.

Both Susanna and the boy turned to see a tall, thin man with neat gray hair watching them. The suit he wore sat uncomfortably about his frame, as though any moment it might fly off of him. He must have climbed in through the window, but—so soundlessly? And from where?

“Get out,” Susanna hissed, wanting to lunge at him, push him right out of the window, but unable to move. Instead, she leaned against the chair at her desk.

The thin man watched her efforts dispassionately. “Is she ready then?”

“Near enough,” said the boy.

“Ready for what?” Susanna rasped. “What’s—what’s happening to me?” She would not cry, though it hurt, though everything hurt, and though her skin was dark with skittering, slithering shapes that moved in and out of her clothes, lazily, as though they floated on the surface of unseen water.

“You’re the Scrollskin,” answered the man, in a voice as flat and toneless as any Susanna had ever heard. His gray eyes flitted down her body and back up. “And you’re going to lead us home.” He paused. His mouth thinned, nearly imperceptibly. “Hurry up. We’re waiting.”

Then he turned and climbed out the window—swiftly, all arms and legs, like a giant, suited spider—and was gone.

The boy smiled ruefully. “Sorry about that. Binders are out of their heads most of the time. It’s hard for them to act normal. Or even kind of normal.”

Susanna could not stop staring at her arms, for she was beginning to see a sort of rhyme and reason to the shapes now covering her. They weren’t just random shapes, as they had appeared in those first few panicked moments.

They were rivers. Mountains and forests. Cities and oceans.

They were a map.

She looked up, meeting the boy’s bright eyes.

“I don’t understand,” she whispered. “What is this? And why—?”

A banging noise interrupted her—sharp, sudden. Someone on the other side of her closed bedroom door, pounding and pounding.

“Elliott?” Susanna cried. “Mom! Dad!”

No one answered. The pounding increased in volume and tempo.

Spitting an unfamiliar string of words, the boy grabbed Susanna’s arm. At his touch, the map immediately vanished, leaving her skin blank—but Susanna could still feel it, shifting there, just beneath her surface. Hiding. Waiting.

The boy drew his lips tight. “Good. That will protect you, at least a little. Now, come on.”

He pulled her toward the open window, but Susanna dug her heels into the carpet. “My parents—my brother—”

“No time! We’ll come back for them.”

Susanna’s thoughts careened wildly. “Do you promise?”

Yes. Now, move!”

They were at the window, and Susanna wanted to turn back, to fight, to protest, but she was too weak to resist, her body still throbbing and aching from the—from the what?

From the map. That much she knew.

She did manage, once she and the boy hit the ground and began to run across her front yard, to turn back once. Only once.

It was enough.

Some . . . thing . . . was inside her house. Something she could not quite get a fix on, but that was nevertheless shifting the planes of her house as though they were not rooted to the ground at all, but rather simply a flimsy hodgepodge of house-like parts. A child’s tower of blocks, teetering on an unsteady table.

The chimney stretched, bent, toppled. The walls collapsed inward, heaved, and shot out at strange angles, like whatever was inside had many quarreling, tugging hands.

She should turn back. She should try to get her family out of the house before it was too late.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t. The hot wriggling mess beneath her skin that she knew to be the map tugged her onward, a petulant child eager for sweets.

Hurry, it whispered—inside her mind, across and around the slopes of her skull. We must go faster. Hurry, child. Go faster, you idiot girl.

Eyes stinging with indignant tears, shaking with fear for her family, Susanna had no choice but to follow the map’s whispers, to obey the map’s burning will.

The boy with the diamond grin ran beside her. The suited, gray-haired man ran ahead of her. And all around her, other shapes raced through the night—short, fat, tall, thin. People-like shapes. Most of them.

An assortment. A lot. A team!


Whoever they were, they would soon need to answer some questions for her, or she would take herself and her map of skin and run off into the night (if she even could, if the map even let her), and run and run, so they would never find her. And then how would they get home?

Where was home for them?

What was that thing in her house?

And her parents . . . her parents! And Elliott. Obnoxious, hilarious, smelly-footed Elliott. What had she done, leaving them there?

Was it so wrong, to have wanted an extraordinary life?

Never, the map whispered, the thin, unseen fingers of a river stretching lazily, lovingly, around Susanna’s neck. It is never wrong to want more than what you are.

Something about those words chilled Susanna—not a shiver of her skin, for that was still simmering hot, but a shiver of her deepest self, so that she felt newly unsteady, and afraid.

She thought, then, as she ran, of all the times she had peeked inside wardrobes, searching for adventure—and laughed a mad laugh into the night air. An unhinged, breathless laugh that made the boy with the diamond grin glance over at her in concern.

And the map, unheard by all but Susanna, laughed, too.

Such an ordinary map and an ordinary girl, they had once been.

Until they weren’t.

X Marks the Spot

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

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

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

Now that was more like it.

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

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

Which, obviously, marks the spot.

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

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

Brendan snapped the book shut and ran down the stairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you doing?”

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

“Don’t worry about it,” he said.

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

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

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

“You’re not invited,” said Brendan.

“Oh, come ON, though!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” said Maika, “I do.”

Then she turned her back and walked away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just in case.

Here There Be Dragons

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

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

And no one could leave.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

But if it was…

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

She jumped. “Who said that?”

No answer came.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The House of Many People

“Victorian photograph, circa 1880”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Dom, hurry yourself up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His match fizzled out. He lit another.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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