Liril opens her eyes into drowsy awareness of the plaster-popcorn ceiling above her. It is a rich mosaic, webbed with tiny cracks and falling kernels. Its color is not so much pure white as eggshell, samite, cream. The people of the Meddir Plains, whose histories have long been lost to all the nations of the world, would have read prophecies and portents in that ceiling, would have traced its intricate and mazy contours as if they were the entrails of bleeding slaves, and would have spoken long scriptures on the sacred mysteries of the world. She is Liril. She does not do this. She simply says, in a short small voice, “Of all the nights and days to come, I think this is the strangest.”
“I don’t like leaving you,” Micah says. He’s wearing jeans. He’s wearing a shirt. It’s the faded color of a dying emerald.
“You have errands to run,” Liril says.
And so he does.
In the musty, sweaty home of their friend Matthew, where the curtains drape darkly over yellowing windows, he gathers a cage and a long-legged tarantula. He croons to it, speaking the words and invocations that only a few rare boys know; not known to him, they were, not before that week, but Micah has studied the arts of his enemies. The spider moves with languid, heat-borne sloth across the bottom of its cage, and he thinks it has agreed.
To the great tall grocery with its echoing aisles he goes, and in the chill exhaled by its vents and casements picks out his supplies; and counts his change; and when he finds he does not have enough, he steals, and leaves the store chased by the sonorous ringing of its bells. It is more within his conscience to steal from such a hoard than permit Liril to go hungry on the days ahead.
He goes into the basement and takes down from the wall the Thorn That Does Not Kill, and shudders at its touch. He brings the Thorn and spider to Liril, and sets them down, and says, “My hands feel slimy.”
“Go,” Liril says.
“It’s late,” Micah says, and Liril nods. So he goes to his mother and says, “I have a sleepover.”
“I’m going out tonight,” she says. “I can’t leave Liril alone.”
“I know,” he says. “She says she wants John.”
His mother looks him over. “I thought you didn’t like him?” she says. Her voice is light and airy and suspicious.
“She says she wants John,” Micah says, voice clipped, and leaves; and she stands there, wondering, for a moment, staring after his shadow.
John! The foul, Micah’d called him once, and Tarnish John, though Green John was his name before. A neighbor’s child, once much admired, but now around him an unrighteous air; for he’d watch them when they were younger, and once had come to Liril’s bed; and though no harm had come of it—a shrieking Micah had fallen on his back, and set his knee upon John’s spine, and pulled hard his green-dyed hair—there was none of them as had forgotten. So one must understand, when he found himself called back, and heard that Micah was away, he took it as an invitation; and in the darkest hours of the night, when Liril had put herself to bed, John takes himself again to Liril’s room. She rests, her blue eyes open wide, in the darkness; and a black splotch is on her pillow, next to her silver hair; so he brings himself through the door, and says, “We should play a game,” and, at her nod, he pulls himself atop the bed, his weight on hers, and there he freezes still.
“There is a tarantula,” he said, quietly, “on your other pillow.”
“I am very afraid of spiders,” Liril says.
“Then why are you sleeping with one?”
Fighting his weight, she wriggles to the side, and out the spiderless side of her bed, and stands. He is still. He does not move.
“I don’t like cages,” she says. “So I let it out. And it crawled there, and waited for you, like Micah asked. If you get up, it will crawl after you, and onto your skin, and up onto your face, and into your mouth.”
“I see,” he says.
“I’m not good at defending myself,” Liril says. “Not without Micah. But I knew you wouldn’t come back if he was here. And even if you did, he’d have to kill you.”
“It’s not a bad thing,” John says. “What I would do. It’s a good thing. It’s a game.”
“I know,” Liril says. She sits down in her chair. She puts Latch on her lap. She brushes Latch’s hair. She looks nervous. “I believe you.”
“Then . . .”
John moves, slightly. The spider takes a hesitant, whisper-soft step. Then another. John makes a muffled noise.
“I am leaving,” Liril says. “But it made me sad to leave you.”
“Because when you look at people,” she says, “your eyes don’t focus quite. And your movements end sharply, like they’ve been cut off by a knife. And you play games, and I’m not ready for them yet, but you shouldn’t be ready for them either. And because I used to like you, Green John.”
“My hair isn’t green any more,” he says. “It’s black.”
“So I want to change you,” she says. “But you have to agree.”
There’s an indefinable tension in his form, but he shakes his head. “No way.”
“Ah,” she says. She puts Latch down. She stands up. She goes to her dresser. She opens the drawer. She reaches in. “I’m sorry,” she says.
“No,” he says. “No way. I am fine,” and then he is on his feet, and he is on her, and the spider moves like exquisite treacle, taking one step at a time along the long bed towards the two. But Liril has the Thorn That Does Not Kill in her hand, and has turned as he came towards her, and now its point protrudes from his back and his eyes are hollow wells full of pain, and the thick clear substance of his heart is oozing out through back and chest.
“When I was young,” Liril says, “a monster put this through the right side of my neck, and it came out my mouth, and pushed my tongue to the side, and my volition went still and quiet, and I have been at peace.”
She pushes him back, and he sits on the bed. The spider draws closer. Liril pulls out the Thorn.
“Your heart is damaged,” she says. “I can leave you this way, or I can finish.”
“I didn’t consent,” he says.
“You want me to fix you?” Liril says. She tilts her head to one side. Her eyes itch, and she rubs them in distraction. “You want me to make you what you were, so you can hurt me more?”
John puts his hand over his chest, trying to hold in the liquid of his heart. “Your moral standing,” he says, “is not clear.”
The spider reaches the butt of his pants. It hesitates, there, waving one leg with a dozen tentative intents.
“That’s true,” she says. Her hand wavers on the Thorn.
The spider crawls around and takes its first, tentative step onto his leg. John hesitates. “So we compromise,” he says. His voice is strange; in it, she recognizes first terror, then resignation, and finally a rusty and piquant generosity. It falls on her like a weight, for she knows with that third emotion that he recognizes the balance of power in the room, and that not all of it is hers.
“One year,” she answers.
There’s a creaking, elsewhere in the house. Liril’s face goes white.
“Done,” he says.
Liril strikes, twice, with the swift and jerky movements of panic, and the thorn breaks both John’s eyes. Then there’s a rush of strangeness in the room, and the spider—terrified despite the knowledge of superiority bred carapace-deep into that eight-legged kind—scurries with swift resolution away.
For the first time, he screams, a rough and terrible sound, like the taking flight of crows; and there’s a pause; and then Liril’s mother flings wide the door.