Jane has a candle.
The candle sits on Jane’s desk. It never burns out. It fills the sphere of her little world with light. Next to the candle there’s a stuffed rabbit, white and well-loved. On the desk there’s a book. It’s a magic book, and it says different things every day. One day it gives thirty-seven good reasons to value dental hygiene. The next, it tells a fabulous story of dragons and knights. There’s always something new to discover.
In the morning, Jane wakes up. She takes a bath. She eats Cheerios. Then she goes to the crooked woman and asks, “Can I go outside today?”
Usually, the crooked woman says, “No.” On those days, Jane reads her book or plays games. The dust bunnies wage a war against the stuffed bunny, and Jane is the finest general either side has ever seen.
Some days, the woman says, “Yes.”
“Yes,” she says, today. “Go. Fetch me some teeth.”
Jane frowns. “Are you out already?”
“I go through them awfully fast,” the woman admits. “It’s because modern teeth are so low-quality.”
Jane makes a rueful expression. It’s true. They don’t make teeth like they used to.
“So, git,” the woman says.
Jane goes up the stairs. She opens the door. She blinks in the light.
It’s a bit too bright. But Jane likes it, outside, in the big world.
She walks down the street. She smiles at the people. Everyone’s happy. She reaches the end of the street. The light turns green. The sign flashes WALK. Jane’s pretty sure this is the coolest thing ever, so she waits and watches. The light turns red. The sign flashes DON’T WALK.
“Isn’t that cool?” she asks someone. He’s standing next to her. He raises an eyebrow. It’s pretty clear he has no idea how to respond.
“The light, I mean,” she clarifies. “It’s not a living thing, but it communicates in words, and it cares about whether people get hit by cars.”
“I guess,” he agrees.
“Getting hit by cars is a massive systemic shock that can cause discomfort, fainting, lowered body temperature, sweating, pallor, and even death,” Jane points out. “It’s best to avoid it!”
“That’s very good,” he says. He looks around for Jane’s mother. The light turns green. The sign flashes WALK. He hurries across. Jane follows.
The sidewalks are very clean, in the big world. The buildings are old but sturdy. Jane sees a dog sniffing at a fire hydrant.
“I know what you’re doing!” she says. “You’re curious about the meat content and hormonal balance of other dogs that have urinated on that hydrant!”
The dog looks up at Jane. It cocks one ear.
“Carry on,” Jane says, suavely. “Carry on.”
The dog pants. Then it shakes itself and runs away.
There’s a bird sitting on a telephone pole. There are people all around her, bustling along.
Jane sits down on the steps of a building. “It’s like living in a picture book,” she says.
“TEETH!” shouts the crooked woman. It’s a distant, echoing sound. It’s very far away.
Jane hops to her feet. “I didn’t forget!” she says. “It’s just such a nice day.”
“AND SOME TOOTHPASTE,” the crooked woman shouts. She sounds mollified.
Everyone around Jane seems a bit disturbed. They hurry on, just a bit faster. They’re not used to hearing a woman shout, not so clearly, not from so very far away. But after a little bit, they relax. Things are okay again.
Jane strolls down the street towards the tooth store. Then she stops. She goes very still. She can hear something breathing.
She scans the street. She looks up and down. Then, deliberately, carefully, and slowly, she finds a random store—this one’s a small feminist bookstore named “Hippolyta”—and walks in.
“Well, hi,” says Shelley, looking up from behind the counter. She smiles at Jane. “Aren’t you a bit young to be out wandering alone?”
Jane closes the door carefully behind her. She looks around. Then she walks up to the counter. She looks up at Shelley.
“This town is like being in a picture book,” she says.
Shelley nods. “It’s very pretty.”
“But,” Jane says, “if you look outside the pages, there are ragged things.”
Shelley tilts her head to one side. “Ragged things?”
“You know,” Jane says. Then she holds up a finger. It’s a ‘shh!’ motion. Shelley is, obediently and condescendingly, quiet. There’s something outside. It walks by. Its footfalls are heavy. After a moment, Jane lowers her finger. She listens. “It’s all right now.”
“Are you hiding from your parents?” Shelley asks.
Jane sighs. It’s a long-suffering sigh. “I’m just out shopping for my guardian,” she says. “I’m buying her some new teeth. From the tooth store.”
“Oh!” Shelley says. She thinks. “That’s right, I’ve seen it a few blocks down. I’ve never gone in. I don’t really need teeth for much.”
“They’re good for recipes,” Jane says. “And for gnawing on things that you don’t want to taste. Like, stuff that’s been dead too long, or skunks.”
Shelley ponders. “I’ve heard that some people actually eat skunks,” she says. “I mean, after removing the musk gland.”
Jane thinks about that. “I guess that would work,” she agrees.
“So,” Shelley says, obdurately, “from whom are you hiding?”
Jane waves one hand about. From her expression, it looks as if the gesture helps her find words.
“Nobody ever suffers here,” Jane says. “Right?”
Shelley nods. “It’s not supposed to happen. Not in the big world. Nobody ever suffers here.”
“But sometimes,” Jane says, “there are mistakes.”
Shelley makes a wry face. “Yeah.”
“Do you know what that means?”
Shelley thinks. “I’ve never seen it,” she says. “But sometimes, I’ve seen weak places. Places where the big world wasn’t very whole. Places where there’s something ragged in the air, something raw, something hurt.” She gestures to the shelves. “Most of the books are about little worlds,” she says. “Or about happiness. But a few of them talk about the raw places. I don’t know what causes them, though.”
“Ragged things,” Jane says.
Shelley has an odd look on her face. It’s a little bit patronizing and a little bit uncomfortable. It’s like the look the man had, back at the street light.
“They live outside the storybook world,” Jane says. “They’re not supposed to come in. But sometimes, there are mistakes. They come in. And they pull someone away. They’re heavy. You can hear them walking. And they breathe funny. I can hear it from a long way away.”
Jane looks outside through the plastic door. “And in the wrong places,” she says, “they can just come in. Any time they want. It doesn’t take a mistake. They can just come in.”
Jane opens the door. She looks up the street. She looks down the street. “Thank you,” she says.
“Have a good day,” Shelley says. “Come again.”
Jane slips out. She walks down the street.
There’s a conjunction of shadows in the alley off to the left. Jane looks at it carefully. She’s not sure if it’s a wrong place.
She hurries towards the tooth store.
There’s a brick building to her left. A gargoyle scowls down from its roof. It’s a bad design choice. Jane’s not sure if it’s a wrong place.
She hurries towards the tooth store.
The sun is high overhead. It’s baking the trash cans on the street. It’s making the sidewalk hot. Jane looks carefully at a crack in the sidewalk. Then she shakes her head and moves on.
She’s not even looking when it happens.
A man is walking down the street. He steps on the crack. There’s an eddying and an oozing. There’s a stomping and a breathing. There’s a ragged thing. It clutches him in its hands. It takes him away. Jane doesn’t move. She doesn’t turn. It takes her a long five second count before she even dares twitch her head a little to the left, and look as far as she can with the corner of her eye, to make sure that the ragged thing is gone. Then she runs.
The tooth store has a big plastic tooth above the door. Jane stops in its shadow. She gathers her composure. Then opens the door and walks in. There’s a chime. There’s a gap-toothed old woman behind the counter who grins at Jane.
“Why,” she says, “it’s my best customer!”
Jane looks sulky. “I don’t get that many teeth,” she says.
The old woman giggles. “But you brighten my day,” she says, “so that makes you a better customer than old Mr. Fogle.”
“Oh!” Jane says. She beams. “That’s all right, then.”
The old woman comes out from around the counter. She pokes Jane’s teeth. “Yours doing okay?”
“Very well,” Jane says. “Thank you, ma’am.”
The old woman taps her head, thinking. “Can you make the noise?”
Jane rolls her eyes. Then she smiles. Ting!
“Pretty good,” the old woman says. “Pretty good. But you still need practice.”
“Ha!” Jane says. “I’ll go against you any day!”
The old woman grimaces and bares her teeth. TING!
There’s a silence.
“Okay,” Jane admits, “I can’t top that.” She thinks. “I guess twenty teeth should do me?”
“They’re cheaper in packs of twenty-four,” the old woman says.
“Okay,” Jane says. “Twenty-four, then.”
The old woman goes back behind the counter. She begins counting out teeth. “One, two, three, four, five . . .”
“Ma’am,” Jane says, “where do the ragged things come from?”
The old woman looks at Jane.
“I know you know,” Jane says. “You’re magic.”
The old woman looks wry. She counts out the sixth and seventh teeth, silently. “They go to special schools,” she says.
Eight, nine, ten, eleven. “They teach them how to be ragged things,” the old woman says. “And how to go outside the big world.”
Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.
“So they learn,” the old woman says.
“And they go outside.”
“And they lurk outside the pages of our picturebook world.”
Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one.
“And when they think it’s a good idea,” the old woman says.
“They have snatchy claws,” the old woman says, in explanation. She pushes twenty-four teeth across the counter. “That’ll be fourteen dollars and seventeen cents.”
Jane counts out the money. She puts it on the counter. The old woman takes it.
“Do they all need special schools?” Jane asks.
“Nope,” the old woman says. “Some people turn into ragged things on their own. And some are just born that way.”
“Oh,” Jane says. She pockets the teeth. “I have a pocket full of teeth,” she says.
“It can even happen if you forget to brush,” the old woman notes. “It’s just one more reason for good dental hygiene!”
“Wow,” says Jane, in a soft tone of awe. “That’s thirty-eight.”