Oh, Harold Dear (I/I)

It is 1981 and Liril is in a terrible place.

She is in a room bulked out with shadows. She is in terror and the dark. She is scratching, desperately scratching, to get her name down on the wall.

In case she forgets.

In case she forgets, or everyone else forgets, and there’s never anything more to show that she exists, just a name written on the wall.

LIRIL.

Tomorrow they’ll move her to a different room, and she’ll stare at the place where she scratched her name, and the writing won’t be there.

[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]


May 28, 2004

Now in the Latter Days of the Law the heart may not know the true doctrine; so rightly it may be said that this sunlit afternoon in May is the winter of the world.

Grey clouds shadow the brightness of the sky.

The clouds scuttle in clumps, this way and that, their movements driven by the wind.

It is May 28, 2004, and Liril is in a terrible place, and before it is Melanie’s army.

There are failing-gods and flying-gods. There are great stretchy gods drawn in crayon. There is a terrible black dog. There are twelve humans worth the fearing. There are twenty humans who are not—secretaries, psychologists, a system administrator, and the like, who had collaborated with the monster and survived but gained no measure of his power.

There is a ragged thing.

There are footsoldiers and two contemners. There is a long-legged beast and a scarab bomb. There are remembering gods, and an angel and a half, and fiends in a motley crew.

And then there are four more fearsome than this host: Threnody, whose nametag notes that she wields the lightning; Vincent, whose heart is pure; that crooked tyrant labeled “The Keeper of the Wheel;” and Melanie, cunning Melanie, most frightening of them all.

They are an ungainly force. They are escapees from a disaster and not an organized and deadly host. Still, they are an army, and the bulk of them are gods.

“In this place,” says Melanie to that host, “there is a girl more valuable than gold. She is enough to kill us all, I think, or to make us rich and powerful for all time.”

She is taking Vincent’s backpack off.

She is rummaging around inside.

He is surprised and disgusted to find the thoughtful things that she’s packed him for their journey.

A notebook. An apple. A few texts—Behavioral Psychology, and the like. Half of a ham sandwich. The other half she ate. And most disturbingly Harold’s head.

“If she is strong,” Melanie says, “we are in danger. If she learns strength, we are in danger. But she will not be strong.”

“Melanie,” Vincent says.

She hushes him.

“Hush,” she says.

“When—what—when did you even—“

She glances at him. She says, “When I was recovering my bike.”

Back before they’d been rousted out from Central, Melanie had biked to work every day. It’s normally a healthy and environmentally conscious habit, but in the end it had killed Harold and she’d nearly pulled a muscle leveraging his corpse off of her bike. Then she’d sawed off his head with her broken bike lock and left the rest of him there to rot, so in the end, it wasn’t a very healthy or environmentally conscious habit after all.

Also, she didn’t like to wear her helmet.

Vincent is still staring at her. It’s as if he hasn’t heard her explanation, or hasn’t parsed it.

“Two months ago,” Melanie says, “at the dinner party, he’d said that in an emergency, it was very important to keep his head. You were there.”

She opens the corpse’s mouth. She looks inside it clinically. She pushes on its nose. She rolls open one, and then the other eye, but they just close again.

She shrugs and looks back at the gathered host.

“Liril is broken,” Melanie says. “If she has recovered her will and spine at all, they’ll be no stronger than a twig.

“So we’ll shatter them. We’ll stomp her down. And then we shall rule this rotten world.”

“His head should be rotten,” Vincent protests.

What he wants to say is something about how shattering someone’s will is wrong. But he fails to do so. Harold’s head has distracted him completely.

Melanie shrugs.

She breathes into the corpse’s mouth and it jerks opens both its eyes.

“What—“

That’s Vincent’s voice. He’s terribly glad that it’s his voice. For a moment, he’d thought it would be the corpse’s.

Wasn’t it?

He’s suddenly not sure.

Melanie holds the head up high. She turns it to face the facility on Elm Hill. She says, “Oh, Harold, dear, you’re dead.”

And Harold screams.

The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die

The scream of Harold’s head is like a bird, at first; and then it is a horn; but Melanie has grit her teeth and put behind this deviant act the fullness of her strength, and she sinks that long shout low. It becomes a rumbling. It becomes an organ sound. It becomes a shaking of the earth, a burgeoning and world-completing and a trembling cry, resounding off the world and sound and sky.

There is only so much sound that one ought to be able to make with a single breath. This beyond that by a hundredfold.

There is an additional, secondary limit on the sound one can make.

And so eventually this sound goes still.

She has announced herself, has Melanie, her and the army of her gods; and she does not have long to wait.

There is a balcony on the seventh floor.

Micah comes out to stand on it. He looks down at them. He is pale. He is afraid.

Her heart gives a thump, because Micah’s there, and Liril’s not alone; and then the joy bubbles up inside her, it’s giggling out of her nose and wiggling in her throat, it’s crowing and burbling through her, and then it’s a rising force, how good it is, a rising force in her lungs and chest and heart, and she’s shouted out before she’s thought about it any a great shout of all triumph and sweet success.

He is afraid.

He is afraid.

He isn’t the defiant boy that once she met. He’s gone all pale and all weak. He’s standing there and his mouth is moving and she thinks he must still know her name;

But from the look on his face, he’s the kind of boy right then who only barely remembers his own.

Ink Entomological (XIV/XVI)

[The Island of the Centipede – Chapter Five]

The stickbug general could hide from death against a giant tree.

The ragged things would pass, looking for his wicked soul.

“He’s meant to die,” they’d say. “There’s a torment waiting.”

But they wouldn’t find him.

The ragged things wouldn’t find him. The angel of death wouldn’t find him. The God-Defying Lightbringing Yama King himself, rot his hide, wouldn’t find the stickbug general if he were hiding there against a giant tree.

He looks like a stick, you see.

He looks like a great big stick.

He loves that.

He loves that trick.

There are only three things that the stickbug general loves. One is stickbug sex. One is hiding against a giant tree. And the third is gorging himself on the flesh of children.

If there were a giant tree here, he could probably leave the girl be.

Or a female stickbug.

A known female stickbug, that is. Some of his soldiers are probably female. The larger ones, or the smaller ones, or something. It’s really hard to tell, since they all look like sticks, and he’s forgotten which of his soldiers are the best candidates.

If he knew which of his soldiers were female, why, then, he could probably leave the girl be.

But he doesn’t.

He doesn’t have a tree, and he can’t have sex, and he’s hungry.

There’s a girl on a road high above the ground, and she looks like food, and he’s hungry.

So he orders his soldiers to attack.

Undoubtedly dozens of his soldiers will die. Undoubtedly the girl will flail and the doctor behind her will flail and dozens or even hundreds of stickbugs will fall to their death.

He can live with that.

The fewer stickbugs survive, the fewer will share his feast.

Crack the earth.
Stir the sea.
From the west there comes an outpouring of good to make all things right.

Max sets out in his catamaran to bring this virtue to an end.
He’s owned his crime but he can’t make it right.
His crime is a poison.

It is the Latter Days of the Law.
The Buddha’s answer is fading.
It cannot stop the suffering of the world.

The knife of the legend of Mr. Kong
Reflects his answer:
“We must try to be good.”

But people always fight the things they love.

The Island of the Centipede

Everything is movement. The girl does not understand what has happened.

Why am I dangling from a road with anthropophagous stickbugs falling on me?

Sometimes in a fight things happen very fast and you can wind up in these positions without really understanding how they came to pass. Often it has a very simple explanation, like, “You rode a giant horror down to the bottom of the sea, where she cracked open the crust of the world and you fell through. Afterwards you decided to go back up through the crust of the world but got delayed by a wormy Minister, a rat with a sword and a doctor-King intent on human sacrifice. Then an orderly pulled a road out of his stomach and you jumped on to keep a crumbling ziggurat’s stone blocks from crushing you. Finally, giant stickbugs attacked you and you flailed and lost your balance, but managed to catch hold of the road with a hand and an elbow rather than fall all the way down and crack your head. So that’s why.” But that is a lot of data and the mind is very bad at organizing that much data while hanging from a sky-road with stickbugs falling on you. It is much cheaper in terms of cognitive resources not to understand—to ask the question, shrug, and just move on.

Why am I dangling from a road with anthropophagous stickbugs falling on me?

Answer: Because.

The rain of stickbugs slows.

June, Thursday 3, 2004 – Cronos: When the history begins Cronos is proud.

He should be.

He’s just cut off his father’s genitals and ascended to the throne of the world. And he’s righteous. Oh, how he’s righteous.

He’s got that smirk.

That “I am totally in the right here” smirk, like the one the monster wears.

But the smirk fades.

It fades, because the sky is so very big and the silence so very deep and the sin so hot, then cold, upon his hands.

The history begins.

Cronos stood naked beneath the stars.

“You are struggling,” says the general of the stickbugs.

He looks down on the girl.

“Why are you struggling, food?”

“I’m Ink Catherly,” says the girl.

“Consider,” says the general of the stickbugs. “The longer you struggle the more lives are lost.”

“I’m a destroyer,” says Ink.

“Why are the stickbugs ignoring me?” asks Dr. Sarous.

The general flicks an eye towards Dr. Sarous.

He shrugs.

“They’re terrible child-eating stickbugs of the deeps,” says Ink.

“Oh,” says Dr. Sarous.

“Why are you ignoring me?” she asks, quite properly, since she’s dangling.

“I’m a terrible child-ignoring doctor,” he says.

It is a sudden bursting insight in Ink’s mind. She suddenly understands. Dr. Sarous doesn’t like her very much.

“Is it even a crime,” he asks, “to eat a terrible God-defying imago, converting her into pious proteins, fats, and bones?”

“I’ll show you the cure for stepladder syndrome,” says the girl, and when he’s looking at her hand with involuntary attention she gives Dr. Sarous the finger.

Cronos stood naked beneath the stars.

There is so much fire, he thought. So much power.

The sky looked down.

“I am rendered impotent,” said the voice of his father. “Now there shall be nothing brought forth in all this world that does not know suffering, nor grow from the accursed ground; thistles and thorns and dust shall be your lot for all the generations of the world.”

It was not judging him.

Its words were flat and simple.

It was as if Uri were completing a syllogism; nothing more.

“You will rule this world,” said the sky. “But your son will take it from you.”

It was not even a curse.

“He will punish you for this deed, and you will bear the burden of that punishment until the end of time.”

Cronos licked his lips.

Defiantly, he said, “Is that the price, then, that even the least of us should know joy?”

The stars laughed at him.

It was the most withering of all experiences, Cronos thought, to have the entirety of Heaven laughing at one’s shame.

Ink struggles. She tries to pull herself up onto the road.

“Struggle is futile,” says the general of the stickbugs.

He is content to wait, just a bit longer. If the girl falls, some cavern-bottom creature might eat her first.

“I have a theory,” says Ink, gasping, “that I can manage something a little better than being stickbug food.”

“We waste energy opposing one another,” says the general. “It bleeds off into the environment as disorder. Dharma recedes; entropy prevails. Why cling to purpose in such a case as this?”

“We can certainly agree,” says Ink, dragging herself half onto the road and panting for ten seconds before the clause, “that it would much improve the world if, in a sudden burst of comity, all parties were to align themselves behind a single cause.”

“Debate is inconclusive; exhaustion will wear you to my preference,” the stickbug general decides.

He gestures; once again, the stickbugs leap.

“You accuse me of impropriety,” said the sky.

“They deserved better,” said Cronos. “The woglies; the siggorts; Ophion; they deserved better. To punish them so cruelly: that is the nature of your crime.”

“Beyond the boundaries of the world,” said Uri, who was the sky, “there is no ‘deserving’. Who may say whether the character of a man outside the world is good or bad? Who may say what should befall them for the deeds that they have done? There may be beauty there. There may be wonder, and hearts to give you joy, and creatures in whom I could find such virtues as your own. I do not know. I know only that there are horrors there beyond imagining, and insidious treason, and things that will corrupt this world; and you have given to them rein.”

“And they will know joy?”

“No,” the sky said, flatly.

“No?”

“A world with only the good may bring only the good to all within it. A world that is only perfection may bring perfection to all within it. But to permit the ungainly and the imperfect into paradise does not lift them up. It drags us down.”

Ink looks up.

She smiles.

It’s madness. But she smiles.

“Such marvelous mimesis,” she says.

She’s seen right through the stickbug general to his ability to hide against a giant tree. And he is almost, but not quite, tempted then to preen.

But there are two of them holding her now, and a third whose teeth close in: and rather than being eaten or captured for eating later, Ink shoves off against the road and falls.

  • Tune in on WEDNESDAY for the next exciting history of Minister Jof:
    MINISTER JOF AND THE FAILURE OF OTHERS TO MEET HIS STANDARDS.
    It’s a bone-chilling tale of terror!

Hitherby Annual #2 – Maundy Thursday (I/I)

Where did Sid come from?

Sid is born.

His body is vast. It is not human. It is beads of chaos clinging to a scaffolding of abstract form. It is a cacophony of shape, its endless muscles and organs twisting about aimlessly because the science of anatomy does not yet exist.

It is unapproachable because it is ringed in knives.

Someone tries to speak to Sid: they are cut.

Someone tries to touch Sid: they are cut.

In this fashion he is inaccessible within his riot and chaos of shape. But interwoven among the pieces of him, the gross flesh of him, there is the divine fire.

It gropes for selfhood and finds it.

Sid sorts impressions. He begins to understand the world. In a many-timbred voice he says, “Hey.”

A wind seizes him up.

Claws and hands surround him.

He is cast into a nebulous region, immured in direst bondage.

He is in that place of darkness and of emptiness that will be Siggort Town one day.

How did Max find “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things?”

It is many years later.

There is only once in all the histories of the conversations of Sid and Max when Sid admitted his nature as a burden upon him.

It is in 1992 and the sky is dark with clotted clouds.

Sid is looking after the back of a woman who has come this close to fulfilling the criteria for his destiny, and he says, “I think that the world has no place for siggorts.”

And Max looks at him.

“It’s a really cool world. And we are unworthy of it.”

Max points out, “It’s not like the humans are so great.”

Sid grins.

“Well,” he says, and gestures to show he cannot dispute the point.

And then he goes left, because he’s going to pick up some paint from the hardware store while he’s in town, and Max goes right, to the used bookstore.

Max shops. He finds an old Louis L’amour he hasn’t read. He finds the new Danielle Steel.

He looks at the special shelves next to the counter. He pulls down an odd-sized children’s book. It is called, “Prester Gee and the Ragged Things.”

It is brightly colored.

The proprietor of the used bookstore, one Dannon Cleim, says, “I wouldn’t.”

“Hm?”

“Reading that kind of thing,” says Dannon, “attracts their attention.”

“Oh.”

The cover shows a girl staring at a sign saying, “Wrong Place.” while something emerges from around a corner behind her.

Max finds it oddly fascinating.

“Someday,” says Dannon, “they will come for me. They will come from the air, from beyond the borders of the world where I live. And as they seize me I will hear the whispering of Ii Ma’s voice.”

“Yeah,” Max says, distractedly. “That happened to me once.”

Dannon’s jaw sets. He does not look pleased with Max. He says something truly spiteful, which is, “Well, you can buy it if you’d like.”

And so Max does.

Did Max worry too much about the nature of siggorts?

If Max were to see a vivisected corpse on the street he would fret terribly and wonder if Sid killed it.

Fortunately this never actually happens.

Max has never seen anyone vivisected except for that one time.

But sometimes there’ll be some tarp or something on the road and he’ll think it’s a vivisected body, just laying there.

That can happen when you’re worrying too much about the nature of siggorts.

How did Max find out about the place without recourse?

Max reads.

This is how the book begins:

“Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!”

There’s a picture of Prester Gee next to it. She’s a cheerful young woman but she is not very photorealistic.

Max turns the page.

“I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.”

Max admires the picture. It shows the ragged things taking Margerie away.

Then he begins to read in earnest.

He reads on right to the end.

Prester Gee and the Ragged Things

From the archives at Gibbelins’ tower.

Hello!

This is Prester Gee’s book.

I’m Prester Gee!

I had a friend named Margerie.

One day the ragged things came in and took her away.

She yelled so much!

They took her away through the cracks in the world.

I went right away to the Sheriff. He had a shiny badge. I told him, “Sir, they have taken Margerie.”

But he did not want to talk about it!

“Shoo,” he said.

He waved me away with his shooing gun.

I also talked to the Mayor.

I said, “Mr. Mayor, sir, they have taken Margerie.”

The Mayor said, “This is a city council meeting about dogs. I want to talk about dogs. I do not want to talk about your stinky Margerie!”

There was nothing I could do.

I had to apologize!

I even talked to Margerie’s husband. He’d taken off his wedding ring but you could still see where it was missing.

I said, “It was ragged things. They were big and red and their footsteps were heavy.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Margerie’s husband. “There are no things like that anywhere in the world.”

“Oh,” I said.

This made me very sad and I began to cry and he made me coffee. We did not talk about Margerie. We just drank coffee.

Eventually he cried too.

I guessed that maybe I’d made up Margerie all along. It is hard to believe in your reality when nobody else does.

But I kept seeing cracks in the world.

Sometimes strange things make what you know seem thin. Like a layer of puff pastry. The truth seems so thin you could crunch through it. You start to say, “I can’t trust me.”

You trust other people.

They’re smarter than you.

You say, “They probably know best!”

Everything looked like it was shaking in place, all the time, because I did not believe in myself. Also every shadow looked extra-dark and squirmy with unknown things.

And there were cracks.

They would be here or there. In my cupboard or under my stairs. I found a crack on the sidewalk once. I did not step on it. My mother was already dead but I thought, that could be so rude.

So rude!

She would be in Heaven playing her accordion and then I would step on a crack. Suddenly snap her back would break! All of the other angels would laugh and her accordion would whine, wee-guh, wee-guh, like sad accordions do.

I told a police man about the cracks.

I pointed him at one.

He said, “That’s very bad, ma’am!”

I was very embarrassed.

He blew his whistle. Beep! Beep!

“You have gone mad,” he concluded.

“Oh no!” I said.

I did not want to have gone mad.

I went to the hospital. All of the doctors in their white coats looked at me.

“You are not mad,” they said.

“I’m not?”

“No,” they said.

The doctors all smiled.

“You’re just corrupt!”

This apparently was better vis-a-vis state regulations. If I were mad then I would live in a padded room. But I was corrupt so they let me go back home.

My boss did not like me much. He said, “I heard about you and the hospital. I’m firing you, Prester Gee!”

I made a very sad face but he stuck by his decision with determination!

So I left.

I got another job typing and then a job packing fruit and then I lived on Garden Street with a puppy I found. When people would be mean to me the puppy would shoot them up with lasers.

“That puppy’s defective!” they’d say. “Dogs should hardly ever use lasers!”

It was a bad puppy and should have been killed but I loved him.

One day Margerie’s husband came and sat down next to me.

He said, “I know you didn’t lie.”

It was a wind.

It was a wind that he said those words. Suddenly the world stopped shaking.

He said, “I will pay you a lot of money to go to the ragged things’ academy and ask after my wife.”

The puppy barked and then licked his hand.

My puppy did not shoot him with lasers. So I said, “I trust you.”

The next time I saw a crack, I peeked my head through.

You should tear this page out. I cannot tear it out because my publisher would get mad at me. He would shake his cigar and puff up his cheeks. But you should. You should tear out the pages that have the pictures of the ragged things’ world. You should tear them out and burn them.

I don’t know why I am leaving these pages in.

But it looked like badness.

It looked like the world but nobody had souls. Not even the grass had souls. You could walk on it and squish it and it would not care.

I took many pictures. Sometimes people who look at them throw up! Or their pants get bulgy like there is a mouse in them. Or they yell at me.

I am very sad when people yell at me.

I did not find Margerie in the ragged things’ world.

I think that it is bad to look in the world behind the cracks. If you can see them do not look. Just look away.

Do not tell police men.

Do not tell the Mayor.

Do not tell the doctor.

Do not even tell people’s husbands.

Just look away.

One day they will come for me. I dream of it. They will come for me and Ii Ma will come for me.

Ii Ma will ask me a question I cannot answer.

He will take me away from the world to a place without recourse.

And nothing I do, and nothing I have ever done, will matter again.

How did Max come to understand the nature of the world?

Max puts the book down.

He thinks for a while.

“Huh,” he says.

And he hears in memory the whisper in his mind: How could you betray your wife?

He trembles, there, like a leaf.

He stands on the last vertex of reason with the endless net of unacceptable truths just a step or so outside of his reach.

He is this close to understanding.

He remembers the King that came to Spattle.

His mind throbs with the pictures of Prester Gee.

Shifting in and out of the edge of his consciousness is the image of Ii Ma. He cannot focus on it. He cannot not focus on it. His mental efforts skirl about like water striders on a pond.

Then, suddenly, he understands.

“Mr. McGruder could never have answered it. He would have melted before that question like ice before the sun.”

And thus Max apprehends the fundamental nature of the world. He is afraid and he is horrified but he is also excited.

Rising in him like Frankenstein’s ambition there is a plan.

How did the ragged things catch Max?

It is almost two years before knowing the story of Prester Gee catches up to him.

Max has said nothing to Sid; in fact, for the past six months, he has scarcely called on Sid at all. Instead he has wrestled with the fey understanding that has been rising in him that the ragged things will come for him soon.

That he sees too much; that he knows too much; that in apprehending Ii Ma he suffered apprehension by Ii Ma.

They will come for him.

Dannon Cleim is already gone. Max does not miss him; the man had never mattered to Max’s life.

In his dreams Max sees Ii Ma. He knows what impends.

Ii Ma will come for him.

He will ask Max, a second time, a question that Max cannot answer, and where the first was irrelevant this one will be colder than winter and more devastating than fire.

“Perhaps,” Max theorizes, “He will ask me, ‘what would you do if you could steal people’s noses?'”

That’s a hard one to call in advance because power corrupts.

“Or, ‘you love a guy who tortures people to death.’ That’s not really a question but it might as well be.”

It is neither of these.

He is in the supermarket between aisles 6 and 7—

Where in most supermarkets there is a weak place, a problematic place, a place occult to our reality—

When there is the soft slow pounding of heavy feet.

He looks around.

He thinks about running.

Then he seizes a box of cereal, for the road, and holds it tight against his chest, and waits.

Claws seize him from four directions. They heft him high. And Ii Ma whispers, How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

There is a cleanup between aisles 6 and 7.

Max is gone.

Why can’t Sid forgive Max?

Max puts on the water for tea. He watches it for a while, but it doesn’t boil.

“Sid,” says Max.

And as suddenly as a dream, Sid is there.

It is 1994 and the sun is this brilliant golden glow and Max is happy—so incredibly happy— because he’s put one over on the world.

He says, “Sid,” again, and it’s this caramel of smugness on the ice cream of his joy.

And Sid blushes and looks from side to side, like maybe Max means the Sid behind him.

“It’s all right now,” Max says.

And Sid frowns.

“It’s been all right,” he says.

“No,” Max says.

He rises. He goes to the glass doors that open out onto the balcony. He opens them. He takes a breath of clean and bracing air.

“I couldn’t tell you,” Max says. “You’d never have let me try it. But it worked.”

He takes a breath.

Max says, “You’ll never kill anybody.”

Sid frowns. He looks around.

“What?”

Max turns. His eyes are brilliant. He says, “This is the dominion of Ii Ma. We have been abstracted from the world by virtue of the questions that we cannot answer. Here, Sid, we mean nothing, do nothing, to no effect. Here the knives of you will not cut; here the hands of you will not hold a knife; here we are severed from substance but, Sid, we are safe from doing harm or becoming anathema to ourselves.”

It pours from Max in a rush, this anodyne and peak to two years of careful silence. It pours from him, the expression of his gift, that sacrifice that he has made of life and sanity, bound over to Ii Ma without resistance to save Sid from murdering. The brilliance and the sacrifice of Max’s plan glimmers there in his sight, lain out—

The perfect solution;

The necessary solution;

The plan to give up everything else so that Sid does not become a thing Max can not love.

And against the look in Sid’s eyes it becomes the ashes of a cruel ambition.

How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?

“Sid,” he says.

And Sid grins, a little.

Sid’s shoulders relax.

“Tell me you are making a virtue of necessity,” Sid says. “Tell me you are scared and alone here and you risked me because you needed me here.”

“No,” says Max. “You don’t understand.”

Distantly, he can hear the kettle whistling.

“Tell me that you did not do this on purpose,” Sid says. “That you did not conspire with the nature of the world to immure me in a place without recourse.”

“I didn’t want you to vivisect anyone,” Max protests.

And here one should stop and observe that for all the naked betrayal in Sid’s voice that Max’s was a reasonable aim.

Yet—

“How could you imagine that you could do such things and have them be okay?” Sid asks.

And the last air leaves Max’s lungs. Bleakness closes in on him. He is drowning.

Until that moment Max did not understand the question of Ii Ma.

Until that moment Max had remained in the place without recourse by virtue of that will that denies itself its options. Until that moment he had stood on a line with a path still open before him, actions still available to him, possibilities to remain a creature of the is and not an isn’t still naked before him. Until that moment he had options because until that moment the question that Ii Ma had given him was one that he did not comprehend.

But Ii Ma is cruel, and with Sid’s words it is no longer so.

Max sees the completeness and the elegance of that truth: he sees the world of emptiness close in about him: he experiences the jangling severance of Max from the places of the world.

In every direction it is the same: every course of action is the same: the place without recourse unfolds around him like an infinite-reflections jewel.

“How beautiful,” Max says.

And to Sid it is like watching a loved one die.

How did Max leave the place without recourse?

It is Maundy Thursday when these events transpire, by some coincidence or design: an anniversary, of a sort, celebrating that day when Jesus said to his companions,

“You will have to devour me to earn eternal life.”

On Maundy Thursday the bells cease to ring. The vestments depart from the table, leaving barrenness.

It is the custom of Ii Ma, on Maundy Thursday, to shift its great bulk in its mud. To wallow. To drip with black blood. To take petitions from its prisoners, which are traditionally not granted.

“How could you imagine that you could do such things,” Sid says, on Maundy Thursday, 1994, “and have them be okay?”

And the fire fades from Max’s eyes and he says, transported by something greater than himself, “How beautiful.”

And with a flash of insight Sid understands why this is so.

“That’s what he asked you,” Sid says. “Isn’t it?”

The kettle is wobbling on the stove; and Sid looks sideways and swears, “Bucking kettle. … That’s what he asked?”

“‘How can you enter the land of guilt and the distant glebes of suffering and the leeds of the kells of the knowledge of your sins, and walk away unscathed?‘” Max quotes. “Or, well, yeah. What you said.”

And Sid laughs.

He can’t help it. It’s worse than when Grouchy Pete shot him because it’s more painful and it’s funnier.

But the laughter passes.

A cold wind blows.

The vast bulk of Ii Ma shifts.

And Sid sighs.

He relaxes, just a bit.

Sid says, gently, “’Walk in like you own the place.’”

It is not clear to Sid, even after all his years of life, whether this answer is abstractly the right one— but it is a pragmatic one.

He has seen it work for monsters, kings, and siggorts;

And it seems to work for Max.

How does Maundy Thursday end?

The night office is celebrated under the name of Tenebrae: the service of darkness.

After the vespers of Maundy Thursday Sid is raw, like a skinless man.

He is raw but he is not given the grace of that pain.

He is taken from the agony of it, without transition, to the morning, to smiling outwards at the beauty of the dawn.

“How beautiful.”

And thus one fond of the liturgy of the holy days must ask:

What manner of thing is Easter, if it comes too soon?

(Palm Sunday: III/IV) Mr. McGruder’s Question

Jane’s arm is bloody.

“This is what happens when you stay up too late playing with sharp objects,” Martin points out.

Jane frowns at her arm.

“It wasn’t a sharp object,” she says. “It was a sharp history. I think it was about Mr. Kong. And it was an accident.”

“Bed,” Martin says.

But Jane has already gone back into the pile of Necessity fragments, drawn by a crimson glimmer, and she’s triumphantly holding up a piece.

“Ha,” she says.

“You’re getting blood on the 80s,” Martin whimpers.

It is 1979.

Mr. McGruder is walking home. He is not paying attention to the road. He is not paying attention to the sunset. He is not paying attention to the labored sound of monstrous breathing or the distant heavy footsteps. Instead he is preoccupied with his own thoughts. He walks right into the ragged thing.

“Oh!” he says.

He adjusts his glasses. He looks at the ragged thing.

He frowns.

He takes off his glasses. He cleans them. He puts them back on his nose. He looks again.

The ragged thing breathes.

Then it hooks him with its claws and Mr. McGruder releases a shout.

“Ow!” he bleeds.

Begs Mr. McGruder: “This isn’t where I’m supposed to be. I’m supposed to be at home.”

And he hears the breathy whisper of Ii Ma, How—

That is when Max slams into Mr. McGruder and knocks him free.

“Cool!” Jane says.

Sid looks at her. He practices his guilt-inducing stare.

Jane is immune. “Kapow!” she declares, in honor of Max.

It is 1979 and the sun is at the horizon and Max is an angsty teenager in jeans and a shirt. His instincts, honed by years of sullen teen apathy, had told him,

Look away. Don’t mind the guy and the ragged thing.

But Mr. McGruder is his homeroom teacher and he is always giving Max detention and people are loyal in the oddest ways.

Max knocks him away.

And there are claws and there is blood and Max hears the insidious whisper of Ii Ma, How could you betray your wife?

It is very easy for Max to answer this question. It is not normally possible to avoid exile in the land without recourse with a single syllable—not even Mu!—but Max manages it with, “Huh?”

And then the ragged thing is gone and Mr. McGruder is sprawled out on the ground in a dead faint and Max is bleeding.

Max pants.

Run away, his instincts tell him. But he ignores them.

He hefts Mr. McGruder against his shoulder. He can’t get his teacher over his shoulder, but he can sort of support the man.

He begins walking.

He staggers once. His vision blurs. He starts to fall. He whispers, “Sid.”

And Sid is there; and Sid catches them; and Sid stands there looking at Max and Mr. McGruder with an alien and strange expression in his eyes.

“You know,” says Max. “I’d decided that I’d made you up.”

“Six years is a really long time to be mad about a technical foul,” Sid points out.

The Ragged Things (1 of 2)

Continuing the story of Train Morgan (1, 2)

The warden Ii Ma dwells in its redoubt. It wallows in its mud.

One great hand moves, shifting its weight in the murk.

Now there is little mud in the place without recourse; the soil there is for the most part clean and dry. But where Ii Ma lives the blood and ichor that pours from it at all times soaks into the soil. When Ii Ma moves he churns the soil and the blood, creating a thick unwholesome poultice beneath it for its wounds that never heal.

Sometimes when people look at Ii Ma they go mad. Their worldview, even if it is already accustomed to the nature of the place without recourse, cannot handle the existence of such a beast.

First they surrender the boundaries to their world.

They recognize that the pitiful lies by which they seek to make the world a safe and sane and orderly place are lies. They recognize that they have no real control over their fate. They cease to pretend that discipline, diet, sleep schedule, hard work, organization, nest eggs, caution, and good company can save them. They surrender the illusion that their hairstyle, their social standing, their daily drudgery, their favorite shows, their car, their toys, or their lovers have ever been important in the greater context of the world.

Once they have done so they can accept the great bulk of Ii Ma and that it can dispose of them as it wishes.

Yet still it is there, dripping with its great black blood. Still it is their keeper, holding them there by the will of Ii Ma’s masters, and it is no proper thing.

So next they must surrender the notion that the universe is kind. Gnawing prey-fear fills them, and deep anxiety. They recognize that on some deep level the world is sick.

Here is the place where Train Morgan stopped his slide into insanity. He said, “The world is sick; but it is not necessary that the world be sick.”

There are others who do not reach this conclusion.

Looking upon Ii Ma they see a world where disease is inexorable. They recognize that each step further into corruption is irreversible. They see that the world shall never be again so great as once it was.

It shifts its bulk and they vomit, uncontrollably, or cough up blood, and think, “God is a lie.”

And if they should also surrender their purpose in that moment and fall into madness then they wake up in their beds, in the place without recourse, with the smallest portion of that insanity fallen from them. And they look towards the dawn. And they say, as they always say, “How beautiful.”

And they do not visit Ii Ma again.

The ragged things catch you up, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Train Morgan is in the line to make petition to Ii Ma.

This is what Train does on Saturdays. It is the sabbath. He is not religious but there is something in his condition that makes him cling too much to meanings.

So on Saturdays, when it is the sabbath, he does not work.

Instead he comes and he waits to make petition to Ii Ma.

The ground is soft outside Ii Ma’s redoubt. It is not mud but it is soft and it is dark and if you rub your hands in it they will have a certain ichorous sheen.

The crowd is full of the usual sorts.

“It was a mistake, of course,” one woman is saying. “I did nothing. I did not pry into secrets. I did not conduct myself inappropriately. I simply—”

She gestures in frustration.

Mr. Gauston, who like Train is a regular here, answers her with a question. “Do you think that that is virtuous?”

“Pardon?”

“Do you think,” says Mr. Gauston, “that it is more just and more right to be in the place without recourse because one has pried into a secret or conducted oneself to some inappropriate standard?”

The woman’s mouth works. She frowns.

Calmly, softly, she says, “I do not know why you are here. I do not know why anyone should be here. I do not think that anyone should be here. But I know that I am here because I stood at a soft place and I heard the breathing of the ragged things and before I could run away they snatched me up.”

“Oh, I see,” says Mr. Gauston.

“I have to go back,” the woman says. “I have a son.”

But Mr. Gauston has turned away.

So Train pushes his way through the line. He can do this because he is Train Morgan and everyone who does not respect him for his actions fears him for his strength.

He says to her, “My name is Train.”

“Cindy,” the woman says.

“It is not good to protest,” says Train Morgan. “If you protest that you do not belong here, you will anger Ii Ma. Then he will lick you and you will develop terrible sores. They will split, and you will bleed, and you will wake up and you will look towards the dawn and you will say, as you always do, ‘How beautiful.'”

“Don’t say that,” Cindy says.

She curls in on herself.

“It’s creepy that I always say that.”

“It is a sign of the futility of intent,” Train says. “How can one make any progress beyond that point if you cannot even answer the question given you by Ii Ma?”

Cindy chews on her lower lip.

“I have to try,” she says.

And Train smiles.

“I understand.”

“Why are you here?” she says. “If the intent to leave is futile?”

“I want to see my brother,” Train Morgan says.

In the sky above them there is a strange flickering, a distortion in a shape similar to that of an insect spreading its wings. There is a swirling in grey clouds and the crackling of lightning and they can hear the bulk of Ii Ma shifting in its mire as the beast looks up.

Train stares upwards, but nothing further occurs.

“He is somewhere here,” Train Morgan says. “He is somewhere in the place without recourse. But the world is very big.”

The line advances, just a bit. They shuffle forward.

“I cannot find him,” Train Morgan says.

“What did he ask you?” Cindy says.

“Who?”

“Ii Ma?”

And Train remembers walking on the street, and the breathing of the ragged things, sudden in his world, and how he ran.

How he could hear the distant heavy footsteps of the ragged things.

How they had seemed just a bit farther away, how it had seemed he was escaping, until a voice whispered in his ear the question that keeps him bound.

Isn’t the world just a little bit too big for you, Train Morgan?

It is his desire to change the world; to put his will on it; to save, if not the world, then at least a few; to find, if not an answer, than at least his brother Thomas; but: isn’t the world just a little bit too big for you, Train Morgan?

“It doesn’t matter,” Train Morgan says.

Ii Ma keeps the place without recourse.

Train Morgan stands before the warden Ii Ma.

He says, “Please.”

There is silence.

“Please,” says Train Morgan. “I do not ask for freedom. I only want to see my brother.”

And he looks up into its unforgiving eyes.

He wakes up.

He smiles eastwards towards the dawn.

It is so incredibly beautiful, so mad wack stunning gorgeous. The sun is this brilliant golden glow and there is pink and red like a fire in the sky and there is a swirling in those clouds there are like the spreading of an insect’s wings, and he cries out, in the great loud voice of Train, “Whatever happened to Ink Catherly?”

Theologians of Mars

It is December 3rd, 1999.

“Sometimes I think that clinging to the outside of the Mars Polar Lander was not the smartest idea,” says Emile.

“Oh?” says James.

“Well,” says Emile, “No matter how much I breathe, I can’t get enough oxygen. And no matter how much I shiver, I can’t get warm.”

“That’s just your bad karma at work!” says James. “You can’t blame space.”

Emile and James fly through space, clinging to the sides of the Mars Polar Lander.

“I guess,” says Emile.

Emile munches quietly on a tiny bit of space food. It’s a microorganism, that lived in space! But no matter how much of the microorganism he gnaws away Emile still feels hungry.

“It’s just a bit inhospitable,” Emile says.

“Rather,” admits James. He looks out at the vacuum. Then he smiles. “That’s why I calculated my sins for a rebirth as a hungry ghost, you know.”

“Oh?”

“I figured, if I’m born as a human, then all I get is another chance to hear the teaching, and I might achieve enlightenment, but it’s pretty unlikely in these Latter Days of the Law. And if I become a god, then I’ll be too happy and powerful to escape the wheel of karma. But a hungry ghost—a hungry ghost can go into space.

“That’s reasonable,” says Emile. “It is certainly prettier to starve and shiver and thirst in space than on Earth.”

Emile stares at the stars for a while.

“I didn’t plan to die yet,” Emile explains. “That’s why I wound up a hungry ghost! I thought that I would learn to control my desires and earn better karma later.”

“What happened?”

“It turns out that it’s a bad idea to attend an event labeled ‘Assassins! Live in Concert.'”

“Ouch,” says James.

“They lived in concert, but the audience did not.” Emile sighs. “You?”

“Strapped to a giant laser. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Ah!” says Emile. “I’d wondered about the burns.”

“It was like the torments visited upon souls in Hell,” says James. “Except shorter and more cinematic. There is this moment when you’re shot by a giant laser when, I don’t know. When you’re probably already dead, right, because lasers hit you faster than your perception of lasers, but still you can see this brilliant light dashing towards you, and everything’s crystal, and you’re one with the cosmos. Then it hurts.”

They look down.

“Then it hurts a lot.” James laughs self-deprecatingly. “That’s why giant laser safety is so important.”

They watch the Red Planet for a while.

“Are you nervous?” Emile asks.

“What, about Mars?”

“Yeah. I mean, no hungry ghost has ever been there before. What if it’s worse? What if there’s nothing edible anywhere, and no water, and no air? Not even any Buddhists to make our lives better with prayers?”

James laughs.

“What?” Emile asks.

James leans in. “This is Mars,” he says. “Life isn’t characterized by universal suffering, desire, and attachment on Mars. That’s an Earth thing, like original sin.”

Emile blinks.

“I thought you knew,” says James. “11 months in space, and you’ve just been clinging to the side of the ship for lack of anything better to do?”

“You looked like you knew what you were doing,” Emile says, “during the launch. And afterwards, well. You’re better company than the vacuum mites and space bats.”

“Don’t knock the space bats,” grins James.

“I’m not knocking them,” says Emile. “I’m grateful that they put us back on course after that NASA navigation error, and their princess was ravishing. But they kept looking at me like they hoped I’d turn into an insect.”

“Space bats live on a diet of insects,” James observes. “Not many insects in space.”

Emile grins wryly. “You’re right. I shouldn’t really blame them.”

James opens his mouth to say something. Instead, the Mars Polar Lander strikes atmosphere. It begins using the friction of the Martian atmosphere to decelerate rapidly from its initial velocity.

“Hot!” says Emile.

As the wind whips by them, James says, “We need . . . shelter . . .”

James points. Emile follows him around to the lee of the lander. Buffeted by wind and weakened by the twelve gees of acceleration, Emile loses half of his grip on the white-hot lander. He hangs on by one hand as the Mars Polar Lander races down through the Martian sky.

“Can’t . . . hang . . . on . . .” says Emile.

“You’re notional,” says James, in disgust. “Get over it.”

Emile hesitates. Then, sheepishly, he reasserts his grip on the lander and climbs over to shelter next to James.

Whoosh.

The parachute opens.

“It’s strange,” says Emile. “First I was very cold and couldn’t warm myself, and now I’m very hot and can’t cool myself. But something’s different.”

“It’s the loss of dukkha, the pervasive universal character of suffering,” James says. “The closer we get to Mars, the more we’ll be suffering because we’re clinging to a white-hot lander on an alien world and the less we’ll be suffering because it’s an inevitable consequence of ignorance and desire.”

“Huh,” says Emile. “Are we getting less ignorant?”

James points down. “Look! Mars!”

“Oh,” says Emile, softly.

They watch Mars loom. Each new detail they can make out dispels a bit more of the ignorance that breeds the desire that chains them to the wheel of karma and the pervasive universal character of suffering. The heat and gee-forces of the landing strip away their original sin. On the negative side, James slowly realizes that his advanced understanding of Tantric sex practices won’t do him any good on Mars, where sex is savage and primitive.

“Hey,” says Emile. “Is that a city?”

The lander legs deploy. The ship hits the Veil.

“Apes!” shouts Emile, in terror.

Inertial gyros and accelerometers orient the Mars Polar Lander. It is rapidly steering itself towards a nest of great white apes.

“There’s nothing for it,” says James. “We’re going to have to jump.”

The Martian atmosphere shivers with the primal cry of the largest of the great white apes. It beats upon its chest. Emile notices, in a state of distant detached fear, that the ape has four arms.

“Jump? Jump?

James reaches out. He touches Emile’s hand. He smiles.

“It’s okay,” James says. “I planned for this. Everything has been leading up to this moment. Kick off—now.”

They push away from the lander. They fall.

James holds his watch up near his face. He has worn it the entire time that Emile has known him, and not once has the watch been correct; for among the many things that hungry ghosts are starved for is time.

The watch is working now. James frantically adjusts the knobs and buttons, and the face of the watch is glowing green, and there is a countdown on it.

The lander strikes down amidst the apes. It has been four minutes and thirty-three seconds since the Mars Polar Lander struck atmosphere.

The timer on James’ watch hits zero.

The lander explodes.

Emile and James tumble across the red sand of Mars. The apes are a bloody ruin, all save the strongest of them. That one is still lurching towards them, though great chunks have been ripped out of its flesh, though one arm is missing, though its entire back is baked clean of fur. Emile looks over. James has not landed quite as well as Emile, and for a long moment James is stunned. So Emile does the only thing he can.

Emile pulls his holdout knife and hurls it at the creature’s face. It is a perfect strike; and the great beast topples to the bloody sands of Mars; and as it falls, James says to Emile, “Good man.”

The Big World

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.

“Oh.”

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.”

“Oh.”

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.

“Oh?”

Eight, nine, ten, eleven. “They teach them how to be ragged things,” the old woman says. “And how to go outside the big world.”

“Oh.”

Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.

“So they learn,” the old woman says.

Sixteen.

“And they go outside.”

Seventeen. Eighteen.

“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.

Twenty-two.

“Snatch!”

Twenty-three. Twenty-four.

“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.”