/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror

The Best Horror of the Year – Volume One

Ellen Datlow

An Air Force Loadmaster is menaced by strange sounds within his cargo; a man is asked to track down a childhood friend… who died years earlier; doomed pioneers forge a path westward as a young mother discovers her true nature; an alcoholic strikes a dangerous bargain with a gregarious stranger; urban explorers delve into a ruined book depository, finding more than they anticipated; residents of a rural Wisconsin town defend against a legendary monster; a woman wracked by survivor's guilt is haunted by the ghosts of a tragic crash; a detective strives to solve the mystery of a dismembered girl; an orphan returns to a wicked witch's candy house; a group of smugglers find themselves buried to the necks in sand; an unanticipated guest brings doom to a high-class party; a teacher attempts to lead his students to safety as the world comes to an end around them… What frightens us, what unnerves us? What causes that delicious shiver of fear to travel the lengths of our spines? It seems the answer changes every year. Every year the bar is raised; the screw is tightened. Ellen Datlow knows what scares us; the twenty-one stories and poems included in this anthology were chosen from magazines, webzines, anthologies, literary journals, and single author collections to represent the best horror of the year. Legendary editor Ellen Datlow (Poe: New Tales Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe), winner of multiple Hugo, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy awards, joins Night Shade Books in presenting The Best Horror of the Year, Volume One.

Ellen Datlow, E. Michael Lewis, Richard Bowes, Steve Duffy, William Browning Spencer, Glen Hirshberg, Trent Hergenrader, Nicholas Royle, Margaret Ronald, Laird Barron, Euan Harvey, Miranda Siemienowicz, Daniel Kaysen, JoSelle Vanderhooft, R. B. Russell, Graham Edwards, Joe R. Lansdale, Mike Allen, Margo Lanagan, Daniel LeMoal, Adam Golaski, Simon Bestwick

The Best Horror of the Year – Volume One

Acknowledgment is made for permission to print the following material:

"Cargo" by E. Michael Lewis. Copyright © 2008 by E. Michael Lewis. First published in Shades of Darkness, edited by Barbara and Christopher Roden, Ash-Tree Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"If Angels Fight" by Richard Bowes. Copyright © 2008 by Richard Bowes. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, February. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"The Clay Party" by Steve Duffy. Copyright © 2008 by Steve Duffy. First published in The Werewolf Pack, edited by Mark Valentine, Wordsworth Editions. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"Penguins of the Apocalypse" by William Browning Spencer. Copyright © 2008 by William Browning Spencer. First published in Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy, edited by William Schafer, Subterranean Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"Esmeralda" by Glen Hirshberg. Copyright © 2008 by Glen Hirshberg. First published in Shades of Darkness, edited by Barbara and Christopher Roden, Ash-Tree Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"The Hodag" by Trent Hergenrader. Copyright © 2008 by Trent Hergenrader. First published in Black Static 7, TTA Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"Very Low-Flying Aircraft" by Nicholas Royle. Copyright © 2008 by Nicholas Royle. First published in Exotic Gothic 2, edited by Danel Olson, Ash-Tree Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"When the Gentlemen Go By" by Margaret Ronald. Copyright © 2008 by Margaret Ronald. First published in Clarkesworld #21, July. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"The Lagerstätte" by Laird Barron. Copyright © 2008 by Laird Barron. First published in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow, Del Rey Books. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"Harry and the Monkey" by Euan Harvey. Copyright © 2008 by Euan Harvey. First published in Realms of Fantasy, December. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"Dress Circle" by Miranda Siemienowicz. Copyright © 2008 by Miranda Siemienowicz. First published in Hecate, Volume 34, No. 1. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"The Rising River " by Daniel Kaysen. Copyright © 2008 by Daniel Kaysen. First published in Black Static 5. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"Sweeney among the Straight Razors" by JoSelle Vanderhooft. Copyright © 2008 by JoSelle Vanderhooft. First published in Star*Line, September/October. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"Loup-garou" by R. B. Russell. Copyright © 2008 by R. B. Russell. First published in The Werewolf Pack, edited by Mark Valentine, Wordsworth Editions. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"Girl in Pieces" by Graham Edwards. Copyright © 2008 by Graham Edwards. First published in Realms of Fantasy, April. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"It Washed Up" by Joe R. Lansdale. Copyright © 2008 by Joe R. Lansdale. First published in Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy, edited by William Schafer, Subterranean Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"The Thirteenth Hell" by Mike Allen. Copyright © 2008 by Mike Allen. First published in The Journey to Kailash, Curiosities, an imprint of Norilana Books. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan. Copyright © 2008 by Margo Lanagan. First published in The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow, Del Rey Books. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"Beach Head" by Daniel LeMoal. Copyright © 2008 by Daniel LeMoal. First published in On Spec, Summer, #73 volume 20 number 2. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"The Man from the Peak" by Adam Golaski. Copyright © 2008 by Adam Golaski. First published in Worse Than Myself, Raw Dog Screaming Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

"The Narrows " by Simon Bestwick. Copyright © 2008 by Simon Bestwick. First published in We Fade to Grey, edited by Gary McMahon, Pendragon Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

I'd like to dedicate this volume to James Frenkel,

packager of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror

for its twenty-one volume run.

Also, to my co-editors Terri Windling,

and then Kelly Link & Gavin J. Grant.

Acknowledgements to John Kenny, Frank Ludlow, David Murphy, Eugene Myer, Sheila Williams, Brian Bieniowski, Harlan Ellison, and Charles Tan.

Thanks to Gavin J. Grant for suggesting I approach the editors at Night Shade about spinning off a new best of the year in horror annual.

I'd like to acknowledge the following magazines and catalogs for invaluable information and descriptions of material I was unable to obtain: Locus, All Hallows, Publishers Weekly, Washington Post Book World, and Prism (the quarterly journal of fantasy given with membership to the British Fantasy Society). I'd also like to thank all the editors who made sure I saw their magazines during the year, the webzine editors who provided printouts, and the book publishers who provided review copies in a timely manner. Also, the writers who sent me printouts of their stories when I was unable to acquire the magazine or book in which they appeared.

And thank you to Jeremy Lassen and Jason Williams for taking a chance on a new best of the year anthology.

Summation 2008

The twenty-one stories and poems included were chosen from magazines, webzines, anthologies, literary journals, and single author collections. One story and one poem were published in single author collections. One story was originally published in a webzine. The authors reside in the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Wales, and Thailand. Thirteen out of twenty-one stories are by writers whose stories I've never before chosen for a best of the year volume, which is probably a record.

Awards

The Bram Stoker Awards for Achievement in Horror is given by the Horror Writers Association. The full membership may recommend in all categories but only active members can vote on the final ballot. The awards for material appearing during 2007 were presented at the organization's annual banquet held Saturday evening, March 29, 2008, in Salt Lake City, Utah, in conjunction with the World Horror Convention.

2007 Winners for Superior Achievement:

Novel: The Missing by Sarah Langan; First Novel: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill; Long Fiction: "Afterward, There Will Be a Hallway" by Gary Braunbeck; Short Fiction: "The Gentle Brush of Wings" by David Niall Wilson; Fiction Collection (Tie): Proverbs for Monsters by Michael A. Arnzen and 5 Stories by Peter Straub; Anthology: Five Strokes to Midnight, edited by Gary Braunbeck and Hank Schwaeble; Nonfiction: The Cryptopedia: A Dictionary of the Weird, Strange & Downright Bizarre by Jonathan Maberry & David F. Kramer; Poetry Collection (Tie): Being Full of Light, Insubstantial by Linda Addison and Vectors: A Week in the Death of a Planet by Charlee Jacob & Marge Simon; Lifetime Achievement Award: John Carpenter, Robert Weinberg; Richard Laymon President's Award: Mark Worthen, Stephen Dorato, Christopher Fulbright.

The Shirley Jackson Award, recognizing the legacy of Jackson 's writing, and with permission of her estate, was established for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic. The inaugural awards were announced at Readercon, held in Burlington, Massachusetts.

The winners for the best work in 2007:

Novel: Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand (Small Beer Press); Novella: Vacancy by Lucius Shepard (Subterranean #7, 2007); Novelette: "The Janus Tree" by Glen Hirshberg (Inferno, Tor); Short Story: "The Monsters of Heaven" by Nathan Ballingrud (Inferno, Tor); Collection: The Imago Sequence and Other Stories by Laird Barron (Night Shade Books); Anthology: Inferno edited by Ellen Datlow (Tor).

The British Fantasy Society announced the winners of the British Fantasy Awards for 2008 at the awards banquet of Fantasycon 2008 in Nottingham, England on September 20.

The Sydney J. Bounds Best Newcomer Award: Scott Lynch; BFS Special Award: The Karl Edward Wagner Award: Ray Harryhausen; Best Non-Fiction: Peter Tennant, Whispers of Wickedness website reviews; Best Artist: Vincent Chong; Best Small Press: Peter Crowther, PS Publishing; Best Anthology: Stephen Jones, The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 18 (Robinson); Best Collection: Christopher Fowler Old Devil Moon (Serpent's Tail); Best Short Fiction: Joel Lane, "My Stone Desire" (Black Static #1, TTA Press); Best Novella: Conrad Williams, The Scalding Rooms (PS Publishing); Best Novel: The August Derleth Fantasy Award: Ramsey Campbell, The Grin of the Dark (PS Publishing).

The International Horror Guild Awards for works from 2007 were announced Friday, October 31, 2008, and posted on the IHG website. Peter Straub, named earlier as the year's Living Legend, was honored in an essay by Stefan R. Dziemianowicz.

Winners for the best work in 2007:

Novel: The Terror by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown); Long Fiction: Softspoken by Lucius Shepard (Night Shade Books); Mid-Length Fiction: "Closet Dreams," by Lisa Tuttle (Postscripts #10); Short Fiction: "Honey in the Wound" by Nancy Etchemendy (The Restless Dead); Illustrated Narrative: The Nightmare Factory, Thomas Ligotti (Fox Atomic/Harper Paperbacks); Collection: Dagger Key and Other Stories, Lucius Shepard (PS Publishing); Anthology: Inferno, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Tor); Nonfiction: Mario Bava: All the Colors of Dark, Tim Lucas (Video Watchdog); Periodical: Postscripts; Art: Elizabeth McGrath (for "The Incurable Disorder," Billy Shire Fine Arts, December 2007).

Judges for this year's awards were Edward Bryant, Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, Ann Kennedy VanderMeer, and Hank Wagner. This was the last year that the award was given.

The World Fantasy Awards were announced November 2, 2008, at the World Fantasy Convention in Calgary, Alberta. Lifetime Achievement recipients were previously announced.

Winners for the best work in 2007:

Life Achievement: Patricia McKillip and Leo & Diane Dillon; Novel: Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay (Viking Canada; Roc); Novella: Illyria by Elizabeth Hand (PS Publishing); Short Story: "Singing of Mount Abora" by Theodora Goss (Logorrhea); Anthology: Inferno, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Tor); Collection: Tiny Deaths by Robert Shearman (Comma Press); Artist: Edward Miller; Special Award, Professional: Peter Crowther (PS Publishing); Special Award, Non-Professional: Midori Snyder & Terri Windling (Endicott Studios Website).

Notable Novels of 2008

The Resurrectionist by Jack O'Connell (Algonquin) is the author's fifth novel, and as with his previous ones his lucid prose easily carries the reader into realms of the phantasmagoric. The story begins with a man taking a job at a very special clinic, hoping that the doctors there can miraculously help his comatose son, who is a patient. A second strand of the story follows the adventures of a group of circus freaks on the run from hostility and discrimination-a graphic novel series the man's son loves. The third strand involves a motorcycle gang, one of whose members has infiltrated the clinic. The strands tenuously come together to create a moving finale.

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow (Harper) is a werewolf novel told in verse, but don't let that scare you away. It's free verse, not rhyming, and the book is wonderfully gripping, in part due to the compression of language. Go and read it, you'll not be disappointed. Highly recommended.

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (Doubleday) is a dark, offbeat love story about the deepening relationship between a male, ex-porn-star hideously burned in a terrible accident, and a brilliant sculptor of gargoyles who claims to have been a reincarnated nun from the middle ages where they were lovers. The woman (who most people in the novel believe is mentally ill, but is quite obviously not, to any fantasy reader) tells wonderful stories within the overarching story of their love to both entertain and teach the recovering man. Not really horror- although there are horrific descriptions of the accident that maimed the man and other dark bits- but always absorbing.

The Man on the Ceiling by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem (Discoveries) is an expansion of the multi award-winning novella by the Tems, published in 2000. A kind of fictionalized family memoir, their story is told in sections by each of them. It is imaginative, harrowing, moving, and always thoughtful about transmuting one's life experience into fiction and how that reflects back onto the creator. The book doesn't really add to the brilliance of the novella, but for those who missed that gem this is a worthwhile substitute.

The Ghost in Love by Jonathan Carroll (Farrar, Straus) is about a man who should have died, but didn't. There's a glitch in the system, so he's still around, but he's got a ghost who lives with him (although he doesn't realize it). The ghost-which can manifest as anything it likes, including a fly-is in love with the dead guy's ex-girlfriend. The Angel of Death is not happy. And of course, as in almost all of Carroll's novels, there's a dog.

Severance Package by Duane Swierczynski (St. Martin 's Press) is a clever, violent, fast-moving romp that, if the reader stops to actually think about it, makes very little sense. An executive invites his key personnel to a mysterious Saturday morning meeting in the office and then offers them poison-laced juice to drink-or face a more violent death. Why does he want to kill them and will anyone get out alive?

Infected by Scott Sigler (Crown) is an sf/horror thriller about a series of horrific homicides committed by seemingly normal, happy citizens. The story alternates between the governmental and medical teams tracking down and studying the plague, and a newly infected victim and his efforts to rid himself of what's ailing him. Entertaining, but with large plot holes that hopefully will be plugged in the sequel, titled Contagious.

Sway by Zachary Lazar (Little, Brown) miraculously projects the reader into the lives and minds of some of the prime movers of the sixties: underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger; Brian Jones, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones; and would-be rocker/Charlie Manson follower Bobby Beausoleil. By doing this, Lazar creates something that reads almost like a memoir of the era that started with love and promise, culminating in darkness, with the murders of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the Manson killings, and the near-riot at the Stones' concert at Altamont. The voices are so authentic-sounding, it's as if the author is channeling his characters.

The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford (William Morrow) is a satisfying expansion of Ford's novella " Botch Town," creating a sharp snapshot of growing up on Long Island, New York, in the early 1960s. Two brothers and their young sister investigate mysterious occurrences in the neighborhood, partly with the help of the sister's seemingly preternatural powers of detection. The adult narrator looking back at a dark year in his family's hometown, never intrudes on the story and the characters are so realistic that it's almost painful to read about them. Highly recommended.

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory (Del Rey) is an impressive first novel that's a dazzling mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. In an alternate reality, archetypical "demons" appear on earth in the mid-1950s, possessing ordinary citizens. There are faint echoes of O'Connell's The Resurrectionist (mentioned above). A young man who was possessed by such a demon when he was a young boy has been troubled ever since, believing that the demon never left. His voyage of self-discovery is traumatic and moving.

The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill (Overlook Press) is a well-packaged little hardcover novella. It's an absorbing ghost story of spurned love, vengeance, and a mysterious painting, but like Hill's more famous The Woman in Black (adapted into a long-running play), its ideal readers are those unfamiliar with the classic ghost stories of the last century and a half. For most everyone else, there's nothing remarkable about Hill's work.

Ghost Radio by Leopoldo Gout (William Morrow) is a marvelous prose debut by a Mexican graphic novelist about a call-in radio host with a strange and tragic past who becomes caught up by the true ghostly experiences that his callers reveal. Haunting, and with short, snappy chapters, fast-moving.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindquist (Quercus) was originally published in Sweden in 2004. It came out in the United States and the United Kingdom in 2007, and the movie based on the novel was released in 2008. I saw the movie first and although I ended up enjoying the movie more than the novel, the novel is also quite good. Oskar, a bullied twelve-year-old, lives with his divorced mother in a housing complex, just outside Stockholm. Mysterious neighbors move next door, heralding several brutal murders in the area. Oskar meets one of the new neighbors, Eli, a 200-year-old vampire child as lonely as he is. There are some nice touches as their relationship develops. And there are also some terrific scenes indicating what happens when a vampire doesn't follow its own kind's rules, such as when it enters a dwelling uninvited. Both novel and movie do a terrific job of depicting pre-teen loneliness and the cold, bleak Swedish winter.

The Sister by Poppy Adams (Knopf) is a subtle first novel of psychological suspense narrated by a fascinating voice. Virginia and Vivian are sisters who are unexpectedly reunited after almost fifty years, when Vivian returns to the family home in Dorset where her Ginny has lived alone for decades, continuing her father's work as a lepidopterist. The return of the vivacious and selfish Vivian churns up memories and causes a major upheaval in the measured ordered life that Virginia has constructed for herself.

Rain Dogs by Gary McMahon (Humdrumming) is the author's first novel, although he's written some fine short stories over the years. A rain dog is a dog that cannot find its way home because its trail has been washed away by the rain. This definition serves as the epigraph for the short novel, and perfectly describes the plight of the two main characters. An ex-con returns home, hoping to redeem himself in the eyes of the wife and child he left behind in the aftermath of the violence that sent him to prison. A broken, battered woman who can see ghosts returns to the family she fled two decades ago, sensing that she has unfinished business to attend to. A third, and possibly most important "character," is the never-ending rain plaguing the area. A deluge of Biblical proportions has been brought forth by the inadvertent actions of a grieving woman, unleashing a supernatural power that cannot be controlled. As the storylines converge, the importance-and sometimes poison-of familial relationships is brought into sharp focus.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins) is a charming yet scary coming-of-age story about an orphan brought up by the ghosts in a graveyard after his family is murdered by a mystery man. It's got enough nastiness to scare the pants off kids (the intended audience) and should also be thoroughly enjoyed by older readers. (It won the Newbery Medal and the Hugo Award).

Also Noted

This is not meant to be all inclusive but merely a sampling of dark fiction available during 2008.

The paranormal romance subgenre is booming with unending variations of vampires, werewolves, witches, and ghosts. Here's a mere sampling of some of the vampires novels: The Darkness is the newest in L. A. Banks's (St Martin's Press) vampire Huntress series; Chosen by P. C. Cast and Kristin Cast (St. Martin's Press) is the third in a series of young adult vampire novels. The Bleeding Dusk by Colleen Gleason (Signet Eclipse) is the third in a series about a family of vampire slayers. The Mark of the Vampire Queen by Joey W. Hill (Berkley Heat) another series entry. Midnight Reign by Chris Marie Green (Ace) is the second book in a vampire series. The Vampire of New York by Lee Hunt (Signet), an 1860s murder mystery involving Dracula. Dark Wars: The Tale of Meiji Dracula by Hideyuki Kikuchi (Del Rey), translated from the Japanese, is about Dracula in 1880 Japan. Vampire Interrupted by Lynsay Sands (Avon), about a vampire training to be a private investigator. The Ravening by Dawn Thompson (Love Spell) is part of a historical vampire romance series. The Undead Kama Sutra by Mario Acevedo (Eos) is the third in a vampire mystery series. Blood Colony by Tananarive Due (Atria) is the third installment of her Living Blood series. Midnight Rising by Lara Adrian (Dell) is a vampire romance. Even Aunt Dimity, of the cozy mystery series by Nancy Atherton, gets into the act with Aunt Dimity: Vampire Hunter (Viking). Staked by J. F. Lewis (Pocket) is a first novel about vampires and werewolves. Breaking Dawn, another in the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown). Every Last Drop by Charlie Huston (Del Rey), fourth in the series about a vampiric private eye. Brides of the Impaler by Edward Lee (Leisure) is the first vampire novel by the prolific author. The Dracula Dossier by James Reese (Morrow) is about Bram Stoker's investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders in London, and using them later for inspiration in writing Dracula. Vampire Zero by David Wellington (Three Rivers Press), the third book in this continuing series. Yellow Moon by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Atria) is the second of the Marie Laveau mystery series. Blood Noir by Laurell K. Hamilton (Berkley) is sixteenth in the Anita Blake series. Vamps: Vampire American Princesses, Vamps: Night Life, and Vamps: After Dark by Nancy A. Collins (HarperCollins) introduces the creator of the Sonya Blue vampire series to the young adult market with the first three books of a new series. From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris (Ace) is a new entry in the Sookie Stackhouse series. A Dangerous Climate, a new Count St. Germain novel by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (Tor).

Other supernatural creatures are far less prevalent than vampires but still popular: Werewolves: The Accidental Werewolf by Dakota Cassidy (Berkley Sensation). Night Life by Caitlin Kittredge (St. Martin 's) is the first book in a series about a werewolf cop. Howling at the Moon by Karen MacInerney (Ballantine) is the first novel of an urban werewolf trilogy. A new werewolf series by L. A. Banks debuted with Bad Blood (St. Martin 's). Ravenous by Ray Garton (Leisure) is about an infestation of werewolves in a small California town. The Wolfman by George Pekearo (Tor) is about a werewolf who trains himself to only hunt and kill those who are evil. It was the first novel by a young writer whose life was cut tragically short and died before the book's publication.

Witches: The Outlaw Demon Wails (Eos) is sixth in the series about a witch who is a private eye. Witch Blood by Anya Bast (Sensation) is part of a series. The 5th Witch by Graham Masterton (Leisure) about an LA detective embroiled in a struggle against an international crime czar who uses a witch to enable him to take over LA. Fathom by Cherie Priest (Tor) is about an evil water witch who hopes to awaken mankind's long-sleeping enemy.

Demons: Beast of Desire by Lisa Renee Jones (Silhouette Nocturne) is a romance about demon hunters. The Devouring by Simon Holt (Little, Brown), a young adult novel about a girl confronted by demons that feed on fear. Another novel about creatures that feed upon fear is Mary SanGiovanni's Found You (Leisure), the sequel to The Hollower.

Ghosts: Ghost of a Chance by Kate Marsh (Obsidian) is the first book in a series featuring a ghosthunter. The Wicked Dead, the young adult series about ghosts by Stefan Petrucha and Thomas Pendleton, continues (HarperTeen). Seer of Shadows by Avi (HarperCollins) is a young adult ghost story taking place in 1872. Ghost Walk by Brian Keene (Leisure) is about a haunted Halloween attraction.

Zombies, despite all the hype of 2007, seem to have died down in popularity, judging by the tiny number of novels published last year. Soulless by Christopher Golden (Pocket/MTV Books) is about what happens when a séance held in Times Square somehow summons up the living dead. Empire by David Dunwoody (Permuted Press) with the Grim Reaper as a hero, destroying zombies wherever he goes. Blood of the Dead by A. P. Fuchs (Coscom Entertainment), first in the Undead World trilogy.

Some other odds and ends in the novel category: Stephen King had a big new novel out, Duma Key (Scribner) and so did Dean Koontz with Your Heart Belongs to Me (Bantam). Stephenie Meyer's first adult novel, The Host, was published by Little, Brown. Orgy of Souls by Wrath James White and Maurice Broaddus (Apex) was a short novel as was Ray Garton's The Folks 2: No Place Like Home, follow-up to his early short novel The Folks (Cemetery Dance). The Midnight Man by Simon Clark (Severn House). Coffin Country by Gary A. Braunbeck (Leisure), which is a prologue to his Cedar Hill series and includes two reprinted Cedar Hill stories. Johnny Gruesome by Greg Lamberson (Bad Moon Books). The Academy by Bentley Little (Signet). Night Children by Kit Reed (Tor). The Economy of Light by Jack Dann (PS) about a retired Nazi hunter called in by authorities to identify what is thought to be Mengele's body in Brazil. Night Work by Thomas Glavinic, translated from the German by John Brownjohn (Canongate), is about a man who wakes up to find the world deserted. Starts off well but loses steam about halfway through. Contagious by Scott Sigler (Crown) is the sequel to Infected, reviewed above. The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd (Chatto & Windus) is another retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The always reliable Patrick McGrath's Trauma (Knopf) is about a psychiatrist trying to manage his own demons. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale (Walker) is the fictionalized re-creation of an infamous case of child murder taking place in 1860 and Scotland Yard Detective-Inspector Jonathan Whicher who attempted to solve it.

Anthologies

2008 was a disappointing year for original horror anthologies with a few exceptions noted below

The Werewolf Pack, selected and introduced by Mark Valentine (Wordsworth Editions Ltd.) provides a good historical overview of the subgenre with seventeen werewolf stories. Four are contemporary tales, with three original to the volume. The originals by Gail-Nina Anderson, Steve Duffy, and R. B. Russell are very fine contributions to the canon, with Russell's and Duffy's both reprinted herein. From the same publisher, The Black Veil and Other Tales of Supernatural Sleuths, selected and introduced by Mark Valentine, has another seventeen stories, four published for the first time. The reprints are by William Hope Hodgson, Arthur Machen, A. F. Kidd, editor Valentine, and others. The strongest originals are by R. B. Russell and Rosalie Parker. The publisher presents both anthologies so that it appears that editor Valentine wrote all the stories-the front jacket doesn't identify him as the editor and the table of contents has story titles with no individual authors. Very odd.

Shades of Darkness edited by Barbara and Christopher Roden (Ash-Tree Press) is the fifth volume of original fiction in the series and it's excellent. The stories are varied and literate and although the anthology started a little slowly for me, most of the stories are good, and several are better than that. This is one of the best original horror anthologies of the year. Stories by Glen Hirshberg and E. Michael Lewis are reprinted herein.

Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy edited by William Schafer (Subterranean Press) is a beautiful hardcover with stunning cover art by Dave McKean, featuring eleven new stories, all of them good. The best of the darker ones are by Joe R. Lansdale, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Rachel Swirsky, William Browning Spencer, and Darren Speegle. The Spencer and Lansdale are reprinted herein.

Exotic Gothic 2 edited by Danel Olson (Ash-Tree Press) is a worthy follow-up to the editor's first, mixed reprint and original anthology. EG2 has all new stories taking place all over the world. The most notable were those by George Makana Clark, Barbara Roden, Nicholas Royle, Nancy A. Collins, Edward P. Crandall, Christopher Fowler, Reggie Oliver, Tia V. Travis, and Robert Hood. The Royle is reprinted herein.

The New Uncanny: Tales of Unease edited by Sarah Eyre and Ra Page (Comma Press) makes great use of Sigmund Freud's 1919 essay listing eight uncanny tropes, "irrational causes of fear deployed in literature." The editors sent the original essay to fourteen writers and asked them "to respond directly and consciously, in any way they wished, with a new story." At least five of the stories use dolls or doubles as their central image. Many of the stories are quite good, making this for me, one of the best original horror anthologies of the year.

The Second Black Book of Horror selected by Charles Black (Mortbury Press) was very good overall, with only a few clunkers. The strongest stories were by Mike Chinn, Rog Pile, Steve Goodwin, writing partners L. H. Maynard and M. P. N. Sims, Daniel McGachey, and Gary McMahon. The Third Black Book of Horror selected by Charles Black also came out in 2008 with good stories by Mike Chinn, Paul Finch, David A. Riley, Craig Herbertson, Joel Lane, Gary McMahon, Paul Newman, and Rog Pile.

Gaslight Grimoire: Fantastic Tales of Sherlock Holmes edited by J. R. Campbell and Charles Prepolec (Edge) is a thoroughly entertaining anthology of eleven new stories that likely would have had Holmes turning over in his grave (if he existed), as he loathed any hint of the supernatural, and always solved his cases rationally. But despite this, you the reader can enjoy them. Those I liked the best were by Barbara Roden, M. J. Elliott, Martin Powell, Chris Roberson, J. R. Campbell, Kim Newman, and a collaboration by Chico Kidd and Rick Kennett.

We Fade to Grey edited by Gary McMahon (Pendragon Press) has five non-theme dark novelettes and novellas by British writers. Simon Bestwick's "The Narrows" a very powerful, frightening sf/horror story, is reprinted herein.

Bound for Evil: Curious Tales of Books Gone Bad edited by Tom English (Dead Letter Press) is a hefty, entertaining anthology of sixty-five stories about nasty, demented, or overly influential books and the people who love or obsess over them. It's a good-looking limited edition hardcover tome of almost eight hundred pages, with half the stories original to the volume, and of those, at least eleven are notable. Illustrations by Allen Koszowski.

The Second Humdrumming Book of Horror Stories edited by Ian Alexander Martin (Humdrumming) is the follow-up to last year's promising anthology and it doesn't disappoint. All fifteen stories appear for the first time and some are quite good, particularly those by Christopher Fowler, Davin Ireland, Michael Kelly, Sarah Pinborough, Simon Strantzas, John Travis, and Conrad Williams.Unfortunately, the press ceased publishing.

Desolate Souls, the souvenir anthology of the World Horror Convention 2008 held in Salt Lake City, Utah, was edited by Mark Worthen and J. P. Edwards (Bones & Casket Press). Thematically related in its use of the desert and other desolate areas around SLC, the anthology includes reprints and originals. The best originals were by Scott Edelman, Linda Addison, and Cullen Bunn.

Unspeakable Horror: From the Shadows of the Closet edited by Vince A. Liaguno and Chad Helder (Dark Scribe Press) contains twenty-three stories featuring gay and lesbian characters, with many of the stories revealing the negative consequences of remaining in the sexual closet. There were very good stories by Lee Thomas, Sarah Langan, C. Michael Cook, and Livia Llewellyn.

The Undead: Headshot Quartet edited by Christina Bivins and Lane Adamson (Permuted Press) has four zombie novellas by John Sunseri, Ryan C. Thomas, David Dunwoody, and D. L. Snell. The most ambitious one is Snell's, about a man who awakes in a zombie-filled alley with no memory but the power to create objects out of nothing.

Hell in the Heartlands edited by Martel Sardina and Roger Dale Trexler (Annihilation Press) features sixteen new stories by Illinois writers. There are notable stories by S. C. E. Cooney, Nikki M. Pill, and a particularly good one by Richard Chwedyk.

Dark Territories edited by Gary Frank and Mary SanGiovanni (GSHW Press) is part of an annual anthology series showcasing stories by members of the Garden State Horror Writers. All fifteen stories take place in New Jersey and twelve are published for the first time.

Like a Chinese Tattoo: Twelve Inscrutably Twisted Tales (DarkArts Books) features four writers with three stories each, most originals. Contributors are Cullen Bunn, Rick R. Reed, David Thomas Lord, and J. A. Konrath. The strongest entries are the novellas by Bunn and Konrath.

The Living Dead edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade Books) is an almost five-hundred-page anthology of thirty-four zombie stories (one, a brand new novella by John Langan) including stories by Clive Barker, Laurell K. Hamilton, Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Poppy Z. Brite, and others.

Read by Dawn, Volume 3 edited by Adèle Hartley (Bloody Books) has twenty eight new stories, too many of which are thin on character and seem to unfold with no rhyme or reason. However, this volume is a definite improvement over the earlier two volumes in the series, and there are notable stories by Scott Stainton Miller, Samuel Miner, Peter Gutiérrez, Rebecca Lloyd, Joel Sutherland, Ryan Cooper, and Jamie Killen.

Blood Lite edited by Kevin J. Anderson is published under the aegis of the Horror Writers Association and has twenty-one stories of humorous horror. The stories that best accomplish this difficult task are by Janet Berliner, Lucien Soulban, Nancy Kilpatrick, and Jim Butcher.

Sins of the Sirens: Fourteen Tales of Dark Desire edited by John Everson (Dark Arts Books) presents 20,000 words of original and reprinted fiction by four writers: Loren Rhoads, Maria Alexander, Mehitobel Wilson, and Christa Faust. Some good stories here.

Houses on the Borderland edited by David A. Sutton (British Fantasy Society) features six very dark novellas, all inspired by William Hope Hodgson's classic novel, The House on the Borderland.

Horror Library, Volume 3 edited by R. J. Cavender (Cutting Block Press) has thirty original stories, the best of which were by Stephen Couch, Lisa Morton, Kurt Dinan, A. C. Wise, and Michael C. Cook.

Traps edited by Scott T. Goudsward (DarkHart Press) has twenty-eight stories, the best by Del Howison, P. D. Cacek, J. M Heluk, and Nancy Kilpatrick.

Deadlines: An Anthology of Horror and Dark Fantasy edited by Cheryl Mullenax (Comet Press) has twenty stories, two reprints.

Ghost Stories edited by Peter Washington (Knopf) is a new hardcover volume from the Everyman Library series featuring stories by Jorge Luis Borges, Eudora Welty and Vladimir Nabokov, Ray Bradbury, and others.

Erie Tales: Tales of Terror From Michigan presented by the Great Lakes Horror Association and edited by Bob Strauss is the group's first anthology in a planned annual series.

And Soon… the Darkness edited by David Byron is a NVF Magazine publication (Turner/Maxwell Books) with seventeen stories.

The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 19 edited by Stephen Jones (Robinson): Contained twenty-six stories and novellas, a summary of the year, a necrology, and an index of horror booksellers, organizations, small press publishers, and other useful information. For perhaps the first time in many years the volume covering 2007 did not overlap at all with the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.

Poe's Children: The New Horror, An Anthology edited by Peter Straub (Doubleday) is a strong anthology of dark fiction but has nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe. What it is, is Straub's appreciation of writers not especially known for their horror but who write it brilliantly. Writers such as Elizabeth Hand, Jonathan Carroll, Kelly Link, Dan Chaon, and Brian Evenson. Also, the seasoned writers who have continuously produced excellent dark work for years, those such as Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, David J. Schow, Thomas Ligotti, Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem, and M. John Harrison. The stories by these and the other thirteen authors chosen to represent the field in all its glory may cause disagreements, but the stories are all worth reading and isn't that what any anthology should be about?

Mixed-genre anthologies

Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness edited by Mike Allen (Norilana Books) is the first volume of a projected annual non-theme anthology of all original fantasy fiction. This volume of eighteen stories has a few dark ones, the best by Leah Bobet, Ekaterina Sedia, and Laird Barron. The Ghost Quartet edited by Marvin Kaye (Tor) features four entertaining new stories by Brian Lumley, Marvin Kaye, Tanith Lee, and Orson Scott Card. Hotter than Hell edited by Kim Harrison (and Martin H. Greenberg, credited on the title page, not the cover) (Harper) is a paranormal romance anthology with lots of hot sex and a bit of horror. Twelve stories, with the best of the darker ones by Tanya Huff and Keri Arthur. D.C. Noir 2: The Classics edited by George Pelecanos (Akashic Books) features reprints by Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Russ Thomas, Ward Just, Elizabeth Hand, Pelecanos himself and other writers not as well-known. Manhattan Noir 2: The Classics edited by Lawrence Block (Akashic Books) features reprints by Joyce Carol Oates, Jerome Charyn, Donald. E. Westlake, Barry N. Malzberg, Edgar Allan Poe, Edith Wharton, editor Block, and a host of other well-known writers. Unusual Suspects: Stories of Mystery and Fantasy edited by Dana Stabenow (Ace) features all original stories on the above theme. The best darker stories were by Sharon Shinn and Laurie R. King. Cone Zero: Nemonymous 8 edited by D. F. Lewis (Megazanthus Press) is the editor's continuing experiment in oddly structured anthologies. This one seems to require contributors to use the term "cone zero" somewhere in their story. Four are simply titled "Cone Zero" and two use that phrase in addition to other words. There's not even an introduction to explain the meaning or purpose of Lewis's little game. For this issue, instead of holding the contributor's names back from readers until the next issue of the series, the editor supplies all the names but doesn't reveal who wrote which story. Five of the fourteen stories are both dark and notable. They're by Dominy Clements, A. J. Kirby, Sean Parker, Eric Schaller, and S. D. Tullis. Voices edited by Mark S. Deniz and Amanda Pillar (Morrigan Books) focuses on the history of a hotel's rooms from 1928-2008 and contains original stories by Robert Hood, Gary McMahon, Martin Livings, and others. Better off Undead edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Daniel M. Hoyt (DAW) contains original stories about vampires, haunts, zombies, and mummies but the tone is unusually light. Despite this, there were notable darker stories by Jay Lake, Kate Paulk, and Devon Monk. Alembical: A Distillation of Four Novellas edited by Lawrence M. Schoen and Arthur Dorrance (Paper Golem) features four speculative fiction novellas, including a powerful nightmarish future America envisioned by Jay Lake and a moving ghost story by James Van Pelt. Dreaming Again edited by Jack Dann (HarperVoyager, Australia / Eos, US) follows up Dann's previous non-theme anthology showcase of Australian voices (co-edited with Janeen Webb) the World Fantasy Award-winning Dreaming Down-Under. The second volume is hefty, and there are good darker stories by Trent Jamieson, Lee Battersby, Simon Brown, Sara Douglass, and Terry Dowling. Writers for Relief edited by Davey Beauchamp (Dragon Moon) does something I've never seen a publisher do before: It misspelled one of the two big name contributors' names every place it appears, including on the Table of Contents and under the title of his story. The anthology has a few horror stories in it. The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Ellen Datlow (Del Rey) featured several dark stories, including those by Margo Lanagan, Nathan Ballingrud, Anna Tambour, Richard Bowes, and Laird Barron. The Lanagan and Barron are reprinted herein. Istanbul Noir edited by Mustafa Ziyalan and Amy Spangler (Akashic Books) has three good darker stories by Takan Barlas, Sadik Yemni, and Müge 0plikçi. Writers of the Future, Volume XXIV edited by Algis Budrys (Galaxy) has three notable dark stories by Ian McHugh, Sarah L. Edwards, and Al Bogdan. Fast Ships, Black Sails edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (Night Shade Books) is an entertaining mixed-genre bag of pirate stories. The best of the darker stories were by Conrad Williams, and the collaboration by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette. Killers edited by Colin Harvey (Swimming Kangaroo Books) is a good dark crime anthology with notable stories by editor Harvey, Eugie Foster, Philip J. Lees, and Lee Thomas. The Lone Star Stories Reader edited by Eric T. Marin (LSS Press) showcases fifteen varied stories originally published on the website between 2004 and 2008. Otherworldly Maine edited by Noreen Doyle (Down East) combines twenty-one reprinted and original science fiction, fantasy, and dark fantasy stories about Maine by Mark Twain, Stephen King, Elizabeth Hand, Gardner Dozois, Edgar Pangborn, Steve Rasnic Tem, Gregory Feeley, Melanie Tem, and others. Scary Food: A Compendium of Gastronomic Atrocity edited by Cat Sparks (Agog! Press) is more weird and occasionally disgusting than scary but still, it's a fun little book with entries by Gillian Pollack, Anna Tambour, Stephen Dedman, Margo Lanagan, Lee Battersby, and other Australian writers. Wilde Stories 2008: The Best of the Year's Gay Speculative Fiction edited by Steve Berman (Lethe Press) includes some horror, including stories by Lee Thomas, and collaboration by Joel Lane and John Pelan. Wastelands edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade) reprints twenty-one post-apocalyptic stories by writers including Stephen King, Octavia E. Butler, Jonathan Lethem, George R. R. Martin, Nancy Kress, and others, plus an original by John Langan. The New Weird edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (Tachyon) attempts to define what just might be un-definable-a mode of literature practiced by a diverse group of writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror who (sometimes) appear preoccupied by the grotesque in their fiction. Some of the writers have been publishing for decades: Kathe Koja, M. John Harrison, Clive Barker, Michael Moorcock, Thomas Ligotti, and Paul Di Filippo, to name just a few of those whose work is included. The problematic argument of "the new weird's" difference from slipstream and/or literary cross-genre fiction aside, there are some very good stories, novel excerpts, and essays.

Collections

The Bleeding Horse and Other Ghost Stories by Brian J. Showers (Mercier Fiction) is an attractive-looking little hardcover of seven original stories, adapted by the author from the regional tales of Dublin and its environs. Some of the stories are very creepy, and the book has a gorgeous dust jacket by Scott Hampton and lovingly rendered black and white interior illustrations by Duane Spurlock.

Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters by John Langan (Prime) debut showcases only five stories, all novelettes or novellas, with one new novella. Langan's work is influenced by his work in academia and his interest in the literature of both Henry James and M. R. James. I'm especially fond of Langan's novella "Mr. Gaunt," but all his stories are worth reading. His fine story notes are illuminating to readers who want to know "where did you get that idea."

Other Voices by Andrew Humphrey (Elastic Press) is the second collection by this talented writer. This one, introduced by Eric Brown, contains twelve stories, all but one reprints from such venues as The Third Alternative, Crimewave, Midnight Street, and Bare Bone, and at least half of them received honorable mentions in the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series.

A Thread of Truth by Nina Allen (Eibonvale Press) is an impressive first collection by a writer whose stories I've admired in the magazines Supernatural Tales and Dark Horizons, and in the anthology Strange Tales. Its eight stories are a combination of dark fantasy and dread, mystery, and the occasional barely fantastical. Six appear for the first time in the collection, which came out mid-2007. (first seen in 2008)

Hell Is Murky by John Alfred Taylor (Ash-Tree Press) is a very pleasurable first collection of twenty strange tales published between 1978 and 2007 in venues as varied as The Twilight Zone Magazine, All Hallows, Space and Time, and Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. Four of the stories are original to the collection.

Rope Trick: Thirteen Strange Tales by Mark P. Henderson (Ash-Tree Press) is the author's first published fiction book. The best of the stories are subtle, mysterious, and well-told ghost and haunted house tales, a few lead the reader into a tantalizing maze that unfortunately trails off. All but three of the stories included are previously unpublished.

Coffin Nails by John Llewellyn Probert (Ash-Tree Press) has several new stories among the eighteen in the book. Probert is excellent at creating tension but for me, some of the endings falter, which is a shame. The author provides an entertaining introduction to the volume and afterwords for each story, explaining its genesis.

Scattered Ashes by Scott Nicholson (Dark Regions Press) collects the best of the author's short stories published between 1998 and 2008, with three originals. Nicholson writes in a variety of tones and voices and this is a good introduction to his short work. One reprint appeared in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Twentieth Annual Collection.

Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes by Mark Samuels (PS Showcase 4) has eleven stories, and is the author's third collection. It contains some of Samuels's more recent stories, including one I originally published in Inferno and one reprinted in YBFH #19. Two stories appear for the first time. With an introduction by Ramsey Campbell. The striking jacket art is by Jason Van Hollander.

Ghost Realm by Paul Finch (Ash-Tree Press) showcases nine new stories and novellas featuring hauntings from around Great Britain. These stories have something in common with most of Finch's stories: rough, thoroughly unlikable men who are prone to violence (the women are usually victims of their mates' stupidity/insensitivity). Singly, the stories are often very effective, but all together, in a collection, the oppressiveness can be overwhelming.

Worse Than Myself by Adam Golaski (Raw Dog Screaming) is the first collection by someone who up to now, has been better known for his editorship of New Genre Magazine than his short fiction, but this collection of literary supernatural fiction should change that. The reprints were originally published in Supernatural Tales and All Hallows, and in original anthologies from Ash-Tree Press and Tartarus Press. Six of the eleven stories appear for the first time and although a few founder, most are very good. This trade paperback is the perfect opportunity to check out Golaski's work. "The Man from the Peak" is reprinted herein.

The Autopsy and Other Tales by Michael Shea (Centipede Press) is a gorgeous, over-sized, illustrated volume of twenty-one of the author's best stories and novellas, including some of my favorites: the creepy Lovecraftian Fat Face and the novella I, Said the Fly. The book reprints all eight stories from Polyphemus, published by Arkham House in 1988. Laird Barron has written an introduction to Shea's work. Also included is one story published for the first time.

The Ghosts of Kerfol by Deborah Noyes (Candlewick Press) is a tour de force by a writer best-known as the editor of two excellent young adult horror anthologies: The Restless Dead and Gothic! Retelling the Edith Wharton ghost story "Kerfol," about the murder of a French aristocrat in the seventeenth century from the point of view of a servant girl, Noyes then adds four new ghost tales, all of which take place in the unlucky house over the next four centuries.

Just After Sunset by Stephen King (Scribner) is this prolific author's first collection since 2002 and has thirteen stories published between 1977 and 2008, with "N," a very good novelette, appearing for the first time. With an introduction and story notes by the author.

The Number 121 to Pennsylvania by Kealan Patrick Burke (Cemetery Dance) contains fourteen stories, novellas, and a screenplay of one of the novellas. One novella and the screenplay appear for the first time.

How to Make Monsters by Gary McMahon (Morrigan Books) has fourteen stories about monsters, most human or produced from human fear or anger. Half of the stories appear for the first time.

Slivers of Bone by Ray Garton (Cemetery Dance) is the long-delayed hefty collection of thirteen stories (including two new novellas) by the author best known for his novel about vampire truck-stop hookers, Live Girls.

Halloween and Other Seasons by Al Sarrantonio (Cemetery Dance Publications) is the author's third collection and contains eighteen stories published between 1979 and 2007.

H. P. Lovecraft: the Fiction (Barnes & Noble), part of the B &N Library of essential writers, is a huge volume collecting all his stories in one volume for the first time. It has sixty-eight stories,.

The Strange Cases of Rudolph Pearson by William Jones (Chaosium) is a clever and entertaining collection of ten interrelated stories of Lovecraftian fiction with the framing device of a manuscript of "cases" left by a professor of Medieval studies at Columbia University. Four of the "cases" were previously published.

Haggopian and Other Stories: Best Mythos Tales, Volume 2 by Brian Lumley (Subterranean) collects twenty-four more of the author's Lovecraftian stories.

The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (Del Rey) has sixty-one stories, poems, and story fragments. Introduction by Rusty Burke and illustrations by Greg Staples.

Brimstone Turnpike edited by Kealan Patrick Burke (Cemetery Dance) features five novellas by Thomas F. Monteleone, Scott Nicholson, Mike Oliveri, Harry Shannon, and Tim Waggoner connected by interstitial material written by the editor. In each story, the main character meets an old man at a ruined gas station on a deserted highway, and is given a gift.

Shadows and Other Tales by Tony Richards (Dark Regions Press) is the British author's first U.S. collection and covers the globe with the twenty-one horror stories, two published for the first time. Passport to Purgatory also by Tony Richards (Gray Friar Press) occasionally overlaps with Shadows and Other Tales but most of the fifteen reprints cover different territory.

Voices from Hades by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Regions Press) is a collection of stories loosely related to the author's novel Letters from Hades published in 2003. Here are seven stories (two published for the first time) about dead people who have been consigned to Hades.

Experiments in Human Nature by Monica O'Rourke (Two Backed Books), one of the few female proponents of extreme horror, has included an interesting mix of twenty-three stories, four published for the first time.

Other Gods by Stephen Mark Rainey (Dark Regions Press) collects sixteen stories published over the past twenty years, with one new story included.

Degrees of Fear and Others by C. J. Henderson (Dark Regions Press) features twenty stories and vignettes, two published for the first time, many inspired by Lovecraft.

Skeleton in the Closet and Other Stories edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz (Subterranean) is the second volume in the Reader's Bloch collection and contains a lot of his earlier stories originally published in the pulps.

Gleefully Macabre Tales by Jeff Strand (Delirium Books) showcases thirty-two of the author's mostly humorously grotesque horror stories. Most of the stories are very brief, some are gross (they were entries in WHC gross-out contests). This is most definitely taste specific. It's got appropriate jacket art by Alan M. Clark.

The Garden of Ghosts by Scott Thomas (Dark Regions Press) is a charming collection of eighteen brief ghost stories, all published for the first time. Most are more poignant than horrific but there are a few good scares here.

Inconsequential Tales by Ramsey Campbell (Hippocampus) includes twenty-four stories never before collected-and two never before published. Campbell provides an introduction explaining the inspiration for each story in the volume.

Queen of the Country by d. k. g. goldberg (Prime) has fourteen horror stories (two, never before published) by the late author, who succumbed to cancer in 2005.

Beneath the Surface by Simon Strantzas (Humdrumming) is the debut collection by an expert in British urban ennui. Of the twelve stories, seven appear for the first time.

Tales of the Callamo Mountains by Larry Blamire is a self-published collection of thirteen stories of Western horror by a filmmaker and sometimes actor that's better than most self-published books, and I recommend that readers seek it out.

Mama's Boy and Other Dark Tales by Fran Friel (Apex Publications) has fifteen stories, a few published for the first time.

The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder (Picador) contains three novellas tinged with darkness by a multi-award-winning Japanese writer.

Peripheral Visions by Paul Kane (Creative Guy Publishing) collects twenty-one stories (three appearing for the first time) of dark fantasy and horror by this British writer.

Ennui and Other States of Madness by David Niall Wilson (Dark Regions Press) has sixteen diverse stories (two new) and an original novella-the collection includes Wilson's Stoker Award-winning story "The Gentle Brush of Wings."

Black Pearls: A Faerie Strand by Louise Hawes (Houghton Mifflin) is a young adult collection of seven dark, retold fairy tales.

Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft, Commemorative Edition edited and with an afterword by Stephen Jones (Gollancz) with illustrations by Les Edwards.

Sredni Vashtar: Sardonic Tales by Saki (Tartarus Press) collects thirty-one weird and macabre stories and one novel by noted satirist Hector Hugh Monroe, known by the pen name, Saki. Mark Valentine's introduction gives the reader a glimpse of Saki's life, and explores possible influences on his fiction.

The Triumph of Night and Other Tales by Edith Wharton (Tartarus Press) includes the preface to her collection, Ghosts. In it, she bemoans the literal mindedness of some of her readers who ask how a ghost "could write a letter or put it in a letterbox." The book includes fifteen stories, all those that first appeared in Ghosts and four that were published elsewhere.

A Natural Body and a Spiritual Body: Some Worcestershire Encounters with the Supernatural by J. S. Leatherbarrow (Ash-Tree Press) is a new edition of a twelve-story collection originally published privately in 1983. The Ash-Tree edition contains the original twelve ghost stories plus a previously uncollected story, a preface by the author, and an introduction by James Doig.

Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye by Ingulphus (Arthur Gray) (Ash-Tree Press) with ten stories and one poem, is intended as the "true" history of Jesus College's Everlasting Club, whose members were sworn to meet annually on All Souls' Day. The stories were originally published between 1910 and 1919 in two Cambridge magazines under the pseudonym Ingulphus but then were collected by a publisher and their author revealed to be Arthur Gray, Master of Jesus College.

Mixed-Genre Collections

Unwelcome Bodies by Jennifer Pelland (Apex Publications) is this promising writer's debut collection, and features eleven, mostly dark science fiction stories, three published for the first time. Her best work terrifies in its brutal depiction of future possibilities, but I personally would welcome a little more subtlety. Crazy Love by Leslie What (Wordcraft of Oregon) showcases seventeen, mostly darkly edged stories. Bull Running for Girls by Allyson Bird (Screaming Dreams) is a promising debut with most of the twenty-one stories appearing for the first time, some very good. Islington Crocodiles by Paul Meloy (TTA Press) is a marvelous introduction to this talented author's work, most of which were originally published in The Third Alternative. Meloy's stories are sometimes science fiction, sometimes crime fiction but what they all have in common is his sharp, precise language and a very dark tone. Of the ten stories, three appear for the first time. Summer Morning, Summer Night by Ray Bradbury (P.S./Subterranean Press) contains twenty-seven old and new stories, all set in Greentown, Illinois. Midnight Call and Other Stories by Jonathan Thomas (Hippocampus Press) debuts a new voice with twenty-five stories, most published for the first time, several quite dark. Creeping in Reptile Flesh by Robert Hood (Altair Australian Books) contains fourteen stories (three previously unpublished) of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Voices from Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas (Dark Regions Press) collects eleven more stories set in the terrifically vital, violent, and imaginative world created by Thomas. Two of the stories are new. Sheep and Wolves by Jeremy C. Shipp (Raw Dog Screaming Press) is a mix of the dark and the absurd, with the author taking a little too much delight in creating surrealist images at the expense of developing memorable characters and a story. But it's an interesting first collection. Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco) is a collection of five novellas about the last days of Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway, each written in the author's style. Masks by Ray Bradbury (Gauntlet) features fragments of a never finished novel called The Masks written in the mid-1940s. There are also six previously unpublished stories written between 1947 and 1954 ranging in length from two pages to twenty pages. This is a fascinating view into the imagination of a master. Fourtold by Michael Stone (Baysgarth Publications) contains four novellas about war, magical powers, and grotesqueries. The book has a foreword by Garry Kilworth. Where Angels Fear by Ken Rand (Fairwood Press) is the first of two volumes of the collected short fiction by Rand, who died in 2009. Included are thirty-four sf/f/dark fantasy stories, of which thirteen are appearing for the first time. The Loved Dead and Other Tales by C. M. Eddy, Jr. (Fenham Publishing) is a collection of thirteen stories ranging from horror to mystery by a friend and sometimes collaborator of H. P. Lovecraft. Some of the stories are reprinted here for the first time since their original publication in the pulps. Edited and with an introduction by Jim Dyer. The Wall of America by Thomas M. Disch (Tachyon) includes twenty stories by the late author published between 1981 and 2008 in venues ranging from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, OMNI Magazine, and Interzone to Playboy and The Hudson Review. The Best of Michael Swanwick by Michael Swanwick (Subterranean) has twenty stories from throughout this master craftsman's career including several award winners, some quite dark. With an introduction by the author explaining the origin of each story. Little Creatures by Michael McCarty [and Special Guests] (Sam's Dot) has twenty-five brief stories, eleven published for the first time. Some of the stories are sf/horror. Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade) is the first collection of this lauded young science fiction writer, several of whose short stories are tinged with horror. The ten stories included were published between 1999 and 2008 (one original to the collection). One, "The Fluted Girl," was reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror 17. City of the Sea and Other Ghost Stories by Jerome K. Jerome (Ash-Tree Press) is best known for his comic novel Three Men in a Boat and this is the first book collecting all his ghost stories, humorous and horrific in one volume. With an extensive introduction about the author and his work by Jessica Amanda Salmonson. Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link (Viking), aimed at the young adult market, contains nine stories, several award winners-and all but one previously published. At least a few of the stories are darkly tinged. Australian artist Shaun Tan has created wonderful black and white decorations. PS reissued a beautiful boxed set of the classic Ray Bradbury collection alternately titled The Day It Rained Forever and A Medicine for Melancholy. There is a lot of overlap between the two volumes, but some stories only appeared in one or the other. Both books have different jacket covers and endpapers by Tomislav Tikulin. Jonathan Eller introduces A Medicine for Melancholy and Caitlín R. Kiernan introduces The Day It Rained Forever. Some of Bradbury's most memorable stories appear here, including the two title stories, "The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit," and "Perchance to Dream." The books also contain the story illustrations that originally accompanied them in their first magazine publications. The Drowned Life by Jeffrey Ford (Harper Perennial) consists of sixteen science fiction, fantasy, and dark fantasy stories published between 2002 and 2008, two appearing for the first time. Ford's got a prodigious imagination and always seems keen to push the limits of dream logic. The Best of Lucius Shepard (limited edition includes a trade paperback titled Skull City and Other Lost Stories (Subterranean) is a retrospective of eighteen stories and novellas-or twenty-nine with the extra book-ranging from very early work like "The Taylorville Reconstruction" to his recent award-nominated novella "Stars Seen Through Stone." Oddly, for a project that should be very special, nowhere in either book is there anything other than the stories: no introduction, no commentary by Shepard or anyone else. Nor is there a first publication page.

Journals, Newsletters, Magazines, and Webzines

I feel it's important to recognize the work of the talented artists working in the field of fantastic fiction, both dark and light. The following artists created art that I thought especially noteworthy during 2008: Cameron Gray, Newel Anderson, Lydia Burris, Sarah Xu, Minouk Duin, David Leonard, Ben Sowards, Dave Leri, Luke Ramsey, Donna Kendrigan, Andrew McKiernan, James Birkbeck, Vincent Chong, Steven Archer, Victoria Alexandrova, Jason Levesque, Jason Van Hollander, Saara Salmi, Will Koffman, Daniele Serra, Jane Chen, Brian Smith, Eleanor Clarke, Hendrick Gericke, Vincent Sammy, Pierre Smit, Kobus Faber, Laura Givens, Brad Foster, Dora Wayland, Chrissy Ellsworth, Keith Boulger, Carrie Anne Baade, Fatima Asimova, K. J. Bishop, Eric M. Turnmire, Sandro Castelli, John Picacio, Tim Mullins, Wayne Blackhurst, Steve C. Gilberts, Rodger Gerberding and Suzanne Clarke, Aunia Kahn, Zak Jarvis, Kiriko Moth, Bartlomiej Jurkowski, John Stanton, Harry Fassl, Sean Simmans, Dean Harkness, David Migman, Travis Anthony Soumis, and David Gentry.

There's an enormous annual turnover in small-press magazines, and most rarely last more than a year or two, so it's difficult to recommend buying a subscription to those that haven't proven their longevity. But I urge readers to at least buy single issues of those that sound interesting. Most magazines have web sites with subscription information, eliminating the need to include it here. The following are, I thought, the best in 2008.

Some of the most important magazines/webzines are those specializing in news of the field, market reports, and reviews. The Gila Queen's Guide to Markets, edited by Kathryn Ptacek, emailed to subscribers on a regular basis, is an excellent fount of information for markets in and outside the horror field. Market Maven, edited by Cynthia Ward, is a monthly email newsletter specializing in professional and semi-professional speculative fiction market news. Ralan.com is the web site for up-to-date market information. Locus, edited by Charles N. Brown, Liza Groen Trombi, and Amelia Beamer, and Locus Online, edited by Mark Kelly, specialize in news about the science fiction and fantasy fields, but include horror coverage as well. The only major venues specializing in reviewing short genre fiction are The Fix (http://thefix-online.com/), The Internet Review of Science Fiction (www.irosf.com/), and Locus but none of them specialize in horror. Dead Reckonings: A Review of Horror Literature edited by S. T. Joshi and Jack M. Haringa and published by Hippocampus Press is a fine review journal focusing on contemporary work while also considering the classics. In addition to the reviews, it includes the regular column "Ramsey Campbell, Probably." The first issue of Studies in the Fantastic edited by S. T. Joshi announces its intention to "provide a useful forum for scholars of various disciplines to probe the history, theory, and historical significance of weird fiction, ranging from the analysis of specific authors and works to broader cultural issues raised by the popularity and dissemination of the genre." Issue #1 contains articles by John Langan, George M. Johnson, Joshi, and others, plus original fiction and original and classic poetry. Wormwood: Literature of the Fantastic, Supernatural and Decadent edited by Mark Valentine brought out two issues in 2008, with articles by Peter Bell on Robert Aickman's work as an anthologist, Joel Lane about Fritz Leiber's taking the supernatural tale out of the countryside and into the industrial city, Mike Barrett's overview of Michael McDowell's fiction, Douglas A. Anderson's attempt to resurrect Alexander Crawford, an almost forgotten author of four novels, the ongoing series by Brian Stableford about the decadent world view, and other interesting items. The journal also runs a "late reviews" column covering rare fantasy and supernatural literature, and Camera Obscura, covering recent but possibly overlooked books. Lovecraft Annual edited by S. T. Joshi and published by Hippocampus Press is a journal devoted to H. P. Lovecraft. The second, two-hundred-plus-page issue has meaty articles on Lovecraft and his work, plus reviews. A must for anyone seriously interested in Lovecraft's work. Dissections edited by Gina Wisker, David Sandner, Michael Arnzen, Al Wendland, and Lawrence Connolly put out two online issues in 2008, with articles about the evolution of the heroine in horror film, the evolution of zombies and other pertinent subjects. Poetry is also featured on the website.

Friends of Arthur Machen is a worldwide society aiming to "promote a wider recognition for Machen's work." Members receive the semi-annual Faunus: The Journal of the friends of Arthur Machen edited by Mark Valentine and Ray Russell. The eighteenth issue was published in 2008 as an attractive cloth-bound limited edition. It contains material by Machen and critical essays on his work. The Ghost Story Society was formed in 1988 to provide admirers of the classic ghost story with an outlet for their interest, and membership of the Society now numbers more than four hundred worldwide. The Society offers members an opportunity to exchange thoughts and ideas through regular publication of its journal, All Hallows, which now averages two hundred pages per issue and contains fiction, articles, and letters concerning ghost stories past and present.

A Ghostly Company, a literary society devoted to the ghost story in all forms, was created in 2004 to take up the slack left by the Ghost Story Society, which moved to Canada. It sponsors regular meetings and informal gatherings in the U.K. (foreign members welcome).

The British Fantasy Society has existed for over thirty-five years in order to promote and enjoy the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror in all its forms. Members receive a copy of Prism, the organization's news magazine, with book and games reviews, an events column, and the occasional article. They also receive the dark fantasy fiction magazine, Dark Horizons, and all BFS special publications. The two issues of Dark Horizons brought out in 2008 were the last edited by Peter Coleborn and Jan Edwards, and featured especially good fiction and poetry by Joel Lane and Karl Bell plus interviews with Charles de Lint and Terry Pratchett. New Horizons edited by Andrew Hook is a new, sister publication to Dark Horizons, and will be publishing fantasy. The first issue had interviews with writer Tony Richards and publisher of Eibonvale Press, David Rix.

Horror Writers Association is a useful organization that exists to "promote and protect the careers of professional horror writers and those seeking to enter their ranks, while at the same time using its best endeavors to raise the profile of the horror genre in the publishing industry and among readers in general." There are three levels of membership. The organization gives out the annual Bram Stoker Awards for Superior Achievement.

Magazines

Rue Morgue, edited by Jovanka Vuckovic, is a monthly media magazine covering horror in all its bloody glory (with the still photos to prove it), but in between the gore there are often thoughtful articles and columns. In 2008 the magazine did major features on Sweeney Todd, with an interview with director Tim Burton, a history of the various theatrical productions, and an article about the London neighborhood in which Sweeney supposedly flourished. One issue was dedicated to vampires, showcasing the brilliant Swedish Let the Right One In by interviewing both the director, Tomas Alfredson, and the author of the novel, John Ajvide Lindqvist. Another issue was dedicated to celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Famous Monsters of Filmland and its creator Forrest J. Ackerman.

Fangoria, edited by Anthony Timpone, is a monthly media magazine covering both big and small budget horror productions, the grislier the better. It features columns on film news, DVD releases, video games, and books. All monsters all the time. And guilty of bad punning throughout. The articles are less varied and lightweight compared to those in Rue Morgue.

Video Watchdog, a bi-monthly edited by Tim Lucas, is one of the most exuberant film magazines around, and is one of my favorites, because I'm usually inspired to watch or re-watch at least one movie they review in every issue. The magazine is invaluable for the connoisseur of trashy, pulp, and horror movies and enjoyable for just about everyone. In 2008 there was a lengthy article about the long-running Doctor Who series, a profile and overview of George Méliés, the early filmmaker, and his work. The magazine runs regular columns by Ramsey Campbell and Douglas E. Winter.

Weird Tales edited by Ann VanderMeer continues to reinvent itself with attractive and quirky cover art and design and some lively nonfiction. During 2008 there were interviews with China Miéville, cartoonist/animator Bill Plympton, and Mike Mignola, the creator of Hellboy. The March/April issue ran a fun feature of mini profiles of "the eighty-five weirdest storytellers" in honor of the magazine's 85th anniversary. The weird ones range from Laurie Anderson, Andy Kaufman, Penn & Teller, and Shirley Jackson to J. G. Ballard, Franz Kafka, Andy Warhol, and the Coen Brothers. The stories I enjoyed best in 2008 were by John Kirk, Matthew Pridham, Calvin Mills, Sarah Monette, Karen Heuler, Kelly Barnhill, Cat Rambo, Ramsey Shehadeh, a collaboration by W. M. Pugmire and M. K. Snyder, and a novella by Michael Moorcock.

Cemetery Dance edited by Robert Morrish is way behind its schedule with one issue, a Charles L. Grant tribute, published two years after his death, and most of the book reviews over two years old. This is not promising-there was also only a single issue published in 2007. In 2008's #58, there were interviews with Stephen Graham Jones, T. E. D. Klein, David Morrell, and Robert Masello, plus written tributes to Grant and a reprint of one of his stories. The original stories in the issue were a mixed bag, with the most interesting by Sarah Monette, Karen Heuler, and Ian Rogers. The publisher promises to get back on track in 2009.

Black Static edited by Andy Cox brought out six excellent issues in 2008, with most of the fiction good to excellent-twenty-two stories received honorable mentions-plus a generous number of movie and book reviews and some author profiles. Daniel Kaysen's "The Rising River" is reprinted herein.

Supernatural Tales #14 edited by David Longhorn was an excellent issue, with very good stories by Simon Strantzas, Tony Lovell, C. E. Ward, and Stone Franks. This is a British magazine that could really use your support if you enjoy weird supernatural fiction.

GUD (Greatest Uncommon Denominator Magazine) edited by Kaolin Fire, Sue Miller, Julia Bernd, and Debbie Moorhouse publishes twice a year. It's a perfect-bound magazine that looks like an anthology and contains fiction and poetry with good-looking cover and interior art. The spring issue was darker than the two issues from 2007, and contained notable stories by Kirstyn McDermott, Jeff Somers, Paul Haines, and good poetry by Kristine Ong Muslim and Samantha Henderson.

Shroud edited by Timothy P. Deal is a new bi-monthly magazine publishing dark fiction and featuring interviews with author Brian Keene and dark artist Mike Pucciarelli. There are also book and movie reviews. The best fiction was by John Mantooth, Curtis Bradley Vickers, Maura McHugh, Tim Waggoner, Ken Bruen, and Tom Piccirilli.

Not One of Us edited by John Benson continues to publish unusual, often dark fiction. There were two issues out in 2008, a special one-off called Home and Away, and the first in a planned annual series of chapbooks, Follow the Wounded One by Mike Allen. The best dark stories and poems were by Shane Nelson, Amanda Downum, Sonya Taaffe, and Karen R. Porter.

Dark Discoveries edited by James R. Beach is meant to be a quarterly, but so far has only been published twice a year since 2005. Original fiction, reviews, interviews. There was a very good story by Tim Lebbon in #11.

Something Wicked edited by Joe Vaz is a very promising science fiction and horror quarterly now in its second year, being published in South Africa. There was some fine dark fiction by Michael Bailey, Inge Papp, Widaad Pangarker, Paul Marlowe, Tauriq Moosa, Ian R. Faulkner, and Jonathan C. Gillespie.

Midnight Echo issue 1 edited by Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mondis will be a semi-annual showcase for dark fantasy and horror, with a revolving team of editors, and published under the auspices of the Australian Horror Writers Association. However, submissions are open to everyone. The strongest stories in the first issue are by Deborah Biancotti, Paul Haines, Martin Livings, and the World Fantasy Award-winning British writer Robert Shearman. There will be a series of interviews with new Australian writers in each issue.

Mixed-Genre Magazines

Realms of Fantasy edited by Shawna McCarthy is a bi-monthly that sometimes publishes dark fantasy and occasionally even horror. In 2008 there were notable dark stories by Margaret Ronald, Graham Edwards, and Sharon Mock. The Edwards is reprinted herein. The magazine features a regular, always erudite column on "folk roots," plus book and movie reviews, and a gallery of beautiful samples of fantastic art with text by Karen Haber. Zahir edited by Sheryl Tempchin is published three times a year. The spring issue had a minimal amount of horror in its seven stories but the summer issue had notable dark fiction by Matthew David Brozik, Sarah Odishoo, and Daniel Brugioni. Postscripts is a well-designed quarterly published by Peter Crowther and edited by Nick Gevers. 2008 saw the publication of very good dark stories by Paul Jessup, Eric Schaller, John Grant, Sarah Monette, R. B. Russell, T. M. Wright, and William Alexander. Fictitious Force edited by Jonathan Laden is a quarterly magazine of "speculative fiction," encompassing science fiction, fantasy, and occasionally horror. The best horror in 2008 was by Aliette de Bodard. On Spec edited by Susan MacGregor, Barb Galler-Smith, Diane L. Walton, Robin S. Carson, and Barry Hammond continues its run as the most prominent Canadian sf/f/h magazine with notable dark stories by Claude Lalumière, Daniel LeMoal, Tyler Keevil, and Lisa Carreiro, and a charming fantasy by Kate Riedel. The LeMoal is reprinted herein. Borderlands, the Australian magazine edited by Stephen Dedman, had strong dark fiction in 2008 by Simon Brown, Lyn Battersby, and Shane Dix. Aurealis edited by Stuart Mayne is a long-time fixture in Australia with mixed-genre fiction. Although the copyright page of #40 says 2007, the issue actually came out in 2008 with seven stories, a science article, and book reviews. The best of the darker stories were by Adam Browne, Nathan Burrage, and Paul Haines (also published in issue #2 of GUD). Space and Time edited by Hildy Silverman is a quarterly mix of science, fiction, and horror prose and poetry. During 2008, there were good dark stories and poetry by Jennifer Crow, Gordon Linzner, Laurel Hickey, Kevin Brown, Kendall Evans, Day al-Mohamad, and Doug Russell. Albedo One edited by John Kenny, Frank Ludlow, David Murphy, Roelof Goudriaan, and Robert Neilson published two issues in 2008, neither with much horror, but there was a strong dark story by James Steimle. Talebones edited by Patrick Swenson is a well-produced perfect-bound digest-sized magazine that showcases science fiction and dark fantasy stories and poetry. There were two issues in 2008, with notable dark fiction by Julie McGalliard and Lon Prater. Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, edited by an Australian cooperative, published six issues in 2008. In addition to its fiction, which is mostly sf/f, there are reviews and interviews with Australian luminaries. There were good darker stories by Tessa Kum, Penny-Anne Beaudoin, Cat Sparks, Kent Purvis, Sarah Totten, and Henry Loïc. Shimmer edited by Beth Wodzinski regularly publishes a variety of good fiction, including some dark material. There were notable darker stories in the spring issue by Tinatsu Wallace, M. K. Hobson, Joy Marchand, and Angela Slatter. The Art issue, specially edited by art director Mary Robinette Kowal, asked four writers to produce fiction inspired by the art selected for the issue. There was an especially good dark story in this issue, also by Slatter. Crimewave 10 edited by Andy Cox returns after skipping a year, and the new issue is excellent, with consistently strong stories, especially those by Simon Avery and Daniel Kaysen. Midnight Street edited by Trevor Denyer brought out two issues in 2008, with reviews, poetry, interviews, and notable dark fiction by Simon Bestwick, Andrew Humphrey, and Joel Lane. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction edited by Gordon Van Gelder often publishes dark fantasy and sometimes publishes horror. In 2008, there were strong darker stories by Albert Cowdrey, Scott Dalrymple, Laura Kasischke, John Kessel, Stephen King (also in the King collection), Ted Kosmatka, Marc Laidlaw, Rand B. Lee, Richard Mueller, M. Rickert, James Stoddard, and Steven Utley. Asimov's Science Fiction edited by Sheila Williams occasionally publishes dark fantasy and in 2008 included good ones by Carol Emshwiller, Peter Higgins, Derek Künsken, Tanith Lee, Ian R. MacLeod, Lawrence Person, S. P. Somtow, and Elizabeth Bear (charming and not horrific but Lovecraftian).

The best webzines publishing horror in 2008: Chizine edited by Brett Alexander Savory, Sandra Kasturi, Gord Zajac, and Hannah Wolf Bowen had some fine dark fiction and poetry by David Tallerman, Brenta Blevins, Mia Nutick, Lon Prater, Mildred Tremblay, Michael R. Colangelo, An Owomoyela, and a collaboration by Nick Mamatas and Tim Pratt. Strange Horizons showcases reviews and nonfiction columns and essays in addition to fiction. The fiction is edited by Susan Marie Groppi, Jed Hartman, and Karen Meisner and in 2008 there were good dark stories by Tina Connelly, Haddyr Copley-Woods, and Kris Dikeman. Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show edited by Edmund R. Schubert, while better known for its science fiction and fantasy, had strong dark work by Scott Emerson Bull, John Brown, Alethea Kontis, and James Maxey. Apex Science Fiction and Horror edited by Jason Sizemore is a monthly online webzine with consistently readable fiction. There were notable horror stories by James Walton Langolf, Andrew C. Porter, George Mann, Mary Robinette Kowal, William T. Vandemark, and Lavie Tidhar. Apex's print edition published good dark stories by Lavie Tidhar and Ryck Neube and featured Angela Slatter's informative essay about variations of "Little Red Riding Hood." Heather Shaw and Tim Pratt produced two issues of their little magazine Flytrap, and although most of the stories weren't dark, there were a few standouts by Greg Van Eekhout, M. Rickert, and Catherynne M. Valente. Lone Star Stories edited by Eric T. Marin runs an interesting mix of material and in 2008 had a notable dark story by Samantha Henderson, and good dark poetry by Elizabeth Bear and Elizabeth Hand. McSweeney's 27 edited by Dave Eggers had a facsimile notebook by Art Spiegelman, a small book titled Lots of Things Like This, created to accompany an art show and consisting of art from the show, plus a book of fives stories and one very effective suspense novella by Stephen King.

Poetry magazines, web sites, and chapbooks

Star*Line, the Journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Society edited by Marge Simon is a long-running bi-monthly poetry magazine. There was a good dark poem by JoSelle Vanderhooft. Mythic Delirium, edited by Mike Allen, publishes two issues a year. In 2008 there was strong dark poetry by Jeannine Hall Gailey, Sonya Taaffe, Jessica Paige Wick, Gemma Files, and Jacqueline West. The Magazine of Speculative Poetry edited by Roger Dutcher is published twice a year. In 2008 there was an excellent dark poem by JoSelle Vanderhooft. Dreams and Nightmares, edited by David C. Kopaska-Merkel, has been publishing two or three issues annually since January 1986.

Signs & Wonders by Jennifer Crow (Sam's Dot) is a collection of over forty poems, all published previously. Crow's horror poetry has consistently received Honorable Mentions from me over the years. With illustrations by Marge B. Simon.

A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects by Catherynne M. Valente (Norilana/Curiosities) is a must buy for anyone interested in dark fantasy poetry. Valente is one of the field's most talented poets and prose writers and this collection, with gorgeous cover art by Connie Toebe and lush, thought-provoking poems by Valente, is a perfect introduction to her poetic work. All but two of the poems are reprints. The Phantom World by Gary Crawford (Sam's Dot) has thirty poems, all previously published. Holy Land by Rauan Klassnik (Black Ocean) contains over fifty tiny poems, each only a few powerful lines long. More than half appear for the first time. The Journey to Kailash by Mike Allen (Norilana/Curiosities) is an excellent new collection by one of the best cross-genre poets in the genres of fantasy and dark fantasy. Ten of the more than sixty poems appear for the first time. The Nightmare Collection by Bruce Boston (Dark Regions Press) contains a good variety of this master poet's work, including a few appearing for the first time. Outgrow by Stella Brice (Art Club Press) is an impressive collection of thirty-nine ferocious reinterpretations of fairy tales. Dwarf Stars 2008 edited by Deborah Kolodji and Stephen M. Wilson (Science Fiction Poetry Association) presents the best speculative poems of ten lines or less from 2007. Included are a few horror and dark fantasy poems. The 2008 Rhysling Anthology edited by Drew Morse (Science Fiction Poetry Association) features ninety-six science fiction, fantasy, and horror poems considered the best of 2007 by the members of the association. This is the thirty-first Rhysling volume and it's used by members to vote for the best short and best long poems of the year. Virgin of the Apocalypse by Corinne de Winter (Sam's Dot) has fifty-six poems, all but nine published for the first time. Spores from Sharnoth and Other Madnesses by Leigh Blackmore (P'rea Press) contains forty-five fantasy and horror poems. Clark Ashton Smith: The Complete Poetry and Translations, Volume 1: The Abyss Triumphant and Clark Ashton Smith: The Complete Poetry and Translations, Volume 2: The Wine of Summer edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (Hippocampus Press) represents an impressive achievement by Smith and by the editors, as they've included almost one thousand poems (about three hundred previously unpublished) written over fifty years and have made textual corrections by consulting the original manuscripts.

Nonfiction

Shadows over New England by David Goudsward and Scott T. Goudsward (BearManor Media) is a very entertaining guide to places (real and imaginary) in New England that have been the inspiration for horror stories, novels, and movies. Taboo Breakers: 18 Independent Films That Courted Controversy and Created a Legend by Calum Waddell (Telos) analyzes eighteen titles that Waddell believes pushed boundaries and used shock tactics to sell tickets. Even if you haven't seen some of the movies, the descriptions are so detailed that you get the idea. There are interviews with the directors, writers, and occasionally actors. Some of the movies included are Blood Feast, Night of the Living Dead, Cannibal Holocaust, Coffey, and The Plague Dogs. Stephen King: A Primary Bibliography of the World's Most Popular Author by Justin Brooks (CD) has over nine hundred entries and covers all of King's published and known unpublished works from 1959 to the end of 2005. The New Annotated Dracula by Bram Stoker, edited and with a foreword and notes by Leslie S. Klinger (W. W. Norton), is a joy to behold. The book is massive, with over six hundred pages rich with material including the original 1897 text of the novel, annotations, illustrations, and photographs. Also included are an introduction by Neil Gaiman and a lengthy article on the context of Dracula.

The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula by Eric Nuzum (St. Martin's Griffin) explores the vampire in pop culture. Dark Banquet: Blood & the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures by Bill Schutt (Harmony), in which a zoologist takes readers on a voyage into the world of some of nature's strangest creatures-the sanguivores-those that subsist on blood. Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-Garde by David Huckvale (McFarland) explains "how Hammer commissioned composers at the cutting edge of European musical modernism to write their movie scores, introducing the avant-garde into popular culture." With illustrations. The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Dracula by Mark Dawidziak (Continuum) is a relatively brief (188 pages) but dense guide for the non-expert aficionado. Spirits and Death in Niagara by Marcy Italiano (Schiffer) is a guide to the supernatural and macabre in the towns of Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake on the Canadian-US border. Shock Festival by Stephen Romano (IDW) is an illustrated history of one hundred and one of the strangest, sleaziest, most outrageous movies you've never seen-because they're imaginary. With hundreds of exclusive, never-before-seen original movie posters and memorabilia items (of the non-existent films). A Halloween Anthology: Literary and Historical Writings Over The Centuries by Lisa Morton (McFarland) has twenty-seven entries including poems, short stories, excerpts from books on folklore, Irish and Scottish folk tales, and a one-act play. Horror Isn't a 4-Letter Word: Essays on Writing & Appreciating the Genre by Matthew Warner (Guide Dog Books) collects columns originally written between 2002 and 2007 for horrorworld.org and the Hellnotes newsletter. The Monster Hunter in Modern Popular Culture by Heather L. Duda (McFarland) surveys books, films, television shows, and graphic novels showing the evolution of the monster hunter from white, upper-class, educated male to everything from a vampire to a teenage girl with supernatural powers. Videodrome: Studies in the Horror Film by Tim Lucas (Millipede Press) celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Cronenberg film. Movie expert and publisher of Video Watchdog, Lucas has interviewed cast and crew, including exclusive, never-before-published interviews with Cronenberg, provides commentary and analysis of the film, and over sixty black-and-white and color photographs, many never before seen. The Great Monster Magazines: A Critical Study of the Black and White Publications of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s by Robert Michael "Bobb" Cotter (McFarland). Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide by Glenn Kay (Chicago Review Press) provides a chronological listing, with summaries and reviews, for more than two hundred and fifty films released from 1932 to 2008. Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead by Jonathan Maberry (Citadel) seems like the perfect companion volume to the Zombie Survival Guide of several years ago, covering the history, culture, and science of zombies. It also analyzes how an actual zombie epidemic might play out in the real world. Hazel Court Horror Queen: An Autobiography by Hazel Court (Tomahawk Press) is lavishly illustrated. Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption by Thomas S. Hibbs (Spence) is a critical examination of noir and neo-noir films through the lens of spiritual journeys and religious redemption. Dreams and Nightmares: Science and Technology in Myth and Fiction by Mordecai Roshwald (McFarland). A New Dawn: Your Favorite Authors on Stephenie Meyers' Twilight Series (Ben Bella) edited by Ellen Hopkins and Leah Wilson has thirteen essays and is available only through Borders. Horror Panegyric by Keith Seward (Savoy Books) has a critical essay on the Lord Horror novels of David Britton plus excerpts from those novels. The Vampire Hunter's Handbook by Raphael Van Helsing (Pavilion) is an illustrated guide/diary about vampires. Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity Through the Renaissance by Leslie A. Sconduto (McFarland). American Exorcist: Critical Essays on William Peter Blatty edited by Benjamin Szumskyj (McFarland) collects thirteen essays on Blatty's work. A Hideous Bit of Morbidity: An Anthology of Horror Criticism from the Enlightenment to World War I edited by Jason Colavito (McFarland) collects reviews and essays showing how the critical reception to horror evolved during that period. Silver Scream: 40 Classic Horror Movies Volume One 1920-1941 by Steven Warren Hill (Telos) is a dense, compact guide covering early horror movies including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, Frankenstein, and The Devil Bat. Each movie is covered in detail, with a description of the plot, highlights, memorable quotes, lowlights, goofs, trivia, cast and crew, music, the movie's context in film history, changes that shaped the production, and video availability, critical words-the author's opinions, and another perspective-introducing "guest" reviewers for each film. Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King by Lisa Rogak (St Martin's/A Thomas Dunne Book) is a biography of the writer, with eight pages of black-and-white photographs. Dissecting Hannibal Lecter: Essays on the Novels of Thomas Harris by Benjamin Szumskyj (McFarland) examines all five of Harris' novels, including Black Sunday, his first, oddly prescient novel about terrorism. Book of Souls by Jack Ketchum (Bloodletting Press) is a short collection of personal essays by the author, providing insight into his fiction. Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth (Hippocampus Press) is a two-volume set edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi. The first volume covers 1926-1931 and the second 1932-1937. The introduction provides context for the hundreds of letters, which are annotated by the editors. The Book of Lists: Horror by Amy Wallace, Del Howison, and Scott Bradley (Harper) has an introduction by Gahan Wilson and includes everything from the top six grossing horror films of all time in the United States (adjusted for inflation) and the eight worst monster movie costumes to eight memorable quotes from horror writers. The Fly at Fifty: The Creation and Legacy of a Classic Science Fiction Film by Diana Kachmar & David Goudsward (BearManor Media) celebrates The Fly by including profiles and interviews with many of those connected to both adaptations of the original story-which is itself included and well worth reading. Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller (McFarland), is a fantastic book that provides insight into the choices Stoker made in the creation of his masterwork. The notes, photographs, and newspaper clippings reproduced in the book are housed in the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia. Flowers from Hell: The Modern Japanese Horror Film by Jim Harper (Noir Publishing) provides an absorbing primer for newcomers to its subject, covering the past twenty-five years worth of movies leading up to the most recent crop of Japanese horror films. The book is broken down into chapters covering specific types of horror movies and some of the genre's most influential directors. Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon (McSweeney's Books) collects fifteen essays and reviews by Chabon about such subjects as M. R. James's ghost stories, Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, golems, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road-this last essay referencing previous post-disaster novels by John Christopher, John Wyndham, J. G. Ballard, Roger Zelazny, Richard Matheson, and Walter M. Miller, Jr. Servants of the Supernatural: The Night Side of the Victorian Mind by Antonio Melechi (William Heinemann) covers the keen interest and experimentation with mesmerism and spiritualism that even the learned exhibited during the Victorian era. Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt with illustrations by Tatsuya Morino (Kodansha International) is a seemingly serious guide to the traditional Japanese creatures that do men harm, separated into chapters covering ferocious fiends, gruesome gourmets, annoying neighbors, the sexy and the slimy, and the wimps. Each chapter gives the name of the monster, where it can be found, how to identify it, and how to survive an attack. Basil Copper: A Life in Books compiled and edited by Stephen Jones (PS) is a marvelous combination memoir/biography of a living legend of horror with photographs of Copper and his friends over the years, articles by him, and bibliographies of his prose and media work. Also included is the previously unpublished teleplay of Copper's adaptation of M. R. James's ghost story, "Count Magnus." The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi (Grand Central) is a riveting true crime investigation of a series of brutal, unsolved murders committed over a period of decades. Preston and his family move to Florence in 2000, the dream of a lifetime, and he becomes fascinated with the unsolved crimes (one of which took place in the olive grove next to his home, years before). He joins forces with journalist Mario Spezi and together they dig deeper into the failed investigation, finding themselves facing bizarre accusations by the police.

Chapbooks and other small press items

KRDR: Welcome to the Ether (Earthling Publications) features three new stories by Peter Atkins, Glen Hirshberg, and Kevin Moffett with interstitial material by Atkins and Hirshberg. The chapbook is the physical manifestation of the readings that the three writers gave in California during the month of October. The Shallow End of the Pool by Adam-Troy Castro (Creeping Hemlock Press) is an unbelievable yet intriguing story about a warring, formerly married couple who have each taken one twin to raise and rigorously train to fight to the death once the children are old enough. Cemetery Dance publishes a chapbook story series and in 2008 brought out The Lost by Sarah Langan, about a young woman who is literally disappearing from her own life. Overtoun Bridge by Bev Vincent, a ghost story about a bridge from which dogs have jumped to their deaths for over thirty years. Tanglewood by Ronald Kelly is about a guy with a marriage going sour whose car breaks down when he takes a short cut through the woods. Bone Harvest by James A. Moore is about two unlucky amateur botanists who venture into a unique wood in which something resides that's even more dangerous than the weird plants that grow there. Triptych: 3 Tales of Terror by Michael Kelly and Carol Weekes (Undertow Publications) has two reprints, and an original about suburban ennui that's not at all horrific. Redemption Roadshow by Weston Ochse (Burning Effigy Press) is a tautly written story about an Arizona Highway Patrolman who begins noticing the crosses and shrines dotting the side of the road commemorating loved ones who have died in car accidents. When he hears about the "long cool woman"-a woman in a coma since she was a child who purportedly can speak with the dead along the road, he finds himself burning for redemption. Miranda by John Little (Bad Moon Books) is about a man aging backwards and Miranda is the woman he meets on his journey-with the same condition. Off the top of my head I can think of (obviously) F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and the award-winning story "Morning Child" by Gardner Dozois. I'm also pretty sure there are at least a half-dozen earlier stories with the same MacGuffin. The Reach of Children by Tim Lebbon (Humdrumming) is about a ten-year-old boy grief-stricken at his mother's death. His father drinks to dampen his misery and talks to a mysterious pine box under the bed. The boy begins to hear a voice coming from the box, saying things he might not want to hear. Nice job. Follow the Wounded One by Mike Allen (Not One of Us) is about a man who is becoming increasingly disoriented by what he believes are hallucinations of being hunted by a giant, blue-eyed being with horns. The Long Way by Ramsey Campbell (PS) is about a young boy who loves writing scary stories but hides them from his strict family. The boy must pass a deserted street with one lone house on his weekly trip to and from taking his disabled uncle shopping and one day he sees someone or something that frightens him more than the stories he makes up. It's a lovely hardback book with a fine black and white illustration by Wayne Blackhurst on the cover. The Gray Friar Christmas Chapbook 2007 presents seven stories by writers who have been published by Gray Friar Press. Four of the stories appear for the first time. Living with the Dead by Darrell Schweitzer (PS) is a compelling novella about a town that houses the regularly arriving dead, delivered and deposited by ships in the night and left in piles on the wharf come morning. Grotesque without being frightening but a very good read. A Dick and Jane Primer for Adults edited by Lavie Tidhar (BFS) contains ten very brief stories using the children's primer book characters (sometimes along with their dog, Spot). Cover and interior art is by John Keates, and Jeff VanderMeer has written an introduction. Most of the stories are trifles but Conrad Williams's is more than that. Divagations by John Maclay (Delirium Books) is a small, attractive hardcover containing six new stories. The book is number five in the publisher's chapbook series. Suckers by J. A. Konrath and Jeff Strand (Delirium Books) is a fun, silly story about the adventures of a guy out to find the "correct" spaghetti sauce for dinner and a crazy nut of a private eye hired to rescue a Goth teen from the clutches of wannabe vampires. Orpheus and the Pearl by Kim Paffenroth (Magus Press) takes place in a suburb of Boston during the 1920s and is about a female follower of Freud hired to "cure" the ailing wife of a famous research scientist. A common horror trope made new. Tails of Tales of Pain & Wonder by Caitlín E. Kiernan (Subterranean) accompanied the third edition of Kiernan's collection Tales of Pain and Wonder, and includes seven story fragments from over the years. Little Graveyard on the Prairie by Steven E. Wedel (Eclipse) has three stories, two of them reprints. The title story is new, and it's about a lonely, broken former farmer who sees ghosts and is losing his sanity. Red by Paul Kane (Skullvines Press) is about a grisly serial killer that turns out to be more than he seems in this fast-paced novella. The Situation by Jeff VanderMeer (PS) is an imaginative and surreal oddity about the office from Hell, in the tradition of Eileen Gunn's classic "Stable Strategies for Middle Management," Thomas Ligotti, and Franz Kafka. Charles Urban's Brutal Spirits edited by Gary McMahon (The Swan River Press) is presented as a mss found by McMahon, a friend of the late (non-existent?) Charles Urban. It's a clever and nicely creepy tale about a haunted multi-story parking garage. The Oz Suite by Gerard Houarner (Eibonvale Press) contains three intriguing stories riffing on the real versus imaginary worlds of the Wizard of Oz. One story was previously published, the second two are new.

Odds and Ends

Black Box edited by Shane Jiraiya Cummings (Brimstone Press) is a multimedia follow-up to Shadow Box, featuring dozens of pieces of horror flash fiction, most by Australians, plus sound effects and music.

The Complete Collected Essays of H. P. Lovecraft edited by S. T. Joshi (Hippocampus) can now be bought as a CD-ROM. The disc includes the five volumes that were previously released in trade paperback. Also included is the complete run of Lovecraft's amateur magazine, The Conservative.

The Sirenia Digest by Caitlín R. Kiernan is a PDF file emailed monthly to subscribers. In it she always includes a story or vignette or two, an excerpt from a novel-in-progress, and occasionally a guest's story (Sonya Taaffe has contributed fiction on several occasions). You can subscribe by going to Kiernan's website.

The Nightmare Factory, Volume 2 by Thomas Ligotti (HarperCollins/Fox Atomic Comics) collects graphic adaptations of "Gas Station Carnivals," "The Clown Puppet," "The Chymist," and "The Sect of the Idiot." Ligotti provides introductions. Stuart Moore and Joe Harris adapted the stories and the art is by Bill Sienkiewicz, Toby Cypress, Vasilis Lolos, and Nick Stakal.

Fantasy Classics, Graphic Classics, Volume 15 edited by Tom Pomplun (Eureka productions) includes work by Lord Dunsany, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, L. Frank Baum, Clark Ashton-Smith, and H. P. Lovecraft, illustrated by various artists.

Three Shadows by Cyril Pedrosa (First Second) is a graphic novel translated from French about a father determined to save his young son's life, despite the three shadows that want to take him away. He takes the child on a journey to cheat fate, encountering pain and ugliness and magic along the way. Dark and moving.

Where Madness Reigns: The Art of Gris Grimly (Baby Tattoo Books) is a fun introduction to the grotesque yet charming cartoonish art of this illustrator, which ranges from evil bunnies to a pill-filled Elvis. The book includes samples from a 2007 gallery exhibition and privately owned art that has never before been published.

The Dangerous Alphabet by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Gris Grimly (HarperCollins) is a clever, rhyming pirate journey taken by two children who meet with all types of wicked, ugly, and dangerous creatures beneath the city where they live.

Sparrow art book series number six by Rick Berry (IDW Publishing) is a small square hardcover book of a variety of darkly fantastic and sometimes erotic subjects. Berry is best-known for illustrating Stephen King's and Harlan Ellison's work.

Poe: A Screenplay by Stewart O'Nan (Lonely Road Books) is a limited edition of O'Nan's so far unproduced screenplay about Edgar Allan Poe's life. With an introduction by Roger Corman, a beautiful black and white frontispiece by artist Jill Bauman, and an afterword by O'Nan explaining why he wrote the screenplay.

Spectrum 15: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, edited by Cathy Fenner and Arnie Fenner (Underwood Books), covered the year 2007 and was juried by five fantasy artists. The book continues to be the showcase for the best in genre art-the sheer variety of style and tone and media and subject matter is impressive. The volume was heftier than in the past, having added over twenty pages. John Jude Palencar was honored with the Grand Master Award, and to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the series an award for Best in Show was given to James Jean. Arnie Fenner provided an overview of the political and cultural year plus a necrology. The jury convened in Kansas City all day where they decided on Gold and Silver awards in several categories. This is a book for anyone interested in art of the fantastic, dark or light.

The brilliant Shaun Tan strikes again with his gorgeously illustrated Tales From Outer Suburbia (Allen & Unwin/Scholastic), a book of fifteen brief, strange, occasionally dark and always delightful stories. For children and adults.

A Lovecraft Retrospective: Artists Inspired by H. P. Lovecraft (Centipede Press) is a massive, beautifully rendered undertaking with a preface by Stuart Gordon, introduction by Harlan Ellison, and afterword by Thomas Ligotti. The book is divided into three sections covering: the early art, created in the 1920s to 1950s and including such artists as Hannes Bok, Virgil Finlay, and Lee Brown Coye; the middle art, created in the 1960s and 1970s including Bernie Wrightson, Harry O. Morris, Stephen Fabian, H. R. Giger; and modern art, including J. K. Potter, John Jude Palencar, Ian Miller, Les Edwards, Bob Eggleton. In all, there are at least eighty-five artists represented, and text by Stefan Dziemianowicz introducing the three sections and some of the artists (except for the entry on H. R. Giger, written by Harlan Ellison). In the back is a section of thumbnails of each piece of art found inside the book, and mini-biographies of each artist. The book is two feet high, with full page illustrations in color and in black and white. Pricey but gorgeous.

Cargo by E. Michael Lewis

November 1978

I dreamt of cargo. Thousands of crates filled the airplane's hold, all made of unfinished pine, the kind that drives slivers through work gloves. They were stamped with unknowable numbers and bizarre acronyms that glowed fiercely with dim red light. They were supposed to be jeep tires, but some were as large as a house, others as small as a spark plug, all of them secured to pallets with binding like straitjacket straps. I tried to check them all, but there were too many. There was a low shuffling as the boxes shifted, then the cargo fell on me. I couldn't reach the interphone to warn the pilot. The cargo pressed down on me with a thousand sharp little fingers as the plane rolled, crushing the life out of me even as we dived, even as we crashed, the interphone ringing now like a scream. But there was another sound too, from inside the crate next to my ear. Something struggled inside the box, something sodden and defiled, something that I didn't want to see, something that wanted

out.

It changed into the sound of a clipboard being rapped on the metal frame of my crew house bunk. My eyes shot open. The airman-new in-country, by the sweat lining his collar-stood over me, holding the clipboard between us, trying to decide if I was the type to rip his head off just for doing his job. "Tech Sergeant Davis," he said, "they need you on the flight line right away."

I sat up and stretched. He handed me the clipboard and attached manifest: a knocked-down HU-53 with flight crew, mechanics, and medical support personnel bound for… somewhere new.

" Timehri Airport?"

"It's outside Georgetown, Guyana." When I looked blank, he went on, "It's a former British colony. Timehri used to be Atkinson Air Force Base."

"What's the mission?"

"It's some kind of mass med-evac of ex-pats from somewhere called Jonestown."

Americans in trouble. I'd spent a good part of my Air Force career flying Americans out of trouble. That being said, flying Americans out of trouble was a hell of a lot more satisfying than hauling jeep tires. I thanked him and hurried into a clean flight suit.

I was looking forward to another Panamanian Thanksgiving at Howard Air Force Base-eighty-five degrees, turkey and stuffing from the mess hall, football on Armed Forces Radio, and enough time out of flight rotation to get good and drunk. The in-bound hop from the Philippines went by the numbers and both the passengers and cargo were free and easy. Now this.

Interruption was something you grew accustomed to as a Loadmaster. The C-141 StarLifter was the largest freighter and troop carrier in the Military Air Command, capable of carrying seventy thousand pounds of cargo or two hundred battle-ready troops and flying them anywhere in the world. Half as long as a football field, the high-set swept-back wings drooped bat-like over the tarmac. With an upswept T-tail, petal-doors, and a built-in cargo ramp, the StarLifter was unmatched when it came to moving cargo. Part stewardess and part moving man, my job as a Loadmaster was to pack it as tight and as safe as possible.

With everything onboard and my weight and balance sheets complete, the same airman found me cussing up the Panamanian ground crew for leaving a scuffmark on the airframe.

"Sergeant Davis! Change in plans," he yelled over the whine of the forklift. He handed me another manifest.

"More passengers?"

"New passengers. Med crew is staying here." He said something unintelligible about a change of mission.

"Who are these people?"

Again, I strained to hear him. Or maybe I heard him fine and with the sinking in my gut, I wanted him to repeat it. I wanted to hear him wrong.

" Graves registration," he cried.

That's what I'd thought he'd said.

***

Timehri was your typical third-world airport-large enough to squeeze down a 747, but strewn with potholes and sprawling with rusted Quonset huts. The low line of jungle surrounding the field looked as if it had been beaten back only an hour before. Helicopters buzzed up and down and US servicemen swarmed the tarmac. I knew then that things must be bad.

Outside the bird, the heat rising from the asphalt threatened to melt the soles of my boots even before I had the wheel chocks in place. A ground crew of American GIs approached, anxious to unload and assemble the chopper. One of them, bare-chested with his shirt tied around his waist, handed me a manifest.

"Don't get comfy," he said. "As soon as the chopper's clear, we're loading you up." He nodded over his shoulder.

I looked out over the shimmering taxiway. Coffins. Rows and rows of dull aluminum funerary boxes gleamed in the unforgiving tropical sun. I recognized them from my flights out of Saigon six years ago, my first as Loadmaster. Maybe my insides did a little flip because I'd had no rest, or maybe because I hadn't carried a stiff in a few years. Still, I swallowed hard. I looked at the destination: Dover, Delaware.

***

The ground crew loaded a fresh comfort pallet when I learned we'd have two passengers on the outbound flight.

The first was a kid, right out of high school by the look of it, with bristle-black hair, and too-large jungle fatigues that were starched, clean, and showed the rank of Airman First Class. I told him, "Welcome aboard," and went to help him through the crew door, but he jerked away, nearly hitting his head against the low entrance. I think he would have leapt back if there had been room. His scent hit me, strong and medicinal-Vicks VapoRub.

Behind him a flight nurse, crisp and professional in step, dress, and gesture, also boarded without assistance. I regarded her evenly. I recognized her as one of a batch I had flown regularly from Clark in the Philippines to Da Nang and back again in my early days. A steel-eyed, silver-haired lieutenant. She had been very specific-more than once-in pointing out how any numbskull high school dropout could do my job better. The name on her uniform read Pembry. She touched the kid on his back and guided him to the seats, but if she recognized me, she said nothing.

"Take a seat anywhere," I told them. "I'm Tech Sergeant Davis. We'll be wheels up in less than half an hour so make yourself comfortable."

The kid stopped short. "You didn't tell me," he said to the nurse.

The hold of a StarLifter is most like the inside of a boiler room, with all the heat, cooling, and pressure ducts exposed rather than hidden away like on an airliner. The coffins formed two rows down the length of the hold, leaving a center aisle clear. Stacked four high, there were one hundred and sixty of them. Yellow cargo nets held them in place. Looking past them, we watched the sunlight disappear as the cargo hatch closed, leaving us in an awkward semi-darkness.

"It's the fastest way to get you home," she said to him, her voice neutral. "You want to go home, don't you?"

His voice dripped with fearful outrage. "I don't want to see them. I want a forward facing seat."

If the kid would have looked around, he could have seen that there were no forward facing seats.

"It's okay," she said, tugging on his arm again. "They're going home, too."

"I don't want to look at them," he said as she pushed him to a seat nearest one of the small windows. When he didn't move to strap himself in, Pembry bent and did it for him. He gripped the handrails like the oh-shit bar on a roller coaster. "I don't want to think about them."

"I got it." I went forward and shut down the cabin lights. Now only the twin red jump lights illuminated the long metal containers. When I returned, I brought him a pillow.

The ID label on the kid's loose jacket read "Hernandez." He said, "Thank you," but did not let go of the armrests.

Pembry strapped herself in next to him. I stowed their gear and went through my final checklist.

***

Once in the air, I brewed coffee on the electric stove in the comfort pallet. Nurse Pembry declined, but Hernandez took some. The plastic cup shook in his hands.

"Afraid of flying?" I asked. It wasn't so unusual for the Air Force. "I have some Dramamine… "

"I'm not afraid of flying," he said through clenched teeth. All the while he looked past me, to the boxes lining the hold.

Next the crew. No one bird was assigned the same crew, like in the old days. The MAC took great pride in having men be so interchangeable that a flight crew who had never met before could assemble at a flight line and fly any StarLifter to the ends of the Earth. Each man knew my job, like I knew theirs, inside and out.

I went to the cockpit and found everyone on stations. The second engineer sat closest to the cockpit door, hunched over instrumentation. "Four is evening out now, keep the throttle low," he said. I recognized his hangdog face and his Arkansas drawl, but I could not tell from where. I figured after seven years of flying StarLifters, I had flown with just about everybody at one time or another. He thanked me as I set the black coffee on his table. His flightsuit named him Hadley.

The first engineer sat in the bitchseat, the one usually reserved for a "Black Hatter"-mission inspectors were the bane of all MAC aircrews. He asked for two lumps and then stood and looked out the navigator's dome at the blue rushing past.

"Throttle low on four, got it," replied the pilot. He was the designated Aircraft Commander, but both he and the co-pilot were such typical flight jocks that they could have been the same person. They took their coffee with two creams each. "We're trying to outfly some clear air turbulence, but it won't be easy. Tell your passengers to expect some weather."

"Will do, sir. Anything else?"

"Thank you, Load Davis, that's all."

"Yes, sir."

Finally time to relax. As I went to have a horizontal moment in the crew berth, I saw Pembry snooping around the comfort pallet. "Anything I can help you find?"

"An extra blanket?"

I pulled one from the storage cabinet between the cooking station and the latrine and gritted my teeth. "Anything else?"

"No," she said, pulling a piece of imaginary lint from the wool. "We've flown together before, you know."

"Have we?"

She raised an eyebrow. "I probably ought to apologize."

"No need, ma'am," I said. I dodged around her and opened the fridge. "I could serve an in-flight meal later if you are… "

She placed her hand on my shoulder, like she had on Hernandez, and it commanded my attention. "You do remember me."

"Yes, ma'am."

"I was pretty hard on you during those evac flights."

I wished she'd stop being so direct. "You were speaking your mind, ma'am. It made me a better Loadmaster."

"Still… "

"Ma'am, there's no need." Why can't women figure out that apologies only make things worse?

"Very well." The hardness of her face melted into sincerity, and suddenly it occurred to me that she wanted to talk.

"How's your patient?"

"Resting." Pembry tried to act casual, but I knew she wanted to say more.

"What's his problem?"

"He was one of the first to arrive," she said, "and the first to leave."

"Jonestown? Was it that bad?"

Flashback to our earlier evac flights. The old look, hard and cool, returned instantly. "We flew out of Dover on White House orders five hours after they got the call. He's a Medical Records Specialist, six months in the service, he's never been anywhere before, never saw a day of trauma in his life. Next thing he knows, he's in a South American jungle with a thousand dead bodies."

"A thousand?"

"Count's not in yet, but it's headed that way." She brushed the back of her hand against her cheek. "So many kids."

"Kids?"

"Whole families. They all drank poison. Some kind of cult, they said. Someone told me the parents killed their children first. I don't know what could make a person do that to their own family." She shook her head. "I stayed at Timehri to organize triage. Hernandez said the smell was unimaginable. They had to spray the bodies with insecticide and defend them from hungry giant rats. He said they made him bayonet the bodies to release the pressure. He burned his uniform." She shuffled to keep her balance as the bird jolted.

Something nasty crept down the back of my throat as I tried not to visualize what she said. I struggled not to grimace. "The AC says it may get rough. You better strap in." I walked her back to her seat. Hernandez's mouth gaped as he sprawled across his seat, looking for all the world like he'd lost a bar fight-bad. Then I went to my bunk and fell asleep.

***

Ask any Loadmaster: after so much time in the air, the roar of engines is something you ignore. You find you can sleep through just about anything. Still, your mind tunes in and wakes up at the sound of anything unusual, like the flight from Yakota to Elmendorf when a jeep came loose and rolled into a crate of MREs. Chipped beef everywhere. You can bet the ground crew heard from me on that one. So it should not come as a shock that I started at the sound of a scream.

On my feet, out of the bunk, past the comfort pallet before I could think. Then I saw Pembry. She was out of her seat and in front of Hernandez, dodging his flailing arms, speaking calmly and below the engine noise. Not him, though.

"I heard them! I heard them! They're in there! All those kids! All those kids!"

I put my hand on him-hard. "Calm down!"

He stopped flailing. A shamed expression came over him. His eyes riveted mine. "I heard them singing."

"Who?"

"The children! All the… " He gave a helpless gesture to the unlighted coffins.

"You had a dream," Pembry said. Her voice shook a little. "I was with you the whole time. You were asleep. You couldn't have heard anything."

"All the children are dead," he said. "All of them. They didn't know. How could they have known they were drinking poison? Who would give their own child poison to drink?" I let go of his arm and he looked at me. "Do you have kids?"

"No," I said.

"My daughter," he said, "is a year-and-a-half old. My son is three months. You have to be careful with them, patient with them. My wife is really good at it, y'know?" I noticed for the first time how sweat crawled across his forehead, the backs of his hands. "But I'm okay too, I mean, I don't really know what the fuck I'm doing, but I wouldn't hurt them. I hold them and I sing to them and-and if anyone else tried to hurt them… " He grabbed me on the arm that had held him. "Who would give their child poison?"

"It isn't your fault," I told him.

"They didn't know it was poison. They still don't." He pulled me closer and said into my ear, "I heard them singing." I'll be damned if the words he spoke didn't make my spine shiver.

"I'll go check it out," I told him as I grabbed a flashlight off the wall and started down the center aisle.

There was a practical reason for checking out the noise. As a Loadmaster, I knew that an unusual sound meant trouble. I had heard a story about how an aircrew kept hearing the sound of a cat meowing from somewhere in the hold. The Loadmaster couldn't find it, but figured it'd turn up when they off-loaded the cargo. Turns out the "meowing" was a weakened load brace that buckled when the wheels touched runway, freeing three tons of explosive ordnance and making the landing very interesting. Strange noises meant trouble, and I'd have been a fool not to look into it.

I checked all the buckles and netting as I went, stooping and listening, checking for signs of shifting, fraying straps, anything out of the ordinary. I went up one side and down the other, even checking the cargo doors. Nothing. Everything was sound, my usual best work.

I walked up the aisle to face them. Hernandez wept, head in his hands. Pembry rubbed his back with one hand as she sat next to him, like my mother had done to me.

"All clear, Hernandez." I put the flashlight back on the wall.

"Thanks," Pembry replied for him, then said to me, "I gave him a Valium, he should quiet down now."

"Just a safety check," I told her. "Now, both of you get some rest."

I went back to my bunk to find it occupied by Hadley, the second engineer. I took the one below him but couldn't fall asleep right away. I tried to keep my mind far away from the reason that the coffins were in my bird in the first place.

Cargo was the euphemism. From blood plasma to high explosives to secret service limousines to gold bullion, you packed it and hauled it because it was your job, that was all, and anything that could be done to speed you on your way was important.

Just cargo, I thought. But whole families that killed themselves… I was glad to get them the hell out of the jungle, back home to their families-but the medics who got there first, all those guys on the ground, even my crew, we were too late to do any more than that. I was interested in having kids in a vague, unsettled sort of way, and it pissed me off to hear about anyone harming them. But these parents did it willingly, didn't they?

I couldn't relax. I found an old copy of the

New York Times folded into the bunk. Peace in the Middle East in our lifetimes, it read. Next to the article was a picture of President Carter and Anwar Sadat shaking hands. I was just about to drift off when I thought I heard Hernandez cry out again.

I dragged my ass up. Pembry stood with her hands clutched over her mouth. I thought Hernandez had hit her, so I went to her and peeled her hands away, looking for damage.

There was none. Looking over her shoulder, I could see Hernandez riveted to his seat, eyes glued to the darkness like a reverse color television.

"What happened? Did he hit you?"

"He-he heard it again," she stammered as one hand rose to her face again. "You-you ought to go check again. You ought to go check… "

The pitch of the plane shifted and she fell into me a little, and as I steadied myself by grabbing her elbow she collapsed against me. I met her gaze matter-of-factly. She looked away. "What happened?" I asked again.

"I heard it too," Pembry said.

My eyes went to the aisle of shadow. "Just now?"

"Yes."

"Was it like he said? Children singing?" I realized I was on the verge of shaking her. Were they both going crazy?

"Children playing," she said. "Like-playground noise, y'know? Kids playing."

I wracked my brain for some object, or some collection of objects, that when stuffed into a C-141 StarLifter and flown thirty-nine thousand feet over the Caribbean, would make a sound like children playing.

Hernandez shifted his position and we both brought our attention to bear on him. He smiled a defeated smile and said to us, "I told you."

"I'll go check it out," I told them.

"Let them play," said Hernandez. "They just want to play. Isn't that what you wanted to do as a kid?"

I remembered my childhood like a jolt, endless summers and bike rides and skinned knees and coming home at dusk to my mother saying, "Look how dirty you are." I wondered if the recovery crews washed the bodies before they put them in the coffins.

"I'll find out what it is," I told them. I went and got the flashlight again. "Stay put."

I used the darkness to close off my sight, give me more to hear. The turbulence had subsided by then, and I used my flashlight only to avoid tripping on the cargo netting. I listened for anything new or unusual. It wasn't one thing-it had to be a combination-noises like that just don't stop and start again. Fuel leak? Stowaway? The thought of a snake or some other jungle beast lurking inside those metal boxes heightened my whole state of being and brought back my dream.

Near the cargo doors, I shut off my light and listened. Pressurized air. Four Pratt and Whitney turbofan engines. Fracture rattles. Cargo straps flapping.

And then, something. Something came in sharp after a moment, at first dull and sweeping, like noise from the back of a cave, but then pure and unbidden, like sounds to a surprised eavesdropper.

Children. Laughter. Like recess at grade school.

I opened my eyes and flashed my light around the silver crates. I found them waiting, huddled with me, almost expectant.

Children, I thought, just children.

I ran past Hernandez and Pembry to the comfort pallet. I can't tell you what they saw in my face, but if it was anything like what I saw in the little mirror above the latrine sink, I would have been at once terrified and redeemed.

I looked from the mirror to the interphone. Any problem with the cargo should be reported immediately-procedure demanded it-but what could I tell the AC? I had an urge to drop it all, just eject the coffins and call it a day. If I told him there was a fire in the hold, we would drop below ten thousand feet so I could blow the bolts and send the whole load to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, no questions asked.

I stopped then, straightened up, tried to think.

Children, I thought. Not monsters, not demons, just the sounds of children playing. Nothing that will get you. Nothing that can get you. I tossed off the shiver that ran through my body and decided to get some help.

At the bunk, I found Hadley still asleep. A dog-eared copy of a paperback showing two women locked in a passionate embrace lay like a tent on his chest. I shook his arm and he sat up. Neither of us said anything for a moment. He rubbed his face with one hand and yawned.

Then he looked right at me and I watched his face arch into worry. His next action was to grab his portable oxygen. He recovered his game face in an instant. "What is it, Davis?"

I groped for something. "The cargo." I said. "There's a… possible shift in the cargo. I need a hand, sir."

His worry snapped into annoyance. "Have you told the AC?"

"No sir," I said. "I-I don't want to trouble him yet. It may be nothing."

His face screwed into something unpleasant and I thought I'd have words from him, but he let me lead the way aft. Just his presence was enough to revive my doubt, my professionalism. My walk sharpened, my eyes widened, my stomach returned to its place in my gut.

I found Pembry sitting next to Hernandez now, both together in a feigned indifference. Hadley gave them a disinterested look and followed me down the aisle between the coffins.

"What about the main lights?" he asked.

"They don't help," I said. "Here." I handed him the flashlight and asked him, "Do you hear it?"

"Hear what?"

"Just listen."

Again, only engines and the jetstream. "I don't… "

"Shhh! Listen."

His mouth opened and stayed there for a minute, then shut. The engines quieted and the sounds came, dripping over us like water vapor, the fog of sound around us. I didn't realise how cold I was until I noticed my hands shaking.

"What in the hell is that?" Hadley asked. "It sounds like… "

"Don't," I interrupted. "That can't be it." I nodded at the metal boxes. "You know what's in these coffins, don't you?"

He didn't say anything. The sound seemed to filter around us for a moment, at once close, then far away. He tried to follow the sound with his light. "Can you tell where it's coming from?"

"No. I'm just glad you hear it too, sir."

The engineer scratched his head, his face drawn, like he swallowed something foul and couldn't lose the aftertaste. "I'll be damned," he drawled.

All at once, as before, the sound stopped, and the roar of the jets filled our ears.

"I'll hit the lights." I moved away hesitantly. "I'm not going to call the AC."

His silence was conspiratorial. As I rejoined him, I found him examining a particular row of coffins through the netting.

"You need to conduct a search," he said dully.

I didn't respond. I'd done midair cargo searches before, but never like this, not even on bodies of servicemen. If everything Pembry said was true, I couldn't think of anything worse than opening one of these caskets.

We both started at the next sound. Imagine a wet tennis ball. Now imagine the sound a wet tennis ball makes when it hits the court-a sort of dull THWAK-like a bird striking the fuselage. It sounded again, and this time I could hear it inside the hold. Then, after a buffet of turbulence, the thump sounded again. It came clearly from a coffin at Hadley's feet.

Not a serious problem, his face tried to say. We just imagined it.

A noise from one coffin can't bring a plane down, his face said. There are no such things as ghosts.

"Sir?"

"We need to see," he said.

Blood pooled in my stomach again.

See, he had said. I didn't want to see.

"Get on the horn and tell the AC to avoid the chop," he said. I knew at that moment he was going to help me. He didn't want to, but he was going to do it anyway.

"What are you doing?" Pembry asked. She stood by as I removed the cargo netting from the row of caskets while the engineer undid the individual straps around that one certain row. Hernandez slept head bowed, the downers having finally taken effect.

"We have to examine the cargo," I stated matter-of-factly. "The flight may have caused the load to become unbalanced."

She grabbed my arm as I went by. "Was that all it was? A shifting load?"

There was a touch of desperation in her question.

Tell me I imagined it, the look on her face said. Tell me and I'll believe you, and I'll go get some sleep.

"We think so," I nodded.

Her shoulders dropped and her face peeled into a smile too broad to be real. "Thank God. I thought I was going crazy."

I patted her shoulder. "Strap in and get some rest," I told her. She did.

Finally, I was doing something. As Loadmaster, I could put an end to this nonsense. So I did the work. I unstrapped the straps, climbed the other caskets, shoved the top one out of place, carried it, secured it, removed the next one, carried it, secured it, and again. The joy of easy repetition.

It wasn't until we got to the bottom one, the noisy one, that Hadley stopped. He stood there watching me as I pulled it out of place enough to examine it. His stance was level, but even so it spoke of revulsion, something that, among swaggering Air Force veterans and over beers, he could conceal. Not now, not to me.

I did a cursory examination of the deck where it had sat, of the caskets next to it, and saw no damage or obvious flaws.

A noise sounded-a moist "thunk." From inside. We flinched in unison. The engineer's cool loathing was impossible to conceal. I suppressed a tremble.

"We have to open it," I said.

The engineer didn't disagree, but like me, his body was slow to move. He squatted down and, with one hand firmly planted on the casket lid, unlatched the clasps on his end. I undid mine, finding my fingers slick on the cold metal, and shaking a little as I pulled them away and braced my hand on the lid. Our eyes met in one moment that held the last of our resolve. Together, we opened the casket.

***

First, the smell: a mash of rotten fruit, antiseptic, and formaldehyde, wrapped in plastic with dung and sulfur. It stung our nostrils as it filled the hold. The overhead lights illuminated two shiny black body bags, slick with condensation and waste. I knew these would be the bodies of children, but it awed me, hurt me. One bag lay unevenly concealing the other, and I understood at once that there was more than one child in it. My eyes skimmed the juice-soaked plastic, picking out the contour of an arm, the trace of a profile. A shape coiled near the bottom seam, away from the rest. It was the size of a baby.

Then the plane shivered like a frightened pony and the top bag slid away to reveal a young girl, eight or nine at the most, half in and half out of the bag. Wedged like a mad contortionist into the corner, her swollen belly, showing stab wounds from bayonets, had bloated again, and her twisted limbs were now as thick as tree limbs. The pigment-bearing skin had peeled away everywhere but her face, which was as pure and as innocent as any cherub in heaven.

Her face was really what drove it home, what really hurt me. Her sweet face.

My hand fixed itself to the casket edge in painful whiteness, but I dared not remove it. Something caught in my throat and I forced it back down.

A lone fly, fat and glistening, crawled from inside the bag and flew lazily towards Hadley. He slowly rose to his feet and braced himself, as if against a body blow. He watched it rise and flit a clumsy path through the air. Then he broke the moment by stepping back, his hands flailing and hitting it-I heard the slap of his hand-and letting a nauseous sound escape his lips.

When I stood up, my temples throbbed and my legs weakened. I held onto a nearby casket, my throat filled with something rancid.

"Close it," he said like a man with his mouth full. "Close it."

My arms went rubbery. After bracing myself, I lifted one leg and kicked the lid. It rang out like an artillery shot. Pressure pounded into my ears like during a rapid descent.

Hadley put his hands on his haunches and lowered his head, taking deep breaths through his mouth. "Jesus," he croaked.

I saw movement. Pembry stood next to the line of coffins, her face pulled up in sour disgust. "What-is-that-smell?"

"It's okay." I found I could work one arm and tried what I hoped looked like an off-handed gesture. "Found the problem. Had to open it up though. Go sit down."

Pembry brought her hands up around herself and went back to her seat.

I found that with a few more deep breaths, the smell dissipated enough to act. "We have to secure it," I told Hadley.

He looked up from the floor and I saw his eyes as narrow slits. His hands were in fists and his broad torso stood fierce and straight. At the corner of his eyes, wetness glinted. He said nothing.

It became cargo again as I fastened the latches. We strained to fit it back into place. In a matter of minutes, the other caskets were stowed, the exterior straps were in place, the cargo netting draped and secure.

Hadley waited for me to finish up, then walked forwards with me. "I'm going to tell the AC you solved the problem," he said, "and to get us back to speed."

I nodded.

"One more thing," he said. "If you see that fly, kill it."

"Didn't you… "

"No."

I didn't know what else to say, so I said, "Yes, sir."

Pembry sat in her seat, nose wriggled up, feigning sleep. Hernandez sat upright, eyelids half open. He gestured for me to come closer, bend down.

"Did you let them out to play?" he asked.

I stood over him and said nothing. In my heart, I felt that same pang I did as a child, when summer was over.

When we landed in Dover, a funeral detail in full dress offloaded every coffin, affording full funeral rights to each person. I'm told as more bodies flew in, the formality was scrapped and only a solitary Air Force chaplain met the planes. By week's end I was back in Panama with a stomach full of turkey and cheap rum. Then it was off to the Marshall Islands, delivering supplies to the guided missile base there. In the Military Air Command, there is no shortage of cargo.

E. Michael Lewis says:

"Of the nine hundred people who died in the Jonestown Massacre, nearly a third of them were under the age of eighteen. This story is dedicated to the families who lost loved ones at Jonestown, and to the servicemen and -women who brought them home."

If Angels Fight by Richard Bowes

1.

Outside the window, the blue water of the Atlantic danced in the sunlight of an early morning in October. They're short, quiet trains, the ones that roll through Connecticut just after dawn. I sipped bad tea, dozed off occasionally and awoke with a start.

Over the last forty years, I've ridden the northbound train from New York to Boston hundreds of times. I've done it alone, with friends and lovers, going home for the holidays, setting out on vacations, on my way to funerals.

That morning, I was with one who was once in some ways my best friend and certainly my oldest. Though we had rarely met in decades, it seemed that a connection endured. Our mission was vital and we rode the train by default: a terrorist threat had closed traffic at Logan Airport in Boston the night before.

I'd left messages canceling an appointment, letting the guy I was going out with know I'd be out of town briefly for a family crisis. No need to say it was another, more fascinating, family disrupting my life, not mine.

The old friend caught my discomfort at what we were doing and was amused.

A bit of Shakespeare occurred to me when I thought of him:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm off from an anointed king

He was quiet for a while after hearing those lines. It was getting toward twenty-four hours since I'd slept. I must have dozed because suddenly I was in a dark place with two tiny slits of light high above. I found hand- and foot-holds and crawled up the interior wall of a stone tower. As I got to the slits of light, a voice said, " New Haven. This stop New Haven."

2.

Carol Bannon had called me less than two weeks before. "I'm going to be down in New York the day after tomorrow," she said. "I wondered if we could get together." I took this to mean that she and her family wanted to get some kind of fix on the present location and current state of her eldest brother, my old friend Mark.

Over the years when this had happened it was Marie Bannon, Mark and Carol's mother, who contacted me. Those times I'd discovered channels through which she could reach her straying son. This time, I didn't make any inquiries before meeting Carol, but I did check to see if certain parties still had the same phone numbers and habits that I remembered.

Thinking about Marky Bannon, I too wondered where he was. He's always somewhere on my mind. When I see a photo of some great event, a reception, or celebrity trial, a concert or inauguration-I scan the faces wondering if he's present.

I'm retired these days, with time to spend. But over the years, keeping tabs on the Bannons was an easy minor hobby. The mother is still alive though not very active now. The father was a longtime Speaker of the Massachusetts House and a candidate for governor who died some years back. An intersection in Dorchester and an entrance to the Boston Harbor tunnel are still named for him.

Carol, the eldest daughter, got elected to the City Council at the age of twenty-eight. Fourteen years later she gave up a safe U.S. House seat to run the Commerce Department for Clinton. Later she served on the 9/11 commission and is a perennial cable TV talking head. She's married to Jerry Simone who has a stake in Google. Her brother Joe is a leading campaign consultant in D.C. Keeping up the idealistic end of things, her little sister Eileen is a member of Doctors Without Borders. My old friend Mark is the tragic secret without which no Irish family would be complete.

Carol asked me to meet her for tea uptown in the Astor Court of the St. Regis Hotel. I got there a moment after four. The Astor Court has a blinding array of starched white tablecloths and gold chandeliers under a ceiling mural of soft, floating clouds.

Maybe her choice of meeting places was intentionally campy. Or maybe because I don't drink anymore she had hit upon this as an amusing spot to bring me.

Carol and I always got along. Even aged ten and eleven I was different enough from the other boys that I was nice to my friends' little sisters.

Carol has kept her hair chestnut but allowed herself fine gray wings. Her skin and teeth are terrific. The Bannons were what was called dark Irish when we were growing up in Boston in the 1950s. That meant they weren't so white that they automatically burst into flames on their first afternoon at the beach.

They're a handsome family. The mother is still beautiful in her eighties. Marie Bannon had been on the stage a bit before she married. She had that light and charm, that ability to convince you that her smile was for you alone that led young men and old to drop everything and do her bidding.

Mike Bannon, the father, had been a union organizer before he went nights to law school, then got into politics. He had rugged good looks, blue eyes that would look right into you, and a fine smile that he could turn on and off and didn't often waste on kids.

"When the mood's upon him, he can charm a dog off a meat wagon," I remember a friend of my father's remarking. It was a time and place where politicians and race horses alike were scrutinized and handicapped.

The Bannon children had inherited the parents' looks and, in the way of politicians' kids, were socially poised. Except for Mark, who could look lost and confused one minute, oddly intense the next, with eyes suddenly just like his father's.

Carol rose to kiss me as I approached the table. It seemed kind of like a Philip Marlowe moment: I imagined myself as a private eye, tough and amused, called in by the rich dame for help in a personal matter.

When I first knew Carol Bannon, she wore pigtails and cried because her big brother wouldn't take her along when we went to the playground. Recently there's been speculation everywhere that a distinguished Massachusetts senator is about to retire before his term ends. Carol Bannon is the odds-on favorite to be appointed to succeed him.

Then, once she's in the Senate, given that it's the Democratic Party we're talking about, who's to say they won't go crazy again and run one more Bay State politician for President in the wild hope that they've got another JFK?

Carol said, "My mother asked me to remember her to you." I asked Carol to give her mother my compliments. Then we each said how good the other looked and made light talk about the choices of teas and the drop-dead faux Englishness of the place. We reminisced about Boston and the old neighborhood.

"Remember how everyone called that big overgrown vacant lot, 'Fitzie's'?" I asked. The nickname had come from its being the site where the Fitzgerald mansion, the home of "Honey Fitz," the old mayor of Boston, once stood. His daughter, Rose, was mother to the Kennedy brothers.

"There was a marble floor in the middle of the trash and weeds," I said, "and everybody was sure the place was haunted.

"The whole neighborhood was haunted," she said. "There was that little old couple who lived down Melville Avenue from us. They knew my parents. He was this gossipy elf. He had held office back in the old days and everyone called him, 'The Hon Hen,' short for 'the Honorable Henry.' She was a daughter of Honey Fitz. They were aunt and uncle of the Kennedys."

Melville Avenue was and is a street where the houses are set back on lawns and the garages are converted horse barns. When we were young, doctors and prosperous lawyers lived there along with prominent saloon owners and politicians like Michael Bannon and his family.

Suddenly at our table in the Astor Court, the pots and plates, the Lapsang and scones, the marmalade, the clotted cream and salmon finger sandwiches appeared. We were silent for a little while and I thought about how politics had seemed a common occupation for kids' parents in Irish Boston. Politicians' houses tended to be big and semi-public with much coming and going and loud talk.

Life at the Bannons' was much more exciting than at my house. Mark had his own room and didn't have to share with his little brother. He had a ten-year-old's luxuries: electronic football, enough soldiers to fight Gettysburg if you didn't mind that the Confederates were mostly Indians, and not one but two electric train engines, which made wrecks a positive pleasure. Mark's eyes would come alive when the cars flew off the tracks in a rainbow of sparks.

"What are you smiling at?" Carol asked.

And I cut to the chase and said, "Your brother. I remember the way he liked to leave his room. That tree branch right outside his window: he could reach out, grab hold of it, scramble hand over hand to the trunk."

I remembered how the branches swayed and sighed and how scared I was every time I had to follow him.

"In high school," Carol said, "at night he'd sneak out when he was supposed to be in bed and scramble back inside much later. I knew and our mother, but no one else. One night the bough broke as he tried to get back in the window. He fell all the way to the ground, smashing through more branches on the way.

"My father was down in the study plotting malfeasance with Governor Furcolo. They and everyone else came out to see what had happened. We found Mark lying on the ground laughing like a lunatic. He had a fractured arm and a few scratches. Even I wondered if he'd fallen on his head."

For a moment I watched for some sign that she knew I'd been right behind her brother when he fell. I'd gotten down the tree fast and faded into the night when I saw lights come on inside the house. It had been a long, scary night and before he laughed, Mark had started to sob.

Now that we were talking about her brother, Carol was able to say, almost casually, "My mother has her good days and her bad days. But for thirty years she's hinted to me that she had a kind of contact with him. I didn't tell her that wasn't possible because it obviously meant a lot to her."

She was maintaining a safe zone, preserving her need not to know. I frowned and fiddled with a sliver of cucumber on buttered brown bread.

Carol put on a full court press, "Mom wants to see Mark again and she thinks it needs to be soon. She told me you knew people and could arrange things. It would make her so happy if you could do whatever that was again."

I too kept my distance. "I ran some errands for your mother a couple of times that seemed to satisfy her. The last time was fourteen years ago and at my age I'm not sure I can even remember what I did."

Carol gave a rueful little smile, "You were my favorite of all my brother's friends. You'd talk to me about my dollhouse. It took me years to figure out why that was. When I was nine and ten years old I used to imagine you taking me out on dates."

She reached across the table and touched my wrist. "If there's any truth to any of what Mom says, I could use Mark's help too. You follow the news.

"I'm not going to tell you the current administration wrecked the world all by themselves or that if we get back in, it will be the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt and Abe Lincoln all rolled into one.

"I am telling you I think this is end game. We either pull ourselves together in the next couple of years or we become Disney World."

I didn't tell her I thought we had already pretty much reached the stage of the U.S. as theme park.

"It's not possible that Mark's alive," she said evenly. "But his family needs him. None of us inherited our father's gut instincts, his political animal side. It may be a mother's fantasy, but ours says Mark did."

I didn't wonder aloud if the one who had been Marky Bannon still existed in any manifestation we'd recognize.

Then Carol handed me a very beautiful check from a consulting firm her husband owned. I told her I'd do whatever I could. Someone had said about Carol, "She's very smart and she knows all the rules of the game. But I'm not sure the game these days has anything to do with the rules."

3.

After our little tea, I thought about the old Irish-American city of my childhood and how ridiculous it was for Carol Bannon to claim no knowledge of Mark Bannon. It reminded me of the famous Bolger brothers of South Boston.

You remember them: William Bolger was first the President of the State Senate and then the President of the University of Massachusetts. Whitey Bolger was head of the Irish mob, a murderer and an FBI informant gone bad. Whitey was on the lam for years. Bill always claimed, even under oath, that he never had any contact with his brother.

That had always seemed preposterous to me. The Bolgers' mother was alive. And a proper Irish mother will always know what each of her children is doing no matter how they hide. And she'll bombard the others with that information no matter how much they don't want to know. I couldn't imagine Mrs. Bannon not doing that.

What kept the media away from the story was that Mark had-in all the normal uses of the terms-died, been waked and memorialized some thirty-five years ago.

I remembered how in the Bannon family the father adored Carol and her sister Eileen. He was even a tiny bit in awe of little Joe who at the age of six already knew the name and political party of the governor of each state in the union. But Michael Bannon could look very tired when his eyes fell on Mark.

The ways of Irish fathers with their sons were mysterious and often distant. Mark was his mother's favorite. But he was, I heard it whispered, dull normal, a step above retarded.

I remembered the way the Bannons' big house could be full of people I didn't know and how all the phones-the Bannons were the only family I knew with more than one phone in their house-could be ringing at once.

Mike Bannon had a study on the first floor. One time when Mark and I went past, I heard him in there saying, "We got the quorum. Now who's handling the seconding speech?" We went up to Mark's room and found two guys there. One sat on the bed with a portable typewriter on his lap, pecking away. The other stood by the window and said, "… real estate tax that's fair for all."

"For everybody," said the guy with the typewriter. "Sounds better." Then they noticed we were there and gave us a couple of bucks to go away.

Another time, Mark and I came back from the playground to find his father out on the front porch talking to the press who stood on the front lawn. This, I think, was when he was elected Speaker of the Lower House of the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as the state legislature was called.

It was for moments like these that Speaker Bannon had been created. He smiled and photographers' flashes went off. Then he glanced in his son's direction, the penetrating eyes dimmed, the smile faded. Remembering this, I wondered what he saw.

After it was over, when his father and the press had departed, Mark went right on staring intently at the spot where it had happened. I remember thinking that he looked kind of like his father at that moment.

One afternoon around then the two of us sat on the rug in the TV room and watched a movie about mountain climbers scaling the Himalayas. Tiny black and white figures clung to ropes, made their way single file across glaciers, huddled in shallow crevices as high winds blew past.

It wasn't long afterward that Mark, suddenly intense, led me and a couple of other kids along a six-inch ledge that ran around the courthouse in Codman Square.

The ledge was a couple of feet off the ground at the front of the building. We sidled along, stumbling once in a while, looking in the windows at the courtroom where a trial was in session. We turned the corner and edged our way along the side of the building. Here we faced the judge behind his raised desk. At first he didn't notice. Then Mark smiled and waved.

The judge summoned a bailiff, pointed to us. Mark sidled faster and we followed him around to the back of the building. At the rear of the courthouse was a sunken driveway that led to a garage. The ledge was a good sixteen feet above the cement. My hands began to sweat but I was smart enough not to look down.

The bailiff appeared, told us to halt and go back. The last kid in line, eight years old where the rest of us were ten, froze where he was and started to cry.

Suddenly the summer sunshine went gray and I was inching my way along an icy ledge hundreds of feet up a sheer cliff.

After a moment that vision was gone. Cops showed up, parked their car right under us to cut the distance we might fall. A crowd, mostly kids, gathered to watch the fire department bring us down a ladder. When we were down, I turned to Mark and saw that his concentration had faded.

"My guardian angel brought us out here," he whispered.

The consequences were not severe. Mark was a privileged character and that extended to his confederates. When the cops drove us up to his house, Mrs. Bannon came out and invited us all inside. Soon the kitchen was full of cops drinking spiked coffee like it was St. Patrick's Day and our mothers all came by to pick us up and laugh about the incident with Mrs. Bannon.

Late that same summer, I think, an afternoon almost at the end of vacation, the two of us turned onto Melville Avenue and saw Cadillacs double-parked in front of the Hon Hen's house. A movie camera was set up on the lawn. A photographer stood on the porch. We hurried down the street.

As we got there, the front door flew open and several guys came out laughing. The cameraman started to film, the photographer snapped pictures. Young Senator Kennedy was on the porch. He turned back to kiss his aunt and shake hands with his uncle.

He was thin with reddish brown hair and didn't seem entirely adult. He winked as he walked past us and the cameras clicked away. A man in a suit got out of a car and opened the door, the young senator said, "Okay, that's done."

As they drove off, the Hon Hen waved us up onto the porch, brought out dishes of ice cream. It was his wife's birthday and their nephew had paid his respects.

A couple of weeks later, after school started, a story with plenty of pictures appeared in the magazine section of the

Globe: a day in the life of Senator Kennedy. Mark and I were in the one of him leaving his aunt's birthday. Our nun, Sister Mary Claire, put the picture up on the bulletin board.

The rest of the nuns came by to see. The other kids resented us for a few days. The Cullen brothers, a mean and sullen pair, motherless and raised by a drunken father, hated us for ever after.

I saw the picture again a few years ago. Kennedy's wearing a full campaign smile, I'm looking at the great man, open mouthed. Mark stares at the camera so intently that he seems ready to jump right off the page.

4.

The first stop on my search for Mark Bannon's current whereabouts was right in my neighborhood. It's been said about Greenwich Village that here time is all twisted out of shape like an abstract metal sculpture: past, present, and future intertwine.

Looking for that mix, the first place I went was Fiddler's Green way east on Bleecker Street. Springsteen sang at Fiddler's and Madonna waited tables before she became Madonna. By night it's a tourist landmark and a student magnet but during the day it's a little dive for office workers playing hooky and old village types in search of somewhere dark and quiet.

As I'd hoped, "Daddy Frank" Parnelli, with eyes like a drunken hawk's and sparse white hair cropped like a drill sergeant's, sipped a beer in his usual spot at the end of the bar. Once the legend was that he was where you went when you wanted yesterday's mistake erased or needed more than just a hunch about tomorrow's market.

Whether any of that was ever true, now none of it is. The only thing he knows these days is his own story and parts of that he can't tell to most people. I was an exception.

We hadn't talked in a couple of years but when he saw me he grimaced and asked, "Now what?" like I pestered him every day.

"Seemed like you might be here and I thought I'd stop by and say hello."

"Real kind of you to remember an old sadist."

I'm not that much younger than he is but over the years, I've learned a thing or two about topping from Daddy Frank. Like never giving a bottom an even break. I ordered a club soda and pointed for the bartender to fill Daddy Frank's empty shot glass with whatever rye he'd been drinking.

Daddy stared at it like he was disgusted then took a sip and another. He looked out the window. Across the street, a taxi let out an enormously fat woman with a tiny dog. Right in front of Fiddler's a crowd of smiling Japanese tourists snapped pictures of each other.

A bearded computer student sat about halfway down the bar from us with a gin and tonic and read what looked like a thousand-page book. A middle-aged man and his wife studied the signed photos on the walls while quietly singing scraps of songs to each other.

Turning back to me with what might once have been an enigmatic smile, Daddy Frank said, "You're looking for Mark Bannon."

"Yes."

"I have no fucking idea where he is," he said. "Never knew him before he appeared in my life. Never saw him again when he was through with me."

I waited, knowing this was going to take a while. When he started talking, the story wasn't one that I knew.

"Years ago, in sixty-nine, maybe seventy, it's like, two in the afternoon on Saturday, a few weeks before Christmas. I'm in a bar way west on Fourteenth Street near the meat-packing district. McNally's maybe or the Emerald Gardens, one of them they used to have over there that all looked alike. They had this bartender with one arm, I remember. He'd lost the other one on the docks."

"Making mixed drinks must have been tough," I said.

"Anyone asked for one, he came at them with a baseball bat. Anyway, the time I'm telling you about, I'd earned some money that morning bringing discipline to someone who hadn't been brought up right. I was living with a bitch in Murray Hill. But she had money and I saw no reason to share.

"I'm sitting there and this guy comes in wearing an overcoat with the collar pulled up. He's younger than me but he looks all washed out like he's been on a long complicated bender. No one I recognized, but people there kind of knew him."

I understood what was being described and memory supplied a face for the stranger.

"He sits down next to me. Has this piece he wants to unload, a cheap thirty-two. It has three bullets in it. He wants ten bucks. Needs the money to get home to his family. I look down and see I still have five bucks left."

I said, "A less stand-up guy might have wondered what happened to the other three bullets."

"I saw it as an opportunity. As I look back I see, maybe, it was a test. I offer the five and the stranger sells me the piece. So now I have a gun and no money. All of a sudden the stranger comes alive, smiles at me, and I feel a lot different. With a purpose, you know?

"With the buzz I had, I didn't even wonder why this was. All I knew was I needed to put the piece to use. That was when I thought of Klein's. The place I was staying was over on the East Side and it was on my way home. You remember Klein's Department Store?"

"Sure, on Union Square. 'Klein's on the Square' was the motto and they had a big neon sign of a right-angle ruler out front."

"Great fucking bargains. Back when I was six and my mother wanted to dress me like a little asshole, that's where she could do it cheap. As a kid I worked there as a stock boy. I knew they kept all the receipts, whatever they took in, up on the top floor and that they closed at six on Saturdays."

As he talked, I remembered the blowsy old Union Square, saw the tacky Christmas lights, the crowds of women toting shopping bags and young Frank Parnelli cutting his way through them on his way to Klein's.

"It's so simple I do it without thinking. I go up to the top floor like I have some kind of business. It's an old-fashioned store way back when people used cash. Security is one old guy wearing glasses. I go in the refund line and when I get up to the counter, I pull out the gun. The refunds ladies all soil their panties

"I clean the place out. Thousands of bucks in a shopping bag and I didn't even have to go out of my way. I run down the stairs and nobody stops me. It's dark outside and I blend in with the crowd. As I walk down Fourteenth, the guy from the bar who sold me the gun is walking beside me.

"Before he looked beat. Now it's like the life has been sucked out of him and he's the living dead. But you know what? I have a locker at Gramercy Gym near Third Ave. I go in there so I can change from my leathers into a warm-up jacket and a baseball cap. Like it's the most natural thing, I give the guy a bunch of bills. He goes off to his family. I don't ever see him again.

"I'm still drunk and amazed. That night I'm on a plane. Next day I'm in L.A. Both of those things for the first time. After that I'm not in this world half the time. Not this world like I thought it was anyway. And somewhere in those first days, I realized I wasn't alone inside my own head. A certain Mark Bannon was in there too."

I looked down the bar. The student was drinking his gin, turning his pages. The couple had stopped singing and were sitting near the window. The bartender was on his cell phone. I signaled and he refilled Frank's glass.

"It was a wild ride for a few years," Daddy Frank said, "We hitched up with Red Ruth who ran us both ragged. She got us into politics in the Caribbean: Honduras, Nicaragua, stuff I still can't talk about, Ruth and me and Bannon.

"Then she got tired of us, I got tired of having Mark Bannon on the brain and he got tired of me being me. It happens."

He leaned his elbow on the bar and had one hand over his eyes. "What is it? His mother looking for him again? I met her that first time when she had you find him. She's a great lady."

"Something like that," I said. "Anyone else ask you about Mark Bannon recently?"

"A couple of weeks ago someone came around asking questions. He said he has like a news show on the computer. Paul Revere is his name? Something like that. He came on like he knew something. But a lot smarter guys than him have tried to mix it up with me."

"No one else has asked?"

He shook his head.

"Anything you want me to tell Marky if I should see him?"

Without taking his hand away from his eyes, Daddy Frank raised the other, brought the glass to his lips, and drained it. "Tell him it's been thirty years and more and I was glad when he left but I've been nothing but a bag of muscles and bones ever since."

5.

As evening falls in the South Village, the barkers come out. On opposite corners of the cross streets they stand with their spiels and handbills.

"Come hear the brightest song writers in New York," said an angry young man, handing me a flyer.

A woman with snakes and flowers running up and down her arms and legs insisted, "You have just hit the tattoo jackpot!"

"Sir, you look as if you could use a good… laugh," said a small African-American queen outside a comedy club.

I noticed people giving the little sidelong glances that New Yorkers use when they spot a celebrity. But when I looked, the person was no one I recognized. That happens to me a lot these days.

Thinking about Mark Bannon and Frank Parnelli, I wondered if he just saw Frank as a vehicle with a tougher body and a better set of reflexes than his own? Did he look back with fondness when they parted company? Was it the kind of nostalgia you might have for a favorite horse or your first great car?

It was my luck to have known Mark when he was younger and his "guardian angel" was less skilled than it became. One Saturday when we were fourteen or so, going to different high schools and drifting apart, he and I were in a hockey free-for-all down on the Neponset River.

It was one of those silver and black winter Saturday afternoons when nothing was planned. A pack of kids from our neighborhood was looking for ice to play on. Nobody was ever supposed to swim or skate on that water so that's where a dozen of us headed.

We grabbed a stretch of open ice a mile or so from where the Neponset opens onto the Nantasket Roads, the stretch of water that connects Boston Harbor to the Atlantic Ocean. Our game involved shoving a battered puck around and plenty of body checks. Mark was on my team but seemed disconnected like he was most of the time.

The ice was thick out in the middle of the river but old and scarred and rutted by skates and tides. Along the shore where it was thin, the ice had been broken up at some points.

Once I looked around and saw that some kids eight or nine years old were out on the ice in their shoes jumping up and down, smashing through it and jumping away laughing when they did. There was a whir of skates behind me and I got knocked flat.

I was the smallest guy my age in the game. Ice chips went up the legs of my jeans and burned my skin. When I got my feet under me again, the little kids were yelling. One of them was in deep water holding onto the ice which kept breaking as he grabbed it.

Our game stopped and everyone stood staring. Then Mark came alive. He started forward and beckoned me, one of the few times he'd noticed me that afternoon. As I followed him, I thought I heard the words "Chain-of-Life." It was a rescue maneuver that, maybe, boy scouts practiced but I'd never seen done.

Without willing it, I suddenly threw myself flat and was on my stomach on the ice. Mark was down on the ice behind me and had hold of my ankles. He yelled at the other guys for two of them to grab his ankles and four guys to grab theirs. I was the point of a pyramid.

Somehow I grabbed a hockey stick in my gloved hands. My body slithered forward on the ice and my arms held the stick out toward the little kid. Someone else was moving my body.

The ice here was thin. There was water on top of it. The kid grabbed the stick. I felt the ice moving under me, hands pulled my legs.

I gripped the stick. At first the kid split the ice as I pulled him along. I wanted to let go and get away before the splitting ice engulfed me too.

But I couldn't. I had no control over my hands. Then the little kid reached firm ice. Mark pulled my legs and I pulled the kid. His stomach bounced up onto the ice and then his legs. Other guys grabbed my end of the stick, pulled the kid past me.

I stood and Mark was standing also. The little boy was being led away, soaked and crying, water sloshing in his boots. Suddenly I felt the cold-the ice inside my pants and up the sleeves of my sweater-and realized what I'd done.

Mark Bannon held me up, pounded my back. "We did it! You and me!" he said. His eyes were alive and he looked like he was possessed. "I felt how scared you were when the ice started to break." And I knew this was Mark's angel talking.

The other guys clustered around us yelling about what we'd done. I looked up at the gray sky, at a freighter in the distance sailing up the Roads toward Boston Harbor. It was all black and white like television and my legs buckled under me.

Shortly afterward as evening closed in, the cops appeared and ordered everybody off the ice. That night, a little feverish, I dreamed and cried out in my sleep about ice and TV.

No adult knew what had happened but every kid did. Monday at school, ones who never spoke to me asked about it. I told them even though it felt like it had happened to someone else. And that feeling, I think, was what the memory of his years with Mark Bannon must have been like for Daddy Frank.

6.

As soon as Frank Parnelli started talking about Paul Revere, I knew who he meant and wasn't surprised. I called Desmond Eliot and he wasn't surprised to hear from me either. Back when I first knew Des Eliot he and Carol Bannon went to Amherst and were dating each other. Now he operates the political blog,

Midnight Ride: Spreading the Alarm.

A few days later, I sat facing Eliot in his home office in suburban Maryland. I guess he could work in his pajamas if he wanted to. But, in fact, he was dressed and shaved and ready to ride.

He was listening to someone on the phone and typing on a keyboard in his lap. Behind him were a computer and a TV with the sound turned off. The screen showed a runway in Jordan where the smoking ruins of a passenger plane were still being hosed down with chemicals. Then a Republican senator with presidential ambitions looked very serious as he spoke to reporters in Washington.

A brisk Asian woman, who had introduced herself as June, came into the office, collected the outgoing mail, and departed. A fax hummed in the corner. Outside, it was a sunny day and the trees had just begun to turn.

"Yes, I saw the dustup at the press conference this morning," he said into the phone. "The White House, basically, is claiming the Democrats planted a spy in the Republican National Committee. If I thought anyone on the DNC had the brains and chutzpah to do that I'd be cheering."

At that moment Des was a relatively happy man.

Midnight Ride is, as he puts it, "A tool of the disloyal opposition," and right now things are going relatively badly for the administration.

He hung up and told me, "Lately every day is a feast. This must be how the right wing felt when Clinton was up to his ass in blue dresses and cigars." As he spoke he typed on a keyboard, probably the very words he was uttering.

He stopped typing, put his feet up on a coffee table, and looked out over his half-frame glasses. His contacts with the Bannons go way back. It bothers him that mine go back further.

"You come all the way down here to ask me about Mark Bannon," he said. "My guess is it's not for some personal memoir like you're telling me. I think the family is looking for him and thinks I may have spotted him like I did with Svetlanov."

I shook my head like I didn't understand.

"Surely you remember. It was twenty years ago. No, a bit more. Deep in the Reagan years. Glasnost and Perestroika weren't even rumors. The Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. I was in Washington, writing for

The Nation, consulting at a couple of think tanks, going out with Lucia, an Italian sculptress. Later on I was married to her for about six months.

"There was a Goya show at the Corcoran that Lucia wanted to see. We'd just come out of one of the galleries and there was this guy I was sure I'd never seen before, tall, prematurely gray.

"There was something very familiar about him. Not his looks, but something. When he'd talk to the woman he was with, whatever I thought I'd recognized didn't show. Then he looked my way and it was there again. As I tried to place him, he seemed like he was trying to remember me.

"Then I realized it was his eyes. At moments they had the same uncanny look that Mark Bannon's could get when I first knew him. Of course by then Mark had been dead for about thirteen years.

"Lucia knew who this was: a Russian art dealer named Georgi Svetlanov, the subject of rumors and legends. Each person I asked about him had a different story: he was a smuggler, a Soviet agent, a forger, a freedom fighter."

Eliot said, "It stuck with me enough that I mentioned it the next time I talked to Carol. She was planning a run for congress and I was helping. Carol didn't seem that interested.

"She must have written the name down, though. I kept watch on Svetlanov. Even aside from the Bannon connection he was interesting. Mrs. Bannon must have thought so too. He visited her a few times that I know of."

Marie Bannon had gotten in touch with me and mentioned this Russian man someone had told her about. She had the name and I did some research, found out his itinerary. At a major opening at the Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo, I walked up to a big steely-haired man who seemingly had nothing familiar about him at all.

"Mark Bannon," I said quietly but distinctly.

At first the only reaction was Svetlanov looking at me like I was a bug. He sneered and began to turn away. Then he turned back and the angel moved behind his eyes. He looked at me hard, trying to place me.

I handed him my card. "Mark Bannon, your mother's looking for you," I said. "That's her number on the back." Suddenly eyes that were very familiar looked right into mine.

Des told me, "I saw Svetlanov after that in the flesh and on TV. He was in the background at Riga with Reagan and Gorbachev. I did quite a bit of research and discovered Frank Parnelli among other things. My guess is that Mark Bannon's… spirit or subconscious or whatever it is-was elsewhere by nineteen-ninety-two when Svetlanov died in an auto accident. Was I right?"

In some ways I sympathized with Eliot. I'd wondered about that too. And lying is bad. You get tripped by a lie more often than by the truth.

But I looked him in the face and said, "Mark wasn't signaling anybody from deep inside the skull of some Russian, my friend. You were at the wake, the funeral, the burial. Only those without a drop of Celtic blood believe there's any magic in the Irish."

He said, "The first time I noticed you was at that memorial service. Everyone else stood up and tiptoed around the mystery and disaster that had been his life. Then it was your turn and you quoted Shakespeare. Said he was a ruined king. You knew he wasn't really dead."

"Des, it was 1971. Joplin, Hendrix. Everyone was dying young. I was stoned, I was an aspiring theater person and very full of myself. I'd intended to recite Dylan Thomas's 'Do Not Go Gentle' but another drunken Mick beat me to that.

"So I reared back and gave them

Richard the Second, which I'd had to learn in college. Great stuff:

'Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord'

"As I remember," I said, "the contingent of nuns who taught Mark and me in school was seated down front. When I reached the lines:

"… if angels fight,

Weak men must fall… "

"They looked very pleased about the angels fighting. Booze and bravura is all it was," I said.

Partly that was true. I'd always loved the speech, maybe because King Richard and I share a name. But also it seemed so right for Mark. In the play, a king about to lose his life and all he owns on Earth invokes royal myth as his last hope.

"When I was dating Carol I heard the legends," Des told me. "She and her sister talked about how the family had gotten him into some country club school in New Jersey. He was expelled in his third week for turning the whole place on and staging an orgy that got the college president fired.

"They said how he'd disappear for weeks and Carol swore that once when he came stumbling home, he'd mumbled to her months before it happened that King and Bobby Kennedy were going to be shot.

"Finally, I was at the Bannons with Carol when the prodigal returned and it was a disappointment. He seemed mildly retarded, a burnout at age twenty-five. I didn't even think he was aware I existed.

"I was wrong about that. Mark didn't have a license or a car anymore. The second or third day he was back, Carol was busy. I was sitting on the sun porch, reading. He came out, smiled this sudden, magnetic smile just like his old man's and asked if that was my Ford two-door at the end of the driveway.

"Without his even asking I found myself giving him a lift. A few days later I woke up at a commune in the Green Mountains in New Hampshire with no clear idea of how I'd gotten there. Mark was gone and all the communards could tell me was, 'He enters and leaves as he wishes.'

"When I got back to Boston, Carol was pissed. We made up but in a lot of ways it was never the same. Not even a year or two later when Mike Bannon ran for governor and I worked my ass off on the campaign.

"Mark was back home all the time then, drinking, taking drugs, distracting the family, especially his father, at a critical time. His eyes were empty and no matter how long everyone waited, they stayed that way. After the election he died, maybe as a suicide. But over the years I've come to think that didn't end the story."

It crossed my mind that Eliot knew too much. I said, "You saw them lower him into the ground."

"It's Carol who's looking this time, isn't it?" he asked. "She's almost there as a national candidate. Just a little too straight and narrow. Something extra needs to go in the mix. Please tell me that's going to happen."

A guy in his fifties looking for a miracle is a sad sight. One also sporting a college kid's crush is sadder still.

"Just to humor you, I'll say you're right," I told him. "What would you tell me my next step should be?"

The smile came off his face. "I have no leads," he said. "No source who would talk to me knows anything."

"But some wouldn't talk to you," I said.

"The only one who matters won't. She refuses to acknowledge my existence. It's time you went to see Ruth Vega."

7.

I was present on the night the angel really flew. It was in the summer of '59 when they bulldozed the big overgrown lot where the Fitzgerald mansion had once stood. Honey Fitz's place had burned down just twenty years before. But to kids my age, "Fitzie's" was legendary ground, a piece of untamed wilderness that had existed since time out of mind.

I was finishing my sophomore year in high school when they cleared the land. The big old trees that must have stood on the front lawn, the overgrown apple orchard in the back were chopped down and their stumps dug up.

The scraggly new trees, the bushes where we hid smeared in war paint on endless summer afternoons waiting for hapless smaller kids to pass by and get massacred, the half flight of stone stairs that ended in midair, the marble floor with moss growing through the cracks, all disappeared.

In their place a half-dozen cellars were dug and houses were built. We lost the wild playground but we'd already outgrown it. For that one summer we had half-finished houses to hide out in.

Marky and I got sent to different high schools outside the neighborhood and had drifted apart. Neither of us did well academically and we both ended up in the same summer school. So we did hang out one more time. Nights especially we sat with a few guys our age on unfinished wood floors with stolen beer and cigarettes and talked very large about what we'd seen and done out in the wide world.

That's what four of us were up to in a raw wood living room by the light of the moon and distant street lamps. Suddenly a flashlight shone in our faces and someone yelled, "Hands over your heads. Up against the wall."

For a moment, I thought it was the cops and knew they'd back off once they found out Marky was among us. In fact it was much worse: the Cullen brothers and a couple of their friends were there. In the dim light I saw a switchblade.

We were foul-mouthed little twerps with delusions of delinquency. These were the real thing: psycho boys raised by psycho parents. A kid named Johnny Kilty was the one of us nearest the door. Teddy-the younger, bigger, more rabid Cullen brother-pulled Johnny's T-shirt over his head, punched him twice in the stomach, and emptied his pockets.

Larry, the older, smarter, scarier Cullen, had the knife and was staring right at Marky. "Hey, look who we got!" he said in his toneless voice. "Hands on your head, faggot. This will be fucking hilarious."

Time paused as Mark Bannon stared back slack-jawed. Then his eyes lit up and he smiled like he saw something amazing.

As that happened, my shirt got pulled over my head. My watch was taken off my wrist. Then I heard Larry Cullen say without inflection, "This is no good. Give them their stuff back. We're leaving."

The ones who held me let go; I pulled my T-shirt back on.

"What the fuck are you talking about?" Teddy asked.

"I gotta hurt you before you hear me?" Larry asked in dead tones. "Move before I kick your ass."

They were gone as suddenly as they appeared, though I could hear Teddy protesting as they went through the construction site and down the street. "Have you gone bird shit, stupid?" he asked. I didn't hear Larry's reply.

We gathered our possessions. The other guys suddenly wanted very badly to be home with their parents. Only I understood that Mark had saved us. When I looked, he was staring vacantly. He followed us out of the house and onto the sidewalk.

"I need to go home," he whispered to me like a little kid who's lost. "My angel's gone," he said.

It was short of midnight though well past my curfew when I walked Marky home. Outside of noise and light from the bars in Codman Square, the streets were quiet and traffic was sparse. I tried to talk but Marky shook his head. His shoes seemed to drag on the pavement. He was a lot bigger than me but I was leading him.

Lights were on at his place when we got there and cars were parked in the driveway. "I need to go in the window," he mumbled and we went around back. He slipped as he started to climb the tree and it seemed like a bad idea. But up he went and I was right behind him.

When the bough broke with a crack, he fell, smashing through other branches, and I scrambled back down the trunk. The lights came on but I got away before his family and the governor of the Commonwealth came out to find him on the ground laughing hysterically.

The next day, I was in big trouble at home. But I managed to go visit Mark. On the way, I passed Larry Cullen walking away from the Bannons' house. He crossed the street to avoid me.

Mark was in bed with a broken arm and a bandage on his leg. The light was on in his eyes and he wore the same wild smile he'd had when he saw Larry Cullen. We both knew what had happened but neither had words to describe it. After that Mark and I tended to avoid each other.

Then my family moved away from the neighborhood and I forgot about the Bannons pretty much on purpose. So it was a surprise years later when I came home for Christmas that my mother said Mark Bannon wanted to speak to me.

"His mother called and asked about you," she said. "You know I've heard that Mark is in an awful way. They say Mike Bannon's taken that harder than losing the governorship.

My father looked up from the paper and said, "Something took it out of Bannon. He sleepwalked through the campaign. And when it started he was the favorite."

Curiosity, if nothing else, led me to visit Mark. My parents now lived in the suburbs and I lived in New York. But the Bannons were still on Melville Avenue.

Mrs. Bannon was so sad when she smiled and greeted me that I would have done anything she asked.

When I saw Mark, one of the things he said was, "My angel's gone and he's not coming back." I thought of the lost, scared kid I'd led home from Fitzie's that night. I realized I was the only one, except maybe his mother, who he could tell any of this to.

I visited him a few times when I'd be up seeing my family. Mostly he was stoned on pills and booze and without the angel he seemed lobotomized. Sometimes we just watched television like we had as kids.

He told me about being dragged through strange and scary places in the world. "I guess he wasn't an angel. Or not a good one." Doctors had him on tranquilizers. Sometimes he slurred so badly I couldn't understand him.

Mike Bannon, out of office, was on committees and commissions and was a partner in a law firm. But he was home in his study a lot and the house was very quiet. Once as I was leaving, he called me in, asked me to sit down, offered me a drink.

He wondered how his son was doing. I said he seemed okay. We both knew this wasn't so. Bannon's face appeared loose, sagging.

He looked at me and his eyes flashed for a moment. "Most of us God gives certain… skills. They're so much a part of us we use them by instinct. We make the right move at the right moment and it's so smooth it's like someone else doing it.

"Marky had troubles but he also had moments like that. Someone told me the other day you and he saved a life down on the river when you were boys because he acted so fast. He's lost it now, that instinct. It's gone out like a light." It seemed he was trying to explain something to himself and I didn't know how to help him.

Mark died of an overdose, maybe an intentional one, and they asked me to speak at the memorial service. A few years later, Big Mike Bannon died. Someone in tribute said, "A superb political animal. Watching him in his prime rounding up a majority in the lower chamber was like seeing a cheetah run, an eagle soar… "

"… a rattlesnake strike," my father added.

8.

A couple of days after my meeting with Des Eliot, I flew to Quebec. A minor border security kerfuffle between the U.S. and Canada produced delays at both Newark International and Jean Lesage International.

It gave me a chance to think about the first time I'd gone on one of these quests. Shortly after her husband's death Mrs. Bannon had asked me to find Mark's angel.

A few things he'd told me when I'd visited, a hint or two his mother had picked up, allowed me to track one Frank Parnelli to the third floor of a walk-up in Washington Heights.

I knocked on the door, the eyehole opened and a woman inside asked, "Who is it?"

"I'm looking for Ruth Vega."

"She's not here."

"I'm looking for Mark Bannon."

"Who?"

"Or for Frank Parnelli."

The eyehole opened again. I heard whispers inside. "This will be the man we had known would come," someone said and the door opened.

Inside were statues and pictures and books everywhere: a black and white photo of Leon Trotsky, a woman's bowling trophy, and what looked like a complete set of Anna Freud's

The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child.

A tiny old woman with bright red hair and a hint of amusement in her expression stood in the middle of the room looking at me. "McCluskey, where have you been?"

"That's not McCluskey, Mother," said a much larger middle-aged woman in a tired voice.

"McCluskey from the Central Workers Council! Where's your cigar?" Suddenly she looked wise. "You're not smoking because of my big sister Sally, here. She hates them. I like a man who smokes a cigar. You were the one told me Woodrow Wilson was going to be president when I was a little kid. When it happened I thought you could foretell the future. Like I do."

"Why don't you sit down," the other woman said to me. "My niece is the one you're looking for. My mother's a little confused about past and present. Among other things."

"So McCluskey," said the old woman. "Who's it going to be next election? Roosevelt again, that old fascist?" I wondered whether she meant Teddy or FDR.

"I know who the Republicans are putting up," she said. It was 1975 and Gerald Ford was still drawing laughs by falling down stairs. I tried to look interested.

"That actor," she said. "Don Ameche. He'll beat the pants off President Carter." At that moment I'd never heard of Carter. "No not Ameche, the other one."

"Reagan?" I asked. I knew about him. Some years before he'd become governor of California, much to everyone's amusement.

"Yes, that's the one. See. Just the same way you told me about Wilson, you've told me about Reagan getting elected president."

"Would you like some tea while you wait?" asked the daughter, looking both bored and irritated.

We talked about a lot of things that afternoon. What I remembered some years later, of course, was the prediction about Reagan. With the Vega family there were always hints of the paranormal along with a healthy dose of doubletalk.

At that moment the door of the walk-up opened and a striking couple came in. He was a thug who had obviously done some boxing, with a nicely broken nose and a good suit. She was tall and in her late twenties with long legs in tight black pants, long red hair drawn back, a lot of cool distance in her green eyes.

At first glance the pair looked like a celebrity and her bodyguard. But the way Ruth Vega watched Frank Parnelli told me that somehow she was looking after him.

Parnelli stared at me. And a few years after I'd seen Marky Bannon's body lowered into the ground, I caught a glimpse of him in a stranger's eyes.

That was what I remembered when I was east of Quebec walking uphill from the Vibeau Island Ferry dock.

Des knew where Ruth was, though he'd never actually dared to approach her. I believed if she wanted to stop me from seeing her, she would already have done it.

At a guess, Vibeau Island looked like an old fishing village that had become a summer vacation spot at some point in the mid-twentieth century and was now an exurb. Up here it was chilly even in the early afternoon.

I saw the woman with red hair standing at the end of a fishing pier. From a distance I thought Ruth Vega was feeding the ducks. Then I saw what she threw blow out onto the Saint Lawrence and realized she was tearing up papers and tossing them into the wind. On first glance, I would have said she looked remarkably as she had thirty years before.

I waited until I was close to ask, "What's wrong, Ms. Vega, your shredder broken?"

"McCluskey from the Central Workers Council," she said, and when she did, I saw her grandmother's face in hers. "I remember that first time we met, thinking that Mark's mother had chosen her operative well. You found her son and were very discreet about it."

We walked back to her house. It was a cottage with good sight lines in all directions and two large black schnauzers snarling in a pen.

"That first time was easy." I replied. "He remembered his family and wanted to be found. The second time was a few years later and that was much harder."

Ruth nodded. We sat in her living room. She had a little wine, I had some tea. The décor had a stark beauty, nothing unnecessary: a gun case, a computer, a Cy Twombly over the fireplace.

"The next time Mrs. Bannon sent me out to find her son, it was because she and he had lost touch. Frank Parnelli when I found him was a minor Village character. Mark no longer looked out from behind his eyes. He had no idea where you were. Your grandmother was a confused old woman wandering around her apartment in a nightgown.

"I had to go back to Mrs. Bannon and tell her I'd failed. It wasn't until a couple of years later that Svetlanov turned up."

"Mark and I were in love for a time," Ruth said. "He suggested jokingly once or twice that he leave Parnelli and come to me. I didn't want that and in truth he was afraid of someone he wouldn't be able to control.

"Finally being around Parnelli grew thin and I stopped seeing them. Not long afterward Mark abandoned Parnelli and we both left New York for different destinations. A few years later, I was living in the Yucatan and he showed up again. This time with an old acquaintance of mine.

"When I lived with Grandmother as a kid," Ruth said, "she was in her prime and all kinds of people were around. Political operatives, prophetesses, you name it. One was called Decker, this young guy with dark eyes and long dark hair like classical violinists wore. For a while he came around with some project on which he wanted my grandmother's advice. I thought he was very sexy. I was ten.

"Then he wasn't around the apartment. But I saw him: coming out of a bank, on the street walking past me with some woman. Once on a school trip to the United Nations Building, I saw him on the subway in a naval cadet's uniform.

"I got home that evening and my grandmother said, 'Have you seen that man Decker recently?' When I said yes, she told me to go do my homework and made a single very short phone call. Decker stopped appearing in my life.

"Until one night in Mexico a knock came on my door and there he stood looking not a day older than when I'd seen him last. For a brief moment, there was a flicker in his eyes and I knew Mark was there but not in control.

"Decker could touch and twist another's mind with his. My grandmother, though, had taught me the chant against intrusive thoughts. Uncle Dano had taught me how to draw, aim, and fire without even thinking about it.

"Killing is a stupid way to solve problems. But sometimes it's the only one. After Decker died I played host to Mark for about an hour before I found someone else for him to ride. He was like a spark, pure instinct unfettered by a soul. That's changed somewhat."

When it was time for my ferry back to the city, Ruth rose and walked down to the dock with me.

"I saw his sister on TV the other night when they announced she would be appointed to the Senate. I take it she's the one who's looking for him?"

I nodded and she said, "Before too long idiot senators will be trying to lodge civil liberty complaints after martial law has been declared and the security squads are on their way to the capital to throw them in jail. Without Mark she'll be one of them."

Before I went up the gangplank, she hugged me and said, "You think you're looking for him but he's actually waiting for you."

After a few days back in New York memories of Vibeau Island began to seem preposterous. Then I walked down my block late one night. It was crowded with tourists and college kids, barkers and bouncers. I saw people give the averted celebrity glance.

Then I spotted a black man with a round face and a shaven head. I did recognize him: an overnight hip-hop millionaire. He sat in the back of a stretch limo with the door open. Our eyes met. His widened then dulled and he sank back in his seat.

At that moment, I saw gray winter sky and felt the damp cold of the ice-covered Neponset.

On old familiar ground, said a voice inside me and I knew Mark was back.

9.

Some hours later passengers found seats as our train pulled out of New Haven.

"Ruth said you were waiting for me," I told Mark silently.

And Red Ruth is never wrong.

"She told me about Decker."

I thought I had selected him. But he had selected me. Once inside him I was trapped. He was a spider. I couldn't control him. Couldn't escape. I led him to Ruth as I was told.

He showed me an image of Ruth pointing an automatic pistol, firing at close range.

I leaped to her as he died. She was more relentless than Decker in some ways. I had to promise to make my existence worthwhile. To make the world better.

"If angels fight, weak men must fall."

Not exactly an angel. Ego? Id? Fragment? Parasite?

I thought of how his father had something like an angel himself.

His body, soul, and mind were a single entity. Mine weren't.

I saw his memory of Mike Bannon smiling and waving in the curved front windows of his house at well-wishers on the snowy front lawn. Bannon senior never questioned his own skills or wondered what would have happened if they'd been trapped in a brain that was mildly damaged. Then he saw it happen to his son.

Once I understood that, he showed me the dark tower again with two tiny slits of light high above. I found hand- and foot-holds and crawled up the interior stone walls. This time I looked through the slits of light and saw they were the eyeholes of a mask. In front of me were Mike and Marie Bannon looking very young and startled by the sudden light in the eyes of their troublingly quiet little boy.

When the train approached Boston, the one inside me said,

Let's see the old neighborhood.

We took a taxi from Back Bay and drove out to Dorchester. We saw the school we'd gone to and the courthouse and place where I'd lived and the houses that stood where Fitzie's had once been.

My first great escape.

That night so long ago came back. Larry Cullen, seen through the eyeholes of a mask, stood with his thin psycho smile. In a flash I saw Mark Bannon slack-jawed and felt Cullen's cold fear as the angel took hold of his mind and looked out through his eyes.

Cullen's life was all horror and hate. His father was a monster. It should have taught me something. Instead I felt like I'd broken out of jail. After each time away from my own body it was harder to go back.

Melville Avenue looked pretty much the way it always did. Mrs. Bannon still lived in the family house. We got out of the car and the one inside me said,

When all this is over, it won't be forgotten that you brought me back to my family.

In the days since then, as politics has become more dangerous, Carol Bannon has grown bolder and wilier. And I wonder what form the remembering will take.

Mrs. Bannon's caregiver opened the door. We were expected. Carol stood at the top of the stairs very much in command. I thought of her father.

"My mother's waiting to see you," she said. I understood that I would spend a few minutes with Mrs. Bannon and then depart. Carol looked right into my eyes and kissed me. Her eyes flashed and she smiled.

In that instant the one inside my head departed. The wonderful sharpness went out of the morning and I felt a touch of the desolation that Mark Bannon and all the others must have felt when the angel deserted them.

The Clay Party by Steve Duffy

From the Sacramento Citizen-Journal,

November 27, 1846

Disquieting news reaches the offices of the

Citizen-Journal from our correspondent at Sutter's Fort, where the arrival of a party of settlers embarked on an untried and hazardous new crossing has been anxiously expected since the beginning of the month. November having very nearly elapsed with no word of these prospective Californians as yet received, it is feared by all that their party is become stranded in the high passes with the onset of winter. There is a general agreement among mountain men and seasoned wagoneers alike that the route believed travelled by these unfortunate pilgrims is both unorthodox and perilous in the extreme, it being the handiwork of a Mr Jefferson Clay of New Hampshire, a stranger to these parts with no reputation as a pioneer or a capable navigator. We hear anxious talk of a rescue party being recruited, once the worst of the snow has passed…

***

From the Diary of John Buell, 1846

May 17th, Independence, Missouri: Embarkation day. At last! Set out at nine sharp with our fellow Californians-for so we shall be entitled to call ourselves, in but a little while. A great clamour of oxen and horses along Main Street, and the most uproarious cheering from all the townsfolk as they bid us farewell. It is sad to reflect that among these friendly multitudes there should be faces-dear faces, friends and relatives among them-that we shall never see again; and yet the prospect of that providential land in the West recalls us to our higher purpose, and strengthens us in our resolve. We carry the torch of Progress, as our mentor Mr Clay has written, and it is most fitting that he should be at the head of our party as we depart. We are forty-eight in number: seven families, a dozen single men, our great wagons pulled by sturdy oxen. Surely nothing can stop us.

Elizabeth concerned at the possible effects of the crossing on little Mary-Kate; also, that the general health of her mother is not all it might be. Again I remind her that the balmy air of California can only strengthen the old lady's general constitution, and that no other place on God's earth affords such opportunities for our daughter and ourselves. This she accepts, and we are fairly bound on our way. So it's "three cheers for Jeff Clay, boys," as the wagoneers sang out at our departure-and onwards into the West. Lord, guide us in this great undertaking!

May 26th: The plains. An infinite expanse of grassy prairie, profoundly still and empty. Surely God created no more unfrequented space among all His mighty works. Thunder in the nights, and storms away off on the horizon. Mud along the trail, thick and treacherous, so that we must double-team the oxen on the inclines. The rate of our advance is measured, yet perfectly steady. If only there were some sign by which we could mark our progress! I long for mountains, such as we knew back home in Vermont. Elizabeth 's mother no better; she eats but little, and is silent as these endless brooding plains. Mary-Kate in excellent health, thank God.

May 31st: The Big Blue, and our first real reverse. River swollen with much rain: unfordable. We are obliged to construct a temporary ferry. It will take time.

June 3rd: On our way again. It was the Lord's own struggle crossing the Big Blue, and we were fortunate not to lose more than a couple of our oxen, but now at least we have an opportunity to make up for lost time. Mrs Stocklasa now very weak, though generally quiet and uncomplaining. Elizabeth says little, except to cheer me up with her words of tender encouragement, but I know her every waking hour is filled with anxiety for her ailing mama. Perhaps at Fort Laramie we shall find a doctor.

June 16th: Laborious progress up the Platte; mud still obliging us to double-team on the slightest incline. Found Elizabeth outside the wagon this evening after settling Mary-Kate for the night, weeping freely and most bitterly. She fears her mother's mortal crisis is approaching. God grant it may not be so. Throughout the night she watches over her, soothing her when she wakes, speaking to her in that strange language of her homeland. It gives the old lady much comfort-which may be all that we have left to give her.

June 18th: With a heavy heart I must record the most sorrowful of all tidings: Elizabeth 's mother died around sunset yesterday. The entire party much distressed and brought low by this melancholy event. We dug her grave at a pretty spot on a little knoll overlooking the valley, with up ahead the still-distant prospect of mountains. Would that she had been destined to stand on their peaks with us, and gain a Pisgah view of the promised land! The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. One of the wagoneers has inscribed with hot-iron a simple wooden marker for her grave: JULIA STOCKLASA-Born 1774, Wallachia, Died 1846, Missouri Territory, bound for California -Tarrying here awhile. It is a curious thing to come across in such a lonely place, the humble marker atop its little cairn of rocks; and a sad enough sight for we who mourn, to be sure. But may it not be the case that for those Westerners yet to pass along this trail, it will speak, however haltingly, of home and God and goodness, and may even serve as a first, albeit melancholy sign of civilisation in this great American wilderness? It is hard to envisage this now, as the wolves cry out in the night-time, and Elizabeth starts into wakefulness once more, her features drawn and thin, her eyes reddened with much sorrow. But it may be so.

June 30th: Fort Laramie, at the foothills of the mountains. Revictualling and recuperating after our grim passage across the plains, for which we paid with much hardship and great sorrow.

July 4th: Celebrations in the evening, sky-rockets and dancing to fiddle music; all marred somewhat by an altercation between our leader Jefferson Clay and certain of the mountain men. These rough-hewn, barbarous individuals are much in evidence at the fort, paying homage to the independence of our fair Republic by drinking strong whiskey till they can barely stand. Some of these fine fellows engaged Mr Clay in conversation, in the course of which he showed them the maps laid out in his booklet California, Fair Garden of the West. Herein lay the roots of the discord. The mountain men would not concede that his route-a bold and imaginative navigation of the Great Salt Desert and the mountain passes beyond-represents the future of our nation's westward migration. Harsh words were exchanged, till Mr Clay suffered himself to be led away from the scene of the quarrel. I was among those who helped remove him, and I recall in particular his strong patrician countenance flushed with rage, as he shouted at the top of his voice-"It's the nigher way, I tell you! The nigher way!"

July 5th: On our way again. We were happy enough to arrive at Fort Laramie, but I guess we shall not miss it overmuch.

July 12th: Another black day for our party: Mrs Hiderick dead of a fit in the night. Hiderick, a silent black-browed German-Pennsylvanian, buried her himself before sunup.

July 20th: Hard going. Storms bedevil us still, and we are pretty well accustomed now to our night-time serenades of rolling thunder and the howling of far-off coyotes and wolves. Even Mary-Kate does not stir from her childish slumbers. On nights when the storms are at their worst, the oxen stampede, half-mad from the thunder and the lightning. Regrouped only with much labour. And then the endless sage, and the all-enveloping solitude of the plains. The passage through to California must indeed be a great prize, to be gained at such a cost.

July 25th: The Continental Divide, or so we reckon. From here on in, Oregon country. A thousand miles out, a thousand still to go, says Mr Clay. It is comforting to know that the greater part of our endeavours are now over. I say this to Elizabeth, who I know is grieving still for her beloved mama, and she agrees with me.

July 27th: A curious conversation with Elizabeth, late last night. She asked me if there was anything I would not do to protect our family. Of course I said there was nothing-that her safety, and the safety of our beloved daughter, must always be foremost in my mind, and if any action of mine could guarantee such an outcome, then I would not hold back from it for an instant. She said she knew it, and rallied a little from her gloom; or tried to. What can all this mean? She pines for her mother, of course; and fears what lies ahead. I must seek to reassure her.

July 28th: The Little Sandy river. Here we arrive at the great parting of the ways; while the other wagon trains follow the deep ruts of the regular Oregon trail to our right, heading North, we shall strike out south along Mr Clay's cut-off. A general air of excitement throughout the company. Even Elizabeth rallies somewhat from her melancholy reveries.

July 31st: Fort Jim Bridger. Supplies and rest. Elizabeth and Mary-Kate the subject of some wonderment among the bachelor gentlemen of the fort, when taking the air outside the wagon this morning. It is quite comical to see such grizzled individuals turn as silent and bashful as a stripling lad at his first dance. Such is the effect of my schoolteacher lady, and our little angel!

August 2nd: Bad feeling again in the fort. Cagie Bowden came to our wagon this morning, with news that Mr Clay was once more in dispute with the mountain men last night. Bowden says that together with Mr Doerr & Mr Shorstein he was obliged to remove Mr Clay from the proceedings; also, that in their opinion he was every bit as drunk as the mountain men. Let us not tarry overlong in this place.

August 3rd: On our way once more, along the cut-off. Thus we reckon to save upwards of three-hundred and fifty miles, and should reach Sutter's Fort within six or seven weeks.

August 9th: Ten, fifteen miles a day, when we had reckoned on twenty. Reasonable progress, still we must not fall behind our schedule. Difficult terrain ahead.

August 17th: A wilderness of canyons. Impassable except by much labour. Entire days wasted in backing out of dead-ends and searching for another route. We are falling behind, and the seasons will not wait. Mr Clay delivered the harshest of rebukes to Cagie Bowden for suggesting we turn back to Fort Jim Bridger and the northern trail. (And yet it is only what some of the others are saying.) Too late now in any case.

August 23rd: Lost for the last six days. Only this morning, when Mr Doerr climbed a tall peak and scouted out a surer way, were we freed at last from the hell of the canyons. Much time lost here. Mr Clay is now generally unapproachable except by a very few. He will not suffer the Bowdens to come nigh him. It is regrettable.

August 27th: Into the trackless wastes along the Wasatch. Two and three miles progress in a day. Aspen and cottonwoods choking up the canyons; cleared only with superhuman effort. Weary to my very bones. Elizabeth tells me not to over-exert myself, but there is no choice. I brought my wife & baby daughter into this place, and now they must always be at the forefront of my thoughts. We must not be caught here in the wilderness when winter comes.

August 29th: Some of the other families have proposed that we abandon the larger wagons, which they believe cannot be driven through this mountainous territory. They called a meeting tonight, at which Mr Clay overruled them, assuring the party that we have passed through the worst of the broken land, and speaking passionately of the ease and speed with which our passage shall be completed once we leave behind the canyon country. Cagie Bowden pressed him on the details, upon which he became much agitated, and attempted to expel the Bowdon wagon from the party. On this he was overruled, by a clear majority of the settlers. He retired with much bitterness to his wagon, as did we all. A general air of foreboding over all the party.

August 30th: Seven of the single men missing this morning; gone with their horses. The party is fractured clean down the middle. No-one looks up from his labours save with a grave and troubled face. Double-teaming all day. Elizabeth urges me to rest tonight, and cease from writing. God grant we shall one day read these words, settled safe in California, and wonder at the tribulations of the passage across.

September 1st: Out of the canyons at last! and on to the low hilly land above the salt flats. Six hundred miles from our destination. A chance to recoup lost time, and fresh springs in abundance. Charley and Josephus, the Indian guides we engaged at Fort Bridger, went from wagon to wagon warning us to take on board all the water we might carry, and to hoard it well-no good springs, they said, for many days' march ahead. On hearing of this Mr Clay had the men brought to him, and cursed them for a pair of craven panic-mongers and Godless savages. Hiderick was for lashing them to a wagon-wheel and whipping them-restrained with some difficulty by the rest of us men. Heaven help us all.

September 2nd: A note found stuck to the prickerbushes by the side of the trail, by the Indian Charley scouting ahead. He brought it to me at the head of the wagon train, and with some difficulty Bowden and I pieced it together. We believe it to be the work of several of the single men who cleared out last week-it tells of hard going up ahead, and warns us to turn back and make for Fort Bridger while we have the chance. I was for keeping it from Jefferson Clay till we had spoken to the other families, but nothing would do for Bowden but to force the issue. Once more Clay and Bowden wound up at each other's throats, and were separated only by the combined exertions of all present. An ill omen hangs over this party. Ahead lies the desert. Into His hands we commend our spirits, who brought His chosen ones through forty years of wandering to the promised land.

September 3rd: Slow passage across the face of the great salt desert. Hard baked crust over limitless salty mud, bubbling up to the surface through the ruts left by our wagon wheels. The wagons sink through to above the wheel-hubs, and the going is most laborious. Again we fall behind, and the season grows late.

September 4th: Endless desolation-no safe land-no fresh water. This is a hellish place.

September 5th: Disaster in the night. The oxen, mad with thirst, stampeded in the night; all but a handful lost out on the salt pans. Four of the wagons have been abandoned, and the families must carry what they can. All have taken on board as much as they can carry, and the overloaded wagons sink axle-deep into the mud. Surely God has not set his face against us?

September 7th: Passage still devilish slow; no sign of an end to the desert. Bitter cold in the night time-we huddle with the dogs for warmth, like beasts in the wilderness. Little Mary-Kate screams in disgust at the bitter salt taste that fills her pretty rosebud mouth. Vainly she tries to spit it out, as her mother comforts her. Would that I could rid my own mouth of the bitter taste of defeat. I have led them into this hell (remainder of sentence erased-Ed.)

September 9th: Off the salt pans at last. Oxen lost, wagons abandoned, and no prospect of a safe retreat to Fort Bridger. To go back now would surely finish us off. In any case, the provisions would not last-Bowden says they will barely serve for the passage through the mountains. He is for confronting Clay, once and for all, and holding a popular vote to determine who should lead the party from here on in to California. I counsel him to wait till our strength is somewhat recouped. None of us have the belly for such a confrontation at present.

September 13th: Ahead in the distance, the foothills of the Sierras. White snow on the hilltops. Dear God, that it should come to this.

September 20th: No slackening in our progress, no rest for any man; but we are slow, we are devilish slow. Without the oxen and the wagons we lost out on the salt pans our progress is impeded mightily, and much effort is expended in the securing of provisions. Clay now wholly removed from the rest of the party; like a general he rides alone at the head of the column, seeing nothing but the far horizon while all around him his troops suffer, close to mutiny. Around our wagons each night, the howling of wolves.

September 23rd: Desperation in the camp, which can no longer be hidden. The remaining single men have volunteered to ride on ahead, that they might alert the Californian authorities to our plight; they set out this morning. All our chances of success in this forlorn undertaking ride with them.

October 2nd: The Humboldt river. According to Charley the Indian guide, we are now rejoined with the main trail, and done at last with Clay's damned cut-off. No sign of any other parties along the banks of the river. It is late in the season-they will be safe across the mountains and in California now. A note from the men riding on ahead was discovered on the side of the trail, and brought straight to Clay. He will not disclose its contents. I am persuaded at last that the time has come to follow Bowden's counsel, and force a reckoning.

October 3rd: A catastrophe. The thing I most feared has come to pass. Last night Cagie Bowden led a deputation of the men to Clay's wagon and demanded he produce the note. Clay refused, and upon Bowden pressing him, drew a pistol and shot him through the chest. Instantly Clay was seized by the men, while aid was summoned for the stricken Bowden; alas, too late. Within a very little time he expired.

I was for burying him, then abandoning Clay in the wilderness and pressing on. Hiderick would have none of it, calling instead for frontier justice and a summary settling of accounts. His hotter temper won the day. Hiderick caused Clay's wagon to be tipped over on its side, and then hanged him from the shafts. It was a barbarous thing to watch as he strangled to death at the end of a short rope. Are we no better than beasts now? Have our hardships brought us to such an extremity of animal passion? Back in the wagon, I threw myself to the floor in a perfect storm of emotion; Elizabeth tried to comfort me, but I could take no solace even from her sweet voice. I have failed her-we have all failed, all of us men who stood by and let vanity and stupidity lead us into this hell on earth. Now on top of it all we are murderers. The mark of Cain lies upon us.

October 4th: In all my anguish of last night I forgot to set down that the note was found on Clay's body after all, tucked inside his pocket-book. It read-"Make haste. Indians in the foothills. Snow already on the peaks. Waste no time."

October 11th: Forging on down the valley of the Humboldt. Such oxen as remain alive are much weakened through great exertion and lack of fodder, and to save their strength we walk where we can. No man talks to his neighbour; our gazes are bent to the trail ahead, and our heads hang low. Why should we look up? Snow-caps clearly visible atop the mountains in the West.

October 23rd: In the night, a great alarm: Indians, howling down from the hills, attacking our wagons. Four wagons lost before we knew it-nine men dead in the onslaught. They have slaughtered half of the oxen too, the brutes. As they vanished back into the hills, we heard them laughing-a terrible and callous sound. I hear it now as I write, and it may be that it shall follow me to my grave: the mocking of savages in this savage land. Savages, I say? At least they do not kill their own as we have done.

October 31st: Our progress is so slow as to be hardly worth recording. Oxen dying between the wagon-shafts; if we are to make the crossing into California, I believe we shall have to rely on the mules and upon our own feet. Thunder atop the peaks, and the laughter of the Paiutes, echoing through these lonely canyons. They do not bother us much now, though; even the wolves leave us alone. We are not worth the bothering.

November 4th: Very nigh to the mountains now-can it be that the Lord will grant us safe passage before the winter comes? Dark clouds over all the white-capped peaks. One more week, Lord; one more week. At night on our knees by the bunks we pray, Elizabeth & I-God grant us another week.

November 8th: In the high passes. So close! Lord, can it be?

November 9th: Snow in the night, great flakes whirling out of a black sky. We pressed on without stopping, but in the morning it commenced again, and mounted to a wild flurry by midday. The oxen are slipping, and the wagons wholly ungovernable. We made camp by the side of a lake nigh to the tree-line, where some party long since departed fashioned four or five rough cabins out of logs. For tonight we must bide here by the lakeside, and pray for no more snow.

November 10th: Snow all through the night. Trail impassable-neither man nor beast can battle through the drifts. Exhausted, hope gone. Wind mounting to a howling frenzy, mercury falling, sky as black as lead. We have failed. The winter is upon us and we are lost in the high passes. God help us.

***

From the Sacramento Citizen-Journal,

February 2, 1847

Our readers, anxious for fresh news of the wagon-train of settlers trapped in the mountains, will doubtless remember our interview with Mr Henry Garroway, one of the outriders sent on ahead of the party who arrived in California last November, with the first of winter's storms at his heels. Mr Garroway, it will be recalled, announced it as his intention to lead a rescue company at the earliest opportunity, made up of brave souls from the vicinity of Sutter's Fort, kitted out and victualled by the magnanimous Mr John Augustus Sutter himself. Alas, grave news reaches us from the fort: the ferocity of the January storms has rendered even the lowest of the Western passes wholly impenetrable. Drifts higher than a man on horseback have been reported as the norm, and even the most sanguine estimate cannot anticipate the departure of any rescue party until March at the earliest…

***

Addendum to the Diary of John Buell

(undated, made by his wife, Elizabeth)

I had not thought to take up my dear husband's pen and bring the story of our family's tribulations to its conclusion; however, should this diary be all that remains of us, then it may serve as a testament-to much bravery, and also to wickedness beyond measure.

We have been snowed in at the lakeside for nigh on three months now. Things have gone hard with us since the beginning: our provisions were scanty on arrival, and dwindled soon enough to nothing. I have seen people trying to eat shoe-leather and the binding of books; bark and grass and dirt they have eaten, twigs and handfuls of leaves. We were thirty-five on our arrival, thirty-two adults and three nursing children including my angel Mary-Kate. Now we are reduced to three.

The hunger swallows all things. Whole days will pass, and we think of nothing save food, how it would be to fill our bellies to repletion. There is a narcotic in it; it lulls one into a dangerous inactivity, a dull vacant torpor. I have seen this look settle upon a score of people; in each case the end came very nigh after. Daily I look for it in myself. I must be strong, for my angel's sake.

The provisions ran out before the end of November: the last of the oxen were slaughtered and eaten by then, and the mules too. One of the children was the first to die, Sarah Doerr's little Emily; soon after her, Missy Shorstein, and her father the next day. Our sorrow was great-we had no way of knowing that all too soon death would become a familiar thing with us. It is hard to mourn, when horror is piled upon horror and the bodies are beyond counting or remembrance; but it is necessary. It is the most human of emotions, and we must remain human, even in this uttermost remove of hell.

From the start it was clear that some would not last the year out. A great depression settled over our camp like a funeral pall, and many succumbed to its all-embracing pressure. It was most prevalent among the men-not least in my dear husband John. From the first he reproached himself, and for many days after our arrival, half-crazy with remorse, he would not stir from his bed of leaves and moss in our cabin. Many times I spoke with him, and sought to assure him he was not to blame for our predicament; but he would not be consoled, and turned his head away to the wall. Greatly I feared for his life; that he would give up the will to live, and fade away like so many of the others.

But my husband John Buell was a strong man, and a brave one, and soon enough he arose from his bed and was about the general business. He managed to trap some small animals for the pot; hares and crows and the like. He helped weather-proof our cabin, and the cabins of our neighbours. And around the middle of December, when folks were dying and all hope seemed forlorn, he set forth a plan.

Together with three of the other man-Bill Doerr, Martin Farrow and young Kent Shorstein-he purposed to cross the mountains on foot and fetch help. The Indians, Charley and Josephus, would accompany them, guiding them safe through to California. It was a desperate plan, fraught with much peril and offering but little chance of success, but it was voted the last best hope of our pitiful assembly, for all were in agreement when the plan was presented for approval. Here I must be honest, and record that in private I counselled against the expedition-I wept and pleaded with John, that he should stay with us and not throw his life away on such a rash and impetuous undertaking. He would not listen, though: it was as if he saw in this reckless plan a last chance, not just for our beleaguered party, but for himself-as if he might thus redeem himself in my eyes, when all along he was my hero and my one true love.

They set out in the second week of December; and soon afterwards Hiderick presented his awful proposition to the remainder of the party.

Now I must be brave, and record the facts of the matter without flinching. Hiderick said that the rescue party were doomed to failure, and would undoubtedly die in the mountain passes; we should not rely on them for assistance. I could have struck him-that he could thus impugn my husband, and his brave allies, when he had not the courage to do aught save cower in his cabin! But I must tell it aright, and not let myself be sidetracked.

Hiderick said that we were doomed, and should not make it through to the spring, save for one chance. He said that we were surrounded by fresh meat, if we had only the brains to see it, and the nerve to do something about it; he said he was a butcher by trade, and would show us what he meant. If I live another fifty years I shall not forget what he did next.

He went to the door of the big cabin and flung it wide open. The snow rose up in drifts all around, parted only where a path had been cleared between the cabins. All around were the graves of those who had already succumbed to the hunger and the cold; maybe nine or ten by that time. We could not dig them in the ground, for that lay ten feet beneath the snowdrifts, and was frozen hard as iron. Instead we lay them wrapped in blankets in the snow, where the cold would preserve them till the spring.

Hiderick pointed to the nearest of the graves-little Missy Shorstein's. "There's your meat," he said, in his thick guttural voice. "Like it or not, it's the only vittles you'll get this side of the thaw."

There was an uproar. Old man Shorstein struck Hiderick full in the face, and swore he would take a pistol and spill Hiderick's brains on the snow before he ever disturbed the grave of his daughter. Hiderick wiped the blood from his cheek, licking his hand clean in a way that made me sick to watch, and merely said, "You'll see. None need eat his own kin, if we handle it right."

But Mr Shorstein himself was in his grave before Christmas-day, and two others with him. Two more the next day, and three the next-and soon after that the first of the families took to eating the dead.

Hiderick dressed the bodies, and distributed the parcels of meat. Like a terrible black-bearded devil he passed from cabin to cabin; always he would knock upon our door, and always I would refuse to answer. Sometimes the ghoul would show his grinning face at the window; I would hold little Mary-Kate close to my bosom, and pray for our deliverance. Five of the seven families partook; let the record show that the Buells and the Shorsteins never ate human flesh. It is not my place to judge them-Mama told me more than once that survival runs close to the bone, closer than anything save the blood. But the flesh of our friends and fellow-Christians! Dear Lord, no.

I trapped what I could, enough for Mary-Kate at least: back in Vermont when I was but a little child, Mama had showed me many ways to catch the small creatures of hills and woodland. Still the hunger was always with us, and Mary-Kate grew awful thin and pale; yet no unholy flesh passed our lips. As for the rest of them: they ate or fasted according to their consciences, and yet even for those who chose to partake there was scarce enough meat to grow fat on, so little was there left on the bones of the dead. They cheated death for but a little while, but at what cost, Lord? At what cost?

Even this grisly feasting was all but through by the January, and folk were dying again almost daily, when out of the mountains staggered Kent Shorstein and the Indian Josephus, carrying between them the body of my dear brave husband John Buell.

We buried John in the snowdrifts out back of the cabin. Kent Shorstein told me of the great hardships endured by the five of them up in the mountains; he said that they lost their way searching for a pass that was not entirely blocked, and so within a week they were starving and nigh to death themselves. Doerr and Farrow were for killing the Indians, and eating their flesh; on this Charley rose up and ran Martin Farrow through with a knife, and Bill Doerr shot Charley dead on the spot. Josephus would have killed him for it, but John and young Kent restrained him. Best if they had not, maybe, for next morning when they awoke they found Doerr eating Charley's liver by the campfire. Kent and my dear John refused to join him in the gruesome repast, and instead they entreated Josephus to lead them away, back to our camp by the lake. The last they saw of Bill Doerr was him raving and singing to himself among the pine trees, waving a gobbet of meat on a stick.

Poor Kent Shorstein told me all this from his sick-bed; he shivered like a man with the ague, and I was not surprised when two days later, his body was taken for burial by his grieving sisters. Soon they too had joined him at rest; and then began the grimmest passage of my travails.

With John dead and the last of the Shorsteins gone also, there now remained of the party only Mary-Kate and I who refused to eat the flesh of the deceased. Hiderick was now pre-eminent among us; he roamed from cabin to cabin like a robber baron, adorned-I can scarce bring myself to speak of it!-adorned with a gruesome sort of necklace, fashioned from small knuckle-bones and vertebrae strung on a leather strip. He said they were from the mules and the oxen, though everybody knew this to be a lie. Who though could reproach him? He fed them, and they depended on him. On his shoulders he wore a cape of wolfskin-the wolves surrounded the camp but would not come close, for I had set up snares all around as Mama showed me how to do, and we still had ammunition enough to shoot them.

It was the practice of the families to place over the bodies of their loved ones a marker made of wood, together with a small tag hung round the neck, lest anyone should eat his own kin. In the cases of the Shorsteins and us Buells, this marker served to warn away the ghoul Hiderick entirely. Imagine then the distress and the horror with which I found, when going to pray awhile at John's graveside, that the bodies of Adolph and Bella Shorstein had been dragged from their sacred resting-place around to Hiderick's cabin, whither I dared not go. What to do?

In the presence of all those remaining in the party-few enough, Lord, few enough! and yet sufficient to deal with Hiderick, had they but dared-I confronted him with the foul deed. He merely laughed and said, "Hain't I got to put meat on the table? They ain't so particular about their food now, I reckon." No-one would take my part in it; they slunk away like so many starving jackals, licking the bloody hand that feeds them. I took Mary-Kate back to our cabin, and wept throughout the night. I vowed to myself: she is my angel, and I will do what I must to protect her. Let the others throw in their lots with the ghoul, I said, and see what comes of it.

Death came of it, I believe as much of shame as hunger in the end. People could scarce bear to look at one another, and took to their beds, and come morning they were dead; only Hiderick seemed to thrive on his grisly diet. He ruled over all, and grew fat on the bodies of his erstwhile subjects.

Josephus would have taken my part, for he too-let his name be recorded among the virtuous!-never ate of the cursed meat; but he was gone. After bringing John back to the camp he spent a night resting, then another day crouching out in the snow beneath the mightiest of the trees around the camp, muttering to himself some words of heathen prayer. The wolves came right up to him, but did not touch him; for his part, he hardly seemed to heed their presence. At dusk he came down from the treeline to knock on my cabin door and tell me he was departing. Would I come with him, he asked? I said I could not, and showed him Mary-Kate asleep in her rough cot. He nodded, and said a curious thing: "You are best fitted of all of them to look after her, maybe. I will see you again." Then he looked at me for the longest time, so long that I felt uncomfortable and averted my eyes from his keen and curious gaze-upon which he turned on his heel and departed. That night-I am sure it was him-he left the dressed-out carcass of a deer at our door. We never saw him again.

Now we are through February and into March, and still no sign of a thaw, nor any hope of rescue. Instead the snow redoubles, and my traps are empty come the morning. There were upward of a dozen souls remaining in our party when John's companions dragged him back into camp. Today, there are but three remaining, Mary-Kate and me-and Hiderick.

Oh, unutterable horror! That such things could exist under the sun! The deserted camp is like some awful frozen abattoir. Long streaks of blood disfigure the white snowdrifts. Here and there lie the horrible remains of some devil's feast-a long bone picked clean, a shattered skull-and barricaded inside our cabin we hear, Mary-Kate and I, the ravings of the maniac outside.

This afternoon-I can scarce bear to set the words down. I must be strong. This afternoon, he came to the cabin door and hammered it till I opened. He was stripped to the waist, I thought at first; then I realised I could not see his mop of greasy black hair and bristling beard, and thought he wore some sort of leathern cap over all. What it was-

What he wore was the skin of my dear husband John Buell, stretched over his head and shoulders like an awful mask. He was laughing like a madman, and bawling at the top of his cracked and shrieking voice: "You like me? You like me now, huh? I fitten enough for you now, maybe?"

I raised John's pistol level with my eyes, and said, I know not how I managed it but I said: "Get out." He scarcely heard me, so filled with the spirit of devilishness and insanity was he. I did not hesitate. I fired the pistol. The load flew so close by his head-closer than I had intended it to, I think-that it served to rouse him from his madness. He stared at me, but all I could see were the features, blackened and distorted, of my dear sweet John. The horror of it-the horror-

"Get out now," I said.

"I'll come fer you," he said, and I swear there was nothing in his voice that was halfway human any more. "I'm your husband, now, don't you see, and I'll come fer you. You'll want me by and by, I reckon. I got meat-got good meat-" and he raised his hand to show me some hideous gobbet of flesh-please God let it not have been

his, oh merciful Lord please! He brandished it before him like a dreadful prize.

I fired again, and this time the bullet took the greater part of his ear off. He dropped the stinking piece of carrion and screamed; with the incredible clarity of great stress and panic, I saw his traitor's blood spilling out on the white and blameless snow. Like the basest coward in creation he scuttled back to his shack, shrieking and cursing all the while. For the time being he is quiet; but I doubt not that he will come for us, maybe tonight when the moon is up. My bullet only wounded him, he will survive. But shall we, Mary-Kate and I?

Alone; abandoned; forsaken. How shall I protect my darling babe from this madman, from this wolf at the door? All that drives me on is the remembrance of Mama, those nights she lay nigh death in the wagon, how she clasped my hand in hers and gripped it and told me that I would survive, though she might not. I said mama, mama, no, it shan't be, you're strong, you're so strong, and I am weak, but she said I would change. When the time came I would change. I do not know whether she was right, but I feel at the end of myself.

The moon is up. Its broad full face smiles down on this stained defiled earth. The howling of the wolves echoes out across the frozen lake and through the deserted cabins, up into the snow-choked trees. Four bullets left. Not near enough, I fear, but one each for me and Mary-Kate at need. Grant me the strength to do what I must, to survive this night!

***

From the Sacramento Citizen-Journal,

April 27, 1847

The Miracle Of The Mountains

a child found in the wilderness

Guarded by Wolves-Horrors Strewn All About

Full particulars

The most shocking and incredible news from Mr Henry Garroway's rescue party, who rode to the assistance of the wagon train forced to winter in the high mountains, is setting all California ablaze. Wild rumors have been bruited on all sides, and it is incumbent upon the

Citizen-Journal to set down the facts as we have learned them, directly from Mr Garroway himself.

The party set out from Sutter's Fort in the last week of March, and battled through mighty snow-drifts to the far side of the peaks, where lay the encampment of the unfortunate settlers stranded by the winter storms. The first of the outriders drew up short on reaching the outskirts of the camp, so appalling was the scene which lay before their eyes. Together the would-be rescuers prayed for strength and marshalled their forces, before entering into a scene of horror no pen can describe, fit only for some grim courageous Dante of the New World.

Five cabins of rough construction lay before them, their roofs alone visible above the snow. No sign of chimney-smoke, or indeed of any human activity, could be seen; instead, between the cabins, there were bloodied trails, as of the aftermath of a great slaughter. One veteran member of the party, Mr Frederick Marchmont of Sacramento, swears that the carnage wreaked upon that place surpassed in horror anything seen by the most hardened of frontier campaigners; not even the savage Apache, he avers, could have left in his wake so much bloodshed and butchery.

Great was the dismay with which the rescuing party gazed upon this devastation; heavy were the hearts of all as the search from cabin to cabin began. Horrible to relate, all about the cabins were portions of human flesh and bone, torn as if by wild animals; so atrocious was the general aspect of the place that several of the rescuers were all but unmanned, falling to their knees and praying to the Lord that this bitter cup should pass them by.

Imagine, then, the wonderment with which the assembled men of the rescue party heard, in all that great stillness of desolation, the crying of a little child!

***

From a private letter of Elizabeth Buell to her daughter Mary-Kate, held within the Garroway family

My darling, I believe they are coming soon. Last night I heard them, ever so far off, up in the peaks-I smell them now, their scent travels on the thin spring wind. Tomorrow they will arrive, and they will find you.

It will be the cruellest and most bitter thing to leave you, crueller even than the burying of my own dear husband, your loving father John Buell. I saw his body once Hiderick had done with it: oh, my child, pray you never have to look on such a sight! Hard it was to look upon; till now, the hardest thing in that long season of sadness and hardship that began with the death of your grandmother, Julia Stocklasa, at the commencement of all our wanderings.

Your father, as he lay raving in his cabin by the lakeside, called this a godless place; and then cursed himself for a blasphemer. God has abandoned us, he screamed into the night; better say that God was never here, my darling. Better say that we rode beyond His grace into some strange and ancient land, where the old gods still hold sway, where blood and death and the animal passions yet contend for mastery of the earth. Your grandmother knew it, Mary-Kate; as she lay on her deathbed she whispered it in my ear. Remember, she said, you will change at need. You will change, she said, and I did not know what she meant at first. Then she told me of the shapeshifter women of her homeland, those that go out into the woods on nights when the moon is full, and the change comes upon them. She told me what to do if I wished to survive the peril she foresaw, and to protect you. I did not believe her at first, but perhaps only in the uttermost desperation can such things ring true. I did what she told me, and everything changed, my darling-everything, save my love for you.

I thought I could come back, after it was done. For it was only to protect you, my darling, that I did what I did that night of the full moon when Hiderick came for us; little did I care for my own life, only for yours, since to stay alive would be to keep you safe from harm, and that was all that mattered to me. How could I know that what is done, is done, once and for all; that

there can be no changing back? How could I live among men again, after such a fearful alteration? Now I have other family, and must leave you to your own kind.

They wait for me among the trees, my new kin, tongues lolling from their strong jaws as they grin and pant, coats wet from the melting snow. How it feels to run with them, to fling myself into snowbanks and roll and play and lie together-this you can never know, my darling. Josephus, who helped save you, knew: straight away I recognized him, after the deed was done and the rest of the wolves came down to the camp to look upon the slaughter. I looked into his eyes as I lay there full changed, streaked and clotted still with Hiderick's reeking blood, and he looked back into mine. This time I did not turn away.

Did I do wrong? I did what I had to do. Did I betray my dear husband? At least I did not fail our beautiful and most perfect daughter, first in both our affections and ever dearest to us. So how bitter, my darling, to leave you for these men to find. They will take you across the mountains, whither your father and I cannot follow: we shall remain here as you ride away. At least you shall find your home in the new Eden: east of Eden is fit enough for such as we, who have the stain of blood on us.

Perhaps this land, that has so much escaped God's grace, may still be subject to His justice; perhaps I will be punished for what I have done. As if there could be a worse punishment than knowing you to be alive and well in that promised land beyond the mountains, and I not able to see you, or hold you in my arms and hear your pretty laugh.

Hark! They are coming down from the mountain. I must go, and leave you now. All my love goes with you. Be good, my darling; be kind, be honest, be faithful, and know that your Mama will love you always. Listen for me, nights when you lie abed and the moon is up. The pack are waiting for me. I must go-

Penguins of the Apocalypse by William Browning Spencer

I was watching a nature documentary on the small television I'd taken into exile with me. Several thousand hapless Emperor penguins huddled together on a vast plain of snow while blasts of ice-laden air furrowed their feathers. Tough little birds, sleek little stoics that made my flimsy misfortunes (unemployed, divorced, alcoholic) seem like the hothouse complaints of a pampered child. But wait… perhaps these birds weren't even roughing it. If I could zero in on a single bird amid this huddled mass, if I could read its mind, I might find it thinking: "This is great, the lot of us here, comrades, all for one and one for all. Would you look at the way the sun blazes on the ice! Beautiful! What a magnificent day to huddle together. And there's a nice breeze, too!"

I live over a bar, and when my own thoughts get too much for me, I go down to the bar and Evil Ed, the bartender, draws me a free beer from the tap. This should not be mistaken for generosity. Later, he runs my tab up extravagantly, claiming I've bought beers for people I don't remember and who, I suspect, are the imaginary spawn of Evil Ed's accounting practices.

Evil Ed and I both have apartments above the bar. I rented my apartment through Evil Ed, who was representing our landlord, Quality Rentals, Inc. QR resides, as do we, in Newark, New Jersey, or, at least, that's where QR's post office box is located.

Evil Ed is an ex-con, his muscled arms covered with primitive tattoos, the strangest of which is a heart among many knives with the initials A.B. in the heart's center and a little banner over that with the single word WHITE printed on it. Why a black man would wish to have an Aryan Brotherhood tattoo is beyond me, but I don't know him well enough to ask. Evil Ed keeps to himself, and he doesn't feel compelled to engage in the sort of small talk that passes for social interaction between strangers. I appreciate his self-containment. Surely the virtue of silence, of allowing others their space, should be taught in kindergarten. Such schooling shouldn't have to wait until prison.

Anyway. It was a Saturday, which might suggest a crowd, but this wasn't a Saturday-night kind of bar. This was more the sort of bar you went to because you had gone to it the day before.

The place could get a little rowdy sometimes, and Evil Ed had nailed a holster up under the counter near the cash register. Lodged inside that holster was a Walther P38 that looked old enough to have been pried from a Nazi's cold dead fingers. As far as I knew, no one had ever tried to rob the place. Evil Ed's demeanor did not suggest a man willing to hand over cash without a fight.

This Saturday night, the bar (which, by the way, has no name, being identified only by the vertical neon letters B-A-R) was sparsely populated with regulars (Rat Lady, Freddie Famous-Long-Ago, Bullshit George, and The Nameless Perv). There were a couple of Goth kids, happy to be miserable, and three bulky guys wearing dresses, transvestite empowerment night, I guess, and, somewhere in the shadows, Derrick Thorn, waiting to meet me, waiting to befriend me.

The television over the bar had the same penguin show on, and now a seal was chasing a penguin through the water. The seal, its mouth wide and bristling with pointy teeth, shot through the ocean, shedding iridescent bubbles, its eyes black, demonic, the eyes of some angry ghost-child from a Japanese horror flick. I had never seen seals from this perspective. Scary stuff!

A voice that was not mine seemed to pluck the thought from my head: "It does not seem right, a seal animal to eat a penguins, the both of them slippery, swimmy things that should be happy brothers together in the oceans."

I turned to behold a large pear-shaped man, smooth-faced, hairless as a cave salamander. His face was oddly blurred, and he may have tried to remedy this lack of definition by the application of eyeliner to his forehead, but the eyebrows created in this manner only seemed to emphasize the absence of any assertive facial features. He wore a black sweatshirt with the hood thrown back and pleated black pants. The contours of his sweatshirt suggested lumpy pudding flesh beneath; pale hands, small as a child's, sprouted from black sleeves. I assumed that this much strangeness had to be calculated, that he was some sort of artist.

"Let us make of each other the acquaintance," he said. I'm not the least bit fastidious when it comes to drinking companions, so we moved to a corner booth, and we drank a lot of beer, which he must have paid for, because my bar tab didn't grow at all that night.

It's not clear what Derrick Thorn revealed of himself. I came away with the knowledge that English was not-surprise!-his native language ("It fall down on my tongue, these English"), but if he told me the country he called home, my brain failed to log it. He was in some sort of business requiring a lot of travel, and he lived alone. He must have volunteered this info; I know I didn't ask. A maudlin, drunken state had overtaken me, and at such times a drinking companion is merely an opportunity for a monologue. I told him I was divorced, unemployed, and paying child support to a woman so mean that her death would cause a thousand of Hell's toughest demons to opt for early retirement. I was exaggerating, out of bitterness and an alcohol-induced love of hyperbole.

Derrick nodded as I spoke. At some point during the evening, he took out a handkerchief and mopped the sweat from his brow, eradicating one eyebrow and smearing the other.

I was flickering in and out of a blackout, that alcoholic state in which the mind visits the moment, departs, and returns sporadically, illuminating scenes as might the world's slowest strobe. A moment that my mind chose to save consisted of Derrick, solemn and slick-faced, leaning toward me and saying, "At end times, the penguins will remember those who friended them." I recall this (now) because, in the context of whatever I was saying (and I can't remember what that was), it seemed profound.

It was very late when I found myself back in my room. I turned the television on while waiting for the floor to settle. Another nature documentary was in progress. Monkeys were eating mud.

When I woke in the morning, the television was taking it easy, some people slumped in sofas, talking about social ills with the calm resignation of people who only expect things to get worse.

I can't always tell when I'm ill, because I drink a lot, and the aftermath of drinking has many flu-like symptoms. But I was sneezing in the morning, and my forehead felt as hot as heated asphalt. My thoughts were trying to devour each other, a sign, I've found, of fever.

I thought of calling Victoria and telling her I couldn't make it, but she'd accuse me of being a selfish drunken bastard who cared nothing for anyone other than himself. I hate defending myself against accusations that are fundamentally true, so I made some coffee and drank it and rallied as best I could.

At night, I empty the contents of my pants pockets on the floor, and I was reassigning these items (car keys, lighter, artfully wadded-up bills, sundry coins, pens, et cetera) to the pockets of a clean pair of jeans when I found a business card of the inexpensive thermal-printed sort you might purchase from an Internet site for a pittance. It read:

Derrick Thorn

businesses • helping persons • solving problems

good deals by mutual bargain

friendship and opportunity guaranteed

please be calling at ”

A telephone number was hand-printed on the other side of the card.

Well, I thought, not a misspelled word in the lot. Not that it made any sense. I tossed the card in the nightstand's drawer, where it would lie with other business cards, many of unknown provenance.

I got dressed, regarded myself in the bathroom mirror, said, "If no one has told you they love you today, there's a good reason for that," and left my apartment. Evil Ed was in the hall, a garbage bag on his shoulder, heading to the stairs that led to the dumpster out back. He nodded to me and I nodded back, neither of us compelled to smile or speak.

It was snowing, slow dizzy wet flakes that turned black in the gutters. Aside from a couple of homeless people hunkered in doorways and a skeletal dog that was tearing apart a black plastic trash bag, spilling empty beer cans into the street, it was quiet the way Sunday mornings are in my neighborhood. The God of Church has either got you, swept you up and dragged you into some storefront salvation shop, or you are lying low, hardly breathing, feeling the oppressive holiness of the day coming for you like a hearse.

We were in the holiday season, almost Thanksgiving, and I could already feel Christmas bearing down on me, a black cloud of obligations and money-draining events. My bank account was no longer being fed by a salary-BC Graphics had fired me three weeks ago for excellent reasons that have no part in this narrative-and I hadn't informed Victoria of this reversal in my fortunes. I couldn't imagine her saying anything helpful.

Victoria, my ex, has never entirely approved of me. She married me, I suspect, because her father

despised me. In marrying me against his wishes, she was getting back at him for being a distant, aloof parent during her formative years. As time went by, the old man warmed to me. I turned out to be his ally in a sea of women-five daughters, no sons, a harridan of a wife!-and Victoria felt betrayed.

I married Victoria because I loved her, and, in the fullness of time, that love disappeared as though a magician had snapped his fingers.

Behold this shiny love. Keep your eyes on it, ladies and gentlemen. Are you watching? Voila! Gone in a flash of smoke, vanished in a whoop, and before I could catch my breath, there it was again, transformed, love sauntering in from offstage, grinning, the magician's misdirection flawless, as good as a miracle, there: Danny Boy Silvers, our son.

He was five now, and I was on my way into the heart of the suburbs to pick him up and take him to the zoo in West Orange.

"Can we stop at MacDonald's?" he asked, looking out the car's passenger window at the falling snow.

"If you don't tell your mother," I said. This was a Sunday tradition, covert MacDonald's, a small father-son conspiracy against a powerful regime that could crush us without raising a sweat.

"I won't tell," Danny said. He waited. Waited and grew impatient. "Why shouldn't I tell?"

"Because she'd slap us so hard our spines would fly out our butts!" I said.

Danny giggled.

"She'd stomp us so hard we'd pop like bugs on a griddle."

My son laughed, leaning forward.

"She'd knock us all the way into next year. She'd whack us till our tongues jumped out of our heads. And once a tongue gets away, it burrows down into the earth, quick as a snake, and you have to get a spade and dig like crazy, and by the time you catch it and put it back in your mouth… well, it doesn't taste very good, I can tell you that."

A stand-up comic is only as good as his audience. My audience was small but enthusiastic, giggling and hooting, his knees bouncing, his nose running, spittle flying.

"She'd shake us until we were so dizzy we couldn't tell up from down, and we would fall right into the sky and keep on falling until our asses hit the moon!"

In the MacDonald's we both ordered Egg McMuffins, hash browns, and chocolate shakes, the major food groups.

"When we go to the zoo, can we see the snakes?" Danny asked.

"This isn't a really big zoo or anything. I don't know if they have snakes."

"They do! Mom went on the Internet and showed me a picture. They have a Reptile House."

"Okay," I said. "Sure." Secretly, I was a little miffed. What was Victoria doing, prematurely unwrapping my gift to Danny,

my zoo? Oh, how petty are the skirmishes of the heart.

From the parking lot, the zoo didn't look very imposing. There were two round towers from which flags fluttered, suggesting one of those Renaissance fair events in which one is harried by costumed jugglers, street musicians, and mimes. Once we got our tickets and got through the gate, jostled by a group of elderly women wearing identical bowling league jackets (

Queen of the Lanes emblazoned on the backs), we consulted the signs and settled on a plan: monkeys to big cats to otters to hippos and rhinos to giraffes to birds and, saving the most anticipated for last, to reptiles. The Reptile House was near the gate and a logical last stop before leaving the zoo.

These things never go as planned.

"Dad! What are those monkeys doing?" Danny was wide-eyed, open-mouthed.

"Fornicating," I said.

"What's that?"

"It's like fighting," I said.

A tall guy next to me, obviously another divorced, weekend-dad with two small, identical girls, each clinging to a hand, nodded his head. "You can say that again."

There were lots of small, fidgety monkeys that seemed completely baffled by their cages, as though they had been caught earlier that day and were still thinking, "What the hell? I'm trapped! I'm getting the hell out of… what's this? I can't get out this way either!

What's going on here?"

In a large cage with black bars, a reddish-brown orangutan slumped in the crook of a tree. His boredom was palpable and made me ashamed of my scrutiny. Forget spying on people having sex or practicing some special perversion. What is sadder, more dismal, than witnessing another person's boredom, the slow, dim-witted crotch-scratching lethargy that is often the existential lot of a person alone? You might note that orangutans are apes, not people, but that didn't keep me from hurrying Danny on to the Lion House, which, if possible, smelled worse than the Monkey House.

And on we went: to the zany otters, the bloated hippos, the absent rhinos (on vacation? escaped? indisposed? deceased?), the really tall giraffes, and into the raucous bird house. As a father and font-of-all-knowledge, I read out-loud the various plaques that described the animals, their habits, their character, their troubles, and Danny listened politely. Other weekend fathers were also reading these plaques to their kids, and I felt a certain disdain for their efforts. As if they knew anything beyond what they were reciting! Pathetic.

We came to a great, curving arc of glass, a vista which promised a view of-yes!-penguins. I had much to say about these amazing birds, the saga of their days fresh in my mind, and was dismayed to find myself gazing at brown concrete curves, blackened and desolate, an emptiness as unwelcoming as some demolished urban block. A sign announced that the penguin habitat was closed for renovation, and my mood worsened, which, I confess, caused a bit of bad behavior. A guard caught me trying to teach an intellectually overrated grey parrot (said to have a vocabulary of over two hundred words) to say, "Kiss my ass"-and Danny and I were escorted out of the building.

That left the Reptile House, and Danny loved it, loved the brightly colored poisonous frogs (not reptiles at all, but always welcome in reptile houses), the lethal, arrow-headed vipers, the boas and the immense anaconda. And the penguins! I couldn't believe it when we came upon them. But it made sense. They had to stay somewhere, and here's where they were, slumming with the reptiles. Since birds evolved from dinosaurs, it even made some taxonomic sense, I guess.

I was glad to see them, shuffling around in a glass-fronted cage that might, at one time, have housed alligators or crocodiles.

They weren't Emperor penguins. According to the plaque, these were Fiordland Crested penguins, an endangered species, with long, pale-yellow slashes over their eyes, like an old man's eyebrows.

"Danny, did you know-"

"They have captured these penguins! What crime the penguins perform to make them prisoners, I do not know. The snakes! Hah, that is easy, they bite the peoples, and they are, anyway, Satan's spawn, as is said long ago in your Bibles."

I jumped, I think. I turned, and there he was.

He was dressed exactly as he had been last night. The lights in the Reptile House were muted, and his pale flesh seemed to glow with a faint blue sheen. He had restored his eyebrows since I'd last seen him, and he appeared to have added purple lipstick to his cosmetic effects.

"It is good to meet you again, Mr. Sam Silvers. I hope you remember me. I am Derrick Thorn."

"What are you doing here?"

He nodded vigorously, as though I were a good student who had asked a clever question.

"I am enjoying the seeing of the animals that are here for their offenses." He spread his arms and turned slowly to the left and right to demonstrate how his enthusiasm included all the creatures in the room.

Odd didn't begin to describe this guy.

"Did you follow me here?" I asked.

"I am coming after you did. Would that be to follow? You told me you were to come to this zoos with the child person of your support."

"I did?"

"Yes, and I am pleased to be here and to witness the progeny of your troubles."

"Well, fine. Look, I've got to be going. Derrick, you have a nice day."

I grabbed Danny's hand and headed for the entrance. Derrick shouted after me, but I didn't turn around.

"I will be pleased to be having the nice day, Sam Silvers," he shouted. "I will make for you the nice day also. I have not forgotten our bargains."

The temperature had dropped, and the snow was falling with new purpose, frosting the parking lot, glazing car roofs and fenders. I dug through the glove compartment's summer detritus (daytrip maps, sunglasses, suntan lotion, an amusement park brochure) until I found the ice scraper.

I got out of the car and went around to the front windshield where I began scraping a gritty mix of snow and ice from the glass. From within, Danny waved at me, grinning.

Back in the car, I had to sit for a minute, catching my breath, as though I'd been engaged in heavy labor.

"Dad, who were you talking to?"

"Just some guy I met recently," I said. I looked at my son. Danny was frowning, puzzled.

I leaned over and ruffled his hair. "Your mom says you've got a girlfriend."

Danny grinned. "Her name's June. She's got a snake for a pet."

"All right!" I turned the key in the ignition. "My kind of woman," I said, as the car moved slowly forward.

I returned Danny to his mother, the usual sense of loss already rising in my chest like black water.

"I tried to call you on your cell," she said. She knelt down in the doorway and brushed snow from her son's hair and shoulders. She looked up at me. "It's out-of-service. Why's that?"

I shrugged. "I decided I didn't need a cell phone."

She stood up for a better, unimpeded glare. "If this arrangement is going to work, I need to be able to get ahold of you. The roads are bad. I was worried."

"Nothing to worry about," I said, squeezing Danny's shoulder. "We had fun at the zoo, didn't we?"

"It was great!" Danny said, and began to catalog its many wonders. Feeling hollow in a superfluous-dad sort of way, I waved a goodbye and headed for the car.

I stopped at the bar on the way to my apartment. If I was going to quit drinking, it might make sense to move to other lodgings, but I wasn't going to, was I? I dispatched two beers and went on up to my apartment, pleased with my restraint. There were two six packs in the fridge, and I drank them, unintentionally. As I remember it, I drank a single beer and didn't wish to leave an odd number of beers, so I drank another one. After that, my reasoning grew convoluted until it occurred to me that drinking

all the beer in the fridge, thus leaving none to tempt me in the morning, would be a good start on a new, beer-free life.

My phone rang in the chill of the morning, and I burrowed under the covers, a rabbit fleeing the hounds, and I heard my answering machine click on-"This is Sam Silvers. I'm not here"-and Victoria 's voice: "Sam."

I leapt from the bed and snatched up the receiver, hearing the fear in her voice, and knowing, instantly, the precise sound of

this fear, its only possible subject, our only shared and immutable bond. "Danny's gone," she said.

We sat on the sofa while the detectives interviewed us. "On a school day," Victoria said, "Danny gets up at seven. He sets his alarm at bedtime, and sometimes, when it wakes him in the morning, he turns it off and goes back to sleep-not very often, but sometimes-and I have to go in and get him up. This morning the alarm just kept ringing, and when I went in, the bed was empty, and I thought he might be in the bathroom, but he wasn't. He wasn't anywhere in the house."

To someone who didn't know her, my ex-wife might have appeared calm, purposeful, in control, the slight tremor in her folded hands understandable enough. But I could see the care with which she answered every question, as though each word, the order of each word and its cautious articulation, might restore the world to sanity, might, by its intense rationality, restore our son. She would not break down; she would not show emotion. To do such a thing would be to collaborate in Danny's disappearance. She would not, by hysteria, acknowledge its reality.

This I knew of Victoria, and my heart ached for her, as it ached for myself. And Danny? Does a five-year-old get up in the middle of the night and walk out into a snow storm, leaving his winter coat in the closet? Or does someone come for him, silently, in the middle of a ghostly storm, enter the locked house without any signs of forced entry, and walk away with the boy without awakening his mother, just down the hall and a light sleeper, always restless. How often, in our marriage, in the years we lay beside each other, had Victoria come awake at the sound of midnight rain, tree branches shaken by a wind, a car passing on the street at three in the morning? I'd wake, oblivious to the noises that had roused her but attuned to Victoria and called awake by

her wakefulness. That seemed a long time ago, in a distant, implausible past.

When I left Victoria, it was to accompany the detectives back to my apartment. I was aware that I was a suspect-or at least an obligatory part of the investigation-and I wasn't surprised or offended by this. How often had an ex-husband, frustrated by circumstances that kept him from seeing his child, simply grabbed the kid and run? They weren't going to find Danny in my apartment, but I guess, if I had spirited him away in the dead of night, I could have stashed him with a friend.

I answered all their questions. Most of the questions were asked by the shorter cop, a black man with high cheekbones and a formal way of speaking, the word "sir" punctuating his sentences with sibilant force. The other officer was taller, older, white and balding, and I noticed he would occasionally interrupt to ask a question his partner had already asked. I guess he was interested in what my answers would sound like the second time I gave them.

After they had been gone a couple of hours, I glanced out the window and saw three uniformed cops out back. A female officer, dark, Hispanic, held the taut leash of a German Shepard as it nosed around the back of the dumpster and then moved out across the vacant lot that separated the bar from the rest of the strip mall. Only then did I realize that I might be suspected of something worse than kidnapping my own son. They might be looking for his body.

And why not? You read the papers; these things happen. Some enraged psycho wants to make his ex-wife regret leaving him, and he knows the way to her heart, he knows how to do real damage.

I made it to the bathroom in time to vomit in the toilet, retching up Victoria 's coffee, something in my skull rumbling. Something big, monstrous, had broken free and was lurching around on the deck of a world so fucked-up that the worst stuff, the unthinkable, had a hundred, a thousand, precedents.

I lay on the bed for a while, and then I got up and went down to the bar. Evil Ed saw me and brought me a beer.

"You need to lawyer up," he said. I was impressed: advice from Evil Ed!

"Thanks," I said. "But I didn't

do anything. I don't have anything to hide. And Danny-" I stopped. Water rushed into my eyes, violently, as though I'd been shoved under a river and was being held there, breathless. I marshaled my paltry resources, gulped the beer.

Evil Ed shrugged and mopped the counter with a grey cloth. "You notice I don't ever take a drink? Might be you are bringing yourself bad luck, swallowing it right down your throat."

"What are you talking about?"

"They got this old Chinese saying goes like this: 'First the man takes a drink. Then the drink takes a drink. Then the drink takes the man.'"

"I still don't know what you're talking about."

"I guess you don't." Evil Ed slapped his palm down on the counter. Beneath it was a white envelope. He took his hand away, revealing my name on the front of the envelope, printed crudely with what looked like black crayon. "This was here on the counter when I opened this morning. I don't know what's inside it, and I don't want to know, and I should have handed it on to the cops when they were talking to me earlier today, but I didn't. It's yours. You do what you like with it."

I took the envelope and turned it over. It was sealed, and too light to contain anything more than a sheet or two of paper. I looked at the front again. All caps: SAM SILVERS.

I turned away from my unfinished beer and went back up to my room. I lay on the bed, my heart beating fiercely. I was afraid to open the envelope. Should I call the police? Perhaps it was a ransom note, and in opening it I'd destroy evidence. Forensics could do wonders, right?

Should I call Victoria? But that would be the same as calling the police; Victoria trusted authority. And I did not. I was raised on media tales of law enforcement agencies that bungled kidnappings, hostage situations, terrorist confrontations. Too often the innocent died with the guilty.

Hands trembling, I tore open the envelope and pulled the single sheet of paper free. A ball-point pen with blue ink had printed words whose letters jumped above and below the baseline, investing the sentences with a childish energy.

This is what I read:

I have solved your child support! If there is no child there can be no support of a child and no need for these moneys of which your wife makes you pay and pay! Ha! I am very clever you must agree. This is bragging, but it is so. All your worries are overboard! I hope to talk to you sooner. -D.T.

I walked around the room, sneezing. My body ached, an aggressive pain, as though I'd been injected with poison. My throat was on fire. I was not feeling well. But that wasn't the problem, except to the extent that this flu-thing might keep me from thinking clearly. Why, for instance, hadn't I said anything to the police about Derrick Thorn? Did I really think it was a coincidence that he had shown up at the zoo? Did I think he was harmless? Did his crooked diction make him somehow childlike, did an innocence of English syntax indicate moral innocence? Hardly.

I sat down on the edge of the bed and tried to recall what I'd thought and said to the detectives. I shook my head to clear it, which made the room waver like an undulating funhouse mirror. At Victoria 's… the thought of Derrick Thorn had not

once entered my mind. It was as though I'd completely forgotten the man's existence. Surely he was too strange to forget. I tried to picture him now, to bring him into focus by an act of will, but all I could see was his stout, pear-shaped body, a silhouette in the Reptile House, his face in shadow, his words… something about Danny… about child support.

How would I describe him to the police? A fat man in black who might, or might not, be sporting purple lipstick and false eyebrows? Wait, Evil Ed must have seen him. Sure. He brought us drinks. He came to the booth with the drinks.

I ran downstairs, too fast, slipping, saving myself from a sudden dive forward by snagging the wooden railing just in time. I stumbled into the bar. Evil Ed was at the opposite end of the bar listening to Rat Lady, who appeared to be wearing a bathrobe.

"Hey!" I shouted, and Evil Ed looked my way, saw me, and nodded, no doubt pleased to be moving out of the range of one of Rat Lady's monologues.

He drew a beer from the keg as he made his way toward me, but I shook my head.

"I don't want a beer. I've got a question."

Evil Ed raised his eyebrows, set the beer down, folded his arms, and leaned back some.

"You saw him. Could you describe him?"

"Describe who?"

"The guy I was talking to the night before last. Fat guy, really pale skin?"

He shook his head. "Wasn't but you. Sitting in that booth, drinking yourself into a coma, talking to yourself, coming out with a laugh every now and then, nothing happy about it, that laugh."

I kept on: "His name was Derrick Thorn. He was some kind of foreigner, spoke funny."

But no accent, I thought, for the first time. "He paid for the beers."

Ed frowned. "You paid for your beers your ownself."

I had him there. "Then how come I didn't have a tab run up?"

"You did. You paid it at the end of the evening."

"I never do that," I said.

Evil Ed laughed. "That's right. Took me by surprise. You was drunker than usual, which is saying something."

Reflexively, I reached for the beer. This was to be a medicinal beer, a beer for clarity. If I could slow my thoughts down, I could sort them out.

It took more than one beer. A lot more. When Evil Ed came by, he would glower at me, maybe thinking I had more important things to do then sit and drink beer. But I was working, thinking, and finally it came to me: I remembered what I needed, staggered to my feet, and headed back toward the stairs.

Back in my room, I headed straight for the nightstand, grabbed the drawer, yanked it-

too hard-and it flew out, and all the cards and pens and antacid tablets jumped up in the air and scattered over the floor. Shit.

There were a lot of business cards. And, of course, amid this ridiculous surfeit of self-advertising, there wasn't,

of course, of course, any card bearing the name Derrick Thorn and promising "good deals by mutual bargain" a phrase goofy enough to lodge in my mind even if the creator of that inanity was as elusive as truth at the White House, even if-

I let out a whoop of triumph and pounced on the card. I turned it over, saw the number, and without consulting my fever-riddled and almost worthless mind, I ran to the phone, snatched up the receiver, and made the call.

The phone rang and rang. Having no alternate plan, I was willing to sit there with it ringing. Maybe it rang for thirty seconds, maybe thirty minutes, I don't know. Then the ringing stopped and static rushed in, like an ocean wave over the sand.

I thought I heard a voice. I shouted, "Hello! Hello, Derrick Thorn!"

The tide of static ebbed. "Yes," the voice said.

I couldn't speak.

Who was this? But then: "Hello Mr. Sam Silvers. You are calling with the congratulations! Yes. Ha, Ha! No more the child support, no more the, how did you say, blood from the turnip!"

"You son of a bitch!" I screamed. "Where's Danny? Where's my son?"

"Do not be worried. I will take the care of it. Trust me, like money in the bank!"

I was squeezing the receiver as though it were Thorn's throat. "I need to see you," I said. That was better, much better than saying I intended to kill him.

Oh, I am clever in a clinch. There was a long silence, in which I thought the phone might go dead. But some urgent certainty told me I couldn't speak again; I had to wait.

"Yes. Sure. We make the bargains," he said. "Now you help me, one hand scratching the other. I will meet you tonight. Look at your watch and I will look at mine. Just us to meet, no body elses. At ten of the watch tonight. At the zoo."

"What?"

"At the zoo. To bring justice to the penguins."

"What?"

"The penguins, they do nothing wrong. They are good birds. But they have the enemies just the same, the seals and others. I think they are political. I am sure they are prisoners of the government."

I wasn't following this. "I will be there at ten tonight. Is Danny there? Let me talk to him," I said.

He hung up.

The zoo's parking lot hadn't been cleared. The unseasonably nasty weather had closed the zoo for the day; temperatures were supposed to rise tomorrow, and, despite the desultory falling snow, I could see stars sprinkled between the clouds.

The parking lot was a white expanse, blue in the shadow of a bare-branched tree, gold under the single street lamp. I looked at my watch. It was ten minutes to ten. The tracks of my boots were all that marred the lot's smooth surface, which meant that Derrick Thorn hadn't arrived yet.

I waited, shivering with fever and the chill air, my breath coming out in white clouds. Ten came, and 10:05, and 10:10. I could feel the gun in my coat pocket, its weight both threat and reassurance. When Evil Ed's back had been turned, I'd leaned across the counter and retrieved it. I had to hope that Evil Ed wouldn't notice its absence. And if he did? He wouldn't report a missing gun to the cops. But he might figure out who took it, and Evil Ed could be scarier than any cop I'd ever met.

In my room, I'd confirmed that the clip was full, and on my way to this rendezvous, I'd stopped the car along the highway and walked off into a patch of evergreens and indulged in some target practice, sending a bullet into the trunk of a dead pine tree. It worked, and the seven remaining bullets were seven more than I'd need, unless he'd harmed Danny, in which case all seven slugs would be residing in Derrick Thorn's flesh.

I am not a fan of guns, but I know something about them. My father had been a collector, and, when I was young and under his spell, we would bond at the shooting range. I lost interest when he left my mother to run off with his secretary, an ancient, dishonorable tradition (my father's dad had, incredibly, done the same thing). I was fifteen when Dad left.

So here was my legacy: I knew how to shoot a handgun.

At 10:15, I was getting restless, panicky. I walked up to the gate, gripped the bars and peered in at the animal statues and kiosks. The gate swung open, taking me by surprise, and I slipped, falling forward, banging my head against the gate. My knees skidded on the snow-covered ground, but I managed to get my hands in front of me in time to prevent my face from colliding with the icy bricks. I knelt there on all fours, dazed, and then I saw the small blue-shadowed footprints that marched between my hands: the bare footprints of a child. The snow was wet and preserved the imprint of each toe. Were these my son's footprints?

I followed the footprints, moving as fast as I could but not running for fear I'd fall and break something. I looked up, and the Reptile House loomed in front of me, more imposing than I remembered it, its crenellated towers given authority by the night. The footprints were farther apart as they neared the steps leading to the door; Danny had been running-and, yes, I was certain it was Danny now, for no reason except that I knew it to be so.

The footprints climbed the steps and ended at the door. I gripped the door's handle and pushed.

Locked. No, it moved, but there was resistance. I leaned into the door with my shoulder, and it moved reluctantly. There was light from within, gleaming on the blue marble floor, and black, no red… There was a great smear of blood-another thing I knew with a certainty beyond logic; blood!-curving away, under the door, behind the door. I entered the room and closed the door, and the body lay revealed, up against the wall, where I had shoved it with my shoulder against the door.

The security guard had been a small man, but bigger than my son, much bigger than Danny, and he lay curled on his side, oddly crumpled as though thrown there by some vast malevolent force, and in my horror and fear I felt a rush of relief because that's the way our hearts are made and this was not my son.

I turned away from the body and saw Derrick Thorn across the room in front of the glass cage where the penguins resided. Danny stood on his right, and Thorn had his right hand resting on my son's shoulder, a companionable pose. Danny was wearing his Harry Potter Order of the Phoenix t-shirt and bunny pajama bottoms. His feet were bare.

"Hello Mr. Sam Silvers!" Derrick shouted, raising his left hand as though hailing a taxi, his voice reverberating in the high-ceilinged room. "I have been worrying of your coming, thinking you did not keep your bargains."

"Move away from my son," I said, walking toward him. I had my hand in my pocket, my fingers already around the pistol grip, my forefinger on the trigger. Waves of dark power rushed up my arm, filling my heart with rage.

Thorn lifted his hand from Danny's shoulder and waved an admonitory finger at me. "You are angry because the child of your support is still here and you think, 'We had a bargains but it is broken because, before my eyes, the boy is still here.' Do not be full of the worry, Mr. Silvers. I, Derrick Thorn, have always the keeping of my word through time longer than you know."

"What do you want?" I asked.

"I have been thinking of the penguins and our agreeable conversations," he said. "We like the penguins. But they must do something wrong these penguins to be in jail, I think." He lifted his right hand this time and waved it toward the penguin cage.

"Danny," I said. "Come here."

Danny looked up, but his eyes failed to focus. There was no glint of recognition within them. Was he drugged?

"I think," Derrick continued, "that the government does not like the penguins, and I ask myself why this is so, because the penguins are good birds who have only, for enemies, the seals who are hungry to eat them, which is sad but is Nature's Law. 'Why,' I say to myself, 'is the government hating of the penguins?'"

"Danny," I said. "Come to me."

And Danny's eyes widened, and he took a faltering step forward, then stopped again, as Derrick continued, "And then I think of the canaries, the little yellow birdies, and how, in a coal mine, the canary dies and everyone says, 'Oh, the canary has died and we must run away,' and so they all run away and the bosses say, 'The canary is bad. She dies and no one will work. Stop looking at the canary,' but peoples look at the canary and say, 'I quit!' and run away and business is bad."

Danny began to walk again. He raised his arms and walked toward me, arms out, and I walked to meet him. I took my hand out of my pocket, and I lifted him in my arms and hugged him. He pushed his face against my neck and made a small, muffled noise, a child's displeasure at being jostled in his sleep. "It's okay," I said.

"The penguins," Derrick said, engrossed in his rant, "they are birdies like the canaries. They die and people say, 'This is of the global warmings! Stop the global warmings of the factories and the cars and the coal that is burning! The penguins are dying!' And the government says, 'Pay not the attention to these stupid penguins! Don't look at them! They are trouble makers!' And so the governments are putting the penguins in the prisons, you see?"

"Derrick," I said. "I don't know who you are or

what you are"-I could admit this, to myself, at least-"but I am taking my son and leaving. If you attempt to follow me, I will kill you."

"But we have the bargains," Derrick said. "We must set the penguins free, and I will save you the child support."

"No," I said. "We have no bargain."

I expected some reaction, but my words seemed to deflate him somehow. His hands dropped to his sides and he stared at the floor.

I turned away and walked back toward the door of the Reptile House. When I reached the door, I looked back. He was gone.

The security guard's ravaged body no longer lay in the shadow of the door.

I carried my son out of the building and past the statue of a smiling hippopotamus and out the gate. I unlocked the car door and put him in the passenger seat. I pulled the seatbelt across his chest and snapped it into its latch. I got the scraper out of the glove compartment and scraped ice from the windshield. I noticed that the sky was full of cold light, but finding myself in what appeared to be the afternoon of a different day did not strike me as remarkable.

Danny was waking up when I climbed into the driver's seat. One of his shoelaces was untied, and so I tied it. Something seemed wrong with those shoes-and his winter coat, which, I noticed, was buttoned wrong. I re-buttoned the coat. For whatever reason, the image of Harry Potter, famous boy wizard, flashed through my mind.

"Dad, who were you talking to?" Danny asked, still woozy.

Victoria was angry. She'd tried to call me on my cell, and when I told her I'd discontinued the service, she said, "If this arrangement is going to work, I need to get ahold of you. The roads are bad. I was worried."

And for a time, I remembered none of this. And why should I remember a thing that never happened? Had it happened, had my son actually disappeared, Victoria and Evil Ed would certainly have refreshed my memory.

I drank more, every day, sometimes passing out in the afternoon, and then getting drunk all over again in the evening.

Evil Ed told me about a drink taking a drink, and it sounded familiar. One time, I woke to find the television on, not unusual in itself, but this time cartoon penguins were tap dancing, and I was filled with improbable terror, caught in the sheets, falling out of bed. Unable to find the remote, I crawled to the television and slapped the power button, saving myself from… from what? Not for the first time, I thought, "Maybe I need to stop drinking."

In the newspaper, a photo of someone named Calvin Oster surprised me with another frisson of déjà vu. He had been a security guard at the Hillary Memorial Zoo in West Orange and, it appeared, a victim of gang violence. That explained it: I had, no doubt, seen him at the zoo and-what an amazing magpie, the mind-recorded his image without knowing it. That did not, however, account for my certainty that no inner-city gang had killed him.

Then, one day, somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas, somewhere in a stew of bad weather and strangers and a mugging (my own) that I tried to prevent, being too drunk for discretion's better part, I woke in a hospital ward with a bandaged arm and an I.V.

"How am I doing?" I asked a large, truculent nurse wearing green scrubs.

"Depends," she said. "That cut on your arm ain't nothing. But you got bad alcoholism. You been thrashing around considerable, plain out of your mind, and there's an orderly here name of Joshua, real big boy, six feet ten inches. He don't want to come round you. He says you got a demon, need to be exercised."

"What do you think?" I asked.

"I think I should have learned computers, stayed clear of all the misery and blood of this here nursing profession. An alcoholic ain't nothing but a sorry tale unfolding, lessen he gets sober. There's a fellow came in asking about you. I see him sometimes at the meetings they bring here on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He says he'll be back. Hope you don't owe him money."

"Why's that?"

"I wouldn't want to be crosswise of him is all. He got an evil eye on him."

Sure enough, Evil Ed visited me. We went down in an elevator to the second floor and listened to some guy tell his story, how drink had ruined him but then he had embraced the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, sobered up, and was now the president of a bank.

"What did you think about that?" Evil Ed asked.

"I don't know," I said.

"You could do a lot worse than that answer," he said. He said he'd come around some more.

When the hospital discharged me, I started going around to AA meetings with Evil Ed. I drove. Evil Ed said he didn't want to take his car; it might get stolen, whereas no one would covet my ratty Escort, which was true I guess but hurt my feelings.

We went to a lot of AA meetings, traveling around to church basements and storefront clubs. Some of the neighborhoods were rough, and the AA meetings reflected that, with drunks sleeping it off on ratty sofas and old winos trying to steal a couple of bucks from the coffee-money can. One time a furious fight erupted between two members over which of the AA founders was wiser, Dr. Bob or Bill W. Sometimes I was the only white guy in the room, which didn't bother me particularly since I often thought I was the only guy on the planet. There are levels of alienation, and mine was way beyond racial.

I wanted to drink, but I didn't. Evil Ed couldn't always make it to a meeting, and I started going to meetings by myself. I went to a meeting every day, sometimes two, sometimes three. There was a club called "The Into Action Group" that was within walking distance of my apartment, so I went there a lot.

And if I got restless, I could always go down to the bar and talk to Evil Ed. He was almost chatty on the subject of alcoholism.

"Drinking has got consequences," he said. "You get a tattoo when you're drunk, it's still there in the damned morning. I been sober nine years, and people say, 'You should get that tattoo removed or inked up so it's different,' but I say it's a reminder of the consequences of drinking, and anything that reminds me why I don't want to go drinking again is a good thing."

One day I saw a help-wanted sign on the door of a print shop, and I walked in, talked to the manager, and got a job on the graphics side, not quite the art director position I'd left at BC Graphics, but it paid the rent and required me to get up in the morning.

A couple of days before Christmas, Evil Ed's sponsor was celebrating at a big speaker's meeting, and we went and listened to him tell how he'd wound up in AA and how come he hadn't had a drink in thirty-two years. He was a small, India-ink-colored old man with white hair, and he wore a three-piece suit. After the meeting, Evil Ed and I went to a party someone was throwing for him.

I was feeling my usual alienated, awkward self, so I found a place on the sofa, out of the way of all the hilarity. The television was on, and the station was showing an old Jimmy Stewart movie called

Harvey. It was about this sweet-tempered alcoholic who is befriended by a giant rabbit that only he can see. I watched the movie with more interest and trepidation than it warranted. It was a harmless, mildly amusing piece, but I was so caught in its spell that I jumped when Evil Ed's sponsor sat down next to me.

"Still a little jumpy!" he said. He squeezed the back of my neck and laughed.

He leaned forward and peered at the television set. "Well no wonder you're jumpy. You're watching a movie about a

pooka! That's what they call that invisible bunny in the movie, say it's a mischievous spirit. They got that right! But mischief isn't a strong enough word. A pooka can do a world of harm. They are entities that attach themselves to alcoholics, and they can do more harm than a rabid dog. I've seen them destroy a man. They have great power to shift time and space. They can bend reality like a pretzel. It's not uncommon for a drunk to have acquired a pooka or two. Used to be, when I'd go see an alcoholic in detox, I'd get old Sally LaBon to come along with me, and she'd pray and work her potions, and once-you don't have to credit this-I saw a dog-like creature come howling out of a poor fellow's mouth and fly right through the ceiling. No one holds with praying out demons anymore. And I guess the program itself can rid a man of his demons, but I've seen times when some of Sally's righteous magic would do a world of good."

A pretty young woman came up and hugged the old man; such women have the power to dominate an elder's mind, and he forgot I was there. They got up and went off, to dance, I think, and I finished watching the movie. Despite its happy ending, I felt a sense of deep disquiet.

Christmas day didn't go well. I'd bought Danny some stuff that I knew he'd wanted, and he'd been really excited and happy with his presents, but I thought Victoria was acting odd, and when her friend Julie arrived with her husband, I figured it out. Julie and her man had brought another of Victoria 's office mates with them, a big-smiling, handsome-and-he-knew-it guy with carefully tousled, jet-black hair.

His name was Gunther, and when he walked in the door, Danny looked up and grinned and said, "Hey, Gun!" and my mood deteriorated. I decided not to stay for the meal, and Victoria accompanied me out the door to tell me that I needed to reflect on my selfishness and think of my son for a change, and Gunther came out, asking if he could be of any help. By throwing the first punch, I may have managed to break his nose, but I didn't win the fight. When I came to, I was lying in the snow on the front yard, a couple of yards away from my car in the driveway. The car's driver-side door was open, suggestively, and I got up, collected myself-no large bones broken-and drove away.

"What happened to you?" Evil Ed wanted to know.

"Christmas dinner with the ex," I said.

"Looks like the turkey got the stuffings knocked out of him," he said.

It took a week of stewing, of feeling ill-used and done-wrong, of wallowing in self-pity, but, finally, I picked up a drink. There was this little well-lit delicatessen with a liquor license, right next door to the print shop. It wasn't some dive filled with comatose barflies. It was clean and bright, you might even say wholesome. I drank a couple of beers there before going home one evening. It didn't seem like such a big deal.

But it's the first drink that gets you drunk, even if that first drink takes a few days to really kick in.

So I was drunk in my room in my underwear. I hadn't gone to the print shop for a week or so. After the second day, my boss had stopped leaving messages on the answering machine. My guess was I didn't have that job anymore.

The television was on, as it often was, babbling away in its news voice, a serious Iraq-Darfur voice over a blighted greyscape, muddy video-people moving around, digital zombies. I wasn't watching closely, but the voice droned on, the non-stop monologue of a demented relative. Then the voice turned hearty, and I looked up for the good-news segment, some cheery thing about toddlers helping the homeless or octogenarians climbing a mountain, human

interest as opposed to the tedium of human death.

A reporter was standing in front of the zoo in West Orange (I recognized the crenellated towers and little flags). I tapped the remote's volume control, raising the volume in time to hear her say, "… going home. That's right, these penguins, extremely rare, are on their way back to New Zealand where they will be re-introduced to their native habitat. The Fiordland Crested penguin's numbers have been reduced by… "

I stared at the full-screen close-up of this endangered penguin as it tilted its head back and forth, flashing those familiar eyebrows. I reached for the remote and punched the power button.

Where did this penguin dread come from? Penguins were not, generally, considered creatures capable of inspiring much in the way of horror and loathing. Was I losing my mind?

That was a question I rarely asked myself. I knew where my mind was. All right, in the years I'd had this mind, I hadn't always used it carefully, hadn't checked off every single 5,000-mile oil change, hadn't even done a crossword puzzle or read a challenging novel in the last ten years, but was there anything fundamentally wrong with my mind?

There

was this penguin glitch. But I could work around that. How hard was it to avoid penguins? And the zoo was sending those penguins back to New Zealand, in any event, so I could even go to the zoo with Danny… go again, that is.

I was starting to panic. My heart shivered, like some small bird in an ice storm. I heard a sudden loud, thumping sound, and I looked to the door, but the sound was behind me, coming from the kitchen. I got up from the bed; my legs felt boneless but, by an effort of will, I was able to walk.

I reached the doorway to the kitchen and leaned against the frame. The sound was coming from within the refrigerator, a muffled, booming sound. The fridge rocked from side to side, and half a dozen cockroaches skittered out from under it and shot across the dirty linoleum.

The refrigerator's door banged open releasing billowing clouds of grey mist that blew over me, soaking me, plastering my hair to my forehead. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, he was there. He was wearing a tuxedo, and his eyebrows were now complete circles around his eyes. He'd drawn a small purple patch of mustache above his purple lips. These embellishments still failed to define him. He was a sort of manic blur, a creature my mind refused to bring into focus.

"Derrick Thorn," I said.

He clapped his white-gloved hands. "Yes. I think sometimes you forget me, but then I come back because you remember me, you remember me and you keep your bargains!"

I did remember him. It wasn't like remembering, though. It was like entering a room that held stuff you'd lost, stuff you'd completely forgotten about, and now, here it was. You recognized it immediately, and that was the word, really,

recognized.

I recognized the bloodstains on his white dress shirt and on his gloves.

"What did you do?" I asked.

"We have the bargains, you remember? You say, 'Forget the bargains. I take my son of the child support and I leave, and no more bargains.'"

He shook his head ruefully, studying the floor. "That is the rule. Is up to you. No bargains? Very well, no bargains, and I go away."

"And now? Why are you here now?"

"Ha, ha! I am always around, but you cannot see me, and so you must drink the alcohol and then-ha! ha!-I am clear as sunshine."

"You came because I started drinking?" I was talking to a supernatural creature, a

pooka. Or maybe I was talking to my hallucinatory self. Did it matter?

Derrick shook his head. "No, I come because you of the slyness are. You say, 'No bargains!' but then you be the clever one and go through the channels! Yes, the channels! The penguins at the apocalypse they will be of rejoicing and singing your name 'Silvers! Silvers! Silvers!' They will say, 'We be always holding for you gratitude and love!'"

"I don't understand," I said.

"You be joking all the way through, I see. Okay! But the penguins, you give them the freedom! You get them out of the prison and to going home! Hooray!"

I remembered. "No bargain," I had said, and this creature, this pooka, had let Danny go. And now this creature thought that I had set the penguins free and-

"So I keep the bargains!" Derrick shouted. "We make the deals! Is done! Done deal! I see you at the Christmases with the ex-wives of your anger. I confess, I be the spy on the wall. I see your

true wishes, and I obey them. And no troubles for you, be so assured of this."

"What have you done to Danny!" I screamed, and I lunged forward. Maybe I expected my hands to slide through him; I don't know what I expected, but my hands found his neck, and his flesh was cold and boneless, and I squeezed, and his neck, like some balloon thing, no, like paste in a tube, his neck collapsed beneath my fingers, and his head swelled, seemed to leap at me like a child's toy, his head round and smooth and big as a basketball and growing bigger, tongue out-

bright blue!-and teeth every which way like a ragged shark's mouth and, from this mouth, a high, keening sound that was, I'm sure, laughter.

Derrick's head exploded with a bang, so loud that my eardrums seemed to have burst in sympathy. I fell back and watched as Derrick, headless, ran in circles, making a

huh, huh, huh, sound, flapping his arms like some big water bird slowly building for take-off, before he came to rest with his back to the wall, and slid down the wall, legs straight out in front of him, convulsing briefly, and finally growing utterly still, above him a great swatch of bright red like a thick exclamation point ending in his body.

I went back into the bedroom. I didn't have any plan, exactly, but I didn't need one because the phone rang. I answered it. It was Danny asking if I still planned on taking him to the ice skating rink next Sunday, and I said sure. He wanted to know if I could pick up June too; she lived close by, and it was okay with her parents. "Sure," I said.

Danny said goodbye, and I put the phone down, got up and went back into the kitchen. Derrick Thorn was gone, it seemed, leaving nothing but a lot of blood. On closer inspection, I found a tiny, balloon-like skin. I was able to make out the bowtie, even the tiny, polished shoes. I carried this deflated cast-off to the sink, turned the garbage disposal on, and dropped it down. The disposal made a stuttering, chugging noise, as though gagging.

I walked to the refrigerator and opened the door. The fridge was empty except for a six pack of beer and Gunther's head. I poured the six pack out in the sink, and went back and regarded Gunther's head again.

I don't feel good about this. I mean, I'm not a complete asshole, and I realize that my problems with Gunther weren't Gunther's fault. I could have explained that to that stupid pooka if he'd taken the time to ask.

I do have to say that even in death Gunther had managed to hold on to his deeply refined, disapproving air. He wasn't wearing a horrified grimace; he seemed sort of serene. I guess I'm saying that he didn't appear to have suffered. I double-bagged him in black plastic trash bags and took him down to my car.

They never did find Gunther's body. They won't find his head, either.

I know I had a part in Gunther's demise, but it would be hard to explain the nature of my involvement to the police, and I'm not going to try. You're my sponsor, and I trust you. This is fifth step stuff, and I know it won't go any further.

I know one thing: I'm done with drinking. I'm back to a meeting a day, two-a-day on weekends. I know I'm powerless over alcohol. And I know I don't want to ever see Derrick Thorn again, and I'm pretty sure I won't. Oh, I don't think he is dead. In fact, I'm certain his departure was just another one of his jokes.

Remember that hospital meeting you took me to last week? There was this guy sitting across the room in a hospital gown. He stared at me throughout the meeting, and he headed straight for me when it ended. He looked bad, the left side of his face scraped raw and something seriously wrong with one of his legs so that he moved up and down and left and right like some busted wind-up toy. The worst thing, when he got up close-and he got

close, his face six inches from mine-was the death in his eyes, the cold-water craziness at the bottom of those muddy, red-rimmed pupils. Or maybe the phlegmy sound of his voice was worse, I don't know. Maybe it was the sum of his infirmities, the weight of ruined days, the dank reek of his breath. No, probably the worst was what he said: "I know you. We got a friend in common. He says, 'Don't be a stranger.' He says maybe he'll see you around, and you can share a few beers and have good times." He shambled off, just another wretched, booze-ruined derelict. But I had to sit back down in a chair and ride out the vertigo, because I didn't think it was a case of mistaken identity.

If I take a drink, he'll be waiting. I'll walk into a bar somewhere. I'll sit down on one of the bar stools. I'll look up at the television, and I'll see a lot of penguins tobogganing on their bellies down an ice slope, and behind me, I'll hear his voice. "Oh, the happy penguins!" he will shout.

Pookas are called up by alcohol, by the darkness that blooms in an alcoholic's soul after that first drink, and with AA and these steps I think I can avoid that drink.

Maybe I'm arrogant, but I'm honestly not that worried about my sobriety. I am, I guess, still a little worried about global warming, and I still wonder what we'll say to the penguins when the end times are upon us.

Esmeralda: The First Book Depository Story by Glen Hirshberg

"I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lowly the room which it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead… "

– Arthur Conan Doyle,

Through the Magic Door

Prologue

We first heard about them the way one hears about everything these days: on the web. Some self-styled "urban explorer," wired on whatever and driven by transgressive urges most people claim they get over in high school, snuck into his 532nd abandoned building in the Detroit metropolitan area. Fortunately, he brought his digital camera and an extra memory card.

Within hours, the first Flickr page went up. Within weeks, the first wiki/blogspot/Facebook groups appeared. The histories of that initial depository were always stitched together out of tall tales and myths. Someone could have found some Roosevelt School District official and asked, but no one did. Soon, the first Crawlers-no one seems to know where that name came from-began braving the empty streets to start exploring and mapping the place. Not long after that came the first trespassing arrests, and the first disappearances. Before too long, the various strands of lore surrounding the Roosevelt Book Depository had coalesced into a story composed of enough truth to become the truth, as far as anyone who studies such things in centuries to come-and publishes them in whatever digital or ethereal or cerebral format one publishes in those times-will ever be able to tell:

A public school district, emptying of students as the last desperate families flee the neighborhoods, its buildings collapsing and its funding gutted, quietly takes over an abandoned tire warehouse on one of those Detroit streets that hasn't seen a functioning streetlamp since the Riots. There, school functionaries-or, more likely, the gang thugs and drunken ex-Teamsters they pay with the last of the district's cash-begin delivering truckloads of used or never used textbooks, supplies, notepads, posters, maps, writing implements, and whole libraries full of outdated, donated boys' and girls' novels and biographies of presidents and sports stars to what they have already christened the Depository. The plan, originally, is to sell it all, in the hopes of renovating the last functioning elementary school in the area.

Then the elementary school closes. The funding is zeroed. The officials disperse back to their homes, which have never been nearby. The ex-Teamsters return to their barstools, the thugs to their gangs.

And in their warehouse with its smashed-in windows and gaping doorframes and ruthlessly tagged cement walls, the books and notebooks and maps and visual aides of the former Roosevelt District Schools lie where they've been tossed, in tottering dunes or great lakes of paper. They huddle like penguins in the Michigan winter snows. They curl and molt in the sucking humidity of mid-summer. They are shredded for nests to house raccoons, rats, pigeons, the homeless. They begin to decompose. To sprout weeds and toadstools. To change.

By the time that first unnamed explorer finds them, they have lain in that space for more than thirty years.

After that, less than six months passed before the discovery-or creation-of the second depository, in the mildew-ravaged, fogbound port hangars near Fisherman's Wharf. That one drew an entirely different breed of explorer. There were boho college kids drifting up the coast through the Youth Hostels. Then a team of college professors from Berkeley who wrote the first academic papers and held the first symposium on the subject, which they dubbed The End. If they were aware of any irony in naming a brand new phenomenon that, they kept it to themselves.

By the end of 2010, there were depositories in Chicago, St. Louis, Ft. Lauderdale. They were always urban at first, their foundations usually the refuse from bankrupt school systems. But then the owners of the last used bookstore in Dallas -a giant conglomerate formed by the desperate owners of the twenty-five largest remaining open shops in Texas -announced that they were closing. And instead of holding a final sale, or throwing everything up for auction on eBay or listing it on ABE, they rented twenty-five U-Haul trailers, filled them at random, and dispersed across the country to seed the depositories.

Other shop owners followed suit. It became an ethical stance, a point of pride, a last great act of self-defeating defiance. They would not scrape the last, dreadful pennies from the bottom of the book well. Instead, they would spread their wares like spores, bury them like acorns in the rich, loamy mulch of decomposing language in the depositories, in the hopes that they would sprout there. Grow a new generation, not of readers-people still read, despite what the academicians tell us-but bibliophiles. A healthier, younger subculture.

Then individuals began following the shop owners' lead. Readers who'd spent their whole lives building and tending their personal libraries formulated wills directing their children to wheel whatever they didn't want to the nearest depots and bury them there. Without open shops, and with the online outlets flooded with merchandise that few sought, selling books became a chore, and a fruitless one at that. Easier by far to find a depository and leave everything there, for whoever might want it.

Of course, the depositories didn't mostly attract bibliophiles. They drew squatters, first. Pushers and junkies. Cultists. Fetishists. When the rate of reported disappearances began to climb, the police took to discouraging, then forbidding visiting the depositories. But they never cleaned them out, rarely patrolled them. And people-whatever their reasons-kept coming, though less often and usually after dark.

Meanwhile, the books lay atop each other like bodies in ditches. In breezes, or in a beam of sudden flashlight, they stirred, seeming not so much to have come to life but retained it, somehow. Occasionally, a page even lifted like a waving hand, extending itself toward whatever had disturbed it, or else waving goodbye.

***

Esmeralda

I'm already in bed when the knock comes. Sitting up, shivering as the twist of sheet and heavy blanket slides from me, I stare at the misshapen shadows stretched over the hardwood floor. It's the snow outside that has given them their head-like humps, their ice-claws. They look like illustrations in a book of fairy tales. Ezzie would have loved them.

I'm musing on that, wondering whether the bottle of rye on the bedside table is as empty as it looks and also whether I've stored another in the bathroom medicine chest five steps from my cot, when the knock comes again. So there really is someone out there, and that means one of two things: the police have finally found something, or Ezzie's relentless sister Sarah has finally found me.

"Just a… " I start, but my voice comes out even thicker than its current usual, and I suck rye-residue and sleep-fur off my teeth and try again. "Hold on."

My feather-robe and fuzzy slippers were both gifts from Ezzie, of course. For the feather-robe and fuzzy slipper birthday party she threw me during our first year in the downtown Detroit loft. Not so long ago, really. Christ, barely three years.

It's my lucky night, turns out; there is indeed a fresh rye in the medicine cabinet, right between the ibuprofen and Ezzie's razor case, which is my only keepsake. She would have approved, if she'd approved of anything I do anymore. The thing she'd held most dear, after all. Unlike most cutters, from what I gather, for Ezzie it was less about the wounds than the weapon.

Uncorking the rye, I take a swig, then replace the bottle and slide the razor case under my robe into my pajama shirt pocket. I turn toward the door, pull the robe as closed as it will go against the constant chill, and as an afterthought decide to take the rye along. In eight steps, I've crossed my lake-rot, one-room efficiency to the front door so I can peer through the fish-eye.

"Knock knock," I say.

The guy out there is big, maybe six-five, in a black coat that looks warmer than all the clothes I own combined, plus black gloves and a black Derby, even. Not a cop. Also not Sarah, unless she's grown a foot and a half and cut off all her hair. Sarah and Ezzie and their dark waterfalls of black curls…

"What?" the guy asks.

"Knock knock."

He stares at the door, and the Lake Superior wind whips up and blows snow on him. It's kind of great, really. A strapping young Oedipus befuddled by the Sphynx. Me. Finally, he takes the plunge.

"Who's there?"

"Exactly," I say.

Pause. Befuddlement.

"Exactly who?"

"Exactly my question."

Poor Oedipus. Big wind. I gulp rye from the bottle I have every intention of sharing with my caller, providing he convinces me to let him in.

"Please," he says, and he sounds nothing like a cop or a vengeful relative or anyone else I know anymore. I open the door. He hurries past me and stands shivering in the center of my all but empty room. Then he starts to unbutton his coat.

"I wouldn't suggest it," I tell him. "It's not much better in here."

Experimentally, he loosens another button. His head almost brushes the bulbous, bug-filled light-fixture that provides the efficiency's only illumination when I bother to switch it on, which isn't often. He removes his hat, and I can't help but smile at the hair, which is black and flat as road tar, with little flattened spikes jagging down his forehead. Little-kid-after-sledding hair.

He takes in my cot, the nightstand, the remaining 365 or so square feet of empty space.

"No… no books," he says, and I understand, abruptly. I consider showing him my iRead, which is the only thing I use now, just to see his face. There's nothing quite like confronting a Crawler with an iRead.

Except I can't quite bring myself to do it. Every time my heart beats, it bangs against the razor case in my pocket. Cold and plastic and empty of Ezzie.

"How'd you find me?" I ask.

"Will," he says. "I'm Will."

"That's nice."

"Can I sit?"

The question cracks me up. I gesture around the couchless, chairless, rugless, room. "Pick a wall."

Instead, he sits where he is, folding his long legs under him and his arms across his chest. Then he looks expectantly at me with wide, shiny eyes. I hold out the rye bottle.

"You're going to need it," I say.

"Not as much as you do," says Will, without guile.

I laugh again, glancing down at myself. Feather-robe with the feathers molting. Slippers with the toes poking through. I can't see my hair, of course, but I can feel it trying to flap off my head in a thousand different directions every time the draft pours through the windows.

I take a gulp, extend the bottle again, and he says, "Look. I'm sorry. I don't mean to intrude. I just… I have to know what you saw."

The laughter evaporates in my throat, and the rye on my tongue.

"Please. I have to know."

"I'm not sure I know what you mean," I lie. My hands start to shake, and I slip the one not holding the bottle into my pocket.

But he's all too eager to explain. "Oh. I see. You probably… I mean, since you don't… since I'm guessing you don't go to the depots anymore, you probably aren't keeping up with what's happening."

"Probably not." Ezzie's lens case beats, and I sit down opposite my guest.

"I just need to ask you one thing, okay? Then I'll leave you alone. At the moment your wife-"

"She wasn't my wife."

"Sorry. Lover-"

I start to squelch that, too, but how to explain? The simple truth was that we'd almost never been physical with each other, and even if we'd wanted to be, the overgrown bramble-hedge of scabs and scarring up both of Ezzie's thighs would have been a serious turn-off for me. I hate pain. The funny thing about Ezzie-it took years of our friendship for me to learn this-was that she did, too.

My visitor hesitates a moment longer. Then he tries again. "At the moment she… vanished… "

Again, he waits for me to chime in. I can't, and don't.

"I just need to know," says Will. "Did you see anyone?"

Careful, now. Careful. How is this supposed to work? How does the story they all tell themselves go? "How do you mean?" I say eventually. "Are you asking were there others with us in the Depository that night? There were." That was true enough, although they'd all been on the ground floor. None of them had even heard Ezzie scream.

My visitor stares at me, and I realize I've played too dumb. And this is no journalist, no private investigator. He's a fellow Crawler. Maybe even fellow ex-Crawler. And he's paid for the privilege, same as me.

Or, not quite the same.

"Sorry," I say. "Habit."

"So," says Will. "Did you?"

I blow out a long breath. My heart bangs, and my skin prickles in the cold. Ghost-touch of Ezzie's hair across my forearms. "The thing is, I don't really know when it happened. I mean, not the exact moment. Do you?"

Abruptly, Will begins to weep. He wipes the tears away once with the heel of one huge hand, but otherwise he remains motionless. His voice comes out hoarse, as though ice has lodged in it. "Now I do."

In spite of myself-in spite of everything-I lean forward, clutching the rye bottle. "How?"

He tells me.

***

"It was going to be our last one, at least for a long time. The St. Paul. Have you heard about that one? It's massive. It's in six abandoned warehouses right on the Mississippi. It stinks. Some local told us the river itself catches fire a couple times a year near there. And there aren't any windows, so the wind blows all the filth from the barges and all the snow and ice in the winter right into the depot. So the books are in awful shape, even by depot standards.

"But God, there are so many. So, so many.

"And they're not even textbooks, mostly. Not shit stuff. This one started just like Dallas. The last used shop owners in the Twin Cities all closed on the same date, in the middle of a snowstorm in the middle of January in the middle of the night. They brought everything they had left to the warehouses. I've heard Crawlers say that for that first year or so, there were even sections.

Local History. True Crime. Classics.

"Sections. Can you imagine?

"Anyway. This was our honeymoon. It was Bri's idea, even though I'm the Crawler. I don't even think she'd been to a depot before she met me. But she loved the adventure. Dressing up in black, going to those neighborhoods, getting dirty. Hiking between twenty-foot mounds of books with our flashlight beams on each other's faces and all that moldy paper whispering all over the place. Bri used to say it was like sneaking into an old-age home and finding all the residents sitting up in their beds gossiping all night.

"You know how it is, I guess. I don't know why I'm telling you.

"This was summer before last. Our St. Paul night. It was so humid. The river wasn't on fire, but it smelled oily. There's a park on the Minneapolis side where I guess people with no sense of smell can picnic and watch barges, but on the St. Paul side, there's just warehouses and landfills and five hundred million mosquitoes. That whining never leaves your ears. I swear, it's like the world has sprung a leak, and everything is just spilling out of it somewhere.

"For our honeymoon, we'd hit five depots in four cities in four days. St. Louis, Topeka, Lincoln, Wall. You been to Wall? South Dakota? It's right on the prairie, maybe a hundred yards from that famous drug store. It's just a big barn. There's almost nothing in it but maps and dried-out pens and thousands of copies of some old biology textbook about evolution. But we saw a buffalo. It strolled right past the doors while we were inside. One buffalo. Bri loved it."

He stops, and I think he's going to weep again. He seems to think so, too, and keeps one hand hovering near his eyes. But then he drops the hand and goes on.

"At the first four depots-every night until the last night-Bri covered herself completely before we went. Black tights, long black skirt, black sweater, black wool hat. She said it was for germs, and I teased her so hard. My little suburban rich girl. Hardly held a book in her life. Not a real one, and definitely not one anyone else had read first. She always said she'd be sure to send the ambulance when I got diphtheria and collapsed, and I told her I wasn't planning on drinking the books, just touching them, maybe taking a few, and she'd say, 'Diphtheria. Don't say I never told you so.' She had this way of saying things like that. And this laugh. She could make 'Hello' into a running joke. She had so many fucking friends… "

Will is weeping again, and this time he takes the bottle when I offer it. If he sees my hand shaking, he's polite enough not to say so or smart enough not to ask.

Diphtheria. Bri might have had many friends, but Ezzie wouldn't have been one of them.

Diphtheria-virulent and fatal disease causing permanent and irreversible dippiness. No known cure. That's what Ezzie would have said.

But Will's story has brought it all back. Our first depot night, at the very first depot. The Roosevelt, Michigan warehouse, where the books sprout mushrooms from their ruined pages and the hills of still-shrinkwrapped texts and composition notebooks rise shoulder high and higher, a mountain range of waste paper complete with alpine meadows of pink and green binders and waterfalls of paperclips and liquid paper bottles. Miles and miles of them. There's even weather; the rot and damp create a haze that rises from the ground on warmer nights and drifts about the giant, echoing space, as though the words themselves have lifted right off the pages like little Loraxes and floated toward the window sockets to dissipate over the abandoned thoroughfares of the Motor City.

We were there for hours, sifting things, picking toadstools, staring at the giant graffiti phoenix on the second story wall, massive and orange and angry, rising out of the mural of a broken hardback. I didn't find anything worth having, and Ezzie brought home just one book.

The Scott Michelin 4th Grade Guide to Native America, Eighth Edition.

That very night, though we got back to our loft after four in the morning, Ezzie began to work. For weeks, night after night, all night long, she kept at it, barely speaking, rarely even retreating into the bathroom for her razor blades. Finally, I came home from work one evening to find the table bedecked with roses, a plate of the Hungarian goulash she never made anymore steaming on the table, and Ezzie's first real masterpiece laid beside the vase for my perusal.

What she'd done was so simple, really. So quiet. At first, I wasn't even sure she'd done anything. Then, as I flipped the pages, past sketches of Sacajawea and photographs of wigwams, I began to notice little smudges that might have been accidental fingerprints from tiny nine-year-old hands, except there were too many, and sometimes they were strewn across the page in unlikely or impossible patterns: half a forefinger here, a thumb all the way down next to the number, a red pen splash in the middle of a chart. As though a spider had stepped in an inkwell and then danced over the text. Then I started noticing the words missing. Some whited away, some stitched closed. Then there were the blotches, bug-shaped, pressed between lines. Some of them, I think, really were bugs. And then the little razor cuts. Thousands of them. If I removed the binding, I half-suspected, and unfolded the whole, I'd find a snowflake pattern in the pages. Or something else entirely.

There was more. I can't explain the effect. It wasn't any one thing, but the cumulative impact. An invented history of a history book no one had read, or would ever read.

That night, while I was asleep, Ezzie went back to the Roosevelt Depot without me. I couldn't believe it when I woke, told her how crazy that had been and how dangerous that place was, as if she needed me to tell her. But she was already back at her work table, hunched over her next project.

I close my eyes, and just like every time I close my eyes, now, I see her there. Crouched in her chair in the middle of the night, cross-hatched thighs drawn up under her nightshirt, unbound hair hooding her, blocking the light of her face from my sight like a blackout shade.

***

"I don't know why Bri didn't take her gloves to St. Paul," Will says. "Other than that it was crazy hot. Just putting on my hat felt like dumping a bucket of sweat on my head. We caught a bus across the river. There weren't any stops near the depot, and the guy didn't want to let us off, but Bri chatted him up and got him whistling Janet Jackson songs, and finally he agreed to drop us. He even said he'd come back in three hours, and that we'd better be there, for our own sakes.

"We walked the warehouses, and the sun went down. At first, we were trying everything we could think of to fend off mosquitoes, but eventually we gave up and let the little fuckers feast. We watched the trash barges floating in the middle of the big, brown river. They weren't even moving. They could have been swim rafts, except no one in their right mind would stick a toe in that water, let alone swim it. In that park I told you about-the one on the Minneapolis side?-there was some kind of military band. We could barely hear it. Not the tune or anything, just that there was one.

"The St. Paul side was completely empty, though. There were a couple abandoned cars, one working streetlight, some pigeons hopping around, and that's about it. But there wasn't anything threatening. Not like St. Louis or Detroit or anything. It was just empty.

"We weren't even the only ones at the depot. Not even close. We came around the corner of this huge ship-container building, and there was this old woman sitting in what I guess must have been the parking lot on a little pile of tires. She had a parasol over her head and everything, and a thermos full of lemonade. She gave us some. She had this whole stack of tatty Dickens novels with her. I have no idea whether she brought them or found them. They were just crappy school editions, nothing valuable, but intact. Totally readable. Nice.

"'It's like summer camp in there tonight,' she told us.

"It was more like a library, though. Isn't it weird how books do that? I mean, who established the whispering rule for depots?

"There were certainly plenty of other Crawlers in the warehouse. Probably fifteen, maybe even twenty. It seemed like most of them knew each other. We figured they came in a group, maybe some community college urban archaeology class or something. We kept seeing them in little bunches, picking apart a book pile or kneeling near some torn-up notepads or just standing in one of the makeshift rows, taking it all in. It almost felt like we were wandering in a downtown Japanese garden, not a depot, with all those flashlights everywhere and the moonlight outside and the snatches of music from over the river.

"For the first hour or so, Bri stayed by me. I think the place had been a canning factory, once; there were these little curls of rusty metal all over the place. I picked Bri a bouquet of toadstools, and she slid one through the top buttonhole of her sweater. That's when I noticed she wasn't wearing her gloves, and I almost said something. For a while afterwards, I thought maybe that's what had happened, or why it had happened then. Until I started hearing about all the others.

"Do you think there's some reason it's mostly happening to women?"

He stops again, as though he actually thinks I can enlighten him. As though he and I have anything whatsoever in common, except loss. As if anyone does. There's a bleak joke here, somewhere. Something about there always having been more women readers. Instead of making it, I jam the rye bottle in my mouth. In the draft, in the Lake Superior wind, I hear Ezzie's laughter.

"Well," he says. "What happened is, I found a book.

Adventures for the Young and Adventurous. I only picked it up because it was still sealed in a wrinkly plastic baggy. The spine almost fell apart when I eased the covers open. But the first story was "The Man with the Cream Tarts." You know it? I didn't. I didn't even know it was Stevenson until… until months later. When everything was over. The title page had so much mold, even I wished I had Bri's gloves. I used my sleeve to turn it. But the inside pages were relatively clean. And right off, I hit one of those sentences: 'He was a remarkable man even by what was known of him; and that was but a small part of what he actually did.' God."

Will makes a whistling sound. Then he shudders.

"There was a little window way up the wall behind where we were, and I just sat down right there. I started to read aloud to Bri, but it was too echoey. Every 's' sounded like a rattlesnake.

"Bri finally grinned and pointed at the mold on my book. She mouthed, 'Diphtheria' at me. Then she wandered off around a mound of staplers with their tops pried up. As soon as she was out of sight, I went back to reading.

"I read the whole story. By then, the moon had risen past the window, and most of the light was gone. But my eyes had adjusted. At some point, I realized it had been a long time since I'd heard any music from across the river or muffled conversations from our companions in the depot. I closed the book, and the cover came away in my hands like an old scab.

"As soon as I stood up, I finally started to understand how vast this place was. It might be the biggest one of all. When we came in, there'd been shadows, at least, and most of them were moving. But now nothing was distinct, everything was just dark, and I couldn't hear a thing. I felt like I'd fallen asleep in school and gotten locked in overnight. I opened my mouth to call for Bri, then thought better of it and moved off in the direction she'd gone.

"I wasn't going to shout. Not in there. Not yet. But looking for someone in a depot is kind of like looking for land in the middle of the ocean, you know? There aren't any aisles. There's no reason for anybody to have gone one way or another. There's no food court. There's only deeper into the depot, or out the doors.

"My first thought was that Bri had gone out. That old woman with the lemonade would have drawn her. She liked people the same way you and I like books.

"So I went what I thought was back the way we'd come. Only there weren't flashlight beams around anymore, and it's not as though we'd dropped a breadcrumb trail or paid any attention to where we were or anything. I walked what felt like a quarter mile in as straight a line as I could judge, and all I saw were huge piles of paperbacks and towers of old cardboard boxes. I didn't hear anything except my own feet. There was a little light, and it didn't seem far away, just indirect. I couldn't get a fix on the source. Twice, I thought I heard the river to my right and turned down the first passage I came to, only to find another endless depot row.

"By now, I was calling Bri's name. Not too loud. But I was definitely making myself heard. Even to myself, I sounded strange, like some croaking bird in the eaves. I had a flashlight, but I wasn't using it. I kept hoping I'd spot hers. Or anyone's.

"In my mind-I know this can't be true, but I swear I remember every step I took-I walked for an hour. Either it had gotten darker or I'd gone deeper into the depot or my eyes had stopped adjusting, because I could barely even see my hands. A couple times, I put my foot down on a shifting pile of papers and slipped. The first time, I cut my hand bad on a little semi-circular metal scrap. The next, the paper I fell into was all wet, and it stank. It was like lying on lilies in a dead pond. I'd had enough. I opened my mouth to start yelling Bri's name, and then…

"Then… "

For a second, I think Will has stopped because my face has given me away. Of course it must have. I can't seem to get my mouth to close, and the goddamn draft has cemented me where I am, crystallized me like an icicle. He probably thinks it's because I'm anticipating what comes next. Really, I'm just fixating on the scrap of metal, the cut it must have opened in his hand. Little razor cut.

All at once, he's on his feet, looming. I still can't make myself move, but the survival instincts that got me out of Detroit three years ago, that have kept me moving to new places ever since, that launch me out of bed and to the grocery store for rye but also carrots and cereal and winter gloves, has awoken at last. I'm trying to remember where I left the snow-shovel, just in case I need to murder my way out of this room.

But Will, it seems, just wants to weep some more. And why not? What's happened to him has nothing to do with me. Even less than he thinks.

"Look, dude. The woman I saw… This is why I'm here. This is what I'm telling you, the thing I've learned. It's a breakthrough. Maybe the first one. It might help you, too; if you go find some of the others, I can even give you some addresses and-"

"You're babbling," I snap. Now I'm on my feet, too, waving my feathered arms and squawking in my ridiculous voice, hoarse from disuse. "What do you want here? Why are you bothering me? What could I possibly tell you about what happ-"

"I learned her name," he says.

My jaw smacks shut. My arms are still out, as though I'm going to take flight. But I'm frozen again.

"The one I saw. Her name was Anna." He wipes his tears with his long, bony hand. Despite his size, he looks even younger, now. The tiny bit of me that doesn't want to hurl him through my window wants to make him hot chocolate.

"Her name was Anna."

"Tell me," I hear myself say.

"Like I said. There was nothing. Just blackness, and I was bleeding all over myself. I couldn't even find the doors, let alone Bri. I started to get up, and for some reason, I looked to my left. And there she was.

"She was just standing there. Dark hair, kind of bushy, pulled back in a ponytail. Glasses. Pale cheeks, penny loafers, flashlight. Clutching a composition notebook against her chest, as though she'd stepped right off the cover of a Nancy Drew novel. She looked at me for about three seconds, maybe even less. This is the strangest part, except it won't sound strange to you; everyone who's experienced it says the same thing. It was the most peaceful three seconds of my life.

"'Hey,' I started to say, and that was it. Poof. No penny loafer girl. No light. Nothing but depot junk. '

Hey!' I shouted, and once I'd started shouting, I couldn't stop.

"I have no idea how long I was in there. Not much longer, I don't think. Suddenly, I was at the doors, different doors than the ones we'd entered through, maybe half a block farther down the street. I ran back to the lot where we'd seen the old woman, but she was gone, too. I ran to the first set of doors, and I screamed Bri's name over and over and over, but I couldn't make myself go back in there, and my voice didn't even seem to penetrate. It was like screaming into a mattress.

"Finally, I ran back to where the bus driver had let us off, and the bus came, and the driver radioed for the cops. They got there pretty fast, too, for all the good it did. For all the good they ever do.

"For weeks afterward-months-I kept waking up every night thinking I'd heard the key in the lock. Even now, I sometimes think I smell her. Hear her whispering 'diphtheria ' in my ear. I went to a grief counselor, and he said losing a loved one like that, when you don't completely know, is like losing a limb. There's a part of you that won't ever accept that she's not there.

"I don't know what made me go back to the depot forum websites. I didn't ever want to go to a depot again. But one night I surfed by, and I started clicking around, and I kept following links, and somehow I wound up in a discussion thread marked 'HAVE YOU SEEN… ' which I assumed was about book-hunting. The first post read:

"Jamie. Twenty-four. Straight blonde hair, beach sandals, pink button-up shirt, gypsum pendant necklace, plastic cereal-box rings on fingers. Vanished Long Beach Depot, 7/22/10. At the end was a photo of her.

"There were 488 follow-up posts. The 432nd read:

"Laughing, dark-haired Anna. Twenty-eight. Penny loafers. Glasses. Always looks at you sideways. Vanished San Antonio Depot, 2/14/11. There wasn't any picture. But I knew.

"Now, you see, right? Now you understand why I'm here. I just want to know she's… somewhere. I just want to know someone's seen her. So please. I'm begging."

He's begging, alright. Weeping again.

But I'm panicking. Trying to dredge up some face from my high school yearbook, someone I can pretend I glimpsed, so he can say

Gee, no, that's not Bri, and get out of my apartment and let me start throwing my things in a duffel so I can disappear again. He thinks this is news to me, that so many Crawlers have had the same experience. And it is, in a way. The fact that they're seeing each other's ghosts, that the lost ones are somehow finding their way back, but to the wrong places, or else they've become pressed permanently into some new universe of fictional characters who live (or don't live) like dried butterflies in the pages of discarded books, forever who they were at the last moment they were anyone, still accessible to us but at random, a collective cultural memory instead of a personal one…

I'd be fascinated, really. If it had anything whatsoever to do with me.

"Dude," says Will, and now, finally, he's grabbed me. I knew he would. I have that effect, these days, on people like Will. "Please. I don't mean to dredge up bad memories. Maybe there's even hope, have you thought of that? If we're all seeing them, maybe we can get them back? Or at least see our own again. Wouldn't you like to? Wouldn't it be worth anything-anything-just to see her one more time?"

I almost break, then. I almost give him exactly what he wants. The whole, pathetic story. Me getting mugged and beaten bloody by some cranked-up street thug who'd been using the Roosevelt Depot as a warm, dark place to freebase. The laughing Crawlers who found me an hour or so later and shoved cigarettes in my mouth and fed me beer and got me on my feet again. Going up that rotted, collapsing staircase in the dark to find Ezzie and show her my new bruises and bring her down to meet my new friends.

Finding her.

How much of it did she intend? That's the only thing that haunts me. Most of it, clearly. Almost all of it. It was the logical extension, after all, of everything she'd done as an artist, but also as a person. That desperate, driving hunger to get inside other people's stories. To leave traces. To cut deep enough below the surface of absolutely everything to determine, once and for all, whether there was anything in there. Or to prove that there wasn't.

It must have taken her hours.

All around her, arrayed in a perfect square just longer and wider than her body, she'd laid paper. Some of it blank and white, some of it torn from whatever texts were near, or maybe she'd picked them specifically. Probably, she did. I'll never know. Even if I saw, I wouldn't remember.

The only thing I will ever remember about that moment is Ezzie lying atop the paper, stark naked in the icy February dark, head tilted almost onto her right shoulder, the spray of her blood fanning onto all that whiteness like great, red wings she'd finally unfolded. Her arms and legs a relief map of tiny and less tiny cuts, each of them flowing into the next, pouring like long, red tributaries toward the great, spurting geyser on her right thigh, where she'd pressed too hard-or exactly hard enough-and severed the femoral artery.

For too long, maybe the critical few seconds, I couldn't move. I couldn't do anything but stare. I thought she was already dead, which was so stupid, I mean, I could see the blood still pumping. That new, red ocean bubbling out of the crack Ezzie had opened in herself and spreading across the paper continents she'd created. But she wasn't moving, didn't seem to be breathing. The color had gone completely out of her; she was whiter than the paper. And she looked… not happy, not even at rest, just… still. I'd never known Ezzie still.

Then she woke up, for the last time. That's when she screamed. She even got out a sentence as I lunged forward. "

Stop it!"

Did she mean staunch the wound? Or get away from her? I didn't care. Slipping and sticking, I dropped onto my knees and plunged my hands onto the open spot, but they went straight through, her skin was like spring ice stretched too thin. It wasn't even warm inside her, just sticky-wet. I could feel the severed strands of artery, or I felt artery, anyway, gristly bits, but trying to grab anything and hold it closed was like trying to tie silly string. I ripped off my coat and started sliding it under her to make a tourniquet, but that just made her scream louder. I'm pretty sure I was screaming, too, and then-God knows how, maybe it was reflex-one of her hands shot up and grabbed my arm.

" Lawrence," she snarled. "It hurts."

And I understood. I still think I really did. It was already too late to save her. If I was going to do anything for her, I had to do it then. I grabbed the first thing handy, and it was as though it had been laid there for me.

The World Book Encyclopedia, 1978. Heavy and frozen hard as a stone.

Lifting it, I looked once more into Ezzie's eyes. I saw the defiance there. The ruthless, obsessive imagination. The unimaginable pain, and-more surprisingly-the panic. Because she thought I wouldn't do it? Because she suddenly knew I would?

I didn't ask. I slammed the book down and smashed in her skull with one blow.

I don't know how long I stayed there. I remember noticing that the blood against my legs wasn't pumping anymore, and stirred only with my own movements. I remember getting cold.

I have no memory of going downstairs. But the people who'd helped me were still there. What a sight I must have been. Beaten purple from my own encounter an hour or so earlier, shirt and pants saturated with Ezzie's blood, fingertips dripping with her brains. Somehow, I must have communicated that they should go upstairs, because some of them did. When they came down, one of them lifted me out of my crouch and said, "Man, you need a hospital."

Then they took me to one. The next morning, the police were by my bed to take my report. It was a long time before I realized they were asking only about the mugging. That they didn't know about Ezzie. I told them they needed to go back to the depot, check the second floor under the phoenix mural.

They found blood there, gouts of it. But no Ezzie. "You're lucky to be alive," they told me the last time they came. I gave them my address, promised I'd let them know where I was, though they didn't ask me to. Then they left me alone.

How did Sarah even find me in the hospital? How did she hear about what had happened? I have no idea. But she's as relentless as her sister was. Also less creative, and less fun. An hour before the doctors discharged me, she called my bedside from her Connecticut home.

"Where's Ezzie?" she said as soon as she heard my voice.

I hung up on her, unplugged the phone, and waited to be released. When I got back to our loft, there were seventeen messages from Sarah. The last one said, "I'm coming."

I packed my duffel. Just clothes and bathroom stuff and a rye bottle. No notebooks, and definitely no books. Ezzie's empty razor case, but none of the artifacts she'd made. I moved to Battle Creek. When I arrived, I let the Detroit police know my new address. The next time I moved, I did the same. If they ever find anything, or they want to do anything about me, I want them to be able to.

But not Sarah. I can't face Sarah.

I look up at Will, who is still staring at me out of his childlike, teary eyes. Childlike, because he still really believes there's more to his story. Maybe there is.

"I'm sorry," I tell him, and I mean it, in my way. "I didn't see anyone."

He just puts on his hat, then. His shoulders have slumped. Shrugging back into his coat, he turns for the door. He's got it open when I grab him, abruptly.

"You didn't answer my question," I say.

Now he just looks stupid. Blind, befuddled Oedipus again. Or is that me?

"How did you find me, Will?"

"I… don't remember," he says. "Wait, yes I do. There was an e-mail."

"An e-mail." From a cop, maybe? Someone working the chat rooms and message boards in the hopes of solving something?

"It mentioned you and gave me your address."

"From whom?"

"Didn't say. They rarely do." He takes a step outside in the Marquette wind, turns abruptly back. "I think it came from Arizona, though."

Now it's my turn to stare. "Arizona?"

"I'm just guessing. From the e-mail addy. Phoenixgirl. At gmail, I think."

In my hands, the empty rye bottle seems to throb. Pump. Against my chest, the razor case beats.

"Jesus," Will says, "I'm sorry. I almost forgot. She asked me to give you a message if I saw you."

"A message." Are these tears in my eyes? Is this fear? Am I scared of what Ezzie will do when she finds me? Or heartbroken that her last great effort was a failure, that she couldn't, finally, cut her way in. Or out. Or wherever it was she always wanted so desperately to go.

Am I even sure phoenixgirl is Ezzie? If it's Sarah, then Sarah finally knows.

I'm grabbing the frozen doorframe. It's so cold that it burns my bare fingers. I hang on anyway.

"It wasn't much of a message," Will tells me. "I think it was just… it just said, '

Tell him I'll see him soon.'"

The Hodag by Trent Hergenrader

I still remember that cold October afternoon in 1936 when Whitey McFarland's old coonhound Maggie dragged herself out of the forest, whimpering and yowling. Her skin hung off her sides in red flaps and her eyes rolled wildly. She collapsed on the ground and howled.

All us kids loved Maggie, but not one of us dared go near her, not while she was baring her teeth and snarling. Benny Carper dropped the bat and ran off; Ira Schmidt just stood there staring at the half-dead animal as it pawed the frozen dirt. I tugged on Whitey's sleeve and told him to stay with Maggie while I got my dad-Whitey's dad was a drunk and never easy to find. When he finally nodded in understanding, I took off running.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I ran past the loggers walking home for the evening. Oswego was a tiny lumber town in northern Wisconsin and our neighbors were almost like family, but even when the men called after me, I kept running. I found my dad in the mill yard picking up tools, and he caught me up in those tree-trunk arms of his. Between panting and sobbing, I told him that something had hurt Maggie real bad and she looked like she might die. He tucked his lips into his beard and his eyes hardened in his usual look of concern. He slung my legs around his waist and had me hold around his neck as he ran home. The wind bit my cheeks. Even now I can almost smell that musky flannel.

Dad banged open the patio door and my mom must have jumped a foot off the kitchen floor. Before she could scold him, he told her to draw up a warm bath as it sounded like the McFarland dog had a run in with a wolf or a cougar, or maybe Mr. McFarland. Without another word, he went to the closet and grabbed an old blanket and headed out again, pausing only to hold the storm door open for me to follow.

It was dark by the time we got back to Whitey's yard. Whitey was lying next to Maggie, stroking her head and speaking in a low voice. I felt a lump in my throat thinking we were too late, but when we got closer I heard whimpering and I could see her flayed side rising and falling. I noticed her fur was streaked with black, greasy marks. Then the smell hit us and I immediately felt sick. I didn't know how Whitey could stand it.

I asked my dad if it was a skunk but he didn't respond. He cast the blanket over Maggie and the wild look came back to her eyes. She yipped when my dad scooped her up and she snapped weakly at his face. He gently shushed her and held her close to his chest as we trotted home.

Maggie screeched when dad lowered her into the tub while Whitey, my mother, and I looked on. Maggie thrashed and sloshed water everywhere, but my father held her in place and she soon gave up. We watched in silence as he picked twigs and bits of dirt from Maggie's wounds. She hardly made a sound. My mother clasped and unclasped her hands beneath her chin and her lower lip trembled but she never said a word. The bath water turned a pinkish hue and then it got so dark you couldn't see to the bottom. Dad peeled the tar-like junk off Maggie's fur and that made the water stink something fierce. He told my mother to heat up more water and then he drained the tub and repeated the process.

When he'd gotten her reasonably cleaned up, he patted Maggie dry and let Whitey and me help wrap bandages around her middle and legs. We covered her with a blanket on my parents' bedroom floor and she fell asleep immediately. Mom said Whitey could stay the night and, after a quick dinner, we piled a mountain of blankets next to my parents' bed and nestled the dog between us, listening to her shallow breathing.

Whitey drifted off right away but I kept my eyes on the dark hump that was Maggie. She whimpered and kicked her back legs as she dreamed, but she never woke. I never remembered falling asleep.

In the bed above me, I could hear my father turning throughout the night.

***

"Wasn't a dog or cougar that did that," my father said, and my mother told him to lower his voice.

Morning sunlight spilled through the frost-wreathed window. Whitey snored quietly beside me. Maggie's face peeked out from the blankets. My father paced in the kitchen and, between his thumping footfalls, I caught snatches of conversation.

"Whatever got at her was mean. Real mean. It didn't want to kill her or she'd be dead. It just toyed with her. I'm amazed she survived."

My mother said something I couldn't hear.

"Keep him closer to the house, that's all. Make sure he doesn't go wandering over creation." His clomping boot heels blocked out the rest.

"What do you think it was, Jack?" my mother asked.

There was a long pause before my father answered. "I don't know," and even without seeing his face I could tell he was lying. I'm sure my mother knew it too.

The bedroom door creaked and I snapped my eyes shut. I waited an eternity before opening them again and when I did, I saw my father leaning on the doorframe, staring at me, his face creased, his lips buried in the depths of his beard.

***

It took Maggie a few days before she could walk comfortably and Whitey stayed with us the whole time. At age nine, I hardly noticed that my parents took smaller portions to help the food go around four ways instead of three. Dad never mentioned it and neither did mom.

Whitey's dad finally came around looking for him. Whenever he realized he hadn't seen his boy for a few days, he'd stagger the streets shouting Whitey's name and expecting the boy to appear. My father stepped onto our porch and waved Mr. McFarland over. Mom kept us from the door but we still heard dad telling him that "he'd whip his ass" if he so much as laid a hand on either the dog or the boy.

My mother and I watched through the kitchen window as Whitey followed his dad across the yard with Maggie hobbling after them, wrapped in a fresh set of bandages. My dad closed the door, then knelt and gripped my shoulders.

"Did you hear me and your mother talking the other morning?"

"No sir."

His eyes smiled but his lips did not. "Well, if you had been listening, you'd have heard me telling her that I don't know what did that to Maggie. Could be a wolf or some kind of nasty cat but whatever it was, it's dangerous. I can't find any tracks or any other sign, so who knows where the dog found that trouble. Some other fathers and I are going to look around again tomorrow, but I'm telling you Jacob, you stay close to home, you understand?"

"Yes sir," I said.

The humor in his eyes had completely disappeared.

***

Oswego was never a big town, not even in its heyday when the lumber industry was booming. The population had been halved after the First World War and dropped by another half during the Depression. Oswego wasn't unique. The same thing was happening all over the country, but us kids didn't know we were poor and the adults never talked about times being hard. It's amazing what you don't think about until you're older.

Telling a nine-year-old boy to stay close to home in a small town defines impossibility. To this day, I can't honestly say whether Whitey and I deliberately went looking for trouble or whether it somehow found us. We went for our usual Friday after school ramble with Maggie, and we roamed a little further than usual-both of us noticing that we'd wandered more than we should have, both of us understanding that we ought to turn back, but neither of us saying a word. Nine-year-old boys can communicate in such ways.

We were on the winding path near the woods when Maggie stopped and raised her nose.

"What is it, girl?" Whitey said as she growled at the air. She stared across a grass field that separated us from Pochman's Pond. Maggie barked once, then again, then whimpered and looked at Whitey with frightened eyes.

"What do you think it is?" I asked.

In my mind, I can still see Whitey's profile against the steel-gray sky as he stared across the field. The trees on the horizon had lost their leaves and looked like black, spiny fingers reaching for the sky. Whitey's face was set in a frown, his forehead wrinkled beneath his crew cut. His right eye was bruised and his cheek below it shiny, his lip slightly split at the corner. Whitey had told me he'd been hit by a baseball playing catch with his dad and I believed him, or told myself I did. We never talked about Whitey's dad.

Whitey took a step into the long grass. Maggie barked and ran a few yards in the opposite direction. She barked again and then took off towards home.

"Come on," Whitey said, taking a step forward. "She knows the way back."

I swallowed and followed him. The yellow grass rolled like waves in wind. We didn't have to go very far, only a few dozen yards of high stepping through the tall grass before we found it.

It was a dead deer, but unlike any carcass we'd ever seen. Hunting season hadn't opened yet but it wasn't uncommon to find deer parts in a field. Still, we knew no hunter was responsible for what we saw.

The deer had been ripped from the throat down and its insides had been strung out in a wide, rusty red circle around the body. Its skin had puncture wounds as though it had been jabbed with a serrated knife. Three of its legs had been broken, the bones jutting from the flesh like pieces of splintered wood, and the fourth leg had been ripped off completely. Strings of intestine were draped from its antlers, hanging across its face as it stared into the sky with black, vacant eyes. Both the carcass and the circle of matted grass were smeared with greasy, charcoal-black streaks.

We stood gaping at the mutilated carcass as our eyes flitted from detail to gruesome detail. Then the wind dropped and that familiar rotting smell overwhelmed us. I nearly threw up right there but I made it back to the path before I puked up my lunch. I heard Whitey retching next to me.

We ran all the way back to town.

When we reached the McFarlands' tumbledown shack, Whitey's dad was waiting for us, swaying in the yard. "Where the hell you been? Your goddamn dog been wanderin' all over the place," he slurred.

"Dad," Whitey said and tried to catch his breath. "We saw something. Out in the field. A dead deer."

"Get home," he said to me without sparing a look. He grabbed Whitey's jacket collar with one hand and tugged off his belt with the other. "The dog's been howlin', gettin' on people's property. Makes me look bad."

Whitey looked at me with the same terrified expression Maggie had when she caught a whiff of the deer. I looked back, helpless.

Whitey's dad jerked his son towards the house. He fixed a hard, glassy gaze on me and said a single word: "Get." It was every inch a threat as a command.

I sprinted home, my lungs burning from swallowing the chill air and choking on my tears.

My dad's mouth drew into that thin, straight line when I told him what happened. I didn't know what bothered him more, the dead deer or Mr. McFarland. He knew Whitey's dad from when they both worked at the mill. Once I asked my dad what was wrong with Mr. McFarland, and he told me that Whitey's mother had run off with some traveling snake oil salesman and his father had been living in a bottle ever since. The mill was always looking for excuses to trim payroll and it wasn't long before they gave Mr. McFarland his walking papers. Then things got worse.

That's no excuse and I still hate him for how he treated Whitey, but that doesn't make what happened next any easier to talk about.

***

That next morning, my dad formed a posse armed with rifles, hatchets, hoes and they headed out towards the woods. They trudged back at dusk, weapons slung over their shoulders, heads bowed. I remember my mother waiting on the porch working her hands and my dad giving her a slow, apologetic shake of the head when he got home.

Weeks passed, and the temperature plummeted, too cold to even snow. Eventually, the fervor died down and parents slowly loosed the reins on their children. The escorts to and from the schoolhouse ended, but not before my parents sat me down at the kitchen table and told me, in no uncertain terms, that I was to stay within earshot of home at all times. Under no circumstances was I to wander outside of town. Not in the woods, not down by the stream, and nowhere near the pond. My dad shook one calloused palm and said he'd give me the hiding of my life if I disobeyed and, even though he'd never as much as spanked me, I believed him. I'd wager the same conversation transpired in every kitchen in Oswego.

Yet sometimes trouble comes out of nothing. We weren't doing anything wrong, just playing baseball with Ira, Benny, and Whitey in his yard like always. We had a diamond worn into the grass and Whitey's dad didn't care if we tore up the yard sliding into the bases. He was never around anyway to yell if the ball hit the house and we could be as loud as we liked, so we played there most often.

Ira Schmidt was two years older than Whitey and me and could really knock the cover off the ball. He used to say he could hit it even further in the cold air. At his turn at bat, he cracked the ball into the weeds behind Whitey's house where they grew thick and deep before tapering off at the edge of the forest. We spread out looking for it but it was Whitey who made the big find, and I don't mean the baseball. I wish to God it had been me or one of the other boys, but it was Whitey.

I was parting handfuls of frozen grass when I heard Whitey say in a flat voice, "A boot." He lifted a brown workman's boot from the grass. I glanced over and went back to searching when I heard his strangled gasp. I looked up and saw that the boot still had a foot in it; it terminated at the ankle in a maroon stump with a circle of white bone, sheared cleanly like one of the fancy steaks in the butcher's shop.

Whitey's girlish scream sounded comical and for a second I thought it was a gag, but then his eyes fluttered back and the boot slipped from his fingers as he collapsed. I tried to move but I couldn't, transfixed by the boot resting on its side on the bloodstained grass.

"What is it?" Benny asked, but my mouth wouldn't work. I looked around and in a moment of stark clarity, I couldn't believe we hadn't seen the clues. They were faint but patently obvious now. The ruffled swaths of grass. The rust-colored ring. The scratch marks in the dirt where something had been dragged into the forest. My shocked brain wasn't fully registering what I was seeing, but I suppose I knew even then that what had been dragged was Whitey's dad.

My memory gets foggy after that. I remember some women shouting, hands grabbing me by the shoulders, and Benny's mom's face in mine asking me what happened. I just pointed to the boot in the grass. Then I remember being dragged back towards town while two other women struggled to lift Whitey to his feet.

Then my mother was there, and she had me under the arm. She led me and Whitey, now conscious and stumbling under his own power, back to our house. She had just seated us at the kitchen table when the porch door flew open and my father barged through. He grabbed his padded flannel and the rusty spade we used to feed the stove. My mother asked what was happening. "We're going after it. Stay put," he said and disappeared out the door.

My mother paced the kitchen. None of us spoke. She put her arms around our heads and drew us to her while she murmured something about things being okay. "Whitey, your ears are freezing," she said and placed a hand on his face. "Your cheeks, too. Let me grab a blanket." She disappeared into the bedroom.

I looked at Whitey who was staring past me. He leaned so far to one side I thought he might fall off his chair. "Whitey," I said in a small voice. "You okay?"

He focused on me as if just realizing I was there, then shook his head. We sat in silence for another moment and I heard my mother quietly curse as she rummaged through the linen closet for the heavy blankets we only broke out in the deepest winter.

Whitey's eyes met mine again, then he bolted from his chair like a frightened deer. The porch door hadn't even had a chance to slam shut before I was after him, my mom's shouts drowned out by the wind in my ears.

"Whitey, stop!" I yelled as I ran but I knew he wouldn't, and honestly, I didn't want him to. Chasing him would be my excuse to follow the hunting party, and I knew it.

Whitey raced past his house and the field and I was on his heels as he headed into the trees. As we reached the far end of the forest where it opened to the pond, we heard men shouting and the crash of a shotgun.

Whitey stopped dead at the frozen edge of Pochman's Pond and put his hands on his knees to catch his breath. I skidded to a halt behind him and together, silent except for our panting, we watched the events unfold.

A dozen men stood in a wide semicircle twenty yards away out on the ice. All of them wielded some type of make-shift weapons-hatchets, hoes, Benny Carper's dad and two others carried shotguns-and they surrounded a broad, four-legged creature. At first, I thought it was a black alligator, but I knew alligators weren't that big and didn't have long snaking tails with a spade at the end. Plate-sized ridges ran the length of the creature's back.

The winter air exploded with a confusion of sounds: the men shouting over each other, the creature's low growl like an engine that won't catch, and the deep groan of the ice under their weight. The tips of the men's weapons glanced off the thing's hide with metallic clanks. Its tail whipped high and low to fend off the attackers; it swept out the feet of one man. The creature scrabbled to attack him but thankfully its claws couldn't find purchase on the ice. Mr. Carper fired the shotgun into the creature's side and it jerked its head around, seemingly more at the sound than in reaction to being shot. And that's when we saw its face.

The face looked hauntingly human despite its oblong shape, the mouth crowded with sharp teeth, and its black leathery skin. The eyes burned like embers and there was an unmistakable intelligence behind them, perhaps even cunning. Worse, the face was grinning in pure malice. The creature's eyes locked on us across the pond and I swear it licked its lips. My stomach fell into my shoes and I felt sick.

Mr. Carper shot the thing point-blank in the face and it just flapped its head, like a dog getting water out of its ears. It whipped its tail over its head at Mr. Carper, who fell onto the ice. The spade came down and crushed the ice between his legs instead of his skull.

We heard a rumble we thought was thunder, then dark cracks spider webbed across the ice. The men bolted for shore but they couldn't get more than a few yards before the whole ice sheet collapsed with a sharp crack and groan, dumping them all into the water in a cacophony of shouts and splashes. The thing sprayed a plume of water like a whale then sank out of sight.

"C'mon Whitey," I screamed, barely noticing he hadn't followed. I found a downed branch and extended it into the open water where the men half-swam, half-pulled themselves towards shore. The ice broke beneath me and I plunged into the pond up to my waist. Air burst from my lungs with the shocking cold, but I managed to hang on as the men used the branch to pull themselves to shore.

"W-what are you d-doing here?" my father stuttered as he stood shivering, his beard already frozen. He turned to look at the hole in the ice. No bubbles broke the surface, no signs of movement in the water. "C'mon," he said and grabbed my collar with a wet and freezing hand.

We stumbled back, each man's family collecting him at the edge of the forest. "Come with us, Whitey," dad said in a tone that brooked no argument. Whitey paused to look at the shack where he lived, then to the long grass where he'd found his father's foot. My dad caught Whitey under his arm and held him close.

Even though my dad was a block of ice by then, Whitey didn't pull away.

***

Us kids were under complete lock-down for the next week. No school, no leaving the house, no nothing. My dad said they never found any sign of Mr. McFarland, but parents sometimes forget kids are neither stupid nor blind. They couldn't hide the black tendrils of smoke rising from the field bordering the forest and we all knew it wasn't dried leaves they were burning.

Oswego hunkered down for the winter like northern towns do and the months passed, cold and harsh. Whitey spent time with a number of different families, ours the most, until one clear, freezing February morning the county sheriff arrived with a wiry man who said he was Whitey's uncle, come to bring Whitey to live with him in Wausau. You could tell Whitey didn't want to go but those were lean times for everyone and getting leaner, and no one wanted to interfere with what boiled down to a family matter.

My dad wore a pinched expression but, in the end, said nothing. He had his hands on my shoulders as I waved to Whitey who looked back out the police car's rear windshield. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last time he saw the world from that perspective.

The mill closed that March and we moved to Marquette, Michigan before the thaw. Just a few years later, my dad would be called up for World War Two and killed in combat. I never got the chance to ask him about that afternoon at Pochman's Pond.

As a teenager, I wrote Whitey McFarland a letter to see what he remembered from that November afternoon. Six months later, Whitey's uncle responded with a curt note informing me Whitey had been sent to the juvenile home in Rhinelander and wasn't accepting letters. The note was accompanied by my envelope, still unopened.

***

The years rolled by, many of them hard, but Mom and I survived. I went to college, met a lovely girl, and we had a son. He's grown now with a family of his own. I've been blessed with a life with far more ups than downs. Through all those years, I tried not to think about that afternoon at the pond but it haunted me across those years. I always felt that faded memory lurking deep in my mind, waiting to surface.

And it finally did.

For my eightieth birthday, my granddaughter gave me an encyclopedia of Wisconsin folklore. Quite a tome, it became a nightly ritual of mine to sit in my favorite reading chair under a halo of light, browsing deep into the night about Bigfoot, the haunting of Science Hall on the UW campus, and the ghoulish history of mass murderers Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer.

Late one night, unsuspecting, I turned a page and I felt my heart seize. Staring up at me was the likeness of the thing from Pochman's Pond-those same evil eyes sizing me up, the fang-filled mouth, the twisted grin.

My pajamas clung to my sweaty skin and I couldn't catch my breath. I forced myself to calm down, to take deep breaths and relax before I gave myself a heart attack. I had told myself that I wasn't in danger, that the house was still dark and quiet, that my wife was still upstairs peacefully asleep; that we were safe. The damn thing hadn't gotten me then, and it sure as hell wouldn't get me now.

I composed myself enough to read the page. The thing was a hodag, a mythical creature of the Wisconsin northwoods. Legends say the beast rose from the ashes of a lumberjack's ox whose body had been burned for seven years to cleanse it of the profanity the loggers had hurled at it. The depiction of the creature wasn't quite right, a little too cartoony, but it was damn close. They got the eyes and the grinning mouth perfect though, and that was enough.

I read and reread that page for God knows how long before I set the book down with a trembling hand and, without knowing exactly why, I wept. Unbidden, memories rushed back. Memories of Whitey, his father and mine, and how you can't always catch the curveballs life throws at you. We all knew the thing hadn't been killed that day-it just sank into Pochman's Pond and crawled back into the dark.

I dried my eyes, turned off the light, and went upstairs, wincing with each creak of the steps. I crept into my own bed and slid a hand on my wife's warm stomach. She murmured something and I kissed her silver hair. I drifted off telling myself my family was warm, happy, and safe.

***

That night I dreamt of the northwoods in the splendor of autumn. I was skipping stones on Pochman's Pond with my grandkids beneath a canopy of colored leaves. I keep telling them to get away from the water's edge but they don't listen.

Whitey McFarland's there too. He's still only nine years old and he's wearing his swimsuit. He dares no one in particular to race him out and back, and wades into the pond up to his knees.

I shout for Whitey to stop but it's a perfectly warm, sunny day and the pond is dark and cool. Suddenly, I feel very small and I start to panic. I shout again.

Whitey doesn't say anything. He doesn't even turn to look at me. He just watches the breeze rippling the water's surface.

Very Low-Flying Aircraft by Nicholas Royle

From a distance of thirty yards, Ray saw immediately what was happening. There was Flynn, in his new full uniform, which the two older men, in engineer's overalls, would have insisted he wear. Ray stepped back behind the trunk of a palm tree, observing.

Several ginger-cream chickens pecked in the sand, looking for seed that the two engineers, whom Ray recognised as Henshaw and Royal, would have scattered there. Ray could see Henshaw talking to Flynn, explaining what he needed to do, Flynn looking unsure in spite of the new recruit's desire to please. Henshaw was a big man with red hair cut severely short at the back and sides of his skull. Royal-the shorter of the two engineers, with a greased quiff-who had been bending down watching the chickens, stood up and took something from the pocket of his overalls, which he handed to Flynn.

Ray caught the flash of sunlight on the blade.

Henshaw mimed the action Flynn would need to copy.

Ray considered stepping in, stopping the ritual, for it was a ritual. He hadn't had to suffer it on his arrival on the island, but only because he had been a little older than Flynn on joining up. Henshaw and Royal were younger than Ray, which would have been enough to dissuade them.

But for the time being, he remained where he was.

Flynn, his golden hair falling in front of his face, took the knife in his left hand. With his right, he loosened his collar. He would have been very warm in his blue airman's uniform, and he clearly wasn't looking forward to using the knife. His shoulders drooping, he made a last, half-hearted appeal to the two engineers. Henshaw made a dismissive gesture with his hands as if to say it wasn't such a big deal. It was just something that had to be done. The squadron had to eat.

Flynn tried to catch one of the wary chickens, but found it difficult to do so and hang on to the knife at the same time. Henshaw swooped down, surprisingly quickly for such a big man, and grabbed a chicken. Flynn bent over beside him and switched the knife to his right hand, looking set to do the job while the bird was held still, but Henshaw indicated that Flynn needed to hold the chicken himself. He passed it over and swiftly withdrew. Royal took several steps back as well.

Flynn secured the chicken between his legs and encircled its neck with his left hand, then glanced over his shoulder for encouragement. Royal gave a vigorous nod, and as Flynn turned back to the chicken the two older men exchanged broad smiles.

Ray knew this was the moment at which he ought to step in, but still he made no move from behind the tree.

To his credit, Flynn got through the neck of the struggling chicken with a single slice and leapt back as a jet of red spurted. Liberated, the chicken's body spun, spraying the airman with arterial blood until his uniform was soaked. The recruit dropped the severed head as if it were an obscene object, which of course suddenly it was.

The butchered bird ran round in ever decreasing circles still pumping out blood. At a safe distance the two engineers laughed. Ray glared at them as he approached. He put a protective arm around the shoulders of Flynn and muttered comforting words, but the young airman, not yet out of his teens, seemed traumatised.

"Come on," said Ray. "They were just having a bit of fun." Though he didn't know why he should excuse their behaviour.

Flynn wouldn't move. The chicken's body had given up and had slumped to the sand. But it was the bird's head that transfixed Flynn. It twitched. The eye moved in its socket. A translucent film closed over the eyeball and then retracted again.

"It can still see," Flynn whispered.

"It's just a nervous spasm," Ray said.

"No, it's still conscious," said the teenager. "Look."

As they watched, the bird blinked one more time, then the eye glazed over and it finally took on the appearance of death.

Ray looked over his shoulder and saw that Henshaw and Royal were now a long way down the beach, their dark overalls shimmering in the heat haze, which caused their bodies to elongate and become thinner, while their heads became distended, like rugby balls hovering above their shoulders.

Insulated from the pain that had cut him off from England for ever, Raymond Cross prospered in the Royal Air Force, which had a small presence on Zanzibar. Prospered insofar as he seemed to find satisfying the narrow range of tasks assigned to him. He ticked boxes on checklists, got his hands dirty in the engines of the few planes that were maintained daily. They were taken up only once or twice a week, to overfly the island and to hop across to Mombasa to pick up supplies. Ray was allowed to accompany the tiny flight crew if he wasn't busy: he could be made useful loading and unloading.

In his spare time in the barracks, Ray listened to jazz records on an old gramophone the base commander had picked up on a trip to the mainland. Milt Jackson and Thelonious Monk riffed until the needle was practically worn away. No one could say where the records had come from. Some nights he got out of his head on Kulmbacher lager they had flown over from Germany. It was dropped at night, illegally, in wooden crates that burst open on the beach, scattering the ghost crabs that rattled about on the foreshore. He drank steadily-sometimes with the other men, usually on his own-and spoke to none of his comrades about his reasons for joining the RAF.

When the conditions were right-and they usually were between June and March, outside the rainy season-and Squadron Leader William Dunstan was piloting the mission, they would take a small detour before heading for the airstrip. On returning from Mombasa or a tour of the island, Billy Dunstan would take the Hercules north to Uroa where he would swoop down over the beach and buzz the aircraftmen and flight lieutenants stationed there. Ray was soon organising his time around Dunstan's schedule, so that when the flamboyant squadron leader was in charge, Ray was invariably waiting at the airstrip to go up with the crew. Dunstan ran a pretty relaxed ship.

The men at Uroa station would hear the Hercules's grumbling approach rise above the constant susurration of the wind in the palms and run out on to the beach waving their arms. Dunstan would take the plane down as low as possible; on occasion he even lowered the landing gear and brushed the surface of the beach a few hundred yards before or after the line of men, raising huge ballooning clouds of fine white sand.

After his pass, the line of men on the beach applauding as they turned to watch, Dunstan would tilt to starboard over the ocean and climb to a few hundred feet before doubling back and flying down the coast to the base at Bwejuu. Every time, Ray would be standing hunched up in the cockpit behind Dunstan for the best view. The squadron leader enjoyed showing off; Ray's enjoyment lay in watching Dunstan's reaction as he risked going lower and lower each time, but there was more to it than that. There was another element to it for which Ray had yet to find expression.

The next day, during a break from duties, Ray saw a lone figure standing by the shoreline. He wandered over, clearing his throat once he was within earshot, and came to a halt only when he had drawn alongside. The two men looked out at the horizon. Some three hundred yards out, the reef attracted a flurry of seabirds. They hung in the air as if on elastic, a short distance above the water.

"I'm sorry I didn't get there sooner," Ray said. "In time to stop them, I mean."

Flynn shrugged. "They'd have got me another time," he said.

"Probably. No harm done, eh?"

"I was scrubbing away at my uniform for at least an hour this morning," the younger man said.

Ray felt the breeze loosen his clothes and dry the sweat on his body.

"I've heard stories," Flynn continued, "about beheadings in the Mau Mau Uprising. They used machetes. They'd cut someone's head off and the eyes would still be blinking, still watching them. What must that be like? Still being able to see."

They watched the horizon without speaking for a few moments. Ray broke the silence.

"I'm not sure you should be left alone with your thoughts."

They watched the rise and fall of the seabirds, at this distance like a cloud of midges.

"Do you leave the base much?" Ray asked.

"I go to Stone Town… "

Ray turned to look at the young airman. He was wearing fatigues and a white vest. His eyes, which didn't deviate from the view in front of him, were a startling blue. He didn't seem to want to elaborate on what he got up to in Stone Town. Ray bent down and picked up a shell. He turned it over and ran his thumb over the ridges and grooves.

"There you go," he said, handing it to Flynn. "Don't say I never give you anything."

Ray had joined the RAF as a way of getting out of Britain in the early 1960s. His wife had died giving birth to their only child and it would have broken him if he hadn't got out. Some say it did break him anyway. Others that it just changed him. The pinched-faced moralisers among his family said it had no effect on him: he'd always only ever been in it for himself. These are the people you might have expected to have got their heads together to decide who was best placed to offer the infant a home, until such time as his father tired of the tropics. But they didn't exactly fight among themselves for that right.

Ray himself had been born into a community so tightly knit it cut off the circulation. His own domineering mother and subjugated father, all his uncles and aunts, were regular church-goers. Some gritty, northern, unforgiving denomination, it would have been, where prayer cushions would have been considered a luxury.

It wouldn't have mattered who Ray brought back to the house in Hyde as his intended, they weren't going to like her. They'd have looked down on her whatever she was, princess or pauper. Not that they had any money of their own to speak of, they didn't. But pride they had.

Perhaps Ray bore all of this in mind when he took the Levenshulme bingo caller to the Kardomah in St Anne's Square.

Victoria. Vic, Ray called her-his queen. She may have been only a bingo caller to the family, but Ray worshipped her. She turned up in the Cross household one blustery night in a new mini-skirt. "Legs eleven," he blurted out, ill-advisedly. "Your father and I will be in here," his mother said, frowning in disapproval and pointing to the front room; Ray's father shuffled obediently. "You can sit in 't morning room," she said to Ray.

The morning room, an antechamber to the kitchen, was dim and soulless in the morning and didn't get any lighter or warmer as the day wore on. Somehow it failed to benefit from its proximity to the kitchen. No one used it, not even his mother, despite her being temperamentally suited to its ambience.

Ray and Victoria's options were few, if they had any at all, and sticking around wasn't one of them. Ray got a job with the Post Office in Glossop, so they packed what little they had and moved out along the A57. He worked hard and earned more than enough for two, so that when the first signs of pregnancy appeared, they didn't think twice. It didn't matter that the baby hadn't been planned; it was welcome.

After the birth, Ray held the tiny baby once, for no more than a few seconds. Victoria lost so much blood, the hospital ran out of supplies. She suffered terribly for the next twelve hours, during which time Ray stayed by her side. Twice the nurses asked him if they'd thought of a name for the baby. Each time he waved them away.

When the RAF asked Ray his reasons for wanting to join up, he said he liked the uniform and had no objection to travelling, the latter being an understatement. They sent him to the island of Zanzibar, thirty miles or so off the coast of Tanganyika in East Africa. A greater contrast with east Manchester must have been hard to imagine. The family declared him heartless and cruel, swanning off to a tropical island when he should have been mourning his wife and looking after his kid. Their hypocrisy galvanised him, and he brought his departure date forward. He needed to put some distance between himself and his family in order to mourn. Five thousand miles wasn't bad going.

Ray wasn't surprised when Billy Dunstan invited the two girls to join them on a flight around the island. Joan and Frankie were English nurses working in a clinic in Zanzibar Town. Dunstan and one of his fellow officers, Flight Lieutenant Campbell, had met the pair one evening on the terrace of the Africa House Hotel where all the island's expats went to enjoy a drink and to watch the sun go down in the Indian Ocean.

On the agreed afternoon, the nurses were brought to the base at Bwejuu by an RAF auxiliary. Ray looked up from polishing his boots and saw all the men stop what they were doing as the women entered the compound. Henshaw stepped forward with a confident smirk, wiping his hands on an oily rag. The other men watched, with the exception of Flynn, whose uniform still bore one or two of the more obstinate traces of the engineers' ritual humiliation of him on the beach. The airman coloured up and looked away.

Dunstan appeared and made a swift assessment of the situation.

"Henshaw," he said, "shouldn't you be driving the supply truck up to Uroa? You'll have it dark, lad. Take Flynn with you."

Flight Lieutenant Campbell had been called away to deal with a discipline problem on Pemba Island, Dunstan explained to the two women. Because of the nurses' schedule, there wouldn't be another opportunity for a fortnight and Dunstan didn't want them to go away disappointed. Ray watched him stride out across the landing strip to the Hercules, his white silk scarf, an affectation only he had the dashing glamour to carry off, and then possibly only in Ray's opinion, flapping in the constant onshore breeze. Joan trotted behind him. Frankie stopped to fiddle with her heel and while doing so looked back at the men watching from the paved area outside the low huts. Ray, who was among those men, was struck for the first time by her resemblance to Victoria. When she smiled, it seemed directed straight at him. A nudge in the ribs from Henshaw confirmed this.

"Didn't you receive an order?" muttered Ray.

"Yes, Corporal," Henshaw replied sarcastically.

Ray looked away from Henshaw towards Flynn, who had also been watching the exchange of looks between Ray and Frankie with, it seemed to Ray, a look of hurt in his blue eyes.

"Corporal Cross," came a cry from the airstrip. "Get your flying jacket."

"Now it's your turn to be ordered about," said Henshaw. "Lucky bastard."

As Ray left to join Dunstan and the two girls, he passed close to Flynn.

"You'll get your chance, son," he said quietly.

As they taxied to the beginning of the landing strip, Ray looked out of the cockpit to see the fair head of Flynn bobbing into the supply truck alongside Henshaw.

"Hold tight, ladies," shouted Dunstan over the noise of the four engines as the plane started to rumble down the runway.

They flew across the island to Zanzibar Town. Dunstan pointed out the Arab Fort and the Anglican cathedral. Frankie spotted the clinic where she and Joan worked on the edge of the Stone Town. Dunstan turned the plane gently over the harbour and flew back over the so-called New City in a south-easterly direction so that he was soon flying parallel with the irregular south-west coastline.

" Uzi Island," shouted Dunstan as he pointed to the right. The two girls leaned over the back of his seat to get the best view. Ray watched the way their hips and bellies pressed into Dunstan's shoulders. The squadron leader seemed to sit up straighter, flexing the muscles at the top of his back, as if maximising the contact between them, his hands maintaining a firm grip on the controls.

"Where's that?" asked Joan, pointing to a tiny settlement in the distance.

"Kizimkazi. Not much there. Hang on." So saying, he banked sharply to the left, unbalancing both girls, who toppled over then picked themselves up, giggling. Ray watched a twitch of pleasure in Dunstan's cheek. Frankie smiled hopefully in Ray's direction. He smiled back instinctively, but looked away somewhat awkwardly at the same time.

They crossed the southern end of the island, then kept going out to sea before turning left again and gradually describing an arc that would eventually bring the plane back over land north of Chwaka Bay. The horizon-an indistinct line between two blocks of blue-had become a tensile bow, twisted this way and that in the hands of a skilled archer: the plane itself was Dunstan's arrow. Ray watched the squadron leader's hands on the controls, a shaft of sunlight edging through the left-side window and setting the furze of reddish hairs on his forearm ablaze.

The RAF station at Uroa came into view: a couple of low-lying buildings in a small compound, a handful of motorbikes, a Jeep and one truck that Ray surmised would be the supply vehicle driven there by Henshaw and Flynn. As they overflew the station, several men appeared from inside one of the huts, running out on to the beach waving their arms. Ray looked back as Dunstan took the Hercules into a steep left-hander and headed away from the island once more.

"They're moving the truck," Ray said. "They're driving it on to the beach."

"They must want to play," said Dunstan with a grin as he maintained the angle of turn.

The nurses grabbed on to the back of the pilot's seat.

"This is like going round that roundabout," said Frankie to Joan, "on the back of your Arthur's motorbike."

Dunstan looked around.

"My ex," Joan elucidated.

"What we're about to do," Dunstan yelled, "you can't do on a motorbike, no matter who's driving it. Hold on tight and don't look away."

Dunstan took the plane lower and lower. The beach was a mile away, the altitude dropping rapidly.

"Five hundred feet," Dunstan shouted. "At five hundred feet you can make out cows' legs."

"There aren't any cows," Frankie shouted back.

"That's why I'm using this," said Dunstan, tapping the altimeter with his finger nail.

Ray watched the needle drop to four hundred, three hundred and fifty, three hundred.

"Two hundred and fifty!" Dunstan roared. "Sheep's legs at two hundred and fifty. Not that there's any sheep either. We are now officially low flying, and below two hundred and fifty," he shouted as he took the rattling hull down even lower, "is classified as very low flying."

The ground looked a lot closer than two hundred and fifty feet to Ray, who knew that the palm trees on this side of the island grew to a height of more than thirty feet. He watched their fronds shudder in the plane's wake, then turned to face forward as the station appeared beneath them once more. The truck had been parked in the middle of the beach, the men standing in a ragged line either side of it, raising their hands, waving at the plane. From this distance-by now, free of the palm trees, no more than fifty feet-it was easy to recognise Henshaw, and Flynn, who was jumping up and down in boyish enthusiasm. The girls whooped as the Hercules buzzed the truck, leaving clearance of no more than thirty feet. Ray turned to watch the men raise their hands to cover their faces in the resulting sandstorm.

"Fifty feet, ladies," Dunstan boasted, enjoying showing off. "We're allowed to fly this low to make free drops."

"What are free drops when they're at home?" asked Joan.

"When we want to drop stuff without parachutes. Boxes of supplies. Equipment. Whatever."

Frankie had fallen silent and was looking back at the line of men.

"What is it?" Joan asked her.

"That young one, the blond one, I'm sure I've seen him before."

"He's been in the clinic, Frankie. I saw him in the waiting room. He must have been your patient, because he wasn't mine. I'd have remembered him, if you know what I mean."

Frankie put her hand up to her mouth as she did remember.

"Oh God, yes," she said. "Such a nice boy. He was so embarrassed. I felt terribly sorry for him."

Dunstan had already started to go around again. The blue out of the left-hand side of the plane was now exclusively that of the ocean, the sky having disappeared. Ray waited to see if Frankie would say more about Flynn. She saw him watching her and fell silent.

She was similar to Victoria, but when Ray looked at her he felt nothing. Victoria was gone and the feelings he had had for her were gone also. It didn't mean they hadn't existed. But they could not be reawakened. Something in Ray had changed, even if he didn't understand the full nature of the change. He didn't doubt that he was still grieving for Victoria, but living on the island, in the company of Dunstan and the other men, was changing him. He couldn't have said what he did feel, only what he didn't.

"Can you take it any lower this time?" Joan was asking Dunstan as she leaned over the back of his seat and the line of men grew bigger in the pilot's windshield.

"What's that boy doing?" Ray muttered, as Flynn clambered on top of the cab of the supply truck that was still parked on the beach.

"Sometimes we fly as low as fifteen feet," Dunstan shouted, sweat standing out on his forehead as he clung to the controls and fought to keep the plane steady. He knew that one mistake would be fatal. If the right-hand wing tip caught the trunk of a palm tree, if the wake of the aircraft created an updraught that interfered with the rudder, control would be wrested from him in an instant, setting in motion a chain of events that would be as swift as it would be inevitable. Ray knew this and he knew that Dunstan knew it. He could sense that the two girls were beginning to realise it, as they watched, wide-eyed and white-knuckled.

The line of men was no more than a hundred yards away, the plane travelling at 140 knots.

"Be careful, sir," Ray murmured. "Watch Flynn."

The youngster was standing on the roof of the cab, stretching his arms in the air, his face ecstatic, hair swept back.

As the plane passed over him, they felt a bump. It would have felt harmless to the nurses, but Ray knew nothing is harmless in a plane of that size flying at that kind of altitude. He twisted around and looked back through the side window. He saw a figure in a blue uniform falling from the roof of the truck and something the size of a football rolling down the beach towards the sea.

"Christ!" said Ray.

One of the girls started screaming.

The golden sand, the turquoise sea. Rolling and rolling. A line of palm trees, the outermost buildings of the station. Henshaw, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. Another engineer bent double. Over and over. The golden sand, darker now, black, the sea, fringe of white foam, the vast blue sky. The black cross of the Hercules climbing steeply, banking sharply, heading out to sea. The golden sand. A body, damaged, somehow not right, lying on the sand by the supply truck. A quickly spreading pool of blood. The golden sand, line of trees, the vast empty sky, the distant plane, a line of men, men running, a body on the sand. The golden sand. Ghost crabs. A shell. Shells. The vast blue sky, line of trees. The supply truck. The golden sand. Palm trees swaying, blown by the wind. Henshaw. The golden sand again, darker, wetter. White foam, tinged pink. The blue of the sky. The body by the truck. Line of men, line of trees. The golden sand.

When the Gentlemen Go By by Margaret Ronald

It wasn't a sound that woke her this time, nor the soft slow lights that came dancing through the curtains. She thought in that first wakening haze that it might be a scent, like the "bad air" her mother had talked about, creeping in to announce their presence. Then full wakefulness and knowledge struck her, and her only thought was

Not yet.

Laura rolled out of bed, making sure not to disturb Jenny, who'd crawled in about an hour after bedtime. Toby, in the crib, slept like a swaddled stone. The nightlight cast a weak gold glow over them, but the first hints of blue had begun to creep in, cool and unfriendly. She glanced back once at the sound of Jenny's whimper, then turned her back on her sleeping children.

At least their father wasn't here.

It was an old bargain, old as the Hollow at least. With bargains you had to uphold your side; she'd learned that early, probably before she even knew about the Gentlemen.

Her bedroom in her parents' house had faced the street, and when she was five the changing shapes of headlights across the far wall had fascinated her. One night she woke to see a block of light against the far wall, flickering in all the colors of frost. When the light stayed put, as if the car that cast it had parked outside, she sat up in bed, then turned to the window.

The light was just outside, on the strip of green that her father liked to call the lawn. She crawled out of bed, dropping the last couple of inches to the floor, and reached for the curtain.

"Don't look."

Laura turned to see her mother standing in the doorway. "Mumma?"

Her mother crossed the room in two strides and took Laura into her arms, cradling her head against her shoulder. "Don't look, baby, don't look."

Obediently, Laura laid her head against her mother's shoulder and listened as something huge or a hundred smaller somethings passed by with a thunderous shussh. Her mother's eyes were closed tight, and she rocked Laura as if she were an infant again, even though Laura had two little brothers and hadn't been rocked since the first one was born. The sleeve of her mother's bathrobe was damp with a thousand tiny droplets.

In the morning, she tried to talk about it. "I had a dream last night-" she said at the breakfast table.

"I expect we all had dreams," her mother said, pouring milk over her Cheerios. "What with all that pizza last night. Bet you had them worst of all, right, Kyle?"

Her brother Kyle, six years old and indeed the one who'd eaten the most, shook his head and began to cough.

The light was stronger in the living room. Soon it would be strong enough for her to read by, if she'd ever had the urge to do so. Laura closed the bedroom door behind her, making sure it latched, and picked her way through the maze of toys that covered the carpet. She watched the blue-edged shadows rise over the edge of the couch and drew a deep breath.

I wonder what they'll bring, she made herself think over the rising dread in the back of her mind. And to whom they'll bring it.

They bring gifts. I have to remember that. They bring gifts too.

It wasn't till she reached second grade, just after Kyle's funeral, that she found a name for them. It was in a book of children's poems, the old kind that usually read as if they'd been dipped in Karo Syrup. But this one, "The Smuggler's Song," wasn't like that at all. It made the room seem darker when she read it, and darker still when she thought about it. Even after she learned that the poet hadn't ever set foot in Brooks' Hollow, she still secretly called them the Gentlemen, after the poem.

Five and twenty ponies / trotting through the dark…

She waited until her father took her remaining brother out to play baseball before talking to her mother about it. "Mumma," she asked as they washed dishes together, "why did Kyle get sick?"

Her mother's hands paused, wrist-deep in sudsy water. "Well," she said after a moment, in that careful voice adults used when they didn't know how to say something, "people in the Hollow get sick sometimes. It's just something in the air."

"Oh."

"You don't need to worry, sweetie. I won't let anything-" She stopped, her lips pressed together, and went on in a different tone. "You know what the pioneers used to say about our land? Good land, bad air. They might have been right about the air, but we had the best farms for miles. Still do. The Hollow's a good place, Laura. I want you to remember that."

Later that evening, after the boys had settled in to watch football, her mother took her by the hand and led her upstairs, where she rummaged in the back of the closet until she found an old cardboard box. "I thought you might want to try this on," she said, and took out a fragile crown, woven out of hair-thin wire and stones like gleaming ice, so delicate it chimed in her hands. She set it on Laura's head and held up a mirror. "Don't you look just like a princess, now."

Laura caught her breath. "I do! Mumma, I do!"

"I thought you might." Her mother smiled.

Laura shivered to remember that crown. It was here somewhere, in the boxes she'd packed up after her mother's death, but she hadn't ever gone looking for it. She sometimes dreamed of wearing it, and woke up with bile in her throat.

She reached up and took down the little blue notebook from its place above the television. It had pages of notes about the sound the Gentlemen made: pines in the wind, highway traffic very far away, heavy rain, but none of them quite caught it. She'd been keeping the notes ever since she could write, first on what it looked like when the Gentlemen went by, then-later, as she grew up and began to understand-the annotations.

And the more she watched the indistinct shapes through the curtain, the more she felt as if her whole life became only watching. Her second brother's death, her graduation, the strikes at the cabinet factory-all images apart from her. Even now, she was at a distance, watching herself sitting huddled wrong-way-round on the couch, a patch of drying formula stiff and sticky under her left forearm.

Sometimes they brought things, she told herself again. A crown, a song, a whisper in someone's ear. And their trail was thick with flowers, even when they passed by late in October.

And the Hollow was a friendly place, after all. It seemed there was always a family to bring a casserole; it seemed there was always a service "for those taken from us" at the little church that was the only official marker of Brooks' Hollow, and the pews were always full.

But you didn't talk about it. You shrugged, and blamed bad air, and made sure your child's last months were comfortable, treating them like a stranger the whole time, and then you buried them in the good rich earth of the Hollow.

The light grew, shimmering like opals, and with it came a faint scent: greenery, growing things. But there was an edge to it as well, something like grass clippings left in the rain and then rotting in the sun. Something green gone wrong. Laura held the book tight against her chest, as if it might hide her, her and her children. "The Smuggler's Song" was inked in blue on the inside flap, an addition she'd made just after her wedding.

Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie. / Watch the wall, my darling, when the Gentlemen go by!

In her senior year at the county high she met Rich. Rich came from the north of the county, and he played guitar, and when he smiled at her Laura felt her heart come unstuck. For the first time in ages she felt as if she could be part of the world again.

She was worried at first what her parents would say. Some of her girlfriends had had to move out of the Hollow because their parents had kicked them out for any number of reasons-going out with boys, going out with only one boy, getting pregnant, not staying pregnant. Her parents turned out to like Rich, though, and they even helped them find a place to live.

They got married on the hottest day of the year. But the sky was clear, the beer was cold, and Rich looked at her like she was the sun come to earth. At the reception, she tore her hem dancing and had to go looking for her mother. She finally thought to look for her in the bathroom, only to find her talking to an old friend. "Rich tells me they've bought a trailer down in the Hollow," said Laura's old babysitter.

"It's a nice little place," Laura's mother said. Laura shrank back against the door.

"That ain't right, Missy. Bringing someone new into the Hollow ain't right, especially not a good sort like Rich. Why didn't you send her away?"

Laura held her breath. "She's all I got," her mother said after a moment. "I can't send her away."

"Oh, Missy. That's no way to treat a good girl. You know what the Hollow's like-that's why we've been sending our girls out. I know. You get sent or you get taken, and that's it."

"Or maybe you spend a good long life in the Hollow, like me and Bobby." Laura's mother sniffed. "Maybe that's what I want for my girl. You think of that? Besides, the way you keep sending your girls out, there won't be hardly any families left, and it'll be harder for anyone who stays. You think you're doing it for the whole Hollow, but it's just for yourself."

"That's not it," Laura's babysitter insisted. "That's not why. There's things a girl should know, if she's going to be a mother in the Hollow. You think she can handle that?

I can't handle that, and I'm twice her age. It's not worth it."

"… she's all I got."

The other woman sighed. "Well, God keep you both."

Laura hesitated a moment longer, then thumped the door as if she'd just opened it. "Mumma?" she called. "I need some help with my dress."

"Be there in a moment," her mother said.

Not worth it. She formed the words, but couldn't make herself push the breath behind them. It was easy to forget, sometimes, amid the gifts tangible and intangible. No woman in the Hollow ever miscarried. No plants died in the ground, no house ever caught fire, no one ever quite starved. When you looked at the uncertain world, you could be forgiven for thinking that maybe Kyle's life had been a good trade.

At least Laura hoped you could be forgiven.

What was it the union man had said, just before she'd had to leave for Toby's birth? "The contracts need to be renegotiated," he'd said, and there was more. Most of it she hadn't paid attention to, being nine months pregnant and having what her friend Charlene called "baby brain." She'd thought it was dumb at the time-you make a bargain, you stick with it-but that had been before Rich came back.

Maybe bargains went bad, sometimes. Maybe they went bad and there wasn't anything you could do but stick with it and hope for the best.

The closest anyone ever came to saying anything out loud was just after her mother's death (no Gentlemen, just three packs of Marlboros every day for twenty years). A lawyer in a rumpled blue suit had arranged for a big town meeting, and he'd gotten nearly the whole Hollow to attend on the promise of free barbecue. He had charts, and maps, and he talked excitedly about disease clusters and the factory up the road. And after half an hour of silence from the good folks of the Hollow, he'd asked them to join in a class action suit.

The minister of First Church, acting for all of them, had smiled and nodded and escorted him to the door. "A lawsuit can't help us," he'd said, "even if you knew who to sue."

It was right after he closed the door that someone could have spoken, could have broken that throat-tightening silence and actually said who was to blame. But the lawyer drove off, the silence won out, and the minister shrugged and sighed.

Rich went to the war. Rich came back. Laura had written him about Toby's birth, and it made her heart fly free again to see him smile. But the look he turned out the windows was haunted, and with more than just wartime ghosts. He couldn't drive any more, not without pulling over and putting his head down every few miles. So he spent more time in the Hollow, and the Hollow clotted around him.

In April, after the Gentlemen's spring visit (which would later be annotated with Ashley Irvine, 6, 4 mos. after G.), they had a fight. It wasn't even a real fight; she'd dropped a glass, and he'd charged into the kitchen so fast he almost knocked over Toby. He yelled at her, she yelled back, both scared and angry at each other for being scared, and Laura didn't even see the slap coming until her cheek was already burning with it. She raised a hand to her face, disbelieving. Rich stared at her as if she'd grown horns, then turned and ran out the door, heedless of Toby's yowls.

Laura didn't go after him, even when dinner and sunset passed without his return. She took extra time putting the kids to bed, and didn't get up when she heard the front door open.

When she came out from the bedroom, she found him sitting at the kitchen table, staring at his hands. She sat down across from him, and after a while, he began to talk.

"They told me I might have trouble, coming back," he said, and this time he didn't move away when Laura took his hands in hers. "And I think I was okay, for a little while… But something about here, it's like, like I keep seeing things I oughtn't, and it just keeps getting worse. Like something keeps poking at my head." He glanced out the window, as if something was watching him.

Laura said nothing, only thought of how smart Rich had been in high school, how quickly he saw things that it took her ages to notice, and how she should have known that wouldn't change.

"Let's get out of here," he said, and kissed her fingers. "I don't know where just yet, but we can live with my folks a while."

Laura unknotted her hands from his and went to stand by the window. "This is my home," she said.

Rich's eyes went wide and broken. "I know, babe, but it's not a good place. We need to get out."

I do. But you get sent or you get taken, and that's it. "So," she said, "either I go with you, or you go alone."

"What? No, that's not-"

"I know." She turned and smiled at him, blinking back tears. "I'm sending you away, Rich. I'm sending you out of my life."

And out of the Hollow.

The divorce hadn't been pretty-it couldn't have been, with the two of them still in love. Rich called her and left messages, angry or maudlin or pleading, and she'd listened to them all, hugging herself so tight there would be white marks in her arms when the message ended. Toby began to fuss more, and Jenny started to crawl into bed with her at night.

But Rich was free. Rich was out of it, and she could never, ever hand him over to them. Even if she sometimes woke and cried over the cold side of the bed. Even if she was back watching her life again.

The lights hadn't changed, and the whispering had stilled. And now Laura had to admit it, had to see that the Gentlemen had come to her house.

Oh, I tried, I tried, she thought. I could have sent the kids away, I could…

But would it have done anything? The old women, like Laura's babysitter, had sent their kids away. And some had then died alone and unnoticed, so successful at cutting the ties between their loved ones and the Hollow that they'd cut their own lifelines. Even that wouldn't have been enough.

She'd gotten as far as the border of the Hollow, car packed to the gills and kids in the backseat, before the strength left her limbs and she found herself unable to leave. She'd even thought about ringing the house with iron and salt, the way one woman had back in '09, but that woman's family had all died in a gas explosion two months after. The Gentlemen took their claim. You had to carry out a life to them, and you had to let them carry that life away.

It was an old bargain, old as the Hollow at least. And you had to keep bargains.

A soft trill shook the window panes, traveling from them down to the tips of her fingers through some malign conduction. Her first instinct was to categorize it, and she thought of flutes, screech owls, mourning doves, before she quite heard it, and hearing it was lost.

This was right, the cry said. Children die, and if one of them had to, who better to choose than their mother? She sat up-looking, had she known it, very like her mother-then got to her feet.

She ghosted into the bedroom and gazed at her children.

Toby, she thought, he's too young to really understand about being sick. No, Jenny, because she's had at least some time. No…

Something burred against her consciousness, a wrong note in the Gentlemen's music.

Decide. You have time. Just decide.

But the burr remained, coming through in bursts like- like a phone, she realized, and glanced over her shoulder in time to see the harsh red light of the answering machine flick on.

"Uh. Hi. It's me," Rich's voice said, crackling over the tape. "Look, I know you're not awake-Jesus, I hope I didn't wake the kids, I'm sorry-but I had to talk to you." He went on, but Laura was no longer paying attention. His voice was harsh and ragged and so unlike the Rich she'd known, but it was enough to drown out the Gentlemen's echoes.

Laura looked back at her children. She could let herself walk into the room, as she was doing now, let herself pick up a child and go outside. And she could tell herself later, when her child died, that she hadn't really done it, that she'd just watched herself do it.

She thought of the crown, and of Kyle.

Jenny shifted, putting out a hand to the empty space where Laura had slept, and sat up. "Mumma?"

"Stay inside, sweetie," Laura said. She crossed her arms, denying herself a last hug in case her resolve failed. "Stay inside and under the covers. I'll be back-" She caught the lie between her teeth and shook her head. "Sleep tight, sweetie. Love you."

She turned her back, ignoring Jenny's scared squeak, and closed the door. The last moments of Rich's message cut off, cut short by the tape, and Laura touched the answering machine as she passed. "Love you too."

Finally she closed her eyes, opened the front door, and stepped out into light. The trill sounded again, closer, all around her, and she opened her eyes with a gasp. Two dozen sets of eyes regarded her, wide and unblinking.

They didn't ride horses, of course; at the back of her mind she was proud of herself for having figured that out. They rode owls, giant white faces staring at her without curiosity. That was the only thing recognizable about them; it was as if the owls, strange and gigantic as they were, were a concession to reality.

They were made of light, and they shone, oh they shone. For a second she thought they could be angels, but the memory of the little blue notebook tainted that thought. One of the riders-white and blue, and human only in shape-leaned over his reins toward her and gestured toward the house.

"No," she said aloud. "You didn't get Rich. You don't get them. You get me."

The rider slashed one hand across his chest: rejection. Others agreed, some agitating their mounts so that the huge birds hopped from one foot to the other.

She shook her head. "I don't care what you want. You don't get to choose. And I choose this. I choose me." She leaned forward, and was rewarded by the sight of the head rider leaning away from her.

You think you're doing it for the Hollow, but it's just for yourself. The words were her mother's, but the head of one of the Gentlemen moved, as if speaking her thoughts.

Laura shook her head. "No. For the Hollow. For the dead of the Hollow." All the services, all the casseroles, all the dead then and now.

There came a familiar prickling on the back of her neck. If she turned now, she knew, she'd be able to see Jenny at the window, nose mashed up against the glass, mouth open in the beginning of a sob.

She didn't turn, not even to say goodbye.

Watch, darling. Watch. "This bargain is ended," she said. "We will not be renegotiating."

The head rider motioned to the others, and they advanced on her, cruel hooked beaks clashing. Laura held her ground. It always hurt to break a bargain; there was always something that got lost. But it was worth it, if the contract was no good.

The owls took her by hand and foot and hair, and their beaks were sharp. The first cut came, and with it a rending deeper than her skin, deeper than her heart: the Hollow breaking, breaking so that it could never be repaired, and her blood turning the rich soil to useless swamp.

Watch. Oh, watch.

The Lagerstätte by Laird Barron

October 2004

Virgil acquired the cute little blue-and-white-pinstriped Cessna at an auction; this over Danni's strenuous objections. There were financial issues; Virgil's salary as department head at his software development company wasn't scheduled to increase for another eighteen months and they'd recently enrolled their son Keith in an exclusive grammar school. Thirty grand a year was a serious hit on their rainy-day fund. Also, Danni didn't like planes, especially small ones, which she asserted were scarcely more than tin, plastic, and balsawood. She even avoided traveling by commercial airliner if it was possible to drive or take a train. But she couldn't compete with love at first sight. Virgil took one look at the four-seater and practically swooned, and Danni knew she'd had it before the argument even started. Keith begged to fly and Virgil promised to teach him, teased that he might be the only kid to get his pilot's license before he learned to drive.

Because Danni detested flying so much, when their assiduously planned weeklong vacation rolled around, she decided to boycott the flight and meet her husband and son at the in-laws place on Cape Cod a day late, after wrapping up business in the city. The drive was only a couple of hours-she'd be at the house in time for Friday supper. She saw them off from a small airport in the suburbs, and returned home to pack and go over last minute adjustments to her evening lecture at the museum.

How many times did the plane crash between waking and sleeping? There was no way to measure that; during the first weeks the accident cycled through a continuous playback loop, cheap and grainy and soundless like a closed circuit security feed. They'd recovered pieces of fuselage from the water, bobbing like cork-she caught a few moments of news footage before someone, probably Dad, killed the television.

They threw the most beautiful double funeral courtesy of Virgil's parents, followed by a reception in his family's summer home. She recalled wavering shadowbox lights and the muted hum of voices, men in black hats clasping cocktails to the breasts of their black suits, and severe women gathered near the sharper, astral glow of the kitchen, faces gaunt and cold as porcelain, their dresses black, their children underfoot and dressed as adults in miniature; and afterward, a smooth descent into darkness like a bullet reversing its trajectory and dropping into the barrel of a gun.

Later, in the hospital, she chuckled when she read the police report. It claimed she'd eaten a bottle of pills she'd found in her mother-in-law's dresser and curled up to die in her husband's closet among his little league uniforms and boxes of trophies. That was simply hilarious because anyone who knew her would know the notion was just too goddamned melodramatic for words.

March 2005

About four months after she lost her husband and son, Danni transplanted to the West Coast, taken in by a childhood friend named Merrill Thurman, and cut all ties with extended family, peers, and associates from before the accident. She eventually lost interest in grieving just as she lost interest in her former career as an entomologist; both were exercises of excruciating tediousness and ultimately pointless in the face of her brand new, freewheeling course. All those years of college and marriage were abruptly and irrevocably reduced to the fond memories of another life, a chapter in a closed book.

Danni was satisfied with the status quo of patchwork memory and aching numbness. At her best, there were no highs, no lows, just a seamless thrum as one day rolled into the next. She took to perusing self-help pamphlets and treatises on Eastern philosophy, and trendy art magazines; she piled them in her room until they wedged the door open. She studied Tai Chi during an eight week course in the decrepit gym of the crosstown YMCA. She toyed with an easel and paints, attended a class at the community college. She'd taken some drafting as an undergrad. This was helpful for the technical aspects, the geometry of line and space; the actual artistic part proved more difficult. Maybe she needed to steep herself in the bohemian culture-a coldwater flat in Paris, or an artist commune, or a sea shanty on the coast of Barbados.

Oh, but she'd never live alone, would she?

Amidst this reevaluation and reordering, came the fugue, a lunatic element that found genesis in the void between melancholy and nightmare. The fugue made familiar places strange; it wiped away friendly faces and replaced them with beekeeper masks and reduced English to the low growl of the swarm. It was a disorder of trauma and shock, a hybrid of temporary dementia and selective amnesia. It battened to her with the mindless tenacity of a leech.

She tried not to think about its origins, because when she did she was carried back to the twilight land of her subconscious; to Keith's fifth birthday party; her wedding day with the thousand-dollar cake, and the honeymoon in Niagara Falls; the Cessna spinning against the sun, streaking downward to slam into the Atlantic; and the lush corruption of a green-black jungle and its hidden cairns-the bones of giants slowly sinking into the always hungry earth.

The palace of cries where the doors are opened with blood and sorrow. The secret graveyard of the elephants. The bones of elephants made a forest of ribcages and tusks, dry riverbeds of skulls. Red ants crawled in trains along the petrified spines of behemoths and trailed into the black caverns of empty sockets. Oh, what the lost expeditions might've told the world!

She'd dreamt of the Elephants' Graveyard off and on since the funeral and wasn't certain why she had grown so morbidly preoccupied with the legend. Bleak mythology had interested her when she was young and vital and untouched by the twin melanomas of wisdom and grief. Now, such morose contemplation invoked a primordial dread and answered nothing. The central mystery of her was impenetrable to casual methods. Delving beneath the surface smacked of finality, of doom.

Danni chose to endure the fugue, to welcome it as a reliable adversary. The state seldom lasted more than a few minutes, and admittedly it was frightening, certainly dangerous; nonetheless, she was never one to live in a cage. In many ways the dementia and its umbra of pure terror, its visceral chaos, provided the masochistic rush she craved these days-a badge of courage, the martyr's brand. The fugue hid her in its shadow, like a sheltering wing.

May 6, 2006

(D. L. Session 33)

Danni stared at the table while Dr. Green pressed a button and the wheels of the recorder began to turn. His chair creaked as he leaned back. He stated his name, Danni's name, the date and location.

– How are things this week? He said.

Danni set a slim metal tin on the table and flicked it open with her left hand. She removed a cigarette and lighted it. She used matches because she'd lost the fancy lighter Merrill got her as a birthday gift. She exhaled, shook the match dead.

– For a while, I thought I was getting better, she said in a raw voice.

– You don't think you're improving? Dr. Green said.

– Sometimes I wake up and nothing seems real; it's all a movie set, a humdrum version of

This Is Your Life! I stare at the ceiling and can't shake this sense I'm an imposter.

– Everybody feels that way, Dr. Green said. His dark hands rested on a clipboard. His hands were creased and notched with the onset of middle age; the cuffs of his starched lab coat had gone yellow at the seams. He was married; he wore a simple ring and he never stared at her breasts. Happily married, or a consummate professional, or she was nothing special. A frosted window rose high and narrow over his shoulder like the painted window of a monastery. Pallid light shone at the corners of his angular glasses, the shiny edges of the clipboard, a piece of the bare plastic table, the sunken tiles of the floor. The tiles were dented and scratched and bumpy. Fine cracks spread like tendrils. Against the far walls were cabinets and shelves and several rickety beds with thin rails and large, black wheels.

The hospital was an ancient place and smelled of mold and sickness beneath the buckets of bleach she knew the custodians poured forth every evening. This had been a sanitarium. People with tuberculosis had gathered here to die in the long, shabby wards. Workers loaded the bodies into furnaces and burned them. There were chutes for the corpses on all of the upper floors. The doors of the chutes were made of dull, gray metal with big handles that reminded her of the handles on the flour and sugar bins in her mother's pantry.

Danni smoked and stared at the ceramic ashtray centered exactly between them, inches from a box of tissues. The ashtray was black. Cinders smoldered in its belly. The hospital was "no smoking," but that never came up during their weekly conversations. After the first session of him watching her drop the ashes into her coat pocket, the ashtray had appeared. Occasionally she tapped her cigarette against the rim of the ashtray and watched the smoke coil tighter and tighter until it imploded the way a demolished building collapses into itself after the charges go off.

Dr. Green said, -Did you take the bus or did you walk?

– Today? I walked.

Dr. Green wrote something on the clipboard with a heavy golden pen. -Good. You stopped to visit your friend at the market, I see.

Danni glanced at her cigarette where it fumed between her second and third fingers.

– Did I mention that? My Friday rounds?

– Yes. When we first met. He tapped a thick, manila folder bound in a heavy-duty rubber band. The folder contained Danni's records and transfer papers from the original admitting institute on the East Coast. Additionally, there was a collection of nearly unrecognizable photos of her in hospital gowns and bathrobes. In several shots an anonymous attendant pushed her in a wheelchair against a blurry backdrop of trees and concrete walls.

– Oh.

– You mentioned going back to work. Any progress?

– No. Merrill wants me to. She thinks I need to reintegrate professionally, that it might fix my problem, Danni said, smiling slightly as she pictured her friend's well-meaning harangues. Merrill spoke quickly, in the cadence of a native Bostonian who would always be a Bostonian no matter where she might find herself. A lit major, she'd also gone through an art-junkie phase during grad school which had wrecked her first marriage and introduced her to many a disreputable character as could be found haunting the finer galleries and museums. One of said characters became ex-husband the second and engendered a profound and abiding disillusionment with the fine-arts scene entirely. Currently, she made an exemplary copy editor at a rather important monthly journal.

– What do you think?

– I liked being a scientist. I liked to study insects, liked tracking their brief, frenetic little lives. I know how important they are, how integral, essential to the ecosystem. Hell, they outnumber humans trillions to one. But, oh my, it's so damned easy to feel like a god when you've got an ant twitching in your forceps. You think that's how God feels when He's got one of us under His thumb?

– I couldn't say.

– Me neither. Danni dragged heavily and squinted. -Maybe I'll sell Bibles door to door. My uncle sold encyclopedias when I was a little girl.

Dr. Green picked up the clipboard. -Well. Any episodes-fainting, dizziness, disorientation? Anything of that nature?

She smoked in silence for nearly half a minute. -I got confused about where I was the other day. She closed her eyes. The recollection of those bad moments threatened her equilibrium. -I was walking to Yang's grocery. It's about three blocks from the apartments. I got lost for a few minutes.

– A few minutes.

– Yeah. I wasn't timing it, sorry.

– No, that's fine. Go on.

– It was like before. I didn't recognize any of the buildings. I was in a foreign city and couldn't remember what I was doing there. Someone tried to talk to me, to help me-an old lady. But, I ran from her instead. Danni swallowed the faint bitterness, the dumb memory of nausea and terror.

– Why? Why did you run?

– Because when the fugue comes, when I get confused and forget where I am, people frighten me. Their faces don't seem real. Their faces are rubbery and inhuman. I thought the old lady was wearing a mask, that she was hiding something. So I ran. By the time I regained my senses, I was near the park. Kids were staring at me.

– Then?

– Then what? I yelled at them for staring. They took off.

– What did you want at Yang's?

– What?

– You said you were shopping. For what?

– I don't recall. Beets. Grapes. A giant zucchini. I don't know.

– You've been taking your medication, I presume. Drugs, alcohol?

– No drugs. Okay, a joint occasionally. A few shots here and there. Merrill wants to unwind on the weekends. She drinks me under the table-Johnny Walkers and Manhattans. Tequila if she's seducing one of the rugged types. Depends where we are. She'd known Merrill since forever. Historically, Danni was the strong one, the one who saw Merrill through two bad marriages, a career collapse and bouts of deep clinical depression. Funny how life tended to put the shoe on the other foot when one least expected.

– Do you visit many different places?

Danni shrugged. -I don't-oh, the Candy Apple. Harpo's. That hole-in-the-wall on Decker and Gedding, the Red Jack. All sorts of places. Merrill picks; says it's therapy.

– Sex?

Danni shook her head. -That doesn't mean I'm loyal.

– Loyal to whom?

– I've been noticing men and… I feel like I'm betraying Virgil. Soiling our memories. It's stupid, sure. Merrill thinks I'm crazy.

– What do you think?

– I try not to, Doc.

– Yet, the past is with you. You carry it everywhere. Like a millstone, if you'll pardon the cliché.

Danni frowned. -I'm not sure what you mean-

– Yes, you are.

She smoked and looked away from his eyes. She'd arranged a mini gallery of snapshots of Virgil and Keith on the bureau in her bedroom, stuffed more photos in her wallet and fixed one of Keith as a baby on a keychain. She'd built a modest shrine of baseball ticket stubs, Virgil's moldy fishing hat, his car keys, though the car was long gone, business cards, cancelled checks, and torn up Christmas wrapping. It was sick.

– Memories have their place, of course, Dr. Green said. -But you've got to be careful. Live in the past too long and it consumes you. You can't use fidelity as a crutch. Not forever.

– I'm not planning on forever, Danni said.

August 2, 2006

Color and symmetry were among Danni's current preoccupations. Yellow squash, orange baby carrots, an axis of green peas on a china plate; the alignment of complementary elements surgically precise upon the starched white table-cloth-cloth white and neat as the hard white fabric of a hospital sheet.

Their apartment was a narrow box stacked high in a cylinder of similar boxes. The window sashes were blue. All of them a filmy, ephemeral blue like the dust on the wings of a blue emperor butterfly; blue over every window in every cramped room. Blue as dead salmon, blue as ice. Blue shadows darkened the edge of the table, rippled over Danni's untouched meal, its meticulously arrayed components. The vegetables glowed with subdued radioactivity. Her fingers curled around the fork; the veins in her hand ran like blue-black tributaries to her fingertips, ran like cold iron wires. Balanced on a windowsill was her ant farm, its inhabitants scurrying about the business of industry in microcosm of the looming cityscape. Merrill hated the ants and Danni expected her friend to poison them in a fit of revulsion and pique. Merrill wasn't naturally maternal and her scant reservoir of kindly nurture was readily exhausted on her housemate.

Danni set the fork upon a napkin, red gone black as sackcloth in the beautiful gloom, and moved to the terrace door, reaching automatically for her cigarettes as she went. She kept them in the left breast pocket of her jacket alongside a pack of matches from the Candy Apple.

The light that came through the glass and blue gauze was muted and heavy even at midday. Outside the sliding door was a terrace and a rail; beyond the rail, a gulf. Damp breaths of air were coarse with smog, tar, and pigeon shit. Eight stories yawned below the wobbly terrace to the dark brick square. Ninety-six feet to the fountain, the flagpole, two rusty benches, and Piccolo Street where winos with homemade drums, harmonicas, and flutes composed their symphonies and dirges.

Danni smoked on the terrace to keep the peace with Merrill, straight-edge Merrill, whose poison of choice was Zinfandel and fast men in nice suits, rather than tobacco. Danni smoked Turkish cigarettes that came in a tin she bought at the wharf market from a Nepalese expat named Mahan. Mahan sold coffee too, in shiny black packages; and decorative knives with tassels depending from brass handles.

Danni leaned on the swaying rail and lighted the next to the last cigarette in her tin and smoked as the sky clotted between the gaps of rooftops, the copses of wires and antennas, the static snarl of uprooted birds like black bits of paper ash turning in the Pacific breeze. A man stopped in the middle of the crosswalk. He craned his neck to seek her out from amidst the jigsaw of fire escapes and balconies. He waved and then turned away and crossed the street with an unmistakably familiar stride, and was gone.

When her cigarette was done, she flicked the butt into the empty planter, one of several terra cotta pots piled around the corroding barbeque. She lighted her remaining cigarette and smoked it slowly, made it last until the sky went opaque and the city lights began to float here and there in the murk, bubbles of iridescent gas rising against the leaden tide of night. Then she went inside and sat very still while her colony of ants scrabbled in the dark.

May 6, 2006

(D. L. Session 33)

Danni's cigarette was out; the tin empty. She began to fidget. -Do you believe in ghosts, Doctor?

– Absolutely. Dr. Green knocked his ring on the table and gestured at the hoary walls. -Look around. Haunted, I'd say.

– Really?

Dr. Green seemed quite serious. He set aside the clipboard, distancing himself from the record. -Why not. My grandfather was a missionary. He lived in the Congo for several years, set up a clinic out there. Everybody believed in ghosts-including my grandfather. There was no choice.

Danni laughed. -Well, it's settled. I'm a faithless bitch. And I'm being haunted as just desserts.

– Why do you say that?

– I went home with this guy a few weeks ago. Nice guy, a graphic designer. I was pretty drunk and he was pretty persuasive.

Dr. Green plucked a pack of cigarettes from the inside pocket of his white coat, shook one loose and handed it to her. They leaned toward one another, across the table, and he lighted her cigarette with a silvery Zippo.

– Nothing happened, she said. -It was very innocent, actually.

But that was a lie by omission, was it not? What would the good doctor think of her if she confessed her impulses to grasp a man, any man, as a point of fact, and throw him down and fuck him senseless, and refrained only because she was too frightened of the possibilities? Her cheeks stung and she exhaled fiercely to conceal her shame.

– We had some drinks and called it a night. I still felt bad, dirty, somehow. Riding the bus home, I saw Virgil. It wasn't him; he had Virgil's build and kind of slouched, holding onto one of those straps. Didn't even come close once I got a decent look at him. But for a second, my heart froze. Danni lifted her gaze from the ashtray. -Time for more pills, huh?

– Well, a case of mistaken identity doesn't qualify as a delusion.

Danni smiled darkly.

– You didn't get on the plane and you lived. Simple. Dr. Green spoke with supreme confidence.

– Is it? Simple, I mean.

– Have you experienced more of these episodes-mistaking strangers for Virgil? Or your son?

– Yeah. The man on the bus, that tepid phantom of her husband, had been the fifth incident of mistaken identity during the previous three weeks. The incidents were growing frequent; each apparition more convincing than the last. Then there were the items she'd occasionally found around the apartment-Virgil's lost wedding ring gleaming at the bottom of a pitcher of water; a trail of dried rose petals leading from the bathroom to her bed; one of Keith's crayon masterpieces fixed by magnet on the refrigerator; each of these artifacts ephemeral as dew, transitory as drifting spider thread; they dissolved and left no traces of their existence. That very morning she'd glimpsed Virgil's bomber jacket slung over the back of a chair. A sunbeam illuminated it momentarily, dispersed it amongst the moving shadows of clouds and undulating curtains.

– Why didn't you mention this sooner?

– It didn't scare me before.

– There are many possibilities. I hazard what we're dealing with is survivor's guilt, Dr. Green said. -This guilt is a perfectly normal aspect of the grieving process.

Dr. Green had never brought up the guilt association before, but she always knew it lurked in the wings, waiting to be sprung in the third act. The books all talked about it. Danni made a noise of disgust and rolled her eyes to hide the sudden urge to cry.

– Go on, Dr. Green said.

Danni pretended to rub smoke from her eye. -There isn't any more.

– Certainly there is. There's always another rock to look beneath. Why don't you tell me about the vineyards. Does this have anything to do with the

Lagerstätte?

She opened her mouth and closed it. She stared, her fear and anger tightening screws within the pit of her stomach. -You've spoken to Merrill? Goddamn her.

– She hoped you'd get around to it, eventually. But you haven't and it seems important. Don't worry-she volunteered the information. Of course I would never reveal the nature of our conversations. Trust in that.

– It's not a good thing to talk about, Danni said. -I stopped thinking about it.

– Why?

She regarded her cigarette. Norma, poor departed Norma whispered in her ear,

Do you want to press your eye against the keyhole of a secret room? Do you want to see where the elephants have gone to die?

– Because there are some things you can't take back. Shake hands with an ineffable enigma and it knows you. It has you, if it wants.

Dr. Green waited, his hand poised over a brown folder she hadn't noticed before. The folder was stamped in red block letters she couldn't quite read, although she suspected asylum was at least a portion.

– I wish to understand, he said. -We're not going anywhere.

– Fuck it, she said. A sense of terrible satisfaction and relief caused her to smile again. -Confession is good for the soul, right?

August 9, 2006

In the middle of dressing to meet Merrill at the market by the wharf when she got off work, Danni opened the closet and inhaled a whiff of damp, moldering air and then screamed into her fist. Several withered corpses hung from the rack amid her cheery blouses and conservative suit jackets. They were scarcely more than yellowed sacks of skin. None of the desiccated, sagging faces were recognizable; the shade and texture of cured squash, each was further distorted by warps and wrinkles of dry-cleaning bags. She recoiled and sat on the bed and chewed her fingers until a passing cloud blocked the sun and the closet went dark.

Eventually she washed her hands and face in the bathroom sink, staring into the mirror at her pale, maniacal simulacrum. She skipped makeup and stumbled from the apartment to the cramped, dingy lift that dropped her into a shabby foyer with its rows of tarnished mailbox slots checkering the walls, its low, grubby light fixtures, a stained carpet, and the sweet-and-sour odor of sweat and stagnant air. She stumbled through the security doors into the brighter world.

And the fugue descended.

Danni was walking from somewhere to somewhere else; she'd closed her eyes against the glare and her insides turned upside down. Her eyes flew open and she reeled, utterly lost. Shadow people moved around her, bumped her with their hard elbows and swinging hips; an angry man in brown tweed lectured his daughter and the girl protested. They buzzed like flies. Their miserable faces blurred together, lit by some internal phosphorous. Danni swallowed, crushed into herself with a force akin to claustrophobia, and focused on her watch, a cheap windup model that glowed in the dark. Its numerals meant nothing, but she tracked the needle as it swept a perfect circle while the world spun around her. The passage, an indoor-outdoor avenue of sorts. Market stalls flanked the causeway, shelves and timber beams twined with streamers and beads, hemp rope and tie-dye shirts and pennants. Light fell through cracks in the overhead pavilion. The enclosure reeked of fresh salmon, salt water, sawdust, and the compacted scent of perfumed flesh.

– 

Danni. Here was an intelligible voice amid the squeal and squelch. Danni lifted her head and tried to focus.

– 

We miss you, Virgil said. He stood several feet away, gleaming like polished ivory.

– What? Danni said, thinking his face was the only face not changing shape like the flowery crystals in a kaleidoscope. -What did you say?

– 

Come home. It was apparent that this man wasn't Virgil, although in this particular light the eyes were similar, and he drawled. Virgil grew up in South Carolina, spent his adult life trying to bury that drawl and eventually it only emerged when he was exhausted or angry. The stranger winked at her and continued along the boardwalk. Beneath an Egyptian cotton shirt, his back was almost as muscular as Virgil's. But, no.

Danni turned away into the bright, jostling throng. Someone took her elbow. She yelped and wrenched away and nearly fell.

– Honey, you okay? The jumble of insectoid eyes, lips, and bouffant hair coalesced into Merrill's stern face. Merrill wore white-rimmed sunglasses that complemented her vanilla dress with its wide shoulders and brass buttons, and her elegant vanilla gloves. Her thin nose peeled with sunburn. -Danni, are you all right?

– Yeah. Danni wiped her mouth.

– The hell you are. C'mon. Merrill led her away from the moving press to a small open square and seated her in a wooden chair in the shadow of a parasol. The square hosted a half-dozen vendors and several tables of squawking children, overheated parents with flushed cheeks, and senior citizens in pastel running suits. Merrill bought soft ice cream in tiny plastic dishes and they sat in the shade and ate the ice cream while the sun dipped below the rooflines. The vendors began taking down the signs and packing it in for the day.

– Okay, okay. I feel better. Danni's hands had stopped shaking.

– You do look a little better. Know where you are?

– The market. Danni wanted a cigarette. -Oh, damn it, she said.

– Here, sweetie. Merrill drew two containers of Mahan's foreign cigarettes from her purse and slid them across the table, mimicking a spy in one of those '70s thrillers.

– Thanks, Danni said as she got a cigarette burning. She dragged frantically, left hand cupped to her mouth so the escaping smoke boiled and foamed between her fingers like dry ice vapors. Nobody said anything despite the no smoking signs posted on the gate.

– Hey, what kind of bug is that? Merrill intently regarded a beetle hugging the warmth of a wooden plank near their feet.

– It's a beetle.

– How observant. But what kind?

– I don't know.

– What? You don't know?

– I don't know. I don't really care, either.

– Oh, please.

– Fine. Danni leaned forward until her eyeballs were scant inches above the motionless insect. -Hmm. I'd say a

Spurious exoticus minor, closely related to, but not to be confused with, the Spurious eroticus major. Yep.

Merrill stared at the beetle, then Danni. She took Danni's hand and gently squeezed. -You fucking fraud. Let's go get liquored up, hey?

– Hey-hey.

May 6, 2006

(D. L. Session 33)

Dr. Green's glasses were opaque as quartz.

– The

Lagerstätte. Elucidate, if you will.

– A naturalist's wet dream. Ask Norma Fitzwater and Leslie Runyon, Danni said and chuckled wryly. -When Merrill originally brought me here to Cali, she made me join a support group. That was about, what? A year ago, give or take. Kind of a twelve-step program for wannabe suicides. I quit after a few visits. Group therapy isn't my style and the counselor was a royal prick. Before I left, I became friends with Norma, a drug addict and perennial house guest of the state penitentiary before she snagged a wealthy husband. Marrying rich wasn't a cure for everything, though. She claimed to have tried to off herself five or six times, made it sound like an extreme sport.

– A fascinating woman. She was pals with Leslie, a widow like me. Leslie's husband and brother fell off a glacier in Alaska. I didn't like her much. Too creepy for polite company. Unfortunately, Norma had a mother-hen complex, so there was no getting rid of her. Anyway, it wasn't much to write home about. We went to lunch once a week, watched a couple of films, commiserated about our shitty luck. Summer camp stuff.

– You speak of Norma in the past tense. I gather she eventually ended her life, Dr. Green said.

– Oh, yes. She made good on that. Jumped off a hotel roof in the Tenderloin. Left a note to the effect that she and Leslie couldn't face the music anymore. The cops, brilliant as they are, concluded Norma made a suicide pact with Leslie. Leslie's corpse hasn't surfaced yet. The cops figure she's at the bottom of the bay, or moldering in a wooded gully. I doubt that's what happened though.

– You suspect she's alive.

– No, Leslie's dead under mysterious and messy circumstances. It got leaked to the press that the cops found evidence of foul play at her home. There was blood or something on her sheets. They say it dried in the shape of a person curled in the fetal position. They compared it to the flash shadows of victims in Hiroshima. This was deeper, as if the body had been pressed hard into the mattress. The only remains were her watch, her diaphragm, her fillings, for Christ's sake, stuck to the coagulate that got left behind like afterbirth. Sure, it's bullshit, urban legend fodder. There were some photos in the Gazette, some speculation amongst our sorry little circle of neurotics and manic depressives.

– Very unpleasant, but, fortunately, equally improbable.

Danni shrugged. -Here's the thing, though. Norma predicted everything. A month before she killed herself, she let me in on a secret. Her friend Leslie, the creepy lady, had been seeing Bobby. He visited her nightly, begged her to come away with him. And Leslie planned to.

– Her husband, Dr. Green said. -The one who died in Alaska.

– The same. Trust me, I laughed, a little nervously, at this news. I wasn't sure whether to humor Norma or get the hell away from her. We were sitting in a classy restaurant, surrounded by execs in silk ties and Armani suits. Like I said, Norma was loaded. She married into a nice Sicilian family; her husband was in the import-export business, if you get my drift. Beat the hell out of her, though; definitely contributed to her low self-esteem. Right in the middle of our luncheon, between the lobster tails and the éclairs, she leaned over and confided this thing with Leslie and her deceased husband. The ghostly lover.

Dr. Green passed Danni another cigarette. He lighted one of his own and studied her through the blue exhaust. Danni wondered if he wanted a drink as badly as she did.

– How did you react to this information? Dr. Green said.

– I stayed cool, feigned indifference. It wasn't difficult; I was doped to the eyeballs most of the time. Norma claimed there exists a certain quality of grief, so utterly profound, so tragically pure, that it resounds and resonates above and below. A living, bleeding echo. It's the key to a kind of limbo.

– The

Lagerstätte. Dr. Green licked his thumb and sorted through the papers in the brown folder. -As in the Burgess Shale, the La Brea Tar Pits. Were your friends amateur paleontologists?

– 

Lagerstätten are "resting places" in the Deutsch, and I think that's what the women meant.

– Fascinating choice of mythos.

– People do whatever it takes to cope. Drugs, kamikaze sex, religion, anything. In naming, we seek to order the incomprehensible, yes?

– True.

– Norma pulled this weird piece of jagged, gray rock from her purse. Not rock-a petrified bone shard. A fang or a long, wicked rib splinter. Supposedly human. I could tell it was old; it reminded me of all those fossils of trilobites I used to play with. It radiated an aura of antiquity, like it had survived a shift of deep geological time. Norma got it from Leslie and Leslie had gotten it from someone else; Norma claimed to have no idea who, although I suspect she was lying; there was definitely a certain slyness in her eyes. For all I know, it's osmosis. She pricked her finger on the shard and gestured at the blood that oozed on her plate. Danni shivered and clenched her left hand. -The scene was surreal. Norma said: Grief is blood, Danni. Blood is the living path to everywhere. Blood opens the way. She said if I offered myself to the Lagerstätte, Virgil would come to me and take me into the house of dreams. But I wanted to know whether it would really be him and not… an imitation. She said, Does it matter? My skin crawled as if I were waking from a long sleep to something awful, something my primal self recognized and feared. Like fire.

– You believe the bone was human.

– I don't know. Norma insisted I accept it as a gift from her and Leslie. I really didn't want to, but the look on her face, it was intense.

– Where did it come from? The bone.

– The

Lagerstätte.

– Of course. What did you do?

Danni looked down at her hands, the left with its jagged white scar in the meat and muscle of her palm, and deeper into the darkness of the earth. -The same as Leslie. I called them.

– You called them. Virgil and Keith.

– Yes. I didn't plan to go through with it. I got drunk, and when I'm like that, my thoughts get kind of screwy. I don't act in character.

– Oh. Dr. Green thought that over. -When you say called, what exactly do you mean?

She shrugged and flicked ashes into the ashtray. Even though Dr. Green had been there the morning they stitched the wound, she guarded the secret of its origin with a zeal bordering on pathological.

Danni had brought the weird bone to the apartment. Once alone, she drank the better half of a bottle of Maker's Mark and then sliced her palm with the sharp edge of the bone and made a doorway in blood. She slathered a vertical seam, a demarcation between her existence and the abyss, in the plaster wall at the foot of her bed. She smeared Virgil and Keith's initials and sent a little prayer into the night. In a small clay pot she'd bought at a market, she shredded her identification, her (mostly defunct) credit cards, her social security card, a lock of her hair, and burned the works with the tallow of a lamb. Then, in the smoke and shadows, she finished getting drunk off her ass and promptly blacked out.

Merrill wasn't happy; Danni had bled like the proverbial stuck pig, soaked through the sheets into the mattress. Merrill decided her friend had horribly botched another run for the Pearly Gates. She had brought Danni to the hospital for a bunch of stitches and introduced her to Dr. Green. Of course Danni didn't admit another suicide attempt. She doubted her conducting a black-magic ritual would help matters either. She said nothing, simply agreed to return for sessions with the good doctor. He was blandly pleasant, eminently nonthreatening. She didn't think he could help, but that wasn't the point. The point was to please Merrill and Merrill insisted on the visits.

Back home, Merrill confiscated the bone, the ritual fetish, and threw it in the trash. Later, she tried like hell to scrub the stain. In the end she gave up and painted the whole room blue.

A couple days after that particular bit of excitement, Danni found the bone at the bottom of her sock drawer. It glistened with a cruel, lusterless intensity. Like the monkey's paw, it had returned and that didn't surprise her. She folded it into a kerchief and locked it in a jewelry box she'd kept since first grade.

All these months gone by, Danni remained silent on the subject.

Finally, Dr. Green sighed.-Is that when you began seeing Virgil in the faces of strangers? These doppelgängers? He smoked his cigarette with the joyless concentration of a prisoner facing a firing squad. It was obvious from his expression that the meter had rolled back to zero.

– No, not right away. Nothing happened, Danni said. -Nothing ever does, at first.

– No, I suppose not. Tell me about the vineyard. What happened there?

– I… I got lost.

– That's where all this really begins, isn't it? The fugue, perhaps other things.

Danni gritted her teeth. She thought of elephants and graveyards. Dr. Green was right, in his own smug way. Six weeks after Danni sliced her hand, Merrill took her for a daytrip to the beach. Merrill rented a convertible and made a picnic. It was nice; possibly the first time Danni felt human since the accident; the first time she'd wanted to do anything besides mope in the apartment and play depressing music.

After some discussion, they chose Bolton Park, a lovely stretch of coastline way out past Kingwood. The area was foreign to Danni, so she bought a road map pamphlet at a gas station. The brochure listed a bunch of touristy places. Windsurfers and birdwatchers favored the area, but the guide warned of dangerous riptides. The women had no intention of swimming; they stayed near a cluster of great big rocks at the north end of the beach-below the cliff with the steps that led up to the posh houses; the summer homes of movie stars and advertising executives; the beautiful people.

On the way home, Danni asked if they might stop at Kirkston Vineyards. It was a hole-in-the-wall, only briefly listed in the guidebook. There were no pictures. They drove in circles for an hour tracking the place down-Kirkston was off the beaten path; a village of sorts. There was a gift shop and an inn, and a few antique houses. The winery was fairly large and charming in a rustic fashion, and that essentially summed up the entire place.

Danni thought it was a cute setup; Merrill was bored stiff and did what she always did when she'd grown weary of a situation-she flirted like mad with one of the tour guides. Pretty soon, she disappeared with the guy on a private tour.

There were twenty or thirty people in the tour group-a bunch of elderly folks who'd arrived on a bus and a few couples pretending they were in Europe. After Danni lost Merrill in the crowd, she went outside to explore until her friend surfaced again.

Perhaps fifty yards from the winery steps, Virgil waited in the lengthening shadows of a cedar grove. That was the first of the phantoms. Too far away for positive identification, his face was a white smudge. He hesitated and regarded her over his shoulder before he ducked into the undergrowth. She knew it was impossible, knew that it was madness, or worse, and went after him, anyway.

Deeper into the grounds she encountered crumbled walls of a ruined garden hidden under a bower of willow trees and honeysuckle vines. She passed through a massive marble archway, so thick with sap it had blackened like a smoke stack. Inside was a sunken area and a clogged fountain decorated with cherubs and gargoyles. There were scattered benches made of stone slabs, and piles of rubble overrun by creepers and moss. Water pooled throughout the garden, mostly covered by algae and scum; mosquito larvae squirmed beneath drowned leaves. Ridges of broken stone and mortar petrified in the slop and slime of that boggy soil and made waist-high calculi amongst the freestanding masonry.

Her hand throbbed with a sudden, magnificent stab of pain. She hissed through her teeth. The freshly knitted, pink slash, her Freudian scar, had split and blood seeped so copiously her head swam. She ripped the sleeve off her blouse and made a hasty tourniquet. A grim, sullen quiet drifted in; a blizzard of silence. The bees weren't buzzing and the shadows in the trees waxed red and gold as the light decayed.

Virgil stepped from behind stalagmites of fallen stone, maybe thirty feet away. She knew with every fiber of her being that this was a fake, a body double, and yet she wanted nothing more than to hurl herself into his arms. Up until that moment, she didn't realize how much she'd missed him, how achingly final her loneliness had become.

Her glance fell upon a gleaming wedge of stone where it thrust from the water like a dinosaur's tooth, and as shapes within shapes became apparent, she understood this wasn't a garden. It was a graveyard.

Virgil opened his arms-

– I'm not comfortable talking about this, Danni said. -Let's move on.

August 9, 2006

Friday was karaoke night at the Candy Apple.

In the golden days of her previous life, Danni had a battalion of friends and colleagues with whom to attend the various academic functions and cocktail socials as required by her professional affiliation with a famous East Coast university. Barhopping had seldom been the excursion of choice.

Tonight, a continent and several light-years removed from such circumstances, she nursed an overly strong margarita, while up on the stage a couple of drunken women with big hair and smeared makeup stumbled through that old Kenny Rogers standby, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town." The fake redhead was a receptionist named Sheila, and her blonde partner, Delores, a vice president of human resources. Both of them worked at Merrill's literary magazine and they were partying off their second and third divorces respectively.

Danni wasn't drunk, although mixing her medication with alcohol wasn't helping matters; her nose had begun to tingle and her sensibilities were definitely sliding toward the nihilistic side. Also, she seemed to be hallucinating again. She'd spotted two Virgil look-alikes between walking through the door and her third margarita; that was a record, so far. She hadn't noticed either of the men enter the lounge, they simply appeared.

One of the mystery men sat amongst a group of happily chattering yuppie kids; he'd worn a sweater and parted his hair exactly like her husband used to before an important interview or presentation. The brow was wrong though, and the smile way off. He established eye contact and his gaze made her prickle all over because this simulacrum was so very authentic; if not for the plastic sheen and the unwholesome smile, he was the man she'd looked at across the breakfast table for a dozen years. Eventually he stood and wandered away from his friends and disappeared through the front door into the night. None of the kids seemed to miss him.

The second guy sat alone at the far end of the bar; he was much closer to the authentic thing; he had the nose, the jaw, even the loose way of draping his hands over his knees. However, this one was a bit too raw boned to pass as her Virgil; his teeth too large, his arms too long. He stared across the room, too-dark eyes fastened on her face and she looked away and by the time she glanced up again he was gone.

She checked to see if Merrill noticed the Virgil impersonators. Merrill blithely sipped her Corona and flirted with a couple lawyer types at the adjoining table. The suits kept company with a voluptuous woman who was growing long in the tooth and had piled on enough compensatory eye shadow and lipstick to host her own talk show. The woman sulked and shot dangerous glares at Merrill. Merrill smirked coyly and touched the closest suit on the arm.

Danni lighted a cigarette and tried to keep her expression neutral while her pulse fluttered and she scanned the room with the corners of her eyes like a trapped bird. Should she call Dr. Green in the morning? Was he even in the office on weekends? What color would the new pills be?

Presently, the late dinner and theater crowd arrived en masse and the lounge became packed. The temperature immediately shot up ten degrees and the resultant din of several dozen competing conversations drowned all but shouts. Merrill had recruited the lawyers (who turned out to be an insurance claims investigator and a CPA) Ned and Thomas, and their miffed associate Glenna (a court clerk), to join the group and migrate to another, hopefully more peaceful watering hole.

They shambled through neon-washed night, a noisy, truncated herd of quasi-strangers, arms locked for purchase against the mist-slick sidewalks. Danni found herself squashed between Glenna and Ned the Investigator. Ned grasped her waist in a slack, yet vaguely proprietary fashion; his hand was soft with sweat, his paunchy face made more uncomely with livid blotches and the avaricious expression of a drowsy predator. His shirt reeked so powerfully of whiskey it might've been doused in the stuff.

Merrill pulled them to a succession of bars and nightclubs and all-night bistros. Somebody handed Danni a beer as they milled in the vaulted entrance of an Irish pub and she drank it like tap water, not really tasting it, and her ears hurt and the evening rapidly devolved into a tangle of raucous music and smoke that reflected the fluorescent lights like coke-blacked miners lamps, and at last a cool, humid darkness shattered by headlights and the sulfurous orange glow of angry clouds.

By her haphazard count, she glimpsed in excess of fifty incarnations of Virgil. Several at the tavern, solitary men mostly submerged in the recessed booths, observing her with stony diffidence through beer steins and shot glasses; a dozen more scattered along the boulevard, listless nomads whose eyes slid around, not quite touching anything. When a city bus grumbled past, every passenger's head swiveled in unison beneath the repeating flare of dome lights. Every face pressed against the dirty windows belonged to him. Their lifelike masks bulged and contorted with inconsolable longing.

Ned escorted her to his place, a warehouse apartment in a row of identical warehouses between the harbor and the railroad tracks. The building had been converted to a munitions factory during the Second World War, then housing in the latter '60s. It stood black and gritty; its greasy windows sucked in the feeble illumination of the lonely beacons of passing boats and the occasional car.

They took a clanking cargo elevator to the top, the penthouse as Ned laughingly referred to his apartment. The elevator was a box encased in grates that exposed the inner organs of the shaft and the dark tunnels of passing floors. It could've easily hoisted a baby grand piano. Danni pressed her cheek to vibrating metal and shut her eyes tight against vertigo and the canteen-like slosh of too many beers in her stomach.

Ned's apartment was sparsely furnished and remained mostly in gloom even after he turned on the floor lamp and went to fix nightcaps. Danni collapsed onto the corner of a couch abridging the shallow nimbus of light and stared raptly at her bone-white hand curled into the black leather. Neil Diamond crooned from velvet speakers. Ned said something about his record collection and, faintly, ice cracked from its tray and clinked in glass with the resonance of a tuning fork.

Danni's hand shivered as if it might double and divide. She was cold now, in the sticky hot apartment, and her thighs trembled. Ned slipped a drink into her hand and placed his own hand on her shoulder, splayed his soft fingers on her collar, traced her collar bone with his moist fingertip. Danni flinched and poured gin down her throat until Ned took the glass and began to nuzzle her ear, his teeth clicking against the pearl stud, his overheated breath like smoldering creosote and kerosene, and as he tugged at her blouse strap, she began to cry. Ned lurched above her and his hands were busy with his belt and pants, and these fell around his ankles and his loafers. He made a fist in a mass of her hair and yanked her face against his groin; his linen shirttails fell across Danni's shoulders and he bulled himself into her gasping mouth. She gagged, overwhelmed by the ripeness of sweat and whiskey and urine, the rank humidity, the bruising insistence of him, and she convulsed, arms flailing in epileptic spasms, and vomited. Ned's hips pumped for several seconds and then his brain caught up with current events and he cried out in dismay and disgust and nearly capsized the couch as he scrambled away from her and a caramel gush of half-digested cocktail shrimp and alcohol.

Danni dragged herself from the couch and groped for the door. The door was locked with a bolt and chain and she battered at these, sobbing and choking. Ned's curses were muffled by a thin partition and the low thunder of water sluicing through corroded pipes. She flung open the door and was instantly lost in a cavernous hall that telescoped madly. The door behind her was a cave mouth, the windows were holes, were burrows. She toppled down a flight of stairs.

Danni lay crumpled, damp concrete wedged against the small of her back and pinching the back of her legs. Ghostly radiance cast shadows upon the piebald walls of the narrow staircase and rendered the scrawls of graffiti into fragmented hieroglyphics. Copper and salt filled her mouth. Her head was thick and spongy and when she moved it, little comets shot through her vision. A moth jerked in zigzags near her face, jittering upward at frantic angles toward a naked bulb. The bulb was brown and black with dust and cigarette smoke. A solid shadow detached from the gloom of the landing; a slight, pitchy silhouette that wavered at the edges like gasoline fumes.

Mommy? A small voice echoed, familiar and strange, the voice of a child or a castrato and it plucked at her insides, sent tremors through her.

– Oh, God, she said and vomited again, spilling herself against the rough surface of the wall. The figure became two, then four and a pack of childlike shapes assembled on the landing. The pallid corona of the brown bulb dimmed. She rolled away, onto her belly, and began to crawl…

August 10, 2006

The police located Danni semiconscious in the alley behind the warehouse apartments. She didn't understand much of what they said and she couldn't muster the resolve to volunteer the details of her evening's escapades. Merrill rode with her in the ambulance to the emergency room where, following a two-hour wait, a haggard surgeon determined Danni suffered from a number of nasty contusions, minor lacerations, and a punctured tongue. No concussion, however. He punched ten staples into her scalp, handed over a prescription for painkillers, and sent her home with an admonishment to return in twelve hours for observation.

After they'd settled safe and sound at the apartment, Merrill wrapped Danni in a blanket and boiled a pot of green tea. Lately, Merrill was into feng shui and Chinese herbal remedies. It wasn't quite dawn and so they sat in the shadows in the living room. There were no recriminations, although Merrill lapsed into a palpable funk; hers was the grim expression of guilt and helplessness attendant to her perceived breach of guardianship. Danni patted her hand and drifted off to sleep.

When Danni came to again, it was early afternoon and Merrill was in the kitchen banging pots. Over bowls of hot noodle soup Merrill explained she'd called in sick for a couple days. She thought they should get Danni's skull checked for dents and rent some movies and lie around with a bowl of popcorn and do essentially nothing. Tomorrow might be a good day to go window shopping for an Asian print to mount in their pitifully barren entryway.

Merrill summoned a cab. The rain came in sheets against the windows of the moving car and Danni dozed to the thud of the wipers, trying to ignore the driver's eyes upon her from the rearview. He looked unlike the fuzzy headshot on his license fixed to the visor. In the photo his features were burnt teak and warped by the deformation of aging plastic.

They arrived at the hospital and signed in and went into the bowels of the grand old beast to radiology. A woman in a white jacket injected dye into Danni's leg and loaded her into a shiny, cold machine the girth of a bread truck and ordered her to keep her head still. The technician's voice buzzed through a hidden transmitter, repulsively intimate as if a fly had crawled into her ear canal. When the rubber jackhammers started in on the steel shell, she closed her eyes and saw Virgil and Keith waving to her from the convex windows of the plane. The propeller spun so slowly she could track its revolutions.

– The doctor says they're negative. The technician held photographic plates of Danni's brain against a softly flickering pane of light. -See? No problems at all.

The crimson seam dried black on the bedroom wall. The band of black acid eating plaster until the wall swung open on smooth, silent hinges. Red darkness pulsed in the rift. White leaves crumbled and sank, each one a lost face. A shadow slowly shaped itself into human form. The shadow man regarded her, his hand extended, approaching her without moving his shadow legs.

Merrill thanked the woman in the clipped manner she reserved for those who provoked her distaste, and put a protective arm over Danni's shoulders. Danni had taken an extra dose of tranquilizers to sand the rough edges. Reality was a taffy pull.

Pour out your blood and they'll come back to you, Norma said, and stuck her bleeding finger into her mouth. Her eyes were cold and dark as the eyes of a carrion bird. Bobby and Leslie coupled on a squeaking bed. Their frantic rhythm gradually slowed and they began to melt and merge until their flesh rendered to a sticky puddle of oil and fat and patches of hair. The forensics photographers came, clicking and whirring, eyes deader than the lenses of their cameras. They smoked cigarettes in the hallway and chatted with the plainclothes about baseball and who was getting pussy and who wasn't; everybody had sashimi for lunch, noodles for supper, and took work home and drank too much. Leslie curdled in the sheets and her parents were long gone, so she was already most of the way to being reduced to a serial number and forgotten in a cardboard box in a storeroom. Except, Leslie stood in a doorway in the grimy bulk of a nameless building. She stood, hip-shot and half-silhouetted, naked and lovely as a Botticelli nude. Disembodied arms circled her from behind, and large, muscular hands cupped her breasts. She nodded, expressionless as a wax death masque, and stepped back into the black. The iron door closed.

Danni's brain was fine. No problems at all.

Merrill took her home and made her supper. Fried chicken; Danni's favorite from a research stint studying the migration habits of three species of arachnids at a southern institute where grits did double duty as breakfast and lunch.

Danni dozed intermittently, lulled by the staccato flashes of the television. She stirred and wiped drool from her lips, thankfully too dopey to suffer much embarrassment. Merrill helped her to bed and tucked her in and kissed her goodnight on the mouth. Danni was surprised by the warmth of her breath, her tenderness; then she was heavily asleep, floating facedown in the red darkness, the amniotic wastes of a secret world.

August 11, 2006

Merrill cooked waffles for breakfast; she claimed to have been a "champeen" hash-slinger as an undergrad, albeit Danni couldn't recall that particular detail of their shared history. Although food crumbled like cardboard on her tongue, Danni smiled gamely and cleared her plate. The fresh orange juice in the frosted glass was a mouthful of lye. Merrill had apparently jogged over to Yang's and picked up a carton the exact instant the poor fellow rolled back the metal curtains from his shop front, and Danni swallowed it and hoped she didn't drop the glass because her hand was shaking so much. The pleasant euphoria of painkillers and sedatives had drained away, usurped by a gnawing, allusive dread, a swell of self-disgust and revulsion.

The night terrors tittered and scuffled in the cracks and crannies of the tiny kitchen, whistled at her in a pitch only she and dogs could hear. Any second now, the broom closet would creak open and a ghastly figure shamble forth, licking lips riven by worms. At any moment the building would shudder and topple in an avalanche of dust and glass and shearing girders. She slumped in her chair, fixated on the chipped vase, its cargo of wilted geraniums drooping over the rim. Merrill bustled around her, tidying up with what she dryly attributed as her latent German efficiency, although her mannerisms suggested a sense of profound anxiety. When the phone chirped and it was Sheila reporting some minor emergency at the office, her agitation multiplied as she scoured her little address book for someone to watch over Danni for a few hours.

Danni told her to go, she'd be okay-maybe watch a soap and take a nap. She promised to sit tight in the apartment, come what may. Appearing only slightly mollified, Merrill agreed to leave, vowing a speedy return.

Late afternoon slipped over the city, lackluster and overcast. Came the desultory honk and growl of traffic, the occasional shout, the off-tempo drumbeat from the square. Reflections of the skyline patterned a blank span of wall. Water gurgled, and the disjointed mumble of radio or television commentary came muffled from the neighboring apartments. Her eyes leaked and the shakes traveled from her hands into the large muscles of her shoulders. Her left hand ached.

A child murmured in the hallway, followed by scratching at the door. The bolt rattled. She stood and looked across the living area at the open door of the bedroom. The bedroom dilated. Piles of jagged rocks twined with coarse brown seaweed instead of the bed, the dresser, her unseemly stacks of magazines. A figure stirred amid the weird rocks and unfolded at the hips with the horrible alacrity of a tarantula.

You filthy whore. She groaned and hooked the door with her ankle and kicked it shut.

Danni went to the kitchen and slid a carving knife from its wooden block. She walked to the bathroom and turned on the shower. Everything seemed too shiny, except the knife. The knife hung loosely in her fingers; its blade was dark and pitted. She stripped her robe and stepped into the shower and drew the curtain. Steam began to fill the room. Hot water beat against the back of her neck, her spine and buttocks as she rested her forehead against the tiles.

What have you done? You filthy bitch. She couldn't discern whether that accusing whisper had bubbled from her brain, or trickled in with the swirling steam. What have you done? It hardly mattered now that nothing was of any substance, of any importance besides the knife. Her hand throbbed as the scar seperated along its seam. Blood and water swirled down the drain.

Danni. The floorboards settled and a tepid draft brushed her calves. She raised her head and a silhouette filled the narrow door, an incomprehensible blur through the shower curtain. Danni dropped the knife. She slid down the wall into a fetal position. Her teeth chattered, and her animal self took possession. She remembered the ocean, acres of driftwood littering a beach, Virgil's grin as he paid out the tether of a dragonhead kite they'd bought in Chinatown. She remembered the corpses hanging in her closet, and whimpered.

A hand pressed against the translucent fabric, dimpled it inward, fingers spread. The hand squelched on the curtain. Blood ran from its palm and slithered in descending ladders.

– Oh, Danni said. Blearily, through a haze of tears and steam, she reached up and pressed her bloody left hand against the curtain, locked palms with the apparition, giddily cognizant this was a gruesome parody of the star-crossed lovers who kiss through glass. -Virgil, she said, chest hitching with sobs.

– You don't have to go, Merrill said and dragged the curtain aside. She too wept, and nearly fell into the tub as she embraced Danni and the water soaked her clothes, and quantities of blood spilled between them, and Danni saw her friend had found the fetish bone, because there it was, in a black slick on the floor, trailing a spray of droplets like a nosebleed. -You can stay with me. Please stay, Merrill said. She stroked Danni's hair, hugged her as if to keep her from floating away with the steam as it condensed on the mirror, the small window, and slowly evaporated.

May 6, 2006

(D. L. Session 33)

– Danni, do you read the newspapers? Watch the news? Dr. Green said this carefully, giving weight to the question.

– Sure, sometimes.

– The police recovered her body months ago. He removed a newspaper clipping from the folder and pushed it toward her.

– Who? Danni did not look at the clipping.

– Leslie Runyon. An anonymous tip led the police to a landfill. She'd been wrapped in a tarp and buried in a heap of trash. Death by suffocation, according to the coroner. You really don't remember.

Danni shook her head. -No. I haven't heard anything like that.

– Do you think I'm lying?

– Do you think I'm a paranoid delusional?

– Keep talking and I'll get back to you on that, he said, and smiled. -What happened at the vineyard, Danni? When they found you, you were quite a mess, according to the reports.

– Yeah. Quite a mess, Danni said. She closed her eyes and fell back into herself, fell down the black mineshaft into the memory of the garden, the

Lagerstätte.

Virgil waited to embrace her.

Only a graveyard, an open charnel, contained so much death. The rubble and masonry were actually layers of bones; a reef of calcified skeletons locked in heaps; and mummified corpses; enough withered faces to fill the backs of a thousand milk cartons, frozen twigs of arms and legs wrapped about their eternal partners. These masses of ossified humanity were cloaked in skeins of moss and hair and rotted leaves.

Norma beckoned from the territory of waking dreams. She stood upon the precipice of a rooftop. She said, Welcome to the Lagerstätte. Welcome to the secret graveyard of the despairing and the damned. She spread her arms and pitched backwards.

Danni moaned and hugged her fist wrapped in its sopping rags. She had come unwitting, although utterly complicit in her devotion, and now stood before a terrible mystery of the world. Her knees trembled and folded.

Virgil shuttered rapidly and shifted within arm's reach. He smelled of aftershave and clove, the old, poignantly familiar scents. He also smelled of earthiness and mold, and his face began to destabilize, to buckle as packed dirt buckles under a deluge and becomes mud.

Come and sleep, he said in the rasp of leaves and dripping water. His hands bit into her shoulders and slowly, inexorably drew her against him. His chest was icy as the void, his hands and arms iron as they tightened around her and laid her down in the muck and the slime. His lips closed over hers. His tongue was pliant and fibrous and she thought of the stinking, brown rot that carpeted the deep forests. Other hands plucked at her clothes, her hair; other mouths suckled her neck, her breasts, and she thought of misshapen fungi and scurrying centipedes, the ever scrabbling ants, and how all things that squirmed in the sunless interstices crept and patiently fed.

Danni went blind, but images streamed through the snarling wires of her consciousness.

Virgil and Keith rocked in the swing on the porch of their New England home. They'd just finished playing catch in the backyard; Keith still wore his Red Sox jersey, and Virgil rolled a baseball in his fingers. The stars brightened in the lowering sky and the streetlights fizzed on, one by one. Her mother stood knee-deep in the surf, apron strings flapping in a rising wind. She held out her hands. Keith, pink and wrinkled, screamed in Danni's arms, his umbilical cord still wet. Virgil pressed his hand to a wall of glass. He mouthed, I love you, honey.

I love you, mommy, Keith said, his wizened infant's face tilted toward her own. Her father carefully laid out his clothes, his police uniform of twenty-six years, and climbed into the bathtub. We love you, girlie, Dad said, and stuck the barrel of his service revolver into his mouth. Oh, quitting had run in the family, was a genetic certainty given the proper set of circumstances. Mom had drowned herself in the sea, such was her grief. Her brother, he'd managed to kill himself in a police action in some foreign desert. This gravitation to self-destruction was ineluctable as her blood.

Danni thrashed upright. Dank mud sucked at her, plastered her hair and drooled from her mouth and nose. She choked for breath, hands clawing at an assailant who had vanished into the mist creeping upon the surface of the marsh. Her fingernails raked and broke against the glaciated cheek of a vaguely female corpse; a stranger made wholly inhuman by the slow, steady vise of gravity and time. Danni groaned. Somewhere, a whippoorwill began to sing.

Voices called for her through the trees; shrill and hoarse. Their shouts echoed weakly, as if from the depths of a well. These were unmistakably the voices of the living. Danni's heart thudded, galvanized by the adrenal response to her near-death experience, and, more subtly, an inchoate sense of guilt, as if she'd done something unutterably foul. She scrambled to her feet and fled.

Oily night flooded the forest. A boy cried,

Mommy, mommy! Amid the plaintive notes of the whippoorwill. Danni floundered from the garden, scourged by terror and no small regret. By the time she found her way in the dark, came stumbling into the circle of rescue searchers and their flashlights, Danni had mostly forgotten where she'd come from or what she'd been doing there.

Danni opened her eyes to the hospital, the dour room, Dr. Green's implacable curiosity.

She said, -Can we leave it for now? Just for now. I'm tired. You have no idea.

Dr. Green removed his glasses. His eyes were bloodshot and hard, but human after all. -Danni, you're going to be fine, he said.

– Am I?

– Miles to go before we sleep, and all that jazz. But yes, I believe so. You want to open up, and that's very good. It's progress.

Danni smoked.

– Next week we can discuss further treatment options. There are several medicines we haven't looked at; maybe we can get you a dog. I know you live in an apartment, but service animals have been known to work miracles. Go home and get some rest. That's the best therapy I can recommend.

Danni inhaled the last of her cigarette and held the remnants of fire close to her heart. She ground the butt into the ashtray. She exhaled a stream of smoke and wondered if her soul, the souls of her beloved, looked anything like that. Uncertain of what to say, she said nothing. The wheels of the recorder stopped.

Harry and the Monkey by Euan Harvey

Urban legend: a modern story of obscure origin and with little or no supporting evidence that spreads spontaneously in varying forms and often has elements of humor, moralizing, or horror:

Are there alligators living in the New York City sewer system, or is that just an urban legend?

Also called urban myth.

[Origin: 1970-75]

Based on the

Random House Unabridged Dictionary,

© Random House, Inc. 2006.

***

This is a true story.

I have three kids, all boys. Son number three is Harry. He's younger than the others by three years (he is three and a half when this story begins); he looks more like me, and he's a devious and unscrupulous manipulator-like all youngest children. He laughs a lot, cries a lot, breaks things a lot, and fights with his brothers a lot. He goes to kindergarten with all the other kids, plays football (well… runs after the ball flapping his arms and howling with glee, anyway), enjoys twisting the arms and heads off his collection of cheap plastic action figures, and gets cranky when he's tired.

The reason I'm telling you this is simple: Harry's a perfectly normal kid. Average and unremarkable.

If you think about it, that makes what happened even more unsettling.

What if it's not only him?

What if it's all kids?

***

You've heard of the crocodile in the sewers, right? Kid gets reptile for present, reptile grows (as they do), kid gets bored, flushes it down toilet. Only… the croc doesn't die. It stays down there, preying on rats and swimming around in the pungent dark. Getting bigger. And perhaps, as it grows, it tires of rats. Then one day, when it's down in the fetid gloom, just its evil little eyes above the surface of the water, it sees a splash of light: a man holding a flashlight. Next thing is a little v-shaped ripple, and the eyes draw closer to the puddle of light and the man wearing his bright yellow rubber boots. Closer, and closer…

A nasty little image. And one that's recognizable to anyone from the West. The story may not be true-but it resonates.

But in Thailand, where I live, that particular myth isn't part of the culture. No resonance. Mention it in conversation, and you'll get a WTF? look. No crocs in the sewers here. At least, no stories about crocs in the sewers-but we'll come to that later.

There are urban myths in Thailand, though-just not the ones we have in the West. And like all urban myths, they've got a very nasty little core to them, a little splinter of horror embedded in the story, something that festers in your mind so that you absolutely must tell someone else.

The nastiest one I've heard is the rot jap dek.

See, there's this van. A black van, with shiny windows so you can't see in. And this van cruises round the main roads, and into the sois, and through the moobahns, and it's looking for children. What happens is this: the van follows a kid, and if the van sees that the kid is alone, then it silently (because the engine in this van is specially made to be very quiet) pulls up next to the kid, and the doors to the van quietly slide open, and a pair of very long and very thin arms snatches up the kid, and pulls him (screaming, kicking) into the thick darkness inside the van. Then the doors close, the van purrs off, and no one ever sees the kid again.

Unpleasant, right?

The trimmings to this story vary. Some versions sound plausible-if horrific. There's one that says the van is driven by Chinese organleggers, and the kids have their hearts, lungs, kidneys, and all the rest chopped out and sold on the black market. Less believable versions say it's Cambodians, the Khmer Rouge stealing Thai kids to raise them as guerrillas, Janissary-style. I've even heard it's a luk-chin factory, which has found out that human flesh makes its meatballs more delicious.

But though the semiotic crud the story has accumulated varies, the central element remains the same: a black minivan that steals children.

This is the

rot jap dek.

Remember this. It's important, and if you're very unlucky, there may be a test. Black van:

rot jap dek.

***

The most famous monkey colony in Thailand is in Lopburi. There, as in Delhi, monkeys scamper through traffic, beg (or steal) food, execute primal snatch-and-grab raids on unwary tourists, swarm over the Angkor-period ruins in the town center, and generally make a bloody nuisance of themselves.

There are however numerous other monkey colonies in urban areas in Thailand, some surprisingly close to Bangkok. One of these is at Don Hoi Lod in Samut Songkhram, about two hours drive from my house. Don Hoi Lod is on the coast-but if you're getting an image of palm trees and white sand, bin it. Just south of Bangkok, the coast of Thailand is swamp and mangrove forest. The "beach" at Don Hoi Lod is mud. Lots of mud, with masses of mangroves. So why go?

Well, crabs like mangroves. A lot. And so, it turns out, do other edible sea creatures. Which in turns means that Don Hoi Lod is famous for cheap seafood: crabs, oysters, tiger prawns, and fish-they're all there in abundance.

And so, for some reason, are monkeys. Whether the monkeys lived there before and the restaurants at Don Hoi Lod just encroached on their habitat, or whether the monkeys moved in to scavenge off the seafood leftovers, I don't know. What I do know is that Don Hoi Lod is crawling (scampering?) with monkeys.

So there I was, driving down the narrow road that leads from the Thonburi-Paktho highway. It's a holiday-the Day of Vesak, if I remember right-so the traffic's fairly heavy and we're just bimbling slowly along, not quite in a traffic jam, but not moving very fast, either. Hunger is making the boys grumpy, the air-con is giving me a headache, and the sun keeps catching the back windscreen of the car in front, making me wince.

And then Robert (son number one) does something unpleasant to Harry. I can't remember what exactly; I think it had to do with sweets and the denying thereof. Harry starts squalling, and tugging on my shirt from behind demanding that I intervene. Fon (my wife) snarls at Harry (she's got a worse headache than me). In response to this, Harry starts yelling, and the other two boys in the back start squabbling loudly.

In short, we're right at that stage familiar to every parent, that point just before you crack and start doing all the things that parenting books tell you not to.

However, right at that very moment, a monkey jumped up onto the hood of the car. It knuckle-walked to the windshield, then sat scratching its bottom and peering at me with benign interest.

I seized the opportunity thus offered. "Look, Harry! A monkey!"

Harry's mouth shut with a click of teeth. His eyes widened, then he scrambled forward, pointing at the windshield. "Monkey! Monkey! Daddy, monkey!"

The monkey yawned, showing yellow and rather alarmingly long teeth, scratched its rump, then ambled up the windshield and onto the roof, leaving a trail of muddy little pawprints up the glass.

Harry watched it go, then stared at the roof intently, as if he could see through the metal. After a few moments, he looked at me, then pointed to the roof and said solemnly, "Monkey." Then, in case his mother didn't understand, he helpfully translated it into Thai for her, "

Ling."

For the rest of the day, Harry was easily distracted. Any sign of grumpiness, and I'd point at some random location and say, "Harry, look! The monkey! Can you see the monkey?"

Harry would spring to his feet, quivering with excitement and peer in the direction I'd pointed. If there did actually happen to be a monkey there, he'd stare at it, then shout, "Monkey! Monkey! Monkey! Daddy, monkey!" If there was no monkey there (as there most often wasn't), he'd look at me and ask where it had gone. So I said that he'd have to be quick, as monkeys were very shy and didn't like people staring at them.

But as it turned out, that last part only really applied to me, and not Harry.

***

This really is a true story. What comes below is from the Bangkok Post, Saturday November 10, 2007:

IN-DEPTH: MISSING CHILDREN

In 2006, more than 46,000 children were reported missing in Thailand, according to the two-year-old National Missing Person's Bureau. But as staggering as that number is, yet more alarming is the fact that this represents a year-on-year increase of 6% over 2005.

46,000. Now you think about that for a moment.

***

Monkeys creep me out. Really, they're just… horrible. First, monkeys have very large teeth relative to the size of their head. Imagine a human whose canines are as long as the distance from the nose to the chin-about one third of the length of the head. Now imagine what it looks like when this person yawns.

Yes. Exactly. Just like that.

Second, monkeys have that whole almost-human-but-not-quite thing going on. Like their hands. They're almost human, but… deformed. Yes, I know that they're not really deformed, but as a human, my frame of reference for non-deformed is human. Dog's paws? No, they're not deformed. They're not close enough to trigger the human interpretation. But monkey's paws, that's a different story. Close enough to human so that your mind goes click, and instead of looking at them as an animal, you're interpreting in terms of the human. And from that perspective, monkeys are deformed. Freaks. The thumb's all wrong, and the joints are off, and they've got that depressed forehead with dead little black eyes peering out from underneath. You look at their feet, and they're almost human.

Almost… but not quite.

***

The Bangkok Post, Tuesday July 10, 2007

Samut Sakhon-Police announced they were scaling back their search for a missing 5-year-old girl yesterday, saying they would focus instead on tips on the girl's location. Sirikul Siriyamongkol was last seen on Sunday morning playing in the soi in front of the house her parents live in near Om Noi. More than 100 police officers and neighbors searched for the girl on Monday, making house-to-house enquiries as well as posting signs asking for help in locating her.

Like I said: it's all true. If they've found the little girl, there hasn't been a damn thing about it in the

Bangkok Post. Of course, maybe the editor just decided the return of the kid wasn't newsworthy.

Maybe.

Om Noi is about five klicks from my house.

***

When I was young, my father had something called the "doolally." When he wanted to get rid of me and my brother, he'd go to the kitchen door, stare down the garden-sometimes shielding his eyes with his hand, as if staring off in the far distance-and he'd slowly say, "You know, I think that's a doolally down there." He'd pause, then he'd say to me and my brother, "Quick! Go and get him! The doolally's eating our apples! Quick! Run!" And off my brother and I would toddle, down the garden to the apple trees, there to search fruitlessly for the fabled doolally, which I always pictured as some variety of fat pink bird, rather like a dodo, only squawkier and with a silly-looking head.

My father fooled me for years with the doolally. To me, it was real, and it was my sacred duty to stop it from nibbling on our apples. I could see its foolish head, its watery eyes framed by long curling lashes, and I knew it had wobbly legs like a chicken. We tried everything, my brother and I: traps, sneaking down the garden rather than running, even building a hide and concealing ourselves in it as we waited for the doolally to arrive (I was unclear as to whether it flew-clumsily, of course, shedding feathers and veering wildly to and fro-or stalked along like a heron, high-stepping over the fence from the neighbor's garden).

And, as all men turn into their fathers, I ended up doing the same thing to Harry as my father had done to me. Only, instead of a rather silly looking bird, Harry went chasing after a monkey.

I want you to picture a scene: It's a warm Saturday afternoon in the suburbs of Bangkok, the mango trees are whispering to themselves in the lazy breeze blowing through their leaves, kids are riding past my yard on their bikes whooping and hollering, and I'm sitting on my porch drinking a cold beer. Harry bimbles out of the house behind me and starts poking me with a fat finger. I look up, peer into the garden, then say slowly, "You know, I think I see the monkey over there." Harry runs to the porch rail, grips two of the railings in chubby hands, and peers into the garden. "There he is!" I say, pointing at the mango. "Harry! Go and get the monkey! Quickly!" And Harry races off, little legs twinkling as he runs to find the monkey, which apparently hides behind the largest of the three mango trees in our yard.

This goes on for months before things start to change.

The first change was small. My wife-the long-suffering Fon-had bought a huge bag of live king prawns, and we were going to barbecue them. The prawns were sitting in a bowl of water about a foot away from me, and I was getting the barbecue ready. Right at that moment, Harry came up to the bowl, looked down, then squatted next to it with an expression of intense interest on his face.

Every parent knows that expression: It's the one that kids get just before they try and stick the fork in the electrical outlet. I tried saying "no," but Harry took no notice, and poked one of the prawns experimentally. I knew what was coming next, so I pulled out the big guns: "Harry! Look over there! The monkey! Go and get him!"

Harry glanced over his shoulder at the mango tree, then shook his head. "Monkey mai mi," he said. (The monkey's not there.)

"Yes he is!" I said. "Look! Oo! The bugger's eating our mangos! Go get him, Harry!"

"Monkey mai mi," Harry repeated. Then he pointed behind me. "Monkey yu ni." (The monkey is here.)

I turned round. Behind me was the

Caryota mitis-the Clumping Fishtail palm-I'd planted near the house. The Clumping Fishtail isn't a neat palm tree like the ones you see lining roads in Beverly Hills. This palm is more like a messy explosion in a frond factory. It's got dark green leaves that sprout from numerous subtrunks, and although I kept this particular Clumping Fishtail trimmed, it still had a thick collection of foliage, and mostly obscured the low wall behind it.

If this was an M. R. James story, there'd be some kind of smooth monkey face poking out of the foliage, probably with its eyes tightly shut. After a moment it would withdraw, quite possibly with a sinister rustle. If it was a Stephen King story, then maybe the monkey would step out from behind the palm and BITE MY FACE OFF!

But this is a true story. There was no monkey. Or rather… I couldn't see a monkey.

From that point on, the routine was that I would point out the monkey, and Harry would tell me I was wrong and tell me where the monkey really was. This was amusing for a while, and then Harry changed it again.

So there I am, different afternoon, a couple of months later. I'm on the verandah. I hear the door slam and the lines of shells above it tinkle-this means Harry is coming.

I wait for a moment, and soon enough I become aware of a solemn presence beside me. I look down, and there's Harry, blanket over one shoulder, half-drunk bottle of milk in one hand.

"What?" I ask, when Harry says nothing.

With immense dignity, Harry points to the Clumping Fishtail palm next to the verandah.

There is a short silence as I wait for Harry.

"Yes?" I say finally.

"Daddy, monkey," Harry says. "Monkey yu ni."

I blink. "What?"

Harry suddenly laughs, points to the palm tree, and says, "Daddy! Monkey yu ni! Monkey! Daddy, run!"

When I realize the cheeky little bugger has stolen my lines, I can't stop smiling. I rush after Harry, arms outstretched to tickle, and he shrieks in delight and runs indoors, waving his half-drunk bottle of milk above his head.

As I recall, I didn't actually look at the palm tree.

The very last change-right before the fecal matter hit the fan-was the most important. Some time after Harry had started pointing out the monkey to me, and suggesting that I run after it (little blighter), he had a nightmare.

My fault-he'd been watching a ghost movie, a rather nasty one, and now he was convinced that the headless ghost was coming for him. In fact, according to Harry, it was hiding behind the curtains above his bed, just waiting for me to leave so it could creep down and eat him. As it was a headless ghost, I attempted to point out the problems it would encounter in this endeavor (lack of teeth or mouth seeming to be the primary ones), but alas, Harry wasn't persuaded by my faultless logic.

I took him into our room (my wife's and mine), put out the small spare mattress and made a nest for him. He wouldn't settle though. (The ghost had apparently followed him in, the nasty little sneaker.) After twenty minutes or so of bleary-eyed comforting, I hit on what I thought was a brilliant solution: I told Harry that the monkey would protect him. Harry went very round-eyed at this. I asked him where the monkey was (it being well-established by now that only Harry knew the location of the monkey), and without hesitation Harry pointed to the door of the bathroom.

"Monkey yu non," he said. (The monkey's in there.)

I said I wouldn't go in the bathroom, as I knew the monkey was shy, and I didn't want to scare him away. Harry agreed that would be a good thing, and I said that the monkey could protect him from the ghost, couldn't it?

Harry nodded, then promptly went to sleep.

I lay awake for some time, listening for… something. I don't know what. I didn't go into the bathroom.

I sometimes wonder if things would have turned out differently (horribly) if I hadn't told Harry that.

***

The Bangkok Post, Saturday November 10, 2007

Samut Prakarn-Deputy Social Development and Human Security Minister Poldej Pinprateep called yesterday for a special task force to trace missing children by coordinating information from relevant agencies. He said that the authorities lack the resources to find missing children, many of whom are snatched by human traffickers and forced into working as beggars, laborers or sex workers.

Ekarak Lumchomkhae, head of the Mirror Foundation's information center, said that more than 650 cases of missing children have been reported to the center this year. The missing children have ranged from newborn infants to toddlers to children aged 9-12.

Mr. Poldej said a task force should be set up to supplement the activities of the National Missing Person's Bureau, which lacks sufficient staff to find missing people quickly. The task force must be able to find people quickly, he added, noting that the more time that passes, the slimmer the chances of finding missing people become. He was speaking during a visit to seven families of missing children in the Om Noi district of Samut Sakhon. Cholada Siriyamongkol is the mother of Sirikul, or Nong Yui, 5, who has been missing since July 8th. She says she has not lost hope, and believes her daughter is still safe.

Four months, and she says she hasn't lost hope. Now imagine it was your kid.

How long would it take you to lose hope?

***

My university shuts down from the first week in December until the first week in January. One week after my holiday started, Harry caught a cold. Fon and I talked about it, then decided to send him to school. It wasn't that bad a cold, just a sniffle.

A little after midday, when I was just settling down to my lunch (chopped papaya salad, minced catfish salad, steamed sticky rice, and a cold beer), I got a phone call from Fon. The school had phoned her saying that Harry was running a temperature and could she come pick him up? As Fon was having her hair done (again), I was volunteered to go and pick Harry up from the school. I pointed out that I was just sitting down to lunch. Alas, her hair proved to be of more importance than my lunch, and for the sake of continued domestic harmony, I ended up driving to the school.

I picked Harry up, drove back home, planted him in front of the TV with a bottle of milk and the DVD of

Monster House, and went back to my lunch, which was now rather soggy and dispirited.

My house has an open-plan ground floor. Sitting at the dining table, you can see into the lounge where the TV is. You can't see it all-the stairs get in the way, but there's a clear view of the end of the couch and the sliding doors leading onto the verandah. The way I'd put Harry onto the couch meant I couldn't see him. I could hear the TV, but I couldn't see Harry at all.

I sat down and ate my lunch. I drank two bottles of beer-the large ones. A large bottle of Heineken contains 750ml of beer, with an alcohol content of 5.6%. This comes to 8.4 units of alcohol, about the same as four pints of lager in a pub. (Real pints here, not your midget U.S. pints.) I'm not going to deny I'd been drinking, because I had. You can judge for yourself how much difference it made.

So the TV's on. The sound is going (

It mocks us with its… house-ness!), I'm reading war-porn from Baen, the mynah birds are squawking in the papaya tree outside the back door, and although I can see clouds building up over the roof of the house next door, all is generally good with the world. I have a distinct 8.4-units-of-alcohol-happy-buzz thing going on.

Except when I get up to go to the bathroom, Harry isn't on the couch.

I look on the verandah. No Harry. I step out onto the verandah and look in the front yard. No Harry. Feeling a little nervous now, I walk round the left side of the house, round the back yard with the washing machine and the sink, continue round the house and back to the front yard.

No Harry.

I go to the gate-which someone has slid open. Not very much, but wide enough for a small boy to slip through.

Now I look back on it, I'm almost certain I shut that gate. Normally, I slide it shut every time, because if I don't the soi dogs get in and mangle my lawn. And besides, keeping the gate shut means Harry stays in the garden.

Maybe he opened it. Maybe I left it open.

Stories like this need a sin, don't they? It's the moralizing part in the urban legend. Don't sleep with your boyfriend. Don't speak to strangers. Don't steal. So maybe leaving the gate open was my sin-or Harry's sin.

Or maybe it was opened by… someone else.

I go out on the soi, look left and right. The soi dogs are sleeping at the far end of the soi. A couple of cars are parked: my neighbor's dark blue Kia, and the lawyer's silver Corolla. Clouds are dark to the west, above the sleeping soi dogs. Thunder rumbles.

I can't see Harry.

You can probably imagine my state right at that moment. If you have kids, I know that you know exactly what I was feeling. All parents have horribly vivid nightmares about nasty things happening to their kids.

I ran to the end of the soi and looked down the large road that runs through my moobahn. I couldn't see Harry. I ran to the entrance to the moobahn, ignoring the dogs barking at me over fences, and the looks I got from my neighbors. When I reached the security guard on duty, I asked him if he'd seen a little boy going out of the moobahn. He said no, and for a moment I relaxed, thinking Harry had to be somewhere in the moobahn and all I had to do was find him.

And then, as I looked along the entrance road-around two hundred yards long, leading to the main road beyond-I saw a black minivan waiting to turn left: indicator flashing, sunlight gleaming off the solar film in the back windows, thin puffs of blue exhaust as the engine burbled.

I'll be honest with you: I can't be sure quite what happened next. Strong emotion has a way of warping memory around it. I know I ran along the entrance road toward the van-not shouting, just running.

The van turned off onto the main road before I got within a hundred yards of it.

I didn't stop, of course. The next clear memory I have is reaching the end of the road and looking left, with that kind of hollow feeling you get when adrenaline has drowned everything else in your head.

The van was pulled over to the side of the road about fifty yards away, engine idling. It had stopped next to a huge clump of bamboo by the edge of the rice paddy. The bamboo rustled as the wind shook it.

Harry was standing behind the van, holding a half-drunk bottle of milk and bawling.

I ran to the van, still incapable of coherent thought, snatched Harry up and hugged him hard enough so that he yelled and hit me with his bottle of milk on the side of my head.

Then I thought about who was in the van and I turned round, clutching Harry hard. The sun was bright, and I couldn't see anything of the inside of the van except a slice of the floor near the door-even though both the mid-section door and the passenger door were open.

I took a half-step toward the van. I know it doesn't make any sense, but that's what I did. And you know, I wasn't thinking about crazed Chinese organleggers, or cannibal luk-chin makers, or wild-eyed Khmer Rouge straight out of the jungle.

No, what I was thinking about was the fact that the handle of the sliding door in the middle of the van was bent round like half a pretzel, and that in front of the door was a large footprint, squished into the soft mud in the side of the road. I looked hard at that footprint. Believe me.

And then three things happened at the same time. The first was that I heard a snap from behind me, the sound of a length of bamboo cracking. One of those thick stems of bamboo. The second was that Harry said, "Monkey! Look, Daddy! Monkey! Monkey!" The third was that I saw a spot of bright red liquid just inside the van, glistening crimson against the steel floor where the sun caught it.

I didn't turn round. I was looking at the footprint, and thinking about big yellow teeth, and how I'd told Harry that monkeys didn't like to be stared at.

"Monkey!" Harry repeated. He bounced against me. "Monkey! Monkey! Monkey! Daddy, look!" Then he laughed in delight and hit me on the side of my head again.

The bamboo rustled. There was a sound like something dragging against the ground.

"Monkey, bye, bye!" Harry said. "Daddy, bye, bye, monkey!"

I waited, then turned round. One of the bamboo stems on the side of the road was broken, snapped in half and crushed-what you'd expect if something heavy had pressed on it. There was a pair of footprints in the mud nearby. Two more footprints led down the bank of the rice paddy, heading toward the bright green rice and muddy water. Between the footprints were lines in the mud, like you'd get if you dragged something behind you. On the far side of the paddy, the thick brush waved. The top of a wild banana tree quivered. It might have been something pushing through the brush. (Something big.) But then again, it might have just been the wind from the approaching storm.

Then it started raining.

***

The police never identified the van, or traced its owner. The plates came from a Toyota Camry that had been stolen a month before, and the serial number on the engine block apparently belonged to a van scrapped six months before. The blood traces didn't lead anywhere either. The lead cop told me afterward the spots in the back came from at least six different people. The gaffer tape could have been bought anywhere, and the same went for the child-size Ultraman t-shirt.

They kept asking me about the door handle. But after they'd checked my prints against the ones they found, I stopped getting suspicious looks. I didn't touch the handle-but someone did. And whoever it was, they gripped it so hard they bent the metal like it was hot plastic.

I didn't tell the police about the footprints, and as they didn't ask me anything about them, I assume the rain must have washed them away. I think I'm glad about that.

You see, those footprints weren't shoeprints, or bootprints. They were footprints, and they looked almost exactly like the footprints of a very large, barefoot man with long toes.

Almost… but not quite.

***

Some years ago, I read a story in the

Bangkok Post. It's dropped off their archive pages now, but if you contacted them directly, they could probably send you a copy. (I told you this was a true story.)

I can't remember the exact wording, but the story itself and the accompanying photo are still very clear in my mind. The photo showed a small crocodile in a pen at the Samut Prakarn Crocodile Farm and Zoo. The croc was basking in the sun, managing the difficult task of looking both lazy and vicious, and a local government official was standing close behind it-but not too close. The official was beaming, and pointing to the croc's head with a length of rattan.

They'd caught the croc in Ayutthaya -a city about thirty klicks north of Bangkok. It must have escaped from one of the crocodile farms around there, and rather than head for the Chao Phraya, it decided to swim into a storm drain under a large market in the center of the tourist area of Ayutthaya. And there it lived for several years, eating rats, monitor lizards, snakes, and all the garbage washed into the drain from the market. A word about Thai storm drains here: they're square concrete ditches about two/three feet on an edge, and the top is covered with concrete slabs. At my university, the monitor lizards use them for running around the campus. And this croc had been using one to crawl around under the marketplace. For years.

It's not a sewer. Not quite. But it's close as damnit.

Urban myth:

A modern story of obscure origin and with little or no supporting evidence…

Only sometimes, you know, they're actually true.

***

So here we are at the end. Kind of inconclusive, you may be thinking. And that's understandable, but this is a true story, and like Margaret Atwood says in

Happy Endings, the only authentic conclusion to true stories is John and Mary die.

But though Harry could have died (or worse, just vanished forever), he didn't (and hasn't). As I sit here in the bedroom typing, the door to the room open behind me, the sound of him fighting with his brothers drifts up the stairs, and that's conclusion enough for me.

***

One last word: when or if you have children, and you're playing a game with them in which an invisible creature (be it monkey, doolally, or something entirely less ordinary) is an essential component, just make sure the invisible creature is one that has teeth.

Preferably large teeth.

Dress Circle by Miranda Siemienowicz

The musty smell of old carpet filled the corridor, hot with the press of the crowd. In the half darkness, Laura fingered the pair of tickets in her bag. She felt defiant to be here alone. They had been a gift for Markus, for the two of them to use together. The line jostled forward.

Two ushers stood on either side of the corridor where it met and opened into the theatre. Through gaps in the crowd, Laura saw rows of plush seats cascading towards the darkened stage. She pulled a ticket from her bag and offered it to the usher.

The short, uniformed man bent his head, turning the ticket over in his thick fingers. Clumps of wiry hair stood out from under his peaked cap.

"The dress circle?" he asked without raising his head.

"I guess. Is that what it says?"

The usher looked up. "Why, yes, it is." He tore the ticket in half and handed back the stub.

Movement at his feet caught Laura's eye. A monkey the size of a cat, dressed in an identical uniform of brass-buttoned jacket and cap, was stretching its paw up towards the usher's hand. In response to her startled gasp, the man swept the animal behind him with one leg and fixed Laura with a reproving glare.

"The dress circle," he said in a low voice, "is this way."

He folded one arm behind his back and extended the other to indicate a narrow corridor that reached into darkness behind him. The crowd continued to spill slowly into the theatre. Laura hesitated.

"Madam, please. The show is about to begin."

She stepped out of the stream of patrons and proceeded down the corridor. Glancing back over her shoulder as the gloom engulfed her, she saw the monkey scrabble up the fabric of the man's trouser leg and pluck the ticket stub from his hand.

The same odour of carpets and drapery stifled the air. Black paint obscured the walls and sapped what little light there was. Laura strained to find a door to lead her into the theatre. No one else came looking for their seats, though once she heard a quiet scuffle approach and overtake her in the corridor. She had walked at least the distance from the entrance to the orchestra pit when she finally paused, peering, and moved to turn back.

A woman emerged from the shadows in a voluptuous white gown, silver hair piled on her head. Her lips were lost behind an ornate stamp of ruby lipstick that spread onto pale-powdered cheeks.

"Your ticket?" she asked. A beauty spot danced beside her mouth.

Laura opened her hand. For an instant, the stub lay glinting before it collapsed into a film of grey ash. She flinched and the ash puffed into the air, dissolving from view.

"My ticket!"

"Ah, the dress circle, then."

The powdered matron closed a scarlet-clawed hand around Laura's arm and lurched down the corridor. Linen gushed and rustled around the hidden forms of her legs as she dragged her deeper into the building. The walls slid past with gathering speed and Laura wrenched against the grip of the thin fingers.

"What are you doing!"

Her captor glanced back, eyes like dark stones set in her ivory skin. "Faster," she hissed.

Laura struggled to match the woman's pace. Gusts of linen tangled themselves between her feet, keeping her attention on the billows of white fabric and the severely laced bodice of the matron's dress. The woman's waist was the width of a doll's. Suddenly, in a tumble of white and pain, Laura's ankle gave way. She cried out, sliding to the carpet only to have her arm jerked up as she found herself staggering on, shouting to be released.

They turned a number of corners. Laura was hauled into a maze of corridors, each narrower and more bleak than the last. Finally, they slowed where the walls were so near to one another that the matron's full skirts filled the way. Laura felt the grip on her arm loosen as a door in the wall opened and she was dragged through.

A yellow bulb hung, bare, from the ceiling. It was swinging lazily and the shadows thrown by the racks of white costumes along the walls swept the floor in pulsing arcs. A short man with carven features stood with his back to the dresses. His dark trousers hung below a protruding belly, held aloft by wide bands of suspenders that strained across his expansive gut.

"Is that her, then?" he asked the woman in white, scratching the stubble bristling from his neck.

"Yes, Director."

"Shall we see what we have?"

Laura backed away as they advanced, fingers scrabbling blindly behind. She closed a hand around the doorknob.

"What do you want with me?" she demanded.

The pair ignored her. They murmured to one another, crowding her, trapping her against the door.

"She's almost tall," said the matron, red nails tracing the line of Laura's jaw.

"Almost, almost. But her waist is so thick." The Director's stale breath was hot on Laura's face.

"Hips too low."

"Arms not slender enough."

Without warning, they seized her shoulders and began to pull at her clothes. Laura yelled as her arms were pinned above her head and her shirt was dragged up. She kicked out, her foot sinking into a yielding mass of linen.

Her back hit the floor and breath tore from her lungs. The glare of the light-bulb dazzled her, silhouetting the painted face of the matron. Hands pinched and ripped at her skin and the fabric of her clothes. First shouting but finally whimpering, cowed, Laura lay on the dusty floorboards with grit and chalk like a rash over her sweaty nakedness.

The Director's arm reached down. She beat at it ineffectually, curling onto her side. His fingers clutched her breast and lifted the flesh away from her body.

"No good. Needs a lot of work," he called over his shoulder.

The matron brushed past him with linen brimming from her arms. "This one."

Shivering and exposed, Laura let herself be thrust into the heavy costume. When they had pulled the dress over her head and twisted her arms through the capped sleeves, she was pushed onto all fours. A knee dug into the small of her back as the bodice of the dress jerked tight against her ribs.

"Much more, much more," came the Director's voice above her. "You'll have to hold her down."

He continued to haul the bodice tighter and Laura felt the matron lie bodily across her shoulders. Pain speared through her chest. Linen smothered her and the sharp smell of the matron's sweat flooded her nostrils.

Her waist crushed in the vice of the dress, the Director pulled her upright by the cords of the bodice. He spun her around to face the closed door, where a long mirror hung. Her reflection gazed from the glass like a ghost, her heavily padded bust and hips flaring monstrously from a waist she could all but enclose with her hands. Her face and arms were powder-pale, coated with dust from the floor. She gagged.

"She's almost beautiful!" cried the matron, clapping her hands like a child. "What a touch of make-up would do!"

The Director grunted. "No time," he said. "I'll have to take her immediately, like this."

He took her arm and Laura stumbled back into the corridor. Her tortured lungs ached for air as passage after passage blurred across her eyes. Through one open door, the uniformed back of the usher bent over a figure in a white gown. He moved back and Laura saw blood running down the woman's chin. Her lips had been scored with a razor; thin, vertical slits marched across her mouth, filling the outline of a gaudy lipstick.

The Director slowed to a halt and Laura felt plush drapes stroke her shoulders. A shove to her back sent her staggering forward, feet unsteady in a chaos of fabric. Brightness bathed her and the thunder that roared in her ears gradually resolved into applause.

She was on the stage.

The faces, hands and pale shirts of the audience hovered in a darkness held back by a row of glaring footlights. Laura felt their expectant gaze on her like an unbearable, demanding weight. She stood frozen, the barren expanse of stage before her gleaming.

Some distance behind stood the cardboard facade of an ancient Greek temple. As music rose like a mist from the orchestra pit she noticed movement in the wings on the far side. The usher, peaked cap still perched on his head, was buttoning a ruffled shirt. He straightened, brushed the cap to the ground and strode onto the stage. Applause swelled. He positioned himself on the far side of the temple, turned to the audience and with a majestic sweep of his arm began to sing.

The usher's bass voice throbbed with melodrama and yearning. His Latin rose trembling above the music and floated out into the darkened tiers of the audience. Laura began to back away, her head light with pain and confusion. Before she was completely hidden by the wings, a pair of hands clapped onto her shoulders and she twisted around in a flurry of skirts. The Director hissed, furious, and made to push her back out.

"What are you doing?" she whispered.

She wanted to yell, to claw at his craggy face, but as panic fought in her chest, the oppressive weight of the watching audience slowed something inside her. She was pushed back onto the stage, staggering into the hot lights. The pain in her ribs soared.

The usher sang on. He punched the air in defiance, sending shivers of emotion through the ruffled fabric of his shirt. Laura gazed, overwhelmed, at the audience.

As her eyes came into focus on the sea of vague faces, a familiar form emerged-Markus sat in the stalls, a dozen rows from the stage. Laura squinted against the footlights. She could just make out his proud, puzzled features. He had recognised her. Time crawled, then stopped. A woman younger than Laura leaned towards him and crooned into his ear. He turned and Laura lost him in the crowd as his raven hair obscured his face.

Laura peered, frowning. The light in the theatre was so very poor, mere dregs spilling from the stage. Her heart leapt in its cage; she must have mistaken another man for her faithless lover because there he was, Markus, sitting two rows further forward. His eyes were fixed on the wildly gesturing usher but when they settled on Laura he brought a hand to his mouth in shocked recognition. The woman on his arm cocked her head inquiringly but Markus simply shook his head, agape.

As the woman leaned closer, the broad rim of her hat hid his face and Laura realised that Markus was, in fact, seated much further to the right. His elbows were propped on his knees and he was staring incredulously in her direction, ignoring the woman stroking his arm.

Laura blinked. Markus sat in every row. His high forehead and bold jaw encompassed myriad expressions of astonishment. All through the theatre, Markus pointed or gasped in surprise. The women accompanying him whispered and nuzzled, intent on his attention.

The usher drew a colossal breath and his voice mounted incredible intervals to glide into the climax of his aria. It was clear he had not noticed the Markuses. Laura threw a glance at the Director. The portly man was frowning, one hand raised to the wall near his head. As she met his gaze he wrenched a great lever downwards, stepping aside to slam it into place. Laura looked into the audience to see Markus bend forward and hair fall over his face. Frantically, she searched the theatre but he was gone. The women were gone. Beyond the footlights was nothing but a chasm of empty chairs.

Her ears rang as the usher's singing continued to reverberate from the stage.

"Theatre is everything, pretty one," said a quiet voice.

Laura spun. The usher stood beside her with his mouth twisted in a superior sneer. Blood had smeared from his hands onto the ruffles of his shirt. He reached out.

"Don't touch me," hissed Laura, backing towards the set. The final lines of the usher's performance formed themselves in the air, his voice building in volume and passion above them as he stood, mute, regarding her. She stumbled to the rear of the stage.

"Run," he called softly under the singing. "Run. You might get back to the beginning, but you won't get further than that."

"Don't touch me!"

He stood without even reaching a hand towards her.

The deadening mass of the audience had lifted. Laura heaved herself up the stairs to the temple's cardboard columns. She pounded her fists against the painted image of the temple interior. The paper tore, the thick smell of incense flooding through the rent in the backdrop. She collapsed to her knees and crawled through.

The ground felt like stone under her fingers as Laura dragged herself blindly forward. The disembodied song of the usher had been cut off, as if by the slam of a door, and nothing disturbed the new silence save her shallow panting. Sagging with exhaustion, she looked up.

The temple stretched on all sides as far as Laura could see-a vast array of stone pillars interspersed with statues clothed in similar gowns to her own. Behind her was an enormous painted landscape, torn where she had crawled from the stage. From the painting emanated a dazzling, midday light that flooded the temple floor. The ceiling was lost in a haze of fragrant smoke.

One of the statues detached itself from the collection and approached her. It was the matron. The monkey, which had shed its uniform elsewhere and now wore only its cap, clambered down from one of the pillars and leapt onto her shoulder. A finger of smoke reached down momentarily in its wake.

"What is this place?" asked Laura, her voice hoarse. She rolled over, wincing, to sit limply on the floor with the mass of skirts splayed before her.

The matron bent over, near enough for Laura to make out the fine wrinkles that clustered around her eyes and the lines of scab that made up her lipstick.

"This is where we belong," she said.

"I need to get out."

The matron straightened with a peal of laughter that sent the monkey pouncing from her shoulder, shrieking. It landed softly on the floor and bared its teeth at Laura before scampering away among the pillars with its tail stiff overhead.

"Get out? You've only just arrived," said the matron.

"I can hardly breathe," pleaded Laura. "Help me."

The matron's eyes frowned in her powdered face.

"Why do you want my help? I'm no better than you. Perhaps even a little worse." A flourish of her hand indicated her painted face and she bent forward again.

"Escape is no secret," she said, her cracked and scarred lips shaping the words in a low voice. "You need only take off your costume."

Laura reached around her drawn waist and fumbled for the ties of the bodice. She could feel the lines of cord that crossed her punished torso but where the redundant length should have been tied there was nothing. The cords reached their final eyelets and seemed to dive into the fabric of the dress. Her breath quickened, straining her lungs against the crushing pressure on her ribs and belly.

"Not so easy?" The matron's voice rang above her like a bell.

Still sitting, Laura leaned forward and pulled up the heavy linen of her skirt. A mound of silk petticoats rose from underneath. She dragged these back towards herself in desperate handfuls and uncovered the tulle ruffles of her underskirts. The stiffened gauze scratched at her arms as she gathered these up, reaching over a growing pile of fabric.

That was the tulle. And below that, more silk. A knot began to clench in Laura's gut. Under the silk was spread the back of her linen skirt. She drew that into the pile, now barely contained in her arms, and felt her nails scrape the stone floor of the temple.

Laura retched. She let go of the fabric, which sprang out of her arms to cover the impossible view of bare stone, an empty mountain of linen and silk and gauze.

Her head was light and the statues were stirring around her. She heard the rustle of their skirts and, in the distance, an agonising shriek that could have been the monkey.

The RisingRiver by Daniel Kaysen

The pressure started in August with a long-distance call.

"We'd all love to have you here, Amy. It would be great if you could come. Really great."

I didn't say anything, I never do. Not when my brother gets on to that topic. I just stay silent, when the pressure starts.

I listened to the hum of the phone line.

He didn't give up. He never does. "Sarah and me. And the girls. We'd all love to see you. I mean it."

I hung up the phone.

***

"Bad news?" said Tish, my flat-mate, from the couch.

"Christmas," I said.

"Christmas is bad news," she said. "When you're older than eight it always sucks."

She'd been my flat-mate for a whole two weeks and we still knew little about each other, but we both knew we were going to get on.

"Hey, want to do Christmas together?" she said. "Here? Just the two of us?"

"Tish, it's

August. It's a bit early to be making plans."

"You think you're going to get a better offer? Think about it-Christmas here, no family, no forced smiles at crap presents, just drunkenness and back-to-back DVDs. What's not to like?"

"Who's going to cook?"

"The Indian down the road will be open. We'll get a takeaway. Curry for Christmas lunch, what could be better?"

It didn't take much thinking about.

It was a prior engagement. It was a ready-made cast-iron excuse.

"Done deal," I said.

"Good," she said. "Just don't buy me bloody candles."

***

In September my brother called again.

For once I had an answer.

"Look, I'm really sorry, but I've got plans already."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. It's firm. I'm sorry, but-"

"It's just… "

"I know," I said.

We hung up awkwardly.

***

When he rang in October he gave me bad news, and a different kind of pressure.

***

I couldn't bear to go to the funeral. I hate funerals. I always have done, ever since I was a child.

My brother insisted I went to this one, but I pictured my favourite grandmother looking down from heaven and telling me: "You stick to your guns, girl. Don't take any rubbish from him." She said things like that. It's why she was my favourite grandmother.

That and the fact that she'd said in her will that she wasn't fussed about a funeral but she definitely wanted a wake. My brother hated the idea. That added to the appeal.

So I skipped the funeral and drove instead to the designated pub.

Inside it was cosy and warm and already well-filled with saddened friends of the deceased. They were all in their eighties and nineties and couldn't possibly have made the church service, given that they could barely walk unassisted. But the pub, well that was entirely different. They gained new life, when it came to the pub.

***

I got a drink and found a table with two familiar faces. The old man's eyes lit up at the sight of me.

"It's the little'un!"

"Hello, Mr Nash," I said.

"Eva, she remembers my name! Come little'un, sit down, sit down."

"Is there room?" I said.

"Room? Sure there is, sure there is. Move yourself over, Eva, let the little'un sit down next to me. Not often I get to sit next to such a pretty young thing."

Eva, distant, moved over.

I hesitated, wondering how brave I was feeling, but I sat down between the two of them.

"Hello, Mrs Nash," I said to Eva.

Her hearing's not so good. Most times she doesn't hear you and stares into space, preoccupied.

She died five years ago, but she had gone through and beyond and retained her Eva-ness.

And she recognised me. "Oh my. The little'un! How lovely."

"See!" said Mr Nash, to me. "See!"

We smiled at each other, me and Mr Nash, like the living do in the presence of ghosts.

***

"But-" said Tish.

I knew I was gabbling, but I couldn't help it. I just wanted to get it out in the open.

After the funeral I had taken a risk and told her everything. The unabridged version.

Tish was under her duvet on the couch.

Looking scared.

"Amy," she said, "are you on anything?"

"No. This is real."

"You spoke to a dead woman."

"Lots of dead women. And men."

"But… "

There were further questions.

We talked some more.

***

Then another question.

"Is this like

The Sixth Sense?" she said, brow furrowed. "Am I dead too?"

"No. You're not dead. I'm not dead. No one is. I mean, lots of people are, but none that you know."

"Right," she said. "Okay," she said. "So. You talk to dead people, that's all." She tried to look alright with the idea.

"It's just good manners," I said. "Like: speak when you're spoken to."

She nodded, slowly. Taking it in.

"And those pills in the bathroom cabinet?"

"Thyroid," I said. "Promise."

We talked some more.

***

Then another, worse, thought struck her and she pulled the duvet tight around her.

"What?" I asked her.

"Are they here? The dead?" She looked round, frantic. Thin air was suddenly a threat.

"No," I said. "No dead here. No ghosts. None."

"Promise?"

To be honest, a home always has the dead in, but they're usually very faint. Far too faint to see. Just a sense of a whisper, here and there. I didn't tell her that, though.

"No, there's no ghosts here, at least none that I've seen," I said, wording it carefully.

"Thank God," said Tish. "So who knows about your sight?"

"My family. A few very close friends. You."

Then she looked at me a long time, making up her mind. "Okay. You have spiritualist tendencies. I've heard of it before, and I sort of believe in it and I can live with it just about, but don't do it anywhere near me, ever. I'm serious. No ghosts here, promise?"

I nodded. Sober and trustworthy.

"And you promise me we're all alive?"

"Totally alive," I said.

"There's no twist at the end?"

"None," I said, "I swear."

***

We survived it, Tish and I.

Useful, that.

Because in November it was back to the pressure from my brother.

"Why does it get to you so much?" said Tish, holding me as I wept after the call.

"Long story," I said, when I could speak. "Long fucking story."

"One of those long fucking stories which has such a happy ending that it makes a girl cry for half an hour?"

"No," I said. "Not one of those."

"Thought not," she said, softly.

And I cried some more. Proper crying. Ugly snot and tears and despair crying.

You'll know it if you've done it.

"Hush," said Tish. "Hush."

I did my best to hush. My best wasn't very good.

"You want to tell me the story?" she asked, when I was quieter.

"You up for it?"

"Hey, I know everything else. I know that you're see-ghosts-girl. I know your target weight. I know what you shout when you come."

Our bedrooms were next to each other. I'd had some dubious one-night stands.

I wiped some snot from my upper lip. "No you don't. You know what I shout when I'm faking it."

"Just tell me the story," she said.

And she held me real close then. Real close.

So I told her.

***

Her name was Alice. Alice-Jane.

She was five when she died.

I was seven, my brother was nine.

She was my little sister, and she died.

It was murder.

***

The story got a lot of coverage. There was a picture of me crying at the funeral. It made one of the national papers.

Farewell to an Angel, said the headline.

***

But it wasn't farewell, not really.

The night after her murder, Alice-Jane came into my bedroom.

A few hours later they took me to hospital.

***

I stopped and blew my nose.

Tish carried on holding me.

I asked her where I'd got to in the story.

"They sent you to hospital."

"Yeah. And I was grateful. I didn't want to stay in the house, not after seeing her. I was sedated and when I woke up a shrink asked me some questions. He gave me a teddy bear."

I began to feel cold.

Tish turned up the heating.

"So what did you tell the shrink?"

"I told him my parents had killed Alice-Jane."

Tish put her hand to her mouth.

I carried on with the story.

I told her how the shrink's face went very still behind his smile and then he asked me some more questions. I asked him when my parents would come to visit me. He said that they loved me but he didn't think they'd be able to come visit for a while.

He was right. They didn't come.

Instead there were a lot of whispered conversations in the corridors, and a lot more questions. Detectives came. There were more teddy bears. One day a social worker carefully asked me who I'd like to live with, if I had a choice. I said I wanted to live with my grandparents. So I went to live with my grandpa and grandma Robinson, may she rest in peace.

"She's the one whose funeral you went to?" said Tish.

"Yeah. It's why I was the star turn at the wake. All my grandma's friends and neighbours remembered me. I was the little'un. Mr Nash and Mrs Nash lived next door to my grandparents, and Mrs Nash used to babysit for me when my grandparents were out."

I stopped.

Tish stroked my hair.

I looked at my empty glass.

She poured me some more vodka.

And then, suddenly, I'd had enough of ancient history. I went to bed.

All night I heard Tish in the next room, unable to settle.

***

Early December was drab and flat. The shopping was hollow. The rooms at home were cold.

It is hard to be cheerful when I know what I know, and the other person knows it too. Or most of it.

Tish and I bought all the Keanu Reeves DVDs we could find.

We spent too much money on each other, and told each other, so the other person knew.

***

Mid-December my brother rang.

***

"Hey," said Tish, after the call. "Hey."

She couldn't say bland comforting things like: it can't be that bad, because she still didn't really know how bad it was. We hadn't talked since that last conversation.

"I just want to make it past Christmas," I said.

"Sure," she said. "Sure."

***

On Christmas Day Tish and I watched back-to-back Keanu movies, one after the other.

His suit is nice in

Johnny Mnemonic.

His everything is nice in

Point Break.

But

Speed was our favourite.

It's the t-shirt, and the body, and the way he rescues the heroine. It's nice to think there's someone out there who will always save the girl.

We ate curry on the couch, wrapped in duvets, wishing we were Sandra Bullock for a day.

***

That night, when we pressed eject on the final DVD Tish poured us more mulled wine, and we toasted a Christmas survived.

"A good plan of yours," I said.

"I like to think so." She smiled, and then, just casually, said: "How's it going, kid?"

"It doesn't get more relaxed than this," I said. And it was true. Movies and drink and not cooking always do it for me.

"Good," said Tish.

She was right, it was good. Except for the sudden sense of a whisper I had, the sense of words in the air around me. I looked round, wondering if I could see the speaker.

"What is it?" said Tish.

An image in the room then. A body, a face. Clearer and stronger than I'd seen in years.

"Can you hear someone at the door?" she said.

"Not exactly," I said. "Look, Tish, you might want to go bed now. Or phone a friend, see if you can stay at their place."

"Why would I want to do that?"

"I need to have a conversation."

"Well, fire away, let's talk," she said, uneasily.

"The conversation isn't going to be with you," I said.

"Then who-"

I watched her face change as it hit her. "Oh God. Not here. Not with… You promised."

"Just go to your room, it'll be fine."

She ran.

Little Alice-Jane appeared as the door slammed shut.

She'd come to wish me Happy Christmas.

***

After, I took Tish hot sweet tea. She was in shock and couldn't stop shaking, even though the heating was turned up high. I put a couple of blankets over the duvet. Still she shook.

I climbed in beside her and held her and said hey, hey, hey, as she cried. As you do.

It didn't make much difference.

Never does.

***

She slept till long past noon and when she woke she tried to pretend that everything was okay, but she wasn't even fooling herself.

I waited till she'd had a shower, and coffee, and something to eat, and then I asked her, just casually, "How's it going, kid?"

"You never finished the story," she said, not bothering to fake that she was alright. We have neighbouring bedrooms. She can't fake for shit, we both knew that. "You didn't say whether-"

She stopped.

"It's okay," I said. "Ask me anything."

"Did your parents really kill your sister?"

"No, they didn't," I said.

Tish shook her head, as if I were a sudden stranger.

"But you told the shrink at the hospital that they did."

"Yes. And the police. And the social workers. And they all believed me. In fact, there was enough evidence for a conviction. My parents went to prison, and they committed suicide there. Not because they'd done it, but because they hadn't."

Tish stared at me. I watched her calmly, waiting for the inevitable next question.

It came out in a whisper.

"Amy, did you kill your sister?"

I shook my head. "No. I didn't kill my sister."

Tish breathed with relief. But then another question. There's always more.

"Then why? Why tell everyone your parents did it?"

I imagined my parents' ghosts, there at my brother's Christmas dinner table, happy in the bosom of their family, even though the living could not see them. Would they be bitter at their lives cut short? No, they wouldn't, even though their deaths had been ugly.

"The dead are very forgiving," I said. "There is a peace in heaven. They let bygones be bygones there."

"So who killed her?"

I sighed.

I hate that question.

It makes the world go blurry, like a night of vodka suddenly taking hold.

"Amy, who killed her?"

The question was like another double vodka on top of all you've had before. It was like late night and just wanting to sleep.

"Who killed who?" I said, trying to keep up.

All this talk of people killing each other. It had been the longest night. All I wanted was bed and eyes-shut and silence.

"Amy, look at me."

No, I didn't think I wanted to do that.

"Amy, it's Tish."

Do you know how much effort it takes, to keep everything going?

Do you know how much hard work it takes?

And always, the pressure, the pressure.

From everywhere.

"I used to like you," I said. My voice sounded slurred, even to me.

"Do you need pills or something?" she said. "Amy, focus."

She was a long way away.

I was too far gone.

It's always the way.

As soon as the killing questions start, things begin to drift out of order, and I really can't be going round dragging them all back into place.

I let them just be whispers, mostly, the questions, the voices.

Somewhere someone was saying: "Amy, I'm calling an ambulance."

An ambulance?

Preposterous, I'm fine.

But the words no longer came out.

***

The police came, as they do on such occasions.

I felt sorry for Tish. I'd lied to her, long ago, when I had told her there wasn't a twist.

Of course, there was.

Of course there was a fucking twist.

With ghosts, there always is.

***

But some girls are stronger than others.

Tish was a strong one. She came to see me in hospital, as soon as my doctor declared I was fit enough for visitors.

She brought a teddy bear. That made me smile. Gifts are always better when they're furry.