Authors: Brenna Yovanoff
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Copyright © 2014 Brenna Yovanoff
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
who was there.
THE LAST DAY
hen I was little, everything twinkled. Trees and clouds all seemed to shine around the edges. At night, the stars were long tails of light, smeared across the sky like paint. The whole county glowed.
Back then, my life was mostly pieces—tire swings and lemonade, dogwood petals drifting down and going brown in the grass. Cotton dresses, bedsheets flapping on the line. An acre of front porch. A year of hopscotch rhymes.
On the hottest days, I kicked off my shoes and ran out to the middle of the low-water bridge. The air was warm and buzzing. The creek raced along under me, bright as broken glass.
I jumped rope with my cousin, who was older and shiny. Shiny like an opal ring or a ballerina, and Shiny because it was her name. She hooked her pinky in mine and swore how when we were old enough, we’d run away from Hoax County and live in a silver camper on a beach somewhere. We’d be best friends forever.
Later, when everything went dark, I tried to think how the bad thing had started, but the pieces wouldn’t come. No matter how I walked myself back through that last day, there was always a point where time stopped. A sheet seemed to loom in my mind, and no matter how I pressed my nose against it, I couldn’t see past.
There were things I knew. I knew my mama had been making skillet chicken for dinner, because I remembered running out to the garden to pull some onions for the gravy, and how when I crawled down through the vegetable patch, the place under the tomatoes smelled like hay. It was warm and sweet, and for a while, I just sat smelling it, singing the first line of “Farmer in the Dell” over and over because I couldn’t remember the rest, and counting my numbers.
The vine above me had four little tomatoes all hanging in a row, and in the middle, there was a fifth one. It was like the others, except not. Because instead of silkworm green, the fifth was gray—heavy as an elephant and made of stone, growing in the garden like a living thing, and I laughed because it was a miracle.
I was too little to think a miracle could be anything but good.
Later, it seemed that the whole world began and ended with that tomato. Not with the voices of men, or the way every room in the house got hot. But with that one stone marvel in the garden. With the clean white sheet in my head, and a silver needle pinched between someone’s fingers. Hands that reached to close my eyes and a whisper like a spell.
Hold still and sleep. Wait till someone comes for you.
But no one came.
In the canning closet, the air got hard to breathe. Jars broke open. Cherries splashed my face and arms, hissing on the bricks, but if it was hot, I couldn’t feel it.
Then everything got quiet and that was worse. The shouting stopped and the fire burned out. I thought I might be the only person left in the world.
Before, I’d never been scared—not of deep water or falling off the swing set, or any of the other things that kids from town cried about. And never of the dark.
Dark was my best time. In summer, when the sun went down and the moths flapped against the screen, I sat in my mama’s lap on the back porch, looking out at the tupelo trees, wearing my blue-fairy nightgown and holding my flannel bear. Mama wound the key in its back and sang along—
Oh my darling, oh my darling.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter how dark the world gets. You can be saved by the smallest thing. I played the Clementine song, turning the key again and again, winding up the memory of her voice until the music turned slow and jangly and the flannel bear wore out like a sock.
The closet was in the back corner of the cellar, and I had never liked to go down there. The floor was made of concrete and the air smelled swampy. Spiders lived behind the closet door and in the cracks between the shelves.
Now it was the only place in the whole world I was even really sure of.
The farm where we lived was on a shallow little branch of the Blue Jack Creek, and the water fed the stands of willow trees that grew around the house. Before, my mama had always kept them in their place, but now they stretched out, reaching in the dirt. They pushed until the wall caved in. Roots grew over my body.
The shoulders of my nightgown let go and my elbows poked through the sleeves. My hair got long, snapping its rubber bands. Sometimes I could feel my bones growing.
Every little stitch and seam told me I was changing, leaving behind my old, baby self, but when I tried to think how I must look, the picture wouldn’t come. The more I tried to see it, the harder it was to see anything but that white sheet, and then the voice would rise up in my ear, getting louder, echoing around me.
Hold still and sleep
It was easier to turn toward it, to follow it down into a jumble of dreams—hills and creeks and hollows. Trees to climb, fields going on forever.
I fell headfirst into a sinkhole of pretty things, and the world inside your eyelids is just as big as the one outside.
THE GIRL IN THE CELLAR
he voices came from a long way off, and at first, they didn’t mean anything. They were just mutters in some broke-down cellar, and I had long since stopped being Clementine in the canning closet.
In my dreams, I was Clementine running through the grass. I was alone, or else with a boy. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew him from some other time, or maybe I’d only just invented him. We raced across an open meadow, toward a tree covered in blue and purple flowers, which meant it wasn’t real, but I ran to it anyway.
Or I might have been someplace else. Maybe sitting in my own living room, listening to the TV and stitching pictures on a quilt square with my mama’s embroidery thread, or standing on a lawn somewhere, watching crowds and colored lights—a party of white tablecloths and paper lanterns. I just couldn’t remember if it was a place I’d been to once, or a life happening far away, or something I was only now making up. I’d been living on dreams so long it was hard to know if any one of the fifteen things happening inside my head was real.
Then someone spoke, closer than any of the ghost-people at the party, than any of the voices in my dreams.
Nothing down here but dry rot and trash.
A boy’s voice, with an accent thicker than was common for Hoax County. Almost thick enough to cut.
He sounded bored with the trash and with the dry rot. Bored with the whole business—maybe even with himself—and hoarse like he’d been shouting.
Also, though, he sounded real.
In the moldy dark of the closet, I opened my mouth. The sheet and the sharp, warning voice were there at once, ordering me quiet, saying
, but I’d already been waiting for so long. I was done with that. On the other side of the door were real people and I was going to make them hear me.
I tried to shout, but it was no good. My throat was too dry to make words. My arms wouldn’t move to pound on the wall. I stood in the dark, with roots tangled in my hair, bits of glass sticking to my skin, still holding the windup bear. The flannel was squishy with groundwater, and I squeezed hard, digging my fingers into the clockwork. The song came whining out, broken from how many times I’d played it. It only clanked one line,
Oh my darling, oh my darling,
before grinding to a stop.
I could hear feet kicking around through junk and broken glass, too many to be just one person. Then they stopped, and the whole place got so still it hurt my ears.
The breathless silence went on so long I thought I would nearly go crazy, and then the first boy spoke again, close to the wall. “Did you hear that?”
Someone answered from farther off, and I could hear the way the words rode up and down, saying
what are you talking about
I don’t hear anything
let’s leave, let’s leave
The roots had all grown over me, twisting around my arms and between my fingers, and the sweetest sound in my life was the ripping noise when I pulled my wrist free.
I wrenched the bear’s key a half turn, a full turn. Then the clockwork caught, singing out its broken song, tinkling in the dark.
Oh my darling Clementine, thou art lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry Clementine.
And I waited.
“I’m telling you,” said the first voice, close to the wall. “There’s something in there.”
Yes. Yes, there’s something—here, I’m here. Please come find me, I’m here!
But no one answered. I could feel myself sinking, running out of hope. Already half-willing to let go, to fall straight back down into dreams.
Then came the dry
of someone running their hands over the wall, feeling along the bricks.
“Check this out. I think there used to be a door. Here—Cody, help me get it clear.”
There was a scraping noise like chalk on a driveway, and I told myself it wasn’t how it sounded, it wasn’t someone pulling out the bricks, because if I let myself believe in rescue and it turned out I was wrong, I would sink right down in the cold black dirt and die of the despair.
But the scraping got louder. The voice in my ear had stopped telling me to wait.
There was a crash, a burst of light against my eyelids, and the bricks fell away in a storm of noise and dust. My heart beat harder, and now he was in the canning closet with me.
“Oh my God,” he said, and then his hands were on mine, so warm they nearly hurt. He grabbed my wrists, peeling back the willow roots, yanking so hard my whole body jerked.
I tried to help him, but I could barely move. He was touching my face, steadying my head as he unwound the roots in my hair, tearing me away from the wall.
Then I was falling. I knew I should catch myself, but my bones felt loose and unstrung. It had been an age since I’d taken a single step, and my legs wouldn’t move. My eyes wouldn’t open.
“Jesus,” he said, catching me around the waist. “Would one of you
me? Get her arms!”
No one came to get my arms, though, and he dragged me out himself. I could smell his shirt and his hair, like leaves and summer and fresh air.
He went stumbling back with his arms around me and we fell hard on the floor. The bump when we landed seemed to knock something loose. My fingers spread wide and then made fists. My arms and legs began to tingle. When I turned my head, he seemed to glow against my eyelids, and I knew he must be the hero of the story, just like in all the books.
, I thought. This is the
. This is the prince who saved me.
I lay in his lap with his knees digging into my back and waited for him to kiss me and break the spell. Instead, he scraped his thumb across my mouth, wiping away the dirt. The rush of fresh air was almost too much to take. I coughed on it, trying to remember how to breathe without choking.
“Holy hell,” someone said from over in the corner. “Holy everloving hell. Fisher, what have you
He said it loud and quick, sounding so scared that for a second, I was sure they’d leave me there, lying in the cellar with all the bricks and broken glass.
“Give me your shirt,” was all Fisher said.
“Are you crazy?” said one of the other boys. I thought there were two, but their voices were enough alike I couldn’t tell them apart. “I’m not messing with that. You do it, Luke.”
“No way I’m letting anything of mine touch anything like her. Fisher, you don’t know what she
Fisher didn’t answer, but there was a shuffling noise above me and this time when he touched my face, it was with a wadded-up cloth. It felt like cotton, warm from the sun, and it smelled like him.
“Who are you?” he said. When he leaned down, I could see him printed on the inside of my eyelids, a bright mess of colors like a paint splotch in the shape of a person. “How did you get here?”
I tried to answer, but my voice felt ruined. I wanted to tell him that I was Clementine DeVore and he was scrubbing my face too hard and this was my cellar and my memory was a clean white sheet and what was he doing here in my cellar, but all that came out was a sigh.
One of his friends spoke then, slow and soft. “Fisher, this is just too freaky.”
“I know,” he said, holding my face between his hands.
“Well, how do you know she ain’t some creep down-hollow?”
Fisher crouched over me, still scrubbing my forehead and my cheeks. “I don’t, so just shut up. God, look at all this soot.”
I tried to turn my head, but he had his palms pressed hard against my cheeks. The shape of him was a warm blur on the inside of my eyes, twinkling with gold.
“Hold still,” he said. “You have to hold still. There’s busted glass everywhere.”
“Look at her eyes,” said one of the other boys under his breath. “If that’s no fiend, I don’t know what is.”
The word was ugly, and the way he said it was worse.
“I’m not deaf,” I said, and my voice was dry and scratchy, more grown-up than the one I remembered, but it was mine. “And I don’t know how your mother raised you, but mine taught me it was rude to go throwing around a word like
The three of them got very quiet. I could feel their stillness in the air, the way they had all stopped breathing.
Then Fisher laughed, a short, barking laugh. “Looks like she’s got more manners than you, whatever she is.”
He turned away from me, like he might be about to stand, and when he did, the light around him faded.
“No,” I said, before I could even think about it. “Don’t go. Come back where I can see you.”
see me,” Fisher said. “Your eyes are shut.”
But he leaned closer, putting his shirt against my face again, and in one long breath, I was nearly swallowed up by all the things I’d lost. I remembered days spent laughing in the knotweed down by the creek, nights out in the fields and the woods, skimming through the long grass like a ghost, a blanket spread over the ground and Shiny, my Shiny, with her fast, flashy laugh and her finger hooked through mine.
“You smell like a picnic,” I said, struck again by how strange my voice was—like a picture doubling over itself.
“And you smell like mildew.” His voice was rough, but for just a second, I thought I could hear him trying not to smile.
He was checking the lace at the edges of my nightgown, sliding his fingers along the insides of my cuffs. He pulled the collar away from my neck, following it around until he found a lumpy knot of cloth that had been pinned there since the world went dark, a strange weight against my collarbone.
“What are you doing?” I whispered, but he didn’t answer until one of the other boys said it too, sounding small and scared.
“What is that? What’s she got around her neck?”
Fisher tugged at my collar, unfastening the knot. “I don’t know, but it looks like one hell of a trickbag.”
The third boy spoke from farther off, and if I’d thought he sounded scared before, it was nothing compared to how his voice wavered and cracked now. “Then don’t
with it. You don’t know what kind of craft is on that thing.”
Fisher laughed that short, dog-bark laugh again and put the twist of cloth into my hand, closing my fingers around it. “The kind that can keep a girl shut up in a basement for God knows
long, and she lives.”
, Fisher! Just—what are we going to do?”
“I’m taking her down to the Blackwood place.”
Right away, the other two began to argue, talking over each other. “No, no way. You can’t go messing with hexers and fiends. It’s no business of Myloria Blackwood’s that we found some crooked girl down in some burned-out house.”
Fisher slid his hands underneath my back. “It’s Myloria’s sister that lived out here, and by my count, that
it her business. So I’m taking this one down there, and if you’re going to help, then help. If you’re not, you can find your own way home.”
Without another word, he scooped me up, one arm hooked at my knees and the other around my waist. When he lifted me, the shoulder of my nightgown split wider. The air felt damp and cool against my skin.
“Here,” he said, jostling me higher against his chest. “Grab on around my neck.”
“Why don’t they like me?” I whispered, getting my arms up, feeling around for his shoulder. “What’s wrong with me? I never did anything to anyone.”
Fisher was quiet for a second and when he answered, he sounded strange.
“It’s not your fault,” he said. “They’re just nervous about how your eyes are sewed shut.”