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Summertime and the Living is Super Difficult

By Tu Ahn Dinh

Boston, Massachusetts, has a school holiday called “Evacuation Day” (http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/2014/03/17/evacuation-day-what-that/l2CpHeGoU7Jf4ePCJ1mWjK/story.html). I learned about it because (ironically) I left New York for the city that celebrates expelling foreigners from its territory!

So, surprise! I left Greenwillow Books after three wonderful, hilarious, enriching years with an imprint I continue to consider as family. Though I miss New York and publishing tremendously, I’m happy to announce that I was accepted into the Boston Teacher Residency, which is a yearlong, full-immersion teaching certification program that will allow me to earn my master’s degree while simultaneously training in a public elementary classroom.

I went through orientation without once participating in trust falls, an activity I have always adored on the grounds of human comedy alone. Despite that, I’m now fully immersed in my first course and I’m very excited (and scared) to see how the rest of the year plays out. Once I have a functioning camera, I’ll try to upload pictures so that you may all enjoy the evolution of my face from youthful to haggard as my responsibilities increase.

Sincerely,
Ms. Dinh
Cohort 12 Elementary Teacher

PS: Upon reflection, my only regret is that I left New York just as the ban on small weasels was about to be lifted. Alas.
http://www.cnn.com/video/data/2.0/video/us/2014/05/28/lead-pkg-carroll-deblasio-ferret-ban.cnn-ap.html

A Curious Contest for Curious Readers . . . Part Four

The Cabinet of Curiosities, a collection of 36 sinister tales by Stefan Bachmann, Claire Legrand, Katherine Catmull, and Emma Trevayne–aka the Curators–is available now! Publishers Weekly said in their fabulous starred review, “This collection of 36 short dark fantasies from Bachmann, Catmull, Legrand, and Trevayne aspires to sit on the same shelf as Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and succeeds admirably.”

For those of you stopping by our blog for the first time (welcome all) here’s how the contest works: Read the exclusive story below, enter the raffle, answer the question, and win this signed print by the cabinet’s brave and talented illustrator Alexander Jansson. This contest is open to all but the curators themselves and the staff of Greenwillow Books. It will end Friday at midnight, and we’ll select the winner on Monday.

Knives

by Stefan Bachmann

“Yabba, where’re my boots?”

The girl stood in the dark of the hovel and raged. She was tiny. Her knees stuck out like knobby fists. Her nose ran and her fingers were cracked with dirt and cold. A wind rushed through the chinks in the hovel’s crooked door, carrying the smell of onion and ice, but it was not enough to stir that nest of hair on her head, so thick were the knots and tangles. “Where are they?”

Yabba sat in the corner. He only scowled, whittling furiously at a piece of wood.

“Where are they, Yabba?” the girl snapped. “Those were my boots. What’d you do with them?”

Yabba nicked his finger and hissed, sucking the blood. He looked at the girl. Then his lips curled back. “I sold ’em. Needed the coin.”

The girl let out a screech and flew at him. She’d scratched him halfway across his face before he could even shout.

“You sold ’em?” she screamed. “You sold my boots?”

Yabba regained his balance and threw the girl across the hovel. She crashed into the wall and fell, a heap of rags.

“To the tinker,” he said, wiping his face. “Out back of Olga’s.” He set to whittling the wood again, breathing hard. “Go get ’em if you want ’em.”

The girl sat up. There was blood on her head, but she seemed not to notice it. “Those were my boots,” she said, quieter now. “Mam gave them to me ’fore she left. They were mine, Yabba!” She began to blink quickly, her eyes glistening in the light of a little fire.

“Well, now they’re the tinker’s,” said Yabba. “And you can just shut up about Mam. She weren’t your mam any more ’n she was mine. Go to sleep, and tomorrow you get something valuable, you hear? Something we can use so that I don’t have go out and sell your grotty boots. Lace, or red berries, or something fancy. I’m going to need it.”

 *

 The girl came back the next day with a bundle of twigs, green and uneven, torn from the shrubs beyond the river fork.

“That don’t look like lace to me,” Yabba said when he saw it. “What else?”

“Nothing,” said the girl. Her teeth were gritted, but she was not as wild as usual. She had gone rather quiet. “Twigs was all I found. That’s all there was today.”

For a moment Yabba stared at her. Then he said, “And what d’you expect me to do with twigs?” His black hair was in his face, sticking to his forehead.

“You could sell ’em,” the girl said. “I don’t know. It’s all I got this time.” The girl wouldn’t look at him.

Yabba threw her out the door and she slept that night under the drooping thatch, her feet in the cold rain. When morning came, she ran away up the hill on the other side of the town and got a knife from under the tree that grew there.

*

The girl brought the knife back to the hovel. It was a fine knife. It had a manticore in red carnelian on its hilt and a sheath of finest leather.

“Yabba!” she shouted, and pounded on the door. “Yabba, I have something! Lemme in! Lemme in, or you can’t have it.”

Yabba opened the door. He took the knife and looked it over. “Should do,” he said. “No more of this twig stuff, now, or you’ll be staying outside permanent-like.” Then he left, and he didn’t come back for a whole day and night.

*

 Yabba came back with a black eye, and two yellow teeth in the palm of his hand.

“They didn’t want it!” he screamed. “They didn’t want your stupid knife. ‘Where’d you get a knife like that?’ they said. ‘Ain’t no place we can sell that knife without getting hanged,’ they said. I want coin! Silver and gold, or I’ll throw you out!” He hurled the knife into the dirt at the girl’s feet. Then he stormed away again, slamming the door so hard the whole hut shivered.

The girl picked up the knife and folded it gently into the shreds of her dress.

 *

Yabba didn’t come back to the hovel for a week. When he did, he wanted coin again. The girl didn’t have any. She hadn’t left the house, though she didn’t tell Yabba that. She offered Yabba the knife again, but Yabba just spat. He was afraid, then angry, turning circles and growling like a cornered dog.

“What now? What do I do now? You always get something. A pair of gloves or some honey or lard or something. Now what do I do?”

“I want my boots back, Yabba,” the girl said. Her eyes were on the watery broth she was stirring.

Yabba shouted, going hoarse about the money he needed to pay off some people. The girl kept stirring. Her hand was tight around the wooden spoon.

“Those were my boots,” she kept saying. “Those were my boots, Yabba, and Mam gave them to me and I want them back. I asked at Olga’s. The tinker you sold them to’s not there no more.”

“’Course he’s not there!” Yabba shouted, before he got really mad. “It’s been a fortnight. He’ll be halfway to the moon by now.”

 *

 The girl knelt on a hill under a solitary tree. A heap of knives lay against its roots. The lower ones were black, gnawed upon by damp, but the ones close to the top still glinted. They were all very fine, with elaborate sigils in the likenesses of dragons and hens and manticores.

“I got another one for you, Mam. You listenin’? I got another one.”

The girl laid a knife on the top of the pile. It had a bit of dirt on its tip. Then the girl rested her head on her knees and stayed that way until long after the sun had gone down and the wind blew sharp and cold over the back of the hill.

 *

It was morning when the girl made her way through the town toward the hovel. It had rained during the night, and the day was cold and drizzling. Halfway down the street, in front of the church, she came upon some townspeople, huddled together. They were silent, looking at something on the ground.

“What is it?” the girl asked, edging up to an old woman who was standing a little apart from the others. The woman looked at her a moment, but said nothing. The girl walked around to the other side of the huddle.

Something was lying on the ground. All she could see of it were the bare feet, white and swollen against the black mud.

“Who is it?” she whispered. “Who’s that on the ground?”

“A tinker,” one of the men said, before going back to staring.

“From up north,” said another.

“No great loss,” said a third. “But for the way it was done. Dreadful. Like some sort of beast, only bigger. Not like anything around here. Not like wolves.”

The girl didn’t wait with the townsfolk. She ran back to the hovel, feet sliding in the mud.

 *

A woman hurries about the hovel, rushing from corner to corner, wrapping a heel of bread, lighting a lantern. She tries to be quiet, but she is not quiet enough. A girl wakes from the straw in the corner.

 “Mam?” she asks. Her voice is scratchy with sleep. “What you doin’, Mam?”

 The woman goes very still, her back to the girl. She closes her eyes. Her face is worn and thin.

 “I have to leave for a while,” she says. Her hand closes around the warm glass of the lantern, trying to block out the light, but the girl is already standing up in her little bed, shaking.

 “Why you going, Mam? Why you taking all those things?”

 The woman’s skin is like leather, hardened from winters and summers and falls. She turns and reaches out a finger, brushing it over the child’s face.“Now, deary. No crying. You’ll see Mam again. You’ll see me one day.”

 “Don’t leave, Mam. Don’t leave me with Yabba. I don’t like Yabba!”

 But the woman is already turning. She’s at the door, heaving her sack. “I have to,” she whispers. “I’m ten kinds of dead if I stay.”

 “Why?” the girl cries, and it’s a piercing sound, like a whistle. She looks as if she wants to follow the woman, but she’s still rooted to the bed of straw.

 “He’s after me,” the woman says. She pulls up her shawl, black and crimson, shadowing her face. “He’s after me and he won’t ever stop. I stole something from him, you see. Years ago. I thought it would be good and help me, but it wasn’t good, and he knows my scent. He’s been chasing and chasing me all these years, and he’s close now. So close. But he won’t have those boots. He won’t have them back. You keep them, all right? You keep them and you use them.”

 “Mam!” the girl says, shifting from foot to foot on the bed. “I’ll help you, Mam! He won’t catch you; I’ll take care of you!”

 The woman half turns in the doorway, a dark shape against the blue night. The girl can’t see her expression, a sad smile on cracked lips. “Oh, deary. Nothing can save me now. Nothing but a good sharp knife.”

 *

That night the girl woke in a sweat. “Mam?” she called.

“Shut up.” Yabba turned over in the thick blackness. “Go to sleep.”

The girl eased up onto her elbows. Her shoulders were trembling. “Yabba?” she said, after several minutes. The word stuck in the dark like a tuft of wool. “Yabba, why’d Mam go?”

“I said, shut up.”

“Why’d she leave, Yabba?”

Yabba lurched up and dragged her to him by the scruff of her neck.

“She weren’t our mam! She weren’t nothing but a witch, you hear? A good-for-nothing witch. The townsfolk say she was a troll’s wife ’fore she ran, and only witches make troll wives. Now shut up about it! I can’t take this no more. I can’t take your stupid talk. Tomorrow you get me something good like you used to, or I’ll burn this place down and run away and you can go house to house and see how they like you there.”

 *

They found her the morning after she had fled, facedown in the mud, a half-mile out of town. Something had attacked her on the road, torn her throat out. A lantern lay by her side, cracked open, oil dripping into the wagon ruts. It mingled with the blood, black and crimson.

 There was no funeral. A group of townsfolk carried the body up the hill and dug a grave under the yew tree. No one came to mourn. Only a young girl was there, hair like a bird’s nest, watching as the dirt fell onto the white, white face.

 *

Two days later, a constable stood at the door of the hovel, black boots in a mirror puddle, cape billowing in the drizzle.

“No use hiding in there, girl. There’s a town full of witnesses seen you break into the Strevlovs’ house yesterday.”

Yabba stood in the back, cowering. He shoved the girl forward. The girl looked up, her eyes huge.

“Why’d you do it?” the constable asked. “I know why you took the money, but why all those knives? You must have known you wouldn’t get away with selling them here.”

The girl picked herself up, not looking at the constable. “I couldn’t get ’em no other way,” she said. Her voice was soft. “I had to get something, and I can’t walk far no more.”

“She’s crazy,” Yabba growled, stepping forward and then back again. “Go lock ’er up. I can’t stand it.”

“You shut your mouth,” the constable snapped. He didn’t take his eyes from the girl. His eyes were hard, but not all the way to the bottom. “You’re in a heap of trouble, my girl. Come. You’ll not be staying here.”

 *

The girl lay in a dank cell. Wind whistled through the cracks in the gray wattle-and-daub walls. Water dripped from the ceiling. An iron bucket caught it with little plinks.

After a day or so, a key ground in the lock. The constable was there, boots freshly blacked.

“We found your stash, child. Up on the hill by old Sheema’s grave.”

The girl said nothing.

“How’d you get all those knives? From halfway ’cross the country, some of them. And the one on top––from Lord Naryeshkin’s own larder. His castle’s seven leagues from here!”

The girl looked up at the man, then through him as if he were made of glass. She was seeing the tree, and Mam, and all the things that would never save her.

“It weren’t so far,” she said quietly. “I had boots then.”

 

***

You can find the Curators online . . . should you dare to. They flit in and out of twitter, where they are posting lines from stories in the collection every day.

Stefan Bachmann: Blog and Twitter

Katherine Catmull: Blog and Twitter

Claire Legrand: Blog and Twitter

Emma Trevayne: Blog and Twitter

a Rafflecopter giveaway

A Curious Contest for Curious Readers . . . Part Three

The Cabinet of Curiosities, a collection of 36 sinister tales by Stefan Bachmann, Claire Legrand, Katherine Catmull, and Emma Trevayne–aka the Curators–goes on sale on May 27.

For those of you stopping by our blog for the first time (welcome all) here’s how the contest works: Read the exclusive story below, enter the raffle, answer the question, and win this signed print by the cabinet’s brave and talented illustrator Alexander Jansson. Come back next week for the final story and a different print! This contest is open to all but the curators themselves and the staff of Greenwillow Books. It will end Friday at midnight, and we’ll select the winner on Monday.

Anyone Home?

By Katherine Catmull

 

“Anyone home? It’s me.”

There was no answer. The boy used his new key, warm from his pocket against his cold fingers. He turned the cold knob. The door creaked open.

“Hey, anyone home?” he called again.

His footsteps on the old wooden floor sounded hollow, clock-clock-clock; nothing like the soundless carpets of their old house. Through the row of wide windows on his left, he saw the nearby woods turning black under the dimming sky. It was only early October, but already swirls of dry yellow and brown rattled in every gust of wind.

A lamp sat on the bare, dusty floor, and he switched it on. His family had only moved in the day before. The boy walked among piles of cardboard boxes, clock-clocking across the room. He didn’t know this new house—this very old house, but new to them, and much bigger than their last house. He didn’t know whether his parents could hear him calling from the front room if they were upstairs, or if they were down.

In the kitchen, last night’s empty pizza box sat on a yellow-tiled counter.

“Anyone here? Anyone home?”

And for a moment the house seemed to answer him, but he couldn’t quite hear what it said. He was quiet, listening. Was it only the emptiness, echoing back?

The boy slid his cold fingers up his wrist and under the arms of his sweater. He didn’t know how to turn the heat on in this house.

A cold draft slipped down the neck of his sweater, like fingers.

Oh: the basement door was open—just a crack. Just a crack leading into the blackness of the stairwell. That must be where the draft was coming from. His dad must be down there, setting up his workroom.

The boy slipped through that cracked-open door and into the darkness. He felt the air for the string to pull the light, but it was too high, just too high for him to reach, though he could feel it with the tips of his fingers.

So he walked down the narrow wooden steps in the dark, feeling his way. At the bottom of the stair, he took a few steps in.

A silky sleeve brushed across his face.

He stumbled backward, thinking, a cobweb, it was obviously a cobweb. But for some reason, at the touch of the cold silk, he remembered the woman from next door, who the night before had brought them a welcome cake. She had stood in the doorway, smiling, but she wouldn’t come in, and wouldn’t look him in the eye. “It’s your first night in the house. You should have some of this ginger cake,” she had said. “You should all have some, tonight, for luck. It’s a special cake, for luck.” Then she’d smiled, as if she were joking. But her eyes hadn’t smiled at all.

His parents had called the cake delicious, licking crumbs from their fingers, laughing at the idea of lucky cake.

But the boy didn’t like ginger. And he had had no cake at all.

“Dad?” he called into the echoing dark. “Anyone here?”

And now he heard, he definitely heard, a whisper—unless it was only water running in the pipes.

But why would pipes say Yes, yes; here, here.

 And it was still so dark. If his father was here, why would it still be so dark?

“Anyone home?” he calls, and now his voice is high and thin, his throat is dry, and the cold of the basement runs through his veins, up and down his arms and legs. Shouldn’t his eyes be adjusting by now; shouldn’t he see something?

But he sees only darkness.

He hears something, though. Yes: now he hears it, he hears the voices, and now they are certainly voices, rustling and whispering around him. And although he hasn’t moved, although he has stood quite still, the cobwebs—are they cobwebs?—are all around him now, caressing his face, tangling like silk around his fingers and wrists, stroking the back of his neck.

“Anyone home?” he whispers.

We are, we are, they say, folding themselves around him. We’re home, they say, gathering him up, caressing him, muffling his screams. Yes, we’re home. We’re home. We’re home.

 *

A few minutes later, another key in the front door, his parents’ laughing voices, the rustle of boxes and packages.

“Anyone home?” they call.

But the only noise is the October wind singing through the door, and then the creaking of the door as it swings shut.

That is the only noise in the old house.

And that is the only noise there will ever be.

 

***

You can find the Curators online . . . should you dare to. They flit in and out of twitter, where they are posting lines from stories in the collection every day.

Stefan Bachmann: Blog and Twitter

Katherine Catmull: Blog and Twitter

Claire Legrand: Blog and Twitter

Emma Trevayne: Blog and Twitter

a Rafflecopter giveaway

A Curious Contest for Curious Readers . . . Part Two

Here’s a bit of what Kirkus Reviews had to say about The Cabinet of Curiosities in their starred review: “Along with a cast of evil magicians, oversized spiders, and other reliable frights, the stories throw children into sinister situations in graveyards, deceptively quiet gardens or forests, their own bedrooms, and similar likely settings. Said children are seldom exposed to gory or explicit violence and, except for horrid ones who deserve what they get, generally emerge from their experiences better and wiser—or at least alive. . . . A hefty sheaf of chillers—all short enough to share aloud and expertly cast to entice unwary middle graders a step or two into the shadows.”

For those of you stopping by our blog for the first time (welcome all) here’s how the contest works: Read the exclusive story below, enter the raffle, answer the question, and win this signed print by the cabinet’s brave and talented illustrator Alexander Jansson. Come back next week for a new story and a different print! This contest is open to all but the curators themselves and the staff of Greenwillow Books. It will end Friday at midnight, and we’ll select the winner on Monday.

The Cabinet of Curiosities, a collection of 36 sinister tales by Stefan Bachmann, Clair Legrand, Katherine Catmull, and Emma Trevayne–aka the Curators–goes on sale May 27.

 

Summer Springs

By Claire Legrand

 

If Julian had to stay in this car for one more second, he was going to start screaming. And that would probably make Mom and Dad and Summer sing even more loudly than they already were. Such a thing shouldn’t have been possible—they were practically wailing—but Julian knew from experience that it was.

Julian paused his music and tugged out his earbuds and squashed the hot gummy bubble of anger in his chest.

“Hello?” Julian said. “Are we gonna stop soon?”

But Mom and Dad and Summer were singing one of those round songs, which meant Julian had to hear the same song sung three different times by three different voices overlapping. It was chaotic, and nobody but Mom could sing worth anything, so it was also kind of painful.

Hello.” Julian kicked the back of his dad’s seat but not hard enough to get in trouble.

Dad stopped singing and looked at Julian in the rearview mirror. “Almost, Julian. Don’t snap at me.”

Dad went right back to singing, but his voice sounded irritated now. Of course Dad was irritated. Mom and Dad and Summer loved the whole road trip thing: The junk food and the singing and stopping at random “special attractions” like oversized spools of thread and the birthplace of General Whoever who fought in Some War Who Cares.

But Julian always got sick in the car. Long trips made him nervous. Books were one thing, but Julian didn’t like going to real new places. Danger in real new places was totally possible. The people in real new places were weird and looked at you funny, and in real new places, you can’t close the book when things get too scary. Not that anything scary had ever happened to Julian, but if it ever did it would definitely be on one of these stupid road trips. Also, Julian was no good at singing so instead he listened to books or music on his headphones the whole time because that helped him relax.

Road trips made him feel both angry and left out. Why couldn’t he just have a good time and not be nervous or sick and just smile and sing lame car songs instead, like normal people did? Like Summer.

Julian looked at his sister and felt his chest bubble up again. He tended to get so angry at Summer. She was about to turn ten years old, and she was cheerful and golden-haired like a fairy tale princess, and everyone loved her. Summer could make friends with a fencepost, Mom always said.

So what if Julian wasn’t like that? So what if Julian was quieter and wasn’t good at making friends and didn’t like real new places? Julian knew he shouldn’t care. He was smart enough to know that everyone is different and it would be weird if the world was filled with all Summers and no Julians.

But he did care. It made him angry, and that made him feel bad. Summer was a good kid, and Summer understood Julian. She liked that he was quiet, and she was nice to him even when he was mean to her.

Summer put her hand on Julian’s hand and smiled, laughing at some joke Mom said. “Sing with us, Julian. Sing the next song with us?”

“No thanks,” snapped Julian, and snatched his hand away.

Summer darkened, like she was sunlight and Julian was a stormcloud. She curled into a little ball and looked out the window. She wasn’t singing anymore.

In the front seat, Mom sighed.

Dad looked even madder now, in the rearview mirror. “Apologize to your sister.”

“For what? For not wanting to sing?”

“For your tone.”

The bubble burst in Julian’s chest. He wanted to punch the back of Dad’s seat. But Dad had said they would have lemonade and fudge at this place, and Julian was starved, and punching probably wouldn’t get him anything. So he mumbled, “Sorry.”

Summer peeked over at him and smiled and patted him on the shoulder. Her fingernails were dirty. Her front teeth were crooked and goofy. Julian kept his face stony. Summer crossed her eyes and pulled her mouth into a weird shape.

“Dork,” Julian said, and Summer giggled, and Julian turned away, smiling.

Mom pointed, the map flying out of her hands. “There’s the exit!”

Dad swerved hard, and they made it. They passed a sign for Summer Springs, and Summer clapped, squealing. “That’s my name!”

Julian couldn’t even be mad at her. It was pretty cool to share a name with a nature park. It was why they’d chosen this place. Dad smiled and Mom smiled, and Summer traced the letters on the window with her pinkie.

*

Mom bought four cups of lemonade and four sticks of fudge, so when they started on the trail through Summer Springs, Julian’s stomach was full and his fingers were sticky.

Summer Springs was a park in the mountains, with a whole set of trails built into the rocks. There were stone bridges and rocky passages so small Dad had to suck in his belly to get through, and cliffs that looked out over the countryside. From Lover’s Leap, Julian could see five different states. If he squinted through Dad’s binoculars, he could see white houses buried in trees next to the highway.

But the place did have one weird thing about it: gnomes.

Little stone gnomes with colorful clothes and hats, placed throughout the trails. They dug ditches and planted flowers and stood frozen, waving their shovels at the people walking past.

“This is so . . . random,” said Julian, looking at a gnome in a purple shirt with a rake in one hand and his hat in the other.

Dad laughed. He was really getting a kick out of the gnomes. “People who build these attractions tend to be a bit eccentric, I guess.”

Mom giggled and took pictures of them. “I think they’re adorable! Such ugly little faces.”

“How can something be adorable and ugly?” said Julian.

“Oh, they can. You know, like those pug dogs.”

“Julian,” whispered Summer, tugging at Julian’s shirt. Whenever they passed a gnome, Summer went quiet. She shrank, like she was a flower and the gnomes were icy cold winter. “I don’t like them.”

“Why not?”

“They’re watching us. They have sharp teeth. They don’t like us, either. They’re watching us.”

“They’re not real, Summer. They’re just stupid statues.”

“They smell like . . . skin.”

“Oh, like you can smell the gnomes from all the way over here? The not-real, statue gnomes with their not-real, statue skin?”

Summer tugged on Julian’s arm, pulling him down the path. “I don’t like them,” she kept muttering, and she wiped her face with the back of her hand. “They’re watching us, they’re watching.”

Julian let Summer mutter and freak out or whatever it was she was doing. Sometimes Summer did stuff like this. She liked to daydream, and she didn’t read books because the stories affected her too much. They scared her so much she couldn’t sleep, or made her cry so hard she got sick, or made her so happy she’d get hyper like she did after eating candy on Halloween, except like a hundred times worse.

Summer was just being Summer.

Gnomes that smell like skin. What a dork.

*

Except for the whole gnome thing and Summer acting bizarre, Julian actually liked it at Summer Springs. The mountain breezes were cool, and that helped Julian’s car sickness. There were lots of trees, and at this one spot a bunch of white deer slept next to a creek.

The moment she saw them, Summer fell in love with the deer. “Julian, look at them!” Then she lay on her stomach to peer over the cliff and started talking to the deer like they were her babies. She even gave them names: Sweetheart, Sammy, Sammy Junior . . .

A twelve-year-old boy can take only so much of that, so after a minute or two Julian started looking around through the binoculars. He saw a rabbit, and a family with five kids on a wooden bridge, and an old man leading his three-legged dog up some steps. At the top, he let his dog drink from a bottle of water.

“If I were an animal, I’d want to be one of these,” Summer said, kicking her brown legs. “A white deer with long legs and big doofy ears.”

Julian rolled his eyes. “You already have big doofy ears.”

“Meanie!”

“You’re too close to the edge.” Julian put his hand on her collar.

Summer dusted off her knees and shirt and smiled up at him. “Nice meanie.”

“Weirdo.”

Dad was calling them, waving them over. Mom was taking pictures of a woodpecker.

“What animal would you want to be?” Summer said, squinting. It was really bright on the mountain, sunlight reflecting off the rocks like white glass. “If you were an animal.”

Julian walked toward his parents, Summer hot on his heels. “A monster.”

Summer scrunched up her face. “A monster isn’t an animal. It’s a monster.”

“Well, okay. A monstrous animal, then.”

Summer scratched her left leg with her right foot. “So you could scare people?”

“So people would leave me alone if I wanted them to.”

Summer was quiet. Mom was pointing at the mouth of a cave. “The Enchanted Caverns!” she said. “There are fairy tale dioramas inside. Scenes from famous fairy tales. That’s what the map says.”

“Seriously, so random,” said Julian, shaking his head.

Dad and Mom laughed and held hands.

Julian and Summer followed their parents past a white cottage built into the mountainside. On the cottage’s roof sat a gnome with wide white eyes and a toothy grin, and a purple checkered banner said THE ENCHANTED CAVERNS in faded letters. Julian could hear people laughing and talking inside.

“I wouldn’t, though,” said Summer decidedly. She stopped to pick up smooth dark pebbles and put them in her pocket. She glared up at the wide-eyed gnome. “I wouldn’t leave you alone, Julian, not ever. Even if you were a monster. Not even then.”

Julian took Summer’s hand. It was warm and small, and it made the last of Julian’s car sickness go away. Together, they stepped inside the cave.

*

At first, Summer was quiet and calm.

She held Julian’s hand as they walked through the Enchanted Caverns behind their parents. They saw other families, and other children, and Julian saw the old man carrying his panting three-legged dog. Twinkly music played from speakers in the ceilings, a dance-like song that made Julian think of one of his books, when the hero’s sneaking through a dark corridor, danger around every corner.

The music turned Julian’s skin into a field of goosebumps.

Creepy blue lights lit up the fairy tale dioramas and bled into the corridor. Julian peeked through each window to see them—the iridescent trees, the glowing figurines, their gnarled, sculpted hands. Red Riding Hood approaching the cottage where the wolf was waiting. Snow White in her glass coffin. Goldilocks, her face in shadows, running from three snarling black bears.

And occasionally, a little meadow of gnomes—gnomes picking flowers, gnomes planting vegetables. A group of gnomes sitting on a shelf in the ceiling, their black boots dangling over Julian’s head.

Through all of this, Summer remained quiet and calm, though her hand gripped Julian’s so hard that finally he ripped it away from her.

“Ow! What are you doing?” Julian hissed. “You’re hurting me.”

Summer grabbed his shirt. “I don’t like it in here.”

Julian was about to yell at Summer for being stupid, but something about the look on her face stopped him. “Well, we’ll just walk a bit faster. We’ll hurry through, and then we’ll be out in the sun again.”

“No, I don’t think so. Oh, no, I don’t think so.” Summer started pulling on her hair. When Julian tried to stop her, she grabbed his hands. “Julian. Julian!”

Julian turned away. He had never seen Summer like this, not even in her strangest moments. Surely someone would come. Surely Dad and Mom would hear Summer screaming and find them, take them by the hands and lead them out.

But Julian saw no one. He heard no one. All he heard was the twinkly music from the speakers overhead, and the soft drip-drip of water against stone. Everyone else passing through the caverns had disappeared. Everything was eerie and blue and dark.

“Dad?” He tried to yell, but no sound came out. His fear had come so quickly that it was like being hit in the stomach, or plunging into icy water. Julian couldn’t speak, or breathe, or move. “Mom?”

Summer threw her arms around Julian’s neck and screamed. “I won’t leave you, I won’t, I won’t. Even with monsters. Even with monsters.”

Julian tried to pry loose Summer’s arms, but she wouldn’t let go. “Summer. What are you talking about?” Julian felt like he wanted to cry. He didn’t understand why his sister was acting like this. He didn’t understand where everyone had gone. This was all happening so fast. “Summer, talk to me!”

“You shouldn’t be here,” came a voice. A whispery voice. A very-old voice. A too-old voice.

Julian whirled, and Summer stopped screaming, and there, at the bottom of the stone steps, crouched a tiny boy. His clothes were torn scraps. He was pale like he hadn’t seen the sun in years, and though his body was small, his face was tired and wrinkled.

Summer took the rocks from her pocket and threw them at the boy. “Get away from us. Get away, leave us alone!”

The boy dodged the rocks like they were nothing. “Shouldn’t be here,” he whispered. “Shouldn’t, shouldn’t. But too late now.”

Julian came out of his shock and grabbed Summer’s hand. He was shaking, but she was on fire. She was blazing hot, and steady. Her eyes snapped hatred.

“Actually,” Julian told the boy, “we were just leaving.”

“You aren’t leaving,” said the boy. “Neither of you. One to pay, and one to stay.”

One to pay, and one to stay. Dozens of voices said it, from somewhere Julian couldn’t see—from everywhere. They whispered it over and over, and Julian saw shapes moving in the shadows. Pale shapes, dark shapes, deformed shapes. They came into the blue light, little by little. They were all children—some boys, some girls, all bent and broken and backward, with faces too old for their bodies.

Julian backed up until he hit the wall. He kept Summer behind him. “Pay what? We don’t have any money.”

The broken child-things laughed. The first child-thing, the pale boy-thing, smiled a toothless smile. He had a pointed black tongue. His mouth opened too widely.

From behind Julian, Summer took off her shoe and threw it at the boy. He ducked, and it bounced away.

“It’s been a long time,” the boy said, “a very long time, since there has been anyone worth keeping.” The boy smiled, his jaw snapping open. “You’ll make them very happy. And it’ll be nice to have a new friend.”

“Keeping?” Julian felt sick. He could hardly stay standing. He felt the ridiculous urge to shove in his earbuds and turn on his music and close his eyes. That would make this go away. “You can’t keep us. We’re not staying.”

The child-things went quiet. They straightened, and their smiles faded. Now they were the ones looking afraid.

The pale boy pointed into the darkness. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, but you are. One will stay, and one will pay.”

Julian held tight to Summer’s hand, and turned around.

They came in a small, dark, slithering crowd. They crawled and crept, they dragged themselves along by broken yellow claws.

The gnomes, it seemed, were not gnomes at all anymore.

The gnomes, it seemed, had been hiding something . . . else.

Bits of torn bright clothing clung to their brown, bony frames. They had long pointed ears and long pointed snouts. Some had tails and some had rotting, stumpy wings. Some still wore their ruined gnome hats. They carried knives; their teeth were lined with blood.

“I don’t like them!” Summer said shrilly. She took off her other shoe and threw it at them, but it melted when it touched them, and turned into a thick black liquid like tar. The creatures swarmed over it, scooping it up with their hands. They fought over it, smearing it on their faces. They breathed deeply. They were smelling it.

“Smells like,” they growled, licking their lips. “Smells like child.”

“Fresh, frightened child.”

“Young, innocent child.”

Sweating, shaking Julian imagined that he was in a book. Yes. Yes, that had to be it. He was in a book, and the only way to get out of this was for the person reading the book to close the book and put it aside for the day.

“Close the book!” Julian yelled, waving his arms at the ceiling and jumping around like crazy. “Close it! Please, hurry!”

The creatures hooted and hollered. The pale child-things whispered to each other, hiding in the shadows.

“You,” wheezed the nearest creature, a spindly brown thing with limbs like a spider. It moved like a spider too—skittering here and there, crawling close to the ground. “You.” It pointed at Julian. The other creatures and the child-things fell silent. “You will pay.” It pointed next at Summer. It grinned widely, rotten teeth spilling out over cracked lips. “And she will stay.”

The creatures began to cheer. They beat on their chests, raked their claws against the stone, gnawed on their torn clothes.

The child-things rushed toward Summer. They were rushing toward Summer. Julian tried to stop them. He kicked them and punched them. He tore at their filthy clothes, and the fabric came apart in his hands like muddy leaves.

“No!” Julian cried. He reached for Summer and caught her hands, but the creatures were pulling him away, and he lost her. Their scabby brown fingers wrapped around his legs and arms, dragging him across the floor.

They were smiling down at him. They were raising their knives. Pay, pay, pay, they chanted. He will pay, pay, pay

“Fine,” said a small voice. “Fine. I’ll stay. I’ll stay here, if that’s what you want.”

The creatures stopped and let Julian go. He scrambled to his feet.

Summer stood there, hands in fists at her sides. She had that weird, faraway look like she used to get when she was allowed to read.

“I won’t leave my brother,” Summer said. “I told him I wouldn’t. So of course I’ll stay.”

The creatures stepped back, and back, and back, grumbling, groaning, their too-long arms dragging along the stone.

The child-things stared. The pale boy crept closer to Summer, on all fours like a scared dog.

“It’s been so long,” said the pale boy, “since anyone was brave enough. Since someone stayed instead of trying to run.”

“So long,” the other child-things whispered. “Years upon years.”

Summer found Julian’s hand. Julian grabbed it tight. “Well,” said Summer, “even if he were a monster, I wouldn’t leave without him.” She shivered and sneezed in the cold. “I said I wouldn’t.”

She looked like a normal Summer again, instead of strange, brave Summer. Or maybe both were the same. Julian wondered: Would he have stayed for Summer? Was he as brave? Maybe instead he would have tried to escape. It was impossible to know, and Julian felt cold and sick again, like in the car with the air conditioning blasting on him and too much junk food in his belly.

“Go,” said the pale boy. He touched Summer’s bare feet and then shrank back like she had burned him. “Go, now.”

The creatures, slinking and shuddering over each other down the corridor, were staring at Julian and Summer with cold dark eyes that glinted in the blue light. They were confused. Julian could see that. But for how long?

“Now,” whined the pale boy. He pushed Julian, and his hands left behind a stinging feeling on Julian’s skin. “Now.”

The child-things howled and ran deeper into the caves, and the pale boy went with them.

And the creatures—the horrible spider-thin creatures—reared up into a single great shape in the dark cavern. They shrieked and surged forward, spilling over the ground toward Julian and Summer like a wave of black water. Their nails clacked against the floor.

But Summer was fast, and Julian was faster. He led the way, pulling Summer hard, and hands grabbed at their legs and seized their clothes, but they didn’t stop.

When they hit the sunlight, it was like bursting out from underwater. Summer was coughing, and Julian was holding her up. Julian felt a hand grabbing at his leg and kicked back, but when he looked behind him, nothing was there but the mouth of the cave and a cheerful sign that said COME BACK SOON.

Dad found them and clapped them on the backs. Behind him, Mom was taking pictures of blue jays. The three-legged dog was on a bench getting his belly scratched.

“There you are!” Dad said. He was red-cheeked and happy. His shirt was sweaty, and his hat was crooked. “You two were right behind us, and then all of a sudden you weren’t. Thought I was gonna have to come get you.” He knelt in front of them and ruffled Summer’s hair. “Pretty cool in there, huh? Lots of things to see. And kind of spooky, huh?

“Dad.” Julian tried to say it a few times before he found his voice again. “Dad, promise me something.”

“Sure thing. Hey. Wait.” Dad leaned back and squinted at Summer’s face. “You all right, sweetie? Something scare you?”

Summer tried to smile but she didn’t let go of Julian. She held onto his arm and her fingers were white. Her cheek was warm against his arm, and this time, when Julian felt the hot bubble in his chest, it wasn’t gummy or bad. It was full of light, and it held Summer’s name inside it.

“Just promise me,” said Julian.

Dad scratched his head, pushing back his hat. “Well, sure. Anything. What is it?”

“If Summer ever asks me to sing with her again,” Julian said, squeezing his sister’s hand until he felt her squeeze it back, “make sure I do it.”

 

You can find the Curators online . . . should you dare to. They flit in and out of twitter, where they are posting lines from stories in the collection every day.

Stefan Bachmann: Blog and Twitter

Katherine Catmull: Blog and Twitter

Claire Legrand: Blog and Twitter

Emma Trevayne: Blog and Twitter

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A Curious Contest for Curious Readers…Part One

We are a mere four weeks away from the publication of The Cabinet of Curiosities: 36 Tales Brief and Sinister by Stefan Bachmann, Katherine Catmull, Claire Legrand, and Emma Trevayne, otherwise known as the esteemed and intrepid Curators.

As a special treat, a curious literary morsel if you will, the Curators have arranged to share with you four exclusive stories for your reading pleasure. Enter the raffle, answer the question, and win this signed print by the cabinet’s brave and talented illustrator Alexander Jansson. Come back next week for a new story and a different print! This contest is open to all but the curators themselves and the staff of Greenwillow Books.

 

Poppy and the Poison Garden

By Emma Trevayne

 

Behind the gate at the end of the lane, the poison garden grew.

Even if there hadn’t been a sign fixed to the iron railing, the children would have known exactly what was planted there. They would have known they were forbidden to enter, this being the source of their parents’ most frequent and hysterical warnings. “Don’t ever go in, are you listening?”

But there is a very particular kind of person who will take words such as these as a challenge, not a warning.

“You’re just scared,” teased Poppy’s brother.

You are,” she retorted.

The rest of the children laughed. It was easy to taunt one another like this since, no matter how hard they’d tried, not one of them had managed to find out how to get in. The stone wall was twice as high as a person, topped with spikes sharp as needles, and went on as far as they could see. One long, lazy summer afternoon they had followed it, looking for a crack or a hole or someplace where the heavy rocks had come loose. Many hours later, smeared with mud and scratched by brambles, they had ended up where they began, back at the gate under the sign with its warning that the plants within could kill a full-grown man.

“I want to see,” said one of the other boys.

“You want to see a man die?” asked Poppy, with far more curiosity than horror.

“’Course not, but I want to see what could do it. The plants in my garden are boring. All basil and whatnot.”

Everyone else, maybe a half dozen children in total, nodded in agreement. Poppy took her little brother’s hand and marched him back down the lane to their house for dinner. Beside their front steps, bright red poppies bloomed, planted there by her mother every year on Poppy’s birthday. They were pretty enough, but surely the things growing in the poison garden were much more exotic.

Poppy was quite a fan of exotic.

“Poppy, David, wash your hands, what have you been getting up to?” their mother asked.

“We were up at the garden,” said David, because younger brothers are very stupid and don’t know when to keep their mouths shut.

Their mother dropped a ladle. “You must never go in there!”

“We know,” said Poppy, rolling her eyes. “We couldn’t anyway; it’s all locked up. We were just outside.”

“Well, all right,” said their mother, stirring a pot of soup. “But I wish you’d find something else to do. There’s something not right about that place.”

Poppy had heard all the stories. She had heard that men disappeared inside the gates, that the only person with a key was an old woman nobody ever saw, that strange footprints, neither human nor beast, were sometimes seen on the dusty path. Those things couldn’t all be true, and anyway, it was just the kind of place about which such stories were told.

Frankly, she had her doubts that the garden was dangerous at all. Exotic, yes, but it wasn’t as if anyone was going in there and picking leaves for salad, and didn’t a person usually have to eat the wrong plants to get sick? That sort of thing happened all the time in books, some princess or other foolishly swallowing food someone had given her, without wondering whether or not it was truly a gift.

Funny, there was always an old woman in those stories, too.

 

Poppy blinked, still sleepy, unsure what had woken her. The moon was very full and bright beyond her window. No voices drifted up from downstairs, which meant it was late and her parents had gone to bed, but still too early for the birds to be chattering in their trees.

The long dusty path up to the garden glowed almost blue.

And someone was limping up toward the gates, doubled over, looking like a bundle of blankets propped up by a walking stick.

Poppy’s bare feet made no sound as she crept out onto the landing and down the stairs, pausing only for a moment to wonder whether she should wake David, who would want to see, too.

But he would make too much noise, and so she slipped through the front door alone. Sharp stones cut her toes and a chill wind bit through her nightshirt, but Poppy didn’t stop. She could just see the old woman ahead, almost at the gates. Poppy hurried, cursing very quietly whenever she stepped on something painful.

The gates, when she got there, were open.

“Hello?” Poppy called, one hand on the iron latch. There was no reply. “Can I come in?”

A warm breeze blew from the garden, scented with something sweetly gentle. Poppy stepped through the gate, into a warmth better suited to noon than midnight. Neat paths wove between flowerbeds, tall trees spread thick branches overhead. Moss, soft and green, curled over rocks, laying a hush over everything.

“Hello?” called Poppy again, and even to her own ears her voice was a whisper. There was no sign of the old woman, but it wasn’t completely silent. Something stirred nearby.

“Some kind of animal,” Poppy told herself as she ventured further into the garden. It was light enough to read the little signs in front of every plant and so she did, tasting the words, too beautiful to be bitter or poisonous. Oleander. Narcissus. Hyacinth. Why, her mother planted narcissus and hyacinth. They couldn’t be so very dangerous, no matter what the sign said.

“Foxglove,” she read next, looking first at the plant, then the sign, and then . . .

The bones in the flowerbed, tucked around the stems and leaves, scraps of cloth still clinging to shins and arms. One elbow bent, a hand clutching at where the heart would once have been.

Poppy stumbled back, her own heart racing as if she’d eaten the flowers herself. The skull grinned at her and she ran, not paying attention to the paths or direction until she had to stop, gasping for breath.

The gate was nowhere in sight. The garden walls were too far away to make out. And there, there were more bones, slumped against the trunk of a yew tree.

Also known as the Graveyard Tree, read the sign beside a foot, white in moonlight.

She wanted to scream, to yell for help, but no sound would come out and, in any case, she knew it wouldn’t do any good. She would just have to find her own way back, out of the garden and down the path and into her own warm bed, for she was suddenly very tired.

Her aching feet were as heavy as stones, big ones. But on and on she went, until suddenly . . . the air was sickly sweet. All around her, poppies bloomed red as blood. Truly, she hadn’t meant to step on them, but the moment she did, her bruised, cut feet didn’t hurt anymore.

“You’re mine,” she said to the flowers, though it didn’t make any sense to do that. “We have the same name.”

The poppies danced in the warm breeze.

Poppy knelt to touch the petals and look at their deep black hearts. Oh, they were so soft against her fingers and her legs and her cheek as she lay down among them, their perfume covering her like a blanket.

Blankets. A bundle of them stood on the path.

“Good night,” said Poppy. The walking stick rapped twice on the ground and the bundle turned away.

And Poppy closed her eyes.

 

You can find the Curators online . . . should you dare to. They flit in and out of twitter, where they are posting lines from stories in the collection every day.

Stefan Bachmann: Blog and Twitter

Katherine Catmull: Blog and Twitter

Claire Legrand: Blog and Twitter

Emma Trevayne: Blog and Twitter

a Rafflecopter giveaway