The Ghost in the Library

GhostInTheLibrary

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Charis Himeda

I.

Summer semester was over, but Sarah Marks was headed to the library. It was a perfect morning, hot under the steel-blue sky, cool in the shade of the polymer towers, but Sarah paid no attention to the weather. She walked quickly, past Frisbee-throwers and sunbathers on the trim grass of the quad, past the occasional abstracted prof and clusters of students giddy with newfound freedom.

No one noticed her as she went by, a slight form skirting the edges of their awareness. This was partly due to her own devices; she had discovered that unsolicited attention was usually more troublesome than flattering, so even on this warm day, her dress was conservative—a long-sleeved cotton blouse and a grey skirt. These served the additional purpose of making her look older than she was. Her slim figure melted into the shadows of the trees; only her hair marked her— it streamed in the wake of her passing, and when she emerged from the wooded path into the open field, it shone in the sun like polished obsidian.

The architecture of Westhall University was typical of most colleges, except for its main library, which was built of granite and brownstone in the Romanesque style. Next to the crystal polymer edifices that graced the campus, the library would have looked like a stodgy, brown-suited matron among sleek young girls. It managed to escape this indignity by being situated at the far end of a field flanked by sparse woods. Sarah admired it as she always did, feeling the sort of fondness a lover of history feels for a rare artifact. As she hurried up the steps to the entrance, she paused to run a hand over the stone wall, taking comfort from its sunbaked warmth, its unpredictable roughness. Too much was smooth and glossed over these days.

She hurried through the double doors of carved oak, then put her face to the Eyedentifier in the foyer. Once the retinal scan was complete, the inner doors slid open and Sarah entered the deserted main floor, pleased at the cool and unaccustomed silence. She crossed the marble lobby and seated herself at one of the computer kiosks along the west wall. Choosing from the main menu, she selected “Guided Tour” and then, under “Guide,” she chose “Dr. James Hazelton.”

“You again?” said a voice behind her, and Sarah swung around to face it. A man who looked to be in his mid-twenties, brown-haired and blue-eyed, had walked out from the psychology rows, shaking his head at her. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this? It isn’t even raining today!”

Sarah laughed. “If I only studied on rainy days, I’d have flunked out by now,” she said.

“Oh, are you here to study?” he asked. “Then I won’t trouble you further…” And he walked back into the row of microchips. Sarah ran after him.

“What’s gotten into you?” she asked. “Have you forgotten that you’re a public servant?”

“If only I could,” he said, smiling at her. “What’s on the menu for today?”

“The Witch Trials,” she said. “I’m taking Anthropology 230: A History of the Dark Arts, and I want to get a head start.”

“A History of the Dark Arts?” He stared at her in mock astonishment. “Isn’t that a bit fluffy for a nanobiology major? Or are you trying to branch out, maybe get accepted into a sorority?”

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Everyone has to take one of the experimental courses.”

“The Witch Trials…” he mused. “Salem in 1692, or Salt Lake City in 2112?”

“Salem,” she replied.

“All right,” he said, gesturing with one hand toward the towering ranks of stored information. “This way!”

He led her past the psychology and sociology rows, and into the history stacks. Each narrow black rectangle lining the shelves was a microchip representing a single volume, a tiny computer capable of storing and releasing information independent of the others. These microchips made up the bulk of the library’s offerings. Anyone who preferred the oldfashioned comfort of books was out of luck. Unless, of course, he or she wished to obtain the necessary permit, don a pair of gloves, and endure the stifling, low-oxygen conditions of the vaults where they were kept. Sarah had never known what it was like to curl up in an armchair on a rainy day with a musty volume of Tolkien or London or Bradbury, but she was fascinated by books all the same. The few times she had seen them, standing at attention like sentinels of a forgotten past—fat and slim, short and tall, all of them bearing cracked or faded bindings and yellowed pages—she had felt a dim sense of regret. But there was no denying the appeal and utility of the microchips. They were space-efficient, impervious to the ravages of time, and loaded with so many accessory programs that she had never fully explored any of them. As to why they were stacked in rows… it was as if people wanted the feel of a twentieth century library, even without the books.

Of course, she could peruse the stacks alone, activating the chips herself, but then she would miss out on all the advantages of a guided tour… she laughed as ahead of her, her companion’s dress changed from his standard brown suit to colorful African robes, to the uniform of a Belgian merchant fleet officer, to fifteenth century Chinese armor, to the bright skirts and bracelets of a feast day in the Dominican Republic, and on and on through a whirlwind of clashing colors and styles. He could activate the visual aspects of the microchips at will, and delighted in doing so at a dizzying pace. She always tried to count the different costumes, but once he quickened his stride, she gave it up. After a final flourish of changes, he came to a grinding halt near the far end of the row.

“Here we are. United States history… Salem Witch Trials… 652231–652243. Would you like the Visual Summary?”

“Skip it,” she said impatiently. He knew she hated the Visual Summary, one of the few accessory programs that was a waste of time. If she wanted to watch actors and actresses prance around in a parody of history, she’d rent an old movie.

His face took on a sly look. “Are you up for a trip down the Rabbit Hole?”

Sarah hesitated a moment, temptation warring with responsibility. She really did want to get a head start on the course.

“Maybe not today,” she said. He looked disappointed, and she knew why. The Rabbit Hole was the closest thing to freedom he had. Oh, why not, she thought. Tomorrow wouldn’t be too late to do some real studying. It was still summer, after all.

“Come to think of it,” she said, “after sharing a room with my older sister, I know something of the Dark Arts already. Let’s go!”

“You’re the boss,” he said, but she knew he was pleased. She followed him out of the stacks to an empty conference room, where they locked the door behind them. She waited in the darkness until she saw the curtain, visible as a faint ripple, a silvery disturbance of the air in front of her. She stepped forward and into a green valley wreathed in mist.

The Rabbit Hole was their pet name for something he had discovered only two weeks ago—a back-door entrance to a program hidden from the standard user. Creating virtual depictions in the real world (many holographic changes of clothing, for example) was old technology, but James had found that the opposite was also possible—creating a real depiction of oneself in the virtual world. As he explained it to Sarah, one could enter a holographic representation of the place and time described in each of the library’s microchip volumes. After embarking on several reconnaissance missions with a campus squirrel, and determining that the experimental animal could not be pierced by virtual spears and arrows, drowned by virtual rivers, or dashed to pieces on virtual rocks, he had finally agreed to let her come. Only two weeks, and already they had scaled the Egyptian pyramids and wandered through the gardens of Babylon, sailed to the Lone Islands on board the Dawn Treader, and listened to the sound of Merlin’s harp as he lay trapped in his crystal cave.

Later that evening, a man and a young girl appeared in a conference room on the main floor of the Westhall University Library. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were glowing. He smiled to see her so happy, but his face was strained, burdened. They walked back to the kiosks at the entrance. They said goodbye. Then she typed a command on the keyboard and sighed as the hologram that was James Hazelton disappeared into thin air.

II.

It was a shame they hadn’t just let him die, thought the hologram, alone and formless once more. Although the original holograms—human representations of an artificial intelligence—were used by companies and government agencies around the world, most public institutions had adopted the use of Guides—holograms based on the complete genetic information of men and women who had once lived. The idea was that such programs would be more genuinely human than their fictional counterparts; library patrons, for instance, could interact with them as they would with real librarians, without taxpayers having to shell out for salaries.

Usually the Guides were chosen on the basis of their fame or accomplishments in life. James Hazelton hadn’t been particularly famous or accomplished—he’d been a history professor who had achieved small-town notoriety in the late twenty- second century for his books on the wars of the Middle East. Because he had lived and worked in Westhall, Massachusetts until his death at the age of 58, the residents of Westhall decided to honor him by making him a Library Guide. They promptly put in a petition, which then got mired in the endless red tape of the city’s computers. It was another fifty years before the sequence of his genome and the most recent neural map of his brain were finally fed into the holographic program, and the Guide labeled “Dr. James Hazelton” on the University Library main page was born. His physical age had been set at 25, close to that of the students who made up the bulk of the library’s users.

As far as the hologram himself was concerned, there was no discontinuity between his old life and his new. When he was first activated, he had been frantic and disoriented, calling for Alice, wondering where he was and why he was suddenly out of bed. The program mediators had tried to calm him. They had explained the situation to him, apologized for the delay (which he was not aware of ), and congratulated him on being chosen for such a prestigious position. Of course, he had known about the Guides (had even used several of them himself ), and after the initial shock of his death had subsided, he gradually became accustomed to his new role.

It was strange, he thought, pacing the aisles of his mind, to be an old man trapped in the body—even the non-corporeal body—of a young man. Although there were times when he felt less like a man at all, and more like a collection of sorts, a library within a library. He had nearly sixty years of memories at his disposal, and if there was one advantage to being a hologram, it was the unnatural clarity and ease of their recollection. He could unearth memories of his earliest childhood, his days at school, his work, his family… not the faded images his brain used to dredge up, but the crystal-clear events themselves, with every associated emotion in all its original intensity.

Each memory, he thought, was really a map, a map with distinct features—sensory, emotional, intellectual—integrated in a multidimensional picture. It was natural that such pictures became distorted over the course of a lifetime, chipped and marred through disuse or manipulation, and he was delighted to find that his memories were now in mint condition. He could only take physical shape when someone activated him, but this didn’t trouble him. During his off-hours, he existed in a world of the mind, needless of sleep, entertained by remembrances of his past. If he had never met Sarah, he might never have realized that anything was wrong.

But he had met her.

He had materialized one day to find a girl waiting for him—a dark-haired, dark-eyed girl. She was standing by one of the kiosks, looking around nervously.

“Do you need a Guide?” he asked, approaching her. “I’d be happy to assist you.”

“Yes,” she said. “I mean… that would be great.”

“You look a little young to be a student here,” he observed, cocking one eyebrow. “Are you a child prodigy?”

Her cheeks colored, but she looked straight at him and pulled up her sleeve so he could see the ID number on her wrist. “I am a student here,” she said, “but I’m new, and I thought I ought to take a Guided Tour… just to get started.”

He looked in her eyes, liking the combination of boldness and innocence in them, and smiled at her. She smiled back, and their friendship was born.

He had shown her the stacks, explained how to activate the chips, and she had been fascinated by the virtual programs linked to each volume. After the tour, she had asked if there were any books in the library, and he had taken her to the archives, where they gazed through the clear walls at the small collection of antiquity.

“My parents had a book once,” she said, her breath misting the crystal polymer wall. “It was just a paperback detective story, but they sold it to a big collector before I was old enough to read.”

He told her that books had been more readily available during his lifetime, and she looked a bit embarrassed at that, as if unwilling to acknowledge that he was not technically alive. He told her something about his life, how he had come to be here.

“It’s hard to believe you’re a hologram,” she marveled, casting an appreciative eye over him. “You could have some fun if I left you activated, you know… you could walk right through people… or run away. How far away from the library can you get?”

“I don’t know,” he said, frowning. The thought had never occurred to him.

“Do you ever get tired of being here?” she asked. “And showing college students the same things, day after day?”

“I was a history professor, remember?” he replied. “We never get tired of re-living the past.”

That had been over a year ago, and they had seen each other nearly every day since then. Sarah lived in one of the halls on campus, an easy walk from the library, and rain or snow didn’t stop her from coming. Sometimes their visits lasted only a few minutes, and sometimes they lasted half a day. Once he discovered the Rabbit Hole, they were no longer bound by the hours of the library, and they had spent a whole weekend in Tolkien’s Rivendell, wandering unseen amongst the elves and exploring the forests. Although her studies never suffered, he had other concerns.

She’s spending too much time here, he thought. In a fantasy world with a man who no longer exists. Still… he enjoyed her company too much to put a stop to it.

It was ironic that she was the source of both his greatest happiness and his greatest misery in this new, strange life. And why was that? What had she said or done to make him feel so empty, so hollow?

He didn’t know. He only knew that the time they spent together had begun to haunt him. That she haunted him. There was no denying she was beautiful, with the kind of beauty that asserts itself most strongly in solitary places, where one couldn’t help noticing the delicate bones of her hands, the graceful shape of her stride. Thinking of her now, he felt something tug at him. It wasn’t love—couldn’t be love—but it was a memory of love. In his mind’s perfect eye, he saw the pure lines of her face, her eyes alight with excitement, and he remembered Alice. And he wondered what cruel trick fate was playing him.

III.

“Sarah,” he said, as they sat in the grassy courtyard outside the library, watching swallows and chickadees alight on branches and disappear into the hot blue air, “wasn’t your family planning a trip to the West Coast this summer?”

She looked up guiltily. “Yeah,” she said.

“Well? Why didn’t you go?”

She shrugged, playing with the leaves on the ground, probably trying to come up with a plausible excuse. But she was a terrible liar, and they both knew it.

“I’d rather be here,” she said, finally. “Besides, now that we have the Rabbit Hole—”

“That’s no substitute for the real thing,” he told her. And I’m no substitute for a real person.

“Are you getting tired of me?” she asked teasingly, but he refused to be teased.

You will get tired of me before long,” he said. “No—” he said, as she opened her mouth to protest. “Listen to me. You may be quite advanced for your age in some ways, but you’re still very young. Your life has barely started.”

“Are you going to tell me to start spending time with some nice boy my own age?” she asked scornfully.

“Well, it’s bound to happen sooner or later,” he said. “You’ll graduate within the next two years, and then what? You can’t pretend you’ll still be coming here every morning to visit your holographic friend.”

She said nothing. He sighed and moved closer to where she sat, her skirts spread carelessly over the grass. They watched the restless birds circling, circling, never staying for long.

“James,” she said, at length, “what do you miss most about your old life?”

He glanced at her, but her face was hidden by a silk curtain of hair as she leaned forward to pluck a dead flower from the ground. Its petals were still white and perfect, but the stem had been gnawed, torn to shreds. Suddenly, the fluttering of the birds stilled, and the sky grew dark before the sun. He felt his image try to retreat back to its source, those dark paths he walked alone at night. For a moment the hologram flickered on the grass of the courtyard, wavering in the bright air like a reflection on water. And then he realized what it was that had been plaguing him.

“I miss very little about being alive,” he said. “I have memories of being starved for grilled hamburgers, fried chicken, eggs and bacon—but I’m never hungry now. I wish I was. I have memories of hiking in the Blue Ridge mountains, and waking up in my tent with sore legs and an aching back. Do I miss having sore muscles? I wish to hell I did! I remember the solid weight of wood in my hands and the lightness of feathers, I remember the feel of oiled leather and slick metal, cold glass and new-fallen snow, the warmth of a fire, the softness of skin—” He reached out a hand to her face before he caught himself, and she stared at him, wide-eyed. “But most of all, I remember what it was like to love someone,” he said in a low voice. “I remember what it was to be a creature of flesh and spirit, not numbers in a digital landscape.”

“What are you, then?” she asked. “A renegade computer program, and nothing more? Don’t tell me that, because I won’t believe it.”

“I’m your friend,” he said, after a long pause. “James Hazelton was your friend, though he never knew you.”

“I love you,” she said, in a voice almost too soft to be heard. But the days when he’d been hard of hearing were long ago, in another life.

“I can’t love you, Sarah,” he whispered. “I’m a hologram, remember? Think what you will, but those are the bare bones. Besides, I’m too old for you.”

“Nearly a hundred years too old,” she agreed, “yet you are who you are! James Hazelton may have died, but you are him—you have his genes, his memories, everything!”

“Don’t you understand?” he growled. “My soul left my body fifty years ago! I’m a ghost—a shell—a blueprint of a man.”

She looked at him uncertainly, as if for the first time considering him, not as a man whose life has been extended, but as one who has been robbed of something essential. Then her face fell and she turned away. He put an arm around her, unable to help himself, but it met no resistance, falling through flesh and bone as if through mist.

“It would have been better if we’d never met,” she said bitterly. “You were happier then, weren’t you?”

“No,” he said. “Before I met you, I was a slave and I didn’t even know it. What’s the good of life without the capacity to live it? My soul is at peace somewhere… I want this echo of myself to be at peace, too.”

He looked at her then—in the youthful intensity of her grief, and the promise of comfort and greatness that surrounded her like a redeeming cloak. In his mind, he kissed her goodbye. And then he told her what she had to do.

When Sarah left the library that night, she was not alone. There was a microdisk stowed carefully away in the locket around her neck. Before she left, James had told her how to erase his program from the library’s database.

“You’re lucky I’m not a famous astronaut,” he’d said, “or you’d have to travel to every public institution in the country to do away with me!”

She hadn’t been able to laugh.

“Promise me,” he’d said, his eyes both commanding and begging her. She had fulfilled that promise, but she’d also done something else. She had downloaded his program onto one of her own disks before erasing it from the system. Tucked away in the darkness of the locket, cut off from any hard drive, she supposed he was unconscious. Still alive, all his information intact, but sleeping. And that was good, because she needed time to think.

Summer was lingering that year, and the night was mellow and quiet. Sarah walked at a fraction of her normal pace, meandering slowly over the dark field. By the time she reached her hall, normal dining hours were over. Shunning her room (and her talkative roommate), she headed instinctively for her second-favorite place on campus—the hill on which the science halls were perched like slender crystal flowers.

Sarah liked this hill for many reasons, not the least of which was the privacy afforded by the heavy foliage. She was not the only one who enjoyed a little privacy, and as she moved away from the halls and into the woods, she heard murmurings and laughter behind the leaves. Climbing to the top of the rise, she stood facing east, looking out over her known world. From this vantage point, the university lay like a phosphorescent city, eldritch lights swimming in a sea of darkness. She thought of James leaning over the rail of The Invincible, calling to her in excitement, and the sight of those lights illuminating the deep with their billowing, pulsing brightness. Then the lights sprouted flames, and the flames were trembling and dancing together, and hot tears were running down her face. She wiped them away and clutched the locket on its chain. She remembered what he had said—that his soul was gone, that he was no more than a blueprint of a man. But she couldn’t make herself believe it, she wouldn’t believe it. If he was nothing but a blueprint, then how could she feel the way she did? His intelligence, his emotions, his warm humor… they were all real, the product of his life experiences and those densely packed bundles of DNA in his cells. What difference did it make if those things—his genes and his memories—were housed in a computer instead of a living creature? If she could fall in love with that—not the man masked in flesh and blood, but the man with his mask removed—then how could his soul be missing? And if it was… then what good was a soul anyway?

You may think you want to die, she thought angrily, but I can’t kill you. Be damned if I will. She’d go back to the library tomorrow and activate him and tell him all this. She would convince him, make him see that she was right. But as her anger faded, the bitter knowledge that he didn’t love her rose to replace it. And what was worse, what cut all her fine arguments short, was her memory of the look on his face—the look of a man who has lost something irretrievable and infinitely precious, something on which everything else hinges.

Had she thought it was a warm summer night? It was cold as late autumn. The breeze whispering through the trees was an empty voice; the stars were merciless and far away, nothing to pray to, nothing to wish upon. Even the buildings below were strange—pale, tentacled creatures lost in fog. Nothing was warm, nothing was familiar; there was no comfort to be found anywhere in the world on this night. Sarah unclenched the locket and turned it gently in the palm of her hand, knowing that she had to choose one way or the other… and either way, she would lose.

IV.

Three days later, she was on a bus—an old-fashioned, six-wheeled bus that still served the rural areas of western Massachusetts—looking out on the trackless countryside. The locket was still around her neck; the disk within it had been reduced to shards. She sat motionless, eyes fixed on the endless fields and rambling stone walls beyond the window.

After many miles—a lifetime of watching the same flat-topped farmhouse appear and disappear, an eternity of watching corn ripen under the blue sky—she pulled the cord and waited as the bus ambled to a stop. Stepping out, she made her way down the road, dust clouds rising behind her. She turned down an unpaved lane leading to another farmhouse in the shade of a beech copse. Beyond, the path angled up a slight rise. And over the top of the knoll, nestled in a gentle, sloping valley, was a graveyard.
Sarah walked among it, taking her time, looking carefully at each inscription. The huge coffins and markers were overgrown with grass and wild rosebushes, and shaded by tall, ancient trees. None of the graves were fresh, some were unreadable, and a few had been reduced to formless mounds. Finally, she found it—a granite tombstone neatly inscribed:

James Hazelton
2145 – 2203

And next to it:

Alice Hazelton
2148 – 2231

She stared at his wife’s tombstone next to his, grey and mellow in the dappled light that filtered through the trees. He lived a whole life without you, she thought. A whole life. The knowledge struck her with sudden force, and she wondered how she could have been so silly as to think that she was his life, that her visits to the library and their holographic voyages together were the pinnacle of his existence. She laughed then—a sad, surprised little laugh. And she knelt down on the weedy ground and pulled the locket over her head. It flashed in a sudden shaft of sunlight, bright gold as the mallorn leaves on Cerin Amroth, then Sarah buried it in the earth above his grave.

If only I could have made you happy, she thought.

You made me as happy as you could, his voice replied. But I was broken; I was a clock in perfect working order that had lost its hands.

I’ll never love anyone again, she thought, and the sound of his laughter startled her to her feet.

You will, he said. And then he disappeared from her head, and only her heart remembered his voice.

 

It Always Comes Home

by Charis Himeda

 

Simon had never heard the story about the man who went out walking one day and met the Devil, but even if he had, it would have been the furthest thing from his mind today. The mindless eternity of summer vacation had dawned clear and blue, sweet as fireweed honey. Simon had taken one look at the leagues of sky outside his tattered curtains, one breath of the sun-warm, grass-scented air, and felt an unfamiliar stirring of hope somewhere in his chest. Maybe he could drown himself in sights and sounds and smells today—enough to forget what he couldn’t forget sitting in Mrs. Langford’s seventh-grade class waiting for the bell to ring.

He dressed quickly, nervously, as if he were keeping someone waiting, then hurried down the narrow hallway to the kitchen. Had the house always been this dark? He supposed it had—since they’d moved up here (to the healing climate of the Pacific Northwest) it had been a house of sickness, and then a house of bereavement. He stared for a moment at the shrouded windows, golden with sunlight that refused to enter. “Dad!” he called, his eyes still fixed on the beckoning daylight, his mind fixed on the hope, trying to make it grow. “I’m going fishing!” He waited impatiently in the silence, then remembered that summer vacation wasn’t a luxury most adults could afford, at least not ones with kids to feed. Snorting at the injustice of his father’s plight, Simon headed out into the sun.

He got his pole and tackle box from the woodshed, then noticed his stash of chewing gum and Sugar Lips and grabbed those too. Walking to the edge of Suquamish Lake, slurping the nectar from a honeysuckle stem, he suddenly felt good—honest-to-God good—for the first time in months. His heart pounced on the feeling and sent a vision of glory to his head before anything else could intrude: his dad pausing in the act of doctoring Chef Boyardee as Simon came striding through the door with a bucket of lake trout—one for each of them! Grinning at the thought of a fish big enough to feed his dad, he splashed through the marshy reeds to where the boat was moored, and minutes later he was adrift.

The lake was still as painted glass under the early morning sky, and utterly isolated. He rowed out past the muck of weeds and lily pads into open water, breathing in the boundless summer air. Ahead of him, the lake glimmered undisturbed to the far shore, where it met sheer cliffs that climbed into stands of aspen and fir. To the east, the water ended in a slough, and to the west it stretched for miles, lapping around a little island off in the distance. Beyond that… well, he wasn’t really sure. He’d never been out as far as the island. Apart from the gentle splashing of his oars, the woods and lake were full of deep silence—the silence of living, ancient things untouched. Thrilling with anticipation, Simon headed west.

The island turned out to be much further away than he had thought. By the time he could make out individual trees in its dense foliage, he was hot and thirsty, his shirt was stuck to his back, and some of the glamour had gone out of the day. There weren’t any secret coves or inlets beyond, just an uninteresting coastline that curved into a bowl at the far western shore. It was just as well, though—he was tired of rowing, and in the cool depths below, breakfast was well underway. He circled the island until he found a place where the banks were steep and an old hemlock spread its willowy branches over the water. Secreted in this pocket of shadow, Simon set about baiting his pole.

By noon, his bucket held nothing more than a tangle of milfoil and a dragonfly that had nowhere else to be. It was clear that he was by far the hungriest thing in these parts, and he was starting to wish he’d brought something more substantial than Sugar Lips for lunch. He could settle for a quick fix—say, blackberries on the island. Hunting for berries wasn’t much of an adventure, but it was better than starving. He rowed into the shallows and dragged the boat ashore. Then he looked at his pole. There hadn’t been so much as a nibble all morning, but the thought of his dad’s face—its bitter lines creasing into a smile, his tired eyes lighting up at the sight of the fish—was still strong in his mind. Simon tossed his bedraggled worm aside and got to work uncrimping the line. He found a good spot to cast out and anchored the pole between a brace of boulders. Satisfied, he turned to the daunting task of finding food.

The island was like so many that lie in mountain lakes—a narrow stretch of rocky beach snaking around an impenetrable fortress of trees and bushes. Every time Simon tried to beat his way through the undergrowth, he was forced to retreat again. Rubbing at his scratches, he looked dolefully at a bush chock-full of berries so red and glowing they almost had to be poisonous. And speaking of poison, he ought to have more sense than to go blundering through the woods like this… Stepping back in disgust from a tangle of three-leaved branches, Simon decided he’d had enough. Fish or no fish, it was time to call it a day. There was bologna in the fridge, and if he hurried, really high-tailed it, he might be in time to watch Bonanza. Thus inspired, the boy made his way around the curve of the beach to where his boat was banked—and stopped short at the sight of his pole tip jerking up and down.

What he felt first, before the surprise and the excitement, was a kind of doubt. It seemed too good to be true—a fish for dinner, after all? Then he was stumbling over the rocks on the beach and yanking at his pole, sure that he’d lose it, he should have stayed here the whole time, what an idiot he was. He tried to bring it in smoothly, but surely this was the biggest damn trout he’d ever snagged! Simon braced his feet and put all his might into holding the pole steady with his left hand while he cranked the reel around with his right. The pole jumped and jerked like something possessed; he felt electric jolts of pain in his wrist and a sick shakiness in his stomach. This wouldn’t be the first fish that had played him for a fool—stringing him along until the last moment when he drew up an empty hook—but still he fought to avoid being dragged into the lake. There were the weights, finally! Where was the net? Had he forgotten the blasted net? Oh, the hell with it! With a last wrench on the reel and a tremendous upward surge, he threw his catch out from the deep. Something flashed in the midday sun, then landed with a thud on the shore. Breathless, Simon leaned over it. And then he stumbled backwards, uttering a little cry of loathing.

The thing which lay thrashing near his feet could hardly be called a fish. It was black and muddy-slick, like a catfish, but where its fins should have been were clusters of white squirmy things like maggots. These writhed and gyrated in a way that made Simon’s gorge rise. Its mouth was a gaping hole full of long, misshapen teeth. The thing seemed to be drooling blood, then Simon realized that the tissue lining this orifice had grown out over the sides in red bulges and tatters of flesh. But worst of all were its eyes—they were albino pink, and as the pupils fixed on him, the thing seemed to grin. It was as big as a cat.

All thought vanished as he stared at the horror he had caught. Somewhere, his brain still registered the feel of sunlight warm on his skin and the dull clank of the oars against their moorings… but these things were faraway, unimportant, dreamlike. What was real was the monster in front of him. He watched, fascinated, as it struggled to right itself, flopping wetly on the ground like a cancerous liver, never taking its gaze from him. With a final twist, the creature landed on its belly and scuttled towards him, maggot-fins scrabbling in the mud.

Simon yelled and lunged backwards, cursing as he tripped over his own feet. He had to kill it—how could he kill it? Dear Jesus, it was almost touching him! He struggled upright and scurried away, looking around desperately for a weapon. He tried to get some distance on his adversary, then reached down and grabbed up a chunk of rock. The thing hesitated for a moment, then it charged him, pale eyes gleaming. Simon waited until the devil-fish was almost at his feet, then he threw the rock as hard as he could.

It wasn’t his best shot, but it was good enough. Simon’s rock caught the back end of the creature, pinning it to the ground. The thing screamed—a wet, choking sound. Simon fancied he could hear hundreds of smaller screams—the sound of all those wormy things being crushed to death. After what seemed an eternity, the noises stopped. Blood and some kind of greenish pus seeped out in thick tendrils. Cautiously, Simon stepped around to have a look. The wretched thing was still alive… and there was no mistaking the hateful intelligence in its regard. As much as he wanted to see it destroyed, pulverized into library paste, he found he had no more stomach for this business. Trembling, sick to his bones, he edged his way back to the boat, noticing with a kind of awe the shining track of line dragged out over the sand. Even as he was rowing home, muscles grumbling in protest, the sweat cold on his face, he could still feel it watching him.

He expected to have nightmares that night, but instead he dreamed about his mother. They were sitting on the porch of their old house in New Orleans, and Simon was young, very young. His mother was young, too—her face was tanned and glowing, and no shadows darkened her eyes. In his dream the trees beyond their straggly bit of lawn were impossibly tall, ascending to the stained-glass sky like twisted pillars. Their roots ran deep into the earth, and Simon could hear them rumbling, a sound like brittle leaves and bones being crushed beneath his feet. The warm, buttery scent of fried eggs and the darker aroma of coffee still lingered in the air.

His mother smiled at him and leaned back on her hands.

“What do you want to do today, Simon? Want to go exploring? Want to learn to fly?”

He said nothing, content to sit and watch her face as it had been, serene and sorrowless. She laughed for no apparent reason, then picked him up and swung him down the steps, whirling around and around to land him in a basket of laundry. From the stale smell of dirt and old sweat, it wasn’t clean laundry, but Simon didn’t mind. His mother tickled him, still smiling, and then something else caught her attention. She looked past him and the sun shone flat and merciless on the planes of her face, momentarily stripping the flesh from her bones. Her eyes caught the light and flamed green. He shrunk back from the sudden look of naked greed on her face. She drew up her hands and hurried away from him.

When she returned, her fingertips were red with dirt, and patches of dirt clung to the strands of hair around her neck. Puzzled, he stared at her. She smiled back as before, but as she reached down to pick up the laundry basket, something fell from the neck of her blouse and hung dangling in the air, something bright as the sun and dark as the shadows in the woods. He—

—woke up in the darkness of his room, alert to the sense of danger near at hand. His breathing sounded harsh in the silence that clung to the shadows on the walls and the deeper shadows of his closet and curtained windows. He tried to relax, but all he could see when he closed his eyes was the image of the thing around his mother’s neck—a tiny circle of gold rimmed with darkness. It blazed on the backdrop of his eyelids like an ancient sun. He didn’t fall asleep again until the dawn had passed.

* * * * *

It was Saturday morning before he worked up the courage to ask if his mother had ever owned any jewelry.

Joseph Kimball looked up from his bowl of cereal and frowned at his son. He didn’t like talking about Elizabeth, and what difference did it make if she’d owned jewelry or not? But something in Simon’s face, white and peaked, suggested that it did matter, at least to him.

“She had a few things I gave her when we were courting,” he replied, looking around as if he’d misplaced something.

Simon was silent for a while, and Joseph had gotten up to put the milk away before the boy spoke again.

“Did she have… anything you didn’t give her?”

He closed the door of the fridge and turned to Simon with a dangerously neutral expression on his face.

“What exactly are you suggesting?” he asked quietly.

“Nothing!” Simon said. “But I dreamed about her last night—” and as his voice caught, he rushed on, “—and she was wearing something I’d never seen before, like a little gold medallion. I was just wondering if she really had it.”

An odd look came over his father’s face.

“She did have something like that,” he replied. “I think she found it in the woods outside our old house. But you must have seen it before—she wore it all the time.”

“What happened to it?”

“I don’t know. I guess she stopped wearing it at some point. After she got sick… I doubt she felt much like wearing trinkets.” He looked so sad that Simon was almost sorry he’d brought it up. “I’ll be out in the garage,” he said finally, resting a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Got those cabinets to finish up.”

* * * * *

Simon sat on the smooth, sturdy planks with his arms around his knees, hearing, but not hearing the wind rustle the leaves of his sanctuary, seeing, but not seeing the gleam of the lake beyond. Since his bizarre fishing trip, the world had changed, grown wobbly somehow. It was as if a hole in the universe had opened up and everything he took for certain was poised at the edge, ready to slide into it like jelly. Still, this tree house was the best and safest place he knew. He could stay here as long as it took to work things out.

So his mother had found a strange medallion in the woods and some time after that she had gotten sick, with a slow, wasting sickness that had left her skeletal and bedridden. A boy older than Simon might not have connected those two events (what kind of sense did that make, really?), but then, no one else had seen that medallion the way he had. And the sight of it in his dream—bright as the light before a storm, rimmed and shot through with darkness—had filled him with the powerful certainty that it was the root of his mother’s illness. But what had she done with it? And why was it so important that he find out?

Maybe it had scared her and she had tried to get rid of it. If that was true, the medallion could be anywhere, lost in the swamps of Louisiana. Is that right, Mom? he asked silently. Did you bury it somewhere, or throw it away?

He stretched out on the floor of the tree house and stared at the wide patch of sky through the branches. Sleepless nights and sleepless days, he thought with a cynicism beyond his years. Maybe he was going crazy, imagining things. It had been over a month since his mother had died, six since they had moved up here. He wondered how much sleep he had missed. If only he had a friend to talk to… but no one lived out here on the lake. Listening to the sound of his dad’s chainsaw in the thin air, Simon began to doze.

He was lying in bed, and the pain in his gut was maddening, overwhelming. His hands groped for the sheets, balling and twisting them into sweaty knots; his mouth sought the pillow, trying to muffle the screams even as they erupted. On his chest, It burned like a brand, as it always did when the pain was worst. Damn that he’d ever picked it up!

When the feelings of disembowelment began to subside, he forced himself to think about the Question. The Question of what to do with the accursed thing. It couldn’t be smashed, melted, blown up, or incinerated. It couldn’t be buried deep enough or tossed into any ocean wide enough that it wouldn’t be found again. Because the bloody thing wanted to be found. And evil had a way of coming back home. If Simon or Joseph were to find It…

Suddenly the answer was clear, and he nearly laughed out loud. There was one sure way to strike It from the face of the earth. Suddenly exultant, flushed with triumph, he unclasped the chain from around his neck and drew off the medallion. It burned in his hands like a torch. And then—

Simon sat up with a start. He grabbed the branches nearest him and squeezed them until his knuckles were white.

“She swallowed it,” he muttered, hearing the crowd of leaves above him shiver in agreement. “She swallowed it so no one would ever find it!”

But still the feeling of unease persisted.

“But what?” he asked himself. “She wasn’t eating anymore, not that near the end… so it must’ve stayed lodged in her gut until she died. And afterwards…” But they hadn’t buried her, had they? No… his dad had wanted her cremated. And they had scattered her ashes over Suquamish Lake. Had the little medallion gone into the lake with the ashes? Simon thought that it might have.

And where’s it at now? he wondered, feeling suddenly cold. Oh, don’t be stupid… I think you have a pretty good idea where it’s at. But there was only one way to be sure.

* * * * *

By the time he got to the island, it was mid-afternoon. The sun was still hot on the water, but there was an ominous cast to the day, a sense of approaching thunder that he chalked up to his own inner turmoil. He glided into the same stretch of shore, then pulled his dad’s belt knife from its sheath.

It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for. The rock—his rock—with an unquestionably dead and rotting fish beneath it. Seeing it again, he felt a sudden, unexpected surge of relief. The fish didn’t look nearly as bad as it had before. Oh, sure, it was a big, ugly bottom feeder enveloped in a cloud of stink, but no more. He pushed the rock aside with his foot. Yep, just a big, black fish, half-pulverized. Simon hesitated, suddenly doubting the point of this expedition. God knew he hadn’t been sleeping well lately… could he have imagined the whole incident? He stared hard at the decimated corpse, trying to see it in all its sinister glory. Why was it so hard to remember? Probably because his overwrought mind had embellished on the details. His dreams were a little harder to rationalize, but, well… dreams were strange things. Sometimes you remembered things you had forgotten, and sometimes you saw things from another person’s point of view. Dreams could be creepy, but they weren’t real.

Stop beating around the bush, he told himself. You’re afraid to look for it.

No! There’s nothing to look for! This whole thing is ridiculous. Your mom is dead and you’d better get used to it.

There’s more to it than that, and you know it!

Even if there was, what could you possibly do? She tried everything under the sun, she even took it with her to the grave! And still, you managed to catch the one fish—

Simon stood stock-still, wrestling with his doubt on one hand and his fear on the other. Finally, the knife in his hand decided him. It was big and sharp, and most important… it was here.

He crouched down and picked up the dead fish, stifling his revulsion. Then he pierced its throat and sliced down the length of its belly. He scooped out the warm innards and threw them onto the sand. And suddenly there it was, shining amongst the bloody entrails—perfectly round, no bigger than a coin—dark as sin, and yet bright, so bright…

He had fallen to his knees in front of it, and now he knew how his mother must have felt, how she must have loved this thing from the first moment she had glimpsed it. It was old as the hills, old as the stars, and time had brightened and hardened it the way it made diamonds and sandstone. The blaze of sun on the Pyramids was in its heart, the glow of moonlight on ancient seas. The love of every mortal who had ever seen it lapped around it like a desperate tide. His mother had been crazy to try to destroy such a thing—how could you destroy something that had outlived all the kings and priests who fought to possess it, something that would outlast Time itself? And who would want to? This Thing was the source of all battle, all conflict, all desire. It was the red-handed messenger, the Face that Launched a Thousand Ships, the grail that could never be held. He wanted to worship it forever. He wanted to lay sacrifice to it. And like a jealous god, the Thing cried out for blood.

Whimpering, Simon reached for it, to wipe the streaks of unworthy fish blood from its precious face. Clean me, the Thing whispered to him. Clean me, and then… anoint me again.

“Yes,” he muttered, but still his hands fell short of touching it. He wanted to—oh, how he wanted to—but it was like trying to touch the sun.

Your mother wasn’t strong enough to wield me, the Thing told him. But I think you are.

“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes, I’ll do my best.” But the mention of his mother brought back her face in his dream—greedy and gaunt, her eyes like twin lanterns with serpents in their hearts. Was that how he looked, seeing it for the first time?

Destroy it, his mother said. Simon, you must.

How? he asked idly, reaching for it once more.

You can start by not touching it!

His hands, hovering over the medallion, trembling in its seductive glow.

Claim me, the Thing commanded. Live and die for me.

I did that! his mother screamed. I did that so you could live! For the love of God, Simon, don’t be a fool!

His mother’s face in his mind, all the flesh wasted away, all her love concentrated in her eyes, and now they flashed lightning at him. God, how he loved her! He could never have disappointed her in life, never. The medallion waited, cool and bright, complacent in its supremacy.

You have to put an end to it,his mother said, once and for all.

How? he screamed.

Deny it, she said.

Still the Thing held him entranced. Here on this obscure little island lay the brightness of a thousand suns, the darkness of a man’s own soul. What wisdom it possessed! What wisdom it would share with him, if he was only strong enough to claim it!

Deny it, his mother whispered, and then she said no more.

The medallion was also silent, having no need of persuasion. Everything it was spoke for it in a thousand compelling voices.

Simon tried to look away, but what was the use? This Thing was the Truth. It was a Truth so great it flooded his mind, driving out all the irrelevant half-truths that used to live there. He had never been so illuminated. And yet—and yet—

Your mother is dead, and that’s the truth, he thought. Yes, she was dead, but what did that mean? In the light of this Thing’s infinite regard, his mother’s death seemed like a small event indeed. Blood to christen it with, he thought. It’s always hungry. The medallion blazed with renewed vigor and Simon cried out. His hands were still poised inches over it, and he saw that his fingertips had begun to blister. Still, incredibly, he wanted—needed—to touch it. But it was his father’s voice in his mind that saved him.

Don’t you think this has gone on long enough? he said. Now are you gonna quit groveling in front of that thing or am I going to have to bury my son right after my wife? His dad’s face – tired, bitter, steadfast – suddenly filled his mind, driving out all the cosmic truths that had held him in their sway. His grip on eternity wavered.

Or maybe it’s you who’ll be burying me, his father went on, matter-of-fact. Simon saw him in their dusty garage, sanding down the newly built cabinets. His big, callused hands moved expertly over the wood, gentle as a lover. If that Thing is right, you’ll become a worse monster than the fish you caught. The face of the medallion lay imprinted on his father’s hands like a brand and he felt a surge of incredible anger as this truth hit home—and how could he have forgotten something so simple? This was a Thing of evil, and the fish it had possessed wore its true face.

I deny you, he told the Thing, as he raised himself to his feet. Deep in its heart, Something paused in incredulous disbelief.

I deny you, he said again, and watched as worlds stopped turning and a thousand stars imploded, winking out into darkness. The voices of countless lost souls rose in a howl like a great wind, and then disappeared. The medallion shone with a last unholy light. He felt a strange sense of loss as something immortal slipped away, leaving a cheap golden trinket behind. And then he turned his back on it and walked away. It was nearly dusk and his dad would be missing him.