A Cainsville Universe Story
“And the second plague that is in thy dominion, behold it is a dragon. And another dragon of a foreign race is fighting with it, and striving to overcome it. And therefore does your dragon make a fearful outcry.”
—Cyfranc Lludd a Llefelys, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest
When he was young, other children talked of their dreams, of candy-floss mountains and puppies that talked and long-lost relatives bearing new bicycles and purses filled with crisp dollar bills. Bobby did not have those dreams. His nights were filled with golden castles and endless meadows and the screams of dragons.
The castles and the meadows came unbidden, beginning when he was too young to know what a castle or a meadow was, but in his dreams he’d race through them, endlessly playing, endlessly laughing. And then he’d wake to his cold, dark room, stinking of piss and sour milk, and he’d roar with rage and frustration. Even when he stopped, the cries were replaced by sulking, aggrieved silence. Never laughter. He only laughed in his dreams. Only played in his dreams. Only was happy in his dreams.
The dragons came later.
He presumed he’d first heard the story of the dragons in Cainsville. Visits to family there were the high points of his young life. While Cainsville had no golden castles or endless meadows, the fields and the forests, the spires and the gargoyles reminded him of his dreams, and calmed him and made him, if not happy, at least content.
They treated him differently in Cainsville, too. He was special there. A pampered little prince, his mother would say, shaking her head. The local elders paid attention to him, listened to him, sought him out. Better still, they did not do the same to his sister, Natalie. The Gnat, he called her—constantly buzzing about, useless and pestering. At home, she was the pampered one. His parents never seemed to know what to make of him, his discontent and his silences, and so they showered his bouncing, giggling little sister with double the love, double the attention.
In Cainsville the old people told him stories. Of King Arthur’s court, they said, but when he looked up their tales later, they were not quite the same. Theirs were stories of knights and magic, but lions too, and giants and faeries and, sometimes, dragons. That was why he was certain they’d told him this particular tale, even if he could not remember the exact circumstances. It was about a British king beset by three plagues. One was a race of people who could hear everything he said. The second was disappearing foodstuffs and impending starvation. The third was a terrible scream that turned out to be two dragons, fighting. And that was when he began to dream of the screams of dragons.
He did not actually hear the screams. He could not imagine such a thing, because he had no idea what a dragon’s scream would sound like. He asked his parents and his grandmother and even his Sunday school teacher, but they didn’t seem to understand the question. Even at night, his sleep was often filled with nothing but his small self, racing here and there, searching for the screams of dragons. He would ask and he would ask, but no one could ever tell him.
When he was almost eight, his grandmother noticed his sleepless nights. She asked what was wrong, and he knew better than to talk about the dragons, but he began to think maybe he should tell her of the other dreams, the ones of golden palaces and endless meadows. One night, when his parents were out, he waited until the Gnat fell asleep. Then he padded into the living room, the feet on his sleeper whispering against the floor. His grandmother didn’t notice at first—she was too busy watching The Dick Van Dyke Show. He couldn’t understand the fascination with television. The moving pictures were dull gray, the laughter harsh and fake. He supposed they were for those who didn’t dream of gold and green, of sunlight and music.
He walked up beside her. He did not sneak or creep, but she was so absorbed in her show that when he appeared at her shoulder, she shrieked and in her face, he saw something he’d never seen before. Fear. It fascinated him, and he stared at it, even as she relaxed and said, “Bobby? You gave me quite a start. What’s wrong, dear?”
“I can’t sleep,” he said. “I have dreams.”
He shook his head. “Good ones.”
Her old face creased in a frown. “And they keep you awake?”
“No,” he said. “They make me sad.”
She clucked and pulled him onto the chair, tucking him in beside her. “Tell Gran all about them.”
He did, and as he talked, he saw that look return. The fear. He decided he must be mistaken. He hadn’t mentioned the dragons. The rest was wondrous and good. Yet the more he talked, the more frightened she became, until finally she pushed him from the chair and said, “It’s time for bed.”
She said, “Nothing,” but her look said something was very, very wrong.
For the next few weeks, his grandmother was a hawk, circling him endlessly, occasionally swooping down and snatching him up in her claws. Most times, she avoided him directly, though he’d catch her watching him. Studying him. Scrutinizing him. Once they were alone in the house, she’d swoop. She’d interrogate him about the dreams, unearthing every last detail, even the ones he thought he’d forgotten.
On the nights when his parents were gone, she insisted on drawing his baths, adding in some liquid from a bottle and making the baths so hot they scalded him and when he cried, she seemed satisfied. Satisfied and a little frightened.
The strangest of all came nearly a month after he’d told her of the dreams. She’d made stew for dinner and she served it in eggshells. When she brought them to the table, the Gnat laughed in delight.
“That’s funny,” she said. “They’re so cute, Gran.”
His grandmother only nodded absently at the Gnat. Her watery blue eyes were fixed on him.
“What do you think of it, Bobby?” she asked.
“I . . .” He stared at the egg, propped up in a little juice glass, the brown stew steaming inside the shell. “I don’t understand. Why is it in an egg?”
“For fun, dummy.” His sister shook her head at their grandmother. “Bobby’s never fun.” She pulled a face at him. “Boring Bobby.”
His grandmother shushed her, gaze still on him. “You think it’s strange.”
“It is,” he said.
“Have you ever seen anything like this before?”
She waited, as if expecting more. Then she prompted, “You would say, then, that you’ve never, in all your years, seen something like this.”
It seemed an odd way to word it, but he nodded.
And with that, finally, she seemed satisfied. She plunked down into her chair, exhaling, before turning to him and saying, “Go to your room. I don’t want to see you until morning.”
He glanced up, startled. “What did I—?”
“To your room. You aren’t one of us. I’ll not have you eat with us. Now off with you.”
He pushed his chair back and slowly rose to his feet.
The Gnat stuck out her tongue when their grandmother wasn’t looking. “Can I have his egg?”
“Of course, dear,” Gran said as he shuffled from the kitchen.
The next morning, instead of going to school, his grandmother took him to church. It was not Sunday. It was not even Friday. As soon as he saw the spires of the cathedral, he began to shake. He’d done something wrong, horribly wrong. He’d lain awake half the night trying to figure out what he could have done to deserve bed without dinner, but there was nothing. She’d fed him stew in an eggshell and, while perplexed, he had still been very polite and respectful about it.
The trouble had started with telling her about the dreams, but who could find fault with tales of castles and meadows, music and laughter?
Perhaps she was going senile. It had happened to an old man down the street. They’d found him in their yard, wearing a diaper and asking about his wife, who’d died years ago. If that had happened to his grandmother, Father Joseph would see it.
Certainly, he seemed to, given the expression on Father Joseph’s face after Gran talked to him alone in the priest’s office. Father Joseph emerged as if in a trance, and Gran had to direct him to the pew where Bobby waited.
“See?” she said, waving her hand at Bobby.
The priest looked straight at him, but seemed lost in his thoughts. “No, I’m afraid I don’t, Mrs. Sheehan.”
Gran’s voice snapped with impatience. “It’s obvious he’s not ours. Neither his mother nor his father nor any of his grandparents have blond hair. Or dark eyes.”
Sweat beaded on the priest’s forehead and he tugged his collar. “True, but children do not always resemble their parents, for a variety of reasons, none of them laying any blame at the foot of the child.”
“Are you suggesting my daughter-in-law was unfaithful?”
Father Joseph’s eyes widened. “No, of course not. But the ways of genetics—like the ways of God—are not always knowable. Your daughter-in-law does have light hair, and I believe she has a brother who is blond. If my recollection of science is correct, dark eyes are the dominant type, and I’m quite certain if you searched the family tree beyond parents and grandparents you would find your answer.”
“I have my answer,” she said, straightening. “He is a changeling.”
Two drops of sweat burst simultaneously and dribbled down the priest’s face. “I . . . I do not wish to question your beliefs, Mrs. Sheehan. I know such folk wisdom is common in the . . . more rural regions of your homeland—”
“Because it is wisdom. Forgotten wisdom. I’ve tested him, Father. I gave him dinner in an eggshell, as I explained.”
“Yes, but . . .” The priest snuck a glance around, as if hoping for divine intervention—or a needy parishioner to stumble in, requiring his immediate attention. “I know that is the custom, but I cannot say I rightly understand it.”
“What is there to understand?” She put her hands on her narrow hips. “It’s a test. I gave him stew in eggshells, and he said he’d never seen anything like it. That’s what a changeling will say.”
“I beg your pardon, ma’am, but I believe that’s what anyone would say, if given their meal served in an egg.”
She glowered at him. “I put him in a tub with foxglove, too, and he became ill.”
“Foxglove?” The priest’s eyes rounded again. “Is that not a poison?”
“It is if you’re a changeling. I also gave him one of my heart pills, because it’s made from digitalis, which is also foxglove. My pill made him sick.”
“You gave . . .” For the first time since he’d come in, Father Joseph looked at Bobby, really looked at him. “You gave your grandson your heart medication? That could kill a boy—”
“He isn’t a boy. He’s one of the Fair Folk.” Gran met Bobby’s gaze. “An abomination.”
Now Father Joseph’s face flushed, his eyes snapping. “No, he is a child. You will not speak of him that way, certainly not in front of him. I’m trying to be respectful, Mrs. Sheehan. You are entitled to your superstitions and folksy tales, but not if they involve poisoning an innocent child.” He knelt in front of Bobby. “You’re going to come into my office now, son, and we’ll call your parents. Is your mother at work?”
“Do you know the number?”
He nodded again.
The priest took Bobby’s hand and, without another word, led him away as his grandmother watched, her eyes narrowing.
That was the beginning of “the bad time,” as his parents called it, whispered words, even years later, their eyes downcast, as if in shame. The situation did not end with that visit to the priest. His grandmother would not drop the accusation. He was a changeling. A faerie child dropped into their care, her real grandson spirited away by the Fair Folk. Finally, his parents broke down and asked the priest to perform some ritual—any ritual—to calm his grandmother’s nerves. The priest refused. To do so would be to lend credence to the preposterous accusation and could permanently scar the child’s psyche.
The fight continued. He heard his parents talking late at night about the shame, the great shame of it all. They were intelligent, educated people. His father was a scientist, his mother the lead secretary in her firm. They were not ignorant peasants, and it angered them that Father Joseph didn’t understand what they were asking—not to “fix” their son but simply to pretend to, for the harmony of the household.
They took their request to a second priest, and somehow—for years afterward, everyone would blame someone else for this—a journalist got hold of the story. It made one of the Chicago newspapers, in an article mocking the family and their “Old World” ways. His family was so humiliated they moved. His grandmother grumbled that his parents made too big a fuss out of the whole thing. It didn’t matter. They moved, and they were all forbidden to speak of it again.
That did not mean no one spoke of it. The Gnat did. When she was in a good mood, she’d settle for mocking him, calling him a faerie child, asking him where he kept his wings, pinching his back to see if she could find them. When she was in a rare foul temper, she’d tell him their grandmother was right, he was a monster and didn’t belong, that their parents only had one real child. And even if it was all nonsense, as his mother and father claimed, that part was true—he no longer felt part of the family. They might not think him a changeling, but they all, in their own ways, blamed him. His parents blamed him for their humiliation. The Gnat blamed him for having to leave her friends and move. And his grandmother blamed him for whatever slight she could pin at his feet, and then she punished him for it.
He came to realize that the punishments were the purpose of the accusations rather than the result. His grandmother wanted an excuse to strap him or send him to bed without dinner. At first, he presumed she was upset because no one believed her story. That did not anger him. Nothing really angered him. Like happiness, the emotion was too intense, too uncomfortable. He looked at his sister, dancing about, chattering and giggling, and he thought her a fool. He looked at his grandmother, raging and snapping against him, and thought her the same. Foolish and weak, easily overcome by emotion.
He did not accept the punishments stoically, though. While he never complained, with each hungry night or sore bottom, something inside him hardened. He saw his grandmother, fumbling in her frustration, venting it on him, and he did not pity her. He hated her. He hated his parents, too, for pretending not to see the welts or the unfinished dinners. Most of all, he hated the Gnat, because she saw it all and delighted in it. She would watch him beaten to tears with the strap, and then tell their grandmother that he’d broken her doll the week before, earning him three more lashes.
While there was certainly vindictiveness in the punishments, it seemed his grandmother actually had a greater plan. He realized this when she decided, one Sunday, that the two of them should take a trip to Cainsville. He even got to sit in the front seat of the station wagon, for the first time ever.
“Do you think I’ve mistreated you lately?” she asked as she drove.
It seemed a question not deserving a reply, so he didn’t give one.
“Have you earned those punishments?” she said. “Did you do everything I said you did? That Natalie said you did?”
He sensed a trick, and again he didn’t answer. She reached over and pinched his thigh hard enough to bring tears to his eyes.
“I asked you a question, parasite.”
He glanced over.
“You know what that means, don’t you?” she said. “Parasite?”
“I know many words.”
Her lips twisted. “You do. Far more than a child should know. Because you are not a child. You are a parasite, put into our house to eat our food and sleep in our beds.”
“There’s no such thing as faeries.”
She pinched him again, twisting the skin. He only glanced over with a look that had her releasing him fast, hand snapping back onto the steering wheel.
“You’re a monster,” she said. “Do you know that?”
No, you are, he thought, but he said nothing, staring instead at the passing scenery as they left the city. She drove onto the highway before she spoke again.
“You don’t think you deserve to be punished, do you? You think I’m accusing you of things you didn’t do, and your little sister is joining in, and your parents are turning a blind eye. Is that what you think?”
“If it is, then you should tell someone,” she said. “Someone who can help you.”
He stayed quiet. There was a trick here, a dangerous one, and he might be smart for a little boy, as everyone told him, but he was not smart enough for this. So he kept his mouth shut. She drove a while longer before speaking again.
“You like the folks in Cainsville, don’t you? The town elders.”
Finally, something he could safely answer. She could find no fault in him liking old people. With relief, he nodded.
“They like you, too. They think you’re special.” Her hands tightened on the wheel. “I know why, too. I’m not a foolish old woman. I’m just as smart as you, boy. Especially when it comes to puzzles, and I’ve solved this one. I know where you came from.”
He tried not to sigh, as the conversation swung back to dangerous territory. Perhaps he should be frightened, but after months of this, he was only tired.
“Do they ask you about us?” she said. “When they take you off on your special walks? Do they ask after your family?”
He nodded. “They ask if you are all well.”
“And how we’re treating you?”
He hesitated. It seemed an odd question, and he sensed the snare wire sneaking around his ankle again. After a moment, he shook his head. “They only ask if you’re well and how I’m doing. How I like school and that.”
“They’re being careful,” she muttered under her breath. “But they still ask how he is. Checking up on him.”
She tensed as he called her that. She always did these days and it was possible, just possible, that he used it more often because of that.
“You understand what honesty is, don’t you, boy?”
“And respect for your elders.”
It took him a half-second, but he nodded to this as well.
“Then you know you have to tell the truth when an adult asks you a question. You need to be honest, even if it might get someone in trouble. Always remember that.”
While he liked all the elders in Cainsville, Mrs. Yates was his favorite, and he got the feeling he was hers, too. There had been a time when his grandmother had seemed almost jealous of her, when she would huff and sniff and say she thought Mrs. Yates was a very peculiar old woman. His parents had paid little attention—Gran had made it quite clear she thought everyone a little peculiar in Cainsville.
“There are no churches,” she’d say. And his mother would sigh and explain—once again—that the town had started off too small for churches and by the time it was large enough, there was no place to put them, the settlement being nestled in the fork of a river, with marshy ground on the only open side. People still went to church. Just somewhere else.
It was his mother whose family was from Cainsville. Gran only accompanied them because she didn’t like to be left out of family trips. She didn’t like the town and she certainly didn’t like Mrs. Yates. But that day, as she went off to visit his great-aunt, Gran sent him off with two dollars and a suggestion that he go see what Mrs. Yates was up to. Just be back by four so they could make it home in time for Sunday dinner.
He went to the new diner first. That’s what everyone in Cainsville called it. The “new” diner, though it’d been there as long as he could remember. It still smelled new—the lemon-polished linoleum floors, the shiny red leather booths and even shinier chrome-plated chairs. The elders could often be found there, sipping tea by the windows as they watched the town go by. “Holding court,” his grandmother would sniff, saying they were watching for mischief and waiting for folks to come by and pay their respects, like they were lords and ladies. He didn’t see that at all. To him, they were simply there, in case anyone needed them.
Today, he found Mrs. Yates in her usual place. He thought she’d be surprised to see him, but she only smiled, her old face lighting up as she motioned him over.
“Mr. Shaw said he spotted your car coming into town,” she said. “But I scarce dared believe it. Did I hear the rest right, too? Your gran brought you?”
“Does she know you’re here?”
“She said I could come talk to you if I wanted.”
Then he got his look of surprise, a widening of her blue eyes. “Did she now?”
He nodded again, and he expected her to be pleased, but while her eyes stayed kind, they narrowed too, as she surveyed him.
“Is everything all right, Bobby?”
He nodded without hesitation. Gran thought she was clever in her plan, that he would tattle on her to Mrs. Yates without realizing that’s exactly what she wanted. He had no idea what she hoped to gain, but if Gran wanted it, he wasn’t doing it.
“Are you sure?” Mrs. Yates said, those bright eyes piercing his. “Nothing is amiss at home?”
He shrugged. “My sister’s annoying, but that’s old news.”
He thought she’d laugh, pat his arm and move on. That’s what other grown-ups would do. But Mrs. Yates was not like other grown-ups, which was probably why he liked her so much. She kept studying him until, finally, she squeezed his shoulder and said, “All right, Bobby. If that’s what you want. Now, do you have your list of gargoyles?”
He pulled the tattered notebook from his back pocket. He’d been working on it since he was old enough to write. Cainsville had gargoyles. Lots of them. For protection, the old people would say with a wink. Every year, as part of the May Day festival, children could show the elders their lists of all the gargoyles they’d located, and the winner would take a prize. If you found all of them, you’d get an actual gargoyle modeled after you. That hardly ever happened—there were only a few in town.
It sounded easy, finding all the gargoyles, and it should be, except many hid. There were ones you could only see in the day or at night or when the light hit a certain way or, sometimes, just by chance. He’d been compiling his list for almost four years and he only had half of them, but he’d still come in second place last year.
“Let’s go gargoyle hunting.” Mrs. Yates got to her feet without groaning or pushing herself up, the way Gran and other old people did. She just stood, as easily as he would, and started for the door. “Now remember, I can’t point them out to you. That’s against the rules.” She leaned down and whispered, “But I might give you a hint for one. Just one.”
Behind them, the other elders chuckled, and Bobby and Mrs. Yates headed out into town.
He found one more gargoyle to add to his list, and he didn’t even need Mrs. Yates’s hint, so she promised to keep it for next time. They were going back to the diner and the promise of milkshakes when Mrs. Yates glanced down the walkway leading behind the bank.
“I think I hear the girls,” she said. “Why don’t you go play with them a while, and then bring them to the diner and we’ll all have milkshakes.”
“You like Rose and Hannah, don’t you?”
He nodded, and her smile broadened, telling him this was the right answer, so he added, “They’re nice,” to please her.
“They’re very nice,” she said. “It’s not easy for some children to find playmates. Some boys and girls are different, and other children don’t always like different. You’ll appreciate it more someday, when being different helps you stand out. But children don’t always want to stand out, do they?”
He shook his head. She understood, as she always did. His parents lied and tried to pretend he wasn’t different. She acknowledged it and understood it and made him feel better about it.
“Do you want to go play with the girls?”
He nodded. He did like the girls—Hannah, at least. What bothered him was the prospect of sharing Mrs. Yates with them later. But it would make her happy, and he was still her special favorite, so he shouldn’t complain.
“Off you go then. Come to the diner later and we’ll have those milkshakes.”
Mrs. Yates said Hannah and Rose were in the small park behind the bank. They were often there on the swings, and when he rounded the corner, that’s where he expected to see them. The swings were empty, though. He looked around the park, bordered by a fence topped with chimera heads. Walkways branched off in every compass direction. He heard Rose’s voice, coming from the one leading to Rowan Street.
The girls crouched beside a toppled cardboard box. Hannah was reaching in and talking. He liked Hannah. Everyone liked Hannah. His mother said she reminded her of the Gnat, but she couldn’t be more wrong. Yes, Hannah was pretty, with brown curls and dark eyes and freckles across her nose. And, like the Gnat, she was always laughing, always bouncing around, chattering. But with Hannah, it was real. The Gnat only acted that way because it tricked people into liking her.
Rose was different. Very different. She was a year younger than Bobby and Hannah, but she acted like a teenager, and she looked at you like she could see right through you and wasn’t sure she liked what she saw. She had black straight hair and weirdly cold blue eyes that blasted through him. She wasn’t pretty and she never giggled—she rarely even laughed, unless she was with Hannah.
Rose saw him coming first, though it always felt like “saw” wasn’t the right word. Rose seemed to sense him coming. She stood and when she fixed those blue eyes on him, he quailed as he always did, falling back a step before reminding himself he had done nothing wrong. Rose only tilted her head, and when she spoke, her rough voice was kind.
“Are you okay, Bobby?”
Her lips pursed, as if calling him a liar, then she waved for him to join them. As he stepped up beside the girls, he was chagrined to realize that as much as he’d grown in the last few months, Rose had grown more. She might be only seven and a girl, but he barely came up to her eyebrows. She moved back to let him stand beside Hannah.
“See what we found?” Hannah said.
It was a cat, with four kittens, all tabbies like the momma, except the smallest, which was ink black.
“Show him what you can do,” Rose said.
Hannah glanced up, her forehead creasing with worry.
“Go on,” Rose said. “Bobby can keep a secret. Show him.”
He looked at Rose, and she nodded, giving him a small smile—a sympathetic smile, as if she knew what he was going through and wanted Hannah to share her secret to make him feel better. He bristled. He didn’t want Rose’s sympathy. Didn’t need it. But he did want the secret, so he let Rose cajole Hannah until she blurted it out.
“I can talk to animals.” Hannah paused, face reddening. “No, that doesn’t sound right. It’s not like Dr. Dolittle. I don’t hear them talk. Animals don’t talk. But they do . . .” She turned to Rose. “What’s the word you used?”
Hannah nodded. “They communicate. I can understand them, and they can understand me.”
He must have seemed skeptical, because her cheeks went the color of apples in autumn.
“See?” she hissed at Rose. “This is why I can’t tell anyone. They’ll think I’m crazy.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” he said. “But you’re right—you probably shouldn’t tell anyone else.”
Hannah’s gaze dropped, and he felt bad. Like maybe he should tell her about the dreams and how he admitted it to Gran, and what happened next.
Did they know what happened? His grandmother always said Cainsville was a “backwater nowhere” town, where they acted as if they weren’t sixty miles from one of the biggest cities in America. Gran said they were ignorant, and they liked it that way. They didn’t read newspapers, didn’t listen to the news or even watch it on television. That wasn’t true. He’d once told Mrs. Yates about going to the site of the World’s Fair, and she’d known all about it. She’d told him stories about the fair, the sights and sounds and even the smells. He’d gotten an A on his paper and his teacher said it was almost like he’d been there. He’d asked Mrs. Yates if she’d been there, and she’d laughed and said she wasn’t that old. No one was. So people in Cainsville weren’t ignorant, but he supposed that knowing about the 1893 World’s Fair wasn’t the same as knowing what his teacher called “current events.”
“You shouldn’t tell everyone,” Rose said to Hannah. “Definitely not anyone outside Cainsville. But no one here will think you’re crazy.” She nudged Hannah with her sneaker. “Tell him about the black kitten.”
Hannah took more prodding, but when Bobby expressed an interest, she finally stood and said, “He’s sick. Momma Cat is worried he’s going to die. He doesn’t get enough to eat because he’s smaller than the others.”
“He’s not that much smaller.”
“He’s different,” Rose said. “That’s why they won’t let him eat very much. I think he’s a matagot. That’s what we were talking about when you came up.”
“Magician’s cat,” Rose said, as matter-of-factly as if she’d said the cat was a Siamese. “It’s a spirit that’s taken the form of a black cat.”
“They say that if you keep one and treat it well, it will reward you with a gold piece every day,” Hannah said.
“Gold?” he said.
Something in his tone made Rose tense—or maybe it was the way he looked at the black kitten. Hannah only giggled.
“It’s not true, silly,” Hannah said. “Magic doesn’t work that way. Not real magic.”
“What do you know about real magic?”
She shrugged. “Enough. I know it can make gargoyles disappear in daylight and tomato plants grow straight and true. I know it can let some people read omens—like old Mrs. Carew—and some see the future, like Rose’s Nana Walsh.”
He turned to Rose. “Your grandmother can see the future?”
“Futures,” she said. “There’s more than one. It’s all about choices.”
He didn’t understand that but pushed on. “If I asked her to see my futures—”
“You can’t,” Hannah cut in. “Not unless you can talk to ghosts. I’m not sure anyone can talk to ghosts. If there are ghosts.” She turned to Rose, as if she was the older, wiser girl.
“There are,” Rose said. “Those with the sight sometimes say they see them. Others can, too. But most times when a person says they’re seeing ghosts it’s their imagination. Even if you can talk to them I’m not sure why you’d want to.”
Hannah nodded, and his gaze shot from one girl to the other, unable to believe they were talking about such things seriously. Kids at school would call them babies for believing in magic. His parents would call it ungodly. His grandmother would probably call them changelings.
“About the cat. The . . . matagot.” He stumbled over the foreign word.
“We don’t know if it is one,” Rose said. “Hannah says his mother thinks he’s strange. She still loves him, though.”
“As she should,” Hannah said. “There’s nothing wrong with strange.”
Rose nodded. “But we’re worried.”
“Very worried.” Hannah knelt beside the box where the mother cat was licking the black kitten’s head. “Momma Cat is even more worried. Aren’t you?”
The cat mrrowed deep in its throat and looked up at Hannah. Then she nosed the kitten away from her side.
“I think she’s going to drive it off,” Bobby said. “They do that sometimes. With the weak, the ones that are different.”
Hannah shook her head, curls bouncing. “No, she’s asking me to take it.”
“You should,” Rose said. “Your parents would let you.”
“I know. I just hate taking a kitten from its mother.”
The cat nosed the kitten again and meowed. Hannah nodded, said, “I understand,” and very gently lifted the little black ball in both hands. The cat meowed again, but it didn’t sound like protest. She gave the black kitten one last look, then shifted, letting its siblings fill the empty space against her belly.
“You’ll need to feed it with a dropper,” Rose said. “We can get books at the library and talk to the veterinarian when she comes back through town.”
Hannah nodded. “I’ll take him home first and ask Mom to watch him.”
They got to the end of the walkway before they seemed to realize Bobby wasn’t following. They turned.
“Do you want to come with us?” Hannah asked.
He did, but he wanted the milkshake with Mrs. Yates too, and if the girls were busy, he’d get the old woman all to himself.
“I told Mrs. Yates I’d meet her at the diner,” he said, not mentioning the milkshakes.
Rose nodded. “Then you should do that. We’ll see you later.”
“Is your family coming for Samhain?” Hannah asked.
“I think we are.”
Hannah smiled. “I hope so.”
“Make sure you do,” Rose said. “It’s more fun when you’re here.”
He couldn’t tell if she meant it or was just being nice, but it felt good to hear her say it and even better when Hannah nodded enthusiastically. He said he’d be back for Samhain, and went to find Mrs. Yates.
On the way home, his grandmother asked about his visit with Mrs. Yates. She was trying to get him to admit that he’d tattled on her. Even if he had, he certainly wouldn’t admit it. His grandmother might say he was too smart for his age, but sometimes she acted as if he was dumber than the Gnat. Finally, she pulled off the highway, turned in her seat and said, “Did Mrs. Yates ask how things were at home?”
“And what did you tell her?”
“That they were fine.”
She put her hand on his shoulder. It was the first time since he’d admitted to the dreams that she’d voluntarily touched him, except to pinch or slap.
“You know it’s a sin to lie, Bobby.”
“Then tell me the truth. Did you say more?”
He hesitated. Nibbled his lip. Then said, “I told her Natalie was being a pest.”
Her mouth pressed into a thin line. “That’s not what I mean.”
“But you asked—”
“Did you say anything more?”
“No.” He hid his smile. “Not a word.”
A month later, as Samhain drew near, he mentioned it over dinner.
“We aren’t going,” his mother said quietly.
“Gran feels Cainsville isn’t a good influence on you right now.”
He shot a look at his grandmother, who returned a small, smug smile and ate another forkful of peas.
“Remember what happened when you visited last month?” his father said. “You came home and you were quite a little terror.”
That was a lie. His grandmother had punished him twice as much after they got back, making up twice as many stories about him misbehaving. He’d thought she was just angry because her plan—whatever it had been—failed.
Gran’s smile widened, her false teeth shining as she watched him.
“I don’t care,” the Gnat said. “I hate Cainsville. It’s boring.”
His grandmother patted her head. “I agree.”
He shot to his feet.
“Bobby . . .” his father said.
“May I be excused?” he asked.
His father sighed. “If you’re done.”
Bobby walked to his room, trying very hard not to run in and slam the door. Once he got there, he fell facedown on his bed. The door clicked open. His grandmother walked in.
“You’re a very stupid little beast,” she said. “You should have told the elders. They’d take you back.”
He flipped over to look at her.
“If you’re being mistreated, they’ll take you back,” she said. “But you didn’t tell them, so now we have to wait for them to come to us. I’ll make sure they come to us.”
His grandmother soon discovered another flaw in her plan. Two, actually. First, that whoever she thought would “come for him” was not coming, no matter how harsh her punishments. Second, that his parents’ blindness had limits.
As the months of abuse had passed, he’d come to accept that his parents weren’t really as oblivious as they pretended. Nor were they as enlightened as they thought. Even if they’d never admit it, there seemed to be a part of them that thought his grandmother’s wild accusation was true. Or perhaps not that they actually believed him a changeling faerie child, but that they thought there was something wrong—terribly wrong—with him. He was different. Odd. Too distant and too cold. His sister hated him. Other children avoided him. Like animals, they sensed something was off and steered clear. Perhaps, then, the beatings would help. Not that they’d ever admit such a thing—heavens no, they were modern parents—but if he didn’t complain, then perhaps neither should they.
They did have limits, though. When the sore spots became bruises and then welts, they objected. What would the neighbors think? Or, worse, his teachers, who might call children’s services. Hadn’t the family been through enough? Gran could punish him if he misbehaved, but she must use a lighter hand.
That did not solve the problem, but it opened a door. A possibility. That door cracked open a little more when his mother received a call at work from one of the elders, who wondered why they hadn’t seen the Sheehan family in so long. Was everything all right? His mother said it was, but when she reported the call at home, over dinner, his grandmother fairly gnashed her teeth. His mother noticed and asked what was wrong, and Gran said nothing but still, his mother had noticed. He tucked that away and remembered it.
Christmas came, and he waited until he was alone in the house with his mother, and asked if they’d visit family in Cainsville. His mother wavered. And he was ready.
“Your grandmother doesn’t think you’re ready,” she said as they sat in front of the television, wrapping gifts.
“I’ve been much better,” he said.
“I’m not sure that you have.”
He stretched tape over a seam. “I don’t think I’m as bad as Gran says. I think she’s still mad at me because we had to move.”
A soft sigh, but his mother said nothing. He finished his package and took another.
“I think she might exaggerate sometimes,” he said quietly. “I think Natalie might, too. I get the feeling they don’t like me very much.”
Of course his mother had to protest that, but her protests were muted, as if she couldn’t work up true conviction.
“If you don’t see me misbehaving, maybe I’m not,” he said. “I do, sometimes. All kids do. But maybe it’s not quite as much as Gran and Natalie say.”
He worded it all so carefully. Not blaming anyone. Only giving his opinion, as a child. His mother went silent, wrapping her gift while nibbling her lower lip, the same way he did when he was thinking.
“I have friends in Cainsville,” he said. “Little girls who like playing with me. They’re very nice girls.”
“Hannah and Rose,” his mother said. “I like Hannah. Rose is . . .”
“Different,” he said. “Like me. But she’s not mean and she doesn’t misbehave. She hardly ever gets in trouble. Even less than Hannah.”
“Rose is a very serious girl,” she said. “Like you. I can see why you’d like her.”
“I do. I miss them. I promise if we go to Cainsville, I’ll be better than ever.” He clipped off a piece of ribbon. “And your family is there. You want to see them. Gran never liked Cainsville, so she’s happy if we don’t go.”
“That’s true,” his mother murmured, and with that, he knew he’d won an ally in his fight to return to Cainsville. But as he soon learned, it hardly mattered at all. His mother had a job, just like a man, but she didn’t make a lot of money, and his father always joked that it was more a hobby than an occupation, which made his mother angry. That meant, though, that his father was the head of the house. As it should be, Gran would say, and she could, because there was only one person his father always listened to—his own mother, Gran. If Bobby’s grandmother said no to Cainsville, then they would not be going to Cainsville and that was that.
Gran said no to Cainsville.
No to Cainsville for the holidays. No to Cainsville for Candlemas. No to Cainsville for May Day.
It was the last that broke him. May Day was his favorite holiday, with the gargoyle hunt contest, which he was almost certain to win this year, according to Mrs. Yates.
He would go to Cainsville for May Day. All he had to do was eliminate the obstacle.
Everyone always told him how smart he was. Part of that was his memory. He heard things, and if he thought they might be important, he filed the information away as neatly as his father filed papers in his basement office. A year ago, his grandmother had admitted to feeding him one of her heart medicine pills. Father Joseph had been horrified—digitalis was foxglove, which was poison. Bobby had mentally filed those details and now, when he needed it, he tugged them out and set off for the library, where he read everything he found on the subject. Then he began stealing pills from Gran’s bottle, one every third day.
After two weeks, he had enough pills. He ground them up and put them in her dinner. And she died. There were a few steps in between—the heart attack, the ambulance, the hospital bed, his parents and the Gnat sobbing and praying—but in the end, he got what he wanted. Gran died and the obstacle was removed, and with it, he got an unexpected gift, one that made him wish he’d taken this step months ago, because as his grandmother breathed her last and he stood beside her bed, watching, he finally heard the screams of dragons.
It started slow, quiet even. Like a humming deep in his skull. Then it grew and the humming became a strange vibrating cry, somewhere between a roar and a scream. Finally, when it crescendoed, he couldn’t even have said what it sounded like. It was all sounds at once, so loud that he burst out in a sob, hands going to his ears as he doubled over.
His mother caught him and held him and rubbed his back and said it would be okay, it would all be okay, Gran was in a better place now. Yet the dragons kept screaming until he pushed her aside and ran from the hospital room. He ran and he ran until he was out some back door, in a tiny yard. Then he collapsed, hugging his knees as he listened to the dragons.
That’s what he did—he listened. He didn’t try to block them, to stop them. This was what he’d dreamed of and now he had it, and it was horrible and terrible and incredible all at once. He hunkered down there, committing them to memory as methodically as he had the dreams of golden palaces and endless meadows. Finally, when the screams faded, he went back inside, snuffling and gasping for breath, his face streaked with tears. His parents found him like that, grieving they thought, and it was what they wanted to see, proof that he was just a normal little boy, and they were, in their own grief, happy.
He waited until three days after the funeral to broach the subject of Cainsville. He would have liked to have waited longer, but it was already April 27, and he’d given great thought to the exact timing—how late could he wait before it was too late to plan a May Day trip? April 27 seemed right.
After he’d gone to bed, he slipped back out and found his parents in the living room, reading. He stood between them and cleared his throat.
“Yes, Bobby?” his mother said, lowering her book.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “Natalie’s so upset about Gran. We all are, of course, but Natalie most of all.”
His mother sighed. “I know.”
“So I was thinking of ways to cheer her up.”
As he expected, this was about the best thing he could have said. His mother’s eyes lit up and his father lowered his newspaper.
“It’s May Day this weekend,” Bobby said. “I know Natalie thinks Cainsville is boring, but she always liked May Day.”
“That’s true.” His mother snuck a glance at his father. “Last year, she asked if we were going before Bobby did.”
“I thought we might go,” he said. “For Natalie.”
His father smiled and reached to rumple Bobby’s hair. “That’s a fine idea, son. I believe we will.”
Rose knew what he’d done. He saw it in her eyes as he walked over to her and Hannah, cutting flowers before the May Day festivities began. Rose saw him coming and straightened fast, fixing him with those pale blue eyes. Then she laid her hand on Hannah’s shoulder, as if ready to tug her friend away.
Hannah looked up at Rose’s touch. She saw him and grinned, a bright sunshine grin, as she rose and brushed off the bare knees under her short, flowered dress. Rose kept hold of her friend’s shoulder, though, and squeezed. Hannah hesitated.
He stopped short. Then he glanced to the side, pretending he’d heard someone call his name, an excuse to walk away. He headed toward one of the elders, setting out pies. The pie table was close enough for him to hear the girls.
Rose spoke first. “I had a dream about Bobby,” she whispered.
Hannah giggled. “He is kind of cute.”
“Not like that.”
Hannah went serious. “You mean one of those dreams?”
“I don’t know. There were dragons.”
He stiffened and stood there, blueberry pie in hand, straining to listen to the girls behind him.
“Dragons?” Hannah said.
“He was hunting them.”
“I bet they were gargoyles. He’s really good at finding them. He has twice as many as I do, and he doesn’t even live here.”
“He killed one,” Rose said.
“A dragon. An old one. She was blocking his way, and he fed her foxglove flowers, and she started to scream.”
His stomach twisted so suddenly that he doubled over, the elder grabbing his arm to steady him, asking if he was all right, and he said yes, quickly, pushing her off as politely as he could and taking another pie from the box as he struggled to listen.
“That’s one freaky dream, Rosie,” Hannah was saying.
“I think it just means he’s going to win the gargoyle contest.”
“Probably, but it felt like . . .” Rose drifted off. “No, I’m being dumb.”
“You’re never dumb. You just think too much sometimes.”
Rose chuckled. “My mom says the same thing.”
“Because she’s smart, like you. Now, let’s go ask if Bobby wants to come see Mattie.”
The tap-tap of fancy shoes. Then a finger poked his back.
He turned to Hannah, smiling at him.
“We’re glad you came,” she said. “We missed you.”
“It’s not time for the festival yet. Do you want to come see Mattie?”
“That’s what she named the kitten,” Rose said, walking up behind her friend. “Short for matagot.”
“No, short for Matthew.”
Rose rolled her eyes. “Whatever you say.”
Hannah pretended to swat her, then put her arm through Bobby’s. As she did, Rose tensed and rocked forward, like she wanted to pull Hannah away. She stopped herself, but fixed him with that strange look. Like she knew what he’d done. With that look, he knew Rose had a power, like Hannah. And him? He had nothing except taunting dreams of castles and meadows, and the screams of dragons, fading so fast he could barely remember the sound at all.
“Smile, Bobby,” Hannah said, squeezing his arm. “It’s May Day, and we’re going to have fun.” She grinned. “We’ll always have fun together.”
He won the gargoyle hunt that year. The next year, too. They went to Cainsville for all the festivals and sometimes he and his mother just went to visit. Life was good, and not just because Gran was dead and he’d gotten Cainsville back, but because he’d learned a valuable lesson. He did not have magic powers. He would likely never have them. But he did have a power inside him—the screams of dragons.
He would admit that when he killed his grandmother, he thought he’d suffer for it. He’d be caught and even if he wasn’t, it would be as Father Joseph preached—he would be forever damned in the prison of his own mind, tormented by his sins. Father Joseph had lied. Or, more likely, he simply didn’t understand boys like Bobby.
No one ever suspected Gran died of anything but a natural death, and his life turned for the better after that. He learned how to win his parents’ sympathy if not their love. To turn them, just a little, to his side, away from the Gnat. He learned, too, how to deal with his sister. That took longer and started at school, with other children, the ones who bullied and taunted him.
He decided to show those children why he should not be bullied or taunted. One by one, he showed them. Little things for some, like spoiling their lunches every day. Bigger things for others. With one boy, he loosened the seat on his bike, and he fell and hit his head on the curb and had to go away, people whispering that he’d never be quite right again.
Bobby took his revenge, and then let the children know it was him, and when they tattled, he cried and pretended he didn’t know what was happening, why they were accusing him—they’d always hated him, always mocked and beat him, and the teachers knew that was true, and his tears and his lies were good enough to convince them that he was the victim. Each time he won, he would hear the dragons scream again, and he’d know he’d done well.
Once he’d perfected his game, he played it against the Gnat. For her eighth birthday, their parents gave her a pretty little parakeet that she adored. One day, after she’d called him a monster and scratched him hard enough to draw blood, he warned that she shouldn’t let the bird fly about, it might fly right out the door.
“I’m not stupid,” she said. “I don’t open the doors when she’s out.” She scowled at him. “And you’d better not either.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” he said. And the next time she let the bird out, he lured it with treats to his parents’ room, where the window was open, just enough.
He even helped her search for her bird. Then she discovered the open window.
“You did it!” she shouted.
She rushed at him, fingers like claws, scratching down his arm. He howled. His parents came running. The Gnat pointed at the window.
“Look what he did. He let her out!”
His father cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I left that open, sweetheart.”
“You shouldn’t have let the bird out of her cage,” his mother said, steering the Gnat off with promises of ice cream. “You know we warned you about that.”
The Gnat turned to him. He smiled, just for a second, just enough to let her know. Then he joined them in the kitchen where his mother gave him extra ice cream for being so nice and helping his little sister hunt for her bird.
The Gnat wasn’t that easily cowed. She only grew craftier. Six months later, their parents bought her another parakeet. She kept it in its cage and warned Bobby that if it escaped, they’d all know who did it. He told her to be nicer to him and that wouldn’t be a problem. She laughed. Three months later, she came home from school to find her bird lying on the floor of its cage, dead. His parents called it a natural death. The Gnat knew better, and after that, she stayed as far from him as she could.
While his life outside Cainsville improved, his visits to the town darkened, as if there was a finite amount of good in his life, and to shift more to one place robbed it from the other.
He blamed Rose. After her dream of the dragon, she’d been nicer to him, apparently deciding it had been no more than a dream. Unlike Hannah’s power, Rose’s came in fits and starts, mingling prophecy and fantasy.
But then, after he did particularly bad things back home—like loosening the bike seat or killing the bird—he’d come to Cainsville and she’d stare at him, as if trying to peer into his soul. After a few times, she seemed to decide that where there were dragons, there was fire, and if she was having these dreams, they meant something. Something bad.
Rose started avoiding him. Worse, she made Hannah do the same. He’d come to town and they’d be off someplace and no one knew where to find them—not until it was nearly time for him to go, and they’d appear, and Rose would say, “Oh, are you leaving? So sorry we missed you.”
Soon, it wasn’t just Rose looking at him funny. All the elders did. Mrs. Yates stuck by him, meeting him each time he visited, taking him for walks. Only now her questions weren’t quite so gentle. Is everything all right, Bobby? Are you sure? Is there anything you want to tell me? Anything at all?
It didn’t help that he’d begun doing things even he knew were wrong. It wasn’t his fault. The dreams of golden castles and endless meadows had begun to fade. It did not directly coincide with the first screams of the dragons, but it was close enough that he’d suspected there was a correlation. When he stopped tormenting his tormenters and let the screams of dragons ebb, the dreams of the golden world continued to fade, until he was forced to accept that it was simply the passing of time. As he aged, those childish fancies slid away, and all he had left were the dragons. So he indulged them. Fed them well and learned to delight in their screams as much as he had those pretty dreams.
There were times when he swore he could hear his grandmother’s voice in his ear, calling him a nasty boy, a wicked boy. And when he did, he would smile, knowing he was feeding the dragons properly. But they took much feeding, and it wasn’t long before no one tormented him and there were no worthy targets for his wickedness. He had to find targets and, increasingly, they were less worthy, until finally, by the time he turned twelve, many were innocent of any crime against him. But the dragons had to be fed.
That summer, his mother took him to Cainsville two days after he’d done something particularly wicked, particularly cruel, and when he arrived at the new diner, the elders were not there. Even Mrs. Yates was gone. He’d walked to her house and then to the schoolyard, where they sometimes sat and watched the children play. He found her there, with the others, as a group of little ones played tag.
When she saw him, she’d risen, walked over and said he should go to the new diner and have a milkshake and she’d meet him there later. She’d even given him three dollars for the treat. But he’d looked at the children, and he’d looked at her, standing between him and the little ones, guarding them against him, and he’d let the three bills fall to the ground and stalked off to talk to Rose.
He found her at her brother’s place. Rose was the youngest. A “whoops” everyone said, and he hadn’t known what that meant until he was old enough to understand where babies came from and figured out that she’d been an accident, born when her mother was nearly fifty. This brother was twenty-nine, married, with a little girl of his own. That’s where Rose was—babysitting her niece.
Bobby snuck around back and found the little girl playing in a sandbox. She couldn’t be more than three, thin with black hair. He watched her and considered all the ways he could repay Rose for her treachery.
“What are you doing here?” a low voice came from behind him. He turned to see Rose, coming out of the house with a sipping cup and a bottle of Coke. Like Mrs. Yates, she moved between him and the child. Then she leaned over and whispered, “Take this and go inside, Seanna. I’ll be there in a minute, and we’ll read a book together.”
She handed the little girl the sipping cup and watched her toddle off. Then she turned to him. “Why are you here, Bobby?”
“I want to know what you told the elders about me.”
“About you?” Her face screwed up. “Nothing. Why?”
He stepped toward her. “I know you told them something.”
She stood her ground, her chin lifting, pale eyes meeting his. “Is there something to tell?”
“Then you don’t have anything to worry about.”
She started to turn away. He grabbed her elbow. She threw him off fast, dropping the bottle and not even flinching when it shattered on the paving stones.
“I didn’t tell anyone anything,” she said. “I don’t have anything to tell.”
“Bull. I’ve seen the way you look at me, and now they’re doing it, too.”
“Maybe because we’re all wondering what’s wrong. Why you’ve changed. You used to be a scared little boy, and now you’re not, and that would be good, but there’s this thing you do, staring at people with this expression in your eyes and . . .” She inhaled. “I didn’t tell the elders anything.”
“Yes, you did. You had a vision about me. A fake vision. And you told.”
“No, I didn’t. Now, I can’t leave Seanna alone—”
He grabbed her wrist, fingers digging in as he wrenched her back to face him. “Tell me.”
She struggled in his grip. “Let me—”
He slapped her, so hard her head whipped around, and when it whipped back, there was a snarl on her lips. She kicked and clawed, and he released her fast, stepping back. She hit him then. Hit him hard, like a boy would. Plowed him in the jaw and when he fell, she stood over him and bent down.
“You ever touch me again, Bobby Sheehan, and I’ll give you a choice. Either you’ll confess it to the elders or I’ll thrash you so hard you’ll wish you had confessed. I didn’t tattle on you. Now leave me alone.”
“You think you’re so special,” he called as she climbed the back steps. “You and your second sight.”
“Special?” She gave a strange little laugh, and when she turned, she looked ten years older. “No, Bobby Sheehan, I don’t think I’m special. Most times, I think I’m cursed. I know you’re jealous of us, with our powers, but you wouldn’t want them. Not for a second. It changes everything.” She glanced down at him, still on the ground. “Be happy with what you have.”
He was not happy with what he had. As the year passed, he became even less happy with it, more convinced that Rose and the elders were spying on him from afar. Spying on his thoughts. This was not paranoia. Twice, after he’d done something moderately wicked, his mother got a call at work. Once from Mrs. Yates and once from Rose’s mother.
“Just asking how you are,” his mother said over dinner after the second call. She slid him a secret smile. “I think Rose might be sweet on you. She seems like a nice girl.”
“Her family’s not nice,” the Gnat said as she took a forkful of meatloaf. “Her one brother’s in jail.”
His mother looked over sharply. “No, he isn’t. He’s in the army. Don’t spread nasty gossip—”
“It’s not gossip. I heard it in town. He’s in jail for fraud, and so was Rose’s dad, for a while, years ago, and no one thinks there’s anything weird about that. I overheard someone say the whole family is into stuff like that. They’re con artists. Only people act like it’s a regular job.” She scrunched up her freckled nose. “Isn’t that freaky? The whole town is—”
“Enough,” his mother said. “I think someone’s pulling your leg, young lady. There is nothing wrong with Rose Walsh or her family. They’re fine people.”
For once, he believed the Gnat. He’d wondered about Rose’s brother ever since he took off a few years ago and Rose said he’d joined the army to fight in Vietnam, but he’d been over thirty, awfully old to sign up.
Con artists. That explained a lot. Rose was conning the elders right now, telling them stories about him. Trying to con him, too, into not wanting powers. He did. He wanted them more than anything. And he was going to find a way to get them.
He spent months researching how to steal powers and learned nothing useful. It did not seem as if it could be done, and the more he failed to find an answer, the more the jealousy gnawed at him, and the harder it was to focus on keeping the dragons fed and happy. He had to do worse and worse things, and it made him feel even guiltier about them. Together with the jealousy, it was like his stomach was on fire all the time. He couldn’t eat. He started losing weight.
He had to go back to Cainsville. At the very least, the visit would calm the gnawing in his stomach and let him eat. He would talk his mother into a special trip to Cainsville and he would go see Hannah. Not the elders. Not Mrs. Yates. Certainly not Rose. No, he’d visit Hannah. She’d help him set things right.
His plan worked so beautifully that he felt as if the success was a sign. His luck was turning. He asked his mother to go and off they went that Sunday. He arrived to hear that Rose was in the city, and he found Hannah in the playground, tending to an injured baby owl.
“Did a cat get it?” he asked as he walked over.
She’d started at the sound of a voice, and he expected that when she saw it was him, she’d smile. She didn’t. She scooped up the owl and stood.
“Bobby,” she said. “I didn’t know you were coming today.”
“Surprise.” He grinned, but she didn’t grin back. Didn’t even fake it. Just watched him as he opened the gate and walked in. “Is the owl all right?”
She hesitated, then shook her head. “Something got him. Maybe a cat. He’s dying.” Another pause. “That’s the worst part. When they’re hurt and I can’t help.”
“You can put it out of its misery.”
She almost dropped the fledgling. “What?”
“I’ll do it. Mercifully. Then you won’t need to feel bad because you can’t help.”
She stared at him like he’d suggested murdering her mother for pocket change. One of the dragons roared, a white-hot burst of flame that blazed through him.
“I’m thinking of you,” he said, glowering at her.
“And I’m not. That isn’t how it works. Rose said you . . .” she trailed off.
“Rose said what?” He stepped forward.
Hannah shrank, but only a little, before straightening. “That you don’t understand about the powers. You think they’re this great gift. There are good parts, sure, but bad, too. Lots of bad. I woke up in the middle of the night last week because a dog had been hit by a car. I ran out of the house and my mom helped me take it to the vet’s, but there was nothing we could do. It was horrible. Just horrible. And I felt it—all of it. But the only thing that made that dog feel better was having me there through the whole thing, no matter how hard it was. So I did it. Because that’s my responsibility.”
Then you’re a fool, he thought. The dog wouldn’t have helped you. It would have left you by the road to die. He didn’t say that, because when he looked at her, getting worked up, all he could think was how pretty she’d gotten. Prettier than any girl in his class, and he wanted to touch her, and when the impulse came, it was like throwing open a locked door. This was how he could steal her power. Touch her, kiss her . . .
He bit his lip and rocked back on his heels. “I’m sorry, Hannah. I wasn’t thinking. My dad always said a quick death is better than suffering, and that’s what I meant. Help you and help the baby owl.” He met her gaze. “I’m sorry.”
She nodded. “It’s all right. I’m just feeling bad about it.” She set the fledgling back on the ground.
“I know.” He stepped closer. “I wish I could make you feel better.”
Another nod, and in a blink, he was there, his arms going around her, his lips to hers. It wasn’t the first time he kissed a girl. He’d done more than kiss them, too. Sometimes that was him being wicked, but most times, he didn’t need to be—he knew how to say the right things. A little charmer, that’s what his mother called him, obviously relieved that her sullen boy had turned out so well.
So he kissed Hannah. It was a good kiss. A sweet and gentle one, for a sweet and gentle girl. But she jerked back and pushed him away hard, as if he’d jumped on her.
“I-I’m sorry, Bobby,” she said. “I have a boyfriend.”
He was about to say “Who?” when he saw her expression.
The dragon whipped its tail inside him, lighting his gut on fire. He forced it to settle. He wouldn’t be wicked with Hannah. He just wouldn’t. Not unless he had to.
“It’s Rose, isn’t it?” he said, stepping back, looking down at his sneakers. “She doesn’t like me. She has dreams about me—about a dragon. She told me that, but I don’t understand what it means.”
“She doesn’t either. What did she tell you?”
He shrugged and continued the lie. “Something about a dragon. That’s all I know.”
“It’s two dragons. She dreams they’re fighting over you and screaming awful screams. Then one wins and it . . . it . . .”
“Devours you,” she blurted. “We don’t know what it means.”
“What do the elders say?”
“Elders?” She frowned at him. “We didn’t tell the elders. Rose looked it up in books. She has lots of books from her Nana. Some talk about the sight and dreams, but she can’t figure this one out.”
“So she’s never told the elders? About me?”
“Of course not. What’s there to tell?”
He bit his lip. “I get the feeling Rose doesn’t like me very much anymore.” He lifted his gaze to hers. “I get the feeling you don’t either.”
“I . . .” She swallowed. “I’m fine, Bobby, I just—”
He grabbed her around the waist and kissed her again. This time when she struggled he held on, kept kissing her, and the more she fought, the more certain he was that this was the answer. She had the power. Touch her. Kiss her—
She kneed him between the legs.
He gasped and fell back. “You little—”
“What’s happened to you, Bobby?” she said as she scooped up the bird and backed away. “You never used to be like this.”
“I just wanted to kiss you. You didn’t need to—”
“That wasn’t kissing me. That was hurting me. You want to know why I don’t like you as much?” She held up the owl. “Because they don’t. The animals. You scare them and you scare me.”
She cradled the fledgling against her chest and ran off, leaving him there, gasping for breath in the playground.
He started walking, not knowing where he was going, spurred by the fire in his gut, a fire that seeped into his brain, blinding him. When the rage-fog cleared, he found himself on Hannah’s street. And there, crossing the road, was what he’d come to find, though he only knew as he saw it.
The black cat. Hannah’s matagot kitten. A middle-aged cat now, slinking arrogantly across the street without even bothering to look, as if no car would dare mow it down.
He followed the beast, waiting for it to get to a secluded spot. In Cainsville, though, there weren’t any secluded spots. When he’d been young, he’d felt as if he was being merely observed, someone always watching over him, keeping him safe, and he’d loved that. Now it felt as if he was being spied on, judgmental eyes tracking his every move. As he moved, he’d sometimes see someone peek out from a house, but they’d only smile and nod. He might be thirteen, but here he was still a child, innocently out playing hide-and-seek or tag with his friends. He could cut through yards and steal behind garages and no one would ever come out to warn him off as they would in the city.
Eventually, the cat stopped prowling, and did so in one of the rare secluded spots—the yard of an empty house. Cainsville had a few of them, not abandoned but empty. This one was surrounded by a solid fence for privacy, and once Bobby was in that yard, he was hidden. That is where the beast stopped to clean itself, proving that whatever airs cats might put on, they were very stupid beasts.
As he crept up behind the cat, his hands flexed at his sides. He had to grab it just right or it would yowl. Pounce and snatch. That was the trick. Scoop it up by the neck, away from scrabbling claws and then squeeze. It was simpler than one might think, particularly when the beast was so preoccupied that it didn’t turn even when his foot accidentally scraped a paving stone.
He got as close as he dared. Then he sprang.
The cat whipped around and leaped at him. The shock of seeing that stopped him for a split second, and before he could recover, the cat was on him, scratching and biting, and it was like Rose and Hannah all over again, fighting like wild animals, only this animal had razor claws and fangs, and when he finally threw the beast off, blood dripped from his arms and his face.
He ran after the cat, but it bounded away, leaped onto the fence and turned to hiss at him, almost half-heartedly, as if he wasn’t worth the effort. He glowered at the beast, then stomped toward the gate. When he swung it open, someone was standing there. Three someones. Mrs. Yates and two of the other elders.
“What have you done, Bobby,” Mrs. Yates said, her voice low.
“Me?” He lifted his blood-streaked hands. “Ask that damned cat. I was trying to rescue it for Hannah.”
“No,” she said. “That isn’t what you were doing at all.”
“I don’t know what you mean. If Hannah told you—”
“Hannah told us nothing. She doesn’t need to. We know.”
He looked at her, and then at the other two elders, and he knew, too. Knew the truth he hadn’t dared admit. The girls weren’t tattling on him. It was the elders, burrowing into his head, reading all his most wicked thoughts, seeing all his most wicked deeds.
He managed to pull himself up straight and say, “You’re all crazy.” Then he pushed past them and raced back to his mother.
It was the old story. The one where he’d first heard about the screams of dragons. It was coming true. All of it. First the dragons. Then his stomach, twisting and hurting so much these days that he couldn’t eat—just like the king couldn’t eat because his food went missing. Now the people who could hear everything. The elders and Rose. They knew what he was doing even when he didn’t speak a word. He could not escape them, again like the king in the story.
That’s why he used to dream of castles. He wasn’t a changeling child. He was a king—or he had been—and the old story was replaying itself, consuming him and his life.
After that last trip to Cainsville, the elders were no longer content with the occasional call to check on him. Twice they’d shown up at his house. His house. Mrs. Yates had taken him aside and tried to talk to him, prodding him hard now with her questions, telling him she was worried, so worried. If only he’d talk to them, they might be able to help.
They didn’t care about him. They came as a warning. Letting him know they were in his head, watching and judging. Letting him know they were going to win. He was still a little boy. He would be consumed by them—the dragons—as Rose’s dreams predicted. It all made sense now, or it did, the more he thought about it, obsessed on it, dreamed of it. It was like a puzzle where the pieces don’t seem to fit, but you just had to be smart and twist them around until they did.
He went to the library and dug until he found the story in an old book of legends. He’d vaguely recalled that the king had stopped his enemies by feeding them something. According to the book, he’d fed them food made from very special insects. Bobby read that, and he went home to sleep on it, and when he woke, he knew exactly what he had to do.
It was May Day again. This year, the Gnat had decided not to come. She’d been at a friend’s place and called to say she was spending the night and skipping the trip. He’d given the news to his parents when they returned from a bridge party.
The next morning, his mother started fussing, worrying that the Gnat would change her mind as soon as they’d left for Cainsville.
“She’d call before that,” his father said. “She’s a big girl.”
“I can phone and ask if you want,” Bobby said.
“Would you? That’s sweet.” She patted his back as he walked past. “Whose house did you say she was at again?”
He answered from the next room, his reply garbled, but his mother only said, “Oh, that’s right. Now, does anyone know where we left the tanning lotion? I want to get started early this year. Wait, I think Natalie had it . . .”
A few minutes later he found her in his sister’s room. “She’s not there. I remember her saying something about going to the roller rink.”
His mother sighed. “I wish she wouldn’t. Those places seem so unhealthy for girls, with the lights all off and so many boys . . .”
“I can talk to her about it tomorrow if you’re worried.”
Another pat as she zoomed past, tanning lotion in hand. “Thank you, dear. You’re a good brother, even if she doesn’t always appreciate you. Did you pack that pie you made?”
“Pie?” His father appeared in the doorway. “Bobby made pie? Apple, I hope.”
“Shepherd’s pie,” his mother said. “He made it last night while we were out. Didn’t you notice the mess when we got home?” She glanced over. “So you did find hamburger meat in the freezer.”
“One last package, like I said.”
“I was so certain we’d run out.” She headed for the hall. “All right. Time to go.”
The waitresses at the new diner let him warm his casserole in the oven. He was sitting in the back, watching the timer, when the door swung open and Rose burst in, Hannah at her heels.
“That smells good,” Hannah said. “Is it true? You made pie?”
“Shepherd’s pie. I hope you’re not still mad at me. I’m . . .” He lowered his voice as he walked toward her. “Sorry about the last time. That’s why I made the pie. For you and Rose. To say I’m sorry. For the elders, too. I don’t want anyone to be mad at me.” He gazed into her eyes. “I hope you’ll have some.”
She seemed nervous, but forced a smile. “Sure, Bobby. And I’m sorry, if I overreacted. You scared me and—”
“What have you done?”
It was Rose. She hadn’t spoken since she’d entered. He hadn’t even glanced her way, seeing only Hannah. Now he looked over to see her standing in front of the oven, staring at it. When she turned to him, her face was even paler than usual, her blue eyes bulging.
“What have you done, Bobby?” she whispered.
“I had a dream,” she said. “Last night.”
“More dragons,” he scoffed. “Dreams of me and screaming dragons.”
“No.” Her horrified gaze never left his. “It wasn’t dragons I heard screaming.”
“Whatever.” He turned away. “You’re crazy. Your whole family is crazy.”
“Where’s your sister, Bobby?”
He shrugged, his back still to Rose. “She stayed home.”
“Where is your sister?” She said each word slowly, carefully, and he was about to reply when the door opened again. He turned as Mrs. Yates and two of the elders walked in. They seemed concerned. Only that. Then they stopped, mid-stride. They inhaled, nostrils flaring, and when they turned to him again, horror filled their eyes, the same horror that crackled from Rose’s wide-eyed stare.
“Bobby,” Mrs. Yates said. “What have you done?”
He wheeled and raced out the back door.
Before he knew it, he found himself back where he’d been the last time, in the backyard of the empty house. He looked around wildly, saw a break in the lattice work under the deck, and crawled through, wood snapping as he pushed his way in, splinters digging in, blood welling up.
When he got inside, he turned around and huddled there, hugging knees that stank of dirt, his arms striped with blood.
He remembered the blood.
He shot forward, gagging, stomach clenching, head pounding, the images slamming against his skull. He kept gagging until he threw up. Then he sat there, hugging his legs again as the tears rolled down his face.
Gran was right.
I am a monster.
And I don’t even know how it happened.
It was Mrs. Yates. He scuttled backward, but she walked straight to the hole and bent to peer in. She smiled, but it was such a terribly sad smile that he wished she’d scowl instead, scowl and rage and call him the monster he was.
“I am so sorry, Bobby,” she said. “I don’t know . . .” She inhaled. “I won’t make excuses. We could tell things weren’t . . . We had no idea how bad . . .” Another inhalation, breath whistling. “I’m so, so sorry. I wish I’d known. I wish I could have helped.”
He said nothing, just kept clutching his knees.
“I can’t stop what’s going to happen now, Bobby. I wish I could. I would give anything to fix this. But I can’t. I can only make it easier.”
He started to shake, holding his legs so tight his arms hurt.
“I read those newspaper articles,” she said. “About your grandmother. What she said. Your dreams. We should have talked about that. Perhaps if we’d talked . . .” She shook her head, then peered in at him. “You dreamed of golden castles, didn’t you? Castles and meadows and streams.”
“And dragons,” he whispered.
She went still. Completely, unnaturally still. “Dragons?”
He nodded. “I dream of dragons screaming. And then I wasn’t dreaming and they still screamed.”
“You should have told—” She cut herself short, chin dipping. “Let’s not talk about the dragons. You won’t hear them anymore. I promise. But the castles. You liked the castles?”
“Would you like to see them?”
“They’re gone. They went away.”
She inched a little closer to the gap in the lattice. “I can bring them back. Back as bright as they ever were. Castles and meadows, cool breezes and warm sunshine. Laughter and play, music and dancing. Is that what you remember?”
“Would you like to go there?”
She ducked her head and crawled under with him. In one hand, she held a bottle. She pulled out the stopper and held the bottle out to him. The liquid inside seemed to glow, and when he looked up at her, she seemed to glow, too, the wrinkles on her face smoothing.
“Do you trust me, Bobby?”
“Then drink that. Drink it, and you’ll see the castles again. You’ll go there, and you won’t ever need to come back.”
He took the bottle, and he drank it all in one gulp. As soon as he did, the dragons stopped screaming, and he saw Mrs. Yates, glowing, every inch of her glowing, like sunlight trapped under her skin, her eyes filling with it, drawing him in as she reached out to hug him. He fell into her arms, and the glow consumed everything, the world turned to gold, and when he opened his eyes, he was sitting on sun-warmed grass, staring up at a castle, and a girl laughed behind him and said, “Come and play, Bobby.” He turned, and she looked like Hannah but not quite, and she smiled at him, the way Hannah used to smile at him. He pushed to his feet and raced after her as she ran off, laughing.
And that was where he stayed, just as Mrs. Yates promised. Endless days in a world of gold and sunshine, days that ran together and had no end. Every now and then he would fall asleep in a lush meadow or in a chamber in the beautiful castle, and when he did, his dreams were terrible nightmares, where he was bound to a hospital bed, screaming about dragons. But the nights never lasted long, and soon he was back in his world of castles and meadows, running, chasing, playing, dancing until he forgot what the screams of dragons sounded like, forgot he’d ever heard them and forgot everything else—his grandmother, his sister, his parents, the girls, Mrs. Yates—all of it gone, wisps of a dream that faded into nothing, leaving him exactly where he’d always wanted to be.