When Craig dies, you burn every letter he ever sent you. You donate all of his gifts and delete his number from your phone.
You go to visit his mother, just once. There, she keeps Craig’s room like a shrine.
This used to be your place of safety. You came here when your parents fought, when you did badly on a test, when you had no reason at all.
It isn’t safe any longer. It still smells like him. Pictures of the two of you together stare at you from the walls. You could fall backwards onto his bed and find his body there beside you, his back warm against yours.
You catch movement from the corner of your eye and turn, quickly, to the mirror. He is standing behind you, his shoulders rolled forward and his hair hanging in his eyes. When he lifts his head to meet your gaze, there is nothing—only blackness.
You walk outside at once. The sun is so bright you have to stop, wiping your eyes.
The stacks in section 200, Religion, are glowing, sickly green like the sky before a tornado. The bindings creak and groan; wind whistles through the corridor even though you are deep in the heart of the library. The light coalesces into a form, though you can’t make it out yet. Your finger curls around the trigger of your crossbow. You keep still even though you want to bounce, to jump around.
The light becomes letters, swirling in a spiral that collapses into a single point and expands back into a winged lion, its mouth full of bright, sharp fangs still stained with the blood of its last kill. When it lunges, you fire the crossbow, aiming for the throat. At the touch of silver, the creature collapses back into letters that clatter to the ground like helicopter seeds.
The mess left over is the worst part. You crouch to wipe up the thick black tar on the ground—but at your touch, a face appears, reflected in the surface. Not your own. This one has soft lips, blonde hair that is always too long, green eyes.
You couldn’t remember that color yesterday. You still can’t remember it, really. You see it, but it sits on your mind like oil on water.
The eyes melt like crayons left in the sun and drip down the face, leaving nothing but empty pits. The smile stays, wide and white and ghastly.
You jerk back, one hand flying to your throat to feel your pulse pound. Your breath stutters like you missed a step at the bottom of the stairs. Even when it slows, the jolt of fear remains.
But you cannot leave a job half-done. You look down into the black pool again. This time, you see no face but your own.
Still, you drape the cloth over the whole puddle and wipe it away.
The next day, Prosper comes with you on your rounds. He has a bottle in one hand. The liquid inside reeks like gasoline, but it isn’t.
“I still don’t see why we can’t just take a blowtorch to them,” you mutter.
“You know as well as I do that anything mechanical is dangerous down here.” He nearly drops the keys to the basement door. You steady his wrist. He’s practically vibrating. But he takes a deep breath and continues. “Anyway, we’re not here to wreck things. We’re here to experiment. If we can catch some of the figments living down here, maybe we can figure out how to stop them from forming in the first place.”
There are no lights, nothing electronic. You left your cell phone upstairs, or it might have exploded in your pocket like you put it in a microwave. It feels like stepping into a cave, deep underground, where nothing has eyes and white mushrooms grow on the rocks.
Your pulse beats against the bones of your wrist, but you ignore it. “Stay close,” you whisper. Prosper nods. He takes a torch from the wall and lights it. You can at least see your footing now, but the light does not reach into the darkness.
“Remember, I need one pinned, not killed,” he whispers.
“Don’t talk,” you whisper back. “The last thing we need is all of them hearing us.” Instead of speaking, he puts his hand on your shoulder to show he understands. You nod and stride forward.
Something skitters in front of you—a spider that comes up to your knee. You freeze; Prosper lets out a stifled yelp. Before you can stomp on it, it disappears again. Prosper lets out a nervous laugh. You start walking again.
There is a sound like something heavy dragged over stone. You gesture for Prosper to stop and look down at your feet. A dark green shape—a tail—slides past you. Glancing over your shoulder, you point in the direction the rest of the body must be. Prosper slides left, holding up the torch.
A chimera—lion and snake and goat—whirls to face you. Three sets of teeth snap for your throat. You fire at the tail. The creature lets out a cry of agony but lunges at you again anyway. Pinned to the ground by your bolt, it can’t reach.
“There,” you say, and step sideways so Prosper can see the creature.
He swallows. “Okay,” he whispers, “okay, okay—” He takes a swig from the bottle, wincing at the taste. As he steps forward, he spits out the mouthful over the torch. The liquid catches fire as it shoots toward the chimera. It screams—a noise that sounds too human—but does not disappear. It is burning, swallowed by flames.
You thrust your hands into the fire. Though you feel heat, you are not burned. The chimera’s skin parts like thick, wet tissue paper until you reach the cool leather surface of a book. With a wet, sucking sound, you pry it free.
Now the chimera dissolves into pitch. The book still burns, though. Prosper takes it from you, cautiously.
He sets it on the ground and produces a piece of chalk from somewhere within his voluminous sleeves. Confidently and quickly as he would write his name, he sketches runes around the book—one at each cardinal point and one at each midway point between them.
The runes glow golden. Slowly, so slowly, chains of letters rise from each rune, like thread unspooling from a bobbin. They look tenuous, but they bind together and form a cage that glows. The fire dies down, leaving only the book. It glows that same disgusting green, but the light is contained. It does not move beyond the letters just as the light of your torch does not move into the blackness of the basement.
Looking at the book makes you ill, so you don’t. You move to wipe up the mess. The pitch rises from the ground, and you skip back—it’s never done that before.
A figure appears: a person with shoulders that always slouch, clothes that are always too big, a smile that is always too free and easy. And a black, empty pit where the rest of his face belongs.
You are frozen, incapable of doing what must be done.
Prosper’s foot comes down on the figure; you shriek and jerk back, one hand clutching your chest. Grimacing, he grinds the mess until it disappears. When it’s gone, he kneels in front of you and snaps his fingers in your face.
You slap his hand away. “Quit it. I’m fine.”
“No, you are not.” Prosper scowls at you. “You know what figments respond to—feelings. Strong ones. You know what this means.”
You jerk to your feet. “It doesn’t mean anything. I just—” But you can’t finish that sentence. You press your hand to your carotid, the beat so strong it should leave bruises on your fingertips. “We’re done with experiments for the day. I’ve got other stuff to do.” You turn back to the steps, even though you can’t leave—Prosper has the torch.
He gets up, nodding. “Hey.” You turn, just for a moment, just so you can scowl at him. “Whatever you’re running from—eventually you’ll run out of ground. You can only be a refugee so long.”
You do not look at him the entire way back to the stairs.
Sleep does not come easy that night. Every time you drift off, you catch movement from the corner of your eye—first in the window, then at the crack beneath your door, then in the bathroom mirror. At last, you turn on the light in the bathroom. You have to roll away from it, but it eliminates shadows where things can hide.
Finally, you fall asleep. At some point, you wake needing the bathroom, like you always do. Scowling, you throw off the blankets and sit up.
The bathroom light is off. Something is sitting in your desk chair.
Slowly, the figure turns to face you. You see the smile first, moonlight reflecting off white teeth bared in a perfect, gentle grin. And nothing above it.
You cannot move. You cannot breathe.
The figure stands, head tipping forward so the hair falls down to hide that smile. It takes a step toward you.
You dive for the light switch, gasping, and the shadows disappear.
There is nothing in your chair. The figure is gone.
Then, taking slow breaths, you get out of bed. You pick up your phone and dial Prosper’s number.
“How did you know I would be awake?” he demands.
“Not right now.” You walk over to your desk and kneel in front of the bottom drawer. As you reach beneath your shirt for the necklace that is always there, you say, “Tell me what you said before.”
He must hear something in your voice because his turns gentle. “About refugees?”
“They’re—they’re strong feelings.” He clears his throat. “The books are just a catalyst. They give feelings shape, and they sort of… hold them in place. When it gets to be too much, a figment forms.” He pauses. “It’s… it’s not always a monster.”
You take off the necklace. At the end of the thin silver chain hangs a key. You unlock the drawer with it. When you slide the drawer open, sickly green light pours out, coming from a notebook.
“Hey, what’s—what’s up?”
“I ran out of ground,” you reply softly. You end the call.
You draw runes with a highlighter in a diamond around the notebook. You do not stare at the picture taped to the cover—the only picture you still have of you and Craig together. Biting your lip, you watch the letters spool out of the runes and form a cage. The awful green light does not dim, but it does not cast shadows on your skin anymore, either, and that is good.
You wait, but nothing happens. Your hands clenching and unclenching at your sides, you tip your head back and swallow. But you must do this. You know so.
Letting out a slow breath, you reach between the bars of the cage and flip open the notebook. On the first page is a drawing of a face—soft, full lips; eyes with dark circles beneath them; a nose that has been broken at least twice. You trace the pen lines with your fingertips. Your drawing materials went in the garbage with Craig’s old hoodies.
The green glow flares, so bright it is painful, but you do not pull your hand away from the drawing. Letters in Craig’s handwriting peel off the page and rise in a chain that becomes a swiftly turning spiral. The letters blur and shrink into a single point.
Now you withdraw, closing your eyes until you hear something move across your desk. A tiny figure walks to the bars. In many ways, it is a perfect copy of the boy on the front cover of your notebook, down to the rips in the jeans and the frayed hem of the shirt. But the fingers that grip the bars are too long and stained with darkness, like they have killed shadows, and the face… the face is nothing but emptiness and white teeth.
“I wanted to forget about you,” you tell the figure.
Swaying from side to side, it smiles that awful smile. It holds such certainty, as though it knows you will crack and reach through the bars of the cage, and it will have you.
“I thought that would make it easier—losing you, I mean.” You let out a slow, shaky breath, trying to steady your voice. “I thought if I just buried it, I wouldn’t have to worry about it. That it would somehow—make you disappear. That you never would have been a part of my life, and that I wouldn’t have to be sad, because… because you would just be gone, I guess.”
The figure stills. Its hands tighten around the bars.
Your lips tremble. “Your eyes. They—they were so beautiful, and I looked into them every day and I never once told you.” You swallow. “I wanted to look at them forever, do you know that? I wanted—you. Just you. But I ran away from that, too. I tried to act like I didn’t care, because I thought I’d have the rest of my life to figure out how to say it. And I didn’t know what to do when I realized that wasn’t true.”
The figure presses its lack-of-face to the bars. There are no eyes, but you feel it watching you in the center of your chest.
“I thought I was letting you go,” you breathe. “But I was really just… holding you here.”
The figure trembles. It tips its head back, letting all of the hair fall away from its face. The dark pit of its face parts like thunderclouds before the sun, and the face you wish you recalled better emerges. The smile smooths, settles, becomes lovely again.
“I miss you,” you say softly. “I miss you every day. And I have to… make that part of me. Not flee from it.”
The figure nods. It isn’t Craig, but looking at it, you finally remember the color of his eyes.