"NOS4A2" book trailer
Hardcover: 704 pages
Publisher: William Morrow; First Edition edition (April 30, 2013)
Tags: NOS4A2 Joe Hill
Added: 7 months ago
was the only child
to ever escape
and his horrifying
alternate reality ...
Now Vic is all grown up
and desperate to forget ...
but Ol' Charlie, he could
never forget the one
that got away.
With her son's life on
the line, she'll need the
help of a punk librarian
to find the one thing she'd
rather keep hidden ...
NOS4A2 (pronounced Nosferatu) is a 2013 novel by American author Joe Hill and is his third novel. The book was published on April 30, 2013 through William Morrow and Company and focuses on a woman trying to save her son from a vicious killer who has set his sights on him.
The book takes place over several time periods, with the book opening in a hospital in 2008. Charles Talent Manx, known for abducting children with his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith, briefly wakes out of a coma in order to threaten a nurse that was caring for him. Her coworkers don't believe her claims, saying that he was incapable of waking or talking.
The book then shifts to 1986, where Victoria "Vic" McQueen discovers that she can find things by riding her Raleigh Tuff Burner bicycle through a bridge called the "Shorter Way Bridge", previously thought to have been destroyed. Once on the other side, she is always where she needs to be to find whatever it is that she was looking for. The process takes a large toll on Vic mentally and physically, especially as she has to lie about how she finds things. She eventually travels to an Iowa library where she meets Maggie, a librarian that can use Scrabble tiles to find out where to look for missing items or information. The process also takes a large toll on her, causing a severe stutter. She warns Vic against Manx, whom she can only refer to as "the Wraith" due to her being unable to divine his given name. Vic then begins to travel home, but loses her bike in the process and develops a terrible fever. During this time Manx enlists chemical plant worker Bing in order to gain access to a gingerbread-flavored sevoflurane that the factory produces. Believing that Manx is taking the children to a place called "Christmasland" where nothing bad happens, Bing willingly goes along with Manx's plans and uses the sevoflurane to capture children.
Years pass and Vic once again uses the Shorter Way after she has a fight with her mother. She tries to call her demolitionist father to stay with him, but is rebuffed. In retaliation Vic uses the bridge to travel to Manx's house, thinking that her abduction would hurt her mother. Once there she begins to experience inexplicable events such as seeing a child with rows of sharp brown teeth and cold air coming from his nose despite it not being cold enough. Vic barely manages to get away from Manx, especially after his house catches on fire. In her hurry to escape she runs into Louis "Lou" Carmody, who takes her to a gas station to call the police. While the police are being called Manx drives up to fill the gas tank and is captured, but only after he sets fire to a man trying to capture him.
Years pass and Vic begins a relationship with Lou and becomes pregnant with a son, Wayne. Unhappy and still scarred over her experiences with Manx, she begins painting motorcycles and later develops a successful series of children's books as a way of dealing with the memories. During this time she's also tormented by phone calls from unknown children who verbally torment her for getting Manx arrested. Her relationship with Lou suffers and ends as a result, with the two remaining relatively amicable. She eventually goes clean, but is confronted with the reality that Manx is still out there when Maggie appears on her doorstep. Unwilling to believe that he still exists, she sends Maggie away and accuses her of lying.
Meanwhile Manx has escaped, reunited with Bing, and has killed Vic's neighbors, taking residence in their house. The two bide their time as Vic and Wayne fix up an old motorcycle they discovered. It's only when Vic takes the bike out for a test drive (during which time she once again encounters the Shorter Way) that the two move in and kidnap Wayne, beating Vic fairly severely in the process. Wayne manages to call Lou, telling him that Manx has captured him. Vic calls the police to report Wayne's abduction, giving them an altered version of events that doesn't include her seeing the bridge. Her story isn't believed because Manx died within the hospital and was autopsied. FBI psychologist Tabitha Hutter is brought on to the case but still doesn't quite believe Vic, not even after a traced iPhone call from Wayne shows that he is traveling in between the worlds.
Vic decides to go after Manx and Wayne using the Shorter Way. She first goes to the "House of Sleep" in the hopes of getting her son back, only to find that it is Bing's house. He attacks Vic but she manages to kill him in self-defense. After reporting back to Lou (who then has chest pains due to undetected carotid stenosis) about her intent to further pursue Manx, Vic takes the Shorter Way to Maggie's library where the two women search for answers using Maggie's Scrabble tiles. Vic discovers that the way to destroy Manx is to destroy his Wraith, but Maggie is killed when Manx arrives at the library while Vic is sleeping. Narrowly missing capture by local police, Vic leaves to go to her father's house in search of some ANFO to destroy the Wraith. She successfully gains the explosives, meets back up with Lou, and emotionally reconnects with her father. Vic and Lou are forced to flee after Tabitha and the police show up, believing that Vic was responsible for the deaths of both Bing and Maggie. They end up outside of Manx's home, where she leaves Lou behind before setting out to Christmasland. There she's threatened by Manx's children after she reveals that she brought explosive with her. Vic fails to destroy the Wraith using the explosives, only to then see the car and Manx die in the Shorter Way bridge as it collapses in on itself.
The book then cuts forward to October, where it is revealed that Vic died shortly after she and Wayne returned to reality, having escaped Christmasland and Manx. Lou has lost a lot of weight and has begun seeing Tabitha. However Wayne still has nightmares where he sees the remnants of Christmasland and its inhabitants, where he is one of them and participates in gruesome games. During his waking hours he finds that he's still losing his humanity and that his transformation into one of Manx's creatures is still ongoing. Realizing that the now-dead Manx is still influencing his child, Lou takes Tabitha and Wayne out to the remains of Manx's home and smashes various ornaments that are hanging around the property. As the ornaments are destroyed various children that Manx had kidnapped and transformed appear, completely human. Lou smashes the ornament that stood for Wayne, reversing the transformation.
In the epilogue, Manx's "True Children" (including his biological daughter Millie) manage to keep their ornaments and escape from Christmasland in their demonic state.
Riding her bike through holes in reality, second-grader Vic McQueen finds lost things and brings them back: jewelry, toys, dead pets. As the heroine of Joe Hill's "NOS4A2" (Morrow, 704 pp., May, $28.99) ages, she loses faith in her own abilities, darkly magical and otherwise. She seems to lose pieces of her mind as well, bartering sanity for the shortcuts she knows it is impossible for her to take through time and space.
That's a bad enough trade, but soon an eerie, soul-sucking pedophile named Charlie Manx ups the ante. First her secret routes deliver the now teenage McQueen into his serial-killer clutches; she becomes the first minor to escape. Then she has a son, and Manx makes him his prey.
Joe Hill's father is horror giant Stephen King, but Hill has two acclaimed novels, a stellar story collection and a mind-blowing graphic-novel series to his own name. "NOS4A2" is his longest and most ambitious work yet.
Besides fussy, strait-laced evildoer Manx; fierce, fragile, stubborn McQueen; and her confident yet vulnerable son Wayne; Hill gives us a host of other involving characters. There's Bing Partridge, a misogynistic murderer with a handy supply of psychotropic gases. There's Maggie Leigh, a librarian and self-mutilator with a set of oracular Scrabble tiles. There's my favorite, Wayne's father Lou Carmody, a morbidly obese Klingon scholar and comics geek who fights to save his family come hell or heart attacks.
Very few of "NOS4A2's" 700-plus pages are static descriptions of these folks; most of the time Hill tethers us to their viewpoints and has them tow us along as they blunder or slink or sleuth their way through the story. Their actions reveal their essences. Illustrations by Gabriel Rodriguez, the artist who co-created the "Locke & Key" graphic novels with Hill, avoid portraiture; instead, they offer visions of objects encountered along the plot's complex, winding path: an IV bag full of blood, a motorcycle wrench, an autopsy hammer, a shattered Christmas ornament.
The creepiness of Manx's version of the Yuletide season lurks in this novel's background like Muzak from a mistuned pipe organ. Its title is the same as the vanity plate ("NOS4A2" - a pun on the word "nosferatu" or vampire) of the 1938 Rolls-Royce the villain uses to transport his victims to Christmasland, an imaginary realm "... where every morning is Christmas morning!" On his journeys there, Manx grows ever younger while his juvenile passengers grow ever less human, their real innocence and potential drained away and replaced with those qualities' ghoulish parodies.
A semi-functional, drug-abusing mother, McQueen wishes midway through the book that she hadn't been "stupid enough to have a baby." Her sincere but impaired attempts to free her son from Manx's depredations may be too harrowing for some parents to read, though "NOS4A2" is laced with references to popular culture (including Beatles songs and a few of King's best-sellers), and these can lend it a lighter feel. But for anyone willing to submit themselves to Hill's literary ministrations - sometimes gentle, sometimes gritty and abrasive - this novel will prove utterly absorbing.
AND SHE SPILLED ONTO THE SIDEWALK, SANDPAPERING HER RIGHT KNEE.
Vic rolled onto her back, grabbing her leg.
"Ow," she said. "Ow ow OW ow."
Her voice running up and down through several octaves, like an instrumentalist practicing scales.
"Oh, kittens. Are you all right?" came a voice from somewhere in the glare of midday sunshine. "You sh-should really be more careful jumping out of thin air like that."
Vic squinted into the light and was able to make out a scrawny girl not much older than herself - she was perhaps twenty - with a fedora tipped back on her fluorescent purple hair. She wore a necklace made out of beer-can pull tabs and a pair of Scrabble-tile earrings; her feet were stuck into Chuck Taylor Converse high-tops, no laces. She looked like Sam Spade, if Sam Spade had been a girl and had a weekend gig fronting a ska band.
"I'm okay. Just scraped myself," Vic said, but the girl had already quit listening. She was staring back at the Shorter Way.
"You know, I've always wanted a bridge there," the girl said. "Couldn'ta dropped it in a better s-spot."
Vic raised herself up onto her elbows and looked back at the bridge, which now spanned a wide, noisy rush of brown water. This river was almost as wide as the Merrimack, although the banks were far lower. Stands of birch and century-old oaks massed along the water's edge, which was just a couple feet below the sandy, crumbling embankment.
"Is that what it did? My bridge dropped? Like, out of the sky?"
The girl continued to stare at it. She had the sort of unblinking, stuporous stare that Vic associated with pot and a fondness for Phish. "Mmm-no. It was more like watching a Polaroid develop. Have you ever s-s-ssseen a Polaroid develop?"
Vic nodded, thinking of the way the brown chemical square slowly went pale, details swimming into place, colors brightening steadily, objects taking shape.
"Your bridge faded in where there were a couple old oaks. Good-bye, oaks."
"I think your trees will come back when I go," Vic said - although with a moment to consider it she had to admit to herself she had no idea if this were true. It felt true, but she couldn't attest to it as fact. "You don't seem very surprised about my bridge showing up out of nowhere." Remembering Mr. Eugley, how he had trembled and covered his eyes and screamed for her to go away.
"I was watching for you. I didn't know you were going to make ssssuch an ass-kicking entrance, but I also knew you might not sssss--" And without any warning at all, the girl in the hat stopped talking, midsentence. Her lips were parted to say the next word, but no word would come, and a look of strain came across her face, as if she were trying to lift something heavy: a piano or a car. Her eyes protruded. Her cheeks colored. She forced herself to exhale and then just as abruptly continued. "--get here like a normal person. Excuse me, I have a ss-ss-ssstammer."
"You were watching for me?"
The girl nodded but was considering the bridge again. In a slow, dreamy voice, she said, "Your bridge . . . it doesn't go to the other side of the Cedar River, does it?"
"So where does it go?"
"Is that here in Iowa?"
"Oh, boy, you've come a long way. You're in the Corn Belt now. You're in the land where everything is flat except the ladies." For a moment Vic was pretty sure she saw the girl leer.
"Excuse me, but . . . can we go back to the part where you said you were watching for me?"
"Well, duh! I've been expecting you for months. I didn't think you'd ever sh-show up. You're the Brat, aren't you?"
Vic opened her mouth, but nothing would come.
Her silence was answer enough, and her surprise clearly pleased the other girl, who smiled and tucked some of her fluorescent hair back behind one ear. With her upturned nose and slightly pointed ears, there was something elvish about her. Although that was possibly a side effect of the setting: They were on a grassy hill, in the shade of leafy oaks, between the river and a big building that from the back had the look of a cathedral or a college hall, a fortress of cement and granite with white spires and narrow slots for windows, perfect for shooting arrows through.
"I thought you'd be a boy. I was expecting the kind of kid who won't eat lettuce and picks his nose. How do you feel about lettuce?"
"Not a fan."
She squeezed her little hands into tight fists and shook them over her head. "Knew it!" Then she lowered her fists and frowned. "Big nose picker?"
"Blow it, don't show it," Vic said. "Did you say this is Iowa?"
"Where in Iowa?"
"Here," said the girl in the hat.
"Well," Vic started, feeling a flash of annoyance, "I mean, yeah, I know, but, like - here where?"
"Here, Iowa. That's the name of the town. You're right down the road from beautiful Cedar Rapids, at the Here Public Library. And I know all about why you came. You're confused about your bridge, and you're trying to figure things out. Boy, is this your lucky day!" She clapped her hands. "You found yourself a librarian! I can help with the figuring-out thing and point you toward some good poetry while I'm at it. It's what I do."
THE GIRL THUMBED BACK HER OLD-TIMEY FEDORA AND SAID, "I'M Margaret. Just like Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, only I hate when people call me that."
"No. God. I've got a big enough ego as it is." She grinned. "Margaret Leigh. You can just call me Maggie. If we go inside and I get you a Band-Aid and a cup of tea, do you think your bridge will stay?"
"Yes. I think so."
"Okay. Cool. I hope your bridge doesn't disappear on you. I'm sure we could get you home without it - we could hold a fund-raiser or s-s-something - but it might be better if you went back the way you came. Just so you don't have to explain to your parents how you wound up in Iowa. I mean, it wouldn't be too bad if you had to ss-ss-ssstay awhile! I have a bed down in Romantic Poetry. I crash here some nights. But you could bunk there and I could camp out with my uncle in his trailer, at least until we raise your bus fare."
"Shelves 821-point-2 through 821-point-6. I'm not supposed to suh-ss-sleep in the library, but Ms. Howard lets me get away with it if it's only now and then. She pities me, because I'm an orphan and kind of weird. That's okay. I don't mind. People make out like it's a terrible thing to be pitied, but I say, Hey! I get to sleep in a library and read books all night! Without pity, where would I be? I'm a total pity s-s-ssslut."
She took Vic's upper arm and helped her to her feet. She bent and collected the bicycle and leaned it against a bench. "You don't have to lock it up. I don't think anyone in this town is imaginative enough to think of s-s-stealing something."
Vic followed her up the path, through a sliver of wooded park, to the rear of the great stone temple of books. The library was built into the side of the hill, so it was possible to walk through a heavy iron door into what Vic guessed would be a basement. Maggie turned a key hanging from the lock and pushed the door inward, and Vic did not hesitate to enter. It didn't cross her mind to mistrust Maggie, to wonder if this older girl might be leading her into a dark cellar with thick stone walls, where no one would be able to hear her scream. Vic instinctively understood that a girl who wore Scrabble tiles as earrings and called herself a pity slut did not present much in the way of threat. Besides, Vic had wanted to find someone who could tell her if she was crazy, not someone who was crazy. There was no reason to be afraid of Maggie, unless Vic thought the Shortaway could willfully lead her wrong, and on some level Vic knew that it couldn't.
The room on the other side of the iron door was ten degrees cooler than the parkland outside. Vic smelled the vast vault filled with books before she saw it, because her eyes required time to adjust to the cavernous dark. She breathed deeply of the scent of decaying fiction, disintegrating history, and forgotten verse, and she observed for the first time that a room full of books smelled like dessert: a sweet snack made of figs, vanilla, glue, and cleverness. The iron door settled shut behind them, the weight of it clanging heavily against the frame.
Maggie said, "If books were girls, and reading was s-ss-ssss - fucking, this would be the biggest whorehouse in the county and I'd be the most ruthless pimp you ever met. Whap the girls on the butts and send them off to their tricks as fast and often as I can."
Vic laughed, then clapped a hand over her mouth, remembering that librarians hated noise.
Maggie led her through the dim labyrinth of the stacks, along narrow corridors with walls of high shelves.
"If you ever have to escape in a hurry," Maggie said, "like, if you were on the run from the cops, just remember: Stay to your right and keep going down the steps. Fastest way out."
"You think I'll have to escape the Here Public Library in a hurry?"
"Not today," Maggie said. "What's your name? People must call you something besides the Brat."
"Victoria. Vic. The only person who ever calls me the Brat is my father. It's just his joke. How come you know my nickname but not my name? And what did you mean, you were expecting me? How could you be expecting me? I didn't even know I was coming to see you until about ten minutes ago."
"Right. I can help with all that. Let me s-stanch your bleeding first, and then we'll have questions and answers."
"I think answers are more important than my knee," Vic said. She hesitated then, and with a feeling of unaccustomed shyness said, "I scared someone with my bridge. A nice old guy back home. I might've really messed up his life."
Maggie looked across at her, eyes shining brightly in the darkness of the stacks. She gave Vic a careful once-over, then said, "That's not a very bratty thing to s-say. I've got doubts about this nickname of yours." The corners of her mouth moved in the smallest of smiles. "If you upset someone, I doubt you meant it. And I doubt you did any lasting damage. People have pretty rubbery brains. They can take quite a bit of bouncing around. Come on. Band-Aids and tea. And answers. They're all right this way."
They emerged from the stacks into a cool, stone-floored, open area, a sort of shabby office. It was, Vic thought, an office for a private investigator in a black-and-white movie, not a librarian with a punk haircut. It had the five essential props for any PI's home base: a gunmetal gray desk, an out-of-date pinup-girl calendar, a coatrack, a sink with rust stains in it - and a snub-nosed .38 in the center of the desk, holding down some papers. There was also a fish tank, a big one, filling a five-foot-long socket in one wall.
Maggie removed her gray fedora and tossed it at the coatrack. In the soft light from the fish tank, her metallic purple hair glowed, a thousand burning neon filaments. While Maggie filled an electric teakettle, Vic wandered to the desk to inspect the revolver, which turned out to be a bronze paperweight with an inscription on the smooth grip: PROPERTY A. CHEKHOV.
Maggie returned with Band-Aids and motioned for Vic to get up on the edge of the desk. Vic sat where Maggie pointed and put her feet on the worn wooden chair. The act of bending her legs brought the stinging sensation in her knee back to the forefront of her mind. With it came a deep, nasty throb of pain in her left eyeball. It was a feeling like the eye was caught between the steel prongs of some surgical instrument and being squeezed. She rubbed at it with her palm.
Maggie touched a cold, damp washcloth to Vic's knee, cleaning grit out of the scrape. She had lit a cigarette at some point, and the smoke was sweet and agreeable; Maggie worked on Vic's leg with the quiet efficiency of a mechanic checking the oil.
Vic took a long, measuring look at the big fish tank set into the wall. It was the size of a coffin. A lone golden koi, with long whiskers that lent him a wise appearance, hovered listlessly in the tank. Vic had to look twice before her eyes could make visual sense of what was on the bottom of the tank: not a bed of rocks but a tumble of white Scrabble tiles, hundreds of them, but only four letters: F I S H.
Through the wavering, green-tinted distortion of the tank, Vic could see what lay on the other side: a carpeted children's library. About a dozen kids and their mothers were gathered in a loose semicircle around a woman in a neat tweed skirt, who sat in a chair that was too small for her and who was holding up a board book so the little guys could look at the pictures. She was reading to them, although Vic could not hear her through the stone wall, over the bubbling of the air handler in the fish tank.
"You're just in time for story hour," Maggie said. "Ss-story hour is the best hour of the day. It's the only hour I care about."
"I like your fish tank."
"It's a whore to clean," Maggie said, and Vic had to squeeze her lips together to keep from shouting with laughter.
Maggie grinned, and the dimples reappeared. She was, in her chubby-cheeked, bright-eyed way, more or less adorable. Like a punk-rock Keebler elf.
"I'm the one who put the Scrabble tiles in there. I'm kind of nuts for the game. Now twice a month I've got to haul them out and run them in the wash. It's a bigger pain in the ass than rectal cancer. Do you like Scrabble?"
Vic glanced at Maggie's earrings again and noticed for the first time that one was the letter F and the other was the letter U.
"I've never played it. I like your earrings, though," Vic said. "You ever get in trouble for them?"
"Nah. No one looks too closely at a librarian. People are afraid of going blind from the glare of ssss-ssso much compressed wisdom. Check it out: I'm twenty years old, and I'm one of the top five SS-Scrabble players in the whole state. I guess that might say more about Iowa than it says about me." She pasted the Band-Aid over Vic's scrape and patted it. "All better."
Maggie crunched out her cigarette in a tin can half filled with sand and slipped away to pour the tea. She returned a moment later with a pair of chipped cups. One said LIBRARIES: WHERE SHHH HAPPENS. The other said DO NOT MAKE ME USE MY LIBRARIAN VOICE. When Vic took her mug, Maggie leaned around her to open the drawer. It was the drawer where a PI would've kept his bottle of hooch. Maggie came up with an old purple faux-velvet bag with the word SCRABBLE stamped into it in fading gold letters.
"You asked me how I knew about you. How I knew you were coming. SSS-SS-SSS--" Her cheeks began to color with strain.
"Scrabble? It has something to do with Scrabble?"
Maggie nodded. "Thanks for finishing my sentence for me. A lot of people who sss-stammer hate that, when people finish their sss-sentences. But as we've already established, I enjoy being an object of pity."
Vic felt heat rise into her face, although there was nothing sarcastic in Maggie's tone. Somehow that made it worse. "Sorry."
Maggie appeared not to hear. She planted herself in a straight-backed chair next to the desk.
"You came across the bridge on that bike of yours," Maggie said. "Can you get to the covered bridge without it?"
Vic shook her head.
Maggie nodded. "No. You use your bike to daydream the bridge into existence. And then you use your bridge to find things, right? Things you need? Like, no matter how far away they are, the thing you need is always right on the other s-ss-side of the bridge?"
"Yeah. Yeah. Only I don't know why I can do it, or how, and sometimes I feel like I'm only imagining all my trips across the bridge. Sometimes I feel like I'm going crazy."
"You're not crazy. You're creative! You're a s-ss-ss-strong creative. Me, too. You've got your bike, and I've got my letter tiles. When I was twelve, I saw an old SS-Suh-Scrabble game in a garage sale, going for a dollar. It was on display, the first word already played. When I saw it, I knew I was s-ss-suh - had to have it. I needed to have it. I would've paid anything for it, and if it wasn't for sale, I woulda grabbed it and run. Just being close to this Scrabble board for the first time threw a kind of shimmy into reality. An electric train turned itself on and ran right off its tracks. A car alarm went off down the road. There was a TV playing inside the garage, and when I saw the SSS-Suh-Scrabble set, it went crazy. It started blasting s-ss-suh--"
"Static," Vic said, forgetting the promise she had made to herself only a moment before, not to finish any of Maggie's sentences for her, no matter how badly she stammered.
Maggie didn't seem to mind. "Yes."
"I get something like that," Vic said. "When I'm crossing the bridge, I hear static all around me."
Maggie nodded, as if she found this the least surprising thing in the world. "A few minutes ago, all the lights blinked off in here. The power died in the whole library. That's how I knew you were getting close. Your bridge is a short circuit in reality. Just like my tiles. You find things, and my tiles spell me things. They told me you'd be coming today and I could find you out back. They told me the Brat would ride across the bridge. They've been chattering about you for months."
"Can you show me?" Vic asked.
"I think I need to. I think that's part of why you're here. Maybe my tiles have a thing they want to spell for you."
She undid the drawstring, reached into the sack and took some tiles out, dropped them clattering onto the desk.
Vic twisted around to look at them, but they were just a mess of letters. "Does that say something to you?"
"Not yet." Maggie bent to the letters and began to push them around with her pinkie.
"It will say something?"
"Because they're magic?"
"I don't think there's anything magic about them. They wouldn't work for anyone else. The tiles are just my knife. Suh-s-something I can use to poke a hole in reality. I think it always has to be a thing you love. I always loved words, and Scrabble gave me a way to play with them. Put me in a Scrabble tournament, someone is going to walk away with their ego all slashed up."
She had by now shuffled the letters around to spell THE BRAT HAD LUNCH TO RIDE F T W T.
"What's F-T-W-T mean?" Vic asked, turning her head to see the tiles upside down.
"Not a damn thing. I haven't figured it out yet," Maggie said, frowning and moving the tiles around some more.
Vic sipped at her tea. It was hot and sweet, but no sooner had she swallowed than she felt a chill sweat prickle on her brow. Those imaginary forceps, clenching her left eyeball, tightened a little.
"Everyone lives in two worlds," Maggie said, speaking in an absentminded sort of way while she studied her letters. "There's the real world, with all its annoying facts and rules. In the real world, there are things that are true and things that aren't. Mostly the real world s-s-s-suh-sucks. But everyone also lives in the world inside their own head. An inscape, a world of thought. In a world made of thought - in an inscape - every idea is a fact. Emotions are as real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history. Creative people, like writers, and Henry Rollins, spend a lot of their time hanging out in their thoughtworld. S-s-strong creatives, though, can use a knife to cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together. Your bike. My tiles. Those are our knives."
She bent her head once more and shifted the tiles around in a decisive way. Now they read, THE BRAT FOUND HER CHILD A RICH TWIT.
"I don't know any rich twits," Vic said.
"You also look a little young to be with child," Maggie said. "This is a hard one. I wish I had another essss-s-s."
"So my bridge is imaginary."
"Not when you're on your bike. Then it's real. It's an inscape pulled into the normal world."
"But your Scrabble bag. That's just a bag. It's not really like my bike. It doesn't do anything obviously imposs--"
But as Vic spoke, Maggie took up her bag, unlaced the strings, and shoved her hand in. Tiles scraped, clattered, and clicked, as if she were pushing her hand down into a bucket of them. Her wrist, elbow, and upper arm followed. The bag was perhaps six inches deep, but in a moment Maggie's arm had disappeared into it up to the shoulder, without so much as putting a bulge in the fake velvet. Vic heard her digging deeper and deeper, into what sounded like thousands of tiles.
"Aaa!" Vic cried.
On the other side of the fish tank, the librarian reading to the children glanced around.
"Big old hole in reality," Maggie said. It now looked as if her left arm had been removed at the shoulder, and the amputation was, for some reason, capped by a Scrabble bag. "I'm reaching into my inscape to get the tiles I need. Not into a bag. When I say your bike or my tiles are a knife to open a s-s-slit in reality, I'm not being, like, metaphorical."
The nauseating pressure rose in Vic's left eye.
"Can you take your arm out of the bag, please?" Vic asked.
With her free hand, Maggie tugged on the purple velvet sack, and her arm slithered out. She set the bag on the table, and Vic heard tiles clink within it.
"Creepy. I know," Maggie said.
"How can you do that?" Vic asked.
Maggie drew a deep breath, almost a sigh. "Why can some people s-s-speak a dozen foreign languages? Why can Pelé do the over-his-head bicycle kick? You get what you get, I reckon. Not one person in a million is good-looking enough, talented enough, and lucky enough to be a movie s-s-star. Not one person in a million knew as much about words as a poet like Gerard Manley Hopkins did. He knew about inscapes! He came up with the term. S-some people are movie stars, some people are soccer stars, and you're a suh-s-strong creative. It's a little weird, but so is being born with mismatched eyes. And we're not the only ones. There are others like us. I've met them. The tiles pointed me toward them." Maggie bent to her letters again and began to push them here and there. "Like, there was a girl I met once who had a wheelchair, a beautiful old thing with whitewall tires. She could use it to make herself disappear. All she had to do was wheel her chair backward, into what she called the Crooked Alley. That was her inscape. She could wheel herself into that alley and out of existence, but s-s-ss-still see what was happening in our world. There isn't a culture on earth that doesn't have stories about people like you and me, people who use totems to throw a kink into reality. The Navajo . . ." But her voice was sinking in volume, dying away.
Vic saw a look of unhappy understanding cross Maggie's face. She was staring at her tiles. Vic leaned forward and looked down at them. She just had time to read them before Maggie's hand shot out and swept them away.
THE BRAT COULD FIND THE WRAITH
"What's that mean? What's the Wraith?"
Maggie gave Vic a bright-eyed look that seemed one part fright, and one part apology. "Oh, kittens," Maggie said.
"Is that something you lost?"
"Something you want me to find, though? What is it? I could help you--"
"No. No. Vic, I want you to promise me you aren't going to go find him."
"It's a guy?"
"It's trouble. It's the worst trouble you can imagine. You're, like, what? Twelve?"
"Okay. S-s-s-ss-suh-suh--" Maggie got stuck there, couldn't go on. She drew a deep, unsteady breath, pulled her lower lip into her mouth, and bit down, sank her teeth into her own lip with a savagery that almost made Vic cry out. Maggie exhaled and went on, without any trace of a stammer at all: "So promise."
"But why would your Scrabble bag want you to know I could find him? Why would it say that?"
Maggie shook her head. "That's not how it works. The tiles don't want anything, just like a knife doesn't want anything. I can use the tiles to get at facts that are out of reach, the way you might use a letter opener to open your mail. And this - this - is like getting a letter with a bomb inside. It's a way to blow your own little self up." Maggie sucked on her lower lip, moving her tongue back and forth over it.
"But why shouldn't I find him? You said yourself that maybe I was here so your tiles could tell me something. Why would they bring this Wraith guy up if I'm not supposed to go looking for him?"
But before Maggie could reply, Vic bent forward and pressed a hand to her left eye. The psychic forceps were squeezing so hard the eye felt ready to burst. She couldn't help it, made a soft moan of pain.
"You look terrible. What's wrong?"
"My eye. It gets bad like this when I go across the bridge. Maybe it's because I've been sitting with you for a while. Normally my trips are quick." Between her eye and Maggie's lip, it was turning out to be a damaging conversation for the both of them.
Maggie said, "The girl I told you about? With the wheelchair? When she first began using her wheelchair, she was healthy. It was her grandmother's, and she just liked playing with it. But if she stayed too long in Crooked Alley, her legs went numb. By the time I met her, she was entirely paralyzed from the waist down. These things, they cost to use. Keeping the bridge in place could be costing you right now. You oughta only use the bridge s-s-sparingly."
Vic said, "What does using your tiles cost you?"
"I'll let you in on a secret: I didn't always s-s-s-s-s-suh-suh-suh-stammer!" And she smiled again, with her visibly bloodied mouth. It took Vic a moment to figure out that this time Maggie had been putting her stammer on.
"Come on," Maggie said. "We should get you back. We sit here much longer, your head will explode."
"Better tell me about the Wraith, then, or you're going to get brains all over your desk. I'm not leaving till you do."
Maggie opened the drawer, dropped her Scrabble bag into it, and then slammed it with unnecessary force. When she spoke, for the first time her voice lacked any trace of friendliness.
"Don't be a goddamn--" She hesitated, either at a loss for words or stuck on one.
"Brat?" Vic asked. "Starting to fit my nickname a little better now, huh?"
Maggie exhaled slowly, her nostrils flaring. "I'm not fooling, Vic. The Wraith is s-s-someone you need to stay away from. Not everyone who can do the things we can do is nice. I don't know much about the Wraith except he's an old man with an old car. And the car is his knife. Only he uses his knife to cut throats. He takes children for rides in his car, and it does something to them. He uses them up - like a vampire - to stay alive. He drives them into his own inscape, a bad place he dreamed up, and he leaves them there. When they get out of the car, they aren't children anymore. They aren't even human. They're creatures that could only live in the cold s-s-space of the Wraith's imagination."
"How do you know this?"
"The tiles. They began telling me about the Wraith a couple years ago, after he grabbed a kid from L.A. He was working out on the West Coast back then, but things changed and he moved his attention east. Did you see the ss-s-story about the little Russian girl who disappeared from Boston? Just a few weeks ago? Vanished with her mother?"
Vic had. In her neck of the woods, it had been the lead news story for several days. Vic's mother watched every report with a kind of horror-struck fascination; the missing girl was Vic's own age, dark-haired, bony, with an awkward but attractive smile. A cute geek. Do you think she's dead? Vic's mother had asked Chris McQueen, and Vic's father had replied, If she's lucky.
"The Gregorski girl," Vic said.
"Right. A limo driver went to her hotel to pick her up, but someone knocked him out and grabbed Marta Gregorski and her mother. That was him. That was the Wraith. He drained the Gregorski girl and then dumped her with all the other children he's used up, in some fantasy world of his own. An inscape no one would ever want to visit. Like your bridge, only bigger. Much bigger."
"What about the mother? Did he drain her, too?"
"I don't think he can feed off adults. Only children. He's got s-ss-someone who works with him, like a Renfield, who helps him with the kidnappings and takes the grown-ups off his hands. You know Renfield?"
"Dracula's henchman or something?"
"Close enough. I know that the Wraith is very old and he's had a bunch of Renfields. He tells them lies, fills them up with illusions, maybe persuades them they're heroes, not kidnappers. In the end he always s-suh-sacrifices them. That's how they're of the most use to him. When his crimes are uncovered, he can shift the blame onto one of his handpicked dumb-asses. He's been taking children for a long time, and he's good at hiding in the shadows. I've put together all kinds of details about the Wraith, but I haven't been able to learn anything about him that would really help me identify him."
"Why can't you just ask the tiles what his name is?"
Maggie blinked and then, in a tone that seemed to mix sadness with a certain bemusement, said, "It's the rules. No proper names allowed in S-S-Scrabble. That's why my tiles told me to expect the Brat instead of Vic."
"If I found him, found out his name or what he looked like," Vic said, "could we stop him then?"
Maggie slapped one palm down on the desktop, so hard that the teacups jumped. Her eyes were furious - and scared.
"Oh, gee, Vic! Aren't you even listening to me? If you found him, you could get dead, and then it would be my fault! You think I want that on my conscience?"
"But what about all the kids he'll take if we don't do anything? Isn't that also sending children to their . . ." Vic let her voice trail off at the look on Maggie's face.
Maggie's features were pained and sick. But she reached out, got a tissue from a box of Kleenex, and offered it to Vic.
"Your left eye," she said, and held up the dampened cloth. "You're crying, Vic. Come on. We need to get you back. Now."
Vic did not argue when Maggie took her hand and guided her out of the library, and down the path, under the shade of the oaks.
A hummingbird drank nectar from glass bulbs hanging in one of the trees, its wings whirring like small motors. Dragonflies rose on the thermal currents, their wings shining like gold in the midwestern sun.
The Raleigh was where they had left it, leaned against a bench. Beyond was a single-lane asphalt road that circled around the back of the library, and then the grassy margin above the river. And the bridge.
Vic reached for her handlebars, but before she could take them, Maggie squeezed her wrist.
"Is it safe for you to go in there? Feeling like you do?"
"Nothing bad has ever happened before," Vic said.
"That's not a very reassuring way to ph-ph-phrase things. Do we have an agreement about the Wraith? You're too young to go looking for him."
"Okay," Vic said, righting her bike, putting a leg over. "I'm too young."
But even as she said it, she was thinking about the Raleigh, remembering the first time she'd seen it. The dealer had said it was too big for her, and her father agreed, told her maybe when she was older. Then, three weeks later, on her birthday, there it was in the driveway. Well, her father had said. You're older now, ain'tcha?
"How will I know you made it across the bridge?" Maggie said.
"I always make it," Vic said. The sunlight was a steel pin, pushing back into Vic's left eyeball. The world blurred. Maggie Leigh split into twins for a moment; when she came back together again, she was offering Vic a sheet of paper, folded into quarters.
"Here," Maggie said. "Anything I didn't cover about inscapes and why you can do what you can do is explained here, by an expert on the subject."
Vic nodded and put it in her pocket.
"Oh!" Maggie called. She tugged at one earlobe, then the other, and then pushed something into Vic's hand.
"What are these?" Vic asked, looking into her palm at the Scrabble-tile earrings.
"Armor," Maggie said. "Also a concise s-s-stuh-stammerer's guide for dealing with the world. The next time someone disappoints you, put these on. You'll feel tougher. That's the Maggie Leigh guarantee."
"Thank you, Maggie. For everything."
"'S what I'm here for. Fount of knowledge - that's me. Come back to be s-s-sprinkled with my wisdom anytime."
Vic nodded again, didn't feel she could bear to say anything else. The sound of her own voice threatened to bust her head open, like a lightbulb under a high heel. So instead she reached out and squeezed Maggie's hand. Maggie squeezed back.
Vic leaned forward, bearing down on the pedals, and rode into darkness and the annihilating roar of static.