The ghosts the hollow-eyed girl in Junction Square was selling billowed from her basket in wispy ribbons, whipping and fluttering in wind I could not feel, their tantalizing snap and shudder of cloth lighter than air, heavier than sorrow. I saw her from the tram and found I could not look away.

There was nothing about her that should have been remarkable; her patched dress of faded blue and worn shoes that had never been good and her thin haunted face, defiantly clean, were no different than the thousand other waifs begging coins for supper in the city morning, but still she pulled me in.

I kept my eyes on her as I shuffled out from the warm wash of steam from the tram and into the damp chill of the cold morning after last night’s rain. A whole crowd of beggars and junk sellers mobbed us passengers as we stepped onto the square. The ghost girl didn’t shout her wares and didn’t join the rush. She didn’t say a thing until it was clear I was coming to her. She perked up then and made a brave show with:

“New-dead shades for sale, Sir, still full of what they left behind.”

One glance at the basket told me it was half a lie; these tattered things were years dead, stained and bleached with the dust and slow time of forgotten places, but they were true shades, not crepe enlivened with a bit of blood and a walk through the cemetery for weathering. Even so old, they had some power left.

For a moment I thought of asking who they had been, until I saw what was in her other hand, the one without the basket, the black thing like a hole in the world that must have been what had really drawn me.   My work had made me sensitive to darkness so acute.

They say that if you hate for long enough you can kill with it: five years for the blackness in your heart to harden into iron in your hand, and five more to force out coal to smelt it. When I saw the black blade , stained with blood like coal-oil in her hand, and this girl who couldn’t have been fourteen yet, I knew I did not want to hear her story; not who she’d left behind and brought out here to sell for bread, not who she’d ended when she had her knife at last.

I wanted ghosts that I could work with, something to fill a room with cold emotion. Real horror, the kind she would tell me if I asked for her story, was no use for my work, too coarse and too ordinary to sell. I cannot work with poverty and thoughtless beatings and blood that no one will mourn.

“How much for all three?” I asked her.

“A sovereign, Sir.”

I was sure to make ten times that with such good material for my new show, and it would keep her for a long while. She looked as if she would know well how to stretch good money.

“Done. Let me take the basket.”

She tucked knife away, and I took her basket, and neither of us chose to notice the blood under her fingernails as she accepted my notes and coins.

On my way to meet Ashton, I fingered what I’d bought and brought a fold of spirit like cloth up to my face to breathe in the aroma. It was soft, easily frayed, easily shaped, as ready to be clay as to be cloth. It tasted bitter at the front of my mouth, cold at the back of my throat. It would be easy to handle, easy to ruin if I was careless, but I could work wonders with it, if the space Ashton had found for my next show was right.

The spirits were all siblings, all dead young, one barely more than a babe; dead, as I expected, of neglect, privation, the careless violence common to poverty in the city. They smacked of the same bitter desperation as the girl who had sold them. Most like they were her family, part of the long litany that had stoked her hate into that killing blade. It was an ordinary story, until I did my work. Spirits like this were much more malleable than a tale with the teller still alive.

I’d expected to be making excuses to Ashton and spending the day scouring the city for material, but now he’d have to rush to keep up, thanks to my luck with the ghost girl. Ashton was my manager, agent; he preferred ‘impresario’ and kept the big waxed mustache and expansive waistline to go with it.

He’d found a trinity house at my request, three stacked rooms with a narrow winding stair, a soot-stained brick facade thrown up in the cramped space between two older houses during the first big boom that packed the city center. It was scheduled for demolition in a few months, along with its stately neighbors, but that was more than time for me to fill it with my next creation and make as much of a splash as any esoteric art ever did.

Ashton was behind the unlocked front door when I entered, standing like a ringmaster in the center of a splintered floor, cheap boards still marked where furniture had been removed, the black bulk of a stove behind him the only other presence, his thumbs tucked behind his suspenders, badly cut jacket of his secondhand suit thrown open. His toe tapped with impatience.

He must have seen me coming down the street and taken the most theatrical pose he could conceive.

“Corey, my most daring and darling artiste, welcome to your canvas,” he said, projecting like a penny-dreadful dramatist. “Now tell me, dear boy, what magic are you going to work on this heap of brick and splinters to make the cost of downtown rents worth bearing.”

An hour before, I would have struggled for an answer. Now I pushed the basket into his hands, and he picked through it while I surveyed the space.

“Look at this stuff!” I said. “A girl was selling it like apples at the tram stop.” Ashton shivered pleasingly and yanked his hand out of the basket. “I’ll give the punters something to talk about for months.”

It didn’t take long to survey the empty room, and even less for the other two, which lacked even a stove to hide shadows behind. The stairs were tortuous, narrow and winding with treads too short for more than half my feet. Ashton followed me up the first set but waited puffing while I climbed to see the top.

I led him back to the ground floor and sketched out my plans.

“We’ll have two rooms of experience, here and the first floor, and then some drinks and a place at the top for that godawful glad-handing you always have me do. You’ll need to get a door cut and some stairs put up in the alley behind for people to go out, and find me some furniture. Cheap, and broken’s as good as whole, but I want the place cluttered.”

Ashton smiled. He could taste the money in my enthusiasm.

“For you, dear boy, anything.”

The next morning, I began.

I always got a thrill from laying out my tools, a little shiver getting to grips with ghost stuff. I made a ritual of setting down my bag and laying out each piece: silver tacks and hammer first, for pinning things in place; my ghost knife, made from a coffin nail and a bit of bone; my lamps, will-o’-the-wisps caught in glass. I imagined the work I would do, sharp as my cutting tools, aimed for the heart of jaded, comfortable audiences. Then I would pull my gloves on, the ones stored in a jar of gin colored pink with communion wine, the only way to keep my hands warm and my spirit all inside my skin while I worked with real shades, rare as that was.

I staged a fight on the ground floor, scattered the broken furniture Ashton had found me and pinned scraps of the boy, the middle child, all around. He hadn’t been a fighter, but people would believe things of a boy they wouldn’t of a girl, and they had to believe for this to reach them. I put some breaks into the bulk of him with my knife and left him bent into unnatural angles beside the stove.

A little ghost stuff and witchfire added to the coal would make it burn cold green, and I left that room with no other light.

I carved the little girl almost to ribbons and stretched her along the stairs. Her head was tucked under the first riser, so that they’d hear her crying, begging for attention from just behind them on each step up. They’d feel her ribbon-fingers tug, and they’d taste the cold of her as they climbed, to leave them primed for the grandest effect.

Ashton had found me a great claw-footed tub with a semicircle bitten out of one side. It was nonsense to put a tub up the stairs, of course, but the effect had no concern for practicality.

I set the older girl spilling artfully through the hole on the tub, with a few hidden nails to keep her posed just so, her long hair teased out and braided and stretched into a noose around her neck, pulling her head up, tied to a curtain rail. I cut her wrists until they bled floating shadows that fogged the air and served for the last dregs of bathwater. I debated a knife in her hand, but it looked better limp. I left a rusty razor open on the floor.

I pinned her eyelids open with my finest silver pins, so that her eyes, in that face lifted just so by the noose, would catch each visitor as they came off the stair and looked deep into them.

I had Ashton put the title hanging from the ceiling of that first stair, painted white to shine in the dark

Do Not Dare Look Away

Ashton and I waited in the top room opening night, next to the table of decent wine and stiff punch and sweet buns to help the quality recover from the cold and fright of imaging how poor unfortunates lived and died.

Ashton met the patrons at the top of the stair when they were finished, offering kind words and an arm to lean on if they needed it, and led them to the drinks. I brooded theatrically and nursed a glass of wine, waiting for him to introduce me, because the show called for a melancholy artist.

Still, I didn’t put it on too strong. I let myself animate enough at praise to show I welcomed it, and I accepted tips with grace. Those were always welcome in my book.

I could tell it was going well from almost the beginning. The punters puffed and preened with what they’d been through ‘for the sake of culture,’ and they kept talking as they went out down the rickety stair Ashton had caused to be thrown up down the back of the house.

It wasn’t until quite late in that first showing that I knew it was more than a good opening night. A red-faced gentleman praised and justified himself, more than loud enough for all of us to hear, as he wrote a cheque, right there and then, for another guest’s charity. ‘To the benefit of all those abandoned girls and women on the streets,’ he told the room. If he couldn’t give something after that, when would he? He pumped my arm half-off my shoulder shaking my hand before he went out, and I couldn’t tell if the water in his eyes was drink, or put-on, or genuine tears.

Maybe this would be something more than a few weeks of steadily tapering ticket sales and a mention or two at the bottom of badly printed arts papers. I’d reached them, the people with money and class and power. That might mean something real for me and for what my work was trying to expose.

It did mean something.

The crowds increased from day to day instead of slackening, and every night the upstairs reception room was packed and my praises rang to the rafters. Ashton never stopped smiling, never stopped introducing ‘the dear young man who makes the magic, young master Corey Depart,’ to the cavalcade of sweaty bankers and society women who looked like they expected an opportunity to faint. I had to work to keep my grin from showing while they gushed about how terribly affecting the experience was, how dreadful; they wondered how I could bear to touch those things for long enough to make such a tableau.

I supposed, no I was certain, that my exhibition was dreadful and shocking to anyone who had never considered the visceral side of suffering and had only seen the poor and forgotten, the dead of malnutrition, the violence, or the madness of resolve that a life of suffering sometimes begets as numbers in a ledger or charity appeal, but I’d been making exhibitions like this one for years, and my fortunes had been up and down enough at it to taste the edges of poverty a time or two myself; nothing like what the ghosts and their sister who sold them had seen, but more than enough to know that what I’d done here was only a few tricks laid over a sliver of the real horrors the gutter had to show.

After the fifth night, Ashton pulled my ear on the way out and told me I had to have a sequel ready sooner rather than later, while we still had the fire hot and this space to stage it in. A little novelty could stretch this for more than a month, and new additions meant a new ticket price.

There was no point to even planning a new stage of the exhibition until I had some new material, and it would need to be as good as what the ghost girl had sold me, to have the same weight of grief and authenticity. That was what the quality would pay for: the truth, in just enough silk and sequin to impress.

I took to haunting the tram-stop square after the exhibition closed each night, lingering among the sleeping beggars as the dawn light rose, until I was sure she would not come that day. I slept while the sun was high and only half feigned the nerves Ashton preferred I show through the gladhanding at night.

It was two weeks after opening before I saw her again, trickling in with the first wave of match-girls and panhandlers. This time her basket was badly made cloth flowers and ‘silver’ that was already flaking off the tin beneath.

I made a beeline for her, and she saw me coming. She drew into herself, and one hand drifted to the pocket of her work-stained once-white apron. She must have kept the knife there.

She still smelled of blood and cold and untapped sadness when I came close enough. She must have still been living in the house where it all happened, and here I was, about to ask for more of her pain to fill my pocket with. After all I’d made and would make off her, I felt I had to give more than a sovereign this time, but I did need more, to make an impact with the next piece.

“If you have more ghosts, I can pay for them,” I said. “More than before, and, if you like, I could give you a room, somewhere away from where you find things like that.”

She didn’t answer quickly, and I could see her fingers close around the knife while she looked me up and down and wondered what my game was.

She nodded, once, with all the gravity of a judge’s final order, and asked “where?”

I gave her my card, my home address scribbled on the back.

“Bring the ghosts, and whatever you need. I’ll have the room ready for you.”

My house was a little cottage with a patch of overgrown garden, not remodeled since the city absorbed the little village it had been part of two generations back. There was room for a housekeeper, but I hadn’t found one since I had to let the last one go in a lean stretch. It would do nicely for the ghost girl. I should have asked her name.

I stopped at the grocer, the butcher, the baker, as I walked from the tram, to ask for more bacon, eggs, a fresh loaf for supper. I rarely ate or cooked at home, sometimes breakfast, but even when I was in, the local was close and just as good as anything I could throw together. It was rude bachelor life to bring a girl into maybe, but it had to be better than a cold house full of ghosts.

I aired the housekeeper’s room out, beat the dust from the sheets and drove it into corners with a broom, and then I waited, and waited.

It was almost dusk when she came at last, looking footsore and tired through my parlor window. She must have walked the whole way. I never would have thought of someone not using the tram, but that was tuppence, I supposed, and that might mean something to her.

The little room looked bigger next to the little bundle she’d brought. I finally managed to ask her name while she looked at it: “Liv,” she said. “Olivia.”

I told her to make herself at home, that anything in the coldroom and the pantry was hers, that I’d have dinner sent, and then I left to make the exhibition before the doors opened, her protests too confused and tentative to slow me.

I stopped in the local and had them send a fish pie. That would be familiar but likely better than what Olivia could get where she had lived. Then I caught the tram to the city center.

I told Ashton I was ready to start work on the next thing soon, and he took me at my word.

“Brilliant, Dear Boy, we’ll announce tonight and close after tomorrow’s show. You can have tomorrow to plan and one day closed to dress the place again, but no more. We’ll only keep this kind of excitement if we move quick. Make me a list of new props as soon as you have one.”

He was more effusive than I’d ever known him and less concerned with the cost of materials. We were doing so well. Maybe he’d stretch to affording a tailored suit soon.

When I staggered to the kitchen next morning, Olivia was already washing the pan she’d dirtied cooking breakfast for herself. I fried a few eggs myself and tried not to be frightening while she ate. She said nothing, and I didn’t press her.

What was this anyway? Charity? Was I going to employ her somehow, as a maid? An agent scouring the city for more ghosts? Was I going to keep her in the house until people assumed what they must about a young woman from the gutter living with a man alone?

She left the kitchen without speaking, and I left the questions aside to look at what she’d brought me in another basket, grey edges slipping like fog fingers from under a dirty cloth cover.

There were two of them this time, a mature woman and a girl about Olivia’s age, older than that when she died, maybe, but Olivia was past her now. An older sister, maybe, and Olivia’s mother for certain.

They were newer, a year or two dead at most, stiffer too, more linen than fraying crepe, colder, sharper, shaped more like bodies and less like memory.

Liv’s mother was starched lace, beaten and bleached white as pinched skin or lips bitten hard enough that the blood came after. She tasted of soap and thin broth and coal smoke soaked into clothing.

The sister was heavier, greyer, with a fuzzed outline. She was wool, good once and still heavy, eaten with a thousand tiny moth-holes pinprick fine until she was a net to trap. She tasted of rust and smelled of terror-sweat down a neck held stiff despite itself.

I spread them out across the kitchen table to consider my staging. What could I do with them added to the wisps I had already?

Olivia came in as I was considering and stood with her hands crossed demurely in front of her. She waited until I looked up.

“What do you want for the room?”

Her face was flat, her pose contained, inscrutable. She’d been thinking of the same questions I had. What did she guess the answer was? I couldn’t guess what sparked behind her eyes; she kept them dull and down and didn’t give a hint.

What did I want? What did she need? I’d already taken so much, and now she shamed me by expecting I’d want more.

“Nothing,” I said. “You’ve already given me more than enough. The room and board here as long as you want is part of your pay, and when I get the receipts from this last exhibition, I’ll pay you six sovereigns more. I owe you that much for the ghosts at least. This place is yours, and you should ask the grocer and the butcher’s boy for whatever you want when they come round.”

She looked at me a long time from those uninformative eyes. Then nodded and walked out again.

Was even a little kindness so far from her experience? Or was I a cad to shame her with charity? Had she been hoping for maid-work and a weekly wage?

It was too much, thinking of her life; I kept borrowing guilt from the cruel world that had cast her here and heaping it on myself. I was doing all I could for her, and nothing dishonorable, no matter the strange attraction that still pulled me to her. After a little longer thinking on the ghosts, I bundled them away and slept again, resolved to drown my worries in the punch when I got to the exhibition.

The next morning was time for composition. I banished the drink and the sweat of congratulations with black tea brewed too strong and tried to put my mind in order for the day’s work.

Olivia was in the weedy patch of a garden when I stepped out with my bag of tools and ghosts.

“Where are you going?” she asked. “You don’t usually do anything so early.”

“I’m going to use what you brought me to make a new exhibition. I make art with them, arrange them for people to experience.” I made unsatisfying hand gestures with and at my bag. “Do you want to see?”

Why did I offer that? I always worked alone, couldn’t bear eyes on the work until it was done.

She would be different though; she knew the ghosts already.

She considered as she did, without a sign of what went on inside for me to see.

“Yes. I would like that.”

So we were two on the tram. It might have been a new experience for her, by the avid attention she gave the driver, the engine, the city passing by.

She stayed silent while I laid out my tools and began.

I put the furniture in the first room back into a semblance of order. It was still broken, but it would look like it had been dragged back into place by someone who cared at least a little. We’d turn the gaslamps on this time and let the stove burn with a homely light instead of ghost-green.

I posed Liv’s mother over the ruin of her son. His head was gone to ash and vapor, but still she bent over the broken remnant, reaching a helping hand down long after it could do no good. I pricked her eyes to let hot tears run down and flash to steam before they left her cheeks.

Liv stalked around me with a critical air as I made adjustments.

“She wasn’t so nice. Not to him,” she said. “To us girls, maybe, but she always told Micah to be stronger.”

“Sometimes I have to give people what they want to see, instead of what’s true.”

It was a glib response, one of my stock phrases when someone pressed me on accuracy, but it wasn’t wrong. The punters would revolt if I showed a mother spitting on her beaten son instead of lifting him up.

Still, Liv’s dissatisfaction felt like permission to add a little subtlety for someone who wanted to look. I had to take my gloves off for work so delicate and then work quickly to keep from being bitten by the cold.

I set the fingers of Mother’s free hand reaching slyly to her apron pocket, pulling out my finest silver pins to prick with, and painted a drop of venom-green on the tip of her tongue, barely to be seen through the ghost-stuff of her closed mouth. A little hint of dissonance for the discerning critic.

Liv gave no sign of what she thought beyond making no more complaint about it.

I reeled the shredded infant up as I climbed the stair. No reason to inflict her on Liv, and she wouldn’t fit the tone of this second exhibition. I silenced her begging in my leather bag and got onto the second room.

I re-posed the first exhibition’s suicide on the floor, hands neatly folded, eyes closed with a loving kiss to perfume each lid. The new eldest sister stood over her reposing sibling, fingering the long noose of hair she had cut off to lay the body out, her gaze on the rope or on the shower-curtain rail or the discarded razor, depending on the viewer’s angle. God bless real ghosts that would let me play perspective tricks like that, unmoored to prosaic rules of distance and direction.

I shaped her lips with knife and hidden pins to whisper thoughtfulness, to draw the punters into the same imagination and make each wonder if they could live with finding such a scene and knowing nothing would be done about the one who was to blame.

Liv frowned at it and shook her head, more vehement than anything she’d shown me before.

“Annie never would have thought of doing it like that. She’d have been thinking of mother or... or...,” she swallowed. “...him. Thinking they deserved the rope instead of Claire.”

It was dangerous advice again. It would confuse the punters to think of a girl more ready to fight than a boy, to think of things like what Liv had done with the black knife. I could only give a hint of what she wanted.

I pricked Annie’s pale eyes with a pin and dripped a few drops of witchfire in to make them smolder. With my silver hammer, I beat her fingers tighter round the rope until it cut her palm. I put an ember down her throat, held halfway down by a rope twisted from her wool. Just like her mother’s venom, it would take a careful eye to see.

Liv didn’t praise my work. I didn’t need her to. I could see how far above even the first exhibition this work was; still powerful and jerking on the heartstrings, with subtle layers to make a cynic see how true even this melodrama could be.

Liv understood the purpose of this work, as even Ashton didn’t. Her heart knew the real worth of pain.

The line to enter was down the street and past the corner when the door opened the next evening, and the tickets cost a crown, next to collection box for a charity that found houses and stoves for poor unfortunates so that they could starve in a modicum of comfort.

The wine set out in the reception attic had a year and vintage clearly printed on the labels. Buns had been replaced with good cheese and airy meringue sweets, and the gin punch gave no hint of industrial cleaner.

Ashton waited at the doorway, bouncing like a nervous dancer in a new-tailored suit, still crisp.

I tried to remember my character for the evening. I was intense tonight, devoted to my art, passionate on the subject of poverty, of grief, of how this world did not permit the virtuous to work and be rewarded. I would be too passionate to think of how much money my fifty percent would be when Ashton paid it out.

Not more than an hour into the endless flood of shaken hands and florid faces, men gravely composed, women proudly tearful and performing the pain their escorts only implied through stoically-stiff lips, Ashton brought a shaking woman forward and introduced her. That meant real money or connections, and a warning to be on my best behavior.

“Corey, this is Lady Stella Morland.”

Her hair was paling into grey, and it spilled loose from under a black fur hat. Her eyes were only half focused on me past the remnant of tears.

She clasped my hand in both of hers, and I could feel her trembling.

“Thank you, Sir. I have never seen any artist make something so true.”

I wondered which part she had played, in the drama of her childhood, or her motherhood, that made her see herself again in my tableau; what secret pain this opportunity for grief in public had let her liberate.

She held my hand for too long, until Ashton led her away, but neither of us found more words to say.

The rest of the evening was less affecting but no less effusive. It was a masterpiece, and the punters weren’t shy about telling me.

Praise and concern soon became the rhythm of my days. I slept late, and woke to find a breakfast made and dishes washed and Liv somewhere doing useful work. She seemed not to like being idle in the house; thought she would rest in the garden as well as tidy it.

I tried to speak to her at first, but she gave only one-word deflections with her eyes downcast, so I soon stopped. I could at least let her be sad as quietly as she preferred. I could see that she still had darkness to deal with. Wisps of ghost-stuff hung on her sometimes, drifting like dandelion seeds with her movements, clinging like burrs when she tried to pull them off.

It was no wonder, with her having lived so long in a haunted house and still carrying that black knife in her apron pocket.

Some ghost stuff stuck to me as well. The punters began to comment on the fog that dripped from my trouser cuffs and dragged like a grey skirt around my ankles, on the cold thrill of touching my hand.

I couldn’t feel it. I shouldn’t have worked without gloves, but the effect had been so perfect. I would have time to recover, time away from the ghosts, once this exhibition closed.

After a week of lines still longer than the street when the doors closed, of heavy purses weighing down my walk home, I had more money and a better reputation than I ever thought my work could bring, and I lived under a shadow that dragged heavier each day.

I paid Liv twelve sovereigns, twice what I’d promised.

She tried to put me off; just looked at me from those black eyes when I told it was her money, her life they paid to see spread out for them.

At the end of the exhibition, I’d have enough to set her up for life, if she’d take it. Maybe I could feel better then.

I didn’t deserve to, didn’t deserve a clean conscience for earning so much from her pain, no matter what I’d paid. Even if I pulled Liv up and sent her fat into the world without a care, there were more of her in the rookeries and slums than I could count, and all my money and success still wouldn’t help them, no matter how society tutted and teared up while they came through an exhibition.

I needed to do something more with all of this, something to shock the rich and comfortable people who all knew my name now. I needed to show them something to make them do more than gawk and deplore, something to make them spend a tithe of what they had in order to keep Liv’s life from happening again.

God’s blood black as coalsmoke, it had been fourteen years and more of torture to make her that knife!

Before two weeks of the second exhibition, I knew what I really needed, and the punters that night commented on the fire in my eyes.

I woke early and caught Liv before she left the kitchen.

“I need to make another piece, Liv, a better one,” I told her. “I need your house.”

She shook her head, suddenly animated.

“Oh no. No, Sir. You don’t want that. There’s nothing worth anything there.”

I had to be firm with her. I put a hand on her shoulder, lightly.

“I know what’s there, Liv. I need the house, and your father.” Of course it was her father.

She clenched tight at that word, and I knew I had hurt her just by asking, just by knowing. It had to be done. People needed to see.

She nodded jerkily.

We went, by tram and then a long way down by foot, to a riverside slum thick with smoke and sewer-scent.

The house was dirty brick, narrow, cramped between slouch-shouldered neighbors, but it didn’t seem to have been broken open in the weeks Liv had spent with me. She unlocked it with a key drawn clinking from the same pocket where she kept her knife.

The single room downstairs was thick with shades and shreds like streamers of crepe, and the bare floor was stained with black thick and glossy stains like blood. I couldn’t tell at once if they were ghost or solid. What furniture was poor, and all was stained with soot and smoke from a cheap battered hearth.

Liv shuffled uncertainly, and I swept past her to take in what I’d have to work with.

I found her father in the hall upstairs, sprawled between bedrooms, one with a large bed, one full of small pallets on the floor. He was black, stained by what had killed him, and he bled from throat and heart, from wrists and thighs and eyes; bled shadows that had begun to rot the wood they touched. He was a ruin and a midden-heap of the soul, so stained with the corruption the black knife had let out of his veins that I could not tell if his rotten bones were still there under the spirit-stuff.

This was not how they needed to see him. I would pose him coming down the stairs, rub him with coal-dust and cinders for heat, pour witchfire in his eyes, twist his black lips to fury as one hand drew off his belt to punish whoever it could reach.

I could have the family cower, look pleading at the visitors. I could make each one of them demand the great and good who came to see do more than look, more than give a few stray coins to a collection box.

I carried him down to begin. I always had a few pins on me, and I could stand the cold for long enough to get a sense, then come back for the fine work later.

I set him down, and Liv was watching us, for once not self-contained or inscrutable . She was afraid.

Oh. That was what I really needed.

Not the tattered wisps I’d shown already, but something hot and fierce and heavy. I could make them see her pain as clear a call to action as I did.

I went to her, palms out, placating. It would be alright.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “He can’t hurt you again.”

Her neck looked so thin, so delicate, despite the battering her childhood must have been. I made myself smile smooth. She would not have to be afraid again, and she would understand the good her heart could do once bared.

It burned, cold hot bitter bile across my gut. I slumped without meaning to, and I was looking up at her, the black knife in her hand, the blood spilling past mine from where she’d opened me. It was stained just as black.

Her eyes looked just the same down at me as they had up at her father, and I could see the fire behind the fear.

I tried to tell her where to find the rest of the money in my house, but I choked on the words, and the black blood was flowing out of me so fast. It smelled of burnt meat gone cold and streets too frozen to be foul.

Olivia turned her back on me and went, and every ghostly streamer grabbed at her with the memory of fingers. She pulled them in her wake, but they clung to me as well, tearing and remaining whole, as spirits do when they cannot go quiet; reaching down inquisitive as kittens to the pool of black and tugging at my edges.

This, even if viewed only by a curious neighbor and a few policemen, would still be my finest exhibition.

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R.K. Duncan is a queer polyamorous wizard and author of fantasy, horror, and occasional sci-fi. He writes from a few rooms of a venerable West Philadelphia row home, where he dreams of travel and the demise of capitalism. In the shocking absence of any cats, he lavishes spare attention on cast iron cookware and his long-suffering and supportive partner. Before settling on writing, he studied linguistics and philosophy at Haverford College. He attended Viable Paradise 23 in 2019. His occasional musings and links to other work can be found at rkduncan-author.com.

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