Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Stitches

Prologue

The first time the wrens sang at night was three years ago, when I used a rusty saw to cut off Pa’s left foot. The birds drowned out his screams.

Wrens don’t normally sing after sunset, but I wasn’t surprised by it.

Birds are known as spirit carriers in mountain lore. When someone dies, birds of all kinds carry them back and forth between this world and the afterlife, so folk can keep watch over their living loved ones, even after they’re gone. I figured these wrens heard how loud Pa was wailing, and gathered in expectation of a fresh delivery.

At least fifty of them sat under the eaves of the slanted garden shed—my makeshift operating room. Dark skies folded around our mountain like a boy’s hand covering an anthill. Regular folk would assume that the storm had driven the birds to seek shelter, but there’d never been anything “regular” about me or mine.

My identical twin sister, Clover, and little brother, Oakley, weren’t allowed to watch Pa’s dismemberment. Even at age thirteen and a half, Clover was too squeamish, and Oakley, being seven years younger, was too tender. I’d left Clover in charge of things in our tiny cottage some ten yards away. Upon my last look, they hunched in the farthest corner, a quilt wrapped tight around their heads as they shivered at the thunder in the distance.

Pa didn’t scream long before he passed out. He was strong that way. A rock, Ma used to say; a rock that needed his edges filed. She was the only one who could tame his temper. When she disappeared on my and Clover’s thirteenth birthday, and Pa’s drunken rampages spiraled out of control, it fell on me to file him down.

By the time I turned sixteen, my surgical instruments and abilities had improved. I’d taken Pa’s other foot and his eyes. His tongue and ears, too.

I soon came to realize that rain always accompanied dismembering days, as did the wrens. I suspected they were tied somehow to The Collector, the boy who claimed the parts and gave us our cash. Seemed like both the weather and the birds knew when he was gonna pay a visit. Or maybe it was the other way around, and they told him when it was time. Whatever the case, at the scent of rain and the rustle of feathers, I made the first cut, because I knew he was on his way.

1: Hollow Bones

We first met The Collector when I was thirteen and a half, the day after Pa drank two bottles of tequila and popped Clover so hard, her front teeth fell into the chicken soup. When she fainted from shock and pain, I took over supper duty. I added some sage, the herb of my namesake, and boiled the broth on the stovetop without even fishing out Clover’s incisors, letting the aroma of comfort and blood fill the air. There was a part of me that hoped those teeth might come to life in Pa’s belly and eat him from the inside out. Oakley hadn’t grown big enough to merit any beatings yet, but by the next year, he’d be the age Clover and I were when we first encountered Pa’s wrath. So, while Pa guzzled a steaming bowlful, I imagined those incisors going to work on his innards.

Pa ate every bit of dinner, leaving us nothing. He always ate like he was starving, but couldn’t gain a pound. He’d never been a very stout man, and had become even thinner over the months since Ma’s absence, frail and hollow-boned like a bird. But he was still as mean as a feral bobcat when he drank.

He cussed at me till I handed off the keys. From the picture window, I watched him swerve down the dirt road in his Chevy truck, kicking up weeds and grass as the tires spun this way and that. Just before following the curve through the magnolia trees and vanishing from sight, he dipped his head out the window and spewed up his supper.

I remember thinking what a waste of food that was, and that my high hopes for Clover’s teeth had been for nothing.

The sun set over the trees, bringing shadows to life. Pa was to be gone all night.

My sister did her best to entertain us, despite the gray bruise that swelled her mouth and chin until it looked like a rotten plum. She insisted on making treats and having a slumber party.

The inside of our cupboard and fridge had more cobwebs than food, but we always made do. Before our ma disappeared a few months earlier, she taught us how to make gingerbread without eggs, and homemade cocoa using chocolate bars and water.

I used to watch her hands as she stirred and folded and whipped, bending ingredients to her will. Those same hands that were rough from hours spent tending the garden, yet still had a soft touch when someone was hurt or sad. She always took off her bird-shaped wedding ring when she baked because she feared she’d get it dirty with the batter. I loved seeing the white imprint that her ring had rubbed onto her skin . . . like a dove tattooed above her knuckle.

I tried not to think of how I missed Ma as Clover heated the cocoa and I stirred gingerbread batter, then shaped it into perfect boys and girls to be baked. It was mid-summer, and the old black stove heated the cottage till the stench of our sweaty bodies overpowered any discomfort we felt at being home alone.

I forced down the gritty, spiced cookies and scalded my throat on overly sweet chocolate water without complaint. I figured by letting Clover ease our hurt, it could take the bite out of her throbbing lip and gums. With full bellies, we undressed to our skivvies and opened the windows to let in the cool evening scent of pines and mountain air.

When it came time to sleep, Clover and I stripped the beds, tossed quilts and pillows on the floor beneath the picture window, and snuggled Oakley atop the pile to tell him stories.

I started with Frankenstein. I’d always liked the idea of people giving up their parts to make a new person who could outshine them. Maybe I was too graphic about the blood and chopped limbs and cracking bones, because Clover got as green as the plant she’s named after, and Oakley as stiff as a tree.

Me? I was ready for dreamland.

A shame my story scared Oakley so much. He moaned for more cocoa and a happy fairy tale before he would calm enough to count stars and go to sleep.

Clover—with the added charm of her fat-lipped lisp—told of a young princess who’d once been struck by lightning. She had auburn hair with a white-blond streak and blue eyes. This princess met a prince who swept her off her glass-slippered feet with a diamond ring shaped like a bird, and promises of a happy ever after. He rescued her from slaving in a bakery in a town infested with pastry-craving dragons, and carried her to the mountains, where they lived in a cottage-shaped castle. Together, they raised parakeets and fuzzy pot-bellied pigs to sell to pet stores.

Since Oakley was only six when Ma disappeared, I don’t know if he picked up on the similarities, but the cotton-candy lies Clover wrapped around the truth made my mouth dry and my teeth ache as if I had cavities. In the fairy tale, the prince and princess lived forever without any woes. In the real version, the prince had tended to our animals while he was drunk out of his mind. He forgot to latch the chicken coops. Later that night—while he slept off his liquor—high winds rattled the coops till the gates fell open and all the hens escaped into the yard. An electrical storm scorched the sky and caught fire to the hog house. The hogs ran out in flames and trampled the chickens until they were singed, hollowed-bone corpses.

When the princess ran out to open the gate so the hogs could escape the spreading fire, she was struck by lightning, giving her another streak in her auburn hair and breaking something in her mind. She came into the cottage, screamed at the prince in some indecipherable tongue that failed to wake him, then disappeared into the night. The heavens opened up a flood of rain that doused the fire, but it must’ve swallowed Ma, too. For she was never to be seen again.

Hollow bones. They make a blood-curdling crunch when you step on them. Drops the soul right out of you, unless you like that sort of thing. And roasted pork doesn’t smell nearly so appetizing when mixed with the funk of scorched feathers and beaks. Still, I dragged what was left of our hogs out of the bone pile and we ate them anyway. With Ma gone the next morning and Pa vanishing to look for her without coming home for two days thereafter, we couldn’t turn our noses up at free ham and bacon, no matter what was used to spice it.

In Clover’s fairy tale, the prince wouldn’t have spiraled into even deeper rages after losing his princess and their one means of income. He would’ve found another way to make cash instead of taking odd jobs in town, then spending every penny on whiskey, tequila, and the occasional carton of eggs when a carton of cigarettes was too steep.

I fell asleep after the storytelling ended that night, listening as a snore whistled through Clover’s empty tooth sockets, wishing the prince of her fairy tale could somehow, someday, be our pa.

In the years that followed, I came to understand why they say to be careful what you wish for.

2: The Collector

Pa showed up the morning after he punched Clover, as apologetic and humble as a dog caught in the act of peeing on his owner’s rug. I’d like to think it was the sight of her bruised and swollen mouth that did him in. But why would it bother him any more than the busted cheeks and black eyes he’d given me and Clover in our past?

Whatever it was, I chose to be grateful, because something broke him good. I could’ve sworn I heard the sickening crunch of hollow bones as he knelt in the yard and begged us to forgive him. I wished he was cracking beneath my feet, like the skeletal corpses on the morning we found Ma disappeared. But those chicken bones were three years gone.

After Pa’s apology, I didn’t remember much of the conversation. Only that he said he’d found an answer—to our finances and his soul sickness. He had made arrangements for us to meet our savior. Pa called him The Collector, and he was to arrive that afternoon.

When the sun was midway over the mountain, beaming in hot yellow streams, Clover and I took the dirt road to the forest and climbed some magnolia trees to watch for our mysterious guest. Barefoot in cut-offs and sleeveless shirts, we swung upside down from our perches.

In the months since Ma’s disappearance, my favorite tree had become the one with a white split in the bark starting at the lowest branches and running all the way to the ground. That breach in the wood showed up the day after Ma left. The color of the split reminded me of the streaks in Ma’s hair. I was convinced the same lightning storm that struck her also struck the tree, which somehow made them connected. This tree was still alive, so she had to be, too. And one day, she’d come back to us.

As I swung in and out of the shade, beads of sweat crept through the top of my scalp like creepy-crawling ants. I braided my wavy, red hair without turning upright, tying off the end in a knot before dropping it so it hung like a noose from the network of branches. It shimmered in the sunlight, favoring a giant piece of cherry licorice that would be sweet and stick to my teeth. I grabbed my braid by the end and nibbled the dusty, brittle strands, almost surprised when it didn’t taste of cherries at all.

“Sage,” Clover hollered from another tree a few feet over. “Look . . . a motorbike.”

There he was, as promised, coming up the dirt road wearing a modern suit, dress shirt, and tie that looked out of place atop the old-timey sidecar motorcycle. Not a stitch of skin showed under his grown-up clothes. He even wore mittens . . . the woolly, winter kind that only had space for your thumb and then a place where the other four fingers sat snug and cozy, like baby chicks under their ma’s wing.

But even with all that, I could tell he wasn’t much older than us . . . skinny and just starting to get his muscles. Dappled with sunshine and shade, he took on a funny green tint as his bike rumbled beneath our canopy of leaves. He roared past the trunks, looking up once, then down again before I could catch the reflection of my cherry licorice hair in his shiny black helmet.

A flock of wrens followed in his wake, blackening the sky. They drove me and Clover from the branches in their haste to find perches. By the time we scrambled down and followed the boy’s tire tracks up the winding road, he was already parked next to Ma’s dried-up vegetable garden and banging on the front door with a black, fisted mitten. He held the handle of a red-and-white ice chest in the other covered hand.

Pa opened the screen with a swing of creaking hinges, inviting The Collector across the threshold. Clover and I stepped in behind. The boy was taller than I originally thought, and leaner. We strode to the kitchen behind him, where Oakley sat with a plate of leftover gingerbread from the night before. A small electric fan blew crumbs and stagnant air around the room, its head revolving as if taking us all in.

Our visitor tugged his helmet free and laid it on the table. My tummy did a flip, fascinated and repelled by what I saw. Mainly because I couldn’t see anything.

He wore a mask made from a soft tan cloth . . . like the Shammy Pa used to dry his truck after a wash. The edges were gathered at the boy’s neck under his shirt collar and secured with the tie. Two holes were cut, big enough to show soulful brown eyes and dark lashes. There were slits for his nostrils, which was the only way he could breathe, since there wasn’t a hole for his mouth.

The Collector stared at Oakley, who had a half-eaten gingerbread boy’s leg drooping from his lower lip. My brother’s freckled face twitched, on the verge of either tears or hysterical laughter. When the gingerbread plopped into his cup of raspberry Kool-Aid and spattered the white-and-ivory-checked tablecloth with red droplets, Pa sent him out to play.

Oakley obliged, but not without grabbing the binoculars he’d made of empty toilet paper rolls, tape, and plastic wrap. He perched on a stump outside the kitchen window and stared in through the fake lenses.

Me, Clover, and Pa settled at the table. Ma’s chair was left empty as always. None of us touched it anymore out of respect, or superstition.

The Collector sat where Oakley had been, his mittened thumb tracing one of the perfect gingerbread people on the plate, as if mesmerized by the shape. The cookie caught on the wool and he had to shake himself free.

Afterwards, he pulled a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and pushed it into Pa’s hands. I realized then, why our guest didn’t need a hole for his mouth. It appeared he wasn’t much of one for words.

Pa didn’t like to read aloud, so he slipped the paper to Clover, since she was the one who always volunteered when Ma used to teach us our lessons.

Clover cleared her throat and read, trying to conceal the lisp from her missing teeth: “In Matthew 5:29–30, it says: ‘If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be damned.’” Her hand shook, but she continued. “‘If the foot leads you astray, remove temptation; see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.’ Feet, eyes, ears, tongue, and hands. That will be the order of dismemberment. Payment to the amputee is ten thousand dollars per piece.”

Clover’s blue eyes fluttered and she looked up with a flushed face into Pa’s watery gray gaze. “Amputee? It has your signature.”

I could see the wooziness overtaking. I helped her into the faded petal-pink bedroom we shared, guiding her onto the bottom bunk.

When I returned to the kitchen, Pa told me everything. How he’d been arrested for drunk and disorderly behavior the night before. How The Collector—under the employ of a wealthy doctor who was rumored to have found religion and moved here from a big city to study folk medicine and its ties to the Bible—had brought a note that offered Pa bail. The condition was, Pa agreed to help the doctor prove his new theory: that godly qualities were transferable through skin and bones.

Supposedly, the doc could make Pa a better man by switching out a specified map of body parts with a “good person’s” cadaver pieces. In keeping with the Bible verses Clover had read, there were five bodily sectors most inclined to sin. And if Pa were to trade out his offensive parts for better ones, he could be the kind of parent he wanted to be—a substitute for Ma and her productive, gentle ways. The only catch was the doc was a recluse, and refused to come out of his house to chop off any parts or stitch on cadaver pieces. No one was welcome to visit him, either. So that duty had to fall on someone else.

Pa had signed the contract in jail just to get back home to us. It was as good as done.

I bounced a glare from him to the masked visitor, who was preoccupied with Oakley’s plate of gingerbread again. “So, you’re going to do the amputations, then?”

Instead of answering me, The Collector lifted his dark brown eyes and held up his hands in the mittens, working them like lobster claws as he shook his head. Something told me it wasn’t just his tongue that didn’t work right, and I wondered how many other parts of him were broken.

I studied the contract again, staring at the dollar signs. Ten thousand per piece. I’d never seen that much money in my life. Lord knew we could use it.

“There’s no guarantee,” Pa said, his voice wavering. “I could die. But either way, we get paid. And you’re the only one strong enough to help fulfill the donations, Sage.”

I thought again of the pile of chicken bones out in the yard after the storm six months ago. How I wished Pa had been the one to run out into the lightning to save our livestock. Then maybe Ma would still be with us. Not a day went by when I didn’t fantasize about how much better life would be without his drunken rampages. Without him.

That’s all it took for me to nod and force my tongue to work. “I’ll do it.”

As if coming out of a trance, The Collector reached into his pocket and handed off a business card to me: Cut clean through the bone and cauterize the raw edges.

I frowned and looked up at him. His gaze stayed on mine for an instant and I thought I saw pity there. Or maybe regret.

Then he handed off another card, of which he seemed to have an endless supply. This one had post-surgical instructions, and a promise to return when the deed was done. It said we wouldn’t need to contact him. He had ways of knowing.

The Collector stood, and without our offering them, carefully wrapped the gingerbread people in a napkin and dropped them into his jacket pocket. Then he put on his helmet and left.

3: Gingerbread Man

Pa and I decided there was no better time than the present to earn our first payment. He grabbed the bottle of sedatives The Collector provided, along with a canning jar filled with moonshine. Clover and Oakley stayed in the house due to the storm clouds rolling in.

Pa and I walked together out to the shed. He even chose the saw.

It felt so strange, him handing me a weapon, after being one himself for so many years. It was like an offering. A penance. And I was ready and willing to take the payment.

I didn’t have the proper tools. I didn’t have the proper experience. What I did have was the ability to imagine myself in another time and place. Ma used to call me her fanciful girl, because I could pretend so intensely I would lose myself and forget everything around me. It came in especially handy when she had to stitch something up . . . like the gash I got in my forehead when I was eight and Pa pushed me into the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the garden. My fault, for not doing the weeding right.

“You’re just my little gingerbread girl,” Ma chanted softly as I cried, then explained how the stitches were little scallops of white icing that would hold me together so I’d be in one piece and pretty.

After Pa drank half the moonshine to wash down two pills, I helped him climb onto his cleared-off workbench. He rolled up his pants leg, fingers slow and awkward from drowsiness, until his left ankle was exposed. Then I tied down his hands and feet, to keep him still . . . for his own good.

Saw in hand, I was no longer Sage Adams, looming over the prone form of my wretched, troubled pa. I was a French baker in Paris, slicing up a gingerbread man. The spurt of blood that slicked my fingers as the saw ground back and forth, the curling of flesh, and the cracking of bones became raspberry filling, marzipan coating, and cookie dough burned too crisp around the edges.

Once Pa passed out, and with only the swell of the wrens’ songs and the storm brewing outside, nothing could distract me from my imaginary bakery. Not the sweat drizzling along my brow, not the coppery tang of fresh blood, not the ache in my hand, biceps, and forearm from sawing so long to get through the bone.

Only when his foot plopped onto the pillow of newspaper I’d arranged to catch it did I drag myself back to reality. My stomach turned. I bent over and threw up, but was careful to aim away from the ten-thousand-dollar foot.

During the hot and cold sweats that followed, I cauterized his mutilated stump as the card had instructed. I used the hot iron . . . the one Clover pressed our clothes with and made her hair straight with so Oakley and Pa could tell us apart. The sizzle and stench of burned skin made me nauseous again. I chewed the lovage root The Collector had supplied. It eased my stomach before I spit the soggy clump from my mouth and packed it around the wound to prevent scar tissue from forming.

The room spun as I wrapped the amputated foot in a heavy plastic bag and placed it in the ice chest.

Wiping my bloody hands on a dust rag, I escaped, leaving Pa to sleep off the sedatives in the garden shed and returned to the cottage carrying an ice chest worth more money than I’d ever seen, all for two hours’ worth of labor. That is, unless you counted the lifetime it took for Pa to grow it.

At the sink, I washed my hands till the water no longer ran red, and gurgled salt water to rinse the taste of vomit and lovage root from my mouth. Clover and Oakley had fallen asleep. Thunder rumbled in the distance and the wrens had silenced.

Not many people realize the truth about wrens. They may be smaller than a kitten’s head, but they’re brave. Stare down their mortal enemy, beak to fangs, if their home or hatchlings are threatened.

Maybe Pa had been watching those birds since Ma had been gone. Because he’d finally stared down his enemy in a way most men would never have had brass enough to try.

That night, I dropped into bed and dreamed of life-sized gingerbread houses made of human legs and arms, held together by stitches of red licorice that were actually blood veins. Instead of gumdrops and jellied candies decorating the windows, there were organs: hearts, lungs, kidneys, all dripping and fresh from their corpses. The sidewalk leading to the house was made of hollow bones that rolled beneath my feet with a teeth-jarring crunch.

The Collector showed up the next day to pay us and trade the red-and-white ice chest for a blue one containing Pa’s new piece. He also handed me a small tub of regenerative ointment. The handwritten label listed ground salamander hearts as the main ingredient, and claimed that by slathering it on the cadaver part’s raw edges, it would regenerate Pa’s skin and bones to the donor foot once it was stitched into place with the hemp thread provided.

I found that the stitching went easier than the cutting off. I only had to pretend I was piecing a broken cookie together with icing.

It took Pa three months to heal enough to use the foot, so we decided everything would have to come off one at a time. One foot, then the next after the replacement healed. One ear, then the other. One eyeball, one hand, and so on. There was also some adjusting, since his cadaver donor was two sizes smaller than Pa. But we accepted each new and improved body part along with the money without flinching, because the transplants were going to make him a better man. Like Ma had always said, beggars can’t be choosers. And we would never be beggars again.

Over the next three years, The Collector’s drop-offs and pick-ups became as ordinary an occurrence as doing laundry or mopping the floor.

The experiment was working. The donor’s blue eyeballs that replaced Pa’s gray ones helped him see without his reading glasses. With his new tongue, he spoke softer, kinder. And he never cursed. After the ear exchange, Pa listened closer to everything we’d say. Who cared if his ears were smaller? He never ignored us or forgot the important things. That’s all that mattered.

That, and the money.

Pa had always loved Ma’s cooking. I’d taken over kitchen duties, and in time, as Pa started changing, I started wanting to use her recipes. Maybe because it made him smile, and I’d forgotten what he looked like when he was happy.

Now that we had a steady income, I didn’t lack for fresh ingredients. Once Clover and I were of driving age, we took the truck to town and did the shopping.

Pa rarely left the house. He was too self-conscious about the scars. There was no reason for him to leave anyway. We’d fixed up the house real pretty and had a proper stove. We’d even bought Oakley a swing set and fort for playing Cowboys and Indians.

Over time, I started to notice that, quiet as he was, The Collector had a kind heart. He always stopped to play with Oakley in his fort when he came by. He also gave us gifts. Not the kinds that were expensive, but the kinds that meant something. He gave Oakley a real set of binoculars and showed him how to use them to scope out giant hawks from the roof of his fort. He gave Clover new eyeteeth on a dental fixture connected to a retainer. And me? I got an endless supply of cherry licorice. Anytime I ran out, he’d bring more.

I started to make a habit of baking fresh gingerbread men on the days he was expected, because I’d grown fond of how his dark eyes shone bright each time I wrapped some up careful and insisted he take them home. I found myself talking to him a lot, even though he never talked back. Until finally, one day, he pulled out a memo pad and pen from his jacket, and began to respond through notes written awkwardly with his clawed mitten. It was almost like hearing his voice, reading that messy script.

My favorite thing to do was to tell him jokes. He’d always snort through his nostril holes, then write: “You have me in stitches.”

Later, I would come to see the irony in that statement.

4: Cadaver

Clover and I were sixteen and a half, and The Collector had become a man. He looked to be eighteen or nineteen, though I could only guess by the way his suits hung different on broader shoulders and thicker arms and legs. He still showed up each time in the mask that never revealed his face, and mittens that covered his hands.

Pa’s final dismembering had been a success, bringing us to our last meeting with our strange friend and business partner.

I’d just laid out a batch of gingerbread men to cool so I could decorate them while we waited for his arrival. A brisk breeze blew through the half-opened picture window and the early sun slathered the room in an apricot haze. It was only Pa and me that day. Clover had taken Oakley out to bird-watch in the forest.

“Did you substitute brown sugar for the molasses in this batch?” Pa asked after taking a bite. As a side effect of his tongue transplant, he could pick out spices and flavorings in the things I baked and he’d lost the taste for liquor completely. Hadn’t touched a drop in over a year.

“I used both,” I answered. “Just wanted to try something new.”

Pa nodded. I could tell by the crimp between his eyebrows he was troubled. Today we would get his final puzzle piece. Blots of red dotted the bandage that covered his left wrist and fresh stump. The blood looked like birds flying across a horizon to some unexplored destination. Maybe to carry some dead soul between the real world and the afterlife.

Pa lifted his right hand to take another bite of the cookie. He had started favoring his right even before we removed the left. Apparently, his cadaver donor wasn’t a southpaw like him.

His frown deepened as he chewed on the gingerbread man’s head.

I pressed gumdrop buttons into the other cookies while I waited for him to say what was on his mind. Maybe he was going to miss The Collector as much as I was. Or maybe he was scared to see the money stop coming in.

There was no reason to worry. We’d managed to live off only a small percentage of the one hundred thousand dollars, and the rest was in savings. Clover had found a job in town at a local grocer, and Pa and Oakley had revived Ma’s vegetable garden, providing us plenty of food with enough left over to sell to Clover’s boss. I planned to get a job, too, once Pa was finally put together for good. Although I wasn’t sure what sort of job I was qualified for . . . other than baking things, or chopping parts off of people and sewing them back on pretty. I’d become good at making perfect stitches. Pa had been my guinea pig.

“There’s something I need to give you,” Pa said at last after swallowing a swig of milk. He reached under the table and dug in his pocket, pulling out a small box and offering it to me.

I opened the lid. Ma’s bird-shaped diamond ring glittered from inside a nest of tissue paper.

My throat swelled up. “Where did you find this?” I asked. She’d had it on when she ran out the door into the storm that night. I saw it reflect the lightning in the darkness. Something inside me started to uncoil . . . something teetering between numb and potent, like a snake that had been dormant.

“This has to do with that magnolia tree you’re so fond of,” Pa answered, his gaze turned down. “The one with the gash in its side. Sage, it wasn’t lightning that caused the wood to split. Something crashed into it. I had suspected that all along after seeing it the day after Ma went missing. The tree knows. It—” Pa couldn’t finish. He started coughing, as if something had caught in his throat. He guzzled his glass of milk and studied me over the rim.

The sadness in his blue eyes scored me deep. There was more to this story, but it was as if his new tongue refused to work . . . as if it physically hurt him to recount it.

At last I understood. All those months after Ma left, he looked for her. That was why he refused to get a job. Why he’d go into town and stay away until he was skunk drunk. Because he could never find the answers he was seeking, and it was killing him not knowing. And he held it all inside himself.

But that changed the night he met The Collector.

Pa laid his right palm on the table and stretched his long, delicate fingers. “These replacements have given me peace. The doctor helped me find your ma again. And I finally did right by you kids.”

His words were cryptic and smoky, as if secrets singed the edges of each one.

He took out the ring and dropped it in my palm, wrapping my fingers around it with his soft hand. “You keep this part of her. She’d want you to have it. You’re the strongest of all of us. Remember that today, when you get the last cadaver piece.”

I slid the ring on, wondering if one day I’d have a bird indention in the skin above my knuckle like hers. My chest twisted up tight. I’d always figured she’d come back. And now, the reality of that never happening felt like a knife sawing my heart, back and forth, until it snapped clean through.

I squeezed Pa’s palm for the first time since he’d had the new hand. It felt so familiar, like when Ma would wrap her fingers through mine. Like when I first learned to walk. When I broke my elbow. When I had scarlet fever.

The flutter of wrens outside the window startled me. I pulled away.

The Collector’s motorbike roared into our front yard and Pa looked at me as if in a daze, then stood and left the kitchen to let our guest in.

I put the finishing touches on the gingerbread men, drawing hair, faces, and tailored vests with icing. My hands trembled and Ma’s ring sparkled on my finger in the soft light. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something. Something I’d been missing all along.

Something Pa’s new tongue just couldn’t tell me.

The screen door opened and closed and I waited for The Collector to come in. But it was only Pa, holding the ice chest.

“He left,” Pa said, handing me a note. “But this is for you.”

I unfolded the paper and silently read the words: Your family is together now. I hope at last we can all have the pieces we deserve.

Pieces. In place of peace. I’d read enough of The Collector’s notes to know he had perfect spelling. The pun was intentional.

“I’m going to sleep now,” Pa said, taking the sedatives with him. “Wake me when it’s over.” He started out the door for the shed but paused. “Don’t judge the doctor or the boy. They tried to do right by us.”

I stared at Pa’s retreating shadow, then back at the note. My whole body quaked as I opened the ice chest’s lid and carefully lifted the cadaver hand to the light. There, on the left ring finger was the dove imprint worn into the skin.

I gasped and dropped the hand.

I clamped my jaw shut, swallowing the bile that climbed my throat.

The doctor helped me find your ma again, Pa had said.

Looking into his blue eyes, listening to that gentle tongue, it was as obvious as the scars upon his wrist, ankles, and ears. Both of my parents were inside the patchwork quilt of skin that had sat in the kitchen with me minutes ago, eating gingerbread.

The donor cadaver’s identity was a mystery no more. And it was time to pay the reclusive doctor a visit.

5: Burying the Hatchet

That night, I stitched on Pa’s final piece, but there was no pretending. I couldn’t block out or forget that it was Ma’s hand, but I also could never let Clover or Oakley know where it came from, either. I understood on some level that Pa was innocent. He only wanted to give us back our ma and give us a better life. He’d done that. He deserved to be complete and to never have any regrets. He also deserved to be perfect, all but one left ring finger, amputated just below the knuckle.

As he slept off the sedative, and Clover and Oakley dreamed the simple dreams I would never have again, I tossed an ax into the back of Pa’s Chevy and headed for town. When I passed Ma’s tree, I could finally see why Pa thought something violent happened there. The split no longer looked to me like a streak of white in auburn hair like it once did. It looked like a gash—an infected pus-filled wound.

The town looked different, too. Lonely and looming. All the stores and cafés that usually pulsed with life stared back with dark windows, reflecting the truck’s headlights. I took the same side road where I’d once caught sight of The Collector’s motorbike turning and wove my way toward the outskirts of town where the doctor was rumored to live.

I hadn’t let myself stop to think how The Collector was involved in all this. Somewhere in my heart, I couldn’t imagine he’d been behind Ma’s death. But if he was . . . he would warrant the same ending as his employer.

The three-story house, large and dark, looked like a black gaping maw in the moonlight. I parked the truck and wove my way through the hundreds of wrens pecking the ground. They didn’t seem to notice or care that I was there. They just moved aside, busy with their routines. There were even more, some singing soft and haunting from the house’s roof and eaves, high above, and others flapping their wings in the oak trees that surrounded the estate.

Spirit carriers.

My fingers tightened on the ax’s handle. They’d be happy tonight. Soon they would have someone new to whisk away.

My climb up the creaky steps seemed to take forever, stretched out even longer by my realization that the windows were boarded up. The hair on my arms bristled as the wrens grew quiet and still, as if watching when I came to the front door. It had been left ajar and a flutter of yellow candlelight seeped out. I gulped hard and cinched my hand around the ax, prepared to swing without question, then I pushed it open.

The scent of cinnamon, vanilla, and something stale wafted over me. As my eyes focused on the flickering room, the air drained from my lungs. I was alone, but dioramas stretched from wall to wall on multi-tiered shelves. Little boxes with miniature, three-dimensional scenes numbered and played out in still life. Instead of clothespin dolls to represent the people, as one might expect, there were gingerbread men, boys, and girls. All the ones I’d given The Collector over the years. Their bodies were stiff and shellacked, tilted in place to play out strange, unsettling events.

Gripping my ax, I walked closer to the diorama marked number one, where a gingerbread girl stood on the roof of a building in a big city. Flames made of tissue paper spewed out from the windows. Diorama number two showed her in a pile of icing and crumbs on the sidewalk next to the burnt-out building, where she’d jumped to escape the inferno. In the next, a man in a doctor’s coat with a Bible in hand, and a young boy in a modern grown-up’s suit, stood at a grave. The one after showed the boy with his shirt off, as the doctor pressed feathers into his skin. Miniature dead birds speckled the floor. In scene five, the man drove a black car up a familiar twisty mountain road, with the boy in the passenger side. A storm and lighting streaked the painted sky. Next, the car tilted on two tires, as if losing control. Scene seven: The car crushed up against a tree. Sandwiched between the bumper and tree trunk was a gingerbread girl with two white streaks in her reddish hair. Her top half tilted off kilter. She’d been split in half at the waist.

Wooziness filled my head, but I couldn’t stop staring. I stumbled along, my gaze trailing each diorama. The one where the doc had a gash in his head from the wreck as the boy drove him and the broken gingerbread girl back down the trail. The next, where the boy put my ma’s dead body into the freezer, and tried to stitch up the doctor, who I now understood was his pa. When I came to the one where the boy sat across from a prisoner in jail and offered him a box, I knew. The night The Collector visited Pa, he gave him her ring and explained what happened. That’s what broke Pa.

That’s what changed him.

As if to verify this, next to the diorama was another contract, where The Collector offered Pa a way to fix our family . . . to save his hell-bent spirit, and at the same time save his own pa from going to prison. My pa had been so drunk and heartbroken, he waived his rights to take legal action for the doctor’s involvement in the accident.

My throat burned, as if it had been hornet-stung from the inside. I didn’t even have to see the next diorama, where The Collector was breaking off Ma’s left foot. Because every other scene that remained, I’d lived it as we stitched my ma’s pieces onto Pa.

In the final diorama, the gingerbread boy in the suit sat in a chair by a bed where the doctor lay, hooked up to an IV and other machines. The painted background showed it was a room on the top floor of the very house I stood in. The Collector had been putting these scenes together since the day he first came to our house, in preparation for me to come tonight.

He wanted me here. Now. To find out why.

The ax’s handle was slick in my palm as I squeezed it on my walk up the stairs. The unsettling flutter of wrens gathering in the eaves outside scattered my nerves. They were waiting. And I wondered if it might be my spirit they’d be escorting away tonight.

There were five rooms on the top floor, but only one was open at the end of the long hall. Candlelight streamed out, painting dancing shadows on the wooden floor and walls. When I stepped inside, The Collector was right where I expected, seated next to his pa’s bedside.

My ears barely caught the sound of the beeping machines and the pumps filling the doctor with oxygen. I was too intent on his face. He looked younger than I’d have thought. A handsome man, in spite of the fact he’d been in a coma for three years. There was stubble on his chin and jaw, as if his son had tried to keep him shaved but given up recently.

“Was it your ma who died?” I asked The Collector, my pulse drumming below my jawline like a sledgehammer.

He nodded under his mask.

“And your pa, he heard about the bird folklore. He was trying to fix you so you could be a bird and fly to your ma. Be with her without dying.” I looked at the doctor’s arm where it was arranged atop the cover. “If it worked for you, he was going to fix himself too. Am I right?”

The Collector looked down, flinching in the mask’s eyeholes.

“But I don’t understand. There are birds everywhere on your lawn. You have enough feathers already. Why were you on my mountain that night?”

He slipped off his mask. Candlelight flickered across him, his face a tragic mishmash of stitches and feathers. He didn’t have any lips. They’d been removed, and the skin sewn shut. I realized then what the extra IV in the room was for. It was how he’d been surviving.

I couldn’t move, so stunned by the scarred, twisted image. His pa must’ve gone to the mountain in search of a bird with a bigger beak, like the hawks Oakley watched through his binoculars. A bird with a beak big enough to sew on The Collector’s face in the place of a mouth.

I took a shaky breath and forced myself not to look away from the young man who’d been so kind to my family. Forced myself to see past the ugly, vile things that had been done to him through no fault of his own.

“You tried to give me my ma back,” I said. “In the only way you knew how. And you fixed my pa.”

He nodded.

“What your pa did to you. It was wrong. Do you understand that?”

He nodded again.

“So I’m gonna kill him now. It’s the only way to make things right.”

The moment I said it, The Collector stood and worked off his mittens. All his fingers were stitched together except his thumbs, as if to form a wing tip. Gray and black feathers sprouted where there should have been only skin.

Slowly, he drew a knife from his jacket lapel.

I tensed and raised the ax in self-defense, but he backed up and turned his mutilated hand over, laying the knife in his downy palm—a peace offering.

It looked similar to a paring knife. The kind you use to peel skin from fruit while leaving it intact to make pretty embellishments for special desserts.

Then I understood.

He’d been keeping his pa alive, just for this purpose. So he could become human again using his skin and limbs.

Even if The Collector’s hands hadn’t been damaged, he would’ve needed me. Not everyone has the ability to imagine themselves away. I’d had years of practice being Ma’s fanciful girl, and had perfected it through Pa’s reformation.

I set aside my ax and took the knife, squeezing The Collector’s feathery hand for comfort. “I’ll fix you good as new,” I promised.

With a somber nod, he left the room.

In the flickering light, I took the doctor off his IV and the machines keeping him alive. Then, the moment his heart stopped, I slid the knife beneath the flesh at his ear, carefully cutting away his stubbled face while leaving it intact.

I was no longer Sage Adams, quiet country girl with tears streaming her face, thinking of the jar of formaldehyde hidden in the garden shed with a finger afloat inside, worn with the dove-shaped imprint of a ring. Instead, I was a chef in a renowned restaurant, peeling the skin off a kiwi for a gourmet fruit sorbet.

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A.G. Howard

A.G. Howard

A.G. Howard is the #1 New York Times & International Bestselling author of several young adult retellings and spinoff novels, including her gothic Alice in Wonderland Splintered Series, and RoseBlood, a Phantom of the Opera inspired adaptation.

When writing, A.G. is most at home weaving the melancholy, magical, and macabre into her settings and scenes. In her downtime, she enjoys rollerblading, gardening, and visiting 18th century graveyards or abandoned buildings to appease her muse’s darker side.