“Yes, quite odd. There are few details, but it appears to be more or less harmless, not combat-based. You need not worry, Mr. Poe, it’s nothing—”
From birth Edgar grows up knowing only the looks on his aunts’ and uncles’ and older cousins’ faces when they think no one’s looking, the words they say when they think no one’s listening. He’s a child of the devil, he’s got the look of it, those eyes, those eyes. He must have cheated to win all those competitions, how can a child of someone like David Poe… He reaches up and flattens his bangs, kept long just to hide the hollow, sunken gray eyes so unlike the rest of his family’s. Sometimes he thinks he’s finally gotten it right when they bend down and pat his head and tell him how smart and bright he is, until the poems he scrawls on the back of Ma’s old playscripts later tell him they were talking about him again, long after he’d gone to bed, an ability user, yes, surely, that’s the only way.
Da, am I an ability user, he asks, one day. Da looks down at him, asks where he heard that from, and Edgar says, My friends. I haven’t introduced you?
“Nothing—nothing? An ability user—like those—those criminals and thieves and murderers? My son might be one of those? What if he loses control and kills all of Boston in one night—don’t tell me this is nothing!”
“Mr. Poe! His ability is hardly—”
“—quack doctor, I knew I shouldn’t have—”
“—harmless if you get him a private tutor—Mr. Poe, wait!”
At home, Da pushes Edgar into his room and sweeps all the papers off his little table. No, Edgar tries to shout, no, please, they’re my friends, I told you about them, please don’t do that, but he only manages “D-Da.” His voice is still tremulous, prone to stuttering at the slightest provocation. “Da—”
Da whirls around to face him. “Under no circumstances will you ever use your ability. Ever. Do you understand?” There are papers clutched in his hands, folding under his grip, and Edgar thinks he can hear the screaming inside, the cries of pain, the blood that might splatter onto the floor if Da clenches his fists any harder.
Edgar breathes, quick and shaky. “But—But—”
“Do you have any idea how having an ability user as our child would jeopardize our reputation?” Da interrupts—then he lays a hand on Edgar’s shoulder, warm and solid and all the more terrifying. His voice softens, just the slightest bit (—Edgar wants to think it’s because Da loves him, but the devil in him whispers fake, fake, fake); “Think about your Ma and Da. Eliza and I would be cast out of every single movie they’d want us to star in. Understand?”
Da lets him keep his friends—but under his watchful eye, Edgar places them all in an old, rusting metal box that Da keeps the key to. His hands shake the whole time, and don’t stop for the rest of the night.
Elizabeth and David Poe were actors. That might have been why Edgar had gotten good at uncovering secrets and finding clues in the tiniest details, because actors hid away plenty of things they didn’t want the media finding out about. At nine years old, Edgar hadn’t really known why he wanted to know what they are—there had only been the burning need to find out, to know more, to learn. A year later, he realized it was because he’d needed the knowledge to pull through and keep living.
Ma hides their playscripts and sits down with him every time he does his homework, so she can make sure he writes numbers and equations and solutions on the paper, and nothing else. Afterwards she takes the notebooks and textbooks and only leaves the room after double-checking for any spare paper. But finding the playscripts takes Edgar a matter of seconds, and it becomes a bit of a game for him, to see how fast he can snatch them out from under Ma’s nose. His parents’ room is the easiest; when they’re both out, rehearsing late into the night, Edgar picks the lock open with a paperclip he’d taken from the lost-and-found at school and carries pages away into his room, little by little, his heart leaping with every sheet of paper he brings back.
(The lock of the metal box is too rusted to pick open—on the first broken paperclip, Edgar assesses its state and figures it isn’t worth wasting more on a lost cause. They’re hard enough to scavenge for on the floor during classes, after all, when no one’s paying him attention. He keeps the box anyway.)
Classes are a bore, but Edgar learns, apart from multiplication and division, that performing well in assessments makes his parents almost forget he has an ability—his certificates and awards start crowding up his room until they take up more space than his bed. Da slaps his shoulders and laughs out a good job; Ma smiles and hugs him tight and doesn’t say a word about no writing. Sometimes Edgar can forget he’s an outcast, too, an ability user destined to turn bad—he can forget Da’s devil-soft voice, his too-heavy hand, the metal box gathering dust on his nightstand.
But there is no forgetting the loneliness when he is back in his room at night, locking the door with a paperclip-trick he’d seen some of the older boys at school do, and sifting through the papers he hid in a loose floorboard under his bed. His penmanship has been praised by the teachers at school, but it still has the messy scrawl of a child writing and writing until the tip of the pencil is suspiciously short under Da’s scrutinous eyes. He can feel the power at his fingertips, the ability yearning to burst forth and glow bright blue every time he touches pen and paper—sometimes Edgar reaches for it, calls that power, but whenever the faintest of light begins to illuminate the darkness of his room, he shoves the papers back under the floorboard and retreats beneath his blankets, shaking and shivering and remembering how they’d screamed, how they’d cried in Da’s grip.
Never again, never again, never again, he promises, over and over. But he uncovers secrets, one by one—a Mr. Something-or-Other Ma visits far too often to Da’s liking, the discarded bottles in the trash that give off the stink Da tries to hide, Ma’s morning sickness when Da is still too deep in sleep to notice—and reality becomes too, too much to bear. Never again, Edgar thinks, one night, but his pencil is flying and by the time he’s filled up the paper he’s reaching for it, reaching for that blue glow, thinking, One more time. Just one more time.
His friends never hurt him. His friends never call him the devil’s child—his friends never yell and scream and shout at him about his ability, about how he’ll be the downfall of his parents’ careers. Edgar wraps himself up in the glow well until daybreak, at which point he’s shaken out of his worlds by the sounds of Ma vomiting in the toilet.
Every night becomes one last time, one last time—then Da breaks his bedroom door lock (that’d been his last paperclip) in the middle of a poem about meadows and Edgar breaks off from admiring the flowers on the field when he feels actual, physical pain from Da stepping on the paper he’s drawn himself in. “Get out!” Da yells, voice like the world’s worst thunderstorm, the kind Edgar always hides under the covers from because they make his ears ring and his room rumble—“Get out, you filthy—you little—you devil!”
Fear roots Edgar where he stands, at first, but the flowers tell him to run, so he does—the glow throws Da against the wall from shock, but rage moves him to tear up the papers again, yelling and screaming and shouting, “How many times, how many times have I told you, do you need a beating? Do you need one before it sinks into your thick head—never! Use! Your ability!” Da tosses the papers aside and advances on him, thunderstorm-footsteps and thunderstorm-glare—this close, Edgar can smell the discarded-bottle stink on his breath.
Some nights he thinks he can still hear it: the ripping, the screaming, the crumpling, the bleeding.
But most nights he remembers this, vividly, not a single detail forgotten: his muscles moving him into the most defensive position he knows, the cawing of a raven, the yowls of a cat, all ripped to shreds in Da’s heavy hands. Run, he keeps hearing. Run. Run. Run. Even with his eyes squeezed shut he can still see the flowers—swaying, unbroken, bending only under the light breeze.
This is what he remembers most: reaching out, curling trembling hands into fists, power flowing out from his fingertips—the bright glow, Da’s shout—then nothing but his heart, inexorably loud and racing faster than lightning.
Ma’s footsteps are echoing down the corridor, in an obvious hurry but slowed by labored breathing and a heaviness that Edgar knows is another side-effect from what causes her morning sickness. Edgar leaps to his feet, throws on his favorite coat (the one Da had bought for him as a reward for getting first place on the spelling competition), and stuffs papers and pens in all six of its pockets, tucking the dusty metal box into the snug inside pouch. He leaves the poem with the flowers on the floor, surrounded by torn shreds of other stories—he thinks he can still hear them, telling him, run, run, run.
Da will be fine, there are ability nullifiers, Da will be fine, Da will be fine, but I won’t be, not after this, Edgar thinks, and then, to the flowers: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Then he clambers out of his bedroom window and braves the fall from the second floor. If he had run away later, when his growth spurt has hit him, the height would have been nothing; but at ten years old the fall is long and far enough for him to say goodbyes to the flowers, goodbyes to Da, goodbyes to Ma, goodbyes to the younger sister he will never know, now—Rosalie, he thinks would have been her name, if the murmurs of Ma he hears come through the thin walls have anything to do with it. Rosalie, Edgar thinks—goodbye. And then—he runs. It is the only thing he knows how to do.
That is the first night he spends cold and painful and lonely. In the future he thinks of a warm smile to help him get by, and even later on a raccoon will wrap itself around his freezing hands to cover them in downy fur—but right now he knows nothing except the cold, the pain, the loneliness.
When the moon is big and full, hung up in the sky by a single thread liable to snap at any moment, Edgar collapses on hard stone steps. No one is out at this time of the night except the shadows flitting across the walls, and even those Edgar cannot bring himself to be scared of, when those shadows had kept him company through the long hours spent under his bed, poring over the backs of playscripts. Instead he fears the freezing wind chewing away at his skin, sending his less secured sheets of paper flapping away from him and into the darkness of the city. With every one that escapes his grasp, he feels parts of his heart crack and chip away, falling and shattering onto the rough cement stained red from the opened cuts on his now-callused feet.
Another page flies free from his desperate grip (Annabel’s, Annabel’s story…). Edgar knows he cannot afford to lie here on these steps forever, but he can only struggle to crawl forward and curl up in a pathetic ball on a rough, threadbare welcome mat. He knows not where he is, only that there must be warmth up ahead, safety from the biting wind, if he can only move further… further…
He stirs awake for a few moments, enough to register he is wrapped up in something warm—a pair of arms cradling him like a baby, the owner humming something that soothes him back to sleep in a matter of seconds. A voice as soft as the flowers from his fields asks him, “Are you alright? What’s your name, sweetheart?”—but he can only mumble something unintelligible before drifting off once again.
Later he wakes once more, but keeps his eyes closed when he doesn’t recognize the fluffy pillow beneath his head, the thick blanket warming his ice-cold skin, the plush mattress carrying his body. Nothing feels like the thinness of his bed back at home—ah, that place is no longer home for him, he supposes—and eventually curiosity prompts him to open his eyes a slit. Even the ceiling looks lavish, decorated with a faint pattern of curling vines and plants. (Flowers, the flowers—)
“Awake, are you?”
(Gruff and hard and nothing like the flowers—Edgar should have known.)
John and Frances Allan had always wanted a child, but God would not have it so—at least, that is what Edgar’s new Mother tells him every time she is reminded of it, something that occurs more and more often as she grows older. The night he had shown up on the doorstep of the hotel they had been staying in on their trip to Boston had, Mother says, been God’s way of telling them Edgar was destined to be adopted by them.
Personally, Edgar thinks it’s plain coincidence. If God really exists, he quietly reasons during the baptism Mother had insisted on, He wouldn’t have cursed me with an ability. He wouldn’t have left me wanting to die when I was still in that… place. But he loves Mother all the same, and thinks that perhaps it isn’t such a coincidence that her voice is like that of the flowers, the last poem he’d ever written in That Place.
But sometimes on the coldest and loneliest of nights, it feels like Father is still Da—John Allan does not bother masking the disdain on his face every time he looks Edgar’s way. With hearing refined from the training of his aunts and uncles and older cousins, Edgar listens to Father muttering about how much of a delinquent he looks, how shameful it would be if his colleagues and business partners in the merchandising industry hear that his child was adopted and not biological, how he looks like a devilish little sneak, Frances, why would you even—Edgar stops listening there, because his voice had begun to blend and mix and blur into that of his relatives’.
When the family’s vacation in Boston ends, Edgar asks where they will be going next—Mother runs a hand through his hair and tries to keep his bangs out of his eyes for longer than a few seconds, to little success. “Richmond, Virginia,” she tells him. “Thus do we reach the stars. Your new home.”
“The stars?” repeats Edgar. He looks up at the night sky, when they’re 474 miles away from Boston, and watches the pinpricks of light twinkle and flicker in the far, far distance. Thus do we reach the stars—he slides the window of his new room open, feels the cool wind blow across his face, and stares up at the expanse of nothingness interrupted only by the bloated full moon and minute glimmers of—what? Edgar can’t describe them so simply as lights or stars. Something celestial, otherworldly, something he could try to reach for all his life and never obtain.
Edgar settles into his new bed, under his new blankets, but only after setting the metal box on the nightstand and gently folding up every last one of the papers he had saved from David Poe’s rage and the merciless winds. Seven poems, six of them nonsensical and written, he remembers, at the dead of night. But one has—potential, he thinks, to be something more than just another childish scrawl, with all its odd morbidity and macabreness. He turns the paper over his hands, again and again, reading the messily scribbled words until he might be able to recite it from memory. On instinct he reaches for that power, that glow—
—and retracts, when the glow that comes forth is not a bright blue but a blood-curdling black, as if born from the deepest depths of Hell itself. Pain snaps at his hand and Edgar recoils, drops the paper—it seems to boil and simmer when it lands on the floor, the wooden boards below it scorched black, thin plumes of smoke rising. As quickly as possible, Edgar snatches the paper off the floor and shoves it in a drawer—but takes it back out, when it no longer burns or blackens. He stares at it, then at the floor—still burnt, still smoking.
Edgar slips the paper into the inside pocket of his coat, hung up on a clothes rack, and goes to sleep with the window open, to let the smoke out. In the morning he wakes up early to move his modest study desk to hide the burnt spot, and takes the paper out again to reread the poem five more times as Mother takes his coat to the laundry. Thus do we reach the stars—and yet, and yet, this paper, this poem, had an aura so inky black to it that there was no possible way it could ever come close to the light of the stars.
(Edgar knows blue glows, green glows, and later on he will know the occasional pure, blinding white light. But the blackness stays with him like ink stains on his fingertips—the deepest nights that no shine could penetrate, a glow that could not be called a glow because it darkened, did not illuminate as a glow should. He writes and writes and writes, and still the shadows persist, the hissing snap and shred of scorching fire whenever he reached for his power.
That should have been a sign, too.)
Edgar is no stranger to hate. John Allan detests him, has ever since Mother had brought him in their hotel room, cooing over a child with hair so long and ragged they covered his eyes. “If you can’t look your client in the eyes, you can’t trust them,” Father tells him, every time the topic of his work comes up. “Eyes are windows to the soul, y’know. You can always tell when a guy’s lying, so long as you look in his eyes.” And every single time, he gives Edgar’s bangs a mildly disgusted look, like a gardener seeing weeds in his master’s garden.
(Sometimes Edgar thinks about how he can see Da’s eyes when he looks in the mirror. Ma has the most beautiful violet ones with little specks of blue—everyone always said her eyes were the kind people could fall in love with. Da’s were nothing special, a nondescript green, but when the alcohol bottles started piling in their garbage, Edgar could see his own unnatural sunken eyes reflected in Da’s drawn face.)
But even gardeners would be amazed if their weeds suddenly became the most beautiful flowers—so Edgar studies day and night, reads his textbooks cover to cover, and when he finishes with them, goes on to scour the nearby libraries and bookstores for the advanced ones meant for students in higher levels. He signs up for competitions and tournaments, borrows the school’s piano and teaches himself Moonlight Sonata in a week—not that hard, when he can hear the teachers whispering, no way can he do it, just look at him, a new student trying so hard to upstage—and then they go silent when he performs it flawlessly.
After a while, Father stops giving his hair That Look, although Mother certainly doesn’t stop dragging him to hair salons that can never quite fend off his bangs for more than a few days at a time. When Father is particularly happy with the medal Edgar brings home, he invites all his friends, those business partners he’s found useful enough to want to keep, and brags about his son’s intelligence, his smarts and his brightness, and ruffles the hair he hates so much.
It’s so fake it hurts, but—in those moments, Edgar can forget he has an ability he hasn’t told Mother and Father about. In those moments, Edgar can pretend to forget this is exactly how Da had treated him—a precious child until he reached for that power, the one that demanded freedom every time his fingers felt paper.
(Nearly two weeks after meeting John and Frances Allan, Edgar’s photo shows up on the Richmond Times-Dispatch, with the caption HAVE YOU SEEN THIS BOY? blaring underneath. When Edgar takes the morning paper from the mailbox and sees his devil’s eyes staring up at him, he folds the page up and tucks it away in a pocket. It was like that when I got it, Edgar says, when Father scowls.
Later, when Father has gone to work and Mother is taking her afternoon nap, Edgar brings the newspaper into his room. At seven years old his smiles had not been quite so forced as now, his demeanor not quite so sullen. He wonders if Ma had been the one to choose this picture, and why—perhaps remembering, he guesses, a time from before they had taken him to the doctor, when David Poe had not yet smelled so strongly of alcohol, when Elizabeth Poe had not yet been pregnant with another man’s son. The rest of the article talks about how Da had only been able to “escape” the paper he’d been “imprisoned” in thanks to his son’s “devil-gifted” ability, and Edgar thinks that it wouldn’t be so bad if he hadn’t left—it is not a poem about suffering, after all. He didn’t suffer, Edgar tells himself, staring at the newspaper almost as thin and gray as him. He didn’t suffer. Like he’s already dead.
He cuts the article out and slips it into his drawer. There was no mention of his parents’ names, only the boy’s mother and father, and Edgar thinks he shouldn’t be so surprised that they’re still thinking about their reputation.)
In this house, when Edgar writes, Mother croons about how he’s got a talented, creative mind—on good days Father looks impressed at the papers Edgar fills up, and on bad days he ignores him, which are fairly alright days for Edgar all around. Mother buys him a notebook, so he can be a bit more organized, unlike that hair of yours, dear, won’t you please let me cut it this time—and Edgar fills up page after page, notebook after notebook, relishing in how his thirst for writing, dehydrated from years of lightless nights under the bed, can be satiated now.
But even when the power whispers, calls, screams at him to be let loose, he only allows up to the faintest glow to see what color the paper shines with; he folds the blues and greens up to tuck into his quickly-filling drawers, and keeps the black ones on his person at all times. At eleven, he has two—at sixteen he has twelve. He isn’t quite sure why he holds the black ones so close to his heart (sometimes literally)—only that someday he will need to bring one out on short notice, and he does not want to know what will happen if he fails to do so.
The first few times he assesses their glow, he wraps his hands in cool, wet cloth to soothe the burns—when he gets used to them, he forgets they’re supposed to hurt at all.
“Dare you to mess with the new kid?”
“How’s that a dare? I was gonna do it anyway.”
At first Edgar thinks overhearing their conversation gives him the upper hand, and for a moment it does—he ducks out of the way when the older boy makes a grab for the notebook he’d been scribbling on. But then he gets the wind punched out of him with a solid fist to the gut, and as he’s busy doubling over and crumpling to the ground, the older student snatches up his notebook and sneers. “Bet you thought that was a good move, huh?”
“Better than whatever you’d been thinking, talking so loudly like that,” Edgar mutters. At twelve he can keep his voice from dissolving into a stuttering, incoherent mess—
“Punk! Think you’re so smart?” Riiip—
—except for moments like these, when fear and pain far outweigh any control over his speech. The older boy just blinks at him, and laughs as he tears a page out of the notebook—Edgar gasps and has to fight hard to maintain his breathing, but oxygen refuses to enter his lungs, his chest aching like a strip of his skin there had been peeled off as well. “Stop, s-stop, st-st-stop,” he pleads, begs, but there is only laughter, thunderstorm-footsteps, alcohol breath, screams and shouts and yells, pain pain pain my friends my friends—
“Now, what’s going on here?—Mr. Poe! Are you alright?”
Thump—Edgar scrabbles to grab the notebook off the ground and hold it close to his chest, feeling his breathing come easier and the pain ebb away as soon as the other boy lets go. But the fear does not leave—it stays with him the whole time the teacher asks him if he’s alright, allows him to go home early, talks to his parents, a mild panic attack, I believe, and offers him some candy before he leaves.
Edgar takes the candy (too sweet), but he doesn’t let go of his notebook. He can’t let go of his notebook. When Father approaches him, he barely thinks before curling into the defensive position that protects his head and neck from the heaviest injuries, and it’s only Mother, stroking his hair and humming flower-soft, who can coax him back out of the fear.
Far from being treated better, the older boys (and some of the girls) take turns picking on him, pulling at his long hair and resorting to punches and kicks when Edgar foregoes all sense of self-preservation and snaps at them with a quick-wit remark they can never understand. Mother frets about how all his scrapes and bruises won’t help his already naturally sickly constitution; Father grunts about how those scrapes and bruises will build character.
If there is one thing Edgar learns, though, it’s that he never brings his notebooks to school again. Only the blackest poems he keeps folded and tucked in his uniform pockets—and even when the insults hit too close to home, even when his entire body crumples underneath the hits, even when his hands itch to reach for them, reach for the power, he grits his teeth and shuts his eyes and never does so.
Until at sixteen.
The path Edgar takes to go home after school everyday is usually deserted, which is the whole reason he’d chosen it—it’s roundabout, dusty, and always littered with trash, but it only makes him love it all the more. (It’s the closest thing to a second home he gets, but he doesn’t want to admit that, even to himself.) Stray animals prowl about, too, and after a while Edgar can identify individual ones on sight—he starts setting aside portions of his lunch to feed the cats with, and sometimes even the ravens fly down from their perches on the perpetually dead trees to join in. It’s a wonder, that neither animal tries to attack the other—Edgar watches the cats nibble and the ravens peck at his food, and feels at home.
(He remembers friends from a different part of his life—a short story about a cat, a poem about a raven. He remembers their strangled cries and caws when David Poe had ripped them to shreds—but he tries not to think about that too much.)
On a sweltering hot day he stays late after classes, forgetting the time in the middle of reading a long thick novel in the school library. By the time he’s finished, it’s nearing 6pm (the librarian almost locks him in the building), and Father will be raising an eyebrow at his lateness, so Edgar rushes through the path—he could take any other, shorter route, but he feels safer here anyway, under the shadows cast by the bare branches of the trees and listening to the hoarse crowing of the ravens.
On a sweltering hot night, the ravens are crowing and cawing more raucously than usual, loud enough that it makes Edgar’s ears ring—he slows his jog down after a while, both out of tiredness and confusion, and freezes when he sees a circle of five older students, likely seniors from his school, kicking something small and black around. The feeble voice in him hoping it’s just a ball covered in shadows quickly falls silent when the thing meows pitifully. A kitten—a kitten he had fed only two days earlier.
Edgar does not think. He steps over and taps the nearest one on the shoulder, smiles politely and greets, before any of them can say anything, “Good evening, I’d like to inform you about a sale we’re having, there are selected items 80 percent off—” He hands over a sheet of paper, wrinkled and yellowed from age, and only waits for as long as it takes the perplexed thug to look down at the words. And then Edgar reaches out, reaches for that power, pulls and tugs and drags his ability out from the devil inside him to envelop the paper, his hands, and the thug in the deepest of blacks.
He does not feel the burn. He only hears the crowing and cawing, the whimpering kitten, the sudden th-thump of a heart. The four other boys gawk at him—one, two, three seconds, and then they scramble to take off down the dirt road, pushing and shoving to get ahead of each other. It takes them less than a minute to disappear from sight (th-thump); it takes Edgar less than a minute to fold the searing-hot paper into its neat square and slip it back into his coat (th-thump th-thump). The heat from it fades fast, but it’s now that he can feel his hands burning up (th-thump th-thump th-thump)—he sticks them in his pockets and wonders where he put that cool cloth that had served him so well before he’d grown used to the blackness. Thump thump thump thump thump.
At first he wonders why his heart is beating so quickly and so loudly—then he realizes it isn’t his own. By the time he gets home, sweat sticking his clothes onto his skin, the beating has crescendoed to a rapid, almost unbearable drum of thumpthumpthumpthumpthump until it feels less like a heartbeat and more like someone slamming their head against a wall, over and over and over until—
“What’s with the lateness, Ed?”
“W-Was just reading in the library, Father. Lost track of time.”
“Ahh, you kids, you always say that. Lose track of time—you make it sound like you were with a girl, man. Were you? You know you can tell me. What’s her name?”
“Maybe later, Father? I should—go, I have—homework—”
“So there is a lady! Come on, Ed—”
—until until until until—
“—Hey, is that a cat you brought home there?”
Edgar turns—at his heels is the kitten, thin and bony and barely bigger than his palm. It mewls and paws at his feet, and for a moment Edgar forgets that the heartbeat has stopped.
Mother, predictably, fawns over the animal and insists Edgar get to keep it—Father is reluctant but doesn’t seem to mind too much. As it nibbles on some leftover chicken from dinner, Edgar retreats into the relative safety of his room and brings out the still-warm paper—his first black poem, saved from David Poe and That Place. He lays his hand, still stinging with pain, over the weathered page—an overwhelming sense of lifelessness greets him, not just emptiness and nothingness but a complete lack of life from where there once had been a madly beating heart.
He drops the paper like it had scorched him again, and dampens a cloth with cool water to wrap around his hands. He sits by his desk for the better part of an hour, staring at the paper sitting so innocently on his table, until he hears a meow from outside his room.
The kitten bounds inside as soon as Edgar opens the door, wandering around and sniffing at every little thing before nuzzling up to his leg. “Don’t do that, you’re all dirty,” Edgar mumbles—he leaves the cloth on the table and brings the cat into the bathroom, where he can wash off the dirt clinging to its fur. It doesn’t twitch or hiss in displeasure the whole time, staying perfectly docile until he murmurs, “Alright, you’re clean,” at which point it jumps out of the sink and trails water everywhere.
Edgar looks down at the cat—less than a few minutes and it’s already gone back to rub against his ankles again. During its quick bath he’d felt its bones through its fur, felt still-fresh cuts and bumps it had doubtless received from the boys earlier. Its mother must not be around, he thinks, unable to recall seeing any other cat with fur as pitch black as this one. It wouldn’t live long back outside… too young to hunt for itself…
The kitten follows him up to his room once more, and totters around while he sits by his desk, hands in the cloth and eyes fixed on the lifeless paper. It hits him, again, that there must be a body inside that paper, the poem he’d written with his own hands—the body of a boy not much older than him, who had hobbies and dreams and aspirations and—and a family, a family that will soon be asking around for him, a family that might get the police for help and the police might ask the other boys who had run away and the boys will say Edgar Allan Poe—
He takes a deep, deep breath, exhales, and lays a hand on the paper again. Still nothing. Not that he hadn’t been expecting the heartbeat to start up again, which would have been far more terrifying, but—but. When he closes his eyes, he can somehow see the landscape within the poem—a foggy graveyard at night, clouds blocking the moon so completely that not a sliver of light pierces the mist.
And a body, both fresh and ashen, on the cold soil. The urge to move back, to open his eyes and leave this place nearly overpowers Edgar, but he keeps his hand steady and focuses on the body. Tall for a seventeen-year-old, a hooked nose, a pimple below his right ear, the latest cell phone model in his pocket (means he’s rich, means his parents have money, means they can afford a hired detective, means means means)—Edgar knows his face, has seen it twist into smirks and sneers in the hallways, but into loud boisterous laughs in the gymnasium, too.
Focus, focus, focus. Cause of death. For the life of him, Edgar can’t identify what it is—there are no external wounds, and all he can see is the look of utter horror and fright on the boy’s face (he’s still a boy he’s barely any older than Edgar himself how could he how could he). With a flash of realization Edgar mentally goes over the second stanza in the well-memorized poem—the spirits of the dead who stood in life before thee are again in death around thee… their will shall overshadow thee: be still. And then he understands—killed by the dead.
He opens his eyes—the graveyard (and the fog, and the coldness, and the body) fade from vision to be replaced by the kitten that has jumped onto his lap without him noticing. It purrs and bats at his stomach, then stills when Edgar pets it. “You’re clingy,” he notes—his usual stutter doesn’t make itself known.
Inexplicably enough, the kitten meows, as if in reply to him. He can almost understand what it says, probably something along the lines of, Only because your lap is warm! It feels like a sufficiently cat-like thing to say.
Absently, Edgar checks its side, and frowns at the large cut he had washed the blood from—it’s already scabbed over, but he can too-easily imagine how a solid kick could have sent it skidding across sharp rocks on the ground. “They really hurt you. Why?”
Meow. How should I know?
“Oh, right—of course you wouldn’t know, you couldn’t even fight back.” Edgar smoothens the fur down and smiles when the cat purrs in contentment. At first he doesn’t know why his face muscles are protesting at the movement until he realizes it’s because most of his “smiles” before this were little more than twitches at the corners of his lips.
Meow. Look, you’re smiling, the kitten seems to say—it sits up in his lap and reaches for his face with its front paws. Edgar lifts it up and lets it bat at his cheeks with tiny paws, its claws so soft he barely feels them. It’s probably rather unsanitary and he might get its fur in his mouth, but his smile just grows and for a moment he forgets about the corpse hidden away in his words, the blood on his hands—for the first time it feels like he’s finally made a friend outside of his own imagination, even if it is a cat.
“You need a name,” he muses. His eyes drift over to the poem still on his table, and the title scribbled near the top—Spirits of the Dead. He thinks of the fear on the boy’s face, his life cut so short because he’d kicked around an animal that couldn’t possibly fight back. And for what reason? Edgar asks himself—Why did they need to hurt it? Just for the sake of hurting something? Just for the sake of feeling powerful? He thinks of the fear that’s become a part of him, his habit of staying near the back of a room to make sure no one can sneak up and get him from behind. Thunderstorm-footsteps. Thunderstorm-glares. Why did they need to hurt me?
Meow. Pay attention to me!
“Sorry, sorry.” Edgar sets the cat back down, where it begins to eye a loose thread on his coat. “How does Pluto sound to you?”
Meow. You should fix your coat, it’s coming apart at the seams.
Edgar tugs at the thread. “Hm.” But the cat doesn’t seem to object to the name, so after slipping Spirits of the Dead into a spare blank notebook, Edgar goes to sleep with Pluto beside him on the bed. The night is warm, and so is his chest—the coldness of death evades him, for a while.
It revisits him not long after; the next day’s afternoon, he comes home from school to find something swinging from a tree not too far from his house. The logical part of his head knows what it is as soon as he sees it—every other particle in his body refuses to believe it.
“You murdered our friend for a stupid cat,” one of the boys and the obvious leader of their group says, shoving his face close to Edgar’s. “What the hell’s wrong with you, ability user? You’d kill a human for a tiny animal?”
“We’re telling the police,” another pipes up. “You can have fun using your ability when you’re cuffed with nullifiers. You really are the devil’s—”
“What makes you think I won’t murder all four of you now?” Edgar whispers, so low that the slightest wind would have swept his voice away. But the day is hot and dry, and all four boys’ faces pale at his words. “Go on. Tell the police. See what I’ll do to you before they get to me.”
The sight of them running away like the devil’s behind them would be amusing if Edgar doesn’t think about how unfortunately accurate the comparison is. He unties the rope and sits at the base of the tree for a little while, unable to move or cry or anything, can only cradle Pluto’s cold, cold body in his arms. Another life cut short because of him, but this time a life so innocent, so sinless, that there is nothing to justify its end. There is no justice, really, Edgar thinks. There is no justice, no right or wrong or black or white, only the boundary between life and death and what little it took for someone to go too far over the pathetic fence separating the two.
He buries Pluto in their backyard—there’s a shovel somewhere in the storage room, but it’s too far and he doesn’t want to walk anymore. Edgar digs and digs and gets dirt under his nails, sees the soil cover the ink blots on his fingers, feels grounded enough for the gears working his emotions to start spinning again. When he lays Pluto into the earth, hands brushing over wounds that had still been healing, he feels a shock of anger—when he pushes the dirt back into the plot, he remembers thunderstorm-footsteps and screams of pain—when he stands up and tells Mother the kitten from last night had run away, he hears a heartbeat that had not been his echoing in his ears, beating against his ribcage as if fighting for dominance with his own heart.
At ten years old he had known loss in the form of papers ripped to shreds, not in running away from the people who had brought him into the world; at sixteen he becomes intimately acquainted with it again, in an animal he could almost understand, not in a human life. Humans—they are so finite, Edgar thinks, so uncaring—first Da’s heavy hands and devil voice, then the other students at school with harsh words and still harsher punches, and now this.
Do they even deserve lives, Edgar thinks. Do they deserve lives more than a cat who hadn’t done anything, Edgar thinks. Do I deserve a life after taking one, Edgar thinks.
He locks himself in his room and doesn’t sleep for the night—instead he pulls out sheets of blank paper and starts writing with fervor he’s never had before. If before his words had been imbued with a child’s wonder and imagination, and later a runaway’s loneliness and solidarity, then now he pours every flame of boiling-hot anger and hatred into each letter he digs his pen into, scratching onto the paper so hard it leaves a mark on the one beneath it. But Edgar doesn’t stop—not when the hour hand hits twelve, one, two, five—because there is no stopping the need for artificial justice, for the bloodiest of vengeances.
(“Your eyes are darker than usual, Ed,” Mother admonishes. “Did you stay up late last night?”
“Just a little. Had—Had homework.”)
A week passes in silence—for Edgar, at least, because the rest of the neighborhood is in an uproar about the missing boy, his parents in hysterics and the police questioning everyone in school. When a kind policeman (probably a father, got a ring and good with the younger kids, Edgar boredly notes) offers him candy and asks if he knows anything, Edgar shakes his head and says he’s never talked to the guy—by the looks of it, the other boys hadn’t said anything either, because that’s the first and last time the police talk to him about it.
He declines the candy—he already knows it’s too sweet.
A week passes in silence. Edgar continues as always, doing his homework if only to pass it and refusing to listen to teachers—they never have anything to teach that he doesn’t already know or can’t learn under five minutes. He uses the same route to walk home, but he starts eating less and staying there later just to feed the cats and ravens some more. With them, the simultaneous heat and coldness in him fades into the background, if only for a little while, and sometimes after their meals the ravens let him stroke the tops of their heads before they fly off. The cats always nuzzle his hands and legs before he leaves—his heart always clenches up and doesn’t relax the rest of the walk home.
A week passes in silence. Edgar slips a sheet of paper folded into a quaint little square into one of the boys’ bags, and closes his eyes whenever he can—the surroundings that pop up behind his eyelids are hazy and vague, but he can always tell where it is. A week passes in silence—and then when Edgar is half-dozing in the library something whispers, Alone. The four of them. Alone.
The street he arrives on is indeed devoid of anyone or anything—it’s on the outskirts of town, behind an old building overgrown with plants and housing a tree that curves in and out of the broken windows. With some reluctance Edgar lets a small scrap of paper be carried away by the wind—before it disappears from sight completely it whispers, no cameras, no witnesses, no danger. Edgar wraps his coat tighter around himself and hides behind one of the building’s walls—he can hear the boys throwing a ball around, without much spirit but with the occasional shout or laugh.
Perched on one of the tree’s branches is a lone raven, looking down at him with a glinting eye. Edgar lays some of his leftover meat from lunch on the ground, right where the bird can see it, and it spares him a glance before flitting downwards to peck at the food. Its caw seems to say, Bit cold, but better than nothing.
Edgar stretches his hand out—when the raven doesn’t snap at him, he gives it a few gentle strokes on the head and then holds out a single page. He jerks his chin at the general direction of the boys—over there.
The raven watches him, then takes its time pecking and nipping at the meat—just as Edgar’s about to give it up as a lost cause, it snatches the paper out of his hands with its beak, barely avoiding ripping it, and swoops over the boys. The paper floats down a few ways away from them, and Edgar stays absolutely still when one of them jogs over to pick it up, the rest trailing behind to shove and elbow each other.
They’re smarter than Edgar gives them credit for, because if he hadn’t reacted as fast as he did, the boy holding onto the paper would have thrown it back onto the ground and his plan would have completely failed—as it is, he clenches his fist and pulls at the ability tingling at his fingertips before that can happen. A pulsing blaze of black, fire racing all the way up to his elbow, four panicked shouts—and then nothing. Edgar steps out from the shadows to retrieve the first page of his work before it touches the ground. In the distance, he can hear the faint crowing of a raven.
He slips into the building, leans against the tree trunk, and closes his eyes. Four separate heartbeats ring in his ears like funeral marches, like countdowns until Judgment Day—he holds the papers in his hands, ignoring the searing pain across half his right arm, and focuses.
It’s three o’clock in the morning there… in Paris, on one of its streets, in the fourth story of a house, four boys are gathered around the corpse of a dead cat. Th-thump thump thump thump. They are aware that they have just killed it. Thump thump thump thump. There are footsteps on the stairs. Thump thump thump thump. Something is coming. Thumpthumpthumpthump.
The four of them scatter to the winds, trying to navigate the unfamiliar house, but somehow everywhere they go leads to a dead end for the murderer to corner them in. Edgar follows the first one, the smallest one, the one he thinks is only tagging along with the others because they had seemed cool—he gets locked in a broom closet and his sobs when the cat’s owner approaches are almost pitiful. Thumpthumpthump—the second one falls down a flight of stairs and breaks his leg, which would have relieved some of the burden from his killer if his screams weren’t so ear-piercing. Thumpthump—the third one, the leader’s best friend, pulls out a knife and waves it around, shrieking empty threats Edgar can barely understand. Thump. Their bones are smashed like proud buildings reduced to rubble and debris. Thump. Their throats are cut so deeply that their heads fall off when their bodies are moved. Thump. His arm hurts. Thump.
The fourth one, the leader, trips on a fold in the rug and skids to a stop in front of the fireplace. No, stop! He leaps to his feet, makes a mad dash for a window latched shut—Get away, get away, you’re the devil, the devil! He bumps into a table, sends a priceless porcelain vase crashing into pieces on the floor—Please, please, I’m sorry, I’m—
Edgar opens his eyes, but he can still hear the gurgling apologies, can still see a face turning blue in the corner of his eye, can still smell the soot when the murderer stuffs the boy upside down into the chimney—can still feel pain racing up and down his arm. When he looks down his usually pale skin, already obviously sickly, has turned ashen gray, almost corpse-like. He should probably feel more worried about it. He doesn’t.
The building is eerily silent. No more sobs or screams, threats or apologies. No more heartbeats.
When he gets back home, arm securely hidden under his coat sleeve, he takes a long bath to scrub the gray out of his skin. It doesn’t work, and it doesn’t regain color until the next morning, but Edgar finds that he can’t bring himself to care—looking down at it, all he can really think of is how it resembles the body still rotting away in the graveyard he created. The other boys had died from actual, physical injuries, but the first one, his first murder—it had been the spirits of the dead who’d taken him for themselves.
If I do this enough times, will my whole body turn gray, Edgar wonders. If I do this enough times, will I die along with the people I’ve killed?
He cracks open the same notebook he’d kept Spirits of the Dead in and lets this longer story join its pages. Five bodies within a week.
In the dead of night, when he can’t get to sleep, he pushes himself up from bed and reads through the story again, its papers crumpled and worse for wear after the feverous grip he’s had on it for days (and, perhaps, because of what had just taken place in it earlier—but Edgar doesn’t think about that). The gaping hole of nothing where there once was something, where there once was life, should make him feel… what? Guilty? Proud? Edgar doesn’t even know what he’s supposed to feel now, after murdering five people, five boys, with the ability everyone he knows and knew called the devil’s gift.
Edgar replays the deaths of the boys over and over in his head, remembering the sobs, the screams, the threats, the apologies. The heartbeats. They’d all had different ways of protesting death. How would I protest to death, Edgar wonders, again.
Would I even protest to death?
(Later a man, his smiles deceptively brilliant and fingers stained green from money bills, will ask him for his ability. Edgar will remember the papers crumpled in his notebook, remember the heartbeats, remember the corpse-gray of his arm and how he had practically been beside them in death, a relationship more intimate than anything else could ever hope to be.
“Black Cat in the Rue Morgue,” he answers. Briefly he wonders if this is what Pluto, a kitten so small the branch he had hung on did not even bend, would have wanted for him.)