In fact, the only thing worse than a birthday, as far as Jason was concerned, was a birthday party. And the only thing worse than a birthday party was a birthday party you couldn’t avoid. All that bad singing and clapping of hands and loud ripping of paper—it was enough to drive anyone crazy.
“Bir-day! Bir-day! Bir-day!”
Buried under his cotton sheets, Jason heard Lenore flutter into his room, squawking the horrible word. He cupped his hands over his ears. Now most birds (or cats or dogs or any other living creature) might get the hint and leave him alone, but not Lenore. She went right on squawking. That was one problem with having an inventor for a dad: He could invent things like robotic talking ravens who, if they were sent to get you, would not stop until they actually got you.
Lenore landed on his back, talons digging through his bedspread into his skin.
“Ow!” Jason cried. He shook his back, but Lenore didn’t budge. It was stuffy under the covers, but Jason wasn’t coming out—not until he thought of a rare disease that could get him out of the party. African Pygmy Flu? Demented Buffalo Disease?
“Bir-day! Bir-day! Bir-day!”
Even with his hands over his ears, her voice still grated. The only voice that grated on him more was Emily’s. If it was your own birthday, you could usually get your way not having a party, but would his annoying little sister ever do such a thing? Oh, no, she loved birthdays. What a nightmare.
“Up!” Lenore cried. “Up, up!”
“Leave me alone,” Jason muttered.
“All right, already!”
Jason tossed off his covers and Lenore bounded away, landing on his far right bedpost. The bright morning light slanting through the blinds made Jason squint. Actually, it would be a stretch to call it morning, since the digital clock on his bookshelf currently read 11:58 AM.
“Up!” Lenore squawked. “Up, up!”
Jason rubbed his eyes. He noticed that the top of her head was missing again, exposing a green circuit board and red wires. Everything else about Lenore was beautiful—she was sleek and black, with pristine feathers and eyes like black marbles—but with her circuit board exposed, she looked stupid. He wished Dad would fix her once and for all.
“Up!” Lenore repeated.
“Yeah, I know,” Jason said. “I’m up, okay? You satisfied? Go tell Dad and Emily I’m coming.”
Lenore squawked and took to the air, bumping hard against the door frame, then against the wall, before swooping out of sight. She may have been beautiful, but she wasn’t exactly graceful.
Jason scooted out of bed, his bare feet touching the cool hardwood floor. He moseyed in his pajamas past his black metal bookshelves and his black drawing easel until he reached his black dresser. At one time the walls had been painted to resemble outer space, something his Mom had done when he was seven, complete with stars, ringed planets, and cute little Martians, but he had painted over all of it with black, making the room as dark as a cave. Outside his window, he heard clanging metal and the shouts of men, but he resisted the urge to look. It was just Dad doing something crazy for Emily’s birthday.
He took his time slipping into his black jeans, black t-shirt, and black tennis shoes, and gazed at his drawings pinned to the corkboard above his easel. There were hundreds of pictures, two or three deep in some places, a few done in acrylics or chalk, but most with a regular drawing pencil.
Drawing was one of the few things in life he enjoyed. It sure took his mind off the jerks who picked on him at school. He’d been drawing practically forever, and most people—the ones who didn’t mind that his drawings were a little, well, dark—said he was pretty good. When he was little, he drew stuff like sailboats and cute and cuddly teddy bears, but by the time he was ten he moved on to skeletons, trolls, and dragons with blood dripping from their lips. If it wasn’t for the occasional assignment in art class, that’d be all he drew.
This was what he was thinking when he noticed a drawing on the corkboard he had never seen before.
His first reaction, before he really saw what it was, was that Emily was pulling a lame practical joke. But when he leaned closer, he felt his body go cold. Three demon-like creatures, black as charcoal except for their white-glowing eyes, flew over a tree-lined horizon. Their bodies were cloudy, as if they carried a dark fog along with them, and their outstretched wings had all the substance of smoke.
What scared him weren’t the creatures. He drew stuff like that all the time. What scared him wasn’t even what the creature in the middle held in its three-fingered claws: a blond girl, dressed in overalls and white tennis shoes, who was the spitting image of Emily.
What scared him was the signature.
It was exactly how he signed all of his paintings, in exactly the same way.
Could it have been faked? Maybe, but what about the style of the drawing? It had been done the way he would have drawn it: with great flair and power, quickly, but always in control. That’s when it occurred to him that maybe he did draw it. People sometimes sleepwalked. Had anybody ever sleepdrawn?
He ripped the drawing off the wall. This was stupid. Emily had to be behind it. Or maybe Dad. He wadded it up and tossed it under his bed, grabbed a drawing pad and a pencil, and left the room. Out in the hall, a hall with plush green carpet, he glanced at the white door at the far end. Mom’s room. Technically it was his parents’ room, but Dad didn’t sleep there anymore. He slept on a cot in his basement workshop. He never told them this, of course, but both Jason and Emily knew the truth.
His mom’s door swung open and Har-V, the mechanical nurse Dad had designed, rolled into the hall. The robot looked like a cross between a mannequin and a tank, with a human-like torso above and rubber treads below. Beneath its white nurse uniform, the robot’s skin was a metallic gray. After Har-V shut the door, his top half swiveled to face Jason. The robot held a silver serving tray in one of its clamps; by the looks of the omelet on the plate, not a bite had been eaten.
Har-V rolled up to Jason, internal motors humming. “Hello Master Jason,” the robot said, the voice deep and flat. The eyes never blinked, which creeped Jason out if he looked at them too long.
“She any better today?” Jason asked.
“I’m afraid her condition has not improved, Master Jason. However, I’m sure she would appreciate a visit.”
Jason thought about it. He’d been seeing Mom less and less, and he felt guilty, but he just couldn’t take it anymore. Every day was the same: She wasted away in bed, not talking, hardly moving, staring blankly at the ceiling. She only drank or ate when somebody put things to her lips, and sometimes not even then. Dad had hired all the best doctors in the world, but nobody knew why she was sick. A year and a half she had been this way.
“Not right now,” he said.
“Are you sure, Master Jason? Because I am certain—”
“I said no!”
Har-V was silent. When the robot spoke again, his courteous tone hadn’t changed. “Yes, of course, Master Jason. Do you require breakfast?”
Sometimes Jason hated the robot’s unemotional behavior. It was easier to stay mad when somebody was getting mad back at you. “I guess I could eat that.”
“Of course, Master Jason. I can always make another if she desires to eat later.”
Jason took the tray and followed the robot down the staircase to the first floor. Har-V’s treads gripped firmly to the carpeted stairs. Above the staircase, an open, pentagonal tower filled the room with warm daylight. A crystal chandelier hung suspended. The staircase dropped into a spacious living room with a white tile floor, where a robot similar to Har-V (except that it wore a black tuxedo) played a lively ragtime tune on the grand piano. Pictures of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and the Wright brothers lined the hall. As Jason approached the front door, it opened automatically.
“Bon voyage,” the door intoned.
“Whatever,” Jason said.
Standing on the concrete stoop, huge white pillars on both sides, he squinted into the daylight. The spectacle awaiting him was both more amazing and more horrifying than he had imagined. There was activity everywhere: men in blue uniforms scurried around a massive Ferris wheel; ponies walked in a circle within a gated area; two clowns with white faces and red noses helped another clown onto stilts; two robot jugglers tossed bowling pins between them.
A snow cone machine, an inflatable castle, bumper cars . . . Their front yard, nearly as large as a football field, had been turned into a carnival. The cool spring breeze carried the scent of popcorn. He wondered how Dad had gotten it all there in so little time. Although nobody could tell from where Jason stood, since a dense green wall of pine trees surrounded them, they lived on a ten acre island in the middle of Edson Lake.
Even Dad’s helicopter, parked on the concrete pad near the trees, probably couldn’t have moved the Ferris wheel. He must have had help, and that meant he must have been planning this for a long time. Meaning Dad must have been expecting a lot of people.
What a nightmare.
He heard Dad’s laugh, a hearty roar with a bunch of Santa-like ho-ho’s at the end. The sound shocked Jason. These days, he never heard Dad laugh. He glanced in the direction of the sound and saw him talking with the uniformed men by the Ferris wheel. Lanky and tall, Dad towered over the other men, and his cowboy hat made him seem even taller. With his rumpled blue jeans and plaid button up shirt, what he wore pretty much every day, he looked like a cowboy.
“Jason!” Emily cried.
He cringed. He turned and saw her skipping his way. Like their Mom, she was small, blond, and dainty (people always thought she was younger than she was), but she dressed like their Dad, right down to the blue overalls and the straw hat. Her pony tail, tied with a rubber band, fell against her pink and gray plaid shirt. Approaching, she tossed a white handkerchief into the air and caught it. Her blue eyes glinted in the sunlight.
“Isn’t this great?” she said.
He sighed. “That’s not the word I’d use to describe it.”
“Dad’s invited like all our friends and everything!”
Jason honestly couldn’t think of anyone he’d call a friend. There was a guy in art class he talked to sometimes. “How did he come up with a list?”
She adjusted her hat. “I think he just called everybody in the phone book.”
“Oh, don’t be a poop,” Emily chided. “It’s going to be fun. Dad said he wanted to make my tenth birthday special and he did!”
“If you say so,” Jason said. He started into his omelet. The eggs were a bit cold, and not nearly as good as Mom used to make them. After swallowing, he added, “You know why he’s really doing this, don’t you?”
He made her wait while he had a few more bites. “Know who Sigmund Freud is?”
“I’m not stupid.”
“Look, I’m just asking.”
“He’s that psychiatrist,” Emily said. “The one who has people sit on a couch and stuff.”
Jason nodded. “Yeah, well, he’d say Dad is just trying to be nice and throw you a big party because he feels guilty for never being around.”
She looked exasperated with him, which was something else that reminded Jason of Mom. She had that same way of squinching up her face and her eyes. “That’s not true,” she said.
“Sure it is. Haven’t you noticed since Mom got sick, he’s gone all the time? He’s always flying to one appointment or another in his helicopter.”
“Yeah, that’s what he says.”
She bit down on her bottom lip. He knew she was angry—her cheeks turned pink, like they always did when she was mad—but he didn’t care. He went on eating his omelet.
“I don’t know why you have to say stuff like that,” she said finally. “You just don’t want me to be happy.”
“I just don’t want you to live in a fantasy, that’s all.”
She looked about to cry now; her eyes got glassy, and the skin under her eyes twitched. “Well, what’s wrong with a fantasy?”
He laughed. It came out sounding harsher than he wanted. She glared at him, then stalked away. She had only gone a few steps when Lenore swooped down and landed with a noisy flutter. The stupid bird was still missing the top of her head.
“Oh!” Emily said. “Lenore, you can’t go around like that!”
Lenore chirped her agreement.
“Here,” Emily said, bending down to her with her handkerchief, “I’ll cover your head with this.”
“Oh, don’t do that,” Jason said, “you’ll just make her look stupid.”
Emily ignored him. She smiled in a motherly way, tying the handkerchief around Lenore’s head. “There now,” she said more softly. “We don’t want your brain to get cold.”
“Cold!” Lenore cried. “Cold! Cold!”
“She doesn’t have a brain,” Jason said.
“Don’t say that! She can hear you.”
“She probably doesn’t feel cold at all. She’s just a robot.”
“I’m not listening to you.”
“Lenore likes me. That’s why Dad gave me the whistle for my birthday.”
Jason frowned. “What are you blabbing about now?”
Lenore squawked appreciatively, then took to the air with the loose ends of the scarf fluttering behind her. She flew toward the door, which opened, and disappeared inside.
Wearing a smug expression, Emily pulled out a tiny bamboo flute hung around her neck by a silver chain. The flute was as small as a thimble. “Dad told me if I blow this Lenore will come,” she said. “She has really good ears and she can even hear it far away. He said he wants me to watch out for her.”
Jason shrugged. “Well, whoop-dee-do.”
“You’re just jealous because Dad trusts me and not you!”
“Okay, yeah. That’s it. Because, you know, I really want to have a stupid whistle so I can call a lame-brain bird who will never leave me alone. Sure. You’ve figured it out, Em. You’re such a genius.”
Emily sniffed haughtily and marched away. But when she’d gone about a dozen paces, she looked back. The irritation on her face was gone. Instead there was something else, something that looked a lot like fear. When she spoke, her voice was too soft to hear above the clanking of the Ferris wheel, which had just started.
He sighed. “You’ll have to speak louder.”
“I said, did you have any, um, weird dreams?”
He almost made a joke, but seeing how serious she looked, he just shook his head. “No. Why?”
“I . . . I had a strange dream.”
On any other day, Jason would have just tossed it off as more of Emily’s nonsense, but because of the disturbing drawing in his room he took it more seriously. “What kind of dream?” he asked.
“Come on,” he said. “I promise I won’t make fun of you.”
“Really,” he said. “I won’t.”
“Well . . . I dreamed these three big scary creatures swooped out of the sky and carried me away. They were horrible! It was so . . . real. I really thought I was there. I bet you think it’s pretty stupid, huh? Go ahead. I know you want to make fun of me.”
Jason was speechless. There was no way it could be a coincidence.
“What?” Emily asked.
Jason swallowed. “Hmm?”
“What’s with the look?”
Jason realized he should have made fun of her. That was what she had been expecting, and because he didn’t, she knew something was wrong. “What look?”
“You’re not telling me something,” Emily said.
“Don’t be silly.”
“What is it?”
“There’s nothing,” he insisted. “Look, it was just a dream. Forget about it, okay?”
“Jason,” she pleaded, “tell me what you—”
“Leave me alone!”
She looked as if he had slapped her. Yelling at her made him feel horrible, especially since she was scared, but he was scared himself. He put his tray aside and marched away, his drawing pad tucked under his arm. Off to the right of the porch he saw Mom’s flower bed, overgrown with weeds, all the roses brown and withered. It made him sad.
This was nuts. How could the drawing in his room match her dream? He walked through the carnival and found a place far from the action, sitting cross-legged on grass still moist from the morning dew. Behind him, the wind whispered through the pine trees, and he caught the smell of the lake on the breeze. He opened his pad and started immediately in on a drawing, the best way to take his mind off of something. He drew the first thing that came to mind: a giant fanged serpent consuming a carnival. Complete with little kids, of course. He went on drawing while crowds of kids arrived. Soon there was lots of laughter and happy yelling, and Jason refused to look up.
He was so consumed in his work that he didn’t notice Lenore approaching until he heard the flutter of her wings.
“Mom talk!” Lenore screeched. “Mom talk!”
She landed in front of Jason, the white handkerchief slipping so it slightly covered her eyes. He adjusted it for her.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“Mom talk! Talk!”
“She’s talking? Now?”
Lenore bobbed her head. Astonished, Jason took off toward the house, Lenore flying right behind. At that moment, the light darkened and the air cooled. Looking up, he saw gray clouds moving in over the island. He couldn’t remember even seeing a single cloud up there a few minutes ago.
When he reached the stoop, he heard his sister’s scream coming from up high. Startled, he turned, half-expecting to see his drawing brought to life. He was relieved to see her up on the Ferris wheel. When she cried out again, he saw that it was with joy, not terror. Two of her friends sat beside her—unlike Jason, Emily had lots of friends—and all of them were smiling.
“Mom talk! Mom talk!”
Lenore swooped past him, the door opening just in time. Jason raced inside, following Lenore up the staircase. Stepping onto the second floor, he saw that her door was open. He heard Mom calling to him in a scratchy whisper.
“Jason . . . Jason . . .”
His heart pounding, he imagined Mom rising out of her bed like a zombie. But when he reached her dark room, the shades drawn, he saw that she was still in bed. The air was stale. Thin beams of light, filled with dust motes, shined into the room from the cracks on either side of the shades. Mom was a thin and wasted crumple, hardly more than a wrinkle in the bedspread. She lay on her side, facing him.
“Jason . . .” she said.
She looked at him but didn’t seem to see him; her blue eyes had faded over the last few months and were now mostly white. Her hair had been bright blond a year ago, but now it was mostly silver. One wasted hand emerged from the sheets, groping at the air. Her skin was the color of bone.
Lenore landed on the headboard. “Mom wakes!” she squawked.
“Jason . . .is that you?” Mom said.
“I’m here,” Jason said. But he didn’t come closer.
Her hand rose, and then, as if the effort exhausted her, fell limp. Outside, motors rumbled, metal creaked and clanked, and children laughed with glee. Inside, there was only his mother’s raspy breathing. He noticed with alarm that Mom’s eyes seemed to fade to complete white for a moment before a hint of blue returned. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Cautiously, he moved forward. He grabbed her hand, and her fingers felt like a twigs found in deep snow.
“Mom?” he said.
She closed her eyes. “I must . . .” she began, and then took several shallow breaths. “I must . . . tell you . . .”
The beams of light from the window faded. She was so still that Jason thought she was gone.
“Mom?” he said.
She didn’t answer.
Finally, her eyes fluttered open. “Where’s Emily?” she asked.
“Emily? She’s outside. It’s her birthday. Do you want—”
She clenched his hand and yanked him close. “Save her!” she cried. “Save her, Jason!” Her breath smelled awful. He tried to pull back, but her grip was amazingly strong. “I can’t hold them back!” she said. “I’ve tried! They’re coming. They want you and Emily.”
“Mom, what are you—”
“Listen,” she said frantically. “I should have told you. I thought I could spare you . . . give you . . . a normal life . . . I . . . oh . . .” She closed her eyes.
She didn’t move.
“Mom, answer me!”
Jason leaned over her, and then her eyes did open. They were as white as a blank page from one of his drawing pads. When she spoke, it was a whisper that grew fainter with each word.
“Jason . . .” she said. “Jason . . . do not . . . draw . . . a . . . dark . . . way.”
This time, her eyes didn’t close. For the longest time, she didn’t blink, and then Jason realized she wasn’t going to blink. Not ever again.
“No,” he said.
The word was hardly out of his mouth when a boom shook the house. The window shattered, and he fell next to the bed. A gust of cold air, as cold as any winter wind he had ever felt, blew the curtains right off their rod and carried a stench into the room that was like the smell of wet, moldy leaves. He managed to rise to his knees just as the screaming started.
A black fog thickened outside the window, darkening the bedroom. The screaming was coming from outside, dozens of different voices, parents and children alike. Another sound joined with the screams—a loud hissing, as if a hundred snakes all hissed at once. He pressed his palms against his ears, but the sound was so loud it brought tears to his eyes.
Then he saw the demon face outside the window.
Black skin blended with the fog, making it difficult to see the face except for its glowing eyes. But then the face moved closer, filling the window frame, and he saw the chalky black texture of the skin, the cracked lips. Two bone-colored horns, stained with blood, protruded from the top of its hairless head. Everything about the face shimmered and faded, as if it was part of the fog. The demon’s lizard pupils darted back and forth until they settled on Jason. The hissing stopped, allowing Jason to uncover his ears, and then the mouth parted. Jason saw a smattering of broken yellow teeth.
“Creator,” it said in a croaking voice.
Still clinging to Mom’s lifeless hand, his legs trembling, Jason stood. The demon face reacted, jerking back, disappearing. Squawking, Lenore flapped past Jason’s shoulder, her wingtips brushing his ear, and darted through the broken window into the fog. The hissing noise ceased, but the screaming continued. This time he heard a scream he recognized.
He ran to the window. Up high it was starting to clear, blue below the fog was like a soup. Through the haze he saw the top of the Ferris wheel. Three demon creatures hovered around it, bobbing up and down as they flapped their wings. Vapors of fog twisted snake-like around their shimmering bodies. The demon thing in the center plucked one of the riders from the top chair, clutching her in huge hands, the girl screaming. Even in the fog, Jason saw the cowboy hat.
“Emily!” he shouted.
All three creatures looked at him with their searing white eyes. Then, as if something frightened them, they shot upwards, the one in the middle still clutching his sister. Her hat flew off, her blond pony tail flapping in the wind. They soared up and out of the fog, and just for a second, before they ducked behind the trees not far away, he realized that what he was seeing at that moment was something he had seen before.
It was exactly like his drawing.