Read scary out there epub format

Authors: Jonathan Maberry

scary out there

CONTENTS

Acknowledgments

Introduction by
Jonathan Maberry

Brenna Yovanoff
“The Doomsday Glass”

Carrie Ryan
“What Happens to Girls Who Disappear”

Cherie Priest
“The Mermaid Aquarium: Weeki Wachee Springs, 1951”

Ellen Hopkins
“As Good as Your Word” (Poems)

Rachel Tafoya
“The Invisible Girl”

Zac Brewer
“Death and Twinkies”

Linda Addison
“Secret Things” (Poems)

Josh Malerman
“Danny”

Madeleine Roux
“Make It Right”

Lucy A. Snyder
“Shadowtown Blues” (Poems)

Nancy Holder
“Beyond the Sea”

Tim Waggoner
“The Whisper-Whisper Men”

Neal & Brendan Shusterman
“Non-player Character”

Marge Simon
“Falling into Darkness” (Poems)

Christopher Golden
“What Happens When the Heart Just Stops”

Kendare Blake
“Chlorine-Damaged Hair, and Other Pool Hazards”

R. L. Stine
“The Old Radio”

Jade Shames
“Rites of Passage” (Poems)

Rachel Caine
“Corazón Oscuro”

Steve Rasnic Tem
“The Boyfriend”

Ilsa J. Bick
“Bearwalker”

About Jonathan Maberry

To the memory of Rocky Wood (1959–2014)—former president of the Horror Writers Association, Bram Stoker Award–winning author, and a great friend.

We love you and miss you.

And we wonder what strange adventures you're having now!

And, as always, to Sara Jo.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This project would not have been possible without the help of the Horror Writers Association (
www.horror.org
) and its members: President Lisa Morton, Leslie S. Klinger, Kate Jonez, and Catherine Scully.

Thanks to our agent, Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger, Inc.; and thanks to David Gale, Liz Kossnar, Laurent Linn, and all of the folks at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. And a particular thanks to the teachers and librarians out there who have been tireless in their efforts to open the hearts and minds of young readers by exposing them to books.

It's Scary Out There: An Introduction

JONATHAN MABERRY

W
hat scares you?

I bet it's not the same thing that scares me. Or the thing that scares your best friend. Or anyone else you know. Even if it's similar, it won't be the same thing. It can't be. Fear is too personal. Our fears are our own. We know our fears and they certainly know us.

When I was little, I remember being afraid of the darkness at the top of the stairs.

Truly afraid. Terrified.

There was something in it—I was sure of that. Something with claws. Something that crouched out of sight and panted like a dog. Something hungry. I knew that unless I came up the stairs with my back pressed against the far wall, that a hairy arm would reach out between the slats in the second floor rail and slash me. I knew it. Absolutely knew it.

That was when I was eight.

I'm not sure when I stopped believing that there was a werewolf on the second floor landing. Maybe it was around the time my best friend got sick with leukemia and wasted
away over the course of a long, bad summer. Or, maybe it was when my father started hitting us kids. Or, maybe it was when the gang of kids in the park threw rocks at a group of African American girls who'd come to the local skating rink, killing one of them and sparking a race riot.

Maybe it was any one of a dozen other things. We lived in an old row home in a low income neighborhood in Philadelphia. It was a very rough place to grow up. Poverty, violence, crime, racism, hatred. There seemed to be a lot of darkness, even on sunny days. Or . . . maybe I just noticed the shadows when the sun was shining. The contrast between dark and light was easier to spot.

Or, maybe what happened was that the things that scared me changed entirely. I stopped being afraid of werewolves and zombies when I realized how absolutely terrifying it was to just say “Hi” to a girl. Or, when I walked into a new school, and I was absolutely convinced that I was too weird, too poorly dressed, too geeky, too bookish, too whatever to make friends with any of the kids I saw. They all looked happy. They all seemed to know one another. I was sure they each had terrific families, got great grades, could afford nicer clothes, never doubted themselves, were loved, were funny, were cool,
belonged.
 . . .

My fear changed, but my capacity for being afraid did not. Fear, I realized, it changed, it evolved like some kind of twisted chameleon. It raced ahead of us to make sure that we never
completely outgrew it. Fear peered into our thoughts and made adjustments, picked new weapons, mapped out fresh strategies so that it could set traps along our path.

I'm older now, and tougher. When I was a kid and afraid of even walking down my own block, I began studying martial arts; now I'm an eighth-degree black belt. Very tough. You'd think that would make me crush my fear and toss it over my shoulder.

Yeah, that would be great.

Fear is too sly for that. Too slippery and smart. Now that I'm older, I have a whole new set of fears. Tough as I am, there's no way for me to be there to protect everyone I love all the time. And there are new monsters: wars, political unrest that seems to be tearing the country apart, intolerance directed at those I love, new diseases. . . .

Well, you get the idea. Fear is always there. And it is so personal a thing. Some of the things that scare me don't make my best friend twitch. He's not afraid of those things. But I know for sure there are things in his life that scare him green. Things that don't make
me
twitch.

Maybe that's why I read horror stories. I want to understand my own fears, and I want to understand what's happening in the heads and hearts of my friends. I mean . . . how can you be there for your friends if you can't sympathize or empathize?

When I was a kid, I devoured every horror story I could get
my hands on. The darker, the better. Why? Because it helped to know that I wasn't the only one who was afraid of the dark. And it helped even more to know that I wasn't the only one who was afraid of the darkness inside my own head and heart. I read it all, in print and in comics. Horror poetry, too, because sometimes a poet can stab right to the heart of the darkness.

That's when I began writing horror stories too. To defeat monsters? Sure, that was part of it. Not all, though. I wrote horror stories so I could understand the shadows in my head. Sounds crazy, but it's not.

I bet you understand that. You're reading this book. It doesn't matter if you want to write horror. What matters is that you're willing to read it. Something about this book touched a nerve. Maybe it was the title, maybe the cover, maybe the text on the flap. Maybe it's one or more of the contributors.

Or maybe it's that you want to understand darkness too. The darkness around you in your life, and the shadows inside.

That's probably it. To one degree or another.

You're like me. You're like the amazing lineup of contributors in this book. Some of them you'll already know (who hasn't read a
Goosebumps
book?), while others will be new to you. And I've included poets along with the writers of prose stories.

Scary Out There
is a project of love—admittedly of the dark kind—I edited for the Horror Writers Association. The HWA is the home of horror writing in long and short fiction,
poetry, drama, and nonfiction. They recognize the very best in horror writing with their annual Bram Stoker Award, named for the author of
Dracula.
The contributors whose strange imaginings you'll find here are all members of that august body, and the variety you'll discover in these works suggests how long and how subtle the reach of horror can be. Like many works that we in the HWA consider horror, this is not a book dedicated to supernatural horrors. Sure, there are monsters here, but fear comes in all shapes and sizes, all frequencies and flavors. Being alone, being ignored, not fitting in, peer pressure . . . man, there are so many kinds of fear out there.

So . . . yeah . . . it's scary out there.

It's scary in here, too.

Take a deep breath and turn the page. . . .

Jonathan Maberry
is a
New York Times
bestselling novelist, five-time Bram Stoker Award winner, and comic book writer. He writes the Joe Ledger thrillers, the Rot & Ruin series, the Nightsiders series, and the Dead of Night series, as well as stand-alone novels in multiple genres. His comic book works include, among others,
Captain America, Bad Blood
,
Rot & Ruin, V-Wars
, and others. He is the editor of many anthologies, including
The X-Files
,
Out of Tune
, and
V-Wars
. His book
V-Wars
is in development for TV, and
Extinction Machine
and
Rot & Ruin
are in development for film.
V-Wars
was also released as a tabletop board game. He is the founder of the Writers Coffeehouse and the cofounder of The Liars Club. Prior to becoming a full-time novelist, Jonathan spent twenty-five years as a magazine feature writer, martial arts instructor, and playwright. He was a featured expert on the History channel programs
Zombies: A Living History
and
True Monsters
. Jonathan lives in Del Mar, California, with his wife, Sara Jo.

Website:
jonathanmaberry.com

Twitter:
@JonathanMaberry

Facebook:
facebook.com/jonathanmaberry

The Doomsday Glass

BRENNA YOVANOFF

T
here were rats in the subway.

Or maybe not rats, but small, scurrying things that moved like rats. They had a dark, mangy texture that made it hard to tell if they were supposed to be mammals or reptiles. You couldn't kill them, because they weren't really enemies, but Nim liked to watch them anyway. She promised herself a closer look the next time she came through.

Currently though, she was on a mission, standing on a pile of scrap metal and broken tile under a dim, flickering light. The painted ceiling was crumbling now, but in a former life—some glorious, fictitious past—it must have been spectacular.

As game levels went, Subway Run was ridiculously straightforward, but the layout was designed to lure you into a false sense of security. There were hardly any health packs or checkpoints, and there were lots of places for things to hide.

Around her the tunnel buzzed with activity as other players passed through on their own private missions.

Nim noticed the boy at about the same time the first skin thief came slinking out from under a subway car, but only
because she had a tendency to notice things. He was standing on the other side of the subway tracks, near one of the service alcoves. Staring at her. She did not like how he stared at her.

Her awareness of him was just an observation, though. The thief was closer.

It crept along the oily ground—ugly and hairless, with veins that crawled over its body like lines on a road map. She paged through her weapons and picked out a knife. The tiny one, which was hard to use and had an incredibly short range, but took up almost no space in her inventory.

Predictably, the thief plunged at her, all ooky and rotten, with its back hunched and its barbed tongue hanging out. As it clattered over the rubble, its claws made a sound like breaking plates.

Nim stood with her arms at her sides, waiting for it to complete its charge. As it reached her, she cut the barbed tongue out of its mouth and spun in a wobbly half circle, teetering on the launchpad.

She'd never been the most coordinated when it came to sports, but in Vertigo, it didn't matter if she wobbled on her actual feet—the game had gyroscopic stabilizers. Her headset was calibrated to the exact center of the launchpad though, and when she listed, the goggles glitched a little, creating a weird doubling effect—a blurry overlay that emphasized the line between the fake, virtual world and her own messy bedroom.

She caught her balance and the world righted itself. The severed tongue completed its arc and landed on the ground at her feet with a sloppy, squelching noise.

“Nim,” said her best friend, Margaret, who was farther along the tunnel, slicing through a pack of limbo demons in easy strokes. “I know you know this, but that knife is ridiculous.”

In the world of Vertigo, Margaret was nearly seven feet tall and mostly muscle and carried a machete made of fire and colloidal sulfur. It was surreal to watch this scarred giant brutalize her way through the game while Margaret-Margaret,
real
Margaret, was down in her basement wearing a USC T-shirt and a pair of boys' boxer shorts, listening to the Pixies with her headset on and her contacts out. She'd picked the biggest, baddest woman the character shop offered, but Nim suspected Margaret would have been just as happy as a man or a monster. Anyone but a short, grouchy Chinese girl with double-jointed fingers and a messy bob that was starting to grow out. People didn't bother you much when you were seven feet tall.

During the day they were . . . nobody, resigned to beigeness and boredom and tenth grade at Slope Hill, but when they logged on to Vertigo, they were magical.
Exceptional
.

There was something so gratifying about spending every day in ordinary-world, where people teased you or ignored you or called you fire-crotch (Nim) or flat (Margaret)—where
they talked over you every time you answered in class, going out of their way to make sure you knew exactly how little you mattered. There was something about sitting through all that and then leaving it, happily, voluntarily, for the scariest place on the network.

In Vertigo, it didn't matter who you were. While Margaret smashed her way through the darkest corners, challenging herself to gruesome, manic speed runs, Nim survived by being clever. She was patient and tidy—deviser of traps and torture devices and massive explosions that could take out fourteen enemies at once. Her favorite weapon was the game itself.

There were a lot of rules and limitations, of course—a physics engine that tended to overcorrect every little gesture, and a pretty nonsensical magic system—but there were ways of exploiting them.

“You want the rest of these limbos over here, or should I?” said Margaret, her voice buzzing brightly in Nim's ear. “You can have them. I just maxed out my bank.”

Nim stomped hard on the skin thief, then flicked the blood off her tiny knife and shook her head. Today, she was on a mission to figure out what to do with the dogs.

Vertigo had a roster of eighty-seven basic monsters. Most were sort of humanoid, with hypnotic lantern eyes or poison claws and only one or two basic attacks. The dogs were interesting. They were a problem, because no matter what, they could always hear you.

There were repellent sprays you could buy in the shop and a special bait you could make if you'd collected enough ugly, goopy mushrooms from a certain maintenance room down in the sewers that was really hard to find, but mostly you just snuck past them and tried not to make any noise.

Now Nim was on the hunt, cruising the derelict subway with a tiny knife and nothing else. The shadows felt warm and thick around her, almost like a solid thing. This was the magic of the headset—as soon as you put it on, every surface and texture was like life, only better. The world exploded into vivid clarity, and when a skin thief ran into the point of your knife and bled all over, it looked slick. Every sound and movement was amplified, translated through the headset with nightmare clarity.

Nim whistled softly, a long, low trill, and called under her breath, “Heeeere, puppy-puppy-puppy . . .”

The boy was standing in the open now, gazing at her across the tracks. Nim realized he was wearing a mask, but it was stupidly plain. The mask of a blank face. Of no one.

Even his outfit was nondescript—chinos and a polo shirt. He had no weapons that Nim could see. She wondered if maybe he had some kind of bonus that made him unattractive to basic enemies. It certainly wasn't impossible.

Vertigo was a strange and generous place. As long as you paid attention, there was treasure everywhere. A few months ago Nim had found a message on the wall of an abandoned
house that you could see only when the moon was up. She'd followed the clues to a cove on Dreadnought Island and was rewarded with a spell that made you disappear completely as long as you stood in a shadow.

She had a hat that stopped time, but only in a certain room in the basement of Noble Hospital, and a talisman that worked a little differently on every kind of demon.

She'd puzzled over riddles, investigated every mysterious door—performed every tedious, cumulative task the game presented her with.

Her newest acquisition was something called a Doomsday Glass. It didn't look like much—a silver disc that fit in the palm of your hand—but when you stuck it to the wall, it spread to the size of a doormat and hypnotized anything that came bopping along.

It struck Nim as severely limited. She didn't
want
to make monsters stare at themselves. It seemed too simple, and Nim's gaze narrowed to razor sharpness whenever Vertigo seemed simple. Now she was on a personal mission to find the place where the simple got complicated.

She'd positioned the glass on the ground between the subway tracks, and now it glittered faintly in the cool light while she prowled the tunnel for the dogs.

As she moved through the rubble—which actually meant doing a kind of little dance, scuffing the launchpad with her feet—she was pretty sure that one had spotted her. She could hear the
tap-tap
of
its claws, see the tendrils of smoke that drifted from between its teeth.

The problem of the dogs had a lot of variables. They were demonically fast when they wanted to be and could burn through most kinds of armor. She'd nearly died twice and wasted a lot of health packs before realizing something important. A dog could make a mess of you in about three seconds, but they never attacked until you looked at them straight-on.

This one was keeping pace. From the corner of her eye, she could see the glow of the coals burning way down in its throat. Picturing it made her think of fairy tales. She was a princess, small and innocent and attended by monsters.

Already, she heard the scrabble of the skin thieves. They respawned at a ridiculous rate—it was part of why Margaret liked to come down here.

The boy was closer too, watching as she wound through the rubble with the dog. And, yes, what she was up to probably looked weird, but the only thing that felt dangerous was the way he stared at her. He was using a newer character model—with dark, shaggy hair and a shambling walk—called James. His only defining features were the unremarkable chinos and, of course, the mask.

Nim stopped in the shadow of an overturned train car to wait for the dog, and when it caught up, she stepped across the subway rail and onto the Doomsday Glass. She did it slowly, carefully. The dog followed her.

The second its feet touched the glass, it seemed to tremble and grow bigger. She wondered if it would die. Explode. Attack. But it only shimmered slightly, then stayed where it was.

The boy was still standing on the tracks. As soon as he caught Nim's eye, she looked away. She felt dumb, but not dumb enough to stare him down. Sometimes boys could be weird about her and Margaret when it came to the game.

Case in point: There was a club that met after school to trade tactics and sell each other mods. Nim had gone once, thinking it might be fun—she could share her talent for finding secret items or at least be in a room with people who liked the same things she did. She and Margaret had been the only girls. Alex Ford's girlfriend was apparently a member, but she was at volleyball practice.

Almost immediately Nim had caused a stir by voicing her thoughts on how there were thirty costumes for her avatar, and every single one of them was a dress.

“Look, I
like
the game,” she'd said. It was an understatement that felt more like a cinder block. “I just think it would be neat for everyone to not see my underwear—okay?”

This spawned a philosophical discussion on whether the digital panties of an avatar were really even
her
underwear.

When Nim had tried to offer an olive branch—a really premium piece of intel about a Spirit Lamp that was somewhere in the Iron Wood—no one seemed to care much, and
Austin Bauer, who'd been in all her math classes since the eighth grade and was usually not a total dickbag, had actually told her it didn't exist.

After that, the meeting had mostly consisted of making fun of Nim for anything that seemed remotely girly. For giving her avatar a pretty hat. For caring about things like basic human decency and pants. For decorating her screen name with little demon-runes when they all passed around a sign-up sheet to share their launch codes in case anyone wanted to meet up on a particular board. Surprise—in the three weeks since they'd attended the meeting, no one had expressed any interest in meeting up with Nim or Margaret.

The whole thing had turned into one big, stupid obstacle course where the obstacle was always to prove that she knew what she was talking about. And every time she did, her proof was deemed insufficient and she was given another test, and another, just for committing the grievous offense of wishing her character could wear pants.

The next weekend Nim had been poking around in the Iron Wood and seen the supposedly nonexistent Spirit Lamp glittering beneath the roots of a thorn tree. She'd snagged the lamp, gotten the trophy, and—only partially out of spite—posted her triumph to the achievements board. She hadn't gone back to the games club.

The skin thieves were closer now, clattering through the rubble. They were coming for her. She backed away, trading
her knife for a scythe. She was efficient and precise, but not stupid. They might be weak alone, but they could still be dangerous in packs.

And then, as the thieves came slobbering at her around the Doomsday Glass, the dog did something quite surprising. It lunged from the glass and began to savage them.

So. Nim had found the place where the simple collided with the ingenious. Everything made sense again, and everything was even better than she'd thought. It was a good day.

Later though, when she logged out of Subway Run, there was a new message blinking on her dashboard. It was short and strange. It said:

From: jkx0x0

Hey Sugar,

You're not as good as you think you are.

It was signed
Mr. No One

Nim looked at it a long time. Then she hit the button and deleted it.

•  •  •

“Report him,” Margaret said at lunch, peeling back the top of her sandwich and picking through its guts with a plastic fork.

Nim flopped forward in her chair and put her head on her arms. “They'd just say how it isn't a terms violation and if it happens again maybe I should change my screen name to something more neutral and use a different avatar so I don't look so obviously . . .”

“Like you have
girl
parts?” Margaret said, rolling a lump of white bread into a ball and shoving it in her mouth.

The observation was built on a foundation of experience. Nim's first avatar had been a hyperfeminine model called Sugar, with a tiny waist and a cloud of red hair so voluminous and bright it nearly matched Nim's real-life color. She had
liked
the Sugar. It was curvy and pretty. It had looked like her, but better.

She'd regretted it almost immediately.

In Vertigo, the biological condition of being a girl meant a lot of attention, and not the good kind—in Nim's case, an impressive and never ending flood of messages about the carpet and drapes.

She stuck it out for a month, then traded in the orange haired Sugar for a model called Lola. It meant losing all her progress on Dreadnought Island, but she sucked it up and played the board again. She caught up to herself in a weekend.

The Lola was a hipless pixie with slender arms and basically no chest. She was about as asexual as you could get, with tiny hands and feet and hair so blond it was almost white. It was nothing like Nim's real-life hair, and that was kind of the point. Now, when she signed into Vertigo, she looked fragile, like she'd been through something mysterious and traumatic and had survived it. Her only act of rebellion had been to download a mod to put her Lola in pants.

It annoyed her that she was the only person who seemed
to care about this. When she'd broached it at the ill-fated games club meeting, the rest of them had looked at her like she was out of her mind.

Even Margaret didn't bother with mods—especially cosmetic ones. The homegrown stuff tended to be janky, and there were rumors that black-hat hackers built in all kinds of spyware and sketchy back doors to monitor your activity or highjack your machine. As far as Nim could tell, it was paranoid gossip. Most of the time the worst that happened was the homemade mods didn't work, or they sort of worked, and you wound up with your torso square with your headset and your hips somewhere off to the left, getting stuck against the wall when you tried to go through a door.

Anyway, it was a small price to pay to address the little issue that anytime the Lola climbed a staircase or a ladder, anyone behind her could look up her dress.

“Maybe it's someone on your launch list,” Margaret said, trying to sound helpful.

But that was worse, somehow. Nim would have to wipe her whole list and add them all back one by one, and even that wouldn't help, since if Margaret was right, Mr. No One would still be some mysterious jerk who had her launch code.

•  •  •

In physics, Mr. Howard was drawing vectors on the board, explaining their project for the quarter, which was a complicated telescope involving angles and mirrors and refracted light.

Nim sat at her desk, thinking about Vertigo and the Doomsday Glass, how she'd figured out its point. It was a tiny vacuum from which nothing could escape. A black hole. An event horizon full of monsters. Her favorite thing in the world was just knowing how something worked.

Mr. Howard eyed the class, gesturing with his dry-erase marker. “Can anybody give us a real-life example of a parabolic lens?”

Nim stared at her work sheet. When she closed her eyes, all she saw was the difference between lush, vibrant Vertigo-world and sad, flat ordinary-world.

Mr. Howard stood with his hands behind his back. The question still hung in the room. Next to her, Jake Sieverson, who had a mouth as pink as a girl's and very blond, very curly hair, was waving a hand, but Mr. Howard's eyes swept over him.

“Naomi,” he said in a warm, hearty way that was supposed to make her want to share her ideas and opinions. “
You
look like you've got something on your mind.”

Nim glanced down and shook her head. She did have things on her mind, but she was pretty sure no one wanted to hear about whether or not in-game physics resembled real-world physics, and no, she did not want to tell the class.

Jake Sieverson made an impatient barking noise and shouted, “Satellite dish!”

It was totally against the rules on the class conduct sheet,
but Mr. Howard didn't get after him for not waiting to be called on, just nodded and then put them in their lab groups.

There was chaos as everyone bolted for the back of the room, elbowing one another out of the way. Lenses and mirrors sat in eight identical piles on the back counter. After a minute Nim straggled over to hover around the edges.

In Vertigo, she'd already be sorting through the lenses, figuring out how to turn the curves and angles into some overpowered ultramagnified death ray. The person with the power was the one who knew the secrets, and in Vertigo, she always knew the secrets.

•  •  •

She went home without her French book or her favorite hoodie, without thinking about the blank faced boy who'd stood across the tracks in Subway Run and watched her set up her experimental dog trap.

The only thing on her mind was the way the Doomsday Glass had revealed its purpose. She'd held the dog in place and made it hers. She'd figured out how to own the very monsters that populated the game. The message from Mr. No One was just some jerk screwing around. It wasn't that big of a deal. He hadn't even
done
anything.

She saw him again two days later.

Margaret was at pre-regionals for science olympiad, talking with her fellow aeronautics nerds about gliders, so Nim was by herself. She was hunting wraiths in the Dollhouse, which was
widely understood to be the creepiest, most difficult board in all of Vertigo. Nim and Margaret called it the Escher House because of how the floor plan seemed to twist and fold in on itself, all secret trapdoors and staircases to nowhere and doors that opened on unkillable monsters or portals that plunged you into thorny mazes that were nearly impossible to get out of and sucked your health meter down to nothing.

It was a baffling death trap, and Nim adored it there.

Inside, it was ludicrously big—with echoing ceilings and miles of spiral corridors—and home to a pair of ravenous nightmares with tangled black hair and red dresses, who were always stalking you. She and Margaret called them the sisters. They prowled the halls, invisible until they were right next to you, but Nim had figured out a long time ago that—like everything else in Vertigo—there were ways of exploiting the rules.

Right before the sisters showed up, your vision would flicker blue, a little. It was hard to see if you weren't looking for it. Nim was always looking. You could see them in reflective surfaces sometimes, and if you hid or ran, they never chased you very far. If you made the mistake of letting them touch you though, they immediately spawned more. It had taken Nim three encounters to figure out that no matter how aggressively they multiplied, there were really only two of them.

The house itself held just an incredible amount of junk, like a lunatic museum full of tiny, precious artifacts. There was a vast, labyrinthine basement and, under that, a subbasement
full of moldering catacombs and torture devices. There were libraries and ballrooms and a wood paneled study with the taxidermied head of a goblin in a bell jar on the mantelpiece.

It was one big archive of secrets, and Nim reveled in it.

Today, she was thinking she'd like to try the Doomsday Glass on the sisters. Most special items didn't work on them, or else they didn't work the way they were supposed to, but Nim was always up for a good experiment. Now she was waiting around in one of the ballrooms with her demon talisman equipped. Like a lot of items, the talisman had a backward effect on the sisters. If you carried it, they were impressively more likely to be interested in you.

She took out the glass and stuck it to the front of a low wooden cabinet. There was always the chance that it would make them turn on her, but she didn't think so. She just hadn't been able to get them to walk over it. If she could find the right spot though, maybe they'd move into range without seeing it.

The boy was in the corner of the ballroom, lounging in a huge, high-backed chair. He was sitting so still that Nim didn't notice him at first.

“Hey, Sugar,” he said, and the sound of his voice made her skin crawl.

He'd painted the mask since last time. Now the bland, even features were orange and red and black, covered in spirals and jagged slashing lines.

He sat under a giant oil painting, by the trapdoor to the
torture chamber, watching. Nim knew the house was full of other players, but apart from the two of them, the room was strangely vacant.

The James didn't seem to mind the silence. He didn't seem to have any agenda besides
her
.

“Cheating,” he said, nodding toward the glass. His voice was hoarse, like he was deliberately trying to make it deeper.

Nim didn't answer.

“Aw, come on.” He sounded hearty. Fake friendly. “I'm just saying.”

“Leave me alone,” she said, snatching the glass off the cabinet and shoving it back in her pocket. “And stop talking like Batman.”

He pushed himself up from the chair and padded across the carpet. “Don't be like that. Isn't this what you want—everyone paying attention to you?”

“What is your
problem
?”

Suddenly, the James's whole posture changed. He loomed over her. The way he stared out at her from perfectly symmetrical eyeholes was horrific. “
My
problem? Like you don't go around begging everyone to tell you how great you are? You think this is some special thing, built for you, but you don't even
belong
here!”

His voice was like a slap. She knew there were guys who thought that—that she was a fake and a poser, intruding on some private club. She wasn't stupid. She'd seen the Internet.
And still his viciousness stunned her. No one had ever just come out and said it.

Nim stared back at him. The talisman in her pocket was beginning to hiss, glowing faintly through her modded pants, but the James didn't notice. To him she was nothing. Just the tiny, wafty Lola. “Maybe you're the one who shouldn't be here.”

He stood over her, taking up so much space he seemed to fill the room, and she heard his breath catch before he answered. She was pretty sure he wanted to call her a bitch, but he didn't say it. Vertigo had very strict profanity policies.

“Like you'd last twenty minutes without all your little cheats and tricks.” His voice had risen an octave. He no longer sounded like a superhero with a head cold. He sounded petulant. Not the Dark Knight, but the Joker. “You'd end up in pieces, then cry about how it's
not fair
.”

In the shadows wraiths were gathering, creeping around the edges of Nim's vision. “You don't know what I'd do.”

The James was much too close now, pressing up against the field of the launchpad, making an optical illusion. He was in her room, and not in her room. It was disorienting, how his voice could be so hard and hateful when his face had no expression at all. “You just think you're
so good
at this.”

“I am.”

For a second the two of them stood toe-to-toe, nearly touching.

Then the light in Nim's headset went cold—a cloud passing over a winter sun. “The sisters are coming.”

“What are you talking about? Those freaks are invisible.”

Nim shrugged—the creepy little girl in the horror movie. Her hair drifted around her in a white corona. “Stay and wait if you don't believe me.”

For one impossible moment the James seemed to consider it. Then he turned and dove for the door in the floor.

•  •  •

She saw him the next night, in the funhouse at Dark Amusements. And again in Subway Run. And every time, she tried to restart someplace else, and every time, he appeared out of the shadows five minutes later like a boogeyman in accountant's clothing. Every time she blocked him, he made a new screen name composed of new gibberish.

In Vertigo the other players couldn't kill you, but they could definitely make everything harder. When he stood in her way long enough to keep her from opening the door to the operating theater in Noble Hospital, she lost her temper.

She held down the button on her headset until the helpline display came up, overlaying the hospital corridor with a tidy digital menu.

“I want to report a user,” she said, staring past the translucent screen—right at the James, with his weird, painted face.

The voice in the headset was businesslike. “Name and complaint?”

The James stood in front of her, so close that if this were real, she'd be able to feel his breath. She made herself bigger, throwing her shoulders back. “jkx0x0, nth8383, others. A sustained pattern of harassment.”

There was a pause, then the helpline rep said, “And have you tried moving boards?”

“I
can't.
” She hated that her voice shook. “He shows up wherever I am. He
finds
me.”

The headset showed a little animation of zombies marching to indicate the rep was typing, bringing up her account. “Are you using any unauthorized mods? If you've altered your account code, Vertigo takes no responsibility for malfunction.”

So they knew about the wardrobe mod,
obviously
. Nim wanted to scream, but in the back of her mind there was a tiny voice that whispered this was what she deserved; it probably
was
her fault. She'd compromised her account for something so minor—not like the grinders, who modified their weapons to autoload or fire faster so they could cheat their way up the leaderboards and were total douchebags. All she wanted was just to wear some goddamned
pants
.

She took a deep breath and made fists. “Who is it though? At least tell me their launch code so I can block them permanently!”

The rep made a fake-sympathy noise. “I'm sorry, we can't give out personal information.”

Nim had expected that, but still, it felt like getting punched.
The terms of service relieved Vertigo of any responsibility for anything. For instance, their policy that you should never give out your launch code—soundly and universally ignored. Right. In a game that basically
forced
you to cooperate in order to get anywhere.

The James was circling now, closer, closer. Their bodies weren't real, but she felt him in her nerve endings anyway. He bumped against the virtual bubble of the launchpad, but could not actually step inside.

His voice when he spoke was a soft, ugly monotone. “See? Even the help desk isn't falling for your little victim bit.”

Nim stumbled away, nearly pitching off the launchpad and into her basket of unfolded laundry, and called him something really obscene.

Immediately, her headset blinked red and her bank dwindled by a hefty chunk. “Shit,” she whispered, then winced as more credits vanished.

The James was directly behind her now. She knew that, under the mask, he was smirking.

“Fiery,” he said. His mouth was virtual, but it felt very close to her ear. When she stared across the corridor at the darkened window of the operating theater, she saw a tiny white haired pixie, standing in a derelict hospital with a monster behind her. She could see the cold, digital gleam of his eyes in the glass.

He held her gaze. The word was a coincidence, a fluke. He wasn't talking about her real hair color. That wasn't possible.

Nim's resolve broke. She twisted away and ripped her headset off.

Vertigo was supposed to be hers. The safest place on earth. And when the monsters touched you, they were never really touching you.

•  •  •

“Plausible deniability,” Margaret said, slipping a balsa glider wing into a precut slot and making a note on the width and the angle. “He can mess with you a billion ways and still not actually violate any terms.”

It surprised Nim, how relieved she was that Margaret knew the words for what had happened—it had a name. She hated that it had a name.

Margaret scowled at her glider. “What did you even
do
? Like, to attract his attention?”

“I don't know,” Nim said, rolling backward in Margaret's desk chair, twirling in a circle. “Why does it have to be something I did? I didn't
do
anything. He's the one who's a creep!”