Harley is rinsing the blood from his instruments when he hears a banging from upstairs. He pauses, hands dripping, and when the sound persists, shuts off the tap and leaves the bone saw in the inch of water swirling pinkly down the drain.
He opens the front door to find his neighbor Sable on his porch, her fist still raised mid-pound. She is breathing hard, sweat-and-paint-matted hair pulling loose from a sloppy ponytail, a smear of spring green on her cheek. Mouse, her youngest sibling at fourteen, stands behind her, arms folded around an oversized hardcover and a bunny doll.
Sable's words tumble out in a breathless rush: "Oh thank God you're home I'm so sorry to burst in on you like this but could you watch Mouse for an hour or so? My idiot brother shot himself in the leg with a nail gun and Mouse has had this thing about hospitals ever since our parents—"
"It's no trouble," he hears himself say.
"Thanks, Harley, I owe you one. Just sit her in a corner with her book; you know how she is. I'll be back as soon as I can, okay, Mouse honey?" Sable gives the girl a quick hug and leaps off the porch shouting, "Stephen, I told you to start the damn car!"
Harley watches the battered sedan peel out of the driveway and disappear down the street. He looks at Mouse, who has not moved. He steps out onto the porch to push her gently into the house.
A pale baby alligator watches them from the foot of the stairs; a coyote is poised mid-stride in the corner, mostly lost to cobwebs and shadow. Mouse drags her dull stare from one to the other, tugging absently on the ear of her bunny doll.
Harley guides her down the narrow path worn through the dust carpeting the floor. He can feel the hard curve of her shoulders and the ridge of her clavicle through the thinning material of her sweatshirt.
She has good bones.
Harley was arranging a stuffed opossum on a shelf in a second story room the day that Sable and Stephen and Mouse moved into the neighborhood. He brushed sawdust off its hind paw and angled it toward the window. Voices drew his attention, and he peered out through the grime-streaked glass. The setting sun painted the edges of the clouds gold and coral as the newcomers across the street ferried the last of their boxes from the moving truck in the driveway.
A young man leaned out their front door. "No, I checked. She's not in the backyard, either. Did you—" His expression changed when his eyes swept across the front of Harley's house.
Harley ducked to the side of the window.
When he peeked out again, the young man was dashing across their lawn, the screen door slamming shut behind him. Harley heard a soft click below, a squeal of disused hinges, and then Harley was running, too. He careened around the corner and was clomping down the stairs before he consciously made the connection that had thrown his body into motion: his neighbor's attention had been fixed on Harley's front porch.
Rook's mask gleamed darkly on the bottom landing. Harley scooped it up without meaning to do so and rocked back on his heels, crushing the swell of peeling wallpaper behind him. The mask hummed with impatience against his skin as the daylight died by inches on the other side of the wall. He clutched the mask to his stomach, to his stomach and no higher, because the girl in his foyer was looking at him.
She lay flat on her belly, her ear pressed to the floor as though she were listening to something in the basement below. Her face was turned toward him, but her eyes, he realized, were unfocused. She looked young, early teens, maybe, wearing a sweatshirt with its hood drawn up despite the balmy weather; there were two round flaps of fabric, like ears, attached to the top of the hood with wide, uneven stitches.
Feet pounded up his front steps, and the young man from across the street stepped over Harley's threshold, his arm outstretched.
"Mouse, get up, you aren't supposed to be in here," the young man said in an urgent whisper. He jumped when he spotted Harley pushing himself off the wall. "Oh shit, man, I'm sorry, my sister, she kind of wandered in and I was—I was just. . ." His voice drifted off as he looked past Harley into the dust-choked gloom of his house.
Harley followed his line of sight over his shoulder to the Australian masked owl perched on top of the piano, its glass eyes shining in the light from the doorway.
The young man's eyebrows drew together, and he took the intrusive steps necessary to reach the girl and pull her to her feet. "Just coming to get her. Guess nobody locks up in this neighborhood either, huh? That's good. Safe, I mean."
The girl's arms dangled at her sides, retaining only just enough tension to keep her fingers closed over the ear of a ragged bunny doll bumping gently against her knee.
Harley's tongue lay like some dead thing in his mouth. He tried not to follow the girl's gaze toward his basement door, which he had left ajar.
The young man nodded to the mask cradled in Harley's arms. "You into paintball?"
Harley cleared his throat but only managed a small nod, and the young man herded his sister back outside. The girl's head tilted back, the final rays of sunlight bringing out the golden haloes in her eyes.
"That's cool. Uh, look, she didn't mean anything by this, she's just a little off sometimes, that's all. I'm Stephen, by the way. We're neighbors now," the young man said, his exaggeratedly casual tone offset by the sudden stiffness of his shoulders, the mechanical way that he held out his hand.
Harley kept both of his own hands clamped to the mask. It whispered silkily into the meat of him. The girl's eyes slid toward Harley as the horizon swallowed the sun, and she took a shuddering breath.
"Neighbors. Yes," Harley said as he closed the door. "I know." He made sure to turn the lock.
Whistling tunelessly beneath his mask, Rook Fell knotted the drawstrings of the garbage bag a final time, then wiped his hands off on the front of his heavy apron. He straightened and took another look around Harley's kitchen for any spatters he might have missed, in case he didn't make it back before dawn. What remained of the storm door had been so badly twisted when it had gotten kicked in that the lower corner had wedged into the floor; removing it would have to be a project for the daytime.
Slinging the bag over his shoulder, he stood framed for a moment in the kitchen doorway, watching the world turn itself over to night. The final brushes of indigo drained down the horizon, leaving the sky inky and velvet soft, utter darkness held tentatively at bay with starlight. He heard a brief burst of cricket song before he stepped over the threshold, the last audible chirp dissipating into the cool air as his foot found earth, fireflies blinking out one by one.
The night shifted, just a little, and he felt it settle delicately into place: deeper, darker, and so much older than it had been just a moment before.
He walked around the side of the house, past Harley's trash and recycling bins, and into the thigh-deep grass of a front lawn gone feral. He stumbled a little on the wasting carcass of a squirrel, its broken body filled with birdshot. Pausing to adjust the bag more comfortably on his back, he hesitated, noting the cautious tug at the base of his skull. The hairs rose on the back of his neck, his arms, though the air was still; not even the streetlights buzzed. He could feel the dayfolk sleeping, their more harrowing dreams murmuring at the edges of his consciousness.
Then his gaze swung up to find the younger neighbor girl staring at him from her bedroom window, her hands cupped around her headphones, a coiled wire leading out of sight past the edge of the frame. He wondered what the static whispered to her in the dark.
The slack had lifted from Mouse's face and limbs, the vacancy from her eyes. And she saw him, really saw him—he could tell.
He tapped the visor of his mask and threw her a jaunty salute.
After a long moment, Mouse pulled one hand away from her headset and rested her palm against the windowpane. Her fingers twitched in greeting.
Smiling beneath his mask, Rook Fell continued through the yard and turned onto the street, the contents of his bag digging into his spine like elbows, like knees.
In the sunlit kitchen, Harley pours two tall glasses of lemonade. He sets one on the peeling linoleum countertop in front of Mouse and sips from the other, watching the girl over the rim of his glass. She stands where he left her, her empty gaze fixed dead ahead.
"Hey," he says softly, to no response. He waves his hand in front of Mouse's face, and she does not blink.
Pulling the book from Mouse's lax grip, Harley pages through it: radios, their history and construction. Some of the diagrams bear alterations scribbled in colored pencil. He places the book on the counter next to her untouched lemonade.
"Who did you used to be?" he murmurs.
Only her right hand moves, running repeatedly along a tear in her bunny doll's neck, fingertips tripping over the mound of stuffing that pushes through the torn fabric.
It might be peaceful to follow her lead, to step aside inside himself, to forfeit the harsh edges of the day. But he is all too aware of Rook's growing latticework of bones in the room beneath his feet, and Harley has promises to keep.
Harley rinses his glass out, dries it, and returns the dishrag to the stiff paws of the squirrel crouching at the edge of the sink.
The girl's arm tenses when he takes the bunny doll. Finally he sees a degree of focus in her eyes, trained now on the rabbit, as he moves past her. His hand is on the doorknob before he hears her footsteps behind him. He tugs on the chain of the overhead bulb, flooding the stairwell with soft golden light, and she follows him into the basement.
A week or so after the moving truck left the house across the street, Harley kicked a few apple cores and orange peels over the freshest mound on his compost heap. His shoulders were sore, and he contemplated whether the smell of rotting fruit would overpower that of chemicals and meat. He shucked off his gloves, tucked them into his belt, and turned to see the eldest of his new neighbors waving as she rounded the corner, a wiry terrier bounding at her heels.
"Hello?" she called from the side of the house. "Harlan Gershom?"
He waded through the tall grass toward her. "Harley," he said. Names were important. "I prefer Harley."
"Well, it's nice to finally meet you, Harley. I'm Sable. I moved in across the street. I hear you've already met my youngest siblings."
He flinched when she offered her hand to shake, then stared at it wishing that he hadn't removed his gloves.
She took back her hand with a gentle smile and held out a stack of envelopes instead. "We got some of your mail mixed in with ours. Just thought I'd take the opportunity to introduce myself."
On top was a letter from the neighborhood association, probably about his lawn again. Resigning himself to another strongly worded remonstration, Harley accepted his mail, taking care not to let his fingers brush hers. A flier for this year's National Taxidermists Convention peeked out from the bottom of the stack.
The terrier rolled on its back, pushing its muddy paws against Sable's ankle. She laughed and crouched to rub its belly. "Hey, do you know whose dog this is? It's been following me around all morning."
Its tongue lolled as it looked up at them through one blue eye, one brown.
"Just a stray."
Sable gestured to his mail. "So you're a taxidermist, then? Do you work for that natural history museum up on Fifth?"
"And private commissions. Anything from big game. . ." He glanced at the terrier as it worried at his boot laces. ". . .to household pets."
The whine of the flies investigating Harley's slop bucket competed valiantly with the constant ambient noise of the neighborhood cicadas.
Sable said, "Are you going to the Johnsons' cookout this weekend?"
Harley said, "No."
The flies invited some friends.
"Sorry again about Mouse. She has a tendency to wander. If you see her sitting in the street or something, can you just make sure she gets home all right?"
"Yes," Harley promised, and something inside him clenched. He cleared his throat. "I'll make sure."
For a while there was only the sawing of steel through bone, the rasp of Rook's own breath echoing in his mask. Then he heard a low growl behind him. He dropped the hunk of meat he was working on and pivoted machete-first, unfolding his lanky frame from the pool of deeper shadow at the base of the auto shop wall.
"Farrago, hush," Mouse said softly, a warning. Beside her, its head reaching well above her waist, crouched a hulking, chimeric thing with mismatched eyes, the only feature that remained of the daylit stray.
Its nostrils flared, and Rook wondered idly if it recognized what remained of Harley's scent—if it recalled his comment about stuffing household pets.
"Friend of yours?" Rook said.
"Sometimes." Mouse curled her fingers in the creature's thick ruff when it released a rattling, staccato bark. "Hush, it's okay." Her hood was down, and Rook saw her hair for the first time, chopped short and ragged as though with a pair of safety scissors. A cord led from her backpack to the headset hanging around her neck, a muffled voice hissing urgently from the speakers. Rook thought he heard his name. Mouse adjusted a dial on the cord to silence the noise.
Rook swayed and smiled when Mouse tracked the movement, her eyes clear and sharp and trained on the lens of his mask, her hand plunged into the pocket of her sweatshirt. Gone was the heaviness from her limbs, the gloss of disinterest scrubbed from her face, as though the night had carved a new Mouse from her daylit torpor with the razor of the moon.
"I know you," she said. It was almost a challenge. "You live across the street from us. You're Harley."
"Sometimes." Rook stepped onto the sidewalk, a fat dark drop rolling off the serrated edge of his blade and splashing onto the pavement; it sounded loudly in the empty street as though in a tunnel. "Just not at night." He hadn't meant to take that step, but he did not try to reclaim it.
The beast planted itself between the girl and Rook, a snarl trickling through bared teeth as it flashed incisors the length of Rook's thumb. Mouse seized two of its curling horns and tugged.
"Farrago," she said again, louder. "Leave it. Come on."
Head a-tilt, Rook lowered his machete, holding it partially out of sight behind his leg. "Little Mouse, little Mouse," he sing-songed, "won't you come out and play?"
"I will not," she said firmly, staring hard into his lens. "Not with you. Not tonight."
At the base of the auto shop wall, Rook's quarry whimpered and started to drag itself across the gravel lot toward a streetlight.
Mouse's gaze slid past him, her eyebrows drawing close as she tried to make out the thing's shape in the shadows. "You hunt monsters?"
"Among other things." He took another step toward her while she was still distracted, and the creature's snarl ratcheted to the beginnings of a roar.
Mouse jerked back before forcing herself to still, biting her lip. She stood with her knees slightly bent, ready to run. "I'll let him go," she threatened.
Rook snorted and turned his back on them both, striding to the wall, where his quarry's glow-in-the-dark watch face gave its position away. He drove his machete down through the darkness, through flesh and fat and gristle, severing the spinal cord and cutting short the piteous mewl that had risen in pitch with the crunch of his boots on gravel. Mouse was gone when he stood again, though he spotted the creature's scaly tail lashing around the corner a block down the road.
He breathed the empty air where she had been, pulling her scent through the grille of his mask. Even the girl's smell was different past sundown, more defined. New, but somehow familiar. His lips peeled back from his teeth.
At night, she smelled a little bit like him.
The cool, dry air of the basement washes over Harley's skin as he descends, chasing back the weight of humidity. His arm moves reflexively toward the stained apron that hangs from one of the hooks lining the wall at the base of the stairs. Harley withdraws his hand before his fingers can close around the heavy cloth spotted with resin and hide paste.
The high windows are boarded up against the sun, but his feet know the distance. Mouse's shuffling steps follow close behind his as he makes his way to his workbench. He sets down the rabbit doll and flips on the light switch. The coiled bulbs above the bench cast a harsh white glow, washing out the girl's skin, deepening her eyes.
She stops before the massive door set in the wall farthest from the stairs, her face inches from the heavy, pitted wood, and sways gently like a reed in the wind. Her toes bump against the worn cardboard box of phones and rings and wallets waiting to be burned or buried in sawdust, stitched out of sight in the bellies of his dead beasts.
Harley reaches past the wheels of wire and trays of glass eyes, around the mason jars of scalpels and slender cartilage knives, the heavy cutting pliers, for a cubbyhole at the back of the workbench.
When he looks up again, Mouse is reaching for the handle of the door to Rook's room.
He knocks over the stool in his haste to intercept the girl, long fingers closing around her wrist just as the catch releases. He slams his shoulder against the door to shut it and yanks her hand away.
They stand like that for a moment, Harley's breath dragging loud through his teeth, Mouse staring at some faraway point in the other room, until Harley pulls her to the workbench. He rights the stool and seats her firmly on it, then wipes his hand off on his shirt.
Harley leaned heavily against a dumpster, the paper grocery sack in his arms threatening to disintegrate beneath the strength of the late summer storm while Rook's mask buzzed angrily within.
He blinked rain from his lashes as he held the sack over the edge of the bin and hesitated for a heartbeat, two. He wondered what would happen if he left the mask for good. If Rook traveled with the mask, or if he had only ever been Harley, all this time.
Considerations he should have weighed before making Sable a promise that Rook could never keep.
The luminous hands of his wristwatch pointed to just a minute after sunset, and already the night was constricting around him. He glanced again at the watch, unable to recall when he'd decided to keep it, why he had put it on. It was never Harley who needed to tell time in the dark.
Something tugged at the base of his skull; he looked up sharply in time to see a slight figure detach itself from the wall a few meters away. They stood motionless, regarding one another while Rook's mask sang.
Then a car turned into the alley, and Harley ducked around the dumpster, soggy paper pulling apart under his fingers as he dropped into a crouch. The car slowed and idled long enough that Harley glanced around the corner of the bin.
A tall man climbed out of the driver's side and held his umbrella over the smaller figure. He said something that Harley didn't catch, gestured to the car. The figure leaned away.
Then Mouse's voice, just audible over the rainfall, said, "But I don't know you."
Harley was running even before the man cast his umbrella aside to strike the girl across the face.
The rain drummed against the hard curve of his mask, pounding what was left of the shredded grocery sack from between his fingers. The mask slipped on easily over his head, the most natural thing in the world, and it felt so good to let the pieces of Harley fall silent as if the storm were washing him, too, away.
Rook could see the world more clearly now.
The broad-shouldered monster hadn't noticed him, its talons digging into Mouse's arm as it wrenched open the back door of its car and started bundling the girl inside.
Rook pulled the monster away from the door, fingers curling tight in its hair, and rammed its face against the wall. Rook pulled it back, and the monster's eyes were dazed behind cracked wire-rimmed glasses, blood cutting bright runnels from its nose and mouth. Rook tightened his grip and did it again.
The monster's legs buckled beneath it. Rook knelt as it crumpled, still holding it by the hair and jacket, and smashed its face into the ground.
It was easier this way, with gravity doing most of the work. Warmth spread through his muscles. His breath echoed in his mask, harsh but even. He could do this all night.
The world tilted sharply and staggered aside.
Harley blinked to find the rain plastering his hair to his face, his stomach lurching in protest of the sudden shift. He looked up, and Mouse stood with Rook's mask in her hands, her face drawn, eyes too wide.
She said, "Come on, Harley. No, don't look down. Just come on."
"Is it—I mean, is he—?"
"Not for long," the girl said bleakly as she crammed a man's wallet into her hoodie pocket.
Later, he wouldn't be able to recall if he had taken her by the hand or if the reverse were true; he remembered only the press of her palm against his, and the resounding emptiness of the mask balanced against the girl's hip.
He walked her home to her family and numbly bore their vocal gratitude. It was only later, when he was drying off in his own bathroom, that Harley realized he had neglected to take back the mask.
The third evening alone was quiet and empty and still in a way that reminded Harley of cemeteries, museums. He walked around the block, searching for wonder, and encountered nothing but crickets and moths, the feeble bark of a stray dog. The night lay as inert as a discarded snakeskin, a dry and fragile mimicry of what it had been.
Mouse was sitting on his porch swing when he returned, her arm draped over a bulging backpack beside her. The light from the street lamp shone on the cracked lens of a pair of wire-rimmed glasses hooked over the collar of her sweatshirt by one bent leg. She toed the swing to a stop, and Harley lowered himself onto the seat on the other side of her bag, where the darkness seemed most condensed.
He caught himself reaching for it and withdrew his hand. "He won't think he owes you anything," he told her in a low voice.
Mouse's shoulders rose and fell. "I don't expect him to."
He knitted his fingers together, forced them still in his lap. "Then why did you bring it back?"
She didn't look at him as she said, "I like you, Harley. But I know what it's like to feel trapped between two frequencies with a head full of white noise, waiting for a stronger signal." Her lips quirked, and he realized with a pang that this was the first time that Harley had spoken to this Mouse at night. That it might be his last. "Besides, at the end of the day, Rook's just another monster. And all monsters can be killed. So here's the rules: weekends only. Houses are Safe. I get a hundred-second head start. If he can agree to that, I'll play."
"Can't end well if you're always the one running."
Her grin slashed white in the dark. "It's a round world. If I run fast enough, I'll be the one chasing him."
Harley wrapped his arms around his stomach to trap them there. "Do you understand what you're getting yourself into?"
Mouse unzipped her bag. "Does he? Don't forget: it was me who found you, that first day." She dumped Rook's mask into Harley's lap and sprang up, looking solemnly down at him. "One day you won't even need this," she said, and he couldn't decide if it was reassurance or pity in her voice.
"Who are you talking to?" he asked her, but she had already hopped off the porch.
She stood quivering for a moment at the bottom of the steps, her expression lost in shadow. "Olly, olly, oxen free," she whispered, and darted off into the night.
At his work bench, Harley gropes again into the cubbyhole. His fingers brush the grille of Rook's mask, and in that moment, Mouse's eyes meet his. It could be the mask that sends a tendril of awakening through his veins; it could be the girl sharpening behind Mouse's skin. Rook draws a breath that fills Harley's lungs.
Then Harley reaches past the mask on his workbench, and the sudden intensity in Mouse's gaze is extinguished.
"I haven't forgotten," he assures her. He finds one of his smaller needles, a spool of thread. "Houses are Safe."
From between the edges of the bunny doll's torn seam, Harley glimpses the bent wire rim and delicate hinge of a pair of glasses. He folds a loose bit of stuffing more securely over them.
The thread is a couple shades darker than the doll's worn fur, but when he's finished, the stitches are small and tight and hardly visible. He severs the loose end with a long, thin knife and presses the repaired rabbit into the girl's arms. Her hands clench around it. Harley touches her hair gingerly, then leads her up the stairs.
When Sable returns from the emergency room, she invites him over for dinner; he politely declines again.
"One day we are going to get you out of this house," she teases.
"One day," he agrees, glancing at Mouse. "Just not tonight."
Sable takes her sister back home, and Harley locks the door behind them.
The sun dips, pulling swathes of peach and salmon, gold and russet down across the darkening sky. The night deepens, and in the distance, the reedy cry of a small dog drops several octaves to swell into a drawn-out howl.
Rook Fell stands in his front doorway, turning a long, thin knife over and over again in gloved hands, swatting lazily at fireflies as he watches the second-floor window across the street.