Authors: Nina Kiriki Hoffman,Richard Bober
The Thread that Binds the Bones
Families, Book 1
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
NINA KIRIKI HOFFMAN
“A name you should know”
Fantasy & Science Fiction
“One of a kind. An American original ... One of the finest writers working the blurry edge of fantasy and horror”
The Thread That Binds The Bones
“There is absolutely no other voice in contemporary fantasy like Hoffman’s. Here is a writer to follow, to heed and, most of all, to read with wonder and enormous enthusiasm.”
“A crazy, wonderful adventure ... One of my favorite novels ... Nina Kiriki Hoffman is a magician. Her words create worlds no one has ever seen before ... She is one of the fantasy field’s greatest talents.”
—Kristine Kathryn Rusch, author of
White Mists of Power
“Nina Kiriki Hoffman weaves plots together with gold and silver, platinum and spider silk.
The Thread That Binds The Bones
pure magic—Nina Kiriki Hoffman magic. There is no better.”
—Algis Budrys, author of
For Dean and Kris and Kate and Damon, who urged me to fix it and send it out;
For Matt, who encouraged me to clean it up;
And for Debb, the first reader of my dreams: thanks for letting me use your shower.
Tom Renfield kicked the door of the girls’ rest room open and pushed the mop bucket in ahead of him, wondering if there would be any new graffiti since he last cleaned there a week ago. The room smelled of disinfectant and used tampons, with a hint of perfume. He flipped on the light switch just inside the door, driving night out the window, and glanced at the high pale ceiling to see if there had been any recent wadded-wet-toilet-paper fights. The kids at Portland, Oregon’s Chester Arthur High School rediscovered every year that toilet paper plus water and soap equaled a missile that would stick to the ceiling, sometimes falling on somebody else later, which was a satisfying conclusion, worth double the pleasure of just getting something up and not having it fall down again right away. No new ammunition hung up there, so he didn’t need the ladder tonight. He trundled the mop bucket across the gray linoleum, past the stainless-steel half-moon-shaped sink, with its foot-activated sprinkler that sent out a semicircle of showers onto waiting hands, and past the mirror that still hosted a hundred anxious faces touching themselves up, or watching something other than themselves while they talked. Beyond the cloud of emotional memory he saw himself for an instant, startled as always that he had grown up, and up, and out; though he was twenty-nine, inside him there was still a skinny, blue-eyed, black-haired kid waiting at a train station for an uncertain reception as some new relative came to pick him up.
He parked the mop bucket under the wall by the window and went back to fetch the toilet-cleaning tools from his cart in the hallway, and when he pushed through the door again, he heard whispers.
“Where?” he said, then shook his head.
—Now and forever.
Working in an ammonia haze, Tom scrubbed out the sink, and then the toilets, wiping off the seats and leaving them up. He emptied napkin repositories and trash, restocked toilet paper and paper towels, and tried to ignore the whispers. For almost twelve years he had kept them away, but in the last two weeks, he had started hearing them again, and he couldn’t shake them out of his head anymore the way he had managed to ever since high school graduation. The headaches had also returned.
And the visions.
Having cleaned everything above ground, he was ready to mop. He slopped the mop in the water, then put it in the wringer and pulled the squeeze lever, keeping his eyes away from the shadow in the corner next to the window. He started mopping in the furthest stall, then along the wall, and finally he had to look at the shadow as he approached it. It was a huddled girl, wearing a white sweater and a plaid circle skirt, her dark hair bouffed up, pushed back with a plastic headband, and flipped under at the ends. She looked toward him through harlequin glasses and held out her wrists, displaying the cuts across them.
—He brought me here to the dance and went home with her, she whispered. Her face squinched up.
—It was the first time anybody ever asked me out.
“Boy, you teenagers,” said Tom. The way her eyes didn’t quite meet his led him to assume this was one of the nonresponsive repeaters, stuck pattern ghosts who just said the same thing over and over, without paying attention to what was going on around them. “Doesn’t take much, does it?”
Her eyes widened. She rose, hands clenching into fists—there was no blood, not on her sweater or her skirt, just the red lines across her wrists, like stripes painted on with nail polish—and stamped her foot.
—It’s the most important thing I ever did!
“That’s sad,” he said.
She came and slapped him, momentum carrying her on through him. He shivered, not from a physical sensation of cold, but from the feelings of frustration and longing and anger and hate that animated her still, after all these years. The feelings were a sour-sweet taste on his tongue, a cold blade along his spine, a tingle on the back of his neck.
He spat in the sink, casting out her residue. Years ago he had hugged a ghost, invited her in, and she had melted into him and strengthened him; now she was braided so smoothly inside him that he no longer thought of her as someone separate. She had taught him that most ghosts weren’t real people, just clots of strong emotion left behind by violent acts, sometimes even the residue cast off by people still alive. He had learned not to fear ghosts, but he didn’t often like them.
When he had started hearing the whispers again, he sought for his internal ghost, wanting to ask her questions about what was going on now, why the whispers had come back, but the only person who answered his call was himself.
He missed her.
The shadow had gone, so he finished mopping.
—They bring more pain.
—Why did we do it.
—Now we can’t leave.
—Wish they wouldn’t.
“Who?” Tom said at last, as he watched streaks dry in the wet slick he’d laid across the floor. “Where? When?”
—They’re sitting on the roof. The Caldecott Building. At dawn, they say.
He looked toward the window. The sky was already lightening in the east. The Caldecott Building stood across the yard, its square roof emerging from the departing night.
He dropped the mop and ran out into the corridor, the sound of his footsteps echoing in the wide dim space. When he had first come to Portland looking for work, he had searched for someplace away from death, despite the twelve-year freedom he’d enjoyed from ghosts and their noises. A high school, he thought; a high school would be fine; a lot of young energy, light thoughts, no whispers. Nobody he had known in high school had died there.
By the time he reached the double doors and unlocked them, the chill winter dawn reached halfway across the sky. The birds were in full voice in distant trees. He was afraid he was too late. As his shoes slapped the asphalt of the yard, he felt a headache building. His vision clouded. The sky looked wood-grained, pale violet striations and knots marking it, though they didn’t stay still; they pulsed, in waves, some rising, some falling. The air tasted fragrant as fresh sawdust. His hands felt hot. Running toward the Caldecott Building, he glanced at his hands, saw the shadow waves rising from the ground, through him, slowing at his hands, as if he himself were air and his hands were the only solid. Something in him struggled, his ghost voice, perhaps, trying to speak after years of silence.
—There is a way we can—
He saw two people step up to the edge of the Caldecott Building’s roof. Silhouetted against the rising light, veiled by the violet surge of waves, they stood on the parapet for long moments. “No,” he said, then tried to yell it, but his voice was too ragged to reach that high. They would go over now and there was nothing he could do. Two more shadows would haunt the yard.
He stopped and clenched his fists. There was an answering ripple in the violet waves. He closed his eyes, trying to ignore the pounding in his head, and realized that his hands gripped something in the air, solid-feeling as wind was when he spread his fingers and let it pass between them. He opened hands and eyes and looked up, and the people, a boy and a girl, taking on features now that the sun was up a little, stepped off the roof, clasping each other’s hands, and he reached up and tugged on one of the violet sky skins, stretching it, and it caught them.
His heart beat faster. Sweat sprang out under his arms, on his face and neck. He twitched the sky skin one way, and the people almost slid off it; jerked it back, and they were lying in a billow of it, cradled. He worked it like a stunt kite with sweat-slicked hands until the children dropped to the ground without harm, then released it; it fled upwards, past other waves, and stretched to nothing in the upper air.
Shivering, he stared at the boy and girl. The girl looked pale. The boy came at him. “What’d you do, Mr. Renfield, what’d you do? Why couldn’t you leave us alone!” he yelled. His shoulders heaved with each fierce breath he took.
“You’ve got to think,” Tom said. His teeth knocked against each other. Exhaustion lay on him like a heavy blanket. “There are too many ghosts here already. They live on their regrets. Don’t do it.”
thought,” said the boy. “We—oh, forget it!” He stamped away, gripping the girl’s arm, dragging her toward the student parking lot.
“What happened!” said a voice. Tom turned and saw Betsy, one of the cafeteria workers, coming across the yard toward him. “What happened?”
Wondering how much she had seen, Tom shrugged and turned back toward the Rutherford Building. He had tools to put away before school started. He heard the cafeteria worker’s steps following him a moment, but then they stopped. He managed to clean up and leave without running into her again.
* * *
Laura Bolte put the sack of groceries on the front stoop of her Portland apartment building and unlocked her mailbox. An advertising circular, a windowed envelope that she hoped held a check, and another envelope fell out. She caught the circular and the windowed envelope. The third envelope landed on the pale blue stoop. Square, thick, and apricot in the afternoon sun, it had fallen face down.
She hesitated. Something about the size and color reminded her of an afternoon from those childhood years she had cut off
and cast adrift. She reached for the envelope, then snatched her hand back, remembering. Mother had asked her to address wedding invitations, since she had the best handwriting among the five children. Most of the envelopes went to the same place, to Southwater Clan down by Klamath Falls, but the head of every family must receive one, with each family member listed on the outside; it was part of the Way, the thread that bound the bones. Consulting the Family Book, Laura wrote and wrote, striving to make each letter of each name beautiful, until her hand shook with weariness.
She stared at the envelope. She wanted to step on it, pass over it and go upstairs, pretending she had never seen it. But that would cause trouble. The envelope had come to this address; therefore somebody in the family knew where she lived, despite her frequent moves. If someone could find her here, someone could find her wherever she ran.
She picked up the envelope, turned it over, and saw her brother Michael’s handwriting.
She sighed, tucked the three pieces of mail in her grocery sack, lifted it, and went on into the building.
She had a walk-up on the third floor. She closed the door behind her and stood leaning against it, looking at her living room and wondering what Michael would think if he came here. Below three lace-curtained windows, a white couch held a scattering of small square delft-blue pillows. The round rug was white with a fleecy edge, decorated with a spiral of colored appliqué depicting vines. The coffee table, a brass frame supporting a clear glass top, held three magazines, one with Laura’s face half-smiling from the cover.