Again Elton stretched his fingers out over the far edge of his desk, and again they curled. Shy, in their own way.
Her voice hammered down.
“You impertinent little devil! What did I say?”
Elton blubbered, setting the boys in the class to snickering. He pressed his palms to the smooth oak top and pointed ten times at the chalkboard.
Miss Humphreys’ willow switch cracked down too fast to see. Elton leapt yelping to his feet and flapped his fingers in the air.
“Nose to the corner,” Miss Humphreys said. “For the rest of this Lord’s day.” She pointed with the switch, as if Elton and every other student didn’t already know which corner she meant.
Elton looked down at Royce with his slickened hair parted in a gentlemanly fashion. Royce shuffled in his desk and smiled softly.
“Please,” Elton stammered. “No. I—”
“Ah! So soon? Such moxie!”
Elton knelt by his desk and spread his fingers again but Mrs. Humphreys had seen enough. She grabbed him with a twist to the ear, adding in a pinch of her nails for good measure and, ignoring Elton’s squeals, deposited him at the front corner of the room next to the shelf of readers tattered and worn, behind the chipped enamel globe, far away from the heat of the pot-bellied stove.
“Kneel,” Miss Humphreys said, “if it suits you so. Pray for absolution. Think only of your shame.”
Elton mumbled from the corner but Miss Humphreys turned away.
“Now, where were we?” she asked.
A score of students focused upon their slates.
For the remainder of the morning, whenever Miss Humphreys was sure to be distracted, hesitant glances were cast at Elton’s back. His forehead stayed pressed to the corner. His arms hung slack at his sides.
During arithmetic facts and figures, he never turned around.
When Fabius Maximus targeted supply lines like a rabid Mescalero, Elton kept his shoulders stone-still.
Even when cinnamon-pigtailed Genevieve, whom it was rumored Elton favored, went up front to gather and pass out the readers, he didn’t offer the slightest twitch.
At recess the wind blew chill and steady through the dry grass and bottlebrush. The older children stole to the eastern side of the school.
“Can you see ‘em?” Genevieve asked.
“Shh.” Oliver, the tallest eighth grader, stood on his toes and peeked through the window. “He’s there.”
Oliver ducked down quickly. The other dozen students followed suit. “She’s heatin’ a coffee atop the stove.”
The group walked back to the school’s front porch. They pressed close to the peeling white woodwork, out of the wind’s reach.
Genevieve glared at Royce. “What’d you tell him?”
“Nothin’,” Royce said.
“You said somethin’ that got him scared.”
“Royce Kroupa, you ain’t ever goin’ to heaven!”
Royce chuckled. “You want to know too?”
“Tell us,” Oliver said. The crowd of kids were in like agreement.
“All right then.” Royce sniffed and squinted at October’s bare horizon. “I had a tutor for a spell.”
“Yeah,” Genevieve said. “Like you ain’t brought that up none.”
“Well, it’s true and he told me stuff, on account of he knows how teachers think. ‘Cause he sorta is one, follow?”
The group agreed.
“There’s reasons why they choose the corner, and not say, the stoop or the recitin’ bench.”
Royce looked slowly from eye to eye. No one interrupted.
“There’s somethin’ there,” he said.
“What are you on about?” Genevieve asked with blatant doubt.
“In olden times. Like the General Whatsit—”
“Maximus?” Oliver offered.
Royce snapped his fingers. “Maximus. Back then they done it too. That’s where the teachers learned it. They’d perch a kid in the corner with his nose up close where he can smell the woodwork, right?”
The group muttered. They’d all had a stint in the corner at one time or another.
“Well,” Royce said. “It’s a test, see? There’s something in the corner. In every corner.” His excitement continued to build. “And when it sees a young’un that’s unwanted, just a burden on the world, why sometimes, if it’s particu-airily hungry, it reaches out and snatches ‘em up!”
“From the corner,” Genevieve said slowly with her lids half-closed.
“You bet. It’s a paper man. It sidles out edgewise. Anything in the corner is its. You stand there long enough and you’re in a serious way.”
“Paper?” Oliver asked. “That ain’t worth frettin’.”
“Naw, but it’s witchy and edge-sharp. Prunes the fingers of pilferin’ nibblers and takes the tongues of fibbers. Then, before you know what’s yours, it rumples you up like a pleat. Swallows you down then and there or fobs you in its pocket for later snackin’.”
“I oughta tell your pa,” Genevieve said. “Let him know how you spin lies and stories.”
Royce chuckled dryly.
Though Oliver also seemed unimpressed, the other students were quiet. The wind kicked up in a bluster, whipping hair and loose clothing about, yet Royce’s perfect part stayed in place.
“I’ll prove it’s so,” he said. “Watch.”
Miss Humphreys rang the class bell to end morning recess and the children hurried back inside. Elton still hadn’t moved from his place up front. Miss Humphreys gave him all the attention of a foot stool. While the next lesson was being prepared Royce raised his hand.
“Yes, Mr. Kroupa?” Miss Humphreys asked.
“I was a-wonderin’—”
“Wondering,” she corrected.
“Yes’m. In olden times, those codger Romans?”
Miss Humphreys blinked rapidly, perhaps a bit taken aback that anyone in the class wanted to know more, this student in particular.
“They had teachers and such back then?” Royce asked.
“They set up the how and why of schoolin’.”
“Well—” Miss Humphreys rubbed the bridge of her long nose. She pushed her glasses back high. “To some extent, yes. The Greeks and the Romans taught us the value of a learned society.”
“But,” Royce said, his tone dramatically falling, “they had dark ways.”
“And who told you that?”
“Genny, she did.”
Genevieve pressed her lips into a dour frown.
“Well,” Miss Humphreys said, “she would be correct.”
“She says they used to fodder their kids to the coyotes.”
“Wolves. That may be—”
“Like offal. If’n a kid wasn’t fit and kelter, they had ways. Weird rites and sacrificin’. Ain’t—isn’t that so?”
Miss Humphreys gave Genevieve a knowing look. “Yes, they were most unchristian, and we will speak no more of that.”
“Sinister,” Royce said.
“I said, no more.”
Royce let the issue drop but turned with nods and winks. The younger students fidgeted in their front row seats. Elton still hadn’t moved.
That breezy Monday was Miss Humphreys’ last lesson. What had happened that day was now whispered gossip in neighboring counties. Deep into November, Mrs. Marin, the pastor’s wife, agreed to start the classroom up again, once the holidays were finished. The parents expected more than delicacy from their namesakes, but they couldn’t very well force them back when they too quickened their pace before the schoolhouse.
Royce crouched in the dust before Farley’s Implements. His dark hair hung loose and disheveled. He watched sporadic movement through the store windows and waited for someone to exit.
A clatter arose from the eastern street. Royce turned to see Genevieve and her younger brother pulling a cart as shallow as a milk-pan.
“Best get outta the dirt,” Genevieve said. “A big ol’ dung bug’s gonna come along and roll you up.”
Royce sneered. “You should talk, beast-o-burden.”
“Digby’s got an abscess.” Genevieve propped the handcart’s yoke on the hitching rail. “My Pa’s lettin’ him heal up.”
Genevieve secured the cart with a leather thong. She appraised Royce’s mount, a fine charcoal-gray steed also hitched in place. She petted it along the flank before handing a scrap of paper to her brother.
“Show Mr. Farley,” she said, “and help him tote it all out.”
Her brother nodded and jogged inside.
“Good luck pulling it upland laded low,” Royce said. “Maybe some blam’d Mormonite will show you the technique proper, march you all the way to Utah Territory. Good riddance, I say!”
“You’d like to see me go, would you?”
“You bet. I—” Royce blinked hard and shuddered. He affected hushed tones. “Heard about Ollie?”
“My Pa says he’s at Pierpont. Been so a couple weeks now.”
“He has an uncle there, at the paper mill.”
“Is he still—”
“I really can’t say. S’pose he’s managin’.”
The students had at first celebrated the afternoon recess bell not calling them in. But with enough delay even children question a blessing. As always, Oliver had been the obvious choice to look over the sill. He’d stared through the windowpane in pale silence. After a moment he slumped into a listless heap. He started to cry. When he began to scream the students ran.
“Your pa,” Royce said. “He was deputized?”
“He was at that.”
“Ollie said—” Royce rubbed at his mouth and grimaced.
“I was there too, you know.”
“He said it chews from the feet up.” Royce licked his lips. “So you can watch it work.”
“Your Pa saw what was left.”
“Yours did too. Ask him of it.”
“We’re not on speakin’ terms.”
Genevieve gave a quizzical look and glanced over her shoulder at the implements store.
“Genny,” Royce said, “tell me.”
“You look tepid, sittin’ out in the road. You’re not cracked are you?”
“What’d they find in there?”
Genevieve smirked. “Stand up if you ain’t.”
Royce struggled to his feet and made a weak attempt at dusting himself clean.
“Help me uphill?” Genevieve asked.
With a set frown Royce agreed.
Genevieve gave another check to her brother, still busy with Mr. Farley. She spoke low. “My Pa went in with the others. Doors and windows latched, pegged shut from within, you heard?”
Royce swallowed and nodded quickly.
“The men had to chop the door open. Place was empty, of—you know, anything lively. There wasn’t nothing of a person left, just a mess of hair and meat and bones crunched into splinters. My Pa once saw a fella get spindled ‘round a locomotive axle. It was like that, he said.”
“Ollie said it was in the corner,” Royce said. “The corner.”
“Right enough. That’s where the mess was, all smeared and stuck into the slats. In fact—” Genevieve wrinkled her nose. “They were up above too.”
“I don’t follow.”
“‘Bove the ceilin’. In the rafters.”
Royce rubbed his forehead.
“You all right?” Genevieve asked.
“Both of ‘em?”
“Just a mess of scraps, but not their clothes. They were set aside nice and clean. Folded up tight too like they’d been wringered, pressed fancy.”
Royce fought back a whimper. He grabbed Genevieve’s arm. Her eyes widened.
“Genny,” he said. “I made it up. It ain’t a real thing.”
“You don’t need to go fessin’ to me. I can tell when you lie.”
Mr. Farley and Genevieve’s brother exited the shop with bundles in hand. After a quick exchange of pleasantries, they deposited sacks of flour as well as a wrapped slab of salted beef in back of the cart. They went back inside.
“It ain’t real,” Royce said.
“But—if—” He spluttered. “Then how?”
“Talk about the devil and his imps’ll appear.”
“Yes, Royce Kroupa, you villain. The devil.”
“And you’re not scared?”
“Why should I be? I’m God-fearin’.”
“So was Miss Humphreys.”
Genevieve scoffed. “She was mean as a cur-dog.”
“But what about El?”
“Don’t know what was in his heart,” Genevieve said. “But I know what’s in mine. And I’ve got a good guess what’s in yours.”
Mr. Farley returned and placed a cask of molasses and two cakes of beeswax onto the cart. “Are you able to haul this, little miss?”
“Yes sir,” she said. “My friend Royce is helpin’.”
“Why, Master Kroupa.” Mr. Farley wiped his hands on his leather smock. “That’s right decent.”
“Can you bring me two flasks of kerosene?” Royce asked. He reached into his pocket and retrieved a few coins. Farley nodded his ascent and retreated to the store.
“Why do you need that?” Genevieve squinted her brow down low.
“My Pa won’t give me none,” Royce said.
“My lamp. What you think?”
“That you’re gonna set that school to kindling.”
Royce rubbed at his mouth. “That wouldn’t do any good. Let’s rope Smokey round the saddle horn to tow. You’ll still need to walk it, but—”
“A gentleman wouldn’t ride and leave a lady pullin’.”
“Don’t see no—” Royce held his tongue.
“I want to ride,” Genevieve said.
Royce unhitched his horse and walked him out into the road.
“We’ll turn them both around first.”
They shuffled out of town, cutting away from the lifelessly shallow river and winding up the eastern slope. In his mind, Royce could picture how far away Genevieve lived, but measuring it with footfalls drove the fact home flat and flush. From atop Smokey’s back, Genevieve turned and watched Royce with her usual look of smug judgment, as if his every scuff and stumble pointed to some masculine flaw. Royce squeezed the cart handle tight and leaned against it with his chest. He gave a sideways glance to Genevieve’s little brother, puffing beside him.
Genevieve. How Royce hated her. He loathed that freckle-splattered nose and those twin bouncing braids like fat coils of gallow-grass or maybe straw and those arms, even under this sun talcy smooth just like the soft curve of her neck. She was smiling again. Royce watched Smokey’s hooves clop moons into the dust.
A half-hour later they reached the farmhouse, a sad place, unpainted and listing to one side. Genevieve dismounted and her mother hurried out from the house to greet her. Royce almost laughed—they looked so much alike—but he kept himself somber.
“Wanna come in for a drink?” Genevieve asked.
“Naw, got my canteen.”
“It’s okay if—”
“I’d rather not.”
Royce hoisted himself up in the saddle. Genevieve handed him his flasks from the cart. She didn’t release fully so he gave them a little tug. He dropped them in his saddlebag and with a clack of his tongue spun his ride back the way he came.
He rode slowly without looking back. He knew those two were watching him. Funny, he could tell the brother wasn’t, but the ladies were. He could picture them turning to one another and clucking, nodding, about what? Their gaze tickled the back of his neck.
These last weeks had honed his scrutiny sharper than a tattler’s tongue. He’d gained an earthly second-sight, one born not of divine intuition but rather upon mundane instinct and suspicion. Back when he still dared enter the house, he knew how many flies beat against the window pane. Knew a seven-legged spider with a crooked back had scuttled from the kitchen and was making its way to the cellar. He knew that clockwork patter-splat to be a burning tallow that had crested its crown to dribble wax pools on the mantle.
On the ride out of town he’d turned and picked out onlookers in storefront windows with ease. They’d shown surprise when he’d met their eye so quickly, with such speed that he’d read their expressions before they could mask them—equal parts astonishment and amusement.
He could feel it now—every nerve tingling. As he rode down by the bend and finally out of view of Genevieve’s house, the warm tug of another claimed his focus. Nothing he could prove, just a queasy wariness, like when you spy two people whispering amongst themselves and a pair of lips forms your name.
To his left was Willoughby Bicker’s empty barn. The old lout was nowhere near. He was probably at his stead, unconscious in the shade and stinking of mescal and damp trousers. The barn’s door sat edged to the side revealing an inky swath of the interior.
Every fiber within told him to kick to a gallop. Don’t look, leave it behind. But maybe she was right. His soul was sour. He knew it and she knew it along with everyone else. That’s why his generosity caused others to do a double-take. Genevieve didn’t care about Ollie’s charge because she didn’t need to. Royce wanted that sense of ease too.
He pulled the reigns back and Smokey came to a halt.
He watched the darkness. The darkness watched him.
Royce hopped to the ground. He crunched over the brittle grass and dry ground caked and cracked like gator skin. He was treading upon a giant and this was its gullet. Royce stopped a safe distance away from the barn.
A swallow had built a nest upon the main door. Spider webs threaded across the entrance. Royce eyed the husks of insects that had foolishly thought the way clear.
“Ain’t afraid,” he called out. His voice wavered.
He waited for a response. A tickling heat crawled across his face. It stopped on his throat. Royce swallowed.
“Went to church,” he said. “Confessed and did wine and wafer and all o’ that!”
But did you tell the Father every sin?
Royce squinted hard, but only for a second. The darkness needed to be watched lest it seep free of the sun’s hold, blot the doorway like an inkspill and reach out to stain him. He wiped his eyes. He could almost make out the barn’s back corner, hidden in the dusty murk. He looked back at Smokey. The horse had wandered to the roadside to pick at dried clover.
Royce hadn’t heard anything. His own mind filled in the response. The words lived within him. It was just a stupid story he’d spun on the spot. And yet Ollie had said—
You placed him upon the altar.
“Ain’t my fault. He’s stupid.”
Royce shifted his weight uneasily. “You ain’t real. Figmented is all.”
The wind gusted, perfectly natural for late autumn, not menacing at all. The barn didn’t just exhale, fetid and as thirsty as parchment.
A touch brushed Royce’s face. Sticky and yielding, pulled tight and now snapping. Royce stopped within the doorway’s gap. He hadn’t willed his feet forward yet they’d taken him there just the same.
In the near darkness two steps away from the sun’s amber cast, a form shifted, a shadow within a shadow, just a thread hanging in the air. It turned and slid its razor profile sideways for Royce to see, forcing him to drink in the sickening horror of its form.
It towered a half-height over an average man, with long pale limbs the color of dust and a torso stretched thin. There was no depth to its body, which seemed to be plastered against an impossible nothing. It stood indifferent and naked, for who or what could clothe it? Its every joint was knuckled and swollen like those of an arthritic. Its ribs pinched across the shell of its chest.
Soundlessly, it slouched to all fours. It loped toward the barn door with its hind in the air. It lifted its head to reveal a black slash of a mouth yawning open under a leering face crowned with tongues.
With a frantic cry Royce staggered back into the sunlight. He slipped once on the loose earth. A paper finger rustled by his ear and a grip tugged at his jeans. He wrenched his leg away with a rending tear like a blade through sackcloth and scuttled backward sobbing. Somehow he found his feet and launched himself up into his horse’s saddle.
The wind whipped his tears away. He’d never ridden faster.
Royce raced up the shaded approach to the ranch at a full gallop. The homestead, two stories tall and generously wide, offered no comfort. He hadn’t stepped inside its doors in nearly a month. On the front porch sat his father, appraising him with a skeptic’s eye. His father motioned with his chin to Mr. Henwick, who headed the southern acres. Henwick gave a chagrined smirk and headed past Royce to the bunkhouse where the rest of the hands could be heard gathering for supper. The wind carried their chatter along with the acrid smoke from their fires.
Royce gave a leery glance at Henwick as he passed, yet offered no greeting. Henwick had tried to catch him a couple of weeks ago.
“Well, boy?” his father asked.
Royce looked behind him to check on both Henwick’s retreating back as well as the front approach. Nothing was pursuing.
“Come to your senses?” Royce’s father looked him once over, ponderously from head to toe. “Can’t say you look it.”
“I’d like to.”
“The devil’s after me, Pa. It’s . . . I’m a liar.”
Royce’s father scoffed. “Don’t I know it.” He tapped a rolled cigarette from a tin and held it between his lips.
“If you can get Pastor Marin to come out I—”
“What, that again?”
“I didn’t tell him all. That’s why it’s still chasin’ me.”
Royce’s father pulled a Lucifer between pinched sandpaper. It popped alight in a cloud of blue sulfur. He touched its flame to his cigarette and then flipped the matchstick out into the dirt. Royce watched it smolder out. When he looked up again his father’s eyes were upon him. The old guy breathed in deeply and exhaled a slow cloud.
“What’d you do, boy?”
“It was my fault they were there.”
“They . . .” Royce’s father nodded and puffed again. “How so?”
“I told El that Miss Humphreys was a wren at the Battle of Gonzales.”
“Nymph du prairie? That ol’ gal?”
“It was a story.”
“Hmm.” Royce’s father drew in again. He chuckle-coughed and shook his head.
“El asked her ‘bout it, not knowing.”
“Blasted shanny, that boy. That’s why you need proper learning.”
“Yes, sir. But you see?”
Royce’s father watched the bunkhouse. The northern crew was just arriving to whoops and hollers from their southern counterparts, already kicked back and passing a jug of coffin varnish.
“I’m to blame. I put them there. And—and I . . .”
“Spit it out.”
“It’s my fault. I made it real.”
“Your specter again?”
“It’s not. It’s a devil, Genny says. I—” Royce frowned at the porch’s deepening shadows. “I believe her. I’ve seen it up close. It’s everything I said an’ worse. I need to talk to Pastor Marin. One more time.”
Royce’s father rose without answering. He moved to the front steps and mustered a backward shuffle from Royce. He stopped and eyed his son coolly. For a long while the two stood motionless. The cigarette slowly burned itself down to a stub.
The old man finally spoke. “Your Ma was into churchin’ too. Mends all ills, that’s what she thought.”
Royce scowled with his lips tight.
“She lay in that bed for a fortnight.” Royce’s father stepped forward off the front step. “Prayed up to the end. Hell, I joined her.”
“I remember,” Royce whispered.
“Hard not to.” Royce’s father spit the stub of his cigarette to the ground and ground it under the toe of his boot. He stopped within an arm’s reach of Royce. It was the closest the two had been in weeks. Royce blinked quickly. His eyes welled with tears.
“There aren’t any haunts or devils or any other whatnots.”
“But, Pa. I seen it.”
Royce’s father put his hands on his son’s shoulders. The boy winced. “I know you think so. And if there were angels then I might say maybe, but—no, not with what I put on the table. Any fool would have taken the trade. There’s nothing.”
“It sliced my cuff though. Look.”
“You’re seeing one thing and picturing another.”
Royce’s father hugged him tight. Royce went tense for a moment but somehow fought his fears and hugged his father back. It didn’t escape him that the clamor from the bunkhouse had dropped away to a murmur. Both crews were studying this exchange. He felt every pair of eyes on him, plus another.
Royce snapped alert.
“Son, trust me. You’re safe here.”
Royce frantically searched the porch, the windows, and every visible room. His bedroom shades fluttered. For an instant a familiar face was there, pallid and thin with a mouth torn ragged. It flitted past the kitchen window. A motion came from behind the front door.
“Let’s go inside,” his father said.
“We’ll just sit on the step, muse a bit, have a drink. You can tell me—”
Royce tried to shove himself away but his father kept himself clenched tight.
“Boy, you need to trust me.”
He grabbed Royce firmly about the wrist. Royce twisted in his grip but this hold wasn’t about to be broken. Those old hands had pulled too much wire and tugged down too many unruly steers. He had him.
“You’ll see. We’ll sit together like men and—”
Royce’s left streaked upward to crack against his father’s jaw. The old man sprawled into a heap. Shouts went up from behind him but Royce didn’t turn to look. He knew how far back the hands were and had no doubt that he could make the edge of the woods before their longer legs could reach him.
He charged into the brush. The branches tore at him. He held his forearm before his face to stop the worst of the lashings and plowed forward. The cries behind him faded. He knew he was being let go. He felt the moment when his father’s gaze turned away.
Royce had set up camp in a sheltered outcropping a short jog up from a thread-thin stream, a mile and a half away from his home. He poked through the remains of the camp—a cold firepit, a small box of hatchets and saws he’d swiped from outside the bunkhouse, and a sack of foodstuffs that he’d hoisted high off the ground to keep them out of reach of animals and insects. He’d swiped the food out of the back of one of the kitchen’s stock wagons. At the time of the heist he’d fancied himself quite clever. Upon further reflection it seemed curious that the pack he’d taken had been so properly stocked for his needs. Royce rubbed his knuckles. They still ached. There probably wouldn’t be another pack waiting for him.
The wind picked up, setting the treetops to swaying and sending tawny clouds of pollen billowing from their branches. The well water scent of the air and the hastily deepening dusk announced an approaching storm. Royce used to enjoy such things, sitting in his room and watching the water cascade in rivulets down the glass, but he supposed he’d never experience that again.
He pulled his laundry off a makeshift line and after bundling it tight, stuffed the goods in what he hoped would remain a dry nook in the rockface. He’d already done the same with a bundle of sticks and a supply of torchwood. He’d weather this unscathed provided the storm didn’t go on too long.
Royce drew his line between two opposing rocks and threw a waxed canvas sheet over it. He weighed the corners down with heavy stones just as the first overhead crack of thunder pealed in sagging clouds the color of sooty plums. He struggled with his lantern to no avail. The kerosene had been left in the saddlebags. Smokey was probably in the barn by now and Royce’s purchased goods sacked away somewhere never to be seen again. The rain fell and Royce sat.
Over the last weeks he’d given plenty of thought to his options. He knew the Paper Man needed the buildings. It followed him, always guessing his destination and spying from afar. It peered out of neighbors’ windows or from the cracked doors of old sheds. Sometimes he saw it and sometimes he felt it. When he reached his destination it watched and waited for him to get too close. It followed him back the same way.
Yet in the barn when it had gotten so near, it didn’t scramble out into the sunlight to snatch him up. It could move quickly between corners but was held in check by the bounds of the structure. He just had to lose it. He could follow the stream south and leave it behind. It would flit from his home to town to school but it would never guess where he’d gone, not with the entire continent to choose from. The others should be safe for it didn’t seem to want anyone else, just Miss Humphreys for thrashing it so soundly and Royce for telling his lie.
“El,” Royce said. “I didn’t mean it. I swear it.” He tried not to think of that thing in the barn. That thing with Elton’s face.
He lay back and watched the canvas ripple. The rain slapped against the tent’s sides. It traced its way down the sagging line and dripped over Royce’s head. He wished he had a cup or even his canteen with which to catch it. The canvas’s left wall pressed in and the right wall snapped back and forth with the gusts. Royce felt eyes upon him and only then realized what he had done.
Elton’s face slid out of the canvas crease. Arms and legs followed. Royce didn’t wait for more. He flung himself toward the exit. He was plucked out of the air and thrown back to ground.
It slithered down with the rain, with its thin limbs coiling and wrapping, cocooning Royce’s struggling form and cinching his jaw tight. He hummed his screams.
“Belief is a funny thing,” it said. “Faith, some call it. It moves mountains.”
Royce writhed in its grip and wept.
“I was like you once.” It held his face close to its own and pushed his hair back into a loose part. “I can almost remember.”
A tug and a snip and another tongue was added to its crown. As Royce frothed a drawn-out scream, it squeezed his remaining stub tight and slid under his clothes. A twist of its body and they were left in tatters.
“They stick to the teeth.” It pressed its body to his.
Royce howled and burbled. Tears streaked down his cheeks. The Paper Man laughed and, without drawing its hand from his mouth, squeezed his jaw shut again.
“No? I shouldn’t? Well, I think we’ll try something different then, something new. You deserve to see what you’ve created. We’ll go places, meet new faces, just the two of us.” It sniffed the air. “A fresh lamb awaits. Just a hop and a skip from here. Wait ‘til you see!” It twined down his body and held his feet between long fingers. “I have it on good authority that this works.”
It started from the toes and folded him up tight and smooth, as thin as paper.