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Liesl & Po, Page 3

Lauren Oliver

  Po flipped upside down and then righted itself, still obviously confused. “But why should you wish anything for me?”

  “It’s an expression,” Liesl said. Then she thought hard for a minute. “People need other people to feel things for them,” she said. “It gets lonely to feel things all by yourself.”

  Po appeared next to her. And suddenly she felt Bundle around her, a pile in her lap, a bare outline in the dark. The ghost-pet had no warmth or weight, but still she could sense it. It was hard to describe: as though the darkness beside her had texture, suddenly, like a deep drift of velvet.

  Po asked, “Did you remember the drawing?”

  Liesl had drawn Po a train with wings attached to its side: great big feathery wings, like those of the sparrows she saw perched on the rooftops directly across from her window. She passed the drawing to the ghost before remembering that the ghost had no hands with which to grab the sheet of paper. Instead she held it out, and the ghost looked at it thoughtfully for a minute or two.

  At last the ghost seemed satisfied and said, “I’ve found your father for you. He is on the Other Side.” Bundle made a mewing noise in the back of its throat.

  Liesl did not know whether to be relieved or unhappy, so she felt both at the same time: a terrible feeling, like two sharp blades running through her in different directions. “Are you—are you sure? Is it definitely him?”

  “I’m sure,” Po said, and stood again, drifting like a mist to the middle of the room.

  “Did you—did you speak to him? Did you speak to him about me?” Liesl’s voice was a bare squeak. “Did you tell him I miss him? And did you tell him good-bye?”

  “There was no time,” Po said, and Liesl thought she heard something in its voice. A sadness, perhaps.

  Po was sad, because the ghost knew that in the vast oceans of time that surrounded it endlessly on either side, somehow there was never enough time for the very things you needed to say and do. But it would not tell Liesl that.

  Liesl’s eyes were bright. Even when she was sad, she seemed full of hope. You could see the hope shining off her: It made its own glow, as though inside of her a lamp was illuminated.

  Liesl was silent for a minute. “What does it mean?” she said finally. “That he is there, on the Other Side? I mean, why hasn’t he . . . gone Beyond?”

  Po shrugged. “It depends. It could mean lots of things. He is still—attached to the Living Side. Waiting for something, maybe.”

  “Waiting for what?” Liesl could hardly stand it. She couldn’t stand not to know; she couldn’t stand not to be able to speak to him, and ask. The heaviness pressed down on her chest, and she felt like curling up in a ball, and closing her eyes, and sleeping. But Po was there, watching her, and Bundle was still a soft fold of darkness in her lap, so she didn’t.

  Po thought about the man who had shuffled by him in the endless line of new souls, shaking his head, with his hair sticking up every which way as though he had just been rudely and suddenly awakened from a nap. He had been speaking to a soul coming along directly behind him, repeating the same story over and over. That was a thing about the recently dead. They still spoke to one another out loud. They had not yet learned to communicate without words. They had not learned the language of the deepest pools of the universe; the high, unvoiced rhythms of the planets in orbit; the language of being and breath.

  “He spoke of a willow tree,” Po said. “The willow tree stood next to a lake, and he spoke of wanting to go there again.”

  Liesl’s heart tightened in her chest. For a moment she couldn’t say anything at all. Then she burst out, “So you aren’t lying. You did see him after all.”

  “Of course I’m not lying.” Po’s edges flared. “Ghosts never lie. We have no reason to.”

  Liesl did not notice that Po had been offended. “I remem-ber the willow tree, and the lake. That’s where my mother was buried. We used to go there, before—before—” At the last second Liesl couldn’t say before my dad met Augusta or before we moved to Dirge or before he got sick or before Augusta locked me in the attic. She had almost forgotten there was a Before.

  Now she remembered. And so she squeezed her eyes tight and climbed down the tower of months she had been in the attic, reaching back and back into the rooms of her memory that were dusty and so dim she could catch only little, flickering glances of things. There! Her father leading her into the shade of the great willow tree, patterns of green dancing across his cheeks. And there! Liesl laying her cheek on the velvety soft moss that grew above her mother’s grave. And there! If she turned to the left—if she concentrated hard enough—flaring to life in front of her: her father’s kind blue eyes, the comforting roughness of his arms around her, his voice in her ear saying, “Someday I’ll come back here, to lie beside your mother again.”

  “The sun still shined then,” Liesl said. It had been a long time since she had said the word sun. It had a strange, light taste in her mouth.

  Liesl had long ago lost count, but the sun had not come out in 1,728 days. One day the clouds had come, as they often had before. Nobody was especially concerned. The clouds would surely break up tomorrow, or the next day, or certainly the day after that.

  But they had not broken up for 1,728 days in a row. Sometimes it rained. In the winter there was hail and slush. But it was never sunny.

  Over time, the grass had withered into dirt. Flowers had curled back deep on themselves, withdrawing into the ground, seeds that could never bloom. The whole world was a dull gray color, even the people in it—everything the bland pale gray of vegetables that had been boiled into slime. Only potatoes grew with any regularity; and all across the world, people starved.

  Even those who ate well—the rich—were starving, though they could not have said for what, exactly. But they woke with a gnawing hunger in their stomachs and chests, hunger so fierce and overwhelming it crippled them, made them bend over with sudden cries of pain, made them almost nauseous.

  “It was a long time ago,” Po said.

  “Longer.” Liesl felt heavy again. She repeated the word ineffable clearly, three times, in her head, lingering over the gentle slope of the double fs, like the soft peaks of the whipped cream she remembered from her early childhood, and this made her feel slightly better.

  “They brought him here today, you know. I heard the servants talking. Through the radiator.” Liesl pointed to the radiator in the corner. Sometimes, when she got very lonely, she lay down there and pressed her ear to the floor, where a small hole allowed a water pipe to pass through between floors. Through it she could often hear two of her step-mother’s servants, Tessie and Karen, conversing in their bedroom below. “They took his body and they turned it into ash, and they put the ash in a wooden box, and Karen got it today from Mr. Gray. They will bury the box in the backyard.” For a moment she was overcome. She closed her eyes, and when she opened them, she saw two disks of moonlight staring unblinkingly back at her. Bundle was still in her lap, watching her.

  “If you see him again, will you give him a message for me?” Liesl asked Po.

  “The chances I will see him again are next to nothing,” Po said. The ghost did not want the girl to get her hopes up. It might not even recognize Liesl’s father if it saw him again; by then, Liesl’s father might not recognize himself. He might have begun to blur, letting the infinity tug on him gently from all sides, like sand being pulled by an eternal tide. He might have already begun the process of becoming part of the Everything. He would begin to feel the electri-city from distant stars pulsing through him like a heartbeat. He would feel the weight of old planets on his shoulders, and he would feel the winds of distant corners of the universe blowing through him.

  “Next to nothing,” Liesl retorted, “but not nothing.”

  Liesl was quite right about this. Nothing in the world is ever really nothing, and everything is possible in some way, and Po knew it. The ghost made a full turn in the air, which Liesl (correctly) assumed meant that the g
host had taken her point.

  “Tell him,” Liesl said, and found that she was choking up and couldn’t speak. There was so much she wanted to say and so much she wanted to ask, but she refused to cry in front of anyone, especially a ghostly someone, and so she just said, “Tell him I miss him.” Then she turned her face into the sleeve of her nightshirt.

  “All right,” Po said. “If you’ll make another drawing for me.”

  Liesl nodded.

  “Good-bye,” Po said. Bundle vanished from her lap. The darkness there suddenly became empty.

  “Wait!” Liesl called the ghosts back. She was desperate not to be alone again. “Did my father say anything else? Anything at all?”

  Her face was turned up toward Po, and all that hope was clearly there, shining, as bright as the sun that had shone long ago.

  “He said that he missed you,” Po said. “He said good-bye.”

  Liesl made a little cry: a sound that was both happy and sad, Po thought, although it couldn’t be sure.

  It did not stay to find out. Po had already been too long on the Living Side for one night, and the ghost let itself sink back into the softness and the deepness of the Other Side with something like relief.

  Two visits to the Living Side, and the ghost had already become a little more human.

  Po had remembered how to lie.

  Chapter Five

  THAT VERY SAME NIGHT, THE ALCHEMIST’S apprentice was once again weaving his way through the dark and silent city streets, this time struggling to keep up with his master. He pulled his oversized coat closer and ducked his head against the wind, which was fierce and deathly cold. Winter had arrived, there was no doubt about it. The air was full of a wet, sleeting rain, and it stung Will’s cheeks like shards of cut glass.

  The alchemist whipped around and urged him on. “Faster,” he barked. There was a bit of moisture hanging from the tip of his nose, and it trembled a bit before receding into his left nostril. “The Lady Premiere won’t like to be kept waiting.”

  Will tried to urge his feet to move faster, but they seemed to be encased in solid blocks of ice. It was not just the cold, either. His whole body felt heavy, from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. Even his hair felt weightier than usual.

  The problem was simple: He was exhausted. By the time he had returned from making his delivery to the Lady Premiere the night before, it was close to four o’clock in the morning. The alchemist had awakened him at six thirty with a swift kick to the ribs. Will had accidentally overslept his alarm; he was supposed to be out at six to feed the enormous, slimy, bleary-eyed catfish that lived in the foul-smelling pool of water behind the alchemist’s living quarters. Then he had spent the whole day grinding up cow eyes, and measuring the blood of lizards into different-sized vials, and mixing and labeling, while the alchemist watched and criticized. Nothing Will ever did seemed to be correct: The word useless had been thrown around a record sixty-seven times just between the hours of four and six p.m.

  And then, just as Will was sinking into his small cot at eleven thirty p.m.—for once, with no deliveries and no pickups to make—a messenger had rapped sharply at the door. The alchemist was requested at the house of the Lady Premiere, on a matter of some urgency.

  “This is it,” the alchemist had said, his voice trembling with emotion, after the messenger had departed. “This is the moment I’ve been waiting for my whole life. She is going to make me Official. You just wait and see. It is because of the magic I made for her.” Then he glanced sharply in Will’s direction. “And you will see. You must come with me, and take notes. That way, when I’m Official, and my talent is recognized far and wide, there will be a record of the moment of my ascension.”

  And so here Will was, trekking through the dark and ice-covered streets at midnight, returning to the Lady Premiere’s estate for the second time in twenty-four hours.

  “Faster!” bellowed the alchemist, with-out bothering to turn around this time. “What’s wrong with you? Have you forgotten how to walk? Useless!”

  The alchemist’s boots rang out sharply on the pavement, so that more than one child—sleeping in the darkened rooms above the street—had their dreams punctuated by the sound of ice picks, or knives clashing with other knives, or hammers coming down on glass.

  The alchemist could hardly contain his excitement. If it had been up to him, he would have sprouted a pair of wings and flown to the Lady Premiere. But that was impractical, of course. Falcons’ talons were almost impossible to find nowadays, and the cheaper pigeons’ talons were almost useless for growing wings: The one time he had made a potion from them, his client had reported no more than a pair of long, limp feathers that sprouted halfheartedly from his shoulder blades.

  So they walked. Or rather, the alchemist walked. The boy seemed to drag, inch, ooze along like a gigantic slug. For the eighty millionth time, the alchemist wished that when he had gone to the orphanage to select an apprentice, he had selected someone—anyone!—else. Even the girl who was missing both arms would have been preferable.

  “Faster!” he screeched again.

  It was only the second time the alchemist had left his little ramshackle apartment in more than a decade. The first time he had been forced to go select a new apprentice from the orphanage, after the last one had had an unfortunate accident with a transfiguration potion and had been turned into a mouse—just as the alchemist’s scrawny, always hungry tabby cat had come swishing in through the cat door. That apprentice had been hopeless too: really, an absolute pig. Even his death had been messy—little mouse parts scattered everywhere. The alchemist shuddered to think about it.

  In general, the alchemist saw no reason to venture beyond the comfortable limits of his home and studio. Work was everything to him, and he had his apprentice to run the errands necessary for the job. The alchemist was a scientist, not a foot messenger, always darting to and fro. He preferred to spend his time on his trials and experiments, tinkering with the old recipes, trying out new ones—all in search of ever greater, deeper, bigger magic.

  Besides, the alchemist despised people. He tried to avoid interacting with them whenever he could. They did not respect him. They did not respect his science. They referred to him as a hack or, even worse, as a magician.

  Even thinking the word made the alchemist choke a little reflexively. A magician! Ha. Clowns—that’s what they were. Illusionists, smoke and mirrors, card tricks and birthday parties.

  The alchemist was the real deal. He worked in potions and transfigurations. He turned frogs into goats and goats into mugs of tea. He made people grow wings or third legs. Recently he had mastered a tincture that would make a person disappear entirely.

  His was an ancient art, one that had been passed from generation to generation, in whispered secrets and dusty volumes and jotted notes, now nearly faded to illegibility, scrawled on sheets of vellum.

  Long ago, when he had still gone out into the world more frequently, he had shivered and shriveled inside whenever he heard the word magician shouted at him from the open windows, whenever he looked up and saw children pointing to him with expressions of delight, calling, “Do a card trick! Do the one with the ace that disappears!” As though he was no better than a trained performing monkey.

  Well. All that would soon change.

  The alchemist knew that the potion he had mixed for the Lady Premiere was something special. It was undoubtedly his most powerful magic yet. He had been perfecting that particular brand of magic for years, ever since he had come across the promise of its results, written in the margin of an ancient volume of spells and potions.

  The little poem was only three lines long, but the words seemed to carry the power of their promise. They pulsed with energy. The alchemist remembered how the poem had even appeared to glow slightly on the page.

  The dead will rise

  From glade to glen

  And ancient will be young again.

  Below these lines an additional note had been written

  The Most Powerful Magic in the World (use sparingly).

  The meaning was clear enough. The magic could restore youth to the old and bring the dead back to life: ancient, dangerous, powerful magic.

  It had been a complicated and difficult magic to make and control. Just the ingredients required had, at first, been enough to discourage him. A perfect snowflake! The laughter of a child! A summer afternoon! The alchemist had never seen a spell quite like it.

  And then, of course, there was the most difficult ingredient of all to procure: pure sunlight (1 cup).

  That had been tricky. Very tricky and troublesome indeed. He had nearly given up on several occasions; it was very hard to bottle pure sunlight, and over the years the alchemist had had to suck and bleed and wheedle the sky dry, until the sun shriveled up entirely and the world turned to gray.

  But he had done it. After five long years, the alchemist had done it.

  And now the Lady Premiere would acknowledge his genius and celebrate his masterpiece, and he would become the Official Alchemist of the State, or the First Alchemist of the Highest Order, and he would attend state dinners and distribute thick cream-colored business cards with his name and title printed neatly on them—but not his number. It would be for him to decide whom he wanted to contact, and when. And he would have a real laboratory for his experiments, and absolutely no one would dare call him Magician anymore.

  At last they had reached the tall wrought-iron fence that encircled the Lady Premiere’s six-story town house. Beyond the gates a rising mist made it impossible to see the Lady Premiere’s vast residence clearly. But various lit windows smoldered there beyond the fog, and made the alchemist think of rich upholstered furniture, and gold, and dark wood. He was very eager to get inside. The Lady Premiere was a princess in her native country—was it Austria or Russia? The alchemist could never remember. No, no. Perhaps it was Germany. Difficult to know. He had heard different things at different times. In any case, she was wonderfully and fabulously wealthy, and as a favorite of the mayor’s, she was also extremely powerful.