When the boy who should have been a piemaker was nine years, thirty-three weeks, six days, twenty-three hours, and thirty-four minutes old, someone found out what he could do.
His secret was revealed during biology class, when another student at the Longborough School for Boys noticed him bringing frogs back from the dead. At the time, this revelation was lost in the general clamor of boys shouting and frogs leaping for their lives . . . but it was not forgotten.
Two nights later, Louis Lewison brought a dead rat to the would-be piemaker, intending to prove to himself that what he had seen was a figment of his imagination. But Louis Lewison was a large boy, and the room in which they met was dark, and so—quite contrary to his intentions—he successfully intimidated young Ned into showing that the events of biology class were no figment at all.
Nearly a month followed in which young Ned found himself, for the first time, less of an outcast among the other students at the Longborough School. Although still set apart and bereft of friends, he now enjoyed a kind of celebrity, especially given the fascination of boys for things that are dead, things that are jumping, and things that can, at a touch, change between these two states.
This came to an end twenty-four days, nineteen hours, and ten minutes after the fateful biology class, when a black van drew up to the front entrance of the Longborough School for Boys, and certain interested parties came to collect young Ned for a future that would involve no pies at all.
The routine has long since become familiar. The car deposits him in the middle of the desert, next to a cage and a box. Then it drives away.
The cage contains a man: handcuffed, muzzled, and locked behind two sets of bars, with enough empty space between to ensure that even Ned’s long arms could not reach him through the gap. The man wears an orange prison jumpsuit, but Ned has heard enough chance comments over the years to know that not all of the men who occupy the cage are criminals. Maybe none of them are. It hardly matters, though. Even if they left the prisoner unmuzzled, Ned would not bother to ask.
The box is the size of a coffin, but nothing like so elegant. It’s held shut by a latch, and the latch holds an electronic timer. Ned stands in the desert, patiently, watching the numbers count down.
When they reach zero, the box beeps, and the lid pops open by a few inches.
Ned lifts the lid. Inside is a dead woman, wearing the same plain robe as usual. He touches her cheek, and she opens her eyes.
“So you’re their pet necromancer,” she says, sitting up. “Huh. You know, when I forked over the money for this, I was half-sure it was a scam—that the guy they showed me, the one with the hole clean through him, was some kind of trick. A robot, you know, or whatever. But I guess it’s real.” She pauses, studying him. “I thought you’d be older.”
Ned does not respond.
The woman stretches, then pauses again, looking puzzled. With no concern for exposing herself, she drags up the hem of her robe until she can see her ribcage. It’s concave along her right side, and hideously mottled with bruises and pooled blood.
“Damn,” she says. “What was it? Car accident? No, I wasn’t driving. I was—”
“Stop talking,” Ned says, tonelessly. “I’m required to know nothing about who you are or how you died. In five minutes—” He checks his watch. “In four minutes and twenty-one seconds, two cars will arrive. One will take you to a place where you can get dressed and return to your life. After you close the car door, we will never see one another again.”
“And I’ll live forever.” She smiles. It is not a nice smile.
Then she notices the cage. Her smile falls away into curiosity. “What’s with him? Is he dangerous?”
“No,” Ned says. “He is—” He pauses again, looking at his watch. Two seconds later, he finishes his sentence.
It started with neither ice cream nor balloons, though one of the black-suited men who came to collect the would-be piemaker from the Longborough School for Boys did offer him a candy bar. Young Ned accepted it, more out of politeness than any desire to eat it, since having one’s worst nightmares come true often has a detrimental effect upon the appetite. The candy bar went into the pocket of his school jacket and was never seen again. After the black car with no license plates took him to a building hundreds of miles away, the jacket was replaced by plain grey trousers and a matching shirt, which, apart from increasing in size, did not vary for the next twenty years.
The men who now controlled his life had very little interest in Ned, and a great deal of interest in his finger.
Their interest expanded when their first experiments, involving recently-deceased laboratory mice, conclusively proved that whatever the source of the boy’s strange gift, it resided not only in his finger, but in his entire body. After he resurrected dead mice with his palm, his elbow, his toes, and his tongue (but not his hair), they moved on to different experiments.
Through careful measurement and several miles of lead-lined bunker corridor, they established parameters for the operation of his ability. They confirmed that the one-minute limit for revival without secondary death was absolute. They ascertained that distance from the re-alive subject was, in conjunction with the mass and certain other physical variables of said subject, the definitive factor in determining what creature would die in its place after one minute elapsed: given a choice between two creatures of equal “value” to the re-alive subject and two others of greater or lesser value, his gift would invariably kill the closer of the equivalent targets, even if a different value of creature was closer still.
They searched for an outer limit to the range at which secondary death was guaranteed, and failed to find it. Thereafter, they were careful to ensure there was always a target of suitable characteristics at close hand, and they themselves were very far away.
With these parameters established, they began to test other factors. They presented the boy with human corpses in varying states of disrepair: burned, crushed, in multiple pieces. His touch on a torso revived a hand on one side of the room and a head on the other, but touching a hand revived the limb alone. Decay posed no obstacle, though a skeleton could say nothing of use, and had difficulty holding a pen. Even taxidermy failed to stop his power.
He soon lost count of the number of creatures, people, and parts of creatures and people he had revived, and the number that had died as a consequence.
Those who had taken him from the school, however, did not. They kept very good records.
And they found a use for the boy. Multiple uses, in fact, all of which paid, very, very well, and furthermore had effects for the world at large which young Ned, re-aliving frogs in the biology classroom at Longborough, could never have predicted. Nor did he know about them once they began, for the men who used him were very careful to keep him ignorant of anything beyond the immediate facts of his next task. They brought his targets to him, or took him to them in a van with no windows, and in between they told him nothing at all.
It did, however, end in a small white room.
Ned is now twenty-nine years, one week, three days, and thirteen hours old.
He is lying on his back, staring at the ceiling of his room. To any observer—and there is always an observer, watching him through the camera in the corner—his expression is vacant. “It’s all the resurrections,” they say to one another, nodding; these are security guards, not the scientists who have studied his ability in exhaustive detail. “Drains the life right out of him, and into them.”
The truth is that Ned is thinking. He’s practiced this thought many times over the years, perfecting his ability to sink every bit of his attention into its depths. In the small, featureless white room that has been his home for many years now, it’s one of the few ways he has of entertaining himself.
Coat the countertop in a thin but even scattering of flour. Place the dough in the center and, with a floured rolling pin, begin to flatten it out, using long strokes and varying the direction of motion so as to produce a roughly circular pancake of dough.
It’s more than just words in his head. He can smell the warm, dusty scent of the flour, feel the comfortable wooden handles of the rolling pin in his hands and the slightly sticky resistance of the dough beneath it. The kitchen in his mind is his mother’s, back home in Couer d’Couers, and his imagination can see every detail of it, down to the crack in the green and white linoleum next to the refrigerator.
The imaginary pie he is baking is very nearly the only thing he has left of his life before the black van, and it is far preferable to the parade of corpses and worse things that has been his life since then.
He used to wonder about the people who took him from the school, and the purposes to which they put his gift. But wondering led to asking, and asking led to the worse things he’s now carefully ignoring. Far better, he’s learned, to think about pies, and his mother’s kitchen, and happier times, before he learned he could raise the dead.
He’s good enough at thinking about pies that he doesn’t hear the sounds in the corridor outside: a sharp question, and then a dull crack, as if someone has been clubbed over the head with a hard object. (A sound he might not recognize even if he were paying attention. Although clubbed heads are a thing he’s seen many times before, he’s more familiar with the aftermath of blood and bits of skull than with the process that produces them.)
Pour three quarters of a cup of sugar into the bowl . . . It’s a cherry pie he’s baking now; it was supposed to be apple. Perhaps his subconscious has noticed the sounds after all, and anticipates blood.
But when the door to his room opens, his concentration is good enough that he doesn’t look over. They’ll order him to his feet soon enough, and until then, he’ll continue thinking about pie.
The sound he hears, though, isn’t the familiar bored command. It’s a gasp of horror.
“Oh, Ned . . .”
A female voice. There are only three women in this place, and none of them ever speak like that, in a voice full of shock and compassion. No one speaks like that.
The pie vanishes. So does his mother’s kitchen. He’s back in the small white room, and there are two people in the doorway, staring at him. A large black man in a lab coat too small for his shoulders, and a brown-haired young woman whose face is impossibly familiar—impossible because familiar.
He can’t remember her name.
She comes forward two steps, one hand over her mouth. “Ned?” she says, uncertainly. “It—it’s me. Chuck. I’m here to rescue you.”
The facts were these.
Charlotte Charles had not forgotten about the boy next door—the boy with whom she shared her first kiss, the boy who, though she did not know it at the time, had killed her father by bringing his own mother back from the dead for longer than one minute. When she was twenty-one years, six weeks, fourteen days, and five hours old, the thought came to her that young Ned, whom she had not seen since his father took him away to the Longborough School for Boys, had presumably graduated from that school. And when a subsequent thought came to her, it proceeded straight through her brain and out her mouth, in the form of a question.
“I wonder what ever happened to him?”
The question was wistful and a little bit curious, and she did not expect an answer. But her aunt Lily, overhearing her, asked to whom she was referring, and when Charlotte explained, her aunt Vivian responded.
“Oh, people at his school found out he could raise frogs from the dead, and so strange men who may have been working for the government or may have been part of some shadowy ex-governmental organization came and took him away, and nobody ever heard from him again.”
It was not a special offer from Boutique Travel Travel Boutique that propelled Charlotte Charles out of the shut-in life of her agoraphobic aunts, but the burning need to discover what had become of the boy next door, the boy who had called her Chuck.
She went first to the Longborough School, where she questioned teachers and secretaries and the men who swept the floors. When they were not forthcoming with answers, she broke in late one night and ransacked the files of previous students, then hunted them down in alphabetical order to ask what they remembered of young Ned and the men who took him away. From them she learned first that his abilities had not been limited to dead frogs, and second, that she needed assistance.
Which is how Charlotte Charles came to retain the services of a private investigator named Emerson Cod.
Their joint search suffered many digressions along the way, largely occasioned by Charlotte Charles’ inability to pay her ally for more than a month or so of work, which led her to become his assistant instead. But in between investigating other crimes, they pursued the matter of the absent Ned, and at the end of a winding road both literal and metaphorical, they found themselves in a small white room in an underground complex belonging to an organization that was decidedly not governmental, staring at the man they had been hunting for nearly seven years.
“Chuck?” Ned whispers, staring at her. He isn’t surprised. Why should he be? Surprise is for things that are unexpected but comprehensible. That the girl he knew from his previous life should appear in this place is as incomprehensible as a tap-dancing hypodermic needle.
“Oh Ned,” she repeats, and steps forward as if to rush at him and enfold him in a hug. He flings his arms up to ward her off, and she jerks to a halt, staring. “What happened to your hand?”
He looks at the stump of his left wrist, with its precise, faded scar. “It didn’t work,” he says.
“Say what?” Emerson Cod asks.
“Without me. It didn’t work. Whatever the source of the effect may be, it does not persist in my cells when they are separated from my body.”
The words come from the scientists’ report, and make both Chuck and Emerson look sick. She swallows it down first and says, “Right. As if I didn’t have enough reason to want to get you away from these people; now they’ve given me a rocket-powered reason that’s ready for blast-off. Ned, do you remember me?”
He’s staring at her again, slowly putting together pieces that have not been touched in twenty long years. “I killed your father.”
This time it’s Chuck’s turn to flinch.
“Right, confession time comes later,” Emerson said. “Your choice, zombie-man. Either you come with us now, or you stay here with the nice men who cut off your hand to see if it would still go. Which one do you choose?”
A tap-dancing hypodermic needle would make more sense. But he recognizes Chuck, and despite that flinch, she’s still prepared to help him.
“I’ll take that as a, ‘yes, Mr. Cod, and thank you for saving my skinny ass,’” Emerson says. “But you need to change out of them prison scrubs first.”
“Oh, right,” Chuck says, gathering her wits. She slides her backpack to the floor, then unzips it and pulls out slacks and a shirt, tan and blue. The sort of clothes he remembers from years ago. Ned stares at those, too. Chuck reaches for his right hand, as if to lift it and make him accept the pile, but he shies away from the contact. He only touches the dead. And the only people who touch him are the scientists.
She drops the clothes on the bed instead and backs away. “It’s okay. Just get changed, quickly. I don’t know how much longer we have.”
Orders are familiar. He can obey those. Ned pulls off his grey shirt, and hears a whimper from Chuck. She’s staring at the surgical scars. He thinks about explaining, but Emerson is tapping his foot with impatience and casting worried glances around the edge of the door, so he gets dressed instead, and pushes his feet into the shoes Chuck sets within his reach.
Out in the hallway, he pauses. The question is hard to ask; he’s learned too well that questions never end well. But some impulse, waking from a long sleep, pushes the words out of his mouth. “Did you come here to rescue me? Or to stop them?”
“Confession time is later,” Emerson reminds him in an urgent whisper, but Chuck answers.
“I—I don’t know. Both? It started out as rescuing you, and it still is. But these people, they’re a double-dip cone of awfulness, and if you’re offering some way of doing more to them than just taking you away, then keep talking, because I want to know.”
Emerson hisses in annoyance, or possibly panic, but it doesn’t stop Ned.
“It’s just—if you want to stop them—then you may want to take the others, too.”
His is not the only small white room along that corridor.
The boys are all around thirteen or so, give or take a year. All boys, no girls; girls work no better than his severed hand did, a fact which has given the scientists a great deal to think about. Their appearances vary, but the resemblance is still clear.
“Dang, you were busy,” Emerson says, staring.
“I don’t think it was really his choice,” Chuck says. The words are flat, toneless. The hand, and the surgical scars; she’s seen enough to understand how this place works.
Ned says, “They can raise the dead, too. If you want to do more than just rescue me, you should take them.”
The boys are confused and a little bit scared. None of them have a life from before, and they don’t recognize Chuck. But she smiles at them, and her smile could wake the dead, where the dead thing in question is the possibility of a life away from scalpels and people locked up in cages to die.
“Now can we get out of here?” Emerson asks, and they go.
Outside there’s another van. This one is white, and it has windows in the back, and no iron grill behind the front seats.
It also has a driver who hops out when they begin streaming out of the building. She’s a tiny woman in a black catsuit, who looks like she’s ready to break in through an upstairs window and make off with Grandma’s pearls. At least, she would be if she weren’t busy goggling at the small crowd running toward her from the underground complex.
“What is this, a clown car?” she demands, hands on her hips. “You said we were coming here to rescue one guy, not one guy and nine pre-pubescent boys!”
“Plans changed, Olive,” Chuck gasps. She’s been running hard, and there was another scuffle on the way out—a scuffle made more complicated by the tendency of some of the individuals on the other side to get up again after being put down the first time. Whoever wakes a body has to be the one to stop it again, and it took a while to sort that out. (The scientists could have told them this fact, had Emerson been interested in questioning anybody rather than shooting them.)
Emerson drags open the back door of the van. “They’re small; they’ll fit. And there ain’t no dead things back here for them to go sparking up again. Get in!”
They’re all good at obeying orders. They pile in, the nine pre-pubescent boys (four of whom are, in fact, pubescent, and three of those are gawking at Chuck and Olive), followed by Ned and Chuck. Emerson gets into the front alongside Olive, and they peel out even before the back door is shut.
Chuck sags against it once it’s closed. She looks exhausted but exhilarated. The latter is a look Ned barely recognizes. The scientists are usually focused, and sometimes puzzled or annoyed; the corpses he wakes are impatient or smug. The people sacrificed in their place are always terrified. Exhilaration looks to him like the spark that travels from his body into dead flesh, only this one keeps going, infusing Chuck’s whole body with life, and a minute passes and no one dies.
Even the sorrow when she looks at him doesn’t banish that light. “I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” Chuck says.
So is he. But he doesn’t know what would have been early enough: before the experiments got bad? Before they took him from the school, or he re-alived the frogs? Before his father took him away from Couer d’Couers?
Asking rarely ends well—though sometimes, apparently, it does. So he doesn’t ask what took her so long, or how she found him in the first place. He only says, “You came.”
The van zooms down the road, Olive Snook behind the wheel like a NASCAR driver, and for the would-be piemaker and his never-dead childhood love, a second life begins.