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“No,” said the eldest, “I don’t want this. I never wanted this.”

“There are rules,” cried the crow. “We made a deal, and words have power.”

The boy said, “I regret,” and “I would take it back if I could.”

“Yes,” the crow agreed. “But you can’t.”

There is an abandoned house two blocks down, on the corner of Elm Road, where asphalt bleeds into forest. There are a couple dozen myths about it passed around the elementary school, and so most kids avoid it, except on the occasional dare.

Sam and his friends call it the clubhouse. The house groans in protest when they trod on its rotting floorboards and creaks alarmingly when the wind blows, but it is a sanctuary, of a sort. In the winter, it is cold enough to be utterly uninhabitable. In the summer, it is only barely tolerable.

Troy leans out the living room window, avoiding the shards of glass that litter the sill. “Sam,” he calls back into the house, “your baby brother’s coming.”

“God,” Sam sighs, levering himself to his feet. “I can’t catch a break.”

“I thought you sent him to the lake,” Victor pipes up. He twists another delicate metal shape into place. “We’re building robots today.”

“I did,” Sam replies grimly. “He must be getting smarter.”

“Sam, Sam!” Michael cries. “Why did you leave me?”

In Michael’s stash of treasures (buried in a small, metal box next to the roses in the backyard), there are the following items:

· the handle of a delicate spoon, the bowl of it broken off long ago
· three acorns, one just beginning to sprout
· five feathers – two from a falcon, two from a crow, and one, colored hot pink, from the store
· a strangely shaped mushroom, now rotting
· a rusty key
· sam’s old metal soldier
· a darned red sock

“It’s called a nomic game,” Sam’s dad explained, setting up the chess board. “It means, essentially, that the rules change during gameplay.”

“Okay,” Sam warily agreed. “But it’s chess – there are already rules for the game.”

His dad shrugged. “You said that chess was boring. I promise you – this version isn’t.”

“Dad, I didn’t mean it like that,” Sam sighed, but still settles himself on the opposite side of the chessboard. “Alright then, how do the rules change?”

“I don’t know.”

“Seriously?” Sam demanded. “You’re the one who wanted to play this!”

“I mean,” his father continued firmly, “that we’re the ones who decide on the new rules.”

“Okay,” Sam said doubtfully. “And then we just follow them?”

“That is how rules work, isn’t it?”

“Michael, you can’t be here!” Sam cries, trying unsuccessfully to corral him. “I’ve told you – don’t come to the clubhouse!”

“Why?” Michael whines, picking up the half-finished robot and fiddling with it until Victor snatches it out of his hands. “That’s a stupid rule.”

“When I come to the clubhouse, I just want to hang out with Victor and Troy – not my bratty little brother! And it’s... it’s dangerous! For little kids, at least – you’ve heard the stories.”

“You said we were going to the lake today!” Michael cries. “But you came here instead. So I came here, because we were gonna go to the lake together, but you didn’t come!”

“Yeah,” Troy cuts in, “that’s what people tell their annoying siblings when they just wanna be left in peace.”

“Troy,” Sam hisses as Michael’s lip begins to wobble, “not helping, man.”

“But,” Michael protests, “Mom said you have to hang out with me today – you have to hang out with me on weekends!”

“Yeah,” Sam replies, “well, that’s a stupid rule.”

Once upon a time, there were three brothers. The eldest was clever with his hands and with his tongue. The youngest saw magic in the world. The middle brother was gone, unrealized, and in his place was all the resentment that builds up between two people, day after day, year after year.

One day, a shifting creature approached the eldest brother. It had many shapes and many forms, and the one it showed the eldest was most like a crow. The not-crow knew the webs of the world, and how to ensnare the unwary in them.

“What do you most want?” it crooned in his ear as he slept. “What is the deepest desire of your heart?”

The eldest tossed and turned, and dreamed of golden days, of belonging, of happiness, of summer.

“I see,” the not-crow said, preening the eldest brother’s hair. “The usual, then.”

An excerpt from “A short story”, by Samuel Crawford, 3rd grade:

“You have to get me three things,” the witch said.

“Oh, no! What are they?” asked Sam.

“They are a hair from a dragon, water from a stone, and the breath from a fish.”

“That’s impossible!” cried Sam.

“That’s the point,” said the witch.

“If you want to hang out with us,” Sam says, “you have to dig down all the way to the tips of the roots of tallest tree in the world.”

The story begins: once upon a time, there was a girl who was rumored to spin straw into gold.

The story ends: happily ever after.

But in the middle, the girl’s fingers bleed all over the straw, and she cries harsh, bitter tears. In the middle, there is a promise made to a creature who never lies, but always deceives. In the middle, the gold shines like the summer sun.

“If you want to hang out with us,” Sam says, “you have to swim all the way from the lake to the bottom of the ocean.”

“Think of it as a set of rules,” his mom said, her fingers flying across the keyboard. “You’re laying out a series of instructions – if this event happens, then respond in this way.”

Sam huffed. “Yeah, Mom, I get that. It’s the language that’s difficult, not the logic.”

“Ah,” his mom sighed. “Yes, the eternal problem. To be exact, and yet comprehensive. Don’t leave room for error, while leaving space for functionality. Creating rules using only flawed language is more difficult than you would expect.”

“If you want to hang out with us,” Sam says, “you have to build the perfect robot, using only things that you find in the clubhouse basement.”

“Wait, why?” whines Michael.

“It’s a rule now,” Sam states with all the authority he can muster. “So you have to follow it. Either you build the robot, or you leave us alone.”

“Okay!” says Michael, and descends the stairs.

“What will you give me for these golden days?” asks the not-crow.

The eldest brother offers up treasures worthy of a king – feathers and buttons and old metal soldiers, each loved with a fierce devotion.

“No,” declares the not-crow. “Not good enough.”

The eldest brother offers up the fruit of his labors – a mechanical man that moves as though he feels the weight of his invisible shackles.

“Worthless!” the not-crow cries. “Worthless, without his freedom.”

The eldest brother thinks of his youngest brother. He thinks of the light in his eyes and the curiosity in his hands and the love in his words, but the middle brother stands between them, and resentment is heavy. The light bends around him and the eldest cannot truly see.

The eldest brother offers up the youngest.

“Yes,” the not-crow says, tossing him a golden crown, “and thus the deal is sealed.”

“Was... was that a good idea?” Victor asks, after Michael leaves. “The basement isn’t exactly....”

“Yeah,” Sam cuts him off. “I know what I’m doing. Let’s go to the lake now.”

His friends exchange looks with each other, but follow without protest.

There are many stories about the abandoned house on Elm Street, and all of them are true.

Eliot Fletcher, who is a year older than Michael, told him that an old witch used to live in the house. She had wrinkly skin and bony fingers and hungered for something unattainable, so she ate children instead. Eliot didn’t say that she was lonely, but Michael thought she must have been.

Simone Fletcher, his older sister, told Sam that she had heard that a mad scientist had set up shop in the basement. He had buried his wife down there, and no one knows what he was doing to her. Simone thought that it was obvious though – wouldn’t he try to bring her back to life?

Jenny Meacham, who lives three blocks down from Sam and tries her best to pretend that he doesn’t exist, told her friends that the stories are stupid. Her parents knew that the last inhabitant was an old woman who had inherited the house when her son and his wife had unexpectedly died. She had been quiet, but inoffensive, Jenny told her friends. Lonely, grieving, normal.

“It’s not fair!” Michael shouts at his brother on the shore of a lake. The water shimmers golden in the light of the setting sun. “You’re not being fair, Sam!”

“It’s the rules!” he shouts back, angered by Michael’s defiance and something else that he’s not willing to explore. “It’s the rules; you can’t break them!”

Michael gives an inarticulate scream of fury and pushes Sam. Sam tosses him into the water.

The eldest brother has his summer. He has his crown. But, he realizes, the world is dull. There is no magic, no beauty, no shine.

He has traded all that away.

Sam was eight when he threw his first punch. Michael was five, and a promising target for bullies. Too weak, too emotional, too smart – Sam knew, in his bones, that it wasn’t going to be pleasant for Michael.

He knew, but something in him still snapped when he saw another boy slap his brother. He was swinging his fist before he even realized that he had moved.

It had been satisfying. He’d gotten suspended and grounded, but he doesn’t regret it one bit.

“Cheater!” Sam cried, plucking the card from his uncle’s sleeve. “So that’s how you’re winning all the time! Because you break the rules!”

His uncle shrugged. “Kid,” he replied, scooping up his pile of chips, “some rules are just begging to be broken.

For thirty seconds of his life, Sam thinks Michael is dead.

He’s crying as he pulls him from the lake, his fingers shaking on the water-chilled skin. “Michael, Michael, breathe!” he yells in great, gasping sobs. “I didn’t.... I didn’t mean it. Please, please, please!”

Victor and Troy watch silently, frozen, as Sam pounds on his brother’s chest.

“Michael, Michael,” Sam pleads. “Wake up, wake up, please, I’ll do anything – just wake up.”

“My Hero,” by Michael Crawford, 1st grade:

My hero is my big broter Sam. He is smart and helps me at homework. He is good at robots. When he grows up he will be a scintist.

Sam is my hero because he protecs me. When I am hurting he makes it better. I love my broter alot. I think he loves me to.

“This is against the rules!” the not-crow cried, as the eldest brother opened the cell door. “We had a deal! You can’t break it!”

The eldest stared at the not-crow. “I would break a thousand rules,” he said, “if only I could have my brother back.”

The not-crow pecked at him in frustration, but the eldest brother stoically endured, even when his neck and hands were speckled with wounds. The youngest emerged, cautious and wary. The not-crow screamed in rage and took to the skies.

A list of Sam’s treasures (kept in a wooden box hidden deep in his closet):

· a snail shell, perfectly preserved
· a fake rabbit’s foot, dyed red
· an origami crane
· 16 marbles of various colors/designs
· a scuffed faux-gold ring
· five feathers (all falcon)
· a little square of woven straw
· a picture of two stick figures holding hands. One is a little taller than the other. Both are smiling. It is signed, “Michael”.

Sam and Michael drag themselves home, both soaked to the bone. Michael has a bruise blooming across his forehead, and Sam has scrapes down his arm. They hold hands.

In the gloaming, a crow perches on the roof of the clubhouse and watches them with hematite eyes.

“No,” says the eldest, “I don’t want this. I never wanted this.”

“There are rules,” cries the crow.

“Yes,” agrees the boy, and breaks them.