Jeremy’s mother was talking to Mrs. Marsden about the neighborhood pets that had turned up with their throats cut. Jeremy held close to his rabbit Gunther as he crept upstairs. Although for once he was interested in their conversation, he wanted to take this chance to sneak into his parents’ bedroom. His dad stored the more valuable items from his pawn shop in the closet; Jeremy knew he wasn’t allowed anywhere near it.
When he opened the closet door, a current of cedar-scented air wafted out. He pulled the string hanging from the ceiling to turn on the light. It was a walk-in, with room to pass into the back, where the fun stuff was. He set Gunther on the thick, soft carpet.
A mannequin startled him. It was an upper body, dressed in a silky purple jacket with a bunch of shiny beads sewn into the fabric. Jeremy was more interested in the faceless black velvet head of the dummy and was disappointed when he touched it, it was not as soft as it looked.
He spied a chest of drawers and kneeled to pull them out one by one. They revealed a pearl ring, a small flat case with a gold coin marked “Suisse,” and a pair of diamond studded clips he couldn’t identify. On top of the chest was another faceless head, this one with a white hat, the kind men wore in old movies.
Next to it was a real dagger with a deliciously dangerous looking tip. He lifted it gingerly and tested it on his thumbnail, the way his dad had taught him. It easily flaked the top of the nail. He turned the handle to read, but the writing was not in English, and he didn’t recognize the letters. He set it down carefully and tried on the hat. He went out to look at himself in the bedroom mirror.
At first he was confused. The mirror reflected his parents’ bed, which was behind him, but where he expected to look into his own face, there was just… bed. He saw the hat, but no Jeremy. Was it a trick mirror from the pawn shop?
He bent his knees and watched the hat’s reflection dip lower, then rise as he stood tall. He played with the image, shifting his head from side to side. What a goofy mirror! He’d have to show his best friend, this was too cool.
But then he looked down. His body was missing. He could not see his arms or legs. He grabbed his own arm, relieved to feel it was still there. His heart was racing, but he avoided looking down again, not wanting to see what wasn’t there. He placed a hand over his chest, comforted by the warmth of his palm.
That’s when he heard his own voice in his head.
Touch the brim.
He recognized the tone. It was the one he used when he was cross with himself. But although it was his internal mind voice, he did not understand what it was saying.
The brim. Tap the edge of the hat.
He lifted a tentative finger to the brim of the hat. It disappeared from the mirror. Fright clutched Jeremy’s body. He went to snatch the hat off his head but the stern voice came again in his mind.
Payment is due.
“What payment? I haven’t got any money!” Jeremy’s voice rose in panic as he tried in vain to remove the hat.
Blood sacrifice, said the thought.
As if on cue, Gunther nosed his way out of the closet.
Take the knife.
Somehow Jeremy was horribly sure it was the hat talking to him. “I don’t want to!”
Payment is due before removal.
Jeremy went to pull the hat off again, but he grabbed nothing. There was no hat on his head. He checked his hands. He was still invisible.
Payment is due, the hat repeated.
“Where are you?”
Payment is due. Take the knife.
Gunther had begun to investigate the bedroom floor and Jeremy ran to him, dropping to his knees to scoop up the rabbit and set him on his lap. He squeezed his arms tight and looked away when the sight of Gunther floating above where his lap should be confused and disoriented him.
Payment is due, or will be taken.
“Stop it! Stop talking to me!” Jeremy got up, still holding Gunther, and carried him to his bedroom to place him safely in his bunny hutch. By now the voice was repeating itself every ten seconds, like his mom’s headphones telling her “Battery is low.”
He returned to the closet to take the knife. It disappeared as soon as he held it, and he was glad. He did not want to look at that gleaming edge. He tried to remember to point it away from his leg so as not to cut himself. That gave him an idea, but before he could even ask, the hat spoke.
Blood sacrifice to the death.
Can you hear my thoughts?Jeremythought back.
Yes. Payment is due.
Jeremy thought he might lose his mind. He made his way downstairs, switching the knife to his left hand so he could hold tight to the railing. He stepped into the kitchen where his mother and Mrs. Marsden were still talking.
“Maybe we should check the Megan’s Law site.” Mrs. Marsden was almost whispering but he was able to get close enough to hear.
His mother cringed. “Why? They’re not doing anything to the animals besides killing them, are they?”
“No, but sometimes these sickos torture animals too.”
The two women nodded knowingly. Jeremy felt a little sick. He went into the living room so he could exit out the front door without them hearing him.
Where could he find an animal? It came to him suddenly. His friend Marco had a snake with a finicky appetite. He’d watched Marco feed it a live baby mouse a few weeks ago. It wouldn’t take long to walk there (obviously the bike was out). Jeremy wanted to run but was afraid he’d trip and stab himself accidentally. It was strange to be carrying a weapon he couldn’t see.
In time he finally arrived at Marco’s house. The driveway was deserted — a good sign as long as he could get into the garage where they kept the mice. Weeds had taken over the narrow path between the house and the garage and he had to pick his way to avoid tripping. Absorbed with making his way to the back, he didn’t hear the car pull up until a door slammed shut.
Jeremy froze until he remembered he was invisible.
Marco’s mother called out, “Marco, come and help with the groceries!”
There was a pause. “Marco?” she tried again. Jeremy heard her muttering as he continued to the side door of the garage, where he waited to open the door until she’d gone in the house. The shouting started a few seconds later and he ventured in, leaving the flimsy door open behind him. Bikes and lawn equipment took up most of the space on the floor, there was no room for a car. The mice were in a grass-lined clear box on a shelf in the back. Jeremy lifted the lid. Marco must have gotten a new batch of mice; these were even smaller than the babies he’d seen a few weeks ago. They squirmed in a corner of the box. Jeremy was glad they weren’t cute. He set down the knife, which immediately materialized. He pinched one of the pink baby mice between his thumb and finger, and hesitated while he considered how he’d manage to cut its throat when he couldn’t see the knife.
Read the inscription on the knife.
The voice was back, but sounded friendlier now.
Jeremy didn’t like talking to the hat in his mind, but was afraid to speak aloud, even though Marco and his mom were too busy unloading the car to hear him. I can’t read the writing.
It says gethor-mik-luta. Say it out loud.
“Gethor mika luka,” Jeremy said, petering out at the end.
The mouse wiggled. He pinched it, not wanting to drop it.
The hat sounded irritated.
Yes, now pick up the knife.
Jeremy picked up the knife, which did indeed remain visible, floating in the air where his invisible hand held it.
Kill it. The voice was suddenly raspy with urgency.
Jeremy didn’t want to kill the baby mouse, but the voice compelled him. He drew the knife across the mouse’s tiny neck. The blood leaked out of the slit onto his hand, which materialized along with the rest of him.
“What are you doing in here?”
Marco’s mom stood in the doorway, her irritated expression changing to disgust and horror as she saw the mess in his hand, then the knife.
“Oh my God, Jeremy, I can’t believe it. You’re the one killing all these poor pets?”
“No! No, I just…” he protested, but she ran out of the garage.
“Mrs. Peckila, wait!” he called.
You’d better go. Drop the mouse and take a new one, you’ll need it.
“No!” Jeremy said aloud, but he did drop the dead mouse.
Take me off your head to reset the process. You can put it on and walk home unseen.
Jeremy gladly removed the hat, intending to keep it off. But he could see through the dirty window that Marco’s dad was headed for the garage.
Jeremy put on the hat.