Or so it felt. Or so everything felt since she’d touched that glass. In her body but not. In her head but not.

She read the final sentence one more time and started walking again.


Nathalie’s eyes jumped from the journal to a haggard man leaning against the statue base; she hadn’t noticed him and almost stepped on his foot. “Pardonnez-moi.”

“Don’t worry, little girl.” His voice was gentler than his face suggested.

Little girl? No one had called her that for years.


Nathalie ignored him and continued walking.

“A little girl,” he called after her. His voice was lower now and had a mechanical cadence. “One who carries dead flowers and has gaunt, ugly legs. I can see them through your dress.”

Nathalie stopped but didn’t turn around. Her orange dress was linen, layered, and ankle-length, not at all see-through.

A chill tickled her neck.

“I can see everything. You might as well be wearing nothing at all.”

He’s insane.

“Look at me, I’m St. Francis of Assisi! I have no clothes!”

Don’t look.

The man cackled.

Half a dozen pigeons took off from the ground behind her, making her jump. She continued on her way as the man rambled. After she’d taken a few more steps, he shrieked like the child who’d startled her in the morgue. Nathalie peeked over her shoulder to see him undressing, one garment at a time.

It was like her first time visiting Saint-Mathurin Asylum all over again.

Her parents had gone to visit Aunt Brigitte without Nathalie, as usual. The asylum was no place for a girl, they said (yet again) when she asked (yet again) if she could go. Just the day before, during a visit to Aunt Irene and Uncle Thomas outside Versailles, her cousin Luc had called her a baby (she was eleven, so that had been very insulting). She was thus particularly indignant that day about being “too young.” So Nathalie claimed she’d spend the afternoon with Simone, which she did whenever her parents went to Saint-Mathurin. Instead she followed her parents, staying just far enough behind to watch where they went.

“Saint-Mathurin Asylum for the Insane” stood in relief over the entrance, gray stone letters outlined with black grime. She’d passed by it before but had never walked below those horrifying words. The intimidating arched doors led to a dungeon (or so she’d always imagined).

Immediately the reception nurse questioned her. Nathalie stammered her way through a story claiming that she was with her parents visiting Brigitte Baudin but had gotten separated from them. It took some pleading, but eventually the nurse told her which floor her aunt was on. She ran up the imposing staircase two steps at a time.

Moans, pierced by a scream she feared was otherworldly, led her up the last few steps to the landing. The door to the ward, a smaller version of the one at the entrance, creaked open a few centimeters as if it had been waiting for her. A smell like sour milk drifted through. Nathalie peered through the crack and saw a pale woman kneeling in a hallway barely wide enough for two people. A high rectangular window cast a sliver of light onto the woman’s face. She appeared to be in a trance, arms swaying at her sides, eyes rolled back.

The woman jumped up and took off her hospital gown. Nathalie gawked at the misshapen, sagging body before her. She’d never seen another naked woman, not even Maman. “The sun! I’m burning!” the woman screamed as she began clawing at her doughy skin, raking her nails over her neck and breasts until she drew blood.

Nathalie cried out. The woman turned toward the door and met her eyes. Save me, she mouthed, and not a sound came out.

A jolt passed through Nathalie’s body. She took a step back, almost tripping as she turned around. She dashed down the stairs and out of the building, making it home long before her parents did.

Papa knew. She couldn’t prove it, and she never asked, but something about the way he later inquired about her afternoon with Simone told her so.

She could see that episode at the asylum in her mind’s eye as if it were yesterday, not five years ago.

Nathalie trotted toward the tram stop, then broke into a run. Almost as soon as she got there, the steam tram arrived. She and a group of young boys squeezed on together, packing an already packed tram.

The tram chugged along, and almost right away she glimpsed the back door of the morgue where she’d parted ways with M. Gagnon.

He was standing there now, holding the door open and shaking his head. Two men opened the rear of a carriage and pulled out a sheet-covered body on a stretcher.

The tram turned a corner, and a building slowly eclipsed her view of the morgue.

Her heart thumped so intensely she was afraid one of the boys pressed up against her back would feel it.

My God, Laurent. Already?

Then M. Gagnon ended their meeting abruptly.

A critical matter.

The concern in his voice when she left.

Be safe.

Now she understood. What else could it be?

Another victim.


Throughout the steam tram ride, as she caught elbows from the boys in breeches who surrounded her, Nathalie clutched her talisman for quelling nerves and instilling luck: a glass vial filled with dirt from Les Catacombes, the cavernous tomb beneath Paris.

In fact, it was forbidden dirt, because you weren’t supposed to remove any. But she had, that time Papa brought her to the Catacombs when she was eight. She took some, both because it was forbidden and because she figured there had to be at least a little bit of dead person in there (which would be almost like carrying around a ghost). Days later she showed it off to her schoolmates, all of whom admired her bravery. Long after anyone cared, however, she kept the tube close. It held a strange, sentimental value she couldn’t quite explain.

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