JOAN was about to be punished. Still, she sat on her bed, writing in an artist’s sketchpad. She wasn’t allowed to write. Her sister was the writer. She, Joan, was the artist. The sister was already going to college on a writing scholarship, and Joan, who would start in September, had won a scholarship for art. The scholarship would pay her tuition so long as she was an art major.

But Joan didn’t want to study art. She wanted to be a journalist. She didn’t care that it would mean losing the scholarship. Her mother cared, though. She refused to let Joan change majors and emphasized her displeasure by ransacking Joan’s bedroom and destroying all the stories and drafts that Joan had hidden in the lingerie drawer and the cedar chest. She then made Joan atone for her rebellion by drawing at least one picture a day and posting it in the kitchen. It didn’t matter what the subject was, but her mother ripped it up if she didn’t like it and had Joan draw another, usually a portrait of herself based on one of the many selfies that usurped space on her social media page. Joan usually retaliated by painting a pastels copy of a famous portrait and substituting her mother’s for the face of the original sitter. True, her mother’s visage on Henry VIII’s body was a bit of a stretch for which she probably truly actually did deserve that thrashing. But her mother’s features on Botticelli’s Venus should have been seen as a compliment.

Joan flinched as the door slammed open against the wall.

No, that was me, not the door, hitting the wall, she thought. Guess a chair propped under a doorknob doesn’t work the way it does in the movies . . .

* * * * * * * * * *

SILENCE. To most people, it’s the absence of sound. Look in a thesaurus, and you’ll see words like quiet, hush and stillness that mean the same as silence. But to Thaniel Teer, silence was never the lack of sound. It wasn’t even a hush or quiet or stillness. To Thaniel, silence was a place—a violent, loud, confusing place, where new things burst into the world in a kind of spontaneous combustion. Things that never should happen. Things that could hurt. Things that could kill. Things that had to be dispelled, if not destroyed. Thaniel heard them all.

He was hearing them that morning, beneath the delicate crackle of the sleet, as he loosened the dead squirrel’s grip on the chain link fence. The little creature’s paws must have gotten stuck on the icy metal. Unable to escape, it had frozen to death in mid-climb. To Thaniel’s surprise, the body was still light and soft and limp, like a stuffed toy. The squirrel hadn’t been dead for long.

As Thaniel lifted it from the fence, the contrast of his black gloves against the streaked silvery fur struck him as sinister. He supposed it was his fault that the animal had died. He would have been there sooner, in time to save it, if he hadn’t had to shovel the snow off the drive, or feed the horses, or do any of the thousand other chores his landlord expected in exchange for lodgings over the old carriage house. They were chores that needed to be done, and he had gladly agreed to do them as part of his rent. But if he hadn’t done them—if he had run off to investigate the mess exploding from that place called silence—he would have rescued the squirrel.

No. He might have rescued it. He could never be on time for anything. There was always that one excuse: the reason he could never change.