Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(12)

by Seanan McGuire

“It’s the shadiest spot on the grounds. I’m impressed, actually. It took me weeks to find the place.” Jill’s smile was kind. “I wasn’t trying to say you should leave. I just meant, well, it’s hard being here, surrounded by all these people who went to their pastel dream worlds full of sunshine and rainbows. They don’t understand us.”

“Um,” said Nancy, glancing at Jill’s pastel gown.

Jill laughed. “I don’t wear these because I want to remember where I’ve been. I wear them because the Master liked it when I dressed in pale colors. They showed the blood better. Isn’t that why you wear white? Because your Master liked to see you that way?”

“I…” Nancy stopped. “He wasn’t my master, he was my Lord, and my teacher, and he loved me. I wear black and white because color is reserved for the Lady of Shadows and her entourage. I’d like to join them someday, if I can prove myself, but until then, I’m supposed to serve as a statue, and statues should blend in. Standing out is for people who’ve earned it.” She touched the pomegranate ribbon in her hair—and one piece of color she had earned—before asking, “You had a … master?”

“Yes.” Jill’s smile was bright enough to replace the blocked-away sun. “He was good to me. Gave me treats and trinkets and told me I was beautiful, even when I wasn’t feeling well. Jack spent all her time locked away with her precious doctor, learning things that weren’t ladylike or appropriate in the least, but I stayed in the high towers with the Master, and he taught me so many beautiful things. So many beautiful, wonderful things.”

“I’m sorry you wound up back here,” said Nancy.

Jill’s smile died. She flapped a hand like she was trying to wave Nancy’s words away, and said, “This isn’t forever. The Master wanted to be rid of Jack. She didn’t deserve what we had. So he arranged things so a door would open back to our world, and I stumbled and fell through after her. He’ll find a way to open a door back to me. You’ll see.” She stood, spinning her parasol. “Excuse me. I have to go.” Then she turned, not waiting for Nancy to say good-bye, and walked briskly away.

“And that, children, is why sometimes we don’t let the Addams twins out into the general population,” said a voice. Nancy looked up. Kade, who was seated on one of the tree’s higher branches, waved sardonically down at her. “Hello, Nancy out of Wonderland. If you were looking for a private place to cry, you chose poorly.”

“I didn’t think anyone would be out here,” she said.

“Because back at home, the other kids were more likely to hide in their rooms than they were to go running for the outdoors, right?” Kade closed his book. “The trouble is, you’re at a school for people who never learned how to make the logical choice. So we go running for the tallest trees and the deepest holes whenever we want to be alone, and since there’s a limited number of those, we wind up spending a lot of time together. I take it from the crying that your orientation didn’t go well. Let me guess. Lundy told you about lightning striking twice.”

Nancy nodded. She didn’t speak. She no longer trusted her voice.

“She has a point, if your world kicked you out.”

“It didn’t kick me out,” protested Nancy. She could still speak, after all, when she really needed to. “I was sent back to learn something, that’s all. I’m going back.”

Kade looked at her sympathetically and didn’t contradict her. “Prism is never taking me back,” he said instead. “That’s not a nonstarter, that’s a never-gonna-happen. I violated their rules when I wasn’t what they wanted me to be, and the people who run that particular circus are very picky about rules. But Eleanor went back a bunch of times. Her door’s still open.”

“How … I mean, why…” Nancy shook her head. “Why did she stop? If her door is still open, why is she here, with us, and not there, where she belongs?”

Kade swung his legs around so they were braced on the same side of the branch. Then he dropped down from the tree, landing easily in front of Nancy. He straightened, saying, “This was a long time ago, and her parents were still alive. She thought she could have it all, go back and forth, spend as much time as possible in her real home without breaking her father’s heart. But she forgot that adults don’t thrive in Nonsense, even when they’re raised to it. Every time she came back here, she got a little older. Until one day she went back there, and it nearly broke her. Can you imagine what that must have been like? It would be like opening the door that was supposed to take you home and discovering you couldn’t breathe the air anymore.”

“That sounds horrible,” said Nancy.

“I guess it was.” Kade sank down to sit, cross-legged, across from her. “Of course, she’d already spent enough time in Nonsense for it to have changed her. It slowed her aging—that’s probably why she was able to keep going for as long as she did. Jack checked the record books the last time we had an excursion to town, and she found out Eleanor was almost a hundred. I always figured she was in her sixties. I asked her about it, and you know what she told me?”

“What?” asked Nancy, fascinated and horrified at the same time. Had the Underworld changed more than just her hair? Was she going to stay the same, immortal and unchanging, while everything around her withered and died?

“She said she’s just waiting to get senile, like her mother and father did, because once her mind slips enough, she’ll be able to tolerate the Nonsense again. She’s going to run this school until she forgets why she isn’t going back, and then, when she does go back, she’ll be able to stay.” He shook his head. “I can’t decide if it’s genius or madness.”

“Maybe it’s a little bit of both,” said Nancy. “I’d do anything to go home.”

“Most of the students here would,” said Kade bitterly.

Nancy hesitated before she said, “Lundy said there was a sister school for people who didn’t want to go back. People who wanted to forget. Why are you enrolled here, instead of there? You might be happier.”

“But you see, I don’t want to forget,” said Kade. “I’m the loophole kid. I want to remember Prism more than anything. The way the air tasted, and the way the music sounded. Everyone played these funky pipes there, even little kids. Lessons started when you were, like, two, and it was another way of communicating. You could have whole conversations without putting down your pipes. I grew up there, even if I wound up getting tossed out and forced to do it all over again. I figured out who I was there. I kissed a girl with hair the color of cabbages and eyes the color of moth-wings, and she kissed me back, and it was wonderful. Just because I wouldn’t go back if you paid me, that doesn’t mean I want to forget a second of what happened to me. I wouldn’t be who I am if I hadn’t gone to Prism.”