Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(13)

by Seanan McGuire

“Oh,” said Nancy. It made sense, of course, it was just an angle she hadn’t considered. She shook her head. “This is all so much more complicated than I ever expected it to be.”

“Tell me about it, princess.” Kade stood, offering her his hand. “Come on. I’ll walk you back to school.”

Nancy hesitated before reaching up and taking the offered hand, letting Kade pull her to her feet. “All right,” she said.

“You’re pretty when you smile,” said Kade as he led her out of the trees, back toward the main building. Nancy couldn’t think of anything to say in response to that, and so she didn’t say anything at all.

* * *

CORE CLASSES WERE SURPRISINGLY dull, taught as they were by an assortment of adults who drove in from the town, Lundy, and Miss Eleanor herself. Nancy got the distinct feeling that someone had a chart showing exactly what was required by the state and that they were all receiving the educational equivalent of a balanced meal.

The electives were slightly better, including music, art, and something called “A Traveler’s History of the Great Compass,” which Nancy guessed had something to do with the various portal worlds and their relations to one another. After hesitantly considering her options, she had signed up. Maybe something in the syllabus would tell her more about where her Underworld fell.

After reading the introductory chapters of her home-printed textbook, she was still confused. The most common directions were Nonsense, usually paired with Virtue, and Logic, usually paired with Wicked. Sumi’s madhouse of a world was high Nonsense. Kade’s Prism was high Logic. With those as her touchstones, Nancy had decided that her Underworld was likely to have been Logic; it had consistent rules and expected them to be followed. But she couldn’t see why it should really be considered Wicked just because it was ruled by the Lord of the Dead. Virtue seemed more likely. Her first actual class was scheduled for two days’ time. It was too long to wait. It was no time at all.

By the end of her first day, she was exhausted, and her head felt like it had been stuffed well beyond any reasonable capacity, spinning with both mundane things like math and history, and with the ever-increasing vocabulary needed to talk to her fellow students. One, a shy girl with brown braids and thick glasses, had confessed that her world was at the nexus of two minor compass directions, being high Rhyme and high Linearity. Nancy hadn’t known what to say to that, and so she hadn’t said anything at all. Increasingly, that felt like the safest option she had.

Sumi was sitting on her bed, braiding bits of bright ribbon into her hair, when Nancy slipped into the room. “Tired as a titmouse at a bacchanal, little ghostie?” she asked.

“I don’t know what you mean, so I’m going to assume you want to be taken at face value,” said Nancy. “Yes. I am very tired. I’m going to bed.”

“Ely-Eleanor thought you might be tired,” said Sumi. “New girls always are. She said you can skip group tonight, but you can’t make a habit of it. Words are an important part of the healing process. Words, words, words.” She wrinkled her nose. “She asked me to remember so many of them, and all in the order she gave, and all for you. You’re not Nonsense at all, are you, ghostie? You wouldn’t want so many words if you were.”

“I’m sorry,” said Nancy. “I never said I was from … a place like you went to visit.”

“Assumptions will be the death of all, and you’re better than most of the roommates she’s tried to give me; I’ll keep you,” said Sumi wearily. She stood, walking toward the door. “Sleep well, ghostie. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Wait!” Nancy hadn’t intended to speak; the word had simply escaped her lips, like a runaway calf. The thought horrified her. Her stillness was eroding, and if she stayed in this dreadful, motile world too long, she would never be able to get it back again.

Sumi turned to face her, cocking her head. “What do you want now?”

“I just wanted to know—I mean, I was just wondering—how old are you?”

“Ah.” Sumi turned again, finishing her walk toward the door. Then, facing into the hall, she said, “Older than I look, younger than I ought to be. My skin is a riddle not to be solved, and even letting go of everything I love won’t offer me the answer. My window is closing, if that’s what you’re asking. Every day I wake up a little more linear, a little less lost, and one day I’ll be one of the women who says ‘I had the most charming dream,’ and I’ll mean it. Old enough to know what I’m losing in the process of being found. Is that what you wanted to know?”

“No,” said Nancy.

“Too bad,” said Sumi, and left the room. She closed the door behind herself.

Nancy undressed alone, letting her clothes fall to the floor, until she stood naked in front of the room’s single silver mirror. The electric light was harsh against her skin. She flipped the switch, and smiled to see her reflection transmuted into the purest marble, becoming unyielding, unbending stone. She stood there, frozen, for almost an hour before she finally felt like she could sleep, and slid, still naked, between her sheets.

She woke to a room full of sunlight and the sound of screaming.

Screams had not been not uncommon in the Halls of the Dead. There was an art to decoding their meaning: screams of pleasure, screams of pain, screams of sheer boredom in the face of an uncaring eternity. These were screams of panic and fear. Nancy rolled out of her bed in an instant, grabbing her nightgown from where it lay discarded at the foot of the bed and yanking it on over her head. She didn’t feel like running into potential danger while completely exposed. She didn’t feel like running anywhere, but the screams were still happening, and it seemed like the appropriate thing to do.

Sumi’s bed was empty. The thought that Sumi could be the screamer crossed Nancy’s mind as she ran, but was quickly dismissed. Sumi was not a screamer. Sumi was a reason for other people to scream.

Half a dozen girls were clustered in the hallway, forming an unbreakable wall of flannel and silk. Nancy pushed her way into their midst and stopped, freezing in place. It was a stillness so absolute, so profound, that she would have been proud of herself under any other circumstances. As it was, this felt less like proper stillness and more like the freeze of a rabbit when faced with the promise of a snake.