Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(15)

by Seanan McGuire

“But your names—”

Jack shrugged broadly, tucking the handkerchief back into her pocket. “They weren’t so upset that they were willing to pass up the chance to make our lives a living hell. Parents are special that way. For some reason, they’d expected fraternal twins, maybe even that holy grail of the instant nuclear family, a boy and a girl. Instead, they got us. Ever watch a pair of perfectionists try to decide which of their identical children is the ‘smart one’ versus the ‘pretty one’? It would have been funny, if our lives hadn’t been the prize they were trying to win.”

Nancy frowned. “You look just like your sister. How could they think she was the pretty one instead of seeing that you were both lovely?”

“Oh, Jill wasn’t the pretty one. Jill got to be the smart one, with expectations and standards she was supposed to live up to. I was the pretty one.” Jack’s smile was quick, lopsided, and wry. “If we both asked for Lego, she got scientists and dinosaurs, and I got a flower shop. If we both asked for shoes, she got sneakers, and I got ballet flats. They never asked us, naturally. My hair was easier to brush one day when we were toddlers—probably because she had jam in hers—and bam, the roles were set. We couldn’t get away from them. Until one day we opened an old trunk and found a set of stairs inside.”

Jack’s voice had gone distant. Nancy held herself in perfect stillness, not speaking, barely daring to breathe. If she wanted to hear this story, she couldn’t interrupt it. Something about the way Jack was glaring at the wall told her she was only going to get one chance.

“We went down the mysterious stairs that couldn’t possibly be there, of course. Who wouldn’t go down an impossible staircase in the bottom of a trunk? We were twelve. We were curious, and angry with our parents, and angry with each other.” Jack tied her bow tie with quick, furious jerks. “We went down, and at the bottom there was a door, and on the door there was a sign. Two words. BE SURE. Sure of what? We were twelve, we weren’t sure of anything. So we went through. We came out on this moor that seemed to go on forever, between the mountains and the angry sea. And that sky! I’d never seen so many stars before, or such a red, red moon. The door slammed shut behind us. We couldn’t have gone back if we’d wanted to—and we didn’t want to. We were twelve. We were going to have an adventure if it killed us.”

“Did you?” asked Nancy. “Have an adventure, I mean?”

“Sure,” said Jack bleakly. “It didn’t even kill us. Not permanently, anyway. But it changed everything. I finally got to be the smart one. Dr. Bleak taught me everything he knew about the human body, the ways of recombining and reanimating tissue. He said I was the best pupil he’d ever had. That I had incredibly talented hands.” She looked at her fingers like she was seeing them for the first time. “Jill went in a different direction. The world we went to, it was … feudal, almost, divided into villages and moors and protectorates, with a master or mistress holding sway over each of them. Our Master was a bloodsucker, centuries old, with a fondness for little girls—not like that! Not in any sort of inappropriate way. Even Dr. Bleak was a child to him, and the Master wasn’t the sort of man who thought about children like that. But he did need blood to live. He made Jill a lot of promises. He told her she could be his daughter one day and rule alongside him. I guess that’s why it was so important we be taken care of. When the villagers marched on the castle, he sent my sister to hide with me in the laboratory. Dr. Bleak said … he, uh, said it was too dangerous for us to stay, and he opened a doorway. Neither of us wanted to go, but I understood the necessity. I promised I would stay a scientist, no matter what else happened, and that one day, I’d find a way back to him. Jill—he had to sedate her before she would go through. We found ourselves back in that old trunk, the lid half closed and the stairway gone. I’ve been looking for the formula to unlock the way back for the both of us ever since.”

“Oh,” said Nancy, in a hushed voice.

Jack smiled that wry smile again. “Spending five years apprenticed to a mad scientist sort of changes your outlook on the world. I know Kade hates the fact that he had to go through puberty twice—he thinks it was unfair, and I guess for him, it was. Gender dysphoria is a form of torture. But I wish we’d gotten the same deal. We were twelve when we went into that trunk. We were seventeen when we came out. Maybe we would have been able to adapt to this stupid, colorful, narrow-minded world if we’d woken from a shared dream and been thrown straight into middle school. Instead, we staggered down the stairs and found our parents having dinner with our four-year-old brother, who’d been told for his entire life that we were dead. Not missing. That would have been messy. God forbid that we should ever make a mess.”

“How long have you been here?” asked Nancy.

“Almost a year,” said Jack. “Dearest Mommy and Daddy had us on the bus to boarding school within a month of our coming home. They couldn’t stand to have us under the same roof as their precious boy, who didn’t tell crazy stories about watching lightning snake down from the heavens and shock a beautiful corpse back into the land of the living.” Her eyes went soft and dreamy. “I think the rules were different there. It was all about science, but the science was magical. It didn’t care about whether something could be done. It was about whether it should be done, and the answer was always, always yes.”

There was a knock at the door. Nancy and Jack both turned to see Kade stick his head inside.

“The crowd has mostly dissipated, but I have to ask: Jack, did you kill Sumi?”

“I’m not offended that you’d suspect me, but I’m offended that you think I’d kill for a pair of hands,” said Jack. She sniffed, squaring her shoulders. She looked suddenly imperious, and Nancy realized how much of Jack’s superior attitude was just a put-on, something to keep the world a little more removed. “If I had killed Sumi, there would have been no body to find. I would have put every scrap of her to good use, and people would be wondering for years whether she’d finally managed to pry open the door that would take her back to Candyland. Alas, I didn’t kill her.”

“She called it Confection, not Candyland, but point taken.” Kade stepped into the room. “Seraphina and Loriel have taken Jill someplace quiet while we wait for everyone to calm down. We’re supposed to stay in our rooms and out of sight while Eleanor summons the city coroner.”