Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(16)


by Seanan McGuire

Nancy stiffened. “What’s going to happen to us now?” she asked. “They’re not going to send us away, are they?” She couldn’t go back. Her parents loved her, there was no question of that, but their love was the sort that filled her suitcase with colors and kept trying to set her up on dates with local boys. Their love wanted to fix her, and refused to see that she wasn’t broken.

“Eleanor’s been here for a long time,” said Kade. He shut the door. “Sumi was her ward, so there are no parents to involve, and the local authorities know what’s what. They’ll do their best to make sure this doesn’t shut us down.”

“It would have been better had she not called at all,” sniffed Jack. “An unreported death is just a disappearance in its Sunday clothes.”

“See, it’s things like that that explain why you don’t have many friends,” said Kade.

“But Sumi was among them,” said Jack. She turned to look at Sumi’s side of the room. “If she has no family, what are we supposed to do about her things?”

“There’s storage space in the attic,” said Kade.

“So we box them up,” said Nancy firmly. “Where can we get some boxes?”

“The basement,” said Jack.

“I’ll go with you,” said Kade. “Nancy, you stay here. If anyone asks, we’ll be right back.”

“All right,” said Nancy, and held herself perfectly still as the others walked away. There was nothing left to do but wait. There was peace in stillness, a serenity that couldn’t be found anywhere else in this hot, fast, often terrible world. Nancy closed her eyes and breathed down into her toes, letting her stillness become the only thing that mattered. Flashes of Sumi kept breaking her concentration, making it difficult to keep her knees from shaking or her fingers from twitching. She forced the images away and kept breathing, looking for serenity.

She still hadn’t managed to find it when the others returned, the door banging open to Kade’s declaration of “We are ready to box the world!”

Nancy opened her eyes and turned toward him, somehow mustering a smile. “All right,” she said. “Let’s get to work.”

Sumi’s things were as tangled and chaotic as Sumi had been. There was neither rhyme nor reason to the way they were piled around her bed and dresser. A pile of books on candy making was tied together with a pair of training bras. A bouquet of roses folded out of playing cards was shoved under the bed, next to a frilly blue dress that didn’t look like something Sumi would ever have worn and a roast beef sandwich about a month past its “best by” date. Jack, who had put on gloves before they got to work, disposed of all the soiled or biologically questionable material without complaint: apparently, her squeamishness extended only as far as her bare skin. Kade sorted through Sumi’s clothing, folding it neatly before boxing it up. Nancy was fairly sure it would all wind up back in the big group wardrobe. She was okay with that. Sumi wouldn’t mind other people wearing her clothes. She probably wouldn’t have minded while she was alive; she certainly wasn’t going to object now that she was dead.

Nancy found herself tasked with handling the rest, the things that were neither trash nor fabric. She dug boxes of origami paper and embroidery floss from under the bed—Sumi had apparently always been good with her hands—and pushed them to one side, still digging. Her questing hands found a shoebox. She pulled it out and sat, removing the lid. Photos spilled onto the floor. Some showed Sumi as she’d been during their too-short acquaintance, mismatched clothing and tousled pigtails. Others showed a solemn, sad-eyed girl in a school uniform, sometimes holding a violin, other times empty-handed. It was plain, just from the still images, that this had been a girl who understood the virtue of being overlooked, of being a statue, but not because she had chosen stillness as Nancy had; it had been thrust upon her, until one day she’d discovered a door that could lead her to a world where she had a prayer of being happy.

Nancy realized that Sumi’s granddaughter was never going to visit the candy corn farmer’s grave, and it took everything she had not to weep for what had been irrevocably lost. Sumi might go to the Halls of the Dead, might even be happy there, but all the things she would have done among the living were gone now, rendered impossible when her heart stopped beating. Death was precious. That didn’t change the fact that life was limited.

“Poor kid.” Kade leaned over and took the picture from Nancy’s motionless fingers, looking at it for a moment before he tucked it into his shirt. “Let’s get this stuff out of here. You shouldn’t have to look at it, not with her gone.”

“Thank you,” said Nancy, more earnestly than she would have believed before she’d seen that picture. Sumi was over, and it wasn’t fair.

Working together, it took the three of them less than an hour to transfer all of Sumi’s possessions to the attic, tucking the boxes away on unused shelves and in dusty corners, of which there seemed to be more than the usual number. When they were done, Jack removed her gloves and began meticulously wiping her fingers on a fresh handkerchief. Kade pulled the picture out of his shirt and tacked it up on a bulletin board, next to a picture of Sumi as Nancy had known her, all bright eyes and brighter smile, hands slightly blurred, as if she’d been photographed in motion.

“I’ll stay with you tonight, if you don’t mind,” said Kade. “It doesn’t seem safe for you to sleep in there alone.”

“I won’t stay with you tonight, whether you mind or not,” said Jack. “That room gets too much sun, and Jill has a tendency to sleepwalk when I’m not with her.”

“You shouldn’t leave her alone,” said Kade. “Watch yourself, okay? A lot of people are looking for someone to blame, and you’re the best scapegoat in the school.”

“I always wanted to be best at something,” said Jack philosophically.

“Great,” said Kade. “Now let’s be best at getting to class before we get a lecture from Lundy on punctuality.”

They filed out of the attic. Nancy looked back at Sumi’s pictures on the bulletin board, so quiet, so still. Then she turned off the light and closed the door.

5

SURVIVORS, FOR A TIME

MORNING CLASSES HAD BEEN canceled; they resumed after lunch. Maybe it was rushing things, but there was nothing else to do with an entire school’s worth of anxious, uneasy students: routine would keep them from wandering off and frightening themselves to death in the aftermath of Sumi’s murder. Even so, it was a strained routine. Homework was forgotten, questions written on chalkboards went unanswered, and even the teachers clearly wanted to be elsewhere. Going back to normal after someone had died was never easy. When that someone had been brutally killed, all bets were off.