Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(3)


by Seanan McGuire

Because the air had smelled so sweet, and the sky had been black velvet, spangled with points of diamond light that didn’t flicker at all, only burned constant and cold. Because the grass had been wet with dew, and the trees had been heavy with fruit. Because she had wanted to know what was at the end of the long path between the trees, and because she hadn’t wanted to turn back before she understood everything. Because for the first time in forever, she’d felt like she was going home, and that feeling had been enough to move her feet, slowly at first, and then faster, and faster, until she had been running through the clean night air, and nothing else had mattered, or would ever matter again—

“How long were you gone?”

The question was meaningless. Nancy shook her head. “Forever. Years … I was there for years. I didn’t want to come back. Ever.”

“I know, dear.” Eleanor’s hand was gentle on Nancy’s elbow, guiding her toward the door behind the stairs. The old woman’s perfume smelled of dandelions and gingersnaps, a combination as nonsensical as everything else about her. “Come with me. I have the perfect room for you.”

* * *

ELEANOR’S “PERFECT ROOM” was on the first floor, in the shadow of a great old elm that blocked almost all the light that would otherwise have come in through the single window. It was eternal twilight in that room, and Nancy felt the weight drop from her shoulders as she stepped inside and looked around. One half of the room—the half with the window—was a jumble of clothing, books, and knickknacks. A fiddle was tossed carelessly on the bed, and the associated bow was balanced on the edge of the bookshelf, ready to fall at the slightest provocation. The air smelled of mint and mud.

The other half of the room was as neutral as a hotel. There was a bed, a small dresser, a bookshelf, and a desk, all in pale, unvarnished wood. The walls were blank. Nancy looked to Eleanor long enough to receive the nod of approval before walking over and placing her suitcase primly in the middle of what would be her bed.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m sure this will be fine.”

“I admit, I’m not as confident,” said Eleanor, frowning at Nancy’s suitcase. It had been placed so precisely.… “Anyplace called ‘the Halls of the Dead’ is going to have been an Underworld, and most of those fall more under the banner of Nonsense than Logic. It seems like yours may have been more regimented. Well, no matter. We can always move you if you and Sumi prove ill-suited. Who knows? You might provide her with some of the grounding she currently lacks. And if you can’t do that, well, hopefully you won’t actually kill one another.”

“Sumi?”

“Your roommate.” Eleanor picked her way through the mess on the floor until she reached the window. Pushing it open, she leaned out and scanned the branches of the elm tree until she found what she was looking for. “One and two and three, I see you, Sumi. Come inside and meet your roommate.”

“Roommate?” The voice was female, young, and annoyed.

“I warned you,” said Eleanor as she pulled her head back inside and returned to the center of the room. She moved with remarkable assurance, especially given how cluttered the floor was; Nancy kept expecting her to fall, and somehow, she didn’t. “I told you a new student was arriving this week, and that if it was a girl from a compatible background, she would be taking the spare bed. Do you remember any of this?”

“I thought you were just talking to hear yourself talk. You do that. Everyone does that.” A head appeared in the window, upside down, its owner apparently hanging from the elm tree. She looked to be about Nancy’s age, of Japanese descent, with long black hair tied into two childish pigtails, one above each ear. She looked at Nancy with unconcealed suspicion before asking, “Are you a servant of the Queen of Cakes, here to punish me for my transgressions against the Countess of Candy Floss? Because I don’t feel like going to war right now.”

“No,” said Nancy blankly. “I’m Nancy.”

“That’s a boring name. How can you be here with such a boring name?” Sumi flipped around and dropped out of the tree, vanishing for a moment before she popped back up, leaned on the windowsill, and asked, “Eleanor-Ely, are you sure? I mean, sure-sure? She doesn’t look like she’s supposed to be here at all. Maybe when you looked at her records, you saw what wasn’t there again and really she’s supposed to be in a school for juvenile victims of bad dye jobs.”

“I don’t dye my hair!” Nancy’s protest was heated. Sumi stopped talking and blinked at her. Eleanor turned to look at her. Nancy’s cheeks grew hot as the blood rose in her face, but she stood her ground, somehow keeping herself from reaching up to stroke her hair as she said, “It used to be all black, like my mother’s. When I danced with the Lord of the Dead for the first time, he said it was beautiful, and he ran his fingers through it. All the hair turned white around them, out of jealousy. That’s why I only have five black streaks left. Those are the parts he touched.”

Looking at her with a critical eye, Eleanor could see how those five streaks formed the phantom outline of a hand, a place where the pale young woman in front of her had been touched once and never more. “I see,” she said.

“I don’t dye it,” said Nancy, still heated. “I would never dye it. That would be disrespectful.”

Sumi was still blinking, eyes wide and round. Then she grinned. “Oh, I like you,” she said. “You’re the craziest card in the deck, aren’t you?”

“We don’t use that word here,” snapped Eleanor.

“But it’s true,” said Sumi. “She thinks she’s going back. Don’t you, Nancy? You think you’re going to open the right-wrong door and see your stairway to Heaven on the other side, and then it’s one step, two step, how d’you do step, and you’re right back in your story. Crazy girl. Stupid girl. You can’t go back. Once they throw you out, you can’t go back.”

Nancy felt as if her heart were trying to scramble up her throat and choke her. She swallowed it back down, and said, in a whisper, “You’re wrong.”

Sumi’s eyes were bright. “Am I?”

Eleanor clapped her hands, pulling their attention back to her. “Nancy, why don’t you unpack and get settled? Dinner is at six thirty, and group therapy will follow at eight. Sumi, please don’t inspire her to murder you before she’s been here for a full day.”