Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(4)


by Seanan McGuire

“We all have our own ways of trying to go home,” said Sumi, and disappeared from the window’s frame, heading off to whatever she’d been doing before Eleanor disturbed her. Eleanor shot Nancy a quick, apologetic look, and then she too was gone, shutting the door behind herself. Nancy was, quite abruptly, alone.

She stayed where she was for a count of ten, enjoying the stillness. When she had been in the Halls of the Dead, she had sometimes been expected to hold her position for days at a time, blending in with the rest of the living statuary. Serving girls who were less skilled at stillness had come through with sponges soaked in pomegranate juice and sugar, pressing them to the lips of the unmoving. Nancy had learned to let the juice trickle down her throat without swallowing, taking it in passively, like a stone takes in the moonlight. It had taken her months, years even, to become perfectly motionless, but she had done it: oh, yes, she had done it, and the Lady of Shadows had proclaimed her beautiful beyond measure, little mortal girl who saw no need to be quick, or hot, or restless.

But this world was made for quick, hot, restless things; not like the quiet Halls of the Dead. With a sigh, Nancy abandoned her stillness and turned to open her suitcase. Then she froze again, this time out of shock and dismay. Her clothing—the diaphanous gowns and gauzy black shirts she had packed with such care—was gone, replaced by a welter of fabrics as colorful as the things strewn on Sumi’s side of the room. There was an envelope on top of the pile. With shaking fingers, Nancy picked it up and opened it.

Nancy—

We’re sorry to play such a mean trick on you, sweetheart, but you didn’t leave us much of a choice. You’re going to boarding school to get better, not to keep wallowing in what your kidnappers did to you. We want our real daughter back. These clothes were your favorites before you disappeared. You used to be our little rainbow! Do you remember that?

You’ve forgotten so much.

We love you. Your father and I, we love you more than anything, and we believe you can come back to us. Please forgive us for packing you a more suitable wardrobe, and know that we only did it because we want the best for you. We want you back.

Have a wonderful time at school, and we’ll be waiting for you when you’re ready to come home to stay.

The letter was signed in her mother’s looping, unsteady hand. Nancy barely saw it. Her eyes filled with hot, hateful tears, and her hands were shaking, fingers cramping until they had crumpled the paper into an unreadable labyrinth of creases and folds. She sank to the floor, sitting with her knees bent to her chest and her eyes fixed on the open suitcase. How could she wear any of those things? Those were daylight colors, meant for people who moved in the sun, who were hot, and fast, and unwelcome in the Halls of the Dead.

“What are you doing?” The voice belonged to Sumi.

Nancy didn’t turn. Her body was already betraying her by moving without her consent. The least she could do was refuse to move it voluntarily.

“It looks like you’re sitting on the floor and crying, which everyone knows is dangerous, dangerous, don’t-do-that dangerous; it makes it look like you’re not holding it together, and you might shake apart altogether,” said Sumi. She leaned close, so close that Nancy felt one of the other girl’s pigtails brush her shoulder. “Why are you crying, ghostie girl? Did someone walk across your grave?”

“I never died, I just went to serve the Lord of the Dead for a while, that’s all, and I was going to stay forever, until he said I had to come back here long enough to be sure. Well, I was sure before I ever left, and I don’t know why my door isn’t here.” The tears clinging to her cheeks were too hot. They felt like they were scalding her. Nancy allowed herself to move, reaching up and wiping them viciously away. “I’m crying because I’m angry, and I’m sad, and I want to go home.”

“Stupid girl,” said Sumi. She placed a sympathetic hand atop Nancy’s head before smacking her—lightly, but still a hit—and leaping up onto her bed, crouching next to the open suitcase. “You don’t mean home where your parents are, do you? Home to school and class and boys and blather, no, no, no, not for you anymore, all those things are for other people, people who aren’t as special as you are. You mean the home where the man who bleached your hair lives. Or doesn’t live, since you’re a ghostie girl. A stupid ghostie girl. You can’t go back. You have to know that by now.”

Nancy raised her head and frowned at Sumi. “Why? Before I went through that doorway, I knew there was no such thing as a portal to another world. Now I know that if you open the right door at the right time, you might finally find a place where you belong. Why does that mean I can’t go back? Maybe I’m just not finished being sure.”

The Lord of the Dead wouldn’t have lied to her, he wouldn’t. He loved her.

He did.

“Because hope is a knife that can cut through the foundations of the world,” said Sumi. Her voice was suddenly crystalline and clear, with none of her prior whimsy. She looked at Nancy with calm, steady eyes. “Hope hurts. That’s what you need to learn, and fast, if you don’t want it to cut you open from the inside out. Hope is bad. Hope means you keep on holding to things that won’t ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there’s nothing left. Ely-Eleanor is always saying ‘don’t use this word’ and ‘don’t use that word,’ but she never bans the ones that are really bad. She never bans hope.”

“I just want to go home,” whispered Nancy.

“Silly ghost. That’s all any of us want. That’s why we’re here,” said Sumi. She turned to Nancy’s suitcase and began poking through the clothes. “These are pretty. Too small for me. Why do you have to be so narrow? I can’t steal things that won’t fit, that would be silly, and I’m not getting any smaller here. No one ever does in this world. High Logic is no fun at all.”

“I hate them,” said Nancy. “Take them all. Cut them up and make streamers for your tree, I don’t care, just get them away from me.”

“Because they’re the wrong colors, right? Somebody else’s rainbow.” Sumi bounced off the bed, slamming the suitcase shut and hauling it after her. “Get up, come on. We’re going visiting.”

“What?” Nancy looked after Sumi, bewildered and beaten down. “I’m sorry. I’ve just met you, and I really don’t want to go anywhere with you.”