Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(5)


by Seanan McGuire

“Then it’s a good thing I don’t care, isn’t it?” Sumi beamed for a moment, bright as the hated, hated sun, and then she was gone, trotting out the door with Nancy’s suitcase and all of Nancy’s clothes.

Nancy didn’t want those clothes, and for one tempting moment, she considered staying where she was. Then she sighed, and stood, and followed. She had little enough to cling to in this world. And she was eventually going to need clean underpants.

2

BEAUTIFUL BOYS AND GLAMOROUS GIRLS

SUMI WAS RESTLESS, in the way of the living, but even for the living, she was fast. She was halfway down the hall by the time Nancy emerged from the room. At the sound of Nancy’s footsteps, she paused, looking back over her shoulder and scowling at the taller girl.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” she scolded. “If dinner catches us without doing what needs done, we’ll miss the scones and jam.”

“Dinner chases you? And you have scones and jam for dinner if it doesn’t catch you?” asked Nancy, bewildered.

“Not usually,” said Sumi. “Not often. Okay, not ever, yet. But it could happen, if we wait long enough, and I don’t want to miss out when it does! Dinners are mostly dull, awful things, all meat and potatoes and things to build healthy minds and bodies. Boring. I bet your dinners with the dead people were a lot more fun.”

“Sometimes,” admitted Nancy. There had been banquets, yes, feasts that lasted weeks, with the tables groaning under the weight of fruits and wines and dark, rich desserts. She had tasted unicorn at one of those feasts, and gone to her bed with a mouth that still tingled from the delicate venom of the horse-like creature’s sweetened flesh. But mostly, there had been the silver cups of pomegranate juice, and the feeling of an empty stomach adding weight to her stillness. Hunger had died quickly in the Underworld. It was unnecessary, and a small price to pay for the quiet, and the peace, and the dances; for everything she’d so fervently enjoyed.

“See? Then you understand the importance of a good dinner,” Sumi started walking again, keeping her steps short in deference to Nancy’s slower stride. “Kade will get you fixed right up, right as rain, right as rabbits, you’ll see. Kade knows where the best things are.”

“Who is Kade? Please, you have to slow down.” Nancy felt like she was running for her life as she tried to keep up with Sumi. The smaller girl’s motions were too fast, too constant for Nancy’s Underworld-adapted eyes to track them properly. It was like following a large hummingbird toward some unknown destination, and she was already exhausted.

“Kade has been here a very-very long time. Kade’s parents don’t want him back.” Sumi looked over her shoulder and twinkled at Nancy. There was no other word to describe her expression, which was a strange combination of wrinkling her nose and tightening the skin around her eyes, all without visibly smiling. “My parents didn’t want me back either, not unless I was willing to be their good little girl again and put all this nonsense about Nonsense aside. They sent me here, and then they died, and now they’ll never want me at all. I’m going to live here always, until Ely-Eleanor has to let me have the attic for my own. I’ll pull taffy in the rafters and give riddles to all the new girls.”

They had reached a flight of stairs. Sumi began bounding up them. Nancy followed more sedately.

“Wouldn’t you get spiders and splinters and stuff in the candy?” she asked.

Sumi rewarded her with a burst of laughter and an actual smile. “Spiders and splinters and stuff!” she crowed. “You’re alliterating already! Oh, maybe we will be friends, ghostie girl, and this won’t be completely dreadful after all. Now come on. We’ve much to do, and time does insist on being linear here, because it’s awful.”

The flight of stairs ended with a landing and another flight of stairs, which Sumi promptly started up, leaving Nancy no choice but to follow. All those days of stillness had made her muscles strong, accustomed to supporting her weight for hours at a time. Some people thought only motion bred strength. Those people were wrong. The mountain was as powerful as the tide, just … in a different way. Nancy felt like a mountain as she chased Sumi higher and higher into the house, until her heart was thundering in her chest and her breath was catching in her throat, until she feared that she would choke on it.

Sumi stopped in front of a plain white door marked only with a small, almost polite sign reading KEEP OUT. Grinning, she said, “If he meant that, he wouldn’t say it. He knows that for anyone who’s spent any time at all in Nonsense that, really, he’s issuing an invitation.”

“Why do people around here keep using that word like it’s a place?” asked Nancy. She was starting to feel like she’d missed some essential introductory session about the school, one that would have answered all her questions and left her a little less lost.

“Because it is, and it isn’t, and it doesn’t matter,” said Sumi, and knocked on the attic door before hollering, “We’re coming in!” and shoving it open to reveal what looked like a cross between a used bookstore and a tailor’s shop. Piles of books covered every available surface. The furniture, such as it was—a bed, a desk, a table—appeared to be made from the piles of books, all save for the bookshelves lining the walls. Those, at least, were made of wood, probably for the sake of stability. Bolts of fabric were piled atop the books. They ranged from cotton and muslin to velvet and the finest of thin, shimmering silks. At the center of it all, cross-legged atop a pedestal of paperbacks, sat the most beautiful boy Nancy had ever seen.

His skin was golden tan, his hair was black, and when he looked up—with evident irritation—from the book he was holding, she saw that his eyes were brown and his features were perfect. There was something timeless about him, like he could have stepped out of a painting and into the material world. Then he spoke.

“What’n the fuck are you doing in here again, Sumi?” he demanded, Oklahoma accent thick as peanut butter spread across a slice of toast. “I told you that you weren’t welcome after the last time.”

“You’re just mad because I came up with a better filing system for your books than you could,” said Sumi, sounding unruffled. “Anyway, you didn’t mean it. I am the sunshine in your sky, and you’d miss me if I was gone.”