Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(8)

by Seanan McGuire

“Sumi said he’d been to something called a ‘high Logic world’? I still don’t understand what any of those words mean. You throw them around like everyone knows them, but they’re all new to me.”

“I know, dear. You’ll have therapy tonight and a proper orientation with Lundy tomorrow, and she’ll explain everything.” Eleanor straightened as they reached the tables, taking her hand from Nancy’s arm. She clapped, twice. All conversation stopped. The students seated there—most with spaces between them, a few in tight conversational knots that left no visible way in—turned to look at her, faces expectant.

“Good evening, everyone,” said Eleanor. “By now, some of you have doubtlessly heard that we have a new student with us. This is Nancy. She’ll be rooming with Sumi until one of them attempts to murder the other. If you’d like to place a bet on who kills who, please talk to Kade.”

Laughter from the girls—and they were overwhelmingly girls, Nancy realized. Apart from Kade, who was sitting by himself with his nose buried in a book, there were only three boys in the entire group. It seemed odd for a coed school to be so unbalanced. She didn’t say anything. Eleanor had promised her an orientation, and maybe everything would be explained there, making questions unnecessary.

“Nancy is still adjusting to being back in this world after her travels, so please be gentle with her for the first few days, even as all of us were gentle with you, once upon a time.” There was a thin line of steel in Eleanor’s words. “When she’s ready to join in with the hurly-burly and the cheerful malice, she’ll let you know. Now, eat up, all of you, even though you may not want to. We are in a material place. Blood flows in your veins. Try to keep it there.” She stepped away from Nancy, leaving her anchorless as she walked away.

Dinner was set up buffet-style along one wall. Nancy drifted over to it, recoiling from the braising dishes of meat and baked vegetables. They would sit like stones in her stomach, too heavy and unforgiving to tolerate. In the end, she filled a plate with grapes, slices of melon, and a scoop of cottage cheese. Picking up a glass of cranberry juice, she turned to consider the tables.

She’d been good at this, once. She’d never been one of the most popular girls in her high school, but she’d understood the game enough to play it, and play it well, to read the temperature of a room and find the safe shallows, where the currents of mean-girl intensity wouldn’t wash her away, but where she wouldn’t risk drowning in the brackish tide pools of the outcasts and the unwanted. She remembered a time when it had mattered so much. Sometimes she wished she knew how to get back to the girl who’d cared about such things. Other times, she was grateful beyond words that she couldn’t.

The boys, except for Kade, were all sitting together, blowing bubbles in their milk and laughing. No; not them. One group had formed around a girl who was so dazzlingly beautiful that Nancy’s eyes refused to focus on her face; another had formed around a punch bowl filled with candy-pink liquid from which they all furtively sipped. Neither looked welcoming. Nancy looked around until she found the only safe harbor she was likely to see, and started in that direction.

Sumi was sitting across from a pair of girls who couldn’t have looked more different—or more alike. Her plate was piled high with no concern for what touched what. Gravy-covered melon slices cascaded into roast beef coated in jam. The sight of it made Nancy’s stomach flip, but she still put her plate down next to Sumi’s, cleared her throat, and asked the ritual question:

“Is this seat taken?”

“Sumi was just explaining how you’re the most boring cardboard parody of a girl ever to walk this world or any other, and we should all feel sorry for you,” said one of the strangers, adjusting her glasses as she turned to look at Nancy. “That makes you sound like my kind of person. Please, sit, and relieve some of the tedium of our table.”

“Thank you,” said Nancy, and settled.

The strangers wore the same face in remarkably different ways. It was amazing how a little eyeliner and a downcast expression, or a pair of wire-framed glasses and a steely gaze could transform what should have been identical into something distinct and individual. They both had long blonde hair, freckles across the bridges of their noses, and narrow shoulders. One was dressed in a white button-down shirt, jeans, and a black vest that managed to come across as old-fashioned and fashion-forward at the same time; her hair was tied back, no-nonsense and no frills. Her only adornment was a bow tie patterned with tiny biohazard symbols. The other wore a flowing pink dress with a low-cut bodice and a truly astonishing number of lace flourishes. Her hair hung in loose curls the size of soup cans, gathered at the back with a single pink ribbon. A matching ribbon was tied around her neck, like a makeshift choker. Both appeared to be in their late teens, with eyes that were much older.

“I’m Jack, short for Jacqueline,” said the one in the glasses. She pointed to the one in pink. “This is Jill, short for Jillian, because our parents should never have been allowed to name their own children. You’re Nancy.”

“Yes,” said Nancy, unsure of how else she was expected to respond. “It’s nice to meet you both.”

Jill, who otherwise had neither moved nor spoken since Nancy approached the table, turned her eyes toward Nancy’s plate and said, “You aren’t eating much. Are you on a diet?”

“No, not really. I just…” Nancy hesitated before shaking her head and saying, “My stomach’s upset from the trip and the stress and everything.”

“Am I the stress, or am I everything?” asked Sumi, picking up a jam-sticky piece of meat and popping it in her mouth. Around it, she continued, “I guess I could be both. I’m flexible.”

“I’m on a diet,” said Jill proudly. Her plate contained nothing but the rarest strips of roast, some of them so red and bloody that they were virtually raw. “I eat meat every other day and spinach the rest of the time. My blood is so iron-rich you could set a compass by it.”

“That’s, um, very nice,” said Nancy, looking to Sumi for help. She’d known girls on diets her entire life. Iron-rich blood had rarely, if ever, been their goal. Most of them had been looking for smaller waists, clearer complexions, and richer boyfriends, spurred on by a deeply ingrained self-loathing that had been manufactured for them before they were old enough to understand the kind of quicksand they were sinking in.