Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1)(9)


by Seanan McGuire

Sumi swallowed. “Jack and Jill went up the hill, to watch a bit of slaughter, Jack fell down and broke her crown, and Jill came tumbling after.”

Jack looked long-suffering. “I hate that rhyme.”

“And that’s not what happened at all,” said Jill. She turned to beam at Nancy. “We went to a very nice place, where we met very nice people who loved us very much. But there was a little problem with the local constabulary, and we had to come back to this world for a while, for our own safety.”

“What have I told you about abusing the word ‘very’?” asked Jack. She sounded tired.

“Jack and Jill are more stupid, stupid girls,” said Sumi. She stabbed a slice of melon with her fork, splashing gravy on the table. “They think they’re going back, but they’re not. Those doors are closed now. Can’t go high Logic, high Wicked if you’re not innocent. The Wicked doesn’t want people it can’t spoil.”

“I don’t understand anything you people say,” said Nancy. “Logic? Nonsense? Wicked? What do those things even mean?”

“They’re directions, or the next best thing,” said Jack. She leaned forward, dragging her index finger through the wet ring left by the base of a glass and using the moisture to draw a cross on the table. “Here in the so-called ‘real world,’ you have north, south, east, and west, right? Those don’t work for most of the portal worlds we’ve been able to catalog. So we use other words. Nonsense, Logic, Wickedness, and Virtue. There are smaller subdirections, little branches that may or may not go anywhere, but those four are the big ones. Most worlds are either high Nonsense or high Logic, and then they have some degree of Wickedness or Virtue built into their foundations from there. A surprising number of Nonsense worlds are Virtuous. It’s like they can’t work up the attention span necessary for anything more vicious than a little mild naughtiness.”

Jill gave Nancy a sidelong look. “Did that help at all?”

“Not really,” said Nancy. “I never thought that … You know, I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was a kid, and I never thought about what it would be like for Alice when she went back to where she’d started. I figured she’d just shrug and get over it. But I can’t do that. Every time I close my eyes, I’m back in my real bed, in my real room, and all of this is the dream.”

“It isn’t home anymore, is it?” asked Jill gently. Nancy shook her head, blinking back tears. Jill reached across the table to pat her hand. “It gets better. It never gets easy, but it does start to hurt a little less. How long has it been for you?”

“Just under two months.” Seven weeks, four days since the Lord of the Dead had told her she needed to be sure. Seven weeks, four days since the door to her chambers had opened on the basement she’d left behind so long before, in the house she thought she’d left behind forever. Seven weeks, four days since her screaming had alerted her parents to an intruder and they had come pounding down the steps, only to sweep her into an unwanted embrace, bawling about how upset they’d been when she had disappeared.

She’d been gone for six months, from their perspective. One month for each of the pomegranate seeds that Persephone had eaten, back at the beginning of things. Years for her, and months for them. They still thought she was dyeing her hair. They still thought she was eventually going to tell them where she’d been.

They still thought a lot of things.

“It gets better,” repeated Jill. “It’s been a year and a half, for us. But we don’t lose hope. I keep my iron levels up. Jack has her experiments—”

Jack didn’t say anything. She just stood and walked away from the table, leaving her half-eaten dinner behind.

“We’re not cleaning up after you!” shouted Sumi, around a mouthful of food.

In the end, of course, they did. There was really no other option.

3

BIRDS OF A FEATHER

ACCORDING TO WHAT Nancy’s parents had told her about the school, the mandatory group therapy had been one of the big selling points. What better way to bring their teenage daughter back from whatever strange hole she’d crawled into than having her sit and talk to people who’d suffered similar traumas, all under the watchful eye of a trained professional? As she sank into the embrace of a thickly padded armchair, surrounded by teens who twitched, chewed their hair, or stared moodily off into space without speaking, she had to wonder what they would have thought of the reality.

Then the eight-year-old walked into the room.

She was dressed like a middle-aged librarian, wearing a pencil skirt and a white blouse, both of which were much too old for her. Her hair was pulled back into a tight, no-nonsense bun. The overall effect was of a child playing dress-up in her mother’s closet. Nancy sat up straighter. The school’s brochures had mentioned an age range of twelve to nineteen, allowing both the precocious and those who needed a little time to catch up to attend. It hadn’t said anything about children under the age of ten.

The girl stopped at the center of the room, turning to look at each of them in turn. One by one, the fidgeters became still; the hair chewers stopped chewing; even Sumi, who’d been doing an elaborate cat’s-cradle with a piece of yarn, lowered her hands and sat quietly. The girl smiled.

“For those of you who’ve been here for a while, welcome to Wednesday night group. We’re going to be sharing with the high Wicked visitors tonight, but as always, the discussion is open to all.” Her voice matched her body. Her tone was older, cadenced like an adult woman’s, rendered high and strange by her prepubescent vocal cords. She looked at Nancy as she continued. “For those of you who are new here, my name is Lundy, and I am a fully licensed therapist with a specialization in child psychology. I’m going to be helping you through your recovery process.”

Nancy stared. She couldn’t think of anything else to do.

As Lundy walked over to the one remaining chair, Kade leaned over and murmured, “She’s one of us, only she went to a high Logic, high Wicked world where they kicked visitors out on their eighteenth birthdays. She didn’t want to leave, so she asked one of the local apothecaries to help her. This was the result. Eternal childhood.”

“Not eternal, Mr. Bronson,” said Lundy sharply. Kade sat up and settled back in his own chair, shrugging unapologetically. Lundy sighed. “You would have gotten this at your orientation, Miss, ah…?”