THE SAME ORDINARY TOWN
In the same ordinary town, on the same ordinary street, lived two very different, very ordinary children who had never quite managed to cross paths with one another. This, too, was sadly ordinary, for the line dividing children who went to this school from children who went to that school ran right down the middle of their block, forming an invisible barrier that had split them in two before they were old enough to notice. Neither of them had had any say in which school they went to or who their friends became: everything had been decided for them. This is so often the case with children, and few of them will ever come to resent it, for few of them will ever know.
Every morning the two children got out of bed, put on their clothes, kissed their parents goodbye, and walked away down their ordinary street, through their ordinary town, heading for school in two ordinary, opposite directions. The town where they lived had one extraordinary quality: it was believed to be extraordinarily safe, so that no one thought anything was odd about these children going about their days without an adult to stand close and hold their hands.
Remember this: that it was a very safe, very ordinary town. This will be important later.
The two children were very much alike and very different at the same time, as children so often are. One was named Hepzibah, because her parents had a languid and eccentric way of looking at the world. They called her “Zib,” understanding “Hepzibah” was more name than she had shadow. Every day they watched for signs that she was growing into her name, and every day they were disappointed.
“Soon,” they promised each other. “Soon.”
The other was named Avery, because his parents had a sharp and efficient way of looking at the world. They called him “Avery” when they were happy, and “Avery Alexander Grey” when they were mad, and gave him no nicknames. Nicknames were for people whose names didn’t fit them properly, and they had measured him, every inch, before they named him.
“We did well,” they reassured each other. “We did.”
These are our two children: ordinary, average, wildly unique, as all children are. Mark them well: know them as truly as you know your own hands, your own heartbeat, for they will be the thread we follow through all that is yet to come, and all that has yet to happen.
Our story began on an ordinary, average day, a day which had never happened before and would never, in all the length and breadth of time, happen again. It was a Wednesday, muddled middle of the week, with nothing to recommend it save that when it was over, it would be more than halfway to the weekend. Because Avery and Zib were very much alike, they both enjoyed the weekend, and started looking forward to it when bedtime came calling on Sunday night. Because they were very different, they enjoyed the weekend for very different reasons. Avery liked it because he was allowed to go to the library and sit as long as he liked, reading books that he was still too young to take home with him, but that he was sure would one day teach him all the secrets of the universe. Zib liked it because she was allowed to go to the woods behind her house and play in the little creek that chuckled and tumbled there, catching frogs and staring into their great golden eyes, looking for the answers to questions she hadn’t quite figured out yet.
Avery’s alarm rang at precisely seven o’clock. He rose from bed without prompting, washed his face and hands and brushed his teeth, and chose his clothing from the selections that had been laid out the night before. He gathered his books and his pencils and his lucky eraser and joined his parents at the breakfast table, where his father spoke of numbers and accounts, and his mother spoke of octaves and arpeggios. His father was a banker, and a very important one at that, managing the money of wealthy people and helping them decide how to make it grow. Avery had planted a nickel once, and it hadn’t grown at all, so he suspected that to be a banker was something like being a wizard, only much more powerful.
His mother was a piano teacher, and her lessons were in the very highest demand, for her students were impeccably taught, able to perform under all types of pressure and eagerly sought by symphony orchestras around the country. Had she been a little less in demand, perhaps Avery and Zib would have met years before, for Zib’s family fancied themselves musically inclined, and had tried, more than once, to interest her in an instrument. But alas, the lessons given by Avery’s mother were always booked years in advance, and no member of Zib’s family had ever been that organized.
As for Zib, her alarm didn’t go off at all, as she had quite failed to set it the night before, and her parents, being free spirits who believed their daughter should be the same, had chosen not to remind her. She woke at five minutes to eight, gasping in the light, and leapt from her bed without untangling the sheets from around her waist. She grabbed the first clothes she put her hands on, skirt and sweater and mismatched socks, and she ran out the front door without even stopping to say goodbye to her mother, who was sitting at her easel and dreaming of mountains. Zib’s father delivered milk to fine houses on the other side of town. He always brought home a pint of cream in the evenings, sweet and fresh and decadent on the tongue. Her mother was a painter, her work in high demand by the very best galleries. Some of Zib’s mother’s paintings hung in the homes of Avery’s father’s clients, and none of the parties involved knew how entwined their lives already were.
Now, we have already said that Avery and Zib lived on the same street, and that they were the same age, which means even though they went to different schools, those schools started at the same time. So it was that Zib went rushing out the front door of her house and ran down the sidewalk in one direction as Avery emerged more decorously from his own house and began walking at a brisk pace down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. Neither of them saw the other go.
The doors slammed; their parents did not look up; no one felt that there was anything different, at all, about this day. It was a morning like any other.
It was a morning unlike any other. It was simply that no one had realized it yet.
We must pause for a moment, and consider the shape of the town. Avery and Zib lived on a street that ran along the edge of a forest. Were this a different sort of story, it would be about two children who went camping and got lost, tangled in a wonderland of briars and bears and other terrible things. But this is not that story. Zib knew the woods like they were her own private playground, and would never have become lost there. Avery, on the other hand, would never have willingly set foot in the shadows of the trees, which were tall and terrible and frightening.
The woods stretched on for miles; what was beyond them doesn’t matter.
As for the town itself, it was simple and straightforward, designed by clever architects who believed that following rules was the way of the future. They thought there was no need for winding, tree-lined streets or graceful, curving boulevards; everything was set out with precision, all right angles and efficient use of space. They had managed to keep control of the planning office for the better part of twenty years, and under their watchful eyes, every new development and shopping mall had been slotted perfectly into their geometric ideals. A person could walk those streets for years and never once get lost. It was a good place, a safe place, a perfect place to raise a child. That was why, when the doors closed on Avery and Zib’s homes, their parents thought nothing of it. Everything was as it should be.
Avery walked with quick, precise steps, content with his place in the world, secure in the knowledge that he knew exactly where he was going and exactly what he was going to find when he got there; he knew the route between home and school better than almost anything, and it held no surprises for him. So it was that when he turned off his street to find his way blocked by construction equipment, he stopped, confused and blinking.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. This wasn’t in the plan. But the street was broken, cracked like an eggshell, and water gushed up from a hidden, splintered pipe, flooding everything. Men in hard hats swarmed around the break, dropping sandbags and tubes, trying to minimize the damage.
One of them saw Avery and waved. “Sorry, kid,” he called. “Water main burst due to an electrical fire. You’re going to have to go around.”
Avery’s mouth worked, but no sound came out. Go around? Go around? He had walked the same path to school every day since he’d been old enough to start going to school at all. His parents trusted him to walk this way, to follow the clear and sensible rules that were there to keep him safe. He had never considered going a different way. He didn’t know how.
The man in the hard hat, for all that he is a minor character in this story, as so many people must be—for a story is, by its very nature, a narrow thing, focused on this hero and this villain, on making them the most important people in the world, and hence excluding anyone who might be a threat to their positions—offered the boy a sympathetic smile. “It’ll be fine,” he said. “All you need to do is go up the block to the next street and you can get around the damage.”
Avery disagreed. Everything was not fine. But he had been raised to listen when adults spoke, and so he merely nodded, tightened his hand on the strap holding his books in place, and turned to go back the way he’d come.
As for Zib, she walked along the perfectly straight sidewalk in a wavy, erratic line, sometimes slowing to a crawl to watch a snail working its way down the pavement, sometimes running to make up the time she’d spent malingering. “Malingering” was one of her favorite words. Her teachers liked to use it about her when they thought she wasn’t listening—which, to be fair, was always. Zib had a way of making people think she was paying attention to anything but them, when in fact, she was taking careful note of everything that happened around her.
When she reached the end of the block, she turned and stopped, cocking her head to the side as she solemnly, silently considered the scene in front of her. She had walked this way just the day before, twice, once coming and once going, and she was quite sure that there had been a street there. A whole street, not just two pieces framing a pit that went down, down, down into the depths of the town’s foundations. Workers in hard hats swarmed around the hole, putting up barriers and taking measurements, too distracted to have noticed her yet.
It must have only just happened, she thought; there would have been sirens otherwise, big and loud and clanging. Her mother would have come out to see what all the fuss was about, and then she would have called the school to say that Zib wasn’t coming in, and it would have been pancakes and finger paints and a day spent happily at home.
But it would also have been missing math class, and Zib thought that math might be the best thing that anyone had ever invented; the rest of school was worth suffering through if at the end of it she got to see the way the numbers danced. She took a cautious step forward.
A woman in an orange safety vest paused in the process of setting another caution sign near the edge of the hole and called, “Hey! You can’t be here!”
Zib, who was very much present, stopped and blinked at her. Adults were always saying things like that. “You can’t be here” didn’t change the fact that “here” was a place, and Zib was already in the place, making the statement nonsensical at best, and false at worst.
“Look, kiddo, a gas line blew, and the whole street’s closed. Are you trying to get to school?”
“You’re going to have to go around.”
Zib frowned and pointed to the intact sidewalk.
The woman shook her head. “It’s not safe. I’m sorry. If you back up and try the next street, you should be fine. You won’t even be late for school.”
Adults were always so sure of things like that, and there was no sense in arguing with them: once they decided that something was so, they would argue and yell and send children to their rooms to get their way. Zib wasn’t entirely sure why being old made you right, but it definitely made you bigger, and she didn’t want to fight with someone who was bigger than she was. So she shrugged, and turned, and went back the way she had come.
Because their houses, Avery’s and Zib’s both, were on the side of the street where the forest loomed, there were no corners: they lived, unwittingly, only three doors down from one another. But across the street from them was another road, right between the one where Avery walked to school and the one where Zib walked to school. They approached it, Avery walking with quick, precise steps, Zib skipping and strolling and sometimes outright running, and they reached their respective corners at the same time.
It would seem reasonable for them to have seen each other, for them to have noticed each other, for something to have begun with two children on two corners on an ordinary day that was quickly going wrong. But Avery was thinking about the water and the way it had filled the street, and Zib was thinking about the hole and the way it had seemed to go on forever, and so they both turned without looking to see who might be watching, and they walked down the road, one on either side, both of them thinking they were entirely alone.
Everything that had happened so far, from alarm clocks ringing or not ringing to breakfasts being eaten or not eaten to holes opening in streets where holes had never been before … everything that had happened had been something entirely possible, if not entirely probable. The world is divided, after all, into possible and impossible, and something which is possible can happen whenever it sees fit, even if it is inconvenient or unwanted. Something which is impossible, however, is never supposed to happen at all, and when it does—for it would be impossible for the impossible to go away entirely—it tends to disrupt things rather conclusively.
So it was, perhaps, more reasonable than it seemed for Avery and Zib, upon reaching the end of the block, to find themselves looking, not at another block like the last, but at a wall only slightly higher than Zib was tall, made of large, rough-hewn bricks. Avery, who was a few inches shorter than she, but who knew something about rocks, thought they might be granite. Zib, who had never been very interested in rocks when not skipping them across the surface of a pond, thought the flowering moss growing between the bricks might be the sort of thing lizards liked to use for a mattress. Both of them thought the wall had no business being there.
The wall, which did not care what anyone thought of it, continued to exist.
It was a very pretty wall, well crafted and sturdy. Avery’s parents would have approved of the craftsmanship. Zib’s parents would have approved of the wildflowers that grew along its base and the lichen that grew along its top. It looked weathered and wise and oddly permanent, like it would still be there long after the rest of the town had been forgotten.
Avery gaped at the wall. He didn’t have the words for what he felt as he looked at it. There wasn’t a wall here. He had been down this street a hundred times, walking with his parents or sitting in the backseat of their car, and there had never been a wall here, certainly not one that looked older than any of the houses around it.
If Avery had been able to ask an adult what he was feeling, they would have given him a word: offense. The wall was an offense. It was an impossible thing in a possible place, and it should never have been allowed, not for a moment, not ever. It hurt him to look at it, like it was there only to mock him.
Zib grinned at the wall. Her feelings were no less complicated than Avery’s, but they were more familiar to her, because she had been feeling them almost every day she could remember. She felt delight, yes, and excitement, and a small measure of what she would have refused to identify as relief if anyone had asked her. Not being willing to name a thing doesn’t change what it is, however, and Zib was relieved.
This was something new. This was something different. This might mean missing math class, and she would be sad about that later, but right here, right now, this was an adventure.
Adventures do not come along every day, or every week, or even every year. Adventures are shy, unpredictable things, and they swoop in when least expected, carrying their victims away from their average, everyday worlds and into something marvelous. Zib had been waiting so long for something marvelous to come for her. She was the first of them to approach the wall, touching the rough stones with one shaking hand, grin growing even wider when she confirmed that yes, yes, it was real; this was happening.
Dropping her half-eaten apple to the ground, she grasped the highest brick she could reach and began pulling herself up, scrabbling until she was sure she had her balance. Once she was high enough, she slung one leg over the top of the wall, pausing to catch her breath and look back.
We will return to her in a moment. Let us look, briefly, to Avery, who stood looking at the wall with wide, offended eyes, waiting for it to go away. It did not go away. He reached out and touched it, snatching his fingers away as if they had been burned by the brief contact, and still it did not go away, and still it was between him and the school.
If a wall where a wall was not meant to be was an offense, that same wall keeping him from making it to class on time was unthinkable. Avery looked in one direction and then the other, trying to find a way around the wall. There was none. It extended the width of the street, and across the yards of the houses to either side, stopping only when it reached their windows and could go no further. The only way forward was over.
Slower than Zib, more hesitantly, Avery began to climb.
When he reached the top, he looked back, not realizing that a girl he had never met before was doing the same thing in the very same instant. Together, they gazed down what should have been a street they both knew well, toward the place where their homes should have been.
There was nothing there but forest.
The houses were gone. The telephone posts and streetlights and lawns were gone. Even the street, where they had been standing only moments before, was gone, replaced by tree roots and broken ground and trailing ferns. Zib made a strangled squawking noise and fell, landing on the far side of the wall. Avery continued to stare, his shoulders shaking as he tried to deny the change. Then, with the calm precision of a boy who didn’t know what else to do, he swung his legs over the wall’s edge. Once he was on the other side, everything would return to normal. It would have to.
The wind blew down an empty street, where there were no children with hair to be ruffled or jackets to be flapped, and where there was no wall to stop or slow it, and everything was ordinary, and nothing was ordinary at all.
Copyright © 2020 by Seanan McGuire