1 SO MANY WAYS TO DROWN
CORA MILLER WOKE WITH a start in a room that was still dark, drenched in the moonlight coming through the window, with the sound of screams ringing in her ears. She sat up in bed, her heart pounding, and tried to catch her breath, waiting for the moment when her roommate would demand to know why she’d been screaming again, wasn’t she tired of waking up terrified every night, didn’t she think it was time to talk to the school’s new therapist?
But the new therapist—a very nice woman named Nichole, who had moved into the office that used to belong to Katherine Lundy, hanging her diplomas on the walls alongside cheerful motivational posters and pictures of her dogs—had gone through her door more than thirty years ago, and had come home with a head stuffed full of pleasant memories and happy dreams. She believed that it was possible to move beyond the doors, to grow into someone who could be happy in this world forever, forsaking all others. Based on what she’d told the students, nothing on the other side of her door had been malicious, or malevolent, or made of teeth.
No, Cora didn’t want to talk to Nichole. Didn’t want to sit down with a pleasantly smiling woman in a pleasantly decorated office and listen to her tell pleasantly couched lies about how things were going to get better. Things weren’t going to get better. Maybe not ever.
Antoinette didn’t say anything. She was still dead to the world, one arm flung over her face to block the watery moonlight, her hair spread out across her pillow like a riot of coral fronds. The moon could tint everything in silver, could wash the world in white, but it couldn’t steal the foxfire brightness from Antsy’s hair. Sometimes Cora wondered if Antsy’s hair was the reason Eleanor had decided they should share a room. “If you have two girls with unrealistically brightly colored hair, let them clog up the same bathtub drain” seemed like the sort of logic Eleanor liked to trade in.
It wasn’t like they had very much else in common. Cora had traveled to the Trenches, an underwater world full of mermaids, mysteries, and maritime monsters. Her door had opened when she tried to take her own life, unable to endure one more day of the constant judgmental mockery of the people who were supposed to be her peers, and just when she’d been finding her fins in the deeps, a whirlpool had swept her back into the life she had never expected to return to.
Antoinette had traveled to a Nonsense world, and a dry one at that, a place of jumbled boxes and endless shelves, where all the lost things went. “I got lost, and so I went where the lost things go” was how she had explained it, as matter-of-factly as if nothing could have possibly made more sense. She was fickle and fractious, and would have made a better roommate for Sumi. Only Sumi wasn’t required to have a roommate anymore, since apparently the rules were different for people who had died and come back.
It wasn’t fair, but what about the world really was? The jagged lines of her latest nightmare were still lingering, not expunged by screaming as they would normally have been; they cast strange shadows in the corners of the room, shadows that moved and twisted and bent, like the tentacled arms of some great, terrible—
Cora shuddered and pulled her eyes away from the wall, swiping her hands across them in short, furious motions, like nightmares were just another bit of grit that could be wiped away. At least with the lights down, she couldn’t see her own skin; couldn’t see the thin scrim of oil-slick iridescence that covered every inch of her, and had since she danced with the Drowned Gods in the waters of the Moors.
She swung her legs around to plant her feet on the floor, finally admitting that sleep was finished for the night: sleep was over and done. Maybe she could catch a nap in the early afternoon, when the sun was thick and buttery, and even the deepest shadows were easy to see through.
Antoinette still didn’t stir. Cora took a moment to breathe and look at her roommate, waiting for her heart to settle in her chest. She used to be able to sleep like that. She used to put her head down on the pillow and let the night take her away, off into dreams full of deep, diamond-dappled water, diving down where the currents were warm and the waters were always welcoming.
Since the Moors, though … since the Moors, her dreams were still full of water and waves, but the sea she swam in while she slept was no longer remotely kind. It was filled with teeth, and colder than she would have believed the water could be. Worst of all were the whispers, which moved with the tide and promised her anything she wanted—promised her the world’s oceans, promised to return her fins and scales and free her from the bonds of gravity, if she would just stop trying so hard to swim away from them. All they wanted was to love her. All they needed her to do was turn around and let them in.
The halls of the school were empty at this hour. If Christopher was awake, he would be wandering in the trees behind the building, playing his flute for the small midnight creatures that moved among the roots, hoping not to be seen. He was the only quasi-nocturnal student currently in residence, with Nancy having gone back to the Halls of the Dead and Jack at home in the Moors. It made the school feel a little darker at night, knowing that everyone else was sleeping.
Cora’s tenure at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children hadn’t overlapped with Nancy or the Wolcott twins, but her shadows hadn’t always been so tangled, or so tempting. She used to sleep through the night. She used to be fine with solitude on the rare evenings when she couldn’t.
She walked along the hall as quietly as possible, wincing every time a floorboard creaked or the foundation made a small, settling groan, waiting for one of the doors lining the hall to slam open and reveal one of her fellow students, disheveled and angry at being woken from a sound night’s sleep. If that happened, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to stop herself from slapping someone and waking the rest of the hall as she screamed, “So you got woken up once. So what? I haven’t slept through the night in months!”
But no doors opened. The halls remained empty, and the classrooms she passed on her way to the bathroom were the same, their doors standing open and the blinds pulled down over their windows. All those rooms would be full soon enough, packed with students who didn’t necessarily want to learn, but who didn’t want to spend all their time sitting quietly and waiting for the world to shift under their feet. They’d been lucky enough to see the world change once. Most of them wouldn’t be lucky enough to see it change again.
And even if they did, luck wasn’t always good.
Cora shivered as she walked along the hall. Kade had his Compass, his little map to all the different worlds represented by the student body, but it wasn’t accurate. It could never be accurate. Worlds could be oriented in different directions but still be very, very similar to one another. Drowned Worlds were Drowned Worlds, regardless of whether or not they had Logical rules or leaned toward the Wicked. A direction wasn’t a description, it was just a set of … of fundamental rules. Saying that any two people who’d traveled in the same direction had to get along was like saying that two people who’d experienced the same kind of gravity as children had to be the best-of bestest best friends.
According to Kade’s map, the Trenches were a Logical, Wicked world, but Cora had never been able to see the Wickedness in them. They weren’t cruel. The currents could be harsh and almost random, but if you stayed with your shoal and avoided dangerous waters, you could potentially swim forever without meeting anything that wanted to harm you. According to that same map, the Moors were also Logical and Wicked, and Cora couldn’t stand the thought of her kind, beloved home having anything in common with that nightmare landscape, with that leering red moon washed in so much blood that it would never be clean again, with those deep and dangerous waters.
Thinking of the waters of the Moors was enough to trigger another cascade of whispers from the dark. Cora shuddered and walked faster. Eleanor and Kade both said that the Drowned Gods couldn’t reach her here, couldn’t slide their tentacles across the gulf between worlds to wrap around her ankles and drag her under, but she knew they were wrong, because she heard them constantly. They haunted her. And everyone knew that things from the other side of the door could absolutely leak through into this reality. Her hair had been brown, not aquamarine, before she found her fins. Christopher would die without his flute—literally die. Seraphina was the kind of beautiful that stopped hearts, and everyone who’d seen pictures of her from before her travels said that she hadn’t always been like that. She’d been attractive, not impossible. The doors made changes. The doors stayed with you.
If her hair could keep growing in blue as the depths of the ocean, if Seraphina could still walk through life in a perfumed cloud of her own grace, who was to say that the Drowned Gods couldn’t reach through whatever gap allowed those things to happen? Who was to say they couldn’t claim what they already thought of as their own?
Cora sped up as the door of the bathroom came into view ahead of her. She pushed it open with a fast, vicious motion, relieved to see that the bathroom was as empty as the rest of the school. The floor was covered in candy-colored tile, and some past student had painted rainbows along the walls, up onto the ceiling, turning the room into a swirl of vibrant, living color. The window was thick carnival glass, red and blue and green and yellow. There were no curtains, because they weren’t needed even a little bit: no one trying to look in would be able to see anything aside from color. It was peaceful. It was perfect.
The thought of climbing into the massive bathtub was enough to turn Cora’s stomach, but the dryness in her skin and throat told her that she didn’t actually have a choice. She needed to spend a certain amount of time soaking every week or risk drying out, which had consequences far more immediate and unpleasant than the minor panic attack that came along with actually taking a bath. She shut and locked the door before peeling off her nightgown and starting the water pouring into the bathtub, taking her time adding three types of sweet-scented bubble bath and two kinds of soaking salt to the bath.
Once the bathtub was full—hot and sweet-smelling and mounded with bubbles, a universe away from the salty, brackish depths that haunted her dreams—she climbed into the water, heart pounding from the conflict between “the water is safe, the water is home and harbor, the water will not hurt you” and “the water is filled with monsters who are only waiting for their opportunity to drag you down.” She sank down amid the bubbles until only her face and the blue-green shock of her hair remained uncovered, the rest of her body concealed by the mountain of bubbles that filled the air with rising and falling perfume as they began to pop.
There was always plenty of bubble bath in this particular bathroom, which was also Sumi’s favorite, and after her time in Confection, where the ocean was made of strawberry soda and the rivers ran with thick undercurrents of chocolate syrup, Sumi couldn’t stand water that smelled or tasted like water. Cora had been judgmental before their time in the Moors, and now she was grateful.
She wasn’t as fond of the scent of water as she used to be, either.
Slowly, the heat from the bath sank into her bones, warming them, chasing away the shadows of the Drowned Gods, reminding her that she was a mermaid, and for a mermaid to be afraid of drowning was ridiculous. This was where she belonged. This was where she’d come from, and where she would eventually go, when the Trenches saw how sincerely she wanted to come home and swung their watery doors open for her a second and final time. This world wasn’t hers to keep. She wasn’t staying here.
Cora’s eyes fluttered shut as sleep reclaimed her, and in the soup of bubbles and slowly cooling water, she slipped under the surface, down to where it was warm, and sweet, and welcoming. She was a mermaid, after all.
All she needed was a little more time, and she’d be going home.
2 ECHOES OF THE UNHEARD
CORA KNEW THAT THERE was nothing wrong with her. She’d been hearing it since she was in preschool, and when you hear a thing often enough, you start to understand it, even if you’d rather not. Sometimes she thought she would have been happier if there had been something wrong with her, if there had been something she could chase after and fix.
But no. There was nothing wrong with her. She was the inevitable result of generation after generation of people struggling to live through starvation, to keep the fat from their rare times of plenty on their bones for long enough to coax a little more living from a land that was all too frequently hostile to their needs. She had been a chubby baby, and a chubby child, and the first time someone had called her “fat” in the tone of voice that made it perfectly clear they were trying to insult her more than they were trying to describe her, she’d been barely five years old.
She’d gone on her first diet when she was eight years old. All the books she’d read since then said children shouldn’t be on diets when they were still growing, that all she’d done by trying to fix the shameful reality of her existence was slow her own metabolism and make her fatness even more of a foregone conclusion, but she’d been a little kid. She’d been lonely, since the other kids were getting more and more reluctant to play with her, as if fat was somehow contagious, and she’d been scared—not of her size, which was normal and natural and didn’t slow her down in any way, but of the way the world was responding to it. She’d heard one of the student teachers talking to a playground attendant in the low, hushed voice of an adult who assumed she wasn’t in earshot, saying that what her parents were doing to her was child abuse.
Cora came from a loving home, but she knew what happened if someone accused your parents of abusing you. She even knew why it had to happen, because Johnny from her kindergarten class used to come to school with bruises shaped like boots in the middle of his back, black and purple and terrifying. But she didn’t want to be taken away because someone thought her body was broken and didn’t bother to ask her what she ate at home before they made a phone call that set a terrible thing into motion. So she decided to take the problem into her own hands.
Everyone said losing weight was just a matter of eating less and moving more, and so for three weeks she’d skipped breakfast by dragging her feet through the process of getting ready for school, thrown her lunch away, and then spent dinner moving the food around her plate with a fork, rather than putting it into her mouth. And she’d spent recesses and lunch racing around the blacktop like a wild thing, waiting for the fat to fall away and the slim, beautiful girl she dreamed of being to emerge.
Instead, she’d collapsed in the middle of the afternoon on Thursday of the third week, too exhausted and malnourished to move, and the call to child services had been made anyway, by the school nurse, who assumed her parents had been starving her.
Her mother’s expression of genuine shock and horror when she arrived at school had probably gone a long way toward keeping Cora’s feared consequences from materializing. Instead, she’d received a thorough checkup, a firm order to eat her dinner from now on, and a referral to a therapist who specialized in childhood eating disorders.
There was nothing wrong with her diet. She ate healthy foods, in reasonable amounts, and sweets and candies, in the same amounts as her peers; she just had a body that wanted to hold on to things a little tighter, keep them a little closer, in case of some future famine or struggle. She was active on the playground and in youth sports when her parents enrolled her, finding joy first on the soccer field and then on the swim team, where her size was nothing compared to the strength of her arms and her ability to propel herself through the water.
There was nothing wrong with any part of her. She was healthy, and happy, and fat, something which everyone who met her was quick to point out, some in tones of gleeful disgust, others in tones of shameful condemnation. Did she not know that she was fat, perhaps? Had she missed that essential fact of her own physical reality, and needed it explicitly explained to her? There was nothing wrong with her, but she was smart enough to know that everything was wrong with her, and even the fact that her parents and her doctors said that dieting would only do her harm didn’t change the fact that if she didn’t find a way to magically become thin, she would never be accepted.
Even people who were quick to say that certain words shouldn’t be said because they were like throwing rocks at people over things they couldn’t help were happy to laugh when the fat kid fell down on the blacktop, even if she stood up bleeding. “You could choose not to be fat,” they would always say, when she called them on it. “If you just had a little self-control, there’d be nothing to make fun of you for. We’re doing you a favor.”
So she’d eaten less and less, even as her doctors and parents tried to get her to eat more, she’d learned to sit so as to take up as little space as possible, and when the laughter and the cruelty had echoed so loudly in her ears that she couldn’t hear anything else, she had given herself over to the water, which had only ever cared for her, had only ever welcomed her home.
When she had filled her lungs with water and felt her body start to drift away on a sweet, liquid tide, her last thought had been that she was finally going home, finally going to a place where everyone would be able to see that there was nothing wrong with her. Then everything had gone black, and when she had woken up again, it had been, not in a hospital bed, but in the tangled kelp forest of the Trenches, and everything had changed.
“See, that’s how we know you really went through a door, and didn’t just have a near-death experience that felt like going through a door,” Kade had said, when she first came to the school, still unsteady on the legs she no longer thought of as her own, unable to shake the feeling that she was going to suffocate in the endless emptiness of the open air. “The other lifeguards at the beach where you went into the water told everyone your body was swept away by the current.”
Cora had seen their Facebook updates about the “tragedy” of seeing their “beloved classmate” drown. Some of them had managed to make digs at her weight and how ridiculous it was to think the currents could work fast enough to disappear her enormous bulk, even as they’d claimed to have been her closest friends and confidants. She was reasonably sure that if she had actually had that many friends, she would never have tried to drown herself.
“The Trenches would have found another way to have you if you’d been happy enough to keep dry,” Sumi had said, practically, when Cora had confessed her suicide attempt. “My door tried to get me three times before I finally pushed it open, and it would have kept on trying for as long as I was suited to Confection. They know what we need.”
Sumi hadn’t had an answer to that one.
Cora had been in the Trenches for a year and a half, diving deeper every day, fighting the Serpent of Frozen Tears with the other mermaids, flirting with sirens and chasing currents for the glory of the queen. Then had come the dreadful day when she was swept into one of the Serpent’s whirlpools, and the reaching hands of her sisters hadn’t been enough to anchor or to save her, and she’d woken on a beach back in the world of her birth, tail split down the middle into two familiar, unwanted legs, scales gone, fins and gills and freedom gone. All she’d been left with was her hair, which now grew in a deep blue-green, a perfect complement to the fins she no longer had.
She’d staggered up the beach naked and starving and half-delirious, unsure where she was or how she’d gotten there, and the first tourists to see her had called the local police, convinced that she had been attacked. The police, in turn, had called her parents, and they’d come laughing and crying down to the station to collect her, asking her over and over again where she’d been. But she’d already heard the officers snickering at the naked fat girl, and she already knew that telling her parents she’d tried to drown herself and turned into a mermaid instead wasn’t going to get her very far, so she’d turned her face away and stammered excuses, claiming not to know, not to remember, not to understand.
She’d lasted three months in the wreckage of her old life, suddenly sixteen, suddenly remarkable because she’d disappeared, because her hair stood out in a crowd, because she had somehow learned the trick, during the time she claimed not to remember, of dyeing her eyebrows.
Then one of the other girls on the swim team had broken the silent agreement not to look at the fat girl during post-pool shower time, and the news that Cora cared enough about her “new look” to dye her pubic hair had spread around school before the end of the day. She’d gone home mortified and crying, and when the next morning came, she had simply refused to get out of her bed.
The next day, Eleanor West had been on their doorstep, pleasantly dotty in a knee-length rainbow raincoat over a bright peach dress that somehow managed to skirt the color “pink” in all but implication, a smile on her face and a pamphlet about her school for children like Cora in her hands.
Cora’s parents had been reluctant to listen to a sales pitch for sending their daughter away from home when she’d only just returned from an adventure she still steadfastly insisted she didn’t remember, but Cora had looked at Eleanor and seen something familiar in the older woman’s eyes, something that spoke to understanding where she’d been and what she’d been through. At Cora’s insistence, her parents had allowed Eleanor to explain what she had to offer, and when offered a fresh start, with no one who remembered who she’d been before she disappeared, Cora had leapt at the chance to go.
She’d believed she was never going to see her family again when she’d given herself over to the Trenches, had mourned them and buried them in the hallowed ground of her heart, where they could rest. Leaving them a second time was a promise kept, not a loss. And for them, she was their miracle girl, returned by the sea, and they knew she didn’t dye her hair, and they knew that she was miserable, and they knew that whatever was broken inside her was something they couldn’t fix, and so they let her go.
Cora Miller walked away from her childhood home with her head held high and her knees barely shaking, convinced that she had finally found the place where she belonged.
Now, as she stood outside Eleanor’s office with her fist raised to knock on the door, unable to quite commit to finishing the gesture, she felt the last of her conviction crumbling away, washed out to sea by the constant erosion of her fear.
The door swung open, still untouched. Cora shrank back.
Eleanor, standing framed by the narrow opening, offered her a wan smile.
“It’s all right, dear,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you. I suppose you had best come inside.”
3 FULL FATHOM FIVE
ELEANOR’S OFFICE WAS THE only room in the school designed more for the comfort of people who hadn’t been to the other side of an impossible door than those who had. The main foyer boasted a chandelier made of crystals that had once been Eleanor’s own tears; the kitchen looked like it had been ripped half from an industrial cafeteria and half from a medieval recreation village. Every other room in the house had been touched by the reality of its residents, but in Eleanor’s office, it was possible to pretend that this was just another boarding school, one for students who had survived and started to recover from personal tragedy.
Eleanor herself smiled warmly at Cora as she walked around the bulk of her desk and settled in her leather-backed chair, gesturing for Cora to sit in one of the more modest chairs on the other side of the desk. Cora settled without a word of complaint, her still-damp nightgown sticking to her skin, while her hair sent rivulets of water down her back. The upholstery might get wet, but Eleanor wouldn’t care about that. Caring about things getting wet wasn’t very nonsensical, and Eleanor’s devotion to the Nonsense still waiting for her on the other side of her own door was one of the school’s few true constants.
(No one knew the name of Eleanor’s world, not even Kade, who would inherit the school on the day when she finally felt her grasp on reality had grown flexible enough to allow her to return to her beloved Nonsense to die. But Eleanor’s door was one of the rare stable ones, and everyone did know that she could go back whenever she felt the time was right.)
“So,” said Eleanor.
“So,” echoed Cora, and that was where her courage deserted her. All the words she’d been working her way toward saying dried up on her lips, and she looked down at her hands, folded neatly in her lap, dry and unwebbed and dancing with oilslick rainbows.
The rainbows never left her anymore. She would never have believed that she could hate color as much as she did.
“They still speak to you?” asked Eleanor.
Cora’s head snapped up. “Every night,” she whispered. “They … they want me. They think I belong to them because they held me for a few minutes. They won’t leave me alone.”
“And you think that it’s because your door is still propped open, just that little crack, that sliver held by hope. You think if you could let it close, they’d have to let you go.” Eleanor pursed her lips, agony in her eyes. “You’re wrong, you know. The doors never completely leave us. Even the ones who lose all desire to resume their journeys, even the ones who forget, they’re always more vulnerable—”
But Cora wasn’t listening anymore. She had seized on the only part of Eleanor’s speech that mattered, leaping to her feet and reaching across the desk for Eleanor’s hands. “Yes, forget,” she said. “I want to forget. I want to be normal again. I want my hair to be brown and the air to feel natural and to go home and sleep in my own bed and see my parents every morning when I wake up.” She stopped there, waiting for Eleanor to reply. Seconds slithered past, the silence unbroken until Cora herself took a deep breath, and said, “You’ve always said that there was a second school.”
Eleanor pulled her hands away. “The Whitethorn Institute. Cora, you can’t intend—”
“You said they steal your students sometimes. That when you’re not fast enough, or when the children are having a harder time adapting to life in this reality, that sometimes Whitethorn gets there first.” She sat up straight, giving Eleanor a challenging look. “You said it was where students go when they want to believe that everything that happened on the other side of the door was just a dream, or a delusion, and not a real thing at all. Please. I want to wash the Moors off my skin. I want to drain the Drowned Gods out of my soul. I can’t do either of those things here, where I’m expected to dwell and dwell and dwell on what happened. Please. You have to let me go.”
Eleanor was silent for a moment, eyes wide and frightened. Finally, she asked, “Have you discussed this with the others?”
Cora didn’t need to ask who Eleanor meant by “the others.” They had been viewed as a unit by the rest of the student body since their return from the Moors—a third trip through a door that hadn’t been meant for most of them. The first had been to the Halls of the Dead, and the second to Confection, where they’d arranged for Sumi’s resurrection. Sumi sulked sometimes, because Confection was her door, and so she was only looked at with the awe afforded to someone who had died and come back again, and not with the awe that was directed at her fellow travelers.
But still, they were a unit now, a posse, a gang in the teen-movie sense of the word, friends bonded by common adventure and experience. Cora, Kade, Christopher, and Sumi. And now here, in this office, Cora was alone.
She shook her head. “No,” she said miserably. “The Moors don’t want any of them, even though they all have hooks the Drowned Gods could use if they wanted to try.” Sumi had been dead. Christopher loved the dead. Kade had no door to go back through, even if he’d wanted to; Prism had rejected him completely. He could have given himself over to the Moors, and the Drowned Gods could have taken his loyalties without a fight. But they had chosen Cora. The Moors had chosen Cora.
She understood some things about the Moors, in a half-formed way that was almost impossible for her to articulate. She understood that they were a single organism, a great factory whose purpose was transformation, and they made all they owned over in their own image.
The Moors made monsters. Cora was already a mermaid. She didn’t want to wake up one day as something worse.
Cora shuddered. “I haven’t discussed this with them. Please. I can’t live like this. I need to forget. I need the Drowned Gods to let me go.”
The tension in the room was like a sheet of glass, thick but fragile, easily shattered and capable of becoming a weapon when it did. Eleanor took a breath, opening her mouth, and Cora tensed against the hammerblow that was about to land.
Someone knocked at the door.
Eleanor froze. Cora did the same. Then, as if cued, they turned in uneasy unison to look toward the source of the sound. “Yes?” called Eleanor, voice surprisingly steady, as if she hadn’t been in the middle of an emotionally charged conversation about Cora’s entire future.
The door creaked open and a girl poked around the edge. Her face was too thin, too narrow, and too pointed, seemingly made entirely of angles and bruises waiting for the chance to happen. Her hair was a wild mop of carroty curls, too orange to fit any modern definition of “attractive,” too bright to be overlooked in a crowd. Her eyes were equally bright, hazel trending toward yellow; she looked like the consequence of some misguided wizard deciding that the fox kits in his backyard would be happier as human children, without taking their desires into account in the slightest. She looked roughly Cora’s age, somewhere in her late teens, in that timeless, breathless pause between childhood and adulthood, when anything was possible, when anything could happen.
“I lost my roommate again, but I found your missing keys.” Antoinette held up something so crusted with mud that it looked more like a clod of dirt than anything as useful as keys. If Cora squinted, however, she could see the curve of a keyring, the angle of a filthy, rotted rabbit’s foot, now half-skeletal from its time spent in the ground.
Eleanor startled in her seat, sitting up straighter, eyes brightening. “I lost those twenty years ago,” she said. “However did you…?”
“I can find anything,” said Antoinette, looking briefly, completely peaceful as she put the keys down on the table nearest the door. “I found your keys, and see, there’s my roommate. And I wouldn’t have had an excuse to knock and find her if I hadn’t already found them, so it all makes sense if you put it in a line.”
“We know, dear,” said Eleanor. “But Cora and I are in the middle of something important right now, so if you don’t mind…”
“Oh.” Antoinette blinked. “All right. I’ll see you in class, Cora.” She slipped out of the room, closing the door again behind herself.
Cora returned her attention to Eleanor. The tension in the room was broken now: they were just two people, a teacher and a student, having a long-overdue conversation about that student’s future. Cora knew how to navigate those conversations, had been in them time and time again, when she’d wanted to be a lifeguard and the swim coach had come to argue her case to the park administrator who’d wanted to claim her size would be a liability; when she’d wanted to try out for the spring musical, and the drama teacher had tried to gently imply that she might be better off behind the scenes. Being a fat child meant knowing how to be your own best advocate, and Cora advocated very well indeed.
“Whitethorn is…” Eleanor trailed off. “It’s different. It’s very different. I haven’t been there in years, and I view it as a personal failing every time I lose a student to them. I never thought that you would be at risk.”
“Miss West, please.” Cora shook her head. “I can’t go back to the Trenches as I am now. The Drowned Gods have too much of a hold on me, and if they followed me…” She shuddered. If they followed her into those warm, sunlit waters, she would be bringing a doom far greater than the Serpent down on the heads of those who had never done anything but show her kindness and welcome her home.
By saving Jack’s future, she had sacrificed her own. The rainbows dancing over her skin were proof enough of that.
Eleanor took a sharp breath. “We can’t be sure that the Whitethorn Institute would be able to sunder you from the Drowned Gods, even if they were to try,” she said. “Divinity is a terrible thing, and we try to avoid offending it when we can.”
“We have to do something. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, even swimming hurts me. Please.” Cora looked Eleanor in the eye. “I’ve already tried to kill myself once. If they keep whispering to me, I’m going to try again, and this time, I’m going to succeed.”
Eleanor was silent for a long moment before she said, in a small voice, “That was a low, mean thing to say, Cora. I thought better of you.”
“The truth isn’t always kind,” said Cora. “Please. You’re the only one who can help me. You have to help me. Please.”
Eleanor looked at her, and she looked at Eleanor, and neither one of them said anything at all.
After the silence had stretched out too long to stand, Cora rose and walked, still in her damp nightgown, toward the office door. “I know you’ll have to talk to my parents before you can have me transferred to another school,” she said. “Please make sure they understand that this is what I want. This isn’t something that’s being forced on me by someone else.”
Eleanor was silent as Cora turned to leave the room. Only when the girl was standing in the doorway did she place her hands over her face and say, miserably, “But this is something that’s being forced on you, my darling. This isn’t a choice you would ever have made on your own.”
The empty room gave her no answer. Cora was gone. After a long moment of renewed silence, Eleanor lowered her hands before she rose and crossed the room to retrieve the ring of keys Antoinette had carried back to her. The keys gave no answer either, and Eleanor was weeping as she turned back to her desk.
In the hall, Cora walked bathed in sunlight, forcing her chin to stay high when it wanted to sink toward her breastbone, to make her smaller. She always wanted to make herself smaller, to take up less space, to avoid the moment when someone would look at her and say with their eyes that she took up more space than she deserved, than she had earned, than she could possibly pay for. It was a hard impulse to fight, and she had so little energy left for fighting anything, apart from the terrible whispers in the dark. She was shaking and exhausted by the time she reached her room, and ducked gratefully inside.
The room was empty, save for the detritus of two teenage girls forced into a small shared space. Cora made her way to her own dresser, pulling her nightgown off over her head, and went digging for clean clothes.
Once she was dressed, she raked a brush through her hair and moved back toward the door. This was still a school, for all that half its students had no interest in any subjects they could learn here in the world of their birth, and the state had certain requirements around attendance and standardized tests. Their teachers worked as much for the state as for Eleanor, and couldn’t be trusted to cover for students who stopped going to class.
Cora’s legs felt like they were made of lead, almost too heavy to lift. She hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in weeks, and she hadn’t had anything to eat, despite having been out of bed for hours. Ploddingly, she made her way out into the hall. There would be time to grab something from the dining hall before she had to go to English class. The thought of trying to analyze the poetry of Emily Dickinson without calories was enough to make her want to cry. Why adults constantly wanted to know what centuries-old poems meant was beyond her. Shouldn’t someone have found the right answer by now? Or at least an answer good enough to accept?
The dining hall was virtually deserted this late in the morning. Only Kade was there, clearing a table that had probably been occupied by the rest of her friends until the bell rang. He looked up at the sound of her footsteps, initially surprised, then smiling.
“Hey, Cora,” he said, Oklahoma drawl softening his words like honey drizzled over a hard biscuit. “We missed you this morning. You still not sleeping well?”
Cora could hide the reason for her nightmares, but she couldn’t hide that they were happening, not with Antoinette sleeping in her room and waking up more often than not to the sound of screaming. Still, she forced a smile and said, “I wanted a bath more than I wanted an early breakfast.” A small untruth, not even entirely a lie, and Kade wasn’t one of the kids who’d come back from his adventures with the ability to sniff out falsehoods like they were rotting meat. She was grateful for that, especially when he laughed and nodded his acceptance of her statement.
“Mermaids and bathtubs,” he said. “I bet they didn’t have strawberry bubble bath in the Trenches, huh?”
“I don’t like the strawberry stuff too much,” she said. “It reminds me of Confection.”
Kade nodded again, more solemnly. Their time in Confection hadn’t been as traumatic as their time in the Moors, but Christopher had still almost drowned, and that sort of thing wasn’t worth dwelling on. “Sorry,” he said.
“It’s all right.” The hot food had already been cleared away, but there were still trays of baked goods and whole fruit. Cora hesitated for only a moment before selecting two pears and a blueberry muffin, all things she could carry with her in a napkin to avoid being late to class. The teachers didn’t care if their students ate during class, as long as they weren’t being actively disruptive. “We can’t make things that happened not have happened by wishing that they hadn’t.” She paused. “Did that sentence even make sense?”
“Enough,” he said. “You’ve got English up first, yeah?”
“Yeah,” said Cora, cheeks flushing softly red under their veil of rainbow. Sometimes she thought Kade might be flirting, with the way he kept track of her schedule and noticed when she missed meals. But he couldn’t possibly be flirting, not when everyone said the last girl he’d shown an interest in was Nancy. Tall, willowy, slender Nancy. He’d never said anything about Cora’s body—or anyone’s, really—but he didn’t have to. Cora had learned long before the Trenches what kind of girls got flirted with, and what kind didn’t.
And one way or another, she was leaving soon anyway.
“I’ll walk you to class,” he said, and fell in step beside her as she left the dining hall and started toward the wing where the classrooms were kept, most of them no larger than the sleeping rooms, none of them set up in the standard, industrial way of her pre-Trenches schools. No plastic seats, no tidy rows of desks. Everything was a comfortable jumble, designed to keep students as comfortable as possible without actually lulling them to sleep.
They walked in an easy rhythm, Cora nibbling at her muffin, Kade filling the silence with amiable small talk about the embroidery project he was working on, which seemed to involve stitching a dizzying array of songbirds onto the back of a denim jacket. In the blinking of an eye and less than half a blueberry muffin, he was saying he’d see her at lunch, and leaving her standing in front of her English classroom door, blinking after him.
The room was only half full. It was easy enough to get her preferred armchair, deep and plush enough not to dig into her sides, close enough to the back of the room to avoid making her a target if the teacher needed to force someone to participate. She settled, nibbling at her muffin, and only half-listened as class got underway.
The teacher was droning on about the iconography of death in Dickinson’s poems when the door cracked open and Sumi stuck her head inside, beckoning to Cora.
“Eleanor-Elly asked me to come get you,” she said.
Cora gathered her things, rose, and went.
Copyright © 2021 by Seanan McGuire
Copyright © 2021 by Rovina Cai