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1 ONE DOOR OPENS, ANOTHER IS BLOWN OFF ITS HINGES
AUTUMN HAD COME TO Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the usual way, with changing leaves and browning grass and the constant smell of impending rain hanging heavy in the air, a seasonal promise yet to be fulfilled. The blackberry briars at the back of the field grew rich with fruit, and several students spent their afternoons with buckets in their hands, turning their fingers purple and soothing their own furious hearts.
Kade checked the seals on the windows one by one, running putty along the places where the moisture seemed likely to find a way inside, one eye on the library and the other on the sky.
Angela watched the sky too, waiting for a rainbow, ordinary shoes on her feet and enchanted shoes slung over her shoulder, laces tied in a careful, complicated knot. If the light and the water came together just so, if the rainbow touched down where she could reach it, she would be gone, off and running, running, running all the way home.
Christopher, whose door would open—if it ever opened for him again; if he ever got to find his way back home—on the Day of the Dead, sat in the grove of trees behind the house, playing ever more elaborate songs on his bone flute, trying to prepare for the moment of disappointment when the door failed to appear or of overwhelming elation when the Skeleton Girl called him back where he belonged.
So it was all across the school, each of the students preparing for the change of seasons in whatever way seemed the most appropriate, the most comforting, the most likely to get them through the winter. Girls who had gone to worlds defined by summer locked themselves in their rooms and wept, staring at the specter of another six months trapped in this homeland that had somehow, between one moment and the next, become a prison; others, whose worlds were places of eternal snow, of warm furs and hot fires and sweet mulled wine, rejoiced, seeing their own opportunity to find the way back opening like a flower in front of them.
Eleanor West herself, a spry ninety-seven-year-old who could pass for someone in her late sixties, and often did when she had to interact with people from outside the school, walked the halls with a carpenter’s eye, watching the walls for signs of sagging, watching the ceilings for signs of rot. It was necessary to have contractors in every few years to keep things solid. She hated the disruption. The children disliked pretending to be ordinary delinquents, sent away by their parents for starting fires or breaking windows, when really they had been sent away for slaying dragons and refusing to say that they hadn’t. The lies seemed petty and small, and she couldn’t blame them for feeling that way, although she rather thought they would change their tune if she deferred the maintenance and someone got drywall dropped on their head.
Balancing the needs of her students with the needs of the school itself was tiresome, and she yearned for the return to Nonsense and the carelessness she knew waited somewhere up ahead of her, in the golden country of the future. Like the children she called to her care, Eleanor West had been trying to go home for as long as she could remember. Unlike most of them, her struggle had been measured in decades, not months … and unlike most of them, she had watched dozens of travelers find their way back home while she was left standing in place, unable to follow, unable to do anything but weep.
She sometimes thought that might be the one piece of true magic this world possessed: so many children had found their way home while in her care, and yet not a single parent had accused her of wrongdoing, or attempted to launch an investigation into the disappearance of their beloved offspring. She knew their parents had loved them; she had listened to fathers weeping and held the hands of mothers who stared stoically into the shadows, unable to move, unable to process the size of their grief. But none of them had called her a killer, or demanded her school close its doors. They knew. On some level, they knew, and had known long before she came to them with the admission papers in her hands, that their children had only come back to them long enough to say goodbye.
One of the hallway doors opened, and a girl emerged, attention focused on her phone. Eleanor stopped. Collisions were unpleasant things, and should be avoided when possible. The girl turned toward her, still reading the display.
Eleanor tapped the point of her cane against the ground. The girl stopped and looked up, cheeks coloring blotchy red as she finally realized she was not alone.
“Er,” she said. “Good morning, Miss West.”
“Good morning, Cora,” said Eleanor. “And please, it’s Eleanor, if you don’t mind. I may be old and getting older, but I was never a miss. More of a hit, in the places I usually roved.”
Cora looked confused. That wasn’t uncommon, with new students. They were still adapting to the idea of a place where people would believe them, where saying impossible things would earn them a shrug and a comment about something equally impossible, rather than a taunt or an accusation of insanity.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Cora finally.
Eleanor swallowed a sigh. Cora would come around. If she didn’t do it on her own, Kade would have a talk with her. He had become Eleanor’s second-in-command since Lundy’s death, and Eleanor would have felt bad about that—he was still only a boy, should still have been running in meadows and climbing trees, not filling out paperwork and designing curriculums—but Kade was a special case, and she couldn’t deny needing the help. He would run this school one day. Better for him to start preparing now.
“How are you settling in, dear?” she asked.
Cora brightened. It was remarkable how pretty she became when she stopped looking dour and confused and a little lost. She was a short, round girl, made entirely of curves: the soft slope of breasts and belly, the gentle thickness of upper arms and thighs, the surprising delicacy of wrists and ankles. Her eyes were very blue, and her hair, long and once naturally brown, like the grass out in the yard, was now a dozen shades of green and blue, like some sort of tropical fish.
(It would turn brown again if she stayed here long enough, if she stayed dry. Eleanor had met other children who had traveled through Cora’s door, and she knew, although she would never tell Cora, that on the day when the green and blue began to fade—whether that happened tomorrow or in a year—that would be when the door would be locked forever, and Cora would be shipwrecked forever on this now-foreign shore.)
“Everyone’s been really nice,” she said. “Kade says he knows where my world falls on the compass, and he’s going to help me research other people who have gone there. Um, and Angela introduced me to all the other girls, and a few of them went to water worlds too, so we have lots to talk about.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Eleanor, and meant it. “If there’s anything you need, you’ll let me know, won’t you? I want all my students to be happy.”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Cora, the brightness fading. She bit her lip as she tucked her phone into her pocket, and said, “I have to go. Um, Nadya and I are going to the pond.”
“Remind her to take a jacket, please. She gets cold easily.” Eleanor stepped to the side, letting Cora hurry away. She couldn’t keep up with the students anymore, and she supposed that was a good thing; the sooner she wore out, the sooner she could go home.
But oh, she was tired of getting old.
* * *
CORA HURRIED DOWN the stairs, shoulders hunched slightly inward, waiting for a sneer or insult that never came. In the six weeks since she had arrived at the school, no one had called her “fat” like it was another word for “monster,” not even once. Kade, who served as the unofficial tailor and had a selection of clothing left behind by departing students that stretched back decades, had looked her up and down and said a number that had made her want to die a little bit inside, until she’d realized there was no judgement in his tone: he just wanted her clothes to fit.
The other students teased and fought and called each other names, but those names were always about things they’d done or places they’d gone, not about who they were. Nadya was missing her right arm at the elbow, and no one called her “gimp” or “cripple” or any of the other things Cora knew she would have been called if she’d gone to Cora’s old school. It was like they had all learned to be a little kinder, or at least a little more careful about what they based their judgements on.
Cora had been fat her entire life. She had been a fat baby, and a fat toddler in swim classes, and a fat child in elementary school. Day after day, she had learned that “fat” was another way to say “worthless, ugly, waste of space, unwanted, disgusting.” She had started to believe them by the time she was in third grade, because what else was she supposed to do?
Then she had fallen into the Trenches (don’t think about how she got there don’t think about how she might get back don’t do it), and suddenly she’d been beautiful. Suddenly she’d been strong, insulated against the bitter chill of the water, able to dive deeper and swim further than anyone else in the school. Suddenly she’d been a hero, brave and bright and beloved. And on the day when she’d been sucked into that whirlpool and dropped into her own backyard, on dry land again, no gills in her neck or fins on her feet, she had wanted to die. She had thought she could never be beautiful again.
Maybe here, though … maybe here she could be. Maybe here she was allowed. Everyone else was fighting toward their own sense of safety, of beauty, of belonging. Maybe she could do that, too.
Nadya was waiting on the porch, examining the nails of her hand with the calm intensity of a dam getting ready to break. She looked up at the sound of the closing door. “You’re late.” The ghost of a Russian accent lingered in her words and wrapped itself like waterweeds around her vowels, pale and thin as tissue paper.
“Miss West was in the hall outside my room.” Cora shook her head. “I didn’t think she’d be there. She’s so quiet for being so old.”
“She’s older than she looks,” said Nadya. “Kade says she’s almost a hundred.”
Cora frowned. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“Says the girl whose hair grows in green and blue all over,” said Nadya. “It’s a miracle your parents got you here before the beauty companies snatched you up to try to figure out the mystery of the girl with the seaweed pubes.”
“Hey!” yelped Cora.
Nadya laughed and started down the porch, taking the steps two at a time, like she didn’t trust them to get her where she needed to go. “I only tell the truth, because I love you, and because one day you’re going to be on the front of the supermarket magazines. Right next to Tom Cruise and the Scientology aliens.”
“Only because you’re going to turn me in,” said Cora. “Miss West told me to remind you to bring a coat.”
“Miss West can bring me a coat herself if she wants me to have one so bad,” said Nadya. “I don’t get cold.”
“No, but you catch colds all the time, and I guess she’s tired of listening to you hack up a lung.”
Nadya waved her hand dismissively. “We must suffer for our chance to return home. Now come, come, hurry. Those turtles aren’t going to tip themselves.”
Cora shook her head, and hurried.
Nadya was one of the school’s long-timers: five years so far, from the age of eleven to the age of sixteen. There had been no sign in those five years of her doorway appearing, or of her asking her adoptive parents to take her home. That was unusual. Everyone knew that parents could withdraw their children at any time; that all Nadya had to do was ask and she’d be able to return to the life she’d lived before … well, before everything.
According to everyone Cora had spoken to, most students chose to go back to their old lives after four years had passed without a doorway.
“That’s when they give up,” Kade had said, expression turning sad. “That’s when they say, ‘I can’t live for a world that doesn’t want me, so I guess I’d better learn to live in the world I have.’”
Not Nadya. She didn’t belong to any clique or social circle, didn’t have many close friends—or seem to want them—but she didn’t leave, either. She went from classroom to turtle pond, from bathtub to bed, and she kept her hair perpetually wet, no matter how many colds she caught, and she never stopped watching the water for the bubbles that would mark her way back to Belyyreka, the Drowned World and the Land Beneath the Lake.
Nadya had walked up to Cora on her first day at the school, when she was standing frozen in the door of the dining hall, terrified to eat—what if they called her names?—and terrified to turn and run away—what if they made fun of her behind her back?
“You, new girl,” she had said. “Angela tells me you were a mermaid. Is that so?”
Cora had sputtered and stammered and somehow signaled her agreement. Nadya had smirked and taken Cora’s arm in hers.
“Good,” she’d said. “I’ve been ordered to make more friends, and you seem to fit the bill. We damp girls have to stick together.”
In the weeks since then, Nadya had been the best of friends and the worst of friends, prone to bursting into Cora’s room without knocking, pestering her roommate and trying to convince Miss West to reassign one or both of them so they could room together. Miss West kept refusing, on the grounds that no one else in the school would be able to find a towel if the two girls who took the most baths were in the same place to egg each other on.
Cora had never had a friend like Nadya before. She thought she liked it. It was hard to say: the novelty of it all was still too overwhelming.
The turtle pond was a flat silver disk in the field, burnished by the sunlight, surface broken by the flat disks of the turtles themselves, sailing off to whatever strange turtle errands they had in the months before their hibernation. Nadya grabbed a stick off the ground and took off running, leaving Cora to trail behind her like a faithful balloon.
“Turtles!” Nadya howled. “Your queen returns!”
She didn’t stop when she reached the edge of the pond, but plunged gleefully onward, splashing into the shallows, breaking the perfect smoothness of the surface. Cora stopped a few feet back from the water. She preferred the ocean, preferred saltwater and the slight sting of the waves against her skin. Fresh water wasn’t enough.
“Come back, turtles!” shouted Nadya. “Come back and let me love you!”
That was when the girl fell out of the sky and landed in the middle of the turtle pond with an enormous splash, sending turtles skyward, and drenching both Cora and Nadya in a wave of muddy pond water.
Copyright © 2017 by Seanan McGuire