Every Heart a Doorway, the new novella from Seanan McGuire, has the absolute best premise ever: What happens after you come back from spending lots of time in Neverland, or Wonderland, or Narnia, or some other magical realm? Not surprisingly, it messes you up. Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Every Heart, which drops as an ebook and a fancy hardcover tomorrow from Tor.com.
Dinner was held in the downstairs ballroom, a single, vast space made even larger by the polished marble floor and the vaulted cathedral ceiling. Nancy paused in the doorway, daunted by the scope of it, and by the sight of her classmates, who dotted the tables like so many knickknacks. There were seats for a hundred students, maybe more, but there were only forty or so in the room. They were so small, and the space was so big.
“It’s rude and lewd to block the food,” said Sumi, shoving past her. Nancy was knocked off balance and stumbled over the threshold into the ballroom. Silence fell as everyone turned to look at her. Nancy froze. It was the only defense mechanism she had learned from her time among the dead. When she was still, the ghosts couldn’t see her to steal her life away. Stillness was the ultimate protection.
A hand settled on her shoulder. “Ah, Nancy, good,” said Eleanor. “I was hoping I’d run into you before you reached a table. Be a good girl and escort an old woman to her seat.”
Nancy turned her head. Eleanor had changed for dinner, trading electric orange trousers and rainbow sweater for a lovely sheath dress made from tie-dyed muslin. It was shockingly bright. Much like the sun, it hurt Nancy’s eyes. Still, she offered her arm to the older woman, unable to think of anything else that would fit the laws of propriety.
“How are you and Sumi getting on?” asked Eleanor, as they walked toward the tables.
“She’s very . . . abrupt,” said Nancy.
“She lived in high Nonsense for almost ten years subjective time, and much as you learned to be still, she learned never to stop,” said Eleanor. “Stopping is what got people killed where she was. It was very close to where I was, you see, so I understand her better than most. She’s a good girl. She won’t steer you wrong.”
“She took me to meet a boy named Kade,” said Nancy.
“Oh? It’s unusual for her to start making introductions that quickly—unless . . . Did you have trouble with your clothing? Was what you packed not what you found in your suitcase?”
Nancy didn’t say anything. Her reddening cheeks and averted eyes said it all. Eleanor sighed.
“I’ll write your parents and remind them that they agreed to allow me to guide your therapy. We should be able to have whatever they removed from your suitcase mailed here within the month. In the meantime, you can go back to Kade for whatever you need. The dear boy is a whiz with a needle. I really don’t know how we got along without him.”
“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.
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.
Every Heart a Doorway is out tomorrow.