Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.
This is the story of what happened first…
Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.
Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you’ve got.
They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.
They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.
Seanan McGuire returns to her popular Wayward Children series with Down Among the Sticks and Bones—a standalone urban fantasy set before the events of Every Heart a Doorway. Available June 13th from Tor.com Publishing, you can now pre-order a signed edition! Read chapter 1 and part of chapter 2 below, and be on the lookout next week for another exclusive excerpt on the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog!
The Dangerous Allure of Other People’s Children
People who knew Chester and Serena Wolcott socially would have placed money on the idea that the couple would never choose to have children. They were not the parenting kind, by any reasonable estimation. Chester enjoyed silence and solitude when he was working in his home office, and viewed the slightest deviation from routine as an enormous, unforgiveable disruption. Children would be more than a slight deviation from routine. Children would be the nuclear option where routine was concerned. Serena enjoyed gardening and sitting on the board of various tidy, elegant nonprofits, and paying other people to maintain her home in a spotless state. Children were messes walking. They were trampled petunias and baseballs through picture windows, and they had no place in the carefully ordered world the Wolcotts inhabited.
What those people didn’t see was the way the partners at Chester’s law firm brought their sons to work, handsome little clones of their fathers in age-appropriate menswear, future kings of the world in their perfectly shined shoes, with their perfectly modulated voices. He watched, increasingly envious, as junior partners brought in pictures of their own sleeping sons and were lauded, and for what? Reproducing! Something so simple that any beast in the field could do it.
At night, he started dreaming of perfectly polite little boys with his hair and Serena’s eyes, their blazers buttoned just so, the partners beaming beneficently at this proof of what a family man he was.
What those people didn’t see was the way some of the women on Serena’s boards would occasionally bring their daughters with them, making apologies about incompetent nannies or unwell babysitters, all while secretly gloating as everyone rushed to ooh and ahh over their beautiful baby girls. They were a garden in their own right, those privileged daughters in their gowns of lace and taffeta, and they would spend meetings and tea parties playing peacefully on the edge of the rug, cuddling their stuffed toys and feeding imaginary cookies to their dollies. Everyone she knew was quick to compliment those women for their sacrifices, and for what? Having a baby! Something so easy that people had been doing it since time began.
At night, she started dreaming of beautifully composed little girls with her mouth and Chester’s nose, their dresses explosions of fripperies and frills, the ladies falling over themselves to be the first to tell her how wonderful her daughter was.
This, you see, is the true danger of children: they are ambushes, each and every one of them. A person may look at someone else’s child and see only the surface, the shiny shoes or the perfect curls. They do not see the tears and the tantrums, the late nights, the sleepless hours, the worry. They do not even see the love, not really. It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the lofty shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own.
It can be easy, in the end, to forget that children are people, and that people will do what people will do, the consequences be damned.
It was right after Christmas—round after round of interminable office parties and charity events—when Chester turned to Serena and said, “I have something I would like to discuss with you.”
“I want to have a baby,” she replied.
Chester paused. He was an orderly man with an orderly wife, living in an ordinary, orderly life. He wasn’t used to her being quite so open with her desires or, indeed, having desires at all. It was dismaying… and a trifle exciting, if he were being honest.
Finally, he smiled, and said, “That was what I wanted to talk to you about.”
There are people in this world—good, honest, hard-working people—who want nothing more than to have a baby, and who try for years to conceive one without the slightest success. There are people who must see doctors in small, sterile rooms, hearing terrifying proclamations about how much it will cost to even begin hoping. There are people who must go on quests, chasing down the north wind to ask for directions to the House of the Moon, where wishes can be granted, if the hour is right and the need is great enough. There are people who will try, and try, and try, and receive nothing for their efforts but a broken heart.
Chester and Serena went upstairs to their room, to the bed they shared, and Chester did not put on a condom, and Serena did not remind him, and that was that. The next morning, she stopped taking her birth control pills. Three weeks later, she missed her period, which had been as orderly and on-time as the rest of her life since she was twelve years old. Two weeks after that, she sat in a small white room while a kindly man in a long white coat told her that she was going to be a mother.
“How long before we can get a picture of the baby?” asked Chester, already imagining himself showing it to the men at the office, jaw strong, gaze distant, like he was lost in dreams of playing catch with his son-to-be.
“Yes, how long?” asked Serena. The women she worked with always shrieked and fawned when someone arrived with a new sonogram to pass around the group. How nice it would be, to finally be the center of attention!
The doctor, who had dealt with his share of eager parents, smiled. “You’re about five weeks along,” he said. “I don’t recommend an ultrasound before twelve weeks, under normal circumstances. Now, this is your first pregnancy. You may want to wait before telling anyone that you’re pregnant. Everything seems normal now, but it’s early days yet, and it will be easier if you don’t have to take back an announcement.”
Serena looked bemused. Chester fumed. To even suggest that his wife might be so bad at being pregnant—something so simple that any fool off the street could do it—was offensive in ways he didn’t even have words for. But Dr. Tozer had been recommended by one of the partners at his firm, with a knowing twinkle in his eye, and Chester simply couldn’t see a way to change doctors without offending someone too important to offend.
“Twelve weeks, then,” said Chester. “What do we do until then?”
Dr. Tozer told them. Vitamins and nutrition and reading, so much reading. It was like the man expected their baby to be the most difficult in the history of the world, with all the reading that he assigned. But they did it, dutifully, like they were following the steps of a magical spell that would summon the perfect child straight into their arms. They never discussed whether they were hoping for a boy or a girl; both of them knew, so completely, what they were going to have that it seemed unnecessary. So Chester went to bed each night dreaming of his son, while Serena dreamt of her daughter, and for a time, they both believed that parenthood was perfect.
They didn’t listen to Dr. Tozer’s advice about keeping the pregnancy a secret, of course. When something was this good, it needed to be shared. Their friends, who had never seen them as the parenting type, were confused but supportive. Their colleagues, who didn’t know them well enough to understand what a bad idea this was, were enthusiastic. Chester and Serena shook their heads and made lofty comments about learning who their “real” friends were.
Serena went to her board meetings and smiled contently as the other women told her that she was beautiful, that she was glowing, that motherhood “suited her.”
Chester went to his office and found that several of the partners were dropping by “just to chat” about his impending fatherhood, offering advice, offering camaraderie.
Everything was perfect.
They went to their first ultrasound appointment together, and Serena held Chester’s hand as the technician rubbed blueish slime over her belly and rolled the wand across it. The picture began developing. For the first time, Serena felt a pang of concern. What if there was something wrong with the baby? What if Dr. Tozer had been right, and the pregnancy should have remained a secret, at least for a little while?
“Well?” asked Chester.
“You wanted to know the baby’s gender, yes?” asked the technician.
“You have a perfect baby girl,” said the technician.
Serena laughed in vindicated delight, the sound dying when she saw the scowl on Chester’s face. Suddenly, the things they hadn’t discussed seemed large enough to fill the room.
The technician gasped. “I have a second heartbeat,” she said.
They both turned to look at her.
“Twins,” she said.
“Is the second baby a boy or a girl?” asked Chester.
The technician hesitated. “The first baby is blocking our view,” she hedged. “It’s difficult to say for sure—”
“Guess,” said Chester.
“I’m afraid it would not be ethical for me to guess at this stage,” said the technician. “I’ll make you another appointment, for two weeks from now. Babies move around in the womb. We should be able to get a better view then.”
They did not get a better view. The first infant remained stubbornly in front, and the second infant remained stubbornly in back, and the Wolcotts made it all the way to the delivery room—for a scheduled induction, of course, the date chosen by mutual agreement and circled in their day planners—hoping quietly that they were about to become the proud parents of both son and daughter, completing their nuclear family on the first try. Both of them were slightly smug about the idea. It smacked of efficiency, of tailoring the perfect solution right out the gate.
(The thought that babies would become children, and children would become people, never occurred to them. The concept that perhaps biology was not destiny, and that not all little girls would be pretty princesses, and not all little boys would be brave soldiers, also never occurred to them. Things might have been easier if those ideas had ever slithered into their heads, unwanted but undeniably important. Alas, their minds were made up, and left no room for such revolutionary opinions.)
The labor took longer than planned. Serena did not want a C-section if she could help it, did not want the scarring and the mess, and so she pushed when she was told to push, and rested when she was told to rest, and gave birth to her first child at five minutes to midnight on September fifteenth. The doctor passed the baby to a waiting nurse, announced, “It’s a girl,” and bent back over his patient.
Chester, who had been holding out hope that the reticent boy-child would push his way forward and claim the vaunted position of firstborn, said nothing as he held his wife’s hand and listened to her straining to expel their second child. Her face was red, and the sounds she was making were nothing short of animal. It was horrifying. He couldn’t imagine a circumstance under which he would touch her ever again. No; it was good that they were having both their children at once. This way, it would be over and done with.
A slap; a wail; and the doctor’s voice proudly proclaiming, “It’s another healthy baby girl!”
Chester envied her.
Later, when Serena was tucked safe in her private room with Chester beside her and the nurses asked if they wanted to meet their daughters, they said yes, of course. How could they have said anything different? They were parents now, and parenthood came with expectations. Parenthood came with rules. If they failed to meet those expectations, they would be labeled unfit in the eyes of everyone they knew, and the consequences of that, well…
They were unthinkable.
The nurses returned with two pink-faced, hairless things that looked more like grubs or goblins than anything human. “One for each of you,” twinkled a nurse, and handed Chester a tight-swaddled baby like it was the most ordinary thing in the world.
“Have you thought about names?” asked another, handing Serena the second infant.
“My mother’s name was Jacqueline,” said Serena cautiously, glancing at Chester. They had discussed names, naturally, one for a girl, one for a boy. They had never considered the need to name two girls.
“Our head partner’s wife is named Jillian,” said Chester. He could claim it was his mother’s name if he needed to. No one would know. No one would ever know.
“Jack and Jill,” said the first nurse, with a smile. “Cute.”
“Jacqueline and Jillian,” corrected Chester frostily. “No daughter of mine will go by something as base and undignified as a nickname.”
The nurse’s smile faded. “Of course not,” she said, when what she really meant was “of course they will,” and “you’ll see soon enough.”
Serena and Chester Wolcott had fallen prey to the dangerous allure of other people’s children. They would learn the error of their ways soon enough. People like them always did.
Practically Perfect in Virtually No Ways
The Wolcotts lived in a house at the top of a hill in the middle of a fashionable neighborhood where every house looked alike. The homeowner’s association allowed for three colors of exterior paint (two colors too many, in the minds of many of the residents), a strict variety of fence and hedge styles around the front lawn, and small, relatively quiet dogs from a very short list of breeds. Most residents elected not to have dogs, rather than deal with the complicated process of filling out the permits and applications required to own one.
All of this conformity was designed not to strangle but to comfort, allowing the people who lived there to relax into a perfectly ordered world. At night, the air was quiet. Safe. Secure.
Save, of course, for the Wolcott home, where the silence was split by healthy wails from two sets of developing lungs. Serena sat in the dining room, staring blankly at the two screaming babies.
“You’ve had a bottle,” she informed them. “You’ve been changed. You’ve been walked around the house while I bounced you and sang that dreadful song about the spider. Why are you still crying?”
Jacqueline and Jillian, who were crying for some of the many reasons that babies cry—they were cold, they were distressed, they were offended by the existence of gravity—continued to wail. Serena stared at them in dismay. No one had told her that babies would cry all the time. Oh, there had been comments about it in the books she’d read, but she had assumed that they were simply referring to bad parents who failed to take a properly firm hand with their offspring.
“Can’t you shut them up?” demanded Chester from behind her. She didn’t have to turn to know that he was standing in the doorway in his dressing gown, scowling at all three of them—as if it were somehow her fault that babies seemed designed to scream without cease! He had been complicit in the creation of their daughters, but now that they were here, he wanted virtually nothing to do with them.
“I’ve been trying,” she said. “I don’t know what they want, and they can’t tell me. I don’t… I don’t know what to do.”
Chester had not slept properly in three days. He was starting to fear the moment when it would impact his work and catch the attention of the partners, painting him and his parenting abilities in a poor light. Perhaps it was desperation, or perhaps it was a moment of rare and impossible clarity.
“I’m calling my mother,” he said.
Chester Wolcott was the youngest of three children: by the time he had come along, the mistakes had been made, the lessons had been learned, and his parents had been comfortable with the process of parenting. His mother was an unforgivably soppy, impractical woman, but she knew how to burp a baby, and perhaps by inviting her now, while Jacqueline and Jillian were too young to be influenced by her ideas about the world, they could avoid inviting her later, when she might actually do some damage.
Serena would normally have objected to the idea of her mother-in-law invading her home, setting everything out of order. With the babies screaming and the house already in disarray, all she could do was nod.
Chester made the call first thing in the morning.
Louise Wolcott arrived on the train eight hours later.
By the standards of anyone save for her ruthlessly regimented son, Louise was a disciplined, orderly woman. She liked the world to make sense and follow the rules. By the standards of her son, she was a hopeless dreamer. She thought the world was capable of kindness; she thought people were essentially good and only waiting for an opportunity to show it.
She took a taxi from the train station to the house, because of course picking her up would have been a disruption to an already-disrupted schedule. She rang the bell, because of course giving her a key would have made no sense at all. Her eyes lit up when Serena answered the door, a baby in each arm, and she didn’t even notice that her daughter-in-law’s hair was uncombed, or that there were stains on the collar of her blouse. The things Serena thought were most important in the world held no relevance to Louise. Her attention was focused entirely on the babies.
“There they are,” she said, as if the twins had been the subject of a global manhunt spanning years. She slipped in through the open door without waiting for an invitation, putting her suitcases down next to the umbrella stand (where they did not compliment the décor) before holding out her arms. “Come to Grandma,” she said.
Serena would normally have argued. Serena would normally have insisted on offering coffee, tea, a place to put her bags where no one would have to see them. Serena, like her husband, had not slept a full night since coming home from the hospital.
“Welcome to our home,” she said, and dumped both babies unceremoniously into Louise’s arms before turning and walking up the stairs. The slam of the bedroom door followed a second later.
Louise blinked. She looked down at the babies. They had left off crying for the moment and were looking at her with wide, curious eyes. Their world was as yet fairly limited, and everything about it was new. Their grandmother was the newest thing of all. Louise smiled.
“Hello, darlings,” she said. “I’m here now.”
She would not leave for another five years.
Excerpted from Down Among the Sticks and Bones, copyright © 2017 by Seanan McGuire.
This excerpt originally published in April 2017.