Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken. Again.
Twins Jack and Jill take center stage once more in Come Tumbling Down, the fifth installment of Seanan McGuire’s award-winning Wayward Children series—available January 7th from Tor.com Publishing. We’re thrilled to share an excerpt below—but if you need a quick refresher on the series first, we’ve got you covered.
When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.
But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.
Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.
Eleanor West was fond of saying—inasmuch as she was fond of saying anything predictable, sensible, or more than once—that her school had no graduates, only students who found somewhere else to do their learning for a time. Once a wayward child, always a wayward child. The school’s doors would always be open; the lost and the lonely would always be welcome, whenever they wanted to come home.
When children were given into her keeping, the teachers she employed taught them about math and literature and science, according to the state’s curriculum, and Eleanor herself taught them other, equally important things. She taught them how to lie and dissemble, and how to recognize the difference between the two. She taught them how to pick a lock and how to break a window, and any number of other skills that could be useful to someone who might, at any moment, need to drop everything and run for an impossible door, an impossible future, an impossible dream.
And really, that was her true gift to them: she taught them how to keep hoping in the face of a world that told them their memories were delusions, their lived experiences were lies, and their dreams were never going to come true. Perhaps that was her secret for engendering loyalty in a student body that was otherwise disinclined to trust adults, listen to them, or answer when they called. She believed.
For people like her students—people like Eleanor herself—belief was the rarest gift of all.
The parents of those students called her many things, when they were asked. “Kind,” or “considerate,” or “eccentric, in a way that makes sense for someone who works with children.” Not many people asked. The children Eleanor sought for her school were, by and large, the sort whose parents wanted them swept away as quickly and quietly as possible. They had already disappeared once, only to come back… changed. So let them disappear again, this time with the proper paperwork in place. Let them go and hope that if they happened to come home a second time, they’d come back the way they’d been, and not the way that they’d become.
Hope is a vicious beast. It sinks in its claws and it doesn’t let go. But Eleanor loved all her children, however wild they became, and most of them—the ones who were still capable of loving anyone in the strange, cruel world where they’d been born, where they feared they’d eventually die—loved her. At Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, they could let themselves breathe. They could be protected, for a time.
No solicitation. No visitors. No quests.
Wrapped in Lightning, Weeping Thunder
It was obvious to anyone with a discerning eye that the school had started out as the country home of a family with more money than sense. The shape of the original architecture was still there, buried under newer construction. It had been a modest three-story home, once upon a renovation, but it had been embellished over the course of generations by widows and widowers who had handled their grief and their inheritance in the same manner: by picking up a hammer and setting to work.
The house had grown like a garden, sprouting wings and tower rooms and greenhouses as if they were nothing more consequential than mushrooms after a rain. What it had been was gone, reduced to nothing but a faint echo in the shape of a door or the structure of an awning. Its replacement was a delightfully rambling sprawl of porches and doors, dormer windows and inexplicable chimneys. Some of the tower rooms stood higher than the attic; some of the lower windows had been painted shut to keep them from flooding the halls every time it rained.
Still, lights could be seen at all levels of the school, both day and night, and the rooms were often filled with laughter. There were worse things for a house to hold.
The school stood alone in the middle of a vast, rolling field, which was dotted with copses of trees; there were no neighbors for miles in any direction. Eleanor had inherited the property upon the deaths of her parents, and had immediately tasked the family accountant with managing the bulk of her assets, giving him strict instructions to watch the land around hers for any signs of a sale. When he found those signs, he was to step in whenever possible to keep that land from going to market. No price was too dear to pay for privacy. Sometimes even she wasn’t sure how much of the surrounding countryside she owned.
That still wasn’t enough for some of her students. They sought deeper shadows, darker spaces, more privacy and freedom from the outside world. For those children, the basement was the most coveted real estate in the house, and its occupants defended it fiercely from suggestion of roommates or relocation.
On the hot summer night where we begin, the basement’s occupant was a boy named Christopher. He was in his late teens and knew that, one way or another, his tenure at the school was nearing its natural end. Either he’d graduate and go home to parents who expected him to be interested in college, a career, what they called “the real world,” or he’d find a door of latticed bone and butterfly wings, interlaced with marigold petals, and he’d disappear for a second, and final, time. He knew which ending he wanted.
He knew he didn’t get to choose.
Maybe that’s why he was stretched out on his bed like a corpse prepared for autopsy, with his hands folded across his chest and his fingers wrapped loosely around a flute carved from a single bone. There were no holes, only indentations etched into its surface, but something about its shape made its purpose perfectly clear.
The single small basement window was open, letting a breeze whisper through. The glass was dark and leaded, letting little light inside. Christopher didn’t mind. He could always go outside when he wanted to feel the sun on his face. Most of his free time was spent in the grove behind the school, perched in the high branches and playing silent songs on his flute.
Sometimes the skeletal bodies of local wildlife— squirrels and rats and, on one surprising occasion, a deer—would rise from their unmarked graves and dance for him. When that happened, Christopher would lead them away from the school and pipe them to their final rest in a place no one would stumble across by mistake. It was weird how much some of his fellow students disliked bones, but whatever. He wouldn’t have liked their worlds either, and it wasn’t like they went out of their way to cover his clothes with glitter or rainbows or other reminders of their lost fairytale dreams. Keeping the grounds free of skeletal surprises seemed like the least he could do.
Sometimes being the last person on campus whose door had led to a world most of the student body dismissed as “creepy” really sucked. It hadn’t been like that when he’d first arrived. Back then he’d shared the “creepy” designation with the Wolcott twins, who’d traveled together to the Moors—a world arguably even creepier than his own Mariposa—and had gone back to their heart’s chosen home the same way.
Jack would have appreciated his skeleton dancers. Jack had appreciated his skeleton dancers, on the rare occasions when she’d been able to take her eyes off Jill long enough to see what he was doing. Jill had always been the more dangerous, less predictable Wolcott, for all that she was the one who dressed in pastel colors and lace and sometimes remembered that people liked it when you smiled. Something about the way she’d wrapped her horror movie heart in ribbons and bows had reminded him of a corpse that hadn’t been properly embalmed, like she was pretty on the outside and rotten on the inside. Terrifying and subtly wrong.
Jack had been a monster, too: she’d just been more honest about it. She’d never tried to hide what she was, from anyone. The world they’d found on the other side of their door had made monsters of them both.
Jill had always talked about the Moors like a treasured toy, something she could polish and plunder as she saw fit. Jack had always talked about them with a wistful wildness in her eyes, like they were the most beautiful place she could imagine, so incredible she didn’t know quite how to put it into words. Jill had been terrifying. Jack had been… familiar.
Sometimes Christopher thought any chance he’d had of falling for a girl with ordinary things like “skin” and “muscle tissue” and “a pulse” had ended with the soft, moist sound of Jack driving a pair of scissors through her sister’s horrible heart. He could have loved her in that moment, had loved her when she’d pulled the scissors free and used them to cut a hole in the wall of the world. She’d called her door out of nothingness, out of sororicide and hope, and she’d carried her sister’s body through it, into the bleeding light of a crimson moon.
He’d seen the Moors spreading out around her like a mother’s arms, welcoming their wayward daughter home. Sometimes he still saw them when he closed his eyes at night. And then the door had slammed, and the Wolcott sisters had been gone, and he’d been left behind. He’d hated her for having the chance to go home, and he’d loved her for taking it without looking back or hesitating, and his fate, such as it was, had been sealed. If Jack could go home, so could he. All he had to do was figure out how.
He ran his fingers along the surface of his flute, caressing it. When he closed his eyes, he could almost see the Skeleton Girl sitting next to him, clapping her opaline hands, delighted by his artistry. He could almost touch her.
The overhead light flickered as he was raising the flute to his mouth. He paused, looking at it quizzically. It flickered again before spitting a great, uneven bolt of lightning that struck the concrete floor with a crack so loud it was like the whole world was being broken.
Christopher had survived quite a few things in his seventeen years, from public school to cancer to a stint in a world peopled entirely by sentient, animate skeletons. He rolled to the side before the echoes of the crack had faded, pressing himself against the wall and hopefully out of the path of any further impossible lightning strikes. Not that “impossible” meant much around here. One of his closest friends was a temporarily bipedal mermaid; another was the crown prince of a goblin kingdom, and yet another was technically a candy construct brought back to life by a sort of demigoddess with a really large oven. Judging things based on their possibility wasn’t a good way to stay alive.
It certainly wouldn’t have worked in this case. Wide-eyed, Christopher watched another bolt of lightning lance down from the ceiling. It was followed by another, and another, until the air crackled with ozone and his hair stood on end and the floor was blackened and charred from successive impacts.
The door to the basement slammed open. A girl with blue and green hair rushed inside and started down the stairs, stopping halfway. Her eyes went terribly round as she stared at the lightning. It ignored her, continuing to draw a hot white line down the center of the room.
“Cora!” shouted Christopher. “Stay exactly where you are!” Lightning was attracted to tall things, right? As long as she wasn’t the tallest thing in the room, she’d be safe. It was also supposed to be attracted to metal, but it was hitting the floor, not the metal shelves against the wall or Jack’s old autopsy table. Christopher had draped a tablecloth over the table, making it a little less obviously morbid, but was that enough to discourage lightning? And lightning usually came out of the sky, not out of the ceiling. Why should he assume anything about
this lightning was going to behave normally?
“What’s going on?” Cora had to yell to be heard. The air was so charged with static that her hair was frizzing and rising up from her shoulders. Under other circumstances, it might have been funny. At the moment, it was sort of terrifying. “We heard the noise all the way upstairs!”
The word “we” was worrisome. It could mean more people rushing into the basement, and hence into the striking radius of the lightning.
Of course, most of the students thought Christopher was a creepy freak, since he carried one of his bones around outside of his body, and had gone to a world populated by living, laughing, dancing skeletons, and voluntarily lived in the basement. So maybe Cora was the only one in hearing range who cared enough to check on him. He wasn’t sure he liked that idea any more than he liked the thought of half the school getting electrocuted on his stairs, but hey, what was life without a few contradictions?
“I don’t know!” he yelled. “It just started happening!”
“Maybe you blew a fuse?”
Despite the gravity of the situation, Christopher paused to stare at Cora. She looked blankly back, her technicolor hair continuing to rise farther and farther into the electrically charged air.
“That’s not how fuses work!” he shouted. “Do you have a better idea?”
He didn’t. Which was a problem, given the circumstances. Another bolt of lightning struck the floor, followed by another, and another, until the afterimages swimming behind his eyes were so heavy and bright that he could barely see the room.
Then it stopped.
Cora and Christopher stared at the blackened spot. The light fixture seemed undamaged, which was probably impossible, but was also less important than getting out of the basement before the lightning started again. Christopher sat up, cautiously stretching one foot toward the floor.
The lightning resumed. Cora squeaked, not quite a gasp and not quite a scream, but something small and shrill and laughable. Christopher wasn’t laughing. He was watching as the lightning came down faster and faster, forming crackling chains of light. There was something behind that light, something buried in the brightness, something clean and old and unfamiliar, something—
With a final great sheet of blue-white brilliance, the lightning stopped again. The air, still heavy with ozone, pulsed under the weight of what it had just birthed.
And there, in the center of the room, atop the blackened concrete, was a door.
It would have been an ordinary door if it hadn’t been standing where no door was normally found, where no wall was present to support it. Christopher slid shakily off the bed and stood, keeping his eyes on the door the whole time.
“Cora?” he called. “You see this?”
“It’s a door.” She finished making her way down the stairs, clutching the bannister, hair still bushed-out and frizzy. “There isn’t usually a door there.”
“I think I would have noticed, yeah.”
“Is it… ?” The question died on her lips, like she was afraid speaking her suspicions out loud would stop them from being true.
Christopher shook his head. “No. My door didn’t—I mean, Mariposa isn’t big on lightning. The Country of Bones runs on a different kind of power. This isn’t my door. Is it yours?”
“I didn’t have a door.” Cora moved toward him with exquisite care, skirting the char marks on the floor. Sometimes it surprised him how delicately she could move. She was a large, round glory of a girl, and between her size and her hair, it seemed like she should take up more space than she actually did. “I had a patch of waterweeds and a pattern of light on the water. Miss Eleanor says that’s pretty common for submerged worlds. Wood rots, steel rusts, but abstract concepts remain.”
“Sometimes all this gives me a headache,” said Christopher. He took a cautious step toward the door. It stayed where it was, apparently solid, and didn’t burst into flames, or strike him with a bolt of electricity, or anything else unfriendly.
“Do you want me to get Kade?”
Christopher hesitated. Kade was Eleanor’s nephew and recognized second-in-command: when something didn’t necessarily need the attention of the headmistress, it was Kade who made everything work. But classes had ended hours ago, and he was probably upstairs in the attic, working on his own projects. He didn’t get much time to himself, what with the little problems that cropped up during the day and managing the school’s shared wardrobe.
“No,” said Christopher slowly. “I don’t want to bother him just yet.”
Cora eyed him. “It’s a door.”
“I can see that.”
“Most of this school is waiting for a door.”
“I am aware.”
“So don’t you think—”
“I don’t know, okay? I’ve never had a door appear in the middle of my bedroom before! And it’s all lightning and old oak, and that sounds like Jack and Jill, but they left before you got here and they’re not coming back, so I don’t know whose door this could possibly be. It doesn’t make sense. I need a second to think. Let me think!”
Cora blinked before she said, in a stiff tone, “I’m just trying to make sure we stay safe.”
Christopher took a deep breath. “I’m sor—”
That was as far as he got before the rusted doorknob began shaking, like something was fighting it. Christopher and Cora exchanged a glance. Then, in unison, they took a single long step back, away from whatever was about to come through. Neither of them ran.
The doorknob twisted.
The door shuddered in its frame, which seemed to shift and sigh, like it was letting go of some unspoken expectation.
The door swung inward.
The girl standing on the other side looked to be in her late teens, broad-shouldered and heavy, dressed in an old-fashioned homespun dress. There was a stained apron tied around her waist. A twisted scar crawled up one side of her neck and crossed her cheek in a flat white line, vanishing behind the honeyed waves of her hair. She probably thought of that hair as her best feature: it was thick and glossy and beautiful in a way her pallid skin wasn’t.
Lightning crashed behind her, both illuminating her and throwing the bundle in her arms into sudden, terrible relief.
It was another girl, slighter, smaller, long and lithe of limb. She was as pale as her companion, although not as gray around the edges, and she hung in the first girl’s arms like a body prepared for burial. She wore a gown of white, frothing lace, and her pale hair dangled, long and unbound, like the flag of some dead nation.
Christopher gasped. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe. He grasped for something to hold him upright and found Cora, who stood solidly under his clutching fingers and didn’t make a sound.
“Jack?” he asked. “Jill?”
The stranger, her arms laden with the unnamed Wolcott twin, didn’t say a word as she stepped across the threshold. The door slammed shut behind her. There was another blue-white flash as it vanished, leaving the four teens alone at the bottom of the school, standing in the afterimage, unsure of what was meant to happen next.
They Always Come Back Home
Christopher sucked in a sharp breath, almost choking when the ozone-laden air hit the back of his throat. Coughing, he focused on the girl carrying the unconscious— dead? No, unconscious, surely nothing in the Moors would dare harm a Wolcott—twin.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know who you are. Is that Jack or Jill? Is she hurt?”
It had to be Jill. Her hair was sleek and glossy and looked like it had been brushed a thousand times a day for the last ten years. Jack’s hair had never been that well-cared-for. More importantly, the girl’s wrists were thin and delicate. The muscle of Jack’s arms and shoulders had always been the most obvious distinction between her and her sister. She’d worn long-sleeved shirts with buttoned cuffs, but it had always been clear that one of them did physical labor and one of them… didn’t.
Probably-Jill somehow managed to look moonwashed even in the electric glare of the basement light. She was wearing a lacy, diaphanous nightgown. It was elaborate enough that Christopher was pretty sure he was supposed to call it something pretentious, like a “peignoir,” and it was cut to show an uncomfortable amount of her too-pale skin. Despite all that, the collar was high enough to brush her jaw and so thick with lace rosettes that he couldn’t tell how much scar tissue it concealed. Perfect for a vampire’s adopted daughter.
The stranger opened her mouth, working it soundlessly for several seconds before closing it and shaking her head.
“I’ll get help,” said Cora, turning and running up the stairs before Christopher could ask her not to.
Honestly, he wasn’t even able to quite formulate the reasons why he would’ve objected. Maybe it was the ozone in the air, the charged feeling of something getting ready to break down or break through or break to pieces around them. He was a student at a school for kids who’d traveled between worlds, crossing thresholds that should have been uncrossable; for something to feel strange to him, it had to be pretty extreme.
The Wolcott—Jill, it had to be Jill—in the stranger’s arms remained pale and motionless. Christopher frowned. “Do you want to put her down?” he asked. “My name’s Christopher. I was a friend of Jack’s before she went back to the Moors. I mean, not really. Jack doesn’t have friends, she has minions who haven’t figured out their place in the grand scheme of things. But she liked me okay, and Jill tolerated me, and this used to be their room. You could put her on my bed if you wanted to.”
The stranger shook her head again, looking frustrated.
Her mouth moved.
“I’m sorry. I can’t—if you’re making any sort of sound, I can’t hear it.”
The stranger took a deep breath and mouthed something, lips moving slowly and deliberately. Christopher blinked.
“Too soft?” he asked. “Is that what you’re saying, the bed is too soft?”
The stranger nodded.
Christopher gestured toward the autopsy table. With the tablecloth draped over it, it barely even looked like a place where people took dead bodies apart. “Jack used to sleep there. She said it was better for her back. I mean, she also said she could extract someone else’s spine and give herself a new back if necessary, but it seemed like a lot of work. Better to go straight for proper lumbar support.”
The stranger mouthed the words “Thank you” and moved toward the table. She gave the cloth a quizzical look, shrugged, and lay Jill down with exquisite care, stretching out her legs and folding her hands over her chest in a classically funereal pose.
Jill’s hair seemed to stymie the stranger. She started to tug it straight, then stopped, looking at it like she’d never seen it before. Finally, she stepped back, burying her hands in the folds of her skirt, and gave Christopher a silent, worried look.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what’s wrong, but I’m still sorry. Is she…” He stopped. If Jill wasn’t breathing, he didn’t want to know about it.
“Holy hell, is that Jill?”
Christopher turned toward the stairs, untensing. Kade would know what to do. Kade always knew what to do. It was one of his best, and most irritating, qualities.
Kade wasn’t alone on the stairs. Sumi was behind him, bouncing onto her toes and straining to see over his shoulder. Frustrated, she planted her hands at the small of Kade’s back and pushed.
“Come on, come on, there’s adventure in the air and you’re too slow!”
“I don’t think that’s adventure so much as it’s static, Sumi; calm down,” said Kade. He took the remainder of the stairs in four long, lanky steps, hopping down the final three in his hurry to get to the silent Wolcott.
He had almost reached her when the stranger stepped between them, glaring down at him. He stopped where he was. Sumi peeked around him at the other girl.
“You’re not tall, but you walk like you are,” she said approvingly. “I’ve always said we needed more mountains around here. We’re not going to hurt Jack. We’re her friends. Or we were, anyway, before I died and she left. You know how that is.”
To Christopher’s surprise, the stranger smiled and made a see-sawing motion with her hand, apparently agreeing with Sumi.
“That’s not Jack,” said Kade. “That’s Jill. Look at her hands.”
“Jack’s still Jack when she’s not wearing gloves,” said Sumi. “She’s still Jack when she’s not wearing her own skin, too. It’s a neat trick. Imagine if I could put on someone else’s skin and have everyone believe it was really them! I’d be so many people every day.”
“Sumi…” Kade pinched the bridge of his nose before addressing the stranger. “I apologize for my friend. She went to a Nonsense world, and it left her a little scrambled.”
“Dying scrambled me more,” said Sumi matter-of-factly. She stepped around Kade, heading for the velvet curtain covering the basement’s rear wall. “There’s an easy way to answer this. We’ll wake her up and ask her who she thinks she is. If I’m right and it’s Jack, you owe me extra dessert.”
“You always get extra dessert,” said Christopher. “I think you have syrup in your veins.”
“If only,” chirped Sumi. She twitched the curtain aside, revealing the jars and vials and beakers full of dangerous chemicals Jack had left behind when she departed.
“What’s Sumi doing?” asked Cora, from beside Christopher’s left elbow.
“What the fu—Don’t do that!” he exclaimed, whipping around to stare at her. “When did you get here?”
Cora shrugged. “Kade and Sumi were arguing about who the girl on the table is. I don’t know her either way, so I figured I’d be quiet.”
“I swear I’m going to bell you,” muttered Christopher. Secretly, he was grateful. Cora being too quiet and sneaking up on him was normal. Sumi being weird was normal. Strangers carrying maybe-dead girls appearing in his room was not normal. The air smelling of ozone was not normal.
A little normalcy was a good thing. Especially when Sumi was turning away from the shelves with a vial of something yellow and viscous in her hand and a manic look in her eye. Even Kade looked nervous.
“What are you going to do, Sumi?”
“Ask and answer,” she said brightly, and started for Jill. Before she reached her target, she stopped, looking at the stranger, and said, “I’m not going to hurt her. Unless she labeled her own things wrong, and if she did that, I think it’s less me hurting her and more her learning some important lessons about lab safety. All right?”
The stranger frowned, making a sharp gesture with one hand.
Unexpectedly, Sumi lit up. “Oh!” she said. “You sign! Well, that makes this easier. I swear on the candy corn fields and the strawberry sea that I wouldn’t ever hurt her on purpose. Accidents happen to the best of us. But I don’t think anything can start happening until she’s awake, and that means you need to let me. Please?”
The stranger sighed, broad shoulders sagging, and stepped aside.
“Thank you,” said Sumi. Her smile was gentler than Christopher had ever known it to be, a momentary tenderness that was quickly undone when she popped the vial of mysterious yellow fluid open and shoved it under the motionless Wolcott twin’s nose.
“It’s Jill,” said Christopher. “No, it’s not,” said Sumi.
The Wolcott’s eyes snapped open and she jerked upright, taking a huge, shuddering breath before starting to cough. She raised her hands toward her mouth and froze, staring at them. Something about her own fingers seemed to horrify her. Her eyes went wider and wider until she started coughing again, harder this time. She didn’t cover her mouth. She didn’t seem able to finish the motion.
“She’s having a panic attack,” said Kade. “Sumi, you need to back off right now.”
“No, I don’t,” said Sumi. “Jack, it’s me. Look, I stopped being dead. Resurrections make you happy, right? Behold the power of science!”
The stranger stepped around Sumi, putting a heavy hand on the Wolcott’s shoulder. The girl huddled against her, coughs slowly stopping, only to be replaced by a sharp keening noise.
“I have no idea what’s going on,” said Cora.
“That makes two of us,” said Kade.
The stranger stroked the twin’s head with her free hand. The smaller girl huddled even closer, pressing her face into the stranger’s apron. It did nothing to dull the razor edge of her keening.
“It’s Jack.” Sumi dropped the vial on the table before scrubbing her palms against her jeans. “I don’t know how it’s Jack, but it’s Jack. I don’t know who her friend is, either, but I know she’s been dead before, so we’re both members of a really lousy club that most people never get to join. I know a not-dead girl wouldn’t be here with Jack unless it was really, really important.”
Kade started to reply, then hesitated. Sumi had been dead when Jack and Jill left for the Moors, but she’d known them well enough to know that neither Wolcott would have voluntarily come back. Like most of Eleanor’s students, they’d dreamt of nothing but returning to their true, beloved home since the day they were enrolled.
“You said she signs,” said Kade. “What does that mean, exactly?”
“Means she talks with her hands,” said Sumi. “I don’t speak the same dialect, but I guess the Moors never developed their own sign language, because what she’s said so far looks like ASL, the way ASL would look if you never left your farm to make sure you weren’t experiencing linguistic drift.”
Sumi’s perpetual sugar buzz and gleeful ridiculousness could make it easy to forget how smart she was.
Kade nodded slowly. Then he turned to the stranger. “Can you understand me? If you can, will you please tell Sumi why you’re here?”
Sumi scoffed. “She can hear. She just can’t make sounds. Don’t act like she’s stupid.”
The stranger looked uncertain, maybe because of the Wolcott still clinging to her side. Sumi sighed as she turned to the pair and began moving her hands, fingers flashing and darting with incredible speed. Even silent, Sumi somehow managed to be loud enough to fill the entire room.
“What are you saying?” asked Kade.
“Girl talk,” said Sumi. “Pure nonsense. None of your business.” She kept signing.
Finally, slowly, the stranger took her hand away from the Wolcott’s hair. The Wolcott whimpered and burrowed closer, pressing her face deeper into the stranger’s apron. The stranger started signing, more slowly than Sumi—which wasn’t saying much. Some hummingbirds were slower than Sumi.
Sumi wasn’t moving now. She was watching, eyes sharp, expression sharper, occasionally interjecting a rapidly signed reply. Finally, she nodded. “It’s nice to meet you, Alexis,” she said, and looked to Kade. An unforgiving coldness had settled over her in the last few moments, a coldness befitting a girl who’d saved a world, and died, and risen again, all before she had the chance to turn eighteen.
Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children was an island of misfit toys, a place to put the unfinished stories and the broken wanderers who could butcher a deer and string a bow but no longer remembered what to do with indoor plumbing. It was also, more importantly, a holding pen for heroes. Whatever they might have become when they’d been cast out of their chosen homes, they’d been heroes once, each in their own ways. And they did not forget.
“Her name is Alexis,” said Sumi, voice artificially calm. “She’s here because she hopes we can help Jack; because she doesn’t think anyone else can.”
“So that is Jack, then,” said Kade.
“Yes, and no,” said Sumi. “This is Jack, but she’s in Jill’s body. Jill stole hers and ran away with it.”
There was a pause as everyone took this in. Finally, faintly, Cora said, “Oh. Is that all?”
Windows of the Soul
Kade yanked the wardrobe open and started digging through its contents, scattering clothes in all directions. Sumi perched atop a nearby stack of books, watching him. He grabbed a waistcoat, discarded it, and reached for a vest, muttering about whipstitches and adjustable clips. Sumi cocked her head.
“Why is it so important for you to find something that fits her, when she’s still wailing and crying and snotting all over everything?” she asked. “You call me the nonsensical one, but right now it feels like you’re putting the frosting before the fire.”
“Clothes matter,” he said, draping the vest over his arm and reaching for a pile of neatly folded blouses. “Clothes are part of how you learn to feel like yourself, and not someone who just happens to look like you. Don’t you remember what it was like when someone else decided what you were going to wear?”
Sumi shuddered—not as theatrically as she normally would have. This wasn’t something to be seen. It was something she felt all the way down to her bones, which were the only remaining part of her original body.
“My parents,” she said. “They were like Nancy’s but the other way around, chasing monochrome instead of spectrums. They didn’t understand. Thought if they threw enough gray and gray and gray at me, I’d forget I’d seen rainbows and learn how to be their little sparrow-girl again. She died in Confection and I rose from her ashes, a pretty pastry phoenix. I need my color. It keeps me breathing when I see me in the mirror at midnight.”
“Exactly.” Kade slung a measuring tape around his neck and grabbed a stack of charcoal trousers. “Jack is literally in someone else’s body. That’s got to be like dysphoria squared. She’s scared and confused and she needs to be anchored. Get that shoe box for me, would you?” Sumi picked up the box. “Is it full of bees?”
Kade eyed her. “I don’t want to know why you think I’d have a box of bees up here. No, it’s not full of bees. It’s full of gloves. Jack’s gloves. Jill always had less muscle mass than her sister, so I’m guessing I’ll need to do some alterations on the rest of her clothing if I want it to fit her correctly, but the gloves? Those should be fine.”
“That will help,” said Sumi, looking approvingly at the box. “Jack doesn’t like it when the world touches her.”
“I know. Come on. I don’t want you up here unsupervised.”
Sumi dimpled, looking young and innocent and terribly dangerous all at the same time. “What could I possibly do that would be so awful?”
“Everything. Every moment of the day. Since you were born.” Kade waited in the doorway until Sumi flounced past him, then closed the door as he followed her.
They’d have to involve Eleanor eventually. She liked it when the students were self-sufficient, and didn’t believe in coddling them; after all, they’d seen wonders beyond their apparent ages, had fought monsters and saved kingdoms. Surely they could go about their business without being smothered by the nearest available adult. She’d still want to know that Jack was back, and that something terrible had happened in the Moors. She’d want to help.
Or she would have, once. Eleanor had been less and less invested in the daily operation of the school since Lundy’s death. All the current teachers were adults who thought they worked at some sort of strange boarding school for the children of eccentric hippies: they didn’t know about the doors, or the wonders they concealed. Eleanor continued to handle student intake, and had taken over Lundy’s daily therapy sessions, but she was slipping.
Eleanor had started the school because she didn’t want other children to suffer the way she’d suffered when she returned from her own Nonsense world and ran up against the disbelief of the people who should have been most willing to believe her. Strange as it was to consider, she’d been young once, quick and bright and flexible-minded, ready to handle any challenge… except for exile. So she’d opened a school, with the goal of getting it as stable as she could before senility softened her mind and she went back through her own door. Before she went home.
Kade had always assumed there’d be someone to take over when that happened. Not Lundy, maybe, whose own journeys had left her a brilliant woman trapped in a body growing younger every year, but someone adult and capable. Someone who’d understand why it was so important, and who’d be willing to keep Kade on, keep teaching him everything he’d need to know to eventually step up as headmaster. And of course, there was college to be considered, courses in education and business and…
And he wanted to involve Eleanor in this latest potential crisis, and he didn’t want to involve her at all, because that theoretical adult had yet to appear. What if she decided this was the last thing she could handle? What if she left him, unprepared and alone, to take over running the school?
The thought made his heart beat too fast and his chest feel too tight. Panic attacks aren’t supposed to be contagious, he thought sourly. If he went too far down the metaphorical rabbit hole, he’d need to take his binder off in order to get his breath back, and he wanted that even less than he wanted to talk to his great-aunt.
Sumi followed him down the stairs from the attic to the main floor and along the hallway toward the basement, uncharacteristically quiet. When they reached the basement door, she reached out and placed a long-fingered hand on his arm, stopping him.
“There’s enough air for everyone,” she said, voice soft. “No one’s going to take it away from you.”
“Weirdly enough, that helps,” he said, because weirdly enough, it did. “Let’s see if we can’t convince Jack of the same thing.”
The scene in Christopher’s room hadn’t changed much: Jack was still huddled against Alexis, the yellow tablecloth bunched up around her bare feet and calves. Christopher was standing a reasonable distance away, with Cora halfway hiding behind him, like she expected to be ejected from the room at any moment.
“Oh, this is silly,” said Sumi. She shoved past Kade, taking back the box of gloves as she went, and hopped down the last six stairs, not pausing until she was next to Alexis. She slammed the box down on the table, creating a banging noise loud enough to make Jack flinch.
Sumi rolled her eyes.
“I know, I know, panic is fun, but sometimes revenge is better,” she said. “Choose revenge. Choose better. I brought you gloves.”
“They’re yours,” said Kade hastily. “I saved your clothes after you left. Most of them will need a little alteration, but no one else has ever worn them. Only you.”
“Only… if I wear them now… someone else is wearing them.” Jack’s voice was cracked and unsteady: she sounded like she was teetering on the verge of some vast, unseen abyss. She turned her head, viewing the others through a bridal veil of loose blonde strands. “I don’t know where she’s been I don’t know I don’t know I—”
Sumi slapped her.
It wasn’t a hard slap as such things went, but it was hard enough to echo through the room. Alexis stiffened, starting to step forward. Jack’s hand against her arm stopped her. She looked at the smaller woman, expression questioning. Jack shook her head.
“No,” she said. Then, more loudly, she repeated, “No. That was quite enough violence for one day. Thank you, Sumi. How is it you’re not dead? Am I seeing ghosts? If that’s a side effect of what’s been done to me, I’m going to be even more displeased than I already am.”
“Who talks like that?” muttered Cora. “And I realize this is far from the weirdest thing happening here, but Christopher, why do you have a metal table?”
“Technically, I don’t,” said Christopher. “It’s Jack’s. I mean, it belongs to her. I just put a tablecloth over it because it’s creepy.”
“A good autopsy table isn’t creepy, it’s essential,” said Jack. She squinted at him. “Christopher? Am I to assume this is your room now? Who’s your verdigrised friend? I don’t recognize the voice.”
Seeming to relax for the first time since she’d carried Jack through the door, Alexis tapped her arm and signed something. Jack rolled her eyes.
“Of course I’m missing my glasses,” she said. “My sister—may the Drowned Gods devour every scrap of meat clinging to her barnacled bones—stole them when she stole my skull. You’re all quite blurry at any distance.”
“I’m Cora and I’m very confused right now,” said Cora.
“Then you clearly belong with this student body,” said Jack. She leaned against Alexis as she pulled the box of gloves closer. “Have there been any other miraculous resurrections since my departure? I do like to keep up on the latest gossip.”
“Everyone else who was dead is still dead, so far as I know,” said Kade. “Nancy’s door came back for her. She’s gone to the Halls of the Dead.”
“We left Nadya there when we went to find Sumi’s ghost,” said Christopher.
“Had the Halls of the Dead offended you in some way, that they deserved a Drowned Girl with no sense of etiquette?” Jack pulled out a pair of white kid gloves, shuddered, and set them aside, continuing to rummage through the remaining options.
“It was a trade,” said Cora. “Sumi for Nadya.” She couldn’t quite keep the bitterness out of her voice. Nadya had been her first and fiercest friend at the school. Sumi was…
Sumi was Sumi. Spending time with her was like trying to form a close personal relationship with a cloud of butterflies. Pretty—dazzling, even—but not exactly companionable. And some of the butterflies had knives, and that was where the metaphor collapsed.
“Fascinating.” Jack pulled out another pair of gloves. These ones were black suede, and after a momentary examination, she tugged them methodically on, checking each finger to be sure the fit was close and snug.
Cora had never seen anyone put on a pair of gloves with such care. Jack’s world seemed to narrow to nothing but herself, the gloves, and the need to make sure they covered her hands. When she was finally satisfied, she sighed and sagged against Alexis again, somehow sitting up straighter at the same time, like a doll with broken legs and a rigid spine.
“Alexis, these are my schoolmates, although one was dead by Jill’s hand the last time I saw her—”
“Hi,” chirped Sumi.
“—and one is a colorful stranger. Schoolmates, this is my betrothed, Miss Alexis Chopper, who shares the unfortunate distinction of having died at my sister’s hand. She’s currently unable to speak, but I assure you, she understands everything you say.”
Jack switched her attention to Christopher. “Christopher, you’ve been occupying my room while I’ve been gone. Is it too much to hope that you’ve some of my things?”
“You’re sitting on an autopsy table,” said Christopher. “I kept everything.”
“I suppose there are still mercies in the world.” Jack closed her eyes. “If you look at the rack of red shelves, third from the top, there should be a small oak box. Inside, you’ll find my spare glasses. I would be immensely grateful if you’d bring them here. I don’t intend to send people questing for every individual part of a decent wardrobe, pleasant as the distraction would be, but I can’t proceed with any clarity if I can’t see who I’m talking to.”
“Jack, what happened?” asked Kade. “You’re not…”
“Supposed to be here? Quite myself?” Jack’s laugh
was low and bitter. “I suppose I should be grateful that my sister and I are identical twins, but it’s not enough. I can feel the panic clawing at me, trying to bite through my bones. This body is… it’s filthy. I need a thousand baths before I can even begin to feel like I might someday be clean again.”
“Is it because you don’t know where it’s been?” asked Sumi.
Jack opened her eyes and favored the smaller girl with a withering look. “I can only dream of such glorious ignorance. My issue with this body is that I know precisely where it’s been, precisely what it’s done, and moreover, precisely what has been done to it. I am a ghost trapped in a charnel house, and I dislike it immensely.”
Alexis began stroking Jack’s hair. Jack reached up and caught her hand with gloved fingers, pulling it to her lips and kissing it gently.
“I’m sorry, love,” she said. “I’m trying. For you, I’m trying.”
Christopher blinked. Of all the things he’d been expecting—which, to be honest, included essentially none of the day’s events—Jack showing affection toward another human being had not made the list. He turned and hurried across the room to the shelf Jack had identified, beginning to sift through its contents.
It was a little odd how he’d preserved all Jack’s things, even after the room had officially become his. Nancy had taken it before him. She’d been newer to the school, but she’d been given priority by her roommate’s death— even with as dotty as Eleanor could sometimes be, she’d been able to recognize that Nancy probably didn’t want to sleep in Sumi’s room without Sumi. It had been Nancy who’d cleaned out the twins’ clothes, giving them to Kade to add to the school’s communal wardrobe. She hadn’t been there long enough to deal with anything else, and when Christopher moved in, he’d found the combination of mad scientist’s lab and Victorian lady’s parlor oddly soothing. It wasn’t anything like Mariposa, but it wasn’t anything like his parents’ house, either. It was his. It was home.
Sure, he’d covered up the creepier aspects, since there was “willing to share space with a taxidermically preserved alligator” and then there was “waking up every morning and looking at a whole shelf of different kinds of acid.” One was quaint. The other was disturbing.
The box was right where Jack had said it would be. Christopher picked it up, hesitated, and grabbed a pack of wipes. Jack liked to be clean. Jack took “liking to be clean” to the extreme. She’d want her glasses to be clean before she put them on.
Sumi and Alexis were signing to each other again when he returned to the group. “Here,” he said, offering the box and wipes to Jack. “I thought you might want to clean the lenses.”
“Normally, I’d say something about your clear inclination toward hoarding, but at the moment, I’m too grateful.” Jack took the box and wipes, setting the latter aside before opening the former to reveal four pairs of wire-framed glasses nestled in a bed of velvet. She selected the first pair, held it in front of her eyes, winced, and reached for the second. “I’ll just be a moment.”
“Jill never wore glasses,” said Kade.
“Jill was, perhaps, comforted by seeing the world wrapped in cotton fluff and stripped of hard edges,” said Jack, discarding the second pair of glasses. “She’s needed corrective lenses as long as I have. She simply lacked the incentive to wear them. Eye protection is of the utmost importance in the laboratory setting. I would have worn plain glass, had I not needed something more functional. Once the acid becomes airborne, it’s no one’s friend.”
“Ah,” said Kade. More gently, he began, “Jack, about your sister—”
“Not yet.” Jack held the third pair of glasses up to her face, nodded, and reached for the cleaning cloths. “I’m remembering how to breathe. Please, be patient with me. Be patient with both of us. Although…” She caught Alexis’s wrist, fingers expertly pinning down the other girl’s pulse. “If we could take a moment for me to perform a quick restorative procedure for Alexis’s benefit, I would be immensely grateful.”
Alexis signed something. Sumi smirked.
“Your girlfriend says you’re hot when you get all science-y,” she reported.
“My girlfriend is a genius of incomparable scope and should be listened to in all things,” said Jack. She slipped the glasses onto her face, pushing them up the bridge of her nose with one black-gloved finger until they were positioned perfectly. Then she sighed, the deep, satisfied sigh of someone who’d just seen the world come—quite literally—into focus. “Much better.”
“Does that mean you’re ready to tell us what happened?” asked Kade.
“A moment.” Jack turned to Alexis, hands moving in a sharp, interrogative gesture.
Alexis motioned to Sumi, then turned her attention to Jack, her own hands beginning to move faster. There was no language barrier between them: they had clearly been communicating in this manner for some time. They had found a simple intimacy in sign, making it entirely their own. Sometimes they’d abandon signs in the middle of a gesture, their message already conveyed, language become shorthand become intuitive understanding.
It was beautiful and strange and it made Christopher’s ears burn with something like jealousy, and something like longing, and something like regret. He’d been that close to someone, once. He would be again, if he could ever find the way to Mariposa.
If he could ever find his own way home.
Jack finally nodded to Alexis and put her hands against the autopsy table, scooting toward the edge. “I require two sets of jumper cables, an inversion circuit, one of the small generators I left in the closet, and several other items which I can collect myself. This body may have the strength of a wet kitten, but the day I can’t manage to mix a batch of electrode gel unassisted is the day I abandon all hope of ever finding a solution.”
Her bare feet hit the concrete floor. She stopped for a moment, shuddering again. Alexis moved to steady her. Jack held up one gloved hand, motioning for the other girl to keep her distance.
“No,” she said softly. “I need to do this. Can you please… love, please get on the table and get yourself ready. This will go so much easier if I know you’re all right before I begin.”
Alexis signed something.
Jack shook her head. “No. No. You matter as much as I do. More, even. This body has only been resurrected once. It’s delicate, but it’s not fragile. Please get on the table.”
Alexis nodded. Jack relaxed and started for the shelves. She was clearly still tense, and as jumpy as some strange wild creature, but she was moving like a girl on a mission.
Christopher glanced at Cora, who was watching with wide, bewildered eyes as Alexis pulled the cloth all the way off the autopsy table and dropped it on the floor. With this accomplished, Alexis climbed onto the table and stretched herself out, as quickly and easily as if this were the sort of thing she did every day.
“I’m so confused right now,” Cora said. “Welcome to the club,” said Christopher.
“There’s nothing confusing about it, except for maybe the part where you’re not getting the generator and hauling it into position!” Jack grabbed several jars of differently colored liquids from the shelves. “Time is of the essence, in so many different directions. I require trousers, and a shower, and assistance in saving the Moors. You require the full story of what Alexis and I are doing here. The best way for all of us to get what we need is for you to move that generator.”
“Come on,” said Christopher. “I know where she kept them.”
“Is she always this demanding?” asked Cora, following him toward the closet. It was nice to have something to do; it made her feel less like she’d somehow stumbled into the audience of some Victorian penny dreadful, watching the story unfold but unable to influence it.
“Yeah,” said Christopher, with unabashed fondness. “I mean, she sort of had to be. From everything she said, the Moors don’t have a lot of patience for people being wishy-washy.”
“That’s the world she and her sister went to?”
The generators, plural, were in the closet Jack had indicated, along with several cannisters of fuel. Cora eyed them with undisguised dismay.
“This is a fire hazard,” she said. “And who needs three generators? Are these supposed to be for the whole school?”
“No, they’re for private use, and I can hear you,” called Jack.
Cora’s face flared red. “Great,” she mumbled. Christopher touched her shoulder, expression concerned. “Hey,” he said. “It’s not you. That’s just how she is. She doesn’t mean anything by it. You know how mad scientists in movies are always muttering about showing those fools who laughed at them in the academy? Well, she’s sort of like that, only crankier, because she didn’t even get to go to the academy. Help me move one of these things.”
Together, they were able to hoist the smallest of the three generators—which was deceptively heavy, and raised questions about how Jack had managed to get it down the stairs in the first place—and shuffle-walk it across the basement to the autopsy table. The tablecloth was gone. Alexis was stretched out with her hands by her sides, her temples, throat, wrists, and ankles glistening with conduction gel. Jack had located electrodes somewhere, applying them to Alexis’s temples, throat, ankles, and the insides of her wrists; they were connected to wires that extended to the leading ends of both pairs of jumper cables. The wires were wrapped firmly around the clamps, forming two braided bridges between them and Alexis’s body. As for the other end of the cables…
Cora stopped, nearly dropping her end of the generator. “No,” she said, with surprising strength. “I’m not going to help you—you can’t—no. This isn’t okay. You can’t do this.”
“Do what?” asked Jack, daintily wiping away a smear of conduction gel that had extended too far down Alexis’s neck for her liking. “Science? Because I assure you, I can do all the science I like, and you won’t be the first to try and stop me. I know what I’m doing. Please don’t try to interfere.”
“It’s all right, Cora,” said Kade soothingly. “Alexis is from the Moors.”
Cora stared at him. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means she’s dead,” said Jack. Her voice remained
calm, like she was remarking on the weather. “My sister killed her, rather violently, I might add; my sister used these hands—” The veneer of calm broke, snapped cleanly in two, as Jack stopped talking and balled the hands in question into tight fists, her shoulders going hunched as she struggled to keep herself under control.
“It’s all right,” said Sumi. “A tool is only a weapon when it’s held by people who want to use it the wrong way. Or maybe it’s the other way around, I don’t know, but you’re not her. You’re not.”
“Muscle has memory all its own,” said Jack. “Bodies remember what they’ve done. This body remembers… terrible things. Unspeakable things. What is she teaching my body, right now? I don’t know. I am afraid. So please.” She slammed her hands flat on the autopsy table, causing everyone but Alexis to jump. “Move my generator into place, and let me work. I am begging you. Do not allow me to debase myself for nothing.”
“On it,” said Christopher. He started moving again, leaving Cora with little choice but to follow or drop the generator on his feet. She followed.
Once the generator was in position, Jack began her final preparations. Slowly at first, then with increasing confidence as she adjusted clamps, checked wires, and finally verified that the generator was properly fueled. It was a sort of poetry, the way she shifted from task to task, the absolute assurance in her gestures. Finally, she leaned in and pressed a kiss to Alexis’s lips.
“You’ll be better in a moment, darling,” she said, not seeming to care who was listening. She stepped back, and leaned down to put a finger on the generator switch. “Those of you who value your retinas, close your eyes.”
Cora did, but not quite fast enough: the electric ghost of the lightning leaping off the generator danced behind her eyelids, haunting her. The sound of the generator’s engine was big enough to fill the world, roaring and rampant.
Eyes still closed, she shouted, “Do generators always work like this?”
“Not just no, but hell no!” Kade shouted back. “Jack, if you break the school, I’m telling my aunt on you!”
“Calm down, you unimaginative, unscientific fool. Everything is going according to plan.” The sound of lightning striking flesh, very close by, punctuated Jack’s declaration, and was followed by the generator powering down, and Jack beginning to laugh.
Cora opened her eyes.
Alexis was sitting up on the autopsy table, delicately peeling electrodes from her temples. Her skin was pinker, with less of a gray undertone. The jumper cables holding the bundled wire in place were still clamped to her ankles and the left side of her collarbone, their sharp metal teeth indenting her flesh. Jack reached up and removed the first of them.
“How are you?” she asked. “Any disorientation? Any discomfort?”
“No,” said Alexis. Her voice was low and sweet and lovely, without a hint of pain. She smiled at Jack, warm and utterly guileless, before turning her attention to the rest of the room. “It’s so nice to meet you, all of you. Jack’s told me so much about you.”
“Alexis has died twice, and second resurrections are rarely without complications,” said Jack, removing the second clamp. “She needs regular infusions of lightning to remain stable, and there wasn’t time to charge her up before we fled. Dr. Bleak gave everything he had to buy us the time to escape. Honoring his sacrifice”—her voice cracked—“was the least we could do.”
“What happened?” Kade asked.
Jack took a deep breath. “I suppose I owe you the truth,” she said. “After all, I’ve come to ask for your help. But I warn you, this isn’t a tale for the faint of heart. It is a story of murder, and betrayal, and sisterly love turned sour.”
“So it’s a Tuesday,” said Sumi. “We can take it.”
Jack nodded. “As you say. It was, as it so often is, a dark and stormy night…”
Excerpted from Come Tumbling Down, copyright © 2019 by Seanan McGuire.