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Where the Drowned Girls Go

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Where the Drowned Girls Go

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Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Publishing, 2022
Series: Wayward Children: Book 7
Book Type: Novella
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Contemporary Fantasy
Avg Member Rating:
(25 reads / 16 ratings)


"Welcome to the Whitethorn Institute. The first step is always admitting you need help, and you've already taken that step by requesting a transfer into our company."

There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again. It isn't as friendly as Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. And it isn't as safe.

When Eleanor West decided to open her school, her sanctuary, her "Home for Wayward Children," she knew from the beginning that there would be children she couldn't save; when Cora decides she needs a different direction, a different fate, a different prophecy, Miss West reluctantly agrees to transfer her to the other school, where things are run very differently by Whitethorn, the Headmaster.

She will soon discover that not all doors are welcoming...




CORA MILLER WOKE WITH a start in a room that was still dark, drenched in the moonlight coming through the window, with the sound of screams ringing in her ears. She sat up in bed, her heart pounding, and tried to catch her breath, waiting for the moment when her roommate would demand to know why she'd been screaming again, wasn't she tired of waking up terrified every night, didn't she think it was time to talk to the school's new therapist?

But the new therapist--a very nice woman named Nichole, who had moved into the office that used to belong to Katherine Lundy, hanging her diplomas on the walls alongside cheerful motivational posters and pictures of her dogs--had gone through her door more than thirty years ago, and had come home with a head stuffed full of pleasant memories and happy dreams. She believed that it was possible to move beyond the doors, to grow into someone who could be happy in this world forever, forsaking all others. Based on what she'd told the students, nothing on the other side of her door had been malicious, or malevolent, or made of teeth.

No, Cora didn't want to talk to Nichole. Didn't want to sit down with a pleasantly smiling woman in a pleasantly decorated office and listen to her tell pleasantly couched lies about how things were going to get better. Things weren't going to get better. Maybe not ever.

Antoinette didn't say anything. She was still dead to the world, one arm flung over her face to block the watery moonlight, her hair spread out across her pillow like a riot of coral fronds. The moon could tint everything in silver, could wash the world in white, but it couldn't steal the foxfire brightness from Antsy's hair. Sometimes Cora wondered if Antsy's hair was the reason Eleanor had decided they should share a room. "If you have two girls with unrealistically brightly colored hair, let them clog up the same bathtub drain" seemed like the sort of logic Eleanor liked to trade in.

It wasn't like they had very much else in common. Cora had traveled to the Trenches, an underwater world full of mermaids, mysteries, and maritime monsters. Her door had opened when she tried to take her own life, unable to endure one more day of the constant judgmental mockery of the people who were supposed to be her peers, and just when she'd been finding her fins in the deeps, a whirlpool had swept her back into the life she had never expected to return to.

Antoinette had traveled to a Nonsense world, and a dry one at that, a place of jumbled boxes and endless shelves, where all the lost things went. "I got lost, and so I went where the lost things go" was how she had explained it, as matter-of-factly as if nothing could have possibly made more sense. She was fickle and fractious, and would have made a better roommate for Sumi. Only Sumi wasn't required to have a roommate anymore, since apparently the rules were different for people who had died and come back.

It wasn't fair, but what about the world really was? The jagged lines of her latest nightmare were still lingering, not expunged by screaming as they would normally have been; they cast strange shadows in the corners of the room, shadows that moved and twisted and bent, like the tentacled arms of some great, terrible--

Cora shuddered and pulled her eyes away from the wall, swiping her hands across them in short, furious motions, like nightmares were just another bit of grit that could be wiped away. At least with the lights down, she couldn't see her own skin; couldn't see the thin scrim of oil-slick iridescence that covered every inch of her, and had since she danced with the Drowned Gods in the waters of the Moors.

She swung her legs around to plant her feet on the floor, finally admitting that sleep was finished for the night: sleep was over and done. Maybe she could catch a nap in the early afternoon, when the sun was thick and buttery, and even the deepest shadows were easy to see through.

Antoinette still didn't stir. Cora took a moment to breathe and look at her roommate, waiting for her heart to settle in her chest. She used to be able to sleep like that. She used to put her head down on the pillow and let the night take her away, off into dreams full of deep, diamond-dappled water, diving down where the currents were warm and the waters were always welcoming.

Since the Moors, though... since the Moors, her dreams were still full of water and waves, but the sea she swam in while she slept was no longer remotely kind. It was filled with teeth, and colder than she would have believed the water could be. Worst of all were the whispers, which moved with the tide and promised her anything she wanted--promised her the world's oceans, promised to return her fins and scales and free her from the bonds of gravity, if she would just stop trying so hard to swim away from them. All they wanted was to love her. All they needed her to do was turn around and let them in.

The halls of the school were empty at this hour. If Christopher was awake, he would be wandering in the trees behind the building, playing his flute for the small midnight creatures that moved among the roots, hoping not to be seen. He was the only quasi-nocturnal student currently in residence, with Nancy having gone back to the Halls of the Dead and Jack at home in the Moors. It made the school feel a little darker at night, knowing that everyone else was sleeping.

Cora's tenure at Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children hadn't overlapped with Nancy or the Wolcott twins, but her shadows hadn't always been so tangled, or so tempting. She used to sleep through the night. She used to be fine with solitude on the rare evenings when she couldn't.

She walked along the hall as quietly as possible, wincing every time a floorboard creaked or the foundation made a small, settling groan, waiting for one of the doors lining the hall to slam open and reveal one of her fellow students, disheveled and angry at being woken from a sound night's sleep. If that happened, she wasn't sure she'd be able to stop herself from slapping someone and waking the rest of the hall as she screamed, "So you got woken up once. So what? I haven't slept through the night in months!"

But no doors opened. The halls remained empty, and the classrooms she passed on her way to the bathroom were the same, their doors standing open and the blinds pulled down over their windows. All those rooms would be full soon enough, packed with students who didn't necessarily want to learn, but who didn't want to spend all their time sitting quietly and waiting for the world to shift under their feet. They'd been lucky enough to see the world change once. Most of them wouldn't be lucky enough to see it change again.

And even if they did, luck wasn't always good.

Cora shivered as she walked along the hall. Kade had his Compass, his little map to all the different worlds represented by the student body, but it wasn't accurate. It could never be accurate. Worlds could be oriented in different directions but still be very, very similar to one another. Drowned Worlds were Drowned Worlds, regardless of whether or not they had Logical rules or leaned toward the Wicked. A direction wasn't a description, it was just a set of... of fundamental rules. Saying that any two people who'd traveled in the same direction had to get along was like saying that two people who'd experienced the same kind of gravity as children had to be the best-of bestest best friends.

According to Kade's map, the Trenches were a Logical, Wicked world, but Cora had never been able to see the Wickedness in them. They weren't cruel. The currents could be harsh and almost random, but if you stayed with your shoal and avoided dangerous waters, you could potentially swim forever without meeting anything that wanted to harm you. According to that same map, the Moors were also Logical and Wicked, and Cora couldn't stand the thought of her kind, beloved home having anything in common with that nightmare landscape, with that leering red moon washed in so much blood that it would never be clean again, with those deep and dangerous waters.

Thinking of the waters of the Moors was enough to trigger another cascade of whispers from the dark. Cora shuddered and walked faster. Eleanor and Kade both said that the Drowned Gods couldn't reach her here, couldn't slide their tentacles across the gulf between worlds to wrap around her ankles and drag her under, but she knew they were wrong, because she heard them constantly. They haunted her. And everyone knew that things from the other side of the door could absolutely leak through into this reality. Her hair had been brown, not aquamarine, before she found her fins. Christopher would die without his flute--literally die. Seraphina was the kind of beautiful that stopped hearts, and everyone who'd seen pictures of her from before her travels said that she hadn't always been like that. She'd been attractive, not impossible. The doors made changes. The doors stayed with you.

If her hair could keep growing in blue as the depths of the ocean, if Seraphina could still walk through life in a perfumed cloud of her own grace, who was to say that the Drowned Gods couldn't reach through whatever gap allowed those things to happen? Who was to say they couldn't claim what they already thought of as their own?

Cora sped up as the door of the bathroom came into view ahead of her. She pushed it open with a fast, vicious motion, relieved to see that the bathroom was as empty as the rest of the school. The floor was covered in candy-colored tile, and some past student had painted rainbows along the walls, up onto the ceiling, turning the room into a swirl of vibrant, living color. The window was thick carnival glass, red and blue and green and yellow. There were no curtains, because they weren't needed even a little bit: no one trying to look in would be able to see anything aside from color. It was peaceful. It was perfect.

The thought of climbing into the massive bathtub was enough to turn Cora's stomach, but the dryness in her skin and throat told her that she didn't actually have a choice. She needed to spend a certain amount of time soaking every week or risk drying out, which had consequences far more immediate and unpleasant than the minor panic attack that came along with actually taking a bath. She shut and locked the door before peeling off her nightgown and starting the water pouring into the bathtub, taking her time adding three types of sweet-scented bubble bath and two kinds of soaking salt to the bath.

Once the bathtub was full--hot and sweet-smelling and mounded with bubbles, a universe away from the salty, brackish depths that haunted her dreams--she climbed into the water, heart pounding from the conflict between "the water is safe, the water is home and harbor, the water will not hurt you" and "the water is filled with monsters who are only waiting for their opportunity to drag you down." She sank down amid the bubbles until only her face and the blue-green shock of her hair remained uncovered, the rest of her body concealed by the mountain of bubbles that filled the air with rising and falling perfume as they began to pop.

There was always plenty of bubble bath in this particular bathroom, which was also Sumi's favorite, and after her time in Confection, where the ocean was made of strawberry soda and the rivers ran with thick undercurrents of chocolate syrup, Sumi couldn't stand water that smelled or tasted like water. Cora had been judgmental before their time in the Moors, and now she was grateful.

She wasn't as fond of the scent of water as she used to be, either.

Slowly, the heat from the bath sank into her bones, warming them, chasing away the shadows of the Drowned Gods, reminding her that she was a mermaid, and for a mermaid to be afraid of drowning was ridiculous. This was where she belonged. This was where she'd come from, and where she would eventually go, when the Trenches saw how sincerely she wanted to come home and swung their watery doors open for her a second and final time. This world wasn't hers to keep. She wasn't staying here.

Cora's eyes fluttered shut as sleep reclaimed her, and in the soup of bubbles and slowly cooling water, she slipped under the surface, down to where it was warm, and sweet, and welcoming. She was a mermaid, after all.

All she needed was a little more time, and she'd be going home.

Copyright © 2022 by Seanan McGuire


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