Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire
Eleanor West runs a boarding school for troubled teens just stepping into adulthood. She tells the parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and/or siblings of those dropped off there that she understands they're worried and wants to do what's best for her charges. She tells them that sometimes they suffer delusions and that maybe, some time away will help them heal. She's lying to them, of course. She believes what the so-called troubled teens have been through and wants to get them back to where they're supposed to be. Hopefully she'll get to go back to where she belongs someday, too.
Nancy, dressed in black and white with white hair with streaks of black, slowly makes her way up the steps of the manor house that is Eleanor West’s school for wayward children. The foyer inside is elegant and antique and so is the white -haired woman walking down the stairs. Well, she would be elegant if she weren't wearing crazy clashing colors. Eleanor gets a good look at Nancy, who is standing perfectly still, and deduces she is from an underworld, which is correct. Eleanor takes Nancy to her room to meet her roommate Sumi, who did not visit an underworld at all.
Sumi is not like Nancy even a little bit and thinks that Nancy is stupid for wanting to go back to her underworld with her stupid dyed hair, but Nancy explains her hair used to be all black until it was stroked by the Lord of the Dead who loved her very much but sent her through a doorway and back into her old world, this world, so she could make sure that she wanted to stay with him forever. She wants to more than anything, but now she can't get back. She longs for the stillness and darkness of her underworld but she's here now with a roommate who is bright and colorful and constantly moving and folding origami and playing with string. Nancy opens her suitcase to unpack and finds that her parents, hoping to convince her to get back to her old self before she was “kidnapped,” swapped all her black and white clothes with a rainbow of colors, which she doesn't like anymore. Sumi does though!
Sumi takes Nancy's suitcase and leaves the room, and Nancy has no idea what's going on so she follows her ridiculously fast roommate at her crawling death-like pace down the hallways and up to the attic. Inside the attic is Kade, a boy who is a remarkable sewist. He keeps up with all the clothes the well-meaning parents tried to force their wayward children into and also makes new things. He swaps Nancy's rainbow out with clothing that is more suited to her tastes: black and white and classy. Back in their room before going to dinner, Sumi asks Nancy if she's sexually interested in Kade and explains that Kade used to be a girl but when he went through his doorway, everyone there finally realized that he's actually a boy. Nancy is not interested in anyone sexually, boy or girl, and she still doesn't really understand what's going on at this school. Sumi declares her one true love is a candy corn farmer.
Now it's time to eat and Nancy remembers what cafeterias in her old life were like. She notices that the school is made up overwhelmingly of girls and prepares herself to find a seat. Eleanor makes an announcement that Nancy is new and still getting adjusted to things, so everyone should be on their best behavior for a little while. She privately tells Nancy that she'll have a therapy session later that will help her understand everything that is going on around her, so that's good. Nancy finds Sumi sitting at a table with twins Jack, short for Jacqueline, and Jill, short for Jillian. Jack tries to explain the doors that people go through like a compass and how they lead to places that are Logic- or Nonsense-based and then they tend to be either Wicked or Virtuous. This is all very confusing.
Therapy that night is not as enlightening as Nancy hoped. It's led by Lundy, a seemingly eight year old woman, and its focus is on people who traveled to Wicked places. Lundy quickly explains about her childlike appearance, she made a deal with the fae to stay younger than eighteen because that's when she would have been kicked out of her world. Now she's aging in reverse, one week every month. After this brief explanation, all those who went through Wicked doors have a chance to speak if they want to and finally it is Nancy's turn. She doesn't think that she went to a Wicked place at all, though there were severe punishments for breaking rules, because the Lord of the Dead was very kind. Kade and Jack interject that these descriptions of Wicked or Virtuous or whatever are subjective, which brings their session to an end for the night.
The next day, Nancy goes to orientation with Lundy. Lundy describes all the things Nancy's been confused about in a very confusing way and, at the end of her session, she asks if Nancy has any questions. Uhh… about a million! She manages to ask one question that Lundy says everyone asks. How many get to go back through their doors? Lundy explains that some people, like herself and Eleanor, got to go through their doors several times, but generally, not many have that opportunity, and if they do, well, she doesn't know about it because they've gone! She insists to Nancy that they are trying to teach everyone there to move on, whether that be back through their door or just on with their lives.
Nancy leaves orientation and all she wants to do is cry. She rushes outside, faster than she normally moves, and bursts into tears. Jill is there and talks about her Master, who is definitely a vampire, and how he didn't like Jack who was too unladylike for his tastes. When he opened a door to send Jack through, Jill came tumbling after, unfortunately. She is certain that her master will find a way for her to return, just like Nancy is certain she'll return to her Lord. Jill leaves and then Kade speaks. He was sitting above the girls in a tree as they chatted and now has hopped down to talk to Nancy. Kade talks about his world, Prism, and how he was kicked out for something he would never change: being a boy. He still misses Prism and everything he learned there, but he can't, and doesn't want, to go back.
Nancy starts lessons a couple of days later. Some are regular, normal-school classes and are taught by teachers that drive in from town. There are also electives, like music and art, and one class that is perfectly suited to this school, A Traveler's History of the Great Compass. In this class, Nancy learns more about the doors being Nonsensical, Logical, Wicked and Virtuous. There are other, smaller directions on the compass, but, as per usual, it's all very confusing. Though most Nonsense worlds are Virtuous and most Logical worlds are Wicked, Nancy really thinks that her underworld is Logical and Virtuous, which is entirely possible. She talks with Sumi that night before she runs off somewhere to do something Nonsensical and tries to learn how old she is, but Sumi answers in a riddle, because of course she does.
Nancy wakes the next morning to screaming. She assumes it's Sumi screaming about something ridiculous because that seems like something she would do, but she's alone in their room. Nancy leaves, trying to find the source of the screaming and, well, she was kind of right. The screaming has to do with Sumi, but it's because she's dead, and her hands are missing. Lots of students gather around and Nancy thinks they'll all think she's responsible because she came from an underworld, but Eleanor assures them all that that's not true. Then Jack arrives and the accusations begin. Kade suggests Nancy take Jack to her room and says he will find Jill. Nancy takes Jack by the hand and they go to the room she shared with Sumi.
Jack meticulously wipes her hands clean after arriving in Nancy's room and tells the story of the life she and Jill had and the door they went through. The twins’ parents wanted their girls to be just so. Jack was to be pretty and Jill was to be smart, but it should have been the other way around. Their parents didn't seem to care for them at all, so when they found a stairway in a trunk leading to a mysterious door, they went in and to a land with moors under a red moon. Jack was cared for by a mad scientist who taught her of reanimating bodies with lightning and Jill had the Master, a vampire, who promised Jill she could become his daughter one day. Things went wrong though and the scientist made a door for them to return. Jack knew it would be safer for them so she went willingly, but Jill had to be sedated. Now here they are.
Kade comes to Nancy's room and he, Nancy and Jack clean up Sumi‘s belongings, taking most everything to the attic. Kade says he'll stay in Nancy's room with her that night because it's not safe to be alone. They talk about how everyone will think Jack and Jill are responsible because of where they came from, especially Jack since she learned how, in easy to understand terms, to create Frankenstein's monsters. Jack would not have left an entire body behind though and definitely would have used all Sumi’s parts, so it seems unlikely she's the killer. Who could it be though?
When they thought everyone would think Jack was responsible for Sumi's death, they were not wrong. Later, at dinner, a mean girl called Loriel and a friend of hers dump a bowl of soup on Jack, which is quite distressing for her as she doesn't like to be messy. Nancy stands up for Jack and tries to follow her out of the cafeteria, but Kade catches up and tells her Jack and Jill will be fine.
That night at their group therapy session, Loriel continues to call Jack a murderer, but Lundy finally puts a stop to it and asks Loriel to describe where her door took her. She traveled to a tiny land with a spider queen and a wasp prince and, like Nancy's door taught her to be strong and still, Loriel's gave her exceptional vision because, after all, to be so tiny, you need to be able to see tiny things. Eleanor joins them then and tells them that not all of them will find their doors again, which leads a boy, Christopher, who carries what looks to be a bone flute, to ask why Eleanor's door stayed and a discussion on door stability that causes another boy to get angry and curse out CS Lewis. Eleanor sends everyone to bed after that because clearly emotions are frazzled and tensions are high.
Unfortunately, that night, Loriel is murdered. Her roommate, Angela, who went through a door where she ran on rainbows, discovered her on the lawn, which was not entirely unusual as Loriel often looked for her door outside when she couldn't sleep. Like Sumi’s hands were taken, Loriel was missing her eyes. Lundy and Eleanor gather everyone together during breakfast to tell them what happened and Eleanor asks for help in getting rid of Loriel's body, while Lundy doesn't think any of this is appropriate. Eleanor thinks that telling one family their runaway daughter ran away instead of that she was murdered would keep everyone else safer, so that's what she decides to do.
Jack, Christopher and Nancy volunteer to dispose of Loriel because they have the most experience dealing with the dead, and Kade squeamishly tags along. They carry Loriel down to the basement where Jack and Jill live and melt her skin off with acid. Christopher reveals that he might be able to figure out who killed her by communicating with her skeleton, which, wow. Jack wonders why he never told her about his bone skills before, and he reluctantly tells her because he loved having a social life and if he told anyone about his time with the skeletons, they would treat him basically the same way they treat Jack and Jill and Nancy and everyone that who didn't go to a world full of rainbows and candy, which is understandable but also quite sad.
While Loriel’s skin melts, they decide to go look for Jill. Jack has no idea where she would be because, honestly, they're not friends, they're sisters. They just stick together because of circumstance. Nancy and Kade decide to go look outside while Jack and Christopher go to the cafeteria and their classrooms and they plan to meet back up in Kade's attic regardless of if they find her or not. No one finds Jill, though Nancy and Kade run into Lundy who very obviously thinks that Nancy is responsible for the deaths because she's the new person and because she's from a death world and she's friends with Jack. This upsets Nancy, but it's kind of logical for everyone to think that.
In Kade's attic, Jack has made everyone hot cocoa to match with their tastes because, as she astutely points out, cooking is basically science and she's a mad scientist. Nancy's cocoa has pomegranate molasses mixed in because that's a key fruit in the underworld. Christopher’s has cinnamon, Kade's has clotted cream fudge and Jack’s has saline solution and wolfsbane to taste like tears from the Moors. If she could make it taste like the sound of screaming, she would.
As they sit drinking their cocoa, they talk about how Sumi's hands were the best thing about her and the same about Loriel’s eyes. Jack says her mad scientist, Dr. Bleak, would sometimes send her out collecting parts to create the best thing, and that sounds an awful lot like what's happening now, except she's the only mad scientist at the school. Just then, Jill comes into the attic because it's the highest room in the school and the least likely place that Jack would be. Jill wonders why Jack left her alone for so long and she replies that she was disposing of a body. Speaking of… the acid should have done its job by now!
Jack and Christopher go down to the basement and yes, the acid has worked. Christopher plays his bone flute, and, though no sound comes out that Jack can hear, she sees Loriel's skeleton rise from the acid bath. Jack begins to ask a million questions, but Christopher can't answer because then he'd have to stop playing. Christopher gestures to the stairs and Jack understands that Christopher is going to lead Loriel outside to bury her. They walk a ways through Eleanor's property to an area that is wild and overgrown. Before Christopher plays the skeleton to its burial, Jack asks her two questions. Can she understand her, a nod in the affirmative, and then, who killed you? The skeleton that was Loriel slowly raises a finger to point at… nothing beside Jack. Well, maybe she couldn't understand after all. Christopher continues to play his flute and Loriel's skeleton walks itself down into the ground.
Back at the school, Eleanor calls an assembly. Since her door is still open to her, she offers to let any student who could survive in a Nonsense world pass through it and hide there, or stay if they prefer. She also says any students who wish to may go back home with their parents. All of this makes her very sad because she wants to keep them all safe but isn't doing a very good job at the moment. She cries into Kade as he hugs her and he tells Nancy that Eleanor is his great great great aunt and that one day, assuming the school doesn't get shut down, it will be his and he'll continue keeping kids safe that return from their doorways.
Kade and Christopher stay the night in Nancy's room and they wake up when they hear screaming. The three of them head outside and find another body. This time, it's Lundy and her brain is missing. As they try to figure out what to do and who would do such a thing, Loriel's friend group, led by Angela, arrives at the scene, accusing them of murder and of kidnapping their friend Seraphina. Nancy has no idea who that even is. Angela tells Nancy, Christopher and Kade that she and her friends went to nice worlds with rainbows and sparkles not ghosts and bones and deciding that girls can be boys if they want to be. Yikes, even Angela's friends think that's a pretty disgusting comment, and so does Eleanor who arrives at that same time. She sends everyone back to their rooms, and as they get back to the school, Angela doubles down on Kade, but Christopher stands up for him. Before they go back inside, Jack calls out to them. She's bleeding from her shoulder and then she passes out.
Kade and Christopher carry Jack inside and Nancy, as she does sometimes when she gets scared or nervous, goes completely still like she always did in her Underwood. She felt safe, but only for a moment, for just a moment later, she saw Jill walk by with blood on her mouth. After Jill walks by, Nancy unfreezes herself and rushes inside to tell her friends and Eleanor that Jill is the one responsible, and Jack agrees, and apologizes for not realizing sooner. She gets up and goes after her sister, and Nancy, Kade and Christopher follow. Jack knows that Jill will be going to the attic because she knows what she's doing. She's trying to build a skeleton key to open the door to the Moors.
In the attic, Jill has Seraphina tied to a table. Nancy tries to stop her from hurting the girl, but Jill is only concerned with building the perfect girl with all the best parts because no door would be out of a perfect girl's reach. Nancy pleads with Jill that she's keeping these girls from moving on to their afterlives, but Jill doesn't care. All she wants to do is get back to her Master where she belongs, but, as she's monologuing, Jack sneaks up behind her sister and stabs her with a pair of scissors.
With her sister dead, Jack tells them that Dr. Bleak only kept Jill away because she was turning into a monster whilst trying to become a vampire and the townsfolk through their doorway didn't want her there anymore, but because Jack wouldn't leave her sister by herself, she went through the doorway with her back into this world. Now that Jill is dead, though Jack will bring her back to life momentarily, Jack is able to go through the doorway again and cuts it into the air with the bloody scissors. Jill will never be able to become a vampire now, so she can go back to their world, too, though she probably won't be very happy about it when she comes back to life.
With Jack and Jill gone, the rest of the semester passes peacefully. Nancy's parents have been begging her to come back home, and while that's pretty much the exact last thing she wants to do, she agrees to go so that maybe they'll let her come back to Eleanor's school when the next semester begins. She still wants to go through her doorway back to her underworld, but knows that might not happen, and is okay with it. Maybe she'll get to be the Lundy to Kade's Eleanor, and together the two of them will run the school and keep wayward children safe for years to come.
Kade brings Nancy her suitcase filled with rainbow clothes to appease her parents, and when she opens it to look at the colorful clothes inside, she sees a note from Sumi that she must have snuck in that very first day. The note tells Nancy that nobody gets to tell her how her story ends but her, and when she finally accepts that as true, her doorway appears. Nancy walks through, into the underworld full of pomegranates and stillness, and is finally happy again.