It happens again.
The roiling static, the not-so-subtle tug of something—as if a black hole has opened up in her bedroom and is trying to suck her right through the doorway. She doesn’t have time to say a word, but a terrible thought unfolds in her mind like a vortex of its own—What if nothing is real; what if everything is just made up, and anything can happen?—and she feels a powerful urge to resist the thought, because to give in to it, to even consider it, would unhinge her completely.
Because there is no reason that Eleanor should be doing anything other than stepping into her own bedroom right now, to remove the strange yellow sundress, to put on her coziest, safest flannel pajamas, to tuck herself into her bed. Perhaps she would even find the old boxes in her closet, unearth her softest childhood stuffed animals, and bury herself in them until she sleeps.
She would give anything to be five years old again, inside the snugglebun with Esmerelda.
All of this tears through her mind in an instant, and then Eleanor is no longer in her bedroom, or even in her house, anymore.
The first thing she notices is that this is not Iowa.
She isn’t in a lush green meadow. There are no cornfields, no wheat fields, no amber waves and violet skies and footbridges and distant red barns. There is no Jack. No young Eleanor. She is surrounded by gray trees with gray fronds of gray needles. Above her the trees recede to very tall, very narrow points, a bed of nails for the sky to rest on. The gray, gray sky. Around her is a crater of kicked-up mud and rocks, and at its edge, several trees are shattered: bark torn, the hardwood inside bone-white and glistening.
Eleanor does not know this place any more than she knew the picturesque, Venusian Iowa in which she spent her entire afternoon. She is again barefoot, but this time she is entirely naked. Her red hair is still long—she can feel it against her back—and she is dirty, as though she has been running through mud. Her legs are flecked with wet earth, and there are gray pine needles plastered to her damp skin.
A very fine rain mists upon her, beading on her skin and turning her hair into dead weight. It would pull her to the ground if she allowed it to.
Whatever this place is, it’s as miserable as Iowa was joyous. The color has been sucked out of it until all that is left behind are the grays: clouds, ash, soot. The clouds lumber by, underbellies black like those of automobiles.
She is cold.
The rain is cold.
There is no wind here, but if there were, she thinks it would probably chill her to death in just a few steps. She searches for shelter. The ground slopes away beneath her feet, and she realizes that she is on the side of a hill. The trees are gnarled, battered; some look as if they have been victimized by fire during their long lives, as if they have burned and yet live on, survivors all. Some leak stone-colored sap that has hardened and turned opaque.
Eleanor wraps her arms around her body and clenches her teeth and wonders if she can possibly wish herself back to her bedroom. It is insufferable that she has to face this again, that she has been abducted from her very home and stranded here. She didn’t believe in magic before this afternoon—or aliens, or other worlds—and now she thinks that she has to allow for the possibility that there is something present in the world. It seems impossible that she would never have heard of such things—but she probably wouldn’t have believed them if she had.
She remembers the static—the strange, almost magnetic field that she encountered before she entered both doorways—and her mind stumbles to a stop on the word: doorway.
Each time this has happened, it has involved a door. But ordinary doors, doors she walks through several times every day. There is nothing special about the cafeteria door or her bedroom door.
“Apparently there is,” she says aloud.
She coughs. The land here smells strange, and it leaves her with an odd taste in her mouth. The rain deposits little dots of grit on her skin. She touches the grit with one finger, pushes it around. Gray streaks follow her fingertip like tracers.
Beneath a broken old tree Eleanor spots a hollow that looks just large enough for her. Under ordinary circumstances she would never scramble into such a hole—she imagines snakes or badgers or, worse, millions of squirming bugs occupying such a prized space— but she is cold and it is raining and she doesn’t know where she is, so she climbs into the hole backward, scooting her bare bottom into the shadows, and tucks herself into a ball against the moist soil. It isn’t warm, exactly, but she feels less cold. She discovers that the soil is a form of insulation, so she packs handfuls around her body for warmth. The light is draining from the sky, and she tries not to think about what bugs might be snuggling up to her in the dark.
Rain gathers in small puddles at the mouth of her burrow, then trickles down the slope toward her. It’s good that the rain is so faint, but if it begins to rain harder, her hideout will flood.
She feels herself getting sleepy. She sags into the mud, the exhaustion of the past few days catching up to her, and falls into a deep slumber inside a hole in the side of a hill in a wasteland far, far from home.