Dr. Cale was at one of the other counters, preparing a fresh slide. She looked toward Tansy, saying mildly, “Just don’t break any bones that you think you’re going to need later. I don’t want to spend another six weeks listening to you whine about how I won’t let you go outside.”
Tansy sniffed haughtily before turning on her heel and striding back out of the room. She tried to slam the door behind herself, but the hinges were configured to allow people time to get out of the way, and the door swung gracefully shut instead.
“She broke her ankle once, when she tried to snowboard on a cookie tray,” said Dr. Cale. She had the same fond, nostalgic tone that Mom always got when she was talking about something Joyce or I had done as children. The “my little girls can do no wrong” voice. She picked up the tray with her slides and wheeled her way over to Nathan, one-handed. “I have never in my life had a worse patient, and that includes myself.”
“I find it hard to believe that anyone could be a worse patient than you,” said Nathan, lifting his head from the microscope. “I remember when I was a kid, and you got the flu. I thought Dad was going to lock you in the bedroom, just so the rest of us could get some peace.” He turned to look at me, betraying awareness of my presence for the first time. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” I said awkwardly, not moving away from the door. I wanted to add something about how he’d left me to wake up surrounded by potentially dangerous strangers, but I couldn’t find the words. So I blurted the first thing that came into my head, instead: “Is there a copy of Don’t Go Out Alone that I could read? People keep talking about it, and I want to know what happens.”
“Of course there is.” Dr. Cale put her slides down next to Nathan before she wheeled herself over to a bookcase, leaning up to pull a slim volume with a cover the color of a slow-healing bruise off the top shelf.
“What?” Nathan turned to look at her, eyes wide. “You took it? I always wondered where it went…”
“I had to,” said Dr. Cale, resting the book on her knees. She smiled a little, looking down at it. “Every time I looked at it, I could hear you asking me to read it to you one more time before bed. It was the thing that most made me feel like I was still with my family.”
“You could have asked,” grumbled Nathan.
“The creepiest children’s book in the world was what made you feel connected to your family?” I asked. I wasn’t quite able to keep the disbelief out of my voice. After a moment to consider, I decided that I didn’t want to.
“With as many times as I’d read it to Nathan? Yes.” Dr. Cale wheeled herself over to me, and offered me the book. “Here you go. Read it, and see if it helps at all.”
“Can I… can I take it with me when we leave?” asked Nathan hesitantly. My heart leapt at the confirmation that we were going to be leaving. He continued, “It’s been so long since I’ve read it. I never was able to find another copy.”
“I would never have found this copy if I hadn’t known the author from school,” said Dr. Cale. “Of course you can take it. It’s yours, after all. I just borrowed it for a little while.” She cast a professionally polite smile in my direction. “If you want to sit down and read for a bit, we still have a few more samples to go over.”
“And then we’ll go,” said Nathan. He had the slightly unfocused tone that I normally associated with his office: the days when I’d show up before he was ready to put work to bed and leave with me.
“Okay,” I said, even though I wasn’t sure it was what I actually wanted, and took a seat in the corner of the room, looking down at the battered copy of Don’t Go Out Alone. The cover illustration showed two children—a boy and a girl—hand in hand, clearly frightened, walking through a dark, spooky forest. Everything was painted in watercolor shades of blue and black, except for the children themselves. They were painted in color, which just made them look more out of place, and somehow made the woods seem even darker and spookier.
The story inside wasn’t much better. The boy and girl were never named. They received letters from a mysterious stranger telling them to be careful, but to find the broken doors as soon as they could, because otherwise, they would be in trouble. More notes awaited them at every step along their journey, alternately cajoling and warning them off what they were doing. “Come quickly” warred with “don’t come at all.” The boy and the girl, lacking a better option—or maybe just lacking basic survival instincts—kept looking for the broken doors, no matter how many times they were warned off.
And then they found them, and found what was waiting on the other side: a pleasant room with a horrible monster in it. Apparently, when they were younger, they had the same monster in their closet, and when their parents chased it away, the monster pined until it could finally call to them to come through the broken doors to the Land of Monsters, where they could be a family forever. The book ended with the implication that now the children would become monsters, too, and would eventually leave the Land of Monsters to find closets, and children, of their own.
It took me almost an hour before I closed the book, looking up. “That was so messed up,” I said.
Dr. Cale and Nathan were studying something on the central counter. Nathan looked up and grinned at the sound of my voice, saying, “How do you think I felt? I was what, four, the first time she read that to me?”