“Yeah. We have to.” Holding Trix’s hand, Jim reached for the inner door.
Chapter 6 - With a Wonder and a Wild Desire
AS JIM pushed the door inward, he felt resistance, as though the air pressure was different on the other side. It opened with a sigh, a musty breath escaping from within, and he thought of Carter discovering the tomb of Tutankhamen. He entered, and Trix followed a step behind.
The only light came from behind them, providing just enough illumination to make out the ragged outline of a broken chair, and to see that the rough wooden floor seemed to have been blackened by flame. Then Trix made a murmur of discovery and clicked on a lightswitch, and a ceiling fixture on the other side of the room blazed to life.
“Holy shit,” Jim whispered.
Trix stepped up beside him, and the two of them looked around the room, unnerved. It was not merely the floor that had been blackened by fire, or at least scorched by a blast of blistering heat. Bookshelves had partially collapsed, leaving piles of books on the floor beneath them that looked like little more than ash sculptures. On the shelves that were intact, some of the books looked as though the fire had been a hungry animal, gnawing away the bindings and leaving scorched pages exposed. Others had their bindings intact, but they were only partially legible.
Jim took several steps toward the nearest shelf and saw that, beneath a sooty film, leather bindings on some of the older volumes had crinkled and tightened, but he could make out words in foreign languages he did not speak and arcane symbols he understood even less.
He turned to see that Trix had gone in the other direction. Some kind of sideboard had once abutted the wall there, only the rear legs still in evidence, fused to the wall. Jutting from the wall itself was a pattern of what he first took to be more strange designs, but then he recognized what appeared to be a copper coil, along with what might have been a sailor’s sextant and several other strange instruments. They were set into the wall as though it had once been wet cement and the objects had been pressed into the surface before it dried. Yet here the wall looked almost as though the wood had melted and run like candle wax.
The chair between them was actually only half of a chair, burnt so badly that the legs were thin and brittle sticks of charcoal. Beyond it, at the center of the room, the floor was streaked with a grayish white starburst pattern. Jim dragged the toe of his shoe through it and found it greasy and chalky at the same time, like creosote built up inside a fireplace.
Yet the most startling thing about the room had nothing to do with its ruinous state. The starburst pattern in its center was really only half of a shape. The destruction of the premises ended halfway across the room, and the other half appeared entirely untouched by whatever had occurred there.
Over Jim’s head hung a light fixture whose metal arms had been wilted by incredible heat. But on the other side of the room was an identical fixture, controlled by the switch Trix had turned on, whose only flaw was a layer of dust. A similar sheen of dust covered the wooden floorboards over there. The bookshelves remained untouched by the event that had ravaged the part of the room where Jim and Trix stood. A small writing desk stood in one corner, a pile of books upon it. One volume lay open on the desk.
Trix came over beside Jim. They stood in silence, shoulders almost touching, the tips of their shoes nearly meeting the line that separated the ruined half of the room from the part that had been preserved. “This just isn’t possible,” Trix said.
Jim glanced at her. For a moment they searched each other’s eyes, wordlessly acknowledging the obvious—that neither of them felt capable of judging what was and wasn’t possible anymore. Trix looked away first, shaking her head, then took the initial step into the unmarred side of the room. Nothing happened. The place seemed solid and ordinary except for the obvious fact of its impossible half ruin. “It’s like someone cut the room in half,” Jim said.
“No,” Trix replied, walking over to the writing desk and examining the book that lay open there. “It’s like half the room was here for … whatever did all this damage—McGee’s fuckup—and the other half of the room was somewhere else.”
She flipped a page in the book, then turned to look at him, a kind of almost panic dancing in her eyes. “Magic.”
Jim flinched at the word. Veronica’s story had sounded like some kind of bizarre fairy tale, but the room around them was tangible, the evidence of the impossible undeniable. Now he took a steadying breath and crossed the room as well, heading for the door set in the opposite wall, beside the writing desk.
The knob turned easily and he pushed it open, hope surging in the moment when the hinges creaked and the light from the ceiling fixture spilled into the next room. But beyond the door he discovered no passage into other worlds. Instead, he took a single step across the threshold into a small, dust-coated bedroom decorated with antique furniture and piled with boxes. Two old television sets sat on the floor, abandoned. Across the small room was yet another door, this one partially open, and a small amount of light seeped in, revealing a set of narrow servants’ stairs that likely went down to the kitchen or pantry on the floor below.
Jim turned back into the half-ravaged room. Veronica had taken them into a damned bookstore in Copley Place and claimed that his wife and daughter had vanished from that very spot, just slipped into a parallel world, as though talk of such things was ordinary conversation and the existence of variable dimensions was something only a fool would deny. But Jim had gone along with her because he had no other alternative—Trix had led him to that circle of cobblestones by the State Street station, they had asked the city for help, and this woman had heard them. Even so, he had felt as though his every step took him deeper into a nightmare.
This room, though … this was real.
“Trix,” he said.
She glanced up from the old leather-bound book, looking pale and queasy. Then she stepped away from the desk as if the book might bite her. She turned to stare across the room at the door through which they had first entered. “This is all real.”
“You’re the one who knew about her,” Jim said. “You didn’t believe her?”
Trix laughed uneasily. “Finding someone you’ve lost track of, or the truth about a girlfriend you think might be getting beaten up by her husband … yeah, I can wrap my brain around that. You can chalk that up to, like, some kind of psychic powers or something. But this—magic spells and splintered cities—seems so crazy.”
Jim shut the door he had opened and walked to the center of the room. He stared down at the place where the undamaged floorboards met scorched and glassy wood, and then at the starburst pattern where it appeared something had burned hottest of all, and possibly exploded.
Something like Thomas McGee.
He looked at the charred remnant of what had apparently been the only chair in the room, and then he turned to Trix, surprised to find a smile beginning to spread across his face. “If this is true—”
“Then the rest of it …,” Trix said, faltering as if she was afraid to finish the thought. She glanced back at the magic book, then started for the scorched door, new purpose in her stride. “Come on. Veronica’s waiting.”
Jim took one last look at that spot in the center of the room, then hurried after her.
Trix found Veronica in the front parlor, where she had just set out a tea tray with service for three and a plate of Pepperidge Farm cookies. The elegant old woman glanced up guiltily, as though she’d been caught at something awkward. “I know they’re nothing special,” Veronica said, “but they’re my favorites. And, honestly, I couldn’t bake anything edible to save my life.”
Trix stopped just inside the room and stared at her, uncomprehending.
“It’s all right,” Jim said, sweeping past her and perching on the edge of a chair by the coffee table. “We’re not exactly invited guests. And we don’t have time for courtesies.”
Only then did Trix realize that the old woman had been talking about the cookies. Veronica’s concern for such a thing seemed surreal in the midst of the nightmare she and Jim were living—an absurd attempt at the ordinary.
“Tell us what we need to do,” Jim said.
As Veronica poured tea, Trix stepped into the room. “Hold on,” she said. “I need to slow down a second.”
Jim shot her a hard look. “You saw that room. I know you were thinking the same thing I was. We don’t have time to slow down.”
Trix sat on the love seat across from him. Veronica poured tea and offered them both cups, and though eager to move on, they both accepted. Veronica took her own teacup and sat on the love seat beside Trix, exhaling as she settled in, staring at her, the plate, and Trix again.
Trix smiled and took a cookie, and Jim plucked one up as well.
“Which one of you will carry my letters?” Veronica asked, sipping her tea as though all of this was perfectly normal.
“I’ll do whatever you need me to do,” Jim said. “Just tell us how we get to where Jenny and Holly are.”
Trix noticed he’d chosen his words carefully. He might have accepted what Veronica had told them as the truth, but he wasn’t ready to say it out loud, and she didn’t blame him. Not caring whether or not she was being rude, she set her cup and saucer down. “We need to know what we’re walking into,” Trix said, looking at Jim before she focused on Veronica. “Please, ma’am.”
“I’ve already explained—” Veronica began.
“I know,” Trix interrupted. “And I know Jim is ready. This is his wife and daughter we’re talking about, and he’ll jump headfirst into hell for them.”
“And you won’t?” Jim said. “You love her, too.”
Trix blinked, surprised at the bold acknowledgment from him. His tone made clear he wasn’t talking about the love of a friend. She nodded but kept her focus on Veronica. “Of course I’ll go,” Trix said. “But I just need to understand.”
“Understand what?” Agitated, Jim sloshed a bit of tea and it pooled in his saucer. As if only now realizing the cup was in his hands, he set it on the table.
“Why here?” Trix said. “Is this the only place this has happened? And have people crossed over before? Uniques, I mean. That’s what you called us, right? Have Uniques crossed over before, and come back?”
As if the kindly-hostess persona had been a mask she could peel away, Veronica’s entire mien changed. She sipped her tea again but sat up straighter, her eyes narrowing and seeming to grow darker. “There have been moments in history when reality has strained and splintered,” she said, taking an almost professorial tone. “Such moments can create schismatic realities. Usually these revolve around a particular locus, the point of origin of the schism. One took place in Boston in 1890.”
Veronica paused, studying them. “You want to understand how this happened? What the other two Bostons might be like, should you enter them?”
Trix nodded. “Exactly.”
“I’ve dreamed of those other places,” Jim said.
“Nightmares,” Trix said.
“Uniques do tend to dream across realities, I suspect because a part of them is missing in those alternate worlds.”
“So tell us,” Jim said.
Veronica was the last to surrender her tea. She set it down on the table. Now all three cups were forgotten. Three cookies remained on the plate. “Quickly, then,” she said, straightening up. “A variety of circumstances, most prominently the nearness of New York, conspired to prevent Boston from becoming a major center of immigration in the late eighteenth and early ninteenth centuries. In the 1840s, two elements conspired to change that. First, it was determined that the best way for mail to reach Canada was through the port of Boston, making transportation to our fair city from Liverpool and Dublin astonishingly cheap. Second, land evictions and the potato famine sent tens of thousands of Irish fleeing their own country. They arrived in Boston with no money, no skills, and nowhere else to go.
“I imagine you’re familiar enough with what the lives of Irish immigrants were like in that era. They filled the city, lived in poverty. But over time that began to change, as the Irish populated the police force and worked their way into Boston politics, and the city became divided between the Yankees—they were called the Brahmins back then—and the Irish working class. And then, in the 1880s and 1890s, the Italians began to arrive.” Veronica waved a hand to indicate not only the house around her but the entire neighborhood.
“The North End had been purely Irish, but in just a handful of years it was transformed. Ten thousand Irish moved out, and fifteen thousand Italians moved in.”
Trix studied her eyes, the lines in her face. “And that’s why Thomas McGee did what he did.”
Veronica nodded. “The Italians were flooding in, and the influence of the Irish began to wane. The Brahmins had never allowed them a seat at the table. But in McGee, the soul of the city had chosen an Irishman as its Oracle. Boston had an Irish spirit in that era, but McGee knew that could change.”
“So he wasn’t supposed to choose the next Oracle?” Jim asked.
“This isn’t science,” Veronica said. “I don’t know the entire history of all of the Oracles of the Great Cities of the World, but certainly an Oracle can train his or her heir, if the Oracle has the best interests of the city at heart. McGee feared that when he died the soul of the city would supersede his choice.”
Trix nodded, gesturing for her to move on. “We know this part. McGee splintered the city, so where there was one, now there were three.”
“Yes,” Veronica said, holding up a hand and counting them on her fingers. “First is this Boston, the one you know. Let’s call it Boston A. As far as I know it is unaffected, the city the way it would have been without McGee’s botched magic. The other two are the splinters, their realities somewhat weaker for that. In Boston B, the Oracles have been Irish ever since McGee, and the city has developed for the past twelve decades or so under heavy Irish influence. In Boston C, the opposite happened, with the Irish all but absent, and the city developing under the guidance of the Brahmins but without the tempering influences of its immigrant working class.”