Read an Excerpt
Seen from the air, the pleasant suburban neighborhood that included Sunnyside Terrace must have looked like a box of jelly beans onto which somebody had dropped a glob of black paint.
Most of the houses were painted colors like Kiwi Green and Sunflower Yellow and Citrus Orange, all so determinedly bright and cheerful that some people passing through the neighborhood on their way to more serious places had to put their sunglasses on to avoid getting headaches.
The one dark spot was the Gloom property, which sat under a perpetual storm cloud that always shielded it from the sunlight and never allowed in so much as a single beam of bright light. Between its massive black house, that house’s massive black windows, the one gnarled black tree, the black lawn covered in rolling gray mist, and the ominous iron fence that separated all that determined colorlessness from the carnival of color that surrounded it, the overwhelming impression everybody got was that the house itself didn’t like cheerfulness much at all.
This was not an impression that would have been broken by the sight of the ten-year-old girl who left through the front door one early morning in late summer, hugging herself with both arms as she made her way to the front gate.
Fernie What had bright red hair, freckles, and adventurous eyes that were bloodshot from a recent bout of crying. Her hair and jeans and T-shirt were covered in dust, of exactly the sort you would expect to settle if a number of ornate staircases had just collapsed in a heap in your immediate vicinity. She looked tired and she looked frightened, but she also looked deeply determined, in a way that suggested big trouble for anybody who got in her way.
As she left the Gloom property through the front gate and walked out from under the unmoving dark cloud that always hung low over it, blocking out the sun, she stood blinking at the bright day just outside the fence. It was so different from the nature of the light in and around the house she’d just left that the light might have come from a different world—which, in a very real sense, it did.
There were storm clouds rolling in on the horizon, which would likely arrive in just a few short minutes, but for now the sun was out, and the comfort she took in its warmth was limited by how easy it was to see that she cast no shadow at all.
Fernie hugged herself even tighter and crossed the street to her own family home, which was painted a color called Fluorescent Salmon that had hurt her brain ever since she had first seen it through the windows of the family car.
She walked in through the front door, closed it behind her, and was immediately greeted by the only family member present, a black-and-white cat named Harrington, who meowed at her in about a dozen different tones, as if looking for the one that would get his message across.
Fernie What picked him up and gave him the tightest hug of his little life. “Yes, baby, I know. You want some noogums.”
Noogums was the official family nickname for cat food. It took exactly the same amount of time to say as cat food and didn’t sound any more like a good name for cat food than cat food does. But Harrington knew exactly what it meant and jumped to the ground, meowing various cat sounds for “Don’t be stupid! Of course that’s what I want!”
Fernie went to the cabinet, where she was faced with a choice between the ordinary noogums that Harrington ate most of the time and the special noogums that he was given whenever the family wanted to include him in a festive occasion. She opened a can of the special noogums and plopped it into a bowl, which Harrington successfully ignored for about five seconds just to make sure he didn’t look grateful.
While he was nose-down in his bowl, Fernie left the room to wash off all the dust and change into clean clothes. She returned looking a lot more like she hadn’t been around any collapsing staircases recently, wearing fresh jeans and a bright blue T-shirt bearing a skull with a pink ribbon. She also carried a spiral notebook and her favorite writing pen, which ended with a small plastic cartoon boa-constrictor head. These she walked over to the dinner table, where she took a seat and began to work.
It took her a long time, many cross-outs, and several interruptions for crying before she found the best possible approach. The problem may have been the pen. Fernie had learned once, when she was in trouble and needed a ride home, that it was very difficult to make a serious call if the phone you borrowed from a friend was pink and covered with glitter. Now she had to write what could very possibly turn out to be her last good-bye to her mother with a pen that ended with a small plastic cartoon boa-constrictor head. As upset as she was, it left her wondering if writers in olden times felt silly writing all those tales of suffering and woe with quill pens.
Fernie’s mother was a professional adventurer who was always off filming TV specials of herself doing things like out-skiing avalanches or hang gliding into volcanoes. She had been off for months now, on an expedition to some unconquered mountain or something, and had therefore missed everything that had happened to Fernie, her older sister, Pearlie, and their dad since the family moved in across the street from the Gloom estate. It wasn’t the kind of thing that could all be easily explained in a single letter, but now Fernie found herself having to, because there was a very real possibility that after she left the house today, she’d never be seen alive again.
So she thought about it, and thought about it some more, and crumpled up so much paper that Harrington started rolling around on his back in the middle of the pile, and eventually had what worked out to be as good a summary of the basic situation as she could possibly manage.
I love you and I hope that you never have to read this.
I hope that I can throw this letter out before you get anywhere near it.
I’m only writing this letter because maybe I won’t.
Maybe you’ll walk in a week or a month from now, whenever you’re finished with your trip, and find the house empty and us gone.
You’ll need this note, then, to know what’s happened to us.
The big black house across the street is one of only a few shadow houses in the entire world. Shadows live there. By that I mean actual shadows. It turns out that the shadows that we walk around with, that do whatever we do, and that we don’t think of as alive are alive and have a whole separate world that they live in, including that house.
We discovered this when we moved in and I met the boy who lives there, whose name is Gustav Gloom. He’s my age and is now my best friend.
A couple of hours ago, Dad and Pearlie were in the house and fell into a bottomless black pit leading to the Dark Country, where all shadows come from. They’ll be stuck there forever, probably as the slaves of a really bad guy called Lord Obsidian, if me and Gustav don’t go down there to rescue them.
I don’t know how to explain Lord Obsidian except that he used to be a man called Howard Philip October who’s done a lot of bad things in his life, including imprisoning Gustav’s dad and killing the woman who would have been Gustav’s mom.
There’s a reason why I call Gustav’s mom “the woman who would have been Gustav’s mom” instead of just saying “Gustav’s mom,” but it’s long and weird and I don’t have the time to go into it right now.
I’m taking Harrington with me because we might be gone a long time, and I don’t want him to get hungry while we’re gone. I’d give him to a neighbor to take care of in the meantime, but I don’t have the time to go knocking on doors, or to come up with an excuse somebody will believe. Taking Harrington to the Gloom house will be dangerous for him, but better than leaving him here with all the noogums stuck in cans he can’t open.
I just read this over and realized that it’s not a very good letter. I’m sorry.
I wish I was having your kind of great adventure instead of this kind, which has so many terrible monsters in it. If we make it, it’s because you showed us it’s possible to have scary adventures and still come back alive, and because Dad showed us how to always be careful. I love you.
Fernie folded the stack of paper, put it in an envelope, addressed it to MOM, and placed it at the center of the family table.
She looked at Harrington, who had scarfed down his meal and now ceased his careful cleaning of his paw, with big wide cat eyes that seemed to say, “What?”
Talking to herself as much as to the cat, Fernie told him, “It’s okay. Everything’s going to be all right.”
He blinked at her, utterly unimpressed.
She went into her room and came back with the cat carrier.
Harrington knew the cat carrier well, and feared it, because it was the magic little room that, once entered, could not be left until it was carried someplace unpleasant, like the vet’s office or a brand-new house with no reassuring smells. The cat carrier was, as far as he had always been concerned, evil, and the most annoying thing about human beings was that they seemed too stupid to realize the terrible things it was plotting.
Normally, a chase would have ensued, but then something happened that only could have happened after all the adventures of the previous month: Harrington’s shadow detached from the place where it connected to his paws, meowed something in Cat, and entered the carrier by itself. Harrington cocked his head, uttered a single dubious meow in response, and followed his shadow in. Maybe the shadow was smarter than Harrington was, or maybe it just understood the issues better than he did and was able to explain them in a language Harrington himself understood.
Fernie closed the carrier door and took what might be the very last look she would ever have of the family home. There weren’t many memories there. The Whats had only moved in a few weeks earlier and had not yet completely furnished it. Mrs. What, who had needed to leave for her latest expedition before the family pulled up roots, had never been there at all. Any connection Fernie might have felt to the place was also limited by the awareness that, for several days now, her father had been trying to sell it to get his daughters away from all the dangers to be found in the house across the street. But it was still her family’s home, and it seemed terribly empty without her family in it. She closed her eyes, made the biggest wish she’d ever dared to make, and left the house, cat carrier in hand, for what might turn out to be forever.
Outside, the sun had gone behind one of the advancing clouds, shrouding all of Sunnyside Terrace beneath a shadow almost as dark as the one that always hung low over the Gloom estate. This should have been a relief, because it was now harder to see that her shadow was missing, but it felt like the house ahead was reaching out to her. She gulped and walked down the driveway, stopping at the curb to look left, right, and—because her father would have wanted her to be careful of any low-flying airplanes coming in for an emergency landing—up before starting to cross the street.
She was still steeling herself for the battles to come when somebody stepped out from behind a parked car and seized her by the wrist.
The owner of the fleshy wrist that had just seized Fernie’s looked like a human teardrop: wide and rounded at the bottom, narrower at the shoulders, and tapering to a point on top. Her hair was as red as an apple and came to an off-center point. Today she’d added a little hat that might have gone unnoticed if not for a little yellow toy hummingbird on a spring that bobbed about the flip of her hairdo as if hoping for a good moment to land. She was walking her little dog, Snooks 5, whose tongue dangled out the side of his mouth.
It was Mrs. Adele Everwiner, and she demanded, “Just where do you think you’re going with that cat?”
Fernie groaned inside. She hadn’t lived on Sunnyside Terrace long enough to meet all the neighbors, but she had already had enough encounters with Mrs. Everwiner to know that the woman would never be a favorite.
It wasn’t just that the woman’s favorite topic of conversation was her great success at terrorizing every cashier, waitress, auto mechanic, hotel maid, and paperboy unfortunate enough to disappoint her in any way, leading to long and involved and boring stories about how she pursued any cause for complaint, however small, to the ends of the earth until anybody guilty of inconveniencing her in any manner was left weeping and defeated.
Nor was it just that she considered the Gloom house an eyesore and had fought a long and hard campaign to get it torn down, deliberately ignoring that there was somebody living there.
The major thing that put Mrs. Adele Everwiner on Fernie’s list of least favorite people was her habit of showing up at the worst possible moments for her interruptions. It never failed. It was as if she had hidden cameras all over the neighborhood and waited for everybody to be wrapped up in personal emergencies or urgent business or jobs that absolutely needed to be done right away before popping out from behind a car, as she had just now, to bother them about something they had no time for.
Mrs. Everwiner tugged on her arm. “I’m waiting for an answer, young lady.”
Fernie glanced at the cat carrier, as if to remind herself that it was in her hand. “I’m just going across the street to visit my friend Gustav.”
“People don’t take their cats visiting. Cats hate visiting.”
“This cat visits people all the time,” Fernie said.
This was an outright lie, since Harrington didn’t like many people other than Gustav and the Whats and, given a choice, would have preferred to stay home where all the familiar smells were.
Mrs. Everwiner emitted a noisy sniff. “I don’t know. I think you’re up to some mischief with that cat. You should be nice to your pet.”
Fernie couldn’t disagree with that. “I’m always nice to my cat.”
“I’m also still waiting for an answer from your father about who’s going to pay for all the damage done to my lawn.”
Mrs. Everwiner’s much-prized lawn had looked exactly like every other lawn in the neighborhood until yesterday, when it acquired a pair of tire ruts. Nobody in the What family had ever told the people responsible for the ruts to drive on Mrs. Everwiner’s lawn, but Mrs. Everwiner had made it clear that she still blamed the Whats on principle.
Fernie didn’t have the time to talk about it. She tried to pull free. “You’ll have to talk to my dad about that when he gets home.”
“I know he’s not home,” Mrs. Everwiner declared. “I was watching last night when your family went into that awful Gloom place. I didn’t see any of you leave until you walked out half an hour ago, and now you’re going back with your cat. Does he really think he can evade his responsibilities in there?”
Of all the strange things that Fernie had encountered since settling in at Sunnyside Terrace—a long list of wonders and miracles that included talking shadows, a helpful tyrannosaur, a Too Much Sitting Room, and a Gallery of Awkward Statues—none were quite as astounding as a neighbor who had nothing better to do with her life than to spend an entire night secretly watching the Gloom house to keep track of who entered or left. “I don’t think it even crossed his mind,” she said honestly.
“Of course not,” Mrs. Everwiner snapped. “I thought we were going to get a respectable family in the neighborhood for once, but he showed his true colors when he opposed my neighborhood beautification campaign, and now further reveals himself by hiding from me in that terrible place. I won’t have it, do you hear me? I won’t!”
Snooks 5’s dangling tongue slipped back inside the right side of his mouth and, unable to remain inside, dropped out his other cheek.
Fernie decided that she’d had more than enough of this. “Let me go. Now.”
It’s not something the Fernie of three weeks earlier might have said so quietly or so dangerously; but that had been before she’d faced down several fiends and monsters who were scarier before breakfast than Mrs. Everwiner could have been in a whole day.
Mrs. Everwiner released Fernie, her bright green eyes widening out of confusion over what had just happened.
Fernie said, “I’m taking my cat to the Gloom house. I promise you that when I see my dad, I’ll tell him everything you said, but I’ll also tell him that you grabbed my arm without permission. I don’t think he’ll be happy about that.”
Mrs. Everwiner seemed to realize that she’d just shown an unacceptable moment of weakness. “I’m not going to let you distort what happened just to cause trouble. I’m going with you to talk to him myself.”
Fernie shrugged. “Okay.”
She turned her back on Mrs. Everwiner, crossed the street, and walked through the open gate to the Gloom estate. The ankle-deep rolling mist that covered every inch of the black lawn swallowed her feet again, feeling less like the creepy presence it had been on her first visit to the property and more like an old familiar friend. She knew that there was nothing out here that could hurt her.
Behind her, Mrs. Everwiner muttered little ooks and acks and icks to express her own deep displeasure at having to venture anywhere that wasn’t painted like a color from a highlighter. It was probably the first time she’d ever passed the front gate of the estate she wanted removed from the neighborhood, and she didn’t seem to like it any more close-up than she had from the window of her own Sparkly Watermelon home. When Fernie looked back over her shoulder to confirm that she was following, she saw Mrs. Everwiner walking as if every inch of ground below the mist were covered with spiders and she had to step carefully to find the few clear spots that wouldn’t mess her shoes by squishing them. She didn’t seem to be worried so much about Snooks 5, who was closer to the ground than she was and whose tail and head suggested a submarine patrolling the ocean at periscope depth. Nor did she seem to notice how Snooks 5’s shadow, whose antics were the bane of the little dog’s life, ran around the little dog in excited circles.
Fernie stopped at the two giant front doors and waited for Mrs. Everwiner and Snooks 5 to catch up. “Still want to go inside?” she inquired.
“More than ever,” Mrs. Everwiner declared. “As long as I’m here, I’m going to see the inside of this horrid place for myself, so I can make a full report to the proper authorities.”
The effort Mr. and Mrs. What had made over the years to teach their daughters the importance of being polite at all times was best proven, at that moment, by Fernie’s failure to respond with a shrugged “Whatever.” She just nodded and knocked on the door. “Hives! I’m ordering you to open up!”
Less than a second later, the Gloom house’s terrible butler opened the door and peered down at Fernie from a height. “Oh. It’s you again.”
Hives, who was hulking and aristocratic and had a nose made for pointing at people like a gun sight and (as was only appropriate for his name) a complexion made up of little spots, made the word you sound the same way a child hoping for chocolate cake would say the word spinach. This was only appropriate, given his job description, as he was not actually a butler, but a terrible butler, whose job it was to always be as supremely unhelpful as possible.
Fernie said, “Hello, Hives. This is our neighbor, Mrs. Everwiner.”
Hives looked the new arrival up and down, allowing his lip to curl in distaste. “Of course she is. And what delightful errand brings you to our front door, madam?”
He made delightful sound like a new word for recently been sprayed by a skunk.
Mrs. Everwiner didn’t seem to notice that Hives was, like all the shadows of the Gloom house, ever-so-slightly transparent. She just sputtered with enough indignation to frighten every rude cashier and inefficient waitress in the entire world. “Well! I can’t say I like that tone of voice much!”
“Good,” Hives said. “Then I did it correctly.”
Then Mrs. Everwiner did something that Fernie had done many times in the Gloom house: opened her mouth in protest, then closed it for lack of any sensible thing to say.
“She wants to talk to my father,” Fernie explained.
Hives, who had been present when Fernie’s father and sister had tumbled into the pit leading to the Dark Country, didn’t bother to explain that they were lost in another world and might never be returned to their lives again. He just intoned, “I’m afraid that Mr. What is not available at the moment.”
“That’s not good enough! I want to talk to him now!”
Hives gave the kind of look he might have reserved for a disgusting stain on a favorite tablecloth. “We all want any number of things, madam, but our chances of being given them are not increased by how loudly we ask.”
Fernie couldn’t help being impressed by that. “Wow!”
Of course, Hives’s reply flew in the face of Mrs. Everwiner’s entire approach to life. Wanting satisfaction loudly was key to her strategy to dealing with other people and had always worked. She threw her chin back so she could look down her nose at the terrible butler, the same way he was looking down his nose at her. “I am not stepping one foot from this spot until you find that awful man and bring him to me!”
“Very well,” said Hives, which—as Fernie knew from her own experiences with the terrible butler—was not actually the same thing as saying that he had any problem with Mrs. Everwiner’s continuing to stay in that spot for as long as she could stand to, even if she was rained on. He turned to Fernie and added, “And is there anything you require, young miss?”
Fernie had learned that the only way to get Hives to do anything while he was being a terrible butler was to give him a direct command. “I order you to take me to Gustav.”
“Very well,” Hives said, stepping aside so Fernie could enter. He offered a last nod for Mrs. Everwiner’s benefit as he closed the door. “Have a nice wait, madam.”
Hives preceded Fernie down the impossibly long entrance hall with its long line of dangling chandeliers and its endless gallery of stern-faced and important portraits. “What an intolerable woman.”
Fernie didn’t contradict him. “She won’t wait out there forever. She’ll knock again in a few minutes.”