As you might remember, I’m telling you the story of NEXT BOOK so I can identify all of the problems with it and figure out if the project is worth reworking/rewriting.
Sooooo after Ellen refuses the call to adventure, she and Grace are off to their next stop: the assisted living home, to visit Grandma Trudy. Grace is uncomfortable with the whole old-people-situation but she cheerfully announces her pregnancy; Ellen mentions that she met a guy at the Banner House who said there was a room that nobody had ever seen and Grandma Trudy re-tells the story about how her mother always said she came out of a fairy door.
There’s a bit of a problem with the Grandma Trudy character, who was a computer back when women were called computers and might have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum if she had been born in the 2000s instead of the 1930s. I made that choice to hint at the theory that the changeling myth developed as a way to explain autism, and… um… since Trudy is in fact going to turn out to be NOT COMPLETELY OF THIS WORLD, you can already see the “bit of a problem” with this.
(Remember how you’re just supposed to write what you think are good ideas at the time and figure them out later? THIS IS THAT. I tried to reference the way we tell stories about fairies and ended up implying that autism comes from a supernatural/otherworldly source. WHICH IS ALMOST AS BAD AS SAYING IT COMES FROM VACCINES.)
Anyway, before Grace and her husband get on the next flight out of town, Grace tells Ellen to go find that museum guy and date him already, and then Ellen’s friends on Slack (who act like a Greek chorus because WHY NOT) say “at least figure out if he’s a creepy weirdo,” and surprise surprise Ellen can find no record of Robin on the internet anywhere.
And then she calls the Banner House and they have no idea who he is either.
So she goes back. Pays for another tour, sneaks up the Dream Staircase, we’re all set to see Robin again but WHOOPS HE’S NOT THERE, so Ellen is about to leave when Robin suddenly appears in the foyer and suggests that they hide in a closet so they can have an emotional connection that is aided by darkness and get excited about accidentally touching knees and wait for the docent to start giving the official tour before they sneak off to Robin’s secret room.
The secret room is your standard stone goblet, iron sconce, bearskin rug deal, and Robin is trying very hard to be suave and mysterious except he keeps screwing it up because he’s a huge dork and this is my favorite thing about him. He invites Ellen to eat some of the nuts and chocolates that are tastefully arranged on the table, but Ellen has food sensitivities and declines. (BTW I didn’t mention this yesterday, but he offered Ellen a squashed mangled chocolate from his pocket when they first met. It was adorable.)
After a couple paragraphs of Robin failing to charm Ellen in any of the traditional ways (except for the part where she’s totally falling for him because of who he is naturally), he’s finally “hey would you believe me if I told you that there was another world on the other side of that door?”
And Ellen is all “you mean that secret door installed perfectly into the wood paneling that we just walked through because you knew the exact right place to tap to get it to open?”
And then Robin is like “yeah, that door, also would you believe me if I told you the world on the other side needs you?”
At this point Ellen starts laughing, because she’s like THIS IS SUCH A CLICHE, “IN A WORLD WHERE ALL BLORGS ARE ZORGS, ONLY SOMEONE WITH THE POWER OF FLORG CAN SAVE THE DAY,” and then Robin is all WHAT’S A BLORG, and this is ACTUAL DIALOGUE FROM THE DRAFT, and then Ellen figures out Robin is serious. His world is dying, and he needs her.
So she tells him she can’t go with him because her world is also dying and too many people in her world need her, and then she leaves.
And then she goes to the library.
Ellen knew her Dewey Decimals better than most, but she didn’t know whether to look under the 200s, for Religion, or the 800s, for Literature. The question of concern, both to herself and Melvil Dewey, was whether fairies were considered real. Or, at least, as real as Jesus. She did not want to ask the librarians if they had a book on whether fairies really existed, because she already knew what she’d find: folklore encyclopedias detailing what fairies were called in different cultures, academic texts analyzing how fairies were presented in Shakespeare and Grimm; first-person testimonials with titles like I Believe in Fairies and narratives as glossy as their covers.
Plus those girls who hoaxed everybody. With the photographs.
She made it through three shelves of books, scanning titles on faith healing and how to live like the Buddha and ten tips for Christian women who wanted to find true love, before she gave up. There was a console, at the end of the aisle, where Ellen could have entered any subject or keyword she wanted; an app on her phone where she could have done the same thing. She did not. This felt like something where she shouldn’t leave a record. Like something she should forget about, because she’d already told Robin no.
Because it wasn’t real, anyway.
It couldn’t be. She had been telling herself it wasn’t real ever since she left the Banner House, but she wasn’t listening to herself very well. Her brain said go back go back go back and she almost did, and then her father called to ask where she’d put the soft iced grocery cookies that Carolyn liked as a snack, or if they’d run out, but he thought he remembered seeing them yesterday, and then it turned out Carolyn had put them in the freezer. When that was over, go back go back go back had changed to you can’t you can’t you can’t, and then Ellen went to the library instead, because books about things were almost as good as experiencing them.
Then we have a bunch of interesting plot stuff that I don’t really have a problem with, so I’m just going to speed through it:
- Ellen remembers that fairies aren’t supposed to be able to touch iron, yet the secret room was full of iron.
- Ellen goes to visit Grandma Trudy, asks her to tell her everything she remembers about the fairy door story, and Trudy reveals that she really believes that the whole thing was a cover for an affair her mother had with a man named George Hayward, who later married Millicent Banner Hayward before helping her renovate the Banner House.
- Ellen almost visits Millicent, who also lives in Assisted Living, but chickens out and does a bunch of internet research instead. She finds an old newspaper article about a masquerade ball at the Banner House. There’s one photo of George and Millicent (in masks) opening a secret door on the first floor (not the one Robin opened on the third floor). There’s another photo of all of the party attendees, unmasked; George is standing next to Ellen’s great-grandmother and his face looks exactly like hers (Ellen’s, not her great-grandmother’s, you know what I’m hinting at).
- Ellen goes biking by the river where they found her mother’s car (which isn’t a big deal, people die, that shouldn’t prevent her from riding on the trail by the river, it’s the only damn trail after all) and then Robin shows up on a rented bike and says “I need to talk to you” and Ellen’s all “I know about George Hayward,” and Robin’s like “no, you don’t.”
- Robin is a terrible cyclist and Ellen offers him a drink from her water bottle and he drinks and then pukes into a bush.
Okay. Back to more problematic stuff. So they’re on the bike trail, and Robin explains that George Hayward is from his world and the reason his world needs Ellen is because she is a Hayward descendant, and he’s all “please let’s just sit down and talk,” and Ellen says “I have to go take care of my stepmother but we can meet in a few days,” and then another check-in with the Slack Chorus and then THIS:
Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which meant her father had a holiday from work and Ellen had a holiday from caregiving. The temperature had dropped overnight, flurries not quite sticking to the ground, Ellen’s weather app warning of an upcoming polar vortex. Ellen tapped another app on her phone, just to check: the Banner House was closed.
No matter. There were a few more questions she needed to ask Robin, and a conversation she needed to have with her father, and she probably should go see Grace in Winter’s Tale, she’d already bought the ticket because Grace never bothered to save her a comp—“don’t you have, like, infinite money?”—and then… well, there were a few more questions she needed to ask Robin, and a conversation she needed to have with her father, and Ellen listed the tasks she needed to complete as she grabbed her thick orange bike gloves that were designed to protect her hands in even sub-zero temperatures, smashed her thick, graying hair under her helmet, wheeled her bike out of her apartment, and rode east.
The roads weren’t too slippery, though it would probably be worth it to take her bike to the bike guys this week and get swapped for fat tires. Unless she decided to go to Robin’s fairy kingdom instead. It would save her $65, and that was something. Unless it wasn’t. That was the first question she was going to ask, after she locked her bike to the Banner House Visitors’ Center sign and waited for Robin to find her.
It took a good fifteen minutes of pacing the Banner House wraparound porch—she’d pulled one hand out of the warmth of its glove long enough to start and finish a NPR podcast that could have been over in five minutes, nothing new, the government was still shut down, the entire country still waiting— before Robin opened the front door.
Ellen smiled without thinking. Would have blushed, if there had been any skin left on her face that hadn’t already turned pink, from the cold. She slipped inside, her body brushing past Robin’s as he pulled the door closed, quickly, furtively, delightfully. He smiled back at her, all teeth, his eyes bright. He thought he knew what she was going to say.
“Let’s go,” he said, and together they ran up the stairs, side by side, Ellen thinking so this is what magic feels like. It was like the dream she’d had about Robin, and all the dreams she’d had about this staircase, and the one time in college she got invited on a date by this graduate student, the excitement of getting in his car and then driving to a family-style diner in the suburbs and then him telling her that he’d have to keep her a secret, that she’d never be able to tell anyone that they’d spent the past twenty minutes making out in the backseat. That was when it stopped feeling like magic.
In this case it stopped feeling like magic after Robin had touched the whorled panel and opened the secret door and led Ellen inside. It stopped feeling like magic when Ellen said “Wait.”
“Yes?” Robin said, still standing, almost quivering with excitement.
“I have a few questions for you.”
“Questions,” Robin said. “All right.”
Ellen did not sit down either. She found it easier to talk to people when she wasn’t looking at them, so she began walking, around and around the table.
“How is your world dying?” she asked. “Is it dying like ours? You must know what’s going on here. We don’t have seasons anymore. Well, two: cold and hot. Last year we had snow until April and then it was 90 degrees the next day. And of course floods, because all the snow melted and we had four weeks of rain. But we’re doing better than most because we’re not on a coastline. They’re getting hurricanes like we’ve never seen before.”
She paused. “They say it won’t even take twenty years to know how bad it’s going to be. How many people will die. How many wars this will start.” She looked at Robin. “So what’s the deal with your world?”
Robin looked away. “Our world is dying because there aren’t enough of us to keep it going.”
“Can’t you just ring some bells or something? Get some babies to laugh?” Ellen began pacing again. “So I’m guessing that when you all disappear, your world disappears. A lost civilization. Which, since most of us didn’t know you existed in the first place, or literally assumed you were the stuff of fairy tales, wouldn’t be a loss on our end. But it would be on yours.” She glanced at Robin, over her shoulder. “And you’d want me to contribute to the next generation?”
“Not beyond what you’re already contributing,” Robin said. “Not unless you wanted to.”
“You do realize how old I am, right?” Ellen asked. “I am, at best, a one-punch ticket. Plus I’m twitchy and weird. But I’m also a Hayward descendant, and your blood runs in my veins— you know there are Tumblr posts about this, by the way, but you don’t know what Tumblr is—so you want me because I’m, like, extra-super-genetically compatible. Which is why you aren’t opening your doors to my world’s refugees. I’m assuming.”
She stopped and stared Robin down. “Right?”
Robin seemed a little overwhelmed. Nervous. Intimidated. “That’s roughly correct.”
“Next question,” Ellen said. “How does money work, where you are? Would I be able to bring my money— I mean, that doesn’t even make sense, but I have lived a very frugal and specific kind of life for the past twenty years so I would never have to take a job just for the money. So I’d be able to help my family. I have enough money to last me for the rest of my life, assuming the markets continue their historic rate of growth, and… okay, I know I’m going on and on, that’s what I do, welcome to it, but I want to know if I’m going to have to, like, start over.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If I wanted food,” Ellen said, “how would I get it? Would I have to spend ten hours working, doing what someone else told me to do, following orders, before I’d be allowed to eat? Do some of the people in your world go hungry or sleep outdoors because they haven’t spent enough time earning money or tokens or gold pieces or however it works where you are?”
“We have enough food for everybody,” Robin said, “and enough places to sleep. We work together to make sure everyone has what they need.”
“Ah, you’re a utopia then.” Ellen paused. “An utopia?” She kept walking. “I’ve read about those. There’s always something terrible, some secret, that they don’t tell you.” Then she stopped. “I’m sorry. I’m being rude. I want to go. I just want to make sure I’m not making the wrong choice.”
“I want you to come with me,” Robin said, and Ellen thought that it was very strange that she wanted to go with Robin more than anything, considering how little she’d known him. How little she still knew about him. But she could come back. He’d said she could always come back.
Robin had taken a step forward and Ellen had stopped walking and now they stood, nearly eye-to-eye, Ellen a few inches taller. She reached up and pulled at the hair tie holding her bun in place. She felt her hair land against her shoulders. She wanted Robin to see it. She wanted Robin to see all of her. To know what he was getting. To want it.
“This is my last question,” she said. “Do you have oatmeal?”
“Yes!” Robin said, delighted to have been able to provide the right answer.
“Then I will ask a favor of you,” Ellen said. “Bring me oatmeal, because I have food sensitivities, I can’t eat rich foods, or, like, wheat or dairy or nuts—really, I’m a huge liability, I don’t know why you want me— and promise I can come back to my world if I choose, and I’ll go with you.”
“I will,” Robin said. “Just wait.”
“Not right now,” Ellen said. “I have this play on Saturday. In Chicago.”
“All right.” Robin smiled. “I’ll find you.”
“I’m sure you will,” Ellen said, and she almost reached for Robin’s hand, but instead she blushed under the candlelight and turned and fled. She felt like Cinderella, running down the stairs, although that was the wrong story.
OH GOD HELP ME
IT’S A CREEPY REPRODUCTIVE THING
I WANTED IT TO BE A CLIMATE CHANGE THING AND IT TURNED OUT TO BE A CREEPY REPRODUCTIVE THING TOO
THERE’S A PAYOFF FOR THIS, SEVERAL PAYOFFS IN FACT, THERE’S A LOT ABOUT FAMILY AND ANCESTRY AND HOW PEOPLE LIKE ELLEN HAVE TO DEAL WITH THE REPRODUCTIVE QUESTION AT SOME POINT
THERE’S ALSO A HUGE PAYOFF TO THE “WHY ARE YOU PICKING ME, A MIDDLE CLASS WHITE WOMAN, WHEN THERE ARE PLENTY OF PEOPLE WHO NEED A SAFE PLACE TO LIVE AND RAISE THEIR FAMILIES” QUESTION
(AND THE PAYOFF IS NOT “ELLEN ACCEPTS THIS AND DOES NOT PUSH BACK AGAINST IT IN ANY WAY”)
WENT WITH “CREEPY REPRODUCTIVE THING”
ANYWAY THAT’S ENOUGH FOR TODAY, MORE TO COME TOMORROW ❤️