Excerpted from The Door in the Forest by Roderick Townley Copyright © 2011 by Roderick Townley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Some people claimed it was enchanted; others swore it was cursed; but, really, it hardly mattered what you thought because you couldn’t get to it. The place pushed back against all your attempts, setting out twisted thickets of hedge-apple trees bristling with curved, medieval-looking thorns. After that came ankle-catching thistles, firethorn, baneberry, and poison oak. If at last you reached the creek, you’d peer across at an impervious curtain of leaves that never crisped or fell with the change of seasons, and vines that stitched the island shut like a coat.
From most sides, it wasn’t even visible, a patch of wildness encircled by water and wedged in a tangle of undergrowth.
There was one place you could almost see the island as an island, and that was where Daniel was today, at his favorite watching place on the footbridge over a contributing brook, a half mile from his house. On breezy afternoons, the foliage might swing briefly aside to let him see the green darken almost to night before his sunstruck eyes.
He pushed away a flop of dirty-blond hair and looked down at the line of ripples where the clear water of the tributary met the sullen brown of the stream around the island. Three streams, really, cloudy and bedded in quicksand. That was another barrier, the quicksand. Just ask Widow Beinemann, whose dog jumped in after a stick two summers ago and was sucked down before he could whimper.
Daniel was fascinated by the stories, by the impenetrable green wall before him, and more than anything by the poisonous, white-headed water snakes that wound their lazy S’s through the current. The legend was that the snakes had human faces, though he hadn’t gotten close enough to be sure.
The boy leaned against the railing and felt the wind finger his hair. He had not given up hope of finding a way across. There wasn’t much adventure to be had in the farming town of Everwood; but here was an adventure that had been staring him in the face all his life, and all he could do was stare back.
Imagine exploring this forbidden place where no one had ever been--never, since the moist beginnings of life on earth. It was in this one way like the moon, a land where no one had ever died and no one had ever been born. A place where no one had ever told a lie.
That was important to Daniel, because he too had never lied. It wasn’t that he was especially virtuous. He just couldn’t. He got blinding headaches when he tried. If he tried really hard, he’d get a stomach ache as well. Once, he’d almost thrown up. The doctor didn’t believe him. And anyway, wasn’t telling the truth a virtue?
It wasn’t such a virtue in school, where the other kids called him “the snitch.” That’s when they weren’t making fun of his tall, skinny frame and unruly hair. Girls were especially hard on him. They were full of secrets they didn’t want told. They considered Daniel dangerous, and not in a good way. There was a reason he spent most of his time by himself.
Suddenly he realized there was someone--no, not a person, a heron, tall as a man--standing across the creek, and his heart thumped guiltily, as if he’d been caught by a teacher. Had it been there the whole time, or magically materialized? A great blue heron it was, imperious with its dark cap and accusing eyes. A brush of white feathers flowed back over its cheek like a trail of smoke. Daniel had seen the bird before, always on the other side, immobile on its stick legs, and it gave him a strange feeling, as if there were a special message meant for him alone, if only he could figure it out.
“Fly me across!” he called.
The bird’s pipe-cleaner neck lowered into a tight S and its yellow eyes glared.
“Yes, you!” Daniel yelled. “You can do it.”
“Who ya yelling at?” came a voice behind him.
Daniel whirled around, blushing. It was only Wes, his kid brother.
“Take a look.”
Wesley rested his chin on the railing. “Oooh.”
Being ten, he immediately bent down, picked up a stone, and threw it.
“Stop it!” Daniel snapped.
“I want to see him fly.”
“Leave him alone!”
Wesley’s mouth tightened. “You’re always bossing me around.”
“Sometimes you need bossing.”
“I’m as smart as you.”
Daniel eased into a smile. “No, Wes, you’re smarter. But sometimes you do dumb things.”
Wesley frowned at his shoes. With his sharp, serious features, ironed shirt, and khaki shorts, he looked like a tiny accountant. Actually, he was dressed for summer school. Completely voluntary on his part--he just wanted to learn more about geography, his favorite subject. Daniel had sometimes caught him studying maps long after bedtime. Ten years from now, he could be wearing a suit and living in the city. He might even sail off to those foreign countries he was always reading about. Daniel would still be here kicking around in blue jeans.
Probably he’d still be looking for a way onto the island.
“Come on,” said Daniel. “Let’s go see Dad. We can grab something to eat.”
Wesley glanced at the heron. He had another stone, aching to be thrown, which he turned around in his fingers. He let it drop.
They reached the road, a strip of hard-packed dirt between fields. A tractor puttered by, old Wayne Eccles looking down from his rickety throne. “Hey, boys,” he called. The brothers gave a wave and watched as the contraption continued down the road. They always watched when something with a motor came by, it was so rare. Good old Eccles.
Wes kicked pebbles ahead of him as he walked, but had to abandon that to keep up with his brother’s strides. Sometimes it seemed he was always hurrying to catch up and never could. Couldn’t throw a ball as hard, couldn’t run as fast. It was the curse of being four years younger.
Suddenly Daniel stopped, squinting ahead at distant forms wavering in the afternoon heat. Strangers, he realized. As they came closer, he amended that: strangers from the city. Finally, seeing them clearly: a family.
Daniel raised a hand, but the little group passed without a word or sign, the father pulling a cart creaking with sad-looking possessions, the woman, blank-eyed, holding an infant against her shoulder, while a boy of six or seven walked beside them. He stared at Daniel and Wes as if they’d done something bad to him personally.
The boys stared back. People you saw on the road always gave you a hello at least. But the moment passed, and the family went on, the creaking of the cart diminishing.
“Who were they?” said Wesley.
“Refugees from the city. I saw some yesterday, too.”
“You mean”--the boy hesitated--“it’s starting?”
“Looks that way.”
Daniel picked up the pace and his brother hustled to keep up. “I thought it was over,” Wes said.
“The Uncertainties? They’re never over for long.”
The boys continued on. Soon they came to houses that had yards instead of fields. There was the post office ahead, a building so tiny and tight you’d think it’d been built by the third little pig. After that came the hardware store, the columned municipal building, the old schoolhouse, and then Crowley’s, the town’s one grocery, owned by the boys’ father.
Daniel stumped up the steps while his brother took the ramp at a run. Inside it wasn’t much cooler than out, although a wobbly ceiling fan groaned overhead, circulating the smells of coffee beans and cheddar. Crowley’s was a friendly place and the boys liked coming, even if it meant helping out. They especially liked the fact that the store had electricity. Most of the buildings in town were electrified and had been for years; but the lines hadn’t yet been run out to the farms. It felt good standing in front of the refrigeration case, as Daniel did now, cooling himself. No need for ice blocks here.
Wesley was writing his initials in the sawdust with the toe of his sneaker. “Who’s Dad talking to?”
John Crowley was behind the counter, shaking his head and smiling at an elderly man and his tiny wife, her iron curls held in a kerchief. She was counting out coins.
“No, no, you keep your money,” Crowley said, bending over them. Angular and perpetually tipped forward, he bent over all his customers.
“We pay what we owe,” she replied, giving him a hard look.
Two potatoes and a box of crackers lay on the counter. The woman’s husband raised a trembly hand. His flyaway hair wavered under the ceiling fan.
Crowley understood about pride. “At least take a bottle of water,” he said.
They started to object, but he was ahead of them. “It’s an advertising special. Today only. Every customer gets a bottle of water.”
It’s hard to argue with an advertising special. The couple mumbled something, slid the water and groceries into a bag, and wobbled away. Crowley watched through the window. As they reached the street, the sun obliterated them like an overexposed photograph.
“You know them, Dad?” said Daniel.
His father shook his head. “From the city.”
Wesley looked up from the display rack of candy bars. “Can I have one?”
“We’re not in danger,” said Daniel, “are we?”
“I don’t think so. There’s nothing in this town anybody wants. It’s the advantage of not having anything.”
“Then I hope we never get anything.”
“Also . . .” Crowley waggled his hand.
“I know,” said Daniel. “We’re protected.”
“That’s what they say.”
A breeze on the back of his neck made Daniel turn as Melinda Olsen and her mother came into the store. His stomach dropped, as it usually did when Mel appeared. She caught sight of him, and he thought he saw her eyes flicker. She adjusted her tapestry-covered shoulder bag. “Hi, Danny.” Bright and casual, with not a trace of warmth.
“Hi, Mel. Hi, Mrs. Olsen.”
“Hello, Daniel,” said the mother. She nodded to his dad. “Mr. Crowley.”
They went past the vegetable bins, Melinda’s white sundress swerving behind her.
Crowley smiled at his son. “Did I lose you, Danny?”
“No, it’s just . . .”
“Just a very pretty girl. Yes, I can see.”
Wesley gave a disgusted look. “Just a mean girl.”
Daniel shushed him. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Really, he didn’t blame Melinda for not liking him. It wasn’t just that he was too skinny and too tall, although he was sure that figured in. It was that, when quizzed directly by the biology teacher, he had admitted to letting Mel copy his answers on an in-class quiz. How he wished he could have lied at that moment! There is no greater crime than telling on another kid.
“What were we talking about?” said Crowley.
Daniel remembered. “Do you think it’s true that we’re protected?”
“Who knows? People around here are superstitious. They don’t think they are, but they are. You ask a farmer why he plants an old sock in the corner of his field, he’ll look at you like you’re crazy. He’ll say, ‘I’d be a damn fool if I didn’t!’ ”
“I heard that.”
“Like it’s just common sense.”
Daniel shook his head.
“Still,” said Crowley, leaning back against the register. “All my life there’ve been the Uncertainties. They’ve never touched us in Everwood.” Rubbing his chin, “Of course, there’s always a first time.” He watched Wesley pocket a second candy bar. “Say, you boys planning to help me or not?”
The next morning, after his chores, Daniel hurried out of the house, jumping down the two stone slabs to the yard. The day was already hot, but it was better than being inside. Reaching the road, he ran into his next-door neighbor, a big tattooed man named Fish, who despite his name raised chickens. “You notice we been getting a lot of strangers lately?” Fish said. He folded his bare arms, covering the coiled snake on his biceps.
“Yesterday,” the boy answered quickly, anxious to get on, “we passed some on the road.”
“Well,” said Fish, nodding, “looks like we got some more.”
Far up the road, a dark spot rippled in the heat waves. As they watched, the spot grew larger and separated into two spots, one taller than the other.
“Do you know them?” said Daniel.
“Hard to say.”
The larger spot elongated into a man. As he came closer, they could see he was not much over thirty, but he didn’t move young. His hat was dented in the wrong places, and his suitcase pulled him sideways, putting him off his stride. Beside him walked a girl, Daniel’s age or a little less, swinging a cloth bag bulging with belongings. Dirty to begin with, she scuffled up clouds of dust with her sandals.
Fish called up to his wife, Min, but it was John Crowley who came out. He still had a few minutes before he had to leave for the store.
“Take a look,” said Fish. “Isn’t that Stecher?”
Crowley ducked back in to grab a couple of apples from the bin behind the door and a jar of water from the sink. He stood holding them as the strange pair approached.
“Morning, Arthur,” he said. “Long time.”
The man put down the suitcase and touched his hat brim. He cast his eye around. “I see nothing’s changed in Never Good.” His voice was thin and had a catch to it.
“Yes, Everwood is always the same,” said Crowley, “and we like it well enough.”
The man’s pale lashes blinked. “Well, it was always Never Good to me.”
“I’m thinking you and your daughter could use a drink of water,” Crowley said. He threw a smile at the girl, but she didn’t catch it. She was looking at her feet.
The man took the jar. Daniel watched, waiting for the thank-you, but it didn’t come. “Ain’t no daughter.”
“Oh?” said Crowley.
The stranger tilted back the jar, took a long drink, then removed his hat and poured the rest over his head. The caked dirt turned to muddy rivulets and dripped from his chin.
Everyone stared at him, even the girl.
“Where you headed?” said Crowley.
“Old lady Byrdsong.”
Crowley looked at him narrowly. “What do you want with Mrs. Byrdsong?”
The man didn’t meet his eyes. Daniel realized he hadn’t met anyone’s eyes the whole time.
“I said what do you want with her?”
The man nodded toward the girl. “I’m to leave this one with her.”
“And why is that?”
“It’s her grandma.”
Daniel glanced from his dad to the miserable-looking girl. The thing she was dressed in might once have been nice, before it was torn under one arm, soaked by rain, and coated in dust. Was she really Bridey Byrdsong’s granddaughter? Everybody knew Bridey was dotty. Also, she was a witch. A good one, probably, but still.