The Emerald Atlas
By John Stephens
P R O L O G U E
The girl was shaken awake. Her mother was leaning over her.
“Kate”—her voice was low and urgent—“listen very closely. I need you to do something for me. I need you to keep your brother and sister safe. Do you understand? I need you to keep Michael and Emma safe.”
“What . . .”
“There isn’t time to explain. Promise me you’ll look after them.”
“Oh, Kate, please! Just promise me!“
“I . . . I promise.”
It was Christmas Eve. Snow had been falling all day. As the oldest, Kate had been allowed to stay up later than her brother and sister. That meant that long after the voices of the carolers had faded away, she’d sat with her parents beside the fire, sipping hot chocolate as they exchanged presents—the children would receive theirs in the morning—and feeling very adult for her four years. Her mother gave her father a small, thick book, very worn and old, that seemed to please him greatly, and he in turn gave her a locket on a gold chain. Inside the locket was a tiny picture of the children—Kate, two-year-old Michael, and baby Emma. Then, finally, it was up to bed, and Kate lay there in the darkness, warm and happy under her blankets, wondering how she would ever fall asleep, and it seemed the very next moment she was being shaken awake.
The door to her room was open and, in the light from the hall, she watched as her mother reached back and unclasped the locket and chain. She bent forward and slid her hands underneath Kate, fastening it around her neck. The girl felt the soft brush of her mother’s hair, smelled the gingerbread she’d been cooking that afternoon, and then something wet struck her cheek and she realized her mother was crying.
“Remember your father and I love you very much. And we will all be together again. I promise.”
The girl’s heart was hammering in her chest, and she had opened her mouth to ask what was happening when a man appeared in the doorway. The light was behind him so Kate couldn’t see his face, but he was tall and thin and wearing a long overcoat and what looked like a very rumpled hat.
“It’s time,” he said.
His voice and that image—the tall man silhouetted in the doorway—would haunt Kate for years, as it was the last time she saw her mother, the last time her family was together. Then the man said something Kate couldn’t hear, and it was as if a heavy curtain was drawn around her mind, obliterating the man in the doorway, the light, her mother, everything.
The woman gathered up the sleeping child, wrapping the blankets around her, and followed the man down the stairs, past the living room where the fire still burned, and out into the cold and darkness.
Had she been awake, the girl would’ve seen her father standing in the snow beside an old black car, her brother and infant sister swaddled in blankets and asleep in his arms. The tall man opened the back door, and the children’s father laid his charges on the seat; then he turned, took Kate from the woman, and laid her beside her brother and sister. The tall man closed the door with a soft thunk.
“You’re sure?” the woman said. “You’re sure this is the only way?”
The tall man had moved into the glow of a streetlamp and was clearly visible for the first time. To a casual passerby, his appearance would not have inspired much confidence. His overcoat was patched in spots and frayed at the cuffs, he wore an old tweed suit that was missing a button, his white shirt was stained with ink and tobacco, and his tie&mdashthis was perhaps the strangest of all— was knotted not once but twice, as if her’d forgotten whether he’d tied it and, rather than glancing down to check, had simply tied it again for good measure. His white hair poked out from beneath his hat, and his eyebrows rose from his forehead like great snowy horns, curling over a pair of bent and patched tortoiseshell glasses. All in all, he looked like someone who had gotten dressed in the midst of a whirlwind and, thinking he still looked too presentable, had thrown himself down a flight of stairs.
It was when you looked in his eyes that everything changed.
Reflecting no light save their own, they shone brightly in the snow-muffled night, and there was in them a look of such uncommon energy and kindness and understanding that you forgot entirely about the tobacco and ink stains on his shirt and the patches on his glasses and that his tie was knotted twice over. You looked in them and knew that you were in the presence of true wisdom.
“My friends, we have always known this day would come.”
“But what changed?” the children’s father demanded.
“There’s been nothing since Cambridge Falls! That was five years ago! Something must’ve happened!”
The old man sighed. “Earlier this evening, I went to see Devon McClay.”
“He’s not . . . he can’t be . . .”
“I’m afraid so. And while it is impossible to know what he told them before he died, we must assume the worst. We must assume he told them about the children.”
For a long moment, no one spoke. The woman had begun crying freely.
“I told Kate we’d all be together again. I lied to her.”
“He won’t stop till he finds them! They’ll never be safe!”
“You’re right,” the old man said quietly. “He will never stop.”
Whatever “he” they were referring to seemed to require no explanation.
“But there is a way. The one we have always known. The children must be allowed to grow up. To fulfill their destiny—” He stopped himself.
The man and woman turned. At the end of the block, three dark figures, in long black overcoats, stood watching them. The street became very still; even the snowflakes seemed to hover in midair.
“They are here,” the old man said. “They will follow the children. You must disappear. I will find you.”
Before the couple could respond, the old man had opened the door and slid across to the wheel. The three figures were moving forward. The man and woman backed toward the house as the engine woke with a rumbling cough. For a moment, the wheels spun uselessly in the snow; then something caught, and the car skidded away. The figures were running now, passing the man and woman without so much as turning their heads, focused solely on the car that was slipping and sliding down the snowy street.
The white-haired man drove with both hands tight on the wheel. Luckily, it was late, and with the snow and it being Christmas Eve, there was no traffic to slow them down. But as fast as the man drove, the dark figures drew closer. They ran with an eerie, silent grace; every stride covered a dozen yards, the black wings of their overcoats billowing out behind them. Rounding a corner, the car bounced off a parked van, and two of the figures leapt into the air, grabbing on to the town houses that lined the street. The man glanced in the mirror and saw his pursuers scrambling along the faces of the houses like gargoyles that had broken free.
His eyes showed no surprise, but he pressed the accelerator to the floor.
The car shot across a square, barreling past a midnight crowd emerging from a church. He had driven into the old part of the city, and the car was bumping along cobblestone streets. In the backseat, the children slept on. One of the figures launched itself off the side of a brownstone, landing atop the car with a shuddering crash. A moment later, a pale hand punched down through the roof and began peeling away the metal shell. A second attacker seized the back of the car and dug its heels into the street, tearing grooves through the century-old stones.
“A little further,” the man murmured, “just a little further.”
They entered a park, white with snow and utterly empty, the car skating across the frozen ground. Just ahead, he could see the dark swath of the river. And then everything seemed to happen at once: the old man gunned the engine, the last figure attached itself to the door, the roof was ripped open so the night air poured in; perhaps the only thing that didn’t change was the children, who slept on, thankfully oblivious. Then the car flew off a small rise and was launched out over the river.
It never struck the water. At the last possible moment, it simply vanished, leaving behind three dark shapes that splashed, thrashing, into the river.
A second later and several hundred miles to the north, the car, without a mark on it, pulled up in front of a large gray stone building. Its arrival had clearly been expected, for a short woman in dark robes came sweeping down the steps to meet it.
Together, she and the old man gathered up the children and carried them inside. hey climbed to the top floor, then proceeded down a long corridor decorated with garlands and tinsel. They passed room after room of sleeping children. They turned in at the last doorway. The room was empty save for two beds and a crib.
The nun—the short woman’s name was Sister Agatha&mdash carried the boy and infant girl. She laid the boy in a bed and his young sister in the crib. Neither stirred. The old man placed Kate in the last bed. He drew the quilt up around her chin.
“Poor dears,” Sister Agatha said.
“Yes. And so much depends on them.”
“You believe they’ll be safe here?”
“As safe as they can be. He will hunt for them. That is certain. But the only people alive who know that they are here are you and I.”
“What am I to call them? They’ll need a new surname.”
“How about&mdash” the old man thought for a moment&mdash“P.”
“What about the oldest girl? She’ll remember her real name.”
“I will see she doesn’t.”
“Hard to believe it’s really happening, hard to believe . . .” She looked up at her companion. “Will you stay for a while? I lit a fire downstairs, and I still have some of the monks’ ale. It is Christmas, after all.”
“Very tempting. Unfortunately, I must check on the children’s parents.”
Murmuring, “Ah me, so it really has begun . . . ,” the woman passed into the hall.
The old man followed her to the door, then paused to look back at the sleeping children. He raised his hand as if in blessing, murmured, “Till we meet again,” and walked out.
The three children slept on, unaware of the new world that awaited them when they awoke.
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Excerpted from The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens. Copyright © 2011 by John Stephens. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.