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Each body has a story to tell– a life seen in pictures that only Librarians can read. The dead are called Histories, and the vast realm in which they rest is the Archive. Da first brought Mackenzie Bishop here four years ago, when she was twelve years old, frightened but determined to prove herself. Now Da is dead, and Mac has grown into what he once was: a ruthless Keeper, tasked with stopping often-violent Histories from waking up and getting out. Because of her job, she lies to the people she loves, and she knows fear for what it is: a useful tool for staying alive.
Being a Keeper isn't just dangerous-it's a constant reminder of those Mac has lost. Da's death was hard enough, but now that her little brother is gone too, Mac starts to wonder about the boundary between living and dying, sleeping and waking. In the Archive, the dead must never be disturbed. And yet, someone is deliberately altering Histories, erasing essential chapters. Unless Mac can piece together what remains, the Archive itself might crumble and fall.
In this haunting, richly imagined novel, Victoria Schwab reveals the thin lines between past and present, love and pain, trust and deceit, unbearable loss and hardwon redemption.
ALSO AVAILABLE FROM V.E. SCHWAB AND TITAN BOOKS
This Savage Song
Our Dark Duet
A Darker Shade of Magic
A Gathering of Shadows
A Conjuring of Light
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not there; I do not sleep.
MARY ELIZABETH FRYE
The narrows remind me of August nights in the South. They remind me of old rocks and places where the light can’t reach.
They remind me of smoke—the stale, settled kind— and of storms and damp earth.
Most of all, Da, they remind me of you.
I step into the corridor and breathe in the heavy air, and I am nine again, and it is summer.
My little brother, Ben, is sprawled inside by the fan, drawing monsters in blue pencil, and I am on the back porch looking up at the stars, all of them haloed by the humid night. You’re standing beside me with a cigarette and an accent full of smoke, twirling your battered ring and telling stories about the Archive and the Narrows and the Outer in calm words, with your Louisiana lilt, like we’re talking weather, breakfast, nothing.
You unbutton your cuffs and roll your sleeves up to the elbows as you speak, and I notice for the first time how many scars you have. From the three lines carved into your forearm to the dozens of other marks, they cut crude patterns in your skin, like cracks in old leather. I try to remember the last time you wore short sleeves. I can’t.
That old rusted key hangs from its cord around your neck the way it always does, and somehow it catches the light, even though the night is pitch-black. You fidget with a slip of paper, roll it and unroll it, eyes scanning the surface as if something should be written there; but it’s blank, so you roll it again until it’s the size and shape of a cigarette, and tuck it behind your ear. You start drawing lines in the dust on the porch rail as you talk. You could never sit still.
Ben comes to the porch door and asks a question, and I wish I could remember the words. I wish I could remember the sound of his voice. But I can’t. I do remember you laughing and running your fingers through the three lines you’d drawn in the dust on the railing, ruining the pattern. Ben wanders back inside and you tell me to close my eyes. You hand me something heavy and smooth, and tell me to listen, to find the thread of memory, to take hold and tell you what I see, but I don’t see anything. You tell me to try harder, to focus, to reach inside, but I can’t.
Next summer it will be different, and I will hear the hum and I will reach inside and I will see something, and you will be proud and sad and tired at the same time, and the summer after that you will get me a ring just like yours, but newer, and the summer after that you’ll be dead and I’ll have your key as well as your secrets.
But this summer is simple.
This summer I am nine and you are alive and there is still time. This summer when I tell you I can’t see anything, you just shrug and light another cigarette, and go back to telling stories.
Stories about winding halls, and invisible doors, and places where the dead are kept like books on shelves. Each time you finish a story, you make me tell it back to you, as if you’re afraid I will forget.
I never do.
There is nothing fresh about this start.
I lean back against the car and stare up at the Coronado, the hotel-turned-apartment building that my mother and father find “so charming.” It stares back, wide-eyed, gaunt. I spent the whole drive twisting the ring on my finger, running my thumb over the three lines etched into its surface, as if the silver band were a rosary or a charm. I prayed for someplace simple, uncluttered, and new. And I got this.
I can see the dust from across the street.
“Isn’t it divine?” squeals my mother.
“It’s . . . old.”
So old that the stones have settled, the cracks deep enough to give the whole facade a tired look. A fist-size piece of stone loosens before my eyes and tumbles down the side of the building.
I look up to find a roof dotted with gargoyles. Not at the corners, where you’d expect gargoyles to be, but perching at random intervals like a line of crows. My eyes slide over rippling windows and down six floors to the carved and cracking stone marquee that tops the lobby.
Mom hurries forward, but stops halfway across the road to marvel at the “antiquated” paving stones that give the road so much “character.”
“Honey,” calls Dad, following. “Don’t stand in the street.”
There should be four of us. Mom, Dad, Ben, me. But there’s not. Da’s been dead for four years, but it hasn’t even been a year since Ben died. A year of words no one can say because they call up images no one can bear. The silliest things shatter you. A T-shirt discovered behind the washing machine. A toy that rolled under a cabinet in the garage, forgotten until someone drops something and goes to fetch it, and suddenly they’re on the concrete floor sobbing into a dusty baseball mitt.
But after a year of tiptoeing through our lives, trying not to set off memories like land mines, my parents decide to quit, but call it change. Call it a fresh start. Call it just what this family needs.
I call it running.
“You coming, Mackenzie?”
I follow my parents across the street, baking in the July sun. Below the marquee is a revolving door, flanked by two regular ones. A few people—mostly older—lounge around the doors, or on a patio to the side.
Before Ben died, Mom had whims. She wanted to be a zookeeper, a lawyer, a chef. But they were whims. After he died, they became something more. Instead of just dreaming, she started doing. With a force. Ask her about Ben and she pretends she didn’t hear, but ask her about her newest pet project—whatever it happens to be—and she’ll talk for hours, giving off enough energy to power the room. But Mom’s energy is as fickle as it is bright. She’s started switching careers the way Ben switches—switched—favorite foods, one week cheese, the next applesauce. . . . In the past year, Mom’s gone through seven. I guess I should be thankful she didn’t try to switch lives, too, while she was at it. Dad and I could have woken up one day and found only a note in her nearly illegible script. But she’s still here.
Another stone crumbles off the side of the building.
Maybe this will keep her busy.
The deserted space on the first floor of the Coronado, tucked behind the patio and below the awnings, is the future home of my mother’s biggest whim—she prefers to call this one her “dream endeavor”—Bishop’s Coffee Shop. And if you ask her, she’ll tell you this is the only reason we’re moving, that it has nothing to do with Ben (only she wouldn’t say his name).
We step up to the revolving doors, and Dad’s hand lands on my shoulder, filling my head with a jumble of static and wavering bass. I cringe and force myself not to pull away. The dead are silent, and objects, when they hold impressions, are quiet until you reach through them. But the touch of the living is loud. Living people haven’t been compiled, organized—which means they’re a jumble of memory and thought and emotion, all tangled up and held at bay only by the silver band on my finger. The ring helps, but it can’t block the noise, just the images.
I try to picture a wall between Dad’s hand and my shoulder, like Da taught me, a second barrier, but it doesn’t work. The sound is still there, layered tones and statics, like radios tuned wrong, and after an appropriate number of seconds, I take a step forward, beyond his reach. Dad’s hand falls away, and the quiet returns. I roll my shoulders.
“What do you think, Mac?” he asks, and I look up at the hulking shape of the Coronado.
I think I’d rather shake my mother until a new idea falls out and leads us somewhere else.
But I know I can’t say this, not to Dad. The skin beneath his eyes is nearly blue, and over the last year he’s gone from slim to thin. Mom might be able to power a city, but Dad barely stays lit.
“I think . . .” I say, managing a smile, “it will be an adventure.”
* * *
I am ten, almost eleven, and I wear my house key around my neck just to be like you.
They tell me I have your gray eyes, and your hair—back when it was reddish brown instead of white—but I don’t care about those things. Everyone has eyes and hair. I want the things most people don’t notice. The ring and the key and the way you have of wearing everything on the inside.
We’re driving north so I’ll be home for my birthday, even though I would rather stay with you than blow out candles. Ben is sleeping in the backseat, and the whole way home, you tell me stories about these three places.
The Outer, which you don’t waste much breath on because it’s everything around us, the normal world, the only one most people ever know about.
The Narrows, a nightmarish place, all stained corridors and distant whispers, doors and darkness thick like grime.
And the Archive, a library of the dead, vast and warm, wood and stone and colored glass, and all throughout, a sense of peace.
As you drive and talk, one hand guides the steering wheel, and the other toys with the key around your neck.
“The only things the three places have in common,” you say, “are doors. Doors in, and doors out. And doors need keys.”
I watch the way you fiddle with yours, running a thumb over the teeth. I try to copy you, and you catch sight of the cord around my neck and ask me what it is. I show you my silly house key on a string, and there’s this strange silence that fills the car, like the whole world is holding its breath, and then you smile.
You tell me I can have my birthday present early, even though you know how Mom likes to do things right, and then you pull a small unwrapped box from your pocket. Inside is a silver ring, the three lines that make up the Archive mark carefully etched into the metal, just like yours.
I don’t know what it’s for, not yet—a blinder, a silencer, a buffer against the world and its memories, against people and their cluttered thoughts—but I’m so excited I promise I will never take it off. And then the car hits a bump and I drop it under the seat. You laugh, but I make you pull off the freeway so I can get it back. I have to wear it on my thumb because it’s too big. You tell me I’ll grow into it.
* * *
We drag our suitcases through the revolving door and into the lobby. Mom chirps with glee, and I wince.
The sprawling foyer is like one of those photos where you have to figure out what’s wrong. At first glance it glitters, marble and crown molding and gilt accents. But at second look the marble is coated in dust, the molding is cracked, and the gilt accents are actively shedding gold onto the carpet. Sunlight streams in through the windows, bright despite the aging glass, but the space smells like fabric kept too long behind curtains. This place was once, undeniably, spectacular. What happened?
Two people mill by a front window, seemingly oblivious to the haze of dust they’re standing in.
Across the lobby a massive marble staircase leads to the second floor. The cream-colored stone would probably gleam if someone polished it long enough. Wallpaper wraps the sides of the staircase, and from across the room, I see a ripple in the fleur-de-lis pattern there. From here it almost looks like a crack. I doubt anyone would notice, not in a place like this, but I’m supposed to spot these things. I’m hauling my luggage toward the ripple when I hear my name and turn to see my parents vanishing around a corner. I hoist my bags and catch up.
I find them standing in front of a trio of elevators just off the lobby.
The wrought iron cages look like they might safely hold two. But we’re already climbing into one of them, three people and four suitcases. I whisper something halfway between a prayer and a curse as I pull the rusted gate closed and press the button for the third floor.
The elevator groans to life. There might be elevator music, too, but it’s impossible to hear over the sounds the machine makes simply hoisting us up. We rise through the second floor at a glacial pace, padded in by luggage. Halfway between the second and third floor, the elevator pauses to think, then heaves upward again. It gives a death rattle at the third floor, at which point I pry the jaws open and set us free.
I announce that I’m taking the stairs from now on.
Mom tries to free herself from the barricade of luggage. “It has a certain . . .”
“Charm?” I parrot, but she ignores the jab and manages to get one leg over the suitcases, nearly toppling as her heel snags on a strap.
“It has personality,” adds my father, catching her arm.
I turn to take in the hall, and my stomach drops. The walls are lined with doors. Not just the ones you would expect, but a dozen more—unusable, painted and papered over, little more than outlines and ridges.
“Isn’t it fascinating?” says my mother. “The extra doors are from way back when it was a hotel, before they began knocking down walls and combining rooms, converting spaces. They left the doors, papered right over them.”
“Fascinating,” I echo. And eerie. Like a well-lit version of the Narrows.
We reach the apartment at the end, and Dad unlocks the door—an ornate 3F nailed to its front—and throws it open. The apartment has the same scuffed quality as everything else. Lived-in. This place has marks, but none of them are ours. In our old house, even when you took away the furniture and packed up the stuff, there were all these marks. The dent in the wall where I threw that book, the stain on the kitchen ceiling from Mom’s failed blender experiment, the blue doodles in the corners of rooms where Ben drew. My chest tightens. Ben will never leave a mark on this place.
Mom oohs and ahhs, and Dad drifts quietly through the rooms, and I’m about to brave the threshold when I feel it.
The scratch of letters. A name being written on the slip of Archive paper in my pocket. I dig the page out—it’s roughly the size of a receipt and strangely crisp—as the History’s name scrawls itself in careful cursive.
Emma Claring. 7.
“Mac,” calls Dad, “you coming?”
I slide back a step into the hall.
“I left my bag in the car,” I say. “I’ll be right back.”
Something flickers across Dad’s face, but he’s already nodding, already turning away. The door clicks shut, and I sigh and turn to the hall.
I need to find this History.
To do that, I need to get to the Narrows.
And to do that, I need to find a door.
I’m eleven, and you are sitting across from me at the table, talking under the sound of dishes in the kitchen. Your clothes are starting to hang on you—shirts, pants, even your ring. I overheard Mom and Dad, and they said that you’re dying—not the fast, stone-drop way, there and then gone, but still. I can’t stop squinting at you, as if I might see the disease picking you clean, stealing you from me, bite by bite.
You’re telling me about the Archive again, something about the way it changes and grows, but I am not really listening. I’m twirling the silver ring on my finger. I need it now. Fractured bits of memory and feeling are starting to get through whenever someone touches me. They’re not jarring or violent yet, just kind of messy. I told you that and you told me it would get worse, and you looked sorry when you said it. You said it was genetic, the potential, but it doesn’t manifest until the predecessor makes the choice. And you chose me. I hope you weren’t sorry. I’m not sorry. I’m only sorry that as I get stronger, you seem to get weaker.
“Are you listening?” you ask, because it’s obvious I’m not.
“I don’t want you to die,” I say, surprising us both, and the whole moment hardens, stops, as your eyes hold mine. And then you soften and shift in your seat, and I think I can hear your bones moving.
“What are you afraid of, Kenzie?” you ask.
You said you passed the job to me and I can’t help but wonder if that’s why you’re getting worse now. Fading faster. “Losing you.”
“Nothing’s lost. Ever.”
I’m pretty sure you’re just trying to make me feel better, half expect you to say something like I’ll live on in your heart. But you would never say that.
“You think I tell you stories just to hear my own voice? I mean what I said. Nothing’s lost. That’s what the Archive’s for.”
Wood and stone and colored glass, and all throughout, a sense of peace . . .
“That’s where we go when we die? To the Archive?”
“You don’t, not exactly, but your History does.” And then you start using your “Pay Attention” voice, the one that makes words stick to me and never let go. “You know what a History is?”
“It’s the past,” I say.
“No, Kenzie. That’s history with a little h. I mean History with a big H. A History is . . .” You pull out a cigarette, roll it between your fingers. “You might think of it as a ghost, but that’s not what it is, really. Histories are records.”
“Of us. Of everyone. Imagine a file of your entire life, of every moment, every experience. All of it. Now, instead of a folder or a book, imagine the data is kept in a body.”
“What do they look like?”
“However they looked when they died. Well, before they died. No fatal wounds or bloated corpses. The Archive wouldn’t find that tasteful. And the body’s just a shell for the life inside.”
“Like a book cover?”
“Yes.” You put the cigarette in your mouth, but know better than to light it in the house. “A cover tells you something about a book. A body tells you something about a History.”
I bite my lip. “So . . . when you die, a copy of your life gets put in the Archive?”
“What is it, Kenzie?”
“If the Outer is where we live, and the Archive is where our Histories go, what are the Narrows for?”
You smile grimly. “The Narrows are a buffer between the two. Sometimes a History wakes up. Sometimes Histories get out, through the cracks in the Archive, and into those Narrows. And when that happens, it’s the Keeper’s job to send them back.”
“What’s a Keeper?”
“It’s what I am,” you say, pointing to the ring on your hand. “What you’ll be,” you add, pointing to my own ring.
I can’t help but smile. You chose me. “I’m glad I get to be like you.”
You squeeze my hand and make a sound somewhere between a cough and a laugh, and say, “Good thing. Because you haven’t got a choice.”
* * *
Doors to the Narrows are everywhere.
Most of them started out as actual doors, but the problem is that buildings change—walls go down, walls go up—and these doors, once they’re made, don’t. What you end up with are cracks, the kind most people wouldn’t even notice, slight disturbances where the two worlds— the Narrows and the Outer—run into each other. It’s easy when you know what you’re looking for.
But even with good eyes, finding a Narrows door can take a while. I had to search my old neighborhood for two days to find the nearest one, which turned out to be halfway down the alley behind the butcher shop.
I think of the ripple in the fleur-de-lis paper in the lobby, and smile.
I head for the nearest stairwell—there are two sets, the south stairs at my end of the hall, and the north stairs at the far end, past the metal cages—when something makes me stop.
A tiny gap, a vertical shadow on the dust-dull yellow wallpaper. I walk over to the spot and square myself to the wall, letting my eyes adjust to the crack that is most definitely there. The sense of victory fades a little. Two doors so close together? Maybe the crack in the lobby was just that—a crack.
This crack, however, is something more. It cuts down the wall between apartments 3D and 3C, in a stretch of space without any ghosted doors, a dingy patch interrupted only by a painting of the sea in an old white frame. I frown and slide the silver ring from my finger and feel the shift, like a screen being removed. Now when I stare at the crack, I see it, right in the center of the seam. A keyhole.
The ring works like a blinder. It shields me—as much as it can—from the living, and blocks my ability to read the impressions they leave on things. But it also blinds me to the Narrows. I can’t see the doors, let alone step through them.
I pull Da’s key from around my neck, running a thumb over the teeth the way he used to. For luck. Da used to rub the key, cross himself, kiss his fingers and touch them to the wall—any number of things. He used to say he could use a little more luck.
I slide the key into the keyhole and watch as the teeth vanish into the wall. First comes the whisper of metal against metal. Then the Narrows door surfaces, floating like a body up through water until it presses against the yellow paper. Last, a single strand of crisp light draws itself around the frame, signaling that the door is ready.
If someone came down the hall right now, they wouldn’t see the door. But they would hear the click of the lock as I turned Da’s rusted key, and then they would see me step straight through the yellow paper into nothing.
* * *
There’s no sky in the Narrows, but it always feels like night, smells like night. Night in a city after rain. On top of that there’s a breeze, faint but steady, carrying stale air through the halls. Like you’re in an air shaft.
I knew what the Narrows looked like long before I saw them. I had this image in my head, drawn by Da year after year. Close your eyes and picture this: a dark alley, just wide enough for you to spread your arms and skim the rough walls on either side with your fingers. You look up and see . . . nothing, just the walls running up and up and up into black. The only light comes from the doors that line the walls, their outlines giving off a faint glow, their keyholes letting in beams of light that show like threads in the dusty air. It is enough light to see by, but not enough to see well.
Fear floats up my throat, a primal thing, a physical twinge as I step through, close the door behind me, and hear the voices. Not true voices, really, but murmurs and whispers and words stretched thin by distance. They could be halls, or whole territories, away. Sounds travel here in the Narrows, coil through the corridors, bounce off walls, find you from miles away, ghostlike and diffused. They can lead you astray.
The corridors stretch out like a web or a subway, branching, crossing, the walls interrupted only by those doors. City blocks’ worth of doors mere feet apart, space compressed. Most of them are locked. All of them are marked.
Coded. Every Keeper has a system, a way to tell a good door from a bad one; I cannot count the number of X’s and slashes and circles and dots scribbled against each door and then rubbed away. I pull a thin piece of chalk from my pocket—it’s funny, the things you learn to keep on you at all times—and use it to draw a quick Roman numeral I on the door I just came through, right above the keyhole (the doors here have no handles, can’t even be tried without a key). The number is bright and white over the dozens of old, half-ruined marks.
I turn to consider the hall and the multitude of doors lining it. Most of them are locked—inactive, Da called them—doors that lead back into the Outer, to different rooms in different houses, disabled because they go places where no Keeper is currently stationed. But the Narrows is a buffer zone, a middle ground, studded with ways out. Some doors lead to and from the Archive. Others lead to Returns, which isn’t its own world, but it might as well be. A place where even Keepers aren’t allowed to go. And right now, with a History on my list, that’s the door I need to find.
I test the door to the right of Door I, and to my surprise it’s unlocked, and opens onto the Coronado’s lobby. So it wasn’t just a ripple in the wallpaper after all. Good to know. An old woman ambles past, oblivious to the portal, and I tug the door shut again and draw a II above the keyhole.
- On Sale
- Jan 7, 2014
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers