Among the Stars
CHAPTER ONE The World’s Largest Demon Toenail and Other Wonders
ON A TRAIN HURTLING PAST a black sea, on a star far above the Earth, a hairless cat lifted his nose to the air, sniffed, and let out a tiny howl. Even Somber Kitty didn’t know why he did it. Instincts were weird that way.
He stared across train car 178 and let out a frustrated sigh. May, sitting at one of the car’s windows, appeared to be lost in her own thoughts. Somber Kitty let his chin sink down onto his paws again.
May gently twirled the pendant Pumpkin had given her in the City of Ether—one half of a tiny silver coffin that, when placed with its other half, showed the engraving: NEVER TO BE DEARLY DEPARTED. She hardly blinked as she stared at the sight that had appeared on the horizon a few moments before.
Far above the vast, dark, oily Dead Sea that, May knew, held
even darker things beneath its surface, dark clouds swirled. Strokes of lightning occasionally threaded their way across the sky, seeming to tie it in crooked bows. It looked like the world’s worst thunderstorm was going on somewhere across the sea. Despite the distance, the sight fell over May’s heart like a shadow.
May shivered and reached for Somber Kitty. Only too happy to oblige, the hairless cat—who was considered very cute by some, very ugly by many others—leaped into her lap, placed a paw on each of her shoulders, and licked her cheek with his sandpapery pink tongue. May scrunched up her face in disgust, but she smiled.
As she and Kitty peered out the window together, she thought of her mom and the many strange and mysterious things that had happened to her since she had fallen into the lake in the West Virginia woods and come out on the wrong side of life, into the world of ghosts. The train slowly veered west, pulling away from the dark, glistening seashore, back into the Hideous Highlands, blanketed in dusk. In the Ever After, it was always dusk and the stars zipped through the sky as if they were meteors.
Decrepit old billboards—like the ones they’d been seeing for the last few days—zoomed past:
WORLD’S LARGEST DEMON TOENAIL, NEXT EXIT
PETEY’S PIRANHA SHACK: OUR PRICES CAN’T BE BEATEN, EVEN IF YOU’VE BEEN EATEN
THE HAIR STILL THERE SALON: DREAD LOCKS, SHRUNKEN HEAD MASSAGES, SCALP REATTACHMENT AVAILABLE (DISCOUNT FOR THE FIRST 100 HOMESTEADERS TO MENTION THIS AD!)
They’d already passed the World’s Largest Tombstone, the World’s Longest String of Ectoplasm, several billboards promising a good time at the Poltergeist Corral, and several more announcing something called “The Carnival at the Edge of the World.”
Sighing, May stood and moved forward through the opulent but decayed train car. In the first cabin she came to, Captain Fabbio’s long, ghostly frame sprawled across two beds pushed together, neatly tucked under the sheets and snoring under his mustache.
Beatrice, in the cabin beyond, lay with one dainty, transparent arm splayed over a pile of books, the top of which was Baedeker’s Most Popular Destinations for Typhoid Victims. May took the books, carefully marked their open pages, and put them on the bedside table, then quietly slid a pillow under her friend. Kitty, dangling rather close to Bea’s face as May did this, touched her spectral cheek gently with his paw, then pulled back gingerly and licked his paw pads to warm them up.
May took his paw in her hand and blew on it warmly. Bea, like most spirits, was always so cold.
In the next cabin—the one that May, Somber Kitty, and
Pumpkin shared—Pumpkin lay curled up around his blanket, snoring. Kitty did not even attempt to pat Pumpkin’s cheek. He simply leaped from May’s arms onto the top bunk. But every time a snore issued from the sleeping ghost’s rather large, pumpkin-shaped head, he gazed down at him, then lifted his nose in the air and looked away.
At Pumpkin’s request for her to “make it special,” May had decorated the cabin like a royal Persian boudoir, scavenging moldy bolts of silk, shiny bells, star lights, and other decorations from various parts of the great train, deserted but for its skeleton conductor, who neither spoke nor reacted when May and her companions popped up to the front of the train to see him. Once the boudoir had been completed, Pumpkin had insisted on being called “Your Highness” whenever anyone in the room addressed him.
“Meow?” Somber Kitty whispered.
“All asleep,” May said, misinterpreting Somber Kitty’s question. What he had really meant was, Are you sure you don’t get the sense that someone we love is in danger?
At the moment May didn’t sense anything. In fact, she was perfectly content. She had almost forgotten, just then, that she was stranded in the Afterlife, on a star a million miles from home. Friends, she had realized, could make you do that. Forget the things that worried you most. May had only just learned this; before the Ever After, her only friends had been cats.
It had been seven days since these very friends had helped her escape a fearsome creature called the Bogey at the City of Ether.
Since then May had planned twenty-seven escape routes from the train, in case it was stopped by their enemies. She had installed booby traps at the caboose of the train, as well as in the dining car—involving string, empty slurpy soda cans, and some ectoplasm she’d found in the bathroom. She had even made scarecrows of herself, Pumpkin, Kitty, and the others to use in case of an emergency, though she didn’t know how they would actually help. For less urgent reasons, she had also invented a mustache curler for Captain Fabbio, who liked to look dashing while he was on the run, and fashioned a clip to hold book pages down for Beatrice as she read.
For whatever reason, the Bogey was leaving May and her friends alone. He had to know exactly where they were. He had seen them leap onto the train. And it was a nonstop train straight to the north edge of the realm. May wondered if the Bogey had died when he’d been trampled by all those Egyptians outside Ether, but Bea had patiently reminded her that he had been dead in the first place.
May peered out her window into the distance again, as if she might see the object of these fears climbing up the sides of the train at any moment. Up ahead, the mountains of the Far North were visible, but just barely—tiny points rising from the horizon and shrouded in a haze. The Hideous Highlands stretched endlessly between them—a vast wasteland of ancient roadside curiosities.
Once, Bea had explained, the northern train route had been wildly popular among spirits all over the realm and had been
populated with all manner of frontier towns and attractions. But for the past couple of hundred years it had declined to the point of extinction, until almost every train was empty and most of the attractions had shut down, fallen apart, and begun to disintegrate.
May sighed, then climbed onto the bunk beside Kitty to make her bed—but she quickly shrank back.
A large manila envelope floated just an inch above the mattress, addressed:
May Ellen Bird
The North Train
The Ever After
May looked around, hopped down off her bunk, checked the outside hallway, left and right, then climbed back onto the bed and gazed at Somber Kitty.
He blinked at her drowsily, his eyes green, lazy slits. If he had seen anyone deliver the strange package, he wasn’t talking.
May touched the corner of the envelope with her pinkie, pulled it toward herself, and turned it over.
She gasped. The stamp on the back was familiar. With her pinkie, she traced the insignia of leaves shrouding a mysterious face. The only distinct feature visible was a pair of eyes, and they stared out at May with a look that was both inviting and sly—enticing and, perhaps, dangerous. It was the same stamp
that had been on the letter she’d received back in Briery Swamp, inviting her to the lake. The stamp of the Lady of North Farm.
After a moment’s consideration May tugged the envelope open. A blinding light flew into her face and made her throw her hands in front of her eyes, shutting them tight. On the back of her eyelids, to her shock, these words were scrawled in bright white letters:
Dear Miss Bird,
Congratulations on your narrow escape from the Bogey! The Lady is smiling on you—but then, the Lady’s smile can be very ambiguous.
We look forward to your arrival. The Lady has something she wants to ask of you. We understand that you have something to ask of her, too. In case you are wondering, she has it in her power to grant whatever you wish.
May’s heart skipped along a little faster. She thought immediately of home—its shaggy green lawn and the wayward line of White Moss Manor’s roof, the sagging porch, the shady woods. Wouldn’t those things be a welcome sight? She pictured herself running up the stairs, through the front door, into the arms of her mom.
We’re sending you two freshly baked northern cookies and two bottles of grade A North Farm milk.
They’ll keep you from getting hungry or thirsty as long as you stay in the Ever After. You and your cat will need to consume them quickly. Please do not beat around the bush.
May blinked her eyes open and looked into the pouch. She pulled out the cookies and milk, examining them in wonder, and laid them on her bed. When she shut her eyes again, more words appeared.
Please hurry up. The Ever After is unraveling faster than an old sweater. Your enemies are not as close as you think, but they are closer than they should be. Speaking of which, you are about to hit a bump in the road. Good luck with that.
Never forget that the way back is forward.
H. Kari Threadgoode
P.S. The Lady wants me to say hello to Somber Kitty. Apparently they go way back. Of course, being a cat—and a living cat at that—puts him in much danger.
The letters on the backs of her eyelids flickered out. When May opened her eyes, the envelope, too, was gone. She looked
at Kitty, then at the cookies and milk, then back at Kitty. All she could think to say was, “You go way back?”
“Meow,” Somber Kitty said, sniffing one of the cookies, trying to change the subject. What he would have said, if he could speak English, was that everybody knew the Lady of North Farm, in some way or another—they just didn’t know they knew. The Lady was, in fact, woven into the very fabric of the universe. You couldn’t miss her.
But then, people were generally very foolish about these things. They didn’t believe in the existence of ghosts, for instance. But then, even ghosts did not know that trees could laugh. So Somber Kitty guessed that the dead and the living were pretty even. Only cats came out ahead.
* * *
“It was a telep-a-gram. They have booths in all the major cities,” Bea explained, running her fingers along her long blond curls to make sure each hair was in place. She folded her hands in her lap. “You think it, and then you send it. I’ve tried to send one to my mother,” she said, frowning, “but you need to have an exact address.”
Bea and the others, gathered in the dining car, had listened with concern as May shared the contents of her strange letter.
“A bump in the road?” Captain Fabbio twirled his mustache. “What means this?”
“I don’t know.” May brushed a crumb of cookie off of Somber Kitty’s mouth. He’d eaten his right away, before May could catch him. She looked at her own cookie, then took a tiny nibble. If Somber Kitty was going to be poisoned, then so would she.
“I don’t see why I don’t get a cookie,” Pumpkin muttered. He narrowed his eyes at Kitty, but that only made him look like he needed glasses. Somber Kitty licked the crumbs out of his whiskers extra loudly (for Pumpkin’s benefit) and gazed out the window insouciantly.
Over the several days they’d spent on the train, the house ghost and the living cat had come to the realization that the other considered himself May’s best friend. Since then they had regarded each other with cool disdain.
“This Lady, she no know what she is talking about,” Fabbio blustered.
May shrugged. It seemed the Lady knew a whole lot more than May wished she did. She knew May was in the 178th car of the northbound train, for instance. She had known when May and Pumpkin were in the Catacomb Cliffs by the Dead Sea. She had known the woods of Briery Swamp.
Bea’s forehead wrinkled with concern. “I’m sorry, May, but I don’t like the sound of it. ‘The Lady’s smile is ambiguous’ and all that. . . .”
May crossed her arms. There was no question that the Lady was questionable.
“But she says she’ll grant me what I desire,” May murmured. It was the one line of the telep-a-gram that stood out like a flashing sign in her mind. More than the ambiguous smile or even the danger. What she desired, more than anything, was to see her mom again.
Bea reached across the table and patted her hand, making
May’s skin tingle at the touch of her cold, ghostly fingers. She wore a look that was both encouraging and unutterably sad. Beatrice Heathcliff Longfellow had a permanent sadness about her that made its way even into her smiles.
“I know, May. But everything I can find on the Lady says she’s surrounded by danger. Look here.” Bea shuffled through the books—opened to various pages—strewn across the table in front of her and pointed to a passage.
Lady of North Farm
Location: The frigid wilds of the Far North.
Known for: Acts of great kindness, acts of similarly tremendous nastiness, excellent sewing skills, keeping trespassers captive for all eternity, associating with beings of light.
Holo-photo: None. None of the holo-tographers we sent ever came back.
If you’re planning to visit: See page 195.
May turned to the page. It contained a list of insane asylums in the Greater Ether Area. She leaned back.
Bea closed the book and rested on it, arms crossed under her chin. She had read almost every book in the train library, some twice, looking for information that might lead her to her own mother, whom she hadn’t seen since she’d died of typhoid in 1901, a few days behind her mother. She had been—and still was—eleven years old.
May noticed deep circles around Bea’s eyes, and for the moment it seemed her ghostly glow had gone a little dim.
“Well, I don’t think I have a choice,” May ventured. “I did everything to avoid the Lady before. And look, here we are. On a train, headed straight for her. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”
They were just throttling past the neon-lit World’s Most Rotten Hot Dog stand, but May was staring past it, thinking of the long journey that had brought her here: her failed attempt to find the way home without the Lady’s help.
“No choice. No coincidence. Pah! We take this train on purpose.” Fabbio waved his long arms dismissively. “And what about this bump in the road?” Fabbio looked out the window. “I see no bump.”
Pumpkin let out a loud sigh. “ ‘Bump in the road’ is an expression.” He was wearing a toga he’d found in an abandoned suitcase, tied with a curtain tie. He flounced one tassel around dramatically as he talked, smiling haughtily at Kitty from the corner of his eye. “It doesn’t mean a real bump. It means—”
Somber Kitty, hissing, bounced against one of the closed windows, then landed on all fours. Pumpkin flew across the table under a cascade of cards; Beatrice and May hurtled off of their bench onto the ground; Fabbio tumbled flat against the wall behind him.
The train came to a dead halt.
A bone-chilling stillness followed.
Pumpkin whimpered and zipped under the table. Somber Kitty positioned himself between May and the rear car door. And they all readied themselves for whatever might come through it.