Audrey heard the soft sound of the ladder hitting the side of the house and the footsteps climbing it. Her heart racing with excitement, she was out of bed and undoing the latch in an instant. Seeing Todd in the moonlight, she smiled and helped him climb in through the window.
"Hey," she whispered. "I wasn't sure you were coming."
He laughed quietly. "Neither was I."
Clarity groaned and grimaced at them across the dim room. Then she rolled over in the bed and faced the wall.
Audrey frowned. Clarity had agreed to a sleepover and to the use of her window to get Todd into the catatonia center where she lived with her father, Dr. Frank Harman. Todd could have simply walked through the front door during the day and been allowed to visit his uncle, but he wouldn’t have been left alone with him for long. It had to be at night when all was quiet and no one was watching. Audrey was glad that Clarity had agreed, although reluctantly, to their plan, but she also felt bad because Clarity, her best and basically only friend beside Todd, wasn't happy about it.
Well, the only thing Audrey could do about that now was not get caught so Clarity wouldn’t get in trouble.
Todd pulled off his shoes, and they crept silently across the carpeted floor toward the door.
"The fifth step squeaks," said Clarity, still facing the wall.
"Thanks," Audrey whispered, smiling as she slowly opened the door.
They made it downstairs without incident. At the base of the stairs, they looked into the large living room of the house Dr. Harman had converted into a center to treat zombies, people who had been made catatonic by the now unavailable street drug, goblin fruit. Goblin fruit catatonics could eat or even do repetitive exercises if their caregivers got them started, but they couldn't speak, and their minds seemed largely absent. When Clarity's mother, Sincerity, had temporarily emerged from her catatonia, they learned that the zombies' minds were still intact. In fact, they all lived together in some shared consciousness, another world filled with trees, fruit, and goblins, a perpetual land of summer called Goblinton.
The living room was empty, but they paused, listening. Todd's mother, Maria, was the night nurse in the center, and if she were to spot them...well, Audrey didn’t know what would happen, but it wouldn't be good.
Hearing nothing, they crept across the living room and paused again in the hallway.
A light was on in the patient room nearest to them, and they could hear movement, then a small sigh.
"How do these gloves keep coming off?" they heard Maria say to herself. "Your hands are unusually slippery, Andrew. That's all I can think."
Audrey liked that even in his current condition, her brother, Andrew, could still manage to be a little messy, like he was before he became catatonic. She thought it was funny that he seemed to be perpetually missing a glove despite the best efforts of the nurses. She suppressed a small laugh as they crept to the edge of the doorway.
Peering in, they saw Maria on her hands and knees, facing away from them as she looked under the bed. The catatonia patients were required by law to wear gloves to protect other people from being contaminated by the trace secretions of goblin fruit which they gave off in their sweat.
"Where the heck is it?" Maria muttered. "They all have to be incinerated, Andrew," she said. "The center will be in trouble if we lose track of any of them."
Andrew didn't respond, of course. He was incapable of it.
Quickly they tiptoed past and crept into Todd's uncle Manuel's room at the end of the hall.
They moved to the far side of the bed and dropped to the floor where they couldn't be seen from the doorway. Todd reached up and gently tugged on his uncle's arm, moving it, so his gloved hand hung over the side of the bed.
Todd looked at Audrey. "You want to come, too?" he whispered. "He has two hands. We could both go."
Audrey did kind of want to go. Her brother was there...maybe...supposedly...but she just wasn't ready. She mutely shook her head no.
Todd shrugged, leaned his back against the side of the bed, and pulling off his uncle's glove, grabbed onto his hand.
Nothing happened for several minutes.
They could hear the soft ticking of a clock in another room, and Maria's footsteps as she finished up in Andrew's room and went back out into the living room.
Todd sat there quietly, his eyes closed. Audrey knew he was still there in a way she couldn't entirely define—something about the way he breathed and the way he sat. He was simply present in a way that the zombies never were.
And then all of a sudden, from one moment to the next, he wasn't. His body remained, but his mind was gone, whisked off to the other world.
Audrey shook him gently and whispered his name, but he didn't respond. He was in Goblinton.
A wind stole my breath away.
It wasn’t at all like I had imagined or been told. No fruit, no singing, no warmth, no sunlight shining on my face. The sky was gray and overcast. In New Mexico, where I lived, it only snowed very occasionally, and I always thought the snow was beautiful, exciting. Not here. Snow here seemed wrong. It was bleak, desolate. I felt deeply uneasy.
"Who are you?" said a voice behind me, young, female, and as cold as the frozen wind.
I stiffened and turned. The girl didn't look as fearsome as she sounded. For one thing, it was difficult to take her seriously with such a ridiculous haircut. Her deep Auburn hair was cropped very short, the hairstyle clearly created with one of those home haircut kits and without any concern for how it looked. Her features were sharp and symmetrical, her skin clear and her eyes striking and dark. She was pretty despite the hair. I recognized her as one of the zombies in Dr. Harman's care but found her much more attractive wearing a coherent expression, even if it was a frown.
"Todd," I answered. "And you’re Maude Clare."
The girl replied in a huff. "I am Her Royal Highness, Maude Clare. What are you doing here? You clearly don't belong in my queendom."
I kept myself from laughing even though her words were more ridiculous than her haircut. No need to get on her bad side. "Well," I said, "I don't know because I don't know where I am. I was trying to go to Goblinton."
"Why?" asked Maude Clare.
"Why not?" I answered.
She grimaced, glaring at me with a ferocity I’d only ever seen before on my mother`s face, an expert glarer if ever there was one.
I relented. "I was trying to visit my uncle," I said. "Manuel."
Her face softened slightly. "Manuel was a good guy."
My stomach tightened. "Was?" I asked.
"You better come see," said Maude Clare, and led me through the snow.