Chapter One: The Gate

Nyssa was a girl who would be described as an elementary schooler if she went to school, which she did not. Her father was meant to teach her, but he often just gave her books, chosen on the generic advice of the children's librarian, and disappeared to do other things while she was left to read them.

Nyssa had little inclination to consider the books as more than irritating obligations, although she had nothing in particular that she would prefer to be doing. Oh, she would play with her toys and her games, she would go outside, she would come inside, she would pet dogs and have conversations and eat lunches, but none of it was much more enjoyable than any of the rest. She flipped through the books, found them so bewildering that they were dull, and retained enough to produce the occasional memorized or mismemorized fact to demonstrate that she was learning. It was all the same to her father, who had not read the books himself, and so things continued in this vein for some time.

At the time our story opens, she was ostensibly learning about the physical sciences. Having recently informed her father that E was MC Squared, she was free of the need to identify any further facts in her library books for at least a week in spite of the fact that she didn't know who MC Squared was. Mister or Miz or perhaps Doctor Squared was, she suspected, probably a dead person; most of the people she was given books about were dead.

Occasionally someone wondered if Nyssa wouldn't do better at school. Nyssa had tried this once, not without some dragging of feet: she had attended, as a trial of the idea, a summer program which (in most respects not to do with its occasioning in the summertime) mimicked school. There she announced she learned less, for she could not even remember enough to tell her father what things she'd written to pass her quizzes only hours before. And she was a good deal grumpier to boot, so her parents aborted the experiment. September arrived and Nyssa stayed home with her stack of library books.

Nyssa's day began ordinarily. She woke, ate breakfast cereal, and checked off a day on her wall calendar displaying false-color images of space. She chose the first book off her pile and she walked to the park, expecting it to be more or less the same as it ever was. She soon found this to be true: there was the playground, with its swings full of interchangeable children pendulizing back and forth, and slides that plunged or twirled with more interchangeable children fighting over the right to be next in line. Parents ringed the space, flanked by strollers, scoldingly dispensing apple slices and pretzels and yogurt. There was the lawn, with its grass due to be mown, pocked with dandelions and infested with drab little birds. There were the trees, in full repetitive leaf, only two feasible to climb and one of those unpleasantly sappy and the other long since rendered boring by exposure.

Nyssa found a park bench which had the minimum amount of suspicious substances on its slats, and she sat. When she had sat for fifteen minutes, looking at nothing and thinking of less, considering her book and rejecting the idea of opening it, she got up and walked. She walked not because she had anywhere to be, or because she thought she would enjoy the stroll, but because she couldn't bear the thought of continuing to sit. She shuffled into the depths of the park along the paths, up and down little rises and swells in the ground, weaving between the plants and stepping over the patches of poor repair in the paved sections. Squirrels chattered at her. The sun beat down on her hair when she moved between shadows. The whole place smelled of plants, alive and dead alike.

When she had gotten nearly all the way to the far end of the park, she saw, stationed over the path she was walking on, a gate. It was painted bright red - it was by far the most eye-catching thing in the scene, glossy and high and so unlike a tree. She approached it, as she was going in that direction regardless, and had a closer look. It wasn't meant to obstruct; it was empty in the middle, no door or curtain. It was just two red poles stuck into the clover on either side, connected at the top with a decorative wooden structure. There was a plaque on the left-hand pole, reading Untitled; Anonymous. There was a plaque on the right-hand pole, reading, With nowhere else to go, you might as well go here. With nothing else to do, you might as well do this.

Nyssa frowned at this second plaque. It seemed like it was inviting her to take it personally, like an insult to her in particular, but of course this was not a characteristic plaques usually had. She decided that if it was untitled and anonymous it was probably made by an artist. Artists, she had heard, were eccentric, which she'd looked up in the dictionary (she occasionally resorted to the dictionary to account for her education, if she had particularly bad luck with the library books) and found to mean "slightly crazy". This was enough explanation for Nyssa to be getting on with. She went through the gate, not because it had invited her to do so but because it was on the path she was walking anyway.

Through the gate, the air was warmer, though it hadn't been cold before and it wasn't hot now. The park's little dips and hillocks seemed steeper, and the sky brighter, and the birdsong more varied, though Nyssa didn't notice any of that till she'd gone a few more yards down the path. Then she did notice that she'd expected to double back to the other end of the park, curving right. There was no right curve here - in fact, the way to the right seemed rather denser with trees than she remembered any part of the park being. The path now curved firmly to her left and disappeared down a slope.

Nyssa wasn't used to paths doing that, but she doubted very much that arguing with the park about it would do her any good. She turned left, unsure where to expect to wind up but having nowhere else to go and nothing else to do.