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What Happened Afterward



My thanks to all those who helped and encouraged me through the many drafts of this book, including Susie Mader, Pat Carr, Charlotte Muse, Patrick Daly, Sara Jenkins, Molly Tyson, and Christine Baker. Special thanks to my editor, Jim Thomas, for pushing me relentlessly when I most needed pushing, and also to Jordan Benjamin, for sharing his expert knowledge of snakes (including a live demonstration of snake dinnertime).











Jeanne DuPrau is the bestselling author ofThe City of Ember andThe People of Sparks. She has been a teacher, an editor, and a writer of nonfiction. She’s always wanted to live in a huge, mysterious old house with secret passages and ghosts, but for now she lives in a rather ordinary house in California, where she keeps a big garden and a small dog.




What Happened Afterward


The house in California was on a farm that spread out at the foot of low green hills. There were acres of land for Nickie and Otis to wander in. Nickie loved living there. Snow fell in the winter, and in the summer the fields were full of butterflies.


Crystal went back to New Jersey. Len came to visit her there, and she went to Yonwood sometimes to visit him, and it didn’t take long for them to decide they were meant for each other and should get married. Luckily, the Hardestys decided to withdraw their offer on Greenhaven, giving Crystal the chance to make the decision that had been slowly growing in her mind. She took Greenhaven off the market, and she and Len moved into it themselves, filling its rooms with the kind of plushy pale furniture Crystal liked. Four children followed, a girl and three boys, who used the third-floor nursery room for games, puppy training, movie watching, and bouncing on a small trampoline. Two parakeets lived there, and one hamster. For the next five summers, Nickie flew across the country and spent a month at Greenhaven with her small cousins, and in this way she fulfilled, more or less, her first goal.


The summer Nickie was twelve and Grover was fourteen, the two of them paid a visit to Hoyt McCoy, and he showed them the universe that shimmered on the walls of all his downstairs rooms. Then he took them upstairs and showed them his telescope and whole rooms full of astronomical equipment. “I search for signs of extraterrestrial life,” he told them. “It’s difficult to search in this universe because everything is so far away. Fifty years for light to get here even from thenearest star—ridiculous! But other universes—which might be right next to ours, closer than that chair there—that’s something else again.” His eyes gleamed. “Imagine a rift, a crack in our universe that gives us access to another one. Only for an instant, just long enough to see that it can be done. Would you believe such a thing possible?”


They said they didn’t know.


Iknow,” said Hoyt. “Not that I can begin to explain it to you. But that winter you were here, Nicole—well, I will just say that certain people in Washington were astounded by what I told them.”


“Washington?” said Grover. “Astounded?”


“Quite. Astounded enough, at a crucial moment, to put aside certain dire plans. Astounded enough to think that perhaps it was better to explore the world than destroy it. But I am saying too much. Never mind, never mind.”


They pestered him with questions, but he would say no more.


Nickie always wondered, after that, if Hoyt McCoy had had something to do with preventing the war. People had waited for over a week after the president’s deadline, with nothing but rumors in the news. Finally there came an announcement: an agreement had been reached with the Phalanx Nations after all; war had been averted. No country set off its arsenal of bombs, and the terrorists seemed to fade back into whatever dark corners they had come from. For a while, there were wild rumors that the government had received messages from an alien starship that taught the leaders how to solve their problems. But that was never proven, and hardly anyone believed it. Most people thought that they’d come through all right because God was on their side.


Brenda Beeson was extremely upset to discover that the Prophet’s blurry words had not been orders from God. In fact, she couldn’t quite believe it. She warned people not to lose faith, and to keep up their battle against evil. She pointed out that although war hadn’t come, the terrorist was still up there in the woods. Then one day that spring a young photographer named Annie Everard took her camera up the trail to take pictures of wildflowers and came back instead with a fairly clear shot of a white bear. Everyone was relieved. Now that the danger was past, they decided to go back to following regular laws made by people rather than commands that might or might not come from God.


Mrs. Beeson found this extraordinarily frustrating. She ran for mayor the next year, but when she lost, she took up a life of study instead. She set up an office in her house, equipped with a powerful computer that had a lightning-fast Internet connection and all kinds of software for finding and reading and organizing information, and there she pored over holy writings from every place and time, trying to figure out, once and for all, what God was really saying.


Althea Tower asked everyoneplease not to call her the Prophet. She was sorry for all the things that had been done in her name, especially the episode of the dogs, even though it wasn’t her fault. So she set up a place in her backyard where people could bring their dogs when they went away on trips. She also led bird-watching walks around town for anyone who wanted to come, and she kept her birdbaths and bird feeders full both winter and summer. She tended to have nightmares, though, and she never completely recovered her health.


Grover was in Yonwood only occasionally in those years. After the Arrowhead Wilderness Reptile Expedition, he spent the next year living with his father’s sister in Arizona so he could work with the Young Herpetologists program there on the weekends, and when he was seventeen and had graduated from high school, he went to study in Thailand. His life turned out to be the very one he’d wanted: adventurous, interesting, and useful. He traveled through the swamps of Malaysia, the forests of Kashmir, and the deserts of northern Africa; no one knew more than he did about the strange, endangered creatures of those lands.


Years later, Crystal sent Nickie two newspaper articles from theYonwood Daily. One was about Grover. He had become, the article said, a world-renowned expert on a previously unknown Amazonian snake called the flame-tongued boa. He’d discovered that a gland in its throat produced a chemical that could be used to make a powerful painkiller, and the painkiller was now used by doctors all over the world. When Nickie heard this, she smiled to herself, remembering her Goal #3. On that first trip to Yonwood, shehad done something to help the world after all: she had started Grover on the road to his discovery.


The other article was about Althea Tower. It was simply a brief notice of her death. She had caught a bad flu that developed into pneumonia, and she’d died at the age of sixty-four.


And so the Prophet wasn’t around when it began to look as if her terrible vision might be coming true after all.


The problem was, the conflicts that threatened the world when Nickie was eleven had never really been resolved. For a while, leaders turned to the quest for knowledge, putting their efforts into finding out what secrets the universe might hold, and the world changed in many ways. But time passed, the leaders of one era were succeeded by the leaders of the next, and the old fears and differences arose again, fiercer than ever.


And so, long after Nickie had grown up and married and had children, after her children were grown and gone, after her husband (who’d fulfilled her Goal #2) had died—that was when the world once again plummeted down toward darkness. Perhaps, Nickie thought, the Prophet reallyhad seen a glimpse of the future—just a more distant future than anyone had thought. What was happening certainly matched the horrors that had frightened her so badly.


All over the world, people who believed in one truth fought against people who believed in a different truth, all of them believing theirs was the onlyreal truth, and all of them willing to do anything—absolutely anything—to defend it. Nations readied and aimed their missiles. They sent their soldiers to take over cities and fight for land, and as the fighting swarmed across deserts and jungles and seas, new diseases broke out, and warring troops and fleeing refugees carried them to one country after another; hundreds of thousands died. Fear ran like a pack of wolves across the planet, and people were afraid for the survival of the human race.


That was when the enormous project that Nickie’s father had worked on fifty years before was at last put to use. It was an entire city, built beneath the ground, stocked with supplies and sealed off from the surface so that its inhabitants could live there as long as necessary, safe from whatever was going to happen above. When the human race seemed truly threatened, the government contacted a few carefully selected people and asked if they might be willing to volunteer for this enterprise. Nickie, being the daughter of one of the Builders, was among them.


She was torn. She hesitated a long time before making up her mind. She loved the world and didn’t like the prospect of going down into a dark place and remaining there, probably, for the rest of her life. Butbecause she loved the world, she finally decided to go. She was sixty years old, after all; she’d had many good years of life. But she wanted to make sure people were still around after she was gone to keep on loving the world. Who would appreciate its beauty and wonders and strangeness if people were gone? So she volunteered. And as she sent off her letter of acceptance, she remembered again her long-ago Goal #3: to do something good for the world. She’d tried her best to help the world during her life, doing the small things that came along. Maybe this was a big thing for her to do—the biggest, and the last.


Besides, she was curious. What would it be like to live in an underground city?


When the day came, she was both sad and excited. On the train, she began keeping a journal, but when the travelers got to the cave entrance and had gone down a long tunnel to the river that would take them to the city, she was afraid the leader would catch her writing (it was against the rules), so she wrapped her journal in a green plastic rain hat, wound a narrow belt around it a couple of times to hold the plastic on, and stashed it behind a rock. Maybe someone will find it someday, she thought. It will be a sort of letter to the future.







The Inheritance


Nickie Randolph’s first sight of the town of Yonwood was a white steeple rising out of the pine forest that covered the mountainside. She leaned forward, gazing through the windshield of the car. “Is that it?”


Her aunt Crystal, who was driving, put one hand up to shield her eyes from the rays of the setting sun. “That’s it,” she said.


“My new home,” said Nickie.


“You have to get that notion out of your mind,” said Crystal. “It’s not going to happen.”


I’m going tomake it happen, thought Nickie, though she didn’t say it out loud. Crystal’s mood was already bad enough. “How long till we get there?” she asked.


“We’ll be there in twenty minutes, if nothing else gets in our way.”


A lot had gotten in their way so far. The Streakline train was closed down because of the Crisis, so they’d had to drive. They’d been on the road for seven hours, though the trip from Philadelphia should have taken no more than five. But long lines at gas stations, detours around pot-holed or snow-covered stretches of highway, and military roadblocks had slowed them down. Crystal didn’t like delays. She was a fast-moving, efficient person, and when her way was blocked, she became very tense and spoke with her lips in two hard lines.


They came to the Yonwood exit, and Crystal turned off the highway onto a road that wound uphill. Here the trees grew thick on either side, and so tall that their bare branches met overhead, making a canopy of sticks. Drops of rain began to spatter the car’s windshield.


After a while, they came to a sign that said, “Yonwood. Pop. 2,460.” The trees thinned out, and the rain fell harder. They passed a few storage sheds, a collapsing barn, and a lumberyard. After that, houses began to appear on the side of the road—small, tired-looking wooden houses, their roofs dripping. Many of them had rockers or couches on the front porch, where people would no doubt be sitting if it weren’t the dead of winter.


From a small brick shelter at the side of the road, a policeman stepped out holding a red stop sign. He held it up and waved it at them. Crystal slowed down, stopped, and opened her window. The policeman bent down. He had on a rain jacket with the hood up, and rain dripped off the hood and onto his nose. “Hello, ma’am,” he said. “Are you a resident?”


“No,” said Crystal. “Is that a problem?”


“Just doing a routine entry check, ma’am,” the man said. “Part of our safety program. Had some evidence lately of possible terrorist activity in the woods. Your purpose here?”


“My grandfather has died,” Crystal said. “My sister and I have inherited his house. I’ve come to fix the house up and sell it.”


The man glanced at Nickie. “This is your sister?”


“This is my niece,” said Crystal. “My sister’s daughter.”


“And your grandfather’s name?” said the man.


“Arthur Green,” said Crystal.


“Ah, yes,” the policeman said. “A fine gentleman.” He smiled. “You be careful while you’re here, now. We’ve had reports indicating there may be agents of the Phalanx Nations traveling alone or in small groups in parts of the area. Have you been spoken to by any suspicious strangers?”


“No,” said Crystal. “Just you. You seem very suspicious.”


“Ha ha,” said the man, not really laughing. “All right, ma’am,” he went on. “You may go. Sorry for the delay, but as you know there’s a crisis. We’re taking every precaution.”


He stepped away, and they drove on.


“Terrorists evenhere ?” Nickie said.


“It’s nonsense,” said Crystal. “Why would a terrorist be wandering around in the woods? Pay no attention.”


Nickie was so tired of the Crisis. It had been going on now for months. On TV and the radio, it was all you ever heard about: how Our Side and Their Side had come almost, but not quite, to the point of declaring all-out war. In the last week or so, the radio had started broadcasting frightening instructions every hour: “In the event of a declaration of war or a large-scale terrorist attack, cities will be evacuated in an orderly fashion…. Residents will be directed to safe locations…. Citizens should remain calm….”


It seemed to Nickie that everything in the world had gone wrong—including her own family. Eight months ago, her father had left on a government job. He couldn’t tell them where he was going or what he was supposed to do, and he warned that he might not be able to get in touch with them very often. This turned out to be true. She and her mother had had exactly one postcard from him. The postmark had been smudged, so they couldn’t tell where the card came from. And the message was no help, either. It said, “Dear Rachel and Nickie, I am working hard, everything is fine, don’t worry. I hope you’re both doing well. Love, Dad.”


But they were not doing well. Nickie’s mother missed Nickie’s father and couldn’t bear not knowing where he was. She worried about losing her job, and so she worked too hard, and so she was always tired and sad. And Nickie hadn’t felt happy or safe for a long time. She hated Philadelphia. Something awful seemed always about to happen there. The emergency sirens blasted night and day. Government helicopters circled overhead. In the streets, where trash blew in the wind, dangerous people might be around any corner. And school—a tall, grim building with stinking bathrooms—was just as bad. The books were older than the students, the teachers were too tired to teach, and mean kids prowled the halls. Nickie hated being at school.


But she didn’t much like being at home, either, in the big tenth-floor condo where she and her mother lived, with its dusty, unused rooms and its huge plateglass windows that gave a frightening view straight down to the tiny street below. She was home alone too much lately. She was nervous and restless. She’d read half a book and set it down. She’d work on her Amazing Things scrapbook and get bored after pasting in just one picture. She’d gaze through her binoculars at people going by on the street below, which she used to do for hours, but even her endless curiosity seemed to have faded, and she’d turn away after a few minutes. When she was really desperate, she’d turn on the TV, even though there was almost nothing on but news, and the news was always the same: grim government spokesmen, troops in camouflage dashing around in foreign places, and the skeletons of blown-up cars and buses. Sometimes the president would come on, his white hair always brushed perfectly smooth, his neat white beard giving him a look of wisdom. “These are dangerous times,” he would say, “but with the help of God we will prevail.”


She was lonely at home, with her father gone and her mother always at work, and she was lonely at school, becauseboth her best friends had moved—Kate to Washington last year, and Sophy to Florida two months ago. Sometimes, late at night when her mother still wasn’t home, Nickie felt like someone in a tiny lifeboat, drifting by itself in a big, dark, dangerous sea.


That was why, as soon as she heard about Greenhaven, her great-grandfather’s house in Yonwood, before she’d even seen it, she decided it would be her home. She loved its name; a haven was a safe place, and that’s what she wanted. The trouble was, Crystal and her mother wanted to sell it.


“But why can’t we sellthis place instead?” Nickie had said to her mother. “And get out of the horrible city and go live in a beautiful, peaceful place for a change?”


Nickie had actually never been to her great-grandfather’s house in Yonwood, except for one time when she was too young to remember. But she’d made up a picture of Yonwood in her mind that she was sure must be close to the truth: it was rather like a Swiss ski village, she decided, where in the winter there would be log fires in fireplaces and big puffy comforters on the beds, and the snow would be pure white, not filthy and gray as it was in the city. In summer, Yonwood would be warm and green, with butterflies. In Yonwood, she would be happy and safe. She desperately wanted to go there.


After days of arguing, she finally convinced her mother to let her at least see the house before it was sold. All right, her mother said. Nickie could take a couple of weeks off school, drive down with Crystal (her mother couldn’t leave work), and help her get the place fixed up and put on the market. Nickie agreed, but her real plan was different: somehow she would persuade Crystal to keep the house, not sell it, and she and her mother (and her father, when he came back) would go and live there, and everything would be different, and better.


That was her Goal #1. But since she was sure this was going to be a life-changing trip, she thought she might as well add other goals as well. Altogether, she had set herself three:


1. To keep her great-grandfather’s house from being sold so she could live in it with her parents.


2. To fall in love. She was eleven now, and she thought it was time for this. Not to fall in love in a permanent way, just to have the experience of being madly, passionately in love. She knew she was a passionate person. She had a big love inside her, and she needed to give it.


3. To do something helpful for the world. What that would be she had no idea, but the world needed help badly. She would keep her eyes open for an opportunity.


They were driving now up the town’s main business street. It was in fact called Main Street—Nickie saw the name on a sign. They passed the church whose steeple Nickie had seen from the highway. In front of it was a two-legged wooden sign that said, in hand-painted letters, “Church of the Fiery Vision.” Nickie could tell, though, that the sign used to say something else; the old name of the church had been painted over.


Beyond the church, the shopping district began. Probably it was pretty in summer, Nickie thought, but now, in February, it had a gray and shuttered look, as if the buildings themselves were cold. Some stores were open, and people walked in and out of them, but others looked permanently closed, their windows dark. There was a movie theater, but its ticket booth was boarded up. There was a park, but its swings and picnic tables were wet and empty.


Crystal turned left, drove uphill for a block, and turned right on a street lined with old houses. On one side of this street—it was Cloud Street, its sign said—the ground sloped upward, so that the houses stood up high, at the crest of their lawns. They were huge houses, with columns and wide porches and numerous chimneys. The people in there, Nickie thought, would be sitting beside roaring fires on an evening like this, probably drinking hot chocolate.


“It’s this one,” said Crystal, drawing in toward the curb.


Nickie gasped. “Thisone?”


“I’m afraid so.” Her aunt stopped the car, and Nickie gaped at the house, stunned. Rain poured down, but she opened the window anyway, to get a better look.


It was more of a castle than a house. It loomed over them, immense and massive, three stories high. At one corner was a tower—round, with high windows. The steep slate roof bristled with chimneys. Rain ran down it in sheets, glistening in the last of the daylight.


“Youcan’t sell this house,” Nickie said. “It’s too wonderful.”


“It’s awful,” said her aunt. “You’ll see.”


A gust of wind dipped the branches of a pine tree that grew close to the house, and Nickie thought she saw a light in a high window.


“Does anyone still live here?” she asked.


“No,” said Crystal. “Just the mice and cockroaches.”


When Nickie looked up again, the light was gone.






The Third Floor


They put up the hoods of their jackets and dashed through the pelting rain, along the path, up the steps, and across the stone terrace to the wide, wooden door. The Yonwood real estate office had sent Crystal a key; she fitted it into the keyhole, turned it, and pushed the door open.


They stepped into a wide hall. Crystal groped for the light switch, and a light came on, revealing walls hung with gilt-framed paintings of old-fashioned people, such old paintings that they were nearly black. At the end of the hall was a flight of stairs curving up into the darkness.


Through an archway to the left was the dining room, where chairs stood around a long table. Through an archway to the right was the living room. “The front parlor,” Crystal said, turning on a lamp. It was a gloomy room: dark red curtains at the windows, floor-length; walls lined halfway up with bookcases, and above the bookcases red fuzzy wallpaper; Persian rugs on the floor, thin as sheets of burlap, patterned in dusty blue and faded red. And beside the window, a long couch with three bed pillows and two blankets neatly folded.


“This must have been where Grandfather spent his last days,” Crystal said.


“Who took care of him?” Nickie asked.


“He hired a girl, I believe. For those last few weeks, he wasn’t able to cook for himself, and he needed help to get around.” Crystal reached out and picked something up from a side table. “Look,” she said. “Here he is. Grandfather.” It was a silver-framed photograph of a smiling, silver-haired man. “You would have liked him,” Crystal said. “He was interested in everything, just like you.”


Nickie studied the man in the photograph. He was very old; his skin sagged, but his eyes were lively.


Crystal strode to a window and swept back the curtains. “What I need to do,” she said, “is make a list of the valuables.” She took a notebook out of her big purse. “I may as well start on it, as long as we’re here. I think there might be some first editions among the books.”


“I’m going to look around, okay?” said Nickie. “I want to see everything.”


Her aunt nodded.


Nickie went back through the dining room and through a swinging door that led to the most ancient kitchen she had ever seen. It had a smell so indescribably repellent that she hurried away down a passage that led behind the front parlor.


There she found two bedrooms, each with a towering four-poster bed of black carved wood and a great black chest of drawers topped with a mirror in a heavy frame. Up on the second floor were four more bedrooms. She pulled open a few drawers, expecting to find them empty. But they were filled with folded clothes and jewelry boxes and hairbrushes and old bottles of dried-up perfume. It looked as if no one had ever cleaned these rooms out after their occupants had gone away or died.


There was a study on the second floor, too, where a computer sat on a desk, and a lot of file folders and papers and books lay scattered around the room. Her great-grandfather must have worked here. He’d been a college professor before he retired, but Nickie wasn’t sure what he’d been a professorof. Some sort of science.


It was strange, she thought. Until just a few days ago, this house had been lived in continuously for over 150 years. It was never vacant, and it was never sold—her ancestors had always owned it. Children had grown up here. Old people had died. The house had been so full of life for so long that it probably felt like a living thing itself—and now, in its sudden emptiness, knowing its family no longer wanted it, she imagined it must feel frightened and lonely. Well,I want you, she thought. I think you’re wonderful.


Remembering that there was a third story, Nickie looked for another stairway. She found it behind a door to the left of the big front stairs—these weren’t broad and polished but narrow and plain. There was no handrail along the wall.


At the top was a closed door. She opened it to find herself in a hall with two doors on each side. She looked into all the rooms. Two of them were crammed full of stuff: suitcases and boxes and hatboxes, enormous old trunks with leather straps, stacks of papers and portraits in broken frames and mildewed books and paper-wrapped packages and grocery bags stuffed with who knows what, all of it draped in swags of dusty cobwebs.


The third room was a tiny bathroom that hadn’t been cleaned for a while.


But the fourth room was wonderful. It was big and airy, with windows on two sides. The tower formed one corner of it, making a circular alcove with windows all around and a wide window seat running beneath them—the perfect place for sitting with a book on a sunny day, or with lamplight over your shoulder on a dark day like this one. Nickie guessed that this room had been a nursery, because old toys were jumbled into cabinets along one wall. A rolled-up rug lay at one end of the room, and by the windows was a rocking chair. At the far end of the room stood an iron bed, neatly made, as if just waiting for her.


This would be her room, she decided. She loved it already.


As she was about to go back into the hall, a sound stopped her. It was a sort of squeak, or cry, cut short as if someone had clapped a hand over the squeaker’s mouth. Nickie stood still and listened. At first she heard nothing—just the patter of the rain on the windows. She was about to move on when she heard it again—two squeaks this time, and a bump. It seemed to be coming from the closet.


She froze, suddenly remembering the light she’d seen from the street. What if someone dangerous was hiding in the closet? A burglar surprised in the middle of a burglary? Or a homeless person who’d sneaked into the house? Or even a terrorist? She hesitated.


There was another squeak—very faint, but definitely coming from the closet. In a choked voice, Nickie said, “Who’s in there?”


No answer.


Nickie’s curiosity took over. This happened to her a lot. Her hunger for finding things out was so strong that it overcame caution and even common sense. So now, although she was afraid, she dashed to the closet, flung open the door, and leapt back.


Inside, pressed up against the rear wall, half hidden by shirts and dresses dangling from hangers, was a tall, thin girl with wide, terrified eyes. Her hands were wrapped around the muzzle of a small, wildly squirming dog.






Date: 2015-12-18; view: 1481

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