CHAPTER ONE May Bird Went to the Land of the Dead and All She Brought Me Was This Lousy T-Shirt
I N AN EMPTY CLOSET IN the south bedroom, on the second floor of White Moss Manor, the clothes hangers jangled, as if they had been touched by a cool breeze.
On the bed by the window, swathed in an old quilt, lay two lumps, one girl-sized and one cat-sized. A dark head and a pair of ears poked out from the top of the blanket as the lumps stirred.
May sat up, wondering what had woken her, and crawled out of bed. Skinny as a stick bug and long as a shoelace, May—at age thirteen—was a tall, lanky sort of girl, with legs like a gazelle’s and long, graceful arms that seemed a little unsure where they should tuck themselves. The hair that tumbled down her back was black and long. It glistened stubbornly in the cool December air, glossy as silk spun by caterpillars under
the moon. Her brown eyes were as wide as windows, but unlike her hair, they barely glistened at all.
Somber Kitty poked his head out from under the covers to gaze at her. Wrinkly and bald, with just the faintest hint of fuzz covering him and batlike ears as big as his pointed head, Somber Kitty was a hairless Rex cat and looked like a cross between melting ice cream and an extraterrestrial. He sneezed before tucking his head back under the covers disgustedly. It was too early. May gave the closet a curious look, a glimmer of something hopeful in her eye. And then she shook it off, sighed, and began to dress.
Her room had undergone a vast and miraculous transformation in the past three years. Where fantastical pictures used to hang from the walls in sloppy collages, there were now posters of pop stars and favorite movies. Where there had been inventions strewn across her desk, there was now a basket full of makeup, hairspray, and CDs. Only two drawings remained. One of Legume the dead cat. And one of a creature with a lopsided, pumpkin-shaped head. From its spot tucked away in the corner, it watched May’s comings and goings with a crooked, ghastly smile.
She pulled on her long johns, then her jeans, and a bright pink sweater. She lifted Kitty out of the bed with one hand, tucked him across her shoulder like a baby, and hopped down the stairs.
White Moss Manor never glowed with homey warmth and good cheer quite the way it did at Christmas. The downstairs hall was filled with the scent of the great pine tree she and her
mom had bought and decorated the day before. May slid her socked feet down the crooked, creaky hallway, breathing in the thick smell of fresh holly and evergreen sprigs. She was on her way to the kitchen when she heard a sound coming from behind her down the hall.
She switched directions and sock-slid to the end of the hall, and through the open archway into the library. White Moss Manor’s library was dusty and lopsided, with books lining its shelves from floor to ceiling. The tree lights cast their sparkling reflection across the dusty old book spines and across the couch, where Mrs. Bird lay watching TV.
On the screen, a reporter was sitting in the backyard of White Moss Manor. A ten-year-old May sat beside him, skinny, tiny, and pale, looking so bedraggled she might have just tumbled out of the dryer. The man’s hair was slicked back with shiny gel, his mouth open in a big, fake smile.
Ellen Bird looked up at her daughter and scooched back to make room for her. “We can change it if you want, honey. They’re doing a Christmas special of their favorite news stories,” she said.
“That’s okay.” May crawled onto the couch beside her mom, and the two curled up to each other like twin caterpillars, Somber Kitty sniffing the crack in between them for a cozy place to snuggle. Sunday mornings at White Moss Manor usually involved eating popcorn and watching a favorite DVD, often Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which Somber Kitty enjoyed most of all.
No matter how many times she had seen herself on TV, May always found it a bit eerie. She gazed at the image of her ten-year-old self, wondering if she had ever really been that person at all.
“We’re here with a girl who needs no introduction. Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past few weeks, you’ve seen her—called by many the eighth wonder of the world, her face appearing across the globe on newspapers, magazines, even these”—he held out an armful of paraphernalia, T-shirts printed with MAY BIRD WENT TO THE LAND OF THE DEAD AND ALL SHE BROUGHT ME WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT and squirt bottles labeled EVERLASTING WATER BOTTLE.
“I don’t need to tell you that psychiatrists have come thousands of miles to study her. Physicists have examined her hair, her fingernails, even the stuff inside her ears. And still, we’re no closer to understanding the mystery: how May Ellen Bird walked into the woods . . . and failed to come out again for three months.” The reporter squinted meaningfully.
A growl came from somewhere off-camera, and both May and the reporter looked offscreen, where Somber Kitty had begun to grow restless. May motioned him to shush as the reporter turned back to her, clearly annoyed. “May,” he said as he laid down the souvenirs, “tell us: Do you still claim that all those months you were on a journey to the land of the dead, which you say is located”—he turned to the camera—“on a star”—he lowered his voice an octave—“called the Ever After?” He turned back to May Bird, raising one eyebrow dramatically.
May stared at the reporter, then off beyond the camera at Somber Kitty. “Yes.”
The reporter cleared his throat.
“And so what you’re saying is, there’s a world of ghosts up there, terrorized by a fearsome spirit named Evil Knievel, and protected by a wise old ‘Lady of North Farm,’ who lives in a giant magnolia tree in a snowy valley at the northern edge of the realm?”
May hesitated, then corrected him softly. “It’s Evil Bo Cleevil.”
“Right, and there in the Ever After, you were assisted by”—the reporter studied a notepad he pulled out of his pocket—“a ghost with a big squash-shaped head; a girl named Beatrice who died of typhoid in the early 1900s; a deceased Italian air force pilot named Captain Fabbio, who writes bad poetry; and a mischievous, handsome boy named Lucius, your love interest. Not to mention your hairless cat.” The reporter smirked off-camera, in Kitty’s direction.
“Well, I don’t have a love interest,” May stammered, blushing and clearly bewildered.
“And you say you ended up there by falling into a lake that no longer exists”—he nodded over his shoulder—“in the woods behind your house?”
May nodded uncertainly.
“Now, May”—the reporter’s smile turned serious—“you have a cult following among people who believe in things like UFOs, yoga, and Bigfoot. Let me run some rumors by you. True or false: Are you carrying the spirit of Bigfoot’s two-headed love
child?” May shook her head, her brown eyes open wide. “Is Barbra Streisand really Cleopatra reincarnated?” May bit her lip, then shrugged. “Do you believe the reports that appeared in the Questioner a few weeks ago that, thanks to your story, NASA is planning to launch a space probe to look for the world of ghosts?” May shook her head.
“May, you claimed that, according to something called The Book of the Dead, you’re supposed to save the Ever After from certain doom.” He looked her up and down intently, as if to indicate the ridiculousness of this claim, given her small stature, her knobby knees, her timid disposition. He leaned forward, and his voice softened dramatically. “If that’s true, why haven’t the ghosts come back for you? Did they forget you exist?”
Onscreen, the ten-year-old May looked over her shoulder toward the woods behind her. The trees shook and swayed in the breeze, turning up their leaves. They seemed to wave at the camera forlornly. A sad, hurt kind of tilt played at the corners of her lips, and her brown eyes grew even wider. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Maybe it’s because there’s no such thing as ghosts?” the reporter asked, smiling obligingly.
May let out a long, soft breath.
The reporter cleared his throat. “One more thing.” He looked like he could barely hold back laughter, and he gave the camera a conspiratorial glance. “As our resident expert on the undead, can you tell me what the chances are that zombies might come and take over our shopping malls sometime soon?” He made a
dramatic spooky face at the camera and pretended to shiver.
Click. The TV went off.
“Zombies. Of all the ridiculous . . .” Mrs. Bird’s voice trailed off as she sat up, arranging her curly brown hair, which had shaped itself into a lopsided lump against the pillow. She shook her head.
May pulled the blankets tighter around herself.
Mrs. Bird looked at her and tilted her head slightly, sympathetic. “Oh, don’t look so worried, honey. People forget these things the minute they turn the channel. When you’re grown, it will all seem like a distant memory.” Mrs. Bird stared at her a moment longer, intently, the way she sometimes did. At times like these, May knew her mom was wishing she could see right into her brain and find the hidden threads of the lost three unbelievable months that were woven there. But to ask again would be to break an unspoken agreement they’d had for years: to never mention May’s disappearance—or May’s fantastical story of the Ever After—to each other again. It always ended up hurting them too much, because neither could give the other what they wanted.
“Finny Elway called again,” Mrs. Bird said, running a finger through May’s long hair and pulling it back to braid it, absently. “He certainly is a nice boy on the phone.”
May didn’t answer. Finny was a boy in her class. Out of all the boys at Hog Wallow Middle, he was probably the cutest and by far the most interesting. He had hazel eyes and brown hair that flopped down in such a way that made the other girls practically faint. And he didn’t eat his own boogers, which was a giant
bonus. But whenever he called, May pretended to be sleeping, or to have laryngitis, or she would duck under the nearest piece of furniture so her mom wouldn’t be able to find her.
“Why don’t you go for a walk, honey? It’s a beautiful day out.”
Mrs. Bird nodded to the window, where pure, white winter sunshine was pouring through. But May only shook her head. She wanted to stay under the blankets with her mom, where it was warm.
Many things had changed for May since she was ten. She had stopped telling bedtime stories to her cat. She had stopped coming home with leaves in her hair and rocks in her pockets, stopped trying to fly by attaching herself to bunches of balloons, stopped dressing Somber Kitty as a warrior cat. And though, truly, she sometimes felt like something inside her had disappeared, it seemed that that must be a natural part of growing up. Standing out too much made one feel too alone to do it forever.
Sometimes, though, when she least expected it, while she was biking to school or out in the car with her mom, watching the woods roll past, or sitting in the rocking chair on the front porch, it came: the feeling that she had let something big and important slip away. And May would whisper to Somber Kitty her deepest secret of all: that sometimes she wished she had never come back from the Ever After at all.
“I’m in the mood for Peanut Butter Kiss cookies,” Mrs. Bird said, standing and stretching. She waggled her eyebrows.
May leaped from the couch, sending Somber Kitty tumbling.
Naturally, he landed on all fours and yawned, as if he were always getting tumbled off couches.
“Don’t mind if we do,” May replied. Sometimes, like when she and her mom baked cookies together, May was sure of every reason in the world she had come home.
In the kitchen they turned on the radio and listened to Christmas music, shaking back and forth in unison. Mrs. Bird measured out all the ingredients for the cookies, and May stirred. Some of the batter ended up on May’s fingers. She pretended to yawn, wiping it on her mom’s rosy right cheek. Her mom stuck a finger in the batter and pretended to fall forward, her battered finger landing on May’s nose. Somber Kitty sat on the linoleum floor, swatting his reflection in the glass window of the oven. When the news reports interrupted the music, May grew quiet and looked at her feet, because the news always made her worry—about people who didn’t have enough or trees that were being knocked down to build stores. But then the Christmas music was back, and they were dancing again, in a cloud of the scent of baking sugar.
Half an hour later, they had two batches—one of them burnt because they had been too busy pantomiming dashing through the snow to hear the buzzer. May was just putting on the oven mitts to load the third batch when the phone rang.
“Meeeoooow,” Somber Kitty growled, staring at the phone, his tail going ramrod straight. May looked at him curiously as Mrs. Bird crossed the room to grab the phone.
“Hello?” she said, once she’d scooped up the receiver. “Hello?”
She looked at May, shrugged, and hung up. “No one there. Be right back.”
She sashayed out of the kitchen door to the last strains of “Jingle Bells,” leaving May giggling behind her. May could hear her footsteps creaking up the old steps and down the hall above. The minute she turned back to the cookies, the phone rang again.
“May, will you get it?” Mrs. Bird called from upstairs. May looked at Kitty. Kitty’s tail was still standing straight up. He stared at the phone as if it had grown wings. For a moment, May’s heart thrummed. And then she realized how silly that was. Who was she hoping it was. The Bogeyman?
“Somebody would think you’d never heard a phone before,” May said, scratching his ears and then walking over to answer it. She pressed her ear against the handset.
She heard only three words . . . and then the line went dead.
May stood, staring at the receiver, a great chill sweeping up and down her body, her ears tingling and a thick lump in her throat. A movement drew her eyes to the doorway, and she jumped.
Mrs. Bird stood there, inquisitive. “Who was it?”
May swallowed. Standing in the doorway now, her mom looked relaxed, content, happy. She thought of before—of her mom’s worried looks, and the nights her mom held her so tight, scared of ever losing her again.
“No one,” May said, hanging up the phone. “Weird.”
Her mom shrugged and crossed the room, pulled the cookie
tray off the counter, and loaded it into the hot oven. May watched her, trying to catch her breath.
It couldn’t be, of course, what she thought. It had been too long. It belonged to the things that were tucked away.
But the voice on the other end of the line had seemed just like the one that belonged to someone with a pumpkin-shaped head and a crooked, ghastly smile. It had seemed like the voice of a ghost named Pumpkin.
It had said, “We need you.”