Rue finds herself sitting on the floor of her bedroom. Everything is warm and the walls are painted in familiar shades of yellow, books stacked in the corner, shelves full, clothes she hasn’t picked up thrown in a pile by the desk.
It’s November and her birthday is in a week.
Antonio has just forced Rue out of bed by pushing himself onto it, and then he has the gall to laugh when Rue fell to the floor.
He hands her a polaroid, then goes back to tinker with Dad’s camera.
Rue blinks at the picture. It’s of Rue and her friends, hanging out in the playground by the woods. Gil’s front teeth are still missing in this one. Poignant, she thinks, this past captured in a single moment, a memory offensively vivid even her brain stutters to recall. The edges of the polaroid have turned a rusty orange, and the past-Rue who is sitting by the slide is melting into the sunlight.
Apart from her, everybody seems so real.
“Mum thinks you’re too embarrassed to ask for what you want,” Antonio says.
Rue throws him a dirty look. “What would I ask for my birthday that’s so embarrassing?”
“That’s what I said,” Antonio says. “You embarrass yourself enough.”
Rue debates throwing the pillow at him, but Antonio sobers. “But really. Mum will end up buying the whole bookstore if you don’t tell her anything. You’ll end up a fire hazard soon enough.”
“Speak for yourself.”
Antonio pulls Rue back onto the bed.
“I don’t really want anything,” she says, grip shaky around her brother’s hand. “Things are good, aren’t they?”
“They are,” he says like he wants to believe it too.
At school, Antonio finds Rue at the back of the science lab where he knows she sometimes hides from her friends when she wants to be alone. Rue watches her brother pick the book from her lap, turning the pages curiously, and she realises it all over again: Antonio is born to be in this world. A world where his hands are clean and his wrist is unmarred by names, where he can curl under Mamma’s quilt and read until he falls asleep.
A world where his shadow stretches solidly across the grass and the wind moulds his hair into weird shapes.
He looks like he has horns sticking out of his head.
“What’s so funny?” Antonio gives her a baffled smile.
“How was your Critical Thinking test?” Rue asks.
His face falls. “That was three months ago, Rue. Are you all right?”
With enough probing from her brother, Rue eventually tells him that the nightmares have never stopped. As a result, Antonio’s door would always be left open. There are five steps from Rue’s room to Antonio’s, and eight steps from his door to the bed. Thirteen steps in total. She knows this because she begins to walk there almost every night.
And then, comes Rue’s birthday.
Everyone is busy preparing for the party when the doorbell rings. Bree, who has been decorating the kitchen archway with giant rainbow letters, runs to get the door.
She dashes back in, demanding, “Which genius invited the upperclassman from the debate team?”
Lugnor Caw is standing piously in the light of the doorway like a rapier thrusted at the night. He gives them a smile full of teeth.
“Ruelle did, of course,” he says.
Everybody turns to Rue.
“It wasn’t me,” she says.
Antonio arches his eyebrows. “Maybe you forgot?”
Rue abandons the attempt to put the party hat on Tommy’s head and goes to greet the unwelcome guest.
“Hello,” she says. “Sorry, but I—”
“Happy birthday, Swiss Cheese,” says Caw, voice like molasses. “This special day won’t come by again — you should enjoy it.”
“Or you could accompany me on a little stroll?”
They walk down the street, along the pavement that look like marble oceans in the dark. Headlights of a passing vehicle threw a monstrous shadow against the Gooles’ garage, and from the window of their living room, a documentary flickers across the telly like a memory, a proof of living for a second.
Rue wants to run back into her house and into the warmth of Mamma’s arms. She wants to laugh at Bree’s jokes and listen to Antonio complain about the mess Tommy and Gil would make. She wants Polly to braid her hair.
“You can’t have everything,” says Caw darkly, “not when your nightmares are tearing your world apart. Choose, or you will lose both.”
Shadows swim before her.
Rue struggles to breathe. “I don’t want to leave.”
“Then stay,” he says. “This life isn’t a bad option. You have everything you want here.”
“But this—this isn’t real,” she wheezes.
His eyes are more brutal than anything she has ever seen.
“Then leave. Go back. You will be in pain. You will struggle for your dreams. You will live a half-life because the one you call brother has twisted you into something only he can understand. You may never be able to turn twelve, let alone thirteen.”
She wants to stay. With Dad and Mamma and Antonio, a lifetime playing family in their little house with warm hugs and laughter and happiness. She wants to grow up and grow old and make everybody proud. If she stays, she will get to keep her friends too.
Nobody will have to suffer like in her dreams.
Rue swallows a lump in her throat. “What will happen to him if I stay? To the one who looks like Nio?”
Caw studies her, eyes dark and knowing.
“The creature who looks like your brother has sacrificed his own future to give you a chance at one. If you go back, you will live the life he has dreamed for you. If you stay, you can live your own dream.”
There must be a sharp wind or something because Rue’s eyes feel like they’re being stabbed by a thousand pinpricks. Her heart hurts because she knows the right answer. People may call them choices, but it’s not really a choice at all. Hope isn’t much of a strategy but she is nothing if not that.
“How do I leave?” Rue asks.
Caw is silent for a second. And then he says, “How do you wake up from a dream?”