PART ONE: GREY
Chapter One: Things That Begin
Once upon a time, in The City of No Stories, Gwendolyn Gray ran away. Her mother yelled, “Gwendolyn, wait! Stop!” but as usual, Gwendolyn didn’t listen. Her too-tight shoes pinched her feet as they slapped the pavement between identical boxy skyscrapers.
Though you may have read a story or two before, Gwendolyn had not, and had never heard any “once upon a times,” nor any “dark and stormy nights” for that matter, and as for this “best of times, worst of times” business, she would say this morning was certainly one of the worst. This morning was awful. This morning… wasn’t really all that different, then.
She barreled through startled pedestrians and ducked into an alley, watching as her mother sprinted past. She didn’t know where she was running to. Not far, probably. She never ran far, and like most of you who have ever tried to run away, she always went home as soon as she got hungry.
It had started like any other morning. She’d woken up late and begun the usual routine of not-doing-anything-right, followed by her daily argument with her mother.
“Mother, must I go to The School today? What if I came with you? We could explore The City together!” she said. “What if we found a secret passageway and met some sort of friendly animal, like a badger—a real badger, not just the kind we see in books at The School? Oh, and what if he took us home for tea! I think it would be just wonderful to have tea with a badger. I wonder what type of tea badgers drink? Though I suppose it would be awfully hard to hold a cup with such long claws—”
“Gwendolyn, you’re babbling again.”
“But The School is so terribly boring, and everyone hates me,” she moaned.
“Don’t exaggerate, everyone doesn’t hate you.”
Gwendolyn was not exaggerating. “Mr. Percival hates me, the students hate me, Cecilia Forthright completely hates me. What if we just—”
“I don’t have time for your ‘what-ifs’ today, so come back to earth please. If we get another poor report from Mr. Percival, there will be serious consequences. Come along!”
Mr. Percival could go boil his head for all Gwendolyn cared. She did try to keep her thoughts to herself, she truly did, but it seemed that whenever she opened her mouth they all tumbled out at once.
The two of them left the house together, Mother determined to see Gwendolyn safely on the monorail to The School.
Unlike the rest of The City, Gwendolyn was a clever noticer. While the other grey-suited pedestrians trudged along with heads down and faces grim, Gwendolyn was noticing the way the clouds reflected perfectly in the mirrored skyscrapers. She was so busy noticing that she ran right into a heavyset woman waiting at the monorail station, draped in a sea of black fabric that was more tent than dress.
The woman shot her a scowl, jowls shaking as she turned. “Watch it.” Though you have never been to Gwendolyn’s City, you have surely seen this type of grown-up before; the sort who believe that children should neither be seen nor heard.
Mother gave Gwendolyn a warning look.
“Sorry,” mumbled Gwendolyn.
The woman’s eyes darted to Gwendolyn’s hair, like everyone else she’d ever met. It was riotous red hair, a massive tangle of curls. You see, in all the metal and stone of The City, Gwendolyn was the only spark of color. She stood out like a bonfire.
The woman harrumphed and spun around again. Gwendolyn tried not to be bothered. She liked her hair. She liked it wild and long, and didn’t want the same pale blonde or jet black hair as everyone else in The City. But just because she liked being different didn’t mean she had to like the endless taunts and teases, the stares that followed her down the street.
Eventually the train arrived, with a screech, then a hiss, then a chime. The doors slid open and the line shuffled forward, but Gwendolyn noticed something moving on the ground. A grey mouse scampered around the trampling feet. The tiny thing looked terrified to Gwendolyn’s noticing eye.
And the heavyset woman was about to step on it.
“Look out!” Gwendolyn shoved the woman, hard, though the only available shoving surface was the woman’s mountainous backside. The woman stumbled with a bark of surprise. The mouse scuttled away, and disappeared.
“Gwendolyn!” Mother hissed in horror.
The woman turned with all the agility of a glacier. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m sorry, Miss, but you were about to—”
“Shoving old ladies at the train stop? That’s what you hooligans do for fun, eh? Children these days, they aren’t what they were in my time…”
Mother was aghast. “Gwendolyn, what do you have to say to her?”
“I already said I’m sorry, but there was a mouse, and she—”
“No buts! Just apologize.”
Gwendolyn knew the routine. Grown-ups never wanted the facts, they just wanted to see you look sorry. She let her shoulders sag. “I’m sorry,” she droned.
The woman wagged a sausagey finger at Gwendolyn’s mother. “Keep your brat under control. And fix that hair of hers. Cover it, or cut it, or something. It’s indecent.”
Mother blushed. “Well… I don’t know about all that then… I mean, I did tell her to braid it this morning, Gwendolyn, didn’t I? How many times have I told you not to leave it such a mess and—Gwendolyn, wait! Stop!”
But that had done it. Gwendolyn sprinted down the street, her face as red as her hair. She didn’t stop to consider the consequences. She never had before, and didn’t see a reason to start.
And so she ran, hurtling down The City’s walkways, pushing past gawking grown-ups, ignoring the pointing children. She didn’t care, and didn’t slow down.
Gwendolyn dashed around a corner and ducked into an alley. She pressed herself against the wall and watched Mother run past, which brings us to where we entered this tale.
A few deep breaths helped loosen the knot in her chest. She sank down and sat against the wall. A flicker of movement caught her eye, and she saw the little grey mouse, snuffling around the base of the wall.
“Oh. Hello again, you little devil. This is all your fault, you know?” She loved animals, though there weren’t many in The City, save for the crows and the mice and the cats that chased them.
She thought the poor thing looked rather hungry. She dug in her satchel bag and brought out the sandwich from her lunch, then put it on the ground. “Here you go. You need it more than I do.”
The mouse darted over and started nibbling the pale, grey bread and bland white cheese. The food in The City was none too appetizing. “You need to be more careful. People around here don’t like you at all,” she said, though she was unsure whether she was talking to the mouse or herself.
Gwendolyn glared up between the buildings at the always-cloudy sky. It reminded her of the itchy wool sweater Mother often forced her to wear. She hated that sweater, and she hated that sky. If she was going to run away, she was certainly not going to stay here in The City, under that gloomy mess.
She furrowed her brow in concentration, and beams of yellow light pierced the clouds. Grass began to grow, carpeting the walkway. Branches sprouted from the buildings. Streetlights burst into leafy saplings, telephone wires twisted themselves into ropey vines, and a passerby in a black suit burst into colorful feathers and flew away. Suddenly, she was alone in her own lush and magnificent forest.
“There,” she said to the mouse. “Much better.”
Though it might seem unusual to you, a forest in the middle of The City was no new thing to clever Gwendolyn. She conjured such outrageous landscapes several times a day. Unlike the rest of The City, Gwendolyn’s problem was turning her imagination off.
She inhaled deeply, imagining how the woodland air must smell. Yes, this was exactly what she needed. She wandered through the woods, watching a rabbit scamper across the dirt path, chased by a bright red fox. It would never catch the rabbit of course, not here in Gwendolyn’s world, but she enjoyed filling it with all the animals and things she had only seen in her books.
Yes, even in The City there were books. But as anyone who has sat through a tedious mathematics lesson can tell you, books and stories are not always the closest of friends. And The City’s pages were full of nothing but cold and dreary fact.
Nevertheless, Gwendolyn read everything she could plunder from The City’s Hall of Records. In truth, she probably knew The City better than anyone, especially since she hardly ever saw anyone reading anything besides The City’s daily newspaper. But the more she read, the more it sparked her imagination, and the more trouble she got in.
The rabbit escaped back into its hole, as it always did, leaving a disgruntled fox snuffling around the entrance.
For the first time that morning, Gwendolyn smiled, a smile that lit up the whole forest.
And she continued her run, but now with much less away. She sprinted along the leafy ground, hair blazing out behind her. She turned a cartwheel. She jumped and grabbed a branch, just to feel the bark under her palms and hear the leaves rustle. Yes, this would certainly be worth any trouble she might suffer when she went back.
A ripple of laughter reached her ears. Surprised, she dropped from the branch, spun around, and came face-to-face with a pair of brown eyes peering at her through the leaves.
There was another giggle and a flash of yellow cloth, and the eyes disappeared with a rustle of leaves and a snapping of twigs. Gwendolyn heard the voices of two children where she had certainly not meant to imagine any.
“Hello!” she shouted. “Wait! Come back!” She tried to follow, but a cluster of thorn bushes blocked her way. Gwendolyn would not let that stop her. She pushed through the bushes, heedless of their scratch and tug. There was a flicker of blue up ahead, and she glimpsed a pair of children running through the trees. Children that had no business being in her private world.
Gwendolyn’s green eyes widened. She plowed through the underbrush, climbing logs and ducking vines. She followed the laughter until she burst into a clearing and nearly fell headlong into a wide, roaring river. She tottered over the raging foam, her arms windmilling as she struggled not to fall. The roar of the water held her frozen to the spot.
Mother’s voice broke through the spell. “Gwendolyn! Gwendolyn Alice Gray, get back, you’ll be hurt!”
Names have a certain kind of power, particularly middle ones, as your parents doubtless know when they call you in from playing in the street. Hearing her own made Gwendolyn snap immediately to attention. She turned and saw Mother, running as best she could in heels. Behind her, The City rippled back into existence like a dog shaking itself of water. Gone were the trees and leaves and animals, replaced by skyscrapers, lampposts, and Cityzens. The wonder and excitement were gone, crushed under the weight of being in trouble that pulled her stomach into her shoes.
Gwendolyn turned toward the water and stumbled backward as she saw that she was no longer standing on the banks of a mighty river, but instead on the ledge of one of The City’s monorail tracks, teetering over the gap. An automated tram hurtled toward her.
Mother pulled her to safety just as the mono sped by, the wind whipping Gwendolyn’s hair into a fiery frenzy. “What do you think you are doing? The City is no place to rush around! You were nearly killed!”
But Gwendolyn was too distracted to listen. She whipped around, but there were no mysterious children in sight. She sighed and resigned herself to dull reality once more. Mother was clutching her as though she’d never let go again.
“I thought we were past all this childish behavior. You can’t keep running away like that! Remember the time you ran away after you let out all of Mr. Blythe and Mr. Reginald’s cats? It took hours to find you!”
There was a crack in the sidewalk that suddenly grew very interesting. Gwendolyn stared fixedly at it. At the time, she had been firmly imagining that there was an underground civilization of wild felines. But that explanation did not exactly convince the grown-ups.
At Gwendolyn’s forlorn expression, Mother softened slightly. She truly loved her daughter, but poor Marie Gray was not at all certain how to handle a girl who was so… different. She would lie awake at night and wonder what was to be done, and scold herself for all the times she had been too harsh with Gwendolyn. Parents are worried and tired creatures, so we should not be too harsh with Marie, either.
She sighed. “An imaginary mouse is a poor excuse for getting hit by a train. You can’t keep letting your imagination run away with you, or the other way around. It’s time for you to act your age, you’re nearly thirteen—”
“I’m twelve,” Gwendolyn corrected. “I’m not thirteen yet.” She dug her heels in at the passing of each year, as if she could slow time by sheer force of will, dreading the inevitable day when she would be forced to become a Lady, and get a Job, or worse yet, a Husband.
She shuddered at the thought. She didn’t want to grow up. She didn’t want to be a lady—ladies were boring. She much preferred running and exploring and getting dirty to whatever it was her mother did all day. “I did see a mouse.”
“Fine. No more trouble today?”
Gwendolyn sighed, for she loved Mother as well, and now that she’d settled down, she knew how foolish she’d been. Not that she’d admit it. “No trouble today. I’ll do my best, I swear.”
“That’s all I can ask. But whatever did you get yourself into?” Mother pointed to several mysterious scratches on Gwendolyn’s knees and a tear in her school jacket. “And if your hair wasn’t bad enough before, it’s positively frightful now.” She made a doomed attempt to fix the tangled mess. “What’s this?” she said, pulling at something.
And from those bedraggled curls, Gwendolyn’s mother plucked a single, impossible, emerald leaf.
Preorder now on Amazon
Coming May 15, 2018