THE AIR WAS CLEAR and still, except for a few whirling flakes of snow. A moment ago, a ferocious blizzard had been hurling itself against the windows of Julia’s house; now it had vanished, leaving nothing behind but a bone-splintering cold. When Julia drew breath, she felt as if she were swallowing razor blades.
Ahead, Dr. Freeman marched with long, swift strides into the night. Her long coat billowed behind her. Julia took a few running steps to keep up, because Dr. Freeman seemed to be the only thing that existed in this strange, clear blackness. Where Darlington’s blocks of modest clapboard houses and rows of modest shops should have stood, Julia saw nothing at all. Just Dr. Freeman’s billowing coat and the tiny, swirling snowflakes, and she couldn’t even say what faint light illuminated those things. No moon glowed above them, no lamps lit the way.
“Where are we?” she gasped.
Dr. Freeman didn’t answer. She didn’t so much as turn her head. If anything, her long, thin legs moved even faster, so that Julia half-ran through the drifts of fallen snow, which already filled the insides of her shearling moccasins, the ones Victor had given her for Christmas. She thought of her boots, left behind on the floor of the mudroom. Why hadn’t she worn boots?
Oh! Because this was a dream. This wasn’t really happening. She’d fallen asleep on the sofa watching Happy Death Day 2U on her iPad, that was all, and her fevered imagination had conjured up this scenario—Dr. Freeman and an escape hatch through the kitchen pantry into a dark, still, cold world, toward some unknown destination. As dreams went, it wasn’t that weird, actually. The reason she followed so urgently behind Dr. Freeman was because that’s what you did in dreams. You went along with it.
Still, dreams weren’t usually this cold. You couldn’t feel the snowdrifts pull at your shoes. You didn’t feel your breath slice into your lungs.
Also, eventually, you woke up.
JULIA DID NOT WAKE up. After a few minutes, though, she thought she saw smudges of light against the black air, some larger and some smaller. The snowdrifts shrank and disappeared altogether, until she and Dr. Freeman walked on a hard, cobbled surface, crusted with ice. Julia slipped and scrambled and summoned her strength to yell at Dr. Freeman, who went on eating the ground with those lanky strides as if the terrain beneath her made no difference.
“Hold on! I can’t—oomph!”
Julia crashed painfully to the ground.
At least that got Dr. Freeman’s attention. She spun around and peered down at Julia, eyebrows raised in shock and maybe a little pity. It was hard to tell in the darkness. She extended one hand to Julia and hauled her upright.
“Nothing broken, I trust?”
“Nothing broken? Are you kidding? You’re practically killing me out here! Where are we?”
“I am not killing you, Julia.” Dr. Freeman glanced at the empty sky. “Not if we hurry, anyway. Come along.”
“Wait a second—”
Dr. Freeman whirled on the cobbles and strode off, leaving Julia no choice but to ignore the pain shooting from both knees and scramble after her. The smudges of light were growing larger, spaced at regular intervals, converging to some point in the distance, and Julia realized they were like streetlamps, except flickering and dancing like flame instead of a steady electric glow. As the lamps illuminated more and more of the air around her, she realized that they were walking down the middle of a street of some kind. The street was lined with dark, formless buildings, and every so often a tiny streak of light appeared on a wall, escaping through some crack between two curtains, or between curtain and window. Julia strained to see movement and shadow, any sign at all of human life, but everything was as still as if it had been painted on canvas, except for the way the lights flickered.
Dr. Freeman’s hard shoes rang on the cobbles, and the soft beat of her own footsteps and the rasp of her breath filled the space between them. Every so often, Julia thought she heard something else, just beyond the reach of her ears. Yes! There it was. Louder, now. More distinct. A jingle, a scrap of a voice, a rattle, a few notes of music. They drifted past her in snatches, or maybe wavelengths. Like when you turned the radio dial in Gran’s old Chevrolet, and the stations tuned in and out. Just as you identified one sound, another took its place, but you knew they all existed at once. The more Julia concentrated, the more she sensed each one taking place, each one only a glimpse of a whole life, whether or not she could actually hear the individual noise.
And the more noises she sensed, the more she became aware of another sound lying beneath them all.
At first it was more like a vibration, or the beat of a drum, keeping rhythm with their own footsteps so that Julia didn’t even realize it was there until it had grown in volume and clarity and become its own particular noise.
Hoofbeats, Julia thought.
Without breaking stride, she turned her head over her shoulder. The street yawned into darkness behind her, interrupted by six or seven flickering streetlamps that shed so little light into the air, they seemed to float by themselves. The hoofbeats grew louder and sharper on the cobblestones, clackety-clack clackety-clack. Julia slipped and nearly fell. She hurried to catch back up to Dr. Freeman and turned her head again, and this time she saw tiny sparks hovering and disappearing above the street. A shadow emerged, tall and monstrous. Julia screamed. She surged up to Dr. Freeman and grabbed her shoulder.
“Someone’s coming!” she gasped.
Dr. Freeman shrugged her off. “Quickly!” she snapped. She didn’t look back at the horse and rider. She already seemed to know that it was there, and what it was. She didn’t try to move away or to hide, just kept striding along the street. Julia hurried behind her while the hoofbeats clattering and rang on the cobbles. She felt the approaching rider like an electric charge, singeing her nerves. A shape appeared at her shoulder and flew past. The windows and the streetlamps shone against the shining coal-black coat of the horse. The rider wore a hat and cloak that whipped in the draft. Julia strained her eyes to see more, but already the darkness was swallowing them up, and a moment later they were gone.
“What was that?” she yelled at Dr. Freeman.
She didn’t expect a reply, and she didn’t get one. But the buildings on either side of the street clustered closer and closer together, and here and there Julia thought she saw signboards and shop windows, deserted but not derelict. She wanted to stop and look inside, but Dr. Freeman charged ahead. Her head fixed exactly forward. Without warning, she whipped around a corner, walked another dark block, and turned another corner, as Julia wheeled along in her wake. When she turned the final corner, she stumbled right past Dr. Freeman and gasped at the sight that opened before her.
The street on which they’d traveled here was nothing but an alley. This was an avenue, so broad that a line of trees grew from an island in the middle, evenly spaced, each bare branch laid with snow. On either side, buildings lined the avenue, two and three stories high and strung with lights that glittered against rooftops piled with snow. Snow drifted against the bases of the buildings, too, but the cobbled street was bare and dry, and so was the raised sidewalk. The whole scene was monumental and empty, not a soul stirring.
Dr. Freeman reached back to snatch Julia’s hand, and side by side they hurried down the sidewalk, which was paved with flat stones and much easier on Julia’s wet, cold moccasins. Her feet were so numb, she couldn’t feel her own footsteps. Ahead of them, taking up the end of the avenue, rose a large Gothic building built of red brick and white cornicing, every window ablaze. In one corner, a turret pointed to the starless sky.
“It’s the library!” Julia exclaimed.
“Where else , for God’s sake?” said Dr. Freeman, exasperated. She glanced over her shoulder and broke into a run. Her iron hand tugged Julia with her. Together they ran down the sidewalk toward this building that looked exactly like the Darlington Library, except not the library as Julia had known it, tired and slushy and empty. Now the library looked alive. You couldn’t see anyone outside or even framed in the windows, but the walls seemed to burst with life—golden and magnificent against the night.
“Why are we running?” Julia panted out.
“Because someone is chasing us! Or hadn’t you noticed?”
Julia looked over her shoulder and down the street, where a figure on horseback galloped toward them with such speed and fury, the iron-shod hooves struck sparks on the cobbles.
The horse was enormous; his gray coat was the color of polished steel. The rider looked like some kind of medieval warrior, tall and thick-shouldered and covered from head to knee in a dark, close-fitted suit and boots that glinted as he galloped past the streetlamps. Both horse and rider wore silvery helmets, so that you couldn’t see their faces or even their eyes. In that quick, shocked glance Julia didn’t see any weapon, but she didn’t need to. No weapon invented could possibly make the sight of that rider more terrifying.
As Julia turned her head forward again, she caught sight of something else from the corner of her eye.
The rider was not alone.
Behind him, in a V formation like a flock of birds, six more dark-clad riders appeared out of the darkness, galloping down the empty street toward Julia and Dr. Freeman.
“Holy crap!” Julia shouted.
She shook off Dr. Freeman’s hand and bolted ahead. Her cold, wet moccasins slapped on the paving stones. The clatter of hoofbeats reached her, delicate at first, like the drum of fingernails on a table.
Julia drew in huge drafts of air and pushed her legs faster. She’d never been an exercise nut. She hadn’t gone running since track practice in high school, and now she was sprinting for her life, arms pumping, old muscles reawakened and fumbling with the memory of how to do this. How to run fast, as fast as you could, the very limit of your capability for movement, and to keep going. The library was maybe two hundred yards away. The horses—who knew? But the clatter of hoofbeats was growing into thunder. Julia couldn’t hear her own footsteps now. She couldn’t hear Dr. Freeman, running along beside her. She inhaled the cold, snowy air and the smoke of a distant wood fire. The library grew larger and larger. Doors and windows came into focus. Julia saw the great, wide granite steps that ran the width of the building, and she thought, I can’t. I can’t climb them. It’s too much.
She didn’t look behind her. She couldn’t. She could only keep running. Her brain was white with effort. Her lungs sucked the cold, sharp air. She didn’t need to know how close the riders were. The thunder of hoofbeats had exploded into a tremendous cacophony of sound, so loud and terrifying it was like a physical presence, reaching inside your ears to rattle your brain. Like being at war. Like a hundred guns firing around you.
The steps. She had to reach the steps. The flat soles of her moccasins slipped and skidded on the stone. She thought she felt the hot breath of the horses against her back, the foam flinging from their mouths against her hair. Almost there, a few more strides.
The steps! Oh God, she couldn’t! She had nothing left, nothing.
Ahead of her, Dr. Freeman leaped onto the bottom step and half-turned. She grabbed Julia by the arm and hauled her upward, stumbling and climbing, two steps at a time. Behind them came a gigantic roar, a metallic clamor. Julia’s thighs gave way. She collapsed, got up, collapsed again. The giant library doors swung open. Dr. Freeman flung an arm around her shoulders and hauled her upright. Stars popped out before her eyes. She toppled forward onto the last step, right into the chest and arms of another human being, who caught her and dragged her through the doorway just ahead of the reaching hand of the lead rider.
His furious scream was the last thing she heard before she passed out.
JULIA CAME TO A moment later, but she kept her eyes shut. She didn’t want to open them; she was afraid of what she would see. She was still breathing heavily, and her heart thudded against the wall of her chest. Her mind was made of fog. Around her, a hum of shocked voices rose and fell. She heard a familiar female voice order everyone to Give her air, and somehow she understood that she, Julia, was the her in question. Nobody needed air more than Julia at this second. She took it in by the lungful.
Gradually, she became aware of details. For one thing, she didn’t seem to have any legs. She was leaning against something warm and solid, held in place by bonds equally warm and solid, and somewhere in the back of her head she accepted that these belonged to a human body.
She opened her eyes.
The first thing she saw was the giant door a few feet away. It was made of bronze or something similar, decorated in vivid relief, and it reminded her of the Baptistry doors in Florence, which she had visited the summer after college. The Gates of Heaven, they were called, because they were so beautiful and because of the scenes they depicted, none of which Julia could now remember. Neither could she see these doors clearly. But she knew she was not in Florence. She was in the library.
“She’s waking up,” said a voice near her ear.
“I’ll get water,” said another voice.
“Wine might be better,” piped up someone else. “I’ll fetch it.”
Julia thought wine sounded like a terrific idea. She tried to sit up. A face came into view, fine-boned, anchored by a pair of concerned green eyes.
“Damn it,” Julia said. “I’m still dreaming.”
“You’re not dreaming, Julia. This is not a dream.”
“The hell it is.”
“It’s all very real, I assure you. Strange as it may seem.”
Julia’s head was clearing. “No,” she said. “This is not real. This is the opposite of real. In the real world, buildings don’t just appear out of nowhere. And you don’t get chased by wild stallions into libraries that don’t exist.”
“Those were not stallions, Julia. Just to be clear.”
“I don’t care what they were. I’m going to close my eyes now and go back to sleep—not that I’m really awake—and when I do wake up, in my normal sofa in my normal house, with a normal snowstorm blowing outside—”
Behind her, the human chest rumbled.
“Helen,” said a man’s voice, “what’s going on? She doesn’t seem herself.”
“She’s not herself. As I’ve already warned you. As we expected, all along.”
“What have you told her?”
“I haven’t told her anything. I thought you should do the honors.”
A deep sigh moved Julia up and down. The voice behind her head was a baritone and pleasant on the ears, like a news announcer, but it was not American. It wasn’t quite English, either, or at least not the classic pronunciation you heard in films. Julia wasn’t an expert on accents, and her head wasn’t fully clear yet. Whatever it was, or wherever it came from, the voice reassured Julia. The timbre and the cadence were somehow deeply familiar, as if she’d heard him in childhood. She was now breathing almost normally, and her heartbeat had slowed. Her legs were still made of jelly, however, and she wasn’t sure she could stand up without humiliating herself. On the other hand, it was equally humiliating to be lying here on the floor in some stranger’s arms.
“Told me what?” she said.
“When you’ve recovered,” said Dr. Freeman.
With enormous effort, Julia pulled away from the arms that held her in place. “I’m recovered. I want to know what’s going on.”
Dr. Freeman’s gaze went from Julia to the man behind her and back again. “All right. I think we’d better repair to my office, however, so we can speak privately. We’ve drawn something of a crowd.”
All this time, Julia had been facing the great bronze library doors. She considered this further evidence that she was dreaming, because she didn’t remember any such doors at the front entrance to the Darlington Town Library in Darlington, Vermont. Those doors had been much smaller, and while they were heavy, as she recalled, they were made of wood.
These doors were like the entrance to another world. The Gates of Paradise.
Dr. Freeman was frowning at her. All kinds of thoughts gathered in Julia’s head, everything that had happened to her since that first innocuous library notice appeared in the mailbox. The book you requested, it had claimed, when she hadn’t requested anything. She hadn’t asked for any of this. But here she was, and the fact that she could remember all the details, from that first visit to the library and the strange room she’d glimpsed within the shelves of the third floor tower alcove, to the dreams she’d had since then, to the walk through the twirling snowflakes and the sudden, wild chase by a pack of ferocious knights on horseback—didn’t all that just confirm what Dr. Freeman insisted, that this wasn’t a dream at all? When did you ever remember so many details in a dream? When did you ever remember other dreams?
Or was all that part of the dream? Was she only dreaming she remembered these things, and they hadn’t actually happened?
You have no imagination, she reminded herself. You’re famous for your lack of imagination. So there’s no way you could imagine this, could you? It must be real.
The man spoke behind her. “Helen, is she well enough? Is she all right?”
His voice was thick was anxiety. Julia stuck out her hand and braced it against the floor, which was made of stone instead of wood. She levered herself upward, and though her legs wobbled, they still managed to support her. Someone had taken off her half-frozen moccasins, and her bare feet curled into the stone for balance.
She turned around.
Dozens of people stood nearby, staring at her in wonderment, dressed in all kinds of clothes—suits and dresses, jeans and military uniforms, worn woolen tunics, gowns of elaborate color and construction. It was like a cast from some motley theater group, or a costume party. But it wasn’t the people who amazed her. It was the library itself.
Behind the crowd, a grand hall rose on high Gothic arches to an enormous height, like a cathedral. The opposite wall was lined with bookshelves, from floor to roof ribs, and stuffed with an infinite number of books. The entire space was drenched in an unearthly golden light. To the right, where the plain old staircase had stood in the Darlington Library, a flight of warm, honeyed steps floated upward. It was a library, but it was more than a library. It was like its own city, its own world.
“Where am I?” she whispered.
“You’re nowhere, I suppose,” said the man with the baritone voice. “And yet, in a way, you’re everywhere.”
Julia looked at him last, and she would later realize that she had done that on purpose. She had waited to take in everything else, and then she had turned to him. Or had she known already who he was? Dressed in a plain gray suit and waistcoat, dark hair, medium height, broad, muscular shoulders. His skin was pale and his eyes were dark and sincere.
“Hello, Julia,” he said. “Do you remember me?”
All those eyes watched her, those curious faces in their curious clothes. They stood behind the dark-haired man like spectators at a sports event. Some movement fluttered through the crowd, as a slight female figure elbowed her way to the front. She held a glass of dark red wine in one hand.
Julia saw all this from the periphery of her vision. Her gaze remained fixed on the man before her.
She nodded slightly.
“Max,” she said.