The girl dropped her suitcase into the dust as her parents drove away. They’d left her at the base of a long driveway leading up to her new school; apparently unauthorized vehicles weren’t allowed. That sounded suspicious to her, but her parents had come away from interviews with Jane Egbert assured of her competence. They promised their child that Mrs. Egbert would make her well again and chase away her delusions of saving a world with nothing but her voice. She’d already decided to hate her.
She expected to see an old woman hobbling down to fetch her, face screwed up with misplaced concern, but instead a teenage girl came hurrying down the driveway. “You must be the new student,” she said. “Hello, I’m Jane.”
The girl clung to the handle of her suitcase. “I thought you’d be older.”
Jane laughed. “You’re thinking of my grandmother. It’s a family name. And yours is?”
“Melody.” That was what they called her in her true home, not what her parents had put on the paperwork. She expected Jane to frown down at her clipboard and say “We were expecting —”, but she only smiled.
“Nice to meet you, Melody. Follow me, and I’ll take you up to the house.”
It was a long walk. “I’m Jane Crocker,” Jane explained on the way. “Jane Egbert was one of the people who founded this school, and she handles conversations with relatives. Most of the time beyond that we take care of ourselves. I’m not in charge, whatever nicknames some people may have given me.”
“The students run the school?” That didn’t sound like the American education system.
“We’re all very self-sufficient, and everyone here has different needs. It’ll make more sense once we get there.”
Melody’s arms were growing tired by the time the house came into view. They hadn’t reached it when three other teenagers emerged from the trees. “New kid!” said a boy with dark hair who bounded over. He stretched out a hand and Melody, surprised, shook it. “I’m Jake. Where did you go to?”
“Where did I…?”
“You know, what world?” He frowned. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“Her parents wouldn’t have told her that,” said the other boy in the group. He nodded at her. “Mrs. Egbert feeds them a different sales pitch, but this is a school for people like us who went through doorways and came back needing readjustment. So if you were worrying about having to sit through a bunch of Rorschach blots on your first day, you’ve dodged that bullet.”
Melody swallowed. These people were talking about traveling to other worlds like it was as normal as going to the store. At first her parents had tolerated her stories, but once their joy at her return wore off, they no longer wanted to hear them. “You believe me?”
“We’ve all been through it,” Jane said. “That’s what we’re here for.”
“Back off, guys,” said the other girl in the group. “You’re overwhelming her. Welcome to our wayward home. Make yourself cozy, and enjoy your tour.”
“You could start us off by orienting her to you,” Jane said drily.
“Guess we skipped to the front of the line, huh? I’m Roxy,” the girl said. “I help with getting the word out. Put up a lot of ads on webforums, even if most people think I’m trying to RP. If you get an email about a foreign prince who needs your help, it could be a credit card scam, or it could be me on the hunt for people familiar with fantasy quests.”
“Or it could be you running a credit card scam,” said the boy whose name Melody didn’t know.
“I only do those to see if I can,” Roxy retorted. “I never use the numbers. Aradia does the physical legwork for our entirely legal online activities, you’ll meet her later.”
“I’m Dirk,” said the boy who’d explained the school. “I help keep things organized around here. I’m sure you can tell it’s a losing battle.”
“He makes the daily schedules,” Roxy said. “It’s cute how he thinks anyone reads them. And he worked on the code of conduct, but Kanaya helped with the interspecies regulations.”
“And I’m a regular jack of all trades,” Jake said, before Melody could ask for clarification on ‘interspecies’. “I learned to make all sorts of repairs in my world, so let me know if anything in your room doesn’t work right.”
“He’s everyone’s hero when the Wi-Fi goes down,” Roxy said.
“Am I going to have a job?” Melody asked, dazed by the list of duties they’d rattled off.
“Oh, no,” Jane said. “We’re special cases staying here long term. Most students stay for a while and then go home.”
“Home?” Melody didn’t know what Jane meant by that: her parent’s house or her true home a world away. “Which one?”
Jane hesitated. “We can talk about that. But first, let’s do our tour.”
In the front yard, a small group of people ranging from six to sixteen had gathered to watch someone get suplexed. Melody squinted at the boy who’d hit the ground. Was he…?
“Did your world only have humans?” Jane asked, following her gaze.
“No.” Melody was used to other species, but she hadn’t expected anything fantastical on Earth.
“We have a large Alternian contingent here. Dave and Karkat have taken an enthusiastic approach to extracurriculars.” Jane waved to catch their attention. The boy who’d performed the suplex waved back. “Ok everyone, try it on each other,” he told the group. Then he and his victim jogged over.
“Great, our newest arrival got here just in time to witness ‘Dump Karkat face first into the dirt’ hour,” the Alternian said. “How can I surpass the first impression of presenting my ass skyward for her approval?”
The other one grinned. “At least it’s a good ass. Our Google reviews would tank if we only provided sub-par ass viewing experiences. What’ve you been telling her about us, Jane?”
“Nothing that isn’t true,” Melody’s guide said.
Karkat brushed some dust off himself. “She’ll know to avoid Dave, then.”
“Not if she wants to pick up our ancient wisdom. We both ended up in other worlds getting away from something,” Dave explained. “We try to help with that, and sometimes that means teaching kids how to suplex their problems.”
“By all means, suplex your problems,” Karkat grumbled. “I draw the line at suplexing me.”
“You’re my biggest problem. Oh hey,” Dave said, as the Alternian rolled his eyes with what looked like fond exasperation. “John and Jade.”
Melody turned to see a car (authorized, she assumed) pulling up the driveway. The doors opened, and a girl hopped out of the driver’s seat. “I made it all the way here with no problems!”
A boy came around the other side with a suitcase. “Glad Jade didn’t kill you?” Dave asked him.
He (John?) grinned. “It wasn’t as scary as her flying a battleship.” His eyes fell on Melody. “Oh hey, someone new!”
“Welcome to the school,” Jade said. “Don’t let anyone dump chores on you until at least your second week.”
“Unless you want my turn doing dishes this weekend,” John said, and she smacked his shoulder.
“I don’t even know where the kitchen is,” Melody said.
“We’re doing the tour now.” Jane tapped her clipboard. “So if you’ll excuse us.” She left them retrieving the rest of their luggage and led Melody up the porch stairs. A ramp had been added over part of the staircase, and Melody dragged her suitcase up it. “Those two live with my father during the week and go to public school. They visit us every weekend. Now that we’ve made it inside, I can show you around.”
Melody trailed after Jane to see the kitchen and every other downstairs feature, knowing that she’d forget the layout as soon as her eyes left it. There was too much to keep track of. “Bedrooms are upstairs,” Jane said, placing her hand on the banister. A stair lift that looked suspiciously homemade had been bolted into the wall. “As is the rest of our permanent crew, if you can handle it. I know we’re a colorful bunch.”
Melody thought of cheering crowds surrounding her after she’d saved their world. “I’ve met colorful before.”
Kanaya was colorful. Lamps with decorative shades perched on every flat surface in her cloth-draped room. When Jane poked her head in and said “Tour coming through!” she responded with something like “Nnrgh” because her mouth was full of pins.
“Kanaya can help with wardrobe,” Jane said while Kanaya fished a stray pin out of her teeth. She was another Alternian, but Melody had spent enough time away from Earth not to stare. “If you’d like something more typical of where you came from, she can make it for you.”
“Can you do dresses?” Melody had worn flowing gowns in her world, and then her parents had stuffed her back in slacks and polo shirts.
Kanaya smiled. “Dresses are my specialty.”
Jane spun around to face another Alternian passing through the hallway. “Aradia! I didn’t know you were here.”
“Just dropping in to say hello.” Aradia waved at Melody, who automatically waved back. She’d been heading into another room where a human leaned over an Alternian’s shoulder. “Have you met Sollux and Hal?”
“She will,” said the Alternian, not looking up from his phone. “I’m not dropping everything to scrape her records right now, I have actually challenging work to do.”
“We’re this close to busting a Candy Crush record,” said the human. “I’m Hal. Don’t listen to whatever Dirk says about me.”
Jane clicked her tongue. “Don’t start that.”
Hal shrugged. “Orientation. Gotta give her the lay of the land.” He nudged down his shades and winked. “Good luck.”
“Sollux and Hal know their way around computers,” Jane explained. “If you have any mysterious gaps in attendance or changes to your medical history, we can handle that. They make IDs for refugees from other universes too. Apparently it’s not difficult.”
“Hal and Dirk…” Melody began. They had looked similar.
“Don’t worry about it. They used to have their problems, but it’s mostly blown over. Hal just likes to poke the bear on occasion.” Jane jabbed a finger toward Hal, either as a demonstration or a warning, and then retreated. “Next!”
Melody obligingly followed her to the next room. A human boy in a wheelchair and an Alternian with red glasses were arguing over a scroll written in what looked a lot like blood. Jane rapped on the door frame to get their attention. “Oh good, you’re together. That saves me time.”
“Hey, Empress,” said the Alternian, revealing a mouth of sharp teeth.
Melody stood close enough to hear Jane huff. “This is Terezi and Dave.”
“Wasn’t Dave outside?” The two looked nearly identical. “Are you twins?”
“Yeah, and our parents lost steam after naming kid one. That’s why you should always visit the ob-gyn for sneak peeks. Would’ve saved the galaxy from Darth Vader.” He shook his head. “It’s complicated. You’ll hear about it later.”
“Is Dirk still working on your braces?” Jane asked.
He shifted in his chair. “Yeah, the upgrades are coming along. The chair’s better when I’m sitting a long time, though.”
Jane nodded. “These two talk to new arrivals about why they left their world. If they’re political exiles, if you’re in legal trouble, if you have debts to pay, that sort of thing. That can help if you brought any consequences back to Earth with you, or if you might go back.”
“But I don’t work weekends.” Terezi stood up. “I smelled John come in.”
“Don’t you think you should let him unpack before badgering him to take you places?” Jane said.
“If you insist.” Terezi angled her face toward Melody. “Did you pocket any sacred jewels before you left? No prophecies about wigglers you haven’t had?” Melody shook her head. “You’re probably clean, but we can talk more on Monday once we finish figuring out how cursed this thing is.”
“Do you get a lot of curses?” Melody asked.
“Sure,” Terezi said. “Kanaya’s cursed.”
(‘It’s fine,’ Dave mouthed over her shoulder.)
“…Right.” Melody stood back to let the girl leave and then turned to Jane. “You said something about going back?”
Jane looked down at her clipboard instead of answering right away. “John can take you back if you still want to go,” she said at last. “Our rule is that you have to stay here for a while first. Get your head back on straight if you went to Nonsense, or if your world was Logic, knock it crooked.”
“We want people going back because that world’s the best place for them,” Dave said. “Not because it’s the only one. They help with that too here.” He rolled up the scroll and slipped on a hopefully curse-proof rubber band. “She seen Rose yet?”
“Last stop. We’ll see you later.”
He raised a hand in farewell as Melody found herself steered away again.
Jane paused outside a closed door. “They know to expect you. I suppose making us have to announce ourselves adds a touch of drama. Last two. Think you can stand it?”
“I think so.”
“I’ll leave you to it, then. Your room’s got a sign on it already. We’ll give you a few days to settle in before assigning a roommate. Come find me if you get hungry before dinner.” Jane waved and walked off, leaving Melody to open the door alone.
“Oh, hello,” said a girl, who did look like she’d been waiting to feign surprise. “Welcome to the school. My name is Rose, and this is Calliope.”
“I’m Melody.” Rose was human; Calliope wasn’t. All the other non-humans had been the same species, but this one was different. Her head looked like a skull, but she had nice eyes.
Rose rested her hands on top of a composition notebook. “I know you’ve been brought to more people’s attention than a chain email in the last hour, so we won’t keep you long. The two of us take an interest in cataloging details about all the other worlds out there. We used to write down people’s accounts ourselves, but.” She glanced at Calliope.
“But we’ve found it’s better to get the original perspective,” Calliope said. “Take your time, of course, but if you could record what you’re willing to share, we’d appreciate it. It might help others down the road.”
Melody looked at the notebook. It didn’t seem big enough to fit a whole world, but she’d tried to tell her story before and no one had listened. If she had it on paper, it would be there the next time someone claimed it wasn’t true.
Maybe she’d make it back. Maybe she wouldn’t. The same doorway didn’t always fit forever. No matter what, though, it had happened, and it had made a difference. The only person who could decide what had mattered was her. “I can try,” she said. “And I’m not that tired. I could start now.”
Calliope had a nice smile too. “That’s wonderful news.”
“It is,” Rose agreed. “So,” she said, and pushed the notebook forward. “In your own words this time. What’s your story?”