"You're joking," Alison said. She addressed a chubby, sexless doll that sat in the middle of a circle formed of salt and iron filings. Its plastic face remained stuck in a permanently coy smile.
"You're joking," she repeated. "Tell me you're joking." She spoke above her normal voice to be heard over the soft patter of rain on the metal roof.
"I don't joke, black-haired girl," the doll replied. Its voice was greasy and thick, like old motor oil. As it spoke through an unmoving mouth, a viscous black substance began to well in its eyes. "Especially not when bound in a form such as this."
The doll lifted a pudgy plastic arm and tried to sweep it around the interior of the circle. Instead, its whole body turned slightly. Two drops of the black substance collided with an invisible barrier just above the circle and sizzled fiercely. Alison started.
Alison felt a sharp stab of irritation run through her chest. She held her tongue and collected her thoughts. When she began to speak, she did it slowly, being sure to choose her words carefully. "Diligem, Spirit of the Five Wastes, I have bound you, and now command you to speak the truth: Where is the nearest Way to the One True Library that I can access?"
"It is as I have said: behind the dumpster in the rear of the Pollensbee, Ohio Denny's." The substance began to gather in a pair of thick drops at the bottom of the doll's face. Alison scribbled down the address, not taking her eyes from the doll.
"Is there anyone guarding the entry to the Way? Is there any manner in which I might be accosted? What must I do to access it?"
"No, and no. The last use of the Way was in 1987. No human currently alive and in this world knows of its existence. To access it, you must simply release a caged magpie at the spot where the worlds meet." The drops were growing fat, and looked ready to fall.
"Very well, spirit. Diligem, Spirit of the Five Wastes, I release you from your bondage." Alison wiped a finger over the line of salt and iron, breaking the circle. Without a word, the doll fell over. The substance leaking from its eyes immediately hardened and began to crack.
Alison sighed as she put her belongings back into her backpack. The baggie of kosher salt and iron. The coat that had doubled as a pillow the night before. A small gas stove and a tin pot. A semi-automatic pistol. A binder of clippings about tornadoes in Utah and Bigfoot sightings.
The worn manilla envelope, stuffed thick with papers, was the last thing Alison picked up. She held it at eye level, studying the contours and creases of the package, as she had done a thousand times before. She paused, then opened it and took out a faded photo. It showed a black-haired girl sitting in the shade of a willow tree.
The girl wore a flowery dress and her face was taken up with a gap-toothed grin. She sat on the knee of a woman with a tired but contented smile. A hint of sadness played around the woman's eyes.
Sitting next to the woman was a man with thinning hair wearing a blue-and-orange Hawaiian shirt. His right hand rested on the woman's knee, and he looked frozen in the middle of a laugh.
Alison turned the photograph over. Even though she had long ago memorized every contour of the writing on the back, it still comforted her to see her father's neat handwriting. "GEARS FAMILY VACATION, 1991" it said. "GEARS" had been crossed out. Below, in slightly sloppy handwriting, it corrected "CHAO." The second name, too, had been crossed out, replaced by the same handwriting correcting it to "GEARS."
Alison turned the photo over again. She put it to her lips and kissed the likeness of the man. She replaced the photo in the folder, and made her way to the car.
Alison had been eight the summer her father had vanished. He had gone to the lab one morning, and hadn't come back. She still remembered two days after he left, when it was becoming apparent that it wasn't just an issue of his being late or going on an unannounced trip.
During the day, her mother had alternated between pacing around the house and fussing over Alison's appearance. At night, when she thought Alison was asleep, she made phone calls by the score.
Alison would sit in bed and look out the window as she heard her mother's voice become increasingly frenetic. When she woke up, she would hug her mother, tiny arms wrapping around the woman's hips.
As the days went on, the time her mother spent shouting at the phone in English or Mandarin grew. Sometimes, she would start crying for no reason. No matter how hard Alison tried to hug her, it never seemed to help during these spells.
After four weeks, detectives finally came around to interview Alison and her mother. One of the detectives, a man with dark brown skin and a funny lisp, asked her a few questions. Most of the questions were about her dad, but one of them was about if she remembered anything strange at the house before her dad left. Alison wondered why he asked a question like that.
Afterwards, the detective complimented her on her pink shoes and told her that she was being a very brave girl. When the detective left to join his partner, Alison followed silently.
Behind an unseen corner, she heard the detectives asking her mother questions. One asked something about other women. There was a loud crash, which made her jump. Her mother started yelling words Alison didn't understand, and told the men to get out.
The two detectives said something and moved to leave. By the sound their footsteps were making, Alison could tell that they were headed towards her. She ducked into a nearby closet and waited until the men passed. As she crept out of the door, she heard the sound of her mother crying coming from the other room. Alison paused for a moment, thinking. She made her way to the side door of the house and went outside.
Around the house there was a ring of bushes. Alison crawled behind them and began making her way to the front where the detectives stood. When she came within hearing range, she heard them talking about strange things. Alison was careful not to make a single sound as she pressed her head to the ground to get a look at them under the bushes.
The black detective, who no longer had a lisp, said something about "Anne mystics." The other detective, a fat man with ruddy skin shook his head, saying something about making up another woman. The black detective shrugged, and they both got in a car and drove off.
Alison knew she had heard something she wasn't supposed to, but wasn't sure what it was. To be extra-safe, she had waited in the bushes for ten minutes after the men had left. When she came back inside, her mother was still crying.
Alison looked over the map clumsily unfolded over the dashboard, trying to find the speck of a town that was Pollensbee. A year ago (Christ, had it only been a year?), she would have punched the information into the GPS. But that was before she started researching her father's disappearance.
Before she heard the soft clicking noise whenever she answered the phone, any phone. Before she came back from classes to find that everything in her apartment had been rifled through and almost put back in the right place.
Four months ago, she had packed up her few relevant belongings and hit the road, following notes and clues scattered throughout the country.
At first, it had been about looking through police records and fringe scientific journals her father had published in. Then one of her leads had taken her to Mint Creek, Alabama, where she had met Ms. Sylvia Lowmax. The old woman gave her a delicious slice of chess pie and performed a feat of magic in front of Alison's eyes.
Ms. Lowmax transformed herself into a giant bird and stared at Alison with glassy black eyes, still speaking in her thick drawl. From there, the emphasis of her search changed significantly, as she learned of the Library and the Ways and the Jailors, who held her father's mind in a prison. And of those calling themselves the Serpent's Hand, who sought to free those imprisoned by the Jailors.
Alison had been a quick study under Ms. Lowmax and others, and the summoning of the minor filth spirit into the doll had been her first major test.
After an eternity, she found Pollensbee, to the east of the equally tiny Ponce de Leon. She drove for two days, stopping only for when necessary. In a field in Iowa, she managed to lure a magpie into a cage after several hours of trying. At the Pollensbee town limits, she felt her insides twist. This was it. She was going to the Library.
It was late afternoon when Alison finally arrived. She drove slowly around the town, trying to get a feel for the place. Most of the town seemed to be parking lots with grass growing between the cracks in the asphalt in front of boarded up shops. There were discolored spots where the signs had been. Every car seemed to be made before 1990 and to have at least three rust stains or dents.
She felt her way around the city, and felt neither the precise, soulless tickings of a Jailor's heart, nor the mindless rage of the mind of a Bookburner. The filth spirit had been true.
When she parked two blocks away from the Denny's, it was twilight. She took her backpack along with the cage. Inside, the magpie croaked indignantly. The dumpster behind the restaurant stank with a fierce, high smell. Alison put the cage on the ground and crouched, crooking an arm over her mouth and nose.
With her free hand, she opened the cage. The bird stood with its head crooked, refusing to leave. She kicked the cage, and the startled magpie awkwardly flapped its way out. The moment the bird left the cage, a hole started to open next to the dumpster. There was no color to it, only black emptiness.
Alison felt her stomach drop. This was it. It had worked. This was happening. She was going to the Library. Her legs wobbled slightly walked toward the Way. She took in one final breath and stepped into the hole.
There was a flash of light and she saw the world she had known recede from view. Her surroundings turned a brilliant white and grew in brightness until it hurt to have her eyes open.
For a moment, there was just her in the light and nothing else.
The light faded and she opened her eyes.