The Shadow Gate
In Which Madeline Mercier and Her Peculiar Circumstances Are Introduced
Madeline Mercier discovered the gate by accident.
Her Auntie sent her on an errand to collect three-dozen pain au chocolat from the pastry chef and then bring them home. Simple, non?
It should’ve been a quick and easy journey.
But, Madeline had a habit of building castles in the air; that’s what she preferred to call it. Her Auntie called it woolgathering, which was silly – Madeline didn’t even know any sheep. Miss Crabtree, her art teacher, claimed it was daydreaming. The worlds Madeline made up during the school day weren’t half as magical as the ones she traveled at night.
From what she could recall.
Madeline could only remember snatches of her night dreams. They were pale glimpses of mystery, like moonlight filtered through chiffon.
She kept a journal by her bed to capture what she could when she awoke. She’d had it since her last birthday, and there were two notes on the first page. The rest of the pages were blank.
Madeline turned off of Harrods Lane onto Rue du Bonbons, where the pastry chef lived, proud of herself for not walking past the street. Thirteen houses. She had to keep count, because the numbers weren’t on the gates, and Auntie hadn’t written down any directions. The citizens of Eclipse Island weren’t allowed to make maps. She’d asked why once, and had been shushed, and told never to ask again.
Rue du Bonbons was lined with mansions. Each had their own distinctive qualities, but Madeline could never remember their order, almost as if they rearranged themselves daily.
All the houses had names, such as “Sea Mist” or “Twin Pines.” Sea Mist had a mermaid fountain just past the gate, and Twin Pines was positively littered with gnome statues. Madeline had never been through the gates of either.
This was going to take forever.
Her mind began to wander, and Madeline gave in to the temptation of her castles in the air.
If she built her own mansion, she would use giant sweets as her construction materials. She’d build turrets from upside down ice cream cones, and decorate them with taffy flags. Walls would be made of fruit-flavored stick candy, and held together by meringue. She’d plant flowers with cotton candy blossoms, and grasses of dyed coconut (pink, not green). And, to keep the household safe, she’d install a moat of maple syrup, and a drawbridge made from a chocolate bar … chocolate.
Oh no. Her castle disappeared, as if gobbled up by dozens of children.
Madeline had lost count of the gates.
She stopped and took a deep breath. The leaves of the ancient live oaks that lined the sidewalk made it difficult to tell, but she knew the position of the sun was low in the sky. It was too late to go back to the beginning of Harrods Lane and start again, even if she ran the whole way. Eclipse Island closed its doors and drew its blinds at dark, and Madeline was expected to be home. No matter what.
She turned and went back a short way, trying to remember at which house she’d stopped counting. Then the mermaid fountain appeared just above the fence. That couldn’t be right. Sea Mist had been the third gate she’d counted, but she’d passed it long ago.
She would have to go forward. She passed a few gates that were familiar, if misplaced, and then came upon a brand new gate. The curlicue confection of black wrought iron seemed fanciful at first, but as she raised her head, she noted that the posts ended sharply in spear points.
She could go home empty-handed, and risk disappointing Auntie, who needed the pain au chocolat for the next day.
She could keep trying to find the correct gate on her own.
Or, Madeline thought, staring at the new gate, she could ask for help.
At that moment, ethereal points of light appeared in front of her, reds and yellows and blues. Their trajectory drew her attention to the gate’s latch, as if inviting her in.
The gate had no lock.
No house was visible from the sidewalk, but she could see glimpses of weathered grey stone. She wrapped her hands around two bars and peered between them. Definitely grey stones, and lights.
Madeline didn’t want to be accused of woolgathering. She wanted to be trusted to run other errands for Auntie. Still gazing between the bars, she saw a statue of a woman with a bowed head and serene smile. Her expression gave Madeline the courage she needed.
She opened the gate and stepped through.
The colored lights that had led her to the gate disappeared, and the sky grew darker than it had been seconds ago. The air, always warm on Eclipse Island, went teeth-chattering cold. The stones she’d seen over the gate leaned to the right and the left haphazardly, as if a giant had run through the garden, pushing them over in anger.
She was overtaken by the feeling that comes when one suspects one has forgotten something, but can’t remember what. She turned to leave.
The gate changed. The curlicues disappeared, replaced by rusty spikes that offered no invitation, but rather shouted discouragement. She couldn’t find the statue of the smiling woman she’d seen from the other side of the gate. All she could think of was escape. She pushed on the latch.
The gate wouldn’t budge.
She shook it, hard enough to rattle her teeth, but the gate would not open. Madeline took a deep breath, adjusted her skirt, smoothed her hair, and tried again, to no avail. Then again. And again.
It was just before she gave herself over to tears that she heard the trumpet. The music was too raucous to be sorrowful, yet the plaintive strains told a story of regret.
She followed the sound and thought she caught a glimpse of a shadow in the outline of a man, but it disappeared when someone spoke.
“How did you get here?”
She jumped. A man with a too white beard and too bright eyes leaned one shoulder against a crooked gray stone. He stared at her as if she were a miracle.
“I ….” Madeline gestured over her shoulder. “I came through that gate.”
His bright eyes followed her gesture. “Hmm. Not many a soul comes through that gate – not many like you, anyhow.”
“I’m sorry.” She held onto the red canvas bag in her hand more tightly. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Folks in here have the seasons on a string. We can spin them like yoyos or let them fly like balloons.”
“That sounds like … a fun way to pass the time.” Madeline had been taught manners, and was expected to use them, no matter the circumstance.
“There’s none of that here,” he said. “None, and yet all that exists.”
She hated riddles. “How can you have none of something and still have all of it that exists? What are you talking about?”
The man gestured with both arms wide open, and then stepped back.
Madeline took a good look around the garden, and realized it wasn’t a garden at all.
The grey stones she’d seen through the bars were tombs.

Keep Reading

Chapter 2

In Which Madeline Discovers Where She Is

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