Summer spent most of that evening trying to decide on her heart’s desire.
For a number of years—at least since she turned ten—she had wanted to be a shape-shifter, or if that wasn’t possible, at least to understand the language of animals. But being a shape-shifter would be best. Imagine being able to turn into any animal that ever lived! She could go anywhere—fly like a bird, see with her ears like a bat, swim in the water like a fish. She could talk to the oozy newts along the foundation of the house and the alley cats that strolled along the top of the fence. It would be incredible.
When other girls at school were mean to her, she could turn into a wolf—a bear—a wooly mammoth!—and trample them to pieces, or at least pretend that she was going to, because if it came right down to it, Summer was not sure that she wanted to trample anybody.
(This may seem an unusual ambition, but Summer had read a great many books about magic and animals and changing your shape. Summer’s mother believed that books were safe things that kept you inside, which only shows how little she knew about it, because books are one of the least safe things in the world.)
Summer had just about decided to ask Baba Yaga to make her a shape-shifter—surely someone with a walking house would not find that difficult!—when it occurred to her that while it was all very well to think about trampling the members of the fifth-grade class, if somebody saw her, there would undoubtedly be trouble. Turning into a woolly mammoth was bound to get you detention or suspended or even expelled.
If you were expelled, your parents had to teach you at home. Summer would never get to leave the house except with her mother. She would never get to be the person she was at school, when her mother wasn’t looking, again. (Summer’s mother, in addition to being wrong about books, would also have been quite surprised to learn that her daughter was a very different person at school than she was at home. This is a common problem among parents.)
Summer poked at her dinner with her fork, chasing bits of corn around the plate and teasing a few strays out of the mashed potatoes.
If somebody found out you could turn into animals, what would happen? It would be awesome if they asked you to talk to real animals and find out what was wrong with them—maybe tell endangered species what to do to not be so endangered any more, maybe warn them about cars and people with guns—but Summer had a gloomy notion that it wouldn’t be like that. She had read enough books to know that she’d probably wind up in a government lab somewhere, with people poking her with needles and hooking her up to big monitors covered in jaggy lines.
This was definitely not her heart’s desire.
“You’re awfully quiet,” said her mother. “What are you thinking about so hard?”
Summer looked up guiltily. “Nothing.”
“Did something happen at school?”
“No.” Summer took a hasty mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“So what were you thinking about?”
Summer knew when she’d taken too long to answer because her mother’s smile got brittle around the edges and the skin under her eyes went funny and tight. “Fine. Don’t tell your mother, then.” She turned away from the table.
I wish I was an orphan, thought Summer, and was so immediately horrified at her own thoughts that she said out loud, “I was thinking about being a shape-shifter and whether people would want to poke you with needles and stuff to find out how you did it.”
“Oh, Summer,” her mother said, and laughed, and that was all right then.
She cried after dinner. This happened sometimes. Summer looked up and saw that her mother had put her face in her hands and that meant that it would be one of those nights.
She knew her job by now. She put her arm around her mother’s shoulders and said, “It’ll be all right.” Then her mother said, “No, it won’t be,” and Summer said, “What’s wrong?” and her mother talked about how bad her job was and how she was probably going to lose it because no one appreciated her and one of her co-workers was talking about her behind her back.
It was all very normal. Both of them knew their role and performed it, like actors in a long-running play. As long as she could remember, Summer’s role had never really changed. It was always a little frightening, but it was also always the same. She could perform her part with only half her attention, while the rest of her thought about her heart’s desire.
“I know he’s out to get me.”
“That’s not nice of him. Why are people like that?” I could be a bat! I could finally find out if sonar’s like hearing things or if it’s like seeing things…
“People are terrible, most of them. They never appreciate anything. And after I helped him with all those files!”
She cried a bit more. Summer patted her back and thought about sonar. Maybe she could be a dolphin after she was a bat, and compare the two?
“It’s all right, Mom. It’ll be okay.”
“No, it won’t…it’s always like this…”
When the storm had passed, there was only the final bit of the ritual, where Summer said, “I love you” and her mother said, “At least someone does!” and made a kind of pained half-laugh. That meant it was nearly over. Every now and again it would all start up again, but those nights were rare. Summer hoped very much this wouldn’t be one of them. She had other things to think about, important things, like echolocation and dolphins and bats.
Summer laid in bed that night, staring at the darkened ceiling, and wondered if she’d meant it when she’d thought, I wish I was an orphan. What if you didn’t need to tell Baba Yaga what you wanted? What if she could look all the way down into your heart and pull it out without any help?
What if her heart’s desire really was to be an orphan?
She didn’t think it was. She loved her mother. She would have cried for ages if her mother died.
On the other hand, she was eleven years old and her mother still bought safety scissors and had childproof plastic caps on all the electric sockets. She didn’t want her mother not to love her, she just would have liked things to be…different.
Thinking like this was like trying to walk down a hallway in the dark, feeling around with her foot for each step, except the hallway was inside her chest and she wasn’t sure where she was going at all.
She fell asleep, still wondering what her heart’s desire could be.
School dragged on forever, and Summer didn’t raise her hand once. She was usually a pretty good student so the teacher didn’t call on her or embarrass her in class, but Mrs. Selena did give her a rather thoughtful look when she ran out the door to recess.
She was not allowed to take the bus home because other kids on the bus might try to give her drugs, so she waited by the curb with her bookbag until her mother pulled up with the car to drive her home. Summer spent the ride home staring out the window and not talking, but fortunately her mother was listening to a radio program and didn’t notice.
Her mother went to work on her computer, and Summer went out to play in the garden. She looked immediately over the wall and saw the roof of the bird-footed house.
She waited ten minutes, to make sure that her mother wasn’t going to get up from the computer, then went to the gate.
The padlock had locked itself again, and Summer wasn’t sure what she should do. She didn’t think she could climb over the gate, and if she tried to go back through the house, her mother would probably notice it.
Still, if it had worked for Baba Yaga yesterday, maybe there was still a little magic left on it…
“Open, lock,” she whispered to the padlock, putting her lips right down next to it. “Open, bar! Oh please, please open!”
The lock made a cheerful little click! and slid open.
“Oh, thank you!” said Summer. “Good lock!” She put it into her pocket and looked around quickly. She was probably going to get in horrible trouble, but if Baba Yaga could grant her heart’s desire—that was worth it, wasn’t it?
She slipped the gate open and pulled it most of the way shut behind her, just enough so the latch wouldn’t catch. Then she pelted down the alleyway to Baba Yaga’s house.
The gate was open. Summer peered around the edge of the wall, then slipped into the yard.
The house was standing several feet above the ground, scratching idly at the grass. There were deep gouges in the lawn. When it saw Summer, it clapped all its windows and plopped down onto the ground.
Now that she had to actually walk up to the door, she felt so nervous that she was almost queasy, as if someone had dropped a brick into her stomach.
What if Baba Yaga hadn’t been joking yesterday, and she was in a bad mood and sucked the marrow out of Summer’s bones?
What if it turned out that Summer was a horrible person and her heart’s desire was an awful thing that nobody should want?
She halted halfway to the door and pressed her hands to her chest.
She hadn’t noticed yesterday that there was a skull on the front door, right in the middle, where a normal person might hang a wreath.
The house lifted its back end up and inched forward a little, like a dog wanting to play. This must have made the floors tilt inside, because Summer heard a banging and sliding of furniture and Baba Yaga yelled, “Fool house! I’ll trade you in for one with turtle feet and a three-car garage!” The house sank back down, but wiggled forward a little more, until the front door was only a few feet away.
The skull on the door wasn’t human, or at least it wasn’t entirely human. It had big canine teeth like a dog and long antlers like a deer.
Was it a door knocker? Was she supposed to grab the dangling jawbone and rap it against the door?
Summer gulped and reached out her hand.
The skull opened its eyes.
Since it had empty eye sockets and no eyelids, Summer wasn’t quite sure how its eyes had been closed in the first place, but something flipped in the eye sockets and the skull was very definitely looking back at her.
“I shouldn’t go in if I were you,” said the skull.
Summer squeaked and took a step back.
“I did,” said the skull mournfully. “You can see where I wound up.”
“Did she kill you?” asked Summer, ready to run away at once.
“Well,” said the skull. “Well. Not exactly. Not as such. I was already dead. Sort of dead. Rather dead. I came in feet first, you might say. But I didn’t ask to be made into a door knocker!”
“I can see how that would be bad,” said Summer. She put a hand on her neck, in the spot where you could feel your pulse. Her heart was pounding furiously. “Um. Is she—is she in a bad mood?”
The skull clattered its jaw from side to side. “Not today. She’s in a pretty good mood, I’d say. She’s had breakfast and lunch and afternoon tea. I shouldn’t go in if she were waiting on dinner. Baba Yaga gets very impatient if she hasn’t been fed.”
Summer exhaled. It didn’t sound as if the marrow was going to be sucked out of her bones. Of course, there was the matter of the skull—but it had already been dead, and it was a little wicked to fool around with dead people’s bones, but not nearly so wicked as making them dead in the first place.
“Did you always have antlers?” she asked. “When you were alive?”
“No,” said the skull, glancing up at its antlers with obvious pride. “I wish I had. They’re the best thing about being a door knocker. At Yuletide she turns them into reindeer antlers. Those would have been marvelous.”
“They’re very good,” said Summer. “Can I go in? She said she’d give me my heart’s desire.”
“Oh, well then,” said the skull. “If that’s what she said. She doesn’t go back on her word, you know, although she could teach the Devil a few things about loopholes.”
The door swung open.
Summer stepped up into Baba Yaga’s house and went inside.