The After-room by Maile MeloyThe After-room by Maile Meloy

The After-room

byMaile Meloy

Paperback | February 7, 2017

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The triumphant finale in the bestselling trilogy is now in paperback!

It’s 1955, and Benjamin Burrows and Janie Scott are trying to live a safe, normal life in America. It’s not easy, when they have the power to prevent nuclear disaster, and sinister forces are circling. Soon the advice of a mysterious, unscrupulous magician propels Janie and Benjamin into danger, and toward the land of the dead. Meanwhile, their friend Jin Lo washes up on a remote island where an American spy is stationed, and finds herself on the trail of a deadly threat in China. But she’s on the other side of the world—how can Janie and Benjamin reach her? The triumphant finale in the trilogy that began with Maile Meloy’s bestselling, critically acclaimed The Apothecary, and continued in its captivating sequel, The Apprentices, The After-Room is full of enchantment and heart, with Ian Schoenherr’s stunning illustrations throughout.
Maile Meloy is the award-winning author of The Apothecary and The Apprentices, as well as four books for adults: the short story collections Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It and Half in Love, and the novels Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter. You can visit Maile at www.mailemeloy.com.
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Title:The After-roomFormat:PaperbackDimensions:448 pages, 8.25 × 5.44 × 1.14 inPublished:February 7, 2017Publisher:Penguin Young Readers GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0147516943

ISBN - 13:9780147516947

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Chapter 1Green and gold streamers hung from the ceiling of the gym, and the band glowed under the stage lights, against the folded bleachers. The singer had a shiny black sweep of hair and wore a narrow blue satin tie. It was late in the evening, and the punch bowl had been emptied many times.The school dance had posed a problem for Janie Scott and Benjamin Burrows, because he was enrolled as her cousin, although he wasn’t her cousin. They were not supposed to be a romantic couple. At Ann Arbor High, going to the spring formal together meant you were practically engaged. Janie wished they had spent more time thinking their cover story through.Benjamin had wanted to just skip the dance.“We have to try to have a normal life here,” Janie had said.The look on Benjamin’s face said that he would never have a normal life. Ever. He lived underwater with grief.Finally, Janie asked the Doyle twins to go with them. Nat Doyle was an excellent dancer, and had spun Janie all over the floor. His sister, Valentina, wore a pale blue strapless dress, her arms brown and strong from tennis, but Benjamin didn’t seem to have noticed.As a schoolboy in London, Benjamin had taken dancing lessons, and he could waltz and foxtrot in an automatic way, but he steered Valentina with only a small corner of his mind, as he did everything now. The best part of him wasn’t there. He excused himself and wandered off toward the bathrooms.The singer’s face dripped with sweat under the lights, beneath his shiny helmet of hair. Janie and the twins went outside to cool off, and stood near the open door in a fresh breeze. Valentina had a complicated look on her face, and Janie knew a question was coming.“Where are Benjamin’s parents?” Valentina asked.“His mother died when he was little,” Janie said. “His father died last year.”“Oh,” Valentina said. “How?”The question had been bound to come up sometime, but Janie still struggled for an answer. The suffocating smell of smoke came back to her, and the dark of a deep mine. “In an accident,” she said. “Smoke inhalation.”“Was he your father’s brother?” Valentina asked.This was another place the cover story broke down. Benjamin had an English accent, and Janie’s father was clearly American. They should have thought this all through, but it had been a difficult time. “Um—” Janie said.“He’s not really your cousin, is he?” Valentina asked.Janie shook her head.“I didn’t think so,” Valentina said, smiling. “You don’t seem like cousins. Your family took him in?”Janie nodded.“It’s okay,” Valentina said. “You don’t have to explain.”Janie was grateful that she didn’t push. The twins were private, too, and protective of each other. Their parents worked at the University of Michigan, like Janie’s parents did, and their mother was black and their father was white. Most of the kids at Ann Arbor High in 1955 were just white. The twins played on the tennis team—they were unbeatable at mixed doubles—and they were careful with their friendship. They had been nicer to Janie and Benjamin, the lonely midyear arrivals, than anyone else at the school had, but they always had a kind of reserve.Benjamin had just joined them when the backup singer took the microphone, and the band played the slow opening bars of “Skylark.” It was Janie’s favorite song, and she took Benjamin’s hand. “We have to dance this one,” she said. “Just one.”They walked out onto the dance floor, which had cleared for the slow song, and she stepped into Benjamin’s well-trained dancing position. One of his hands touched her back and the other lifted her hand, but in no sense was she in his arms. At least someone was keeping the cover story intact: He danced like he was her cousin.The girl sang, “Skylark, have you anything to say to me? Won’t you tell me where my love can be?”Benjamin looked over Janie’s shoulder. Even his incorrigible hair seemed subdued. The stubborn waves had given up, and lay neatly down. As they moved across the floor, the girl sang, “And in your lonely flight, haven’t you heard the music in the night?”“This is your song,” Janie said.“It’s not my song,” he said. “It’s someone talking to a skylark.”At least Benjamin still had his tendency to argue the smallest points. She would take that as a good sign. “All right, then it’s my song,” she said.It was her song because Benjamin’s father had disappeared in London, when she first met them, and had left behind a book full of strange instructions in Latin and Greek. An old gardener had helped Janie and Benjamin understand it, and made them an elixir that transformed people into birds. It all seemed unlikely and fantastical, now that they were in Michigan, surrounded by sensible Midwesterners with their feet planted firmly on the ground, but the avian elixir had really worked. Of all the things that had happened since Janie met Benjamin and his father, that moment of taking flight had been the most magical. To be suddenly free of the earth, to feel air currents in your outstretched wings, there was nothing else like it.Janie had become an American robin: curious, a little proud, inconspicuous at home but noticeably out of place in England. Their friend Pip, a London pickpocket with acrobatic grace, had become a swallow with a long tail and a swooping dive. And Benjamin, with his shock of sandy hair, had become an English skylark, bright and quick and crowned with feathers.Now he didn’t seem anything like a skylark. He didn’t take pleasure in anything. He was going through the motions of dancing, as he went through the motions at school. He hated doing algebra and identifying the metaphors in Romeo and Juliet, and did just enough work to keep the teachers off his back. He spent his spare time reading the Pharmacopoeia, his father’s book, in his bedroom.When Janie came downstairs before the dance in a dress the color of a lemon ice, with her hair up in time-consuming curls, Benjamin had barely looked up. She thought maybe living in the same house was a very bad idea, and they were going to end up like brother and sister. But she couldn’t imagine being apart from him. There was no good answer.The song ended and the band started a jangling fast number, to coax back the dancers who had wandered into the shadows. Janie dropped her arms and stood inside the cold fog of misery that Benjamin carried around with him.“I know you miss your dad,” she said. “I do, too.”He shook his head, staring at the parquet floor with its painted basketball markings. “You don’t understand,” he said.“I do,” she said. “I think about it all the time. I didn’t want him to die.”“But he—” Benjamin stopped himself. There was a look of frustration and also of defiant challenge in his eyes. It was the look he’d had on his face the first time she ever saw him, when he refused to get under the table during a school bomb drill in London. It was a look that said I am set apart. Around them, people danced, swinging and twirling, skirts flying.“He what?” she asked.“He’s still here,” he said in a harsh whisper, the words catching in his throat.Janie frowned. “You mean in dreams?”Benjamin shook his head with impatience. A girl somersaulted over a boy’s arm, behind him. “It’s not a dream,” he said. “I know it. My father’s still here.”Chapter 2Janie took Benjamin’s elbow and steered him off the dance floor, dodging flying legs and arms. The Doyle twins stood talking in the doorway, and Valentina gave Janie a questioning look.“Just going to get some air,” Janie said.“We’ll see you tomorrow?” Valentina asked.“Of course!” Janie said. The Doyles were having an afternoon party. “Can’t wait!”The air outside was cool and fresh, and Janie sat beside Benjamin on the lamplit steps of the school. Her skirt made a bell around her knees. “Tell me everything,” she said.Benjamin took a deep breath and said, “It started after your parents sent me to that psychologist.”Benjamin had been unhappy in Ann Arbor, and Janie’s parents had suggested that he talk to someone. His mother had died when he was three, so he had no one now that his father was gone. And living with Janie’s parents seemed to remind him of what he’d lost. They tried to be kind and understanding, although her father still called Benjamin “Figment” because of a forgotten, annoying joke. Benjamin had been reluctant to talk to the doctor.“What did he say?” Janie asked.“That it was normal for a kid to want to surpass his father, and replace him,” Benjamin said. “But it’s bad if your father actually dies. Destabilizing, he said. Because then it feels like your fantasy has come true, and you’ve defeated your own father, so you have all these feelings of guilt and responsibility.”“That makes sense,” Janie said.“No, it doesn’t!” Benjamin said. “Because the doctor didn’t know how actually guilty I am. He just knew that my father died in an accident. And what was I supposed to tell him? That my father was an international outlaw with quasi-magical powers, who was interfering with nuclear tests, and I poisoned him trying to make a smoke screen, when we were held captive underground?”Janie winced. “I guess not.”“So I skipped the second appointment,” Benjamin said. “It was pointless, talking to that guy. Lying to him. And then the dreams started. I would be thinking about my father, about how I’d failed him, and how much I missed him, and then I would be in a dark place where I couldn’t see anything. But I felt that he was there. When I came out of the dream each time, I felt dizzy. That should have tipped me off.”“To what?” she asked.“You remember the powder I sent you. How it worked.”Benjamin had sent Janie a small glassine envelope of coarse powder, when she was at school in New Hampshire. He’d told her, in a note, to dissolve a few grains in water, drink it down, and close her eyes. It was something he’d been working on while he was on the run with his father, so that they could communicate.“You thought about the other person,” Janie said. “And you could see where they were, through their eyes.”“Right,” Benjamin said. “But it had a side effect.”“It made you dizzy afterward.”“Well, my father took the powder before he died,” he said.“Oh—” she said. The full importance of what he was saying began to dawn on her.“You see?” he said, excited. “It hasn’t worn off yet!”“On you?” she asked.“On either of us.”“But where is he?” she asked, looking around at the pale light cast by the streetlamp, and the dark beyond it. She felt a chill of fear, but of what, she wasn’t sure—of ghosts? Of the possibility that Benjamin had lost his mind?“I’ve been calling it the After-room,” Benjamin said. “But it’s not really a room. The walls aren’t really walls, they’re like—a screen, and beyond it is something else. Something farther. My father is there. I think he’s keeping himself in that place, somehow. He’s stalling, so he can communicate with me. Does that sound stupid?”Janie shook her head. It sounded terrifying, but also somehow wonderful.“The feeling is different from when we used the powder,” he said. “It’s not like being in someone else’s body, because my father doesn’t have a body. But he’s there, I know he is. I know I’m not alone there.”Janie couldn’t keep the hurt expression from her face.“I don’t mean that I’m alone here,” he said. “I just—you know.”She nodded. “So what does he say?”“That’s the thing, I don’t know. I can feel that he’s there, but I can’t get his voice. So I made some more of the mind-connection powder.”Janie felt a stinging jolt of surprise. “Without me?” she said. “When did you make it?”“When you went to the movies with your parents.”“What?”“I didn’t know how to tell you.”“With words!” she said. “Like this!”“I haven’t used it yet,” he said. “You came home before I could. And I was afraid to try it.”“You shouldn’t do things like that alone!”“But I think it might work,” he said. His voice was eager and strained. “I think it might make the connection stronger.”A couple from the dance walked by, the girl’s heels clicking on the concrete steps, and Benjamin waited until they’d passed. In her confusion, Janie was thinking about the fact that she’d been watching Rear Window in a movie theater with her parents while Benjamin was home making the powder in the kitchen. He’d said he had algebra to do. It wasn’t right. She and Benjamin were supposed to work together.“You believe me, don’t you?” he asked. “About my father?”The old gardener who had helped them decipher the Pharmacopoeia had told them that they shouldn’t assume things were too far-fetched to be true. She nodded. “I do.”Relief transformed Benjamin’s face, and his whole body relaxed. “I was afraid you would think I was crazy.”She smiled. “I didn’t say I don’t think you’re crazy,” she said. “I just said I believe you.”He smiled back, and she realized how close they were sitting in the lamplight. His knee was almost touching hers. He leaned toward her. They hadn’t kissed since they’d arrived in Michigan. Her parents were always around at home, and at school she was supposed to be his cousin, and he’d been so unhappy and preoccupied. But now the steps were deserted, and his face drew near in the dark. She caught his familiar clean smell beneath her own borrowed perfume. She could feel his breath on her face, and the warmth radiating from his skin. Their lips were half an inch apart when the sound of a rattling engine broke the silence of the street, and then a beeping horn.They both pulled away. A noisy, well-traveled brown Studebaker nosed up to the curb.“Lord Figment!” her father called from the driver’s seat. “Lady Jane! Your chariot awaits!”Chapter 3In the dawn light, a body appeared on the island’s northern beach. Ned Maddox spotted it from his observation platform in a banyan tree. He scanned the horizon through binoculars, but saw no boat, so he studied the body again. Thin, possibly a boy. Legs rocking in the shallow waves. It might be a trick to lure him down, a booby-trapped corpse. He tugged and scratched at his beard, thinking.Finally curiosity got the better of him, and he climbed down the banyan tree and hiked through the brush to the beach. A wave gave the body another rolling push up onto the sand. The boy wore simple cotton clothes, sodden with seawater. As Ned approached, he saw a long black braid tucked under the shoulder. He circled slowly.The castaway didn’t leap up to attack him. He saw no wires or explosives. He grabbed a slender ankle and a wrist, rolled the body over, then jumped back, but nothing happened. It was a girl, Chinese, and her lips and eyelids were blue. He felt her wrist for a pulse. It was thready and weak. She started to cough and throw up seawater.Still wary, he looked around, but no one appeared. So he picked the girl up and slung her over his shoulder. Water streamed down his legs as he carried her into the safety of the brush. His tiny island was theoretically under Communist control, but it was so inaccessible, surrounded by reefs and shoals, that no one ever came snooping. He didn’t want them to start now.Inside the camouflaged hut, there was only his own narrow cot, so he lowered the castaway onto it. Her eyes remained closed, and she shivered, soaking wet. He put a blanket over her. Her lips were chapped from the sun and the salt water.He turned on the little kerosene stove to heat some broth. When it was ready, he poured it into a bowl and held it up so the steam would reach her nose. Her whole face contorted at the smell of food, and it seemed to drag her back to consciousness. She opened her eyes, blinking. He knew his beard was long and scraggly. He needed to conserve his fuel for cooking, so he didn’t shave. The hair on his head was long, too. He owned a signaling mirror that he rarely looked into, but when he did, it gave him a start: A wild man looked back. Now the girl recoiled in fear.“Don’t be afraid,” he said in Mandarin.She watched him, waiting for more. She wasn’t going to commit herself. But he knew she understood.“Where did you come from?” he asked in Cantonese, just in case.She was silent.“My name is Ned Maddox,” he said in English. “First lieutenant, U.S. Navy. Can you understand me?”She gave a grave nod.“Want some soup?”She struggled to sit up, then winced and sank back, as if the movement hurt.“Hang on,” he said. “I’ll help.” He held her head and lifted it.The girl took a few sips of soup and lay back against the pillow. She was young, no older than twenty-five, but there was something otherworldly about her. She looked around the hut and seemed to take everything in. He wasn’t used to anyone witnessing his life. The Chinese runners who kept him supplied with food and fuel from the U.S. Navy ships were always in a hurry.The hut had a narrow cot, a tiny table, a little stove, and a few shelves. His clothes hung on pegs. But it misrepresented his life. His realm was enormous: the black sky full of stars, the hidden platform in the banyan tree with a view to the horizon. He was lord of it all, listening and watching. He had been watching, this morning, for something in particular. An American naval officer had gone missing and was believed to be hiding in the islands. Ned had been looking for the officer, not for a Chinese girl. But could there be some connection?“Who brought you here?” he asked. “Were you on a boat?”“Long story,” she said in Mandarin.“Plenty of time,” he said, in Mandarin also.But the girl seemed to have no interest in recounting her story. She knew it already, so why should she tell it to him? Her eyes fell on a large yellow cloth, draped over a blocky shape at the foot of his cot. He hoped she would think it was a makeshift bureau: a crate, perhaps, where he kept his shorts and socks.But she reached out and tugged the yellow cloth free, revealing his heavy suitcase radio and his headset. She turned to him, eyes shining.He should be concerned, he knew, that he had exposed his listening station. She was a threat to his security and to his mission. But instead, he felt an unaccountable impulse to explain himself to her. That was just loneliness, of course. He’d been out here too long.The girl spoke in English. “May I send a message?”He shook his head. “It would give away our position.”She gave him an interested look. Why had he said our?“My position,” he said.“Have you seen an Englishman?” she asked. “In a boat? A landing craft?”He frowned. Were they looking for the same person? “Not an American?”She shook her head, then winced at the movement.“I haven’t seen an Englishman,” he said. “Is he a friend of yours?”She frowned and closed her eyes, then lay back against the pillow again. He was left with the irrational feeling of having disappointed this intruder he didn’t even know, and wishing he had the information she wanted.He thought he should go through her things to find out who she was, but she had no things, just her simple clothes.So he kept watch, in silence, while she slept.Chapter 4Janie tried, in general, to understand her parents’ point of view. They wanted her to be happy. They wanted Benjamin to be less depressed. They feared he would pull her down into his vortex of gloom, so they tried to combat it with their relentless cheerfulness.But when her father had interrupted in his horrible noisy car, with his dumb jokes, just as Benjamin was about to kiss her, Janie thought she might scream. On the ride home, while her father asked if they’d enjoyed the ball, and talked about how difficult it was to get mice to pull a pumpkin, she seethed and said nothing. At the house, her father leaped out and opened the passenger door with an elaborate coachman’s bow.“Just stop it!” she hissed at him. “Please!”Their house in Ann Arbor was a two-story Victorian with tall, narrow windows, which reminded Janie of a mournful face. Benjamin went straight inside without a word. He had finally started to talk to her—really talk, but her father’s arrival had shut him back down. She went inside and watched Benjamin climb the stairs, and heard the decisive thunk of his bedroom door. She kicked off her shoes.“How was it, honey?” her mother asked, curled up in her chair in the front parlor. She was grading student papers. Janie’s father, aware he was in trouble, headed back toward the kitchen.“It was fine,” Janie said, in a voice that said it hadn’t been.“Your mascara’s smeared,” her mother said.“Doesn’t matter now.” But Janie ran her fingers under her eyes.“You looked so lovely tonight,” her mother said. “Did Benjamin think so?”“I have no idea.”Her mother frowned and patted the ottoman. “Is he thinking about his father?”“Yes,” Janie said, sitting down, because that was true.Her parents knew about the apothecary’s death. Count Vili, when he brought Janie and Benjamin home to Ann Arbor, would have given her parents drugged champagne to make them forget everything, but Janie had made him promise not to. Their memories had been taken from them once before, and it didn’t seem fair to do it again. But Vili had given them something, some anti-worry herb or potion to make them calm and accepting when he told them that their daughter had been kidnapped and taken to Malaya. Benjamin and his father had gone to rescue her, and Benjamin’s father had been killed. Her parents had been uncharacteristically mellow about the whole thing, and the story had faded, for them, into hazy background, like a fairy tale they’d nearly forgotten. That must have required some medicinal help. Her parents accepted Vili as a glamorous friend of Benjamin’s father, a kind of godfather to Benjamin, who could fix things by nature of his aristocratic connections and his worldly skills. Janie curled and stretched her toes.“What are you reading?” she asked.“Oh, writing assignments,” her mother said. “They were supposed to write a scene that takes place in a kitchen. I thought it might help them think about how people actually talk, in real life.”“Any good ones?”“A couple, maybe,” her mother said. “But two police officers just burst into the kitchen in this one, and said ‘Hands up! You’re coming with us!’ For no reason, out of nowhere. I think next week we need to talk about how suspense works.”Janie’s parents were screenwriters who had moved to London to avoid being forced to testify about their friends’ political beliefs. But now America had grown tired of Senator McCarthy and his hunt for Communists. The senator had never produced a single spy for all his talk about having a whole list of them. Once, when a journalist asked him to produce the list, he’d said it was in his other pants. No one took him seriously anymore, and the Scotts were able to live in the United States without being followed by federal marshals. But there was no work at the Hollywood studios for them. The people who gave out jobs were still afraid, and moving away to London had given the Scotts the air of guilt. So they’d been teaching at the university in Ann Arbor, reading stacks of student work every night, for almost no money. Their savings were dwindling. It had been a stretch to buy the lemon-ice dress.“I wish you could just write again,” Janie said.“You’re telling me,” her mother said. She wound her hair up in a knot, clipping it in place.“Everyone knows you’re not spies,” Janie said.“I know, but these things stick. Tell me about the dance, that’s more interesting. What did the twins wear?”“Nat wore a white tux. And Valentina wore a blue dress—sort of robin’s-egg blue. And strapless.”“Mmm,” her mother said. “They must’ve looked amazing.”Janie’s mother was fascinated with Nat and Valentina, with their exotic looks and their tennis skills and their parents’ bravery in marrying each other. Janie sometimes wanted to shield the twins from her mother’s interest. “They did,” she said cautiously.“We’re going to their party tomorrow, right?” her mother asked.Janie nodded. She wished it were a party just for adults, or just for kids.“Do you think Benjamin’ll go?” her mother asked.“I hope so.”“What else? Tell me more.”Janie tried to think of something besides the fact that Benjamin believed he had contacted his dead father. She could report that someone had spiked the punch early in the evening, but her mother wouldn’t want to know that, and Janie hadn’t drunk any, so it wasn’t relevant. There had been a time when she could say anything to her mother. Not so long ago, she could say anything to anyone—to her teachers at Hollywood High, to her friends, to her parents’ friends. Or at least there was nothing she wanted to say that she couldn’t. Now there seemed to be conversational pitfalls everywhere. Was that what growing up was? An ever-mounting number of things you couldn’t say? “The band played ‘Skylark,’” she finally offered.Her mother made a face. “Oh, that sappy thing. It drags so.”“It’s my favorite song,” Janie said.“You’re kidding.”Janie’s eyes stung. She wanted not to cry. Her mother couldn’t understand about skylarks, about flying over the streets of London with the wind in your feathers. Or about her extraordinary happiness when Benjamin had shown up to find her on that terrifying island, having been blown off course by storms and fallen from the sky. About how much she missed the old Benjamin.“Honey, what is it?” her mother asked.“Benjamin was finally talking to me about his father,” she said. “He was telling me things. But then Dad pulled up and started making his stupid jokes, and now Benjamin’s gone upstairs and closed the door.” The tears spilled over, spotting the pale silk of her dress.“Oh, sweetheart,” her mother said.“I’m so tired of his jokes!”Her father appeared in the doorway, carrying a sandwich on a small plate. His shoulders hunched forward in apology, or maybe that was just his habitual posture, now that he was marginally employed. His curly dark hair was starting to retreat from his forehead. When he was anxious, he tugged at it, which didn’t help. Janie found herself wishing that her parents were bad people so she could just be angry at them, without feeling terrible about it. Or at least that they would be consistently annoying, so she could stay annoyed.“You chased Benjamin away,” she said.Her father set the plate beside her on the ottoman. The sandwich was cut diagonally, the way she liked it. She didn’t want to accept the peace offering, but she was hungry, and it looked like an excellent sandwich. Turkey and Swiss cheese and crisp lettuce on toasted bread. She took a bite, and tasted tangy mustard.Her father sat down on the couch, with his elbows on his knees. “I know I interrupted tonight,” he said. “It’s not easy for us, you know. Most parents don’t have their sixteen-year-old daughters’ boyfriends living in the house. I saw that he was about to kiss you as I drove up, and I went a little nuts.”Her mother smiled. “Oh, so there was a kiss at stake! I thought it was just about Benjamin telling you things.”“It was,” Janie said. “I mean, that was the important part.”“It looked like a pretty important kiss,” her father said.Janie felt her face heat up. “It might’ve been, until you ruined it!”“I’m sorry,” he said. “It was an instinct. I felt protective. He lives under our roof. He sleeps upstairs.”“Believe me, nothing is going on,” Janie said. “So you can relax.”But as she said it, she thought about what Benjamin had told her on the school steps. Something was going on under their roof; it just wasn’t kissing. It was contacting the Underworld, or—what did Benjamin call it? The After-room. Benjamin didn’t make things up, or let his imagination run away with him. He was practical; that was a core aspect of his personality. It was the first thing she’d seen in him, in London. He wasn’t going to climb under the lunch table during an atomic bomb drill if it didn’t make sense. And she didn’t think he was crazy.She put down the sandwich. “I’m going to bed.”“So was the dance fun, at least?” her mother asked.“Sure,” Janie said. “I don’t know. It’s hard to do normal kid stuff sometimes, I guess. Thanks for worrying about me.” She brushed crumbs off her hands, over the plate.Her parents looked helpless and forlorn, and she went upstairs so she wouldn’t have to see them that way. The steps creaked and her silk skirt rustled as she climbed.At Benjamin’s door, she stopped and knocked quietly. “Benjamin?”There wasn’t any answer.“I just want to say,” she said through the door, “that I believe what you told me.”More silence. She was about to turn away when the door opened. Benjamin looked deranged, his eyes wild.“I made a list of questions,” he said, in an urgent whisper. “Tomorrow, when your parents go out—I need your help.”Chapter 5When Benjamin woke the next morning, he lay in bed listening to Janie’s parents talking in hushed voices outside his door. “Shouldn’t they be awake by now?” Mr. Scott asked.“Oh, let them sleep,” Mrs. Scott said. “The band played ‘Skylark’ last night. That’ll put anyone down for a week.”They usually took a walk in the morning, and Benjamin waited. Finally he heard them go downstairs: creak, creak, creak. The house was old and the stairs complained. The front door opened and closed behind them. Then he jumped out of bed, got dressed, and padded in socks to Janie’s door. She answered in pajamas, with black smudges beneath her eyes and her hair in flattened, messy curls.“Now’s our chance,” he said.She rubbed her eyes. “Just give me a minute.”When she came to his room, she was more recognizable, clean-faced and ponytailed, with a bathrobe tied over her pajamas. She looked prettier without the makeup. He remembered how they had almost kissed the night before, then pushed the thought aside. They had important things to do. His father was out there, he could feel it. He tapped a few grains of powder into a glass of water and swirled it to dissolve them. Janie watched.“I can’t believe you made that and didn’t tell me,” she said.“Sorry,” he said. And he was sorry. But he hadn’t had the energy for teamwork lately, or for worrying about whether Janie would believe him. It would’ve shaken him too much if she hadn’t, and he couldn’t afford to be shaken. It took everything he had just to face her parents at breakfast, and get through school each day.“What are you going to ask your father?” she asked.He handed her his list of questions. He had already memorized it. It said:What is this place where you are?Is there a certain length of time you can stay?What happens then?What should I do now?How much of the Pharmacopoeia doesn’t work?Janie finished reading and looked up, her eyebrows knitted together. “Can I go with you?” she asked.He shook his head. “I need you to watch me, in case something goes wrong. And write down anything I say. I’ll be dizzy and sick afterward, and might not remember.”“I don’t know, Benjamin. This seems really dangerous.”“It’s not,” he said. “I’ve been there already.”“How long are you going to stay?”“Until I get some answers,” he said.He picked up the glass of water and drank it down. Then he sat on his bed and closed his eyes, his feelings turbulent and strange. The After-room was the greatest scientific discovery in history—another dimension, a verifiable afterworld. And he had been there! And his father was there now, waiting for him. He tried to be calm.He had to think about his father, to reach him. So he pictured the abstracted air his father used to get when he worked, the way he pushed his spectacles up on his nose and disappeared into his mind when he had an idea.Then, unbidden, came the image of his father’s agonized face, struggling for air, on the verge of death. Benjamin didn’t want that memory—his heart began to race. His father had told him not to get caught up in grief, or anger, or bitterness. Because he was the vessel through which the work flowed, and the vessel couldn’t be collapsed by guilt. But he couldn’t help it.He felt a twinge of uncertainty. Maybe Janie was right, and this was dangerous. He concentrated on the idea of his father healthy and well, in his shop back in London, and then the dark behind his closed eyelids opened up into the different, unearthly darkness of the After-room. He recognized it at once. It was both a place and not a place. A room and not a room.“Dad?” he said—or thought. It was like speaking in a dream. “I’m here.”There was a silence that felt like disapproval. And why wouldn’t his father disapprove? Benjamin had been responsible for his death.He grimaced with the pain of remembering, and took a breath. “I have some questions,” he said.Still silence. The room had no corners—so was it circular? Not exactly. An ellipse, maybe. The walls were like a screen, and outside, he saw shimmering particles. Benjamin had always thought that he didn’t remember anything specific about his mother, but now a memory came into his head. He was very small, and she was reaching down to pick him up. She was lifting him over her head, laughing—so young and happy—and then she brought him down out of the air and gathered him close.His mother! He was prepared for his father to be here, but not for her. She had been gone so long. He felt that she was not in the After-room but outside it, in the place where the shimmering lights were, and he started to move toward them.“Mother!” he called. “Are you there?” He pushed against the walls of the After-room. They were like gauze—no, they were like a thick, viscous fog. There was pressure mounting in his head, and he was getting very cold.Then his father’s voice came booming. “Benjamin—don’t!” It sounded like the result of great effort: a gathering of strength to speak. His father was here!But Benjamin was suddenly afraid of the things he would have to say, if he spoke to his father. With his mother there would be no guilt, nothing for which he was responsible. He had been only three when she died. He moved toward her again.“Benjamin!” his father called.“She’s out there!” Benjamin cried.“You can’t go to her.”“But I want to!” He sounded like a child. His careful list was forgotten. How much of the Pharmacopoeia doesn’t work? What a stupid question! Why had he cared about that? He could go to his mother now, the mother he had never known. It was getting hard to breathe. “I want to see her!”Someone else was calling his name, too, and he shook his head to make these distractions go away. Everything felt dense and slow. And so cold. To warm himself, he thought of his mother lifting him over her head again. Her smile, and her laughter. It was out there, if he could only get to it.Something shadowy reached for him. Snakes. He pushed them away, but they weren’t snakes, they were arms, hands, clutching and grabbing him. He tried to struggle free. Something was pulling him away from everything he wanted. Why would anyone do that? How dare they? The After-room began to disappear, the fog to disperse. He struggled.“Benjamin, wake up!” Janie said.He opened his eyes wide and he was back in a real room, a bedroom, his bedroom. Janie was there. It was her arms that had grabbed him. Her eyes were wide and terrified. He was lying on his bed and Janie was shaking him, shouting.“Breathe!” she said.He took a dragging breath that seemed to come through a tiny hole in his throat, with space for only a tiny sip of air. He gasped, the wheezing breath like sandpaper in his chest. It made a terrible noise. His lungs ached. It was so much easier not to breathe.“Again!” Janie cried.The room spun like a carnival ride. Benjamin closed his eyes and sank back into comfortable dimness. Mother.Then a bright pain burst unexpectedly on his face, and he looked up at Janie. She had slapped him. He scowled at her. Slapped him!“Stay awake!” she said furiously. “Breathe!”His voice came out as a wheezing croak: “I can’t.”“You have to!”“Water.”“I’ll get you water,” she said. “But you have to keep your eyes open! And keep breathing! Okay?”He managed to nod. She ran from the room. He watched the spinning ceiling but he couldn’t stand it, he thought he would throw up, and he closed his eyes again, sinking into darkness.“Benjamin!”She was back, and shook him again. He opened his eyes, and she held a glass of water to his mouth. He drank, and his throat seemed to relax a little. He could take in more air now, and it didn’t hurt so much.“You stopped breathing,” Janie said. “Your face turned purple, and you were so cold. You can’t go back there again. Promise!”“My mother,” he whispered.“You were dying, Benjamin.”“It was so beautiful. She was there.”“You can’t go with her,” Janie said. “I need you here. Okay?”Downstairs, the front door opened and closed, Janie’s parents back from their morning walk.“Rise and shine!” her father called up the stairs, impossibly cheerful.“It’s so gorgeous out there, you two!” her mother said.“I’m making eggs!” her father called.Benjamin stared at Janie. “Don’t tell them,” he whispered.She wiped tears off her face. “I think you should see a doctor,” she said. “You weren’t breathing.”“Please don’t say anything.”“Do you think you can eat?” she asked.Benjamin nodded.“And talk to my parents?”“As long as your dad doesn’t call me Figment.”Janie smiled weakly. “I can’t promise that.” She picked up the glass jar of powder from his night table and slipped it into her bathrobe pocket. “I’ll just keep this.”Benjamin watched the jar disappear. He said nothing, but he was surprised how painful it was to see it go, and how sharp his longing was to have it back.Chapter 6The man who had found Jin Lo shared his food and water with her, and gave her his cot to sleep in, but she still wasn’t strong enough to walk more than a few steps without support. She was annoyed at her own weakness, and irritated that Ned Maddox wouldn’t let her send a message to her friends, or even listen to his radio, when that was the one thing she might easily do. He said it would drain the battery. So instead she slept, and thought.He came in from his post in the banyan tree at noon, pulling a sun hat off his head. He had shaved his face and cut his hair since she arrived, and he looked less like a madman, but she missed the tangled beard of her rescuer. Now he seemed like a military officer, superior and insensible. She did not have good associations with soldiers. But she had an idea for him.“With a bicycle,” she said, “you could charge this radio.”His face broke into a wide smile, a smile that made her think Americans were different. It didn’t matter how much war this man had seen, or how long he’d been alone on a deserted island; his smile came from a place of innocence and excellent dentists. “You mean bring a bike in here, and wire it to the generator, and charge the battery?” he said.She nodded.“That’s a good idea,” he said. “You’ll pedal?”“Yes!” she said. Was he taking her seriously? “I will get stronger.”“Great, I’ll requisition a bike,” he said. “It should take about three years to get here.”She frowned.Ned Maddox lifted his binocular strap over his head and hung it on a hook. He had quizzed her about her country’s politics, wanting to determine that she had no love for Mao Tse-tung, and then he told her something about the work he did. He had been a coastwatcher in the war, hiding behind the Japanese lines, sending reports back to his commanders. Now the civil war in China went on and on, with the United States supporting Chiang Kai-shek against Mao’s Communists. And Ned Maddox had been assigned here again to keep watch.He was lonely, or he would not have told her so much. She thought she must seem like a magical being in a children’s story, washing up on his beach. Maybe he believed she would grant him wishes. He made two sandwiches.“So, you ready to tell me why you’re here?” he asked.She shook her head.“People are on edge, you know,” he said. “We almost had a nuclear situation. I’m supposed to report what I see.”She frowned. “What nuclear situation?”He eyed her. “It was in the newspapers.”“I have seen no newspapers,” she said.

Editorial Reviews

Praise for The After-Room: “This series finale wraps up most of its loose ends in a satisfying bow, leaving just enough room for imaginative middle-grade readers and teens to conjure up their own futures for Janie and Benjamin.”—Kirkus Reviews “A cerebral fantasy with enough action to keep readers on their toes.”—School Library Journal"Meloy ends her trilogy on a satisfying note and manages an authorial sort of alchemy just short of being as miraculous as that performed by her protagonists: creating realistic historical fiction that gives an authentic cold war feel, along with potions that can turn one into a bird."--VOYA