Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




How to Find a Portal

I remember as children we were warned about the women who drove the unmarked white vans that circled around our neighborhood during those long hot summers, in particular creeping slowly down the boulevard which ran alongside the park, where if you positioned yourself at the right angle, I suppose in front of the swings, you might be able to see a flash of a child’s private yellow underwear as they pumped their legs upward.

“Where’d you get that stupid idea? These women aren’t interested in anybody’s underwear,” my mom snapped at me.

“But you said—”

“Are you ever listening? That was something else. These women are different.” The portal creepers, my mother and the other mothers called such women. I don’t know why the vans were always white and always dirty, as if they had driven through trenches of mud, or why the drivers of the vans were always female, or what they received for doing what they did. “Irrelevant,” my mother told me sharply when she was describing the women to me again after the weather turned warmer one particular March, and it was only a matter of time before the tulips sprouted up and I would be spending my afternoons at the park, on the swings. I was ordered to stay away from those vans, especially if the driver rolled her window down and looked me over in a familiar way, like a great auntie might, beckoning with her hand, which usually held some kind of otherworldly sweet, a sticky crystalline globe, or what looked to be a salted lemon drop. I was told to avoid the globes, crystalline or not, as well as any salted drops that they might offer me. Or not me, exactly. I mean, what was offered to the other children. No one had ever told me, You’re the one I was looking for.

I began dreaming about those vans. In certain dreams, a van paused, finally, in front of me. The passenger window lowered. A delicious scent poured forth from the inside. Time slowed down. The driver of the van leaned out of her window and shook a piece of candy. Each movement of her arm took an hour. I stood there, uncertain of what to do, hoping the decision would be made for me: that either the van would drive away, or the hand would reach down, grab my corduroy dress, and pull me in.

My mother made it clear that no matter what those drivers promised, the worlds we would be taken to might not be pleasant ones. “Not all worlds have waterfalls or dragons in them,” she told me. I didn’t believe her. I thought portal worlds sounded nice. A home for kids who didn’t feel at home here. A place that turned you into something better than—“Don’t be ridiculous!” my mother shouted at me. “If, one day, you forget everything I’ve told you, and you get into a van, and that van takes you to a portal, and the portal opens up—you need to close your eyes and run.” She turned to glare out of the kitchen window. I looked too. What I saw out there was the dark. Or, rather, our reflections on top of the dark. My mother’s voice quieted. “Or else you’ll lose yourself. Are you listening to me? Those glittery worlds will eat you up.”

In other of my dreams, the white vans drove past me without slowing, while neighbors watched from inside their houses, clucking their pink tongues.

• • • •

The children who were taken that summer I didn’t know very well, except for one particular girl, Leslie, who was my friend. Not my best friend. I didn’t have one of those. But a girl who let me tag along with her most afternoons at the park. We were on the swings when that particular white van pulled up and the window lowered. I thought the driver was pointing to me. She wore a pair of mirrored sunglasses so we couldn’t see her eyes. I got off the swing. It was like my dream, in a way. Only this time I knew what to do. The woman shook her head. She pointed again, this time clearly at my friend.

Leslie jumped off her swing. “Bye!” she shouted as she hurried toward the boulevard. I followed her. Around us, or, rather, around Leslie, I could almost feel a new world assembling. It almost felt like a source of heat. The woman shook her head. She looked about to drive off if I continued walking. Leslie, my friend, or whatever you want to call her, turned to me and shoved me backwards. I fell. A rock cut my hand. There was some blood. When I got up, I returned to the playground. So I don’t know what they talked about, Leslie and that woman. She passed a sweet to my friend. I saw the van’s back doors open. Leslie climbed in. There was a mattress on the floor of the van, as well as a chair, and a bag of books, and a puppy. No one believed that I saw a bag of books and the puppy. They believed me about the mattress though. My friend waved to me. She was chewing on a stick of pink taffy, then somebody reached around her and gently pulled both doors closed. “Why didn’t you get anyone? Why didn’t you scream?” I was asked repeatedly afterwards. I gave many answers to those questions. None of my answers were the right ones.

The next day, our mothers marched downtown to the mayor’s office, where they took over the sidewalks and shook their hand-lettered signs. “WE ARE OUR CHILDREN’S HOME!” they shouted. “HOME! HOME! HOME!” After a week of protest and chanting, the mayor appeared on the front steps to City Hill and promised a crackdown. Police cars began to stalk the park boulevard. Every white van that surfaced was pulled over, searched, towed. The drivers, now in handcuffs, hollered shrilly about performing a service: how all they had done was take some kids to what wanted them. Surely our mothers could have fought to close the park, but I think they wished for us to see the vans impounded and the women arrested, so that we’d know this part of our lives was over, and we might as well move on and start having different dreams.

It was arranged for an ice cream truck to appear in the lot beside the playground in the afternoons. Our mothers believed this would cheer us up. Every day we were allowed one or possibly two ice cream treats, depending on the treat you chose: two bomb pops or one king cone. Two dreamsicles or a chipwich. I always ordered two ice cream sandwiches, “the second for my friend,” I promised. I would climb into one of the maple trees and eat both myself.

From my perch, I could watch the boulevard where the police ordered the vans to pull over and park. The drivers who climbed out of the vans were old, as old as our mothers, or older, though they raged as our mothers never did. There was something animal about those ladies, how, under the gaze of the officers, they shook, paced, howled. One of the women reminded me of a crocodile. It was the way she stared. Or there was the woman who brought to mind a snow leopard—who, in the space beside her van, prowled back and forth, as if she was just biding her time, as if she was readying for a hunt, until a police officer yelled at her to stand the fuck still. She wore a smoky gray jacket buttoned to her chin and a pair of matching gloves, though there was no reason to wear gloves on such a mild day. When the officer began the process of shoving her into the back seat of his squad car, she first twisted around, to stare in the direction of the park, where I was hiding. Nobody had looked at me in those trees before. She looked in my direction and shook her head roughly, sadly, like someone, like me, had already made, or was about to make, a mistake. I’ve been looking for a portal ever since.

The women and their vans did not come back. As for the girls, as it was mostly girls who had been taken, they also stayed away, often for years. We forgot about many of them. Their desks were filled at school by other children with similar sounding names, and when the portal girls finally did return, they weren’t children anymore.

I wonder what that feels like, to be watched as a child, to be chosen, devoured, then spit back out. I bet some part of that process is nice. I wouldn’t know. Usually the girls were discovered in ditches. They were clothed in thin luminescent fabrics. Often they were crying. It was assumed, by our mothers, that the girls were crying for their snatched childhoods, that they had wanted to come home all these years but couldn’t, despite whatever stories the girls tried to tell at first.

My classmates shied away from the portal girls. “They freak me out,” a boy in my class said. I think he meant the jerkiness of their motions and their bright eyes. But I had questions for them. I went to their houses, and if there was no answer when I knocked, I rang the doorbell repeatedly. Whoever answered the door always looked worried. Sometimes the worried adult would right away order me home. Though other times, they said, “Not too long, okay?” and ushered me upstairs. The girls would be in their bedrooms, lying on their frilly beds. They didn’t look normal anymore, but it’s hard to say how exactly. They looked uncomfortable, though their beds were soft and covered in pillows and quilts. They did not bother to look at me when I started to ask my questions. I wanted to know where they went, and what they saw, and why they came back. Did they have to come back? And whether they were someone different there, and how do they find their portal again, and could they bring me with them this time. Sometimes I felt the portals, I told them. I felt it in on my skin. It was like feeling sunlight. Only I couldn’t see where the portals were. I couldn’t get to them by myself. None of the girls ever answered me. As if I wasn’t worth the effort to turn their heads. If I continued to ask questions—Were there dragons in their world? Were there magic waterfalls? Were there gold crowns?they became angry with me. One portal girl began to scream. Not any words in particular. It was only a sound. Another girl threw an ugly porcelain doll at me, at my neck. Once I dragged a girl out of her bed because she started laughing, and I left her there, sprawled on the floor, on her fuzzy pink carpeting.

Our mothers made us invite the portal girls to our sleepovers and our parties. At my cousin’s twelfth birthday bash, the lost girls huddled in the living room, their faces strange. It was hard to look into their faces. Leslie was there, my old friend, or whatever you wanted to call her. She wouldn’t talk to me either. “Leslie?” I asked. None of the girls spoke out loud anymore. They only whispered and only to each other. I don’t think they were even whispering words. It sounded like nonsense when I eavesdropped, like they were saying, Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh!

Later, after the ice cream cake was unboxed, Leslie climbed on top of my cousin’s roof. I watched her leave the room, and I watched her climb, first scrambling up the deck and then onto one of the lower eaves. I didn’t stop her or tell anyone. Someone else told. My uncle rushed to get a ladder out of the garage, then he dragged the ladder to the side of the house and clambered up. Before he could reach her, Leslie jumped. We were told she disappeared in the distance between the roof and the ground. An ambulance was called anyway. My cousin and my cousin’s friends and I were ushered away from the windows. The curtains were drawn. My mother relit the candles. We had to sing happy birthday again while the ice cream on the cake puddled.

Several girls who went to that party, not portal girls, but girls like me, jumped off of their own roofs in the weeks that followed. I would have tried it, too, if it worked. That fall, I first found blood on my underwear, and right away I sensed a change in the air, a closing off, and a new feeling of disgust. For a time, it was like all the portals went away.

• • • •

I grew up. I met someone. I got a job. We bought a house. I tried loving my partner more than a portal. This is what adults grow up to do, correct? What I really mean is wanting. I tried wanting her more than another world. On the day we closed on our home, a 1920s Colonial nestled at the bottom of a hill, I walked around each of the empty rooms, and if I felt the possibility of a portal nearby, the first portal I sensed in a long while, I did not turn to look. Instead, I took my partner’s hand and led her outside to our deck. The foyer of our house had stained glass windows that let in a golden light. The doorways between the rooms were charmingly trimmed and arched. In the yard, in the wild garden, a number of unknown plants thrived. Some of the plants had thorns on them. That evening we watched the setting sun color the sky as we looked out upon the rectangular swath of land that was now ours. “The home of my dreams,” my partner said, rubbing her fingers on my knuckles, as I looked at her, and touched her hair, instead of turning around.

I thought becoming a mother would help. A lot of women talk about how motherhood has made them necessary. I convinced my partner that we should adopt a pair of children I found online, an adorable sibling set from Indiana who needed to be placed in an all-female home. It took half a year to finalize. My new daughter liked me to carry her around the house, up and down the stairs, though she was six and it hurt my back to carry her. My son insisted we read to him all the time. He didn’t care what the books were about. I read him the unabridged version of A Secret Garden, which contained many lengthy descriptions of plants. I read him Stud Terkel’s Hard Times. He didn’t care. Certain evenings, we sat in the family room beside the fireplace, eating stovetop popcorn and playing collaborative board games where no individual can win. Those were the good evenings. There were other evenings. I think I was expecting to feel happy.

Once I punched that precious stained glass window that hung in our foyer. “Look at this, the window’s broken,” I pointed out to my partner the following day. We smoothed scotch tape over the cracks. Neither of us had any idea who to call to fix such a thing. Once I grabbed my son’s neck and squeezed him as hard as I could, shoving him onto the couch at the same time and holding him there. I don’t remember the reason. I remember my son had developed a habit of mocking me or mocking his sister. Perhaps that was it. Why the neck, I wondered afterwards when he wouldn’t let me hug him. Honestly, I think the problem was that people—my children, yes, but also my partner, and my coworkers—kept expecting someone different in my place. If I spoke using my own voice, or acted naturally, acting like who I was, a tangible sense of disappointment overtook the room, like a rancid smell in the air. As if, as long as I stayed, I would be regrettable.

My partner said those thoughts were ridiculous and maybe even insane. “You need to go into therapy,” she insisted. I don’t think it was that. I don’t think it was me. “Actually, this entire world should go into therapy,” I told my partner. “Yeah, well, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she said. It was never a matter of believing or not believing in the portals. I mean, they were there, at least for some people, whether everybody believed in them or not.

• • • •

I began looking for my portal again. “What are you doing?” my partner asked when she found me standing on top of a storage box in my son’s closet attempting to run my hands along the ceiling. I looked in all our closets. I looked in our sugar canister, and in the trunks to both of our cars, and in the gutters to the garage. I crept into our crawl space where no one ever went. Had I found a portal in any of these places, I would have left my family. Surely there were other women out there, kinder women, who could have easily stepped in and taken my place. There was only sugar in our sugar canister. There were clothes in our closets, and flattened paper bags in our trunks, and dead leaves plus one dead squirrel in the gutters. In the crawl space, I discovered a ground beetle infestation that had to be dealt with by an exterminator who couldn’t come until the following Thursday. At night, in bed, my partner curled and asleep beside me, I sensed doorways creaking open ever so slightly again, enough to let a little breeze through from another world, a little breath. It had been years since I felt such possibility.

At work, I began researching other people’s portal stories on the Internet. I had to do some pretty fantastic digging, as the news outlets still preferred to report only on the kids who went through, the girls in pigtails, the occasional wide-eyed boy. I wasn’t interested in those kids or in the dirty old vans that had returned to the parks. The portal creepers, the newspapers still called them. I needed to learn about the adults who left, the people who didn’t need portal creepers to find their portals. After weeks of research, my work finally began to pay off, as I started to perceive a pattern, or the possibility of a pattern, concerning which adults found portals, and when, and what they were doing when they found them. I took my notes on a yellow legal pad while pretending to converse on the phone with potential customers. My notes went on for many pages, and would have gone on for much longer, if my manager hadn’t rifled through my desk while I was on break and photocopied my research. She brought the photocopies to a HR meeting, along with my computer’s browsing history. “But I need my job,” I said. My manager agreed as she escorted me to the back entrance, where my bike was chained to a lamppost. She waited on the sidewalk until I rode away.

My partner left not long after. She had become tired of living with a person (me) who wanted always to be somewhere else, somewhere she was not. At least this was how she phrased it. I asked her to take the kids. But the kids had never been her idea. Besides, wherever she was going, it was not a suitable place for a little girl and boy. “Where are you going?” I asked. She kissed me once, hard, on my forehead and promised to send a monthly check to cover the mortgage until the house sold.

I returned to Illinois with my two kids, to the house in which I grew up. It was tornado season. There were many more tornados than I remember. Numerous afternoons that first summer were spent huddled in the basement beside the holiday boxes, my mom clutching onto her flashlight that she occasionally shined into each of our faces, making sure we were still there.

• • • •

Here is how I now spend my day: I wake up. I wake the children up. I tell them to get dressed. I put out a box of cereal, milk, and two bowls, plus two spoons. I remind my children to get dressed again. They miss the bus. They are wearing the same clothes they wore the day before, the same clothes they slept in. I drive them to the grade school I once attended. They munch on dry cereal in the back seat, crushing the broken O’s into the fabric of the seats with their thumbs. I drive back home. I might go to sleep. My parents wake up. They have things to do. Their lives did not stop because of my predicament. In the afternoon, my children come home from school, and they are as ravenous as little monsters. I am supposed to be finding an office job. I may still be wearing my sweatpants, or not. I put out a box of crackers that are infused with a kind of cheese product. In the hallway are pictures of me from when I was ten years old. The wallpaper of my childhood, the yellow and orange flowers that cover all three bedrooms, is heavy and haunted.

“I don’t really have time for this,” my mom warned when I first arrived to her house dragging the large black suitcases behind me. My kids were starving from the drive. My mom offered each of us a protein bar that tasted like vanilla sand. This was all my parents had in the fridge, plus three cartons of natural vanilla ice cream in the freezer. You reach a certain age, my mother explained, and you’ve eaten everything you’ve wanted to eat, and you’re ready to stop eating. “That’s depressing,” I said. “Well, obviously, it’s not,” said my mom. The house was considerably less tidy than it had been on previous trips. There were piles of old Good Housekeepings on the countertops. VHS cassettes with illegible, hand-written labels were stacked next to the TV. Pill bottles had overtaken the kitchen, and in the family room, the pullout couch was always left open, the sheets twisted into a sweaty hump.

“That’s where your father sleeps now,” my mom explained. “There’s no point in putting everything away, is there, if you’re only going to get it out again.”

I noticed other changes between my parents. My mother had begun to yell a lot. Not that I was judging her. I mean, I yelled, too. Or, rather, I had yelled, before I started looking for my portal again. But my mother yelled more than I ever had. She screamed at my father that there were grain moths in the pantry again. She screamed about that moldy smell in the basement. The shower drain was clogged with hair—his!—again. And so forth. I understood how she felt: this frustration that this world is not as it should be and no one is doing anything about it. My father was now blind in one eye due to a botched cataract surgery. He spent his day in front of the TV watching our home movies. “Turn that god damn TV off!” my mom shrieked. My dad ignored her. “Why did I film the close-up of the streamers like that?” he whispered to me. Some days I spent the entire afternoon on a folding chair beside my father, and I rewatched my childhood. There were many more parties than I remembered. “When I turned the camera toward the sky, like that,” my father whispered, “what was I looking for?”

One afternoon, when the kids were still at school, I pulled my mother aside. “What’s going on with you?” I asked. I guess it was a stressful period in her life. I guess it was like this clock was ticking. “What clock?” I asked. “Stop interrupting,” she said. She had developed a growth in her neck behind her left ear. She didn’t have a good feeling about the growth. I didn’t tell my mother I was looking for my portal again. She probably knew.

• • • •

The surgery to remove the growth from my mother’s neck was scheduled one month out. There was the chance it would affect several important nerves in her face or that the biopsy would come back as malignant. “All a part of life,” my mom explained to me, as if everybody at one point will have to undergo this surgery. We were sitting in the kitchen again, drinking mugs of decaf tea and waiting for the after school bus to bring my children back. Outside it looked ready to storm, low clouds, gray and menacing. I asked what she was looking forward to after the operation.

“Eating with baby spoons,” she said.

“Why would you eat from a baby spoon?”

“There is going to be a bag attached to me via a tube.”

“What kind of bag?”

She sighed and sipped her tea. “When I was your age, do you know what? Nobody imagined they had a choice of worlds. We made do with what we had. And now I’m fine with my life, no matter how small it may seem to you. It sounds like an exhausting way to live, how you’re living.”

“And how exactly am I living, Mom?”

“You’re always looking for an alternative.” She touched my hand. “Do you think it’s an exhausting way to live?”

What I mean is, her hand, for a moment, rested on mine. Her fingers felt bony, skeptical. I think you can love people—children, mothers—and still want to leave them.

It never stormed that afternoon. It just looked like it would. I think the people who live up north got all the thunder and rain. On the far side of a portal, there is a place where, instead of having bodies, there is only a bunch of thoughts floating around, and the thoughts interact with each other and entwine. Or there is another world where one’s body keeps changing, or else it never changes, or else you get to choose what body you have. And bodies have whatever purpose you want them to have. There isn’t just one purpose and after that purpose is gone, you’ve failed, and you might as well be dead.

• • • •

My mother and I began taking walks together in the late morning. On our first walk, we spotted several of the white vans that had begun to re-enter the neighborhood. I had no idea where the vans had gone these past years or why they were now migrating back. My mother tensed each time she saw one, hissing out a breath, though the vans never slowed down for us. We weren’t, I suppose, what they were looking for. “We’ll have to tell the children,” my mother said. That night, she devoted the dinner table conversation to the dangers of the portal creepers. Her talk bored my kids. I wonder if it feels like these sorts of things happen all the time nowadays, children leaving for other worlds. “We know, Grandma,” my son had said.

On this particular morning, I was carrying a satchel on our walk. My satchel was packed with essentials for a journey—granola bars, a compressible poncho, matches—in case I found a way to go. A bank of shredded and ugly clouds was moving eastward above us. My mother’s surgery was a week away. We hurried across the street to the park shelter, and it was here, when I was sorting through my bag, attempting to reach a flask of water which had shifted to the very bottom, that I saw the portal.

Or, rather, this was when my mom pointed the portal out to me, as I had walked past it. As it had blended into the shadows of the trees.

But I was the first to walk past it.

It was not how I imagined a portal to look. It looked like a patch of darkness in the shade. “Oh wow,” I said. On the other side, there appeared to be more darkness.

“Hmmm,” said my mom.

“Maybe it’s night over there,” I told her.

A chilly and complicated breeze blew through the portal’s doorway smelling of damp citrus. I heard the sound of water dripping onto a hard surface.

“Ready?” I asked my mom.

“No,” she said.

I gave her a moment.

“Are you ready now?”

“I don’t think this one is yours, dear,” she said. At first I wondered how she knew but then it became obvious to me, the citrus, the initial darkness. That was all her. I suppose my portal would have smelled of flowers. I suppose it would have looked bejeweled.

All this meant was I couldn’t go through without her, according to the portal rules as I understood them. “Okay. Fine. It’s yours,” I said. “Let’s go.”

My mom shook her head.

She said she needed my father there.

“But he’s not here,” I pointed out. This made no sense. Whatever two old people looked like when they loved each other near the end of their lives, my parents didn’t look like that. They did not finish each other’s sentences. They did not touch each other with affection. In fact, they didn’t touch each other at all. “I don’t know how long this portal is going to stay open,” I told my mom. “Look, it could be one of those healing portals. It has that kind of citrus smell about it, doesn’t it? The healing portals are supposed to smell like oranges. If you go through, I think you’re going to get better.” I motioned to her neck. “It’s your portal, Mom. I can’t go through it alone.”

She told me she was going nowhere unless my father was present.

“Go home and get your dad,” she said.

I ran home and found my father napping in the bedroom while a video played on the TV of my younger self battering a piñata that wouldn’t break open. “Wake up!” I yelled. It took my dad awhile to even open his eyes. I shook him awake. My kids were sprawled out on the couch-bed in the family room drawing pictures of the monsters who lived beneath their beds. They had begun to have nightmares.

“Kids!” I asked. “Do you want to see the portal I’ve been searching for my entire life?” They wouldn’t look up from their drawings, so I put on a documentary for them to watch about wild horses, and told them if we weren’t back soon, they should go knock on the door of our neighbor, Mrs. Geshem.

My father couldn’t run briskly anymore. Actually, he couldn’t run at all, nor could he find his shoes. “Don’t worry about your shoes,” I said. “Shoes really aren’t that important right now.” I had told my mother if the portal began to fade, she needed to hold it open with her hands. “I don’t think it works that way,” she said. If she couldn’t hold it open with her hands, then she should jump through it, I told her, and keep it open from the other side. My dad agreed to wear his indoor slippers outside after I promised to clean the soles if we returned home.

The portal was gone by the time we reached the park.

My mother, sitting at a picnic table, was looking into the sky.

“You let it get away!” I shouted, kicking the picnic table bench again and again.

My father moved to stand beside my mother.

“I saw a portal,” she whispered up to him.

“I’d like to see a portal myself someday,” my dad said.

“I’d also like to see another portal,” I added, “though it took me twenty-five years to find this one.”

“Actually, I was the one who found it,” said my mom.

A park squirrel scurried down one of the trees as we discussed where the portal went and whether it would appear here again any time soon. “I don’t think it’s coming back,” said my mother. The squirrel approached the spot right beyond the picnic table, the spot where the portal had been. I think somebody in our neighborhood has been feeding the squirrels because they have turned very tame. “Go away,” I told the squirrel. When it didn’t, I hurled a rock at the creature. It let itself be hit.

Back home, I couldn’t find my kids at first. It turned out the DVD had begun skipping so they ran, sobbing, to Mrs. Geshem’s house. It was unclear whether they were sobbing because they were left alone or because their horse documentary was damaged. “It wasn’t even twenty minutes,” I told them in Mrs. Geshem’s yellow kitchen, my son and daughter clutching onto their mugs of warm milk, the milk sweetened with a local honey. We were in that kitchen when the storm hit, hammering the windows with rain. My parents’ basement flooded. A lot of boxes labeled “L. CHILDHOOD” had to be thrown out. This bothered my mother more than me. She said she felt like she was throwing me away.

The night before her surgery, my mother told me about two reoccurring dreams. In the first dream, she returned to her childhood house, only this time she was living there with my dad and me. But she had forgotten to pay the rent, and now the landlords demanded a meeting. “It’s a very stressful dream,” she told me. “If we get kicked out of the house, where are we going to go?” In her second dream, she found out her mom, dead for decades, had all this time been saving an apartment for her. The apartment was a one-bedroom and overlooked an alley. It wasn’t big enough for a family. My mom didn’t know what she was supposed to do with such a place, or what her dead mother was trying to tell her. In the dream, my mom spends hours, days, searching through the apartment closet, and in the mattresses, and cupboards, for a hidden message. Neither of my mother’s dreams seemed that important. I suppose other people’s dreams rarely do.

There were complications with the surgery. NOTHING I DIDN’T EXPECT, my mom scrawled on her dry erase board, since talking wasn’t possible for her then. CAN’T COMPLAIN. AFTER ALL I CAUGHT A GLIMPSE OF ANOTHER WORLD THAT DAY AT THE PARK! IF ONLY YOUR DAD COULD CATCH A GLIMPSE TOO, she wrote and then drew an unhappy face. The marker she used was red, which, when paired with the capital letters, added an urgency to her words. She ate bowls of applesauce and several jars of organic baby food.

After a three-day stay in the hospital, my mom returned home. There was a bag attached to her neck via a plastic tube. My dad drained the bag for her every day in the powder room. He and my mother began taking slow afternoon strolls, not long, sometimes only to the end of the block and back, or on other days going a little further and turning around at the park. They went even when the storm sirens were wailing and the sky looked sick. My dad wore a pair of binoculars around his neck while my mom held her notebook. On their initial walk, they spotted two portals glinting in the distance. On their second walk, they saw five. One of the worlds through the portal looked very soft, my dad said. Like if you took a step onto that world, you would sink right through to its very center. One of the worlds contained all the colors of a sunrise.

I didn’t understand why portals kept appearing to my mom. Because she was on her way to dying? Because the portals were getting tired of all those energetic children, so they wanted someone old and dying? On my parents’ third walk, a dozen more portals revealed themselves. I turned on another horse DVD for my kids and began sneaking after my parents on their walks. “Where are you going?” my daughter asked me. I learned how my mother’s portals seal up if anyone but her gets too close. How they vanish with a gentle swoosh. Once there was a row of them, each a varying degree of brilliance, the last one blinding. When my mother saw such portals, she pointed and laughed, jotting an observation in her notebook, as if she had just spotted a mildly interesting bird.

• • • •

My mother never recovered from that surgery. Last week, she barely had the energy to get out of bed. Her daily walk consisted of strolling from her bedroom into the kitchen with my father at her side. Her portals have begun to line the hallway of this house. They appear in the windows to the kitchen. I would have gone through any one of them with her.


But no one is that precious. Each of my mother’s portals is, in my opinion, becoming more beautiful, like an attempted seduction is going on. At times there is a portal in every window of our house. This makes it difficult to distinguish the actual world outside. Certain portals appear to be constructed out of translucent silk. Other portals undulate as if made from waves. They smell of mountain passes or rain. Sometimes I can’t help reaching out to touch them. If I reach to touch them, they darken, vanish. Swoosh.

My mother swats the beautiful ones away. The ones that look too much like wings. YOU KNOW I NEVER LIKED FANTASY. IT ALWAYS FELT TOO MUCH LIKE ABANDONMENT, LIKE GIVING UP, she wrote in her thick red lettering. After the surgery, when she stopped wearing her makeup, I couldn’t recognize her face. She stopped dyeing her hair as well. At this point, there are too many portals gathering around her, and she no longer keeps a record.

• • • •

My daughter tells me the windows of the white vans cruising past her and her friends have begun lowering. She has gotten the feeling that someone, or something, is looking for her. “That doesn’t have to mean anything,” I tell her. I don’t know what to tell her. Right now I am trying to construct a map of all the places my portal isn’t at a particular moment of time. The leftover spots, I hope, will indicate where my portal might still be.

“Going through a portal isn’t giving up,” I told my mother. “It isn’t abandonment. It’s about hope and second chances. It’s about believing in the possibility of other worlds and maybe finding the place where you always were meant to be.”

ABANDONMENT, my mother wrote.

She wrote, GIVING UP.

At the bottom of her marker board, she drew a complicated shape in outline with numerous sharp angles. It could have been a maze. It could have been creeping vines, the kind that strangle you in your sleep, or else the kind that grow a single orange flower. There seemed to be no beginning and no end to the object she drew. I think it had a heart in its center, though my mother has never been able to draw objects accurately, so it might not have been a heart. Then the timer on the microwave went off, reminding me to pick my children up at the bus stop. It was a windy day and the squirrels stayed away from me.

Do you know what it feels like to be on the verge of leaving the world? It feels like a part of you is finally about to be torn open, a part of your face, the fake part, the part that’s smiling. I am not going to be surprised when that happens. On the way to the bus stop, I watch a white van, mud splattered all over its side, drive down our street slowly. At the corner, where my children wait in the morning, or where I wait for them in the afternoon, the van pauses. The wind blows harder. A piece of trash, a generic yogurt container, is picked up by the wind and taken.

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Debbie Urbanski

Debbie Urbanski

Debbie Urbanski’s stories and essays have been published in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Best American Experimental Writing, Granta, The Sun, Strange Horizons, and Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her first novel, After World, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. Find her at or on Instagram at @debbieurbanski.