Everyone knows the story of the little girl who fell down the rabbit hole and of the children who walked through the wardrobe and of the little girl who was scooped up by the tornado and of the little boy who found the book that never ended and of the little girl who said the right words on the other side of the mirror and of the little girl who unlocked the bricked-up door in the cellar and of the little boy who had such wonderful dreams night after night. But those are the children who came back. No one talks about the other children, the children who walk through basement doors and rabbit holes never to return, or the ones who are never quite the same again once they do. The things that happen to those children are not so magical, not so delightful. Their adventures are not the things of pageant retellings and matinees. Rather, they are the things we try not to think of, the things instead we dream about when we would rather be dreaming of something else.
This is the story of just such a child, a child who awoke to find herself stiff as a board, unable to so much as move a muscle, so stiff in fact that she was able to wriggle her soul free and loose it out into the night. And as that child stepped from her body and onto the floor, she saw the faintest hint of light leaking out from beneath her bed, a light that spilled across the hardwood like errant moonbeams, beckoning her to peer into the dark, past the curtain of cascading bedspread and the clutter of discarded toys. There, as she knelt, she spied a door in the wall beneath the bed frame: a door that had not been there before—just large enough for a small child to squeeze through—a door no adult could fit through, which was fine, as no adult in their right mind would ever believe in such a thing. But this little girl did believe in such things and this little girl was just small enough to fit through it and this little girl could find no reason not to investigate where the light leaking out from the space between the door and the floor was coming from.
The light beyond the door was blinding against the midnight black, but warm, inviting. And as she squeezed her way through the tiny portal, every inch of her body scraping against the wood on its way past, she felt as if she were getting safer, inch by inch. Though the room behind her was her own and she knew it like she knew her own freckles, it was dark and the place beyond the door was bright. She imagined for a moment that when her eyes adjusted she would find herself on some white-sand beach, crystal-blue waters lapping against the shore, palm trees stretching toward the sky, the smell of salt and sea foam on the air.
But when her body was through and her eyes adjusted and the light seemed to dim all on its own, she found that it was hardly that—in fact, it wasn’t like that at all. There were no beaches; there was no sun. There was only shadow and moonlight, ruin and terror.
The land was broken, overgrown—thick, ancient, gnarly trees surrounded by scrub and sharp yellow grass. Buildings with shattered windows, towering hospitals next to shut-up factories next to abandoned playgrounds peppered with gravel and disused equipment. The land was a ghost town built by recession and fear, lit only by the full moon and a handful of flickering streetlamps; a tattered city, damned and forgotten.
At once she knew she had stumbled into a place of which she wanted no part, but when she turned to go back through the door, it was gone. It had become nothing but a crumbling brick wall climbing to the heavens, no door or even window in sight. Wherever she was, she was stuck, with no way to go but forward.
Before her was a shattered cobblestone path, dead grass between each stone, weeds sprouting from the cracks. And along the sides ran a chain-link fence, clipped and torn, jagged and rusty. The little girl made her way down that path, eager to find her way home, unsure which way it was. And that’s when she saw it.
The Thing on the Other Side of the Door.
At first he looked as if he were none but shadow, like a thing backlit on all sides, but as the light trickled in over his skin, the shape became a form and the form became a face and the face took its place atop arms and legs and a concave chest. It moved like a thing with all the life sucked out, left to dance at the end of a marionette’s strings. He was a man without muscle, an atrophied mess of bone and skin withering beneath tatters of rotten soiled cloth. He wore a steel-wool beard beneath lifeless blue eyes, his skin gaunt, dripping over bone, sagging at the joints, ravaged by time but never the sun. His gaze seemed to focus on nothing at all, as if he was staring at something else even when he was looking right at you, his eyes having seen horrors, such horrors—things that could be witnessed but never explained. And behind those eyes the little girl could sense a terrible thing lurking, a thing she could not begin to fathom. It was a hate so foul, an anger so unrelenting, a desire so unquenchable, that it prickled her skin as he drew closer; it was a thing, such an awful thing, that she prayed silently she might never come to understand it.
He smiled through thin pale lips and pristine pearly teeth. “Hello, child,” he said. “How is it that you came to be lost?”
When he spoke, he did so through the hiss of an old record, his voice like a recording played on a phonograph with a dirty needle and blown-out speakers. ChchchchchchchchcPOPchchchchchchchchchchchcHISSSSSSSchchchchchchPOPchchchchchchchchchchchcHISSSSSSS.
“How do you know that I’m lost?” she asked, her eyes narrow, her hands on her hips.
“Because no one stays here who doesn’t have to. You are a child in a land of lost children, wandering aimlessly, looking for a door you have no idea how to find.”
“Do you know where the door is?”
“Of course I know where the door is. It’s my job to know.”
“So which way is the door?”
“It’s every way.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“On the contrary, it makes nothing but sense. You just don’t know what sense to make of it.”
“You’re not answering my questions.”
“I’m answering everything you ask, but you’re asking such terrible questions. Ask better questions, get better answers.”
She pointed a stiff arm led by a stiffer finger out into the twilight ahead of her. “Is this the path to the door?” she asked.
“It’s a path to the door, yes,” he answered.
“Will I find the door at the end?”
“The door is at the end, but there’s not only one path to it. Every way you walk is a path, and all of those paths lead to the door. Some of them just take much longer than others. Some of them are more difficult than others. There are some paths so scary, even I never wander them. This is a land of lost children, filled with children who never find the door and those who have lost themselves trying to find it. Odds are you’ll end up just like them. I haven’t met a child yet who could find their way. But prove me wrong, I dare you. I double-dare you. Come find me and I’ll show you the way back home, the way back to the door beneath your bed.”
“Why don’t you show me where the door is, then?”
“I just told you, I am.”
“No, you’re not. You’re just being confusing.”
“No, you’re just confused. I told you exactly where the door is. I can’t simply lead you there because the door can’t be shown; it must be found. You have to find the door, and to find it, you have to pick a direction, and then you must walk in that direction until you can’t walk anymore. And that’s where the door will be. That’s where you’ll find me. And that’s where I’ll show you the way home.”
And then The Thing on the Other Side of the Door stepped backward, his body melting into the shadows whence he came. For a few seconds, only his blue eyes were left staring out at her from the dark. Then they vanished, winking out, leaving the little girl alone on the cracked cobblestone path.
She walked along the path for what seemed like hours, the twilight hanging over her head but refusing to bear any stars. The whole world was bleak, neither light enough to see nor dark enough to produce a moon. Streetlamps flickered on and off, fading with a buzz as she neared, snapping back on after she passed.
And then, without warning, she saw the clown. He stood there in the road, back to her, staring down the path at nothing in particular.
She ran to him and tugged his sleeve to get his attention. “Excuse me,” she said. “I’m lost! Can you help me?”
The clown turned around and smiled through two rows of razor-sharp shark teeth, his makeup caked and flaky, his red nose battered and dirty. His hair was stringy, greasy, matted in places; his clothing stained with dirt and blood. And every few seconds he glitched like the tracking on a videocassette, his entire body going wobbly, bending impossibly, parts of him becoming squiggly moments of static. “How can I help you?” he asked, quite excited to have her attention.
“Where am I?” asked the little girl.
“We are where the nightmares go, the nightmares go, the nightmares go. We are where the nightmares go, but not from where they come.”
“What do you mean?”
“What happens when a dream ends? Where does it go?”
“I don’t know,” said the little girl.
“Well, it has to go somewhere, doesn’t it?”
“I guess so.”
“A dream is whole only as long as it’s dreamt. Once that dream ends, it begins to fade, to get rough around the edges, to erode like a sand castle lapped by the waves. Most dreams fade into nothing, drifting away like wisps of smoke. But some dreams, they last. They take root in the soul and hold strong against the tide. The nightmares that survive, the ones that come from the darkest places of your heart and refuse to fade away, they have to go somewhere. So they end up here, cast out like the trash, dumped where no one knows where to look, in the dark space beneath your bed. Well, we are where the nightmares go. That’s us. That’s this place. Right now you’re just a dream. Be careful that you don’t become a nightmare; otherwise you might never leave.”
“Like me,” said the clown, head bobbing comically.
“You’re a nightmare?”
“Were you always a nightmare?”
“A nightmare isn’t how a dream begins, but how it ends. Some of the worst nightmares I’ve ever known started with the best of intentions, with bright smiles and twinkling eyes. Bluebonnets and picnic baskets. I like to think that I started out that way. But that’s not how I ended up. And by the time the dreamer who made me woke up, I was the awful thing you see before you. The thing that would like to eat you now. The thing that can smell how tasty you really are.”
“You . . . you want to eat me?” asked the little girl, suddenly very frightened.
“Of course I do. You look delicious. I can’t help it. This is how someone dreamed me, so this is how I am.”
“You’re going to eat me!”
“No, no, no. I won’t eat you; I just want to. It can’t be helped.”
“How do I know you won’t eat me?”
“Do you wanna know a secret?”
“Yes,” said the little girl warily.
“Nightmares have rules.”
“The rules are a secret?”
“Of course they are. Has anyone ever told you the rules to a nightmare before?”
The little girl thought for a moment. “No,” she said, “I guess they haven’t.”
For a few seconds, staticky light flickered across his face and his body squished into a horizontal line before popping back into shape. He cocked his head to the side as if nothing had happened, and continued. “Rule number one: You can’t change the lighting. Flip a switch, it won’t come on. Turn on a flashlight, it’ll flicker before sputtering off. The light is the light and you best get used to it, because this is all the light there is. Rule number two: A nightmare can hurt you only if you let it. It can scare you only if you let it. It can get you only if you let it. A nightmare can’t do anything without your permission.”
“So if I don’t let you eat me—”
“I can’t eat you.”
“And that man who was here before?”
“What man?” asked the clown. “There are no men where the nightmares go. Only boys. Only girls. We’re all just children here.”
“The one with the blue eyes and the bushy beard.”
“Oh! You mean The Thing on the Other Side of the Door!”
“Oh, he’s not a man at all.”
“So The Thing on the Other Side of the Door is just a nightmare?”
“Oh no, he is something else entirely. Something terrifying. I dare not discuss him at all, for if he hears even a whisper about him, he’ll do such awful, awful things.”
“He told me if I walk in any direction, I’ll find the way out.”
“He never lies,” said the clown. “He just doesn’t always tell the truth.”
“So the way out isn’t in any direction?”
“Oh, it is! But you don’t want to go in any direction. You want to go in the best direction.”
“Which direction is that?” asked the little girl, eyes wide and hopeful.
“I don’t know,” the clown said, flickering.
“So you can’t get out of here either?”
“Why would I get out? I belong here. I’m a nightmare, and we are—”
“Where the nightmares go.”
“Exactly! So are you picking me?”
“To be your clown.”
“Every child gets a clown.”
“Why does every child get a clown?”
“Probably because there are so many of us here. They have to do something with us. So we help the children find their way out.”
“Oh yes!” said the little girl. “Please help me find my way out.”
The clown smiled wide, all sixty-four of his shark teeth showing at once. “Okay,” he said. “But no take-backsies. I’m your clown for good and for all.”
“Okay,” she said.
“Shake on it?” He spit in his hand and held it out. He flickered in and out.
“Shake on it,” she said, spitting in her own hand and shaking his.
She looked down at their hands, disappointed. “I thought there would be a buzzer.”
The clown lost his smile, shoulders drooping. “I wasn’t dreamed with one.”
“Were you dreamed with a name?”
The clown shook his head sadly. “No. Most clowns don’t have names.”
“Would you like one?”
“Yes!” he said excitedly, flickering.
“I’ll trade you.”
“For what? Anything. I’ll do anything for a name.”
“You have to tell me rule number three.”
“Oh,” he said, “most children don’t ask about rule number three. And rule number three is the best rule of all.”
“What is it?”
“What’s my name?”
“You get the name after the rule.”
“Rule number three is that you don’t have to do any of the boring stuff.”
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“It means you don’t have to walk the whole way. You can just skip to the next interesting bit.”
“It’s a dream. We are in a nightmare, and a nightmare doesn’t have to make sense and it doesn’t have to obey any rules but its own. A nightmare can just happen. So what’s my name?”
The little girl thought for a moment, hands on her hips. She looked up. “Siegfried,” she said. “You look like a Siegfried.”
“Oooh, I like Siegfried,” he said. “I like Siegfried a lot.”
“What’s the fourth rule?”
“There are only three rules.”
“Good. So can we skip ahead to the next part?”
“Turn around,” he said with a flicker, almost completely winking out as he did.
The little girl turned, and behind her in the distance was a vast amusement park, its rides broken down and still, its lights flickering, dimming in and out. Most of the park was dark, save for a tiny strip of games, filled with kids.
She ran toward the games. “The other kids must know how to get out of here,” she said.
Siegfried chased after her. “No, they don’t,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“Because they’re all still here.”
The little girl slowed down, then came to a stop. “You mean I might not get out of here?”
“Most children don’t.”
She looked up at her clown. “They don’t?”
“Didn’t The Thing on the Other Side of the Door tell you that?”
“Yeah, but I thought he was just trying to scare me.”
“I told you, he doesn’t lie. He never lies. A lie in a nightmare simply becomes the truth, so a lie is just another way of looking at the dream.”
The little girl narrowed her eyes. “I am going to get out of here.”
“You’ll have to do whatever it takes.”
“I can do whatever it takes.”
“Whatever it takes is always harder than you think.”
“I’m going home. And if I can’t lie, then that must be the truth.”
“Well, find your way out of here, hotshot.”
She looked around. Everything but the games was draped in darkness, all seeming to shout GO AWAY! The little girl pointed to the well-lit arcade alley. “Let’s try there first.”
As they approached, they could hear carnival barkers hawking their amusements. “Step right up!” they yelled. “Right this way! Strike the bell!” or “Toss a ring onto the milk bottle!” or “Knock down all the cups!” or “Spin the wheel! Win a prize!”
The little girl eyed them all suspiciously. “My daddy says these games are rigged.”
“Of course they are,” said Siegfried. “That’s the point.”
“That they’re rigged?”
“You have to know the trick to them. Everything’s rigged. Once you figure out how, then you can learn how to win. What fun would they be if you just walked up and won them?”
The little girl looked for a carnival game she thought she could win. She didn’t like the ring toss, wasn’t strong enough to swing a hammer, hated that game with the gophers where they all jumped up at once. But then she saw the shooting gallery. Point and shoot. That seemed easy enough.
A carnival barker clown stood behind a counter that had half a dozen rifles sitting on it. “Step right up,” he said, through a thick, well-chewed cigar. “Hit a clown, any clown, and win a prize.”
“What’s the prize?” she asked.
“A ticket out of the carnival,” he said.
“What kind of prize is that?”
“The only prize here worth winning.”
She picked up a rifle and stared down the range. Six clowns cowered atop rickety barstools twenty feet away, each shaking and frightened. Their eyes begged her not to shoot them. They were so close they were impossible to miss. “That’s it?” she asked. “Just hit a clown?”
“That’s it. You get three shots.”
She smiled. This was too easy.
The little girl raised the rifle, aimed carefully, then squeezed the trigger. Bang! The bullet veered up and hit the roof. The clowns each sighed with relief.
“Wait a second! That’s not where I was aiming!”
“Hit a clown, win a prize. Never said the rifles shot straight.”
“But that’s cheating.”
“No. That’s the game.” The carnival barker clown pulled the gooey cigar out from his mouth and smiled with yellow teeth, blowing several lungsful of smoke into her face.
She furrowed her brow with determination, raised the rifle, aimed really low—well below the clown she wanted to hit—and pulled the trigger.
The clown winced, shivering in fear.
The shot veered to the right, missing all the clowns completely.
“This is rigged!” she yelled.
“Only one more shot,” said the clown.
“What happens then?”
“Then you stay here forever. You only get three shots.”
“I can’t stay here forever!” she cried.
“Then you better hit a clown,” he said, smiling.
She thought for a second. The first shot had gone too high. The second shot went high and to the right. She tried to do the math in her head where it would go this time. And then she figured it out.
The little girl raised her rifle and said, “I’m sorry, Siegfried.”
Then she turned the rifle on her clown, pressed the muzzle against his arm, and pulled the trigger.
Siegfried jumped and cried out in pain, grabbing his bloody bicep. “Ow! You shot me!”
She looked at the carnival barker clown, who angrily stubbed out his cigar in a cheap tin ashtray. “You said any clown.”
He tore off a ticket with a sneer and handed it to her, pointing a stern finger at the other end of the game alley. “Way out is that way.”
The little girl took the ticket, smiled, and ran off, Siegfried close behind.
“I can’t believe you shot me!”
She stopped for a moment, turned to Siegfried, and took him by the hand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t want to be trapped here forever.”
“Neither do I,” he said.
“Do you want to find the way out with me?”
He nodded excitedly. “I’ve never seen it.”
“Well, we’ll find it.”
And together they ran off to the exit, where she turned in her ticket and was allowed out back onto the path.
The path was dark, a poorly lit street in a bad neighborhood with monsters and angels lurking in every shadow. The little girl peered into the shadows as she passed, but could never quite make anything out.
“What are those things?” she asked.
“Those? Those are the nightmares no one ever sees—the things they know are there but are afraid to see what they look like.”
“I want to see them!”
“No you don’t,” said a frighteningly familiar voice.
From one of the shadows stepped The Thing on the Other Side of the Door, his blue eyes glaring at her. Siegfried hid behind her, shaking.
“Who’s this?” asked The Thing on the Other Side of the Door.
“Siegfried,” she said.
“You gave it a name?”
“Yes. Everyone deserves a name.”
“Everyone, yes. But not everything.”
“Well, Siegfried is helping me find the way out, so he gets a name.”
“No he isn’t.”
“Yes he is.”
“You beat the park. Few children ever beat the park. Did you tell her how to beat the park, Siegfried?”
“No!” said the clown. “I swear I didn’t. I SWEAR!”
“Good. Because if I found out that you had . . .”
“He can’t help me?” asked the little girl.
“No, he can help you. He just can’t tell you.”
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“You’ll see,” he said. “Maybe.”
And once again The Thing on the Other Side of the Door disappeared, leaving the little girl and Siegfried alone on the dark street.
“What now?” she asked.
“Now we get to the next part.”
“And where is that?”
“Turn around,” Siegfried said with a razor-sharp smile.
Before them lay a wide field of towering brown bramble bushes, each with branches twenty feet high and thorns two feet long. The bushes formed a maze and the maze went on seemingly for miles.
“Do we have to go this way?” asked the little girl.
“Of course we do,” said Siegfried. “This way is forward, and we always have to go forward.”
An eyeless clown sat at a cheap folding card table, atop of which sat a jar of eyeballs and a card that read ADMISSION—2 EYES. Blood trickled from his empty sockets and he scowled as he heard them approach the bramble maze.
“Admission: two eyes!” he demanded.
“Do I have to give you my eyes?” asked the little girl.
“Of course you do! It’s the price of admission! If you want to go into the maze, you have to give me your eyes!”
The little girl took Siegfried by the hand and pulled him out of earshot of the eyeless clown. “I can’t give him my eyes,” she said. “I won’t be able to find my way through the maze.”
“Well, you can’t get into the maze without giving him your eyes.”
She thought for a second. “I can give him yours.”
“No,” said Siegfried. “I need my eyes.”
“I need your eyes. Do you want to see the end or not?”
“I won’t be able to see it without my eyes.”
“Give me your eyes,” she said. “We’ll dream them back for you later.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Then I’ll have to leave you here.”
Siegfried looked sadly down at the little girl. He sighed, nodding. “All right.” He dug his fingers into his sockets, so far back his fingernails almost scraped against brain, and then he plucked his eyes out in a single painful tug. Blood poured down his cheeks in scarlet rivulets. Blind, he clumsily handed her both his eyes. Then she took him by the hand and they returned to the clown at the card table.
“Here are my eyes,” she said.
“Give ’em here,” said the eyeless clown, holding out a greedy hand.
The little girl pretended to fumble about, placing both eyes in his palm. He examined them closely with his fingers, then stuck each of them, one by one, into his mouth to make sure they were real. Then he spit them each into the jar and waved the little girl into the maze.
“You may enter,” he said.
“How do you get through the maze?” the little girl asked.
“Yeah, but how do you find your way out?”
“You walk!” he said again.
She thought for a second. “Are there any rules?”
The eyeless clown leaned back in his chair. “No one’s thought to ask that before.”
“What are they?”
“Only you can find your way out. No one can help you. And you’re not allowed to break any other rules.”
“That’s it?” asked the little girl.
“Is that it?” mocked the clown. “That’s everything.”
“Thank you,” she said.
Then he laughed. “Good luck!”
The little girl took hold of Siegfried’s sleeve and led him into the bramble maze. Inside, the walls seemed higher, the bushes thicker, the thorns sharper than they appeared from without. The two hadn’t walked but a few minutes before seeing a young boy, no older than seven, sitting on the ground, crying, eye sockets empty, hands stained with blood.
“I can’t find my way out,” he cried. “I can’t find my way out!”
The boy’s clown sat beside him, as lost and confused as he was.
“Can’t your clown show you the way out?” she asked the boy.
“We don’t know the way out,” said Siegfried.
The boy wailed, but the little girl remembered the rules. No one can help you. She put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Just keep going forward. I’m sure you’ll find your way out.”
“No! Please don’t leave me here!” begged the child.
“I have to,” said the little girl. “Or else I can’t get out of here either.”
The little girl pulled Siegfried by his sleeve and they hurried down the corridor of the maze as quickly as they could. It wasn’t long before they ran across another eyeless child, sitting in the mud, also crying and lost. This one looked up, hearing them coming. “Is somebody there?” the child asked.
The little girl put a single finger over Siegfried’s lips, signaling to him to keep very, very quiet. He smiled, nodding, and together they snuck past the child, the child’s clown looking up sadly at them as they passed, but not saying a word.
By the time the little girl and Siegfried ran across and slipped past a third eyeless child, it was clear they were hopelessly lost. They had walked for what felt like hours and the gargantuan brambles seemed to go on forever in every direction.
“How are we supposed to get out of here?” she asked, stamping her foot in the dirt.
“I told you, we don’t know,” said Siegfried.
The little girl thought for a moment, then pointed a finger at her clown. “Wait a minute,” she said. “He said I couldn’t break any of the rules.”
“That’s right,” said Siegfried. “You can’t.”
“But the rules aren’t for me.”
“Yes they are. They’re for everyone.”
“No. The rules are that no one can change the light, nothing can hurt me if I don’t let it, and I don’t have to do the boring parts.”
“This maze is boring. I want to skip to the end.”
Siegfried smiled. “Turn around,” he said.
She turned and saw the exit to the maze, quickly making her way out of it, dragging Siegfried along by the hand.
“You got through the maze,” said the frightfully familiar voice from out of the shadows.
The little girl turned to face The Thing on the Other Side of the Door. “I’m not afraid of you!” she said.
“Who said you should be afraid of me?”
She turned and pointed to the clown cowering behind her.
The Thing on the Other Side of the Door shook its head. “He’s nothing but a nightmare. He has everything to fear because he is made of nothing but. But not you. You still have your eyes.”
She smiled wickedly with her hands on her hips. “Yes I do. And I’m going to find the door out.”
“We’ll see,” The Thing said, slowly fading away. “Your clown may not be able to, but you and I shall see.”
The little girl looked around and saw nothing but darkness. “Where are we?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Siegfried. “You took my eyes.”
“I can’t see anything.”
“Neither can I!”
“No, I mean—” She stopped and listened close. She could hear sloshing water and the rhythmic breaking of waves. “Water!” As she focused, she could delineate between the inky black waves and a velvety starless sky. Then she saw it, a few hundred yards out in the water, a square concrete building rising out of the surf. “Can you swim?” she asked Siegfried.
“Yes, I think so,” he said nervously.
“I’ll be your eyes,” she said. “There’s a building out there. We have to get to it.”
Siegfried swallowed hard. “Okay,” he said. “Anything to get to the end.” He knelt down and the little girl climbed onto his back. Then he waded out into the tide and began to swim.
His clothing grew heavy, weighing him down, but he swam hard, struggling to keep his head above water with the extra weight of the little girl on his back. “How much farther?” he asked.
“Not much,” she said. “Just keep swimming.”
His legs pumped, his arms splashed, and his clothing grew even heavier. “How much farther?” he asked again, choking on salty seawater.
“Not much,” she said again, seeing the lights of the concrete box growing closer by the second.
So he swam harder, giving it everything he had, swallowing mouthful after mouthful of seawater, taking care to keep the little girl above water. “How much farther?” he asked one last time.
“We’re almost there. Swim. Swim!”
And Siegfried slipped below the waves.
The little girl let go, pumping her own legs, dogpaddling the last few feet. She reached out, grabbing a ladder at the base of the building, and held on for dear life. She looked out into the water, but saw nothing but black. “Siegfried!” she shouted. “Siegfried?”
There was no answer but the sound of waves slapping against the building.
“Goodbye, Siegfried,” she said. “I’d have liked you to see what the end looked like.” Then she slowly climbed the ladder, the weight of the water in her clothes like a sack of rocks strapped to her back. She climbed and she climbed and she climbed some more for what seemed like days, until she reached the top of the ladder and found there a metal door, covered in rust.
The little girl turned the handle, pushed open the door, and fell inside.
The Thing on the Other Side of the Door stood in the center of a windowless room, arms behind his back, head cocked, eyes trained on the little girl. “You’re here,” he said.
“Yes,” said the little girl, terrified.
“Where’s your clown?”
She looked down at the ground, scuffing her feet. “He didn’t . . . he didn’t make it.”
“You used him to get all the way through, didn’t you?”
She nodded, ashamed.
“Good. Good!” He smiled. “Loathsome creatures. He would have eaten you, given the chance.” He began to pace around, excited. “I had hopes for you. I really did. I could see it in your eyes. You weren’t going to let this place beat you. Some children you can tell right away won’t make it. Others I’m not so sure. But you figured it out, didn’t you?”
“Why did you bring me here?” she demanded.
“I didn’t bring you here,” he said. “No one brought you here. You came here.”
“You tricked me.”
“Into going through the door beneath my bed!”
He shook his head. “On nights when there is no moon and the stars are the only light to see by, a door appears beneath the bed of a child—always a child, one just old enough to still believe in such things, and never beneath the same child twice. That child is roused by a clatter that makes no sound at all and tempted by a light that streams from a crack beneath the door. Only the bravest and most adventurous open the door and crawl through. The rest go back to sleep, think it nothing but a dream, and spend the rest of their lives fearing what might lurk under their bed. You chose to go through the door. Just as I did.”
“You came through the door?”
“A long time ago, when I was your age.”
“But you’re old!”
“Very,” he said. “It took a long time for another child to make it through. Like I said, I’ve never seen a child get here. Now I have.” He smiled big and broad. “Finally I get to go home.”
“We’re going home together?”
He laughed. “No. There always has to be someone here to care for the nightmares. They have nowhere else to go. And it has to be someone who understands what they are. They are things to overcome, to be destroyed, to be sacrificed. They’re what make us brave; they’re what help us face the world. We trap them here so they can’t infect the rest of the world. The rest of who we are. That clown wasn’t your friend. He didn’t want to help you. He used you to try and find his way out, to try and become a dream again. But he would only have gotten worse, would only have terrified other children. He was a nightmare that needed to be relegated to the dustbin of the universe.
“We are where the nightmares go. And where they were meant to stay. Not just anyone can look after them; it has to be someone capable of being as awful as a nightmare, someone unafraid to do terrible things, someone who can dream up such awful challenges to keep those damned clowns stuck in here forever.”
“This is about the clowns?” asked the little girl.
“And all the other awfulness you saw. And all the awfulness you haven’t yet seen. But you’ll have time. There are so many nightmares and only one child a month to pin your hopes on. Maybe you’ll get lucky. Maybe one of the first ones will find their way through; maybe they’ll figure out what the clowns are for. But look at me. Look at how long it took this time.”
“But you said you’d show me the way out!”
“Yes!” he said, shaking his head. “And I did! I told you how to find the door. You were my door. I get to go home now. Through you. And if you want to leave, then you have to find your door.”
“But this is the end! You said the door was at the end!”
“Who said this was the end? We are where the nightmares go, and where they go, there is no end.”
“So I’m stuck here forever?”
“No. All those children out there are stuck here forever. Their bodies are at home or in institutions, staring into space, no one around them aware of the nightmares they see. You get to leave. Eventually. When the right child shows up.”
“What do I do until then?”
The Thing on the Other Side of the Door smiled. “Skip the boring bits. And don’t let the clowns out.” Then he hugged her, and he began to glow and expand until he popped out of existence. He returned to a body that had lain asleep for longer than he cared to think about.
And the little girl was a little girl no longer.
She had done whatever it took.
She had killed her clown.
She had become a thing worse than a nightmare.
She had become The Thing on the Other Side of the Door.
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