Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Our Side of the Door

It isn’t until I realize I can’t find my son—really can’t find him—that I think of all the other things I can’t see in the starlit orchard. “Cruz!” I yell. “Buddy! You win!”

There is no moon. The trees are thick with blossoms. I hear Cruz in the tall grasses, rustling, giggling. He is six years old.

This wouldn’t bother my wife. Alyssa believes that Cruz should learn to use a knife, to light a match, to walk beside a river without stumbling and drowning. She was the one who wanted to move to the country because children deserve the chance to be wild. But now, she’s back at the house, unpacking. I am the one ducking beneath tree limbs, imagining unleashed dogs who could race through the orchard and tear at Cruz.

“You win!” I yell. “You win!”

Twigs snap and crunch. Cruz laughs again. Then: sudden crying.

I race through the cold, sweet air, following the sound of his sobs.

Cruz finds me and wails. “Daddy! I hurt my eye!”

I lift him, and he lays his head against my shoulder the way he did when he was small. I carry him beneath the star-fuzzed sky, jogging toward the house, my lips against his gritty hair.

I pound on the back door. Alyssa answers with a box of books beneath her arm. “Hey, guy,” she says to Cruz. “You all right?”

“We need a washcloth!” I say.

“They aren’t unpacked yet.” Alyssa sets down her books and opens her arms for Cruz. He reaches for her and collapses from my arms into hers.

I stride past them, into the kitchen, pulling off my shirt. I run the tap water until it is warm and clear of iron tint, then soak my shirt. I squeeze out the excess water, return to Cruz, and place the warm, wet cloth over his eye. “Breathe,” I say.

Alyssa carries Cruz to the couch. He is so tall now, gangly in her arms. Sometimes Alyssa takes him for a haircut, and he returns a stranger: an older boy with a buzzcut who can write messages in secret codes and skip stones five times before they sink.

I stand before my competent wife, my belly hanging out, oafish, a waste of space. What kind of father lets this happen?

Alyssa draws my wet shirt from Cruz’s eye. “Jeez,” she says. “What did you manage to do?”

“It was a branch,” Cruz whimpers. “I ran into a branch.”

“Well, I think you’re going to live, but let’s have a doctor check it just in case.” Alyssa looks at me. “Where are his shoes?”

“I don’t know.”

I open the front door while Alyssa carries Cruz to the car. I watch her buckle him into his booster seat. I stay out of her way.

“Do I want to see his eye?”

“No.”

I run back to the house to grab the cloth bunny that Cruz secretly still chews and the copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that we have been reading. On our evening walk, the whole time we were playing hide and seek, I had been searching for something. Now, I know that I must never tell Cruz what I’d been hoping to find.

• • • •

The next morning, Alyssa drips antibiotics into Cruz’s eye and covers it with a patch. I spoon extra brown sugar onto Cruz’s oatmeal, but he still glares at me with his good eye.

“I’m sorry, Buddy.”

“He’s fine,” Alyssa says.

“I’ll probably never see again,” says Cruz.

“Rascal,” says Alyssa.

I drive Cruz into town for school, wondering if he’s right.

He points to a neighbor’s orchard. “The trees look like they’re full of little birds,” he says. And they do. The petals look like thousands of snowy feathers. The Spanish word for “popcorn” is palomitas—little doves. The trees are full of popcorn.

Back at home, I clear a place from the unpacking mess and open my laptop. I write two scenes in my book, one with the boy hero befriending a raven and one with the boy and the raven leading an army of salamanders into battle against a dragon. It’s the fifth and final book in the series, and if it doesn’t sell better than the fourth book, then I’m going to have start writing fantasy under a different name. I stretch, pour a glass of orange juice, and then pound out a thousand words of the romance novel I’m ghostwriting.

This is how I contribute to the family. Alyssa is the one who really pays the mortgage. She’s an engineer.

When it’s time for a break, I go outside.

The day is cold. The sun brightens patches of vivid green between the clouds’ shadows. My sneakers squish in the tall grass. Woods darken one side of our house. Beyond our garden is what used to be a cow pasture. Along the edge of the pasture runs an old stone wall, and on the other side of the wall is the neighbors’ blossoming orchard.

What I have been looking for is a Door.

I know. That makes me sound dumb.

Beyond dumb. Stupid.

But people usually talk about faith like it’s a good thing.

I walk along the side of the stone wall where lilac bushes wait, tight with dark buds. In a week, the orchard will turn from white to green, and the lilacs will open with the soft color of dusk.

Everything is dangerous. At the end of the wall, a creek separates the pasture from the next wood. I once met a hiker who was attacked by a mountain lion. She fought back and lived: clawed and scarred, but alive. If the creek doesn’t get you, the woods will. Why did I bring my child to a wild place?

Because if you want any hope of magic, you have to search in wild places.

I turn back toward the house. Cruz’s sneakers lie at my feet, wet and muddy, where he must have lost them last night.

• • • •

That evening, Cruz and I finish reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and begin to read about Narnia. He snuggles beside me, chewing on his soft bunny’s ear, not even waiting until I’ve left the room.

I probably shouldn’t read to him about Doors. He could turn out like me. But then, he’s half Alyssa; he might be safe.

So what business do I have, writing Door stories for other kids, getting their hopes up, messing with their heads?

I kiss Cruz just above his eye patch and he tickles me in the armpit. I wish that I could wrestle him before bed the way Alyssa does, but I’m too big, too clumsy. I leave him in the nightlight’s glow.

“How does the eye look?” I ask Alyssa. We sit at the kitchen table. She has a book about North Korea open before her. I have my laptop and a beer.

“Less gross than yesterday.” Alyssa wears a blue tank top even though she’s left the windows open. Her skin doesn’t even pucker against the spring night air. Nothing bothers her: not the cold, nor mosquitoes, nor reading the news before bed. “Look,” she says. “Things like this are going to happen. It’s part of growing up.”

“I’m supposed to protect him.”

“What are you going to do? Trap him in a giant hamster ball? Even if you try that, he’ll explore on his own. Make his own trouble—exactly what he ought to do.”

“Now he’s probably going to hope for trouble involving yellow brick roads.”

Alyssa sets her chin in her hand and squares her face at mine. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Lots of kids read those stories and very few of them end up being disappointed when they don’t travel to Oz.”

On my laptop screen, I try to recreate the country my brother and I imagined as kids, playing near a lake during a family camping trip. We pretended that we were in a land ruled by singing winds that wove harmonies between tall grasses. My brother was two years younger than me, but he was the one to teach me how to hold a blade of grass between my thumbs and blow against it, whistling back to the winds.

We imagined that we could swim in green waters and listen to the fishes’ stories, that we could fly and speak with the geese who pecked the chicory and rose hips. The living sun dazzled the water. It felt as though we had lived in our world for years, but it must have been only an afternoon, maybe two.

After all that sun, we both found heart-shaped freckles on the backs of our necks. I didn’t like mine—it was too girly—but my brother didn’t mind his until a second mole grew beside it. That second mole bubbled, blackened, devoured the heart-shaped mole. It all happened so fast. When my parents took him to a doctor to have it checked, the cancer was already everywhere.

He was seven years old. Barely older than Cruz is now.

If there is a Heaven, perhaps it feels like that summer lake.

• • • •

I wake at dawn to walk in the dewy fields when our world stirs itself into being. That’s when I find the Door.

It’s one of the rocks in the old stone wall, large as a fist and blue like a robin’s egg. Even in early morning, bees land on the Door, thirsting for nectar on the other side. There is no doubt in my mind about what the Door is.

I turn to look at the world around me, making sure that it is the same world.

I look back at the Door. It’s still there, round and smooth against the other rocks. I almost run to it, but I stop myself.

I sit beside the Door. My jeans soak against the clover. A small, gray spider weaves between the rocks. I can’t ruin the Door by touching it.

The problem with writing the stories I write is that I know too much about magic. If I didn’t know the rules, I’d touch the Door. I’d let it open. I’d go to the other side.

But I know these rules:

Doors are rare.

Some Doors open only once, then vanish.

Doors are really meant for children.

You never know how long you’ll be on the other side of a Door. It could be just an instant in our time, or it could be a hundred years. You might never return.

• • • •

“What’s with you?” Alyssa says. She sits in the breakfast nook, her newspaper folded into a neat rectangle. She’s eating oatmeal with dried apricots and cinnamon, and she nods to a bowl she’s filled for me with the almonds left out because I don’t like them. She’s backlit from the large windows’ morning light, so I can see the crown of stray hairs around her head.

I would love to tell her about the Door. I would love to take her hand and lead her across the fields to see the Door. But I know my wife. I know what she will believe and what she will see and what she will never believe and never see.

I pour coffee, stir in honey, and set it beside Alyssa. Outside the window, crows strut on the dandelion fluff-strewn meadow.

“You seem giddy,” Alyssa says, using her napkin to mop up the coffee I’ve spilled.

“It’s a beautiful morning.”

She looks at me from the corners of her eyes. “Okay, Jumpy.”

• • • •

Long ago, perhaps the summer when my brother and I went to the lake, we spent nights in hammocks strung between the trees in our backyard. Looking up through the elm branches, I could see stars spark between the rustling leaves. I couldn’t see my brother, but I could hear his voice.

We had this idea that, if we slept outside, we’d be more likely to catch some bit of magic. What we wanted to know was: Who were those children who got to go through Doors?

Did someone choose them?

Were there children who were more deserving?

What if the wrong boy went though a Door? What if a mean boy, a bully, went through a Door and was cruel to the talking animals? What if some horrible boy went though a Door and started wars in the other country? What if the wrong boy went through a Door and his life wasn’t changed? What if he didn’t realize that anything he saw was magic?

What if a stupid boy went through a Door and didn’t even notice?

We’d hate him, we decided. We’d hate any child who would waste a Door.

We took care of our dog, walking her, tossing her ball even when it was slobbery, fighting to let her sleep on our beds. Weren’t we as deserving as any two boys could be? And we noticed things, like the brief twilit window when fireflies appeared, the difference between frogs’ and crickets’ songs at night, the blackberry brambles, beehives high in trees. If any boys deserved to go through a Door, then we were those boys.

When I had grown and conceded—those days when I chose to think like a rational adult—that Doors were just the stuff of stories—I realized that my brother had already gone through the one great Door that we all must enter.

But after seeing the blue Door in the stone wall, it’s not so simple anymore.

There really are Doors in this world, in this lifetime, and my brother missed them all.

I will take Cruz to the Door.

• • • •

What am I saying? That’s a terrible idea. What if it’s the wrong kind of Door? What if he never comes back?

• • • •

“Daddy!” says Cruz as I drive him to school. “Why are you so quiet?” Before I can answer, he tells me about a spaceship he’s building out of chocolate, one hand reaching to peel his eyepatch from his face.

• • • •

Times when I have already hurt my child:

When I swooped his small body toward the ceiling in play, accidentally knocking his head against a wood beam.

When he wrestled away from his car seat straps, and I pulled at his squirming arm.

When I forgot to remind him to go to the bathroom, so he spent a country fair’s afternoon crouching in shame beside a sheep pen.

When he caught me looking at a newspaper with my head in my hands.

• • • •

Alyssa’s adventures:

Her father threw her from a dock, and that is how she learned to swim.

She learned to drive when she was twelve. When she mistook her pedals and destroyed a fence, she rebuilt it herself.

When she was twenty-two, she hiked across Montana alone. She waited out thunderstorms as her tent pooled with water. She shook bells to keep grizzlies away. She cut her hair short and wore loose clothes so that she would look like a boy from a distance.

While volunteer firefighting, she survived a burnover in the cocoon of an aluminum foil and fiberglass fire shelter. Once she recovered, she earned her helicopter pilot’s license to fight the fires from the sky.

“You can see above the smoke,” she says. “And you can see everything.”

• • • •

While Cruz is in school, while I ought to be writing, I stride across the fields. I stand just out of reach of the blue stone so that I can’t touch it accidentally.

The sky is the same color as the stone, and the grass is lively with daddy longlegs and sow bugs. I take another step back from the Door.

If I were very lucky, I could enter the Door and only be gone from this world for a heartbeat. When I returned, I would be forever changed, my eyes opened.

Spring would never feel dull. The things that ought to hurt would feel like fire again.

• • • •

After dinner, while the light fades and bats carve jagged patterns in the sky, Cruz and I walk along the old stone wall. Cruz walks with a long stick, slashing at the grasses.

I don’t say anything about the Door when we reach it. I pick up Cruz, hold him upside down while he kicks and snorts and laughs, his stick swinging at the earth. He wiggles to the ground. I catch him at his waist and squeeze.

He no longer smells like a small child. He smells like sweat, of socks left on carelessly for several days. He smells like worms and neighbors’ dogs and tree sap, a changeling from the child I once had. I breathe him in.

In case this is our last moment.

In case he does not return from the Door.

Then, I say, “We are lucky to live near such a lovely stone wall.” That’s as far as I will point him to the Door. After that, he has to find it for himself. That’s how Doors work. He has to choose to look.

And I turn my back.

Cruz rustles behind me. A crescent moon rises against the deep blue.

Everything becomes quiet.

A doe and her fawn slowly cross the pasture, stopping to taste the new grass. They gaze at me, as though I would never harm them.

I am alone in the world.

• • • •

The stillness stretches and breathes and becomes part of something greater, part of time’s immense stream.

What have I done?

• • • •

Then:

Cruz is laughing, squeezing my thighs. I pull him onto my back.

In the near darkness, I can’t see the stone. Even if I could make out its shape, its color would blend with the other rocks in the fence.

With Cruz on my back, I stride across the fields, toward our house’s bright windows. New blossoms sweeten the air. Cruz holds onto my shoulders. He is heavy, feet already reaching past my hips.

“What just happened?” I ask Cruz, but he laughs, rubs his cheek against my hair, and lets his hands go free to wiggle my ears.

In our garden, we pass beneath our cherry trees’ starry blossoms. Long ago, some farmer planted them together. Now, they pass pollen from one to another, like lovers inventing and reinventing their stories.

Did Cruz go through the Door?

If he did, he will keep it a secret from me. That’s a rule.

And if he did, I hope he knows what has happened. I hope he loved it as much as it deserved to be loved.

Alyssa greets us by our back door with two cups of cocoa.

“Where’s yours?” I ask.

“We had enough milk for two.”

From the porch light, I can see a new freckle on Cruz’s neck. It’s heart-shaped, same as mine.

I switch off the porch light and sit on the steps, one hand warm against my mug and the other warm around Alyssa. I pass the cocoa to her, smell it on her breath as she sips.

In the darkness, we can see the stars. I can’t see Cruz, but I can hear his feet rustle in the grasses.

I do not know which side of the Door I am on. I do not know which side I’ve been on all this time.

Kodiak Julian

Kodiak Julian

Kodiak Julian is a graduate of Reed College and of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Together with Jamaica Zoglman, she cohosts the weekly podcast, Spirit of the Endeavor, which explores the pursuit of beauty, mystery, and the sublime in everyday life. She lives with her husband and son in Yakima, Washington, where she teaches truly magnificent high school students. Her work appears in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Grimoire, the Writers of the Future anthology, and in the Witches, Stitches, and Bitches anthology. She is frequently mesmerized by watching chickens.