Where I Can't Follow (an excerpt from a forthcoming novel)
by Ashley Blooms
When I was little my cousins and I used to pretend what it would be like when we got our little doors. Even then we knew that not all of us would get one. Maybe none of us would. Most of our parents hadn’t, and none of our parents had taken their door even if they had gotten one. Not yet, anyway.
No one really knew how the doors worked, only that they showed up, from time to time, and seemed to come to people who really needed them. The doors found the hurt, the lonely, the poorest and most desperate. They seemed to have the same taste in picking partners that I would develop when I grew up.
No one knew where the doors led. They may have taken everyone to the same place—some pocket of some world where the sky was green and the grass tasted like Peach Nehi. Or maybe they took people through time. Shunted them forward or dragged them back. Maybe they were dream doors, leading us to the place we wanted most. Some people claimed the doors led to Hell, of course, but those people claimed that most things were portals to Hell—talking during church service, smoking menthol cigarettes, wearing a thin t-shirt over a dark bra, or worse, not wearing a bra at all.
The doors never looked the same, either, and only the first one ever witnessed had been a little door at all. Everyone in Blackdamp knew the story. Elizabeth Baker, 1908. A door three inches high appeared on top of the piano that she played at church. When she’d asked who had placed it there, no one else could see it, so Elizabeth pretended it was just a joke. Even then she knew what happened to women who claimed to see things no one else saw.
She’d taken the door two weeks later, after she’d asked her father to baptize her for the second time, just in case it would help her wherever she was going.
Since then the doors had come in all shapes and sizes: a well that appeared in the center of Donna Gail’s kitchen; a hole in Ida Ross’s bedroom wall that slowly grew bigger and more ragged and warmer by the day; a ladder that stretched past Mr. Coleman’s apple trees and into a low fog that never moved and never thinned; a length of rope that led between the trees in Tanya Ross’s backyard and into the darkest darkness that she had ever seen. My favorite doors had always been an empty teacup with a chip in its handle, a skeleton with the teeth still stuck inside its jaw, the mouth opened just enough to show something glimmering inside, like light skipping across a pond, and a book lying open with big looping scrawl across its pages like a child’s handwriting when they were pretending to write a story.
No matter what they looked like, every door after the first was called a little door. Like many things in Blackdamp, that would never change no matter how little sense it made.
But that summer, for us, our door was an old doorframe that Uncle Tim had set in concrete in the field behind Granny’s house. The frame’s wood was old and soft with wetrot. It smelled like damp earth and it gave beneath our fingers when we gripped it too hard. All that only added to its magic. The door was a frail thing, shooting up out of the ground beside the bloodroot and goldenrod like they’d all grown there together. We let the door swing open and took turns running through it, shouting where we thought the door might take us.
I’d shouted the last one and then jumped through, standing triumphant in the tall grass until I realized I didn’t know how to swim.
“I’m drowning,” I’d cried, and fell to the ground in a heap.
The grass swayed above me and my cousins ran around delirious with heat and imagination. That’s when I’d noticed my mother standing at the top of the hill watching us. Her arms were crossed over her chest and she had a strange blue flower tucked into her hair. I wonder now if she’d already gotten her door by then. If she’d already made up her mind and knew that in two months’ times she would be gone, walking through her door and into some other world, leaving me behind with no parents, no home, no explanation.
I’d wanted a door more than anything back then, but after Mom left, I’d begun to doubt the doors. They seemed meaner once they’d taken her, little magic thieves who didn’t care about daughters at all. Then I moved in with my Granny and she rarely talked about Mom or the doors. She had this way of ending things like weeding a garden—she’d snatch them up by the roots, pull hard, let go.
But it wasn’t that easy for me. I kept thinking that if the doors could lead anywhere, maybe my door could lead me back to Mom. They had taken her from me and then they became the only chance I had of getting her back.
So a part of me wondered. Waited.
But of all the ways I’d imagined that I might get my door, and all the shapes I thought it might take, I never expected to find it the way that I did.
I knew something was wrong as soon as I pulled into the driveway that night. Every light in our house was on. The windows glowed a mix of gold and white, even the one in my bedroom that was spiderwebbed with cracks and mended with duct tape to keep the cold out. The curtains in the living room had been half torn down so they hung crooked on one side and reminded me of a shoulder peeking out from beneath a dress strap, a girl nervous of her own skin. The front door was thrown wide open, casting a beam of yellowish light onto the porch steps, revealing the unmown grass still stunted by the winter but fighting stubbornly to return. I always let it grow out because I loved the way it felt when it snuck up between the steps and tickled the bottoms of my feet and my ankles, like it had been waiting all season long to see if my skin still tasted the same.
I probably should have been more afraid as I sat there in the driveway, worrying at a tear in the fabric of the driver’s seat. But sometimes when things got really bad I just kind of stepped away from myself, and it’s like nothing was happening to me, exactly, but to someone shaped just like me, with the same wild, dark hair and untrimmed eyebrows and scar on her chin. Besides, this wasn’t the first time I’d come home to find things strange. I knew something was wrong with Granny. I knew it was getting worse, too, but so far I’d been able to pretend that it was a worse I could handle.
I’d forgotten all about the cell phone in my hand so when it buzzed I nearly threw it across the car. A text from the man I was supposed to go on a date with that night. The first date in more months than I could count. I didn’t even like him, really, but I was lonely, and he was tall, and when he asked me if I’d go see a movie with him with his head all dropped down and a hole in the collar of his work shirt I had felt like I was coming out of winter, too, somehow.
A little part of me mourned him as I put my phone in my pocket. I would forget to text him back until the next morning but he wouldn’t respond. He would stop coming into the store where I worked to get a cold Pepsi and when I saw him a month later it would be with a girl who was in pharmacy school, the two of them walking out of the Dairy Queen, smiling.
I left the keys in the ignition when I got out of the car. Left my door open, too. The air smelled like burnt metal and cold, wet earth. I shivered as I stood in the light cast through the open front door of the house. And even though I lived there I still felt like an intruder when I peeked my head inside.
The living room was all messed up. The cushions pulled off the couch, the coffee table pushed to the far wall. The television was turned on but the volume was too low to hear. The doorway that led to the kitchen showed more of the same—cabinets thrown open with what little they held inside scattered across the counter.
“Granny?” I said and felt just like a little girl. A memory tried to shake loose from me but I fought it down.
I searched the house just to be sure Granny wasn’t hiding somewhere and then called my oldest friend Julie. I couldn’t wait the five minutes it would take her to get to the house so I grabbed Granny’s coat and the only flashlight I could find and headed into the backyard, through the field where I played as a little girl. The concrete Uncle Tim set was still there, but the door had long since rotted away.
Granny’s yard was wide and mostly even with a gentle slope downward to the woods. I skirted the edge of the tree line, hollering her name every few steps, listening for her voice, but only the whippoorwills answered each other in the dark. I crossed from Granny’s yard into my cousin Cheryl’s where the grass was littered with children’s toys, the bright plastic almost glowing in the dark. I heard the back door squeal open and then Cheryl’s voice shouting, “Everything all right?”
“Yeah, I’m just playing hide and seek,” I yelled. “Did you check in on Granny like I asked you to?”
“Well what, Cheryl?”
“Well you ain’t got to be like that. I had a flash sale on my Jazzy Jemstones page and it really blew up. I was on Live so I couldn’t just leave in the middle of it. I have a business to run.”
I opened my mouth to say a dozen things, each meaner than the last, but I couldn’t spare the energy so I just I rolled my eyes and kept walking. The first couple times Granny had wandered off I’d been able to find her within a few minutes. I’d never had to ask for help, but I’d come close the last time she disappeared—three months ago, middle of December, snow on the ground. I’d searched for an hour before my fingers went numb. I’d trudged back home, resigned myself to calling Uncle Tim and telling him what happened when I walked inside and found Granny sitting in the living room watching television as though she’d never left. The only proof I had that she’d really been missing were her boots by the front door, crusted with snow, and the coat she was wearing—I’d found mud shoved in the pockets and more mud dried under her fingernails though she’d never told what she had been doing that night.
After I’d gotten her cleaned up and tucked into bed she’d said, “Don’t tell the others. Tim and Forest, my other babies. I don’t want them to worry.”
So I’d promised her I wouldn’t tell anyone else. And I’d kept it, too.
Granny’s troubles had started even before that night though. Two years ago she’d had a small stroke and I had abandoned college to help her get back on her feet. She hadn’t lost any permanent function but neither of us fully recovered—Granny from the illness, me from the debt I racked up trying to take care of her. Before her stroke we always seemed to manage, just barely scraping by, but we had what we needed. After, everything got harder. Like when the water heater went out January. It had taken all of Granny’s social security check to cover the cost even with Uncle Tim installing it for free. I’d had to let the phone and electric bill slide that month and had been cutting corners and skipping lunches at work so that we could get caught back up.
Granny had changed, too, after the stroke, and especially after the issues with her memory began. She used to be out all the time. Visiting people, going to church, raising money for this or that. She had more friends on Facebook than I did and could tell me about every one. But then she stopped going out so much. Stopped answering the phone. I knew it was because she was afraid that someone else might notice that she had changed. She seemed to draw a little more into herself every day. I’d only convinced her to go to church a few days before and she’d seemed happier after, more like herself. But just when it seemed like we might be okay, something else would happen, and I would be out in the woods again, throat raw with the cold, searching for an answer in the dark.
The ground was uneven and littered with fire ant hills and snake holes. It was the kind of place that made it clear it wasn’t made for people like me to go stumbling across it in the dark, but that’s where I went because that’s where I saw Granny.
I kept following the hill behind Cheryl’s yard as it sloped steadily downward, the grass growing higher with every step. Soon, the ground evened out again and led to a place that looked something like a bowl surrounded on three sides by trees and shadows. I’d played there sometimes, as a girl, but we usually left this place alone. It always felt like it was a mistake that it was covered with grass instead of water. The field should have been a pond instead and it felt like the field knew it, too, and was bitter about it. The ground was uneven and littered with fire ant hills and snake holes. It was the kind of place that made it clear it wasn’t made for people like me to go stumbling across it in the dark, but that’s where I went because that’s where I saw Granny. She stood right at the center of the field in her favorite blue housedress, her arms held out by her sides, chin tilted back so she could stare up at the sky.
And that’s where I saw my little door for the first time.
It happened between blinks. First I was standing there, weak with relief at having found Granny so soon, and then I was looking not at her but at the thing floating above her. It appeared that quickly, that quietly.
My little door was mostly round and small enough that I might have surrounded it with my arms, had I tried. It moved—spinning in a slow circle like someone had pulled the plug in the air and the world was being sucked through a drain, and the center of the drain was the center of my door. It was deep black there—an endless kind of black that hurt my eyes to look at it too long because it felt too big, too sure of itself, like that color could creep behind my eyes and replace every other color until all the world was darkness. Around the edges of the circle, where the spinning was the slowest, the air was tinged pale blue and purple, streaked with white, like there were stars hanging there, close enough to touch. The colors faded as they moved toward the center, turning black and picking up speed. The door looked almost liquid, like I could dip a cup inside and drink it down.
It reminded me of a picture of a black hole that I’d seen in one of my high school textbooks. I wondered if the door drew its shape from my memories. If every door was plucked from the head of the person it belonged to.
I wanted to touch it. Badly. I wanted to sink my arms to the elbow inside it and pull them out drenched and dripping blue and purple light, my skin glittering with stars. I wanted to look like my door. I wanted to glow.
Some part of me sang with the fact that this was my door. Mine, only and ever.
I’d never really owned anything in my life. The car I drove had belonged to Granny before, the clothes I wore were secondhand from the Christian Mission, my bed was a hand-me-down from one of my cousins. There were so few things in my life that someone else hadn’t touched before.
But then my stomach twisted with some mix of fear and anger. After Mom left I used to pray to get my door. I’d begged God to send it to me so I could find her. Nine years old and crying in the dark. I told myself that if I was good enough then it might happen—if I said my prayers and listened to Granny and went to church and didn’t do anything wrong then my door would find me. I tried so hard to be good enough for my door, for God, my Mom.
But it never worked.
So to finally find my door sixteen years after Mom left… it felt both too much and too little. I wanted to yell at it, ask it why now, of all times. Why like this? I wished that I could fight it somehow, draw back my fist and feel it connect with something real, but I worried that touching my door would mean taking it. And I couldn’t do that.
Granny swayed suddenly like she was about to fall. She caught herself at the last second, her hair bouncing loose from the bobby pins I’d put in that morning before I left for work.
“Granny,” I said, too loud, so I said it again, softer. She didn’t always recognize me in moments like this. Sometimes she thought I was her sister or one of her children. Sometimes she didn’t know me at all. “Hey, Granny, whatcha looking at?”
She turned toward me slowly.
“Oh.” She blinked. Her eyebrows had grown wiry and white over the last few years. They hunched over her eyes like two disgruntled caterpillars and the sight of them always made me smile. “When’d you get home little britches?”
“A little while ago,” I said. I kept looking between Granny and my little door like my eyes couldn’t decide which was more important. I felt guilty and small for being able to think of anything that wasn’t Granny and I tried to force myself to focus on her. “What’re you doing all the way out here?” I asked. “Not running off with some younger man, are you?”
Granny laughed. “Not hardly. Unless it’s that new mailman. I might give him a try.”
“Is it them little shorts he wears in the summer that does it for you?”
I held Granny’s coat between my hands as she stepped into it, laughing, shivering. I took one of her hands in mine and they were frigid, the joints stiff and swollen with the early March cold. I zipped the coat up and tried to pull the hood over her head but she wouldn’t let me. She was at least a foot shorter than me and thirty pounds lighter, but no one did anything for Granny without permission. I settled for rubbing my hands against her shoulders as she stood there looking more like an outline of a Granny than the real thing. My little door cast a faint, ghostly light over her graying hair so she glowed around her edges.
Behind me, Julie whispered, “Maren. Maren.”
I smiled. “Look who else came all the way to see you.”
I stepped to the side and waved Julie closer. She was wearing the same bright green shirt she’d worn to work that morning. “You look like a highlighter,” I said as she wrapped her arms around Granny.
Julie stuck her tongue out at me and fussed over Granny, who was more accepting of Julie’s coddling than my own.
“Jules is going to take you back home, all right?” I squeezed Granny’s shoulder. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” When Julie looked at me I mouthed: I need a minute. She nodded and helped Granny up the hill, taking slow, small steps.
I waited until I couldn’t hear the sound of their voices before I turned back to my little door. I knew no one else could see another person’s door, but it still bothered me that Granny had been standing there looking right through mine. She couldn’t have known it was there—it just didn’t work that way—but I still felt like I did back when I’d been caught kissing the preacher’s daughter in the church parking lot. Scared, ashamed, but more excited than anything else. Maybe even a little hopeful.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with you,” I said.
A door slammed behind me and Cheryl’s voice called out, “That you, Maren? I just seen your Granny walk by with that girl you work with. You sure everything is all right?”
“For Chrissake, Cheryl, go to bed!”
“You know you’re standing in my yard, I have half a mind—”
I turned to face her and Cheryl hurried back inside. She was eight years older than me but she’d never acted like it.
I turned back to my little door and sighed. “Well, I have half a mind to take you just to get away from Cheryl.”
The door didn’t respond. I waited for it to shift or move or do anything at all. I stepped into the place where Granny had been standing a few minutes before.
“Are you going to stay here?” I asked the door. “Or do you follow me? There might be some kind of magic word I’m supposed to know. If there is, nobody taught me.” I shifted from one foot to the other. “Well. I have to get going now. Don’t swallow nobody while I’m gone, all right?”
I took a few steps before I looked back over my shoulder. The door hovered a little closer than before, still spinning slowly, almost thoughtfully. The light it cast seemed brighter as the night grew darker around me. I took the long way back to the house, stumbling because I kept looking back to make sure that it was still there, but with every step I took, my little door followed.
The light from our house looked different when I walked back into the yard—it wasn’t bleeding from the edges anymore, but held carefully inside like a hand hovering over a flame hoping the wind won’t snuff it out. I took the keys from the ignition of my car and locked everything.
“This is my house,” I said to my little door.
It spun slowly in response. I still wanted to touch it—to drag my finger through the brightest edge and part its surface like water. I wanted to know if it was warm or cold. If my mouth would fill up with some strange taste at that first touch, something I didn’t have a name for, something that would rewrite my memories and have me speaking in a new tongue. I clenched my hands into fists to keep from reaching out to it.
“I guess it’s our house now.” I sighed. “That’s all I need. A roommate that don’t pay rent.”
Back inside, the living room had already been put back together—the curtains rehung, the photo albums back on the coffee table so Granny could pull them out at a moment’s notice, flip to a picture of me as a toddler standing naked in the backyard and yell, “Look at how flat your butt was! Like a tiny little pancake,” whenever I started to get on her nerves.
Julie was on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor. Her blond hair was tied back with a ponytail, a handful of bobby pins, and at least one paperclip. “I was about to come looking for you, baby girl,” she said, using the nickname that we passed back and forth between each other. Whoever was hurting most in the moment, whoever needed to be taken care of was baby girl. It was just two words but it was also a reminder that we could trust the other person to carry our burdens for a while.
Julie leaned back on her knees and looked at me through the kitchen doorway. A heavy pink crystal swung on a thin golden chain around her neck and she caught it in one hand and squeezed it tight. She’d started collecting them—her special rocks—a month ago. She had one for everything: anxiety, restless nights, indigestion. She’d given me three or four but I could never bring myself to wear them so I kept them lined up on the dresser beside my bed.
“I’ve got it all handled,” Julie said. “I just need you to put them pictures back up before Granny gets out of the shower.”
I ran my hand over the empty wall to my left. It was normally covered in twenty years of framed photographs of Granny and her favorite rose bush. Granny must have taken them all down during her episode and stacked them neatly on the floor. I wished that I knew what she had been looking for when she tore the house apart, what chased her through each room, drove her into the dark of the woods. But she rarely remembered an episode after it was over and she didn’t like talking about the parts she did remember.
Summer 20—. There was too much rain that year and the roses were pink instead of red. Maren was teasing me and laughing so hard I could see the fillings in her back teeth. It was a good day.