Where I Can't Follow (an excerpt from a forthcoming novel)
by Ashley Blooms

Chapter One

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. 



The ocean.

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. 

Chapter Two

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. 

Chapter Three

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.

Not yet.

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. 

Chapter Four

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.


      I picked the first photo up. It was from the summer before. Granny stood with one hand blocking the sun from her eyes, frowning because I was taking too long to take the picture and because I kept telling her to show a little skin for posterity. I smiled at the memory. Then I turned the picture over to get to the hook on the back and stopped. There was a small sheet of notebook paper taped to the back. Granny’s thin, scratchy cursive looped across the page. The letters were so narrow that I had to squint to read them: 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. 

Tears welled up in my eyes. I glanced at the kitchen but Julie was humming to herself as she wiped down the refrigerator doors. I hung the picture back in place, reached for another, turned it over. 

There was a message there, too. A message on all of them, all written in Granny’s wavering letters, all brief descriptions of the day the photograph was taken. Things like: I was frowning because I burnt the biscuits on the first morning Forest came to visit in months. Tim had just poured motor oil on the road to keep the dust from rising since he’d waxed his Camaro, but Maren wandered right through it in her bare feet and I had to scrub her with a kitchen sponge. 

The last picture in the stack was the only one without a complete message. It read: I kept telling Nell. The sentence died there, the words shifting abruptly to blank space, the white of the page glaring like a newly dug grave. I flipped the frame over and found the glass cracked in one corner, spiraling out from a single point as though it had been struck with something small and blunt. It was the only photo that included my mother. 

She wasn’t there, exactly—just one arm reaching out from the lefthand side of the frame, her fingers straining toward one of the biggest, brightest roses. She was always picking them even when Granny told her not to. She hadn’t been reverent of Granny the way everyone else had been, but they were still close, maybe even closer than the rest. 

After Mom took her door Granny rarely spoke about her. I think the idea was that if we never talked about her then we could never be hurt by her memory, but that never really worked. I carried Mom like a torch through the dark, but Granny’s feelings burned brighter still—no number of years could dull the shine of her anger. I couldn’t find it in myself to hate Mom though. I always thought there must have been some reason, some explanation that would make it all make sense. I used to imagine that she’d been forced to take her door, chased to it by some terrible evil, and she’d stepped through it thinking of me, swearing one day she’d find a way home to her little girl. I ran my finger over the web of cracks over Mom’s hand before I hung the photo back on the wall.

I knew Granny was forgetting things, but I didn’t know how badly she wanted to remember. I felt a wave of guilt so strong that it made my fingers curl into a fist. The guilt settled in my stomach and made me feel sick with failure. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do to make things right but I knew that I should. I had to.

“You all right, Maren?” Julie asked.

I could see her from the corner of my eye, her shadow thin as a slip hanging from a doorknob. I touched the edge of one photo like I was adjusting it, cleared my throat and said, “You know I’m not paying you to clean my house. And I sure don’t tip.”

Julie just waved a gloved hand in my direction and turned back to the fridge.

I said, “Where’d you get those rubber gloves at anyway?”

“She keeps an extra pair in her trunk,” a man said from the hallway. 

The voice sounded familiar but it wasn’t until he walked into the kitchen that I recognized Julie’s older brother. My brain did a strange little stutter at the sight of him. He was Carver, but different. He seemed taller. His cheeks were covered in stubble so thick that it verged on a beard. He’d moved away three years ago and I’d heard little from him aside from the occasional update from Julie. I struggled to fit the two of him together—the way he’d left and the way he’d returned. 

“Carver?” I said.

“Hey chipmunk.” He grinned. “Been a while.”

Julie wrung her sponge out in the sink. “He showed up this evening. I found him in the living room watching Jeopardy like he’d never left.”

“What’re you doing back?” I asked. “I thought you said you wouldn’t set foot in Blackdamp until you had something worth bringing home.”

Carver spread his arms out at his sides. “You’re looking at it.”

I rolled my eyes. “At least you finally grew into that nose of yours. Well. Mostly.”

“And I see your mouth is still running away with you,” Carver said.

“If y’all have energy to bicker, you have energy to clean,” Julie said. “Now, Maren, what do you want me to do with these?” Julie held up two bottles of pills and shook them a little.

I took them from her and frowned. “Don’t let Granny see these.”

“But they’re hers,” Julie said.

“I know, but she refuses to take them. The doctor gives them to her for her fibromyalgia and her bulging discs. The woman is falling apart and refuses to take anything stronger than Advil. She makes me swear not to fill the prescriptions but I’m always worried she’ll hurt too bad one day and change her mind so I keep a bottle or two nearby.”

“You think she’s that way because of your Mom?” Carver asked. Julie slapped her damp sponge against his arm and he yelped. “What? Everybody said she was using before she took her door.”

“You’re an ass, you know that?” I said.

Julie patted my wrist with her gloved hand and said, “Don’t pay him any mind. This ain’t got anything to do with Nell.” 

Carver took the bottles from my hand and examined their labels. “At the very least you ought to be careful with how much of this you keep around. There’s people in this county who would break into the house just for a handful of these.”

“How would you know?” I took the bottles back and shoved them into the corner of the tallest cabinet, the one Granny couldn’t reach. 

Carver said, “How else you think John Edward got that dinky little task force set up in town? You seen that single-wide they’re using as their headquarters?”

“John Edward couldn’t solve the mystery of where his head is when the answer is up his own ass,” I said. “What does any of this have to do with me or Granny?”

Julie jumped on the chance to change the conversation. She hated when Carver and I argued, when anyone argued. “Carver, go lay out some clothes for Granny. One of them flannel nightgowns and some thick socks. And Maren, go lay down. It’s almost midnight and you’re opening the store in the morning. And why do you keep looking over your shoulder like that? You scared of something?”

For a minute I didn’t know what to say. I had been looking over my shoulder where the little door floated in the living room. I couldn’t stop looking at the damn door no matter how hard I tried. Carver peered over my shoulder. Part of me wished that he could see the door just so I wouldn’t have to figure out what to do with it by myself, but another, bigger part was glad when Carver shrugged and leaned back into the kitchen, because it meant that the door still belonged to me and me alone. 

“The only thing I’m scared of is your attitude,” I said to Julie, which seemed to be the right answer because it got everyone moving again. Julie went back to cleaning, Carver went to fulfill his orders, and I laid down on the couch and pulled one of Granny’s quilts over me. 

I told myself that I would only lay down for a minute to satisfy Julie. I still needed to help Granny out of the shower and into her clothes and under the covers where I would tuck her in so soundly that she wouldn’t be able to move until morning. Only then, when she was safe, could I rest. 

But then the door floated through the air until it stopped about two feet above me. It swirled in its slow, liquid way, and from this close, I noticed that there were even more colors along its edges—a deeper blue that wasn’t purple and a dusty pink and a pale, pale yellow. I watched them blend and blur together, watch it spin its slow, unending circle, until I woke in the dark with Carver standing beside the couch.

I sat up in a rush. Carver said something, but I couldn’t make out the words. My door wasn’t above me anymore and I almost panicked until I saw it floating by the living room window. I leaned back against the couch. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was or why and part of me was convinced that Granny was on the roof for some reason, her arms spread out like wings.

“Sorry,” Carver whispered. “Bad dream?”

“Bad day,” I said. “Bad life.”

  He snorted and sat a glass of water down on the coffee table. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s okay. Where’s Granny and Julie?”

“Asleep. Granny in her bed, Julie in yours. I was about to head home.”

“What time is it?”

“About two.”


I scooted over and Carver sat down in the empty space I left behind. He smelled like the cheap floor cleaner I bought at the Dollar General, which reminded me of work, which reminded me that I would have to get up and face the day like none of this had happened—not Granny, not the door, not anything. I groaned.

“You all right?” Carver asked.

“Not really.” 

“Can I help?”

“Not really.” I drew my knees up to my chest and looked at him. My little door cast the living room in pale, shifting blue light. There was something watery about the way the light moved, like a river ran beside us that we couldn’t see or hear. “Does the Reverend know you’re back in town?”

Carver frowned. “No. I figured I’d wait until I had a job and then go see her. She’s easier to deal with if you have good news.”

I nodded. The Reverend was Julie and Carver’s grandmother. She and her husband had all but raised Carver and Julie, a lot like my Granny, except colder and more demanding. Carver’s grandmother been given the nickname “Reverend” as an insult by a man she’d made angry for some reason or another. It was meant to make her feel bad about the way she got involved with people in the town, how she judged everyone, how she was always the first one at church and the last one to leave. But Tabitha Greene wasn’t the type of woman to be insulted and she’d taken Reverend as a mark of honor. Now everyone in town called her that, including the pastor of her church. 

“Well,” I said, “are you going to tell me the truth about what you’re doing here or not? I remember how angry you was when you left. I really thought you’d never come back.”

“Did you miss me?”


The smirk that was on Carver’s face disappeared. We had teased each other for as long as I could remember, bickering like cousins, so the easiest way for me to catch him off guard was to be honest. 

“I missed you, too,” he said. “I missed Julie and Granny and Bea’s hamburgers and sitting in the parking lot of Martin’s Grocery on Saturday nights. I missed Blackdamp.”


“It surprised me, too.” He lifted his ball cap and ran a hand through his messy hair then fitted the cap back on his head a little lower than before. “But I had to leave.”

“Why though?”

A long moment of silence stretched into another and Carver stared at the floor like the answer was lost there among the dust and scuff marks. I nudged him with my shoulder. 

“Even Julie said she didn’t know why you left like that,” I said. “And it’s not like you ever called or texted to tell anybody what was going on.” Saying it made my chest ache a funny, hollow little ache. I never really acknowledged how much it hurt my feelings, never hearing from Carver, and I had no plans to admit it then, and especially not to him.

Carver pulled the cap down lower over his eyes. His hair had grown out shaggy and dark, long enough to curl around his ears. “I wanted to.”

“Why didn’t you then?” I’d assumed that Blackdamp and Julie and me were all baggage he wanted to leave behind. I never expected Carver to come back, and I didn’t realize that I’d wanted him back until he was standing in my kitchen.

“I don’t know. I wanted to call. You especially. But it felt like I couldn’t unless I had something good to say. I couldn’t call and tell you—” He shook his head. “I just didn’t like who I was up there and I didn’t want anybody else to know it. But it’s different here. I know tonight was a mess, but it’s the best I’ve felt in a long time. I like knowing that if you or Julie or Granny needs something that I can be there to help. I like being the kind of person who makes things better, not worse.”

I leaned back and said, “You liked cleaning my house?”

He laughed. “I loved it.”

“You want to come back next week and do it again?”

“I’ll come back whenever you’ll have me.”

“Oh hush,” I said. 

“What? You think I forgot about how you kissed me before I left?”

My face warmed. I’d avoided mentioning that part because it was too close to my fear that Carver had really moved to get away from me, desperate to rip loose the stitches between us before they set in place. I couldn’t help how high my voice rose when I said, “I was drunk!” 

“You’d had two light beers! Even Granny wouldn’t be drunk after that.”

“Granny’s more woman than I am,” I said. 

“Yeah and she’s more man than me, but that’s beside the point.” 

He leaned his weight against my side until I had to lean into him or be tipped over by the pressure. I met him in the middle but I couldn’t meet his eyes. 

I had kissed him before he left. He’d thrown a going away party at his and Julie’s house and half the town came. It had been fun for the first few minutes, but then there were too many tipsy people I’d known for too long so I’d snuck around front and crawled into the back of Kaylee Joe Osborne’s pickup. We’d dated for a while after high school so I figured she wouldn’t mind. Carver had come looking for me, climbed up and talked for a while. He had always been pretty—doe-eyed and slender—but he looked even prettier when I thought he was leaving. So I leaned over and kissed him. It was nice as far as surprise kisses go. Soft. He’d started smiling halfway through and then Julie showed up and we pretended nothing had happened.

I’d wanted to kiss him since we were in middle school and I think I felt safer kissing him knowing he would be gone soon. There would be nothing to clean up or deal with afterward. A coward’s kiss. But I think, too, that I wanted to send some part of me with him when he left. I figured the imprint of me on Carver’s lips would be the furthest I’d ever get from Blackdamp. 

He said, “It should have been me that kissed you. I’d wanted to longer.”

“Since when?” 

“Fifth grade. We were waiting for the bus and Tammy Stidham started making fun of my new t-shirt because she said it had belonged to her big brother. They’d donated a bunch of clothes to the Mission and I didn’t know. I loved that shirt until she told me it was charity. And you got so mad that you punched her. Bloodied her nose.”

“Sprained my thumb, too.” 

“Which one?” he asked.

I held up my right hand and wiggled my thumb. He took my palm in his fingers, lifted my thumb to his mouth and kissed it softly. The hairs from his beard tickled my skin and I flushed. His gentleness always surprised me, even after all these years. I don’t think he realized how much power those touches held—how he was always one sweep of my hair or grazing of fingertips away from undoing me; how all my carefully constructed defenses couldn’t withstand a kiss on the forehead. And I could never let him know so I had to look away. I watched my little door from the corner of my eye. Its shifting light made the shadows long and lean and dancing. A familiar voice inside my head whispered: you shouldn’t want him, he’s not for you. I thought of that voice as a fog. It settled over me often. Warned me away from things that might hurt me. Reminded me of who I had to be in moments when I was tempted toward some other life that was never mine and never could be. 

Carver placed my hand back on my knee and said, “That’s why I should have kissed you first. I’d been saving it for a decade, at least.”

“You’re not going to let this go, are you?”

“Do you want me to?” he asked.

“It don’t matter what I want.”

“Of course it does,” he said, half laughing. “Whoever told you it don’t matter?”

“The world told me.” I rubbed my hands across my face to try to chase the fog away. “I don’t want to go to work tomorrow, but we have bills, so I have to. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life as a grocery clerk but every time I try for something better, I get knocked back. I don’t want Granny to be—to be sick, but she is. Want has nothing to do with any of it.” 

Carver leaned forward until he caught my eye. I didn’t look away that time. His face was so familiar to me even as he changed. We’d known each other since we were seven and nine. I invited Julie home from school with me one day and Carver tagged along, trailing us like a shadow, and Granny had treated them like they were her own. Since then we’d spent our summers in the field behind my house, growing long and gangly and awkward together. Three children who thought nobody wanted them—nobody but each other. 

“It matters what you want,” Carver said. His voice was soft but insistent. “Even if it don’t matter to the world it matters to me.” 

I sighed. 

“So I’m going to say it again. If you want me to, I’ll never mention that kiss. I’ll drop it now and forever. Find me a nice Pentecostal girl and get reformed.” He smiled but he glanced down at my mouth and was slow in returning to my eyes. “All you have to do is tell me so. Is that what you want?”

I almost kissed him again right there but the fog swelled up in me and said, he doesn’t know what he’s saying, he’ll be gone again soon and you’ll be alone. 

“I should get some sleep.” I stood and stepped away from the couch. The room felt colder without Carver pressed against me. 

“You never answered me,” Carver said.

“Didn’t I?” I smiled. “Just sleep on the couch, all right? There’s no use in you driving home this late.”

“I won’t fight you on that.”

“There’s more quilts in the closet there if you get cold. Goodnight, Carver.”

“Goodnight, chipmunk,” he said, toeing off his boots. “And hey—just think. You got one more person on your team now that I’m back. Things can only get better.”

Ashley Blooms is the author of Every Bone a Prayer, which NPR says “bears within its pages striking beauty and strangeness in equal measure.” She’s a graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop and received her MFA as a John and Renee Grisham Fellow from the University of Mississippi. Her fiction has appeared in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons, among others. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Oxford American. She currently lives in Kentucky with her partner and dog. This excerpt is from her forthcoming second novel, to be released in early 2022.  

Read Still: The Journal's interview with Ashley in this issue.

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