83% of the Votes = WINNER!
Three worlds. One rule. She must never open a door.
Before Maella’s father died, he made her promise to never, ever open a door.
Maella still didn’t understand why THOSE were his last words to her.
She knew the family rule. She had kept her promise even as the people she loved broke it.
Her cousin had fixated on a medicine cabinet and opened it to a starry void that sucked him away. A car dashboard had mesmerized her aunt and she’d brushed it open to an angry swarm of wasps. She died from an allergic reaction after swelling up to twice her size. Her uncle had been in a depression for weeks while house-sitting for a neighbor, and then he opened the fridge door. A tiger had dragged him into a humid jungle, neither cat nor uncle seen again.
Her older brother had gone through a door before she’d been born.
No one talked about why or what happened next. Only that he disappeared.
She lived with her mother, her grandmother, and her little brother now. They were all who remained of the family, but Maella didn’t dwell on it. Well, she did, but only at night, when the darkness created its own form of privacy, since there was no door to her bedroom after all.
The lack of privacy bothered her more than it used to, but on days when her little brother’s noise and her mother’s demands and her grandmother’s guilting became too much, she escaped to the overgrown field behind the house. No one could see her there. It was the closest thing she had to a closed door.
The field backed up to a creek that ran dry most of the year—but not now, in the spring.
She sat on a decomposing oak log and faced the door in the field. She always faced the door in the field, even on days like today when the grass was tall enough to hide it. The door was a black hole of decay and death and magic and magnetism.
“Maaaaeeeelllllaaaaaa,” a voice shouted.
Maella stood on top of the log and waved her hands. “Over here, Claritsa!” She was tall enough to see the stalks of grass shift as Claritsa made her way through the dilapidated field.
Claritsa came crashing out onto the flattened space around the log, stirring up lizards and pollen and mold. Her dark, braided hair whipped around her shoulders. Her thick bangs were just a little too long, but she had screamed bloody murder when her mother tried to cut them. “It’s the latest style in Hollywood,” Claritsa had said later to Maella.
Maella’s mouse brown hair clung to her head in tight curls. She’d been born that way. She knew that because her grandmother always brought up this troubling fact when Maella acted rude.
Claritsa stumbled on a clump of crab grass, caught herself, and collapsed on the log. Between gulping breaths she said, “Cheyanne’s got a new bike...it’s red and has a basket on front…and these bars on the back for someone to stand on…she said she would take us around!”
“Let’s go see it!” Maella jumped from the log, squished her shoes in mud, there had been a light rain the night before, and ran away laughing while Claritsa yelled for her to wait.
Outside of Maella’s family, only Claritsa knew about her family’s door problem—Maella long ago gave up on making excuses for why she would never open any of Claritsa’s doors. But bicycles were safe, and Cheyanne, even though she was much older, always wanted to play with the two of them. Everyone on the lane knew Cheyanne had brain problems, but her family had no money to name it, or do anything about it and none of that mattered to Maella.
Maella raced through the grass and heard Claritsa’s steps behind her. Morning dew still clung to the stalks and transferred to their bare legs. Claritsa wore Maella’s worn-out skirt; Maella wore Claritsa’s shabby khaki shorts. Instead of two almost non-existent wardrobes, the girls pooled what they had into a single small one.
They made it to the back end of the field, their holey socks soaked, their legs covered in flicks of mud. Cheyanne was close by. People Maella knew didn’t buy things, they bartered or salvaged or did without. She thrilled to the thought of seeing something new, even a bicycle.
Maella veered them away from the section of field where the front door lay.
When the gold her family escaped with had run out and the servants had left, they’d moved into this ramshackle house, and her father hired someone to remove all the doors to the cabinets, drawer faces, bedrooms. They put up screen material as a front door. They lived without a fridge. They were poor. Everyone on their country lane said so.
Her mother had found the front door. It was like discovering a spot of quicksand, or hearing a rattlers telltale warning, or finding a mountain lion’s den and not knowing if mom and cubs were still inside.
The workman had abandoned the door in the field without telling them. Maybe he’d had no room to haul it away, maybe he’d forgotten to take it, maybe he’d left it out of spite for the money Grandmother begrudgingly paid him from the last fold of damp, crumpled bills she kept tucked into her voluminous bra.
Once the door was laid to rest there, it settled in, besieged Maella’s thoughts at night, taunted her with its solidness, its soiled permanence. The family couldn’t move it. They were new to the neighborhood, known as the strange strangers who trashed all their doors, and they dared not hire someone else to remove it for the odd questions it might bring about. They dared not burn it for fear it might spread and take out the field and grove and house and street.
Her father had tried to destroy it. He used a sledgehammer and yet the door remained impervious. He took a saw to it, but her mother feared his fingers lifting the edge of the door—it took so little—and she made him stop. So her father left the door to molder, and made Maella and her little brother promise to never, ever go near it.
Sometimes Maella woke in the middle of the night, so late even the frogs and the crickets and night birds had gone to bed, and pictured the door. Its metal knob a chipped bronze. The wood a discolored, splintering gray. This door should not have been there, but it was. This door haunted her. This door had taken her father.
After all his warnings and stories and promises, one day last summer her father opened that door in the field. Like it was nothing. Like it didn’t matter to him what was on the other side. She’d screamed and run for her mother and found her sitting at the cracked metal breakfast table, crying over her eggs and coffee.
“He had to, Maella.” Tears streamed down her red face and between her small breasts and behind her faded cotton dress.
“Why?” Maella demanded.
Her mother shook her head and bowed it. The only sound for a long minute was the drips from the kitchen faucet. “To keep us safe.”
She would not utter another word of explanation.
That evening Maella took a broken golf club to all the windows on the first floor of their two-story house.
Her brother watched with his fist jammed in his mouth for comfort, and her mother slapped her, but her grandmother folded her to her bosom, and then took in her mother as well. All three of the women cried, and no one talked about fixing the windows because everyone knew there was no money. But her mother did not speak about blame.
They never talked about what happened. Sometimes her mother still cried over her eggs, and this past winter’s cold flowed effortlessly through the screens they’d hung up to keep out the bugs. It reminded Maella every day that her father had ignored all his promises and gone through a door. She would never forgive him for that, or herself for breaking the windows in a temper. Her grandmother didn’t complain, but though they lived in not-quite the desert, the winter was cold and they used the last of Grandmother’s folded bills to buy extra firewood, and their wouldn’t be money to cool the house once the summer heat waves came.
Maella hated that door in the field, how beautiful flowers had grown up around it, how it lay there rotting. How it taunted her. How no one trusted her enough to explain what really happened when someone stepped through a door. Her father wasn’t dead, she knew that, but her mother and grandmother kept everything else a secret.
Claritsa caught up and cut in front.
Maella ran faster to escape the dark turn of her thoughts and followed Claritsa through a grove of trees.
Their favorite path included a bridge of step-stones Maella had positioned so they might cross the creek without getting their feet wet. They galloped across the stones, but then Claritsa froze on the last one.
Maella slammed into the back of her, sprawling them both forward onto the bank and shooting sand into the folds of their skin.
“Claritsa!” Maella said, exasperated.
“Maella.” There was a warning note in Claritsa’s voice.
Maella looked up and into Bart’s glittering stare. Jack and Brandon stood just behind him. Bartholemeau Hedrick and his buddies had dropped out of high school to help run his father’s prescription drug business. Her mother made her promise to never go near Bart, but dealt some sort of business with him every week. Her mother didn’t trust her enough to say what kind of business, even though Maella KNEW she was ready to understand.
Jack was Bart’s shadow, but Brandon had been nice to Maella on occasion. He had even brought over a baked casserole from his mother after the lane gossiped about her father’s abandonment.
“Well, look at this,” Bart said. He sneered and wiped his nose on his arm.
Claritsa jerked her skirt down to better cover her legs and stood up. Maella stood up next to her.
Bart’s plaid shirt was rolled at the sleeves and hung over a shredded pair of jean shorts. The other two boys matched him for shirts and shorts—Jack’s a sickly yellow plaid, Brandon’s a muted green. The boys looked burnt from too much sun, except they weren’t really boys anymore. Hair covered their limbs, muscle roped their arms, their shoulders were broad.
“We’re going to see Cheyanne,” Maella said with a confidence she did not feel. “Let us through, Bart.”
He laughed and shook away dirty blonde hair from his eyes. “That retard? Why you bother with her?”
“She’s our friend!” Claritsa said.
Anger flushed Maella’s cheeks. No one got away with making fun of Cheyanne. “Maybe you should look in the mirror sometime,” Maella said. “That way you know what a real retard looks like.”
Maella knew it was a stupid comeback as soon as the words left her mouth. She hunched her shoulders and scowled. Claritsa squeezed her hand.
Jack guffawed. Brandon shook his head. Bad move.
“Yeah, oh, I’m sooo sorry.” Bart rolled his eyes. “That cut so deep you know. I feel terrible, just terrible. You’ve made me see the error of my ways. And I feel so bad about myself.” Light glinted in his eyes. “You know what would make me feel better, Claritsa? A kiss.” He grabbed Claritsa around the arms and lifted her to his chest.
Claritsa screamed. Maella launched herself at Bart, kicking and clawing. Sand flew into the air.
His muscles were like taut ropes and did not budge until Maella sunk her teeth deep into his forearm.
Bart yelped, dropped Claritsa, shook off Maella, and swore. “You’re going to pay for that.”
“They’re just kids, man, we’ve got better things to do,” Brandon said.
This offended Maella more than if the boys had hurled horrible insults. She gritted her teeth. She was not just a kid. She’d gotten her period six months ago and knew Claritsa had started three months before.
“Whose side you on?” Bart demanded. “She has to pay.”
“Yeah,” Jack said. He crossed his arms, trying to look tough.
Maella couldn’t help herself. “Jack Corder, you look like a clown in that shirt. Is that why you dropped out of school, to join the circus? I bet they wouldn’t take you though, would they?”
Jack’s meaty hand snaked out and slapped her, sending stars across her eyes. Her mother always warned her to stop running at the mouth, but Grandmother said she was too pig-headed to learn any way but the hard way.
“Stop that!” Claritsa yelled. She dragged Maella backwards into the creek. Maella stumbled over a rock and they both fell. The creek water soaked their clothes and made goosebumps stand up on Maella’s skin.
The boys stood in a line along the water’s far edge, Bart with his arms crossed, Jack huffing and red in the face, Brandon looking disturbed.
“Run?” Claritsa whispered into her ear.
Maella tensed her muscles.
“Come here, girl. You’re gonna take what’s coming to you.” Bart took one step into the water.
“Run!” Maella screamed.
The girls scrambled across the rocks and through the water. They made it the other side and dashed back through the grove of trees. Claritsa pumped her thin legs next to Maella’s.
Maella heard the stomp of shoes behind them.
They were following.
If they could make it to the house…Bart was afraid of Grandmother. She would send the boys packing.
Maella felt a push. She felt a sickening sense of imbalance and then sprawled on the ground. Her hands burned from hitting something sharp in the weeds. She tried to stand, but buckled under the pain from her knee. Blood welled up from it. Her heart beat out of control and a loud wind filled her ears. Claritsa tumbled down a few feet away. She saw blood on Claritsa’s cheek.
Bart came around and cut off their escape route to the house. Maella felt Brandon and Jack close in behind them.
“Haha, look at that,” Bart said.
He pointed at Maella’s chest.
She looked down and saw the water had plastered her pale blue shirt to her skin. Her training bra had been too soiled to wear today. They had to wash everything by bucket because her family didn’t dare own a washer and dryer with lids. Even she could see the dark pokes her nipples made. She wanted to die, just die. She would never live this down, Bart would make sure of it.
“Come here, baby girl,” Bart said, a scary smile on his face. His hands formed a coaxing motion. “Don’t want to catch cold now. Let me help you with that.”
Claritsa huddled against Maella’s back and whimpered. No one could see them, not with the tall grass stalks in the way. When Maella looked to Brandon for help he avoided her eyes. Jack looked like he was enjoying himself. Maella wanted to wring his neck like Grandmother did in the chickens they ate for holiday dinners.
“Jack, grab Claritsa,” Bart said.
Claritsa made a furious dash away.
Bart grabbed for Maella and caught the edge of her shorts, tripping her to the ground again. She tried to scramble away and felt a hard edge underneath her hands. Splinters of wood shot into her palms.
Jack dragged Claritsa back, pushed her down next to Maella, and sat on their legs. The smells of wet mud and broken grass stalks and sweaty skin filled their punched down section of weeds.
Maella had never been this close to the door. She had never dared touch it before.
Bart’s hand slithered up along the inside of Maella leg. She flinched and tried to jerk away, but Jack’s oppressive weight kept her frozen in place.
“Hold still, girl,” Bart said. His voice dropped low. “I only want a little feel. It won’t hurt much.” His grip was like iron on her leg and his fingers burned her. She felt her breakfast roil in her belly and tried to force herself to throw up on him, but the food wouldn’t come out.
Jack put his hand on Claritsa’s skirt. She cried out.
Something ripped Bart’s hand away from Maella. Brandon barreled into him in a blur of motion and kept going until he took out Jack too.
“What the hell, man?” Jack yelled.
Brandon didn’t stop until all three lay sprawled on the ground.
Bart threw off Brandon’s leg, jumped up, and gave Brandon a savage kick in the belly.
Brandon grunted, but kept Jack pinned beneath him.
“Yo Brandon, you shouldn’t of done that,” Bart said.
“Get gone!” Brandon yelled at Maella and Claritsa.
Bart kicked Brandon again and brushed dirt off his shirt like this all was no big deal.
Maella dragged Claritsa away. Bart cut off their route.
The girls took backward steps until they stood on top of the door.
If they split up and ran, they might make it to Grandmother. They might make it. She wouldn’t have to break her promise. Even if they did make it, Maella knew they would face Bart again, and again. If they ran now, it would confirm she was still just a kid. If they ran to Grandmother and she sent the boys away, Maella would be no better than her little brother—helpless, too little to handle the real world, doors and all.
But even as Maella thought it—she knew they wouldn’t make it in time. She feared what Bart might do next especially with Brandon gasping for air on the ground. She could still feel Bart’s hand on her skin. How wrong it felt, how dirty.
Maella grabbed Claritsa’s hand. “You gotta help me open the door.”
Claritsa tore her tear-streaked gaze away from Bart and focused on Maella. There was anger there, coldness. Maella shivered and felt glad the anger wasn’t meant for her.
A question rose in Claritsa’s eyes, but then she extinguished it and nodded. Maella wanted to hug her.
Bart took another step, fat hands reaching out.
“Now!” Maella yelled.
The girls sprang off the door. Maella grabbed the doorknob and pulled. Claritsa grabbed the edge of the door and pushed up.
Bart laughed. “What the hell? What you think that piece of wood’s gonna do? You gonna hide like a bug under a rock?”
The door was heavy, almost unmovable, but all she needed was enough space to fit in between.
The door’s edge lifted a few inches.
Maella waited for something to fly out and swallow her. All the adults in her life had made her promise never to open a door because she was too young to understand the dangers, even as they turned the knob and invited themselves into danger’s living room.
Maella waited for something to happen. A wave of water, an explosion of fire, a pile of snakes, her father and older brother waiting on the other side, laughing at the joke they’d played on her all these years.
Darkness and silence greeted her.
Maella slithered halfway under the gap in the door and held up its edge with her back, straining her calves. A cool, humid breeze brushed her face. She still couldn’t see anything. She tugged on Claritsa’s muddied skirt. Claritsa let go of the door and scrambled onto all fours next to Maella.
Half their bodies were still in sunlight, half in the dirt under the door, and Maella feared for a moment that’s all it was—dirt and darkness and bugs.
Maybe there was something wrong with her.
Maybe the power the rest of her family had wouldn’t work for her.
The door lifted off their backs.
“Maella,” Claritsa whispered, frantic.
Bart stood above them, holding up the door, framed by a sun so bright it hurt Maella’s eyes.
She felt around with her hand, desperate for anything other than dirt and dampness and slimy worms.
She felt a lip, an edge of dirt.
She pushed her hand out past the lip and felt only emptiness.
Maella grabbed Claritsa’s hand. “Don’t let go of me.”
Claritsa squeezed back.
Maella rolled off the edge and broke the promise she made her father.
Before she had time to feel afraid, before the darkness consumed them, Maella saw the look of shock on Bart’s face.
They thought she was too young, but now they would know better.
The Valley of Wonder and Blood
A young woman searches out the wonder-bombs to make her people safe, but their problems are larger than she could have ever imagined.
Minha drank in the bright morning sun as it hit and warmed her skin. She wore only an old t-shirt dropped from the sky long ago in a box of supplies from some machine that flew during the old war times. Her linen pants were brown and faded, but durable and comfortable. It was important on the mornings when she might die to dress comfortably. She did not want her last thoughts to be about how tight the cloth cut into her waist or constricted her chest.
The dew on the grass sparkled in the light and she breathed in deeply. One breath in, three steps walking. One breath out, three steps walking. Her feet, covered in thin cloth with no soles, caressed the damp soil. She did not hesitate, but she did not rush the steps either. One breath in, three steps walking. One breath out, three steps—
It was not that she had stepped on it. It was not that she could see it.
Yet, this was why the farmers and villagers and town council called on her again and again. Her mind could find it, as if it sent electrical signals, like tendrils that crawled out to find her when her foot hugged the soil with each three steps and each breath.
This mindfulness, this peace, entered every step of her and she did not think about the past or the future, but only the present moment. The fullness of the crisp wire, the pleasant wetness of the dew, the tickling warmth of the sun as it kissed her cheek, the astonishing green of the well-tended fields, the wild beauty of the fallow ditches and abandoned places where nature had taken over, and where her people dared not wander in case the scars of old wars were ready to create a fresh scar of dark soil and darker blood.
“There is one here,” she spoke to the air, but also to those who waited for her a hundred meters away in case today she was not mindful enough. “Please stay back.”
She said this without turning her head or thinking about much more than a flash of those people. Her friends, her fellow wonder-seekers.
She breathed in again, long and deep, but did not take three steps. She breathed out again, long and deep, and smiled.
Yes, it was there, only a meter from her left foot, hidden in a pocket that a log and a wild woody plant had created. A hint of grayness that did not match the grey of nature. Maybe once it had been covered so deeply she may not have found it. Maybe in the last day or two an animal had thought to dig its burrow in the safety of the log and disturbed the soil, strewn its dark loaminess in between the plants that had grown around the log like a shield, nursing themselves on its decomposition of nutrients. And then the animal had smelled the darkness of the little bomb and abandoned its works in search of a better place.
But now a farmer wanted to clear this land to plant more food for his family and village, and it must be made safe so that he and his children and his wife and his grandmother did not lose parts of their body while growing the food they needed to survive.
Minha allowed herself these thoughts always in this transition moment, to live in the fullness of her purpose, and then she gently eased these images and thoughts over, not away, only to the side, so they would not interfere with her next steps.
She crouched on her heels and rested her palms onto the soil. She felt its coldness, smelled the organic foliage, smelled the sharp sent of metal and powder and the death the little bomb held.
She breathed in again and counted to three.
Hanth had died last week in the morning. While uncovering the wonder of one bomb he had stepped on another.
Minha lost control of her count and snapped out a breath. She pressed her hands too far into the soil and recoiled onto her heels.
These thoughts would not do.
She practiced breathing again, now only her heels touching the soil, until she regained control and Hanth’s beautiful smile and merry brown eyes faded to the side.
She reached for the soil again with her palms. She focused on her breathing and counting. She listened to the chirp of birds and allowed it to cover her brain. She felt the warmth of soil and allowed it to cover her heart. She tasted the sweetness of the air and allowed the wonder of it to fill her lungs.
When she had gained full control over her body and her mind and felt for one last time the joy of life and all that her senses allowed her to experience, she walked to the little bomb on all fours, always asking permission from the earth to take the next step.
A breeze dried the hint of sweat that had broken on her forehead.
She took a moment to thank the breeze for providing her with such pleasure in what might be her last moments on earth.
When she reached the log, she saw the little bomb now in its alien yet familiar shape. She pressed the stalks down away from it, asking the plants to understand her situation and bend for her instead of break so that when she was done they could continue their lives.
With the practice of hundreds of other times, she withdrew one palm from the soil and stems and took out her leather wrap of tools. She unwound the tie and unfolded the wrap and laid out this precious set of instruments that allowed her to do her work. A few metal hooks and probes, nothing more, yet everything she needed to leave this place alive and better off for her visit.
She set to work—careful, methodical, meditative. Her senses now put aside everything except for the wonder of this little bomb. She catalogued the texture of the metal, the percentage of rust, where the outer shell had cracked and whether the interior had been exposed to the elements.
When she felt satisfied with its age, intactness, shape, and smell, she set to work, first using one probe, and then another. She worked quickly, springing open the case, removing the death trigger.
Once this was done, once she was sure, she stood up.
The people behind her shouted in thankfulness but did not come running. There might be more she had not yet found.
She used the moment to stretch her back and arms and legs.
She used this moment to breathe.
She gathered up her pouch, set the tools back in order, pocketed the death trigger in a different pouch, pivoted, and crouch-walked across the same spaces she had already made, both to protect the plants and insects and because this was the time, afterward, after the intense mindfulness, when she became least mindful and so she needed to go back through a way that was sure.
When she arrived at the road, she looked at the small group of people huddled by a tree she had made safe only just last week while Hanth had been trying to make another part safe and had died in his attempt. The group of five waved at her and she waved in return.
The little bombs always found her and she had always yet lived and she would not change any of it. She wished the little bombs did not exist at all.
When they found her, those little wonder-bombs, she lived in the moment like nothing else in her life allowed. During those times she would wish them to go on forever.
She hated herself for this other wish.