by Gretchen Tessmer
On her knees in a dark, coniferous forest, Mei-Lin Kensington tries to think. Her head is buzzing with white noise. She tries to piece together fragmented thoughts but her mind is hazy, muddled and half-cluttered. When she tries to focus, she can imagine a rainy, ruined tower and her father’s … wait, a black hole, with flickering violet … now slate clouds, little strips of … no, it’s no good. A rainy, ruined tower.
And her name is Mei-Lin Kensington, she knows that. There are solid edges to that thought, but the clumsy fingers in her mind can’t reach them, already it tumbles, slips and slides like a glass of water spilling off a table. She stares at the mud-smeared knees of her journeyman’s trousers and the linen sleeves of her tunic, stark white against the rust red of her bloody hands. Blood? She spins her upper body around, muscles tensing.
The first thing she sees is the door. There’s no missing it. It’s a door in the middle of a forest. A red door with white molding and thick hardwood planks. The door isn’t attached to anything. The forest clears on either side of its high-reaching planks. The door’s brass doorknob stares her down. Uneasy, she looks away from it and surveys the rest of her surroundings more fully.
The woods are dusky and dim, all knotted grays and greens, with one wisp of orange light drifting down through a thick canopy above, illuminating the forest eerily. The whole landscape resembles underwater depths, with an uncanny stillness. There’s an absence of breeze and no scurrying and scampering of forest creatures. The forest floor is littered with brown and decaying pine needles, and the lowest branches of the conifers are all bare, gray and skeletal. Beside the door, the wispy orange light glints off a shallow pond of still water.
Crawling to her feet, Mei-Lin strides to the pond immediately, kneeling at the edge and thrusting her bloody hands into the murky water. In her haste, the wrists of both her sleeves are soaked. Long, loose strands of her black hair fall into her eyes but she neglects to push them away.
She scrubs her hands clean manically, using mud from the pond’s edge mixed with fallen needles from the bank. The blood washes away easily, freshly shed and not her own. Her hands are unscathed. She calms a little, her breath coming more evenly. She sits back on the bank and again, tries to focus.
She whispers to herself, “Left to Ellsway, right to elsewhere.” She grimaces, not knowing what her own nonsense means and concerned that the two-line mantra is a sure sign of madness. And that’s when she hears a sound, the first sound in these quiet, dense woods. A bird’s call, soft and carefully mimicked. It doesn’t repeat her words but the same cadence is cooed out in eight syllables. The mockingbird gives the sounds a pathetic quality that Mei-Lin finds fiercely irritating. She glances up in the direction of the noise and glimpses white plumage on the upper doorframe and gray feet tightly gripping the white edge of the coarsely fashioned wood molding.
The bird stares at her, head cocked, and coos again. With a frown, she finds a rock in the undergrowth and throws it at the upper frame, hoping to scare it off. It’s the small victories. The mockingbird flies off with a shrill call of protest in its own scratchy, undeveloped voice.
Mei-Lin rocks back on her heels, her eyes now settled and brooding over the structure before her. She may not know where she is or what she’s doing here, but she can guess where she came from. And she bets anything that it’s on the opposite side of that door.
• • •
“She cut me!” Carter keeps grabbing at his shoulder as Matilda tries to mend it. She slaps his hand away.
“Leave it alone! I have to sew it up … unless you want a scar running the length of your shoulder?” Matilda asks slyly. That shuts him up.
Carter is a vain man and too proud of his appearance. With his tall, elegant stature, pleasing features and thick mane of blue-and-coal-black hair, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be. By comparison, Matilda is short, plump and past her prime. Time has cured her of all vanities. She has no regrets.
She stands on a three-legged stool threading a needle with thick black thread and looks ridiculous next to her tall, handsome son, she has no doubt. But there’s no one else present to see them, so what’s it matter?
They stand in what was once the old kitchen of a lauded manor house. The ownership of the house has recently changed hands and it’s fallen into disrepair in an awful hurry. The once-cheery kitchen now resembles a dungeon, with a fireplace ablaze at one end, steam rising from black pots hung over it, a stone staircase at the other, twirling up and out of the darkness past moldy rafters and old, crumbling pillars. A long trestle table is set up in front of the fire, a bowl of herbs upon it and cages filled with bats and rodents beneath. The bats flutter their wings in the firelight. The mice scurry in the hay-strewn cages.
The room is long and arranged on three different stone levels, leading up to a massive iron door at its center. There are no windows in the room and the light from the fire’s glow flickers unevenly throughout, casting shadows everywhere.
“Next time, don’t run after her and maybe you’ll have better luck catching her.” Matilda bites off the excess thread with her teeth.
“Mother, that door leads to any number of places. There won’t be a next time. She’s gone.” Carter turns his head, grabbing his shoulder and pulling the skin toward him to get a better look at the stitches. They are neatly done but bloody and too black against his skin. Matilda swats his hand away once more.
“Do you want to pull the stitches out!” she bellows. He releases his arm immediately and she hops off her perch onto the stone floor. “Sometimes you can be as stupid as your father, you know that?”
Her footsteps echo across the dais as she approaches the iron door on the other side of the room. Using the carved lion’s head door knocker, she pounds twice. The sound of iron striking iron resonates throughout the room. The door opens a crack, scraping loudly against the stone floor, and a silver-haired man peeks his head out. A violet-colored birthmark in the shape of a roughly drawn gosling covers half his face. His hair is long, stringy and drenched. Rain is falling steadily on the other side of the door.
“Yes, Matilda?” he asks, without opening the door any wider. He sneezes once.
“Carter’s lost the girl again,” she says flatly. “Did she pass your way by chance?”
“No, ma’am,” the man answers, pulling a checkered handkerchief out of his breast pocket before sneezing again. “Haven’t seen anyone in the Ellsway for a good long time. Not since you pushed Cain Kensington out the sky door. He was the last one. But I’ve been watching … day and night, like you said. Even though it’s been raining night and—”
“I hope so,” Matilda raises one eyebrow ever so slightly. “That’s what I’m paying you for.” The silver-haired man mumbles something about his last paycheck or lack thereof. He blows his nose into the handkerchief, loudly.
“Well, go on then!” she shoos him out, ignoring his complaints. “Go earn your wages. And if that girl comes through your door, you keep her close and bring her here immediately, do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the man ducks his head subserviently before pulling the door closed. Thunder rumbles as the lock clicks shut. Carter grabs a white shirt from a brass hook on the wall and pulls it on without washing his arm. Blood seeps through like wine spilled on a white tablecloth. Still infuriated and indignant, he doesn’t notice.
“How do you know she’ll go back through the door?” he demands. “What’s to stop her from taking off in any direction? There are two thousand doors. She could have come out on the side of any one of them.”
“If you were faced with an unknown landscape or a door, which would you choose, my son?” Matilda asks patiently, arms across her ample chest.
“I wouldn’t choose the door,” he answers petulantly. He resents his mother’s patronizing terms of endearment. He’s nearly 30 years old. His opinion deserves some measure of respect. “Not if I’d just come through it.”
“But that’s because you know what’s on the other side,” she replies. “That girl doesn’t remember anything, not even her own name.”
“For now …,” Carter pouts, noticing the blood on his clean shirt at last. “And what happens when she does remember?”
“She won’t,” Matilda uncrosses her arms and walks to the fireplace and trestle table, to her boiling pots and caged animals. “She’ll be dead long before she remembers anything. Because you’ll kill her beforehand just like I killed her father” — she picks up a small paring knife and points it back at him for emphasis — “or you’ll spend the rest of your life on the other side of that door as well.”
“Mother!” Carter protests, looking up from his spoiled shirt only briefly. He whines, “You wouldn’t do it.”
“Just one turn of the lock, my son,” she speaks slowly, dragging a rat out by its tail and slitting its throat in a swift motion. The beast bleeds out into a waiting tea cup. Her thumbnail is scarlet. She looks up at Carter, who stares at her warily.
“You’re still here? Well, I’ll give you to the count of five …”
• • •
Mei-Lin stands motionless before the door in the woods. The mockingbird has returned but remains quiet, as quiet as Mei-Lin, breath even and her eyes alert. That orange wisp of light wraps itself around the water of the pond beside her. The red door beckons. She feels drawn to it. She knows she should open the door.
Her hand stretches out and touches the cold doorknob, heavy, metallic, brass. Her fingers slide around its neck and her wrist tilts slightly, rightward. The mechanism clicks and she imagines a humming. With one strong pull, it will be open … again? This is right, she thinks. This is what I’m supposed to do. Yes?
The mockingbird begins cooing, pitifully. The bothersome bird is mocking her soul now. She glances up at the dowdy creature with a set frown. It stares at her before shuffling its feet slightly and turning its head away from her. With its tail feathers hanging over the door frame, the bird releases its bowels on her outstretched hand.
“Really? You son of a—” Mei-Lin slams the door shut with her palm flat on the planks. The mockingbird nearly laughs, an inhuman laugh, a sound learned from hyenas or vultures in the forest, and flies off deeper into the green woods. Mei-Lin flicks the white junk off her hand and, in a rage, runs after it.
• • •
“But why didn’t you write?” Angelica looks at Carter plaintively, but stronger accusations are forthcoming. She mutters, “You could have written.”
Carter sighs. With infinite doors to infinite places … he ends up in the Hamptons. Of course he does. With Angelica waiting for him. The doors apparently have a sense of humor. The slight girl clings to him, tossing her copper-penny hair with a flirtatious flip. Her hair smells like peaches and passion fruit but Carter has no time for this. He slips out of her clinging arms and shrugs her off.
“Angelica, listen … how about I make it up to you? Let me take you out to dinner? Tomorrow night?”
“Carter, I’m not stupid,” she adopts a petulant expression. “You said that last time and I got all dressed up and you never showed—”
“Yes, but I was lying last time,” Carter points out. “This time it’s for real. You and me, babe. What d’you say?”
Angelica’s pout lessens as she searches Carter’s face for any indication that he’s being insincere. She blinks her dark brown doe eyes once before smiling prettily. Throwing her arms around his neck, she covers his face in a flutter of butterfly kisses, “Oh, Carter! Yes of course. I’ll buy a new dress. We’ll be so beautiful together. The envy of everyone!”
“Yes, we will,” Carter nods his head violently while disentangling himself from her octopus-like grasp. He gives her a couple more million-dollar smiles and says, “In fact, you should go get that new dress right now. Put it on my card. Leave Daddy’s at home this time. Treat yourself to something nice.”
“Oh, I should, shouldn’t I? There isn’t much time.” She kisses his lips once more before leaving, blowing a parting kiss to him with a joyously tearful “I love you, Carter” spoken through trembling lips.
“Love ya too, babe,” Carter gives her a thumbs up. She smiles, he smiles.
As soon as Angelica turns the corner, Carter wipes the grin off his face and steps back through the nice, clean linen closet door he had stepped out of no more than five minutes before.
• • •
Right to elsewhere, left to the Ellsway. Mei-Lin stops short. The woods seem to slow around her. The trees, which have been rushing past her at a breakneck pace, stand still, moaning and creaking in old age and the smallest change of weather. The mockingbird flies off without her. Immediately and obsessively, she presses her free hands to her pockets, pants, shirt, brushing past her chest only in the process. There it is. Hanging around her neck on a short chain. With a sharp pull, she yanks the chain free. A bronze key is clutched in her right hand.
“Oh!” she cries aloud and rushes back the way she came.
• • •
“So there I was, with a pistol in one hand and a hostage in the other and you know what he says to me?” Barnabas could talk a barnacle off an ocean tanker. And Carter is running behind. He waits for the man to answer his own question, twirling his hand to motivate Barnabas to be quick about it. They’re standing on the eastern dock of Picacheque Bay in the Borderlands. It’s quitting time. The silver sea is calm all the way to the horizon and dinner won’t be for another two hours. The short sailor twists his full mustache and takes his time.
“He says, ‘Do your worst.’ It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. I mean the hostage was all crying quarts and acting the part, but this guy. ‘Do your worst.’ Probably straight out of a drugstore penny dreadful. He’s the type to throw good cash money away. I couldn’t believe it. So I laughed and shot a cuff link off his shiny new suit and then pushed the hostage in the Bay. He went right in after the kid, headfirst, new suit, cowboy boots and all. Probably would’ve saved him too, except those ol’ grinning croc-whales were out and you know how—”
“Yes, sounds tragic,” Carter responds politely, before repeating himself. “Now you’re sure you didn’t see a girl pass by here? It wouldn’t have been more than an hour ago your time.”
“Nope, no girly through here. I would’ve remembered that.” Barnabas winks solicitously. Carter waves him off. Blood-orange crab fish, with a dozen legs a piece, jump up and down in the silver water.
“Not that kind of girl. I’m looking for a bounty hunter’s daughter. The half-and-half. Mei-Lin, you remember?”
“Sure, she’s a spitfire. That whole family’s full of spit and fire. What’d you do, lose her?”
“Something like that.”
“Well that’s no good. I’d hate to think how your mother would run her business having to travel between worlds the old-fashioned way. And that girl knows which door needs to be locked to lock them all, doesn’t she?”
“Not anymore. Mother wiped her memory.”
“You know those memory wipes don’t last with the half-and-half. Too much Old blood in their veins.”
“That’s why I’ve got to find her fast.”
“Well, at least she doesn’t have the key, right? That would be a real disaster …”
Carter doesn’t answer, already down the dock, out the door and on his way.
• • •
In the Ellsway, it rains. In the ruins of a stone keep, the old man stands as close to the high stone wall as he can, attempting to escape the better part of the deluge and avoiding an otherworldly hole cut into the center of the tower and leading straight down to nowhere.
The early spring rain keeps pouring, with no notice to his discomfort. He sneezes at least twice every minute, leaning on his staff and pulling the sopping, checkered handkerchief from the pocket of his robes almost as soon as he stuffs it back in. This job isn’t worth the pay. Especially since Matilda has stopped sending him checks.
The old man considers his options. With a face like his, the old man is not going to find honest work just anywhere. The grotesque, gosling-shaped birthmark takes up half his face. A hotel concierge, he is not. Not that Matilda’s brand of employment is all that honest anyway. That whole business with Cain Kensington — well Kensington crossed a shady sorceress, what did he expect? Still, the whole thing feels hollow. Maybe he just needs a holiday. He hasn’t taken one in fifteen years. He’ll talk to Matilda about it once her mood improves.
The old man daydreams. He sneezes. Then he daydreams some more. Soon real dreams take their place. He falls asleep standing up, balanced against his staff and softly snoring.
For the first time in years, the black door across the keep opens.
• • •
Mei-Lin pulls the door closed from the rainy side of the Ellsway and locks it tightly. With a heavy sigh of relief, she sinks down against the door frame, worn out and way out of her element. She’s a bounty hunter’s daughter, sure. And her mother might be a fairy from the underworld beneath Hong Kong. It’s all still a little muddled. Honestly, she found her way here by instinct more than anything else. Without the silly rhyme that is somehow written on the inside of her head, she would have turned the knob right, no question. So she’ll take no credit for herself when she relates this story to others.
The keep is quiet, except for the constant drizzle of rain. The centerpiece of the sky tower spits a little back at the weather but mostly just stays still, its black-and-violet depths simmering sullenly. The high stone walls extend around the tower up, up, up. Other than the door she came through and the hole in the floor, there’s no way out of the tower. Unless a person scaled the walls, maybe? Mei-Lin gives a brief glance up toward where the cinder-colored stones give way to the cinder-colored sky and casually wonders what lays beyond the walls of Matilda’s favorite prison.
Matilda. The witch woman. The shady sorceress. Oh yes, I certainly remember her. Mei-Lin thinks, setting her lips in a firm line.
There’s a silver-haired man standing directly across from her, leaning heavily on his knotted staff. He’s obviously the sentry here, probably charged with orders to kill her upon sight, but he’s currently asleep and seems harmless. Mei-Lin will deal with him if and when it becomes necessary. Not before. She’s not the type to seek out a fight. Especially with an octogenarian plagued with sinus problems.
She lets herself rest for a good half hour, knowing that with the door locked, she’s safe and sound for as long as she wants to be. But Mei-Lin’s old enough to know that a safe life is no life at all. Besides, despite what that witch woman and her vain son believe, Mei-Lin didn’t risk life and limb traveling to the Ellsway so that she could lock all the doors. They underestimate her … and her family.
With her back still braced against the door, she reaches up and unlocks it. Then, with a flick of her wrist, she tosses the key in her hand across the stone floor of the keep. It clatters and skids across the wet floor to the open space in the center, where the sky door opens up to the shimmering, black-and-violet swirling nothingness below. The key slides off the edge and down into the portal like a penny falling into a fountain.
If she knows her father at all — and it’s coming back in bits and pieces, flickers and flashes — he’ll be waiting with open hands to receive it somewhere down below. Other people’s revenge is a bounty hunter’s bread and butter. But Mei-Lin has no doubt that his personal revenge will be a little sweeter and a lot more delicious than plain bread and butter.
While she waits, she turns introspective. Despite making it to the Ellsway in one piece, she thinks she might start carrying a pistol. But where to get one? Picacheque Bay maybe, though dealing with those obnoxious dock workers doesn’t appeal to her. She’ll ask the old man in the keep if he’s got any ideas once he wakes up. She’s willing to trade. She’s got money to fix his face and she could recommend a good plastic surgeon in the Hamptons. She can’t remember the doctor’s name but he’s good. His house has a nice, clean linen closet and he has a thoroughly vapid daughter named Angelica.
Oh yes, it’s all coming back now.
The sky door starts spitting violet sparks. Mei-Lin reaches up and grasps the door knob above her. Someone’s attempting to get in. She holds it fast, unafraid. In thirty seconds, the pursued and pursuer will abruptly switch places. The rattling door knob and the swirling, spitting sky door make quite a bit of noise, and the old man across from Mei-Lin wakes briefly. With sound judgment, he decides to ignore whatever is currently transpiring in the keep and lets himself drift back to sleep.
As soon as Cain Kensington emerges from the sky door, he takes one disapproving look at the slate clouds above him. Chastised, the rain in the Ellsway stops falling immediately.
Still sitting against the door, hands above her head, holding that door knob tight, Mei-Lin grins broadly.
Copyright © 2019 by Gretchen Tessmer