The Places We Go Where Others May Not Follow

by Liz Schriftsteller

I’m not allowed in the room at the top of the stairs.

My mother has the only key, and when she goes inside, she goes alone. “What do you keep in there?” I’d ask, but the answer was never the same.

“Books,” she said, “A whole library full of them, with a wingback chair for reading.” Or “Wine,” when I asked again, “Full of exotic vintages and dust covered bottles dating back to the 1900s.”

Each story only piqued my curiosity.

I’d try to steal a glimpse inside, but she slipped through the door too quickly for my eyes. One day I caught a whiff of salt-sea air and the call of a gull before she pulled the door shut. When she came out again a few hours later, her skin was burnt, her kiss salty-sour from limes and tequila. She giggled and sang and let me have ice cream for dinner.

My father was not amused.

He argued with her in hushed tones after he put me to bed. Angry whispers crept down the hall, farther than he intended.

“You can’t keep doing this, Sharon.” He hissed her name, like a tea kettle about to burst. I listened at the door, waiting for her answer.

“Don’t be so dramatic. She barely even notices.”

I notice. You’re up there every day, and for longer each time.”

“You’re one to talk.” Her voice hitched, from a hiccup or sob, I couldn’t tell which. “When was the last time you spent an evening home with your family? I’ll be home late, Shar. Gonna stop off with the guys, Shar. You’re not the only one who needs their alone time.”

There was silence, and then a murmuring I could not decipher.

“I’ll stop,” she said.

But she didn’t.

At first, she was gone only a few minutes, popping in and out when she thought she wouldn’t be caught. Minutes stretched into hours. Then one day she went in after breakfast and didn’t come out until dark.

Calling for her proved fruitless. I screamed until my voice was hoarse but she either couldn’t hear me or didn’t care. In any case, she never came.

I was reading at the foot of the staircase when at last the door burst open. She vaulted down the stairs and scooped me up her arms in a tight embrace. I squirmed against her wet cheeks, protesting. When she finally let me go, I could see her hair held flecks of grey. On her face, a scar I’d never seen before, cut deep into her chin, already white with age.

The door to the room hung open, its gaping maw bearing down on me from the top of the upper landing. I couldn’t see much beyond the door, except for a lone cardinal that darted across a clear blue sky.

The question of what lay behind the door consumed me. Every day I interrogated my mother regarding its contents. Her lies grew more outlandish until at last her patience wore thin.

“Inside is a house just like this one, except backwards, like a mirror. I have a daughter there, who’s just like you, but better, because she never asks me questions and always does as she’s told.”

I grimaced. “Well, why don’t you stay there forever then, if she’s so much better.”

“I have,” she said, her eyes wide. “In fact, I’m not even me, I’m the mother from the other side, trying desperately to get back to my loving family, and away from you.” She snapped closed the book she was reading and stuck it under her arm, heading for the top of the stairs.

My father and I watched her go. “She doesn’t really have another family in there, does she?” I asked, once the door was shut behind her.

He took a sip of whisky, swirling the ice in his glass in lieu of comment.

“I mean, she clearly doesn’t want one family, I can’t imagine she’d have another.”

His lips curled into a smile in spite of himself.

“What do you think is in there?”

“Dreams,” he said, after another long pull from his glass. “That’s where she keeps her dreams.”

I stared at him, not knowing where to begin. I’d always assumed the room was hers and hers alone, but another thought emerged, a question I had never asked.

“Have you ever been inside?”

He smiled. “I’m one of the few things she ever let out.”

We sat in silence for a long time after that, more questions than answers swirling through my head. I begged my father to let me stay up until she came out again, but he tucked me into bed against my yawning protests.

That was the last time I saw her.

“We should go after her,” I told my father. “You saw her scar. It’s dangerous, we need to bring her back.”

He shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that. Even if you could get the door open, there’s no telling where it would lead; it takes you where you want to go, not where others have gone.”

“She’ll be there,” I insisted, “Because I want to go where I can find her.”

“Not if she doesn’t want to be found.”

I glared at him.

“Trust me,” he said, “I’ve tried. There are places we go where others may not follow. She’ll come back when she’s good and ready.”

I’ve been good and ready these last three years, but the door has stayed shut.

Tonight, there is a new door at the end of the hall. I don’t remember seeing it before, but unlike my mother’s room, this door is unlocked. I hold the knob and look over at my father’s crumpled frame, asleep in front of the TV and clutching his empty whisky glass.

We all retreat in our own ways, and I am no exception. 

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