”What a cute, little . . . Aiiiiieeeeee!”— reaction of the first person who tried to pet a koala.

Finding the Doorway

by Mark Allan Gunnells

She had not yet found the doorway, but she continued looking.

Tabitha’s favorite books all involved ordinary children like herself finding hidden doorways to magical and beautiful worlds: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Therefore she was convinced that there must be a doorway somewhere around her house. There just had to be.

But so far she had had no luck finding it. There were no rabbit holes to hop down, and she had once sat in the back of her mother’s closet for three hours but hadn’t ended up in Narnia. That apparently only worked with wardrobes. And she couldn’t very well call up a tornado to come and whisk her away. It appeared she was stuck here.

Not that here was all that bad. Her parents didn’t beat her or starve her; they were actually quite nice. She didn’t have a great many friends, but no one was terribly mean to her at school. Her family wasn’t rich, but they had enough to get by comfortably. There was nothing specific that Tabitha felt she needed to escape from.

Other than a feeling that there must be somewhere even better out there. Life with her parents at 851 Providence Drive was pleasant enough, but it was no Wonderland. Her pet cat, Grouchy, never talked to her, no matter how much she talked to him. She couldn’t fly here, although she had tried by jumping off her bed several times. All she’d ever gotten for her troubles was a banged-up knee. There were no witches, good or bad, and no wizards or elves or fairies or imps or unicorns or flying monkeys or anything of the sort. It was fine here, but it wasn’t special..

She had once seen a movie where a little boy discovered that an entire world of wacky but friendly monsters existed right under his bed. After that, Tabitha had begun sleeping under her own bed. This had alarmed her parents and they’d quickly put a stop to it, but she still checked under there regularly just to make sure she hadn’t missed the doorway.

The summer of Tabitha’s ninth year, she began searching for the doorway with a desperate urgency. She couldn’t say why exactly, but she felt that if she hadn’t found the doorway by her tenth birthday—which was at the end of August—then she would never find it.

Once she had exhausted her exploration of her house and the surrounding yard, she extended her search to the neighborhood around her. The wild rosebushes in front of Old Man Thompson’s house, the small copse of bamboo trees behind the Yeardly Apartment Complex, the small decrepit cemetery behind the Weston Baptist Church. Anywhere she could think a magical doorway might be concealed. Yet her search proved fruitless. The threshold to whatever fantastical world was waiting for her remained elusive.

Midway through that summer, Tabitha’s parents took her to Disney World as a special treat for having made straight A’s the previous school year. Tabitha rode all the rides, saw all the shows, shook hands with Goofy and posed for pictures with Mickey, but all the while she had a secret mission. If Disney was truly the most magical place on earth, then surely there would be a doorway hidden there. In every restroom stall, at every concession counter, on every rollercoaster, Tabitha kept her eyes open for a doorway. As the day waned and the sun said its good-byes to the world, Tabitha became withdrawn and sullen. Her parents chalked it up to the girl being tired, but really Tabitha was crushed with disappointment. If Disney did contain a doorway or two, they were obviously very well hidden and not accessible to Tabitha.

As the weeks progressed toward the inevitable doom of autumn, Tabitha began to wonder if perhaps she was already too old. She no longer believed in Santa or the Tooth Fairy; the Easter Bunny had long since been dispelled as myth. What magic was there left in her life, really? And without the magic of unquestioned belief, could she ever hope to find a doorway? It was beginning to seem less and less likely.

Then, partway through August, her tenth birthday looming mere weeks away, Tabitha rode her strawberry-pink bicycle to the town dump. Her parents had warned her time and again never to go to the dump, that it was dangerous and unsanitary, ensuring that it was the one place in all of town to which she would be drawn.

Tabitha loved to rummage through the detritus of other people’s lives to see if she could salvage anything for use in her own. It was a bit as if she were a pirate in search of buried treasure. She came across the occasional rat, sure, but nothing worthwhile ever came without a little discomfort.

This day in mid-August, Tabitha parked her bike by the fence and wandered through the aisles between mounds of garbage higher than her head. There were also old rusting automobiles out here. Sometimes Tabitha liked to sit in them, pretending that she was older and driving through town in her new wheels. Not today, though. Today she was in search of something a little more spectacular than buried treasure. Today she was in search of a doorway.

She had decided on her way to the dump that this was her last attempt. She was getting too old for this type of foolishness, and if she didn’t find a doorway today then she would stop looking. In church the previous Sunday, the preacher had said something about there coming a time to put away childish things. Perhaps that time had come for Tabitha.

Part of her admitted to herself that this new attitude was false, merely the latest tactic in her quest. Perhaps if endless searching had yielded no results in her pursuit of a doorway, then maybe she would find one if she just stopped looking.

But after the dump. It was the one place in town she had not yet looked. Something about the broken furniture and abandoned appliances did not bespeak of magic, and she couldn’t imagine that a filthy place like this could contain a mystical portal to another world. Then again, perhaps the least conspicuous place was the place where a doorway was most likely to be.

And as Tabitha rounded an old pickup with the driver’s side door missing, she knew that she’d been right. There was a doorway straight ahead.

It was an old refrigerator, standing upright by itself, no other garbage around it. Its door was standing wide open, the inside of the fridge white and sparkling in the sunlight, dazzling Tabitha’s eyes with reflected brightness. It was calling out to her, inviting her inside. It was the wardrobe, the rabbit hole, the tornado, the threshold she’d been looking for all her life.

Tabitha did not hesitate. She ran the distance between herself and the fridge and crawled into the cramped interior. It smelled dank and musty, but it was not unbearable. She grabbed the door and pulled it closed. It did not slam but closed with a soft thwump, sealing off the light and leaving Tabitha alone in a darkness more total than anything she’d ever imagined. It was not merely an absence of light but an annihilation of it, as if light had never existed and never would.

Tabitha became instantly afraid, the rotten-egg smell intensifying in her nostrils now that the fresh air from outdoors had been cut off. She pushed against the door but it would not open. It was as if a person of insurmountable strength were on the other side, holding it closed. She began to scream and cry, kicking at the door in her desperation to be free of the refrigerator’s jaws before it chewed her up and swallowed her whole.

The door would not open. It had swung shut so smoothly and effortlessly, but she could not budge it now. She became aware of a difficulty in breathing, as if the air were thickening, turning into something akin to the sweet molasses her mother poured over her pancakes on Saturday mornings. She screamed for her father, for help, for escape.

She became dizzy, her eyelids beginning to droop. What an inopportune moment to be getting sleepy! But then she noticed that her world was not totally dark anymore. At first she thought perhaps she had managed to kick the door open, but no, she was still inside the fridge. But now the air was filled with little specks of light like fireflies, only smaller and whiter, more brilliant. They buzzed past her, and she was almost sure she heard tiny laughter. A soothing sound, an inviting sound.

And that was when she knew. All her searching had finally paid off. She leaned back and closed her eyes, a smile twirling her lips at the ends. At last she had found the doorway to that other world, and she gave in and stepped through it.

The end

One of anotherealm’s venues is horror. We’ve had tales of ghouls and vampires and wizards; tales of zombies and cannibals and demons; but I think we’d need to go far to find a story as horrifying as this one. What impressed me most was its sudden change from a sweet fairy tale to a fearsome chronicle of one of a parent’s greatest fears. Well done, Mr. Gunnels. Comments to the BBS, please.