I stand in a room that’s painted black, a long row of doors in front of me. Every door has a mural. I walk, studying them. It seems the only way out is through, and I feel as if I won’t get to make a second choice.
One of them shows a girl with a heart-shaped locket. She’s not wearing it. She’s holding it up. I choose this door but can’t figure why. Stepping through, I'm–
I plummet to the ground. Hard.
I’m beside a tree, carved with a heart and string, like a necklace. Way above is a treehouse. I fell from there, except I was never in a treehouse.
I’m in a backyard, long abandoned. There’s a worn, wooden fence all around. I knock on the sliding doors. No answer. I slide one open and step in.
It’s obvious nobody lives here. Everything’s cardboard. Not joking. I’ve seen these before in furniture stores, like… cardboard TVs sitting on dressers. But this place has cardboard counters and appliances.
A sign on the fridge reads, “Wear protection. ~Ben.”
I walk to the only other room: a cardboard living room. A heart-shaped locket hangs near a set of keys, just by the front door. It stirs a memory, but I pass it, and step outside.
A fence sits with an open gate. A heart-shaped lock hangs over a note.
“Lock-et or lose it. ~Ben”
I don’t know Ben, but when we meet, I feel like I’ll want to smack him for that typo.
Ahead is a dystopian, junkyard housing city, empty for decades. Maybe centuries. It’s what would happen if urban decay met a trailer park and you added makeshift things over time.
I cross the street and step into this architectural wonder. A housing office, boarded up, has a silver ball glued to the plywood. It looks like the kind used in boules. A friend of mine talked about that game. I forget who.
I walk over and place my hand around the ball, trying to remember which friend–
It ports me to a room, surrounded by memorabilia. I can see out windows that have no glass. I’m still in Dystopian City, but higher up. I peer down. That doesn’t look promising.
Maybe this place holds a clue. I turn and see a bookshelf and a list of titles, but they’re titles of movies, not books. I look near a real TV and there are DVDs, but they hold titles of books, not movies. I know the titles seem famous, but I don’t remember reading or seeing any.
A remote sits on the table, aimed at the TV. I think about, how, in movies… the character always turns on the TV at exactly the right moment to exactly the right channel to find out something important. It’s worth a shot. I walk to the remote and pick it up. I press the button–
This isn’t supposed to happen. Another portal? I can’t see anything, but I’m not in the same place. It’s dank, musty. My eyes adjust from a sliver of light.
It frames what might be a doorway. I walk along the wall. It's moist. I don’t want to see what I’m touching. At the doorway, I push. It creaks open. I step out of a mausoleum to find a cemetery. Yuck.
Directly in front of me is a statue. It’s basically a ballerina with an upturned face. Her arms rise above her, giving the impression of dancing in the moonlight. The statue isn’t tall, and I notice one hand holds a translucent ball. The last ball I touched teleported me. I don’t want to do that again. Well, wait. I’m in a graveyard. Yes, I do. I step on the statue base and grasp the ball. Nothing happens.
Of course not. Nothing works the way I want it. I step off the base and leaves rustle. I notice words on the stone at my feet. I kneel and brush off the placard. “We tried to watch over you, but you chased the moon. Watch over us, Ben. You were taken too soon.”
What the heck? Ben again... Ben is dead, now? What does “chased the moon” mean? I’m not good at puzzles.
Hmm. When I fell out of the treehouse, it was clearly daytime. At the urban-decay city, still daytime. In this graveyard, it is most definitely night. Just my luck. Light filters above me and shimmers on the statue. I stare upward. The full moon edges into view.
I turn to look at the statue in full light, but it’s gone, like she danced off in the moonlight. The base is still there. I see an inscription that would have been under her feet: “The only way out is through. The only way through is out.”
Great. Another puzzle. And I’m stuck in a graveyard. I run my hand over the inscription and feel an indention in the shape of… what is this–
It’s so bright that I squint. I’m staring at the sun, and I don’t like it. Why is it daylight again? I’m lying face up, no idea why. I sit up.
I’m in a treehouse with no roof. It’s quite small. The only thing inside is a chair. I’d tell you if the last treehouse had a chair, but I wasn’t ever in one. I was in a room with doors, then fell out the door. I feel like Alice, except for the cardboard furniture, the dystopian city, and the graveyard.
I look out the little door and I’m several stories high. I will never survive this fall. There are no branches, no wires, nothing as far as I can see to help my descent. All I have is a chair.
Well, the only way through is out. I can’t stay in a four-foot room and starve. I grab the chair like it’s magic, put one hand on each side of the seat, push it out with me, and freefall down in a head-first dive.
Through the door. Out of the treehouse.
What should happen is a crash that plunges my face into the chair and breaks my neck. What does happen is the chair glides to a soft roll and chucks me from it in somersaults that never let me touch the ground. I float several times, bouncing, and end up at sliding doors in a backyard. I’ve been here before. Only, I haven’t.
I don’t even knock this time. I enter a different room, nothing cardboard. It’s laid out with pretend furniture painted in 3-D on the walls. A note is painted on a refrigerator mural.
“Wear protection. ~Ben”
I walk to the exit and realize the locket on the hook isn’t painted. It’s real. And it’s not frilly. It’s kind of steampunk. I slip it around my neck. The doorknob is silver and shaped like a metal ball. I grasp it to see what’s on the other side–
I’m sitting on a chair. At a table.
A girl sits to my left. She looks nice. Another sits directly across. She doesn’t. On my right, a body on the floor lies covered in a sheet.
I look around and see a large room, maybe stone, adorned with what I’d classify as ritual crap. The table, itself, is a large marble ball with a glass top.
The girls notice me.
“She’s awake now! She made it back.” The one on the left says this. She’s surprised, but happy.
The other one sighs, annoyed. “Seems unlikely. How’d you do it? How’d you find the way back?”
I stare at them.
I have no idea who either girl is. I look toward the sheet-covered person.
The nice one speaks. “She didn’t make it.”
“She? What do you mean didn’t make it?” I ask.
The bitch intervenes. “She means she’s dead as a doorknob, you nitwit. We had high hopes for Bentley, too.”
My stomach falls, but I don’t know why.
The nice one talks, again. “I know you were friends…”
“Ugh, why are you so soothing?” The one across from me barks with sarcasm.
I really want to find a ball or a remote to escape this place. I feel around my neck, but there’s no locket.
“She can’t remember. Don’t act like that.” She turns to me. “You were best friends. She went in three days before you and didn’t come out. You went in to find her. It’s normal… when you go in…” She searches for the words. “Once you’re there, you can’t remember why… or the way out. If you do make it out, you can’t remember who you are, who we are. Everything is a big mess, right?”
I slowly nod, scared to admit it.
For the second time, I speak. “She was my best friend?”
I move over to the sheet and turn it down. The girl looks fine to me, but I don’t recognize her any more than the other two. And the voice that comes out of my mouth when I talk is unfamiliar.
I pull the sheet back all the way. “She’s not wounded. Are you sure she’s dead?”
“Of course, she’s dead, you idiot. She stopped breathing yesterday. We only left her there because we figured we’d have to bury you both. No need to dig two holes.”
“Stop it!” The other girl is upset.
I don’t much like the bitchy one either. I’m not sure if she’s a leader or what. They argue and I study this “Bentley” they mentioned.
Was this Ben? Did she leave me the notes? She looks at peace. I stare at her, hard. I touch her skin and recoil. It’s room temperature.
I don’t know how to process this. I don’t know if this is real, if the other part was, or if this might be one more place I need to escape. If it is, the only way out is through, or through is out. I don’t even know what that means except to keep moving forward.
I glance at Ben’s left hand. It’s clenched shut.
The girls bicker.
I brace myself to feel a room-temperature hand and I open her fingers.
She holds a locket: the steampunk, heart-shaped locket. I discreetly pull it to me, as it might somehow help me escape a situation I can’t comprehend.
“It’s going to be okay.”
I turn and see the nice one smiling at me. “She wanted you to have it.”
I play dumb.
“The locket. She wanted you to have it. It will bring you peace. As far as answers, your memory will start to put things together. It takes time. This happens every time you go in, every time each one of us goes in. That’s why two of us always have to stay out, no matter what. It’s the only way.”
“I don’t understand.”
Bitch speaks. “Of course not, dipshit. That’s the point. We always need two people here because… anyway, we’re down to three again. That sucks. The end of the world really made replacements harder to find.”
“Why are you so mean?” I ask.
“Why are you so stupid?”
“I’m not stupid. I just can’t make sense of anything.”
“Poor Alice. Poor sweet Alice. Up is down and in is out–“
“Is that my name?”
She laughs. “Of course not. Why would that be your name?”
“How long until this all makes sense?”
“Does life ever make sense?” She rolls her eyes.
The nice one gently nudges her arm. “Hey, come on already. Stop it.”
I take my place at the table again and stare at them.
“I don’t want any part of whatever this is. I want out.”
The one across from me chuckles. “That’s what you always say. Every time. We’ve been looking for a way out for centuries.”
She smiles with playful contempt. “Cup of tea?”
About the author
Zephyr Zywick has three books, each #1 New Releases, still Top 20 Best Sellers on after six months, and remain in "Amazon's Top 100 Best Sellers." She is neurodivergent (on the spectrum) and has specialized in short fiction for two decades.