Hi my name is Ellie and I’m six years old and my closet door is broken. My best friend Zera lives in your world and I visited her all the time, and sometimes I got older but turned six again when I came back, but that’s okay. Can you please fix the door so I can play with Zera?
Zera packs lightly for her journey: rose-petal rope and dewdrop boots, a jacket spun from bee song and buttoned with industrial-strength cricket clicks. She secures her belt (spun from the cloud memories, of course) and picks up her satchel. It has food for her and oil for Misu.
Her best friend is missing and she must find out why.
Misu, the palm-sized mechanical microraptor, perches on her seaweed braids, its glossy raindrop-colored feathers ruffled in concern.
Misu says, But what if the door is locked?
Zera smiles. “I’ll find a key.”
But secretly, she’s worried. What if there isn’t one?
I hope you got my last couple letters. I haven’t heard back from you yet, and the closet door still doesn’t work. Mommy says I’m wasting paper when I use too much crayon, so I’m using markers this time. Is Zera okay? Tell her I miss playing with the sea monsters and flying to the moon on the dragons most of all.
Please open the door again.
—Ellie, age 7
Zera leaves the treehouse and climbs up the one-thousand-five-hundred-three rungs of the polka-dot ladder, each step a perfect note in a symphony. When she reaches the falcon aerie above, she bows to the Falcon Queen and asks if she may have a ride to the Land of Doors.
The Falcon Queen tilts her magnificent head. “Have you not heard?” the queen asks in a voice like spring lightning and winter calm. “All the doors have gone quiet. There is a disease rotting wood and rusting hinges, and no one can find a cure.”
Misu shivers on Zera’s shoulder. It is like the dreams, Misu says. When everything is silent.
Zera frowns. “Hasn’t the empress sent scientists to investigate?”
The Falcon Queen nods. “They haven’t returned. I dare not send my people into the cursed air until we know what is happening.”
Zera squares her shoulders. She needs answers, and quickly. Time passes differently (faster) on Ellie’s home planet, because their worlds are so far apart, and a lag develops in the space-time continuum.
“Then I will speak to the Forgotten Book,” Zera says, hiding the tremor in her voice.
The falcons ruffle their feathers in anxiety. Not even the empress sends envoys without the Forgotten Book’s approval.
“You are always brave,” says the Falcon Queen. “Very well then, I will take you as far as the Island of Stars.”
Are you even there? It’s been almost a year for me and still nothing. Did the ice elves get you? I hope not. Zera and I trapped them in the core of the passing comet so they’d go away, but you never know.
Why can’t I get through anymore? I’m not too old, I promise. That was those Narnia books that had that rule (and they were stupid, we read them in class).
Please say something,
—Ellie, age 8
Zera hops off the Falcon Queen’s back and looks at the Island of Stars. It glows from the dim silver bubbles that thick in the air like tapioca pudding.
She sets off through the jungle of broken wire bedframes and abandoned armchairs; she steps around rusting toys and rotting books. There are memories curled everywhere — sad and lonely things, falling to pieces at the seams.
She looks around in horror. “What happened?”
Misu points with a tiny claw. Look.
In the middle of the island stands the Forgotten Book, its glass case shattered and anger radiating off its pages.
LEAVE, says the book. BEFORE MY CURSE DEVOURS YOU.
I tried to tell Mom we can’t move, but she won’t listen. So now I’m three hundred miles away and I don’t know anybody and all I want to do is scream and punch things, but I don’t want Mom to get upset. This isn’t the same closet door. Zera explained that the physical location wasn’t as fixed like normal doors in our world, but I’m still freaking out.
I found my other letters. Stacks of notebook paper scribbled in crayon and marker and finger-paint — all stacked in a box in Mom’s bedroom.
“What are you doing with this?” I screamed at Mom, and she had tears in her eyes. “Why did you take the letters? They were supposed to get to Zera!”
Mom said she was sorry, she didn’t want to tell me to stop since it seemed so important, but she kept finding them in her closet.
I said I’d never put them there, but she didn’t believe me.
“We can’t go there again,” Mom said, “no one ever gets to go back!” and she stomped out of the kitchen and into the rain.
Has my mom been there? Why didn’t she ever tell me? Why did you banish her too?
What did we do so wrong we can’t come back?
Zera’s knees feel about to shatter.
“Why are you doing this?” Zera grips an old, warped rocking chair. “You’ve blacked out the Land of Doors, haven’t you?”
YES, says the Book. ALL WHO GO THERE WILL SLEEP, UNDREAMING, UNTIL THE END.
Zera blinks hard, her head dizzy from the pressure in the air. “You can’t take away everyone’s happiness like this.”
NO? says the Book. WHY NOT? NO ONE EVER REMEMBERS US THERE. THEY FORGET AND GROW OLD AND ABANDON US.
“That’s not true,” Zera says. “Ellie remembers. There are others.”
Zera pushes through the heavy air, reaching out a hand to the Book. “They tell stories of us there,” Zera says, because Ellie used to bring stacks of novels with her instead of PBJ sandwiches in her backpack. “There are people who believe. But there won’t be if we close all the doors. Stories in their world will dry up. We’ll start to forget them, too.”
WE MEAN NOTHING TO THEM.
Zera shakes her head. “That’s not true. I don’t want my best friend to disappear forever.”
I don’t know why I bother anymore. You’re not listening. I don’t even know if you exist.
It’s been awhile, huh? Life got busy for me. High school, mostly. Mom got a better job and now we won’t have to move again. Also I met this awesome girl named LaShawna and we’ve been dating for a month. God, I’m so in love with her. She’s funny and smart and tough and kind — and she really gets me.
Sometimes she reminds me of Zera.
I asked Mom why she kept my letters.
She didn’t avoid me this time. “I had a door when I was younger,” she said, and she looked so awfully sad. “I was your age. I met the person I wanted to stay with forever.” She let out her breath in a whoosh. “But then the door just… it broke, or something. I tried dating here. Met your father, but it just wasn’t the same. Then he ran off and it was like losing it all again.”
I told LaShawna about Zera’s world. She said she didn’t want to talk about it. I think maybe she had a door, too.
I was so angry growing up, feeling trapped. You know the best thing about Zera? She got me. I could be a girl, I could be a boy, and I could be neither — because that’s how I feel a lot of the time. Shifting around between genders. I want that to be OK, but here? I don’t know.
The thing is, I don’t want to live in Zera’s world forever. I love things here, too. I want to be able to go back and forth and have friends everywhere, and date LaShawna and get my degree and just live.
This will be my last letter to you, Gatekeeper.
If there was one thing Zera and I learned, it’s that you have to build your own doors sometimes.
So I’m going to make my own. I’ll construct it out of salvaged lumber; I’ll take a metalworking class and forge my own hinges. I’ll paper it with all my letters and all my memories. I’ll set it up somewhere safe, and here’s the thing — I’ll make sure it never locks.
My door will be open for anyone who needs it: my mom, LaShawna, myself.
The Book is silent.
“Please,” Zera says. “Remove the curse. Let us all try again.”
And she lays her hand gently on the Forgotten Book and lets the Book see all the happy memories she shared with Ellie, once, and how Ellie’s mom Loraine once came here and met Vasha, who has waited by the door since the curse fell, and Misu, who befriended the lonely girl LaShawna and longs to see her again — and so many, many others that Zera has collected, her heart overfilled with joy and loss and grief and hope.
In return, she sees through space and time, right into Ell’s world, where Ell has built a door and has her hand on the knob.
“Ell,” Zera calls.
Ell looks up, eyes wide. “Zera?”
“Yes,” Zera says, and knows her voice will sound dull behind the door. “I’m here.”
Ell grins. “I can see your reflection in the door! Is that the Book with you?”
The Book trembles. SHE REMEMBERS.
Zera nods. The air is thinning, easing in her lungs. “I told you. Not everyone forgets.”
I would like to see LaShawna again, says Misu.
VERY WELL, says the book. THE CURSE WILL BE REMOVED.
Ell turns the handle.
Bright lights beams into the Island of Stars, and Ell stands there in a doorway, arms spread wide. Zera leaps forward and hugs her best friend.
“You came back,” Zera says.
“I brought some people with me, too,” Ell says, and waves behind her, where two other women wait.
Loraine steps through the light with tears in her eyes. “I never thought I could come back…”
Misu squeaks in delight and flies to LaShawna.
Zera smiles at her friends. Things will be all right.
“We have a lot of work to do to repair this place,” Zera says. She clasps Ell’s hands. “The curse is gone, but we have to fix the doors and wake the sleepers. Are you ready?”
Ell grins and waves her mom and girlfriend to join her. “Yes. Let’s do this.”