When I break down crying behind the wheel on the highway, Ben convinces me to pull over and let him drive me home.
“First time?” he asks, once I’ve stopped crying.
“What do you mean?”
“Was that the first time someone has threatened your life?”
He nods. “I understand.”
“How do you brush it off like this?”
“A lot of people talk shit, but most of them are cowards, that’s why they’re talking and not doing. It’s the quiet busy ones you have to watch out for.”
“Sounds like your dad.”
Ben laughs. “Yeah fair, he told me that one.”
“I’m scared of Jude.”
“I mean, that’s justified. How much do you know about self-defense?”
“Ok, well I’ve been taking classes at the community center, I can teach you some things. First rule is it’s better to run than fight, if you can.”
I laugh nervously and my fear lessens a bit. “We did a great job then.”
“Thanks Ben. Sorry I freaked out.”
“Hey, no need to apologize. I freaked out just as much, but all inside. Like a stealth freakout. It was intense, baby.”
We hold hands the rest of the way to my house. I tell Ben to take my truck back to his place and I’ll ride my bike over in the morning, since it’s Saturday, and we can spend the whole day together. He likes that idea and we say goodbye with several more minutes of making out.
I don’t realize my dad is watching from the front door until Ben finally leaves and I turn around to go inside.
“Doesn’t seem like we’re taking this slow,” Dad says when I reach the front steps. “Kissing boys already?”
I walk past him and go straight down to the basement.
He follows me. “I’m just saying, getting breasts and a boyfriend all in one day, don’t you think that’s a bit much for a sixteen-year-old?”
“Why are you so interested in my breasts?” I snap. “I should’ve had them like four years ago.”
“I’m concerned you’re making permanent decisions before your brain has fully developed.”
“I’m concerned your brain never fully developed!”
It’s a mean thing to say and I regret it immediately, but my head hurts and I desperately want him to leave me alone.
“Okay, Lucas, then you can stay home this weekend and rethink that statement while you help me with yard work.”
He stomps up the stairs and slams the door, leaving me in silence with a throbbing lump on the back of my head and a sudden overwhelming sense of despair. I curl up on the floor where I am and cry on and off for a long time. I feel like I want Jude to hurt me; I imagine him beating me with a rock until we’re both covered in blood.
My phone dings with a text notification. I slowly pull it from my pocket and put it on the floor in front of my face. The message is from Aylen and despite everything, it makes me smile a bit.
Talked to gma about your window portal and goddess experience. She say a spirit visited u bcus ur a sweetie and u deserve it
Is that really what she said?
Ok I paraphrased but basically that’s it
Ily and your grandma
We love u, now how was the park with Ben?
It was nice until Jude showed up
Wat did that asshole do? U ok??
He and his friends threw rocks at us and called us fags
Wtf, I will srsly chew him out on Monday >:(
Don’t, it’s what he wants. Starve the trolls.
Maybe. Sry gotta run, mom’s home
I text Ben that I’ve been grounded for the weekend, and then crawl into my bed and curl up under the blankets.
There may be a cost you don’t expect.
Whatever it is, I don’t care, I’ll pay it.
Did I make a mistake? I don’t think so. My body feels so good and the idea of going back is repulsive to me. But I feel trapped; why do I have to choose between hating myself or being hated by others? It makes life feel like a cruel prank.
I get another text notification and check my phone, expecting a message from Ben. Instead, it’s from a number I don’t recognize and says, “Tranny scum don’t belong in our town, go jump off the brig”. I assume they meant to say bridge.
I turn off my phone, throw it across the room, and cry into my pillow until I fall asleep.
I wake up at midnight again and shiver as I stare at the clock, half expecting to be visited once more by the goddess. Nothing happens and I relax a little. The breathing exercises I learned in therapy are helping, but they can’t shake off the feeling that I’ve been cursed.
The window in my old room, I wonder, is that how she got to me? And if so, did she close the portal when she left? Suddenly I’m gripped with curiosity. If the portal is still there, maybe I can follow her. She seems to come from a place where nobody is expected to be someone they are not, so it can’t be all that bad. And it sounded like she was handling the situation with that scary dude who infected me.
I jump out of bed and turn on the light to find my phone, which is thankfully unharmed after smacking into the wall and then hitting a concrete floor. When I turn it on, I have ten new messages from unknown numbers, which I ignore. Ben replied, and he says he’ll bring my truck back in the morning so he can see me.
Since I cried myself to sleep before dinner, I’m so hungry I can hear my stomach complaining. I grab an old heavy coat, my waterproof boots, and a couple flashlights, then tiptoe upstairs to the kitchen to raid the snack cupboard. The house is dark and silent; I peek outside and don’t see Dad’s car. He must be at Denise’s place tonight.
With a plastic bag full of snacks, I go to my old room and switch on the light. The drill we used to board up the window is on the sill where I left it. Pressing my ear against a board, I listen for a minute. Nothing but silence.
I remove one board and cautiously reach my hand through. The air on the other side is noticeably colder, and then I feel the slick surface of a boulder. I yank my hand back out, heart pounding. Before I remove the rest of the boards, I grab my phone and text Aylen: “I’m going through the window. If I don’t contact you again within 12 hours, please tell my dad.”
Then I pull on the oversized leather coat some relative had passed down to me, put on my boots, and take down the boards. Climbing onto the windowsill is awkward, and the window is small for this purpose. I get one leg in, and my foot splashes into a few inches of cold water. Then I duck my head and pull myself through.
The sudden sound of the small waterfall in an enclosed space is so loud I’m startled and almost fall backward, but I catch myself on the rocks and get a solid footing. I’m hunched over in a tiny dark cavern, and the window in a rock wall leading to an empty bedroom looks absurdly strange.
There’s a buzz of excitement in my gut as I inch my way through the narrow space between the rushing water and the damp rock wall. I emerge onto a large flat boulder beside a small pool. The night sky is overcast but there’s enough light I can vaguely see my surroundings. I shudder and feel sick remembering my recurring nightmare that took place here, and almost decide to go back, but a glint of light in the distance catches my eye. Between the trees, too low to be a star, I see a flickering yellow dot. I watch it a moment; it seems to be growing larger. Then I hear hoofbeats.
At this moment I’m frozen with indecision. I don’t even know if I’m on earth. What are the odds that random strangers roaming a forest at night on the other side of a spooky portal will be friendly? I’m afraid those odds are small, and decide to retreat behind the waterfall and watch.
The light grows into a lantern, carried by a broad man on horseback. He pauses by the pool and the horse drinks while he stares in my direction. He looks to be near my age, and cute, although the flickering light distorts his features a bit.
“Hello,” he says, “is someone there?”
He sounds nervous. Maybe I don’t need to hide. I do have a bag full of delicious snacks if I need to bribe him.
“Hi,” I say, “I’m someone.” I emerge from the cavern again, water dripping off my coat, and give him a little wave.
He dismounts behind his horse, and when he steps into view he’s holding a pistol. “Who are you?” he demands.
“I…I’m just Luca, I have cookies!”
He lowers his gun. “Oh, I’m sorry. Are you alone here, miss? We’re a long way from the nearest village.”
The politeness surprises me, after the gun. He sounds genuinely upset that he scared me. “Uh…I’m just passing through.”
“You know this stretch of the Black Road is notorious for bandits, right?”
“I can take care of myself! And anyway I’m not traveling by the Black Road.”
“Miss…I don’t understand, the Black Road is the only way through.”
I feel like I’ve said too much. “Through what?” I ask.
“The mountains, of course.”
“Oh, of course.”
He holsters his gun while giving me a skeptical look. “Well, Luca, my name is Pedro, and if you don’t mind, I planned to stay here tonight. I assume your camp is nearby?”
I nod and give him a smile. He gives me a charming grin in return, then sets the lantern down and unstraps a large leather bag from his saddle. While he unpacks his bedding, I sit on the flat boulder and dig through my bag of snacks. My stomach is hurting now, so I slowly eat an energy bar.
“Do you not have a fire?”
I look up at Pedro. “No?”
“You don’t have a camp, do you. Are you ok?”
I find his tone annoyingly paternalistic. “Yes I’m fine! Just a little hungry and cold right now.”
“Sorry. I’ll gather some firewood.”
“I’ll help.” I stand up and pull one of my flashlights out of my pocket, which I’d almost forgotten about. When I switch it on, Pedro jumps back and stares at me.
“How did you do that?” he asks. “It’s like the sun!”
I point the beam of light up into the sky and wave it back and forth. “It’s just a flashlight.”
Pedro drops to his knees and bows his head. “I must apologize, ma’am, I didn’t know.”
“I’m just a poor messenger, I didn’t recognize your status. I would never talk to a sorceress like that if I knew.”
I barely suppress a giggle. “Pedro, dear, you’re fine. Let’s build a fire so we can warm up.”
Within a few minutes we have a pile of wood. Using the flame of his lantern and some dry leaves as kindling, Pedro expertly builds a perfect campfire. I scoot as close to it as I can get and enjoy the warmth on my stiff hands.
“I always wished I could learn magic,” he says. “Can you show me something else?”
“Sure.” I get my phone out of my pocket and switch it on. It tells me the time is nearly one a.m. and I have no service. I open the camera app and scoot over next to Pedro. “Look, I can catch moments and freeze them forever.” I snap a picture of the fire.
“Holy mother,” he mutters. “I’ve never seen something like it.”
I flip to the front camera and hold the phone out. “Selfie time!”
His face in the picture is priceless, eyes round, brows rising halfway up his forehead. He touches the screen when I show it to him and accidentally closes the app. “What did I do?”
“Nothing, it’s still there.” I open the picture again. “See? I can keep it forever so I always remember you.”
He smiles and looks a bit embarrassed. “Thank you for showing me.”
I share some of my magic Oreos with him too, and as the fire burns down the sky clears up. We lie side by side, staring at stars unfamiliar to me, and Pedro tells me about his family and their home in a mountain village where he is returning the next day. I almost want to ask if I can go with him. I’m getting so tired that I almost forget where I am, but it feels nice to not be alone.
I wake suddenly to the sound of birds, and the brightness of morning. Pedro is snoring softly and I have my head on his chest. Slowly I shift off him, and then sit up and grab my phone. It says the time is ten a.m., so I still have a couple hours to let Aylen know I’m ok. I just need to go back through the window to get service. I open the messenger app and notice a red mark beside Aylen’s name. My last text didn’t send.
That’s fine, I’m going back now anyway. From what Pedro told me, if I want to see more than forests and villages in this world, I’d have to travel for days.
I quietly gather my stuff and whisper goodbye to the sleeping boy, then I go back into the cavern. I find the window boarded up, as if I never came through it. A chill runs down my spine and I pound my fist on the boards, afraid for a moment I won’t be able to get back in. Luckily they start coming loose, and I’m able to kick out enough of them to squeeze through. As soon as I’m safely in the house I lean against the wall with a huge sigh of relief and ponder what just happened.
My phone starts dinging with notifications, hundreds of them, from everyone I know.
Where are you?
Are you okay?
Luca, please come home!