clemency - alyssa moore

 

     In an open field, where the wind blew ashes into the sky, there stood a Door. It wasn’t a Door that warranted staring at: no intricate designs or bright colors, or signs warning that you ought to stay out, or that you ought to come in. It was the sort of door you could only see out of the corner of your eye, if you weren’t really looking. Or, even if you were. 

     The door seemed to lead nowhere, though you and I know far better. Someone else also knew better, and he stood, hands at his sides and his weight slightly more on his left foot, a few paces in front of it. The boy was shorter than most his age, his dark hair hanging just above his shoulders. In one hand, he held a musty tome, discolored with age and sickly sweet with the scent of souls. In his other, he gripped a key. 

     He stepped forward, let his hand guide him to what he could barely see, and slid the key in. The lock didn’t click when it was turned, nor did the hinges creak with disuse as the door slid slowly inward. 

 

     On the other side was a kitchen. Sunlight, peeking through a tree outside, dappled the far wall. A stove and sink lined up next to each other below the window, and cabinets dotted either side. In the middle of the room stood a granite island, and next to it, a woman blinked back tears as she chopped her onions. Sound filtered in; the knife tapped the cutting board with a steady beat. The boy hesitated in the Doorway, the frame of the Door from which he had come meshing with that of the entrance to the kitchen. The woman looked up. 

     “Anthony, welcome home,” she said, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “Would you wash the carrots, please? They’re next to the sink.”

     Anthony shuffled over, setting the book on the counter with a thud, placing the key gently on top. He rolled up his sleeves and pulled the carrots out of their plastic bag. For a moment, he recoiled, the carrots’ usual orange overtaken by grays and browns, punctured by the occasional white of a maggot—the smell was unbearable—but in a blink, the rot was gone, and the only scent left in the air was sweet. Clementia’s advice echoed in his head—things aren’t quite right, in those worlds. Don’t let it bother you.

     He turned on the sink, watching the woman out of the corner of his eye. 

     He didn’t know this woman. They couldn’t be related—her short hair was too light, her jawline too sharp. She rubbed her eyes again—with her hand this time—and the boy thought, she’s going to regret that. He turned back to the carrots. The sink water had been running off black, but now it cleared to a more natural color. He set the wet carrots on a paper towel on the island. 

     “Thanks,” the woman said, and her voice cracked. Anthony nodded. His gaze strayed towards the window, and he shivered—there was an emptiness there, a crack, once again that corner-of-your-eye feeling, both drawing his eyes towards it and pushing them away. The woman saw him looking, and smiled. “Lunch will be ready in ten minutes. Why don’t you go outside and play until then?” She wrinkled her nose. “Oh, something smells in here, doesn’t it?”

     “It’s my book,” Anthony told her, grabbing it off the counter. The key, he slipped into his pocket. 

     “Oh,” she repeated. Anthony pulled back the screen door and stepped outside, oblivious to the tear that slid down her cheek when he shut it behind him. 

     He sat down on the steps. Setting the book in his lap, he ran a hand over the cover, then opened it, flipping through. Faces stared up at him on each page, children both younger and older than him, each wearing the same sad expression. He stopped flipping, and the book lay open in his palm to a particular page, upon which another boy stared up at him, with pale, brown hair and that same sharp jaw, the bones in his face protruding outwards just enough that you could imagine the shape of his skull. Underneath the picture, a name scribbled itself in blank ink: Anthony. 

     The boy ripped out the page, and the same sickly sweet smell filled the air, suddenly overbearing. He rubbed his forehead, feeling a headache building. The scent lingered as he closed the book, rolled up the piece of paper, and placed it among the shriveled-up cherry tomatoes growing in pots along the windowsill. The scroll glowed, and after a brief moment, dissolved into light. The plants seemed to stand up straighter, their colors brightening.

     Inside, the woman let a final tear fall. The next breath she took was no longer hitched by stifled sobs. 

     When the boy turned around, the emptiness had faded, a Door standing in its place, as unassuming as if it had always been there, waiting. The boy walked up to it, pulled the key out of his pocket, and stuck it into the keyhole. It turned, silently, and the Door opened. Once again, he stepped into its light.

 

     They’d all come to, about a month ago, in an open field. Twenty-one children, lost and confused; they couldn’t remember their names. After a time, they came up with their own. ‘Owen’ had found his name in a book, liked the way it sounded. He repeated it to himself for a whole day, making sure it was just right. ‘Dragonslayer’ had always imagined that one day, she would take on such a title. What better time than now?

     The boy hadn’t taken a name. None had really seemed to fit. Now, however, he seemed to be taking on many different names, as he stepped through the door and felt a surge of people around him; he stumbled forward, jostled by the crowd, until he finally managed to separate himself enough to see that he was in a train station. The vaulted ceiling arched far above him, crystal clear and letting in sunlight; behind him, a train roared back to life, the crowds of people mingling away. The air smelled of a terrible mixture of sweat, metal, fried food, and too much perfume, and it mixed horribly with the book’s scent still lingering in his nose.

     Running footsteps echoed behind him, just barely noticeable over the chatter of the crowd, and the boy was given only a second’s warning before unfamiliar arms wrapped around him. 

     “Jessica! Oh, sweetheart!” The voice sobbed into his shoulder, and the boy didn’t pull away; he simply waited for the moment to pass. The figure stepped back, arms no longer wrapped around him, but rather on his shoulders, and he looked up into the face of another woman—this one larger, but less broken, tears running down her beaming face, red curls pinned behind her head. “You’re here,” she breathed. “You’re okay.” Jessica tried to smile back, and the woman seemed to accept it. 

     Another set of footsteps heavy, sure—and a man in an imposing suit came up behind the woman, looking down at Jessica. His face was stoic, his eyes nonetheless lined with red. As the woman stepped back, it was his hand that replaced hers, on one shoulder. He squeezed it—and then he, too, bent down and enveloped Jessica in a tight hug. 

     “I’m sorry,” he whispered, and Jessica felt a lump form in her throat, too, the weight and longing in his words startlingly familiar. The man’s grip grew harsher, and it was like claws were digging into her back, gouging, bleeding, she could feel the wetness soaking into her shirt—then the tension released, the feeling faded, and the man, too, stepped back. 

     Silence hung. The pain ebbed. Jessica stared up at her parents, arms hanging at her sides, unsure of what to say. She didn’t know these people. 

     The man cleared his throat. “Well.” He turned to the woman, whose gaze had yet to stray from Jessica, and whose beaming smile wavered. “Shall we?”

     She nodded, and reached out a hand—tentatively, Jessica took it, clutching the book to her side. She knew she ought not stay for much longer, and it wasn’t long before they were enveloped by the crowd. Amid the distraction, Jessica was able to slip her hand out of her grasp. Not looking back to see if the woman had noticed, she let the crowd jostle her away.  

     It wasn’t long until the boy finally felt the tug of that emptiness, the space where the Door should be. He turned down an empty terminal, the track abandoned, the brick wall painted with a dove, soaring elegantly towards the clouds. He glanced around, making sure the place was empty, before he opened the book. 

     He flipped pages until he landed on a girl, all red hair and pigtails and a shy smile. Oh. He hadn’t known all twenty-one children that well, but he’d known her. She’d chosen the name Avis, and flinched when people touched her. He remembered the last time he’d seen her, sooty, empty, face turned upward as the flames licked through her dress. The sky, too, had been filled with smoke. 

     He tore the page quickly, this time, unable to resist wrinkling his nose. He didn’t want to look anymore. He wondered why souls smelled so disgustingly sweet. His gaze lingered on the graffiti, and gently, he rolled up her page and set it on the ground below it, and watched as the paper folded itself up in the dove’s image. It took flight, striving for the sky, dissolving into pinpricks of light.

     He breathed a sigh as he turned and approached the Door, waiting calmly at the edge of the platform as if it had been there all along. As he inserted the key and pulled it open, he paused and turned around; the woman stood at the other end of the platform, where he had entered the terminal a few minutes before, watching. The boy raised his hand in a wave, and after a moment’s hesitation, she did as well. 

     As he stepped through the Door, her lowering arm was the last thing he saw.

 

     He and Clementia had been the only two left, in the end—although, something about her was foreign, and he could have sworn she hadn’t been there when they’d all shown up. But it had been just them and the flames, and the blood, and the shadows, and as the acrid smell rose from the burnt field, he was only grateful for the company. 

     He likened Clementia to the doors. She had that same corner-of-your-eye feel about her, and if asked to describe her appearance, he would find himself at a loss for words. She was without details, without colors or shapes or sizes. It had been she who’d gifted him the key, who’d helped him collect the twenty burnt souls into the blank pages of the musty tome. 

     She’d led him to the Door, and asked him to be her messenger. To bring forgiveness and relief to the people he met beyond it. She said that perhaps, if he did, he would be able to go home. 

     He sometimes wondered if these people deserved forgiveness. 

     After the red-haired woman, there had been a man, hunched over his desk. He’d barely looked up when the boy entered, and he barely noticed when the boy left. Ink spilled over the papers in front of him, rendering the text illegible. 

     There’d been two women in a kitchen, but instead of chopping onions, they were cutting up a turkey. The meat was cooked, but the boy could swear he saw blood reflected in the knife’s blade. They invited him to take a look, and promised they would have a feast come dinnertime. 

     Pages ripped, and each time, he became more and more used to that sickly scent. It traveled up his nose and settled there, always there, reminding him. 

     Eighteen, nineteen—

 

     He stepped out into what appeared to be a small church; wooden, with a steepled roof, and rows of benches occupied by scatterings of bodies, all hunched over and praying. The murmur of their voices rose and fell, and the boy caught spatterings of praise and worship, requests and barters.

     Experience drew the boy to one particular man, a few rows from the back, graying head no longer covered by the hat clutched in his hands. The boy slid into the seat beside him. 

     “Clemency,” the man whispered. “Grant me clemency.” He looked up at the boy, and his eyes were empty pits, scarred and haunted. The man hugged the boy as if he had nothing left to lose. The boy extracted himself from the man’s desperate arms.

     He retreated to the back of the church, letting the anguished voices fade to the background as he opened the book. There was only one person it could be, the other boy’s dark eyes staring out from the page, the corner of his mouth pulled down into a frown. No name appeared at the bottom; he hadn’t received one. It happened, sometimes. He always felt bad, like he couldn’t lay them properly to rest. 

     But that boy had chosen the name Owen, and the boy repeated that name to himself, allowing himself to remember Owen’s distance, his sadness, as he crept back up to the man and slipped the paper into the prayer book sitting beside him. The book glowed, and the man sighed, closing his eyes, resting his forehead on his shaking hands. The boy thought he might have heard a whispered thank-you as he shut the door to the church behind him. But all he could focus on was the anticipation. 

     The Door was there, a few paces ahead, and as he gripped the book to his chest he was struck with the knowledge that there was only one page left. It had been blank, but as he gave in to temptation and opened the book again, his own face stared back at him. Behind that door was his family. 

     He couldn’t remember much about them, other than the fact that he loved them, and, he assumed, they him. The field had wiped away more and more as time passed—first, a name, then a whole identity. He could be anyone. He had been so many people, these last few hours— perhaps days. Now, he would be able to memorize every line of his mother’s face, hear her soothing voice. That was how he imagined it. There had been something wrong, something off, with every person he’d met in these other worlds—the parents of all twenty children—but he had survived, while they had not. Surely, that meant something. Surely, he had something worth going back to. 

     The key seemed heavier than usual, but when he inserted it in the keyhole, it remained as silent as ever. 

     He opened the Door into a nursery. The room was small, the curtains pulled tightly shut; turning around, he realized the Door had opened up into a closet. He shut it, and the bright light emanating from the Door winked out. The walls were decorated with large stickers, only just visible, depicting a garden—a large willow tree dominated the far wall, surrounded by butterflies and flowers, their bright colors muted in the dark. Against the same wall stood a crib, a mobile hanging above it. 

     The room was dead silent. Hesitant, the boy crept up to the crib; inside lay a baby, a dark tuft of hair sticking out from under her hat, sleeping soundly. 

     That’s right, he realized. Just before he’d been taken—he’d gotten a little sister. Ella. The memory startled him, a glimpse of clarity in a brain that he hadn’t realized had been muddled. He gripped the book tightly, watching her breathe over the railing. A tiredness rushed through his body, and he realized, in a moment of confusion, that he was sad for her. 

     The feeling was gone as soon as it came, and he stepped away, mulling over the information. Ella. 

     The door to the hallway was closed. He stared at it for a moment, waiting—any minute now, it would open, it had to—but the door remained resolutely shut, the house resolutely silent. 

     Where were his parents? It struck him for a moment, maybe he didn’t have any, but that was ridiculous. He would know. They had to be on the other side of that door. 

     Outside, it began to rain. The boy walked over to the window and pulled back the curtain; they lived in a neighborhood, it seemed, streetlights outside illuminating the sidewalk and houses around them. It was nighttime, the sky cloudy. He couldn’t see any stars. His parents must still be asleep. He closed the curtain, and sat down below the window, laying the book in his lap and pulling his legs to his chest. Across from him the door to the hall remained shut. 

     He didn’t want to admit he was scared of what he would find on the other side. He’d had enough bravery to go through the Door, but this door was entirely foreign. Perhaps it would be easier to just spend the night here. It worried him, that he’d been sad for Ella. He wanted to dismiss it. But he’d felt the offness, the anxiety in the other households. He wanted his to be different. 

     Thunder clapped, and the boy startled, and Ella started to cry. He rushed to her crib, peering over the edge and trying to hush her, whispering frightened reassurances—she couldn’t seem to hear him—then the nursery door opened, and he froze, wide-eyed, a deer in headlights. 

     At first, his mother didn’t notice him. She rushed into the room, stopping at the side of the crib—the boy had been leaning over the head—and reached in to pick up the baby, rocking her gently, murmuring softly. The boy couldn’t move. His heart hammered in his chest, and he knew that this was her—the same way that he’d known Ella—and he waited for the memories to come, but there was nothing. Silence. 

     She looked up. Their eyes met. The boy still gripped the edge of the crib. His eyes, wide as moons, matched her own. Her mouth opened—Shock? Hope?—but no sound came out. 

     Then, finally, a whisper and a question: “Will?”

     Oh, he thought. That was his name. Will. Somehow, it fit. He didn’t think he’d be able to speak. Wasn’t sure he’d even be able to nod. His body refused to move. She stepped towards him, shakily, and he managed to turn to face her. Still cradling the baby, she reached out, caressed his cheek, held back a sob; then, she pulled him in close, and Will could feel her body, pressed up against his, the baby between them, and he realized that he was crying. But no further memories came, and he felt their loss all more keenly in her presence.

 

     They stayed up for the rest of the night. His mother fussed and talked, the words coming so quickly that Will could barely keep track; she took him to the kitchen, insisted he eat, and ended up making him eggs. Will found the idea of food revolting, even though he realized that the last time he’d eaten was before the fire. He stirred the food around with his fork. 

     At his mother’s insistence, he took a bite of egg. And another, and another; he couldn’t stop, he was suddenly so hungry. His mother seemed pleased, until he threw it all back up on the way to the toilet five minutes later. She rushed over to help him back to his chair, but didn’t seem keen to do anything about his mess; her eyes flicked from it to him as they sat in uncomfortable silence, Will sipping the glass of water she’d given him earlier, shifting in his chair. He tried not to sigh; it was his responsibility to clean up his own messes.

     “I’ll take care of it,” he murmured after a moment, and his mother turned to him, eyes wide. 

     “Oh, no no no, you shouldn’t have to now, love. I’ll call Kenny to take care of it.” She nodded to herself, like that was the perfect plan, then opened the fridge and took out a bottle. She took a swig from it as she walked into the adjacent living room, and dialed on the home phone. Will could hear her talking, but was too tired to try to make out what she was saying, the exhaustion of the past few days finally catching up to him. He found he just wanted to sleep. 

     Kenny was six feet tall with a round, trusting face. He arrived not ten minutes later, and upon seeing Will, pulled him into a tight hug. 

     “It’s good to have you back, kid,” he smiled, and although he winced at the mess on the ground, little bits of egg still visible, he cleaned it up without complaint. Will murmured a thank you, and his mom took another swig from her bottle. 

     “I think I want to sleep,” Will said, although the rain had stopped and the sun was just visible out the kitchen window. His mother nodded, waved him off, and Kenny smiled again. Not knowing where his room was, Will wandered over to the couch and was out like a light. 

 

     When he came to, the curtains in the living room and kitchen had been pulled closed to block the sunlight, but he guessed it was sometime in the afternoon. Kenny was napping on a recliner across the room, but other than that, there was no one to be seen. Will sat up—a blanket must have been put on him at some point, and he folded it and threw it over the edge of the sofa. He decided he ought to take a moment to get his bearings. 

     He wandered back into the kitchen. It was empty and silent, and the cold tile floor was still a little wet in the area Kenny had cleaned earlier. He avoided it, peering into the adjacent hallway, curious. 

     He pushed open the door across from the bathroom, and nearly shut it right away, because his mom was fast asleep on the bed. She hadn’t even bothered to get under the covers; she was half on, her arm hanging over the side, her head barely reaching the pillow. He couldn’t help but notice the number of bottles scattered on the floor, and cringed. His mother seemed fast asleep, so he crept in, picking up the bottles individually and placing them as silently as possible in the trash. Although no memories surfaced, he had a feeling that wasn’t the first time he’d done so. 

     Leaving his mother’s room—she hadn’t even stirred—he wandered to the next room over, which if he remembered correctly from the night before, was the nursery. He was right; straight ahead was his sister’s crib, and she was awake inside it, watching him with curious eyes. He wandered into the room, closing the door behind him. 

     “Hi,” he said to Ella, coming up to the edge of her crib, and she giggled. He reached a hand over the railing, and Ella reached up to try and grab his fingers. He couldn’t help but smile. 

     “You wouldn’t happen to know why I still can’t remember anything, would you?” he asked Ella, as her flailing hands brushed his. She paused, looked up at him, and sneezed. 

     “Yeah, me neither,” he sighed, and withdrew his hand. He sat down, leaning against the crib, and remembered he’d left his book in here. It was right by the window, where it had fallen before. He crawled over and picked it up, flipping it open. 

     His face stared out at him, unchanged. The sweet scent hung in the air. He wondered if he’d ever be rid of it. 

     His face, he thought, seemed to know a lot more than he did. He contemplated ripping it out, wondered it that would bring his memories back. He fingered the edge of the page. 

     Ella let out a cry, watching him from inside her crib, her eyes wide. Her chubby arm reached out to him through the bars. He shook his head and closed the book. 

     “Maybe you’re right,” he said as he wandered over and took her outstretched hand. He had no idea what ripping his own page out of the book would do to him. He didn’t think he was quite ready to take that risk. She grinned up at him as if to say, of course I’m right, and Will smiled back. 

     “Hey…” he began, after a moment. “The room across from yours, that would be my room, wouldn’t it?” Ella didn’t respond, just let go of Will’s hand and pulled hers back between the bars of the crib. It had to be, Will thought, at least, assuming he had a room. He would, wouldn’t he? But did he want to see it? Would it help him remember, or would it just be a painful reminder of the things he’d forgotten? 

     Will was coming to hate closed doors. But he’d have to go through them, eventually. 

     “I’m gonna go check it out. See you later, okay?” Ella gurgled, and he waved as he left the room. 

     It took too little time to make those few steps across the hall. His door was securely shut. 

     He had no idea what he was going to find. What were bedrooms supposed to look like, anyway? Back at the field—now the only thing he had to compare with—there’d been a small cottage, down in the valley, and they’d all shared rooms, with six to eight people in one. They’d shared blankets and pillows, and moved around as they pleased. Sometimes, they’d all decided to sleep out under the stars. It had been peaceful, there. No one had fought, food was healthy and plentiful, though it hadn’t quite occurred to them to wonder where it came from. 

     He’d wondered sometimes, what it would be like to have a room of his own. To decorate it however he wanted, hang up his own posters, decorate the shelves with toys and books that were truly his, that each had a memory attached, a history. He would stack figurines of his favorite characters across a well-used desk, rearrange them to tell a story. He could choose his own bedding, the color of his pillow. His own bedroom, he felt, would reflect him.

     The room he opened the door into was comparatively empty. 

     The walls were painted, yes—a light blue—but there were no posters. The comforter was brown and thin. There was a dresser, wooden, with a few books stacked on top, and the desk against the wall had a notebook, but no figurines. A shirt hung out of one of the dresser drawers, which was only half-closed. 

     There were bottles on the floor in here, too. 

     “Your mom came in here sometimes, while you were gone,” a voice said above his shoulder, and Will jumped to see Kenny standing behind him, staring beyond him into the room. “She loves you, she really loves you. I know she may not always treat you the best, but.”

     Will hugged the book tight to his chest, suddenly afraid to step over the door’s threshold. He wasn’t sure whether he felt loved, or violated.

     “The room’s exactly how you left it,” Kenny promised. “Minus the… bottles.”

     Will took in a deep breath and let it out, trying to calm his beating heart. Just a room, he thought. Just a room. 

     Before he could lose his resolve, he stepped in, setting the book down on the desk near the door and focusing on the familiar action of picking up the bottles. They collected in his arms—there were about five in total—and he brought them back to Kenny, who took them from him gently. 

     “Um,” Kenny said, as they stared at each other for a moment, Will not quite ready to turn around and face the room again. “Make yourself at home, I guess.” Kenny headed towards the kitchen, and Will was alone.

     He started with the desk. The few notebooks seemed school related—he hadn’t thought about school—with one containing what looked to be essays, another a myriad of math problems. A black backpack rested against the desk chair, and in it he found a math textbook. The contents seemed incredibly foreign, so he shut it. 

     He made his way to the dresser, pulled the one drawer with the shirt sticking out fully open, and dug through its contents. If he had a favorite shirt, he figured it must be the one he was still wearing, since none of those seemed familiar to him either. He found a quiet satisfaction at the heavy thud the drawer made when it closed.

     He moved his attention to the row of books at the top of the dresser. He picked up the one that looked most well-worn, and gazed at the cover. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. There was an image of a lion on the cover. Will recognized it, and knew he must have read it a thousand times, but he was struggling to remember what it was about. He set the book back down. When he turned around, giving himself another scan of the room, the only familiar object was the book he had brought with him. 

     He shoved it under the pillow, and decided to go for a walk. 

 

     Despite the fact that he’d been gone almost two months, it only took a few days before Kenny suggested to his mother that Will return to school. A part of him felt frustrated by the insinuation, still struggling to regain a semblance of normal in his home life, knowing that school meant more people he was supposed to know, supposed to remember—but a small, hopeful part of him was relieved. He’d taken to sneaking out on walks more and more frequently, when Kenny was away at work and his mother napping with the baby, because Kenny visited almost every day now and the two barely took their eyes off him. Being inside all the time was stifling; he was constantly reminded of what he was missing, who he was supposed to be and most definitely wasn’t. 

     He would pass a few neighbors, occasionally, raking leaves or walking their dogs, and he got the impression that he hadn’t known his neighbors all that well, because no names came, and they all gave him that brows-furrowed look of I’ve-seen-you-before-but-don’t-know-where. At least the authorities had taken down the missing posters, which Kenny had apparently gotten displayed. That would have led to more questions than he had answers for. 

     It was a Wednesday. Kenny had broken the news, the night before, that Will was going to be let back into his same middle school; he would just have to do after-school tutoring to make up for the time he’d lost. His mother had nodded, bottle in hand. He found he could tell which days she’d drinken less, because when he showed up around dinner time from one of his walks, she would ask how his day had been. This time, she’d just nodded, slightly off kilter, and slurred, “He’s outside all day anyway. Might as well be doing something productive.”

     That’s why, today, he was walking out even further than he had been, even into the next suburb over. He intended to take advantage of the little free time he had left. 

     A school bus passed on his right; he checked his watch. It was about 3pm. He’d been out much longer than he’d thought. It pulled to a stop on the corner, and a gaggle of kids about his age clambered out, some heading in the opposite direction, some towards him. One figure, in particular, was practically flying in his direction—in fact, it was heading straight towards him, screeching his name—and in two seconds flat, she was in front of him: a girl, brown hair cut at the nape of her neck, cheeks rosy with adrenaline and grinning. 

     “Ohmygod—” her words came out in a rush—“you’re back, you’re really back, mom wouldn’t let me come by and see you but I really wanted to I promise—” she heaved in another breath, and after a pause, asked—“you okay?”

     He’d thought he’d gotten better at pretending to know people, but he’d been startled, and his confusion must have shown. It took another second, but he nearly sighed with relief when her name finally popped into his head. He forced his mouth into a smile. 

     “Yeah, I’m okay. Thanks, Maya.” Her grin got wider. 

     “Do you want to come over?” She heaved her backpack higher on her shoulder. “Mom made some cookies yesterday, they’re fresh. And you know Mom always makes the best cookies.”

     He was about to say no—it was a long walk home, and he’d learned earlier that week that his mom got upset and yelled when he came home later than dinnertime—but then he looked closer, and noticed how Maya’s smile was shaky, how her hands were fidgeting, and she was making that expression that Avis always made back in the fields, like she was trying so, so hard to be positive, when she was really on the verge of tears. He couldn’t remember much of Maya, but he felt that they had been close, and he realized his disappearance must have hurt her, too. So instead, he was saying “sure,” and they were walking together, Maya slightly ahead because Will couldn’t remember how to get to her house. 

     And she was right—her mom did make the best cookies. 

 

     Although he left Maya’s just before dinner, her house was far enough that he didn’t get home until after his mother and Kenny finished eating. They were still waiting for him at the table when he came through the front door; he’d called from Maya’s home phone, to let them know where he was and when he would be back, though he might have underestimated a bit. Kenny looked nervous; he was fidgeting with his napkin, and eyeing the drink in Will’s mother’s hand with distaste. Said glass was almost empty. Ella was nowhere to be seen, probably back in her room, in her crib, where his mother would leave her for the majority of the time when she had bad days. Today was looking to be one of them. 

     Will slid into his chair. His dinner was out in front of him—cold, but he decided not to comment. He focused on taking a few, slow bites, as he’d learned since returning that eating too fast still tended to make him sick. He was a few bites in when his mother spoke up.

     “You’re late,” she slurred. Will shifted in his seat. 

     “Sorry,” he said. “I forgot how long it took me to walk there.”

     “Oh,” she said, her voice suddenly scathing, “so you weren’t trying to run away again?”

     Will winced. It occurred to him, that’s exactly what his mom believed had happened. “I thought you’d run away,” Maya had confessed, back in her room. She’d barely touched the cookies. “But I kept thinking, you wouldn’t run away without telling me, right?”

     Will hadn’t known what to say. He didn’t have to say anything now, because his mom wasn’t done. 

     “If you don’t want to be here, I don’t get why you came back in the first place.”

     Will stared down at his food, and found he wasn’t hungry anymore. 

 

     School went just as well as he expected it to. His return—which still didn’t feel like a return to him—was greeted with a barrage of whispers and stares, and it didn’t help that he could barely recall friend from foe. The occasional name would pop up, maybe some sort of emotion associated with them, but other than that, he found himself entirely lost. Maya was a big help— barely left his side, if she could help it—but they only had one class together, and in the rest, Will found himself unable to focus on the teacher, too distracted by the eyes that continued to dart his way. Maya said they’d get over it soon.

     He had tutoring for an hour after school, but he promised Maya that in celebration of his first day back, he’d come over to her house for dinner. When he’d asked his mom, she hadn’t really given a yes or a no, so he’d gone with a yes. Maya said they could work on homework, and Will figured that was what he’d be doing all night, anyway. He looked forward to dinner at Maya’s. Dinners in the fields, the only lively ones he could remember, had always been full of talk and laughter. Here, it tended to be tense or silent. He hoped dinner at Maya’s would be more of the former. 

     His tutor turned out to be a high schooler named Timothy. Timothy told him he was only doing the tutoring to get community service hours so he could join the honors’ society. Will thought that was fair; he was only doing the tutoring so that he wouldn’t have to repeat the seventh grade. Timothy wasn’t even that good of a tutor. They finished early, after only half an hour, as neither of them quite knew what they were doing. 

     He waited on the bench in front of the school for Maya’s mom to pick him up. She wasn’t due for another fifteen minutes or so, and he flipped absent-mindedly through his math textbook, not really reading the pages. 

     Someone sat down next to him, and he jumped. It was Clementia. She regarded him for a moment, her expression absent-minded but her eyes startlingly clear. 

     “How does it feel to be home?” she asked him, holding his gaze. He was the first to break away, rubbing at the back of his neck. 

     “Alright, I guess.” He wasn’t sure whether or not he was lying. 

T     he silence stretched. He looked back at Clementia; she was no longer looking at him, but staring out across the street, gaze following the passing of an occasional car. Even in such a normal setting, outside his middle school, there was still that otherworldliness about her, the sense that she knew and understood so much more than she let on. She would know, wouldn’t she. 

     “Um,” he said, and it took her a second to turn her attention away from the street, to focus it on Will, and he swallowed, nervous. He forced the question out anyway. Her gaze was unwavering. 

     “Why can’t I remember anything?” he asked, finally, and it was like a dam broke, all the thoughts and fears which had developed over the month crashing out. “All I’m getting is names, just names, and that tells me nothing, not who these people are or what they want from me or how they’ll react to me, and I know I’ve gotten good at pretending to be someone else, but—I thought, once I got here… I wouldn’t have to pretend to be myself.” He swallowed again, tugged at the neck of his shirt. She was still watching him. He wondered, momentarily, if she’d heard, or if she’d just zoned out through the whole thing. Then, she shrugged. 

     “Maybe you don’t want to remember.”

     A car pulled into the parking lot, grabbing Will’s attention—and when he looked back, Clementia was gone. 

 

     They finished up dinner earlier than expected, too. Will knew he’d not been the most pleasant company—his thoughts had been whirling since his discussion with Clementia, and it was clear that Maya had noticed. Still, she didn’t complain when Will said he’d rather just go home for the night. Just gave him a brief hug—her mom handed him a bag of cookies, to take to his mom—and sent him on his way. 

     The walk home was too short. It was still daylight, and his feet were trying to keep pace with his thoughts, and the garage door was closed when he arrived, so he couldn’t tell who was home. The front door was locked, but he knew where the spare key was hidden. It slid open silently. 

     The lights were off. He wasn’t surprised; his mom didn’t often turn them on, but he liked to, thought it made the house a bit less dreary, a bit more livable. Something stopped him from turning them on now though. 

     He could hear yelling. 

     He slid the door shut behind him. 

     It came from his mother’s room, too close for comfort. The whole house was too small, stifling when he needed to be alone. 

     He crept into the kitchen, his ears filtering sound, but not quite hearing. He could see, from the edge of the hallway, that his mom’s door was open. He could see his mother inside, and Kenny, too, his back to the door, and the floor was once again littered with bottles. Kenny was speaking; his voice was loud, but there was a tremor in it.

     “I just think you’ve had enough for today—” 

     Will flinched as a bottle soared over his head and hit the wall behind him, shattering to pieces. “You do not get to decide—” his mother threw another bottle, and this time her aim was much closer, and it nearly hit Kenny in the head—“when I’ve had enough!”

     Kenny moved towards her, hands raised in surrender, though Will’s mother already had another bottle in hand, and raised it. “Try to breathe,” he said. It was the wrong thing to say. 

     “Breathe? You’re telling me to breathe?” She stumbled towards him, bottle still raised. “For two months I had to sit around wondering if my own child was still alive, and you think breathing is going to help me?” 

     She stumbled backwards, and leaned heavily against the edge of the bed. Kenny stepped forward again. 

     “When he came back,” she said to him, eyes glazed and distant now, “I was so relieved. But he’s never here anymore, and sometimes, I wonder if it’s actually him that’s come back.” Tears formed in her eyes, and she glared at the floor. “He’s just so distant… and sometimes, he looks at me like he doesn’t even know me.” 

     Will’s eyes widened, and he shifted further back into the shadows. Kenny had nearly reached her now, and she looked up suddenly, realized how close he stood. Her expression became furious, and she hurled the bottle towards him. Her aim was off, and Will jumped out of the way as it hit the doorframe right where he had been standing, shattering. He yelped as a shard of glass sliced down his arm, and both Kenny and his mother looked up. The blood flowed freely down to his elbow, and all Will could do is stare at it in shock. 

     Kenny reacted first, running towards him and taking off his flanel, wrapping it tightly around the wound and pressing down. He urged Will away from the doorway to the kitchen table, avoiding the glass scattered across the floor, and Will looked up just in time to meet his mother’s wide, terrified gaze.

 

     As he lay under the covers, watching the hands of the clock pass eight, he knew he couldn’t stay. He shouldn’t have come back in the first place. 

     He waited until long after dark, lying awake, staring at the wall, relishing the emptiness of his decision. He thought about the other families he’d visited; all broken, all grieving. He’d had to pretend to be their children, to give them solace. That’s all he’d been doing, here—pretending. And he’d been here far too long. 

     At 1am, he finally pulled back the covers, removing his book from under the pillow. He crept to the door, pulled it open, and it creaked loudly, but nobody stirred. He crept over to his mother’s room—he could hear her snores. He crept away.

     He stopped in Ella’s room, pushing the door open gently, to say goodbye. She stirred, but didn’t wake. Her breath was steady. He wandered in, stuck his finger through the bars—her fist wrapped unconsciously around it. 

     “It was nice to meet you, Ella,” he whispered. Then he pulled his finger back and closed the door behind him. 

     He stopped in the kitchen, and opened the book. He cleaned the empty bottles off the table, placing all but one of them in the trash. That one, he set on the middle of the table, upright. 

     He opened the book. Looked himself in the eye. Told himself he was making the right decision. His name scribbled itself into being below his portrait, and he ripped out the page. He could feel it tear like an open wound.

     The smell stuck to him, the sweetness invading his clothes, his hair, until at last, it became a part of him. He rolled up the portrait, and stuck it in the bottle. Watched it dissolve.

     He left through the front door. It opened silently. 

     He cut through a few backyards, stuck to the shadows, and when he was far enough away, he moved out to the sidewalk, under the streetlights. He had no idea where he was going. He supposed he would find the nearest Door, but he didn’t know where it was. He let his feet guide him. 

     They guided him, unsurprisingly, to Maya’s house. The Door was there, too; he hadn’t really been looking, before, but this time, it was glaringly obvious, expanding out from the middle of the street. He considered his book for a moment, then slid it into Maya’s mailbox. He hoped she’d get the message. 

     The key, as always, was in his pocket. He unlocked the door, and as its bright light filled the street, for one, last second, Will hesitated, and looked up. 

     The lights were on in Maya’s room. He could just barely make her out, watching through the window. In the morning, he figured, she would think this was all a dream. 

     He took a deep breath, and disappeared through the door. It closed behind him. 

     There was nothing on the other side.