There was a door in the giant cottonwood tree in Eva’s neighbors’ backyard.
Not a door with a peephole or bell or even a knob, but a twisting dark slit that began in the roots and pulled the bark wide up to about four feet high. It’s rotted, her dad always said, and her mom brought it up with the neighbors every barbeque: That old thing will lose a limb in the next big storm, and crash right down into Eva’s room. But the cottonwood towered three times higher than their house, sprawling its great gray limbs across three backyards, and showering them with bags-full of fluffy white seeds every spring. It weathered two hundred years at least of prairie thunderstorms. It wouldn’t ever die.
Nobody else believed it was a door, and when Eva told her mom that she saw a boy crawl out of it just at dusk on her fifteenth birthday, her mom didn’t even laugh. She just kept stripping ribbons into curls with a pair of scissors. The sound was like hard wind rattling the branches of the cottonwood, but cleaner and sharper because Mom did it so quick and smooth it wasn’t violent. It was art.
Eva hadn’t meant to tell her mom then, but the boy’s yellow hair had been tied up with red ribbons just like the birthday presents. He’d dug his fingers into the thick channels of bark and dragged himself out of the shadows inside the tree as if they were sticky. Bare feet, ragged green pants, and a tee-shirt inside out and backwards so that the tag flopped up to tickle his chin. Streaks of mud and something darker spread across his chest and the moment he was free of the tree, he saw Eva. She pressed a hand flat against the glass of her window and opened her mouth to say something. But he put his dirty hand up to his mouth and placed one finger across his lips.
And then he ran.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Eva” Mom said. Strip. A long pink ribbon bounced back against the wrapped box in a spiral of curls. “You’re fifteen and that’s plenty old to stop trying to get my attention with stories like this. As soon as these are wrapped, we’ll go to your party.”
Eva half didn’t believe herself, so she only sat there while Mom transformed plain boxes and bags into a garden of pink and red curls.
She hopped the chain-link fence into the neighbors’ yard two days after her birthday, with a flashlight even though it was three in the afternoon. Frost hardened the layer of dead leaves, making the crunch of her boots loud as thunder as she walked. The cold kept the smell down, too, but even then the dark mouth reminded her of the ocean. Salty death was the tree’s perfume, despite being half a continent away from any sea.
The inside curved in a crescent toward the center, and as far as Eva could see it was only soft, rotten wood, dried out and cold from the winter. She stepped three feet in, until it narrowed too much for even one of her shoulders. The beam of light she sent farther showed her more of the same.
The moment she stepped fully into the door, a roar surrounded her, like crashing waves. Eva pulled back and turned just in time to see her friendly neighborhood vanish into darkness. As she stood on the soft earth, all the shadows slipped closer. She blinked once and looked out at a rocky beach and angry gray ocean. She blinked again and saw a deep cave with stalactite teeth. The third blink offered her a forest dripping with moss.
Eva shut her eyes tightly and thought of her house. Of the wide picture window of their dining room, of the pale blue paint on the eaves, of her own bedroom window.
And when she looked, she saw the boy. He reached in, grabbed Eva’s hand, and pulled her out.
Eva stumbled down onto her hands and knees. The flashlight went out, and the boy crouched before her. Red ribbons still knotted his hair and his jacket was inside out this time, but now he had jeans and boots and plastic garden-gloves with a checkered pattern tucked into his waistband. “Don’t go in there,” he said. He was Eva’s age, but he spoke with a hushed, certain voice like priests and psychiatrists.
She said, “Who are you?” as she wiped dirt and bits of frozen leaves from her palms.
“Nobody.” His face tensed, eyes and mouth tightening as if he expected to be hit. “But you can call me Thomas.”
“I’m Eva.” She picked up the flashlight and shook it, but it wouldn’t turn on. When she glanced up, Thomas was gone. Eva turned in place, and the wind through the cottonwood branches made a sound like heavy, sudden rain. Salt and death wafted out of the tree, and she rushed inside.
She changed the batteries, but that flashlight never worked again.
Watching the door in the tree became more of a habit than anything else.
Dad knew exactly how many squirrels there were in a four block radius, because he tracked them day in and day out so they wouldn’t destroy his tomatoes. Mom knew precisely when to remove bread from the oven by the smell alone, because she’s made so many loaves in her lifetime. Eva’s brother had a passing record of astronomical proportions because he had thrown so many he could estimate the distance within six-inches.
For Eva, it should have been something like knowing how to tune her own piano or how much honey in her tea was too much, because people thought the only thing she did more than play the piano was drink truckloads of chamomile.
But it wasn’t. It was watching the door. She could see it through the picture windows while she perched on the bench and picked out the melody circling endlessly in her head. The door waited in the corner of her eye as she filled the kettle with water at the kitchen sink.
She was aware of it the way she was aware of her feet: whether sitting or dancing or pressing the damper pedal, she never forgot they were attached.
One long-shadowed afternoon, Eva stretched her hand wide to play notes an octave apart, back and forth, only two notes over and over, when her stomach twisted.
The door was taller than it was the moment before.
She waited for Thomas beside the neighbor’s aster bush. There was a trembling in the air rather like heat mirage, but the temperature hovered just around freezing. She stared into the shadows inside the door, her knees aching the longer she knelt, her fingers growing stiff because she left her gloves inside. But that’s why she was ready.
His hand clawed through the sticky shadows, and Eva leapt forward. Bracing her feet against the roots that swam up through the leaves, she thrust her hand forward and grabbed his bony wrist. With all her weight she leaned back. The door clung to him, but his fingers tightened on Eva’s, and with a pop, Thomas fell forward onto her.
For a moment there was nothing but the wind sounding like rain and his cold, cold breath on her cheek. His shirt was in tatters, hanging off him like spiderwebs, and he stared down at her with eyes all the colors of spring leaves. “Are you alright, Eva?” he said.
She realized his body was full on top of her own, but weighed about as much as a pillow. She could only nod.
Thomas leveraged himself up off her, rolling onto his feet to crouch between her and the door in the tree. His fingers splayed against the ground, and there was blood caught under the nails. A red string of tiny bells hung across his chest like a bandolier. “This door isn’t safe anymore,” he said. “They’ll follow me through it now.”
“Why?” There were so many questions to ask, and that was only Eva’s first, not the most important.
As she slowly sat up, Thomas tilted his head and answered, “Because I’ve passed through it three times in three months. Once arriving, once to pull you out, and once today. And because you’re like a beacon, watching the door all the time.”
“Who are they?”
In a snap, the boy was on his feet. “Do you have toys?”
Eva didn’t understand.
“Toys? Like Legos or dolls?”
She could feel confusion pulling at her lips, and bit them together instead. “Why?”
Thomas put his hands on her shoulders. They were the exact same height. Eva touched his bare wrists again and stared. She thought he was only fifteen, too, but slim and taught and wild. “Eva,” he said softly, and she felt again the cool touch of his breath. How could it be so cold, as if his insides were as cold as the outsides? “Eva, you can’t ask so many questions, or I’ll have to make you forget.”
Her gaze shifted past him to the door. The melody she’d been trying to write spun through her head again, intimately tied to the shadows there. It was all the same: the door, the music, the boy.
“It would be better,” he continued. “As long as you know, you’ll keep attracting them.”
“No. Don’t you dare.” She tugged away from him. “I’ll help you close it.”
Disappointment pressed down the corners of his mouth. But he rallied fast and said, “Then I need toys.”
In the attic they found an old plastic bin filled with My Little Ponies and G.I. Joe and Bratz and, just as he’d asked for, a pile of Legos.
Thomas grabbed a dusty pillowcase and filled it with the plastic building blocks. He dug into the bin and pulled out Eva’s brother’s old pirate sword. Thomas’s eye lit up and he flashed a quick grin. It made him look younger and more real, but too fast it was gone. As Eva followed him back out, glad the house was empty except for Mom down in the laundry room, she said, “I thought you used iron to stop fairies.”
He froze in the center of the kitchen, and she saw tension slide under his skin, tightening all the muscles across his bare shoulders. The tip of the plastic pirate sword lowered until it hovered just over the vinyl floor.
Before she could add anything, he spun around and pressed her up to the counter so that the edge cut into the small of her back. The tip of the sword poked into her neck, and Thomas bared his teeth. “Who are you?”
“Back off of I’ll scream,” she said, proud that she wasn’t shaking yet. “My mother is downstairs.”
“You see the door, you know what they are. Tell me your name, before I throw salt in your eyes and pour soda down your throat.”
“Eva,” she whispered. “My name is Eva, and I’m just who I said I was. Soda and salt don’t hurt me.”
His eyes flicked back and forth between hers, and in one sudden motion, Thomas stood several feet away from her, sword down. He bent and picked up the pillowcase of Legos.
“Iron doesn’t work anymore,” he said quietly, heading back outside. “They’ve adapted.”
Thomas gave her the pillowcase and told her to bury the Legos in a circle around the cottonwood tree. “This door is old, and unused because of all your houses being built here. Too much synthetic material to make it comfortable anymore. But they could come after me if they wanted to, and they’ll want to because you’re calling them.”
Her fingers were covered in dirt, and she used a trowel from the garage to chip into the cold earth. Eva tested all her questions silently before settling on, “What have you done to them?”
“That’s all?” She glanced up at him, where he was tracing lines against the bark with the tip of the pirate sword. As he moved, the bells tied around his chest rang quietly. He held himself as if he didn’t feel the cold, but a fine trail of goose-bumps shivered up his arms.
“I’ve killed them, too.”
She stared at his hand on the hilt of the sword. He gripped it so tight the plastic bent. “Because they’re dangerous?”
“Especially when someone knows about them.” Thomas didn’t have to glance at Eva for the threat to be apparent.
“Like the mob,” she said, trying to lighten the mood.
Then he did turn to her, a long look over his shoulder. His eyes trailed from the crown of her head to where her hands dug into the dirt. Something about the set of his jaw made Eva work faster. She wanted to be done, to be away and back inside at her piano where all she did was watch. What was she doing here, burying toys with a strange boy who’d crawled out of a tree?
Eva completed the circle of Legos just as Thomas came to her and held down his hand. “Nearly finished,” he said, weaving his fingers through hers.
“The circle of plastic keeps them out?”
“It’s binding, and poisonous to them.” Thomas positioned her beside him just in front of the door. Over his shoulder she could see through the picture windows and into the house. Her piano was a shadow as dark as anything. He said, “The sword will root the spell into the doorway. And the sacrifice ties everything together.”
Eva looked back at the boy as he stepped nearer to her. “Sacrifice?”
“You’re anchoring the door with your watching. With your certainty.” His voice was thick, and his breath whispered cool against her mouth. This close, he was all she could see: his wild green eyes, the ribbons knotting his hair. “I’m sorry.”
She believed him.
But she didn’t have time to stop him.
All other Thomas stories: found here!
image by Astrid Westvang, via flickr CC.