There is something tempting about doorways to nowhere. The three steps down from a street that stop at a bricked-up window. The sidewalk manhole no one has ever been able to open. The gap of air where two trees twist together, which, if you squinted at just the right angle, might appear to be a door. Cracks and tunnels and broken hideaways are all tempting, especially to a child. Especially to a small seven-year-old with wide eyes and unkempt hair, alone in an unfamiliar city, hands folded into the sleeves of a too-big coat.
The child shivers. It is cold out, but the shiver is from excitement. Pavement scuffs beneath muddy blue rainboots, puddles too few and far between to wash away the grime. Cars honk and swish, colored lights flickering from above and below, leaking florescence over dampened streets. The child walks as quickly as small legs are able, eyes fixed on the pair of adult shoes a foot or so ahead. A child in a city this large should not appear to be alone, so this child has carefully selected a succession of grownups to seem to belong to, at least until each veers off on some path of their own, and the child feels no urge to follow.
Now the latest grownup stops on a street corner and hails a taxi, so the child stops too, considering. It’s getting cold, and the lighting has faded to the dull orangish grey of city cloud cover when the sky beyond has grown dark. The child will need a place to stay. Somewhere dry, if not warm, and quiet, if not safe. A doorway, or an alley. Preferably somewhere with a pile of cardboard boxes perfect for a small body to crawl into. Food will have to be found, too, but not yet. For now, the pockets of the too-big coat are stuffed with crackers and trail mix, along with the wallet of a greasy-looking businessman. The wallet will be missed, but not sorely, and the child feels no shame.
The child crosses the street with a flock of pedestrians, hands still twined in sleeves of drooping brown canvas. The child has never owned a piece of clothing that fit. Has never been allowed to feel much ownership over clothing, or anything else, for that matter. But this is a good coat. Perfect for running away in.
At the other side of the crosswalk, the child stops suddenly, attention caught, irritating a small woman and her much smaller dog. The child ignores her glare and stays perfectly still, letting the tide of people part like water around a stone. The tide does part, despite the smallness and insignificance of a single solitary child. Something about this child’s presence puts care into feet that would normally trample. Perhaps it is the look of focused attention written on such small features, or the way the fading light catches on luminous eyes.
Across the street is a building made of cracked grey brick. The child stares at it, brow furrowed. Sunken into the side of the building is a stairway down; three steps, or maybe four, stopping at a tiny metal doorway set in the brick. The doorway is square, dotted with rust, shaped almost like the entrance to a dumbwaiter. And, somehow, the doorway appears to be shimmering.
It’s a small thing, barely visible, the way hot air might dance above a grill, or phantom water could sometimes shine on a stretch of highway. None of the grownups passing on the street appear to have noticed, but it draws the child’s eyes, keeping hold with an odd sort of urgency. Is it merely lamplight catching on a patch of steam? Some trick of city smog, or the consequence of staying awake too long? The child squints, hard. No. It’s not an illusion, not a trick. The space around that doorway is glimmering as if ringed with fairy lights, and there is only one way to find out why.
The child smiles, crosses the street again, and heads for the doorway. Who knows? Maybe it will lead to a safe place to sleep.
Shuffling out of the stream of pedestrians, the child stops at the top of the three stone steps and looks down. The doorway is definitely shimmering. Not just the space around it, but the doorway itself, shifts like a warped reflection. The child heaves a breath, humphs, and goes down the steps. Hesitates once in front of the doorway. Blinks, trying to force the glimmering shapes into something sensible. When it doesn’t work, the child holds out a hand to touch the door.
It feels like metal. Cold and riveted, scratchy in places where the rust has worn it away. But still undeniably solid. Impossibly so, as it has yet to stop twisting and warping and shining in the child’s vision, an optical illusion made real. The child traces a finger against the cold metal and lowers the hand. The doorway is solid. It shouldn’t be. It is.
Then a thought occurs, twisting and shimmering in time with the doorway itself. This is strange, yes. Possibly the strangest thing the child has ever encountered, outside of stolen story books. But, ultimately, it is still a door. When faced with a door, what do you do?
You ask to come in.
Once again, the child raises a hand, this time with eyes closed. Memories flit to the surface, beckoned by the child’s concentration. A cold woman with nothing to offer but bitterness and cruelty. A series of grimy motel rooms, night after night spent in loneliness and uncertainty. Faceless rows of people the woman reduced to marks, making use of the child in every scam. A break for freedom. A dark street in a big city on a chill night. A need, biting and urgent, for safety. For sanctuary. For help.
The door gives way beneath small fingers. The child smiles again, and steps through shimmering twists of shadow, into the darkness beyond.