There and Not There by C.J. Dotson

We all read the stories when we were little, didn’t we? A bunch of children go into a wardrobe, or through a tiny door that’s only bricked over sometimes, or find a secret key, go down a rabbit hole, cross a bridge, fall into a book, vanish. Then there’s magic, and adventure, and villains for the children to test themselves against. At the end they come back and no time has passed, no one realized they were gone.

It’s bullshit.

Not the magic passageway part. I bet that wardrobe in England is as real as the toolbox in my garage right now buried under a pile of junk. It’s the part where the adults never notice anything is amiss. That’s bullshit.

My son was two when he started talking about the door. He would stand in front of the wall between the couch and the fireplace for ten minutes at a time – a long stretch for a two year old’s attention span – and lay a hand on the wall, and say “door, door, door.” I thought maybe the woodwork around the bricks surrounding the hearth reminded him of a door frame. I tried to correct him. “Wall,” I’d say, “Fireplace. Bricks.”

“Door, door, door.”

He started pushing on it. He never went to the other side of the fireplace, even though the woodwork and the bricks were the same. It was that one spot, every time. “Door. Door.” Pushing.

Once I saw him kneel down and lean very close to the wall, his nose brushing it, squinting. It looked for all the world like he was trying to peer through a keyhole. But of course there was no keyhole. There was no door.

When he was four we took the toddler-proof cover off of his bedroom doorknob. He’d been potty trained for a year and he was a big enough boy now to go to the bathroom by himself at night, then get back into bed.

Except that he stopped going back to bed after a week or two. I came downstairs one morning, thinking I’d woken up before him, and found him asleep in the living room. He was curled up on the floor by the wall that he called door.

I took it in stride. When he first got his big boy bed he spent a year sneaking out of it to sleep on the floor in front of his bedroom door before he finally started sleeping in the bed all night. New freedoms always meant a new adjustment period.

So once, maybe twice a week I’d wake up in the morning to find him on the floor in front of the wall next to the fireplace. Sometimes he’d still be asleep, and those were better mornings. Sometimes he woke up before I did, and on those days I came downstairs to see him sitting silently with his back to me, cross legged, leaning close to the wall.

“What are you doing there, buddy?” I asked, and he jumped. Not like I’d startled him, but like I’d caught him breaking a rule.

“I really just want to go through that door, mommy,” he said, with a hint of tears in his voice. “Please, can I go in it?”

When I reminded him that it’s not a door he threw one of his all time biggest tantrums. I’d taught him a few months earlier that sometimes people think of things differently, so rather than telling me I was lying he wailed, over and over, “You’re mistaking, mommy, you’re mistaking! It is a door, you’re mistaking!”

He was tired, I told myself, from getting up in the night to sneak downstairs. And who knew how long he’d been awake? He just wanted me to play along, and instead of letting him have his game I’d ruined the fun and sparked a tired temper tantrum.

I tried to make it up to him. I used cardboard and paint to make a little door and I propped it up against the wall. He loved it, until he opened it and the wall was still there on the other side. Then the temper tantrum resurfaced, like they do sometimes when a little kid’s big feelings haven’t been resolved so much as pushed out of the spotlight for a moment. He said that the door was broken, that it wouldn’t work when I was in the room.

At some point that day my son got rid of the faulty cardboard door. I looked all over for it, and I couldn’t find where he’d hidden it. He wouldn’t tell me. It’s concerning, when your four year old has a secret hiding place that you can’t find. What else might wind up there? But there was no sign of that cardboard door.

Over the next year he seemed to gradually stop going to sleep in front of the wall in the living room. I thought so anyway. But a couple of months ago I was using the restroom in the middle of the night and I heard his bedroom door shut, very quietly. I finished in the restroom and went to his room, easing the door open to see him climbing back into bed. “What were you doing up?” I asked him, going to tuck him back in since I was up anyway.

“I was going to the bathroom,” he said.

“No, I was in the bathroom,” I said. I glanced at the clock. It was nearly seven, but still dark. The sun wouldn’t rise for a while, and with the snow I could see building up on his window it would seem to stay dark even longer. “What were you doing?”

He was already mostly asleep again, and his mumble was hard to make out. It sounded like, “I just needed to check on something over there.”

A few weeks later when I woke up in the morning I couldn’t find him anywhere. It wasn’t a long time, just long enough to realize that he wasn’t in his bed or watching cartoons, just long enough to search the entire house and feel the heavy numbness settle into my belly. Not quite long enough to begin to wonder if I should look outside first, or wake up my husband first, or call the cops first. Then there was a noise, sort of a scrape and a shush. I turned, and there he was in the living room, in the act standing up as if he’d just been crawling. His back was to the wall where he had always said the door was, the couch half-obscuring him.

“Why didn’t you answer me when I was looking for you?” I demanded, crossing the room fast, relief and anger mingling in a way that I had never felt before becoming a parent, “You scared the sh – the heck out of me! How’d you fit behind that couch?”

“What?” he said with a frown, shadows under his eyes. Had he slept at all the night before? Or had he spent it all sitting in front of that wall or behind the couch? I eyed the narrow gap between the wall and the furniture. How had he fit behind the couch? His gaze traveled from my face to the window, the sunshine, and he looked shocked. “Is it daytime?” he asked.

I felt my brows draw together. “C’mon, man, don’t ask questions like that. You’re looking at the window, you tell me if it’s daytime.”

How is it daytime?”

I tried to talk  to him about hiding from me, then, about what kinds of jokes are funny to play and what kinds aren’t, but he wouldn’t admit that he’d been playing a joke on me at all. In the end he wound up losing his temper, and had to have a time out.

I wish now that I had listened. But who would have? Who would have listened to made up excuses about going through an invisible door in the middle of the night? Nobody. It wasn’t my fault.

But two weeks ago when I came downstairs in the morning there was dirt on the floor next to that damn wall, ground into the carpet with bare footprints. Partially crushed in the dirt was a narrow green leaf and half of a wilting flower. We don’t keep potted plants in our house – between the cat and my husband’s terrible hay-fever, we just can’t. And it’s February. Where did the leaf and the flower come from? Not from around my house, it’s still snowing half the time. When my son came downstairs for breakfast not long after, his feet were dirty and he either wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me how this had happened.

When something in the world isn’t making sense, most people either try to force it to fit in with what they know, or they ignore it. I was still vacillating between the two when I saw the door at last. Between his sneaking out of the room and his behavior lately, I had decided to dig up my son’s old baby monitor and plug it back in. So a week ago when he woke up and left his room at three in the morning, it woke me up.

I crept to my bedroom door and turned the knob as slowly as I could, eased the door open just enough to peer out, and watched my son close his own bedroom door almost as slowly and quietly. He had a flashlight in one hand, a gift from my mom, but it wasn’t turned on yet. He navigated the house in the dark, fearless. I followed. When he was a fitfully-sleeping baby I’d memorized where every creaky part of the floor was, and I was able to move silently behind him. I wanted to catch him in the act of doing whatever mysterious rule-breaking he was doing and just handle this problem once and for all.

As he took the last step down he lost some of his stealth, perhaps confident in the distance he’d put between himself and my and my husband’s bedroom. I finished my creep to the bottom of the stairs to see him disappear into the living room. I moved silently down the hall, and leaned around the entry to the room, just in time to be blinded by a bright light. For an instant I thought it was his flashlight, that he’d heard me coming and turned the light behind him to see what was there, and I’d gotten it right in the face. It was too bright, though. Daylight-bright, and with it there was a gentle breeze and a sound of birdsong. I blinked the dazzle out of my eyes just as the light began to fade, and looked in time to see the door in the wall shut and vanish into the creamy paint as smoothly as if it had never been. There was a lingering smell in the air, fresh, like a forest in springtime.

I called for my son, I looked all through the house, quiet, trying not to wake my husband because waking him up and telling him our son was gone would make it real. But it was real. I tore the house apart for two hours. Our son had disappeared, and searching the house a second time wouldn’t help. I knew where he’d gone. In the end I found myself on my knees on the floor between the fireplace and the couch. I laid my hands flat on the wall, rubbing the smooth paint and pushing the solid bricks, then picking between the woodwork and the wall with my fingernails, scratching at the baseboard. There was nothing there.

My body felt cold and heavy when I stood up and turned to go upstairs and wake my husband, my knees weak and hands shaky. I had just left the living room when I heard the scrape and the shush again, and the hallway was washed with ambient light. There was the sound of a stiff breeze in branches and a low voice murmuring something I couldn’t quite catch. I turned with my heart in my throat, and when my son’s voice answered the low one I choked on a sob. At the sound there came a gasp and a slam and the light cut off, so that when I burst back into the living room it was dark and quiet again. There was my son, standing by the wall, his flashlight missing and his feet and the bottoms of his pajama pants muddy.

It took me some time to calm down. It took him some time to realize that I wasn’t angry with him, that I’d been terrified. And then he told me everything. About how he had always seen the door, could see it and touch it even now though all I saw and felt was the wall. How he’d been able to look through he keyhole and under the crack and see “the magic place” for as long as he could remember, but the door had never opened until sometime last year. He’d gone through it and made friends with “the magic people” living there, and he was helping them fix some problems.

“You can’t do it anymore, buddy,” I said at last, and he looked shocked. “It’s not safe. You can’t leave without a grownup. It’s not allowed, okay?” Shock transformed into fury and tears.

I remembered those books we all read as kids and how badly I’d wished I could tumble into a painting and have a sea adventure, how once or twice I’d secretly read the spells or incantations out loud hoping for something I wouldn’t let myself articulate even in my own mind. I thought of how desperately I had wanted it, and what I would have said if I’d found it and my parents had pulled me back and told me that I absolutely wasn’t allowed to go. I looked at my son, five years old in his muddy pajamas with his tired eyes, and knew that this was the first time in his life that he hated me.

He hated me worse when I moved the couch to cover that part of the wall, and when I rummaged around the basement until I found the doorknob cover left over from the year or so before. I put it on the inside of his bedroom door.

That was a week ago, and it should have been the end of it. Over time we could convince ourselves that it was all make believe, and everything would be okay. It should have been over.

I suppose that he could have taken the doorknob cover off by himself. They’re for toddler-proofing, and he’s five, and smart, and stubborn. He could have done it. I have no idea how he moved the couch, though. Or if he did it at all. Who opened the door for him that first time? And why did it never occur to me that anyone who can open a door can use it? That the things from the other side could come here?

My son has been gone for two days now. The police are investigating but I know that they won’t find him. I haven’t left the house since he disappeared. I’ve barely left the living room. When I have to force myself to eat – a handful of lunch meat, a sleeve of crackers, whatever I can grab and leave the kitchen with – or when I have to use the restroom, I run there and back as fast as I can. I’m terrified I’ll miss it. I sit on the floor and I watch the wall. It has to open again. It has to. It has to.

My husband thinks I’m crazy. I think he secretly suspects me of something horrible. He doesn’t understand. He never saw the door. He never saw it but I did. I know it’s there. And something can’t be there and not there. It’s there.

I’m afraid that the time it’ll take to get it will be too long, but I really need to go bring the toolbox in from the garage.


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CJ Dotson
Photo by Amanda Farrenholz

C.J. Dotson has been reading for as long as she can remember, and writing for almost as long. She enjoys almost any genre, but particularly loves science fiction, fantasy, and horror. C.J. works in a bookstore and co-hosts a monthly sci-fi and fantasy book club. C.J. lives in the rust belt of Ohio with her husband, her teenage stepson, preschooler son, toddler daughter, and a dog and a cat. In what spare time she has, C.J. enjoys drawing with charcoal, painting with acrylics, baking, and cake decorating. C.J. Dotson has been previously published in The Cabinet of Heed.


Twitter: @cj_dots