Ben Crowder / Writing

Unlocked

Fantasy. Around 15 pages. Published August 27, 2022.

Picture a family bustling about the house as they get ready to leave for a trip. It’s a journey shorter than you might expect, one they’ve taken dozens of times, but each time they treat it as if it were once in a lifetime.

That’s because of Rob, the father. He’s the tall, slightly hunched, gangly man with jet black hair in a clean, crisp ponytail. He’s pacing the house calling out the kids’ names, begging them to go to the bathroom before they leave. Even though there are bathrooms in their house on the other side. Even though the journey is only twenty paces on this side and a couple miles on the other.

Willow, the mother, has baby Annie perched on her hip while she gets more wipes for the diaper bag and washes the lunch off Annie’s hands and face and tries to do Huffy’s hair, even though nobody on the other side cares what anyone else’s hair looks like. Huffy is four and grimly determined to cling to whatever independence she has, including the right to not have her hair done. Willow is about to lose the battle. She has done her own hair, though — a ponytail matching her husband’s, though hers is bright red.

That leaves Zane, six. He’s limping because of an errant baseball (yes, he shouldn’t have run onto the field, so really he was the errant one). He’s lost a couple teeth and will show the gaps to you multiple times a day. And, most importantly for now, Zane is the one who found the door in the first place. Found where it went, that is.

See, the Portwell family — Rob and Willow and offspring — lives in Lionsbeard, one of the less popular outer-ring suburbs skirting Dremmers. The Portwells purchased the home six years ago and moved in a week before Zane was born.

In the southwest corner of the ample backyard stands a shed: an ugly, squat, concrete thing built two owners ago for inexplicable prepper reasons. It’s around eight by ten feet, it’s seven feet tall, and the ever since Annie was born, this part of the yard has been off the Portwells’ radar, so the weed stalks surrounding it have sprouted waist high.

The steel door to the shed was locked when they saw the house and was still locked when they moved in. A sturdy, solid lock, too. Rob and Willow both tried to jimmy it open but gave up before long. They hired two separate locksmiths to come do a professional job of it. Both failed.

The Portwells talked more than once about razing the shed, since it was useless locked — and more than a little creepy, at least in Rob’s mind, since someone could be living in there, coming and going in the night. He’d read stories. But the cost to tear it down — this wasn’t a huge surprise to them — was more than they could afford.

So there the shed stood for their first five years in the house.

Then one day Zane was roaming the yard, as he was wont to do. He jiggled the knob on that door, as he always did. This time, though, it turned.

To the Portwells’ everlasting relief, Willow was on the porch that day nursing Annie. She saw the door open. She saw the sky on the other side. She screamed at Zane and, for once, he listened. Rob heard the scream and sprinted out of the house, worried he was too late.

It didn’t take long before that initial panic washed away and revealed curiosity underneath. A portal to another place. Incredible. Was it some kind of illusion? A trap? A blessing? Who made it? Which part of the country did it open to?

What they saw when they looked through the doorway was this: a clearing skirted by clumped groves of trees, with a broad dirt path perhaps twenty paces away and a rough saddlehorse fence along it. Western America, clearly. They couldn’t see anything to clue them in more specifically than that, though. (Neither Rob nor Willow knew much about plants or trees or dirt.)

Sounds and smells came through the door, too. The cawing of birds. The scent of some plant Willow thought she’d smelled as a child when visiting the New Mexico desert.

When Rob realized he could feel wind from the other side, he closed the door, worried that the temperature or pressure differential between here and there would stir up problematic weather patterns of some kind.

Willow opened it right up again and tossed a handful of small rocks through. They landed and rolled as expected, bending plants that were in the way, sending up little clouds of dust. She closed the door and the Portwells had a talk.

The talk lasted several days, running through and around their mundane routines. Willow wanted to go through the door. Rob felt that was insane. Willow felt that it was insane not to.

You can guess who won.

As Rob sprays sunscreen on the kids’ arms and legs, he’s thinking back on their first trip. Tentative, nervous, fearful. That was him. Willow, in contrast, was pure excitement, like nothing he’d seen in her before. Buzzing, glowing. Alive for the first time in her life.

And so the Portwells opened the shed door one spring Saturday morning. They propped open the door with a large cinder block (Rob’s idea). They’d left a notarized will on the kitchen counter (also Rob’s idea). They lugged heavy backpacks with enough food and water for three days (Willow’s idea, actually). They were ready.

The other side was surprisingly, almost disappointingly normal at first.

Rob and Willow took photos of the door from the other side, so they’d be able to find it again. It was embedded in the side of a rangy hill of dirt and rock, spotted with low shrubs. It looked to their eyes like the entrance to an old mine. They wondered — and not for the first time — who made this door and why.

The dirt path followed the base of the hills down a bit and then curved behind the hill out of their view. In the other direction it led out across a flat plain with nothing in sight for a mile or two.

The Portwells decided to go around the hill, to have a better idea what their options were. They went that way, and found that the path went down an incline into a large, flat valley. A couple miles down, there was what looked like a village, with concentric rings of thatched-roof huts. On the other side of the valley, just where it started to turn into hills again, there was another village.

Rob commented on how it would be nice if they could get their minivan through the door. Willow joked about buying a couple motorcycles.

They returned home shortly after that because the kids were hot and bored.

The next time, though — which happened to be the next day because Willow’s curiosity was alive and kicking — the Portwells took bicycles with them. They still had to go slow because of Zane and Huffy, but it was better than walking. (At least they told themselves that.)

Rob worried that the village might not take to visitors and that soon they would find themselves slow-roasted over a hungry fire or pincushioned with poisoned darts. Luckily for the Portwells, this time reality proved more kind than killer. The villagers welcomed them with open arms.

There was a language barrier at first, but subsequent visits helped with that. Gradually (it took longer than you might think), they learned that this was not western America after all. Nor Earth, as far as they could tell.

The main question between Rob and Willow at the time was what to do about their discovery. Should they tell? If so, who? The Portwells felt sure that if they told anyone, their home would no doubt be seized, one way or another. Whether they’d be paid to relocate was unclear and not something they wanted to gamble on. So they told no one, and they hoped that people didn’t wander into their backyard while they were gone.

The villagers on the other side insisted on building a house for them, so they could stay with them longer. Willow of all people resisted, but in the end their kindness proved indomitable and the house was built. It looked primitive on the outside but turned out to be surprisingly modern inside, if modern in a different direction.

The house was so comfortable and the village so pleasant that the Portwells ended up spending more and more time there. They’d been visiting on and off for over a year when Rob first suggested that they stay for good. Go off the grid back on Earth. Close the door and lock it from this side.

Willow was shocked. She’d been having similar thoughts but had convinced herself that Rob would never go for it.

They made plans. They arranged for Willow’s nephew and his wife and baby to housesit for them, and left a will deeding the house and land and car to them. Rob took all his PTO in one chunk, to delay the inevitable day when his employer wondered why he hadn’t come in and wasn’t responding.

The Portwells knew that at some point things would fall apart back in this world. They’d leave a sad cloud of dread and mystery behind them. Their friends and family would probably think they’d died or been kidnapped. They wanted to tell them, but worried that then everyone would follow them and the other side would soon be colonized and ruined by greedy expansionists.

So today they’re ready to go and they know they’re leaving a mess behind them. They feel a little bad about it, but they believe the consequences on the other side will eventually fade and things will go back to normal.

They’ve talked about whether they should try to destroy the door once they’re through. Locking it instead seems more prudent, in case there’s an emergency and they need to go back. They don’t expect that to actually happen, though.

Willow herds Zane and Huffy and Annie toward the shed. Rob locks the house (they’ve given a key to the nephew) and follows them.

The Portwells aren’t bringing much with them on this last voyage. They’ve already made several earlier trips with all the belongings they want to have with them in their New World. Keepsakes, Willow’s flock of diaries, the eight annual photo books Rob has painstakingly put together, the kids’ favorite blankets, clothes, first aid kits, silverware, books, Willow’s art supplies, Rob’s guitar from his dad, to name just part of it. It’s all in their house on the other side, safely secured and waiting for them.

The moment comes. They turn around and say goodbye to their house, their yard, their friends, their family, their world. Rob has last-second doubts but the momentum is unstoppable now. They are pioneers, he reminds himself. Exploration is rarely comfortable. The new world is better in so many ways, too.

Willow reaches the door first. She turns the knob.

Tries to turn it, rather.

The door is locked.

Willow tries several more times, with increasing frustration and panic. The knob won’t turn. Rob takes over, hoping maybe it’s just stuck. He secretly feels a small amount of relief.

“All our stuff,” Willow says. “It took it all.”

Rob’s relief vanishes. “Anthropomorphizing the door isn’t going to help,” he says. He regrets it immediately. “We’ll get it all back.” Mere words. He knows, and Willow knows, somewhere deep inside, that the door will never again open for them. Their time has come and gone.

“Was any of it real? Are we crazy people?” Willow says with jagged pain in her voice. She’s lying on her back on the weeds, letting Annie crawl around because nothing matters anymore. The dream is shattered. Zane is staring at the doorknob. Huffy is plucking blades of grass and trying to whistle with them.

Rob is still trying to jimmy the lock. He’s looking around for something to stick into the gap between jamb and door. His credit cards are in his wallet, which is in a small safe tucked away under some loose floorboards in the attic, covered by a rug. The house is locked, awaiting the nephew and his family, otherwise Rob would run in and grab a butter knife. Their copy of the key is on the kitchen table, safe and secure.

A frustrated hour slips by. Willow and the kids are sitting under one of the trees along the fence. Rob is still at it, stubborn and unrelenting.

“It’s over, honey,” Willow says. “We need to get inside.”

That is the problem indeed. Their nephew isn’t coming till tomorrow. Their phones are inside in that safe. And they would rather not break a window when they now have to sleep in the house tonight. (If they can get in.)

They’re in. They went to their neighbor’s and called the police over. Things got messy for a bit with proving their identity, but after a painful hour they got through it and the police left and now they’re sprawled out in the living room recovering from it all.

“It doesn’t feel like our house anymore,” Willow says. Her red hair is wild now from all her agitated fiddling with it. She’s on the green velvet sofa.

Rob nods from his rocking chair. “Probably because it’s empty.”

He hears himself and winces. It’s not technically empty at all — all the furniture is still here — but when it comes to the things they care about, it’s a bleak wilderness. (Their children are not things. If they didn’t have Zane and Huffy and Annie, who knows what they would do at this point.)

“We should check the door every day.” Willow has a determined look on her face. “Maybe even a few times a day. If it’s ever going to open again, that’s how we’ll know. Don’t want to miss our window.”

Rob nods again. Everything feels hazy and floating, like a dream. Is he actually even here in this room? Hard to tell. “But realistically” — a word now without much meaning to him — “we need to accept that we probably are not going to see those things again.” He wills himself not to think about them. It’s only when he’s remembering the guitar (and by extension his deceased dad) or the other items that he feels sad, so he just needs to forget. He knows they can move on from this. “It’s just stuff.”

Willow stays silent for a long time. The kids play. Most of the toys are still here, though these are the ones the kids didn’t care for as much.

Willow goes upstairs and locks herself in the bathroom. Even from down here Rob can hear her sobbing.

Every day at 8, noon, 4, and 8 they check the door. If it ever opens, they have their trusty cinder block ready to keep it open long enough for them to get through.

Days and weeks go by. Willow is struggling. She put her heart into those diaries, and with them gone it feels like she’s lost part of her body. Seeing her pain, Rob wishes he’d followed through on his year-old to-do list item to scan the diaries with his phone. Then at least the words wouldn’t be lost, even if the paper was.

Their relationship with the nephew and his wife has deteriorated, thanks to the Portwells’ reneging on the deal. They did offer to let the nephew stay with them anyway, but he and his wife were apparently only interested in having the house to themselves. He doesn’t return Willow’s texts anymore.

Rob and Willow have remained on the periphery of their social circles because if that door opens, they’re gone for good.

Or at least that was the original plan, held to because it was the plan. But Rob’s having even more second thoughts. If the door were reliable and he was the one locking it, sure. But being locked against their will (if they changed their minds) in some other world is less and less appealing. He’s started worrying that maybe the door will open.

One month after move day, Willow is in the backyard on her watering rounds. The weeds — which she’s not watering — have been tamed for now by a mow. Her phone bleats its 8:00 alarm, and so she tries the knob to the shed.

She doesn’t expect anything to happen. She’s done this multiple times a day for weeks now with nothing happening. Just one stubborn knob that refuses to turn.

The Portwells have spent hours theorizing why the door is locked (they grew too old, the other side is not intended for permanent residence, someone on the other side locked it, the door can only be open certain parts of the year or for a certain amount of time, it’s an old lock that broke in an inconvenient way, etc.). Nothing has come from this.

Willow’s hand clutches the knob, hesitant as always. She swallows.

She twists the knob.

The lock gives.

Willow Portwell pulls open the door, her heart already beginning to soar at the imminent restoration of her journals, at the resurrected hope within her heart.

Then she sees what’s behind the door. Not the other world. Not even the mundane innards of a dingy shed.

No, to her confusion she gets an odd wave of vertigo and sees a frothy maw of lava and brimstone, burbling at a frenetic pace. It feels like the devil himself is breathing hot on her face, and the sulphuric smell is unbelievably rank.

She’s in shock. This is not the other world, clearly.

There’s something white and glistening amid the fire. It’s getting bigger. Closer. Two tails whipping about in a frenzy. A jaw with far too many needlelike teeth.

Willow slams the door, her heart jackhammering, expecting any moment a thud and the sound of that awful, hideous thing scrabbling at the door. She holds the knob tight with all her strength and puts her full weight against the door, hoping it’ll be enough.

Annie’s in her crib, and Zane and Huffy are thankfully downstairs playing with toys. Rob is in the office. If Willow yells for him, she’ll wake Annie. So she waits, quiet on the outside, screaming on the inside.

There is no thud. No scrabbling. Nothing. It is almost worse this way, not knowing if the creature is there on the other side of the door biding its time, about to open it as soon as Willow’s grip begins to loosen.

For a long time Willow waits there. Her hands and back ache, but she won’t let herself be the reason a demon creature from hell — for surely that’s what that place is, she thinks — erupts into her world. The havoc it could cause…

She hears Annie crying, awake from her nap. She hopes Rob can hear her.

It’s in these long moments that Willow decides to let it all go. Not the knob — not quite yet — but the cherished belongings, the hope of a future on the other side, the house and neighborhood. They have to sell. They can’t live here anymore, not when there’s a door with this on the other side.

Eventually, at dusk, Rob comes out holding Annie on his hip, confusion all over his face. Willow explains. They switch places and Willow sinks to the grass with Annie on her lap.

After a minute or two Rob carefully tries to open the door. The knob doesn’t turn. It’s locked, the same it’s been every day for weeks.

Several weeks later, Rob rents a moving truck. He and Willow pack. It’s mostly furniture.

Then the Portwell family is off to a different part of the country. Their new house has no shed, no door, no exotic surprises. But it also has no unthinkable horrors, which more than makes up for it in Willow’s mind. (Rob was weirded out by the whole experience and would prefer to have nothing remotely interesting happen to him ever again.)

So they live their lives. Once in a while they think back on the door, but most of the time they leave it locked in the past. Better that way.

It all goes well until a couple years down the road, when the doorbell rings. Rob answers it. There’s nobody there, but lying on the porch is something that makes his stomach twirl and his throat seize up a little: there on the mat, staring at him like something ordinary when it’s anything but, is one of Willow’s long lost diaries.