by Gillian French
The house was a sad thing in the daylight. It sat on a hilltop, a sagging pile of weathered clapboards and crumbling brick, the gutters stuffed with the refuse of many seasons. It had been grand once, a two-and-a-half-story Colonial built facing the harbor; a huge, swaybacked barn sat on the property in its own private ruin.
Natalie and her cousin Teddy left their bikes at the base of the hill and blazed a trail through the brambles to reach the house. Teddy darted off on his own without a word to her and, within minutes, had completely disappeared.
“Watch out for old wells,” she called after him.
Natalie reached the front door and stopped to catch her breath. Waist-high weeds shot up around the granite step, and will-o’-the-wisps were everywhere, cottony gray heads waiting for one stiff breeze to scatter them apart. She stared at the tarnished gleam of the knob. How many times had she opened this door in her dreams? Approximately one million and three. So why resist it now? Simple. She was chicken.
“Come on, Teddy, where are you?” She waited, hands on her hips, and then called out over the fields, “Last one inside is a rotten corpse!”
With a scraping sound, the door opened inward. Teddy’s elfin face appeared in the gap, fringed by shaggy blond hair, a smudge of dust on one lens of his horn-rimmed glasses.
“You were saying?”
“How’d you get inside?”
“Easy. The back door’s open.” He studied her. “Scared?”
“Crapping bricks.” Natalie took a deep breath. “Let’s do it.”
As she stepped into the foyer, Natalie’s pulse quickened. The stained walls; the bowed center staircase; the dim and dusty corridor to the rear of the house—she knew it all. Had never set foot inside, and yet, she knew it.
“This is it. This is where I go in my dream.” She smacked his shoulder. “I told you.”
“Come on, most old houses around here probably look like this. Ye Olde Maine Shack.” He lifted a long peel of yellowed wallpaper with the toe of his shoe. “Is it this disgusting in your dream? Because I smell mice. And, like . . . dead things.”
“This is the house, Teddy. Fixed up and nice, but this is the hallway. It’s freaky, admit it.”
Her gaze drifted to the ceiling. In the dream, a frosted glass globe hung there; now, a hole gaped where the fixture had once been.
“I admit nothing.” He sneezed and dug in his pocket for tissues. “Nat. Seriously. My allergies don’t need this.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll make it fast.” She rubbed her forehead, thinking, then grabbed his shoulders and steered. “Let’s set up in the kitchen. That’s where the dream always takes me. End of the hall, on the right.”
The kitchen stared back at them, a dingy room with an enamel sink and splintered glass in the cupboard doors. Natalie saw herself reflected in fragments: tall and sturdy, ginger freckles, dark hair curling loose.
She took the digital voice recorder from her pocket and knelt, setting it on the floor with some reverence. She’d been planning this for so many months, imagining how it would be.
Teddy watched from the doorway, his slim arms folded. “You actually think this is going to work, don’t you?”
“If it doesn’t, then I guess we’ll finally know.” He raised his brows. She shrugged. “That I’m insane.” She pressed the record button, and said, “This is Natalie Rose Payson.” Her voice sounded hollow in the silence. “If somebody here is trying to reach me, I’m listening. I want to make contact.” A pause. “Just tell me what you want.”
The recorder remained, taking down the minutes as they slipped out the back door, shooting each other sidelong glances, their steps going faster and faster until it was a race, both of them pounding down the hill through chest-high weeds. Teddy was on his bike and pedaling down the lane before Natalie even reached her own, and she kicked dust after him.
On its perch, the house settled and grew another day older.
That night, Natalie slept fitfully in her aunt’s summerhouse. Above her, foxfire was dancing.
Three small lights rose from her body around one a.m., drifting like sparks. They played tag as Natalie frowned in her sleep. Flash, flash, they swirled around the room, casting patterns, signaling to each other in the darkness. The foxfire was as organic to her as breathing, and as unconscious. They were her silent ushers into the land of dreams, her observers during the day.
In time, they drifted across the room to hover over Natalie, their host, then sank into her chest one by one, glowing briefly against the fabric of her T-shirt before vanishing.
Natalie jerked, her fists bearing down against the mattress. The same nightmare was back. Tonight, with a twist.
She flew, buffeting on cross breezes. Below her, the house seemed to float in a sea of field and forest. Her singular destination. She descended and passed through the front door.
It was snowing inside. Flakes drifted down from the ceiling, glittering in the lamplight. Natalie continued on, past a moon-faced clock, a carved rack with a mirror. From another room, music played softly.
At the end of the corridor, the kitchen doorway glowed. Natalie went in.
China covered every surface. Plates and bowls, teacups and saucers, all brimming with snow, evidence of some Mad Hatter’s party. On a woodstove sat a copper kettle. The steam from the spout had hardened into ice.
Slowly, she turned to face a door to her left set with six panes of glass. This was the dream’s apex; it always ended here, with her own face staring back from the glass.
But tonight, there was a shift.
As Natalie moved closer to the door, she heard whispers.
Girls’ voices hissed around the frame. “Natalie,” they said. “Natalie.”
She opened the door to blackness colder than the pits of January.
Gillian French's YA paranormal thriller The Door to January was a 2018 Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Superior Achievement in a Young Adult Novel.