Fiction  March 2016 | issue 483

The Portal

by Debbie Urbanski

Debbie Urbanski is a writer who lives in central New York. She is obsessed with mountains, vegetarian cookbooks, and the herd of stink bugs that wanders around her home.

The second portal to Mere had been two feet high and three feet across. Amber knew this because later she returned to that exact spot beside the woods and measured where the portal had been using her wooden school ruler. She did not know the size of the first portal because she had been much younger then — just six; she was seventeen now — and so she had overlooked many important details. In the back of her notebook she recorded the second portal’s measurements, and beside those numbers she drew a crude sketch of the surrounding landscape, indicating the portal’s precise former location: low to the ground and in the shade, as if it hadn’t wanted to be noticed or had no need to be. It hadn’t appeared in the center of the woods, where the canopies of branches crowded closest together and there was a tinge of darkness even at noon, but at the spot where the trees ended and the athletic field began. When she turned, Amber could see the soccer nets set up for the afternoon game and, farther down the field, a pair of frisbees rising into the air. What had even drawn her to this spot? A glimmer like a piece of lost jewelry in the dead leaves. But the real source of the glimmer had been the light from that other place, Mere: a glimpse of its foreign sky. There had been no omens to suggest that, by going through the portal a second time, Amber would ruin the rest of her life: no bats circling the entrance nor enormous crows cawing ominously from nearby branches. Even if there had been bats and crows, I believe Amber would have gone anyway.

The portal resembled a sheer curtain. To pass through it, she had to get down on her hands and knees. It was like crawling through a sheet of tepid water. On the other side the portal was high up in the limbs of a large and peculiar tree, and Amber fell upon arrival, landing in a pile of swollen fruit that the branches had dropped. Because this was her second time, and she was older, she intended to pay closer attention. Her first time through she had acted as if a portal to another world were a commonplace occurrence. All she had done was run barefoot once around the tree, ignoring the dirt path that led down the hill to the village. Then, as if expecting the portal to remain open indefinitely, she’d leapt back through and gone home. The following day she’d returned to the woods, a knapsack on her back, only to find nothing there, the portal having moved on, portals to other worlds being notoriously transient things. She’d spent the rest of that summer in tears.

This time Amber did not make the same mistake.

Above her in the tree, the second portal appeared to breathe, its borders pulsing in and out. Looking back through it, she recognized where she’d come from: the slight dimness of the woods and, beyond that, the hill where her classmates raced toward the parking lot. The kinds of images a person might toss into a drawer and forget.

She felt something like wings brush her shoulders.

Then Zef put his hand on her arm, and she turned around.

This place where Amber went is meant to be another world, in case this is still unclear to you. I do realize that, as an author, I’m not supposed to let my other worlds become utopias. At least, that was one successful writer’s advice to me when I told him I was working on this story. He explained that when portal worlds are utopias, it’s like a flashing neon sign that says: lazy writing. If we want such fantastic places to be believable (and who doesn’t want their writing to be believed?), they have to possess a substantial dark side.

“But what if I don’t want Mere to have a dark side?” I asked. “What if I’m trying to create a really pleasant world that might haunt someone for as long as they could remember it?”

“Then I guess you’re an amateur,” the successful writer said.

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