A Door of My Own’, Tim Pratt

Illustrations © 2022 Carmen Moran

 [ Dark door, © 2022 Carmen Moran ] I found my room when I was eight years old, running from my foster mother when she was drunk, screaming, and flicking cigarette ash at my temporary siblings. I ran to the closet, thinking I should hide, but mostly thinking I wish I could go somewhere safe. For some reason I reached out with my left hand, the one with the key-shaped birthmark on the palm. The door opened, but instead of hanging coats and a tumble of smelly shoes I found a bare room, the floor beautiful blonde hardwood, the walls paneled in oak. The room looked huge (I shared a smaller one with three other kids), and when I was older, I measured it: fifteen feet by twenty feet, three hundred square feet all my own. I looked behind me, down the dark hall, toward the screaming. I stepped through and shut the door.

It was dark in my room, but quiet: the sound of my foster mother cut off instantly when I shut the door. On the other side, the closet door was light, hollow-core, with a plastic knob that looked like brass. From this side, the door was heavy wood, and the doorknob was a faceted crystal thing of glass. I stayed in the room that night until I had to pee, then crept out. I closed the door behind me, then opened it to check, and this time, there was nothing there but the closet. I felt a sudden surge of despair that I remember clearly even now, a dozen years later. I’d been given a miracle and walked away from it.

The house was dark, and after I went to the bathroom, I climbed into the bed I shared with my foster sister, who asked, “Where did you hide?”

“In the closet,” I half-lied.

“We looked for you in there.”

I shrugged. “I’m good at hiding.”

The next day at school I stared at the birthmark palm of my hand. If it even is a birthmark. It looks like a crisp black drawing of a skeleton key, the perfect oval of the bow placed just above the heel of my hand, and the shaft of the key extending through the center of my palm, straight up to the base of my middle finger, with three rectangular teeth pointed away from my thumb. The key looks like a tattoo, but I’ve had it since I was found in the maternity ward of an Oakland hospital with no record of my birth—like a cuckoo egg left in another bird’s nest—and who would tattoo a newborn? The key has remained perfectly proportioned as I’ve grown, too, instead of distorting as my flesh stretched and changed, which doesn’t seem possible, whether it’s a birthmark or a tattoo. I used to tell myself it was my inheritance from my secret parents. That they must have had a good reason to abandon me, but they left me with a gift, and maybe someday they’d come back for me, and know me by the mark they left behind. My mother must be a sorceress, my father a magus, royalty from another world, hiding me in this world until it was safe to come back for me… That fantasy that sustained me for a while. Never believe anyone who says fantasy is frivolous. It can be a wall holding back despair.

By the next year, I was in a different foster home (the other mother crashed her car while drunk and went to jail for a while), and I was sure the secret room had been a dream. My new parents weren’t drunks, but they were strict and religious, and it was all “say yes sir and no sir” and “girls are vessels of sin” and talk about rescuing me and the other kids from our base and bestial natures. Apparently little black girls like me were especially base and in need of salvation. They wanted to change my name from Nallah to Natalie, but even though “Nallah” was just what my first foster mother named me, I was attached to it, and held it in my mind. I didn’t own much, but I owned my name. (And my key.) That house was all prayers and washing mouths out with soap, and one Wednesday when they wanted to drag me to church again I reached out with my left hand and thought I wish I could go somewhere safe and stepped through the door to the kitchen and ended up in my secret room again, but just for a minute. Those parents would look for me if I disappeared, I knew, so I didn’t linger—just paused in the doorway long enough to realize the room was real again, and to think about miracles.

I began to practice. The combination of the key and ferocious intent could make any door lead to my private room. Locks were irrelevant—any door would open for me, locked or not, and not just to my room, either: my birthmark really was a skeleton key. By the time I was ten or so, I could get to my room whenever I wanted. I filched candles, matches, and a blanket, and went into my room whenever I needed an escape, or just a quiet place to do my homework. The room was never very hot or cold, but a constant cool temperature, like a deep basement or a cave.

I had to keep my power and my refuge safe and sacred, and never let anyone else see me go inside. When you grow up in the foster care system, you learn how to keep things to yourself, from candy bars to hair ties to secrets to socks, so that was all right. The room was a great solace. The only problem was, no matter how long I hid there, I always had to leave eventually, and re-emerged from the same door I’d entered through. I could get a little privacy, a little quiet, a little breathing room, but it was always only temporary.

When I was almost sixteen, and my foster father “accidentally” walked in on me in the bathroom for the third time, I decided having a room of my own meant I would never actually be homeless, so I ran away.

When any door can take you to a secret room no one else can enter, it’s not that hard to live on the streets. I didn’t have what you’d call a finely developed sense of ethics back then. (I didn’t fully comprehend the criminal possibilities of my powers, though, until I met Dwayne. But I’ll get to that.) I’d go into a store during working hours, find a door—to the stockroom, an office, even a bathroom stall—and push my way into my secret room. Then I’d while away a couple of hours reading by battery-powered lamplight. After the store closed, I’d emerge from my room into the shop, grab whatever I needed, take it back to my room, and sleep until morning. Then I’d just stroll out of the shop once it was open again, a perfect secret shoplifter.

One night spent in an IKEA furnished my room with a cute bedroom suite—no assembly required, since I just lugged the display models inside. Sure, my room didn’t have electricity or plumbing, but after I went to a fancy camping store and got a camp sink, camp stove, and a portable toilet, I was pretty much set. (Emptying the toilet reservoir was super gross, but I mostly used bathrooms at the library and stuff during the day, so I didn’t use it often.) I considered a generator, but it would have been too loud, so I settled for battery-powered lamps and paper books.

For a year or so my life was pretty sweet. My thieving skills meant I could get new clothes on the regular and pass for a kid with a normal home life, and I snuck into the gym or went to public pools to take showers when I got too ripe. During weekdays I’d stay in my room or in empty places (but never too far from a door, like a rabbit staying close to its burrow, I guess) until the afternoon, so nobody’d hassle me about not being in school. Then I’d read at the library, go to the movies, take walks, and case stores for future acquisitions—places with night security guards or motion-sensor alarms were too scary, but I just wore a hoodie and a bandana for the ones that had cameras. When you can disappear through any door, even locked ones, it’s not so scary to break the occasional law. I had clean clothes whenever I wanted them, and after I’d worn anything for a few days I passed them on to other people on the street—that made me feel better about all the stealing. I shared around a lot of stolen food, too. I didn’t do too many drugs, mostly because I was afraid of getting too loose and sharing my secret. Not actually sleeping outside spared me a lot of bad shit. I got mugged once, but they just wanted my money. I’d steal fancy clothes and sell them at the used clothing store for cash, mostly. I guess I could’ve robbed a bank or something, but it seemed like a lot of trouble and potential heat, and my needs were modest.

I had friends, mostly local kids and other runaways and drifters, but… Look, I read all the usual stories and watched all the usual movies about people falling in passionate wild love, but it was like watching something in a foreign language. I never felt things like that, for anyone of any gender, and wasn’t interested in having sex with anyone but myself, and even then I just rolled with the sensations—I didn’t make up a story in my head to go along with the good feelings. One day I was sitting on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley with this crunchy girl named Sandy who’d come down from Oregon to get away from the rain, and she was talking about how this guy she hooked up with sometimes had hooked up with this other girl behind her back. “It’s not like I even care about them doing the thing, you know? It’s the fact that he lied to me. Such a dick. That’s what he was thinking with, anyhow.”

Sandy was very chill, and I admired her a lot for her courage and calm and self-assurance, and also I was a little high, so I said, “I don’t get it. I never feel that kind of, whatever, attraction to anybody. I think being abandoned as a baby and having messed-up foster parents… maybe I’m broken inside.”

She shook her head. “Nah, Nallah.” Then she giggled, and said it a few more times: “Nah, Nallah, nah, nah nah Nallah. You’re just ace, babe.”


“Asexual. It’s like being straight or gay or bi except you’re not sexually attracted to anybody, or not many people anyway. It’s a range, like anything, I guess. Maybe you’re aromantic too. Get on Tumblr and look that shit up.”

At the library the next day I poked around and went down a few link-holes and learned about people who were asexual, and I just thought, whoosh: relief. I had a name for what I was, and I wasn’t the only one, and that meant I could stop worrying about it. There was even a name for the kind of non-sexual crush I had on people occasionally, notably Sandy: a squish. That sounded right too.

Worrying less about myself gave me more time to worry about my room. I thought about how weird it was. I wondered where it was. I found a nice phone sitting on a train seat one day, and almost took it to the station agent, but then I stepped through a locked employees-only door and into my room. I looked at the phone’s GPS, but there was no signal down there at all. Maybe it was way out in the country. Or deep underground. Maybe it was on another planet. I had no way to tell. When I opened the door, I only ever came out where I’d gone in: it never opened on any other local room or vista. There were no windows, but…

I did my thief trick at a hardware store, and got a sledgehammer and a pickaxe and a regular axe and went to work on the wall opposite the door. I didn’t get far, though: under the wood paneling, there was just stone. Not concrete, stone: gray and dense and unyielding. I chopped at it with the pickaxe until my arms burned, and all I did was knock out a few chips. I could steal a jackhammer, but if I was underground, I’d be digging forever, and it would just make my room a dusty mess in the meantime, and also jackhammers were probably hella heavy.

I considered taking an axe to the door when it was closed, or even just drilling a peephole to peek through, but if I broke the magic, I’d be trapped in the room, and when my stash of granola and peanut butter ran out, I’d starve to death. I thought about killing golden geese, and decided not to interrogate the miracle too closely. But sometimes lying there in my nice Swedish bed at night, I’d think, What if my real parents never find me? What if I’m just me, on my own? What do I do?

I thought about going to a center for runaways, about trying to get my GED, or about taking up music or art to give me a purpose, even though mainly all I liked to do was read. Maybe college was a thing I should do, someday. Or I could leave the Bay Area and just set out to explore the world. It would be pretty cheap if I never had to rent a room. Sandy was talking about going down to Mexico. That could be cool. Maybe I could break my forever rule and tell her about my room. I didn’t have a passport or anything, but she seemed to think that kind of thing could be worked out. I resolved to ask her about it the next time I saw her.

But the next day she was gone. I asked around, and people said she’d hooked up with a guy who was going to Burning Man and had an extra ticket, so she’d tagged along. Maybe she’d come back here from the playa, or maybe she’d travel somewhere else from there, but either way it was clear I wasn’t a priority for her—I didn’t take up space in her head like she did in mine. My squish was squashed.

I tell myself that’s why I fell into working with Dwayne. He met me at a vulnerable time and made me feel important and special.

That was the summer the fascists and white supremacists were bringing their sad displays of cognitive failure to the Bay Area for demonstrations, and I was hanging with some anarchist friends keeping tabs on the fash when some heavy shit went down in Berkeley: bear spray and baseball bats and tear gas. I got separated from my cohort in the chaos and confusion, and when some skinhead cosplaying like a post-apocalyptic road warrior in black body armor came out of the stinging smoke and tried to grab me by the hair, I spun away and decided retreat was the smart move. There was a supply shed near that corner of the park, so I straight-arrowed at the locked door. I usually do a quick scan to make sure I’m unobserved, but even though I’d just caught eddies of the gas, my eyes were blurry and teary. When I opened the door with the key on my palm and slipped into my room, someone followed after me, right on my heels.

He slammed the door shut before I could, and leaned against it, pressing the heels of his hands against his streaming eyes. He didn’t look like the fash, but he didn’t look like my people, either: he looked like a club promoter who’d wandered into the wrong kind of party. Long hair, silver necklace, shiny shirt, tight jeans, kicks that probably cost a few hundred bucks. He took his hands away and blinked at me, and he would’ve been real pretty if his eyes hadn’t been streaming and red. “Ah, wow, I’m glad you found this place, it was getting crazy out there.” He glanced around at the bed, the desk, the camp toilet, the cooler, the stick-on-the-wall battery powered LEDs that illuminated the space. “Weird. I thought this was a garden shed or something.”

“You have to get out of here,” I said.

“Oh, totally, but I’m going to wait for the shit to die down…” He looked at the door and frowned. “You know, I can’t even hear anything, you’ve got some wicked soundproofing in here. Do you… live here? In the gardening shed? Did you find some groundskeeper to cut you a deal under the table? I knew rents were getting bad in Berkeley, but damn.”

I had no idea what to do. I didn’t get a scary vibe off him… but how many dead or assaulted women had felt exactly the same thing, shortly before getting dead or assaulted? “This is my room, yes, and I’d like you to leave.”

He winced. “Okay. I didn’t know I was following you home, I’m not—sorry. I just thought I was ducking for cover. Can I borrow a scarf or something to put over my face?”

I didn’t take my eyes off him when I went to the bed and took a silk scarf pattered with blue flowers from the tangle on the bedpost. I balled it up and threw it at him.

He tied it over his face. “Thanks. I’m Dwayne,” he said, voice muffled.

“That’s nice.” He winced, and I felt a tiny bit bad, so I said, “Be safe out there.”

“Will do.” He tried to tug open the door, but it wouldn’t work. Interesting. “Is there a trick to the lock, or…”

It crossed my mind that he could be trying to trick me into coming close, but my room was so small he could have cornered me easily if he’d wanted to, and I could tell he was genuinely straining at the door. I darted over, touched the knob, and pulled open the door. The running protest had moved on, and there were only a few stumbling stragglers in the distance. Dwayne stepped outside, and before he could finish turning for a last look or word, I closed the door, and slid down the wall to sit on the floor and tremble. That had been a close one.

Closer than I realized.

I left the shed around two in the morning, because it struck me as a bad idea to have my exit known to someone. I crept around to a quiet alley and went into my room again through a door behind a shop. That precaution is why it took Dwayne two whole days to find me, I think; I’m sure he started out by hanging around the park and maybe even knocking on the shed door.

He did find me, though. I was at the library, using one of the computers, when he sat down next to me. “You’re a hard woman to find.”

I glanced and did a double-take when I recognized him. He was wearing a tight t-shirt and his eyes were blue and pretty now that they weren’t streaming tears. “Oh. Hey.”

“I’ve been trying to figure out how to say this, so I’m just going to say it: are you magic? Because I went by your shed, and there was a guy in there with some shovels, and there was no bedroom in there at all.”

I shrugged. “You must have had the wrong shed.”

He snorted. “How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” I lied automatically.

He nodded. “You’re not, but you will be in a year or so, I bet. That’s enough time for us to get your shit together. So how does it work? Your magic room?”

“I have to go.”

Dwayne sighed. “Look, I’m not hitting on you or anything here. Even if you weren’t jailbait, I lean in a different direction, okay? But you opened a door to a room that wasn’t there later on, and I’m in the business of considering possibilities. I asked around, and I know you’re on your own. I can help you get your paperwork straightened out, get a GED, a passport, all that.”

I frowned. “Why would you do that?”

“Because you’re magic, and we could make a lot of money together.”

I shrugged. “If I’m magic, I don’t need money.”

“Okay. Then we could have a lot of fun together. Have you ever been to Europe? Australia? Does your magic let you, poof, flit from here to there?”

I’d never been farther south than Monterey or farther north than Sacramento. I shrugged. “No.”

“There you go then. You opened a door to another place. I can help you open doors to lots of places.”

“You seem very cool about the fact that magic is real,” I said.

He nodded. “I’m a pragmatist. I saw the thing, I believe the thing. Just think about it, okay? We could work wonders together.”

I took off, made sure he wasn’t following me, and went into my room to think. I thought for about three days. It seemed stupid and dangerous to let a stranger into my confidence, to tell him my secrets in exchange for vague assurances, but… what was I doing with my life otherwise? I’d just turned seventeen, and I’d eaten a cupcake with one candle in it, by myself. Tomorrow was going to look a whole lot like today, and the next day would be the same. I could change my life, if I wanted, and though I didn’t need Dwayne to make that change… I figured I could at least hear him out.

I found him in the library. He must have been going there every day, hoping I’d return. “So what’s your pitch?”

He grinned. “Tell me how the magic works first.”

“I open a door, and if I want, it leads to my room. When I leave my room, I emerge from whatever door I entered through.”

“So the room is always the same, but you can enter it from anywhere?”

“You got it.”

“Does it really work on any door? Like, how about metal bars like in a jail cell? A garden gate? A cat flap?”

“Anything that swings open, in or out. I’ve tried it with sliding doors and it didn’t work.”

“Huh. So if you ended up in a prison cell with a sliding door, you’d be stuck, just like anybody.”

I nodded, even though I could unlock any door at all, so no prison could hold me if I didn’t want to be held. Nothing stayed closed to me. I was pretty sure I could unlock anything, from a mailbox to a bank vault, but there was no reason to tell him all my secrets.

“How do you do it?”

I showed him the birthmark tattoo on my palm. “I think it’s a gift from my real parents.”

He whistled. “My parents didn’t give me anything but a couple of savings bonds. That’s it, though? You can’t fly or turn people into frogs? You’ve just got this one weird mutant power or whatever?”

“If I’ve got hidden talents, they’re hidden pretty well.”

“Where is the room, anyway?”

I told him about my experiments and my total failure to figure out the room’s location.

He nodded. “So, just hypothetically, if I took you to visit a friend of mine down in LA, you could open a closet door in his house, and put a suitcase in your room, and then if we flew to Toronto and checked into a hotel room, you could open the closet door there to your magic room, and bring the suitcase out again?”

“Oh, shit, you want to smuggle drugs,” I said.

He winced and looked around, but that corner of the library was deserted. “That’s the idea, yeah. No danger at border crossings. You work for about ten minutes on either end of the trip, and the rest of the time, you’re a tourist, all expenses paid. What do you say?”

“You’re going to set me up with a fake ID and stuff so I can travel?”

“No way. First rule of my business is, everything that can be legitimate, should be. We don’t want anything that’s going to draw a second glance. I’m not going anywhere with you until you’re eighteen, and we’re going to dress you fully professional so you look more older anyway. We’ll get your GED, we’ll get you ID, a phone, an actual address… You’re an investment, Nallah. What do you say? Want a job?”

“I’ll do one job,” I said. “I’m sure you can make one job pay off the investment. And if I like it, then we’ll see.”

“Fair deal.” He offered his hand and I shook it.

Dwayne was true to his word. He sent me to meet with a lawyer in Oakland, and a bunch of wheels started turning: the court declared me an emancipated minor, I studied for my GED with a tutor and passed, I got an apartment in El Cerrito (with a bed and everything, though I still slept in my room), a smartphone, a driver’s license, and a passport. I saw Dwayne maybe four times in the next year. At the first coffee meeting, he noted my new dress and told me I had to stop thieving, and set me up with a salary from his bullshit consulting company. Later we took a long walk around Lake Merritt talking about how my first job would probably go down, and then we had a fancy dinner to celebrate my eighteenth birthday. Over softshell crab and champagne, he said, “I think you’re squared away. The first job is no pay—that’s in exchange for the apartment, the legal shit, all that, okay?”

I nodded. “And if I want to do more?”

He grinned. “Then you get to be rich, Nallah.”

We took a plane down to Los Angeles. My first time flying, and I spent most of it looking down through the window in delight. “I wonder what would happen if you opened the bathroom door up here into your room?” Dwayne mused.

“I’ve done it with a car door before, when I needed to get away from a creepy guy who was following me one night. I came out later when the car was parked across town. First I opened the door a crack and peeked to make sure I wasn’t about to step out onto the highway going eighty miles an hour, though. I don’t like using doors that move, if I can help it. I like knowing where I’ll come out.”

We went to some apartment in Tarzana, where Dwayne let himself in with a key. There was a metal briefcase, locked, on the table, and Dwayne handed it to me. “There you go. Stash it safely.” I found a closet door, stepped into my room, and closed the door. I tried to open the briefcase, and the key on my palm cooperated: the case popped right open, and it was absolutely stuffed with baggies containing pills of various colors and sizes. I closed the case and stepped out. “All good.”

We spent the next day in the city, wandering around, seeing the sights, doing some shopping. Our cover was trust-fund boyfriend and arm-candy girlfriend, so we held hands and smiled at each other. Dwayne was funny, charming, and breezy, telling stories about places he’d visited and people he’d met; being in his company was no hardship. When it was time to go, we stashed our purchases in my room—“You’re saving me tons of money in checked bag fees,” Dwayne said—and caught a plane to Vancouver. We went through customs easy, then took a cab to another apartment building. Dwayne kept watch while I stepped through a broom closet door and came out with the case, then he told me to sit tight in the lobby. I read on my phone while he went upstairs to run his errand, and he returned a while later with a different case. “Be a doll and stash this for me?” When I peeked inside that one, it was full of dog-eared cash.

We ate a great meal in Vancouver, stayed in a hotel (he got the bed, I got my room), and then caught a plane back to San Francisco and took a car to the East Bay. Back at my place, I ducked through the closet door and returned to him with his case. He popped it open on my coffee table, took out a wad of money and tossed it to me. “I know this trip was supposed to be pro bono on your part, but call it a bonus.”

I knew he was trying to tempt me into doing another job. I knew it, and I was tempted anyway. “It went pretty well, huh?”

He leaned back on the couch and beamed at me. “It was amazing. The possibilities are endless. With your ability and my connections, we’re unstoppable. The cops, the DEA, nobody would ever catch on—we’re totally outside their conceptual universe, you know? They can’t stop us, because they can’t even imagine us.”

I took a breath and let it out. “So when do we do it again?”

Over the next year, we did six more trips, roughly every two months. We went to London, Ecuador, Finland, Ecuador again, Spain, and Hong Kong. After a while, I didn’t even look in the cases he gave me anymore. I put the money he paid me in a safe in my room, though the “salary” I drew was fine for my meager expenses. When I complained about the whirlwind nature of the first couple of trips, Dwayne started booking longer jaunts so I could have time to be a tourist, and he even left me in Spain to travel by myself. I rode the trains and wandered all over Europe for six weeks, looking at old stuff and filling up my brain and senses.

I discovered something new about my power while I was in Prague.

I was in my room, feeling weirdly homesick and lonely and estranged from myself. Europe was amazing, but I felt so foreign and distant and weird and isolated, and I was suddenly homesick for my shifting crowd of friends and my old familiar haunts. I was thinking particularly of a sandwich shop I adored on Shattuck Avenue, craving their fried chicken sandwich, when I opened the door, expecting to emerge into an alley in Prague at nine in the morning to find some decidedly non-fried-chicken-sandwich breakfast.

Instead, I stepped through the bathroom door of the sandwich shop in Berkeley at midnight. I stared around at the dark restaurant, then whimpered and retreated back to my room, shutting the door. I pressed my forehead against the wooden door, breathing hard, and when I opened it next, I found the alley I expected.

I did a lot of thinking. I thought about what Dwayne had said, about how the cops couldn’t stop us because they couldn’t even imagine us. Did the way I used my power represent a failure of imagination on my part? When I was little, the first time I found my room, I’d done so in fear, emotion overwhelming my conscious thought. But even then, I’d held on to a basic understanding of how doors worked: if you went through a door, and came back out the same door, you’d end up back where you’d started. But maybe my power didn’t work that way. Clearly my ability had nothing to do with the actual spatial geometry of the world. So maybe…

I practiced. I concentrated on places I’d been before, and stepped out of my room, and over time, I perfected my technique. If I didn’t focus, I’d just come out wherever I’d gone in, but with effort I could go anywhere from my room, through any door I could remember: to hotels in Ecuador, shops in London, even airplane lavatories.

I began to wonder if I was limited to places I’d been, or if that was more constrained imagination. I spent a while on my laptop, looking at street view photos of cities I’d never seen, zooming in on doors, looking at them, studying them, and though it took about a week of failures, I finally stepped out of a door in the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, shivered in the cold, and looked up to see the coiling flicker of the Northern Lights. I’d never been there before.

The world, it seemed, was mine. I could work for Dwayne without even boarding a plane. I decided not to tell him about my new ability, though, just as I’d neglected to tell him I could open any lock, although I liked him and was grateful to him, he was a criminal, and I knew deep down I was mainly an investment for him, even if I was also a friend. I was comfortable with the work I was doing, but if he knew I could do more, he would consider possibilities I might find less amenable. Instead of stepping through a door to the States, I got on a plane in Spain at the end of my sojourn and flew home like usual.

One morning I was in my shower when I started thinking maybe there were other limitations I’d burdened myself with. I had to go through doors, I was pretty sure, but what was a door, really? I’d stepped into my room through garden gates that were just a few metal bars in a wooden frame on hinges: that was just barely a door. I’d gone through car doors. Maybe I could be more liberal about my definitions. Maybe sliding doors had failed because I’d believed they would fail.

I thought hard, pushed aside my shower curtain, and looked into my secret room.

 [ Bright door, © 2022 Carmen Moran ] For two weeks after that, I tried to open doors in empty air, without success. I walked through an archway into a rose garden about fifty times, trying to make the transition through the opening work as a magic door, and that didn’t work, either. I needed to open something, even if it was just a scrap of hanging cloth, and I had to pass from one place to another, in order to trigger the transition. I thought of something I’d read once, somewhere: “A door is the difference between inside and out.” I couldn’t do what I did without doors, but all doors were open to me, and unless someone dropped me in the middle of the desert or the sea, I’d be okay. I could do anything.

But what did I want to do? I didn’t need Dwayne to see the world anymore, and one day, I told him I wanted to retire. He nodded like he’d been expecting it. “I’m setting something up with a new client. Would you be willing to do one last job?”

He didn’t say “You owe me that much,” or threaten, or cajole—any of those things would have made me walk away then and there. Instead, he asked me like a friend, so I said, “Of course.”

Dwayne got us tourist visas and we flew to Moscow. After a brief pause in an airport bathroom for me to duck through a stall to my room and grab a briefcase full of cash, we took a series of long truck journeys, driven by various taciturn men, paid in cash along the way. “Where are we going?” I said.

“I’m not even sure. Direct to the source.”

“For what?” What kind of drugs came from the countryside in Russia?

“You don’t need to worry about it. You’re just in charge of transport.” Dwayne was preoccupied and cold, but I told myself his bad mood was just jitters about new business partners and jet lag.

We ended up outside a group of low dark buildings surrounded by razor wire, with armed men posted all around the fence. Dwayne went inside alone, with the money, but returned with two men lugging a crate half the size of a coffin. They loaded it onto the truck, and our silent driver took us away again. Dwayne was sweating, but he grinned and gave me a thumbs up. “I think this is going to work out.”

“What’s in the crate?”

“Wholesale quantities, Nallah. If this is my last trip with you, I need to lay in some stock, you know?”

I decided that was plausible. We stopped off at some cruddy cinderblock house in another part of the countryside. The driver helped Dwayne unload the crate, and they put it on a little padded furniture mover and rolled it into the house. Dwayne sent the driver outside and summoned me in. The place was empty except for dust and rat turds, but there was an interior door, so I opened it, and we manhandled the crate into my room. Even on wheels, it was heavy, and a beast to move. Dwayne hadn’t been inside my room since that first time, a gesture of respect I’d greatly appreciated, and it unnerved me to have him in there now, even for a moment. “Okay.” He straightened and stretched his back. “That’s that. We’ll ride to the airport and head to the states. You ever been to Montana? Beautiful country.”

“Mind if I use the bathroom first?”

He shrugged and left, and I shut the door after him. I went to the crate and tried to see if I could open it, but it was nailed shut, not locked, and in the absence of a crowbar and time, I couldn’t figure out a way to see the contents. I peed, then came back out, and joined Dwayne for the return trip.

We slept on the plane to New York, caught a connecting flight to Chicago, then rode on a small plane to a Montana airport. Dwayne went right to a dirty brown pickup truck in the parking lot, plucked a hide-a-key from inside a wheel well and gestured. “Your chariot, madame.”

“This is weird, Dwayne.”

“Sure. New business partners, not my usual crowd, but their money spends fine, and you’ll get a nice big payday for your last ride. All you have to do is open one more door, and you’re done.”

I didn’t trust him, but I didn’t distrust him enough, so I went along, and that’s how I ended up getting sold to a goddamn militia.

We drove way out into the country, down dirt roads, stopping in the middle of nowhere. A big soft bearded man in fatigues greeted us, blindfolded us, and stuck us in the back of an RV. “It’s okay,” Dwayne murmured, “they’re just being careful. I do this kind of thing all the time—you just don’t usually come along for this part.”

I was fucking terrified and wondered why I had to come along this time—why couldn’t we have pulled out the crate somewhere along the way and loaded it into the pickup and sent Dwayne to do this part alone?

After maybe an hour of jostling, someone grabbed me and pulled me out of the RV. I stumbled along blindly, finally being led up a set of stairs and into a building. Dwayne pulled off my blindfold—why did his get to come off first?—and I looked around.

I was in an office with stuffed animal heads on the walls, and a big fifty-something white guy with a nose that had been broken a few times sitting behind the desk, staring at me. “So this is the magic girl, huh?” His voice sounded like he gargled with broken glass every morning. He wore a weird military-looking brown uniform, with skulls and lightning bolt patches on the shoulders. He rose and walked around me, looking at me in a way that made me want a shower. “Show me,” he said.

Dwayne prodded me and pointed to a door. I shrugged and opened the door to my room. The man let out a long, ragged exhalation. “Impossible.”

“Let’s get your merchandise.” Dwayne went into my room, put his hands on the crate, and pushed it out. I closed the door after him when he emerged. The man lifted a crowbar, pried off the top of the crate with nail-squealing efficiency, and peered inside.

He lifted out a gun that glistened with grease, then another, and then grenades, and then some kind of stubby rocket, and I said, “Dwayne, what the fuck!”

“Sorry, Nallah. Business.”

The man handed Dwayne a briefcase and said, “You’ll be driven back to your truck.” I started to follow Dwayne, but the old man grabbed me by the arm. “Not you. You work for me now.”

“Sorry,” Dwayne said again. “You’re the one who wanted to stop working with me.” He walked out, and the motherfucker was whistling.

I jerked free of the man and ran toward the nearest door, but he grabbed me by the hair, making me scream. He dragged me close and spoke softly into my hear. “Before you hide in your hole, I’m going to explain your new reality. You’re going to do what you did for your boyfriend for me, but we’re going to move a lot more than he did. We’re going to move people, too. You’re going to be a great asset for our work. It’s important work, vital work, and if you do as you’re told, you won’t get hurt. You’ll realize soon enough that it’s your natural state to serve the white man.” He gave my head a wholly unnecessary jerk, and I howled. “If you don’t do what you’re told, you’ll be persuaded. We need you alive, but not necessarily whole. You don’t need both hands to open a door.” He let go, and I scrambled away, heart pounding. He chuckled. “Go to your room. Get some sleep. We’ll start work in the morning. I suggest you come out at 6 a.m. I trust you have a clock in there. Dwayne told us how your power works. I’ll have someone posted in here at all times, watching the door, and you’ll have to come out eventually, or starve to death. But if you come out late for work, you’ll be punished.”

I ran to the door, went into my room, and slammed the door shut. I threw up in the portable toilet. My body was buzzing and vibrating with terror hormones, and I hugged my knees to my chest, trembling. If Dwayne had done this to me earlier, before I figured out how to open my door to other places, I would have been fucked.

He’d sold me.

After I calmed down, I concentrated as hard as I possibly could, and eased open the door.

I saw the isolated quiet of a campsite in Sonoma, as viewed through the door of the women’s bathroom. I let the door swing shut again, confident I wouldn’t accidentally, unthinkingly return to that militia office.

After I drank some water and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and examined my fury from all angles, I began to plan.

I didn’t know where Dwayne lived, but I did know what fancy restaurants he frequented. Once I’d acquired a few useful items via my old thieving skills, I called a whole bunch of restaurants to “confirm my boss’s reservation.” I finally got a hit, and hung out around a French bistro he’d taken me to twice, watching him go in, and later, come out. I was dressed down in jeans and a hoodie, just another anonymous bystander. I observed as he walked to his car—a Tesla, naturally—and got inside. I stared closely at the car as it drove away, then stepped through the nearest door and into my room. I waited a few hours, just to be safe, and then stepped out of my room—and through his car door, into his passenger seat. The car was parked in front of a fancy apartment building in San Francisco, and I looked in the glove compartment. His registration was in there, and it listed his apartment number. No shell companies or false ID here: if it can be legitimate, let it be legitimate. If you don’t tell many lies, it’s hard to get caught in one. And you can build up a lot of trust to tell a big lie, apparently.

I went into the building, smiled at the doorman, and asked if he’d heard the good news about Jesus Christ. He shooed me away, but I’d gotten a good look at the door to the stairs, which was all I needed.

I returned to my room, then stepped into the stairwell. I climbed up to the fifth floor and went down the hall to the address on the registration. I listened at the door and didn’t hear anything, then used the key in my hand to unlock the door and slip inside.

His apartment was nice but not palatial. Probably trying to avoid the prying eyes of the IRS. I crept through silently and found him in an office, sitting with his back to the half-closed door, working at a computer. I darted away, went through a closet into my room, and then opened the door again, but only a crack: this time, it opened onto his office. I sat on my bed and waited.

I didn’t have to wait long. He pushed open the office door, stepped inside, and did a double-take when he realized he wasn’t in his hallway. “Come on in.” I pointed the shoplifted pistol at him. “Shut the door behind you.”

“Nallah. I’m so glad you got away, I was so worried—”

“Shut the door.”

He looked at the gun and obeyed. He pressed his back against the door, standing as far from me as he could get. The room didn’t seem so big, suddenly.

“You sold me,” I said.

“Nallah, they threatened my life, okay? I had to deliver you or die. I’m so sorry. I should have warned you, but look, you managed to escape, so it worked out—how’d you do it?”

“I hid in my room for a while, then snuck out. I just got lucky.”

“You’re so resourceful. I always admired that about you—”

“I think I’ll turn you in,” I said. “Tell the cops about what we did. Get some kind of immunity deal.”

He shook his head. “You’re not thinking straight. They wouldn’t believe you, so you’d have to show them your power, and then, what, you think those guys in Montana were bad? Think what the government would do with you. They’d send you into enemy territory with Seal Team Six hanging out in your secret room to kidnap or assassinate world leaders. No, if I were you, I’d take some of the money I gave you and bug out. Find a nice remote part of the world to live in, so those militia guys can’t find you. Stay safe.”

I sighed. “You’re a piece of shit, Dwayne.”

“I told you the second time we met: I’m a pragmatist. You should be a pragmatist too.”

“I could just shoot you.”

He shook his head. “You aren’t a murderer.”

It annoyed me that he sounded so sure. I threw him a scarf. “Step away from the door. Blindfold yourself. You know how to do it. You’ve done it lots of times.”

“Nallah, what, are you going to be a one woman firing squad here? You can’t be serious.”

“Just do it, and you’ll walk out of here alive.”

He sighed like I was disappointing him and wrapped the scarf around his face. I walked to the door, keeping the gun pointed at him, then twisted the knob. I opened the door, and nudged him in the side with the pistol. “Walk out.”

He complied. “Nallah, what’s the point of this? You don’t want me to see what door you go through next?”

I looked out the door after him for a moment. The guards on the gate at the Russian compound hadn’t noticed him yet, but I didn’t think they’d be happy to see him when they did. He was inside the fence, and that didn’t seem like the kind of place he should be wandering around without an invitation.

“Why is it so cold?” he said.

Those seemed like fitting last words. I shut the door on him and went to bed.

I waited another week before I opened the door into the militia commander’s office, in the deep hours of the night. It had been long enough, I thought, for them to give up on me reappearing, but I kept my gun, just in case there was a guard stationed. The room was empty, though. I found a laptop and a bunch of hard copy files that seemed sufficiently incriminating and put them in my room.

I had a lot of gas cans and a lot of strips of cloth. I didn’t know much about arson, but I was pretty sure I’d do some damage. I lit the fuses, then stepped into my room.

I stepped out again into an empty Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms office I’d seen in a photo in a news story. I left the laptop and the files with a brief note of explanation on the desk. The office belonged to some high-ranking agent. Good enough.

I hid out for a while, moving to a new city every day, just in case, and I watched the news. Dwayne was just a line here and there about a “missing entrepreneur,” but the militia thing was a bigger story. The ATF raided them and found their compound a smoking ruin and the membership in disarray. The basic spin was that they were so incompetent they’d burned their own compound down while trying to stockpile weapons.

I started hanging out in Berkeley again, and tried to figure out what to do next. I’d lived a life of crime, and it hadn’t made me feel good. I’d seen the world, and that was great, but wherever you went in the world, you were still yourself. I had power without purpose. My parents were never coming for me. I didn’t have a destiny, so I needed to make my own. What should I do, though? I had a room of my own and no meaningful work to do in it.

One night, sitting in Barclay’s pub eating a plate of drunken goat cheese fries, I watched the muted news on the big screens over the bar. There was live footage of terrible flooding on the gulf coast, in the aftermath of the latest hurricane. A news helicopter showed people standing on the roof of their house, waving for help, as the flood waters rose.

I squinted. They’d crawled onto their roof through a dormer window, it looked like. A window was basically the same as a door…

I left money on the table and went through the bar’s bathroom door into my room, then swung my door open again. Rain lashed in through the frame.

“Hey,” I said to the people stranded in the heavy weather, standing against the backdrop of dark waters and darker clouds. “Come in where it’s dry. I’ll take you somewhere safe.”

I saved them, and after that, I had a purpose. I still do. Sometimes I help refugees. Sometimes I transport emergency supplies. I can’t save everyone. I’m only one person. And there are places I can’t reach: deserts, battlefields, collapsed mines. I know my limitations. But I know my possibilities, too.

Anywhere there’s a door, I can open it and take people to a better place.

© 2022 Tim Pratt

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