Her earliest memory was of the door.
She’d woken in the night, hearing a noise, and padded into her parents’ room to see her mother sound asleep. Then the noise came again, a bang from the front of the house. From beyond the door.
She crept down the hall, through the living room and into the kitchen. The door was there. She inched closer, barely daring to breathe.
What if it opened?
What if something was on the other side trying to get in. Some monster from her fairy-tale books. An ogre or a troll or a wicked witch.
The house was so silent she could still hear her mother breathing. Then the noise came again.
She swallowed and wrapped her arms around herself.
Something was there. Beyond the door.
She was not supposed to open the door. That was the rule. The only real rule she’d ever known. Do not open the door. Never open the door.
But if a monster was out there . . .
She had to peek. Just a peek to be sure before she ran and woke her mother.
She slid toward the door, one stockinged foot and then the other, making as little noise as possible. Then she gripped the knob and turned.
The door opened easily. On the other side . . . Well, she knew what was right on the other side, because she’d caught glimpses before. It was a tiny room with boots and shoes and other stored items. And a second door. When Momma or Daddy went out, they’d go through the first one, and then they’d close it before she’d hear them open the other. That was the real door. The one that led to terrible things, and she had no idea what those things were, nor had her parents even said they were terrible, but she knew. She just knew.
The noise came again and she struggled for breath and then continued her sliding walk toward that second door—
It opened and a figure filled it. A huge figure carrying a huge bag, and she had one brief flash of all the monsters it could be—all the trolls and the ogres—and then she heard, “Oh! What are you—?” and it was her father’s voice, and he hurried in and quickly shut the door and put down the bag before scooping her up. “What are you doing here, sweetheart? You know you aren’t supposed to open the door.”
“I heard a noise.”
“Ah, well, that would be me, very happy to be home. I didn’t mean to get in so late. But I brought you treats. Lots of treats.”
With the bag dragging from his other hand, he carried her through the inner door and kicked it shut behind them. Then he set her on the table and opened the sack. Inside she saw food. He dug down and pulled out a long box covered in bright pictures.
“Do you know what this is?” he asked.
She shook her head.
“Candy Land. It was my first game when I was your age. Now it’s yours. And to go with it . . .” He dug deeper and pulled out something that made her squeal, and he chuckled and handed her the red lollipop. “Candy Land and candy. The perfect match. And books, too. I brought lots of books. Now, let’s find one, and we’ll read it while you eat that lollipop, and then you’ll be ready to go back to bed. We have a big day tomorrow, putting away all the food. I have more on a wagon outside. I’ll bring it all in while you find a book you like.”
That was her first memory. Her first game, too. The first of many. Many games and many days spent playing them, the three of them. Even more than the games, her father brought books. He’d read them to her or her mother would, and soon, she could read them to herself, at least the easy ones.
There were toys, too. Action figures and stuffed animals and building blocks, and she’d act out the scenes from the books, sometimes by herself, sometimes for her parents.
Her mother would tease that Daddy brought back more books than food. Once, when she was supposed to be asleep, she heard Momma doing more than teasing about it, talking to her father in a low, anxious voice.
“She doesn’t need so much. The toys, the books, the games. Not if it means you have to stay out there longer.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “And if it makes her happy, it makes me happy.”
They were happy. Just the three of them, in their house. There was a yard, too. In books, every house had a yard, and theirs was no different. A backyard with a swing and a slide and grass and a fence, and she was not supposed to climb the fence, but she could lean against it and gaze out at the endless blue sky, the sun shining down from above.
Then, when she was old enough to read all the books, she got a surprise. They all got a surprise, or so it seemed from her parents’ whispered conversations. A baby. A girl. A little sister. Then it was the four of them, and it was as if everything started over again. Out came the baby books, with her reading them to her sister, and then Candy Land, pulled up from under the house where they’d stored it.
Some of the old toys and games and books—the ones she’d outgrown—would go away with Daddy, but the ones she couldn’t bear to part with were still there, in the storage space under the house and, later, piled up outside along the fence. She remembered once, after reading about a storm, her sister had panicked on seeing the piles of books and games along the fence.
“We have to bring them in!” she said. “They’ll get wet when it rains.”
She’d laughed at that, laughed and scooped her sister up. “Have you ever actually seen it rain, silly?”
“Well, no, but it must, right? When we sleep?”
She shook her head. “Rain is only in books. Like snow and storms and polar bears. Now, speaking of polar bears, there’s a book over here that I think you’ll like . . .”
It was not long after that that Daddy got sick. The arguments, still quiet ones, held behind their parents’ closed bedroom door happened more often.
“I’ll go out instead now,” their mother said. “It’s my turn. You’re sick and—”
“—and I will not get any less sick by staying indoors. I’ll do it for as long as I’m able, gather as much as I can, while I can. You’ll need to go out soon enough.”
Momma cried at that. Cried so softly that she had to put her head against the door to hear the quiet sobs and their father’s equally quiet voice, soothing her, calming her, until the bed creaked and there were more whispers and sighs and then all went quiet.
Their father did not go out for as long after that. Short trips, but more of them, until the space under the house was teeming with more food than she’d ever seen. And then he could not go out, could barely leave the couch, and they’d take turns sitting with him and reading to him, or just playing and reading in the same room until, one morning, he did not wake up.
“But we’ll see him again, won’t we?” she said to their mother, after the days of crying, of grief. “That’s what the books say. That we’ll see him when we go wherever he is.”
“That sounds about right,” their mother said and hugged her hard.
Time passed. Their mother went out now, often for days on end, and despite what she’d said about their father bringing back too many books and games and toys, she did the same.
Her sister was old enough to read all the books when their mother took ill. It was as it had been with their father, a slow progression of wasting, with more frequent but shorter trips out as she filled the stockpile below the house.
When their mother became too sick to leave her bed, she stayed with her, bringing food and books and games. Then came the night when their mother woke her and motioned not to wake her sister, sound asleep on the other side of the bed.
“I have one more book for you to read,” Momma said, her voice a papery whisper, so soft that she had to bend to hear her.
Momma pressed a thin leather journal into her hands. “I wrote this for you. It explains everything—what happened here, what you’ll need to do, how to get food and water.” Momma took her hands and wrapped them around the book. “You will need to make a decision when you read it. What to do about the door. For your sister.”
“Your father did all this for you,” Momma said. “He loved you so much. We both did.” A moment’s pause and then, “Were you happy?”
She frowned, not understanding the question.
“Were you happy? Here? Like this?”
Momma took her face in her hands and kissed her forehead, her lips so light she barely felt them. “I hope you still can be. I hope you both always can be. We were. In spite of everything.”
Momma lay down and rested and then, as dawn’s light slipped into the room, she gave a long rattling sigh, and her chest stopped rising and stopped falling.
She leaned over their mother and kissed her cheek. Then she carried her sister into the living room and put her on the couch. Once her sister was tucked in, she retrieved the book from her mother’s bedside and headed for the kitchen.
She’d not seen it in so long. The inner one would open and close, and she would not even bother trying to peek through anymore. She didn’t care what was out there.
Yet now . . .
She looked down at the book. She could read it first. Get answers that way. But she set it on the kitchen table and walked to the door instead. She opened the inner one. Then she moved through the tiny room that still held their father’s shoes and jacket.
There was a lock on the outer door, up high where the children could not reach it. But she wasn’t a child anymore, and when she stood on her tiptoes, she could turn it easily. She did, and she pulled open the door and stepped out.
Light. That was the first thing she saw, and it was all she saw, the light so bright it hurt and she doubled over, shielding her eyes. At first it seemed to come from everywhere. As her eyes slowly adjusted, she realized that the light came from an opening nearly as tall as her. She could see nothing except that opening. She walked toward it and ducked and went through it and—
Her stockinged toes touched down on nothing, and she pulled back quickly. She put her hands over her eyes to block the light, and then peered through her fingers. She saw . . . sky. That was all. Sky. Except it didn’t look like the sky behind the house. This blue was pale, almost white, and the clouds moved. She blinked hard and stepped back, and when she did, her gaze dropped and she saw a city.
She knew it was a city from pictures in her books. A city below, sprawled out beyond the forest.
A dead city.
That was the phrase that sprang to her mind. She didn’t know from where until a memory flashed, of her father speaking to her mother long ago.
“It’s a dead city now,” he’d said. “Everyone who could leave is gone. Everyone who stayed . . . The radiation . . .”
“Is it safe to even be going there?”
“Do we have a choice?”
She could only vaguely recall reading about radiation in a book and knew nothing more about it. Her mother’s journal would explain. For now, she understood this—that the food and water they needed to survive was out there, where it wasn’t safe, but there was nothing they could do about that except not eat, not drink.
Her eyes had adjusted enough that she could look around and when she did, she saw that she was standing in the mouth of a cave high above the city. A cave in a mountainside.
She looked behind her, and there was their house. Built inside a cave. She walked back through the hole, exhaling in relief as the light dimmed and she could see better.
She looked at the walls, painted bright blue. Her sky. She glanced down to see the green underfoot, not like the green beyond the cave’s mouth at all, but short and prickly and never growing any longer. Her grass. Her gaze turned up to see a hole in the roof of the cave, with light streaming through. Her sun.
She heard a click and then the padding of feet in the small room and a voice calling her name. With a gasp, she raced to the door and through it, and scooped up her sister as she pulled the door shut behind her.
“And what are you doing, missy? You know you aren’t supposed to open the door.”
“I heard a noise. And Momma won’t wake up.”
Grief surged as she buried her face in her little sister’s hair. “I know. We’ll talk about that. First, though, don’t ever open the door. There’s no reason to. Everything you need is in here.”
And with that, she made her decision. Without even considering an alternate choice, she made it.
She put her sister down and prodded her into the kitchen. “Let’s go play a game. Maybe Candy Land. I know it’s a baby game, but I feel like playing it today. Later, we’ll have breakfast and talk about Momma. In a few days, I’ll need to go out, like Momma and Daddy did. But not yet. Not just yet.”
She stepped into the tiny room and locked the outer door. Then she walked into the kitchen, shut the inner door firmly behind her and went to play Candy Land with her sister.