Amelia and her team were on the cusp of a breakthrough, she just knew it. They huddled around the spectrometer and collectively held their breath. Cups of tepid coffee, empty food containers, dirty dishes, and a general sense of organized chaos surrounded them.
“C’mon, you little atomic goblin,” Chris murmured, breaking the hush. Amelia giggled, though it was more nerves than humor.
“Three… two... one…” Jo whispered and together they watched as, well, nothing happened. Nothing. No reaction, no change, no breakthrough.
A collective disappointed exhale came from all four scientists at once. Amelia wrinkled her nose. How many hours had it been since they’d cleaned their teeth?
“It must’ve been the—”
“Yeah, I thought that too. If we just—”
“I’ll get the—”
“Definitely. Give me a moment to reconfigure—”
Amelia shook her head at all the bustling. The experiment was important to them all, but sometimes her little group could lose sight of real life in the pursuit of scientific endeavor. “Guys?” She said, picking up her satchel and turning off the machine. “It’s eight in the morning. People are going to start arriving for work in half an hour. As team lead, I’m putting my foot down.” She stomped gently for emphasis. “We are having the day off.” She waved away the grumbling protests. “No excuses! I want you fresh tomorrow to start on the new changes, and I expect you to have at least showered before then.”
Eli dramatically sniffed himself and then recoiled, obviously not anticipating what over 24 hours of stress-related sweat and anxiety would smell like.
“Exactly,” Amelia smiled as the other two chuckled. “Let’s get going.”
“Uh… Mels?” Jo looked up from her computer: “We might have a small issue.”
Amelia raised an eyebrow and walked to look over Jo’s shoulder at her monitor. In her inbox was an email with the title ATTN: All employees IMPORTANT. It explained that, due to the likelihood of heavy snow, the company would be shut with immediate notice. All employees were to leave within the hour and wait for further communication before returning. The email had been sent at 3:00 pm the previous day.
“They could’ve rung us,” Jo said petulantly, when Amelia finished reading the email out loud. Chris silently held his phone up, which displayed a text with the same information.
“The phone did ring a few times yesterday,” Eli mused. “Right in the middle of the rejig.”
Chris turned to the window, which had been covered with blackout blinds to protect the experiment. When he raised them, they were met with a wall of white. “Well, shit,” he said, eloquently.
“Guys?” Eli said, pointing to the wall behind the spectrometer. “Do you see those doors, too? Or am I having a lucid dream?”
Amelia, Chris and Jo turned to see what Eli had. Four doors lined the previously solid and doorless wall. They looked like any other wood door in the building at first glance. However, as the group approached the mystery doors, they marveled at the rough, worn, uneven texture of raw woods twined together, bumpy knots and something ancient pulsing from the doors. Something like a raw energy.
Eli ran his fingers over a small engraving in the middle of one door. It was barely visible with the naked eye, but at the touch, an engraving came to life—filling with rich color, as if lit from within.
“Woah! What is that, Eli?” Amelia asked, coming closer to inspect.
Eli swallowed a lump in his throat, then barked a quick laugh. “I think this is the solar system model I made with my dad. I won the science fair that year, and…”
Amelia put a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Right. Your dad,” she said, so he didn’t have to finish out loud.
“I think I should go in there,” Eli said, sounding hypnotized.
“No,” Amelia said firmly, increasing the pressure on his shoulder. “We need to run tests and learn more first. I can’t lose my best quantum physicist to a mystery door apparition we know nothing about.”
But Eli was already reaching for the handle. Amelia felt a magnetic tugging at the center of her body when Eli made contact with the door. She removed her hand from his shoulder just in time, as a powerful force pulled Eli through the solid-looking portal at an impossible speed. She stared at the door in shock. The engraving lost its bright animation while she watched, as if Eli’s entry had flipped a switch, turning it off permanently.
Amelia turned just in time to see Chris and Jo touching the engravings of another two doors. They had the same look of nostalgic yearning on their faces that Eli had before he disappeared. Before she could yell in warning, they were gone, too.
The last door called to her. She tried to fight it, but without the strength of her team behind her, she didn’t last long. She touched the engraving on the final door, and gasped at the image that appeared. Brian, the great love of her life. His profile was etched into the richness of the door’s material, a wood that she’d never seen before. When she felt the tugging again, she accepted the invitation willingly.
*** Eli's Door ***
“It's not right!” Eli’s father boomed, slamming his fist on the table. Eli watched his prize-winning model of the solar system jump from the force of his father's fist and fall to the floor. Neptune came free and rolled under the table.
Eli chased the escaped planet under the table, finally registering the boy—the younger version of himself—doing the same thing.
“Ira!” Eli’s mother yelled.
Eli suddenly remembered the experiment, the snowstorm and the door. He stood up, fascinated. He was here, in his parents’ kitchen, exactly as it had been the last time he'd seen his father.
“Sorry, son,” Ira said, his tone gentle again. “I’m frustrated with my team, not you.”
“You need to try again, Ira,” Eli’s mother said. “You’ll get through to them.”
Ira sighed and nodded his head. “First—I’m going for a walk to clear my head.”
“No!” Eli screamed, knowing if his father walked out the door, he’d never see him again. None of his family heard him. He walked to the front door and blocked it, but his father walked through him. How was he supposed to stop this from happening if he wasn’t able to interact with the physical world? Frustrated, Eli followed his father, not sure how much time he had to stop whatever terrible thing took his father away from him.
Ira walked all the way to the lab, gaining speed as he went. Eli was shocked, as all members of his father’s team denied ever seeing him that day. They’d even participated in months of searches following his father’s mysterious disappearance. Eli followed his father into the dark basement room where his father's lab team worked. Eli seethed with anger.
“Back at it, I see,” Ira said accusingly. “I thought we agreed to wait. We need to discuss the ramifications more before trying the multiverse variable.”
“We didn’t agree,” Jack said evenly.
“Listen,” Ira implored. “If you try it with the multiverse variable, it will work. But not the way we want. We’ll be travelling into other versions of ourselves—who are as real as we are. If we do that, we’re essentially stealing their lives from them.”
“We disagree with that interpretation,” Jack responded. “We are the same being in every world, so it’s not stealing. You can’t steal what is yours.”
“So, you would be okay with Jack from another life coming and taking over your life?”
Jack shrugged noncommittally. Just then, Eli saw a door appear on the opposite wall. His father did, too. Ira walked towards it, his eyes glassy with emotion. Again Eli tried to stop him, but it was no use. In a last ditch effort not to lose his father again, Eli touched the engraving at the same time his father did. He felt the tugging. In the split second before the door pulled him through, Ira turned to his son, his eyes wide with sudden knowledge.
*** Amelia's Door ***
“I’m so sorry I’m late! I know I said I’d be home by five but we had a breakthrough at the lab and I just couldn’t leave!” Amelia’s keys rattled on the table by the door as she swung herself into the living room. She stopped short, eyes widening at the burnt out candles and beautifully set table. “Brian?” she called, confused and suddenly very nervous.
Trailing her way through the house, she noted petals on the stairs, an alarming amount of dishes from what had obviously been hours of cooking but… no Brian.
Amelia caught sight of herself in the mirror hanging at the foot of the stairs. As she stared at her youthful features, her younger self pulled away from her and continued up the stairs. She realized a moment later that she was reliving that day when her doppelgänger opened the bedroom door.
Amelia didn’t have to go up the stairs to see what her past self was seeing: Brian, angrily throwing clothes into a suitcase. His voice echoed down to her.
“What do you mean what am I doing? Mels, this was our anniversary! You promised you’d be back for it! I’m so sick of coming in second to that bloody laboratory!”
Amelia could hear her own protestations from above. Angry, defensive shouts that further inflamed the situation. Except… that’s not what she was hearing. Instead of hurled insults, her past self was quieter. She walked up the stairs, curious.
“I know I’ve let you down,” past Amelia was saying, holding Brian’s hand. “I can’t change the past but I promise that I’ll try to find more balance in the future.”
Amelia frowned. This wasn’t how it had gone.
“You deserve someone who values you and I really want to be that person.”
She’d never said that.
“Give me another chance to show you how important you are to me. I’ll never be the kind of girl who stays at home and is a perfect housewife - my work gives me purpose and I like who I am when I’m doing the work I do. But I can find balance. You’re worth finding balance.”
Amelia shook her head as Brian dropped the shirt he’d been holding and gathered the younger version of herself into his arms.
“Stop!” Amelia blurted out. “This didn’t happen! You left!”
Neither gave any sign that they’d heard and Amelia wheeled around, suddenly desperate to escape. That was all she’d needed to say to make him stay? She’d spent years comfortable in the knowledge that he was resolute and she was powerless to stop him. This version of reality was too painful to face.
She thundered down the stairs and rushed towards the front door. In its place was the oddly engraved one and she slammed her hand down. Wherever it took her would be better than here. She took one last look over her shoulder before the tugging feeling pulled her forward. At the top of the stairs was Brian. Their eyes met for a split second and the last thing she saw was the crease of confusion on his forehead.