The warm summer rain tried to melt the winter snow, while the latter fought back. The result was a perpetual ice sheet, several inches thick, that jutted from the walled gap between the two front doors. On one side all was green and warm golden; on the other, all was a frozen, silver-white sparkle. Analise had noticed a similar ice sheet, occasionally, between the windows on the two upper floors; but that was more rare, due to the pitch and depth of the wooden gable above them.
Analise stood before the ground-level sheet and studied it, as she had tried from windows and balconies for the past three weeks. It grew slighter then vanished the farther it stuck out from the Chalet. This was logical and illogical, at the same time, the more she thought about it; but if she looked into the air at just the right angle, it was as if she saw the other half of the world through a wisp-thin layer of ice.
The Chalet, she thought. That’s how the Gatekeeper said it: like a name, rather than a title. They certainly like name-titles, here. The Chalet. The Gatekeeper. The Gate.
She shifted her eyes toward the Chalet’s winter door, then to the summer one, making sure no one was watching, then she reached a trepidatious hand to the ice. The pads of her fingers scorched at once, and she yanked them back, stifling a shout. Tendrils of steam floated from her fingertips.
“It magnifies, you know,” said a voice from over her right shoulder. Her head snapped toward the familiar rumble. The Gatekeeper’s eyes did not meet hers, but focused on the burned fingers.
Where did he come from? she wondered. The front door was the only one accessible on this side of the Chalet–there was no crossing the Gate, as far as she’d seen, in spite of its title–and it had remained closed since she’d stepped outside. The other winter door was on the side of the Chalet and firmly ensconced in the snow blanketing the building where it met the mountain rising at its back. The winter-side front door had been cleared only today, the Gatekeeper, and some of the others who found themselves at the Chalet, having worked to push through the thick drift of snow that had piled against the door the week Analise and her sister had awoken here.
The Gatekeeper’s touch was barely a breeze as he turned her hand toward him. How, she thought, from someone as solid as him? He reminded her of a tree. A giant tree. He was tall and sturdy, with a cold-lined face and toughened skin. But his hold on her hand was as soft as young conifer needles.
“What?” she managed, through her startled expression.
“The Gate. It magnifies the temperature coming through it. You’re on the winter side, so you feel it magnify the heat from the summer side. If you try it from over there,” he pointed through the nearly invisible layer, “the cold’s so intense you can get frostbite.”
Analise wrinkled her forehead, her lips thinning into a flat line. She took a breath, preparing to speak, but let it out, shaking her head with a frown. There was so much to learn, here. The Chalet fascinated her, whet her appetite for adventure . . . and yet, she’d noticed something, here . . . .
“It’s not a bad burn,” the Gatekeeper said, releasing her hand. “They’ll be sore for a few days, but that’s all.”
“Not burned off my fingerprints, then?” she half-smiled. “There goes my life of crime.”
His brows drew together across the bridge of his nose and he frowned, head tilted.
“‘Cause, if they were gone, the police couldn’t trace my prints.” She grinned, but dropped it to bite her lip at the Gatekeeper’s continued frown.
“Just a joke. Nevermind,” she blushed, waving it away with burned fingers. The pain was quickly being replaced by numbness as she stood without gloves in the biting air.
“So you’ve decided to go back, then. I hope not for criminality?” One corner of his mouth finally quirked up.
“Yes, I think so; but no: not for crime.”
“Your sister’s looking for you, and I think you’ve been in this cold long enough, for now.” The Gatekeeper stepped aside with a shallow bow of his head, letting her precede him into the Chalet.
There were others at the Chalet: “visitors,” the Gatekeeper called them. Some strolled upstairs to look over the balconies, others puzzled over chess or card games. Some were there before she and her sister found themselves at the Chalet, some had arrived after them.
At first, Analise didn’t know why they were all there, and she had a feeling that the other visitors didn’t either. As the days went on, though, similarities started to emerge.
Analise looked over a group milling around a coffee pot and another talking in the living room area of the large, only partially divided space of the ground floor. Finally, she found her sister.
Justine perched on the bench at the kitchen table, holding back the thin sheet of a curtain to stare out a summer-side window. She smiled.
Analise halted a few feet in front of the table and took a deep breath before she approached her sister.
“Hey,” she said, bumping her sister’s shoulder as she slid onto the bench beside her. Neither focusing toward the other. “Gatekeeper said you were looking for me. What’s up?”
“You know,” Justine said, her eyes finally fixing on Analise, though her sister didn’t return the stare.
Instead, Analise sighed.
“So what are you gonna do?”
Justine worked her jaw for a moment, bit the inside of her cheek, then squared her shoulders.
“I’m gonna stay.” She stiffened, watching her sister closely.
“...Um,” Analise began. She’d anticipated this answer from her sister, and dreaded it. “Okay–”
“I don’t want to go back, ‘Lise,” Justine shook her head. “I’ve always wanted something different. I’ve prayed and begged for a chance to get away and actually live. To do things on my own, –my way, –without anyone pressuring me toward what they want.”
“I work at a bank, ‘Lise. Do you know how boring that is? I go to work and go back home, everyday, and nothing changes. Mom and Dad keep pushing me to date. I’d like to, but I haven’t met anyone new in ages and no one that I already know asks me out.”
Analise sat very still, biting the inside of her cheek and continuing to avoid her sister’s stare.
“Well?” said Justine.
“What do you expect me to say?” It was a genuine question–no sarcasm, no mockery.
“That I shouldn’t. That I should go back home.”
“Why? What reasons will I give?” Analise asked, eyes darting to her sister.
“That I have responsibilities. I have a job, and Mom and Dad, and an apartment, and–I don’t know–friends and church and stuff.”
Analise nodded, absently, staring ahead at nothing particular.
“But my friends are all busy with their families and their lives–they never ask me to do anything with them. As for church, I don’t have a…” Justine searched for the word, “a role. There’s not anything I really do, there.
“I keep hoping something will come along, somewhere in my life, but nothing ever does.”
Analise grimaced and closed her eyes tightly, the complaints too familiar, the defenses too much her own.
“What will you do, if you stay?”
“Help out around here, at the Chalet. Gatekeeper says there’s always people coming and going, so I’m sure he needs help keeping the place up for them. Besides, it seems like people just…hang around, here.”
Analise fought a frown and scanned the room for the hundredth time in the past few days: everyone was doing what they always did.
“And if you change your mind?”
“I don’t keep anyone here,” the Gatekeeper’s deep voice answered, as he moved to the end of the table. He had taken off his hat, and his shaggy hair hung down in layered chunks just to swoop upward toward the ends. Again the image of him as a tree came to Analise. His hair was the color of larch needles in Fall.
The Gatekeeper settled himself in the chair at the head of the wooden table where they sat.
“If you,” he looked at the sisters, in turn, “--if anybody–wants to leave, they can. I don’t take hostages.”
“See?” Justine said, a triumphant gleam in her eye. “I’ll go make us some hot chocolate.” She walked to the back of the open room–the kitchen area–where adjacent counters lined a segment of the wall and began to fill a kettle with water. Another of the Chalet’s “visitors” came to chat with her as the water heated.
“You’re welcome to stay, too, you know.” The Gatekeeper’s voice drew her attention back from her sister.
“Thanks, but…” Analise scanned the different areas of the largely open lower floor, again, “I need to go back.” She stared at her fingers as she fidgeted with them over the table. The burns were pink and sensitive, but not blistered.
The Gatekeeper quietly watched her for a long time, a gentle half-smile on his face.
“Why?” he asked, leaning forward onto his arms as they rested on the table. “What do you see when you look around, here?”
“A place where…I’m afraid I was, already,” her eyes flashed to him for a split second and she smiled, but only with her mouth.
“Justine thinks she’ll ‘actually live,’ here,” Analise dropped her voice to a whisper, “but it seems to me that everyone here is…waiting.
“I didn’t see it, until we’d been here for a little while, but I’ve been waiting, too. My life back home isn’t bad–neither is Justine’s. But it’s not what I want it to be, either. …And I haven’t done much about it. I made excuses and blamed people, in my head; but I didn’t try to change it. The more I see other visitors doing the same thing, and the more Justine says it, the more I realize what I’ve been doing.”
She took a deep breath and met the Gatekeeper’s eyes.
“I’ve already been staying. It’s time for me to start going and acting. My life is my responsibility…with some significant exceptions.” She smiled more fully, now, and squeezed his hand. It was as hard as frozen wood, but the returned pressure was gentle, like the swaying of a branch. “Thank you, again, for rescuing us. I have no idea how we got lost so fast. Our parents invited us to take a vacation with them. Justine and I went hiking, and it was like something was pulling us into the forest. I don’t know what happened, then, but we woke up, here.”
The Gatekeeper nodded.
“Sounds like you just needed a little perspective, and that you found it. The Chalet’s good for that.”
He sighed, his smile genuine, but sad. “The ones I most want to stay are the earliest ones ready to go. You’re ready.”
He stood and made a slight, nodding bow, then led her to the door.
“You’ll go outside and walk to the trees just in front of the Chalet,” he said, as she donned hat and coat, scarf and gloves. “Don’t turn back, at least not until you reach the trees. When you get to them, people will be there looking for you.”
“Thank y–wait,” she cut off her own statement. “What’s this?”
She withdrew something hard and round from her pocket: a carved, wooden cone, like those from the trees outside. It was small, and painted a pink-ish red–the color of the real ones when they were very young.
“A compass, of sorts. Once they leave, people seldom come back here. However, it usually takes much longer for them to learn what they need to do.” He held her with a steady gaze. “But you know. So, go. Live your life. Make it all you want it to be; or, at least, most of it.
“But when you’ve done what you need to do, if–sometime later–you want to come back to the Chalet, ask me to bring you. Speak to the cone and I’ll hear it, and I’ll come to you. But only after you’ve tried to do what you should. This will no longer be a place of merely waiting for you, then.”
He folded her hand around the wooden figure and she returned it to her pocket.
“What are you doing?” shouted Justine as she stormed toward the door, hot chocolate sloshing from the mug she carried. Two more waited on the table.
“I wasn’t forgetting,” Analise said, “just getting ready. I wouldn’t leave without telling you!”
“What?!” Justine demanded. “You’re still going? Why?”
“It’s time I go toward what I want, what I should, and stop waiting for things to come to me.”
Justine glared. After a short time, she huffed and shook her head.
“I can’t believe you’re still going back; but, then, Analise always has to be the responsible one, don’t you?” she pouted.
“You’re not going to do anything, you know,” Justine continued. “You’re just going to go back to your mundane, little job and life–that you always complain about–because you’re too afraid to do anything else. You’ll go back to the boring you know instead of staying here to see what life brings you.”
Analise clenched her jaw as much to hold back the words that burned her mouth as the tears that burned her eyes.
“Why would you go back? You don’t have a husband–or even a boyfriend. You don’t have kids, and Mom and Dad can make it without you, I promise. You can be replaced at work, too. No one’s waiting for you!” Justine hissed. She crossed her arms in front of her chest, spilling more hot chocolate. The challenge on her face drew her mouth into a tight pucker, and raised her eyebrows, wrinkling her forehead.
Analise’s jaw twitched once as she steeled her control to answer.
“I’m waiting for me,” she said. “Bye, Justine. I’ll miss you.”
The Gatekeeper opened the door as Justine stormed to the table, refusing to look back.
“Goodbye, Gatekeeper, and thank you,” Analise said, after a moment, her gaze slowly shifting from her sister’s back to the tree of a man standing beside her. She bit her lip, and a tear raced down each side of her face.
“When I come back,” she said, and vainly swiped at the tears leaking from her eyes, “will you show me more about the Gate? Like, why it’s there…and how not to get hurt by it?”
His smile was warm, despite the cold from the wind outside and her sister inside. The Gatekeeper gave her another nodding bow.
“And you’ll tell me about the life you lived after the Chalet. I look forward to it.”
Analise smiled through her tears, and walked to the trees.