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Thriller

I rang the doorbell to Katie’s house and a woman in a blue dress opened the door. You can always tell whether grown-ups are parents. Parents look friendly and comfortable but also a little bit ragged around the edges. This woman was not like that. Everything about her was neat and tidy, with sharp creases in her clothes and smoothed angles on her body. She glanced left and right before looking down.

“Oh, hello!” She made her voice go up a little bit at the end and when she smiled I could count her teeth.

“Can Katie come out and play, please?” I said, in my best cute-little-child voice.

“Katie?”

I nodded.

“There’s no Katie here,” the woman said. “Are you sure you’ve got the right house, sweetie?”

Sweetie? How dare she! And who was this woman anyway? A family friend, a distant relative, a madwoman? I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps she had just returned from a three year trip to the jungle of Venezuela, where she’d caught a fever that had given her amnesia.

“Katie’s lived here forever,” I said, emphasising the last word. “So can she please come out and play, miss?”

“I’m sorry, there’s no Katie here.”

I stood on my toes and peered into the hallway behind her. Still, she wasn’t budging. I tugged the corners of my mouth up into the sort of smile that only fools grown-ups who aren’t parents or teachers. Since she was obviously neither, she sighed and stood back to let me in.

The house was all wrong, but I bounded down the hallway so quickly I didn’t notice until I reached the living room and found it sleek and tidy and full of modern art, with not even a single toy on the floor. A man who was sitting at the table looked up when I came in. He was wearing a suit and a tie and his hands were hovering above the keyboard of a very thin laptop.

“Hello,” he said. “Who are you?”

“I live next door.”

The woman in the blue dress entered behind me. “She’s looking for someone called Katie. Says she lives here.”

“Katie? There’s no Katie here.”

“Hang on,” the woman said slowly. “Is this Katie the same age as you? About eight?”

I would be ten next month but I bit my tongue and nodded.

The woman turned to the man. “Wasn’t Katie the name of the Robertsons’ daughter? The one who was, you know…”

“Stillborn? Might’ve been, yeah.”

I shuffled my feet and they both looked at me with the expressions that grown-ups wear when they have been discussing something bad in front of you and are wondering how much you heard and how much you understood. The woman shooed me out into the hallway, while she told me in a half-hearted sort of way that I shouldn’t joke about ‘such things’.

And then I was outside again. She closed the door in my face.


Dad was chopping up vegetables for dinner. I stole a couple of carrot pieces and sat down at the kitchen table.

“How was your day?” he said.

“Rubbish. I want to play with Katie but I can’t find her.”

“Who’s Katie? Is she a new girl in your class?”

I stopped with a piece of carrot halfway to my mouth.

Dad looked around at me and smiled. “You can invite her over after school on Monday if you want.”

“Mhm,” I said. I finished my carrot and chewed my fingernail for a bit before blurting out, “Dad, what does stillborn mean?”

Dad put the knife down very carefully. Then he sat down beside me at the kitchen table and told me about babies who died before they were born. I asked if that was what had happened to the Robertsons’ baby and he said yes, and that the Robertsons were very sad and moved away a few years after it happened.

“Why do you ask?” he said.

“No reason. I’ve got to go,” I said, and I ran out of the kitchen and up to my room. When I run up the stairs, I try to take them two at a time. I can usually manage it if I go fast enough at the bottom. Now I took the stairs three at a time. My bedroom is tiny but I don’t mind, because it’s got an actual loose floorboard I can hide things under, and a tree that grows right up to the window so I can sneak out without dad catching me. I went to the floorboard first. The space beneath it is just big enough for my dearest treasures that I keep there, wrapped in an old t-shirt. There’s half a bag of sour candies, a coin from Norway with a hole in it and a strange rock that I’m certain is a dinosaur fossil or maybe a meteorite. I also have a friendship book.

Everyone in my class had written in it, but Katie had written four times because she kept changing her favourite colour and animal and her dearest memory of me, and then she needed to write a new entry.

I sat down on my bed and leafed through the pages, quickly the first time, slowly the second time, and quickly again the third time because I was starting to panic. There was Lynn, and Andrew, and Maryam, and Jess. But there was nothing about Katie Robertson, let alone four entries. There were other hiding places in my room and I checked them all, but I couldn’t find any trace of the stories Katie and I had written together. And the teddy bear she had given me for my last birthday was gone too. My bed looked empty without it.

Dad called me down to dinner then. I wolfed down some shepherd’s pie and disappeared up to my room again as soon as I was excused. Katie was missing, and since I was the only one who knew she was missing, it was up to me to save her. But save her from what? Or from where? And what then? What if I rescued Katie from the clutches of some horrid monster and still nobody knew who she was? Her parents had moved away and the current owner of their house was some woman with a blue dress and white teeth.

Katie hadn’t disappeared from the world, I realised. I had appeared in it.

I once read a story about an astronaut who returned to Earth after a space mission, except it wasn’t the Earth he knew. He’d ended up in a parallel universe where everything was just a little bit different. His house was strange and his dog tried to bite him. I couldn’t remember how he’d gotten back to his own universe but it didn’t matter. It was just a stupid story, and besides, the portal he went through was probably in space somewhere.

The question was, where was my portal?

Perhaps I could track it down with science.

For my seventh birthday, dad had given me a toy microscope and a real scientist’s notebook. He’d told me that scientists must always write down their experiments and their ideas. There were still a few pages left in the notebook, so I took my favourite green pen and wrote down everything I could remember from the last time I saw Katie. Somehow, between saying goodbye to her after school yesterday and ringing the neighbours’ doorbell today, I had crossed into a parallel universe or another dimension or whatever it was. It was probably in my house. Somewhere.

Could I go back the same way?

I doubted it. I had run back and forth and around the house quite a bit in the last twenty-four hours. If the portal was in one place then I must have gone through it half a dozen times already. Maybe the portal moved around? But I wasn’t in Star Trek. I couldn’t figure out where the portal would go next with just a notebook, a toy microscope and a pocket calculator.

When science doesn’t work, I thought, it is time to turn to magic. Dad says that magic is just a name people give to science they don’t understand yet. That might be true. But I also think that magic has a big advantage over science, and that’s that children’s authors write about it a lot more often. Most of my books are about magic, in one form or another. I probably know more about magic than about science. I started skimming through them, but I hadn’t gotten very far before dad came up and announced it was bedtime.

I went off to brush my teeth.

“Wllhureemshtorree?”

“A story?” he said. He was leaning against the doorway of the bathroom with a stopwatch to make sure I brushed for two minutes. “All right. Which one?”

I spat out my toothpaste as the stopwatch beeped. “One about magic and parallel universes.”

“All right.”

He didn’t ask why. Dad is cool like that. By the time I’d changed into my pyjamas, he’d dug out the Chronicles of Narnia from underneath a stack of battered paperbacks. I huddled under my blanket while dad read two chapters. He did different voices and little sound effects but my mind kept drifting away to the spot beside my pillow where Katie’s teddy bear should have been. I mumbled goodnight when dad turned off the light and left, but I couldn’t sleep.

I lay thinking about magic wardrobes and rings while the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling gradually faded. But I didn’t have a wardrobe, just a chest of drawers, and no ring either. Somewhere, a clock struck twelve. Midnight. I remember reading that there’s a lot of magic at midnight. So I went to the window and peered outside. The world was black with painted streaks of silver moonlight. I opened the window and was hit by a blast of cold air. I quickly pulled on a woollen sweater over my pyjamas, then climbed over the sill and into the tree. It had long since lost its leaves and the bare branches were cold and wet and somehow much scratchier than in summer. I climbed quickly and sat down on a branch near the top, with one arm wrapped around the trunk. From here I could see my garden, and Katie’s, and a few distant rooftops.

The moon was full and hung low in the sky, and it was completely wrong.

I tried to think of another word to describe it, but couldn’t. It was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It was like seeing something in the mirror. No, worse. If you hold a book in front of a mirror, the text looks all weird but at least you can still recognise that it is words and letters. But I didn’t recognise this moon. The craters were different. There was no man in the moon. This was not my moon. Or if it was, it was the dark side of the moon, the one that always points away from Earth.

There was a sudden gust of wind. I clung to the tree and waited for my branch to stop shaking. In the distance, a clock struck twelve. Midnight again! When I looked up, the moon was right. I blinked a couple of times, but it stayed reassuringly familiar.

My fingers were numb from the cold when I finally climbed back through my bedroom window.

On my pillow was the teddy bear Katie had given me for my last birthday.

November 02, 2019 01:15

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11 comments

Debra Caples
14:04 Nov 07, 2019

A little universe-jumper. Maybe this explains where all the stuff I lose goes. Or where I go... Good job.

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Jenna Williams
04:20 Dec 27, 2019

Wow! I did not expect that. Great story, and wonderful characterization. Btw penguins are my favorite animals too!

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11:10 Dec 27, 2019

Hurray! A fellow penguin fan! :) glad you liked the story

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Shelley Lerea
20:43 Nov 10, 2019

I love stories about parallel universes and magic. This was extremely well written and I enjoyed reading it very much!!!

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Katy S.
17:13 Apr 26, 2020

I love this!

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20:47 Apr 27, 2020

thank you!

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Harnoor Kaur
10:10 Apr 22, 2022

The ending was sooooo good!

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Rishank Lahkar
06:39 Oct 12, 2021

Definitely one of my favourites! I love mystery stories and this one is awesome!

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Nefaria Mordeath
17:38 Mar 28, 2020

I loved this story as it was extremely well written. Even I am planning to write a story based on another prompt like this so, thanks for the inspiration.

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Nefaria Mordeath
17:38 Mar 28, 2020

I loved this story as it was extremely well written. Even I am planning to write a story based on another prompt like this so, thanks for the inspiration.

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Extremely well-written story. The ending left a little to be desired, but all in all a great piece of writing.

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