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Coming of Age Fantasy Contemporary

Her footsteps cracking on the ferny floor of the wood, Ida slipped through the mahogany door. She passed from sounds of the wind moving through leaves and birds cooing in the distance to the sleepy quiet of a moonlit bedroom. A single bed was shoved against the wall, a wardrobe and a desk on the opposite side, the space between them as narrow as her hips. Creeping over to the bed, she leaned over the sleeper, holding her breath. 


The child in the bed rolled over to face the window, and she saw that it was her, face white in the moonlight, breathing deeply, gripping her teddy, Bonnie, to her chest. A keen sting of panic jabbed her in the chest. Ida backed away from the bed and groped in the dark for the mahogany door, but it was gone. Instead, another door was left ajar, revealing a hallway. She stumbled out of the room and slunk like a shadow from the landing down the stairs. The sound of soft voices led her to a living room with cream walls and dark carpet, large glass windows and dark leather sofas. She saw her father, resting on the sofa with a glass of red wine, his arm draped around a woman Ida didn’t know, whose face she couldn’t see. 


In the corner, a gurgling baby was crawling around a mesh-enclosed playpen. Ida stared at the baby for a minute, then looked at her dad, and approached him, calling him softly. He didn’t raise his head. He kept talking in a low voice to the woman, who leaned in and rested her head on his chest. Ida’s voice swelled louder and louder, until she was yelling at him, look at me, look at me. But he didn’t. She screamed at him again and again, until her voice, strangled with tears, broke like a thin twig snapped underfoot. She sat on the carpet in front of him, her back to the fire, staring at him and the woman she didn’t know.


***


Two closed doors stood in the wood. They stood solidly in their frames, detached from any wall. To Ida, they looked strange, like limbs without a body. They had gilt handles and intricate engravings winding up the panels. As the birds chirped overhead, Ida traced her finger on the handle of one, wondering. She squatted and peeped through the keyhole.


“I said no looking!”


A squirrel sat on a clump of moss and, leaning on a raised, flat tree root, he scribbled dark sap on a leaf with a long spindly twig. His makeshift desk was piled high with neatly stacked leaves of various sizes. Occasionally, he would sift through a pile, pluck out a leaf, hold it up to the light to read, and file it away again. Ida watched him for a minute, but growing fidgety, she asked, “Well, how will I choose?” 


The squirrel flicked his tufted ear and rolled his round eyes.


“Giving advice to strange girls who can’t make up their minds is beyond my pay grade,” he said, continuing to write and shuffle through leafy documents. 


The sun was high and light shifted in and out of the leaves. She encircled the pair of strange doors, but after a minute, she wrapped her arms around herself and slumped onto a log.


“I give up! I fail. I don’t know which one to pick. Tell me what the answer is.”


“Just pick the one you like best,” muttered the squirrel without raising his black eyes from his work.


“What do you mean?”


“Your favourite one.”


“But they look the same. What’s the difference?”


His tail bristling, the squirrel put down his pen and stood up on his furry back legs to eyeball her over his papers. “These are your doors, not mine! Why are you here if you don’t want to use them?”


Ida hugged her arms more tightly around herself. She became conscious that she was wearing only her thin cotton nightie, and though it was not cold, she shivered. “What do you mean? I don’t know why I’m here. I thought this was a test?”


“A test? Who would bother testing you? Are you stupid? Choose a door and get out of my clearing.”


“I don’t know what’s behind them.”


The infuriated squirrel rifled through his leaves and then lifted one triumphantly into the air, squinting at it.


“Ida Doyle, 10 years old. Requested two doors to decide which parent she should choose to live with after the divorce. Please ensure they are clearly labelled.” His voice trailed away as he analysed the doors. “Well, I forgot to label them. But you asked for them, you should have known.”


Turning to an alcove in the tree, he dug out bird feathers, moss and twigs. He packed them into a knapsack made of deftly woven reeds and scampered up onto the handle of each door, spelling out MUM on one door’s panel, and DAD on the other. 


As she watched him, a queasy feeling churned in Ida’s stomach. When he was finished, she stood in front of the door labelled DAD. Running her fingers through her hair, she gripped the handle, took a deep breath, and leaned in. But she did not open the door. Her breathing grew shallow and rapid, and the squirrel looked up to see her pushing herself away from the door and sinking heavily on the grass. She put her face in her hands and groaned. At first, the squirrel ignored her. 


“Are you going to choose the other one?” he said, when she showed no signs of moving.


She pulled at the hem of her nightie. “Why do I have to choose?”


He shrugged. “Maybe you don’t. Live on your own.”


“I’m only ten!”


“I’m seven, and I’ve been living on my own for years.”


“But that’s in squirrel years.”


“What’s the difference?”


“I don’t know,” she said, her gaze drawn back to the doors. Then she was on her feet, charging up to the door labelled MUM. Her dance with this door was even briefer; she ran around it once and then stopped in front of it, clasped her hands behind her back and rested her forehead on the word MUM, before returning to the grass.  


“I can’t do it,” she groaned. She lay down on the grass in front of both doors, thinking hard, while the squirrel continued writing. The minutes ticked by, the wind blew through the woods and the leaves rustled in the trees. 


The squirrel bundled up his papers and packed them into his knapsack. He darted up the tree and disappeared into the foliage. About ten minutes later, he reappeared with an empty knapsack. He sat down at his desk, now with only a single green leaf left, and watched Ida, whose eyes were leaking quietly, rolling droplets into her ears. He clapped his paws together.


“I don’t generally like it when people clog up my clearing, you know?”


Ida scrunched up her hands into fists. “Can’t I just stay here in the woods with you? I’m a good worker. I can help you.”


“Of course not. Nobody can stay here. Eventually, you’ll wake up, whether you’ve chosen the door or not. I expect you’ll be waking soon; you’re the last person here today.”


“And what happens if I don’t choose a door?”


The squirrel scratched his ears and began preening his fluffy tail. “Nothing. These doors only show you what your life will be like when you make your choice. If you don’t choose, you just make the decision when you wake up.”


“So, this is all just my imagination? It’s happening inside my head?”


His big tail grew bushier and he stopped twitching. “What do you mean by that? You think I’m just some figment of your imagination? You came to this place to find help, not the other way around-”


“OK,” Ida raised her head from the grass. Bits of green clung to her hair and back.


With the squirrel still muttering about his qualifications, Ida began unravelling the seam of her nightie, winding it round and around her fingers.


“What if he has a new baby?” she said, watching the spool of cotton thicken. 


“What difference would it make?” said the squirrel, inspecting his tail.


“He’ll replace me.”


The squirrel paused to extract a white hair from the mass of chestnut brown. He frowned at it, turning it over in his paw. “That’s what parents do when their children grow up.”


“I’m not grown up yet.”


“If it makes you feel better, I don’t remember my parents.”


Ida slipped the tightly-wound cotton off her finger. It unravelled like an unspooling strand of DNA. 


“I think it might be different with squirrels.”


“Maybe,” replied the squirrel, flicking away the offending strand of hair. “But I think it’s better than this mess.”


“Yeah,” Ida whispered. “Anything is better than this mess.”


They were both quiet, absorbed in their own thoughts. Ida stared up at the trees.


“What do you do with the leaves you were writing on?”


Gesturing upwards, the squirrel said, “Attach them to the branches of the trees. In this wood, trees are naturally bare. Every one of these leaves has been individually fastened, each with a question written on it. It's been going on for hundreds of years.”


Ida squinted in the sunlight, looking at the mass of millions of leaves. The vastness of the display made her feel insignificant, small.


“The sunlight fades the ink over time. Your one is here, ready to go," said the squirrel, taking up the last leaf and waving it. 


Ida looked around her, taking in the wood. It had seemed bigger before, but now she could only seem to see their small green clearing with the dark doors standing like two stiff strangers. When she looked at the doors, they shimmered, hard to focus on. She was reminded of the sensation of walking down a crowded street, looking at the people milling past, their faces blurring together, so that it was impossible to pick one out. The sun flickering in the sky told her that her dream was coming to an end. 


She rose to her feet, brushed the moss and earth from her nightie and closed her eyes, taking a long, deep breath. She held it, until she could feel her heart thumping louder and louder, its rhythm growing frantic. She let go, gulped in a long inhale and slipped through her chosen door. 




May 28, 2021 15:07

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10 comments

Angela Guthrie
12:23 May 30, 2021

I like your story. It has an Alice in Wonderland vibe.

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Mary Sheehan
18:20 May 30, 2021

Thank you for your comment! I usually stick to realistic contemporary fiction, so this was outside my comfort zone. But I enjoyed playing with the imagery :)

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Renata Paschoal
15:33 May 30, 2021

Well written and catchy. I like doing the same. I watch and learn too. ;)

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J B
15:28 May 30, 2021

Intelligent writing! I suppose Ida entered the door that said 'Dad'. (Was that your ending?) I wonder if Ida was close to her mom. These words, "stopped in front of it, clasped her hands behind her back and rested her forehead on the word MUM, before returning to the grass" tell me Ida wasn't choosing the mom door as she didn't feel a closeness toward her.

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Mary Sheehan
18:17 May 30, 2021

Yes she did! I wanted to explore while Ida didn't feel close to her mum, but the deadline got too close, unfortunately. I wanted to convey that her mother was an afterthought, very much a second choice. Thank you for your thoughts on this :)

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J B
01:15 May 31, 2021

That part would have been interesting. So why did Ida not feel close to her mom? Let me guess. Was it because Ida looked very much like her dad and since her mom didn't really love her dad, she also had no special feelings for Ida?

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Mary Sheehan
14:34 May 31, 2021

I suppose it's open to interpretation. In the first draft, I included that Ida's mother had a problem with alcohol. This lead to the divorce and Ida blaming her mother for the upheaval of her life

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J B
16:10 Jun 02, 2021

I see.

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Ruth Smith
23:24 May 29, 2021

Very good story. I liked the imagery.

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Mary Sheehan
00:33 May 30, 2021

Thank you for taking the time to read it Ruth!

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