by Briana Bizier
There has got to be a gate, and I’m going to find it.
I’m not an idiot. I’m almost fourteen, and I know the stories are bullshit. There are no Care Bears up there in the clouds, watching over kids and floating on down to fix their problems. There’s nothing up there in the clouds, no one watching. No one cares about your problems.
But it’s not all bullshit, and I know, cause my cousin Kylie saw a unicorn.
Kylie’s pretty, and she’s popular, and she’s on the basketball team. She’s got no reason to lie to me. And she swears she saw a unicorn last year during the sunrise Easter service.
I saw something too, some flash of motion in the lifting darkness. But I did not see the unicorn, not like Kylie. I doubt a unicorn would come to me anyway, even though I am a virgin.
It’s not just the unicorn, of course. It’s that girl, too. The one who disappeared, her awkward face now plastered all over town, curly hair and those big, shiny braces. She’s been gone over a week now, and nobody’s found a thing.
But I know what happened.
She found the gate.
There’s always a gate, in all of the stories. There’s a closet to Narnia. There’s a portal or a rainbow or a tornado to take you to a better place.
So I figure, if Kylie saw a unicorn, then there’s got to be gates, too. And that’s what happened to that girl, that Samantha. She found the gate.
And I’m going to find it too.
She went to my school, Samantha Merhoffer.
They had a big presentation for us after she’d been gone five days, with the police talking to us all in the cafeteria, and then some hippy dippy dumbass psychotherapist sat up there in big, dumb sparkly glasses and told us all to “acknowledge our feelings” and “cry if we need to,” and those stupid popular girls, the ones who never would’ve said “boo” to ugly Samantha Merhoffer, they all started bawling their eyes out like she was their best friend.
James would have found it disgusting, bunch of fucking hypocrites.
Samantha was not my best friend. She wasn’t even my friend. Sometimes we sat at opposite ends of the empty lunch table, the table for the losers and the freaks. That’s as close as we came to friends.
Wish we had been friends, though. Then maybe we could have gone through the gate together, on to great and terrible adventures.
I know Samantha used to cut across the badlands behind the school, on her way home. I know cause I’ve seen her leave the school. I’d be getting on my bike, she’d be walking out into the badlands, alone.
That’s not what they’re really called, the badlands. But that’s what I call them, how I think of them. How I think of the entire state of Wyoming, really.
We didn’t always live here. We used to live in California, in Mill Valley, just outside of San Francisco. That’s not bad land. There the air is soft against your skin, and the grass is always green, green, green. You get the sense that life just keeps on living. Even when your parents split up and your daddy moves away, you get the sense that life goes on in California.
Not here. Here, the sun is too bright, the wind is too strong, the nights too cold and the days too hot. Life is one big fucking struggle here.
“It’s a great opportunity,” my mom told me. “You’ll make new friends! It’ll be fun!”
Fun. Not the first word I’d pick to describe Wyoming.
The house is dark and quiet when I wake. Mom’s been working late, and besides, she’s got a boyfriend. I could hear her last night, on the phone with him, laughing like an idiot.
Not that I have anything against boyfriends. I mean, I’d like to have a boyfriend too, someone I could talk to on the phone. Someone besides James who’d know exactly how I feel.
I even know who I’d like as a boyfriend: Seth Sinade. He’s got long, black hair and a strong, handsome nose and high cheekbones. He looks bad and wild and sometimes he wears a Metallica shirt. I even like the sound of his name: Seth Sinade.
Not that he’d ever look at me. He’s one of them, the cool kids, the ones who hang out in the badlands and smoke cigarettes and drink beer and probably fuck each other.
Way out of my league.
I’m quiet as I move through the house. I don’t want to wake Mom, and besides, I like these quiet mornings, just me and the dark house. I warm an English muffin and hop up on the counter, swinging my feet, warming my hands over the toaster oven like it’s my own personal electronic fireplace.
Then I eat and pack myself a lunch. Everything in the house is diet this and fat-free that, especially now Mom’s got a boyfriend. I pack a fat-free yoghurt and two green apples, cause I’ve read somewhere that eating two apples a day can help you lose ten pounds in a month. And I could stand to lose ten pounds.
The air is cold and thin when I wheel my bike out of the garage. The sun is just starting to come up, just peeking over the horizon, and the stars are fading, and far to the west there’s just a sliver of a moon suspended over the distant mountains. The ride to school’s all downhill. I slip on my headphones under my dumbass helmet, and I turn on my music, and I set out.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Junior High School is hell. Not even kidding. It’s the seventh circle of hell, and I’m there all day, five days a week.
The sun is all the way up by the time I lock my bike to the rack, and the morning wind’s blowing grit in my eyes and teeth. I still linger outside, though, cause I really, really, really hate going to homeroom. But being late to homeroom means they’ll call my mom, so I eventually I have to drag myself through the halls.
And just on cue, those assholes in the back of the room let loose with a barrage of balled-up notebook paper and pencils.
“Hey, it’s bike girl!”
Whack! One of the pencils hits me on the cheek.
“BIKE GIRL! Think fast!”
A pink rectangular eraser flies past my nose.
I sit down in the front row, not my preferred position, but it’ll make me harder to hit. Another pencil lands next to my foot, some balled up paper hits the ground in front of me. Those fuckers are terrible shots.
Then Mr. Fletcher comes in, adjusting his glasses, and the idiots in the back of the room shut the hell up. I turn to face the wall, rub where the pencil whacked me. Doesn’t feel too bad. Hopefully it won’t leave a mark.
Mr. Fletcher doesn’t even say a word. It’s like he’s wearing a giant ticker over his head: RETIREMENT IN… TWO YEARS, FOUR MONTHS, TWENTY SEVEN DAYS.
And, just below that: DO NOT FUCK WITH ME.
After homeroom comes math class. I use my protractor to draw animals, trying to design one with no accessible vital organs. That’s the problem with humans, after all. We’re so vulnerable. All it takes is one good stab, and boom, you could get heart, lungs. You could hit kidneys, liver, arteries. You could go through the eyes and get the brain.
Not my protractor creature. It’s just got one weakness I can’t quite get around: the eyes. Everything else is deep, deep within its hard, spiny shell. But I can’t figure out a way around the eyes. I mean, you’ve got to see, right?
Then it’s lunch, and I’m off to eat two apples and a fat-free yoghurt by myself, at the loser table. But I don’t mind. I do better by myself. And besides, it’s a chance to practice my chords. I’m teaching myself to play the guitar, so I’ll have more in common with James.
I know we can’t exactly afford a guitar, my mom and I, so I haven’t mentioned it. It’s one of those deep secrets, that I want a guitar, that I’m learning how to play one. I bought a guitar magazine and I’ve been practicing my chords, pressing my fingers against my own wrist, touching five imaginary metal strings. So far I’ve memorized the chords for “Nevermind,” and now I’m working on “Enter Sandman.” Then someday I’ll get a guitar, and I’ll pick it up, and I’ll be able to play it already.
That’s what I was doing last week, too, the one and only time Samantha Merhoffer ever spoke to me. Practicing my chords.
She came over with her lunch tray and she sat down, not next to me, cause that would have implied friendship, and not exactly across from me either. She sat down sort of diagonally, 110° on the protractor.
“I found something,” she whispered, her voice just loud enough to carry across the table. “It’s magic. You want to see it?”
I looked at her, eyes shiny behind her big glasses. And then I looked up and saw Seth, perfect Seth Sinade, eating with the cool kids just a table away. I couldn’t be seen talking to Samantha Merhoffer in front of Seth Sinade, so I just shook my head.
That was the day she disappeared, all right. The day she walked through the gate.
Art class. Finally. The art teacher, Mr. Tunson, is the coolest damn teacher in the building. Even his room is cool, off by itself in the back of the school, with kilns and easels and high, open windows and about a thousand potted plants.
What’s even better, Mr. Tunson is a real artist, not just some shitty “can’t cut it in the real world, might as well teach” deal. He taught us about negotiating with an art gallery. He said, if someone wants to pay you to paint a picture of sandhill cranes, you take the money, and you paint that picture of sandhill cranes. He told us, if your house burns down, hey, at least you’ll have plenty of charcoal for sketching.
He’s the shit, that Mr. Tunson.
And even better, he’s got Seth Sinade in his class.
Today we’re working on a still life with oil pastels. Mr. Tunson’s found a bunch of rocks and twisty wood and deer skulls, real Wyoming, and he’s piled it on a burlap sack in the middle of the room, and we’re all painting it.
I love the oil pastels. I love how they go on the paper all soft, and you can blend them together without having them run all over the goddamn place like watercolors, and the hues are so vivid you can almost feel them, the greens rich as California grass, the golden like sunshine.
I’m so into my still life I almost don’t even notice when Seth says my name.
Then I hear it, I really hear it, and I turn around, and oh my God, Seth Sinade is standing up in the back of the room, standing up at his table, and he’s looking right at me, and my heart starts going all crazy, thud-thud-thudthudthud.
And then he says, “Will you go out with me?”
And the room crashes down around me, and I can barely even think over the blood rushing in my ears, and my heart is just screaming YES!!!! and my brain is screaming Stay cool – stay cool – hard to get, hard to get –
I finally find my tongue and I squeak, “I’ll think about it.”
And everyone in the room starts laughing.
Seth ignores me and sits back down, high-fiving with a couple of the cool kids, who are just laughing their asses off at this, laughing their asses off at stupid Daphne Delmar, with her dumb name and her dumb bike and her dumb, fat thighs.
I can’t even stay in the room for one more second. I go running to the bathroom and sit in the stall and wipe my eyes, all trembly, until I finally hear the bell ring, and then I figure I’ve got to go back for my stuff.
Breezy Bargas is outside the door to art class. Breezy Bargas, the coolest of the cool, with her faded denim jacket and her big ass sunglasses like a Hollywood movie star and her eyeshadow that matches her nail polish that matches her skirt.
“Daphne,” she says, and she puts her perfectly manicured fingernails on my shoulder. “Daphne, that was just a joke.”
She looks at me like she’s maybe expecting me to say something, her eyes a cool weight of sympathy and disdain, as if I were some hurt, filthy animal by the side of the road.
“You know Seth wouldn’t ever ask you out, right? Because he’s going out with me.”
I could punch Breezy Bargas right between her perfectly shadowed eyes. I could punch her in her perfect teeth, mix her oh-so-right lipstick with her perfectly red blood.
But I just go back to the art room, grab my backpack. I grab my still life too, and rip it up, and drop it in the trashcan.
Doesn’t even matter. My mind’s made up, now. It’s going to be today.
Today, I am going to find my gate.
Just one more class before freedom. I sit way in the back, by the window, and I try to ignore my growling stomach by staring at the badlands and thinking about James.
I’ve got a picture of him in my notebook, real small and on the inside, cause it’s for no one but me. I’ve got lots of pictures of him in my room, loads of them, all over the walls, cause that’s a private place as well, just for the two of us.
The one I’ve got in my notebook is from the magazine that comes in the newspaper. He’s wearing his wolf’s head necklace and his hair’s long and curly and almost in his eyes and he looks like he’s about to say something, or maybe even smile, but the camera’s caught him just before, so it’s a moment filled with potential and energy and magic. It’s not my favorite picture of him, but it’s close.
My favorite picture of him hangs just by my bed, just by my pillow. Not quite close enough to touch, just close enough to see him every morning. In that picture he is smiling, and he’s looking to the side, as if he’s laughing with someone just behind the camera. He doesn’t smile much, but when he does, well, it’s more beautiful than even Seth Sinade. He’s wearing a kind of flannel-y shirt, and it’s got two buttons at the top that are open, and the third just, well, hints.
Sometimes I have dreams where the third button is open, and sometimes more than that, and then I wake up blushing and feeling real embarrassed, too embarrassed to even look at that poster, because me and James, well, it’s not like that. We have more of a connection. An understanding. It’s not about what the cool kids do in the badlands after smoking their cigarettes, drinking their Budweiser.
He’s a good guy, my James. He writes the lyrics for Metallica, and he sings all their songs, and he’s the rhythm guitarist too. He’s a poet, he’s a badass, he deserves all his fame and fortune and then some, and I would bet my life he’d never stand up in art class just to embarrass some loser-ass girl.
Finally the last bell rings, and I’m free. Free to search the badlands.
The badlands are twisty, sun-scrubbed arroyos and canyons tangled with scrub oak and mesquite and cactuses. They’re full of nasty stuff: yuccas sharp enough to draw blood, even though your jeans. Prickly pears with spines that will stick in your hands for days. The sides of the arroyos are steep, and I slip going down the first one and scrape my hand against the red gravel, drawing blood. Then I just sit in the shade of a scruffy mesquite, listening to the hum and throb of grasshoppers. Thinking.
Samantha must have left school about the same time I just did, in case time has anything to do with it. And she probably followed a path; there’s hundreds of paths through here, paths cut by mule deer and coyotes and wild, dumb kids. If the gate appears at a time of day, it’d be now. And it’d probably be along one of the paths.
I slide a little further down the arroyo wall, looking for a path.
The sun is still high in the sky, but it’s falling, and the shadowed sides of the hills are already cool, the air tangy with the scent of desert sagebrush. There are cottonwoods and tamarisk at the bottom, the pale green of the cottonwoods and the bright pink feathery fronds of the tamarisk dancing in the sun. There’s just a bit of fine, red sand below the trees, and a glittering palace of Budweiser cans. I run the sand between my fingers, soft as silk. It seems like a good place. If Seth Sinade were to take me here, to apologize for what he did today, to run his fingers through my hair like I run mine through the soft, red sand –
But that kind of thinking is bullshit. Plain and simple bullshit.
I put on my headphones. Help me focus here, James.
I cross the badlands for hours, finding places I’ve never seen before. Good places, like with the cottonwoods and the tamarisk. Bad places, like the ring of dead cars and burned tires. In-between places, with pebble-piles of deer shit and cloven hoof deer tracks and a snake skin beneath a scrub oak that’s almost entirely intact.
I walk for a long time. I’ve got strong legs, what with all the bike riding, but even so I’m getting tired. My stomach is cramping, mad about my tiny, diet lunch. My feet blister, start to burn with every step.
It’s getting late. The sun is sliding towards the distant, broken mountains, the shadows are growing long and cold, and the light is turning real golden, almost beautiful.
Pretty soon my mom’s going to get home, and she’s going to flip. My heart does a funny little twinge at that, at the thought of my mom opening the garage, maybe noticing my bike’s not in there. Maybe not. Maybe not realizing till she walks in the house and the lights are off, the TV is off.
I shake my head. Dumb shit. In all those stupid stories, once the kids go through the gate, once they end up in Neverland or Oz or wherever, they waste the rest of their fucking time trying to get back home.
Why the hell would you try to get back home?
I almost miss it.
I notice the smell first. It’s not a Wyoming smell. Something smells like moisture, like water in the air, a thick, heavy blanket of cool fog, and growing, living things. The smell catches my attention, makes me turn, and I see a flicker, just a shimmer, in the willows below me. I’m halfway up a canyon wall now, surrounded by broken granite and prickly pear and scrub oak, and I see a shimmer in the bottom that is exactly like light on water.
But there is no water here.
And right then I know: I’ve found the gate.
My heart is going crazy as I press STOP on my music and slide myself down the rocks. The canyon’s narrow at the bottom, thick with scruffy little willows, and already deep in the shade.
The gate floats about a foot above the rocks. The willow branches touch it and pass right through, waving in the evening breeze. The gate looks a bit like static, a sort of shimmery grey nowhere just about as tall as me.
I walk all the way around it, mouth dry, heart thumpa-thumpa-thudding. From the back the gate just vanishes and all I can see are the willows.
I panic, then, just a little, and slip on the rocks going back to the front. There it is. Shimmery in the fading light, hovering, smelling like water and growing things.
I squeeze the straps of my backpack, thinking. There’s something else here, too. Coming off that gate in waves, like a low fog, there’s this sense of wrong. This thing shouldn’t be here, and it makes my stomach clench.
I bend down and, as I do, that sense of wrong gets stronger. I’ve read there are spots in Wyoming, in Yellowstone, that leak poison gas, where the air near the ground can kill you. I hold my breath, grab a few rocks, and stand back up. Feeling kind of like an idiot, I chuck a rock in the gate.
The gate shimmers and the rock is gone. I don’t hear it hit the other side.
I walk around to the back, where the gate vanishes, and look on the ground. Of course it’s covered with stupid fucking rocks. Maybe the rock I threw is here; maybe it’s not.
I walk around the gate again, take a deep breath, turn my backpack around and unzip it. I pick the most useless book: Introduction to Algebra! with its cover picture of a little white boat, rainbow sails cheerful on some distant, turquoise sea. I hold the book by the spine and loft it, gently, into the gate.
The gate shimmers again, maybe more so this time, and the book is gone. I hear nothing. Perhaps the smell gets a bit more pronounced, water and growing things and damp, fertile soil. Perhaps not.
My algebra book is not lying on the ground behind the gate.
I take a deep breath. The wrong is stronger now, and it occurs to me that maybe there’s a time limit here, that this gate might vanish any second. That should make me move faster, but I don’t. I walk very slowly towards the gate, my feet crunching on the stones and dried leaves. I have to brush branches and spider webs out of my face until I’m standing right in front of it, almost touching it.
This close, I can hear the gate. It’s buzzing, just slightly, like a low, distant storm.
I put my hand up to the gate and it’s cold, icy cold. I take a deep breath.
And I push my hand through the ice water. The gate is cold, cold, cold, and then nothing on my hand. My fingers open on the other side, feel –
Something grabs my wrist.
I scream, yank backwards so violently I crash to the ground. My palms blossom with pain as I scrabble backwards, frantic.
The gate shimmers again, bulges slightly outwards, and then is still. It smells like water and green. It smells like California.
I sit on my ass on the rocks, panting, staring at it. Maybe it’s Samantha in there. Maybe it’s Samantha, and maybe she needs to be rescued. Maybe that’s my quest, the great and terrible adventure I’ll have on the other side of the gate.
The light seems to be fading fast at the bottom of the canyon, among the shifting willows. I wipe my bloody hands on my jeans, wipe my dry mouth on my sleeve.
And then I hear something through my headphones, though I haven’t touched the PLAY button. It’s just one word, just once, in his deep, low growl of a voice.
James fucking Hetfield.
That was James fucking Hetfield, I’d swear it was, and then I look down and realize I’m already back on my feet, and I’m already through the willows, and I’m already standing by the gate, so close, almost cheek-to-cheek with the cold shimmer. I can hear the buzzing now, louder. It’s a hungry sound. I raise my hand to the gate and feel the cold, the cold coming off that shimmery gate in waves.
But I can also hear James, hear him just one more time, loud and clear in my headphones.
And I pull back from the gate, pull back fast. Walk away, backwards, not taking my eyes off the shimmery grey nothing, which seems to bulge and pull and buzz and smells like water and green and home, home, home.
I scramble up the side of the canyon, the far side, and I can just see the setting sun streaking the clouds all orange and red. Then I think, maybe it grows at night.
And then I find I still have the energy to run.
Briana Bizier lives outside Buffalo, New York, where she teaches writing, philosophy, and religion. Her fiction has been accepted by The Bookends Review.