November 04, 2014
It’s been a few years since we last used the magic portal in our back garden, and it has fallen into disrepair. To be perfectly honest, when we bought this place, we had no idea what kind of work would be involved, and tasks like keeping the garden weeded, repairing the fence, maintaining the portal, etc., quickly fell to the bottom of the priority list while we got busy dealing with the roof and the floor joists. I guess there are probably people with full-time jobs out there who can keep an old house in great shape without breaking their backs, but if there are, I’ve never met them.
My point is, we’ve developed kind of a blind spot about that whole back acre. The kids are older now and don’t spend so much time wandering around in the woods and the clearing the way they used to—Luann is all about the boys these days, and you can’t get Chester’s mind away from the Xbox for more than five minutes— and Gretchen and I hardly ever even look in that direction. I think one time last summer we got a little drunk and sneaked out there to have sex under the crabapple tree, but weeds and stones kept poking up through the blanket and the bugs were eating us alive, so we gave up, came back inside and did it in the bed like normal people.
I know, too much information, right? Any way, it was the kids who discovered the portal back when we first moved in. They were into all that magic stuff at the time—Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, that kind of thing—and while Gretchen and I steamed off old wall- paper and sanded the floorboards inside the house, they had this whole crazy fantasy world invented back there, complete with various kingdoms, wizards, evil forces, orcs, trolls, and what have you. They made paths, buried treasures, drew maps, and basically had a grand old time. We didn’t even have to send them to summer camp, they were so . . . tolerable. They didn’t fight, didn’t complain—I hope someday, when the teen years are over with, they’ll remember all that and have some kind of relationship again. Maybe when they’re in college. Fingers crossed.
One afternoon, I guess it was in July, they came running into the house, tracking mud everywhere and breathlessly shouting about something they’d found. “It’s a portal, it’s a portal to another world!” I got pretty bent out of shape about the mud, but the kids were seriously over the moon about this thing, and their enthusiasm was infectious. So Gretchen and I followed them out across the yard and into the woods, then down the little footpath that led to the clearing.
It’s unclear what used to be there, back in the day—the land behind our house was once farmland, and the remains of old dirt roads ran everywhere—but at this time, a few years ago, the clearing was pretty overgrown, thick with shrubs and brambles and the like. We figured there’d just been a grain silo or something, something big that would have resulted in this perfectly circular area, but the kids had uncovered a couple of stone benches and a little fire pit, so clearly somebody used to hang around here in the past, you know, lighting a fire and sitting on the benches to look at it.
When we reached the clearing, we were quite impressed with the progress the kids had made. They’d managed to clear a lot of brush and the place had the feel of some kind of private room—the sun coming down through the clouds, and the wall of trees surrounding the space, and all that. It was really nice. So the kids had stopped at the edge, and we came up behind them and they were like, do you see it? And we were like, see what? And they said look, and we said, where?, and they said, Mom, Dad, just look!
And sure enough, off to the left, kind of hovering above what had looked like another bench but now appeared more like a short, curved little staircase, was this oval, sort of man-sized, shimmering thing that honestly just screamed “magic portal.” I mean, it was totally obvious what it was—nothing else gives the air that quality, that kind of electrical distortion, like heat or whatever is bending space itself.
This was a real surprise to us, because there had been nothing about it in the real estate ad. You’d think the former owners would have mentioned it. I mean, the dry rot, I understand why they left that out, but even if this portal was busted, it’s still a neat thing to have (or so I thought at the time), and could have added a few thou to the asking price, easy. But this was during the economic slump, so maybe not, and maybe the previous owners never bothered to come back here and didn’t know what they had. They looked like indoor types, frankly. Not that Gretchen and I look like backcountry survivalists or anything. But I digress.
The fact is, this portal was definitely not busted, it was working, and the kids had taken special care uncovering the steps that led to it, tugging out all the weeds from between the stones and unearthing the little flagstone patio that surrounded the whole thing. In retrospect, if I had been an expert, or even a well-informed amateur, I would probably have been able to tell the portal was really just puttering along on its last legs and would soon go on the fritz. But of course I was, and I guess still am, an idiot.
We all went over there and walked around it and looked through it—had a laugh making faces at one another through the space and watching each other go all funhouse-mirror. But obviously the un- spoken question was, do we go through? I was actually really proud of the kids right then because they’d come and gotten us instead of just diving headfirst through the thing like a lot of kids would have done. Who knows, maybe this stellar judgment will return to them someday. A guy can dream! But at this moment we all were just kind of looking at each other, wondering who was going to test it out.
Since I’m the father, this task fell to me. I bent over and pried a stone up out of the dirt and stood in front of the portal, with the kids looking on from behind. (Gretchen stood off to the side with her arms folded over her chest, doing that slightly disapproving stance she does pretty much all the time now.) And after a dramatic pause, I raised my arm and tossed the stone at the portal.
Nothing dramatic—the stone just disappeared. “It works!” Chester cried, and Luann hopped up and down, trying to suppress her excitement.
“Now hold on,” I said, and picked up a twig. I braced my foot on the bottom step and poked the twig through the portal. This close, you could hear a low hum from the power the thing was giving off. In retrospect, this was probably an indication that the portal was out of whack—I mean, if my TV did that, I’d call a guy. But then, I figured, what did I know? Besides, when I pulled the twig out, it looked okay. Not burned or frozen or turned into a snake or anything—it was just itself. I handed it to Gretchen and she gave it a cursory examination. “Jerry,” she said, “I’m not sure—”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry.” I knew the drill—she’s the mom, she has to be skeptical, and it’s my job to tell her not to worry. Which is harder to do nowadays, let me tell you. I got up nice and close to the portal, until the little hairs on my arms were standing up, and I stuck out my index finger and moved it slowly toward the shimmering air. Chester’s eyes were wide. Luann covered her mouth with her fists. Gretchen sighed.
Well, what can I say, it went in, and I barely felt a thing. It was weird seeing my pointer finger chopped off at the knuckle like that, but when I pulled it out again, voilà, there it was, unharmed. My family still silent, I took the bull by the horns and just shoved my whole arm in. The kids screamed. I pulled it out.
“What,” I said, “what!!”
“We could see your blood and stuff !” This was Chester. Luann said, “Daddy, that was so gross.”
“Like an x-ray?” I said.
Chester was laughing hysterically now. “Like it got chopped off !” “Oh my God, Jerry,” Gretchen said, her hand on her heart.
My arm was fine, though. In fact, it felt kind of good—wherever the arm had just been, it was about five degrees warmer than this breezy little glade.
“Kids,” I said, “stand behind me.” Because I didn’t want them to see what I was about to do. Eventually we’d get over this little taboo and enjoy watching each other walk super slowly through the portal, revealing our pulsing innards, but for now I didn’t want to freak anyone out, myself least of all. When the kids were safely behind me, Gretchen holding them close, I stuck my head through.
I don’t know what I was expecting—Middle Earth, or Jupiter, or Tuscany, or what. But I could never in a million years have guessed the truth. I pulled my head out.
“It’s the vacant lot behind the public library,” I said.
I think that even then, that very day, we knew the portal was screwed up. It was only later, after it was obvious, that Gretchen and I started saying out loud the strange things we noticed on the family trip downtown. For one thing, the books we got at the library—obviously that’s the first place we went—weren’t quite right. The plots were all convoluted and the paper felt funny. The bus lines were not the way we remembered, with our usual bus, the 54, called the 24; and the local transit authority color scheme had been changed to crimson and ochre. Several restaurants had different names, and the one guy we bumped into whom we knew—my old college pal Andy—recoiled in apparent horror when he saw us. It was just, you know, off.
But the really creepy thing was what Chester said that night as we were tucking him in to bed—and how I miss those days now, when Chester was still practically a baby and needed us to hug and kiss him goodnight—he just started laughing there in the dark, and Gretchen said what is it, honey, and he said that guy with the dog head.
Dog head? we asked him. Yeah, that guy, remember him? He walked past us on the sidewalk. He didn’t have a regular head, he had a dog head. Well, you know, Chester was always saying crazy nonsense back then. He still does, of course, but that’s different—it used to be cute and funny. So we convinced ourselves he was kidding. But later, when we remembered that—hell, we got chills. Everything from there on in would only get weirder, but it’s that dog head, Chester remembering the dog head, that freaks me out. I guess the things that scare you are the things that are almost normal.
J. ROBERT LENNON is the author of two story collections, Pieces For The Left Hand and See You in Paradise (published this month by Graywolf Press), and seven novels, including Mailman, Familiar, a
Excerpt from “The Portal” by J. Robert Lennon, from See You in Paradise: Stories. Copyright © 2014 by J. Robert Lennon. Used by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. www.graywolfpress.org