The Croquet Lawn, and What They Found There
1268 words long
It looked peaceful and inviting and far too perfect.
Notes from the author:
Writers ought to have warning signs hanging off their ears and/or flashing across their foreheads: “Caution. Writer present. Anything you do or say may turn up in their fiction.” After years of training myself to see story ideas everywhere I look, I can’t suddenly stop. This is by way of saying “sorry not sorry” to the other folks in that online conversation where we traded bad descriptions of our National Novel Writing Month novels. In my defense, I did warn everyone I was bookmarking the thread for writing prompts.
So. “Two characters open a door and don’t go through it, although they’re still very proud of themselves.” I immediately thought of a door between worlds, like the titular wardrobe of the first Narnia book or the portals that appear in Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway. Generally, a door like that opens, characters go through. That is the whole point of portal fantasy. Why would two characters not go through, let alone feel satisfied with that decision?
Turns out there are lots of good reasons. Danger. Allergies. You have a headache. You have responsibilities. You see no compelling reason to desert your entire life and everyone in it for the uncertainty of another universe. In all seriousness, more people turn down the wardrobe invitation than accept. You’re just less likely to read about them, is all.
“I dunno,” Mark said. “There could be bugs.”
“Bugs!” Marsha put her hands on her hips and focused a withering glare on her husband, much as though, as far as she was concerned, he were the bug. “An impossible magic world has turned up inside our understair closet, and you’re worried about bugs? I’m not sure you’re addressing this situation with the seriousness it deserves.”
“I am, though. Bugs are creepy. And if it’s a magic world, they probably have magic bugs. Spiders the size of horses. Brr.”
Mark was entomophobic. Also arachnophobic, chilopodophobic, and scoleciphobic. Basically, if it creepy-crawled around on too many legs, he didn’t want any. So of course he got twice as much as his share. He was the first person the mosquitoes found at twilight, and his was the first sandwich the ants infested at any picnic. At age eight, his right ear had suffered invasion by a questing cockroach while he slept; his parents had to ask the family doctor to make a late-night emergency house call to extract the unwanted aural explorer.
“I’m not going,” Mark reiterated, “if there’s going to be bugs.”
Marsha sighed. “Well, I’m not going in there alone. Who knows what we’ll find?”
They regarded the open closet door. Somewhere in there, Marsha hoped, they might still find their artificial Christmas tree and collection of ornaments, not to mention their elderly upright vacuum. But right now all she could see was a wide green meadow bounded only by the closet door frame to either side and a thick, stately forest on the distant horizon. The sky above the trees was the precise shade of blue clinically proven to lift the spirits of anyone suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The grass on the meadow was such a lush and healthy green, and of such a uniform height, that Marsha found herself thinking of it as “the croquet lawn.” All it needed was a picnic blanket, a selection of covered dishes, and a tea service. Here and there, wildflowers dotted the green with pink and blue.
To Marsha, it looked peaceful and inviting and far too perfect. Marsha was deeply skeptical of perfection. (To Mark, it looked like just the place to get ambushed by bees and ants and horseflies, all at once.)
“And then there’s time,” Marsha mused. “We can’t be sure how it runs in there. We can’t rely on Narnia rules, where you can be Queen of the castle for fifty years then come home not a second after you left. It might be more like Fairyland, where after an hour of dancing and feasting you come back to find two hundred years have passed behind your back. We can’t afford that. I have to be at the Homeowner’s Association board meeting tonight at seven, and you promised to take Roland to the vet tomorrow.”
“About that,” said Mark. “Have you seen the boat lately? He hasn’t shown his face since breakfast.”
“Do you think he’s in there?”
“I hope not, but... the closet door was ajar when I found it like this.”
Roland was their two-year-old golden retriever. Over the months, his name had sprouted permutations like Ro, Ro-Ro, and Row Row Row Your Boat Gently Down the Stream. That last being far too long for any dog who wasn’t currently a candidate for Best In Breed, Roland tended to get referred to as simply “the boat.” Mark had briefly campaigned for Royce, by way of the expensive car, but Roland never learned to answer to it. As Marsha had put it, “It’s not like golden retrievers have mid-life crises.”
Suddenly a cloud of butterflies, hundreds and hundreds of butterflies, wheeled into view. Their huge golden wings, fluttering lazily in no particular direction, filled the meadow. Each wing sported two round blue-green spots; the constant flapping caused the butterflies to resemble some diffuse many-eyed creature constantly blinking, Mark and Marsha watched, transfixed with fascination (though in Mark’s case it was more like fascinated horror), until—
“Oh my God. Look!”
—Roland raced into view, leaping among the butterflies in a happy frenzy, snapping after the golden wings in affable vain. The same scene that, in the park across town, would have elicited laughter and delight, here gave both humans the creeping shivers, because it was utterly and uncannily noiseless. Not a footfall or a panting breath, let alone a bark, reached their ears. It was as though sound waves didn’t have the same dispensation granted to light to travel between the worlds. The silence made Roland seem beyond their reach and irretrievably lost.
The butterflies began to move slowly away across the meadow, farther from the door, luring Roland along with them.
“Hey,” Marsha called, “Hey, ya boat, get back here!” But the dog was as unable to hear her as she was to hear him.
“I got this,” said Mark. His hands were shaking, but he forced himself forward. They’re just butterflies, he told himself. Harmless, pretty butterflies... He crossed the threshold.
Marsha watched him go. She saw him stand there a moment, his body exerting itself in the shape of the dog’s name. She saw Roland respond, turning away from the butterflies to loose a silent bark in Mark’s direction.
She saw the grass just ahead of Mark quiver then separate as though someone had unzipped a portion of the meadow. She saw the two hairy legs, each tipped with claws, emerge from the gap. Then she was running, running just as fast as she could, to grab Mark by the back of his sweater and yank him aside as a spider the size of a cart horse pounced on the space her husband had occupied not two seconds before.
They ran together back toward the portal, a rectangle of precious domesticity imposed upon open air. Behind that hanging picture of their living room, they could see the forest that bounded the meadow. It was much closer at this end, and it didn’t look so stately when you could see the things waiting among the trees. Running toward them in the blind faith that the closet door would still be there when they reached it was one of the hardest things Mark had ever done. It ranked right up there with holding very still while waiting for the doctor to arrive so that the cockroach wouldn’t panic and puncture his eardrum with one of its segmented legs.
Roland tore through the portal first. Running was fun. He danced in place while waiting for his humans to catch up.
Once they were all three safely back on living room carpet, Marsha turned to look behind them. She was just in time to see the giant spider retreat beneath the ground. The meadow repaired itself, becoming once more an unbroken expanse of grass dotted with pink and blue wildflowers. The yellow butterflies vanished against the distant forest.
There was a moment of stillness. Then a tea tray rolled gently into view, dragging a picnic blanket behind it.
“That’s it,” Marsha said, and closed the door.
Mark was sitting on the floor, hugging Roland. He hooked his chin over the dog’s shoulder and asked, “Do you think that, if we opened the door again, we’d get our closet this time?”
“I think,” said Marsha, “that some things aren’t worth the risk of finding out.” She sat down and leaned, shuddering, against her husband’s side. “We’re going to need to buy a new vacuum. And some two-by-fours and a nail gun.”
“And a new Christmas tree,” said Mark.
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