It’s time to face your options.
Theresa’s vision focuses into the first dream she’s had all year––that she can recall, at least. She scans the world quickly to absorb the atmosphere, but there is none. No floors to slide her feet across, no walls to admire cheap wallpaper off of, no furniture or paintings or trophies displayed, no windows letting in light. In fact, all around her is light, a vibrant whiteness causing her to shield her eyes in order to see the only objects for miles––though, without corners or textures, it’s hard to be sure how large this place even is.
Before her stands three doors, seeming to float, detached from nonexistent thresholds. The first on the left is solidly black, while contrasting it on the far right is entirely white––only visible due to an evanescent outline shadowing the frame. Between both is a door of a mild grey, and above all three are digital countdowns, red lasers of varying numbers.
You should know them by now, the radiating voice continues. It’s only been a year.
The sarcasm immediately reminds Theresa of her daughter. The messy brunette braid she’d fallen asleep in whips at her neck as she twirls, searching for the source of the omnipotent voice, but is unable to find one. The words echo out from everywhere and all at once.
“Penelope?” Theresa squeaks, her voice already breaking. She rubs the upper of her arms as if she’s cold, but she can’t possibly be, for there isn’t a recognizable temperature in this dream. It feels like nothing. Looks like nothing.
Theresa hiccups, despite how flat her daughter’s response sounds. “I’m so glad you’re finally here. I’ve been waiting to hear your voice again. I’ve been begging every night.”
Oh, I know. I know you have. But I’m only here because you have no one else. Even Great-Grandma Molly is still alive…who you should probably go see, she’s not doing so great. But you’re always just thinking of me.
“Of course I am,” Theresa exhales, still scouring the surrounding nothingness for a glimpse of the young girl’s face. “Who else would I be thinking about?”
Uh, Dad, maybe? He’s going through the same thing as you right now. Or what about paying a little attention to your clients so you don’t lose the job you love so much? Well, at least used to love. Or, hey, you could think about yourself for once.
“Myself? After what I let happen to you?” Theresa’s voice now booms into the infinite dreamland, arms illustrating each enunciation with desperate flails. “I’m the last person who deserves attention!”
There is a silence between them, adding to the boundless nothingness, but Theresa can feel her daughter’s agreement with her statement. It brings her peace knowing that she doesn’t deserve recognition.
There is a sigh, the kind of deep, dramatic sigh a child offers their superior when told “no.”
I didn’t feel it, if that makes you feel better. I was just suddenly here.
Theresa whimpers underneath Penelope’s calm voice, devoid of sarcasm and humour. It barely sounds like her now, and feeling the distance again, Theresa shakes her head.
“You’re lying. You were in the hospital for weeks. There’s no way you didn’t feel anything.”
But I wasn’t actually there, you know? It was just my body in the coma.
“No!” Theresa screams. “I don’t believe that!”
Penelope groans, and Theresa recognizes the attitude again. Her shoulders relax and she squeezes her eyes shut, freeing tears from her lashes as she relishes in the live memory of her child.
Okay, yes, Penelope says, disturbing Theresa’s moment, you let go of my hand. The truck hit me and I died and it sucked, but you’ve had lots of time to get over the initial shock. Now it’s time to make a decision.
No one would realistically get over that shock, though. The scene that unfolded before the mother, knowing it was entirely her fault. She had released her grip on her child, their intertwined fingers separating so casually––who, even at eight years old, was still happy to hold her mother’s hand in public––in order to scavenge through her purse for the car keys.
“Mom, look! A magpie!” she remembers Penelope cheering, already skipping through the parking lot by the time she looked up.
And it just happened. A fancy new truck, pristine and much too far out of Theresa’s own price range––she recognized the make from her own vehicle search the weeks prior––collided with the child, scooping her small body up with the bumper and carrying it several feet before the driver could hit the brakes. Her daughter’s body was thrown from that point and rolled to an uncanny stop, like a kid tossing a ragdoll. It was absurdly quiet for longer than it should have been; no car horns, no screaming, no rushing to the child. Penelope held onto her new toy from the superstore, a plastic ball of mysteries inside––maybe she’d finally picked the one with the mini plush unicorn dog!––until she landed. It rolled from her pink and blue nail polish to her mother’s toes, packaging intact. Then chaos ensued.
“But if I had just held on to you….”
Stop it! You don’t have a lot of time. Look at the timers.
Theresa wipes the heel of both her palms under her eyes and turns ahead again to the trio of doors. Glowing above each, numbers descend. There is only two minutes remaining on the black door, whereas every time the millisecond twitches above the white, it stutters right back to full digits: 99:99:99.
“Why…why is it doing that?” she asks, pointing a trembling finger at the clock that seems to be glitching.
Because that one has no limit. You have your whole life to choose that door.
Theresa swallows, inching towards the shadowed edges. “Which option is it?”
You get to wake up from this nightmare.
That sounds nice to Theresa, since this dream is almost completely nothing. No feeling, or tasting, or touching, or holding her daughter. But her daughter is still here regardless, talking to her, so it isn’t really a nightmare.
With that thought, she looks over her shoulder as if she knows Penelope is there.
“What about you?”
There is a pause. You have to leave me behind.
Shaking her head violently, dizzying herself, Theresa backs away from the forever door as her daughter adds to the horrible concept.
You get to finally move forward. Get as far away from me, and this place, as you can.
“I can’t leave you. I can’t forget you.”
Not forget me, Mom. Just accept I’m gone.
“No!” she cries while boney, snakelike fingers slither through the greying roots of stress sprouting from her scalp, pushing back loose strands from her face. “I need you in my life.”
Well then you might as well go through the first door, the young voice says, and Theresa can almost hear her theoretical arms drop with defeat, because that’s the only way you’ll ever see me again.
The distraught mother freezes, and after a moment she carefully blows out all the air trapped within her lungs. “I’d…get to see you again.”
“Hold my baby in my arms again and feel your heartbeat against mine?”
––but no one else. It’d just be you and me…and maybe Great-Grandma Molly sometime soon. But that’s it. Not Dad, or Auntie Jo, or that mean old cat you adopted three months ago. And I can’t say it’s all clouds and rainbows and wings and halos either.
The timer dips under a minute.
“That sounds perfect,” Theresa breathes.
I don’t think you’re hearing me. You won’t wake up from this.
“But I’d really get to see you?”
Yep, chirps the eight-year-old, popping the “p”––technically her ninth birthday was a few months ago, but Theresa doesn’t know if it really counts, even though she thinks it should––but I might not look like you remember. I mean, I think I look like me, but everyone else looks the same as each other, so maybe everyone will look the same to you, too.
“But it will be you.”
Yeah. It’s me.
Theresa lets her fingers wrap around the handle like graceful ribbons, teetering on the edge of freedom as the matte black knob turns beneath her palm.
“Does this mean I’ll die?”
The door opens with an intense pulse of frostbitten wind rushing at her, and this time she knows she’s cold. Her cheekbones stiffen, flyaway hairs dancing amid the frightening breeze that passes.
Inside the rectangle of the doorframe is nothing, simply more of the dream’s brightness. Theresa is so paralyzed by this that she doesn’t notice the glow of fifteen seconds above her head.
“How?” she manages against the devastating lashes of frost.
Penelope snorts. Does it matter?
It does. Theresa doesn’t want the same fate her daughter experienced, but at the same time believes she deserves much worse.
A harsh buzz sounds around her like an alarm, serving a warning that the door has reached its final ten seconds. Each time the number lowers, it honks at her again.
“It’s the only way to ever see you again,” she says to herself, nodding to the satisfying melody of her own words. “The only way.”
She lifts her gaze from her feet to the open door, and with a slight narrowing of her lids and a confident swish of her hips, struts towards it, her decision burning through the impossible chill that welcomes her.
And then it slams shut.
Theresa blinks a few times, body shocked by the prompt disappearance of cold. She pats the black door a few times, reaching for the handle with her other hand. It jiggles against the twist of her wrist, bouncing off the inner lock firmly, decidedly. She tries harder to open the door, her forehead pinching together in varying lines, and even bangs a fist against the plank of dark wood when she fails.
Time’s uuup! Penelope sings. There was a time when all Penelope would do was sing––in the bath, impromptu songs to narrate her toys, when blasting the radio in the car. She was terrible, but she leaned into that tone-deaf feat, and it always made Theresa laugh.
“What?” Theresa stumbles back and looks up to verify––to her dismay, there are no numbers left on the clock to count down from. A line of zeroes taunts her.
“No…no! I need to go through that door.”
Then why’d you hesitate?
Theresa turns to glare into the white void. “This isn’t funny. Open the damn door, Penny.”
It wasn’t me! You ran out of time. Choose something else.
The mother’s jaw tightens, teeth forcibly fitting into each other, as she stares at the denied option in front of her. With fists clenched into themselves so tightly, the skin over her knuckles become yellow.
“I can’t leave you,” she says slowly, and her gaze starts to wonder. “What’s the grey door?”
There’s that sigh again, deep from within her daughter, wherever she is. Don’t choose that door.
It’s not what you want.
“So I don’t get to see you.”
No. And you’ll never get over my death.
She perks up at Penelope’s words. As she sidesteps, eventually landing before the middle door, with a timer so large she can’t do the mental math to calculate its length, she presses further.
“So I don’t have to leave you behind either?”
Well…no, but if you go through that door, nothing changes, and nothing ever will. You’ll be stuck. You don’t want to be stuck.
Theresa opens the grey door. Through it, there is no cold. There is no warmth, either.
Mom, seriously, you don’t want––
“That’s enough,” Theresa snaps at the disembodied voice. “I’m not letting you go ever again.”
Slipping through the narrow frame, Theresa floats. She embraces herself––clinging onto the lingering goosebumps prickling her skin from her dead daughter’s voice. She leans back into a position of rest, and lets her mind hover in limbo.
J. L. Kies is a creative writing major and the editorial assistant for the 22nd issue of "juice," UWinnipeg's literary journal. Kies has a bird named “Pierogi” and special interests in horror and gaming (and, specifically, horror games), aspiring to one day work in the video game industry. Kies recently received an honourable mention from Elegant Literature, and debuted with a horror flash piece published by Litmora. Follow @jl_kies on Twitter (X?) and Instagram.