Welcome Back

From the doorway, Cathy, with a dubious expression, watched her sister apply makeup. “Where are you going?” she asked, her voice slow and dripping with disapproval. She would be eleven next month but, based on her fine-tuned yet harsh judgment and icy gaze, she could just as easily be fifty years older. At least to Susan, the older sister she mistrusted and frequently seemed to despise.

“For a walk,” Susan said, purposely vague. She admired her false eyelashes with a tilt of her head and an absent smile. “You really should let me do your makeup sometime, Cathy.”

“No thank you. I’d rather die than be mistaken for a harlot.”

“There’s little risk of that,” Susan mumbled, adding one last layer of powder.

Cathy was quiet a moment, as if building up the nerve to then ask, “Are you off to see a boy?”

“No,” Susan said. That much was true, though her mysterious smile might’ve undermined her answer. “Definitely not.”

“I know you’re going with someone,” Cathy shot back, crossing her arms over her chest in smug certainty. “I can only imagine who. Probably that boy with the leather jacket who lives down the street. I saw him smile at you.”


“Then who? I won’t tell Dad.”

She glanced over her shoulder. “Actually, Cathy, I’ll make you a deal: Don’t tell Dad that I’m going out, and I’ll tell you who it is—once I get home. All right?”

She narrowed her eyes. “How do I know you won’t pull a fast one?”

“You have my word.”

She grew quiet, thinking it over. Finally, she said, “All right, it’s a deal.”

Susan brightened. “Excellent! I’ll be back soon.”

She pushed past Cathy, out of her bathroom and through her room, down the hall and to the living room, where her grandfather dozed on his recliner as Lassie played on the Television. Adam, the little four-year-old from down the street that had been left with them while his parents dined, played with his toy cars on the coffee table. He glanced up as Susan walked past, and she held a finger over her mouth. “You never saw me leave,” she coached him. “I was in my room the whole time. Our little secret.” Then she winked and he nodded, wide-eyed, enchanted.

“You can’t be serious,” Cathy complained. “He’s a little boy! You’re corrupting him!”

“Oh, hush, Cathy.” She walked to the front door, her powder pink miniskirt swaying. Cathy followed, brow furrowed in distaste.

“I don’t agree with any of this,” she said, as if it weren’t already obvious. “And I—”

“I’ll be back soon,” Susan interrupted. She opened the door; the early-autumn breeze drifted in and chilled them both. “Any last words?”

“Yes,” Cathy said. “Don’t do anything foolish. Though I realize that’ll probably fall on deaf ears.”

“I’ll be on my best behavior, don’t worry.” She walked out onto the porch and gently closed the door behind her, careful not to wake her grandfather. Then she sighed, closed her eyes, allowed herself a moment of pause before carrying on down the steps.

The neighborhood was mostly empty, save for the Johnson boy across the street who was raking his front lawn; Susan waved as she passed him, offering a smile. She could feel his eyes on her long after she looked away, probably admiring her short skirt, a novelty at this time of year, in this oh-so conservative part of town. Maybe in the city, she thought, dreamy, starry-eyed. I bet they wear all kinds of things in the city. I bet I could get away with murder. But not in suburbia, where nice girls waited till sixteen to even entertain the idea of dating, and boys were advised to keep their distance and their eyes on the ground. It was silly, really, but then perhaps she was born for the city as Cathy was for the suburbs, perhaps she was the exception to every rule.

She passed by the Browns’ house and heard Carol and John arguing, quickened her pace to avoid learning the details; she wandered by Louise Howard’s expertly-manicured garden and ran her fingers along the hedges; she strolled through the neighborhood park, where the wind whipped around the swings and made them wheeze and creak loud enough to hear down the block, its empty playground almost spooky in the fading hours of day.

When she got to the edge of the park, she arrived at the small but nevertheless frightful, untamed bit of wilderness that was the local wood. The bad girls and bad boys were known to go there after hours, to drink and smoke and do unspeakable things. It was rumored, also, that a local cult of witches practiced black magic there, though in the ultra-religious hamlet that was her hometown, she chalked the rumor up to paranoid superstition.

Still . . . the forest was a strange place, an unwelcoming place, even during broad daylight. But it was in the evening or, worse yet, late in the night that it became a truly scary place, full of shadows and noises and animals. It was not the kind of area Susan would normally find herself, and, in fact, this was the first time she’d walk through it—but she was determined. Nevertheless, it took her a few moments to work up the courage, as she stood at the edge of the park, staring between the trees into its gaping, dark mouth, rocking back and forth on her boots. Do it, she urged herself. She did, after all, have someone waiting on the other side: her date.

It was just her misfortune that Lydia happened to live on the other side of the wood. Her house was drab, old, painted in dark colors, a Victorian to Susan’s recently-build ranch-style home. She would sit on the steps and smoke, glaring at whoever dared walk by. It was there that Susan first noticed her, from the backseat of her father’s car, and when she was in the area, she’d walk by and try to get the strange girl to smile.

She never did.

And this girl, Lydia, had an appearance that struck Susan as appealingly exotic: she was boyish, her dark pixie cut highlighting a makeup-free face and features that were not as soft and feminine as the Hollywood ideal; she wore dark sweaters almost exclusively, which hugged her lithe, slim frame and small chest, and the way she sat—her legs wide, resting on her elbows—was not neat and ladylike. “Beatnik” was the term Susan’s father used, as he spied her from the car one day. Then later, “butch.” Both he threw out as slurs, definite negatives. Susan was less sure.

One day, as she was waiting for her parents to finish shopping nearby, she struck up a conversation. “Can I have one?”

“A cigarette?” Lydia shrugged and offered her the pack. “Be my guest.”

“Thank you.” She paused, staring at it between her fingers. “I don’t really smoke . . .”

“Then why did you ask? Are you looking to start?”

“Not particularly.”

Lydia blew a smoke ring as if to punctuate their dissimilarities. “What do you really want?”

“I guess . . . I don’t know, I suppose I hoped to talk to you. I always see you when I drive by, my family goes to the grocery store right down the street, and—”

She rose a hand, silencing her. “Okay, stop. I get it.”


“Yes.” She tilted her head to one side, scrutinizing her. “I’ve had others like you, that have come around and tried to ‘befriend’ me. They wanted me to go to church.”

She squinted, clueless. “Why?”

“You don’t know?”

“Because you’re a beatnik?” she offered, hesitant.

The girl laughed. “No, because I’m . . . well, I’m just not like you.

“You’re different. Yes, you’re not like the girls at my school, you’re . . .” She searched for the word. “. . . butch, I suppose.”

“Butch.” She seemed almost amused. “Yes, you’re right. I am a butch.”

A butch. It was naïve of her, but Susan did not quite understand the implications of that term. All she knew was that this girl wasn’t quite a girl, at least not the one-size-fits-all type girl she was used to; she was not perky and peppy and feminine, she was not adhering to the status quo. She was different, strange. Susan liked it.

“Will you be around tomorrow?” the girl asked.

“Probably. Why?”

“There’s a diner up the way. We could go—I mean, if you want to.” She smiled. Finally, she smiled. “I’d like to understand you better.”


“Yes. I find you curious.”

“I find you curious,” Susan said. Inside, she wondered, Is this flirting? It felt flirtatious, but that couldn’t be. That was for boys and girls. This was . . . not that, this was different, innocent. She was being silly.

“I’m Lydia, by the way.”

“I’m Susan.”

She nodded and stood up from the steps, dusting off her slacks. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said. “Let’s make it noon.”

“Okay. Okay, I’ll see you then.” She backed away as if frightened. A part of her was.

Now, four months later, here she was, walking to Lydia’s—and a part of her no longer saw it as a big deal. A part of her felt the same as she always had, as normal a girl as any other. But she wasn’t, of course.

She felt a chill.

Lydia would be waiting. Her dark eyes would roam across Susan’s body, she’d grab her hand and touch her hip and they’d laugh and act nonchalant, pretending it was fine, that it was okay and acceptable. She wouldn’t feel worried about it till later, till she saw Cathy, her parents, till she remembered that, if anyone found out . . . it would be bad. It would be terrible. 

But for now, she’d pretend that wasn’t true. She’d let herself have fun.

So she started into the wood, taking one last long glance behind her, toward the playground, the neat ranch homes with their neat front lawns, Mr. Gregory trimming one of his trees, Mr. Jefferson repairing part of his fence. Then she turned, swallowed, and ventured into the darkness.

When she emerged on the other side, she felt quietly victorious. She’d done it. She’d made it through.

She gazed up at the sky in wonderment as she cut through the last of the towering trees, her shoes clacking against the sidewalk. It wasn’t until her gaze drifted down, back toward the street, toward her immediate surroundings . . . it wasn’t until then that she realized . . .

It’s all wrong.

She squinted in the early-dusk barely-there light, certain she was mistaken. But the houses . . . they were different. Strange. Some were gone entirely, replaced by bigger, newer, uglier ones. Some had been repainted. Fences had been torn up and replaced, or abandoned entirely.

In driveways and parked here and there around the street, the cars were . . . futuristic. Like something she’d seen at Disneyland. They were shiny, updated, polished but without much life. Nothing like what she knew, nothing like what was normal. 

She stood still. Her mouth fell open in quiet shock. She anticipated a noise to come out, a squeak or a yell or something, but all she heard was silence. Her hand, on instinct mostly, reached up and covered it.

Where was she?

Think, Susan, she coached herself. Think for a moment. She took a breath. Replayed the last five or ten minutes in her mind: She’d started down the street, she passed neighbors and houses and tidy front lawns, walked through the empty playground, stepped foot into the woods, and . . . and . . .

There’d been no wrong turn. There’d been no change in direction, or confusion as to where she was heading. So how had she ended up here?

Yet, perhaps most alarming of all, she knew this street. She’d passed through it a hundred times before, in her father’s station wagon, staring out the window as her parents spoke, as Cathy eyed her warily. It was one block from Lydia’s street, and if she looked to her right, she could probably see Lydia’s Victorian in the distance . . . she didn’t look, however. Too afraid that if she did, that house would’ve been uprooted and replaced by a frightening, soulless creation, as well.

She shivered.

None of it made sense. This was the same street, she was sure of it, yet the houses were different, the automobiles new and queer, none of it was quite right, but it had to be the same street. So what did that mean? What did any of it mean? She couldn’t comprehend what she was seeing.

“Are you lost?”

She jumped. To her left, just behind her, a twenty-something woman was walking her dog. It took Susan a moment to notice that she, too, wasn’t normal: She was wearing a low-cut pink shirt that wasn’t a proper shirt—rather, it barely covered her breasts and left her stomach fully exposed (not unlike a bra), and she had equally ridiculous, skintight pants on (a prostitute? Susan wondered); she was holding the dog’s leash in one hand, and in the other, some kind of . . . odd, otherworldly device, something like what she’d seen in her father’s sci-fi pictures. It had a glowing screen that lit up the woman’s face in an eerie sort of way.

It took Susan a moment to speak: “I . . . I think I am. Lost, I mean. I think . . .”

“Do you need to call someone? Is your phone on you?”


“Here,” the woman said, stepping forward. Susan took an automatic step backwards (prostitutes carry diseases, her mother had said, and she wasn’t taking any chances).

The woman squinted. “Are you okay?”

“What is that?” Susan asked, staring at the glowing device.

“My phone,” the woman said slowly. Her dog began to bark incessantly, its eyes locked on Susan. “Do you live around here?”

“Newman Street,” Susan mumbled.


“Newman Street. Surely you must know it—on the other side of the forest, where the playground is? It’s right through there.”

“Playground? I don’t think you have that right . . .”

“I was born on that street. I’ve lived there my entire life,” Susan snapped. “Of course I have it right.”

“Okay, okay . . . listen, you should take my phone and call someone—” She stepped forward; Susan stepped back.

“I don’t want that thing,” Susan said, nodding toward the device. “That’s not a telephone. I know for a fact that it isn’t.”

“What? Of course it is, it’s an—”

She spun around and started running down the street, to her right, toward—or so she hoped—Lydia’s house. It was a sudden move, catching the woman off guard. She was left standing by the woods, calling after Susan: “Wait! I’m trying to help you!”

Susan kept her eyes on the ground, tried to stay focused, tried to not look up and see if what she feared was awaiting her. She ran and ran until she felt she was just about there, until she felt she had to lift her eyes from the pavement . . .

It was quiet. Empty. And there, to her left, was Lydia’s home, the Victorian, quirky and charming as ever. She breathed a sigh of relief. It’s fine, she told herself, it’s all fine. You’ll tell Lyd, she’ll laugh. She’ll get a kick out of the whole thing. 

She let herself stand there and catch her breath, breathing in the dewy evening air. Finally, when she’d relaxed enough, she ran her fingers through her hair to smooth it, straightened her skirt, and approached the Victorian.

Lydia’s parents weren’t the most hands-on. Her mother made art, vases and ugly paintings of fruit bowls; her father was rarely around, always taking trips to big cities, and when he was there, he kept his nose in a book or the paper. “He doesn’t like me,” Lydia had confided. “And I think Mother Darling started creating things because she was disappointed that her first big creation—yours truly—turned out so . . . queer.”

“Queer,” Susan repeated. She knew that word had two meanings, though it wasn’t entirely clear to her then—or at least, she told herself it wasn’t—just how Lydia meant it.

The parents were quiet, stiff people that cared little for Lydia. She introduced Susan as her friend, but neither of them seemed to buy it—nor did they seem terribly determined to separate the two. It was like they had decided that if they ignored the problem, if they did not speak of it or acknowledge it or otherwise admit to themselves what they really thought Susan and Lydia were up to, the whole thing would resolve itself.

Susan’s parents, on the other hand, had genuinely no idea. They didn’t know she was “friends” with Lydia, or that the two had ever spoken. They didn’t know she had already had her first kiss, never mind with another girl. They knew none of it, and neither Lydia nor Susan hoped to change that.

“They wouldn’t ignore it, like your parents,” Susan had said. “They’d be angry and distraught and they’d do something.”

“C’est la vie,” Lydia had said with a shrug. She always let the bad things roll off her, never paid them any mind. “I’ll bounce back,” she would say. “I always bounce back. Life can throw whatever it wants at me, I know I’ll survive.” Susan wanted to be like that.

She approached the door, expecting, as always, Lydia’s mother to answer. She’d be invited in with a cold, forced smile, and then Lydia would trot down the steps and invite Susan out back, to the gazebo. There was a chessboard set up there. “We’re going to go play a match” was what she’d tell her parents. Her mother—and it was, more often than not, just her mother—would nod wearily and slink off to her makeshift studio in the living room, where she’d pour her heart out onto a canvas and pretend everything was fine. Susan pitied her.

She knocked on the door, straining to sound as polite and nonchalant as possible. She could see the lights on inside, heard laughter. That was unusual. It was ordinarily quiet, like a house full of dead people. Lydia’s parents rarely spoke to each other, never mind her. And that’s if her father was even around.

No one answered, so she knocked again, tentatively. Silence.

Then the door swung open.

It was a stranger.

A man, a young man, in funny clothes. He leaned against the door frame, sweat dripping off him, odd white cords coming out of his ears—connected to another strange device like the one offered by the woman with the dog. He pulled out the cords, holding them in one hand, and stared at her. She stared back, her alarm—obvious, distinct alarm—mounting. “Sorry, I just finished a workout,” he said. “Is—are you here for something? Friend of Tyler’s?”


“I’ll take that as a no.” His eyes moved up and down her body, almost like Lydia’s would, only his weren’t welcome, his were invasive and made her feel prickly. “Are you okay?” he asked.

She wasn’t. In fact, she felt dizzy, almost faint. Her mouth had gone dry. Say something, she urged herself.

His brow furrowed and he took a step toward her, moving out of the doorway. He reached out and she pulled back, frightened, nearly stumbling down the steps—he caught her before she did. “Jesus,” he said, looking from the stairs to her face, staring into her eyes. It was too much; she could feel herself getting woozy again. “Hey. Hey, c’mon, stay with me. Hey!”

She snapped to. He was waving his hand in front of her face frantically; her eyes tried to follow the movement but they couldn’t keep up, not quite.

“Are you her brother?” she whispered. She wasn’t sure how she managed to say it—those four simple words took every ounce of strength she had—but she did.

“What did you say?”

“Lydia,” she said, louder now. “Are you her brother?” Lydia’d never mentioned a brother. Never, not once. But it was possible, wasn’t it? More than possible, it was rational. It was the only thing that would make sense.

“Lydia? No, I . . . you know, maybe you have the wrong house.”

“She lives here! Right here!” Now Susan was shouting, indignant, as furious as she was confused.

“Okay,” he said quickly, putting up his palms in surrender. “Okay. So she does.”

“I don’t know what’s happened . . .” She raked both hands through her hair, shaking her head. “It’s—I was just here, two days ago, I . . .”

“Why don’t you come in? You look like you could—”

“No,” she said. She didn’t need to think it over, she knew his intentions likely weren’t chivalrous. She knew not to trust strange young men. And she was scared the house would be different—already, over his shoulder, she could see the foyer wasn’t as it had been, there were tacky pieces of furniture and the walls were painted a different color . . . and none of it was right, and Lydia wasn’t there, so why would she go inside and confuse herself further?

She had to get away. Find Lydia, go home, make sense of what she’d seen. If she even could make sense of it.

But everything had to make sense, didn’t it?

“Do you need a ride home? Can you call someone?”

She didn’t answer. Couldn’t answer. She stood there, stupidly, unable to move, staring up at him with glassy eyes that weren’t really seeing things. She just felt so sick, and so overwhelmed . . .

“Have you been drinking?”

Someone else came over then, from inside the house. Another man, around the same age, with long hair styled in a woman’s bun. If she’d been feeling more cognizant and clear-headed, she likely would’ve studied him more closely, but she was already too shaky.

“Whoa,” the man said, and he, too, drank her in. Then he grinned. “Cool costume. Very 60s. Did you just get back from a party?”

“Actually, this one,” the first man said, jutting his chin in Susan’s direction, “is a bit confused right now. I think”—and here he lowered his voice, but Susan could still hear him—”she might’ve taken something.”

“Oh. God.” The second man’s expression shifted to a look of concern. “Think it was slipped to her?”

“I don’t know. She just . . . showed up. At first, I thought she was one of your girls, but then she started acting all erratically and now she’s just been standing here, completely still like that, for the last minute or so. I think she’s checked out.”

“Christ, man. She’s pale as a fucking corpse.”

“Yeah, tell me about it.”

“Well, what’d she say to you? Anything?”

“Yeah, she . . .” He paused. “She wanted to know something about Lydia? She thinks Lydia lives here.”

“She does live here,” Susan insisted, and her sudden return to the land of the living was unexpected enough that both men jumped.

“Oh, thank God,” the man with the bun said, “you’re alive! Can you tell us what happened?”

“I . . . nothing happened, I . . .”

They waited. And waited. She searched for the words but found it difficult to speak—her head was too full, everything felt so topsy-turvy and discombobulated. She swallowed. They stared at her, and stared and stared. She wanted to get away from them, both of them, but she wasn’t sure she could make it back down the steps.

“I live on Newman Street,” she said. “It’s on the other side of the woods down the street, by the playground. I decided to come this way to visit my friend—she lives right here, I know she does, but now . . . I don’t recognize any of this.” She whispered the last words, too afraid to really say them, the strange, confusing implications they’d carry. Then she added, “But I do recognize it at the same time—I know this house, for instance, I absolutely know this house, and this street, but it wasn’t this way before. I was here two days ago. It wasn’t like this, the houses were—” She broke off. They were still staring, looking almost as confused as Susan was.

“We’ll give you a drive home,” the first one said. “Newman Street, is that right? I don’t know it, but you can show me the way, yeah?”

“No,” Susan said. “I don’t want to go anywhere with you, either of you.” Then she spun around and flew down the stairs, her miniskirt rustling in the breeze. She took off running, blindly, frantically running, till—till—

She collapsed, in the middle of the street. She cried. Never in her life had she done something so foolish and humiliating. She had her hands over her face to hide herself from the world, her hair falling all around and lifting and dropping in the wind, and her knees getting scraped against the pavement. She didn’t care. None of it mattered because she wasn’t even certain what was what now; she didn’t want to go home, not without seeing Lydia, and mostly she didn’t want to brave the woods again . . . but she knew she had to. She was terrified that if she waited, her home, like Lydia’s, wouldn’t be the same when she got back.

Even knowing that, she couldn’t muster the strength to stand up, couldn’t stop herself from crying. Not just crying, sobbing. Hysterical, absolutely hysterical. Where was she? Who were those men living in Lydia’s house, acting as though they’d never heard her name once in their life? But she lived there! She’d been standing in the foyer two days earlier, a wicked smile on her face and pack of cigarettes in her hand. She’d been right there. 

For a moment, Susan felt like she couldn’t breathe.

Then, footsteps. Coming up behind her. She thought, at first, that it was one of the men from Lydia’s house, that they’d caught up to her. She listened but said nothing. She kept crying, instead. Real, thick, mindless, disorienting type of sobs. She couldn’t stop. The tears melted her makeup and ruined her for the world, but damned if she cared. The chance of seeing Lydia that night was growing dimmer and dimmer. She just hoped she could make it back to her house and put the pieces together, figure out what was going on. The best case scenario was that all of it was a silly misunderstanding, and tomorrow morning she’d roll her eyes and think of how much she overreacted. Maybe, possibly.

The footsteps stopped. They ended directly behind her, and she could feel the person’s shadow. There was a pause; her breath hitched in anticipation and she tried to control her tears.

“Uh, you okay?”

Lydia. It was her, she said that, it was her voice and—

Susan twisted around. It was a stranger. A tall young girl, around her age, with short, dark hair and light eyes. She was staring down at Susan with evident concern . . . but she was not Lydia. She just sounded like her—or maybe she didn’t, maybe Susan was hearing things

When Susan didn’t reply, the girl asked again: “You okay? Did you fall down?”

“No.” She could barely get the word out. She started to sob again, her chest heaving. The girl’s eyes went wide.

“Here, I’ll help you up.” She offered a hand. Susan stared at it a moment before accepting. Then she was pulled to her feet and the two stared at one another, mutual in their confusion.

“I’m sorry I’m crying,” she said, wiping frantically at her face. She laughed humorlessly. “I must look frightening . . .”

“No, you’re fine.” A pause; the girl rocked back and forth on her heels. “Did—is everything all right? Do you need help?”

She shook her head. “I’m just lost—and I’m so scared, I . . .” She trailed off. How could she explain it?

“Can you make it home? Is someone picking you up?”


“You can’t make it home?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t—” She glanced toward the wood. “I don’t know if I can or not. I’m . . . I’m a little afraid to try.”

“Okay. That’s okay.”

“I live on Newman Street,” she said, like that would help, like saying that would solve the problem.

“Can you call someone?”

“Is there a payphone nearby?”

“No—you don’t have a cell?”


“A cell? Do you have a cell phone?”

“I . . . no, I don’t think so.”

The girl looked anxiously up the block. She was wringing her hands at that point. “Listen, my house is a few doors up. Maybe you should come inside for a bit while we sort this out? Get someone to pick you up?”

“The only people who could drive me home are my parents. They don’t even know I left, and I don’t want them to find out.”

“Okay. Well, I don’t have my license yet, and my parents are gone for the weekend . . . God, I wish I could drive you, I really do. I feel like I’m not much help right now.”

“It’s perfectly fine,” she said, sniffling, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. She tried to muster a smile. “I’ll walk. I walked here, it can’t be so hard to walk back.”

“No, you should come inside. Get your bearings, at least.”

Susan paused, considering this. She wasn’t so frightened at the possibility, seeing as how the person extending the invitation was, herself, a young woman, her own age, likely harmless as a fruit fly. And she did seem sincerely concerned, which was sweet, and anyway, she could use a nice couch and a warm home right then. The walk back frightened and intimidated her. So perhaps it wasn’t such a terrible suggestion.

“All right,” she said, nodding feebly.

The girl took Susan by the elbow and began to gingerly lead her up the street, speaking to her in a soft voice all the while: “Can you tell me what happened?”

“Well, I . . . I was on my way to visit a friend,” Susan said, the words coming slow and sounding less than certain, as if she were testing them out. She swallowed; her throat felt scratchy and dry. “I came through the woods—and it’s the first time I’ve ever really done that—and when I got here, to the other side, I . . . everything’s changed. I don’t recognize it. But I do recognize it, and that’s the strange part—that was her house back there, only it was . . . different. And she wasn’t there. Some men were.” She stopped suddenly, so abrupt that the girl dropped her elbow. “You must think I’m utterly insane.”

“No, no. Of course not.” The girl smiled at her, just for a moment, supportive and friendly—a smile of solidarity. “Obviously something’s wrong here. I don’t think you’re making it up. I mean, why would you?”

Susan nodded, but she looked faraway, her face cloudy. The girl reached out and took her elbow again, pulling her toward a canary yellow house with a white porch that Susan didn’t recognize. She squinted at it as they approached.

“You can just rest a while. I’ll get you some water,” the girl was saying. She paused. “Would you prefer to sit on the porch or come inside?”

“The porch, I suppose. I hate to trouble you—”

“It’s okay—I mean, it’s no trouble. Really.” The girl shot her another quick smile, which Susan found oddly comforting, then left her on the porch and darted inside. She could hear her shoes against the floor as she ran through the hallway, then silence. The street was empty and still, save for the occasional breeze. Odd-looking cars were parked everywhere, shiny and silver and soulless and strange. Susan made a concerted effort not to look at them—they made her confused, and the confusion led to worry. The last thing she wanted was to start crying again.

The girl returned a moment later, carrying a glass of lemonade in one hand and water in the other. Ice cubes bobbed around in each, beads of moisture already forming on the glass. Seeing them made Susan realize just how thirsty she was.

“Which would you prefer?” the girl asked.

“Oh, uh, either’s fine. Thank you.”

The girl handed her one and sipped at the other. Neither said anything for a while, they just stared into their glasses and drank and waited for nothing in particular.

Finally, Susan broke the silence: “I should get home.”

“Probably. Your parents might get worried.”

“It’s just that—well, I dread the idea of walking back, through the woods again.” She paused, running her fingers along the cold, damp side of her glass. “Truth be told, I’m not quite sure how I made it through the first time. But I suppose knowing that I’d see Lydia on the other side made me feel . . . courageous.” She chuckled. “It sounds silly.”

“No, I think it’s sweet. She’s your friend, Lydia?”

“Yes, she’s—we’re very good friends. Very, very good friends.” A shadow crossed Susan’s face. “I know how this sounds, but I just can’t shake the feeling that something dreadful’s happened to her. Otherwise she’d be there. She’s always in that house, and she’d never leave when she knew I was coming over.”

“You must’ve been at the wrong house, then,” the girl said, and it was a reasonable suggestion, Susan knew, but that didn’t stop her from feeling a flash of indignation at the comment.

“I know Lydia’s house. I’d recognize it anywhere. And that was it, back there. I know. I saw the entryway, and it was changed, but it was hers.”

“All right, but houses can look alike, can’t they? You must’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. You said yourself you haven’t been through the woods before.”

“No. I knew the way. It was clean across to get to her street, then a right turn and that’s all. Hers was the only Victorian around, it’s distinct and unmistakable. I’d know it anywhere. You have to understand, that was Lydia’s house.” She was shaking now. It started with her fingers and crept up to her hands; goosebumps rose on her arms. She couldn’t tell if these were symptoms of the cold or her mounting anxiety.

The girl was silent a moment, nodding as if she understood when she very likely didn’t. Not that Susan could blame her—none of it made any sense.

“Okay,” she said. “Well, we need to get you back to your house. I’ll drive you.”

“But your license—”

“I can break a rule every now and again, when the situation calls for it.” She grinned. It was a grin just like Lydia’s, sly and defiant. It made Susan feel strange—woozy, almost. Excited.

The girl helped Susan to her feet, then took a moment to introduce herself as she shoved her hands deep into her pockets. “I’m Ramona. It’s nice to meet you—although I’m sorry it had to be under such shitty circumstances.”

Her use of such a vulgar word startled Susan, though she tried to act as if it didn’t, like she herself said those kinds of words every day. “Yes, well, I’m just glad to have met someone so kind. I was really . . . in a bad state, when you found me. It’s just a good thing you did. Oh, and I’m Susan—it’s very nice to meet you, as well.”

“Well then . . .” Ramona, with another of those Lydia grins, nodded toward one of the odd gray cars parked at the sidewalk. “Shall we?”

Susan looked over reluctantly, a fresh wave of nerves hitting her. “I’ve never ridden in one of those. In fact, I’ve never even seen a car like that, not once in my life.”

Ramona squinted. “Huh?”

“I just don’t understand what they are, or where they’re from . . . Are they specially made? Why haven’t I seen any before today? You seem to have them by the dozens in this neighborhood—which is quite a new development. Last time I was here, all of the cars looked perfectly normal.”

“Okay, you’ve officially lost me. What’s so weird about our cars?”

“Everything! They’re so . . . modern. Almost too modern, if you ask me. Like something from the future.”

Ramona had a funny look on her face. “Can you tell me what the cars looked like where you’re from?”

“Well, they’re regular cars,” Susan said, as if it should be obvious.

“Okay. What else is strange about this street? Anything ‘futuristic’ you notice?”

Susan looked around, sighing—it seemed like a pointless task. “I don’t think there’s anything—” she started. Then she stopped suddenly, noticing something across the street. Ramona followed her gaze; she was staring through the window of another house. Her eyes had gone almost comically wide, bulging to cartoonish proportions. “Is that their Television?

“Yeahhhh,” Ramona said slowly, stretching the word out. “You’ve never seen a flat-screen before?”

“A what?”

“This is going to sound strange, but . . . what year is it?”


There was a long, long silence. Ramona furrowed her brow, an expression of concern crossing her face. Her eyes wandered up and down Susan’s body—not appraisingly, but rather like she was trying to figure her out.

“What’s wrong?” Susan asked, desperate to disrupt the pregnant pause. “You’re scaring me.”

“I don’t know how to tell you this, but it’s not 1967.”

“What? I don’t understand—”

“1967 was fifty years ago.” Another pause. “I’m sorry, Susan, but either you’re completely insane, or you just stumbled into the future.”

For a moment, Susan couldn’t breathe. It felt like the air had been violently sucked from her lungs, leaving behind a gasping, heavy, panic-stricken husk of an airless body. Her face turned ashen white—ghostly white—and her eyes seemed to stare straight through Ramona, searching for something in the distance.

“Susan? Susan, are you okay?”

“This can’t be true,” she said, once she caught her breath and color returned to her cheeks. “This . . . this is impossible. No. No, the year is 1967. You must be—you must be crazy.” She looked at Ramona with mistrust, an air of judgment: one lip curled, her eyes narrowed. “You’re lying,” she asserted. Her voice wobbled, betraying her uncertainty. Still, she tried to deflect her worries onto Ramona: “I know what year it is! I’m not a lunatic. If one of us is crazy, well . . .”

Ramona tilted her head to one side, almost pityingly. After a moment, she said, “I can prove it to you.”

“Prove that I’m a lunatic?”

“Prove that it’s not 1967.”

Susan felt a tingly pang of fear deep inside her, but reluctantly, she nodded. “Okay.”

Ramona pointed her chin in the direction of her house. “We’ll have to go inside.” She hesitated. “Are you—are you all right with that?”

“Yes,” Susan said, but her voice was slow and cautious. “I think so,” she added.

“You don’t have to. I don’t want you to do anything you don’t feel comfortable with.”

Susan stared at her shoes a moment, weighing her options. A breeze swept by, giving her a chill. She could feel Ramona’s eyes on her. They were pretty eyes, and reminded Susan of sea glass. They made her feel less afraid. “You think I’m crazy,” she said, and she laughed despite herself. “Why on earth would you let me into your home?”

Ramona’s smile was warm and inviting. It made her sea-glass eyes look bigger. “Honestly? I don’t know. I guess I’m trusting to a fault.” She laughed, too. It was a nice feeling, a nice moment of levity. A welcome break from the strange somberness of this ongoing nightmare.

“I’ll go,” Susan said. “If you’ll have me.”

“Of course I will. I trust you. For some reason.” Ramona turned and started back toward her house. Susan followed a few steps behind; there was a fluttery feeling in her chest, a knot in her stomach, but she didn’t feel scared. She trusted Ramona—for some reason.

The front door was opened and Susan was led inside. The home smelled like lemon and cleaning products. The furniture was not unlike the furniture that Susan was used to, but there were odd touches that stood out. As they passed through the living room, she spotted another one of those bizarre Television sets and felt a lurch in her stomach. Ramona, catching her gaze, touched Susan’s arm with a gentle graze of her hand. Susan felt a jolt. The touch was electric.

“Sorry,” Ramona said. “I know this must be weird for you.”

It took Susan a moment to realize she was referring to the TV. “It’s perfectly all right.” She smiled, but it was strained. “Not your fault that I’m . . . well, I’m . . .” Completely insane, she almost said. There seemed to be not many other explanations.

Ramona, thankfully, did not press her to complete the thought, and instead led her through the living and to an office at the rear of the house. The office was neat and uninteresting, with a desk that overlooked the house’s backyard, and a—

Susan’s eyes went wide. “What’s that?”

“It’s called a computer,” Ramona said, very matter-of-factly. She sat down in the desk chair and proceeded to pull apart the strange chrome-colored device as Susan watched, her arms crossed over her chest, from the doorway. “Let me turn it on.” She powered up the device by pressing a single button. It sprang to life with a weird noise and the black screen suddenly changed colors and brightened.

Susan stepped forward, staring at the object over Ramona’s shoulder. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she marveled.

“They’ve been around for a while.” Ramona squinted. “The eighties, I think it was? The decade they started taking shape.”

“1980?” Susan’s chest tightened. “That sounds so far away.”

“Yeah, for me too, only in the opposite direction.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s decades in the future for you; decades in the past for me.”

“Oh.” Susan absentmindedly began to pace the office, refusing to look directly at the thing—the computer. Every time she saw it, even peripherally, she felt her pulse excelavate, and this odd feeling overcame her. It was hard to put into words, but it felt like she was falling down a deep, dark hole and had no idea what awaited her when she hit the ground.

It was then that Susan caught sight, on the far wall of the office, of another alarming detail: a calendar.

She walked up to it and inspected it, hoping against hope that the blurry glimpse she’d caught from a distance would be wrong, that the calendar didn’t say what she thought it did.

But, of course, there it was in black and white: the date. The current, twenty-first century date. Ramona was right, it was not 1967—and it hadn’t been for fifty years.

Susan’s breath caught in her throat. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t think. Everything hit her at once, and it came forcefully, landing on her with the force of a storm. Oh God. Oh God, no. No. She felt sick to her stomach: a true, terrible nausea that consumed her. Her skin paled to an almost green color.

Ramona was oblivious, hunched over the desk and tap, tap, tapping at that damned computer. The sound made Susan’s head throb.

“You can sit down, if you want,” Ramona told her, nodding toward a chair over in the corner. “I’m just about to—” She stopped when she saw Susan, who remained standing by the calendar, a pained look on her face. “You okay?”

Susan shook her head. “I think I—I think I need—”


She nodded.

Ramona was on her feet in seconds. She held Susan by her shoulders and guided her out of the room, walking her straight down the hall and through a door on the right. It was indeed a bathroom, nice and familiar. Susan went straight for the toilet and leaned over it, throwing up without any shame. Ramona, meanwhile, stood behind her and held her hair. When she had a brief moment of clarity in between bouts of vomiting, Susan felt a wave of gratitude for Ramona, this stranger who was taking on a protective, kindly role that she was not obligated to.

Which is why, as soon as Susan was finished, the first words out of her mouth were, “Thank you.”

“You don’t have to thank me. It’s the right thing to do.”

Susan stumbled to her feet. Her knees were wobbling, and she was still pale, but looked better now. Less frightened; less jaundiced.

“You want to take a breather? Maybe lie down for a bit?”

“I would.” She couldn’t be bothered to worry about whether lying down in a stranger’s home was a good idea. Right then, her unsteadiness and post-vomit exhaustion took precedence. So she allowed Ramona to lead her back to the front room, where she laid down on the couch—and was forced to stare down that hulking TV. “Should I cover it with a blanket?” Ramona asked. “Just so it doesn’t . . . I don’t know, freak you out?”

“No, that’s all right.” Susan gave a feeble smile. “You’ve already done so much. I’ll be fine.” Of course, deep down, she wasn’t so sure.


Ramona’s voice jolted Susan awake. She didn’t remember falling asleep, but must’ve dozed off at some point as she laid on Ramona’s couch. All around her, the living room looked darker and stranger now.

Ramona was bent in front of her, their faces mere inches from touching. The closeness made Susan’s heart beat faster. She could feel Ramona’s breath on her skin, and those sea-glass eyes of hers were even prettier up close.

“Sorry to wake you, but, well . . . I have some news.”

Susan propped herself up on her elbows. “What news?”

“You really need to see it. Here, I’ll help you up.” Ramona extended a hand and boosted Susan to her feet, then the two girls walked down the hall to the office. There was a leaden weight in the pit of Susan’s stomach: dread. She didn’t know what was coming, but she knew it wasn’t anything good.

Inside the office, Ramona began to explain: “So while you were sleeping, I decided to Google you.”

Susan looked alarm.

“What? Oh, no—sorry, I forgot who I was talking to for a second. Google is this search engine, on the computer”—she gestured toward the device on the desk—”where you can type in keywords and it’ll pull up matching results from across the web.”

“The web?”

“The Internet.”

Susan’s eyebrows drew together.

“Think of it as a big library, and Google’s the helpful librarian who shows you where the book you want is located. Okay?”

“Uh, all right . . .”

“So anyway, I typed in ‘Susan’ and the name of our town and some other keywords. The first few tries were a bust—not surprising, since I don’t know your last name or anything that would help narrow it down—but then I decided to try your first name, our town’s name, and ‘1967’ and, well . . .” Ramona walked over to the computer and pointed it at the screen. Looking over her shoulder, Susan first saw, in the upper left corner, the familiar name and logo of their local newspaper—and then, a headline: Local Girl, 16, Goes Missing. It was an article, and it was dated 1967.

“I found it in the newspaper’s archive,” Ramona said. Her voice was soft. She put her hand on the upper part of Susan’s back, between her shoulder blades, and gave her a long, concerned look. “Do you want to read it?”

Susan hesitated. The seconds ticked by as she considered her answer. Finally, she spoke: “It’s about me, isn’t it?”

“I think so.”

She took a big breath, pulled out the desk chair, and sat down in front of the computer. Then she began to read.

Local Girl, 16, Goes Missing

September 28, 1964

by Walle Walters

On the evening of September 26, sixteen-year-old Susan Willoughby exited her home and headed in the direction of the Abbott Forest, the wooded area in a local residential neighborhood. She hasn’t been seen since. 

Now the girl’s parents are working with law enforcement to find her whereabouts and bring her home. “We won’t rest until we’ve found her,” says Mr. Willoughby, 42, a local businessmen. Mrs. Willoughby, 40, nodded her assent, though was understandably too emotional to speak with me. 

Both of Susan’s parents were not at home the night she went missing. Instead, Susan was in the company of her grandfather, who was asleep at the time Susan left home, and her eleven-year-old sister. Police says her sister is the last known person to have spoken to Susan. 

“She’s very distraught,” Mr. Willoughby told me, referring to Susan’s sister. “She blames herself for not having stopped Susan during their conversation. She allowed her to leave, even though Susan wasn’t supposed to be alone outside at that time of day, because Susan promised she’d be back soon.”

Mr. Willoughby also told me that Susan’s sister is certain Susan was meeting with a boy. “It seemed, to her, as though Susan was off for a date,” he explained. 

Police are less certain, saying they are looking at “many possibilities.” They declined to be more specific. 

The last known people to have seen Susan, besides her sister, were her neighbors. They all confirmed to police that she had been headed for Abbott Forest and entered the woods sometime after seven PM. She was described as wearing a pink skirt and fitted turtleneck of the same color. 

Since her disappearance, Mr. and Mrs. Willoughby, along with friends and family, have walked through Abbott Forest multiple times and searched for any signs of their daughter. They have yet to find anything. “It does get discouraging,” Mr. Willoughby admitted, “but we remain hopeful that Susan will come home, soon enough.”

Susan is 5.6″ and weighs approximately 125 lbs. She has blond hair and dark eyes. Anyone with information about her whereabouts or disappearance should contact law enforcement as soon as possible. 

For what seemed like the fifteenth time that night, Susan couldn’t breathe. There was a lump in her throat. She began to cry: horrid, embarrassing tears. She didn’t care. Nothing made sense, and nothing mattered anymore.

Ramona squeezed Susan’s shoulder and tried to comfort her. It was useless. There was nothing she could say, no canned response for what Susan was going through. So Susan cried, and Ramona let her, and nothing was said between the two for a long, long time.

When she had finally tired and run out of tears, Susan stood up. Her throat felt scratchy, and her eyes were irritated. She asked in a rasp, “Can we—could I go back to the sofa?”

Ramona nodded. “I’ll walk with you.”

The two girls left the office and returned to the living room. They sat down beside each other on the couch, and neither spoke for a while. Susan was getting used to the silence. It felt good not to speak, and not to listen—just to sit with her thoughts and try to make sense of what was happening.

But silences never last, and this one was no exception. “When I read that article, I wanted to ask if you were messing with me,” Ramona said. “It just—it doesn’t stand to reason. I’m a logical person, most of the time. So I thought, ‘This girl has to be messing with me.’ I thought maybe you knew about this Susan girl and decided to impersonate her, for a laugh. But every time I look at you—I don’t know, it’s like I see it in your eyes. I see the truth.”

Susan nodded. She couldn’t make herself say anything, so instead she stared at her hands and waited for Ramona to continue.

“I believe you.” It came out a whisper. “I know I shouldn’t, I know it doesn’t make any sense, and maybe I’m losing my mind . . . but I believe you’re her. The girl in the article. Not an impersonation, not some scared, confused, crazy kid. You’re Susan.”

She started to cry again. She didn’t even know how it was possible, how she could have more tears to shed—but she did. Ramona put an arm around her and another comfortable silence settled between them, occasionally interrupted by Susan’s sniffles.

“I don’t know what to say,” Susan said after a while. “I don’t understand what’s happened—what’s happening—any more than you do. But I’m glad that you believe me, and happy that you’re here with me. I don’t feel so alone.”

Ramona nodded.

“To be honest . . .” Susan winced at what she was about to say, but felt compelled to confess. “I think I know why this happened.” She took a deep breath. “The girl I was supposed to see tonight—or, I guess, the girl I was seeing the night I disappeared . . . we didn’t have a pure, wholesome friendship. It was something else.

“What we did together, it wasn’t right. What we did were the sorts of things boys and girls are meant to do. We even—” She broke off, the words too terrible to speak aloud. When she continued, the words came out fast, as though she were too eager to get rid of them: “We even kissed.”

Ramona sat back against the couch. “Oh” was all she said. There was a foggy look on her face.

“I know.” Susan sniffled. “It was awful of us. Awful of me. At the time, it all made sense, and I thought maybe it wasn’t so bad. But now that I think back on it all, I think that had to be what did it.”

“Did what?”

This. Don’t you see? We made God angry, and so He did this to me as punishment.” She added in a whisper, “A well-deserved punishment.”

Ramona was quiet a moment. Then she said, simply and with unshakable confidence, “No.”

Susan glanced at her. “What did you say?”

“I said no. That’s bullshit.” (Again, Susan flinched at her use of a swear word, but said nothing.) “What you did wasn’t wrong. What’s happening right here, right now? I can’t explain it, but I can promise you—absolutely, 100% promise—that it has nothing to do with what you and that girl did together. Okay? I want you to know that. And also, I really don’t think God was involved in what’s going on, in any capacity. I think there’s another explanation, one that we might find if we just look in the right places.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because I’m from the future.” She grinned. It was the kind of heart-melting grin that made everything seem like it was going to be okay. “I know a thing or two about a thing or two. And also . . .” She leaned forward, toward Susan, till their faces were once again mere inches apart. “I’m like you, Susan.”

“What do you mean?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” She chuckled. “I like girls. Like girls. Not boys.”

“Oh.” Susan felt that fluttering in her chest again, that excited feeling—like how she felt when she was going to meet Lydia. It was intoxicating, and wonderful, and made her forget everything else, if only for a second.

Ramona, for the first time, looked a bit sheepish. She slid back on the couch to her former position and stared down at her hands as she threaded her fingers. “Anyway . . . I read some other articles, too. About you. There was one from this year, actually, about how you’d been missing for fifty years and the case remains unsolved, and no one knows what happened to you. So I think, based on everything I read and everything you’ve told me, something happened when you entered that forest. I think you passed through some kind of time warp. Maybe there’s a portal in the woods, and on one side is the present, and on the other is fifty years prior to that.” She shook her head. “I know it sounds crazy, and too science-fiction-y to be real, but I don’t see a lot of alternatives. Unless maybe you’re a ghost.” Ramona reached out and touched Susan’s collarbone. “Nope, you’re real.”

Susan laughed despite herself. “All right, so how do we find out? And do you think—would it be possible to, I don’t know, go back through the portal?”

“Maybe. I don’t know much about portals.” Ramona lifted and dropped her shoulders. “I think we need to go back to the forest, first of all. Our answers must be there somewhere.”

For the first time since she’d realized where she was, Susan felt a sense of hope. And it was bright enough and encouraging enough to give her the strength to return to the forest.

By the time they were ready to leave, the sky had gone from a lavender color to a dark, ominous navy, a few stars the only blips of light. Susan’s knees wouldn’t stop trembling, though she supposed it could’ve been a result of the evening cold rather than her nerves.

Ramona had given her a flashlight. She gripped it tightly, as if for dear life. The two girls walked down the street side by side, the glow of their flashlights casting shadows. For a while, neither spoke. A gust of wind swept by and blew the leaves around their feet, sending them flying into the air. Susan could hear someone’s TV as they passed by a house, the canned laughter of a sitcom echoing around the empty neighborhood. Some things just don’t change, she thought. It was almost comforting.

Ramona moved her arm back to shine her light on something, and her elbow brushed Susan’s arm. She felt another bolt of electricity, like ravenous, hungry fire burning inside her. She swallowed and pushed the feelings back down.

“Do you remember anything?” Ramona asked, breaking the silence.

Susan glanced at her sideways as they walked. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, like . . .” She let out a breath. “When you were walking through the woods, was there anything out of the ordinary? Anything you noticed that seemed off? Some kind of clue?”

Susan thought a moment, then shook her head. “I’d never been through it before. It’s possible something looked out of the ordinary and I just didn’t realize.”

“Okay.” Ramona nodded—a slow, unsure kind of nod. “Okay, that’s fine. That’s why we’re going back.”

There was a pause. Then, in a small, little-girl voice, Susan spoke. “What if we don’t find it?”

“We’ll find it.”

“But what if we don’t? What if I’m trapped here?”

“You’re not. You won’t be.” Ramona didn’t slow her pace. She trudged ahead, purposeful, eyes glued to the road. Susan followed her lead, struggling to keep up.

“What day was it, that you disappeared? I mean, what day do you think today is?”

“September 26, 1967.”

“Today’s September 26. That was exactly fifty years ago.” Ramona stopped walking. Her flashlight hung limply at her side. “What if this portal—what if it only opens once every fifty years? And the day you went to the woods happened to be the first day it had been opened since 1917, and you’ve been trapped in it this entire time—stuck in some kind of hazy limbo—only you don’t remember because it’s like . . . it’s like made up of the same stuff that we’re in before we’re born, just a white expanse of nothingness, or maybe like the place you go when you’re stuck in a coma or asleep. So to you, no time has passed, but in reality you’ve been lost in this world of nothing for fifty years, until finally tonight, the portal opened again!” She stopped. Color rose to her cheeks—Susan could see that even through the darkness. She looked away, suddenly bashful, and rubbed the back of her neck. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “I must sound crazy, right? I got carried away there—”

“No, no, I think your theory makes a lot of sense.” She hesitated. “It’s hard to believe, of course. But all of this is hard to believe.”

“Right.” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, we should keep going. It’s only going to get darker and I think it’s best we try to get in and out before things get any creepier.”

Susan laughed. “Good idea.”

The rest of the walk was silent. When they reached the edge of the forest, Susan’s heart began to beat faster. Ramona, without a word, reached out and grabbed her hand.

“You need a second to breathe, before we go in?” she asked.

Susan shook her head. “No, I’d prefer to get it over with.”

Ramona nodded. Fallen branches crunched underfoot as they stepped inside. The wood, Susan realized, was worse at night. No matter how uncomfortable she had been walking through it earlier in the evening, she now felt far more scared and intimidated. There were shadows everywhere, unidentifiable sounds, and she could barely make out what was in front of her.

Luckily she had Ramona, who never let go of her hand. It was still awful, but bearable.

“Is this around where you walked?” Ramona asked. It felt good to hear a voice.

“I’m not sure . . . I can barely see, it’s so dark.” Susan squinted and shone her flashlight back and forth, surveying their surroundings. “I think it looks familiar . . .”

“One problem is that I don’t know what we should be looking for. What a portal even looks like.” Ramona chuckled tunelessly. “You know, the more I say the word ‘portal,’ the more ridiculous this all seems.”

“Please don’t give up,” Susan implored her.

Ramona squeezed her hand. “I didn’t say I was going to.”

Despite herself, Susan smiled.

“Maybe we should divide and conquer,” Ramona suggested.

“No. Definitely not. I couldn’t bear to walk through this place by myself.”

“Just an idea. I’ll stay if you want me to.”

Need you to, more like. Susan nodded, forgetting Ramona likely couldn’t see the gesture through the darkness.

As they walked farther into the forest, Susan grew colder and more afraid, holding tightly to Ramona’s hand. A few times, she closed her eyes, shutting them so tight it was almost painful.

And then, suddenly, there was light.

The glow of street lamps. The signs of civilization.

Susan’s eyes snapped open and she saw they’d emerged on the other side of the forest, near her home. Her street. The old playground where she used to push Cathy on the swing.

Only now, the playground was gone. It was replaced by an apartment building—a cold, gray sight, tall and stiff. Susan stared up at it in disbelief, trying to get herself to believe what was right in front of her.

“It didn’t work,” she breathed.

Ramona squeezed her hand again. There was no sound, no movement. Just the quiet, and the building where the park once stood, and a feeling of hopelessness that settled between them.

“I’m sorry.” These were the first two words Ramona said after their failed attempt, spoken as the girls wandered back through the forest.

Susan forced a smile. “It’s all right. It’s not your fault it didn’t work.” There was an awful tremble to her voice, tears in her eyes.

“Still, I . . . I’m so sorry, Susan.”

She took a big breath and closed her eyes again, allowing Ramona to lead them back through the twisting turns of the woods, over fallen branches and brush and bramble. It was as they were walking that it began to come back to Susan how she’d walked through the forest earlier—fifty years earlier, apparently. She’d felt so much freer then, lighter, without a care in the world compared to now. And there had been a lightness—almost playfulness—to her walk. She’d zigged, then zagged. She was a bit frightened, but emboldened by the promise of seeing Lydia on the other side. And she supposed a part of her thought that the more ziggy and zaggy her walk, the better chance of losing any ghosts or madmen or woodland creatures lurking somewhere in the shadows.

Susan stopped walking abruptly.

Ramona looked at her sideways. “What? What is it?”

“We didn’t walk the right way. Our walk here—it was too straight. Too neat a line right through the woods. The way I walked earlier was . . . less structured, I guess you could say.”

“Oh.” Ramona hesitated a moment before asking, “Do you think we could duplicate it?”

Susan looked around the forest. She could recognize bits and pieces. More than that, on some instinctive level, she felt that, if she really tried, she could retrace her steps to a respectable, if not flawless, degree.

So she nodded, looked at Ramona, and said softly, “We should at least try.”

“Yes,” Ramona agreed. “We’ve got nothing to lose.”

So back out the forest they went, trudging through. Then they started over, re-entering from where Susan was almost certain she’d exited from. The walk this time was longer, slower, and altogether more painful. But it was something to do, and for a while, Susan was so busy trying to retrace her steps exactly that she forgot to even feel hopeless or sad.

The landmarks held the clues: a twisted, broken tree; someone’s initials carved crudely into a trunk. Things that had been there even fifty years ago, or whatever the year was when Susan passed through the wood. Perhaps it had no year at all in that forest, but was instead a place where time didn’t exist, merely a passageway between one era and another. It gave Susan the chills to think about.

“We’re almost on the other side,” Ramona said, her voice a warning. Don’t get your hopes up, kid, that voice said. Prepare for the worst. It reminded Susan of her father.

“I know,” Susan replied, and her steps slowed instinctively. Ramona was kind enough to pretend she didn’t notice. They were still linked, their hands intertwined. A part of Susan was sure that, no matter what happened, they’d always be linked after this night.

And then they were emerging on the other side, and for a moment, Susan’s eyes snapped shut. She couldn’t bear to look. She didn’t want to see, to have her last desperate hope crushed all at once.

Ramona squeezed her hand. “Susan.”

Her eyes opened.

There was the playground.

It was shiny and familiar and perfect, absolutely perfect. It took Susan’s breath away. It was, in that moment, the best—the most beautiful—thing she’d ever laid eyes on.

“Oh my God,” Ramona was saying, over and over, the words blurring together. She dropped Susan’s hand and put her palms over her wide, gaping mouth. “Oh my God!” The words came out muffled this time.

Susan ran over to the swing set, giggling and glib. She threw herself onto the seat and pumped her legs, flying high. “We did it!” she called, into the night sky. She threw her head back and laughed, her eyes settling on the moon. She could’ve sworn it winked at her.

Ramona plodded over. She seemed less glib and more stunned, almost paralyzed with shock and in a daze. Still, she took a seat on the swing next to Susan’s and tried to muster a smile. “We made it,” she said. Her voice was small and dry.

“We made it,” Susan echoed. She stopped kicking her legs and allowed her swing to come to a rest. The two girls sat side by side, completely still save for the rustle that occasionally moved their swings just so. “Thank you,” Susan said. “For everything.”

“It’s fine.”

“No, it isn’t. You saved me, Ramona. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t found you.”

Ramona lifted and dropped her shoulders. She couldn’t seem to accept the thanks, the praise, or any of what was happening. But, in fairness to her, Susan could hardly accept it either. It’s hard to believe the unbelievable, even in the face of irrefutable evidence.

“Do you suppose—well, do you suppose we’ll ever see each other again?” Susan asked.

“I don’t know.” Ramona looked up at the sky as though searching for something. “I don’t know what the rules are.”

“Well, we’ll figure something out.”

“I hope so.” Ramona looked at her. “I’m happy you’re here, Susan. I’m happy you’re back home.”

Susan nodded, then laughed tunelessly. “No one will ever believe me about this, you know.”

“They don’t have to. Maybe it’s for the best that they don’t know.” Ramona stood up from the swing, and it squeaked out in protest. “Well, I should get going. I’ll need to retrace our steps and the longer I wait, the more likely I am to forget.”

“Really? You can’t wait just a little longer?” Susan’s eyebrows drew together. “I didn’t even get the chance to repay you.”

“There’s nothing to repay.” She smiled. It was a sad, wistful smile, the smile of a last goodbye. “I’m glad I got to meet you, Susan.”

“Likewise.” Susan stood up from the swing and wrapped her arms around Ramona. “Thank you,” she said again, whispering the words in Ramona’s ear. She meant them with all her heart, with every fiber of her being.

“You’re welcome.” Ramona pulled away and started for the woods. Watching her go was like watching an old friend slip away for the last time, and it filled Susan with an unexpected grief. But she knew Ramona was not hers to have, that they were separated by fifty years, that each had lives and families they couldn’t leave, and that’s just the way it was. Susan was home now, at least. That was a gift Ramona had given her, one she’d never forget.

“Hey!” she called, right as Ramona began to enter the forest.

The girl glanced over her shoulder, an eyebrow cocked. “Yeah?”

“If ever you get the chance, you should come visit me here.”

Ramona smiled. “Likewise.” Then she disappeared into the woods, and Susan headed home.


“You’ve been acting strangely lately,” Cathy said. She had her arms crossed over her chest and that disapproving look on her face. “It’s a boy, isn’t it? That boyfriend of yours.” Now the look of disapproval changed to one of vague disgust.

Susan smiled, thinking of Lydia. She hadn’t told Lyd, or anyone else, about what happened—they’d surely think she was crazy if she tried. Instead, she gave Cathy and Lydia each a different story that explained where she’d been that night: Cathy was under the impression she’d gone to meet with a make-believe friend and two boys on a double date, while Lydia had heard that Susan had tried to go through the woods but had stumbled upon some bad-news teens up to no good—a group of suspicious-looking hippies who had scared her off, sending her racing back home. Lydia had smirked when she’d heard that, the slight irritation she’d felt over having been stood up melting away in an instant. “Oh, Susie,” she’d said, “you’re such a square, you know that?”

It had only been three days, but seemed longer. Everything about Susan and her life was more precious to her now—from Lydia to Cathy to even her parents. She wondered if Ramona felt any differently. She wanted so badly to find out.

When she’d gotten home that night, she had written down the way through the woods, the zig-zag that would end fifty years into the future (or past). She’d been careful writing it down, desperate to get it all right, and even drew up a map. Then she’d folded the directions away, telling herself that, sometime in the future, she would get them out and take that walk. She would see Ramona again and ask her all the questions she had, and they would reminisce, and maybe they could be friends. A friendship between a girl in the past and one in the future seems awfully strange, but not the most bizarre pairing Susan had ever heard. If any two could pull it off, she suspected that it was her and Ramona.

But that would be for another day.

“Another day” came two years later.

She had since moved out of her home. She was an adult—a real, card-carrying adult, with a cute little apartment and a sought-after job as a flight attendant. She had a roommate named Lydia, and by all appearances, they were the best of friends. If they were anything more than that, no one seemed to suspect. It turned out that Susan, despite the good-girl exterior, was a natural at keeping secrets: if not her relationship with Lydia, then it was what had happened to her that night in 1967, that walk through the woods that turned into so much more. She’d never told a soul either secret. She didn’t even allow herself to think of them.

And perhaps because of this, everything that had happened with Ramona began to seem terribly distant. She was starting to forget. She couldn’t even recall the exact details of Ramona’s face. My savior, and I’m forgetting her, she’d thought at one point, rather angrily. That simply wouldn’t do. She needed to remember it, all of it. She could not forget the most amazing thing to have ever happened to her.

So she decided to make her return.

She’d kept the directions throughout the years—stashed away somewhere at home, hidden from Cathy and her parents, and later, hidden from Lydia. When she returned to visit her hometown, she knew the time was right. She waited until the early evening, then went for a stroll. She walked by the Browns’ house, and waved at Louise Howard as she made her way to the playground. She stopped briefly to spend some time on the swing, choosing the one she’d used that night, and sneaking longing glances toward Ramona’s. Then she entered the forest.

She wasn’t afraid anymore. In fact, fear was one of those things she had mostly lost that night, packed away and forgotten. She was braver now, less timid. Sure of herself. It was an odd side effect, she supposed, but then again she wasn’t one to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The directions were neatly-written and easy to follow. She had studied them so often over the years that she practically had them memorized. She hummed a little song as she walked, her eyes glued to the map she’d sketched. She was sure it was accurate, all of it—the night she’d written it, she’d been meticulous about getting all the details just right. She’d wracked her brain making sure that it was the correct route.

And that was why, when she emerged on the other side of the forest, she was so immensely disappointed to find that it hadn’t worked.

The cars and houses were the same. There were no futuristic devices, no gigantic Television sets. She was stuck in the sixties, it seemed. She heaved a sigh, the hand-written directions crumpling in her hands.

Still, she decided to make sure. She headed down the street and walked to the house she thought was Ramona’s—or would be, someday. It looked so different now that she wasn’t absolutely sure it was the right place, but she thought as much. She strolled up to the door and gave a gingerly knock.

An old woman opened it. She had short, curly hair and friendly eyes, skin that drooped and a puckered mouth. “Hello, m’dear,” she said. “Something I can help you with?”

“Well, I was looking for someone—Ramona is her name—but I think I have the wrong place.”

The woman’s face lit up. “Ramona! Yes, yes, nice girl.”

“You know her?” Susan asked, clearly incredulous.

“I certainly do! She’s not here, but I’m sure she’d be touched you dropped by.”

“Mother, who is at the door?” a voice called. From inside the house, a statuesque blond woman came tottering over on dark-red heels, busily attaching a pair of pearl earrings as she did. She arrived at the old woman’s side and stood protectively behind her, one hand finding its way to the crone’s shoulder. She looked to Susan with a question in her eyes, a wordless demand to know why she was there.

“Apologies for disturbing you,” Susan said. “I’m looking for a friend of mine, Ramona. At first I thought I was at the wrong residence, but your mother says she knows her—”

The blond shook her head. Her eyes closed and she sighed, suddenly exhausted. “I’m sorry, my mother’s not a well woman. She’s not all there, really. It’s her age.”

“Bernadette, stop that,” the old woman said, scowling over her shoulder.

“Mother, for the last time, Bernadette is my sister. I’m Pauline. Remember? You should, seeing as how you were the one who picked the name.” The woman—Pauline—let her eyes slide back over to Susan, and she offered a meek, apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. We don’t know a Ramona, and certainly no one lives here with that name. My mother just gets these things mixed up.”

“Oh. All right.” Susan nodded glumly and turned around, her shoulders sagging as she stepped down off the front porch and back to the street. “Thank you anyway,” she called, hardly able to keep the disappointment out of her voice. The door shut with a gentle slam behind her.

It was as she was walking down the street that she heard it open back up, and a voice—the old woman’s voice—called after her: “Young lady, wait!”

She stopped, turned around. She didn’t really want to entertain the old woman’s dementia, but it felt rude not to at least answer when called. “Yes?”

“She wants to see you, too,” the woman said. “Ramona.”

“Yes, I’m sure she does.”

“No, really. She tried to come back here once, but couldn’t, just like you. Portals are strange that way.”

Susan’s blood ran cold. It was so quiet on the street that, for a moment, you could hear a pin drop. Then she asked, a bit breathily, “What did you say?”

“The portal, dear,” the old woman said, as though Susan were an idiot. “They’re very odd indeed, these things. That one, in particular. It only opens once every fifty years. Strange, isn’t it?” It alarmed Susan how calmly the old woman spoke of these things. She sounded perfectly sane and lucid, and it was so natural, the way she talked, that she might as well have been making smalltalk about the weather. “Well, no matter,” the woman continued, waving the etiquette of portals away with a flick of her wrist. “It’ll be back. In fifty years, you can step through it again. Of course, by then, it’ll take you to the year 2067. That’ll be just wild, won’t it? Just absolutely wild.” She giggled girlishly. Susan felt cold all over.

Pauline—or was it Bernadette?—came back over, her heels clicking loudly. “Mother, stop this nonsense and come back inside!” She grabbed her mother’s arm and forcefully led her from the doorway, calling out to Susan, “I’m very sorry if she disturbed you!”

“No,” Susan said, but the word came out a whisper. “She didn’t disturb me at all.”

Then, much like the portal, the door shut with a click. It did not open again.