It was a small door, as far as doors go, no taller than three feet, and easy to miss. When I removed Granny’s dresses hanging in the closet, just the top of it was visible, the rest covered by three boxes stacked on top of each other. Curious as to why there was a door inside Granny’s closet—who wouldn’t be?—I twisted its knob, jiggled. Locked tight.
I put the mystery out of mind, but not completely; I would be keeping an eye out for keys as I went through Granny’s possessions.
The task of cleaning out Granny Sophie’s house after her death had fallen to me, since, as my mother had put it, “You have nothing better to do.” I had decided to stay home, hadn’t taken my mother up on her offer to accompany her on a six-week cruise the summer between my senior year of high school and beginning college. At the time, I hadn’t wanted to be away from Bradly that long, especially since we would be attending college thousands of miles apart come fall. But the main reason I had declined her offer was I couldn’t bear the thought of being cooped up in a small suite of rooms with her for six whole weeks. She was the type of woman one couldn’t take in large doses, a woman who was more concerned with money and social status than most anything else. And since she had about burned through the savings account and assets that after Daddy’s death a year ago had become solely hers (except for a fund he’d set up for my college education), she was on the lookout for a new husband. “While I still have my looks, you know,” she had said with a toss of her long, blonde mane.
Snaring a well-to-do gentleman was Mother’s sole purpose behind booking the cruise. I didn’t think she minded at all that I hadn’t gone with her. I wouldn’t be there to judge when she set her hooks in whomever she had picked to be my new father. And if the man were married, she would consider it only a minor obstacle in her path.
Less than two weeks into my mother’s cruise, Granny Sophie died, and I assumed Mother would fly back home, but I had underestimated her selfishness. “Sophie was not my mother, she was your father’s. And you know we were never close. You’re a big girl, Moira, you can handle things until I get back.” I’d had a feeling that if Granny Sophie had tons of money in the bank and an expensive home, Mother would have swum back if necessary to settle her mother-in-law’s estate. But Granny didn’t have much, just a small, going-to-seed house on the outskirts of town and barely enough money in her bank account to pay for her cremation.
I glanced at the urn holding her ashes that sat atop the dresser. Knowing Granny’s love of all things purple, I had picked it out myself—a deep royal color shot through with lightning streaks of silver. Its reflection glinted in the mirror, reminding me of the twinkle in her violet eyes.
When I was a child, I had seen that twinkle many times: when she taught me how to make faux gingerbread men using mud down by the small branch that meandered behind her house; how to cut off a piece of wild grapevine and smoke it like a cigarette; what weeds and flowers to pick in the woods across the branch, and the potions and things one could make with them. But her eyes always sparkled most when she told me about the place she had discovered when she was a child, a magical world full of fairies, dwarves, giants, and dragons you could ride.
“They’re just make-believe,” Daddy had informed me with a wistful smile. “She told me the same stories when I was a boy.” His violet eyes had stared into space for a moment, then with a shake of his head, they refocused, and he said, “Don’t tell your mother about the stories. It’ll only upset her, and she might stop letting you visit your granny.”
And I hadn’t. Mother hadn’t even let me believe in Santa Claus, so I knew she would disapprove of Granny filling my head with made-up things.
I gently ran my hand down the side of the urn, wondering what would become of Granny Sophie’s ashes.
I would find out Monday, though, at the reading of her will. Mr. Brinkley, her attorney, had informed me the will specified what she wanted done with her remains, and he also said I was the sole heir to all her possessions. “The reading is just a formality, Moira,” he’d said. “Feel free to start going through her things.” And he’d handed me the key to her house. No surprise there. Daddy had been her only child, and Granny Sophie’d had only one sibling: a younger brother, Charley, who had died in childhood. Granny had always referred to him as Peanut.
I picked up the framed, eight-by-ten, black-and-white photo propped near the urn, studied the two faces smiling back at me: Granny at twelve and Peanut at nine. Both had a head full of dark curls and smokey dark eyes. Both had the same dimples and a slightly turned-up nose. And both had a smile that could light up a room. I saw my daddy in those two faces. And a little bit of me—at least the hair and eyes.
I don’t think Granny ever got over the loss of her brother, but she’d told me that she had no doubt she would see him again someday.
A band tightened over my heart. I hugged the old photograph to my chest, looked up at the yellowed ceiling. I bet you’re with Peanut right now, Granny. I swallowed the lump in my throat, blinked back tears, then swaddled the framed photo in newspapers and placed it on top of the others in the open box on the bed, one of the boxes I would keep.
As I had the day before, I continued the sorting of Granny Sophie’s life. Boxes filled with useful things, pots, pans, dishes, linens, and such, I consigned to the living room to be picked up, along with the furniture, by The Salvation Army. Later on, I’d sell the house—maybe, probably—I hadn’t quite made up my mind about that. The boxes I’d filled with memorabilia—more than I had expected—I left on Granny’s bed.
The phone in the front room rang around dusk as I was going through the small back bedroom I had slept in when visiting Granny Sophie.
“How you doing, babe?” Bradly asked, his voice sounding surprisingly close though he was half the country away.
Holding a well-worn Raggedy Ann doll Granny had stitched together for my sixth birthday, I said, “Okay, I guess. I’m making good progress, should be finished in a couple more days.” Then, it would be Monday, “reading-of-the-will day,” and shortly after that, I’d be returning home…maybe. I was thinking about staying around a little longer.
“I could fly in for the weekend, keep you company, make sure you’re eating right.”
Bradly concerned with the stability of my blood sugar? I almost snickered. I knew his priorities where I was concerned, and it wasn’t my diabetes, and I was in no mood to share a bed, my bed, in my granny’s home with him. It seemed almost sacrilegious.
“I’ll be fine, and it’s just for a few more days,” I said. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Moira, baby, are you sure?” His voice dropped to a husky purr. “I could be there early tomorrow…we could…you know….” I saw the sexy pout on his full lips as clearly as if he were standing before me.
“Not necessary, I’ll be fine.” With effort, I put a hint of teasing in my voice. “And don’t you go telling me that you’d rather be here in Kentucky, stuck in a town with only one stoplight, than in Miami, just to be with me, Bradly Hightower. You’re just trying to be…thoughtful.” Which maybe he was, but I didn’t want him here. And more and more, I was beginning to wonder if I wanted him, period.
“What’s this about being thoughtful? I’m always—”
“I gotta go, Bradly, there’s someone at the door,” I lied. “See you in a few days.” And I hung up without giving him a chance to say anything else.
I returned to my old bedroom. Feeling bone tired, I sat on the three-quarter bed and absently smoothed the wild curls from Raggedy Ann’s face. With a sigh, I lay back on the mattress, curled up around the doll, and hugging her tightly, fell asleep.
Sometime during the night, I woke cold and disoriented. Then, recognizing the pale-yellow walls splashed with posters of dragons (I’d had a thing about dragons when I was a pre-teen.), I knew I was safe in my room at Granny Sophie’s house, though, still cold.
I tugged at the grass-green quilt sporting white daisies, pulled it over Raggedy Ann and me, and burrowed my head beneath it to block out the overhead light. Smelling sunshine, I smiled. Evidently, Granny had regularly washed the bed covers and dried them on the clothesline out back, though my visits had become fewer and farther between as I had grown older.
I was on the edge of sleep when I heard a faint sound, something akin to a far-away rattling dish. Then hushed voices. A small giggle.
I was not alone.
And I was not brave.
I peeked from beneath the quilt, saw no one in the room nor in the brightly lit hall beyond the doorway. The open door to Granny’s room was visible, and light spilled from it as well. Think I left every light in the house on before falling asleep, I thought, wondering who would be brave enough to break into a well-lit home. Probably no one…probably hearing things.
I lay still for a few minutes, my eyes darting about for movement and my ears attuned for the slightest noise. Nothing. Nada.
I slowly turned back the quilt and sat up, my legs dangling over the side of the bed. Still nothing. I eased open the nightstand, took out the heavy Maglight for a weapon, and eased to my feet. Thrusting Raggedy Ann out in front of me as if she were a shield, I padded across the room to the door. No motion. No sound. Just silence.
Creeping into the hallway, I peeked inside Granny’s room. Just as I had left it, except….
I stepped through the doorway. The picture of Granny and Peanut lay face down on the floor. That’s odd.
The room was empty, so for the time being, I put the picture from my mind and made my way up the hall toward the living room and kitchen, pausing briefly to glance inside the small empty bathroom. In the front part of the house, as had been the case in the bedrooms, no one was there, nothing was out of place. Everything was as I had left it.
Except for that picture.
I checked the front and back door locks: both secure. I inspected all the windows, finding every single one latched. Then it was back down the hallway, where I checked the latch on the window in my bedroom, then crossed the hall to Granny Sophie’s room.
I picked up the photograph, wondering how it had shed its newspaper wrappings and gotten from the box to the floor.
I glanced at the window. The yellow primrose-print curtains were pulled tight against the night, the material hanging straight and undisturbed. But still…maybe….
I placed the framed photo on the dresser in its former spot next to the urn, and after laying Raggedy Ann beside it, crossed the room to the window. Gripping the flashlight high overhead in my right hand, I yanked the curtain aside with my left. Window closed, latch in place. No one had been inside, only me. Then who had been whispering, and how…the picture?
I could pass the noise and voices off as my imagination, or even a dream, but how had the picture gotten from the box to the floor? No one had been inside. All the doors and windows were locked; I had checked them all…except….
My eyes flew to the closet. It was open a crack, and I was sure I had closed it. Again, flashlight raised in readiness, I pulled open the narrow door, now empty of Granny’s clothes that I had packed away. Bare shelves and bare floor stared back at me. And the little door whose knob still refused to turn.
I didn’t know what to make of the picture. Had I only thought I’d put it inside the box? No, I distinctly remembered wrapping it in newspaper and placing it in the box. Damn it, I remembered!
But there could be no other explanation other than forgetfulness. I had planned to put the photograph there but must have forgotten to do so. Yes, that’s what happened. And that’s all there was to it.
Nothing else out of the ordinary happened over the weekend, and Monday afternoon, I showed up at Mr. Brinkley’s office at the appointed time. He ushered me inside the dark-paneled room and waved me to a seat in front of a massive, cherry-wood desk.
“This won’t take long, Moira. Like I said on the phone, the will clearly states everything goes to you.” He handed me a sheaf of papers over the desk. “Take a moment and look through them if you wish. The land, house, and contents are yours, along with a tidy sum in stocks and bonds.”
Surprised, I looked up. “I didn’t know….”
His kind brown eyes met mine. “Well, Sophie wasn’t one to brag, but she made some wise investments over the years. And she spent little, said she didn’t need much of this world other than a place to rest her head and food on the table.”
I smiled. “That sounds like her.”
“There’s over five-hundred-thousand dollars in her investment portfolio. I suggest you keep that to yourself. If your mother finds out….”
Mr. Brinkley knew my mother well, had even dated her for a time before she married my father. He knew her penchant for the finer things in life.
“I…I won’t. I don’t know what to do with it, but I certainly won’t mention it to Mother.”
“If I may make a suggestion?”
“Yes, of course.”
“If you don’t need it, just let it grow.”
I nodded my head, feeling somewhat in a state of shock. Granny had had all that money and had lived almost like a pauper.
“I knew your grandmother all my life, Moira. You may not know this, but I grew up in a little shack that used to be across the road from her place. Thing’s been gone for years now, though. County took possession of it for back taxes after my folks stopped renting it and bought a house in town…bulldozed it down, they did.”
I recalled the field across the road from Granny’s, how she and I caught yellow grasshoppers there in late summer for fish bait. The wildflowers we picked there, and the garlands we made from stalks of clover and placed on our heads like crowns. Looking back, I didn’t recall a single store-bought gift she had ever given me; she fashioned them with her own two slim, wrinkled hands. And I knew I hadn’t missed a thing. She had given her love and time, and in the end, isn’t that what every child needs?
I heard Mr. Brinkley sigh, and I looked up from the papers clutched in my hand, the words made blurry from tears. He was staring off into space, a slight smile on his face and a sheen of tears over his dark eyes. “She used to take me fishing, you know…and we made mud pies…baked cookies.….” He shook his head, his eyes clearing. “But you don’t want to hear an old man’s reminiscing.” He smiled, a winsome combination of sad and happy.
He didn’t look all that old to me, about my mother’s age or a little younger. His brown wavy hair had just the beginnings of gray creeping in at the temples. And he had such a friendly smile, one that shone as much from his eyes as it did from his lips.
“That’s all right, Mr. Brinkley,” I said. “I would imagine you could tell me some interesting stories of her younger days.”
“That I could, Moira.” He laughed softly. “You know, I was in love with her, told her I was going to marry her when I grew up.”
His admission pulled a chuckle from me. “I suppose you changed your mind when you grew up, though.”
“Nope, she still wouldn’t have me when I turned eighteen.”
We both laughed at that.
Then, sobering, he picked up a sealed, letter-sized, brown envelope from the desktop, held it out to me. “One more thing. Here.” I took it from his hand, felt something hard inside. “Sophie told me to put it in your hand personally, said you’d know what to do with it.”
I fingered the contents. It felt like…like…a key! My heart raced. The key, I was sure of it.
“And that’s it, Moira. It’s all yours now. And please forgive me if I’m being overly presumptuous, but I think Sophie made a good choice. You remind me a lot of her, you know.”
I didn’t think I had ever received a nicer compliment. “Mr. Brinkley…” I cleared my throat, suddenly nervous. “If I’m not being too presumptuous…” I glanced at his left hand: no wedding band. “How would you like to have dinner with me tomorrow night?” I had a key to use tonight. “I’d love to hear more of your memories about Granny…er…Sophie.”
The eyes-and-all smile lit up his face. “I would like that, Moira, I truly would. And please, call me Artie.”
I waited until I got back to Granny’s house before opening the envelope, and just as I had suspected, when I tore open one end and shook it, a key fell into my open palm. I pitched the envelope onto the dresser and had taken two steps toward the closet when it registered that I had seen something sticking from the brown envelope. I turned back, saw a sliver of white poking from the open end.
I pulled out a piece of paper, unfolded it, and in Granny’s elegant cursive handwriting, read:
My dearest Moira,
If you haven’t already found it, there’s a door inside my closet that this key opens. It’s a special door and will take you to a wondrous place, a place where dragons live. Remember all the stories I told you, Child? They were not fairytales; they were stories of a land where time is eternal, and all good things are possible.
I visited this place three times in my life—more than most. The first was to take my granny’s ashes there, as per her request. And a hard task it was, stealing her ashes and replacing them with ashes from the woodstove so my parents wouldn’t know. The second and most difficult was for Peanut. I had no remains, for my parents had buried his body in Our Ladies of Grace Cemetery. But I was able to capture his essence. If you think really hard, I’m sure you’ll remember the story I told you of the princess who took her brother’s soul to the Special Place.—I did!—The third time was taking your grandfather’s ashes. But he didn’t want to stay. Dragons and fairies and such are not everyone’s cup of tea, and he let me know that in no uncertain terms. So, his remains reside at Our Ladies of Grace, but where the rest of him went, I’ve no idea.
The Special Place (I have no name other than that for it) is not a place for the living; it’s only for what we of this earth call the dead. You can’t tarry when you take my ashes there, though you’ll surely want to, for like I said, it’s a wondrous place, and it will pull at you. But as the Bible says, and in this case it’s true, “To everything there is a season,” and life on this earth is but the first season. And everyone needs to take the seasons when their time is right. You can look around a bit as I did, then get your butt back to your proper season.
I believe there are other doors like mine that take you to the Special Place but don’t know of any. And I’m sure others know of the Special Place, but again, I don’t know any who do. So, you take care of this old house as I have, and when the time comes for you to move on to your next season, make sure you put it in the proper hands. Seems like those hands skip a generation, so keep that in mind.
Now, Child, it’s time to take my ashes through the door. I’ll see you there.
Remember, Moira, I love you to the moon and back.
I love you to the moon and back…how many times had Granny told me that, and I had said it back? It would be easier to guess the number of leaves on a tree.
I laid the letter on the dresser, picked up the silver-shot purple urn, and crossed the room to the closet with the key in my other hand. I hunkered before the small door and slid in the key. With a soft snick, it unlocked. I stuffed the key deep into the front pocket of my jeans, turned the knob, and pulled open the door.
The smells were the first thing I noticed: honeysuckle, rose, vanilla, chocolate-chip cookies, pine needles, ocean spray, and many more I had no name for, but all were pleasing. I crawled through the opening, pushing the urn before me, and came out onto a grassy spot circled by towering trees dripping with leafy fronds in every color of the rainbow. Golden sunlight slanted through their canopies, turning the grass into rippling waves of color.
I stood, my eyes turning skyward as I heard the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of powerful wings, and I saw—I saw—a huge, long-necked dragon, purple scales glittering in the sunlight. And a boy rode on its back!
Heart pounding, not with fear but with anticipation, I watched as the dragon and its passenger landed in the clearing.
“Magnificent creatures, aren’t they?”
My eyes turned toward the voice, took in the small girl standing close by, a rubble of purple shards littering the forest floor between us: Granny Sophie. There was no mistaking the face that was just like the one in the photograph. Just like there was no mistaking the boy striding toward us.
Grandma Sophie tugged my hand, turning my attention back to her. “I love you to the moon and back, Moira. Remember…always.” Then with a wild whoop of joy, she was off and running toward the boy, toward Peanut.
Many years have passed since I took Granny’s ashes to the Special Place. I have only returned once, thirteen years ago, to take my husband’s ashes there. I miss Artie, God almighty, how I miss him, but I know he’s waiting there for me. I think time passes differently in the Special Place—if it passes at all—so my thirteen years here may be but a blink of the eye to him. I hope so. I hate to think of him missing me as much as I have missed him.
We had a good life together, marrying three months after Granny’s passing. We remodeled her little house on the outskirts of town, building around it and keeping Granny’s bedroom intact (closet included) that served as our own. We had three fine children, two boys, and a girl. But I knew without asking that none of our children were right for the Special Place; all three were too grounded in the perceived reality of this world, too connected to technology to believe in a place of dragons and rainbow trees and old people being made young again.
I don’t know if Artie really believed in the Special Place; unlike me, he couldn’t see the small door in the closet. But he had read Granny’s letter and seen the key, and most importantly, he had known that I believed. So, he chose to believe. After he died following a short but painful battle with pancreatic cancer, I took his ashes to the Special Place with his prior blessing. There, I watched him—now a boy of around ten—mount a green dragon behind young Sophie, and grinning ear to ear, sail out of sight above the rainbow trees.
And now my time to leave this season draws near. I have made the needed arrangements with my lawyer, leaving this house to my grandson, Keith, who at the present time is attending graduate school at MIT. He will also receive a letter and the key. Though Keith is a mathematician, a very left-brainy boy, he has that special spark: he believes in dragons. Or at least he did when he was a child. And when he unlocks the door, he will again.
©2022 July Day