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At first, James thought he was awake. He opened his eyes into inky darkness and lay quite still, scarcely breathing, his heart fluttering as if something had frightened him. Even as fuzzy as his thinking was, that seemed silly. Alarmed him, then. Had he heard something? A sound? Water? If it were his granddad making his usual middle-of-the-night visit to the bathroom, he would have recognized the familiar faint knocking and gurgling from the pipes in his grandparents' side of the old house. A "duplex," the house was called back when most of the houses in their Pittsburgh neighborhood were built like that: two houses stuck together like Siamese twins. Besides, gurgling pipes might wake him but wouldn't frighten him awake. James floated on the surface of sleep, but the lingering sense of fright, of wrongness, kept him from slipping out of the dark, silent room and back into his dream. Thoughts of what might have alarmed him were wisps of fog, stirring and moving away as he reached for them.
He peered at the window and saw that an almost invisible bloom of light rimmed the window blind. The house was wrapped in middle-of-the-night stillness, but perhaps morning was already creeping closer. He always kept his watch on at night so he wouldn't have to grope for it on the nightstand, and with an effort he raised his wrist and pressed the tiny button on its left side. The watch-face light blinked on. Twenty-five minutes past two. So the dim light at the window wasn't morning on the way after all. And the distant thread of sound that had crept into his dream and still murmured at the edge of hearing? It was water, but not water gurgling through pipes. Running water. If he held his breath he could still hear it, faint but as clear as if it were running inside his head.
Spilling over a sink, he thought lazily. Spreading across a floor, seeping downward, running down a wall...
Spilling over a sink! James's eyes blinked open. He would have scrambled up and switched on the bedside lamp but, to his slow surprise, found he could not move. His hands and arms were leaden, and his legs like dreaming logs of stone, as if gravity were pulling him down through the mattress. With a great effort he rolled sideways to lie on his back, and fought to keep his eyes open. The water would seep down through the ceiling of the dining room, and the plaster would crack, and the chandelier with glass leaves and flowers would crash down onto the dining room table. What if he could not move until morning? The gray light would not come for hours to creep its slow way around the white walls, bringing each of his treasures to life. First it would touch the bright Kwanzaa postage stamp in its postcard-sized frame on the near wall, then the end wall with the CD jewel case with the cover photo of his mama. Her brown skin glowed against her gold gown, and he loved the way her eyes shone as if someone had just told a great joke and she was trying not to laugh. Next the light would touch the tiny figure of a Buffalo Soldier atop his bookshelf. The soldier, cast in one of Granddad Hackaday's moulds and painted by James himself, stood beside Grandpa Parrett's almost-as-tiny wood carving of a chickadee. Both were gifts for his twelfth birthday, almost a year ago now.
The CD was Shareen Parrett Sings Arne, Purcell, and Dowland. James had put it up in place of the big old poster of his parents -- Jazz at the Blue Dolphin: Reenie Hackaday, with Phil Parrett at the Piano & the Tommy Mann Trio -- that had hung there since he was six. The Kwanzaa poster Grandma had first put up had been a beautiful poster of the same Kwanzaa postage stamp that was there now, but at least four feet across, and bright. Even in the dark it felt like having the Preservation Hall Jazz Band jamming, or an orchestra blaring Sousa marches in his bedroom. "But honey, your poor room looks so bare now," Grandma had protested as she rolled the two posters up together and James filled a box with things to go to the attic.
No, it looks nice, James thought fuzzily. Cool. Falling asleep was much easier with the calmer walls. Sky blue walls. Three clouds painted on the ceiling. Tidy bookshelves...
His eyes flew open.
Sky blue walls... That was what was wrong. These weren't sky blue. He couldn't see them, but he was sure of it. And this room was larger than his. Emptier. He could hear the difference even in the silence. Really. Once when he was small, at his white grandparents' house in Maine, he had shrieked out in the middle of the night that he heard a spider walking around under his bed, and a sleepy Grandpa Parrett had told him he was dreaming. When a look under the bed with a flashlight showed a very real spider walking around, Grandpa had got rid of it and said, "James, your ears must be as amazing as your eyes. Next thing we know, you'll be leaping over tall buildings with a single bound!"
Slowly James remembered where he was. These walls had pale green and cream stripes, with framed old prints of animals and birds, and no doors leading on the one side into his own upstairs hall and on the other into his grandparents' side of the old duplex house. He wasn't in his own room at home in Pittsburgh at all. He was in England. Since noon yesterday. And this was the back bedroom in Cousin Charles Parrett's apartment in Clerkenwell Close, in London. Cousin Charles was in Italy for the summer and James and his parents were in his apartment. In London.
Where he was miserable. Where he did not want to be.
And where there really was water running somewhere.
The sound was so faint, at the very edge of hearing, that James was sure it couldn't be from the next-door bathroom, where he had very definitely turned the water off after brushing his teeth. That left the other bathroom, he thought muzzily, or the kitchen sink overflowing, or even a leak inside the walls.
James sat up, this time with no trouble at all, and swung his feet to the thick, soft bedside rug. He reached down to pick up his sneakers and, because the air was cool, groped around the top of the sheet and then on the floor for his pajamas, which his mother always put out, even though he never wore them in summer. Still a little fuzzy-headed with sleep, he felt his way past the foot of the bed to the wall, and moved from there to the door and out along the hallway's cool, polished floor to the bathroom next door.
The taps in both the basin and tub were firmly off. Not even a drip dropped from the showerhead. James moved on down the hall, carrying the shoes and trailing his pajama top, and pressed his ear to the wall of the bathroom off the bedroom where his parents slept. Nothing. Nor was there any leak, drip, or water running in the sleek, stainless-steel kitchen. James's bare feet made a light slapping sound on the tiled kitchen floor as he turned back toward the hallway and the sitting room. They carried him across nubbly carpet into the wide entryway and left him standing at the front door. The darkness all around him was filled with silence, but under the silence the water still murmured, tantalizing, almost not there.
He unlocked the door and stepped out onto the landing. Cousin Charles's apartment was on the top floor of a building of offices and workshops in Clerkenwell Close, and it had its own staircase. James had four dimly lit flights to pad down. At the foot of the bottom stair he followed the sound back along the shadowy hallway at the side of the staircase. An ordinary paneled door waited at the far end, and as James leaned forward to press an ear against one of its oak panels, he heard the same elusive murmur of water, so he turned the knob and pushed the door open. The sound of water was suddenly as clear and thin and cold as a freshwater spring. Odder still, the air, too, held a sharp chill.
Warily -- thinking of spiders -- James felt along the wall just inside the door for a light switch, then along the other side, but there was none to be found. Shivering, he pulled on his pajama top and peered into the darkness. In the dim light coming from the front-door end of the hallway, he could make out a stair stepping downward and, directly ahead at eye level, a faint gray line leading upward. A pull cord for a light? Curiosity drew James downward, but he was stepping into his own shadow and could not see where to put his feet, so he had to feel his way. The first step below turned out to be cold, gritty concrete, and automatically James sat down on the top step to pull on his shoes. Of course, he thought sleepily. That's why I brought them. When he stood, he gripped the iron handrail and felt mistrustfully for the next tread. With each step he stopped to fish for the light cord in the dark air ahead until it brushed his fingertips and he could snatch at it.
A small naked bulb blinked on. James peered around and saw the bare concrete floor and white-painted concrete block walls of an ordinary basement. To the left of the stair, three rubbish bins were lined up along the wall. Along the right-hand wall he saw a large, gas-fired central-heating boiler, a deep janitor's sink beside it, and half a dozen large, empty wooden tea chests stacked in one corner. He saw no drip from the sink's tap, but still heard the thin but steady sound of water falling into a basin. Peering back toward the shadowy far corner to his left, where the sound seemed to come from, for a moment he thought he saw a faint oval shimmer hanging motionless in midair. The shape was more a stirring in the air than a shine or gleam, but James's imagination shied away at the thought. A reflection. That was it. Or a shadow on the white-painted concrete blocks...
The light bulb gave a faint pop! and went dark.
In the sudden darkness the oval something in the air was still there, but clearer and hovering like a gray glimmer of mist in a warm night. Through it James thought he saw a patch of gray stone wall instead of the painted concrete blocks he had seen with the light on. He stared blankly for a long moment. He rubbed his eyes. The patch did not go away.
James wavered for a moment between alarm and curiosity, then drew a shaky breath and took a cautious step forward in the darkness. At each step the strange oval appeared to grow wider, as if it were...morphing into a circle. James hesitated. What if whatever it was suddenly yawned wide and swallowed him? He twitched back a little and, when he did, it shrank, and he realized that if he didn't move, it didn't. He took a step back, then another forward. As he did, the faint shimmer that stirred in the cold air narrowed a step's worth, and then widened again.
Curiouser and curiouser, James thought, feeling a lot like Alice at the rabbit hole. He turned a little to the right and moved cautiously toward what he thought would be the rear wall. As he did, the mysterious shape grew still narrower, until it was no more than a thin line in the darkness. Another step, and it vanished. Half a step back, and it was there again: an uncertain thread of not-quite light that glimmered on and off. James took a long step toward the back wall, keeping an eye on the spot where the line vanished. There it was again! Baffled, he moved still farther around to the left until he found himself facing another, brighter circle of shimmer in the darkness.
It took a moment for James to realize that the light he saw was not in the circle itself, but what lay beyond it. He was facing a dim view of a worn stone step, with a narrow landing just above, and a dark, arched doorway into the stone wall or building to his left. Beyond was another, shallower stair. At the top, the silhouettes of leafless trees stood out black against the moon-bright sky. The air held both the last faint bite of winter and the moist, earthy scent of early spring. He could see every silhouetted tree twig, and hear their faint clatter as they stirred in a whisper of breeze. Most dreamily strange of all, James could see at the same time both the moonlit stone steps in front of him and -- outside of and beyond and above the eerie circle -- the open door at the top of Cousin Charles's basement steps and the warmer glow from the light in the ground-floor entry hall. He was still in the here, but not three feet away was a there.
James stood motionless. This is a dream, he realized in a rush of relief and disappointment. He had been excited as much as fearful, and even though he shivered a little from the cold, he thought, Don't let me wake up. Not yet. Not yet. He did not understand what he was seeing. How could the stone wall he had glimpsed from the other side of the circle be the same stone wall that rose at the side of the moonlit stair in front of him? He sidled around to the other side of the window in the air and watched the same thing happen as he went: His view of the circle dwindled to an oval, the oval to a line as thin as a thread of spider silk that shimmers on and off in dappled sunlight, and that line widening back into a shadowy circle. From either side the circle looked, more than anything, like -- like exactly that: a window in the air. A window with faintly frosted glass. James edged a little nearer to peer into its shadows.
Beyond the misty shimmer a sloping passage ran down between stone walls, shadowy on one side, moonlit on the other. The passage stair led downward through what James knew was -- what he squatted down and felt was -- a solid concrete floor. At the bottom of that stair he could dimly make out a door. When he inched even closer and leaned forward to peer at the shimmer, his forehead touched it, and he jerked back. The touch of it was...fizzy, like electricity in his hair. Close up, the look of it was gently fizzy too. He touched his finger to it and snatched it back again. The tip of his finger tingled a little, but it looked and felt fine. Moving around until all he could see of the circle was the thin edge, he stuck his left hand in on the downstairs side, then his right in on the upper landing side, and tried to grasp one hand with the other.
Both hands disappeared up to the wrists. They vanished, and no matter how he waggled them in the cold air, or where he groped, they did not meet. If he leaned around to look, he could see the one on that side, but not the other. And vice versa. His stomach gave an unpleasant lurch, but when he pulled his hands out again, both were fine except for the faint tingle.
James took a deep breath, leaned forward, and thrust his face through the pale fizz.
A colder draft of air from below brushed past his face, and with it came -- much more clearly -- the sound of water spilling into a basin. Without thinking, he stepped forward to feel with a foot for the stone step below, only to have his foot jar against the concrete floor and to find himself still in Cousin Charles's basement, on the far side of the window in the air. He had walked straight through it and could feel the almost-not-there tingle from his hips up.
James turned and stared up for a moment at the other-world landing one step above. Okay. It's like a window. You don't try to walk through a wall to get out through the window in that wall. You climb over the sill.
With the growing sharpness of his eyes in the dark and the faint light from the shimmer, James was able to make out the dim shapes of the wooden tea chests stacked in the corner beyond the gas-fired boiler, just beyond a pair of rubbish bins. Moving cautiously, arms outstretched, he crossed to the corner and pulled one of the boxes to the floor. Its size and smooth sides made it a little awkward to pick up and clumsy to carry, but he struggled with it across to the back side of the shimmer. If you were going to climb through a window with nothing to hold on to, you didn't want to pitch yourself down a flight of stone steps. You would climb up, to the landing.
The tea chest had no top, so James turned it to stand bottom up and tested to see whether it would hold his weight. Then he took a deep breath, climbed on top, and crouched down to edge sideways through the shimmer.
Like launching yourself through a keyhole...
Copyright © 2005 by Jane Louise Curry