The second house on the left. If the door is blue, you’re welcome. Red, you’ve come too early. Green, too late.
The meaningless chant comes to me whole. I can’t remember where I’ve heard it, but I also can’t shake the certainty it’s right. No idea what it’s right about, but there’s truth to it.
During school the strange incantation echoes in my mind, pushing out dates during history and shapes during geometry.
“It’s nonsense,” I tell myself. But I still stop to watch the blue paint dry on my way home. I whisper to the empty yard of the blue-door house, “Welcome for what?”
I don’t expect an answer, but one comes in the strangely familiar sensation of boney fingers stroking my hair, back when my hair was fine and blonde instead of coarse and brown. I’ve seen pictures of myself with blonde hair, from when I still lived with the owner of those always cold fingers. The memory sends a shiver down my spine and takes me back to my sleepy three-year-old self. I’d tried hard to fight my heavy lids when her nails scratched gently along my scalp, but I’d stayed up too long, waiting for that touch. Her sing-song voice penetrated the depth of my sleep as she told me over and over about the door that would welcome me.
I shake the image and sound from my mind. But the memory stays in my body, a ball of nausea in my stomach.
At home, Mom has set out a plate with a sliced apple and two tablespoons of chunky peanut butter arranged on it. As I shrug out of my jacket, she pours a glass of milk for me. It’s as if I never grew past the four-year-old I was when she got me, and I love her for it.
I kiss her soft cheek and inhale the flowers of her perfume. “Mom, has there been any news about...”
“About what, honey?” Her eyebrows wrinkle with her usual concern.
Asking will make her clear eyes cloud over with pain. No one has heard a word about my birth-mother in years. If they found her, they would tell me. There’s no reason—beyond a silly blue door—to ask.
“Nothing, Mom.” I pick up a slice of apple and dip it in the peanut butter. Mom says it’s always been my favorite, but she doesn’t know for sure. How could she?
The next morning the door calls to me. I try not to look at it. I put one foot in front of the other and stay on the opposite side of the road. But it pulls my gaze like a line hooked to my chin, reeling me towards it. It’s such a dark, saturated blue, as if it holds the sky and ocean and mysteries of the entire universe behind it.
But I don’t want the sky and ocean and entire universe. I have Mom and Dad. I have perfectly cut apples and tall glasses of ice cold milk.
I can’t escape its pull, even with my head down on the opposite sidewalk. Because along with the universe, it could hold a woman, whose fingers in my hair had smelled of tobacco and something sweet I’d never been able to place.
“That’s the smell of crystals, Baby.” She sighed and nodded as she explained the strange scent, as if the crystals were the most beautiful thing she could imagine. I asked to see the crystals—to touch them and fall in love with them the way she had—but she insisted they weren’t for children.
I inhale deeply, rooting out the familiar scent that isn’t really there. That scent doesn’t belong in a neighborhood like this. But my nose pulls it up, as if it’s been caught in the tiny, fine hairs, waiting for me to ask for it again. After years, how can it still smell like home?
“The second house on the left. If the door is blue, you’re welcome. Red, you’ve come too early. Green, too late.” Her voice was rough as she repeated the incantation. Her teeth ground as she clenched her jaw. I managed to open my eyes and look up at her high, hollow cheekbones.
“Too late for what, Mama?”
She hushed me, putting her sickly sweet fingers over my eyes. “You’ll know when it’s time.”
Anticipation crawls through me. It takes hold of me and makes my leg jiggle, my heart pound. I fail my vocab quiz—Mom won’t be mad, but she’ll wonder if something is wrong. I throw the paper out. No sense letting her find it. There's nothing to worry about. It’s just a door. A beautiful, enticing door that lets memories I’ve long forgotten slip from behind its cracks. A door that overwhelms me with promises.
I walk home the long way—two streets down from the blue door—but the autumn wind carries its whisper. You’ll know when it’s time.
I blink back tears, blame them on the chill in the air.
Mama. That’s what I called my birth-mother. Mama. That’s the word I cried over and over in the weak chant of a lost three-year-old. Mama. How long before I ventured outside, hungry and heartbroken, whining for Mama?
“Are you all alone?” a neighbor asked. She fed me a pack of potato chips and a cookie. The police came.
“Where’s your mother?”
“She went to find a door.”
It was nonsense. A child making things up.
The next morning, I walk down the perfect concrete sidewalk. The sidewalk in front of the apartment Mama and I lived in had been cracked. Hearty green weeds had grown out of its cracks, but nothing grew in the patches of dirt on either side.
I try not to look at the concrete now. Instead I lock my gaze on the door. I pause at the gate to the house and take a deep breath. The lawn is covered with rotting leaves, and beneath their decay floats the scent of Mama’s cheap perfume and unwashed body. Her body odor had been a safe place to burrow. It had covered me like a hug.
Her hair was a mess of tangles. Her thin chest—not much bigger than mine—rose and fell. She always slept on the dirty couch when she was home, never awake to talk and play. I poked my finger into her face and traced the dark circles beneath her closed eyes and the red sores in the corner of her mouth.
“Mama, Mama.” I poked harder on her cheek until she groaned.
“What, Baby?” Her voice croaked like a frog and I jumped back. But she wasn’t a frog. She was Mama.
I leaned close to her ear. “What’s behind the blue door, Mama?”
“Naw, Baby. Not now. Go play.”
I open the gate, my heart hopscotching in my chest. Ten steps to the porch. Up two stairs. It’s Mama’s door. Mama’s world. It has to be.
The door opens inward and a plump woman with curly red hair pokes her head out. “Yes?”
She smells of fresh-baked cookies and coffee, not my Mama’s sickly sweet scent. No cigarettes, either. She couldn’t be one of the people from Mama’s world. They’re all thin and frail and hollow around the eyes.
“Do you know Makenzie Graham?” The name is thick on my tongue.
She shakes her head, gives me a soft smile. “Sorry, I think you’ve got the wrong house.”
A sharp pain shoots through me as I swallow. I can’t let her close the door. It will turn green someday, and it’ll be too late. It’s now or never. Maybe there’s some password. I’m missing something. Suspicion replaces the softness on the woman’s face. She closes the door halfway.
I poked at Mama’s face again, but this time she just groaned without opening her eyes.
“Mama, please, tell me about the door.”
“Can’t you see Mama’s sleeping? Go away.”
She never told me. I went away, to Mom and Dad, far away from the studio apartment with its dirty couch and always sleeping Mama. I forgot her and her door.
The woman closes the door and I hear the chain slide into place on the other side. I reach out and stroke the lying paint, but I won’t knock again.