The first thing I did, once it was obvious that there was no one around to answer my question, was dig the phone out of my pocket. Right. I had no idea where I was or how I had gotten here, but hopefully I could just call and—no signal. The phone had no connection, which meant that unless I could solve this mystery by playing a virus simulation or word scramble game at it, the thing was completely useless.
Well, not completely. Bringing up the camera app on the device, I took a picture of the bus. Stepping slowly around the thing, I took a series of shots of it from all sides, making sure to show the untouched ground around the bus where there were no tire marks. Then I stood right in front of the door and turned, taking pictures of each part of the massive empty field from where I was.
Finally, I turned and took a few pictures of the door itself from both sides. I made sure to get decent photos of it from every possible angle, even leaning in to get a close shot of the knob.
Honestly, I had no idea how any of this was going to help me figure out what was going on. But just because I didn’t know how any of this would be relevant or helpful right now didn’t mean it never would be. Somehow, I had been brought to this empty field on a bus with no one else around, and no sign of how the bus had gotten out here. Every bit of this was relevant, and I was going to figure it out.
Part of me knew that I should probably be terrified by this whole situation. And I was a little bit. But mostly I was just incredibly curious. What the hell was going on? How had I gotten out here? Why was this door standing in the middle of nowhere? The fear was one lone voice drowned out by the chorus of demands for answers. I didn’t have time to be afraid, there were just too many questions.
Lifting my free hand, I set it against the white door. It felt like wood, and it was warm to the touch. Not painfully so, but enough to make me not want to leave my hand on it for very long. Testing the alabaster doorknob gingerly, I found that, by contrast, was cool to the touch. Frowning, I touched the door again. Hot. I touched the knob. Cold. Huh.
Thinking that the answer might be inside the door itself, I decided to try opening it. Grabbing the cool knob, I tried pushing to no effect. When I pulled, however, the door promptly swung open. My eyes followed it while I stepped out of the way, then I returned my attention to the door frame.
People! There were people on the other side of the door frame now! I jerked in surprise, literally stumbling backwards before landing on my backside as a loud yelp escaped me. Then I sat there in the grass, staring with wide eyes at the impossible scene before me.
There were definitely people. Through the open door, I could plainly see dozens of teenagers, most of them around my age or a little older, rushing back and forth. They all wore those formal uniforms that were so popular in private schools and the parts of the internet Dad thought I didn’t know about, with ties, blazers, the works. All of them were rushing past the doorway as if they were late for class.
My brain was registering so many problems with this scene that I had to make it shut up and report one thing at a time or I would have sat there for hours just staring like an idiot. So, from the top, I went through everything that was wrong with what I was seeing.
First, I couldn’t hear anything from them. These people were rushing back and forth, but there was no sound. I could see their lips moving as they called to one another, yet none of their words reached me. I couldn’t hear their footsteps, or anything else as they hurried about their business.
Second, they weren’t anywhere except in the doorway. The space to the left of that solitary door standing in the middle of nowhere was completely empty, as was the space to the right. These people were walking on from one side of the doorway, passing through my sight, then moving on to the other side of the doorway. Yet as soon as they passed the frame, they vanished entirely.
That, of course, led to the next problem with what I was seeing. The space that I could see beyond the door, the area these people were walking through, was not the space that had been on the other side of the door. I knew that, because I’d walked all the way around the door while I was examining it. I should have been looking at the same empty field that was on this side of the thing.
Instead, I could see a wide corridor that the students were bustling their way through. The hall looked wide enough to drive the bus that was behind me through it and still have room for another one to drive next to it. The floor was some kind of silver and black marble that was so clean it shone, while the walls looked like polished wood that was as white as the door itself. On the far side of the hall, past all the students rushing by, I could see a massive floor-to-ceiling mirror with a gold border all around it.
After taking all of that in, I worked my mouth to say something, but no sound came out. I was so shocked that I couldn’t speak. It took me another couple of tries before I managed to make a sound vaguely reminiscent of a crashing airplane. Several long seconds of that eventually segued into actual words. “Heeeeeey! Hello?” I called toward the open door, yet there was no reaction from the crowd. Clearly, they couldn’t hear me any more than I could hear them. But could they see me? If they looked my way, would they see a scrawny little blonde sitting in a grassy field?
Scrambling to my feet, I rushed to the door, but stopped in front of it rather than going through. Standing there, I leaned around to peer behind the doorway. Empty field. I leaned back again and looked through the doorway. Beautiful, ornate corridor full of bustling students in uniforms. Lean around, empty field. Lean back, dozens of people. I repeated that a few more times, my brain screaming its protest about the entire situation the whole time.
Taking in a long, deep breath before letting it out, I walked around to the opposite side of the doorway to look through it from that angle. Unfortunately, that didn’t so much fix my confusion as compound it several times over. Looking through the doorway from here, I was seeing the same hallway, but from the opposite side. There was another mirror across the hall, this one surrounded by a black border rather than a gold one. It lay exactly where my view from the other side of the doorway would have been from, and I had no doubt that I was seeing this through the first mirror that I had noticed.
Closing my eyes, I shook my head rapidly to clear it. Then I positioned myself right on the edge of the door frame. Leaning around to the left, I stared through at the people in the corridor. One group in particular, a trio of girls that my brain immediately pegged as cheerleaders for no reason that I could outright describe, had stopped to face the doorway. Now I knew they were looking into the mirror that stood there, which made it easier to ignore the faces they were making.
Leaning back around to the right side of the doorway, I could see the same girls from the back, across the wide corridor as they examined themselves in the giant mirror. Lean to the left, see the girls from the front. Lean to the right, see them from the back. I was literally looking through an empty doorframe from one side and then the other, and seeing opposite sides of an enormous hallway.
A prank. That’s what it had to be. It had to be a prank. As soon as I thought that, my brain came up with the perfect explanation. Obviously, there was some kind of very thin video screen inside the doorframe itself. It was projecting video image onto both sides of the screen to make it look like, well, what I was seeing. That made sense, right? Well, at least it made more sense than… than anything else I could come up with. And it made my brain stop screaming for a second.
My hand reached out to touch the screen and prove my theory, but something stopped me. I hesitated, biting my lip while my hand hovered a few inches away from the doorway. My eyes slowly moved to look at my fingers, which were trembling a little bit. I was breathing a little harder, and at first I couldn’t understand why. I’d solved the mystery, hadn’t I? This wasn’t magic, it was just a trick. A complicated trick, but still. It was a video screen strung up in the doorway. It had to be.
And yet, as I stood there, staring at my shaking hand, I realized why I had stopped. I knew, in that moment, why I wasn’t pushing my hand forward to find the screen and prove to myself right.
I wanted it to be real.
It made no sense. What I was seeing was impossible. This whole situation was absurd and ridiculous and… kind of wonderful. It was interesting and… and I didn’t want it to end. I didn’t want to tear the curtain down and find the man fiddling with the machine. I wanted to believe in the giant floating head. I didn’t want to tug on the fake beard and find my dad’s old friend was the one in the bright red suit. I wanted to believe that one man could deliver gifts to every child in the world in one night.
I wanted to be wrong. I wanted, almost desperately in that moment, to reach through that open doorway and see my hand appear inside that beautiful corridor with all of those students.
But if I was right, moving my hand to touch the video screen that I thought was there would shatter the illusion. It would tear away the magic of what I was seeing and, for once in my life, I didn’t want to do that. Something deep inside of me desperately wanted to go on believing that this could be real.
“Okay then,” I finally spoke aloud to myself. “Let’s do it this way.” Turning away from the door, I searched the ground for a moment before prying up a dirt-covered rock about the size of a baseball.
I wasn’t sure why, but somehow I thought that a bigger gesture would reduce the chance of this being a trick. It made no sense, but I’d decided that throwing the rock through the space where the screen should have been was better. If this… whatever it was really was what it looked like, the rock would go into that hallway. If it was a trick, the rock would break the screen.
So here went nothing. Turning back to the doorway, I saw that the corridor was pretty much empty by that point. The last few stragglers were running by, paying no attention to the mirrors on either side of them. I took a breath, held it, then underhand tossed the rock straight at the opening.
The rock hit the doorway… and kept going. It flew right into that corridor, fell to that pristine marble floor, and bounced a couple of times while trailing bits of dirt and grass after it.
My gasp turned into a yelp as a sharp voice abruptly spoke up from behind me. “Young lady, I do hope that you are prepared to clean that floor should you accept our invitation.”
Whirling around so fast I nearly fell over again, I stared with wide eyes at the woman who had spoken. She stood only a few feet away in spite of the fact that there was no way she could have crossed all that open field in the time that my back had been to the space she was now occupying. I guessed her age at her mid-thirties, and her features were sharply aristocratic, with high cheekbones, blonde hair tied into a tight braid, and piercing green eyes. She wore a pitch-black suit with an equally dark shirt beneath it, and a thin red tie. Her hands were covered by dark red gloves, and there was an actual sword in a sheath on her left hip.
“Wh-what?” I blurted out loud after taking all of that in. “Who are– what is—how are—what–” My gaze kept flicking back and forth between the woman and the open doorway as my confusion mounted.
“My apologies, Miss Chambers.” The blonde woman dipped her head in acknowledgment. “I had intended to be here to greet you when you woke. Unfortunately, I was unavoidably detained. I hope that you are all right.”
“All right?” I echoed in disbelief. “Where am I? Who are you? What the hell is that?!” I pointed to the door, realizing that my voice had risen nearly to the level of obvious hysteria but not really caring.
“Please try to calm yourself, Miss Chambers,” the woman coaxed me in her calm yet regal voice. “I will answer your questions as well as I can. My name is Virginia Dare. I am the instructor of both fencing and American History in Crossroads Academy.” She nodded past me toward the corridor that was still visible through the open doorway. “And it is also my privilege to retrieve the new students who come without a prior explanation or family history with our facility. Students such as yourself.”
Something about the woman’s name ticked at my memory, but I couldn’t think about it right then. I just stared at her, mouth working a few times before I managed to find my voice. “Crossroads Academy?”
“Quite right,” Virginia Dare gave a sharp nod. “The Academy is a school unlike any other you will find within your lifetime. And believe me, I have had quite the lifetime to prove that true.”
“That– that doorway can’t exist!” I blurted, pointing back at the door in question. “It doesn’t make any sense!”
I thought I caught a hint of a smile on the woman’s face. “You are correct, it does not. And yet, there it is.” Her chin inclined slightly. “Miss Chambers, do not mistake my words. You are not being invited into Crossroads Academy merely to continue your mundane education of arithmetic, physics, and the like. You are being invited to witness and understand the truth that very few ever even glimpse from the corner of their eyes. Those people who catch the hint of movement within the darkness, who hear a sound behind them yet turn to find nothing, who spend their lives searching for answers for all of those things which simply do not add up, will never find what they are looking for. They will never learn the truth about this world and the things that live around it. Should you accept this invitation, you will see what they never will: the truth.”
Before I could even think of responding to that, the woman continued. “Yet I wish to be very clear, Miss Chambers. This is no ordinary school, and the threats facing our students are far stronger than a poor report sent home. I will not understate the fact that the lives we lead are dangerous. Because knowing the truth will make you a target. And it will also make you incapable of not seeing the things that so many carrying on their ordinary lives pass by without ever noticing. You will see the evil that permeates this world, and you will not be able to pretend it does not exist. Because just as you will see and recognize it, it will see and recognize you.”
She stepped to the door, standing to one side of it. “It is, then, your decision. You may step through this doorway and accept the danger, the answers, and the life that all of that entails. Or you may step back onto your bus. If you do that, you will find yourself at your ordinary school, within your ordinary life, and we will never trouble you again. This, all of it, must be your decision. No one else can make it for you.”
My mouth worked a few times. “What… what about my dad?” I shook my head rapidly. “I can’t just leave him. I can’t abandon him. After my mother—I can’t do that to him. I won’t.”
That slight smile returned for a fraction of a second. “Do not fear, your father will be quite all right.” She gestured. “Should you join us, he will be made to remember and believe that you have been provided a full scholarship to a prestigious boarding school. You will be allowed to visit home during holidays and certain weekend events, and you may call or write to him whenever you wish. Though, he must be kept ignorant of your true education. As I said, knowing the truth will make you a target. And if he were to know the truth, he would become one as well. I doubt you want that.”
Shaking my head silently, I turned to look back at the bus. I could get on it, go back to my normal life, and everything would be fine. Nothing would change, and I wouldn’t be in danger.
And yet… was it ever really a question? The doorway was real. The magic that I’d been so desperate to believe in was right in front of me. All of my life, I’d been looking for the truth of everything. I’d been looking for answers, for excitement. I’d wanted so badly to find something amazing. Now that a literal doorway to the extraordinary was standing in front of me, I was just going to get back on that bus and go back to my old life?
Turning on my heel, I let out a long breath once more. “Miss-err…”
“Professor,” she provided with a faint smile.
“Professor Dare,” I continued. “I… I accept your invitation.”
Her head bowed slightly in acknowledgment of that, and the well-dressed woman lifted an arm to indicate the door. “Once you pass through,” she warned, “you cannot change your mind.”
I took a step that way and then stopped, biting my lip as I stood right on the edge of the doorway. Turning slightly, I looked toward the school bus once more. An ordinary life, one of no real danger, or one with real answers, real mysteries, and real excitement.
Making my final choice, I closed my eyes, turned… and stepped through the doorway.