5 October 2015
Til Death Do We Part
Ashley knocked on the door three times. Andrew stood just behind her left shoulder.
She knocked again, and notched her fingers into the vertical slat near the chemistry classroom door’s edge. It slid smoothly to the right, into a pocket in the wall.
Ashley looked back and up to Andrew, he looked down at her and gave a quick nod. She stepped through the door, onto the tile floor. She looked back once more and the door slid quickly and silently shut behind her, more quickly than she could gasp.
“Andrew?” she whispered to the door. “Andrew?!” a breath of panic. On the other side of the door, Andrew’s palm firm, his forehead rested against the cold steel. He groaned and shook his head.
Tears welled in Ashley’s blue eyes and her yellow hair swayed as she looked wildly around her. The chemistry classroom had dissolved into a small tiled vestibule with three doors ahead of her, and the locked sliding door behind her. The grey brick walls were plain and reached the fiberglass hung ceiling tiles some fifteen feet above the beige tiled floor.
In all her ten years, Ashley had never been in this kind of pickle. She and Andrew had seen their share of adventures, but always together. Never, even aboard Captain Strangelove’s pirate ship, had they been separated.
She steadied her breath and closed her eyes. She counted to ten forwards, then backwards, then opened her eyes. The only way out was one of the three doors ahead of her.
She did the obvious thing. She started on the left, and knocked three times.
She moved to the middle door, and knocked three times.
She slid to the right end door. She knocked three times.
No answer, but Ashley did hear a rustle.
She knocked again. More rustling. She waited another few seconds.
She knocked again softly. “Hello?”
The door knob turned slowly. It opened a crack. Bright yellow sunlight streamed through the crack into the dingy grey of the vestibule.
“Hello?” Ashley whimpered. “Hello? Can you help me please? I seem to be trapped. I need to go back to my friend.”
The door swung open halfway, a low dark shadow appeared near the bottom edge.
“What is it you seek, child?” a low hoarse whisper asked.
“I need to go back the way I came,” Ashley said softly. “I need to go back to my friend and my school.”
“Child, the only way back, is forward. Come in, please,” the low voice beckoned.
Ashley crept toward the door, then took one step, and a second step over the threshold. She stepped into bright, warm, muggy sunshine.
Birdsong, the buzzing of insects, green, lush grass tickled her ankles above her patent leather flats. A low breeze rustled her skirt at her knees and her blonde hair at her shoulders. She closed her eyes and felt the warm sun on her cheeks, a stark, welcome contrast to the harsh Boston winter she stepped away from.
“Welcome, child, to my home,” the low hoarse whisper came again. Ashley opened her eyes and came face to face with a black panther. She inhaled sharply with a squeal.
“Do not be afraid, child,” he purred, “I bring you no harm. I am here to help you find your way . Come, let me show you.” The panther stalked along the tall grass, and Ashley after him, on a thin trail alongside a deep, thick forest.
They walked for many minutes, hours it seemed, before Ashley faltered, stumbled on a rock. The panther’s deep black head swung round, his mild subtle spots glowed in the lateday sun.
“Are you quite alright, love?” he asked.
“Yes, sorry, I’m clumsy,” she answered faintly. The panther gazed at her pale face and turned into the wood. Ashley stumbled behind. A few more steps, and the panther stopped.
Ashley scooted down a tree trunk to the ground. A gourd lowered down in front of her face, dangling from one long claw. The panther nudged it towards the girl with his nose, and she reached up and unhooked it from the claw.
The gourd was large, bulbous, and green, and full of fresh clean cold spring water. Ashley gulped it down entirely in just a few slurps, leaned back against the tree trunk in relief. Soon, another gourd appeared before her, and she unhooked it gratefully, drank it slowly, with enjoyment. Satiated, she opened her eyes and looked about.
“Why do you not eat me?” she asked the panther.
“Why do you not ask me my name?” the panther asked back. Her eyes grew large.
“Oh! I am so sorry! Where are my manners? Please, may I ask your name?” Ashley asked.
“My name is Gambit,” replied the panther, with a dignified nod. “And this is my wife, Zoë.” The owner of the claw that brought that wonderful water made herself visible by sinking down, upside down, eye-to-eye with Ashley.
“Oh! Hi! Zoë?” Ashley asked, holding out a hand to shake. The claw and the hand attached to it, with two more, gently enclosed Ashley’s hand.
“Hello, my dear, welcome to the jungle,” Zoë answered. Her voice was warm honey and jasmine. “Are you hungry, love?”
Another basket of berries and nuts appeared before her. She ate them until she was full.
“Thank you so much!” she glowed. “These were so good. Perfect!” Ashley leaned back against the tree, then leaned down into the soft moss, and fell asleep.
The next day, Andrew spent two hours explaining to his teacher, the vice principal, the principal, his parents, and Ashley’s parents where Ashley was. They didn’t believe him, and he was assigned to after school detention until he could come up with the truth.
After dismissal from detention, after his homework was complete, after his parents had opened their laptops as they sat on the couch to return to their work for the evening, Andrew snuck out the back door. The moon was full and lit his way as he jogged back onto the school grounds.
He entered the school the same way he and Ashley had entered, through the old bunker door to the basement. The school basement had been a nuclear bunker in the 1960s and the old entrance had remained, though hidden, behind a dumpster in the back of the school.
He crept down the hallway and around the corner to the chemistry wing. He stood in front of Chemistry 100 and knocked three times, just as Ashley had. Nothing happened. He knocked again, and the door slid open. He entered.
As soon as he crossed the threshold, the door slid shut behind him. His head swiveled back at the door’s swoosh, and when he faced forward, the chemistry classroom had vanished. The small vestibule with three doors remained.
Andrew stood and thought. He pulled on a small dreadlock and chewed his lip. Which door had Ashley entered? He considered Ashley’s orderly mind, and knocked on the leftmost door.
He knocked on the middle door.
He knocked on the right-end door. A rustle, and it opened a crack, an eye through the crack, and it swung wide open.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” purred the panther. “Please follow me.” Gambit turned and trotted down the thin path, Andrew at his heels in an easy jog.
Occasionally, Gambit paused to speak to Andrew, and Andrew to speak to Gambit. Then they pressed forward.
They arrived in a clearing to see Ashley and Zoë stripping branches of leaves, deep in conversation. Gambit cleared his throat.
“My dear, I’ve returned with our guest and compatriot. This is Andrew,” Gambit nodded to the boy and Ashley turned and jumped up. She ran to Andrew and hugged him hard, and he returned her embrace.
“Ash, oh my God, I been so worried, everyone’s worried! You ok?” He pulled back from their hug and looked her up and down.
“Yeah, I’m ok, really! Zoë’s taught me so many things already! Look!” She pulled Andrew by the hand to their piles of nuts, berries, and leaves. She explained in low tones all she’d learned from Zoë.
Ashley and Andrew talked head to head for quite some time. When they remembered where they were, they turned to see Gambit the panther curled around Zoë the three-toed sloth. Zoë groomed Gambit as he purred deeply.
“Gambit, Zoë?” Ashley ventured. They looked up. “We need to return to our own place in the world. But we don’t want to leave. I’ve learned more here in the last day than I have in two years’ worth of school. What can we do?”
Ashley and Andrew gripped each other’s hands, baited breath, waiting for the answer.
Zoë smiled and crept forward, crept up and up and up, climbed up Andrew’s leg to sit on his hip, one forelimb around Andrew’s shoulder, the other reached for Ashley’s hand. Ashley met her grasp.
“Children, you are welcome to return here any time you wish. You know the way now. You only need knock on the door.” Gambit nodded, slowly got to his feet, stretched that loooooong cat stretch and walked over to the knot.
“The jungle is full of companionship, and life, and danger, and love,” he purred. Much of what we can teach you is transferable to your lives,” Gambit spoke in low, calm tones. “You are welcome whenever you need a break, a hand, an ear, a shoulder. We each take a child to guard.
Zoë continued, “Ashley, Gambit and I have chosen you and Andrew to guide and advise, out of Providence, fate, destiny, similarity. You and Andrew are the same species, so you have that going for you. But your culture sees you as separate entities, different breeds, if you will. We can teach you how to surpass your culture and its expectations, if you wish.”
Andrew spoke first. “Yes! Please!” Ashley nodded with vigor, her blonde fringe bounced in the sunlight.
Gambit led the pair back through the jungle, down another long, thin path. The trees thinned out, the light dimmed to dusk, the grass thinned. They came to a door. Gambit turned to the pair.
“This is where I leave you. Two days into the past. Like it never even happened,” he winked. Ashley and Andrew looked at each other, then at Gambit.
“The left-most door,” they said in unison.
Gambit smiled his panther smile, chuckled. “We are always here,” he purred.
Ashley knelt, eye-level with the beautiful, shiny panther. “Thank you, and please thank Zoë again for me,” she whispered into his thick warm neck. “I love you.”
Gambit purred, “We love you too, child. Be safe. Call us whenever you need, we’re always here.”
It was Andrew’s turn. “Gambit,” he started, then hesitated. Gambit nodded.
“I know, sometimes the words are hard to find,” Gambit said gently. “Take your time.”
“Gambit, thank you. I didn’t know what I could do, what might be possible, before.” He too, knelt in front of the great cat. Their conversations on the path through the forest resonated in his head. Gambit heard the echoes and nuzzled the brown dreadlocked boy.
“You will need patience, and love, and a sounding board. Do not hesitate to knock, son,” Gambit murmured to Andrew.
Andrew rose, took Ashley’s hand, and they opened the door, a blown kiss and a wave to Gambit on the way out, to the day before they found the magical science classroom that taught more chemistry than most people had ever known.