Loud coughing filled the train car. Kat sighed, leaning her head against the advertisement for Samson’s Sandwiches. “New double-bacon combo available for only $3.99!” She looked up at the resting bitch face of the woman standing above her, who was scrolling through her phone. Kat unzipped her backpack and took out a bag of chips. She opened them loudly, shrinking under glares from phone-woman and a guy who forgot to plug his headphones into his phone.
Really, how could you miss that? And Beats weren’t particularly quiet either. Kat swallowed a Pringle and checked the red letters above her head. Sixteen more stops until Atlantic Av.
That was the sucky thing about going to a school for Gifted and Talented Young Scholars. You know, other than the mounds of homework and that one persistent nerd who always asked if he could have harder tests. (It wasn’t nurturing the brain or whatever other bullshit he had in his head.) GTS, the high school that Katherine Webb, “genius” sophomore, attended was approximately twenty-five subway stops from the obscure area of Queens, where she lived.
The good part about that? Extra homework time, you know, for all the crap that she was too lazy to finish the night before. The bad part? She had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. so she could leave at 6:15. I mean, let’s get real here. She didn’t really leave at 6:15. More like 6:30. That’s why her attendance record was going down the drain. But still.
Also, the whole subway thing in general was a bit tiring after you’d done it five days a week for a year. I mean sure, to tourists, riding on the Subway (to Times Square wearing an “I <3 NYC” shirt) was cool and exotic, but to Kat, it was annoying as hell.
And you shouldn’t get her started on the people. God. From the homeless people who yelled at you when you didn’t give money, to the woman who screamed at her kids on the train, to the man who took up four seats, it was too much to handle some days. Just the other day, a boy her own age had yelled to her, “Hey, sweetheart, drop the frown. What’s wrong?” Kat had thought that kind of behavior was reserved for creepy, old men, but now, future pedophiles were starting early. Kat had grimace-smiled and walked away, too afraid of the guy a full foot shorter than her to do anything.
The phone lady had dropped her phone into Kat’s lap. Kat handed it to her with a grimace—it was wet with her sweat—and the lady snatched it up from her with a glare. Maybe it wasn’t just a resting bitch face.
Kat shifted her little purse to sit on her lap and shut her eyes. With probably an hour or so left of her subway ride, she might as well get a few minutes of rest.
As soon as she shut her eyes, however, she was awoken by a startling jolt of the train. Her eyes flew open, hands protectively flying in front of her bag of chips. But, once she saw what was in front of her, she released her chips, and the bag fell to the floor; her mouth hung open.
Kat was staring at a blue wall, decorated with awkward family portraits and posters of random bands and TV shows. A Salvador Dali-style clock hung above a bulletin board with a calendar on it. A black beanbag sagged lazily against the wall; a light-oak wardrobe hung slightly open.
Kat’s stomach lurched as she stood up and turned around. The second wall held a long window with draping curtains against it, a closet door, and a cage which used to hold a parrot, but it was empty now. A dangerously full clothes hamper hung from the ceiling.
Kat slowly rotated around the room. In the wall—right next to a bookcase and side table—was a bed.
The same bed that she slept in every night.
Kat took a step backward and wondered how in holy hell had she ended up in her bedroom.
She looked down at herself. She was fully clothed, and she was sure she had put on her monkey PJs last night. She didn’t have much of a history of sleepwalking, and anyway, who got up in the middle of the night, let their chickadee out of its cage, put their clothes on, and woke up?
And seriously, who dreamed about subways? I mean, it was one thing to dream about killer robots, (her recurring nightmare when she was six) but the subway? Only the most mundane person in the world would have that dream. And she wasn’t mundane. At least, that’s what she liked to think.
(She briefly ran over the other options in her hand. Time travel, teleportation. Both not probable.)
Then, of course, there was the option that this was a dream. Again, pretty mundane. And this seemed pretty real to her. She gave herself a pinch, just to be sure, but all that happened was a throbbing in her forearm and a bruise in the same place. She blinked a few times, but nothing changed. Only the empty birdcage was in front of her, gently lit by the early morning light.
Or was it early morning? The light streaming through the curtains was unnatural, uncanny, too bright. Kind of like the lightbulbs that gave her migranes at school. The morning light was soft, gentle, and incredibly annoying when she was trying to get an extra two minutes of sleep.
She looked over at the clock on her bedside table. It was off. She kneeled down to put the plug into the wall, but the plug was still there. She fiddled with it for a moment. Nothing happened. Dad was always buying faulty plugs.
Kat crossed the room to the window and pulled aside the curtains.
The light outside wasn’t coming from the sun. It was bright, but not so much that it hurt her eyes. Instead of the warm yellowish color, it was milky white. She didn’t know what the light was, but it definitely wasn’t the boring brick wall of Mr. Morrison’s apartment building that she looked out to each morning. This definitely wasn’t the view from her window.
A door quietly closed behind her.
“Have you figured it out yet?” a voice from behind her said smugly.
Kat spun around and sputtered.
“What—where—who the hell are you?”
A girl stood in front of her, short and black-haired, leaning against the wall as if she owned the place, wearing a self-satisfied smirk along with her jeans and a T-shirt. She casually surveyed her nails, picking the nail polish off one. She folded her arms.
“That doesn’t matter,” the girl sighed. “Anyway, have you figured it out? You were being extremely slow. I can’t just wait around for you, you know.”
“Figured what out?”
Surprisingly, Kat was doing a good job at stopping her hands from shaking. The girl rolled her eyes.
“The door,” she said. “You’re supposed to go through the door. It’s been, what, ten minutes, and you haven’t taken a step toward it. What kind of idiot opens the curtains before the door? I gotta say, I’m disappointed.”
“Disappointed?” Kat asked, then shook her head. “What are you doing in my room?”
“Well, at least you have your priorities straight,” the girl said sarcastically, in the same voice Kat used when she argued with people, which was pretty rare—when you looked past her startling hair, her height, and her death glares, she was pretty awkward.
Except, apparently, when strangers broke into her room. Then she was in tip-top shape.
“What am I doing in your room? I’ll tell you what I’m doing in your room. I’m here to make you go through the door. You were being slow. I don’t have forever. Happy?”
“N-no,” Kat said, fiercely trying to keep her voice steady.
She pressed her hands together behind her back. Her entire body was shivering a little bit, but it wasn’t cold in the room, which was a rarity—her parents both liked the house at below-sixty temperatures. It was the only thing the two actually had in common.
“Tell me what’s going on. What’s behind that door?”
The girl smiled mysteriously.
“Well, I suppose you’ll have to figure that out, won’t you?”
She turned on her heel and opened the door, showing Kat a glimpse of the same brightness outside her window.
Squinting her eyes, Kat yelled, “Wait!”
The mysterious black-haired girl turned around.
“I told you, I don’t have forever-”
“This isn’t my room, is it?” Kat asked.
The girl rolled her eyes again.
“Genius,” she said, and then she was gone, disappearing into the white light that swallowed up her body.
The door clicked shut behind her.
Kat had said that she wasn’t in her room to the mysterious intruder, and she was certain she wasn’t. Aside from what was outside her window not being what was outside her window, her chickadee, Oscar was gone, and her clock wasn’t working. Besides, the whole room was quiet—too quiet—not full of the usual yells from her mom for her to get up, clean her room, do the dishes, or the insistent meows of her cat Lulu to get into her room. Obviously Kat never let Lulu in because she would eat Oscar, but it was mostly just because Lulu was annoying.
Whatever this place was, it wasn’t her room, and it definitely wasn’t her house.
Kat closed her eyes for a second, 99% convinced that this was just a dream, and she would wake up any second on the subway, holding her bag of chips. But, all that greeted her was the same room, lit by the same eerie, white light crawling through the curtains. Kat stared at the door, then back at the window. Kat wasn’t stupid. There was only one way out of there, and it wasn’t the window.
Kat grabbed the door handle. She had lost count of all the times she had yelled at characters in horror movies.
Don’t answer the phone! Don’t go into the basement! Don’t yell “who’s there?” Don’t split up! Don’t trust the mysterious black-haired girl who broke into your not-room and is telling you to go through a door!
But, Kat’s heart was pounding in her chest and something made her walk toward the door. It had gray marks on it from when her parents used to measure her height. When she was three feet tall, four feet, even five feet. Until they stopped caring.
Kat put her hand on the doorknob that was still warm from the girl’s hand. The door clicked as it opened, and Kat shut her eyes against the light that was so bright that she could see it behind her eyelids, but it was barely warm.
With her eyes almost shut, she reached out a hand into the light. Not to go through the door, just to test the waters. It was, indeed, warm—kind of like a welcoming hotel pool, but thicker, more foggy than just air. Kat could feel wisps of fog curling around her hand, and then farther up her arm. She watched a thin tendril crawl up her upper arm with fascination, not even thinking to panic, until it reached her neck. She jerked away, startled, but the fog was stronger than it looked. Kat grabbed the doorframe as the fog tendrils that had crept up her arm reached across her torso, and other wisps reached out from the doorframe to latch onto her feet and slither up her legs.
Kat pulled her free arm away from the fog to grab onto her bedpost, but the rest of her body was being dragged forward. It had enveloped her chest, arms, and legs, and was inching up her neck. If she had wanted to go through the door before, she definitely didn’t now. In her chest, along with constricting panic, she felt- no, she knew, that what was pulling her away from her not-room was evil, something dark that made her heart skip a beat; Kat finally understood when characters in horror stories said they were paralyzed from fear.
Her bed slid a few inches with the weight of her body being pulled away from it. Her hands, sweaty with panic, scrabbled at the post, trying desperately to hold on and drag her body out of the fog, but she had, after all, avoided gym class for six years. Her feeble arm muscles gave way and her fingernails scrabbled at the bed, leaving a long scratch, before fog engulfed her arm.
Her legs and torso had far passed the edge of the doorframe, her body wriggled aimlessly, devoured by the mist. It was uncomfortably squeezing her legs, but that was the least of Kat’s worries as she struggled to take a breath, her throat constricting with fear of the fog slowly covering her face.
Kat’s hand, now grasping at the doorframe, was nothing but the tips of fingers emerging out of a white cloud. Her vision was getting hazy, the outline of her bedroom getting fainter and fainter.
She felt as if there should have been some dramatic, suspenseful background music to play behind her as she felt her fingers get sweaty and her hold loosen from the doorframe. Striking chords echoed from the empty CD player. A chorus of violins grew louder and louder. She thought that, at least, the white mist should have made a sound, preferably a loud hissing or rumbling. But, Kat’s not-room was filled with only her ragged breath.
She knew that she could only hold on for so long—at best, another minute. There was no chance of pulling herself out of the white cloud now, and even if she did, what would she do, bust through the ceiling? (Her not-room was unfortunately devoid of chainsaws and jackhammers.) The door was the only way out, even if the barely warm mist filled her with an undefinable chill.
So, Kat took one last look at her not-room and let go.
Instantly, a gust of white wind pulled her backwards and away from the door that she could barely see. It was more than free falling—it seemed a strong force was pulling her fiercely in one direction, faster and faster and faster and, whoa, she was getting carsick. Or mist-sick. Whatever.
Kat vaguely felt herself falling faster and faster. Her stomach was in her throat—not because she was nervous, just because she felt incredibly sick. (I mean, she was nervous too. Let’s get real.) She felt her chest constricting, not only from panic, but also from an invisible force that was making her head pound and throat squeeze.
And suddenly, it went from discomfort and dizziness, to each bone in her body being torn apart, smashed; her chest was being ripped open by a flock of mist-white birds with vapor claws. More pain than she had felt her entire life, each scrape and fall and twisted ankle, combined into something much worse.
And then it was over, and Kat was blisteringly aware of grass pressing through her shirt and sun shining behind her closed eyelids.