Here’s a story from the Southern Indiana Writers’ out-of-print anthology WRITE OF PASSAGE:
The Cottage Beyond
by Marian Allen
The gate appeared in the woods one day when Margareta was forty-nine, not long after her brother disappeared – or she suddenly noticed it then. That must have been it, for the criss-crossed bars, leather-hinged to swing between two waist-high posts, were weathered and dusty, with patches of green and milk-white lichen. The gate was of woven vines, as was the eight-foot arch above it, stiff and brown beneath the powdering of parasites, but twined through with the green brambles of wild roses. The posts were cedar, gouged by time, with only random strings of bark half-clinging to them.
It stood aside from the path, but in a part of the woods she had crossed countless times –spinster sister visiting back and forth with her bachelor brother – a part she and Johnny had quartered every spring, searching for wild mushrooms. Impossible that she could have missed it.
Yet here it was, looking as if it ought to have a fence on either side of it, a flagstone walk up to and through and beyond it, with a cottage, perhaps, framed by the arch’s bright new blooms and stiff old tendrils.
It should have been a wonder, a mystery, a delight. For a moment, it was. For a moment, Margareta sparkled with eagerness to retrace the path through the woods to Johnny’s house and bring him back to see it.
Then reality drove its knife into her heart again: Johnny wasn’t there.
She was worn out with worry, with caffeining through the law’s missing-persons waiting period, with filling out forms and answering questions.
They weren’t worried. Early forties, unmarried – seen it before – mid-life fling – turn up before you know it, maybe with a sports car, maybe with a bimbride…. Indulgent chuckles.
She knew Johnny better than that. She took the names of everyone she spoke to at the police station and put a heavy black X next to the most dismissive and irritatingly chortley ones. The concerned ones, the ones who showed respect for her loss and fear, got stars. When Johnny was found, she would send a sharply-worded letter to the Mayor’s office and the newspapers, and everyone would get what was coming to them. But that was still a fantasy.
She moved on, trudging from Johnny’s empty house to her own, hopeless after another day of no word, no sign.
Yet…. The gate – so unexpected, so inexplicable – had opened a chink in the despair that had silted around and over her.
She wrote of it in her journal, which she had begun to address to her missing brother. If she found him hospitalized, amnesiac, or otherwise unavoidably detained, she could fill in her part of the gap in their shared lives. If he blithely returned with a sports car or a…a bimbride, she would feed him the journal, page by page.
* * *
The next day was the worst of her life, the worst she ever hoped to see. The police called. A male – deceased – with no identification and no fingerprints or dental records on file had turned up in an alley in a nearby town. Would Margareta drive over to see if the remains were her brother’s? Before she left the city limits, she suspected she had made a mistake: the trembling in her hands overtook her whole body, and the spots in her vision grew until she was nearly blind. She got the car onto the shoulder and put it in park. A few minutes’ slow breathing cured everything but her churning stomach, and she went on. She had to pull over twice more before she reached the other town, and again before she found the Coroner’s Office, but she made it. She straightened her shoulders, squared her jaw, and faced the challenge.
It wasn’t Johnny. Not even relief could soften her scorn for people who didn’t seem to think her missing person’s report would have mentioned if Johnny had a scar on his chin, a pierced ear, and no upper front teeth.
* * *
There was no message on her answering machine when she got back: Greta? I’m home. Hope you found the note I slipped under your door – Hope you got the postcard I sent…. No. She checked her mailbox in case he had mailed a postcard. Checked under the door mat and the entry carpet, in case he had slipped a note under her door. No.
She remembered a movie the two of them had loved when they were younger, about three animals who had accidentally been abandoned when a note their master left fell off the mantle. Naturally, she had looked in all the places Johnny usually left her notes, but maybe he had left her a message and a breeze had blown it into some odd place.
One foot before the other, into the woods and along the path, the way familiar but – without Johnny at the other end of it – alien and frightening.
A warm draft filled with the scent of roses cascaded around her, like the exhalation of a flower giant’s breath. She looked to her left, and saw the gate with its rose-twined arch. It seemed nearer than she remembered. A fierce rush of hope urged her toward the misplaced construction. Nothing to either side of it. Nothing but well-known landscape beyond. She circled it with no hindrance or obstruction other than ordinary deadfall, underbrush, and roots. Nothing.
On to Johnny’s, then. That was where the real hope lay.
Nothing. Nothing. She turned the house upside down, inside out, and every way but loose. If there had been anything to find, she would have found it. She did come across a bread recipe they had been hunting for, and a coupon for wild bird seed, and their ex-stepmother’s address (which they had never intended to use but had written down because their father had wanted them to). But no note.
Back into the woods. Maybe there would be a message on her machine, this time, when she got home –
Margareta’s stomach growled, loud in the wood’s hush, reminding her that she had missed lunch. Food held little interest for her, these days. She looked up from the moss underfoot, mentally searching her cupboards for something appealing.
There was the gate, now at the edge of the path, some of its blooms drooping and swaying directly in her way. The perfume of roses was milder, blended with other aromas: vanilla? caramel? ginger? Like a heavenly potpourri, it intrigued her, delighted her.
Heart thudding, she stretched forth a hand and touched the latch. The gate swung open. She stepped through onto a circular paving stone of gleaming translucent blue where no stone had been before. The next stone was green, the next yellow, the next orange. They looked for all the world like huge lollipops, half-buried in leaf. At the other end of the stones stood a brown cottage with white trim. The door opened, and an old woman dressed all in black came onto the stoop.
“Come in, my dear,” she said. “Come in, Gretel, my pet. We’ve been waiting for you.”
Margareta rolled up her sleeves. Somehow, she knew herself to be equal to this situation. Johnny was coming home, and everybody was about to get what they deserved.
WRITING PROMPT: How would your main character cope with the disinterest of authority?