January 2021

When I opened the window this morning, three parrots were perched in a tree hanging over a deserted beach of pure white sand that stretched towards a dazzling horizon. I’d never seen anything so lovely. I leaned out, just enough to feel the caress of the breeze, the salty coolness of the surf that helped me brace myself for the day ahead. Not long after closing the window, I opened the front door with a deep breath, stepping into the rumble of traffic and the dappled shadow of a maple, in the damp heat of Québec summer.

The memory of that shore and gentle seaside wind stayed with me for the entire bus ride. It was gone now, I knew. What happened when I closed my window I could only guess; the wonders it let me glimpse vanished as soon as the latch clicked shut, and never came back. Now, watching my own world scroll past the bus, I wished I had left my window open a little longer.

When I reached the office, the two secretaries were talking about the latest missing person cases in town. I stared at them for longer than I should have. They waved, a little awkwardly.

My desk was in a corner of the office, out of sight, just under a mercifully powerful fan. I wiped my brow, and exchanged perfunctory greetings with my neighbours. I had never been good at making friends at the office. Neither was I cut out for the increasingly heavy heat waves these days, it seemed, and I had another fleeting thought of how lovely and cool that beach had seemed.

From across the office, Marie-Ange interrupted my train of thought with a wave and a conspiratorial gesture, placing a folded bit of paper on the corner of her desk. I answered with an uncertain smile.

The heat had not abated when I returned home. I still held Marie-Ange’s crumpled note in my fist. Saturday? it simply read. I had waited for her break to leave the office so I wouldn’t have to respond.

I wondered if this was what guilt felt like.

I sat, or rather dropped, in the armchair facing the window, to scratch Toutou’s ears as Tilou mewed in protest at being woken up. I stared at the maple billowing outside—when the window was closed it never showed anything but the maple outside the building, its branches stretched far and wide like a challenge to the concrete and cars and heat and fires and everything humans could throw at its kind. It was only when I opened it that the magic began.

I had never figured out how or why this treasure had fallen into my hands. I never heard reports of other portals opening elsewhere in the world, and the question of what I had done to deserve this one was never answered. One day I’d opened the window in my living room, hoping to get some fresh air while I read the news as usual with a cat peering over my shoulder—and instead of the customary drone of the street, I’d gazed over a cliff, snow-capped mountains dotting the horizon under an uncanny white sky. I’d banged the window shut in shock, only to open it again, seconds later. This time it was a desert, red sands stretching as far as I could see. The dance had begun then, opening and closing, never knowing what strangeness would lie beyond, only that it would be new, and odd, and marvellous—and that as soon as I closed the window, it would disappear forever.

At first I had sworn to myself that I would never let anyone else see it, but soon that had felt petty, and I’d begun to bring people in. The first few times, it had been simple, even made me a little proud for the first time in years. An act of sharing and compassion, inviting unhappy acquaintances to sit with me and gaze at the wonders beyond my window before walking back home with a lighter heart. They must have thought it was nothing more than a clever display; so had I, at first, and so did most people until the very last second. The truth was too extraordinary to entertain.

The first time someone asked to step through, I had only gaped. The possibility of it had never occurred to me. Her name was Angélique, I recall, and she was a widow, just about my age, with an estranged son. Two days after I’d agreed to her request (it hadn’t occurred to me that I might do otherwise), I’d watched her step over the window ledge and on the grassy slope of a mountain meadow. She’d secured her backpack and blown me a kiss, and only when the window pane clicked shut had I fully realised that the door to her world was now gone, and she would never be able to come out again.

After Angélique, there were others. I had a knack for light friendships, the seemingly shallow ones, acquaintances that would not disturb the quiet of my home. They almost always started in the same way: an exchange of glances on the bus or a café, a smile, a few minutes of conversation that usually led to a farewell, after a moment of companionship I’d enjoy but wouldn’t miss. And then sometimes the conversation lasted longer, until I sensed that sadness, that longing I’d come to know so well, until I realised that I held the key to the one thing these people wanted.

It had been easy at first, watching them step through and waving farewell, sometimes wiping a little tear, telling myself I’d brought someone more happiness than anyone else ever could have. I only had to pretend that these people were just like me, lonely and stranded, with no one to miss them. It was only when the first missing person reports came up in the newspaper that I had to face the facts. There are many ways to be lonely, and not all of them are irreparable.

“How did you pick such a silly auntie?” I asked Tilou out loud. She rubbed her head against my cheek.

I petted her and stared ahead until, as always happened after sitting alone with my thoughts for too long, I felt compelled to get up. After some hesitation, I opened the window.

Outside, a deep rainforest was alive with whistles and fluted sounds, the songs of birds and beasts I had no name for. I leaned out and closed my eyes as the mist from a waterfall cooled my face, spraying scents of moss and orchids. My smile slowly returned, and for a very long time I stood there, trying to catch the sight of monkeys or tree frogs behind every rustling leaf.

My cats, the only companions I had, would be just as happy with any other owner, I suddenly thought. I would miss them for a while, but it would be nothing to make sure they spent the rest of their lives in a home that would be just as good as mine. There was nothing holding me here. The notion was unexpectedly comforting. My life was my own. Whatever I chose to do with it, however foolhardy, I would not hurt anyone else. One day, I decided, I would go too. But today was not the right time; I was out of cat food, and anyway, I was already too weary of the summer heat to enjoy a rainforest for long.

As always, eventually, I closed the window, and I could hear once again the endless drone of the cars in the street, as clouds gathered overhead for the evening storm.

Wednesday morning sailed by in its customary haze of boredom, until a shadow loomed at the edge of my desk.

“Got time for a sandwich?”

I jumped, startled from yet another reverie. Marie-Ange was standing in front of me, her bag already slung over her shoulder. “Come on. The falafel ones. You know you love those.”

My eyes darted around my desk for an excuse not to go out. The blank file staring at me from the computer screen was enough of an answer. The prospect of going out was not that unappealing, come to think of it. I got up, groaned when my back protested, and stayed in place just long enough for Marie-Ange to drag me by the arm, waving to everybody that was left in the office.

The space outside the building was not a particularly scenic one: a large car park with a few maples and a couple of grassy banks on the side, where we sat in what shade we could find. Marie-Ange finished her salad in a couple of bites, then sprawled in the grass on her back, grinning.

“Look at how gorgeous that tree is,” she said.

I smiled. In truth, it wasn’t much of a tree, just a sapling they’d replanted as a token gesture after they’d razed the field to make way for cars. But Marie-Ange’s enthusiasm never deserted her. No one else would have convinced me, for the third time this week, to take a break and breathe the outside air when I could instead have got rid of my work and ridden back home half an hour earlier. It still surprised me, sometimes, that she not only talked me into it, but made me want to do it. Now that I looked at the sunlight splintering through the maple leaves, I, too, began to see some beauty in that gracile, tenacious little tree.

Marie-Ange propped herself up on her elbow.

“So. About Saturday.”

My heart sank at once.

“Saturday?”

“You promised you’d show me. Remember?”

I did, very well. It had happened at the start of summer, on a day when Marie-Ange had decided to drag me out of the city for ice cream after work. I’d grumbled and wondered why she would bother with me. But as we drove across the bridge to Orleans Island, she’d pointed to the waterfall on the other side of the channel, and started gushing in the way she sometimes did about the most mundane little things, and I’d felt something unexpected—a flicker of girlish delight, the simple pleasure of feeling the damp heat on my face and the smells of the blooming forest stretching in front of us. It was a long time since I’d felt that way outside of my living room. And then I’d felt something even stronger: gratitude, pure joy at being with someone who would so casually offer this sense of wonder to me.

I’d wanted to offer something else in return. I had told her about the one thing I’d ever had that mattered. And now I wished I hadn’t.

“All right,’ I muttered. ‘Just one look. Don’t tell anyone about it, okay?”

She agreed, still grinning. It was time to go back to work. On the way back in, she changed the subject, and my mood lightened. If she thought I was only going to show her an amusing trick, so much the better.

On the bus ride back home, someone was reading the headlines out loud, and the lady behind her burst into tears. Her friend comforted her, saying something about the uplifting notes all these people had left, that they couldn’t have been taken by force or ended up in a bad place. I swallowed and moved to the back of the bus.

Québec City officials overwhelmed by missing persons epidemic, I read on my phone later in the night. Three more in a month. A secret cult, underground experiments, theories were blooming all over the place. I shoved the device back in my pocket.

Missing persons epidemic, indeed, I thought to myself, as if facing a crowd of haunted relatives demanding justice. What if I told you that they wanted to go? That they made this decision by themselves, knowing fully well what it would do to you? Would you blameme?

I stopped as I realised that I was starting to mouth the words out loud. From their place on the sofa, Toutou and Tilou were gazing at me, green eyes and yellow eyes indolently blinking in a pool of sunlight. I had been living on my own for too long.

I leaned out of the window one last time before going to bed, to breathe in the smell of salty wind. Tilou had jumped off the sofa, and with a soft thud, landed herself on the sill; she didn’t complain when I gently picked her off and held her against my chest so she could watch safely. A marble balcony hung over a rocky coast with pines and aloes tumbling into the sea. Underneath, the waters shimmered, light and deep blue interlocking towards the horizon. A fish leapt up below me, sending a flash of silver over the water. When a seagull dove, missed, and flew back up with a cry of frustration, Tilou tensed, and at last wriggled free and strolled back to the sofa, all interest in other universes gone. I watched the bird until it disappeared over a clump of dark green trees, knowing that I could follow it if I wanted to. I thought once more of all those who had gone through, of the felicity they had seized for themselves, the mourning they had left behind.

Then I thought of Marie-Ange. It had been an imprudent idea to invite her. But it would turn out fine, I hoped. She would understand that this absolutely needed to remain a secret. And she would only take a look. She, at least, was perfectly happy with the world she lived in. Perhaps she could even come back, I mused, and we could stand in front of the window together, bet on what we would see that day, count to three, open it…

Maybe that was what friendship felt like. I smiled, closed the window, and went to bed next to a comfortably snoring cat.

On Friday, Marie-Ange dragged me out for lunch again. We chatted (or she did, while I smiled and nodded) all through the way to the fast food joint. When we sat down in the grass, however, her expression suddenly changed.

“I’m going to ask you something really outlandish. You can laugh at me if you want, but promise me you’ll tell me the truth. All right?”

There was nothing I could do but swallow my dismay and acquiesce.

“I saw those missing persons reports on the news,” she went on. “This is absurd. Québec City is as safe as it’s always been. These… other worlds you said your window opened to. People haven’t actually gone in there, have they?”

“Please don’t tell anyone,” I blurted out.

She opened her mouth. Covered it with her hand. For a few moments, she seemed halfway between laughter and tears, long enough for me to hope that it would be the former. I could handle being dismissed as a cat lady with one too many quirks. But if she started to accuse, threatened to denounce me…

“I need to see it,” she said.

I breathed deeply.

“Yes. Of course. Just see it. Swear to me you won’t tell anyone?”

“Not a chance. Don’t worry.”

“Thank you.’ I realised that I held my hands balled tight against my stomach. I unclenched them and spread them on my knees. ‘These people wanted to go, you know. It’s not a decision they rushed into. I wouldn’t have let them if they hadn’t wanted it so badly.”

“I know.”

“I suppose it can’t look good when you read the papers. But it won’t happen again. I’ve been thinking about it lately. I’m going to quit. The only ones who knew about my portal are gone, and I’ll keep it to myself now. And you, of course. Nobody’s going to disappear again.”

Marie-Ange made a strange face and touched my arm.

“I want to go,” she said.

That evening, for the first time, I opened my living-room window with no anticipatory thrill, only through the force of habit.

Through the entire day, Marie-Ange’s words had bounced around in my head, as if trapped in a vertiginous echo chamber—I want to go—along with my next, foolish question—Why? —as if asking her to explain herself would make her realise that there was no good reason for such a wish after all. Her explanations, however, had left me no space to argue.

The world was too small a place, more so with every passing day. I’d admired her ability to light up at every little joy life could throw her way, so much that I hadn’t noticed how tired she was that small blessings were all our world had to offer her.

Or perhaps I simply was incapable of imagining how she felt. I could not recall the last time I had felt genuine delight outside of my living-room. How the person who had communicated that wonder to me could be unsatisfied with the world she lived in was unfathomable.

My thoughts ebbed as the landscape before me came into focus. Pillars of crystal in a translucent sea reflected the light of the setting sun into my living room. I stood there for long minutes, unable to take my eyes off the twin moons overhead.

How could the universe have decided that I would be the best person to entrust this portal to, of all the places it could have appeared? There was no answer but the gentle song of the water, lapping, flowing towards a horizon that seemed to curve more sharply than the one at the end of an earthly sea. I rested my hand on the sill. If I leaned out, only a little, perhaps I could touch the closest pillar. What would greet me out there—the thin air and cold of a mountain pass, or inviting warmth like the tropics at the dawn of time? I stood on tiptoe, reached forward. The breeze of another world stroked my fingers, like a hand, urging me forward with infinite gentleness. If I left now, there would be no more guilt, no more worry. One step out was all it would take…

I pulled my arm, closed the window, my heart beating faster than it should have. Tomorrow, I would call Marie-Ange and tell her I couldn’t let her through. She would understand, I was certain of it. And then I’d never open that window again.

I came home late the next day, exhausted by my Saturday chores and the constant drone of the city, but with renewed resolve to make the phone call I needed to end this.

The day had slipped by so frantically I’d forgotten to check the time.

As soon as I took out my phone, the bell rang. When I opened, a flustered Marie-Ange dropped her huge backpack on my feet. After a second of shock, I swore at myself in silence. As usual, I had let time carry me along, not taking action until the last moment.

I made her sit down and have a glass of water.

“I drank on my way. Can I go now?” she said. Then with a nervous giggle, “If I don’t I’m going to have second thoughts!”

I pushed the glass in front of her.

“We’re not doing this, Marie-Ange,” I blurted out.

She opened her eyes wide. My voice shook, but for once I could find the words, and didn’t let her speak.

“Maybe it sounds like this is what you need, but it’s wrong. I can’t keep this up. You’ll end up who knows where, in a parallel universe where you could die tomorrow, and no one would ever know. Ever. My window has never opened twice on the same place. Your family will be shattered, and if I meet them face to face, I won’t even be able to tell them you’re all right. Because I won’t know that. I’m sorry. And your family won’t be the only ones. I…”

The cascading words dried up then. How I felt about her departure was my own concern. I couldn’t expect her to alter her decision on my account, shouldn’t even think of asking. I stood, silent, expecting her to make a fuss. But she nodded as if she understood.

“No matter what I tell them, people will be upset,” she said. “They’ll have to understand. This is what I need.”

“Why?”

But I realised that I knew already. Loneliness was not the only force that drove people to seek what lay beyond my window. Her yearning for a new world matched my own, almost exactly. She only had one thing I lacked: enough courage to plunge into the unknown, while I remained trapped here, between marvellous worlds I would never know and one I still had to figure out.

Out of kindness, perhaps, Marie-Ange only smiled, and if she had guessed what I was thinking, she kept it quiet.

“Can I ask you something?” she said as if I hadn’t spoken.

I leaned back. Not everyone asked that question, but I’d got it often enough, with varying degrees of awe, condescension or repulsion. Marie-Ange merely sounded curious.

“Why do this so far? Why help so many people?”

Help truly isn’t the word you want,” I replied.

Thoughts of the weeping lady on the bus—someone’s mother? Or friend? I’d never know—came unbidden. It had felt like the right thing to do, at the time. Yet all I could witness now was people hurting; I would never know how the people I had ‘helped’ had fared, nor even if they were still alive.

“It seemed wrong to have a magic portal in your home and not use it for something…” I wanted to say ‘good’, but the word sank in my throat. “…special,” I said.

But that was not all it had been. All these times I had let someone through, a little piece of me had gone with them, as well. At times, when I gazed aimlessly out of the office window, the cityscape blurred into their faces, disbelieving, then ecstatic as soon as they stepped into another world. If I was so pleased to have given them a new life, it was also, perhaps, because I’d never been brave enough to seize that opportunity for myself, and had made do with vicarious glimpses instead.

And after each glimpse, I would drop into the deep crease at the centre of my sofa and scratch my cats behind the ears as I’d done every day for the last couple of decades. I shook my head. Suddenly I was finding it hard to breathe.

“It was the only thing I had to offer. The one thing that made me want to get out of bed, on some days. Sometimes I think that might be why it was given to me. Without it, I might as well stop pretending I even exist.”

I laughed, a silly, croaking sound. How human of me, to balk at facing my own selfishness, and instead to be looking for explanations, a message to me from the universe, while standing right next to the proof that the universe was even bigger and more incomprehensible than anyone suspected. I expected Marie-Ange to stare at me with that uncomfortable pity people sometimes exhibited when they realised how long I had been living on my own. Instead she smiled and squeezed my arm.

“Maybe we don’t know why you have it, but it’s yours all the same,” she said. “It’s your decision.” She bit her lips. “Could you open the window now? Just let me take a look. I promise that’s all I want.”

I almost refused her. I already knew how this would end. But the yearning in her voice was so strong that I gave in. Just the view—I couldn’t deny her that.

“One look and I’ll close it,” I said, pulling the latch.

A meadow teeming with butterflies came in full view. Reds, golds, and blues flashed in swaying grass under a gentle breeze, a ballet of breathtaking beauty. Far ahead, a few hills swelled, soft purple against the cloudless sky. I’d seen many wonders through this window. A tear still warmed up my eye, with the familiar thought… why shouldn’t I step through this time, and leave this world at last?

I glanced at Marie-Ange. Her hand was still on her backpack, bursting, I knew, with everything one would need to fight the direst odds in the wilderness. She was more than ready, perfectly confident. Yet right now she only stood still, staring with the longing of a starved woman.

“Let me go,” she pleaded. “Then you can quit. Please.”

“What if there’s no food out there? No clean water, no…”

“And what is there for me here? Work overtime, buy a bigger car, and wait until global warming gets me while I pretend to be happy? I’ll take my chances. Please.”

I closed my eyes. I couldn’t hurt another family. I couldn’t read Marie-Ange’s name in the news and pretend to know nothing. I couldn’t risk letting her throw her life away in a universe she had only ever watched from afar, through the window in her friend’s living room.

I didn’t want her to go. But this was not—had never been—my decision to make.

“I can’t stop you, can I?” I muttered. I turned away, leaving the window open.

Marie-Ange squealed and kissed me on the cheek.

“I’ll never forget what you did for me,” she said.

She squeezed my hands one last time. For a moment I entertained the wild, terrifying hope that she would ask me to go with her. But she didn’t, and once a brief pang of mingled relief and disappointment had erupted and withered in me, I knew better than to ask. I had been her friend, for a while, but I’d needed her more than she’d ever needed me. I was grateful that I hadn’t been invisible to her, but couldn’t delude myself about the place I truly held in her life, even more so now that she was claiming her life back, seizing her chance to chase dreams of freedom that were hers and hers only. This was her world now, not mine. She was strong, and ready, and I felt with absolute certainty that she would survive, and be happier than she could ever have been in this universe. All I could do for her was to let her go.

And then she stepped outside. I watched her as she took more and more confident steps in the tall grass, waved one last time, and I closed the window.

Later, there would be another missing person report. A family would be in shock, and it would be my fault, again. I had no idea what I would say to my colleagues in a few days, when word of Marie-Ange’s disappearance reached us. It had to be the last time. I’d make a promise and stick to it.

And then, after a while, my eyes would meet the eyes of a stranger on the bus, catch on a hollowness mirroring the one within me—though I buried it as deeply as I could—and I would start thinking again of Marie-Ange dancing with butterflies. And Damien treading in the snow near a mighty river. And Christine swimming with catfish in the ruins of an ancient city. Then I would look outside at the droning cars and thick air and concrete roads stretching as far as I could see, and remember what they had fled from, and it would dawn on me again that just because I happened to live next to a magic portal did not make me arbiter of what anyone else chose to do with their life. And I would open my window again.

Someday, I would be unable to take my eyes off the wonders there, and a middle-aged cat lady living an eventless life near the Saint-Lawrence River would be reported missing, too.

But not today. I made tea and sat down to read the news on my phone, with a cat in my lap and my back to the window, listening for the wind from other worlds that whispered through the cracks in our own.

Your thoughts?