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art by Shothot Designs

The Closer

Ari Goelman lives in Vancouver with his wife, their daughter and the rain. You can find more of his short fiction online at Strange Horizons and Fantasy Magazine, among other venues.
Later, Martin couldn't say what had awakened him. A sound maybe. Or maybe the smell--his bedroom was full of a strange smell. Rich and green. He and Laura had hiked in a rain forest when they had visited Vancouver a few summers before and it smelled like that. "A massage for your lungs," Laura had said.
Whatever it was, Martin rolled over. Still half asleep, he reached out to touch Laura's hip, before he remembered. Almost three months now. He closed his eyes, wishing he could go back to sleep. Since Laura had died, sleep had become Martin's favorite activity. He lay there for some time, hoping that he could fall asleep again, but he just became more and more aware of the forest smell. And a sound downstairs.
He opened his eyes and glanced at his alarm clock. 3:14 a.m. "Damn it," he muttered and sat up. Now he'd have to go downstairs and make sure there wasn't an intruder. Not that he was seriously worried. They'd moved to the Maryland suburbs specifically because they were so safe. But getting up and checking was a habit he and Laura had gotten into when they lived in D.C.
His eyes were still half-closed when he opened the bedroom door, padded to the top of the stairs. The house was a three bedroom split level--way too big for one person. It was supposed to be the house where he and Laura raised a family, and he just hadn't had the heart to sell it yet. "No sudden changes," all the grief counselors said. As though there was a recipe to getting over this. As though it was possible at all.
"Hello?" He called down the stairs. No answer, but he heard another sound, clearer, coming from the basement, he thought. And the smell was even stronger outside of the bedroom. Martin grabbed his portable phone before he walked down the stairs. He dialed 9-1 and left his thumb hovering over the 1 key, in case he needed to dial the final number quickly.
The living room was quiet and dark, the coffee table piled with condolence cards and some books for the graduate seminar he was leading next term. He was passing through the empty dining room when he heard it. Clear footsteps coming up the basement stairs. His heart jumped into his throat.
"Hello?!" He pressed '1' on the phone, brought it to his ear. Shit. The recorded message. "If you'd like to make a call please hang up." He hung up and quickly dialed 911 again.
Whoever it was wasn't even trying to tiptoe. The footsteps were firm on the hard wood floors. Not fast either--the person wasn't running up the stairs. Just walking, like he belonged there. Martin stepped into the kitchen and turned on the light. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the bright light.
"Hello, emergency response." A woman's voice on the phone.
"There's an intruder in my house," Martin said.
As he spoke, a man stepped into the kitchen. The intruder was a tall man, skinnier even than Martin. He was wearing a bright red raincoat and dark blue jeans.
"Are you in your house?"
"Yes," Martin said.
The intruder glanced at Martin, smiled coldly, and walked past him into the dining room.
"Is he there now?" the woman asked.
"He just walked past me," Martin turned to look at the man. He had switched on the light in Martin's dining room, and walked to the window which looked out on the porch. He held up a small lense to his eyes and nodded to himself. "Listen," Martin said to the woman, "Please send a squad car as soon as you can." He hung up. The man was wandering through his living room now.
"What the hell are you doing?" Martin said.
The intruder glanced back at Martin, still holding the little lens up to his eye, and took a deep sniff, like he was testing the air. "Just tidying up," he said. "There was something in your house tonight that shouldn't have been there.
"What's that?" By now Martin's fear had subsided to something closer to irritation. Whoever the guy was, he didn't seem dangerous.
"Ah well," the man said. Looking through the lens, he glanced around the living room, then out the front window. He gave a satisfied little nod and slipped the lens into his jacket pocket. "A gate you could call it. The door to your basement's crawl space went somewhere it shouldn't have. My…" he paused, searching for the word. He spoke with an accent that Martin couldn't quite identify--something between British and Central European. "My employer sent me to make sure this door was closed." He glanced out the front window, and Martin noticed that the horizon was beginning to turn a lighter shade of gray.
"Sometimes," the intruder said, "worlds overlap. Not planets, you understand, but worlds, alternate realities, whatever term you people are using these days. Usually happens for some tiresome purpose. Someone or something, somewhere, has the idea of restoring balance in one or the other world." He waved his arm around the living room.
"Let's say a bereaved academic hears a sound one night, smells something strange coming from his basement. He goes downstairs to investigate, steps into his crawlspace and finds himself in another world where he's a hero. He resists, but ultimately grows into the part, helps to defeat the evil wizard-emperor, marries the princess, whatever."
"Standard fantasy trope," Martin said. "Jungian archetypes. Boring at best."
"Oh, I couldn't agree more," the man said. "In a clear post-modern twist, let's even say the academic studies that kind of thing. And of course he was a fencing champion with his college team, so he takes to the sword naturally."
"Now." He brought his gaze to Martin's face. Martin automatically stepped back, brought his hands in front of him. The man's talk had lulled him, but his eyes were insane. Blind hatred, power, and a kind of triumph when he looked at Martin. Not threatening as much as possessive. Proud. "Let's say someone doesn't want this to happen. Someone likes this other world just the way it is. That someone could wait, could try to fight. Or they could hire me."
He tapped his chest and started walking to the front door. "I'm a kind of engineer. I close doors." He opened the front door, and pulled it gently closed after him.
A few moments later a police car pulled up to Martin's house. He told them it was too late, that the intruder had left.
"You probably scared him off," the police man, a big East Indian man said.
"Maybe," Martin said, thinking of the way the man had looked at him. There had been a moment there, when he had felt like he should have a sword. Which was weird, when he hadn't fenced in almost five years. Martin could imagine the way the sword would have felt--bladed like an epee, but heavier. It would have made the man in the red raincoat scared, which would have been nice.
After the police left, Martin went to the basement. Pulled the wooden door to the crawlspace out of the way. Cardboard boxes, Laura's treadmill lying on its side, his old fencing gear in the corner. For a second Martin thought he smelled the green odor again, but when he took a deep breath, he realized it was just mold and dust.
For a few moments he crouched in the crawlspace, waiting for something to happen. Then feeling foolish, he went back upstairs. It was too late to go back to sleep, so he started the water boiling for tea. Somewhere, someone was going to have to try again.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 8th, 2010


They seem to have fallen a bit out of fashion these days, but I always liked those fantasies where the hero comes from our world (or something close to it) and somehow slips through to an alternate world. I thought it would be fun to write a piece where the forward-thinking bad guy stops the story before it really gets started.

- Ari B Goelman

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