In the middle of the clearing, where the wood meets the dying grass, there is a gate. A white, picket fence gate that prides its stature amongst the trees. I do not know what lies in the wood that rests behind it, but I have never worked up the courage to peek, as if whatever lay behind it was not meant for my prying eyes. Each day I would wake up and feel the gate calling to me, as if within me it imprinted a curiosity whose thirst was so strong that it could only be satisfied by walking a few steps closer each day, attempting to decipher what I couldn’t see behind it. One day, however, curiosity seemed too enticing to withhold.
That morning started the way it always had, with me waking up, imagining the gate at the edge of the clearing, ignoring it to get dressed and light the logs for the fireplace, and relaxing before opening the door to the bitter cold. Once the door had opened and the clearing presented itself to me, vacant and frozen in the same skin it had always been in, I directed my gaze to the start of the wood, where the prideful and gleaming gate was calling to me again, reminding me, as always, of the curiosity that haunted my every moment. The gate seemed closer than ever, yet I was not close enough to open it. But maybe if I was just a little closer to it, I thought.
I walked slowly through the clearing, keeping my eyes focused on the gate as I pressed forward. I wondered what was beyond it, what it would lead me to. Maybe nothing lay beyond the imposing object. Maybe all there will ever be is a house, a clearing, and a line of wood.
Fifty steps later and I had reached the berating gate. I had been in front of it only once before; the first time I ever rested innocent eyes upon it, which was also the first memory I could actively recall, but even then I couldn’t force my way through it, as if my instincts scolded the gate, which in turn seemed to mock me for my cowardice. To this day, it still stood pearly white, without a hint of wear from the environment that surrounded it. It remained pure and untouched by human hands, the weather, and whatever lay beyond it. My curiosity reached for the forbidden fruit… and pulled it from its latch.
The gate opened to unveil a pathway of the same size and shape as the object that guarded it, which carved itself into the wood and presented itself as one long corridor made entirely out of devilishly tangling branches and beautifully rooted trunks. The pathway seemed both sinister and entrancing all at once and I had gone too far to turn around.
“One…two…three...,” a voice said, counting instead of stating. Seemingly coming from a light at the end of the path.
“Four…five…six…,” I walked closer to the voice.
“Seven…eight…,” I was close enough to see shapes coming from a white light that looked like it was literally mounted to the wood.
“Nine…ten…ready or not, here I come!”
The light in front of me contorted and a moving picture presented itself to me. Kids, two of them, were hiding behind trees, waiting for their father, who had just removed his hands from his eyes to come find them. I was entranced and confused by the images before me, wondering how and what I could be seeing. There was the wood and a house like I have, but the patch of grass was not big, and there was life to it. It was green and sharp- filled with life, it was beautiful.
“I found you!” the father yelled as he peeped his head around the tree and found his child, a girl, giggling and failing to keep still. It seemed to me that she was not very good at the game, but her dad was not mad. He was laughing.
“Want me to tell you where Veronica is?” the little girl asked. Her dad smiled at her and shook his head no.
“We have to be quiet, so she won’t hear us, that way I can surprise her. Now go run up to the porch and wait, that way she doesn’t think you spoiled her hiding spot!” The dad immediately crouched down and started walking to the other side of the grass, where his other child remained hidden behind a tree, nervously giggling like her sister. He could tell where she was and slowly walked behind the tree and scared her as well.
“Daddy, I swear if Beth told you where I was!”
“No, no. She didn’t. I could just hear you giggling a mile away. We’re going to need to work on your hiding skills!”
“Why my hiding skills? I heard you tell Beth to go to the porch. She was the first one you found. I think she needs to work on her hiding skills too!”
“Well baby, if she does that, she’ll start winning hide and seek! Don’t you want to keep winning?” The father grinned at his daughter and waited to see if she would say anything before he continued. “How about this, I know some great hiding spots beyond the gate. Do you want me to show you a few?”
Veronica thought about it for a moment and smiled at her dad.
“Okay, well let’s get to it! Looks like your sister has already gone inside, how about we go ahead and go look at those hiding spots before she comes back out and finds them too?”
“Let’s do it!” she replied. Veronica took her dad’s hand as he led her to the edge of the grass and through the white gate. I watched as they walked out of my sight and vanished from the moving picture. I wanted them to come back, for me to continue watching them. I had never seen anyone else; it had only ever been me, the clearing, the wood, and the house.
Later that night I continued to think about what I saw beyond the gate and wondered if the picture would be there the next day. Or if I would see something new. I went to bed wondering if there were many gates, many moving pictures, other people even. Maybe someone, somewhere, is looking at me through the moving pictures?
The next day I woke up, got dressed, made a fire, and took off into the clearing, heading for the gate. I was not scared anymore, and the devilish branches that made up the ceiling of the path did not seem as frightening as before. My pulse quickened when I heard voices coming from the end of the path, so I hurried towards them and felt elated and relieved when the light presented itself before me and turned into a moving picture.
It was the same as before, but the scenery was different. The father and one of his daughters, who I recognized as Beth, were sitting by a fireplace in their house. They were playing with objects on the ground that looked like miniature people. The dad was undressing one of the miniatures and putting on new items of clothing for them as the daughter placed several of her miniatures inside a pink toy that dragged against the carpet and moved with the push of her hand.
A woman walked into the picture carrying Veronica on her hip before she sat her down on the floor beside her sister. I assumed it was Veronica and Beth’s mom.
“Honey, have you seen the scratches on Veronica’s legs?” the mom asked. I really don’t think we should let them play in the woods anymore. They’ll be twenty years old and wearing leggings to the beach if they get any more of them.”
“Don’t worry babe, scratches heal. Plus, they’re tough little girls, aren’t ya, Veronica?”
Veronica looked up at her dad and shook her head yes without ever giving a smile to suggest she really believed this. That’s when the picture stopped moving and the light went out for the second time.
“No! Bring it back!” It was the first words I ever remembered saying aloud. My voice sounded different than I thought it would. It was deep and scratchy, and sounded familiar. Even though I had never heard my voice before, it was like I had a memory of it. I did not like the sound of it. In a way, it disturbed me, the same way whatever memory I had of my voice disturbed me.
I walked back to my house that day wondering what the moving picture was for. Was it trying to show me something? Who are these people? The questions kept me up half the night, but I would be lying if I said most of the reason was not because I wanted to go back through the gate in the morning.
I went through the gate every day for a month, watching the family as they played, as they laughed, and as they got hurt. I learned everything about them through the way they interacted and talked to each other. The dad’s name was Gerald, a middle-aged man who worked from home and took care of the two little girls as the mom left the house during the day with a briefcase in tow. The happy images started to change after two weeks.
Beth remained elated and as charming as ever, while Veronica became quiet and kept to herself, choosing to play with her miniatures alone and getting into fights with Beth whenever she saw her taking the clothes off her miniatures.
“Clothes are meant to stay on people!” Veronica would yell before she snatched the miniatures away from her sister. Gerald would then pick up a screaming Veronica and carry her into another room, where the screaming would stop. I figured her dad was teaching her that she needed to be nice to her sister, which seemed to work for a while. Veronica would always come out of the room quiet, but she ignored whatever her sister was doing and answered her father with “yes sir”.
Gerald and his wife, who I finally learned went by the name of Diana, started getting in arguments over what to do about Veronica, who became increasingly violent towards her sister and argumentative towards her father.
“She needs to go see someone, Gerald. It’s not normal for a little girl to be constantly starting fights with her sister and just shutting down for the rest of the day!”
“And what do you think seeing a doctor would do? She’s a child, she’s just going through a phase.”
“What phase would that be, Gerald? What phase turns our daughter into a damn recluse?”
“She’s not a recluse,” Gerald replied.
“She’s bloody well turning into one, isn’t she?” Diana turned away from her husband and looked at her daughters, who had been watching as their parents fought in the kitchen.
“Mommy,” Veronica said.
“I’m so sorry you heard that sweetie, I didn’t know how loud we were,” Diana replied as she bent down to hug her daughter. Veronica started to cry in her mother’s arms.
“Mommy, I need to tell you something.” The moving picture in front of me dissipated and I turned around, eagerly waiting in my house the entire night, replaying everything in my head. What was Veronica about to tell her mom?
That night, my house seemed quiet, something I had never considered it to be before despite the atmosphere remaining the same as it always had. I was growing used to the company of the family behind the gate. Their voices echoed in my head, creating a loop of constant chatter. At first, they seemed welcoming, given the silence that befell me, but after hours of the voices refusing to dissipate, I grew restless.
The next morning, I followed my normal routine and headed to the gate but stopped in my tracks when I saw the gate already opened. I remembered closing it the day before, as I had the day before that. It disturbed me, the way it hung open. Still pearly white and not a scratch to be found on it, but it hung open to reveal the pathway behind it, which at that moment seemed sinister instead of beautiful. Something was not right, and it terrified me, but I walked down the pathway anyways.
There were screams coming from the light. Cacophonous, painful screams that damaged my ears each time a new scream began. As I approached the light, scared of what I might see, the moving image appeared. The mom and dad were outside in the rain, wrestling with each other. The mom was scratching and yanking the hair off the dad, desperately searching for anything she could do to hurt him. The kids were watching from the porch in fear, screaming to the top of their lungs for someone to help them.
“You sick son of a bitch!” the woman yelled as she kicked the dad below the waist. He howled at the pain and lurched over to his side, writhing against the ground. “She’s your kid you sick piece of shit!”
“Mommy no!” Beth yelled out as her mom picked up a shovel and walked over to the dad, who was still writhing in pain on the ground. Veronica looked over at her mom and went silent, as if the world had fallen on her and she had given up hope in trying to move it.
“I hope you spend the rest of your existence alone and as afraid as you made your little girl. Burn in hell,” the mom said as the shovel came down over the dad’s head.
The world before me was a composition of darkness and pain that I could feel as though I was there, within the picture, experiencing everything. I was the child, innocent and ignorant of the scene before me, but terrified and shocked beyond what I could have ever imagined. I covered my eyes, just as the girls did upon the sight of their motionless father and blocked myself from the horror in front of me. I do not know how long I stood there, seconds, minutes maybe. The light had ceased to beam through the cracks in my hand and the sound of the rain faded as the light reduced in size until all that was left were the trees at the end of the pathway.
I slowly removed my hands from my face, noticing everything about the moment; the smell of the rain on the branches of the trees, the dirt beneath my feet; the wrinkles and callused skin on my palms. Nothing was the same as it was before- everything had changed and suddenly I was aware of how alone I was, in the middle of the woods and without someone to show me the way back to my house. I stood there for only a few seconds more before I worked-up the courage to turn around and make the walk back to the house. Once I was out of the pathway and through the gate, I sprinted through the clearing and never looked behind me until I reached my door and shut it between the gate and me. I reached for the handle to lock the door, but there was not a lock to be found. There had never been one, nor had I ever seen one.
Days passed before I journeyed back through the gate, and when I did, I found nothing at the end of the pathway. I ventured to the gate every day for a week hoping to see the moving image, but nothing ever appeared, until one day the gate vanished. For weeks afterward, I would walk out of my house, looking towards the end of the clearing to catch a glimpse of the pearly white gate, but it never reappeared. Then today I realized something: that it never would, because all there will ever be is a house, a clearing, and a line of wood.