We were in a black hall. More like a rectangular box. The walls were tight. Stitch Mouth quickly sketched doors on the three walls ahead of us, and we went through one, entering into another box that was very similar, maybe exactly the same. She did the same thing again, three more doors. We went through a different door than the last time and entered again a box. Stitch Mouth did so again. Another box. Three more doors. Again. In the last box, Stitch Mouth colored four doors, all of them purple except for the last, which she created with a different chalk altogether, still purple, but a darker shade than the others, all of which had glowed like neon signs. This last door was so dark it was almost invisible. That was the door she opened.
We were bathed in cold. My breaths came and went in quick bursts that told my growing fear as Balloon Girl shut the door silently behind us. Then the door changed. It was no longer a black door with purple edges, it was wooden and weather worn. I touched it, as if testing whether or not it was real at all. Then I peered through a split in the door that was just wide enough to see through and on the other side was a path and a forest. We were in a house with a low wooden ceiling. There were windows with wooden shudders. Cobwebs were strewn across every crevice. There was a cobblestone fireplace. Four chairs were set in a semi-circle around it. A stack of books was nearby, the top book covered in dust.
Stitch Mouth waved from a door inside the home. “This way.”
“Where does this door take us?” I asked, wondering what magical place we’d travel to next.
She smirked. “My bedroom.”
Balloon Girl shut the door behind us again. I was still gasping, unable to control my lungs or nerves. As we stood there, I began to realize the dismal simplicity of what we were doing. We were running. Running through doors and rooms to escape. I had been doing that on my own for months. And now, here I was, running again, only this time with two girls with legs far shorter than mine. Despite the magical chalk and the multi-colored neon doors, the woman in the window was still somewhere behind us. A spasm of fear shook me. I wanted to keep running, to get further ahead. Run away from this house. Away from the woman. Away from the girls.
A small hand touched me, luring me out of my thoughts. Stitch Mouth said with quiet assurance, “You’ll be okay. I promise.”
“But she’s coming.”
“Yes. I know.”
“But we stopped.”
Bending over a rug in the center of the small room, Stitch Mouth called Balloon Girl to her. “Come help me.”
Balloon Girl pinched at the edge of the rug. The balloons strung from her other hand looked down in focused concentration. Balloon Girl raised the rug as high as she could, giving Stitch Mouth enough space to sketch a yellow door onto the floor. When the door was finished, Stitch Mouth touched the center of it with the tip of the chalk, and the outline transformed into carved edges. It looked as though a real door had been there the entire time.
Someone could be heard in the house. The woman had found us. The cold was eating at me, making me more vulnerable to my growing fear, and I clasped my arms around my body. I could hear the woman getting closer as she searched through other rooms. But the house was small. She would find us soon.
Stitch Mouth yanked the door up and palmed the air, waving for me to go first. I clambered down, lowering myself into something like a cellar. Stitch Mouth followed, her hand at the bend of my back as we hunched our way into darkness. Balloon Girl came last. Down a few steps, she turned to reset the rug over the door as best she could, sliding her hand through the tiny gap just before shutting it completely. Balloon Girl remained near the stairs, her skull head upturned and waiting. The balloons curved back behind her, tossing silently along the ceiling.
I shuffled as far from the steps as I could. Stitch Mouth came to my side.
“What now?” I asked.
“Because,” Stitch Mouth whispered.
Stitch Mouth slid her hand into mine and squeezed. “It’s okay.”
With a slow creak, the bedroom door above opened. The woman in the window went slowly, tiptoeing across the room. She could sense how close we were. The boards of the floor bent and groaned with the weight of her quiet steps. My gaze remained focused on the tiny gaps between each plank of wood, following the woman’s shadow. It passed over us, darkening the meager light that had been ours. The woman came to a stop on the rug. She began sniffing the air, just as she had in my dream. I almost let out a whimper, but Stitch Mouth squeezed my hand again.
The woman took another step, moving towards the closet. She hissed in irritation as a board squealed beneath her. When she opened the closet door, the hinges let out a rusted creak, giving her away again, and the woman shrieked in rage. Giving up her attempts to remain silent, the woman erupted into a furious tantrum, destroying everything in the room. Clothes were ripped. Furniture was flipped. The drawers of the dressers were flung around the room.
Beneath the racket, I asked, “Are you going to kill her now?”
I was hoping for, Yes, Sarah, of course. Balloon Girl and I are going to march up those stairs and get rid of that icky woman in the window for good. Be back in a jiffy.
Instead, Stitch Mouth asked, horribly confused, “The witch?”
I bent to her ear. “Yeah, are you?”
“We are not permitted to. We only have our tricks.” She patted her purse as a reminder. “Now, shush.”
Then there was silence. The minutes passed. The silence throbbed.
I couldn’t take it anymore. “What’s she doing?”
Stitch Mouth winced. Balloon Girl shivered at the stairs.
Slim paths of light burst through the cracks of the door as the woman flung the rug aside. The door was ripped open. There, the woman stood.
Stitch Mouth rummaged through her purse for another chalk. Pulling one out, she scratched out a door onto the wall directly behind us while I simply stared at the woman in terror, knowing there wasn’t enough time for another door. I had been caught.
Balloon Girl’s ghostly bones waited bravely at the steps between the woman and me, even as the shadow of the witch stretched out over her. Balloon Girl touched the tip of a single string to the step behind her, releasing a balloon. In a swirl of pink glitter, the balloon spun and spun until transforming into a real-life girl. She was wearing a pink dress. She faced me a moment. Her blue eyes sparkled. Balloon Girl pointed the girl towards the steps. Nodding, the girl raced up. The woman was crouching her way down to us when the new girl lunged upward, tackling the woman back out of the hole. The woman cried out in fury, and as she struggled to get back up, the girl grabbed one of the woman’s legs, heaving it further out. But the woman grabbed the girl by the arm and stood to her feet, lifting the girl into the air. But the girl didn’t care. She swatted at the woman with small fists, and when the woman buckled over after getting kicked in the stomach, the girl kicked the woman in the face. The woman grunted and spit blood, then began choking the girl in the air.
Balloon Girl came near and pushed me through the newest door. I could hear the dying sounds of the girl as she was murdered by the witch, and despite wanting to go back and help her, I didn’t. We scurried to the end of a narrow hallway where Stitch Mouth sketched four more doors. We repeated again our earlier retreat.