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Shades of Sara
For two prompts: ysabetwordsmith’s “in which family is necessary for everyday life and happiness, but the birth family is toxic, so a transplant is required,” plus whuffle’s “a less conventional family.”
Summary: Sara finds a glowing door in her basement to another world and another mother.

Sara finds the door in the basement when her mother locks her in for back-talk. She knows the door’s not supposed to be there, because she knows every inch of the basement from lock-ins past. On top of that, it looks like it’s made of papier-mâché, covered in letters and text that looks familiar, and it glows faintly in the dark. It isn’t reflected light, either; the basement light has been broken for years.

Sara’s mother never goes down into the basement (she’s petrified of rats) and making a false door that glows isn’t the sort of thing she does, but Sara still doesn’t touch it. She loves her books about magical other worlds, but she knows better than to believe in such a thing for herself. It must be a trick; her mother must want her to open it, to prove some obscure point. Sara can’t imagine what that point would be, or why her mother would go through all the trouble, but she’s given up on trying to guess all of the unspoken rules her mother has. So she sits in the corner and watches the door, waiting for the glow paint to wear out.

But morning comes and the door keeps glowing the whole time. When her mother opens the door to let her out, she doesn’t act any different than she usually does, doesn’t check to see if the door’s been opened, doesn’t seem to notice it at all.

Sara’s mother gives her the usual talk, the one about how if Sara likes the basement so much, maybe she ought to live there permanently, but Sara’s not paying attention. In her mind, it’s a blinding flash: her mother didn’t put the door there. It’s real.

Sara’s body goes to school, but her mind is still in the basement, with the door. She sleepwalks through her classes, deciding what to do.

Going through the door is a no-brainer. Sara’s mom refuses to keep a TV (filthy, trashy box, she calls it) but she can’t keep Sara from books, and Sara’s favorites are all about escape into another, better world. All her life, she’s been waiting for her Hogwarts Express, her Kansas tornado, her mysterious wardrobe, some miracle to take her away from here, and now she has it. Dangerous as whatever’s on the other side might be, at least it won’t pretend (or worse, believe) it loves her.

No, more concerning to Sara is whether she’ll leave any damage to those left behind.

Not her mother, of course. Nor her teachers. They barely notice her as is; she’s a quiet little ghost of a student, earning boring, silent A’s that encourage no further interaction. There are a million students more colorful, more imaginative, more interesting than her; they won’t miss her. Nor will the people who are the closest she has to friends. They might notice her absence after a few days, remark on it, then go back to their books and card games.

But then there’s her Uncle Lester, who knows what’s happening with Sara’s mom. He should; he’s her brother. He’ll be sad and scared when Sara vanishes. Maybe he’ll think it’s his fault. But in the end, she decides his distress is a sacrifice she’s willing to make. Her uncle can’t save her; even if he weren’t scraping by on disability, too sick and caught up in his own troubles to help her, he believes that girls need their mothers, their families.

Sara will risk the danger behind the door.

She doesn’t have much time. Her mother keeps track of exactly when Sara gets home and times her work hours accordingly, to make certain that Sara doesn’t make a whore of herself. Sara feels that if she were truly brave, she would cut class, but what if the door has disappeared? Then her mother will find out, and there will be hell to pay. All she can do is run home from school as quick as she can and hope her mother isn’t early.

She isn’t. Sara bolts into the house, makes for the basement, then hesitates. There’s no telling what’s behind that door. It could be a desert, a wasteland, a glacier. Just because she’s going through there doesn’t mean she shouldn’t prepare.

She ties her sweater around her waist, opens her backpack, and dumps all her school stuff on the table like she normally would never dare do. She unzips the smaller pockets, pulls out her pencils and pens. She almost tosses her tattered copy of James and the Giant Peach, but at the last minute changes her mind. It’s her most precious possession, a gift from Uncle Lester; he used to read it when he was her age, and she can’t bear the thought of giving it up.

She’s snatching nuts, raisins, and granola bars when she hears the sound of her mother’s car driving into the garage. Time to go. She grabs a flashlight and runs for the basement. As she dashes down the cobwebby doorway, as quickly as she dares with the steep stairs and the dim beam of the flashlight, she hears the front door slam.


Sara’s shoe catches on a half-pried up nail and she falls down the last few stairs with a thunderous crash, scraping her hands and knees. She keeps a grip on the flashlight, but it hits a stair and breaks and the basement goes dark.

“Sara? What are you doing?”

Sara’s hands and shoulders and knees throb, but she jumps to her feet. For a moment, she panics, terrified that the door is gone, that it was all a dream she hallucinated in her own broken mind, and her mother will be enraged to find such an untidy pile of books in the kitchen—

—But no, the door is still there, glowing softly in the dark, waiting for her. Sara grasps the handle and a little zap goes through her, making her jerk back.

Her mother’s feet thunder on the top step. “What are you doing down here?” There’s no alarm in her voice; there’s no way out of the basement except past her, or so she thinks.

Sara grabs the door handle again, ignoring the zap, and pulls. The door feels surprisingly light and papery under her hands, and it opens more smoothly and quietly than any door in the house. Beyond it is impenetrable blackness. Sara pokes a finger in, then a hand. She feels nothing.

“Sara,” her mother’s voice has grown smooth and sweet and dangerous, “answer me when I speak to you. What are you doing?”

Still, Sara hesitates. Her mother is terrified of the rats in the basement; she’s not about to come thundering down. It’s one thing to think about going into the great unknown, another to actually do it. What if it’s worse on the other side? What if it’s a hundred feet above the ground and she falls through only to go splat on the other side? Or there’s a monster waiting to eat her?

No, that’s silly. Who would go through all the trouble to make a door for her just to trap her and destroy her on the other side? Still…

“Tell me what you’re doing, you little animal.”

Sara reaches through the door, and two powerful hands grasp her own. She doesn’t even have time to scream—she’s still gasping in the air when the hands drag her through the door into the blackness, and the door swings shut behind her. There’s floor under her feet, but she can’t see it—she stumbles and falls, scrapes her knee again on concrete, cowers.

Nothing happens. All she can see is black, all she can hear is the blood pounding in her heart, her own panicked breathing.

After a moment, her eyes start to adjust. She’s in… her basement? And kneeling next to her is a—

Sara screams and swings her flashlight at the monster, but misses. The monster makes frantic gibbering noises, reaches for her. She scrabbles backward on all fours, still screaming, and the basement door—not the one she came through, that one’s disappeared, the one that goes up to the rest of the house—bursts open, streaming light past a familiar silhouette.

“Get away from her, you little animal!” Her mother’s voice declares, and the monster recoils, from her or the light, it’s hard to tell, and then Sara is wrapped in warm arms and pulled out of the basement into what looks like a copy of her own kitchen, the one she just left.

For a moment, Sara’s so disoriented and confused that she thinks the glowing door turned her right back around and spat her out again, or that somehow time turned around and she never went into the basement in the first place. But then she realizes her school things aren’t on the table and she gets a good look at the woman with her mother’s voice.

To say she’s an exact copy is misleading. She has the exact same face and body and voice as Sara’s mother, that much is for sure, but she wears them so differently, she looks like a completely different person, like a skilled actor pretending to be someone else. Gone are the bitter lines around her mouth and eyes, the constantly working jaw like she’s holding back from biting someone. This woman’s face has only smiles, and she holds herself like a plaster saint in a church. Her eyes glitter with something Sara can’t name.

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re all right,” the woman says. “I was so worried.”

“What was that?” Sara asks.

The woman who looks like Sara’s mother takes a key from her apron pocket and uses it to shut a big padlock on the basement door. From below them comes a faint, mournful howl. “Don’t worry. I’ll never let it get you.” She turns back to Sara. “My goodness. You must’ve had a terrible fright, being torn from your world like that.”

“I’m—I’m all right,” Sara says.

“Oh, your hands! Your knees! Sit here, I’ll be right back to make it better.”

The woman presses Sara into a kitchen chair that’s a lot like the one at the house she left, only softer and newer, and vanishes for a moment. When she returns, it’s with Neosporin and Band-Aids, and she starts cleaning and covering Sara’s injuries.

“Your name is Sara, isn’t it?” She asks.

“Yes,” Sara says. “How did you know?”

And the woman who looks like Sara’s mother laughs. “I’m your mother, silly. Well, I suppose I’m sort of your mother. I had a daughter named Sara once, and you look just like her.” She touches Sara’s cheek. Sara doesn’t flinch, but only because she doesn’t want to make the woman angry.

“What happened to her?”

The woman looks away, then back again, her eyes glittering. “Let’s not dwell on sad things. I lost a Sara, and you lost a mother. Now we have each other, and we can be happy.”

“Well…” Sara says, meaning to say she didn’t lose a mother, but the woman has already kissed her scrapes and gotten up.

“Here. We’ll bake chocolate banana cookies. Those were my Sara’s favorite; are they yours?”

They are.

The Sara and the woman who looks like her mother bake cookies together, then have a delicious dinner of ham and sweet potatoes and green beans, none of which come out of a can. All of the food tastes better, smells better, looks better. Everything in this world does, like Sara’s world has been stripped of all its bitterness. The wallpaper is clean, the sun shines bright, and everything seems to have color and luster of its own. And the woman who looks like Sara’s mother seems kind. She doesn’t scream, threaten, or lock Sara in the basement. No, after dinner, she fixes Sara a nice warm bubble bath with special salts (“they’re good for your scrapes”), braids Sara’s hair, and tucks her into bed.

“You’ve had such an eventful day,” she says. “You need your rest.”

The woman turns out the light and shuts the door, but Sara can’t sleep. The bed in this world is warmer, softer, and it doesn’t sag in the middle, but the bedspread is covered with zebra stripes, just like at home. Uncle Lester had made it for her. At first, she wonders what the Uncle Lester of this world is like. Then she abruptly sits up.

She’s in a dead Sara’s room. There’s no way she can sleep in it.

She gets out of the bed and turns on the light.

It’s eerie, being in a dead girl’s room that’s an almost exact copy of her own. The furniture is the same, the radio clock. The major difference is that there are fewer things in it—presumably the woman who looks like Sara’s mother got rid of some of it, or perhaps this world’s Sara didn’t live long enough to get them.

The bookshelf looks almost exactly the same, though. There are a few authors with names that Sara has never heard of (who on earth is Lisa Wellington?) and apparently there is no Xenia Barrow in this world, but all her most beloved authors are there. They’re even organized the same, alphabetized by first name: C. S. Lewis, L. Frank Baum, J. K. Rowling, Roald Dahl—

Wait. One’s missing.

There’s no James and the Giant Peach on the shelf. There’s a gap between Fantastic Mr. Fox and the Magic Finger, like there used to be a book there, and judging by the lack of dust in the gap, it was removed recently. What happened to it?

Maybe this world’s Sara died just that recently.

Sara shivers and prods the space between the books nervously, then reaches into her backpack and pulls out her copy of James and the Giant Peach. It fits perfectly in the gap, and that makes her feel a little better. The bookshelf looks complete now, and surely the other Sara would appreciate having her favorite book returned.

She returns to bed, but nothing she does will make her feel comfortable in it. She tosses and turns, and even gets up to take James and the Giant Peach again and read a few pages, but even that won’t do it. And it’s not just that she’s in a dead girl’s room that’s bothering her.

She feels like she should be grateful that there is such an effortless new home waiting for her. Even if the circumstances are tragic, it’s good news for her. But she’s spent too many years with her own mother. She can’t accept it. This is too easy. This world is almost tailor-made to entice her, but it’s obviously not entirely nice. After all, the last Sara died here!

The woman never said how or why, either.

Sara frowns. Something is percolating deep in her mind, something important and disturbing. Now that she’s alone and thinking, she realizes that things aren’t adding up. Judging by the lack of dust, either the woman who looks like Sara’s mother cares deeply about keeping the room just as the other Sara left it, or the other Sara died very recently, too soon for the room to be cleaned out. Either way, why isn’t the woman still grieving?

Perhaps she is. Perhaps she wants a new Sara to replace her loss. But that doesn’t make any sense either, with the monster in the basement. If the woman who looks like Sara’s mother wanted another Sara so badly, why would she create the glowing door there, in the most dangerous room in the house? Why would the monster be allowed to run loose and get to Sara first?

Why would the monster be waiting for her, but not the woman?

Because the monster was the one to make the doorway. But why? To escape? Impossible; the monster had pulled Sara through and the door had disappeared immediately afterward.

None of it makes any sense, but one thing Sara is sure of: this world is not nearly as nice as it’s trying to lead her to believe. And the monster in the basement is why she’s here.

Sara gets up and out of the dead girl’s bed and opens the bedroom door a crack. The hallway is dark, and she doesn’t see or hear a sign of the woman who looks like her mother.

Sara slips out and moves towards the basement as quietly as she can, but the woman who looks like her mother is already there, just coming out. Despite the hour, she isn’t in pajamas.

“What are you doing up?” She asks, closing the basement door behind her. She doesn’t shut the padlock; she seems too busy staring at Sara with those glittering, hungry eyes. Yes, she wants another Sara, badly enough that Sara knows that this is not a mother she can trust.

Sara says, “I’m sorry, I got thirsty, and I’m not used to the house yet. Where are the cups?”

And the woman who looks like Sara’s mother gets her a cup and pours her some warm milk, and she smiles the whole time, but she doesn’t let Sara out of her sight. And when she puts Sara to bed, Sara almost doesn’t dare get up again, because she can’t shake the feeling that the woman doesn’t sleep and will be watching for her.

But after a few sleepless hours, Sara hears the woman’s feet go past her door and retreat into her own room, with the door shutting with a soft clunk. When Sara sneaks and looks under the bottom of the door, she can see a crack of light and a shadow walking past; the woman is definitely inside.

Sara pulls back and goes to her backpack. She has no idea if monsters like raisins or granola bars, but in the stories, at least, feeding something never hurts its feelings towards you. The flashlight is in the backpack too. The batteries were knocked out in her fall, but luckily, the bulb is still intact, and it turns out the other Sara kept batteries in the exact same desk drawer Sara did. The batteries are old and only power a faint light, but they’ll do.

Sara pulls off the dead girl’s pajamas and dresses in her own scuffed, scraped clothes. With flashlight in hand and backpack on, she slips out to the basement, moving as silently as she can. This time, the woman stays in her room.

The padlock is heavy, but fortunately well oiled. Sara slips it open silently, and waits, listening. The woman doesn’t come out of her room, and once again, Sara goes down into the basement. This time, she remembers her lesson and scraped knees and takes the stairs slowly.

“Hello?” She whispers, and she hears something move in the darkness. She remembers the monster shying away from the light, as though blinded, and she moves her flashlight beam off to the side. That seems to work; a dark shadow comes up to the edge of it.

“I… I brought you granola bars, if you want one,” Sara whispers.

The shadow shakes its head. Sara remembers the sounds it made; maybe it can’t speak like she does.

“I know you’re the one who brought me here,” she says. “You helped me escape from my mother. How come?”

The monster moves into the beam of the flashlight, and Sara finds herself unsurprised when it turns out to look like her. Not as much as the woman resembles Sara’s mother; this child is scarred and starved and moves like a cave spider, and looks at Sara with sad, sad eyes.

“I knew it,” Sara whispers. “I knew she was too good to be true.”

And she hugs her other self, the girl who tried to save her even when locked away in a basement. As she does, she hears a loud clunk up at the top of the stairs, a padlock being locked shut, and their mother’s voice shrieks, “You were supposed to be better!”

But Sara ignores her. She’s found something better than a mother.

“You saved me from my mother while you were locked up down here,” Sara says. “Now I’m here to return the favor.” She pauses. “Um. How did you do it?”

The other Sara kneels to write in the dirt with a finger. When Sara turns her flashlight on it, it reads, “You have to give up your most precious possession.” The scarred Sara looks up and spreads her hands with a wry shrug: hers is gone.

Sara hesitates. She remembers the gap on the bookshelf and reaches into her backpack. Inside is the book Uncle Lester gave her. James and the Giant Peach. A harbinger of hope and escape, a symbol of his love for her. A love that was, in the end, unequal to his passivity.

But in the end, perhaps that’s enough.

Sara hands the book over, and her other self takes it by the pages, begins to hum, and tears it down the spine. She gives Sara a sad look, but Sara goes, “It’s okay. I don’t need it anymore.” To prove it, she takes one half of the book and starts tearing it to pieces. At first, it’s hard, and brings up a deep sorrow in her gut, but the further she goes, the easier it gets, and her face heats up and her eyes water, and she finds herself sobbing as she rips the book apart.

As her tears spot the torn pages, a door begins to appear, glowing, on the basement wall. Leading to another basement, another Sara, another world. Maybe a better one.

The Saras clasp hands and go through.

Date: 2012-05-05 12:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Here via [ profile] ysabetwordsmith's link.

I love this! It has echoes of Neil Gaiman's Coraline with lovely dark overtones.
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