It was snowing the night Maureen found the Solstice door.
She had heard stories about the door, of course, but she had always chalked them up to an urban legend, tall tales meant to placate children and the destitute. It couldn't possibly be real, the door that appeared in impossible places at improbable times.
Maureen had only ever believed in the things she could see with her own eyes, but she couldn't deny what she was seeing now: a large steel door at the end of what should have been an empty alley, with an overarching neon sign that read SOLSTICE in unmistakable letters.
Maureen took a step into the alley, and then another, the freshly fallen snow crunching beneath her boots. She blinked several times, but the door was still there, and it looked like it had always been there, built into what she was fairly certain was the back of a department store the next street over. But the door, she knew, would not lead to the department store. At least, not according to the stories.
There was a clicking, like several locks being turned in quick succession, and Maureen stopped dead. Her first instinct was to run, but the door was real, and her curiosity about what could possibly be inside, and about who could possibly be coming out, was far stronger than her sense of caution. A split second after Maureen realized there was no knob or handle or anything with which to open it from the outside, the Solstice door opened.
Into the alley stepped the most striking woman Maureen had ever seen. She had fair skin and sharp features, and dark hair that rested on her shoulders. Her long fingers ended in pointed red nails, and her black coat was cinched around a slender waist. She let the door fall shut and then leaned against it, producing from the inside of her coat a lighter and cigarette. Maureen watched as the woman brought the cigarette to her lips, eyes closed, snowflakes dusting her lashes. In the quiet of the alley, her moan was easy to hear. The sound of it warmed Maureen to her toes, and she let out an involuntary whimper.
The woman's eyes snapped open. She did not seem frightened, or even really surprised, to find Maureen watching her. Her expression was mostly curious. "Hello," she said. Her voice was husky, though Maureen couldn't be sure if it was the cigarette smoke, or a natural alto.
"Hi," Maureen said automatically, and then: "You came out of the door."
The corners of the woman's mouth turned up in amusement. "I did."
"Are you--" Maureen stopped herself before she could ask her next question. It was stupid. Then again, all the stories she'd heard...
The woman quirked an eyebrow in question.
"Human," Maureen finished lamely. "I was going to ask if you were human. That's stupid, right?"
The woman smiled. "I am," she said. "More or less."
More or less. Unbidden, Maureen thought of her grandmother, whose voice never lost the lilt and burr of her homeland, who had told her such strange stories when she was a child. Stories of people who ate what was offered and found themselves enslaved. People who were tricked into happily dancing themselves to death.
Maureen didn't actually think the woman was one of the creatures out of her grandmother's stories, but if long afternoons of listening to those stories had taught her anything, it was to err on the side of caution.
"I didn't think it was real," Maureen said, nodding to the door and the green neon sign.
The woman reached behind her and rapped the door with her knuckles. "It's as real as I am," she said.
To Maureen, that wasn't saying much. The woman seemed to be spun from snowflakes and moonlight, insubstantial like the barest of winter breezes might scatter her into the night.
"I'm Maureen," she said, because she had no doubt that in a few moments the door and the mysterious woman would disappear like a dream, and there was some part of Maureen that wanted, no, needed the woman to remember her.
"It's nice to meet you, Maureen," said the woman. "I'm Rue."
It wasn't the name Maureen had expected, yet somehow it was a perfect fit. Rue dropped the remnants of her cigarette on the ground and stamped it out with the heel of her boot. She rapped on the door again, and the alley was filled with the sound of clicking locks once more.
"You know," Rue said, stepping forward. The door opened, and she caught it with a red-nailed hand. "The door can be fickle, but it always takes me where I'm supposed to be."
In all the stories Maureen had heard about the door, things tended to go like this: an unwitting bystander would stumble upon the door, drawn by the glowing green neon or the sound of a raucous party coming from within. Try as they might, they would never be able to make the door open for them. Then they would blink, or look away for a split second, and the door would be gone. Never had she heard of anyone emerging from beyond the door. Never had she heard of anyone being invited inside.
"I--" she said, and paused, unsure of how to continue. A small part of her, a part that sounded suspiciously like her grandmother's Irish lilt, told her that to even think of walking through that door was a mistake. But there was another part, the part that often got Maureen into trouble, that wondered what those tapered red nails would feel like trailing her skin.
Rue, mistaking her hesitation for rejection, smiled sadly. "Merry Christmas, Maureen," she said, and turned away.
"Wait!" Maureen called, panic spiking at the thought of Rue disappearing through that door. She knew, deep in her heart, if she allowed that to happen, she would never find the Solstice door again.
When Rue glanced back, she was smiling.
"What's it like inside?" Maureen asked around the lump in her throat. Was that the thud of music she heard, or just her heart thundering in her ears?
Without speaking, Rue held out a hand.
Of all the hands Maureen had held--boys when she wanted to blend in; girls when she thought she could get away with it--none had ever felt so momentous as this. Maureen knew, though she didn't know how, that taking Rue's hand would change everything.
She reached out, and her fingers fit with Rue's like puzzle pieces.
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