The first warm day of spring and I'm wearing sandals. Science class is about to begin. I pause at the foot of the stairs. Margot, my third-grade best friend, rockets up. Her corduroys swish about her ankles. I reach for her, but she's lightyears away, the chasm of the stairs between us. I drop my hand, raise one foot. Will my sandals hold on the treads? Or will I slip into the blank space of open risers and fall through?
Traces of mildew and gasoline—old car smells. In the back seat, I wipe my wrist across my lips. Salt. At the side of the road, a baby hippo rests under a tree, its snout glistening in a stream of light. "Wait," I cry, my forehead pressed to the window. I want to embrace this being, cradle its head against my swelling heart. "Stop the car." But my father accelerates and we continue, lurching forward through the mud.
I cup a huge white tulip in my hands. A nodding bed of them stretches on and on. The breeze carries amplified voices. "I don't want to return home," Mark says over the loudspeaker, "with a fresh understanding of all the words that express hate." Mark, my college best friend, confidant, and savior, is speaking for the last time. I need to be there. The amphitheater must be over the rise. I press on, trying to hurry, pushing against gravity and time.
I settle into our usual booth, order coffee, and wait. Priya, a possible best friend in the making, has been out of town all summer. A season of news, gossip, bad jokes wants to pour from my tongue. She texts that she's close by. I dribble coffee down my front and slip to the ladies, where I blot the stain and run cool water over my wrists. I dry my hands and confront the door and its brass lock. I rotate the shiny thumb turn first one way, then the other, but the door does not open. Priya texts again. She has to leave for a meeting uptown. I grab the doorknob, shake it, pull, and discover a metal hook on the lock's case. I lift it only to find another hook underneath. Priya is gone and still the mechanism refuses to yield.
I'm out walking, enjoying the autumn foliage, brushing vines from my hair, when I find myself on Sixth Street, the stoop of my old building just steps away. I dig in my bag. The novel I'm reading glows, warm in my hand, inviting me to dive back in, mingle with the characters. They confide in me, these fictional people. We dance together and sing. Under the tome, I find a key. I bound up the stairs. The door opens with a wheeze and I'm inside, enveloped by the essence of coffee and dear books.
Katherine Gleason's short stories have appeared in journals such as Alimentum, River Styx and Southeast Review, and online at Derelict Lit, Juked, Jellyfish Review, Mississippi Review, Journal of Microliterature and Monkeybicyle. She won first prize in the 2007 River Styx/Schlafly Beer Micro-Fiction Contest, garnered an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, and has published a number of nonfiction books, including "Anatomy of Steampunk: The Fashion of Victorian Futurism" (Race Point Publishing, 2013).