Aunt Mariya was an alchemist, and she wanted to travel to other dimensions, beginning with the dimension just above our own. She believed that there were many versions of our world, and that each person traveled through all of these versions before arriving at their ultimate home, which she merely called the afterworld.
When she was asked what sort of device or vehicle she proposed to build to take her to these other dimensions, she gave an unexpected answer.
She would make a coat.
“People put on a coat so that they will be ready to go outside,” she explained to me one day, when I was old enough to begin understanding. “My coat follows that same principle. It is only that the meaning of ‘outside’ is a bit…extended.”
I don’t actually remember what my response was. I was five years old. But my aunt says that I frowned and leaned closed to her face, and said, “But a regular coat doesn’t carry you outside. It doesn’t carry you from one place to another.”
My aunt laughed, touched my nose, and told me I was clever. And more importantly, I was right. Her coat was not a vehicle, because traveling to these other dimensions required no vehicle.
Aunt Mariya was certain that she had solved the mystery of the many dimensions. All of us could do it, but our minds and bodies prevented us from going, because the environments in these other dimensions were different. Some were slightly different. Some more drastically so. One would die as certainly as a diver without oxygen and a space-walker without a spacesuit would die. Only in these other dimensions, it would not be the body that suffered injury, but the mind and the soul.
When I asked her what she meant by injury to the mind and soul, she would only say that she would explain that part when I was old enough to begin understanding it.
Mariya worked for years to design and make this special coat of hers. At first, she purchased ordinary coats and soaked them in various alchemical solutions. The coats that resulted were wonderful. One coat shifted colors to match the environment the wearer was in. Another floated on the water, even if that water was a roiling sea, which meant the wearer could not drown. Once my aunt was satisfied that none of these early coats readied the wearer to jump to another dimension, she sold them all.
Convinced that her error was in trusting the words of the merchants when they told her what materials the coats were made from, she gathered raw materials herself and hired a tailor to make a coat according to her specific instructions. This coat she soaked in the same alchemical solutions. She had a few similar coats made, and these were in many ways even more wondrous than the first batch. Once my aunt was satisfied that none of these early coats readied the wearer to jump to another dimension, she sold these as well.
One of these, she sold to a neighbor, an elderly gentleman who lived with his wife and a few cats. He was climbing down from a ladder one day, when his foot slipped on a step and he fell from a height of one story, right onto his back. Hearing his cries, his wife rushed outside, along with another neighbor who happened to be home. They found him lying on his back, laughing.
He was unhurt. Not a scratch on his skin. Not a break or a crack in any bone. And he said that landing on the hard earth had felt like landing in a neverending pile of feathers. He felt as if he was falling and falling, but slowing as something soft and gentle resisted his fall. And then at last, he found himself on the ground.
He had been wearing the coat he’d bought from my aunt.
At last, with all other methods failing, my aunt learned how to sew herself. She made a coat with her own hands that she declared the finest she’d yet made. It was a double-breasted heavy raincoat the color of a maple leaf in autumn. It had dark bronzy metal buttons. The alchemy was in its making. She had soaked the components in solutions, every thread and every button.
I remember noting how nervous she felt when she first put on the coat. I was twelve years old by this time, going on thirteen. And I could read my aunt’s feelings on her face. In her slightly widened eyes. In the tenseness of her shoulders. In the gloss of sweat that covered her forehead. And in the calm smile she gave me. A smile that wanted to be bigger. A smile that wanted to hope.
Thresholds were important to the process. The threshold of our front doors separated the inside from the outside. Inside, where we didn’t need a coat. Outside, where we did. And so a threshold was needed to separate our inner world from some outer world. I had watched my aunt walk across dozens of thresholds in her trials. I’d always seen her emerge from the other side.
So when I stood outside the front door of her home, and I saw her vanish as she passed over the threshold, I believed she had finally succeeded.
My eyes widened and I began to grin.
“Aunt Mariya!” I called, even though I knew she couldn’t hear me.
She had figured that she would arrive in the other dimension in the same exact position. There would be another apartment. Another Mariya would be living there. And all that my Mariya needed to do was pass back across the threshold.
So I waited a few moments. And when she did not return, I tried to call her as she had instructed, in case she ended up returning somewhere else in our dimension. I was relieved when she answered, even though I hadn’t quite had time to start feeling panicked.
“I’m safe,” she said, but I could tell by the tone of her voice that something was wrong. She sighed. “It didn’t work.”
Aunt Mariya had not jumped to another dimension. But her coat had allowed her to jump to another location in her own dimension. As she vanished from her own front door, she had ended up stepping through the door of a bar in the next town over.
At first, she thought what I had thought, that she might have succeeded. Everything looked familiar, but she expected that. The first dimension she succeeded in jumping to would likely be quite similar to our own. It would be difficult to tell.
I was the one who disappointed her. When she heard her phone ringing and saw that it was me calling, she had the surest confirmation she could receive that she was still in her home dimension. She had explained to me why she believed phone calls could not cross dimensions. It was one of the things that I could not begin to believe.
So she failed in her efforts to reach another dimension, but she tested her newest coat further and found that she could jump from one location to another, even miles away, by putting on the coat and taking a step across any kind of threshold, a doorway, a window, even a hole in a wall.
This coat, she did not sell, not only because it might end up in the hands of someone who meant harm. She never stepped into anyone’s living room or any other private place. It was always something like the lobby of a hotel or the entrance to a shop. She could not even jump back into her own home. She always had to return someplace close and walk home. But she did not want to take the chance that someone might learn how to direct their jumps far better than she had. She suspected that her own principles and morals might be affecting the coat and preventing her from jumping through the door of a bank vault or other forbidden places.
“Such things are important in alchemy,” she told me. “A regular key can open the lock it fits no matter who holds it, but an alchemical key could be directed to only fit the lock if the right person holds it, as if that person were another component of that key. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” I said.
“And this coat is a far more complex tool than a key. What do you think that means?”
I thought for a moment. “If the right person wears it, the coat will let you jump, but if another person wears it, maybe that person won’t be able to jump. Or maybe they will jump farther, or…” I grinned, believing I’d just had an inspiration. “…or they could jump up, instead of across.” I pointed to the ceiling. “Far up.”
My aunt laughed and said, “Maybe so. I hadn’t thought of that.”
I frowned. “But then, what about all those other coats that you gave away or sold? If other people wear them, won’t the coats do different things for them?”
My aunt shook her head. “No, I only gave away or sold those coats that I made the way a regular key is made. Those coats do the same thing no matter who wears them. Any other coat I made, I dismantled and treated, removing all the alchemy, and giving the materials to a tailor I know.”
I gazed at her coat, at the metal buttons and fine stitching with royal blue thread, and my aunt knew what I was thinking. She answered the question I did not ask out loud.
“When you’re old enough,” she said. “Maybe.”
I wanted to follow in my aunt’s footsteps and become an alchemist. I could not wait to graduate so I could apply to academies. I kept my grades up in math and chemistry, and studied metaphysics on my own, borrowing my aunt’s books.
And she encouraged me. She even let me help her try to recreate her coat. We attempted dozens of times, but could not reproduce her results. Each of those times result in coats that were marvelous in their own way—one shifting color in the light, another conforming to the size of the wearer, and still another that made one so light on one’s feet that one could quite literally climb a wall. But never did she manage to make another coat that let the wearer teleport. My aunt did learn how to extract the alchemy she put into those coats without having to dismantle them. I ended up with a few of them. I always hoped that something unexpected would happen when I wore them, but they were just coats.
She tried for about two years, and put aside her quest, deciding that she might have much more to learn before she was ready to make another coat. She had been invited to come along on an expedition that a colleague of hers was mounting. And she had accepted the invitation.
I had always imagined that my aunt would guide me and teach in the ways of alchemy, so that I would be more than ready to enter academy. I imagined that we might even do something special with my graduation gown, something simple, like making it change colors throughout the day.
But I was only fourteen now. I still had a few years to go before academy and she was already leaving, on an expedition that might take years. And I didn’t believe her when she said she would arrange to return on special occasions, including my graduation.
Aunt Mariya spent more and more time preparing for her expedition, and one of the ways she prepared was by practicing her distance jumps in her coat.
I was irritated, then jealous, and hurt. Mariya was abandoning me and she was abandoning her own quest.
I didn’t show her that anger at first. I instead tried to steer her in the direction I wanted her to go, toward me. I asked her if she was planning on using her coat to help people or simply for gain. I asked her if she had ever considered letting a trusted friend try the coat, to see if it did indeed allow one to travel to another dimension. I asked her if it was maybe her own failings, failings of her mind and soul, that prevented her from jumping to another dimension.
I loved my aunt, and still I asked her these things with the intent of hurting her. Because if she was hurt enough, she would doubt herself, and she might not go on that expedition.
But my aunt was not like me, and not like my mother.
She was not hurt or angered by any of the rude and disrespectful things I said.
She answered all my brutal questions as if they were reasonable. Maybe to her they were. She told me I was right to expect her to use the coat to benefit all people, not just herself or her family. And that I was right that it might be some lack in her own self, and not in the coat, that prevented her from traveling to another dimension. She had suspected as much.
I was not comforted by her calm. Only more frustrated. So frustrated that I did an even more terrible thing than spouting mean and spiteful things at her.
I can’t remember what I said to my aunt. But it was rude enough to catch my mother’s attention. After my mother angrily (and rightfully) dismissed me from dinner, and sent me upstairs to my room, an impulse struck me.
Aunt Mariya was staying with us for the week, before she set out on her travels. She had moved out of her apartment and put most of her belongings into storage. We would not see her again until the end of the year, or maybe the beginning of the next one.
Her coat was with her things.
It wasn’t just the theft that made me break out in dizzy sweats. It was what I was stealing and from whom. I’d never stolen anything in my life. I wouldn’t even take a free booklet of recipes attached to a can of pie filling, because I wasn’t going to buy the pie filling, and I thought it would be wrong. My mother even told me to take the booklet. But I wouldn’t.
And now…I was stealing my aunt’s most prized and powerful possession.
It was easy too. Everyone else was downstairs. I walked into the guest bedroom, and found the coat packed in my aunt’s duffel bag. It wasn’t folded, but rolled up so it wouldn’t crease.
I slipped it on and noticed that it fit me just right even though I was still shorter than my aunt and much slimmer. I tied snapped and fastened all the buttons. I tied the belt around my waist. I looked at myself in the mirror.
I almost walked out of my aunt’s room like that before I realized that I might end up stepping into a convenience store miles away if I stepped through the doorway.
So I took off the coat and I went to my room. I had enough presence of mind left to put a couple of peanut butter granola bars in the inner right pocket, along with a mini juice box that one of my toddler cousins had left in my room, and a toasted cheese sandwich that I’d carried upstairs for lunch and only taken one bite out of. I wrapped the sandwich in facial tissue.
I put the coat back on.
I didn’t even have a particular aim in mind. And by the time I actually stepped across the threshold of my bedroom door, I wasn’t angry anymore. I was scared. But then feeling scared made me angry again. I would show my aunt. I didn’t know what exactly I was trying to show her, but I would show her.
I stepped through the doorway.
And I ended up in the hallway. I frowned and released the breath I’d been holding. And then my mother appeared at the top of the stairs and I gasped.
I was caught red-handed.
My mother smiled. “There you are. You were taking forever. We thought you might have jumped away. Come on down.” Her gaze dropped to the coat before it returned to my face. “She wants to see what you look like in it.”
Of course I thought it was some trick. A mind game. Some special parental psychology. Maybe my aunt had some intuition about what I was doing, and she warned my mother, and that’s why my mother didn’t look at all surprised that I was wearing the coat. My mother went back downstairs.
I didn’t know what to do, so I turned back around and walked through the doorway again back into my room.
Nothing felt different.
My mother called to me from the bottom of the stairs.
I had no choice.
I went down, and right away I noticed that something seemed odd. My aunt beamed when she saw me in the coat. My parents told me they were proud of me. My little brother sat smiling in front of his plate of noodles, and I warned him not to put any in my coat pocket. It wasn’t just any old coat, after all, and it wasn’t mine.
“Oh but it is yours,” Aunt Mariya said, furrowing her brow as if she were confused.
And my brother’s eyes widened. He said he wouldn’t think of putting noodles in my pocket. He hopped off his chair, walked over to me, got on tiptoe, and kissed my cheek. My sister walked over to me and stuck out her hand. We shook and she wished me good luck on my expedition.
“Don’t forget to write,” my father said.
Everyone was being sincerely nice, probably because I was leaving apparently, but it still felt strange. I thought maybe Mariya had told them that she would be taking me along on the expedition. Maybe she had changed her mind. Or maybe my parents had changed her mind by giving her permission to take me. Maybe in the time I was thinking only of myself and stealing that coat, my family was thinking of me. Or maybe they had planned this together, a ruse to teach me a lesson. That made more sense. But if they were trying to teach me a lesson, they were doing it wrong. I played along.
“I’m going with you?” I said to my aunt.
She frowned again. And I noticed that the soft light hitting her face was slightly green. I looked out of the window and it seemed as if dawn were approaching, even though it was still dinnertime. But instead of pink and orange and yellow, the sky looked blue and green.
I glanced around the kitchen at all the faces smiling at me. I took a deep breath. This was not what I’d been expecting.
Aunt Mariya had taught me some tests that she would perform to determine if she were in another dimension, because it might be hard to tell, because that other dimension might be almost identical to our own.
So I asked my gathered family to indulge me, since I was leaving soon, according to them. I asked my mother to sing a lullaby from my youth. When she did, I noticed the words were different and even the melody. I asked my brother to bring me his math homework, so I could do it with him. He already had it done and most of the answers were correct, and he showed all his work. I asked my sister what her favorite color was, and she said it was orange.
And finally, I asked my aunt what her proudest professional accomplishment was.
“The coat, of course,” she said. “The coat I made for my oldest niece, the adventurer and explorer.”
Most of the answers were just slightly wrong, except for my brother. He avoided math as if it were plague. I was assigned to make him do his homework, and some of the time, it was easier for me to just do it for him. But aside from that, most of the answers were just slightly wrong.
Like the coat. It was my aunt’s proudest accomplishment. But Mariya had not made the coat for me.
I heard a dog bark in our yard. My mother sent my siblings to go tend to him, to our dog.
But we didn’t have a dog.
It was as if I were in some dimension where things were going my way.
I wanted to go outside. I wanted to see that dog. I wanted to see him so much that I forgot I was wearing the coat when I crossed the threshold of our front door.
And I ended up in a dark wood.
I gasped and spun around. But there was nothing behind me. Nothing but more darkness.
The moon was up and it was full. I could see well enough to move slowly. Every step I took was loud. Twigs snapped and even the dry leaves sounded too sharp. There weren’t any other sounds, no crickets or beetles, or owls hooting, or anything.
I glanced around but couldn’t see any roads or paths. I had my phone with me. There was no reception, but the battery was full. I could use the flashlight.
But I started hearing a set of footsteps that copied my own, and I changed my mind about the flashlight. I didn’t want to do anything that might draw attention.
I froze and kept as still as I could. The footsteps too stopped.
Sometimes, I would be walking and think I heard someone walking behind me. I would turn around and there was no one, and I would pay attention to my footsteps, and realize that the other steps I heard were just echoes.
I hoped that’s what was happening. I tested it.
I quickened my pace. I slowed my pace. I varied my pace. And the footsteps always matched.
I still felt nervous being in the woods at night. I tried to find some kind of path or listen for traffic or dogs barking, or maybe lights in the distance, some guide that I could use to head in the direction of civilization.
I walked, the footsteps followed. And I couldn’t quite convince myself that they weren’t just echoes.
And then my foot hit a rock or a tree root or something, and I tripped and then caught myself.
But the footsteps continued. I heard three steps before they stopped.
I clapped my hand to my mouth. I felt my face squeeze in. I wanted to cry. I stopped myself. I gulped.
I took as quiet a breath as I could.
It’s not a dream, I thought. I can be hurt here. I thought about running and climbing a tree. But I hadn’t climbed a tree in years. And I’d never gone far up as a little kid. I didn’t even know if I could.
And I didn’t know if whoever or whatever was following me could climb.
I stood still and heard nothing. And I hoped that meant that it wasn’t getting closer.
The coat was the key. It had brought me there. It could take me back, or at least away. All I had to do was step across a threshold.
But I was in the middle of the woods.
I wondered if I could make a threshold. Maybe it would be good enough to just make a line in the dirt.
I turned on my phone’s flashlight, holding it in my coat, so I could adjust the brightness. I needed just enough to see the forest floor, to find a twig, and a good spot to make that line.
I spotted a twig that looked thick enough to make a good deep furrow. I had to walk several steps to get to it.
I took a step, and I heard another step echo mine.
I took another step, and another step, and another step. And my heart pounded faster and faster with each of my steps, and each of the echoes.
I bent down and grabbed the twig. I jammed its end into the dirt and started scraping, and now, even though I’d stopped walking, the footsteps kept coming. Their pace quickened. They were getting louder.
My vision suddenly blurred, and I realized I was crying. I rubbed my eyes and sniffed. I rose and spun around, holding the twig in front of me as if it were a wand. As if it could do anything. I stepped backward, across however much of a threshold I’d managed to mark.
Nothing changed. Or nothing seemed to change. I glanced down and saw that the line in the dirt was gone. I’d been too clumsy when I walked across. I hadn’t stepped over the line. I shuffled over it. I couldn’t help it. My muscles felt so jittery. I wiped fresh tears away and braced myself.
And someone came crashing out of the woods toward me.
I started to turn, deciding at the last minute that running was my best option.
“Where are going now? Do you think you can hide from me?”
The voice was familiar. It was angry. I was still terrified. But it was a strange sensation I’d never felt before. One kind of terror fell away completely, replaced by another.
I turned around.
“Mom?” I said.
She put her hands on her hips. The moonlight made sharp shadows on her face.
“I found out what you did,” she said.
I gulped and looked down at the coat.
“I know. I’m so—“
“I’m disappointed in you.” She shook her head. “You think you’re big stuff? Something special? You think you are a queen?”
I frowned. “I’m going to return it right now.”
“I’m ashamed of you,” she said.
And I suddenly realized that she hadn’t once looked at the coat. Or said anything about it or about Aunt Mariya.
“What did I do again?” I asked.
My mother pointed a finger at me. That one finger. “If you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you.”
All terror receded. I threw out my hands. “Then how can I improve or fix it?”
“You’re so grown up? You can fix it.”
“Will you give me a clue? Is it about the coat?”
“Did you give me a clue?” she asked.
I frowned, confused. “About what?”
My mother shook her head. I shrugged.
“Mom, are you going to help me out or—“
Suddenly something came out of the woods, roaring and snarling. It knocked my mother down.
All my terror rushed back.
I didn’t know what to do.
I screamed. “Mom! Mom!”
But I couldn’t make myself rush in and help her. She rolled over and over, tumbling with a dark shape that was about the same size.
“Off!” my mother said. She batted at the thing. “What’s gotten into you!”
The dark shape, it looked a little like a badger, rolled off and looked at my mother as she rose from the ground and brushed herself off.
I tried to approach her, but she held up that finger again.
“You think you’re big stuff?” she said, but she wasn’t looking at me. She was addressing the badger-thing.
The creature, whatever it was, turned its head to look at me. “Bugaboo,” it said. And it turned and plunged back into the woods.
I stood there, my mouth agape. “What the heck?”
My mother too walked back into the forest, muttering about how ungrateful I was about the sacrifices that she and my father had made, and how I could fend for myself if I was so grown up.
I tried to beg her to come back. But she vanished into the darkness, and as soon as she did, I couldn’t hear her footsteps anymore.
“Threshold,” I said to myself. “I need a threshold.”
I tried again to make a line in the dirt. And I walked across the line. And I was still in the same forest. I pulled out my phone and saw there was still no reception.
I glanced around, but I was too agitated to try any of my aunt’s tests of alternate dimensions.
I walked around a little. I didn’t hear any footsteps, but I expected that something might happen any moment.
I looked up at the trees. Sometimes trees grew toward each other and formed arches. It looked like gateways. I walked forward and looked around, and found something like that.
I put my hands in the coat’s pocket, feeling all the snacks I’d packed in there that I hadn’t eaten. And I walked through that gateway.
And as I did, I thought to myself, Take me home. My home dimension. Take me home.
I stepped through the door of my favorite diner, Donna’s.
Someone walked ahead of me. They’d probably just opened the door, I thought. I didn’t know how I had ended up in the middle of the woods without a doorway, but at the moment, I didn’t care. I was just grateful that a stranger had opened a door for me just when I most needed it.
I didn’t turn around until I’d stepped fully into the diner. And I wasn’t surprised to find nothing there.
Nothing but the parking lot that I expected to see.
Donna nodded to me from behind the counter just as I pulled out my phone.
When Aunt Mariya answered, I was relieved, and she was surprised to hear where I was.
She said that I’d only been upstairs for maybe fifteen minutes.
Aunt Mariya met me at the diner. My family was doing game night in the living room, and she had found it fairly easy to convince my mom that she was going to take me out for some dessert and talk to me. She climbed upstairs and knocked on my bedroom door. She opened it and closed it, opened and closed her own door. And then she tried to simulate two sets of footsteps coming down the stairs.
She yelled to my family that we were going, and held the front door open as if I’d already passed through it, as she called to my mom and told her that we would be back in an hour or so.
The first thing Aunt Mariya did was hug me and ask me if I was okay. And then she held me by the shoulders and shook her head.
“Slippery little devil,” she said. “Aren’t you?”
I took off the coat and handed it to her. She’d brought one of my own. It was a chilly night.
We sat down in a booth and ordered food. And while we waited, I glanced around and looked at the details of the diner, checking to see if anything looked off, just in case my aunt was wrong about the phone call thing. Donna brought us our order. And once I started eating my cheesy fries, my aunt began to speak.
“I don’t feel too good about fooling her,” she said. She frowned. “Or about how easy it was to fool her into thinking you were still in the house.”
“She trusts you,” I said, stirring the milkshake she had brought me.
“Why did you do something so reckless?”
I told her why, and she understood how I felt. And she asked me if I could talk about where I had gone and what happened there. And I told her, every detail I could remember. And I showed her my watch. For me, over two hours had passed. But in my home dimension, only fifteen minutes had passed.
Aunt Mariya peered at the cheesy fry she picked up. “I’ve been meaning to make a chronometer. I thought time might pass differently in different dimensions.”
She shrugged. “I’m no physicist, but I think it’s agreed that time is a constant in our dimension. But that doesn’t mean it’s a constant across dimensions.”
I frowned. “I don’t think I even begin to understand yet.”
“But you were right about one thing, even if you said it to be mean to me. You were able to use the coat to jump to another dimension.” She smiled. “Maybe it’s because you have a more vivid imagination.”
“More vivid than yours? Unlikely,” I said.
“Then maybe it’s just that you…believe in it more. On a subconscious level, or some other level. Maybe I’m too skeptical. Or too jaded after all my failed attempts.”
“Maybe what I believe in is you,” I said, staring down at my milkshake.
My aunt said nothing for a moment.
“That’s sweet,” she said finally. “I—I think I should—yes—I should forgive you completely for stealing my coat and for putting yourself in danger.”
I glanced up at her and widened my eyes. My aunt had never used sarcasm with me before.
“After all,” she said, “you had a good reason. Didn’t you? You didn’t get your way. That’s…that’s a good reason.”
I looked at her for a moment. “Kids make mistakes?” I shrugged.
Aunt Mariya threw back her head and laughed. “Yes, they do,” she said. She leaned toward me. “I have one week left here. Let’s talk about all your mistakes. And mine. See what we can learn.”
I glanced down at my milkshake again. “We can, but maybe…maybe you should also do what you want to do.”
I glanced back up at her again and she was peering at me, smiling.
“You’re beginning to understand,” she said.
Copyright © 2019 Nila L. Patel