The Whisky Blot
Behind the Red Door by Kevin Hogg
Carolina bit into her caramel apple. Or, at least, she tried to bite into it. She turned it around, hoping to find a weak point. She shrugged and tossed it into a garbage bin. Walking beside her, Devon hung his head.
“Look, I thought this would be fun,” he told her. “We can leave any time and go have a nice anniversary dinner.”
“I told you—I’m happy here,” Carolina replied. “You don’t have to try so hard. We’ve done a fancy dinner every other year.”
“Yeah, but ten years is a big milestone. I wanted it to be different…and perfect.” He casually touched his chest, ensuring that the jewelry box was still secure in his inner coat pocket. The carnival may be a bust, but the earrings would bring some redemption—he knew she had been looking at them online for months.
“Come on. Let’s go on a ride,” she suggested. “Stop overthinking things and live in the moment.”
Devon smiled but couldn’t shake the feeling that the carnival was a mistake. If anything, the feeling in his stomach after a ride on the tilt-a-whirl reinforced that thought. Glancing up, he could barely make out the words Starboard Amusements on the sign as they left the ride.
Carolina spoke up as they passed a booth. “I remember that you were quite the pitcher back in the day. Why don’t you try to win a prize?”
Devon laughed. “I haven’t held a baseball in years, but why not?”
His skill clearly hadn’t vanished with time. He knocked down all six milk bottles on his first throw.
“A fine throw,” said the woman running the booth. “Try again and see if you can win a bigger prize.”
“One final throw,” the woman said. “Can you win the biggest prize of them all?”
Devon looked around the booth. “And what would that be?”
The woman leaned closer. “First you throw. Then we talk.”
Once again, all six bottles went flying.
The woman’s eyes lit up. “At long last. Meet me at the back of the booth to claim your prize.”
Devon’s eyes narrowed. “Why can’t you give it to me here? Too big to carry?”
“This prize cannot be carried.”
“Then what did I win?” asked Devon.
The woman smiled and replied softly. “Happiness.”
Carolina stepped in front of Devon. “I don’t know what you have planned, but I am not sending my husband back there with you.”
“You misunderstand,” the woman replied. “Please, both of you come.”
The back of the booth was a storage shed, packed with boxes of prizes. The only thing out of place was a red door, mounted on a frame but detached and leaning on the wall.
The woman greeted them. “Eighteen years, I’ve been running this booth. You are the first to win the grand prize.”
“Just hand it over, and we’ll get out of here,” said Carolina.
“I told you that it can’t be carried. What I offer you is the happiest day of your life.”
“And how are you going to make it so happy?” Devon asked suspiciously.
“I will do nothing. The day will be just as you recall it.”
Devon and Carolina looked at each other, then back at the woman. “I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he said. “How can you give us a day that already happened?”
“First, we must address the ‘us.’ You have won a single prize. I offer this to only one of you. Pass through this door, and you will return to the happiest day of your life.”
Devon walked over to the door. He stood it up and walked around it. “This door takes us back in time? Is this a joke?” He looked at Carolina for support but saw that her eyes were wide with excitement.
“So, if this is real, you mean that we can’t both go back?” he asked.
“One of you must go immediately. The other may play the game again.”
Devon looked at Carolina, willing himself to believe for her sake. “You go,” he told her. “I’ll play until I win again.”
Carolina walked quickly to the door. When she opened it, Devon saw the stacks of boxes that stood behind it. His shoulders sagged with disappointment, and he realized that he had been almost as excited as Carolina. But when she took a step through the door, no trace of her was left behind.
“It’s real,” he mumbled. He turned to the woman. “It’s real!”
“I would not deceive you. She has traveled back to the happiest day of her life.”
“Well, come on. Let’s play again so I can go!”
Once again, it took only three balls. When Devon opened the door, it looked just the same. However, having seen Carolina vanish gave him the confidence to step through as well, and the carnival vanished behind him.
He had hardly dared to hope, but the green lawn of the university stood before him. The gazebo where he had proposed. He looked at his clothes—the spring coat gone, he was dressed for summer. He closed his eyes and replayed the scene in his mind, watching her walking toward him in the morning sun. The excitement in her eyes as she accepted the ring.
He checked the time on his phone, smiling at the outdated technology. She should be here arriving any moment. Sitting down in the gazebo, he pulled the ring box out of his pocket and smiled. He might be the first person in history to experience his happiest moment twice. Again, he got lost in the memories. The harbor cruise in the afternoon. Dinner by the beach…
He glanced at his phone again. 9:06. That couldn’t be right. They should be on their way to breakfast by now. The restaurant they had visited was across town, and they stopped seating breakfast customers at 9:30.
A tired young man walked by. “Excuse me,” Devon called. “Do you know the time?”
“My class ended at 9:00, so it must be just after that.” He checked his phone. “Yeah, 9:06.”
Devon’s stomach tightened. Why wasn’t she coming? He got up and looked around. Someone was coming. He pulled out the ring box, eager to get the day back on track.
It wasn’t her. “Sorry to bother you,” he asked the woman, “but is it May 14?”
The woman stopped, puzzled by the question. “Yeah. Not too late to call your mom if you forgot Mother’s Day yesterday.”
“No, I just…I mean…May 14, 2012?”
She hesitated. “Yes.” She tilted her head, considering the situation. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, all good,” Devon replied. “All good.”
As she walked away, Devon looked down at the box in his hand. How could this be the best day
of his life if Carolina didn’t show up for the proposal? He opened the box and stared.
Earrings. Not only no Carolina, but no ring.
He scrolled through the contacts on his phone. She wasn’t listed. He called her number anyway. “Carolina? Sorry, you’ve got a wrong number,” a man’s deep voice replied.
Mark could straighten this out. He had introduced them. “Devon! I’ve been out of town all weekend. Sorry to miss your poker night.”
“No problem. Listen, I’m having a hard time getting hold of Carolina.”
“North or South?”
“My girlfriend. Carolina. Come on, I’m getting worried.”
A pause. “You and Christie broke up last month. Did you forget about that…and her name?”
“Never mind. I’ll call you later.”
Clearly something strange was going on, but if he could just track her down…
Her mom. A no-nonsense woman, she wouldn’t get involved in a prank like this. But even as he dialed, Devon already knew the answer…”
“Carolina? You must have a wrong number.”
“Mrs. Simchak? It’s Devon. I really need to speak to Carolina.”
“This is Mrs. Simchak, but I don’t have a daughter. I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what’s happening. Who did you say you are?”
He hung up without a word.
Here he was, reliving the best day of his life, but without anything that had made it so good. There was only one possible explanation: the woman at the carnival had lied.
If she got him into this mess, she must be the one to get him out of it. He remembered the sign: Starboard Amusements. If she had been with the carnival for 18 years, she must be traveling with them now.
After a few guesses at the password, Devon was able to log in to his university computer account. The carnival was on its was to Kokomo, Indiana—only a few hours away. Unfortunately, as he only had a bus pass during his university days, getting there might be easier said than done. He thought he had left his hitchhiking days far behind him, but this was an emergency.
It took three rides, but the third was heading straight for Kokomo. They wanted to talk nonstop, and Devon did what he could to at least sound polite. He got out where the carnival was setting up on the edge of town.
He walked quickly between the booths and rides, ignoring staff who told him that they weren’t yet open to the public. At last, he found her. He had expected her to look ten years younger, but the woman looked exactly the same.
“What happened? What happened to my wife?”
The woman looked at him in confusion. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I know you…or your wife.”
Of course. This was ten years before they had met. “I’m from the future, I guess. I knocked down all the milk bottles, and…”
“And you won the opportunity to see behind the red door?” the woman finished.
“Well, yeah. But you said it would be the happiest day of my life.”
“I don’t choose the day. The door chooses. What made this day so happy?”
“I proposed to my wife, but she isn’t here. Where is she?”
The woman thought for a few seconds. “She should be here. The only other possibility is…”
Devon waited for the sentence to finish, then prompted. “Is what? What is the other possibility?”
“Did she also pass beyond the red door?”
“Yes, she went first. We were going to meet and relive the day of our engagement.”
The woman frowned, realizing the truth. “Did you discuss what day you would revisit?”
“No, I guess not. Just the happiest day of our lives.”
“What’s going on? What do you know? Why isn’t she here?”
The woman hesitated, searching carefully for her words. “It would seem that…while today might be the happiest day of your life…”
The truth dawned on Devon. “It wasn’t the happiest day of her life?”
“I’m afraid not, my friend.”
“So then, where is she?”
A rueful smile. “I think the real question is ‘When is she?’”
“What do you mean? She’s got to be somewhere?”
“Alas, if she has entered another timeline, she exists only in the past or the future. She does not exist in the present.”
“Okay, then, when is she?”
“I am sorry, but the answer lies behind the red door. I have no way of knowing.”
“Okay, then let’s play the bottle game.”
“I’m sorry,” she frowned, “but the game only allows you to return to the happiest day of your life, not hers.”
“So, there’s no way to find her?”
“There is one. But you have only one chance.”
“No problem. I’ve hit the bottles six times in a row.”
“This one is more complicated. To visit someone else’s past, you must knock the bottles down from a distance of fifty feet. You have one attempt. Do you accept?”
“Knowing that, if you miss, you will remain in this timeline forever?”
“Yes, I guess so.”
“Never reunited with your wife?”
“Yes, yes. Just give me the balls.”
“One ball. And here it is. I will set up the bottles, and then you will walk back until I tell you to stop.”
Fifty feet had never seemed so far. In his days as a pitcher, it was sixty feet, six inches to home plate, but this seemed infinitely farther.
“When you are ready, my friend.”
Devon stared at the middle bottle on the bottom row. It would take a perfectly aimed shot, just off center, to knock them all down. Even the state championship seemed like an easy feat compared to this.
The state championship, in which he had given up seven runs in the final inning. The day he had always considered the worst in his life…ironically, until he had won the privilege of reliving today.
The carnival employees stopped to watch. He let the ball fly. Right on target.
Five bottles crashed to the ground, but one still stood. He had knocked it to the back of the platform, but it remained upright.
“I…I am sorry, my friend. The door must remain closed. I hope you will find happiness in this timeline.”
“One more chance?” he begged. “I’ve got another dollar.”
“I don’t make the rules. You had but one throw. I regret that I can do no more.”
“Is there any other way to reach her timeline?”
“I am sorry. I know of nothing aside from the red door.”
The door. Devon ran around to the back of the booth. The door leaned against the wall, just as he remembered. He stood it up and pulled on the handle.
“It will not open. Many have tried, but the rules of the game can neither change nor be altered.”
Devon stared at the door for a few seconds, a tear running down his cheek. He walked away without a word. The door may not open, but there must be another way. He would find it, even if it took…
A crashing sound interrupted his thoughts. When he looked back, the platform was empty.
“Did you just…”
“I did nothing, my friend. You threw one ball, and no bottles remain on the platform. I will meet you at the red door.”
Devon rushed to the back of the booth. “But you must have…”
“I did nothing!” she shouted. “The bottles have fallen, and the door will open. Ask no more.”
“But I don’t know what to do when I find her. Do I stay in that timeline? Can I bring her back?”
“I can answer no more. You will know what to do. If you will pass through the door, it must be now, speaking her name as you enter.”
And so he went, speaking clearly as he walked through. “Carolina Worth.”
He saw nothing but boxes. He turned around and saw the woman, a sad frown on her face.
“What happened? Why didn’t it work?”
“I am sorry, but it seems that there is no Carolina Worth in her timeline. Perhaps she might have another name?”
Of course. If she was in a timeline before they were married…
“Carolina Simchak,” he said as he stepped through the door.
He was seated on a boardwalk along what appeared to be an ocean. Glancing around, he saw her, standing with a group of friends. There could be no mistaking that smile.
He rushed over to her. “Carolina?”
Clearly puzzled, she replied, “Yes. I’m sorry…do I know you?”
“It’s me. Devon.”
She thought for a second. “Devon Huddy, from second grade?”
“Devon Worth. You know…your….” He stopped, as the realization hit him. The best day of her life had been before they met. But how could he remember the red door at the fairground when she remembered nothing?
“I’m sorry. I can’t place the name. How do I know you?”
He looked around in desperation, wondering how to regain the love of a woman who didn’t even know him. Starboard Seafood Shack. The name rang a bell, but, as he examined the building, he noticed something even more important…
“Sorry, I don’t think we’ve met. But…I was sent to give you a message.”
“A message. From who?”
“Your mother. Mrs. Simchak. She needs you to call.”
Carolina’s face paled. “Is everything alright?” She pulled out her phone.
“Why? What happened?”
“No, I mean…she’s alright. Everything’s alright. But the cell reception is terrible here. You can use the phone at my restaurant.”
“Yes, the Starboard Seafood Shack,” Devon improvised. “A family business.”
“And my mother called a seafood restaurant 800 miles from home to give me a message? Why didn’t she just call me directly?”
“It must be that bad cell reception,” Devon answered quickly. “Our phone is right inside the restaurant, if you will follow me through this red door.”
She gave him a skeptical look but followed. Sure enough, they found themselves back at the booth. Devon glanced down at his spring coat. So they had returned.
“I’m sorry. What just happened?” Carolina asked.
“You were reliving the best day of your life.” He looked her in the eyes. “A day that apparently didn’t involve me.”
“Don’t act like that. I’ve had lots of great times with you.”
“But better times without me?”
“That’s not fair. I guess I just liked the freedom…”
“Of life before we met?”
“Well, they were easier times. Being an adult isn’t easy. You know that I don’t love my job, and…”
“But even the early days of our relationship couldn’t compare to a visit to the coast?”
“Those are my best friends.”
“You’re my best friend. I was excited to relive the day that I proposed to you, but you…”
“I’m sorry. That day was great, but…”
“Forget it.” He turned to the woman at the booth. “When I traveled back, I remembered everything. How come she didn’t remember me in her timeline…or the door?”
She frowned. “The heart chooses what to remember. Apparently, you wanted to hold on to everything, but…”
“It’s fine. I get it.” Devon turned to Carolina, tossing her the ring box. “Happy anniversary, I guess.” He handed a dollar to the woman running the booth. Two minutes later, he opened the door, looked back without a word, and disappeared.
Kevin Hogg teaches English and Law in British Columbia's Rocky Mountains. He holds a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Carleton University. He writes in many genres, with his short stories leaning toward slipstream, and has spent four years writing a narrative nonfiction book about the summer of 1969. Outside of writing, he enjoys thistles, rosemary, and pistachio ice cream. His website is https://kevinhogg.ca and he can be found on Twitter at @kevinhogg23.
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