I practically lived in the woods when I was a kid, avoiding grown-ups and my dysfunctional family, pretending I was half-wolf, a feral child who napped in nests made out of ferns, ate wild blueberries, and wove sticks and feathers into her hair. I believed then ? in a deep, easy way that is impossible for me as an adult ? that there was more to this world than meets the eye. Trees had spirits, the wind spoke, if you followed a toad or a raven deep into the heart of the forest, they were sure to lead you to something magical.
I found many treasures in the woods over the years: shotgun shells, empty Colt 45 bottles, old railroad spikes, orange and black beetles eating a dead mouse, pebbles that looked just like teeth, old stone walls and cellar holes, a rusted out frying pan, the skull of a cat. And once ? once I climbed to the top of a hill deep in the woods, about a mile from my house, and I found a door.
I'll never forget the heart-pounding rush of excitement and fear, the fear feeding the excitement, and vice versa. The door was heavy and wooden with rusted metal hinges and was flush against the ground. Do you know the first thing I did? I knocked. I got down on my knees and knocked on the door and called out a very tentative, "Hello?" No answer. What did I expect?
But that was the question, wasn't it? I didn't know what was down there. Anything seemed possible. A serial killer's torture chamber, a pirate's treasure cave ? maybe it was an entrance to another world, like going through the wardrobe to Narnia. When I called out hello, who did I think might answer? Ghosts, goblins, or fairies? Skeletal remains, or a living prisoner? Was there something dark hiding underneath, something evil? There was never any question in my mind that I would open the door. After all, I was obviously meant ? destined ? to find it. I held my breath and heaved it open in one yank.
In my new novel, Don't Breathe a Word, 12-year-old Lisa is a whole lot like I was when I was a kid: an odd, imaginative girl, a bit of an outsider, who effortlessly believes there are fairies in the woods behind her house. She leaves them plates of sweets and they start leaving her gifts: a bag of horse teeth, an old penny, and ultimately a book that seems to be written by the King of the Fairies himself. At the end of the King's book are instructions for how to open the door and cross over into the fairy world.
Things aren't so good for Lisa at home: Her father has overdosed and lies catatonic on the couch; her cousin Evie, with whom she has always shared everything, has betrayed her horribly; and her reliable, practical little brother, Sam, has finally turned his back on her. On midsummer's eve, she says goodbye to Sam and goes out into the woods to meet the King of the Fairies. She never returns, leaving behind only a single pink and silver sneaker at the bottom of an old cellar hole.
And what happened when I opened my door in the woods? Sadly (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), it did not lead to a fairy kingdom, but to a small, empty underground room with cement walls, ceiling, and floor. I thought briefly of keeping it my secret, but this was simply too good a find to keep to myself. I ran home through the woods to get my younger brother and then grabbed a couple of neighborhood kids. Now I wonder if or why they believed me about the room ? I'd taken them on so many hunts for Bigfoot, on stakeouts of likely-seeming UFO landing sites, none of which amounted to much. And yet, they followed. We filled knapsacks with peanut butter sandwiches, candles, flashlights, rope, and a steel-chain fire escape ladder and set off on our adventure. I led the expedition through the woods and back to the secret underground room.
We never did figure out who could have built it or what it had once been ? a root cellar, a bomb shelter, the basement of a tiny house that was never built? It became our secret clubhouse for a while. We played end-of-the-world games, then truth or dare. I kissed a boy whose named I have forgotten ? what I remember is the dark room, the smell of damp cement, the feeling of being hidden away underground in our own secret world where anything might happen next.
That fall we had a period of heavy rain and when we went out to the underground room, it was wet and full of frogs that had fallen in because we'd left the door open. We rescued the frogs, shut the door, and kind of forgot about the place in the way that's easy to do when you're young and half-wolf. Years later, as an adult, I returned to the woods and tried to find the door and the underground room, but I wandered in ragged circles, tripping on roots, fearful of poison ivy, and found nothing.
Some things, I think, like fairy books and secret doors, are only meant to be found by children.