~3400 words, approx 26 min read time
You’re waiting for dawn on a snow-dappled hill at 6:50. The sky lingers in darkness, but edges of light blossom, full of sharp possibility, the way your lungs swell, filled with piercing air.
The way your heart swells, filled with quiet anticipation. It’s been crushed beneath sorrow for so long that it unfolds painfully at the promise of uncertain opportunity, brittle like the frozen pines you struggled past to get here, the ache just as needling.
You’ve been awake for hours, though it feels like you’ve never slept, waiting for the spill of light to crest the peak of the foggy, distant mountains. The forest sleeps, but the wind carries birdsong meant to rouse creatures from their chilly slumber. It’s so cold, you’re so tired, but it doesn’t matter, because once the sun rises you hope to disappear.
Sarah doesn’t get to choose where she goes, but it’s better that way. She shields her eyes as the sunlight waves like a powerful goodbye from the ocean’s horizon. “The sunsets don’t look anything like this where I’m from.”
Felix laughs and it makes Sarah smile because he’s got a laugh for every occasion, and she can’t remember the last time she’s laughed at all.
She can, but she tries not to, and swallows the thought with her dreamy genmaicha. The subtle flavors remind her of lunches with her mother, and those memories aren’t restricted—she’s relieved that there are still memories untouched by mourning.
“You say that every time we watch the sunset,” Felix remarks.
“Why do we watch so many sunsets?” Sarah asks. She doesn’t mind them—they are pretty—but after zipping through countless portals and places, she could have a passport stamped with every sunset.
“I think they’re pretty.” Felix shrugs. “Prettier than sunrises anyway.”
It seems like a strange thought to Sarah, but Felix adds, “Hellos are less memorable than goodbyes.”
Clutching her teacup, Sarah looks into the dredges of her amber-colored tea and feels the hairs rise on the back of her neck, like someone is watching her.
It’s no one, but Sarah knows it means it’s time to leave. “Felix?”
Felix quickly takes final sips of his mango mint disaster tea and extends his hand. “Let’s go.” With his free hand, he waves a series of invisible symbols in the air like a magic conductor and the telltale ripples of a portal appear.
Sarah takes his hand and, as she steps into the portal, she looks over her shoulder.
It’s hard to outrun a memory.
Your watch reads 6:52 a.m., but you’re not in a hurry for once. You’ve waited this long for escape, for adventure. You’ve packed lightly for this trip since you’re trying to leave your baggage behind.
You’re not sure how long you’ll be gone, and even though the guilt of disappearing is like a small parcel you carry in your pocket, now’s not the time to open it.
You don’t want to say you’ve been trapped in your current life because the word “trapped” suggests someone has done the trapping.
No, a better word is stuck, something you’ve done to yourself or something that’s happened to you and is now your responsibility.
Waiting for a miracle on a frozen hill in the middle of winter feels like a drastic way to unstick yourself, but you need to know if it’s real.
“It’s okay if it’s not,” you whisper to make yourself believe, the words escaping your lips like misty promises.
If the sun pops over the horizon and you’re still sitting here, you’ll breathe deeply, inhale the innocent, illuminated air, and hike back to real life, to whatever awaits you.
You can say you tried.
The portal takes Sarah everywhere and anywhere, from quiet islands to the tops of city buildings, and always somewhere close to good food. She’s never traveled so much in her life, and her soul feels like it stood up and had the best stretch, even if her heart is still quite introverted.
The portal hasn’t opened up to the same place twice, and it’s never opened up somewhere Sarah has already been. Nowhere she’s already been with him. She’s grateful for that, even as she wonders if visiting a place they loved together would bring the memory of him closer.
These are the things Sarah thinks while in between places, while she’s in those precious moments of portal travel, whirring between time and space, when all of the world around her looks like a crying rainbow. That’s when she thinks about him, where she tries to whisper his name softly as though he’s right beside her.
But she can’t.
And then she bends at the knees and braces for the halt!, so she doesn’t tumble away into eternity—or an unsuspecting stranger.
“Wow,” Sarah says when she’s finally oriented and staring out of an expanse of glass. The shadow cast by Saturn’s rings is even more intense than photographs Sarah has seen. She doesn’t touch anything, just in case, but a quick look around and Sarah knows she’s in some kind of galactic diner. Oval-shaped booths contain guests of all shapes, and she’s got the sneaking suspicion that some of the empty booths aren’t really empty, just that her underdeveloped human brain can’t perceive them.
Felix arrives with a tray of what Sarah thinks is food, and he guides her to what she hopes is actually an empty booth.
“Strange, huh?” Felix slides the tray onto the table, little cups and pouches and plates of strange things, and sits in front of her. “I don’t understand how we got here, but it’s fucking cool, huh? Like something from sci-fi.”
There’s a guttural, clawing memory in the back of her mind, and Sarah pushes it away. “So fucking cool.” She looks at the array of refreshments, and there’s nothing that looks remotely familiar to her. “What is any of this?”
Felix shrugs. “The cash and phone in my pocket were gone when we got here, replaced with this?” He holds up a thin, glowing device. “I think it’s money but also a translator, because I just told them we wanted to try a bunch of things, and they replied in French.”
Sarah doesn’t tell Felix that she doesn’t speak French, but she wonders about him. Where he came from, why he’s on his own journey. They’ve been together for a half a dozen portal trips, and she still doesn’t know much about him.
“Has a portal ever taken you somewhere other than Earth?” Sarah asks over a frothing, smoking cup of pink carbonated liquid. She sips it, and it reminds her of watermelon, if watermelon went on a date with mint to a barbeque. The lingering smoke rolls over their table like tiny fog drifts.
“No, this is the first for me,” Felix replies. He’s holding a pastry of some sort that looks like cinnamon star bread from Earth. “I didn’t travel through many portals, but my guide told me that she’d visited places she swore were in the past or the future.”
“What was your guide like?” Sarah asks. She remembers the speech Felix gave when he arrived for her.
This is your journey, not mine. Any time you want to go somewhere new or come back to where you started, just let me know. I can’t control where we go, I just open the portals. It’s your journey. Your heart will tell us where it needs to go, and you will tell us when you’re ready to come back. I don’t know anything about the portal, who made it, why it’s here, and I don’t know anything about you or why you’re here. I won’t talk about me or my life because, well, you know. It’s your journey. Are you ready?
Felix looks towards the stars and smiles. “Mica. She was generous and firm and ferocious.” When his eyes meet Sarah’s, they’re glistening. “I was a fool, wallowing in my feelings, and somehow she managed to,” he holds up one finger, “have no time for my bullshit and,” he holds up a second finger, “have an infinite amount of patience for me.”
Felix is silent for a moment, for moments, for a while, and then he says, “I think about her a lot. She reminded me there are all sorts of heartaches, and they don’t always feel the same. I’m not sure where I’d be without her. Or who I’d be.”
“Is that why you became a guide?” Sarah hands Felix something with a strange springy texture that she doesn’t think is supposed to be so warm.
“Yeah, I guess. I found the portal the first time because I needed a lifeline. I found it the second time because I needed to give someone else one? Like … I knew how it felt to never think I’d be able to move forward, and once I came out of that, I realized I needed to help someone else discover that.”
Sarah smiles. “Me.”
Felix reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small worn pamphlet that reads “How to be a Portal Guide.” He hands it to her. “When I finally made the decision, this was in my coat pocket.”
Sarah takes it and lets her eyes roam the cover. It’s worn paper, designed like an old national park brochure from the 1970s. She wants to open it, but she slides it over to Felix instead, deciding that it’s too early in her story to solve that mystery.
As Sarah looks around, as she wonders how any of this could be real, she suddenly needs him. The way the feeling twists inside of her, wild and terrifying, demanding to share a moment with him because that’s how she made sense of life. A series of experiences, of memories, shared with someone else to make life feel more real.
Sarah doesn’t feel real anymore. She’s a daydream adrift without her person, a nightmare churning on the horizon.
If he’s not alive to confirm she exists, who is she? She’s a figment.
Sarah isn’t real.
Sarah can’t see anything, can’t see Felix through the water in her eyes, and her jaw is clenched, desperate to keep the hideous wail of her fresh truth from escaping her lips.
There’s a hand on her hand—Felix—there’s a thrum—the portal—and then she’s in the crying rainbow portal, screaming his name so loudly from the inside she thinks she’ll explode into nothing, but maybe it’s okay, because she’s not real anyway.
Your fingers page through the notebook you’ve kept since you discovered the myth of the portal, cobbling together each piece of the mystery you could find, uncovering stories that overlapped, discovering this portal was real.
All of the stories suggested the same thing: Portals were triggered at dawn of a new day with each person having only one real thing in common—unimaginable grief. Inescapable grief. Grief that tethered them to the earth. The portals allowed them to escape, released them from the earth and into the sky like hot air balloons, like dreams escaping sleep.
They called them Grief Portals.
You have held it all in, held it all together, but even though you look like a full person, inside you’re missing pieces. You wonder—with amazement—how you made it this far, how you fooled anyone into thinking you were okay. But it’s easy for others to believe you when you say you’re okay when the truth is an inconvenience.
You breathe in deeply, the chill of the air bringing your feelings in check. You know you’re being unfair to everyone. Everyone is dealing with their own shit—everyone is hurting.
And so are you.
But you’re here, desperate for the sun because you’re freezing. You’re here.
The way the light hits her eyes reminds Sarah of the day she’s been trying to forget. There are many days she’s struggled to shake off, more she’s unintentionally forgotten, but remembering how she went from there to here lingers like an awkward stranger in the periphery of her memories.
Sometimes she still remembers things, like the warmth of his hand covering hers, that steadfast grip of certainty that held her in place when everything felt like it was tumbling out of control. The way he always looked at her with kindness, with awe, and how she made jokes to diffuse the intensity of their love because if she thought about it too much, her eyes would well at the thought of his absence. It has to be forever, she’d tell herself, because anything less would be cruel.
Sometimes she still remembers things, like when she smells waffles and her mind goes back to slow Sunday mornings with quiet, interesting conversations, breakfast, and the kind of music meant to sway dreamily to. Or late nights watching one last episode of a show with heavy eyelids, no words, just being near each other, experiencing a story together.
And when that happens, Sarah moves on.
When the sun gives Sarah one last glance, she sighs and wraps her hands tightly around her cup of cocoa. Felix looks out on the ocean with a smile, remembering something to warrant a tiny laugh. An “ah, yes, this is perfect” laugh.
“How did you do it?” Sarah asks. “How did you move forward?”
Felix looks thoughtfully at the last wisps of pink on the horizon. “You can’t move forward like you’re running away. You can’t move forward like you’re fleeing something.”
Sarah laughs, the first laugh in an eternity, a “well shit” kind of laugh.
Felix laughs with her. “Yeah, you know what I mean.”
“I don’t know how to stop.”
“I don’t either,” Felix admits. “But one day I was just tired of trying to outrun grief, tired of thinking I even could. It always catches up with you, even when you think you’ve escaped it, but only because it’s always a part of you.”
“I don’t want to think about it. I don’t want to think about him.”
Felix shakes his head. “You want more than anything to think about him again. You want to remember every joy, every moment, every tiny little detail.”
Sarah’s cocoa is gone but she holds it close anyway. “How do I fill the space where he was?”
“He’s not gone.” Felix reaches out and takes her hand. “You are so full of everything, you can’t process anything.” He takes a deep breath. “You can’t outrun grief. Let grief be your passenger for a while. Take it out on the town. Buy it snacks and find common ground. Show it some sunsets.”
Sarah squeezes Felix’s hand. “Okay.” She looks out onto the dark water. “But maybe no more sunsets for a little bit. They make me sad.”
Felix laughs a little—an enigmatic laugh. “It’s okay, they used to make me sad too.”
As Sarah stands with Felix, she thinks of a future where sunsets aren’t heartbreaks and the smallest laugh escapes her lips. A “maybe he’s right” kind of laugh.
You close the notebook, but keep it on your lap, because the weight of the stories collected inside brings you comfort. The gravity of feelings from those who felt like you feel now.
Like Mica, who waited for dawn on Hollywood Boulevard when the sun would hit the starry tiles and reflect in her eyes, swept away to a quiet farm where she finished writing her cozy mystery novel while sipping cocoa with the perfect amount of tiny marshmallows—her sister’s favorite.
Like Felix, who unexpectedly happened upon the portal while sitting on the same peak he’d climbed with his father years before, swept to the smallest island with the tallest lighthouse in a world that smelled of vanilla and sounded like laughter.
You wrote it all in those pages, and you’ve reread those words and stories and hopes, made them your own because their stories were painful but triumphant. They brought you along on their journey and took you places you never could’ve seen on your own.
A fragment of doubt floats among your soul-pieces, poking at vulnerable parts, because you know you need this portal to be real. When bad things happen, people lose themselves, they distance themselves, they overwork, they keep pressing forward—they become stuck—and you have done all of these things trying to figure out how to move past grief. You know the answer isn’t as simple as a magical portal that takes you on adventures, but why not?
You remember Sarah’s story, not for the places the portal took her, but the places she’d been before.
Sarah was twenty-seven when her father died, and she didn’t mourn him. Instead, she hit it into high gear, a constant grind of working to get somewhere, to be someone, to not waste any more time, any more life. She crashed, an empty rocket burning back into the atmosphere.
When she stopped, when she breathed, when she gathered her pieces, she told herself it was time to change. That living wasn’t the price but the prize.
But it didn’t mean anything without context, and when she met him, it all clicked into place. When she met him, as she loved him, as she knew him, as he saw her, she understood what grief was created for. Not for the people who’d stain and ravage the world, but for people like him, someone gentle in a way she’d never known before. Someone who made her whole in a way she didn’t think possible.
Remembering how hollow she was when her father died, Sarah grew increasingly afraid of loss, of losing anyone, him in particular. She wondered if future grief was real. How could she grieve for someone before anything happened?
How could she be so ill-prepared when the worst actually happened? Sarah spent so much time with grief running in the background, she was more surprised at how a feeling she’d practiced for so long felt so different. So much worse.
And then she spiraled. Spiraling until she heard whispers of The Grief Portal.
The sun arrives and you wonder if you’re ridiculous, if you’ve let yourself be overcome by fantasy, that maybe you’re too broken.
You must be, to believe something like this is real.
And the sun is bright and menacing, but to you it’s a balm, a bright salve against the darkness you’ve steeped in. You feel the warmth on your skin and find respite in daylight.
Maybe there’s no portal. No portal doesn’t mean this is a waste of time.
No. Today is beautiful, and you feel wrapped up in the moment, cozy with relief that you’ve made it so far even with the ghosts you’ve dragged behind you.
It’s so perfect you almost miss the rippling in front of you, like a mirage. But this is no desert, so you reach out, letting your fingertips brush against it. It doesn’t feel like anything at all, but the ground around you starts to vibrate, so you take a step back and watch as the portal forms into a glassy oval.
Someone steps out of it, their shape dazzling briefly like a rainbow in rain.
“Hello.” She waits for you to give her your name, but you’re too shocked to say anything. You extend your hand as a compromise. She takes it in hers and shakes it. “I’m Sarah.”
“I’m supposed to give you a little speech, but before that, I just want to say,” Sarah looks towards the sunrise. “I’m grateful you’re here. This is difficult, but you’ve made it so far.”
Your hands are trembling a little, from cold or from nervousness, and you know you’re smiling even if it’s too cold to feel your face.
“This is my first time being a guide …I’m not sure I’m supposed to say that, but you should maintain your expectations.” Sarah’s laugh is clear and it feels freer than you can ever remember being. “Okay, here we go.” She pulls out a little brochure from her pocket and opens it like it’s the first time she’s reading it.
“This is your journey, not mine. Whenever you want to go somewhere new or come back here, to where we started, just let me know. I can’t control where we go—I only open the portals. It’s your journey, so your heart will tell us where it needs to go, and you will tell us when you’re ready to come back.”
Aun-Juli Riddle is a writer and illustrator living in Baltimore, Maryland with her partner and trio of cats. She runs an online tea shoppe and enjoys traveling the country to sell her wares and collect souvenir magnets. She has short fiction in khōréō magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, and Glitter + Ashes, an anthology from Neon Hemlock Press. Find her online at aunjuli.art or on Twitter as @aunjuli.
Author of “The Grief Portal”
What inspired you to write this story?
I’ve been exploring grief in a lot of ways in the last few years, but the grief aspect of my story was actually unintentional. I wrote for the submission call because I love daydreaming about travel—I love the idea of seeing new places and new worlds, eating new foods, just being somewhere different. I started with the idea “why do we like to travel?” But it quickly turned into “when do we need to travel?”
Here’s a bit from my notes, where I started thinking about it from a “needing to travel” perspective:
“Trauma Travel? A fairy that comes and takes you anywhere after you’ve suffered a trauma. The feeling of wanderlust comes from many things but is most potent after feeling a loss of agency or control. Feeling stagnant.”
After that, I started to imagine what could be the best thing to happen after you’ve lost something or someone, when you’re steeped in grief, and my answer was limitless travel and a kind companion.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
Grief can but shouldn’t be stationary. Grief is moveable, changeable, moldable, but we must move with it. We can’t overpower it, we can only fold it into ourselves.
With every step forward in the story, particularly from the “You” perspective, I hope the reader feels like they’ve moved as well. Trying to cycle from hope, through doubt, sorting through memories, realizing maybe it’s going to be okay even if this spectacular thing isn’t real… The Grief Portal is wish fulfillment, but maybe before we even get to our own portals we realize that we’ve done even better than we could’ve imagined, even if it hasn’t felt okay for a long time. By the end, I was hoping to plant a seed that said “it will be okay.”
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
I am incredibly fortunate that “The Grief Portal’ was accepted on the first submission with a handful of edits, but it simmered and stewed in my head for weeks before I put any real words down. Even after I started, I hadn’t quite found the emotional connection to it I was looking for, so it was a solid week of agonizingly searching through my own memories and feelings of grief and fear to find what I needed to make the story I wanted. Whew, that was fun.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
When talking about grief-related stories, I’ll always recommend my favorite story, the one that’s stuck with me for ages. “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” by Maria Dong from khōréō magazine. It’s so masterfully done—reading it really shifted my personal writing trajectory. https://www.khoreomag.com/fiction/the-frankly-impossible-weight-of-han/