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Witchfork has been acquired by an Undisclosed Multi­dimensional Conglomerate Company

We have some significant news to share with you today.

After careful consideration and negotiations with various ethereal entities, we are pleased to announce that Witchfork has been acquired by an undisclosed multidimensional conglomerate. This acquisition marks a new chapter in our journey, and we are excited about the opportunities it presents for our community of otherworldly writers and diviners.

We will continue to keep you informed about the future developments of Witchfork under its new ownership. In the meantime, we encourage you to explore and engage with the vast library of fascinating and deeply untrustworthy writing that our platform has to offer.

Once again, thank you for being a part of this extraordinary journey. Your clicks have been invaluable. Together, you have opened so many magical doors to realms before unseen.

May our creative endeavors continue to flourish in realms beyond.

The Witchfork Team




Ryan O’Nan

March 29, 2024

Image by Grendel Grin
Image by Grendel Grin

Teleportation destroyed my family. Not in a quick way like getting hit by a truck, or even semi-quick like being caught between an elevator door and chopped in half; it was a slow death, like how an invasive vine will grow around the trunk of a tree, then creep up to its limbs, then slowly swallow the mighty plant whole, blocking out the sun and suffocating it until it withers from the inside. 

The first year, only a few trillionaires had ports in their homes. Then several were donated to prominent museums around the world. Lines would endlessly corkscrew around city blocks as people waited for the opportunity to get whisked from the Smithsonian Institute in DC to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, Russia with no more effort than simply stepping through a doorway. While waiting in line, you were taught how to say Hello there! in Russian, Chinese, Swedish or any number of different languages, depending on where you chose to briefly visit. It felt like a game, an adventure; but within five years it would devastate the world’s economy, triple unemployment and bloat the homeless population to critical levels in nearly every country on Earth, as industry upon industry evaporated into thin air. The first to go was the travel industry. 

The Anderson Grand Hotel was not grand, and our family name wasn’t Anderson. The Hotel simply sat on the corner of Anderson and Grand Ave. Still, the name gave our forty-room boutique establishment a bit more class than it probably deserved. 

I was thirteen, and I’d spent all thirteen years of my young life inside that hotel and knew every inch of its six floors. My father had also grown up there, as did his father, and his father’s father. Five generations of McGhees had lived inside the hotel. I remember my father swore that late at night he could hear my great grandfather, Garth Andrew McGhee, or “Old GAM” to his friends, still wandering the hallways—maybe polishing the copper railings like he used to do when my dad was a boy. I never saw anything, though; I wish I would have. People love ghosts. Haunted hotels have always been a tourist destination. People pay money to be afraid. My father was never one of those people. He was afraid of everything already. Especially progress. I would watch him sometimes, going through his ledger, doing paperwork, and instead of a man with a short beard and wavy brown hair, and deep-set hazel eyes, I would see an ostrich, its beak buried deep in the Earth, pretending the world wasn’t changing around him. I would see a coward.

Transportation went first. No more planes, trains or automobiles when everywhere was only a few steps away. Of course, some people still owned cars for nostalgic purposes—time capsules or hobbies. But most streets were eventually converted into parks, so finding places to take a leisurely drive became a challenge. Destination hotels still thrived, however. After all, a vacation isn’t a vacation if you’re sleeping in your own bed and using your own towels. But the need to sleep on a stiff mattress, in a room that reeked of old cigarettes, somewhere in Milwaukee, just because your company was having you go to some business conference, became a plight of the past. Ports made it possible to attend a late afternoon conference in New Mexico, then be back home in time for an early dinner in New Hampshire. 

The corner of Anderson and Grand Ave was nowhere near a desirable destination, however. Truth be told, our hotel mostly made its monthly nut off of the overflow from the nearby Hilton which had two floors of beautiful conference rooms, but not enough beds to support it. So, every month, salesmen, scientists, teachers and dog show enthusiasts filled our lobby with the white noise of various industry chatter. But from the moment ports became a household item, the flow of guests began to diminish, like someone was slowly turning off the hose at its source. Within a year, the few guests that did arrive almost seemed to have come by accident, or they were locals, maybe waiting out a fumigation problem at home. The lack of guests wasn’t a comment on the quality of our rooms—our rooms were renowned for being comfortable and spotless. In the end, companies just couldn’t justify the cost.

Perhaps things might’ve been different if my father had installed a port when the Hilton did—even though I’d read online that Hilton would soon be closing nearly ninety percent of its locations, which no doubt included our little cash cow. It would’ve at least given us more time to plan ahead. But my father was a stubborn man, a man who feared technology and resented its ever increasing current, so by the time reality had brought him to his knees, and he was ready to do anything to keep The Anderson Grand alive, it was already too late. Installing a port at that point would’ve been like putting a bandage over a wound that was internally bleeding. 

I couldn’t help but despise him for his gutless detachment from reality. It was like my mother’s death all over again—slow, relentless and completely beyond him. He knew his hotel and nothing more. Even on the night of my mother’s funeral, my father was right back behind the check-in desk, staring at the front entrance, expectantly; and I can remember thinking then that he might as well have been a statue. Hard. Cold. Immovable. Watching the world change around him with a sad, impotent incredulity that made me sick. 

So, when a big man with a square jaw, thick neck, and a lazy right eye, strode up to the front counter, looked my father in the face (kind of) and told him he wanted to install a port in one of the rooms on the sixth floor, my father thought the man was crazy. 

“I’m not paying for a port,” my father said. “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested.”

“You won’t be paying for anything,” the man said.

“I don’t understand.”

“You don’t have to understand. I want to install a port in room 613. I’ll pay for the room in advance for the entire year. Cash.” The man set a briefcase on the counter and opened it. 

My eyes went wide. At thirteen, it was the most money I’d ever seen in my life. From my angle, slightly off to the side, behind the counter, I saw the briefcase was filled with a rainbow of different notes—currencies from all over the world. Places I could only imagine going. 

But the thing I remember most vividly from that moment—perhaps because of the strange contrast—was something that wasn’t even inside the briefcase at all. 

Just above the handle, I spied a tiny vinyl sticker stuck onto the hard leather shell. It was maybe an inch long, filthy, faded, and slightly curling with age. It was also in a place where only the carrier would be able to see it while the briefcase was being carried. 

The sticker said a single word: esperanza

I knew this word. I’d heard it in Spanish class and remembered it because I thought then—as I still think now—that it was one of the most beautiful words I’d ever heard. Esperanza means hope. We’d learned about onomatopoeia in school: words like Bang and Splash that sounded like their meaning. But Esperanza was the first time I’d encountered a word that felt like what it meant. And it had been placed (I assumed) by this big, lazy-eyed brute, in a secret spot that only he could see as he lugged his small fortune around the world. It struck me as was very odd. 

The squared-jawed stranger reached into the briefcase and withdrew several stacks of crisp bills and placed them gently on the counter. 

I turned to my father, expecting to see the same kind of wonder I was feeling, but I was disappointed. My father’s eyebrows crushed inward and upward, making a tiny mountain top in the center. I’d grown up seeing this look whenever someone tried to get a cheaper rate on rooms by reserving in bulk for weddings or whatnot. My father never gave in. His rates were his rates. And right then, his eyebrows were saying he didn’t believe or trust this odd, thick-necked man. He looked over at me, expecting me to join him in his pessimism, but he found no such ally. 

My father stared back at the man. “That room only has one bed. If you’re planning on having people coming and going from that room, you should know that it’s policy that you must pay extra for any additional overnight occupants.”

“There won’t be any overnight occupants,” the man said. “But I’ll gladly pay you extra, regardless. For the inconvenience.”

“I didn’t say it was inconvenient,” my father said. “I said it was policy.”

“For policy then.”

“So, you are having extra occupants in your room.”

“No. Just me.”

“Then why…” My father looked beyond frustrated. I half expected him to walk into the back room and close the door, but finally, he continued, “We’ve never had a port in this hotel.”


“Okay, what?” my father asked, his voice thick with irritation.

The man looked at him, evenly. “I was just acknowledging what you said. I think it’s great that you’ve never installed a port in this hotel. I hate the fucking things.”

“And yet you want to install one yourself?”

“That’s right.”

“May I ask what you’ll be using it for?”


Obviously…I just meant… Actually, no. I don’t want to know. Sorry, Mr…”

“Willows. George Willows.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Willows. You may not install anything in your room.”

“Dad!” I said, out loud, not able to help myself. We’d had one paying customer in the last three weeks, and the bank was circling us like a noose. This was no time for his hardline principles. My father gave me a sharp look, but I stood my ground, staring right back. I saw his eyes waver. He knew how stubborn he sounded.

“I understand your hesitation,” the man said. “The world has become a hard place. Sometimes our principles are all we have left. I can’t offer you anything other than money, and perhaps to say that I’ve attempted to remain a man of principle myself. Which is not an easy thing to do these days.” The man looked down for a moment, staring at his own big knuckled hands. Then he looked back up at my father. “I saw a woman kill a dog yesterday in Rome. Used a hammer. The dog had a collar. She dragged the lifeless beast into her below-ground apartment toward whatever stew she had planned for it, and she wept as she did it. I don’t know if it was her dog or a neighbor’s. Perhaps neither. Perhaps her tears were for the principle she was trading in order to survive; I don’t know. I just know I never want that to be me. And if possible, maybe you can believe that I don’t want it to be you either.” 

My father said nothing. 

The horrifying story sat between the two men like a stink. My father didn’t watch the news. He didn’t like to think of the bad outside: the desperation, the riots, the refugees, the rising fanatical hatred toward the rudderless poor across the globe—the dark rumors of people disappearing. His world had always been The Anderson Grand and by proximity his wife and son that lived within its walls. And now he was standing in front of a man who was unknowingly throwing his self-inflicted ignorance in his face and expecting empathy. 

I was ashamed of my father in that moment. As he stood there, powerless and scared, continuing to say nothing. 

Finally, the man nodded his head once and said, “Sorry to bother you.” He stuffed the money back in his briefcase, closed the latches, then turned to leave. 

I saw my father close his eyes, tight. I don’t know what he was shutting out, or what thought he was pushing away. He never told me.

The man was halfway across the lobby when my father said, “Wait.” 

I looked over, surprised, and saw his eyebrows had unknotted, and I knew the deal was done. Whatever other questions my father asked from that point on, it didn’t matter, a port would be installed on the sixth floor, and the hotel would stay afloat for a little longer. A long sigh of relief seeped out of me. 

George Willows smiled, and his wandering eye actually felt a little closer to its mark. He almost looked handsome. The next time I saw his face he was dying on the floor of room 613.

Four months passed and three thoughts tugged at my mind like fishhooks. No matter how much I tried not to think of them, they continued to come back at me, a little more insistent each time. One was the fact that in those four months since George Willows moved in, I’d never been allowed inside room 613. My father had forbidden me to enter it, knowing that in the past I sometimes took it upon myself to use the master key when I wasn’t supposed to, whenever my curiosity about a guest overwhelmed me. I never took anything; it was just a desperate need to see something interesting: a pamphlet, a pair of shoes, maybe a cool new toothbrush. Just because my father didn’t care about anything outside the hotel didn’t mean I didn’t care. It felt unfair that the housekeepers got to see everything and not me. But 613 was strictly off-limits.

The second thought was about the port itself. I’d seen several before in department stores and at school. I was forced to walk to school, while nearly all my classmates could wake up five minutes before class and arrive on time, sticky-eyed and with wild variations of bedhead. This port was different than those. I only saw it once. It was delivered in the middle of the night without Mr. Willows’s attendance. Skinnier and taller than any port I’d ever seen. There was also something slightly flimsy about it. It looked both old and new—as if it had been Frankensteined together from several different ports. And the weight made no sense at all. Even two strong men should not have been able to carry a fully assembled teleportation console, and yet as I snuck downstairs at 3am, having heard the truck pull up outside (my bed was right next to the window), they carried it quite easily from the truck and up the six flights of stairs to room 613. I hid on the second floor behind the box where the firehose was stored and spied at them as they passed. 

The only thing I could think was that the strange port was either a spec model that had not been advertised yet, or that it was one of the illegal hacked ports that I’d read about online. There were lots of regulations built into all ports about where they could go, and what time of day they could go there; but like always, there were hackers that figured out how to get around such things. But if it was some kind of illegal port, why had my father allowed it inside our hotel? Money or no money, such a thing, if discovered, could close the doors on The Anderson Grand for good. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. My father must’ve let them in, because you couldn’t get into the hotel past midnight without being buzzed in—even with a keycard—so he must’ve seen the size and shape of the port himself and let it pass. 

The third and last thought was the weirdest. Over the last four months, since the port first arrived, I’d seen people in our hotel lobby that I hadn’t seen check in and who weren’t on any of the ledgers. But the oddest part was that some of them seemed to be wearing my family’s clothes. Twice I saw women wearing dresses that I recognized as my mother’s. Then there was the man wearing my father’s old high school letterman jersey from his swim team. It didn’t make sense. I thought that maybe these familiar items were just coincidences. After all, how many people had been on that swim team over all the years since my dad went to high school? I even thought I might be mistaken regarding my mother’s dresses. They looked identical, but what did I really know about dresses? But when I saw the little boy wearing the yellow Mickey Mouse t-shirt with the ketchup stain on the back, I knew I wasn’t imagining things.

I’d cried about that stain after I’d leaned against a bench in kindergarten and felt the cold liquid seep through the thin fabric onto my right shoulder blade. The shirt was new, and I couldn’t wait to show it off to my classmates. I’d never worn it again, buried it in my closet, and now a strange boy with a thick mop of black hair and dirty ankles, was being pulled toward the front door by his mother, wearing my shirt. The only explanation was that the housekeepers were taking things and giving them to their friends. Or perhaps my father had given them permission.

I asked my father about my mother’s dresses, and he said I was mistaken. I told him about my shirt, and the ketchup stain, and the boy with the dirty ankles, and he grew quiet. After a long time, he said, “Be thankful you have a shirt to throw away in the back of your closet and forget about.” And with that the discussion was over.

My insides were steaming, burning my cheeks red; I was furious. He didn’t care about me. Or my stolen property. And if that was the case, then to hell with his rules. In that instant, I decided I would see room 613 that night, no matter what my father said.

The master key was right where it always was, in the hidden drawer under the reception desk. I slid it open, smelling the peppermints that my father also kept there, removed the key and tip-toed up the stairs. The elevator would be too noisy, and I didn’t plan to be interrupted.

The sixth-floor hallway felt endless as I slowly crept along the dim silent corridor. I knew there was no chance George Willows would be in the room. I’d been watching the lobby door during the day, then the outside door at night from my bedroom window, and in the last four months, I hadn’t seen him enter or exit the hotel once. The room had remained empty. But the port was still in there. No one had come to remove it; I was sure of that. 

Excitement crackled on my skin. I kept my eyes focused on the door at the very end of the hall. The copper number plate had a black “613” engraved onto it. Such a random room, I thought. No different than any other on that floor. Why pick that one? It was on the front side of the hotel, I supposed. Therefore, from the window, you could see anyone coming or going from the hotel. Had George Willows planned to hide out? Perhaps the port was installed in case he needed to make a quick getaway. Was the thick-necked, lazy-eyed man, who told stories about murdered dogs, and carried briefcases full of global currencies, some kind of dangerous criminal? My thirteen-year-old brain thrilled at the thought of it. Then a loud THUMP suddenly cleaved through my bubbling thoughts, ripping my focus away from the door. 

The hollow echo inside the old hallway made it nearly impossible to guess which direction the sound had come from. I whirled around, half expecting to find someone standing directly behind me, but the hallway was empty. There were no other occupants on the sixth floor. So, where did the sound come from? 

I turned back to the door of 613, which seemed to be saying, This is what happens when you disobey. Then the THUMP came again, louder this time, and now the direction was unmistakable. It was coming from around the corner, just ahead of me, and it was getting closer. 

My body felt cold, as if my blood had frozen to an icy slush and was now crawling through my veins as my heart thundered in my ears. Because I knew what I was about to see. 

After all these years, after all the stories, I was finally about to come face-to-face with Old Gam’s ghost for myself—polishing rag in his hand, smiling some awful, translucent, ghoulish grin. I wondered if seeing something like that could drive someone mad. 

There was nowhere for me to go. Nowhere to hide. I simply stood in place and held my breath. Then a figure emerged in front of me, hunched and disheveled—his hands full of clothes. My clothes! It was my father. 

On top of the pile he was carrying, I saw a dark blue t-shirt with a velociraptor on the front. Every drop of fear melted away inside of me and rage filled the empty cavity. I liked that shirt! I still wore that shirt sometimes! Something fell out of his hands and THUMPED on the ground—the same thump as before. He cursed as he picked it up, and I saw he was holding an old Rubik’s Cube. All the colors were even on all six sides. It was my father’s toy from when he was a boy. He’d given it to me two years ago saying he thought I’d probably find it boring (which I had, if I’m being honest). But I’d still spent half the summer solving that damn puzzle—imagining my father doing the same thing when he was my age. It had made me feel connected to him, thinking of my father as a child, instead of the brittle, calcified man I knew. 

It was too much. I almost shouted right then, until I noticed that his deep-set eyes looked far more tired than normal. There was something wild about him too that I’d never seen before; and I saw, in his other hand, he held a first aid kit. 

Then, to my utter shock, he pulled a keycard from his pocket, inserted it into the slot, waited for the light to turn green, then pushed his way into room 613—never once noticing that I was standing a mere ten feet from him the whole time.

My hands were shaking. I must’ve waited there for a whole minute, still not making a sound. Then I took a step forward. Then another. It felt as if I was moving across a great expanse, neck deep in water. And then, finally, I was there. At my destination. I leaned in and pressed my ear to the thick wooden door. 

Inside, I heard muffled shouting. Yelling. An argument. I heard the low distinct voice of George Willows (which felt impossible to me) and the voice of my father. Nothing made sense. Why would my father be in a room, alone, with a man he seemed to dislike so entirely? 

I reached in my pocket, removed the master key and slowly slid it into the lock. 

The light turned green, and with my ear still pressed to the door, I heard the lock slide free. The yelling didn’t stop, so I knew the unlocking door hadn’t been heard. 

Gently, I pulled down the handle, counted to ten in my head, then pushed my way inside. 

I stood in disbelief. 

The room was empty. Not a sound could be heard. Not a person could be seen. They couldn’t have just disappeared… And then I saw it…

The strange port.

It was standing against the far wall, its control console glowing. It had just been used. My father went through a port. The thought was no more believable to me than if I had looked over and seen him floating outside the window. I stopped in the center of the room. The bed was made. The pile of clothes I saw my father carrying was strewn across the bedspread. But oddly, the blue velociraptor shirt wasn’t there. 

An ashtray sat on the wooden bureau, filled with cigarette butts. The hotel had a strict no smoking policy. Again, the thought of my father seeing that and not instantly losing his mind… Maybe that’s what the argument had been about. It felt good that a thought could make actual sense in this bizarre setting.

A sound like a small gust of wind, followed by a flashing glow on the port console, and suddenly my father burst into the room. His face was soaking wet and filled with panic as he propped up a bulky figure in his arms. It was George Willows, face pale and wet as a carp. He was clutching his center with both hands as gobs of crimson pumped out from between his fingers. 

My father stared at me in horror. “What are you doing here?!” 

George moaned, and I saw a long line of dark red drool fall from his mouth and hang there like a wet noodle. My father dragged the wounded man over to the bed where they both collapsed. 

“Give me the first aid kit!” my father barked at me. It was the first time he’d raised his voice to me in years, and it caused me to freeze instead of move. Then his expression changed. He could tell I was terrified. The anger drained out of his face. “Please, help me,” he said, quieter, and I saw so much fear in his eyes, but also something else, something steelier. In the thirteen years of my life I’d never seen that much strength in my father’s face, and it woke me up. 

I raced over to the first aid kit on the nightstand. It was already opened, its contents strewn about, as if somehow, he was expecting this to happen. I was gathering everything back inside when a tiny movement caught my eye. 

And then I saw her. 

Wedged under the nightstand, deep in shadow, with her back pressed against the wall, a child sat staring up at me. 

She looked about six-years-old, and she was wearing my dark blue velociraptor t-shirt. Droplets of rain clung to the tips of her dark bangs. Her tiny legs poked out from underneath the shirt. I could see the bottom of her feet—filthy, bare and raw. A Band-Aid was wrapped around her left big toe. That’s why the first aid kit was opened. But who the hell was she? Why was she wet?

George Willows croaked out a word I couldn’t understand. Then he began coughing. 

“Take it easy, George,” my father said, and there was a tenderness there that actually gave me a pang of jealousy. They couldn’t know each other this well. And yet they clearly did. “You’re going to be fine. Just—” George suddenly turned his head and spat a mouthful of gore onto the carpet, then he croaked out the word again, and this time I heard it clearly: “…Door!”

My father’s face fell from some unknown revelation and then his eyes went wide with fear. Stumbling over George’s legs, he rushed toward the still open port. 

As I turned, I heard that quick sound of wind again, and saw the console flash, as another figure stepped through the port. 

A tall, thin man in a dark uniform emerged. A soldier. He had black mud on his boots, and his face was dripping with rain. The expression on the soldier’s face made him look more jackal than man, his mouth smiling wide, full of teeth and viciousness. He raised his arm, and in his hand, I saw a pistol—shiny black and wet with menace.

“Where is she?” the soldier said with a thick accent.

“It was a mistake,” my father said as he backed up to the bed. “We…we didn’t know where we were going. It was just an accident…I swear. The port must be broken.”

“No mistake,” the soldier said and took a step forward, smearing dark mud on the khaki-colored carpet. Behind my father’s back, I saw he was trying to get his hand around something. 

Then all at once, the soldier seemed to notice me for the first time. “Where?!” he shouted as he swung the gun in my direction. 

My bladder let go just a little as I stared into the black barrel.

Suddenly, my father hurled something at the soldier’s face with all his might. The Rubik’s Cube smashed into the soldier’s right eye as my father rushed at him. 

“NO!” I screamed, because I could already tell he was moving too slow. He wasn’t a fighter. He wasn’t a soldier. He was just a small man who ran a small hotel like it was a castle. Before my father even got a hand on him, the soldier raised his gun and shot my dad at point blank range. Bright red sprayed the white wall as he fell backward onto the floor, his hand clamped to the side of his throat, attempting to hold in the dark blood which was already beginning to ooze between his fingers.

The soldier looked at me, his face a clenched fist, but then his hollow eyes landed on something else, and he rushed forward, shoving me aside. He reached under the nightstand and grabbed hold of the ankle of the filthy little girl, who let out a piercing scream of pain and terror. The soldier dragged the wailing child out from under the nightstand and back toward the mysterious port. My body was locked in place, crippled by fear. 

But as the soldier entered the port, he suddenly halted halfway through. He looked back to find my father clutching the little girl’s hand.

The soldier aimed his gun down at my father, and that’s when my body began to move. Before I even knew it was happening, I was rushing across the room. Distracted by my movement, the soldier tracked his gun along with me, and I waited for the punch of blackness that I knew was sure to come.

A deafening BANG ripped through the room and the soldier’s shoulder erupted in a burst of red. 

George Willows laid on the ground, barely alive, holding a silver pistol in his bloody, trembling hand. The barrel was smoking. 

Instead of yanking himself and the girl the rest of the way through the port, the soldier turned and fired two more shots into George Willows, one piercing him above his right eye, finally bringing the large man’s wandering eyeball to a permanent rest.

My thin body slammed into the wall next to the port, and I felt a sickening crack as a bone in my wrist exploded. I crumbled down onto my knees as the soldier’s pistol honed in on me. Like my father, I was too slow. The tiny black mouth of the gun barrel found me before I even had a chance to attempt my pathetic little heroics. I’d been counting on one thing as I ran: if the port had, in fact, been hacked, perhaps the safety protocols were also disabled. This question was suddenly beyond pointless. 

The soldier exposed his jackal teeth again as he squeezed the trigger. But just as he did, the little girl bit down on the hand holding her. The soldier screamed, the gun let out another ferocious BANG, and I felt the bullet pass by my left ear like an angry wasp. 

She’d saved my life.

Using the dregs of whatever of energy I still possessed, I jumped up and wrapped my arms around the girl’s midsection. But in doing so, my momentum pitched me into the soldier’s body, causing him to stumble back, pulling me and the girl with him through the port. 

The feeling was like walking through the entrance to a bodega that has one of those devices that blows air downward to keep flies out. The change was instant and shocking. My breath caught in my chest as freezing cold rain hit me in the face. But I also found myself squinting at the sudden brightness all around me. It was daytime wherever we were, and despite the storm blocking the sun, the difference was staggering. 

What I saw on the other side made me feel dizzy at its sheer horror.

A line of ports, maybe thirty in all, faced an expanse of cages—big and small. These cages were filled with people. People of all ages. Including children. The captives were wrapped in rags and bare-footed, squatting in the wet mud, while soldiers in matching black uniforms circled them like wolves. The smell hurt my heart. The compound reeked of what I can only describe as despair. 

One of the ports flashed further down the line, and a brittle old man staggered out with a soldier at his back. The old man had his hands tied behind his back, and he looked so sad. Rumor of people disappearing. My mind circled the horror of it. What was this? Some monstrous idea of population control?

On the ground in front of us was a dead woman. Shot. Her body was splayed out, unnaturally. She stared up at the sky, not seeing. And I realized I’d seen her eyes before. They were the eyes of the little girl I currently had my arms wrapped around.

The girl cried out and reached for the woman, but I knew this was our only chance.

Before the soldier could fully regain his bearings, I reached up and dug my fingers into the gunshot wound in his shoulder. He shrieked in pain, and I felt his grip on the girl loosen. 

I leaned back and kicked out with all my might, and the girl and I launched backward through the port. 

As we landed back on the carpeted floor, I didn’t hesitate. I rat crawled on my hands and knees toward my target, ignoring the blistering pain in my wrist as it knifed into my brain. 

The soldier’s face emerged through the port, red-eyed with menace, followed by the beginnings of his wet, blood-soaked uniform, pistol aimed. I gripped the power cord and yanked. 

The glow of the console flickered to nothing, and the little girl sat, eyes fixed in bird-eyed panic at the man who had no doubt murdered her mother and who now loomed over her, about to get her once again in his clutches. 

Only he never did. 

I kept staring directly into the soldier’s hate-filled face. His jackal eyes were wide now and faraway, as if someone had just told the soldier some life-altering secret. 

Then his face slowly drooped downward as the front half of his body—the half still on this side of the port—slid and buckled, pulled down by gravity. I was right. The safety protocols on the port had been altered as well. The image that hit me was of seeing a giant banana being peeled, as the soldier’s upper torso bent forward until his halved head hit the ground, and his insides spilled out across the already soaking wet carpet.

There was no time to even take in the grotesque spectacle. No time even for relief.

Pushing away from the wall, I crawled to my father’s prone body, hunching over him. His face was so pale, but he was still alive. 

“…You’re…you’re going to be okay, dad…” I stammered. “…I’m going to call someone…get an ambulance…”

I started to lunge back to my feet, but his hand locked around mine. I could feel his fingers trembling, but his grip never wavered as he drew me close and spoke, his voice barely over a whisper. “…I’m sorry….” Tears filled my father’s eyes. “The hotel...” 

“Who cares about the stupid hotel right now, dad. I need to get you help!”

“I always liked…helping people.” He smiled at this, but there was blood in his teeth, and the smile quickly faded as the pain continued to get its hooks in him. “The port…” I desperately wanted to run for help, but the look in his eyes was so intense. So foreign. And yet somehow it didn’t look out of place on him at all. In some strange way, it felt like I was seeing my father for the very first time, or at least a part of him—something from one of the secret cervices that we all keep hidden from each other.  “…We…helped people,” he said. “…Me and George…we helped people.” 

I wanted to put my arms around him, to tell him how sorry I was, but I was afraid I might dislodge whatever small piece of life he was clinging to. He put a hand on the back of my head and managed more than a whisper this time: “…I love you, son.” 

I buried my face in his chest, not wanting him to see how ashamed I was, how small I really felt. How could I have so misjudged a man I’d known my entire life? But I was only a child then, living inside the dark box of my miniscule experience. It would be years before I’d fully understand all that my father and George Willows had done with their ramshackle port up in that unremarkable room in the Anderson Grand.

I felt like some kind of jellyfish, boneless and without shape. My strength had disintegrated, and all I wished was that I could close my eyes and be swept away by the waves of pain and guilt crushing down on me.

And then I heard a sound. 

A sound not unlike like that beautiful word: esperanza

From somewhere outside the windows, not far off, was the sound of sirens. 

Help was coming. A silent prayer answered. 

When they reached the hotel, I would go meet them. Bring them to my father. Carry my hope like an elastic band stretched between the two of us. 

Then my eyes fell on the girl. She looked so alone in the world.

We stared at each other, neither making a move nor uttering a sound. 

My mind went back to the little boy wearing my Mickey Mouse t-shirt. With his dirty ankles. How many did they save? How many walked out of horrific places, through this port, and into a safer world? As I stared at the helpless little girl, George Willows’ words came back to me from the first night he walked into The Anderson Grand: “The world has become a hard place. Sometimes our principles are all we have left.” My father had his hotel. A small world, but a world he understood. He liked helping the people, and when they came, he did just that. But people stopped coming to my father, so he must’ve decided to go to them. 

Finally, the girl broke the silence, whispering something to me in a language I didn’t understand but that I thought I recognized.

My gaze landed on the tiny band-aid on the girl’s foot. I wiped my eyes, took a deep breath, then reached back into my memory to when I was nearly the same age as her, the day I’d spent nearly four hours in a line with my mother learning a single sentence in twenty different languages.

“Hello there,” I whispered back, and held my father’s hand as the sirens grew closer.