The humble beginning to my first horror short story. The idea has been in my head for a while - but I recently dove headfirst into a heap of Guillermo Del Toro and Joe Hill, and this story emerged with me when I surfaced for air.
I'm sure I'm a horrible person for posting this segment with no idea when the rest of the story will be ready, but y'know, life's tough all over.
THERE WAS A DOOR, AND FOR THAT DOOR THERE WAS A KEY:
When I was a child, I lived in a great house. My parents were wealthy – at the time I only had a vague notion of what they did for a living – but I knew we were a rich family, with a housekeeper and a groundskeeper and a nanny to look after my older sister and me, and a house, a great and wondrous, mysterious house that illuminated my childhood like a beacon, and still haunts my dreams to this day.
I knew other children who did not live in such extravagance, children I attended school with. That is how I knew we were wealthy, but I measured it merely as a difference, though, not as fortune versus misfortune. I never looked down at my schoolmates; I never saw them a better or worse off than me. I just knew that we had things – a great many cars, a vacation home for summertime, and people who lived with us, to take care of things and watch over me. I supposed I thought we had traded certain luxuries for others. I knew children, other boys with whom I chased the soccer ball around the playground, whose parents cooked them meals every evening, who went to work every day and came home every night. Parents who played with their children; Mothers who joined their daughters for tea parties with their stuffed animals, and Fathers who threw the football around the yard with their sons. My parents were always away – for a while I suppose I thought our nanny was more a parent than Mom and Dad ever were, and I guess in a way she was.
I was nine years old when we moved into the great house, and it was within the first week that I first found the door. Really, there were two doors, but I found the first one right away. The first door wasn’t much, just a rotting access door to the underside of the back porch, long since boarded up and securely fastened by a massive padlock. But I was nine – I was what my mother sometimes called wayward, my father called stubborn, and what my Nanny came to know as curious, quick and intuitive – and if there was a door I was finding a way through it.
The great house was built on a hill, a steep slant that left the foundation exposed on the backside, and a previous owner had built a great porch that stretched out in several tiers, from the back of the house almost all the way down the waterline our property overlooked. So the second door wasn’t visible at first – it was completely covered from the waterside – and nearly impossible to see from any other angle, but I was short for my age, and from my vantage point I could see right through the stairs rails to the back of the house. There were concrete steps, presumably from when the house was originally built, flush with the side of the foundation. And under those steps there was a door, a narrow stone doorframe built directly into the concrete wall.
My mother was walking with me up the long steps from the waterfront when I stopped and tugged on her hand. I pointed excitedly to a spot under the stairs, a spot I guess only I could see, and she squinted and bent over, looking a bit awkward in her sun dress and sandals, her oversized hat and enormous sunglasses. A gust of wind picked up suddenly, and she grabbed madly at her hat, mashing it back onto her head.
“What is it, Walter?” she asked, straining her eyes to see into the dark.
My parents always spent a lot of time with my sister and I when we moved. I guess they thought parenting was something they could accomplish in concentrated bursts – we’d settle into a new house, each one more extravagant than the last, and my mother would spend every waking second doting on us, buying us toys that caught her attention, preening and pawing us, and then the routine of work and travel would be established, and we’d hardly see either of them for weeks at a time.
But we were hardly in the house a week, so my mother was taking me to the beach every day, sunning herself on the shore while I chased seagulls and brought back disgusting specimens for her to squirm at and insist I throw away.
I had found a walking stick, a gnarled and crooked staff that was a little taller than I was, and I had been parading around the beachhead with it, whirling dangerously it and jabbing at imaginary threats and invisible adversaries.
“Look, mama,” I said, peering gravely under the porch. “It’s a door. I wonder where it goes.”
My mother squinted, adjusting her sun hat. In her voice was a cool disinterest. “I don’t know, dear. It probably leads into the crawlspace under the house – for electrics and plumbing and… things.” Now my mother knew me well enough to know that a crawlspace was a place that deserved investigation, so she quickly forbade me from going near it. “You stay out of there, Walter, you understand? It’s probably full of spiders and rats. It looks dangerous.”
I don’t know what happened at that moment, but somehow – maybe the angle of the light in the late morning sun – but I swear I could see through the slats and under the porch just as clear as day. I could see something glinting off the door, anyway, something metal and sturdy that sparkled for a moment and then disappeared in the shadows.
“I think it’s locked, mama,” I said. “I saw a great big keyhole, like on a castle.”
“Good,” my mother said sternly. “I’m sure it’s locked for a reason. Not a safe place for curious young boys.”
In that moment – and I suppose it could have been a trick of the wind, but I have always been certain it was it was something else – I swear I heard a voice, no more than a whisper, but a voice nonetheless calling out from under the house.
“Did you hear that, Mama?” I asked, on all fours now, trying to discern what precisely it was that I had heard. “I thought there was a voice.”
“I didn’t hear anything.” I distinctly remember looking back at my mother at that moment, her thin body looking over me with the sun behind her, her wide hat a comical halo around her head, her face barely visible. Although I could barely make out her features, she looked impatient, and even mildly concerned. I also knew – something about the tone of her voice, something I’ve always been able to tell – that she was lying just then. I wasn’t bothered by it; parents lie to their children all the time – sometimes to keep them safe, sometimes to keep them quiet. I had long since gotten used to my mother’s little white lies when the truth was inconvenient. “Now let’s go inside. It’s getting windy out, and Marjorie will have lunch on the table quite soon.”
“But I swear I heard a voice, mama. There’s something down there.”
“There’s nothing under the house but old piping and muck. Inside, young man.” My mother gave me a look that I meant the argument was over, and I’d better not press the issue. “And wash your hands. You’re filthy.”
Marjorie – my nanny – was a kindly old soul, a portly and jolly kind of woman, with a quick wit and a stern gaze when needed. And, as my mother predicted, she was just fixing lunch when my mother escorted me inside.
My sister was already at the kitchen table, reading a book. She had elected to stay inside when my mother offered to take us to the beach that morning. She bore her classic pout, which seemed for a while to be her natural expression. She had been sulking since the move – she never took our relocations well – but this one had apparently hit her particularly hard.
“Look at you, dearie, all flush from the outdoors,” she said, visibly brightening when she spotted me. “Must be nice to have all that energy.”
“He founds some frogs by the water,” said my mother.
“I did,” I chimed in. “I found some tadpoles, too, and they were green and black and there’s were thousands of them. Millions, even.”
Marjorie smiled wide, dimples forming on her round cheeks. “That’s nice, dear,” she said. “Lunch will be ready in just a moment.”
We ate turkey sandwiches and tomato basil bisque, and Marjorie surprised us – and my mother – with a few pieces of raspberry fudge.
“I dropped into town yesterday and these just looked marvelous. They’re local chocolates – made right in here in the county. I‘ve known the family for years.”
Margaret took one and nibbled it quietly, not looking up from her book. My mother even tried one, at Marjorie’s insistence. She looked pleased. I took one, and was reaching for a second when my mother gently slapped my hand away.
“All that sugar is bad for you, Walter,” she said. “You’ve too much energy as it is.”
We finished our lunch in relative silence, until curiosity finally took over.
We finished our lunch in relative silence, until curiosity finally took over.
“Did you know the people who lived here before us?” I asked.
“I did, dearie,” she said. “I worked for them as well.”
“And the family before them?”
“Walter,” my mother chimed in. “Marjorie isn’t that old.”
Marjorie chuckled. “It’s all right, Mrs. Donovan.” She turned to me. “You’re the fourth family to own this house in my time. The last family… they weren’t here particularly long.”
Curiosity, at that age, always overruled tact. “What happened to them?
“Walter!” My mother scolded me.
“It’s all right.” She paused. “They died, Walter. They died young. It was a terrible tragedy.”
“What happened?” My mother was right – I was stubborn, and wasn’t easily swayed when I wanted something.
“Oh, sweetheart, that was a long time ago.” Something in her eyes became very sad. “Sometimes it’s just best to let the past be the past and move on.”
My mother looked at me, a warning waiting on her lips, but I asked no further questions. My mother’s eyes flitted back and forth between Marjorie and me, I guess surprised by my uncharacteristic cooperation. Even my sister looked up briefly, but was back to her book before I could meet her eyes.
“Do know where the door goes?” I asked after a moment.
“What door, dearie?” Marjorie said with a smile.
“The door under the house.”
Her face froze for an instant – almost imperceptible – then quickly resumed her disarming smile. “Door? Oh, you must mean the crawlspace. Nothing under there but cobwebs and dead rats. But there are plenty of trails down near the water if you need someplace to explore.”
“There’s a padlock, you know,” I pointed out between bites of my sandwich. “On the side of the porch. I think it goes straight to the little door.”
“I’m sure there is, dear, but the key’s been lost for ages, I’m certain,” said Marjorie, her thin-lipped smile now a bit tense. She turned away, and busied herself cleaning the kitchen. “Wouldn’t do to go crawling around someplace like that and get hurt – nobody would ever know where to find you. Besides, aren’t young boys supposed to be afraid of the dark?”
I was new to the house, and didn’t yet know Marjorie very well, but there was something in the tone of her voice – something I would later recognize as thinly veiled fear.
After lunch I went outside again, this time alone – leaving Marjorie to clean up the remains of lunch and my mother to try and coax my sister away from her book. I wandered to the side of the house again and stared at the padlock again. It was sturdy, but stubborn as I was, I gave it a few good thwacks with a stick I found. No luck; the padlock held fast.
“Well, what good are you?” I asked no one in particular. “What good’s a lock with no key?” I held my stick like a staff, and regally pranced from the bottom of the porch to the front of the house and back again.
I grew quickly tired of that game, and decided to find someone else to talk to.
The wind must have picked up again for a moment, because as I turned my back I could swear I heard that same sound – what could have been a voice, but no more than a whisper – whistle through the boarded-up door. I stopped and stared. First there was silence, and as I stood on the hillside outside my house the afternoon sun beat down, casting my shadow across the door, and then the sound again, more airy and forceful. The door even rattled, just a bit; I could see my shadow change shape against the door as the seemingly sturdy barricade shuddered. The sound slipped through the air like a gasp, and I could barely – just barely – make out the words.
“…open the door…”
My eyes grew wide and my jaw dropped, not from fear, but from exhilaration. I was curious and not easily rattled, but there was something about that door, a feeling I can’t express. I was excited, thrilled, certain I was going to witness something amazing and unexplainable. I leaned in, peering through the cracks, hoping to catch a glimpse of something, anything, fascinating under the porch, near the door. A cloud passed over the sun at that moment; I felt the temperature drop and my still-shimmering shadow suddenly seemed ominous. The wind picked up again, the sound-that-was-not-quite-a-voice crept through the air, and I was growing quickly uncomfortable; a nervous chill slowly crept up my spine. A smell emanated from under the porch them, carried by the whispering wind, a smell of rot and decay, a horrible, gut-twisting smell and I took and involuntary step backwards.
And then the wind hissed and whimpered, and again, I could just barely make out a word.
I dropped my stick and ran – suddenly struck by an inexplicable fear; I was broaching the beachhead when I stumbled to a stop, heart pounding, desperately out of breath. My sides ached, I coughed and hacked and wheezed. I looked up the hill, and for the first time realized how far away it seemed, how far I’d run, and how the house jutted off the side of the hill like a sore, or for a brief moment, like a face mounted atop broad shoulders; the two bay windows as eyes, the wide sprawling deck a crooked jagged mouth, with crisscrossing slats for teeth.
It was silly of me to run, I thought; the sound couldn’t have been more than a trick of the wind, combined with the smell of decay and my own well-equipped imagination. I didn’t believe in ghosts – or at least didn’t believe they could hurt me. I had heard stories of ghosts haunting old houses, but they never seemed to do anything more interesting that make a few spooky sounds now and then or move photographs out of place – nothing particularly harmful. And I certainly didn’t believe that a bit of rotting wood and the wind could actually speak my name. That was ridiculous. I was nine years old, nearly a grown-up, and I wasn’t an idiot.
And I didn’t care what Marjorie said. I wasn’t afraid of the dark.