UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 11/2012
BEHIND A CLOSED DOOR
Early Saturday morning on August 5th all three occupants of the two-story house at 24 University Drive awoke to find the windows gone and the front door sealed shut.
They searched the house for objects they could use on the door, and when their bats and chairs and hammers failed, they searched the house again for some explanation.
Finally they gathered before a door on the first floor. In the two days they’d lived in that house none of them had been able to get the door open. It wouldn’t open then, either, but if they pressed their ears against it, they swore they heard sounds, perhaps cries and moans, like a wind from far away. When they got on the floor and tried to see beneath the door something seemed to move in the sliver of darkness, but none of them could discern what it was.
In the days that passed they returned to the door, sometimes standing in front of it for hours, aware something important existed behind it. None of them knew how much time had passed when the door finally opened and let the first of them walk through it.
They each arrived at the house on University Drive for different reasons.
Miles Johnson, starting his second year of college, had tired of the dorms. He had tired of the communal bathroom that always stunk of the last person who’d used it. He’d hated the pounding music that began in the early evening every Thursday and seemed to persist until the following Sunday night. He didn’t particularly care for the walk up twelve flights of stairs because the elevator took so long and was always packed with people.
He had wanted an apartment by himself, but anything remotely close to the campus cost more than his job working in the writing center could cover, and since he didn’t own a car, anything further out and less expensive wasn’t possible. He chose the house at random. He knew he’d be sharing it with other people, but he never had a chance to meet them until he arrived on August 3rd with a suitcase in his hand.
Sandra Rhodes had walked down University Drive during her first three years of college, always marveling at the long line of run down homes, finding a certain charm in their appearance she could never properly explain to her friends whenever she told them where she wanted to move.
She had bounced from apartment to apartment during her first years, always finding new people asking her to room with them, before driving them, and their friendship, away when she actually moved in. If asked, Sandra honestly didn’t know why people grew so tired of her. In her opinion it was their fault for trying to change the way she lived, the hours she kept, and the food she constantly cooked but didn’t care to clean up after.
In the late spring before her fourth, and what had at one point been intended to be her last year of college, she had walked once again down that street, but this time she had seen a sign up in front of number 24 saying it had rooms for rent. She had called the landlord later that day.
Gordon Tucker hadn’t been given any say in the matter of where he lived, but then, he hadn’t cared to offer any say in it, either. His father gave him the task each year of finding his own place and finally moving out of the basement, and each year he said he would, until his father forgot, as he always did, and Gordon would remain in that basement. Then, some time in the winter, when his father got a flash of memory and would say, “Weren’t you looking for a place to move?” Gordon would only shrug and say he never found anything.
That year his father had taken matters into his own hands. On August 3rd his father told him to pack up everything he owned and load it into the car. Gordon saw the house on the same day he moved into it, smiling a bit at its location so close to the school, a hidden message about Gordon’s failure to bother with higher education obvious, not that the message would actually motivate him to do anything.
Miles had made a mental note to ask the landlord about the sealed door. He’d been shown around the place before moving in, but just hadn’t noticed the door, or thought to ask about it, assuming it was a closet, since all the bedrooms were accounted for. There was actually a fourth bedroom on the second floor that hadn’t been rented yet, and the owner had assured them the rooms usually got grabbed up in the first few weeks of the semester, so someone else was certainly going to be coming in.
Offhandedly, Miles asked how long the man had owned the property. “I own about six houses on this block, but as for this one, just bought it last spring along with a few others across town. Was surprised it was kept up so well since the owner said he hadn’t rented it in years. Didn’t need many repairs at all, but if you do see something wrong, just let me know.”
In the first week the three of them talked about the house and the landlord a lot, asking Sandra if she’d seen anything strange about the place when she used to walk by it, but she shook her head, said it had just been like all the other houses.
“Maybe people are buried under here,” Gordon said, reclined back against the wall, sitting on the floor, his long arms draped over his knees. He approached the situation as if it were a game, throwing out bizarre suggestions and theories without a hint of emotion attached to them. During the move he’d smuggled in a stash of weed he said he’d stolen from his father as punishment for making him move, and every few hours he lit up another, smiled at Sandra and Miles when they saw him, asked, “You want any?” only to have both decline. He shrugged, smiled, said, “Your loss.” He joked about the fact that his father couldn’t come by and take it back from him. “Bet he’s pissed,” Gordon laughed, took a long drag, the smoke somehow dissipating quickly even though there were no windows for it to leave through.
Night and day didn’t exist. When the door in back first opened the lights were off. Since the first night they all slept in the living room.
Miles awoke to the sound of movement. Sandra didn’t stir from the couch when Miles rose off the floor and blinked away the sleep. The only light came from a nightlight in the wall socket, left on because Sandra said she didn’t want it to be too dark, and was afraid of what would happen. She’d put a nightlight in every room and hall. Miles never bothered to ask her why she’d had all the nightlights to begin with.
In that faint greenish glow Miles saw the shape move around the corner towards the hall. His breath caught, heart all but stopped, reaching over to wake Gordon, only to realize Gordon wasn’t there anymore.
He crawled on all four across the floor as fast as he could towards the corner. He inched his head out around the edge to see the once sealed door standing open on the far end of the hall. Another green light let him see Gordon’s dark form standing directly in front of the doorway.
Miles pulled himself up. “Damn, how did you open it?” he asked.
Gordon never looked back. He stepped forward into the open door and into a darkness that seemed to block out the nightlight’s glow. Before Miles could speak or move closer he saw the door swing shut.
“You’re saying he shut it?” Sandra asked him.
“I don’t think so. The door shut itself. I don’t know how he opened it to begin with.”
Every light on the first floor shined brightly above them. All three of them had checked all the lights that first Saturday along with the faucets and the toilets. Their phones and computers worked, but couldn’t dial out or connect to outside lines in any way. The toilet flushed every time, and the faucets ran with cool, clean water, but none of them bothered to drink it. They hadn’t had much food to begin with, but as they had come to realize, if not entirely understand, none of them got hungry or thirsty.
Miles ran his fingers over every inch of the door. He pressed his ear against it, hearing the same far off cries and moans, but nothing more concrete or understandable. Sandra didn’t bother pressing her ear against the door. Miles had seen the distance forming in her with each day, an acceptance, he thought, that they’d never get out of the house.
“He’s gone,” Sandra said. She turned to leave him before he could answer. Miles stood in the doorway to the living room and saw her lay across the couch, her skin lightly tanned from the previous summer, hair shoulder length but in tangles. She wore a thin t-shirt and a black skirt that went down past her knees. She’d only bothered to change her clothes once, and Miles suddenly realized he hadn’t changed his at all, or thought to, and even then he found himself focusing a bit more on Sandra’s body itself than the clothes she wore.
It’s only the two of us now, he thought, but threw the thought away.
Miles took up a seat by the wall and leaned his head back, watching Sandra stare blankly at the ceiling out of the corner of his eye. He wasn’t going to do something foolish like come on to her, yet he couldn’t stop hoping she would make a move on him.
Once, ten years before, shortly after she had turned ten, Sandra had listened to her grandmother die in the darkness.
Lonely after her husband had passed away Sandra’s grandmother had moved into their home and lived there for five years. Sandra had shared a room with her grandmother in those years, and awoken just after three in the morning to hear the older woman gasping, choking, and crying painfully out into the night.
Though Sandra would later be told the natural causes that had led to her grandmother’s passing, on the night her grandmother died she’d been paralyzed by fear, imagining some malevolent horror looming over her grandmother to steal away her life.
From that day Sandra had never slept in a room without a nightlight of some kind, or allowed herself to be in total darkness if she could avoid it. But she found the sealed home brought with it a new horror she hadn’t understood she feared, putting no thought to the fact that every room she’d ever slept in since her grandmother’s passing had large windows she kept open. When she first woke up to find her window missing, Sandra had clawed at the wall, an uncontrollable moan of fear whistling through her as her nails bent upward and the wallpaper tore off.
Shortly after Gordon left them she finally brought herself to return to her bedroom and stare at the shredded wallpaper where her window had once been. Somewhere below her Miles was moving about, studying the door, as he’d done with most of his time after it took Gordon, but Sandra didn’t bother joining him.
She walked through the second floor rooms, aware she searched for an exit, but not willing to admit it. If she admitted it even to herself she felt the house would be laughing at her inability to escape. Just being alone made her feel eyes on her, every creak or groan a voice trying to tell her how meaningless it was to fight against it. She didn’t want to be around Miles anymore if she could help it, not entirely sure if she thought he was some bizarre agent of the home, or if his struggle against the house would only make it mad, remove the lights, leave her in darkness.
“Sandra?” Miles called up from the first floor. If they were apart for more than an hour he always called to her. Was it worry, she asked herself, or because he wanted to make sure she wasn’t able to escape?
Even if they hadn’t been smoking his weed, Gordon’s presence had done something to them, kept them calm and somehow casual in the face of it all. Gordon had never seemed concerned with getting out, or staying in. He’d always just returned to his spot in the corner with his open bags of pot strewn around him and his papers lined up to roll another joint.
Then he would tell them both to have a beer, smiling with a boyish grin, his brown hair spilling over his eyes, t-shirt torn and stained from something that occurred long before they were trapped. He’d ask them questions about who they were, what they studied, who they’d dated, where they worked, talking as if they were at a party or the back booth of a bar rather than prisoners within a home.
“Aren’t you nervous?” Miles had asked him during their fourth day, but Gordon just shrugged.
“You think being nervous is going to open that door?”
Though Miles never agreed with Gordon’s total calm, he understood how helpful it was, and longed so much for it once Gordon had left them.
The front door opened to a fairly large living room. Sandra had brought in an old sofa she said she’d picked up from outside the dorms and two armchairs she’d picked up from the curb outside her old apartment. On the left side of the living room was a short hallway ending in the sealed door and another opening to the kitchen. The tiled kitchen floor was dark green with black gunk built up between the tiles. Plenty of cabinets lined the walls, and in the corner of the kitchen, the only first floor bathroom.
To the right of the living room a staircase led up and a door opened to the first floor bedroom, the smallest bedroom in the house, and the one Miles had chosen because he owned so few belongings. All of the floors, both first and second, were covered in dark tan carpeting, and almost all the walls had faded, floral wallpaper.
The upstairs had the three remaining bedrooms and the second bathroom. Gordon had chosen the far left bedroom and Sandra had picked the far right, leaving the empty bedroom between them.
In what felt like the weeks following Gordon’s disappearance, Miles came to know every inch of the first floor, while Sandra spent most of her time on the second. Miles often heard the creak of movement up above as Sandra walked back and forth between the rooms. He sometimes stood at the base of the steps, staring up, catching a glimpse of her as she passed from one bedroom to another.
He spent most of his time by the closed back door rubbing his hands along the wood. The door looked plain. It had four long rectangles carved into the wood and two smaller squares carved near the top. It had a small opening near the base, and if he pushed down on the carpet, he could almost see beyond it. Mostly he saw darkness, but sometimes he swore there were feet right on the other side. Maybe they were Gordon’s feet, but he never heard a response when he yelled, or felt anything when he dared to push his fingers beneath it and reach them up onto the other side. He could only hold them there for a few minutes before his nerves cut out on him and he had to yank them back, his heart pounding.
Then the door opened.
When it did Miles found he couldn’t act, frozen at the end of the hallway staring at the open door. He had found it already open, the overhead light ending at the darkness beyond the door. He couldn’t see any shapes or movements beyond the threshold, just the large, dark opening, and the sense that he should be walking through it, should be seeing what lay on the other side, the urge so strong, but still he held himself back in fear.
“Sandra,” he screamed, as he’d done many times before, and while she often ignored him, he heard her feet that time hurrying towards the steps, perhaps detecting the anxiety in his tone.
Miles broke his gaze away from the door and watched her descend before pointing back towards it, and seeing the door was closed. He hadn’t heard it slam shut, hadn’t heard anything at all, but the door was closed when Sandra stepped up next to him, and the two of them stared at it.
For the first time since the night Gordon left them, Sandra stayed on the first floor with Miles. They didn’t speak much after Miles had told her everything he’d seen. She watched him run his hands over the door, try the knob, pulling and twisting the metal before finally giving up and shrugging back at her. He offered her awkward smiles and stiff body language. His tone suggested he’d been working hard on getting them out, was coming closer every day to understanding their prison, seeing beyond it. He tried to impress her with his calm, shrugging it all off in a manner similar to Gordon, except more forced, his anxiety just below the surface.
He tried, in his own way, to come on to her, something she’d detected even before the house trapped them, and she thought he must’ve assumed she had liked Gordon, because she’d been so much friendlier to him than she ever had to Miles.
When his efforts failed, the two of them retreated to the living room and Sandra sat in an armchair watching the ceiling and listening to Miles talk. He rambled on, telling her his own theories, ones better constructed than Gordon’s had ever been, but just as hollow.
She let him go on without responding, maybe encouraging him by her silence, as if she focused intently on his words, and though she thought it might be considered cruel, she never broke in to tell him how little she cared. Instead she waited for him to finally go to sleep. She understood, or thought she did, what she needed to do; something she felt Gordon must’ve understood as well, though she suspected it had approached him differently.
Finally Miles did turn out the lights, leaving just the greenish glow, and eventually Sandra heard his breathing change, arms draped over his face as he slept on the floor at the base of the couch, perhaps leaving the couch for her if she felt like taking it. Instead she rose silently and walked up to the nightlight. She pulled it loose, dropping the room into almost total darkness, and then walked towards the hallway and the closed door. There she took out the second nightlight, and now she couldn’t see anything, her head tilted back, eyes closed as she took in the darkness, felt it cover her body like a physical force, wondering if behind that closed door the faint cries and moans they’d heard from the beginning had always been her grandmother dying in the night.
Though the darkness was too complete for her to know, she knew the door opened, offered her darkness even deeper than the hallway. There was no sound but her bare feet softly brushing across the carpet as she stepped through the door and felt it close behind her.
She had left him a note. After reading the words, “I understand,” written in the middle of the piece of paper Miles searched the house. He walked through every room screaming her name until his voice was too hoarse to speak and his legs ached.
He sat against the wall on the far end of the hallway and stared at the door, waiting for it to open again, to let him through, to let him join the others and share in whatever secrets the home contained. He sat for longer than his mind could comprehend, his existence nothing but the closed door and the sliver of darkness beneath it, until his mind swam, thoughts turned disjointed, eyelids too heavy to keep open. Sleep forced his face into his knees and took the door away from him.
When his eyes opened light poured calmly through a window above his head.
Miles jolted awake, pulling himself to his feet, seeing the windows along the walls in the living room shining the morning sun on the sofa, the armchairs, and Gordon and Sandra lying still.
Gordon sat in the armchair with his head reclined back, faced aimed upward, his arms draped over the sides, the blood still running slowly down his arms from where the knife had torn through the veins and drained him. Miles saw the bloody pocketknife in Gordon’s lap.
Sandra lay on the sofa, her skin much paler than before, her right arm touching the ground, a large, dark puddle spread out from where the hand had touched. A pair of sharp, nail scissors was still gripped in her hand, her fingers in the handles, the blades pulled open. Miles walked up and stared down at her face partially obscured by her hair dangling across it. The light stink of decay filled the room, as if the bodies had been left for hours.
A scrap of torn paper had been left on the floor, partially stained with Sandra’s blood, and when he picked it up he recognized her handwriting, read the words, “You weren’t ready,” in her delicate print. He detected sadness in the writing, a longing, as if wanting him to grasp whatever had led them through the door, and made them kill themselves.
Though he stared at death, Miles felt no horror in their images, their faces and bodies somehow calm, accepting, the hint of smiles noticeable.
Miles threw the paper on the floor and hurried towards the back door. He pulled at the knob but it still wouldn’t open, depriving him of its answers. Instead he turned towards the front door and stepped out into the early morning.
He pulled out his cell phone; saw a signal for the first time, and the date August 5th on the screen. Inside the house he stood in front of the closed door, his hand trembling as he reached out to touch the surface, expecting something, but feeling nothing but the painted, wood grain.
Sitting with his back against the door, Miles called the police, and told them his roommates had committed suicide.
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