Toward the beginning of that rainy autumn, the rhythm of my life shifted. It began with a death: that of my husband Noah’s grandmother. She had been a widow for nearly ten years, and now her house was empty. After her funeral, it fell to Noah’s family to divide the material remnants of her life.
“There’s really only one thing I desperately want,” Noah said to me one evening after our children were in bed. “There’s a photo of Grandma and Grandpa with all of us as kids. We were staying there one summer, having a campfire in the backyard, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows. It’s one of my favorite memories of them.” He frowned. “Only problem is, between my siblings and my cousins, there’s probably a lot of people who’ll want it. I know my sister will, at least, and she’ll fight for it.”
“Has she told you she wants it?” I asked.
Noah shook his head. “I just know her. It could get ugly.”
“Well,” I thought out loud, “we know where the house key is.”
In preparation for the weekend, when the whole family would convene at the house to sort through everything, Noah’s parents had informed everyone that a spare key was hidden in a flowerbed near the front porch. That way, whoever got to the house first could open it up for everyone else.
Noah smirked. “Can you imagine how mad everyone would be if they found out?”
“They won’t find out. We can put the photo in our bedroom where they’ll never see it. If anyone looks for it at the house, they’ll just assume your grandma lost it. You’ll get what you want, and it’ll avoid an ugly argument.”
Noah eventually agreed, and so, that Thursday night after supper, we hired a sitter for the kids and drove forty-five minutes to the small rural town where Noah’s grandparents had lived. I’d never been to their house before, so it was an unfamiliar journey to me. We drove through soggy cornfields and dripping woods. All the while, the van’s tires hissed against the pavement, making me feel damp and cold inside. We passed an old playground, rusty swing set and lopsided merry-go-round glistening as the sunset shone through droplets of condensation.
“I’m not entirely sure where we’ll find the photo,” Noah said during the last few minutes of our drive. “I seem to remember seeing it in different places over the years. And it’s been so long since I last set foot in the place.”
It was true; I couldn’t recall Noah ever visiting his grandparents since our marriage. We had always seen them at family get-togethers elsewhere.
“I guess we should start downstairs,” Noah continued as we turned onto the final street. “If it’s not down there, then—”
I glanced at him to see why he’d fallen silent. His brow was furrowed in thought.
“Sorry,” he said. “If it’s not downstairs, then we’ll look upstairs.”
We finally arrived at the house. Noah parked the van in the driveway and switched off the ignition. I unfastened my seatbelt and was about to open the door when I realized Noah was just sitting there, staring at the house through the windshield.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said with jolt. “I just…thought of one more thing. Don’t go upstairs without me.” He finally unclipped his seatbelt and stepped out into the cool, damp air.
“Why not?” I asked as I followed him to a flowerbed to the left of the front porch.
“It might not be up there anyway,” he answered. “Just…if we can’t find the photo downstairs, then we’ll go up together.” He dug around in the bushes for a few seconds before picking up a large rock and producing a key. Then we went to the front door, unlocked it, and stepped inside.
I took a moment to survey the space. We stood in an entry hall. To our right was a staircase to the second floor. To the left was a living room. The hall stretched back toward what looked like a kitchen and dining room.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” Noah said. “A bunch of kids and two old people sitting around a fire. Why don’t you start here at the front, and I’ll look in the back?”
“Sure,” I said, and turned my attention to the living room.
At first, I thought our quest would be short. The living room was full of framed photographs, hanging on the walls and arranged on end tables. I worked my way through them slowly, studying faces, smiling at the fashions of decades past. There was warmth here, emanating from the memories preserved in this room. But there was coldness as well. A sense of something missing. The eyes in the pictures…they searched for someone who wasn’t there anymore. Their frozen gazes met mine; I wasn’t who they sought, and I felt like an intruder.
I took a deep breath—a more difficult endeavor than it should have been. The air seemed thick and stuffy. It was a crushing weight against my lungs and my limbs. The sofa beckoned to me, offering a respite in its softness. A deep rumbling filled my head, a darkness throbbed somewhere behind my eyes, and I just wanted to sit down until it passed—
“Alya?” hissed Noah’s voice.
I opened my eyes and turned to face the hall, and there he was, standing at the bottom of the staircase, his face obscured by a shadow. The sound of my name, whispered through his lips, cleared my head. Air came easier, and I breathed it in gratefully.
“You ready to go up?” he asked.
I followed him to the landing and looked up the staircase. I could see the upstairs hallway branching off from the stairs at a right angle. It was lit by a hazy orange glow from an unseen source, a glow that seemed to warm the air. As we climbed, it seeped into my limbs, relaxing my muscles, easing away the last of the awful miasma from the living room.
Noah said nothing throughout our ascent. I followed his silent form all the way up the stairs. When we reached the top, he pointed down toward the far end of the hall and whispered, “You start at that end. I’ll start at this end.”
I nodded and made my way down the hall, noting a lamp hanging from the ceiling; the source of that wonderfully warm glow.
I passed beneath the lamp, passed several doors, most of them open. I passed everything, approached the end of the hallway that terminated in a single closed door.
For some reason I found myself indifferent toward that door. There was no need, I felt, to look inside. I knew, somehow, that the photograph we sought did not lie beyond that door, which loomed larger and larger. As I came ever closer, that feeling swelled to a certainty, and then, at the very end, that certainty became a dreadful need to not look.
I glanced back over my shoulder toward Noah.
He wasn’t there.
I was alone.
And with this revelation came the sudden awareness that the light, whether by a gradual dimming or a sudden departure, no longer embraced me. It was dark. Utterly dark, save for snatches of cold highlights that may have been moonlight or may have been only the memory of light. And then I was on the floor.
It was as if all my tendons had been cut, a marionette detached from its strings. The darkness pressed in on me, filled my lungs so I couldn’t breathe. Every part of me was paralyzed, save for my heart, which made up for the rest of my body’s absolute stillness with an irregular staccato of terror. Terror of the dark. Of the sudden cold that numbed my fingertips. Of my sudden, utter helplessness.
And of the realization that my fall had brought me, entirely against my will, to rest up against the wood of the door at the very end of the hall.
I had only a moment to reflect on this awful development before the first impact.
It came from the other side of the door. A heavy weight slamming against the wood, jarring me. I would have screamed, but my jaw had fused to the rest of my skull, and I couldn’t draw enough air to so much as whimper.
Then it repeated itself. Something throwing itself into the door, then pulling at it, rattling it back and forth within the casing. And I was helpless, my body jarred with each echoing bang. At any moment something would change. I knew it, could feel it in the thick, suffocating air. The door would crack. Something would come through and take me.
Where was Noah? Why didn’t he help me? Couldn’t he hear it hammering against the door? I tried calling out to him, but produced no more than a sick, trickling moan. There wasn’t enough air in my lungs, wasn’t enough air in that hallway, in the entire house—
There was a lull in the banging. For a moment, all I could hear was my heart assaulting my ribcage. Then there was a click. The soft friction of turning brass. The doorknob.
It had done it. Had figured out the trick of the door. And now that door would fly open and drop me into the room I so desperately needed to not see. Yes, even now I could feel its grasp, hear its voice calling my name—
I opened my eyes to a lit hallway. The lamp’s orangish glow had returned. Noah’s face, pale with worry, was inches from my own. My throat felt raw, and my forehead ached.
“Why didn’t you wait for me?” Noah asked. “I told you—”
“Did you see it?”
“Did you see—it was opening the door!”
“The…door? I thought you…” Noah looked over my head with a confused look on his face. Although I dreaded it, I made myself turn to follow his gaze.
The door stood widely open.
Still staring past me at the room beyond, Noah said, “I heard a banging noise, and that’s when I noticed you weren’t downstairs anymore. I came upstairs and found you here. You were…curled up on the floor, banging your head against the wall.”
“No,” I said. “No, no, you came upstairs with me, and I walked down the hallway, then the lights went out and suddenly I couldn’t move, and someone—”
“Alya, there’s no one else here.”
“I’m telling you, there is someone in that room!”
Noah took me gently by the shoulders, helped me stand up and turn around. Made me look properly into the room.
It was empty. Completely empty. Not a single piece of furniture. Not even curtains over the windows.
Nowhere for anyone to hide.
Somehow, that unrelenting emptiness was worse to me than anything. A sob burst from my chest.
“Come on,” Noah said, “we should go.”
After we were in the van, after the house had vanished into the gloom and mist of the rearview mirrors, Noah said to me, “I believe you, you know.”
I looked at him doubtfully.
“I do. It’s why I wanted to go upstairs together.”
“You…you knew that would happen?”
Noah shook his head. “I didn’t know what to expect, if anything.” He drove in silence for a minute. I was too dizzy to press further, and my fingers still ached with the memory of bitter cold. I gazed out the window and watched the black landscape speed by. Black and glistening with moisture under moonlight. Occasionally, a larger silhouette would loom out of the mist. A tree. A shed. That playground I’d noticed earlier in the evening. As we passed it by, one of the swings lurched forward—
And then it was gone, lost in the darkness behind us, and Noah was talking again.
“We didn’t visit very often, growing up. But we all knew something was wrong with that place.”
“Haunted. Especially that room.”
“Whose was it?” I asked.
“No one’s. That room was always empty. Never used.” He sighed. “Everything’s scary when you’re a kid. When we came here today—I was mostly sure nothing would happen. That it was all just childhood imagination. I wouldn’t have brought you if I thought…I’m sorry. Guess I should have warned you ahead of time.”
We came to another stretch of silence. It began to rain.
“What was it, exactly?”
I noticed Noah’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. “I don’t know. It’s always been there. Since before my grandparents, I think. Something old.”
“Did anything…when you were a kid, did anything like tonight ever happen to you?”
The road turned sharply, but Noah didn’t slow down. “Sometimes, one of us would wake up in the middle of the night standing in front of that door. Other times, we’d wake up in our beds, unable to move or even breathe. Nothing like that ever happened except when we slept in that house. I just assumed it was nightmares brought on by sleeping in a strange place.”
We sped around another bend in the road, and a pale object loomed ahead of us. Pale and oddly shaped. Amidst my screaming, I observed something like a face turned toward us, two black eyes, a crown of twigs and branches, a body bent over so forearms brushed against wet pavement.
And then it streaked off into the night, and my seatbelt crushed into my torso as the van screeched to a stop.
“What was that?” I gasped.
“Deer,” Noah answered.
“That wasn’t a deer.”
I waited for Noah to start driving again, but he didn’t. We sat in the dark, listening to the rain patter on the van roof. Watched the night outside disappear beneath waves of cascading water. It might have been ten minutes. It might have been an hour. Just the two of us, thinking, trying not to think, letting the rain wash everything away. Letting its tiny impacts drive everything else from our heads.
Finally, Noah said, in a voice so quiet I could barely hear him over the rain, “The door was never open. Never, until tonight.” Then Noah got us moving again, and for the rest of the drive, we said nothing.
It turned out that Noah had found the coveted photograph in the dining room that night, shortly after I’d gone upstairs. He set it on his dresser in our bedroom when we got home. p>
The weekend came, and Noah returned to his grandparents’ house with his family. Alone. I resolved never to go near the place again. But I was wrong to think that simple avoidance would put an end to the nightmares. What happened to me that Thursday night wasn’t an isolated incident. It was the beginning of a permanent shift. My life could never be the same. p>
I first began to suspect it—to dread it—during those several hours when Noah was away with his family that weekend. He hadn’t been gone ten minutes when I heard him whisper, from somewhere close behind me:
I turned, but no one was there. I checked the driveway, but the van was still gone. I thought maybe one of the children—but the voice was too deep to have come from a child.
Noah returned that night and informed me that his sister did have her heart set on that photograph, and she was sorely disappointed when it turned up missing. But my plan had worked; she was none the wiser to our earlier escapade, and no argument ensued. Noah said it had all worked out for the best.
But I couldn’t agree. That autumn saw me in a state of near-constant nervousness. Sometimes it was little things. My fingers going cold without explanation. A heaviness on my chest and limbs as I lay awake at night. Other times…
One night in October, as I was washing dishes, I looked out the window over the sink and saw a stray cat slinking through our backyard. In the dark, I couldn’t make out its exact breed or color, but it was pale. Very pale. It crept low to the ground, feeling ahead of itself with its paws. Just before it slithered beneath the bushes at the edge of our property, it turned its head toward my window.
It was only visible for a split second, but that was enough to make me drop the glass I was washing. I didn’t even notice as it shattered in the sink; I was transfixed by that human-like face, by those black eyes.
Worst of all, though, were Noah and the kids. One evening in late November, I left my son coloring at the kitchen table while I went upstairs to fold laundry. When I got to the top of the stairs, there, standing in the doorway to the master bedroom, was my son. A shadow lay across his face. He stared at me, cocked his head to one side, and flashed me a knowing smile. Then he darted soundlessly across the hall to his own room.
Noah never talks about that night at his grandparents’ house. Never talks about that room or the things he experienced there as a child. And I’m afraid to ask him. Afraid to even speak to him or our children. I can never be sure exactly what I’m speaking to.
Does it haunt them, too? Do they hear and see things like I do?
What did we inherit that night, when I opened the door that had never before been opened? Will it ever leave me alone?