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The Portal

For a brief period in my younger days, I owned a house in the heart of a rural village. My first house, in fact. It was a foreclosure, and therefore cheaply bought. Perfect for a young man just starting to make his way in the world.

But the only feature relevant to this particular story was the backyard. A modest, grassy space, enclosed on all sides by towering walls of arborvitae, and embellished with a lovely flower garden. It was a verdant sanctuary, completely cut off from the rest of the world. There were only two obvious access points: the back door of the house, and an arched gate, overgrown with vines, that led to the driveway.

The yard’s central feature was a path: a chain of rounded, mossy stones winding through the grass. Charming, and yet, bizarre; for the path stopped in the middle of the yard. Just ended. Perhaps a swimming pool had stood there once, or a fire pit, or a sundial. Something removed by a previous owner. Now there was only an emptiness in the middle of the lawn, and this path, meandering into it.

That isolated yard was, I think, the house’s most appealing feature. I often lingered out there during the warm summer evenings. Found myself always setting out along that path. I placed a chair at the end so I could sit, drink, and enjoy the angle of the golden light as it pierced the tops of the trees.

One Saturday afternoon, I went out to the backyard to pull weeds from the garden. I embarked as usual down the stone path. It wasn’t strictly necessary, of course, but it seemed proper. I placed each foot purposefully upon the stones until they brought me to the center, and there I stopped. Stood. Turned slowly to absorb the property. Something felt different. Here, at this point equidistant from the arborvitae walls, I seemed to have stumbled into an eddy of silence. The warm breeze faded. The birds fell mute. Gone was the hiss of traffic, the din of neighbors performing their yardwork. Even the light seemed…altered. I felt that I did not stand within the scene, but outside it, viewing it as a photograph.

And the longer I stood there, the more I began to feel I was forgetting something. Something dreadfully important. The trees loomed around me, their dark fronds quivering but making no noise. There was a tightness in my chest, a sudden, desperate urge to move.

I retreated backward up the path, slowly at first, then faster. As I moved away from the center of the yard, my heart slowed, and sounds gradually returned. There were the birds singing, there the scrape of a car driving by. Within moments, the surreal feeling was gone, nothing more than a memory, as of a dream.

A similar experience occurred several weeks later. I was reclining in my chair outside, reading a book, when I became aware of an eerie silence. Setting my book down, I gazed around the yard and felt, once again, that I was viewing a photograph. But there was something else as well, something distant. Like a sound, but not of the scene I viewed. Its source seemed to be external, somewhere in that same other-place that I now occupied. Somewhere behind me, and yet behind me again whenever I turned to look.

I couldn’t identify it at first, but it gradually swelled until I recognized the timbre and cadence of laughter.

Children’s laughter. Bubbling, rising and falling, always just barely audible.

I had seen children playing in the neighborhood. Had sometimes even heard them as I reclined in the backyard. But these were not familiar voices. And they possessed a peculiar reverberation, like a recording played back over itself again and again until it was almost indecipherable.

That tension in my chest returned, along with the urgent need to be elsewhere. I shot to my feet. The laughter, though distant or…or muffled, seemed close at hand, drawing closer. An icy sensation spread across the back of my neck, and then—

And then I bolted from the yard to spend the remainder of my evening indoors.

One may think me a fool for returning to the path after two such strange experiences, but I must emphasize that, upon quitting that spot, my paranoia evaporated so completely that I couldn’t help but question my own memory. New surroundings and an active imagination, tiredness and the balmy summer air; all of these could, I thought, combine to make one susceptible to such oddities as I had encountered.

Yes, the silence was just the result of a lull in the wind, a coincidental moment of inactivity throughout the neighborhood; that strange laughter just a distortion of normal sounds caused by a malfunction of the ear.

I returned home one evening from an exhausting day. After dinner, I picked up a book and retreated to my chair in the backyard. The weather was exceptionally tranquil that night. Not too warm, not too cool, with a gentle breeze stirring the arborvitae. After reading for a half hour, I closed my eyes and lost track of time.

Perhaps I drifted off. I don’t remember. But when I eventually reopened my eyes, darkness had fallen. It was an utterly quiet night. The crickets and nocturnal birds that usually sang me to sleep were absent. And it was cold. Unseasonably cold; as if it were late autumn rather than midsummer.

I stood up and stretched, reached for my book—

And couldn’t find it.

I was certain I’d left it on the arm of the chair. Perhaps I had knocked it to the ground in my sleep…but no, it wasn’t there. I circled the chair, spiraling outward as far as I could imagine the book falling. Nothing. Oh well, it would just have to stay out there until morning, and hopefully it wouldn’t get ruined by the dew.

A shiver rattled my frame. It wasn’t just that the air was cold; it also felt charged. A mounting energy that made my skin prickle, made me feel like something was tracing its way delicately up my spine. Eager to escape the ominous atmosphere, I turned back toward the house, then I saw something that made me freeze in my tracks.

The chair was gone.

The chair I had just been sitting in, the chair I’d been circling in my search for the book, had vanished. There was only a bare patch of grass at the end of the stone path. No evidence that anything else had ever existed in that space.

Except…no, that wasn’t entirely accurate. Coalescing out of the darkness, flanking the empty grass where my chair used to sit, there rose two stone pillars. They stood about six feet high, and were each topped with a roughly hewn sculpture of a single raised hand. The two hands were oriented so their palms faced each other. It made me think of a giant buried under the lawn, its arms thrust up from beneath the earth. How I could have missed them at first, I couldn’t…

But no, they hadn’t been there before, I was certain! Not even when I first started searching for my lost book. They had simply popped into existence between one heartbeat and the next, appearing during some brief moment when my attention was elsewhere.

I made a decision then. Although my legs shook, and clouds of steam rose before my face in irregular intervals, my curiosity was stronger than my fear. Instead of skirting around the pillars, I approached them. Placed myself between those upraised palms. Reached out and touched their dark stone—

And withdrew my hand with a gasp. My fingers burned with the memory of an intense, dry cold. I looked down and saw little patches of frost spreading across my skin.

As I stood there in confusion and terror, shivering beneath the black sky, a noise broke the silence. A noise I’d heard before. But where once it had been distant and ethereal, now it rang like shattering glass in my ear.

A child laughing.

I spun toward the back edge of the yard, toward a corner where the arborvitae melted into impenetrable shadows. There it stood. A pale child. Oddly shaped waves of black hair framed a head oversized for its neck. Frighteningly thin arms hung at its sides. I could not tell if it was male or female, nor even whether or not it was clothed, for the entirety of its figure seemed smeared by a gentle glow; not a glow that illuminated anything, but rather the reflected sheen of an object under moonlight—although no moon shone that I could see.

It laughed again, high and strangely pitched, with an electric quality that seemed to echo forever as it was sucked away into the night. Then the child rose up off the ground.

As startling as such a vision was, it was nothing compared with the shock that shortly followed. As the child hovered before me, I realized that what I had first assumed to be undulating waves of dark hair were in fact the tendons and knuckles of two massive, black hands. They held the child’s head between them, lifting it up higher and higher. The laughter that tickled my ears deepened, coarsened, became an abyssal growl. For the first time, my eyes made out a great bulk of shadow behind the child.

Slowly, the child’s slender arms reached out to me, bony, luminous fingers spread hungrily before it. And the shadowy hulk that carried it took a lumbering step forward.

Just one step. But with that step, the entire monstrous form seemed to rush forward until it was nearly within reach of me. In startlement I fell back, landed on the path between the two pillars. The luminous child-thing hovered over me, slowly descending, fingers like bones shrouded in cobwebs splayed toward my face.

A bird began to sing.

The nightmare before me wavered. Skeletal arms flailed; the great black shape lunged forward with a deep howl.

But before my eyes the whole thing faded away.

I heard the bird again, and noticed the black sky had lightened to dawn gray. Warmth returned to my limbs. Looking around, I saw the stone pillars were gone. Behind me, undisturbed, stood my chair, with my book resting placidly on the armrest. Everything—except me—was soaked in glistening dew.

I learned afterward that the previous homeowner had vanished without a trace, resulting in the foreclosure which began my tale. That revelation was my final straw; barely three weeks after the dreadful experience, I sold the house and moved to an apartment.