My parents died in a car crash when I was fourteen.
Don’t feel bad for me or anything. I’ve made my peace with that years ago. Life with them was never great, but I do miss them. It’s just that if they taught me one thing it’s to not sit around wallowing in self-pity.
I just wish they hadn’t sent me to live with my Aunt Louise.
Anyone have that one family member that’s just a little strange, a little cut off from the rest of the family? Aunt Louise was ours. She was also our closest living relative. Dad’s family lived on the other side of the continent. Mom’s parents were both dead and she was an only child. Aunt Louise, her mother’s sister, actually, so my great-aunt, lived just an hour from where we did.
When my folks were alive, we rarely visited Aunt Louise, and to be perfectly honest, I half expected her to refuse to take me in. I was fully prepared to become a ward of the state, or move across the country, as soon as I heard that Children and Family services had contacted her about taking me in.
But she accepted. I’m not sure how willingly, or graciously, because I wasn’t privy to the phone conversation where she agreed to take me. I was surprised, though, at how nice she was to me the first three days I was there.
I want to make something clear; while Aunt Louise was cranky, odd, eccentric, uncouth, and several other less-than-flattering adjectives, she wasn’t a complete bitch. She had a rather abrupt, even abrasive, way of speaking, but she wasn’t cruel. I had never taken the time to really get to know her during my initial fourteen years, but I could tell that she mostly kept to herself and didn’t particularly like people, so naturally I assumed that she was a reclusive, curmudgeonly bitch.
Really, what surprised me most when I first moved in, it was how normal everything seemed. At least at first. Aunt Louise cooked, cleaned, watched TV, talked to neighbors on the phone, etc. just like anyone else would, and she told me right away that she had little in the way of expectations from me, or at least, none that my parents wouldn’t have; don’t stay out too late, let her know if you’re going to be late coming home, finish your homework before you watch TV, clean up after yourself, etc.
There was one rule, however, that was strange. And it stood out from the other rules in how strange it was. At first I tried not to worry about it; old people sometimes have peculiarities. I initially thought that was all this was. I was wrong.
She insisted that any time I entered or left a room, I was to shut the door behind me right away. It didn’t matter if I was only going to be in that room for a few seconds. If I entered a room, I was expected to immediately shut the door, and the same was true if I left it.
I often forgot this rule in my first week or so there. She never failed to remind me of it. “Shut that damned door!” she would yell, any time I forgot. It never seemed to matter where she was in the house, she could always tell when I had not shut a door just after opening it.
Her house was old, and my understanding is that she was not its first owner. She had lived in it since Mom was a girl. I had no idea how old it was. It could easily have been over a hundred, judging by its design and layout. It had two floors, a basement and a sub-basement. That last floor threw me for a bit of a loop when I discovered it existed. I was washing a load of my clothes when I noticed a door, closed, naturally, in the far wall of the utility room. The basement was unfinished, with mostly dirt flooring and bits and bobs stacked or piled or shelved everywhere. The only room you could really walk through without fear of stepping on something or knocking over a stack or pile was this laundry room, which was also the only tiled floor down there
The door I found in the basement had a board laid across it, easily moveable. It was as if Aunt Louise wanted a border there but not one that she couldn’t get past, if need be. My curiosity overtook me the second time I saw it, and I slid the board away from the door and tried it. It was locked.
This didn’t strike me as all that strange right away. That is, until I realized that this was the only room in the house, other than the doors leading outside, that Aunt Louise kept locked.
I asked her about it one day. She was cooking.
“The door in the basement?” she answered. “That’s the sub-basement. Not much down there. I mainly keep my preserves down there. It’s cool enough for them to keep.”
“Right,” I answered. This didn’t really explain why she kept it locked. “So if I ever wanted to take a look around down there…”
“For the love of Christ, boy, why would you want to do that?”
I noticed with that response that her face had changed. Aunt Louise mostly wore the same expression; a scowl like someone had just tracked mud onto her freshly-shampooed carpet. Again, she wasn’t as nasty as her expression indicated, but it was the expression she was most used to making, apparently.
But when she responded to my desire to see what was behind that door, her eyebrows raised and her mouth quivered for just a second before answering. It was so slight, others might not have noticed it, but by that time, I knew enough about Aunt Louise to equate that with a scream of horror.
I knew then that I had to see what was behind that door.
I’ve always been a curious type, you see. I’ve never been able to stay away from something that aroused my curiosity, even if my good sense told me better. I wanted nothing more after that than to see what was in that sub-basement.
But how was I to get around the lock? That was going to be an issue. Aunt Louise kept all her keys on a single ring. There weren’t that many of them, but I figured if the door to that sub-basement was anywhere, it was there.
I just had to find a way to take it from her.
This turned out not to be so simple. For one thing, it was not possible to get around the house without being heard. I couldn’t sneak from my bedroom to hers in order to sneak the keys without opening and closing all doors in between us; mine, the door in the far part of the hallway, and hers. Believe me, even if I simply left all doors open, she somehow knew. I once had to go to the bathroom in the night, and I forgot to close the hallway door. I had just made it to the bathroom when I heard her yell, even while asleep, “Shut that damned door!” I hurriedly turned back and went to close the hallway door, forgetting to close the bathroom door, and I heard it again: “Shut that damned door!”
For that matter, Aunt Louise’s room had a squeaky door that also had a catch to it, so when she opened it, it sounded like a choom-creeeeeeeeeeeeak. There was no opening of her door without her noticing.
So I forgot about the sub-basement door for a while. I placed my curiosity on the back burner and just tried to get along with the taciturn old woman for a while. Life got a bit easier. As long as I remembered to keep all doors shut at all times, the two of us got along famously. She didn’t get in my face about things, and I didn’t get in hers. It was a pretty silent house, but one that I got used to living in. I didn’t even think it strange anymore that every part of the house that one accessed through a door always had its door shut. It would have struck me as more odd if any doorway was ever left open.
Which brings me to the day Aunt Louise fell asleep while watching The Price is Right. It was a summer day, and pretty hot. Louise was slightly less worried about windows being open than doors, but she still tended to only open one at a time, and today she had just one open, one that wasn’t doing much at all to cool down a boxed-in house that had zero room for airflow thanks to Aunt Louise’s chief eccentricity. So, naturally, she fell asleep. And I saw my chance.
Her purse was at her feet. I was sitting in the chair directly beside hers, reading an Avengers comic book and trying to ignore the repeated calls of “Come oooooooon doooooown!” from the TV. I looked over at her, and saw that she was in a deep doze. Her hearing wasn’t the greatest even when she was awake, though she was far from deaf, but I figured in her snooze, there would be little chance she would hear the tiny noise of me rifling through her purse.
I found her keys almost immediately and headed for the stairwell. If she woke up when I opened the door, I would just claim I was doing a load of laundry. But she was unlikely to wake up unless I forgot to close the door, which by now I never did.
I headed down the stairs, for some reason tip-toeing even though I wasn’t yet at the place I had been shut out from. I felt absurdly guilty, despite the fact that Aunt Louise had never expressly forbidden me from doing what I was now doing.
The door to the basement was closed, of course, but unlocked, as always. I ducked through and closed it, waiting a few minutes, listening for a shifting of Aunt Louise’s frame in her chair, indicating she was getting up, or perhaps her voice calling to ask why I was in the basement.
Quietly, I crept for the laundry room, opened the door and closed it just as quick, slipping inside. I felt for the chain-pull for the light and pulled it. Low, eery light flickered through the room. I had never thought of the lighting in here as eery before, but I did now. There was something about this entire endeavor that felt wrong.
But my curiosity overrode my sense of caution. I crept toward the door and slid the board away from it. Aunt Louise had apparently put it back in place after the last time I had done this. The question of why she had done so played in my brain for a moment, but I ignored it and brought out the key ring.
I found the right key on the third try, and heard a loud chuck of the lock sliding away. I froze, heart beating in my chest, waiting to hear a cry from upstairs. Nothing.
The door opened silently as a ghost. There wasn’t any light to illuminate the staircase beyond. I didn’t even see a chain-pull for a light on the stairs. My brain was screaming at the rest of my body to turn around and forget this little adventure, but I paid it no heed and crept down the stairs, feeling along the wall for guidance.
It turned out there was a tiny amount of light, coming through vents in the ceiling. It wasn’t much, but I could see that there was a pull-string light, just a few feet from the foot of the stairs. Stupid place to put it; it should be right at the landing. But I walked down what appeared to be a fairly compact hallway and pulled the string. If possible, the light that flickered on was lower than the light from the laundry room. I could barely tell I’d turned it on.
I looked around and saw that, indeed, Aunt Louise did have rows of preserves down here. I was somewhat disappointed at the mundane answer to the mystery. For a moment, it seemed that the secret sub-basement was exactly what it was supposed to be.
Except…I could feel a puff of a warmish breeze that should not be possible down in the hard-packed earthen walls and cooler, subterranean air. The sense of wrongness was still there, and still strong, and I realized that the long row of shelves holding jars ended in a doorway at the end. A doorway that didn’t have a door.
I crept forward, arms in front of me, stepping carefully. The room beyond the door was dark and smelled musty. I couldn’t feel a source of the slightly warm air that was brushing against my skin. But I was noticing that the closer I got to that room, the warmer the air became.
By the time I was at the mouth of the tunnel (somehow I had started thinking of this place as a tunnel by this time), the air wasn’t just warm, it was humid. Fetid. The smell went from musty to moldy, to something even worse. I was assailed by that sense of wrongness stronger than ever. I had to get out of here. Why was I walking even closer?
There wasn’t much light, but I could see the outline of another door on the other side of the room. It was ajar. Seeing a door ajar in Aunt Louise’s house was like seeing a shattered window in anyone else’s. It was wrong. It was not meant to be. But then…I wasn’t precisely in Aunt Louise’s house anymore, was I? This tunnel was not built for this house. I knew that in my soul. It was here before. Long before. This was a place that had only become attached to Aunt Louise’s house by short-sighted builders, unaware of what they had unearthed. What they should have left buried.
It took me a moment to realize that the room beyond, the very room I was about to step into, was moving. The light was too dim to really see what was happening, but there was motion beyond it. Unceasing, slow, lazy motion. All along the walls, the floor. I could hear a slight squelching noise from its every corner. Things were crawling, expanding their pulpous flesh.
And looking at me. Daring me to cross that floor and shut the door on the far side, forever closing out what might be coming through it. I heard sucking sounds. Some formless, gelatinous presence stretched and flexed in the darkness.
In that moment, a sense of understanding came to me. I was not the first person to stand at this door. This door that could not be closed. Not the first person to see that other door, the one that was not meant to be, standing open on the other side, and knowing that it always would, until someone worked up the courage to cross the threshold and close it.
Aunt Louise had not had the courage, so she had fled, and kept every door in her house closed at all times, hoping against hope that keeping her doors closed at all times would alert her when whatever was beyond that damned door finally came for her.
I didn’t have the courage, either. I turned and fled, and never looked back. When I was sixteen I moved out of Aunt Louise’s and into a Halfway House. Once I was eighteen I got a job upstate, and moved there. I never went back to Aunt Louise’s and never called her, tried hard to not even think about her.
But I haven’t been successful. I still think back to the day I stood at that doorway, about the squelching, wriggling things that waited in the dark. And I wonder if Aunt Louise ever found the strength to cross the room and shut that damned door.