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The house had been incredibly cheap, yet neither Claire nor her two children were able to guess why. It had one floor and a cellar, heating, air conditioning, and plumbing, as well as three bedrooms. The cellar had a dirt floor, and there were a few minor problems with the electricity, but otherwise the house was perfect for them. It wasn’t quite as nice as their old home, but Claire felt the move had been necessary. After her husband’s death, the old home took on a new sort of personality. It had seemed as though the place no longer welcomed them. The very aura of the place was tainted, poisoned. The air had felt oppressive and diseased. So they had fled from the sickness of that house, and found a new place to live. As they finished unpacking, Claire looked around and knew they were going to like it there.
The school that her kids attended was only two blocks away, Claire noticed as she set up the dining room table. That would be convenient once school started again in September. She hoped that they would be able to sleep on their own by now. Stephanie was nine, and seemed to be all right alone, but Christopher had only just turned six, and still screamed in his sleep every few nights. After his father’s death, Chris had grown scared of the dark. No, Claire thought, not scared. Being scared of the dark was something every child went through at some point. Being scared of the dark was normal, natural. This was not normal or natural. This was primal, uncontrolled terror.
How many times now had she burst into his room to find him howling like a frenzied animal until his throat got hoarse and he couldn’t speak? How many times had she tried to comfort him when he was tangled in his bed-sheets, sobbing and clawing at his own face? How many times had she smelled that unmistakable stale vinegar odor, mixed with sweat, when he wet himself from fear? She had tried going to counselors, psychologists, doctors, everyone she could possibly find, but he still hadn’t stopped. Christopher was on four different medications for it, now. He’d stopped wetting the bed, and scratching at his eyes, but the screaming stayed. They said it could be a result of the trauma from seeing his father die, and that it would fade away as he got older, but Claire disagreed. She didn’t think it would ever go away.
They got the air mattresses inflated just before dinner, and decided the beds and television could wait. They ordered a pizza, and ate at the table.
“Well,” Claire said. “What’s everyone think of the new place?” The children were silent.
“It’s close to school.” Stephanie said.
“Yeah,” Claire replied, “You won’t have to ride the bus anymore. What do you think, Chris?” He was staring at the empty place at the head of the table. Not turning, he mumbled softly.
“Something happened here.” He whispered.
“What’s that?” Claire asked, her smile fading.
“Something happened here.” He repeated, just as quietly, “And it will happen again.”
“What?” Claire asked, frowning. The light fixture above the table flickered and shook ever so slightly. Christopher tilted his head down, avoiding her gaze. “What did you say, honey?” No answer. The light stopped flashing. Finally, he spoke.
“I said I like it.” They both knew this was a lie, but it was comforting, and so they believed it, for now.
After eating, they cleared their dishes and Stephanie and Chris got ready for bed. As she tucked him in, Claire made one more attempt at finding out what he’d said.
“Do you need me to stay here with you?” She asked. He shook his head. “Okay. Are you sure you like this house?” He spoke slowly and methodically, as if he was struggling to make words.
“I think…I think…something bad…might have happened…here.”
“I don’t know…but I saw…” He was sitting up now, his eyes wide and unblinking. “I saw a man…who wasn’t really a man. He wasn’t alive.” She wrapped a blanket around him.
“Chris…sometimes we think we see things, but they aren’t really there. I think that’s what happened to you. The man isn’t real. He’s like a dream, only when you’re awake. You’re safe. Just try and get some sleep.” She walked out of her son’s bedroom, shutting the door behind her. He stared into the dark. Gray beams of moonlight seeped through the translucent white drapes of the room’s only window, and the movement of the curtains made the shadows dance. The shadows in this room were different than those in other places. They were darker, thicker, almost like solid forms, but not quite.
Slowly, as Christopher’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, shapes began gathering from the dark. Tall, slender, black shapes. They moved without legs, or bones, or muscles, dancing in a slow, hypnotic circle around the bed. They moved like drops of ink in water, gliding and dissipating and reforming, until they all came together into one, solid mass. The mass moved toward Chris. It was larger, heavier than the shadows before it. The mass kneeled down on top of Chris’s chest.
He couldn’t breathe. His body was like a corpse, frozen solid. His limbs felt like stones. He tried to scream, but his jaw felt as though it was being held shut by a vice. The thing on his chest, the cluster of shadows, was looking at him. It had no eyes, no face, not even any sort of head that Chris could distinguish, but it was looking at him, into him. Air came through his nose in sharp little gasps. The mass seemed to lean closer. It spoke, in the voices of a thousand lost souls.
“This place does not belong to your world. This place belongs to us, and all who inhabit it will become ours.” Christopher tried to shut his eyes, but the lids were being pulled back by something he couldn’t see. Still, he struggled against it with all his might, and forced them closed. When he opened them again, the shadow-thing was gone. Only its words remained, trapped deep in his mind.
In Claire’s room, the shadows were light and as thin as tissue paper. They did not move or speak. Her window was large, and the curtains had been left open, so that the moonlight illuminated everything in shades of blue and silver. Her eyes, like the drapes, also remained wide open. She was staying awake in case Christopher screamed. Anticipation wouldn’t let her sleep. As she stared blankly at the wall, the room started to change. The walls and the one chair she had set up began to shift closer, toward her bed. The plaster surfaces of the walls warped like damp wood, bending inward. The chair became huge and distorted, like a photograph through a fisheye lens. Everything became larger and darker, morphing like rubber and converging upon her. Closer and closer. Claire brought her legs up to her chest underneath the sheets, wrapping herself into a ball and clamping her eyes shut, thinking it was just a hallucination from her exhaustion, telling herself it would pass. It didn’t.
She breathed deeply, and dared to take another look at the room. The strained, bent surface of the wall was only a few feet away. The huge black form of the chair loomed inches from her face. The ceiling was buckling and twisting inward, its convex form so close to her head that she could no longer sit up. She squeezed into a rigid fetal position and started to cry silently. Somewhere else in the house, Stephanie screamed for her mother, and no one came to help her.
Stephanie’s room was filled with the sound of crazed, relentless scratching. She could hear things scuttling through the walls and under the floor. Things with long, rotten claws that scraped against the wood construction of the house as they ran in insane loops around the room, scurrying as fast as they possibly could. They moved in the walls beside her, and beneath the floor under her bed, surrounding her on all sides with their maddening noise. They seemed lost, blind, moving in wild zigzags, threatening to claw their way through the drywall and burst out at any second, teeth grinding like electric saws. Stephanie screamed over and over again, but was not able to even hear herself over the endless scraping and scuttling from within the walls.
Nothing slept in the darkened house. In each of the rooms, an occupant stared into the darkness, waiting for something to come and devour them. Almost hoping it would. Millions of hollow, lonely things drifted and crept through the empty, unlit corridors and staircases, as fear dripped from every wall like a fluid. A cloud passed over the half moon, and the light withered away. The night passed on, slowly, the hands of the clock dancing in circles, and no one screamed. And nothing slept.
When the first rays of the sun began to replace those of the moon, every room became silent. The shadows crept away, the restless things rested, and the scratching inside the walls was quiet. Claire and her children were wide-awake in their beds, their eyes shut tightly, when the barrage of terror finally slipped away. Slowly, one by one, they managed to open their eyes and pull themselves from their beds, glancing around nervously for any sign that the menacing, faceless apparitions in the dark might still have been waiting. It was only once the sun had fully risen and every trace of shadow was gone that they dared emerge from their rooms, out into the hallway, still paranoid and speechless. Their eyes remained wide, milky orbs cracked by bloodshot veins, purple circles of exhaustion surrounding them like bruises. Their mouths remained tightly shut, for fear of what might spill out. At the breakfast table, Christopher was the first to speak.
“I had a bad dream.” He murmured, gazing blankly into his glass of milk.
“I did, too.” Claire responded. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Are you sure? Sometimes it helps.”
“No!” The light fixture wobbled lazily from side to side, like the pendulum of a broken clock.
“Okay. How did you sleep, Stephanie?”
“I was okay, I guess. I think this house might have mice or something.”
“What do you mean?”
“I heard scratching in the walls.” Claire looked concerned.
“In my room. All over the place.”
“Could be mice. I’ll call an exterminator if it keeps up. In the mean time, we can buy some traps.”
“Mom…” She said, quietly, almost ashamed. “This place scares me.”
“I know what you mean. I had a bad dream last night, too, but I think it’ll be okay. It’s just… new. It’s different, but we’ll get used to it. It’ll be okay, just wait and see.” The house did look more welcoming in the light, but in the bright sun, the shadows were darker. But Claire didn’t really mind the shadows. It was what they hid that she was worried about. This place was just as dark in the day as it was at night. It was harder to notice in the sunlight. Masked, but not gone. It was always there. It always had been. It always would be.
They went about their day normally. The kids played in the yard, while Claire put together more furniture, and continued to unpack. She forgot her fear, temporarily at least. It was not until she was taking a box of clothes down to the cellar for storage that she remembered. The cellar only had one light, a naked, dusty bulb suspended from a length of ancient wire, its light the color of yellowing newspapers. Claire had expected the cellar to smell like wet earth, natural, growing. It didn’t. The basement reeked of rotten, damp leaves and decaying apples. It smelled dead and forgotten. Upon reaching the bottom of the cracked wooden steps, she dropped the box and covered her nose and mouth with her hands, wincing as she half-coughed, half-gagged again and again in short, agonizing bursts. She pulled her shirt up over her nose, holding it there with one hand, and dragging the cardboard box with the other. The stench was almost like a malicious force of some kind, choking her from the inside out. She left the crate in a corner and rushed back upstairs, gasping. The light flickered off by itself behind her.
Reminding herself to do something about that unbearable stench, she called the children inside to unpack their toys and clothes. They came in, showing only a few hints of reluctance, and she helped them carry the boxes into their rooms. As she entered Christopher’s bedroom, she could feel something vaguely foreboding about it even in the daylight. With his belongings still in boxes, it was as bare as a prison cell. The walls were unpainted, and the mattress in the corner was the only furniture. Claire told herself she would change that, but in the back of her mind, she knew she couldn’t. There was something wrong with this place. What had he said last night? Something bad happened here. Deep in her thoughts, hidden from the rest of her mind, Claire suspected that whatever it was, it might happen again.
She glanced around the room again. There were some odd, dark stains on the edges of the room, where the walls met the floor. Maybe a water leak? No. They were far too dark for that, too opaque. The stains looked almost like paint. That’s it, she thought, they must have had the walls painted black, and then gone over it with white, but they just missed a few spots. That was all. There was a logical explanation for everything. There had to be.
She left Christopher’s room, and went back out to the hallway. At the end of the corridor, the cellar door sat silently, patiently. It was waiting. She stared at it, not wanting to step closer. In the very center of the wooden rectangle, there was a small, black mark. It was a circle, faded at the edges, like an ink stain, or a hole burned in paper. It hadn’t been there before. Claire was sure of it. She didn’t want to look at it. She didn’t want to be in the same house as that mark, and that door. She told herself her fear was childish, irrational, but even as she thought this, she could feel the dark spot looking at her, staring like a single, empty eye. Something bad happened here.
That night, the nightmares came again, even more vivid and intense, and the screams echoed all through the house, and sleepless, hollow things floated through the halls like dead leaves on the wind. The cycle repeated itself, and nothing slept.
The following morning, the stain on the cellar door was larger. Claire hadn’t measured it, but she was sure it had grown at least two inches during the night. At the breakfast table, Stephanie was crying. Emerging from the shower, Claire rushed to her.
“Stephanie,” She asked softly, “What’s wrong?”
“I…I had the dream again.” She choked out her words between, deep, harsh sobs that shook her entire body. Claire hugged her close. “But it was different this time.” She continued. “This time, the things in the walls…” Her voice fell to a whisper. “They talked.”
“Oh, honey.” Claire murmured, “I’m so sorry.”
“They said things to me.” Stephanie said, her voice still lowered. “They said that we belong to them now. They said the door is going to open.” Claire started to rock Stephanie lightly in an attempt to shush her, but she kept whispering. “They said we’re His puppets. They said He is rising.” Claire stopped trying to comfort her, and spoke into her ear.
“Who is He?” Rather than Stephanie replying, Chris jerked his head toward the two of them and answered her in a voice that wasn’t his own.
“He is pain. He is pain, and fear, and hate, and lust, and guilt. He lives behind The Black Door.”
“Whom are you talking about?” The children were silent. “Was He in your dream?” Slowly, they both nodded at once. “Are you scared of Him?” This time, they spoke together, in one voice, its tone emotionless and unnaturally deep.
“Well, you don’t have to be scared. He’s not real. He’s a dream. You don’t need to fear Him. I promise.” Almost inaudible, Stephanie leaned over and whispered one word into Claire’s ear, so quiet it might have just been a breath.
“Liar.” Claire’s eyes widened enormously, as she placed Stephanie back into her chair and poured her a bowl of cereal.
“It’s going to be okay.” Claire said, talking more to herself than to the children. She looked over her shoulder, down the hallway. The black mark had grown again.
Later that day, after lunch, Claire decided to take the children to the park a few blocks away. She told them that it was because they all needed some fresh air, but in reality it was a thinly veiled excuse to get out of the house, away from the cellar door. The kids had started to discover how frightened their mother truly was, and she didn’t want them to see her scared, as that would only make them more afraid. She’d thought about taking them to a doctor, after they had both spoken in that distant, gravelly voice, but decided against it. A doctor couldn’t help them now. Claire doubted that anyone could. Though she tried not to think about it, she knew that even now, the mark was expanding, spreading over the door like a disease. Something was waiting behind that door, in the pitch darkness of the stinking cellar, or maybe somewhere deeper. He was awake, and He was waiting, and all three of them, her and her two children, belonged to Him.
Claire stared out at the small grassy expanse of the park, watching her children run in intricate spirals and zigzags over the green field and between the swings. She didn’t want to take them back to that place. She supposed they could rent out a hotel room and stay there, but for how long? Eventually they would run out of money, and eventually they would have to go back for their things. One way or another, they would have to go back. There was no escape. If she tried to get help, they’d call her insane, and they would take her to some kind of institution or a hospital or wherever people who see things go, and they’d take away her children. They’d leave them alone somewhere she couldn’t protect them, and He would come out of the cellar and find them. She couldn’t call the police, or a doctor, or anyone. They were alone. Nobody was coming to save them.
In an hour, they came back to the house. The cellar door was still tightly shut, but now the stain was over a foot wide. The children got out their toys and played with them in their rooms, leaving Claire on her own. Standing in the hall, she could begin to hear the same scratching Stephanie had talked about, muffled slightly by the walls, coming quietly from all directions. The vile smell of rot leaked slowly through the cellar door, filling the air. She turned away from the door, and the mark, and half-ran back to her room, coughing. She stayed there, cowering in the corner, until just before dinnertime. It was only then that the stench started to fade, and the things scrambling in the walls crept away.
She emerged from her room to find the children sitting in the living room. Stephanie was helping Chris read from a picture book. Above them, the small, simple chandelier that hung from the ceiling was vibrating subtly, just enough to make the bulbs flicker every few seconds. Claire turned and glanced cautiously at the door. The mark now covered half of its surface. It seemed to be mocking her, laughing at her fear. Quickly, she looked back to her kids.
“It’s time to eat.” She said. Stephanie closed the book and both of them walked to the dining room.
“Okay.” She said, looking up at Claire. Looking closely, Claire saw that her daughter’s pupils were twitching. It wasn’t immediately noticeable. From a distance of more than a yard, she wouldn’t have seen it. Still, her eyes shook back and forth in tiny shaking movements, just as small as those of the light. The twitching frightened Claire, but not as much as what she saw reflected in the pupils. There was a face in her daughter’s eyes. Not a reflection, but something staring out. Something dead, something old, and full of hate.
(He is pain)
They ate in silence. When Chris sat down, Claire saw that his eyes were shaking, too. She didn’t dare look closer, or she would have seen the face. For a moment, she started to lift up a knife, to turn it sideways, to stare into the blade, to look at the reflections of her eyes. She had moved the utensil an inch off the surface of the table before she stopped herself and dropped it. It’s not there, she thought. It can’t be. There is nothing behind the cellar door. Even as these words passed through her head, she could feel her eyes trembling. Claire stifled a scream, as a single tear fell down her cheek. She reached up and wiped her cheek. Her fingers came away stained red. Stephanie and Christopher both lifted their heads and spoke as one, in that horrible, deep, far-away voice.
“The black door is opening. He is awake. He is hungry. He is rising.” They shut their eyes for a moment and fell silent. Crimson tears streamed down their mother’s face.
“Why are you doing this to them?” She shrieked. “Leave us alone! Please, let us go! Leave us alone! Leave us alone!” Her words became distorted sobs, and then she was silent, still shivering, her cheeks and shirt drenched in dark blood. She couldn’t make her eyes stop moving.
“Mommy,” Chris whispered. “What are we going to do?” She didn’t answer. She picked up her knife and looked at her reflection. In the very center of her pupil, she could see His face. He was smiling. The knife slipped from her fingers and clattered to the table.
“I don’t know.” Claire whispered. They cleared the table and went to bed, leaving the lights on. Sleep came with surprising ease, at first. At half an hour past midnight, Claire woke up to the dark, iron smell of blood and a deafening scraping noise. Her eyes were shaking uncontrollably, no longer twitching, but whipping from side to side with nauseating speed. Clutching her pounding head, she dragged herself to the doorway of her room. The lights were all flashing rapidly on and off, spark falling in blue showers from the broken bulbs. Looking out into the hallway, she saw that the walls, floor, and ceiling were smeared with congealing black blood. From somewhere in the house came frantic screams, repeating like a broken record.
“Save us! Save us! Save us!” It was Stephanie’s voice, choked and rasping and distant. The hallway lurched back and forth in a horrific dance as Claire tried to focus her eyes. The bloodstained walls contorted and shifted inward, trying to crush her. She looked down the hallway. The door was now entirely black, and shaking in its frame. Something was pounding on it from the other side. Claire stumbled down the bleeding hall, attempting to get to the door to hold it shut. The air seemed to warp and flicker, and Chris appeared in front of her. His entire body was vibrating and convulsing as if he had been shocked with electricity. His mouth hung open in a muted scream, the teeth and tongue stained black. His eyes moved in insane spirals, becoming a blur as they spun faster and faster. Claire stood frozen and watched as his bare, pale feet left the ground, and he hung in the air like a puppet from invisible strings. His head slumped to the side, still shaking violently, and a voice came from deep inside his throat.
“The Black Door is opening.” His lips didn’t move. Black, sticky blood streamed from his open mouth, and he moved higher into the air. “He is rising. He smells your fear, mother. He is coming. He will consume.” The voice was deep, dark, and growling. It wasn’t a human voice. The Black Door wobbled, and one of the pairs of rusty hinges snapped. Chris stopped speaking and fell to the floor, still shaking wildly, tiny, animalistic sounds escaping his mouth as he flailed like a dying fish. Claire lifted him up, threw him over her shoulder, and ran into Stephanie’s room.
In there, the scratching drowned out everything else. In the hazy, flickering light, there were things scurrying all over the walls and floor, moving like huge cockroaches, their claws creating a horrific din, as Stephanie sat in the center of them all, covered in cuts inflicted by the scuttling, blurry things. She was shaking, too, whether from fear, cold, or something else, Claire didn’t know. She rushed through the swarm and grabbed Stephanie by the arm, then dashed out into the hall, just as the cellar door burst open behind them, and every light in the house went out.
Claire ran blindly though the house, her daughter in one arm, and her son in the other, as something enormous and hungry moved behind her. Something with huge insect wings, and eyes that burned like red-hot metal. Something with claws that dragged on the floor as it walked. Something covered in long, matted fur so dark it hurt to look at. Something with teeth like shining splinters of broken mirrors. The floor trembled beneath its hooves as it moved. It was laughing.
When she reached the front door, Claire kicked it open, rather than pausing to turn the knob. Inside the house, she had stopped to take her car keys off the counter, and the thing had nearly caught up with them. She wasn’t going to take that risk again. The front door swung open after the second kick, and, still carrying her children, she went to the car. Buckling them swiftly into the back seats, she saw that their eyes were still. That was good. She had no time to be relieved, however, as the beast came shambling out of the house and turned toward her. In the cold, pale moonlight, she caught a glimpse of its grinning face, and vomited onto the sidewalk.
Not looking back, she jumped into the car and slammed her foot onto the gas pedal. The car squealed down the street, away from the house, and did not return. They drove all night, stopping and checking into a motel in the morning. Six nights later, the house burned to the ground. The cause on the report was listed as an accidental fire, but the true reason could not be determined. The only thing that remained intact was the cellar door, which was later taken to a salvage yard.
The neighbors did not talk about the house, or the people who had lived there. A week after the house burned, three unidentified bodies were found in a hotel room, their features mangled beyond recognition. The hotel was closed not long afterward, due to complaints of a severe rodent infestation. The ground upon which the house was built remains a vacant lot. The location of the door is unknown.