Psychological horror. A man finally faces what haunted him for a year of his childhood.
|When I was six-years-old, I formed an aversion to the sound of doors being unlocked and opened. Whenever I heard that thick metallic crunch followed by the protracted creak, my muscles would involuntarily tighten as if a current were passing through my body. My heart would thump till it threatened to vault the confines of my little chest, and my father, who was widowed at my birth, was mystified.
Between my sixth and seventh birthday, my sleeping pattern consisted of endless nights of fitful slumber, vivid and terrifying dreams, and sudden waking, which would precipitate, or perhaps was precipitated by, a slew of cries and sobs and screams. Evidently my fear of doors was linked to this phenomenon, for the content of my broken screams was always something to do with the door of my room.
When these night terrors started, my father would jump up from his bed, steal into my room, banish the long shadows from the walls with a flick of a switch, and comfort me: ‘What is it, sweetheart? Why are you crying?’ he would say with his arms around my shuddering shoulders.
‘It’s – I’m – the door…!’ I would stutter, trying to express what I saw and heard. But the source of my terror would inexorably slip from my mind despite my efforts, and my father would be at a loss each night to offer protection from the nebulous fear that haunted me.
As time wore on, and as the habit persisted, he desisted in his attempts to console me. And nor could I blame him. Such a problematic child could hardly elicit much sympathy when it was wrecking a life already abject with grief over the death of a loved one.
At any rate, my terrors would subside naturally in the course of the night, and I learned to comfort myself without an adult. Moreover, when my father took employment in the city, the terrors ceased altogether. We lived in a polished new apartment in the greater city area, with smooth cream walls, shiny kitchen surfaces, and, above all, soundless doors and silent locks. Nevermore did I or my father suffer broken sleeps or take caution when treading around the house. We were, to use an ambiguous expression, a normal family.
As our life in the apartment went on, I looked back on my childhood as a blur of memories, punctuated by that one period of restless nights and inexplicable fear for old wooden doors. Yet I did not dwell on it to any significant degree. It slipped from my consciousness as I left home for college, took my degree in business, and spent several years of mild success in a manufacturing firm on the coast. It hardly tweaked the strings of my memory as I married, had kids, and moved back into the city in which I’d grown up, several streets away from my retired father. It was as casual and inconsequential a memory as a tenth birthday or a first time riding a bike, and nevermore did the sound of a door seize me as it did when I was a child.
That changed when I was thirty-six. My wife and two daughters were out of the city visiting grandparents, and I had just returned from the office. There was a stiff breeze on the May air, and I sat with a book in the armchair by the dim light of a side lamp. As the evening progressed, my eyelids grew heavier, and I gave no resistance to the sleep that overcame me.
I must have been asleep some time, for when I awoke with a start, the light spring evening had turned black. A couple of rooms in the apartments outside were lit, but otherwise the cityscape was dark. The telephone was crying in shrill peals, and I gathered that’s what had woken me up so suddenly. Shaking off my drowsiness, I lifted myself from the armchair and walked slowly to the ringing telephone on the wall, wondering who it could be. It was unlikely to be my wife, because she said she’d call me in the morning. Nor could it be my father, who was always asleep early. My work friends wouldn’t reach me via landline, and so my speculation reached no conclusions. At any rate, I would soon have the receiver in my hand and identify the late night caller. I picked up the phone, pressed it to my cheek, and answered:
‘Hello?’ I said, my voice a little hoarse from my prolonged nap. After a short silence I cleared my throat and repeated a greeting. ‘Hello? Is anyone there?’
Still no response. The other end of the line was a stream of fuzzy interference, with no voice to speak of. I was about to chalk up the silence to a misdial and hang up, but then a sound arrested my attention. It was faint at first, and seemed very distant, but it gained force as it continued, until I really believed the sound originated from the room in which I stood. I strained to hear what it was, pressing the receiver harder into my ear, intrigued and also slightly nervous. But then, I asked myself, what harm could a noise on the other side of a telephone do to me?
I promptly received my answer. Suddenly the strange sound took on a vivid clarity, until there was no doubt in my mind that it was coming from behind me. When it clicked in my mind, I was hurled thirty years into the past, into the unplumbed depths of my dark and juvenile subconscious. The sound was the sound of a door, my door, my old bedroom door, clicking open, and swinging slowly, tortuously slowly through the air.
I felt as if cold liquid muck had been poured down my gullet and been made to dance with my insides. I couldn’t swallow, and my lips were steadily becoming dry and cracked as that ceaseless sound pierced through my ear drums and into my reeling mind. My muscles, just as they did when I was a child, contracted without my consent and left me paralysed with fear. But that was not all.
Imagine your life is a dark room. Pretend that all your life that dark room was sufficiently lit for you to go about your daily business, perfectly content to inhabit a limited pool of light, behind which was a vast, obscure world whose nature or content you never knew nor could have guessed at. When I heard that sound that night, the ancient bulb hanging from the top of that dark room ignited, and everything was revealed in all its grotesquery; all at once the shadows of my subconscious flared up into my eyes, and I couldn’t take what I saw.
I woke up in hospital two days later. I was told the neighbours called the police after hearing a man screaming wildly in the adjacent apartment. I was told that, when they forced down the door, they found me curled up in the corner, shouting to the brim of my lungs, pointing to the opposite corner of the room as if there were a ghost standing there. I was told my wife would be there to see me soon.
When she arrived, I couldn’t help notice the parallel between the way my father would console me those thirty years ago, and the way she consoled me then. Her arm was placed reassuringly around my shoulders, and she whispered over and over ‘What was it, sweetheart? What was it?’ As with my father, I didn’t tell her – except this time I could have.
This time, with my memory clear and vivid, I could have described to her how, each night when I was six, a visitor would unlock my bedroom door in the night and strain the door open. This time I could have detailed how that visitor, her face etched with the lines of death and decay, would shuffle to the corner of my bedroom, her eyes fixed on me with freezing intensity, and stand there as I lay in my bed, half awake, half dreaming. This time I could have told my wife, though I would never burden her with such horror, that that visitor, who haunted an entire year of my life, and the terror of whom caused me to bury the memory of her deep in my mind, was, I know now, my dead mother.
At any rate, if I were to tell my wife all those things, I would not tell her that on that night my mother came back after thirty-six years to stay, and that her rotted ghost was standing in the corner of the hospital room, gazing through my wife at me. I know now that she has always been there, watching me age, and that I only noticed now because after so long the door of my memory was finally unlocked and opened into the darkness.