Charlie and Detective Nelson stood before the door, flashlights in hand.
Neither of them knew what to say. Nelson had only looked through the open door at what lay beyond, and Charlie didn’t have the words to explain the inexplicable terror he had felt when he ventured beyond that open door. But now the detective would get to experience it for himself.
“At least the door’s still at the bottom of the stairs,” said Charlie. He had been deathly afraid that it would mysteriously reappear on the doorway, like something out of a horror flick. He looked at the item Nelson had insisted on going back for. “But why did we bring a can of paint?”
“They still teach Greek mythology in school, don’t they?” Nelson asked. “Well, from what you’ve said, this place is something of a labyrinth, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. I guess,” Charlie told him. “But what does that have to do with Greek legends?”
“We don’t want to get lost, do we?” said Nelson. He fished out his pocketknife and used the can-opener to poke a hole in the paint can. “Well, if you recall, Theseus used a ball of yarn to find his way back. We’re going to use a trail of yellow paint. Guess my house’ll have to wait a while.”
“Clever,” said Charlie. “Now let’s get going.”
They stepped through the door, watching the T-joint at the end of the room for any sign of movement.
“Show me where you found the bodies,” Nelson told him.
Charlie led him around the corner to the trunk.
“Damn! It’s locked,” Charlie muttered when he tried to open it. “It was unlocked before.”
“Not to worry,” said Nelson, again taking out his trusty pocketknife. “You learn a lot tricks in the detective trade.”
Though he didn’t feel as confident as he may have sounded. Not in here. Though it only took him a moment to pick the lock, he found it hard to concentrate. He kept expecting the strange sounds Charlie had described to start up at any moment.
Pat, or what was left of him, was still inside.
“My god…” Nelson hissed. “What he must have gone through…”
“Lynn’s in the wardrobe,” Charlie told him flatly. He was now sweating and looking around constantly, waiting for something to happen. “I would have sworn the thing actually tried to close on Dan…”
On the floor in front of the wardrobe were several bones. The wardrobe was also locked, but again Nelson made short work of it with his lockpicking skills. The rest of Lynn’s bones lay in a jumbled heap in the bottom of the wardrobe.
“This… just isn’t… right…” Nelson muttered. “These bones… they’re picked clean… Out in the woods, bones might be weathered like this… but in here…”
Charlie felt a chill. He had been so unnerved by these discoveries that he hadn’t even thought of that. Lynn’s bones hadn’t even been here for six years, and they were white… as if the wardrobe itself had eaten her…
“I hope Dan didn’t try to hide in anything…” Charlie didn’t trust the scenery to begin with. Now he trusted it even less. “What is going on in here? What was your grandfather doing up here?”
“Building,” Nelson replied. “He was a builder, and he took on this house because it was so old. According to my mother, he just went upstairs one night to work on the attic, and never returned. I quite frankly believe the late Mr Donovan saw this room, and refused to ever go upstairs again, and neither did his wife. I talked to her. I guess I was the only person she ever confided in.
“Let’s keep going. As long as the paint lasts, we should look for your friend Dan and Barry. There might still be hope.”
“There has to be,” said Charlie.
They continued around the next corner, finding still more twists and turns to this mysterious place.
Neither of them could fully believe they were doing this. The house should have ended at least fifty feet ago. It made no sense.
“This is crazy,” said Charlie. “It’s like we’re in another world or something…”
“I always thought there was something in here, even when everybody told me to drop it,” Nelson confided. “Could it be we’re the only ones who’ll accept what we see through that door? Do the others really about-face like some kind of knee-jerk reaction?”
“I could see why,” Charlie replied. Talking seemed to take the edge off. A little bit. “Something is definitely wrong with this place.”
“It felt like a cover-up,” Nelson told him, “but now I think most people block this out. I keep thinking it can’t be real… but here I am.”
“But how did it come to be?” Charlie thought aloud. “Was it always here, or did your grampa somehow stumble into it like the Twilight Zone? Whatever it is, I don’t like it. I wish I knew who spray-painted that warning on the front of the house… it’s almost like they knew something…”
“Maybe they did,” said Nelson. “Given that it’s been abandoned for over two years, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to know that others have been in here. There have been several unexplained disappearances in this town in the last three years alone, and now I wonder if any of them had anything to do with that house… Do you hear that?”
Charlie paused, startled. He listened for a moment, finally hearing what Nelson was hearing. Voices. Somewhere up ahead.
“They continue talking,” Nelson whispered. “I don’t think they heard us. Let’s go. Quietly. Be prepared to follow the paint trail if anything goes wrong.”
Making as little sound as they could, they approached the voices. The closer they got, the more it sounded like people having a hushed conversation. Both of them were just starting to be able to make out a few words. It sounded like the voices were just around the corner.
* * * *
Becky held Joe’s baseball bat. She couldn’t get the lock to her father’s gun safe open, or she’d have a shotgun. All the same, she was glad her parents were still on vacation. She still hadn’t figured out how to tell them what happened.
Dan was armed with a sledgehammer from the garage. Barry walked between them with a hammer in one hand, and a length of yarn they had tied to Becky’s bed in the other. Taking his cue from Charlie, Dan had also had them take the door off its hinges, just to be on the safe side.
After the second corner, the lines of coats in the closet gave way to a long room with visible rafters, much like the one Dan and Barry had been in earlier.
“Remember, Barry,” said Dan, “if we run, drop the yarn. I’m afraid something may try to cut it, and if you try to reel it in, we may lose the other end of it. If we drop it and follow it, we might still have a chance of finding our way back.”
“Just gotta be smarter than the closet,” Becky said with an uneasy laugh. “I’m glad you guys came along. I was so afraid of this place. Even though I kept telling myself otherwise, I was certain my brother went in here… Why didn’t I go sooner?”
She stopped, looking around at her surroundings in horror and frustration.
“You can’t blame yourself,” Dan told her, trying not to sound too patronizing. And wondering what happened to Charlie. Is he still alive? Does he blame himself for what happened to me? What does he think happened to me anyway?… He snapped out of it and turned his attention back to Becky. “If you had gone in by yourself, you might not even be here now. At least working together, we have a chance to solve this mystery.”
“Do you think this place opens up in any other places?” Barry asked. “It’s like a network or something…”
“Yeah! Maybe it’s growing,” Dan theorized. “Becky, when Joe disappeared, your closet got bigger, didn’t it?”
“Yeah…” said Becky. “I think I know where you’re going with this. You mean this place gets bigger with each person it kills?”
“I think the same thing happened at the other houses,” said Dan. “It’s almost like this place is eating them… I would swear that wardrobe had tried to close on me on purpose. Those coats felt like they were moving on their own…”
The thought made him shudder.
“But how can we stop this—”
“Freeze! Drop your weapons and put your hands where I can see them!”
All three of them froze in their tracks. Both Becky and Dan alike screamed. Barry felt his legs buckle, and it took his full force of will to keep his feet.
A shadowy figure was holding both a pistol and flashlight, which he was shining right in their faces.
“Dan…” said the figure standing next to the man with the gun. “Is it really you?”
“Charlie?” Dan couldn’t see through the light, but he was sure he recognized the voice.
“Don’t move!” the other shouted again, re-aimed the gun.
“It’s okay, Nelson,” the second figure told him. “That’s my friend, Dan.”
“Charlie, could you tell him to get that flashlight outta my face?” muttered Dan. “Dammit, you nearly gave me a heart attack.”
“I’m sorry,” the first man apologized. “I just didn’t know what to expect. Until you screamed, I thought you might be… I don’t know.”
“Whatever you thought, I’m not,” said Dan. “Charlie, who is this guy?”
“This is Detective Nelson,” Charlie told him. “The grandson of Old Man Nelson.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Dan.
“Old man who?” Becky demanded.
“The old guy I told you about,” Dan reminded her. “The first guy to disappear in the other house.”
“Other house?” Charlie and Nelson asked in unison.
“Yeah,” Dan told them. “This place comes out in her closet.”
“And a house in the middle of nowhere,” Barry added.
“Can you take us to this other house?” Nelson demanded.
“Yeah,” Barry replied, proudly holding the ball of string. “We made a trail.”
“Is your name Barry, by any chance?” asked Nelson.
“Yeah. Why do you want to know?”
“Your family’s worried sick about you,” Nelson told him. “And so is your friend Josh.”
“Barry! You’re alright!”
This time all five of them jumped as Josh stepped around the corner, running up to his friend.
“I was so scared! I thought you died or something! …”
“Dammit! What are you doing here?” Detective Nelson demanded. “I told you to go home! Do you know who dangerous it is in here?”
“We’re still alive,” said Josh.
“And at least eight people are dead,” Nelson pointed out.
“Make that nine,” Becky added darkly. “It also got my little brother.”
“Who are you?” Nelson asked.
“Rebecca Davis,” she told him, “and I—”
From behind them there came a great heavy dragging sound, as if large objects were being hauled around. It was a sound that three of them recognized immediately.
“Let’s save the introductions for later!” said Charlie. “We need to get the hell out of here!”
“Drop the ball!” Dan snapped as they retreated along the path of the yarn.
They ran all the way to Becky’s closet, retreating into the next room and shutting the door behind them.
* * * *
There had been no signs of pursuit after they left the closet, so after a few minutes they had settled down in what had only days before been Joe’s bedroom. Which had of late become a base of operations for their next plan. Detective Nelson decided that the best way to start was by comparing notes.
The six of them spent a couple hours telling all they knew about this strange and ominous phenomenon. Though none of them knew exactly when or how it had started, they all agreed on several things. One: that the place seemed to “grow” every time it “ate” somebody. Two: it was not something of this world, as it clearly defied the laws of time and space as anyone in this room understood them. Three: that something must be done about it.
“Now what do we do?” asked Dan.
“Whatever’s in there is just plain creepy, and it kills people,” said Barry. “We have to destroy it.”
“But how?” Josh demanded.
“I’ve got it!” declared Becky. Mom and Dad are gonna kill me… But it was the only plan she could think of. “We burn it down!”
“That just might work,” said Dan. “You’re a genius, Becky.”
“But what about the other places?” asked Charlie. “Surely it opens into even more houses. What do we do about them?”
“Screw that,” said Dan. “Let’s do what we can.”
“No. Charlie’s right,” said Detective Nelson. “This isn’t just our problem. We have to find a way to cut all of its roots.”
“Roots…” muttered Barry. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
“But how?” Dan demanded.
“I think I have an idea,” Nelson told them. “It’s really just an extension of your own, Becky. We destroy both of the houses and keep moving on to its other points doing the same. I don’t know if we can destroy this thing— we don’t even know what it is— but we can at least expose its existence to others… Starve it, if you will.”
“Come on,” Becky said, taking out her father’s camping lighter. “I want to try something.”
They went back into her room.
“Look!” Josh gasped.
They saw that the thread tied to her bed reached into the closet, but it had been cut several feet in, and the end was missing.
“Now we’ll never find our way back!” cried Dan.
“Don’t be so certain,” Nelson told him, pointing to the paint can next to the closet door. “I left a trail of my own, remember?”
Sure enough, there were splotches of yellow paint on the floor. They looked as if they had been rubbed by something. But instead of erasing the paint, all it did was smear it around, making an even more visible trail to follow.
Becky took a bottle of nail polish remover from her dresser and went into the closet. The others followed. She dumped some of it on the floor beyond the area she thought of as her closet, then lit it with the lighter.
The polish seemed to burn, but didn’t do any apparent damage.
“Dammit…” she hissed. “How are we going to do this?”
Before anyone could answer, the whole room started shaking. They made a hasty retreat back to Becky’s room to find that this room wasn’t shaking at all. They heard loud scraping and banging noises in the closet. For exactly how long, none of them could tell.
“I think we got its attention,” Dan remarked.
“I think we may have to go with Detective Nelson’s plan,” said Charlie.
“I think you’re right,” said Becky.
* * * *
“Ready?” asked Charlie.
“Ready,” Detective Nelson replied.
“Ready,” Becky echoed.
They had made it back to the other house without incident. They had moved quickly and quietly, following Nelson’s trail with great caution. After a stop at the gas station, they now stood before the house once again.
“Time to say goodbye,” said Nelson.
They all regarded each other for a long moment, having only known each other for but an evening, yet all of them suspected this was a night none of them would forget.
“Barry, Josh, remember,” Nelson told them, “you know nothing of this. Dan, you left the house without incident and went driving around town looking for Charlie. Got it? When you couldn’t find him, you decided to go call the police. Got it?”
“Got it,” Dan replied. “Hey, Charlie, be careful… Do you really have to go along?”
“Yes,” said Charlie. “This thing killed my cousin and his family. I have to see this through.”
“Fine,” said Dan. “I wish I could go with you, but I don’t know how I’d explain it to anybody. If you make it out alive, come back, will ya?”
“You know I will,” Charlie told him. “Goodbye, Dan. I’m glad you’re still alive.”
“Come on,” said Nelson, noting the irony of his situation. “Let’s get going before somebody calls the cops.”
With that, they waved what they knew may very well be a final farewell to each other, then Charlie, Detective Nelson and Becky went into the house, dumping gasoline behind them.
They went all the way up the stairs, and finally emptied it in the attic. There, Detective Nelson lit a match. The room went up almost immediately, but the fire seemed to stop right at the doorway.
“This is going to be the weirdest arson those guys have ever investigated,” said Nelson.
“I wonder what they’ll make of it,” said Charlie.
“Let’s go,” said Becky, glad her parents were still out of town. “We’ve still gotta do my place.”
* * * *
By the time the fire truck arrived at the house, it had burned up to a grand blaze. Dan would later think about how old and rotten everything seemed in there. How everything that strange place touched seemed aged beyond its years. The house didn’t last long at all, according to reports.
Dan came back later, expecting to see a doorway hovering in the air over the rubble, but there was no such thing. It was just empty air.
No skeletons were found in the wreckage, and not a trace remained of the attic.
He wondered how far the three of them would get. How far this strange place reached. How many doors they would need to close. And most of all, if he would ever see Charlie or the others again.
Chapter notes: fighting back