This is a repost of my original publication of this story to r/nosleep. This work is copywrited to me and may not be reproduced without my permission and credit to J. Pfeiffer and a link to my blog.
Close your eyes and think about all the doors you pass through each day. Hundreds of doors, thousands in your lifetime. Breezing in and out, you probably think of them as nothing more than a means to an end, a way to get from point A to point B. Doors with handles, doors that glide open electronically when you step in the right place, doors that creak and groan with age and remind you to pick up WD-40 next time you’re at the store. But some doors are different. Some doors are not meant to be traveled through. Quite the opposite. Some doors are built to prevent people, or even things, from getting in. Some doors are built to keep things from getting out.
I’m not a believer in the paranormal. I don’t put stock in ghosts or demons or monsters. The things that go bump in the night? I generally think they all have some explanation, one way or another. The human brain is an easily frightened, painfully irrational organ. When others stand shaking at the tops of dark basement stairwells, peering into the damp black, I charge ahead, straight to the bottom. Leaky pipes and cobwebs in corners don’t frighten me — why should they?
So when my mother told me she felt like something was off in the basement of her newly inherited home, I laughed. She was always chattering about her fantasies, ghosts and vampires and angels. She claimed that I felt the spirits, too, and I would open my eyes someday to see. I raised an eyebrow and reminded myself one of these days I was going to miss the sound of her voice when she told me her ghost stories. I had driven four hours across the state to help her move cardboard box after cardboard box from a rental storage unit into the house.
Well, I call it a house, but it was more like a cottage with its oddly shaped living room, cramped little bedroom with an attached bath, and galley kitchen. The great aunt who had lived there before was a spinster with no love for any living being, save her cats. She had taken good care of the place, though, and for some reason given thought to passing the property on to her sister’s daughter rather than one of her own children or grandchildren. My mother’s financial troubles had made it impossible for her to rent more than a single room in a boarding house over the last decade after her last child left the nest, so it was exciting for all of us that she now had a stable place of her own to live.
“I just get the strangest feeling when I go down there, like something wants me out,” she told me, talking a mile a minute as we worked through boxes of kitchen paraphernalia.
Her tendency to hoard over the years had caught up with her in this place — I made a mental note to smuggle a few boxes of junk out when I left and dump them at a local Goodwill. We had spent the morning working on her bedroom and rays of midafternoon light were now streaming through the high windows in the cottage’s western-facing wall. The yellow and green floral pattern of the kitchen wallpaper seemed to brighten in the sun, creating a cheery, cozy atmosphere. I couldn’t imagine a single thing about this place making anyone feel ill at ease.
“Sounds to me like you’re just trying to get me to carry these boxes of canning supplies down there on my own,” I teased.
She laughed, a slight edge to her mirth that gave me pause. I could tell from the way her brow knit that she was serious. A pang of guilt rippled through me. I hadn’t been around much in the past few years, and I knew she was lonely and tired of being alone. She was likely experiencing some apprehension at the thought of living here all by herself, apprehension that I was now poking fun at. What a great daughter I made.
I placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, trying not to wince at the feeling of bone just below her skin. The increased fragility that betrayed her aging was an all-too-real reminder of her mortality. Even though the women in our family typically lived into their 80s and 90s, giving my mother another possible few decades, I was increasingly aware that she was no longer the immortal superwoman I had grown up loving. As thoughts of her inevitable death flashed through my brain, I pulled her in for a close hug.
“Oh!” She squeaked, setting down the crock pot lid she had been examining for cracks before wrapping her arms around me.
No matter how old you are, there’s nothing quite like a hug from your mom.
After a few quiet moments, I pulled back and kissed the top of her forehead. Grabbing up the box of canning supplies, I asked for directions to the basement entrance.
“You walked all over it this morning,” she told me.
I followed her directions and found the seam for the trap door on the bedroom floor, just a few feet from the foot of her queen-size bed. I set the box down on the quilted bedspread and bent down to get a good grip on the wood and lift it up slowly. The trap door revealed a set of weathered but sturdy-looking stairs, leading down into the inky darkness under the house. Cool air drifted up from the subterranean room, and I breathed in the familiar basement smells of must and damp.
“Is there a light switch somewhere?” I called to the kitchen.
“Not until you get down to the bottom. There’s a bulb with a string right overhead when you reach the ground.”
“Great,” I muttered. “Let’s hope I don’t break my neck on the way down.”
Grabbing the box and being careful to leave the trap door open completely to let in as much light as possible, I began slowly making my way down the stairs. The staircase had no railings or wall to lean against, so I relied on my less-than-fabulous balancing skills and luck to reach the bottom without tripping. The temperature change as I descended was drastic, and I found myself shivering a little in my lightweight summer clothes as I took the last couple of steps. I could just barely make out the dirt-smeared floor in the paltry light from above.
Looking up, I spied the string hanging from the bulb. I steadied the box against my hip and reached up. As I did, I heard something behind me creak. I whipped my head right, toward the sound, but saw nothing in the darkness. Probably my mom moving around upstairs or a pipe settling. Rolling my eyes at myself, I yanked on the string and dim yellow light from a naked bulb illuminated the room.
The first thing I noticed was that the basement was much larger than the house that sat atop of it. I couldn’t tell exactly how much larger, given the pathetic amount of light provided by the single bulb, but I could feel that the room was more immense than I had expected. Odd, but I reminded myself that this part of Ohio was relatively rural and used to seeing long, hard winters. A large basement allowed for more storage of canned fruits, vegetables and other goods difficult to come by during the snowy months.
Glancing around, I spotted some shelves against the left wall which seemed designed for just such a thing. I moved over to them and felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck when I left the circle of light I had been standing under. I had read once that the vibrations of pipes can sometimes cause feelings of dread in people, often misinterpreted as something paranormal. I flicked my eyes up to the network of exposed pipes above my head and smirked. Of course. Quickly, I set the box down and got to work stacking empty mason jars in rows on the shelves. My mom was a prodigious gardener and would eventually fill up the canning jars with homegrown goodies, but that would have to wait until next year, as summer was coming to an end. Winter would set in quickly in this climate, and the ground would harden against new life until the late spring thaw.
When the box was empty, I pulled my Swiss Army keychain from my back jeans pocket and broke it down with the knife. Curiosity got the best of me, and as I replaced the keychain, I pulled my cell phone out of my other back pocket and toggled its flashlight setting. Sweeping the bright light in front of me, I explored the parts of the basement not illuminated by the single bulb. A twisted heap of metal yard tools lay in the corner opposite the shelves, rusting from what I imagined was years of disuse. I couldn’t imagine Great Aunt Ira coming down here much in the past 15 years, not with her hip problems.
Behind the stairs was the basement’s back wall, and I immediately noticed it was made of a different material than the rest of the basement walls. Moving closer, I brushed it with my hand. Some kind of corrugated metal, it felt like, which seemed out of place considering the rest of the walls were soft limestone, crumbling in some places. My hand trailed along the cool metal wall until I found myself standing at a doorway. The door was made of solid wood and sat almost exactly behind the staircase. It had been covered over, crudely, with wooden boards nailed across it.
“Well, that’s weird,” I muttered aloud. It felt like the temperature over here was at least ten degrees colder, and my teeth chattered as goosepimples sprouted up all over my arms.
I knew from many years spent in the Ohio educational system that homes all across the state had been used as shelter for runaway slaves during the Underground Railroad period in America’s spotted history. This area specifically prided itself in its abolitionist history — perhaps I had stumbled upon an old, forgotten slave hideaway? Excitement coursed through me as I contemplated the fun of being the first to rediscover such an important historical site. Maybe there’d even be artifacts left behind. Growing up, I’d been fascinated with Indiana Jones and longed for the adventure of Hollywood-style archaeological discovery.
Without thinking twice about it, I reached for one of the boards and gave it a tug. It was nailed pretty solidly, but I felt that it could easily give way if I put my back into it. I set my phone on the floor, screen-side down, so the light was shining up at the door, and gripped the board with both hands. I wasn’t a bodybuilder by any standards, but I did lift weights at the gym on a fairly regular basis, and my efforts were rewarded with a pop-pop as the board came free. One of the nails stuck in the metal, the other hung limply from the board, which I set down carefully behind me.
It didn’t take too long to remove most of the boards. The door was most heavily boarded at the top, with a couple of longer boards covering the bottom. I was fortunate that the basement ceiling was low — at 5’2” I had little hope of reaching something at the top of a standard-height door. But this door was only a few inches taller than me, and I was able to reach and pry loose the single board at its top with relative ease. The effort of removing the boards had me panting and sweating a little, the basement’s chill cooling the droplets as they slid down the back of my shirt.
Finally, my task was complete and I was ready to crack open the object of my fixation for the past twenty minutes or so. I could hear my mom’s movements upstairs and figured since she hadn’t called for me yet, she would be okay on her own for a little while longer. The handle was long and rusted; I could feel some of the material flake off as I grasped it with a sweaty palm. I tugged gently, expecting to be met with resistance. Instead, the door popped open as easily as the sliding door of a 7-Eleven. I stumbled back a bit, kicking a board with my heel, causing it to skid across the floor with a hollow clatter.
I was met with a blast of air that felt almost arctic, especially considering the basement was already fairly cool. It took a moment before my nostrils began to absorb the smell, but once it did… I nearly gagged. The frigid air emanating from the dark doorway was tinged with something rotten and earthy, like garbage that had been left out in the heat of the August sun for far too long. A horrifying thought occurred to me — what if whoever hid down here never left? With trepidatious curiousity, I reached down and picked my phone up from the floor and pulled the door open all the way, shining its light directly into the blackness.
It took a moment for my eyes to register what was right in front of them. I felt my heart slow, the blood in my veins turn to ice as a rush of naked fear cascaded over me. Eyes. Staring through the darkness, barely visible but for the weak light creeping past the doorway from the single bulb and what little illumination my phone provided. Each pair was looking straight at me. I took a shaking, instinctive step back out of the doorway. A hungry moan came from somewhere in the room. It was a gruesome, rasping sound that filled me with dread.
“Hoooly fuck,” I whimpered, taking another step back.
The sound of movement — scraping noises — shook me into action. My phone clattered to the floor, forgotten in my haste. I didn’t want to know what was in there. I didn’t want to see. I gripped the rough wood edge of the door with a damp hand and pulled it shut. It caught on one of the loose boards I had worked so stupidly hard to pull off just moments before. I registered movement in the darkness in front of me, the sense that something was close. Frantically, I kicked at the board, yanking the door hard as it slid out of the way.
It slammed shut with a satisfyingly heavy sound, but as I leaned against it, my breaths erratic and my heart pounding, I felt a thud as something impacted with the door. That moan came again, desperate and needful. Another thud, this one hard enough to rattle the door in its hinges. Particles from the ceiling above rained down on my head. I wanted to cry. I needed to re-board the door.
Bracing one hand against the door, just in case, I reached down and grabbed at the first board I could get my hands on. Some of the nails were still embedded, but others were scattered across the floor. A thud against the door shook the frame and my nerves. They wanted out. I did what any rationally minded, terrified person would: I screamed for my mommy.
I heard her hurried footsteps approach overhead from across the house. “What’s wrong?” She called. “Did you hurt yourself? Did something bite you?”
No, but something might be about to bite me. “No!” I shouted back. “It’s… I don’t… mommy,” I moaned the last bit as another thud shook the metal and wood I was pressed up against. I’m a heavier woman, but I wasn’t strong enough to hold a door shut forever, especially considering how many of those things there were. There were so many eyes. So many eyes. Eventually, my strength would give out.
She thundered down the stairs, faster than a woman her age with bad knees should, but I guess that’s the power of motherhood. As she rounded the corner, it felt like more than one of them slammed into the door. I felt one of my flip-flop clad feet begin to slide and the door open just a crack behind me. I screamed and strained, regaining my footing and shoving my full weight against the door to close the gap. My mom was staring at me and the door with an almost knowing look.
“What did you do?”
“I fucked up, obviously,” I said through gritted teeth. Even under duress, she managed to get under my skin. “Do you have a hammer? We need to nail the boards back over the door.”
“Yes, I’ll go get it,” she said, rushing up the stairs and away from me. I was alone again with *them and I didn’t like it. I began to sob, tears stinging my eyes. I didn’t wipe them away, not daring to move even an inch in case I lost my tenuous advantage. It felt like hours before she returned, but she did, moving slightly slower this time down the stairs while lugging a box behind her. It thump-thump-thumped down the stairs behind her, its contents rattling with each impact.
“I brought my entire toolbox, just in case.” She pulled out an enormous, ancient hammer I recognized as the one responsible for almost destroying my thumb in second grade and a smaller one with a sleek black handle and a shiny gleam to its metal. Handing me the latter, she picked up the board I had kicked when I opened the door and moved toward me.
“Keep your weight where it is, but duck down a bit. I’ll start at the top.”
She began hammering, and as the first nail was returned to its place, a piercing howl began from the other side of the door. I felt like I was going to throw up. “What the hell is in that room?”
“I don’t know, honey. I don’t know. I told you something was wrong.”
When the first board had been nailed across, we moved the heavy box of tools she’d dragged down with her against the base and I braced my foot against it so I could keep weight there while helping with the nailing process. Two boards, three boards, four. The howling continued, backed by that same hungry moan. The hair on the back of my neck seemed like it was never going to lie flat again. Some of the boards were rotted, and one split in our hands as we began to hammer.
“Shit!” I yelled, kicking its remnants so several pieces scattered away from us.
“Don’t think about it, just keep going,” my mom panted. Her salt-and-pepper hair was plastered to her forehead with sweat and she was breathing as hard as I was. We placed the last board across the bottom of the door, just an inch or two from the bottom. The howling had stopped, but the moaning never did. I’m not sure if it ever will.
It didn’t look as solid as it did when I discovered it, but of course that makes sense. I disrupted something that had probably been there for years, maybe even decades. Who boarded the place up? What was in there? Did Great Aunt Ira know about this? What the fuck were we going to do about it? I voiced none of this to my mother, instead keeping silent as we piled anything and everything we could find in the basement against the door. I managed to remember to snatch up my phone before thundering up the stairs in front of my mom, anxious to get back somewhere that wasn’t cold and damp and full of that fucking smell.
Once I had helped her up from the stairwell, I slammed the trap door shut and we moved her heavy antique dresser over top, then piled a few boxes of books yet to be shelved on top of that, for good measure. We collapsed on her bed and I cried while she held my shaking body, stroking my hair and whispering soothing words even though she was probably just as scared as I was. We stayed like that all night, and now it’s morning and I’m writing this to try and make sense of what the hell happened.
I’m sitting in the living room, which from my estimate is right over where the door is, and I can hear faint moans rising up from underneath me. What did I awaken?
I opened the door. I pried off the boards and I opened the door, and for that I am sorry. For my curiousity, for my stubborn refusal to consider the consequences of fucking with something that was clearly meant to not be fucked with, for my inability to leave the door alone and forget it ever existed. I am sorry. We’ve done what we can, but I can’t help but shake the feeling that it wasn’t enough. Not every door is meant to be opened. It’s only human arrogance that makes us assume we have a right to know, a right to see what’s on the other side.
Update: Just wanted to let y’all know that my mom and I are doing okay. We had a long talk when she woke up yesterday and I’m still trying to wrap my head around everything she told me. I’ll be writing an update for you guys asap. Thank you for all of your helpful suggestions and theories! I’m overwhelmed by the response this post has received. It makes me feel less alone out here.