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.
So sorry it’s taken me so long to get back here again. Things have been crazy, and I’m sure all of you will understand why I couldn’t find time to sit down and type all of this up earlier. Writing all of this down will help prove to myself if nobody else that I’m not insane, that this has all been real. And, I suppose, this should serve as a warning for others because… well… I guess I should just start with what happened when my mom woke up later that morning after I first posted my story here.
She slept unusually long considering what we’d been through, but then again, she’s always been a deep sleeper. We had also been working hard with all of the moving and unpacking, so I’m sure she was wiped out. My sleep had been irregular, punctuated with sudden awakenings until I woke up in the pitch black and freaked out, turning all the lights on and moving to the living room so as not to disturb her. I could feel a deep tiredness in my bones as I closed the laptop and stretched out on Aunt Ira’s worn floral couch. Most of her possessions had been sold or taken to the dump after she died, but my mom had kept a few pieces she liked. This couch wasn’t much to look at, but it was comfortable and felt a little bit like home.
I kept glancing down the short hallway toward the bedroom. I had left the door open so I could hear when she stirred, and also to be able to keep an eye on the trap door we’d so hastily covered. I couldn’t see it from here, of course, but I could see the edge of the dresser. If it moved, I’d be able to tell. It wouldn’t move. It couldn’t. We boarded the door again, that had to count for something, right? That had to have bought us some time.
Except I didn’t know what kind of time we needed or why. Those were questions I could only ask my mother when she woke up. Aunt Ira was long dead, buried along with her secrets. If she knew anything in the first place. I was still having trouble wrapping my head around the idea that the old woman could have been part of anything bigger than whatever was going on with her cats on a given day. She was a tiny thing, barely five feet tall and gnarled like a willow tree during the years I knew her. Her gruff persona kept most everyone at bay, and I only saw her on a handful of rare occasions when her daughters dragged her out to family functions.
If any of her personal items were kept, I’m sure they were taken and kept by her direct descendents, not left here for my mom. There was a bit of tension within the family that the house had been left to my mother in the first place, I knew that. My second cousins had wanted to sell the property and split the profits to help save their struggling bakery. But it had been a pretty open-and-shut case once the lawyers got involved, and it didn’t even end up having to go in front of a judge. Only my mom and the twins were present when the lawyer read the will, and they seemed to back off pretty quickly after that.
The moaning seemed to die down after a while, which I was thankful for. It seemed to be coming from right under me, so I guessed the room must be located somewhere under the living room. Except, judging from how big it felt during those few moments I was looking in, and the tiny floor plan of the house… I think the majority of whatever that room is must be under the front lawn. I was wary of my curiousity now, but I couldn’t help myself. I had to get a better look at the front of the house.
I tip-toed down the hall and peeked into the bedroom. My mom was on her side, glasses askew, snoring softly. The dresser hadn’t budged. I left the door wide open and returned to the front of the house. It was warm enough to go out barefoot, so I stepped onto the uneven stone stoop, my sensitive skin scraping slightly against the gritty material. The stoop was short, just two steps and the landing, fit for a place as small as the cottage.
Stepping back into the dewy lawn, I surveyed the front of the cottage for anything that might seem off. But nothing seemed out of place. It looked like a fairly average little house, maybe a little worn down with peeling paint on its window frames and some crumbling bricks in places. I knelt down and touched the stone foundation. Nothing to denote that something was seriously fucked up underneath. I even went so far as the circle the house, thinking maybe there was some kind of secret hatch or something I’d never noticed. Maybe a placard that read, “Here be monsters”?
I came up empty. Nothing weird, unless you counted the feral cat I scared out of the bushes, yellow eyes glaring at me as it bounded to safety under the cover of some pines. No doubt there were at least a dozen roaming around the property, leftovers from Aunt Ira’s days that nobody had been able to catch when the lot was shipped off to the humane society. I sighed in frustration, rubbed my eyes, and tramped back inside.
My mother was in the kitchen, putting the tea kettle on the stove.
“I heard you leaving and wondered if you were abandoning me to the demons below,” she said, smiling faintly.
“No, just… checking something.”
I leaned against the kitchen archway, crossing one leg over another in a stance that she’d often remarked perfectly mimicked my father. I watched as she bustled about, making tea like everything was normal, and I felt my frustration well up until finally it burst from my lips in angry accusation.
“How in the hell can you be so calm?!”
She stopped, mid-pour, not meeting my eyes. “Sugar?”
“Seriously, Mom, something absolutely terrifying happened to us yesterday and you’re just acting like it’s any other day, like nothing happened. What are you keeping from me?”
She returned to pouring steaming liquid into mismatched cups, still refusing to meet my eyes. I didn’t like shouting at my mother, no daughter does, but her behaviour was equal parts baffling and infuriating.
“I’m going to add some sugar, it sounds like you could use some,” she said, producing a sugar bowl from one of the still-remaining cardboard boxes taking up counter space and plopping two spoonfuls into a cracked blue Rainforest Cafe mug.
I closed my eyes and counted to ten. She could be incredibly obstinate when she wanted to, and I knew more shouting wasn’t the answer. I took the mug when she handed it to me and watched as she added three spoonfuls of sugar to her own.
“Let’s sit down and talk.” She motioned to the living room and I led the way, lowering myself onto the sofa and setting my mug down on top of a floral-printed corkboard coaster.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked again.
This time, she met my eyes. I could read a hundred emotions in her gaze — worry, trepidation, fear. I swallowed nervously, wiping my damp palms on my jean shorts.
“I wish I could tell you-” she started.
“Then tell me!” I cut her off.
“Well, if you’d let me finish, perhaps I could tell you that I don’t know much more than you. I wish I could tell you what’s behind that door or what opening it means, but I had no idea it even existed until you screamed for me.”
I thought about all the comments I’d received implicating my mother as knowing a lot more than she was currently saying. But who was I to trust? Strangers on the Internet, or the woman who’d raised me? She was a little kooky and could frustrate me to no end sometimes, but she wasn’t deceitful. In fact, she had an awful habit of telling everyone she met her entire life story. My mother isn’t a secret keeper, and I knew I had to trust her.
“But you told me you felt like something was wrong…”
“Yes, and I did feel something out of place the couple of times I went down there. I’m sure you felt it, too. You’re more sensitive than you admit, you know.”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “It’s an old house.”
“Yes, it is. It’s been in our family for five generations at least.”
“Do you think Aunt Ira knew about the door and, like, what’s behind it?” I couldn’t imagine someone living in this house for years and years without finding that door. My mind suddenly drifted to an awful thought: What if Ira boarded up the door because she put whatever it was in there?
“I think she probably did. The letter she wrote in her will, it said I was supposed to guard the house to protect the family. She said I should have as few visitors as possible and get at least a dozen cats, which sounds preposterous for my allergies, but I figured maybe two or three wouldn’t be such bad company.”
“But did she maybe mention anything about a boarded-up door in the basement?”
“Well, not specifically, no. But she did say I was to leave everything as-is. That was part of the documentation I signed — no construction or remodeling of any kind. Furniture could be moved, I could repaint and repaper the main house, but all structural elements are to be maintained.”
“And you just went along with this?”
“Honey, I’m getting old. I’m happy to have a roof over my head and a place to call my own. I don’t have the money or energy to do any construction work, nor would I want to. This is Ira’s house… I love it the way it is. I just figured she felt the same and the provisions were a precaution.”
Aunt Ira had lived here by herself for forty years after her mother, my great-grandmother, had died and left it to her. When I thought about it, I realized that for as long as I was aware, a single woman in the family had lived in this place — no men, no children, no roommates. Just one woman, on her own. What on earth were they guarding? How did they protect the family?
“Was there anything else in the letter?”
“No. It was short and to the point. You know how she was; Ira rarely minced words.”
“What are those things? There were so many eyes, Mom.”
“Certainly nothing good, that’s for sure.”
She took a sip of her tea, and I realized I had all but forgotten mine. I reached over and brought the cup to my lips, happy to find it hadn’t gotten cold yet. Somehow my mom always managed to make the perfect cup of tea, spicy and sweet and oh, so comforting. It was something I still hadn’t mastered in my own sparse apartment kitchen. Perhaps it’s just one of those secrets of motherhood, like making the same bedtime story magical no matter how many times it’s told and dispelling monsters under the bed with a single stern glare.
“Maybe she left more, a diary or some kind of record of the place. This place was pretty well cleaned out before you moved in, so maybe Betsy or Angela have something?”
I stood up, suddenly antsy to be anywhere other than the house with them lurking underneath. “Why don’t we get cleaned up and go into town, stop by their house or hell, maybe even the lawyer’s office?”
The cottage was located in a fairly rural part of the county, a twenty-minute drive from the closest town. Well, we called it “town,” but it was more like a village. Single stoplight, tiny post office, a McDonald’s, three churches (to serve a population under 500, naturally) and a library. The closest supermarket was an extra thirty minutes away, but farm stands were great sources of local meat, produce and dairy. Life in Ohio means an awful lot of driving, especially when you live in the country.
While she showered, I rinsed out our mugs and did some poking around the living room and bedroom. I checked the modest closet for any hidden panels or items left on forgotten shelves, but came up frustratingly empty. I heard the water stop and hurried back out to the living room to allow her privacy to dress. The bathroom sat off the hallway, adjacent to the bedroom door. I heard one open and the other shut, and my hair stood on end at the thought of her being in there by herself with a barrier between us.
I paced up and down the hall for a few minutes, until she emerged in fresh clothing, rubbing her still-damp hair with a burgundy towel.
“Bathroom’s all yours. I don’t have the rug down yet, so take this and lay it on the tile so you don’t slip.”
I was looking forward to a hot shower to help wash away some of the dirty feelings that had clung to me since the events in the basement. I needed to be clean again. I planned on keeping it short, though — I couldn’t help but feel as though staying out of each other’s sight for too long was dangerous.
“I’m going to water the plants before we go,” my mom called as I shut the bathroom door.
“Okay,” I replied. As a second thought, I opened the door and left just a crack exposed. I couldn’t tell whether that made me feel safer or more exposed. Maybe I’d just keep it open while I peed, then shut it while I was vulnerable in the shower. I was so tired, it was getting hard to think straight.
A sudden, strangled cry sent me racing from the bathroom to the living room, bashing my leg against the edge of the coffee table as I scrambled to pull my pants up. The front door was open, exposing its rust-red painted exterior, and my mother was framed in the doorway. She sagged against it, a hand to her mouth, shoulders shaking with silent sobs.
“What is it?” I asked, placing a hand on her shoulder and peering around her to see what the problem was. She was looking down and as my eyes followed I felt bile rise to the back of my throat and gasped like someone had sucker-punched me in the gut.
Piled on the front stoop were a bunch of furry objects I realized with fresh horror were cats. A pile of dead cats, lying on top of one another as if they had been arranged just so. I raised my head to glance out over the expanse of the front lawn and my heart sank; the yard was strewn with cat corpses. From below, I heard the howling start up again, and icy terror raced through my veins.
“Mom, we’re leaving right now. Get your purse and let’s go.”
She didn’t argue, just nodded and followed my directions. I snatched up my laptop and backpack, and then we were gone — picking our way through the litter of corpses to reach my silver rental and, finally, speeding down the dirt drive away from the moans, away from the door, away from them.
It’s getting late and I’m more tired than usual lately, so I’ll have to finish this another day.