The doctor told me it was a figment of my imagination. A hallucination. A phantom limb. Cut off, but the ghost of a feeling remains. The doctor tutted and prescribed me a different pill. I’ve lost count of how many pills I’ve tried. There was the yellow one. And the red and white capsule. And the green one. They have succeeded in giving me incontinence, nausea and hair loss. But they haven’t taken my girl away.
My doctor told me to talk about it. Tell people. Who the hell am I supposed to tell something like this? My last friends abandoned me when Sylvia left. It’s late here..
Where to start, when there is so much to tell? At the beginning I suppose, it’s always a good place.
We thought we’d had it made when we moved into the suburbs. We had well paying jobs. Fluke or competence had saved us when the waves of cuts hit around 2010. For once in our lives, money wasn’t a problem. Eight years earlier, we had Annabelle, Belle for short. She was our little angel. Parents out there will know. A child shifts the centre of gavity of your life. The move was good for her. Good for us. Away from the hustle and danger of the city. Busy streets, missing children, the sticky hands and staring eyes of sexual predators.
It wasn’t the house of our dreams, but it was close enough. A lawn for the balmy summer months. Fireplace for the chill of winter. Space for us to grow into, especially for a young girl. It came fully furnished. And it was a steal. A distressed sale, our agent called it. At least a tenth off what a similar property would set us back.
The euphoria and novelty lasted me till the first night.
Sylvia was asleep next to me. The moonlight sparkled off the fine hairs on her bare shoulder. We shared a celebratory drink after dinner. And then another after that. I was lying in bed, basking in the warm glow of alcohol when I first heard it. My first thought was rats. That was exactly what it sounded like, the little tap dance of tiny claws on hard wood, coming from the walls.
The delicate snoring from next to me told me that Sylvia was undisturbed by the scratching noise coming from the walls. I flinched as my bare feet touched the cold floor. The floorboards groaned in protest as I padded across the room like an overweight ninja. The tapping paused at the first creak of the floorboards, then resumed. The rough weave of the wallpaper under my palm as I leaned in to track the pitter patter behind the walls.
The scampering sounds eluded me. Every time I attempted to track the rats, the sounds seemed to come from another part of the room. My knees grew sore from pressure. I wasn’t some young child at a playground. I was a grown man and my weight pressed down on the bony points of my kneecaps. Out of desperation, I put my ear to the wall, hoping that the source of the little noises would reveal itself to me. I was only met with a stubborn silence. Or almost a stubborn silence. On the edge of my hearing, so quiet that I had to strain my ears to pick it up. A child’s laughter from inside the walls.
I did not speak of the incident. I spent more time trying to convince myself that there hadn’t been that childish giggle. Wind, perhaps. The rattle of a toy. Not a rattle, maybe one of those new fangled dolls with those soulless eyes and microchip voice.
There was a change in her. Like the heavy air you can smell before a thunderstorm. She was a little quieter than usual. A strange environment will do that to a kid. A little withdrawn. Sylvia didn’t really notice. I suppose I’d always been more observant than her. Belle started looking tired, dark crescents appearing under her light hazel eyes. She wasn’t getting much sleep.
My first instinct was to blame the rats in the walls. Who wouldn’t? They got louder and louder as the days went by. The damn things were keeping me up at night. It seemed that the sounds progressed from simple scratchings to thumps, almost as though the cursed rodents were hurling themselves bodily against my walls. The thumping started sounding eerily like footsteps. I was not about to be defeated by a group of jumped up rats in my own house. Fuelled by testosterone induced rage, I waged war. I tried glue traps. I tried poison. I tried cages. Nothing worked. I asked Sylvia about it, but she seemed oblivious to the late night disturbances. That woman could sleep through a hurricane.
I asked Belle if the noise was keeping her up at night. Sylvia was over in the living room, watching TV while Bell and I did the dishes. She just looked up with those big eyes of hers. “The other children want to come in and play, but they can’t open the door.” The girl always had an overactive imagination, but this one hit a little too close to home for me. I felt the unfamiliar prickle of gooseflesh on my arm. “You mean the door to the house?” I asked, keeping my tone deliberately playful. It was a game, just another of her little games. I had imaginary friends at that age, why should my own child have been any different?
“No, Daddy, the door behind the cupboard.”
We were up in her room. The opening theme from Desperate Housewives floated up through the floorboards, a world away. I thought I’d humour my little girl, but there was something deathly serious in her tone that I could not shake.
I reached back around the standalone wardrobe and felt nothing more than the smooth paint on the wall.
“There’s no door here, honey.”
“Look closer,” she insisted.
I held up my cellphone for light, still playing along. There was something strange in that palm width of space between the cupboard and the wall. A discoloration of the wall perhaps, something darker in the shade of the wardrobe.
The hard edges of the wardrobe bit into the soft flesh of my fingers. I put my back into it, and the piece of furniture gave ground grudgingly. And there it was. A door behind the wardrobe, just as Belle had said. Not any door though. I ran my fingers over the smooth surface of the wall. Just a painted one. So convincing were the brush strokes on the door that I had to touch the wall again to tell myself that it wasn’t real.
“How’d you know this was here, baby bear?” I asked.
“The other children told me.”
“From school?” As far as I knew, she hadn’t brought friends home before.
“No, Daddy. The children from behind the door,” she said. I looked into her tawny eyes, hoping to spot some twinkle of mischief there. There was nothing there but an innocent earnestness.
I lay in bed that night, studying the cracks on the ceiling. My heart pounded hard in my chest, a heavy bassline above the distant rumble of the heating. My daughter’s words had unsettled me in a strange way I could not pinpoint. It felt off somehow, like a surrealist painting, one tiny detail throwing my carefully ordered world into disarray.
I took deep breaths, trying to drive away that strange tight fear in my chest. The odd painted door. A mural of some sort? Why was it still there when room had been so clearly repainted. The thumping of the rats in the walls, sounding so much like little footsteps. The children from behind the door, she said. I rubbed at my forearms vigorously, trying to press the goosebumps back down into my skin.
That’s when the thumping started again. Not rats, I realized. Not rats at all. Footsteps. The light bounce of a child. I crept up to my wall again, pressing my ear against the wallpaper. There was laughter there. Soft and faint. Not the laughter of a single child. Children. Their happy footfalls beating a rough drumbeat on the wooden floor. There was someone else in there with my daughter.
My heart jumped. I felt the chill in my veins as I rushed out of my room and tore down the corridor. The silvery light of the moon shone through the window. It gave everything an odd, flat look, without contrast. Belle’s room was only a few feet from the door to our bedroom but my chest heaved with deep, body shaking breaths. I could still hear them faintly through the door, the thud of feet on the floor. I steeled myself. It was nothing. Sound travelled strangely through these old houses. Echoes, maybe. She was just talking to herself in her sleep. The stress of moving, perhaps.
Suitably calmed, I turned the doorknob slowly. There was a conspiratorial shush from the other side of the door and silence descended like a shroud. I gave the door a gentle push. The room was dark and quiet. The moonlight crept into the room. My daughter was standing there, just behind the door, a still figure against a dark background. The shock took the strength from my legs. I backed away a little quicker than I meant to. She just stood there, swaying slightly. Thin white crescents showed from under her hooded eyelids. Her lips were moving, almost soundlessly. I leaned forward, straining to make out what she was saying. It slowly became clear. One sentence, over and over.
“All the doors are open now, all the doors are open.”
And from behind her, in the shadowed room, the quiet click of a door shutting.
Belle didn’t recall a thing the next morning. She could sense my frustration and fear, as I quizzed her about the night before. Dark circles framed puzzled eyes in her pale face. She hadn’t slept well last night either. Sylvia took her to school. I hadn’t broached the topic with Sylvia yet. There was still some time before I had to leave for the office. I crept back to my daughter’s room, feeling like a thief in my own empty house.
I stood in front of that strange painted door for the second time in as many days. I ran my fingers around its edges, remembering the strange sound of the door shutting from the night before. Its edges were wholly contiguous with the wall. I pulled the wardrobe out further, putting my entire frame between the wardrobe and the door and leaning into it. There was no give, no yielding of the door. It was just painted over a wall as solid as any other. I was about to go when I heard an unfamiliar rasp under my foot. The floor was gritty with some kind of dust. I knelt down and pinched some of the dust up between two fingers. All the doors are open now. My daughter’s dreamy voice in my ear, my memory of it so sharp that it seemed that she was right there whispering it. How odd it was, for the dust to be pink. Of course it would be. It wasn’t dust at all. It was paint. Paint from the wall.
Things didn’t get better. The gambolling footsteps continued at night, unabated. That and the whispers and the giggles at night. Whatever was in my daughter’s room toyed with me. It never let Sylvia hear it. I would stay up, waiting to wake my wife up just in time to hear it, only to be met with a stubborn silence. Trickery wouldn’t work either. We stayed up late to catch a DVD long into the small hours of the night, but the house remained quiet.
The laughter from the next room was always tantalisingly distant. The happy sounds of children at play as though from a great distance. Too great a distance to be in the room next to mine. Belle was in high spirits, but she was wasting away. Sylvia hadn’t noticed it yet, but I felt it in the sharp bones of her shoulders, pressing into my arms when I hugged her. Or her skinny arms that I could almost encircle with my thumb and forefinger.
I received an email from her form teacher, mentioning that Belle still wasn’t integrating well at school. He said that Belle was perpetually tired in class and Belle had blamed late night games of tag and hide and seek with her friends for her tiredness. You need to exercise more control over your girl, he said.
I had to know what was going on. Sylvia was already asleep. The nightly visits hadn’t started yet. I slid into Belle’s room silently, an open packet of flour in my hand. I scattered it all around the floor, taking care not to step into the flour myself. I lay back in my bed with a sigh, waiting for the sounds to start. Sleep took me unexpectedly, but what little I had was fitful and restless. I woke with a snort at first light. It was a Saturday and it would be some time yet before the rest of the world woke. I stretched under the covers, my back popping satisfyingly. I blinked the sleep from my eyes. The flour. I had to check the flour. I swung my feet off the bed and planted them on the floor. Right next to a pair of white speckled footprints. Just where they would be if someone was standing over my bed, staring at me.
That damnable chill stole the warmth of the morning sun from my skin. My hands clenched and unclenched spastically, like dying spiders. I stared at the trail of flour marked footprints from my open door. How long had she stood there, in the dark, watching me sleep, I wondered. I stood up on shaky legs, my hand on the wall to support myself down the corridor. Belle’s door was ajar. It swung open silently. The sound of deep breathing told me that Belle was still asleep. There was but a single set of footprints, just starting from her bed, where her feet would have landed if she got off. No multiple footprints, just a single set from my daughter. Typical somnambulism perhaps. The stress of the move, the new school could have brought it on. She’d never sleepwalked before, but who knew what dark things lurked in her psyche. I heaved a sigh of relief, chastising myself for a week’s worth of irrationality.
How reassuring the illusion of normalcy in our lives, and how quickly it shatters. Not with a roar or a flash. With something simple. Something simple like my daughter’s shoe, bouncing off my toe as I tried to leave the room. Flipping once, twice and coming to rest next to a hollow in the flour on the floor. The size. The shoe. The prints. It didn’t fit. It didn’t match. Whatever had gotten off the bed, had stood next to me the night before. It wasn’t Belle.
After that cruel prank, the noises at night returned unabated. The strangeness started to leak. The night was no longer its sole province. I was waiting for Belle outside the upstairs toilet another Saturday morning, when I heard the familiar taunting voices start up over the sound of the shower. A chorus of children’s voices, saying something with a strange cadence, a chant, almost. Stay. They seemed to say. Stay stay stay.
They were in there. There was no way for them to escape. I found the door unlocked. I turned the knob, braced my legs and threw the door open. And found nothing. Hot water still gushed from the showerhead. Steam billowed out into the cooler air of the corridor. No one was there. I’d seen her go in. I would have wagered my life on it. And yet she was gone. The giggling started again, coming down the corridor, mocking. Her room. I bolted down the corridor. I found her there, a towel wrapped around her bare body, staring at me with cold mirth from her bed. Her dripping hair had left a trail of water on the wooden floor. A trail which led to the wall with the painted door. I felt her eyes trailing me as I left the room.
I shut the shower off, looking for how my daughter and the voices had escaped the tiny toilet. It took a minute. Like the picture with the young lady that turned into an old crone, the answer was right there in front of me. Sketched out between the tiles in front of me, in bold strokes of dark mildew, was the vague outline of a door.
It was another sleepless night. I thought long and hard about trying to explain everything to Sylvia. It sounded crazy. There were doors in the walls. Doors that our daughter had walked through. Doors let in something strange into our house. Something that wanted her to stay. The thought lingered in the back of my head like a suppurative scab, itchy and red and raw. Sleep would not come easy. I was contemplating a little chemical assistance to aid me along my way when I grew aware of a soft sliding sound. Movement caught my eye. I saw a slim figure slowly shuffle by the door to our bedroom. Belle? I called out to her softly. She didn’t break step. And what a step it was, a stiff armed and stiff legged march down the corridor, her feet scraping over the wooden floor. “Belle,” I called out, a little louder. There was no response. I got out of bed and tiptoed to the door. The door to the toilet clicked shut softly. I followed. The lights revealed and empty corridor. The toilet door yielded with a squeak of complaint. The silence was thick and cloying, it seemed that no sound would carry through the air. The light clicked to life in the toilet, shadows leapt and danced with its first few flickers. The shower curtain swayed. The draft I had left in when I opened the door, I told myself. It did not help. I chided myself for my childish fears but the flutter in my gut remained. I yanked the curtain aside roughly, my other hand balled into a fist to protect myself. From what, my daughter? Nothing awaited me on the other side of the curtain. Nothing but that strange outline of a door, etched out in lines the tiles.
I heaved a sigh of relief. Perhaps the lack of sleep was getting to me, my fears spilling over into waking dreams. The calm was short lived, I heard another door slam shut. Downstairs. A series of childish titters carried up through the floorboards. I bolted downstairs. Again, the lights revealed nothing. Almost nothing. The huge throw rug that had come with the furnished house had been tossed aside. There, hidden under it, was another door, scratched into the parquet flooring. I felt sick to my stomach, thinking of the days we’d spent on the couch, with our feet on that hideous thing. I ran my fingers around the grooves of the thin grooves of the scratch marks. The door felt cool to the touch, cooler than the surrounding wood. The same feel of a front door, guarding against the winter chill. Whatever it was that the door guarded against, it was cold. Very cold.
The laughter started again. Taunting. Mocking. I heard the creak of my daughter’s footsteps on the stairs to the basement. The light of the living room seemed to shy away from the depths of the basement. I could make out Belle’s outline, just where the light of the living room met the darkness of the basement.
The light switch was at the foot of the stairs. The steps sang under my weight. Belle didn’t turn around. I reached out to grab her shoulder. Her bony shoulder was icy cold. I pulled her towards me. I could just nearly see her face. Something blotted out the light. I blinked at the silhouette at the top of the staircase.
“Daddy, why are all the lights on?”
Belle’s voice. Oh god. Belle was at the top of the stairs.
I felt the light caress of fingers on my hand. The girl in front of me. Her fingers on mine. Her voice was a hoarse whisper, as though forced from a throat long turned to dust. “She’s ours now.” She giggled and twisted away from my grasp, vanishing into the dark.
The dark space under the house suddenly filled with the patter of feet on the dusty floor, two pairs, three pairs, until it seemed that an entire legion of light feet were dancing across the floor. The sound was deafening in that confined space. I reached forward and thumbed the light switch, only to be greeted by silence and the slowly settling dust. Something was wrong with the wall again. I already knew what to expect. With a sweep of my hand I cleared the dust from the wall. Just as I expected, another door, this one a huge set of double doors, painted on the wall with garish colours. Just before I left the basement, I saw the clean circles on the floor where the opening door had swept the dust away.
We had to go. There was something dark in the house. Something wholly unnatural about those strange painted doors. I sprinted up the stairs. “Grab some clothes,” I told Belle as I passed her. I did not stop to see if there was a shred of understanding in her blank eyes. She turned and followed me silently upstairs.
I shook Sylvia awake roughly. Four weeks to the day we moved in and we were fleeing our own home. She blinked the sleep from her eyes. In hushed tones, I tried to explain the situation to her. The painted doors. The sounds of the children. The danger we were all in. Her expression slowly changed from sleepy bewilderment to one of disbelief and annoyance. She told me that I was overreacting, that the stress of the move and our job was taking its toll on me. We would talk about it in the morning, she said, get help from a doctor if we needed to. I grew increasingly agitated at her apathy. I begged her to humour me for just one night, for our family to shift to a motel for a single evening. Our conversation grew heated. All this was cut short when Belle reappeared at our doorway. Her hair was wild, her eyes burning with some inner fire.
“You should go know. All the doors are closing soon. I must stay with them.” Her voice was toneless, the flat delivery of an atheist reciting a litany.
Sylvia gaped. Having her daughter acting as strangely as her husband tipped her over the edge. Weeping, she rushed forward and held Belle close to her. “You’re not going anywhere. This isn’t real. Daddy’s sick. He’s made you sick too. You and I will get away from here. Get away from Daddy.” Those words felt like physical blows. I felt sick. My wife started pulling at Belle’s hand, trying to move her. Belle stood fast and there was nothing my wife, with her advantages in strength and weight, could do to shift her an inch. Sensing their prey about to evade them, the things in the house grew restless. Our room filled with the sound of feet on the floor, the sound of little feet running up and down the corridors. With a squeak, Sylvia pulled the door shut and leaned against it. The door shuddered on its hinges as unseen things flung themselves against it.
Unsuccessful, the house grew silent. Sylvia stared at the doorknob. I shook my head, stepping off the bed. I had just gotten onto my feet when a new horror showed itself. Our wall was stretching. Distending like a boil, bulging obscenely towards us. There was a door in our room. Under the wallpaper. It had been here all along. Sylvia began to sob, big hiccuping sobs of fear. We heard the tearing sound of the glue ripping off the walls. The blister on the wall took shape. I saw the hard edge of the door pressing straining against the wallpaper. And behind that, the sharp points of fingers pressing against outwards. Many, many pairs of hands. And then, a rip. A pale finger burst through the thick wallpaper. It hooked downwards and began to tear at the fabric.
Sylvia and I were transfixed by the sight, paralysed by fear. Sylvia screamed as Belle tore herself free from her mother’s grasp. Belle took a step forward and placed her hand on the light switch. In that moment, I saw my daughter again. For the last time. Her eyes sparkled with tears.
“Don’t look. You don’t want to see them. I love you.”
With a flick of her wrist, she plunged the room into total darkness. The sound of the wallpaper ripping was very loud. The temperature in the room fell. It felt larger somehow, that we weren’t in the bedroom of our home anymore, but in some vast and empty space. A chill wind blew, and it smelt of dry dust.
When the wind died down, we were alone in our room. Our girl was gone.
What is there left to say after that? We did what we could. We moved into a motel. The police came. They looked for prints. They asked questions. They took pictures. They broke down the walls behind the doors with their hammers. Nothing. The detectives came. They asked more questions. Hard questions, sometimes. They took me away for a while. The doctors came. They cajoled and counselled. They asked me about my parents. About our family. If I had ever hurt my daughter. The doctors found nothing wrong with me. The cops found nothing in my house. The detectives found nothing false in our story.
They let me go. Sylvia and I stayed with her parents for a month. Belle’s disappearance ripped a hole in our lives. We tried. Some things just don’t heal right. Others don’t heal at all. Things weren’t the same. The split was amicable. We just drifted. No arguments, no fights. Just a slow death of the love that had once bound us.
And what then? I came back here. There was nowhere else I could go. The first night was the hardest. The bedroom was out of the question. I spent the first night on the couch, hugging a bottle of Jack. It was midnight when the laughter woke me. They were still there in the house. Through the tinkling of the laughter I could pick out just a single voice. A father never forgets the voice of his child. The doors were gone but they were still there. She was still there.
I’ll stop here for the night. I can hear her again. She sounds… happy.