It’s 2:13 AM. I don’t know why I’m still up. Too many things to read? Insomnia? Depression? All of the above? It doesn’t matter anymore. The laptop bathes me in the glow of its backlight, like a digital campfire. It doesn’t hurt my eyes. Yet. The fan hums quietly, its white noise ever-present but not comforting. The old analog clock on my headboard ticktocks ten minutes fast, a reminder of my mortality. There is no music left; the night’s playlist has long run out. An empty teacup languishes on a coaster, chilly to the touch. The portable heater sits unplugged two feet away, tempting me with promises of warmth on multiple settings. No, not now. It’s too late for that. It’s too late for anything. I’m no longer sure that I really exist.
My bedroom door opens.
The air catches in my throat. I don’t turn my head to look. Just my eyes. I stare frozen and wide-eyed at my door. The white paint has faded over decades, and a couple of shirts hang from the top. The doorknob is a massive chunk of brownish metal, with an old-fashioned keyhole beneath it. Quaint. But there’s no lock. There never was a lock. The latch has slipped loose, and now there’s a half-inch gap between the door and its frame. And within that half-inch, there is nothing but darkness. An endless, inky expanse that devours all who ventures into it. No light, no sounds. There is nothing out there.
Reality does not exist beyond that door.
I sit there for what seems like hours, transfixed by that narrow crack in reality. I’m shaking, and it’s not just because it’s freezing outside. How did the door open by itself? Is there someone or something out there, peering at me? Waiting? An icy wind crashes headlong into the house, and snaps me out of my thoughts. Of course! It was the wind! It stopped raining a couple of hours ago, but the wind is still going strong. This house is old – at least a century – and it’s got plenty of drafts. The breeze must have gotten in and pushed the door. It’s powerful enough to do that. I can hear the fallen leaves rattling on the pavement outside. They’re being stirred up by the wind, not the footsteps of some beast lurking in the cold. It’s okay. You’ve just got to close the door and go to sleep. It’s fine. You’ve just been awake way too long. I choke out something that resembles a laugh, stand up, and grab the doorknob.
Are you sure it’s safe?
Damn it. I can’t remember if the side door downstairs is locked. It’s the only way someone could sneak inside without causing detection. Or slightly opening doors to spy on impressionable, insomniac writers. Okay, I have to go down there and check. It’s the only way to be sure. I grab a small flashlight, swallow hard, and open the door wide. The hinges creak, and I practically jump out of my skin. Idiot, calm down! I hope I didn’t wake anyone up. And if there’s someone prowling in here, they know someone’s awake. They’re probably hiding, or looking for an escape. Oh, I’ll give them something to escape from! I reach behind me and grab my walking stick. Anger replaces fear, and I step confidently into the darkness. Flashlight on, nothing moves. I’m surrounded by silhouettes that vaguely resemble my home. But I know better.
At this hour, anything is possible.
I miraculously make it down the stairs without stumbling over anything. I tread lightly, avoiding all of the creaks and cracks that I’ve spent years memorizing. The carpeted surface is a mottled relic of the mid-70s. Still-life paintings and photographs line the stairwell, and I’m grateful that none of them feature people. I don’t think I could handle seeing a human face staring back at me in the dark. An old cane hangs from the lower banister, a remnant of a someone long past. The door is right there, and both locks on it set. I jiggle and twist the doorknob a few times just to make sure. Good. Ye gods, it’s cold. I once nicknamed this lowest part of the house the Ninth Circle of Hell, because it’s always freezing down here. It’s not an exaggeration this time; I can see my wispy breaths float in the glare of my flashlight. Shivering, I walk over to a window and peek out. I can just make out the trees thrashing in the wind, but a plastic rainwater bucket steals my attention. It’s filled to the brim, and the water is frozen solid.
It’s too cold for this.
I make my way back to the stairs and glance back. Everything is fine. Freezing, but fine. I sigh and take a step up. A low creak rises up out of the dark, and I freeze. What was that? I turn around and fumble the flashlight. I know I heard that. It came from somewhere down here. Thirty feet of dusty storage boxes and relics of days long gone stretch out before me like a labyrinth. The light switch is on the other end, and I don’t think I’m in the right frame of mind to go searching for anything. It’s okay. It was probably nothing. It could’ve been something. No, the door was locked! You’re done, go to bed! I take a step backward and stumble. I feebly grab the railing, and in that brief second I glimpse something in that darkness, some unspeakable horror poised to kill.
I’m beyond thinking at this point. I scramble up the stairs and frantically speed-walk back to my room. I shut the door with a shaky hand, and stand there panting. It’s okay. There’s nothing there. There’s nothing there. The door is locked, nothing got in. I shut off my computer, and my world is silent save for the endless ticktocks. 2:19 now. It’s pitch-dark, and I practically fall into my bed. I lay there on one side, wishing the blankets would warm me up faster. I let out a sigh and close my eyes.
My bedroom door opens.