The house, as she pulled up in her dark blue sedan, seemed warm and inviting. A sprawling Greek revival type tucked at the end of a block otherwise populated with the same half-ranch from the fifties. White columns rose up two stories on either side of the front door, drawing her eyes to where a widow’s walk perched on the roof. Funny thing, that widow’s walk, since they were about fifty miles in from the ocean.
In her line of work Marty went to lots of houses. Architecture had become a sort-of side hobby. Now, when she was in the car, zoned out and only half hearing the radio, she would tick off the houses she passed like a litany. Federal. Victorian. Mid-century. Another Victorian. Cape Cod. The worst was ending up in the neighborhoods like the one that surrounded the Greek in front of her. The ones where a single builder had bought up acres and acres and got to building the same thing over. Then it became like a chant in her mind. Split-level ranch. Split-level ranch. Splevelanch. Splanch. Splanch. Splanch.
Marty shook her head. She’d been idling in front of the house, still in drive with her foot on the brake. The house was warm, yes, and inviting, that was true. Painted all white, clearly redone every summer or the dirt and the grass would have tainted it. It was early-November, so the maples out front still held onto a few red leaves. Mostly, though, the trees were bare and the leaves were crinkled and brown and being blown about by the wind. It was a dark time for some. Marty loved it.
She didn’t love this house. Even as it invited her in, there was something…something. Huh. Can’t put a finger on it. Something that didn’t want her there. Or did want her there, but for reasons Marty wasn’t going to like. It was simply an uneasiness that made her eyes water as she examined the wood siding.
Maybe it will be unrelated to the job, she thought as she finally put the car in park and cut the engine. A house this old has to have multiple problems, right?
Yeah, and if frogs had wings and all that.
She fetched her old doctor’s bag from the trunk, didn’t bother locking the POS, and walked up to the front.
Before Marty could even make the front steps the door had been pulled open to reveal a thin blond man with those frameless glasses and a cell phone clinging to his severe face.
“No, tell him he doesn’t need any of that,” he said into the phone while motioning for Marty to come in. “I don’t care what he wants, I’m telling him he doesn’t need it, and if would just listen to me on this he could save himself about sixteen thousand. Look, look, I need to take care of something. Tell him that, and if he doesn’t listen then give him my cell phone number. But not until after lunch. Okay? Okay. Bye.”
The house inside was about what Marty expected. These centuries-old houses could keep pretending it was 1823 or whatever out front, but the insides were always at war. Whatever could be kept of the original was kept, but the second it got to be dangerous, or too broken, or even just an inconvenience it was out the window and replaced. Some of the floorboards looked original, as did the wallpaper. The flat screen television in the next room over definitely wasn’t. The stair banister wasn’t, either. Kids toys were scattered around, the kind for the little ones barely old enough to be at school. The blond man – Mr. Morris – pushed toys away to the side of the hall as he led her down to the kitchen.
“You’re the specialty locksmith, right?” he asked over his shoulder.
“That’s right,” she said. “Martha Franklin. Call me Marty.”
“We’ve had eight other locksmiths out here, Miss Franklin,” Mr. Morris said. “All of the locksmiths in the immediate area and then we were able to coax another out from Braintree. He was the one who gave us your number. He said you work all over New England?”
“Mostly, yeah,” Marty said. She had assumed he was leading to her a jammed pantry or rusted over bulkhead down to a crawlspace, but instead he led right her through the kitchen to a narrow set of stairs going up. “Been down to New York, Jersey, and Pennsylvania quite a bit, too. Canada, even, a couple of times.”
Mr. Morris glanced over his shoulder, giving her a look unreadable from the angle and the dim light. “I hope that means you’ll be able to take care of this quickly.”
The hackles on the back of Marty’s neck went up as a shiver went down. As they reached the top of the stairs she realized it was probably just so Mr. Morris could go back to work.
Unfortunately, that did not mean Marty was now walking through good vibes. That feeling, like a tickle in the sinuses not strong enough to start the sneeze, was back. It filled the hallway, wafting through her, and even before they got there Marty knew exactly where Mr. Morris was taking her: the last door on the left.
They had passed three other doors as they walked the hall. All had been replaced sometime in the past half a century, and freshly painted in the past year at that. This door had not been painted, nor had it been replaced. It was clearly the door the house had been built with. It may, in fact, have been the only original piece of the house left.
It was cracked. Warped. And that unease oozed out of it like sap out of the maples in the front.
“The door’s been like this since we moved in,” he said, shaking the brass knob as a display. “Was like that for the previous owners, too. No one knows the last time it was opened, really, it’s probably all, whatchacallit, expanded and stuck in the jamb. Really stuck. Can’t move it at all.”
He shook the door again and Marty fought the urge to puke.
“If it’s never been opened before, why do you need it now?”
Mr. Morris looked at her like she’d just asked why they needed the sun. “My wife’s pregnant again and my mom…I don’t want her living alone anymore.”
Marty stared at the man in the way she had learned. People don’t like the quiet, mostly, especially when it’s only two people. Two people, standing near, not talking, some people couldn’t take it. She guessed, from the way he had been on the phone, Mr. Morris was one of those.
He grunted, and leaned a hand on the doorframe. “Hell. Even if all that weren’t true. I paid for this house, Miss Franklin, and the thought of having a whole room I own and can’t get to…well, it fucking bothers me. I want to be able to go everywhere in my own home.”
There. Honest truth.
“Nothing to be ashamed of, Mr. Morris,” Marty said. She stepped forward and let her hand hover over the door. Churning. It was the only word to describe what she felt and only a little correct. “Did the other locksmith tell you what I do?”
“I mean…don’t you do what he does? Better?”
“Honesty, Mr. Morris. If you want this door open, you must be honest. With me. And with yourself.”
She glanced at him and restrained a sigh. It was apparent from his face there would be no honesty. At least not right now.
“It’s a jammed door,” he said.
“It is that,” Marty said. “Why don’t you go back to work, Mr. Morris? I’ll find you if I need you.”
He didn’t need to be told twice. After giving her vague directions to his home office that Marty barely heard he hustled down the hallway, not looking back. He probably didn’t admit it to himself, but it was clear.
Mr. Morris didn’t like being in this corner of the house.
She’d only been there a few minutes, but so far neither did Marty.
“Okay, you old thing,” she said to the door. “Tell me your secrets.”
Half an hour later she found Mr. Morris’ office. It was clear on the other side of the house, facing the street and the maples. In fact, you couldn’t get any farther from that room unless you left the house or went down to the basement.
Mr. Morris was yelling into the phone again, and after getting a single ‘hold on’ finger Marty patiently waited in the hall, examining the family photos hung there.
“Is it done?” he asked her.
Marty took a breath. If he didn’t notice the way her hair was mussed or the red in her eyes…well, she always knew this conversation could be hard.
“Can we sit?”
“Is the door unlocked?”
“That’s what I want to sit and talk about.”
Mr. Morris stared longingly at his computer, but relented. He took his cell phone and showed her back to the kitchen.
“This is a nice table,” she said as they sat.
“Antique. Not as old as the house, but pretty close. My wife and I found it in the middle of nowhere Vermont. Had to rent a truck to bring it back. My brother thinks it’s ridiculous. Said we didn’t need it.”
Marty piled up the crusted Cheerios she had picked off the bench seat. With a smile, Mr. Morris shrugged.
“We don’t baby our antiques. Put them behind glass so everyone can stare at them. We use what we buy.”
“Which is why you want to get into that room.”
“Yes. Is it…?”
“No. But it can be.”
The crestfallen look was immediately replaced by tight annoyance. “Then why isn’t it?”
Marty placed her hands on the table, palms down. She found when she did this, people were more likely to believe her.
“There is something trapped in that room, Mr. Morris.”
“What, like a raccoon?”
“Please. I know you can feel it. The…anger. Hatred. Disgust…oozing out of that room, why, I could feel it out front sitting in my car. I know I’m far more sensitive to these kinds of things than the average person, but it’s so strong even you must notice something, now and then.”
Mr. Morris looked confused.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You do. In a way. You couldn’t wait to get away from that room earlier. And I’m sure the other locksmith must have said something about my…unconventional ways.”
“They said no one else could do what you do,” he said with a shrug.
“That’s incorrect, Mr. Morris, but I am the only one of my Guild working in this area. The kind of locksmithing I’m capable of is an incredibly rare skill, even in my sort of circles. Now, Mr. Morris, I’m going to speak plainly. This scares some people, and I usually don’t like to do it, but I feel like you need to hear it.”
He shifted in his seat, crossing his arms, but said nothing.
“Have you ever heard of the ship of Theseus? It would seem your entire house has been slowly replaced, bit by bit, until hardly anything remains of the original. In fact, besides a few stray boards and the columns out front, I think that room is the only original part of the house. Because of this, whatever evil this house contains is locked in that room. I can unlock that door, Mr. Morris. I can give you that room. But not without giving you whatever is inside it.”
Mr. Morris rolled his eyes. “What, you mean a ghost?”
“Maybe. Like I said, whatever is in there is locked in so tightly I can’t quite get a read on it. Could be a ghost. A spirit. Perhaps, when the house was first built, a terrible and angry person lived there. Houses are like sponges, Mr. Morris. They soak up energy, take on the personalities of the people who lived there. A rotten person can blacken a house from the inside out.”
“This is insane. I thought you were a locksmith.”
“I am a locksmith. Some things aren’t locked with interlocking bits of metal. Have you even noticed there isn’t a lock on that door?”
“Of course there is!” Mr. Morris stood up so fast the bench behind him scuttled back. “Lady, I don’t know what any of this is. There’s a room in my very old house that won’t open. Not because of some evil, or some ghost, but because it’s old as fuck and the wooden door has warped into the frame. I hired a locksmith to get the thing open. That’s all. That’s all this is supposed to be.”
All of the fire was gone by the time he got to the last sentence. There was a glint in his eye, not unlike what Marty had seen in the eyes of trapped wild animals. Snarling, biting, trying to look frightening, before the fear takes over entirely.
Maybe the man realized that was what he was doing. He stood up straight and jutted out his jaw.
“If you can’t open that room, then you should just leave.”
“I can open it.”
Mr. Morris snorted. “But you won’t, right?”
Marty clasped her hands together. “The rules of my Guild are clear, Mr. Morris. If you still want that room to be opened, I will open it. But,” she held up a finger. “Only after a full warning. There is something in there. I know you know that, I can feel it rolling it off you in waves. If I open the door, I am releasing whatever it is, and while I don’t know what will come out, I can tell you that nothing good will come from it. In fact, you will probably wish you had never opened it. This is not a joke, Mr. Morris, it’s not a prank. I’m not crazy. If you want that door opened, you will only invite disaster and ruin to your family. You need to leave it shut.”
For a full three seconds, Marty believed she had reached him. His eyes drifted to a family portrait hanging over the table. Four kids. A fifth on the way. They obviously had money, if they were living in a house like this. They could build an extension. A mother-in-law suite over the garage. Or they could move. So many options besides the one that would destroy them all.
Then she watched reality creep back into his mind. ‘Reality.’ Ha. More like wool over the eyes.’
Mr. Morris followed her back up to the room, his heavy footsteps and full breaths exactly the sort of shield he needed to pretend he wasn’t afraid. The door loomed at, ready and eager.
“Mr. Morris, are you sure-”
“Open it,” he said again, standing next to the far wall.
Marty sighed. She reached out a hand, pointer finger extended, and gave the brass doorknob the slightest touch.
The door popped out, creaking in a few inches.
There was no gust of wind. No moans or shrieks. The lights did not flicker and the temperature did not dip.
Marty knew anyway.
“See?” Mr. Morris said, his face a little green. “Nothing. It’s just a room. Perfect for-”
Marty held up a hand. “Please, Mr. Morris. If it were up to me, I would have never opened that door. I would have left. I very much do not want to know what you’ll do with that space. I’ll be going now. I can show myself out.”
Mr. Morris stepped back, startled at her sudden firmness.
Marty stepped back herself, smoothing the front of her blouse.
“I take no responsibility here, do you understand? I told you what will happen, and I was forced to open that door as part of the Guild’s rules. I see myself as only an intermediary in the middle of this terrible idea, and will not accept even a cent of payment or a word of thanks. Be wary, Mr. Morris. True evil bides its time.”
As she walked down the hall she felt it. Something pushing her along. She spared a single glance behind her before she hit the stairs only to see Mr. Morris pushing open the door and walking inside.
By the time she was at her car she could feel it. That simple uneasiness she had felt when she had arrived and exploded into unearthly waves of hatred, anger, and resentment. It turned her stomach. She thought she could smell something. Sulfur one minute, offal the next. A young woman was pushing a stroller across the street, and as she approached the house her attention snapped to it. Confusion and fear painted her face as her baby started crying, and she nearly broke into a run hustling past.
Marty took a deep, bone cracking sigh as she got into her car.
I’m going to hear about this one on the news.