This is a story I scribbled out last year then put away. I came across it while tidying some of my writing stuff, and decided to work through it to see where it goes…
The door stood ajar, a sliver of light cutting into the darkened hallway. Standing a few yards away, Jacob could hear sobbing and muffled words drifting through the door. He felt a sudden need to comfort the woman, for he assumed that only women made noises like that when they wept. As he approached, he hesitated, not wanting to intrude. Maybe I should get Amanda, he thought. She’ll know what to do, women always do. But he remained where he was.
His girlfriend, Amanda, was interested in the apartment on the ground floor that was available to rent. He’d come with her to view it; everything had been going fine until they’d had a storming argument. Not wanting to wait with her for the letting agent, who'd forgotten some small key, to return, Jacob had taken himself off to the upper floors.
He knew the building was old but only now appreciated how very old it was. The patterned wallpaper covering the walls was barely perceptible; random strips hung in tatters, reaching for the floor; the carpet was so worn, it revealed patches of floorboard. Even the light fittings looked ancient. And the upper floors seemed empty; except for a frail-looking old woman who peered out of her door as he ascended the final flight of stairs.
The sobbing continued to rise and fall, tugging at his emotions. With a shake of his head, he put aside his own feelings of possible embarrassment and slowly pushed the door open.
As Jacob stepped into the room, the grieving sounds seemed to fade. To his consternation, he found himself standing in an empty room; he frowned. Now the sobbing seemed to be coming from the inner room, from behind a small, closed door. “That’s funny,” he said. “I could have sworn the crying was coming from this room.” But the room was completely empty, down to the naked windows.
The crying seemed to draw him towards the door. Marching up to it, Jacob took hold of the doorknob, and immediately snatched his hand away. It was cold. Freezing cold. Absently rubbing his hand, he stared at the door knob; it felt like the inside of a freezer. Slowly, he reached out to it, hesitated then knocked on the door instead, though not very convincingly. “Who’s there?” He was aware that his voice was shaking.
Still, the woman continued to sob and plead as if she had not heard Jacob. “Open it, please open it. Have pity…”
Unable to bear it any longer, Jacob braced himself, grabbed the door knob and twisted. But the door did not budge. Quickly pulling his icy hand away, he blew on it before rubbing his hands together. “Now what?” he muttered.
“Why do you not open it?” said the woman between sobs. “I can hear there is someone there. I beg you–”
“It’s locked,” said Jacob. “I don’t have a key.”
“No. It cannot be, there is no lock,” she said, her words ending in a wail.
Bending slightly to study the door, Jacob saw there was no keyhole. Which meant the door was, most likely, jammed.
“Please, please, I will be good now. Open it, please. Before it–” Her begging sobs were abruptly cut short.
Jacob slowly straightened up. “Hello?” he said. Silence. Not just from behind the door, but all around him. It was as if nothing else existed but Jacob, the door and the now-silent woman. The only sounds that penetrated the silence - his pounding heart, his laboured breathing. A bead of sweat crawled down the side of his face.
His fingers brushed the door knob. Still icy cold. “Hello?” he said again, so softly, he could barely hear himself. She’s not crying now, he reasoned with himself. She should be ok to open the door herself. It’s ok for me to go now. Amanda must be wondering where I am. He turned to go. But what if the woman is hurt? He squeezed his eyes shut, feeling betrayed by his own mind. What if she needs help? Your help? Open the door, Jacob, whispered the insistent voice in his mind, the voice he had not heard in years; the voice that had always got the young Jacob into trouble.
He shook his head, trying to deny it. “I don’t want to.”
But I want to see what’s in the room. I want to know what’s happened to the woman. And I know you do too.
“No. I don’t want to see…” But his hand reached for the door knob anyway as he held his breath, fervently hoping the door would be too jammed for him to open. His breath escaped in a keening moan as the door now opened easily. It swung inward on its hinges, revealing a small, empty room. There were no furnishings, no windows… And no woman. His mouth went dry.
“Jacob? Are you up there?” Amanda’s voice floated up the stairwell. “Let’s talk. Please.”
He glanced over his shoulder. And jumped. The old woman he’d seen earlier was stood in the doorway, staring at him with piercing grey eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he started to say before wondering why he was apologising.
“You should not have opened the door.” Her voice was surprisingly strong and clear for one who looked so frail. Her snow-white hair formed a gossamer halo around her head.
“But. She was crying, she needed help–”
“You should not have,” was all she said as she stepped back out into the corridor, her eyes mirroring the sadness in her voice.
Amanda’s voice sounded closer. “Jacob. Are you up here? That guy hasn’t come back yet.”
Standing just inside the inner room, Jacob was gripped by an inexplicable, child-like fear. He wanted to step out of the room. He strained to put one foot in front of the other; his limbs felt like lead. About to answer Amanda, his reply froze in his throat. An icy hand closed over his wrist.
“You opened the door,” breathed a cold voice in his ear; it was the crying woman. “For that I am grateful. But you should have opened it sooner. Before it got hungry.”
“No…” Jacob tried to pull away but the woman, whom he could not see, only feel, held him fast.
“Come, cold one. Here is one that is warm, fresh.”
The temperature around Jacob plummeted.
“Jacob, where are – oh. Hello.” Amanda sounded so close. “Have you seen–”
“He should not have opened the door,” said the old woman.
“What? What door?”
Amanda! Help me, screamed Jacob; but only in his mind. He could not find his voice. Shuffling, grunting sounds came towards Jacob. Terror returned his voice to him – “No!” With that, he lunged out of the door.
The woman shouted. "No. I need you to stay."
His back felt like it was on fire as something tore through his shirt, tore at his skin. He turned to fight her off. But all he could see was glimpses of her; she kept fading in and out of view. What he managed to see robbed him of strength. Protruding eye; skin stretched tight over her skull with clumps of hair missing; long, skeletal fingers…
"It needs you. Then I can go free."
His mind rebelled at her words, but he remained frozen where he stood.
Amanda’s horrified voice goaded him into action. The woman came into view again; he punched her in the face and kicked out. She staggered back, loosened her hold enough for him to pull free.
Stumbling out of the door, he saw Amanda – gorgeously plump, fleshed-out Amanda – running towards him. He was almost out of the room when he jerked to a stop and fell forward. The woman had grabbed his legs. Despite her skeletal appearance, she was strong. Strong enough to pull him back.
Amanda screamed, fell to her knees and grabbed Jacob by the arms. Grimacing with the effort, she pulled. He yelled. She reached over, grabbed his belt and pulled harder. He inched towards her, but his legs were still in the room.
“God… Amanda. Don’t let go.”
“Never,” she said through gritted teeth. A small scream leapt from her. She half-fell back then shot forward. “Let. Him go.”
Jacob heard the sound of someone being slapped; the grip on his legs loosened. He kicked out and scrabbled free.
A howl of denial followed him.
Jacob knew he had to close the door but was too terrified to reach back in for it. Then Amanda, still on her knees, leant past him, grabbed the door knob and pulled it shut just as a skeletal hand snaked out of the dark. Trembling, she turned to him, eyes wide and burst into tears.
He got to his feet, his own limbs shaking and managed to pull her up. Arms tight around her, he staggered back, unable to take his gaze from the door.
Jacob jumped; he'd forgotten about the old woman. She was staring at him in obvious surprise. But before he could say anything, she gestured urgently for him to join her in the corridor.
Outside, his arms still around Amanda, he could not help looking back into the room. He shuddered; the small, inner door was fading from view.
The old woman pulled the outer door shut. Shuffling behind Jacob and Amanda, she started to herd them towards the stairs.
Glancing back, Jacob stopped. There was no door. Only bare wall. He tried to speak.
“Come,” said the woman. “It is best to leave now. You have had a lucky escape. Do not tempt fate.” She stopped on the next floor down, by the door to her apartment.
Jacob suspected the entire floor was empty, save for her.
Amanda had managed to stop her tears but she still held onto Jacob. “What. Happened. What–who was–?”
For a moment, it seemed as if the old woman was going to enter her apartment without another word, but she stopped, her back to them. “My sister. She is suffering her punishment for interfering in things best left alone.”
“But… you…” Jacob wanted to know more but could not find the words.
“She, we were younger than you and so happy. Then she… It was another time.” With that, she disappeared into her home.
The couple stared at the door then made their way back down to find the agent waiting for them.
“There you are,” he said with a nervous laugh. “I thought you’d gone. Here’s the key; sorry about that–”
“Actually,” said Amanda, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll be wanting this place.”
Leaving the slightly annoyed man behind, they left the building.
“Hey,” said Jacob, “I’m sorry about what I said earlier before–.”
“No, it’s ok. I can’t even remember what we were arguing about,” she said with a slight shake of her head.
“Thanks for coming to look for me. If you hadn’t–”
“Don’t.” She stopped to put her arms around his waist. “Please, can we not talk of that?”
“And… can I stay at yours tonight?”
“Yes. Yes, please.” He hugged her tighter, glad she had suggested it for he did not want to be alone.
As they walked towards his car, Jacob kept glancing at the people around them. Aware of the tension in his limbs, he tried to slow his breathing. What’s wrong with you? he thought. It’s done, you’re safe. That… whatever that was, is in there, not out here. Out here, everything’s normal. He nodded as if the physical act would make it true. But he knew that nothing in his world would ever be normal again.