The Locked Door is a five-part work-in-progress that I intend to upload bit by bit over the next few weeks. This is not a final draft.
THE LOCKED DOOR
Down the decayed wooden steps, in the deep dark of the basement there was an old wooden door. It was carved out of thick oak planks withered into rotted tatters through years of deterioration and decay. A faded coat of fire brick red paint had slipped and left colourless streaks and scratches in its place. It was split with crooked tremors and black holes torn by termites and vermin. The smell of rot emanated out of every inch of it.
On the edge of the door there was a round iron handle that had corroded to a dead red shade of rust. And there below it was an old brass keyhole no wider than a man’s thumb.
Brennan hadn’t noticed the door until the day he moved in. He had gathered up the last few things that had no place in his home but that he couldn’t bring himself to throw away, packed them up in a discarded cardboard wine box and carried them down the steps into the basement.
The basement was enshrouded in a complete and total black. It was completely submerged underneath the ground, with no windows to let slip in the slightest sliver of sunlight. He could barely make out the lone incandescent bulb hanging from its wires at the top of the staircase. Dangling down from the socket was a short, beaded stainless steel cord that was once a tub stopper chain. He had to lean on the tips of his toes to reach it. The bulb coughed into a desperate struggle for life then, after a few false starts, settled into a dim glow.
The yellow stain of light that seeped through the bulb reached only the nearest stretches of the basement. The floor was poured concrete, rippled with cracks and tears. Insulation spilled past the frames of the uncovered walls. PVC pipes ran overhead, crossing the brass lines that ran from the dusty grey heater and the electric wires that had been affixed to exposed wooden beams with a staple gun. It was a room that had long been abandoned, used to store the heater and perhaps a few old boxes. Nothing more.
Brennan headed down the steps and left the box by the side, where he’d still be able to find it in the thin light. He caught the edge of a familiar silver frame through the tape and lingered for a moment, caught by a faint urge to sift through the memories inside. But he pushed it away and let go of the box.
When he stood back up, his eyes had begun to adjust to the darkness and he could make out the faint outline of a doorway on the dark side of the room. He thrusted his hands wildly and blindly in the empty air as he made his way through the dark, until his fingers scraped against the splintered wood.
The door was boarded up with coarse old planks that had been nailed into the exposed wooden frame. Crooked nails jutted out of the planks, as though they’d been hammered in a rush. It was all old and worn. He traced the cracks running through the planks with his fingers. They seemed as though they had been hanging there for years. He took one in hand and tried to see if he could heave it free, but it didn’t budge.
Then he turned back up the stairs and flicked off the light.
Brennan was slow moving up the stairs. He lingered through every step, wasted every second he could. His sister and her husband had come to help him move in. They were up there now, waiting for him with questions and conversations and opinions, and he just wasn’t ready to handle it yet.
The pressures and expectations of other people were a terrible weight to him now. The haze of prescription drugs left him slow. When someone spoke he found himself stalling too long, struggling to remember how to respond. What few words he could stagger out when he pried himself out of the comfort of his mind felt like he was letting them down, like he was just giving them more reasons to worry about him. There was a tremendous comfort lingering in the solitude downstairs.
When he forced himself up, Richard was in the living room struggling with the pieces of an Ikea futon.
“Hey big guy,” Richard called when he saw him come in. “Can you give me a hand with your couch here?”
Brennan tried to pretend he didn’t hear him and started flipping through a box of books in the corner to look busy. There were old copies of his favourite books by modernist authors that hadn’t been touched in years, newer technical writing guides with names like How to Write How To and a few software guides he’d written for Stepladder to Success Publications. He didn’t put any of them away.
He pulled a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting that he didn’t realize he still owned out of the box. He flipped it open and saw he had written Anna’s name on the flap. It had been three years since he last saw her. Seeing her name filled him with this senseless feeling that there was something new to feel ashamed for that he couldn’t identify. He put it down and the ground and covered it with the box.
When he looked up, Angela was carrying a box of books in from the van. She had the box held close to her chest, hovering all that weight and strain above her pregnant belly. Watching her, he could feel the pressure pushing against the baby’s delicate frame as though it was crushing against him.
He rushed over, saying, “No, no, no, no”. He took the box out of her hands, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” and carried it inside himself. He tried not to glare at Richard while he put it down on the living room floor. “Just sit down,” he told Angela.
“I don’t mind,” she said. “I mean, really, Bren. I’m not some helpless woman who needs the men to do everything for her.”
“It’s fine,” Brennan said, pulling the futon cushion away from Richard and laying it out in the corner. “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.” He patted the cushion to try to get her to sit down.
“I came to help you move in. I want to help. I don’t want to just sit here and watch you and Richie do all the work. I want to feel useful, Bren.”
She started walking back to the van and Brennan got up to rush after her. “No, no,” he said, “it’s okay. You have the baby. You can’t have any stress. So just sit down, it’s okay, it’s fine.”
She gave him a sympathetic look that made him furious. That condescending look that meant she’d convinced herself there was imaginary subtext to what he was saying, that said she’d plugged some pop psychology into his situation and thought she understood him better than he understood himself.
“Okay, Bren,” she said, far too gently. She slid onto the cushion. “I’ll just sit here. I won’t strain myself.”
Brennan thought of a few needlessly cruel things to say as he got the last box out of the van, but just thinking them made him feel guilty. He took his time about it to avoid having to help Richard with the futon, but by the time he was back, that made him feel guilty too. His sister had let him live rent-free in her attic for three years. He owed them a lot, and he just kept being difficult.
When he got back, Richard was still finishing up with the futon. Brennan still didn’t help.
“Is that the last of it?” Angela said as he placed it on a pile of other cardboard boxes. Brennan didn’t say anything. “This is so exciting. I’m really happy for you. You have such a nice place.”
“Okay,” Brennan said.
“You have to eat something other than frozen pizzas, though. I saw your freezer. I mean it, Brennan, you have to get some vegetables. It’s for your health.”
“Yep,” Brennan said. He scratched his face and wouldn’t look at her.
“I’m not judging you. I’m not. I know you think I am. I just want you to be healthy. It’s fine that you eat whatever you want. I just want you to be healthy.”
Brennan said okay and Angela made a loud, annoyed sigh.
Richard clicked the last piece of the futon together and threw the plain white cushion on top. “Done!” He hopped on, threw his arms out and kicked up his feet with no small amount of pride. He tapped the cushion with his palm. Angela sat down where he’d gestured and curled up to him.
“This actually isn’t that bad,” Angela said. She stared at Brennan expectantly. “You did a great job, Richard. Wasn’t it nice that he did this for you, Bren?”
Brennan nodded at Richard but didn’t say anything. Richard said, “Come on, Ange,” and Angela said, “What?” and Richard said, “Nothing.”
After a moment he said, “We need to get going.” He unwrapped himself from his wife, picked himself off the futon and gave Brennan one firm pump of a handshake. “We left a little housewarming thing in the kitchen for you. Don’t get too excited, it’s tools. You’re going to have to fix your own damn sink now, I don’t want you calling me every time something breaks.” He laughed as though he was joking.
Angela gave Brennan a big emotional hug that made him feel uncomfortable. “My big brother’s on his own now,” she said. “Give us a call if you need anything. Don’t lock yourself in here, okay? If you get lonely you can always give me a call.”
Brennan said, “Okay.”
“You should have us over for dinner some time, once you’re settled in. I want to see what everything looks like when it’s all set up. You should invite us over.”
Brennan nodded. “Yep.”
“How about on Thursday? Thursday at seven o’clock. Richard and I don’t have anything planned on that day, does that work for you?”
Angela gave him another big hug. Then she just looked at him, the way their mother had looked at him when he went to school for the first time.
“You know you don’t have to move out, right?” she said. “Just because of the baby. I don’t want to think you felt that you had to move out.”
Brennan said, “It’s fine.” Then, “No, I didn’t.”
“And you’ll take your pills every eight hours. That’s important. You have your timer set?”
Brennan just pursed a thin smile and didn’t say anything.
“I left a garden hoe and some seeds in the tool kit. You have to keep the garden up, too. There’s zucchini and tomatoes, too, so you can have fresh vegetables from your garden. Don’t just eat frozen pizza for every meal.”
Richard grabbed her shoulder. “Jesus, Ange.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Angela said. “I’m just a little maternal right now.”
She gave her brother another hug before they left. Brennan watched them go. When he looked at the piles of boxes scattered around the floor he didn’t have the slightest desire to touch any of them, and for a while he just sat on the futon trying to pretend he didn’t have anything to do.
* * *
It was strange to hear how silent the house was once they were gone. For the last three years he’d lived in a room in their attic. He’d barely left it, but he could always hear their feet tapping against the floors underneath him and the muffled sound of their voices below. In this house the silence was absolute.
Eventually he made himself get up. He carried a box of clothes and sheets up to the big room on the second floor that he’d set up as his bedroom, then the laptop and a few of the books on writing up to a room he’d picked as the study. They’d let him start working at home a couple of years back. He preferred it to the distractions and the people, but he’d needed a separate room to help him focus on his work.
There was a third room he didn’t enter. He’d seen inside it once when the realtor showed him around and he it had unnerved him in ways he couldn’t fully understand. It had been a child’s room, painted sky blue with a repeating wallpaper of sheep in green grass on the lower half of the walls. The room was almost completely empty, except for an empty crib in the corner. It was made of white painted wood with a still flawless varnish and unruffled cushion underneath. Short of the three years of dust that had grown from disuse, nothing had ever touched that crib.
Brennan had looked in the room once. He didn’t touch anything in it. He just closed the door, locked it, and left the room alone.
* * *
When he took the packing boxes out to the recycling bin, there was an overweight balding man in his mid-forties watering his lawn next door. He was shaped like an egg and he was wearing a pair of grey slacks all the way up to his stomach. He was just standing there, watering in one place, like he’d forgotten why he was out there.
The Egg Man turned his head slowly and looked at Brennan. His face seemed entirely expressionless, like he couldn’t even tell Brennan was there. Then he flashed a smile and waved his hand.
Brennan ducked his head down and looked away. He was already shaking at the thought that the Egg Man would come over and start talking to him. He ducked back into the house, letting a few loose pieces of cardboard fall on the ground so that he could get out of there as quickly possible, and locked the door behind him.
* * *
He left the kitchen, where Richard’s tool kit was waiting for him, until the end. There was a large steel spade lying against the wall, a red ribbon wrapped around it with a note that read “For the garden”. When he looked at it he could hear Angela’s voice. You’re letting the plants die. You had such a beautiful house and you can’t even be bothered to take care of it. I don’t know why I try. It made him feel tired.
The tool kit was a basic Jobmate kit that Richard couldn’t have spent much more than $10 on at the Canadian Tire. There were two shelves inside, the top filled by Angela with gardening tools and packets of seeds. The lower half was just a hammer, a screwdriver, a wrench and a pack of nails.
He sat down by the kit and flipped through the packets of seeds, reading the instructions and trying to imagine himself doing it. Every single seed was for a vegetable. It was packet after packet of cucumbers and tomatoes and lettuce and passive aggressive hints that he should be eating better. He tried to convince himself that he would actually do it, that he’d actually get out there every day and make sure the garden was strong and healthy, but he knew the entire time that he wouldn’t.
He shuffled everything back into the kit, locked it up, and headed down to the basement, the shovel in one hand and the kit in the other.
Without a free hand to put on the light, he went down the steps in the dark, lit only by the background glow of the kitchen. By the bottom step he couldn’t see a thing, and so he just left the tools somewhere off to the side where he wouldn’t trip on them.
A thin light emanating from the far side of the basement caught his eye. It was the glow of an electric light, seeping through the cracks to trace the outline of the locked door. Most of the light came through the gap between the base of the door and the floor, but thinner lines shone through the sides and the top. Black bars blocked it out where the planks had barricaded it.
Brennan tried to remember if the light had been on before, but he couldn’t be sure. He went up the steps and flicked on the light to get a better view. Even with it on, he could still make out the light coming through the door. Then, as he started walking toward it, it went black.
For a second he let it unnerve him. A slight hollow pit clawed into the insides of his stomach and his muscles tensed. He had this terrible sense that he wasn’t safe in this room. Some animal instinct inside of him was convinced there was a predator lurking in the shadows.
Then he brushed the feeling away. He told himself that the realtor or someone at the open house had just left the light on and now it had burned out. He was even a little embarrassed to have let it creep him out like that.
Then the knocking started.
It was quiet at first. A muffled rapping coming from the other side, so soft that he didn’t catch it right away. He had to stand still to make it out.
For a second he thought it was just the heater. But then there was this low, primal moan, seeping through the other side of the door.
Brennan stood there weightless, like he’d lost hold of his body and his soul was shivering naked and alone in the darkness of the basement. Slowly, he let out a quiet, “Hello?” but there was no answer. Then, mustering up a little courage, he yelled it. “Hello!”
The pounding came in a frenzy, and he was sure now that it was the sound of a fist beating against a door. There was another moan, this one a wordless cry of total desperation and agony. It sounded animal.
He took the hammer out of Richard’s tool kit and set to pulling the nails out of planks. Many had shaken half of the way free and they came out easily. While he worked, he saw the wood in the planks had started to split through the centre. Someone had been trying to force the door from the other side. The nails hadn’t slipped out from degradation, they had been shaken loose from the violence against the door.
The door was on the furthest side of the house. If there was a room on the other side, it was buried no more than a few centimetres below the front yard. It had to be tiny, then. Whoever was trapped inside was upright in a closet a foot deep at the most.
When the last plank shook free he tried to force the door open, but it didn’t budge. It was more firmly built than he had expected. He gave it a few strong pulls, but nothing happened.
There was another vicious moan on the other side and the pounding didn’t stop. “I know!” Brennan said. “I know! I’m trying, it won’t open!”
There had to be a key.
He ran upstairs. He scurried every cupboard and every closet but nothing came up. He spent half an hour tearing the house apart. Then his phone started beeping.
It said “Pills”.
He could still hear a faint knocking seeping through the floorboards, but it seemed distant now. The home had been abandoned for three years before he moved in. The sound wasn’t real. He was alone in his house and there was nobody locked in his basement. The sound wasn’t real. It was just him.
He couldn’t bring himself to move. He just stood there, his phone in his hand, listening to the pounding. It wasn’t real. It was just him. He closed his eyes and he whispered, “Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop” until the knocking stopped. Then he went to the washroom and took a clozapine pill.
* * *
It took a while before he felt relaxed again, but he managed to get a few hours of work in on the manual he was writing before nightfall. When he was done, he came down to the living room to get a book to read in bed, and he found What to Expect When You’re Expecting lying in the centre of the room. It didn’t make any sense that he hadn’t seen it when he was putting everything away.
He picked it up flipped through it. There wasn’t a single creased page or underlined word. He didn’t think Anna looked at it once.
He got caught on a picture of a foetus that caught hold of him for a reason he couldn’t explain. He could see Anna on the last day he saw her, lying on the hospital bed, refusing to look him in the eye. It felt like someone had reached through his abdomen and into the pit of his stomach, grabbed on and twisted. He was overwhelmed by a sense of his own miserable worthlessness that was unbearable to try to withstand.
He hid it behind a few other books on the shelf and tried not to think about it anymore. He picked out Ginsberg’s Kaddish and tried to read it in bed, but his mind kept slipping to the car crash and he couldn’t concentrate. Instead he watched a few videos on the laptop to distract himself, then made himself go to sleep.
As he dozed off, he heard a light background chatter. He couldn’t make out all of the words, but it was mundane and subdued, like someone reading off a traffic report. At first he thought he’d left the radio on, but he hadn’t. He didn’t mind. In a way it was nice to have the gentle rhythms of the voice lulling him to sleep, his own personal white noise.