Devlin’s Door – Chapter
A Longshoreman, Pat headed out to work early and Claudia slept well into late morning. This provided Lexie and Anne a wide berth in which to flit away to Nowhere Town undetected. Lexie lent Anne the better of her two bikes, and by nine a.m. they were dressed, fed and speeding down a deserted country road towards adventure. The cool morning wind whipped at Anne’s long hair, and she released her handlebars and sailed down a steep grade of the road, as if flying.
“It’s just up ahead,” Lexie promised, crossing in front of her cousin and hugging the emerald evergreens that lined the street. A dirt cutout appeared not fifty feet ahead, and Anne leaned her weight into the bike and bore right as Lexie did. This new road was dusty and full of ruts. Anne bounced to and fro as the bike seat hammered her nether regions. Up ahead, Lexie was seamlessly dodging all the road hazards like a dancer performing an intricate ballet.
The forest sprung up before them like a misplaced wonder. There, beyond all the brown and barren fields, was a wall of green. Anne was enchanted in an instant.
Lexie slowed her bike, and leapt off mid-pedal, before abandoning it in the brush. “Here, check it out,” she called to Anne, motioning towards a line of rocks just at the forest’s border. “It’s the ring.”
Anne dismounted her bike and wheeled it over. Stopping beside her cousin, she followed Lexie’s outstretched fingertip to a series of shiny, black boulders embedded in the ground. They formed a curved line extending in both directions that continued into the deep, green underbrush. “What is it?”
“I just said, dummy. It’s the ring.”
Anne traced the line of round little rocks with her eyes. “Umm, okay. What’s the ring?”
“Oh, my God, you’re such a townie,” Lexie scoffed. “It’s the ring that goes all the way around the town. It’s supposed to be magic, or sacred, or something like that.” She nudged one of the perfectly round rocks with the toe of her sneaker. “See for yourself. You can’t move those rocks for nothin’.”
Anne approached the ring, noting that not only was each of the rocks identical to its neighbor but that each was also touching the other, if only just. She bent down to inspect the stone that Lexie had nudged, keeping a wary distance. Deep, inky black, the stone was so glossy that it reflected Anne’s face back as clearly as a mirror. Lexie kicked at her heel. “Waddaya, afraid it’s gonna bite you?”
“No!” Shielding her slow-moving hand from Lexie’s eyes, Anne reached out and touched the stone. It was cool, almost icy. She traced her pointer finger along it until she ran into the adjoining boulder and then gave it her full grip. “It must be stuck,” she decided, bearing her weight against the rock. “Or maybe set in concrete?”
“Nope,” Lexie returned, head high. “It’s magic.” She lifted her bike gingerly over the rocks, climbed back on and lit off down the trail on the opposite side.
Groaning, Anne followed suit and called “Wait up!” as Lexie’s golden locks vanished into the brush. The forest path was smoother but narrow, with blankets of oversized clovers encroaching on either side. Anne marveled at the towering timber as she whizzed past it, trying to catch up.
A flash of blonde beaconed ahead as Lexie slowed her bike. “Hurry up! Everybody else is probably already there!”
Anne stood on her pedals and pumped them hard, huffing as she neared her cousin. “But…I thought…you said…this…was…it.”
Lexie skidded to a stop and gave Anne the full weight of her glare. “Does this look like a town to you?”
Coming to a standstill beside her cousin, Anne studied the mammoth cedar tree they’d stopped under, its trunk the breadth of a lighthouse. “Well, no. But you said—.”
“Oh, my God, you are so—. Just forget it. Let’s go.” Lexie was moving again, perhaps even faster than before.
Anne lost sight of her within seconds, but this time made no effort to keep up. Meandering along the trail, she breathed the forest in deep, keeping pace only with the dragonflies. The trip was dreamy, but brief. Just beyond the rise, behind which Lexie had vanished, the forest parted to reveal an overgrown clearing. There, a path of velvet-green grass lay before her like a runner. Anne’s mouth gaped as she traced it to twin rows of enormous, Victorian-styles houses lining either side. There were perhaps fifteen to twenty in total, all covered in climbing vines. Their paint was worn and shingles hung like decayed husks from their bodies. But they were grand. Anne could see them as they once were — in rich, glossy coats of every color in the rainbow. She could see their bright-white flower boxes, teeming with violets and pansies. She could see their wide, airy porches freshly adorned with intricate woodwork of the finest quality.
“Beautiful. Just beautiful,” she breathed.
“Hey, Sally-stares-a-lot, we’re over here!” Lexie was waving from near a narrow, tan three-story home, two houses in. She stood near four other kids about her age, two girls and two boys. Anne descended the nob and made her way towards them. “So, y’all, this is my cousin, Anne,” Lexie announced as Anne dropped her bike alongside the others’.
Anne kept her eyes low. “Hi,” she squeaked. A cascade of “Heys,” followed, though if they numbered four, she couldn’t be certain.
“So, Anne…Lexie says you’ve never been here before, huh?” A shaggy-haired boy of perhaps sixteen was watching her with bright blue eyes. His voice was two octaves deeper than that of any boy in her grade.
“Um, no.” Anne found herself studying the ground again. “Didn’t even know about it until yesterday.”
“It’s totally epic,” the second boy interjected. He was wearing a flannel wife-beater and little wisps of newly sprouted underarm hair framed the shirt like sideburns. “Totally haunted.” He snickered at himself and goosed the girl he stood beside, who leapt in alarm.
“So, what’s the deal anyway?” Anne asked. Her curiosity was overpowering. “Some kid I rode with on the train said a bunch of people disappeared here or something.”
Shaggy moved to the front of the crowd. “Yeah, they did. Back in the Twenties. Everybody in town…all gone at once.” He had kind eyes and Anne lingered on them until she felt a blush rising on her cheeks.
“So, um,” Anne’s head dipped again. “What happened to ‘em?”
“Malaria,” Shaggy rumbled. His eyes turned to stone, his face to ash.
“No, no!” Goosey-girl freed herself from Sideburns’ clutches and barged towards Anne. Her shorts were so short that the pocket linings hung below the denim. “It was the Rapture! My Aunt Debbie said they were all in some big weirdo cult, or something. Said they all got whisked away to Heaven.”
“Whatever, Brittany! You’re so stupid!” The final girl marched over, her flaming red hair trailing behind her like a superhero cape. “And you don’t know what you’re talking about either, Josh. They totally abandoned the town on account of it being all haunted, and shit.”
Dreamy-eyed Josh lost his cool drawl as he defended. “Oh yeah, Char? Then why’d they leave all their stuff?!”
“Duh, Josh!” Lexie railed, stepping up beside Char, “Haven’t you ever seen “Amityville” or “Poltergeist,” or anything scary? When people are freaked out, they just drop their shit and run!” Char gave Lexie an approving nod. Standing hands-on-hips beside one another, they resembled two-thirds of Charlie’s Angels.
Sideburns joined a half-circle the group had created, dropping his backpack in the middle of it. Gaping open, the sack revealed a six-pack of beer inside. “I say they just got drunk and had a killer goin’ away party,” he said, a smile lighting his face.
“Bodies, man. There weren’t any bodies.” Josh had reverted to his husky tone. He smiled when he caught Anne watching him as he brushed a lock of hair from his face.
Lexie bent over and pulled a beer from the pack. “I say whoever brings the beer gets to make the rules. Dane says they all went loco and offed each other. I’m cool with that.” The others laughed, and a couple even patted Dane on the back as they took beers for themselves. Meanwhile, Anne’s eyes climbed the grandiose house in front of which they stood, willing it to reveal its secrets. Their chatter died away as she fixed on its face and the ivy that climbed it like wrinkles.
“Anne, you want one?” Josh was nudging her, a Bud Light in each of his hands. She shook her head.
Lexie sniggered from Char’s elbow. “Course she doesn’t want one. Beer ain’t for babies.”
“I’m not a baby!”
Brittany joined the other girls, balled her fists and mimicked rubbing away tears with them. “Waaah! Not a baby, not a baby!” She sneered, revealing crooked teeth.
Anne took two stiff-legged steps towards Brittany and cast as confident a glare as she could muster. “I AM NOT A BABY.”
A pungent odor of over-applied body spray burned Anne’s nostrils just as Dane appeared at her side. “Okay, then. Prove it.” He held out the last of the beers, dangling it in front of her. “Crack one open like a big girl.”
Anne watched the silver can swinging before her like the blade of a pendulum and found she was speechless. She’d never drunk alcohol before, but she had seen it consumed by many. It always seemed to erase common sense and lead to trouble. Her grandmother called it stupid juice. “Err…umm…” she trailed.
“Told ya. Just a widdle bitty baby,” Lexie taunted in a childlike voice. She was now draped across Char’s shoulder and sipping on her can, making loud slurping noises. Anne’s eyes stung with the threat of tears.
“Quit raggin’ on her, guys,” Josh defended, sidestepping Dane, who was still wagging the beer in Anne’s face. “So what? So she doesn’t want a beer. That doesn’t make her a baby.”
Char broke from her pack, nearly sending leaning Lexie to the ground, and came at Anne like a freight train. Stepping between Anne and Josh, Char got so close that Anne could see a well-disguised pimple blooming on her upper lip. “Um, yeah, Josh. It kinda does,” Char growled, her eyes narrowing as she surveyed Anne from top to bottom. “She acts like a baby. And she sure as hell looks like a baby.”
“I’M NOT A BABY.”
“Okay then, big-town girl…prove it.” Char’s eyes burned, like her fire-kissed hair. “If you won’t drink, then go into one of the houses.”
Lexie moved up from the foreground and perched her head on Char’s shoulder. “Yeah, one of the real creepy ones!” she howled with brows tented.
Anne glanced from the beer can to the rows of houses, and back again. “Yeah, sure. I can do that. I’m not scared.”
Brittany joined Char and Lexie, and the three of them took off skipping down the main road, hooting and booing along the way. A short way down, they linked hands. A low fog rolled in and curled over their footsteps, creating an eerie image for Anne to follow. The boys loped along in kind, with Dane leaping every few strides as if a rattler had bitten him. “Ooooh, you pick the house, Char. You pick it. Gotta be the rankest one!” he called ahead.
About five houses from where they began, Char slowed and then stopped suddenly. Lexie and Brittany toppled into her like falling dominos, and Char glared at the girls before turning to survey the house. “Yessss,” she hissed. “This’ll do nicely.”
“Oh, snap!” Lexie exclaimed, maintaining a certain distance from the house. It was more run down than some of the others. The porch had all but separated from the foundation and some of the windows on the upper level bore rock-sized holes. The entire first floor was coated in a blanket of ivy so thick that Anne couldn’t even see the siding. Only the door remained untouched by vines, lending the whole group a clear view of the words “DOORWAY TO NOWHERE” spray-painted across it.
“So, Big-town, still fearless?” Char was closing in again. Anne could smell her spearmint gum. Lexie trailed close behind like a devoted dog, fixed on her master. Their combined stares burrowed through Anne, sniffing out her fear. She trembled and suppressed the urge to run.
“Oh, yeah. She’s scared.” Lexie was eyeing her cousin now, scrutinizing her stoic silence. “Told ya she was just a big baby.”
Anne, whose eyes had been fixed on the door since she’d first read its warning, said nothing and continued to stare ahead. Her legs rooted in the ground, she watched as the door seemed to move nearer and its words seemed to grow larger. As it did so, she imagined it began to swell and pulsate like a beating heart.
“C’mon!” Lexie stepped in behind her and gave a shove.
Anne stumbled and found herself a matter of inches from the porch’s bottom step by the time she’d regained her footing. She reached out and gripped the ivy-tangled handrail without realizing she’d done so. Her legs climbed the rotting steps without her permission. Her feet carried her right to the Doorway to Nowhere before she could stop them. Her ghostly, pale hand, somehow not her own, twisted the iron knob and pushed the door open wide.
“Holyyyy shit. She friggin’ did it!” Based upon his volume, Dane was still a good twenty feet back from the house, but his words stung in Anne’s ears as if he were screaming an inch from her face.
Char was less impressed. “Big deal. So she opened a door. Whoop-dee-doo!” Anne could hear Char approaching from the rear, the tap, tap, tap of her tennies on the stairs as she ascended them. When she spoke again, the heat from her breath tickled Anne’s left ear. “Okay, big girl, let’s see what you’ve got then. Get your ass inside.”
Anne stepped inside as if dangling on marionette strings. The floorboards creaked under her weight. A wide staircase with dingy ivory steps emerged from the darkness in front of her, but she veered right and into a parlor just inside the threshold. Just as Josh had foretold, the room was fully furnished and, aside from some vandals’ disarray and a thick coat of dust, just as if its owners had left for Sunday church. A floral couch with wooden legs sat at the center of the room with matching chairs positioned on each arm, the cushions missing from all of them. Indentations from the coffee table, which had once sat before them, remained in the floor but their owner lay in the hearth, only its singed claw feet remaining. A porcelain doll sat on the ground in front of the fireplace, as if an eternity of waiting had failed to warm her stony bones. Her glassy eyes stared up at the ceiling. Anne approached the toy, her hands trembling. A perfect X had been drawn over the doll’s mouth.
WHAM! A thud echoed from the hallway and brought the doll to life with its vibration. Her painted eyes darkened along with the room. Rushing towards the root of the noise, Anne quickly arrived at the front door and found it closed. Pulse racing, she twisted the knob but met resistance on the opposite side. “Oh, man, oh, man, oh, man!” she sputtered, digging her heels into the floorboards and pulling with her full weight. Anne strained endlessly but felt no give. Panic swelled in her gut. “HELP! HELP ME! THE DOOR’S JAMMED!”
Muffled yet unmistakable howls of laughter echoed from beyond the door. Anne raced back to the parlor room and approached its eastern-most window, which faced the street outside. There appeared five blurry figures, growing steadily smaller as they dashed into the distance. Squinting against the filthy windowpanes, Anne could distinguish the mound of bikes as they neared it and looked on in horror as six bikes rode out of town with just five riders. Lexie wobbled, laboring to steer her bike while towing the one Anne had ridden. Or perhaps it was merriment that had her off balance.
Anne returned to the front door, hot tears streaming down her cheeks as she yanked at the knob again and again. It wouldn’t give an inch. Her sobs came in spasms until she collapsed against the jam and slid into a defeated heap beneath it. The floorboards were dusty and Anne’s tears pooled upon them in muddy little puddles. She watched them swell to lakes until she was dry and then sucked in a deep breath and wiped her cheeks clean.
The staircase before her beckoned and Anne rose with a mind to seek out the shattered windows she’d noticed on the second floor, and along with them, an escape route. The stairs groaned beneath her weight and she slowed to a cautious pace. As she reached the landing, Anne came upon a catwalk that had been hidden in shadow from her vantage point on the first floor. It was lined with bookshelves on one side, and as she neared it, she was pleased to see a few volumes still scattered amongst the cobwebs. A rich, red book with gold embossing caught Anne’s eye and she plucked it from the stacks. “‘The Crimson Fairy Book’ by Andrew Lang,” she read aloud, passing over the raised lettering with delicate fingertips. A musty smell wafted up from its pages as Anne cracked the book open to an illustration of a lithe little fairy riding atop the back of a barn owl. Glancing back to the bookcase, she noticed a similar sprite on the cover of another of the novels, bearing the title “The Blue Fairy Book.” She gripped its spine, but as she moved to pull it from the shelf, the hollow space left behind revealed an enormous rodent who leapt directly towards her. Anne recoiled, falling backwards onto the railing behind her. Snaps of splintering wood resounded through the house as the rotted banister split and sent her plummeting towards the lower story. Time seemed to slow as she watched the dusty chandelier hanging from the ceiling sway when she impacted and broke through the floorboards below. In an instant, all went black.