Our house is old. It’s the sort of house that doesn’t get built anymore, where generations of the same family are born, live, and die within its walls. A house built of age, and weight, and ghosts.
There’s a door on the third floor we are forbidden to open. It’s not a large door, more the size you’d expect to see on a child’s playhouse, tucked into a nook that looks like an accident of architecture. It’s secured by a single battered, rusty lock, the key to which lives on a chain around Nan’s neck.
When I was eight, I convinced my cousin to open the door with me. We waited until Nan had retired for her afternoon nap. Nan snores in her sleep. She didn’t so much as stir as I lifted flicked open the clasp and let the chain run silkily into my hand around the weight of our prize, polished smooth from decades worn against skin.
Cody insisted on being the one to open the door. We argued, but Cody’s older. She won.
They key turned smoothly in the lock. We eased the door open, conscious of squeaky hinges–and found ourselves staring at an empty, dusty room like a broom cupboard, with not even a bare bulb dangling from a chain to act as a point of focus. We were staring at nothing. Disappointed, I started to shut the door.
“Did you hear that?” Cory said.
“That. There it is again.” Her head swung towards the empty space. “Someone’s speaking. They’re whispering…” Her voice took on a dreamy quality that traced a cold line down my spine. “They know who I am. And they’re lonely.”
I strained to hear. There was the muted chatter of the adults downstairs, taking their time over coffee. There was the habitual groans of an old house settling down on old foundations. There was a soft sigh, as of wind, so quiet I thought I was imagining it. “I don’t hear anything.”
Cory took a step forward, then another. Her eyes never left the room. One hand lifted towards the empty space.
A sense of dread filled me. Abruptly, I knew that I couldn’t let her enter the room. Cory was two steps from crossing the threshold when I slammed the door shut and wrenched the key out.
Adult voices called from downstairs. The noise hadn’t gone unnoticed. I shoved the key at Cory. “Put it back with Nan. I’ll distract them.” Cory didn’t move. She’d frozen when I slammed the door, transfixed. I shoved her. “Go!”
That did the trick. She turned and headed for Nan’s room, while I raced downstairs to head off the inevitable inquiry.
After that, Cory changed. She withdrew; she grew quiet. At night I would wake up to find her standing in a corner, facing the wall, whispering to herself. She always stopped when I called her name, crawled back into bed like she wasn’t even awake. During the day she never spoke unless prodded. She ate almost nothing. After meals I’d hear her in the bathroom, retching hard enough to leave blood spattered on the white porcelain.
I only tried to talk to her about the room once. At the mention of the room, her face went blank. It looked like the face of someone long dead. The fleeting, vivid impression flashed through me that Cory had gone away, and whatever remained in front of me had been hollowed out, her insides scooped away clean as a watermelon rind, and I had to leave the room or scream.
I never brought up the room again.
One day, Cory was gone. Boarding school, her parents said over breakfast. It was a lie; they knew what Cory had done. I read it in their white-knuckled grips on their spoons and the strained flesh around their eyes. The blank, frozen expressions so like their daughter’s when I’d slammed the door to the empty room shut.
And I was glad Cory had insisted on being the one who opened the door, not me.
Decades later, the door is there, still. Locked. The key hangs around Nan’s neck, still. Untouched.