PULP FICTION

"An Open Door" can be found in the short story collection BEAT to a PULP: Round Two. Look for more by Chris F. Holm in The Lizard's Ardent Uniform and other stories. Click the images for more details.

"… leave …"


When Simon heard the voice, his mouth went dry, his palms went slick with sweat, and his heart pounded like a drum line in his chest. It wasn't so much what the voice had said that spooked him, or the menace its throaty whisper conveyed. What spooked him was that it was so clear, it sounded as though it'd spoken directly into the digital recorder in his hand—and yet he hadn't heard the voice at all until he played it back. Add to that the fact there wasn't another living soul for miles around—the old Amalgamated Paper mill had been left to rot damn near seventy years ago, and Simon himself had been forced to scale one fence and shimmy through another to even get inside—and that voice seemed downright otherworldly.


The thought sent gooseflesh spreading down Simon's arms, and slapped a dopey smile upon his face. After all, that's why Simon was here.


His obsession had begun innocently enough: a day home sick from work, a ghost-hunting marathon on cable. Simon marveled at these regular dudes—no training, no bullshit claims of psychic powers—wandering through decrepit mansions and mental hospitals and communing with the dead. Sure, skeptics might scoff, but as far as Simon was concerned, the evidence they obtained was astonishing: strange mists and orbs on their night-vision cameras, spikes in the electromagnetic field surrounding them that caused their hairs to stand on end and signaled ghosts were near—and who could ignore the chilling electronic voice phenomena they recorded?


Those EVPs were what really blew his mind and stoked the fires of his imagination. The idea that spirits' whispers were just out of reach of human hearing, but that electronic equipment like the recorder in his hand was sensitive enough to pick them up—and that by alternately recording and playing back, one could literally converse with the other side? It beat the hell out of the fifty hours a week he spent entering data in a drab, gray cubicle on the fifteenth floor of a drab, gray building on a drab, gray Boston block—all so he could afford a bunch of useless crap that never seemed to bring him any joy.


So he poked around. Did his research. Bought himself a night-vision camcorder, an EMF detector, and a digital recorder. Put pins in maps, identified potential hot spots within a day's drive of his and Maggie's Brookline condo. Hot spots like the abandoned Amalgamated Paper mill in central Maine, where, in 1948, a young boy named Timothy Driscoll was murdered, stuffed into a steel drum, and dropped into the river by four boys he'd thought had been his friends. Driscoll sat undiscovered for the better part of sixty years, during which time all four friends met unseemly ends. If it hadn't been for a freak flood a couple of years back, his body never would've been discovered. It seemed to Simon all that violence, betrayal, and unfinished business had to leave some kind of imprint. That old mill was his best bet to capture evidence of a world beyond his own.


Maggie, of course, thought he was nuts. No matter how many episodes he made her sit through—no matter how much evidence of the supernatural he dug up online—she just shrugged it off, like the good Catholic that she was. "Nothing but fakes and charlatans," she once told him. "Not a bit of truth to any of it."


"How can you say that? The voices they've recorded have to come from somewhere."


"Oh, for God's sake, Si—it's a TV show, not a research expedition. If they're talking to anyone at all, chances are it's their producer playing Casper so they'll look good for the cameras."


"But what if you're wrong? What if they truly are com-muning with the other side? I mean, they bring regular folks in all the time. Folks with connections to the places they're investigating. Folks who often don't even believe in ghosts until they experience them firsthand. If they were faking, don't you think somebody would've outed them by now?"


"Communing with the other side?" she'd scoffed. "Do you even hear yourself right now?" But when she saw the hurt on Simon's face, she'd changed her tack, replacing sarcasm with a sort of gentle condescension. If his credulity with regard to this ridiculous obsession could not be shaken, she'd have to discourage him from pursuing it on its own merits. "Okay," she said. "Let's say they are communing with the other side. Who's to say that's a good thing? An open door's an invitation, as my Gran always used to say—and it seems to me some doors should remain unopened. God only knows who—or what—they might really be making contact with."


"They're just ghosts," Simon replied. "All they want is to be put to rest."


That's Si, she thought. Trusting to a fault. Only he could have faith in the decency of cable TV hucksters and imaginary bogeymen. "How can you know that from a shadow or a couple whispered words?" she asked.


Simon, of course, was not an idiot; he knew what she was doing. Humoring him just enough to steer his interests elsewhere. Thing was, he was pretty sure beneath her smug superiority and half-assed indulgence of his interest lay deep-seated fear and superstition—but on the rare occasion he tried to press the issue, Maggie bristled, so he thought it best to leave it be. Just as she thought it best to leave his newfound hobby be, figuring if she couldn't dissuade him from it, a couple nights spent wandering around old buildings and recording fat lots of nothing surely would.


But as he stood in the old mill, that ghostly syllable echoing in his mind, Simon thought, If I can just make contact—have an actual conversation with someone long-dead—I can prove to Maggie once and for all that ghosts walk among us, and that they're to be helped, not feared.


"Timothy?" Simon called, his digital recorder running in his hand. "Timothy Driscoll? Don't be afraid—I'm here to help. I invite you to come forth and speak to me!" His voice echoed through the dark expanse of the time-ravaged mill. He'd brought a flashlight to navigate by, but once he'd positioned himself roughly where he figured the boy'd bought it, he'd turned it off, leaving the greenish glow of the viewfinder on his night-vision camcorder the only illumination in the room. Ghosts, he figured, preferred the pressing, choking dark.


As the echoes died down to nothing, Simon strained to hear any sign of a reply. On TV, sometimes the guys would capture footsteps, or rhythmic banging. But there was nothing, only the sound of his own labored breathing.


After a few moments spent standing in the dark, he clicked off his recorder and rewound. "Timothy?" he heard himself say, tinny and static-filled as the tiny speaker in the recording device strained to replay at maximum volume. "Timothy Driscoll?"


After the echoes of his words died down, there was a good ten seconds of silence. He was about to kill the playback when he heard it—faint, but unmistakable.


"… you … shouldn't … be … here …"


A chill passed over him—through him, perhaps—and a cold sweat sprung up on his face and neck. He aimed his camera at the EMF detector clipped to his belt, and tasted the bitter tang of adrenaline as he realized the needle, which had sat at zero all evening, was now pinned as high as it would go.


Something was with him in the darkness.


His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed hard, trying to muster the spit for a response. He was shaking with fear and excitement. But he forced himself to hold his ground. Once more, he hit record.


"Why, Timothy? Why shouldn't I be here?"


Rewind. Playback. His own voice, a crackly artificial shout. And afterward, the distorted whisper of a disembodied reply.


"… danger …"


The word chilled him. Somewhere in the distance, a chain rattled—like, Simon thought, the chain Timothy and his friends had played on, swinging from it, on the day he met his awful fate. He felt animal panic rise inside him, and he swung the camera around, peering at his viewfinder to find the source of the rattling. But he saw nothing.


Click. Record. "Danger? Danger of what?"


He paused a while, then rewound and played back. His own voice sounded shrill, afraid. The voice that replied seemed all the stronger by comparison.


"… pain … suffering … DEATH."


The last syllable was a ghostly shout, straining the speaker till it crackled as Simon's own voice had done. How he'd failed to hear it with his own ears was beyond him. And there was something else as well, just behind those ghostly words: a keening, high-pitched scream. Like a child's, he thought. Like Timothy's.


Had he just heard the anguished cry of Timothy as he died?


The thought—and the violence implied in the specter's words—shook Simon to his core. His knees felt like jelly; his stomach seemed full of angry, crawling things. It was everything he could do to hold his ground. But he told himself the spirit he was communing with was that of a child—one that, in its own frightened and confused way, might be asking for his help. What he was hearing was an echo—the ghost-child relating its emotions in some sort of post-mortem attempt at closure.


"Are you telling me that's what you felt here? Does talking about it help to bring you peace?"


"… no …"


"What, then? Are you threatening me? Do you want to harm me in some way?" Whatever he was talking to, it couldn't, he told himself. It had no form, no strength—no dominion in the world of the living. All it could do was talk.


"… leave … now … Simon …" crackled the recorder.


At the sound of his own name, something broke inside him. Now he held his ground not out of bravery, but out of fear. He simply couldn't seem to get his legs to move.


"Or what?" Simon shouted—his voice breaking, tinged with hysteria.


But this time, the playback was garbled by a burst of static. All Simon caught was something "needs."


He repeated his question. Again, the same response.


"I don't understand!" he called. "Needs what? What needs?"


But when he played the recording back, there was nothing. Five minutes of nothing. Somehow, playing back that much silence seemed to amplify it until standing there in that dank, still place that smelled of rust and rot and stagnant water was almost too much to bear.


No. Not still. Not quite, at least.


At first, the movement was scarcely more than a shifting in the darkness along the far wall. But as Simon aimed his camera at it, trying to decide if his mind was playing tricks on him, it coalesced into a sketchily defined figure—like some kind of living shadow. Simon couldn't tell if it was tall or short, male or female, heavyset or thin—it simply was.


He looked up from his viewfinder, but without night vision, the figure was impossible to make out. He glanced back down, and there it was.


For a moment, it seemed to stand there, though stand may be too strong a word for something with no discernable legs.


And then, without its outline suggesting even a hint of human movement, it advanced toward him—covering fifty yards of junk-strewn, half-collapsed floor in no time flat.


Simon couldn't move. Couldn't speak. He clenched shut his eyes and threw his arms up to protect himself. His recorder and his camera clattered useless to the ground.


Cold breath kissed his forearms, the apples of his cheeks. Warmth spread down his right leg as Simon pissed himself. And in a rasping voice as audible as any living one, and as black as darkest night, the thing before him whispered "Maggie."


That one word was like a starting pistol. It broke Simon's paralysis, and set him hurtling through the darkness. Twice he tripped and was sent sprawling, but he just as quickly found his feet. To rust and mildew was added the fresh copper scent of blood, the result of a nail that pierced his side when he went down. But the patter of blood dripping freely from the wound was drowned out by his gunshot footfalls and his hoarse, wheezing, panicked breaths.


Simon had no patience to retrace his steps and instead leapt out an empty window frame, spilling out of the ink-black mill and into the relative comfort of the watery moonlight, cold and faint as it filtered through the canopy of trees. Inasmuch as he thought anything at all, he was dully grateful the panes of glass were decades gone—for he would have likely leapt through the window either way. Lungs on the verge of bursting, Simon ran for the car, scaling the first fence in seconds, and tearing fabric and skin both as he dove through the makeshift aperture in the other.


He'd thumbed the ignition of his Accord before he'd even shut the door, and sprayed gravel as he fishtailed and lurched away. Though he'd lost signal somewhere around Augusta, Simon tried to dial home anyway—but predictably, no luck. And when, an hour later, he finally did get a signal, his worry only deepened, because there was no answer—the phone just rang and rang.


Why wasn't the machine picking up? And where the hell was Maggie?


Next he tried her cell. Straight to voicemail. Again—the same result. Finally, he threw his cell phone into the back seat in disgust and drove, white-knuckled, the three hours home.


Though he kept the needle at eighty the whole way, and worried for Maggie still, the drive calmed Simon some. He told himself these sorts of encounters weren't abnormal—that spirits were known to taunt, to frighten, to antagonize. He told himself there was no reason to believe anything at all was wrong. Maybe Maggie was on the phone with her mother when he called—she never answers call-waiting when she's talking to her mom. Or perhaps the answering machine was on the fritz.


Problem was, he didn't quite believe it.


Low-slung clouds blanketed the city by the time Simon reached Brookline, reflecting back the amber streetlights. And, as he approached home, they reflected flashing blue as well.


When he turned onto his street, he saw them: four police cruisers, at odd angles in the street, effectively closing it to traffic. A boxy fire and rescue vehicle idled half on and off the curb, lights off. Folks in everything from bathrobes to business suits jostled for a look behind yellow tape that fluttered in the chill night breeze. A uniformed policeman held a hand palm-up to stop him, and Simon automatically complied, throwing the car into park and climbing out, the driver's-side door left open behind him. The cop stepped in front of him, said something Simon didn't process about staying clear of the scene, but Simon just shrugged him off. He staggered like a zombie through the crowd, breaking the police tape as he approached his open condo door.


Simon and Maggie's unit was the first floor of a modest Victorian home with a large bay window and a small patch of grass out front. The grass, Simon noted, had been trampled, and every light in the place looked to be on. Through the bay window, he saw uniformed policemen and the oddly out-of-scale hulk of fully decked-out firemen milling about his living room—or what was left of it. Every bit of furniture in the place looked to be upturned, every breakable broken. The flat-screen had been yanked from the wall, leaving nothing but frayed wires. And on every surface, from the gauzy off-white curtains to the eggshell wainscot to the period wallpaper, blood. Not great gouts of it, mind, but tiny spatters. Enough tiny spatters to fill a person? Simon wondered. But then he reached the front door, and saw the great lake of crimson on the floor—his Maggie lying in the middle—and he didn't wonder any more.


Simon doubled over, vomiting. Rough hands dragged him back outside. The vague impressions of a coarse blanket draped around his shoulders, of time passing, of a cup of coffee held untouched in both his hands. And questions. So many questions.


Like where he'd been. What he'd been doing. Like did anybody have a grudge against him or Maggie. Like did he know why the door had been unlocked.


"Wait—what?"


"The door," said the detective, a gruff, tired-looking man, his face nearly as gray and lifeless as his trench coat, "it was unlocked."


"Maggie never left the door unlocked—not since that string of home invasions over on Boylston a few months back. She always at least set the chain," Simon said, almost to himself. Unbidden, the sound of chain links rattling in the darkness of the mill seemed to echo in his mind. Chain links, and a horrid high-pitched scream. Like a child's. Or like a woman's. "An unlocked door's an invitation."


"Yeah, but an invitation to what?" replied the cop. "Wasn't nothing stolen."


That was the question, Simon thought. The one he'd never be able to let go. Because much as he thought about that night in the years that followed, there was one thing he could never square. One question with two possible answers, both horrible. But one offered him a certain hollow absolution, and the other nothing but blame.


Had that voice in the darkness been a warning—or a threat?



Copyright © 2012 Chris F. Holm.

Chris F. Holm was born in Syracuse, New York, the grandson of a cop who passed along his passion for crime fiction. His work has appeared in such publications as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2011. He's been an Anthony Award nominee, a Derringer Award finalist, and a Spinetingler Award winner. His "Collector" novels, published by Angry Robot books, recast the battle between heaven and hell as Golden Era crime pulp.

Chris F. Holm

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An open Door