Lauren Bell: Only The Damned Knock!

‘We shouldn’t be doing this, you know.’

It was more of a statement than a question. Despite the calm and gentle breeze tugging at our clothes, I was secretly shitting myself. Erin and Gabe were in front holding hands as though they were one entity. They’re clearly not; they just like to think they’re something special.

Our way through the forest was a tedious affair, and several times already we have had to stop because Erin had a stone in her shoe, or she had a stitch, or her legs hurt and she needed to sit down and take a break. To be honest, I was getting pretty sick of Erin and her pathetic excuses.

‘Why can’t we just keep going?’ I said, watching Erin take her sweet time undoing one sailor blue boot.

‘Because Erin’s got a stone in her shoe. We can’t well leave her behind,’ said Gabe.

‘It’s a boot, not a shoe,’ she replied, glaring at me as though she wanted to kill me on the spot.

I wish we had left her behind. We would have been there by now. We’ve been roaming around in the woods for hours and I honestly don’t think we’ll see it.’

‘Hey guys,’ I said. ‘I think we should call it a day. I mean we’ve been walking for miles now and we haven’t come across it. Perhaps we took a wrong turn somewhere and we’ve been walking away from it. Let’s go another day. We’ll set out nice and early. We should be there by mid-afternoon.’

Erin and Gabe stopped; their hands still fused together. Something about their stance caused me to shiver inside. Neither one turned around.

‘I say we continue,’ Erin said, her voice low and stony like the gravel path we currently stood on. ‘We’ve walked this far, there’s no point in turning around and going back now.’

‘I understand that but –’

‘Good,’ Erin snapped. ‘Then we’ll continue.’

‘Gabe,’ I said, hoping that my appeal to him would not be in vain. ‘You understand where I’m coming from, right? I mean it could be another fifty miles in the distance.’

Once again, Erin was quick off the mark.

‘Don’t be an idiot, Tom. You know as well as I do that the door isn’t fifty miles away. Why on earth would we be walking if it was?’

Damn it, she did have a point but so did I.

‘Okay, okay, slight exaggeration. But we could be walking for another three or four hours.’

And then Gabe finally turned around, his eyes like two fine pinpricks in dough. He didn’t look too good.

‘Do you want to go home, Tom?’

I resented the way he asked it like I was some small annoying child just tagging along, intruding on their grand day out. Except it was my idea in the first place yet both seemed to have forgotten this. I puffed out my chest in a pathetic attempt at defiance.

‘I’m the only one being sensible around here. Erin keeps moaning about stones in her boots. Why anyone would wear six inch heels on an expedition is beyond me –’

‘That’s my sister you’re talking about.’

The silence unravelled between us like an invisible ribbon and I listened to the pounding of my heartbeat hammering away inside my ears. My head grew dizzy, my vision blurred and I honestly felt that in another minute or so, I would be lying prone on the gravel path. I had to pull myself together. I turned and meant to leave.

‘So that’s it then? You’re just going to give up like that?’

I turned back around and met Gabe’s olive green eyes. His face had hardened somewhat and now resembled a mask. Erin tugged at his arm with her free hand; they were still very much connected; the sight of it repulsed me.

‘Let him go, Gabe. He’s only slowing us down.’

I laughed at that which surprised us all.

‘I’m no coward. I’ll come with you. Hell, it was my idea to begin with, in case you’ve forgotten.’

A ripple seemed to pass between the two siblings, their expressions eerily similar – stony-eyed and scowling. I felt the onset of a panic attack blossoming beneath my feigned bravado, threatening to expose me as the nervous wimp I was. But no, I had to see this through, right to the very end. I kept my eyes fixed on the darkening distance and pushed past them, colliding with Erin’s shoulder who glowered under her pale frost-like eyelashes. I didn’t look back as I spoke.

‘If it makes you feel better, I’ll even knock.’

*

It couldn’t be happening. Not again. It had happened every night this week. I woke, drenched with sweat; my pillow and duvet clinging to me like a second skin. Slowly I peeled them off, watching with disgust as they flopped back on to the bed in a damp tangle. My pulse beat furiously in my temples, ears, fingers; my whole body reduced to one quivering mess.

The dream followed the same pattern: I was alone in the woods, although alone wasn’t the right word; rather I had the sense of someone or something watching me amongst the curtain of shadows. Before me stood The Door – a solid onyx barricade said to be forged by forbidden magic, a door which had never ever been opened regardless of the thousands who had tried and failed before me. Great warriors had tried executing their brute force against the solid defence but it hadn’t budged. Others had set it alight but the flames died as soon as they touched it. The Door had been kicked, shot at, stabbed innumerable times; nothing though had succeeded in opening it.

‘Black magic,’ people said. ‘It’s the work of the devil himself. It’s probably a good thing it doesn’t open. Who knows what evil lurks behind?’

I shuddered at the memory and looked at my bedside clock. 3:03 am. Still far too early to get up and make a cup of strong black coffee. I considered lying back down again but my back was still damp and I disliked the idea of sleeping in my own sweat.

Instead I got up, fished inside my jeans pocket and pulled out my phone. Two text messages. One from Gabe. The other from Erin. The one from Gabe read Shit Tom, it happened again! This time it felt REAL.

Staring at the bold block capitals, I knew there was some truth in Gabe’s words and recalled my own dream: the wind, knife sharp slicing my skin, whip-like wounds blooming on my cheeks and forearms, tree branches like hangman nooses and the gravel path resembling some centenarian’s teeth, snapping away at my progress. It felt like some fairy-tale gone horribly wrong. My perception of the forest warped, the trees, in some instances almost horizontal like leaf-tipped fences. My whole grip on reality prized away by invisible fingers.

The Door was something else. It stood, nearly ten feet tall, a rich and glossy onyx barrier made from an ancient wood which reflected the slashes of light raining through the forest canopy; the light hitting it in what could only be best described as knife points.

I stood before the great structure, a pint-sized man and whistled lightly. Of course, what people didn’t know only excited their curiosity further. Without thinking, I reached out, my freckles pure tangerine beneath the splash of sunlight and paused before the perfect circular door knocker. An iridescent gleam shone back – reds and yellows, purples and greens painting colour onto my vision, reminding me of a flirty oil spill.

I had been here before countless times, hovering on the boundary. Do I knock? Don’t I? Would anyone answer? My thoughts formed a dream cyclone and before I knew what I was doing, I gripped the knocker and felt a surge of searing heat tearing its way up and along my forearm, spreading quickly throughout the rest of my body.

And then I violently woke up.

I still haven’t replied to Gabe’s message, the phone screen now dark from inactivity. Punching the buttons on my keypad, I opened up Erin’s message –

It’s a real door, Tom. I know where it is.

I read her words several times over, drinking them in so that I could feel them coursing through my veins. Such certainty. Such defiance. A flash of envy stabbed me in the chest.

She might know where it is but I know what to do.

*

And so we had ended up here; the clearing in the forest opening out before us like an all-embracing hug. Gabe and Erin ran toward it, their hands clasped, their steps in unison.

But I stayed back, watching as they threw themselves into the shadowy twilight which had rapidly descended on us. I didn’t feel right, hadn’t felt right all day. Now I felt fifty times worse, if that was possible. The dull ache in my chest which accompanied my passage through the forest was now a red hot spear of pain slicing me from the inside out. I clenched my hands, grit my teeth and nearly doubled over. I hadn’t told either of them about my latest dream involving the searing heat which had entered my body, but since then something had changed within, something strange and unpredictable which threatened to unleash itself at any given moment.

‘What are you moping about for?’ Erin called from the clearing. ‘Are you too chicken to come any further?’

Her words were tiny pinpricks on my skin, minute needles piercing my flesh and driving the shame home. Beneath my skin, something else, something otherworldly was at play. The fine downy hairs on the back of my neck and those covering my forearms prickled as though excited by static.

‘Say something, Dumbo!’ Erin again.

With every step I took, the unusual sensation manifested itself. My hearing became more acute, sensitive to the quiet rustles around me; my eyesight pin-sharp, noticing the subtle shifts in hue – the trees appeared more vivid, the forest floor brighter, almost gleaming with colour. Iridescence everywhere.

I exhaled deeply. This was it, the start of future things. Erin punched me on the arm and not in a playful way.

‘What was all that back there?’ Her eyes possessed a malicious glint, her mouth turned up in an ugly sneer. How could Gabe stand her? I was certain that if it wasn’t for their unfortunate blood ties, Gabe would steer well clear of this hateful cow.

‘I was thinking, that’s all.’

‘Thinking?’ she scoffed. ‘About what? How chicken shit scared you are?’ She turned to Gabe, and spoke about me as if I wasn’t there. ‘Is he always such a douche?’

Gabe coloured slightly at this. At least he had the decency to feel some discomfort at Erin’s brusqueness. He glanced sideways at me, his eyes pleading, Don’t hate me.

‘He’s not usually like this, are you Tom?’

Nice one, Gabe. Thanks for sticking up for me.

‘I don’t know what either of you are talking about,’ I said and blinked squarely, first at Gabe and then Erin. After a short while Gabe lowered his eyes but the ever-defiant Erin matched me.

‘What the fuck is your problem, Tom? Is it because I know where this door is and you don’t?’ I could hear the smirk behind her words and yet her face remained a nightmarish scowl. ‘Because if it is, you need to get the fuck over yourself. You always did think you were something special and infinitely more knowledgeable than the rest of us. But the truth is you don’t know jack.’

I merely blinked and kept what I hoped was my stony gaze fixed on her. I thought I saw something else mixed in with her defiance. Confusion? Uncertainty? Fear perhaps? I bloody well hoped so.

‘Can we get on with what we’re here for?’

I noted the feigned boredom in my voice and prayed they bought it. If they were to find out that my heart actually felt like a hummingbird’s wings beating furiously away inside my paper-thin chest, my whole world might just come tumbling down.

‘Fine by me,’ snapped Erin.

Gabe merely nodded and I noticed how he swallowed hard.

Definite fear.

I smiled and nodded to Erin.

‘Will you lead the way?’

The Door was even more formidable in real life than it was in my dreams – the entrance to a giant’s lair. I gave a small shudder which luckily, no-one else noticed. Writhing around inside me, the strange sensation continued, stretching its way through my gut, bowels, and down my legs, becoming me.

‘What are you waiting for?’ I called to Erin who stood less than two feet from The Door, her head tilted to one side. She snapped her head in my direction. Was this the same guy who only a few minutes ago was chicken shit scared? Impossible. She narrowed her eyes at me, her mouth turning into a thin razor-wire smile as though a knife had slashed itself across her face.

Such an ugly girl.

She grasped the knocker, the circle reflecting all the colours of the rainbow like a vibrant flare before dulling again.

‘What the hell just happened?’

Gabe’s eyes were wide with wonder.

‘Do you feel any different?’ I asked, remembering the pain which had flooded my body in the dream and which continued to do so now.

Erin grinned. ‘Course. I feel wild!’

She brought the knocker down: one, two, three times; each knock like a metallic fist on my chest.

Erin took a couple of steps back and waited. Nothing. She frowned and cupped her hands around her mouth.

‘Hey, you in there. Just open this goddamn door right now!’

It was a command and an irate one at that, and irate commands were meant to be obeyed, except this one wasn’t.

Erin kicked the door hard with her six inch heel boots.

‘Piece of shit!’

The something inside me shifted, threatening to surface. It clawed away at my insides like a starving thing devoid of oxygen. I did everything in my power to contain it. Now wasn’t the time. It was too early, wasn’t it?

Erin continued to kick away before she began pummelling her fists on the splintered wood. Each blow caused me to gasp.

‘Hey Erin, I think you should stop that. Tom doesn’t look so good.’

But Erin was too engrossed in her test of strength to hear her brother’s words.

Suddenly I spoke. ‘The Door shows you what awaits you, what you deserve. Not what you want to see. All those warriors before succeeded in opening The Door.’

Erin scoffed.

‘The Door has never opened. I am going to be the first person to open it.’

I grinned. Gabe gasped and took a few steps back.

‘Erin! Erin, for fuck’s sake, stop what you’re doing and look at Tom.’

His language stopped Erin in her tracks. Gabe very rarely swore. I felt my smile stretching like treacle – a grin from ear to ear, the embodiment of evil. But Erin only saw a blank-eyed version of me, my expression vacant, my eyes looking through her. Erin glared at her brother.

‘What the hell are you talking about? Tom’s just being his normal self – a douche.’

Somewhere inside, the real me fought this “other” version which Gabe clearly saw. It leaked out of my pores, coating me all over as though I was a mould of myself. The siblings were clearly seeing two very different versions of me: the evil and menacing versus the plain and boring.

Gabe looked into the amber eyes of the demonised version of me and began to stutter.

‘L-l-look T-T-Tom. I-I mean you n-n-no harm.’

Shhhh. I brought a single finger to my lips and with my other hand, pointed to where Erin stood, still kicking and cursing.

The Door swung open.

The entrance was faintly lit with candlelight which persistently guttered, giving the wall a particularly eerie and transient effect. The “other” me left my body, surfing through the air, before coming back down behind The Door.

Erin scratched the back of her head and shot me a poisonous dagger look. ‘What the fuck are you doing behind there?’

The something that looked like me, but was in fact not me, leered at her.

‘I’m showing you what awaits you.’

And with that, the guy who was impersonating me sprang towards her, an obsidian nightmare made human, clawing at the evil one, wrapping its tendril-like limbs around the fallen, and dragging her down into the deepest darkest depths of despair.

black tree

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Photo by Aleksei Drakos.

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