The Monster in the Door

The Monster in the Door

by

Phillip McCollum

Mom’s dark curly hair came first, then her round, large-frame eyeglasses, followed by the rest of her plump face. As she peeked through the doorway adjacent to my bed, I got a whiff of the perm she had gotten earlier that day.

“Is everything alright?”

She sounded slightly concerned.

I hesitated for a moment, but said, “Yeah.”

“I thought you called.” Her tone changed, and she stepped further into my bedroom, hands on her hips. “Are you playing your little football game? You need to go to bed. You have school tomorrow.”

“No!” I shouted. She was always accusing me of playing the football game. I pointed towards the closet. “It’s not even near me. It’s all the way over there.”

“Okay,” she said without looking. “Well, go to sleep.”

She reached in for the doorknob.

“Mom, wait!”

“What?” she snapped.

“Can you leave it open?”

Slowly, she pulled her hand back.

“You have a nightlight.I don’t want the hall lights keeping you up.”

“They won’t. Please?”

“Yes, fine.”

She stepped out into the hallway, and her slippers shuffled against the carpet until the sound faded away.

#

I really wanted the door closed, but I knew that if I shut my eyes and opened them, even for half of a second, it wouldn’t have mattered.

The door would be open again.

The monster would be peering back at me once more.

I heard the television much more clearly now. An hour ago, I was laying across the living room floor, arms propped on a couch pillow while I watched my two favorite TV shows: ALF followed by The Hogan Family. Then nine o’clock came around, and once the opening sequence to DC Follies started playing, that meant it was time for bed. I was okay with that. For a show with funny looking puppets, it bored me to death.

I had brushed my teeth and put on my pajamas, and now as I lie in bed with the comforter pulled up to my chin, the TV’s exaggerated voices and canned laugh track made my bedroom walls vibrate.

I stared at the open door and it stared back. The monster was imprinted onto the wood. Its eyes were dark and hollow. Light, wispy fur covered its face. What looked to be its hands were at its ears, maybe helping it listen to everything around.

For as long as I could remember, the monster had always been there, but it had never talked to me before.

“What do you want?” I whispered.

Even though I could barely hear myself, it seemed to understand me loud and clear.

“I told you, kid, you don’t need to be afraid. Believe me, if I had a choice, I would have picked something else. A teddy bear. One of those robot toys you have that turns into a car. But I think I’m stuck with this thing.”

His voice sounded scratchy.

“Hell, it doesn’t matter. You’d probably crap your little underoos either way.”

He laughed, sounding like my dad’s cigarette smoke if it could laugh.

My fingers squeezed the bedding into my palms. The pattern of black-and-white kittens playing with red balls of yarn did nothing to comfort me. They felt as useful as a knight’s shield made out of construction paper.

“I don’t wear underoos! And I’m going to tell Mom and Dad about you,” I said.

“Paul, go to bed!” came a shout from down the hall.

“Go ahead, Paul” the door replied, “if you like being grounded so much. Your folks can’t see or hear me. I’m just a pattern to them. A funny looking grain in the wood.” The monster sighed. “Christ almighty, I sure hope I made the right choice. I had to choose quick. For some reason, you came to mind.”

I had no clue what he meant.

“I don’t think I have a lot of time,” he continued, “so I’m going to ask you some questions and I’ll need you to answer me straight.”

I didn’t say anything. I don’t think he expected me to.

“You know the house on the hill?”

Honestly, I thought it was a dumb first question. Everybody knew the ‘house on the hill,’ though our town of 25,000 had several hills covered in several houses. I didn’t even need to think about it as the image popped clearly into my mind. It wasn’t a huge place, like a mansion or anything, but it was bigger than my house and looked way cooler. At least from the outside. I’d never been inside, but nearly every weekend, I rode my bike on the dirt trails that wrapped around the boulder-covered knoll on which it sat.

“Batman’s house?” I asked.

That’s what everyone I knew called it. Whether it was the real Batman or just the chubby guy that played Batman, no one seemed to clarify.

“Jesus H. Christ, for the life of me, I don’t know where you kid’s come up with this BS. But, yeah, sure, Batman’s house.”

The door was silent for an uncomfortable amount of time. I could hear the television again. It sounded like a boring doctor show.

“Hello?” I whispered.

“Sorry, I get pulled away sometimes. Where were we?”

“Batman’s house.”

“Yeah, right. Anyway, you’re the kid that’s always riding his bike around the place, right?”

I was one of the kids that rode around there. I’d seen others as well.

But I nodded and was about to say ‘yes’ before the monster continued.

“Good, good. That’s a relief. It’s hard to see clearly like this. Everything’s thick and run together like mud.” He paused. I thought I heard him take a deep breath. “Before we go any further, what does your old man do?”

I didn’t take any time to ponder why the monster was asking me such weird questions. Adults, and the monster sounded like an adult monster, were always asking weird questions.

“He’s a mechanic. He works on trucks at the mine out in Laverne Valley.”

“Good. Very good. A man who works with his hands is probably someone with zero political agenda.”

Politics? Part of me wanted to ask him why a monster was concerned about politics, but honestly, I didn’t think I cared no matter what the answer would be.

“Not that it matters,” he said. “You’re not going to say anything about anything, right?”

I didn’t respond quickly enough.

“Right?” He entered into a coughing fit from that final word’s harshness.

“What if I do?”

“You don’t want to mess with monsters, Paul.”

The reply came without hesitation and made me believe that he was probably correct.

“I won’t say anything,” I said, though inside, I thought maybe I had just lied.

The monster was silent for what seemed like a long time, and I think I fell asleep to the sounds of my parent’s TV show before he spoke again.

“Okay, then. I need you to do me a favor.”

#

I never found out what the favor was, or if I did, I didn’t remember.

The next morning, I ran out of my room as quickly as I could, my eyes avoiding what I wanted to believe was merely a product of my imagination–a mere nightmare. I made it to the bus stop just as I heard the pneumatic hiss of the bus’s opening doors.

I tried to distract myself with tetherball during first recess, but I lost three rounds before the bell rang and we all had to line up for class.

Mrs. Kirk quizzed us on summing coins and then read aloud a chapter of Bridge to Terabithia. Before lunch, she finished the first half of a lesson on the Civil Rights movement and talked about how the government was mostly good, but had made some ‘mistakes’ in the past.

Sitting in the cafeteria, my ears were filled with the echoes of noisy kids and plastic trays clacking against long, polished tables. I smelled nothing but soggy green beans and peanut butter sandwiches. I thought of telling one of my classmates about the monster in the door, but I decided not to say anything, thinking it may have just been a dream after all. I wasn’t really close with any of the kids anyway. They would probably call me stupid and tease me about it the rest of the school year. So, instead, I sat and poked at my rectangular slice of cheese pizza, listening to the two boys next to me argue over which was the better Garbage Pail Kid: Adam Bomb or Up Chuck.

By the time the bus dropped me off, I felt unexplainably exhausted. I stayed far from my bedroom as long I could until I fell asleep in the middle of Airwolf and Dad woke me up to brush my teeth.

Mom had closed the door, but now I was wide awake, waiting. I gathered enough courage to look up toward the door, even shut my eyes several times to see if it would open, but it remained.

#

It was Saturday, late morning. I had last seen Dad sunken into his living room chair, watching Dr. Who, one hand in a plastic bag of Taco-flavored Doritos. Mom was getting her hair done at Mr. Orlando’s beauty shop.

After I had eaten breakfast and watched my third episode of Scooby Doo, I now stood with a pile of paper towels and a bottle of 409 at my side. I held my breath and scrubbed at the pee-stained rim of the toilet. This was ‘my’ bathroom, so I knew the grossness was because I was always in a hurry, but that didn’t make it any better. My only consolation was that this was my only chore of the day.

I thought I heard Dad calling me, so I stepped outside.

Ex-ster-mi-nate! Ex-ster-mi-nate!

Just a Dr. Who dalek.

I turned back to the bathroom and grabbed the 409 to apply a couple more squirts. Again, I swore I heard someone saying my name, but I couldn’t dismiss it as coming from the television.

I approached the bathroom doorway and listened intently.

“Hey, Paul.”

A cold chill ran through my body and my stomach dropped. The plastic bottle fell from my hand, thunking heavily on the linoleum. I looked to my left and saw my bedroom door. It was closed, but that meant the monster was now facing me on the outside.

My next thought was to run and tell Dad, but I could only stand frozen with fear. If I had drunk more water that morning, I’m pretty sure I would have peed my pants.

“Stop being such a baby. I know this isn’t the best look for me, but like I said last time, beggars can’t be choosers.”

The monster in the door was speaking again. And as much as I had hoped I was having a dream, I pretty much knew that this was really happening.

“We have some unfinished business, you and I, and it’s gotten more urgent. I wanted to talk to you last night, but I got some things going on over which I have no control.”

If a door could shiver, this door shivered.

“I need you to go to the house–Batman’s house–and get something. Can you do that?”

“I gotta finish cleaning the bathroom.” As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt ridiculous. What did a monster care about that? And was I actually agreeing to his request?

“Fine.” He sounded firm but calm. “But after that, I need you to ride over there.”

“Why do you want me to go to the house?”

“There’s a key inside. Behind the television opposite the master bed. I need you to get that key.”

“What for?”

“We’ll talk about that later. Right now, I just need you to get it.”

I hesitated.

“What if Batman’s there?”

The monster sighed.

“Look, I hate to disappoint you kid, but Batman’s not there. He doesn’t live there. Never has. Never will. No one’s home. Trust me.”

Sure, trust a monster in my door, I thought. And for some odd reason, a part of me did. Though he looked like a monster, a part of him didn’t seem like one. More like my grumpy Uncle Louis.

“Is the door unlocked?”

“No, but there’s a fake rock by the row of yucca trees lining the driveway. It’s orange, slightly faded, but the roundest rock of the bunch. Pick it up and you’ll find a little compartment holding the house key.”

I had so many questions.

“How do you know all this? Do you live in a door there too? And what are you going to do with the key behind the TV?” I didn’t see how he could use it.

My bedroom door shook a little and I stepped back. “Tarnation kid, you’re wasting time in which I’m short supply. This is why I don’t have any little brats. Now go clean up your piss and Get. The. Key.”

It sounded like the monster ended the sentence with a couple of coughs.

“And what if I don’t?” I hated being ordered to do things.

I stared at his unmoving face for several long seconds. Beeps and bloops from Dr. Who resonated in the background. The monster seemed to have gone away again.

Every question in my mind seemed to lead to more questions. I began to suspect that this monster wasn’t lying. He really wasn’t in my door and that was just the form he took.

But in that case, who was he? Why did he need a key?

I snapped out of my reverie, realizing that I was going to do what he asked, if only to sate my curiosity and solve a mystery like Scooby and the gang.

#

According to my plastic wristwatch, it took me all of seven minutes and sixteen seconds to traverse the two or so miles from my house to the foot of the hill. I had pedaled my Mongoose with every ounce of available energy until my body was drenched from exertion under the August sun.

I viewed the steep pavement which ran along the hill’s side and led up to Batman’s house. A sudden panic swept over me.

What if someone really was there and I got in trouble for trying to get inside? I could picture it already. The cops finding my body behind one of the big boulders on the hill. Or I’d wind up in juvie for breaking and entering.

My parents would be pissed.

I shook my head and leaned forward on my bike, pushing hard on the pedals as I slowly climbed the hill. I’d come this far. If I could talk to a monster in my door, I could do this.

#

Winding blacktop gave way to a cement driveway lined with yucca trees that I had never paid much attention to. I was half searching for the round, orange rock and half keeping an eye on the windows of Batman’s house. Reflecting sunlight made everything glare so that I couldn’t look very long.

I walked my bike up the driveway and into the garage beneath the main level. There were a couple of cars parked inside. On first glance, I almost hopped back on and took off down the hill, but noticed both vehicles were covered in a light coat of dust. One was a red, almost orange, Porsche. It didn’t look like one of the newer ones. The other was a silver Lincoln Towncar. I didn’t think either had been moved in a long time, though when you live in the desert, the dirt doesn’t take long to stick to things.

I calmed myself and turned my bike around, leaning it against a pillar so I could make a fast getaway.

The false rock was ridiculously easy to spot among the other gray and brown stones. Sure enough, there was a tiny compartment inside which held a key. I took a deep breath and walked up the broad, curved staircase to the top floor.

I saw why Batman would want to live here. The tall, distant mountains that walled our town like sentries were visible all around me. Below them, sporadic houses held tight to the desert floor, connected by miles of both dirt and asphalt streets. And with such an unobstructed view of the sky, spotting the bat signal at night would be no problem.

I could have spent hours just looking out and around the property, but I knew that Dad and Mom, mainly Mom, would worry if I wasn’t back for lunch.

I found what appeared to be the only door, inserted the key, and turned it.

Three seconds later, I was inside, my chin practically on the floor. The living room was vast, dressed in puke-yellow carpet. Colorful bean bags and two large sofas were clustered around a coffee table. Near the far window sat a long dining room table surrounded by dark wooden chairs. The place seemed clean and tidy.

“Hello?” I said halfheartedly.

No reply. Only the cawing of a distant crow from the open door behind me. Inside, the air felt oddly cold and still. It gave me goosebumps.

I shut the door and walked around the room. As I did so, there were two things that caught my attention.

One was a large boulder poking through the carpet at the corner of the dining room table. Jagged, yet polished, it looked every bit a part of the furniture as the rest of the stuff. I wondered if it came out of the ground or was placed there, but it was the second thing that obliterated any more questions and caused me to rub my eyes like some sort of cartoon character. Behind the far end sofa was a swimming pool.

A swimming pool.

In the house.

I never knew such a thing was possible. I walked towards it and saw that it was actually only part of an egg-shaped pool, the larger section running beneath the floor-to-ceiling windows and onto the outdoor balcony.

It would have been the most amazing thing I had ever seen had it been filled with water, but it was empty, stained with age at the bottom, and looking kind of sad.

I explored the rest of the house. There was a kitchen, a couple of tiny guest bedrooms, and a humongous closet filled with pressed pants and cowboy hats.

The master bedroom was almost as awesome as the living room but in a different way. The queen-sized bed was encased in a fancy oak headboard and footboard. Like any kid does to a perfectly-made bed, I jumped on and spread myself out over the cool comforter. To my left were seven rifles leaning against wooden shelving built into the wall. They looked like shotguns, for hunting maybe, and though I wanted to grab one and check it out, I was afraid to touch them. Next to those were rows of framed photos, most of them black-and-white. In each, there was a man who looked kind of familiar, but I couldn’t place him. It had to be the guy who owned the house, because he was posing with lots of different people, and he was usually wearing a cowboy hat. I actually recognized some of the people from old movies my grandparents watched.

I pushed myself up against the pillows and looked forward. There was a stone wall housing a fireplace in the middle and a television set to the right, reminding me why I was there.

Reluctantly, I got up and stood in front of the set. I wondered how I was going to pull it out of there until I saw it was sitting on a wooden platform with a lip. I pulled at the lip and it slid right out with the TV on top. It must have been built that way so it would be easy to work on. It came out far enough so that behind it, I could see the shape of a key hiding under an inch of dust bunnies. I grabbed it, wiped my hands, and shoved the television back in.

On any other day and in any other situation, if someone would have asked me what I did the rest of that afternoon, I would have told him that I sped home, inhaled my lunch, and called my friends to meet me right back at Batman’s house until the sun fell.

The fact was that after that day, I never wanted to step foot in there again.

#

The door was closed and then it was open.

“Paul.”

His voice sounded weak.

“Paul, you got the key?”

I sat up in the bed and leaned against the wall. I could hear Mom and Dad watching their medical drama again.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Dynamo!” he shouted, triggering a series of coughs.

I waited for him to finished before asking, “What do you want me to do with it?”

“It’ll get you into where you need to go. It’s a master key for the city. You know where the Los Ranchitos real estate office is?”

I knew it was near the bank Dad went to and so I nodded.

“That key will unlock the back door. Once you’re inside, you’ll head right down the hallway and open the last door on your left. It’ll say RECORDS on the nameplate.

“Inside, there’s a cabinet marked Declarations of CC&Rs. I need you to take a specific folder filled with papers inside, labeled LEGACY. Leave everything else. I want you to take that folder with you.”

It seemed like a lot to remember.

“Are you with me?” he asked.

“Yeah…down the hall. The records room. In a cabinet with Declarations.”

“Declarations of CC&Rs.”

“What’s that?”

“Doesn’t matter to you. Just some paperwork.”

“Okay…”

“But don’t take it home!” A couple more coughs. “This is very, very important. You need to take it out to an empty field somewhere and burn it.”

I wondered if I heard him right.

“Burn it?”

“Yup. Don’t forget to grab some matches on your way out the door. You know where your old man keeps ‘em.”

“I feel like I’m going to get into trouble for this.”

The monster was silent for a moment.

“You won’t. Paul, you can trust me. You’ll be doing me a huge favor. You’ll be doing the whole town a huge favor.”

“What do you mean?”

I thought the monster had left again, but then it spoke.

“You’re young, but I’m betting you’ve already made a few mistakes in your life, right?”

Of course, I thought. I cringed, remembering last month when I stole a kid’s Twinkie from his lunchbox when he wasn’t looking last month. I never fessed up, even though I felt bad when he popped another boy in the nose over it.

“If you had the chance, wouldn’t you try to fix those mistakes?”

“Like a do-over?”

“Like a do-over.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said.

We were both quiet.

“When do you want me to do this?” I finally asked.

“Tonight. After your folks go to bed.”

That would be pretty soon, I knew. Tomorrow was a weekday and Dad would be up at five-in-the-morning getting ready for work.

I had never snuck out of the house at night before. The whole idea was thrilling and made my stomach feel a little funny.

“Deal,” I said.

The central air kicked on and I felt a rush of cold air spew from the vent near the ceiling.

“Paul, I don’t think we’ll be talking after tonight so I want to let you know you’re a good kid. I’m sorry I threatened you when we first met. I didn’t mean any of it, but everyone needs motivation.”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“I also want to thank you.”

“For what?” I said. “Burning some papers?”

“For helping a monster with his do-over.”

#

In the still of night, a place you know so well in the daytime seems like another world entirely. The Los Ranchitos office wasn’t far from Batman’s house, so I made it there quickly on my bike. Along the way, I had to swerve several times on the streets to avoid crashing into bounding jackrabbits. Luckily the moon was full and provided a decent amount of light by which to navigate.

The key unlocked the door just as promised. An uneasiness settled over me again, and I wondered too late if there might be a security guard on duty or if an alarm would go off.

As I swung the door open and walked inside, it became apparent that I didn’t have to worry about either. Maybe that was one of the nice things about living in this small town.

Following the monster’s instructions, I found the room he mentioned and flicked on the light. Filing cabinets lined every wall. Some drawers were at a level twice my height and it was on one of these that I spotted the label I was looking for.

I grabbed a stool and dragged it over beside the cabinet. The drawer was stuffed with manila folders and papers. I shuffled through them until I found the folder marked LEGACY. I pulled it out and jumped down to the floor.

A decision had to be made. Should I look through the papers and see just what I’d be getting rid of, or was I better off not knowing? I doubted I would have wanted someone to thumb through my mistakes if they were written down. But I also knew that I was only here because even though I had come to more familiar terms with the monster, it had originally threatened me.

There were only about six or seven pages of typewritten text on stiff paper, yellowed with age. It seemed like a bunch of business mumbo-jumbo, but as I scanned, my eyes locked on to something that jogged a recent memory from Mrs. Kirk’s class and made a stolen Twinkie seem like child’s play.

 

“No part of said property shall be used or occupied or permitted to be used or occupied in whole or in part by any person of African or Asiatic descent or by any person not of the white or Caucasian race, except that domestic servants, chauffeurs, hostlers, laborers, farm-hands, or gardeners of other than white or Caucasian race may live on or occupy the premises where their employer resides.”

#

Even at night, summer made the desert hot.

I crouched in the middle of an empty field of creosote bushes, a half-used matchbook in my hands and the folder lying in the dirt.

What sort of mistake was I fixing? What I read seemed like a really bad thing and the monster made it sound like he was responsible. I had been taught to help people, sure, but monsters? I found myself having to make more decisions over the past few days than I had in all of my life.

I tore out a stick, stuck it between the folded book and pulled. I always loved the sulfury smell of matches. I had left the folder open to the questionable page and the tiny flame gave the passage an eerie glow.

For helping a monster with his do-over rang repeatedly in my head.

#

“Nate Carp passed away this morning. Down at St. Marie’s.”

Dad handed the paper to my mom and took a quick sip of his Folgers.

She was in her maroon-colored nightgown, no makeup, head tilted up but eyes peering down through her glasses. “I didn’t even know he was in the hospital.”

“Hell of a way to go,” Dad said. “Apparently he’d been ravaged by diabetes. Lost his arms and legs. Began to sink into dementia before giving up the ghost.”

“Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him for a couple of years,” Mom said. “He used to come down to the church during the annual rummage sale and shake our hands. Seemed like a wonderful man.”

“He had a great vision for this town. His legacy will definitely live on.” Dad smiled, rubbed the top of my head and picked up the sports page.

I didn’t really care that much as the maze printed on the back of my Cookie Crisp cereal box held my attention, but something caught my eye when Mom laid the paper down. Beneath the headline of Nate Carp, Town Founder, Passes Away at the Age of 80 was a photograph.

In it stood a man in a cowboy hat, looking proudly into the distance as his hands gripped the railing surrounding Batman’s house.

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“Hold on one second.” I ran to my room and looked up at the monster in the door. I searched, trying to discern any hint that he was still there. Instead, I saw only a funny shape of grain in the wood. I bent down beside my bed, and pulled out a dirty envelope from underneath.

As I zoomed past the door, I made a silent apology.

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