There was a deep and inherent wrongness, here.
He had yet to realize the room smelled of nothing. Not the subtle scent of old wood from the paneled flooring. Not traces of paint where it had begun to peel off the walls in curling strips like flayed skin off bone. He’d just painted those walls yesterday. Yet now it curled and snapped dryly, actively rolling down the wall in streaks as he moved past. It made no noise.
He realized only once in front of the door on the far wall.
This room held no smell. No sound. When he looked back, the door leading to the hallway was gone. Just another wall, with peeling offwhite paint and dusty wooden floors. He snapped his head back around. The door he’d been heading for was still there. Even though all the windows were absent. He turned left, right, backwards. Every wall was identical, and wide. Enough so that looking at each one in turn meant losing sight of the last. A strange, indescribable sort of feeling flooded him as he looked between them all. It was becoming hard to tell if he was turning his head at all, when each wall looked precisely the same as the last.
Paranoia rose. Fear, with it.
Something cold and sharp in his stomach, a feeling he’d never felt before. Too tense, too overbearing, to be anything he had a name for. It wasn’t the same as terror, wasn’t the same as panic. It came from the same vein, though. His racing heart and shaking hands attested to that.
Trying to swallow it down, he turned back forward. The door was still there.
From it oozed the same thing that had drawn him to it to begin with. A feeling. A not-rightness that was suffocating and loud. Where the room had no smell, no sound, the door had a certain overbearing presence to it. Filling the absence everything else left with too much of everything. He didn’t want to touch it. But he needed to. He couldn’t place the how or why- he knew only that
He needed to do this.
The door terrified him. This room was all wrong.
But he had to do this. That singular determined drive was the only thing holding his trembling parts together as he stood there in the center of it all. His hand shook, but he rose it. Unable to hear his own breathing, his own heartbeat. Cut off from senses he didn’t realize were so important until they were gone- a disoriented panic wanted to rise in him. The drive towards the door kept it subdued.
He shuffled a singular step forward.
Grasped the door knob.
He didn’t understand until after his hand slipped on the iron of it slightly that it would not turn anymore. He couldn’t feel it. Had no tactile registry of the contact- unaware if the knob was hot or cold, rough or smooth. Still in need of being turned or not. His hand slipped over the knob like he was turning it past where it could go. So he stilled. A moment after, a final heartbeat of trepidation passed.
He opened the door.
Jenny McAfee hadn’t seen her husband in three days. The kids were getting worried.
She’d gone to police and they’d nodded along with her story, writing it down in the telltale fashion of people who both didn’t believe her and had no plans to do anything about it. She could tell. If she’d heard the same story on the news a week ago, she wouldn’t have believed it either. So she didn’t call the police back after they left and didn’t report anything for another day.
Instead, she started begging anyone she knew for help.
Coworkers, friends, the other parents on the PTA at her son’s school.
Everyone had the same reaction the police had. They listened. They disengaged quickly. They stopped talking to her. Police were counting it as a missing person’s case, but they didn’t have to say so for Jenny to know she was the prime suspect.
Every night she laid her son down for bed, he asked.
“When is Daddy coming home?”
She ran out of answers after the second night. Now, a full week later, she had less than nothing.
Franklin McAfee had been an average guy.
He worked as a printer repairman and left early each morning to drive all over the county for work. He came in late each night, exhausted, and spent what little free time he had on the weekdays trying to be involved in his son’s life and remind his wife he still loved her. Even when he was irritable and snappy. He loved his family.
Recently, they’d bought their new house knowing it was a bit of a fixer-upper.
Franklin had claimed it would be a good weekend project for him and Dennis to share, and for a time Jenny had believed him. Their son was too young to help with any of the big projects or heavy work. But he’d spent the whole weekend last laughing and helping paint the upstairs room they wanted to use as a nursery for their next child on the way. After the room was painted they’d all gone out to eat. It was that night, when Dennis was at last sound asleep, that Frank brought the door up.
“It’s just not right” he kept saying. Swearing it felt wrong in a way he couldn’t place.
The way one felt when they found something that had been missing in a place it surely hadn’t been before. The way deja vu could feel sickly and haunting sometimes. The way perfectly symmetrical faces always looked.. Just not right.
When they’d moved in, they’d assumed the door lead to a closet, though neither could remember checking it when they’d first toured the place. Frank tried to swear it hadn’t been there at all initially, until she repeatedly reminded him that was impossible.
The monday after they’d painted the nursery, Frank had grown determined to find out what was up with it. Jenny wasn’t interested in watching him open a door to a closet and look like an idiot, so she’d gone to make Dennis lunch downstairs.
Hours passed without her realizing. Frank never came back down.
She settled Dennis’ attention on a learning app on the family tablet then darted upstairs. She’d checked every room, every window. Frank was nowhere to be found. When she finally wound up at the nursery door, something kept her from opening the closet. Something that felt warning and wrong. Cold and terrible in a way she couldn’t place or name. Just a gut feeling. She’d called for Frank. No answer came.
She called their friends up. Checked with neighbors. Confusion and a sinking feeling grew worse with every hour. She called his cell phone- found it in the bedroom where he’d left it. She waited. Tuesday, he didn’t show up for work. Didn’t come home. Dennis asked where he was. Jenny told him he’d be home soon. She didn’t even know how to lie about his whereabouts.
Tuesday came and went, and wednesday after it.
She called police and they said it couldn’t be a missing persons until three days passed.
She cried. Desperate. Alone. Afraid. She called back on thursday. Police came out. They listened to her story with unveiled skepticism. Checked the nursery, the basement, all the other rooms. Looking for his hidden body, she assumed. She told them she had to pick Dennis up from school. They let her go and kept checking the house over. When she got back one officer had stayed behind to assure her they were opening a missing person’s investigation.
The police left.
She tucked Dennis in later that night.
As usual, he asked when Daddy would be home.
As usual, she had no answers for him.
By the next monday, Dennis stopped asking.
“So your husband was last seen here?”
She paused on the stairs, looking back into the living room.
Lingering on the couch where she’d recounted her story not for the first time, Jenny nodded.
The girl on the stairs was small. Short, built petite. A soft face that often didn’t totally match her sharp words. At least this time, she was feigning some degree of tact. Jenny wasn’t crying, which helped. Ashley was always terrible with people when they started crying.
“And he said he was drawn to open the door in the nursery?”
Jenny nodded against before noticing the girl was out of sight, heading up the stairs. She swallowed thickly, stood. Drug herself over to the foot of the stairs and called up them, “Yes”.
At her side, the little girl’s partner rubbed Jenny’s shoulder, trying to be comforting even if there was really no comfort to give. Jenny didn’t say so, but it helped. In the past week, people had faked compassion and stopped talking to her as soon as she shared what had happened. They thought her insane. A husband killer. Or just unable to cope with her husband walking out on her. None of those things were true. She knew they weren’t. But it was hard some days to not just cave in and tell herself she was insane, when all her friends stopped answering her calls. Having someone, even if he was a stranger, comforting her what felt earnestly meant a lot.
“We’re going to check the room out. You can stay down here if you like.” The blonde beside her offered, slowly stepping away and to the stairs. Jenny set her jaw. Shook her head.
“Last time I stayed down here my husband went missing. I’m not going to just cower downstairs and wait.” Resolutely, she took to the stairs after him. He nodded, turning forward and leading the way. She didn’t notice the way he smiled at her. Soft. Proud.
Down the hall, the girl waited outside the doorway.
The blonde came to her side and stopped, staring into the room.
Jenny waited a few feet back, watching the two.
It had been a man at Dennis’ school who had given her their number. He’d come up to her car when she dropped Dennis off. Waited until the boy was gone to tell her he’d heard about her husband. Jenny hadn’t had time to ask questions. He’d given her a phone number. Told her there were people who would take her story seriously. Then he left, and by the time she’d jotted the number down in her phone, he was out of sight.
She’d called out of work as soon as she was home. Called the number. Begged them to come out that afternoon. Admittedly, when a little girl who looked no older than sixteen and a towering blonde young man showed up on her doorstep, Jenny had almost thought it was another joke.
But the girl had asked for her story, and hadn’t laughed it off or insinuated Jenny as a murderer or delusional. The boy had moved to sit beside her. Rubbed her back, encouraged her to keep going through the details. He’d sighed disapprovingly when Jenny told them about police not listening, and her friends turning their backs on her. The two were strange. But.. they were trying to help. She was desperate enough to take help and not question it, at this point.
So she stayed out of the way and watched, while the brunette girl just stared and tapped fingertips thoughtfully to her lips. The blonde kept hands tucked into the pockets of his jacket, staring at the door that loomed on the opposite wall to the entrance of the would-be nursery.
“And you said he’d just finished repainting the room?” The girl asked, not looking back.
Jenny nodded on reflex before speaking up. “Yes. He and Dennis made a day of it.”
Their last day together, in many ways..
“What did it look like before he painted it?”
“It..” She had to think. They waited, patiently, as she racked her brain. “It was grey, I think. An old looking sort of color. Faded, almost?”
The brunette hummed. Nodded. Like something about that was telling.
She moved to set her hand against the frame of the door but didn’t lean past the threshold. Rather, she stepped aside slightly, and after she traced some indecipherable symbol against the frame, the blonde stepped past her into the nursery.
Two steps in, he paused. Jenny watched, unsure why a creeping feeling of dread was flooding into her lungs. But it hung there heavy and dark, and as she struggled to breathe even around it the blonde looked around and nodded to himself.
“Definitely a compulsion in here.” He called back, to which the brunette grunted sourly.
Slowly, he took a step further inside, then another. Steadily advancing on the door that looked so harmless yet all the same filled Jenny with a sinking fear. As if she were standing in the room with someone she knew hated her- the feeling of scorn and watching eyes made her skin prickle into goosebumps.
“I’m going to try to open it.”
He rose one hand, hovered over the doorknob.
“Wait!” Jenny shouted, not even meaning to speak. But a roll of nausea and terror took her, and before she knew it she was edging over to the doorframe, not daring to step foot inside. The blonde halted, turning back to look at her. She stood there, quivering in place, and tried to beg him with eyes alone.
“Please, I..” She wasn’t even sure what to say. The feelings were all suffocatingly strong, but when it came to trying to put it into words, she felt ridiculous. Insecure and small, in the face of everything going on. Her confidence faltered. Yet the blonde still waited, staring at her and giving patience where she offered nervousness. The same as downstairs. Somehow, the loose reminder to his moments of comfort on the couch downstairs just barely tethered her to a sense of bravery.
“I have a bad feeling.” She explained. “Don’t touch it. Come back, please.”
His hand lowered. His eyes dipped from Jenny to Ashley. His lips pursed with words unsaid, an upset look hanging off him in sorrowful sheets. The brunette nodded, some unspoken permission, and he relented.
“Alright.” The young man resigned, stepping away from the door. “I’ll leave it alone.”
He crossed back over, and once he passed the threshold back into the hall, Jenny let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
“I’ll- I’ll board it up. Close this room off.” She offered shakily, looking back to the door. A part of her didn’t want to shut it all off, though. What if her husband came back? How would he get out? As soon as the thought came, she argued internally that it was ridiculous. And yet, that worry remained, chipping her resolve to do anything away.
“No.” The brunette girl piped up, shaking her head and crossing her arms.
“It won’t be enough. We know how to handle things like this. Can you get a hotel for a few days?”
Jenny opened her mouth but no words came. She just looked away, down, back. Shook her head. Money was a precarious thing now, with Frank gone. Not to mention she’d need to take clothes for work, for Dennis to go to school.. Uprooting in the middle of the week to a hotel..
“We’ll pay for it, then.” The blonde offered near immediately.
“But you need to get out of here for a while. God forbid your son get too close to that room and..”
He spoke gently but the words still felt like a molten railroad spike forced through her chest. Jenny gasped a little, choked on it, and nodded sharply. She couldn’t fathom losing Frank and then Dennis. To be alone entirely.. And oh, god, what people would think she’d done..
“Alright.” She agreed, voice shaking desperately.
Carefully, the blonde wrapped an arm around her shoulders. Guided her, gingerly to the stairs and away from the room still curling her stomach with soured fear. Back downstairs, she felt better. If only barely. She settled back onto the couch, and the young man moved to go make some tea.
In the same chair as before, the brunette girl settled in and joined her hands in her lap. The way she regarded Jenny was sharp. Analyzing. Piecing something together in her head the older woman couldn’t begin to fathom. Didn’t care to. She had enough on her plate, now.
“We’re going to have you and your son relocate to a hotel for a few days.” The corner of her mouth twitched before she added on, “We’ll handle all the expenses for it, so don’t worry about it.”
Jenny nodded, rubbing at her face. Trying to wrap her head around it all, trying to plan for the next week. Trying to do everything herself, where she’d grown used to being able to hold Frank’s hand and shoulder the burden of tough weeks together.
“What it looks like you’ve got is a negative space door.”
Jenny looked up. Waited for an explanation, but none came. Was that supposed to make sense? It didn’t. She looked lost, but the brunette just crossed her ankles and stared. In the kitchen the tea kettle started to scream.
“What..” Jenny started, so fried by everything she almost couldn’t even form reliable questions.
“What does any of that mean? Like.. an extension on the house, or something?”
The young girl sighed, the way a parent would at a child failing to grasp something simple.
“Negative space is a sort of..” She waved her hand around in the air slightly, trying to find the words to explain. “Mirror world I guess. It layers all around our own- over and under your idea of reality. Sometimes, there are paths leading to it. Doors, windows. The most common being mirrors, though to my knowledge most of those were destroyed when modern sorcery deemed them too dangerous for use.”
The girl inhaled to keep going, but the blonde poked his head out of the kitchen to interrupt.
“Are you the religious sort, Jenny?” He asked, looking to the woman softly. Confused and reeling, she clung to the question she could understand instead of the explanation she couldn’t. After a moment to process, Jenny looked down guiltily.
“Not as much as I should be, I suppose..”
The blonde just smiled warmly, not that she was looking to see it, and nodded.
“But you’re familiar with purgatory?” He asked, she nodded. “It’s a bit like that.”
He slipped back into the kitchen just as the kettle started to scream.
“So Frank.. Is in purgatory?” Jenny looked from the doorway, a bit reluctantly, to the girl across from her. The brunette stared almost coldly, flat and factual, but didn’t answer. She didn’t like the oversimplification, so she wasn’t going to respond to it. It was.. Misleading, she felt.
“Something like it, yes.” From the kitchen, tea poured. The smell of warm sugar and honey came on the back of milk and soft fragrance. The smell at least did a little to soothe things, and once the tray was brought out and set between them, Jenny pretended not to feel a little sad when the blonde chose to set by his young partner and not her. His comfort before had been something she hadn’t realized she’d needed so desperately until they were apart, and now she almost craved it. Perhaps it was best he did seek some distance, then.. She didn’t want to become overly reliant. It would look terrible when Frank came back. If he..
“How can you get him back from that, then?” Jenny looked between the two in equal measure curious and nervous, trying to keep her hands steady enough to pick up a cup of tea. It was easier than one might expect. She felt steadier now with answers and ideas and people actually listening. Believing her. Not washing her and her missing husband away as trivial nonsense.
The two shared a look. The blonde looked almost guilty, sad. The girl as flat as ever, though something sharper was in her eyes for the brief exchange. On some level, Jenny knew what that meant. She didn’t let them try to sugarcoat it for her, she spoke up before they could.
“I’ll need to pack then, before Dennis is out of school. We’ll head straight to the hotel so.. So..”
So bring my husband back to me, please.
She sat her tea down, untouched. She hurried up the stairs, rushing past the nursery and to the bedroom to pack, not wanting her strange guests to see her cry.
Downstairs, the pair quietly drank the tea, saying nothing.
They knew what needed to be done. They knew how to do it.
The time for words was over.
They took a trip back to the office as Jenny packed, taking the spare key to the front door the woman offered. She needed time to get ready, get out, and go get her son. Plenty of time for them to walk back, as opposed to taking a cab. Just in case they needed the flip alley’s door open.
Along the way, it was quiet for a long time. Tensely so.
He said what she knew he was going to say when they were almost there.
“I’m going to go in.” Cain stated, as if it were a fact.
Ashley, readily, threw both hands up and made a pointedly frustrated noise.
“No.” She rolled her eyes. “No you’re not.”
He pursed his lips. Stared at her as she faced forward, leading the way across an intersection.
“Ash.. it’s her husband.” He tried to reason with her, knowing already it would mean nothing.
“Yeah.” She spat readily. Too used to this kind of exchange with him. “And you’re my friend.”
They got to the other side, and he resigned to not commenting for a moment. Not wanting to make it awkward. It was hard enough for Ash to even admit she had friends, much less that he was one of them. He wanted to enjoy the moment for what it was, and after a moment of her stomping along, she started back up again.
“I’m not doing this, Cain. Not on this one. You know what this kind of thing means! We just spent an hour making sure a lady wasn’t going to walk her dumb ass through that door, so what’s the first thing you want to do? Come on! Don’t be stupid!”
She spoke with wild hand gestures and a loud, upset voice. No regard for those around her in the way or possibly overhearing. Cain, on the other hand, was quiet. Reserved. Standing his ground but with a much more calm, collected voice. He kept his hands in his pockets as they walked down the sidewalk side by side.
“It’s different for me and you know it. I-”
“No!” She interrupted, shaking her head. “No, it’s not different. This isn’t like every other time with a demon where you can just risk life and limb for someone and probably come out okay. This is negative space. This is above our paygrade. Honestly we shouldn’t even be screwing with it in the first place, but you just had-”
“Alright alright, I get it.” He relented with a sigh, tipping his head back in exasperation.
“No, you don’t! You’re just giving in because I’m irritating you about it, now!”
She looked up at him to prove a point, and he couldn’t even argue anymore. He just grimaced at her and she glared, stubborn and aggravated. They fell back into a disgruntled silence for the rest of the walk, then beyond on the way into the brick office building.
The interior was run down and mostly empty, old office spaces and once-apartments vacant and worthless. Each floor up seemed to have more and more peeling paint, scratched up doors, and worn carpet. Three floors up, they both came to a stop at the usual familiar door. Baby puke green, still bearing four jagged carvings through it like some rabid animal had tried to claw through. Ash didn’t even pretend to unlock it, she just shouldered it open and moved through the open ‘reception’ area. What could have been a secretary’s greeting desk was instead being used as a catchall coffee table- strewn mail, phone notes, old case files, and some alchemic odds and ends littered all over. Around the right side of it the wall opened, and past the doorway the main office proper sat. Equally worn and semi-cheap, Cain did his best to keep it clean and presentable, but the age and neglect of the building outdid most of his work in trying to vacuum and organize often. Ash did the rest- keeping coffee mugs and messy folders thrown around constantly.
Today, they needed very few things.
Ash took the pinned note off the corkboard behind her desk, crumpling Jenny’s number up and tossing it. No need, now that they’d already gone out there and met with her. Ash’s memory would hold on to the address and number as needed. Afterwards, she moved to the back breakroom and out of sight, and Cain stayed behind to straighten a few things before following her back to resume the previous conversation.
“I still think it’s worth a shot.” He spoke up as he rounded the corner, leaning in the doorframe as Ash carefully dropped the spare key to Jenny’s place in a coffee mug full of a thick, bubbling purple slop.
“Of course you do.” She sighed, disapproving. “You always think it’s worth your hide to do something stupid for strangers. But this is too far. I won’t allow it.”
“Ash-” Cain started, sighing with a tone on the verge between desperate and irritated.
She shook her head, and he paused in the words. She looked up at him. Serious. Stern. As much stubborn as earnestly concerned, and it showed.
“No one in the magical world has ever deemed negative space travel safe. Just because top mages, hunters, and Tutores officers have tried and survived, it doesn’t mean you will. More still, if this guy has been in there for days already, you’ll just be going in to drag out a corpse. And that’s only on the slim off chance you can even find it.”
Cain tensed his jaw but didn’t argue further. He couldn’t. She had facts and logic on her side. And he had the best of intentions but.. Even he could see her point, when she wasn’t just raving like a brat.
“I won’t risk you on these odds for a corpse. I’m not sorry, Cain.” She, as she was prone to doing, found the line between pragmatic and offensive. He wasn’t surprised anymore, when she kept going right over it without even realizing. “Your idea is stupid and I won’t let you do it.”
Ash picked up the mug. Moved over to the small kitchenette sink and turned the mug over, pouring the contents with a vicious hiss out. As the goop ran slowly but surely down the mesh drain, two identical keys remained. She flipped the water on, cleaned them off, and faced him after plucking them out to dry with a paper towel.
“Now.. We’re going to go back there, close that door, and tell her to put her husband to rest. Start over somewhere else, if she can. You can get your weird desire to help people filled for the day, and everyone who’s still alive can go home happy.”
Cain nodded along, finally surrendering the point.
“Yeah yeah, and you can get paid.”
She made a face, scrunched and displeased.
“No. Her money isn’t worth it, she needs it more than I do. This will have to make do for payment on this one.” She held the two keys up to the light, squinting at them and aligning them both. A perfect copy.
“She’s got nothing else you want?” Cain questioned. “I’m sure you could ask for her son’s soul.”
“Hah.” She huffed dryly, unamused.
Cain moved aside and she tossed the spare key onto her desk, keeping the other in her pocket.
With the spare made and the office halfheartedly organized in passing, they left again.
Back at Jenny’s place, the woman had left a note on the kitchen table.
‘Thank you so much, again. Please call if you need anything. We’re at the ExpressComfort just off 44th St.’
Ash grunted at it disinterestedly as Cain read it off, her main and arguably only focus being upstairs. It was the blonde who insisted on sweeping the downstairs just in case, always overly paranoid Tutores were swarming every corner left unattended. Once the place was secure downstairs, they went up. Ash waited for him to finish another sweep before finally moving over to the would-be nursery’s door.
Pushing it open, they both stared across the hollow space to the simple panel of pressed and painted wood that was causing so much grief. Even for them, having worked with all manner of the strange and surreal, it was still difficult to conceptualize. Something as simple as a door, that someone could walk through a simply never return..
Perhaps it was because neither of them had ever had someone walk out of their lives. They’d always been the ones doing the walking. It was easier to imagine a whole other world and possibilities beyond a door, rather than the emptiness left around behind one afterwards.
Cain heaved a sigh, thinking too much about the philosophical nature of the situation.
Ash was the one who moved around him, further into the room. He stayed close but not looming around her, out of the way enough she could do her job safely.
Each field had its own rules. This one being a doorway as opposed to a mirror or graveyard made things a bit trickier. Mirrors could be broken. Bones could be salted. But they couldn’t exactly set the door on fire or bust it open without endangering the whole house. Things had to be localized, contained, and controlled. More Ash’s specialty, between the two of them.
She sat in the floor, cross legged.
He barely made noise enough to breathe, letting her focus on the silence of the room, the stray creaks through the house with age. As the walls breathed with their own tempo of settling foundation and outside breezes, she matched. It wasn’t something Cain always understood- what she did. The rules were beyond him, as was the case with most modern magic and witchcraft. What he knew was that it worked, whenever she did something like this. Same as the strange purple tonic duplicated the key, same as her tracking spells always came through in a pinch, same as now.
She asked him in a detached voice to turn away and shut his eyes.
He did so.
Things ebbed into quiet again for what felt like hours. He resisted the urge to obsessively check his phone. She claimed it interfered with her work, the last times he’d done so.
From in the room, she inhaled deep and slow and strong. Like someone rousing from a deep sleep. In the same half-detached voice, she called back to him. “The door is gone.”
Lo and behold, when he turned around, there was nothing. Blank wall on all three sides, and just the doorway he stood in staring at her. She was slow to stand, taking a moment to keep herself steady. If she was weak, she hid it well. All the same he reached out when she retreated a step, offering a hand for her to hold for support. She took it, soon after leaning into him and sighing as if exhausted. He patted her back. Job well done.
“I’ll call Jenny-” he started, but Ash shook her head against his chest.
“No. I have to do it.” She murmured. He didn’t question it. He let her go, watching her trail downstairs and out of sight with cell phone in hand. After sounds of distant one-sided conversation rose up, he gave in to temptation.
Slowly, he walked back into the room. To the far wall.
A hand pressed to where the door had once been. Now, the strong press of drywall and framing and paint was all that greeted him. He pushed on it, as if it would give way to expose the door again. But it didn’t. It was gone. And with it, any hope of getting Jenny’s husband back.