"Hi, I'm Robert, your next door neighbor. I heard someone bought the old funeral home and I…"
"Shhhh! Not so loud, the kids don't know!" she interrupted, her eyes darting over her shoulder to the front yard, ensuring her two children hadn't yet run back out for more boxes.
The moving truck was almost empty, and its glaring company name and logo pasted across the side had announced their arrival to all the neighbors.
"Sorry," he whispered in chagrin. "Let me try that again. I'm Robert, Doctor Shaw, but you can call me Robert. I live just across the street. I thought I'd come over and welcome your family to the neighborhood."
"Thanks," she replied then stood there not knowing what to say next as an awkward silence fell between them. "Um, sorry. I'm Anne. Sorry, it's just…it's been a long day. We're all pretty tired."
"Would you like a hand?"
"Uh, no. No thanks. I think we can manage. The kids are still riding the high of moving into a new place. We've never had a house this big before, so they're excited to help."
They both jumped at the sound of a loud crash and turned to see that her gangly ten-year-old son had handed an overly-large box to his much younger sister, only for her to drop it on the sidewalk.
"Sorry!" he shouted. His little sister just stood there frozen as she stared down at the box which had burst open and dumped the family's shattered dinner plates all over the ground, before bursting into tears.
"Kids, I told you to let me move the heavy boxes! I'm sorry, I gotta go. It was nice meeting you."
Anne served a slice of store-bought lasagna onto Benjamin's paper plate with a flimsy plastic spatula.
"I'm sorry about the plates, Mom," he apologized for the fortieth time that day.
"Me too, Mommy," Patty mumbled as she slowly chewed her lasagna, her nose red and covered in flakes of dry skin from where she cried herself into a sniffling fit.
"It's okay. Let's just eat our first dinner together in our new house. So, what do you think?"
"It's awesome!" Benjamin enthusiastically proclaimed. "I want a room for my trucks!"
"Me too!" added Patty, despite not having any toy trucks.
Anne smiled. This was the first time her kids didn't have to share a room together, and she could tell the excitement was getting to them. This old house had five rooms upstairs, and an unknown amount downstairs.
"Let's not get too crazy. I'm going to rent those rooms as soon as we get this house cleaned up."
"No you're not," Benjamin said as all the excitement drained from his face. "Nobody wants them."
"Why would you say that?" his mother asked.
"Because our house is haunted. That's why nobody wanted it before we came here. They kept dead people here. Andrew said so."
Anne clenched her hands together beneath the table and ground her teeth as she watched her daughter's face grow pale and her eyes widen in fear. Andrew was the twelve-year-old son of the doctor from across the street. After she excused her kids from helping that afternoon, they had run off to have some fun when the Doctor's son rode up on his bike, introduced himself, and asked her son to play.
The thought had crossed her mind that perhaps he was as big-mouthed as his father, and apparently, he was, and she struggled not to audibly groan.
"Are we haunted?" her daughter asked as her bottom lip trembled.
"No, baby. We're not haunted. Everything's fine. This is a perfectly normal house, and there's no such thing as ghosts, and you know that Benjamin. Don't say things to scare your sister!"
"But they did keep dead people here."
"Benjamin!" she snapped. "It doesn't matter what this house used to be, it's a home now. Our home!"
"A funeral home."
Robert twirled his pencil between his fingers as he sat at his desk and stared absently out the window while ignoring his pile of insurance forms. That was when he notched Anne Coleman marching up his driveway with the typical 'can I see your manager' angry soccer mom look on her face.
He heard her loud knock as he walked down the stairs and he could tell by its tone that he was in for an unpleasant encounter.
"Hello, Anne. What can I do for you?" he asked when he opened the door and saw her pinched face.
"Doctor Shaw, I'm sorry for bothering you…"
"Robert, please," he corrected in a calm and gentle voice.
"Robert…thanks. Look, um, can I talk to you about Andrew?"
"Yep, I'm the manager," he thought.
"Yeah, sure. Come on in. Can I get you something? Water? Coke? Tea?"
"No. No, thank you," she declined as he led her into the luxurious living room and motioned for her to have a seat on an expensive looking leather couch. She was already painfully aware that every other house in the neighborhood was much nicer than hers, which had been utterly neglected in the past five years of its vacancy, and she resisted the urge to fidget as her anxiety grew.
"What'd he do?"
"Can you please talk to him about the things he's been saying to my son? He keeps telling him stories about how our house used to be a funeral home and how weird the old mortician was. I've raised my children practically. We don't believe in ghosts or tooth fairies, or Santa Claus."
"No Santa Claus? Wow, what do you guys do on Christmas?"
She ignored his question with a frown before continuing. "It's not that I don't mind the boys playing together. Andrew seems very well-mannered and well-meaning otherwise. It's just that he's a few years older than Benjamin and Benjamin is still at a very impressionable age. He says living in an old funeral home doesn't bother him, but it can't be good for him to think about it that much. And then there's the fact that he keeps bringing it up with Patty, and it's definitely scaring her. She screams 'Ghost!' every time the wind blows now."
"I'm so sorry, Anne. I will definitively have a word with Andrew. I guess old Samuel left a bigger impression on him than I thought."
"You knew him?"
"He was old and lonely. I guess morticians don't make a lot of friends…at least not with the living. He used to invite me over for a beer on occasion, and Andrew liked playing in his backyard. By the way, I've been meaning to ask you. Have you cleaned out the morgue yet?"
Anne noticeably cringed. "No. I haven't even been in there. And as far as I'm concerned, there is no basement and I've forbidden the kids from going down there and the door's locked anyway."
"Did the realtor give you the downstairs' key? If you don't mind, I heard that not all of Samuel's belongings got cleaned out of the morgue. There was a book he showed me, I don't even think it was in English, leather bound, embossed, maybe a couple hundred years old, maybe older. He was obsessed with that thing, as a mortician, he was infatuated with anything having to do with death, and he was always prattling on about how that book was very insightful on the subject, but he only let me take a look at it once. I couldn't make any of it out, but I would like to see it again. Perhaps if it's still down there, I can buy it off you?"
"To be honest, I think I chucked that key in a drawer somewhere, and I haven't seen it since. If I find it you're welcome to go down there and take whatever you want. At some, point I was going to pay someone to haul away any remaining junk down there anyway. Maybe we could use it for storage. I'm pretty sure no one will be interested in renting that space."
Robert nervously laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, it'd be a bit creepy, and pretty much everyone in town knows what the house used to be, though maybe if you had it remodeled…"
"Yeah, that's not happening. Cheap as it was, I could barely afford buying the house, and it looks like I'm shit-out-of-luck for renting out the extra rooms. I could understand people not wanting to invest in the place; it's old, and a bit run-down, and, well, the downstairs is basically unusable, but there's nothing wrong with the upstairs."
"Well, don't give up yet. The local college has students that I'm sure are always looking for a cheap room to rent, and perhaps they're a little less superstitious, or, at the very least, less picky."
"I guess that's a good idea. Thanks. And you won't forget to talk to Andrew?"
"I'll talk to him as soon as he gets home from school. Don't worry. He won't bring it up again."
"There's a bone blender. Ya know, cause fire can't burn bones, so they stick them in a blender and grind them down to a powder and mix that in with the rest of the ashes. If your mom ever opens up that door, I bet it's still in there," explained Andrew as he sat on the Coleman's lawn, idly picking thick blades of grass.
"Would there still be bones in it?" Benjamin asked as he slowly climbed down from the tree in their backyard.
"I dunno. Probably."
"Benjamin, Mommy said stop. I'm going to tell on you!" his sister shouted from where she sat next to her dolls in the dirt. She had moved as far away as she could the moment the boys' conversation took the dark turn back to the scary things that waited beneath their house. Apparently, the old man who owned the home before them had taken Andrew on a tour, and he incessantly wanted to talk about all the strange things he'd seen and learned.
"Shut up! Leave us alone, why don't you?" Benjamin snapped.
"I wanna play outside too!" she argued and began to cry at the top of her lungs.
The boys ignored her. Benjamin's mother was at work and Mrs. Douglas, the old lady that babysat them after school, was inside watching soap operas with the TV volume on high. She was hard of hearing, and as long as they weren't on fire, or being run over in the street, she generally didn't care what they did or who made who cry.
"Oh, leave her. She's annoying anyway. Hey, wanna see something cool?" Andrew asked.
"Shut up!" grumbled Andrew who got up and walked towards the other end of their backyard. Despite his objection Benjamin eagerly followed, leaving Patty crying alone with her dolls.
The yard was rather unkempt. Benjamin's mother had tried mowing the grass on the other side to give them some room to play, but most of the yard was overgrown with unpruned trees and weeds taller than Patty. As they made their way to the other side of the house, Andrew stopped and pointed at the ground.
"Check it out. Do you know what it is?"
"A storm drain?"
"Right next to a house in someone's backyard? It's a vent. Burning bodies and filling them with chemicals makes nasty air, and this leads down into the morgue."
"Na uh," argued Benjamin who felt increasingly uncomfortable to be so close to the grate.
"Yes, huh, that's what old man Samuel told me, and this was his place."
"Then it's the only way in, cause my mom can't find where she put the key," said Benjamin as he mustered his courage to lean over and look down the vent. He poked his finger through the metal slots and stared into the darkness that eerily waited below.
"Well, that sucks. Why'd she lose it," grumbled Andrew who stomped hard on the grate with his foot the moment Benjamin stood up.
"She's more scared than Patty," Benjamin said as he also stomped hard on the metal grate, but as he leaned his weight onto his foot, the vent cover dislodged and rotated in the ground causing him to slip and fall inside.
Andrew scrambled to grab onto his friend, but only hooked onto the cuff of his jacket sleeve, which pulled off as his friend screamed in terror as he slid down into the darkness.
"Ben! Ben, are you okay?" Andrew shouted down the dark tunnel.
"Andrew. Help me! Help me! Help!" came Benjamin's frantic cries, and then a scream rose from below that rent the air and chilled his blood. It sounded like pain, like someone being horribly tortured. There were other grotesque and unidentifiable noises, and then silence.
Andrew's heart hammered in his chest, and he shook as he knelt next to the overturned grate.
"Ben! Ben, what's happening? Are you there?"
"Ben! Ben!" he shouted again, and when there was no answer, he jumped up and spun around to find Patty standing behind him, and he screamed because she startled him. Her half-bald baby doll dangled from one hand, her face ashen pale, her eyes glazed as she stared down at the vent in the ground.
"Let's go. Let's go! We gotta get help!" he shouted as he grabbed her free hand, pulling her away from the vent and running with her across the yard until they reached the back door.
Andrew pounded on the back door with his fists. "Mrs. Douglas! Mrs. Douglas! Call 911!" he shouted, but to his surprise, it was Benjamin's mother who threw open the back screen door and stared down at him in shock.
"Andrew? What is it? What's wrong?" she asked the frightened looking boy, and she noticed her daughter standing beside him staring blankly ahead, her face devoid of all emotion and color.
"Mrs. Coleman, it's Benjamin. He fell. Come quick!"
"Benjamin? Where is he?" she frantically asked, and Andrew waved his hand in a motion for her to follow and together they raced back to the other side of the house.
"He fell in here!" Andrew cried as he pointed down a shaft that was beneath an overturned metal grate.
Anne got down on her knees and peered down into the darkness as her heart thundered beneath her ribs.
"Benjamin! Ben!" she shouted, but there was no reply. "Ben!" she shouted louder, and still her son would not reply.
"Oh, God! Oh, God! Ben! Hang on. Mommy's getting help!" she cried as she jumped up, but before she could take more than a step she heard a voice coming up from the shaft.
"Mom? Mom, I'm down here!" shouted Benjamin's muffled voice from below.
She signed with relief so hard it sounded as if someone had punched the air from her gut.
"Ben, don't panic! Are you okay? Are you hurt?"
"Mom, I'm scared. It's dark down here. I can't see. I can feel a door, but it won't open. Come get me, please."
Andrew felt a cold shudder roll down his spine. What was that scream? What were those noises?
"I'm coming, baby. I'm coming!" she cried down the shaft. "Wait here, Andrew," she asked as she dashed back to the house.
"Ben? Ben is that you? What happened? Why did you scream like that?" Andrew asked the dark void inside the vent.
But Benjamin didn't answer.
When Anne reached the back door, she found Patty still standing beside the house, unmoving and unspeaking.
"It's okay, honey. He's all right. We're going to get him out. You just wait right there," she tried to comfort as she threw open the screen door and rushed inside.
Mrs. Douglas had left as soon as she got home from work and the quiet house was quickly filled with the sound of kitchen drawers being thrown open and their contents being tossed onto the counters as she frantically scrounged for the missing key.
"Where is it? Where is it?" she cried as she overturned another drawer, but she couldn't find it and panic was setting in.
She ran back outside and across the backyard until she found Andrew again.
"Mrs. Coleman, Ben's not…"
"Andrew, is your father home?"
"I think so."
"Please run home and fetch him for me. Please hurry."
"Sure," he agreed then took off running.
"Benjamin, hang on honey. We're going to get you out."
"Mom," called the echoing voice from the darkness below. "Please open the door."
"Don't worry. We'll get you out. Just stay put," she shouted down the shaft.
A few minutes later Robert and Andrew came running through the backyard.
"Andrew told me what happened. Is he still talking?" asked Robert.
"Yeah, he seems okay. Robert, can you help me. I can't find that key. Can you break down a door?"
"Dad, wait," pleaded Andrew as his father and Mrs. Coleman ran back to the house.
"Wait here, Andrew. Keep him company. Tell him we're on our way."
Again Andrew found himself standing alone next to the vent and again he called into the darkness.
"Benjamin? Hey, can you hear me?"
And again, there was silence.
Inside the house, Robert stepped carefully around the mess of unpacked boxes, emptied out drawers, and items that rolled off the kitchen counters.
Anne led him through a door and down a series of concrete steps, flipping the switch to a dim light bulb along the way. When the reached the bottom of the stairs, they found another door, but when Robert tried turning the brass knob, it wouldn't budge.
Anne stood back with a disapproving look on her face, of course it was locked, if it weren't, she wouldn't have needed him.
The door didn't look particularly thick or heavy, and he tried ramming it with his shoulder a couple times, but to no result.
"Got a screwdriver? Maybe I can take off the hinges," he asked. With a nod, Anne ran back up the steps.
As he stood there alone, he called through the door. "Benjamin, it's Doctor Shaw, your neighbor, can you hear me?"
The silence was eventually disturbed by the sound of Anne's hurried steps, and he looked up to see her carrying a baseball bat and a flashlight.
"I'm sorry, I couldn't find a screwdriver. Everything's a disaster, but I found Benjamin's softball bat. Maybe you can break that knob off?"
Robert accepted the aluminum bat and gave it a quick test swing to see if it would be heavy enough. "Well, let's try. Stand back," he asked before bashing down on the doorknob with all his strength. The knob shattered, sending bits of hardware flying into the dark corners. It took a couple more swings to break the last of the remains off the door leaving only a hole where the knob had once been. He tossed the bat aside and was able to work his fingers inside the hole until he pulled out the latch and the door swung open into darkness.
He groped along the wall for where a light switch would most naturally be found, but felt nothing and, instead, waved his hand overhead looking for a pull-chain, but again, he found nothing.
"Anne, I need a light."
Anne stood frozen in the doorway. She could barely make out his silhouette past the threshold, but when she flicked on the flashlight. He was gone.
"Anne, come on, hand me the light," he asked again, but she wasn't responding, and when he turned around he couldn't see the doorway or even any light from the dim bulb at the top of the stairs. He reached back, expecting to feel the doorframe, but found nothing but air. He tried touching the wall, where he had just been searching for the light switch, and again, there was nothing.
"Anne?" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "Come on, Anne. I need a light."
When silence was his only reply, his heart began to speed up, and his hands began to shake.
"Hello? Can someone help me?" he heard a young boy's voice call from somewhere in the darkness.
"Ben? Benjamin, is that you?"
"Doctor Shaw? Where's my mom? Can you help me? It's dark in here, and I can't open the door."
"I'm coming, buddy. You just hang on," he called as he shuffled with his hands stretched in front of him towards the direction from where he thought the voice was coming.
"Where are ya, Ben? Let me hear your voice," he asked as his hands waved in front him until he felt the smooth surface of a wall. He followed along the wall in the darkness, hoping to eventually encounter a door or a light switch, but there was nothing, and the wall kept going, and going, and going, until he was sure he had to have walked longer than the entire length of the property. Something wasn't right, and he struggled to breathe as panic set in.
"Ben? Ben, answer me! Tell me where you are!" he shouted.
A stench like rotting flesh assaulted his senses causing bile to rise up the back of his throat and as his stomach lurched. Something was coming towards him with a sound like feet trudging slowly through sludge, and he screamed and ran.
The ground was uneven beneath his feet, but he managed not to stumble in the dark until his outstretched hands struck a hard wooden surface that rattled on contact.
"Help me! Please open the door. It's dark in here. I want my mom," cried Benjamin's voice from the other side and Robert frantically groped for a doorknob as the unbearable stench grew stronger and the gloppy sounds grew louder behind him. His hand brushed up against the cool metal of a handle, and he pushed down on it while shoving into the door, but it wouldn't open.
"Help me, Doctor Shaw. Help me!" Benjamin shouted, his voice now sounding muffled and as if it were being dragged away.
The stench was growing stronger, and he felt something brush against his back, but with one final shove the door flung open, spilling him into the floor of a dimly lit room, and when he looked behind him, the door was gone.
He violently trembled and wiped away the sweat that was dripping into his eyes as he struggled for air, and that was when he realized the overpowering stench was all around him. Every inhalation threatened to loosen the contents of his stomach as he surveyed his surroundings but all he could see was the outline of a large and archaic looking door. Soft blue light seeped around its edges casting an eerie glow that chased the shadows into the far corners of the otherwise empty room.
"That's not the door I came in. It can't be," he thought as he tried to hold his sleeve over his nose to block out the nauseating smell, and that was when he heard a voice coming from the shadows.
"Help me. Please open the door. I don't like it in here. It's dark, and I want my mom. Please help me."
"Benjamin, where are you?"
"Open the door."
"Benjamin!" he shouted as he struggled to his knees, and then he heard the sickening sound of something moist as it slopped through the shadows.
His heart ached as it pounded and he watched as an amorphous mass drew closer from out of the shadows.
"Help me," the young boy's voice begged as it came closer. "I want my mom. Please open the door."
The form spilled out from the shadows, and a putrid pile of undulating tendrils writhed before him, and within their grasp, he saw the unmistakable, yet mangled, body of Benjamin Coleman. His chest poured dark ooze from where it was torn open, and something slithered beneath the skin of his throat. But above his neck was the worst horror of all. The top half of his head was missing, and some pulsing appendage was shoved within his hollowed-out skull, opening and closing the boy's mouth like a puppet.
"Open the door," came Benjamin's voice from the hollowed out shell of the child.
The air grew thicker, and everything began to swim before his eyes as he struggled against the stench and the madness all around him.
"Open the door. Open the door."
Robert crept backward as the thing slithered ever closer and he quickly leaped to his feet as he struggled not to black out as everything spun around him.
"Open the door," came another voice. A soft and unidentifiable whisper drew his attention away from the sickening mass, and when he turned, the glow around the door had grown brighter and pulsated as if the door was breathing. Strange red markings were now visible upon the grain, and he remembered where he had seen such symbols once before – the old book of Samuel. But what lay within?
Without question. Without hesitation. He walked to the door and grasped the ornate handle, but hesitated.
"Open the door. Open the door," chanted voices all around him that grew ever louder with every second that passed. His trembling hand tightened around the handle until his knuckles cracked, and at last, he threw open the door. A blast of air struck him, and his eyes fell on the eternal void that lay beyond, and his scream rang out as his mind shattered upon seeing what lay beyond the gate.