The Stairs and The Doorway
I don’t feel like I’m a nosy person. No more nosy than the next guy. I just have what my Ma would call an unhealthy amount of curiosity. I was the kid who climbed to the top of the big oak in the back yard, just to see what was in the crows’ nest. I was the kid who dug a hole in the back yard so deep that I hit groundwater because I was convinced there was a cave under our house, and I wanted to see it. To see.
My folks aren’t dirt poor, but they’re pretty close. They’re part of that missing middle of America, the people who work forty hours a week until they die, with no savings to speak of. I got my first job at a horse stable when I was fourteen. It didn’t last very long. I knew I needed to get a job, because I knew we needed the money, so I bounced around for the next few years, washing dishes, waiting tables, until I graduated high school.
Pop was really tough on me about college. He never went — nobody in his family had — so there were a few fights about where I would go after school. It was a huge shock to me when, just after graduation, he drove me down to the Uni. He’d been classmates with the Dean and they’d come up with an arrangement where I’d get a full scholarship, provided I made good grades and worked for the University.
I never felt like a scholar. In high school, I kept my head down and did enough to get by, pulling off B’s and a few C’s. I wasn’t interested in learning, because learning wasn’t interesting. Uni was different. I took mainly core classes, math-English-history-science, but they were fascinating. For one thing, nobody cared if I showed up or not. It was entirely up to me to succeed, so I did.
In exchange for my education, I worked security and did some light maintenance duties. Maintenance was a no-brainer. I’ve always been handy, and most of the fix-it jobs were the type that could be solved with a liberal application of WD-40, or elbow grease, or both. Security was a different story. Security gave me super powers.
The job itself was pretty easy. I got a uniform, a badge, a flashlight, and Ma gave me some keychain mace for my birthday. No, I didn’t get a gun — they weren’t allowed on campus anyway. I worked mostly nights and weekends, and doubles during long holiday breaks. I was to walk around the full campus twice in a night, checking the labs, computer center, and library. The rest of my time was pretty much my own.
There were two other guards, Jake and Al, but they worked different shifts from me. We had “overlap nights” on Wednesday nights, where we’d get together for about an hour to discuss any major events or changes. There might have been some beer at those meetings, but I’m underage, and you can’t prove anything.
Jake worked mostly dayshift, and Al worked swings and some overnights during the week. Jake was a younger guy, training to be on the local police force, so he took his job pretty seriously. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure Al mostly slept during his shifts. Al was two years older than dirt, so he deserved his rest.
Remember that bit about super powers? My first night on the job, Al gave me a huge keychain with about a thousand keys on it. It weighed nearly five pounds, and was secured to my belt with a heavy-duty metal chain. “Don’t lose that keychain, kid,” Al said. “You got the keys to the kingdom right there. Any door that don’t open, you don’t want to go in it.”
My work hobby, the thing that kept me awake on those long cold winter break nights, was exploring. I made it a point, every night, to open some door that I’d never opened before. I started in the new section, where the library and computer center were, opening each room, each closet, making a map in my head of where everything was. Some nights I might explore two or three rooms. Some nights I might not have time for anything more than an odd, out of the way broom closet.
The Uni is actually a pretty large campus, for having a full student body of only twelve or thirteen hundred. It was built as a Methodist college in 1896, and became state-owned in the thirties. There were three main sections. The ‘Old School’ housed the Administration offices and a few unlucky classrooms —unlucky due to the lack of central heat and air, and the three-story building had no elevators. The ‘Labs’ were a Brutalist horror of poured concrete slabs and tiny windows, built back in the 70s when buildings that looked like Soviet radiators were in style. The “New Library” was steadily losing its “new”, built in the late 90s boom, and made in that unique red-brick-and-glass style like everything else during those years.
When I think back to those early days, those days before, I think how stupid I was. How naive. I should have thought about winter. I should have thought about the solstice.
By December of my sophomore year of college, I had cleared every room in the New Library. I had opened every door, checked every closet, and had a good mental map of the whole building. It was, ultimately, pretty unimpressive. I found no buried treasure, no secret stash of missing computer supplies cached in a forgotten closet. I did find a small, sweaty stack of bad porno mags in a supply closet in the basement level. “Wicked, Wicked Cowgirls.” Who was I to judge?
December is a slow time for the Uni. After the mad rush of Finals, the campus was suddenly deserted, the remaining few staff seeming lost. The buildings stood silent, and dark, in the thin winter breezes. We had a steady series of snowstorms, but none bad enough to close the campus. I made sure the sidewalks were clear and the entryways salted, and otherwise tried to stay indoors.
Besides, I had the ‘Old School’ to explore.
The main ‘Old School’ building, Downing Hall, was a four-story V-shaped building. It had no elevators, tiny stairwells, and was only exempted from ADA compliance due to its “historical importance”. It had no air-conditioning, save for sporadic window-mount units that were only permitted to be installed on the rear of the building, so as not to spoil the building’s historic charm. The building’s heat came from a massive, ancient boiler in the basement. As far as I knew, Al was the only person who knew anything about the boiler, and he must have kept it in good shape, because I never heard of any complaints about it.
I spent the second week after Finals Week poking through the top floors of Downing Hall. I didn’t have a lot of time for exploring every night, as the snow gave me more than usual upkeep chores, but I made steady progress. I discovered a small room in the attic on the Left Wing that must have been an old Dean’s office, complete with a beautiful antique desk and wardrobe. I checked both, thinking I might find something “historic” to give to the Dean, but the wardrobe was empty save for a moth-eaten wool scarf, and the desk’s contents were limited to a few old newspapers and some tax forms from the 1950s.
A level below, on the building’s fourth floor, I found two dozen small, empty classrooms. In my handyman mindset, I checked the windows for loose glass panes, and for water or rodent damage. I fully expected to see rat-droppings, or at least some insect damage, but I found none. The second and third floors were much the same, except the rooms on the rear of the building were air-conditioned and thus actively used for classes when school was in session.
The main floor was Administration, and included the Dean’s office. I thought it wise not to snoop around in my boss’s office, or in Payroll, so I skipped a lot of these rooms. I made my way to the stairwell to the basement, used my superhero keychain, opened the heavy door and went down.
The basement of Downing Hall was different from that of the New Library. For one thing, it was a lot more cramped. The hallway was narrow, and the ceiling was low, with doorways leading off at regular intervals. I checked every room, flipping the old two-button switches to ON, using my flashlight on the dark corners. I had carried a few packs of spare light bulbs — the fancy new CFC bulbs — in my satchel, thinking to replace any that had burned out, and save the environment while I was at it. The little rooms mostly contained junk — spare desks, filing cabinets full of forty- and fifty-year-old papers, old holiday decorations, and so forth, lit by naked hanging bulbs.
I’m not an imaginative kind of guy. I guess I’m pretty smart — I’d made straight A’s in my college courses. It never occurred to me to be scared. I didn’t think, “I’m alone in a creepy old basement.” This was my place, my job, my hobby, and it all seemed so normal.
By the night of the 20th of December, I had made my way to the boiler room. The furnace was a massive monstrosity of iron and rivets, pipes and gauges. It was hellishly hot in that room, and equally loud. It was, however, neat and very clean. Al kept it that way, because he said “a clean boiler lets you get more shuteye.” The furnace had been converted from coal to gas at some point, but the soot had stained the walls of the room, and the old coal chute still opened in one of the corners.
I had no intention of giving the boiler room more than a glance — I’d been there dozens of times, and there was nothing to see, just a workbench and the furnace itself — when I noticed a small door to the back and left behind the furnace. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself. I had never seen that door before. But then again, I had never stood in that particular spot, beside the workbench, and I had never really looked.
The door was smaller than a normal door — maybe five feet tall, painted in the same non-color drab grey-brown of the walls, and was made of metal, just like the other doors in the basement. I went over to the door, and touched the handle.
I think the body knows sometimes when things are wrong. Have you ever had that feeling, like you’re being watched? When you know you’re totally alone, and nobody can see you, but you feel eyes on you? Have you ever gone left instead of right, because you got a feeling that you just shouldn’t go to the right today? It didn’t work that way for me. When I touched that doorknob, nothing felt any different. My head didn’t hurt, my neck-hairs didn’t stand up, and I didn’t hear an inner voice saying, “Don’t do it!”
The doorknob turned, but the door wouldn’t open. I looked more closely, and saw a small keyhole. I checked my magic keychain, and found three possible matches. Struck out on the first two, and the third worked, of course. Of course.
The hinges squealed like they hadn’t been used in a long time (decades.) My handyman instincts noted it. “WD-40,” I mumbled. I hauled open the door and stepped through, into another small, cramped hallway. The light switch worked, and the single bulb blew with a crack! “Dammit!” My hackles did raise then. I flicked on my flashlight, and quickly swapped out the hallway bulb with a new one. I looked around, and saw this hallway was narrow, straight, and ended a few yards away at another door.
That door opened easily, onto another stairway. “What the hell?” I said. Nobody had ever mentioned a sub-basement for this building. The hairs on the back of my neck were still standing out. I shook it off as nerves from the blown bulb, and walked to the stairwell. It was a standard stairwell, and looked pretty much the same as the others in the building. I walked to the bottom, and met another door. I pushed through it, to see another long, narrow hallway, with doors leading off to either side at regular intervals.
The first door to my left was unlocked, and opened fairly easily, onto a storage closet. There were stacks of late Sixties-era books, a few desks, and a decaying mop in its bucket. The door across from it was unlocked, but did not open so easily. I hauled the door open to find a larger room that looked to have been used as a classroom. There were desks, a blackboard, anatomical diagrams, and posters on the walls. Everything was covered in an inch of dust, and appeared to have not been touched in a long time. “Why would anyone put a classroom down here?” I mumbled to myself, “How would they even convince students to get down here in the first place?” I remember thinking, at that point, that I must have somehow discovered a back way into the other wing of the V-shaped Downing Hall. “Maybe this is where the old Science classes were held, before the Labs were built.”
I moved on to the next set of rooms. They were both classrooms, abandoned, dust-covered, and mostly empty. So were the next pair, and the next. I saw a total of twelve disused classrooms in that hallway, and a small breakroom, complete with a lonely coffee pot. I also found two small restrooms. I didn’t spend much time checking them out, as the lights didn’t work and I didn’t feel like replacing those bulbs. I found myself getting slightly nervous — I was in a strange section of the campus, and I was working alone that night. In the back of my mind I just couldn’t truly justify the existence — the waste — of a whole floor full of unused classrooms.
When I got to the end of the hallway, I met another steel door. I opened it, and saw another stairwell. I was fully expecting this stairwell to go up, to connect to one of the other main stairwells in Downing Hall. The stairs only went down.
This was the point, I remember, at which I began to get scared.
“No way. There’s no way these stairs go down. How would anybody get down here?”
“Here. Here. here,” the stairwell echoed at me.
I should have checked the time. I should have been concerned with finishing my rounds. I should have been hungry for lunch. I should have run.
I started to climb down the stairs.
This stairwell was unlit, and appeared to be much older, and in much worse condition than the others. It was also longer. Much longer. After a few minutes of walking down the steps, I began to count them. At every twelve steps, there was a small landing, a turn, and another set of steps. Down. After ten landings, I reached another door. It was unlocked, and opened easily. The hinges squealed, and the echoes died like lost things in the dark.
I groped against the left wall for a light switch, and there was none. I checked the right, and the wall was equally smooth. I cast the flashlight around, but saw nothing. Nothing forward, nothing to either side, and nothing above. I snapped my fingers, listening for the echo. I may or may not have heard one. I slowly came to realize that the room into which I had entered was enormous, cavernous, possibly the biggest room I had ever physically experienced. I shrank back to the doorway for a moment.
“This room can’t be here,” I said to myself. I started to think about going back. But I also started to think about wanting to know what was in there. I took a step forward, and another, until I was walking steadily into the room. I kept a steady pace, counting my steps. I looked over my shoulder every few yards, using the light from the open doorway to orient myself. I walked, slowly, for a hundred yards, two hundred yards, until I saw a dim glow ahead.
The glow got faintly brighter and larger as I walked toward it. Another hundred yards, and another, and three more passed until I could make out a small dim light bulb near a door.
That door was of a different type entirely. It was huge, fourteen feet tall at least, and half again as wide. The surface was black metal, studded with rivets and bolts, mounted on huge hinges. Across the face of the door, graved into the metal, were words in some strange looping script that I could not recognize. Every surface was carved with that script, or with strange diagrams made of splayed circle-ended lines. In the center of the door was a large spoked wheel lock, and in the center of the lock was a tiny keyhole. Above the keyhole was a sigil, enclosed in three circles.
I looked behind me, and could not see the light from the stairwell. I couldn’t see anything at all.
I held the Superhero Keychain to the dim light, and flipped through the keys. Of course, there was one small, battered key that looked as if it might fit. I inserted it into the lock, and turned it. I heard a click, and a thud, and a sound from within the door like pouring pebbles. Or dry teeth.
I pulled the key from the lock, and grasped the spokes of the wheel lock. My heart was racing, and sweat was dribbling into my eyes. I turned the spokes to the left, counterclockwise —widdershins, some buried memory in my head said — and kept turning, until the wheel stopped. There was another THUD and a CRACK, and then silence.
The darkness behind me no longer felt empty. In fact, it felt positively crowded, as if I had an audience, watching me. I stepped back from the door and flashed my light around. Still nothing. Dry empty floor. I turned back to the door, grasped the large cast-iron handles, and pulled. Nothing. I tried harder, putting all of my weight into the pull, and at the last moment, at the end of my strength, I heard another CRACK! and the door groaned open on a draft of cool, stinking air.
The smell was heavy, moist, and musky. I had a flash memory of my mother taking me to the zoo as a child, and the smell of the Cat House, with the lions. At the thought of the lions, I let go of the handles and stumbled back a bit. I carefully shone my light into the yawning black crevice of the open door. I saw a short hallway that opened into a small, cramped room. I saw a filthy, rusted metal chair. I saw bones. Small bones. I saw — or heard, or smelled — a form so black it seemed to suck in the light of my flashlight. I saw a black form rushing towards me, running towards me, filling the hallway, howling and laughing and speaking, in a voice that sounded like mountains collapsing.
I remember fangs, and words that turned my bones to rusted glass. I remember feathers, and a hand with too many fingers, jeweled with something unspeakable. And the smell, the stink of something long caged.
I remember wings.
I don’t know how long I wandered in the dark, alone under hundreds of feet of rock. There was no light. There was no way to judge time. My flashlight was dead, and my cellphone, and even the small specks of luminescent paint on my cheap wristwatch were dark. There was something wrong with my right leg. It hurt, but I couldn’t see enough to find out why.
I kept hearing my audience, there in that cavernous room. I screamed at them. I felt one of them touch my face, and I threw my flashlight at it. The flashlight bounced and rattled and became still, somewhere that I was not. Something laughed, later. I raved and screamed but didn’t throw anything else.
I found the doorway after hours or days of crawling.
There were no lights in the stairwell.
After years of climbing, I crawled into that first forgotten hallway. I sliced my fingers on the crushed remains of the light bulbs I had packed in my satchel. I crawled down the hallway, and reached the next stairwell. I hauled myself up them, and finally out into the boiler room.
When I staggered out of Downing Hall, two full days after going in, it was into dim winter daylight and a full police presence.
Five people had been found dead on and around the campus. All had been brutally, savagely murdered, bodies splayed open, viscera missing. The teeth marks suggested a wild animal, but the murder scenes and body positioning also displayed a certain intelligence to them. There was also the writing, carved into the flesh when it was not yet dead meat. The cops wouldn’t talk about the writing.
The cops wouldn’t talk to me, either. Not afterwards. When they first saw me stumble out into daylight, covered in blood, they assumed I was the perpetrator. They quickly changed their assumptions when the medics pointed out the greenstick fracture, the dehydration, the concussion and the obvious shock. The cops asked a lot of questions, and I answered as best as I could. I told them about the door in the boiler room. They couldn’t find it. They showed me the bare smooth wall from where I had crawled, dazed and broken. My tracks stopped at that wall. Two cops tried breaking through the wall in that spot, only to meet old brick, and older earth past that.
The cops wanted to know where the long, black feathers came from, stuck to my clothes by dried blood. I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know.
The cops, the medics, nobody, would look at me any more. The scars on my face, the deep, gouged-out writing, was not a sight that most would want to see. I was marked.
Whatever I had let out, whatever had killed and eaten five people, and a week later six more, had marked me as a friend.