Another Light Under the Door

by Jacob Yaple

It was late at night at Hill House Psychiatric Hospital. Behind long rows of doors, sleep had temporarily silenced the screams and gibbers of dozens of patients. Still others lay awake, choosing to suffer their horrors quietly. And whatever watchmen walked the halls of Hill House, walked alone.

            In room number one-thirteen, an escape attempt was in progress.

            Robert lay on his side in bed, staring intently at the cold, antiseptic strip of light coming from under the hallway door. He was tired from a long day of following doctors’ orders, swallowing nurses’ pills, and avoiding psychopaths’ clutches. The only way he could fall asleep was by concentrating on the light under the door. If he concentrated hard enough, he could make himself believe that the world of his childhood lay behind the door. He might open the door and find himself in his childhood home. It had happened before.

            Robert’s nostrils flared, breathing in the distinctive smell of wood smoke from the dying embers of a flagstone fireplace. To his half-open eyes, the hallway light dimmed and softened, now coming from lamps and glowing fireplace embers and not overhead fluorescents. Tinny music filtered under the door, old bluegrass songs playing on a stereo.

            Keeping his eyes on the light under the door, Robert jumped out of bed and grabbed the door handle. It stayed solidly locked as he tried to twist it. Robert peered through the chicken- wire reinforced window in the door and saw the hospital hallway, same as ever. He sighed. It was time to face facts. He was probably using the wrong door. The only door that had ever worked like that for him was in his old apartment. He just had to find a way of getting there from here.

            “Thanks for meeting with me this morning, Doctor,” Robert said. “I just realized something. You may have noticed that I’ve been acting kind of weird lately.”

            The doctor smiled. “That’s a good sign, Rob. It means you’re finally coming out of your psychosis.”

When Robert had first come to the hospital, he had imagined he was world famous, with everybody clamoring to hear his story. He basked in the attention from the doctors and visiting interns who interviewed him. Now he knew they were just doing their jobs; another day, another nutcase.

“So, Rob,” the doctor continued, “What exactly do you mean by ‘acting weird’?”

“Oh, you know. I thought I could open a magic door to my childhood, then when my parents died I thought I had killed them by opening the door, then I tried to save them by taking them back through the door. Stuff like that.”

“I see.” The doctor looked at his clipboard. “According to your file, your mom died of a brain aneurism and your dad committed suicide the night after her funeral. Damn shame. I hope you realize now that their deaths had nothing to do with you. They just happened to coincide with your imaginary trips through the door.”

Robert nodded. Actually, he still believed his opening the door to his childhood had somehow killed his parents. It wasn’t his visits to his childhood that killed them, but his return to his apartment afterward. He was proving he didn’t need them anymore, and that broke their hearts.

“It was perfectly natural for you to develop a coping mechanism like this,” the doctor said. “You had just moved into your first apartment, didn’t know anybody, you had to adjust to a new job and new surroundings—who wouldn’t want to go back to their childhood in such a situation? And of course your grief at your parents’ deaths was also understandable—you did your best to save them by going through the door again, hoping to bring them back.”

Robert nodded again. That part, at least, was true—he no longer believed that it was possible to bring someone back from the dead. Over his time at the hospital he had come to terms with his parents’ deaths and was now ready to move on.

The doctor put away his clipboard and put his hand on Robert’s shoulder. “Okay, Rob,” he said. “After this breakthrough I’d say you’re well on your way to recovery. I’ll start filling out your discharge papers right away. Congratulations!”

The first part of Robert’s plan was complete. Soon he would be getting out of the hospital, and his first stop would be his old apartment so he could look at the light under the door. He was sick of going back to his childhood, but surely there was some other use for a magic door. So far its only impact on reality was to kill people, but he could live with that. As a high school dropout, Robert had never felt he had any skills or talents worth mentioning. Now he had a skill—magic door piloting—and he intended to use it.

            “I’m sorry, sir,” the leasing agent said, “we can’t give you your old apartment back. The lease was terminated due to nonpayment of rent, and since then someone new has moved in.” She squinted through her horn rims at the computer screen as Robert fidgeted in his chair. Finding an affordable apartment was going to be tougher than he thought. His inheritance had already been spent to pay for his hospital stay, and he was forced to apply for government help to pay for doctor visits and medication. Being mentally ill was surprisingly expensive.

            “I wish I could lease you a different studio apartment, but we’ve already converted them all.”

            “What do you mean?” Robert asked.

            “We converted all our studios into one-bedrooms by taking two adjoining studios, knocking out the wall between them, and nailing shut one of the entrance doors.” She stood up and walked over to the door. “Wait—I’ll show you. Come with me.”

            Robert followed her out of the office and down the hall. There was the old familiar hallway he had seen so many times before. There was the glowing red exit sign, the freight elevator, and the regular elevator with its out of order sign. Looking down the hall, though, it seemed there were fewer doors than before. He almost passed right by his own special door without seeing it—then did a double take. Robert’s magic door had been nailed shut, had its doorknob removed, and had been painted over to match the wall. You poor thing, Robert thought. He reached out to stroke the wood. What’d they do to you? Would the door still be able to work its magic if it was sealed shut? He would have to wait to find out.

            Several days later, the leasing agent called with the news that the occupant of Robert’s old apartment had moved out. When Robert asked why, the agent said the tenant couldn’t get any sleep because of the glaring light coming from under the sealed door. This gave Robert hope. Maybe the tenant had moved out because they somehow sensed the power of the light under the door. Time for an experienced magic door jockey to step in. He signed a new lease with the agent and moved into the apartment.

            Stripped of all the emotional baggage and trips to his childhood, the doorway was basically just a psychic weapon. Its only known effect was to kill people. You went through the door into a faraway place or time, caught the attention of the target, and retreated back through the door. The target died at the same time you reentered the apartment. Robert hated to have to kill someone, but he didn’t want to mess with the doorway’s lone function. He might break it, and there would go his chance to use his newfound skill. He would just have to make sure that he chose someone truly deserving of being killed by the doorway.

            Then Robert happened to see a video of a political rally. A senator named Arthur A. Bullfinch was making a speech. “Every time there’s a shooting, I hear folks saying, ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ That’s true, isn’t it? And when we say ‘people,’ we mean crazy people, don’t we. Another crazy person went berserk and killed some little kids. If only there were some way of containing crazy people, locking them up before they go on a rampage. Oh wait, I know—mental hospitals! That’s the place for crazy people. Just lock them up and throw away the key. The problem is that mental hospitals keep letting crazy people go, reintroducing them into society. They aren’t really cured—they need pills and therapy to stay sane. The underlying craziness is still there. And if they miss a pill or a doctor’s appointment—watch out! Before you know it you’ve got another tragedy on your hands. Let me tell you something. True story—another crazy person just got released from Hill House Hospital. I heard he was in there for killing both his parents. Now, do we want a crazy person like that running around loose on our streets? No, we do not! To make matters worse, this nut is being supported with taxpayer dollars. That’s right: we’re footing the bill for his treatment, and if it all goes to hell we’ll pay another way, with our children’s blood. That’s why I say: keep the crazies locked up, and we’ll save thousands of taxpayer dollars, not to mention thousands of lives.” Senator Bullfinch was already pushing to make it harder for hospitals to release mental patients, basically making it illegal to be insane.

            Robert decided that Senator Bullfinch richly deserved to be killed by a figment of Robert’s imagination. This crazy person is going to strike back, he thought. But there was a lot to do to prepare first. In order to focus the doorway on the senator, he would have to get to know him intimately. He would have to love the senator as he had loved his parents. His homesickness in his new apartment had triggered the door the first time, and he would have to develop a yearning for Senator Bullfinch in the same way.

            Robert started watching Senator Bullfinch on CNN, watched videos of all his rallies, and read his autobiography. He learned all he could without actually meeting him. Every night he concentrated on the light coming from under the sealed door. He couldn’t really summon up any homesickness; instead he felt only righteous anger. The more he knew about Senator Bullfinch, the more angry he became. The man was a total slimeball. According to him, taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used for anything—except as a buzzword in his speeches. He totally ignored the plight of the poor or disabled. And more and more people had started to agree with what he said.

            Another requirement for focusing the doorway was fatigue. You had to be exhausted to achieve a dreamlike state that would summon the doorway. Robert filled that requirement by searching for jobs all day. He had been let go from his first job because of his extended stay in the hospital. He was only qualified for warehouse or factory work, but his new skill might change all that. If this assassination attempt succeeded, he might farm himself out to the Mafia or something as a psychic hit man.

            Robert focused on the light coming from the hallway. He imagined Senator Bullfinch on the other side, waving the flag and blustering his way through another hateful speech. Then the quality of the light seemed to change. It seemed to flicker with the bright flashes of photographers documenting a political rally. He heard cheers and applause and smelled the tobacco smoke from Senator Bullfinch’s cigar.

            He jumped out of bed and went over to the sealed door. Working quickly, he used a hammer to pull out the nails holding the door shut. The nails squealed in protest as he levered them out of the wood. Above his head, a crack started to extend across the ceiling, widening with every nail he removed. He took out the last nail and cautiously opened the door.

            The hallway as he knew it had ceased to exist. Gone was the stairwell door with its glowing exit sign, the freight elevator, and the regular elevator with its almost permanent out of order sign. Instead, a single large room opened up the space. A huge crowd of people stood with their backs to him, jumping and craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the star of the show. Hundreds of red, white, and blue balloons hung from the ceiling. Senator Bullfinch stood on a raised podium high above the crowd.

            Robert opened the door the rest of the way. It creaked loudly, and the senator stopped abruptly in the middle of his speech.

The crack in the ceiling of Robert’s apartment widened more as Robert walked through the doorway, and pieces of plaster started to rain down.

Robert took a few steps into the crowded lecture hall, but that was as far as he got. Senator Bullfinch looked around the room nervously until his gaze settled on Robert.

            “You!” the senator said, pointing a trembling finger at the intruder. “You’re not supposed to be here! Get out! Get out at once, you hear me? Arrest that man!”

            The bodyguards looked where Bullfinch was pointing, but they couldn’t see anybody there. Even when they shouldered their way through the crowd, they found nothing.

            “There he is! Don’t you see him?” Senator Bullfinch raved. “Arrest that crazy man! Get him! Lock him up!”

            Robert turned to go. He had caught the senator’s attention, and that was all that was needed to set the hook. Now all he had to do was go back to his apartment and shut the door behind him, sealing Bullfinch’s fate.

Something fell on Robert’s head. Were the crowd members throwing tomatoes? No, nobody but Senator Bullfinch could even see him. He ran a hand through his hair and looked at the white dust on it. Ceiling plaster?

            More bits of plaster hit the floor around him, exploding like bombs. Then a few bricks tumbled down, bouncing across the floor. Uh oh, Robert thought. He might’ve known this would happen. It was the landlord’s fault for being too greedy. Knocking out all those walls had weakened the structure of the building, and now the whole thing was coming down.

            On the podium, the senator cringed as if from an attack. “The roof is caving in!” he said. “Get out now! The whole building’s collapsing! Run! Get out of here!”

            The crowd was in turmoil. They stampeded for the exits, leaving the senator and his bodyguards alone on the platform. The bodyguards looked around, but couldn’t see any signs that the lecture hall was collapsing.

            Robert ran for the doorway, dodging falling bricks and wooden beams. He reached the open door, but couldn’t get into his apartment. The room was filled with debris from the disintegrating building. Robert settled for crouching in the middle of the doorway. He had heard that doorways were the safest place to be during earthquakes, and he hoped it was also true of building collapses.

            Robert waited several hours in the dark until a firefighter shouted, “Grab my hand, mister! I’ll pull you out of there before it caves in even more!”

            Robert reached up and grabbed the firefighter’s hand. As he slid out of the doorway, it fell apart, the pieces falling deeper into the pit. So much for his magic door skills; the magic wouldn’t work without the doorway or the apartment it was attached to. He hoped that at least Senator Bullfinch had gotten what he deserved.

            The bodyguard looked down at Senator Bullfinch. The senator was lying catatonic on the floor, staring straight ahead and sucking his thumb.

            “What are we going to do with this guy?” the bodyguard said. “He’s crazy. We’re not trained to deal with crazy people. They should all be locked up, like the man said.”

            “Take him to the mental hospital,” the other bodyguard said. “They’ll handle it from there.”

            “He could’ve gotten a lot of people hurt, causing a panic like that. He’s not just crazy, he’s dangerous. Let’s hope they never let him out.”

            And they never did.

Jacob Yaple is an author, cartoonist and board game developer. He lives and works in Rochester.