I watched the stars blink out one by one.
I let the silence overtake me then, as space and time grew quiet and alone. A dark void surrounded and filled me as the black grew into existence, and I knew that we had done this. We had stirred this darkness, stirred it and fed it and made it grow, and it consumed us. Slowly, desperately, and terribly, it consumed us.
And then we set it free.
The house was a thing of desperate beauty; even Neila said so, and she wasn’t one for poetic license. I loved that about her. She was practical. I was… less so. When we finally decided it was time to move in together, I let her do the searching, lest we end up in a gorgeous old home with no insulation or plumbing. But she had come to me, and feverishly she had said, “Hazel, this is the place. This is the one.” And when I saw it, I believed her.
This was the place.
This was the one.
Our rented van, loaded down with boxes and adorned with a crown of bedrails, sat in the street. We, in front of it on the sidewalk, personal effects in our arms, stared at the house for a long, lingering moment. A deep smile spread across my lips and I turned to Neila. The keyring was looped around her slender pinky, hands cradling a shoebox full of photographs.
“Well?” I said.
She bumped her hip against mine as though daring me to go first, so I did, awkwardly looking around my haul to keep an eye on the stairs beneath me. I heard her shoes shuffle on the concrete as she followed. Steadying my boxes in one arm, I grabbed the screen door for Neila and she breezed past, putting the key in the lock and turning the knob. The door swung open. Cool, old air breathed out of the house and into the hot August morning, inviting us to enter, almost drawing us in. She went inside, holding the door back for me, and we set our boxes together in the hallway. We stepped forward and surveyed the walls. The painters had already been in and out, and despite the age of the place, it looked glossy and new.
“Welcome home, Aitch,” Neila said to me with a casual grin, her brown cheeks flushed with summer and excitement.
And for a little while, it really did feel like home. It really did.
When August ended, the countryside slipped into a season of gloom, and the house changed. Though the muggy heat lingered on, something about that overcast September turned the rooms we were trying to make our own into a foreign landscape. They were not like a place we’d never been, but like a place we couldn’t go, like looking at a room in a mirror, over your shoulder; once you turned around, it wasn’t the same place you’d seen in the glass. Every time I passed over the threshold, going from inside to out, I felt as though I were breaking through the surface of a pool, coming up for air, seeing clearly again for the first time since I’d come home.
I tried to explain this to Neila.
She said to give it time. I wasn’t from New England, she said, and she was; she said these old houses had personality. I couldn’t argue with that; with its eves and its transoms, with its nooks and crannies, the house certainly had character. It had designs of its own.
Neila was home more than I was; work kept me away during daylight hours and as autumnal darkness began to encroach upon the afternoon, the day began to feel like evening too. Neila was right; I wasn’t from New England, and the early nightfall played havoc on my senses. Driving home in the five pm darkness made simple shadows seem menacing, made every sodium streetlamp an invitation to weird rendezvous of unnameable things. I caught myself waiting too long at stop lights, squinting into the tenebrous landscape as evening descended to try and make out shapes in the distance until a car behind me would honk and I would snap awake again, shake my head, and finally make it home in the eerie gloaming.
But it wasn’t just the early dusk, the creeping darkness that stole a few more minutes of daylight away from me each afternoon.
It was the house.
The first snow fell early in October, blanketing the world around us and creating a softness, a quiet that should have been peaceful, should have been kind, but instead was isolating. I pressed my hand against the ancient glass in the bay window that faced the street, watching as the flakes collected in the road, the white turned yellow by the light from the streetlamps. On the pane a fog collected, the heat from my skin drawing moisture to the glass around my palm, between my fingers. I flexed my hand, distorting the outline gently, making droplets merge and run down the glass.
Neila came and stood beside me, running her hand down along the length of my hair, letting her palm come to rest on the small of my back.
“It’s come early this year,” she said softly, her gaze unfocused, looking out the window, “the snow.” She put her other hand on her mouth, two fingers on her lips as she cradled her chin with her thumb, and briefly, I thought that she looked lost, but it wasn’t that at all. Neila pressed her hand to the glass beside mine and it wasn’t that she was lost. Into the darkness, into the snow, it looked like she were searching.
She stayed there for a minute, one hand on my back, the other on the window beside mine, eyes staring unblinkingly into the wintry street. But then she pulled her hand away from the cold pane and turned to me with a playful smile and she said, “You know what snow needs?” Neila leaned forward and touched her nose to mine, conspiratorially answering her own query: “Cocoa,” before pressing her lips gently to mine and stepping away. And I couldn’t help but smile back at her as she walked to the kitchen, the darkness forgotten, until I turned back to the window.
Mine was the only handprint there.
After that first snow, that former oppressive heat, that lingering summer that refused to go, entirely vanished. Autumn arrived only in the colors of leaves, which were hastily transient and fell as soon as their hues shifted; in every other regard, winter rushed in to take hold.
But not inside the house.
I expected it to be drafty, was prepared to crank the electric blankets up all the way, to empty my wallet into the envelope the gas bill arrived with; I was ready for the wooden floors to chill my toes first thing in the morning as I made my way into the shower, but this never happened. The house always felt curiously warm, and slightly damp. I ascribed the moisture to the climate; if it was not snowing, it was raining, and though we were near the crest of a hill, the basement was sunken, as were nearly all basements in these old New England homes. But even with an icy rain spattering against the siding, the house always felt almost unpleasantly balmy, as though the foundation itself were radiating some ineffable heat.
It was always the worst in the basement. This part of the house was divided into two sections. There was a half-finished area, frankly nicer than it had any need to be for the appliances it contained: a washer and dryer, a sink, a folding table, and one low-slung line for hanging delicates, and a closed-off room accessible only through a narrow door that locked, and indeed, stayed locked, with an old-fashioned latch. Neila said it was most likely an old coal cellar, probably so caked and blackened with soot that the previous occupants of the house decided it wasn’t worth fixing up the way the laundry room had been restored. This, of course, seemed reasonable enough; the wood of the little narrow door was darkened either with time or some substance, and I had initially thought that it might be something like pitch, but what would be the point of coating an interior door in tar? Neila was right, I decided, and years of coal-stained hands must have ground the soot so deeply into the grain of the wood that it gave the impression that this curious door was completely sealed in black pitch. What would be the point?
I’d seen the door when we’d first walked through the house – against the eggshell walls of the renovated laundry room, it would have been hard to miss even in the dark – but I didn’t notice it, really notice it, until I was unpacking heavy sweaters and putting away light summer clothes, finally utilizing the folding table for its original purpose instead of as hasty storage. Typically I would haul laundry upstairs to fold clean clothes on the bed when I bothered to fold it at all, a habit of mine that caused Neila endless grief. To make her life easier, and make some small amends for this, I was devoting an October Sunday to changing over our winter wardrobes, washing the old and unpacking and sorting the new from where they had been stashed in the laundry room.
I had been folding for what felt like hours but was probably more like twenty minutes when the washer stopped, the first load of laundry pausing between cycles.
The sudden loss of rhythmic mechanical sound, the sudden silence, was overwhelming.
It wasn’t as though the sound had simply ceased, though I knew that this was all it was, all it could be, must be. But it was as though silence itself was emanating outward, was consuming any other sound within some undefined radius that I was inside, and spitting out only more soundlessness in return.
I turned my head, the long hair on my neck sending a shiver through my skin as it brushed across my spine. If silence could be said to be coming from a place, there was no doubt in my mind that this silence was coming from that door.
I fixed my vision on it.
It was staring back.
The shirt I had been holding slipped from my fingers and I reached out toward the old brass handle, the ancient latch.
The washer kicked back on then, and the sound seemed to be sucked back into the room in a great rush. I was aware of the noise of my own breathing even over the noise of the spin cycle. I drew back the hand that had been reaching for the door like I had been reaching for something red hot, aware even in my solitude of how ridiculous this must have looked. Even still, and though I was already several feet from it, I took an extra step away from that darkened door.
The basement air felt sweltering now, muggy and oppressive. I looked at the garments on the table in front of me and decided that they could wait.
I glanced back over my shoulder as I ascended the stairs up to the kitchen. Maybe it was the odd angle of my gaze or the quickness of my glance but I could swear that the shadows near the door had a little more depth than they should have, and that the door was bowed out, stretching somehow further than the frame, as though in answer to my own reach.
I ascended the steps a little faster, the hand that grasped the handrail shaking as I adjusted my grip.
Neila, for her part, came back downstairs with me, even though I knew what I had told her sounded like madness. But she went down to the basement, a guardian of sorts, as the washer began to drain soapy water into the basin, the whooshing sound comforting in my ears as sheepishly I followed behind, my shoulders hunched, each step I took making me feel a little worse; the door was quite clearly flat, flush with the frame, the shadows no darker than they should have been beneath the ancient incandescent bulb above.
Neila dutifully continued on though, crossing the concrete floor until she was just inches from the narrow black door. She stood before it, her hands on her hips as though challenging the very wood it was made of, and if there was a little humor in that stance, there was also a genuine strength on my behalf, in her posture and in her eyes as she turned back toward me and gave me that playful smile. I tried to return it.
“Okay, Hazel?” she said, her voice quiet and yielding, and I thought she was asking me if I were okay, so I only opened my hands toward her and shrugged. But then she put her palms out in front of her and, turning back to the door, she tented her fingers and put the tips of all ten of them against the weird black wood.
I felt myself reaching out to stop her, wanting to grab her, to tear her away, to throw her to the ground before whatever taint that marred the door blighted her as well.
But it was only a gesture she made, and it was over in an instant, too fast for me to even move.
Neila pushed against the door, just a little shove to test it, then let her hands drop, wiping her fingertips off on her jeans.
“Seems pretty solid to me, babe. And I used some real excessive force on it with an old rag a couple of weeks back,” she confessed, returning my shrug. She walked back over to me and put her arms around my neck, giving me a little kiss. “It’s a weird old house, Aitch. Don’t let it eat at you.”
And I wish I could have. But when she spoke, her words were a little too soft, like some of the volume, some of the sound had been drawn away.
After that, things changed fast.
Neila had always been home more than I had; she could telecommute and only had to go into the office a few times a month at most, so after that day in the basement, I began to wonder if the house hadn’t been sinking its teeth into her more deeply this whole time.
The first time I had this thought, it came unbidden, unwelcome, and it seemed so patently absurd that I didn’t know whether to laugh at or be angry with myself for having it. I had been sitting on the couch reading when I thought I saw something shift, something shimmer, something change somehow, just at the very edge of my vision, passing from right to left in the room as my eyes moved from left to right on the page, like something was being drawn past me. My movements were a paranoid sort of cautious as though the act of attempted observation would cause whatever had been altered to change back, or to never have happened at all. I put my finger in the pages of my book and hesitantly lifted my gaze.
Neila crossed the room then, in that same right to left direction, and she gave me a gentle smile as her eyes caught mine. I blinked quickly, waving awkwardly back, not looking at her so much as looking past her, looking at her vector of motion, trying to keep both within my field of vision, where the change had been and gone, and Neila, until she too moved out of my sight.
It was when I heard her feet on the creaking floorboards as they descended into the basement that I had that thought, the wrenching awareness that she had been here all of the time with that door, that room –
And whatever was behind it.
I shook myself then, threw the book aside, losing my page and not caring that I had. Whatever I had seen or thought I saw, whatever I had felt, was the result of these not-yet-familiar surroundings, of too many evening shadows, of hot air and weird angles, and the over-imaginings exacerbated by the stress they brought on.
Except that, as Neila came back up the stairs, something in the back of my mind was screaming at me that I knew that it wasn’t true.
That maybe it already was too late.
Sleep came hard and harder still. I’d lie awake next to her, just listening. That became my nightly routine, listening. Neila would turn over and fall easily asleep, and I, hypervigilant as borderline-seditious thoughts darted through my mind like swarming gnats, would hold my eyes open and listen in the darkness not for a particular sound but for sounds at all: for Neila’s breathing, for the sound of sheets rustling against her skin when she shifted, for the creaking of the walls as they expanded and contracted in the cooling night air, and in the softer moments between, for the beating of my own heart.
And I could swear that there were moments when I couldn’t hear a single thing. But these might have been moments when exhaustion betrayed me, when my eyes slipped shut, and my mind closed out the small noises that I was listening for.
Then I woke up one night in November and the shadows in the bedroom were too thick, and Neila’s breathing was too still, and the house was entirely silent.
I threw back the sheets and my feet hit the floor, and I left Neila behind with my own tiredness as my bare legs pumped hard, carrying me down first to the front hall, and then, more haltingly in that bottomless blackness, to the basement, and on the creaky old stairs, nothing made a single sound.
It was dark, and it was warm, and it was damp, and I didn’t even raise my hand to flick on the the light, instead staring into, through, the darkness and across the laundry room. Even without light, without really seeing, I knew I was looking right at the door.
I had the horrible impression that it was open, that it had been unlatched somehow, drawn inward by the same force that had pulled away all of the sound, pulled toward whatever lay within that mysterious cellar. I imagined that in the gloom I could see it, just a sliver of a patch of shadows darker than the rest where the door was open a crack, a few horrible inches. The groans that the stairs should have been making and the sound of my panicked breathing were disappearing within that space and that heavy, unnatural silence was leaking out to take their place.
And then, in that monochromatic blackness, I heard the fearsome click of the door sliding easily shut.
My hand slid up in the same moment that my mouth formed the word “No,” and as the light clicked on, I could hear my own voice again, rising up as though escaping from beneath a murky pond, but by the time I heard it and my eyes adjusted to the brightness above me, the door looked as though it had never been opened.
For a moment, I stood nearly frozen at the bottom of the stairs, my lip quivering not in fear but rage, and I had the unpleasant sense that I was being played with. Deep, seething hatred lit through me, and then there came that heat, that noisome air that kept the whole house so unseasonably muggy, so unusually warm and damp.
Had I not been exhaling my own vengeful breath, maybe the thought would never have occurred to me.
That the heat came from its lungs when it breathed out.
That the silence took hold when the thing behind the door was breathing in.
And that each time, we made it stronger.
That we were feeding it somehow.
I ran across the basement floor and threw myself against the horrible blackened wood, not caring anymore if it heard me, if it knew me. I pounded on the door and screamed, I screamed and told it that I knew it was there and I didn’t care, that it couldn’t do this to us, that it didn’t scare me –
All of this was lies, and as I shouted and pounded and railed against the unyielding wood, my voice grew softer through a silence all my own as I realized just what I was saying, what I was doing. Because the truth was, I was scared of this house, more scared now than ever, and I didn’t know what it was capable of.
But I knew it was there now, knew it in the deepest part of me, that there was something behind that door.
My hands unballed, fists no longer, fingers limp and grasping weakly at the blackened grain, imploring it not to be, to have never been, and there, in the thick darkness, I saw a shape. It was a five-pointed thing and I lifted my palm to it slowly, hesitating as my thumb and fingers fit the outline. It was a handprint much like my own, but smaller, slimmer, and I knew at once it was Neila’s. Gently, I let my fingertips match up with the marks she had left behind.
“Hazel? Why aren’t you sleeping?” Her voice, coming from behind me, from the basement stairs, didn’t startle me so much as it crushed me. I didn’t even turn to look at her when I spoke.
“Neila – we can’t live here…” I pushed my hand a little harder against the wood, a little closer to that space where her own palm had left such a mark. How long had she rested it there? When? “Not like this,” and I felt the first hot tears in my eyes.
She didn’t say anything for a moment, but I heard her feet scuff the concrete as Neila made her way to me. Her hand was on my shoulder as she softly spoke my name. “Hazel,” and the tenderness of the sound made me squeeze shut my eyes to escape it, “it’s really not that bad.”
Her hand on my shoulder was cold.
I should have left that night. I should have packed my things and gotten out, gotten as far away from those dark, quiet corners as I could get.
I stayed for Neila.
I must have thought that my presence, my being there would act as some kind of stabilizing force in the house, to mitigate whatever was behind that cellar door. I must have thought it would help.
I should have known.
It was only as I was driving home in that disorienting evening twilight, the sky dark and clear overhead, that it struck me. Just a few feet from the house, as I put the car in park and turned my gaze to the sky, there were no more stars.
The sky above the house was crisp, and quiet, and black. Like the shadows in all the corners, like the overwhelming moments of silence that overtook us, the firmament over my head was all too dark, too empty. Had I seen other stars that night? I turned my head – there, what felt like inches from my fingertips as I lifted my hand toward the sky, grasping for what little light I could find, were stars. But there were none left above the house.
I turned and ran inside.
I tried to scream Neila’s name down the hallway. I don’t know why I did it; my lips moved, my lungs heaved, my throat burned with the effort, but all that came out was a faint hiss, the impression of her name like the marks left behind on paper after pencil has been erased.
I don’t know why I did it; I knew exactly where she would be.
I went into the basement.
The light was strange, washed out and dimmed down, not at all the brutal incandescence of the bare bulb above the folding table, and it seemed to shift at the edges of my perception, growing darker and brighter and darker again like water was washing all around me, to more like being surrounded by a heavy fog, invisible but interacting with the air, with the light, with the aether.
It was cold.
That heat, that sweltering dampness was gone now, and this was what made my heart skip. The thing behind the door, was it dead, its mysterious irradiation ceased? Or was it… gone?
Neila was on her knees. Her hands were reaching into darkness like my own had reached out for those distant pinpricks of light. She was turned away from me, and as I came to the bottom of the basement stairs, a terrible feeling in my stomach told me I didn’t want to see her face.
She was kneeling in front of the strange, dark doorway.
It was an open void.
The door, now open, lead not to some run-down cellar full of soot and cobwebs, not to the space that the shape of the house implied, not even to some empty construct where something horrible, something desperately terrible might once have been, but to an open-mouthed chasm of pitch-black nothing, a complete lack of what it was to be.
“Neila,” I breathed, not knowing if I should reach for her, not knowing if I should pull away, and the sound of her name seemed lost in a space much too large than the walls of the room around us, drawn into that open door. “What have we done?”
“It’s free,” she answered, and I had to strain to hear her, the sound of her voice a wet, soft noise, the speech of stepped-on leaves after a long rain. She pointed up, one arm trembling, the other still reaching into that ineffable dark.
I backed away. I could not bear to touch her, to see what had become of her; I knew her skin would be cold, knew whatever lips I had once kissed could not be the same ones that had spoken those words.
In the hazy, half-consumed light, I went back up the basement stairs and out of the terrible house.
It was free. The dark, unnamable quiet that had festered below us, feeding and growing, was free, free of the cellar, free of the house, free of whatever confines had kept it trapped beneath our feet. For a moment, I closed my eyes. The air around me was cold, bitterly so, and the wind whispered through the trees.
And then it didn’t.
The world paused, and the chill receded, and something around my skin felt like a warm breath. I let my eyes slip open.
I watched the stars blink out one by one.
Hello, folx! My name is Melissa, though you’ll often find me around the internet as Paperclippe. I’m a bi woman living in the Pittsburgh area, and writing has been the driving force in my life for decades.
I started writing this story several years ago and got maybe three paragraphs in before I just sort of… gave up. In the wake of current events, however, I threw myself into it again this fall, and it helped me to explore the themes of alienation and distance, as well as the feeling of minimizing and self-doubt when things seem too horrific to believe.
I am very glad to see the trend of queer people continuing and in some cases subverting the genre of the Weird (as well as birth of the New Weird) to make space for ourselves, because it’s a genre that seems almost made to explore a kind of gender terror, a horror of trying to know the self. In Silence, I thought, what better way to do this than to take a relationship between two women and examine what happens when they – when we – lose the ability to communicate, in this case literally; what happens when there is nothing but silence, when there is nothing but… nothingness. Even though what she faces is literally indescribable, unnameable, her thought process is a familiar one: questioning the motivations of her partner, of herself, and trying to blame the inanimate, the door, the house (though in this case, she’s right about that, though I’m not sure that’s any comfort to her now).
If you liked Silence, you can find me on Twitter, where I do a good deal of what might generously be called “writing.”