The Summons at the Portal

Unlike other stories posted on this site, this is autobiographical.  It is cast in third person to allow for some latitude in narration, but the events described here are all faithful to my perceptions of events; I’d call it objective truth, but I’m aware of the fallibility of eye-witnesses.

“OK, we’ll see you in a bit.”  He hung up the phone, and turned his head to look out the window, as if to conjure the expected car.  As much as he liked the room-mates, it would be good to finish their departure.  The co-habitation had been a foolish experiment from the beginning, cramming four people into a one bedroom house.  He and his fiancé (as was at the time, wife now) had found the house for rent, and it was just within their means– when her sister and a boyfriend had suggested moving into the semi-finished basement and shouldering some of the rent, it had seemed a sensible expedient, but months of living in each other’s front pockets had stretched friendships and family affection out of shape.  Sister and boyfriend had sought new digs, and everyone was happier with the increased cost of living.

His wife had told him that the tight quarters and inevitable conflicts along the lines of “Who took the last of the milk?” were not the only reason the other two had been anxious to move.  He had understood that, or so he had thought.  The basement was, after all, semi-finished.  As much as the other two had done to decorate it, there was no getting around the fact that it was a concrete bunker with only two tiny windows, slightly above eye level, and that the view from what counted as their living room was the white enamelled splendour of an elderly washer-dryer set.  There was a sense of squalor, even if actual squalor was kept at bay.

His wife had agreed with that assessment, but in such a way that hinted there was more to the move than that.  He pressed, and she relayed what her sister had said.  There was a sense of active hostility in that basement, as if to the general grey sterility of the walls was added a sullen glaring anger from someone never seen.  Items were mislaid, only to be found exactly where they had been first expected.  There were even stumbles on the stairs– stairs of the sort beloved by horror films in which there were no risers under the treads, only gaps through which monstrous hands could be shot– which seemed to come from a detained ankle or an unexpected push in the back, and which in one case had led to a minor injury.  The other couple, in short, felt as if something in the house desired their departure.

He was only slightly dubious of these reports, having a couple of times in the past experienced things that fell under the broad heading of Ghostly Activity (exempli gratia).  Indeed, as he walked across the living room, his eye fell upon a toy knight, loot from a Kinder Surprise, which had been on the shelf beside the TV since they had moved in and which had spent the first month of its tenure in a state of unlikely restlessness.  The head of the rearing horse would be pointing north-west, toward the front door, at bed time.  In the morning, it reared toward the north-east, challenging the kitchen.  Any time it was not under observation, it might turn to any point of the compass.  None of them admitted to moving it.  He knew he didn’t.  He was open-minded, so he had never decided that there was a ghost at work, but left it as a possibility along with absentminded fiddling, which any of them could do, and conscious messing about, which might be in the power of the sister or her chap.

On his way to the kitchen, a thought struck him.  How much stuff did this supposed last batch contain.  The boyfriend, who had called to make sure all was clear for the pick-up, had a Buick sedan.  A big early ’80s model, but the size of the car and its cargo capacity were not in agreement.  He sighed, having only been mentally prepared to help run boxes out to the car, but now starting the process of resignation to driving over to the new place in his own vehicle.  He decided to nip into the basement to have a look at what remained, and passed right through the kitchen to the basement stairs.

With most of the others’ belongings gone, the basement was a mere yawning cavern.  The stairs ran down the south wall at the back of the house.  The finished portion of the space was a single room, a few steps beyond the stairs, enclosing the south-east corner of the basement and occupying not quite a quarter of the space.  The north wall of that room defined the inner edge of a shelf-lined storage area where water heater and furnace also stood, leaving the whole west end of the basement a single space too vast and dusty to be called a laundry room despite the two appliances which squatted almost dead center of the western wall.

From the foot of the stairs, there was no sign of the residual objects the boyfriend was coming for.  From the foot of the stairs, though, the enclosed room was obscure and hid the far end of the storage area.  He went to the door of the room and switched on its single unfrosted light.  A bedroom no more, the only thing in it an empty gun-safe left by the landlord.  He turned out the light and went to the storage space.

There, behind the furnace, some boxes lay, right at the far end of the space.  He stepped close to them, intent on getting a clear idea of their number, standing now almost directly under the front foyer of the house, as far as it was possible to get from the stairs.  A well-known ghost came to him then, that of his own childhood; in the better-finished basement of the house he grew up in, he had a playroom which was also as far from the stairs as it could be, and his father found amusement in moaning down the ducts.  The memory of that odd terror, when his younger incarnation knew that it was only Dad up to his usual tricks but still fled for the stairs at top speed, came to him and raised the hairs on his arms a little.

He therefore jumped when a brisk pounding sounded over his head.  Three solid thumps on the front door, something more intent than mere knocking, the sort of racket one associated with search warrants.

“Coming,” he called up into the joists, turning around in the space between the shelves.

Three more blows on the door, the same measured cadence to them transmitting an urgency not quite grown to impatience.

“Jesus Christ.  I’m coming!”  He skipped sideways past the furnace, dashed to the stairs, bounded up them two at a time, pivoted at the landing and rushed through kitchen and living room to the front door.  Although he had run the whole length of the house twice, it was not a particularly big house, and the whole dash had taken less than thirty seconds.

As he reached for the knob, he composed himself.  It had, after all, sounded like the knock of officialdom, and his long-standing policy was to present a polite face to any police he had to interact with.  Why police might be stopping there, he could not say, but a decade before he had declined a summons for the previous inhabitant of his apartment and was ready to believe a similar thing could happen.

When he opened the door, there was no one at all on the step.  He frowned, and put a foot out on the top step to lean out.  Looking first to the south, he saw no one, the quiet residential neighbourhood seemingly deserted an hour before lunch on a day when those with jobs were at work and children were at school.  There was no sound of pranksters scuffling into cover, no sound at all but for birds, the wind, and the creaking of the top step under his weight.  As he turned to look the other way, it occurred to him that no creaking had preceded the pounding, yet the bolts holding the steps to the foundation would have transmitted the sound wonderfully.

He looked the other way.  The view to the north was almost as deserted, the difference being a 1980s Buick sedan which was half-way along the block and slowing as it pulled over to the curb.  It stopped, and the boyfriend got out.

“Hey,” he said to the boyfriend, who wore a bemused look as finding him standing in the open door, “you didn’t just knock on the door, did you?”

“I… just got here,” the boyfriend responded, bemusement getting a shade of concern, as one who deals with a lunatic might well feel.

“Yeah.”  Pause.  “Come on in.  I’ll explain while you load up.”  And so he did, although it was an unsatisfactory explanation, even to the person who had been given the most trouble by the unseen influence on the stairs.  The boxes were loaded, the boyfriend drove off, and he found himself in alone a house that felt profoundly empty for the several hours before he had to go collect his wife from her job.

There were no more manifestations thereafter.  Not even the little knight had a final surreptitious twirl once the other couple were gone, although that proved little other than whatever agency had been moving it had either lost interest or was no longer able to get at it.  There were no further eerie events in that house until, about a year later, the landlord declared he needed the house back in the wake of a marital breakdown…

…unless one counts the cat which vanished for two days, and emerged from between the top two basement stairs in a state of permanent timidness.  That may be unconnected.

“The Summons at the Portal” ©2016 Dirck de Lint

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