Rachel adored her Gram. Like most kids her age, she was spoiled rotten by her grandmother, but Rachel was spoiled to a nearly unreasonable degree as Gram shamelessly claimed Rachel as her favorite. Of course, the fact that Rachel was Gram’s only grandchild did wonders for her case. In her twelve years, Rachel had hardly been given any toys or clothes from her parents, as Gram refused to take it easy despite their insistence that Rachel not have a privileged childhood. But Gram didn’t care. “They’re young for such a short time,” she would say. “Make them fat and happy and save all the health food and dull bullshit for adulthood.”
To Rachel, Gram was just a big, wrinkly, blue-haired kid. She was fun, unfiltered, and always in search of joy and wonder. And every summer, they would share countless adventures together, exploring the riverbank near Gram’s condo, making pancakes and microwaved bacon, creating radio dramas on a little cassette recorder in the linen closet, and drinking cream sodas in the wading pool in the backyard.
Rachel practically lived with her Gram over the summer, and every Friday evening when her parents would drop her off, Gram would tell her how excited she was to have a little bit of youthful energy in the house. Then, each Sunday morning before Rachel left, Gram would tell her to stay young as long as she could, “Don’t let anyone steal your youth, you hear me? Your body will age and whither, but as long as your spirit stays young, you can live forever.”
Rachel loved nearly every moment at her Gram’s house. The only exception was bedtime. For as much as she loved her time with her grandmother, she genuinely dreaded sleeping at Gram’s house. Rachel wasn’t a fussy child, and never had trouble sleeping at home, but there was a problem in the guest room at Gram’s house.
It was a painting, large and ornately framed, hung above an antique dresser. It was an oil painting of a long, empty corridor with columns and open air to the west, and large, numbered wooden doors to the east, stretching to infinity. It felt cold and dreadful to Rachel, like a mirror in the dark. She thought that at any moment someone might just step out of one of those doors, into the corridor, and that they might then step out of the painting entirely.
After falling to sleep, she would dream about that corridor and the creatures locked behind those doors. She would dream that she was there, walking the hall, passing each still door in eerie silence, only her footsteps echoing off the marble columns like snapping limbs to keep her from feeling entirely deprived of even her own company. She walked past door nine and felt the air chill to a bitter bite. Past door ten, she smelled something musty and mildewy like old rags in a damp room. Past door eleven, a brief break in the light through the door jamb. She stopped at door twelve to the sound of a scratch and a whisper.
“Please.” it said. “Please help me.”
“I’m sorry?” she replied.
“I’ve been in here so long,” rasped the voice, soft and mostly breath, from the other side of door twelve. “You can let me out. You just need to open the door. Please, I’m too weak.”
“I don’t have a key,” said Rachel.
“You don’t need one,” said the whisper. “You just need to open the door.”
In her dreams, sometimes Rachel would just turn and run back the way she came. Sometimes she would tug gently at the large iron handle first, only to lose her nerve and run off before the door would budge. But sometimes she would get the door open just a crack, and in those dreams, she would see four long, gnarled, yellow fingernails slowly poke through and curl around to the handle, grazing her knuckles along the way before she would release her grip, sending the heavy door slamming back home, snapping the fingernails free of their host to clatter to the floor like runes cast over tiles, and she would flee back down the corridor—back to her waking self—back to the safety of her warm bed.
But in each dream, as Rachel ran back past the shadow and the rot and the biting chill of the other doors, the corridor only seemed to stretch father and father into the distance. And in each dream a second set of footsteps would follow her home—a lumbering, heavy-footed trot in three-quarter time, spilling into the hall from beneath every door she passed, clapping back from the columns across the passage, surrounding her—drowning her—freezing her in abject terror.
Somehow, Gram always knew. She was always there to hold and comfort Rachel upon waking from the nightmares, no matter how late. It made Rachel feel all the more connected to her grandmother. Rachel couldn’t help but imagine that they shared that dream space. As though Gram could not only sense, but could feel Rachel’s terror—that she might actually smell the mold and feel the stinging cold—that the little hairs on the back of her neck might also rise and stiffen at the sound of that three-footed beast stalking down the corridor. She would come rushing into the guest room to scoop Rachel into her arms and squeeze her tight, like a soft knit scarf wrapped around her neck.
“Oh, sweet child,” she would say, rocking her gently and running her long fingers through Rachel’s hair. “It’s only a painting. Just oil on canvas, and nothing more.” But it did little to help Rachel sleep. And so it went for weeks and months and years. Adventures would lead to night terrors, which, in turn, would lead Rachel into her Gram’s tender arms.
“I hate that painting,” Rachel told her grandmother one Sunday afternoon as they wandered the riverbank, in search of magic rocks. It had come out of nowhere. One moment, they had been laughing at stray cat tossing around a one-legged grasshopper, and the next, Rachel was overcome.
It surprised Rachel to have said it. Hate was a four-letter word in her family, and though it was no secret that she was scared of the painting, she had never expressed, or even noticed that feeling or the capacity for it in herself.
“Well, no shit,” said Gram slumping her shoulders and rolling her eyes in a slow, exaggerated arc. “Honey, if you’ve been trying to keep that secret all this time, I’d steer clear of the poker tables when you get older.”
Rachel just frowned, kicked a rock into the river, and plopped down on a log.
“It’s an ugly old thing, isn’t it?” said Gram.
“Why do you have it?” asked Rachel. “If you don’t like it, I mean.”
“Well, I inherited it.” Gram sat beside her granddaughter and put a hand on Rachel’s knee. “My grandmother left it to me when she died, and I’ll leave it to you when I finally kick the bucket.”
“But I don’t want it,” said Rachel, shaking her head.
“Well, no, of course not. Not now,” said Gram. “But I’m not going anywhere for a while. You’ve got some time still.”
“But Gram, I hate it.” Rachel doubled down.
“Well,” said Gram. “You hated avocado when you were five, and what do we have on our toast every morning now?”
“Avocado,” Rachel admitted reluctantly.
“I know you’re scared if it,” said Gram. “But it’s just an old painting; oil on—”
“Oil on canvas, I know,” Rachel interrupted. “But it’s more than that, I just know it. I’ve seen scarier stuff, Gram—one time mom and dad fell asleep with The Babadook on, and I watched almost all of it, and even that didn’t give me such bad dreams. It’s trying to get me.” Her eyes glistened and her cheeks flushed.
“Alright,” said Gram. “I can see you’re upset. I’ll tell you what, let’s take it down, ok? We’ll put it in the basement; it can’t bother you down there, can it?”
“I don’t think so,” said Rachel, wiping the snot from her nose.
“But you are right, of course.”
“About what?” Rachel asked.
“It is more than just oil on canvas,” said Gram. “It’s an heirloom, do you know what that is?”
Rachel shook her head.
“It’s something very old and very important to this family. It’s not about what it is, dear. It’s about what it does.”
“What does it do?”
“It keeps a part of this family alive,” said Gram. “And it’s been doing that for hundreds of years. Each generation that hangs that painting in their home brings with it all the life and history of this family, and that’s a very big responsibility—one that I know you’ll be able to take on.” She smiled, and Rachel smiled back shyly. “But for now, so that you can sleep and stay young awhile longer, we’ll stow it downstairs, okay?”
“Okay,” said Rachel.
For a while, it helped. Rachel once again slept well at her grandmother’s house, free of the weight of her dreams. But every now and then, she would remember what had once hung above that antique dresser, and she would dream that she was back in that corridor, running desperately, futilely, past an infinite set of doors and columns from a terror that grabbed her from all sides and squeezed the air from her lungs.
Shortly after Rachel’s thirteenth birthday, Gram passed away in her sleep. Rachel was told that it had been peaceful and painless, and that the important thing was to remember all the joy she was able to have with her grandmother while she was still alive.
Weeks went by. Weekends went by, spent at home watching television with her parents, talking on the phone with her friends from school, getting ahead on her homework. It was so much duller than it had been with her Gram. She missed the adventures down by the riverbank, and the pancakes, and the radio dramas. She missed it all so desperately. But she also slept better than she had in a very long time. She was relieved for that, and she felt so incredibly guilty for that feeling of relief because it meant that part of her had always dreaded her weekends with Gram. It was a small part, but in that smallness was significance, and that significance turned her stomach sour.
Two months after Gram’s funeral, a large crate was delivered to Rachel’s home, packaged and shipped with care by the Elizabeth Nannette Hansen Living Trust. Rachel’s father cracked it open with a crowbar and all the gusto of a gameshow host.
“Well,” he said. “Let’s see what’s inside, shall we?”
One-by-one, with great care, he removed the items, smiling and reminiscing before setting them aside. And with each item, Rachel’s nerves grew sharper—jagged—cutting into her stomach and the base of her skull. She felt like she was sinking. Or worse, she was being dragged down, hooked by the guts and pulled deeper and deeper as her father set aside a garment bag, an old quilt, a sewing kit, a high school yearbook. Her chest tightened and her heart thumped hard against her ribs with the certainty of what was buried somewhere in that horrible crate. She grew cold and dewy, as she had always felt stepping into the corridor, and as her father pulled the last item from the box, she slunk slowly and softly to the floor.
It was a large and ornately framed oil painting—the very same that had hanged above the antique dresser in Gram’s guest room.
“Well, what do you know? I had hoped she might leave this to us.” said Mr. Hansen, almost romantically. “I always loved this old painting. There’s so much history down that little corridor.”
Rachel didn’t sleep that night or the next. That thing—the one thing she was so happy to be rid of in the wake of her Gram’s death—that cursed corridor had found its way back to her, and now hanged mockingly in the hallway just across from her bedroom door, inescapable lest she avoid her room altogether. The house suddenly felt much smaller. The air, thinner. She was horrified that she might have that dream again and again, and in dreaming she might never be free of that dreadful corridor. It made the loss of her grandmother all the more terrible, knowing that in the inevitability that she end up in that rotten dreamscape again, she would be there alone. Gram would not be there to wake her. To embrace her and comfort her on waking. Should she wake at all. She begged her parents to move the painting, or to allow her to close her bedroom door at night, but the painting was just a painting, and rules were rules, they told her.
Rachel found herself drifting off midday in class, on the bus ride home, or at the dinner table, catching brief glimpses—lightning quick negatives burned onto the insides of her eyelids. Always a flash of that corridor, and a sudden sharp cry before jolting back to reality, often to the sound of her own name in some bewildered or frustrated tone.
“Rachel Marie! Wake up!”
It was her mother this time, a disapproving frown now accompanying her typically furrowed brow. Rachel had nodded off at the writing desk in the den, her pre-algebra homework spread out beneath her face, dappled with a little drool.
“This is ridiculous, Rachel. You just need to get over this nonsense.”
Rachel was too exhausted to really comprehend what was happening or why her mother was so frustrated.
“I know that you’re frightened of that painting, but for heaven’s sake kid, it’s just a piece of art.”
“I know,” Rachel said softly, in a haze. “Just oil on canvas.”
Rachel didn’t remember how she got to bed, but when she woke, the glowing green clock on her bedstand read two-forty-five. She had slept blissfully dreamless for nearly five hours, and for a moment, as she rubbed the grog out of her eyes, she forgot everything that had frightened her so much. She forgot about the painting, and the dreams, and Gram’s death, and all that had been haunting her like a predator for so long. But as her vision came into focus—as the big white blur directly across from her bed sharpened into the shape of her open doorway—it all came creeping back up her spine like a clutter of baby spiders scattering from their mother’s sac. Every hair on her arms stood on end and her shoulders tensed and cramped as the painting came into view. But what she saw next drew the air straight out of her lungs and sent her scampering back, cowering against her headboard.
It was a figure, far off in the distance—a shadow at the end of the corridor. It was faint and nearly shapeless; something no one else would have noticed. No one who hadn’t obsessed over that painting for most of their life, at least. But for Rachel, it might as well have filled the entire canvas.
She tried to scream, but nothing came, just a rasp and a whimper. She couldn’t bring herself to leave the room because stepping out her door would require her to be near that painting—to be close enough to touch it. Close enough to be touched by it. What if it came closer? What if the shadow man matched her pace, one step forward for each of hers toward the painting. She had a thought that they might meet, face-to-face at her bedroom door. So, she stayed still. She watched and waited for hours, until the sun reached her windowsill and crept up the wall outside her door, casting its light across the painting, banishing the shadow from the corridor like a deus ex machina.
She couldn’t tell her parents about the shadow man. They already thought she was tired, imaginative, and just plain overly dramatic. Besides, they were attached to that painting to a strange degree, she thought. They expressed sentimentality for the thing, but when it came right down to it, they seemed somehow beholden to it—owing only to the weight of its history.
“It’s older than any of us by centuries,” said her father. “It contains our past, and it deserves to be displayed prominently.” He spoke about it like it was a living thing. Like it could reward his fealty or would condemn his disloyalty. Christ, maybe she was just tired.
Her mother was no better. “You’re being dramatic,” she said. “It’s a God damn painting and that’s all, and the more you press for us to take it down, the more I’m inclined to leave it up until you realize how harmless it is.”
Rachel sobbed a well of exasperated tears, gasping panicked breaths.
“Honey,” her mother said. “The best way to overcome your fears is to face them. Just try sleeping tonight, okay? Just try to be brave.”
Rachel closed her door before going to bed the next night. She thought she might, just for one night, get away with breaking her parents’ rule, and escape the reach of that awful painting. And she did, for a time. She slept deep and dreamless for an instant before she found herself back in that corridor.
It was cold. Colder than she had remembered the last time she had been there. She could see her breath. She stepped past door ten, past that familiar rotten smell. Past door eleven and that scurrying break in the light under the door.
She stood before door twelve and heard that same old scratching on the other side.
“Please,” the voice whispered. “Please let me out.”
Rachel’s hand trembled like a daisy in an ice storm as she reached for the iron handle.
“I’ve been in here so long.”
She stopped as she grasped the cold metal, and she looked to her left, down the infinite hallway. It was empty as far as she could see.
“You can let me out,” said the voice. “You just need to open the door.”
Rachel’s eyes returned to the wooden door. Slowly, she began to pull, and through the narrow opening crept the gnarled yellow fingernails she had seen so many times.
“That’s it,” said the voice. “Just a little more.”
Rachel stopped. What if this was a trap? What if it was the shadow man?
“Just a little more,” said the voice. “I’m begging you, please, I’ve been in here so long. I’m—”
Rachel glanced back over her shoulder and there he was, a dozen columns away—a black blur stretching out across the corridor, a long shadow cast from behind a column, running up the doorway across the hall like a slowly spreading stain. She released her grip on the door and it slammed home, breaking the gnarled nails and sending them clattering to the floor. And for a split second, before she turned to run, she thought she saw the shadow begin to peel itself from the doorway like a scab reopening an old wound.
Rachel fled down the hall to the sound of that awful three-legged trot with which she had become so familiar, and as in dozens of dreams before, the hallway stretched into infinity. She looked back to see the shadow man closer, now fully separated from the wall, standing before door twelve, scratching at the wood with long, black, curled fingers.
She woke in a cold sweat. Her door had been opened, and in the light of the hallway she could see a note written on the whiteboard mounted to the outside of her door.
THIS STAYS OPEN!
The figure in the painting was closer by at least a dozen columns—almost halfway down the corridor. But it was once again shapeless—a shadow cast from behind a pillar, stretched out across the corridor and up the opposite door.
Rachel stayed home from school the next day. She affected a dry cough and a deep wheezing breath, though the heavy bags under her sleepless eyes, and the lifelessness behind them would have been enough for her parents to believe she was too sick for school.
She had a plan. A very simple, unsophisticated plan, but one that was certain to put an end to the dreams once and for all. She took a carving knife from the big wooden block on the kitchen counter, and in the light of day, with her parents gone and the shadow man absent his corridor, she stood before the painting, ready to slash it to shreds.
She smiled, wide and smug and yawned a deep, involuntary, but satisfying breath. This was it. The end of the nightmares—the brittle fingernails and the damp rot of that corridor and the uneven lumbering trot of that looming, stalking shadow. She had won. Her parents would ground her, sure. Maybe for a month, maybe for a year. But the punishment was worth the crime. They could lock her up in her room forever; she didn’t care. She would still be more free than she had been since that goddamn painting was hung outside her bedroom door. No punishment could match that level of cruelty. And she hated her parents for that. They knew, and they knew damn well the effect that thing had on her. Heirloom or not—family history be damned—they knew it would break her if not take her altogether.
Rachel began to spiral, standing there, staring down that corridor, her fear melting into liquid-hot rage. She didn’t only hate her parents. She hated Gram too. She hated the whole fucking family line—every Hansen and Miller and Thatcher all the way back to the bastard who bought the canvas. She despised each successive generation for keeping that abusive thing—for hanging it with pride or duty or fear or lack of anything else to take its place—and for dying without any thought or consideration for the space that thing would occupy, or for the pain it would bring the next generation. And she hated them all for allowing it to continue—to reach her—to leave her with this responsibility, that she, after a dozen generations of older, wiser, stronger, bolder ancestors, she—a terrified, exhausted child—she would have to be the one to stop it. So she gritted her teeth, she tightened her grip on the knife, and she slashed at the painting, a wide, manic swing at the canvas. But nothing happened. It took no damage. The knife simply passed through as though the painting and the wall behind it weren’t even there.
She took another swing. Nothing. And another. She slashed frantically, screaming and almost laughing through a veil of thick, heavy tears. Still, Nothing. Finally, she jabbed hard at the very center of the painting, passing the knife and her hand straight through. She remained there for only a second, but in that second, she could see that the knife and her clenched fist and a quarter of her forearm had entered the painting itself—had been rendered on the canvas in oil.
In a panic, she dropped the knife, and drew her arm back. She cradled her hand and saw that the knife had fallen to the floor. But not her floor. It lay there, on the cold marble floor inside the corridor, now a permanent fixture of the painting.
Each of the next three sleepless nights, the shadow man drew closer to Rachel’s end of the corridor. Six more columns. Then another ten. Then thirteen. By night four, it stretched across the corridor from the column closest to Rachel. There was nowhere left for it to go but out.
Desperately delirious, she left her room shortly after midnight, once she was certain her parents had gone to bed. She crept carefully out her door, clinging tightly to the wall opposite the painting, lest the thing inside reach for her. But it didn’t move. It stayed mockingly sentinel as she walked backwards down the hallway, keeping her eye on the painting until she rounded the corner into the family room.
From the top drawer of her mother’s writing desk, Rachel retrieved the camp lighter her father used for the fireplace around Christmas time. She reached deep into the back of the drawer to find the small bottle of lighter fluid he would use to “cheat” when he wasn’t feeling up to the task of blowing life into the coals.
She returned to the hallway less fearful. She was almost confident now that it would all be over in a matter of minutes. Surely, it would burn. It was just oil on canvas after all. And if it wouldn’t burn, she would see to it that everything else would. One way or another, she would be free. But when she reached the painting, the shadow man was gone—retreated back down his end of the corridor, perhaps. Or maybe he finally escaped—slipped somewhere into the shadows of her room.
She spun quickly, away from the painting, and she peered into the darkness of her bedroom. It was calm, settled. No movement that she could discern. But it was just so dark. Darker, maybe, than it had been when she left. She could have sworn there had been moonlight through the window before. Or maybe her eyes had readjusted to the dim light seeping into the hallway from the family room. She strained to focus on her bed. She glanced from corner to corner, but as hard as she tried, she couldn’t see a thing in that room. It seemed to grow darker by the second until she thought she could see the darkness beginning to bleed out into the hallway, creeping slowly outward from the doorway along the walls and the floor like a patient tide eroding away the ground before her. As it grew closer and closer to her, she stepped back, inching away from her room—toward the painting. The air grew colder as she slunk toward the wall. She could see her breath. Her hands trembled as she dropped the lighter and the fluid to the floor, which were consumed by the creeping shadow. She was there now. She could feel the wall closing in behind her, and just as her heel clipped the baseboard below the painting, the hallway flooded with light. Quickly, the shadow retreated into her bedroom, slipping itself beneath her bed.
“Rachel!” It was her mother, from the end of the hall. “What in the hell are you doing?”
Rachel looked down at the lighter fluid and the lighter on the floor, then back up at her mother.
“I have to burn it,” she said coldly. “It has to burn. It has to burn.”
Her mother ran to her and struck her hard across the face. She felt a well of heat rise in her cheek as her mother shook her violently by the shoulders.
“You would burn down the house? The whole Goddamn house to get rid of that thing? What is wrong with you?” she said, throttling her daughter. “What the hell is wrong with you? You could have killed us! You could have killed us all!”
Rachel just stood there, dazed and delirious, tears slipping down her cheeks until her father came and took her from her mother’s grasp.
“You just need sleep, kid. How long has it been since you actually slept?” Rachel didn’t know. She couldn’t remember the last time she slept through the night. Maybe they were right. Maybe she had lost it.
Her father took her to the kitchen and gave her something to drink—something sweet and antiseptic, and slowly she began to drift away, catching only snippets of moments as he carried her to her room and tucked her gently to bed.
She found herself, once again, staring down that infinite corridor. It was frigid, now—colder than it had ever been. Her fingertips and her toes were pale and blue, nearly numb. The smell of mildew now filled the entire corridor, far past the vicinity of door ten. The scratching behind twelve was faint. Weak and weary.
“Please,” a rasp and a cough. “Please.”
She didn’t bother to try opening the door this time, she just turned to run. But as she turned, she encountered a very different view than in any of her other dreams. The corridor back didn’t stretch to infinity. In fact, it didn’t extend very far at all; maybe fifty or sixty yards, at most. The hallway terminated at a steep cliff, descending into darkness. Floating five feet past the drop off, just outside of Rachel’s reach, was a large window, the exact dimensions of the painting in her hallway.
Through that window, Rachel saw herself sleeping peacefully in her bedroom. She watched as the sun rose and her parents came to wake her. She watched them embrace her and she watched herself embrace them back, and she felt it—that embrace—wrapping itself tightly around her neck until her breath grew thin and wispy and her head became light. And she stayed that way for what felt like hours, in some state between existence and oblivion until it—whatever it was—showed enough mercy to release its hold.
She watched for days before she was dragged away. She watched as her parents celebrated her return to normal—to her well-rested self. She screamed as they passed by, begging for help, but they never heard her, and they never saw her. And she watched as the creature in her body watched her. It was all that it would do when no one was around. It just stared at her, through the painting—through the window—smiling, its head cocked slightly to the left, until one day, with a subtle gesture, it summoned something. She couldn’t see it, but she felt it grab her by the ankles and pull her away from the window. She screamed and thrashed violently, but it was too strong.
It dragged her down the corridor, past the rotting door ten, past the movement behind door eleven, past the now silent door twelve, and into a dark room with damp stone walls behind door thirteen. But on the way there, she saw the knife—the kitchen knife she dropped into the painting in her futile attempt to destroy it weeks ago, and as she was dragged, she caught hold of it, and she tucked it into the waistband of her pajamas. And from a small window in that room, she watched her life play out before her. She watched herself grow into a woman, and she watched that woman fall in love and start a family. She watched herself raise a son who raised a daughter, and she watched as her body grew old, taking her granddaughter on adventures by the riverbank, making pancakes and microwaved bacon, creating radio dramas on a little digital recorder in her linen closet, and drinking cream sodas in the wading pool in the backyard. And from that room, she waited. She waited for herself to die, and for that thing to return that she might have a chance at slipping her knife between its ribs before it could take the next one. And once in a while, on the coldest nights, she was visited by a young girl who would open the door just a crack before running scared back to her bed.
Tim Genovesi is a broken and reconstructed person who loves broken and reconstructed people. He lives in Ogden, Utah with his wife, daughter, and two dogs, most of whom he loves very much. His work can be found in Prometheus Dreaming and Wingless Dreamer’s A glass of wine with Edgar.