The Locked Door
By Elle Boyd
I grew up in a fairly rural area. We weren’t in farm country, but we were close. The area is all built up now, surrounded by subdivisions, but back in 2022 civilization was still about twenty minutes away; I had to stand on the side of the road each morning to catch the school bus. I was a bit of a bookworm, not really into computers, not very athletic, and generally kept to myself. I was also prone to nightmares, which prompted my parents to start monitoring what I read – they feared my books may have been too “mature” for me. Of course this just led to me hide some of my books and read them in secret. I read a lot of classics then, and it felt odd to hide such well-known works as The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe.
My parents were friendly with a middle-aged couple who lived in a large house on the corner of our road. They lived just far enough away to warrant taking the car to visit them. The Burkes had no children – I didn’t know if that was by design or if they weren’t able to – so in the absence of a cell phone, which my parents refused to let me buy, my choices were to either listen to boring adult talk or entertain myself outside. Typically I would sit with the adults while they politely asked about my grades and what I’d been “up to,” then escape out to the porch with a book.
In winter this proved more difficult. I would then hang around the kitchen, listening to laughter and clinking glasses and sometimes two different conversations at once (the women discussing one topic and the men another), and try to concentrate on reading.
The house had a guest bathroom downstairs off the dining room. One chilly Sunday afternoon we were informed the toilet wasn’t working, which was not a problem for my parents. I, on the other hand, had to go as soon as I learned I couldn’t. My mother tisked and made apologies for me as Mrs. Burke directed me to the upstairs bathroom.
“Keep to the left,” she said.
Naturally, after using the bathroom, I dawdled along the hall. There were three closed white doors on the right. The Burkes had probably bought a house with so many bedrooms with the assumption they would fill it with children. I wondered what had happened. Surely they could have adopted?
I heard a rustling sound as I passed the second door. I stopped, held my breath, listened.
Silence. Then: “Hello?”
A child’s voice, perhaps three or four years younger than I. Still I stood frozen. Had I hallucinated? Was there an elderly mother visiting and not up for meeting new strangers... who just happened to have a very child-like voice?
A longer silence. Finally I pressed my ear to the door. I mentally admonished myself; my parents would never stand for me being so rude as to not acknowledge when someone spoke to me. “Hello,” I said.
A sliding sound, like someone approaching the door on their bum. “What’s your name?”
Definitely a young kid, not an elderly mother or other adult by any stretch. I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl.
“Morgan,” I said. “What’s yours?”
“It’s a secret,” they said. I could hear them breathing on the other side of the door. A mouth-breather. “Can you come in?”
I reached out to grab the knob, knowing this was very inappropriate and I should leave immediately and go back downstairs and perhaps ask Mrs. Burke who was in the room, did they have shy visitors? But there was no knob, and there lay the difference between this door and the others: it had a handle with a keyhole in it. I wrapped my hand around the handle and tried to turn. It wouldn’t budge.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s locked.”
The kid sighed. “It’s locked on my side too.”
“Why...why are you locked in there?” Were they a mutant? An abomination? A vicious killer child?
No answer. Instead they slid away from the door. I was tempted to knock, to call to them, to ask them their name again-
“Morgan?” my mother called up the stairs.
My heart in my throat, I turned away from the door and hurried down.
I did not mention the mystery person to my parents, and certainly not to the Burkes. It frightened me to think that someone was being kept locked up in a room in that house. Why would they do such a thing? What had the kid done?
Winter set in early, and my parents stayed home more – neither enjoyed being outside in the cold, even to drive to a friend’s house. I was torn between wanting to see who was in the locked room and never wanting to visit the Burkes again.
Just before Christmas they called and invited us to a little holiday get-together. Goosebumps broke out on the back of my neck at the very thought. I tried to convince my parents to let me stay home alone for a few hours – I would just sit and read and play games all night, I promised. Instead I was informed there should be a few kids there my age for a change, and maybe I should leave my books at home for once and interact with everyone.
The problem was my overactive imagination had gone into overdrive. Several nights I woke a sweaty mess from dreams of the Burkes’ prisoner (if they’re not a prisoner, why lock them up?) trying to strangle me, drown me, throw me out the window. Sometimes they looked like an evil monkey, sometimes they were Momo, and once they were Mrs. Burke. I kept the terrible dreams to myself; the last thing I wanted was to try to explain their origin.
I knew if I went to the party, I couldn't stay downstairs with the other guests, acting like everything was normal. I would have to visit the locked door.
In the end I accompanied my parents, as if I had a choice. The Burkes hugged me, offered me alcohol-free punch, and propelled me into the living room. There were two other kids there my age, twins who went to my school, though we didn’t really know each other. We stood in a corner, making polite conversation about teachers and Christmas, until I couldn’t stand it anymore and excused myself.
There were too many people for me to sneak upstairs unnoticed. Instead I asked Mr. Burke if I could use their upstairs bathroom as the downstairs one was occupied. “Sure, kid!” he said. His eyes had a shine to them. He held a glass of red wine; I was tempted to ask just how many he’d had already. With any luck he wouldn’t even remember my asking and I’d have a bit of extra time before anyone noticed I’d disappeared.
The hallway was lit only by a nightlight plugged into the wall. I approached the locked door and pressed my ear to it. “Hello?” I said. No response. “It’s Morgan.” Still nothing.
I held my breath and tried the handle. It turned in my hand. I stepped into the room.
The smell hit me first, as if the window hadn’t been opened in years. Underneath the cloying stuffiness was the strong smell of urine. I coughed into my sleeve and flicked on the light switch by the door. The window was in fact boarded over with plywood. The room itself was a mess: an unmade bed against one wall; papers strewn on the floor; a dresser with two drawers half open; dolls, tissues, and old food wrappers everywhere.
I picked up one of the papers. It was a crayon drawing of ... a werewolf? a big hairy dog in a dress? standing beside a house. There was an oblong impression in the paper, as if it had been stepped on.
I heard someone coming down the hall. I dropped the paper and turned, trying to think of an excuse for being in this room. Of course, there wasn’t one. I’m dead, I thought, and then Mr. Burke stood in the doorway, glass still in hand.
For a long moment we just stared at each other, me with fear in my eyes, him with an unreadable look on his face. I hoped he was too tipsy to ask questions or care what I was doing here, but he seemed serious and was perhaps trying to think of what to say.
“Who was she?” I blurted.
Still Mr. Burke stared at me in silence. Then he looked around the room, eyes coming to rest on the drawing I had picked up. He cleared his throat. “Come get a drink,” he said, and motioned for me to come out of the room. I told him I’m too young to drink, but he ushered me into the kitchen and spiked a glass of punch and placed it firmly in my hand. “You won’t even taste it,” he said.
He was right; I didn’t. I didn’t taste it in the next glass either. That was all it took for me to curl up on the kitchen floor and fall into a deep sleep.
I don’t recall my father struggling to get me in the car and drive me home. I don’t recall being put to bed. I do recall the raging headache the next morning and the loud fight my parents had over who was ultimately to blame for my getting drunk. In the end I was grounded and we never visited the Burkes again. Their names were never spoken in our house; it was if they’d never existed.
I wasn’t sure what Mr. Burke had hoped to accomplish by getting me drunk that night. He had many options, the best (for him) being to say nothing at all, just push me out of the room and back downstairs. But then I may have asked questions of their guests, asked them if they knew who lived in that room. It was a strange decision on his part either way, and I wondered what his wife thought about what he’d done.
I said nothing about the room to my parents for awhile. I didn’t have to; my bad dreams took care of that. I woke screaming one night from a nightmare about being torn to pieces by a huge werewolf. My mother came running in, and I stupidly told her about the girl and the locked room. She exchanged a look with my father, who stood in the doorway much like Mr. Burke had, a solemn look on his face. Nothing more was said on the topic that night, but when I returned home from school the next day I discovered my stash of secret books had been found. Sitting on my bed was the book my parents believed was the culprit behind my wild story: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
I hadn’t even read it yet.
“It’s for your own good,” they said. When I told them I borrowed it from the school library they had a dust-up with the principal about “inappropriate reading material for minors.” Shortly thereafter the librarian removed dozens of books from the shelves, tossed them in boxes, and carted them up to the school office.
Within a few months the Burkes sold their house and moved away. My parents welcomed the new owners, a young couple with a baby. They gave us a tour, showing off their renovations. The locked room was the baby’s room; the handle had been replaced with a traditional knob. The room was now bright and airy, full of stuffed animals and cute outfits and baby books. My mother oohed and aahed over the tiny clothes and big plush toys.
No one mentioned the faint scent of old urine underlying the new-paint smell and baby powder.