The country was at just over ten thousand deaths the morning that the door appeared. On Kosmo’s phone NPR was interviewing a doctor with a nasal voice about the need for social distancing, while Kosmo himself collected empty cans from around his home office. They were everywhere. Walls of recyclable cans dominated his room. Just beside his bookshelf, out of the view from where he taught his Zoom classes, he’d constructed a veritable castle of empty Coke Zeroes.
“If you spread your arms wide, that is roughly the distance you want to be away from others,” the doctor explained. “That prevents your breath and expectorate from coming into contact with others.”
Kosmo tried spreading his arms that wide—he’d always been gangly—and promptly knocked over a three-stack of cans balanced on top of his Riverside Chaucer. The cans clanked to the ground and rolled into the hall. Kosmo chased them, hunched over, like cartoon dinosaur in pursuit.
Nearing the hall, he called out for his cousin. “Jesse? Got any empty seltzers? I’m doing a recycling run.”
That’s when he saw the new door. It was equidistant on the wall between the entrances to his room and Jesse’s. Its deep burgundy color stood out against the plaster white of the walls. It was perfectly flat, without any veins or grain, like it was liquid that had merely cooled to look like wood. It had a square knob, made of polished ebony that shone against the redness.
On Kosmo’s phone, the interviewer asked, “What about the people who say they can’t breathe with masks on?”
Kosmo covered his mouth and breathed through his fingers. All the doors in his house were cheap particle wood. There was no door on that wall of his hallway. There was no room behind there. He didn’t remember getting high this morning. He got closer, expecting this hallucination of a burgundy door to fade.
He heard Jesse’s dog Rufus approaching, little toenails pattering on the hardwood. The Labrador/hound mix had the coldest nose Kosmo had ever encountered, and no sense of smell to go with it. Yet Rufus still nosed at the burgundy door like it would give him a treat.
Kosmo took a moment to make sure that door wasn’t something Jesse had picked up at the Home Depot or something and left leaning against the wall.
No, it was embedded in the wall. Despite this being an internal wall, he heard sounds like rasping wind and a heavy humming coming from the other side. Rufus nosed closer at the door, pushing his muzzle at something on the floor. It was thin and flaky, like a bit of snakeskin.
The dog opened his mouth as though to eat the snakeskin, and that was it for Kosmo. He scooped the pup up in a two-armed hug and ran for the backdoor. He didn’t even put his shoes on. Hell no, he was not finding out what this was about.
Uncle Dahl gave Kosmo no end of shit for moving. But Uncle Dahl also kept sending him conspiracy theories about Bill Gates, so Kosmo mostly ignored him. Their family was a piece of work. They begged for hand sanitizer and then barely used it.
Jesse complained about the move too, even though his ass had never paid Kosmo rent. “Sheltering for the pandemic” seemed to be Jesse’s means of living for free. As it was, Kosmo walked Jesse’s dog more than Jesse did. Fortunately, Rufus was good company.
Kosmo only returned to the house twice, to get some of his stuff for the move. He put that house right on the market. He wasn’t living in whatever was about to happen there.
Jesse asked, “What was going to happen in there?”
To which Kosmo answered, “I don’t want to know.”
The weirdest thing was that the second time he went back, when he went with the realtor, the burgundy door wasn’t there. Just a little sloughed off snakeskin blowing along the floor.
The realtor, Mrs. Weiss, said, “Good move getting rid of that door. It threw off the vibe of the hallway. You drywalled so cleanly I couldn’t even tell there had been a door there.”
Kosmo hadn’t touched anything. He was about as handy as a man with four feet.
But, he also wasn’t sticking around to investigate. Complaining about disappearing mystery doors was only going to cost him resale value. He needed all the money he could get, because while selling in this market was good, finding a new place was brutal with all the people sheltering-in-place from the pandemic and all the Boomers buying new places to shelter. Mrs. Weiss said it’d be easier if he waited six months for COVID to blow over.
Kosmo wasn’t waiting around. He ate his losses, and got Jesse and Rufus into the moving van, and moved the hell across the state. His part in this story was over.
Or it was supposed to be. The door had other plans.
They lugged their crap in through the unthreatening taupe doors of their new home. It was half the size of the old place, a single-story building that could’ve been a double-wide trailer in a previous life. It was what Kosmo could get for his money. Most of their stuff wouldn’t fit.
One thing he refused to lose was the plush beige sofa that was more comfortable than whatever clouds God sat on. Kosmo and Jesse wrestled with it for fifteen minutes, with Rufus running in circles between their legs, before they got it through the house’s narrow entrance. It was such a tight fit that they dropped it halfway down the front hall. They sat on their prize, with their feet up against the wall. Rufus bounded over an armrest to snuggle and jam his cold nose into Kosmo’s armpit.
Kosmo and Jesse took hits off the weed in Jesse’s vape pen. After his second inhale, Jesse asked, “You feel like getting the TV?”
Kosmo had just gotten comfortable, too. He said, “If you want it, you go get it.”
“I need my shows.”
“Don’t you have a phone? And where would you even put a TV in here?”
Jesse swiped vaguely down to the other end of the off-white hall. The lighting was strong there, shining on a burgundy door.
Kosmo jumped over the dog and sofa alike. He sheltered behind an arm rest, staring at that door. It had that same, square doorknob of polished ebony.
Kosmo said, “That shit was not there a minute ago, right?”
Jesse hit the vape pen again and leaned towards the door. “No. No, it was not. Is that the same door from the old house?”
“Don’t look at it like that.”
Kosmo reached for his cousin. He grabbed at his hoodie. “Like you’re going to touch it.”
No yank on Jesse could get the man to budge. He said, “You don’t know it’s dangerous.”
“Jesse. Are we on all of the drugs?”
“Unfortunately, we are not.”
“Then that door is stalking us. No good comes from that.”
Jesse had the gall to frown at him when there was an evil door standing right down the hall from him. He said, “What is your trauma, man? What happened to you that made you afraid of a little mystery?”
What was his trauma? Kosmo had a perfectly regular amount of traumas. He shook his head at his cousin. “No man, this isn’t on me. I don’t know what’s wrong with people like you who want to touch an impossible thing that’s messing with you. Doors don’t appear from nowhere.”
“Well, this one did.”
Kosmo smacked the arm rest for emphasis. “Exactly. And what happens next? Do space witches come through the door? Does other shit materialize around my house and in ten minutes we fall into a basement that never existed? I’m not finding out. I’m not doing the science here.”
Not one sentence made Jesse turn around. He kept staring at the door. “But what’s inside?”
“I just said, I don’t want to know.” Kosmo gathered Rufus into his arms. “Let’s go.”
Jesse didn’t go. He crawled over the sofa and wandered across the floor, into Kosmo’s unwanted house. No expletives slowed him down. He reached a hairy hand for that square doorknob.
Kosmo took off, abandoning his sofa and his cousin, and went straight through the nearest exit. The taupe door hit him in the hip on the way out, and Rufus barked in his arms. The dog got loud enough that Kosmo couldn’t hear whether Jesse actually opened that forbidden door.
On the cracked concrete of the front step, Kosmo hesitated a second. “Jesse. Get out here.”
That used up the last of his bravery. In the next moment he was in the moving truck, starting it up with the front door still ajar. Rufus wagged his tail and tried to climb across his lap like this was an adventure.
The truck farted to life and rumbled. The seatbelt chime pestered him. He checked over his shoulder and saw the driveway was clear and he could back out. He kept it idling, waiting, willing his cousin to find sense and get out of there. Even if Jesse came with Pennywise and the Babadook chasing him, it would be a relief to get them all out alive.
The truck idled so long that the fasten-seatbelt chime gave up. Kosmo lingered, watching the house for anything. Any mellow the weed had given him was dead.
“Damn it,” he said to himself. As he stepped out, he made sure to close Rufus in the truck, so the dog would stay out of trouble. Rufus wagged his tail cluelessly.
When Kosmo checked inside, the burgundy door was closed. The black knob shone brightly with its polish.
He called, “Jesse?”
No answer. He checked the bathrooms. The rear lawn. There was no sign of his cousin anywhere. The air barely smelled like his weed. It smelled more like wilting produce in here.
Being alone in the house with that door was too much. Kosmo started to leave, and then spotted some garbage in front of the door. He thought it was a bunch of torn packing paper, until he noticed the scaly pattern. It was a long hunk of snakeskin, maybe five feet of it. It was all dried and curled there at the foot of the door, exactly where Jesse had stood.
Kosmo spent the police investigation in cheap motels, simultaneously dreading and knowing no answer would come.
He never stayed more than a couple days at the same place. He picked ones with small rooms, where he could see most of the walls. No doors were sneaking up on him.
The pickings were thinner since some motels forbade dogs. He couldn’t bring himself to give Rufus to a shelter. It seemed every day there was another news break of COVID breaking out at another community or animal shelter. The poor dog had been through enough.
So Kosmo spent his nights with the weirdo dog’s nose tucked into his armpit. Jesse had said that Rufus had lost his sense of smell in a car accident. Who knew what he liked about Kosmo’s armpit. Maybe it had the right warmth and moisture balance. He tried not to think about it. These days he was bad at not thinking about things.
Kosmo sat on the windowsill, on the phone with Uncle Dahl. Rufus padded over and flopped against Kosmo’s ankle. He gave a classic dog sigh. It sounded exhausted, but probably didn’t mean anything. Projecting human emotions onto a dog’s sigh was almost as irrational as projecting them onto a door.
Uncle Dahl coughed so loud it sounded performative. He said, “Your mother raised you to be smarter with money. You sold two houses for chicken feed. You’ve got to invest.”
Kosmo said, “Did you miss the part with the evil door?”
“Again with your evil door story.”
“It ate my cousin. Jesse. Aunt Angelina’s son disappeared.”
“My house is full of doors. Should I be scared and sell too?”
Kosmo closed his eyes. This was not why he’d called his uncle.
In as neutral a tone as he could force, Kosmo asked, “So you don’t remember any weird doors appearing to you or Mom or Aunt Angelina? Not when you were little? Never heard anything like on the Russian side of the family either?”
“My grandfather would’ve beaten the flesh off your knuckles for suggesting that. We’re Orthodox. We never mess with the occult.”
Kosmo could’ve argued that there had been plenty of occultism in Russia, but that wasn’t the point of the call. He asked, “The occult never messed with us? There’s nothing about snakes or square doorknobs or anything?”
“You pampered children.” Instantly, his uncle’s voice switched condescensions. He went from irate condescension to an insincere condescension, like this was entertaining for him now. “First you kids said there was this super virus sweeping the planet. Now you say there are evil doors everywhere. This is what’s wrong with your generation. You scare easily.”
As though done with this conversation, Rufus got up and padded away from the window.
Kosmo said, “COVID is real, Uncle Dahl. Are you using the hand sanitizer?”
“I’m on a Facebook group with real doctors. They are suppressing the research.”
Kosmo pinched the bridge of his nose. “Who is?”
“Corporate media. They’re trying to scare you into being a sheep. None of those people are really dead. It’s all a plot to steal the election. Did you see what the governor said?”
No, Kosmo was not having this same argument again. He’d gotten it in a dozen Facebook posts every day. Actual colleagues had unfriended Kosmo for being connected to Uncle Dahl. He hated thinking he’d have to sever ties with one of the last people who remembered how his mother’s voice had sounded.
Kosmo powered through with one last ditch effort. “So you’re absolutely sure there’s nothing about doors or snakeskins or anything in the family?”
Uncle Dahl barked out a laugh so hard Kosmo could almost smell his halitosis through the phone. “What do you even think is behind your scary door? This thing you’re throwing your life away over?”
Rufus whined from over near the coat closet. He was nosing at the wall, where the one lamp in the motel room barely illuminated anything. There wasn’t much to look at, yet the dog with no sense of smell moved like it was sniffing.
Another look, and Kosmo saw the burgundy door.
It was the same imposing height as it had been in his house, and in the second house where he’d lost Jesse. It was set right into the wall beside the closet, like it was inviting him to grab its square knob and walk through into the next motel room.
Rufus turned his dappled head to look at Kosmo, furry ears drooping. He had a long strand of snakeskin dangling from his mouth.
“Uncle. I’ll call you back.”
He got his first vaccination shot at an open-air clinic on a college campus, about an hour’s trip from where he picked up the RV. The nurse told him to move his arm every hour so it wouldn’t get sore, and fortunately Rufus was hyper that day and kept tugging on his leash to go explore more bushes. Kosmo kept Rufus near him at all times these days, in case of doors. Together they went on a walk to a local car dealership.
Something about the supply chain and microchip shortage meant the car market was a disaster. He settled for a decade-old used RV with a recently replaced engine. It was dingier in person than it had looked online. Still, as he ran his hand over its unusually low roof, Kosmo grinned. He used a tape measure on the tan and brown body of the RV to make sure. It was on the small side, with barely enough space for himself and Rufus to cook and sleep, and play videogames, and Zoom.
Better, it was the wrong dimensions for other things. It was too short, too narrow, and had windows in too many places. The door had always showed up the same size. There was no way it could fit on this RV.
“Who’s a clever boy?” he asked Rufus, rubbing the dog’s floppy ears. “Who’s smarter than a door?”
If face-licking was a sign of approval, then Rufus thought he was a genius.
His phone buzzed as he pulled out of the lot. It was Uncle Dahl. He’d been texting more since Kosmo had deleted Facebook. He couldn’t deal with all the conspiracy theories and the deluge of textual screaming in his life. The last post he’d seen had speculated state governments were hiding COVID deaths as “pneumonia deaths.”
He ignored Uncle Dahl for now and heading to the nearest campsite. Rufus and he had a whole road trip planned to explore parts of America without walls. Soon he’d be spending two weeks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Two weeks alone, after so many months basically alone. Some friends had invited him to a bonfire they claimed would be open-air, about a day’s drive out of his way. Considering it made him ache, but the longer he was away from them, the less he trusted that they were really isolating and socially distancing, and the more he read into their unmasked selfies.
The campgrounds were on some hills overlooking a small pine forest and a public sports field. A bunch of kids in mismatched uniforms were playing soccer, and parents pumped their fists and spilled their drinks in celebration from the faded bleachers. None of them wore masks—not the parents, and not the players. Being that recklessly happy looked so appealing. Kosmo imagined taking Rufus down there and introducing him. Kids always wanted to pet him.
A shriek rang out from near the southern goal. A kid had tripped and went down clutching his leg. Everyone swarmed him like ants, first his fellow kids, and then parents. From all the way up at his campsite Kosmo could tell the kid had just skinned his knee. It must have been so comforting to that boy, to have all those people around him, caring for a little pain.
Nobody masked up as they came closer. Kosmo’s instinct to go join the sympathy faded into a concern that anyone of them could’ve infected the whole huddle. How terrible it would be, if that instant of caring for a crying child was a spreader event. What were they all even thinking gathering like this? Did the U.S. have to hit a million dead to scare people into taking it seriously?
His phone buzzed and interrupted his ire. It startled him so hard he nearly dropped Rufus’s leash. He’d really lost himself there.
He checked his phone. It was another text from Uncle Dahl. Kosmo skimmed the messages, half-watching the kids below celebrate their fellow athlete walking it off. When Kosmo scrolled to the last message, his fingers clenched down on the phone. He pulled the screen closer to his face.
Uncle Dahl had seen the door.
“Where is it?” Kosmo asked before he even got out of the RV’s cab. Rufus tried to follow and Kosmo barely shut the door in time to keep him in. He wasn’t letting Rufus get hurt.
Uncle Dahl rubbed a sneakered foot at a crack on the driveway. His scraggly gray beard was entirely unmasked. Brown sweatpants dangled on his skinny legs, and his beer gut was mostly contained in a red bathrobe. For how lazily he was dressed, his thinning gray hair was gelled and neatly combed over his freckled scalp.
His uncle said, “You’re really living in that thing? That’s not a home.”
He coughed twice, then spit something yellow onto the pavement of the driveway. Kosmo stepped away from him and got a dirty look for it.
Kosmo asked, “Did you get vaccinated? I can help you sign up.”
“I’m not a sheep. I don’t need the Deep State tracking my every move.”
Kosmo pointed to the rectangular bulge in Uncle Dahl’s bathrobe pocket. “There are not microchips in vaccines, and you have a cell phone. I guarantee you TikTok already has all your information.”
“You live in a glorified car. You’re going to talk to me like that? Take your life back. Be a man.”
“It turns out the RV doesn’t care what gender I am. Neither does this door curse thing.” Kosmo kept talking just to move the conversation along. This had already reminded him why he’d deleted Facebook in the first place. “Where’s the door? How long has it been here?”
Uncle Dahl pointed out back, to the yard he paid landscapers to mow and seed for him. The rear wall of his house was brick painted the same deep blue of the U.S. flag. Paint flaked in various places, and at first Kosmo mistook some of the flecks for snakeskin.
But standing on the watered lawn, looking at those blue-painted bricks, he didn’t see the door anywhere. He looked closer, wondering if Uncle Dahl had painted over it. Uncle Dahl did lots of weird things.
Kosmo asked, “You said it was out here?”
Uncle Dahl said, “You don’t visit family anymore. You didn’t even come for the holidays. You won’t come in our houses because of this COVID thing. Do you see anyone other than that dog?”
Kosmo was looking around the next side of the house before he understood what that meant. He wheeled at Uncle Dahl. “Is it actually here?”
Uncle Dahl coughed again, a brackish noise. “You’re so afraid of this phantom door. Doors are everywhere. Doors are just a thing.”
“This thing ate Jesse. How do you not care about that?”
“I don’t believe that story,” Uncle Dahl said, coming closer, which made Kosmo back away. “But if any of it’s real, we could make money. That’s why we needed to see each other. It’ll show up if you stay long enough. You said it appears everywhere. Let’s do something with this opportunity.”
Kosmo noticed the surveillance cameras mounted around his uncle’s property. At least two of those were aimed at them. Was he recording this? Was he looking to make a profit off a video of Kosmo getting bewitched by a burgundy door?
He tried to slow his breathing. He was not slugging a senior citizen today. He put a fist to the side of his own head and pushed, making himself turn away so he wouldn’t yell. But maybe he should yell. Maybe embarrassing his uncle in front of his neighbors would rattle some sense into him.
Uncle Dahl said, “Don’t be dramatic. It’s time for you to move on. Look at that wall. Show me this door. Then you can leave it here. Give the door to me.”
Despite himself, Kosmo did stare at the wall. At that dark blue paint that belonged in depictions of a U.S. flag. The seams between every brick under the paint were so obvious. He wondered if the door would appear burgundy as always, or if its shape would emerge from beneath the blue. He’d never seen where the door came from.
His uncle deserved it. If he wanted to get swallowed into the unknown like Jesse, then a hurt part of himself said to let it happen.
The instant he entertained the thought, more followed through it. If he was going to let the door appear, he could do something nice for himself after. Maybe he’d stick around to see it open and have all those nagging questions answered from a safe distance. Maybe he could drive to the bonfire with his friends after all. Go teach on campus again. Fill up an entire Fine Arts building with evil doors, because screw it, if nobody else cared, then why should he?
Uncle Dahl sniffed wetly and rubbed his nose. “No more excuses. It’s time for you to live a real life.”
That was why he shouldn’t. Spite was a bad reason, but people had been taking this unseriously since the first day he’d carried Rufus away from the first door. The door was stalking him and he didn’t change. Jesse was gone and he didn’t change from that insipid condescension.
Kosmo pushed away from the wall with its flecking paint and its bricks and its promises of bonfires. No door had appeared yet, and no door was going to appear. He marched in a wide berth around his uncle, not wanting to breathe an iota of that man’s air.
Rufus was halfway up on the dashboard, head up, panting happily at the sight of him through the windshield. That dog was so happy just at the idea that Kosmo was coming home. Before he’d even fully sat at the wheel, Rufus’s cold nose went directly into his armpit. He hugged the dog around his neck.
Uncle Dahl followed him, yelling, “You’ve got to take control.”
He looked at his uncle one more time. “I am. Me leaving is me taking control. Don’t text me again.”
He slammed the door and pulled the RV out of the driveway, not looking back, not caring if the whole property was overtaken by weird doors and an old man’s outrage. He and Rufus rode straight for the interstate, to get out of Florida as early as he could. The two of them had a date with the Great Smoky Mountains.
His uncle texted him several more times. Kosmo didn’t let himself read them; he couldn’t stand the sting. Texts slowed over the weeks, and stopped a month later when Uncle Dahl passed away.
Officially, it was pneumonia.
© 2023 John Wiswell
One Response to “Bad Doors”
OMG <3 <3 <3 SO MUCH.
Thank you for sending this out into the world, I love your writing.