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The Game of Seven Doors

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THE RULES

Seven Doors is a game involving light meditation, and imagining oneself being projected into another place in your mind. We decided that we would project into a clearing in a heavily wooded pine forest, similar to the forest that we met in in the real world to play together. You can choose any place you like, but I recommend using the same place to enter and exit from every time to help with continuity.

At least two people need to play. You should never try to play by yourself, as the second person is there to “pull you out” so to speak, and you may get stuck if you try by yourself. (There was also the fear that you might eventually not be able to discern what is real anymore if you continued to go in by yourself, as the presence of your friends would be the signal to your brain that you were back in the real world and not in another projection.)

The person who’s “travelling” lies down, and the person who’s “guiding” places their hands over the traveller's eyes.

If there are others present, they should make a circle around the guide and traveller. This is apparently for protection.

Everyone who isn’t the traveller begins chanting “seven doors.” When the traveller seems appropriately relaxed, the chanting stops, and the guide will begin asking leading questions, such as “What do you see?” “What do you hear?” “Do you smell anything?” Etc.

Wherever the traveller first arrives, that’s the place that they have to return to before the guide pulls them out.

The guide counts down from five, and after reaching one, demands, “Open your eyes!” At this point the Traveller is officially “out” and can open their eyes in the real world.

No one else can talk besides the guide during a session (to avoid confusing the traveller when they try to return.)

Taking someone out early, against their will, or before they’ve reached their entry/exit point can have unintended consequences.

----- MY EXPERIENCE -----

I’m not sure how we started, or who had the idea first, but when I was in middle school I had a group of friends who would all go into the woods together past the race track and play a game we called “Seven Doors.” This game involved one girl laying her head on the lap of another; the second girl would cup her hands over the eyes of the first girl to block as much light as possible from shining through their eyelids. We would all circle around them, seated on the forest floor, and chant softly, “Seven doors, seven doors, seven doors…” etc.

The girl whose hands were cupped over the first girl's eyes would ask her questions after we chanted for a few minutes. What do you see? Where are you? Do you smell or hear anything? All leading sensory questions that would paint a picture of a location in the mind’s eye. The girl lying on the ground would begin telling us what she saw, describing what she was doing, even where she was walking. Usually every “session” like this started in a forest similar to the one we played in, except that the girl who was “traveling” would be alone.

Within the woods were seven doors, each one a different color; there was red, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, and white. They were scattered, and usually the goal of each session was to find a door, open it, catalogue what was inside of it and get back “safely” to the “entry point”, or the clearing in the woods that all of us originally arrived in when it was our turn to travel.

We only had 45 minute lunches, so we would usually only have time for one person to go under per day. Originally, it was just in fun; we would giggle and chant and listen with rapt excitement and attention at the visual story the girl who was traveling that day would spin for us, finding all manner of animals and plants in the “forest.” We respected the hunt for the doors; no one was eager to slip a discovery into their story until it felt right or made sense. Thus it took us two weeks to find three of the doors and explore a little bit of what was beyond each.

The blue door was found first, and it led to a deep valley lake, with short white houses cut into the cliff sides around the lakeshore. We hadn’t delved deep enough yet to know if the small cliffside villages were occupied or not, and by whom.

The red door led a huge city, built from gold, metallic terra-cotta type material, with towering buildings that connected and re-connected through complex sky-bridges. Again, we had yet to encounter any sort of dwellers or people here, only a few strange birds that followed our progress through the city any time one of us ventured into the Red Door.

The Green door led underground, into a dank, glowing grotto, filled with soft phosphorescent fungus that wove across the ceiling like a webwork of fine jeweled thread. There was a single fire pit with a crackling fire lit at the water’s edge, and a small tent suitable for one or two people at the most further in the darkness.

We were slowly moving beyond the point where it was a game. In the beginning, perhaps we had tapped into the effectiveness of soft repetitive noise and some sensory deprivation by blocking the light from the eyes, and achieved some very mild meditative states. It may have helped with our intuition, our ability to get lost in our world that we all created together. Like a creativity exercise done to stimulate those more abstract portions of the brain that we are so plugged into as younger kids, and lose access to as we get older. Maybe we were just at that right age; not quite children anymore, not quite grown women, but in-between, a gray state of being; transitional creatures each with a foot in two different worlds.

Maybe this is what made us susceptible. Who knows?

I remember going under on a Wednesday, when my turn came around again. My friend, we’ll abbreviate her name to Jay, had her fingers cupped loosely against my cheeks. She had been taking guitar lessons, and I remember how calloused her finger pads were against my twelve year old skin. It made it harder for me to concentrate for a while, to sink into that soft fuzzy half-awake state that made it easier to make up stories. A flash of irritation shot through me but I quenched it, squeezed my eyes shut, and tried to concentrate. The anticipation in the circle around us had changed in the last week. No giggles or smiles; we used to make faces at each other across the circle to try and get one another to crack the chanting with a laugh, but the last few days everyone had intently stared at whomever was on the forest floor, focused. Resolved. There was a mystery here and we were going to figure it all out.

Finally, the chanting stopped, and Jay asked me, “What do you see?”

The clearing was around me, as it always had been before. I looked down and could see myself, wearing the flared Dickies and blue-striped, cap-sleeved shirt I had put on that morning. I circled around the clearing, getting my bearings. Our friend S had found the green door the day before, and she had turned twice before heading off into the forest. I was really curious about the grotto so hoped I could find the Green Door again and spend a little more time exploring. I turned steadily, making a second complete circle, before walking out of the clearing into the woods.

It was midday; sun shafts broke through high canopies of thickly layered pine trees. Dead needles and rocks crunched under my shoes as I walked, threading in-between tree trunks and larger ferns. I described the landscape around me in colorful detail, until I was stopped short when Jay asked, “Do you hear anything?”

Huh. Besides my own footsteps, I hadn’t actually thought about sounds yet. I paused, finally tuning in to the forest around me. There was a stillness, a heaviness to the forest that seemed to dampen all noise as if coming from underneath a blanket. I waited, but besides me there was no sound. Not even one of the creatures my previous friends had identified in earlier explorations. My mind was a total blank.

“I don’t hear anything,” I whispered, and somehow saying it out loud filled me with a sudden, blood-chilling dread.

Ice in my veins, I slowly turned in a circle right where I was standing, peering sharply into the woods around me. This was…strange. Something was off. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but this weird, suffocating stillness seemed much different from the soft breezy forest we had come to know. I don’t know why I was stupid enough to do this, but I called out, “Hello?”

A pause.

Then, in the distance, a sound. Leaves rustling?

The snap of a branch, so singularly loud in the stillness that it might as well have been a gunshot.

My heart cracked and fire surged through my limbs. I whipped around and began running back to the entry point, the clearing where we all entered and exited from.

Fuck. What was I thinking? I should have realized something was wrong right when I arrived but nothing had ever happened before, so why should it now?

My breathing came fast and hard as I dodged tree trunks and leapt over exposed roots. Jay later told me that I had called out “Hello?” and then started almost hyperventilating. She had been tempted to wake me up right then and there, but we had a rule about waiting until a person had returned back to the entry point before coming back. Something about exiting the same way we had entered, in order to keep everything orderly.

I was mostly looking down at the path as I ran, to ensure that I didn’t trip on a root or large rock. So when I looked up briefly, and saw a dark, hulking shape ahead of me in the woods, my heart nearly stopped right then and there.

“Shit!” I veered suddenly, dodging behind a pine tree, clutching the rough bark in my hands as I pressed myself against the trunk. I stuffed my hand in my mouth, stifling my gasping breaths, ears craning desperately for any sound. What was that? Were my eyes playing tricks on me? What in the actual fuck was going on?

I waited, hearing nothing but the thick silence and my own blood pounding in my ears. After a few moments, I cautiously peered around the edge of the trunk.

It was closer to me now. I hadn’t heard anything, but there, in the direction of the dark hulking thing I had seen earlier, I could make out the distinct rectangular shape of a door.

“What is it? What do you see?” Jay’s voice squeaked a little higher than normal.

“There’a door ahead of me,” I whispered. I stared at it, fingers white-knuckled and stinging with sharp pain as the rough bark of the tree dug into them.

“A door?” A pause, then Jay spoke, her voice calmer, colored with curiosity. “What color is it? Is it green?”

I swallowed hard. “It’s black.”

It stood alone in the woods about 50 yards ahead of me. A dark, solid stain on which the light of the sun seemed not to touch. I couldn’t see much else from my distance outside of a faint embossed pattern covering the center of the door.

There was a long pause. Then, another voice, from the circle of our friends around us. “I thought there were only seven doors?”

“Elia, shhh!”

“Well she’s changing the game! We haven’t even found all the doors we decided to have yet and she’s making more doors?”

I couldn’t be sure…but it was starting look like, somehow, the door was getting closer to me through the woods.

“I’m running around it,” I said, and began moving through the trees, circling around the door to the left. It didn’t seem to move while I was looking at it, yet every now and then I realized that even though I was moving around and away from it, it somehow was closing distance between us. When I realized that in the time it took for me to circle around it, it managed to halve the distance between us, I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke my gaze, turned, and ran full sprint.

I was nearly at the clearing. Just make it to the clearing and get out of here; it’s a door, it’s not like it’s going to chase me-

The trees broke up ahead of me, opening up into the clearing and my way out. I gasped in shaky relief, and slowed for a moment, peeking over my shoulder to see if the door was still “following” me. There was nothing behind me but trees and forest and I almost laughed.

“Guys! I think I lost-“

I turned, and screamed as I nearly ran right into it. It was three feet in front of me, and I barely avoided slamming right into it, throwing myself off to the side into the brush.

“Fuck, you guys,” I cried. “Fuck, fuck! Jay, get me out, get me out!”

“Are you in the clearing?” Her voice was sharp.

I scrambled to my feet, and threw myself around the door, taking off into a hard run. The moment my toes passed the edge of the forest into the grass, I said, “Yes! Yes, get me out, now!”

“Five, four, three, two, one, and…open your eyes!” Sunlight nearly blinded me as Jay’s hands lifted from my face and I scrambled up, frantically brushing dead needles off that had collected on my backside. I was panting. Jay’s face looked pinched as she watched me. No one else said anything for a long time before Elia finally spoke up. “I can’t believe you didn’t open it.”

“Are you shitting me? A creepy black door?” The remembered sight of it chilled me and I shivered unconsciously. “No thanks.”

The bell rang, signaling five minutes until the end of our lunch time. “We’ll try again tomorrow,” Jay said quietly, and without another word, ten girls got up and trudged back towards the school, a strange sobriety having fallen over everyone.

I almost didn’t go to school the next day. Looking back, I should have stayed home and faked being sick.

When we met out in the woods the next day for our lunch time adventure, everyone was a little quieter than usual, but most of the girls had regained their good humor. I, however, had not. I had slept poorly the night before, waking multiple times throughout the night, drenched in sweat despite the Pacific Northwest dreary, forever-fifty-degrees weather. I had no recollection of my dreams, but it was hard to peel myself out of bed this morning. Needless to say, I almost didn’t go to school, because I knew they were going to try again, and maybe even actively look for the black door. We were a curious bunch, and no one had seen it or experienced it besides me.

I was silent the entire way out into the forest, even when Elia shoved up next to me as we walked, digging an elbow playfully into my rib.

“Did the black door follow you home?” she mock-whispered.

“Elia, the day you take something seriously, is the day I die of shock.” Aubrey had come up behind us and swatted at Elia’s backside. Elia shrieked and leapt forward, skipping ahead of us a few steps and laughing.

“Should we call it eight doors now, since Kat found a new door?” This came from Emory, walking a little off to our left.

“No,” I said quietly. “I don’t even really know what the hell I saw, but…let’s keep it at seven.” Somehow, acknowledging the black door’s existence seemed like it would make things worse.

Or maybe I just wanted to pretend it never happened at all.

Emory fell into step beside me. “Did you see anything on it? You know, besides that it was black.”

I shook my head. “Honestly I wasn’t looking super close, though. I think there were designs in the center, but of what, I don’t know.”

When we got to our spot in the woods, Jay and the other girls were already there. We formed our circle, with a girl named Lauranne taking the honored position of the traveller this time. Jay did most of the question-asking when it wasn’t her turn to travel, so she knelt on the carpet of dead pine needles first before Lauranne lay down and situated her head on Jay’s lap.

“You ready?” Jay asked.

Lauranne nodded and shut her eyes. Jay cupped her hands and placed them over Lauranne’s face. She took a deep breath, shut her own eyes for a moment, and then nodded briefly. The circle of girls began chanting.

Seven doors, seven doors, seven doors…

After a few minutes, Lauranne’s breathing had become slow and heavy, as if she were sleeping; we could see her belly rising and falling beneath her baggy Soundgarden shirt. Her hands fell open and slack at her sides, her feet splayed outward gently. She looked deflated against the forest floor, as if she were a discarded doll with all the stuffing ripped out. Jay’s voice cut through our chanting and all our voices fell silent. “What do you see?”

Lauranne let out a slow breath. Her voice sounded tiny as she said, “I’m in the woods. In the clearing.” A pause, and then, “I don’t see any doors. I’m going to start walking west.”

“Do you hear anything?”

Pause. “There’s a breeze; really slight. I can hear the leaves rustling. But nothing else.”

“Do you see the black door?”

This came from Emory, and Jay looked sharply across the circle at where Emory was sitting. It was against the rules for anyone besides the question-asker to say anything or ask questions, to prevent any confusion when trying to “pull” someone back out of the imaginary woods. Lauranne’s face furrowed slightly beneath Jay’s hands, and Jay quickly repeated Emory’s question to get everything back on track. “Do you see the black door?”

Lauranne seemed to wait for a moment before answering, and my heart began to pound.

“No. I don’t see anything like a black door anywhere around me.”

Lauranne continued to wander the woods for a while. She spotted a previously identified creature, a white stag, in the distance. It looked like a normal four-pointed stag when we first saw it weeks ago, only it had a third horn spiraling straight from the center of it’s head, in-between the two arching antlers. It always ran away if we walked directly towards it, but occasionally it liked to shadow us, following off to the side as we made our way through the woods. Lauranne didn’t even bother walking towards the stag when she saw it, but changed direction and continued walking. She noted that it began following her off to the side as it had done to many of us in previous journeys.

After a few minutes of this, Lauranne came to the edge of a previously undiscovered ravine. A small, narrow trickle of water cut through the forest floor below her, and after a moment, she announced that she was climbing down to the water.

“Is the stag still there?”

A pause as Lauranne “looked” around. “No,” she said. “I don’t see him anymore.”

The ravine was dark and narrow, shallow enough to jump down, although once Lauranne was next to the river she noted that it was much darker than up on the forest floor. She began following the water south, describing roots and trailing moss sticking out of the sides of the ravine as she walked, overhanging branches and fallen tree trunks crossing over either side above her. After a few minutes, she said, in a little whisper, “I’ve stopped walking. I think it’s getting darker.”

It was silent for a moment. Even the woods around those of us in the circle seemed to have become still, the cries and noises of the lunch time chaos back on the school’s grounds seeming to get farther and farther away.

“You mean the sun is blocked out from where you’re standing?” asked Jay.

“No,” replied Lauranne. “Like…like the sun is going down or something. Like it’s getting later in the afternoon.”

This hadn’t happened before. Every time we journeyed, the sun was always at midday, bright and cheerful. Our gazes met nervously around the circle. “Do you want to continue, or head back?” asked Jay.

A long pause. We all held her breath. Then; “I’ll continue for a little bit,” said Lauranne. “But I’m going to start heading back towards the clearing.”

Elia snorted quietly. “Sissy,” she muttered under her breath. The girl next to her punched her lightly in the thigh.

Lauranne described walking a little further down the ravine, looking for a good place to climb back up. She said she found some knobby roots hanging out of the mud wall that looked like it would work well for handholds, when suddenly her breath caught.

“What is it?” asked Jay sharply.

“I think I see a door.”

Alarm pierced through me, but moments later, Lauranne said, “It looks like yellow wood. Like a bunch of bleached, yellowing tree roots knotted together and woven into a door in the side of the ravine wall, across the river from me.” Before Jay could respond, Lauranne added, “I’m going to try to swim across the river and get to it.”

“I thought she was coming back?” I whispered to Emory next to me. Jay gave me a warning glare. We were supposed to be silent, but I wondered if Lauranne had heard Elia’s “sissy” comment, because she went from being carefully cautious to suddenly diving into strange waters alone in an astral forest, ready to open a new door we’d never found before.

Lauranne described herself walking into the river water. The current wasn’t terribly strong, and she waded out to the center, carefully stepping on submerged boulders scattered along the base of the river. She got out to almost her chest, when suddenly her relaxed, deflated body stiffened in a spasm, and she let out a choking gasp.

“What is it?” Jay asked quickly.

“It’s in the river!” Lauranne’s voice was a squeak. “Holy shit, there’s a black door in the river! It’s right underneath me! I almost stepped on it. Oh my god!” Her fingers were clenching and unclenching against the forest floor. “Oh fuck, I’m coming back right now. Shit! It’s right there, how the fuck-“

“Come back, Lauranne,” Jay said sharply. “Hurry! Just get to the clearing.”

Lauranne described herself turning and splashing inelegantly back to the shore, launching herself out of the water and climbing the roots up the side of the ravine. Her breath began coming in short, sharp gasps, feet twitching and hands scrabbling slightly against the ground. She said that she had gotten to the top of the ravine, had crawled away from the river on hands and knees and had turned around once, only to see that the black door was now at the edge of the ravine where she had just climbed up, towering against the backdrop of trees and sky and completely shadowing her from the sun.

“No, no, no,” she began muttering to herself. “I’m running. Fuck, it’s right behind me guys. What the fuck?” She began panting again, her chest heaving against the ground. I felt a cold sweat against the back of my neck, watching her. A few of us had grabbed each others hands, gripping for dear life, white knuckled in our circle.

After a few moments, Jay asked, “Is it still behind you?”

A short gasp from Lauranne. “Yes,” she said. “Every time I look back it’s…” a few more gasping breaths, “…it’s maybe ten feet from me.” We waited, as she panted against the forest floor, her body wriggling and writhing in distress. Then, she let out a sharp cry.

“Lauranne?” Jay’s voice was alarmed. “What is it?”

“It’s starting to appear next to me…off to the side. Just not there one minute and there again the next. Oh fuck, you guys…” Then she suddenly inhaled deeply. “I see the clearing!”

“Hurry,” Jay muttered. “Just let me know once you’re there.”

Lauranne described looking over her shoulder and off into the woods on either side a few times. As she neared the clearing, she said she lost sight of the black door. She checked the woods one more time as her feet crossed the threshold, before saying, “Jay, I’m here, get me-“ her voice cut off with a horridly loud scream, loud enough that every girl in the circle jumped.

”It’s in the middle of the clearing! Jay…Jay, it’s fucking opening…”

“Five, four, three, two, one…open your eyes!” Jay ripped her hands back off of Lauranne’s face. Lauranne’s eyes snapped open and she sat bolt upright, one hand clutching at her throat.

“Oh jesus,” she said, gasping. “Oh holy shit.”

We all closed in around her, asking a million questions. What did the door look like? Why was it following her? How was it opening, quickly or slowly? Did she get a glimpse of anything behind it?

Once Lauranne caught her breath and calmed down a little, she said that it had begun slowly swinging outward as she stepped into the clearing, so she didn’t get a good look at what might have been behind the door. She noticed a pattern on the door, especially the few times that it had gotten close to her, and with a shaky hand, she took a stick and drew a long, horizontal line, with three shorter lines beneath it, two that were right next to each other and the third one centered and a little below it. Around the lines she drew a circle. “That’s all I can remember clearly,” she said. “There was more but these were the biggest designs.” She drew a shaky breath. “I know we’re here to explore and learn, but you guys…I just…I didn’t want to get near that thing.” She shivered visibly. “There’s something wrong with it.”

The bell rang across the forest, and we all stood up, brushed dead needles from our clothes and began the slow walk back to the school. Lauranne was unusually pale, and she kept rubbing at her eyes. “Are you okay?” I asked.

“Honestly? Not really.” She pinched the bridge of her nose as we walked. “I have a splitting headache. I kind of thought you were making up that whole ‘black door’ yesterday. You know, to make your session interesting.” Her tone was slightly apologetic.

“I’m going tomorrow.” Elia’s voice cut across the air as she fell into step next to us. “I don’t know why you didn’t just open it and see what was inside.”

“Yeah, you don’t know, Elia,” Lauranne retorted sharply. “The door felt…I don’t know. It felt menacing. Like it was threatening me.”

“I felt the same,” I offered. “Like it was stalking me or something. It seems like it was a lot more aggressive with you.”

Lauranne didn’t answer, but the pinched look on her face spoke volumes.

“All the doors move,” Elia quipped. “No door is ever in the same exact place twice. Maybe this one just moves a lot more than the others. We won’t know anything about it until we open it, and not knowing just makes us more afraid.” She squared her shoulders as we trudged back into the main building. “I’m looking for it tomorrow, and if I see it, I’m opening it up. I want to know for sure what’s behind this black door.”

I slept badly again that night. I kept hearing a faint knocking sound in my sleep, but whenever I woke up it would cease, and I could only hear the soft sounds of my parents and brothers sleeping in the rooms around me. At 3am I even got up, walked down to the landing and checked the front door, but no one was there.

My mom woke me up at 6:45am. My alarm had been blaring for the past five minutes, and I hadn’t even heard it. She said she had to shake me a few times to get me up. I felt like my head was stuffed with sandpaper; at the time I didn’t know what a hangover felt like, but looking back, I definitely peeled out of bed as if I’d participated in an all night rager.

It was dumping rain that day. When we met at lunch at one of the corner cafeteria tables, everyone immediately started talking about how we’d squeeze our next session in. The woods were completely out; it was raining hard enough that the ground would be muddy swampland for the next few days. It was Friday, and if Elia didn’t take her turn today it would mean waiting until Monday to find out what was behind the black door,if the weather cooperated. Frankly, I was kind of in favor of stopping the game altogether, but when I said as much, I got quite a bit of backlash.

“Kat, we know it’s scary but we don’t know anything about it. Maybe Elia’s right and we’re just scared of it because it’s…you know, unknown.” Emory softened her words with a peace offering of jo-jos from her plate, which I reluctantly accepted.

“I don’t know, you guys. It’s not just that we don’t know what’s behind it. We don’t know what’s behind at least four of the doors and even the doors we’ve opened are still a little bit of a mystery. It just feels so…invasive. Like it’s doing everything it can to get us to open it, almost leaving us no choice but to open it. It’s not a door that we previously knew was going to be in the forest. And it showed up inside our clearing! I thought the clearing was supposed to be like a safe zone, where we pop in and out?” I stuffed a piping hot jo-jo in my mouth. When the world crashes onto your head, let the starchy warmth of spiced middle-school cafeteria fries be your comfort.

“I brought that up to Jay last night on the phone,” Lauranne said quietly. “She said technically we never decided to set the clearing as a safe-zone, or whatever. Some of us just assumed it would be safe because nothing’s ever followed us into it before.”

Elia sat down next to me, slapping her lunch tray on the linoleum cafeteria table. “I just called my mom from the pay phone in the hall,” she announced. “If you guys want, she’s cool with having everyone over for a sleepover tonight.” Elia rubbed her hands together, silent picture villain-esque. “She’s working a night shift so we won’t even have to keep the screaming down.” She winked at Lauranne, who coolly flipped her off.

A few had to check with their parents, including me. Shina (I called her S in a previous post, because I needed time to check that she was okay with me posting her name) said that she had plans already and couldn’t make it. Jay joined us halfway through lunch, apparently caught in a long lecture by one her teachers, and said she would definitely be at Elia’s house later.

“Are you sure you want to do this in your house?” Aubrey asked. “I mean…we’ve always done it in the woods.” She seemed about to say something else, but changed her mind at the last minute, and began stabbing at the steamed vegetables on her plate listlessly.

Elia shrugged. “Not my first choice, but I don’t want to wait three days to find out what’s behind the door. I’m worried if we wait too long it won’t be there when we get back.” She smiled wickedly. “Besides, if something follows me back to my house, maybe it’ll eat my sister first?”

Elia lived with her mom and older sister on the lower south side of my home town; not the wealthiest of neighborhoods, but still clean, respectable, and only a little run down. Her mom was a nurse who had been pulling late night/early morning shifts for the past two years, so she was on her way out once we were all situated, sleeping bags strewn over the tiny living room, with three ordered pizzas and a massive box of diet cokes on the counter. After repeatedly telling us to call her if we needed her for anything, she left; the moment her little Toyota pulled out of the gravel drive and disappeared down the road, everyone turned in silent unison and looked at Jay.

She scowled. “Can I finish my pizza first, you assholes?”

I was nervous, but strangely less afraid than I had been for the past few days. Somehow in the slumber party setting it actually felt more like a game again; my friends were all laughing and shoving each other as we all moved the furniture around to accommodate a circle of seven girls in the middle of the room, with Jay and Elia getting situated in the middle.

“Shina’s going to be pissed that she missed this,” someone said.

“Okay, everyone chill for five seconds. Should we light some candles?”

“Very ‘light-as-a-feather, stiff-as-a-board, Jay.” I got up and helped Emory pull a few emergency tapers from the kitchen, setting them up around the outside of our circle seating area. Then we shut off the lights, and a rapt stillness fell over everyone as Elia settled her head in Jay’s lap and shut her eyes.

We began chanting. Seven doors, seven doors, seven doors…

Elia sank quickly, her entire body melting like pudding against the carpeted living room floor. It was warm, still, the light soft and hazy, and in the past few weeks we had all gotten extremely good at chanting together, at the same tone and volume, creating a rippling wave of soft noise that fell into the background and grabbed your focus all at once. Elia was “out” almost immediately, but Jay waited for a bit before signaling us to silence and asking, softly, “What do you see?”

It was strange to hear Elia’s normally brash, mischievous voice so tiny, so child-like and far away. “I’m in the clearing. Jay, it’s…really weird. The grass…” She paused for what seemed like forever.

“What about the grass, Elia?”

“The grass is brown. Dead, dry, straw brown, like what happens to our lawn at the end of summer.” Elia described herself touching the ground around her feet, and then walking the edge of the clearing. She said that some of the leaves on the bushes right at the edge of the forest looked black, as if they had been burned.

“I’m going to walk south,” she said. Elia made her way slowly, describing in elaborate detail everything she saw that might be noteworthy. Her intense personality was offset by a deep obsession with detail and a keen perceptive eye, and I had to admit that her journeys were some of my favorites, as she painted such a vivid picture for the rest of us.

The first ten minutes of Elia’s journey were relatively uneventful. Here and there, she would see tiny patches of black underbrush, similar to the state of some of the plants at the edge of our clearing. Other parts of the woods were just as lush as ever, and she said she could hear birds, though she couldn’t see any. She caught sight of what we had decided to call the green monkey a few weeks prior; a little primate-like creature with a long tail, and peacock green fur that shone iridescent in the light of the sun, like the wing of a raven or crow. She called to it a few times, but it seemed content to peer down at her, head cocked from one side to the other as she whistled and coaxed. Eventually Elia grew tired of this little game and kept walking. The monkey didn’t follow.

She claimed that the woods were beginning to get darker the longer she walked through them, similar to Lauranne’s experience of time passing as she explored the forest in our previous session. We were so rapt in her descriptions that when she abruptly said, “I think I see a building,” there were more than a few soft gasps from the circle. We’d found buildings through some of the doors, but we’d never found any sort of non-organic structure in our woods before. Elia described what looked to be a large farmhouse or barn, settled in a part of the woods that was less densely populated by foliage than the rest. There seemed to be smaller trees arranged in neat rows to the east of the building, planted in a bare open plot of earth edged by the pine trees we were used to in the forest. The dark wooden structure loomed three stories high, with windows looking out at each level, and a high pointed roof with rotting shingles covered in trailing green moss. There was one door at ground level.

It was entirely black.

“By black, you mean…” Jay looked uncertain, her question trailing off.

“It’s totally, solid black. It looks like there’s writing or carvings on the front of it.” Elia’s voice quickened with excitement, and nerves. “It may be the same door Lauranne and Kat saw.”

Everyone was silent for a moment. I could tell that Jay was searching for something to ask, when Elia said, “I’m walking towards it.”

Aubrey grabbed my left hand and squeezed it. Fuck, I couldn’t believe Elia was doing this.

“I’m walking slowly; I’m about thirty feet away. Now twenty.” Pause. “The forest is really quiet again. I don’t hear the birds anymore.” A longer pause, followed by, “Okay, I’m going to keep walking. I’m about ten feet away. Now, I’m almost up to it-“ Elia’s voice cut off in a small little choking noise.

“What?” demanded Jay. “What? What is it?”

Elia let out a slow, unsteady breath. I’d known her for years, and despite all her bluster and bravado, I could tell that she was shaken by whatever she was looking at. “There’s a bunch of symbols and carvings in the door. I see the pattern that Lauranne described. Lots of smaller shapes, lines intersecting making stars and weird holes, sort of like those illusion tunnels we drew with a protractor in art class. And…jesus…okay. So…” Elia took a deeper breath. “So, there’s also…a bunch of names.”

“What names?” Jay was staring so intently down at Elia’s face I don’t think she even remembered the rest of us were there.

“It’s…it’s our names.” A pause. “Our names are all over the door.”

I’ll never be able to fully describe the sudden, gut-puckering, hot and cold dread that sank from my head to my feet in that moment. It felt like someone poured live ants down the inside of my back. Aubrey was nearly breaking my hand with her grip, and I just let her; my painful, squished knuckles were the only part of my body that wasn’t crawling.

Elia described the location of each name; her’s was right above the circle. My name was to the left of it, Lauranne’s to the right, Jay’s below. The other girls’ names flared at different points in-between, creating a star of letters around the central symbol.

“I’ll draw what symbols I can remember when I get back,” Elia said quietly. She took a shaky breath. “But I’m going to open it.”

“Elia, don’t!” Emory squeaked. Jay didn’t even reprimand her, but it was pointless anyway. Her attention was solely on Elia’s face, as were all of ours.

Elia described grabbing the black, round doorknob and turning it slowly. She said it felt warm against her palm, as if she were taking a person’s hand. The door was silent as it opened, barely a whisper as Elia stepped back to pull it wide. Past the threshold, she could see what looked like the inside of a barn. Straw littered a dirt floor, and it was horribly dark, beams and support poles scattered around the wide open space in front of her.

“What else do you see?” Jay asked, breathless.

“Not much,” Elia responded. After a few moments, she said, resolutely, “I’m going inside.”

“Fuck, Elia, stop it! Just come back, we saw what was inside and now it’s over. You did what you said you’d do.” I spoke without really meaning to, but again, Jay didn’t reprimand me. Tonight was a night for breaking rules and doing stupid shit, apparently.

“I’m already inside. It smells like…well, a barn. Like horses and dirt and hay.” Elia’s voice grew a little stronger as the moments passed. “It’s dark but there’s still some light coming in through the windows. It looks like there’s some stalls, and stairs leading up to a second floor. Everything is really…” Here she paused, as if considering her next words carefully. “Everything is…gray. Even the forest outside the windows looks gray, like an old black and white movie.” A pause, and Elia lifted her hand off the ground where she lay in her own living room. Then: “I’m looking at my arm and even my skin is white. Like, blanched white; there’s no color anywhere.”

She described herself walking towards the stairs at the back of the barn, looking around for a lantern or flashlight or something to help her see. After a few minutes, she stopped, and said uneasily, “I just noticed it now, but it’s been happening since I walked in here. There’s a weird sound going on in the background. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s super quiet, but kind of…low, and choppy, with a kind of low rumbling beneath it.” Her voice became distant for a moment. “Like I’m hearing a helicopter in an earthquake, but on the other side of the world.”

Jay wasn’t even asking leading questions anymore. We all just listened, silent, rapt, as Elia described reaching the stairs, and taking a hold of the railing. As her hand touched the bannister, she let out a sudden shriek.

“The door! Fuck, the door just slammed shut behind me. Jesus fuck, that scared me!”

“Elia, you need to come back, right fucking now,” Jay said forcefully.

“It’s fine, it’s fine…nothing else happened, I’m just…god, that fucking sound. It’s still going. It’s making my head hurt. It’s like once I noticed it I can’t stop hearing it.” Elia took a shaking breath, and then reached for the banister again. She climbed the stairs, eyes straining up through the darkness. It looked like the stairs wrapped around and led up to a third level, but as Elia climbed she casually glanced out the windows in the stairwell, looking out over the orchard.

Her breathing stopped for a moment. Jay gave her head a little shake. “Elia!”

She let out huge breath and began breathing a little faster. “There’s something coming through the orchard. Towards the barn. Like the shadow of a person, but not a person. Tall. Like almost as tall as the orchard trees.” A pause, and then, “Okay, I’m getting the fuck out.”

Elia turned and ran back down the way she came. She said she raced for the black door at the entrance to the barn, grabbed the knob, and flung it open…only to see the same gray landscape stretching out ahead of her that she could see through the windows. The lush, colorful, green forest she had trekked through to get here was gone.

“Shit.” Elia said she tried shutting and re-opening the black door a few times, willing the green forest back into existence. Every time, it re-opened onto the colorless world, and when she glanced over her shoulder, she said the tall shadow was almost to the barn. “You guys! What the fuck do I do? Do I just walk through and try to come back the way I came? It’s…not the same forest.” She gasped sharply, suddenly, and then almost squealed out “It’s here. It’s looking in the window at me!”

“Jay,” I said in a panic. “Jay, we have to pull her out now!”

“The rules,” she said, distressed. “I don’t know what that’s going to do! We’re supposed to bring her back the right way or else something could go wrong!”

“Do it, Jay,” Elia said. “Oh god, please do it. Get me out. Fuck the rules. Just get me out now.”

Jay sucked in a deep breath, and then, with a despairing look on her face, said, “Five, four, three, two, one…open your eyes!”

She pulled her hands back off of Elia’s face as if they burned her. Elia’s eyes snapped open, and she immediately sat up, hair disheveled and face pale.

We all stared at one another, a sick feeling of dread falling over us.

“Are you okay?” I finally asked.

“Yeah.” She was quiet; she absently rubbed the side of her head. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m…fine.”

After we all calmed down a little, Elia drew what symbols she could remember from the door. To be honest, none of it made sense to us at all. Looking back now, some of it looked like sacred geometry that anyone might recognize, like mandalas and the tree of life. (I know this now, but didn’t know what sacred geometry was when I was 12.) Some of it was and still is gibberish to me. At that point, Jay suggested that we try to watch a movie to try and relax. Elia put in The Cable Guy and the mood lightened somewhat. Someone made popcorn but it mostly went uneaten. Three quarters of the way into the movie, almost everyone was in their sleeping bags and we all decided to go to bed at that point. But even though the lights were out and everyone was trying to lie still with their eyes shut, I could tell that hardly any of us was really sleeping. I kept lifting my head to peek over at Elia’s sleeping bag, watching her breath rise and fall beneath the thick synthetic fabric. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we had just really, seriously messed up somehow.

The weekend was a mess of anxiety and apprehension. I called Elia once on Saturday and on Sunday to check in on her and make sure she was okay; by the time I got her on the phone Sunday afternoon, she sounded pissed. “Look, it’s sweet that you’re all worried, but everyone’s been calling me all day, all weekend. I’m fucking fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She hung up abruptly.

Jay was off hiking with her parents all day. I got a few of the others on the phone, but there were no solid theories on what we might have stumbled into. Elia wasn’t talking much, and apparently was over all the phone calls she was getting. It was 1996, so there wasn’t much information on the internet, or even much of an internet at all; still, I got a call at 6pm Sunday night from Shina, who hadn’t been at the sleepover on Friday but had been since filled in on what happened.

“You got a sec?” she said when I took the phone from my mom.

“Yeah, we just finished eating. What’s up?”

“Okay, so I’ve been keeping track of all the symbols that we’ve seen on the door. This afternoon I slipped into a chatroom on AOL called Esoterica. Usually it’s just a lot of Wiccan fluff and throw back new age stuff from the 70’s, but sometimes a few hard core occultists float through and spew nonsense for a while before being booted by a mod. I decided to scan in photos of that big symbol that Lauranne first saw in the middle of the door, and the other symbols that Elia remembered, and post them all to the room, just to see if anyone recognized anything or knew what it might be.” I heard the shuffling of papers on the other end of the line. “Most of the conjecture didn’t seem to go anywhere, but one guy, uh…user EnochLives77, he said some stuff that kind of made sense.”

“EnochLives77?”

“Yeah.” Shina sounded embarrassed. “This chat room was pretty intense. Like, people believing that they’re vampires and stuff. That was definitely not the weirdest username I saw.”

I sighed. “Okay, well what did Mister 77 have to say?”

“He said he recognized one of the symbols at the top of the door, the one that looked like spokes on a wheel; he said it was an old Sumerian sign called ‘dingir’ (she pronounced it like “danger” but with two i’s) and that it meant, like…god, or deity. He said that if archeologists usually find it on plaques or carvings or whatever, and it comes before someone’s name, then that means that person is some sort of deity or higher being.”

“Sumerian?”

“Uh, like…the oldest civilization. Remember in History class, we did that whole…Mesopotamia thing, and we read Gilgamesh for two weeks?” Shina paused, adding, “Jay almost failed our final because she kept slipping her headphones in during the class readings? It was when she finally got Frogstomp, and she could barely function unless she listened to it at least twice a day.”

“Oh, yeah. Jesus.” I glanced over my shoulder to check and make sure my mom was still in the living room, and slipped into the hallway, dragging the phone chord with me. “How would anyone in a chat room know that?”

“Apparently they geek out hard over this stuff.”

“Okay, so one of the marks on the door means…deity. Special super powered person. Did they say anything else?”

“Well, once we got on the Sumerian track, he mentioned that another symbol right below it could be one called…” More shuffling of papers in the background, and then Shina’s voice butchering the pronunciation “…usbalkit. He said that some people are still arguing about the meaning of some of these words. This one sometimes means ‘rebel’ or ‘revolt,’ but it can also mean to like…turn something upside down, or reverse it. He said he wasn’t sure, but that the second meaning would make more sense in this case.”

“So…what, so the top of the door reads, ‘god reverse?’”

“No. No, it would be more like, ‘god upside-down,’ or ’the upside-down god,’ I guess.”

Silence hung over the line. The quiet static of land-line dead air hissed faintly in my ear drums as my heart pounded. Finally, I spoke up. “But this is just from some dude in a chat room, right?”

“Yeah.” Shina sounded uncertain. “Honestly, Kat, none of us know what the fuck we’re really doing here. I think it was fun when we started but now I just feel like…I don’t know, like we’re way out of our depth. Even if what this guy is saying is totally whacko, what you guys described that happened on Friday night, I just…don’t think we should play anymore.”

“I don’t either.” I unwound the phone chord from around my finger; it has wound so tight that the tip of my index finger was starting to turn blue. “Okay, I have to go; I’ll see you tomorrow. We’ll talk about what you found out then with the others.”

“Sweet dreams, Kit Kat.”

“Ha! Bye Shina.”

I was late to school. My alarm once again failed to wake me and my mom was pissed; she told me she wouldn’t let me stay over at anyone’s house anymore if it kept throwing off my sleep schedule. I told her that I had been sleeping badly; she blamed the computer, and too much TV, and whatever else she could muster up, before telling me that I had to lay off the pop from now on. I kissed her cheek and slid out of the car without a word, heading towards my second period class.

By lunch-time, I was already dragging. My stomach was queasy, so I didn’t even get food, but I bought a huge 16 oz Jolt cola before finding the table my friends usually sat at.

Elia wasn’t there.

“She’s at home sick,” Aubrey reported gravely. “Something about her stomach; her mom said she puked twice this morning.”

We all stared at one another for a moment.

“Guys, this is getting really fucked up.” I listlessly twisted and untwisted the cap on my plastic cola bottle.

“Yeah,” Lauranne slipped a hand on my shoulder briefly. “I feel like we need to stop playing, but…I also feel like we need to un-do whatever the hell it is we just did, first.” She absently rubbed her forehead. “I haven’t been feeling well, either. Like, kind of sick..and I sleep like shit.”

Surprisingly, everyone else started piping in; apparently no one in our group had gotten a solid night of shut-eye in the past week.

“Well, if you’d like to sleep even worse, than pay close attention.” Shina then related what she had told me the previous evening. She had pulled out her copies of the symbols Lauranne and Elia had drawn and spread them out over the table, pointing to the ones she was referring to.

After she was done, everyone was pensive. “We have to help Elia. There’s no way she’s just conveniently sick after going through the black door.” Aubrey was staring down at the symbols, brow furrowed.

“So…what do we do, exactly, to fix it?”

Everyone looked at Jay. She was chewing pensively on her lower lip, eyes thoughtful. “When we pulled her out, she was behind a door, and she couldn’t see a way to get back to the clearing. Maybe we should try to send someone in and get back to the correct entry point. Maybe doing it the right way will set everything back to normal?”

Everyone thought about that for a moment. “And what if it doesn’t?” Lauranne asked pointedly.

“Well, we don’t have a better plan; we can’t leave things the way they are. We broke the rules and I don’t see how going back in could make it any worse at this point. But maybe we can make it better.” Jay stabbed at the cafeteria spaghetti on her plate with her fork. “Anyone else have a better idea?”

Silence.

“Great. Then we’re doing it.”

Shina piped up. “So who’s going to go in next?”

Everyone took that moment to study their lunch trays closely, avoiding eye contact with anyone else around the table.

“For fuck’s sake,” I said, exasperated. “I’ll go in. We’ll plan on tomorrow?”

Jay nodded. “Tomorrow, then.”

That night I fell asleep over my homework twice; each time, faintly, I swear I could hear a low, far off rumbling, just at the edge of my hearing, with a slightly louder whop-whop-whop-whop layered over it. I’d wake up maybe 10 minutes after drifting off, my head splitting and my face crumpled forward against my textbook. The second time, when I awoke, I found I had drawn a small symbol in the corner of my spiral notebook paper: a single circle, with a long horizontal line across the top, and three smaller lines below.

The same symbol Lauranne had seen on the black door.

I felt that we were all spiraling; that Elia’s current state would befall all of us if we just left things the way they were. I knew that if someone didn’t do something, my own situation…and everyone else’s…was only going to deteriorate.

Maybe there was no way out, really. But I decided that night as I settled in for a fitful round of sleep, that if this was my last time entering whatever realm we’d tapped into, then I’d try to make it count.

“Are you ready?”

My head rested against Jay’s crossed ankles, eyes staring up at the sky beyond her head. It was a gorgeous day; crystal blue skies and wisps of white cotton clouds danced past the tops of the trees straight above me. It was actually warm for the first time in a long time; everyone around me in the circle seemed lit in soft fire as the afternoon sunlight broke through the pine trees and scattered like liquid gold to the forest floor beneath.

I took it all in for a second, and then sucked in a breath, shutting my eyes. “Ready.”

Seven doors, seven doors, seven doors…

I was nervous. I had no idea how I was ever going to relax enough to slip into the altered state I had become so familiar with at this point, but suddenly it was happening; I sank, my vision receding into darkness, and the voices of the girls seemed to come from far away, as if I had dropped underwater. I shivered, and when I faintly heard Jay ask, “What do you see,” I opened my eyes.

I was in a huge, expansive field. The sky, the tall grass that brushed against my jeans, the few small birds in the sky, all were gray, like I had stepped into an old black and white movie. All color leached from everything, including, as I looked down at myself, me. And when I raised my eyes, I nearly jumped; a sharp gasp escaped my lips, and from very, very far away, I could hear Jay’s voice; “What is it?”

“I’m…surrounded,” I whispered. “They’re all around me.”

They stood on four legs, soft, sable fur glimmering in the dull grey light. Bristling antlers towered towards the sky, ending in wickedly sharp points tipped dark with some unknown glimmering liquid. They looked like elk, but larger; and in the center of each velvety forehead, opened a third eye, unblinking and staring.

They surrounded me in a circle, and they were staring at me.

“Jay,” I whispered. “Jay, what do I do?”

“Just…move very slowly. And don’t piss them off, please! We’ve got enough shit to worry about right now without adding to it.”

I took a few hesitant steps towards one edge of the circle. The elk seemed dis-inclined to move, but as I approached, almost touching one of them, it shifted to the side slowly to allow me to pass. The circle closed behind me, and I could feel the weight of their enormous bodies, antlers clicking as they tapped against one another, moving in unison. Ahead, in the distance, I could see the tree-line of a forest, and before that tree line, a huge building towered, rows of smaller trees laid out across its front lawn like a small orchard. It reminded me of those plantation houses in the south, elaborate and impressive in its physicality, but also…wilting, with crumbling shingles and dark moss claiming the corners of ceilings and the base of columns.

In the background, I started hearing a low, almost imperceptible noise; the low rumbling of a far off earthquake, and a softer chopping noise layered over the top.

I described it all to Jay as I began walking forward through the tall grass, the mansion looming up ahead of me. The low, rumbling sound encroached on the edge of my hearing; it was always there, subversive and barely loud enough to pick up, but for some reason the hairs had been standing up on my arms the moment I opened my eyes in the field. As I finished describing the scene for the others, I heard a faint sound coming from the building ahead of me. It sounded like a phrase…like someone was repeating something over and over, but at the end of the jumble of words I could distinctly make out one syllable.

“…Kat.”

Fuck. “Guys,” I whispered. “I think I hear Elia’s voice.”

I took off in a light jog, booking it through high grass that slapped against my legs as I ran. Surprisingly, the herd of elk followed; they kept a medium distance behind me, but they moved like a silent tide over the field, spreading out behind me in a wall of antlers and muscle. As I approached the house, they fell back, marking a line about fifty feet from the front entrance with their bodies. They fell still, silently watching me as I approached the huge front porch.

The windows were dark; I couldn’t see anything beyond the faded, cracked panes of glass, so sign or indication of what lay inside, waiting for me. The voice was a little stronger, yet I still struggled to make out the entire phrase. I simply heard a jumble of words, followed by “Kat” repeated over and over, in discordant sing-song melody. Now that I was closer, I was even more certain that it sounded like Elia.

“There’s nothing on the porch,” I whispered. “It’s bare; no furniture, nothing.” As I approached the door, I balked; the front door loomed dark and heavy against the white wooden building, and I knew immediately that it was the at-once-familiar-and-dreaded black door. Yet…something about it had changed. I swallowed, and stepped forward cautiously, the porch creaking softly under my weight.

The large symbol in the middle of the door was different from what Lauranne and Elia had described. There were still a circle, a long horizontal line and two lines beneath it, but where the third and lowest line had cut across the bottom of the circle, now it was replaced with a long outline of an ovoid shape, with a solid circle in the center of that shape. And as I looked, something dark stained the white wood wall next to the door. Maybe I was seeing things or recognizing a pattern where there wasn’t any, but it looked like there was a hand print against the door frame; a dark central palm with long, ragged looking fingers stretching out, reaching in towards the door knob.

My eyes took it in, and that keening, rumbling noise at the edge of my hearing seemed to intensify, filling my ear drums. I found my right hand lifting, slowly reaching out towards that hand print, my limbs shaking, my body shaking, my organs and my heart and my lungs rumbling and quivering and becoming that noise, until I heard nothing else and saw nothing else as I reached, palm desperately wanting to press into the blackness of its hand…

Pain exploded on the side of my body and I was launched sideways, sprawling over the porch, wrists and head slapping against the wood like a rag doll. One of the members of the elk herd had climbed the porch and stood towering over me, antlers shadowed against the grey sky behind him. It stared down at me as I gasped for breath on the ground, ice in my lungs, my head bursting with pain and my ribs bruised.

Jay’s voice seemed to whisper from far away. “What happened?”

“I…fuck, nothing. I just need to get out of here fast.” The elk snorted at me, and I perceived a contemptuous note in its heavy breath, before it backed off the porch and stood in the grass in front of the mansion, watching me impassively.

I scrambled to my feet, and approached the door, keeping my eyes off the grotesque hand print and reaching for the door knob. I noticed with trepidation the names of all my friends carved into the wood, and at the top of the circle, where Elia had claimed her name had been, I now saw the name Katherine.

I opened the door.

The mansion expanded around me, massive; the ceiling was as high as a Cathedral, with arching points and angled apexes, nothing at all like what it might have looked from the outside. Everything was pale, white, but there was an insidious darkness that hung heavy, coalescing in every nook and cranny and settling, as if…waiting for me to do something. Because of the unique architecture, there were corners everywhere, not just in the walls but on the ceiling as it sloped and dipped, arched and folded and met itself again in high peaks pointed up towards the sky and beyond. The massive space was decorated with strange furniture unidentifiable to me, and again, there seemed to be extra…edges to things, as if I were looking at one of those Magic Eye pictures where illusions pop out of flat spaces. I had a headache immediately as my eyes tried to make sense of it all, and couldn’t.

There were two staircases lining the walls, leading up to a second floor balcony and dark hallways beyond. Ahead of me at the far end of the large entryway seemed to be a huge, looming structure, a structure that I felt an immediate aversion to; a sick, gut-deep revulsion shook through me every time my eyes tried to focus on it. It seemed a tangled mess of angles and shapes that moved with slow undulating purpose out of the corner of my eye, yet when I grew close to looking at it, it went still, an indecipherable statue in an indecipherable room.

At its base, hunched over in a curled ball, was someone that looked like Elia.

“Jay! I see Elia! Jesus, she’s still in here!” I kept my eyes on her form, refusing to look at the large structure she was huddled in front of any longer. “I’m moving towards her; maybe if I get her out of here, this whole thing will be over.”

A garbled whisper hissed in my ear. It sounded like Jay, but it was as if she were talking over a malfunctioning walkie-talkie and I could only make out every other word. “…careful…” I heard through the static.

“Elia,” I whispered sharply as I got closer. “Elia! It’s Kat.”

She was muttering to herself. Unintelligible words interspersed with what sounded like my name. I inched closer towards her, fingers reaching out to grasp her shoulder. If I could just get her out of here, get back to the clearing, have Jay pull us out…

My fingers touched her shoulder, just as her muttered words finally unjumbled and became clear.

Curiousity killed the Kat.

She uncurled, then, and turned to look back at me. It was Elia’s face, but her eyes were…fathomless, completely black, not empty, but filled with a vastness and an un-ending void so deep that it terrified me. It felt like looking at a moonless night sky, but instead of standing grounded on my backyard patio, I had stepped out beyond the sky, beyond the stars and planets, as if everything recognizable and warm was behind me and I was right on the edge where only the blackness remained. I stared at it…and it stared right back.

I snatched my hand back as if I’d been burned, and she slowly stood up to face me. She kept repeating the phrase…curiousity killed the Kat…and as she straightened onto her feet, she cocked her head to the side, as if listening to something far off…but then, she kept going, her head bending further and further to the side, until I was sure her neck would snap, and it still kept going, turning around in a horrifying slow motion circle, those eyes staring at me, until her head had turned all the way around, and her chin pointed up towards the ceiling while her long hair dangled down the front of her body.

Her mouth opened wide, the sentient vastness of the abyss beyond the cavern of her mouth, and she screamed, multiple voices crying in an agony and rage that rocked me to my core.

I ran.

I have never felt such blinding terror before, or since. There was no reason, no plan, no strategy to where I was going. I simply threw myself forward into any available empty space that would take me, feet pounding against white wooden floorboards as I sprinted towards the front of the building. The black door slammed shut as I reached it, and I let out a strangled, helpless cry, trying the knob once before letting go as the door refused to budge. I turned and ran for the stairs, Elia’s twisted, shuttering shape making its way towards me in a stuttering half-step.

Up the stairs, two steps at a time, legs and lungs burning; my eyes watered and my vision blurred. I heard a horrible crunch! as I reached the top of the stairs, and I turned to look behind me. Elia’s form had reached the bottom step, and she had fallen forward, catching herself on her arms, limbs lengthening in horrible proportions as she began crawling up each step with unearthly speed, her horribly turned head wobbling back and forth in grotesque fashion. Her mouth was still wide open, still screaming wordlessly at my retreating form, and I turned and sprinted down the dark hallway.

The ceiling was high, shadows stretching above me into nothingness. I threw myself around the corner at the end of the hall, only to find another stretch of hallway in front of me. With Elia close behind, I ran, further into the darkness, Elia’s enraged screams echoing around me. The rumbling background sound had grown more intense, pulsating through me and vibrating my bones as I bounced off walls and skidded around corners, gasping for breath. No matter how many bursts of speed I put on, how many times I thought I’d lose her, she was soon on my trail again, crawling like some unearthly animal, long legs and arms stretching, snapping forward.

I glanced behind me, terror rising anew as I saw her skid around the corner I’d just cleared, and as my head turned, from the corner of my eye, I saw a glimpse of color.

A flash of deep red in the darkness.

To my right, down a side hallway, was the red door.

I should have questioned it, but there was no time. I hurtled towards it, Elia grabbing at my heels, and reached out for the doorknob, turning it in an instant and shoving it open. Light poured through the door, illuminating the hallway, and as I turned to slam the door shut, I caught a glimpse of Elia…she was crawling on the ceiling, hands and feet gripping the darkened wood as her face, now right-side up because of the angle, hung down, almost level with my own; her mouth split into a wicked grin.

“Curiousity killed the-“

I slammed the door shut, leaning against it hard.

THUMP! The door shook violently, rattling against my back. I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed harder against it, lips clamped together to stifle my own cries.

Thump thump THUMP!

Go away, go away, go away…

After a few moments, the door finally fell still. All sound from the other side ceased. I stood, drenched in sweat and gasping for breath, in the golden gilt courtyard we always entered when we stepped through the red door in the past. Impossibly tall buildings rose high above me, glittering in the light of a deep crimson sunset. The air was cooling, but the sparkling bricks and walls around me radiated the ambient heat of a long, hot day coming to a close.

“Jay,” I said hoarsely. “Jay, can you hear me?”

“Yes! God, finally, are you okay? What’s happening? You’ve been babbling nonsense and hyperventilating for the past five minutes. I was about to send someone to call 911.”

“Jay, Elia…she’s…”

A rush of hot wind tousled my hair, caressing my face. A shadow passed over the courtyard, and I quailed, looking up as a dark shape suddenly dropped down from the air, onto the cobbled pavement in front of me. An owl, huge, almost as tall as me, scrabbled its talons against the gilt stonework. It cocked its head at me once, twice, and then seemed to shiver, shake out its feathers, twitching uncomfortably…and then a woman’s head unfurled, standing tall, much taller than me, the feathers of the owl settling and draping over her body like a fine gown. She folded a pair of wings against her back; her eyes were impossibly large, nearly filled with luminescent red irises shot with gold, huge unchanging black pupils swallowing the middle.

“Kat…Kat, what is it? What do you see?”

Her crimson lips curled in a smile. Her voice was…otherworldly, intense, so uncanny that it raised the hairs on the back of my neck the moment she spoke.

“I’ve been waiting for you.”

“Kat,” Jay’s voice whispered. “Kat, what do you see?”

“Give me a second,” I whispered back. The woman paced in front of me; she seemed to have a hard time sitting completely still. While her eyes remained rapt and focused on me, her head shifted this way and that at every noise, tilting almost imperceptibly against the breeze. Her wings shifted and ruffled constantly, giving the impression of tireless energy, and intense power held at bay.

”You are younger than I expected,” she said after a moment. ”Not yet a woman. But the smell of your blood is much older.”

Oh Jesus Christ, the smell of my blood??? My knees nearly liquified; her presence was crushing, as if I was standing in front of every leader of every major country on earth, and required to give a speech on a topic I hadn’t studied for. I was still pressed hard against the red door and refused to move forward into her wingspan. “I…” I swallowed, clearing the sudden lump in my throat. “I apologize, um…but I don’t know what that means.”

She seemed to find that funny. ”You are truly a youngling. And yet you and the others wander through these expanses with such relative ease. We have watched you ever since you stepped through that door.” Her gaze snapped to the red door behind my back, and then back down to my face, obvious interest unveiled on her features. ”You have something that would be very valuable to many here.”

I didn’t know what to say to that; I opened my mouth to ask what she meant, but she suddenly cocked her head sharply to the side, pupils contracting to tiny pinpoints of black in a sea of red and gold. ”It encroaches. Whatever you’ve done to disturb It, It now presses Its influence between the expanses.” Her gaze flicked back to me. ”You are here to clean up your mess, yes?”

“I…um. Yes. That’s the goal.” I felt absurdly like I had forgotten something extremely important when talking to her; as if she were in on an inside joke that she expected me to join her in, and yet I didn’t know what it was.

”It’s coming closer.” She shook her head, feathers ruffling around her face for a moment, and her wings expanded. ”It may know that you are here. I tire of holding this form, but I will give you this; that Its door and Its Self are intrinsically connected. It is a being of gateways, of passages, of in-betweens and not-places. What you do to Its Gateway, you do to Its Self.”

She shuddered before I could get a word out, shivered and hunched forward, and in an undulating ripple of feathers, the woman was gone and the owl blinked at me, wickedly hooked beak flashing in the eternal sunset. It flapped its wings in a powerful down beat and lifted off the ground, rising higher overhead before clearing the skyline of buildings and disappearing, taking off into the twilight.

“Jay,” I said quietly when she was gone. “I think I have an idea.”

“What happened?”

“I’ll tell you, I promise, but…just bear with me. I may not be able to talk much.”

I took off in a light run, keeping my eyes peeled for anything that would seem out of place in this red-gold world. Every few moments, a shadow would fall across me as a dark shape would fly overhead between buildings; like every time before when we had explored the world behind the red door, I was watched from a distance. I wondered if it were only the owl woman watching, or if there were more like her far above me in the sky.

And then, as I reached a wide open marketplace, empty of stalls or beings, I heard it.

A low rumbling, with a choppier sound layered over the top.

Fuck. “It’s here, Jay. I don’t have much time.” I walked out to the center of the empty marketplace, turning in a slow circle, watching the nearby buildings and doors. “When I say so, I need everyone in the circle, including you, to picture the green door in your minds. Try not to think of anything else, but just the green door. You got it?”

“O..okay, we can do that. What are you doing?”

“Right now? I’m waiting.”

The noise grew…not louder, but intensified, sending low vibrations throughout my body. The gilt cobblestone beneath my feet seemed to shiver through the bottoms of my shoes, and I kept turning, barely blinking, staring hard into the surrounding architecture. On my third turn in this manner, I saw it.

The black door.

“All right,” I said quietly. “If I die, or go crazy, you guys had better come in and fix this.”

“No promises,” Jay said wryly; I could sense her attempt at humor, but underneath her voice, there was a slight tremble. She was scared.

That made two of us.

I walked slowly towards the door. It looked the same as it had before, but larger, looming against the backdrop of a glittering, golden wall set on the far end of the marketplace. I was a tall girl, and the door knob was almost as high as my eye level, making me feel like a child again. I turned it, and purposefully pulled the door open.

The inside of a barn greeted me, heavily obscured in shadows, dead straw and dirt scattering into the darkness ahead of me.

I took a deep breath, and stepped through. The moment I crossed the threshold, I was once again in the gray world; color gone and that distant noise thrumming through my bones.

But this time, I turned, and immediately shut the door behind me. “Jay,” I whispered. “Now. Now, now, now, do it, the green door.”

“Come on you guys,” I heard Jay say; her voice was muffled and far away, but I heard her, and with that, I pushed the black door back open. The red world was gone, and in front of me were the blanched, gray woods, so similar and yet so different from the woods we had created ourselves.

I stepped back outside, heading purposefully into the forest. I had taken a few steps when I heard a deep, heavy thrumming, and glanced over my shoulder back towards the barn.

It stood there, in front of the black door. It was tall, much taller than the threshold of the door, and roughly humanoid shaped, but dark, like a hole had opened up in the world and had taken on sentient form. The edges of Its shape seemed to bend and warp the atmosphere immediately around it. As I stared, the darkness seemed to deepen, and I thought I began catching glimpses of something…else. Far behind in the blackness, there began to appear the hints of a shape, or…shapes. Shapes with extra edges, with lines and dips and divets and points in places that made no sense, undulating in unsettling movement only when my eyes looked elsewhere. My stomach churned in a revolting repulsion, my eyes desperately wanting to reject what I was seeing.

I felt a trickle of wetness slide down my cheek as I stared, and I reached up to wipe my eyes, my fingers coming away stained with blood. My head was pounding…my very thoughts squeezing under Its heavy weight, and as I stepped back, It seemed to take a step towards me.

And then another.

Fuck no. I turned and ran, hurtling into the trees.

“Jay!” I cried. “Come on you guys! I need that green door!”

She didn’t answer. The forest around me kept flickering, shifting in a cacophony of buzzing noises and that deep rumbling sound. Trees were to my left or right in one moment and then suddenly in front of me in the next, and I had to keep changing my direction; a few times I slammed into tree trunks, scrabbling in a panic against the ground as I regained my footing. I glanced behind me a few times, and always, the shadow followed, seeming to never lose ground, but always gaining a little…following steadily behind me, long limbs moving in disquieting asynchronicity, with the patience and dark purpose of something that has all the time in the world.

I felt myself weakening. It was different from getting tired in the physical world. I suddenly felt…less, as if I were a canister of water that had cracked, and was slowly spilling my contents out onto the ground around me. My vision began blurring, tunneling at the edges. Nausea overtook me, and I was panting heavily, sweat and a darker liquid sliding down the sides of my face and into my eyes. Its thrumming, deep, bone-cracking sound sunk into my body and I could feel it squeezing, pressing, emptying…

“Jay,” I whispered weakly, and tripped over a tree root that had suddenly appeared in my path. I hit the ground hard, breath escaping my lungs in heavy grunt, and I turned onto my back as the shadow closed in on me, reaching ever taller in the sky, Its edges rippling like the surface of a puddle that had begun to spread.

“Jay!” I scrabbled backwards, and then my hands touched something underneath me, something that felt wholly alien compared to the pine-needle covered ground. Smooth, solid wood, and the shape of a door knob.

I glanced down. The green door had appeared directly underneath my body, lying on the ground. I didn’t hesitate, but gripped the knob hard and turned it, allowing the door to fall open beneath my body. I flew downwards, my brain spinning at the shift in orientation, and I landed heavily on the sandy shore of the grotto, sprawling with the green door open in the cave-wall in front of me.

I could see the gray sky through the door, and as I scrambled to my feet, the dark shadow bent down over the door, blocking out the sky, filling the opening as It tried to reach through. I swiftly leapt forward, grabbed the edge of the door, and slammed it shut in Its face.

I held it closed for a moment, panting. “If you want me, asshole,” I whispered, “You’ll have to come in here the hard way.”

I turned and faced the grotto. It was exactly as we had left it; gorgeous, luminescent algae made the water glow, while threads of fungus wove a tapestry of green, blue, and purple across the rock walls. The far edge of the underground cavern opened up into landscape and sky far above, but what I focused on now was the little camp that had always been at the edge of the water. The tent, and the campfire blazing merrily away in a fire pit dug in the sand.

I moved quickly. I knew It would have an easier time pressing into the expanse this time, and I swiftly knocked over the tent, stepping hard on the fabric and pulling up with all my strength, ripping it open. I removed one of the tent poles, and snapped it in a similar way, using my weight to bend and break the flexible wood. I quickly bound the shattered pieces together with the shredded tent canvas, and repeated this a few times, until I had at least four bundles of wood bound in cloth.

A deep rumbling filled the air. Whop-whop-whop-whop…

I turned to face the far cavern wall. In the space of a blink, there was smooth rock wall, and then the black door was there, ominous in its height, a black stain in this beautiful place. I moved fast, my heart pounding; no time to question or quail, just do what you need to do next…

I grabbed one end of one of the bundles and passed the other end through the campfire; it took a few tries, but soon the thick wood and bundled fabric caught fire. I looked up as I straightened, and noticed that this time, It wasn’t waiting for me; the door had begun slowly swinging outwards on its own.

I approached it quickly, and as it swung open, there It was…standing in a far off field of gray grass, a stark black wound against the sky, tall and impossible. It began walking towards me. I held me breath, swung my arms back with all my strength, and tossed the flaming bundle through the door.

The last thing I saw through the door was an eruption of white, colorless flame as the bundle landed in that dry sea of dead grass and immediately caught fire.

My eardrums nearly burst at the explosion of sound that reverberated from that fathomless…thing, and I gripped the edge of the black door and shoved it closed with all my strength.

I wasn’t done yet. Two more bundles went against the base of the door, and the third I lit on fire just as I had done the first bundle. With my flaming prize in hand, I stalked towards the black door.

THUMP!

It rattled and shook. The knob turned furiously back and forth.

I carefully bent down and placed the flaming bundle against the others, propping it up so that the fire would have a stable base.

THUNK!

I lunged back. The door bowed outward, an unearthly rumbling filling the cavern for a moment, wood screeching in protest, and then the fire caught and blazed stronger and stronger, finding purchase in the kindling I had provided, and began to steadily work its way up the surface of the black door.

A horrible keening ripped through the grotto, and I slammed my hands over my ears, falling to my knees. Rock cracked, and split, dust and pebbles falling to the sandy grotto floor, and I curled down into a ball, eyes squeezed shut, waiting for the worst.

And then…the rumbling slowly went silent.

I looked up. I was a lone girl kneeling in a grotto, watching a slowly growing fire blaze merrily away.

I moved and sat at the far end, pressing myself against the cave wall next to the green door, and watched it burn all the way down, wanting to make sure. While I sat, I related to Jay and the others what had occurred in the red world, and how I used the campfire in the grotto to hopefully destroy the black door. I waited, ready to run if my plan didn’t seem to work, but as I watched, the flames seemed to burn brighter and brighter…until finally the door crumbled in a heaping pile of ash and coals, leaving nothing but a smooth, rock wall behind it.

I stood, turned to the green door, and cautiously opened it.

Lush, green woods greeted me. I stepped through, closing the door behind me. I could feel my weariness digging through my mind as I trekked back through the forest, heading in the direction of our all-too-familiar clearing. On the way, I spotted some movement far off between the trees; as I glanced to my left, a beast very similar to an elk, but larger, with dark-tipped horns and a large, staring eye in the middle of its sable forehead, caught my gaze. It inclined its head to the side for a moment, before turning and disappearing into the forest.

When I reached the clearing, Elia was there, waiting.

I stopped, eyeing her cautiously. She looked like her normal self, wearing the pajamas she had worn Friday night.

“Are you actually you?” I asked.

She snorted at me. “Do you have any idea what I just went through? Don’t be a dick.”

Well, it definitely sounded like Elia. I walked into the clearing, eyeing her warily. She was not a demonstrative person, but she smiled at me as I approached. “Not bad,” she said. “Thanks for coming back.” She took my hand.

It would have been easy in that moment to mistrust everything I had been seeing, but a part of me needed to believe that we had fixed…whatever it was that we had broken.

“Jay,” I said, “Bring us back.” I squeezed Elia’s hand and closed my eyes.

“Five, four, three, two, one…open your eyes!”

Elia was back in school the next day. She seemed pale, and still a little weak, but mostly herself. She said she didn’t remember much while she was sick, and was constantly in and out of consciousness with a bad fever. She didn’t remember anything about the part of herself that was lost in the shadow man’s gray world, or coming back with me, but didn’t seem overly concerned about it. I think she was just relieved that she wasn’t sick anymore, and was eager to put it all behind her (as were we all.)

We never went out into the woods again, and once high school came around, we all seemed to drift and go our separate ways. I’ve lost touch with most of my old friends through the years; some I’ve found again on Facebook, and a few I saw at my high school reunion a few years ago. Everyone seems to be well-adjusted in their adulthood, but no one has ever tried anything like Seven Doors again.

And currently, no one seems to have any contact with Elia, or know where she is.

I’ve mostly stayed away from any sort of astral projection, lucid dreaming exercises, or journeying type meditations. While I tend towards being agnostic/skeptical, I also collect various religious paraphernalia, including blessed St. Benedictine amulets (one I keep in the house, the other in my car), statues of saints and Vedic deities (Ganesha guards the hallway up our stairs). We have little jizo statues on the front porch, and sometimes I surreptitiously hide little bowls of salt in the corners of the house. My husband thinks it’s quirky, that I am constantly questioning everything and demanding proof, but then secretly filling the house with protective charms and statues.

Last year, I became pregnant with my first child; I found that I was having increasingly vivid dreams, which is common during pregnancy, but something strange about them made me question what I was really dreaming, and made me think back on this childhood experience. A couple of times, I would dream that I was walking through beautifully sunlit woods, relaxed and comfortable, and though he didn’t show up “physically” as himself, I could feel the presence of my child with me, floating over my shoulder like a tiny ball of warmth. We would walk for what seemed like hours, taking in the woods and each other’s company, never speaking, but feeling each other deeply in a way that I can’t really describe. If you’ve ever carried or given birth to children, you may know what I mean.

During one of these dreams, I remember sitting at the edge of a pond, looking out across the expanse of water, the little presence of my son hovering softly next to me. For some reason, I looked down into the water below me, admiring the reflection of the woods in the still, smooth surface. I saw something strange on the far end of the pond, reflected back in the water. Puzzled, I glanced up.

Ahead of me, across the water, a large gray barn stood on the shoreline. The barn was on fire.

Alarm and a sudden shock of terror shot through me, and I gasped awake, shaking; my husband woke up, asked me if I was all right, and did his best to settle me down before falling back asleep.

I don’t knowingly enter any sort of meditation that may take me elsewhere. After that experience, I know better. Maybe we stopped It for a little while…made Its connection to whatever plane we were exploring a little weaker. But I know for a fact that what we did won’t last, that I am not forgotten…and that I am still, twenty years later, being watched. Maybe some day, I’ll find a way of severing Its connection to me for good.

Be safe, travelers.

And for fuck’s sake, if you see it, please never open a black door.



Credited to shortCakeSlayer 

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