There were too many doors in the upstairs hall. Sarah told her parents, but they couldn't see it. They told her not to worry. They told her there was nothing there. But there was an extra door at the end of the upstairs hall. An extra yellow door, and it didn't belong.
It was the color of disease, jaundiced and infected, with spidery black veins across its face. One perfect, silver knob gleamed in its center, above a shadowy keyhole, and it didn't look right. The doorknob shone with a mirror's finish, and caught the light from any angle, begging for Sarah to look its way. Sarah did her best to ignore it, but the door knew her name, and it whispered it when she drew near.
"Saraaaahh..." the door would rasp with a voice like dried leaves, as tiny claws scraped against the other side. Tears would well in Sarah's eyes as she'd hurry past, her arms laden with everything she'd need to get ready for the day.
"Saraaaahh..." it would call again before she'd shuffled out of range and closed the bathroom door, cutting off its paper-thin wails. When she'd creep from the bathroom to head downstairs, the door's voice would follow her with a furious flurry of scraping claws and tormented howls. They lingered and gnawed in the back of her mind as she'd rush through breakfast so she could leave the house a few minutes sooner.
School became a blessing, an excuse to be someone somewhere else. At school, she could forget the door. At school, she could pretend her house was like everyone else's, with the right number of doors and no eerie whispers. But, at the end of the day, it was still waiting for her at the end of the upstairs hall, with its mirror-ball knob and yellow face. She hated coming home and knowing it was there, but even more than that, she hated going to sleep, because in her dreams, she opened the door.
Every night, she stood before it, fighting the urge to reach out. Dread knotted her belly in anticipation of pain, when her hand rose anyway to grasp the silver knob. Some nights, it burned her like the driest ice. Other nights, it seared like a red hot coal. Very occasionally, it did neither, instead turning and turning without ever opening the door, and she couldn't stop turning it until she woke up.
When the door did open, it revealed a swirling vortex of shadow and sound, with a thousand voices crying in the darkness. The voices curled around her, crawling through her hair like spiders. She thrashed and swatted at their skittering whispers, but the words still tingled across her skin.
She never should have listened.
"He sees..." they said. "He hears..." they moaned. "He hungers..." they wept, and burrowed into her mind like worms. "The Hollow Man, the Hollow Man," they echoed in her mind and screamed to her from the gaping vortex. "The Hollow Man... he hunts!"
Sarah shot up with a scream that night, gasping and sweating, but alone in her bed. The clock's crimson face said midnight had passed, but not by much. Darkness enveloped her room, except where a vestigial nightlight illumined the corner by her desk; it wasn't much, but she felt better when she saw it.
She pulled the bedsheets over her head and pushed away the echoing voices. I'm fine, she swore, hugging her knees and rocking. It's just a dream. They're always dreams. The dreams will go away like they always do.
She started humming a song her mother used to sing when Sarah was smaller, small enough to need the nightlight, and the panic faded little by little with every note.
Just a dream, she repeated. Just a dream. Just a --
"Sarah?" someone whispered from the hall.
"Sarah? Are you Sarah?" It was the voice of a girl, not much younger than Sarah, and not at all like the voice she usually heard from the door at the end of the hall.
"Who... who are you?" Sarah whispered back from beneath the sheets.
"My name is Lizzie. Are you Sarah?"
Sarah didn't move; she was terrified of leaving the safety of her cocoon. As the moments ticked past, however, an anxious curiosity emboldened her enough to peek out from the covers. What if it was another girl? she thought. She sounded just as scared as Sarah felt.
Sarah crawled from her bed, clutching the sweat-damp night shirt she'd worn to sleep, and waited. When nothing happened, she stood up and tip-toed towards her bedroom door; toward the waiting yellow door, with the mirror-ball knob, on the wall at the end of the upstairs hall. When she stood before it, her stomach lurched, and for a moment, she couldn't tell if she was going to vomit, or faint.
"Please," the door said in the young girl's voice when Sarah got close, "Please, are you Sarah?"
Sarah opened her mouth to answer, but her voice was a tiny squeak of nothing. She pressed her palms to her cheeks and smeared away the tears before trying again.
"Yes," she finally managed. "... I'm Sarah."
"Please, let me in!" The door's silvery knob shook violently, rattling as if locked and jostled by someone on the other side. Sarah stumbled back with a gasp, staring at the shuddering, alien knob.
"Let me in, Sarah, please! I can't stay in here! Please help me! Let me in!"
Sarah dropped to her knees when her legs gave out, and she screamed when she looked at the door.
Level with the shadowy keyhole, below the rattling knob, she stared directly into a very human eye. Tears shimmered in the other eye, as they shimmered in Sarah's. It darted around, wide and white with fear, as if searching through the hall. And then, without warning, the keyhole became shadow, and the silver knob stilled, and the girl on the other side of the door began to cry.
"Please, Sarah," she pleaded, "He's almost here."
"The Hollow Man?" Sarah whispered, as a chill slithered up her spine. Lizzie sobbed quietly. Sarah scooted closer to the door, her fear growing colder when the girl from the other side didn't answer. "Lizzie?"
Silence fell, as if it had always been there. She couldn't hear Lizzie crying anymore, and even the house was too quiet behind her.
Sarah put her ear near the door, and held her breath.
She waited. Minutes passed -- but it couldn't have been minutes.
Nothing moved. Nothing whispered. Nothing cried. Nothing stirred. She couldn't hear anything but her own racing heart. Was she gone?
"Lizzie?" She tried again, afraid the Hollow Man had taken her.
"He's here..." Lizzie whispered at last, almost in her ear, as though Lizzie's lips pressed tight against the keyhole. "Please, let me in...."
Sarah's head ached. The world was a little fuzzy around the edges, and it was harder to focus than before. She had to stand up. She didn't dare touch the sickly door, but her legs felt too wobbly and weak to support her. She reached for the knob with a trembling hand.
"Please, Sarah...." Lizzie's voice was getting smaller, "Please...."
Grasping the mirror-ball knob, she pulled herself up from the floor. It moved noiselessly beneath her hand, gliding without resistance, and opened the yellow door.
A lonely expanse of normal wall inched into view, and she felt sick. She worried at her thumb in confusion, and extended a trembling hand to touch the wall behind the door. It was solid. As solid and as normal as the wall at the end of the upstairs hall should be, but her stomach churned.
She gently closed the door, which issued a soft click as the latch sprang into place, and waited. She hardly dared to move or breathe as she listened to the night, waiting for the door to speak again.
Hours passed in oppressive silence -- even though it couldn't have been hours -- and the door had nothing to say. Sarah grew sleepy -- too sleepy to keep standing. Too sleepy to remember why she was standing so still at the end of the upstairs hall. It was time to go to bed.
It's just a dream, she remembered, turning away and rubbing at her eyes, They're always dreams.
Shuffling to her bed was like swimming through Jell-O, and most of the way there she couldn't keep her eyes open. Luckily, she knew the way.
The dreams will go away, like they always do.
The crimson clock was broken when she rolled herself back in bed, its face declaring 12:16 AM to a room that only vaguely felt familiar, but she couldn't bring herself to care when her eyes and body felt so heavy.
Sarah... Lizzie whispered. But it couldn't be a whisper.
Sarah, Lizzie whispered, Sarah, don't wake up.
Sarah groaned a little.
Don't wake up, Lizzie said, her voice echoing in Sarah's mind.
Sarah frowned, and rolled onto her back. She didn't want to wake up. She wanted to stay asleep. Lizzie didn't need to tell her not to wake, because not being awake was the whole point of being asleep.
For a long time, all was silence. Sarah's mind drifted, and she felt herself grow lighter, as if getting ready to float up through the blackness that surrounded her. She could feel the cool sheets beneath her then, and for a moment, she thought she heard the papery-thin rustle of leaves in her room.
He's here... Lizzie whispered at last, Please, don't wake up....
Who's here? Sarah wondered, as she steadily rose.
His hollow face, an eerie mask. With hollow voice at doors will ask. To be invited in to bask. Above his favored midnight task.
A strange tingling worked its way up Sarah's body as Lizzie recited the haunting rhyme in a disconcerting monotone. Clarity inched its way toward her slowly, melting away the fog of sleep. Hadn't she been dreaming? Was she still dreaming?
Something was wrong.
He's waiting inches from your face. To be the first thing your eyes grace. But keep them shut, or else embrace. A hollow shell to take your place.
Cold dread seized Sarah's heart with each new stanza, and she trembled with the weight of her mistake. For a moment, she swore she could feel the air stir above her, stale and strangely warm against her cheeks. Leaves rustled above her bed.
The yellow door, you always keep. He follows you to where you sleep. Into your room he then will creep. Your life and dreams for him to reap.
Lizzie's voice became little more than a breath within Sarah's mind, and the air cooled around her when a pressure lifted from her chest.
The leaves were in the hall.
The Hollow Man, above your bed. With hollow eyes, deep slumber fed. His hollow dreams may fill your head. But never peek, or you'll be dead.
Everything was wrong.
Distantly, Sarah registered the sound of her parents screaming in their room, and felt tears sliding down her cheeks. No longer dream tears, she could feel the wet warmth as each one fell.
"... Mommy," Sarah whispered, the sound paper-thin. "Daddy," she rasped with a voice like dried leaves.
Lizzie? she thought, but Lizzie did not respond.
Silence fell over the house and Sarah knew nothing would ever be right again.
From the hall outside her bedroom door, Sarah heard the soft click as a latch sprang into place, and waited.
Silence filled the house again. The leaves were gone.
Sunlight peeked through the curtains, and the crimson clock said it was 7:45 AM before she felt it was safe enough to open her eyes and leave her room. The yellow door, with its mirror-ball knob, stared at her from the wall at the end of the upstairs hall, and the house was still too quiet. It was a different quiet than before, though, a different quiet than from her dream.
It was the quiet of a tomb.
Except, of course, for the occasional tapping, as if from tiny claws, from the other side of the yellow door.