Slowly, careful not to make a sound, Mary peeked out around the corner. As far as she could tell, in the darkness of midnight, the hallway was clear. She began walking forward, almost holding her breath in anticipation.
Through the soles of her shoes, she could feel the thick carpet crunching soundlessly underfoot. She glanced to each side several times, checking that none of the doors had opened. In her right hand she clutched a lightweight plastic torch (a pink Barbie-themed Christmas gift); in her left, pressed between the palm of the hand and the strap of the rucksack, was the key.
She was near the end of the corridor now, and looked up at the door. It was very ornate: the surface was carved with a mix of interconnected, complicated abstract shapes and grimacing gargoyles. In the centre of the door there was a seven-pointed star that to Mary looked a lot like a sort of pointed spiral, feeding into itself; and in the centre of the off-kilter star was a gruesome face, with fire flaring out of its ears and mouth – and the oakwood looked more solid, more real than the plain, cheap plywood doors of the rest of the house.
A wave of fear-bordering-on-nausea swept over her, but she shook her head: I’m not afraid, she thought.
She reached out and touched the wood with her middle finger, careful to avoid tapping the torch against it. She took a deep breath in, nostrils flaring, and out again, and then she looked at the keyhole. The handle and plate were brass, and the keyhole was within the open mouth of another snarling gargoyle face, also in brass, and staring right at Mary. She narrowed her eyes and stared right back at it, put the key in, turned it, pushed open the door.
She flinched pre-emptively, expecting the door to creak as it opened, but in fact it did not make any noticeable sound. Even with her eyes adjusted to the night, Mary couldn’t see into the room; she turned on her torch.
The room was bigger than she had thought – bigger than it should be – and dusty. The beam of light cut through a thick curtain of the stuff, casting a diffuse circle of light on the far wall. Mary flicked the torch around, glancing briefly over several portrait paintings hanging on the walls; and at a chest of drawers, table, and several chairs huddled in a far corner. She stood at the threshold of the dusty room for quite a while, listening for any sound above her own breathing.
I can go back, a part of her thought; but it was a small, quiet part of her. Mary bit her lower lip to keep it from trembling and stepped through the doorway. Nothing happened.
Mary took a few steps forward and then spun around, expecting the door to slam shut behind her, but nothing happened. She turned around again, slower, and her gaze locked on something she hadn’t noticed before, amongst the furniture: an old cot. She felt almost pulled towards it; as she got closer she could make out ribbons trailing down from posts at the four corners, and then a mobile hanging low over the cot. She looked down.
At first she thought it was a doll, but then she really looked at it: the way that it was lying on its side, and the gossamer-thin, pale white skin pulled taut over bone. She stifled a whimper and bit down harder on her lip, drawing blood. A voice was screaming in her mind: run! Get out now! RUN! – but she was mesmerised by the unmoving, naked little body lying in front of her. She tried to move away, twisting and turning, but her feet were glued to the floor, her left hand wouldn’t move from the cot, and her eyes were fixed in place. Her right arm crashed against the mobile, and the spell weakened; she looked at the little metal fish shapes, and then glanced down to the dead infant.
It was looking right at her, smiling widely.
The door slammed shut.