They stood together, perplexed, staring at the door in the middle of the field. It was at least eight foot high, made of old old steel and reinforced glass, like something torn off the side of a machine. The kind of thing that fell from the sky in science fiction novels, only the door hadn’t fallen, for it stood perfectly upright, and there was no evidence of impact in the grass around it. It was as if it had grown organically from the earth, like a mutant tree, but it hadn’t done that, either; the door had simply appeared there, overnight, or so Isla claimed, at least.
“I didn’t hear anything,” said Isla, rubbing her hand across eyes red-raw with early morning tiredness. “The dogs weren’t barking, and I didn’t hear anyone on the road- you’d need a truck to carry something that big, wouldn’t you? And that heavy.”
“Well, you know me, I sleep like the dead,” Milton replied. “I wouldn’t notice if you blitzed the place. I’ll check the security footage later; there’s bound to be something.”
He walked in a circle around the door, inspecting it from all angles. Isla jumped when he got too close, her hand leaping out as if to stop him. She laughed uneasily as Milton raised a questioning brow.
“Sorry, I just don’t want you touching it. It’s… it’s a superstitious feeling. I don’t know.”
Isla lowered her arm and rubbed both palms on her jeans, leaving damp streaks on the denim.
“I didn’t even bother bringing the horses out here; Duchess is terrified of paper bags in the wind, let alone a massive door. I mean, imagine if it fell on one of them- must weigh a tonne, all that metal.”
“You can put the horses in one of the other fields until we get rid of it,” said Milton. “It’s not going anywhere anytime soon, that’s for sure.”
“I could move them to the top field, maybe,” said Isla, doubtfully. “But there’s fencing that needs patching up, and Duke’s an absolute devil for slipping out. I’ll get the girls up out of bed to see to them. I’m exhausted. Shock’s took it all out of me.”
“The shock,” Milton repeated, and this time it was his turn to laugh. It was just a door, after all, unusual, yes, unexpected, most definitely, but just a door, even so. There was no danger in it, unless, as Isla had worried, it tipped over and crushed some poor idiot flat.
But there was something about the door that made them both nervous, something more than its sudden appearance on the farm. There seemed to be a change in the atmosphere around it, the clouds pulled low, dark, ugly, a smell like charred wood clinging to the still air. Rubbing his hands together Milton felt a spark of static electricity and swore quietly, wishing he’d left his nylon sweatshirt back at the house.
“What do you think this is all about, then?” he asked. “A weird prank? A threat?”
“God knows,” said Isla. “What’s threatening about a door, anyway?”
Nothing, Milton wanted to say, but he didn’t, because he knew that they were both thinking that there was. The door stood like a closed, oblong mouth against the sky, motionless apart from the quick dark of a spider scuttling up over the disembodied hinges.
“The second I saw it I got that… dropping feeling,” said Isla, softly. “You know how it feels when you’re driving up a steep hill and come down on the other side?”
Milton nodded, and Isla carried on.
“It was like that, right in my belly. And then I remembered one of those stupid shows I used to watch with the kids on telly, one of those supernatural mystery programmes. You know, people walking out of the woods from other times and places, or being struck by lightning twice in a row. Like… this is one of those mysteries, a door out of nowhere.”
“Well, it had to come from somewhere,” said Milton, although he sounded a lot more authoritative than he felt.
He leaned forward, studying the dirty panels on the door. Through the glass the sky on the other side of it looked as green as the grass, although murkier, like phlegm hacked up from a cancerous lung.
“You tried opening it yet?” asked Milton, abruptly.
“Christ, no. I keep telling you, the minute I saw it I came to get you.”
Isla was lying, and Milton didn’t know why. She was rubbing her elbows through her jumper, the motions sharp and defensive, but her eyes skated away from his each time he tried to meet them.
“You did open it. Why didn’t you just say that, you silly woman?”
“Because I knew you’d be like that with me,” Isla snapped. “Because… I didn’t want you to open it again.”
She seemed as much irritated as anxious, as if embarrassed by her own fear. Of course she was; it was ‘just a door’, wasn’t it, just a door, and she was being silly, they both were.
Even as Milton closed his hand over the steel doorknob and turned it, feeling that it was just an ordinary doorknob, even as he pulled the door outwards and saw nothing through it but the field and the fence and the sheep in the pasture beyond- he knew that they weren’t being foolish, neither of them. Knew it as well as his own name. The burned smell was back again- no, not burned, burning, and as Milton stared at the open doorway he felt the overpowering sense of being looked at, although by who or what he couldn’t guess.
“You feel it, too,” said Isla.
She hung back, still rubbing her arms, keeping Milton between her and the door, like a shield.
“I… feel something,” said Milton, cautiously. “But what is it?”
Isla shook her head. For the first time Milton noticed the lines on her face, creases on her forehead and at the corners of her eyes so deep that they gathered shadows when she turned away from the sun. She was getting old, which meant that Milton was, too.
Turning back to the doorway Milton noticed that the view through the door wavered, ever so slightly, the way the air does on a hot day. Only it was February, and so cold that both of them were stamping their feet against the chill seeping into their boots.
“Close it again, will you?” Isla moaned. “I don’t like it.”
“Well, shit, neither do I,” said Milton, but with one last look at shivering horizon he shut the door on it.
He stepped away from the door again and squeezed Isla’s arm.
“Look, get the girls up, like you said, then stay inside and keep warm for a bit. About time they did some of the heavy lifting around here, isn’t it?”
“Amen to that. Kids, who’d have them?”
It was a joke, but only just. Here was a woman who’d given birth by accident, one unlucky year after the other, and still had the odd wobble as to whether she was glad of it or not. At times like this that wobble was strongest, threatening to tip straight into regret territory. Looking at the lines by her strained mouth Milton felt his own teeter, craving the days they’d been young, and unlined, and alone.
“Hey,” said Milton. “Chin up. I’ll have a good old look at the CCTV, and after that we’ll see about moving the door. Maybe we can dig around it, knock it down flat and drag it out of the field. Take it to the skip. Done.”
“Will that be… enough?”
Isla, clearly still clinging to her cursed door theory, was peering up at the thing the way a religious person might stare at an effigy of Christ.
“You want me to say a blessing as we toss it into the dump?” Milton teased. “Fine by me. Now get going.”
He slapped Isla on the right buttock- his favourite, although technically they both looked the same -and watched her trudge off towards the house for a minute or two before setting off himself. The hand which had touched the door handle was tingling, which surprised him; there had been nothing about the cold metal that should have made it do so. Perhaps he was allergic to the metal, or some idiot had painted an irritant on the knob to further their bizarre little joke. Milton made a mental note to wash his hands thoroughly before he saw to the animals again.
As he entered the house he met Andi and Roseanne heading out, both narrow-eyed with sleep and complaining stridently about having to do ‘Mum’s job’. Milton ruffled each head of curls and grinned as he heard the girls racing each other towards the stable, knowing that Roseanne would win. She was getting tall, now, and so quickly that her arms and legs were out of proportion with her body, making her look like a plasticine figure in a stop-motion film. Andi, puffing amiably behind, took after her father, broad and squat, not built for running.
Maybe she’d have her own growth spurt. Then again, maybe she wouldn’t.
Just thinking about it made Milton feel old again, but differently, this time, in a way that made him feel panic-stricken, as if time was coarsing away from him like water from a dam. Shaking himself, Milton sat down in front of his old laptop in the living room and booted it up, waiting for the machine to cycle through ever-postponed updates. Isla wandered through from the kitchen, nursing a cup of black coffee between both hands and looking somehow even more drained and distracted than before. She sat beside Milton on the couch and thrust her now bare feet into his lap, wriggling them against one rough palm.
“Go on, give us a rub. It’s been a funny old morning.”
Circling his left hand over the ball of Isla’s nearest foot Milton used the right to navigate the laptop, pulling up the security footage from the night before. At first there was nothing, just an empty field with the occasional bird wheeling into shot. Then, as the timestamp edged towards the morning, a strange ripple crossed the footage, as if the inner mechanics of the camera overlooking the paddock had been disturbed by a wave of energy. But was it magnetic, Milton wondered, or electric, or something else?
“There’s me,” said Isla, stabbing a finger at a figure passing by the fence of the pasture. “Weird, isn’t it, seeing yourself back? There I go, heading down to fetch the horses, and then-“
The tiny Isla on screen stopped, turning to look towards the field. There was a sudden flash of white, consuming the entirety of the screen, and the figure stumbled back, clearly startled. Yet it wasn’t the light it was reacting to but the door, a door that, until that moment, hadn’t been there.
“Here, you didn’t mention that,” said Milton, nudging Isla. “Why didn’t you mention the light?”
Slowly Isla put the coffee mug down onto the table and stared at the screen, her teeth nipping loose skin on her lower lip.
“Because I… because I don’t remember it,” she said.
“Oh, come on,” said Milton. “It was huge. Like a solar flare. You couldn’t have missed it.”
“I mean it,” Isla insisted. “I just remember turning my head and seeing that fucking door, thinking that it must have been there all night. Thinking that somebody put it there. I swear it.”
This time she was telling the truth. The little dark hairs on the backs of her arms were standing on end, and looking down Milton saw that his were, too.
“I don’t even understand what I just saw,” said Milton. “Let me watch it again.”
“No,” said Isla, quickly. “I don’t want to. I don’t like thinking that… that happened, and I didn’t even realise.”
Again Milton didn’t believe her, or not completely. Sighing, he allowed the camera footage to scroll forwards. The tiny image of Isla crossed the field, creeping slowly towards the door. Every now and then she stopped and waved her arms up and down towards it, in a bowing motion, but jerkily, as if compelled to do so by some unignorable spasm.
Milton gave the real Isla a quick look from the corner of his eye.
“Bet you don’t remember doing that either, do you?”
This time the word was barely above a whisper.
On screen Isla was nose to nose with the door, running her hands over it in a strange, almost orgasmic pulse. One hand roved towards the handle and turned, and only then did the on-screen Isla step back, throwing herself as if hit by the heat from inside an oven.
But it was what was in the open doorway that made Milton jump in his seat, and the real Isla beside him scramble away across the sofa, keening from the back of her throat. Grainy and pixilated as the image on screen was both of them could clearly see that something had pushed its head and shoulders through the door, bracing arms as long and thin as smoke webs against the frame. It stood there for a moment, staring at Isla, then reatreated until the door slammed shut again behind it.
“What the fuck,” Milton said, tonelessly.
Between her odd, keening cries Isla said, “I don’t remember seeing anything. I don’t, I don’t, I just know I opened the door and it felt wrong-“
“Did you tell the kids to stay away from it?” Milton asked, still not raising his voice. “Did you warn them?”
His pulse was banging in his eardrums like a war drum, and he thought to himself that if Isla carried on making that fucking noise he would hit her, and he’d never struck her or any woman in his life. The thought frightened him with its coldness, its sureness.
“Isla, you need to tell me right now.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s like… it’s like ny memories are all backwards, and full of holes. I don’t like it.”
Her voice was like a child’s, and Milton’s anger was gone as quickly as it had come.
“Get up,” he said. “We’re going up to the field.”
Milton shoved the laptop away across the table and seized Isla by the arm, hoisting her up so quickly her shoulder clicked in its socket.
“Come on, for God’s sake.”
They half-ran, half-dragged each other across the yard towards the field, stopping for a moment as sounds carried down from the paddock. Milton couldn’t tell whether it was the horses or the children screaming, or both; the sound was high-pitched and full of too many syllables, like a whooping ape trying to mimic a foal’s cry. With sweating hands Milton seized two spades from where they leaned against a nearby shed, the closest thing he could find to weapons without wasting time.
“Come on,” said Milton, again.
He snatched at Isla, and while doing so he realised that his palms were stinging again. Where his skin touched Isla’s he felt the flesh of his palms shifting, sliding about as if the first layer had seared off in some great heat. There was no time to reflect on it; in a moment they were both running towards the field again, clinging to each other like conjoined twins, like clenched hands, like coital lovers, both afraid of what would happen if they let go.
As they broke through the gate and pelted across the field Milton saw that the door was wide open again, the space within the frame now wavering so heavily that it was if he was seeing an impressionist painter’s vision of a field, not grass and earth and sky. To the right of it Duke was bolting up and down the field in a blind terror, his tail and forelock pouring with smoke, as if they’d been ablaze. As he reared up before them Milton saw only red and black molten sockets where his eyes had been- no, in the pits was something new, glittering, growing, seeing. Then the horse turned and ran again, screaming that half-ape, half-Gelding scream.
Andi was lying in the grass, sobbing, her fat little arms and legs beating the earth. Milton bent towards her, tried to lift her, but couldn’t– it was as if her skin had fused with the grass.
“Daddy, Rosie opened the door, I told her not to, but she did, she did, she went in and took Duchess with her! And now they’re gone and everything’s wrong, Daddy, it-“
“It’s alright, my love,” said Milton, through gritted teeth. “We’ll bring them back. Let’s get you standing up first.”
He could smell burnt flesh and hair and ozone. Isla, who had been staring, open-mouthed, at the door suddenly turned and started to ease the edge of her spade under Andi, attempting to prise her away from the grass. At first it seemed to be working, but then Milton noticed the child’s skin pulling away from it in long strings, like gum, the rest remaining on the ground. But Milton bent down and helped Isla pull, felt that he had to even as Andi shrieked for them to stop. It was only when they got her head off the ground that Milton understood why; her face had been left behind in the grass, only smoking gristle and meat coating her tiny skull.
Staring at her Milton was struck with the insane urge to laugh, an urge that made as little sense as the rest of this mess. Beside him Isla twitched and pointed at the door again, her voice rising to a note both terror-stricken and wild with religious fervour.
“See! See what’s coming!”
Milton didn’t want to, but he felt his head turning, swivelling towards that gaping door, that laughing mouth, even so. The thing standing there on two legs should have been ridiculous, should have been comical, but seeing it Milton only screamed, his voice mingling with the Gelding’s.
Before the door closed and the white light came again Milton saw what the door had done to Roseanne, his dear, long-legged Roseanne, and to Duchess. What they had become. The thing in the doorway was thinner than a horse, thinner than a girl, was somehow both as one, two faces, eight limbs configured and struggling against one another, two mouths howling with a voice as pure as fire.
As Milton looked upon it he was taken by the urge to prostrate himself in the grass, as Isla had done in the CCTV footage, for now terrible understanding dawned, or as close to understanding as his mind would ever come to it. This beast, this being, had existed longer than his daughter or the horse ever had. It had been something else– a living heat, a blind, reaching energy without form to present to the world, and now it had, filling flesh it had taken as its offering, filling it with life, and existing between time. After all, wasn’t this what Isla had seen in the doorway before it could possibly have existed? what they had both seen, a thing of terror and light made small by the laptop screen?
Milton fell forward into the grass, his lips touching the smoking blades, and Isla followed, pulled down with him. Then that bright flare came again, searing their vision with impossible white. Milton closed his eyes, hoping that everything that had been done- everything the thing in the doorway had changed -would be taken away as the light faded, cleansed with that pipe, straining flare. But as it slowly petered out again only the door way gone; Duke was still screaming, and Andi was still screaming, and at Milton’s side Isla sobbed and laughed as if she’d seen a miracle.
Milton’s last coherent thought was: what kind of God creates miracles like that? What kind of God?
But he already knew, for he had witnessed it. He had witnessed, understood.