In the rural town of Zarepath, deep in the woods on the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, stands the Door. No one knows where it came from or where it leads. For generations, folks have come to the Door seeking solace or forgiveness. They bring handwritten letters, sealed with a mixture of wax and their own blood, and slide them beneath the Door. Three days later, their wishes are answered—for better or worse.
Kari is a single mother grieving her teenage daughter’s suicide. She made a terrible mistake when she asked the powers beyond the Door to erase the memories of her lost child. And when she opened the Door to retrieve her letter, she unleashed every sin, secret, and spirit ever trapped on the other side. Now, it falls to occultist Kathy Ryan to seal the door before Zarepath becomes hell on earth . . .
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In the town of Zarephath, Pennsylvania, just past the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border and northwest of Dingmans Ferry out by the Delaware Water Gap, there is a Door.
Many stories about it form a particularly colorful subset of the local lore of the town and its surrounding woods, streams, and lakes. Most of them relate the same essential series of events, beginning with a burden of no small psychological impact, progressing to a twilight trip through the southwestern corner of the woods near Zarephath, and arriving at a door. Numerous variations detail what, exactly, must be presented at the door and how, but ultimately, these stories end with an unburdening of the soul and, more or less, happy endings. It is said "more or less" because such endings are arbitrarily more or less agreeable to the individuals involved than the situations prior to their visit to the Door of Zarephath. More times than not, the "less" wins out.
There are some old folks in town, snow- and storm cloud — haired sept- and octogenarians who sip coffee and people-watch from the local diner or gather on front porches at dusk or over the counter at Ed's Hardware to trade stories of Korea and Vietnam, and in one venerable case, World War II, and it's said they know a thing or two about that door. The old-timers remember the desperation of postwar addictions and nightmares and what they used to call shell shock, of families they couldn't help wearing down or beating up or tearing apart, despite their best efforts to hold things together. They remember carrying burdens, often buried but never very deeply, beneath their conscious thoughts, burdens that crawled their way up from oblivion and into nightmares and flashbacks when the darkness of booze or even just the night took over men who had once been children and who were expected to be men. They remember late-night pilgrimages through the forest on the outskirts of town, trekking miles in through rain or dark or frost-laced wind to find that door, and lay their sins and sorrows at its feet. And they remember that sometimes, forgetting proved to be worse.
The old women too remember bruises and battered faces and blackouts. They remember cheating husbands and cancers and unwanted pregnancies and miscarriages and daughters being touched where they shouldn't by men who should have protected them. The old women remember the Door in Zarephath being a secret, almost sacred equalizer that older women imparted to younger women, a means of power passed from one group whose hands were socially and conventionally tied to another. And they remember watching strong women fall apart under the weight of that power.
And these old folks remember trying once to burn the door down, but of course, that hadn't worked. The Door in Zarephath won't burn because it isn't made of any wood of this earth, anything beholden to the voracious appetite of fire. It had an appetite of its own that night, and no one has tried to burn it down since. Rather, the old-timers have learned to stay away from it, for the most part, to relegate the knowledge of its location and its promises to the same dusty old chests in the mind that the worst of their war stories are kept. There's an unspoken agreement that as far as the Door in Zarephath goes, the young people can fend for themselves. While the folks in Zarephath won't stop a person from using the Door, they aren't usually inclined to help anyone use it. Not in the open, and not just anyone who asks about it. Behind some doors are rooms hidden for good cause in places human beings were probably never meant to know about — rooms meant never to be entered — and the old folks of Zarephath understand that for reasons they may never know, they were given a skeleton key to one such room. There's a responsibility in that, the kind whose true gravity is maybe only recognized by those with enough years and experience and mistakes left behind to really grasp it.
People often say the old-folks' generation were stoic, used to getting by with very little and largely of a mind frame not prone to histrionic anxiety or useless worry. People say it has to do with surviving the Depression and growing up in a simpler, more rugged time. But for the old folks in Zarephath, the strength of their fiber comes from what they remember — and from what they have come to accept forgetting. It comes from what they no longer choose to lay before the Door.
* * *
To say the loss of Kari's daughter, Jessica, had left a hole in her heart significantly understated the situation. It was more of a gaping maw in the center of her being, a hungry vortex that swallowed light and love, vibrancy and memory.
It had swallowed her friendships early on. People, even the most well-meaning of them, rarely knew what to say when someone's child died. Telling her time would heal all wounds sounded trite. Telling her everything would be okay sounded patronizing. How could such an inescapable hollowness ever be okay? And telling her Jessica was in a better place might come across as the biggest bullshit of all. There was no way anyone could possibly know what lay beyond the walls of mortality, and given the circumstances, the suggestion came across as being rather insensitive anyway. There was nothing even the most eloquent and empathetic could say to take away a hurt like that.
"How are you holding up?" they'd ask with that look on their faces, part discomfort and part superiority in being somehow removed from such a horrible thing. Maybe the urge to slap that look off their faces showed through in her weak smiles and tired eyes. Or maybe her attempts to speak of banalities that went nowhere were just the kind of nothing-words that stalled relationships or even moved them backward. It was easier for people to drop away, couple by couple, then one by one. Eventually, those awkward meetings became fewer and farther between. The calls stopped coming, followed by the emails, and then eventually the texts petered off too. There were no further attempts to get her out of the house and reconnected with the world. She was a sinking ship and they were bailing before they got sucked into her currents. It was clear in their eyes, in their voices. It was in the distance they put between her and them. She had been relegated to a kind of camp or colony for people who had undergone an Awful Tragedy, a thing they were thankfully unable to relate to in any meaningful way.
That gaping maw had swallowed her job, as well. Her boss had been gracious in granting her time off from the office. He'd given her weeks, a month, and then another. She had dipped into and then run dry her long-term disability time. And when she'd come back to the office, the Mondays and Fridays when she couldn't find a reason good enough to get out of bed looked bad. Her zoning out during production meetings looked bad. Her stacks of unfinished paperwork looked bad. She'd quit after enough "please close the door" conversations led her to believe she was on the verge of being fired.
It had swallowed her marriage, certainly. Steven hadn't managed more than a few months in the house, the two of them passing each other like solemn ghosts from different eras, unseeing, unhearing, and unable to comfort each other in the grief that had overwhelmed them both. When he finally drifted away for good, out of the house and into an apartment in another state, he became no more than a name on divorce paperwork and a face in old pictures she tucked away in a box.
She hadn't lasted much longer there in the house amid the dust and empty picture frames. If Jessica's spirit had haunted the old house instead of her memory haunting Kari, then it might have been more bearable. At least she'd be able to feel some presence of and closeness to her daughter. But the girl wasn't there, at least not so far as Kari could tell. The girl had fled that house and that life, and wherever her soul was, it seemed far beyond Kari's reach. So Kari had fled that old house and life too. The problem was, although the new house in Zarephath was the only thing that had gone well in a long time, it didn't feel like home, not like the one with Jessica's room, plastered as it was with posters of smiling, clean-cut objects of innocent preteen crushes. Not like the one with Steven's clothes on his side of the closet and his keys on the table by the front door. She supposed her sense of security and family had been engulfed by that gaping maw too.
Finally, it had swallowed her sense of self. Her sleep was shot to hell, and the depression and anxiety had become so bad that who she was no longer existed without the meds. Kari hated what the meds did to her; rather, she hated what the lack of meds in her system did. First, there was the headache, a storm of pain that gusted not just around her head, but up her nose and through her sinuses, behind her eyes and down her throat. There was the heavy weight of heat that made her sweat, a sour kind of sweat that turned her stomach if she lifted an arm or turned her head toward her shoulder. Then came the dizziness, an offshoot of the headache whose roots seemed to reach down into her arms, hands, and fingers, sucking the strength out of them and making them shake. Her eyes would narrow to a glare from the pain and fog. Within her chest, a growing sense of unease would turn into a panic whose edges fluttered far from and untethered to any rational ground.
It was during those times that the memories of Jessica hurt worst. In fact, there were so many memories that she was starting to forget what it was like not to hurt.
She felt all those things the night before she found out about the Door in Zarephath. It coincided with the one-month mark in the new house, and perhaps more importantly, the eve of the third anniversary of Jessica's passing. If it were possible, the pain was sharper and deeper and more all-consuming now than it had been in those nightmare-blur first weeks right after finding Jessica's body. Losing someone, she thought, was like quitting an addiction. First there came the withdrawal pangs of the mental and physical sort, the ache of not being able to hear her laughter or footsteps on the stairs, see her smile or hug her, smell the child-hair smell. But in a way, the routine, the comfortable familiarity, was a much tougher part of the habit to break. Kari found she still looked out for the school bus at five minutes to three, still made sure the door was unlocked and checked the sidewalk for Jessica's approach from the bus stop. She still found herself sometimes at the bottom of the stairs to call her daughter down for dinner or call up to tell her to brush her teeth and that Kari would be up in a minute to tuck her little girl in. She still made lists of toys to buy her daughter for Christmas, still perused the Halloween costumes for something Jessica might like. She wasn't sure if those rote actions were her way of proving she was still there, still Mom, or if they meant she herself had become a shade stuck in an endless loop of repeating the past.
That night before, as she bent over the dishwasher, she grabbed a handful of serrated knives by their blades. They pressed into the skin of her palms, cold but not hard enough to cut her. Her hand shook and she dropped them to the counter with a clatter.
She was due to have lunch the next afternoon with Cicely, the nice old lady next door and one of her only acquaintances in Zarephath, or anywhere at all anymore. They had planned on the Alexia Diner on Dingmans Turnpike, and over what had become their weekly coffee and hot open-faced turkey sandwiches, she intended to tell Cicely she was finished — with life, with everything, with trying to fight the current to be normal, functional, and in the process of healing. She wasn't any of those things, and she couldn't pretend anymore. She was cocooned in her personal world of grief and simply saw no other ways to break free. And no amount of friends' well-meaning attentiveness or love or understanding, and no amount of her own swallowing of pain and indignation and unfairness could make up for it.
The loss of Jessica felt like a fist crushing what was left of her heart in her chest. And she was simply finished. The guilt and the sadness were too much to carry alone.
She had hidden the note from Steven. She'd hidden it from everyone. It felt like the last thing, the only thing, she could do to protect her precious daughter. She'd found it crumpled into a tight little ball in Jessica's fist. The girl's reasoning was suggested in a few neat lines of looping girlish script. She couldn't keep secrets anymore; there were so many and she felt so guilty and embarrassed and even afraid, but mostly, she was exhausted.
Kari knew how she felt.
She picked up one of the knives again, entertaining the kind of thought that had come to fill in those tight little end spaces where her mind let memories of Jessica trail off. End-cap thoughts, was how she'd come to think of them. This one was less refined than some of the others; it involved a lot of blood — a tubful, maybe — and the indignity of being found naked or maybe just in her underwear. Messy and embarrassing and probably painful, if cutting her legs while shaving and letting them slip back under the warm water was any indication.
Her almost-twelve-year-old daughter had done something and gone somewhere she never had been and could never have imagined, had lived a part of her life and ended it without her mother and father, and that seemed wrong. It seemed wrong that children that age should ever feel the need to take on adult things like that, especially alone. Kari didn't want Jessica to be alone. And if Jessica could open that door to another plane of existence, then how could Kari call herself a decent mother and yet not have the guts to follow?
Kari put down the knife.
She'd talk to Cicely. Then she'd decide.
* * *
People like Toby Vernon built entire lives and whole senses of self around lies. Lies were the brick and mortar that built cities, even empires, of good faith, goodwill, and human connection. Among the sharply honed senses of the predator was a toolbox of excuses and fabrications based on body language, expressions in the eyes, and tones of voice, wielded quickly and efficiently to achieve a result. Lies allayed fears or manipulated them, soothed guilt or exacerbated it. Of all the talents to protect and develop as a primary survival skill, lying was at the top of the list.
And people like Toby were good at it.
He was turning forty that year, which meant he had spent the last twenty-four years since his conviction, incarceration, and release perfecting his ability to lie. He had learned to change like a chameleon. He could be charming, unassuming, unworthy of notice or comment. He was also selective and, at times, ruthless. And it had been almost two and a half decades gone by since he had been arrested or convicted of anything that had to do with children.
However, his confidence, and with it some of his skill, had waned after the girl in Dingmans Ferry. It wasn't that he didn't know deep down, deeper than his lies and justifications could reach, that he hurt children. He had, in the past, tried to justify it as a necessary evil, a means of pain management or sedation or simply an inexorable addiction. He was not so deluded as to think the children were unaffected by his ... attentions. It had never been so clear to him, though, nor had it ever inspired such self-loathing, as it had with that girl. Something changed after that. Toby had taken a good look at his life the last four decades or so and realized that all that perfected lying had never been perfect at all. He had never escaped his mother's belief that he was a monster, pure and simple, the kind that most of the rest of the world would see put down sooner than a rabid dog.
It made him afraid of others, as if he were somehow suddenly exposed. Mostly, it made him afraid of himself, a notion he wasn't used to and didn't like at all.
Toby had always wanted to be normal, to date regular adult women, to get married. When he'd realized, much to his disappointment, that his sexual attraction to preadolescent girls wasn't something he could outgrow or ignore, he'd resigned himself to what he was. In fact, he'd suppressed instead that sad, self-pitying hope of ever getting better. After the Dingmans Ferry girl, though, that need to feel normal reemerged, and it was almost — not quite, but almost — as strong as the urges themselves. He didn't want to feel self-loathing every time he drove past a playground or worry that the hawk-eyes of watchful mothers in grocery stores were judging him with disapproval and hostility. He no longer wanted to feel that old familiar tension and discomfort throughout his body at the birthday parties of family's and friends' children.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Behind the Door"
Copyright © 2018 Mary SanGiovanni.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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