It’s that time of the month. It’s that time of the night. It’s your turn to be the traveler. As always, one friend is the guide. They always have been; their commitment to the role has lead you all down many winding roads. You lay down, they cover your eyes, and the other three form the protective circle. The familiar chant begins, and you slip away into the Forest.
As always, you’re in the clearing. So far, your group has found the green door, the red door, the blue door, the yellow door, and… the white door. Two remain. It’s been a few months since you’ve started this game, so you run through the established rules in your head. You speak your journey aloud; the guide pushes you onward. You enter in a clearing, and you exit a clearing. Don’t open your eyes. Beyond this, your group has created a few rules for exploring the collective mindscape of the Forest – no shortcuts, don’t walk Southeast (a lesson learned the hard way), and if you see something scary… run like hell. You get up from the soft grass. The others have always had a freedom of direction. Their paths lie around you, traipsing away to some pleasant grove. But, once again, you’re drawn towards the South. Through the open wood. To a very Familiar Street.
You force yourself to stay on the path. The woods here feel quiet. Empty, like nothing is there. The draw to the Southeast is strong, but you know the rules. Sure enough, you reach the road. The houses of your family, blood and otherwise, line the sides. From the hard brick street, you see them all: past, and if your rather adventurous friend is to be believed, the future as well. You eventually reach your house, staring at it from the sidewalk in the light of a shoddy, warm streetlamp. After consideration, you move on. You already faced the white door. You felt that thing inside it die.
There it is. Home. Everywhere you have, do, and will consider to be your home coalesced into one building. It’s all so familiar, even the homes you haven’t seen yet. You reach to knock on the front door, but why would you need to? You’re home, aren’t you? It’d be a shame if you weren’t welcome in your own home.
And there they are. Your family. Your real family. They’re all so familiar, even the ones you haven’t met yet. There’s new people- a tall, long-haired guy your age, his perfect partner, and… her. You haven’t met them yet, but you will. The people of Home don’t know why you’re here, but they’re glad you, a familiar face, finally stopped by. It’s been a while.
There’s your bedroom. Your real bedroom, not the twisted one you saw in your current house up the street. Finally, after spending so many journeys in that dark, constricting hellscape, wandering fearfully between puddles of darkness and a starless sky, maybe you can get some rest in somewhere you really understand. You go to open the door, and… it’s there. The black door. The writing on it is unreadable as ever. Some ancient script that nobody has read because they’re always busy running. In due fashion, you back up and turn around, ready to sprint.
Your family is staring at you. But it’s not your family. You don’t know these people. Their faces are all wrong, their figures like crude dolls. They call with some grim excitement to the black door, their gruesome smiles and elongated eyes leaking tears of its distilled and never-ending void. You never left that stygian hell.
Pushing through these familiar strangers, you leave Home, taking off back up the road. Back to the clearing. It’s raining now. It’s raining that same dark water… No, no. You take gasps as you run, filling your mouth with the taste of metal. You know the taste of blood. You don’t look back, but you know the door is behind you. Somewhere, somehow, forcing itself into where it does not belong. You keep running, but you know if you take the trail, you won’t make it. Your guide tells you to keep to the path, but you’re not listening. You take off into the thick Southeast woods, making a dead sprint straight for the clearing. And then you feel it awaken.
It is coming. That rolling, heaving absence. A being so evil, so hostile, so vile that you agreed to never look upon it. You knew of it beforehand, when your friends were paralyzed with fear, unable to speak – in the real world. You know exactly what it looks like to you. It looks like him. The sanguine downpour worsens, slowing you down. They’re closing in. Eyes up. Keep going. You trip. You look up. Nothing stares back… but it does.
You tell your guide to pull you out. They say they can’t do that. After all, you’re not back in the clearing. Do it, you say. There is nothing here, and it hurts. Again, they refuse. That horrid gap between all things reaches for you. The message skips your brain and goes straight to your pounding heart. It grabs you by the neck, tightening an unfamiliar shape around your throat. You scream for help anyway. You shout at your friend to pull you out. There’s a click. A creak. A cold wind blows through the pitch-black doorframe. Over the ragged breathing of that lack of nothing, you hear your other friends starting to yell.
Five, four, three, two, one. Open your eyes.
You wake up. Breathe in, breathe out. You’re safe. You bring your hand to your neck, feeling that phantom pressure slowly leave. Your friends crowd around you. You look up. It’s not them. These people are wrong. They don’t speak, their mouths uttering a silence so loud your ears start to pound, near to bursting. You stand up and run for the door, but your hand finds the handle of that wretched black gateway. The howling void beyond screams your name, calls you to see its horrid depths.
The corner. You run to it, staring down the grotesque monsters masquerading as your friends. There’s only one way out, and you know it. Edging across the wall, you reach it. Your only chance at salvation now lies in the one thing guaranteed to see your end fulfilled. Turning hell, you open the black door and rush inside. You can feel the emptiness on your skin, the un-nothing of the vacancy before you. The non-existent hole in your heart grows. And you fall.
Nothing watches you in the dark, its gaze burning away your mind. You scream, but nothing can be heard over the wind whipping by your ears. It comes closer. You tell yourself to wake up. That this is all a bad dream, and you’re still in the forest. Your lies cannot stop the truth from leaking from your eyes. You are awake, and nothing is familiar.
In the blinding darkness, you hear them. Wake up, they say. Wake up. Come back to us. A door appears far beneath you. It is every color and no color. It is. Pulling your focus off of it, you stream down towards your gateway back to a familiar world. There is nothing behind you, and it hungers – no jaws, no teeth. Hunger. The door nears, and then you hear it. They’re calling you back.
Five, four, three, two, one. Open your eyes.
Your eyes open, and you sit up, shaking in a cold sweat. You rub the stubble on your face- you’re really awake this time. For better or worse, you’re older. Much older. Out of your childhood, into your thirties. For some reason or another, the memories of your teenage… games are being thrust back into your life. You need to clear your head. You need to go for a drive.
One perk of living out in the country is freedom. The uncut fields of grass stretch for miles, keeping the elusive, blue mountains distant. Long, unmarked roads, eerie at night, make for calming late night drives, the crackly AM radio sputtering out Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” Your truck rumbles beneath you, the poorly kept gravel roads the only sign of human development for miles. It’s all so familiar, even as you’ve aged into your adulthood.
Just as you start to consider heading home, you see it- a street sign, the gravel road making an uncharacteristic “T” shape. Your truck’s headlights light up the crooked sign – “Memory Ln.,” it reads. Weird. It’s the first marked road for miles, and the name… You laugh, but then the question hits you. What is this road? Slowing down, you take the left turn, intrigued.
A short way down the road, it dawns on you. “Memory Lane” was your name for that street in the Forest to the South. The others called it “Familiar Street.” You stop the truck, look out the back window. The turn back to the main road is gone. Terror sets in, but then, you feel a sense of determination, the same feeling you felt when you first saw the street in the Forest.
Restarting the engine, you press on down Memory Lane, and soon, a grove of trees, which like this new road, was not there before, begins to surround you. As the sun climbs higher into the sky, the trees grow thicker and thicker until suddenly they fall away to reveal a seashore. The road splits by the shore into another “T”, going on seemingly forever. You look back and see the road behind you. It was long, seemingly not often taken to completion, and full of potholes. Regardless, you pressed on past the initial fear of the metaphorical jumping off point.
There is one house on the shore- a lone beach house, old but strong. It calls to you, but not like that dark door used to. The frame holding it above the gentle waves could stand to be replaced, but you feel like there will be plenty of time for that. You park your car in the driveway, walking up to the front door. Its unpainted wooden face feels… cordial, a welcome change to the paranoia you’ve felt ever since that bad journey into the Forest, all those years ago. You close your eyes, step in the door, then open your eyes once more.