Only idiots go back to the haunted houses of their childhood. And yet.
Here you are. Standing on the sagging, weed-strangled front porch that hasn’t changed in twenty years. Every dip in the floorboards, every peeling strip of paint is exactly as you remember it. Time seems to have ricocheted off this place.
Except not everything has stayed the same. You have your doctorate in theoretical physics now, the ink’s still fresh on the diploma. Your prospects look good. You’re going start teaching next month, your first steps on the path to tenure. You have a grant for a research project you’ve been waiting for years to start. The secrets of the universe are a locked door and you might have the key. That is, if the house doesn’t kill you first.
You’re lingering on the doorstep, not quite ready to commit. There’s an early morning hush to the neighborhood, but it’s already ungodly humid and warm. The backs of your calves stick to your leg braces, your backpack is heavy on your shoulders, and your walking cane is slick from your sweaty palm, though you’re not sure if that’s because of the heat or because being back on this porch is doing terrible things to your heart rate. Even the dragonflies are smart enough to linger at the property line.
This is a terrible idea. Your hand is clenched around the doorknob and you’re listing all the valid reasons you should walk away.
If you’re right, you could be onto the greatest scientific discovery in quantum mechanics. Ever. And if you don’t make it out again…
Well, at least it’ll be in the name of science.
So, you open the door and step through.
Nothing in the house has stayed the same since the last time you worked up the nerve to come in. Nothing. This shouldn’t surprise you, because you have this theory that the house reacts to its visitors. The visitor is the catalyst and the catalyst is not a bullied eight-year-old kid anymore. Thus the reaction is different. And yet.
You were hoping, god you were hoping you could take the same path as before. Have the same escape routes. But the haunted house of your childhood has become an unfamiliar landscape. Instead of the front door opening to a wide landing and a staircase, you are standing in a foyer, at the mouth of a narrow hall with rooms on either side. There’s no staircase in sight.
The walls are slanted inward. They’re covered in dark, dizzyingly patterned wallpaper and you aren’t claustrophobic until you are. Vertigo and your pulse skips so badly you don’t even notice the frames on the walls at first. But when you do, you bite back a scream.
They’re full of pictures of you.
You’re well-documented. All ages and always caught unaware. Some pictures are taken from over your shoulder, some from a distance, some from right under your chin. You’ve never seen these photos before, but you recognize the settings in several, like the nook in the library you hang out in when you want to be alone.
Your hand tightens around your cane. You’re going to make it down this hall and find those damn stairs. But the farther you walk, the more pictures of yourself you discover. The more the slanted walls press down on you. The longer the passageway grows.
In the end, you only make it about thirty feet before you can’t stand it anymore, your knees are shaking that badly. So, without thinking through the consequences, the possibilities, you turn into the second room on your left.
There are five of them sitting on the couch and watching TV. You don’t recognize them at first, all grown up. But these people in their best business casual and gelled hair are your former “friends,” the ones that met you at the haunted house twenty years ago. You only recognize them because you just saw them at your ten-year high school reunion two days ago. Admittedly, you attended it just to gloat a little.
“Wow, you’re researching parallel universes? That’s crazy!” Chelsea said. “I’m jealous. My insurance job is so boring.” You gave her a tight-lipped smile. You’d been hearing a variation of this all evening. That, and “Look at you! Walking with one cane now instead of two!”
“We did some crazy things as kids,” she said, a little too quickly. She kept mixing her cocktail, something that looked too red and smelled too sweet, and didn’t meet your gaze. “We were really stupid back then.”
Intellectually, you understood she was trying to apologize. Morally, you knew you should be the bigger person. And yet, you said nothing.
Now Chelsea is in the same pink frilly shirt she wore at the reunion, and she and the other four are completely absorbed in some TV show. Just like when you were kids. Except you’re not sitting on the floor with your two crutches on either side of you, slightly apart from them, hoping that this counts as friendship. You’re standing in the threshold, glaring. What the hell is so interesting on that TV anyway?
You regret it instantly.
It’s a video of that terrible day. The day when your little brother, Avery, got hit by a car several blocks away.
The video is playing on repeat.
You weren’t there to see it happen. You were too busy getting peer pressured into going into this haunted house by these “friends.” But later, when the doctors took pity and put you and Avery in the same hospital room, you heard all about it.
“I was coming to see you at the house, yeah?” Avery said with this sheepish grin, though half of his face was bruised and all four limbs were in casts. “But this big blue truck came out of nowhere!”
On TV, a blue 4×4 crests the hill too fast and rams straight into your little brother. Then the scene resets and it happens again. And again. And again.
But not, you realize, in exactly the same way every time. Sometimes the rusty, dented fender only clips him and sometimes the results are worse. Much worse. But one thing is consistent; Avery never makes it across the street.
Your five ex-classmates watch unemotionally transfixed. The assholes. They should feel just as guilty for what happened to Avery. Your little brother never did make a full recovery. Was always in pain from that moment on. Two years later, doctors put his official cause of death as “complications relating to pneumonia.” He was eight.
Suddenly, you want to cause some damage. Want to feel your knuckles crack their teeth though you’ve never hit anyone before. You take a step forward.
Your ex-classmates flicker. Change. Like a tilt card, where the picture shifts when you tip the angle. Suddenly, they’re not twenty-eight years old anymore. They’re eight. Kids, again.
Then you remember, oh right, you’re in the haunted house of your childhood. Shit.
The urban legend was that this house didn’t like visitors. That it ate them. As a kid, you thought that meant there was a ravenous ghost in its basement or something. Now, you suspect that this house holds dozens, if not hundreds of parallel universes within it.
You have no idea why.
You’ve been trying to study it—from a theoretical level and a safe distance—at school. But all you have are best guesses. It’s time for more definite results. You have a doctorate and a brand new research grant to explore the possibility of pocket universes and you’re going to make the most of them. Even if it kills you.
You take a deep breath and glance around the room. On the other side of it, there is another doorway. The only exit out.
Running isn’t an option for you, never was, between the leg braces and the muscles that just don’t want to cooperate. Even with the cane, your footsteps are loud and obnoxious. It will definitely draw your ex-classmates’ attention and for some reason you can’t quite articulate, you do not want to draw their attention.
But you can’t stay here forever. You won’t.
So, before you lose your nerve, you shift the weight of the backpack on your shoulders and cut across the room as fast as your legs will let you. You feel five sets of eyes on you when you walk in front of the screen, hear five intakes of breath. Five pairs of feet making contact with the wooden floor.
They are coming.
You panic, stumble, but manage to catch yourself at the last moment. Don’t look back. DON’T LOOK BACK. You stretch out your hand and your fingers slam painfully into the edge of the doorway. Thank god.
You can’t look back. So you hurry through.
The staircase to the second floor is not in the next room. Dread swells in the pit of your stomach when you find yourself in the kitchen of your parents’ house instead.
You spot another doorway across the room. But this time, you’re not so lucky.
“Sit,” your mom commands and the tone of her voice has you instinctively taking a seat at the cluttered kitchen table, not even pausing to take off your backpack first. She slams a plate of food in front of you. “You’re not excused until you finish everything. And I mean everything.”
You look down. Oh god, it’s worse than you remember. Vegetables cooked past death, pasta barely cooked at all, a piece of chicken so dry it crumbles when you poke it. But feeding her kids has always been another annoying chore to your mom.
You try a green bean and wince. Shit, you haven’t had your mom’s half-assed food since you moved to college. Finding roommates who love to cook—and feed their housemates—has been one of the greatest discoveries in your adult life.
Okay, you can do this. One more bad meal and you can get out of here. But when you look down, the green bean you just ate has been replaced by an identical one.
Your stomach clenches. Your mom is standing by the sink, smoking, watching you.
And yet. Just like in the TV room, things in the kitchen are changing too.
Every time you shift or tilt your head or even blink, the room changes. Sometimes the stained wallpaper is green, sometimes it’s mustard. Sometimes the stove has a month of crud on it. Sometimes it’s simmering tomato sauce, freshly burnt. But in every version, your mom stays by the sink, filling up the kitchen with smoke like a poisonous dragon. Also, the food on your plate is consistently inedible.
Hypothesis: There are universes colliding in these rooms and it’s resulting in moments of instability.
From a theoretical physicist perspective, this is amazing. From a personal perspective, you want to vomit.
You close your eyes and take a deep breath.
And when you open them again, Avery is sitting next to you, with his own plate of food. You turn your head, experimentally. The kitchen doesn’t change.
“You really going to that house tonight?” he asks. You guess he’s about six based on the baby tooth he’s missing in front. Also, the question.
“Shh,” you say and glance at your mom. You have an idea. “Maybe.”
“Can I come?”
“No!” Your voice is too sharp, too loud. From the sink, your mom glares at you.
“Shh,” Avery says.
“Listen, Birdhouse,” you say, a nickname that makes both of you crack up. “I need your help.”
Avery immediately perks up and follows your gaze to the doorway across the kitchen. “A distraction?”
“Exactly, but nothing that will get you in too much trouble, yeah?”
“Three Snickers bars and then two stories a night when I’m grounded,” he says with a grin.
“Deal.” Love for your kid brother swells up in you. You two were always a team.
“Hey, listen. Promise me you’ll stay here tonight,” you say, “And I promise I’ll take you to the haunted house later, just me and you. Okay?”
Avery wrinkles his nose, but before you can get another word in, he starts whining about dinner. Loudly.
Your mom crosses the kitchen in four strides, her bubbling anger focused on your kid brother. As quietly as you can, you ease your way out of the chair and cross the kitchen. From experience, you know you have about ten more seconds to make your escape.
And yet. You look back.
Avery and your mom are going at it at top volume, the same family stubbornness reflected back and forth across the table. You bite your lip. God, you’re a terrible human being for getting your little brother in trouble for your sake, even if this is not your universe.
“Stay there,” you whisper and open the door.
Everything in the dining room shines. The chairs, the walls, the curtains, the table which looks exactly like the ugly, scratched up table in your parents’ house, except glossier. You have no idea why. Later, you’ll lie awake at night and come up with theories and rational explanations to build a levee against the nightmares.
But right now, you need to find a way out and so you focus on keeping your balance on the polished, gleaming floor. You will stay calm this time.
Everything reflects. You don’t want to see what they have to show, but you don’t really have a choice, do you? Especially when you hear the door click shut behind you.
You look back and there’s only a gleaming wall. Seamless. And in its reflection, there’s another version of you. Smiling, standing straighter in the doorway of your new office. “Associate Professor” on the door plaque above your name. A picture on your desk of you and your dad beaming on graduation day.
Oh god, you are a complete failure, aren’t you? You’re still working out of the graduate office. In your universe, your dad never cared about any of your academic accomplishments. He’s more of a “give me sports or give me death” type of guy.
You look away.
The reflection in the back of a chair shows you sitting on your parents’ sofa. You’re trying to get up, but it’s a stiff and painful motion, and you see your leg braces are scratched and need to be replaced. You didn’t learn how to stretch properly until college and in this universe, it looks like you never made it far past high school.
Everywhere you turn, you are reflected. Always twenty-eight. Always showing all the awful ways your life could have gone wrong. Or so very right. You try to keep your breath steady as you turn in a slow circle, looking for a way out. But all you see is you.
Oh god. You’re trapped.
Despite your promise to yourself that you will remain the rational scientist, fear puts its icy fingers on your throat and squeezes.
And that’s when your feet fail. Between the distraction and stress, your muscles seize up in a “Fuck you” salute and you go crashing down, badly. Your cane goes flying and you hear it smack against the wall.
You groan, swear, look up. The wall is cracked, but miraculously, your cane seems to be undamaged. You think you spot something behind the reflection. Or maybe you just need something to believe in because now your knees are bruised and you’re fucking pissed.
You crawl over to your cane, pull yourself unsteadily to your feet. Re-center the weight of your book bag. Then, you swing your cane at the wall.
You empty all your rage and hurt and exhaustion into the motion and you don’t stop even when you lose your balance and have to pick yourself up again, because it feels goddamn good to destroy something in this house even if every new shard is showing another you. And you and you and you. Every goddamn iteration of you and they’re all heartbreaking.
And yet. They aren’t you.
When you stop to catch your breath, the wall is a ragged, empty frame. Beyond it, there’s a door.
“You’re not going to beat me, house,” you gasp and open it.
Finally. A staircase up.
You climb the steps the same way you did all those years ago: Slowly, precisely, with one hand on the rail and the other tight around your cane. You now have sufficient evidence that this house is actively trying to stop you, possibly because if your research works out and you publish your results, this house is going to have a lot more visitors.
You have a strong working theory that the house really, really hates visitors.
But you won’t be stopped. Can’t be. And you hope when other scientists come here, they will tear this house down, one theory at a time.
You hesitate on the landing. Last time, the second floor was where the new possibilities lived.
You’re just hoping you can find the universe you’re looking for and in it, a like-minded you.
When you reach the second floor, you feel the tension go out of your shoulders. It’s exactly how you remember it.
Well, maybe not exactly. The hallway’s still narrow and brooding, dark with white doors on both sides, but it’s longer than last time and there are more doors. That’s not surprising, though. You’re older now.
In every door, there’s a peephole and when you look through, you see different scenes from your life. Classrooms, lunch at the library, late nights in the lab, lectures, training at the gym, meals with your roommates, dates at the park, homework in your parents’ house, awkward parties, fun parties, lonely recesses. You walk down the hallway and you walk down your life, catching snatches of it in the peepholes of the doors. Middle school, university, high school, elementary, the house has universes for them all.
Finally, you find the one you’re looking for.
The peephole shows this: You standing on the front porch of the haunted house, hesitating, doorknob in your hand.
“This is it,” you breathe and open the door.
Inside: a white room; blank except for an open window and pale blue curtains whispering in the breeze. Just like last time. But last time, you chose the first door on your right after you saw your friends standing on the lawn in front of the house, waiting for you to come out again. You were so excited to have found an escape route and then were so startled by the white room beyond, you didn’t realize the door locked behind you when it slammed shut.
But you’re wiser now. You lean against the door as you rummage around your book bag and pull out three doorstops. You’re not falling for the same trap this time.
When you’re satisfied the door will not move a damn inch, you walk to the window and lean out.
Last time you were here, you jumped out the window, panicked, desperate to escape this haunted house. You broke both wrists and your nose. It was not your best idea.
Now, you realize how lucky you were, peering out the window. It’s an unforgiving two-story fall. You can’t help but wonder in how many universes you broke your neck instead.
From your backpack, you unfurl a rope ladder.
You’ve been practicing for months, climbing up and down this hellish rope. Between your shitty balance and stiff muscles, you’ve had abstract algebra classes that were easier than teaching your body this.
“Fire safety,” you told your personal trainer. “And because it’s just sort of badass, in general?” Which wasn’t a lie. She was up for the challenge and so were you.
What you didn’t tell her—or anyone else—is that in your backpack are your research notes. The possibilities in parallel universes are infinite. Thus there are other versions of you out there, in similar labs, doing similar experiments. And maybe, if two of you were running experiments with an identical set of constants, changing the same variable, maybe, just maybe, you can make contact.
It would undisputedly be the great scientific discovery of all time.
You check that your escape route is secure and put your foot on the first rope rung.
“Okay. Let’s do this,” you say and begin to climb down into a new universe.
You blink and everything shifts.
You don’t even realize that the universe has changed until your feet are on solid ground and you see the five kids waiting on the lawn. Shit, goddamn it, what the fuck? Later, you’ll agonize over this, replay it in your head, come up empty. You have no idea why you’ve found yourself in a universe twenty years in your past, instead of twenty minutes.
The kids don’t realize you’ve walked up behind them until you clear your throat. They jump in surprise.
“Who are you?” eight-year-old Chelsea asks.
“A physicist specializing in quantum mechanics and multiverse theory.”
You’re met with five blank stares.
“What does that even mean?” a boy, Jared, asks.
“It means I come from a universe that’s banned the internet and the only shows on TV are documentaries.”
They stare at you in horror.
Of course, this is a complete lie, but you don’t care, you’re so frustrated and these kids probably just bullied your eight-year-old self into a haunted house. “Isn’t there supposed to be one more of you?”
The five of them look guilty and steal glances at the house. Shit.
“I think… I think we made a mistake,” Chelsea admits, looking close to tears.
Yeah, she’s not the only one.
“Go home,” you tell them, quietly. “Just… go home.”
They run. Eagerly. So eagerly.
Your hand clenches around your cane and your heart tightens too. It still hurts, how easily they abandon you. All because you were visibly different than them.
And yet, in some ways you’re grateful to them and to this house. It made you realize they weren’t your friends, not really. After that, you poured all your energy into school and getting away from this place.
Also, it inspired you to study physics.
Because you sort of realized what happened, even as an eight-year-old. When you fell out of the window, you woke up in a hospital in a slightly different universe than the one you came from.
The changes were subtle. Your parents’ house was painted an ugly blue instead of dirty beige. Avery had the bigger bedroom, but he was still terrified of heights. And you had a deaf dog instead of a cranky cat. There were hundreds of little changes, but for the most part, it was easy to adapt.
It inspired lots of questions. Questions that you’re still asking. You’ve never told anyone about what happened in this house. Not even your closest friends and advisors. Not even now. You wanted your research to prove it first. You wanted to expose this house as being more than haunted.
And yet, in this universe, you once again find yourself on the sagging porch. Shit.
But maybe you can at least stop eight-year-old you from jumping out the window, offer a hand down instead. You have no idea if you can change a universe in a meaningful way, but you’re pretty sure you can help the catalyst.
You open the door once again and follow your eight-year-old self into the haunted house.
You’re standing in a wide landing and the staircase is right in front of you. You relax a bit. It’s just how you remember.
From the room on your left, you hear your parents screaming all the stupid, ugly, terrifying things they’ve ever said to each other. Oh. You forgot about that. On the right side, you hear all the callous things they’ve said about you.
You remember now, the first time you were here, the landing almost paralyzed you with fear. But this is nothing compared to what you’ve already been through. You ignore it and head right for the stairs. Because you can hear uneven footsteps on the landing, the soft thump of two crutches on wood.
The haunted house of your childhood will not stop you. It can’t.
This time, you don’t even bother with the peephole. You just repeat what you did as a kid. You open the first door on your right.
Your eight-year-old self is already halfway out the window. Eyes round with fear.
“Wait,” you shout, but even in this instant, you know it’s not enough. You’re too far gone.
The kid at the window startles, slips. Falls. Disappears from view.
You hear the impact. The sound is louder, harsher, than you remember. Oh god, you’ve made things worse, haven’t you?
You slump against the door. Suddenly, the years of working and struggling and fighting hit you in one devastating wave of emotion. All this effort and you’re still out of your league. The house is playing by its own rules while you’re trying to learn the game. You’ve been busy looking for constants while everything is flickering. Always changing.
You refuse to look out the window. Instead, you pull out your creased and battered research notes from your backpack. The working title is “The Birdhouse Project.” It’s the best apology you have.
So, you’re going to walk down the steps, out of the house, back to your original universe, and try again. And again and again and again if necessary. You’ve come too far to relent now.
This is how the house traps its visitors, isn’t it? Devours them, really. You don’t care. This house is not going to stop you. It can’t.
You hear a faint… something. Like a hiccup. You hear it again. It’s coming from the room on the left side of the hall, across from you.
You step away from the door, close it gently. You cross the hall and press your ear against the door. There it is again. A soft cry.
Wait. You know that voice.
You throw open the door.
Your little brother is sitting under the open window in the white, blank room. His eyes are red and snot’s running down his chin. You’re pretty sure your mouth is hanging open. You want to run over and hug him, but instead say: “Hi Avery.”
He stares at you, startled just as you. God, you really are an idiot. You spent the last ten years of your life studying multiverse theories and yet you didn’t allow yourself to believe that there’s at least one universe where Avery manages to cross the street and follow you into the haunted house.
Your kid brother who’s afraid of heights.
“Who are you?” he asks.
“Guess,” you say.
He studies you. Your cane, your leg braces, your face as you lean against the open door. His eyes widen.
“You’re right, Birdhouse,” you say.
“Whoa,” he breathes.
Your knees are shaking, but this time, not from fear. Avery wipes his eyes and gets to his feet. “I got lost,” he says, twisting his hands.
“Me too.” You smile. He gives you a tentative smile back.
You consider the possibilities. You could stay here, in this universe. Or take Avery back to yours. If you do, could you really bring yourself to come back to this haunted house and risk abandoning him again? If you can’t, you’d be giving up your guarantee of making a breakthrough in parallel universe research. All that work.
And yet, your kid brother is right in front of you. Whole.
“Touché, house,” you say softly.
“What’s that mean?” Avery wrinkles his nose and you laugh.
“Come on, Birdhouse,” you say. “I have a way out.”
And you hold open the door.
(Editors’ Note: A. T. Greenblatt is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue of Uncanny Magazine.)
© 2018 by A. T. Greenblatt