doorbell dot mov, by Jennifer R. Donohue


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It’s 3:00 a.m. and the doorbell rings, because that’s always when the doorbell rings, if it’s going to. I don’t have to go to the door; I can pull up the video on my phone, always overexposed, too white and also too dark, Blair Witch found footage, despite how good the camera is supposed to be. Beyond the porch, the street just black and unending, my neighbor’s lights disappearing. No cars ever pass. There is no other noise, birds or bullfrogs or those night bugs I don’t know the names of. Pale, pale moths orbit the porch light.

They don’t just ring the bell, though. They knock. Frantically. Pounding the sides of their fists on the solid wooden door, because they used to do it on the cheap maybe-aluminum door and I couldn’t stand seeing the dents in the morning, the flaked paint, the edges rusting and then weeping like a statue with stigmata. The wooden door is oak and cost a lot of money on Etsy, the guy driving it here from two states over to hang it with iron hinges and locks and handles. He didn’t ask why I wanted iron and I didn’t really know if the iron would matter. It seems to have. The door isn’t burned, scraped, dented. Doesn’t jump in its frame when the banging starts.

They also talk. Well, they more than talk. They beg, they plead, they dissolve into wailing tears, their voices fraying at the edges like an old ribbon. By the time they’re wailing, pleading, I’ll have crept out of bed and up the long hallway, the too-long hallway, to the door. I’ll have pressed my face against the door, my hands. I’ll have put my back against it and slid down to sit, arms wrapped around myself. The oak and the iron keeps the chill from flooding into the hallway, a small comfort where no other is forthcoming. 

I cry too, then, hot tears running down my face and dripping off and I don’t know where they go after that. I must be careful to never open the door when they come. No matter how they beg, no matter what they say. No matter when they say my name in that plaintive tone, their faces pressed together close to the camera, their eyes dark wells that glint in the light, their features whited-out and indistinct. Because they are not who they say they are, they are not who they look like, who they sound like. They died five years ago, driving back from a metal show in the middle of the night.

The first time they came to my door at 3:00 a.m., and I saw their faces on the camera, I stumbled out of bed and ran up the hall. The days, weeks, since the funerals were a nightmare. The funerals felt like a mistake, no bodies, set up in urns already. The accident was just that bad. Death is already an unreality, but that one last step of removal just made it impossible, like it was a mistake, like they’d come through the doors like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, laughing at attending their own funerals. 

They did not do that.

They came to my door at 3:00 a.m. or things that looked like them did and they rang my bell and I ran to the door and tore it open and I was already sobbing, I was already saying “oh my god I knew it couldn’t be real” and I think that’s what saved me, my salty tears that they recoiled from, giving me time to see, to feel, that it was not them, they were wrong, they felt wrong, there was something wrong, and I slammed my metal door shut as they recovered and reached out with their pale, long-fingered hands and they keened at their weakness, at their missed opportunity. They beat on the door until dawn and I sat huddled in the hallway, freezing, listening to them. Bearing witness, even though it isn’t them. 

I don’t know what they are. Ghosts, or worse. The kind of thing that gives people that deep-seated fear of the uncanny valley. The kind of thing that vampire stories came from. Anything but people, they are not people. I don’t know what they are, but they can’t come in unless I let them, accidentally or on purpose, and since that night I have been so careful to not do that. I don’t know if it has to be a door, but they always only come to the front door, never the back. They never scratch at windows, they never rattle the pipe for the garden hose that leads back into the house, they never wail through the dryer vent. I don’t know what I would do, if they did any of those things. What could I do? There are so many tiny ways in and out of a house, and then there are the big important ones. 

If I’m not home at 3:00 a.m. they don’t ring the bell, but they do come like moths to my front porch. They still whisper to the camera that they know is there, their voices indistinct or too loud, and I can’t understand what they’re saying, just their need. Listening to them makes me want to panic, always, throw the door open, wherever I am. 

What would happen, if I opened the door?

What do they want?

I have no way to find out, nobody to ask, nowhere to read about it. There isn’t somebody making TikTok videos about what happens when things wearing dead people’s faces come to your door, that the camera sees and hears, that are physically there. There’s no YouTube deep dive from the Reddit thread of somebody who was going through this. There’s just me. Me, and them. And I can’t tell anybody, I can just imagine the range of emotions that would cross a person’s face as they struggle to maintain a neutral or sympathetic social mask. I’m losing it, they would think. I just haven’t been the same after the accident, they would think. 

Even without things on my porch at 3:00 a.m., I don’t know how I would be the same after the accident. Grief is not something you visit on vacation, grief is climate change. It is disaster at your doorway that people would rather not confront, address, consider. 

Is it because I was supposed to be at that concert too? I was supposed to be in the car too, die in that car too? Do these pale things with dark eyes and too-big mouths know that and count me among what should be theirs? Would they put my face on and what, go to our parents’ houses next? Where does it stop? Where did it start?

Eventually, maybe it’s stupid that I didn’t think of it sooner, I sell the house. I bury a Saint Joseph in the front yard and I hunt for another house in the meantime and somehow pull off that Hail Mary of closing on both and moving smoothly in a precise dance that I’m not sure anybody but me really appreciates. My parents don’t understand why I’m moving, why I want to leave, and it’s the best time for me to have told them about the doorbell. The faces. Their eyes. And I just can’t do that. I tell them it’s a job, it’s the weather, I got a great offer and the people who buy my house will probably just make it all gray inside and flip it.

I bring my door, though. It’s weird, the real estate agents say so, try to convince me otherwise, but I bring my door. And the iron hinges. It’s a beautiful door, it makes my new house instantly look like home, even though they’ve never been there. Never saw it, never laughed with me in it, tipsy on hard seltzer and watching the game, whatever game, it didn’t matter because we didn’t really care. It was a house for me, where maybe I could move on. Whatever that means.

But that’s what I told my parents. That I knew it was time to move on. And that, finally, was the right thing to say. They’d been so worried.

They helped me move, and we ate pizza off paper plates in my echoing new dining room, nothing up on the walls yet, windows bare, dark mirrors framing us as we ate and laughed and talked, like we were our own TV show. We drank soda from a two-liter, in red Solo cups, and then finally they said “we have to get going” and kissed me goodnight and left. They planned to stop in a motel halfway home, get an early start in the morning. And I went to bed.

It’s 3:00 a.m. and the doorbell rings, because that’s always when the doorbell rings, if it’s going to. They press their pale faces to the doorbell camera and they whisper to me, cajole, beg.

My parents are with them.

Jennifer R. Donohue grew up at the Jersey Shore and now lives in central New York with her husband and their Dobermans. A member of the SFWA, she works at her local public library where she also facilitates a writing workshop. She is the author of the Run With the Hunted novella series, and her debut novel, Exit Ghost, released in 2023. Her work has otherwise appeared in Apex Magazine, Escape Pod, Fusion Fragment, and elsewhere. Her debut novel, Exit Ghost, is available now.

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