Summary: A man rediscovers his passion for helping people.
Warnings: This content may cause emotional distress due to certain subject matters.
The door was locked.
Henry tried opening it every day for the past year. He picked at the keyhole with a rusty bobby pin, rammed the door with his shoulder until he was out of breath, and hammered away at the antique brass hinges for hours on end.
His roommates didn’t care about the extra door in the living room. They walked by it on a daily basis without giving it so much as a glance, probably thinking it was a decorative piece of art. Sometimes, Henry wondered if they even noticed it at all. The white distressed paint, ornate doorknob with a charming floral pattern, and overall rustic flair stood in contrast to the rest of the modern-day furniture. It was hard to miss or ignore. He was certain about one thing, though. They were constantly annoyed by the bouts of banging and the tools he carelessly left around.
Henry wasn’t always this obsessed with the door. He worked as a security guard at the local high school. His passions included protecting kids, repairing homes, and collecting comic books of his favorite superheroes. He shared that last hobby with most of the kids in the school. He often gave away comics from his own collection, but not lately. The brightly colored pages and good vs. evil storylines were the last thing on his mind.
The frustrating mystery of the door compelled him to pace back and forth, trying to formulate his next plan on how to open it. He wondered if there were hidden treasures behind it or a dimension to another world. Or worse, a sheet of drywall. The thought made him laugh.
He abruptly stopped, his curiosity dissipating when the youngest member of the house called out for help. Amanda. Henry quickly climbed the stairs and made a sharp left into her room.
“Hey, kiddo,” he said warmly. “You’re okay. Your mom’s just in the bathroom. She’ll be right out in no time.”
She blinked up at him a few times. Amanda was a sweet 12-year-old girl with the brightest smile and the biggest heart. He once overheard her parents, Diego and Laura, talking about her leukemia. The outlook was grim. He avoided the door a few days after hearing the news, not wanting to disturb their peace.
Amanda’s mother appeared through the doorway and glued herself to her daughter’s side, gently taking her small, fragile hand in hers.
“Do you need me to get anything?” he said and waited for her response. He knew he wouldn’t be of any help, but he still felt the urge to ask. When she said nothing, Henry thought it best to give them some privacy and made his way back downstairs.
He made a beeline to his favorite worn-out armchair in the living room by the window and focused his gaze on the door again. Its enigma normally mesmerized him, but it now paled in comparison to the heartbreaking scene upstairs. He wished he could do something more to help Amanda, his head spinning with uncertainty. He leaned back and closed his eyes, a wave of guilt overwhelming him as if he was failing to protect her in some way.
Hours passed when Henry suddenly woke up with a start, his hands fiercely gripping the arms of his seat. The sunset beyond the window painted the living room with streaks of orange and gold. His eyes swept over the space and they landed on the door. He couldn’t pinpoint what put him in a restless state, but there was an uneasy feeling floating in the air. A crick in his neck forced him up, his hand massaging the spot as he neared the door. Henry’s eyes traced the paths left behind by the cracked and chipped paint, a pattern he memorized long ago.
His voice was barely a whisper when he spoke. “Why won’t you open for me?”
Curious fingers nearly grazed the door knob, but a piercing scream from upstairs ripped his hand away. His instincts kicked in, springing him into action and causing him to bolt up the steps to the second floor.
Henry came to a swift stop at the top of the stairs, a spidery sense of déjà vu crawling up from the back of his neck and wisps of a faint memory fading into his vision. He ran up a similar flight of stairs before, feeling just as distressed and confused. Children’s screams echoed through the halls. The last thing he remembered was a sharp sting erupting from his stomach.
The daydream disappeared in an instant, the children’s howls replaced by the sound of Laura’s uncontrollable sobs. Henry shook his head and rushed into Amanda’s room. He found Laura at the edge of the bed, where he left her earlier, her hands gently cradling her daughter’s lifeless face. Before Henry could open his mouth, movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention.
There, standing in her blue and purple pajamas, was Amanda.
When they locked eyes, she shied away and backed up into a wooden dresser. “Wh-who are you? What’s happening?”
Henry held his hands out as he slowly advanced. “It’s okay. I’m just a friend. I’m here to help. My name’s Henry. You’re Amanda, right?”
She nodded before covering her ears, her mother’s devastating grief startling her.
Henry moved aside to fall in Amanda’s line of sight, not wanting her to see her own dead body on the bed and lose her focus. “Hey, why don’t we go downstairs? Find something else to do, huh?” He offered his hand and favored her with one of his winning smiles.
Amanda stared up at him with fearful eyes, unsure of what to do, but the eerie chill racing up and down her back and the high-pitched wails were too much for her to bear.
She lurched forward and grasped his hand. He did his best to conceal her as they walked out of the room and down the stairs together, moving to the side unexpectedly when Amanda’s father rushed beside them, taking two steps at a time. Henry’s eyes briefly followed him, but he reminded himself to focus on Amanda.
In the living room, Henry bent over the back of the couch for the remote and turned the television on, hoping the commercial jingles and catchy slogans helped distract them from the horror upstairs. He gently stroked Amanda’s hand, but the gesture paused at the sound of his name.
“It’s been one year since the death of security guard Henry Espada,” said the news reporter. “He tragically died during a school shooting that took his life and the lives of ten students. He was known as a local hero, working in soup kitchens, volunteering with the fire department, and building homes for low-income families…”
Amanda tugged on his hand and pointed at the screen. “That’s you.”
“Yeah,” he said as his memory of that day came flooding back. He turned the television off as a sickening feeling of failure and a surge of anger at himself forced him to sit down in his armchair. “I’m not a hero. I was on a lunch break when it happened. I heard yelling and screaming. I ran up the stairs and the shooter got me. All those kids died because I didn’t react fast enough. I messed up.”
Amanda carefully approached him. “You didn’t mess up and they didn’t die because of you. Someone else is to blame for that.”
“I know. I just… I just wish I could have helped. Those kids needed me.”
“Well, this kid needs your help now,” Amanda said as she pointed at herself. “And I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling pretty lost.”
Her words stirred something inside him. He recalled the wandering, the endless questions with no answers in sight, and the lack of purpose that plagued him day and night. He didn’t want that for Amanda. “You’re right. I couldn’t help those kids back then, but I can help you now. We’ll figure this out.”
A deafening silence engulfed the room.
Gone were the crickets chirping outside, the hum of the air conditioner, and the faint sobs of grieving parents. Henry and Amanda looked at each other to confirm what just happened wasn’t a mere illusion. A soft clicking sound from across the room penetrated through the thick air.
It was the door.
The young girl grabbed his hand. “I’m officially scared.”
He stood up and nudged her to stay behind him. “I’m scared, too, but neither of us has to do this alone. Okay?”
She latched onto his shirt and nodded. “Okay.”
Henry and Amanda inched closer to the door, the uncomfortable silence gradually transforming into a warm and inviting wave washing over them. Though, a thread of uncertainty still lingered. Henry exhaled a nervous breath before reaching out to grab the door knob. He turned it.
The door wasn’t locked anymore.
I wrote “Unfinished Business” after discovering a literary journal called The First Line. The Summer 2020 prompt was “The door was locked.” Unfortunately, it was rejected, but I still wanted to share it with my readers. Let me know what you think!