BEHIND the DOOR
She was a small girl wearing an old-fashioned bonnet.
Like something out of a Victorian painting.
Her eyes were cast downward as she spoke to the psychologist; sometimes glancing at the scribbles the doctor made in response to certain words.
Behind her, in the hall, a tall, stout policeman near retirement age leaned in to catch what the girl was saying. Sometimes he’d wince and shake his head as though worn down by the evil of life itself.
The child sat in the only chair with a cushion in the police station, explaining that it was after her ‘mum and dad’ had passed - it was her Uncle Gracey who had stepped forward to take her in.
He had done so reluctantly but said he couldn’t bear the thought of his sister’s child going into an orphanage. He hadn’t called the little girl his “niece”; just his ‘sister’s child’.
The child’s name was Evelyn but she liked “Lyn” best.
As she continued answering questions her gaze would fix hard - as if off in the distance a memory stood waving at her.
The psychologist was a soft-spoken, middle-aged lady in a drab brown suit. She didn’t patronize children with baby talk or saccharine nonsense.
Dr. Levine asked about her Uncle’s ‘kindness’ or ‘anger’ several times.
The girl replied politely. Without feeling.
Uncle Gracey promised he’d continue buying her clothes, cooking her meals, and making certain she had whatever games handy she wanted to play. He provided a television and any sort of doll or toy she asked for.
Evelyn didn’t know if that meant he was kind or not.
It was a heartbreaking answer, the policeman in the hall thought to himself.
The psychologist paused to glance into the girl’s dark, sad face and eyes.
She compressed her lips into a non-smile of acknowledgment, not actually saying anything. Dr. Levine was afraid her voice would crack if she spoke.
Finally, swallowing hard, she lifted her eyebrows into a friendly expression and asked quietly if her Uncle were ever angry with her.
The child stopped momentarily...as if to sift her thoughts around. Taking a sip of juice from the plastic cup the officer had given her.
Uncle Gracey never raised his voice or struck her. He could be serious and firm about … certain things … but never scary.
It was always a lecture. The same lecture, day in and day out. He made absolutely sure the little girl understood one thing above all other things.
It took the form of a kind of ritual.
He’d sit across from her with his eyes at the same level as little Evelyn’s and ask a particular question. He did it in the morning and repeat it every night before lights out.
“What is it you must never - ever - do?”
She was required to answer clearly with the same seven words.
As the little girl answered, Dr. Levine remembered the neighborhood she herself had grown up in - where every house had a basement and outside the houses was a door so the delivery man could shovel in the coal, or firewood, or whatever without tracking dirt into a house.
“I must never open the cellar door.” The child explained.
The psychologist glanced up briefly. She was in her fifties with her hair pulled back in a brownish bun. Her glasses reflected light from the table lamp as she squinted at the little girl's eyes...so sad...distant...forlorn.
Levine, as a child, stood outside her own cellar door in her backyard wanting her parents to let her use the basement as a clubhouse. They assured her spiders and mice would cause her to change her mind.
“What is it you must never - ever - do?”
“I must never open the cellar door.”
The child remembered singing to herself during the day as she worked the thousand-piece picture puzzles. If she sang loud, Uncle Gracey did not complain. If the TV was noisy late at night - Uncle Gracey did not complain.
It was as if he were a stranger on a train minding his own business.
Before he went off to his work in the morning he’d serve the girl her favorite breakfast.
All he required of her was the proper answer to the eternal question.
“What is it you must never - ever - do?
“I must never open the cellar door.”
Sometimes Uncle Gracey would surprise her by returning home early with his hair in disarray as though he had been running. He’d unexpectedly change the question into a different one.
“Evelyn, did you try to open the cellar door today??
He’d stare carefully at her face as she answered without hesitation.
“No Sir. I’m not supposed to. And I didn’t. I wouldn’t. Not ever.”
The policeman excused himself from his vigil outside the consultation room and quietly slipped out leaving the door ajar.
The Psychologist craned her neck to the left and peered down the hall of the Police station. Two offices away an Interrogation was getting underway.
The Uncle. At that moment he was facing away from an officer and shaking his head at every query the Detective made of him.
A passing cop pulled the door shut and it grew silent in the room with the little girl. She was staring out the window with a blank expression.
The little girl took another sip of juice and cradled the cup in her lap.
Dr. Levine chose this moment to ask the question she’d been holding back until everything was exactly right.
She asked, “Tell me about why you unlocked the cellar door this morning, Lyn.”
The child’s face caught a spark of life. Her eyes widened and there was for the first time color in her cheeks. An ordinary five-year-old girl.
There was genuine feeling in her words.
She was saying that ‘it was the sound of children’s voices on the other side of the door that caused her to do it - to do the thing she must never ever do.’
Sometimes she thought she could hear kids. They were talking on the other side of that door.
It was a big heavy green door. She could hear them just on the other side. She couldn’t explain it--except to say--this time she HAD TO SEE who they were and what they were doing!”
Dr. Levine asked if she had ever mentioned children’s voices to her Uncle Gracey. Had she asked who they were or why she couldn’t play with them?
The small girl shrugged.
He had insisted she was imagining things. Watching TV all day had put ideas inside her mind. She was confused, he’d said.
Had this upset her?
Of course, it had but what could she say or do to change it?
Gradually it became clear to Evelyn her Uncle had been lying to her.
The Psychologist clicked her ballpoint pen and placed it squarely on the desktop. She wanted to give full attention to the words that were starting to come rapidly from the little girl's pale lips. The angelic face was almost the color of paper. Unhealthy and dry.
Dr. Levine urged her to continue. What had happened that morning?
The small girl was saddened as she told her story. It was the sound of another little girl crying. It emboldened her to help, to call out, and finally to act.
Her Uncle’s words no longer mattered to her as much as helping another little girl who sounded terribly said.
The plastic cup was empty now. The little girl picked up a juice bottle and emptied the rest into her cup and gulped it down hard.
She worked up her courage to the point it was no longer possible to wait. The crying had become quieter until she couldn’t hear anything. Nothing at all.
It caused her to be afraid she’d be too late to help.
She’d taken in a deep breath and flung herself straight at the awful green cellar door with the rusty lock.
She knew exactly where to find the key - having seen her Uncle reach for it.
She’d pretended a hundred times not to be watching - but she saw it came from atop a little ledge. A small stool, a step, and a reach -- and the key was in her hand and straight away into the lock until a loud “click” and the pull of the green handle tugged a heavy, creaking cellar door open wider and wider.
The Psychologist was digging her nails into her own palms so wrought up with tension and emotion with that word.
"The Cellar door?"
"Yes. The Cellar door."
The room swelled with silent foreboding. Quiet. Empty. Until the little voice began again...
Little Evelyn had grabbed the big heavy door handle and pulled and pushed and kicked and screamed as loud as she could scream - as though cracking open the world itself and spilling out every secret ever hidden.
The silence rushed in.
"What happened then?" Dr. Levine softly asked.
The little girl answered quietly,
As Evelyn explained, the Psychologist could hardly contain herself. She reached across the desk and cupped the little face in her hands as she spoke encouragement and praised her for bravery.
She could “see.” she said.
She could see ”... the wonderful.”
It was more beautiful than on TV. There was a small girl with a scraped knee and roller skates too.
A detective walked in to whisper in the Psychologist's ear. She nodded and spoke one word. "Yes."
The same burly policeman returned and softly touched the little girl on the shoulder.
"C'mon sweetie. Let's get you a snack. You must be hungry."
The two of them made their way to the door. The little girl turned and beamed the most wonderful smile ever seen in that office.
"It is so much more beautiful!"
The Psychologist cocked her head slightly as if to question. "What is--sweetheart?"
"OUTSIDE!" she chirped and the door closed firmly behind her.
The Psychologist reached for the Kleenex box and began weeping in heavy sobs.