Backdoor to Paradise
By Jason Sabbagh
Dimitra rocked in her chair and looked out at the morning dew. She sat on the wrap around porch that circled the Holloway House. People in town called her 'the Gypsy,' and she never corrected them, even though she was born and raised in Detroit. Her mother was Greek and her father Mexican, which made her ethnicity hard to place. The gypsy lore was an asset to her business. That business being the owner and spiritual guide of the Holloway House.
Dimitra didn’t live in the house. That would be maddening. No. It was her place of work, but there was no rational way to explain just what she did there. Which meant she had to run a cash business. The prices she charged could only be afforded by the obscenely wealthy. And they paid. Willingly.
For a woman in her sixties, Dimitra had kept up with the times, technologically speaking. She didn’t use technology to promote Holloway House. In fact, her clients were forbidden from posting anything about the old three story Victorian online. And they obeyed.
But she was able to remove posts on the various platforms, mostly written by locals. They called her a snake oil salesman, a side show act, a con artist, so on and so forth. A local television crew showed up to Holloway House once. Dimitra pretended to speak broken English and played dumb to their cheeky line of questioning. They were doing a bit for a Halloween segment. But Dimitra played it so boring, the piece never aired.
Her business spread solely through word of mouth. Wealthy family to wealthy family. The trickiest part was the legal system. Since 1982, sixty-seven people had died in Holloway house, and that sort of anomaly tends to raise red flags with law enforcement.
Dimitra had operated under four different Sheriffs. Each had to be wooed in their own way. That morning, rocking in her chair, she was awaiting a visit from the newly elected young Sheriff, her fifth. His police cruiser pulled up the gravel drive at nine am sharp, just as he’d said.
His name was Bill Shaw and he was 42, young for a Sheriff. He was alone, which was a positive sign. Perhaps he wished to have a conversation that he didn’t want his peers to hear. Dimitra stood from her chair as Bill walked onto the porch.
“Good Morning, Bill Shaw.” He tipped his obnoxious cowboy hat.
“Good morning, Sheriff Shaw, I am Dimitra.”
“Oh I am aware. You got the one-name thing going, like Madonna.”
Dimitra smiled. “I must say Sheriff, that was the first time in my life I’ve been compared to Madonna.”
Bill smiled. “You know, I ran up on this porch one time, God, twenty-five years ago.”
“Ahh. One of the brave young teenagers dared to climb the steps of the haunted house. I imagine I’ve cleaned up a few of your beer cans left at the end of my driveway.”
Bill smiled again. “Yeah, that may be, I apologize for that.”
“No need, teenagers will be teenagers.”
Bill stared through the fogged glass window into Holloway House. “Thing is, back then, it was just rumors, fun and games, I never really thought this place was haunted. Well, still don’t, but I did read all the files we have on this place at the Sheriff’s Department.”
“And you are wondering how it is that sixty-seven people have died in this house.”
The two met eyes, and Bill nodded, “Yes ma'am.”
“I’m afraid the answer is not as scandalous as you might think.”
“Well that’s great because, if it’s one thing I’m not looking for, it’s a scandal. Just got through with a pretty vicious campaign.”
“Would you care to sit?” she gestured to a rocking chair. When the sheriff sat opposite her, she said, “You may think me a fraud. I couldn’t blame you for that. But I saw the spiritual nature of this place the first time I laid eyes on it in 1981. I was a waitress at a roadside diner, living in a rented room above the place, not a penny to my name. I came into town to look for affordable accommodations and walked by this old house.”
“What does that mean, you saw the spiritual nature?”
“I saw the dead being welcomed here.”
Bill smiled and scratched his face. “Listen Dimitra, I don’t ascribe to all that afterlife stuff.”
“So if you could just tell me the logistics of why so many have come here to die.”
“They come here as my guests because they believe.”
Bill nodded slowly. “They believe you. And you tell them what?”
“I tell them the truth, that all those who die in this house have safe passage to the next world.”
“And they believe that?”
“They do. I give them proof.”
“I commune with the deceased after they pass.”
Bill took a deep breath. “Sounds to me like you take advantage of people.”
Dimitra smiled. “The people who come here are very wealthy, very educated. From what I understand, my house is seen as a status symbol among certain circles.”
“How exactly do you earn money? You have no businesses registered, no income filed.”
“I do not earn money. But, as you may know, an individual may gift another individual $15,000 a year tax free. My guests are often very thankful and very generous. I accept gifts, all legal.”
“Gifts. So you live off thirty grand a year?”
“Well, for instance. This Friday, some guests will be flying in from California. The Lamberts. George Lambert was a hedge fund manager. He has been battling cancer for some time now, and has asked to come visit me for a time. He will be flying in with his wife, two adult children, and a nurse. Now sheriff, I can not say with certainty that all four members of the Lambert family will gift me $15,000 each as they are legally allowed to do, but they did seem very generous on the phone.”
Bill’s smile faded. It may have turned to a frown had he known about the $100,000 cash they would be bringing as well. “This man is coming Friday? He plans on dying here?”
“Plans? No. He is ill, but he is simply coming for a visit. If he passes due to his illness while he is here, I suppose there is nothing I can do about that. Nor is it illegal.”
“Bit of a grey area don’t you think?”
“Sheriff, life is a grey area is it not.” Bill averted his eyes, lost in thought. Dimitra patted his shoulder. “Perhaps you would like to stop by for a visit on Friday, see how I interact with my guests.”
Bill, who had stood like peacock displaying his plume as he stepped out of his cruiser with his aviator shades and cowboy hat, now looked like a scared teen, but he said, “I think I'll do that. But listen to me Dimitra. I don’t know what your relationship was like with the sheriffs before me. But with me, everything will be strictly above board. I don’t think you are breaking any laws, technically, but you are walking a fine line. The 80s are over. Nothing is private anymore with the internet.”
“I understand, Sheriff.”
Bill Shaw put his hat and his shades back on, but he didn’t exactly strut back to his car.
Dimitra peered through a window into the dining room. A chill washed over her. That old doubt crept up her flesh for a moment, then vanished as quickly as it came.
No, it wasn’t the 80s anymore… as if they had been a better time. Detroit was in its death throes, then, and didn’t even know it. The evictions, the homelessness, the drugs were all part of the city's future. The prosperity of the few at the expense of people like her parents. People who thought they had stable jobs, people who worked hard building the behemoth corporations up with their sweat and time, only to be discarded for cheap overseas labor, for record profits, for executive bonuses.
No, it wasn’t the 80s anymore. She wasn’t eating the scraps off people's plates in the kitchen of the diner. What did Bill Shaw know of that time? He had been a toddler.
Dimitra shook her head at the memories, then walked to her old pickup truck and headed home to Galesport. Her house was small, but finely furnished, a luxury of living off secret cash. She’d chosen Galesport, thirty miles from Holloway House, because she couldn’t see the house's light radiating from that distance. She could watch television and momentarily forget that the old rift existed.
For as long as she could remember, she'd seen rifts, refractions of light and logic, like little tears in the world. Behind the rifts existed what remained of a person after the flesh gave out. The deceased bled in and out of space, blinking, flickering, always changing shapes. But she had never seen anything like Holloway House until she stumbled upon it all those years ago.
Holloway House was no tear, it was a gaping hole, and a strange one. She could see light refracting off it from miles away. It was like staring into the sun. The doctors had diagnosed her with schizophrenia. Before Holloway house, she'd believed them.
After the house, she had proof that she wasn’t ill, that she didn’t hallucinate. She’d try and give Bill Shaw a show of that proof on Friday. Just enough to make him never want to know more. To leave her alone.
The Lambert family arrived on Friday in two black SUVs. George, attached to an IV drip was helped out of his vehicle by a muscular male nurse and guided to a walker. His wife Rebecca stepped out of the vehicle and made the sign of the cross as she stared up at Holloway House.
Dimitra sat in her rocking chair, looking as Gypsyish as she could. The Lambert children exited their own car. George Jr. and Melissa, both in their thirties. Neither offered to help their father up the stairs to the porch. That’s what the nurse was for.
Dimitra stood and gave a slight bow of the head to George and Rebecca once they reached the landing. “Welcome to my home.”
George stared at her wearily, he barely seemed lucid. Rebecca smiled. “Thank you for having us. We were given your name by the Carlisles, they are dear friends of ours.”
Dimitra touched her hand to her heart. “Yes. Hugh was a gracious man. He left this world with dignity and entered the next with the wondrous smile of a child. How is Anne?”
“Drunk I imagine. She usually is,” piped in George Junior. He flashed Dimitra a devilish smile and took off his sunglasses. “And I’ve never heard a person call Hugh Carlisle gracious. Vindictive, ruthless, pompous...yes, but never gracious.”
Rebecca turned to her son. “Georgie, please…”
Dimitra’s expression did not change. She was used to the children of the elite. Used to people thinking she was a charlatan. Junior would leave that house singing a different tune. She was confident of that.
“It is quite alright, Mrs. Lambert. Believe it or not, I used to struggle with faith, with being asked to believe in something without proof. So I will not ask you to have faith in me. I will give you proof.”
Junior gave her a different smile then. A genuine one. She could tell he wanted to believe, that he was excited to see what was going to happen.
Dimitra continued. “There is one thing I must ask. Our county has just elected a new sheriff. He would like to stop by this evening so he may see what it is I do here. Is that alright with you?”
Rebecca looked at her son nervously. He spoke for her. “I was assured we aren’t breaking any laws. Well, except for the briefcase in my SUV.”
“We are not breaking any laws, except for your briefcase. I’ve done this with the past four sheriffs as well. Really they come for your protection. To see if I am swindling you.”
“Are you?” he responded coldly.
“No, I am not.”
The nurse carried George through the doorway like he was carrying his bride into their new home. The family followed behind, inspecting the old house. Dimitra lingered on the porch a moment before stepping inside. She only went in when she had to.
As soon as she crossed the threshold the color came alive. Not inside the house, the old wood and brick remained the same. It was the light shining through the windows from outside. She turned back to the open door. From inside the Holloway House, looking outside to the porch where they had just stood, the world was breathtaking.
There was no wrap-around porch, no SUVs, no gravel driveway. Where those things had been just a moment before, was now a shifting array of light and color. Rolling hills twisted into calming waters. Calming waters twisted into satin sheets where two bodies were intertwined in the throes of passion, then two faces laughing, hands picking shimmering succulent fruit from a tree that wasn’t there and then was. It was pure joy, all experiences of the flesh and of the mind tangled and twisted in layers upon layers of light.
It was beyond beautiful. Dimitra found she couldn’t look out the windows of Holloway House from inside for very long. Look too long and a deep depression would set in. It made the living world seem duller than it already was.
Dimitra turned away and spoke to the group. “How shall I address you all going forward?”
Rebecca smiled. “Please use our first names.”
“Just call me junior. It’s easier,” George Jr said as he ran a finger over the dusty banister. Melissa had yet to speak, she seemed sleepy, medicated.
Dimitra continued, “As per our original conversation. Have you all chosen specific statements for George to relay back to you from beyond? Statements I could not possibly know.”
Rebecca nodded. “Yes, we all have.”
Dimitra looked at George, who had been put down and was leaning on his walker. “I mean no offense, George, but I must ask, do you recall what your family has said to you?”
He grimaced and spoke with a hoarse voice, “I remember just fine, I’m not dead yet, like it or not.”
The statement hung in the air a moment, the family members eyes were fixed on the ground. Dimitra was used to dealing with rich people in their dying days.
“Excellent. George and Rebecca, the large room is the second door on the right. Melissa and Junior, there are two rooms down the left hall.”
She turned to the nurse. “Your name is Nate, correct?”
He nodded. “There is a room for you on the second floor. All the rooms are made up. You are free to explore the top floors of the house if you wish. But..."
She paused to get their attention. Five faces peered at her expectantly. "...before you get settled in, allow me to provide you with some proof of this place.”
Dimitra had been actively ignoring the shimmers of light that flitted about inside the house. But now, she focused on one flash a few feet from her, which let her see the flashes for what they were.
From the shimmers, faces appeared, then bodies, old, young, middle aged. They swarmed around her, nude and scowling. She looked at the multitude of swirling, shape-shifting, angry apparitions, their voices a mesh of anger.
You God Damned witch!
You miserable old whore!
Fuck you! Let me out of this fucking place!
Please! God Damnit, it’s right there!
Burn this fucking house down! I will eat your fucking heart bitch!
I’m sorry! Whatever I did I’m sorry!
So many voices, so much rage. Dimitra had learned to ignore the jumble—she scanned the room. Then saw the man she wanted to speak with. “Hugh Carlisle, come forward,” she said aloud.
The figure she was focused on lunged through the air and settled an inch from her face. Beyond his half translucent, shape shifting form--the angry old Landlord to a toddler, a teen, an old man-- she saw the fixed gazes of the Lambert family on her.
You evil bitch! The flickering Hue Carlisle screamed at her. Brought George Lambert here did you? Why? Let him go! Let me go! Please, please!
“Anything you wish to say to George?” Dimitra asked the spectre out loud.
Georgie! Help me God Dammit! We are stuck here! Get out now! Kill the fucking Gypsy! I forgive you for Erudite you rotten bastard! Help me!
Dimitra tuned the blinking light out, looked past it at the Lambert family. At George. “George. Hugh says he forgives you for Erudite.”
All heads turned to George. What little color was in his face drained away. He looked confused. “Excuse me…”
“Hugh is here, he said he forgives you for Erudite, whatever that means.”
Junior turned to her. “How do you know about that?”
“Hugh just spo…”
“Cut the shit," he cut her off, "What? Did you hire private investigators to dig into my father’s fund?”
Rebecca stepped forward. Her voice, which had been submissive and soft, changed. She spoke firmly, with confidence. “Calm down Georgie. No private investigator could have dug up that name. The FTC couldn’t. Just old Hubert Carlisle.”
Rebecca smiled at Dimitra. “She’s real. She speaks to the dead. Do me a favor, would you Dimitra? Tell old Hubert that he has nothing to forgive my husband for. He was fine with playing fast and loose with the law when he was making money, not so much when Erudite didn’t pan out as he thought.”
Becca you fucking bitch! You sold me on a pile of shit! Hugh was screaming, inches from Rebecca’s face.
Dimitra remained stoic. “He can hear you Rebecca. Shall I repeat what he is currently screaming? The word 'bitch' features prominently.”
Melissa’s eyes opened wide from her half zonked slumber, her mouth in a twisty smile. “Oh shit, I think this is actually going to be interesting.”
Dimitra waited in her rocking chair back on the porch while the Lamberts settled in and explored the house. No need to spend any more time in there than necessary. Hopefully George would pass away by Sunday. Rebecca had told her over the phone that the doctors said he had days at most.
It was probably a steal to them. One hundred and sixty thousand dollars and George would get a guaranteed spot in heaven. It sounded silly when said out loud. That Holloway House was some kind of back door into heaven, letting everyone who died under its roof up to paradise. Even if they were on the naughty list.
All it took were those first clients in the eighties. Then it became a perpetually expanding business. When the mega wealthy discovered other mega wealthy people were engaged in some type of elite practice, they coveted access. Even something as foolish as Dimitra and her back door to heaven.
She’d seen so many small rips in the world. Strange light seeping through. It always looked the same. Blissful, unending. Like all possible paths the mind could travel being traveled at once. She’d seen no God, felt no judgment. Just some other place, some different light.
Still, every now and again a fear would grip her heart. Fear that she would be judged. All those things inside Holloway House, sixty-seven to be exact, trapped. Allowed to peer out the windows of the house at that wonderful paradise that they would never reach. A cruel torture.
Dimitra shook the doubt from her mind. No. They'd lived well here in this world. They exploited the less fortunate in this world so that they may live like kings. Why should they get to have the next place as well? The exploited should have that place, people like her parents. George Lambert would make a fine addition to Holloway House.
She could get a few more oligarchs in before she got too old. Once it became difficult for her to climb stairs or if she were given some bad news from a doctor, then, she would pack her mounds of cash into her pickup truck and get as far away from Holloway House as possible. She wanted to be nowhere near that place when she died.
Jason Sabbagh lives in New England with his wife and two children. He loves writing fiction, and is currently seeking representation for his debut novel. Is this little aspiring-author-bio actually a shameless plea? Yes it is. Also, if you dig this story, he’s got piles more collecting digital dust on his hard drive.
A SPECIAL, SPECIAL THANKS TO THE JUDGES OF THE HAUNTED HORROR CONTEST:
Catherine A. MacKenzie's
writings are found in numerous print and online publications. She writes all genres but invariably veers toward the dark—so much so her late mother once asked, “Can’t you write anything happy?” (She can!)
She’s published two novels: Wolves Don’t Knock and Mister Wolfe. Two volumes of grief poetry commemorate her late son Matthew: My Heart Is Broken and Broken Hearts Can’t Always Be Fixed. She has also published other books of poetry and short story compilations, all available on Amazon or from her. Her latest publication is an anthology with 75 authors: No One Should Kiss a Frog. She’s also compiling stories for two anthologies about loss. Check her website for submission details - http://writingwicket.wordpress.com
Cathy lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
is a published poet and author of 25 published books. Her stories have been featured on the Kaidankai podcast and by Sweetycat Press, Ravens Quoth Press, Clarendon House Publications, Spillwords, and other publications. She served as Editor for Valkyrie Magazine. She was selected as “Best In Collection” 2023 by Ravens Quoth Press and she also won the Emerald Award for her poem “Dancing Girl” awarded by Sweetycat Press. She prefers writing horror but also writes science fiction, paranormal mystery and fantasy. She lives with her family in Florida.
is Deputy Director for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and Smithsonian Affiliations (SITES | SA), where she provides executive leadership and direction for overall planning, development, and management of SITES | SA programs and activities. She is currently leading the organization in the implementation of a new strategic plan to catalyze public engagement and spark learning, enjoyment, and wonder by connecting the resources of the Smithsonian to a vital network of museums and other educational and cultural organizations. Prior to this role, she served as the Deputy Director for Smithsonian Affiliations and Interim Deputy Director for Exhibits, Finance & Administration for SITES.
Bram Stoker Award nominated author and editor, Douglas Gwilym has been known to compose a weird-fiction rock opera or two. His short story "Year Six" is on Ellen Datlow's recommended reading list for Best Horror 14. He co-edits The Midnight Zone—forthcoming edition, Novus Monstrum, a collection of never-before-seen monsters, featuring original stories by greats, and new voices, in strange, dark fiction. He reads classics of the proto-Weird on YouTube and has been guest staff at Alpha Young Writers workshop. His short fiction appears in LampLight, Lucent Dreaming, Dark Horses, Shelter of Daylight, Tales from the Moonlit Path, Penumbric, Creepy podcast, and Tales to Terrify.
hosts the Kaidankai. She is a journalist and author whose fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in outlets around the world. One of her fondest memories is hanging out summers in a tree or in the back corner of the library reading ghost stories.