Copyright © 2009–2012 K. Udo Schuermann
All rights reserved
All people, places, and events in this story are fictitious and any resemblance to real people, places, and events are purely coincidental.
I was twelve years old when my parents rescued me from my uncle's house. I had nightmares for months. They never allowed me back there again and sent me riding that following summer, instead, then on a hike in Peru, and on a sailing trip in the Caribbean after that. The eight summers of carefree fun and exploration at my uncle's place became a memory, not an event in my life. For the ten years that followed, my uncle was not talked about; pictures of him disappeared. It was as if he had ceased to exist. But now, as I spent the week home before my last semester at college, and with my parents out of town as they so often were, I found among the daily mail a letter with my name on it. It was a thin and beaten envelope of silk-like, mint-green paper. The stamp was upside down, a corner of it creased and folded over. It had no return address but from the hand writing on the envelope I had no doubt that it was from him.
The precise curves of my uncle's handwriting formed tiny ridges of dried ink on the paper. It fairly gleamed in the light of the evening sun and asked me to open it. After a moment I did. Sunlight set the single sheet aglow:
My dear Charlie, I am sorry that I never had the chance to see you off after that big storm when you were twelve. I have no excuse and shall not attempt to give an explanation. Suffice to say that the night was a difficult one for me as well and I handled myself poorly. Your parents have never forgiven me for that, but perhaps you might.
I hope that you remember the summers here with some fondness and have not allowed that one bad night to spoil all the fun around the house and in the woods that we enjoyed. The tree house we built when you were five, it still stands and has grown higher. I dare say, it still seems sturdy enough and I actually thought to fix it up this past summer. But then I realized that you're not the little boy anymore who would take his flashlight, books, and blankets up into the tree and spend the night there reading and dreaming as you did so often.
But I did not write to reminisce about old times or even to ask for your forgiveness. Adele is dying. Don't ask me how I know this. She knows it, too, but your parents do not. Twenty years of separation do not change the fact that she and I are connected by more than a failed marriage. But that, too, is not why I write to you. I need to see you, to tell you something that I cannot put down on paper. I must tell you in person. What's more, I do not know how much time I have left, now that Adele's health is failing. Time may be of the essence, so I ask that you do not delay.
Your uncle Everett.
P.S. Directions are on the back.
Dazed I sat at the kitchen table, long forgotten memories rushing back to me of the many summers I had spent in my uncle's vast and secluded house. But how much had I forgotten and how much had I made up in those ten years? Surely there were no gods or devils caught in the ice at the bottom of my uncle's lake as he, in his stories, had always insisted. The lake, he had explained on the first evening each summer, reaches the bedrock of the world and back into a time before all memory. All the evils of ancient times were held captive there, chained in that depth for eternity. I had imagined these as great horned devils with bony wings and black, feather-winged snakes with leering women's faces, all of them caught up together in a crushing darkness that only the eyes of my imagination could penetrate. And one night they had risen from their black and icy prison and invaded my dreams.
I shuddered at the memory and lifted my eyes to the pines across the snow outside. For all the months I had spent at my uncle's place, that one night had redefined them all, the way a stained glass window recolors the world beyond. Only my stained glass window was sooty and dark, a symbol of a fear and terror etched across my past that should no longer affect me; one night out of hundreds it had been and ten years had passed since then; I was no longer a child. And yet, that one night held me in thrall and deep down I feared that it would hold sway over me for ten years more and perhaps, for all my days after that.
My eyes returned to the letter that lay in the sun before me. My uncle's words snaked across the paper, imploring me to go. After all he had done for me I owed him more than silence, perhaps, but I also knew that I owed myself much more than that. My fear was unreasonable, I told myself, and I had to put the past behind me, close that chapter, and move on while there was still time. But a gnawing fear held me immobilized in my chair. Was it mere cowardice or a sense of real danger, a danger beyond old memories, that constricted my throat and lay so heavy on my heart? How did his hand, from so far away, clench me in his grip like that? No, I dared not go, I dared not answer his call. Ten years had not made me stronger, they had merely served me to hide from what I had not understood and could not understand. All I knew was that I had been terrified beyond all reason. To stay away was all I had known to do and all that made sense in the end, even now.
I spun away from the table and turned my back on the letter. I had two days of classes remaining before the winter break. It was absurd to visit my uncle, to drive into the mountains in the winter, it made no sense. I yanked open the refrigerator and poured myself a glass of orange juice. He had no right to put such pressure on me, not after all these years of silence. So what if he felt betrayed if I refused to run to him. The memories of ten years ago were still with me today, after ten long years. There was no way I'd go back there. He was crazy even for trying. I stuffed the juice carton back in the refrigerator. My eye fell on a magnet on the door, shaped like a truck, a plumber's advertisement. When time is of the essence, call … I read the phrase a second time and then turned my head to the letter on the table. Should I call him, was that my way out? But no, I shook my head, I did not have his number and besides, I knew that I did not have the nerve to tell him directly that I would not ― could not ― come.
I spent the rest of the evening trying to watch movies but finishing none of them. As much as I tried to distract myself, my uncle's letter had unsettled me and I could think of nothing else. I ordered a pizza and raided my parent's liquor cabinet which I had done only once before. I hated the stuff now as much as before. I poured cola into whatever I had put in my glass and that made it better, though not by much. I went to bed around midnight but I couldn't sleep. I feared that the nightmares from ten years ago would revisit me. I was afraid that my uncle would be knocking on the door by morning. The house was full of movement and noises. A strange light glowed outside my bedroom window, which was on the wrong side of the room; I didn't actually recognize that until I woke up, and found that I had been dreaming.
When morning came I was exhausted. I ate a bowl of cereal, eying my uncle's letter where it lay. I wasn't sure what to do with it, but I was wary of it, and did not touch or move it. Shortly, I heaved my backpack over my shoulder and headed off to school.
The morning air was crisp and the sky, a deep and wintry blue. My feet crunched through a thin layer of ice and snow. I started my truck and backed it out of the driveway and turned towards campus. At the first light a truck crossed my path, racing through the intersection just before my light turned green. I caught the letters on the side of it and turned my head to watch it go. When time is of the essence, said the letters on the plumber's truck. I sat there, staring in disbelief. Someone honked behind me. I hit the gas.
Everything around me conspired to tell me that I was wasting time. I felt a pang of guilt for my refusal to go. How could I just blow him off when he had all but begged me to come? What if this was the chance for him to explain what had really happened and for me, to hear that I had merely overreacted and blown a simple thing completely out of proportion? Had I not thought last night that I owed myself a resolution? Did I not owe him the chance to come clean and put the matter finally to rest?
I took a right instead of a left turn towards the college, and made my way back home. Inside, I grabbed a few supplies, a thicker jacket, and my uncle's letter with his directions on the back. Soon after, I was on the road again. There was no helping it now. I was going to see my uncle after all.
✫ ✫ ✫
My uncle's house stands on a rocky promontory looking precisely east across Lake Blackstone which, according to him, is without bottom. It is encircled by mountains, overgrown by old and tangled forest. The slopes hide the valley and the lake away from the world. By way of an almost hidden, unpaved road, it takes an hour to reach it from a small, two-lane mountain highway. The drive to that road would take me eight hours.
When I was young, we had always left shortly after sunrise, stopping two or three times along the way, and reached my uncle's castle, as I used to think of it, by late afternoon or early evening. My parents would stay the night, then head home the next morning. And I would wake on many a morning there to watch the sun reaching through my shuttered windows, burning fierce lines into the opposite wall. I would throw the windows wide to feel the heat of those first rays against my face. A mist would often roll across the lake and sometimes, the whole valley. The house, so I would pretend, swayed then upon a sea of clouds and I captained it across the sky. And when that sea had boiled away and the winds ceased to lift the house, I would gaze into the black depth of the lake and, for just a moment, spy dark figures deep within. And then I would turn and flee downstairs where my uncle was making us breakfast.
I would spend my days in the woods, exploring streams and ponds, watching fish as they eyed me, and deer who kept me at a distance. Birds would wheel through the sky, seemingly oblivious to all. I climbed trees, imagined myself a mountain king, fought invisible invaders of my domain and beat them back to the fringes of my imagination. I built a float that did not hold together well, constructed a shelter that leaked, and improved both of these as the weeks went by. I was nearly bitten by an angry badger when I strove to dig out his burrow to see what lived down there, and been chased by a buck who took exception to my presence, but let me go when my panicked screams made it clear that I was neither a threat to him nor ever intended to come near him and his does again.
Those were the memories of my childhood summers, those and countless more. They had been nothing short of magic and I smiled at them as I steered my truck now onto the two twenty-seven north. My uncle had never restrained me from exploring, had listened to my stories with unending patience, and encouraged me in everything I did and tried. He had given me books to read, too, from Lovecraft, King, and Poe. He was especially fond of the first one and the last, sometimes reading them aloud to me as the fire crackled in the fire place. Thinking back to it now, I should have had more than just one nightmare, I suppose, but the books had less frightened than intrigued me at the time and I had read them in my tree house, too, by the light of a flashlight or the sputtering candles that I had managed to make for myself.
After an hour, I turned onto a smaller road that twisted its way into the hills. Patches of ice and snow had fallen from the overhanging trees, covering the glistening asphalt like ice floating near the arctic. In one turn I nearly spun out before I learned to take the corners with more care. By noon the patches of ice and snow grew denser on the road and soon became a solid cover. Driving became even more treacherous. I had to reduce my speed again and with that all hope faded that I would reach my uncle's house today.
I thought then of turning back and giving up on my ill-conceived trip, but I had come to prove to myself that the events of that one bad night had been no more than the fantasies of my overactive imagination, fueled by stories, and no more real than any sleeping dream I've ever had. My only hope was that I would not be arriving too late for whatever my uncle had urged me to hurry to him. And just then the trees opened up on my left and I caught a breathtaking view of a white valley and mountain side covered in bright snow. The road was straight; I slowed to take in the splendor for a moment. The beauty of it was reassuring and, having come this far, it only made sense to finish what I had started.
By early afternoon I stopped to fill up the truck at a small fuel station that seemed to have been there for a hundred years. The pumps were covered with rust and the wheels clicked as they turned languidly from one digit to the next. I went inside to buy a soda. The place smelled of tar and wood. An old, toothless man with a white, uneven beard stood leaning with his elbows on the counter, and stared at a small television set with the sound turned low. He straightened up and watched me pull a few bills out of my wallet and put them on the counter.
“No rush, lad,” he said with a distinctly Scottish accent. “That pump goes slower'n me.”
I nodded at him, wondering for a moment if it would take all day to fill my truck, but I left the money on the counter and asked, “Mind if I have a look around?”
“Look all ye like.”
Tall shelves lined the walls, two low ones between led to the back, where a door was framed by two vertical coolers. A third stood by the door, across from the counter, with soda and beer, and a few bags of ice at the bottom. I took a soda and wandered along one wall, studying the contents of the shelves. There was some of everything available in this place, but what caught my eye were the numerous black and white photographs that hung between shelves and wherever they found space. They showed powerful cars, shiny, and decked out for racing. Their drivers were tough guys standing proudly beside their gleaming machines. I wondered which of those had been the old man in his youth, but he had probably been old already when those cars were new.
A black Mustang, with obscenely wide rear tires and a bold number ninety-six on its doors featured in the majority of the photos. Its driver was always smiling at the camera except when looking elsewhere and caught unawares. And when I returned to the front I saw another picture of the same car at eye level by the door. On the hood sat a girl in tall, laced boots, arms hugging one leg, and chin resting on her knee. A strong breeze whipped her hair to the side and the camera had frozen it in place. The picture was shot too hard against the light, however; she was hardly more than a silhouette.
“Me granddaughter,” said the old man behind the register, “she took all the pictures.”
“Very nice photos,” I said, turning my head to watch him smile past me at the picture by the door. I went to check on the pump and heard it shut off just as I approached. I went back inside to pay and he asked where I was headed and then warned me that there was a storm coming and I shouldn't drive past dark. I thanked him and moments later, I was back on the road.
Soon the sky grew overcast and the first snowflake touched my windshield. But the storm held back and I did not have to use my wipers just yet. I negotiated the white mountain road with smooth precision now, guiding the truck with a sense of growing anticipation. After the next turn-off in my uncle's instructions, the road took me more steeply into the mountains. By four in the afternoon I passed a small town whose name I missed. In the rear view mirror I caught a receding sign that promised vacancy. I wondered whether I should have stopped and turned in for the night. But the next town could not be far, I thought, there was plenty of time to find another place.
But an hour passed and daylight began to fade. I had made almost forty miles since passing the vacancy sign and had encountered only a few single houses by the road side, no towns and no motels. If I turned back now I might reach the motel before it was completely dark, but what made me actually stop was a bright red car by the side of the road, a Mustang no less. It stood pressed against the icy embankment but still blocked half of my lane. I passed by it slowly, glancing into the cab, but it was too dark to see inside. I couldn't pass an abandoned car without ensuring that there was nobody inside who needed my help. It was also the perfect opportunity to turn around and head back to the motel I had passed earlier.
I pulled to a stop in front of the Mustang, as close to the embankment as I could, and cut the engine. With my coat in hand, I stepped out into the still and cold air. It seemed darker than a moment before and the silence wrapped the world around me like a blanket. I worked myself into my coat as I scrambled towards the red car, pulled up the zipper and put up my collar. A thick snowflake sailed across the road, soon followed by another. My breath clouded before me.
“Hello!” I called, feeling the need to announce myself to the diminishing light and the silent world around me. I expected no answer and received none. The hood of the Mustang was cold when I touched it. I trailed a finger across the red metal skin and brushed snow flakes off the driver's side window so that I could peer into the dark cab. It was empty, but on the driver's seat, I spied a small scrap of paper.
I found the door unlocked. The smell of cold oil and leather met my nose, mixed with the unexpected hint of a fragrance, as of spices and fruit. A cold breeze reached for the paper and turned it over. I snatched it up and read:
Headed west for Piny Vale, 1:35 PM
The letters were curly and the 'i' in Piny was dotted with a tiny heart. The hand writing and hint of perfume seemed to indicate that it had been a girl who had abandoned this car. But what kind of a girl drove a fiery red muscle car, I wondered, and wore enough perfume to linger in the car for hours? I glanced about the cab in hopes of finding a road map, but saw none. Still, if she had gone ahead, instead of back, then Piny Vale must be closer than the town and the motel I had passed some time ago. It would be better to keep going forward.
I dropped the paper back on the seat and shut the door. Back in my truck I turned on the headlights and drove on with the happy certainty that I would soon find a place for the night and should reach uncle Everett's place by noon tomorrow. Finding that car had been a stroke of luck. Too bad for the girl, of course, but her note had saved me at least an hour of driving tonight, and the same coming back this way in the morning. I hummed to myself as I swung the truck through each of the turns, my headlights sweeping back and forth across the road and the black trunks of trees on both sides. More snow flakes drifted through the beams of my headlights; it was high time to turn in for the night, but after ten minutes of this I had still not found a sign of Piny Vale. I was growing concerned that Piny Vale might simply have been more in the girl's interest to reach, and was not actually the closer of the two towns. Perhaps I should have picked the better known of two distances. But suddenly my headlights caught on a black, mottled thing scrambling by the side of the road.
For an instant I had the impression of a prowling animal, perhaps a bear disturbed from his hibernation. I stepped on the brake to slow the truck, partly out of curiosity but also to avoid colliding with the thing if it chose to leap across my path. As I approached, I saw that it was taller than a bear and not nearly as massive. And then it turned and my headlights caught a face framed by long, copper hair under a black hood. It had to be the girl from the abandoned car!
I slammed on the brakes and skidded to a halt not far from her and leaned over to unlock the passenger side door. She scrambled towards my truck and pulled open the door. For a moment she hesitated, peering at me out from under her massive black bear-skin coat, but the next instant she climbed inside, along with a rush of cold air, and pulled the door shut behind her.
“Thank you!” she breathed, her voice trembling and her words, slurred as if her tongue and lips refused to obey her. She succumbed to a coughing fit that lasted several seconds. When she had recovered, she reached up to push back her coat's black hood and shook out her long, red hair. I watched her unbutton her coat. It had seen much better days. It must have been a special gift because I could not believe that anyone would have chosen such a thing for herself. She turned her head and caught me staring.
“Thank you for stopping,” she managed to say, perhaps thinking that I had not heard her the first time. The words came out with some difficulty and I, slightly embarrassed, nodded quickly and said, “Yeah, sure, no problem.” I put the truck back in gear and got us on the road again, and she shrugged out of the big coat. A sweet scent filled my nostrils, matching her to the red Mustang with certainty. That fragrance drew my senses to her like a flame did to a moth. I could not stop glancing at her incessantly. She sat with her head back and eyes closed, taking slow, careful breaths, and exhaling steam into the warm air. After a minute she lifted her hands and wiped at her face. Her fingers came away wet with melted ice.
“I'm so frozen,” she said, her words still slurred. “My car broke down.”
“I saw it. Nobody stopped for you all this time?”
“People are staying off the road. There's a storm coming.”
I nodded. Traffic had been virtually non-existent. “Do you live in Piny Vale?”
“No, in Claymont,” she said and gave several coughs.
“How far is that?”
“Eight or nine hours in this weather.” She tried to suppress another coughing fit with limited success. When she had managed to regain her composure, I asked, “Did you really walk for almost four hours?”
“Four hours, no wonder I'm half dead,” she said, inhaling slowly and deeply. “You're not from these parts, are you?”
“What makes you say that?”
“For one, you don't know how far Claymont is, biggest town that way.”
“Okay, I'll admit that.”
“And two, you're surprised at how empty this road has become since they built the bypass to the south.”
“Alright, you got me,” I said, “I'm just passing through.” I gave her a cautious grin and then a shrug, but I couldn't make out her expression in the dim light.
“By the way,” she said, “I'm May, like the month.”
“May, really? My birthday's in May. My name is Charlie.”
“Nice to meet you, Charlie.”
“So where are you headed?” she asked.
“Visiting my uncle,” I said and, preempting the obvious follow up, I pointed ahead and added, “about four or five hours that way.”
“Four or five hours, huh?” Perhaps she was trying to guess in what town or village he lived, but after a few seconds she seemed to come up empty.
By this point my concern had been growing again over the fact that there was still no sign of Piny Vale. The turns were becoming short and tight, and I was not used to driving on a snowy, winding mountain road at night, with a snow storm about to descend on me. Had I missed a turn perhaps, while talking?
“How far is Piny Vale?” I asked, focusing strictly ahead.
“About twenty minutes from where my car broke down,” she said. “We should be there any minute.”
“Do they have a motel?”
“Yes, it's small, but you can't miss it. It's right by the road side.”
“Oh, good,” I said, breathing a silent sigh of relief. “I was actually going to turn around to that motel an hour back,” I said, “but then I found your car.”
“Oh, and you saw my note? Is that how you know about Piny Vale?”
“What, is my total ignorance printed on my forehead now?” She laughed softly and I added quickly, “But yes, your note convinced me to keep going.”
I shot her a glance but she was staring straight ahead. Her voice had been regaining strength steadily and her words were no longer so slurred, but in the deepening gloom I could see little of her and say no more about the rest of her condition. “You seem to know the area rather well,” I said after a moment.
“I grew up in Powder Hill.” She pointed backwards with her thumb. “My grandparents still live there.”
“Then you're headed home after visiting them?”
“Cool. So, what's in Claymont?”
“College,” she said.
“Do you like it?”
“It's alright, but yeah, I do. How about you?”
“I've one semester left at Whitehurst.”
“Ooh, nice place, I hear. Engineering?”
“Electrical engineering, yeah, but my parents are dead-set that I do my graduate work at Harvard.”
“I'm trying to convince them to pay for M.I.T.”
“No shit,” she said, “your parents can afford that?”
Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, I thought. Outside my usual circle of friends the tuition alone was probably a fortune. I must have sounded like a braggart. “Yeah,” I said, “I guess.”
“That's so cool.”
Just then the canopy of trees lifted and a measure of light returned to the world, along with Piny Vale, a roadside collection of small businesses and homes, rising mostly towards the right of us. I slowed the truck as May pointed to a glowing sign by the road ahead. It read Piny Vale Motel, but beneath it glowed another that said, No Vacancy. She cursed and said, “Pull up anyway!” I did and to my surprise she was out of the truck before I had turned off the engine.
I followed her, glancing for a moment at the five or six other vehicles that stood as if sleeping before each room's door. When I stepped into the office, a middle-aged, heavy-set guy in a dark green V-neck sweater just emerged from a back room.
“Sorry,” he said, shaking his balloon-like face, “but we're all full.”
“Is there another place in town?” I asked. He turned to me as if surprised at the notion. He shook his head. “You could try Elkridge,” he said. “It's about fifty miles east. They may have a room.”
“There's a storm coming,” said May. “It's bad out there and getting too dark to drive.”
“Sorry, ma'am, but we're all full.”
“Look, we'll take a storage room,” I suggested, “we'll even take the floor over there.” He actually glanced into the corner where I pointed, but then shook his head. “Can't let you do that, sorry.”
“Oh please,” said May, “we can't go out there again, we just can't. We really don't need much at all.”
He shook his head again.
“Is there no place where we can sleep tonight?” I asked. “We'll freeze to death in the truck!”
“Please!” added May.
He set his teeth and glanced down at the counter. It creaked softly when he leaned his weight on it with both hands. After a long, tense moment he sighed and looked up, glancing first at me and then at May. He shook his head but said with a tone of resignation, “Heat in one of the rooms is out and the hot water ain't working, either. But I have an electric heater you can use.”
We thanked him profusely and he gave us four blankets under which to keep warm and then showed us the room. It was tiny, with a single bed and a bulky television set with a tiny screen which seemed from another era. The lights did not work and, judging by the layers of dust on everything, the room had not had occupants in months at best. Whatever repairs it needed seemed to have been put off, perhaps indefinitely.
“It's fine,” I assured him and May nodded in agreement. “Thank you so much!”
And with that we were alone again. The only light came from the glow of a tired bulb somewhere outside our window. I rushed to bring what food I had from my truck inside. A few minutes later the proprietor returned with a small fan and an electric space heater, as well as a small lamp under his arm. “Fan's a bit noisy,” he said as he set the things up, “but it'll help circulate the heat.”
He studied us for a moment, then nodded and left. It was not long before the room was only just this side of freezing and slowly climbing towards comfortable. With any luck at all we'd be warm this night and for more than that we could not have wished under the circumstances. I asked May if she wanted to go for dinner, but she was still frozen through, she said, and in no mood to face the cold again. She insisted that she'd be fine and I should not feel obligated to keep her company. And so I gave her my supply of chewy granola bars and promised to bring something better back for her.
I left her unfolding the blankets on the bed and turned towards the office, but noticed a roadside diner some distance past it. I set out that way but then stopped and glanced back at the door behind which I had left May. After trudging hours through the snow, she needed a hot soup, not granola bars, I thought. Besides, she could get warm in a diner more easily than in a cold room under a pile of blankets. And so, I retraced my steps and went back inside. May was just in the process of rolling herself up in the blankets on the bed. In a rather comical struggle, bouncing and turning, she didn't notice me entering but suddenly she stopped and stared at me.
“There's a diner over there,” I said, trying to keep the grin on my face from spreading, “and hot soup will warm you up faster than thrashing on the bed like a seal.”
“I wasn't thrashing like a seal!” she protested.
“Hot soup,” I said undeterred, “it'll warm you from the inside out, come on!”
She still hesitated, so I motioned her to get a move on and when it was obvious to her that I wasn't going to back down, she nodded. “You're right,” she said and began to untangle herself. When she got up, I saw that she was wearing a black t-shirt but no pants. I turned away while she got dressed again. Finally she retrieved her monstrous black coat and a moment later we were hurrying side-by-side through the cold evening and the slippery snow.
Surprisingly the place was full, but we had to wait hardly a moment before we got a seat towards the back. It was no fashionable replica diner, the kind that popped up in or near shopping centers where I lived. No, this was an original from the time when my parents were young. If I looked closely under the seats and into dark and inaccessible corners, I was sure that I'd find dust that had been there for decades, held in place by a slow build-up of grease, and washed over, but never removed, by the sweep of old mops and ammonia laden water. But the place was clean where it mattered. A multitude of voices and occasional laugher drifted over the tunes from an unpretentious little jukebox in the corner.
I ordered a soda and fried chicken breast. May asked for hot tea and a large bowl of beef stew. When the waitress was gone, May smiled at me, showing me a row of perfect teeth. “Thank you,” she said.
“For dragging me here,” she replied. The smile remained on her face. She brushed back a copper strand of hair and something in her deep forest green eyes said that those were not just empty words.
“I interrupted your thrashing, are you sure?”
She rolled her eyes but her smile widened into a grin. “You're mean,” she said, obviously not serious. “So, tell me about this uncle you're visiting!”
“Not much to tell,” I said, unsure how much of it would actually interest her, and how much of it would come across as bragging again. “He has this house in the mountains,” I said, “It overlooks a lake. I used to spend my summers there but I haven't seen him since I was twelve.”
“Why not?” she asked, “did something happen?”
“Well, yes actually, I got really scared during a bad storm. For some reason my uncle wasn't around, so my parents came to pick me up. They never let me go back.”
“Because of a scary storm?”
I considered this for a moment but then I shrugged. “It wasn't just a storm, it was … I don't know, I ran around the place scared out of my mind, kind of like a waking nightmare. My parents were afraid that my uncle had been neglectful. He wasn't even around the next day when they arrived.”
“But now you're going back, and in the middle of a winter storm?”
“Well, he wrote me a letter asking me to come,” I said. My eye caught a bent-over old man in dark, woolen pants and a red and black checkered flannel shirt passing by our table. His imminent mortality echoed what my uncle had spoken of. Time is of the essence.
“Must have been some kind of letter,” said May, and briefly followed my glance. I nodded and, when she returned her attention to me, I said, “Yeah, he wrote that he might be dying. I don't know, but it sounded a little weird. My aunt is dying, he claims, and so he might be, too.”
“Old people often die soon after their spouse.”
“Actually she and my uncle divorced twenty years ago. My parents went to visit her. It's a little confusing, I guess.”
“Twenty years? And he thinks he's going to die, too?”
I shrugged. “That's what he wrote. But you said you grew up in this area and then you moved away?”
“Four years ago,” she said. “We moved from Powder Hill to Trent.”
“Powder Hill, that's where your grandparents still live, right?”
She nodded. “They're getting pretty old and with the semester over, I visited them for a few days before I start my job at the mall.”
Just then, and sooner than I had expected, the waitress appeared with our food. My chicken dinner turned out to be a sandwich with a side of French fried potatoes and a slice of pickle. I was hungry and decided not to make my mistake the waitress' problem. May smiled when she tasted her stew. After trudging for hours through the snow I could only imagine how good that warm stuff felt going down. As I ate my sandwich I watched May eating. With slow deliberation she chose just how to load up each spoon, and then pushed it into her mouth with a tiny smile that was almost indecent to witness. She caught me watching her and grew self-conscious.
“I'm sorry,” I laughed softly, “but I don't think I ever watched someone enjoy their food like you.”
“It's really good,” she said.
“I don't doubt it. It was just … I don't know, fun to watch you eat.”
She smiled and resumed eating, but now watched me watching her. The effect was not the same but I did not mind her eyes on me. After a minute I asked, “So what are you studying in college anyway?”
“Visual arts,” she said when she had swallowed again. “I'll probably focus on photo journalism.”
“Travel around the world and take cool pictures?”
“So where's your camera?” I asked as if expecting her to go nowhere without it. She said, “Actually, it's in the back of my car. I couldn't carry it along.”
“In the back … oh, you should have said, we could have gone back for it.”
“It'll be okay. Nobody on the road tonight, remember?”
I nodded. “So, what are you going to do about your car?”
She shrugged and glanced briefly out the window into the darkness, or maybe just at her reflection in the glass. “I'll check with a repair shop in the morning. Maybe they can get me back on the road tomorrow.” She gave me an uncertain smile before she turned her attention back to her bowl. “I'll probably spend the day wandering around and taking pictures,” she added. “It's a nice area.”
“Good plan,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, arranging another spoonful of stew. “When I got my first camera, I couldn't stop shooting. I took so many pictures!”
“What kind of pictures?”
“Oh, mostly of this guy I knew,” she said around a mouthful of food, “and his friends. They always wanted pictures of their cars.” She gave a small chuckle and shook her head. “If it weren't for girls, those guys would have married their cars.”
“Yeah,” she said, swallowing, “they spent all their time with their heads under the hood, tuning the engines, and polishing them, get every last smudge off, you know? Totally in love with those machines. And on Friday nights they raced each other on the quarter mile. Sean's best was thirteen point nine seconds, can you believe it?”
“Is that good?”
She laughed, seeming to come alive at last. “It's fantastic! Fifteen is good, and fourteen is amazing.”
“Now you know why they were so proud of their cars.”
“Did you race with them?”
“Me? Oh no!” she said, shaking her head. “I was fifteen. I didn't have a license. And no car.”
“Not even as a passenger?”
“Extra weight, you know?”
“But you wanted to?”
She grinned and then shrugged. “Sean let me drive his Black Stallion a few times, but I was afraid to wreck it. That kind of power is way too scary.”
“Black Stallion, was that a Mustang?” I asked, recalling the pictures at the old fuel station.
“Yeah, a sixty-eight like mine, only black.”
“Black, and with a number ninety-six on the side?”
Her eyes went wide. “Do you know him?”
“No, but I bet your grandfather runs a hundred year-old gas station about four hours back east.”
“Oh my God, you stopped there?” she gasped and leaned towards me with excitement written all over her face. “You saw my pictures?”
“They were awesome photos! I looked at every one of them.”
“I can't believe it!”
“So was that you, sitting on the hood of that Mustang in the picture by the door?”
“Yeah, Sean took that one,” she said, still staring at me with a measure of disbelief.
“Too bad you were only a silhouette.”
“Oh, but I made him turn the car that way,” she explained and sank back in her seat. She seemed just the slightest bit uncomfortable suddenly.
“I just don't like my picture taken,” she said and shrugged.
She turned her head to glance out the window again for a moment and said to the night, “I prefer to be behind the camera, not in front of it.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“Afraid?” She turned back to me with a frown on her face.
“You do know that the camera won't steal your soul, right?”
“Duh!” she said and leaned forward, to take up her spoon. She was beginning to reach the bottom of her bowl.
“So what is it,” I asked, “you're not pretty enough?”
“Yeah, something like that,” she said, not looking up.
“I'm just curious,” I explained. “My girlfriend, or ex-girlfriend actually, she didn't think she was pretty, either, but actually she was hot.”
“I'm not your girlfriend, Charlie.”
“I'm just saying, I'm trying to figure this thing out.”
“I've got my reasons, just leave it at that, okay?”
“You could be a model,” I blurted out but immediately felt stupid for saying it, not because it wasn't true, but because it seemed more than a little amateurish to pay her a compliment in this manner. In fact, she rolled her eyes and said, “Yeah, I get it: Flattery.”
“What about flattery?”
“Flattery gets you anywhere?”
“Oh,” I said.
“Don't push your luck, Charlie!”
I kept my mouth shut after that but she appeared more amused than irritated. By the time she finished her stew, she seemed to have forgotten about it. Both of us declined dessert and when it came time to pay, she snatched up the bill and paid it all, perhaps to keep me from getting the idea that I could push my luck with her after all. Don't spoil a nice evening, I told myself. This is much better than eating granola bars in an empty motel room fifty miles back east.
We put on our coats, said good-night to the waitress when she waved, and headed back outside. Thick snow flakes drifted lazily on the air. With the fall of night, temperatures had plummeted. I almost envied May for her monstrous black coat. My jacket was not nearly as warm as I imagined her coat to be. Indeed, I understood only now that cold weather back home was mild compared to this mountain winter. Even if the temperature was comparable, degree for degree, the air had a lot more bite here. Maybe it was the altitude, or maybe the humidity had something to do with it.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” I asked when we had nearly reached our room. My breath clouded in the air before my face and so did hers. She slowed to turn her head. “I guess,” she said.
“What's with that bear you're wearing? Did you hunt and kill it?”
She laughed. “My grandmother gave it to me a few days ago. It's too heavy for her, she can't wear it any more but I used to play with it when I was a little girl.”
“Oh,” was all I managed.
“It's hideous, isn't it?” she asked.
“I wouldn't call it hideous,” I said, wondering what better attributes I could offer if she asked.
“It's okay. In fact, I would have frozen to death this afternoon if I had worn my old jacket, so it's all good.”
“When I saw you by the road side I thought you were actually a bear.”
“You stopped to give a ride to a bear?”
I laughed and opened the door to our room. Much to our surprise, it was rather warm inside, especially compared to the air outside. May shrugged off her coat and dropped it on a chair while I knelt to adjust the heater. She said I could have the bathroom first, so I got what I needed from my duffel bag and headed into the bathroom to brush my teeth. There were none of the usual soap and other courtesy items. There were no towels, either, but we hadn't signed up for a regular room, I reminded myself. We wouldn't freeze tonight, and that was the important thing. May took the restroom as I got ready for bed. She came out wearing no more than she had earlier, undies and a t-shirt. She turned off the light and crawled under her set of blankets, next to me.
The yellowish light from outside seemed to fill the room despite the drawn curtains. It was quiet but the sound of my breathing seemed loud. I had been tired earlier from the long day driving but I wasn't tired now. In fact, I couldn't get my mind away from the fact that I lay, with only a blanket or two between us, practically pressed against this girl. She had to be aware of it, too, after that stupid thing I had said in the diner. But she was probably hoping that I'd just be quiet and let her sleep. Don't push your luck, Charlie.
The room was hot and under the covers it was hotter, still. I stuck my foot out, hanging it over the edge, and relishing what felt like cool air at first but the sensation did not last. So I pushed the blankets off my chest and finally pushed them towards the middle of the bed, between us. She sighed and turned onto her side, facing me. “It's too hot in here,” she whispered.
“Yeah,” I answered. “First we freeze, then we melt.”
“Are you tired?”
“Not really, you?”
“Then tell me about your car.”
“Umm, it's a Mustang?”
“You know what I mean. I haven't seen many girls driving Mustangs.”
“Oh, my sister gave it to me for a graduation present last August.”
“Nice. So the Mustang's because of those racer guys?”
She sighed. “Yeah, because of Sean.”
She didn't answer at once but then she said, “Yeah, but we had this problem with age, you know? I wasn't even sixteen yet and he was twenty when my parents found out … it turned into a big mess.”
“The Mustang was her way of saying that she understood how I felt.”
“That's really nice of her.”
“Yeah, she's cool. Compared to her I'm such a loser, though.”
She made a noise that I took to mean that she hadn't meant to say that but now she was committed to an answer. “She skipped her last year of high school and went straight to college,” she explained. “Then she graduated with honors after only three years, worked her way through law school, and got a job as a big time lawyer in San Francisco.”
“Well, that's great for her, but how does her success make you a loser?”
“Because my parents are holding her up like the light eternal, and they won't ever let me forget how I screwed up, that's why.”
“What, did you get pregnant?”
“No,” she said quickly, “I'm not that stupid. We … well, we got caught with booze and dope, making out in the backseat of his car in a church parking lot. How about that?”
“You made out in a church parking lot?”
She chuckled. “Yeah, we always laughed about doing it there. But when we got caught my parents wanted to send him to jail for statutory rape and drug possession and giving alcohol to a minor and all that. It was such a mess.”
“I can't even imagine.”
“They wouldn't let me go out with my friends anymore and treated me like a child for letting this big, bad predator take advantage of me.” She chuckled then and added, “But you know what's funny?”
“I kinda was still a child. I sure didn't feel like it, but thinking back to it now, I really was.”
“I guess that's funny,” I said, unsure if I could relate.
“I wonder how I'll feel in four more years,” she mused.
“So, your boyfriend went to jail then?”
“No, I forced my parents to give up prosecuting him.”
“You forced them?”
“I moved out.”
“I told them if they came after me I'd tell the police that they beat me.”
“My parents would have murdered me!”
“Yeah, well … It was a pretty stupid time, but they agreed to drop all charges if I moved back home. He took the blame for everything else.”
“The pot was mine.”
“God, I can't believe I'm telling you all this. I'm really not like that anymore, you know?”
“You don't seem so bad.”
“Well, at least I don't make out in church parking lots anymore,” she said and then laughed softly. “Now I take boys to motel rooms, instead.”
I wasn't sure how to respond to that. What was she suggesting, that I should try something with her after all? But she gave a nervous laugh and said, “I'm sorry, that was a stupid thing to say.”
“'s okay,” I mumbled, not sure if I should push my luck or had just fumbled the ball. The girls I had known didn't do drugs and they didn't make out in the backs of cars and especially not in church parking lots, of all places; they were respectful of their parents and would not dare to blackmail them; and they would not think of joking about taking boys to motel rooms, either. No, the girls I knew had a reputation to uphold; the guys did, too, because it was a competition for the top spot, not the bottom. This May was different, however, and though I was a little shocked at what she told me of herself, she was also unpretentious and that intrigued me. “So are you still seeing him?” I asked after a long, awkward moment.
“God, no,” she said, “My parents made me swear that I would never see him again. The whole mess went on for so long that it kinda ruined our friendship anyway. And three months later we moved away.”
“Yeah, well. Thanks. Like I said, it was a really stupid time in my life. I bet you've never put your parents through the wringer, have you?”
“No, the worst thing I've ever done was to come home with a girlfriend they didn't like.”
May chuckled. “So what was she like?”
“Oh, nothing like … nothing bad, I mean. She was living in an apartment with her mom and her little brother. It was really not that bad, but most people in school looked down on her because she didn't live in a real house and didn't have fancy clothes, and such.”
“So she wasn't rich enough for your parents?”
“You could say that, but what they really didn't like was that she didn't come from a whole family and didn't know much about art and music and such. My parents put a lot of stock in that.”
“Yeah, that's how my mom explained it.”
“That's tough. Your parents would probably hate me, too.”
“They'd probably like your sister, though.”
“Oh, but she's married already so you can't have her.”
I laughed at the thought and suddenly May's head was a large shadow growing in front of me. She missed my lips on the first attempt, kissing the side of my nose, instead, but then succeeded on the second try. My heart raced but she pulled back again. “That was for being a nice guy,” she said.
“Thanks, even though I was being stupid earlier?”
“When, in the diner? Oh, forget it. So what happened to your girlfriend?”
“Well, my parents told me not to see her anymore.”
“Your parents … and you dumped her, just like that?”
“No, no, I didn't. We kept seeing each other, just not where my parents would find out.”
“You chicken!” she laughed almost derisively. “I can't believe it!”
“Well, like I said, my parents would have killed me if I had told them to stuff it.”
“But you're still seeing her?”
“No, she met someone else.”
“Yeah,” she said after a moment, “I guess I would have, too.”
I said nothing. It was true, Kirsten had made up her mind and moved on, but I still felt the weight of giving in to my parents and giving her up. The fact that I had been unable to stand up to them continued to irk me, but I knew there was nothing I could have done except defy them openly. My father, especially, was not one to defy without consequences. I had to pick my battles with him carefully because he would not let me win many.
✫ ✫ ✫
By morning the room was still quite hot, but the memories of the cold outside made this far preferable to the alternative. I gave May one of my t-shirts as she had soaked hers; and while she was in the bathroom, changing, I changed my shirt, too. Feeling more comfortable again, we headed outside where more than a foot of fresh snow had added to the old. The sky was a crisp, clear blue and the morning sun set the world aglitter. We thanked the motel's proprietor who gladly took my money for the room, and then followed his directions to the local body shop. I offered May to stick around until she knew more about her car. She was clearly glad for the offer, but also concerned that I might not make it to my uncle's place today if I waited too long.
“I should have no trouble if I don't wait past noon,” I said, “so I have at least three hours.”
“Are you sure?” she asked and then, “really, really sure?”
I nodded, though I was not certain why I chose to delay my trip for her. Perhaps it was no more than the perfume that still clung to her, but it seemed wrong ― or maybe just sad ― to wave good-bye and turn my back on her.
And so, the two of us sat next to George in his dirty green tow truck, whose hood was a different shade than the rest of it, and headed east to tow May's bright-red Mustang back to Piny Vale. The whole maneuver took less than an hour and while George inspected the car, May and I went back to the diner for breakfast.
Both of us ordered the same thing, scrambled eggs, bacon that dripped with grease, and fried sausages. The toast was soaked in butter, the jam came in little foil-covered plastic packs and the waitress, a different one from last night, addressed us both as, “honey”. It was a good breakfast, all things considered, and May asked me to tell her something fun.
So I told her about visiting Inca ruins in Peru, sailing in rough sea in the otherwise blue Caribbean, and those long-ago summers at my uncle's house; she was impressed with my adventures. I had never taken them as the extraordinary experiences that they really were, until now that I sat across May in this busy little diner over bottomless cups of coffee and saw the wonder in her eyes. So many of my friends had visited the south of France, spent a summer in Shanghai, or gone places that May had never seen. It was refreshing to recount my experiences to someone who wasn't merely competing against my travels with his own. She listened attentively; she soaked it up.
The waitress refilled our coffee six times before we braved the cold again. George and his brother were discussing the situation with her car and, when they saw us approaching, stepped around the red body. Their faces did not look promising.
“It's your head gasket,” said George. “One of the cylinder heads is probably cracked.”
“Ouch,” I mumbled. I was no expert in cars, but even I knew that this kind of thing did not bode well.
May cursed under her breath and asked, “Can you pressure test the head?”
They glanced at each other and then nodded in unison. “Sure,” said George, “but it'll take time.”
She nodded and shot me a look. “I guess that's it, then, Charlie,” she said. “I'll be stuck here for a few days.”
“Maybe longer,” said George's brother, “if we have to order a new one.”
“And how long would that take?”
“Three or four days, maybe a week.”
“Sorry, lady, parts for a '68 Mustang aren't too common these days. I'll make some calls around but I can't promise anything.”
She nodded grimly and stared at the ground for a moment before taking in a deep breath. “Will you take good care of it for me, until I can come pick it up? It has big sentimental value.”
“Sure thing. We'll check the whole thing out, make sure she runs good as new.”
“Thanks,” she said and then turned away. I followed a few steps behind. She stopped after a dozen paces and I stopped next to her. She stared straight ahead for a moment and then took another deep breath and lowered her eyes to the ground before her. “I wouldn't ask this of you under other circumstances,” she said, “but would you give me a lift in the direction of Claymont?”
“It's west from here, along this road, right?”
“Not a problem,” I said. “I'd like to stop by my uncle's place to make sure he's okay. Then I'll drive you to Claymont.”
She snapped her head around, eyes wide with surprise. “What? No, you don't have to do that. I can hitch a ride or take a bus the rest of the way or get some ―”
“You just hitched a ride, May. Let's go!”
I started but paused when she wouldn't move. She stared intently at me for a long moment and then shook her head, saying, “You're too nice, Charlie, you know that?”
I shrugged. I felt both the hero and the fool for insisting to play the chivalrous knight, delivering the damsel in distress from her plight and even drive her all the way home. I could not have denied her request, of course, as it was simple enough to grant. Talking with her was easy, our conversation just seemed to flow. I enjoyed every minute that I spent with her and actually looked forward to the ride. So long as we checked on uncle Everett first, there was no harm in driving her the rest of the way home, too.
So, we carried her two suitcases from the Mustang to my truck and stowed them behind the seats, filled up the truck, and then we were off.
“So tell me,” said May before Piny Vale was gone in the rear view mirror, “what does your uncle do?”
“I don't really know. As far as I know, he does nothing, at least not during the summers. He just … hangs out at his house.”
“Does he have a garden? Any animals? Is it a farm?”
“It's a pretty big house, actually, but not a farm house. He doesn't even have pets. He just lives there.”
“I wish I could live like that,” she said, staring out the side window at the trees rushing past, but I did not agree. Most people think of idleness as some sort of goal by which to define their life's ambition. They want nothing more than to retire one day and, when they finally do, they're mildly surprised and perhaps even resentful at the fact that they simply rust and fade away, devoid of purpose like a discarded tool. Neither of my parents fell into that category; I could not imagine them idle. My uncle was not the type, either, I thought, but I could not be sure of that: What if, for eight summers, I had been his sole purpose and over the past ten years he had thus declined rapidly?
A car passed us, going the other way. The driver raised his hand in greeting and I returned the gesture. It was something that my father had told me from the time when he and a friend had spent their summer months traveling. Always make friends with people, he had said, it costs you nothing to smile at a bum in the street or a cop by the roadside. You never know when your car breaks down and that toothless local in his beat-up pickup truck comes by and remembers the simple fact that you acknowledged his existence a few minutes back.
We passed the hours chatting about our parents, life styles, dreams, friends, places we've been and where we'd like to go. There was never a pause in our conversation and no end in sight to it, either. It wasn't some urgent desire that drove me to ask questions of her, but an unhurried exchange that flowed without any effort at all.
At one point I slowed down for a turn again and had to slam on the brake and pull over to the side. A big fuel tanker came the other way, crawling along the road with three cars stuck behind him. I let them pass before pulling the truck back on the road.
We stopped for a late lunch at a small burger joint by the road side, but did not take too long. Much as on the day before I had somewhat overestimated my rate of progress on these wintry roads. By three in the afternoon we reached the next turn-off that my uncle had mentioned. The unnamed road was smaller than the one we had been on for most of the day and it headed steeply upwards, towards the north-west.
It didn't look like we'd make it to Claymont today, but instead of choosing to get out and hitch a ride, May said that if I were really willing to drive her tomorrow, she'd prefer my company to that of a random stranger. And so, it was just over an hour before we came to the old stone bridge that I remembered so well. In the summer, yellow blossoms reached over the worn, mossy stone railing, swaying on long reeds in the breeze. It had marked the last stretch before the lake and my uncle's house. “Almost there,” I said, estimating about thirty minutes. But the steep road was tricky in the snow and it took almost another hour. The day was fading when we rounded a corner to begin the very last climb. Moments later the house appeared over the ridge. White-capped towers caught the last of the sun as the light fled up the mountain sides and faded into the evening.
When we finally topped the ridge and the whole of it lay revealed against the backdrop of the lake, May gasped softly. “My God, Charlie, are you a Rockefeller or something?”
“No,” I laughed, “not even close.”
It rose against fiery clouds, two storeys tall beneath a steep and complex copper roof. Four stone towers held up the sky, and gargoyles watched from the roof lines our slow approach. The shadows of impending night already clung to the dark stone walls; the dark windows revealed no light within.
At age twelve a great house or a palace is just a big house. It is what it is, large, impressive, beautiful, and majestic. Going there every year had simply kept it in my mind as the magical home of my uncle, the place where I had made my own bow and arrows to try catch a fish in a small creek; the place where I had tracked deer through the forest all day, and been confronted one day by a buck who had pursued me for a few dozen paces before letting me go. I had watched black bears fighting, eagles hunting, and imagined myself a legendary tracker in the endless woods of a primeval world. My uncle's house had never been an anachronism in that world, but it had also never struck me as the palace that it really was, standing there like a vast and dark enigma in the evening gloom, and reaching in silence for the fading blue above. It could be home to a dozen people with ease, or a hundred if need commanded it. I had never questioned the fact that it was home to my uncle alone.
I felt May's eyes on me the entire rest of the way, but the light was fading quickly now and the snow-packed road was rough, and unclear in the fading light. I had to concentrate not to lead the truck astray. It was not until the building already towered above us that I considered the possibility that the lack of lights inside or out meant that my uncle might not be at home. Was aunt Adele dead and had he died, too, as he had intimated that he might? Their connection seemed mysterious to me, and whether it was true or not, he had believed in it completely. Who knew what the heart and mind would do when such belief was utterly unquestioned? If he had received a call from my parents that his wife from twenty years ago was dead, might he not have died on the spot as well, believing that to be his inescapable fate?
I stopped the truck before the wide stairs which led up to the heavy, ornate wooden door, and cut the engine. The stairs were free of snow, which meant that he must have cleaned them off sometime after this morning. May was peering up at the house. I could not read her expression, but knew from her initial reaction that she could not be less impressed now than when she had first seen the place. After a moment she turned her head to meet my eyes. “Do you think he's home?” she asked.
“Let's find out!”
A brisk wind almost yanked the truck's door out of my hand when I opened it. All the warmth got sucked out of the cab in an instant. May gave a little shriek. I grabbed my duffel bag and the nearest of her suitcases from behind the seats, then threw the door shut again. She followed me with the other suitcase. We raced up the stairs and to the front door, where we dropped the bags and I rang the bell. She stood watching me, shivering in the cold wind, with both arms in front of her together and her balled fists under her chin. On impulse I tried the door and found it unlocked. We dragged the luggage into the dark foyer and then I threw the door shut against the cold and the wind.
It was dark inside and gloomy, and it smelled as I remembered it, of old wax and pine and the smoke of a thousand fires in the hearth. It was silent, much like on the day that my parents had picked me up for the last time, with my uncle nowhere in evidence. With the passage of the years the stair and wood-paneled walls seemed to have grown darker; the multitude of oil paintings, less bright; but the great chandelier overhead hung as it always had, the day's last light reaching through the window above the door and gleaming in the stones.
I cleared my throat and called my uncle's name. I called it twice more but there was no answer.
“Maybe we should leave,” suggested May, but I shook my head. “No, he knows I'm coming. Besides, we have nowhere to go.”
“The whole house is dark, Charlie.”
“Doesn't matter. I know the place.”
The house was cool but not cold. If my uncle had left the place behind or died ― as I began to fear that he really might have ― it could not have been earlier than this morning: At the least he had cleared the porch stairs and entrance way of last night's snow.
I made for the kitchen first, with May holding onto my sleeve the whole way. I could almost picture her casting fearful glances this way and that. By any standard my uncle's house was a castle on a lonely mountain lake and, seemingly dark and abandoned, was the closest thing to a haunted house that this modern life could offer. No doubt my familiarity with this place stood in marked contrast with her lack of comfort in a strange and unknown place. What dangers lurked around each dark corner, what might be found in the nooks and crannies, unlit and never seen before? I took her hand and pulled her closer. She did not resist when I put my arm around her shoulder. Moments later the kitchen opened up before us. The only light came from the wide windows at the far wall, beyond which hung a few faintly glowing clouds high above the lake, catching the last hints of the sun.
For a moment I took in the whole of it, the silence, the growing darkness, and the sense of abandonment. Where was he, where was my uncle? And why was the house dark and cold? I sighed and turned to May who was watching me uncertainly. “Maybe he's upstairs,” I suggested and then added, “I hope he's okay.”
The ornately carved fireplace in the kitchen was five feet wide, and the stone shelf above it, nearly at eye-level. I found kindling and matches, and a few logs. Soon I had a blazing fire which would heat most of the house from here, though a few secondary fireplaces could add their heat in supplement. In a cupboard were several lanterns. I assured myself that two were filled, and lit them with a long match. I gave one to May so that she, with her own light source in hand, might feel more in control of her fate. We set out to show her around the ground floor, looking for any signs of my uncle. Back to the grand foyer, I showed her how the dining, reading, and the game room were laid out on the south side of the house, and how to reach the kitchen once again from there. The rooms were spacious, no doubt, and the ceilings grandiose, but on the whole it was not a space in which to get lost, and there was no sign of my uncle.
With our lanterns in hand, we ascended the wide, carpeted stairs and arrived on a small landing that spilled directly into a dark corridor. It led to the left and the right. My room was just to the left across the way and when I swung the heavy door wide I found the spacious room as I had always remembered it. The sturdy desk where I had written letters to my parents stood under the window as always; beside it towered the old wardrobe and the crowded book shelf. Across from these, my bed was still covered with the same dark blue, stars-and-moons blanket that my uncle had given me when I had come to visit him for the very first time.
“My room,” I explained, perhaps unnecessarily. “It's just like I remember it.”
“I like it,” said May. “How many years did you say it's been?”
“Ten years last summer. Let's try the room next door for you.”
When I was younger I had explored all of these rooms, even my uncle's when he was elsewhere. I had crawled into store rooms, climbed into the spaces beneath the roof, even the tiny ones under the tower caps. I was surprised, therefore, when I opened the door to the large eastern suite and found it completely changed from the formal austerity that had always been its character. After a moment May pushed past me to see what had brought me to a dead stop. The walls were densely covered with framed black and white images of race cars, old Formula One by the looks of them. Most were photographs, a few were hand-drawn. Over the large, four poster bed hung a huge, gorgeous image of a dark, gleaming Formula One with a big thirty-one on its narrow hood. The profile of its tires was a blur and it leaned into the corner, seemingly just missing the camera. Behind it, out of focus, a forest stood laced in mist.
“Oh my God,” said May, stepping into the center of the room and turning slowly to take in the whole of the room. “You should have told me your uncle is into racing!”
“I didn't know,” I admitted. “I never saw these before.”
After I had spent eight summers at this place, I had thought I knew my uncle, but now I wondered what other surprises he held in store. I cast a glance back at the hallway and the stairs that led down. He had always greeted us when we had arrived, standing on the front steps and waving with a big smile as we approached. I feared that we might find him ill or even dead. If only I heard a door and steps somewhere, I'd know that he had merely fallen asleep and missed our arrival. Instead, I loathed to begin the search for him in earnest because I did not want my fears confirmed. It was better to delay a few minutes, perhaps, before it could not be helped to confront the truth, however unwelcome it might be.
And so, with no small wonder at the room's unexpected transformation, I watched May as she made her rounds from one picture to the next. She gave each her full attention, not unlike myself when I had examined her photographs which her grandfather had put up all over his store.
“Charlie,” she said, waving me closer. “Check this out!”
It was a small photo, black and white like all the others, but instead of a race car it was a black stallion with a white and black spotted rump, rising on his hind feet. His mane was flying and his teeth, bared. It was a powerful animal, caught in a moment of pure strength and beauty.
“Gorgeous,” I said, nodding with appreciation. She agreed but pointed at something beneath the horse's belly in the distance. I leaned closer and saw a lake and at one end of it, a great house.
“Do you think it's this house and this lake?” she asked.
It certainly seemed that way to me and I told her so. The photograph must have been taken high up from one of the southern slopes which, as far as I remembered, were densely grown with trees. And how had he found a horse there, I wondered. The animal was not saddled and wore neither bit nor bridle. “Are there wild horses in these parts?” I wondered.
“No idea,” she admitted, continuing to stare at the picture. Suddenly her eye brow shot up and she smiled. “A mustang,” she said. “Of course. Hey, do you think I can have this room tonight?”
“I don't see why not,” I replied. “If I didn't know any better, I'd say my uncle decorated it for you.”
She grinned. “I think I like your uncle already!”
“Yeah, but listen, I'm getting kinda worried. We really should go look for him.”
“Oh sure,” she said at once. “I can look at these later.”
She followed me back out into the hallway, past my room, and around the corner to my uncle's suite. For a moment I hesitated, then rapped on the door. There was no answer. I cleared my throat and called his name, then knocked again. Only silence answered us. I took a deep breath and tried the handle. The door yielded and I lifted my lantern to light the way inside.
My uncle's suite faced north, a fact to which I had never given a single thought until now. Why had he not chosen for himself the much brighter and often warmer southern suite? And what had he done with this room in the years that I had not returned? The spacious room had once been decorated with chairs and small tables on which had lain books or magazines, even a chess board with some game in progress; there had been an easel I recalled that had never held a canvas; there had been a couch along one wall, a picture above it in a baroque gold frame, but whose banal subject matter I no longer recalled. Now the room was crowded with stands for suits, primitive mannequins of a sort, headless and each balanced on a single pole. There were several dozen of them and by the light of our lanterns their shadows moved about the room as we weaved our way through their midst and to my uncle's bed.
For a moment I thought I saw him lying there beneath the sheets, but it had been only a trick of the light. The bed was empty and untouched. May came to stand beside me. I said, “I was afraid we'd find him dead there in his bed.”
She stroked my arm and squeezed my shoulder in sympathy. “Maybe he's gone out for a walk,” she suggested, but the thought of him wandering through the snow and deepening gloom inspired in me no comfort. We turned as one to leave but collided instantly with several of the coat stands behind us. Their arms flew high as if flailing for balance and then they went crashing to the floor. The first took down a second one, and the two brought down others, and these, in turn, took down more. Amidst the sudden chaos we both stood frozen until the noise and motion subsided. After a long and terrifying moment, silence returned at last.
May let out a shaking breath and whispered, “I'm so sorry!”
I shook my head. When I had approached my uncle's bed I had taken several steps beyond the last of the coat stands, I thought, and I didn't think we had backed away from the bed, either. But maybe the unsteady light from our lanterns and the shadows among the strange assemblage had played tricks on my perception. “Let's get out of here,” I suggested and, gripping her hand, pulled her after me towards the door.
“Shouldn't we fix them up?”
“Later,” I replied. We had to step across several of the fallen coat stands before we reached the hallway again. With a last glance into my uncle's suite, I pulled the door shut. It seemed that a weight dropped off my shoulders then and a tension that had gripped me, fell away. “Let's just look into every room,” I suggested, “until we find him.”
“Yeah,” she said, her voice still betraying how unsettled she was from the chaos we had precipitated.
And so, continuing to call his name, we made our way from one room to the next, checking in the baths and store rooms, as well as the suites and all the bedrooms. Every room was immaculate, giving every appearance of being ready for immediate occupancy. But several of them were also filled with the same haphazard collection of coat stands which, on the whole, seemed rather puzzling. What was my uncle up to, decorating one suite with images of race cars and filling other rooms with a confounding array of coats. Some of them seemed period pieces and I began to imagine that my uncle's house had become a repository for a theater company, or a movie set. May laughed when I voiced my ideas and nodded. “This place would make a great movie set,” she said.
We found no sign of him anywhere on the upper floor. The only places we had not yet visited were the cellar and the towers. May suggested we check those, too, as it seemed increasingly likely that my uncle would be found in one or the other, though I was afraid of what that might mean. We returned to the kitchen and, with lamps swinging, made our way past the cellar door, down deeply worn, uneven steps and past narrow, bare rock walls into the stuffy cold that awaited us below.
I'll admit freely that if May hadn't been with me I would have lacked the courage to take more than a few steps into the darkness that awaited us there: the light from our lanterns seemed unable to penetrate much further than my outstretched hand could reach; the darkness was like a thick, resilient fog, tangible like an ethereal blanket that sought to envelop us. I turned to reach for May's hand. She gripped it at once, as grateful for my presence as I was for hers.
We reached the cellar floor, arriving in a convoluted space, full of shelves that lined the walls from floor to the oppressively low ceiling, and formed two narrow passages leading away from the stairs in opposite directions. I called my uncle's name several times but received no answer. With a doubtful glance at May I started down one passage, but she squeezed my hand and pulled me back. “What if we get lost down here?” she asked. I glanced about and nodded. “Good point,” I admitted. “Let's find some rope.”
For several minutes we searched through myriad boxes filled with tools, inscrutable pieces of metal and other hardware; there were dusty toys, old shoes, fur hats with illegible, handwritten labels attached; I found several boxes filled with hammers of every style and shape and another containing screw drivers. There were bottles sorted by color, stacked lamp shades, collections of glasses and cups, old magazines I had never heard of, and several boxes filled with pine cones, smooth rocks, and what looked like thin, dried grasses carefully bound into small bundles. Then May called out in triumph, producing a ball of hemp rope. She pulled another out of a box, both bearing a small tag that claimed a length of fifty yards. We took one each, tying the first to a shelf near the door and then, letting out rope behind us, we set off down one passage.
We moved slowly at first, cautiously, and full of uncertainty. When I had explored the cellar as a child, it had seemed busy, but not so oppressive, not as constricting as it was now. Even breathing the air seemed difficult now and with the weight of endless rows of boxes pressing down on the shelves between which we squeezed, the cellar seemed more akin to catacombs than mere storage.
We reached the end of the first rope and tied the next one to the end of it. Despite the oppressive air we had overcome some of our discomfort. I called out my uncle's name from time to time but received no answer. By the time we exhausted the second rope, too, I had only a vague idea where we were within the cellar's confines and was glad for May's foresight. We tracked back along the rope some distance and advanced through another branch, and kept this up until we came to a spot where the far end of our rope was tied to a shelf. Both of us stood puzzled at the sight because there was no sign of the stairs nearby.
May bit her lower lip and frowned at me, but she held her silence. “Let's follow the rope back,” I said, hoping to sound decisive and more sure of myself than I was. I squeezed past her to take the lead again. She held onto my jacket as I took up the rope in large loops. When we reached the point where the rope was tied to the shelf I cursed. We had not yet come to the point where the two ropes were connected.
“Charlie,” whispered May. She stepped close to me and clung to my arm with both hands. “I don't like this,” she said. Her voice shook.
I saw us already erring through these pressed and laden passages until our lanterns failed. We'd crawl in total darkness after that, never finding the stairs and eventually even losing each other. We'd be all but buried alive, cold and alone. Panic gripped me. I dropped the rope. “Come on,” I cried urgently and pulled her along behind me. Heedless of the shelves I crashed past rows of boxes that protruded from the shelves. Their contents rattled and shook. Holding onto my sleeve, May rushed after me. We turned a corner and then another. And there, to my surprise and relief, were the stairs!
I felt like an idiot, like a child who had been frightened by his own shadow and needlessly spread his panic to everyone around. We scrambled up the stairs as quickly as we could and emerged panting into the unlit kitchen. I turned and slammed the door shut, then threw my weight against it with exhaustion. I burst out laughing.
“You shit!” gasped May, scowling at me. “You scared me half to death!”
“But that was ―” I began. She cut me off. “That wasn't funny, dammit!”
“It wasn't meant to be!” I protested.
“Right,” she said sarcastically. Had she not noticed that the first piece of rope had vanished, that we had somehow returned to the vicinity of the stairs on only the second piece of rope which had somehow come undone from the first and become attached to a shelf? I tried to explain that to her but she shook her head and refused to listen. “I thought I could trust you,” she interrupted me. Her words hurt.
“Well, there's no way I'm going down there again to get that rope and prove it to you.”
“Fine, I believe you,” she said in a tone that meant she just didn't want to argue the point any further, but I felt slighted and my integrity insulted. Even if I returned to the cellar and retrieved the rope she would probably think I had disconnected the two pieces on the way up again. I had no way to redeem myself, so I pushed away from the door in frustration and made my way past her, back to the grand foyer. I stopped when I saw May's suitcases and my duffel bag waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs. If I carried upstairs only my own, would she understand that I was angry because she had wronged me or would she think even worse of me? Was it worth putting that to the test? Was there a point to it at all?
I sighed just as May approached with her lantern, so I took the handle of my lantern between my teeth and took up my duffel bag and then both of her suitcases, too. She was beside me, reaching for one of them but I made no move to give up either of them. I reveled in my bitter pride as I carried the luggage up the stairs and deposited hers before her door. Then I took my lantern in hand and pushed past her without a glance. She followed me silently as I went to my room, but I kicked the door shut behind me without turning around, set the lantern on the floor by the door, and threw my duffel bag onto the bed and myself, beside it.
I forced my thoughts away from May and back to the more pressing matter of my missing uncle. My visit had not gone at all the way I had envisioned it. That, and what had happened in the cellar, had unsettled and robbed me of all the confidence that I had started with. I shouldn't have come, I told myself, I should have stayed at home. But now that I was here, where was he and what was I to do? I had never known him to behave mysteriously, but in his letter he had hinted at something that he could not tell me in writing. Had he really intended to tell me of that? Did he resent the fact that I had not come alone? Was he hiding from me because of May?
There came a knocking from the door. I sighed and got up to answer it. There stood May, of course, with her lantern, looking anxious. “I'm sorry,” she blurted, “it's just my nerves. You scared me down there.”
I nodded, not feeling mollified, but somewhat less peeved.
“Please don't be angry with me,” she said.
“I didn't do anything,” I said. When she didn't reply, I shook my head and turned away, but I left the door open. “You're not going to believe me anyway,” I said, stepping to the window and staring at my reflection in the glass.
“Charlie?” she said from the door.
I turned my head a little away from the glass and asked across my shoulder, “What?”
“I just got scared … this huge, empty house … and your uncle not showing himself and all that …”
I couldn't blame her for that, I really couldn't. She was a stranger here and I, hardly more than a stranger to her, too. In fact, now that I thought about it, she probably didn't feel exactly welcome here, what with finding the house cold and dark, my uncle being missing, and the rooms filled with strange collections of costumes that we managed to knock down, too. And what exactly had happened down there in the cellar anyway? Had I remembered wrongly where I had tied the rope? Had I simply missed the knot connecting the two ropes? And had she not a right to think I had tried to scare her? To be sure, I had loved to scare Kirsten to hear her shriek and then throw herself at me in mock anger. Perhaps I had tried subconsciously a similar ploy, only this one more elaborate? And so what if she thought I had tried to scare her but I had not? It wasn't the kind of misunderstanding that would get me kicked out of school or worse. Was there any point to being angry, had I anything to gain from it?
I turned away from the window and leaned against the sill to regard May who still stood in the doorway. She looked miserable and somehow that look did more to blow aside my bruised feelings than all my rationale. I nodded at her and when I moved forward and opened my arms, she came towards me, too. We ended up hugging each other tightly and for a long time, too. At last, I asked into her shoulder, “Are you hungry?”
“Starving,” she replied. We let each other go and she gave me a smile, a small and shy one. I suspected that she had been more than just a little terrified down there. I felt bad for letting my pride get the better of me. I should have been playing the host and treat her like a guest, not like an unwelcome appendage. I felt a pang of guilt for that and said, “Let's see what kind of treasures we can find in the kitchen.”
I was not surprised to find the refrigerator fully stocked, but May gasped when she saw all that we had to choose from. There were two or three cartons of eggs, milk, several different juices, an assortment of cheeses and meats, a large number of bright steaks, at least half a dozen chicken breasts, several varieties of fresh vegetables in the crisper, and even a bottle of white wine.
“You know,” said May after a moment, “for a guy who supposedly lives alone, he has an awfully big house, keeps it amazingly clean, and sure stocks his refrigerator excessively.”
“You're right,” I said. “I never really thought about that when I was younger.”
“Does he give big parties? Does he have help with the place?”
I shook my head. I had never considered how he maintained the food stocks, for example, or kept the place so clean and orderly. It was a mystery to which I had no answer. “I never saw anyone else here,” I admitted, “but I suppose there could be times when he had cleaning help show up. How about steaks?”
“Are you sure?”
“I spent entire days out in the woods,” I said. “They could have come and gone without me knowing.”
“No, I meant the steaks. Are you sure he wouldn't mind?”
“You're right, we better not touch anything. He might starve to death if we deprive him like that.”
She laughed. “Then I'd love to have steaks!”
I had spent enough times watching steaks being cooked on a grill to know the basic principles even if in my uncle's kitchen we'd have to use a pan instead of a grill. May boiled us two potatoes and cut some tomatoes, too, while I seared the steaks and then let them finish on a lower flame. The great fire had by now succeeded in warming the house enough that we dispensed with our coats and less than half an hour later we carried a makeshift dinner through the grand foyer to the dining room. Both of us stopped short in the entrance, however. “Oh my God,” gasped May beside me.
On the table stood a candelabra with three calmly burning candles. The table was set for two, not three; my uncle's customary place was not set. Two wine glasses stood ready to be filled from a bottle that had already been opened, and beside each plate stood a small, elaborately carved wooden box. The presence of these things could mean only one thing: He was about, and though he was hiding himself from us, my uncle was not angry that I had arrived with company.
May leaned close to me and whispered, “Where is he?”
“I don't know,” I whispered back.
“Why doesn't he come out and just say 'hello'?”
I had no answer to that, either. In truth, May's comment about the huge and empty house, the cleanliness of everything, and the unreasonably well-stocked refrigerator had already prompted me to re-evaluate what I knew about my uncle, though I had no idea what to make of these facts as yet.
After a moment I started forward, making for the seat I had always taken. I glanced at my uncle's empty place, puzzled that he had chosen to set the table for May and I, but still failed to join us. What did he hope to achieve by this, I wondered. I glanced back at May who remained standing in the entrance, but now stepped forward and set her plate down across from me. Before we sat, she met my eyes and shook her head slowly.
“I don't know,” I said. “I have no idea what he's up to, but we should eat before the food gets cold.”
Both of us were hungry, but we kept eying the dark space around us, expecting my uncle to emerge from the shadows at any moment; I listened for noises of his approach and hoped for an end to my tense anticipation. Although I was relieved to know that he was alive, his continuing refusal to show himself vexed me even more than it had before. Why would he set the table but not join us? Was he studying us? What game was he playing?
To calm my fraying nerves I reached for the wine and poured May and myself a glass. It turned out to go well with the steaks, especially since they had turned out rather well, too. May professed to enjoy the food and the wine, too, but she continued to share my unease. Not even the wine calmed my growing nervousness. At last, as our meal drew to a close, she leaned towards me and asked in a subdued voice, “Do you think he had an accident? Maybe he is disfigured and embarrassed to show himself?”
The thought had not occurred to me and, although it might seem plausible enough, I had never known my uncle to be especially vain about his appearance. In either case it would have seemed more reasonable for him to explain something of that sort in a note rather than leave us guessing helplessly. Still, May's idea was plausible enough that I could not dismiss it out of hand. “It's possible,” I admitted with a nod and she seemed glad when she heard me agree. She smiled and said, “Then maybe he'll show himself when you're alone.”
I nodded. Indeed, perhaps my arrival with May had taken him by surprise and it had taken him this long to find his stride and accept what he could not change. The lack of a note might simply be an omission, and once she was in bed and I, alone, he would emerge from whatever served as his hiding place, and he'd fill me in on what he had hinted in his letter. Once more I nodded at her and smiled. She returned the smile and it was no longer tinged with as much worry.
When our meal was done, May pointed at the ornate wooden box beside her and asked, “I suppose these are for us?”
“That's my guess, too,” I said, tapping my index finger on the lid. The box sounded solidly constructed. It was as long as I could stretch my fingers and a little less than that in width and height. It was obviously carved by hand, though a skilled and practiced one. The lid was held in place by a small, metal latch that only needed lifting to permit the box to open. I glanced at May who studied me. “Open it!” I said. She bit her lower lip and glanced at the box. After a moment she placed the finger tips of both hands on the lid, lifted the latch with a thumb, and then swung it open. A moment later her eyes went wide and her mouth fell open. She glanced up at me.
“What is it?” I asked. She stared down into the box again.
“It's … how could he know?”
“Know what?” I asked and leaned forward, though I could still not look over or around the lid at what lay inside her box. She reached inside and lifted up a glass sphere. The bottom half was clear, the top half was an intensely bright-red color. The whole was topped by a small, golden mechanism with a short tube attached. I knew what it was the moment she explained it. “It's perfume,” she said. “It's the only one I ever wear.”
She shook her head in wonder and cradled the bottle in her fingers like a rare treasure. “How could he have known?” she wondered aloud, but then met my eyes and said, “Here!” She set down the perfume and sprayed some of it onto her wrist. I smelled it even before she extended her arm towards me. I took her hand and brought my nose near. It was the sweetness of a summer breeze, fields of flowers, hints of spices and of orchards. It was the perfume I remembered from her car and had still smelled on her this morning. Somehow it had already become synonymous with her and if ever I were to smell it somewhere else, it would always be May who'd come to mind.
“Nice,” I said and she smiled at me, then brought her wrist back to her own nose to inhale the alluring fragrance.
“Maybe he thinks we are a couple,” she said after a moment, eying me cautiously. I must profess that the idea took me by surprise. Of course, what were the chances that I showed up with a total stranger rather than a girlfriend? If my uncle had thought her a stranger, would he have given her perfume, or for that matter, any present at all? It made perfect sense, but it still did not explain his continued absence.
May was watching my reaction, apparently to assess whether I approved of the idea. Although I liked her well enough I recalled, too, her reaction when she found out to what college I was headed, and her words when she had first seen this house. It brought to mind my mother's lecture after my breakup. People from different walks of life, she had explained, don't look at and interact with the world in the same way. Those whose ambition ends with a meal on the table and the bills all paid are simply not compatible with those who seek to get more out of life, something beyond mere physical needs. In the long run those worlds are simply too different.
But then May laughed and shook her head, brushing aside any need for me to commit myself one way or another. “Open your present,” she said. I hesitated, not sure whether my uncle's present for me might indicate even more directly that he thought May and I to be romantically involved. With some trepidation I lifted the lid and found inside a large and heavy key on a loop of leather as if it were to be worn around the neck. I held it up with some confusion. A key, I wondered, a key to what?
“Oooh,” said May, obviously intrigued, “now you'll have to try it out on every door you find!”
I peered inside the box, hoping to find a clue, perhaps in the form of a note, but I was disappointed. May was right, I'd have to try out the key in every lock where it might fit. To my advantage, it was not the kind of key that would fit most locks. It seemed distinctly archaic, perhaps a hundred years old or more, fit for the kind of locks that had the quintessential keyhole shape through which one could peer. I lifted the loop and dropped the key around my neck, regarding it for a moment on my chest before looking up at May and grinning at her. “I suppose that's just like him,” I said, “all mystery and no clues.”
“Well, at least your uncle has good taste in perfume and wine,” she said, “even if I'm still a little creeped out by all of this.”
She was right. All the romantic candle light and wine and thoughtful presents aside, my uncle's absence remained a mystery. May's suggestion that he would not show himself because of some disfigurement still rang hollow to me. My only consolation was that he lived, obviously, and once she was in bed, he had no further reason to hide himself from me.
“I should go to bed,” she said, as if she had read my mind, “and give your uncle a chance to come out and talk to you.”
I nodded and came to my feet.
“Would you … would you walk me to my room?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. I turned away from the table to lead the way. She didn't follow me and when I turned, she glanced down at the plates and I realized that she was offering silently to help me with cleaning up. “It's okay,” I told her. “I'll clean up, it's not that much.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, no problem. Come on!”
She took up her box with perfume and both of us took our lanterns upstairs. In the doorway to her room she stopped and turned. “Thanks, Charlie,” she said, “and good luck with your uncle!” She turned and smiled at me before she closed the door. No kiss tonight, I guess. As I turned away to head downstairs, she turned the lock in the door. I grinned to myself and shook my head, then headed back downstairs. If she had really wanted to play my girlfriend, she should have left the door unlocked. But maybe she realized, too, that there was no point in pretending. We had chosen different rooms after all. And maybe I was reading too much into a simple act and she simply felt safer with the door secured.
“Well, uncle Everett, now would be a perfect time to show yourself,” I mumbled to the empty kitchen. I set down the lantern on one of the tables and fetched the plates and the wine glasses. Then I returned for the bottle and the box in which I had found the key. I left the candelabra where it was, providing light in one place while my lantern continued to light the kitchen. I cleaned all but my own glass and poured myself more of the wine. It went down well on its own and I didn't think too much of finishing the bottle.
With wine in hand, I made my way about the kitchen, threw a few more logs onto the fire, and eventually headed back to the dining room. There I picked up the candelabra and proceeded to the library, where I hoped to find my uncle sitting in a chair, perhaps glancing up at me with the kind of look that said, what took you so long?
But my unease grew when he was not there, and not in the game room, either.
“Where are you, uncle Everett?” I asked the silent room. Above my head the soulless faces of tigers and bears peered across at each other. Dim shadows flickered as the candle flames danced. “Why all this subterfuge and secrecy?” I demanded, turning slowly about as if I might spy him standing behind me in a corner, quietly regarding me. “Have you sent me that letter just to lure me here and see how easily I still frighten?” I continued. “Are you happy that I'm still scared of dark and empty buildings?”
But he gave me no reply. I felt my anger rising at having made the long trip for nothing, even if I had been able to help out May as a result. “You said you couldn't write what you had to say to me,” I said to the empty room but I was met with only silence. “Well, I'm here now,” I said, stomping my foot lightly, but enough to show my growing anger. “Come out and say it,” I demanded. “Show yourself!”
But now as before, my uncle ignored me. I continued turning about my axis, frowning at the flickering light and the dance of shadows all around me. “I'll be leaving tomorrow,” I called out, “and I won't be coming back, you hear?”
I thought this to be a sufficient threat against the plea in his letter. Was there a better reason for him to show himself now before it was too late? But my uncle remained as unseen as before. I wondered then if he was unable to show himself and silently railed against my impatience. But I dismissed the thought at once. How could he have set the table for us and not leave a note to explain himself? It had to be some obstinate refusal that was the issue now. He was toying with me for reasons that I neither understood nor was able to appreciate.
“Dammit, uncle Everett,” I growled at the silent room, “what is the matter with you?”
I raised the candles above my head, continuing to turn about slowly. The light and shadows danced wildly for a moment as a slight breeze tore at the flames. Out of the corner of my eye, another shadow moved as if cast by a light source other than my own and unaffected by the breeze. I spun about, but as the room whirled and shifted with my motion, the apparition fled. I rushed after it, back to the library.
My candles flickered and the light expired, plunging me into darkness. And yet, I was on my uncle's heels at last. I stumbled after him, into the dining room and finally, the grand foyer. A clap of thunder rooted me to the floor. An icy gale blew into the foyer as the front door flew open. Snow whirled through the opening. The temperature plummeted. I rushed forward and peered into the darkness. A blast of cold air assaulted me head-on. I saw nothing beyond the night at first, but suddenly, there it was, a shadow moving within the inky dark.
I rushed forward, unthinking, and possessed only by a single thought: I had to find my uncle, now that he was near. For whatever reason he still fled from me, but I could not bear to let him go. I had to grip him by the shoulder and force him about. I had to have answers!
But I slipped on the stairs as the ice there crumbled beneath my heels. Flailing helplessly in midair, I sent the candelabra flying above my head. It crashed against wood somewhere and was gone. For a moment I lay in the snow before I struggled back to my feet. I was not hurt, as luck would have it, but the moment was gone and my uncle was gone with it. I had lost him.
I cast my eyes into the howling night. There stood my truck, encased in freshly fallen snow. A flash of lightning turned the darkness inside out. The distant trees frowned at me and the mountains urged them on. I raised my eyes towards the sky, as if in supplication, and called my uncle's name once more. A gale carried my voice away and threw it against the house behind me. The shutters rattled with it and the windows rang as if in pain. The front door slammed shut. I turned in sudden panic. I slipped and fell into the snow once more. Afraid that the door might be locked against me and May, long asleep, would not hear me beating against it, I pulled myself back to my feet and scrambled up the stairs and to the door.
I cried out with relief when it yielded to my freezing fingers and I fell inside, thankful for this stroke of luck. For a moment the cold and the warmth entwined. I turned and threw my weight against the door. It fell heavily into the frame and the lock engaged. The rising storm was held at bay.
Wherever he was, I was convinced, my uncle would not show himself to me now, if ever again. His letter amounted to no more than a ruse to lure me away from home and across two days of wintry roads to this house again. As he had admitted in his letter, it was not my forgiveness that he sought, and maybe it was for no good reason at all that he had called me back. Whatever his reason, I had come as he had asked and more than that I could not do. It was up to him now, entirely up to him, to show himself and say what he had to say to me. By morning May and I would go. I would not return.
Defeated in my purpose and my hopes, I fetched my lantern from the kitchen and went upstairs, one slow and tired step after another. I was older than I had been when I had left this house the last time, but I felt no more in control of myself than I had back then, when I had still been a child. Was I more than that now, I wondered, would I ever be? For a moment I stood at the top of the stairs and stared at the door behind which May was sleeping.
And then I turned and made for my own room and my own bed.
✫ ✫ ✫
I was twelve years old again and it was dark as I stood by the shores of the lake, listening to distant peals of laughter, as of children playing in the forests far away. That icy summer storm had returned to fill the night and draw the heat from my bones. The waters before me were restless. Icebergs floated in the distance, outlined by a light without source.
I thought of turning away from the cold and churning waves that lapped about my feet, but could not will myself to turn my back on the lake. Backwards I could not walk, either. Some unnamed horror took hold of my heart. Someone was close behind me, someone … but then I knew it was my parents. I pleaded with them in silence, as I could not voice my terror. The laughter came from the lake now, not the woods; it came from the icebergs that had risen out of the lake's depth. And within that ice, I knew, all the horrors of a long-gone age had been held captive, but now they had come to the world above and they would be free. It was my fault, of course.
My father blamed me for it, that much I knew, and my mother was horrified at my deed, though I did not know how I had committed it. I wished to explain, but my words were a confused jumble as my tongue would not obey me. I was guilty of knowing nothing and I was nothing except guilty. Then my father put his unseen face next to my own and whispered in my ear that I had to undo what I had done, and that he would point the way.
I felt his hands on my shoulders, burning like hot coals, but I could not turn my head to look at his face. It was my uncle then whose hands lay on my shoulders, not my father's, and I nearly went down on my knees with fear and unspecified remorse, wishing to beg for understanding. But he pushed me forward, towards the lake and, like a ship that had been set in motion and could not stop or turn, I floated forward into the icy grasp of night black waters.
Desperately I sought to reverse my course, but the icebergs were closer now. Helplessly, I continued forward to meet them. I saw the hint of cold, pale faces in the ice, all of them peering expectantly at me, hoping that I would take them aboard and bring them ashore. The ground under my feet was gone now and as the dark water closed over my head the world was bright in an instant and ―
― a violent clap of thunder exploded in my room. I shot upright in my bed just as the lightning was gone and the room plunged back into darkness. I shook all over, unsure if I had cried out in my dream or held my silence. My room was cold but I still felt the fiery hands on my shoulders, and the icy grasp of the lake all over me. The cold of the night gathered about my neck and chilled me as if I was not already cold enough. I fell back and drew the covers up to my chin. My breath clouded above my face and I shivered from the cold and the afterimages of my dream.
It was not warm under my blanket and seemed only to get colder, as if the night was coiled about my neck and crept across my shoulders and my chest, reaching under my blankets and seeking to turn me to ice. Was this awakening not a repeat of ten years ago? Was I still dreaming, caught in the past, unable to escape it? Had all these years not happened at all and my parents not even arrived yet to pick me up?
Another thunder rolled through the night and then a gust of wind shook the building. I felt the house moving as I had felt it move so long ago, threatening to slide into the lake. As if caught up in that very fear, the house screamed; and as if in pain, it moaned. Once more the night hurled itself against the edifice and I, shivering with the cold creeping across my stomach now, trembled as the very structure around me bucked violently. I could not help my shaking and I could not keep away the cold. Whether it was my dream, the wintry night become manifest, or merely my fevered imagination, I felt as if death was advancing over my skin, intent on consuming my body and my sanity, all in one go.
I threw aside the covers in the same moment as the shutters on my window were torn off. I spun towards the pale light that reached for me. In my clouding breath, faces formed, leering grins and cruel laughs, all of them silent but for the moaning of the walls that enclosed me.
I staggered backwards as the night became like day again and thunder tore at the world an instant later. The voices were back, the peal of laughter from the lake, from my dream, from the icebergs that had escaped the deep and risen through uncounted miles to the surface of the lake. In the clouds of my frenzied breath, faces reshaped and shook with mirth. But something outside my window caught my eye. My feet carried me forward, through the ghostly faces in my breath. Lightning flashed and for an instance I saw my uncle's face outside the window, large as the world. Facing the storm, he was a part of it at the same time. The afterimage of him lingered in the night but another flash revealed him again in the clouds and the lake, and in the mountains on all sides. He was everywhere, large as the world. I staggered backwards.
And then the window burst and sharp splinters of ice and snow assaulted me. I spun towards the door to flee, but my uncle's shadow faced me. My breath caught in my throat. He raised one arm and reached for me. I ducked and lurched for the door, but my shoulder caught the edge of it. I spun, fell against the door frame, and struck my head as I fell awkwardly to the hallway floor. On my feet again, I found the stairway gone missing.
My room had been no more than a few steps from the stairs. I did not know where to turn, but the terror in my heart drove me to stumble past one door and another, until I came to a left turn that should have been a right. Around it I staggered blindly, just as the house trembled again. I fell against a door and it crashed open and precipitated me to the floor. Figures loomed over me, outlined for a moment against a flash of lightning in the night beyond. They turned as one and regarded me with disapproval. And then they came for me. The house took up a mournful cry, at once full of some deep and ancient agony become dull with time; but also full of some wanton spirit's need combined with an adamant refusal to part with its pain.
I pulled myself to my feet once more and fled into the hallway. The cries and the moans were my companions, driving me on to a height of terror such as I had never known. To escape the house now, to escape by any means at all, to flee through the woods no matter where my feet might take me, that was all I could want. I had to find the stairs or else I would find a window and hurl myself from the height to the ground below. I had to escape this place before it claimed me forever.
And then I found it, around three more corners which all turned the wrong way, the staircase opened on the left, instead of the right. And on the other side was May's door, outlined in a faint blue light. I called her name and then called it again, but she did not answer me.
What if it's all in your head?
The thought came to me as if by a voice that was behind and all around me, part of the night itself seemed to have whispered to me. What if it was all in my head, I thought, what did I really remember, of what could I be sure? Was the storm real at all, was I merely reliving a nightmare from when I was twelve? Had I never woken up at all? Was I still dreaming, or was I losing my mind?
I turned away from May's door and gripped the banister, walking and half-falling down the stairs in my haste. A cold wind in my back, and roiling doubts in my head, chased me to the floor below. I stopped there, shaking, and turned back to gaze up at the faint glow behind May's door. It was the only thing now that seemed truly amiss, everything else was suddenly as calm as it should be. The house had ceased its cries, the storm's fury had almost abated. Only my heart was racing and my lungs, still gasping for air. I had panicked for nothing, I told myself, the nightmare had merely clung to me and carried over for a while. I had let old memories get the best of me.
But what about May's door, what was that light? It didn't seem the right color for a lamp of any sort, or the glow of a television set, had there even been one in the house; even for an overhead light it was too bright. And why had she not answered me when I called?
A soft thudding noise came from my right. I turned towards the dining room and when I heard it a second time, I peered around the corner. There was a faint light somewhere past the library. My heart leaped. Was my uncle ready to meet with me after all?
Cautiously, I advanced through the dining room and from there, through the library. As I moved, the light seemed to recede, moving as I moved. From the dining room I crossed the library, and from the library I reached the game room and found it dark. The soft gleam came from the doorway now that led around and back to the kitchen. I quickened my steps, rushing through the short hall, and emerged just as the light stood bright in the door that led into the cellar. For a moment, I hesitated. I had no desire to go down there again, but if I hurried, I'd catch him before he reached the bottom. I rushed forward and gazed down the stairs my uncle had just gone. The light now came from the right passage below. May and I had gone left.
“Uncle Everett,” I called, “come back!”
Of course, he did not heed my call. The light began to dim as he receded deeper into the cellar. I turned back to the dark kitchen, undecided, but essentially unwilling to follow him further. It was a game he played with me, of that I was certain now. There was no reason for him to hide like this, no reason to lure me about the house without showing himself even once. And then I heard May's voice. It came faintly from the cellar depth.
I couldn't make out what she called, but I seemed to make out my name and she sounded panicked. With no more hesitation I rushed down the stairs. I had no lantern with me now, no cord in hand to tie somewhere and help me find the stairs again, but my purpose was renewed and the quicker I moved the sooner I would catch up with him. I turned to the right and rushed after the fading light, feeling at once foolish and desperate not to leave May to her fate down here. “May!” I called and from somewhere deep within the cellar's maze, I heard her answering my call.
What had possessed her to return to the cellar, I wondered, as I stumbled between narrow shelves, past boxes and bundles and sacks stuffed between them. Had she reneged on her anger and gone to investigate the ropes? It seemed less than likely to me. Around a corner I went, and then another. The light was closer now, just a few turns away. Another corner, and then another in the other direction, but despite my mad rush the light stayed ahead of me, just beyond the next turn, just out of reach.
“May!” I called again. Her voice came from somewhere ahead, definitely closer now, but nowhere near as close as I had hoped or expected. And then I took another turn and stood before a sunken amphitheater, about twenty feet across. There were eight exits that I counted when I stepped out of my passage, spaced evenly around the upper circle, and between each exit a small lantern hung from a hook. All of them were lit. And when I gazed back into the passage from which I had just emerged, I noted that the shelves were gone and it was made of a rough stone, like all the others.
I was still in my dream, still in my nightmare, I realized. I had only dreamed that I had awoken. It made perfect sense now. How could it have been real, the cold in my bed, the faces in my breath, the storm blowing into my room, and the strange glow behind May's door. I was still dreaming. “Uncle Everett?” I asked, no longer sure if I would ever actually see him, be it in a dream or otherwise.
I took a step down to the floor of the amphitheater and then another. With the fourth, I stepped onto the dark and gritty sand that formed the floor there. I advanced to the center of the space and turned to take in the whole of it, then I lifted my eyes to the ceiling above. In dark ink a complex design was drawn that seemed symmetrical at first, but was not. It consisted of innumerable loops, none of which ever crossed. The whole of it seemed to undulate and change as I followed the lines, as if it were a ribbon that drifted slowly in a wind and yet never allowed any part to touch itself.
I felt drawn to the design in a way that I could not explain. It seemed familiar to me, like my own creation, and yet it was not mine. In the shifting lines I saw things emerging and fading again. At first they were faint, fleeting imagery that was gone before I understood what I had seen. But as I stared, I saw my uncle's face in them before it shifted into my aunt's and then that was gone, too. There were geometric figures, images of places that I did not recognize and some, that I did. Too many things came and went before I understood them at all, but among them I saw Kirsten's face and felt a pang of regret when she seemed to turn away and was replaced by something I couldn't make out. And then there was May in the shifting patterns above my head. When she faded, too, I stared helplessly at the undulating swirls above until I could make her out no more. The pattern became less than it had been; the show was over.
Feeling a painful stiffness in my neck, I lowered my eyes to the ground and rubbed my aching neck. There was entirely too much detail in the grains of sand for this to be a dream, I thought, and then gazed up at the eight identical passages that ringed the amphitheater. They were unchanged and I wasn't sure at all now through which I had stepped into this place. I should have left a mark on the stone, I realized, but recalling May and my prior foray into the cellar, I was not certain whether any attempt to retrace my steps would be allowed to meet with success. Whatever my uncle had in store for me, I had no idea, but by following that Irrlicht into the cellar I had probably put myself into the worst position yet.
There was no helping it now, however, I had to get out of this dilemma on my own. And no matter when that would be, I swore to myself that I'd get May and our luggage, and we'd go outside and spend the rest of the night in my truck with the engine running, if necessary, but I'd not spend another minute in my uncle's house if I could avoid it.
Because it was the most sensible option, I picked the passage that seemed the most likely to have brought me here. It did not turn at once, as it should have, but when I tried the two on either side of it, they did not turn in the expected way, either, so I returned to my original choice. I lifted two lanterns from their hooks and advanced into the passage.
After leading me straight for a dozen paces, I arrived at a stair that went down. Glancing backwards every few steps, I proceeded into the depth, certain that I would not be reaching the kitchen this way, but what was certain in my uncle's house, except that I could trust nothing, maybe not even myself? To my relief I reached the bottom of the stairs soon enough, but was surprised to find the floor covered with a fragile sheet of ice. My bare feet crushed it and sent the fragments skittering. Soon, the walls were covered with frost, too, and my breath clouded before my face. My feet began to complain of the cold ground and I was about to turn back when the corridor opened up before me into a vast space.
The light of my lanterns was lost in the darkness, catching only faintly against what seemed like pillars on the opposite wall. I stood at a ledge, beyond which lay the frozen expanse of what I presumed to be an underground lake. It was almost certainly a solid block of ice, and perfectly capable of bearing my weight. I knelt on the ledge and held one of the lanterns over the short drop. The frosted surface glittered and gleamed. I raised my light and tried to penetrate the darkness, but I could see no other exit from this place, unless it was on the far side of the frozen lake, beyond the reach of my lanterns.
It was too cold to stay, and too cold to cross that lake, even if I had been convinced it to be safe. I turned back and was relieved when I found the amphitheater unchanged. I turned to the right, and took the next passage.
This one went further than the first one, but the ground began to fall away, exceedingly slowly at first, but then at an increasing rate. I stopped and held my lanterns high above and somewhat behind my head so see if I might detect an ending to the slope, but I did not. After walking some distance, and finding the ground falling off more and more rapidly, I decided that there was no use in proceeding. I would only slip and perhaps fall and slide into the depth, quite possibly with no way to return.
Once more, I turned back and found myself in the amphitheater soon after. I turned right again.
I had not gone more than a dozen paces when I heard a distant peal of laughter. It sounded like children at play, but the laugher changed somehow, as if the children grew older with every few paces that I took. Much like May's calls for me in the maze a few minutes ago, I did not seem to get closer to these voices at the same rate that my feet carried me, but they came closer none the less. To my dismay the ceiling grew lower and the walls, more narrow as I carried on. The voices were quite close by now, however, and as preposterous as it should have seemed to me then, I actually hoped to round a corner any moment to find people at play.
Something gripped my shoulder then. I twisted away, only to feel something cold and wet close around my other arm. I pulled free from this, too, and gasped in horror. The walls around me, so narrow now that I could hardly avoid brushing them as I passed, had come alive with a multitude of appendages. There were things resembling fingers, hands, and whole arms gleaming in the light of my lanterns, some rising from the floor, others dropping from the ceiling. The corridor came alive as a writhing mass of flesh, reaching for me in a casual, almost aimless way.
Down the narrow passage erupted laughter. It sounded impossibly sweet, even tempting in its innocence. The sound urged me to follow it, but the heaving walls all around brought me to my senses. I rushed back the way I had come, tearing through the thick of embraces and grasping appendages. Several times they succeeded in gripping my legs and arms, and bringing me to a halt; something cold and wet wrapped itself around my neck. I let go of my lanterns. One went crashing to the ground, where it burst and went out; something managed to catch the other. With both hands free, I tore at the things that gripped me, and regained my freedom. I stormed towards the distant glow of the amphitheater without stopping again.
Gasping I made it all the way into the center of the space, and collapsed shaking onto the sand. I turned myself over as I feared something might come after me out of that terrifying passage, but nothing did. Above me the ceiling showed slowly undulating patterns without meaning. I watched them for a minute as I caught my breath, and finally regained my feet. I had to try the next passage. One of them had to lead me back to the cellar or the kitchen. There had to be a way to escape from this place.
From the passage where I had removed the two lanterns, I counted the ones I had already explored, taking two more lanterns as I went, and then entered the fourth passage.
I walked for longer than I would have liked, but with the floor remaining straight, the ceiling, high, and the walls far enough apart and as solid as they should be, I felt this passage to hold enough promise not to give up on it just yet. My eyes went wide and my heart leaped when the light touched on a stair ahead which led up. I rushed forward but then stopped, I knew not why. By the light of my lanterns the stair led clearly upwards and would almost certainly reach the kitchen or some other part of the house. But could I trust something so banal after the complex traps I had encountered? Indeed, as I stared at the stairs, I thought that something wasn't right. Was it the way the gritty stone was worn that seemed suspect? Or was it the way the dust and dirt covered them? Was it the cold zephyr that seemed not to descend the stairs, but rise upwards from it, into my face?
I set one of my lanterns on the first step and tried to ascertain the direction of this gentle wind. It became clear in moments that the wind seemed not to be coming from above or from behind, but from below the stairs. How could this be, I wondered, touching the cold and gritty stone, then picking up my lantern again. Surprisingly, I could not grip it however. My fingers went straight through the handle by which I had carried it. I tried to pick it up from the bottom, next, but again my fingers passed completely through it. My lantern had become insubstantial. I stood up and gave it a gentle kick, but my foot passed through the lantern, too.
I held my foot there, within the lantern, marveling at this impossible situation. And suddenly the truth came to me. A cold shiver crept down my back. I placed one hand on each wall beside me, then lifted my head to the ceiling and closed my eyes. I lifted one foot and bent low in the other knee, seeking the first stair. I leaned as far forward as I dared, then held still and opened my eyes. When I looked, my foot extended through the stone as if it had been cemented into place. With a sudden fright I yanked it back into sight and stumbled backwards.
First, a frozen cistern, I recalled, which had not seemed too dangerous; then an ever-declining slope down which I might have slipped and never returned; next, voices to draw me on and a living corridor to grip and restrain me; and now a stair that was not there and would have precipitated me into a pit or whatever lay beyond this point. I had four more passages to explore. Would I survive that far, much less survive even the next one?
I turned around and returned to the amphitheater once more. As I stood staring into the fifth passage I considered skipping it and giving the sixth and seventh a miss, too. But something told me that the order of them might not matter as much as the fact that I had to try them all. My uncle was not merely hiding from me, he seemed to be looking to kill me. Of course, if that was really his goal he could have poisoned me. Was this a test then?
With a sigh I faced the fifth passage and set out to face whatever I might find.
I proceeded with such caution that it took me minutes to advance even a few dozen paces. I felt the walls, the floor, I lit the way up and down to assure myself that I would not miss blades that might emerge from any part of the surroundings to slice me in half or pierce me with spears. I sought holes in the walls from which poisoned darts might strike me, and I looked for loose stones upon which I might step that could be triggers for a trap of some sort. After a long time, I came to a door, instead.
I examined it for evidence of traps, checking out the slab and especially the door knob with the greatest care. I found nothing to alarm me, except for the fact that I found nothing at all. I could have missed something and would never know until it was too late. For long minutes I agonized over what I had surely missed, but could not for the life of me find. Would it be a deadly trap that I had yet to spring, something so obvious and yet so fiendishly subtle that I would know my mistake only the very instant it was too late? I stood before this door in agonizing indecision, despairing of my ability to proceed.
Perhaps the trap would be on the other side and if I opened the door, but stood aside, whatever came at me might pass me by, at least at first, giving me a chance to defend myself. And so, I set my lanterns down to have both hands free to answer whatever threat I'd face. I took a deep breath and clenched my teeth, and then reached for the door knob. For a moment I still hesitated, but then gripped the handle only as much as I needed to turn it and pushed open the door.
It was May's room, the one next to mine. The wealth of pictures on the walls was unmistakable as was her luggage on the floor by the desk. But what caught my eye was the figure kneeling on the bed, facing away from me. He straddled someone who struggled to get free. By the light of the lantern on the bedside table I caught sight of red hair flying in the struggle. A frustrated cry issued from beneath the figure: “Get off me, you shit!”
It was May's voice, but who was the guy on top of her, where had he come from? Even from the back he seemed eerily familiar but he was far too young to be my uncle. “May!” I called, rushing forward. The guy turned his head and the sight of his face stopped me in my mid-stride. He wore the same t-shirt as I, the same gray briefs, and his hair was mine, too. I stared at myself staring back at me. The face was mine!
The shock of seeing myself like that struck me almost like a physical blow. For an instant I did not know whether to turn and flee or to attack him out of revulsion, perhaps; or for the audacity of impersonating me; or just to throw him (me?) off the struggling girl who was doubtlessly May. My other self stared at me, perhaps equally shocked to see me. His attention was diverted from May for just that instant. Her hand came free and reached for his head. He jerked back as he realized her intent but it was too late. Her nails dug into his face, just below his right eye, and then she ripped deep into his skin. Blood sprayed from his face, a lot of blood. Almost instantly it covered her hand and ran down her arm.
My other self howled with agony. With one hand seeking to protect his wounded face, he brought up his other to strike at May beneath him. I snatched his wrist before he brought it down, and managed to deflect the blow by pulling him towards me. I could feel my own fingers on my wrists, as I did this, and with the shock of this sensation, I let him go. It had been enough for him to lose his balance, however. He slid awkwardly off the bed, though he got one foot onto the floor and caught himself. In a moment he stood and turned to face me.
He growled like an animal. For a moment we stared at each other. I was horrified not just by the sight of of my own self facing me, but also the blood streaming copiously from beneath his right eye, through his fingers, and trailing down his arm. He leaped for me in the very same moment that I leaped aside and barely out of his reach. Once more he moved against me, but perfectly synchronized, I evaded him a second time. Was this because he was wounded or because I was literally fighting myself and could therefore anticipate his (my) moves?
He recovered his balance and spun to face me again. Unlike some of my friends, I had never gotten into a fight and so I felt little confidence that I could win this one. Was it even possible to win a fight against myself? Was this like beating myself at Chess, I would win and lose at the same time? Was the only way to win this fight, not to fight at all? But more importantly, would my other self consider the same questions?
He narrowed his eyes at me and I did the same at him. And then, a smile formed on his lips, confident and yet betraying a hint of bitterness. He turned and leaped past me, through the door and into the dark corridor beyond. I saw him turning to the right, in the direction of my room. It wasn't the long corridor through which I had come.
I turned back to May, who had scrambled backwards into the corner of the bed. She was sobbing softly to herself, holding her blood-covered hand up before her. But then she leaped off the bed and nearly ran me over on the way to the door. She slammed the door shut and locked it, then returned to kneel on the bed and began to wipe her left hand on the sheets. How could she ignore me like this, especially after what had just happened?
“You stupid bitch,” she spat angrily, casting fearful glances in my direction, but continued to seem eerily unaware of my presence. I stepped out of her line to the door and when she glanced up again, it was the door that her eyes sought, and not me.
“May?” I said but she did not react. I repeated myself, louder this time, but again she gave no indication that she had heard me. And so, I stepped closer to the bed, ready to flee if she made to attack me.
“Nice guy my ass,” she grumbled and took hold of the hem of her blood-splattered t-shirt. She got off the bed and I had to jump aside as she would have run me over again. She moved as if I didn't exist. I watched her open the larger of her two suitcases. Out of it she pulled a pink shirt with the word “Hot” printed on the front, pulled the bloody one over her head, dropped it to the floor, and then put on the fresh one.
“It wasn't really me,” I said, unsure if my words mattered at all. She couldn't see me; she couldn't hear me? Was this scene even real, I wondered, or was it merely another figment of my imagination, a facet of my dream, or some twisted machination of my uncle's? I watched May as she returned to the bed, sitting cross-legged, and checking herself for injuries. “May, it wasn't me,” I tried again, feeling sorry for what had happened to her and simultaneously, terrified that she might suddenly see me after all.
She sighed and threw a glance at the door again. It was a look full of pain, anger, and disappointment, but also, resolve. I followed her glance to the door and turned to go. There was no point in remaining. I felt like a voyeur as it was, watching her change her blood-stained shirt, and now standing invisibly directly in front of her. I pulled open the door. It was not locked. I threw a final glance back at May who took no more notice of my presence than before, nor of my leaving. With a heavy heart and a sense of guilt that I should not have felt, I pulled the door shut behind me. I took up my two lanterns, and returned to the amphitheater.
For many minutes I sat there, regarding that fifth passage with a silent sense of horror, and contemplated what I had seen behind that door. I felt like an impostor in my own body now, soiled and unworthy of my own person. What if I wasn't asleep and dreaming, but instead, as a manifestation of my own guilty conscience, wandered through this nightmare version of my uncle's house, as punishment for having tried to rape May? Was I capable of such a thing? Was it a suppressed memory that I had witnessed? And had I, by distracting myself, interrupted and foiled the rape, perhaps giving myself a small chance for redemption? Or maybe I was simply losing my mind. Insanity seemed increasingly the easier choice, the simpler explanation for what was happening.
I touched my cheeks but felt no injury there. Which of the two Charlies was the real one, I wondered. Had I thought of attacking the other for looking like me? Or was I the copy and he, the original? Was this how a clone felt when he met his original self, or would the original feel such revulsion, too, when meeting his clone? Was there any way for me to know who I was compared to him? I think that I think, I thought, therefore I think that I am. Even my thoughts meant nothing beyond the fact that someone existed who thought, and maybe that, too, was a mere illusion. Perhaps my whole life was unreal and I was merely a fleeting moment in someone elses dream, nothing more than a flash of consciousness, to be replaced by something else; the illusion of longevity, a semblance of continuity, none of it real at all.
I came to my feet, frightened by the turmoil of my thoughts, all of them possibilities and none offering answers. I would go insane if I pursued these ideas much longer, spinning in circles like a dog who had caught his own tail, spinning faster and faster, refusing to ever let go. “Number six,” I said aloud, turning towards the next passage. I had to move on, if only for the sake of my own mind's congruence.
I admit that I moved much less cautiously through the sixth, than I had down the fifth passage. Driven by a crazy sense of urgency, I came to another door, a simple one, much like the doors I knew from my home. I hesitated with my hand hovering near the door knob. Feeling reckless and unable to stop myself, I took a deep breath and pushed it open.
It was Kirsten's room, green curtains, matching bedspread, and all. She stood with her back to me, wiping make-up off her face in front of the white-rimmed little mirror on her dresser. It still had the crack across the glass, about a third from the bottom. I couldn't see her face in the mirror but she had noticed the door opening. “Joey,” she said without turning, “you should be in bed.” I held my tongue and merely studied her lithe figure in a long-sleeved, black dress that went just past her knees. Her dark hair was shorter than I remembered it and the sight of her made me feel unspeakably sad. “Joey!” she said, now in a tone of exasperation. She turned her head towards me. I stared at her face but did not move. She wouldn't be able to see me, I knew, but she gasped and took a step away from me, bumping into her dresser as a result. Several small items on it fell over and some rolled and fell to the floor. I stared at her with alarm.
“I'm sorry, Kirsten,” I said, realizing that my assumption had been wrong. I had no idea what I was doing or why I was here. What kind of a trap was this, being led to my ex-girlfriend's bedroom? My appearance in May's room had seemed to suggest a purpose but here I had no such help. Instead of giving in to my first impulse, to turn and run, I decided to stand my ground. Kirsten's face was a mask of surprise and fright, and a host of other emotions, all of them struggling for control at the same time. “Charlie!” she whispered, glancing up and down the length of me before she got a hold of herself and returned her attention to my face. “What the bleep are you doing here?”
When she and I had been going out, we had come up with the idea to bleep the words to which her mother objected, like they did with certain words on television. It had started as a joke but we had soon made a habit of doing it.
“I don't know,” I admitted, and realized these might as well be the words of a guy who couldn't accept being dumped and who broke into her house one night in his underwear because he felt he had a right to be there. Indeed, her face settled on anger almost at once. “Get out!” she hissed. She took a step towards me, perhaps hoping to lend force to her words. She repeated herself but I made no move to comply. She stopped herself, anger turning into visible dismay.
“Listen, I'm actually at my uncle's house,” I explained, “a long way from here. I don't know how ―”
“I don't care, get out of here!” she said, her voice louder now, like a warning that she'd call for her mom and her little brother if I didn't leave of my own accord.
“Give me a minute, Kirsten, just one minute and I'll go, I swear!”
She crossed her arms and gave me a defiant look, but seemed prepared to give me that minute.
“I'm not sure if I'm really here,” I began, unsure where I was going with this. “I'm at my uncle's house, which is hundreds of miles away and a lot of weird things have been happening tonight. I don't know if any of this is even real so I need you to do me a favor.” I paused, waiting for her to say something, but she glowered silently. “Kirsten, this is … this is bleeping important, do you hear?”
“What kind of favor?” she asked cautiously.
“Give me a call, like in a week or so, or even stop by my house.”
“I need to know if you really saw me here, if this … if this really happened. And ask me about May.”
“Like the month.”
She shook her head. “Charlie, I'm ―”
“Please!” I said urgently. I even put my palms together in a gesture of supplication. She stared at me in silence for a moment. She sighed and frowned, and then she nodded. “Fine, I'll try to give you a call next week.”
“If I promise, will you leave?”
I nodded and she did. For a moment I hesitated. “You look beautiful,” I said and then turned away quickly and marched back down the hallway. I had taken more than a dozen steps before she closed the door behind me. I reached the amphitheater in even more turmoil than before.
I could not bear to face the seventh passage, not yet at least. I sat on one of the steps across from it, as far as I could from the turmoil that awaited me next, and stared at the seventh and the eighth openings with no small measure of misgiving and hope. One more passage before I would either escape through the eighths or be caught forever in this nightmare. Should I dare skip the seventh and go straight to the last? It might make no difference, of course, with the eighth passage being merely the seventh I would visit, but what if skipping one was like cheating in my uncle's eyes?
I resented him now, I realized. All the moments of fear had begun to combine into a simmering anger. So many hours ago I had pleaded with him, and threatened to go and never come back. I had stormed after him into the snow storm. And then I had followed the light I had presumed to be him, had followed it like an ever-optimistic fool about the house, and into the cellar, and then into this circle of traps from which I might never escape. Could I go to sleep here, on these stone steps? Would I wake up in the morning in my bed upstairs? Or would May knock on my door in the morning and find my bed empty and in the whole house, no trace of me? And would she be glad for it, and escape on her own in my truck?
And how was she spending the night? Was she fighting nightmares like I did or was that my fate alone? And what of the scene I had witnessed? Had some copy of me really tried to rape her? Ah, but she had locked her door before going to bed, so I ― or my other self ― could not have entered her room. The realization drew a sigh of relief from me. I sat up straighter and, for the first time in what seemed like endless hours, I felt a ray of hope in my soul. At least, if I escaped from the cellar, I would not have to fear that May might come after me with a knife. It must have been a nightmare, nothing more.
I sat for several long minutes, gathering my courage for the next passage, before I took a deep breath and came to my feet. I was not ready to face another nightmare, but if I waited too long I might miss the sunrise and May would search the house in vain for me. It was best not to let it come to that. I had to get this over with.
The seventh passage was the shortest one yet. I had gone hardly more than a dozen paces when it ended. On the right side was a smooth metal door with a handle grip. I pulled on it and I pushed, but it did not budge. It was locked. If it had been a feeble door like that to Kirsten's room, I might have tried to kick out the lock, but a door of this caliber would not yield to any force that I could muster. As I stood there, contemplating what to do, I noticed that the light of my lanterns began to glisten wetly on everything around, even on my t-shirt. Like a thin layer of oil, this glowing substance momentarily stuck and then slipped down all the surfaces. It dripped from the ceiling, too, and ran down the walls, and pooled on the floor. I tried to touch it, but I felt nothing. Where my shadow fell on the glowing ooze, its light quickly faded and soon extinguished but elsewhere it seemed replenished and stayed lit.
The effect was fascinating, mesmerizing, and unlike anything I had ever seen. No doubt, my face was running wet with the substance and my hair, likewise dripping. I captured some of this “light” in the palm of my hand and then threw it against my shadow on the wall behind me. It spread as it flew, as if moving through a viscous fluid. It stuck against the wall, and faded into nothing.
After playing with this substance for several minutes, I recalled why I had come. I tried the door again, then tried to shine light from my oozing lamp through the key hole. It seemed that the light pooled in the lock for a few moments, but I could see nothing beyond it except darkness. Trying to blow this liquid light through he keyhole amounted to nothing, either, so I was faced with a door that denied me passage. I kicked it and mumbled a curse. After a minute I turned away in defeat. It was time to try the eighth and final corridor.
I emerged into the amphitheater again and turned to my right. But I had hardly taken a single step when I stopped myself. I felt for the thin leather strap about my neck and, suspended from it against my chest, the key that my uncle had made my present. It couldn't be, I thought, it couldn't be this simple, but I rushed back into the seventh passage and the solid metal door. I set my lanterns on the floor, and guided the key into the lock. I held my breath when it fit. I began to turn it, and it turned!
A grinding came as I continued to turn the key fully around, and then the door unlatched and swung towards me by a hair. I pulled out the key and hung it around my neck again. A moment later, I stepped through the opening.
To the left and the right were passages between shelves piled high with boxes. Directly ahead of me was a stair. I was shocked to recognize the sight. I took one of my lanterns and rushed up the stairs. I emerged into the kitchen. I was shaking. My knees were weak. I could hardly believe that I had made it, that I had escaped that cellar and all the traps that my uncle had laid for me. As fast as I could, I made for the entrance foyer and there, alone and overcome with a sense of infinite relief, I sank to my knees and for a few moments, allowed my silent tears to flow before I pulled myself together, and to my feet again.
I turned to the stairs that led to the upper floor. The strange glow that had outlined May's door earlier was gone now. I felt relief for this, too, and rushed up the stairs, taking two and three at a time. My earlier desire to leave the house as quickly as possible was reasserting itself, albeit with less of the panic that had driven me before. I stopped in front of May's door, wondering if she was peacefully asleep. If the torment had affected only me, I'd be waking her up in the middle of the night and, in her eyes, for no reason at all. There was no helping it, however, I couldn't bear to stay longer under this roof than I had to. I lifted my hand and knocked, softly at first, and then more insistently.
I received no response. I knocked again but only silence answered me. Had she left her room, I wondered, reaching for the handle. But no, the door was locked. May had to be inside. She must be a sound sleeper. I knocked once more, louder this time and more insistently. “May, we need to leave!”
“Go away!” came her answer at last.
“We need to get out of here, May. And I mean, now, not later!”
“F― off, Charlie!” came her reply. For a moment I was surprised at this response, but then I recalled what I had seen during my attempt to escape the amphitheater in the cellar. Had it happened after all? Had it not been merely a private nightmare? I couldn't be sure, and though I had to consider the possibility, I could not afford to act from the assumption that it was true.
“May, I'm leaving. I'm getting out of here, do you hear?”
“Then go,” she called back.
“You really want me to leave you here?” I called incredulously. “Did you hear what I said?”
“I'm not opening that door again!”
As much as I hoped that she would believe me, I could not actually leave her behind. If she didn't open her door, I couldn't leave, not unless my life was at stake. And so far I had had to battle only for my sanity, unless I counted the dangers in my uncle's cellar as attempts on my life. Recalling my escape from there, I felt the key around my neck and pulled it out. Was it possible that it would fit May's door, too? As unlikely as that might seem, I saw no harm in trying. It was off my neck and in my hand in a flash. It slid perfectly into the lock, and when I turned it, the lock responded. For a moment, I hesitated, but then I took a deep breath and pushed open the door.
On the bedside table stood May's lantern, before it on the floor lay a crumpled white shirt. I froze at the sight. Was this evidence or merely a coincidence? I took a hesitant step into the room. The sheets on the bed were crumpled but May was not there. I glanced around the room, then took another step. A noise brought me around, but not quickly enough. I had barely time to turn and bring one arm up against the door as it slammed into me hard. The back of my head struck the door frame. Blackness pushed at the sharp pain that shot through my head. The darkness lifted and the pain grew bright. May rushed past me into the hallway. I found myself on my knees, the light of my lantern extinguished by the fall.
“Wait!” I tried to call, but wasn't sure I managed to get anything out at all. My sight was blurred and all I could was to keep myself from falling completely. I heard her feet on the stairs. By the time I recovered, she was at the bottom. There was not far she could go, of course, unless she ran from me in circles for hours. Taking hold of the door frame to steady myself, I struggled to my feet, and with a last glance at her room, I turned and followed her down the stairs.
By the time I reached the grand foyer I no longer needed to grip the banister for support. The back of my head still hurt, but I hoped the damage was only temporary.
May would probably arm herself with a good-sized knife to fend me off, so I made for the kitchen first. It was dark, except for a faint glow from the door that led to the cellar. I had left one of my lanterns down there by the metal door. For a moment I wondered whether that door remained open, with the amphitheater not far beyond it. I had a more pressing matter to attend to, however, than pursuing such pointless speculation. I had to find May and convince her to leave this place with me. “May,” I called into the darkness of the kitchen, “I'm sorry about waking you and I'm sorry about unlocking your door, but we really have to get out of here.”
She didn't answer me.
“I thought that ten years ago was just a nightmare, but this place is actually dangerous. I'm sorry that I brought you here, May.”
Again, no answer, but I was sure that she was somewhere around, and could hear me.
“I'm serious, May. I want us to leave, now, right now!”
Continued silence answered me and I felt my frustration with her growing. Perhaps she thought it only a trick on my part, or she couldn't see the reason for leaving. “May, please,” I shouted into the darkness, “I can't leave you here, don't you understand?”
When she continued her silence, I uttered a curse under my breath. We had to get out of here, we had to escape. How could she not understand that? “Please don't make this so difficult!” I uttered, perhaps with a little too much desperation in my voice.
Motion caught my eye but I did not move. She was there, I was certain. She could hear me. “Please, May, stop messing around like this. We need to go.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she suddenly growled at me out of the darkness. She wasn't far, but at least one of the large kitchen tables stood between us. I did not move.
“There's dangerous stuff going on here, that's what. It's like ten years ago all over again, only this ―”
“I'm talking about upstairs!” she interrupted me.
I knew what she meant, at least I thought I did, but I couldn't go on that assumption alone. I recalled the shirt on the floor beside her bed. I had seen her take it off and drop it there. It had still been there a few minutes ago. Was there blood on it, or had she simply put on different one before going to sleep? I could not know and feigning ignorance about what I had seen, real or not, was my only recourse. “There were voices and things,” I explained, “Okay, not just voices, it was a bad nightmare, worse than the one ten ―”
“Stop pretending like you did nothing wrong!” she thundered at me.
“I already said that I'm sorry about unlocking your door,” I replied as calmly as I could, “but we ―”
“F― you, Charlie,” she yelled at me, “f― you!”
Her vehemence came at me like physical blows. I actually took a step backwards. “I've done nothing to deserve that!” I threw back at her.
“Oh, I'm sure it was all in good fun, eh?” she said mockingly.
“What's gotten into you, May? I'm trying to get us out of here and you go all Jekyll and Hyde on me!”
“Oh, so now I'm the bad one?”
“Look, dammit, I apologized twice now about unlocking your door, what else do you ―”
“It's not about the f―ing door, Charlie!” she screamed at me.
“Then what is it about?” I bellowed back, but she answered me with silence again.
I imagined her staring at me in the darkness with exasperation and I felt bad for her. What I had seen might not be what had actually happened; even if all the signs seemed to say otherwise, her anger could still have another source. All I could be certain of, was that her shirt lay where I had watched her drop it, but I couldn't be certain of the reason. In any case, it had certainly not been I who had attacked her. The difference might be vanishing, but it was my best argument for continuing to pretend ignorance.
Suddenly I heard her sniffling. “Dammit,” she said.
“May, please tell me what is wrong,” I said. “What has made you so angry at me?”
“Do you remember knocking on my door?”
“You said that you knew what the key was for.”
“What? No, I didn't find out what it's for until ―”
“Look, don't deny it, you said you had found something.”
“Wait a minute, May, I told you we had to leave.”
“No, earlier, half an hour ago or so!”
“Half an hour ago I was stuck in the cellar.”
“I opened the door for you, do you remember?”
“Listen, May, I was in the cellar. I was stuck down there and couldn't find my way out.”
“Dammit, Charlie, stop lying!” Her voice was louder again.
“And you, stop making stuff up that didn't happen!”
My words hung between us in the darkness, an accusation that, in all likelihood, was not just unfair, but hurtful to her, too. And yet, it was the truth, my truth at least. I had not knocked on her door to tell her what the key was for, and she had most assuredly not opened the door for me. It had been someone else.
“Charlie,” she whispered after several long seconds, “I know what happened.”
“And I'm telling you that the only time I knocked on your door was a few minutes ago to tell you that we had to go. I didn't knock at any time before that, I swear it. I swear it, May!”
“Don't … don't do this to me!” she replied.
“May, listen to me. Ten years ago I had horrible nightmares in this place and the same thing started happening again tonight, only worse. When we tried to get out of the cellar, I really did not try to scare you. I know you don't believe me, but I'm serious. And I damn well didn't knock on your door until about five minutes ago before I unlocked it and you hit me. There is something wrong with this place.”
“Shut up, Charlie,” she said, her voice trembling.
“No, you listen to me, May, I need you to hear this! I chased my uncle around the place after you went to bed, at least I thought it was my uncle. He fled through the front door and vanished into the snow. Later I followed a light that I thought he carried into the cellar. Things changed down there, it's hard to describe, but I ran into a lot of dangerous stuff, really nasty traps, and I couldn't find my way out again until just a few minutes ago. That's when I knocked on your door and told you we had to leave.”
May didn't answer me.
“I don't care, I know what you did!” she said, but her voice seemed to carry a hint of doubt now.
“Fine,” I said, throwing my arms up, “what did I do?”
“You grabbed me, Charlie, you threw me onto the bed and you … you got on top of me …”
“No way, I never did that. I wouldn't have!”
“I'm not making this up, Charlie!”
“May, I walked a few yards down a corridor tonight and ended up in my ex-girlfriend's bedroom. That's ten hours drive from here, hundreds of miles. And I talked to her. Can you tell me how that is possible?”
“I'm serious, Charlie,” she said, sounding sad and almost resigned now.
“And so am I.”
“So I'm crazy? I've imagined the whole thing?”
“No, it's this place that's making us crazy, that's what I'm talking about, and that's why I want us to get out of here, May. We need to leave while we still can.”
For a moment she did not reply but then she asked, “How is your face?”
“Your face, does it hurt?”
I touched the back of my head before I understood what she meant. “My head still hurts a little. I'll live.”
“Light a lantern, Charlie!”
“Okay,” I said, “but don't run off again.”
“I want to see your face, Charlie. I'll wait.”
I turned around and found another of the lanterns that stood on the counter. I lit it and turned around. In the shadows, barely at the edge of the light, stood May. In her hand gleamed a small paring knife. Across her chest stood the word, “Hot” on a pink background. My heart skipped a beat.
“Hold it up,” she commanded. I raised the lantern. She frowned at me and said, “the other side!”
I complied, shifting the lantern to my right hand and holding it up beside me. She gaped at me and shook her head. “It's gone!”
Knowing perfectly well what she was referring to, I asked, “What's gone?”
“Your face,” she said. “I scratched you. There was a lot of blood, a lot of it.”
I raised my free hand to my face and touched my cheeks, chin, and forehead. The wounds she had inflicted on my other self would take weeks to heal, I was sure, and would probably leave permanent scars. I said, “You must have dreamed it, May.”
At the edge of the lantern's light I saw her shoulders sag. “I don't know what's happening anymore,” she said, her voice deflated, but then she insisted, “I'm not crazy!”
“You knocked me into the door frame, May, you didn't scratch me.”
“There was so much blood.”
“All I did was unlock your door, May, I didn't attack you.”
But she shook her head. “How can I trust you?”
“I don't know,” I admitted, “but I know what I know. You'll just have to take your chances.”
She glanced down at the knife in her hand, then back up at me. I stepped forward slowly to set the lantern on the bench between us. Her face showed her struggle. After a long moment she looked up and said, “It's dark outside.”
“We'll wait in the truck until it's light. Will you come?”
She glanced back at the knife in her hand, then met my eyes again. “If you touch me again, I'll ―” She broke off and shook her head. “God, I'm scared,” she whispered, measuring me fearfully.
I nodded. A sudden thunder clap shook the house. May winced and lifted her eyes towards the ceiling. I followed where she looked, but saw nothing. “Let's go!” I said and grabbed the lantern again. She followed me reluctantly as I headed for the foyer. I stopped there when I saw a light glowing in the dining room.
Surprisingly, May stopped close to me which was a little unnerving. Was she still carrying the knife? Had she decided to take her chances with me? And was this even the girl I had met on the road, or was she a mere copy who, like the clone of me who had tried to rape her, might plunge that knife into my back with an equal lack of compassion? If she did, I'd know ― albeit too late ― that I had made a mistake. But if this was the real May I could hardly ask her to trust me if I didn't risk a little trust first.
“Do you see that light?” I asked her.
“Maybe, but probably not. The last time I really actually saw him was more than ten years ago and now he's refusing to show himself. I think I'm finally through with him. Let's get our luggage!”
Another thunder struck the house as I rushed up the stairs with May close behind me. I nearly lost my footing and had to grip the banister to steady myself. I looked back at May, whose eyes were wide, but she kept her silence. And then a cold wind came rushing down the stairs towards us. It was like the breath of the night itself but it did not stop us. We made it to the landing and I turned to my room. The door was shut. When I tried to push it open, it resisted. I pushed harder and met with a blast of cold air. The whole of my room was covered in at least a foot of snow.
I got the door open far enough to squeeze through. The full, or nearly full moon stood outside my open window and cast a bone-dry light across the winter wonderland which my room had become. My bare feet hurt as I trudged through this deep, white stuff. I found my duffel bag by the foot end of the bed, my boots, my pants, and my coat buried in the snow. I shook them clear as best I could and returned to the hallway where May waited for me. My feet were burning with pain. The door of my room slammed shut behind me as if the house itself wished us to be gone. “Your room, next,” I said. Just then a scream came from her room that froze us both in our tracks.
May gripped my shirt, pulling me back. She shook her head, looking terrified. I hadn't been sure that the voice was actually hers until I saw the recognition written all over her face. Did she feel the same shock and revulsion that had gripped me when I had seen my other self turn his attention towards me? I could understand only too well her impulse to flee, but we had to retrieve her clothes. She couldn't go out into the storm as barely dressed as she was. I reached for her hand. The gesture broke the spell on her and she turned her attention away from the door and met my eyes. Almost in passing, I saw the knife she still clutched in her other hand.
“It's freezing outside,” I explained. “We need your clothes or you'll catch your death.”
She shot a glance towards the door from which issued a guttural cry now, then another. May's fingers tightened in my hand. She turned back to me and shook her head. “I'm not going in there!” she insisted. I nodded in sudden agreement. “Then I will get your stuff.”
She tried to hold me back, but I dropped my things outside her door and pushed it open. An icy wind chased snow flakes into my face and pushed them past me into the corridor. Other than for the moonlight it was dark inside, but there was something on the bed, something larger than a man, mottled and dark, and it labored there in noisy congress. A voice as if from May's own throat called out my name from beneath the thing, crying out shamelessly, over and over again. I glanced back and saw May's frightened face in the doorway, her eyes fixed on the scene, and slowly shaking her head.
The floor was barely covered with snow, but it was actually solid ice as I found out when I slipped and fell with my second step inside. I saw her suitcases and, ignoring everything else, I regained my feet and lifted both of them out of the ice and fled the room, pursued by the laboring voices. I left the smaller suitcase for her to carry and took up the other one, along with my own stuff. Wordlessly we rushed down the stairs as quickly as was safe. No thunder shook the house; we reached the foyer without incident.
My clothes were too cold and stiff to wear, so I retrieved my keys from my pants just as a deep roll of thunder began to fill and shake the house. May knelt beside her suitcase, the first latch of it open. A splintering noise came from upstairs. We turned as one. Where May's door had been, pale moonlight glowed behind something huge at the top of the stairs. May gasped. The thing began to move, lumbering down the stairs towards us at a frightening pace, and with unmistakable intent.
I grabbed May's arm. She snatched one of her suitcases. I grabbed my duffel bag. We ran for the entrance door. May was pushing urgently against me from behind as I fumbled with the handle. I pulled it open and glanced back over my shoulder. The dark thing had reached the bottom of the stairs and rushed for us. It was a bear, huge and black as the night. Its eyes were not the sort that any animal should possess. They glowed with a diffuse, colorless light. It was almost upon us.
We were out into the cold night, struck by sharp needles of ice on the driving wind. From behind us came a frightening roar. It overpowered the howling of the storm itself and somehow seemed to call my name. The roar drove back the snow for a moment and when it faded, the icy night collapsed upon us again. I gripped May's hand and, holding my duffel bag and keys in the other, pulled us through the deep snow towards my truck. Let the lock not be frozen, I prayed, let the key go in and turn and the door come open for us!
But the lock was frozen. I struck it with my fist, hoping to crack the ice, then jammed the key into it two, three times before it yielded to the key. Where was the bear? I had to jiggle the key before it would turn. The door was frozen in the frame and resisted my pull. I slammed my fist along the edges of it, striking it every few inches and yanking on the handle until it crackled and the door moved.
The cab was pitch black. I threw in my duffel bag inside, and then May's suitcase. I did not see the bear, but he had to be close, he should have already reached us. I helped May scramble into the cab. I leaped after her and pulled the door shut. With my fist I slammed down the lock pin.
May was making whimpering sounds beside me. I nearly dropped my keys but did manage to jam the correct key into the ignition. The engine turned over once, twice, three times. I stopped, then tried again. Once, twice, three times again. Once more I stopped. My hand shook. I took a deep breath and turned the key a third time. The engine roared to life. I turned to face May and we fell into each others arms. I was shaking as much as she, and I held her with a sense of desperation, as if letting her go would somehow undo our successful escape.
When we finally released each other we were still shaking. If the immediacy of our fear had diminished then the cold had taken its place. I was freezing and she was shivering violently. She stared at me, then touched my face with frozen fingers, exploring my right cheek especially. “It's really me,” I said and she nodded. I asked, “Are you okay?”
“I'll be okay,” she said, nodding.
The engine was not yet hot enough to yield any heat, so we searched our respective luggage for things to wear and keep us warm. In our haste to escape, I had left behind my boots, my pants, and my coat as well. And May had left the larger of her suitcases behind which had held most of her clothes; the one she had rescued contained mostly her camera equipment. I emptied out my duffel bag and we divided my clothes between the two of us. May had a pair of sneakers in her suitcase. I wore all of my socks and my spare jeans. From behind the seat I pulled a blanket and we huddled under that while the engine warmed up.
The storm continued to rage around us, shaking the truck periodically. At first we feared that the bear was attacking us and wondered how long my truck would withstand a concerted attack. But it became clear soon enough that it was merely the assault of the wind. Whatever had menaced us in the house seemed not to have pursued us outside. After a while we learned to relax through the shaking that the storm gave the truck. We spoke little. I was tired and would have liked to sleep. May professed to be worn out, too. The clock on the dashboard said it was just past two but my thoughts raced like caged animals, unable to escape the events of this night which replayed themselves endlessly in my mind.
May issued intermittent sighs. I found no sleep worth speaking of. By the time that morning broke, I felt numb but faintly happy for seeing the night's end at last. I stirred and when May jerked softly next to me, I realized that she, at least, had found a little rest. I cleared my throat and said, “It's morning. We should get started.”
She nodded, rubbing her eyes, and then yawning. The heater had melted all the snow off the windows. My uncle's house was a shadow rising against the faintly glowing morning sky. How simple our arrival had been, I thought, and how worn from fright and lack of sleep we left this morning.
“Please tell me that we got stuck somewhere last night,” said May, “and that I only had a horrible nightmare.”
“We got stuck somewhere,” I told her, “and you had a horrible nightmare.”
She shook her head, as if to tell me that I was wrong. “I'm still scared,” she admitted but I said, “We've a small problem.”
“My wallet is still in my other pants. I dropped them when we ran. All my money is in there, and my license, too.”
“I have money, can we just go?”
I nodded and put the truck in gear. Yes, I'd rather be fined or even arrested for driving without my license than set foot in my uncle's house again.
The storm had added at least a foot of fresh snow to the already existing layer and my truck had difficulty in the fresh cover, sliding more than steering. I feared that we might not be able to make it out, but I said nothing; I simply concentrated on keeping us moving forward and in as straight a line as possible. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw May pull a camera from her suitcase. She rolled down her window. The cold air made it clear just how hot it had become in the cab. Although I wasn't sure why she felt the desire to capture a memory, I stopped the truck to give her a steady shot. When the shutter clicked, I urged the truck forward again. She rolled the window up and said, “Thanks!”
It took us two hours to reach the bridge and from there, three more to make it to the plowed road. We were very nearly out of fuel, but May said that there was a gas station just a few miles west. By the time we reached it, the truck was riding on fumes. With the blanket wrapped around her like a giant skirt , May went inside to pay for the fuel while I filled up the truck. She returned with a bag full of drinks and junk food, as well as a much improved mood. She gave me a smile when she climbed back into the truck. To my surprise she leaned over and pulled me by the neck to give me a kiss.
“We made it,” she said. “I didn't really believe it until I saw the guy behind the counter and the TV.”
I managed a smile and nodded. “Yeah, we made it.”
I started the truck and pulled back onto the road. It was noon and May thought we should be able to make it to Claymont by four or five at the latest. The day remained overcast and the road seemed hardly used. For the first hour only two cars passed us going the other way.
“So you really went back into the cellar?” she asked when we had barely set out again.
“Yes, I followed a light. I thought my uncle was in the library, but he kept moving all over.”
“You didn't catch him?”
I shook my head. “Eventually he went down into the cellar but I didn't catch up with him there, either.”
“Why did you keep trying?”
“Well, I kept thinking that he was just toying with me, but now I think maybe he died ten years ago and his ghost is haunting the house.”
She didn't say anything, so I shot her a glance and she returned it and said, “I never believed in ghosts but after last night …”
“Yeah, me too. I just wish I knew what he wanted.”
“Did you leave on good terms with him? I mean ten years ago.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, of course. I loved to go there. I looked forward to those summers all year.”
“But how well did you get along with him?”
“I loved my uncle. He was everything my parents never were, he just let me be, do whatever I liked.”
“And now he's doing his best to scare you, that's weird.”
“He's even tried to kill me.”
“Yeah, that bear …”
“I meant down in the cellar. There was a stair I nearly stepped on, which wasn't there.”
“I don't understand.”
I explained how my lantern had seemed to stand there, but become as insubstantial as the stairs. She said nothing when I finished and I found her eying me, perhaps to ascertain whether she could believe anything I had said. “It's true,” I insisted, “I touched the stair and it felt like real stone. But when I wasn't actually looking at it I could put my foot right through it. It was really weird to see my foot sticking into the stone.”
“Maybe it didn't happen,” she said, “like you said that you didn't attack me. Maybe you dreamed it.”
“Then when did I wake up?” I asked her, “or am I still asleep?”
“That's what gets me, too. I didn't go back to sleep after that. How could I?”
“I saw my ex-girlfriend last night.”
“You did? I thought you were just saying that to mess with me.”
“No, Kirsten was really freaked out when she saw me but I made her promise to call me when I got back.”
“And what if she really calls?”
I shook my head. “I'm not sure what would freak me out more, knowing that it was all imagined or that it was real. How could I get to her house from that cellar? It doesn't make any sense.”
“Yeah, like you trying to rape me.”
“Do you believe me?”
“I believe what I see, Charlie. I'm not sure about the rest.”
We ate the sandwiches and drank the sodas she had bought. Both of us avoided further talk about last night and our conversation was halting from there on. Mostly it was because I pursued my own thoughts, feeling torn between telling her what I had seen in her room, and leaving well enough alone. I had so vehemently and, I suppose, successfully played up my ignorance that admitting to the truth now seemed only to make the lie that much worse. But I recalled, too, her dismay over the difference in our accounts.
I could not say that she had truly believed my denials, because the events had obviously been all too real for her. Would I be able to accept now, for example, if she told me that we had driven straight through, and not stopped at my uncle's place? I'd think her crazy, most likely, and if she somehow managed to convince me, how solid would be my acceptance of her tale? I would never shake the doubt, I suspected, and always think that she had tried to deceive me in some way. No, that was no way to build a relationship. Sneaking behind my parents back had not sat well with Kirsten, and starting in a similar direction with May would serve me no better this time around.
Unsure how to bring up the issue, I asked how she'd pick up her car again when it was fixed. One of her girlfriends might drive her, she said, unless the car was fixed by tomorrow, then she might impose on me to drop her off in Piny Vale on my way back home. I told her that I'd be glad to take her in that case; and she asked me about my friends and I asked her about hers; she told me what it was like to grow up in a tiny place like Powder Hill, and I told her about my life in suburbia. As much as our conversation flowed, it was also more forced than the previous day and the night before that. The effort, however, was obvious, and after a while she asked me, “What's wrong, Charlie?”
“What do you mean?”
She shrugged and fell silent, but then turned her head back to me and said, “Yesterday we couldn't shut up and now we can't talk.”
I sighed. “It's because of what happened,” I said.
“Don't blame yourself.”
“I … I don't,” I said and she began to speak but I interrupted her at once. “I believe what you said about me attacking you.”
“Thanks,” she whispered, obviously unsure what to make of that in light of my earlier claim that she must have dreamed it.
“No, I mean, … I saw it. I was in your room and I saw it happening.” She said nothing, but when I shot her a glance, she had fixed me out of the corner of her eye. “When I was in the cellar,” I continued quickly, “I came to an amphitheater, you know a circular, sunken place, sort of like a ―”
“I know what an amphitheater is.”
“Okay, right … So, there were eight corridors that led out of the place. I went past all those shelves, you know, and ended up in that place, but all the corridors had become lined with stone. The shelves were gone. Anyway, one of those corridors had those hologram stairs or whatever they were. There was another all covered in ice. One of them led to Kirsten's bedroom. Another led to your room.”
“The one from last night, with the race car pictures,” I replied. “I saw someone on the bed, holding you down.” She drew her breath in with a hiss. I pushed on, “When he looked at me, it was … someone who looked so much like me that it was like he was me.”
May's voice was a whisper when she said, “Oh my God!”
“I tried to talk to you, May, but you couldn't hear me, only he could. And then you scratched him and he tried to punch you. I grabbed his arm, he fell off the bed and tried to attack me.”
She gasped at this, which I took to mean that my account matched what she had witnessed. “It was the scariest thing, May, in a way even scarier than the bear that chased us.” I glanced at May and found that she had raised both hands to cover her face, but was staring at me through splayed fingers. I couldn't escape the feeling that I should probably have said nothing but the damage was done. “I tried to talk to you, but you didn't listen.”
“Slow down, Charlie!”
It took me a second before I realized that I had been speeding up gradually. I relaxed my foot and slowed down the truck.
“You knew all along what I was talking about, didn't you, in the kitchen?”
“I couldn't be sure, May.”
“You pretended that you had no clue!” Her voice was getting louder.
“I didn't know if it had really happened.”
“Then why would I have tried to defend myself from you, Charlie, wasn't that enough of a clue?”
“Oh, the rapist,” I intoned, “but that wasn't actually me, it was my evil twin or something. So, come on, take my hand, let's get out of here ― Would you have listened to me?”
“You should have told me the truth!”
“What truth, May? What if it was something totally different that scared you?”
“Please don't go so fast, you're scaring me!”
I cursed and got off the accelerator again. Just then, the road widened enough for me to pull over. With a glance in the rear view mirror, I pulled the truck to the side of the road and came to a stop.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Dammit, May, the only thing I'm actually guilty of is taking you to my uncle's place. He had wanted me to hurry and I was already running late or I would have dropped you off in Claymont first. I didn't expect anything to happen.”
“Then why did it happen, Charlie?”
“I don't know!” I slammed my fist on the steering wheel. “Maybe he was testing me, how should I know? But the last thing I need right now is for you to accuse me of some nefarious plan. I only did what I thought best and I'm sorry that it wasn't good enough.”
At first she seemed like she wanted to say something, but she closed her mouth again and nodded silently. I faced straight ahead again, but sank back in my seat, both arms extended against the steering wheel. “I wanted to be helpful,” I continued, my anger fading, “and give you a ride home because, you know, I liked you and you were nice and all that. I'm really sorry for the way last night turned out. But I suppose I can't ask you not to hate me for what I dragged you into.”
“I don't hate you, Charlie.”
I gave her a sidelong look. She shook her head.
“But what?” I asked.
“No but,” she insisted, but after a moment she said, “Maybe you were right about … you know?” I noted that she had purposely avoided the word 'lying' and I was grateful for that. She eyed me carefully, perhaps to judge my reaction. I shrugged. “It doesn't matter if I was right. I got us out of there, that's what matters most. And I didn't think it a good idea to start having secrets between us.”
“No,” she whispered and suddenly she seemed to relax just a bit. “Thank you, Charlie.”
She shrugged, but eyed me silently.
“What, for not chickening out,” I asked, “like I did with Kirsten?”
She lifted an eyebrow and a tiny smile formed on her lips. I reached for her hand and she let me take it; I pulled her towards me and she came; I kissed her. It was not a long kiss but she smiled throughout it and wore that smile for a while after I got the truck back on the road. We made good time for the rest of the way. By four o'clock we reached the outskirts of Claymont.
It was a small college town, run-down in some parts, nondescript in others. The area around the college worked hard at being retro-quaint. Her apartment was tiny but close to campus. An old couch stood under a large black and white picture, the only framed one in the whole place. The black frame held a black Mustang with the number ninety-six on its door. The machine leaned heavily into a turn, seeming alive against the blur of trees. Tiny pieces of gravel escaped the tyres, which gripped the harsh pavement with conscious effort. The light gleaming on the edges and the glow of the paint job was like sweat on a laboring animal. I could almost imagine the tension in its muscles and hear it roaring with effort.
“Sean's Black Stallion,” she said, standing next to me. “I'm impressed,” I said. “Your other pictures were incredible. This one is amazing.”
“Thank you,” she said, her voice almost a whisper.
“Oh, that's a piece of art.”
She looked up at me when I turned my head and smiled, and then she put her arms around my waist and hugged me long and tight.
✫ ✫ ✫
I didn't stay just one night but the next day and the following night, too, before I headed home. Although we were both exhausted, neither of us got much sleep that first night. After we got ourselves cleaned up from the ride, we fell into each others arms and from there, into bed. We spent half the night all over each other and the other half, trying to sleep. But the events at my uncle's were still too fresh in my mind. Every time I closed my eyes, I was afraid to wake up in that amphitheater again, only this time without the key and no way to escape.
Eventually, I slipped out of bed and made for the living room. There, I turned on a small light and sat in front of a pile of books stacked up against the wall and scanned the titles on their spines. Most of them were school related. Somewhere near the middle was one of short stories by various authors. I pulled it out and opened it to a random page. It was a story named Usher II by Ray Bradbury. I was intrigued by the title, lay down on the carpet before the light, and began to read.
Shortly, the light in the kitchen came on. I turned my head and watched May filling up a glass of water from a carafe out of the refrigerator. She drained it fast and then set it down on the counter, but held onto it for a moment. She sighed and released the glass to run her fingers through her hair. She looked my way and smiled. “What are you reading?”she asked and turned off the bright kitchen light before she sat down next to me.
“Short stories,” I said.
She glanced at the book and nodded. “Are you afraid you'll never be able to sleep again?”
“Yeah, I keep thinking I'll wake up in that cellar again and won't ever get out.”
She nodded and pointed at the book I held open with one hand. “I thought stuff like that happened only in stories, not in the age of airplanes and cars and TV, you know?”
“Makes you wonder if every story has a kernel of truth to it, no matter how crazy and far-fetched.”
“That's a scary idea,” she said.
“Even worse if you've read some of the stuff my uncle used to give me.”
“Poe and Lovecraft were his favorites.”
“And he gave those to you when you were … what, twelve?”
“God, it almost makes sense, the whole craziness, everything that happened.”
Yes, I wondered now at his love of horror stories. Was it the stories that turned him and the house crazy, or were the stories merely a part of the whole thing, a symptom among so many, or a hint of things that he could not say directly?
“You know,” said May, “we could write a book about last night and nobody would believe that it really happened.”
“Sure, why not?”
“Would it sell?”
“Stephen King sells,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
“Sure, but he's an established author. And he can write.”
“I'm taking writing classes,” she said. “I'm not too bad, I could get better.”
“Hey, I may have been stupid when I was younger but I goes to college now and I learns real good.”
I laughed. “I meant about actually writing a story.”
“Sure, so long as you're up to it. We'll write it together.”
I let her suggestion sink in for a moment. She added, “I think it could be like therapy and help us sleep better. And if it totally sucks, we'll burn it.”
Other than the fact that we lived two day's drive apart and our collaboration would be difficult on those grounds alone, there was no good reason not to try it. What did I have to lose?
“Okay,” I said, “I think I'm with you on this.”
I nodded. “Yeah, really. I don't know how this is actually going to work, but as you said, if it totally sucks we'll burn it.”
She grinned and stuck her hand out. I took it and we shook on it. I felt an enormous sense of relief at this, as if I was suddenly not alone anymore. Even when I returned home there would remain with me a link to May that transcended that harrowing night at my uncle's place, and a sleepless night of love with her.
In the morning, May went out to fetch us breakfast from the deli down the road. She took a bit longer than I had expected, but brought me a pair of boots, too. They were a little large but she said we'd go later to exchange them. At least I didn't have to go there wearing only socks. We did that and spent the rest of the day making plans for our project.
The next day I headed home.
May had given me money for fuel and enough extra for two nights in a motel. I told her I'd send it back to her, but she had laughed and insisted that she'd only accept it back in form of a dinner out.
The two-day drive was blissfully uneventful. My parents had left messages that Aunt Adele had died and they were working on funeral arrangements. From the date of the message I found that she had died the night that May and I had escaped from my uncle's house. I did not know what that meant for my uncle's health, but something told me that he had been right in his letter.
My parents arrived the day after my return. They did not mention my uncle and I did not mention my trip. A week later a large envelope arrived in the mail. My heart leaped. It was addressed only to Charlie and the dot over the 'i' was shaped like a tiny heart. Inside was a large, black and white photograph that May had taken of my uncle's house on the morning of our departure, and a hand written letter:
I miss you Charlie. I couldn't sleep for two nights without you here. I thought I was going crazy. Then I got a call that my Mustang is fixed. My friend Lindsey is driving me in the morning. I'm so happy. I'm going to kiss that car, I think. Are you still up for our writing project? I'm a little scared but I want to do it. So what did your parents say when you got back from your trip? How is your aunt? And did you actually hear from your ex? Please write back when you can! xxxoooxxx May.
P.S. Take a close look at the picture. You may need a magnifying glass.
I spent several minutes scanning the picture before I came across May's face staring at me from one of the windows. Moments later I found my own face in another window. One side of the face seemed darker than the other, as if to remind me of the injury that May had inflicted. My heart was pounding and I felt every hair on my body standing up. Our faces were tiny and indistinct, but I had no doubt of what I saw.
It seemed that we had not escaped my uncle's place after all.