“For me, the short story is the depth of a novel, the breadth of a poem, and, as you come to the last few paragraphs, the experience of surprise.” -Amy Bloom
I won’t tell you what I know now, but I’ll tell you what I didn’t know then. When I moved into this small Victorian cottage, no one warned me. They didn’t tell me of the legendary tales of a haunted house. They didn’t utter a word of the mystery surrounding an ancient building. Not one of my new neighbors told me stories of the house’s former tenants disappearing; of their warm coffee cups still sitting on the table and their laundry left in the washing machine. They welcomed me to their small town, greeting me at the door with homemade casseroles and pound cakes. They stared at me with lying eyes, knowing that it might happen to me, too.
Who am I, you ask? I’d tell you, but I don’t even know. Perhaps I was a doctor or a lawyer, moving into town to start my practice or even a curious journalist or an illustrious businessman. I’m not sure. All the details are blurred, faded quietly from memory.
On that first day, I arrived at Beryville, a small community in South Carolina, in the early morning hours. I unloaded my boxes from the truck and set to work cleaning my new home. It appeared that no one had lived there for some time. Dust covered every surface and hung in the air like an unanswered question.
Through the front door was the great room. The master bedroom and guest bedrooms were down the hallway to the right. To the left, there was the parlor, the kitchen, and the library.
In the library, wall to ceiling shelves were unoccupied. As I dusted them, I could smell the aroma of old books and tobacco smoke. There was an indentation on the worn rug where a chair had been sitting by the fireplace. I pictured a former owner perusing through history books, smoking on his pipe, and being warmed by the fire during a long winter. Above the mantel, there was a portrait of just such a man. He stood tall, looking distinguished with a gray beard on his chin and a top hat gracing his head. He looked the epitome of an elegant Victorian male, with a vest and ascot peeking out beneath a long coat. But what stood out to me most were his eyes. The color wasn’t extraordinary, as they were only a muddy brown hidden beneath bushy gray eyebrows, but they were piercing. Almost wild, they stared right back at me, seeming to give this warning: “Leave. Leave while you can.”
I blinked, willing the sight away. “I’ve been in here too long. The dust must be getting to me,” I thought and left the room to do some unpacking. As I emptied every box, it was like opening up my memory bank: old papers I’d written in college, the heavy bedspread my grandmother gave me for colder nights, and the t-shirts I’d earned from running in charity races. These were all items I hadn’t mulled over in a long time.
Gradually, I set up each room, so it began to feel more like a home. Every room was filled with treasured pieces, but my favorite room was still the library. The shelves weren’t entirely full of books yet, but some of them were filled with my books and that’s all that mattered.
One evening, I considered starting a fire for the first time. The nights were getting cooler and this night was especially freezing. I stood in front of the fireplace and found myself staring at the portrait of the man again. I wonder who he was. I peered at his penetrating eyes and, for a moment I swore they moved. It seemed as if he looked down quickly and then back up again. I looked down also and saw the fireplace. Scratching my chin, I moved as close as I could to it without burning myself, laughing at what I was doing. I stuck my head inside the mantel and looked all around. As I turned my head to the right, I saw that the fireplace was a lot deeper than I had imagined. The marble of the bottom stopped after a few inches and the wooden floor of a hallway began. It continued to the right inside the fireplace, enticing me to travel down it. I looked back at the library as if someone was watching and then shrugged as I went all the way into the fireplace and started down the hallway.
At the end, there was only one room. There was no door; only an opening for one. The floors inside were made of the same antique wood as the hallway. There were windows on two of the walls. The moon shone through one of them, eerily. There was nothing in the room. It was completely empty other than the layer of dust covering the entire area and dancing in the air. What was truly odd was that it was completely silent. The walls in this room didn’t creak like the others. I could feel a cool wind, but it didn’t make a sound. The only thing I could hear was my beating heart. There was something mysterious about this room, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
As I walked closer to the room, I could hear my footsteps, but they sounded like an echo; like a sound bouncing back from a black hole. I paused for a moment in confusion, but continued as my curiosity was piqued.
With one foot inside the room, I stopped. It had vanished right before my eyes. I could feel my right foot on the cold floor, but couldn’t see it. Paralyzed with fear, I looked into the room as I slowly reached my right hand in. It disappeared as soon as it was inside. All I could do for the next five minutes was put it inside the room and then take it out slowly. Magic? Sorcery? An illusion? I had to know.
So, I immersed myself fully into the cold room and saw people. There were boys and girls and men and women of different ages and races moving slowly around the room like depressed zombies. They weren’t alive, but they weren’t dead either. Their innocent-looking eyes were blank as they shuffled across the floor. I wondered who they used to be. The blonde girl in the corner could have been a college student studying to be a nurse. The middle-aged male in faded overalls looked like a farmer. A young boy and girl held hands, looking straight ahead. Surely, they were best friends who chased each other around during recess. I mourned for these strangers. Their lives were cut short by death or a sort of eternal purgatory. They wandered this small room without genuinely seeing or feeling anything. It pricked my heart, but also made me yearn for their simple existence.
There’s something in my past I can’t remember. Was it unrequited love or a broken heart? Had I been running from the law or buried deeply in debt? Mistakes or burdens, I remember wanting to forget something. In that moment, I made a decision. I decided to join the serene dance of these lost people. I roamed around the room, trying to find my place in the somber choreography. With heavy steps, I beat out their rhythm with my feet. I kept their slow pace for a minute and then felt my brain go numb. Flashes from my past haunted me for a while, but then they were gone.