Why Was Your Life Hidden Within the Walls of a Modern American Home?
You went missing on July 16th, just two days before your twenty-seventh birthday. Two weeks later, I was standing in the amber glow porchlight of a neglected gable front house, unsure if the key you gave me would fit in the lock.
Three days passed since I crossed through the threshold of that seemingly innocuous front door, and now I am sitting at the small, round breakfast table with my back pressing against the far wall of the cramped, wall-papered kitchen.
I found a box of old photos stashed away under the belly of the bed in the upstairs master bedroom. I’m sorting through them now under the dim light of your old kitchen. I don’t know if you intended for me to find it. I don’t know if you intended for me to be here alone for days, cranky and bored and uncertain. With my back straight against the chair, I sip at a forgotten coffee that had been poured when I first set the box on the table. Cold and bitter. I’ve been sorting through this box for hours now—a discolored paper carton, the brand Staples scratched out and replaced with photos underneath in thick black marker. Your life is separated into piles upon this weathered breakfast table. Years sorted with years, and unnamed faces stacked on the edge, teetering, threatening to topple over for as large as the stack has grown. Who are these people, Cass? Why am I finding yellowed photos of you hanging about them, laughing, your arms wrapped around shoulders and waists, kissing and holding hands? Look, before you start, I’m not jealous. Your life outside of me is your own, and I have no right to question it, but why did you never tell me?
Warm tears swell in my eyes, and I blink them away. I stand, scraping the legs of the aged wooden chair against the laminate tile-illusion of a kitchen that hadn’t been renovated since the early eighties. I pour the rest of the cold coffee down the drain, stale mocha lingering on my breath, and watch as the creamy brown liquid splatters against the sides of white porcelain sink. My natural instinct is to wash it out, but I do not. I want the sugar to stain the memories here, the ones you had without me.
There was also a box in the closet of the master bedroom. I didn’t grab it before—my hands were full of the first carton—but I am going to it now, climbing the creaky staircase carpeted with burgundy-colored shag to hide the discoloration of alcohol stains. While it may have hidden the splashes of berry-flavored red wines and margarita mixes that we used to sneak and drink on the small roof balcony, it was useless against concealing the musk of dust mites and wet dog. Within the wood-paneled closet—really? Wood-paneling? —I move aside pleather jackets and felt dresses to reveal the carton buried under two sets of Mary-Janes and a fallen turtle-neck sweater. The box is labeled Sera.
Cass, who’s Sera? Were they important to you? They must have been, considering the designated box, but you never told me about them—you never brought them up when we talked about exes—but maybe you did, and I wasn’t listening. I was lost in the sound of your voice, but never in the words you spoke. Did Sera listen to you, Cass? Did they love you?
I tear the lid off, scotch tape ripping down the sides of the weak cardboard construction. There is a photo album on top, pink and gold and frilly—not your style, or I thought wasn’t your style—and miscellaneous objects, miscellaneous junk. I dig through the box, setting the album to the side (I will deal with that later), and I just find shit. Dusty clothes, disfigured origami animals, an orange tabby cat beanie baby, its once-soft fur matted around the sides of its belly, a dead Tamagotchi, and letters. So many folded letters in girlish, bubble pencil, “To Cass.” I open one. A love letter, sickeningly syrupy and gooey like a pack of warm Gushers, the sides of the notebook paper letter is embellished with pink hearts drawn in sparkling gel pen and cat doodles. How cute. How disgustingly cute.
I fold the letter back up and place it into the box with the rest of the senescing junk. Why do you keep any of this? Did you store it and forget about it? Packaging up all of your memories of this person and stashing them away deep into the mess of an old closet of an old house you never planned to revisit. Is that why you sent me here; do you wish to store and forget about me until one day when you’re feeling nostalgic, you can turn the lock on the front door and find my skeletonizing remains sitting on your living room couch? I hope you find my gouged eyes reflecting in the old family tube TV whose wires were long ago chewed by a rodent, a rodent that also chewed the valves of my rotting heart, his tiny furry body stashed away within the closet of my ribcage.
I shove the box away from me and stand, tucking the photo album under my arm to add to the rest of the photos downstairs. I should leave it. It’s probably not worth the heartache. I take it anyway.
Before I head downstairs, I stop and look into the open bathroom on the right, dab in the middle of the two upstairs bedrooms in a short hallway. I see myself in the gold-rimmed mirror, face dark from the back-lit illumination of the gable-window that overlooked the foyer. I’m a mess—a crying, blotchy mess. For a moment, I don’t recognize myself—the deep brown eyes are not mine, nor is mellow-brown hue and maroon-tinted cheeks. There are bags under my eyes and a tiredness down to my bones. I feel like someone else. Someone else is staring back. My heart flutters for only a moment, sudden anxiety peaking, pulsing through me as I remember the childish tales of Bloody Mary. In a rush, I shut the bathroom door and flee downstairs to the confines of the kitchen. It was silly, I know, but you know I believe demons are real.
The album slips from my hand onto the table as I head to the coffee maker. Still warm. I fill a clean cup and add some sugar and lean my lower back against the countertop, staring at the table. The album calls to me. I can’t pull my eyes from it. Do I really want to know, Cass?
Against my better judgement, the album lid opens under my fingertips. Yellowing photos, some with water stains. Some photos from a Polaroid, some that look like they had been printed from a Walgreens, grainy and blurred. Dates from as early as 1996. Prom. Prom dresses, but you were in a suit. I remembered you that night with your navy-blue Guess suit and tawny beige hair slicked back. You wore those stupid gold-rimmed glasses. Those oval ones with the red tinge, remember? The album also has college photos, ’98 and ’99—first day and last—happy you and happy friends, laughing, smoking joints, playing some sort of lute that I can’t truly identify, open mic night, SNL live shows. You and Sera.
I squint at the blurred faces. Why do they look familiar? Did you introduce me to them? They’re with you in every single picture. Yeah, they’re with you in the prom photo under the balloon arch. They’re in a muted, metallic green dress, sheening golden under the floodlights. Golden leaf headband in their dark brown hair, feathery bangs hanging right above bright brown eyes. Golden eyeshadow and body glitter gleaming like metallic sand over a Saharan dessert sunset. They’re there again with you at college—the two of you posing in front of a boxy black Impala. God, you look so fucking happy.
The coffee mug went bottoms up, attached to my lips, downed. I stare at the white popcorn ceiling as the mug settles back onto the table. My eyes fall across to the front door across the way on the left side of the house’s front wall. My eyes drift farther into the open-floor living room, to the bay window and the dingy dog bed. They meet a set of brown eyes staring back at them. I yelp, hand jumping to mouth. My hand falls. It's just me. It’s just a mirror. I thought... I thought I had taken that down? The octagonal one in the living room? Your parents loved that mirror. I took it down the first day I got here, afraid I’d see ghosts behind me by the microwave. I look over myself again. Dark brown hair, darker eyes. Golden yellow light shimmers on beading sweat over ochre skin. Premonition bubbles with bile in my stomach.
The photos. I look over them again. Cass, who is this in the photos? A doppelgänger? A face-stealer? A Skinwalker? Who am I to you? Am I just a second-hand to you? Am I a replacement?
No. Fucking hell. Who are you? And who are you to think that you can use me this way? I just want the fucking truth, Cassandra. Why did you leave? Why did I find an envelope on my dining table with this address on it and the key inside? Why didn’t you tell me anything at all? Who the fuck is Sera?
It needs to come down. Now. I strut across the room and try to tear the mirror off. Digging my fingertips behind the frame, I tug. Black-painted nails snap, peeling back flesh in the process. I scream as sharp pain runs through my knuckles to my wrists. I pull back. Fingers red and bloodied. It must come down. Down. Now. I throw the porcelain coffee mug at the sneering face of the mirror. I shatter it. One throw.
The lights above the breakfast table flicker. I glance over at the five-bulb chandelier, yellow-gold and dust-covered. The lights go off.
Thud. It came from upstairs, from the master bedroom. Like a door slammed. Footsteps. Cass, there are footsteps upstairs. I’ve been alone for three days. Cass, where is Sera now?
It’s echoing now. Down the carpeted steps. Frames on the staircase wall clatter under each step. It’s in the kitchen now, Cass. The chair moves. Then the photos scatter through the air, swiftly off the table, furiously fluttering. Oh, God, Cass. Wailing. It started sobbing. No, maybe that’s me. I can’t tell. Someone’s crying, Cass, and I can’t fucking see. I hear it tearing up the photos. The chair is bumped. The chair is thrown, clattering against the fridge, smashing the coffee pot. It’s screaming. The lights are flickering again, strobing.
I stumble back, slicing my feet on the shattered mirror. I feel the wall behind me and inch towards the front door. Locked. The door is locked. The door is locked. The door is locked. I fall to my knees, trapped. It’s going to get me.
The chandelier bulbs flash; they release a high-pitched buzzing that gets louder and louder, then pop pop pop. Filaments disconnecting. It’s dark again.
Bang. Deafening, I tense, body paralyzed for a moment as my head absorbs a sharp echo of thunder, as lightning illuminates the first floor through the scattered windows.
I saw a shadow, Cass. Only for a moment. It was at the table.
In the dark, I feel the pitter-patter of raindrops against the living room windows. The rain is coming in. Slowly, the chandelier light grows from dark to dim, two bulbs survived. The chandelier sways slightly over the table. There’s blood splattered on the window, Cass. The one facing the table. Rain is coming in from shattered parts of window.
To my right, the front door handle jiggles. I want to cry. I can’t move. The door swings open and my stomach drops. It’s you.
Where the fuck have you been? But before I could unleash the wrath of pent-up questions that bubble inside of me, you extinguish all of that, all of the rage and screaming I was about to spew from volcanic boiling. From dry lips you say one word:
I choke on a scoff, “Who’s Sera?”
How Tommy Jenkins Disappeared
He was screaming. It was upsetting them. He was screaming, and he wouldn’t stop. Shut up, she yelled at him, stopping her little foot and balling her little fists. But he didn’t stop screaming.
She silenced him. Not with a shush, but with a slice. A fast, meaningful slice.
His tiny body collapsed, knees buckling, landing hard on the ground before he tipped backward. He landed on the dewy, leaf-padded ground with a delicate thud. They hissed, angry and bitter; sharp and overwhelming, their voices crawled up her spine, lingering on her nape with intense pain. They scolded her in an ancient tongue raspy in her head, chittering and guttural. She pressed the palms of her hands to her ears and flopped to the ground next to Tommy, tucking her legs to the side within the folds of her skirts. They made her dizzy when they buzzed in her head, made her eyes lose focus. She didn’t understand what they were saying, but she knew what they said because she felt what they said.
Their voices stopped—they had given their instruction.
She leaned forward over his body, regaining sense of the world. She pushed down any doubts that crawled within her and began her duty. First, she peeled off his Sunday clothes, leaving on his breeches, of course. He was sticky, his body swelling from the sweltering summer heat. She choked at the stench—soiled and musty and sharp like ammonia. It was suffocating between the fetor, the incalescence of summer, and her own bonnet and layers of skirts strangling her every breath. Yet, she could not falter.
She bent over at his feet and wrapped her hands around his ankle, small fingers laced together for a better grip against the slimy flesh. She pulled him, leaning all of her weight back towards the direction she needed him to go. When she pulled, something popped from him. She dropped his leg. It fell to the side at the knee, bent in an abnormal way.
They screeched. Useless child. If she couldn’t bring him in one piece, they wanted him in five.
She sniffled, warm tears swelling in her eyes. That was going to take so much longer. It wasn’t her fault that he was heavy. Wiping away the tears with her palms, she turned and stomped off to retrieve help. A moment later, she returned with papa’s hatchet dragging behind her through the mud and leaves. The hatchet itself was more than half her height. She huffed and steadied herself in a wide stance at Tommy’s side. She gripped the hatchet with both hands and reared it up behind her head, aiming for the soft part between his upper leg and his private area.
They howled again, and she crumpled, hands over ears, dropping the hatchet behind her. She was doing it wrong. Why can’t I use the hatchet? It splinters the bone. Use the handsaw. But the handsaw takes so much longer.
With a pout, she left again and returned, this time with a handsaw lifelessly hanging from her fingertips. The sun was already peeking at noon. They would be searching for them soon, wondering where the two of them had gone. She needed to hurry.
Right leg. Left leg. Right arm. Left arm. She dismantled him as quickly as she could, which was not very quick at all. Her thin arms got tired easily and sawing through bone was an easier idea than it was actually to do. Still, he was easier to take apart than the deer. He was smaller, skinnier, more flexible. The sun was past noon. She leaned back on her haunches and dropped the saw, letting out an exhausted sigh. She had to return to Sunday school. She would be back, she assured them. Maybe not tonight. They’d ask questions tonight. She’ll return another night, when the moon is brighter and she can see without a lamp.
Standing up, she patted Tommy’s soft brown hair, promising her return. He was a good friend, even if he did pull at her hair and call her names sometimes. They still had fun, running through the wheat fields playing touch-tap and baking mudpies on rainy afternoons. Perhaps, she thought, when this was done, she could play with him again one day, out in some fields somewhere. She thought, at least once, that maybe she would try to kiss him even though he said girls were icky.
It was time to go. She brushed off her skirts and swept back her fawn-colored locks, tucking them unkemptly under her bonnet. She collected a bundle of leaves and placed them on top of his body parts, concealing him against prying eyes. After a few minutes' walk, she emerged from the woods into the opening of the church play yard where the rest of her and Tommy’s class huddled around Missus Williams who was halfway through counting the bobbling heads of children. She strode forward to join them. Red faces and snotty noses turned to face her. A few gasps erupted. Missus Williams turned.
“Isabella!” she said, “Where on God’s green earth have you—”
She shrieked. The children shrieked, too. Isabella looked down at her skirts and cursed at herself for there was blood everywhere.
A Man Named Ezra Davis
It’s called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Or, in simple terms, the Recency Bias or Frequency Illusion. It’s the circumstance that you start noticing the same object or phrase wherever you go. Most people experience this when they play “punch buggie” and suddenly a surge of Volkswagen Beetles emerge from seemingly nowhere, or when they run across a new word in something they’ve read and now they don’t understand how they’ve never seen the word before. For me it was a man.
He first appeared in the parking lot of my workplace. We had just locked up and only the cleaning crew lingered in the building. A chill whistled in the night air, initiating the late summer dying down and being replaced by discolored flora and sepia décor.
A man stood by my car. He wasn’t touching it, just standing by the rear driver’s side door. Despite parking my car under a lamp, shadows enshrouded his face. I stopped about twenty feet away and yelled at him.
“Hey,” I said, “Who are you? Get away from my car.”
He made no effort to move. Instead, his body flickered under the lamp. I didn’t blink.
My fingers fumbled around my keychain, seeking the pepper spray. Something smelled harsh, like composting soil. I kept my hand from my nose. “Get away from my car. I’m going to call the police.”
Behind me, car lights scattered the darkness around us. A car door opened. My co-worker Janina called out, “Hey, are you okay?”
I turned. Their head poked out from atop their door as they stood half out of their car. I turned back. He vanished. My fingers tightened around the pepper spray as I scanned the nearby lot. Without turning back, I called out to Janina, “Yeah, I’m okay. Just wait until I get in my car?”
I stepped towards it cautiously. As I got within a few feet of the door, I jumped, pulled the handle, slid into the driver’s seat, locked the door, and started the engine. The tires squealed as I pulled out of the parking lot with Janina following behind me. I drove home, but while I drove, my eyes flitted to the rear-view mirror. He was not in my car. I checked. Double-checked. It was okay. It was going to be okay.
He surfaced more and more after that. I called him stranger man. I’d see him on my way to work, admittedly in better light, standing on the sidewalks. He looked normal in the sun. Like a tall, brown-haired man with tan skin. Not unattractive. He appeared on my way home, during lunch rushes at the nearby sushi place, and during quick grocery store stops. We live in the same town, so generally I wouldn’t be surprised. But what got me was that he always stood still. Standing still and staring at me. He never arrived or left. He never followed me—physically, at least; he never chased after me or walked. I never saw him walk. He just stood, and I walked until he was outside of my line of sight, and when I came back around, he was gone. When I first started seeing him around town, I screamed. But after a few months, he became a normalcy. Compost scent and all.
I tried not to look at him too closely, for every time I did, he seemed to get closer to me without moving. Like my eyes dragged him closer. Maybe that wasn’t true. It certainly felt like it. Yet, he also seemed to hover. Not off the ground, but his presence was looming. Energy pulsed through him, shifting parts of him. I looked away. He disappeared.
Months later, I saw him on the news. His photo popped up next to the anchor’s. Car accident. One dead. His vehicle had rolled over off the highway, down into the ditch. It rolled five times before finally landing upside down in a local soybean field, the one right off the highway exit. His vehicle was the only one involved. No one who saw the accident reported it, if anyone had seen it at all. Some passerby called it in. The news said the police were still investigating. The autopsy reported clean—no traces of alcohol or drugs in his system at the time of death. Maybe it was suicide. Or maybe there was a bee—he's probably allergic to bees. Either way, he lost control of the vehicle and rolled. Hit his head and died.
After the car accident, I called him the burning man. He continued to follow me, stagnant and stoic. Yet, instead of compost, he smelled like fire. Well, no. More like burning, fire burning wood. Like charcoal. Like a grill being prepped for Fourth-of-July burgers by one of your neighbors. You could only see the smoke above the tree line, but couldn’t tell which neighbor you had to curse for not inviting you to a cookout with people you never knew and never cared to know. The scent was inviting, but then it turned vile. Still burning, but melting. Rubber. Melting rubber like a trash fire, you could feel the heat pulse from the flames of tires and cured furniture broken and slashed. The scent that rolled off of the burning formaldehyde stung your eyes and dried your throat, catching your breath deep down into your lungs. You couldn't breathe that stuff in. It was poisonous, it could kill you.
Since the accident, I had only saw him once. That one time to take in the reek of rubber and burnt leather. I told him off. I yelled at him, “Go away!” While retching. He left. The smell still lingered, but he took the hint. I only saw him once more after that.
I now call him the melting man. I thought he was gone for good. But there he stood, right in front of me. He just stared. My knuckles tightened on the steering wheel as I faced him again, headlights spotlighting him like I played a technician and he played a showman.
First started a low moaning then slap... slap... slap. He moved towards me. From the center of the street he walked towards me, or I should say trudged, for each step forward appeared to take great effort, slow and painful as he pulled one leg from behind him and slapped it on the paved road ahead. Slap. He was quite literally melting, the skin of him sagging in rolls like sap down a trunk, like river sludge in massive folds. His skin bubbled and popped like hot tar, pouring from him and sticking to the pavement as he moved forward, pulling his legs from the ground. Slap... slap. I inhaled, long and deep. He was coming for me. My stranger man. His bulging eyes reflected revenge, and in them I saw the pile of burning metal. A little red Beetle in a soybean field.
The Disappearance of Thomas Jenkins
I stood alone. There was nothing but darkness, and through the dark I couldn’t make out where I was. Fog enshrouded my mind, dizzying and heavy. I took a step forward and the floor cracked like fragile glass, yet it was solid. The feeling of where I was is hard to describe, but I would say it was a cavern—an infinite cavern that exposed you, body and soul. I felt watched, evaluated, assessed.
A light clicked on behind me, the click echoed into the cavernous—carnivorous—void. I turned and saw three doors. They stood separated; metal doors erected in metal frames. I was plated ten feet from them, unmoving. Curious fear kept me rooted. For moments I just stared, and they stared back at me—faceless, immovable, rapacious. I lingered at the base of them, unsure what they were supposed to mean or why I was there. I couldn’t recall what brought me to them, but that growing curiosity needed to know more.
Like a sharp trowel, that curiosity uprooted me, and I stepped towards to door on the right. I knocked a singular, hard knock. Silence. I blinked. I was... disappointed. Shaking the clouding doubt, I stepped to the left and tried the second door. Knock, knock. I stepped back, feeling too close to the looming frame. Silence. Huh. I tried shaking the doubt back again, but it clung to me. I moved anyway to the farthest left door and tried again. Knock, knock, knock.
Excited, yet uncertain, I touched the door handle. My fingers danced on it, contemplating, configuring the worth. Burying apprehension, I grasped the handle firmly, turned the knob, and pushed.
Noon sun rose high in a clear blue sky, warming earthy open fields and dispersing long shadows of white pined forest that enveloped our comely cottage. I stood near our front door in sweat-drenched working clothes awaiting the return of my wife and children.
Small steps sounded, padding down the dirt path that led from the town’s country roads to our enclosed cottage. One after the other, racing, my eldest daughter, Isabella, ran from the distance. Her pale-yellow Sunday dress whipped behind her; her Bible bag dragged in the dirt. She ran, then leapt into my arms as I held them out to catch her into an embrace.
“Papa!” She was seven at the time. “You’ll never guess what happened, Papa!”
Hoisting her on my hip, I matched her playful tone, “What is it? What happened?”
“Tommy Jenkins went to Hell today!” she squealed, an excited gleam in her honey-golden eyes.
A slight pause. The corners of my mouth dropped, “What happened?”
“Tommy Jenkins went to Hell! We were playing in the field after Sunday class, and when we went into the forest blue flames went all around him!” Her bottom started to slip, and I set her down, looking up at my wife who was coming up the path with our two younger boys holding each hand. Solemnity on her face.
Isabella continued. “And then...and then I screamed and then he screamed, and a big hand came from under him that had blue flames all over it, and it took him to Hell!”
My stomach churned. I felt bile rising into my throat and I gulped it down, blinking, shaking my head, trying to make sense of Isabella’s words. I looked down at her, “It did what?”
“Tommy Jenkins disappeared!”
She gleaned and ran off towards the house as my wife, Jane, approached with the two younger boys. Jane stopped by my side and nudged the preschooler boys to follow, then she placed a free hand on my shoulder and a kiss on my cheek. She was sympathetic.
I looked at her, “She told you?”
“She did,” Jane lowered her voice and leaned in, “Tommy went missing.”
She nodded and continued, “The other children in the class think it was Isabella.”
“What?” I spat, fury digging into my spine, “They think she did what?”
“Well,” she started softly, “some of their classmates told Miss Williams they saw Isabella and Tommy walking off into the forest. She came back, but he never did.”
I couldn’t believe it, “And that’s their theory? Isabella hurt him? He could have wandered and gotten lost. Maybe she came back to tell them that.”
Jane tried to smile, but it only scrunched her face into deep concern. With tears welling in her eyes, she choked out, “They said things. They said when she came back, she seemed to be confused. She didn’t know where she was, and they said that—that her eyes were...” her voice dropped to a whisper, “they were glowing blue.”
I scoffed, “This is ridiculous.”
“No, Jane, this is ridiculous. I won’t have the town thinking our daughter is some—some monster. I’ll deal with them later, but we won’t discuss it further.”
She nodded and touched my shoulder again lightly before walking on toward the house, clearing the tears from her eyes.
The door slammed shut as I was pushed back out of a memory. Heavy breaths caught in my throat and I stood panting, blinking, trying to get rid of the visions. My heart pounded. Long-forgotten pain and anger the anger and the disbelief flooded back into me. I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t want to do this—to cycle through memories. I missed his family—Jane and Isabella, Isaac and Gabriel. I wanted to go home.
I leaned back and looked up. Darkness. I could find no roof, nor the origin of the spotlight above. I examined the other two doors. They were frightening, but I needed to know. What was the purpose of this? A cruel joke? Punishment? Punishment by whom? Isabella, Jane, the Minister, the townspeople, Joseph? God maybe, on behalf of Joseph.
I spoke to him one day—Joseph—a couple weeks after the search parties for Tommy dispersed. He sat on a pew at the front of the nave in the church. He was staring up at the carving of Jesus, crucified, bound; a wooden, flowing sash caressed his shoulders, sauntered down over his bare chest and wrapped around his groin, lacing at his ankles. His hands and feet bleed red paint, dripping eternally down the woodgrain. The carving was from one solid oak. I was there when they cut the tree down for it. The carver, Johann, passed away a few years ago. Heart attack.
The church door closed behind me with a clank, echoing in the high ceilings. Joseph didn’t move. He didn’t turn back to look. It was only us at the church during this mid-day. I walked and sat at the pew across the aisle from him.
After a few minutes of silence, Jospeh looked over at me. His whole body turned, and he looked down at the floor, eyebrows squished together in a fuzzy ridge. Purple bags lined sunken eyes. His mouth was half open, as if about to say something to me. He looked up. I looked away.
“John...” he said.
I looked back. He smiled. He didn’t say anything else in that moment. His head turned again and he was staring at Jesus, pinned to the cross. I studied him then, for as long as I could. He looked tired, yet at some sort of peace. Despite the crow's feet spreading from his eyes and the frown lines formed around his lips, he looked almost like his younger self—at peace; free from the worries that parenthood brings you. His hand went to something around his neck. His thumb ran slowly across a silver cross on a silver chain. Joseph spoke again, eyes still fixed on the figure, “How is your family, John?”
“Fine,” I said. “Just fine.”
He nodded. “This was supposed to be Tommy’s.” He raised the cross on the chain, taut as he held it out.
“Oh?” I said.
“It was to be his fifteenth birthday gift. Handed down from my lineage. Always on the fifteenth, as a coming-of-age.”
“Oh,” I said again.
Joseph continued, “I think I shall bury it.”
“Yes, bury it. At the base of Tommy’s headstone. Is that a good idea?”
“Maybe it is,” I said.
Joseph nodded, “I think that perhaps his soul will be able to find its way to Heaven if it has Jesus as his guide, would you agree?”
“Oh, well, yes. Most certainly.”
“Then,” he looked over to me and held my gaze for only a moment before looking back at the crucifix on the wall. “I shall bury it.”
No. This would never have been a punishment requested by him. He was too kind. He made peace with us. I looked at the doors again, erected before me. I needed to know what the purpose of this was. I walked to the second door and knocked. Instead of a steady knock in return, there came a child’s cry. At first, it was soft sobbing, then it became a shriek. I flung the door open to find myself dragged back into the memory I least wanted to relive.
Rays of stained-glass light streamed through the church in the orange, dusking afternoon. Years ago, this place had been a solace to me. It gave me hope for a future, guidance for myself and my children, and peace when I could talk to God without worry. No longer did the rows of creaky pews and the trampled, red runner provide a path to salvation. No more could I look upon the white walls with golden oak trim and find comfort. Tonight, the air of the church only fermented my decaying faith.
Adolescent Isabella bawled in the open center of the chancel, the center of the cross. The young village minister, Josiah, stood tall in front of her, his back facing the alter. He held a wooden bowl in the flat of his left palm that contained a mixture of salt and water. He pushed Isabella to her knees and placed his right hand on her forehead. In a rough semi-circle around them stood Jane, our sons, and a gathering of townsfolk that lived in their small community.
I met eyes with Joseph and his wife. He looked away, color rising into his cheeks. I felt the heat rise in mine. We had been such good friends before Tommy went missing. Now, they distanced themselves. Joseph sympathized with me at first, telling me that he didn’t believe Isabella would harm Tommy. They pushed away the other townsfolk and forgave us. Yet, they still shut us out. I didn’t blame them. I was only grateful we hadn’t been hunted.
The ceremonial gatherers were mostly quiet, patiently waiting for the exorcising to begin, but small murmurs echoed throughout an anxious crowd. Minister Josiah led a soft opening prayer to begin.
“Let us bow our heads.”
Minister Josiah laid his palm flat against Isabella's forehead, fingers tangled in her fawn locks. He prayed for her loud and confident; his deep voice reverberated off the vaulted ceiling and echoed throughout the rest of the church, sending chills down my spine.
He started slowly, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” A soft surge of “amens” echoed him. He waited for the hall to fall silent before continuing.
As the gathering prayed for Isabella, I did not. I stood at the back of the nave, the bottom of the cross, watching with a loathing fury. My hands wrung at my coat to stop me from wringing the necks of the whole community that stood and watched the ceremony.
“Most glorious Prince of the Heavenly Armies, Saint Michael the Archangel,”
I had argued with Jane prior to this, denying Isabella’s involvement in anything devilish or Satanic as she suggested. I was confounded that Jane would even suggest that Isabella had been possessed.
Yet Jane protested. After Tommy Jenkins got “taken to Hell” four years earlier, Isabella was never the same. She stayed to herself, mostly. She murmured odd phrases and kept curious objects, like the handful of bird skulls and sheep teeth—kept as trinkets and memoirs of dead things—that I found in a wooden box under her bed. Her grades in Bible study dropped, along with her interest in the home tutoring Jane led for the children. Isabella became antisocial and an insomniac. She would wander the woods at night when she thought everyone was asleep, but I knew. I saw her wandering. I confronted her about it once, when the nightly adventures first began. She was out of bed with only her slippers and nightgown on. She just walked out of the front door, not even inconspicuously. I had been sitting at the kitchen table scraping warmed butter over leftover bread when I watched her glide down the steps and out the front door. Baffled at her audacity, I threw my coat on and stepped after her.
“Isabella!” I called.
She was halfway down their path, near the woods.
“What in God’s name are you doing out here at this hour?” I paced towards her, frustrated, and grabbed her shoulder to turn her around. “Isabella?”
She looked up at me. And I stepped back, startled. My hand fell. Her eyes were a pale blue, clouded, with deep purple bags lining them. She stared distantly, like a curious creature. She blinked once. Then after a moment, she turned and continued towards the woods.
I watched her go, noticing the mud on her slippers, the tangles in her hair, the gauntness of her cheekbones, and the frailness of her tiny body. Worst of all, I only now noticed the cleaver in her hand.
“Defend us in our battle against principalities and powers, against the rulers of this world of darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.”
Curious fear drove me to follow her, as it seems to be for any courageous act of mine. She led her way into the white pine woods that lined the edge of the property, dragging her feet across the wet, fallen leaves that rested on the ground. I delayed behind her, wrapping my coat tighter to brace the chill. I didn’t think she’d suspect me, but I wanted to be safe—to avoid that ghostly gaze of my departing daughter. Generally, the woods were a place I hesitated to traverse. Some unknown fear nagged at me always at the base of the pines, screaming at me to run or to flee to the nearest opening where the shadows behind the thick trunks and the creatures that sat atop the branches couldn’t sweep me away. It was a fear I’ve had since I was a young boy, and it has stayed with me all these years.
“In the Name of Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, strengthened by the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of God,”
The further we trekked into the woods, the less the moonlight illuminated the forest floor. The air of the autumn night became harder to breathe as the white pines grew taller and thicker, sucking up fresh air with their greedy leaves and roots. I was suffocating, hyperventilating. The pines shelter a cemetery for dying flora and decaying carcasses of forgotten fauna; they protect secrets both lost and not yet concealed by the earthly stench of fungal consumption and rot.
“Of Blessed Michael the Archangel, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul and all the Saints, and powerful in the holy authority of our ministry,”
I stopped suddenly. I could only hear the pulse of my heartbeat on the drums of my ears. I gazed through wide eyes now adjusted to the darkness, searching for the sin that dragged me out on this night.
Isabella was gone.
Fear. Blood rushed through to my head, blurring my vision and causing momentary vertigo. I turned to look around. Sepia darkness surrounded me. I couldn’t breathe, and in my panic, my heels snapped twigs and brushed aside resting leaves. Stumbling forward, I tripped over something loose and unseen, falling fast to the ground. The cause of my fall rolled slightly underneath him, colliding together with a hollow clatter.
“We confidently undertake to repulse the attacks and deceits of the devil. God arises; His enemies are scattered and those who hate Him flee before Him.”
I lifted myself up to a seated position and felt for the object that had lost me my balance. I felt around and underneath, fingers and palms groping with a greedy curiosity. It was smooth and rigid in some places, while others felt attached to cold and crisp textures that gave away slightly. It was fuzzy, like molded bark that housed fresh fungi and moss. A final touch dropped my heart. Smooth, small, round. A skull. A child’s skull.
“As smoke is driven away, so are they driven; as wax melts before the fire, so the wicked perish at the presence of God.”
As Minister Josiah finished the prayer, the saltwater was poured upon Isabella’s head. She screamed as it touched her skin. Shaking violently, she tossed and kicked and fell upon her back. She grabbed at the floor, having a malicious attack of some kind.
To me, it looked like a seizure, but Jane saw it as a sign of God’s work. In tears, she fell to the floor at Isabella’s side and placed her palms on each of her shoulders. She pushed Isabella to the floor, pressing her weight against the tiny, flailing body. Over and over, Jane cried, “Release her! Release my baby!”
“Papa!” Isabella cried out, exhausted; her thin arms pushed weakly against her mother, “Papa!”
Without hesitation, I leaped down the aisle between the pews towards them. I wrenched Jane off, clasping her tight against my chest, constraining her arms beneath my own. She tried to push me back with her feeble arms, tears streaming down reddened cheeks.
“Don’t touch her!” she cried into my chest. “It’s leaving her!”
I shoved her aside and knelt next to Isabella, gently lifting her small shoulders. “Isabella, can you hear me?” She continued to seize—foaming at the mouth, face turning pale, and her lips going blue.
“Isabella! Wake up!” Slowly, her seizing became less violent. She shook and twitched less and less until her movements stopped. “Wake up,” I cried, “please.”
Her body fell limp in my arms. She was so small and pale in my arms. I felt nothing but shame and anger. I should have confronted her about Tommy. I should have helped her instead of avoiding her out of my own cowardice. I should have been there when I saw her slipping. I could have done anything else but watch the Devil take my daughter.
Underneath the gravity of the silence and watching eyes, I could do nothing but cry into her hair. Jane placed a soft hand on my shoulder—her only sign of consolation. Yet, the only thing that could console me was the honey-brown eyes that stared up at me and the voice that followed their gaze.
I was flung back from the door and landed hard on the cold floor. The door slammed shut and locked from the other side. I gasped, struggling and deep, and tears streamed from my eyes. I wanted to cry out for my family, but no words came. I stood slowly, quivering. The memory filled me with emotion I couldn’t smother, and I resented it.
I sat there on the floor, knees to my chest, arms cradling my own shoulders. I thought maybe the denial seeped in again—like it did when she killed Tommy Jenkins and like it did when she dissected those other animals. It all washed over me, creating a foggy glass barrier between my love for my daughter and the reality of who she was when she hunted in the forests at night, lurking in the woods, waiting for sacrifices to feed the poisonous demon within her. I wasn’t a doctor. I wasn’t a minister. I didn’t know what had a hold of her and I knew he would never find out.
I smashed my palms into my eyes, rubbing them, drawing out the inevitability of the next door. After a few more moments, I stood. I knew that I had to go through it. It was erected plainly, yet it was menacing. Power pulsed from behind it, roping and pulling me forward. With the palm of my hand around the knob, I braced myself and opened the last door.
I followed the footsteps in the snow. Small, petite, yet clumsy, the imprints shuffled and hopped and meandered into the white pines. I rolled his head forward in defeat. She wandered off again. I tried so hard to keep her contained to society, yet she was called into the depths of the trees yet again.
Isabella had become more troubled over the past few months, since the exorcism attempt, and her relationship with Jane only worsened. I wasn’t sure how to handle any of it. I tried to commune with her—to confront her about the devilish things she was doing from carving up animals to the murder of her young friend. I had told myself that I needed to be more straightforward about it; I needed to reach out to her, to help her.
I followed the footprints. All the while, I tried to come up with something to say to her. I wasn’t afraid of her. I couldn’t be—not if I wanted to help. As I argued with myself, I continued to follow the trail deeper into the woods. I got nearer to her usual hideaway. And then I stopped. Droplets of red soaked into the white canvas.
My heart sunk. “Isabella!”
In a panic, I followed the rest of the trail to her branch shelter. A small body laid on its side, curled. It was her. She looked asleep, and I would have been convinced that she was if not for the silver chain wrapped around her hand, burning into her skin, and the handle of a blade that stuck out from the center of her abdomen. I fell to my knees and crawled into the shelter.
Isabella turned her head to me. She looked so tired and so used.
She smiled softly, “I got it, Papa—the demon.”
I crawled to her and set her head into my lap to keep it from sinking into the snow. “What have you done, child?” My fingers ran through her hair, brushing locks from her eyes.
Isabella placed her hand over mine, cold and purple. A silver cross fell from the clenched fist to the ground, its imprint brandished into her palm.
“I told you. It’s okay.” Her voice, though quiet, was confident, “The demon is gone now.” Her hand slid from mine and fell gently onto the snow.
The last door closed with a soft clank, sliding a final lock into place. I didn’t understand. I collapsed and wept. I never understood any of it—Isabella, Jane, or my unwillingness to accept anything was wrong. I never would understand. I stood again. There was nothing left to do. Above me, the lights flicked off, sudden and loud. With resolve. I stepped away from the doors and began to walk toward the darkness—the only place I deserved to go. And on I walked, for a very, very long time.
Adriana Culverhouse, 2021
What I Don’t Understand is: What Goes Through Your Feeble Mind?
I don't get it.
Four years of psychological study, and I still don't understand you.
As I stand at the podium at the front of the class, watching these kids, I think about you and your words that have been riding through my mind on this 8-track minecart, going around and around...
You need some goddamn peace and quiet.
But I stand here, supervising. These kids are laughing. They're talking about passions, about relationships, and future plans. These kids are dreaming and sharing their dreams with their peers. Laughs fill the room. Mulitple conversations at one time, strung together by words and sentences that create this web of connections and vulnerability and trust. So complicated. So intricate by design...
And yet you need some goddamn peace and quiet.
The Azores Islands, September of 1652
“I think I found it.”
James stood behind the wheel, holding the ship steady as they drifted just outside the shallows of Sao Miguel Island, the largest of nine islands of the Azores archipelago, just southwest of Portugal. He beamed; a toothy smile spread on a stubbled face.
“Found what? That?” Fadelma pointed towards a lone shack on the shore. She leaned far over the portside rail, up on her tiptoes. Her hair draped over her shoulder, tied together with a burlap ribbon. She looked over her shoulder to him; concern knitted her eyebrows.
“Aye.” He said, drifting the ship closer into the shallows. After a month of sailing, exhaustion began to seep into him. He needed a place to rest, to stay, to focus. They could eat food that wasn’t pickled, rest on a stagnant cot, and make a fire. He was tired of the cold and tired of raw fish. This was a good start, he thought. He inhaled the warm late summer winds. A good, fresh start.
The cabin was shabby. Erected on stilts to keep above the high tides, the cabin slumped above the sandy shore, toes in the water. It perched alone with a dead, stone-rimmed campfire in the sand, filled with browning seaweed and crabs. It seemed to have been long abandoned except for a few gulls that nested on the porch.
Weathered steps led to the porch, every other one splintered or split and covered in bird droppings. James ascended them, careless of the condition. The smile never left his face, even as he entered through the doorless doorframe, past windows with broken shutters. He stood in the center of the cabin, hands on his hips. Empty, other than some palm leaves and seaweed and sand. It was a single room, small and damp. The walls were slatted together loosely, leaving uneven gaps between each board. The midmorning sunlight poured in through the wall gaps, the large hole in the center of the roof, and the open windows.
Natural lighting, James thought.
“This is it,” he said as Fadelma stepped in behind him.
“Ponta Delgada,” Fadelma started. Her voice was small and uncertain. “That’s the name of the nearby town?”
“I thought you hated the Spanish.”
James shrugged and began to clear the floor of leaves and seaweed, sweeping up his new home. “It’s a Portuguese town. There is some Spanish occupation, but not enough to worry me. We’ll be fine. Besides,” he continued, “This is a major trade route. It’s the perfect opportunity to start up that merchant shop I talked about. You will help.”
Her chest grew with a deep inhale. James watched her steadily as she released it, watching the emotions waves across her face—doubt and fear, bargaining and contemplation, and then acceptance. She visibly swallowed whatever thoughts she didn’t find worth the fight and said, “You’ve thought of everything, have you?”
“I have, yes.”
He turned from her and continued cleaning. This was it, he thought. This was where he was going to start his new life—on temperate volcanic islands, thousands of kilometers from Ireland, with little to no government or religion or societal rules... just on the shore of crystalline blue waters next to dark, overgrown forests.
“This is it,” he repeated. A soft sigh escaped amused lips, and he walked past Fadelma, out the doorway, down the drooping steps, to his longboat beached on the shore. He pushed it out into the water and whistled his way to his anchored ship in the shallows.
Fadelma stood planted where James had left her. After a moment of watching him skip to the shore, she blinked. She looked around her. Wet, dilapidated, unprotected. Cold water seeped out of the wet wood between her bare toes. Water dripped from the gaping hole in the center of the roof in large droplets, splattering as it hit the floorboards. There was a lone, rusted water basin stationed upon a cupboard in the near left corner. That was it.
Tears began to swell in her eyes. She was exhausted, too; she understood how he felt, but this wasn’t what she was promised. She felt so heavy and tired and sore. She just wanted to curl up and sleep somewhere on the warm beach, but James had already begun to paddle back from the ship with crates. She forced the tears back, pressing palms into her eyes. She couldn’t let him see her cry, especially not about this.
One foot after the other, she forced herself out through the doorframe and down the steps to meet him on the beach.
The Atlantic Ocean, August of 1652
He couldn’t place the feeling. It was a mixture of inspiration and fear. Laying in the dark of his ship quarters, James grinned, though his blood was cold and his bones shivered. He was absolutely horrified, but ecstatic at the same time. There was something exhilarating about lying next to a beautiful woman, the one you vowed to cherish and love as you two sail the Seven Seas taking what the world owed to you.
He glanced over to his wife, who was resting next to him. In the dark of their ship quarters, he could see her shoulders rise and fall in the moonlight that shone through the small, semi-circle window. She faced the wall on her left side, as the cot was snug in the far-right corner of the room. On the flat of his back, with hands laced on his stomach, he stared at the sauntering shadows on the ceiling, born from the hanging lantern above his right. The ship swayed, so did the light, and the rusted iron lantern squeaked with each motion. The ship moaned, and the single glass window clattered against the winds. There was a storm on the sea. Not one to be worried about, James assured himself.
His wife, Fadelma, snored softly; sound asleep. He leaned over her, pushing himself close against her warm body, stilling the chills in his bones. His fingers ran through her long, red hair with a gentle kindness. He breathed her in, sweaty and earthy, and planted a kiss her shoulder. Tirconnell felt so far away. He was happy about that. He worried not about plantations, or churches, or laws. They were free from slavery, and free from God.
He could handle a small storm. Ireland was a tempest. He remembered sleepless nights in barns and in trees, always nearby the working fields. He never did like to stay with the enslaved folk, though they graciously offered him shelter. No matter where he stayed, his bones still creaked, like this ship did, under each motion. His back was stiff and muscles worn, despite only now being nineteen. He hated Tirconnell. Every bit of it, from the people and the churches and the work.
Yet, he never left sooner because of her.
As kids, she asked him never to leave, and so he stayed. He saved her anyway. He couldn’t just leave. He remembered her pale face pressed against the floor by a large hand. Her honey-brown eyes tear-filled and lost. He saved her. Shoulder into stomach, he shoved the man to splintered barn floor, and straddled him, landing fist after fist into the clean-shaven face, as the black cassock was spattered with blood. When the man stopped moving underneath him, he took her away from there. Promising to protect her.
He saved her; she was his, and his to take care of. After that night, he vowed to give her a new life, one that was full of plenty. He built a boat and asked her to sail with him. She laughed, but accepted and called him “captain”. He was giddy at the thought.
Captain. It was a title of power. For all that he had been through, he felt that he deserved a title of power. He deserved her. He deserved this freedom.
Rolling on his side, he placed a hand on her shoulder and let his fingers glide down her arm. She was so perfect. He slid a hand to the bottom of her skirts and lifted the heavy fabrics slowly. So beautiful. She shifted under his motion. He stopped and waited until her soft snores filled the air again.
He waited a moment before slipping two fingers into his mouth and then pressing them inside of her. She shifted again and mumbled, this time pushing at his encroaching abdomen as he climbed on top of her. Now he straddled her and touched his chest to hers, trapping her wrist between them. She was so warm, and so utterly submissive... Pulling his waistband down with a free hand, he pushed himself in. This time, she vocally protested with a sleepy, guttural whine, her shoulders wiggling and knees bending to push herself up. But he pressed down harder, feeling her wrist strain beneath his ribcage. She cried out, and he muffled her by placing a heavy palm fell flat against her mouth, cupping wet lips. She struggled for a minute more shifting underneath his hips, trying to slither from him, but after a moment she fell limp. The inside of her pulsed, warm and tight. So, so submissive.
Euphoria dispersed through every limb, and he stayed in her and on top of her until failing strength forced him to collapse to the side.
She turned on her side, back facing him and her hand worked beneath her skirts.
A stupid smile plastered his lips as tension released his body. She was his.
His stomach dropped. The elation passed and a sudden anxiety choked him. The room was dim and damp, and the small room seemed smaller as he stared at the slatted walls, the stormy water dripping through cracks and around the window pane. Eyes watched from open maps on the desk in the corner; and he remembered that there wasn’t a real destination—no escape from the deluge of the sea.
His stomach churned. Poverty, starvation, cold—everything they escaped from—yet they hadn’t escaped at all, only brought it with them into the vast unknown of the ocean and an unfamiliar world.
He didn’t want to starve.
With a sudden sickness, he swung his feet off the cot and wrung his hands on the mattress lining, pulling at the bare threads. They didn't have medicine, or extra clothing, or coin. He felt naïve as he reflected on their hasty elope. It had been a childish, rash move.
“Oh, God, Fadelma. What did I do?”
He bolted upright; his chest was tight. Rifling through the maps on his desk, he tried to think. Where would they go? Reasonably, where could they possibly go? Nothing. There was nowhere he could find that wasn’t occupied by the Crown or Spain. Tortuga had been a stupid idea. Absolutely absurd. Throwing his coat on, he strode out the quarter doors. He needed to turn the boat around. They shouldn’t have left Ireland. At least it had been known, it had been familiar. Regardless of the starvation and plantation work, they knew a few good people. They could find some sort of sanctuary again.
He stopped. No.
He wouldn’t suffer through it all again. There was not enough gold in the world to bring him back there to be lashed for treason. However, there was enough gold in the world to make him crave an escape, to let him dream of a better life—a life of plenty with food, drink, and pleasure. He felt such a longing for it that his heart skipped a beat thinking about the glory that awaited him, the life he deserved.
He stepped towards the deck rail, facing the bow, and inhaled the salty air. Cold waves sprayed him with bursts of mist. The dawn peeked over the horizon, melting the midnight blues and purples away, flooding the sky with the first strokes of pink, yellow, and orange. It beckoned him like a siren’s song. The sea had always flooded him with serenity. As the graceful waves rose and fell with the wind and moon, the fear receded under the star-splattered sky, transformed to hope with the rising sun. He stepped back from the rail and made his way back into the quarters. In the swaying lantern light, he gazed over her resting figure. She was all his. She was one thing he had, and nothing was going to take her away.
The Mind Lobby and Other Intricate Places
Welcome to the ever-changing architecture in the main structure of my mind. The entrance to this structure is, in fact, a door: plain, wooden, unlocked, with a shiny chrome knob. When you open the door inward, you step into a beautiful, high-ceiling foyer. It looks pristine—sparkling, clean, and maintained.
Like a hotel lobby, it is long and rectangular. Cream and brown walls prop up the high ceiling that is latticed with red-colored wood, dangling antique chandeliers embellished with bronze cages and long yellow bulbs. Maroon-and-cream-striped chairs sit upon large, antique floral rugs with matching poufs, corralled around low coffee tables. To the left and right of these chairs are potted broadleaf lady palms and arecas full of life and invitation.
The floor design, with large cream, brown and blue squares lead you to the service desk and its pegged corkboard of intricate antique keys—some keys are large and bulky, some are small, the size of a fingertip, some are bronze, black iron, silver, nickel, pure gold, pure pyrite. And some are fragile like freshly baked butter biscuits waiting to crumble under the slightest pressure while turning a locking mechanism it wasn't specifically designed for. There is no service desk attendant. You're free to grab a key, any key, all the keys, if you will, and use them as you wish.
To both the right and the left of the central service desk, there is a grand staircase. It is blue and brown and cream marble, like the tiled floor of the Mind Lobby, and decorated with a maroon runner rug. With stairs on each side of the service desk, there are tens (or twenties) of tentacle-warped stairs, moving and squirming, like an ever-evolving, never-ending paradox designed by the love-child of M.C. Escher and Kandinsky's Composition X. Please, chose a stair to follow with that key you grabbed, if you want to.
I see that you have a handful of keys. That’s okay, too; that’s why they’re there. If you’re ready, we can make our way up. One step at a time, please, because there’s a lot to see. First, you may notice the sign: The Staircase Gallery. It’s kind of like the inside of an open skyscraper with hundreds of floors and hundreds of more doors. The staircase in the Gallery goes up and up... It appears endlessly, but time has the control for the hourglass that is life, and eventually, the sand stops.
As you go up, pay attention to the walls and the oil and acrylic painted portraits, both large and small and extra-large, that are hung delicately in heavy, carved wooden frames. They’re antique, so please don’t touch, though some portraits have been newly added to the Staircase Gallery. Watch these portraits as you progress, and you’ll see them change. Faces that may have originally been painted with pleasant features have been repainted with thick, heavy acrylic plastered over smiles and smiling eyes that turned sour. Some portraits have been burned. Others have cracked frames or frameless canvases that are frayed at the edges; they have simply sat and collected dust, abandoned but not really forgotten. I agree with you, yes, that there are a lot of portraits; they’re so closely hung together that it’s almost impossible to see the walls at all. A lot of these portraits are just blank faces without real stories behind them, and a dozen others are so covered with dust that you can’t make out features anymore—like lost memories. I can assume, of course, that these people have their own stories, but I’ve long forgotten them.
On the flip side, there are these golden portraits. They’re cleaned so regularly that they stand out like an animated object in the background of an old cartoon movie—you know, the ones with the stagnant, painted backgrounds? These are the ones that I’ve nurtured over time because they’re precious to me—my closest friends, my spouse, my grandmother. They’re the important ones, and they deserve the best in this Gallery. Speaking of the best: let’s go further, and I’ll show you The Tapestry.
On the way there, you’ll find new beginnings defined by red strings tied around doorknobs that link to other doorknobs. These strings follow the walls around portraits and go up and up... Some of these strings are tied to posts at bridges long burnt that were built over raging rapids one does not dare to cross anymore. Other strings are strong and woven, intertwined with mutual friendships and passions that form into ropes and safety harnesses.
You’re allowed to ask me about the red strings. That doesn’t require a key. You’ll notice that some begin as ropes and fray at the end—torn, sliced, or burned through—dangling lifelessly over the knob of a locked door, while others that begin as a single thread have grown and intertwined with others that bring life to a multi-shaded tapestry of friends and newfound family. This tapestry is the main display in the Staircase Gallery. It hangs heavily on a wooden rod, patiently waiting to be added to. It’s beautiful, yes, because it depicts my hope for the future and the pride that I have in those I love.
You’re passing a lot of doors on the way up. Some are hidden, so don’t feel bad about not seeing them—they were hidden for a reason or two. There are a few that aren’t so secret, though. Do you see the black iron gate with curled spikes on the tips and embellishment of decaying vines and wilting roses? Isn’t it enticing? The thick, black chains and palm-sized lock should not be a discouragement to access. You have a key, remember?
Behind the tall gate, there is a garden with hedges that reach the open, blue sky. It is only the front-entrance garden with a labyrinth-like path that leads to a distant, decrepit mansion. I recommend watching the ground. Some areas are covered in tall grasses, with both friendly and unfriendly snakes, while others are paved and well-trodden.
Notice your surroundings—this gives you clues on how to get out of the labyrinth the correct way because now there is no gate behind you. Follow the tall hedges. They’re so tall, in fact, that no matter your height, you can’t see over them. It’s possible to get lost a time or two, but please persevere and you will make it through.
I’m sorry about that body, there. Please don’t think too hard about it. It's not the only one you will come across. There are many dead and decaying bodies here, and like this one, some have already skeletonized, while others are fresh and still and haven’t had time to assimilate into the worms and roots of this garden. Some of these bodies you will find early on in this labyrinth, while others are closer to the end. They all make me sad, like lost friendships and suffocating flames of potentialities. Don’t loiter in one place for too long, either; you are not the only one here.
When you make it to the white concrete front steps of the dilapidated mansion, congratulations. It was once a beautiful piece of Victorian-inspired architecture in my childhood. It is still maintained in some areas—like the study and kitchen—but other areas have been locked, boarded, and neglected, acquiesced to the earth.
The kitchen had been newly renovated to adopt a form of enlightenment-modernist style, with sharp angles and unique curves, almost minimalist if not for the use of bronze, wood, and rivets, and long yellow bulbs that cast antique shadows on the pinks and creams of the walls. The kitchen is fully stocked and clean, except for a small pile of dishes in the sink and rising yeast dough under the stove light. In the kitchen and to the right is a sliding glass door—it leads you out and back to the black wrought-iron gate that you were so hesitant, like many others, to open.
The other doors of the mansion are locked. Those lead to rooms that have been forgotten—lost passions, crumpled ideas, discarded sketchbooks; sad, broken dreams that were tossed into the wastebasket of wasted time that is flooded with stagnant, weightless regrets. It would be useless to explore those. It’s best to let them be and head back to the Staircase Gallery.
There is this other door in the Gallery—I see you staring at it out of the corner of your eye—it’s cracked down the center. I would agree, yes— it looks like a medieval dungeon door reinforced with black iron slabs and bolted with a slide lock, and a key lock, and a padlock. No, you don’t have access to any of those keys. Please, leave that door alone and ignore the black liquid that’s pooling at its base.
I’d like to take your hand now. Don’t worry, my hand is dry and warm, and soft and smooth with clean trimmed nails and a beautiful ring with small leaves and a clear stone. Accept it, and I’ll show you my favorite part. The Museum. I love to walk it with my friends. If you’ve come this far, you’re my friend.
It’s not a linear museum. It’s an organized palace, with wings and rows and grand halls. There is no door to the museum. Its large, open archway is perched on its own platform in the Staircase Gallery. The Museum starts in the art galleries. It has a long, white hallway in front of us and rows of open wings to the left and right. Each wing is organized and themed with different types of art: sculptures—metal and marble—renaissance paintings, abstracts, global culture art.
Everything I remember and everything that I’d like to create is hung on papered walls under white spotlights patiently waiting for eyes like yours to grace them. We can stay a short while; sit on the peppered benches and ponder each piece and the meaning of the gold-trimmed plaques with the names and descriptions and dates.
It’s hard to say which part of The Museum is my favorite, but the aquarium rides near the top. When we finish the art galleries, we’ll end at a set of glass automatic doors with blue and white signs and hours of operation. Head in and down a short, red brick tunnel that declines into dimming light. Coming out of the other end, you’ll find yourself washed in fluid watercolor blues, refracted through thick glass that separates you from sunken ships surrounded by a plethora of sand tiger sharks and gnawed goliath groupers. You can sit in the center of this large dome and zone out while you watch the aquatic life float by. I’ll point out the eagle rays, and the amberjacks, and the conger eels, and barracuda snappers, but you can ignore me if you’d like. I just like to talk. I also like to watch the fish and the sharks as they swim in endless circles around the shipwreck. What do you think they’re thinking about? Do they know they’re stuck in this large pool, roaming on and on, pointlessly?
Sometime in the future, I’ll show you the botanical gardens and the astronomy dome. We can walk the historical architecture district, too, if you’re interested in the colonial houses across the country that I’ve visited. I don’t want to keep you longer, so we’ll take the shortcut out and head back to the Staircase Gallery. You can return later any time that you want, if you ever want to visit again.
Oh, you hear that, too? That’s just the rising tides crashing against the cliffs and shores of the islands. We can go there, if you’d like, but be warned that the tides are not always friendly, as much as I'd like them to be. They can be dangerous. Go on and take your shoes off; it’s more fun that way.
When you step through this weathered, wooden plank arched door with bronze rivets and a simple plank lock, your feet will sink into the sands of the island beaches. The climate and ecosystem change, depending on when you decide to visit. As of now, you’ll see low and heavy cumulus clouds building a storm, vibrating with potential energy, lightning bouncing between the edges in tune with the threatening growls of thunder. A grey haze fills the sky. The sands are wet and sticky and cold. Cold waters shove rocks and shells and red seaweed ashore, abandoning it as the ocean is pulled back with the tide. Chilled winds howl in your ears, raising bumps on your skin and sending shivers unconsciously throughout your limbs. This same wind blows palm trees horizontal with the ground, whipping waxy elephant leaves violently around like the winds of a hurricane. I warned you of this dark, grey horizon.
It’s hard to control sometimes. This building storm that you see—distant dark blue waves growing and collapsing, growing and crashing down, down, pushing distant ships under—is what causes those shipwrecks you see on your right. At the bottom of that tall, tall cliff are jagged black rocks with sharp edges and bloodstained debris of unfortunate past causalities. Fear not; storms like these are not often. The clouds need to build before something like this happens, and the clouds are patient, forgiving.
Walk a little further to the warmer side of the beach and you’ll find a much more pleasant, relaxing side of the island. Here, these sands are warm and dry, and the low-tide crystal blue water caresses ankles with warm kisses. Beautiful pink and blue shells are found with a little scavenging, and the longer you’re on the beach, the chances that you’ll come across a perfectly intact nautilus shell increase; you’re free to take it and put it on a shelf somewhere. Sit in the warm sands, dig your feet in. The sun’s just hot enough to keep the waters and sands comfortable.
This is what the island is meant to be—warm and inviting. Cozy shacks line the border between the grass and sandy beach, waiting to be occupied by vacationers itching for a break from the real world.
White sails peek over the watery horizon, bringing along masts and a brown hull and a forepeak with a beautiful figurehead of a woman in a long flowing dress hoisting a sword pointed forward, like an encouragement to push forward, push through the crashing tides. When the ship floats just beyond the shallows, we’ll swim aboard.
Don’t worry about the waters over here—they're unnaturally clear and safe. You might feel a fish or two brush upon your leg but fret not, the dangerous waters aren’t until much farther out. For now, we seek adventure on the unknown horizon that awaits. The rope ladder that hangs off the side of the galleon is frayed and worn, the wooden rails are petrified from the oils of many hands touching and grabbing, and when you’re standing on the wet deck, you’ll understand the deep sense of adventure that truly awaits on the waves of the open ocean. Freedom and life; free from the weights of communal responsibility, free from continental government, free from ancestral social constructs. Just naked survival under the voided purple sky and her multitude of stars while drifting in the vast mysteries of the undiscovered black ocean.
The farther you explore, the more curious spectacles you will find, like that of the darkest secrets of the Mariana Trench. Not all you’ll find ever sees the light of the surface, but it’s there. It’s always there, hidden in the depths.
We should... go back. There is a lot more here, but that takes more time—to go one by one through the many doors and memories that are scattered throughout this place. You’re welcome to come back anytime, though. Remember, the front door is unlocked and you have access to all the keys.
The Story of James
He couldn’t place the feeling. It was a mixture of inspiration, yet fear. It was something of a thrilling, terrifying journey.
I’m spiraling and I can’t stop.
I can’t stop searching for what I need.
It’s never enough.
It’s never enough.
I roll down my car window
and let the fresh air whip around the metal walls.
does the fresh air feel nice.
if only for a minute or two,
from my goal of this drive:
to find the stopper to my madness--
my downward dive--
so out of control.
I can feel myself spiraling.