The house was part of a development built in the quiet east end of a mid-size industrial city before the First World War. Nine large, elegant homes, each unique, on its own third-acre lot. The first owner, Clarence Thompson, a local haberdasher, moved in May 11, 1909 with his bride, the former Marietta Bunting. They had no children. When Clarence died in 1928, the house passed to Marietta. She lived there with one servant, Hattie, until Hattie’s death in the summer of 1955. Marietta then sold the house to Emil Vanderlope, a mechanical engineer and inventor, and disappeared from history.
Marietta had a limited imagination, it appeared, and no need whatever to improve things. Consequently, the house Emil Vanderlope bought was essentially the house Clarence Thompson had built fifty years earlier, complete with a coal furnace in the basement and an electrified icebox and six burner coal cooking-stove in the kitchen. He hired an architect, and together they re-equipped the house, including central air with a four-zone thermostat and a precipitator that removed dust from the air before circulating it, centralized light control panels by the front and rear doors, dimmers on all the wall switches, and an intercom system that also distributed music to all eleven rooms. Beginning in August, they gutted the house, carefully dismantling the split cherry-wood paneling in the living and dining rooms so it could be replaced.
Several people asked, Why rebuild this hulking old fortress? It’s got to cost at least as much as building a new place in the suburbs. Or, if Vanderlope wanted to stay in the city limits, for whatever reason, there were building lots right here. He said, “Well, it kind of spoke to me,” and they laughed.
He said, “Ah, they just don’t build em like they used to.” It shut them up, but the fact was, he didn’t much like what came of them building them that way.
He said, “My wife grew up in a small, over-crowded house.” They said, “Ah.” He never asked himself. He just took it on, another assignment. It never mattered to him who the client was.
By January, 1956, it was almost finished. Then, the contractor went missing, as contractors often do when the job runs long. Emil ran out of patience, too. He moved his family in, the last weekend of the month.
Emil and his wife Gloria had two children, Melanie, 20, a sophomore at Burlson University, 150 miles away, and Maurice, 16, a junior at Perrin High School. Melanie came home for the move, and then dashed back to the college. Maurice, miraculously, did not have to change schools. He did half his homework and, on Monday, walked to school.
The house felt comfortable, even cheerful. In the following weeks, as cartons emptied and shelves filled, an aura of old-world warmth suffused the rooms. This was mostly Gloria’s doing. Her grandmother had in fact managed to maintain an atmosphere of gemütlischkeit in their little house, but it was also cramped and stuffy and reeked of boiled cabbage and garlic. Gloria yearned for that feeling of homey comfort, but in a modern, spacious, air-conditioned place with wall-to-wall carpeting.
By April, the family was already feeling quite settled in. Emil’s new commute was fifteen minutes shorter than from the old house. He left at the same time, preferring the margin of silence in the office.
Maurice decided to use the move to change one specific habit that had bothered him for some time. Instead of rolling over and swatting the “snooze” button as he had done since he’d turned twelve, he bounded out of bed even before urning off the alarm, then bounded across the hall to the bathroom.. Each morning in the old house as he’d slogged into the bathroom he’d sworn, This was the last day he’d do that. Now things would be different.
Eight minutes later, wrapped in an enormous green terrycloth bathtowel and with his hair dripping, he bounded back across the hall.
“Morning, Mo.” His mother passed behind him on her way down the stairs.
“Hi Mom”. He didn’t turn, just continued bounding through his door which he closed, quickly but not loudly, with his passing left heel.
The Vanderlopes were an independent lot, coming and going on their own schedules without much eye contact, rarely eating together, exchanging very little but nevertheless always aware of and concerned for each other.
As it happened, that morning, neither of them chose to look up at the hall chandelier as they passed. Probably, if they had, at least one of them would have noticed it contained two bulbs. Whether that person would have remembered consciously at that moment that the fixture had previously contained three bulbs is anybody’s guess. After all, it was morning. Monday morning, at that.
Maurice took four minutes to select and put on his clothes, all but his sweater. He took another ten minutes to choose that. Sweaters were very important to him.
The house had been grand when it was built in 1909. The staircase had twelve steps up to a wide landing, then six more steps to the second floor hall. In the wall above the landing was a 43-inch wide stained glass window. A broad border of long, green leaves, like tulip leaves, gave way to pale blue pebbled glass that surrounded a golden belt-like circle. This in turn enclosed a rural meadow scene bathed in sunlight, and even though this window faced the adjacent house across a narrow driveway, it still received enough light to glow with bright promise of God’s grace and the serenity of an ordered life. This benediction fell on all who crossed the landing, whether they looked at the window or not. The colors of the glass rippled across their shoulders, their backs and their souls.
That morning, though, as Maurice bounded down the stairs gaLUMPH gaLUMPH gaLUMPH somehow the window’s colors failed to reach him. He remained lit only by the second floor hall light, as if it was night. The colors fell on the stairs and the landing floor, all right. His shadow passed through them. But he did not, a black-and-white character in a color scene.
He turned the corner at the end of the landing. The lower twelve steps … didn’t feel right to him. And when he got to the bottom of those stairs, he was in the second floor hall.
He shot a look behind him. There above him was the landing, and the glowing stained-glass window. He took a step forward, and looked down the stairs. There below him was the landing, just as he expected. He looked behind him again, but this time, the stairs led up to the attic, like they always had.
He went forward, down the stairs to the landing, across the landing and down the stairs to … the second floor hall. He immediately ran back up the stairs he’d just come down. He was in the second floor hall. Nothing had changed. Down the stairs he charged again. But no matter where he went, up or down, he found himself in the second floor hall.
“Maurice? What are you doing up there? ”
He looked over the banister. His mother stood in the first floor hallway, looking up at him.
“Mom!” Maurice yelled. “Stay right there! Don’t move! I’m coming down now.” He raced downstairs, not taking is eyes off her. But somehow he miscounted the steps to the landing, tripped and fell on his face. He bounced right up, but he’d lost sight of her, and now it was too late. He was coming into the second floor hall again.
“Maurice! Where are you?”
He looked. There she was again, in the first floor hall.
“OK. Don’t move, Mom. I’m coming right down.” Gingerly, tenderly, he stepped onto the landing. Never taking his eyes off her, he crept on down the stairs.
At the bottom, he smiled at her.
“What happened up there?”
“Um, I fell down.” He wanted to tell her about the stairs, about the second floor hall, but he couldn’t find the words.
“Oh,” Mom said. “Fell down, hmm? Well, as long as you’re all right.” She turned toward the kitchen. “I was just about to pour my second cup.”
Maurice hurried to keep up with her. He had no idea what would happen if he lost sight of her here. Right now, he didn’t want to find out.
She went to the stove and poured the rest of the pot into her waiting cup. She then emptied the grounds into the sink in position to be rinsed into the disposal when she started the water. Then she washed the pot and put it in the drainer. “Don’t forget to start the dishwasher,” she said over her shoulder to Maurice, as she took her cup and went upstairs to dress.
Maurice was relieved that the conversation was ended. He got the Wheaties out of the cabinet, sat down at the table and proceeded to have his breakfast. He moved the newspaper across the table while scanning the front page, then turned to the funnies. Twelve minutes later, finished with both the comics and the cereal, he performed his dishwasher duties. He was ready to head to school.
He went to the hall. About to call upstairs to tell his Mom that he was going, he was chilled by the sudden realization that his books were in his room.
His intestines crystallized and shattered into a pile of slivers with extremely sharp points. They pricked him. He tasted blood. The last thing he wanted to do was go back up those stairs. No matter how benign they looked, he knew they could become infinitely malignant in an instant.
He went over various scenarios in which he came to class without books or homework. No, he couldn’t pull it off. Slick Sam Anderson maybe could pull it off, but even he would need a distraction like an escaped tiger, or a stun grenade bouncing down the school stairs…
“Maurice, isn’t it past time you should be going? Shouldn’t you get your stuff together?”
Reality is, after all, only an agreement on which set of illusions we will mutually regard as concrete. If he could keep her in conversation, maybe he could stay in the usual one.
“Yeah, Mom. I was just coming up to do that.” He could hear her movements in her room. He concentrated on the noises while he worked out the next thing he could say. “Looks like it’ll be a pretty day.”
He cringed at his words. He hated small talk, and the weather was the smallest topic of all. Worse, it didn’t require her to answer. He needed her continuing participation in his reality as a safeguard, improving his odds that he could get down stairs.
She asked, “Any idea what you’ll be doing later in the day?” There you go. Mom was brilliant at this stuff. Normally, he resented this topic. The very possibility that he’d be held to “plans” that were, at best, wild guesses as to how his nebulous future would actually fall into place left him gasping. Today, though, he welcomed the question as he would a ladle of cool water in Death Valley.
“Um, probably I’ll hang out with Peter at his house. We have a project to discuss. Mrs Bennett in English assigned us to write a play. Peter wants to make it a musical. I’ve got to hear what he’s got in mind.”
“Sounds ambitious,” she said. “What’s it about?”
“The State evaluation of the school last year.”
“You remember. Last year the State evaluated the school as to its academic capabilities.”
“No, I don’t recall anything about it. Did we get mail or something?”
“I dunno. I must’ve brought home something from the Principal”s office. The Principal was so proud of it.” He’d almost corralled all his books. Math homework was tucked into the book; History this section was a bunch of mimeographed handouts – actual 17th Century essays by Cotton Mather and some Boer politicians, completely impenetrable.
“Don’t you remember them?” He piled the printouts into his briefcase, took his books under his arm, and set off for the stairs before he realized she hadn’t answered.
“Hmmm? What is it, Dear?”
Whew. “Don’t you remember the stuff I brought home about the evaluation?”
“Frankly, you bring home so much drivel from that place I barely notice it anymore.”
Well, I gotta go. Have an enjoyable day.”
He thought she answered. Anyway, she seemed to make a cheerful sound. Maurice bounded down the stairs gaLUMPH gaLUMPH tore across the landing, ripped down the lower flight …
He was in the second floor hall.
His breaths tore through him. He couldn’t get any oxygen out of them. He forced himself to breathe slower. More composed, though no calmer, he asked again. “Mom?”
Maurice went into her room. She should be seated at her vanity, makeup arrayed around her, coffee cup at her right, ashtray just beyond it.
Sure enough, the coffee sat there. And smoke curled up from the ashtray.
“Mom? You in here?”
Her bathroom opened off her bedroom. The door was ajar. The light was off, but maybe she was in there getting something just behind the door, though there was nothing behind the door for her to get. Tentatively, Maurice nudged the door a little further open. “Mom?”
No response whatever. There wasn’t that much to the bathroom: the sink console, the toilet, a tile shower stall. Something, some complicated shape, seemed to protrude from the tile. There was a light in the shower stall ceiling. He switched it on.
In the light the shape in the wall took on the outline of a human jaw. It ended in part of a mouth that was mostly open, showing teeth and the edge of a tongue. Above and behind the jaw was what seemed to be the shape of an ear – just the outer edges of curled cartilage. The shapes were coated by what seemed to be a dark thick liquid. Maurice touched it. It was still wet, and kind of sticky. His fingers came away red. He backed out of the bathroom, turned and half ran into the hall.
The hallway was darker than it had been. Though sunlight still glowed through the 43-inch stained glass window, the window seemed to transmit less of it. He studied the glass and quickly saw the difference. The sky behind the barn was no longer shining, clear blue. A purple thunderhead streaked with dark red had begun piling up over the peak of the barn. Four ravens were flying away to the right, making the scene even darker.
And as he watched, the dark cloud grew. It filled the gold-belted circle. Red veins crossed the circle and intertwined with it, pulsing with an appalling dark redness. Purple mottled in grey and red soon filled the space behind and between the tulip leaves.
Maurice stared at the window, mesmerized a full minute by sheer horror. Either his brain was shrieking or he was. Either way, something finally roused him and made his legs move. He stepped high, as if the floor had become muck and he had to free himself for each step.
A voice was saying, quite conversationally, “Hey Buddy. How you doing? You alright?”
“What?! Who are you?” said Maurice aloud.
“You look like you could use some help.”
The voice was probably inside his head, Maurice decided, Still, he spoke aloud.
“I wanna get to my room. There’s windows there that lead out onto the porch roof.”
“You can try them, sure, but I don’t think they’ll open.”
“I’ll smash them the fuck out!” Maurice suddenly yelled. He couldn’t run. And walking towards his room was like wading upstream through a warm, fast-moving river.
“You might be better off going through the basement,” said the voice.
The house, like all houses built there from 1880 through 1945, had a clothes chute, a narrow open shaft from the third floor into the basement. It was tiny, maybe 14″ wide, but the narrowness should provide life-saving friction for the teen-aged boy falling into the basement. Maurice thought a moment.
“The changes haven’t reached the basement yet,” said the voice. “You’ll be better off.”
The house had become very dark by now. Maurice doubted his bedroom had windows any more. He was two steps from the clothes chute door. He opened it. There was more light in the chute than there was in the hall.
It was a little door, four feet off the floor. The boy had some trouble forcing himself in the narrow, short opening, but he made it.
“Glad I thought of this,” was Maurice’s last thought as the dark hole slid upwards above him and he was enveloped in blackness, and a shrieking roar and an unearthly pain obliterated any more “thinking”.
That night in traffic, Emil found himself thinking about his new house. It had taken some doing, getting all that done. He was proud of the effort that went into it; of the two or three innovations he had come up with; the way they had improved the house without weakening it, or fundamentally changing its character. Though he was not a fanciful man, he wondered, idly, for a moment, if the house ‘liked’ the way he had treated it. After all, it was a rejuvenation of sorts. Kind of like taking the house to the spa. Or vice versa.
His mind had moved on to other subjects. But when he opened the door into the kitchen, it came right back. Apparently, the house had not liked it. Not one bit.