by Thadd Presley
He woke sitting up on his couch. The quilt had fallen in the floor and was laying too close to the heater. He could see steam rising from it. Sunshine streamed in through the windows, brightening his living room.
Then the knock came again. The same three booming knocks. He looked at the red, digital numbers of the clock blinking 12:47 PM
“Damn, the electricity must have gone out,” he said to no one. Then, to the knocking, he yelled, “hold on.”
“Jack,” someone called. It was a familiar voice. “You in there?”
“I said hold on. Just a second.”
Two sleepy steps brought him close enough to the only window for him to see the red pinto on the curb. It was Adam come to visit him. He opened the door.
“Boy you’re a light sleeper,” Adam joked.
“Lucky I slept at all.”
“Sorry to hear it,” Adam sympathized. “I hope you feel up to coming to the food drive?”
“I had the craziest dream,” Jack began without being asked about the dream. “Something I hadn’t felt in a longtime.”
Adam saw the unsettled look in his eyes. “You have to give it time, Jack. It’s been a long time since you lived alone. It will get easier. Perhaps, it’s the temptation manifesting itself…”
“No, it’s not that.”
“Have you had urges…”
“Yeah, I guess, but that’s not it.” Frustration was already showing in his voice and Adam heard it easily.
“Well, tell me about it on the way to the church. We have a food bank to stock. I’ve got some coffee in the car. Maybe I can help you figure out something that will help you readjust to your new surroundings.”
“Do you believe dreams have a meaning,” Jack asked, turning from the door, allowing his friend to enter. Then, without letting him answer, “I mean, I know what it’s about. I remember it perfectly, but you think it might mean something in the real world?”
“Maybe, probably, maybe not. What was it about?”
“You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“You are crazy.” Adam said smiling. “Or, maybe you should be.” He put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Look, you probably just slept wrong.” He pointed to the couch as if it was proof.
“It’s not the couch, Adam. I’ve slept on way worse at the church and at the clinic.”
“Well, we’ll pick up my daughter’s old bed after the food drive just in case. I don’t want you sleeping on that old thing anymore. Who knows where it’s been. And then, tonight, we’ll have a few beers and talk about your new life. It’ll make a world of difference to talk about it and work out a few details of the coming week.”
“No, no, my stuff’s s’posed to be here today. Matter of fact, I should stay in and wait on the movers. Plus, I want to look around and see the best way to get started on the renovations.” But that wasn’t the only reason he wanted to stay. The dream was still fresh in his mind. He could hear the girl’s voice so clearly. He had to get that key, had to help her.
“Well, you going to tell me about the dream or not,” Adam asked, looking around the room. “It’s probably got something to do with this place.”
“That’s it exactly. It is this place. Maybe it’s the whole building.” He closed his eyes, trying to close out the locked door right in front of him, trying not to see his dream.
“Well, it’ll pass as you get used to it. Now, when do the movers get here?”
“Noon-ish,” Jack answered. “I just have the few things from the storage unit. No reason to pay forty bucks a month while I have all this room. I’ll wait on them and let them in.”
“Yeah, I suppose you should. Tell you what. I’ll give you a call tonight.”
“Just give me a few minutes before you leave. I want to tell you about the dream.” He was starting to feel uncomfortable again, claustrophobic. “I need to tell someone.”
“Wow, this is really got a-hold of you, huh?” Sweat was visible on Jack’s face, and Adam realized then that his friend was actually shaking. “Start from the beginning.”
Jack closed the door against the cold hallway. “You see that door?” He asked while Adam sat down on the couch.
“Well, I can’t open it. It’s locked tight, and I haven’t got a key.”
“Dorry does. She’ll bring it in a few days, I’m sure.”
“The land lady, Dorry, she’s got all the keys.”
“Oh.” He paused, then started again. “I just don’t know what’s in there and…”
What about the dream, Jack?”
Jack held up his hand. “Hold on. This is gonna sound crazy enough as is, we can’t just rush into it.” He sat on the couch and noticed for the first time that it smelled bad, like old cheese and mold. The whole place stank, but he pushed that out of his mind and cleared his throat. “It all started because I thought I heard someone call my name. At first I just put it out of my mind, you see, but it happened a few times.
“Finally, after getting a bit spooked, I just listened, and I heard it again. That’s when I realized it came from that room.”
“You just scared yourself,” Adam assured him. “It happens all the time. It’s even happened to me a time or two. Once, when I was in college, I was to the point of sleep. You know that place where you’re in between. Like your still awake but unable to move?”
“Well, I thought the devil was in the room. I actually thought there were demons in the room. I felt them all around me.” He started to laugh. “I prayed and prayed, but nothing worked. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move. It was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me. Later in life, I learned that it’s called sleep paralysis, a common happening.”
“But the voice called out to me while I was awake, asking me to help them. ‘We need you,’ the little girl said.”
“But you were dreaming?”
“No, not then. I wasn’t asleep.” He started to rise from the couch. “I was awake. Fully awake and walking to the bathroom.”
Adam touched Jack’s arm and kept him from standing up. Goosebumps covered his skin. “It’s called sleep paralysis. Don’t work yourself up.”
“No, it wasn’t that. I could move. I sat straight up and looked around. Believe me, I know when I’m awake Adam.”
“Okay, then you were dozing and you…”
“Dammit, Adam. It’s more than that. It’s that room.”
The hard words were not what surprised Adam, even though he was twenty years Jack’s senior. After all, he didn’t expect the man to call him sir or pop. It was the fierce nature of the words that startled him. Jack had never spoken to him that way. “Well, maybe the answer is simple,” Adam said, thinking the room wasn’t the problem at all. “Let’s just pick the lock and solve the mystery. See what’s on the other side.”
Oddly, the simple solution of picking the lock hadn’t occurred to Jack, and he suddenly wanted to kiss the old man. “By Jove, you’re a genius.”
Adam winced at the word. He didn’t like people to use God’s name unless in prayer or bible reading.
Jove was, after all, a shortened version of God’s name.
“Sorry. It slipped,” he said, already off the couch and heading for the door. “Got a knife?”
“I have a credit card. Maybe we can slide it between the jam and get it that way. At least, I think we can.” The two men looked at each other, and Adam smiled. “I wasn’t always a man of God, my boy.” They laughed, and for Jack it felt good to laugh.
After the terrible night and feeling of loneliness the night before, happiness and laughter seemed very far from him.
As they tried to force the credit card between the door and the frame, Adam’s phone rang. He didn’t answer it. Another few minutes passed and they still hadn’t opened the door.
“Do you have a knife of any kind or a screw driver,” Adam asked.
“Yes, in my tool bag. Hold on,” Jack said and disappeared through the apartment door and into the hallway.
In the hall, Jack felt the cold, January chill on his legs, even though he was still inside the building. The night before suddenly came back to him. He smelled the steam from the quilt, the urgent need to use the bathroom, the face he saw in the mirror that looked so afraid, and the words: We need you, Jack.
It was too much.
He returned with a small, black, leather case and closed the door to the hallway. He didn’t want anyone to come up and see him breaking into the locked door. After all, didn’t she say that there could be treasure up here.
Adam reached out for the black case. “Getting cold again,” he said. “I’ll bet there’s a line a mile long at the church waiting for a hot meal.” He was looking at Jack, as if to say: this can wait. People are starving, you know? But, to Jack, this was the most important thing at the moment. Let them starve; let them freeze; just get that damn door open, he thought. “And there will be more snow tonight. We’ll probably be opening the auditorium to the homeless by sundown. We need all the people we can get.”
“Hope so,” Jack said matter-of-factly. “I love snow.”
“You got the gas on?”
“No, I’ll probably freeze, but won’t it be beautiful in the morning.”
“You should come down after your storage arrives and stay at the church. They’d be happy to see you again. They need you…”
“Don’t say that,” Jack snapped.
Adam looked at him. No, he leered at him, trying to see what was behind his eyes. Adam suddenly wondered if the man had been on drugs again.
“Just, don’t,” he told him. “That’s what the little girl was saying last night and kept saying it. Then, they called me by name.”
“I really wish you would come with me when we get finished here.” He didn’t want to leave him alone.
“You could just leave a note for the movers.”
“I might, Adam. Really, I might. And please,” he said, taking the old man by the arm. “I’m not crazy. I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life. Not before this.”
“We’ll get to the bottom of it, don’t worry.” He held up a flat head screwdriver. “If we can’t force it, we’ll take it off the hinges.”
Both men pried on the door. Adam went first trying to jimmy the lock, and then Jack tried to force off the hinges, but neither worked.
Adam turned to get the pack. “This door probably hasn’t been opened for twenty or thirty…” But his words were cut short when Jack kicked the door. “Hold on…” he said, but Jack kicked it again, and the frame cracked. “Now you’ve done it.”
“I can build it back,” Jack said, and Adam knew he could. He knew Jack was a great carpenter.
“Okay, finish her off, but do it with finesse.”
Another kick sent the door smashing open. Dust flew up and filled the air. The room beyond was like an Egyptian tomb, dust covered everything and the musty air took his breath away. For a moment, the room was nothing but a swirling mass of gray dust. Faint objects could be seen strewn everywhere, covered with an inch of dust.
Inside the room was an ancient iron-framed bed. A molded, rotting mattress had fallen through the frame and was decaying on the floor; beside the bed, a roll-top desk leaned to the left. It was covered with papers. Beside the desk were figures drawn on the wall.
What the two men saw next, which they saw together, was too frightening to comprehend.
On the wall, hanging with it’s wrists bound, was a skeleton.
“That can’t be real,” Adam croaked. He was gasping for air, whether it was the dust or the sight of a skeleton. “People liked to collect things like that in the old days. Oddities they called them.” Then, as he realized all the dust in the room was most likely the skin and rotted remains of the body, he covered his mouth.
The odor in the room was sickening and overwhelming. They could both taste the foulness of the place… taste the deadness in the air.