Secret Room

key-in-door

(3,492 words)

Claudia obsessed over shadows.

During the long heat of her newlywed summer, she filled one canvas after another with contrasting light and dark. Shadows of clouds rolled over an empty field. The zig-zag lines of a boat rippled on choppy water. A lamppost leaned across a deserted street. Many more scenes, big and small, lined the perimeter of her new studio. Shadows of people, of animals, and of buildings grew larger than the subjects themselves. Eventually she moved on the shadows with no source, and finally to bizarre and disturbing forms she didn’t recognize.

She looked up from her latest work, another example of formless shadow, and sighed. Her paintings had been devolving into these dark abstracts over the last few weeks, and she feared her vision was getting away from her, to take on a life of its own. The artist in her knew that as good. To explore the darkness, the underbelly, lent energy to your art; and to give yourself up to that energy, and go where it took you, was the essence of being an artist. So one of her art teachers had said, just last year before graduation. She hadn’t slept with that one. Maybe she should have.

The new bride in her, however, puzzled at the source of this darkness. She had everything she wanted: a handsome, charming, wealthy older husband, this beautiful Victorian house, her own studio, and an endless supply of paints, canvas, and brushes. No more slogging away at the diner, struggling to scrape up rent with two other girls she didn’t even like, and never, ever enough supplies. Fortune had smiled upon her that night in the art gallery, when she had met Prescott Wilder III.

She left her studio and restlessly wandered the many rooms of her new home. She’d only lived in the house for three months. Built over one hundred years ago, its floors were uneven and creaky, but it had recently been refurbished with new plumbing and wiring. The kitchen, with its shiny new appliances, particularly pleased her. She looked around with a sense of satisfaction. Not bad for a girl from the wrong side of the tracks.

The upper rooms drew her, as she hadn’t explored them fully yet. Peeking in, she discovered they were mostly storerooms holding furniture no longer in use. The door to the attic stood at the end of the hallway, and in a moment, she was climbing up the worn, wooden stairs, brushing away cobwebs and her fear of spiders.

The dust settled thickly up here, and it was hot, as the central air didn’t reach this floor. Enough light spilled through the large round window for her to see stacks of boxes and scattered antique furniture. She sat in old rocking chair and paged through Life magazines from the forties, pulled out moldering clothes from the fifties, and poked through old coin and stamp collections. Scott had grown up in this house, and most of these items had belonged to his parents, who were gone now.

She wiped the sweat from her forehead and noticed a door on the other side of the attic, not far from the big round window. It looked modern and new, incongruous in the dust and cobwebs of the old Victorian.

She walked over to it and tried the knob, but it was locked. She looked around briefly for a key, not expecting to find one, not surprised when she didn’t. The door was on the same wall as the round window, as if it led straight out into nothing, but then she realized the door led into one of the round gables adorning the front of the house. She wondered what was in the room. She’d have to ask Scott about it when he came home later.

 

Claudia considered returning to her studio to continue painting, but couldn’t bear the thought of going back to the ominous shadows. Instead she went to the kitchen and made some dinner, a fairly easy tuna casserole dish. She wasn’t much of a cook, but the spacious, gleaming kitchen inspired her to at least try. Besides, she liked to have some food in the refrigerator for Scott when he came home, usually long past nine o’clock. He ran the cutlery business his father had founded, a multinational business that offered some of the finest silver in the world. Claudia never knew cutlery was such big business, but it was the source of the Wilder fortune, and the reason Scott worked such long hours.

She was in bed but not asleep when he came upstairs. He quietly closed the door and undressed, then slipped under the sheets. He caressed her body, kissing her neck. She turned to him,  more than ready, but he took his time, and again she was reminded why she had always liked older men, men in their forties like Scott, they way they could be urgent but unhurried at the same time, delaying their own pleasure for the sake of hers. They took care of you, in bed and in life.

Afterward, he said, “And how was your day, darling?” She loved his antiquated use of the word darling, as if he were Clark Gable to her Vivien Leigh. “Still in the shadows?”

“I can’t seem to get out of them,” she replied. “I had to take a break, so I explored the attic for awhile.”

“Did you? I haven’t been up there in years. I’ve been meaning to throw away a lot of that old junk.”

She lifted her head and looked at him. “There was a door up there that was locked. I think it leads to one of the gables in front. Do you know what’s in there?”

He shrugged. “Probably just more junk. More of my dad’s stamp collection.” He chuckled. “That guy was obsessed.”

“Is there a key?”

“If there is, I don’t have it. Probably lost a long time ago.”

“There has to be one somewhere. Maybe forgotten in a drawer or something.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” he said. He kissed her on the forehead and settled back as if to sleep. “That casserole was delicious, by the way. Where’d you order it from?”

She punched him in the arm, and he laughed. She smiled and forgot about the shadows.

 

Scott left early the next morning for work. Claudia lingered in the kitchen, sipping coffee and dreading the studio. Instead if going there, she spent the morning rifling through every drawer in the house she could find, looking for a stray key.

By the end of the morning, she’d turned up nothing. She made herself a turkey sandwich for lunch, and after she ate it, returned to the attic to search through all the boxes again and bags. By evening she was hot, dusty, and dispirited. No key.

She mentioned it to Scott later that night in bed.

He looked bewildered. “Key? What key?”

“The one to the locked door in the attic. We talked about it last night.”

“You spent the whole day searching the entire house for a key to that door?”

Suddenly feeling silly, she shrugged. “Well, aren’t you curious about what’s in there?”

“Not really. Like I said, it’s probably just more junk. You should spend less time worrying about that room and more on your art. I thought your goal was to have your own show in the gallery next year.”

“It is.” He voice was more petulant than she liked.

“Well, you’re not going to get there without focus and hard work. You need to see this shadow thing through. Avoiding it won’t help.” He turned over to go to sleep.

She hated it when he talked to her as if she were a child. She hated it even more when he was right.

She resolved the next morning to spend the day in the studio and start something new. She mixed her colors, and avoided black completely. She though she’d attempt something simple and soothing: still life, something she hadn’t done since her first year at art school. The bowl of red delicious apples in the den became her innocent subject; halfway through, she realized the fruit bled into the bowl. Red paint dripped into shiny pools on the table beneath the bowl, where a gleaming knife rested.

She dropped her brush and fled the studio. After drinking a glass of water in the kitchen, she drifted back up to the attic. She tried the door again, but of course it wouldn’t budge. She sighed in frustration. This was her house now, too. There was no reason why she shouldn’t have access to any part of it. She leaned her forehead against the round window and turned her head to look at the gable to the left. The windows were obscured by half-pulled shades, and the sun glinted off the glass. Impenetrable.

On impulse, she tried to open the window. Rusty latches held it closed, but it opened inward when she unlatched them and pulled. She leaned carefully out over the sloping roof that ran across the front of the house to the gable. She supposed it was possible to climb out and try to make her way over to it and peer inside. Maybe she could even get in through its window. She estimated it was a good one hundred feet from the ground. She never liked heights.

She ducked her head back inside. There had to be another way to get into that room. An obvious thought occurred to her. Downstairs, she called a locksmith, explaining she had lost the key to a room in her house, and could they possibly come and open it for her? An appointment was set for the following day just before noon.

She didn’t mention it to Scott that night. When he asked about her work, she said, “Well, I did paint for awhile. But I got frustrated, so I went for a walk.” She wasn’t lying. She just took the walk after she called the locksmith.

“That’s good,” he said. “I worry about you, you know. Alone in this big house all day. You should get out more. Take the Honda into the city, see some old friends.” He traced a finger along her bare shoulder. “I’m sorry I can’t be here more. I’m afraid I’m not a very good husband.”

“Are you kidding me? You’re rich and handsome, out of my hair most of the day, and come home every night to make love to me. You’re perfect.”

Her tone had been playful, but he didn’t reply in kind. “Nobody’s perfect, Claudia.”

The serious way he said it, the way the low light cast shadows over his face, disturbed her in a way she couldn’t explain. Then his face changed as he smiled and said, “I’m pretty close, though.”

She laughed, and she couldn’t pinpoint the reason for her relief. Later, as he snored softly next to her, she lay awake, thinking about shadows, and locked doors, and the secret rooms of the human heart.

 

Claudia was eagerly awaiting the locksmith the next day near noon, when Scott came through the front door.

“What are you doing here?” she said, rising from the chair at the kitchen table.

“I thought I’d surprise you and come home for lunch,” he said, setting some paper bags down onto the table. “I even brought take-out. It’s Thai, your favorite.” He drew close and kissed her.

She pulled away. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I think I did. Look, this husband thing is new to me. I can’t just continue my bachelor ways and work endless hours. A marriage needs to be tended to, and I haven’t been doing that. Please forgive me, darling.”

“It’s all right, really. You give me the space I need to do my work.”

“But you haven’t been working, have you?”

“I–” A knock at the door interrupted her.

“Who could that be?” he muttered, then crossed to the window to look out. When he saw the locksmith van parked in the drive, his face turned stony. “Really, Claudia? You called a locksmith?”

“Why not? What’s the big deal?”

“You’re the one making a big deal out of it. Why didn’t you tell me about the locksmith?”

“Because I knew you wouldn’t like it. What I don’t know is why. What’s in that room that you don’t want me to see?”

He opened his mouth to reply, but the knocking came again, more insistent. He strode to the door and opened it. Before the hapless locksmith could even speak, Scott said, “Thank you, but we don’t require your services.” He shut the door in the man’s surprised face.

“Why did you do that?” she demanded.

“I see now that I’ve been neglecting more than I thought,” he said. “You spend far too much time alone in this house, with your shadows, and your obsession with that room.”

“Obsession? I just want to know what you’re hiding in there.”

He shook his head sadly. “You’re paranoid, Claudia.”

“Oh, I’m obsessed and paranoid? Fuck you, Scott. Don’t make this about me.”

The shock on his face afforded her a momentary pleasure that soon faded to regret. She was about to apologize when he spoke.

“You’re upset. We’ll talk about this later.”

He turned and walked out the front door. She watched him get into his black Lexus and drive away. When he was gone, she wandered back to the table and peeked inside one of the take-out bags. With a cry of frustration, she swept them onto the floor. Then she sat in the chair and cried. Their first fight was supposed to be about stupid things, like putting down the toilet lid, or messy toothpaste tubes. Not secrets and name-calling. Not this.

As he wiped her cheeks with the back of her hand, she pondered if she was truly being unreasonable about the room. True, she’d spent a lot of time alone these past months, deep in her work. True, she’d become obsessed with the shadows that kept inexplicably emerging in her paintings. Even so, it had nothing to do with Scott’s secretiveness about the room.

After all, what did she really know about Preston Wilder III? She’d known him for less than a year. She’d never met any extended family. He had no close friends that she could see. He never mentioned any business associates. And what did he actually do at work all day and all night? She’d never asked. She’d never asked about any of it. She’d been too wrapped up in their romance to care. Too eager to talk about her work, her past, her life. And what role had his money played in the speed of their relationship? If she was honest with herself, quite a bit.

Still, she had a right to know what was in that room. What in God’s name was in there? Bones? An insane ex-wife? Drugs? Gremlins? She had to know.

She marched up to the attic, intent on getting inside that room no matter what. She went straight to the large round window and opened it. The day had turned gray and humid, and a light mist fell. She looked out over the damp tiles of the sloping roof. A wave of dizziness assaulted her, and she closed her eyes and steadied herself. When she opened them again, the vertigo was gone, but her heart beat rapidly as she swung herself out the window and sat on the curving sill.

She hesitated only briefly before she climbed out onto the roof. Clinging to the window sill, she lowered her sneakered feet onto the tiles. She guessed it was about twenty-five feet from the round window to the gable, but it might as well have been a mile. She hunched there frozen for a few minutes. During that time the thought occurred to her that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, and perhaps it would be best to go back. But the gable window stared at her across the way, like a giant eye taunting her.

She edged further along the roof, inch by inch. Eventually she had to let go of the window sill if she was to continue. She bent to dig her fingers into the unyielding tiles, to scrabble along like some twitchy spider. It was slow going, and her rasping breath was loud in her ears. She didn’t know if the moisture on her hands was her own sweat or the mist settling onto the tiles. Once, her right foot slipped out from under her. Her heart lurched in terror, and her throat closed against the scream inside her. She managed to get a foothold again, but a full five minutes passed as she laid still and trembling against the roof. It was then she realized she should have checked the shed for a ladder, thereby avoiding this circus act. She looked back at the round window several times, but it was foolish to turn back now. The gable was tantalizingly close.

She finally moved again, creeping toward her goal. How long had she been out here? Fifteen minutes? An hour? She was soaked with sweat and mist, but it didn’t matter. She was nearly there. If she reached out with her right arm, she could grasp the window sill of the gable, pull herself up close to it, peer through the glass, and penetrate the mystery of the secret room.

She reached. Not close enough. A little farther. She reached, her hand trembling toward the window. Her fingers brushed the wood. A little closer, just a little bit more and she was there–

Her left foot this time, slipping on the wet tiles. But with her reaching arm stretched toward the gable window, she was unable to catch herself like before, and she fell. This time she did scream, all the way down to the bottom.

 

“Do you have any idea what your wife was doing on the roof, Mr. Wilder?”

Scott lifted his head from his hands. “What?”

The police officer lowered his voice sympathetically as he asked, “Mr. Wilder, do you have any reason to believe your wife would intentionally throw herself from the roof?”

He rubbed his moist eyes. “Well, she was having some trouble with her work.”

“Her work?”

“She was an artist. She’d become preoccupied with shadows, and they kept coming up in her paintings. She was struggling, confused. I think she was afraid of them. Claudia had a dark side I didn’t really understand. I was worried, I…I never should have left her alone in this house…” He couldn’t go on as fresh tears surged through him.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Wilder. We’ll be in touch.”

When the police were gone, Prescott Wilder III dried his eyes, and left the kitchen to climb the stairs to the attic. He stood at the large round window for a long time, looking out, but it was dark and he could see nothing. Oh, Claudia.

He sighed, walked over to a corner of the attic, and knelt. He lifted a loose board from the floor with carefully manicured fingernails, and opened the small box beneath it. He took the key from the box and fitted the board back into place. He went to the locked door and opened it with the key, stepping inside.

The marriage had been an experiment. He had truly loved Claudia, and he thought he could keep his two lives separate.

He’d been wrong.

He flipped the switch, and light from an overhead bulb flooded the round space of the gable, illuminating a nearly empty room. A sturdy oak cabinet stood against the wall to the left, tall with numerous narrow drawers. He approached it and pulled one of the drawers open, velvet-lined and silent on rollers, as they all were, filled with his gleaming silver creations.

There were advantages to owning a cutlery business. He’d learned every aspect of it, beginning in manufacturing, cutting his teeth in the shop that fashioned silver into exquisite quality cutlery. Over the years he’d secretly learned to modify the machinery to shape whatever instrument he chose.

Claudia hadn’t been the only artist in the relationship.

He ran his fingers over the works of art resting against the velvet. Sterling silver blades, prongs, needles, drills, whatever was needed to creatively cut, stab, slice, or flay flesh, separate fingernails from their beds, eyeballs from sockets, teeth from gums. They were beautiful, flawless, and worked perfectly, fulfilling their purpose. He’d used every one.

He’d have to move them now, of course, probably to the apartment in the city. The police would follow up their investigation and ask more questions. More than likely they would rule Claudia’s death a suicide, but why take chances? As his young wife had come to know, obsessions could lead to trouble if not handled with the utmost care.

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