A House with Many Doors

Falling asleep in a library can be a dangerous thing. Time warps as you drown within a sea of imagination. The dreams and musings of thousands of your fellow human beings surround you, whispering “Read me.” Lay your ear upon the cover and maybe you can hear it. Or maybe–if you don’t watch yourself–you will fall asleep with a pillow of leather-bound dreams tucked beneath your head. That’s what happened to me. It’s why I am writing these pages–in desperate hope that they will be found by other library dreamers before they share my unfortunate fate.

Let me back up. My name is Dr. Jamie Finnegan, and I was a literary scholar. Mostly Marxist stuff: social class implications in the work of James Joyce and that sort of thing. My theories were a couple of decades too late, but I was competent enough to land a gig in a small, private college within the American Midwest. The community is tiny–built upon the backs of long-dead pork barons and sustained by the presence of the college. The enrollment more than doubles the city’s population during the school year. In the early winter prior to my disappearance, I was contacted by the estate of one of these pig capitalists, pun intended. None of the man’s heirs wanted to reside in a dying town. You can’t even get a decent pizza that isn’t baked in a “hut.” I apologize for the jokes. My sense of humor is not one of my strong points. But given the situation that I am in, you will have to bear with me. Dear God, what if there are bears? Baloo? Old Ben? Worse? It’s best not to think about it lest every sound becomes the tap and scrape of giant claws knocking upon the doors.

The first door, the door to the mansion, was heavy and thick, stained almost black, the outside etched with elaborate carvings. It looked like something Stoker would have hung on the hinges of Castle Dracula. I’d never seen anything like it. I couldn’t resist the temptation, and wrapped my hand around the wrought-iron knocker. I knocked three times. The shriek of rusted iron gave way to a heavy thud upon the dark surface.

The knob rattled and a diminutive man with thin silver hair opened the door. He looked me up and down and then wrinkled his ski-jump nose as if he smelled something disgusting. “We have a door bell. Decent people tend to use it. The knocker is ornamental only.”

“Sorry about that. I’m Dr. Finnegan.I was called about the book.”

The nose crinkled even more. “I’m Monroe. I was expecting a female expert.”

It took me a second. “Jamie can be a guy’s name.”

“Of course it can.” He looked me up and down again.

“I’m sorry, but can I see the books?”

The man rolled his eyes, stood aside, and gestured for me to come in. After I stepped through the threshold, he slammed the door, totally put out.

I was was a little creeped out by how disappointed he seemed that I wasn’t a woman. “Are you the homeowner?”

“God, no. I’m the butler.” The man picked a rather large booger out of a gray nest of hair sprouting from his over-sized nostrils. He wiped it on the underside of a small candle holder on the wall. I gagged.

I suffer from a slight germaphobia. The hallway was like something from my nightmares. Cobwebs hung from corners like lace curtains. Thick dust hung in the air, billions of loose skin particles illuminated by beams of sunlight that struggled in through crusty window panes. I felt as if I could vomit at any moment. I wondered if Monroe would even bother cleaning it up if I did.

“Do the owners ever stay here?” I paused for a moment to look a painted portrait hanging on the wall. A serious-looking fat man with beady eyes glared at me from the canvas.

“Keep up, please. This isn’t a sight-seeing trip.”

“It sort of is. If you count the books…”

“Count them. Read them. Whatever you want to do. Just get it over with.”

I had to jog to catch back up. Monroe never slowed his pace. “Have you worked here long?”

Monroe stopped in front of a lightly-stained mahogany door with beautiful, deep wood grain. He wagged his booger-picking finger at me. His nails were thick and yellow like Fritos. “Look. I have been here my entire life. My mother was here her entire life. My grandmother was here her entire life. My great-grandmother–”

“Was here her entire life?”

Monroe glared. “No. She took a job as the estate’s governess when she was twenty years-old. Don’t be an asshole.”

“Sorry.”

“No one has lived here in decades. I’ve been perfectly happy minding my own business, but now those money-grabbing assholes want to sell the place. Fine. That’s their right, but I don’t have to like it. Their parents sold the antique vases for cocaine, but at least they left me out of it. Goddamn kids can’t get their noses out of their iPhones long enough to take a piss, but they don’t need me anymore.”

“I’m sorry–”

Monroe waved me off. He pushed open the door. I stepped through in to the most glorious private library that I had ever seen. Unlike the rest of the house, the room was immaculate. Redwood shelves were polished to a deep, glossy shine. Leather-bound editions with gold-stamped gilded spines rested on shelves that stretched to twice my height. For a moment, I knew Heaven, and I stood in awe of it. Monroe cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I have a tendency to get lost in books.”

For the first time since we met, Monroe smiled. Exactly six crooked brown teeth spotted a dark grin. “Yes. That does seem to happen.”

“How long do I have?” I asked, hurrying to a desk and removing my notebooks from my leather messenger bag.

“As long as it takes.” Monroe bowed and closed the door. The latch slammed home with a final deep click, and I was left alone with the books.

I walked through the library, my fingers grazing the leather spines. I’ll admit that I giggled. The collection was meticulous, well-preserved, and nearly complete. Monroe’s bosses might be assholes, but they had a Hell of a library. It contained collector’s volumes of nearly every major work in the western tradition. I laughed out loud upon finding a collection of Checkov’s stories. I had an almost-sexual shudder when I stumbled upon an early edition of Ulysses. Two things were immediately evident. I was way out of my league, and I had no idea what to do about this collection. To me, the library was priceless, but someone would place a price upon it. It would probably be so high that the college would balk. Maybe I could convince the family to make a charitable donation. I wondered if I was capable of downplaying just how truly charitable that donation would be.

I sat in a plush leather chair at a large oak desk that sat heavy in the center of the room. To call it a desk was to understate it. The thing was massive. It looked like a pile of drawers had been attached to a dining room table. The surface held stacks of books, similar in appearance to those on the shelves: dark oily covers holding thick yellowing paper. Base on the rest of the house, it seemed strange that the library itself was so clean. It was as if I had interrupted a scholar during his work. I picked up the books on the table and leafed through them. A Greek epic. A Roman knock-off of the Greek epic. Shakespeare. The collector had either been the definition of eclectic, or had stocked the library with the types of things that he thought a respectable library should have.

I looked through the drawers. Blank paper. Pens. The normal stuff. The bottom drawer would not budge. An intricately etched brass lock had been bored in to the surface. I glanced around for witnesses and took my trusty pen knife from the pocket of my Dockers. My grandfather had been one of those guys who carried a pocket knife everywhere. When he died, we found them all over his house. I kept this small pen knife as a momento, and I’d really learned to love the thing. The tiny two-inch blade had proven itself to be useful time and time again.

Those old skeleton key locks aren’t exactly state-of-the-art security, and I was able to trip the mechanism without too much work. The click of the lock disengaging echoed throughout the library. I palmed the pen knife and waited for a moment to make sure Monroe didn’t show up and catch me in the act. Though, honestly, I wasn’t sure how much he would care. Once I had satisfied my paranoia, I pulled the drawer open.

Inside, I found two hand-made journals. Pale covers hand-sewn with thick black thread bound together rough-cut pages of pulp. I turned one of the volumes over in my hands. The journals lacked the sophistication and care of the volumes held on the shelves. The surface was rough and cracked with neglect, its tone slightly uneven. It lacked the extra pleasures of the other books, the gilding, the titles stamped deep in to plush, rich leather. I wasn’t sure that the journals were leather, at all. I spotted a dark imperfection near the bottom of the back cover. The spot looked strangely familiar. It took me more than a moment to accept that it was melanoma.

I should have dropped the book. I should have stood up from that desk and walked out that door. Part of me thinks that I still could have escaped at that moment. That could be just hopeful thinking. Instead, the habits and vices of the scholar kicked in. I’d found two handwritten volumes bound in human skin. There was no way that I would leave without knowing what they contained.

I poured over the journals for hours. The first in the set appeared to be the memoir of the fat, beady-eyed pork baron from the painting in the hallway. It was the ramblings of a madman, surely. Occult rituals. Musings about mortality, immortality, and the supernatural. There were drawings containing all manner of torture and death, some so devious and brutal that they would make Clive Barker blush. The journal concluded with disturbing fantasies about young governess that the man’s wife had hired. I do not know how many hours had passed since I arrived in that library. Despite the macabre thing in my hands, I felt hungry and weak. Exhaustion had crept up on me, but I pushed on, wanting–no–needing to know what was written in the second volume.

I peeled open the cover, expecting more of the same. Instead, I found a haphazard feminine script. The handwritten lines were uneven and sloped at awkward angles. The early pages spoke of the baron and his family. The governess, it seemed, had come to the job in disgrace. She’d had a child out of wedlock, which was a bit of an issue in those days. The baron had agreed to raise the child in his house. The poor woman had nowhere else to go. When the baron coerced the governess to take part in his sick fantasies, she felt trapped. Then, one day. She’d found the book. He had caught her reading it. He sewed her eyes shut with the same black thread that he’d used to bind the journal. The governess’s diary descended quickly in to madness. Who could blame her? Entrapment. Strange temperature changes. Sounds that had no place within the walls of a normal home. The house became both a life and a prison to this poor woman.

Reaching the end, I set the book aside. There were no clocks in this place, and I hadn’t heard a peep out of Monroe. I still hadn’t completed the work that brought me to the library in the first place. After going through the two journals, I needed a palette-cleanser, something to get their darkness out of my mind. I picked up a copy of The Turn of the Screw from the desk and skimmed through it for a few minutes. It was too darkly ironic, given the situation. I sat the book aside and laid my head down upon a copy of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. I closed my eyes–just for a moment–I think.

I could tell you that I dreamed, because I woke with a start, sweating through my clothes, as if I had been shook awake by a nightmare. But I can’t tell you what that nightmare was. It certainly would have paled in comparison to the woman who now stood on the library’s rolling ladder, cleaning the books with a feather duster. She was a young woman with dark hair stacked neatly upon her head. She wore a modest dress made of a charcoal gray cloth. Her image was monochromatic and out-of-place, as if someone had cut a character out of a black-and-white movie and had dropped it in to our full-color world. Sweat dripped from my brow. I sat as still as possible.

She stopped dusting. She sniffed, as if catching a whiff of something rotten. She descended the ladder. As she turned towards me, she sniffed again with a narrow ski-jump nose. Her eyelids, as pale as bone china, had been sewed shut by thick black thread. Her mouth opened, a black abyss in the center of her death-mask face. The noise that came from that abyss cannot be categorized as a scream, nor a cry. It was as if someone fed a steaming kettle to a heavy metal guitar. I darted to the door of the library, threw it open, and ran out in to the hall.

“Monroe!”

Nothing. No sound.

“Hello?” Still nothing. I hurried down the hall to where I entered the house. I threw open the heavy oak front door and stormed through only to find myself back in the library. The ghastly woman sniffed the air and glided towards me. The hem of her grim dress dragged along the floor. Her steps scraped like chalk along a blackboard. I rushed through the door and back in to the hallway. I hurried down the hallway to try the front door once again. But all I could see was more hallway. At first, I thought I had taken a wrong turn, but above me hung a painting of a fat, beady-eyed man–psychotic and evil. Monroe’s booger clutched to a nearby candle holder, holding tight to a string of snot. Regardless, the front door was nowhere to be seen. I was in a hallway of many doors. No two were the same. Different colors. Different sizes. Different materials. Some weren’t even made of wood. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. Her footsteps were drawing closer. Sniff. Sniff.

The door in front of me was constructed from bamboo. Thin, frayed twine strung together vertical stalks. I snatched a hold of a make-shift handle of thick rope and yanked it open. I winced as the sun blinded me. I was momentarily relieved to feel its warmth on my face, but it was supposed to be late Fall and the vast expanse of the estate lawn was nowhere to be seen. Trees surrounded me–species that I had never seen. The foliage nearby rustled, accompanied by the low-rumble of a growl. From the shadows, a pair of yellow eyes emerged, framed by a black-striped orange and white muzzle of fur. The tiger sniffed. I ran. The cat roared as I ran off. It did not chase, but stalked me through the brush. Creatures howled and chirped in the jungle around me. Sweat burned my eyes. I struggled to breathe through my tight chest. I ran with blatant disregard, unable to see anything but trees. I ran face-first in to a door. My vision sparked, and I fell back. A trickle of blood ran from my nose. I sniffed as I gazed up an ornate wooden door with a small stained glass window in the center depicting the crucifixion. I threw my shoulder in to the door and fell in to the hallway of doors.

I lay on the hardwood floor for a moment, breathing in dust rather than the jungle’s humidity. Scrape. Scrape. I jumped up and ran away from the noise. I reached a T-intersection, turned right and almost immediately hit another. I turned left and hit another. A painting of the house’s master looked down on me from the wall. Had I taken a right and then a left? Or had it been a left and a right. I wasn’t entirely sure anymore. My hand was bloody from my nose. I wiped a streak of blood on the wallpaper on the right side of the hallway below the painting and went that direction. I tried the next door that I came to, worn wooden planks made of untreated pine.

I stepped out on to a ship’s deck. I tasted the salt of the sea and felt a harsh wind on my face as rough-looking sailors around me struggled to pull in the sails.

A captain screamed orders from the center of the deck. “There she is! Ready your harpoons. Muster your–” The captain stopped. He sniffed, and then pivoted upon a whale bone stick of a leg. He hobbled towards me, his face like the devil’s. I rushed back through the cabin door and back in to the hallway of doors. I ran left, smeared another streak of blood and turned right. Scrape. Scrape. Sniff. Sniff. I reached the end of the hallway, not a door, but a tomb seal by a large, granite stone. Desperate, I struggled to push the stone aside. My arms and legs burned. My muscles pulled. My lungs ached. I couldn’t get enough air. Blood mixed with sweat as I forced open a gap large enough to craw through. Crawl through, I did. Right in to the library.

The governess stood in front of me. Exhausted–unable to stand and unable to breathe–I crawled to the desk chair and pulled myself up. She glided towards me. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. I sniffed up blood. The governess reached in to the desk and removed a needle and a long spool of thread. I made a feeble effort to swat her hands away as she bent over me. Her cold death grip clutched my forehead. Darkness took me.

When I woke up, I knew the governess was no longer with me. Despite my blindness, I could feel the vacuum of her absence. After all those years in life and death trapped beneath the will of the baron, she was free. I will be free, too. Someday. She sought escape through the doors. I knew better.  Escape could not come from any door that the house has to offer. The spool of thread still hung from my right eyelid. Using my pen knife, I peeled the skin from my left thigh. I didn’t feel pain.

This story began as a warning. I wrote it in the dark, at the desk were you sit. It ended as a door. I just needed you to open it for me. For that–and for what comes next–I’m sorry.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at www.jackcampbelljr.com.

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