The house was a ramshackle Cape Cod, set back from the forgotten cul-de-sac in a neighborhood that had long ago fallen out of fashion. A handful of the houses remained occupied by their stubborn and elderly residents, who clung, limpet like, to their dilapidated and crumbling homes. The neighborhood was mostly populated by a small group of homeless men and women who drifted out into the city with the rising sun, and back again when it set, a bedraggled, mumbling tide. They shared their living space with a family of raccoons, a handful of conspiring crows and a mangy, old black tomcat with one ear.
Paul couldn’t remember where he had found the old key with the faded cardboard tag that read “43 Locust” in a crabbed and badly faded script, but he had nothing better to do on that autumn Saturday, so after a quick search on the internet, he hopped on a bus and headed into the once vibrant heart of the city. The driver left him a few blocks from Locust in a cloud of exhaust and swirling, old newspaper. There was a convenience store across the street that looked condemned, and even when a man shuffled out of the entryway a minute or so later clutching a brown paper bag, Paul was still not convinced. Shrugging, he set off down the street, dead leaves crunching under his feet. He saw the occasional octogenarian perched on a sagging porch, nodding in the unexpected warmth of the October sun. Trash lay uncollected in small drifts in the alleys that reminded Paul of the burial mounds he had seen pictures of in his Ancient Cultures of the British Isles textbook.
After getting turned around once or twice (the street signs were either so faded as to be impossible to read, or missing altogether) he was headed down Locust street towards what he was assumed was Number 43. Something scuttled into an overgrown clump of pachysandra, making Paul jump back and laugh nervously at himself. Looking around and seeing nothing, he continued on his way. Number 43 seemed to lean towards him as he approached, brooding over the yard choked with yellow crabgrass. No one dozed on the neighboring porches. The normal sounds of the city didn’t seem to drift into the cul-de-sac, so the rustling of the wind through the few stubborn leaves that clung doggedly to their branches seemed unnaturally loud. Somewhere, out of sight, the old man’s croak of a crow reached Paul’s ears.
Taking one last furtive glance over his shoulder, Paul mounted the warped front steps of Number 43. The door may have once been a cheery cherry red, but time, sun and neglect had peeled the paint with obsessive-compulsive fingers, leaving it a patchwork of scarred grey and faded pink. Paul hesitated at the threshold, his conscience a mother calling her children home for dinner from faraway, barely heard and as soon forgotten. He shook off the momentary twinge of guilt and put the key in the lock, promising himself he would turn around and leave if the door did not yield on his first try.
The key turned the ancient tumblers, making a painful grinding sound. Paul held his breath, and the door swung inward, not with the ominous creak a childhood of Saturday morning cartoons had conditioned him to expect, but with a quiet rustle of dried leaves. He stepped inside, gently closing the door behind him. The interior of the house was strangely quiet. Paul had expected to hear the wind lowing through holes in the roof, or the skittering of tiny paws as the household rodents ran for cover from the intruder. It was also surprisingly empty. No junky furniture, no trash or newspapers indicating that someone had recently squatted inside for a night or two. Paul ran a finger along the dark wood paneling that covered the bottom half of the walls of the entryway. It came back clean. This unsettled him, but the feeling was quickly forgotten as the youthful joy of discovery took over.
Left of the entryway was a living room, with a large picture window. An old white sheet was stretched across it. This makeshift curtain filtered the afternoon sunlight, giving the room a cold, milky wash. The living room turned right through a dark wood framed double doorway into a gloomy dining room. Despite the lack of furniture, Paul concluded that this had to be a dining room based on the tarnished brass chandelier dangling from the ceiling, its glass crystals clouded with age. The dining room passed into the kitchen through a swinging oak door. The windows covered in newspaper, that upon some inspection, dated back to June and July of 1962. The eggshell paint in the kitchen was faded, but not peeling and still looking relatively fresh where Paul assumed the refrigerator and stove once stood. The kitchen opened back into the main entrance via a short paneled hallway, its only real feature of note a padlocked door on the left-hand side, which presumably led down into the basement.
Paul gave the old but still obviously serviceable Master Lock a tug, but it didn’t budge. He continued on, stopping in the entryway at the foot of the stairs. The quiet of the strangely preserved house settled over him like the cloying sweat of a mid-August afternoon. He paused there at the bottom of the stairs, but the mystery of the house drew him up the steps, his hand trailing along the smooth, dark wood of the bannister. The staircase turned sharply to the left and became noticeably steeper at a small landing, its window uncovered, allowing a drift of late afternoon sunlight to bathe the landing in a deep and pregnant orange.
Stopping to look out the window, Paul caught a view of the house’s side yard, which was dominated by a tangle of overgrown bushes fighting against a crazily leaning wooden fence. Looking up, there was a sliver of the neighbor’s roof visible. It seemed to Paul like an odd view to preserve, especially when every window he had encountered so far was covered. Something was off about the light coming through the window , but he couldn’t exactly put his finger on what it was, exactly. A blink and a shrug was all it took to dismiss the unpleasant feeling and turning, Paul climbed the remaining steps.
The second floor was comprised of a long, narrow hallway, paneled in the same dark wood as the staircase. Four doors, were staggered along the length of the hallway, two on each side. A small window, the identical twin of the one on the landing, was set into the wall at the far end of the hallway, its old fashioned shade pulled so that only the barest sliver of light spilled onto the floor below it. The dark wood and limited light combined to make any details in the second floor hallway a real challenge to make out, so Paul flipped on the flashlight function of his smartphone. The cold, bright light dazzled his eyes at first, but they quickly adjusted and Paul took slow, careful steps towards the first door. The doors were seemingly identical, each with ornate plates and old fashioned keyholes above the burnished brass knobs. Paul squatted down and attempted to peer into one of the keyholes, but was unable to make out anything on the other side except darkness. He shined the flashlight into the first keyhole, but still revealed only blackness, so he assumed that they had all been blocked up at some point. Each door was locked, and even a few tentative shoves did nothing to budge them in their heavy frames.
More than a little disappointed, Paul approached the window and pulled the shade down past the sill. Though he had expected it, he still jumped when the shade snapped up and clattered against the top of the window. This momentary fright quickly gave way to uncomfortable shock as he stared out onto the night shrouded sky above the neighboring house. What he had presumed was afternoon sun coming in under the shade had actually been the been the sickly orange rays of the last remaining streetlight on the block. His stomach hitched and it took several deep breaths to get his heart rate under control. Rationalization soon followed. He’d just lost track of time looking through the keyholes and trying the doors. There was probably some kind of tint on the glass on the landing window that had filtered the light of the setting sun, making him think that it was earlier than it actually was. He couldn’t recall what time his phone had registered when he had opened the flashlight app earlier, either. Shaking his head, Paul attempted to dispel the growing feeling of of discomfort that was contorting his stomach into a leaden knot.
He turned and walked back down the hallway, fully intending to bolt down the stairs and out of the front door, never to return to Number 43 or this part of town again. As he approached the last door before the steps, he stumbled, checking his fall by grabbing the doorknob with his left hand. It turned, and he staggered sideways onto a black and white tiled floor. He was in a narrow bathroom, with an old porcelain tub and freestanding bain. Standing up slowly Paul propped himself up on the edge of the sink. There was no mirror or medicine cabinet, merely a brighter oval of pint where one had once hung. Instinctively, Paul turned the cold knob, intending to splash some cool water on his face. There was a groaning of pipes and icy, clear water poured into Paul’s cupped palms. The water felt good on his face, and he ran his hands under it for a while, letting it cascade over his wrists the way his grandmother had taught him to do as a way to cool down on hot summer days.
The cold water helped calm him, and after drying his hands on the legs of his jeans, Paul made his way back down the now darkened staircase with the help of his phone. So relieved to be out of the house, he didn’t question why the water would still be working so many years into apparent abandonment. He did, however, remember to relock the front door, and after skirting a homeless man on the sidewalk outside, he was quite glad that he had. After walking for about ten minutes, Paul managed to hail a cab and was soon speeding towards home.
A shower didn’t completely dispel the strange feeling that had enveloped him earlier in the cab home, a weird sense of deja vu accompanying the uncomfortable feeling that he had been on autopilot for most of the afternoon. Not wanting to be alone with these thoughts in the apartment, Paul grabbed a jacket and headed off to the neighborhood bar in search of something to steady his nerves and dull his overactive mind. Dustin’s was surprisingly packed, which even though it was Saturday night, was a remarkable occurrence. Paul was able to find a seat at the end of the bar and ordered a rum and coke. Staring into space, he gulped down the first drink and then ordered another. He could feel the warmth of the alcohol spreading through his body and took it a little slower with the second drink.
Aimlessly scanning the bar, Paul noticed a woman sitting by herself. Her black hair was cut short up one side and sort of tapered in length down the other side of her head. The darkness of her hair really set off the red lipstick she wore perfectly, and Paul decided that he was going to talk to her. Normally, Paul did not talk to, let alone approach, strange women in public places with only a drink and a half in his bloodstream. But tonight, he felt different. He couldn’t put a finger on what had changed, but he stood and made his way through the crowd to where the dark haired woman was sitting.
“Hey.” Paul offered.
She ignored him. Normally, he would have apologized and retreated in embarrassment, but something made him try again.
“I don’t normally do this, but -”
She turned, fixing him with a frosty blue stare.
“Let me guess,” She interrupted, “but I am so beautiful, you just had to come over and give it a shot?”
“Um, no, actually, I was going to say I don’t normally talk to strangers in public. Because of, you know, stranger danger.”
This caught her a little off guard, and Paul thought he noticed the hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth.
“So why then, Stranger Danger Ranger, did you come over here to talk to me, an obviously very dangerous stranger?”
“Well,” Paul considered for a moment. “Because I have decided I need to take more risks in my life and not be such an introvert. So, unfortunately for you, you just happened to be the first person I saw after making this paradigm shifting decision. So, thank you and have a good rest of your night. That tall guy over there-” Paul indicated a man with a neck tattoo standing by the pool table. “Will be stranger number two. And frankly, he looks less dangerous than you.” He turned and started to walk away, but didn’t make it far because of the crowd.
“Now wait a minute,” the woman called over to him.
“Well, first of all, you may not know this as a lifelong introvert, but generally when you meet someone for the first time, you introduce yourself.”
“You know,” Paul said, placing a contemplative finger on his chin, “I have heard that, I think. My apologies. My name is Paul.” He extended his hand. The black haired woman smiled and shook it.
“Well, it was nice to meet you, Kara. Since you are the first stranger I have ever approached in a bar, I believe the next round is on you.”
She smiled again.
“Is that so?”
Paul considered this.
“Tell you what. You pay for my next drink, and I’ll pay for yours.”
It was Kara’s turn to consider.
“All right. I guess that’s fair.”
They sat at the bar and talked for a while. Kara was a production assistant for one of the local news stations, so she had all sorts of stories about anchors flying off the handle and ones about serious stories that never made the news because the program directors felt that they would turn off viewers. Paul talked about the weird customers that came into the coffee shop where he worked, especially the one older guy who kept showing Paul pictures of the women he would go on dates with. Kara snorted as Paul described the most recent one, an alleged “former cable TV star” who was a “real wild one” in her scandalous yellow sundress.
Paul walked Kara to a cab around midnight, and was more than a little shocked when she leaned in and kissed him. Making sure to exchange phone numbers despite the obnoxious cab driver trying to rush them, Paul said goodnight and headed home. Any trace of the odd feeling he’d had earlier that evening was long gone. He woke on Sunday to a handful of text messages from Kara about what a great night she’d had and could they maybe meet for coffee later in the week? Paul laid in bed, texting back and forth with Kara and his friend Michael. When he put his phone back down on the nightstand, something clattered to the floor. Feeling around blindly with one hand, he found the fallen object. Picking it up, he inspected it. It was an old house key, with a rumpled tag attached that read “43 Locust” in a crabbed hand. He turned it over in his hands. Trying to remember how the key had come into his possession. Had he picked it up off the ground last night, and forgotten? “43 Locust” rang a bell deep inside his memory, but he was unable to determine why.
Picking up his phone, Paul googled 43 Locust and was swiftly presented with a map of a neighborhood in one of the older, more run-down parts of the city. His navigation application showed that it would take about twenty minutes by bus to get to a cross street not far from the neighborhood where 43 Locust street (hopefully) stood. Paul thought for a minute, considering what he had to do on that overcast and blustery Sunday. His shift at the coffee shop didn’t start until 4, and it was currently only quarter til ten. There was plenty of time to shower, catch a bus and check out just where this key led before he had to be at work. Paul was standing on the corner of Locust street by 10:35.
Surveying the slowly decaying block, he took in the dilapidated and mostly abandoned homes. The overcast morning had turned to rain on the ride over, and Paul wished he had had the foresight to bring an umbrella. Flipping up the hood on his jacket, he started down the street, navigating between piles of wet leaves and disintegrating newspaper. Number 43 crouched at the end of the street in a small cul-de-sac that for some reason reminded Paul of a stagnant cove on the lake he visited every summer during his childhood, a place where the dead fish and algae always seemed to end up. He gripped the old key in his jacket pocket and continued on, wanting at least to get out of the rain, which had begun to increase in intensity.
The house loomed over the weed-ridden front yard, an old predator keeping watch on its hard-won territory. Paul stood on the front porch and looked out at the neighborhood through its veil of rain. The large drops drew a scrim between the Number 43 and the rest of the houses, lending the neighborhood a surreal and indistinct feeling.The front door of Number 43 may have once been red, but time and neglect had rendered it a fleshy, faded pink, flecked with cracks and divots in grey. Paul pulled the key out of his pocket, not realizing how tightly he’d been holding onto it until he saw its outline etched in red on his palm. The key turned in the lock with no resistance, the door swinging into the entryway with minimal force. Paul stepped inside.
He paused for a minute, there in the entryway, overwhelmed with the impression he had left something very important behind when he set out that morning. The sound of rain drumming on the roof of the porch brought him back to the present and the fact that he had neglected to shut the door. Turning, he closed the door a bit too hard, and the slam of it unnerved him for a second. The feeling of nonspecific loss dissipated and he was left standing in the strangely quiet and well maintained house. The entryway had a floor comprised of slate tiles, with a dark wooden staircase disappearing up to the second floor on his right. To his immediate left were a set of doors made from the same wood as the stairs, but they were firmly locked and Paul was unable to get them to even budge a inch. The door that stood opposite the front entrance, which Paul was oddly sure led to the kitchen, also locked. He shrugged at this, hopeful he would find a key to at least one of these doors somewhere upstairs. He checked his phone. 10:47. Perfect. Up the stairs he went, pausing for a minute on the small landing to look out the narrow rectangular window. The rain still obscured the surrounding neighborhood, and Paul had a fleeting thought that he had somehow stepped from one world into another. He gripped the banister and turned away from the window, continuing up the last few steps to the second floor.
Four doors lined the hallway at staggered intervals, two to a side. The first door on Paul’s right was locked, it’s old fashioned key hole either blocked on the other side, or the room itself was too dark for him to make out anything within. The first door on his left, however, was not locked. Paul had to shove hard to get it to open, as something was set up against the inside of the door. His last shove was met with the muffled clatter of a stack of cardboard boxes tumbling to the floor. Inside the room, Paul found dozens of identical boxes, each sealed with the same yellowed and fraying packing tape and labeled “STUDY” in the same crabbed hand as the key. Paul switched on the flashlight function of his phone, watching as the dust motes kicked up from the thick Persian carpet spiralled and danced in its beam. Setting the disturbed boxes back up in their totem pole pile, he proceeded to open the top box with a little help from his grandfather’s Swiss Army knife. Inside were stacks of identical leatherbound books, which after some inspection, Paul determined to be journals. From what he could tell, they were all written by the same person, though none were dated. As such, it was extremely difficult to figure out where one entry ended and another began. Despite this, however, Paul sat and read the first journal in the stack from cover to cover. Each of the journals contained sixty or so pages of thick, yellowed paper. The entries written in black, the handwriting nearly illegible.
The entries themselves were incredibly detailed accounts of the daily activities of the author. It was almost as if they were moment-by-moment transcripts of each day of someone’s life. They were fascinatingly dull. Paul placed the journal onto the floor and took out a second, flipping towards the back to find what he presumed to be the last entry. He approximated it began around the forty-fifth page.
“Rain today. Not much to see at the house because the downstairs doors are locked and will not budge. Walked up the stairs and stopped at the landing to look out the window. Couldn’t see much because of the previously mentioned rain. Walked up to the second floor. First door on the right was locked. Tried the next door on the left. It was unlocked. Found boxes full of old journals, decided to read.”
Paul reread the entry, a cold and heavy feeling of unease growing in his stomach. It had to be some kind of bizarre coincidence, he attempted to assure himself. He hesitated for a moment, and then flipped to the next page. Blank. So was the page after that, and the one after that, on and on until the end of the journal. Panic began to grasp at control of his thoughts with long, bony fingers. Taking deep, purposeful breaths, Paul put the journals back in the box and closed it up as best his now trembling hands were able to manage. He stood and walked out of the room with slow, deliberate steps, making sure to shut the door behind him. Unable to fight the panic any longer, he bolted down the stairs and out the front door, catching himself on the railing of the porch. It was still raining quite heavily, but he didn’t care. He needed to be as far from Number 43 as he could possibly get, or he was going to have a complete breakdown.
He turned to go and saw out of the corner of his eye that the front door was standing open. For some inexplicable reason, Paul felt compelled to close it. He tried to turn and walk down the steps, but could not resist the urge to shut the door. The heavy and very final sound the door made as it slammed home shocked him. He stood there on the porch for a minute, trying to catch his runaway breath. Paul checked his phone. The display read 10:48. Shaking his head as if to dispel the clinging cobwebs of a bad dream, he checked the time again. 10:48. His phone had frozen. It happened from time to time, Paul hastily reminded himself. When the phone rebooted, the display read 10:49. Searching up a world clock website, he was confronted with the same time. The time stamp on the text he sent as a test to Michael read 10:49, the reply 10:50. Nothing he tried could dispel the reality that despite knowing he had spent hours in the room with the boxes marked “STUDY”, out here only a minute or so had elapsed. Panic overtook him again, and and he had to grip the splintered railing to keep himself from falling as his head began to swim. Standing that way for a few minutes, Paul attempted to focus on nothing but his own breathing. Eventually, his vision cleared and the clutching tightness in his chest receded to a dull ache. Stuffing his phone back into a pocket, Paul walked down the steps on unsteady legs, not caring about the fat rain drops that quickly soaked through his shoes.
Huddled in the bus shelter and thankfully out of view of Number 43, he felt better, lighter. By the time Paul had arrived home and showered, he was able to laugh at himself a but for having a panic attack on the dilapidated porch of a house in some crappy part of town all because he had found a key with the same address. He should have known the key wouldn’t unlock the front door. Looking back, it seemed like a big waste of time to take the bus, find the street, and then just stand there like an idiot outside of this house for a minute or two because he had thought he would be able to get in. Paul met Michael at the diner down the street for lunch, and any further worry about his bizarre and totally unwarranted panic attack on Locust street quickly melted away.
Wednesday. It was Paul’s day off and he was sitting at the cluttered table in his apartment that served as his office, library and junk drawer, the one small square of cleanliness reserved for eating. Taking a sip of yesterday’s coffee, Paul scrolled through some articles on his phone. As he was reading, a banner notified him he had a message from an unfamiliar number. He clicked over to it. Someone named Kara was asking him if he wanted to grab coffee tonight. Assuming it was a wrong number, Paul ignored it. He finished his cold coffee and showered, deciding to head down to work to make use of his employee discount on some breakfast, instead of braving the toxic waste disposal site that had started its existence as dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.
Checking the pockets on the various items of clothing strewn on the floor for his house keys and wallet, Paul found a strange solitary key. It was in the pocket of a pair of rumpled jeans he vaguely remembered wearing on Sunday morning, but he had to take them off because they had gotten stained or wet or something, Paul was unable to recall exactly. It looked like an old house key and had a crumpled paper label attached to it with “43 LOCUST” written in smeared ink. He stared at the key in the palm of his hand, the fleeting impression of a memory that was not quite deja vu needling him, but it was gone before his mind could latch onto it. Google showed a house with that address about twenty or so minutes away, and the street view feature revealed a rather rundown neighborhood which looked washed out and decaying even in the bright sunshine. Deciding he had nothing better to do after grabbing breakfast, Paul checked the city bus route map for the line that would get him closest to Locust street. He checked the time. It was 9:38 now, and the next bus headed to that part of town wasn’t due until almost 10:30. Plenty of time to go grab breakfast and some fresh coffee.
Though the sun was shining in clear skies, there was a chill in the air that lent a bite to the gusts that buffeted him every thirty or so seconds. The few stalwart leaves that had clung to the mostly bare branches were mercilessly reaped by the wind and borne across streets and sidewalks in resigned, jerky loops. Paul had to swat more than a few leaves out of his face on his short walk to work.
It was relatively dead in the shop, with one or two regulars sitting alone and some random students talking quietly in a small, huddled group over their pumpkin spice and caramel chai lattes. Paul had to pull hard on the door to get it closed, battling the gust that insisted on keeping it open. Nodding to the regulars who looked up at his arrival, including Bartholomew (always Bartholomew, never Bart), the fifty-something, self-styled gigolo. Lisa was working the counter. She was younger than Paul, but dressed very similar to his mother in high waisted jeans, bulky sweatshirts and faux leather flats. Lisa had a biting wit and was so sarcastic that Paul took almost nothing she said seriously.
“Hey Lisa, how goes it?”
Lisa brushed a strand of brown hair out of her face.
“I’m here. That should be explanation enough.”
“Ring me up for a bagel sandwich and a small coffee? Don’t worry, sunshine, I’ll make it myself.”
Lisa rolled her eyes and Paul ducked behind the counter, grabbing eggs, cheese and bacon from the cooler. Snagging the last poppy seed bagel from the basket, Paul busied himself with making his sandwich. Lisa wiped down the counter and stared into space. Lisa had a thousand yard stare that would put a Vietnam vet to shame, Paul thought as he wrapped up his sandwich. A couple of minutes later he was on his way down the street, coffee in one hand, phone in the other, his sandwich warming one of his coat pockets. Sitting on the graffiti and sticker splattered bench in the bus stop shelter, Paul absentmindedly munched on his sandwich. The bus arrived ten minutes later and he was on his way. There were only a handful of people on the bus at this hour, mostly elderly men and women. There was one guy passed out across two seats who looked (and smelled) homeless, but he wasn’t really taking up space anyone else needed. Paul was the only one to get off at the stop near Locust street, and when he disembarked, he left the still snoring homeless man alone with the driver. Paul got turned around once or twice, but eventually found Locust street. It was deserted, except for a lone crow perched in the swaying branches of a tree, watching Paul with its suspicious CC-TV camera eyes. The crow croaked at him as he passed under its tree, and Paul’s pace quickened just a little.
A particularly strong gust of wind buffeted Paul as he walked up the warped wooden steps onto the porch of Number 43, causing him to grab the splintery hand rail. He cursed under his breath as he felt something sharp puncture his skin and pulled his hand back to examine the sliver of greyed wood lodged in his palm. Trying to grasp the small portion protruding from his skin proved a fruitless effort, so he dug out his grandfather’s Swiss Army knife and using the tweezers, extracted the splinter of wood. His hand bled a little, but a short application of pressure soon got it to stop. The key slid right into the lock, and he was standing in the entryway of Number 43 just a few seconds later. Paul checked the time. 11:05. A gust of wind on his back reminded him to shut the door, and it swung into the frame with a soft click. To his left, a pair of dark pocket doors closed off what was presumably the living room. Paul made a halfhearted attempt to open them, but they were locked from the inside and refused to budge in the slightest. The door opposite the entrance to Number 43 was locked as well, so Paul had to make the choice either to leave or to head upstairs.
Having come all this way, he rationalized, it made little sense to leave so soon. Plus, it would be at least another hour before a bus would come by, and he didn’t like his chances of catching a cab in this part of town, even in the middle of the day. The stairs were made of the same dark wood as the locked doors on the first floor, and turned sharply to the left at a small landing about eight stairs up. There was a narrow rectangular window on the landing that offered a view of the clumped bushes in the side yard and a snippet of the second floor and roof of the neighboring house. A crow was pacing on the roof next door, but stopped and appraised Paul once it registered his presence. Paul lost the uncomfortable staring match with the dark bird and made his way up the remaining steps to the second floor of Number 43, unsettled by the feeling that the crow was watching his receding back with singular interest through the landing’s narrow window.
The second floor was bisected by a long, paneled hallway with four doors, arranged in staggered pairs on each side. At the opposite end of the hallway was a narrow, rectangular window, the identical twin of the one on the landing. Cold sunlight lit a slim path down the hallway. A quick inspection found the first two doors to be locked. Paul walked the line of sunlight down the hall to the next door, located on the right side. While the knob stuck, Paul was eventually succeeded in turning it, and the door opened with a groan tinged with relief, at least to Paul’s ears.
The room was dark and windowless, what little light there was in the hallway barely reaching through the open doorway. On reflex, Paul reached for a light switch, and his hand, encountering one, flipped it. Light from a bare bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling did little more than cast shadows around the room, but Paul was shocked that the house had any power at all. Maybe someone had bought it recently and was remodeling it? This thought somewhat satisfied his unease about the strange house, though it tweaked his conscience a bit with the knowledge that he was more than likely trespassing. He wrestled with this for a minute or so before his eyes fell on the oddly shaped object covered with an old sheet sitting to the right of the doorway.
Removing the sheet revealed the strange shape to be that of an old reel to reel film projector. It sat on a metal cart, canisters presumably containing films stacked on the bottom shelf. Poking around the room in the dull light of the overhead bulb, Paul found a screen reminiscent of those from his elementary school classrooms. He pulled it open, taking a few tries before it stopped trying to roll back up. Under another faded sheet was a perfectly good leather armchair, very similar to the ones Paul remembered his great uncle having at his law practice. An outlet was located and Paul fired up the projector, and the reel that had been left on however many years ago began to turn. Flicking off the light, Paul sat down in the chair as images splashed onto the screen. There was no sound and the film was pretty grainy, but he could make out a colorized view of the front of the house when it was much, much newer. A man in a suit with a broad tie and high waisted pants walked into the frame and kissed the cheek of a smiling woman with a well-coiffed updo. The two waved at the camera, and then the film jumped to the interior of the house. A somewhat shaky camera followed the woman as she showily toured the first floor, giving Paul some idea as to what he would find downstairs if the doors were not all locked.
There was a sunny living room, with the large picture window he had somehow not noticed looking out onto the front porch, a dining room with ornate brass chandelier and an L-shaped kitchen leading back to the main entryway. The screen went temporarily black again, and then the woman was upstairs, laughing at some comment or joke no one would ever hear. She opened the first door on the right, revealing a bathroom tiled in black and white. The woman made a big show of turning the water on and off in both the sink and the tub before moving on to the next room, which was behind the first door on the left. Inside was a desk against one wall and a sewing table butted up against the other. It was clearly some kind of home office or hobby room. The film cut to black again, and the next shot was of a bedroom. The woman sat on the bed, smiling coily at the camera man. The camera panned around the room, showing off the side by side dressers, the woman’s smiling out from the mirror. Black again, then the hallway. The woman was opening the last door on the left, but the film stopped before the camera revealed any hint of what was inside, the film fwap fwapping around on the reel.
Paul stood up and turned the light back on, switching off the projector. The loose reel slowly came to a stop and Paul carefully removed it. He placed it back on the bottom shelf into an empty tin, then selected another tin from the small stack. After removing the one reel, he felt like he had a decent idea of how to feed the next film into the projector. Paul laughed a bit to himself, as he did this, remembering how much he had loathed dealing with the microfilm machine in the college library. Despite all of the verbal abuse he had heaped upon the cumbersome machine and its preternatural ability to jam, he had to begrudgingly admit that it had paid off in this very strange instance. Switching the projector back on, Paul shut off the lights and settled back into the chair. This reel was in full color, unlike the otherworldly colorized black and white of the previous one. It started with the outside of the house again, showing a woman with long blonde hair and tinted glasses wearing a red t-shirt and bellbottoms. She was holding a little boy of about two who was sporadically waving a tiny American flag. A man with a perm, mustache and shag rug sideburns stepped into frame, tugging at the lapels of his powder blue leisure suit and giving the camera a dopey thumbs up.
This reel followed much the same pattern as the last, a silent, somewhat jumpy tour of the house, conducted by the woman and occasionally by the little boy. Again, it cut off before entering the room at the end of the hallway. Paul rose and swapped the reels again. This film ran through the now familiar scenes, but this time showing the owners of the house in what he presumed were the 1980s, based on the big hair and acid wash jeans. Again, no tour stop in the last room on the left. Paul rifled through a couple of the remaining film containers until he found one that looked much newer than the rest. He fed it onto the reels and sat back down to watch. This film was in black and white, despite showing what Paul guessed was the most recent shot of Number 43’s exterior. The shot also seemed to be taken from further away, maybe halfway up the street or so. A man entered the frame from the left and proceeded to mount the stairs leading up to the front porch. The man paused for a minute on the steps, examining something. After this, he entered the house. It was hard to make out any details about the man, as whoever was shooting did not zoom in on his subject at all, and the footage in general was pretty grainy. The screen went black for a second and then the next shot showed the main entryway. The man was standing with his back to the camera in the living room. He had relatively short hair and was wearing a dark jacket and jeans.
After standing for a little bit in the living room, he turned and went into the now familiar dining room. The camera’s operator hesitated for a bit before following from his perch on the stairs. The shot was jumpy as the operator rushed to catch up with the man as he passed from the dining room through the swinging door into the kitchen. There was a hesitation again before the camera followed through into the smaller part of the L and the shot framed the subject’s back as he circled back to the entryway. Whoever was operating the camera followed at a distance, and only the man’s legs could be seen going up the stairs in the lefthand side of the frame as the film showed the entryway from the opposite side. The camera swung jerkily around and Paul could see the subject standing on the landing, looking out the window in grainy profile. Paul leaned forward, feeling his stomach sink. He recognized the man in the film. It was him. Though the shot only lasted a few seconds at most, there was no mistaking what he saw. Panic pounced on him, freezing him in his seat as the film continued. Watching in paralyzed horror, Paul saw himself walk down the hallway, trying each of the doors, then stop at the end and gaze out the window. The film went black, but it took almost a full minute of stunned silence before the fwap-fwap of the loose film rotating behind him reached his ears.
Somehow he managed to stand, though his legs were shaking. Taking deep, measured breaths, Paul tried to calm himself enough to think of what to do, aside from making a panicked, screaming run from the house. Obviously someone knew he was in the house. What he couldn’t figure out, though, was why he had no memory of being here when whoever it was filmed him. How had he not noticed someone following him with a camera? Adrenaline flooding his veins stopped that line of thinking dead in its tracks, switching instead to the “how do I get rid of as much evidence of my presence here as possible?” Locating the reel that had been on the projector when he came in, Paul did his best to set it up in his best approximation of what he remembered from earlier. He covered the chair and the projector with their sheets, making sure to put them as close to where he had found them as possible. He made sure to shut off the light as he opened the door, then once in the hallway, carefully closed it again with as little noise as he could manage. Something seemed off about the quality of the sunlight streaming through the window at the end of the hallway, but he was too focused on getting out of the house as quickly as possible to stop and figure out why.
Looking around, he descended the steps one at a time, doing his best to determine if and how he was currently being watched. Satisfied that he was alone, Paul bolted down the remaining steps and tore open the front door, nearly leaping off the porch and onto the cracked concrete of the walkway leading to the street. Paul had to consciously force himself to slow down to what he believed was a casual pace, and it wasn’t until he was halfway down the block that he turned to look back at Number 43. There it stood, looming over the cul-de-sac, a carrion bird awaiting its turn at the kill. Though he didn’t remember doing it, he could see that the front door was closed. Paul must’ve slammed it behind him in his panicked dash. Repeated vibrations from his pocket caused Paul to pull out his phone. He had a dozen missed calls and voicemails, and almost twice as many texts. He listened to the voicemails first, which were mostly from a guy named Dave calling from a coffee shop to ask him why the fuck he wasn’t at work. These escalated in anger and severity until in the penultimate message from Dave, the person who was the intended recipient of the message was informed that he was fired and that furthermore, he could go fuck himself. Dave’s last message was more subdued and there seemed to be genuine worry in his voice when he asked again “where the hell are you, man? Call me when you get this.” Paul had a similar message from someone named Michael, along with the usual guilt-inducing message from his mother lamenting the fact that he dodged her calls and never came to visit. The texts were from a variety of other people he didn’t know including quite a few from a woman named Kara, who he had allegedly met the week before. This was all very strange and unsettling. Lacking any other ideas, Paul called his mother.
“Hello? Paul? Is that you? I’ve been worried sick! Where the aitch ee double hockey sticks have you been?”
“Hi, Mom. I’m fine. What’re you so worked up for? There’ve been plenty of times when we don’t talk for a week or more.”
“What am I so worked up-” Paul could hear his mother trying to reign in a mixture of fury and relief. “What am I so worked up for!? Paul, no one has seen you for almost a week! You haven’t been at work, your friends are all worried sick about you! We even called the police and tried to file a missing person report for chrisssakes! Where were you, Paul? I can’t believe this…”
Paul shoved his free hand into his pocket, an old habit of his whenever he was nervous or upset. There was something in his pocket. It felt like a key of some kind. Half listening to his mother’s near hysterical tirade, Paul took the key out of his pocket and stared down at it. It was an old house key with a faded label attached to it that read “43 Locust”.
“Mom? I’ve got to call you back.”
“Call me back!? Are you out of your GeeDee mind? After everything you put us through these last five days all you have to say for yourself is ‘I’ve got to call you ba-”
Paul ended the call and searched up the address. He happened to catch the street sign on the corner and put the phone back into his pocket, ignoring its incensed hive of wasps buzzing. The street sign read “LOCUST ST”. Paul realized he must have found the key and was heading to the address to return it when his phone started blowing up and distracted him. Annoyed by the continuous ringing, Paul shut off his phone and shoved it back into his pocket. He turned at the corner onto Locust street, and it wasn’t long before he located Number 43 at the end of the street in a small cul-de-sac. Despite the sunshine, there was only one other person out and about, a homeless man who was picking through the overflowing garbage cans and muttering to himself. Paul gave the man a wide berth and was soon standing on the ramshackle porch of Number 43. His left palm itched and he looked down at it, noticing a small white scar that he didn’t remember being there. He scratched at it absently. Seeing no doorbell, he knocked on the door. Getting no response, he waited a full minute before knocking again. Still no response.
Figuring no one was home, Paul decided to try the key. If it worked, he could leave it somewhere conspicuous so the homeowner was sure to find it. If it didn’t, then he’d leave. Content with this good samaritan plan, Paul tried the key. It slid right into the lock without any resistance and the door swung inward without the creak of old hinges that Paul had expected. He stuck his head into the entryway, and called out to see if anyone was home. Getting no answer, he stepped inside to find a good place to leave the key. To his left were a pair of dark, wooden pocket doors. Paul tried opening them, but they were securely locked. Opposite the front door was another locked door. Paul was about to leave the key on the newel post, where he was positive it would be found, when he heard movement upstairs. Paul’s heart began to pound and it took him a moment to muster the courage to call out.
“Hello! I found your house key and I’m just returning it. No one answered the door and I didn’t want to leave it outside.”
Paul waited for a reply, but didn’t receive one. He was starting to think he’d imagined whatever it was he thought he heard when the distinct sound of something heavy falling and the unmistakable clatter of broken glass came echoing down the stairs. Paul took a deep breath, trying to think of what to do. There was potentially someone very hurt upstairs. If he left, he’d be abandoning them. Paul wrestled with this, finally deciding to go outside and call 911 before he did anything else, figuring they would at least have a better idea of what to do. Paul pulled his phone out of his pocket and tried to power it back on, but all he got was the same blank, black screen. He swore under his breath. Gripping the banister, Paul began climbing the stairs, calling out again to whoever was on the second floor.
“Don’t worry! I’m coming up to help. Try not to move. I’ll be right there!”
Paul didn’t stop to look out the window on the small landing. A crow watched from the neighbor’s roof as Paul climbed the last few steps to the second floor hallway. It ignored the shouts and curses from the nameless man below, who fled when the bird turned to fix him with its flat, unfeeling glare. Paul stepped into the hallway at the top of the stairs and saw that the last door on the left was standing open. He quickly headed for it, ignoring the other three closed doors.
“Okay. I’m here. It’s all going to be okay. Don’t wor-” Paul turned into the open doorway and saw no one. A circular figure lay on the floor under part of an old sheet, broken glass sparkling at the frayed edges. Paul carefully drew back the sheet to find the remains of a gilt framed mirror. The frame had cracked, revealing the cheap wooden bones beneath the thin skin of gold leaf. Letting out a long, relieved breath, Paul looked around the room. There were many more rectangular and ovoid shapes covered with old sheets. Whoever lived in the house must have been some kind of art or antique collector, he surmised. Curiosity quickly got the better of him. Paul removed the sheet from a large rectangular shape leaning against the far wall. Another mirror. The one hanging on the opposite wall? Also a mirror. The room was full of mirrors of all different shapes and sizes. Paul was reflected back at himself from multiple angles, though sometimes he only got a glimpse of his head, or his torso, or in one case, just his feet. Disappointed with this less than interesting discovery, Paul told himself he would uncover the last remaining mirror, just to see what it looked like, then he would put everything back the way it was and go, leaving the key on the newel post as he’d originally planned.
He pulled the sheet off slowly, hoping to unveil some priceless work of art smuggled out of Europe before World War II. Unfortunately, it was another mirror. Roughly oval shaped, it lacked a frame of any kind. Paul thought it wasn’t glass, but some metal that had been polished to a reflective sheen, though it looked as if it hadn’t been polished in quite a long time. Looking into it, something seemed off with his reflection, but he couldn’t exactly put his finger on what. It unsettled him, like he wasn’t seeing his reflection, but through an aperture into another world that was almost identical to his own, but somehow, distinctly and unmistakably other.
Covering the strange mirror, he set about putting sheets back over the rest of the others, trying to avoid getting a glimpse of his own reflection, but not being quite able to. When each mirror was covered, he stepped over the broken one and back out into the hallway. He wanted to get out of this house as soon as possible, not just because he didn’t want to be caught inside when the owner got home, but also because he had to get away from that room at the end of the hall with its collection of strange, unsettling mirrors. Listening to make sure he was still alone, Paul walked carefully down the hallway, stopping every few steps to listen for signs that the owner had returned. Reaching the top of the stairs, he descended quickly, making sure to leave the key at the end of the bannister. He opened the front door a crack to make sure no one was coming up the front walk. Seeing no living thing except the black punctuation mark of a crow high in the branches of a skeletal tree, Paul engaged the lock and stepped out onto the porch, pulling the door firmly closed behind him.
He walked at a casual pace down the steps and out onto the sidewalk. The crow set up a solitary caw and took off into the blue anonymity of the late autumn sky. The man blinked at the brightness of the day, watching the crow disappear from sight. He was standing in front of an old, tumbledown house on some backwater of a cul-de-sac, but he wasn’t sure how he’d gotten there. Checking his pockets, he found a cellphone, but the battery was dead. He patted his pockets and pulled out a beat up leather wallet, but the face and name on the plastic cards inside were unfamiliar to him. “Paul”? That couldn’t be him. Surely he would recognize himself. There was some cash in the wallet. He stuffed that into a pocket and continued his inventory. There was an small, old Swiss Army knife. He decided to keep that and the cash, and set off down the street to find an out of the way trashcan into which he could dump the wallet and cellphone.
He made sure to check his bearings against the house down at the end of the street that loomed out over its weed choked yard like a predator, waiting in ambush for any unsuspecting prey to happen past. He wandered out of the neighborhood, but as the sun began to set, he felt compelled to go back, as if drawn by a magnetic field like a salmon returning to the place it was spawned. There were others too, he noticed, that felt the pull. A corpse-thin man in ragged and stained acid wash jeans. A gnarled and sun-baked woman, her bell bottoms clinging to her gaunt body by threads, huddled deep within a filthy faux-fur coat. They all clustered around a fire someone had ignited in an old trash can. By the time the sun had sunk out of sight, there were seven or eight of them, shadowy revenants clustered around the fire, dried and cracking husks of people whose reflection they could no longer recognize, whose names they would deny ever being their own.