I wrote this short story earlier in the year. I got the idea one quiet winter day when I was all alone in one end of a rather large house that is not my own (don’t worry; I was allowed to be there… I don’t just pop in at strange houses :o). I wanted to explore the sense of strangeness when we are alone in unfamiliar surroundings and the way the brain works when we dream, how it pulls from our experiences and presents us with a combination of memory and imagination that is terrifying and amusing at the same time. So I hope you enjoy it!
The Red Room
Her eyes fluttered open, and for a moment all she saw was a blur of dark colors that looked like a watercolor gone wrong. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath. There was such an ache in her head, such an awful ache that wouldn’t go away. She opened her eyes again and tried to make sense of her surroundings. The room was dark, and rain beat against the curtained windows with the sound of a hundred heartbeats. Her head pounded. What an ache! What an awful ache that wouldn’t go away!
She sat up and steadied herself. She was on the floor, flattened out on the soft, thick, creamy carpet. It smelled like roses. She looked over at the window curtained with heavy scarlet drapes that blocked out any light from outside. That’s why the room is so dark, she thought. She tried to stand up. The room tipped and her head hurt. What an ache! Why wouldn’t it go away? The rain beat mercilessly on the windows. The incessant pounding echoed in her brain. If only her head didn’t hurt so much!
She took stiff, wobbly steps toward the window. The carpeted floor heaved up and down like earth during a quake. She began to fall. In desperation she reached out and grasped the heavy curtains, hanging onto them as if her life depended on it. She ran her fingers over the rich scarlet fabric. She could tell it was scarlet even in the dark, though she didn’t know how. This is velvet, she thought to herself. Velvet curtains. The owners must be rich. Then it occurred to her that she didn’t know who the owners of the house were. She didn’t know what house she was in. She had never been to this house before. She didn’t even remember going there in the first place. In fact, she remembered nothing before waking up on the soft creamy carpet. If that terrible headache would only go away, she might be able to remember!
A feeling of helpless panic crept from her heart up to her throat and aching head. It paralyzed her feet and froze her hands. She was welded to the spot where she stood, arrested by a fear that was nothing more than an endless, bottomless chasm of emptiness. There was nothing in her mind, nothing but that horrible ache.
She willed herself to move. In one sharp action she threw the curtains open. The window was long, reaching from the floor to the ceiling and made up of dozens of small, crystal clean panes. She looked out and saw nothing but dark gray fog and hundreds of raindrops dashing against the glass. It was evening, she determined, but there was nothing more she could tell.
She turned back toward the room to look about. The window had let in little light, but enough that she could make out the room. It was shaped like a long rectangle. There were six windows, three on one wall and three on the opposite wall. They were all draped in scarlet velvet, and all of them were drawn except for the one she stood at. The walls were papered in a crimson that matched the curtains. A massive four-poster bed sat between the two walls. It was dressed with scarlet silk hangings and a matching silk duvet decorated with white ribbon roses. Next to the bed there was a dark wooden nightstand, and on it sat a lace doily and picture frames. She dashed over and grabbed at the photos like a madwoman, searching for a clue to where she was.
But none of the pictures held any indications; there were no portraits of the house’s owners or any other people for that matter, only little nature scenes. One was a sketch of a bluebird perched upon a weathered wood fence, and one was a watercolor of purple daisies next to a similar fence. They were probably made by the same artist, she mused, setting them down. In the last frame was a photograph of two hemlock trees in the forest. A rocky stream ran between them, and the sun shone down onto their needles, which caught and filtered the light into brilliant rays that touched the earth gently. The scene was beautiful; it caught her by surprise. It looked so familiar, as if she had been in that very spot in the woods once, as if she herself had taken the picture. But that was impossible. She had never used a camera in her life; she had never been to the forest. She had never been anywhere but this Red Room, at least she thought so. Perhaps she had gone to the woods once, but she didn’t remember. If only her head didn’t hurt so much! If only she could remember!
She put down the picture and turned, shivering. The pounding in her head had stopped, but a dull ache had taken its place. Maybe there was something she could take for the pain. Maybe there was someone else in the house who’d lend her some medicine. There might even be a doctor, she thought.
She crept to the door. It was an old, heavy door, probably oak, with panels in it. It was painted white like the creamy carpet. Its knob was glass and faceted like a diamond. She reached out and grabbed it. It was cold as ice, and the sound it made when she turned it sounded like the shattering of icicles on a clear, frigid day.
She pulled the door open slowly and peeked out. She was at the end of a long, windowless hallway where the walls were papered in rich textured burgundy and candles burned in iron sconces, casting eerie shadows on the shimmering crimson walls. My room is in its own wing, she thought, at the end of the house. For a second she wondered why she had called the Red Room hers, but the thought escaped her when a flash of lightning and clap of thunder made her jump. The storm outside was getting more violent, and so was the pain in her head.
She took a deep breath and shut the door behind her. The hallway stretched long and endless before her. Now that she was in it she could see huge gilded frames on the walls. The paintings in them were more pastoral scenes, no likenesses of people. She wondered why the owners of the house didn’t have any portraits of themselves, or at least of their ancestors. She had thought that that’s what rich people with big houses did.
As she walked on, the paintings became stranger. Not because of what they portrayed, but because of the sheer number of them. The walls were covered with frames, covered with scenes of barns and waterfalls and farms and animals, all lit by the eerily wavering candlelight. Every painting struck a chord with her; every scene reminded her of something. It was as if all her memories had been painted and put out on the walls for all to see. Except there was no one to see them, and none of the memories were in her head. Oh, why did she have this wretched headache? She couldn’t think!
She felt as if she’d been walking for over an hour when she came to a door on her left. It was the first door she had come across since her own door. (Why did she call it her door anyway?) She turned back, wondering if she’d still be able to see it. The door to the Red Room was no more than a yard behind her. She shook her head and blinked. How weird; she could’ve sworn that she’d been walking in the hall for hours! It was the headache again, messing with her brain.
She turned again to face this new door. It was like her own: heavy, paneled and white. The knob was different though, made of smooth glass, black as obsidian. She took it and turned it. The door swung open noisily. The owners should really take better care of their doors, she noted. The hinges need oil. She stuck her head into the room beyond.
The room was small and had only two windows, unlike the Red Room. The curtains were silk, with a pattern of black and white diamond shapes so striking that they made her dizzy. The walls had a pattern of red and black hearts painted onto them. The shapes faced up and down, sideways and backwards, spinning and swirling until she wasn’t sure if the floor was the ceiling or vice versa. The black table and chairs in the center of the room were her only sources of orientation. She crept to the nearest chair and collapsed into it, burying her head in her hands while the colors and patterns spun and cavorted around her. Her head! Why did it have to hurt so much? Why couldn’t she think?
She opened her eyes slowly, trying to ease herself into her overwhelming surroundings. I’ll look at the table first, she decided. I’ll study the table. Then I’ll look at the windows and get used to the windows. Then I will study the walls, but not too much. I can’t look at them too much. She let her eyes roam over the table, but not beyond its glossy black edges. The table was a long rectangle that extended from one side of the room to the other. There were matching chairs set at it, all empty. The table itself, however, was not. It was covered with millions of playing cards: Aces and Queens and Kings, Clubs and Hearts and Spades. The sight of them was dizzying, mimicking the motion of the walls and curtains, spinning her round and round and pushing her to and fro. She shut her eyes again. I hate this room! She screamed. Then she realized, for the first time, that for as long as she had been in the house she hadn’t said a word. She hadn’t even actually screamed. All her talking had been in her mind. That confused her, but it was a minor issue compared to the one at hand. She would think about talking after she got out of this horrible room.
She willed her eyes open and stared down at the floor, hoping to see the creamy white carpet that had been in the Red Room. But instead, the floor was hard and painted, painted with the shapes of red and white spades. Her heart lurched. She stood suddenly and dashed toward the door in panic. She tripped on something, she didn’t know what, and fell onto her hands and knees. She moaned while the shapes danced and her head spun and the entire room seemed to be laughing at her, mocking her. She scrambled on all fours, her eyes fixed on the white door that was still open. She could see the hallway beyond, with all the ridiculous paintings plastered onto the wall. Her head felt as if it were split open. She wished she had stayed in the Red Room, in her room. She was almost to the door now. Why was her room red, anyhow? She didn’t even like red. At least, she didn’t think she did.
She finally collapsed onto the floorboards of the hallway, the patterns of the Room of Cards still dancing wildly behind her. With one last burst of effort she grasped the obsidian handle and pulled the door shut with a resounding slam that echoed throughout the endless hallway. She threw herself against the hallway wall and covered her face with her trembling hands.
When she finally calmed down the candles were burning low in the sconces and the shadows were growing darker. The air had grown colder, as if all heat had been sucked away. She reached for the obsidian doorknob and pulled herself up, slowly and stiffly. She wondered how long she had been sitting there. She felt as if she had fallen asleep.
The hallway stretched on, as far as her eye could see. She contemplated going back to the Red Room to rest. The headache was still there. It annoyed her. Why wouldn’t it go away? I need to get out of this house, she thought. I don’t care what’s out there; I have to find a door and get out. She wondered again why she had thought these words instead of spoken them. I must not be able to talk, she decided. I don’t really want to anyway.
She walked on, away from the Red Room and the horrible Room of Cards. She walked for a long time without coming upon another door. Her feet grew tired and her head began to throb with her tired pulse. Finally a door came into view. She ran to it eagerly. Perhaps this was the way out, or if not, perhaps there was someone who could show her the way! She grasped this door’s handle. It was made of stamped brass. It was cold in her hand, just like the door to the Red Room had been. She threw a glance toward the end of the hallway where she had just come from. The Red Room and the Room of Cards were only a few yards away.
Her heart leapt to her throat and in fright she pushed open the new door. A new room greeted her, a huge one. Dark, glossy wooden floorboards were laid in a herringbone pattern that ran from her feet to the ends of the room, under a domed ceiling and crystal chandelier and past a great fireplace, until it met with burgundy walls. There was a roaring fire in the hearth, a fire that radiated warmth and light. This room was not like the Room of Cards. This room was friendly. Her head was feeling better; the throbbing was fainter now.
She walked toward the center of the room. It’s a ballroom, she realized, and then she wondered what a ballroom was. There was something wrong, though. Ballrooms are supposed to be clear of furniture or obstacles to better make for dancing (Oh, that’s what a ballroom is). But in the middle of this dance floor, right under the chandelier, was a huge, polished grand piano. She knew what it was called before she remembered what it did, which was ridiculous. I’m losing my mind, she thought. I’ve never seen something like this before. How should I know what it’s called? She stroked the silky edge of the lid. Her fingers itched to touch the keys, and that frightened her. What would they do? They were black and white like the curtains in the Room of Cards. Would they spin and swirl and mock her too?
She found herself sitting down on the soft cushioned bench. It was the strangest feeling in the world, as if her hands knew something she did not. Her fingers ran over the keys tenderly, exerting no pressure at all. The keys were smooth and cool. Ivory, she remembered suddenly, they’re made out of ivory.
Her left hand automatically positioned itself. Her fingers set themselves upon the keys. She wondered what her hand was doing just as her right hand began to do the same thing. It found its place on the keyboard and waited for her command. She pursed her lips and studied her anticipating hands. Why don’t they move? She wondered. What are they waiting for? She exerted the tiniest bit of pressure, and suddenly her fingers began to move, pushing on the keys in an automated pattern like eerie clockwork. She was so surprised that for a moment she sat and stared as her hands kept on moving. Then slowly, she began to hear music. It wasn’t just a cacophony of keys being pounded upon; it was real, sweet, beautiful music, and she was making it.
Her hands moved up and down the keyboard, trilling, harmonizing, singing. The sounds that came from the instrument were sounds she didn’t know a piano could make (how could she? She had never seen one before). The piano became a waterfall, a flock of singing birds, a thunderstorm, a summer breeze. The music wanted to make her laugh and cry and dance. Her heart welled with a feeling she couldn’t name.
Then her heart stopped. A new sound had joined the sound of the piano. It was high and sweet and strong. She jerked her head swiftly from side to side, looking for the noise’s source in startled surprise. Her hands were still playing. What was that lovely noise? It complemented the piano perfectly. It was the mist to the waterfall, the plumage to the birds, the lighting to the thunderstorm, the perfume of the summer breeze. She held her breath; the sound stopped. She breathed in again, and it resumed. Then she realized that the sound was her own voice. She was singing. I can sing? It was beautiful. Where’d I learn to sing? It was the first time she had used her voice in this house. I need to get out of here. She must be dreaming. If only my head didn’t hurt so much!
The singing stopped; the music stopped. She held her head. It was throbbing, and she was freezing. Her fingers were stiff and numb. No wonder they had stopped playing. She looked over to the hearth. The fire was reduced to a few glowing embers that were growing cold one by one. The heat was seeping out of this room, too, and the shadows were lengthening more and more. She was frightened. She couldn’t waste any more time in this horrible house. She had to leave.
She raced down the corridor, away from the Red Room and the Room of Cards and the Ballroom. The air was getting colder and colder with each passing second. The candles in the sconces were burning out one by one. The hall behind her was drenched with darkness. Panic was beginning to overtake her, a fear she realized was unreasonable. But she ran faster, as if fear were something that could be outrun.
A white door came into view on her right. She ran past it. I won’t waste my time on a nightmarish room. I need to find the front door. I need to get out of here. Another door was on her left. Does this house ever end? There were pictures all over the walls now, and they weren’t even in frames anymore. The walls were plastered with paintings and sketchings from the floor to the ceiling. She ignored them; she hated the sight of them. It was as if the walls were screaming to her, “Look at us! Look at our paintings! Aren’t we beautiful? Look at us!” They made her want to scream herself.
Finally, a staircase going down. She grabbed the banister and jumped down two steps at a time. The lights in the hall behind were all extinguished, and the ones in the windowless stairwell were quickly being snuffed out. It was as if a Shadow was chasing her through the mad corridors. Her only option was to keep running.
She got to the bottom of the staircase and found herself in a wide entry-like room. There was a huge red Persian rug in the center, and the rest of the room was taken up by clocks. Grandfather clocks, mantle clocks, cuckoo clocks and pocket watches all ticked together in perfect unison. It was enough to drive anyone mad. She clamped her hands over her ears. Her head throbbed with every resounding tick. The Shadow was on the staircase behind her, and the air was tinged with the scent of ice. Her eyes roved over the room, desperately searching for a window.
There was only a door. Tall, white, and with a steel handle. She shivered, but the Shadow was behind her. She had no choice. She dashed across the room and pushed the door open, throwing it shut behind her. She could feel the Shadow against the door; the door grew cold as It tried to get in. But she wouldn’t let that Shadow get any further. She pushed the lock on the handle. The Shadow couldn’t get in now. She was safe.
She turned to assess this new room. It was unlike any other in the house: it was completely white. The floor underfoot was made of shiny white tiles. The walls were painted white, with a feathery gray and white patterned border that ran around like a ribbon. The room had no windows but was brightly lit by harsh, sterile florescent light overhead. The place was empty except for a cluster of white curtains in the center. She took a step forward. The air was cold, but not icy. It was a coldness that was simply a sanitized emptiness. No warmth, not softness, no comfort. Just hard, sanitary emptiness.
The air smelled odd. She sniffed and tried to place the scent. It was so familiar! But what could it be? She stepped forward and touched the thin white curtain. I know that smell. It’s the smell of something clean, no… she sniffed the curtain, it’s the smell of something that was dirty, that someone is trying to make clean. Disinfectant. It’s disinfectant. The curtain was drenched in that strong smell; in fact, the room was reeking with it now. Where is it coming from? Her head was hurting again. She pushed the curtains aside to reveal a white, cold, sterile bed. It was an odd bed, not at all like the sumptuous one in the Red Room (My room, I miss my room). This bed was metal, with weird white gates that rose up on either side, like a cage to keep someone out.
Or maybe to keep someone in, she leaned in closer. The bed was empty, neatly made with a thin white blanket and pillow. She cocked her head and circled around it, puzzled. She had never seen such an odd bed. Oh wait, yes I have. It’s a hospital bed. She ran her finger over the plump pillow. What’s a hospital, anyway? She touched the clean white side table that had a little pot of purple orchids on it. Orchids, I like orchids. Especially purple ones. It’s nice to have color in a white place like this. I always said that if I were ever in the hospital they should get me purple orch –
She stopped and bent down. Her heart was pounding and her head had begun to hurt again. (Why won’t this terrible headache go away?) The orchids. Purple orchids. She did like them, so much. They were her favorite flower. Purple was her favorite color. She hated red. (Why is my room red if I hate red?) And somebody knew she like purple orchids. Somebody had gotten them for her. This was a hospital bed; this was a hospital room. She was in it. She was in the hospital. And someone had gotten her purple orchids.
She gently stroked the delicate flower petals, and then she stopped in shock. When did that get there? She looked at her left hand. Where did that come from? She held her fingers up to her face. Was that there this whole time? It was a ring on her third finger. It was a silver band that circled around her finger in intricate curls and weaves that surrounded a single, tiny diamond. At least, that’s what she thought the stone was called. It was white.
She had forgotten about the ring. She had forgotten she even owned it, that it was even on her finger. She wondered how she could have forgotten it. Looking at it made her happy, warm, content. She smiled and tasted salt on her lips. She reached up and touched her face. It was wet. She was crying.
What is this? What am I crying for? She didn’t know she was capable of crying. She didn’t know what crying was until she had done it. Why should I be so sad? She looked that the ring again, hoping it would bring up the joyful feelings again. But she only tasted more tears, and her shoulders began to shake. She cried harder and harder until she was sobbing, and she still didn’t know why.
Her head had ached during her whole time in this awful house, but now it throbbed more and more with each sob. She had never hurt so much in her life, at least not that she could remember. The pain was excruciating. The pain made her angry. She wanted an explanation. Why did she have such a headache? Why was she crying? Where was she? She wanted to go home!
“Home,” she moaned, not noticing the sound of her own voice. She collapsed onto the white bed. She needed a rest. She needed to sleep. Maybe if she slept her head would stop hurting. Maybe she’d understand what was going on. She’d rather go to her own room and rest, but it was so far away. And the Shadow was outside too; she’d have to outrun It and she was too tired to run. And anyway, her room was red. She hated red. She burrowed underneath the thin white blanket and snuggled against the plump white pillow. She shut her eyes. Sleep came upon her like a piece of granite.
She slept on for hours and hours, or at least it seemed so to her. It was the best sleep she had ever had, from what she could remember, which wasn’t much. As time went on she heard voices, distant, echoing in her brain. She propped one eye open. All she saw was a blur of dark colors that looked like a watercolor gone wrong. She closed her eyes again. Her head still hurt. She slept again. More hours passed. She slept more.
It felt like days, weeks, or years later when she felt herself coming back into consciousness. She could hear the voices again, becoming clearer and clearer. She had been swimming in the deep waters of sleep and was slowly coming back to the surface. The one voice was very intelligible now; it was youthful and deep. A man’s voice, she decided, though she didn’t know what a man was. Oh wait, yes she did.
“It’s been three weeks now,” the man said anxiously. Her heart skipped a beat. That voice! She knew that voice!
“There’s still hope,” answered another voice, a woman’s voice, but I don’t know it. “It happens all the time. They’re under for weeks or even months and then they come back.”
“What if she doesn’t come back?” asked the man. Oh! I know him! I know I do! “It’s been so long already.” Ugh, who is he? Why can’t I remember? “Three weeks. For three weeks the clock has ticked and the hours have passed and she hasn’t shown any sign of coming back.” Who is he? If this wretched headache would only leave me alone!
“She will,” reassured the woman’s voice. “I promise, she will.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he retorted dejectedly. He’s crying now. Why is he crying? I don’t want him to cry!
“Listen to me,” the woman’s voice grew firm. “She’ll come through it. The doctor specializes in cases like this. And he’s very hopeful. She’ll come through. Just stay positive. Be strong, be strong for her.”
“I’m sorry I snapped at you like that.” The man sniffed and cleared his throat. “It’s just hard to put a brave face on something like this.”
“I understand; believe me I do.”
“I just can’t believe it,” his voice was shaking. “We were on our way to New York, you know, visiting the museums and concert halls. She wanted to see The Met. She loves art, you know. Her favorite art is nature stuff, like Monet. She can draw pretty well herself, too. She’s done all these paintings, mostly woods or animals or flowers. Never people. She says she can’t do them well enough. She takes awesome pictures, though. I’ve always told her she should be a professional at it.”
There was a squeak of chairs as the woman sat down.
The man went on. “She wanted to see a Broadway play, in New York. She loves music. She’s an amazing musician. Her piano playing could put any of those concert guys to shame. This one time, she was playing at a wedding. Her cousin’s, I think. There was supposed to be a singer, too; they had rehearsed together the night before. But at last minute the singer got sick. I don’t remember how. But she… she sang in that singer’s place; she sang and played. It was beautiful. She was so beautiful.” He began to cry again. No, no, please don’t cry! It hurts me when you cry! Stop!
“But anyway.” He composed himself. “That was gonna be our big trip, New York. Our summer vacation. Last summer we went to visit my brother in Florida. He’s got a house on the beach. We stayed there for a week on the beach; it was great. We stayed up all night playing cards until we were so tired we laughed ourselves silly. She hated that, though. The cards. She could never understand Poker or anything. She always lost, never even had beginner’s luck. She claimed that the cards were mocking her.” He took a deep, shaky breath. “Maybe they were. Maybe they were unlucky cards.”
“Now now, don’t say that,” said the woman. “There’s no such thing. She’ll come through, just wait and see. And next year you can take another vacation, another wonderful vacation.”
His voice quivered. “Maybe, I don’t know. I can’t go through that again! I can’t do that again!”
“What do you mean?”
“The car! The car was all torn and twisted and crushed! And she was inside it! Why couldn’t it have been my side? Why couldn’t she have been driving, instead of me? My side was fine! I had a few scratches and bruises, but otherwise I was fine! It was just that idiot on her side; I’d wring his neck if he were still alive. I’m almost glad he’s not.”
The woman was silent.
“But it was horrible!” His voice trembled sadly, angrily. “The car all twisted, she all bloody, all… all hurt.” His voice reduced to a whisper. “Her head was hurt, really bad. Covered in blood. I’ll never look at the color red the same way again.”
I don’t like red either! But my room is red, and I hate it! I hate it!
“I don’t know what to do,” he admitted, sounding lost. “What if she doesn’t wake up?”
“She will,” the woman said, her voice shaking. “She will.”
He began to answer, but stopped, choking on his words. Please don’t be sad! Please don’t cry! I love you! Please don’t cry!
Her head was hurting again, pressing, pounding, burning. She felt herself drifting back into sleep. No, please no! I need to talk to that man! I know that man! I love that man! She was being pulled under, into the deep again, into the dark water. She thrashed and struggled and squirmed. Her head pounded with the rhythm of her heartbeats. Please don’t send me back into that house! I don’t want to go back! It’s so quiet! I’m so alone! Please!
Her eyes fluttered open, and for a moment all she saw was a blur of dark colors that looked like a watercolor gone wrong. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath. There was such an ache in her head, such an awful ache that wouldn’t go away. She opened her eyes again and tried to make sense of her surroundings. The room was dark, and rain beat against the curtained windows with the sound of hundred heartbeats. Her head pounded. What an ache! What an awful ache that wouldn’t go away!