Rule 1: The children should be in bed no later than 9.
Rule 2: The children must never be left unsupervised.
Rule 3: Contact us in case of any emergency.
Rule 4: Unless stated otherwise, the children are not permitted to eat candy or junk food.
Rule 5: should you come across a room that shouldn’t exist, DO NOT ENTER.
That last rule was all it took to dismantle any sense of normality usually present in a job like babysitting. But, this was the list handed to me by the woman who hired me: Veronica Delay, Matriarch of the esteemed Delay estate. They moved into our small coastal town seven years prior, a corporate couple leading a large and powerful pharmaceutical company. I had met her husband, Thom, working as a waitress in the only diner towards the end of my senior year two years ago. Our little restaurant had to shut its doors due to the ongoing pandemic. When Thom found out about this, he mentioned that he and his wife were looking for a babysitter as their nanny no longer felt safe working during these times. And so a meeting was set up between Veronica and me, she was a stern woman, seemingly scrutinizing my very soul with her frosty glare. She let me know that the only reason she was willing to hire a college student is because of how desperate she was, she and Thom had to make frequent trips out of town even during lockdown. Thus the strange list of rules fell into my hands along with a blueprint of the house, Veronica insisting that I familiarize myself with every nook and cranny.
I first arrived at the Delay Manor on a gloomy Sunday evening, the sun was just starting to dip below the sea and the feathered clouds splayed across the sky signaled a coming storm. To say the house was big was an understatement, the house was a colossal mansion, gothic Victorian, its dark polished wood and ivory spires thrust towards the sky. It stood at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea; a brick lighthouse stood nearest to the cliff’s edge. Thom was waiting for me in the driveway and led me into the estate to introduce me to his kids.
Tyler was the oldest at 9, followed by Jocelyn at 6 and Amber at 4, they all told me this with enthusiasm. Thom looked on at our interactions bemused, but Veronica seemed almost impatient as she studied her cuticles. When they finally left, and I was alone with the children, I asked them if they could give me a tour of the house. I knew that there were 12 bedrooms, eight closets, four bathrooms, a library, two offices, a study, a large kitchen, an expansive series of interconnected attic spaces, a wine cellar, three living rooms, and a basement all spread across three stories. But knowing and seeing are two different things, and if I was to be familiar with the house, I would need to see it in its entirety. Curiosity was another factor, the house was a point of gossip in town, and I heard plenty of rumors about why the Delays were so secretive about it. The children were eager to show me the place, especially Jocelyn, and she insisted that I see her room first. I found myself jealous of the 6-year-olds room, her closet alone dwarfed my cramped room and dorm, and she had more princess themed costumes than I had clothes.
“Let’s have a tea party!” she yelled.
“Ew, no, that stuff is for girls,” Tyler protested.
I quieted the two bickering siblings, taking note that amber was unusually quiet. I told them that we would take turns playing games but that they had to show me all the bedrooms first. They obliged and with every room I saw, the more I was impressed. Even the uninhabited ones had detailed wood engravings on the sparse vintage furniture. Dark, glossy wood decorated every corner of the house, and on every wall, Victorian lanterns illuminated the corridors and spaces. Even then, the dark wood seemed to absorb the light leaving the whole house moody in its atmosphere. The sheer affluence and beauty of the place made my envy deepen, and It was apparent to see why the locals seemed to be distrusting of these people who, in seven years, accumulated more wealth than the entire town combined.
The children tired quickly, and by the 12th bedroom, they had shown me they were anxious to move onto a more stimulating activity. I had been very observant, and every other room and closet that had been present in the blueprints were accounted for. All that was left were the attics and basements, but even then, I doubted I would find one these ominous non-existent rooms the rules warned about.
After the tour was over, I spent the rest of the night playing video games having tea parties with the Delay children. I even made them real green tea that I had found in the cupboards. When it was time to put them to sleep, it had started raining outside, occasionally a flash of lightning would illuminate the now nearly stygian house. I sat in the library reading a book by dim light when I heard a noise. A very sharp and distinct creak, as if made by a careless footstep. I checked the time and saw that it was 10:43, far too late for the children to be still awake. I made my way towards the sound, guessing that it was coming from the stairway leading to the bottom floor. I crept down the stairs and into the kitchen on the first floor, nothing. Thinking that it was just the house settling, I rummaged through the fridge until I came across a jar of pickles. I was indulging in the higher quality product when it happened again. The creaking, but much harsher this time, I swear I caught the sound of wood splintering and tearing at the end of it. I bolted up the stairs, towards the children’s room, heart pounding. I nearly flung the doors open to each of their rooms, but every time I found them soundly asleep.
“What the fuck is going on here?” I said asked to no one.
I spent the next few minutes going methodically to each floor checking each bedroom, but I found each empty. There was no indication of anything having even disturbed the house, I counted each bedroom, and nothing had changed. Twelve bedrooms, no more or less, I wasn’t stupid enough to dare take a peek in the basement or attics. I would wait until the Delays got home before I even thought about considering it. Exhausted, I rechecked the time 11:16. Mr. and Mrs. Delay would be home in a few minutes. I tried to settle down in one of the luxurious black velvet Victorian chairs when a tremor shook the very foundations of the house itself, the chandeliers overhead clicked and clacked together. An ear-splitting shriek of shattering wood echoed throughout the mansion. I sprang back up, ready to call the police when the sound of the front door opening let me know the Delays had returned. I ran to warn them that something was wrong with the house. It all came spilling out of me, a single sentence of words tumbling over themselves. Veronica seemed unamused and slightly annoyed, but Thom smiled at me, I was taken aback by how handsome he looked when the edges of his eyes crinkled.
“It was just a dead tree falling out back, guess the years of stress finally got to it, and this storm was the final push. Sorry if it scared you, I’m willing to pay you extra for your troubles,” Thom said.
“It’s fine. I was just freaked out a bit,” I replied.
“Well then, it’s still raining, so I can have Veronica drop you off.”
“Thanks,” is all I said.
The drive home was awkward and quiet. Veronica wouldn’t even meet my gaze. I wondered if Thom was the one that decided to pursue this frigid woman, or she had been the one to take the initiative. She pursed her lips in a seemingly displeased expression as we reached my driveway, and I was about to mutter a half-hearted “thank you” when she finally spoke up.
“Tomorrow. 5 pm sharp.”
That's all she said before she took off, almost urgently, talk about an exit. I briefly considered not returning, but the amount they had paid me for a few hours was hard to turn down. Tomorrow I would be paid more for a long day, so I decided that I would milk this as long as I could. Not many people were as fortunate to have such a decent source of income.
The next day I was at the Delay manor; in the bright light of the late afternoon, I got a better look at the property. I saw the tree that had supposedly fallen over the night prior. Its frayed and split trunk looked long rotted and I was unsure if it had truly toppled over the night before. A small orchard sat to the side of the gloomy Victorian building, sharp and angular it seemed almost angry. Strange that amongst the serene beauty of the coast’s edge, this is how and where the Delays decided to build this eerie monument to affluence.
I greeted the children and chatted with Thom, he and Veronica wouldn’t be back until 11. I watched them drive away and spent the next hour or so playing outside with the kids. Tyler and Jocelyn were playing with some sticks, but Amber preferred to sit next to me and doodle on some scrap paper. I tried to start a conversation with the girl, but either she was incredibly shy, or vocabulary was limited as she never said more than two words to me at a time. I was trying to get some information about the house, but when she seemed like she wasn’t going to reply, I turned to the other two. Jocelyn seemed uncomfortable and dodged my questions, Tyler, however, seemed eager to talk.
“Mom says the house is old with old houses come with old responsibilities,” he said matter of factly.
“What does that mean?”
“Mom says it just means not to mess with things that are weird.”
“Like what, do you have any examples?”
“The 13th room.”
“There are only 12 rooms, Tyler, how is that possible.”
“I don’t know, but mom says that if I ever see it never to open it. Dad says mommy is just stressed,”
I tried to fish more information out of him, but nothing was adding up, and he became irritated by my constant questioning. I decided not to push him further on this for now, and instead, I took the kids indoors for a snack. After they had eaten, Jocelyn seemed to be full of energy and was begging for another tea party, but Tyler wasn’t having any of it. It was Amber who suggested a game of hide and seek. She pronounced it in a meek voice as “hideseek”. Jocelyn and Tyler seemed interested, so I told them to only hide in the house and that I would be “it”. I gave them 2 minutes to hide. I heard their little footsteps echo throughout the house and had a general idea of where they had gone to hide.
I found Jocelyn first, she had thrown herself inside the mountain of stuffed animals in her room. She helped me find Tyler, who had wedged himself inside a kitchen cabinet. Amber was far more challenging to locate. She seemed to be the most outcast amongst the trio. Tyler suggested that she was hiding in the library, and Jocelyn said that she could be stowed away in Thom’s office. Both places came up empty, and I was starting to get a little worried, I called out her name a few times but received no reply. I began searching methodically from room to room. Tyler and Jocelyn were trying to whisper something to each other, and I was only able to catch the tail end of it.
The phrase brought a spike of panic throughout my body, and I was about to start questioning the children when Jocelyn started angrily scolding Tyler.
“Amber knows not to look in those rooms,” she said in a barely contained whisper.
“But she always wants to! She sits out of them even though mom says that's dangerous!” yelled Tyler.
“Keep your voice down, stupid!”
“Cindy, did you hear her? She’s calling me names.”
“Ok, ok, settle down. So there is a 13th room?”
Tyler and Jocelyn looked at each other briefly, contemplating what to do, before Tyler turned to face me and speak.
“I don’t know it changes.”
I furrowed my brow at his answer, vaguely aware of Jocelyn's growing discomfort. What the children and Veronica were suggesting was insane, a phantom extra room that changes its location. Maybe Veronica was suffering from some kind of delusions, and she had drawn her children into her madness. What if Thom was unable to do anything about it but stick around?
“Show me where they tend to appear.”
Both children looked at each other in shock but reluctantly agreed. They lead me to the basement, a dusty, spider web infested place. I could see that a part of it was converted into a sort of living room. Within sat entire vintage furniture set, and box tv-sat near the middle. The rest of it was storage, shelves, and boxes beyond filled to the brim with old heirlooms and knickknacks. I picked up a small picture frame of what appeared to be a young veronica. I’d guess she was 8 when the picture was taken. I had noticed that while Thom liked to pack his offices full of eye-catching antiques, Veronica’s office was minimalistic and sparse. I figured that Thom was responsible for the interior design of the house, and Veronica only barely decorated her spaces, packing the rest of it down here. I had the morbid thought that maybe the way Thom built the house and how he decorated it drove her to some kind of madness, slowly over the years. Perhaps I’m jumping to conclusions, but it seemed as if Veronica liked houses minimalistic and orderly. What if she started seeing disorder after being forced to live in a home that, while not messy, was packed with commodities from corner to corner. The phantom 13th room a delusion of her tried mind, one last thing to haunt her. I guess if someone like Marie Kondo was forced to live like this, she too might go batshit.
“She’s not here,” Jocelyn said.
I had been so distracted in my armchair psychoanalysis of Veronica that I had completely forgotten about the missing 4-year-old. I took a cursory glance around and called out her name, but was met with no reply. I asked the children where the next likely place was for this 13th room. They took me to the 3rd floor and down a small winding corridor that had a little pulldown ladder leading to an attic. I yanked the ladder down and made my way up it, telling the children to stay put. As I entered the room, I pulled out my phone’s flashlight and shone it around. My heart stopped as it landed on a hunched figure. I thought that maybe someone had thrown a sheet over some furniture. But the more I looked at it, the more it seemed to be moving. It had the subtle motions of breathing. I called out Amber’s name, and the figure jerked ever so slightly. From the position and angle, I guessed it was Amber and, I reached out ready to pull off the sheet when Tyler and Jocelyn called out from below.
“We found her!”
My heart thundered in quick, painful palpitations, my hand still locked in mid-reach, fingertips inches away from cloth draped figure. My mind was in overdrive, trying to figure out what to do. Dare I pull back the sheet and see what lies beneath or do turn back around, leave and pretend nothing happened and live out the rest of my life telling myself it was just my nerves. The thing jerked again, and this time my fingers brushed against the fabric. In a panic, I grabbed hold of the sheet, and with as much force as I could muster, I yanked the sheet back. A cloud of dust was launched into the air and obscured my phone’s light for a few moments, moments that stretched out in agonizing anxiety. As the dust settled, I could finally see the form that lay beneath the sheet, a raccoon, a fat one that sat atop an old side table. It was eating a rat, its teeth tearing into it. It stopped its feast as soon as I had interrupted it and we both leaped back, I stumbled and fell painfully on my ass and nearly out of the attic. The giant thing dashed towards the back of the attic where a ventilation window had its blinds half-open, the raccoon stuffed itself through them, and scurried off onto the roof. “Motherfucker,” I said in a half-whisper as I got back up and ran to the window to close its blinds. I made my way back down the attic, deciding to pick up the dead half-eaten rat later.
“What happened,” asked Jocelyn.
“I won,” Amber said timidly.
“There was a raccoon up there! It was huge!”
“Oh, that's Mr.stripes,” piped up, Tyler.
“You named it!?”
“Well I did, mom says she likes him because animals know not to go near the bad things.”
“Bad things like what?”
“I won,” Amber spoke up a little louder.
“The 13th room, right? Tell me about it. Your mother already mentioned it to me before.”
Jocelyn and Tyler looked at each other again while Amber continued to state that she had won.
“Well they’ve always been here, ever since dad had the house built, rooms just appear and disappear, we’ve never been inside one, and we’re just supposed to ignore them,” they said.
“Is there one now? A 13th room, that's where you found amber, right?”
“Show it to me, please? I won’t tell your mom.”
“Fine, but you have to promise that you won’t go inside.”
“I won,” Amber said a 4th time.
They led me to one of the closets on the 3rd floor, and upon opening it, I saw that it was a spacious chamber with racks and cubbies for clothing. Strangest of all was the door at the other end. It was almost comically out of place, a faded mossy green, paint chipped and peeling. A rusted 43 sat at its center, and its doorknob seemed so ancient that I was sure that it would crumble in my hands if I tried turning it. Tyler told me that they had found Amber kneeling in front of it, and only after they had informed her that she had won our game that she was willing to leave. I wanted to reach out to it and touch the door, but even at a distance, I could feel a dangerous aura radiating from it. I didn’t know why but a pervasive feeling of violation invaded my very being and settled into a pit in my stomach. I turned away from it and told the kids to get going, whatever was beyond the door, I wasn’t interested in exposing the children to its malevolence.
Since Amber had won, I let her pick out our next activity, and she told me she just wanted me to draw with her. Tyler, of course, said that it would be boring, and Jocelyn wanted to have a fashion show, but after some convincing, I got her to join us. Tyler sat in the same room with us playing video games, and the rest of the day was spent casually. A few sibling arguments here and there, but the Delay children were surprisingly well behaved. I wondered who was the parent most responsible for their discipline and settled that it must’ve been Veronica. By 9 o’clock, I was eager to put the children to bed. I waited another 30 minutes to make sure that they were asleep before I took action.
Throughout the entire day, ever since I had seen it, that door was on my mind, balanced on a razor-thin wire. I walked with a combination of excitement and dread towards the closet that held the hidden 13th room. A new theory had formed in my head, secret rooms, that must be it. When the house was built, there must’ve been the addition of multiple secret rooms not listed on the blueprints, and Veronica must’ve fabricated this elaborate lie to keep her children and me away from them. Phantom rooms, what a ridiculous concept! Whatever she was hiding, whatever the reason for all this insanity, if it endangered the children or, most importantly, Thom, I would find it. When I reached the closet door, I flung it open all too eager and, in one quick motion, flicked on the lights. The door was gone.
“No! No, no, no!” I pleaded.
I rushed to the end of the closet and threw myself at the wall, and felt that there was nothing there, that there was never anything there. I let out a string of expletives and seriously questioned if I was starting to lose it. But the children, they had seen it too, but what if they were also in on Veronica’s tricks. Yes, that had to be it, they were all in on it, conspiring against Thom and me. I stumbled out of the closet and fell in a heap on the floor. I lay there for several minutes wondering what I should do next, how I should confront Veronica. My thoughts were interrupted by a familiar creak. I sat up straining to locate the source of the noise, another snap, and I was starting to home in on its location. Another sound, this time sharp splintering, like the sound I had heard last light.
I lunged down the two flights of stairs in record time towards the marble kitchen, and there it stood like a monolith mocking me. It shouldn't have been there, couldn’t have been there, the burgundy and gold door that was now embedded into a wall next to the pantry was an impossibility. My mind was starting to split apart into little fragments, I had been inside this kitchen at least half a dozen times today, and the door was never there, so why now? Veronica, it had to be her, somehow she was behind this I knew it. I wanted to leave, I should have left, but I needed to know if this door was real if it led somewhere. I reached out and placed my hand on the doorknob, a sharp chill shot through me the second I came into contact with it. As I turned the doorknob, the chill turned into deep anxiety, something vile awaited just beyond this threshold. But I had to know, for me, for Thom. I flung the door open and saw what was behind it.
Another impossibility, though the Delay manor was massive, the space that lay beyond dwarfed the estate ten times over at least. I was looking down at a ravine, reaching deep into the unfathomable depths. The only think bridging down into it was a spiraling staircase that must have run on for several miles. Further down the spiral were narrow suspended bridges that were at least 300 feet in length and closed the gap from one side to the other. Doors lined the staircase and tight corridors that had more branching doorways and hallways. The suspended bridges linked the hall to other far-flung regions of the ravine. It was all a maddening tangle of architectural disaster as the aesthetic changed from area to area with no apparent pattern. Some sections were industrial and lined with concrete and pipes. In contrast, others were vaguely gothic and had frescos and statues that belonged amongst the most famed of cathedrals. Lights dangled in an assortment of uncountable varieties, lanterns, candles, light bulbs, and suspended orbs of energy. For the area to have this many light sources and for it still to have darkened crevices, where light could not reach was a testament to its size. In depth alone, it was deeper than any man-made structure could ever hope to be, and to explore one of the branching labyrinthian corridors would surely be an exhaustive endeavor.
“Christ,” I whispered.
There was a sort of whimsy that had been awakened by the sight of something that was still unexplored. As I was about to take a step inside, fear blossomed from inside of me. The air around me changed, became thick and suffocating, and I looked down deeper into the recess to see what could be behind it.
A horrid snaking being was rising from the depths, its coal-black skin stark against the many twinkling lights. It seemed humanoid at first glance, but then I saw that it was a long, wormish thing. Along the sides of its body, appendages writhed in the air as this thing rolled its body and limbs like some nightmarish centipede. It was somehow suspended in mid-air as if it were swimming through space. As it drew nearer, the lights gave me a clear image, it had the head and torso of a human, but the rest of it was a long, grotesque undulating tube of darkness, arms, human arms where the squirming limbs I had seen earlier. They reached eagerly towards my direction, and before it could ascend further, a shriek tore out from my throat, shocking me out of my entrancement. Scrambling out of this otherworldly recess, I slammed the door shut.
I stood in terror, gazing at the door, daring it to open and let out the humanoid centipede demon it contained. Hours passed, and nothing happened, regardless I was still in a state of shock. The familiar sound of Thom’s Buick pulling in caused my head to snap towards it. When I turned back to look at the door it was gone, I had expected that would be the case. I was curt in my greetings and departure from the Delay manor that night. Thom seemed disappointed by my urgency to leave, and if Veronica suspected that I had broken her most sternly expressed rule, she didn’t show it. She maintained that everlasting icy indifference.
I ran all the way home and threw myself on my bed, I was exhausted, but sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. That was last night, I know that when Thom calls me to return in the following days, I will return with newfound curiosity, and I know when the next phantom room appears, I won't hesitate to open it. There is something beneath the earth at the Delay manor; something is hidden behind multiple layers of deceit and willful ignorance. I want to get to the bottom of it, see that surrealist underscape once more, and know why the 5th rule exists.
Beneath The Delay Manor
It’s been five days since I last set foot in a room that shouldn’t exist. Five days since the Delays had last asked me to babysit at their accursed estate. For those five days, dread shadowed me, a deep anxiety of being exposed. I had violated their most important rule, so the relief that flooded me when I was called to work today was immense.
When I arrived at the Delay manor I was greeted with little fanfare, Veronica’s familiar scrutiny gave nothing away. As soon as she and Thom left, I set my plan in motion. I pulled out a small box I had stuffed in my backpack and held it out, listening for any response. I went throughout the house, holding the box in front of me, repeating this in every room hoping to elicit a response. The kids followed me, occasionally asking what I was doing. I sat down, mentally exhausted after nothing had come to fruition, and finally acknowledged the Delay children.
The phantom rooms were the only things on my mind as I spent the next few hours performing tedious tasks. It wasn’t until after the sun started setting when I heard a panicked squeak come from the box. I rose to attention and listened for any familiar sounds.
“What was that?” asked Tyler.
I shushed him as I finally heard it, the creaking and splintering of wood, the sound of a new door forcing itself into existence. I ran towards the noise as the squeaks morphed into short shrieks. The children followed after me, barraging me with a series of questions. When I was in a corridor in the 3rd room, I opened the box and pulled out the pet store mouse I had bought and held it by its tail. I dangled the now wailing thing as I made strides towards the area that elicited the most fear from it. I stopped in front of a narrow corridor that had formed near the corner of a wall. It stretched into an area that should have been a spatial impossibility. By all accounts, the corridor went beyond the outermost walls of the house and would have to be suspended in mid-air, and yet at its end was a sleek wooden door, intricate patterns decorating its borders. I dropped the now hysterical mouse and it scurried away, running past a screaming Jocelyn and a stunned Tyler.
“Cindy what’s going on?!” asked Jocelyn.
When I turned to face them, their faces contorted in fear at the sight of the now exposed passage and door. From behind them Amber stepped out and made her way to my side and peered at the door curiously.
“Have you ever gone inside?” I asked the quiet girl.
She shook her head but gave me a look that said that she wanted to, she moved closer to the door and ran a hand along the polished surface. I reached out and placed a hand on the doorknob, ignoring the sharp sting of rising anxiety. Jocelyn and Tyler pleaded with me not to open it, but I had to know. I tugged the door open slowly, Tyler and Jocelyn flinching as I did. Inside was a room completely different than the one I had been inside of a few days prior. Now it led to some kind of red brick-lined interior. Winding paths snaked out in every direction, some curved upwards towards the walls and an unseen ceiling.
“What is that?” Jocelyn asked.
“I don’t know, want to find out?”
Tyler’s eyes lit up, a sense of adventure blossoming inside the boy, Amber was already moving closer to the threshold. Jocelyn was the last one to join, her hesitance was betrayed by a step. The promise that this would never make it to their parent’s ears was made without a single word being spoken.
The inside of the room was dark and dusty, a strange unease hung in the air, so thick it was nearly palpable. I propped the entrance door open with a chair. Should I see the dark centipede creature from my last visit, I would be able to escape quickly with the children. Walking deeper into the room, I saw that it was illuminated by the dim glow of overhead chandeliers. They were bound together in an intricate web of tarnished silver chains. They made up a giant suspended mass, an artificial sun long dead. The dim light it gave off did little to illuminate the space directly beneath it. The rest of the room was bathed in darkness. I pulled out a flashlight from my backpack and shone it around. The room was big enough that the light didn’t hit any of the other three walls and instead dissipated in the empty space. We moved as a group on one of the paths until it transitioned into a stairway twisting up into an angle that should have been impossible to trek. Amber was the one to run up it, she slipped away from my grasp and ascended. I yelled after her but as she climbed up a staircase that spiraled upside down, I was stunned into silence. Somehow, Amber was standing upright on an inverted staircase, ignoring the laws of gravity that should have sent plummeting back down. I extended my arms up towards her as she was now above our heads.
“How is she doing that?” asked Jocelyn.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
Tyler gawked at me as I grabbed the quiet girl and pulled her back down, there was a resistance like a force binding her to the steps. With a tug, she broke free and she fell into my arms. I turned around to look at the door leading back to the Delay Manor, the promise of normality filtering in as light and decided that it was time to leave. I grabbed hold of Jocelyn with my free hand and held Amber in the other.
“Follow me,” was all I said to Tyler.
No one protested as I reached the door and ushered the children through. I turned back to look into the strange world contained within the phantom room. From a corner void of light, a pair of iridescent white eyes stared back at me. They moved towards me in a jerking motion as if walking on withered and unstable legs. As it stood at the edge of the chandelier’s dim spotlight, I saw that it was a small, black, impish creature, the size, and shape of Amber. Its eyes now seemed more like eyespots, Intended to ward off predators instead of functioning as ocular organs. Its head cocked as if it were observing us and as it took another step closer, I slammed the door shut. I said nothing to the children and instead we spent the rest of the day without mentioning what we had just done. It was late afternoon, evening fast approaching when I finally broke the silence that had fallen between us.
“Is there anything more that you can tell me about?” I asked.
“No, not much. I don’t think Mom’s ever went inside one,” Tyler answered.
“What about Thom?”
“No, Dad’s never really even talked about them.”
“I’m sure he knows, I mean he’s the one that had the house built,” cut in Jocelyn.
“Has anything ever come out of them? Have you ever heard anything from the other side?”
“No, just the creaking when they show up, but never anything after,” answered Jocelyn.
“Don’t tell your parents about today, and stay away from the doors. I think they’re dangerous.”
The 2 older children both nodded in agreement, Amber was quiet as usual but through her body language, she communicated an eagerness. A cool coastal breeze tickled exposed skin, the creamy orange rays of a setting sun did little to warm me. I shivered, not because of the encroaching cold, but instead, the goosebumps forming on my skin were brought on by thoughts of the phantom rooms. It wasn’t until the sun dipped behind cresting ocean waves when I brought the children in. An hour later they were in bed, falling asleep with little complaint. I wandered over to Thom's office, standing in front of the door I wondered if it was worth intruding. I briefly considered searching through Veronica’s office to see if I could find anything revealing a hidden truth about the insanity contained within these walls. But, a different force was tugging me towards Thom’s working space.
I stepped into the cluttered office and searched through unorganized files and books. Nothing drew my interest until I found a photo album buried in a stack of papers. I quickly skimmed through it, I saw pictures of Tyler as a smiling mischievous baby, of a fussy Jocelyn and eerily stone-faced newborn Amber. I saw a photo of Veronica on her wedding day, a gorgeous white dress wrapped around the once defined curvature of her body. She wore a smile so faint it was nearly imperceivable. The plastic film over the photo crinkled under the force of my grip and I forced myself to move on. The photo of a younger Thom cradling a baby Tyler caused my heart to skip a beat. A sharp, stubbled jaw and doe eyes stained baby blue was all it took. My free hand had subconsciously found its way to my pants zipper and I anxiously fidgeted with it. I remembered the night he had done the same, pressed up against me, his warmth freezing me in place, and through the intensity of our breaths, we communicated a shared desire. How long ago since we had last indulged it, a little under a year? When he had first asked me about replacing his nanny all I could think about was those shitty books marketed to suburban moms. The ones you find in grocery stores, half-naked men plastered on the covers and big bolded words like “taboo” and “forbidden” as selling quotes. I’d thought I would be living out a fantasy like the ones described in those books, how foolish. I had barely seen Thom since I started here, and the times I had he didn’t have that lustful gaze he had bore into me just a year prior. But now, seeing his face almost a decade younger, I could almost feel his heat, his breath, his touch. My fingertips were running along the hem of my jeans, a few dipping past when I heard that all too familiar sound. The infernal splinter of wood.
“Godammit!” I hissed
Flushed with a different kind of heat I stormed towards the sound. Just the hell was going on in this house? I decided then and there that I would get to the bottom of it, know what role everyone was playing, and if Veronica was behind it, I would ruin her. I hated her and so did Thom, he had told enough times during those sweaty, restless nights how out of love he was with her. Maybe, if I could just get her out the picture, Thom would look at me the way he used too. I could stay here in her place just as soon as this shit settled down. I would love to be the one to wipe that smug “bitch” look off her face.
I found the door to the ever-changing 13th room in a cellar beneath the first floor. I normally would hesitate going down into it, but in the spur of the moment I flung the ebony wood door open without a second thought. The inside was humid this time, the scent of concrete and tar emanated from it. Still, I was unaffected as I ran inside, flashlight out, and scanning the area ahead. The door had opened into a dark urban landscape, cracked concrete and roads as far as the eye could see. I guessed it was night though no moon or stars were visible. Battered street lights were spread in seemingly random intervals and very few of them actually functioned. Even then all they gave off was a weak ambient glow.
“What the hell?”
I ran farther down the street, trying to find anything of note but it was all so disorienting. Streets branched out in wild zig-zagging patterns and often intersected causing multiple buildings to fuse together into tall misshapen sentinels. There was no sign of human life here, no cars, no shoes dangling from electrical wire. None of the stores weren’t even marked with any identifiers. I turned around and decided to walk back, the glow of a door still in the distance. Taking my first step towards it, I felt a searing pain jolt through me, originating from my right shoulder. I panicked and grabbed onto something slimy and caustic, it wiggled in my hands and left a burning sensation. I tossed it to the ground and shone my light on it. I was greeted by a fat, dark purple slug. It writhed towards me as I heard the wet squelch of something drop from the sky and land inches from my foot. I dove under an awning as I heard more of those wet plops. I shone my flashlight around to reveal more of the slugs, now falling from the sky. A few burned through the plastic above and splattered around me.
I started sprinting towards the door, trying to avoid the rain of toxic slugs. I peeked behind me to see that I was being pursued by some giant black cloud that hung low in the sky. It had to be the one producing the slugs, thick wisps of black vapor curled and engulfed streetlights as it moved towards me. A giant iridescent green eye bloomed from its center and set its gaze on me. It picked up speed as its slug drizzle turned into a downpour, the corrosive rain nipping at my heels. I felt two more red hot drops land on my neck and ankle respectively before I flung myself out of the door in one last desperate attempt to outpace the black cloud. I rolled into an upright position and pivoted to slam the door shut before it could pour into the house and consume us all. The sound of the door echoed throughout the house, I barely heard it over the thundering of my own heart. My chest ached with exhaustion and my skin was left with a sharp searing pain where the slugs had landed and left chemical burns. I searched around quickly to make sure I hadn’t brought any into this world by accident. I let myself collapse after finding none.
I spent the rest of the night treating my injuries and trying to calm my nerves. To hell with the house, whatever the rooms were, they always contained horrors. There was no denying it now, an evil lurked here, built into the very foundations of the house. Somehow this house had become linked to the malice of another world or worlds. I decided then and there that I would wipe my hands clean of this. I sat around in ill-contained unease waiting for the Delays to arrive. When they finally did I tried to leave as quickly as possible, planning to quit later over text. But Thom caught me by the wrist, I tried twisting away from him but he held firm.
“Is something wrong? You look scared half to death.”
“It’s nothing, I-I just want to get home. I need to work on a project that’s due soon,” I lied.
“Ok, but anything's wrong, just know I’m here if you need to talk.”
Thom said it in as calm a voice possible, but his eyes were frenzied. What his eyes said were “keep your hysteria to a minimum, I don’t want my wife knowing that I fucked a girl almost 20 years younger than me”. Typical, covering his own ass, I let him know with my glare that I would keep our dirty secret between us. My eyes shifted behind him to meet Veronica’s indifference. I broke away and turned to leave, wondering how much she really knew about Thom and me and about the house. Though she gave nothing away I had a gut-wrenching feeling that she knew on some level the sins committed around and against her. Maybe she knew from the start, what I had done, knew about Thom, breaking the 5th rule, about so much more than she let on. I don’t really have anyone else to blame for that but myself, and Thom. He was the one that had spoken so sweetly to me, postured himself in the most appealing of ways. The creep had waited until I was just old enough to make his move. How long and how many times had he played his games? I wonder how long until we face the consequences of what we did, but regardless I don’t plan on letting Veronica have the last laugh, I’ll take her down with me if I have to. A dark thought emerged from within me at that moment. If I could have eliminated Veronica by now, I would have. I wondered if she was the one to have set this all up as some twisted, cruel form of punishment. Would this end when I was gone for good? Did I even have the strength or will to give up? I hate to admit it, but I still ache for him.
I ran home sobbing, I had stopped by the time I was inside but had begun crying again as I lay in my bed. I cried for so much, for the sins I committed, for the father I lost, for the pity I had wallowed in. I cried because I knew that this wasn’t the end, somehow I knew that I would be dragged back into the Delay estate, back into the strange worlds within the 13th room. I fear that if it calls once more, through the timber of shattering wood, I just might answer its call.