House of a Thousand Doors
This wasn’t how this was supposed to go. The ring had become a chain around his neck. She was supposed to be this grand gift from the universe, this reward to make up for a lifetime of pain, and she almost was. But now, he was being dragged somewhere he’d never intended to go.
Veronica was kind and sweet and never criticized. She was the first woman Kurt had ever dated who didn’t accuse him of having Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder because he liked to keep his life running smoothly. “But she has someone else…” The words echoed in his mind as he snapped the empty ring box open and closed. How could she expect a man to share his fiancée?
They had met at a fundraiser for Saint Brendan’s Orphanage. Like him, she was adopted, and had never known her birth parents. But while he had spent eight years waiting, she had been snapped up almost immediately. It was easy to see why. What parent wouldn’t want such a gorgeous, happy daughter? Vibrant, red hair, eyes like jade, and a laugh that held back all the darkness in the world.
After that first evening together, they spent the next eight months exploring everything their city had to offer, from hole in the wall diners to jazz nightclubs to a crystal creek hidden in a stretch of forest at the edge of town. He wanted to keep exploring the world, and to share it all with her.
He took her to the museum and waited until they were standing in front of her favorite painting, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”. When he dropped to one knee, she thought he had lost a contact lens. It didn’t dawn on her what was happening until he’d opened the tiny, felt box. Her lips spread into a slight smile, and then, instead of the one word he expected to hear, she said, “We need to talk.”
Veronica took his hand and led him outside to a park bench. “Kurt, I love you. I do. I want us to spend our lives together. But there’s someone else.”
She wrapped her arm around his shoulder and kissed his cheek. “No, darling. We haven’t been together intimately. But we want to. I was working up the nerve to tell you, but I guess I waited too long.”
He rubbed his eyes and tried to keep the hurt from turning into tears. “Do you… do you… like him? More than me?”
“No! You’re my favorite. I like him a lot, but I love you. You will always have my heart.”
“Then why? Why do you want to be with him?”
She laughed and waved at the city around them. “Look at this place! The streets, the buildings, everything is alive and filled with stories! There is so much out there, waiting to be explored, and I want to see it all. You will always be the brightest star in my sky, but you cannot be my world. You can have me forever if you just trust that I will always love you. Can you do that? Can you trust me enough to give me my freedom?”
He swallowed hard. “What a choice!” he thought. “Ninety percent or nothing.” Aloud, he said, “I love you more than I ever thought I could love. What else can I say?”
“Hey, wake up.” Kurt suddenly realized his boss was standing over him, waving an orange binder. “Stop daydreaming and get started on the Eisenhower Expressway plans.”
Kurt was a traffic engineer, and spent most of his time drawing construction traffic control plans. He would create a path, and thousands of people would follow it, going exactly where he wanted them to go. Life was so much more orderly that way.
He placed the ring box next to his keyboard and dumped a handful of paper clips inside. He never used them, but it was better than leaving it empty.
He decided not to meet her boyfriend. The curiosity ate at him, but the risk was too great. What if they were making love, and all he could see was this stranger’s face? It was better not to know, better to ignore it altogether. He asked Veronica not to tell him the other man’s name, or even mention the fact that there was someone else. Instead, Kurt would spend Thursday nights alone while she was “at book club”. She even bought a new paperback each week to help complete the illusion.
Weeks passed, and he finally managed to push the negative thoughts out of his head. After that, he never felt neglected, or jealous, or afraid. Their lovemaking was as good as ever. Better, even. She had an amazing amount of energy, in and out of the bedroom. Everything might have gone on that way forever, if she hadn’t come home with that smile. That damned smile. Her face told of secret, forbidden joys, far beyond those offered to the rest of humanity. She was as content as a monk on a mountaintop, every desire satisfied. It was enough to make him sick.
The red dot bounced across the map, and Kurt following a few blocks behind. Earlier that week, he had installed some new software on her phone, an application for paranoid parents called “Teen Tracker.” It took the GPS data from her phone and sent it to his laptop, which was resting beside him in the passenger seat. You needed the phone password to install it, but she had given him that months ago. She trusted him.
After a few miles, city streets were replaced by narrow, gravel roads that snaked through farmer’s fields. Endless rows of wheat turned into forest, tightly-packed trees arching over the road. The setting sun spilled orange fire through the leaves.
Another curve in the road brought him to a vast, Queen Anne mansion. In the front yard stood a lone hickory tree with a faded, wooden sign hanging from the largest limb: “House of a Thousand Doors.” Odd name for a bed and breakfast, or whatever it was. He pulled into the lot and climbed the stone steps to the front porch.
Inside, a narrow lobby stretched off into the distance. The wood paneled walls were stained a deep burgundy, and the floor was black tile scattered with crisscrossing white lines. Everything was quiet. The place felt wrong somehow. It was almost like an imitation of a house, some figure in a wax museum. The echo of his footsteps was off by half a beat. He was almost certain there were more windows outside than inside. There was plenty of light, but he couldn’t see its source.
After about a hundred feet, the lobby made a series of sharp turns, seemingly at random. He came to a wide hallway with numbered doors down each side. The hall was filled with a swirling mass of people. Some were in pairs and headed for a room, others were apparently alone and searching for someone to share their evening.
A flash of red hair vanished into the crowd. He tried to follow, but a wall of people blocked his way. Despite all the couples he had seen step into their rooms, the crowd hadn’t gotten any smaller. If anything, there were even more people than before. Where were they all coming from?
A figure broke through the crowd, a small, gaunt man in a black suit. His skin was an odd, pale color, almost gray, and seemed stretched too tightly over his bones. “Why are you here?” His slight smile said he already knew the answer.
“Veronica. I’m here for Veronica.”
“To speak with her, or to satisfy your curiosity?” The man reached up to scratch his chin. His long fingernails were filed into points.
“This way.” The man lead Kurt to a hallway that he hadn’t noticed before. Their path twisted and turned like a gnarled oak. At last, they came to a pair of doors. “You can talk to her in this room, or you can watch her in that room.”
“Will she know I’m watching?”
“Just do your best to stay out of the light.”
The second door lead to a small, dark room. In the slit of light from the hall, he could see the room was empty and featureless, save for a brass wall clock and a pair of curtains. Pulling back the curtains revealed a window into the next room. “Oh, I get it,” he thought. “This must be one of those one-way mirrors. It has to stay dark in here to keep them from seeing me. Better close the door.”
The next room was dark wood covered in azure carpet and tapestries. A queen-size bed was conveniently positioned directly across from the one-way mirror on the far wall. There were no closets or dressers. Clearly, these rooms were only for people staying a short while.
The clack of heels on tile, and door in the next room opened. Veronica entered, followed closely by a tall, well-muscled man in a leather jacket. She was laughing about something, her mouth covering her hands. The man lurched forward, slid his hands under her arms, and tossed her on the bed. She gasped, laughed, and began pulling up her skirt. The man stripped to his waist, revealing a lean, muscular frame, a Greek sculpture in blue jeans.
A tiny boat tossed by a vast and stormy sea. Salt water on her skin and lightning in her veins. Kurt’s hand gripped the curtain, his knuckles turning white, but he couldn’t find the strength to pull it closed. The smile returned to her face, that satisfied smile that he could never summon, the smile that made his stomach turn sour. Why didn’t he make her that happy? Why wasn’t he enough?
At last, he pulled himself away and stepped out the door, trying to remember the combination of turns that had lead him there, but the halls seemed to have shifted. When he finally made it outside, he rushed to the parking lot and ducked between two cars, where he could watch the door without being seen.
A few moments passed, and Veronica stepped outside. She was normally clumsy in heels, but that night, she was all but floating. A strand of hair was hanging loose down the side of her nose, but she didn’t seem to notice. She glided out to her car and her taillights faded into the night.
Another figure appeared. The other man, the new continent she was determined to explore. His face was quietly serene. If he knew Veronica was engaged, it didn’t bother him. This was a man without doubts, without fear, at peace with himself and the world. He stepped into the parking lot, and a lion sprang at his throat. “Bastard!” Kurt howled, knocking him to the ground. “Bastard! She’s my wife! My fucking wife!”
The man rolled, throwing Kurt into the side of a black sedan. “If she’s looking elsewhere for love, I can hardly be the one to blame.”
Kurt threw out his leg, catching the man in the temple. As he lay there stunned, Kurt stood, grabbing him by his shirt and dragging him towards the trees, out of the light. The man twisted, throwing a wild left at his stomach. Kurt stumbled backward, and the man sprang to his feet.
The man lurched forward, and Kurt brought up his hands to block a punch that never came. Suddenly, his enemy was sprinting back towards the hotel. Kurt gave chase, fists and legs pumping, but the sound of shouting hotel guests made him reconsider. He retreated to the parking lot.
“Where were you?” Veronica demanded. “You said you were going to be home watching a movie.”
“I was,” Kurt said, “but I went out to get some ice cream.”
She stepped into the living room. The remote control was still sitting on the entertainment center where she’d left it after the morning news. “What did you watch?”
She took a seat on the couch and patted the cushion beside her. Ignoring her gesture, he remained standing. “Did you think he wouldn’t call me? Did you think he wouldn’t tell me what you did? Kurt, that was assault! I had to beg him not to press charges, and he only agreed when I promised that he’d never see you again.” Sighing, she rubbed her forehead. “Will you stay away from him? Can you leave him alone?”
“Veronica, I don’t know if I can handle this. How can you expect me to share you with another man? How do I know he won’t take so much of you that there will be nothing left? How can I trust you?”
“That’s something you have to figure out for yourself.”
For the next two weeks, Kurt buried himself in work. He begged for overtime, covered for coworkers on vacation, did everything to stay away from home as long as he could. Finally, he fell asleep at his desk. His boss woke him with a slap to the back of the head and ordered him to go home.
When he walked through the door, Veronica was already gone. He turned on the television, but the only thing on was daytime talk shows. Even awful television was relaxing. The guard at the gates of his mind wandered off. Dark thoughts crept in.
“She’s with him right now, isn’t she. And the next time we’re together, he’ll be with both of us. His smell in her hair, his taste on her tongue. I could scrub her skin until she’s raw and bleeding, but he’ll always be there. I’ll always know where he’s been. This has to end. Everything comes to an end eventually.”
He drove in a daze, earth and sky rolling by unnoticed, until he found himself back at the House of A Thousand Doors. The place looked different in the daylight. The windows seemed taller and narrower, and the porch had three steps instead of five. The place was made of oak, but there were no divisions between the panels. It appeared to be one continuous piece of wood, like it had been carved from a single, gigantic tree. Or perhaps the house had simply grown there, at the top of the hill.
He climbed the steps and reached for the door. The knob jumped out of his hands, the door banging open. The halls rearranged themselves like rivers flowing into new banks. They squeezed him out, spitting him into the lounge.
The lounge was long and narrow and dim, like a cave with stools. A handful of people were scattered at tables and on sofas, sitting in their own, private pools of light. At the very back of the lounge lurked the bar, a monstrosity of granite and black leather. Behind the bar stood the gray man.
As Kurt moved across the room, the air seemed to resist him, like walking through water. The gray man drummed his pointed nails on the counter and watched him approach. As soon as Kurt was in arm’s reach, the gray man produced a glass of champagne and thrust it at him.
“I think you’re supposed to say ‘what will it be?’” Kurt said.
“Funny,” the gray man said, “I thought you were going to ask me the same thing.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kurt took the glass and twisted the long stem in his hand. Bubbles danced through liquid gold, rising higher until they burst.
The man’s hand dropped below the bar, returning into view with a glass of red wine. “When you were very young,” he said, taking a long sip, “your family lived at the edge of a patch of woods. Early one morning, while you were out playing, you saw something shining in the trees. Drops of morning dew had been caught in a gigantic spider’s web. The droplets were trapped, isolated on the silken strands. Each one would go through its brief existence thinking it was the entire world. But the web joined them all together, and the spiders could walk across the web and drink any drop they liked.”
Kurt put down the glass, the champagne sloshing over the sides. “How did you know about that? Are you a fortune teller?”
“Fortune tellers want to help you. I just watch, and wait. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an almost infinite number of places to be.” He stepped through a pair of swinging doors into a dark back room.
Kurt took a seat at the bar and tried to remember the sequence of twists and turns that had brought him to the lounge. He reached for what was left of the champagne. Somehow, the glass was full and the counter top was dry. Reaching out, he idly ran a finger around the rim of the glass.
A hand on his shoulder. A woman in a silver cocktail dress smiled at him, her face half-concealed by strands of wavy, black hair. “You’re new,” she said. “Are you here by yourself?”
“Yes. But I’m with someone. I mean, she’s not with me, but she’s in the building. I think.”
“You’re not sure if you’re with someone?” she laughed.
“It’s complicated. This place is confusing. This isn’t a real building, is it?” She was just a stranger, no reason she should care about him, but the words poured from his mouth. He told her about Veronica, about her boyfriend, following them to this place, everything. Finally, she silenced him with a finger on his lips.
“Maybe you should stop reacting to her choices and choose your own path.” She turned for the door. “Or my path. Whichever you like.”
She lead him to a cavernous library, endless rows of shelves interspersed with carved granite columns. Reaching back, she grabbed his hand and pulled him towards a high, octagonal table. “Don’t worry,” she said. “We won’t be interrupted. This is my secret place. Now, on your back.”
Obediently, he hopped onto the table. The woman climbed up and straddled his waist. Her fingers caressed his stomach, stroked the coutures of his chest and the side of his face, and wrapped around his throat. He tried to scream, but it came out as a chocking gag.
Her face twisted into a fanged smile. As she squeezed tighter, her skin began to bubble and drip. She melted like a wax figure, her skin sliding into a new shape: the gray man.
His vision blurring, Kurt summoned the last of his strength. He rolled on his side, heaving the man to the floor. Kurt jumped from the table and ran, the pale man’s laughter chasing him down the hall.
The building groaned as, once more, it shifted into a new shape. The wall lurched forward and forced him in a new direction. The hall tightened, threatening to crush him. His feet pounded the floor endlessly, until at last he collapsed.
The sound stopped. A glass clinked, and a woman’s voice was saying, “Oh, you’re so bad!” He opened his eyes. Somehow, he had come back to the lounge. He picked himself up off the floor and dropped into a seat near the door. At the far end of the room, Veronica was sitting at the bar. She had some pink, fruity drink in one hand, her boyfriend’s arm in the other. He pulled her closer and their lips met.
“Just get out of here,” Kurt thought. “Now, before they see you. This place – she – she is obviously driving you insane. Just… go.” He stood slowly, prying his fingers from the back of his chair, fighting the urge to throw himself across the room and break the chair across her boyfriend’s skull. The few feet to the door was the farthest he’d ever walked.
“I’ll walk you to your car,” came the boyfriend’s voice, calm and reassuring. Kurt ducked around the corner, watching as the couple left the lounge and headed out to the parking lot. He counted to fifty and followed.
Veronica’s car was under a tree at the far end of the lot. The boyfriend opened her door for her, kissed her on the cheek, and watched her drive off into the darkness. He turned on his heel and started back towards the house. Passing under the ring of light from a lamppost, he vanished, as if he had stepped through a doorway that wasn’t there.
“That man isn’t human,” Kurt thought. “None of these people are. I have to warn Veronica. Wait – I can’t say anything, or she’ll know I was here. She’ll think I’ve gone mad with jealousy. I’ll have to come back in the daytime, and find some proof.”
The next day, Kurt pretended he’d been hit by a stomach bug. He called in sick to work and waited for Veronica to leave for the day. At the sound of her locking the front door, he jumped out of bed and threw on his clothes. He slipped his camera into his jacket pocket and headed back to the House of 1,000 Doors.
The parking lot was empty, but the door was unlocked. Inside, the place was quiet. It felt as if the building were asleep, waiting for the night to return. The long hallway of numbered rooms was empty. The door to the gray man’s observation room stood open, silently beckoning. He stepped inside and found the curtains were already parted. The lights in the next room were on, but no one was inside. “I wonder when the first guests usually arrive,” he thought. “Are there even employees here? It feels like I’m the only one around.” All was silence, save for the clock on the wall.
The clock’s hands jerked backward, spinning in the wrong direction. Faster, faster, a black blur. The clock seemed to pause and catch its breath, and the hands moved forward once more.
The clack of heels on tile, and door in the next room opened. Veronica entered, followed closely by a tall, well-muscled man in a leather jacket. She was laughing about something, her mouth covering her hands. The man lurched forward, slid his hands under her arms, and tossed her on the bed. She gasped, laughed, and began pulling up her skirt.
“This must be a video screen!” Kurt gasped. “It’s not a mirror at all. But why are they playing a recording?”
If it was a recording, it wasn’t entirely accurate. As if he had heard Kurt’s words, Veronica’s boyfriend stopped and turned towards the sound. He pulled his shirt back on, climbed out of bed, and walked towards the wall. His face twisted into a smile.
“Can he… can he see me?”
The man leaned in close, closer, until his face melted through the glass. “Yes.”
Kurt ran for the door.
He found himself in his bedroom. Veronica was in his bed, screaming in pain. At the foot of the bed stood her boyfriend, squeezing her hand. She was wearing a pale blue nightgown, pulled up above her waist, revealing a round, swollen belly. “Almost done!” the man said. “Just a little more. You’re doing so good!”
Kurt’s spirit was torn in two. His future had abandoned him, and he was being forced to watch what could have been. He wanted to scream, he wanted to be sick on the floor, but what would be the point? There was nothing left. He had been plucked from the fabric of the universe, and his very existence was coming unraveled. Finally, he said, “How do I get out of here?”
The man said simply, “You have to go out the way you came in.” He gestured to a door that, moments earlier, hadn’t been there. Kurt stepped through, going back once more.
Veronica sighed, watching her baby sleeping in her arms. It was hard to enjoy the moment when she knew it wouldn’t last, that she mustn’t grow attached. She wouldn’t have him for long, and it would be half a lifetime before she would experience this again. She looked up at the man at the foot of her bed. “How many times has this happened before?”
He laughed. “You ask me that every time.”
“How many?” she insisted.
“How many more times will we go through this?”
“Until he learns.”
There was just one thing left to complete the cycle. He reached down and plucked the baby from her arms. Turning, he walked through the final door, back the beginning, back to Saint Brendan’s Orphanage.