by Kevin Holton
There is a room in my family’s home that isn’t used. It isn’t one you might expect, like the attic or basement. It isn’t a guest room or an art studio, nor is it a closet, bathroom, or sunroom. This room is not a nursery, ballroom, cloak room, conservatory, sitting room, parlor, or attached greenhouse. Though our home was built decades ago and has a number of such rooms, the room is not one of these.
In this room, there is no furniture. There are no chairs, no mirrors, and no fixtures—just a single bulb. There is one door and no windows. People enter through that one door and exit through that one door, but only one person can be in the room at any given time. Though there are no locks, inside or out, and no rule preventing others from entering, most glance over it without thinking of what might lie inside. Few open the door, even to look.
When someone does happen to gaze at this door and remark, in thought or aloud, that they have want to see the interior, the result is always the same. They’ll reach toward the door, at which point that hand will shake. Should they try to continue, their pupils contract as they begin to sweat. Ultimately, the person decides the contents are none of their business, and that the private rooms of another person’s house are not their business. They accept this idea as if it were their own, and rejoin my family and our guests in the festivities from which curiosity had previously distracted.
The room is on the second of three floors and located directly in the center of the house; were one to draw up a blueprint, it would appear as a nucleus around which the electron rooms could orbit, though it is not on any such document. As far as officials are concerned, this room does not exist.
As far as anyone is concerned, this room does not exist.
Some Victorian homes had passages, rooms, or entire sublevels hidden from the public eye. Ours had only this one room, left in plain sight, and before this day, only my mother, father, and most of my siblings had entered.
I am the middle child, in every sense of the term. My brother, Calvin, and sister, Antoinette, were both born prior to me. After me came Lucinda and Gerald. We were all born precisely three years apart, to the day, and as such celebrate our birthdays collectively, hosting a single party on October Thirteenth. Being both the third of five children and the second of three men born to this family, I was the easiest to overlook.
I am not as smart as Calvin, who graduated with a double major in chemistry and math, then went on for a Masters in biochemical engineering, nor as athletic as Gerald, who at eleven has bested high school seniors at both track and baseball. I am not as nurturing as Lucinda, who is the sole caretaker of our greenhouse, nor as calculating as Antoinette, who at twenty is already being recruited for a high-ranking management position at a Fortune 500 company, the name of which, for various reasons, I cannot disclose.
At seventeen, I am close to graduating from high school with passable grades (I am fortieth in my class out of one hundred and eighty-six) and have few college prospects. My father, a freelance writer, insists I need to find what I am passionate about and work toward fulfilling those goals and desires. He failed as a writer for many years but finally secured an agent after writing a tour de force, or so the critics say.
My mother is a classically trained violinist who has toured the world to demonstrate her skill. She, being shrewd but sensible, is quick to remind him that I have no passions to pursue.
This isn’t harsh. It’s the truth. When I woke that morning, sometime after ten o’clock, I wandered down to the kitchen and found that my family had already eaten and begun their day’s work, though Calvin and Antoinette had moved out years earlier. It being a Saturday, I filled a mug with what was left in the coffee pot and put it in the microwave, letting it warm enough so the heat coming off it was just shy of intolerable before taking my drink and, still in my pajamas, wandering out into the backyard.
Lucinda’s greenhouse takes up a significant portion of our property, but the vibrant flora inside has offered us all respite from the dull trappings of daily life, at times, and the structure’s presence means there is less grass for Dad and I to mow, so no one objects to its otherwise obtrusive presence. Regardless, my other family members tried to get her out of it as often as possible, coming up with myriad excuses. “It isn’t healthy,” my mother would quip, “for her to spend so much time in there.”
She never explained why it was okay for everyone else to do what they loved, except when it came to my little sister. I’d always assumed it was because there was neither fame nor fortune in botany.
I heard no enchanting melodies coming from the conservatory, nor did I hear the low rumble of my father’s fingers at his computer, which fills the house like the growl of distant thunder. I did see my younger sister twirling among her plants, examining leaves and watering things that I will never be able to name, checking instruments that only professionals can read. Professionals and Lucinda, that is.
The door to the greenhouse was silent, and were it not, the hum of climate-control machinery would’ve masked any sound I made, but still she knew that I was there as if the plants alerted her to my entry. “Hello,” she said, her back to me. My sister stood five-four, if that, but was still young, and was thin from forgetting meals. We trusted her to come in and eat eventually, and if the hour grew late and we realized she hadn’t, I would go to the greenhouse and find her curled up on the floor like a seed waiting for its roots to form. Each time, I’d scoop her from the floor and carry her to bed, only to find the little queen among her leafy subjects once again by the time I woke.
Most days, she could entirely disappear among the rows of plants; the greenhouse was as long as our actual house and about half as wide, the inside having been broken into several sections—sun-loving plants on the outer edge while the more delicate specimens were kept in a special section in the center. It was a humid place filled with more hues of green than Ireland and usually orbited eighty degrees.
It wouldn’t bother her that I hadn’t responded yet. I often had the impression that, to her, people were passing amusements. Much like how most people will stop, remark that a flower is pretty, and walk away to forget it, she, in return, treated humans the same. Still, I had my manners.
“Morning,” I grunted, voice still choked by dreams from which I hadn’t fully woken. “Where’s everyone?”
“Mom and Dad took Gerald to try outs.” My sister still didn’t look at me.
Nodding, I walked the perimeter, careful not to touch, brush against, or spill coffee near anything that might be considered alive. This went on for a few minutes, me walking around while she tended to her ‘babies,’ neither of us looking at or speaking to one another. By the time I drained my coffee, I was sweating from the heat.
“So what did you want to talk about?” she said, a surprise so great that I jerked, like I’d been dreaming of falling.
I looked over my shoulder but couldn’t see her among the plants. “What do you mean?”
“You don’t like plants. You don’t know what any of these are, nor do you want to learn, but still you entered my greenhouse. My home is a labyrinth to you, one which you could leave, and yet you wander. Why else, unless you want to talk to me?” Lucinda was an old soul, or so my parents said. Such compliments were often delivered with sidelong glances my way, as if to suggest more areas in which I was lacking.
“I just wanted to look.” I tried to convince myself that was the truth.
All but slithering out from beneath a bench covered in plants with long, reddish, tail-like things, she stopped to stand before me, staring. Most girls her age were becoming concerned with, if not already obsessed with, their make-up, who was dating who at school, and establishing a reputation in high school. My sister was the antithesis; dirt was smudged across her brow, sweat dripped down her temples, and her eyes were dark and sunken from malnutrition and sleep deprivation.
Cocking her head, she looked confused but curious, the way she did when coming across a plant she hadn’t ‘met’ before. “What are you after?”
“I…” I lowered my arm, letting the coffee cup hang from my fingers. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Letting out a hmph, she said, “Maybe I prefer to spend my time with plants, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand people. You’re lost.”
“Lost,” she confirmed, “because you don’t know what it is you’re trying to find. People get lost for two reasons: they don’t know where they are, or they don’t know where they’re trying to go. You’re the latter.”
It would’ve been easy enough to scoff at her, to say she’s just a kid sister and doesn’t understand how the world works, but this was the first serious conversation we’d had in weeks and I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to talk.
“Our folks are really proud of you, you know.” Staring down at the cup in my hand, I added, “That’s why you do this, isn’t it? You work hard because they’re proud of you?”
She shook her head. “I do this because I like to. Because it makes me happy. They’re proud of what I’ve done, yes, but I wouldn’t have done any of it if it wasn’t what I wanted to do. You should be less concerned with their opinions and more concerned with your own.”
When I furrowed my brows, trying to decipher her response, she looked toward the back door, eyes darting between me and shadows moving about in the kitchen. “In the end, family is who you choose. I’ve chosen my plants, even though it’s not a profitable career, like what our brothers and sister decided to pursue. Mom, Dad… they’ve made their choices. It’s time you made yours.”
Pondering this, I mumbled a quick thanks for her advice and left. Inside, I found that Mom and Dad had returned. As predicted, Gerald made the team and was already being looked at by scouts for potential future recruitment as the next baseball prodigy. Barring any life-changing injuries, he was “destined” for the major league.
“What are you going to do today?” Mom asked.
“I… don’t know yet.” Part of me wanted something more impressive to say. In fact, most of me did. It would’ve been great to tell them I was going to spend fourteen hours growing plants or inventing new medicinal cure-alls or one of the other things my family did, but all I could say was, “I’m going to shower, then I’ll, I don’t know, job search or something.”
As I trudged up the stairs to the second floor, I heard my dad whisper, “I worry about him. No drive, no ambition, no prospects…”
“I think the solution is obvious,” my mom replied.
Ignoring this comment, I creaked up the old stairs to my room on the third floor, grabbed a change of clothing, showered, and then laid on my bed, staring at the ceiling. School had just ended and I was going to take on the world soon, so I’d earned a day off, or so I rationalized.
As I made my way to the ground floor, something stopped me. It may have been a prickling of my skin or a cool brush of air against my neck, but I turned and looked at the door to the room we never used. That innocuous slab of dark wood stood out among the others. Before, it was just an interruption in the Tuscany Sunset colored wall, but today, I gathered something had changed.
Reaching forward, I curled my hand around the knob, feeling none of the trepidation that the room usually inspired. When I opened the door, darkness greeted me. It seemed to stop at the threshold, neither spilling out into the hallway nor letting light penetrate. Reaching in, I flicked on the switch.
Buzzing to life, a bare bulb in the center of the room came on, banishing the shadows. I walked inside and shut the door behind me. The light was quiet, unlike those that hummed and buzzed like flies attacking a ceiling fan. It was bright enough to illuminate all four corners of the empty room but not so bright that it hurt the eyes. The walls were beige, the floor bare wood, and the ceiling free of cobwebs. I was alone with the sound of my breath escaping from my chest.
Yet, as I turned, I saw a figure lounging against the door I’d come through. No one had followed me, nor had anyone opened the door after, and I’d stood alone until I tried to leave. Now I saw myself blocking my passage out. This figure was me, dressed in the same clothing, but his eyes were dark and unreadable.
“Hello,” my doppelganger said.
“He… Hello.” What else could I say?
“We’ve been wondering when you’d arrive.”
My eyes surveyed the room. Though there were no shadows now, I wondered what I’d really banished when I turned on the light. “We?”
“My people,” he said, offering no further insight to what ‘he’ was. Then, seeing my confusion, added, “You don’t know. I see.” He nodded and tapped his chin, as I so often had.
“What are you?” I didn’t really want to know the answer.
“This is a halfway point. Middle ground between where your world and mine.” His words were devoid of inflection, his mood impossible to deduce. Unlike my nervous, higher pitch, the doppleganger’s tone was cold and hollow.
When I didn’t respond, he added, “I’m here to offer you a choice between a future of unemployment and rejection, or, if you let me help you, all the money and success you could want.”
“Those things don’t matter to me.”
Holding up a finger, my double said, “But they matter to your parents, and I know you want them to be proud of you. Accept, and they will be.”
Drawing back, I was acutely aware of the walls and how I stood in the center of this small room, trapped. “So what’s the drawback? What do you get?”
“We will merge, you and I, into one being. You will not be the same person after, but you will no longer care about who you were before.”
I began thinking of my ‘family’ history of success. Staring into his dark eyes, I whispered, “Mom and Dad… they accepted, didn’t they?”
“Yes,” he responded, without hesitation.
“Antoinette? Gerald? Calvin?”
“All three, without hesitation.”
His smirk faltered.
“You,” he continued, “are the only member we have yet to approach. You have led your whole life conforming to what other people expect. Accept, and you will be the world’s best actor, someone who doesn’t portray, but becomes his characters. You will crush every expectation, winning every award. You’ll have fame and fortune beyond what even the rest of your family can imagine. Will you take my deal?”
For a moment, his words dug at my ears and wormed their way inside, threatening the rest of my thoughts. I wondered what his version of my world would be like, and if joining with him would let me be appreciated, finally, by my family. My chest ached for them—for getting back any sense of belonging.
But there, in the background of my thoughts, were Lucinda and her plants. The fourteen-year-old learning to cultivate life while the rest of our family had given up on it.
Just as he began to grin, I shook my head, banishing the smile from his face.
“No,” I said. “No deal.”
Recoiling, the double said, “Are you certain?”
“So be it. But keep in mind, this is not the only place where your world meets mine, and the next time I come to possess you—when you are at your absolute weakest, when your mind and will are broken and you have nothing left to fight for—I will return for you. When I do, I won’t need your consent.”
Opening the door behind him, he stepped beyond the threshold, disappearing into a world that looked exactly like mine, the same bare room, only tinted blue and comprised of disjointed, impossible angles, as if seen from underwater. Then the door snapped shut.
I hesitated, afraid of what might still lie on the other side, but knew I couldn’t stay there forever. My shaking hands rested on the knob, and I counted off a full minute, one Mississippi at a time. When I opened it, I walked back out into my hallway, wondering for a moment if I wasn’t in some twisted double-version of my home. If I hadn’t been tricked and was, in fact, just being prepared for his return. I couldn’t entertain those thoughts. I packed a bag and was about to leave when another thought crossed my mind. Packing a second bag, I went down to the kitchen.
There I found Mom, Dad, Lucinda, and Gerald, all sitting around the table. Absently eating a piece of toast, Lucinda didn’t look too thrilled to be inside, away from her plants, but Mom and Dad always found reasons to keep her out of the greenhouse. Now I knew why.
“Hey,” I said, eyes on Lucinda. “I know. I get it now.”
“What are you talking about, Edgar?” my mother said.
“What you said about family. I understand, and I’m making my choice. Let’s get out of here.” Lucinda scurried from the table, coming to stand by my side.
“Son,” my father said, “what are you getting at?”
“I didn’t take the deal.” I didn’t need to yell, insult, or threaten. Those words were enough of a blow.
Turning to glower at Lucinda, then at me again, my parents’ demeanor shifted from feigned confusion to palpable anger. My father growled, “There’s nowhere on earth that you can run where we won’t someday find you.”
Backing away, afraid to turn my back on them, I replied, “You’re the ones who ran.”
They didn’t try to stop us. I threw our bags into the backseat of my clunker of a car, then we got in and sped off. I took the winding roads slow, wanting to make sure we survived our escape, but also because my hands shook so badly that I was afraid I might steer us into a ravine. It took a great effort to keep myself from crying, an effort my sister must’ve noticed, because she put her hand on my shoulder.
That was a small comfort, and I appreciated it. It didn’t stop me from thinking—thinking about what kinds of lives we’d lead now that we were starting new lives with no money or prospects, about how I could raise a fourteen-year-old when I wasn’t even an adult yet, but mostly, I kept thinking about the setting sun, and the ancient shadows creeping up behind us.
Kevin Holton is a cyborg and fitness junkie from coastal New Jersey. He’s the author of three forthcoming novels: The Nightmare King (Siren’s Call Publications); At the Hands of Madness (Severed Press); and These Walls Don’t Talk, They Scream (HellBound Books). He also co-wrote the short film Human Report 85616, and his short work has appeared with Sci-Phi Journal, The Literary Hatchet, Radiant Crown Press, Pleiades, Rain Taxi, Mighty Quill Books, and Thunderdome Press, among others. When not reading and writing, he can be found narrating audiobooks, talking about Batman, or recharging in a dark room somewhere.