An Unfamiliar HouseChapter 4
The piano’s song reverberated throughout the house, and the air tasted stale like old, crusty bread. Aaron laid on his back and his face felt two distinct sensations: One was the icy sting of blood sliding down his forehead, and the other was someone patting his face.
“Aaron,” Marian whispered. “Aaron, wake up.”
He opened his eyes. He made out the small, round shapes of Marian and Esther hovering over him. It was still dark outside. Rain was pattering against the glass and thunder babbled far away. Aaron moaned, rolled over, and reached for his head.
“What happened to you, Aaron? Where is Herbert?” Marian failed to keep her voice steady.
“Oh, God—” Aaron stammered as he remembered what happened. “They took him!” He wailed.
“What?” Marian shouted.
“Who?” Esther asked.
“I don’t—I don’t know!” He sat up, the blood rushed from his head, and he fell back to the ground. “Two people came into the room. I fought them—I tried, but—oh, God, they kidnapped Herbert!”
“Who were they?” Esther asked.
“I don’t know,” Aaron replied and shut his eyes. “It was all confusing. We heard lots of sounds outside the door. Tapping. Then voices. I think one was the Professor. And two others. One sounded old. The other—” Aaron hesitated. “Sounded like your dad.”
The girls glanced back and forth.
“And then what?” Esther asked.
“Some more tapping. And then two people. In the room. And then—then Herbert was gone.”
“How could—” Marian shouted. “You were supposed to—Why didn’t you help him?”
Esther touched Marian’s shoulder.
Marian took a breath. “Are you okay, Aaron?” She asked.
“It doesn’t matter.” Aaron fought to his feet. “How did you guys know we were in trouble?”
“We heard screaming,” Esther replied. “When we came upstairs, the door was open, and you were lying here, knocked out.”
“We need to find Herbert and rescue him.”
The girls helped Aaron balance a few steps forward until he was confident on his own. They tiptoed out the open door and peered down into the stairway. Their heads lifted and their noses sniffed the air. It smelled like mildew and wet furniture.
“What’s that smell?” Aaron asked.
Esther and Marian glanced at one another.
“We don’t know,” Marian said.
“Something’s wrong,” Esther said. “The song is back—”
“And that smell,” Marian added. “It’s like—it’s not our house.”
The children closed Herbert’s door behind them. The music diminished like a pianist had pressed the dampener on a piano. Tip-toeing down the flight of stairs, the children came to the second floor. To their left, an amber glow bounced at the end of the hall from a defective ceiling light. Its flicker illuminated the faces of many unfamiliar doors. Dust covered each of them, and specks of dust fluttered in the air like little insects. The floorboards creaked underneath each step, and the children felt the uncomfortable sensation even more that their house no longer belonged to them.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The children spun around at the sound, but saw only darkness. Then, they heard a flapping, like a bird’s wings.
“Marian?” Esther whispered. “What’s going on?”
Marian didn’t reply, but she too was curious to find out. She approached the first door on the right, just past the stairs leading down, and turned the handle. It creaked opened and screeched across a tile floor. Marian reached her hand into the darkness and felt a switch on the inside of the wall. She flicked it on.
Crammed and awkwardly—for all three were eager to see what was inside—the children pushed through, and were amazed to find themselves in a vast parlor, lined from floor to ceiling in subway tiles and white brick. Doors lined the sides of it as well, and nearest them, one was cracked open from someone previously leaving the room. A strange noise, like scraping and dragging, drew their curiosity deeper into the room, and, erroneously, Marian let the door slip away from her. It clipped shut.
A grand chandelier hung in the center of the parlor, and beneath it, an empty swimming pool. Ropes and ladders draped the sides of the pool to help anyone exit it.
“You guys have a pool inside your house?” Aaron gasped.
“No,” Esther said.
“This isn’t ours,” Marian explained. “This isn’t our house.”
A loud thud echoed through the parlor. It sounded as though something fell inside of the pool. They heard a horrible sound, like something massive and grotesque crawling along the bottom, just out of view. It scraped along, and the sound bounced everywhere in the pool room.
“What is it?” Esther whispered.
The children stepped forward and leaned against an iron railing overlooking the pool. A hideous blob of blood, intestines, and bone crawled on the bottom. Its body pulsated yellow fat bubbles to the surface of its disgusting body. Each bubble popped and sprayed a yellow substance that made the air smell like mildew. On its flesh, where the boil exploded, an eyeball rolled over and opened. There were hundreds of eyes on its body and each of them scanned the room, until they stared at the three children leaning against the railing. A bony mouth opened from the center of the eyes, and a loud screech deafened the children’s ears and curdled their blood. It sounded like that of a forest banshee screaming in pain.
Wasting not another moment, the children raced back down the hall. Aaron slipped on the slick tile flooring and stumbled sideways against the door left ajar by someone else. He grabbed at the handle to steady himself, and before the others could realize it wasn’t the door they entered through, the group tumbled inside, slamming it shut behind them.
Esther shrieked, and Aaron spun around. They weren’t in the hall anymore, and the surprise of standing on concrete in the shadows frightened Esther.
“What was that thing?” Esther shouted.
“I don’t know.” Marian huffed and puffed and flicked on a nearby light switch.
“Where are we, now?” Aaron gasped and looked at a room full of tools, trashcans, and an automobile in the center.
“The garage,” Marian answered, and noticed the sound of music was louder.
“How did we end up here?” Esther asked.
“Did we go through the same door?” Marian looked at Aaron.
“What is happening?”
“Are we dreaming?”
Aaron squeezed Marian’s arm.
“Ouch!” She slapped him.
“Well, that hurt,” Aaron said. “So we aren’t dreaming.” He looked around the garage at the tools and fishing gear hanging on the walls. “Is this your house?”
“That’s Dad’s car,” she said. “But I don’t know what that last room was, or that thing inside of the pool.”
“Did the Professor do this?” Esther thought aloud.
The patter of footsteps hushed them. They huddled together, and Aaron put his arms around the girls behind him. From beneath the automobile, a wily goblin crawled out of the darkness and peered around the hood. Its eyes were yellow, and its forehead was misshapen and slimy.
“Dolors,” it whispered, and Aaron looked at the girls. “But not the Dolor that matters,” it giggled. It scattered forward on four legs.
Not wanting to go back through the door into the room with the thing-in-the-pool, Aaron backed himself and the girls into the corner. He scanned the nearby wall for a tool to use as a weapon, trying to keep one eye on the creature. But the goblin ran opposite them for the doorway. He quickly tapped on and opened it; the children saw that it no longer led to the parlor.
Before leaving, the goblin turned back to the children cowering in the corner. “Stay put, maggots,” he threatened. “And the night might not take too long.” The creature squeezed through the opening and left without closing it.
“Marian,” Esther whimpered.
“Dolors,” Aaron said. “I don’t think this is your house anymore.”
“The Professor said he was bringing others,” Marian whispered to herself. “Somehow, he did this.”
The children huddled in silence and closed their eyes. Aaron hoped he would wake up in his own bed. Marian furrowed her brow, trying to imagine what her mother would do. Esther wished her dad’s arms were around her.
“What’s that thing your mom always does before bedtime?” Aaron asked.
“Pray?” Esther offered.
“I think it’s about time you did that again,” he said.
The children held each other’s hands, and Marian prayed for God to give them courage and His protection. In the silence, Aaron lifted his chin and listened to a low hum floating through the vents into the garage.
“It’s the music,” he said, after Marian finished. “It’s doing something to your home. Like a spell. You saw how it messed with your Mom and Dad. It must be doing this, too.”
“Why isn’t it affecting us, then?” Esther asked. “Like them.”
“The Fountain,” Marian exclaimed. “The Ghost of Ponce de León said it protected against spells and sounds.”
“Wasn’t a letdown, after all,” Aaron muttered.
“And it’s affecting the doors,” Marian continued. “Each doorway goes to a hidden location. We can’t go through any doors unless absolutely necessary. Who know’s where we’ll end up?”
“Well, that thing left the garage door open,” Aaron said.
“We gotta find Herbert and get outta here,” Esther urged.
“If we leave, we may never get back,” Marian replied. “What about Mom and Dad?”
“We get all of ‘em,” Aaron declared. “And we get out. And never come back.”
The music hummed inside, and the storm railed outside. Lightning flashed, but no thunder followed. It lit the tiny room up for only a moment. Wood slats and cobwebs lined the walls and ceiling. The only way in or out was a small fiberglass door laying on the floor. An enormous, yet thin and delicate, disk hung at the center of the room, cocked slightly upward, as if it were the pendulum of a massive grandfather clock, that waltzed too mightily, before breaking rhythm and freezing in an upward swing, out of sync. Underneath it, a single chair rested with a small boy asleep on it, lit by the dim moonlight.
Herbert lifted his head and looked round the dark room. He felt lightheaded, and his eyes refused to focus. His heart raced when he tugged on his hands and realized rope held them to the back of the chair. Then he remembered what had happened. He screamed for help. And then his father’s name, and Aaron, his mother, and then Marian and Esther. No one replied.
Two windows framed the small room on each side of him. He looked out each and watched the rain patter against the glass. The flash of lightning sprayed a checker print shadow across his face and the room. Across from him, he saw the silhouette of a tall man with a top-hat and cane. He shouted and screamed. The lightning disappeared, and he saw only darkness across from him.
“Mr. Dauer?” Herbert whispered.
There was no reply. Herbert clenched his jaw and closed his eyes. He took a deep breath and tried to defog his glasses. Tears dripped off his cheeks.
Beneath the fiberglass door, a latch slid and unhinged. The door creaked open and Professor Ludwig Wolfgang entered the attic.
“Herbert,” he said.
“Let me go!” Herbert shouted, hoping someone would hear from beyond the open doorway.
“No one is listening, Herbert,” the Professor said. “Though I understand why you would try.”
“Where am I?” Herbert wailed, and his arms shook in their bonds.
“In the attic,” the Professor replied, matter-of-factly.
“But my room is in the attic,” Herbert replied.
“Well, this clearly isn’t your bedroom.”
A pair of arms handed the Professor a chair from below. The Professor closed the door behind him and sat down on the chair in front of Herbert, on the cutting edge of the moonlight.
“What do you want with me?” Herbert cried.
“Herbert, I’m going to be quite frank. I hate this house. And I want nothing more than to be out of it. But I can’t leave until you tell me where it is.”
Herbert looked through watery eyes at the Professor. “Where what is?” He asked.
“Herbert, don’t play games with me. We need to know where the artifact is.”
Herbert’s eyes scattered this way and that across the floor of the attic. “I don’t understand.”
“I’m not looking for you to understand!” The Professor shouted. “Where is the artifact that Ponce de León gave you?”
“The artifact…” Herbert whispered to himself.
The Professor stood to his feet and looked at the pendulum above Herbert. The metal disk was slightly lower than before. He rolled his eyes and sighed. His feet wandered around the room, in and out of shadows.
“Herbert,” he kept saying, “don’t play games with us.”
“Is Mr. Dauer behind this?” Herbert asked. “I saw him in the shadows.”
The Professor stopped walking and looked at him. “There’s no one else here, boy,” he refuted. “Nothing but your nightmares.” He stomped his feet closer to Herbert and sat down. “I don’t care about your fears or thoughts, boy! I want to get out of this frozen house. And I want to get out now! Tell me, where is the artifact of the Army of Bones?”
“Why do you want it?” Herbert looked away and dried his cheek against his shoulder. “It doesn’t work anymore, anyway. Ponce de León put a new one in the gate.”
“There is no new artifact!”
Herbert was silent.
“Fine,” the Professor whispered. He reared his hand back and held it in the air for a moment. Herbert looked at it and watched the lightning flash against it. The hand came down violently and struck Herbert across the ear and temple. His ear rang and his glasses skipped across the floor. “Tell me where that god-awful artifact is now or I will have your nightmares rip you to shreds.”
Herbert’s body convulsed, and his mouth couldn’t form words.
“Foolish sheep,” the Professor said. “What did that ghost see in you, anyway?” He turned around and stomped his foot on the floor. The door next to his feet creaked open and two hands reached up. The Professor handed the chair down.
“My sisters and Aaron know you are a vampire,” Herbert whispered. “They will come find me.”
“They might know who I am,” the Professor replied without turning to look at him. “But they won’t find you.” He slammed the door shut, and the lock wiggled and latched.
Herbert looked around the room one more time to make sure he was alone. Lightning lit the corners of the wooden slats holding up the roof. Nothing was in the attic but cobwebs, shivering from the house’s vibration, and the massive pendulum above him. He watched the strange sharp disc minutely shift overhead like its waltz was coming down.
He closed his eyes and squeezed two long tears out of them. A chime erupted from the pendulum and the room shook. He screamed and pulled at the ropes, trying to cover his ears from the powerful noise—like a gong blasting out of a colossal clock. It vibrated down the floorboards and throughout the house below.
The sound faded, but his ears continued ringing. He whimpered in the darkness until the patter of rain returned to his ears.