Josh's house had an unfinished basement. He’d seen finished basements before at his friends’ houses. Some of them had gigantic TV’s and some had pool tables. One of his friends even had a pinball machine down in his basement. But Josh’s basement was a cement box with thick metal poles at certain intervals for support. The staircase dropped them in the center of the room and then Josh’s parents dragged him around behind the stairs. Suddenly, a movie Josh had seen at a sleepover came to mind about people who lived under the stairs and in the walls of a big old mansion. Josh loved horror movies, especially Wes Craven.
“You’re not gonna lock me under the stairs are you?” he cried.
“Of course not,” Josh’s mom said incredulously.
There was a door closing off the area under the steps. His parents used it for storage mostly. Josh had been in there before. He was only thirteen years old, and he had had his share of hide-and-seek games involving the staircase closet. Josh knew what was in there. Nothing.
Nothing at all.
Josh’s dad hastily traced his finger in a particular design right in the center of the door. “Stand back,” he said, himself seeming afraid of what might happen. He produced a black glove from somewhere on his person and slipped it onto his left hand. The glove seemed to be made of yarn, and a symbol was stitched into the palm in white. Josh’s dad then put his hand on the doorknob and pulled.
A blast of blizzard wind blew into the basement. All three of them were knocked backward against the cement wall. The whiteout fully conquered the normalcy within Josh’s basement, piling snow up all over the floor and dropping the temperature dramatically. A high-pitched squealing wind started up as well.
“What’s going on, dad!” Josh yelled above the sound.
“I’m sorry, son!” his dad shouted. “This is the only way for you to survive!”
“What are you talking about!”
Josh’s mom kneeled down in several inches of snow and met Josh’s eyes. “Listen to me, Josh! Your father and I love you more than anything. It’s our job as your parents to protect you and this is the only way we can do it now! I wish there was a different path for us to take together as a family, but unfortunately, you must go on alone!”
"Why are you talking like that?"
Josh’s dad knelt down now. “Josh! You’re more than capable of this! Don’t be afraid of what’s ahead of you! And always remember that we’ll all be together again in the future!”
Tears began rising up out of Josh’s eyes, tumbling down his cheeks, and freezing there. “Why!” Josh whimpered.
“We can’t give you an answer to that,” Josh’s mom shouted.
“You have to go out into this snow!” his dad yelled. “A man will find you there! You might remember him from some of our family parties! You’ve never met him, but you’ve seen him before! He’s your godfather! He’s going to take care of you! There’s a very special place he’s going to take you! We can’t tell you anything else! Just remember to trust your godfather no matter what! And someday we’ll be together again!”
“I love you, Josh,” his mom said, tears frozen on her cheeks.
“I love you, son,” his dad said. “Now get going.”
“Okay,” Josh said weakly. He faced the snowy doorway. Despite the sheer insanity of what he looked at, Josh found strength. He was still very young, and he knew that most of his strength came from his parents at this point in his life. When they told him he could do something he believed them. He always believed them, more so than he believed himself. And so, without another look back, Josh stepped through the doorway.
The moment his sneakers sunk a foot into the snow, Josh lost his nerve. So what if his parents said he could go on. He knew the truth. He was just a thirteen-year old boy who had read a bunch of books. Sure he’d read a little more than most advanced students his age, but that didn’t mean he was prepared to walk through a blizzard who-knows-where.
Josh turned as best he could in the deepening snow to see the door, but as he suspected, it was gone. All he could see for miles around him was white. He looked up: a whitish-gray sky. He looked straight ahead: a windy white landscape. He looked down. The snow had risen to his waist. He wished his parents had told him to put on a winter jacket, though he figured it was far too cold for that to even help. He wondered what he was supposed to do now. Whatever action he might be able to take, he needed to do it soon because his legs were definitely going numb. Not to mention his arms and the entire rest of his body. It hadn’t taken long for the cold to take over, but it also hadn’t taken long for someone to show up.
Out of the howling snowy winds, a figure appeared. An adult, tall and massive. He walked through the snow as if it were nothing, gouging a path across the terrain with ease. Without speaking, the man swept Josh up into his arms, tucked the boy within his huge fur coat, and took off at a run.
For Josh, everything went dark. The man’s coat had no sleeves, and so the fur was merely draped around him, and around Josh as well. The heat from the man’s body and the fur coat quickly warmed Josh up. Thankful for the timely rescue, Josh just let himself relax in the man’s arms. This must be his godfather. But whatever he was, he carried Josh as if he weighed nothing. His strength was outstanding, but considering the harsh environment he ran through made this feat even more impressive.
Just as suddenly as Josh had been stricken from his house and plunged into a blizzard, he was inside a dimly lit tent. He set down on a sitting log in front of a fire.
“Josh, I presume,” said the man as he hung his fur coat on a coat rack. He wore some sort of animal pelt as a robe now. “I am Lee, your godfather.”
Josh looked up and immediately saw the symbols tattooed into his arms and legs. Each of his upper arms and lower legs were adorned with the same exact symbol. Aside from the symbols, Lee was smaller than he had seemed before with his massive fur coat. He was balding and the ring of hair around his head was brown and gray. He had dark brown eyes, visibly tough skin, and a clean-shaven jaw line that told everyone he wasn’t afraid. His tanned skin and contoured face was differentiated him from most of the adults Josh had seen in his life.
Lee sat down at the fire opposite Josh. “We won’t be here long,” he said. “I just want to warm my fingers for a minute. Then we’ll be off to the safe house.”
“Safe house?” Josh asked.
“Yes. That’s where I’m going to keep you until you can safely go out on your own.”
“What will I do there? Just sit around? I should be in school, you know.”
“Oh no, I know. Don’t worry, you’ll learn. The safe house is sort of a school. No, you aren’t the only one in your condition. There are a few others. You’ll take your classes together.”
“What kind of classes? Like math and English and stuff? I was going to start an advanced class next semester about ancient languages.”
“Boy, you are smart. I knew you’d have to be to stay alive, but you are terribly smart for your age. I can tell just from listening to you talk.” He paused just to stare admiringly at Josh. Then he said, “But no, you won’t have a lot of those classes. Definitely not ancient languages. No, you’ll have one or two English and math and science, but there are more important things for you to learn.”
“Like what those symbols on your arm mean?” Josh asked diffidently.
Lee arched an eyebrow.
“Like how to draw them?” Josh thought a moment. “The ones you have on your arms and legs make you stronger don’t they? That’s why you walked through the snow like it wasn’t there and why you could carry me for such a long time through the blizzard.”
Lee leaned down over the fire and fixed Josh’s eyes with his own. The firelight flickered, sending shadows about his face. “You are a smart child. None of the others at the safe house are nearly as quick as you.”
“Are they my age?” Josh asked. He had to admit to himself that being forced to study with other kids sounded like a great situation. All of his advanced learning back home had certainly drawn him away from his old friends. It would be nice to have some kids his age around.
“Oh, of course. You see, once you’re a certain age, you show signs. Once you’re thirteen.”
“But I’m already thirteen.”
Lee sat up straight. “You’re a special case.” Then he stood up. “Now let’s get going.”
Josh stood up and turned around to see another door. Lee slipped a glove onto his hand that looked just liked the one his dad had put on in the basement. Lee grabbed the doorknob and opened the door. Then Josh and Lee walked through.
The door shut behind them. Josh looked around. They were in the front hall of what seemed to be a big old mansion. Behind them was a coatroom. To the right, a large parlor with sofas and chairs and several bookshelves as well as a fireplace big enough for Josh to stand in. To the left, a long dining room and beyond that a doorway into what looked to be a kitchen. Straight ahead of them went a hallway and a staircase up. The hallway went to the back to the house and stopped at a closed door. The stairway ran upward and wrapped around out of view.
“This is the safe house,” Lee said proudly. “Can’t get in here without the proper glyph.”
“Glyph?” Josh muttered.
Loud footsteps erupted from the door at the back of the hallway. A thick man in a pinstriped suit came rushing toward them. He seemed to move at a forward angle, as if he were constantly walking up an incline.
“Hello, Lee,” he said joyfully. “Your godson, I gather.”
“Yep. This is Josh. Josh, this is Mr. Tuff.”
“Wendell Tuff, young man, but everyone calls me Mr. Tuff. I’m the Head of Household. You can come to me with any concerns you may have.”
“Where am I?” Josh blurted. He decided just to ask the first question that came to his mind.
“Oh!” Mr. Tuff grunted. “Well, we are nowhere. It’s a secret, Josh. But you can call this your new home. Welcome, Josh, to Yadwiga Mansion.”
Mr. Tuff showed Josh to his bedroom and Lee vanished into the corridors of the mansion. Josh’s room was on the fourth of what seemed endless floors. He followed Mr. Tuff, losing more and more breath with each new flight of stairs. When he finally reached his bedroom, Josh collapsed, exhausted, onto his bed.
Josh lay there on his back looking around. All of the furniture was made of some kind of dark, real wood. It all seemed so new that the room smelled like a freshly awakening forest. He had a dresser with a mirror, a desk with a lamp and a full pen cup, and a high-post bed with a dark drape to surround it at night. There was only a single large window situated behind the desk so you could look out it while you study. Josh sat up and went to the window.
He saw the rolling hills of a green highland where herds of animals grazed. Copses of trees dotted the landscape and a white-tipped mountain range loomed over the horizon in the distance. Josh knew he wasn’t in a mansion on a beautiful plain somewhere. This window had to be a trick of some sort. He jumped when Mr. Tuff came into the room holding a tray. He set the tray on the desk in front of Josh.
“This is your welcome treat, Josh,” he said.
The tray held a plate containing a giant piece of chocolate cake with chocolate icing and chocolate ice cream accompanied by a giant glass of glistening milk. It hadn’t been a long time since Josh had left his home, but he hadn’t eaten anything since the night before at dinner and his mouth began watering uncontrollably at the sight of the food.
But first, he had to ask, “Mr. Tuff, what’s with this window? Are we really on a green plain?”
Mr. Tuff laughed as if everyone knew the answer. “Of course not,” he said patronizingly. “It’s merely a picture window. Just touch the glyphs on the wall there to change the view. Now, if that’ll be all, you should come down to the parlor in about an hour so you can meet your roommates.”
“Okay. Thank you, Mr. Tuff,” Josh said politely before the Head of Household left the room. Josh’s eyes went immediately to the markings that Mr. Tuff had referred to on the wall. Sure enough, there they were, a two-by-two block of four symbols. Each symbol was unique. The top right one glowed soft white.
Josh slowly reached out his hand, extended his finger, and touched the top left symbol. It began to glow while the other one stopped glowing. The view outside the window faded to white then to a new landscape. Now Josh peered down into a mountain valley. Waterfalls crashed down through the peaks and followed streams down into a massive lake where fish jumped and animals played.
“Wow,” was all Josh could manage to say. He touched each of the two remaining symbols to see first what seemed to be a view from a spaceship orbiting the Earth and then a deep-sea submarine. Josh laughed and shifted the window over and over, marveling at this magical portal as he shoved huge chunks of cake in his mouth.
After a few minutes of childish joy, Josh got serious. One of the things he’d packed in his bag before leaving his home was his sketchbook. He took one of the pens from the cup on his desk. Then he began recreating the four symbols, one to a page, in the book. He captioned each symbol with its effect. Right then he decided to keep a log of all the symbols that he saw from now on. He tried his darnedest to remember the symbols he had seen on the scary man from his house, but couldn’t remember them. He did, however, remember the symbol on Lee’s arms and legs, and so he drew that one as well.
Josh took his time with the symbols, drawing each intricate line with absolute precision. It took him several minutes to draw each one, especially the symbol on Lee since he had to draw it from memory. A bell rang out in the hallway. Josh looked up at a brass clock on the wall. He had been at his task of drawing for most of the hour. Now he was expected downstairs, so Josh closed his book, slipped a few pens into his pocket, and left his room.
The upper floors of the house were easy enough to navigate, being situated in only one hall that ran from the front to the back of the building. So Josh quickly found the main staircase, which took him to the main floor into the front hall. The parlor was empty still. In his room, when Mr. Tuff had told him to be down in an hour, Josh had created this image in his head of an extremely strict household. But seeing as he’d left his room at the hour bell, and it took him a minute or so to get downstairs, and no one had arrived yet, his assumption faded away. Perhaps in this house everyone present was allowed to be casual and laid back with most things. After all, as it seemed to Josh, this safe-house known as Yadwiga Mansion was neither a beginning nor an end. So what was there to do, really? There were no agendas in limbo. One simply existed.
Regardless, Josh liked to be punctual and so was pleased with himself for being the first one to the parlor. He picked out one of the more comfortable-looking couches in the back corner of the room nearest the bookshelves. He sat down for a minute without company. But soon his curiosity and love for books overwhelmed him. He stood up and began scanning the spines of the leather-bound volumes on the shelves. Several shelves were entirely made of complete histories, from The Complete History of Afghanistan to The Complete History of Zimbabwe. Another couple shelves were dedicated to sleight of hand and baking. Another shelf was for carpentry, and another for car mechanics. Josh marveled at the scope of topics covered by these shelves. They reached all the way to the top of the room, which loomed quite higher than any room Josh had ever seen before, and he could only guess at the subjects lying in the books up there.
Josh paused at the center bookshelf. From top to bottom it seemed to be filled with books of the exact same topic. All of then had the same word somewhere in the title. It was a word that Josh had heard a few times since he’d arrived at the mansion. But what did it mean?
“Glyph,” Josh whispered to himself.
Heavy booted footsteps made Josh jump. He quickly returned to his seat to regard the person arriving.