The Atlas Room
It was third year of college when I switched from living in a dorm to a place off campus. The past year I had spent as a residential advisor to earn some spare cash,but two weeks before the start of the semester my boss was fired and a new supervisor hired. My old boss had lost much of the documentation, including the papers that stated I had worked for the past year, and in the transition I found myself without income or living space for the coming year. After a few unsuccessful calls, I determined none of them had a vacancy available, cursed myself for not moving off campus the year prior, and reluctantly logged into craigslist.
My college is in a city, and it is an expensive city. The exorbitant prices at bars had already given my some first hand experience to the cost of living, but it did little to dull the shock of rent prices. Rooms half the size of my dorm were double the cost, and a personal bathroom quickly became a luxury my wallet could not support.
I spent an hour pouring over listings, checking different combinations of keywords, locations, and price ranges, before I finally found a property worth looking in to. I stared at the page, trying to see if the landlord had forgotten to tack on an extra zero.
The description was for an entire three story house, only four hundred per month, and even included a pool in the back. After a minute, I read the last few lines, and realized the reason why it was so cheap.
Tenant must be willing to perform regular chores around the house, including pool maintenance, lawn maintenance, and maid services. I work night shift, so tenant must be willing to perform these actions during the day, to be completed by each night.
I smiled. Compared to the students I had to handle as a residential advisor, a little work around the house would be a small task. Plus my family had owned a small pool growing up and I had kept it clean throughout high school. With a few keystrokes, I replied to the add, and by the next morning I had an email in my inbox inviting me to view the property.
It was a fifteen minute bike ride from campus, located deep in the back of a middle class neighborhood with more speedbumps than houses. A cluster of massive oak trees stood on either side of the drive, and a concrete pathway led to the door, which was answered by a man in jeans who looked to be in his fifties.
“Hello there,” Said the man, opening the door wide with a gloved hand. His gaze lingered on me, seeming to spend time in areas it shouldn’t, as if he were seeing a human for the first time and was not sure what traits to look for.
“Here to answer the craigslist ad,” I said, peering past him. The house looked clean enough from where I was standing, and behind me there was not much yard to maintain besides raking the leaves.
“Ah, yes.” He said, “Come in, come in. My name is Jefferson, but I prefer to be called Jack.”
“Luke,” I said, stepping inside. The floors were wooden, and the frame of the door had been scratched and dented from years of use. The interior looked aged, but kept in well condition. Such well condition that I wondered why he inquired for a housekeeper.
He led me down a hallway and to the kitchen, gesturing for me to sit at the table. He took the chair opposite me, and when he moved it seemed stiff, an odd mechanical movement that I attributed to old joints.
“Before I go over the terms of the lease we have to go over some ground rules. I assume you read I expect housework to be performed?”
“Yes, that’s not a problem.”
“Good. Second rule is that since I work night shift, I may have some visitors in the late hours of the night before you wake up. It would be…” He paused, choosing his words, “Quite embarrassing for my acquaintances to see that I can no longer adequately care for myself, and they may go as far as to doubt the state of my finances. I ask that if we awaken you, that you stay in your room until morning, as to allow me to save face.”
“Not a problem. I’m typically a deep sleeper.”
“Ah yes. Good, that’s splendid.” He said, nodding his head vigorously, then continued, “One more thing. Due to tax purposes, it would be highly beneficial if you were to have already lived here for the past two years. I’d be willing to refund you an extra hundred and fifty dollars a month if you could back date these forms, and sign as if you actually have been living here for some time. I would prefer not to be caught by the IRS though, so do you know if others have documentation stating you have lived elsewhere?”
Typically, I would choose to follow the law, but a hundred and fifty dollars extra a month meant my diet of ramen could be expanded into subsistence not resembling processed cardboard. Additionally, this put a positive spin on my boss having lost my records.
“I’m in. Where do I have to sign?”
He pulled a stack of papers, previously prepared, and I signed and dated each. Two weeks later I added a few scrapes to those present on the door frame when I moved my furniture inside, and placed two hundred and fifty dollars in assorted bills into Jack’s gloved hand.
That afternoon, he showed me how to maintain the pool, and I learned of the significance of the gloves.
“This pool was build by my father for my mother back in the sixties. She loved it very much, and I do say I have more memories of her in the pool than out of it. It’s sentimental, and as so I want it kept in prime condition. The size of my father’s heart starkly contrasts his skills in construction, so the levels of chemicals have to be kept quite stable. They are controlled by this box,” He gestured to an aluminum box with a pipe that led into the ground, “And must be manually filled daily.”
He then showed me where to dump powder into slots in the box, then showed me a sign off list where I should note the levels of powder available in storage. The lids would have to be closed tight, or they would attract moisture from the air and become useless. It was unlike any setup I had ever seen, archaic in its design, but seemed simple enough.
“Unfortunately, I have a condition where I cannot handle these chemicals, and the slightest change in PH affects my skin. I’m sure you’ve noticed my gloves, and that is why I keep them on, as my skin will crack otherwise.”
We retreated back into the house, and he gave me instructions on the other household chores, before leaving me to unpack my belongings. I explored the house sometimes while he was gone, including the extensive basement where I washed my clothes with a small exercise rack in the corner. There was a portrait on the wall of Jack with his mother and father, both deceased. His father resembled Jack, and his mother looked plain and dressed plain, besides a golden necklace that ended in a heart at her throat.
Next to the exercise rack there was an open doorway that led down into a single roomed second basement, with moist floors and no working light bulbs. An enormous atlas spanned an entire wall, but besides the map the room was empty besides a small buzzing. I never spent more that five minutes in the atlas room. It was too desolate. Too dark, accompanied by a feeling that I simply did not belong.
The school semester then started, and I saw little of Jack as the days turned to weeks.
But as little that I saw him, the eccentricities of his lifestyle appeared everywhere.
First there was the cleaning. Unlike normal housework, jack had me scrub the walls, wipe down tables, and even dust individual objects several times over when there was no residue. He claimed this was due to a severe allergy to dust mites, but never had I seen him exhibit these symptoms. Twice I forgot to refill the pool chemicals, and each time the pool changed from clear to a dark murk in the span of hours, and I changed the chemicals before Jack could notice.
Then there were the visitors. Nearly always I could hear the voice of a woman, or women, her voice tinkling down the hallway. I never saw her, but I cleaned up after them in the morning, moving cups to the sink and capping the expensive expensive bottle that was Jack’s favorite drink. Sometimes I’d see undergarments, and I would move these to the door of Jack’s bedroom, where he would remove them by the next morning.
Once I joked about how much more often he had female companions than I, but he cracked an odd smile, and said in a low voice, “One day, Luke, I’ll teach you to have women swimming all around you.”
But these were mere oddities, strange doings that were Jack’s business and not mine, until one night. One night that I will never forget, that sends chills up my spine to this day, and causes me to double check the functionality of my dead bolt.
Tat night I was awakened by a tornado siren at one in the morning, a howling that matched the sound of the wind as it buffeted the sides of the house. I stayed in bed, trying to outlast the siren, but my window shattered in a sharp gust and sprayed me with a mixture of water and glass.
I shouted in surprise, then threw off my blankets and headed to the basement, where it would be safest in the storm. Jack did not usually arrive home until at least three, and the storm should blow over by then. I shivered as I ran down the steps, and sat on the work out equipment near the atlas room. Above me, rain sploshed against a high window, and after a few minutes I moved down the steps into the atlas room for fear this window would break.
My eyes adjusted to the atlas room, and for the first time I noticed just how old the atlas was. Itself must have been from the sixties, and countries that no longer existed as well as borders that had long fallen crossed it’s surface. In one corner, the atlas was damp where a leak had sprouted in the wall, and I tried to smooth it out with the palm of my hand. But as careful as I was, the corner ripped away from the pin that held it in place, and the side of the atlas fell away from the concrete wall.
Behind the atlas, there was nothing darkness and a buzzing that had grown slightly louder.
My hand reached inside, and found a light switch, which revealed the source of the buzzing.
Off to the right, near the wall, there was a pool pump with piping. Above it there was a chute leading from the ceiling, where I recognized the remnants of some of the pool cleaning powder I had been using the past few weeks.
The pool and the chute led to a glass tank, larger than any aquarium I had ever seen. The water was eye level, and the same color as the murk that had filled the pool when I forgot to add powder. The murk was dark but transparent, and at the bottom I could baarely see several oblong objects.
I stepped over the atlas and into the room. Next to me, there was a desk, along with several pictures. With trembling hands, I lifted one, and recognized my own face.
Next to the pictures there were ten cups, each dusted to reveal fingerprints. A sharpie circled the clearest prints of each finger, and I recognized them as my own. Beside the cups there was a tuft of hair, the same color and length as mine.
And behind the desk, there was a pile of clothes taller than two months worth of laundry. They were all women’s clothing, containing skirts and dresses, and I swallowed as I saw several undergarment pieces I had cleaned up and left for Jack.
I turned back to the tank, and squatted to see the bottom. My stomach clenched when I recognized the oblong objects.
They were bones. Hundreds of bones, some worn away more than others, and getting smaller as they neared them bottom. In a corner of the tank, I saw something glinting in the light of the single light bulb overhead, and recognized a golden heart among the remains.
My feet moved without any further prompt, and I ran, ripping the atlas in half. Out through the basement door, weaving through the trees, and knowing that the tornado was far less danger than the one I left behind.
When I recounted my story to the police three hours later, after spending the worst of the storm under a bridge near the highway, they launched an immediate investigation. They arrived to an open door and a woman asleep on the couch. Jack was nowhere to be found, but his footprints led down to the atlas room.
After examination, they determined that the woman had been drugged from a chemical in Jack’s whiskey bottle.
Even after searching for hours, they could find none of his fingerprints. The house had been scrubbed too carefully for that, and I had done the cleaning. The only ones they could find were mine.
Strands of my hair were found in the pile of women’s clothing, as well as on the couch where they found the sleeping woman, and throughout Jack’s room.
The oldest bones they could find still intact were from two years ago, and they identified the powder as a powerful cleaning agent, sodium hydroxide, that had dissolved the bodies. When checking records, the police found the owner of the house had died some years before, and was registered as Jack’s father. No one had been living in it since then, except myself, and the records showed I had been living there for two years, as old as the oldest bone. My own handwriting detailed the daily use of the powder in storage by the pool, as Jack had instructed.
Had it not been for the testimony of the woman when she awakened, the police would have arrested me then, for the evidence against me.