The blackened clouds across an angry red dawn sky threatened rain. Emma thought the striking colors might have made for an interesting painting, had the shadowed line of hills not been broken by an unsightly, decrepit house.
This was Emma's destination. The unexpected inheritance from an aunt whom she never knew. Aunt April had died childless and in testate, mourned by no one, except perhaps the emaciated looking grey cat whom Emma could see sitting on the front porch of the property, as if waiting none too patiently for its next meal.
Emma glanced at the messy, dark hair of her sleeping five-year-old son, slumped in the passenger seat, and felt grateful that at least she had a dependable car with which to drive them to this remote locality. She had kept the car in tip top shape since the death of her husband, frugally conserving as much of the insurance money as possible so that she wouldn't have to go out to work before Keshawn was old enough for school. The inherited house had brought visions of clean, country living and perhaps a small town library where she could dust off her old degree and find work once the Kindergarten term began, but what had been described as a fixer-upper looked more like a complete wreck as she drew closer and Emma was beginning to contemplate alternative plans.
The front of the house looked even worse from close up. Emma parked directly in front of the door and contemplated whether or not to wake Keshawn. Despite being out in the middle of nowhere she would not leave her child unattended for even a moment, but she was having doubts about whether or not she would venture very far inside the house. Its run down state was completely disheartening. She wasn't even sure if it could be considered safe. The weathered, grey bricks around the base of the wood house looked as if some of them might crumble at any moment.
Emma let out a laboured sigh and got out of the car as quietly as she could, contemplating whether there might be a cheap motel in the nearby town. She closed the car door with a soft click and trudged over the gravel drive to the porch. This, at least, was made of solid cement and looked safe enough. The rotting wooden front door, on the other hand, brought visions of a collapsing roof and other dangers. She was glad that she had thought to wear old jeans and her plain denim-blue cotton blouse that she usually used for painting and other diy jobs. The cobwebs framing the door frame suggested that she was likely to find heavy dust inside.
She opened the door with the heavy, antique metal key that the lawyer had given her along with the papers for the house. Ruin that it was, the house was fully hers now. It was a responsibility she hadn't asked for, but the land alone was worth a fair price if it came to bulldozing the structure itself. Suddenly, with that thought, the bricks and cement seemed very solid... defiant of any suggestion of demolition. Emma had a strange feeling, as if someone were watching her... judging her.
Emma looked up at the upper floor windows. She had almost expected to see a face looking back, but there was no sign of anyone, anywhere. She shook off the images from watching too many Horror movies and turned to look at her son's slouching figure through the car window, reassuring herself that he was safely within sight. Then she turned back to the door and put the key into the lock. The metal let out a squeal as the key turned, as if it hadn't been used in years. Emma found it strange because she knew that her aunt had continued to live there until she died, just two months ago.
She pushed the door open and peered inside. At first the dim light from the doorway revealed nothing more than the shadows of furniture inside; a Victorian designed sofa, some small tables and a hearth. Then a bright ray of sunlight penetrated the glooming clouds and shone right into the room, illuminating rich, burgundy fabric on the almost new looking sofa and dust-free surfaces on rich, mahogany wood furniture. Emma stepped inside just a little way, astounded by the opulence of the room.
She quickly turned to reassure herself that Keshawn was still in sight, then began opening long, heavy draperies on the windows that faced the front of the house. The light transformed the room and it began to feel inviting. Emma wanted to explore further, but first she needed to wake her son and bring him inside. To her surprise, when she turned towards the door, he was already standing there, rubbing sleep from his eyes. She had not heard a car door close. She looked outside quickly and saw why. Keshawn had left the car door wide open.
"Stay here, Kes. I'm going out to shut the car door." She might have reprimanded him for leaving it open at any other time, but they had had a long day and she just wasn't up to playing the disciplinarian at that moment, especially with the boy still half asleep. She dashed down the steps of the porch and gave the car door a good slam, not caring how much noise it made this time. She thought about locking the car securely, but she didn't want to leave Keshawn alone in the house for more than a moment and rationalized that there was no one around for miles. The car would be safe enough.
She leapt up the porch steps and back into the living room, but in those few seconds that it had taken to shut the car door, Keshawn had wandered somewhere out of sight.
"Keshawn!" Emma called, pitching her voice to reach as many rooms as possible at once. There was no answer. Emma began to feel the slight panic that every mother feels when a small child can't be found for a moment, battling with the calm logic that he couldn't have wandered far.
"Keshawn!" she called again, this time aiming her voice towards the staircase, some part of her noting the decorative carved work on the wood banister while her primary focus remained on locating her son.
"I'm upstairs!" the small voice called back. Emma's shoulders relaxed. She hadn't realized how tight all of her muscles had become in the near panic that had begun when he hadn't answered her first call.
"Well come back down and stay with me," she ordered. "I'm not sure how safe the different rooms are, especially upstairs."
There was silence for a moment, then the sound of soft footsteps echoed from somewhere up the stairs and Keshawn appeared at the top.
"Come upstairs, Mom. I've found a really neat door!" Rather than obeying his mother's command to come down, Keshawn turned and ran back the way he had come. Emma had no choice but to follow.
"This isn't what I said to do," Emma bellowed as angrily as she could muster. "I said to come down!"
Emma stopped at the top of the stairs, wondering which direction Keshawn had gone. A hallway to the right appeared to lead to most of the rooms, but a landing to the left led to another set of stairs that presented the sort of mysterious alcove that would fascinate a small boy. She was intrigued herself, but first she needed to collar Keshawn.
"Where are you?" Her voice sounded exasperated to her own ears.
"I'm in the bedroom!" Keshawn's voice sounded weakly from the hallway to the right. Emma was almost disappointed that he hadn't chosen the more interesting left hand path. She walked down the hall, looking into each room as she came to it and grumbling to herself that she had no way of knowing which bedroom he meant or even the layout of the house. Eventually she found him, squirming as if he were making snow angels on the bedcover in one of the smaller bedrooms. She tried to glare at him sternly, but she was just too tired from the drive and relieved to have him back in sight to produce the desired effect. Keshawn grinned at her and carried on rolling around on the bed.
Emma opened her mouth to warn him that the furnishings were probably dusty, but she stopped when her gaze fell onto the bedside table and she could clearly see that there wasn't a speck of dust on it at all. She thought that there should be some after two months, even if the old lady had kept her house immaculate. She brushed the thought aside, assuming that whomever had been in charge of the house after her aunt's demise had kept it clean. She added the thought that it was a pity that they hadn't also kept the outside in good repair.
"I found a key!" Keshawn announced, holding up an old fashioned brass key, much like the one that Emma had used to open the front door.
"Is it the same as mine?" she asked, pulling the front door key out of her pocket. She held it up and Keshawn scooted over to hold his key next to it. The style was similar, but the wards and bits were completely different.
"Maybe it goes to the door in the closet!" Keshawn enthused, the words bursting out of his mouth at the same time that his little legs hit the floor running.
"Kes! Stop running off!"
Emma followed her rambunctious son into another bedroom. His familiarity with the location of the mysterious door suggested that he had already explored this room before she had managed to find him upstairs. She watched as he slid open an ordinary door for a built-in wall closet, revealing a second door in the wall behind. This one looked old, sitting comfortably recessed into a back brick wall that appeared to have been part of an earlier structure. A brass keyhole, polished clean, invited further scrutiny. Emma tried her house key in the lock, but it did not fit.
"Here, let me try," Keshawn directed her. Emma contemplated the implications of the forceful attitude her child seemed to be developing.
"Let me try, please!" she corrected him.
"Yes mother," Keshawn capitulated, rolling his eyes. He produced the alternate key and slid it into the lock. It turned over without any apparent resistance at all, as if the mechanism had been kept well oiled. Keshawn opened the door and Emma reached forward to pull it a little wider, allowing the light in the room to fill the darkness of the recessed compartment. That was all it was, just a slight recess in the wall that led nowhere. A tall, full length mirror in an old style swivel frame was the only object stored inside.
"Why would someone lock a mirror inside a secret closet?" Emma wondered aloud. Though the available light was dim, it was sufficient to see that the ancient bricks had been kept dusted. There wasn't a cobweb in sight.
"Maybe Great Aunt April was a witch, like in Snow White!" Kes suggested. His enthusiasm for the theory made Emma smile, then suddenly a hissing sound startled her and she grabbed her son protectively and spun round to see the source of the disturbance. Her shoulders relaxed and she let Kes squirm out of her grasp. It was only the grey cat they had seen on the front porch.
"Close that door," Emma ordered. "I don't think the cat likes having it open."
Keshawn obeyed, then walked over to the cat and stroked her back. A purring sound started instantly and she rubbed against the child's legs, enjoying the attention.
"Can we keep her, Mom? She was probably Aunt April's cat and there's no one else to take care of her."
Emma regarded the small animal. She seemed harmless enough.
"She's probably been having to hunt her own food in the fields these past two months," Emma said. "We'll get her some cat food and see if she decides to stay."
A pair of large, green eyes looked up at Emma then and she imagined that the little cat understood her every word. She could swear the tiny mouth curled in a smile when she agreed to adopt the creature.
"Somebody has saved us a lot of work, keeping this place clean. I wish I knew who to thank." The cat moved to Emma's legs and started rubbing up against them. Emma bent down and picked up the animal and held it close, scritching behind its ears.
"I suppose we can call you April, after my aunt." The purring suddenly got louder.
Emma looked up at the urgent sound of her son's voice. Her mouth dropped open in unbelief at what she saw.
"I think I'm in trouble, Mom."
The door to the secret closet stood open again, revealing the mirror, but Keshawn was not standing in front of it this time. Somehow, his image was inside the glass, looking out. Keshawn was feeling around the edges of the frame, looking for some way to get out.
Emma sat the cat down and rushed to the mirror, dropping to her knees. She tried to reach through the glass, but encountered the solid resistance that any ordinary mirror would present.
"How did you get in there?" Emma tried not to let the panic show in her voice. She had to stay calm, for Keshawn. The cat meowed loudly from behind her, but she had no time to give it attention now.
"Tell me exactly what happened!"
Keshawn looked confused for a moment, trying to remember. Then he looked up, into his mother's eyes.
"I smelled something... like incense. The sandalwood stuff you get, sort of. When I looked around, it seemed to be coming from the mirror and I saw a long, brick hallway inside it."
"In the mirror?" Emma asked. The high note her voice had taken on unsettled her more than the bizarre story.
"It was like a portal, like in all those movies, and I just stepped into the hall and was in a different place. I turned around and couldn't get back through the mirror."
Emma took deep breaths, forcing herself to stay calm.
"What does the mirror look like from your side?"
"It's the same as that side, except it's mounted on a wall. And I can see you, and the bedroom. And the cat."
Emma turned a moment and looked at the cat, sitting on the bed and meowing incessantly. She wondered what it knew and wished the animal could talk. Suddenly it ran out of the room, still meowing loudly. Emma turned back to her son, wondering what to do. She heard the cat again, but the sound was faint and seemed to be coming from somewhere inside the mirror.
"Do you hear that?" she asked her son.
Keshawn turned and looked behind himself.
"April is in here. I can hear her."
"What can you see?" Emma could see nothing but her son and the reflection of the room behind her.
"There's a long hallway," Keshawn said. "There are doors on both sides, but the cat sounds like she's straight ahead. I can't see the end of the hall."
Emma hesitated a moment. Her fear that her son could get hopelessly lost in some labyrinth battled with the logic that told her that the cat was in the house... the normal part of the house, and if she told Keshawn to follow it, there might be a way out.
"Wait right there a minute," she told him. "I'm going to see where she went. I'll be right back! Don't go anywhere!"
"Okay, Mom. I'll stay right here," Keshawn promised.
Emma tore herself away from the image of her son and stuck her head out of the bedroom, listening for the cat's meowing. She heard it faintly, coming from the landing. With one, quick worried look over her shoulder, she followed the sound. By the time she reached the landing, the sound had grown much louder. The cat was close, but she could not see her. She looked around, listening carefully to determine whether the meows were coming from down the stairs, but they were not.
The strange alcove to the left of the landing drew her attention. She walked over to it and looked up, into a narrow, spiraled stairwell. She climbed the steps until she came to a hidden dead end with a door at the top. The door looked similar to the one in the closet that had hidden the mirror. The cat was sitting on the top step, still meowing loudly for all she was worth. Emma tried her key in the lock, but it did not fit. Keshawn still had the key that had opened the hidden closet door.
Emma ran back to the bedroom. As soon as she bolted through the door, the panic began to take over. She could feel her arms shaking and her knees go wobbly. Though the sliding closet door was still open, the secret door was shut.
"No..." she whimpered out loud. She sprinted to the door and tried to open it, but it was locked tight.
"Keshawn!" she shouted through the door, holding her face close to the keyhole and trying to send her voice through the small opening as best she could. There was no answer.
"Keshawn, can you follow the sound of the cat? Don't go anywhere else, just follow the cat. She's in front of a door and I think your key will fit!"
She listened carefully, but there was no sound from the weathered door. The incongruity of a door inside a room suffering the ravages of nature niggled at the back of Emma's mind, but there was no time to think about that now. She had to find her son!
She could hear the cat faintly behind her now, but not through the closet door. She turned and ran back to the alcove and up the steps. The cat was pacing now, still making as much noise as it could, though the meow was beginning to come out in a rasp. Emma thought to try the door this time, but wasn't surprised to find it locked.
She brushed tears from her cheek with the back of her hand as she sat on the step next to the cat and joined her in her attempts to attract the child's attention.
"Keshawn! Can you hear me!" She heard the note of despair in her own voice and chided herself for allowing the vulnerability to show where Keshawn might hear and be frightened by it.
At first there was no sound, then a faint, child's voice answered, "I'm here, Mom!"
He had apparently disobeyed her earlier command and followed the sound of the cat, but for once his independent streak had brought him to where she could reach him.
"Can you see the door lock on your side?" she called. "I think your key might fit."
Emma heard the clicking of metal on metal. It seemed to go on forever, as if Keshawn was having trouble seeing the lock in the darkness. Then suddenly the distinctive clatter of a lock turning over was all Emma needed to lunge forward and fling the door open. Keshawn stood there, a look of surprise on his face, and Emma wrapped her arms around her son and pulled him through to her side of the door. The key was still in the lock. She shifted Keshawn's weight to her hip and took the key out of the lock and dropped it safely into her own pocket, then closed the door. She wasn't surprised to hear the lock turn over by itself, once again securing the secret door. The cat had moved further down the stairs, showing no sign of wanting to enter the strange passage.
"Mom, how can that big place fit inside this little house?"
Emma didn't have an answer to her son's question. She had only glimpsed the long, grey bricked corridor lined with what looked like heavy oak doors, but she could not reconcile what looked like the depths of a medieval castle passage with the ordinary wood house she had inherited.
"I don't know, Kes. It shouldn't be possible. But you were there, so somehow it is. You're not to explore anymore in this house without me with you, I mean it this time!"
"But it's our house now, isn't it? Including the secret passages?"
"That it is," his mother answered. "At least it's my house, and you don't have permission to get yourself lost in places we don't know."
She didn't often pull rank on the boy, but this time, she had been scared that she might have lost him.
"Come on," she said more amiably. "Let's drive into town and buy some cat food, and a pizza. We deserve a treat after all that."
Keshawn wasn't going to argue with pizza. He squirmed out of his mother's arms and as much as ran down the main stairs and out the front door to the car. Emma caught up with him eventually, grateful just to have him out of the house for a little while. She turned and looked at the front door just before getting into the car. Somehow the cat had followed them and was at her sentry post on the porch. Emma knew that they had to return, to keep her promise to feed April in return for her part in finding Keshawn.There was no getting out of it. The house was hers now, and they couldn't afford many motels. Tonight, they would have to sleep there. Emma thought to herself as she turned the key to start the car that there was no way she was going to let Keshawn have the room with the secret closet door.