Behind His Mask

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Chapter 17 - Light Face, Dark Face

Serena Madelle stood in the great hall of Thistle Comb. The hall was grand with a high arched ceiling and tall thin windows, but it remained undecorated and bare. The most resplendent thing there was Serena herself. She was waiting to be met by a butler but instead was left unmet and curious about her surroundings. The two sets of eyes who watched her thought she looked very curious. One set worried she was afraid and wondered how to protect her. Her red lips might have indicated a level of knowledge and maturity, or it may have just been the style women wore their lips whether it was their first time meeting a man alone or their hundredth. The second set of eyes were owned by a man who felt an emptiness inside at the very sight of her. Thirst and hunger he had not previously known shook him. How he wanted her! She should not have come to the house. She should not be there at all, but since something had drawn her there, why not see it out to the conclusion?

Serena was visiting Thistle Comb with hopes of interviewing the owner. The mansion was owned by a man known as Mr. Loring Fallwin. He was a famous lunatic, for his mansion had been under construction since he became the owner. Speculation on the subject was hard-edged and recurring by anyone who had an opinion to vent. Why was he wasting his inherited fortune on expanding an already oversized home? Only he lived in it. The space was mostly unused because he always moved into the newest portion of the house. When questioned about it by neighbors the answers were hard to discern. Finally, a newspaper editor heard of the situation and sent one of his reporters to uncover the truth, but would Serena be able to discover the reason for the continued construction from the owner himself?

A different person should have been sent, both the watching figures separately agreed. Yet, neither one of them intended to send her away.

Then I was the one in Thistle Comb waiting for Mr. Fallwin. The first thing I looked at was my body. I wore a strange knitted cloak with a pencil skirt, polished black boots, and a short-brimmed hat set at an angle so as not to disturb my French knot. I was also carrying a bag. When I opened it up I saw I was carrying a notepad enclosed in a brown leather cover, pens, and a few extra clothes.

When I finished taking stock of myself, I examined the hall. The introduction to the story did not do the place justice. The room itself was octagonal with a huge staircase spiraling up one side of it. It led to a second floor that was so high I couldn’t see any details from where I stood. There were two large doors in front of me that led to the rest of the main level, but they were closed. The floor was made of white marble. There was a wide circular rug directly beneath the skylight, but other than the splendor of the railing on the staircase, there was nothing else in the room though there were obvious places for paintings, tables, and other furniture.

At that moment, I heard footsteps from the floor above. Instead of making me wait, he appeared right away. Coming down the stairs was Evander. He looked more like himself than any of his other manifestations did. In this story, his hair was as blond and as wavy as it was in real life. On closer inspection, it was styled in a way that was popular in the twenties. He looked like Ronald Colman. His suit was light gray and he wore a white vest with a gold watch chain showing.

He joined me on the main floor and shook my hand pleasantly. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Loring Fallwin. Please excuse me for keeping you waiting. I’ve been talking to my architect about the new wing I’m building onto the west side of the house. I’m afraid I’ve been so busy that I must have missed your card. I wasn’t expecting anyone today.”

“I’m Miss Serena Madelle,” I said, trying to remember the name I was given in the introduction. “I’m here to interview you about your home for the newspaper.”

“About my house? What the devil for?” he laughed.

“I heard a rumor you’ve been continuously adding to it for many years. How long has it been since you started construction?”

He shrugged. “I can’t remember.”

“Why do you add to it?” I asked gently.

“It just seems like the natural thing to do.”

“Why?”

“Because,” he scoffed. “The oldest parts of this house are completely unlivable, so I had to construct new wings so there would be suitable places to live.”

“Is it because they got dirty and rather than clean them, you’d rather just make more rooms?”

One corner of his mouth tugged upward. “If only that were the case.”

“What’s the reason?”

“You’re not going to believe me, but even if you don’t believe me, please come in. Have tea with me and I’ll try to answer your questions.”

He led me through the two giant doors and into a sitting room. The room was simply furnished with a white plush couch and white lacquered coffee table. The arrangement looked like an excellent start to decorating the place, but as it was, there was nothing else in the room and it looked hideously bare.

When Loring brought out the tea set, the cups had no decoration on them. There was not even the tiniest embellishment on the side. They were blank. Then stranger than that, he poured no tea inside them but gave me the cup like it was already full. He put his own cup to his lips and pretended to drink from it. There was nothing in his cup either.

After he had a few good drinks of air, he let out a contented breath and set down his cup. “The fact of the matter is, this house is haunted.”

“By ghosts?”

“I’m afraid there are many things that haunt. Some of them might be ghosts. Some of them might be demons. I know one roams and stomps and shouts in areas of the house I abandoned long ago. That one never leaves.”

The pitch of Loring’s voice was giving me shivers from my ankles to my skull. Why did he have to do that?

“I keep building the house,” he continued, “because the new parts of the house are never haunted.”

“If it’s that difficult to live here, then why don’t you leave? It sounds like you have enough money. Why not abandon this house or tear it down and build a new one?”

“I can’t do that!” he exclaimed, aghast. “This house was left to me by my parents. I can’t forsake their gift to me.”

I couldn’t argue with that, so instead, I pretended to drink my tea and then I asked him, “Can you take me for a tour?”

“There’s not much to see. Most of the house is blocked off.”

“Why do you block it off? Because of the ghosts?”

He nodded gravely. “Every room in this house is built with two special doors. The back one lets you into a room. The front one leads you out just in case you’re stuck in the room when it falls.”

I took out my notebook and pen. “How do you know when a room has fallen?”

“It falls into shadow.”

“How does that happen?”

His lips were dry as he explained. “First, the lights won’t work anymore.”

“Is it pitch-black?”

“I haven’t stayed in those rooms for long enough to find out exactly what they are like, but I know they aren’t pitch-black. It’s easy enough to go through the door and lock it behind you. I’m not sure where the little light that’s there comes from.” He took out his handkerchief and blotted the sweat forming on his forehead.

“Are you uncomfortable with my questions?” I asked as sweetly as I could.

“Yes,” he admitted.

“Then why don’t you tell me to go away?”

“Because you’re the first person who’s ever come here. It’s been so long since I have seen another person; my nerves are coming undone just talking to you.”

I was confused. “Didn’t you just say you were talking to the architect?”

“Did I?”

“Yes,” I persisted.

Loring looked like he didn’t understand for a moment, and then he started nodding like he remembered something. “Oh, him? He doesn’t count. He’s here to work, not to have conversations.”

I was about to ask why when suddenly a clap of thunder sounded over our heads. It was so loud I thought it was a plane crash in the yard and jumped in the air.

Loring leaped up and caught me in his arms. For a few breathless moments, he held me and explained, “It was thunder. Can’t you hear the rain on the roof?”

I could hear it, pattering away.

“You should stay here tonight. It would be dangerous to travel. The roads here are impassable when it rains, and I wouldn’t be able to help you if your car got stuck. I have a guest room constantly prepared for a guest. Would you like to stay?”

When he said he had a room constantly prepared for a guest I thought I would break down in tears of pity. He said no one ever came, so he had kept something ready when no one was likely to come. He clearly hoped someone would.

“I’ll stay,” I volunteered. “I’m very interested in your house.”

He let go of me. I clutched my notebook to my chest while he picked up my bag and carried it back through the great hall and up the winding staircase. It seemed a shame to have that much space with no decorations in it: no art, no sculpture, no color at all (not even beige).

Down another hallway and up a tiny set of stairs he stopped in front of a white door. “This is the guest room. Please enjoy your stay here. I hope you stay forever.” He opened the door for me. His gaze was intense. His loneliness imprinted on his face. Finally, he stepped away to give me space, then disappeared back down the stairs.

Inside was the plainest bedroom I had ever seen. The bed was boring with white sheets, pillows, and a fluffy duvet. There was a walk-in closet with nothing in it and the two doors Loring had mentioned each room possessed. The only point of interest in the room was a fireplace. However, it looked like it had never been used. There was not even a speck of ash. Why did he bother building a fireplace if he wasn’t going to light a fire? Well, that wasn’t the weirdest thing about the house.

I wasn’t tired, so I dropped my bag by the bed and decided to go exploring. I ducked out of my room. There were so many doors. I tried them all, but not one of them gave way to my handle-turning.

Finally, I got this spunky idea to go back through the house myself and go outside. From there I could look at the house from the outside, and besides, he said I had a car. I crept down the staircase. I tried the doorknob, and it gave. Thence I found myself on the front steps.

The front entrance was extremely grand. The stairs leading up to the mansion were white marble and very wide. I expected to see a driveway or something, but beyond the stairs, there was absolutely nothing to see. It was amazing. After the bottom step, the world abruptly ended and became black like outer space without the stars. I could hear the rain on the roof, but there was no rain falling. Not only that, but I could not see any part of the house other than the entrance. I backed up to the second-to-last step and tried to get a perspective on the structure before me, but there was nothing. There were no outlines of the roof or chimneys against the sky. There were no windows. There was nothing.

It was like we were on a starship in the middle of a void. And I realized I couldn’t leave, even if I wanted to. Emi was right. The third story was different from the others. The other stories had other characters, other people to give me leads, and a world outside to interact with. The third story gave me nothing, but I couldn’t stop going forward. It was obvious Loring desperately needed me.

I took two steps forward, and my stomach growled. The air-like tea Loring had given me gave me an idea of where to go next.

I went back into the house and searched for a kitchen. There wasn’t one. I wandered around for a little while and knocked on a few of the closed doors, calling quietly, “Mr. Fallwin, are you there?”

I must have knocked on at least ten different doors before he emerged and stormed up to me. His eyes were dark with anger. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I was looking for you. You didn’t say what room you’d be in.”

“Do you have any idea how dangerous wandering around is? You never know when a room or a hallway might fall into shadow. The room I gave you is safe. You should have stayed there. I beg you, listen to me,” he whispered painfully.

“Why? Have any of the doors ever opened in the past and let the ghosts into the light part of your house?”

“No, and I pray they never do.” He backed away from me like he needed to take a breather. He smoothed his hair and started walking away from me, going back the way he came.

I followed him. “Is there anything to eat?” I asked.

He turned around sharply. “Didn’t you eat enough when I served you tea?”

It was on the tip of my tongue to say something about the lack of tea, but I felt again that it would be a mistake. “I guess not,” I mumbled.

“The servants have all gone home for the night,” he said simply. “I cannot serve you anything except what I already have. If you had come earlier, we could have dined together,” he said longingly.

I smiled at that. He did seem like a much more wistful version of himself. “Well, where’s the kitchen? I’ll make something for myself.”

“The kitchen?” he stuttered. “I have no idea. I never go there. The servants take care of all that. I’m sorry. You’ll have to wait until morning.”

Then he escorted me back to my room. On the way, he started coughing. He put a hand to his mouth and when he couldn’t stop wheezing, he reached into his pocket and brought out a white handkerchief. To my surprise, he bent and coughed something into the handkerchief. He tried to cover it and not let me see what had happened, but he couldn’t keep it a secret. He spat up something black just like Hilda in the first story and the Queen in the second. Why was he spitting? I didn’t get it.

Loring bade me goodnight in the most dignified manner and then closed the door between us. I figured I might as well go to sleep, so I started getting ready, but it was kind of hard. After he left, I realized he hadn’t shown me where the bathroom was and so I couldn’t wash my face or use the toilet or anything. I found a squashed white cotton nightgown in the bottom of my bag, so I got undressed and pulled that over my head. It was very wrinkly and non-sexy. I hoped Loring wouldn’t see me in it.

Then I started prowling the room, looking for the light switch. It was an odd thing, but I couldn’t find one. The light coming from a white panel in the ceiling was almost fluorescent, except I couldn’t see tubes under the glass. It was just white light. I guessed if the light went out that would constitute the room falling into shadow and becoming part of the unusable portion of the house.

I got into bed, but there was no way I could sleep with that unforgiving light over my head. I took an extra pillow and put it over my face. Maybe I would be able to fall asleep that way.

I tossed and turned, and eventually felt drowsy.

I slept.

I woke up. I wasn’t used to sleeping with a pillow over my head and I was half smothered. I moved the pillow and for a moment I thought I was back in my room at home since it was dark in the room, but then I heard a fire crackling and popping in the grate. I was still in Thistle Comb and what was more than that, the guest room had been taken over by shadow.

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Author's Notes: Thanks for reading! And a special thanks to all those people who have been reviewing, commenting, and adding my novel, 'Whenever You Want', to reading lists. There have been so many people every day. Thank you! I feel like my stories are reaching so many more people.

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