Behind His Mask

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Chapter 20 - The Ghosts Wouldn't Rest

“Under the birch branch, brushing the oak leaves, popping up behind the poplar, lying flat on a felled beech tree, and eating happily from the apple tree,” the woman’s voice sang. I brought my head around slowly to see the singer, but when I opened my eyes full on the room, I saw no one.

I was in a nursery.

A white crib was pushed up against one wall and a white rocking chair sat in the corner. It was the rocking chair that frightened me. It was rocking like there was a person sitting in it, but it was vacant and the room was empty. There was no place for a person to hide. No one could have ducked behind the three-drawer dresser or squirreled themselves under the change table. Yet, the chair still rocked and the songstress kept singing.

The words to the song came again. “Under the birch branch, brushing the oak leaves, popping up behind the poplar, lying flat on a felled beech tree, and eating happily from the apple tree.”

It sounded like it was coming from the rocking chair.

I had the shivers, but something in my mind worked rationally. What was it about the song?

“And the last branch I give to you is from the first tree grown—from an unknown tree I’ve never known. The tree is the one you grow on your own.”

Then it triggered. The types of trees the voice was singing about were the same trees that held Kalavan’s masks in the last story. The tree you grow on your own? That had to be the branch that held his Mephisto mask.

Then the voice abruptly stopped and the rocking chair gave a heavy heave. The crib creaked and the blankets inside moved. I backed up against the door in panic. The house really was haunted! I couldn’t see anyone.

“Good night Evander,” the voice whispered. “May angels guard you through the night and stay by your side for the rest of your life.”

The door behind me creaked and opened even though my back was pressed up against it. I heard Darach on the other side. “Serena! Get out of there!” he growled. I saw him through the crack. His hand was pressed up to his mouth and he was coughing. Black ooze seeped through his fingers. Was he dying too? His mouth was full of poison. He didn’t come in after me and the door fell shut again. Darach had not opened the door. It had to be the ghost-woman who was singing. Had that been Evander’s mother?

Once alone, I approached the crib. I could see the bedding quivering slightly, like a baby inside the blankets was breathing. There was nothing there, not even when I reached in and tried to pick up the infant. I felt air and when I tried to move the blanket, it wouldn’t budge.

I looked around in wonder. It was Evander’s room when he was a baby. Being there was unprecedented. He didn’t talk about his real life when he wrote a story. I thought he only wrote about the spirit of how he felt and not the actual events.

And what was I going to do since mama had left and the baby was napping? I wasn’t afraid anymore once I understood what was going on. All the same, I couldn’t hang out in the nursery endlessly, yet I didn’t want to go out and deal with Darach. I wanted to sit, but I felt weird about sitting in the same chair as Evander’s mother, Autiny. Instead, I sat down on the floor. It was then that I saw it. There was a shiny golden doorknob hidden just under the raised pad on the change table. It was just like Loring said. The house was built with two doors in every room. I crept closer and looked at the situation. The door was covered in drywall. When I looked closely I saw metal hinges. I also noticed that the door handle had a Roman numeral II on it. This door led into the room marked II in the hallway. I pulled on the handle and it opened smoothly. In another moment, I was in room two.

The second room was the same room as the first, with some considerable changes. The crib was gone and in its place was a toddler bed with Winnie the Pooh painted on the little wooden headboard. The dresser was the same as the rocking chair. The change table had been replaced by a toy box. Blocks and cars littered the rug.

It must have been Evander’s room when he was a toddler.

It was deadly quiet in room two. The singing was over. The rocking chair didn’t creak. The shadow of toddler Evander wasn’t on the floor playing. Everything was quiet. I waited a few minutes to see if anyone would show up. Nothing happened, so I tried to find the door that led into the next room. When I found it, its knob had a III marked on it. This room had three doors. I opened it and stepped into room III.

It was the same room, but it looked smaller because it was cramped. The teeny weeny toddler bed had been changed for a twin bed. The rocker was long gone. There were dirty clothes, toys, and even dirty dishes littered all over the floor. Everything had been so orderly in the first two rooms.

I was alone in the room too, until I heard a noise that nearly made me jump out of my skin. BANG! Someone had entered the room and slammed the door. I didn’t see anyone, but the blankets on the bed moved. Someone (probably Evander) was pulling the blankets over his head.

Outside the room, I heard another door slam. A man snarled noisily, “What’s his problem?”

A woman’s voice responded, “Did you forget? You were supposed to be at his school yesterday for his Christmas concert. He had a speaking role and you didn’t even come home last night.”

“I had to work,” the male voice retorted.

The woman’s voice was strained. “The point is that he waited for you to come home and the first thing you do when you get here is bawl him out for being disappointed that you didn’t bring him a present from your trip. I told him you would bring him one to make up for the missed concert.”

“I didn’t have time. Besides, you shouldn’t have said I would do something I wouldn’t.”

“You jerk,” she gasped. “I bought him one. It’s in the closet.”

“Well, you should have told me!”

“I would have, if you called me back just once for the ten times I called you!”

“I didn’t get the message. My secretary doesn’t like passing on pointless messages. She stopped writing yours down months ago.”

“Liar. I know your secretary. I had lunch with her last week.”

“Why are you wasting my money on lunches out? As if I don’t have to stretch my money to the limit to pay for this house.”

She sighed furiously. “She paid. I’ve told you before, Reg, we don’t have to live here if it’s too expensive. We can go back to a two-bedroom apartment if you like, but I need money to pay for food.”

“Make do with the budget I give you,” he said coldly. “Besides, we need this big place. Can you imagine hunkering down in a two-bedroom apartment? I can’t. Besides, the budget is a hint for you to slim down.”

Autiny seemed to be choking down the tears. Then I heard Evander crying under his pillow. I still couldn’t see anything, but I heard him, and my heart felt ripped in half.

“Which reminds me, where did you get the money to pay for a present for Evan?”

“I saved it, and it didn’t cost much. Could you please take it to him? Tell him you were teasing and didn’t mean to hurt his feelings.”

“Okay,” the man said.

The yelling outside the door stopped. I sat down on the bed and tried to put my arms around the bulge under the covers, but I knew by the way his little body heaved that he didn’t feel my touch. The horrible day had happened in the past and I wasn’t really there. That’s what Loring meant by ‘ghosts.’

The door opened and I heard the footsteps of the visitor. “Sorry kiddo,” Reg said. “I was just kidding. I brought you a present. Here it is. Come on. Get your head out from under there and see what I got you.”

The bedding moved slightly. Evander must have taken the present.

“What do you say?” his father asked gruffly.

“Thank you, Daddy,” Evander’s little boy voice said.

“Well, now that that’s sorted, I’m gonna have a shower.” The door moved again and Reg left the room.

He didn’t ask about Evander’s concert or anything. My eyes welled up with tears. I’d had a lot of those types of disappointments myself. I knew what they felt like.

A dent surfaced in Evander’s pillow. He put his head down and cried. I tried again to wrap my arm around him, to comfort him. I saw the fabric on his pillow spontaneously darken with tears, but when I touched it, I didn’t feel anything. It was no use. Everything I saw was something that had already happened. Unable to help, I got up to find the door to the next room.

The trouble was, I couldn’t find the way out. I looked and looked for that golden handle. All the time I searched I heard Evander crying his eyes out. I felt like my soul was being wrung out as I searched his closet in my attempt to find a way out. Was I going to have to use the door that led out into the hallway? And it didn’t matter how much time passed—five minutes—ten minutes—twenty minutes—Evander still wept like the damned, and he didn’t sound older than seven.

Finally, I went to the window to see if I could see something more from it than the front door of the mansion. There was nothing. In the vague darkness, I found the IV doorknob under the windowsill. The panes of glass were different than the ones on the fourth door, but when I opened it, the underside was exactly like the IV door I saw in the hallway, and I was entering a completely different world.

I closed the door and shut out the sound of Evander bawling. It was a relief, but only momentarily as I came to terms with where I was. I was in another bedroom, except it wasn’t a bedroom. It was a porch, an entryway, and Evander’s bed was in it! It looked like it had originally been a mudroom and circumstances were such that it was being used for something dramatically against its nature.

There was something else. It was cold. I put my hand in front of my mouth and exhaled. I couldn’t see my breath, but without a doubt, the room was too cold for a person to sleep comfortably. The unbearable bickering outside had stopped, but the atmosphere was far from happy. It stank. I couldn’t smell Darach’s cigarette, but here it smelled moldy and soaked with sweat.

Why did Evander have to live in this room? Then it clicked. Autiny had left Reg and what I saw was where they moved. My throat constricted. And I had thought Evander was a rich snob...

Stupidly, I stood there and waited for Evander to come, but he didn’t. Like room two, the room was empty. I easily found the door linked to room five and moved into the next room.

Room five was a proper bedroom, but it didn’t look right. The blanket on the bed had a wide white lace border on it. The sheets had flowers on them. On the dresser, there were bottles and bottles of pills. Was Evander taking those? I took a closer look. The label read ‘Autiny Chaney.’ They were his mother’s. The pills weren’t the only thing that belonged to her. I peeked in the closet and her clothes hung there. Evander’s were there, too. Were circumstances so bad that they had to share a room at one point?

As if to answer my question, the door opened and a cardboard box floated in. It trembled in the air before tumbling to the carpet. The dresses fell off their hangers and dropped sloppily into the open box. Then someone else entered the room. They spoke, “What are you doing?” It was Evander’s voice, just a little higher pitched than what I was used to.

“I thought we’d make some room in your closet, unless you’re planning on wearing them,” a haggard voice replied.

“I want to keep them, Grandma,” Evander said. A dress was pulled out of the box, put back on its hanger, and hung in the closet.

I almost expected to see an invisible tug-of-war, but the dress stayed where Evander put it. Even so, the old lady had a few things to say about it. “I know this is hard. Harder for you than it is for me.”

“She was your only child!”

“I know I seem heartless to you, but I’ll see her sooner than you will. I feel worse today than I did yesterday and I felt worse yesterday than I did the day before that. I’m dying, kid. And what’s going to happen to you when I can’t take care of you anymore?” She waited for his answer, but he didn’t say anything. “Are you going to spend your time rearranging a dead woman’s clothes? Stop it!” Her voice was scornful.

Evander folded. “Fine! I’ll throw them away. Just give me a few days, or weeks, to do it.”

“Days, honey. She’s already been gone for three months. And I’ll bring you up some new sheets.”

“I can’t even have those? She didn’t die on the ones I kept.”

“I know, but it doesn’t matter. You can keep the photographs, the books, and the jewelry, but the rest has to go—especially her bedpan. A thing like that doesn’t belong in a healthy teenager’s room. Smarten up.”

The door didn’t slam when his grandma left. Instead, it hung ajar. I heard Evander’s footsteps. He closed it himself. Then he crumpled on the bed and pulled the pillows and comforter into his arms.

“I don’t want to say good-bye,” he moaned.

It was just like room three, where he couldn’t stop crying. As a boy, he cried openly. As a teenager, he stuffed his face into the pillow and kept quiet, but he couldn’t hide his tears from someone standing over the bed. Again I tried to touch him, but it was impossible. I tried to talk to him.

“Evander, I’m here and I love you.” But the unseen Evander couldn’t hear me.

I found the door out and came into room six. I was stunned. It was room one, two, and three, except decorated differently. No, it wasn’t decorated. Evander’s nursery, where his mother had sung him lullabies, was mutilated. Someone had taken a black sharpie and written all over the walls in permanent ink. As I looked around, I saw pictures interspersed with the text. With a single glance, I could tell it was Evander’s work. His Mos-eye-ic in Emi and Vincent’s house proved that. Except that was artistic. This looked more like the inside of a public toilet that had been vandalized.

I picked a spot on the wall and started reading. “Where were you last night? You think I don’t know what you’re doing? Even if you’re not coming back you should at least call to say so.” Another spot said, “She was eighteen. That’s old enough.”

I didn’t get it. Why was he writing such things?

Then I heard the voices from outside the room. “Who was at the door?” a woman asked.

The letters started to appear on the wall beside my head. The sharpie seemed to be moving by itself, but I knew Evander was there. He was writing, “Who was at the door?”

“No one. A security system salesman,” came the nonchalant response. It was Reg.

“Don’t lie. I saw a girl come up the drive,” Laurie snapped, probably louder than she’d meant to. “Is she your latest thing? I don’t know who she’s fooling in those fishnet stockings and lipstick, except that isn’t even the color that came out in the laundry.”

I felt like dying. Maybe they were talking about Carly and if they weren’t, it was someone like her. During it all, there was Evander steadily writing every word they said on his wall.

“Shut up. If you don’t like it here, leave.”

She hesitated. “Sebastian would…”

“Like it better here without you.”

“He loves me!” came the half-strangled scream.

The fight was escalating and I couldn’t stand it. I had to get out. Room six felt how my apartment felt when my mom and Carly would fight, and I couldn’t stand it if I didn’t have to.

Emi warned me all about this the day she told me she was a witch. Technically, I understood it all, but the reality didn’t hit home until I saw it with my own eyes. You can say someone had a tough childhood all you want, but it doesn’t mean anything until you hear him cry like a lost soul, or until you hear him poked at to improve when he is already doing his best, or until you hear his step-mom and dad fight about the teenage mistress at an ear-splitting pitch.

I had to get out, but I didn’t want to go without Evander. I put my hand on the sharpie, but I couldn’t make it stop. I let go. My compassion was making me stupid. For the last time, I reminded myself I couldn’t change the past. Those things already happened.

I found the door and went into the next room. It was the last room—room seven—and already I knew what it was going to look like.

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