by Caroline Spencer
John waited, breathing silently, until sleep came for the others. It was dark but the skylight revealed the stars--no blackout blinds. It was the first thing John had noticed when he’d woken disoriented, unsure how he came to be in the tiny attic room.
Gently, John pushed back the covers, careful not to disturb the soft rhythm of sleep around him. He didn’t know who else was out there or why they’d brought him to this place, wherever he was. But he knew that his best chance of finding some answers would be while they were sleeping.
The door had been left ajar. Now, John slowly pulled it open and breathed the heavy air of slumber that filled the hall. The hairs on his arms stood on end and a tingle of excitement shivered down his spine. He was alone. The others had drifted far away. John could sense the small movements of their sleeping, their deep breaths synchronised together in a slow hypnotic pattern that would continue through the night, each breath a note by a different player in a dreamland orchestra.
John crept past the bedrooms, the dirty carpet unpleasant on his bare soles. They had taken his uniform and dressed him in faded striped pyjamas.
Each room was different. John peered into a box room, cramped under eaves, then a grand old bedroom crowned with ornate plasterwork that crumbled like dandruff over rotted silk coverlets. He moved on and the next room was different again, as if they’d all been jumbled together with no more logic or order than pieces of a jigsaw puzzle shaken up in the box.
Treading on silently, John spiralled down and down a vast staircase. There were more doors at each landing, but he left them closed. Would they lead him to escape down hidden passages, or back into the hands of his captors? John had the creeping sensation that they were trying to contain him in the maze of the guest wing while the rest of the house sprawled undiscovered beyond. He felt as if the crumbling old mansion was toying with him.
The strange music of sleep had faded from earshot by the time John reached the kitchen. He tip-toed inside, breathing the lingering sour steam of boiled vegetables.
Everything was in its place. The pans and crockery on the shelves and drying rack.
Creeping over the cool tiles, past the heavy wooden table, John reached another door. The handle was metal and fitted coolly into John’s palm as he turned it. It screeched, metal on metal. John froze, listening. But the air was still soft with slumber.
Keeping a grip on the handle, he gave a little shove and the metal screamed again. But, this time, it opened. Heart pounding, John paused only for a second before stepping through.
He was in a murky, narrow corridor, painted white, the dark wood doors spaced like gaps in a smile. John trod slowly over the spongy red tongue of carpet, opening each door as he came to it. But all he found was a sparsely furnished living room, a small dining room, nothing extraordinary. As if the house was swallowing him whole, John slipped around the sharp angle of the corridor.
It ended abruptly at a window. The curtains hadn’t been pulled and John could make out the black lawn lurking beyond. The unfamiliar shapes of plants threw deep, menacing shadows. A dead end.
John leaned back against the wall, exhausted. He wondered how long he’d been out, how many days—weeks?—since his capture. They could have drugged him, kept him in a half-sleep, confused, unsure of the passage of time.
Tiredness washed over him. John wasn’t sure he liked this house, with its unexpected turns and tricks. Not an official military compound, surely--then he saw it. As clearly as if all the lights had been turned on. There was a mark on the wall. Right opposite him, running down the wallpaper, a thin black line to the floor. He reached out and his fingertips found the surprise of an indent. He leaned back again, tracing the line with his eye. It was the outline of a door.
With a careful eye, John examined the wall and the line. There was no doorframe or handle or keyhole. There was nothing in the hall to suggest that a door should be there at all.
Heart pounding, palms sweating, John let his fingers find the edge again. Carefully, he followed the indent up, around and down to the floor. Perhaps, he thought, it was an old priest hole, a secret compartment for hiding people during wars. Or maybe a hidden room for secret plans or code-breakers. John couldn’t guess how valuable his find could be to the war effort.
Searching for a way to open it, John pushed and tapped and pressed. Then he tried the same on the surrounding wall, hoping to discover a hidden panel. No luck.
There wasn’t much else in the short corridor, just the window and a small table, with a light fitting above it. An exploration of the windowsill greased John’s fingertips with grime, and resulted only in the discovery of a desiccated fly.
John turned his attention to the light fitting, turning and twisting it, looking for a catch to a hidden mechanism. But he succeeded only in loosening some flakes of plaster. John pulled the table away from the wall but there was nothing hidden behind it. With a sigh, he pushed it back into place.
Something shifted. With creeping excitement, John felt under the tabletop, finding a loose panel. His shaking fingers eased it open with a shiver of triumph. A hidden drawer! His fingers closed around the metal object inside. But it wasn’t a key.
John had found a letter opener. He turned it over in his hands, confused. It was nothing remarkable. It wasn’t even shiny. John balanced it lightly across his fingers. A thought gradually came to him and, when he realised the simplicity of it, John had to stifle a little laugh of triumph. Why would a door that didn’t have a keyhole have a key?
Quickly, John turned and stared at the wall, relaxing his eyes until he found the edge of the door again. Stepping up, he eased the letter opener into the gap and, barely daring to breathe, let its own weight pull it down. It hit something. John pressed with a little more force and heard a sigh.
The door hadn’t swung wide. In fact, it had hardly moved. But it was unmistakable that a moment ago it had been locked and now all John had to do was push it open and step through.
His bare toes touched the cool, smooth grain of highly polished floorboards. It was darker in here, away from the window, and John put a hand to the wall, feeling the downy texture of aging wallpaper. He took another step, lurching forwards as the ground fell away.
Steadying himself against the wall, John felt with his toes and realised he was at the top of a staircase. There was no handrail and no wall on the other side. John gathered his courage and followed the steps down into the darkness.
At the bottom of the stairs, John didn’t find a typical basement. He was in a vast empty hall, so huge that the far side was lost in shadows. There was a dim glow in the distance, spilling through an open doorway leading to a room beyond this one. John made for the light.
As he neared the doorway, John caught a glint of gold. The growing light was reflecting from hundreds of gilt-framed paintings that crowded the walls. They were all around the same size: almost life-sized portraits of people’s head and torso. The rectangular canvasses were mounted in a variety of elaborate frames and had been arranged to cover the walls with only the smallest gap between each one. John noticed with a strange chill that every single portrait showed a person sleeping.
John lingered, studying the sleeping faces. Their skin was extremely pale and flaking. John looked at their wigs and centuries-old style of clothing and wondered if they were wearing powder. The powder used to contain lead, which would explain the skin disease. Or maybe it was just the canvas and oil, drying and cracking with time. As he stood there, John didn’t remember the questions that he wanted answers for.
With the paintings giving him a creepy feeling, John hurried through the empty doorway.
It was bright and loud. Blinking, startled by the lights blazing, John faltered, then followed the buzz of conversation. There weren’t any doors in this long corridor so that voices echoed out from every room.
Curious, John stopped and looked in. Each room had a blackboard and a man at the front and rows of boys sat at desks. Lessons were taking place inside. Whatever subject was being taught, every student in every class was gripped by it, eager to search through the pile of worn books open on their desks to puzzle out the answers. Hands were raised, answers passionately given. Something was not right.
John stood in each open doorway, straining to hear. Even though their voices were quite clear, John couldn’t understand what they were saying. Even though John lingered at every doorway, no one seemed to notice he was there.
At the end of the row of classrooms, John stepped through into another large, empty hall. It was near dark but enough light followed John through the doorway to see that here, too, the walls were covered by hundreds more of the strange portraits.
He wondered who they had been and what common theme united them all now. Surely they couldn’t all have been from one family, there were too many of them, and the portraits would be up in the house, not crammed to fit on the basement walls.
John trod slowly past the next column of sleeping figures, feeling sorry for the ones at the edge of the ceiling who were lost far above in the darkness. Footsteps rang out on the polished floorboards.
John span around and saw a man hurrying towards him from the far side of the hall. The man’s eyes were gleaming beneath unkempt curly hair, his thin lips in an eager smile behind a carelessly trimmed beard. He was dressed in blue overalls and black boots and he was holding a small fibreglass case. The man was muttering excitedly to himself, either not knowing or caring that John was watching. Everything about this man seemed at odds with the worn, old-fashioned house. It was clear, John thought, that the man was outsider. And John wasn’t the only one who thought so.
Cries of alarm and distress starting filling the hall. As the man hurried past, the shrill of voices grew louder.
Thinking that the boys must have come through from their classrooms, John glanced behind him. But the hall was empty. The cries were escalating in pitch, with increasing excitement, so loud they almost hurt his ears.
John span again to see who was there. His eyes fell on a painting. The person inside the painting was awake, screaming at the man in overalls. As John stared, he saw all the paintings were alive, their eyes wide, rolling madly. Their cries were terrible, meaningful, although their significance was lost on John. His heart thudding hard, John suddenly noticed that all the paintings were pointing the same way—not at the man, but to an archway in the middle of the hall.
The racket from the paintings drew the boys rushing from their classrooms, the teachers at their heels, and John found himself caught up in the race to reach the archway.
Across the hall, the man hurried on, grinning, ignoring them all until he reached the archway and paused outside. All the boys and teachers crowded around. John, hanging back, heard one of them call out over the screeching paintings: "Do you think he’s in there yet?"
Another boy replied, "No, the paintings would be quiet if he got in."
They turned for confirmation to a teacher, who nodded. It seemed as though they couldn’t see the man at all, but were relying on clues from the paintings to indicate what was happening. Somehow, John knew that they lived down here and could understand the mad ramblings of the portraits. Perhaps one day their own pictures would hang in the hall and call out to others like them.
Intrigued, John nudged forwards until he could see through the archway. It led into a brightly lit, long narrow room. He saw that the ancient polished walls or lamplight or something else entirely had imbued the whole room with a strange yellow glow.
At the far end of the room there was a table, another portrait propped up on it. The painting depicted a man wearing an elaborate ruffled white collar and a dark wig of long curls that fell below his shoulders. He was gesticulating wildly, but what this was supposed to mean John couldn’t guess. Beside the picture was a beautiful miniature carousel, ornately wrought in gold. In front of the table stood a glass case, like a display case at a museum, but John couldn’t see inside it from the archway. There was nothing else in the glowing room.
As John watched, the man in overalls seemed to steel himself before stepping through the archway. As he crossed the threshold, just as the boys had predicted, the paintings fell silent. John glanced up. The portraits had not gone back to sleep but were watching, eyes and mouth frozen open as if in horror.
As the man entered the room, through the silence, John heard a small click. Then the eerie sound of the carousel pierced the air as it started turning, playing a slow tune, its heavy rhythm rising and falling from tiny metal lungs.
"He’s here!" whispered one of the boys, unable to keep quiet.
In the hall, a shudder rippled through the crowd as the man strode through the yellow room to the display case. John guessed they were waiting for something.
John watched as the man leaned over the display case and carefully inspected whatever was inside. After a moment, the man turned and put his case on the table. The portrait screamed. Outside the room, the boys murmured to each other. John noticed that some of the boys had brought books with them and were quickly flicking through, looking for something. Could unravelling the oddities of the glowing room be what their lessons were about?
John glanced at the book as the boy skimmed through. It was full of pictures and precisely etched symbols. John began to understand that he was witnessing a cryptic puzzle, whose clues and answers weren’t words or phrases, but pictures, colours and sounds.
The man opened his case and selected what looked like a badger-hair brush, similar to one that John had seen his father use for applying shaving cream. Except that this brush was slightly slimmer with longer hairs. The man, still ignoring the painting and the carousel music, turned again to the display case. Gently, he started brushing whatever was inside.
"Look!" One of the boys suddenly gasped. "Look, he’s at the case!"
The crowd of boys and teachers all stiffened, transfixed by the case.
John strained for a better look but there was no way of seeing any more from the archway. He edged forwards until he was right on the threshold. He paused and glanced around but everyone was acting exactly as if they didn’t know he was there. Wondering what might happen, cautiously John stepped into the room.
Nothing changed. The carousel was still turning, playing its even, melancholy tune. The painting on the table ignored him, still busy glaring at the fibreglass case that had been so unceremoniously plonked there.
Quietly, enveloped in the eerie yellow glow, John edged through the room until he stood on the opposite side of the display case.
"Hello," John whispered.
No one replied. The man was engrossed in his work. The paintings, the boys around the door—all were silent. John peered down into the display case.
It contained glittering golden sand, to a depth of around ten inches and there was a pattern on the surface. It looked as if there had once been stacks of tiny sandcastles, except that all was in ruins, the sand crumbled and drifted away.
The man was gently brushing at the sandcastle ruins with the badger-hair brush. As John watched, with growing astonishment, he realised that somehow the brush wasn’t clearing away the sand as he’d expected. It was rebuilding it.
The man gently hovered the brush over the miniature dunes banked against the glass sides of the case, letting the grains draw themselves up to the hairs by some sort of static. Then he gently moved the brush through the air above the ruins and the sand trickled back into place by itself, one tiny grain at a time.
Entranced by the sighing rhythm of the carousel, John watched the little grains flow, re-making the building as the man patiently swept the brush over the surface. Wanting to see more, John leaned in, resting his fingers on the edge of the case.
"Woah!" The man reeled back from the case, colour draining from his face, his eyes suddenly wide and fixed on John. His voice was high, wild, too loud. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
"I just found myself here by accident." John felt the blood rush to his cheeks. When no one could see him, he felt safe. Now he had to explain what he was doing here. And he wasn’t sure that he could.
"Right." The man’s eyes were sceptical. "How long have you been following me?"
"I wasn’t following you. I was in the hall when all the paintings started …"
"Yeah, the paintings." The man suddenly flashed a grin at John. "Spooky, aren’t they?"
"You couldn’t see me, uh, before?"
"No," the man told him dismissively, stepping up to the case again. "The players can’t see each other."
"Oh." John glanced at the painting and the carousel and remembered the boys with their books. He wondered what game they were playing.
"Normally, the others wait outside. It can be dangerous, if too many cross the threshold at once," the man told him.
John glanced around uneasily. He couldn’t see what in the room he should be frightened of.
"What did you do?" the man asked, curious, less suspicious.
"I just touched the case. What you were doing was so strange, I couldn’t help..." He trailed off. "Sorry."
"Hm. That’s interesting. And it’s new data!" The man gave a little grin. "Very valuable."
"So, you can’t see any of the others?"
"The others?" The man’s grin disappeared again.
"There’s a crowd of boys and some teachers, I think, around the door."
The man turned and looked back at the archway. The twinkle returned to his eyes. "That’s what you see?"
John felt a chill down his spine as he followed the man’s gaze. John could see the crowd clearly, the boys and the teachers were all still there, looking into the room.
"What do you see?" John asked, his voice quavering.
The man glanced at John and didn’t answer. He leaned over the case and continued his work, carefully controlling the deliberate movements of the slim brush.
"You see," the man explained, "I always knew that there must be more information to factor in and the logical place for it to be hidden is here, in the sand. Just like Ancient Egypt, all you need is a brush and a bit of patience, my friend."
"What is it?" John asked, trying to be bold.
"It’s what the game is all about!" The man glanced up, grinning.
Feeling lost, John hesitated. But before he could think about perhaps returning to the attic room before it was discovered he was missing, his gaze was caught up in the lazy swirl of the sand. He couldn’t look away and no longer wanted to. He stood hypnotised by the sweep of the brush and the sand settling back into place.
Slowly, as the heavy even notes of the carousel played on, the ruined building took shape. As each room formed, it held itself in a proper structure, the grains of the sand ceiling suspended in the air above the room until the whole was complete and then the next floor started trickling into place on top. As the sand was removed from where it was banked against the glass, it started to reveal a buried garden.
At last, most of the sand was back in its rightful place and, as the brush moved, the last few grains seemed to get caught by little gasps of air and swirl incoherently, like sand should. Only, John didn’t know where the disturbance was coming from. He couldn’t feel any movement in the air around the case. Even so, the roof was caught by the same breeze and, within seconds, the patiently reconstructed building began to drift back into ruins.
‘Well, it looks like that’s as far as we’re going to get tonight,’ the man stretched up, straightening his back for a second. He replaced the brush and took a digital camera out of his case on the table. He took pictures as fast as he could work the camera, from every angle, around and above.
John moved around the case, out of his way. By the time the man had finished taking pictures, the roof was completely gone. Watching the sand swirl away, unpicking each of the tiny rooms, was oddly soothing so, at first, John didn’t realise what he was seeing. Then, once the roof had disappeared, John recognised the little attic room where he’d woken up.
At once, John saw that he was right, there was much more to the vast building than he had seen. Was that the trick, he wondered, was that the game?
Hungry to know the secrets modelled in the golden sand before him, John tried to see it all, determined to carry the knowledge away with him. His heart rate picked up and he waited with growing impatience as the sand blew away to reveal the honeycomb of rooms on the floor below.
John saw a sleeping figure, not more than an inch tall from head to toe. He couldn’t tell is they were the enemy or another captive, like him, and it didn’t occur to him to wonder. The person shifted in their sleep, sending sparkling sand flying from the room. Then they were gone.
The decay was accelerating, the garden buried already beneath growing dunes. The walls were crumbling, losing their edges.
The room’s yellow glow was growing dull but John leaned closer over the glass case as he greedily sought the secrets of the game. He didn’t notice when the man left or when the schoolboys wandered back to class.
The yellow light faded as the sand ran faster, filling the display case like the bottom half of an hour glass. John didn’t stop to wonder what would happen when the building was gone. He kept watching, straining to hold the picture in his mind, assembling the scattered pieces into a whole.
John didn’t look up when the painting on the table fell back to sleep. He didn’t notice the carousel cease its tune.
In a final flurry, the fast-shifting sand caught its own tail and a miniature twister swirled through the cage of glass leaving only ruins.
John blinked and everything was gone. The room was dark and silent. The air was still. All that remained was a single thought. The game.
Now, John would play.
Caroline Spencer says: After ten years in London, working in a not-very-creative part of the public sector, I’ve recently moved to America to focus on my real passion, writing fantasy and soft science fiction stories. As well as developing sci-fi and fantasy short stories, I’m currently working on my first full length fantasy novel. Since 2008, several of my short plays have been published and staged by a range of school and amateur theatre groups.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Dreams are a huge source of ideas for me. Often, I don’t try to remember the whole dream and, even if I do try, I can’t recall it. But there might be two or three strong images that evoke a particular atmosphere or feeling that stay with me after the rest has faded. Then I start building a story around those images. Hopefully it leads to interesting and unexpected places!