The Gift of Sight
scodub | October 12, 2016
When Daniel Peterson was a young man (Danny), he supposed that some day he would be one of the world's greatest authors and his name would go down in history. His imagination, if given proper time to fully bloom and wander, could produce vivid landscapes and characters that seemed like they'd been plucked from reality and immortalized in words. This wasn't just his own opinion, but more or less an opinion shared by the few he dared share his incredible stories with. Friends would read his short stories and ask, "This stuff is great. You should write a book." Of course, the trouble with book writing was that you needed to be able to keep at something for weeks and Danny had enough trouble getting the stories he did write out of his imagination bubbles and onto paper. The problem with imagination bubbles, he thought, was that any distracting sound was enough to pop them. And getting them back rarely worked. They were like good dreams, complete with moods and soundtracks that, once gone sometimes never returned. Well aware of this, Danny resigned to writing short stories on the side and teaching during the day. Teaching, after all, paid the bills; writing, not as much. Sometimes would magazines would send the check, there would be a note included that asked for "more just like this one!", and questioning whether he'd thought about writing a book. And as Danny got older, got married, had a kid and settled down, his teaching seemed to wax while his writing waned. Still, in the attic of his mind, his gift sat waiting with worlds to explore. But reality persisted.
Once the Petersons had saved enough money to buy up a house, they wasted no time. Susan Peterson, Danny's wife, had spent months shopping for just the right one. It has to have Dormer windows, and a big front yard, and a big backyard, and, ... The list had gone on, and though Danny had been convinced she would never find such a house, particularly in their price range and in Orange County, California of all places, Suzy had always been full of surprises. Looking back, it had seemed like a whirlwind between the walkthrough of the house, the offer, the back-and-forth with the owner who never showed up to anything, the signing of so many papers he thought his poor wrist might snap before the pen, and finally carrying his wife over the threshold.
Danny thought back on this often as he and Suzy spent the Summer months renovating the house, taking care to pick a color scheme and picking furniture that was pleasing to the eye yet didn't take away from the charming character of the old Craftsman home. Though neither of them had so much as built a dog house, they found that with the help of guides and the Internet, fixing up the house wasn't so bad. And to Suzy it came naturally. I think in a former life, Danny had once remarked, you were a carpenter. And it was a good thing, too. Since they'd used all their savings and then some to buy the house, there was nothing left for help. So, wall by wall and room by room, they breathed life into the old home. A carpenter who can raise the dead -- Danny joked another time -- have you ever tried walking on water? This had served to lighten the tension they'd had since finding the seemingly immovable bookshelf from one of the upstairs bedroom. Suzy thought it was an eyesore and wanted it gone, but Danny had taken a liking to it. After a brief disagreement, which ended with Danny shrugging and saying, "Happy wife, happy life!", he had tried to remove the bookshelf with a crowbar only to find it seemed glued? No, cemented to the wall. Even with Suzy's help, Danny couldn't budge the damned thing. Finally, Suzy threw up her hands. "Honey, welcome to your new office," she'd said. "I'm going to have a shower."
He had loved the idea of an office so much that within a couple of weeks, Danny had indeed made the bedroom into an office, ugly bookshelf and all. With visions of long afternoons spent writing dancing in his head, he settled in. Up on the wall went some of his awards, along with the case that held his first check (which he promised himself he would only cash if he didn't get paid for anything afterward; of course, he had). Though the school year was ramping up and much of his time during the day was spent in preparation, his evenings were spent in his office, reacquainting himself with his old flame. And though he found the fire still burning within him, he found himself frazzled, distracted. Just like they had before, bubbles would come and drift him off to far off places and though he feared age might dull that old thrill, he found that it did just the opposite. However, being an adult, life was fraught with interruption. Suzy, loved to mull over the day with her husband, was had been their custom since time out of mind. Benjamin Peterson, then only two, loved his Daddy with all his little heart and was used to beginning and ending his day with hugs and kisses. Rather than push his family away, Danny again resigned to fitting his favorite hobby into the remains of the day.
Weeks went by like this and though he put on a sunny face for Suzy and Benny, a little piece of him -- that tiny Sun that burned with the promise of adventure -- began to dim, stinging his heart as it did. A few times, he'd tried to sneak off to different parts of the big house, but little Benny thought of this like a game and would wander through the big house calling out for his papa. He even considered going somewhere quiet like a library or a park, but he knew this wouldn't work in any long term sense. No, he decided, it was time to face facts.
It was on the afternoon that he'd made this decision that he was going through all his old books which he'd carefully placed on the bookshelf (which his wife had lovingly dubbed "the barnacle" ) that he saw something peculiar carved into the wood. A sort of spiral shape that looked like a tribal tattoo adorned by young people who seemed to have no idea that they'd grow old and their skin would age with them. He brushed his fingers over the odd symbol and wondered how he hadn't noticed it before. As he instinctively placed his palm over the symbol, he heard a deep rumbling sound coming from the other side of the bookshelf and then the shelf -- a shoulder-width section of it -- moved noiselessly away from his hand.
Part of him (the part that wasn't convinced this was a dream) expected to see Benny's room on the other side, but instead he found what he could only figure to be a hidden closet. Anything bigger would have pushed into his son's room and he or Suzy would have noticed the difference at some point. Still, what was revealed by what little light spilled into the room seemed to betray the idea of just a closet. There was a coolness the seemed to breathe out of the room. After a moment, from somewhere inside the space, a light flickered on. From where he was standing, Danny could see a room similar in size to the one in which he was standing, but his mind was having trouble processing. This should have been Benny's room. He was sure of it.
Inside, there no real walls to speak of, only bookshelves (which looked just like the barnacle itself) that went up to the ceiling all filled from end to end with books of varying heights and widths. The light that lit everything was warm, almost ... inviting.
Danny called out. "Hello?"
He found that his mouth had gone dry and he was struggling to swallow. Not knowing what to expect, he stepped closer so he could peak his head into the room. Though rationality told him it should be deserted just like the rest of the house, his rational mind was also busy at work trying to interpret what the very presence of this space could mean. Toward the back wall, he could see a hulking oak desk, with ornate carvings that went all the way down the legs to the claw feet, which sat on top of a beautiful Persian rug. Everything in the little space was perfectly clean and remarkably free of dust. In the corner to his right was a big leather chair with a reading light. The light in the room itself came from a large chandelier which hung from a height of no less than twelve feet off the ground. As Danny moved further into the room, searching high and low for any sign of danger, the warmth of the place brought a calm over him. There was warmth and something else. Ah yes, that was it. Quiet. A quiet so heavy, he could hear his own breathing, his own heartbeat, the thrumming in his ears. "What the hell is this place?" he wondered aloud and the sound seemed loud, but muted. Like the little film school recording chamber he'd been inside at his University. That place had been sound proofed, and this place had that same quality to it. It occurred to him that he should go back outside to examine the house from there. But, turning around, he discovered the door had disappeared and in its place was another bookshelf. His heart skipping a beat, he immediately moved to the shelf and instinctively grabbed for some kind of a lever or handle, but found none. Then he remembered the symbol and searched for it, before finding it well hidden on the under side of one of the shelf boards at chest height. Again, the sound of heavy boulders scraping against each other and then the door began to move gently toward him. Once he was safely back in his office, the door seemed to sense his absence and closed itself.
From outside, he looked the side of his house. He compared the distance between his office window and Benny's window. This is impossible, he thought. And it was. Between his office and the bedroom, there was a distance of maybe twenty-five feet and they were centered in each room. He supposed the room itself had been at least fifteen feet by thirty, give or take for the shelves. It just didn't make any sense.
On his way to go back upstairs, he passed Benny who was busy playing with LEGOs on the ground while his favorite TV show played in the background, and Suzy who was on the phone with someone.
"Hey Danny," she said, taking the phone away from her ear. "Everything OK?"
Though the golden rule of their relationship had been No Secrets, Danny hadn't even considered whether he should tell Suzy about his discovery. Indeed, part of his mind already had designs on the new room. Oh the places we'll go, Danny. He hesitated at the bottom of the stairs, gripping the newel post.
"Yup. Everything's fine." And he began dashing back up the stairs, wiping the cold dew of sweat that had gathered on his forehead. Danny hated lying to his wife, but he thought he should at least have the chance to investigate the place a bit more before spilling the beans. Just a little while. Just as Danny reached the top of the stairs, he heard one of his favorite sounds in the world, though it was the last thing he wanted to hear at the moment "Daddy! Daddy, waaait!" Benny was calling to him from the foot of the stairs, and he heard the unmistakable sounds of his little footsteps clambering upward. Thinking of disappointing Benny made Danny's heart sink a little, but then he had an idea. "Come and find me, Benny!" he said, and dashed toward his office to disappear into his newly found hiding spot.
Once inside with the door closed, the light came on immediately and he listened on the other side for the sound of the telltale tiny footsteps. But he heard nothing. He even dared to call out, "Benny! I'm in heeeere," but there was no response. "Benny?" Only dead silence and the smell of ink from books, leather and something else his brain couldn't put a label to. After waiting a few moments, he imagined two scenarios playing out. In one, Benny was searching the rooms upstairs for his father and after not finding him, erupting into tears. In the other, Benny searched, got distracted by the sound of the TV coming from downstairs and headed back down, losing all interest in the game of hide-and-seek. Since he couldn't bear the thought of hurting Benny's feelings, he settled on the latter.
He turned to face the room and decided to investigate it a bit more thoroughly this time. Looking at his watch, he saw that it was around five o'clock; that left at least an hour before any talk of dinner would come up.
While the room was still quite foreign to him, he'd already started developing a sense of ownership over the things it contained. He walked over to the cushy chair behind the desk and plopped down (no stale farts of air wafted up to meet his nose, just the smell of new leather). The old man selling the place had been peculiar, not wanting to meet the people buying it even once, but that had been fine with Danny. Preferable, even. But now he wondered in earnest who the guy had been and whether this had been his place, or had it belonged to someone before him? Looking around again, it was hard to tell. The books lining the wall seemed to range from very old and, Danny supposed, valuable to very new. He leaned back into the chair, getting a feel for its arms, imagining himself spending long hours in this chair, drifting away into story after story. Nothing in the room quite matched his taste, which was more midcentury modern, but it did have its own sort of medieval style. The desk was large and probably weighed a few hundred pounds at the last. Danny ran his hands over it and felt the cold wood under his hands. His hands ran under the desk and along the underside, where he found an indentation that seemed like a hidden pull-handle. So, he pulled. Out came a drawer with a variety of inks, pens, pencils, paper and a peculiar thing that caught his eye.
Thinking it must be some coincidence, but then brushing away the idea in favor of the more likely explanation that someone had written his name after purchasing the house, Danny stared at the envelope that sat on the right-hand side of the drawer. Given everything he had gone through in the last hour -- a hidden door in his office, a door that led to a hidden room, the kind of room he'd read about in books. No, this wasn't quite a wardrobe and there certainly weren't any fawns or lions hanging out. And there wasn't an assortment of never-ending hallways and corridors like in House of Leaves, but something about this place felt like it buzzed with the same energy that those stories had promised. Only, rather than imagined, this place was very real indeed. With a hand that Danny was surprised to find had a bit of a tremble in it, he picked up the envelope and turned it over. It was sealed with red wax with a giant "P" stamped into it, just like he'd read about in books and had even seen in movies. This made him smile. Maybe it was because the child in him supposed it really was addressed to him and that the seal was put there by someone of great importance, which made him feel silly for indulging. Maybe it was just the whole absurdity of the situation. Danny rifled through the drawer and pulled out a letter opener, which resembled a sword, complete with a caduceus -- two tangling snakes -- around the handle and wings that made the hilt. Danny could only laugh. "Curiouser and curiouser," he said to no one. The muted room offered no reply, not even an echo.
Danny tore into the envelope, and pulled out a single sheet of paper that seemed to ripple with its own kind of light, before coming into focus. He set the envelope carefully aside and flattened the paper out on the desk, so he could read it under the light cast by the chandelier. In the middle of the paper was a rune that looked very similar to the one he'd used to get into this place and around it was written the following:
I hope this letter finds you in good health and in good time. So you have found my library! Cozy place, isn't it? I've spent countless hours here, tucked away from the world outside. On the shelves, you'll find my life's work. While it may seem like a great deal to you upon first glance, it feels like I've only just gotten started. This place will do that to you as well, I suspect. Time ... works differently here.
As I've seen the shadows of who you are and who you will become, you will forgive me to leave specifics out for the time being. All I can tell you now is that this place is a gift to you. Like me, you have the gift of sight! Use it wisely.
Now for some bad news, I'm afraid. To get into this place, you've been in contact with a rune. This is our family's rune, in fact. While in this case, it acts as a simple door from your home to the pocket dimension in which this library sits, it has also sent out a beacon -- a signal which anyone tuning in can listen for. If the wrong people should pick up on this signal, they will come for you and when they do, you will have to signal for me and I will come at once to get you.
However, the dreadful beasts that have given chase to me in the past have long been dormant, so you most likely needn't worry much. Just know, that if the Earth should begin to tremble like there is an earthquake and you hear the distant sound of what sounds like the wail of women in mourning, they are well on their way. Do not go to your neighbor. Do not go to the police. Come directly to this room and find the volume labeled, "Inferno." Inside, there is yet another rune that will signal for me.
Well, I must be going now. The gift of sight is like a cup filled to the brim, but I have drank it to the very bottom and I must go out to to refill it!
Pendleton J. Peterson
Thoughts swirled around Danny's head like someone had pulled the plug on reality and it was draining into the empty silence that filled this room. The part of him that had seen elaborate pranks being played on people in TV shows with hidden cameras wanted to show he was wise to their tricks, and so he let a smirk form on his face (Ha! I knew it all along, guys!). The other part of him -- the child that held that burning sun that yearned for adventure -- ferociously hoped all of this was true, even if that meant the damned Dementors (or whatever they were) were going to start hunting after him. The words in the letter did seem to explain this strange place away, but in a manner that made no sense. In fact, "sense" was quickly becoming a fluid concept.
After reading the letter over a few more times, he closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair, taking in a deep breath, then letting it out in a slow exhale. Shit's getting weird, he thought. Now would be a good time to let Suzy in on this little mystery, before they come to take me away (Ha-ha!). Given the ominous tone of the letter, the idea of "they" had taken a dark turn from the men-in-white-coats to the earth-shaking-beasts-that-will-steal-you-away and Danny did not like the size or shape of that. Not one bit.
Danny took a moment to look around the room and spotted the book his "uncle" had mentioned. It had one word in block letters down the side: Inferno. He got up from the chair and moved toward it, almost touching it but then remembering the shit storm that might rain down on him for just touching things in this place. He decided better, and instead went to the bookshelf to search for the exit latch rune, which he found in short time. Once more: heavy rock sounds, then the door opened without so much as a whisper. As it opened, however, the rumbling sounds of what could only be an earthquake were shaking the house. Darkness had fallen outside and he could hear them. The sounds like the wail of women in mourning. Only words didn't do this "sound" justice. It was a piercing and echoed over the city, which was being jostled like they were all on a train going over zig-zag tracks.
Now, his mind was racing but he could only think of his wife and son. "Susan!" Danny called out, screamed out. "Benny! Answer me!" He dashed down the hall, looking quickly into each room as he went, aware that he should be holding onto something in an earthquake but finding that he didn't care. He continued calling out for them as he dashed down the stairs, almost tripping -- a fall that would probably snap his ankle at such a steep angle -- but catching himself on the banister. There was no response, and he found that instead of moving toward him, the sounds were moving from him. Then he heard Susan's voice calling thinly from in front of the door, which stood wide open, rattling on its hinges. Danny threw himself down on the ground, searching her for open wounds or injuries. "Benny," she breathed. "They took... Benny." She was curled into the fetal position and her skin looked icy blue, like she'd been climbing to the top of Mount Everest. With an arm that seemed already stiffened with rigor mortis, she attempted to reach out for Danny. "Where ... were you? Where.." Her eyes rolled back into their sockets. He checked her pulse, but found none.
He began to weep and cradle Suzy. "No, no, no, no," he said. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." And for a while, his mind ... went away. And he cried. He cried until his throat burned. He cried until those horrible siren voices faded into nothing and the earth stopped trembling. A warm Summer breeze blew in threw the open door and his thoughts turned to Benny.