6 • A BIT of Company
I released the scrap of paper and it fluttered softly back to the countertop. My face settled in to a state of neutrality. My blankness was broken when I finally heaved the breath I had forgotten to take. My heart maintained a quickened pace. I was not alone in the house. My mind raced with the possibilities, which started with worst-case scenario and worked backward. The first impulse that surfaced was defensive. This person was an intruder and obviously had malicious intentions. I scanned the kitchen for anything with which to defend myself. I pulled open a few drawers in a panic and finally found a medium-sized knife. When I removed it from the drawer and felt the weight of it in my hand, I tried to imagine using it in a life-or-death struggle. I couldn’t picture myself wounding another living thing and I set the knife back in the drawer and pushed it closed.
Whoever it was, they were clearly trying to communicate with me. The question that was rattling around in my head was whether the message was a warning or a threat. Both answers would precipitate more questions, but would differ greatly in their effect on me. What was the message? And, why did they take the penny? Between the message and the missing coin, I felt disconnected from the kitchen. Maybe, it wasn’t mine after all. If I had lost the kitchen, the library would be my only sanctuary.
Finally, my mind had run through the gamut of possibilities and arrived at best-case scenario. Maybe, this person was trying to help me. Maybe, they had all the answers to my questions. I would have to find the person. I didn’t know where to start, but I had to try. I knew that they had already been in the kitchen and found my note. This person knew I was in the house. An even more disturbing possibility was that, in all likelihood, they had known all along about me and had only now chosen to reveal their presence. On the other hand, maybe this person was just as lost as I was. Or, maybe it wasn’t just one person. I shook my head violently in an attempt to slow the avalanche of thoughts that was engulfing my mind. The first thing I had to do was find a way to communicate, whether it was in person or on another scrap of paper. I had to return to the library.
I turned to walk out of the kitchen when I noticed something on the floor exactly where the kitchen floor ended and the dining area began. There was a single wooden plank of a darker color that separated the two rooms. It was thin and the grain ran against the rest of the floor. In the middle of the plank there was a small symbol etched in the wood and painted. It was an orange flower with six bell-shaped petals. It was simple and similar in design and shape to the one I had found in the clock room on the third floor. It was essentially in the same place as well, though the kitchen was open and had no door. Both symbols were on a line separating two rooms. One was between the clock room and the hallway and the other was between the kitchen and the dining room. Aside from marking the separation between spaces, the meaning of the symbols was lost on me.
I pushed open the door to the library and looked down at the break between the hideous red of the hallway and the warm wood of the library. As I half-expected, the separation was accented by a single plank bearing another painted flower symbol. The flower was purple and much bigger than the other two. The petals were seemingly endless. There were far to many to count. They expanded in perfect concentric circles from the center of the blossom and each group was offset from the previous with geometric precision. It would have taken a week to count each and every petal and I simply didn’t have the patience to engage in such an undertaking. My initial impression was that the number of petals wasn’t important. The myriad was meant to convey infinity. The effect was tangible.
I left the door open and strolled in to the room. There was a stack of books on the writing desk between the upholstered reading chairs. I had made the effort to reshelf each book when I had finished reading from it. It was obviously the work of my new houseguest. I checked the titles on the spines of the books. They were all the books I had read from, even the ones through which I had merely skimmed. This person knew everything. The books from which I had read, the rooms I had visited, and, in all likelihood, the contents of the sandwiches I had made. The thought made me over-aware of my actions and appearance. I was being watched all the time. I could either put on a show or reveal my own quirky idiosyncrasies. I ran over all the things I had done and tried to imagine the impression they would make on an objective observer. I smashed a plate in the kitchen for no readily apparent reason. Maybe that’s why this person was avoiding direct contact with me. I must have appeared violent and unpredictable. When I was making coffee, I had been conducting in the air with my hands and humming the melodies from Beethoven’s seventh symphony. This either gave the impression of a music-lover or an escaped mental patient. I had also been leaving pennies about in various rooms in the house. I couldn’t even imagine what kind of impression that would have made on another person. Escaped mental patient came to mind again. I began to understand why my new friend had been keeping their distance and I wanted to know how I was being monitored. Cameras seemed to be the most likely method. And, though I had not been looking for them, I had yet to notice a single camera in any of the rooms or hallways.
I decided to ignore all of my distracting thoughts and focus on the objective at hand. I scanned the shelves looking for books without titles or empty notepads. After walking the length of two walls, I set eyes upon a pocket-sized leather bound journal. I pulled it from the shelf and flipped through the pages. They were all blank except for the last page that had only a single word written at the bottom. “Misa,” is all it said. I would use the journal for my own purposes, but I wouldn’t write on the last page. I flipped it to the first page and wrote “library” at the top. I copied down the titles of the books from which I had read. I recopied the Chinese character that I found etched in the doorknob from the previous scrap of paper I had used. Then, I walked to the doorway, hovered over the threshold, and sketched the flower symbol from the floor. I hoped that keeping track of my findings would later shed some light on my current circumstances and the house itself. As I was putting the finishing touches on my sketch of the flower, my eyes became suddenly heavy with sleep. I had no idea how long I had been awake. None of the clocks in the house worked and I hadn’t bothered to look out the kitchen window after finding the message.
I climbed the stairs to the third level hallway and went to the clock room. I opened the door and looked for the strange two-petaled flower symbol on the floor. It was there, just as before. Somehow, it looked more surreal than it had previously. It seemed hazy like it was obscured between two alternate realities and belonged entirely to neither. Maybe I was more tired than I’d thought. I shut my eyes tightly and squeezed the corners of my eyes and the bridge of my nose between my thumb and index finger. Life was full of these pointless little gestures. I suppose each one had its own psychosomatic benefit. However, after rubbing my eyes and squeezing the bridge of my nose, I felt no more awake or lively than I had a moment earlier. Apparently, the psychosomatics were lost on me. That’s what I got for thinking too much.
I flipped the pocket journal open to the second page and wrote “clock room” at the top. Again, I sketched the flower symbol in the book. This one was far less trouble than the one in the library. Without a way to color the drawings, I simply wrote “white” next to the image and drew an arrow to the flower. Since the thought had just now occurred to me, I flipped back to the first page and wrote “purple” and drew another arrow to the symbol from the library. Next, I closed the door and copied the Chinese character from the doorknob. I also did my best to sketch the giant cog clock in the center of the room making sure to clearly indicate the time on which the hands had stopped. I wrote, “my watch is stopped on the same time” next to the drawing. I stood up to walk out of the room. As I turned my back to the clock, I heard an ear-shatteringly high-pitched grinding noise followed by the creaking of gears clicking in to place. I turned around just in time to see the huge gears grind to a halt again with the same piercing screech. The time on the clock hadn’t changed at all. It was as if the clock had awakened for a brief instant and immediately fell back to sleep. Perhaps the clock symbolized the life of the house. Without the passage of time to measure the events of a life, life itself was meaningless. The house was dead. I waited to see if the clock would attempt another resuscitation, but gave up after a few minutes. Stopping only to confirm that my penny was still face up in front of the clock, I left the room.
On my way back to the kitchen, a thought occurred to me. Each room I had been to had, in some way, been altered by my new houseguest. The penny was missing from the kitchen and my countertop note bore a new message. In the library, the books I had read from were stacked on the writing desk in the center of the room. The giant cog clock had briefly come to life in the clock room. I had to assume that it was somehow related to the presence of this stranger. My previous visit to the clock room yielded no such event. However, my penny was exactly where I had left in front of the clock. Why did the stranger take the penny from the kitchen and not the one from the clock room? What significance could the pennies possibly hold for another person? I wasn’t even sure what importance they held for me. I knew the value that I assigned them. They were brand new pennies, but they were minted in San Francisco in 1955. The pennies all shared my birthplace and birth year. I attributed their newness to my rebirth in the house. They were pieces of me. I was using them as breadcrumbs, anchors to keep me bound to places of importance. The only meaning that I hadn’t imbued was their quantity. Why seven pennies? Why not five or three or a hundred? There was meaning in it. I was sure of that. Seven was the fourth prime number. It was the atomic weight of Nitrogen. There were seven days in a week. There were seven dwarves in Snow White. One human year was equal to seven dog years. Seven squared was 49. Seven against Thebes. There were seven wonders of the ancient world. Creation took seven days in the book of Genesis. Seven Samurai. The Seven Seas. 7-Up. Nothing clicked. There were seven identical suits in the wardrobe in the room in which I had originally found myself. Maybe there was seven of me, too. That was a terrifying thought. None of the possibilities seemed profound or even pertinent. Seven of what?
I arrived at the kitchen again just as my mind was shifting in to gear. I stopped at the flower marker on the floor and pulled the journal from my pocket. I flipped it open to the third page and wrote “kitchen” at the top. Again, I systematically sketched the flower symbol and wrote “orange” next to the drawing accompanied by an arrow. I stood up to look for a doorknob with a Chinese character only to realize that there was no door in the kitchen. I wondered if the character was somewhere else to be found in the room. I wrote “San Francisco” on the page and stuffed the ultrasound photo and the note on which the stranger had written in between the pages. I closed the journal and shoved it haphazardly back into my pocket. As I stood up, I thought again about the changes made by the stranger and realized that there was still one room to which I had yet to return, the bedroom. It was the room where I had been reborn, my entrance into this world. I thought it might have also been my way out of this world. Gripped by panic my hands moved independently, opening the drawer and locating the knife. My legs led me out of the kitchen and up the stairs. Huffing and puffing and heaving my chest, I arrived outside the closed door. I didn’t know what I expected to find in the room, but I was prepared for an encounter.
I took hold of the doorknob and turned it sharply, remembering that the door opened outward. I took a deep breath, held it, and pulled the door open violently. I was confronted by bleakness of the room all over again. Everything was exactly as I had left it. The bed was still perfectly made. The chair in the corner still teetered on the brink of annihilation. The shadows in the room still seemed to take on their own life. I scanned every inch of the room so as not to miss any alteration that might have been made. My eyes were caught at once by the presence of something foreign, an intruder. In front of the open wardrobe, there was a woman standing, frozen in place and staring at me.
She had dark brown skin and black hair. She was wearing a cream colored suit with a patch on the lapel that clung tightly to her shapely figure. Her hair was done up in a bun and held together by a single large clip. Her face was slightly longer than it was wide and her chin was soft. Her lips were large and naturally pursed. Her eyes were wide and bright. Her stare was penetrating. When our eyes met, I felt a rush of dizziness. The silence persisted for a long time, during which she remained totally motionless. And then, as if she had just noticed it, she looked down at the knife in my hand. I too, became aware of it and my fingers loosened around the handle. My hand was sweaty and the knife slipped from my grip. It made a deep thud as the blade dove into the wooden floor. The handle oscillated slightly from the impact. I hadn’t intended to drop the knife, but the act elicited a look of relief from the woman.
“Did you write on the note in the kitchen?” I asked without considering whether or not it was the most pertinent question to start with.
“Why?” The urgency of my assumption cut off her reply.
A pained look came over her and she pulled her hands from inside the wardrobe and gently closed the doors. She turned to face me and tightened her expression. She set her eyes on me again and clenched her lips, telling me that she would not or could not answer my question. I thought about the knife. It was sticking out of the wood six inches from my right foot. The dim light of the room shimmered in the blade. In my hand, it was imbued with a purpose. When it slipped from my fingers, it had become a mere object. My intentions had slipped away with it and now I felt powerless, standing in front of this woman who refused to answer my questions. I wanted to pick it up again, but I was certain that the act would evoke only more caution and more silence from the woman. I didn’t have the balls to use it anyway.
“At least tell me why you took the penny that I left on the note.”
It wasn’t the response I was expecting. I stared into space and ignored the present circumstances. Purely by coincidence, my arbitrary gaze was aimed at the knife on the floor. I could see the room reflected in the blade and my eyes detected something moving in the image. I looked up at the woman and noticed she was slowly backing away from me. I had been staring at the knife for a long time and she obviously suspected me of malicious intent. I didn’t blame her. My behavior was far from non-threatening. I kicked the knife away from me with my right foot and it tumbled and skidded across the floor flicking a few tiny pieces of wood about and coming to rest out of sight underneath the bed. Her expression did not exhibit any relief upon seeing my actions. She stopped backing away from me, but her body was still tensed and her face was guarded.
“You didn’t take the penny?” I inquired again.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Who are you? What is this place? How did I get here? Have you been watching me? How do I get out of here?” I questioned desperately. The questions poured out of me like water freed from floodgates. They continued rattling off in my mind, but I physically covered my mouth to put a stop to their audible counterparts. I uncovered my mouth and followed with, “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t have any answers for you.”
“You’re a stranger here too?”
“I’ve been here as long as I can remember.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I don't know. When the big clock stopped, everything else stopped.”
“What about the window in the kitchen? Can’t you see what time of day it is from there?”
“Don’t trust it.”
“The world outside the window.”
My heart sank. That window was my one connection to the outside world, or so I had thought. What did she mean by “don’t trust it?” She made it sound like the world outside the window had been fabricated in a deliberate attempt to deceive us. Maybe she was right. Maybe it really wasn’t my kitchen. If she had no answers for me then she was just as lost as I was. She was afraid of me. I had burst into the room brandishing a knife and, unsurprisingly, she had responded with caution. If we became allies, perhaps we could find a way out of this place. Or, at the very least, perhaps we could make some sense of things.
“Do you know anything about the library?” I asked.
“You want to know who the author is?”
“For a start.”
“I don’t know.”
“But, you suspect a single author wrote all of those books?”
“I’m familiar with the books. The style is the same and the stories are all related. There’s a chronology, but I haven’t found the beginning or the end.”
“You do know who the author is. I read about you in two of the books. I’m know it’s you. Why are you lying?” I pressed her accusingly.
“I’m not. I don’t know the author, but he knows me. He remembers me,” she responded defensively.
“I’m not going to hurt you. I promise. Will you help me?”
“I don’t think I can help you.”
“Then, maybe we can help each other.”
She didn’t respond, but her expression softened slightly. I looked at the patch on her lapel. The Art Institute of Chicago. She was definitely the woman from the books I had read. I didn’t understand the connection between the library and the house or the woman and the author. More importantly, I didn’t understand my connection to any of it. Why was I here? Why was I involved in this? Whatever this was. I felt sure that the library contained answers. I had to find a way to coerce some secrets from the pages of those books. In the back of my mind, I feared that I could only know what the house allowed me to know. There was a presence here. It permeated the rooms like a consciousness struggling to take shape. Maybe consciousness was the wrong word, but the many rooms of the house, distinct and separate, were connected together by some purpose. However, the purpose remained hidden from me. And from what I could surmise, it was also hidden from my new companion.
“Will you come with me to the library?” I asked, wondering if she actually had anything else to do.
“Okay. I don’t know what you expect to find there.”
“Two heads are better than one.”
“Evolution doesn’t think so.”
“Good point. Still, we might see something together that we would otherwise overlook.”
“A glutton for disappointment. But, optimist sounds better. Let’s go with that.”
The smile that had been laying in wait behind her cautioned expression emerged and the room brightened around us. Her nose crinkled slightly and she looked down as she laughed. I could understand why the author of the books had become smitten with her. She was a singular woman. There was something unexpected about her at every turn. Her beauty was not the stuff of Greek myths or classic literature. Neither was it the beauty of Hollywood starlets and magazine models. She wore her beauty with quiet dignity and had a subtle grace in her movements. She slowly walked to my side and took a hold of my arm, holding it close to her face. She pulled back the sleeves of my jacket and shirt to reveal my wristwatch. She looked at it intently.
“It’s the same as the big clock upstairs,” I explained.
“I figured,” she responded, dropping my arm from her grip.
“What would it mean if it was different?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even know what the big clock is for. All I know is that when it stopped, everything changed and you arrived.”
“Wait. What? When I arrived, the clock stopped?”
“Or, when the clock stopped, you arrived.”
“The second time I went in to the clock room, the machinery came alive for a second and the gears turned a bit. Does that mean anything to you?”
“What does the clock read now?” she asked with wide eyes.
“The gears didn’t turn enough to move the hands. They stopped just as suddenly as they started. It still says 7:55.”
She looked like she was doing long division in her head. Her eyes focused on nothing and she bit her lower lip. I could tell she was trying to come to some kind of conclusion. I hoped that she would. I was tired of being confused. I just wanted a shred of coherence, some tiny measure of assurance that there was a kind of logic at work here. I had to know that I wasn’t just a variable thrown in to an equation with no solution. I waited for her expression to change into one of epiphany, but it never came. She unclenched her lip and refocused her eyes on my face.
“Let’s go,” I said, trying to keep her from losing hope. “I’ll make some coffee and then we can head to the library.”
We stepped into the hallway together and she closed the door behind her. As the door swung closed, I caught one last glimpse of the room inside. She started down the hallway and I stopped her by the shoulder.
“Wait. When you came here, is this the room you arrived in?” I inquired.
“I don’t remember.”
“Do you remember anything before being here?”
“Do you?” she asked with a curious expression.
“Not really. I think it’s in there, but I can’t seem to access it.”
“It’s the same for me, but all the bits and pieces I’ve put together so far came from the books in the library.”
I looked at her sympathetically. She was more lost than I was. I had been so frustrated with the dullness of my memory and the pseudo-amnesia that the house seemed to inflict on me, but I was still able to pull the occasional fragment out of the deep recesses of my mind. She had recovered nothing on her own, forced to read about herself in books like some fictional character. I felt sorry for her. Here I was, asking her for help when she was the one that needed it. I had to help her, but I didn’t know how. She needed to get out of this house. We both did.
“Do you know a way out?” I asked expecting a “no.”
She nodded with a look of worry and said, “follow me.”
She led me down the hallway back toward the stairwell that descended to the kitchen. She navigated the stairs gracefully in her heels and my eyes couldn’t help but follow the curves of her body as they shifted and jiggled with each step. We went past the kitchen level and my stomach seemed to sink slightly as I followed her into the depths of the unknown. The sound of her heels on the steps echoed up and down the tall shaft. Finally we came to the end of the stairs in a small dark alcove of concrete walls. The floor was also concrete and full of little nicks and imperfections. She continued down a narrow hallway that bent to the left and soon opened up into a larger room that was met on the opposite wall by an identical hallway. The hallways crossed the wide room at exactly the same point. The room itself was long and had a low ceiling. There was a large metal door at one end of the room and a waist-high door at the other end. The short door was too small to walk through without bending over. It looked like a service door for electrical access. The large metal door was at least seven feet high and five feet wide. I looked heavy enough to serve as a vault door. Its design was antiseptic with a steel-like shine on its surface from the low light of the room. The simple doorknob displayed another Chinese character, but I had lost interest. If this was the way out, I could simply leave and return to a life that made sense. I didn’t need to decipher symbols and ancient languages in my world. When I stepped outside, my memory would return to me, clocks would function properly, and things would get back to…normal?
“Is that it?” I asked, pointing at the large metal door.
She nodded. She looked nervous. I took her hand and pulled her along behind me. I stopped in front of the door and took hold of the doorknob, expecting it to be locked. I turned the knob and heaved the door open to a slim crack. Sunlight painted a line across the concrete. The smells and sounds of the world outside permeated the air around us as they seeped slowly into the room. The smell of cold on the crisp morning breeze, the earthy aroma of dry foliage, the stench of decay, and a hint of salt. It must have been fall, my favorite season. I could hear the beeping of a truck as it backed up and the hum of an engine. A lawnmower spun to life nearby, igniting the air with the shrill sound of its tiny motor. Children’s voices laughed and yelled and cheered in the distance. I was desperate to feel the sun on my skin and to know that I had been freed from this place.
I started to pull again, but my grip suddenly loosened around the knob and my arm felt weak. I pulled the door open a little more and the light poured in from outside. My whole body began to feel weak and my chest felt tight like it was being crushed. I was having trouble catching my breath. I looked over at my new companion who was struggling to hold herself up and breathe. My head was spinning. I could feel grains of memory slipping away from my mind like trying to maintain a fist full of fine sand as it continually streamed between fingers. My name, my kitchen, my apartment, my boyhood piggy bank, my broken toaster; one by one, everything I had recovered was being pulled from my head and sucked through the crack in the door as if it opened into deep space. If I left the house would I lose it all? A sick feeling of panic welled up in my stomach. That was not San Francisco outside. It couldn’t be. Her words flashed through my head, I don’t trust it. Is this what she meant? Hopelessness settled in around me with an almost physical weight and I unintentionally let go of her hand. She fell to the floor gasping, tears streaming from the corners of her clinched eyes. My legs gave out under the feeling of heaviness and I collapsed in front of the door, still hanging on to the doorknob. She cried out in broken little huffs. I had to stop this. I was hurting her. I was supposed to save her. If she was suffering the same effects from open door, soon there would be nothing left to save. I stood and pushed as hard as I could. The door moved slowly under my weight as if my body was as empty as the large room behind us. I fell forward on to my hands and knees as the door finally slid shut.
I rolled over on my back and looked at her still gasping on the floor less than a foot away. I breathed deeply trying to take stock of the memories I’d lost. Surprisingly, the images came back to me slowly and passively, one by one. My mind was focused on everything and nothing at the same time, no thoughts were dwelled upon or filtered out. The missing pieces inserted themselves into the stream of thoughts like hand-editing a film reel. Feeling returned to my limbs. I pushed myself up on my knees and crawled over to her.
“Are you okay?”
“I…I think so…” she managed between gasps.
I watched her breathing to make sure it was returning to normal. Eventually it slowed down and she regained her composure. She brushed some loose strands of hair from her face and sat up on her elbows. Our eyes met. Hazel. Her eyes were hazel. I was unbelievably attracted to her.
“Golden astronomical bodies suspended in deep space,” I mumbled out loud without thinking.
“Nothing. How about that cup of coffee?”
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