Vera Searles






            She was lost.  She ran from room to room, trying to find her way out.  But there was none.  All the doors led to other rooms, and the windows opened not to the outside, but into more inside spaces.  Everything kept changing, going on and on in a grotesque maze that had no end.  It was the first time Alexa had been in the house in twenty-five years, and a thrum of unreality had settled over her ever since she arrived here an hour ago.  Exhausted, she fell into a chair and closed her eyes.

            Through her lids she saw the ghost of her grandmother, arms outstretched, calling to her in a feathery whisper.  “Come, Alexa, find me.  I’m hiding and waiting for you to bring me back from the shadows.”  It startled Alexa to find that she could imagine a ghost really existed, but the house was so full of her grandmother’s scent, her presence, that it seemed normal.  She and the house were indelibly intertwined.

            Her grandmother had been dead for almost a month now, and Alexa had inherited the house.  Years ago when she was a child of five, Alexa’s mother brought her here once to visit, and Alexa and her grandmother played a game of hide and seek.  “Come find me, Alexa,” her grandmother called, and Alexa ran on her little legs through the house, following a trail of sweets wrapped in pretty silver paper, that marked the way.  She found one on the hall table, another on the library desk, and one on the grand piano.  Alexa looked in the stairwell closet and finally in the cook’s pantry, and there was her grandmother, hiding. 

            “I found you, I found you!” Alexa squealed, giggling, and received the sweets for her reward.

            It was a lovely house back then, with many rooms opening into each other, sunporches and parlors, and music rooms.  To Alexa at five, it was a magnificent, magical house without end.

            Into her remembrances crept a chilled current of bewilderment, of absurdity.  Houses didn’t expand.  They were solid, immovable.

            A drift of cool air brushed Alexa’s face.  She opened her eyes, looked up.  Overhead, a ceiling fan turned.  This room had not had a ceiling fan when Alexa came in.  It was a tropical-looking fan, with wide blades and a decorative stenciled scene from Malaysia or the Caribbean.  All around Alexa the room had changed.  Potted plants with large fronds and heavy, split leaves now stood in the corners.  The furniture was draped with fringed tapestries.  The rug was raffia, and the curtains gauzed linen.  And in some hidden space, her grandmother waited. 

            Alexa shuddered.  “No,” she said aloud to the house and her dead grandmother.  “This is an ordinary house, with doors and windows that lead outside, and there are no ghosts here!”  But when she got up to try to open a window, her senses were flooded with fragrance and sound from a moment that had escaped from another time, another place.  A gaudily plumed bird screeched at her, and the scent of enchanted flowers captured her in a pocket that held both now and memory.

            “Your grandmother is delusional,” Alexa’s mother told her all those years ago.  “We’re not going to visit her and her big house any more.  She’s very wealthy, but she refuses to set foot outside her door.”

            Five-year-old Alexa cried, but eventually learned the truth - - her grandmother was a recluse, locked in by her fears from a severe case of agoraphobia.  She asked everyone to stay away, not to visit ever.  Servants did everything: cooked, cleaned, gardened, and even the doctor came to the house when needed.

            Her grandmother’s imagination soared as she aged.  She read everything about far places, watched travel movies, even kept a journal of her imaginary visits to exotic parts of the world.  When Alexa was seven, she began to receive letters from her grandmother.  “Just returned from Egypt.  It was exquisitely beautiful, Alexa.  The Sphinx, the Pyramids, the Nile.  You must go there when you are old enough.”

            “Delusions,” Alexa’s mother sniffed.  “Dream fancies.  Crazy woman, with all her money, you’d think she’d travel for real.  She won’t leave me any of her fortune, that’s for sure.  She doesn’t like me much because I didn’t marry blue blood.”

            Alexa planned to ask her grandmother if she could visit when she was old enough to go by herself.  But in her early teens, Alexa’s father died, and then her mother remarried and they moved to another state.

            Still the letters kept coming.  “My dear granddaughter Alexa, I must tell you about my trip to the Hawaiian Islands.  Aloha!  That means both hello and goodbye.  I’m afraid I didn’t learn to do the hula, but I really enjoyed the luau they gave in my honor.  The fire dancers!  The orchids!  The music!”

            And others came, telling about Norway or Machu Pichu, or Japan.

            Alexa accepted her grandmother’s fantasies, knowing they were due to her illness.  Alexa had attended a university, now held a good job, was dating one of her co-workers.  She wrote to her grandmother on her birthday and at the holidays.

            “I tried calling you,” she said to the ghost in the tropical room.  “I called during the holidays, but you wouldn’t talk on the phone.  The maid said you wished me a happy holiday and took my message.”

            Alexa sat down again, shaking her head.  “Mother should have called too, but she couldn’t accept your illness.  She was always afraid it would reach out and touch her, crawl into her from your genes, was the way she put it.  She couldn’t cope with anything, not even her own last illness.” 

            “Now that your mother is gone, you’re alone, like me,” her grandmother’s ghost replied as the room began to change again.  The potted plants faded, the ceiling fan slowly disappeared, and the gauzed curtains gave way to velvet draperies.  It was now a Victorian parlor.

            Alexa trembled.  “Are these my own illusions?  Have I inherited your insanity, and think what is unreal is real?  Why can’t I get out of this house?”

            “Come find me, Alexa,” the ghostly voice echoed from the past.  Small shadows gathered in the doorway, then drifted away on silent feet.  Alexa was chilled with a strange, nostalgic sadness. 

            Shaking, she tried her cell phone again.  It hadn’t worked since she entered the house an hour ago.  It was fine on the drive here and she had spoken to her boyfriend twice.  But now the cell phone was dead, just like the ones in the house.  Alexa had the feeling she was entrapped in some sort of tomb where no one from the outside was allowed to enter, and by violating that rule, she had been cut off from the real world. 

            She went to the entrance door, determined to escape.  “When I open the door this time, I’ll see the outside, with my car parked in front.”  She swallowed, turned the doorknob.  It opened into a bedroom.

            “How?” she cried.  “And why?”

            Hollow laughter shattered the silence as the brittle ghost-voice told her, “Because the house loves me.  It takes me everywhere.  Whatever my imagination invents, the house makes it come true.  Come find me, Alexa.  Bring me back from the shadows.”

            “You can’t come back,” Alexa said.  “You’re dead, Grandmother.  I can’t hear your voice or see you.  All this is only an hallucination.  I have to stop thinking that I can hear you.  I have to stop thinking these rooms are changing, that this is a magical house without end.”

            A silky rustle of clothing drifted past, and with horror Alexa saw the edge of the bedding indent slightly, as though someone sat down there.  “All reality ceased to exist when you came inside,” the dusty voice said.  “You are now a prisoner of my dreams.”

            “But why, grandmother?  Why won’t you let me go?”

            “Don’t you see, Alexa?  It’s not me.  It’s the house.  It holds us both now.  Neither of us can ever go out again.”

            A cold shawl of terror fell across Alexa as she asked, “But why did you leave me this evil house?”

            “I’ve been alone for a long time.  I wanted someone to - - play games with me.  Hide and seek, Alexa.  Let’s play hide and seek.”

            “You’re insane!” Alexa shouted.  “You’ve always been crazy and you carried it beyond the grave!”  She feared for her own sanity.  Illusions.  Rooms that changed.  The ghostly voice of her dead grandmother.  What demons lived here in this house that had invaded Alexa’s mind?  She turned and ran from the room, into a sunporch, through more bedrooms, into a library.

            And there, on the desk, freshly wrapped in pretty silver paper, was a sweet.




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