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Scott Parson, dabbler in typestries and fabulations
keyhole

Unused Room

Gary Hubbard was a light sleeper in a loud city. His wife, Beth, never got tired of telling him that. He’d have to hear her say it yet again, now, if he let himself be pried loose of his somewhat restless sleep to complain at her.

Their apartment was small, in a poorly renovated, pre-war building on the upper west side of Manhattan. It resonated with the constant cacophony of city noises to remind him that he was a box dweller, hemmed in by more box dwellers.

Gary twisted in the bed, forcing his face down into his pillow to regain the uneasy unconsciousness he’d held in such a desperate and slippery grip.

But the glow from the hallway was just too peculiar to ignore. It seemed unnatural, unfamiliar among the invasion by nighttime lights and sounds that usually illuminated and rattled through the apartment.

Gary allowed one eye to widen and peek, staring, over the pillow.

“Mtttth,” said Gary finally, not lifting his mouth up out of the feathered hollow. “Mmmmtttth,”

Beth, in the bed beside him, made no move or sound.

Gary stared at the freakish gleam from the hallway just outside the bedroom, which mixed with the exterior security lights shining up through their window from the breezeway between the buildings. The blue-white light from below reflected off the aquatic green of their ceiling, casting the room in a dull and shallow underwater radiance. Beth had tried to jolly him out of his nightly annoyance by telling him to think of it like sleeping at the bottom of an Hawaiian lagoon. And he would come right back at her, the pillow over his eyes, that was perfect because it would mean he was drowning in his own apartment.

“Mmmbeth!” said Gary, still hoping to preserve the gateway back to sleep by mumbling into his pillow.

He got nothing from her but a single sharp snort as her breath got caught on something in her nasal passage. Then it broke loose and rattled around in her sinus cavity before she went back to her regular, soft breathing.

“You left the candle burning in the bathroom,” said Gary.

“Mnn-mnn,” Beth answered, twisting her face away and slugging the underside of her pillow, which Gary assumed was meant to stand in for his face. She exhaled and her body settled back down.

“You did. I can see the light from here.”

No answer this time. She’d cast him into the deep, hollow place where she confined everything else that bothered her when she slept. She was a champion sleeper. Olympic. Guinness Book. And that’s how she did it. By casting all annoyances into the outer darkness, diving down to that sleepy place of hers and refusing admittance to any disturbance. He shuddered for their future children.

Gary reached for the clock, to make a note of the exact, middle-of-the-night hour which he would add to his formal indictment, delivered to her in the morning over coffee.

He knocked the clock to the floor.

“Great,” said Gary, “just great.”

Gary flung aside the bed clothes, hoping the sudden draft of cold on her backside would let her know that he could be just as irritated.

Nothing.

“Just. Great. You want to burn the place down and collect the insurance, hire a professional.”

He poked his toes around feeling for his slippers but couldn’t find them where they were usually parked. He thought about turning the light on to further annoy Beth, but wanted to preserve his own half-sleep to redeem later when he put the candle out and came back to bed. If he didn’t turn the lights on maybe he could pretend that he’d never really been awake.

Feeling his way, Gary knocked over a stack of plastic shoe boxes Beth kept by her vanity table. He looked back at Beth. Still nothing.

Gary stopped in the bedroom doorway.

“Hunh,” said Gary. “That doesn’t make any sense. Honey?” he said, back over his shoulder, his eyes fixed on the light. “It’s not the candle. It’s coming from behind the bookshelves.”

Gary stared across the narrow hall at the row of tall, open-back bookselves lining the wall, running the length of the apartment, all the way to the front door.

Gary and Beth’s place was the back-end of an old luxury apartment in a building erected in 1910 and cut up for tiny studios and little one-bedrooms sometime in the late fifties or early sixties. Their apartment was one long hallway off of which branched a dine-in kitchenette, a bathroom and two small bedrooms. They’d converted the second bedroom into a living room and office area. What wouldn’t fit in the too-few, too-small closets in the apartment, they’d crammed onto bookshelves.

Gary stepped over to the shelves and started removing armfuls of magazines, photo albums and dinnerware, piling it all at his feet. The light bloomed, cutting through the greenish dark. Gary bent down to look for the source.

“Honey?” Gary called out, louder this time. “Looks like there’s a door behind the bookshelves. The light’s coming through a keyhole. How long’s that been here? Beth?”

Beth was at his elbow, making him jump. He had expected no sort of acknowledgement from her, much less her coming to investigate along with him.

“Don’t they say that doors you find in the middle of the night lead to parallel universes,” said Beth, her eyes glowing in the reflected light.

Practical Beth never had any imagination or fun when roused. This Awakened-Suddenly Beth made Gary uneasy.

“No, they don’t.”

“They say something,” said Beth, wide awake and ready to argue.

Gary decided not to take the bait, and kept clearing off more shelves, piling everything to the left and right—catalogs, cd cases, bed linens, unopened mail—the piles shifting, things sliding off the uneven stacks, tumbling to the floor.

Gary reached through the open shelving, running his fingers along the detail of the door’s well-polished wood. “An honest-to-God, full-size door. Must be to a room or something.”

Gary shook his head, his eyes straining to see through the gauzy darkness.

“What’s behind door number one, Carol?”

“Not funny, Beth. There’s a door in our wall. To some kind of room,” said Gary. “Why didn’t anyone tell us about it? Why haven’t we been using it?”

“I don’t remember it when we moved in. Do you?”

“No,” said Gary, still stroking the wood, “I don’t. How’d we miss this?” Gary rapped the door with his knuckle.

“Don’t! There could be somebody in there.”

“We’re the only ones on this side of the building,” said Gary, still examining the detailed woodwork. “We must’ve blocked it off when we moved in. I wonder why?” His mouth twisted as he thought. “Hmmmh.”

Gary couldn’t remember anything about the day they moved in that would cause them to ignore something like this. He cleared off more shelves, making larger and larger piles in the darkness.

“They told us it was an old building full of big apartments. Maybe they just sealed the door and left it,” said Beth.

Gary was raking the shelves with his arm, no longer stacking, simply shoving things out of the way, working faster and faster.

“Look,” said Gary, pausing to point up the hallway toward their front door, “if that way’s the front of the building, and that way’s the back, to the fire escape,” he said, pointing toward the rear of the building, “the breezeway between the buildings should be right behind this wall, shouldn’t it? But here’s a door. Come on, help me.”

“Does it matter if there’s a room on the other side?” asked Beth, making no move to help.

“Yes, it does. If there’s a room, it’s ours. I want it.”

Gary bent over, putting his eye to the door’s keyhole.

“I can sort of see in,” said Gary. “Kinda.”

“Let’s leave it and go back to bed. Maybe it’ll be gone in the morning.”

“Beth. Don’t you want it to be a room?”

“There’s a good reason we’ve never seen this before.”

“Beth. Honey. We’ve been stuck in this place for thirteen years, both of us working without a break. For what? To pay a mortgage on a teeny-tiny apartment that no else wants. Wouldn’t it be great to have a little extra room? Even if it’s just a closet? We’d finally have a place for all your shoes. I wouldn’t keep tripping over them.”

By the golden light from the keyhole, Gary could see Beth’s face twisting up as she began to weep glowing tears. “This is about not having children.”

“Oh, great,” said Gary. “No, honey, no. Come on. I’m just saying if there’s a room on the other side of that door then we have a right to it.”

“Maybe it belongs to the neighbor,” said Beth, the summer rain of her crying jag gone just that fast.

“There’s supposed to be a breezeway on the other side. I said from the first day I saw the place it seemed smaller on the inside than the outside. Now we know why. Come on, help me get the bookshelves out of the way.”

Beth still didn’t move as Gary shoved on the bookshelves, empty and lighter now, sliding them with a great screeching of pine-on-parquet, plowing through the scattered piles.

“Look at it,” said Gary. “That is one solid door. They didn’t put this in last minute.”

“It’s probably locked. For our own good.”

Gary rattled the knob, then twisted it.

“No, it’s not. Imagine that. Must not care all that much if someone opens it.”

“Honey, don’t.”

He pulled the door open. A light rain of plaster and splinters fell to the floor.

“And that’s why.”

The door had opened onto the backside of a lath-and-plaster wall.

“I’m telling you, this wasn’t done recently,” said Gary, pulling at chunks of plaster, letting in more light through the breaks. “They stopped using this kind of stuff back in the thirties.” Gary tried looking through the slits he’d opened up. “When were they going to tell us about this? As much as we’re paying for this place and we’re not even using all of it?”

Gary wedged his fingers in between two lath strips where the plaster had broken away. He pulled. More plaster fell to the floor, the soft, dry strips cracking away from the studs.

“Leave it, Gary. Just leave it.”

“I want to see what’s behind here.”

“It smells like something died in there.”

“Dead mice, probably. They nest in the walls.”

Beth squealed and danced backward, clutching the hem of her nightgown tight about her knees.

Gary put his face against the opening he’d made between the lath strips, getting plaster dust on his cheeks.

“It is a room! I told you!”

“Maybe it’s for the elevators.”

“Not this far back,” said Gary, his face still pressed against the place he’d broken open. “I can definitely see something.”

“Come back to bed.”

“You’re always moaning about extra space. Here it is. Can’t you just be happy a little bit? For once?”

“Gary, please. People are trying to sleep.”

“Nobody ever sleeps in this building. You hear Mr. Fonsette over in his apartment? Running his television? He’s not worried about people trying sleep!”

“Then wait for the super to open it up for us.”

“I don’t need a super to get through this stuff,” said Gary.

He stepped over the piles and eased sideways between the wall and the displaced bookshelves.

“Gary?”

Gary kept a toolbox in the living room closet under a blanket, next to the wedding gifts they’d never had room to unpack.

He came back, dropping his toolbox on the floor at Beth’s feet, the tools inside rattling hard. He pulled a hammer out of the box.

“This should do it.”

Gary went at the lath and plaster, banging away, the plaster falling in larger and larger chunks, the lath strips cracking, light filling the hallway, the nails squeaking as he pried more of the wood away. Then he stopped, looking through the opening he’d made.

“Didn’t I tell you? An unused room.”

“So where’s the light coming from?”

“They find old-timey bulbs burning in abandoned mineshafts all the time.”

The light began to shift, disturbed, losing the golden glow and becoming a grimey, neon blue.

“Gary, wait!” said Beth, holding his arm. “The lights!”

Gary jerked his arm free and stepped through the hole, hammer at the ready, plaster crunching under foot as he pushed past the jagged tips of broken lath.

“Oh, my God!”

“What, Gary, what!”

“Morlocks!” Gary cried from inside the room. “Flesh eating morlocks!” Gary was swallowed up, crying out, everything going dark.

“Gary!”

Beth’s voice faded. Gary felt himself falling.

Above him, as he lay on the sharp coral beds at the bottom of his Hawaiian lagoon, a gurgling voice came floating down to him, “stop struggling, stop struggling.”

Gary’s brain was trying to remember what morlocks sounded like. And if they could swim. Did they know English?

Gary realized, laying on the bottom of the lagoon, that if he didn’t open his mouth too wide, and took in only little sips, he could breathe underwater.

“Stop struggling!” said the gurgling morlock voice. “You stop struggling and I’ll let you up.”

Gary was aware that his eyes were closed, and there was light around him. The familiar city sounds were somehow clearer, sharper.

Gary felt a dull pain between his shoulder blades.

“Are you going to stop struggling?” said the gurgling voice, a little clearer and not so gurgly.

“Morlocks,” said Gary, his voice muffled, his cheek pressed hard against the floor, a giant paw against the back of his head. “Morlocks?”

He was half-covered by a blanket, with his head locked to the ground. He could only rotate his eyes upward. Then closed them.

“Oh, God,” said Gary.

“You through struggling?”

“Yes, Officer,” said Gary. “I am.”

“Okay, then,” said the officer who’d had his knee planted on Gary’s spine. “On your feet.” He lifted Gary up off the floor. “Sit here.”

The officer let go of Gary, whose hands were cuffed behind him, and he dropped into a big club chair. He grunted as he hit the seat with a heavy thump and a whoosh of air slugged out of the vinyl cushion.

The police officer standing over him was a butch-cut blond. Gary thought he looked like he might be a dad in real life, the way Gary was an upstanding citizen in his own real life. Not a handcuffed felon. He twisted his wrists against the metal cuffs.

“So,” said the officer. “Let’s hear your side of it.”

“You don’t need another side!”

Gary cocked his head up and back, then squeezed his eyes shut. That would be Mr. Fonsette from next door. Of course it would. Now all he had to do was remember why he was in Mr. Fonsette’s apartment.

“He breaks into my house! With a hammer! That’s it! End of story!” said Mr. Fonsette.

“Please, sir, just step back a minute. We’ve got your statement.” Another police officer stepped between Gary and Mr. Fonsette. This officer was curly-haired and younger.

“There were morlocks,” said Gary, “morlocks in my room.”

“Your room?” said Mr. Fonsette, “My dining room!” He waved at the shelves knocked off the wall and smashed glassware all around him.

The curly-haired officer still had his arm up, keeping Mr. Fonsette back.

“I said step away. You had your turn. We’re taking care of this.”

“Taking care of it. Ha!” said Mr. Fonsette, but he stepped back from the officer’s upraised arm.

The butch-cut officer snapped his fingers in front of Gary’s face. “Sir? Sir? You have to focus for me, sir. Have you been drinking tonight?”

“What? No. I was asleep. I was trying to sleep. I couldn’t.”

“Is that what this is about? My tee-vee?” Mr. Fonsette shouted from behind the barricading blue arm. “How about come to my door? Ask me to turn it down. Not go all Godzilla on my wall.”

“Please, sir,” said the curly-haired officer.

“A man’s home is his castle right? Right? That still true in this city?”

The butch-cut officer studied Gary’s eyes and asked, “Any prescription medications? Narcotics?”

“No! I was asleep.”

“So, you’re saying you were sleep-walking when you broke in?”

“No. Yes. Maybe? I don’t know. I was asleep and then I saw light coming through the keyhole of the door behind my bookshelves.” Gary nodded across the room, but realized that wasn’t the way. He craned to look over his shoulder. “Maybe that way?”

The sound of crunching plaster caused them all to turn and look where the hole had been made in the wall.

“Gary? Gary, what happened? Were we robbed?”

“Beth?” Gary said, twisting, trying to see. The butch-cut officer rested his hand on Gary’s shoulder, pinning him to the chair.

“Ma’am?” asked the butch-cut officer. “You are—?”

“Beth Hubbard. His wife,” said Beth, nodding at Gary. “From next door? Gary? What’s going on here? Handcuffs?”

“He broke into Mr. Fonsette’s apartment. Through the wall,” said the butch-cut officer. “He was incoherent, waving a hammer.”

“Swinging,” said Mr. Fonsette, “swinging that hammer at me. He didn’t just wave it, like, hello, nice to see you, how about a cup of sugar, neighbor!”

“Sir, if I have to tell you again, we’ll restrain you, too,” said the curly-haired officer.

“Where were you while your husband was breaking into Mr. Fonsette’s apartment?” asked the butch-cut officer.

“I was at work. I work very late these days. I just got home. Gary did this?”

“Yes. Says he was sleep-walking.”

“I’m saying I don’t remember,” said Gary.

“Mr. Fonsette called 911. When we got here we found your husband inside the apartment waving a hammer and shouting something about flesh-eating morlocks. Right now, he’s looking at breaking and entering, criminal trespass, assault, vandalism, possibly public intoxication—”

“I wasn’t drinking,” said Gary, hoping by his superior calm to convince them they could at least leave that off the list.

“—public indecency,” the butch-cut officer finished.

“You’re not wearing pajamas?” asked Beth.

“I had on pajamas when I went to bed.”

“Well, you’re not wearing any now, are you pal?” Mr. Fonsette kept his distance from the curly-haired officer’s arm.

“The morlocks had a hold of me,” said Gary. “I must’ve slipped out of my pajamas trying to get away.” Then he turned to Mr. Fonsette. “Thank you for the blanket.”

“Don’t thank me. I’m going to add that blanket to the bill I send you, jerk. Where they’re taking you, I don’t want it back.”

“Where are you taking him?” asked Beth, her brows knit tightly together, seeing a long night topping off an already long day.

“We’ll take him to Bellevue for observation,” said the butch-cut officer, “and if he doesn’t need to be hospitalized then we’ll take him to the precinct. From there it depends. They’ll either issue a desk-appearance ticket or they’ll send him down to central booking and he’ll spend the night in jail until he’s arraigned in the morning.”

“I hope they lock you up for at least a year and let me get some peace,” said Mr. Fonsette. Then, incensed over the curly-haired officer’s restraining arm, he said, “You’re not stuck here listening to them next door, officer. All the time fighting. Both of them going at it, yelling. The place is too small, the mortgage is too high, we can’t sell! We can’t move!”

The butch-cut officer stepped in front of Beth, blocking Gary, tilting his head and lowering his voice. “Did he threaten you with the hammer?”

Beth, having leaned in with the officer, jerked back. “No! God, no! I just got home. I work really late these days. We both do, trying to pay the place off so we can move.”

The butch-cut officer studied her another moment, then turned back to Gary. “Come on, sir,” he said, hefting Gary to his feet. “Let’s go.”

“Bunch a lunatics!” shouted Mr. Fonsette, hatcheting the air behind them.

“Gary?” called Beth.

“I’m sorry, honey,” said Gary as the officers hauled him out of the apartment.

# # #

Gary was in lockup, staring at the floor, sitting in a cell by himself, perched on the edge of the metal cot.

He didn’t hear Beth and the officer in charge approach the cell.

“Gary?”

Gary raised up, surprised.

“Beth? Honey? What’re you doing here? They told me I couldn’t have visitors yet.”

“They said it’s okay if I bring you a change of underwear. I know you hate to start a new day in yesterday’s underwear.”

At a nod from the officer, Gary stood up and took the small paper bag from her.

“Beth—”

“I can’t stay,” said Beth, with a glance back at the officer. “Just drop off the underwear. I’ll talk to Mr. Fonsette again tonight. Maybe he’ll have cooled off by then. And I’ve called a lawyer.”

“No one we know, right?”

“I asked my brother.”

“God,” said Gary, his forehead against the bars.

“You weren’t going to do it.”

“I’m just so embarrassed,” said Gary. “Thanks. For calling your brother. Look, I’m sorry. I must’ve been dreaming. But it was so real. You were right there. You sounded odd, but real. We were seeing a room that we’d never seen before. It was more space. It was all ours.”

“It was Mr. Fonsette’s.”

“I thought it was the answer.”

Beth glanced back at the officer who’d shifted, giving a tilt of his head toward the exit.

“Gary, we’ve got to sell the place. It’s too small. We take our losses and we buy something out of Manhattan. Maybe New Jersey. Maybe Pennsylvania. Even Kansas for crying out loud!”

“You mean actually leave the City? Give up on all that time and money we’ve invested?” Gary jerked as if stabbed between the shoulder blades, twisting away, moving to the back of the cell.

“It’s driving us both crazy. Do you want to be stuck in a place that makes you crazy enough to be locked up?” She waited.

Gary stood at the back of the cell, his head cocked.

“Do you?”

Gary turned and walked back toward her, in careful heel-to-toe steps, his head down.

The officer raised his arm to corral her out.

“Gary? Are you listening to me?”

Gary reached the bars, still watching his feet. He looked up at Beth.

“Honey?”

“What?”

“Why haven’t we ever used this room?”



Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash