Naomi clicked on her recorder, took a deep breath, and asked her grand-aunty Z about the one thing that her mother and grandmother told her to never, ever, never, never, ever ask her about.
“Aunty, what did you see when you went into Mausefalle Manor? And how is it that you got out when so many other people never did?”
Her aunty, whose full name was Zelda, responded by glancing down at the plate on the coffee table between them. “Have a cookie.”
Naomi peered at her aunty. “Growing up, I heard about it. How the house is a huge puzzle. They say that if you get lost and you don’t make it out, you become one of the puzzle pieces. So the house is always changing for whoever comes in next, because some people don’t make it out. But you did. Did you get lucky? Did you have a strategy? Or help from someone somehow?”
Naomi waited. But her grand-aunty just sat back and settled into her favorite chair.
The only sound was the sound of the ice cubes shifting and settling as they slowly melted into the lemonade.
Naomi reached over to her glass, raised it to her aunty, nodded her head, and took a sip. She put the glass down.
“I’ll start then,” Naomi said. “You probably want to know why I’m asking. You probably know that mom and grandma have told me never to bring it up. But I’m going to tell you something they don’t know. I almost went into that house myself once.”
Naomi watched for a response from her aunty, but caught nothing.
“I’m not as brave as you, though.”
Naomi related the story.
When Naomi was a kid, she and her friends went to Mausefalle Manor, what most simply called “the puzzle house.” They were only kids, but they knew almost all that anyone knew about the house. It was built sometime in the 1800s, by a man who wanted to channel some special powers or energies that were present in that spot. Either his plan backfired, or it worked too well. Those powers ended up devouring the man and his whole family. They were the first to be trapped. The first few pieces of the puzzle.
That was how the house caught people. It appealed to their natural curiosity, to their natural urge to at least try and solve the puzzle. But the deeper into the house they wandered, the more entangled they became. Most couldn’t find their way out. Even those who did weren’t sure how they did, or they wouldn’t say. Even unexplained disappearances in the area came to be attributed to the puzzle house.
Naomi had always been fascinated by the house because her grand-aunty was one of only a few people still alive who claimed to have gone into the house and come back out.
And for the first time in her life, she found herself standing before that very house. She and her friends opened the gate and wandered halfway into the overgrown front yard. They expected that any minute, some old caretaker would jump out of a bush to chase them away. But no one stopped them.
So they reached the front steps, and then someone dared Naomi to go in.
Right away she said, “No way.”
Her friends coaxed her, and when that didn’t work, they made fun of her, called her a chicken, even shoved her toward the stairs.
Still, Naomi refused.
It was the first time in her life that she’d stood up to her friends in that way. It wasn’t a good feeling. Her stomach was broiling and bubbling. Her skin felt flush, hot on the inside, but chill on the surface. Her breathing got quicker and quicker.
She was on the verge of running up the steps and saying, “Fine! I’ll go.”
But she didn’t go.
And part of her reason for not going was because her grandma and mom had passed down stories about her grand-aunty barely escaping from the house. They didn’t have the full story. No one did. But her grandma only knew that Z had been terrified. And that had scared her grandma, because in her experience, her older sister wasn’t scared of much anything or anyone.
So Naomi didn’t go in. But her friends didn’t stop at her. When they realized that she wouldn’t cave to them, they tried to get someone else to go in.
Naomi didn’t stop either. Vague as they were, the stories her mom and grandma passed down were enough warning for her. The other kid who was dared started to walk up the steps, but Naomi pulled him down, and she stood in front of all of them. She refused to let anyone else go in.
“This is a bad house. Can’t you feel it?” she said.
She was somehow able to convince everyone to give up on the dare.
A few of the kids threatened to come back some other day without Naomi. But in the days that followed, they moved on to the other mischief, and forgot all about the house.
“So, I’m writing a paper about the house,” Naomi said. “Because it’s convenient to say I’m writing a paper, but truth be told, Aunty, I just want to know. And…”
“And I’m getting old and there may not be much time left for you to find out the truth,” Z said.
Naomi inhaled deeply and pressed her lips together in an awkward smile.
“Why didn’t you go into the house?” her aunty asked. “Did it really feel bad to you?”
Naomi furrowed her brow. “I don’t know. Maybe it was all the warnings—I mean everyone gets them, but most kids are just warned about the dangers of abandoned houses. Rusty nails, rabid raccoons, that kind of thing. Not a lot of people seem to know about the…I guess the haunted house aspect of it?”
Her aunty nodded. “I suppose ghosts are scarier to a kid than rusty nails.”
Naomi smiled. “For sure.”
Her aunty nodded again. “Did you know there was one other person I told my whole story to?”
Naomi had been sipping lemonade again. She gulped, stunned by the double surprise. She did not know that Z had told her whole story to anyone. And she realized that her aunty had just decided to tell Naomi the whole story as well.
“He was the wrong person to tell though, poor fellow.” Grand-aunty Z’s head inclined forward and she closed her eyes, as if she were saying a silent prayer. Her shoulders dropped forward as well.
Naomi waited. Then Z opened her eyes. She raised her head, and she told her niece about the man for whom she’d just spoken her prayer.
A few days after she escaped from the house, Z was approached by a young man who said he was a journalist for a local paper. He wanted to be on the front page, and he believed Z’s first-hand account of escaping a trap that so many didn’t would be a fitting story. Z hoped that his story would scare people away. But the more she spoke, the more excited he seemed to be getting. Z began to worry that he would twist her story to make it sound adventurous and salacious. So instead of being scared off, people might actually be attracted to the house. The young journalist assured Z that the story he wrote would be as repulsive as she hoped it to be.
“He never published his story,” Z said. “His story had two parts, you see. In the first part, he interviewed someone who had gotten out of the house, me. And the second part…in the second part he would have related his own experience of entering and exploring the house.”
It could have been a coincidence that he was never seen again after the day he planned on visiting the puzzle house, according to his notes. But Z didn’t think so.
“He went into that house,” Z said. “He never came back out.”
A film of tears had formed in my grand-aunty’s eyes. She slowly blinked them away.
“Aunty, it’s not your fault that he went into the house,” Naomi said. “He made his own choice. You couldn’t have stopped him.”
“I could have. And I should have.” Her aunty’s gaze shifted toward Naomi. “Just as you stopped your friends—and enemies? You stopped them. You saved them.”
Naomi glanced down. “Well, I don’t know if I—“
“I’m going to tell you what you saved them from. And maybe it won’t scare you at all. It certainly didn’t scare that foolish reporter, bless his eternal spirit. But maybe it will help you to understand why no one should ever go in there. No matter how strong, or brave, or capable you think you are, you are not.”
Naomi glanced back up to find that her aunty was staring right at her.
Z shook her head. “Not as far as that house is concerned.”
“We dare you—we double-dare you!”
“Come on, Zeldie. Atta-girl!”
I climbed up the steps to the puzzle house, waving one hand behind me to signal my friends to hide. My heart was beating fast. It was so dark, I almost tripped on one of the stairs. I felt a surge of panic in my chest. But I heard my friends rustling in the bushes behind me. All I had to do was knock on the door, try it to see if it was locked, and just take one step inside if it was unlocked. Then, I could make a mad dash down the stairs, and past my friends. I was faster than them. I’d show them what would happen if they dared me. I’d leave them behind.
But I wouldn’t really. I would wait for them, just as they were waiting for me.
I knocked on the door.
It opened right away and I gasped and drew back. (My friends would later say that they saw the door open, but they were too far away to see if anyone was behind it. They didn’t see anyone at all.)
The woman on the other side of the door smiled at me. She was wearing a beautiful black-and-white lace dress. And her hair was set in neat waves and curls.
“I didn’t know anyone lived here,” I said. And then I apologized for my rudeness and introduced myself. I began to stammer about my reason for knocking on her door.
But the woman laughed. “Your friends dared to you knock, didn’t they?”
I gaped and she waved her hand.
“It’s not the first time,” she said. “We have a rather ghastly-looking house, don’t we? We keep it dark outside on purpose. We find it scares thieves away better than bright porch lights would do. But it’s not really ghastly on the inside. Come in, if you’d like. See for yourself.”
She stepped aside, and I saw that she was right. The house looked typical—actually much nicer than typical—on the inside. It was well-lit, clean, and fancy-looking. I heard the sound of other people in a nearby room. The woman seemed to be entertaining. And I had interrupted.
I remembered the dare. I had to take one step inside. But it would be awkward if I did that and then just took a step back and ran away.
“It’s up to you, you don’t have to come in. I am a stranger.” The woman leaned forward. “But I’ve got sandwiches and lemonade. You can come in and have some refreshments for a bit, and then you can go out there and tell your friends you just met a witch or something. I’m sure we can make up some story.”
So I smiled and stepped inside the door. “I truly thought no one lived here.”
“Oh, my family has lived here a long time,” the woman said, as she walked me down the hall a short way to a room from which I could hear the sound of happy conversation. “This house is so old, there’s been a good measure of tragedy, so there’s ghost stories, of course. I’ve had more than one ancestor pass away within these walls.”
We went inside what my hostess called the receiving room. It was a big room with a fireplace—that wasn’t lit at the moment—and plenty of couches and chairs. I felt even more relieved when I saw how many people were there. And how many different kinds of people. I went and sat down beside an elderly woman with brown skin. She smiled and handed me a cup of tea. A few people had glanced at me when we walked in, but most continued on with their separate conversations.
A small group formed around me, and the hostess walked over and announced to them that my friends were outside, hiding in the bushes, and I’d been dared to come inside. Everyone laughed, and one of them ribbed our hostess about her house’s horrific façade.
I wondered aloud where everyone had left their cars. Surely the guests hadn’t all been dropped off.
They said they had parked at the back of the house. The owners of the house owned the yard and the wood behind the house as well. There was plenty of space inside the overgrowth that was purposely not trimmed back. Again, it was all to deter potential thieves. It all seemed plausible to me. Just on my brief walk in the hallway, I’d seen oil paintings on the wall, and expensive-looking vases on intricately carved pedestals, and detailed tapestries.
When the first crack of thunder sounded, I hadn’t yet taken my first sip of tea. I hadn’t noticed any flash of lightening, but there were no windows in the receiving room. Thunder sounded again, rattling the walls and the roof. Some of the guests gasped and cried out.
The weather had been clear. But we could hear now the drumming of a hard rain, and even the pelting of hail.
I thought of my friends outside. I thought about fetching them and bringing them in. But suddenly, everyone was getting up and clearing out of the receiving room.
I glanced around, searching for our hostess, but couldn’t see her.
The elderly woman who’d given me the tea, patted my knee, as she rose. She offered me a ride home. She would be leaving before the storm got worse. I was puzzled, but I’d wanted to leave anyway, so I accepted. When I mentioned my friends, she offered to drive around to the front of the house. She would give all of us a ride if they hadn’t already fled.
So we got up and I followed the woman. We were walking down the hall leading to the back of the house. And I noticed right away that this hallway seemed bigger, and older. The tapestries, the carpet, the wallpaper, were all designed with dizzying kaleidoscopic patterns. But I kept my eye on the woman as others passed by us. Most everyone had gone already. We were walking slower.
I swear that I had my eye on the elderly woman as we were walking down the hallway. I was looking at her when she took a step and just vanished.
I stopped. My eyes went wide, and I glanced around. There was a corner a few yards ahead. I walked to it and looked around. I called to her.
There was no answer.
Already I felt anchorless. Already I wondered to myself, Will I find my way out?
I could hear other people moving through other hallways. I followed the sound of their voices, stepping deliberately and carefully, trying not to stare too long at the harlequin patterns on the wallpaper, the patterns that concealed turns and corners in optical illusions. This hallway was empty of paintings and statues. I stopped to get my bearings. I called out to the people I heard. And they, thankfully, responded to me.
I found them. I related the story of the vanished lady. The others too were confused and lost. But they seemed more irritated than anxious. They were trying to find the guest rooms. They were debating staying for the night, so they wouldn’t have to be out in the storm. Our hostess had already granted them permission.
I asked them where our hostess was. But they didn’t know.
They started talking to each other, ignoring me as if they didn’t see me, and they walked down a corridor that seemed to lead deeper into the house.
That was not the way I wanted to go.
I tried to find my way back to the receiving room. From there, I was certain I would find the front door.
But I found myself in a winding hallway, moving farther away from the voices of the other guests, even when I turned around and walked back the way I’d come. I couldn’t find any cross-corridors, or stairs. At some point, I had no choice but to open a door.
I held my breath, hoping the worst I would find is one of the guest quarters. Even if it was already occupied, embarrassment would be a relief compared to panic.
I found myself in an empty room, truly empty. There was no furniture, no items of any kind on the floor. No curtains on the windows. There was a door on the other end of the room and through that door was another hallway.
It was unsettling, but not frightening, to find empty room after empty room. The storm raged outside. And the windows were pelted with rain and hail, so I didn’t open them at first. But when I realized I was truly lost, I unlatched a window, and it flung open.
I held my arms above my face and head to shield myself from the rain and hail, and I looked outside. I was on a different side of the house, but I hoped my friends would hear me anyway, if they were still out there. I cried out to them, calling their names, telling them it was me, it was Z, and telling them I didn’t know how to get out.
I cried, “Help!”
I cried out over and over, until I realized I was shivering and shaking. My hands were numb.
I left the room.
The next hallway felt warm and dry. My hair and the clothes on my upper body were entirely soaked. I sat against the wall, holding my arms around myself. I wrung the water out of my hair and calmed myself down. I had been trying random hallways and doorways. Just trying to go in one direction. That might have worked in any other house, but I was in a maze. I was in the puzzle house.
If I wanted to get out, I would have to solve the puzzle.
If I wanted to solve the puzzle, I would have to learn what kind of puzzle it was. I had to start thinking. I couldn’t let myself get distracted by my desperation to get out.
I had already made some observations. They were confusing now, but if I collected them together, they might make sense.
I had a ballpoint pen in the pocket of my sweater. I would use it to draw a map of wherever I went, and to mark the walls, so I would know if I had visited a room before, if I was walking in circles.
As soon as I started marking the walls and making that map, I found myself in new parts of the house. I started seeing statuary in the hallways again. It would have been lovely to look at under better circumstances, but I expected every figure to leap at me or reach out to grab me. I walked carefully in the middle of the hallway, glancing around to catch any signs of movement.
I had begun to feel as if I was not alone. It didn’t feel as if I were being watched or monitored directly. It felt more as if my presence was just known. It was akin to the way I would be aware of a mouse in the room if I caught the mouse’s movement in a corner. I knew the mouse was there. I just didn’t know where.
But here, in this house. I was the mouse. Trying to creep past the eye of…I didn’t quite know.
I realized at some point that my hair was dry, and my clothes were no longer wet but just damp. My hands still felt clammy, but they weren’t numb with cold.
I even started feeling warm. The air grew humid, and the light in the hallway became tinged with green. I learned why when I opened the next door.
Before me was a greenhouse, overrun with vines, littered with decaying leaves, and crowded with plants and flowers vying for space. The air was thick with pollen. Though I saw nothing move, I heard a constant crackling sound, as if things were shifting and creeping on their own.
I held my breath as I walked through, tiptoeing over vines and branches, afraid I might offend by stepping on something, afraid that some flytrap might snap at me, or some prickly vine might entwine me.
But I made it past, and I found myself in a darkened hallway, another one bare of adornments. There were no paintings or tapestries. No sconces with torches or lanterns even, and yet some dim light suffused the corridor. I could no longer hear the thunder. I didn’t know if that meant the storm had passed or that I was so deep within the house that the sound did not travel there. I hoped it was the former. But I feared it was the latter.
So I decided that I would go into the next room I found, so that I could look out of the window, just to see the outside, and draw comfort from the sight and sound, even if I couldn’t get out yet. And I decided that I hadn’t tried hard enough to shout and get my friends’ attention before. Or maybe even the attention of some passerby who might help. I had to scream louder.
But there were no doors in this hallway.
I walked and walked, until I began to fear that I would be walking that hallway until I died of thirst, and maybe that would be a mercy, because I began to imagine something moving along the walls beside me.
So when I saw the end of the hallway at last, and a door at the end of the hallway, I was relieved.
I noted that there were no windows in the room. I thought there was one straight ahead, but it wasn’t a window. It was a painting. I’d never before seen a painting so big. It must have been two stories high and just as wide. But the painting was dark, like a countryside in shadow. That’s why I thought it was a window at first.
Again there was some dim light that illuminated the chamber. It was just a bit brighter than the hallway. And I heard a voice for the first time in a while. And I felt at the same time a slight comfort and a tense alertness. I sucked in my breath and listened. The voice sounded like a man’s. It was distant. I couldn’t make out his words, but his tone was gentle and somewhat formal, as if he were reciting something, something with a rhythmic and regular cadence. Poetry, maybe.
I saw movement in the painting. A shadow moved in the distance, and I knew the form was the owner of the voice I heard. I clamped my hand over my mouth to silence a gasp. The shadow was huge and hulking, and on the shadow’s head were two curving horns.
Demon, I thought.
I glanced around to find a place to hide. There was nothing else in the chamber except for two massive alcoves, one on either side of the painting and of me. I could tell that there were statues inside the alcoves. But they were not vertically placed. They were prone. And they were covered by large white sheets.
I looked under one of the sheets. The figure underneath looked like a man, but a giant man. His forearm was as long as I was high. His expression was cramped in pain or sorrow. His limbs were tensed, and his fingers curled, as if his whole body had convulsed. But I felt hope when I saw him. This was a god, a god frozen in stone. I knew that somehow. And I knew his name somehow, but I couldn’t speak it in my mind the way I could speak any other word. If I could free him from stone, maybe he would protect me from the demon in the painting, or at least he could distract the demon. And I could get away.
But better yet if he could protect me and then carry me out of the house.
Before I could think another thought, before I could wonder what I could do to free that god who would then free me, I realized that the voice reciting poetry had gotten louder.
The voice of the demon was in the chamber with me.
I climbed into the alcove at the feet of the god.
And I tried to calm myself, to not let my fear distract my thoughts. I tried to think of how to free that god. But I didn’t know.
Now I could hear the demon’s words. His voice was dark and rich. I frowned. I knew I should be afraid. But I was also curious, when I heard his words. He had power. I knew that the way I knew the stone statue was a god. If I had the demon’s power, I could leave the house. His poetry spoke of how he could leave, but only if he had a partner to share his power with.
I held my breath, and I tried to be as quiet as I could be.
As quiet as a mouse.
I wasn’t sure if he knew I was there. I hoped he did not.
Even when long dark claws slipped under the white sheet, I hoped.
Naomi too was holding her breath. She huffed it out when her grand-aunty stopped talking and reached for a cookie. She checked her recorder. It was still running. There was plenty of space left.
But after finishing a cookie, her aunty picked up her glass of lemonade and settled back in her chair.
Naomi reached for her recorder. “Do you need a break, Aunty?”
“No, we can finish.”
She sipped on her lemonade.
Naomi waited a few moments, then cleared her throat. “What…what happened next, Aunty? If…you’re okay talking about it.”
“I ran. I ran and ran.” Z sighed. “And I found the front hallway, and the front door, and I didn’t look back. I flung open that door and I jumped past it. It was morning. The sun was just starting to peek over the trees, and I started crying, because I’d never seen the sunlight look so…so filled with goodness.”
She set down her lemonade. “See, I thought it was the next morning. So I knew that my folks would be mad and scared. And my friends would feel guilty but glad I was all right. What I didn’t know until later was that I’d been gone a week, just about. Long enough for my friends to tell my folks. For people to come and search the house, during the day and during the night. To search the woods behind the house. I was there the whole time, but they couldn’t find me. And thank goodness no one who came looking for me was trapped.”
Naomi pursed her lips. “Do you think…did the house let you go? Or had you solved the puzzle somehow?”
Her aunty peered at her and responded with a question of her own. “Are you planning on going into that house?”
Naomi’s eyes widened. “I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe if I’m careful. If I tie a rope around my waist or something, you know? If I have people with me. If I keep in constant contact with people outside and I immediately leave if I lose the signal. Maybe there’s a way now with modern technology for someone to go in there safely.” She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Suddenly, Z’s hand shot out and clamped around Naomi’s wrist. Naomi was surprised and shocked by how strong her aunty was. By instinct, she recoiled, but Z held on, and she leaned toward her niece.
“I was afraid of this,” Z said. “I saw it when I was telling you my story. You’ve lost some of the wisdom you had as a child.”
Naomi gasped and drew back, because her aunty’s eyes, they changed. They were…spinning. They were spinning with black-and-white swirls. Naomi couldn’t look away. And then the pattern changed. The pattern became more complicated, more intricate. But it was still spinning, like a—like a kaleidoscope.
“Now you are an adult,” Z said, “and you can handle things that you couldn’t when you were younger. That’s true for some things, but not for others. The house is one of those things that you cannot handle, no matter what your age. You should not go in there.”
“Aunty, let me go,” Naomi said, as calmly as she could manage. “If you don’t want me to go into the house, just say so. You don’t have to grab me.”
“But will you listen to me if I say so?”
“Aunty, let go.”
Z released her niece. “Do you really think I just ran out of that house? That it just let me go?”
Naomi frowned. She gazed at her grand-aunty Z’s eyes as their spinning slowed and stopped and they darkened to a normal human brown again.
Z sighed. “That demon in the chamber. As it turns out, he was aware of me. I made a bargain with him. He was trapped too, you see. He wanted to leave too. He knew the way, but he couldn’t leave. He could only leave if he had a vessel to carry him out. I had that vessel.” Z leaned forward. “I was that vessel. I would carry him out of the house. He would show me the way.”
Naomi leaned away from her grand-aunty. “Your eyes…”
“When we made it out,” Z said, “he was so grateful, he said I could ask him a favor. If it was within his power to grant, he would grant it, he said.”
Naomi’s eyes widened.
“Any other time, there were so many things I would have said. Maybe I would have wanted to catch the eye of the boy I liked in school. Maybe I would have asked to get good grades for the rest of school, so I could have a bright future. Be the first person in our family to finish college. Kid stuff. Or maybe I would have wanted some kind of superhuman power, like being able to read minds or move things with my own mind.
“But after getting out of that house, still standing on the threshold, struggling to take one more step away, one more step away, there was only one thing I could think of to ask him for. The power to keep others away. And so he gave me that power.”
Naomi covered her hand with her mouth.
“Now, the only way he could give me this power,” Z said, “was if I continued to carry him. He was all right with that. And so was I. It was worth it. Except for that poor reporter, whose loss is a burden I will always bear, no one has gotten lost in that house since I came out.”
A demon. Naomi shook her head. Zelda had married. She’d had children. Did none of them know?
Z rose from her seat and gazed down at her niece. “I can make you stay out of that house, sweetheart. But I’d rather you just listened to your old aunty. There are worse things in there than this demon that’s wrapped around my soul.”
Naomi met her grand-aunty Z’s gaze. She reached over to her recorder and clicked if off.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel