It had been there for as long as she could remember. Solid. Sturdy. Impassable. A piece of wood—she didn’t know what kind—with panels carved into its surface and polished to a shine. A large, old-fashioned lock, the kind with the big key, hung in tarnished splendor halfway up. She’d tried to peek through the keyhole, tried to jimmy the lock, all to no avail. The door resisted all attempts to penetrate its mysteries and stood, unyielding, a silent sentinel, in the middle of the hall.
Victoria’s parents had bought the inn when she was just seven years old. She had vague memories of arguments leading up to the family’s move, but they were ephemeral things that caught on the corner of remembrance then floated away. For that matter, much of the time before she was seven seemed that way. She seemed to remember playing in the sun on a hot summer day, its rays burning through her skin to bare her soul for all to see. She thought she remembered playing in the snow, the icy chill of winter slipping beneath her coat and mittens like a snake seeking warmth. But she wasn’t sure. She was never sure. All she was sure about was The Door, the one in the middle of the hall on the second floor, the one that remained locked at all times. The one she desperately wanted to open, yet, for some reason, trembled at the thought of doing so.
For years now, Victoria had longed to get past The Door. She had searched the inn from top to bottom and back again looking for the key. She had crawled from trunk to trunk in the attic, no matter the temperature or the density of the spider webs, but she’d found nothing. She’d removed files from the filing cabinets in the basement, the mildewed scent creeping into her nose and making her sneeze, but all she’d discovered were silverfish and black mold. The same was true of the other rooms. She’d pilfered through drawers and cabinets on every floor, including in the kitchen and dining hall, but there was no sign of a key anywhere. Finally, she’d tried asking her parents, but they had simply ignored her. Oh, they told any guests who asked about it that it was a storage room and only open to employees, but Victoria had never seen any of the cleaning ladies go in there. In fact, the only person she’d ever seen go in was her father, and he’d been sure to close The Door quickly, too quickly for Victoria to see inside.
Victoria wandered aimlessly down the hall. She passed in front of The Door and gave it a curious glance, then she kept going so no one would see her there. She knew from experience that her mother, especially, wouldn’t tolerate anyone near The Door, as she had come to think of it in recent months. In fact, Victoria had seen her mother fire one of the cleaning ladies just for trying to get into The Door.
It had been raining that day, and the inn was darker than usual, even though the lights were on. The lady was new, only her second day, and she’d been assigned to clean the second floor. There weren’t any guests around, not that Victoria remembered, so the lady was alone on the hall. She’d cleaned all the rooms and stopped in front of The Door. Like Victoria, she’d tried the handle and found it locked. She had tried all her keys, but none of them worked. Victoria’s mother had come up the stairs and seen the cleaning lady. Victoria had had the sense to duck into one of the rooms, for her mother had not acted like herself in quite some time, but the cleaning lady—Victoria thought her name was Lily—hadn’t been fast enough. Victoria’s mother had snatched her up by her uniform shirt and shook her until he eyes rattled. Then she’d told her to get her stuff and get out. Lily had left in tears. Victoria had hidden in the room until her mother had gone back downstairs.
Victoria stood in front of The Door and rubbed her head. It was hurting again, like it did sometimes, and her shoulders ached, though she couldn’t think of any reason for them to. She’d gone outside earlier this morning to walk in the garden, though few plants grew this late in fall, but the pain had become too much, so she’d come back inside. She’d wanted to lie down and take a nap, not something she normally liked to do unless she was sick, but The Door had called to her, so she’d stopped in front of it.
“No, Harold, I won’t hear of it.”
“Susan, it’s time. I know you don’t want to admit it. I know you don’t want to lose hope, but we don’t have a choice anymore. There’s nothing more we can do.”
“No, Harold. I’m not going to. And that’s final.”
Her father’s voice grew louder, and he separated his words the way he did when he was really angry. “We. Don’t. Have. A. Choice.”
Victoria heard the voices coming through the lobby and slipped down the hall and into the shadows of a turn. If she could tell by their voices—and she could—her parents were about to start arguing again. She had no idea what they argued about, but she knew she could sometimes hear them even on the third floor. The last thing she wanted was for them to catch her in front of The Door. With the way her mother had been acting for a good, long while now, Victoria did not want to be on the receiving end of what was about to be a major blow up.
Her parents climbed the stairs with heavy treads, their voices steadily rising. When they reached the second floor, they stopped in front of The Door. Both went silent. It wasn’t the silence of the argument being over; it was that other kind, the kind when people are too afraid to speak. Victoria held her breath, terrified they would hear her pounding heart in the silence. Nothing moved. Even the grandfather clock in the lobby had stilled, or so Victoria thought. She could no longer hear the tick-tock sound it usually made.
“Open the door, Susan.”
Victoria’s mother looked up at her husband with tears in her eyes. Victoria continued to hold her breath. She crept forward on tiptoe, careful to avoid the spot that creaked, and slipped into the empty room closest to the turn.
“Harold, we can’t do this.”
Her father, his hair now gray in spots—and when did that happen?—leaned over and kissed his wife’s forehead. “We must.”
Victoria slipped from her hiding place and into the next empty room. She was only two doors down from The Door. If she could make it to the room across the hall before they opened it, she would be in the perfect position to see inside.
Susan wiped the tears from her eyes and brushed a strand of blonde hair behind her ear. Her hands shook as she took the key, one of the large keys with the decorations, and slipped it into the lock. She closed her eyes a minute, and her lips moved, though no sound came out. Victoria took advantage of her mother’s distraction and moved up another room. Her heart pounded against her ribs, and she could feel her blood beating in her wrists. Her head hurt worse than ever, and her eyes burned. She wanted to lie down more than anything, but this was her chance, maybe her only one, to see what was behind The Door. She couldn’t let it pass her by.
“Turn the key, Susan.” This time Harold’s voice was soft, loving.
Victoria snuck into the room directly across from The Door. Her heart leapt with excitement, and her breath came in gasps. She covered her mouth with her hands and forced herself to breathe slowly. It wouldn’t do for them to hear her now. Not. At. All.
With a loud clack that reverberated in the silent hall, The Door was unlocked. Victoria peered around the doorjamb, her breath held, as her mother slowly pushed it open. She shifted ever so slightly, to find a more comfortable position, when her father took her mother’s hand in his own.
“Are you sure there’s nothing else we can do?” Now her mother was crying in earnest, but Victoria only cared about what was in the room.
She raised herself until she was standing, being careful not to be heard, and crept across the carpeted hall to stand beside The, now opened, Door. She placed her back against the wall and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath and edged her head around the doorjamb, just enough to see into the room before her parents closed The Door.
Victoria froze. Her heart stopped. Her breath clogged her throat. Her eyes bulged from her head. Her knees shook and nearly dropped her into the floor.
“See, Susan, there’s nothing more to do. Let’s let her go in peace.”
The room held a single bed, a rocking chair, and a small nightstand. The lights were low, almost too low to see, and the curtains were drawn. The air in the room pressed upon Victoria and nearly put her on her knees, and the smell of sickness and death wrapped its hand around her throat and cut off her air. A steady beep broke the silence, and, though quiet, wormed its way into Victoria’s brain. In the center of the bed, the covers smoothed over her, lay a girl of about fourteen. Her skin had a waxy, pallid look, almost translucent, and her once-shiny blonde hair, so like her mother's, was pale and limp. Her eyes—Victoria knew they would be blue—were closed, and her breathing was ragged and sharp.
Susan sat down in the rocking chair and took one of her hands, while Harold went to the other side of the bed and took the other.
“Victoria,” Susan said. “We’ve done everything we could. We’ve cared for you even when the doctors said there was nothing more to do, that you would never wake up.” She took a shuddering breath. “It’s been more than seven years, and we have to let you go now, darling. For your sake as well as ours. But we love you.”
Victoria looked up from where she knelt on the floor to see her father’s face covered with tears. She reached for him, begging him to see her, to speak with her, but all his attention was focused on the Victoria on the bed. The one hooked up to tubes and machines. The one whose eyes were closed.
“That’s not me!” Victoria cried. No one heard her.
“Make it quick, Harold.”
Harold nodded once and leaned over to where the cord plugged into the wall. “Good-bye, Tori,” he said, then he removed the tube from her arm and pulled the plug from the wall.
The machines went silent, a silence so loud Victoria’s ears ached. Her mother jumped from the chair and lay across her, blocking Victoria’s view of what was occurring, but she didn’t disturb the silence. Her shoulders shook, but she made no sound, not one Victoria could hear.
Victoria tried to rise to her feet, tried to tell them she was there. She was okay. And who was that on the bed? But her body wouldn’t obey. Her eyes refused to see, and her heart stuttered in her chest. The pain in her head was back, this time an agony that caused her to cry out. Only she made no sound. It was then Victoria remembered what had happened…
She remembered the fight as they drove through the mountains…
She remembered climbing out onto the roof to get away from the fight…
She remembered sliding, grabbing hold of the shingles to slow herself…
She remembered the pain…
Victoria looked up to see her mother on her knees beside the bed and her father standing over her with his hands on her shoulders. She could see the tears, but the silence was still a heavy shroud wrapping the room. But that didn’t matter anymore. Not to Victoria. Her only thought was I wish I’d never looked behind The Door.
copyright 2017 TMDobbs