's 2013 Horror Write-off:

"The Room"

Submitted by Stuart

I grew up in a big, old house in the country, and I can recommend no better place to spend a childhood. A house with rows of hedgerows that, to a child’s eyes, are as tall and impregnable as the walls of a castle. A house with floorboards that creak, windows that rattle and above all else a house with lots of dusty old rooms to play and hide in.

There was one room we were especially fond of hiding in, my sister and I. It was an unremarkable as any room can be. Windowless, about twelve feet by eight, the walls bare, white plaster, nothing but irregular floorboards underfoot. The only features of note were a switch for the dusty lightbulb that hung from the ceiling and a tiny gap between two of the floorboards.

Our parents could never find us there. They could never find the door and we had no intention of showing it to them. We were little girls with a secret place of our own; Susan and Lucy Pevensies, perhaps, or Wendy Darlings without tribes of boys to care for.

We called it the playroom. It was small, true, but so were we. It was empty, but we could smuggle toys into it easily enough, and to a child’s imagination the blank walls were a canvass, a veritable invitation. We sailed seas and fought pirates in boats only a few feet across, rescued queens and princes and saved kingdoms smaller than cupboards. We hid things there – toys, food, books. Sometimes we’d leave each other little messages in the gap between the floorboards.

When our mother asked where we’d been, we’d say we’d been in the playroom. She would ask us where it was, but of course we couldn’t show it her. She became convinced we were sneaking outside without her knowledge and begged us not to leave the house. We agreed, hiding smiles.

I remember one time when we’d been in the playroom for a few hours we came out to find her waiting for us in the kitchen, red-eyes ringed by black eyeliner smudges. She kept her voice level and her deliberate calm that betrayed more than sobbing or yelling ever could.
She told us she’d called the police. That everyone was looking for us. She was too relieved to be angry, even to punish us, but she made us promise not to go the playroom.

For a time we did. At least until we heard her fighting with our father. We held each other, tightly, in the playroom, where you couldn’t hear the yelling. It was our refuge, our fortress, as much as it was our kingdom.

When I was nine we had to leave the old house. My sister and I both resisted the move at every stage. There were tears and tantrums, but Mum insisted that she needed to get away from the old house. It had too many bad memories, she would later confide, it was expensive and far too bigfor us anyway. We’d find somewhere nicer, she promised. Less isolated. There would be other children for us to play with.

We were sad to leave our home, and especially little our secret kingdom, behind. Imagine our surprise and joy when we found an identical room in our new house –down to the very nails in the floorboards – that our mother still remained quite unaware of. The room had moved with us.

Nevertheless, like an imaginary friend, we outgrew the room. I was the older, and I spent less and less time there. Mum allowed us outside now and I would play with other children, riding bikes and climbing trees. My sister was the shy one. She still stayed indoors, hiding away in the room without me for a while, but eventually the empty room couldn’t compare to the school, friends and adolescence. A refuge might have been welcome when we bickered our way through our teenage years, we couldn’t find the room anymore. The door was simply gone.

Eventually the time came when I had to leave, to move away. To university. My mother and my sister hid their sadness behind smiles and waves as they drove away, and though I was sad, too, the rush of excitement at that first taste of freedom far outweighed it.

I remember one night, a few months later, I returned home late. Drunk, of course, having embraced the student cliché. I swung open the door to my room, fumbling for the switch as it slammed shut behind me, and found myself in a familiar room about twelve feet by eight, with plain white walls and no window. Confused, I turned, looking for the doorknob. My hands found nothing but smooth walls.

It was the next morning when I the saw the door again. I leapt for it, pulled it open and found myself back in my room. My college room, that is. I drew the curtains and collapsed into bed, missing the day’s classes. I brushed that off easily enough, laughing with my friends about overdoing it the night before, which was quite true.

I tried to convince myself that it had been a dream. I carried on as though nothing had happened, only to wake up a few weeks later in a familiar room that seemed so much smaller now. It wasn’t so long until I found my way out. Perhaps an hour.

I entered rooms more carefully, then, never letting the doors close until I was certain I wasn’t in a room that looked more and more like a cell. Sometimes it took me in my sleep, or when I walked on my own.

I’d wake up on a hard, dusty floor. I’d pound on walls and scream for help, but the only reply was the faint buzzing of the lightbulb. I began to experiment. I’d take my keys and carve things into the walls and floor. My name. The number of times I’d been there. I took pens to the blank canvass walls and wrote about how much I hated that place, even begged it to leave me alone. I smashed the lightbulb, sometimes, out of frustration, desperate to hurt the room in some small way even if it left me in darkness, shards of glass crunching underfoot. They would be gone the next time, swept away by phantom cleaners, the bulb replaced by one just as old and dusty.

Insomnia joined a growing collection of neuroses and quirks; I left windows open regardless of the weather, left radios playing while I slept, always faced the door or window of a room. It was an unusually productive kind of sleep deprivation and I made up for any study time lost to the room. I graduated, with honours, around the same time my sister left home herself.
It was only a few weeks later when she contacted me.

the room took me.

I hadn’t told her what had been happening to me, even though she was the only person who might possibly have believed me. Now I told her everything, pouring out my fears and frustration. We compared notes, terrified, but no longer alone. We were the sisters with a secret once again, the same secret as before, but now there was no comfort to it.

The room never took us together. There were times it would leave us alone for months and we’d pray it was over, that the room would never come for us again. There were weeks when it took us, or tried to, every day. Sometimes we’d be trapped for a few hours, other times we’d reappear a day or two later, returning to confused, angry people who demanded to know where we’d been. We were suspected and accused of hiding boyfriends, day trips, holidays, even drug habits. We lied for each other, supported each other where we could. Then my sister discovered that any messages wedged in the little hollow between the floorboards remained, apparently unnoticed by any spectral caretakers. We started to leave each other a few words of encouragement, jokes, promises. Little things, true, but they were an anchor to the world outside and to one another.

About twenty years ago, a girl went missing. This time she was gone for two whole days before the police were notified. After a week or two, the media frenzy began to die down, though her mother still appealed for people to report any sightings, any information, anything at all.

I remember when her face stared at me from shop-windows and police vans, from television screens and newspapers. Now she stares only from the framed photographs on my mantel.

The room has not troubled me in almost twenty years. Now I have a daughter of my own. She is more like her aunt than her mother; she is afraid of heights and will not climb trees. She prefers to play indoors, hiding away, retreating into her imagination, into a private world. Sometimes I cannot find her and she does not answer my cries.

And she does not understand why I cry when she returns, unable to explain where she has been for the last hour, with a tiny roll of paper clutched in her hand.