I smile and retreat back into my room, shutting the door quickly, turning the deadbolt. Though why bother? She has extra keys. I return to my bed and my book. Last week, I came home after a long day of work to find little things moved or something altered, like the arm of one of my shirts in the drawer folded the wrong way or the label of my aspirin bottle in the medicine cabinet of my private bathroom turned towards the wall. I know I didn’t leave my things that way. I’m meticulous. Some might even say OCD about how I store my things, my clothes, and even how I hang photos on my wall.
I can’t focus on my book. So many thoughts.
I lay the book down on my lap, watching the fall leaves drift from the tree past my bedroom window. I long to take my digital camera for a walk. The camera sits on the edge of my dresser. I toss my book aside and grab my camera. The stairs are located to my left after a short walk down the hall. I pause before walking down the two flights that lead to the living area of the boarding house. I look over my shoulder, eyeing the door at the end of the hall.
Downstairs, Mrs. Crumm nods at me. Nancy smiles like a silly school girl with a crush. Mrs. Crumm is kneading dough on the counter. The downstairs is large with several sitting areas in an open format type of room. The french doors are open to encourage the last breath of warmth before winter to freshen the room. I smile at the people in the room, hold up my camera to show them what I plan, and leave through the french doors. I walk out of the small parking lot towards the main shops. A latte and some people watching are in order on this Sunday. The sudden high pressure that moved into the area cheers me.
I’ve been brooding. When I brood, my creativity goes stale. Today I snap pictures like a desperate man—the bright red maple against the gray cement; the old lady sweeping in front of the bakery; and a small girl with a chocolate ice cream ring around her rose bud lips.
I stop a little after three at my favorite coffee shop and order my latte. I sit in my customary seat in the corner next to the collection of Mason jars on a worn shelf. The owner says they are valuable. I say they are junk, but something about the way the light comes through the nearby window and bounces off of the foggy jars makes me want to sit there every week. If someone gets there before I do, I will walk some more and return again just to sit there because it has the best views.
Nancy meets me at the boarding house door when I return from my outing. Her arm is looped through Fred’s. He’s twenty years her senior. He smiles at me as if he has just picked up the winning lottery ticket that I dropped from the ground. They walk out into the waning light and I smell bread baking in the oven and the renters are sitting around the table, eating, laughing, and Mrs. Crumm looks across at me. I can’t read her expression. It’s as blank as her white french baking dishes. She lowers her face and shoves a forkful of casserole into her mouth, chewing like a cow chews its cud with the circular movement of her lower jaw. I walk upstairs and enter the hall. My hand rummages around in my pockets, until I locate my key. I look down the hall and I look at the stairs, stilling my breathing and listening.
I walk to the door at the end of the hall and gently knock. “Is anyone in there?” I hear the faint strains of some classical music playing behind the door. I twist the knob and shake the door. It is locked.
Sandra, the woman who works the graveyard shift at the Mill, has a room near this door. She startles me by suddenly swinging open her own door, standing at the threshold. “You’re not allowed in there,” she states firmly.
I look into her brown eyes. “Aren’t you curious?”
Sandra has a beauty mark just above her upper lip on the right side of her mouth. She’s an olive-skinned woman, twice divorced. “Everyone deserves a little privacy.”
“Have you noticed anything…unusual…in your room?” I can’t help but wonder if anyone else has had things moved or gone missing.
“Like what?” She leans against the door frame, shifting from one foot to the other.
“Like clothes folded wrong, or maybe things missing?”
Sandra laughs at me. “You’re so OCD.”
“I’m serious. I think Mrs. Crumm has been getting into my room.” I point to her pictures. “Are they in their spots?”
Sandra turns, her eyes sweeping the room, then looks at me and frowns. “You’ve just forgotten where you put things.”
“What if she is locking someone in that room?” I point to the door in front of me, the forbidden one.
“Ridiculous!” Sandra shakes her head. “Goodnight, Thomas.” She closes the door.
I look at the door at the end of the hall and shrug. I return to my room, unlock the door and walk inside, twisting the deadbolt shut. I toss my keys on the bed. Gently, I set my camera on the dresser and switch on the light. Already the sun is barely a glimmer in the sky. I pull a chair to the window and lean my forehead against the glass. It feels cool against my skin. A siren screams and a police car speeds past the boarding house. I turn my head and stand up so quickly that my chair tumbles backwards to the floor.
“There!” I say out loud to no one, pointing to the pencils on my nightstand which are in disarray. I always line them up carefully in straight rows. There are always four; never three or five. One now sits to the right and the eraser end dangles over the side. “I knew it!”
I let my eyes roam as I make mental notes of where I had put things before I left. My book is in the same spot, but some of the pictures over the bed are slightly crooked. I walk over to that wall and carefully straighten the frames. I put the pencil with the others and make sure they are in straight rows like the trees at the park.
I drag my chair over to the door and hook the top just beneath the door knob. I test the deadbolt and get ready for bed. I pull the covers back and slip my feet between the sheets. With the lights off, some street light dimly flows into the room. I like it this way. It reminds me that I am not alone. I hear muffled voices. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I am safe.
In the morning, I discover my chair is back at the window. I sit up in bed and run my hands through my hair. I don’t remember moving the chair. I close my eyes and think real hard, but I dreamed last night and slept fitfully. The sheets are tangled around my legs. I open my eyes and get out of bed. I test the lock. It’s unlocked now. I get ready for work and hide my camera underneath the bed behind the black fireproof file box. I can’t afford to replace the camera if it goes missing. I stuff my wallet into my back pocket and straighten my tie. I face another day at the office with a messy desk partner. He’s determined to drive me insane with his dirty coffee cups peppering the desk and his pencils with their broken tips and chocolate stained sides shuffled with his files. It always gives me a little headache, and I have to remember to bear kindly with him as he has with me when I fuss over it.
I leave my room and my eyes again are drawn to the door at the end of the hall. After locking my door, I walk over to the end of the hall and stand in front of the mysterious door. Music is playing behind it. I hear weeping. I back away from the door slowly and turn, walking towards the stairs. I get to the main floor and see no one. There’s basket of fruit sitting out on the breakfast bar. Some fruit are already missing. I walk over and take a banana and look at the haphazard fruit. I set down the banana and rearrange the fruit into a more attractive setting—a perfect pyramid topped with an orange. There is no sign of Mrs. Crumm. I grab my banana and walk to my car. I look up at the windows in the building, counting to the third floor, and then a few windows to the right to the room behind the forbidden door. Someone is moving in the room. The window is open.
I arrive home late, tired from a full, messy day at work. Most of the renters are scattered around the living room area, reading, playing games, or just talking. Mrs. Crumm quietly knits while sitting on her favorite chair near the fireplace. She looks at me as I walk in, but doesn’t acknowledge my presence. Her knitting needles weave in and out and it almost hypnotizes me. I walk upstairs to my room, unlock the door, and close it. I shove the deadbolt in place. I’m thinking of installing more locks. I go to the bathroom and open the medicine cabinet to get some aspirin. I take two without water, swallowing them and feeling angry. Then, I notice there’s no toilet paper on the roll.
I would never leave the toilet roll empty. I stomp to my door, swing it open, and nearly crash into Sandra.
“Hey, I’m off tonight.” She says, her hand raised in the air as if to knock. She lowers her hand to her side.
“That’s good.” I am not sure why she stands there smiling. My eyes are distracted by the beauty mark above her lip. It sticks out too far. I look at Sandra’s eyes, then her beauty mark, and drift back to looking into her eyes.
Sandra smacks me on the shoulder. “That means, Mr. OCD, that I thought we could…you know…”
“What?” I ask. My mind wanders to the beauty mark.
Sandra’s smile droops a little on the corners. “Nothing.”
As she whirls on her heels and begins a slow trek towards the stairs, I realize what she is asking and close the door behind me.
“Sandra! Wait.” I yell loudly.
Sandra has one hand on the hand rail and a foot on the first step going down. “What?”
“How about dinner?” My heart pounds like it used to when I would see Becky at Washington High School walking down the hall wearing her school uniform.
Sandra’s droopy mouth widens again. Her teeth are white like Mrs. Crumm’s baking dishes. “Yes.”
Dinner is at my favorite place—a diner at the end of town where all the seats are in perfect rows and it’s the only place where I don’t have to inspect the silverware or dishes for spots. Sandra sits across from me with her face hidden behind a large, plastic menu. I have my menu lying flat on the table. I slide my finger down the list of choices.
“Mrs. Crumm says you order the same item here every time.” Sandra says.
I shake my head and say, “And what’s wrong with that?”
The waitress approaches our table. Her long, black ponytail swings across her back like a horse’s tail. “Whatcha goin’ have?” That woman chews her pink bubblegum like a 16-year old girl. Any moment, a big, pink bubble will blow from between her red lips and pop, plastering pink candy around her mouth.
“Do you mind not chewing gum here?” I hand her a clean napkin.
The waitress, her name tag says “Judy”, stares at me. She doesn’t take the napkin.
“Leave it be, Thomas.” Sandra whispers. “You’re embarrassing me.”
“Judy?” I say her name.
Judy takes my napkin, spits the gum into it, crumples it in her hands and stuffs it in her front apron pocket. “Anything I can get you now?”
“Hamburger and extra fries. A strawberry shake, too.”
Judy writes down my order and turns to Sandra. “You?”
“Um, just a soda.” Sandra folds the menu and hands it to the waitress. “Thanks.”
Judy mumbles as she takes my menu and walks behind the counter of the diner. Sandra is bright red in the face.
“Thomas, that was rude.”
“If she had blown a bubble, it would have popped all over her face. Then, she would have had to use her fingers—the same fingers that touch our food—to take the bubble off of her face.”
“You don’t know she would have blown a bubble.” Sandra says.
“Why didn’t you order anything with your drink?” I change the subject.
“Waitresses spit in the food of rude people.” Sandra looks away. She’s biting her lower lip.
I feel anxiety begin to tremble through my body. Suddenly, I didn’t want to eat here anymore. I am thinking of my hamburger, and instead of mustard and mayo, a blob of spit soaking into the meat. It makes my stomach dry heave.
“That’s the rumor anyway. I’m sure I’m wrong.” Sandra watches as Judy walks to our table.
Judy puts a soda in front of Sandra and slams the shake on the table in front of me. She’s chewing gum again. I hope she’s not chewing the same gum. Her pony tail swings across her back as she returns to the kitchen. I focus on unraveling the silverware from the napkin.
“So what do you think is behind the door at the end of the hall?”
“Aren’t you going to ask me about my day? Or something along those lines?” Sandra uses her straw to stir the ice.
“She’s a loser. Why are you dating her?” A man’s voice came from my left. My head swivels sharply and I see an elderly lady spooning oatmeal into her mouth.
“Did you hear that?”
Sandra looks at me when I ask the question. “Hear what?”
“Nothing.” I see Judy returning to our table. “I hope she hasn’t spit on my hamburger.”
Sandra inhales deep and shakes her head. “I was teasing you, Thomas.”
Judy is still chewing gum. I take my plate, hugging it close to me, and wait until she leaves again. “She didn’t bring me extra fries.”
“Leave a quarter for a tip. Women are losers. They can’t do anything right.” That man’s voice spoke again to my left, but there is no one there.
“Did you hear that, Sandra?” I see the old lady, and near her, a family, but no one whose voice matches the harsh male voice I heard.
Sandra sucks in her soda, smacks her lips, and I am distracted again by her obtrusive beauty mark. “What are you talking about?”
“That man! He spoke twice now.”
“What man?” Sandra looks around and looks at me.
“Never mind.” I take a bite of my hamburger.
We finish at the diner and start the walk home. The stars feebly glimmer above the town lights. Sandra kicks her heels through the fall leaves bunched against the curb and smiles like a child. Any moment I feel sure my date will take a running leap into someone’s pile of leaves. I hope she restrains those impulses and I feel anxious again.
“Do you think Mrs. Crumm keeps a body in that room down the hall?”
“You’re obsessed, Thomas.” Sandra laughs.
“Did you know my last husband punched me?” Sandra says.
That got my attention. “What?”
“She probably deserved it.” That male voice said again.
“Don’t interrupt.” A female voice spoke from the right. “You’re being rude.”
“…ate my dinner and left me locked in the room for two days. It was awful.” Part of Sandra’s conversation is missed.
I pretend to hear it all. I look around for the male and female who spoke, but the park is empty. The park lights pool on the ground. We’re almost to the boarding house and I quicken my steps.
“What’s wrong, Thomas?”
“Nothing.” I smile as I said this, trying to feel okay.
As we near the boarding house, I dig the key from my pocket—the one meant for the front door. We enter the darkened, deserted great room. “This is our chance.”
“To see what’s behind the door at the end of the hall. Everyone’s asleep.” I laugh as we walk towards the stairs.
“I think you’re the most unusual date I’ve been on.” Sandra says.
We are on the third floor now and standing in the hall. A light seeps from beneath the door at the end of the hall. We walk to Sandra’s door. I am nervous. What does a man do now?
Abruptly, she holds my face with both hands and kisses me, that beauty mark touching my skin. When she pulls away, she darts into her room, shuts the door, and I hear the lock turn. I am standing in the dark again. I turn and face the door at the end of the hall. I touch the knob and turn it. A quiet click and it opens. I shiver.
“Don’t do it. That is rude.” The female voice says.
“Where are you?” I blurt.
“Go to bed, Thomas.” Sandra calls from behind her door.
“Did you hear that?” But Sandra doesn’t answer. I step into a small room behind the forbidden door. There’s a rocking chair in the middle of the room facing the window. Candles burn everywhere and heavily lace the air with lavender and spice. I close the door behind me and see hundreds of boxes.
“Tip the candles. Burn it down. Burn it down. Burn it down.” The harsh male voice whispers. “You’ve done it before.”
I am the only one in the room. The first box I see on the top of the pile is opened. And I see a newspaper clipping after I move the flaps of the box aside. I read the headline. It was dated the year I turned seven. It said: “Man Dies in Arson Fire.” I find pictures of a man with his arm around a younger Mrs. Crumm. There are old Christmas ornaments and love notes tied in purple ribbon. I drop everything in that box and back away. Flashes of orange, my teddy bear, and dad’s spare gasoline flit through my mind, and I know it’s just my imagination.
“Burn it down. Burn it down. Burn it down.” The male voice grows stronger and higher in pitch as I make my way to the door.
“Stop it!” I whisper and put my hands on my ears.
Once, when I was twelve, I had heard those voices shortly after an incident with my uncle. By age sixteen, those voices went away. They returned when I was thirty. I am forty and hearing them again. Sleep usually chases away the voices. If I deny their reality, they will disappear.
Just disappear. Just disappear.
I leave the room. The door clicks shut behind me. I feel sure the whole floor heard the harsh man and the kind lady, but no one stirs from their rooms. I walk quietly to my door, unlock it, and walk inside. I fall into my bed and close my eyes. I squeeze them tight, murmuring something my mother always sang until I finally sleep.
I sleep until smoke burns the insides of my nose. My eyes fly open. I sit upright in bed and cough violently. People are screaming. But I’m not in my bed. I am on the floor in the room at the end of the hall. The boxes are burning. I watch in fascination as the tongues of the flames lick the boxes, devouring them one-by-one, and I hurry to the door. I yank it open and run to the stairs. Smoke is everywhere. I know the man did it. I run out through the french doors as a fire truck arrived.
On the front lawn, Sandra rushes to me. Her hands grip my upper arms tightly. “I knocked and knocked, but you didn’t answer. Where were you?”
I cough and say, “I was asleep.”
“The room at the end of the hall—it’s on fire!” Sandra is crying. She lets go of my arms and covers her face.
I draw her against my chest and feel her sobs shake me. The rest of the boarders are standing in small groups, pointing at the house, and comforting each other. Mrs. Crumm is on the lawn talking to a policeman. The only thing that burned was the room. None of the structure was hurt, and we return to our rooms in a few days. My camera is gone. The book my friend loaned me is missing. I also notice my aspirin bottle is empty, too. I tug on my hair. Mrs. Crumm is now stealing my things. I am angry and walk downstairs where she is peeling potatoes.
“You stole my things.” I yell.
Mrs. Crumm’s head hangs down. She turns, raises her head, and faces me with tears running down her cheeks. “I can’t do this today, Thomas. And I didn’t steal anything. Can we not have this conversation this week? I just lost my husband…again.”
“Harlot!” The harsh man speaks from my right. “She is using her past to gain sympathy. All women are liars.”
I shake my head as if shaking it might shake the voice away. “Fine.” I turn and walk back to my room. Hours later, somebody is shaking me and I awake. I am sitting in the bushes outside the boarding house behind the shed. Around me are all my missing things.
Sandra looks at me. “Thomas? I saw you leave your room. You were…angry. So…not…you.”
“How did I get here?” I feel sluggish.
“You don’t remember?”
“No.” I say to Sandra.
“Burn it down. Burn it all down.” The man’s voice yells again.
Sandra doesn’t appear to hear it. She bends down and fingers my hair, smoothing it down. “Let me help you back to your room.”
She carries my things and I stumble up the stairs, still sluggish, and she puts me to bed. The next morning I awake and everything is in its place as if last night was a dream. I sit up in bed and try to find the motivation to get dressed. The sunlight lingers through the dirty window. I realize I am late to work. As I walk down the stairs, I see Mrs. Crumm sitting at the dining room table with her hands folded on the table. A policeman stands beside her. I begin to sweat.
“Thomas? I don’t think this arrangement is working anymore.” Mrs. Crumm covers her mouth, her chest heaving.
“Thomas Roye?” the policeman asks. I answer, “yes” and he arrests me, roughly clamping cold handcuffs on my wrists. Through the blur of booking, I vaguely hear the details. Apparently, they think I was the arsonist that killed Mrs. Crumm’s husband and they think I also lit the room at the end of the hall on fire. I try to tell them it was not me. I was the man. I heard him, but didn’t him. The detective said I said it was just like when I was a child.
At my hearing, my lawyer wants me to take the insanity plea. But I can’t hear what he says because I see matches and cigarettes sticking out of his left pocket and I hear a man’s voice saying, “Burn it down. Burn it all down.”
They say I tried to wrestle the matches from my lawyer and burn the courthouse down, but I am certain it was that man again. I never see him, but I always hear him. He’s always harsh and angry. At least, my cell is organized. I have four pencils next to my bunk and I clean the cell, too. Sandra doesn’t visit me anymore. Our relationship ended when I pointed out her atrocious beauty mark. The female voice says I’m being rude. I can’t find her in my cell either. But I know now what is behind the door at the end of the hall.