Jane stared at the screen, eyes wide, bright blues and greens flashing on her face. On the television, a little boy and his grandfather rowed along the shore. In the distance, smoke danced out of a chimney, melting into the bright blue sky. The boy smiled at his grandfather as the pair turned the little boat, nestling it into a nook in the rocky shore, just below the house.
“Here we are, Tony. You do the honours,” said the old man.
Beaming, Tony reached out and grabbed a jutting stone. It gave way, sliding downwards, and the roar of rushing water filled Jane’s ears. A secret door opened, revealing a brightly lit cave with a dock for the boat. The current, engineered to be just strong enough to carry the boat, guided Tony and his grandfather to the dock. Tony then pressed his hand against the wall of the cave, and another door opened with a rumble. Behind it, a spiralling staircase was lit by flickering orange lights.
“Home sweet home,” murmured the grandfather as the two of them climbed up the stairs.
The image faded to black, and a familiar song started playing.
House of Secrets will return next week on AniTV. Up next, “The Hide and Seekers”.
Jane switched off the TV with a sigh. Each episode felt shorter than the last. She shivered and glanced around the room, hoping to locate a blanket; the couch and the TV were the only pieces of furniture left. Rows of boxes were stacked precariously high against the walls, each one of them carefully labelled. No blanket in sight, but her jacket was resting on a small box marked “JANE’S ROOM” in big, blue, bold letters.
“Jane! Give me a hand in the kitchen, will you?” bellowed her father.
With a sigh, the young girl grabbed her jacket and headed to the kitchen.
The gentle rumble of the old family car had lulled Jane to sleep. The car was crawling around narrow mountain paths; under its wheels, the asphalt had grown weary and cracked and finally, had given way to a dirt road. A particularly deep pothole startled her awake. Blinking sleep away from her eyes, she stretched and rubbed the part of her shoulder that had been pressed against the car wall. Her neck hurt, too, and she leaned back, squirming to find a more comfortable position, before grabbing her tablet from the adjacent seat.
Today, on House of Secrets…
“Jane, darling, would you mind using headphones? I’m trying to concentrate on the road,” said her mother.
“Sorry, Mom,” mumbled Jane.
She rooted around the backpack at her feet and found the headphones at the very bottom. Pensive, Jane began fumbling with the cord in an attempt to untangle it. Though the sun was setting, light still outlined the jagged rocks on the side of the path, and the immense forest below. The town they were moving to was just beyond the mountain, and, from the pictures Jane had seen, full of beautiful old houses. She smiled to herself as she plugged the headphones in. Maybe the new house will be full of secrets, too.
It was dark when they finally reached the house, too dark to see much beyond the ring of light cast by the streetlight next to the gate. Jane’s mom pulled out her phone and turned on the flashlight to guide her family to the front door. Gravel crunched under their feet as they stepped into the gloom of the front yard; Jane peered ahead, her head full of the mysteries the house might reveal. Once they reached the door, her father switched on the porch light, and amber shadows danced around the doorstep. Inside, the light was bright and cold, pouring down from brand new lamps. The young girl blinked as she stepped into a hallway leading to the kitchen, her eyes adjusting to the change. Though the house itself was old, the interior had been recently renovated, and she could see no hidden nooks or suspicious markings on the walls—nothing like the cottage in House of Secrets. As they stepped into the kitchen, her mother ran her fingers along the marble counters and the smooth wooden table and nodded, satisfied.
“You’ll have plenty of time to explore the house tomorrow, Janey”, said Jane’s father, noticing the look on his daughter’s face.
“You should sleep, now,” added her mother. “There’s mattresses in the bedrooms and I brought pillows and bed sheets last time I visited. We’ll unload the stuff in the car in the morning, before the movers arrive.”
That night, Jane curled up on her mattress and stared at the smooth, white walls. The wooden floors were perfectly polished, with no creaky boards or uneven corners that might reveal a trapdoor. She sighed, pulled her tablet and headphones out of her bag, and let the comforting theme song of House of Secrets wash over her.
There were no curtains on the windows yet, and, when the first rays of sunlight streamed into the room and woke Jane up, she found that her cheek was pressed against the tablet, her headphones a tangled mess next to her head. She’d slept in the same skirt and t-shirt she had been wearing the day before; they smelled like sweat and long car trips. With a yawn, she reached into her bag for a change of clothes, and headed downstairs in practical jeans and a fresh t-shirt.
Her father had insisted on bringing the coffee machine and a few bags of coffee with them in the car; the rich smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the kitchen and coaxed a smile out of Jane. The house, much bigger than the family’s old apartment, came with a few sparse pieces of furniture, like the wooden table in the kitchen or the TV stand in the living room. Not empty, but not quite liveable, either: it was an odd place, this half-furnished house, but not in the way Jane had wished. Since the kitchen chairs were with the movers, presumably being trucked along some treacherous mountain road, she settled for the sleek steel stools at the kitchen counter and accepted her mug of coffee with a grateful nod.
“I added a pinch of cinnamon, just how you like it. Your mom went to the bakery to get breakfast. She’ll be back soon, I think,” said her father.
It was decided that toast would along great with the coffee and would provide an excellent excuse to test out the brand-new toaster oven. When breakfast was over with and the dishes were loaded in the dishwasher, Jane and her parents began unloading the suitcases they had brought with them; while they were placing clothes, pillows, and various knick-knacks in the different rooms, Jane kept her eyes open for anything out of the ordinary. She even checked behind the refrigerator when they unloaded the few groceries they had brought. Nothing. All the surfaces were smooth and shiny and perfect, the rooms square and sensible, with no nooks and crannies where secrets might lurk. A perfectly normal, boring house.
That evening, after the movers had left, Jane’s mother decided to order pizza as a reward. Though there were still boxes strewn about here and there, it had been a long day of unpacking, and everyone was tired.
“Chin up, Janey,” said her father. “I’ll help you explore more tomorrow. We’re bound to come across some kind of secret. Or you could take a walk around. There are beautiful lakes around here, and a whole forest for you to explore just outside the town.”
Jane nodded, unconvinced. Her mother playfully nudged her shoulder.
“Aren’t you a little old to be looking for secret doors and hidden passages, anyway?”
The next day confirmed her first impression. There was nothing of interest in the house. She and her father had searched high and low, knocking on the walls and floors and sounding out the ceilings with a broom. No hollow sounds.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” said her mother when they came back to the kitchen, broom in hand. “This just isn’t that kind of house, I think.”
“S’alright,” mumbled Jane. “You’re probably right, anyway. I’m getting a little old for this.”
Today, on House of Secrets…
Jane sighed. This was her third episode of the night; it was getting late, and yet sleep still escaped her. Shrugging off the covers, she headed downstairs, and made herself a cup of fragrant tea. The grass in the garden, still wet after a rainy day, glistened in the moonlight. Her parents had left a window open, and the night air was cool and inviting. Without bothering to put on shoes, she slipped outside, cup in hand, and took a deep breath. The wooden patio creaked under her feet as she stepped off it and onto the grass.
She took a step back.
Jane set her tea down and gave the wood a cautious knock. Hollow. Her heart raced. The patio was nothing more than a slab of wood on the ground where her mother had carefully arranged lawn furniture. There was no reason for it to sound hollow, unless… She took out her phone, using its flashlight to scrutinize the wooden planks. There, in the corner, half-hidden by some creeping weeds. A piece of wood was jutting out. Sucking in her breath, she pressed it down. There was another creak, and a piece of the patio moved. Jane pressed harder, and, slowly, painfully, a section of the planks slid back, revealing an ancient-looking trap door. The young girl squealed, then covered her mouth with a cautious glance at her parents’ window.
Please don’t let it be locked…
She reached for the handle with trembling fingers, and bit back another squeal of excitement. The trapdoor was heavy, but unlocked, and she opened it after a quick struggle, revealing a ladder that plunged in the darkness below. Carefully, suppressing the urge to run, she headed back to the house for shoes and a proper flashlight.
At the bottom of the ladder, Jane found a musty-smelling tunnel. She wrinkled her nose but pressed on, shivering. Water droplets dripped from the ceiling, echoes bouncing around the tunnel as they crashed on the stone ground. Her flashlight did little to clear the darkness ahead, but at least the tunnel seemed man-made, and, unlike the passages in House of Secrets, it ran straight underground, with no twists and turns and fake exits made to trick inexperienced explorers. After what felt like an eternity, Jane finally reached a cul-de-sac. There were no other paths, no visible exits. It had to be a secret door. Pointing her flashlight first at the walls, then at the floor, the young girl quickly found what she was looking for. The stone floor was uniform and smooth, except for a small indent right behind her. She pushed into it with her foot, and, as she suspected, a hidden door opened, sending dust flying around the cul-de-sac.
What she had not been expecting, however, was the gust of cold air that greeted her. Hanging plants and bushy shrubs half-blocked the way. Clutching her flashlight, Jane stepped out into the open and let out a gasp. The door was concealed right into a cliff; up above, Jane could see the outline of the town—and her house. In front of her, a starry lake spread out, its waters dark as the night. Other than the one she had just taken, she could see no paths that led to or from it.