It was ironic, that a door which was intended to attract as minimal attention as possible was painted a vibrant red color.
I thought it was funny too when my employer first told me to simply ignore the door when I came to work. I mustered the courage to ask her, “Why did you paint it red?”
She smiled, “Because it’s a warning color.”
Obviously, I wasn’t convinced. But some of the other staff who came to the library behaved as though they were. They had to be, because they had satiated their curiosities by simply engineering stories of what could be behind it.
One tale said that she hid her bridal attire and gifts behind the door. Apparently, her husband was killed on her wedding night and her in-laws wasted no time in tossing her out. She had been in depression for years but finally found happiness after turning her family home into a library.
It was probably the most realistic story of the lot. That’s how I knew it couldn’t be true.
This morning, I walked into the library shivering. She saw me from the counter and without a word turned to the lace-curtained windows behind her. A multitude of clouds was erupting above us. The winds were agitated dirt was flying in circles. When she turned, she said that I should have taken the day off. I said that I was halfway to the office when the weather began howling.
A lie actually; I never had anything better to do at home. Only one other person came today. He’s the one with the perpetual look on his face that says, ‘I’d rather be anywhere than here’. I never asked him why he chooses to work here.
I sat rearranging the books on the top floor. He had two deliveries to make today but she canceled them. Outside the wind screamed even louder as it twisted. I heard them tapping the windows and shutters.
“It’s like an outdoor scene from a Hitchcock movie,” the boy said. He passed from behind me carrying more books to the next room.
“It’s not so different indoors,” I said.
The sounds of books being stacked were the reply. The top floor of the house was visibly smaller, and entirely devoted to the fiction, plays and novel categories. I think it’s clever that they were placed here; because you need to take an extra step (of stairs) to find an escape.
“It’s snowing” he announced, but it came more like an admiration than a shocking complaint.
“Outside” he breathed, “It’s snowing!”
I only tilted my head to the window at the end of the right corridor. The snow was sticking to it like moths to a flame. I blinked twice. The windows shuddered even more than before. When was the last time it snowed in this city? I might have said it out loud because he answered, “Probably when my mother was a little girl!”
I walked to the railing behind me and tilted to the ground floor. She wasn’t at her usual counter. Maybe she too had gone to a window to see the blizzard. We were stuck here, the three of us. He had the same thought because I noticed the anxiety on his face. I didn’t admit that I was indifferent to the idea. I’d rather be in a house full of books than an empty home with a staggeringly low food supply and a peeping landlady.
“Do you know where she is?” he was asking about her.
“No. She has a habit of disappearing though.”
He agreed. A while later he too disappeared. I continued to stand by the window staring out into the blurry weather. There was no one in sight anywhere on the street. Anyone would be stupid to walk in while the wind, snow and hail were battling one another. But I pondered what it would be like to walk in such a place. Everything would either be hitting you or trying to whisk you away. The cold would gnaw at every inch of your exposed skin.
Wood creaked behind me. I turned and only saw the red door across the hallway. The hue seemed brighter today. Maybe it was just the darkness leering in because of the fogged windows. The only noise that filled the house was coming from outside.
I wandered close to the door. This would be the first time that I touched the brass doorknob. It should be locked. But when I twisted the handle, a click sounded and the door gave way.
There was no one behind me or near me. I heard the sounds of more books stacking coming from downstairs. It was him; he was talking to himself again between intervals. I smirked; before I met him, I thought I was the only one who liked grunting to oneself every now and then.
The doorknob was still in my hand. It felt dusty and I thought it would fall off. Even she hadn’t opened the door in years. Why did I?
Without answering, I took a step forwards. The door didn’t creak once as I slipped inside. The smells of aging wood attacked me. Dust was the first thing I noticed; buckets of it had been dispersed into the room. When the grains broke apart, I stared ahead into the room.
It was mostly empty, save for a double bed placed to the left. It was concealed under a large white sheet, no doubt topped with more layers of dirt. But there was something else: a person lying under the sheet.
I shivered. The person wasn’t moving at all. It didn’t look like a corpse. Maybe it wasn’t one at all. Corpses do not have one hand-stretched to the sky. Half-convinced that the ‘person’ was just a mannequin, I turned to the other side. More mannequins, they stood side by side in various poses. Smiles had been painted on each of their faces and their hands outstretched. Three were clapping, two had their arms raised to the sky, and others were simply standing. The only one who was sitting had his hands open, pointing at me. As if he was begging for something.
A funny smell hit me. Was it coming from something in the room? Maybe it was the remains of pests who wandered the room. That was the only thing that seemed to have roamed in this place in years. But then I saw the shoe prints.
They weren’t mine; I hadn’t walked a step from my vantage point near the door. They were visible in the dust, clear and dark. Someone had walked this room before me. Not too long ago, maybe today. I tried to see where they led to but they disappeared by the bed. Was this person still here?
“Did you say hello?”
I shuddered. My employer was behind me, half inside the room from the red door. She was smiling.
“I’m sorry,” I said. My mind was hunting for excuses but none of them would have sufficed.
“Curiosity is a funny thing isn’t it?” she continued to smiled and walked in, closing the silent door behind her, “Did you say hello?”
“To my family” she walked over to the mannequins.
Was she joking? I resisted the urge to touch her forehead. Instead, I watched as she strode over to the side of the room. She caressed a standing mannequin on the back of his neck. She patted two on the heads whilst mumbling something to them. I noticed her shoe print; the resemblance was transparent.
“I haven’t spoken to them in years. They’re a little mad at me”
“Ma’am” I whispered.
“Oh and don’t mind my husband” she laughed, “He has a habit of being overdramatic.”
She was whirling all over the place. I couldn’t tell whether the dramatic one was on the bed or the one begging. The smell was getting stronger now. I should leave.
“No!” she cried and caught my arm, “You haven’t said hello to my father yet! He’s on the bed.”
She dragged me by the arm. One swift move and the sheet were off. Dust showered upon us but my eyes shot on the lying figure. He was clothed in a khaki shalwar kameez, spectacled and a smile sketched on his face like the others. He was the most vivid of them all.
“My father” she smiled, “See? He’s mad at me too!”
I didn’t know how to respond. “Why is he mad?” I asked.
“I hadn’t spoken to him. Not until today. The last time I spoke to him, a storm hit our home. Just like the one today.”
The single window in the room quaked. Did her father die in the last blizzard?
“Why is your family in here Ma’am?”
“They don’t like it outside. It’s much too dark for them.”
I wanted to ask her if she made the mannequins herself. But it seemed more like an insult. Where was her family? Was the story my colleagues cooked up true?
“What happened during the last blizzard?” I asked the least hurtful question I could muster. But I was still unprepared.
”My husband took them out. He wanted to take me too but I said I had a headache. Here.” She poked her grey haired head from side to side. The smile was faltering but she came close and sniggered in my ear, “I was lying.” I had already guessed that.
My eyes inched over to the corner behind the bed. A dead mouse was lying there. It wasn’t covered in dust like everything else.
“Poor thing” Her eyes were following mine, “My father killed it. I’m afraid of them.”
But it was still lying there. And she was staring at it, calmly. I need to leave. She held on to my arm.
“You should be with your family” I breathed.
“Look at my husband!” she jeered, “He’s hopeless isn’t he?”
The sitting mannequin was looking at us with white eyes. He was the only one who wasn’t smiling. But his eyes were the biggest.
“I told them the weather would be fine. I promised him that he would come back in one piece.”
I tried to unclamp her hand. Her nails were now digging into my skin over my sleeves. But she grabbed on with her other free hand.
“Do you think they’ll come back today?” she asked. I stared at her. Her eyes were peering at me from behind her glasses.
“I thought he would come back. I thought he would. Did I tell you I fell on my head that night? From the stairs. I thought he pushed me.”
“He was always pushing me. From here and there…”
She kept talking but I finally freed my arm. I darted to the door and closed it behind me. I felt as though someone had smacked me on the face, and my breath had been cut off. I dragged myself across the corridor and down the stairs.
Why did she tell me all this? What was wrong with her? Only one answer loomed: her family must have died in the blizzard. Did she send them there?
I was at the last step of the stairs, heaving, when I saw him. He was standing by the counter. He asked me if I was alright and offered me a bottle of water. I took it and gulped it down. He asked me if I had seen Ma’am. I blurted that she opened the red door. He didn’t answer.
When the bottle crackled in my hand, he asked, “Pandora’s box?”
“Is it like her Pandora’s box?”
I didn’t know what to say. The windows were shuddering even louder than before. I looked outside. The night was looking to fall. We were still stuck here. I was still stuck here. My eyes turned up to the railing. I couldn’t see if the door was still open or whether she was still in there.
“Ma’am?” he shouted. His eyes crossed over my shoulder. Following them, I turned.
She was downstairs, at the main door entrance. She was treading out into the snowy street, the storm was enveloping her. Both, him and I, called out after her but she continued to stride into the ongoing battle. When she had left the main gates, the draught pulled her. Snow stuck to her from top to bottom. Soon, she became invisible in the haze and hail.
The gale seeped into the house. So strong that it made the bookshelves shiver, and a door on the top floor slammed shut. We both heard it. The box had finally closed.