Even in her dream, Caroline’s breath shuddered. She was trapped in this horrid nightmare and left to become a witness to something that should have been prevented. This house and all its precious memories were soiled and tarnished by not just age but a kind of insideous rot that was trying to make her see something in it. Something that felt like a horrible lie. Now, as pictured in her unforgiving imagination, the door to the fourth floor of the estate house stood before her. The portrait of her father was still there, his cruel, relentless gaze seemingly fixed in an expression of hatred and agony as she began to move forward. Its unsettling eyes followed her as she was powerless to stop her sleeping self from going into the darkened entrance and found with her foot the first of the steps.
Despite the summer day that had been warm and inviting outside, Caroline felt the breath of winter on her skin in this rotting spiral staircase as she forced herself to go up step by step. The gloom was so heavy and it was almost as if the air itself was leaden with a damp sadness that covered everything. Caroline did not need to look back to see if the way was blocked. She already knew there was no escaping this discovery that lay ahead of her. As she rounded the bend that would mark the end of the first floor, she heard something out of place here. Her heart was sinking with each step, fearful of what new horrible development that was aggressively destroying her home and the precious memories within it. What could this new, strange noise be? Caroline was afraid to find out. Still her dreaming self ventured forth, undaunted by the torment that left her conscious mind in agony. The steps beneath her feet were soft and with each time she put her weight on another, the creaking seemed to scream loudly and echo around her. As she climbed higher, she winced at the sound and thought how like a baby’s cry it was. Like Victor’s own cries when he’d been just a tiny infant. Her mother had spent day and night with him when he was first born and Caroline had watched her tending to him from the secret area in that very hallway. Still that had been different, though. His cries were the lovely sound of a living child, something so beautiful and innocent making its voice heard. The cries she heard now were the sound of something in wretched agony. The same sound her heart had made when she saw that wretched post in the ground with his name carelessly drawn on.
As Caroline crept closer to her destination, she realized that the sound was not the stairs but it truly was the sound of crying. A sharp, child’s wailing mixed with another sound. A soft, familiar rhythm that steadily beat like a soft, heart throbbing. The door was still another floor off but she could hear it clearer now. The sound of the old rocking chair that had long since been banished to the rooms where their grandparents’ memories were buried under the white sheets as though they may yet return. The rocker had been used to soothe each of the children in that house. It had been a gift to their great grandmother and passed down for generations. Caroline hated the sound of it moving now in this nightmare. Hated that someone had the audacity to use that precious heirloom. She was seething now as the tears streamed down her cheeks and her feet clumsily found the remaining steps. Unconcerned about being stealthy, she forced herself to move as quickly as she could. The fear was losing its grip on her heart with each step and the jealous rage that she felt crept into the space it had emptied. She did not care a bit who it might be that was using that chair. It had belonged to their family. It was where she would rock the children when they needed tending. No one had the right to be in that chair anymore. No one would ever use it again and in this moment, she would make sure that whoever had dared to use it would know who they crossed.
Caroline was upon the threshold of the door when it slowly crept open of its own accord. As the dull light stretched through the darkness, she squinted into the new scene and found that her anger was quickly replaced with a horror so chilling that it froze her breath in her as she allowed herself to fully understand the setting in front of her.
The nursery that had been Victor’s home for years had fallen into the same wretched state as the rest of the house but somehow, though there seemed less damage than the ground floor, it was worse to look at. The paint on the walls was gone and all of the color had been drained into a dull, lifeless grey that cast everything in a deathly gloom. The adjacent room that had been built on for him as he grew into a young man lay silent, dark and forboding. Worse than this, the large window that was embedded in the back wall was caked with dirt and streaks from the years of disuse, creating sinister shadows upon the barren floorboards. Beyond the filth and aged dust that had obscured the light, Caroline could already see that the world beyond was no longer that carefree summer day that she’d stood in the glory of when she had entered this nightmare of a house. Instead, the frigid winds of February’s dank well of snow and deep cold battered against the dust, making the already threatening shapes of the shadows jump and seem even more menacing. Sitting idle and empty in the middle of this terrible mockery of her beloved memories was the same rocking chair from her childhood. The light of the dying day fell on it like the a veil, mimicking the sheets that lay on the forgotten things in the other wing.
“Come out,” Caroline demanded in a shaking voice. There was nowhere that she could see that might have hid anyone and she did not see any tracks in the dust. There was no breeze but the room itself was freezing with the chill of winter and it would have been possible that a gust may have set off the rocker. Her anger was melting away at the prospect that she may simply be speaking to herself. “Show yourself! Who dares to come to this place and defile my memories?”
She laid a foot on the bending boards of the floor, feeling them accommodate her begrudgingly. With each step, she waited but only silence answered her. There was still no wind and no visible area where the wind might be leaking in but she could see no sign that anyone had been here, even in the traces of the room that remained. Her breath was growing shorter with each trembling step. As she approached the window, she saw the lush cushion that had once been the seat of her mother as she would rock the cradle where Victor slept reduced to decayed stuffing. The walls were coming into focus now and Caroline grimaced at the sight of them. Reduced to boards, just like the morning room that had been the favorite place of their father, these boards were thin, brittle and the grey wood showed tracks of vermin that had scuttled in and out of the knots they left in their wake. She could not look at this room like this. She could not stand to see it reduced to just a collection of rotten wood and forgotten dust. Buried in that dust was the beginning of her life here. It had been the first time she could remember there being purpose to this life and when she knew that everything would change.
Caroline closed her eyes as she stood before the still rocker. She could see it still in her mind how this room should have looked. When he was born, the walls were painted in a pale green with darker accent designs framing each wall. The floor was laid neatly and shined to a polish. His cradle had been beneath the beautiful bay window that allowed his watcher, mostly their mother, to remain seated and observe the vistas beyond as he slept. The walls changed as the years rolled by. The green always remained but there were soon gold accents as well as the darker hues of forest green. Small pictures that had been hung to amuse him as a small boy were replaced with more regal images and a portrait of their father over the fireplace that had been in the far corner. A reminder of his proud name that he should always carry. As he grew, the beloved rocking chair was replaced by the grand child’s bed and eventually that was moved aside for a larger bed and the room expanded that he might have a place for his lessons. In time he was literate and educated on the matters of science and math and eventually money and house matters. The furniture in the room became more civilized and less like that of a child. Gone were the traces that he was a boy by the time that he was ten and two years later, he was starting to take responsibilities that were usually the domain of their father. All the while, the room transformed in her mind. The area rugs were ones he chose himself, flawlessly matching the colors of the room. The furniture was replaced as he saw fit. The child had become so independent so quickly. In her mind, she saw now the image of the room the day before he left it. The roaring fire in the marble fireplace in the corner. The tapestry rug before it with accents of lavender, silver and wild greens amid the pale stone color that reflected a soft gold in the light of the fire. The furniture had been upholstered in dark green velvet with mint green and silver accents. Upon that grand window were the lush black velvet curtains, parted to reveal the pale green lace drapes beneath.
When Caroline opened her eyes, she felt her heart sink as she saw none of these things. The barren walls were drab and soiled and brittle. The floors beneath her feet were weak and dusty. She left the sight of the rocker and entered the second half the room where his fireplace had once been to find the marble buried in a pile of rubble. Damaged and cracked everywhere, it was reduced to grit and stone. The pit itself that had once been a place of beauty and warmth was piled inside with brick, dirt and broken boards. The portrait above the mantle that should have been of their father was a mockery of her memory. Slashed and spattered with dirt, only the man’s face remained visible but the eyes had been defiled. Burned out of the canvas and reduced to ominous black holes, it filled her with dread. She stumbled back to get away from the image of her father like this when she heard the rocker move again. This time there was no mistaking it. Someone was there.