Forever is a Room

Draft 3

By Charlotte Lenox

A forest of evergreens is the first thing you see… upon waking? That can't be right. You were never asleep. But you are now on a dirt road amidst giant pines, their branches still in the late sky colored with evening. They tower on either side of you, constricting, urging you to follow the road ahead. There is nothing behind you but more empty road leading into darkness. The trees offer no other choice but to move forward. You feel there is nothing of importance behind you, anyway.

Your memory fails you in its inability to identify the place you were only moments before. Vaguely you sense there were street lights, empty roads, and a cliff of cement. But excepting these sparse images, your life has been erased. Did you hit your head on something? Do you now have amnesia? What if you had friends, parents, and school obligations that you just couldn't recall? Could there be people searching? You realize that you have no idea where you are, and if you'd once known your way, you'd lost it now. The forest feels too quiet without the sounds of squirrels or night birds. Panic liquefies the damp flesh of you throat, but you fight it down while trying to comfort yourself. You begin to walk down the path mechanically, for want of movement, something to do in this place of cold air and deadness.

Your legs are impossibly stiff, as if you'd slept on them the wrong way. The corners of your vision are slightly hazy. There's no sense of time, and despite walking for what seems like hours, the sky does not darken into midnight nor brighten into morning.

It dawns on you that maybe this is just a dream, and only now you've become lucid enough to realize it. You mentally shake your mind as if to throw off the dream, as you'd once done with nightmares. The dream doesn't dissolve. Somehow, this is real, and as you are sluggishly walking, your shoulders sag. The idea that you are truly lost and alone fingers your mind. You can't remember anyone, not even your own mother and father. There is no on to show you the way home, to remind you of the life you seem to have lost. You think hard about your own name, the panic bile creeping back up your throat. Uncertainty stops you dead in your tracks. Your name is gone. It has been somehow taken from you, and without it you feel barren, just another can on a shelf stripped of its labels. Desperately you feel around your head for a lump, something to use as scapegoat for your trouble. There wasn't one.

The trees silently whisper that you will know the truth when you reach the end of the dirt road. Once more you try to calm yourself, to repeatedly tell yourself that everything will be all right, and that you will laugh at how real you thought this dream was. The trees have offered their advice; you decide to follow it.

Along the way, the thought wanders into your mind that since you couldn't remember your real name, you could choose any you liked for yourself. Without a name you feel like the runt of a litter that doesn't deserve a designation of individuality. You've always liked the name Marie, or maybe Geoffrey.

As you follow the gentle, leftward arc of the road, the trees thin on the right side, enough so that you catch glimpses of still water. It is a large lake of a quiet shade of blue. No fish ripple the surface during the moments you watch the water. You wish for a memory of other bodies of water, but you could have been experiencing it here for the first time. And it is beautiful, the way the light sheens across the lake's surface. You could have stood and watched it for an eternity, but the voiceless trees continue to urge you onward until you reach the thing they want you to see.

As you round yet another curve, you see a complex of shadowy buildings nestled in amongst the trees. There's no one or nothing out front, no sign to inform you of an address or business. Immediately you can see two buildings, but you sense there must be many others scattered about the area in their own, private forest alcoves. The first and largest building that you see resembles an 18th century mansion, four stories, with a browned façade covered in leafy vines. The double doors of the entrance are sunken inward with no light to splash brilliance in the dark pocket. Beside this mansion, sitting right on the shore of the lake, is the second building, a much smaller construction possessing one story, with many large windows on the wall facing the water. A wooden plank walkway skirts the building, reaching for a door on the side. If you look hard enough, you can see squat bookshelves inside the room with the windows, a room reminiscent of a kindergarten reading area. There are no lights and there is no movement inside.

The distinct absence mobile life sets you on edge, for you know that where there are buildings in decent shape, there are people maintaining them. The serenity of the lush area tries to fool you, but you aren't buying it. The feeling that something is out of place grows stronger within you.

However, you see nowhere else to go, for the mansion is where the road ends. Your body still feels stony, despite the warming it received from walking. It is an effort to reach the front double doors, a greater strain to rap your knuckles on the solid mahogany engraved with stargazer lilies. You take a startled step backwards when the door glides partly open of its own accord, and, trying not to feel like a thief breaking and entering, you peep through the open stripe between door and door jamb. Within, there are still no lights, but you can see that the room is a foyer with a maroon runner rug covering a wide flight of stairs. No one is present, but your alertness suddenly heightens and your nape prickles. Cautiously you place a foot inside, a tiny part of your mind, deeply buried, whimpering that this is very wrong, that you shouldn't enter a stranger's house. You think that maybe it was your mother that had given you this precaution, but you can't be sure. It could have been your father.

Once inside the foyer, you twist the toughened vertebrae of your neck to look around the high ceiling and at the utter lack of furniture around you. There are no personal trappings, no pictures or statues or vases or mirrors—none of the things you might expect to see in an old mansion garnished with ivy. The air doesn't even carry scents of age or human presence, yet you can tell that the latter hadn't abandoned the place. For all the stillness, there is no hint of dust, and the rug just inside the door was only slightly brushed by muddy shoes that had passed through numerous times before you arrived. Looking down at this rug, you now notice that there is fresh mud, but the footprint the mud delineates is not your own. And by the smudging of the prints in a forward direction, you surmise that the owner of those prints had been trudging. The tracks swerve out to the side for a couple feet, and then vanish. Next to the last print is a small, moist spot of red. Your mouth parts slightly as you realize what the red spot means.

The air dives toward frigidity. Turning your head to face forward, you are confronted by a giant shadow hovering before you. A thin, rainbow aura surrounds the tall, roughly drawn form. Your eyes search for a face, a sign of sentience, but you are further chilled when you find none. You see that the shadow is not humanoid in shape, and whether the connection is right or wrong, you think of the drop of blood in the same strain as the shadow. You try to turn and flee through the heavy double doors, but an inexplicable force holds you in place and refuses to acquiesce to the desperation of your mind. Terror seizes your body. This is the moment in a dream when an evil personage guts you with his knife or his claws. And you can't wake up.

You're almost to the point of sobbing from inability to escape, when the shadow says in a breathless, dark voice, "You need to choose a room."

"What…?" You stammer, your body now petrified.

"You need to choose a room," the shadow repeats. "You have two days."

"But… but why? What do I need a room for?" Your voice sounds fuzzy, a bit slurred, as if part of your face is numb. You remember your voice always being clear and precise, and you promised someone important that you'd never, ever touch alcohol.

The shadow states simply, "To haunt. Two days. No more will I give." And the shadow fades from existence, the rainbow aura the last to vanish. The mansion is as empty and silent as when you entered, as if the inhuman shadow had never existed. Your fear, momentarily, dissipates with its passing. A distant heaviness, slowly growing, begins to settle over your mind, further clouds your vision more than it already is. The fragments of home, parents, friends, school, and parties wallow in grief as you repeat to yourself the words the shadow had spoken: Find a room to haunt.

You remember that ghosts haunt. And that ghosts are dead.

Stagnant tears deposit brine under your eyes. Your hands pat around your body and find that your neck is almost imperceptibly misshapen. It bends slightly to the side. Your tears pour down your cheeks, but if your tears are warm, you can't properly feel them.

Throwing yourself toward the doors, you feel yourself falling, tumbling head over heels from a concrete cliff toward a diverted stream rushing across a concrete floor. You scream as your neck snaps, but the pain is dull and throbbing and somehow you're alive—you can still move. When you open your eyes, you find yourself lying on the dirt path with the hundred foot pines around you. You have only the ability to cry without fully understanding the reason for your sadness. Dead is what you are, had to be. Yet death logically means little to you, as it can't without life. Your mind holds on to the hope that this is just a very elaborate dream that has you completely fooled. You remember dreams like that, ones you could have sworn were part of the real world around you. Heck, you've even dreamt of waking in your bed and snuggling under your covers to conserve warmth, only to find upon actual waking that it was a sweltering summer day, not a December morning.

Sluggish limbs move you out of the main hall into other rooms, the first one being a square study, windowless, with walls engorged with bookshelves. The carpet is a delicate dark red, with an ornate rug on one side. A desk with a reading lamp sits on this rug, the light spilling golden on varnished cherry wood. Despite the warmth of the room, you find it stuffy and airless.

This couldn't be the after-life. It made no sense and followed no description of such places in any religion. Nobody had foreseen this.

Aimlessly you wander through many other rooms, disbelieving that you are seriously thinking about what each one would be like to stay in forever. With each passing, weary heartbeat, the shadow's proclamation rings more truly to your being. No matter how your mind struggles to recognize this as a dream and shake you into wakefulness, the rooms remain where they are. The lack of people in all the rooms you've so far visited—from bathrooms to kitchens to lounges—seems to only add to the dream this just has to be.

Yet, what would happen if this was real and you couldn't choose a room? Damnation administered by the shadow, you fret. Or a sentencing into agonizing limbo, one or the other.

You waste an entire day fighting with yourself. You've been through, perhaps, forty rooms, but so far you haven't chosen one. By the waning hours of the evening, your body begins to tense with the dread of meeting the shadow being once again. You also realize that not only will you be meeting this creature, you will also need to present it your decision—a decision that you do not have. Damnation feels imminent, and hopelessly you seek escape outside the mansion. Maybe losing yourself in the forest would delay the shadow finding you.

By the time you trudge outside the mansion, the air is sharp with the night chill and the sky is a luminous indigo. The needles of the surrounding pines shimmer with the voice of the wind. Making your way to the lake, its mirror smooth waters catching the last remains of a never setting, never rising sun, you sit by the lake's edge. Your eyes fill with blue/lavender shades of the landscape. Now sedentary, your body caves in with fatigue. You feel you will never rise to your feet again. You've reached the end of your dark, strange road through the forest, and have earned yourself a few moments of peace before the shadow…. Dipping your fingers into the liquid crystal, serenity fills you with its invisible blood, keeping you warm amidst the autumnal air. Its deepness of color and quiet fills you in such a way that the vague people of your life could not, to the best of your knowledge. All that matters now is the lake, the silhouetted mountains, the gently glowing sky, and the silver line between land and sky. Sitting there on the lakeshore, you decide that you can't live without this vision, this feeling. If there was but one thing you must have forever, you must have this.

As the minutes spiral ever further into the end of your second day, you pull the rest of your remaining energy into your legs to lift yourself up. If you must be found somewhere, you had an idea of where that could be. You take slow steps to keep from tripping. Should you trip, you feel certain you'll be unable to move ever again. Urgency coils around your muscles as despite the insanity of the situation, you are driven to follow the shadow's words. Step after step, you inch forward, up three steps onto the deck of the lakeside satellite building. A wooden door, inset with beveled glass, leads into a lightless, messy playroom. Windows line the wall facing the lake, while squat bookshelves, overflowing with ratty children's books, fill the wall beneath the windows. Random chairs and knee-high tables litter the floor. At the far end, another door, cast in blackness, leads to another part of the building. As you move into the middle of the room, your legs quiver and give out. You slump into a cushioned chair facing the barrage of windows. It is here that you wait for the last hour that will call the shadow.

When it finally arrives, shivering with its rainbow aura, it asks but one question in its smoky voice: "Is this your choice?"

In reply you slur, "Yes." You stare past the shadow at the lake and sky beyond the windows. Your last though begs of you, in a last ditch effort, to find a way to not give up.