Rain droplets spattered on the mahogany coffin lid. The day was gray and grim, with a chilly late September storm enveloping the graveside ceremony. A cluster of men, women and children holding black umbrellas stood in a horseshoe around the hole in the earth and the coffin poised above it. An elderly priest with a wisp of fluttering grey hair stood under a canvas tent top, holding the bible in his left hand like a tray of appetizers, imploring the Lord to accept the ever-faithful William Paul Keppler into his heavenly mansion. Sarah Keppler-Hardt, William’s eldest daughter, stood solemnly under her husband Brandon’s umbrella.
The coffin was finally lowered into the muddy abyss and mourners shuffled by Sarah and her younger sister Amy, hugging them mechanically and whispering words of condolence. As the last guests made their way through the small cemetery to their cars, Sarah took Amy’s hand.
“How’re you doing?”
“I’ll be better once I get out of this place. I can’t believe Mom didn’t want to come,” responded Amy.
“There are days when she doesn’t even remember being married.”
“Does it mean Alzheimer’s is in our future?”
“Why don’t you stop by the house before you leave town to warm up? I’ll make some coffee.”
Fifteen minutes later, Amy was peeling off her raincoat in the entryway while Sarah bustled around the kitchen. Brandon disappeared upstairs and Amy joined her sister at the kitchen table.
“Can’t I talk you into spending the night?” asked Sarah.
“Thanks, but I’ve got to work tomorrow and it’s a seven hour drive back to Chicago. The coffee will help. When are you moving?”
“We have a bid on this place, so it might be soon. There are sill things of Mom and Dad’s to go through. I have mixed feelings about moving into the house we grew up in. Freaks me out a bit.”
“Yeah, I can appreciate that,” said Amy, her gaze fixed on some distant event. “But you’ll have a lot more room, and once you’ve painted and got your furniture in there, it’ll be fine.”
“You couldn’t wait to get out of there.”
“That had to do with the occupants of the house, not the structure itself.”
Sarah put a hand over her sister’s. “I know. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I just got so tired of the ‘Do as I say, not as I do’ act.”
“I can relate.”
“I always felt like they were putting on an act in front of us. Like, they were hiding their true selves and wearing the parent mask only when they were around us.”
“I’m no expert, but I think that’s what all parents do.”
“I suppose, but I didn’t feel that way around my friend’s parents. Anyway that’s old news. Thanks for the coffee, but I should get on the road.”
Sarah stood on the porch and waved as her sister pulled out of the driveway and disappeared down the misty street. She regretted alluding to the past, but it was pretty hard not to do after you’d spent 17 years living with a person. Although she always tried to be the adult big sister, she empathized with Amy’s feelings about their parents. They never seemed to be genuinely engaged.
The house sold and Sarah and Brandon spent time at their new home painting, tearing out old carpet and cleaning. Two weeks later they were officially moved in, although stacks of boxes were piled up in almost every room. Throughout the move, Sarah reminisced about events that happened in this room and that, some that were happy and others that brought tears to her eyes.
Boxes of seasonal decorations went directly to the basement. Even as an adult, Sarah didn’t feel comfortable in the large, musty room. Shelves that looked older than the house lined two walls, and there were several pieces of her parent’s furniture connected by cobwebs piled in a far corner. Small rectangular windows let in dull, dust-filled beams of sunlight that did little to warm up the room. She remembered having nightmares about the basement as a child and would only come down the steep stairs if someone else, usually her sister, joined her. Sarah wiped her damp palms on her jeans and trotted back up to the kitchen, closing the door behind her.
Two days later Sarah found herself back in the basement with Brandon putting more boxes up on shelves. Brandon knocked a screwdriver off of a shelf and bent down to pick it up.
“Hey, what’s this?” he asked, kneeling down to inspect what appeared to be a doorbell button on the wall hidden under a shelf.
Sarah came over and looked. “I have no idea.”
“Should I push it?” he said smiling. Before she could answer he pushed it. There was a slight “snap” from somewhere and the entire shelf structure swung out slowly like a large door. “What the fucking fuck?” he asked. Behind the bookcase was a wood door with a padlock on it. Sarah’s expression grew concerned. Brandon turned toward her expectantly. “A secret room? You had a secret room and you never said anything to me about it?”
“I didn’t know about it,” said Sarah weakly.
“Come on. You’re kidding me.”
“No. Honestly, I had no idea it was there.
“So you don’t have a clue as to what’s behind the door?”
“No.” Her answer was tentative, and she didn’t know why.
“And you don’t know where the key is.”
“No. Of course not.”
“Could be…treasure, Matey.”
Like an excited child, Brandon rummaged through a box full of tools, pulled out a crowbar and began violently twisting and turning the lock. Sarah went upstairs to the kitchen, trying to understand the odd feelings she was experiencing. How could she not know about a secret room in the basement? What was her family hiding? She became apprehensive. Maybe I don’t want to know what’s behind the door, she thought, busying herself with tedious tasks. Ten minutes later there was a triumphant cry from below. “Got it.” Curiosity pulled her to the stairs.
Twisting a fall of her long brown hair with her fingers, Sarah found Brandon standing in a space about the size of a typical bedroom, his arms outstretched, wearing a triumphant look. A single overhead light illuminated the cold room, which clearly wasn’t built for food storage. White soundproof panels covered the walls and ceiling. The floor was concrete with a large drainage grate in the middle of the room. Benches attached to the wall lined the longer section of the room. The smell was overwhelmingly earthy and musty, but there was also a tinge of smoke lingering in the air. It was bare of any visual hints as to its use, but it felt oppressive to Sarah and her eyes teared up.
“Do you remember something?” asked Brandon.
“No. I just don’t like it in here.”
“It’s creepy. I’ll give you that. What the hell were your parents into?”
She gave him a, “How-could-you-ask-such-a-thing” look and left the room.
Brandon considered going after her, but the lure of high strangeness in the most common of places kept his feet from moving. Taking a second look around, he noticed details he’d initially missed. There was an air vent high on the wall that brought in fresh air and a dead bolt lock on the inside of the door. He knelt down and discovered four dark marks on the floor in a rectangular pattern, like the scars table legs might make. His mind ticked off possibilities, but he couldn’t come up with a satisfying explanation for the purpose of the room, and was especially puzzled by the need for drainage in the floor. An additional subtle odor in the air caught his attention. He could swear he smelled bleach.
Sarah stood impatiently at her bedroom window, phone to her ear, waiting for her sister to answer.
“Did you know about the secret room in the basement?”
“What? What’s wrong?”
“A secret room behind the shelves. I was just in it.”
“Honestly, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sarah tried to speak, but her throat was clinching and tears started cascading down her cheeks. “Sarah? Are you okay?”
“Listen, it’s Friday. I’ll book a flight and be there later this evening.”
“No, that’s crazy,” said Sarah.
“So is what you’re saying. I’ll call you when I get in.” The phone went dead.
Amy, still wearing her coat, stood in the middle of the secret room with a bewildered expression. “I really don’t understand. What is this place?”
Sarah leaned against the wall, just beyond the room’s threshold in the basement. “You had no idea this was here?”
Amy turned and locked in on her sister’s eyes. “Not a clue. How could they keep this a secret for seventeen years? What’s it for?”
“There’s one way we might find out,” said Sarah.
“She can hardly remember what happened ten minutes ago, let alone the past thirty years.”
“I know, but every once in a while there’s a moment of lucidity. Maybe we can tap into one. This…is such a weird thing, she might remember.”
A short time later, Sarah and Amy traversed the hallways of the Webster Assisted Living Center on their way to their mother’s room. They stopped at room 148, each stealing a moment to inhale the stale, urine tainted air before entering. The room was dark and stuffy as usual. A small TV glowed in a corner with its sound off. Elizabeth sat hunched over and sleeping in her Lay-Z-Boy. The women looked at each other and then Sarah reached out and touched her mother’s bony shoulder. It took several gentle prods to get Elizabeth to stir from her slumber. As she did she looked around the room as if everything was new to her.
“Mom, it’s Sarah and Amy.”
Gauzy, marble eyes searched in confusion until they finally rested on Sarah’s face. Gaunt, her skin pale yellow, Elizabeth wore a stained housecoat and slippers, her thin silver hair a rat’s nest of neglect. She brought a bony hand up and brushed Sarah’s cheek.
“Amy, my sweetheart.”
“It’s Sarah, Mom, but Amy’s right here.”
Amy leaned in. “Mom, it’s me.”
“How nice. Is dinner ready?”
Sarah knelt down and rested her hands on the arm of the chair. “I’m sure they’ll be serving dinner soon.”
“The food here is horrible,” confided Elizabeth. “I swear they’re trying to poison me. Where’s William? Why hasn’t he been here to visit me?”
Sarah knew this was going to be difficult. “Mom, can I ask you a question?”
“Of course, Dear.”
“It’s about the…secret room, in the basement.”
“Remember in your house, where you used to live with William. In the basement of that house, there was a secret room. Do you remember?”
Elizabeth’s expression went through several transitions before it settled on agitation. “No one’s supposed to know about that.”
Sarah shot a glance at Amy. “Right. You’re right, but we found it today. What is it?”
An orderly poked her head in the door. “You all doing okay?”
“Fine,” said Amy.
“That’s the one who stole things from my purse,” said Elizabeth.
“Mom,” coaxed the patient Sarah. “You were talking about the secret room in the basement of our house.”
Elizabeth’s gaze turned to the window. “It was truly amazing.”
“What was?” asked Amy.
“You can’t tell anyone, William said.”
“You can tell us. We’re family.”
Yellow teeth appeared behind a sudden smile. “Remember how we used to play hide and seek?”
Sarah’s expression morphed from expectant to perturbed at the sudden change of topic. “Yes. We remember.”
“But every time we played, Amy used to hide in that broom closet off of the laundry room. She thought it was the best hiding place in the world. Lord, we caught her every time. Silly girl.”
“And tell William to come visit me.”
The late afternoon sky was a low grey blanket and the air was brisk. Sarah and Amy walked in silence across the parking lot amid swirling leaves, pulling their coats around themselves, each lost in the disconnected words of their fading mother. Once inside the car, Sarah turned to Amy. “What do you think she meant by ‘It was truly amazing?’”
“No idea. Why do you think she brought up playing hide and seek as kids?”
Sarah pulled the car out onto the highway. “I think we should check out the closet as soon as we get back.”
Brooms, a vacuum, and bottles and cans of cleaning fluids were now sitting out on the kitchen floor as Sarah and Amy surveyed the small closet off of the kitchen. There was one row of shelving about chest level that ran across the three interior walls. Barely enough room for the two of them, the women bumped into each other as they searched for anything that might be out of the ordinary.
“Look. Up there,” pointed Amy. In one corner, near the ceiling there was a paper patch about ten inches long and four inches high. Sarah brought in a step stool that allowed her to reach the paper.
“It’s covering a hole,” she announced, and then poked her fingers in and started tearing away the brittle covering. Reaching into the dark crevice, she pulled out a black scrapbook and blew off a layer of dust. The women looked at each other, knowing that it was hidden for a reason, and that they may find out much more than they wanted to about their parents and the secret room. Sarah stepped down off the stool with a determined expression.
“Come on,” she instructed Amy.
They sat on the couch next to each other with the book laying unopened on the coffee table.
“Are you ready?” asked Sarah.
“No, but let’s do this.”
Sarah turned over the cover. On the first page, three photos were stuck to the thick, black material. Written in the margin next to the photos: “1967 - success.” The images were dark and not well focused, but they appeared to show a group of black robed people sitting in the secret room on the benches against the walls, six on each side. Hoods hid their faces in shadows. In the middle of the room was a waist high, rectangular table like one you might see in an old medical school photo. Candles are burning in wall sconces. Both women shook their heads in disbelief.
“This is before either of us was born. What the hell are they doing?” asked Amy.
Sarah reluctantly reached down and turned the page. It took a few moments for the subject matter of the seven photos to reach clarity, and when it did, both Sarah and Amy gasped. Now lying on the table was a naked body. It wasn’t the body of a living person, but a corpse. Patches of flesh hung from the body like torn material. Skin and muscle were missing along the person’s arms and legs, exposing sections of bone. Insects and time had ravaged the face and lips were missing, exposing grinning rows of rotted teeth. The body was in such a state of decay it was impossible to tell if it was a man or a woman. A robed individual stood at the feet of the corpse, hands held out, palms up, seeming to be praying or chanting, but the face was hidden. Amy’s hand came to her mouth as she tried to hold back the nausea. Scanning the photos, Sarah came to the fifth in the series.
“Oh my God,” she cried aloud.
In this photo, the upper body of the corpse has risen several inches off of the table. As the robed person supplicates, the subsequent photos record the dead body sitting up until it is perpendicular, its spine poking through the thin skin of its back. Amy took her right hand and angrily pushed the book off of the table onto the floor. Sobbing, Sarah wrapped her younger sister in her arms and they both clung to each other in a state of shock and disbelief.
“This is insanity. What were they doing?” asked Amy.
“I want answers.”
Visibly upset, Sarah got up and retrieved the book. “I want to know what in the fuck is going on here. What does this mean? Is it some kind of sick Halloween prank? Get your coat, we’re going to the Webster Center.”
They didn’t talk in the car as Sarah drove through the light drizzle, her hands turning white from gripping the steering wheel. The shock of seeing what their parents were involved in had both of them shaking with disgust and anger. Tires screeched as she turned quickly into a parking slot and stopped. Sarah, the book tucked under her arm, and Amy marched across the wet lot to the Center entrance. The small, round receptionist smiled as the women passed, but the gesture wasn’t returned. Sarah pushed open the door to room 148. Elizabeth wasn’t there.
“Excuse me,” called Sarah as they approached the reception desk.
“Yes?” the woman managed to say through her perpetual grin.
“Elizabeth Keppler. She’s not in her room. Do you know where she is?”
The woman referred to a log in front of her. “Oh right. Her husband came in about thirty minutes ago and took her for a walk.”
“What?” whispered Amy.
“I know it’s none of my business,” she said, leaning in and lowering her voice, “but that man don’t look well. Not well at all.”