A day after his thirteenth birthday, Howard Parker received an invitation to join his great aunt Lillian for Sunday afternoon tea, an invitation Howard received as a welcoming into young adulthood, Howard did, for Sunday afternoon tea was a thoroughly adult activity—according to the rules of the household kept by Lillian—and until that day, significantly, a thoroughly adult activity that had been enjoyed exclusively by Lillian and her dumb, disabled sister Margaret.
That afternoon, the three of them—Howard who had so proudly and so recently been welcomed to young adulthood, his great aunt Lillian and her sister Margaret—sat in wicker chairs on the screened-in porch overlooking the old manor's immaculate garden, their whims tended to by thea noiseless comings and goings of more than a few inconspicuous helpers, all of whom, it should be said, had been with the family for quite some time. A wide ceiling fan chopped slowly at the humid summer air. Lillian filled Howard's bone-white teacup with particularly fragrant tea, her movements arthritic yet graceful. Margaret sat in her old wheelchair a foot or so back from the table, her rheumy knees buried beneath a thick, plaid blanket. Cataracts clouded her eyes with a swirly, defunct confusion; drool pooled in the corners of her colorless mouth—a stroke the previous summer had rendered her an invalid.
"Howard," Lillian said, saucer held in the flat of her left hand just beneath her chin, teacup pinched between the thumb and index finger of her right hand. "You're becoming a young man and it's time you learned the truth as to why you were put in our charge so many years ago."
The boy set his cup and saucer on the table studiously. Even beneath the lazy chops of the ceiling fan he felt his face flushing hot. The absence of his mother and father had plagued Howard Parker since he could remember feeling plagued by things, things he couldn't otherwise explain, these things. He had often listened enviously to the other boys at his boarding school, far away, out of sight somewhere out there in the mountains, as they bragged of their fathers' professional achievements or recalled fondly—though never too fondly—their doting mothers' comforts.
"Your father died in an asylum—from syphilis," Lillian said, her voice wrapping around that word, Howard imagined, like a massive and unblinking boa twisting around a snowy hare. "Do you know what that is?" He didn't, but before he could say as much Lillian continued. "He contracted it from a prostitute while travelling for business. Your mother . . ." She took a moment to eye the boy sharply. "Howard, your mother—our niece—was a weak creature whose head was plagued with demons." Here, something spasmed in Margaret's face, something ghastly, locked-in laughter or perhaps a dreadful flicker of daydream. Howard felt as if he might be sick. He stared down at his hands in his lap. Lillian ignored her sister, kept her eye sharp, so sharply on the boy. "Sometimes, I fear that you've inherited your disposition from her. Your teachers have complained of an inability to pay attention, that you drift off and do not answer the questions asked of you. Howard, your mother chose eternal damnation when she took her own life. She chose to walk beyond the walls of the kingdom, in the abyss of the damned. It is best that you know—if not only as a precaution—in the off chance that you forget how blessed you are to live in the Lord's kingdom. For this," she swept her arm out, motioning to the garden beyond the railing of the porch, or so Howard thought, "is the kingdom of our Lord."
The significance of Lillian's words, however, were lost upon the boy, whose imagination had gone wild with wondering where, exactly, his mother might be wandering, how far beyond the garden this so-called abyss might be found, and what comforts might lie waiting for him there.
The blackouts began over the course of the next few weeks, unexpected at first and then, eventually, tolerated, as if the world as Howard understood it were a phonograph record warped from the strains of going round and round—skipping into whole pockets of noise—only to ceaselessly return to music most bewitching. In these moments, these terrible realizations that yet another blackout had come and gone, Howard would simply come to in a place other than the place in which he'd been, often still standing, with no memory of how he'd arrived or what he'd been saying, his hands in such odd formations, like ancient Egyptians painted on stone walls, a gesture half finished, a movement only partially seen through. It alarmed him, at first, and then in a way weirdly inconsistent with his generally fearful temperament, allowed him to feel free, free of being surrounded by yet never included in countless conversations with his peers, the words of others simply flowing by unimpeded by his rebuttals, forever unspoken; free of his great aunt's old and utterly empty house, its endless hallways and drafty drawing rooms and shadowy cooks, maids, butlers, chauffeurs; free of himself—the boy with no parents, plagued, with the father who'd died of complications from something called syphilis, with the mother who'd died in an attempt to escape the torments of—what was the word she'd used?—demons. Demons, dear god. That poor soul walking forever in the abyss of the damned, as Lillian had referred to it. It kept him awake at night, it did, all of this thinking.
Most frequently, though, or perhaps it's better said that with eerie regularity, these blackouts hatched Howard out beneath the pale light of the moon, cold rush of silver sound, whirring, the boy's head spinning with a fevered confusion, discarded in the obsessively ordered and plateaued depths of the manor's garden, chilled to the bone. Other times, he'd come to in what was once his mother's sickroom, or so it was called by a select few members of the staff—and no one else, surely—dust-choked sunlight blaring and impossible to ignore against hastily papered walls, dust chunked in the frills of yellowed doilies, undisturbed forever. In that room, there where he didn't belong, the room in which she'd given in to the whims of her own damned hand, tortured and damned, suddenly struggling to comprehend how much time had escaped him, the boy, Howard, how deep the pocket of noise that had engulfed him, Howard, suddenly overcome, compelled to know what was behind the closet door in this room, the boy pushed open the door in that room, the sickroom, and found the hallway so unlike all the home's other hallways—that dark maw that beckoned him beyond its crooked threshold.
Here is what the boy learned, what he was able to piece together from his stuttered and clipped conversations with Lillian during their tightly mannered and stifled tea time, as well as the mutterings and overheard musings of the members of the staff, here then is what he learned. He learned that the so-called sickroom was in the process of being converted into an extra bathroom some decades ago, an era in which it remained unknown how many helpers, exactly, were needed to help maintain the manor, to effectively uphold the owner's exacting standards. He learned that the conversion was soon abandoned and forgotten—here, in the narrative he pieced together, Howard occasionally discerned some grumblings about the dangers of a fixed income, the anxieties of dwindling trust accounts, and the frustrations with the expenses of upkeep, the pressure to maintain outward appearance at all costs—and so the so-called sickroom remained abandoned and forgotten, unfinished. He learned that the room was centrally located within the nature-like symmetry of the house's design, like the chambers of a heart within a body, that its unfinished closet was effectively a hole in the heart of the home.
A few tentative yet brave-hearted forays into the room with its giant daybed, its mirrored dresser and end table still cluttered with his mother's things, her perfumer, her brush still tangled with thin strands of translucent hair, then through the closet door, and headfirst into the heart-hole's blackness, hovering menacingly within its unfinished walls, an electric lamp to light his way, revealed something of a mirror world, an internal logic to everything Howard understood of his great aunt Lillian's yawning and magisterial home, such hidden depths, like where the blood goes, squeezed away. An icy wind seemed to rush through its maw every half-minute or so, the breath of a lumbering giant, its ancient breath smelling of the house itself, its very soul, and perhaps, Howard surmised, the cause of the drafts that often made descending from his high bed in the morning a nearly insurmountable task.
The crushing pulse of vertigo, not so dissimilar from the waves of nausea that arose as a result of the blackouts, like a sickening undertow in his stomach—Howard was set reeling. The unwelcome realization that the house contained such depths coiled hidden away sent Howard to bed with a fever, whirring, always whirring.
When he woke after the most recent blackout and found his strength, when he felt the light of the afternoon sun streaming into his room and falling upon his face and knew it for what it was, the doctor's concerned face coming into focus before him, he learned that weeks—whole weeks—had passed and that he, the boy, Howard, had been found in the garden, naked, and feared the worse for wear, as the doctor said, smiling. "Being as that may," the smiling doctor said, "your aunt is very worried about you. She says that you have been ignoring her calls, spending an increasing amount of time alone in the house." And then more talk, more words and bluster, though Howard heard only the doctor's diagnosis: meals to be taken in bed, an hour of walking through the garden during the day, and then rest, more rest, always he should be at rest. In response, Howard nodded, wishing the doctor away, already dreaming of returning to the hallway.
Other than those regularly scheduled walks in the garden, in the kingdom, during which Howard was accompanied by one of the helpers, always someone different, always someone who seemed to pay him no mind at all, those walks that Howard approached as a regimented activity, walking the same rows in the same order, always, as a matter of precision, perfection, other than those walks he left his bed only at night, Howard did, gliding soundlessly through the halls on bare feet, carefully avoiding the regularly scheduled comings and goings of the helpers as they went about their cleaning, their tidying, and elected only to switch on his electric lamp once he'd safely entered the so-called sickroom, carefully clicking shut the door behind him, there where no one would think to search for him. In addition to his electric lamp, he brought with him, Howard did, a small spiral-bound notebook and the freshly sharpened stub of a pencil, with which he planned to draw a map of his progress in the hopes of not getting lost. Like Theseus, he thought, prepared to slay the Minotaur.
Ten feet or so into the closet and already the warm glow of the sickroom seemed faded, cooling like molten stone as it meets the hiss of tumultuous ocean waves. And then it was like cavernous dimensions unfolded all around him, some sort of gravitational magic act flipped him round and round. The emotion it caused inside him, the boy, was beyond any previous experience. Howard felt particularly bold, emboldened; he switched off the electric lamp and listened intently to the whirring, always the whirring, focused in on the sound of some mysterious machine humming away, burrowed deep within the earth, or so he imagined.
What purpose could such a machine have—a machine burrowed deep within the earth? The question plagued him, it did, this question that only hatched other questions.
Set adrift in the darkened corridors of the house, it was not dissimilar from how Howard imagined divers felt, having mistakenly disturbed such quiet beds of silt, their vision suddenly clouded, trapped—a blind panic. It was difficult to discern up from down, left from right; even base notions of direction, of forward and backward, became meaningless, empty language, words without meaning. In those moments, those moments when the onrush of body-feels, the blind panic threatened to send the boy careening into some inescapable abyss, Howard turned on the electric lamp, felt his feet root instantly to the floor once again, earthbound. Then he set to work recording the angles. This was his trick, his method for deciphering the mystery of the moribund house. He wrote down the angles of where the floor met each wall, where each wall, in turn, met the ceiling. He recorded these angles—remembering lessons with the compass in that faraway school, drawing diagrams when needed—recorded them in his notebook, set neatly within neat columns, Howard did, with exacting precision, a scientific acumen, rigorous discipline. Why he did this, why he was doing this, he wasn't quite sure, he didn't quite know. It wasn't as if he had some particular rationale—and so he did not question his instincts, did not allow doubt to sow its seeds. It is important, he said to himself, this work. It is of the utmost importance—to record these angles, to keep a record of these angles. This is work and it is important.
Out went the electric lamp, the numbers and diagrams freshly scratched into his notebook floating through his consciousness like cosmic rails, each one promising some glimmer of truth, to glide the boy closer to something plaguing, something like one of those plagues—and on and on until he woke, once more and forever always, in his bed, sunlight hot upon his skin. And it was there, excitedly, always so excited, he opened his notebook and reviewed the previous night's work, always shocked, strangely pleased, mystified to find that the angles, the diagrams, that they were never the same—as if the hallway was altering itself, folding into itself before breathing back out.
Bedridden—or so the doctor had commanded—and consumed with obsession, wholly obsessed with the ever-changing hallway, its hollowing existence haunting the boy, plaguing him, Howard Parker suffered through the sunlight-filled days, leaving his room only for the suffocatingly ordered walk through the garden, and awaited each night in a positive fervor. He had filled whole notebooks with the numbers, the angles, his diagrams. He dreamed of numbers, of angles, of diagrams. And when he was awake, he reviewed what he had written: the numbers, the angles, his diagrams. He imagined a code emerging from the data, a message being transmitted from deep within the house, from the mirror world, from someone out of step with this reality, or so he imagined, someone who walked beyond the walls that surrounded this, the kingdom of our lord.
And so it eventually came to be that, on one particular Sunday, sun shining, with his health seemingly improving, with the color returning to his cheeks, Howard was permitted to once more join his great aunt Lillian and her sister Margaret for their regularly scheduled afternoon tea. The boy hoped to use this time to learn more about the house, perhaps its builder, or perhaps whether or not its plans were stored somewhere, under lock and key no doubt, tucked away in some dark office, under lock and key. Upon taking his seat at the table, however, Howard was remiss to see, rather than a cup and saucer set before his great aunt Lillian, instead the boy was most disappointed to see a single piece of paper, creased in threes and folded outward, bearing the crested insignia of his boarding school, so far, so far away.
"Things are going to change," Lillian said. She said, "Things will soon be different. You will see. You will come to understand. You've been out of step with life for far too long, Howard. You've nearly missed enrollment at your school—here, we've only just received notice this week. You'll be held back, Howard. Do you understand the implications of such imperiousness?"
A ship of angelic clouds sailed beyond the sun, opening wide the gates beyond the boy's vision, the gates that led beyond the invisible wall. And in their place, a ray of sunlight like a massive broadsword thrust downward. The sun, this ray of sunlight, it glistened in a strand of Margaret's drool, piercing, a piece of gold glimmering beneath the gurgle of a shallow stream. Somewhere far away, far beyond the mountains, the boy's faraway school. A piece of gold, glimmering. The broadsword blade of an ancient king atop an armored steed, its teeth bared, breath pluming in great clouds upon the steam-wreathed moors, the sun a great black disc burning a cosmic heat, a battlefield of the dead and dying, torn, bloody chunks twisted in clumps of rent and ruined armor, as far as the eye could see.
And then, "I've just asked you a question, Howard." His great aunt's voice, shrill and tiny in the distance, chopped by the lazy arcs of the ceiling fan. Her voice came closer, louder, and Howard understood that, as he listened to what she said, he understood that she made no attempt to hide her disappointment, her acceptance that he, the boy, that he was beyond her reach. She understood that he understood and this was the point. "It is just as I feared," she said, his great aunt Lillian, and not to him, the boy. No, this she seemingly said to Margaret. "He's more like her, that pitiful creature, than I was willing—or perhaps ready—to admit. The boy is as his mother was. He is forsaken."
Despite the fact that Howard had never once seen Margaret show even the most basic of human emotions, he watched, dumbfounded, as the side of her face unaffected by the stroke slowly contorted into a tight formation of wrinkles that betrayed—and this was unmistakable—that truly betrayed what could only be described as smiling malice.
There would be a car ride, no doubt, and then a train ride, another car ride, this one taking him up a winding mountain road, then through the black gates of the school, so austere, discomfiting, filled with the screeching cruelty of unnamed and countless other young boys, boys like Howard but bigger, stronger, and mean. His suitcase packed tightly with clothes folded neatly, thumping in the trunk, winding up that winding mountain road. The thin air would make it hard for the boy to catch his breath once the plagues set in, those feelings of being plagued. That first night away, failing to fall asleep on that hard and unforgiving mattress, the blackouts would return, and then the whirring, always the whirring. That weird machine so deep down and far away.
Howard, the boy, he knew that tonight would be his last night in his great aunt Lillian's house, forever if not for some great amount of time—too much time to lose. He had no time to lose. There was no time to lose. He felt himself, now more than ever, like Theseus, sword raised to the sky and ready to slay the great monster Syphillis, the monster that ate his father and spit out his bones in a pile of perfect angles, a ladder converging with heaven above, always above, occulting behind the lip of the black disc.
In the garden, awake once more beneath the moonlight . . . Howard saw that the fauna had swollen to the size of dreadnoughts, the ground littered with black petals, dirt roiling with the black movements of clicking bugs. The flowers opened and closed like leach-lipped mouths. Vines lashed into the sky like the tentacles of a deep-sea monster, sinking to untold depths.
The wheels of her chair squeaked eerily in the eye of the night. Margaret came toward him, one arm—the stroke arm—curled tight against her chest, the other flung loose in her lap. And yet still she came closer. And then she was there, before him, the boy, Howard, holding forth the fetal remains of some puckered flesh sac, its bulbous shape webbed with zig-zagging veins.
Into his hands Howard took the bulb, watching in horror as it unfurled, revealing a small mouth lined with row upon row of flat, dull teeth. Then the sound of laughter, his great aunt Lillian's laughter, was everywhere, the mouth in his hands pulsating with laughter, as all-encompassing and vivid as a bad dream from which he could not awaken.
In the darkness of his room that night, his curtains pulled tight before his windows, obscuring his view of the garden below. The angles, the figures, they unfolded their great, dark secret, all on their own. Howard saw them for what they were, a series of clear signals, positives and negatives, ones and negative ones, darkness and light. It was so simple, really. An absurdity. It was the hallway in all its exposed glory, infinite as its pools of black as solid as its walls, its floor, its ceiling.
He wrote down the kaleidoscope of numbers, on and on forever he saw it, uncurling now, and he came to know that this was the answer to all of the hallway's secrets.
He felt it grow again, grow larger but stay the same.
An endless divergence.
In his mind he saw a line hatch from a point in time and space, a snake hatching from its egg, streaking out at an angle to the right before banking back opposite, again and again, each time going out just a bit farther, pushing the walls of the hallway—and subsequently the floor, the ceiling—back beyond, out of sight, into the black beyond.
This, Howard knew, was the blade of the great king's broadsword laid flat across the floorboards, the house twisting itself around its unbreakable steel, forged in the hottest pits of hell, twisting itself into a slow and painful death. A small and menacing snake fell from the empty socket of the king's eye, its tongue a quick flicker of red.
Howard, the boy, he saw himself at the foot of the hallway, standing there a silhouette in a wall of light, and he knew that he also stood at the very tip of this, the hallway's tail. Positives and negatives swirled in his head like planets around the sun, black stars and the brightest, hottest suns, eclipsing one another at perfect intervals, a symmetry of the most flawless machine, humming deep, deep down. He took a step backward, two steps forward—or was that all wrong? Was it not a single step forward and then . . .
So he began his steps inside forever, free, walking forever outside the kingdom, hand in hand, he imagined, with a woman whose presence he found strangely comforting, as if she were actually several women all at the same time, combined, each one looking after an infinite variation of Howards, all with their own needs, their own fears calling out into the darkness. And although it pained him greatly, he remained unable to look her in the eye, fearful of her monstrous and malformed face, the way he sensed it always changing.