Friday, December 23, 2016

Gifts from the Forbidden Room

Greetings,

I had originally planned to wait until after Christmas to post my next story. But the writing prompt for my short story group this week was "Christmas Eve" and I couldn't resist posting my story while it was still Christmas time.

Unlike most of my stories, this one is being posted here within minutes after finishing it, which means I haven't gotten any kind of review or feedback on it yet. So, as always, I would be most eager to hear any feedback, suggestions or ideas.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

James Meadows

Gifts from the Forbidden Room
by James J Meadows III

It was the coldest Christmas Eve the village had ever experienced, the deepest snow the village had ever experienced and the strongest wind the village had ever experienced. No one was out walking the streets on their way to visit friends and families. No carolers broke the howling gale with their croaking voices. Nor did any church bells ring, announcing the end of their Christmas Eve vigils. Anyone looking through a window or peering through the night might wonder if the village was a ghost town.

The lack of distractions made the night perfect for my needs. Not that anyone ever interrupted me. Despite being the only daughter of the wealthiest family in the village, and having inherited my parent’s fortune after they passed away, few people wanted anything to do with me. My family had a bad reputation. Most people avoided us if possible.

No one visited me on Christmas. No one invited me to parties or dances. No one brought me any gifts or sent me any cards. It was a lonely existence, resulting in many long nights spent wishing there were someone who cared. Still, just because I didn’t have a friend, didn’t mean I wouldn’t get exactly what I wanted for Christmas. Those people couldn’t get me what I wanted anyway.

Collecting the last of my supplies, a small jewelry box filled with salt and a bowl filled with water, I proceeded through the wall of darkness, whose grip upon the drafty old house remained despite the dim glow of the tiny candle in my hand.

Reaching the staircase leading to the second floor, I started my progression upward, eyes focused intensely on the vaguely discernable steps my feet ascended, and not on the waves of visions swirling around me. Images of wars fought and not fought, babies yet to be born and children yet to die, mingled with visions of blood running down the stairs before me. All fought for my attention. I didn’t want these visions, yet they came nonetheless. They always did on this night.

Reaching the top of the steps, I veered right, down the longest darkest hallway of my family’s ancestral estate, past the small room with the four post bed, which served as my own during my parent’s lifetime, and around a corner to where another staircase led even further upward.

Here, the light was just a formality. I had walked these stairs so many times, I felt confident I could do it with my eyes closed. How many times, as a child, had I scaled these steps to gaze or listen at the doors of the forbidden room above? How many days did I count until my coming of age when I would finally be allowed to open them? And how many Christmas Eves since that day had I returned, each time wishing I had never ascended them in the first place?

More visions swam before my eyes, visions of my parents, both how I knew them and before I knew them, visions of distant ancestors and relatives, some I knew and some I didn’t know, all crossing these stairs throughout the ages on Christmas Eve night, to perform the same ritual. For the door could only be opened on Christmas Eve, and on every Christmas Eve, I was there, just as my parents were there during every Christmas Eve of their lives. And someday, when I too married and had children, my children would come to this door, too, just like their mother. I know. I had seen that in the visions also.

I shut these visions out too. I needed to focus on what I was doing and where I was going. Twenty one steps carried me to the top floor of the manor where, on the opposite side of a long wooden landing, now covered thickly with the dust of a year’s neglect, for no one came up here to clean, stood the only pristine-looking objects in the whole house, a pair of ornate oaken doors, perfectly polished though no rag had ever touched their gleaming exteriors.

A deep steadying breath crossed my lips as I fought to control the waves of emotion washing over me. I had performed the ritual more than a dozen times, ever since I was old enough to memorize the words and movements, with the same precision of my parents. And yet, despite all of these years of experience and the incessant days of practice I always went through leading up to Christmas Eve, I never ceased to feel, as my parents admitted they felt, a certain sense of apprehension toward what was about to happen.

Ultimately, however, the nerves meant nothing since, regardless of any anxiety I might feel for the experience ahead, there was no turning back. And, to be perfectly honest, the thought, though perhaps tempting to other people, never even occurred to me. This was, after all, whether blessing or curse, my family’s legacy, passed from generation to generation for as long as any we had owned this house, which was as long as any written records recorded.

Placing down the candle, a slow and rather more complicated process than it might seem, since I could not risk letting a single drop of wax fall on the floor or chance the candle going out for any reason, I proceeded to empty my hands of all items, positioning the salt and water on their proper places.

The house was much chillier up here, where no grates were built to support a fire, and the thin roof overhead did little to muffle the howling winds rattling across its aging shingles. The conditions, uncomfortable enough on their own, only worsened as I unlaced the front of my dress, allowing the garment to slither off my lithe frame onto a pile at my feet. Now naked, the cold was almost unbearable, and I shivered uncontrollably as I picked up the dress, holding it outstretched before me and headed for the door.

I placed the gown neatly spread across the floor right in front of the doorway, the neck of the dress toward the door and the skirt facing away. I straightened back up, surveying it, making sure everything was correct. It was. I turned toward the door, curling my fingers into a fist, and raising it level with the elegantly carved face of a young woman, staring at me from the front of the left door.

There I stood, breathing deeply, resolving myself to continue, accepting that I had no choice, steeling myself against what I was about to see, determined not to turn back now.

*Boom*

My fist fell, hitting the door. The ceremony had begun. I struck the door a second time and, after another five seconds, a third. Then, my hand fell to my side and I stood there, listening.

*Boom*

A loud knock sounded from the opposite side of the door. My heart leapt into my chest, so I could barely breathe. I turned away from the door, heading toward ceremonial supplies. A series of five carefully measured steps carried me back to the candle, beside which sat the water and the salt.

*Boom*

The knock sounded again. I bent over and collected the salt, grabbing a handful of it as I straightened up. I held the box before me, casting the salt in a circle across the floor with my free hand.

“To the East from which the sun’s light awakes,” I shouted, my voice rising above the harsh wails of the wind, which seemed to grow louder with each second. “To the North, where the flowers grow when spring comes; To the South, where the flowers wither as fall approaches. To the West, where the sun fades as winter ends, bringing darkness and sleep to the now weary land! Seal this circle with the magic of this sand.”

*Boom*

With the last crash, the doors flew open revealing the briefest glimpse of the room within: a glimpse so bizarre and indescribable that there seem no words for it. How can one describe a darkness of immeasurable depth, which, by its very nature, singes the eyes with its brightness; or explain a smell so subtle one can barely taste it, yet so overwhelming that the senses can hardly cope; or express a sound so quiet one can hardly hear it, while at the same time so pervasive it stings the ears. There are no words for such things. They can only be experienced.

Yet, just as quickly as the sensations came, the doors shut again, barring the room from my view. At the same instant, the dress, previously resting upon the floor, rose into the air before me. In a slow gradual manner, reminiscent of a balloon inflating before my eyes, the dress expanded, filling as though some unseen force were slipping it on. A second later, the force ceased to be unseen.

I stood facing a figure I knew only too well. I recognized her long blonde hair, her bright green eyes, her smooth skin, and every other feature about her without the slightest difficulty. An easy task, since she was me.

“Hello Melina.”

Her lips never moved, yet her voice drifted softly across the room, as if carried by a summer breeze.

“Merry Christmas.”

The words hung in the air for a several seconds, while the woman looked at me. I wasn’t sure if she was waiting for me to reply or not. I chose not to. This was not the first time the spirit had assumed my form for one of these meetings. But that didn’t mean it annoyed me any less and I didn’t feel much like wishing it a Merry Christmas.

I didn't know how the spirit first came to occupy the house. Some legends claimed my ancestors trapped it here, demanding it grant them favors. Other diaries claimed the spirit came to live in the house of its own free will, awarding the family boons for allowing it to stay.

Either way, I didn't trust it. The spirit was an unstable entity, dangerous and unpredictable, often creating mischief with even its most benign gestures; hence, the reason I took the precaution of surrounding myself in a protective circle.

“You have come to me,” the voice continued. “The one who can see all secrets kept and to be kept, who knows all things learned and unlearned, who can reveal all mysteries and lore past and future. Yet I sense few questions in you. What would you ask of me?”

I took a deep breath. Though I had said these words many times before, I still felt nervous every time I spoke them.

“I wish to make the visions stop,” I said. The wish was, itself, somewhat futile, since I already knew the answer.

A small smile spread across the spirit’s face.

“Every year you come here asking for this,” she said. “Can I not give you so much more? Can I not show you all the secrets of the past or reveal all the majesty of the future?”

In response to these words, images swam before my eyes; images hinting of secret knowledge, ancient mysteries, lost glories and of equally magnificent splendors yet to be created. The spirit’s speech and visions took me by surprise. Rarely did she ever converse with us in such a manner. I shook my head.

“These my family already has, and, if I could, I would give the gift back. Yet you will not take it.”

The spirit ignored the second part of my statement.

“Why not accept power, instead? I could give you magic beyond your wildest dreams, physical talent to make the mightiest man jealous, or charisma to make all people bend before your will.”

“All such gifts I may have, and yet find no happiness in their acquisition,” I replied. “For power is a dangerous ally, and all who seek it find themselves consumed, as so many of my ancestors learned.”

“Indeed, absolute power can make one lonely,” the spirit said, giving a mischievous smile. “Is that not what you fear the most?”

I felt my blood run cold. A new image swam before my eyes: that of a handsome, gentle man with a kind smile, a warm touch, and a deep soul, sitting, his arms wrapped around me, upon the warm couch beneath a soft blanket, as the wind rattled the night outside. A deep longing crept into my heart. This was what I longed for more than all the wealth and the power of all the worlds: an end to the seemingly perpetual loneliness haunting my days since my parents passed.

My hand, lost like my mind in the waves of unbroken desire to feel the warmth and love of the image, drifted unconsciously away from my body, extending to touch my lover's face. At the same instance, a warning cry sounded in my brain. I drew back, realizing with a sudden horror that my arm almost crossed out of the salt circle surrounding me.

“All of those things will come on their own, in time,” I said, regaining my composure. “Now is not yet that time.”

The vision vanished.

“If you would have none of these things, why have you come,” the voice responded. “You know I cannot take the visions away from you. They were a gift demanded by your first ancestor. And, the gift cannot be taken away.”

“But it can be suppressed for a year,” I replied, “just as you do every year.”

“But why waste your wishes on this?” the voice responded. “Every year your one wish, your family’s one wish they can make of me, is wasted on such a silly purpose: to take away the gift of clairvoyance I graciously bestowed upon them generations ago. Why such waste?”

“You know why,” I answered. “You know what I see when it is active. I can’t sleep; I can’t talk; I can hardly even walk because of all the visions. Your ‘gift’ was a punishment meant to render us helpless.”

“Learn to master it and its secrets,” the voice responded. “Who knows what you might learn?”

I pondered these words. Again, it was very unlike the spirit to engage in such a conversation. Was this some kind of trick?

“Why are you doing this?” I asked.

“You are special,” it responded. “I’ve watched you since childhood. Of all your family through the many generations, none has shown as much promise as you. Why not use your gift…”

“Our curse,” I interrupted.

“Whatever,” the spirit replied impatiently. “Why not use it in a constructive manner, the way your ancestor first wanted. Master it! Learn it!”

“I have made my wish,” I said, a sense of stubborn indignation rising in me.

“Very well,” said the spirit, in a voice which almost sounded like a sigh. “Your energies are suppressed! Now begone! But you will think about what I said before next Christmas! And you may yet change your mind.”

As she finished her words, the doors behind her swung open but this time I didn’t look inside. I merely gazed ahead at the fading figure before me, as she disappeared from view. Then, the doors closed and the dress flopped to the ground.

The strange tension in the room seemed to fade. There was a moment of silence, interrupted only by the sound of the wind.

Hearing the wind brought my thoughts back to the storm and I suddenly remembered how cold I was. I hurried through the rest of the ritual, picking of the water and ceremoniously washing away the salt circle before retrieving my dress.

As I retied the strings on the blouse, I couldn’t help pondering what the spirit told me. Was I really special? Could I really master the visions? Or was the spirit just playing with me, tempting me to not make the wish on the one night of the year I was able to - a trick to make me suffer for the next year, unable to escape the prophetic dreams and nightmares haunting my waking hours?

I didn’t know. I did know the spirit was telling the truth about one thing, though. I had a feeling I was going to spend a lot of time thinking about her words before next Christmas.

Frowning at the thought, I hurried down the steps. There were no visions or images to trouble me as I walked. And in that way, at least, I knew I had gotten exactly what I wanted for Christmas.


Sunday, December 11, 2016

Night Owl's Guide to Houston

Greetings,

       This story, entitled "A Night Owl's Guide to Houston," was actually written back in 2012 and is based upon an actual experience from that summer. It was such a bizarre experience that I felt the need to write it down, since I wasn't sure anyone else would believe the tale. I hope you enjoy the story and would appreciate any feedback!

        Since my next story will be after Christmas, I want to wish all of you a Happy Holiday Season and a wonderful Christmas time.

         Sincerely,

          James Meadows


Night Owl's Guide to Houston
by James J Meadows III

     
            “Night Owl’s Guide to Houston: Our town is full of all-night venues for eating, drinking and making merry that aren’t full of drunks. We’ll meet at 9pm and choose where to go from a list of more than 100 destinations that are fun for even sober people. By 10, we’ll be en route to great adventures! Guide: Ella Tyler.”

            These words in the Leisure Learning Center catalog gripped my interest. As a 30-year old single male tired of spending my Friday nights surfing internet personals ads, a work friend recommended I check out the leisure learning center. They told me it was a great way to learn new things, meet other singles, and have fun in a casual environment. A flip through the catalog revealed endless possibilities including horseback riding, kayak trips, and even classes on how to have winning first dates. Among them all, I found this ad and I was hooked.

            This was my chance to meet people in a setting free from drunks and alcohol. It was a chance to learn about night spots and hangouts where I could interact with singles or take future dates. I’ll admit, the rather expensive 45 dollar registration fee and the requisite 40 dollars in spending cash were a touch discouraging. I’m a single parent and rather strapped for cash, not to mention sitters. Still, adventure awaited and I wasn’t about to let a little money stop me. I signed up for the class.

            On the designated day, I headed to “Grey’s Café” in downtown Houston to meet the group. Upon entering the 24-hour café there was one thing I noticed immediately. There was not a soul in the place except for the staff and one table in the corner with three customers. One of the customers called out to me.

            "Are you looking for the Night Owl’s Guide to Houston?”

            I acknowledged I was and they waved me over to the table. I headed that direction surveying my new companions. First of all, I wish to point out that I enjoy foods and deserts. At the same time, I am not a person who spends lots of time eating. I am very conscious about my weight and appearance. Likewise, I tend to prefer hanging out with people who also care about their appearance.

            This may be a touch superficial. Still, the truth is: birds of a feather flock together and people typically prefer hanging out with others who have similar values and priorities.  You rarely see paparazzi pictures of professional athletes hanging out with people who look like they’ve spent the previous week eating donuts. If you have a work-out fanatic family member or friend, you probably haven’t seen them walk through the door with a date capable of swallowing them and not showing it.

            On that note, I can say without a doubt that all three of these people were in shape. By that I mean: round. The table was positioned against a wall and I could hardly squeeze between them and the table behind to reach a vacant chair. There were two women and one man. I was glad to see one of the women, a middle aged African American, wasn’t eating. The other two had pancakes, bacon, hash browns, waffles, omelets, toast, and milk sitting in front of them; and those were the plates they hadn’t already finished.

            The woman who called me over, a large Caucasian woman, informed me between mouthfuls of food that she was Ella Tyler, the guide for the class. She presented me with a print-out of available activities and hangouts. My spirits dropped as I perused the list. They were all 24-hour restaurants, including such unique hang-outs as Whataburger and Denny’s.

            I searched the table for a second page. I found one. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much better. It consisted of almost all bars. Meanwhile, the few “late night hang-outs” appearing on the page included the Houston Aquarium, which closes at 10pm, as well as the Winter Solstice Wine and Lights Festival - which would have been an exciting possibility...if it wasn't currently July.

            My mind began searching for some excuse to get out of this mess when our last three classmates entered the restaurant. The first was a middle aged woman with short black hair; but, the second one caught my eye. She was a beautiful and fit woman in her upper-twenties with long flowing brown hair and green eyes. I started thinking this night might not be a waste after all. That was when a fit, athletic male of about the same age walked in behind her. He took her hand and they headed for the table. My enthusiasm dwindled. Still, it was good to see someone of closer to my own age, and I hurriedly struck up a conversation with them.

            The couple was from San Francisco and was visiting the girl’s mother here in Houston. The middle-aged woman who entered with them turned out to be said mother. She was looking for a way to show her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend the sights of Houston. The best part was that they weren’t interested in eating. They wanted to see popular hang outs and fun venues around the city. My hope became rekindled as they expressed this preference to Ella.

            The guides readily agreed to this plan and proceed to pack everyone into a compact car for the tour. The Californians and their mother wisely decided to follow in their own vehicle and we headed for the first destination. As I sat in the car with the other three, I listened to them discussing the numerous eating groups they were members of. They encouraged me to join an eating group also. They said meals usually only cost between fifty to a hundred dollars and told me it was a great way to try all the unique restaurant venues in Houston. When I told them I wasn't really interested in an eating group, they became more insistent. 

            The previous discussion of my eating habits and finances as a single parent probably already tipped you off to this fact. However, in case it didn’t, I will admit that having a group of people who can barely fit in their own car seats pressuring me to join eating clubs so I can go around town spending a hundred dollars on meals wasn’t my idea of a fun ride. Needless to say, I leapt out of the car as soon as we reached our location.

            Said ‘location’ turned out to be an empty bridge in the middle of an empty park beside a suite of empty office buildings. Something told me this was not one of the premier hangouts in Houston.

            The guides led us through the darkness to the edge of the bridge. There I was greeted with a smell unlike any other in the world: Guano. I didn’t need their explanation or the barrage of siren sounds to know that a swarm of bats lived under the bridge.

            Now, I like seeing bats as much as the next person and enjoy watching them fly. Please note, though, that the operative words in the previous sentence both dealt with visibility. Now, please see the first sentence in the previous paragraph referring to the darkness. You couldn’t see anything! We were at least informed there were bats under there, even if we had no way to see them firsthand. We were also told scientists liked to come here to study the behaviors of bats or harvest the guano for agriculture purposes. Then, after loitering about for several minutes, we were led back to the car.

            Okay, stop one, not so great. But Ella announced that the next stop would be more exciting. This second stop was a new skate boarding park built by the city of Houston. It was complete with concession stands, modern art and loud music. They said it was a popular hangout for young people. Things were looking up again. There was only one small fly in the otherwise wonderful ointment. We arrived to discover the park closed at 8.

            We spent the next thirty minutes walking around the chain link fence so we could stare into the well lit concrete obstacle course. While we did so, I visited with the young couple from California. Since I lived in California during my military enlistment, I found myself sharing stories of life up there and how different it was from Texas.

            Eventually, Ella announced our next destination: New China Town. She talked about how the place was filled with stores, restaurants, and other locations which are open all night. She said people are always milling about and enjoying the night life. Again, the idea showed promise. 

            Hopping back into the car, we began a 40 minute drive out to the small suburb of Sugar Land to see China Town. On the way, the host received a phone call from some old high school friends. These friends wanted to join us for the remainder of the event. The hosts obliged them and told them we were heading to China town, where they agreed to meet us. We arrived in China town and parked in an empty parking lot full of closed buildings. A small still-open coffee shop became our point of rendezvous with the coming high school friends.

            We ordered tea and waited for their arrival. I was pleased to see for the first time some signs of life and activity. Neon lights in Chinese and parking lots full of cars stood in a single large shopping center across the way. Unfortunately, we weren’t going there. We were sitting at a coffee shop waiting for the host’s friends to arrive.

            A half an hour later, we were still sitting at a coffee shop waiting for the host’s friends to arrive. Forty-five minutes later, we were still sitting at a coffee shop waiting for the host’s friends to arrive. So far the only interesting thing I’d done in China Town was share more conversation with the California natives. When forty-five minutes turned into an hour, however, the California natives were ready to go. Feigning being tired, they excused themselves and prepared to leave. Possessing the good sense to act before my chance passed, I also excused myself, informed Ella that I had a nice time, and convinced the Californians to take me back to my vehicle. The ride was nice. We had a pleasant visit on the way back to the café.

            When they pulled into parking lot, we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. Then they were off and so was I. The next morning, I pulled out my leisure learning center catalog and noticed another event I had circled to go on. I hurriedly scratched the event off my list and threw the page away. It read:

            “Houston Secrets: See secret Gardens, international and local foods, and fascinating places to shop on this tour of little-known spots in Houston. We’ll meet a 9am and leave by 10. Guide: Ella Tyler”.