01 Feb I found a hidden compartment in my new house
It was a dream come true. I was finally a homeowner.
It wasn’t a mansion or anything, just a simple three bedroom craftsman a few miles north of the Seattle city limits. But it was mine.
I got it at an auction, well below market price. Apparently the previous owner had taken their life in the home, and not only could the state not identify the owner’s next of kin, they couldn’t even identify the owner. The deed was in a false name, and after some fruitless investigation the house was put up for auction by the state.
Strange circumstances for sure, but I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth.
There were, of course, plenty of little things to fix up and change around the house. Yesterday’s task was simple: Get my gaming rig on a wired connection.
The cable outlet upstairs was in the master bedroom, and so was the router. I had designated the bedroom next door as my office, and thankfully their closets shared a wall. So all I had to do was drill a tiny little hole in the back of the closet to pass the ethernet cable through.
When I pulled the drill bit out from the back of the master bedroom closet, however, I did not see the mid-afternoon sun I was expecting to shine through. I furrowed my brow for a moment, then concluded the closet door in the office must have just swung shut.
But it hadn’t. I stood in the office door frame for a while, perplexed, before I walked into the closet and examined the wall where the hole should be. I sat down on the floor, and knocked on the wall, listening to the hollow thud my fist made.
Of course, there just must be some hollow space between the closets! I sighed, and began to stand up to go fetch the drill. As I gently pressed my weight against the wall however, It moved and I felt the click of some hidden mechanism.
I stared at the little gap that appeared for a few seconds, unsure what to make of it. But sure enough, there it was before me: a hidden door. I pulled it open to find bins filled with various pieces of opened mail and neat stacks of credit cards in many different names. Sitting on top of it all: a simple lined notebook.
The notebook seemed like it hadn’t been used much, and only the first handful of pages were filled with a tight, tidy script. I read and re-read those pages three times before I put it down. It was utterly bizarre, and if not for the circumstances surrounding my house and the other items I found in that closet, I would have written it off as a flight of fancy.
This morning, I couldn’t get the story out of my head. So I decided to head down to this coffee shop with the notebook and my laptop, and transcribe the story to share it here. Maybe one of you can make heads or tails of it.
The story contained quite a few SSNs, which I’ve redacted just in case they’re real.
Loretta Young. I squint at her sitting on a wrought-iron bench in the burning light of another summer day, and then cast a shadow over the dot-matrix portrait in the file spread out on my picnic table to get a better look. Sharp high cheekbones, hair pulled into a French braid so blond there’s no mistaking it even in grayscale. I can even pick up the distant look in her eyes and the low-cut collar of her sweater. There’s no doubt, there she is. Loretta Young: Age thirty-two, Social Security number XXX-XX-XXXX, 9012 Quince Lane. The time stamped next to her name gives me a good fifteen minutes, so I pour through her file.
My thumb runs along the familiar rough edge of the pages as I search through her shopping habits to find what I’m looking for. Her years melt away with her purchasing power, and finally my eyes catch those familiar italics in between an Ikea couch and a box of Trojan Condoms. “Lies about crying at movies out of fear of seeming cold to her friends.”
My stiff new clothes—courtesy of Adam Finch XXX-XX-XXXX, James Goldburg XXX-XX-XXXX, and Patrick Fisher XXX-XX-XXXX—are hot and scratchy in the June heat and I can feel the first bead of sweat tickling as it slivers down my spine. Having no other reason to wait, I begin my work.
Loretta is peeling an orange as I walk quietly towards her. She’s not supposed to see me. I was hired to be a phantom, a poltergeist. But I stopped caring years ago, so I take a seat next to her and smile.
“Hi there.” I say.
She glances nervously up at me and then down at the impossibly thick manila file in my lap before returning her eyes to her orange and replying. “Hello.”
I know she can feel my eyes on her, and I can see her muscles tense as she considers walking away. “Nice day, eh?” I ask. Her brows drop a quarter inch and her mouth pulls into a thin white line. I can see the muscles in her legs stiffen and then relax as she decides to tough it out.
“Yes, I suppose.” She rushes a segment of orange into her mouth and chews it slowly to keep her lips and tongue occupied. Her eyes are locked on her file, as if some part of her knows what it contains. “Working lunch?” She asks.
“Yes, you could say that. Who are you? Tell me who you are in a sentence.”
Loretta’s hand freezes halfway between the orange and her mouth, and she tears her eyes from the file to look into mine. I see my desperation reflected in her jet-black pupils. “Excuse me?”
“Just humor me, please?”
She bites her lip and stares at the orange. Hours seem to blow across the grass around us. “I… really need to get back to work. Um, have a nice lunch.” She stuffs the last of the orange into her mouth and clutches her purse to her chest as she stands. The orange peel dangles in her hand and she glances around, looking for the rubbish bin.
“Please, allow me Loretta.” I pluck the peel from her suddenly stiff hands. Her eyes go wide and she swallows, nearly choking.
“How do you know my name?”
But I’m already gone.
I stop at the Texaco station on 89th and pull Benjamin Lark XXX-XX-XXXX out of my wallet to provide my fuel. My life before The Fat Lady seems so detached and indistinct it’s not even a memory. When I try to conjure up my childhood all I can see are Happy Meals and Power Ranger Megazords. File after file, I searched for the italicized sentence, hungry, desperate for some sort of pattern or meaning. Eventually, every swipe of my debit card felt like a handful of dirt thrown on my grave.
It wasn’t long before I decided that the identities that passed through my hand every day wouldn’t be missed. Kyle Warner, XXX-XX-XXXX, was the first. “Beat his neighbor’s dog to death as a child.” The italics absolved me as I took his name and began opening accounts. Now I have an entire closet at home full of nothing but credit cards and uncashed social security checks.
Benjamin walks up to the counter and asks for a pack of Lucky Strike Filters. “They don’t make those anymore bud.” The clerk says. He takes a pack of Camels instead, punches his code into the pin-pad, and walks out the door.
I pull my car out onto the street and turn onto the highway, quietly reciting my litany from the top. “Loretta Young, XXX-XX-XXXX, lies about crying at movies out of fear of seeming cold to her friends. Steven Mercer, XXX-XX-XXXX, gives his family and friends hand-drawn cards every Christmas. Catherine Pook, XXX-XX-XXXX, blushes every time she talks to her cats. Joseph Gates, XXX-XX-XXXX, stole a pair of lacquered Chinese worry-balls from his teacher’s desk in the 8th grade, and gave them as a present to his mother out of guilt…
Jack is, as always, sitting at his desk on the spartan ground floor when I enter the building. The sickly-sweet smoke billowing out of his cherry-stained pipe forms a dusky cloud around his head that the dim fluorescent lighting of the windowless office cannot penetrate. I’ve never once gotten a clear look at his face.
I walk across the field of tight burber to his desk and slap the file down in front of him, gently laying the orange peel on top of it. “Here it is.” Before I can turn around I feel Jack’s cold and wrinkled hand press down on top of mine like a vise.
“Nope. She wants you to take it up to her yourself.”
I halt, confused by the sudden change in a routine so established it was a ritual. “She?”
“The Fat Lady.”
“The Fat Lady?”
Jack’s leathery face pushes the cloud-front forward and I cringe involuntarily as he yells “YES The Fat Lady! Is there a god-damn echo in here?”
Everyone that worked for her had theories and stories; it was all we talked about in the minutes we spent together every morning waiting for Jack to come down the elevator with our files. But no one had ever actually seen her. That is besides, we all could only assume, Jack.
My heart races as I gather my wits to some degree and point mutely at the elevator. From within his vanilla cloud, Jack simply nods. I take back the file and the peel and walk slowly to the back of the room.
The rough beige doors slide closed with a loud clank, and I clutch the file to my chest, wondering which of the four floors The Fat Lady is on and more importantly, where all the buttons are. I can feel no movement, and there is absolutely nothing around me besides dingy painted steel. What seems like hours pass by before the doors slide loudly open again to reveal an impossibly large room filled with filing cabinets. I step out, immediately noticing the uncomfortably low ceiling. I return to the litany to calm my nerves. “Greg Jackson, XXX-XX-XXXX…” I halt, unable to remember the important bit. Was it something about his first car? Getting a royal flush at a Pai-Gow table?
I take a deep breath and look around. Sickly yellow fluorescents in the stuccoed ceiling light the room, and it is so large and so dim that I cannot see the other three walls. Thousands, millions, of beige five-drawer filing cabinets form row after row, like titan’s ribs thrusting up from the floor. Directly ahead of me is a ladder leading up into a hole in the ceiling that pours forth a bright, clean light.
‘Five, Four, Three, Two, One.’ My breath and heart slow and I do my best to assess my situation. Almost immediately I recognize the opportunity before me and set the file and the peel down on the floor. I walk to the nearest cabinet and pull open the third drawer up.
Michael Stravin, Louis Hearth, Allen Riker. I close my eyes and accept defeat. The files seem to be random, and there’s no way I could find mine before Jack comes looking for me. I laugh to myself, suddenly realizing there was probably no way I could find myself if I spent the rest of my life in this room.
I sigh and gather Loretta’s file and peel, walking calmly to the ladder. Placing the peel in my pocket and straining my jaw to hold the file between my teeth, I begin to climb.
My muscles are on fire by the time the light above draws near and I climb blinking and half-blind into The Fat Lady’s office.
I see her hand thrust in front of me from my right, its thick fingers curled along the edges of the pale white pillow of her palm. Understanding, I fish the peel out of my pocket and gently lay it down into her grasp.
My eyes adjust to the light as she walks to the other end of the room. Her body defies the word enormous, looking alien in its proportions. She wears a flowing white dress, embroidered subtly and gracefully, which somehow flatters her ample form. Her wrist is forever lost beneath the joining of hand and forearm, looking almost like independent parts held together and animated by magnetism. She glides across the floor with stunning grace, the subtle movement of the fat under her taught and unblemished skin belying impossible strength.
Before I can even open my mouth, she turns and shushes me, the air rushing out of her tiny doll’s lips like a hull breech and her steel-grey eyes broaching no argument. She comes to a halt in front of a table supporting a strange device settled into a nest of wires. The Fat Lady lifts the smoked-plastic lid of the device and places Loretta’s orange peel onto a shiny metal disk in the center of the contraption. Closing the lid, she produces a pocket-watch from somewhere on her person and stares fixedly at it’s ticking hands.
I can’t help but hold my breath until finally, her finger strikes a button to the left of the device, and she leans her head back and closes her eyes in apparent ecstasy. A tone begins to swell out from unseen speakers, joined by another, and another. The chord layers to an impossible complexity. Tears are welling in my eyes as the crescendoing wave of sound shakes my bones and overpowers the beat of my heart. I think I can hear a soft voice, layered upon itself ad infinitum, a lifetime compressed into a single note.
The Fat Lady’s breast trembles and swells impossibly as she drinks the sound in. And then suddenly it stops, leaving only the echo of a scream ringing in my ears. The Fat Lady smiles and softly exhales, opening her eyes. Sated, she walks to the other side of the room and delicately pulls a small platinum disk from a complicated turntable, slips it into a dust jacket, labels it, and places it on one of the shelves lining the walls of her office.
“I talked to her, to Loretta.” I blurt out without thinking.
The Fat Lady glides to the mahogany desk and sits down in her massive, plush chair before locking me in her eyes. “I know, it’s been accounted for.”
“And others, for years.” I add, unable to stop.
“Yes, them too.” She smiles. “How long have you worked here?”
“I… I don’t know.” I stammer.
“You have a question, don’t you? Something you want to know?” Her doll’s mouth tightens to a point.
“What happened to her, to Loretta?”
The Fat lady laughs. “You already know that.”
I do, I admit to myself.
“Be a dear and put that back for me, would you?” She gestures at Loretta’s file and pulls a large ledger from one of her desk’s drawers. “In the cabinet to the left of the ladder. They’re sorted by date.” Her eyes narrow and a smirk dances across the corner of her lip, then she lifts a pen from the desk and begins scribbling in the ledger, calling the audience to a close.
Slowly, I turn myself away from her and descend the ladder.
I open one of the cabinet’s drawers at random and begin thumbing through the files comparing dates. I find Loretta’s place, and then there it is, printed on a folder thinner than most in a neat courier font. My name. Loretta’s folder falls to the floor, and I rip my file from its place. I don’t even have to sort through the pages, the italics are right there at the top of the list.
Vanilla smoke stings my wide eyes and a hard, wrinkled hand plucks the file from my numb fingers. I turn around, but he’s already gone.
I close my eyes, and find the words burned into the blackness. ‘Desperately wishes he was something more than he really is.’
I rush blindly down the street to the pawnshop and Kellen Walker, XXX-XX-XXXX, buys a nine-millimeter Lugar. I get into the car and speed home, hoping I’m not late for my appointment with The Fat Lady.
So that’s it. I’m not sure what it means. And it’s probably just a story some malaise-stricken identity thief cooked up before he decided to blow his brains out. But I figured it belonged here.
It’s funny, halfway through transcribing this someone sat down at the table next to me and started flipping through a thick manila folder, lol. If I were the paranoid typ
They’re gone. They were there a second ago and then I looked back to the laptop for just a moment and when I looked back they were gone.
Jesus, look at me. Jumping at my own shadow!
Except… the notebook is gone too.
What’s going to happen to me?