My complete stories & my book ORPHANS
He had never been inside the room. It was the sort of room in an old house that no one ever entered partly because of the various stories about Medieval victims it had claimed, and partly because it was accessible only to those strong and willing enough to climb the many flights of stairs. Old Mr. Johansen stayed inside all the time (it was provided with toilet and sun porch), not having left its walls since he entered ten years before William was born.
William had decided the old man was convalescent and would not be able to make the walk downstairs successfully. Each day he brought up his meals and correspondence, placing them inside the door; but had never actually stepped inside. He had been tempted a few times, but the old man always snapped at him.
"You get away from that door, young man! I'll not have anyone stepping into my room. I don't bother your world, why must you intrude into mine? Leave me alone and be gone!"
The situation did not change. William often wished he could talk to the old man: he was fascinated with what sort of things he may have done in his lifetime. Whenever he saw him, there was always a forbidding, unearthly sparkle in his eyes. Almost mesmerizing.
But there were other things that made William curious about the room. He peeked in often during deliveries and noticed each time that the furniture had been shifted radically. This coincided with sounds often heard from the room (the boy's was directly below) but did not figure for the old man. No one else ventured near the room. Did Johansen have the strength to move all that furniture once or twice a day? Was that how he exercised? Surely the old man's feeble heart would give away under such a constant strain.
But the sounds persisted, and when William looked in at suppertime, sure enough, the room had been extensively rearranged. One day he screwed up enough courage to ask the old man a question.
"Mr. Johansen, do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"No, William, I suppose not. What is it?"
"I, ah...I was wondering...why you never come out of your room."
The old man's eyes waxed fiery for a moment and his mustache bristled, but he quickly gained control of himself again.
"There are just some things, William, that a sixteen-year-olds should not be told. This is one of them."
William made a step into the room, and felt the carpet slip under his foot. The entire floor seemed to give away like soft forest moss, but he managed to recover and pull his foot back outside the door. The old man yelled at him to leave and never to try that again. He fled, panting and bewildered.
That night, William lay in bed thinking about what had happened. He had stepped on the carpet, which looked thin and sparse. It had instead been soft, thick and mossy. It covered the entire floor and should have muffled all moving sounds from the room. Yet here he was again, listening to the bed and dressers being shifted, the portable closet moving. It seemed like they were all moving at once, but that was even less likely than the old man moving even one piece at a time.
"There must be someone else up there helping him," thought the boy. "I want to know who it is."
With that he pulled on his jeans and shirt, and tiptoed up to the door. The sounds were still coming from inside the room, but he heard no heavy breathing and saw no light under the door.
"Perhaps he has a towel or blanket pushed up against the door."
William turned the 'handle. At first it resisted his motion, but then suddenly responded with an almost self-powered turn. He pushed the door open slightly and stepped onto the velvety-soft floor inside. As he did, the chandelier lights snapped on and the old man sat up in bed. He was over in the far corner, opposite the bed's position during the evening meal.
"Mr. Johansen," whispered William as he took several steps across the spongy floor. The room seemed to be vibrating at a very slow speed. The walls hung loosely from the ceiling, expanding and contracting rhythmically. The old man glared at William for several moments of silence and then softened. He rose, put on his bathrobe, and took a seat across from a satin-covered chair.
"Please sit down, William. It is time I talked with you."
William hesitated, then dashed for the door. It had slowly eased itself shut and the lock clicked just as the boy's hand touched the knob. William stared out the large keyhole into the hall.
"Please, Mr. Johansen, let me out. I won't ever come in here again. Please take the key and let me out."
"I'm sorry, William, but I have no key. But sit, I must explain to you, for it is now that you must know what this room is. No, do not be afraid. The room cannot harm you, but there are certain things you must know. First, adjust yourself to the fact that you will never leave this room again."
At this, William's eyes bugged wide and he pulled on the doorknob harder. It somehow wrested itself from his grip and when he tried to grab it again, it stung his hand. He sat down finally, his eyes watery.
"Whatdayamean, I can't get out? When Mom unlocks it I'll get out. Whatdayamean?"
"Patience, William. I will explain everything."
The chair was not comfortable at first, but the boy felt it adjust to his body contours. In thirty seconds he was sitting squarely on the plush seat. A few more and his arms were comfortably cushioned on the spacious armrests. He was frightened, but felt no need to leave the chair. He was suddenly very calm and placid. The room seemed friendly.
"When I was 47, William, I walked into this room. Like you, I had been curious about the events in here. I had often heard scraping noises and other sounds. My curiosity got the best of me and I stepped inside to see what was going on."
The walls had now ceased their contortions and the floor was less spongy than when William came in. It took on the characteristics of a rippling ebb tide under the boy's feet. It tickled them clear though his shoes, sending the most pleasureful sensation through his body he had ever experienced. He smiled.
Johansen noted the smile on William's face. "The room likes you," he said. "Yes. It's alive. This room has lived for many years in this lonely corner of the house. It has waited for someone to step inside and become part of its life. I did and now so have you."
The old man paused in his speech and closed his eyes. He seemed to be listening to something speak to him. William heard nothing beyond a vague rumbling from within the walls. Presently, the bed began to move slowly to the other side of the room. The floor was rippling, causing it to slide jerkily. In two minutes it had been shifted to its new position and was still.
"It is exercising again," said the old man. "It seems to need more and more lately. I wonder if it is getting older or just beginning its prime existence?"
William started as the chair he sat in began to stir once more. He felt the soft velvet harden and the armrests thin themselves. When he looked down, he was on a simple wooden-backed chair, not the throne he first sat in.
"Wha-what is this?" he croaked. He was paralyzed with fear and yet his body remained relaxed. He felt as if things were going to be made clear very soon. Still, his eyes questioned the old man pleadingly. He managed one more sentence.
"H-how did the chair change?"
"And how did the bed move?" the old man continued for him. "Like us, the room has appendages. We possess arms and legs which we use to exercise and move about. This room, however, cannot move from its location; it is trapped. It has no external limbs, no outside extremities upon which it can move. But it does have many independent appendages within its body. The chair and the bed are only the 'arms' and 'legs' it can use. Just as you need exercise to remain healthy and aware, the room does also. It exercises itself by moving its arms and legs about the room. They are portable limbs."
"B-b-but why do you stay?"
"William," the old man said tiredly, "do you know what a transplant is?"
The boy nodded his head but then looked puzzled. The old man spoke again.
"When a new arm is sewn onto a person, the body decides whether or not it wants to keep the arm. If it does not, antibodies are sent to attack the new arm and kill it. The arm does not become part of the body.
"But when the body does want the arm, it sends fewer antibodiesthey simply clean out any germs other contaminations that may have entered before the arm was sewn on. The new arm grows and becomes a part of the body.
"This room has many arms and legs, as I said before. They are all independent of position in this room, but all must respond to the room's wishes. I am like another limb, but 1 still respond to my own wishes."
"Then why don't you leave?" asked the boy anxiously.
"I have no reason to leave now, William. I am as much a part of this room as your hand is a part of your arm. I cannot leave, just as no other item in here may leave, either."
William suddenly remembered the two moving men who were suddenly struck deathly sick while trying to remove a piano from Johansen's room. They had come en two different occasions, found the piano in two different positions, but were unable to budge the instrument from its place. The second time they came, their fevers were so bad they had to be carried out and they gave up after that.
Now William realized how lucky they had been. Either the room had had to concentrate on retaining the piano or it had not wanted the two men to be a part of its world. They had escaped. Would he?
He rose and moved toward the door: He opened it easily, but felt no desire to leave. The floor was rippling gently against his feet and he was very content to he where he was. He walked over and sat down across from the old man. A small circular table eased itself between the two. The old man laid down a worn deck of cards and began shuffling.
"What games do you know?"
copyright (c) 2000 by Steve Schlich
My complete stories & my book ORPHANS
from September 1971 publication in
Colorado Daily New Morning Edition