The House of Ninety-Nine Secrets

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“The nurse says I can stay long enough for a story,” I say, gripping the edge of the chair next to your bed.

The air-conditioning—too cold in these places, it’s ridiculous—keeps blowing a loose strand of hair into your eyelashes. You blink and lift a small hand, so slowly, I can’t believe how slowly, but I grab your fingers and smile.

“I’ll take care of it, you just relax.”

As I tuck the wayward curl beneath the elastic band holding the mask to your face—too tight, I think, but the nurses swear it’s on right—I can feel your fever creep into my fingertips, feel the sweat beading there. And I can see by your expression that my face changed in that moment, that you glimpsed the deep whirl of rage and fear and sadness I hide from you. All I can do is smile again and tell the story and hope you’re too young to have learned how to worry as much as your parents. I find no comfort in that thought.

The way people tell it, it was Gus’s idea to build the House That Woke, even though he’d never built anything more complicated than a bookshelf.

“I’m so bored, Evie,” he said, just a few days after retiring. “I want to wake up knowing that I’m going to do something that matters, that I’m not just going to sit around this place all day.”

“But our little house is so nice,” said Evie. She enjoyed the garden and the way the sun cut the perfect angle across the breakfast nook when they had coffee together in the morning. But Gus was restless and she loved him so she kissed him and relented.

It took them almost five years, from foundation and frame to pipes and wires to walls and windows and, finally, the finishing touches: oiled wood floors and a sign on the door that read “Gus’n’Evie.” It was a bit crude, maybe even ugly, but it was theirs and they grew to love it.

But they didn’t understand it. Not at first.

One night, months after they moved in and Gus proclaimed himself to be more content than he’d ever been in his whole life, Evie sat up straight in bed, her heart pounding.

“Gus.” She looked around, frantic. There was nothing but moonlight in the room. “Gus, wake up.”

“Mmm?”

“Gus, is that you making that noise?”

“Mmm? Gdasleep Evie…”

So Gus slept and Evie stayed up and listened to the rhythm of the air gliding in and out and in and out and into the room as if it were an enormous lung.

The next night, Evie stretched on the bed and shook her head and smiled at Gus, who was already snoring. But as the soft fingers of sleep began to caress her—

ba-DUM

Evie leapt up and flipped the light switch. Gus reared from the bed like an animal, eyes clenched against the sudden brightness.

ba-DUM

They froze.

They waited.

ba-DUM

“Must be the house settling?” said Gus, but even as he spoke he grabbed the baseball bat from under the bed and crept out to the hall.

It was empty. But the sound—

ba-DUM

—continued. Gus gripped hard on the bat and jumped into the living room, prepared for burglars or a deer rampaging through the kitchen or something. But there was nothing. Nothing but—

ba-DUM

—the sound.

“Hello?” called Gus.

“HELLO?” a voice responded. A booming voice, crashing like waves against a cliffside shore, sweeping on him and around him and over him.

Gus dropped the bat.

“Wh—” he said. “Who’s there? Where are you?”

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Evie huddled against the wall, wide-eyed and unmoving. The thump echoed hollow again through the House and they both flinched.

“Hello?” said Gus again.

“HELLO,” the voice boomed. “I AM SORRY. HAVE I DISTURBED YOU? I SHALL ASPIRE TO BE QUIET.”

The echoes of the voice faded. The ba-DUM could no longer be heard except as a faint tapping.

“Who are you?” said Evie, sprinting tiptoe across the living room to stand by her husband.

“I seem to be your house,” replied the voice, steady now and smooth.

“But how are…” Gus pushed his hands against the sides of his head. “How?”

“I don’t know. I just woke like this.”

In truth, although neither Gus nor Evie nor even the House knew it, everyone who tells the story agrees—Gus had built his restlessness into the House. Into every nail, and into every piece of wood. And as Gus and Evie settled into their new home, the House became unsettled.

“So…” said the House.

There was an awkward silence.

So that was how Gus and Evie met the House That Woke.

A machine next to you, one of many, clicks on and begins whirring and cranking like a tiny factory. Fluid drips again through loops of plastic tubing and I trace it with my eyes, this medicinal roller coaster, down and up and around, behind the mattress and then curling up to the IV, secured by a piece of tape that wraps all the way around your tiny elbow. Your eyelids flutter—the doctors warned us this part would always hurt—but still you smile for me and it makes my heartbeat call out through the entire world, shaking the walls and the floors like the sound in the story.

“I’ll speak up,” I say, “so you can hear me over that thing.”

For a time, the novelty of being awake kept the House occupied.

“Look at my windows!” it said with delight, opening and closing them sometimes one at a time, sometimes all at once.

“Yes, House,” said Evie, looking up from her book. “That’s very nice.”

“And my chimney is lovely,” it said, puffing smoke into a clear blue sky.

But as the days passed, the House grew more and more used to these things and grew more and more quiet. After many days of silence, the House announced: “I’m bored.”

Evie chuckled. Gus just rolled his eyes.

“Aren’t there birds dancing on top of you?” Evie said.

“Yes.”

“Isn’t that interesting?”

“Birds are boring.”

Gus and Evie exchanged a look.

The House sighed, shooting a gust of air through the rooms that tangled Evie’s hair and scattered Gus’s newspaper.

That evening—not everyone tells this part of the story, but I think you’ll like it—that evening, the House moaned and giggled. “Oh Evelyn,” it said when she asked if it was okay. “I feel very strange.”

She patted a nearby doorframe to reassure it. “What’s wrong?”

“Well, it feels like, unnnh, like there’s…” The House’s voice trailed off. Evie started to speak again, to ask if she could help, when the House shrieked so loud the floor vibrated, and every door, window, cabinet, and drawer banged open and close, echoing like cannonfire.

“House!” Evie pulled her hand away from the doorframe just in time to keep her fingers from being crushed. “HOUSE!”

Gus jumped from his chair, hands over his ears, and shouted, “What is your problem?”

“It—” The House, which didn’t need to breathe, sounded breathless. “In the… chimney… tickle… tickles in my chimney.”

Over the sounds of slamming wood and the panicked giggle-shrieks of the House, Gus yelled, “Alright, alright already.” He scooped up a flashlight and shoved an arm inside the fireplace up to the elbow. The House moaned again and began to emit a high-pitched hissing noise like the nervous intake of breath.

“Careful Gus,” said Evie, resting a hand on his shoulder.

Gus clenched the flashlight between his teeth and waved her back. “Itsh hfine, Eewie, it’w we hfine.”

The House wasn’t reassured. “Oh my god be gentle with my flue!” it screeched, but Gus had already yanked the lever and a huge raccoon scrabbled down, all fur and claws, and bolted across the living room trailing clouds of ash behind it. Gus cursed. Evie laughed. The House let out a sigh of relief before demanding that they get it out, get-it-out-get-it-out.

“Do you remember when that raccoon got in our garage last summer?”

I laugh, remembering the way I shrieked and jumped on the hood of the car and pulled you up behind me. We sat there for over an hour, thumb-wrestling and telling jokes until I thought to reach into the car window and hit the garage door opener.”

“It was so funny, the way it ran.” I puff out my cheeks and rock from side to side in imitation.

You crinkle your eyes some. That means “yes” these days.

From then until after sunset, Gus chased the raccoon from room to room with the baseball bat, and all the while the House berated him.

“Have you seen the things that climb around on a house?” it said. “Do you know what you’re inviting in without a chimney cap?”

“Shut up, House,” said Gus through gritted teeth, crouched and circling toward the bedroom closet in yet another attempt to corner the intruder.

“It’s not just raccoons, you know. Mice. Squirrels. Birds. Even bats!”

“I said shut up, House!”

The raccoon skittered under the bed and back to the hallway, well out of striking distance.

“Hell.”

Bats, Gus!”

“Dang it, House, just shut up!”

Finally, Gus admitted defeat and Evie took pity on them. She lured the raccoon with an apple core and trapped it in a pair of laundry baskets. Within five minutes it was shambling up the hillside and into the shadow of the tree line.

The House seemed content after that, and carried on about the “exciting beast” for almost a week before lapsing again into a tense stillness.

“Hey, I know what would be fun,” it said after days of not speaking, even in response to Evie’s “good mornings” and “good nights.”

“Hi House, welcome back,” said Evie. “What would be fun?”

“I’d like to explore.”

“You don’t have any legs, House,” said Gus, scowling and balling up his newspaper. “You can’t explore.”

“Well,” said the House, clicking its window locks back and forth in thought. “Maybe you could make more of me, then we’d all have something new to do.”

“Hmm.” Gus tossed the ball of paper from one hand to the other as the House’s restless urgency seeped into him. He looked around the room, the same old room, quietly drumming his feet. “Maybe an addition would be nice.”

Evie sighed. She’d grown fond of the House, just as it was.

“Okay, House,” said Gus. “What do you have in mind?”

The House clapped its doors with excitement. “Hallways,” it said. “Mysterious, magical hallways. With ninety-nine new doors.”

Gus whistled. “Ninety-nine?”

“Yeah, it has to be ninety-nine,” said the House. “Ninety-nine is a good mysterious number. And behind each door, I’ll put a secret.”

You’re trying to sit up and say something, but you really shouldn’t.

“Lay down,” I say, gently guiding your head back to the pillow, careful to keep the tubes untangled. “Just listen and you’ll find out.”

“What kind of secret?”

“I have no idea. They’re secrets! That’s what will make it all so interesting to explore.”

“Hm.”

For another three-or-so years while Evie hummed alone in the garden and read and cooked, Gus toiled. Guided by the House, he built five hallways stacked on top of each other, each connected with a staircase that spiraled up like a vine, and each lined with twenty doors that led to no rooms (except for the top hallway, which had only nineteen doors that led to no rooms). And behind each door the House put a secret so secret that not even it knew what it was (or so it claimed).

So that was how the House That Woke got its ninety-nine doors and its ninety-nine secrets.

In most versions of the story, Evie opened the first door at Gus’s prompting. She hesitated—”Don’t you want to open it?”—but he kissed her and insisted.

“It’ll be fun,” he said. “Promise!”

The knob turned easily and the door swung inward to reveal a room twice as big as the entire House. Long wooden tables filled it from end to end, and on each table were lamps, all dark. Sconces of myriad designs hung on the walls, made of stone and greening copper and steel. Chandeliers swayed from chains, ropes, and cords at every height, some scraping the tabletops, others nestled so high against the honey-colored beadboard ceiling that they couldn’t be seen from the doorway.

Gus and Evie stood and looked for a long, long time.

Finally, Evie spoke. “How is…” She backed into the hallway then stepped into the room again. “Gus? How is this room so big?”

Gus frowned. “These doors are all flush against the walls.” He reached over and held her hand. “Evie, there are no rooms.”

“House? Where are we?”

The House didn’t respond, but one by one the lights in the room began to flick on and off in sequence—two seconds of illumination from a single source followed by a brief pause, then two more seconds of light from the next source. Then another breath of darkness, another light, and so on across every table, every wall, and every bulb suspended from the ceiling. And as the lamps cycled, and as the shadows leapt first one way, then another, the House began to giggle and sing in delight.

“I’m so bright and beautiful!” it said.

Gus and Evie watched the entire sequence before interrupting.

“House,” said Evie, “you still haven’t answered. How is there a room here?”

“Who knows?” said the House cheerfully, experimenting with radiant patterns that spiraled and scrolled across the walls. “It’s a secret. Best not to think too hard about it.”

Sometimes people tell of the thousand-dollar electricity bill they received the next month. But some people don’t believe utility bills belong in fairy tales, so you don’t always hear about those kinds of details.

As the months and years went on, Gus and Evie opened more doors, each time at the House’s prompting. The secrets behind the doors vary from story to story. Sometimes they’re poignant, sometimes they’re funny, but they’re always different because they’re ultimately unimportant.

In some versions, they find only an empty room or one in which gravity is reversed and they walk on the ceiling, stepping carefully over exposed beams. In other versions, they find a crocodile in a bowler hat that speaks only in Zen koans (“If you think you really come and go,” says the crocodile in that story, “that is your delusion. Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and no going.”). Often, one of the rooms contains a bank vault overflowing with hundred dollar bills or a Palmer oak that grows one acorn-sized diamond per day or a gold mine manned by tiny and subservient supernatural creatures. Some people love stories about money.

There’s always at least one dangerous room. A room filled with water that rushes out and floods the House as soon as the door opens, or one filled with hornets packed so close together that their wings are pasted, wet and immobile, to their sides. In the old days, people told how Gus saved Evie but lately it’s more common to hear it the other way.

The House was full of secrets—ninety-nine in the story, but, in reality, infinite. You can dream about any of them.

The machine is beeping now, loud and insistent, and I hit the call button immediately. Your eyes are bigger, but only just—mostly you look tired.

No one is here so I hit the call button again and jog to the door, trying to conceal the panic corkscrewing through me, but the nurse walks in and the first thing she does is laugh.

“Again?” she says, and walks to the bed tut-tutting. Her smile is huge and genuine. It’s one of the only things that makes me feel like a normal person when I’m here, and I hope it makes you feel the same way too. Like just a kid.

“This thing keeps getting twisted,” the nurse says, untangling the IV line and clipping it to the bed controls. “There, that ought to keep it in place since this—” she taps you on the nose “—little wiggle worm doesn’t want to stay still. And look at all this sweat!”

I hold you while she changes the sheets; you used to hold on to my neck when I did this and I would swing you up, up like a pirate ship at the carnival, but carrying you today feels like carrying a wet towel. I want to hug you, but I’m afraid it would only hurt so I just stand like a piece of furniture while the nurse finishes and leaves and I can put you back into this enormous bed and envelop you in its sheets.

“There,” I say. “Better?”

You nod, just barely but enough.

After many years, the House began to complain again about being bored despite the constant discoveries in its new and numerous secret rooms. Evie tried to cheer it up, but Gus mostly ignored it and her. He spent his days examining the many rooms they had discovered, like a man looking for a sandwich on the moon.

Then one morning he awoke to total silence.

“Evelyn!” He paused and listened to the nothing. “Evie, hey Evie!”

But she didn’t respond.

“House, is Evie home?”

“Yes.”

“Where is she?”

The House didn’t answer.

“Pfff.”

So Gus walked the long, narrow halls of the House That Woke, calling out for his wife. It took him many hours—he didn’t walk so fast anymore—and when he reached the cul-de-sac at the very end of the very last hall with no sign of Evie, he sank down onto a chair and rested his head in his hands. He wasn’t sure if it was night or day; there were no windows in this hallway, no clocks.

“The heck…” he muttered, scuffing his slippers back and forth.

“Perhaps open a door?” asked the House.

“What?”

“You never know what you’ll find.”

So Gus opened a door to a room filled with dozens of crows, perched on the walls, flying and pecking each other. Their cries overwhelmed him and he fell back against a wall and watched for long minutes as they fled the room, a storm of black feathers and claws escaping down the stairs. The emptied room, coated in the cracked white refuse of the flock, stank like a farm in summer and Gus retreated down the hall.

“Perhaps another?”

“House, where is she?”

“Perhaps another, Gus.”

The next door opened into a massive cavern of ice. And there, curled in the center of the floor, still and white as the ice itself, was Evie.

Some say she was dead; some say she was asleep. But the way that everyone tells it, Gus ran out of the room in a frenzy and Evie never spoke a word in that House again. When Gus returned only minutes later, the cavern was empty.

So that was how Gus lost Evie.

There were dark days for Gus after that.

“Gus?” said the House. “Aw, Gus.”

But Gus stayed quiet and refused to set foot in the hallways with the doors and their many secrets, even as the House nudged and cajoled.

“Maybe you should open another door,” said the House. “Sometimes secrets come at just the right time.”

Gus sat, head between his knees, hands on his head. But the restlessness grew.

“Just one door, Gus. We have nothing better to do.”

Everything stretched out long, endless before him, and he deflated. “Fine. Fine, House. One door.”

The room was small, almost a closet. Dark maple floors abutted brick walls, the mortar crumbling even as he watched, first in little flakes of dust, then in marble-sized chunks that tumbled like a miniature avalanche. There was no ceiling.

On the floor, curled at the edges with age, lay a piece of paper.

Gus picked it up and read it. His hands trembled.

“What’s it say?” The House flickered the lights in its excitement, but Gus stayed quiet, staring. “Come on, Gus, it’s been weeks since we did this. What’s it say, what’s it say?”

Breath came slow then filled him the way a sunrise fills a valley. “It says,” he said, “‘She Is Behind A Door.'”

“Oo, good secret.”

“She’s behind a door.”

“You just said—Gus. Gus!”

But Gus was already in the hall, deaf with hope and tearing at the handle of the next door, and the next, and the next. Inside were wonderful things: a human cannonball frozen in mid-air; a cliff-side looming over an ocean of mercury; an obese caterpillar flying a kite made of smaller caterpillars; things different in every version of the story. But none of them were her.

So he moved like a clock hand down the hall, secret after secret revealed and stacked atop each other like coins. Each failed him and each failure was more crushing, wrenched harder, than the last.

As he ran to the end of the final hallway, to the final door, hobbling on his bad knee but heedless of the pain, resilient as all heroes should be, the House flexed its floorboards down, then up, and Gus hit the ground like a dead man. He didn’t move, barely even heard the breath rattling in his lungs. He just waited.

“Gus…”

The House’s voice was soft. Even timid?

“Gus, you’ve got to slow down. We’re not even enjoying the stuff you’re discovering. Did you know that the monkey we saw three doors back is, at this very moment, performing slam poetry with the ghost of Rimbaud? Or that the door next to them contains a river so long it loops its world and runs parallel to itself, not once but four times?”

“Who cares, House? None of those were her.”

“None of them need to be her! It’s us now. Just us. And look at all these amazing things we’ve found. Look at the gifts we built ourselves!”

Gus kicked his feet at the floor and shouted. “Do you really think those things matter? Do you think people look back and say, ‘Gee, I wish I had more gifts and secrets and adventures?'”

“But there’s so much to explore—”

“No! They don’t! They think about the person that mattered most to them, and they say, ‘I would give anything, anything, for one more day with that person.'” Gus pulled himself to his feet. “Keep your secrets, House. I’m gonna go find Evie.” He steadied himself with both hands against the wall and he began to walk.

“Gus. Gus, if you go through this last door, it’s over. You can’t ever come back.” The House howled and whipped the hallway up and down like a rope bridge in a storm, but Gus walked on. “Gus! We won’t even be able to enjoy all the secrets you’ve left laying around! … And I’ll be alone, Gus.”

The floor shuddered one last time and became still; the warped boards clutched each other and groaned.

“… Gus?”

Gus shook his head, the doorknob cool in his hand, and he stepped through the last door and left the House forever.

But every story has different endings. In every version of this story, everyone agrees: the House That Woke was left alone and empty. What it did next is a different story entirely.

As for Gus and Evie, it depends on who you ask, and when. Some people tell it like a cautionary tale, like this:

Gus stepped across the threshold into a cold, barren room with a single door in it. The door behind him was gone. “Evie!” he called. He opened the door and ran and found, through that door, another door, and through that door, another door, and through that door, another door, and through that door, another door, and through that door…

You get the idea. But there’s another version, a newer version that I think you’ll like more and that I think is probably more true.

Gus stepped across the threshold and immediately shielded his eyes against brilliant sunlight that filtered and flickered through the luscious green-glass leaves of maple trees. Disoriented, he pivoted; the door behind him was gone. But before him, across the ocean of grass speckled with ladybugs and hummingbirds, through the undulating scent of the magnolias, was their old house, with its old porch, and on it an old woman, waving and smiling and calling out words that were eaten by air.

“Evie!” he cried, and he went to her.

You give me a little thumbs up, your breath clouding the mask so all I can see is your eyes and your hair and your arms sticking out from beneath the sheets the way driftwood sticks out of a beach. I kiss you on your head.

“Go to sleep, sweetheart,” I say, but I hate that you sleep here, I hate returning from our little shared worlds to this one with its biopsies and white walls and framed paintings of balloons. “I love you.”

And your eyes close. The fluorescent lighting becomes an ocean and submerges me and for a terrible moment I can find no air. But your face is serene. I can just watch you now, the way your chest rises, the way the heat has colored your cheeks, the way your hairline looks just like your mother’s and your eyes look just like mine, and I hope you enjoyed the story and I hope you understand that life is not just a series of things that happen to us and I hope you understand, somehow, about the joy of stillness and the value of what you have and I hope you’re dreaming now about doors and secrets and crocodiles in silly hats and home, especially home, and love and love and love, and I hope you know that we will too, that we will always dream about you and this time with you and your love, and your love, and your love.

end article

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Kurt Hunt

About Kurt Hunt

Kurt Hunt is, in no particular order, a father, a lawyer, a husband, a human, and a daydreamer. Sometimes he writes things, but usually he doesn't.