You’d expect, at the very least, a quiet ting-a-ling—resounding from an era in which friendly eyes were all that watched. Instead, silence is the old friend that greets you as the door is pushed open. You step in, and your gaze finds neither human nor security system’s multitudinous stare. With a soft, rustling sigh, the door disappears behind you.
The interior is cinnamon with a touch of mildew; rich, dusty tones you will continue to inhale long after you have left. Furniture is an elusive concept, seemingly considered in passing. Items are content to languish in disarray, and everything that was once white is in varying states of yellowing; creams turned rusty, reminiscent of an ancient world map. Lines, textures intersect to form this antique terrain. Despite, there is a touch of homeliness about the place, bringing to mind not the cartographer himself, but the cartographer’s wife. There are no directions by which one can be led to such a space, nor is one ever able to stumble upon it on accident. The shop is known to exist in a state of abstraction, hidden deep in the maze of one’s subconscious where half-forgotten dreams lie in wait. There are some things which are not meant to be found, until those dreams conspire to make them known to us.
I have been here once before—I think—in this room that breathes déjà vu. The wallpaper is peeling, but you could take hold of a crumbling edge and pull, only to find another layer—also peeling—underneath. Layers upon layers. You would be fighting your way into the room as you fought your way out of it, a slow, miserable, unending journey. As I contemplate this, a muffled voice emerges from behind a shelf of old tomes. “Here at last,” it says. Then, the owner steps out of the shadows. She’s a great deal younger than she’d been the first time we met, barely older than myself. Nine years ago, she was hunched over in suffering, like the twisted metal of a damaged lamp post. The person who stands before me now holds her spine straight and sure as a collision course. She is pride and resignation; certainty that I am closer to the end of life than I was before. I am her; she is me.
“You let the bird out of the cage,” she states pointedly. “What happened?”
The blue-and-white budgie had flown free. At her words, the memory of releasing it swoops back down to me, ravenously hungry. I pinpoint the consequences of my meddling. When I dragged myself out of bed to a stale morning of diet cereal and clouds pregnant with rain, it was also to news of a prison break. My life had changed.
She nods and lets out a delighted laugh. “Truth-as-metaphors! Mischievous little things, aren’t they?”
My insides turn stony. She’d known that my gesture of kindness would mean a serial killer on the loose once again—a man my family had helped incarcerate. She’d known what opening the cage would set in motion.
If murder is in my cards, it is in my veins; I want to choke her till breaths are but a nasty gurgle in her throat, bludgeon her with the lies she surrounds herself with. There is a collection of bottles on a set of metal drawers, beside the empty birdcage. I seize the tallest one and the rest tumble to the floor, clinking merrily. Without a moment’s hesitation, I draw the heavy glass bottle over my shoulder and fling it at her. She dodges. The bottle hits a pile of music boxes, some of which clatter open and join their voices in disharmonious symphony. Snarling, she turns back with eyes tinged the colour of rust, staring her madness into me. I feel the knife-point of her anger sinking in. Don’t—she shrieks—touch—anything! Rage has transformed her. We are no longer perfect mirror images of each other. I run, using both hands to sweep paraphernalia off their respective perches as I head to where the door had been. In a whirl of auburn hair, she lunges at me, teeth bared. We collide and she tears at my face with her nails, drawing blood, as though I were the monster wearing her visage.
The room is attuned to her. Lights flicker incessantly, responding to the crackle of invisible static. There is a chandelier directly overhead, low enough to reach if—I jump, pulling the wrought-iron frame down onto the keeper of truth-as-metaphor. The constellation of bulbs finally wink out. She bleeds glittering dark sand with the rainbow sheen of an oil slick. It spills from a hole in her chest, where the inverted decorative spire of the chandelier had pierced her. I look into her hollow body by the light of stained-glass lamps, artificial candles which run on a current that is attuned to—me. With trembling fingers, I touch her freckled cheek. “Sorry.” She responds by crumbling into the same shiny grit which fills her insides. The only sound is the susurrus of shifting sand. Before I can gather up any of her remains, a gentle wind blossoms from within the pile and dissolves her into nothing.
Though the room now belongs to me, I don’t wish to return. Not ever. The least I can do is leave it exactly as it was. Some things will never exist here again—the bird, the previous keeper—but there is nothing one can do to recapture freedom or undo death. Antique glass is tough. The bottles, intact, are returned to an approximation of their original places. The music boxes are haphazardly re-stacked. I utilize the current that flows through me to repair the broken links of the chandelier chain. Once I am certain that the room is as it was before, I channel every last spark of my affinity with it into materializing the door. A low hum emits from the walls and the door slides into view. I open it, and leave my fears behind.