Within the Den

-By J.J. Cheesman
I honestly don’t remember every detail about Aunt Rosie’s house. The sky-blue of the siding on her house sticks out in my mind, as well as the white lattice above the front door that was wreathed in ivy. The inside of the home has even fewer spots in my memory. I know there was a second floor, but I was never allowed to go up there. The living area is pretty much a blank to me as well, even though I had to pass through it to get to the playroom, all I can recall is its nautical theme.

Aunt Rosie must have had a thing for boats, because the only other room I can get a grip on in my mind besides the den, is the kitchen, and the kitchen was crawling with all kinds of nautical-themed décor. There were ropes, and porthole windows, and an old ship wheel, all placed carefully across the walls. When I think of the kitchen in that house, my mind takes my senses to a place of momentary bliss. I can hear Aunt Rosie humming as she puts a kettle on to boil. There’s a small *clang* as she fiddles inside one of the cabinets to get a baking tin. Then comes the sweet smell of peanut butter cookies, something she always made when I came to visit because they were my favorite. Maybe they were only my favorite because I only got them when Aunt Rosie made them, I’m not sure. In any case, the kitchen holds warm and fond memories for me.

The playroom was filled with all manner of toy castles and stuffed animals. That was where I spent a majority of time during my visits. Like most of the house I don’t remember many specifics about it, but I can recall the various bins of toys Aunt Rosie had collected over the years. The toys ranged from the very toddler-friendly spelling blocks, to stuffed animals, to dolls and toy castles, they were more than enough to occupy eight-year-old me for hours and hours. Just beyond the playroom, separated by a single white door, was what Aunt Rosie called, the den. The door to the den was always closed, though I could see inside from my play area thanks to the large ornate glass that sat in the center of the white door. Even with the sun up, it was a dark room thanks to the large red dimming curtains that covered the windows. The little light that did filter in through the heavy fabric bathed the room in a sickly-red color.

I remember becoming bored with my play one lazy afternoon, and I decided to get closer to the door of the den to get a better look inside. Décor inside the Den seemed to be the same nautical theme that the rest of the house had. I could see a portrait of a lighthouse, hanging above a yellow easy chair with a very high back. The yellow material on the chair looked luxurious, but if I had to guess at it now it was likely imitation velvet. The portrait held my attention for a moment when I laid eyes on it. At the time, and up until the few moments after looking away from the portrait to what stood beside the chair, it was the most curious thing that I had seen in my life.

Inside the world of the painting, it was mid-day and overcast. The lighthouse stood on the edge of a high and precarious cliff. There was a woman standing on the catwalk and looking out over the briny sea. She seemed to be frightened, though most of her face was covered in the shadowy strands of her wet blonde hair. Just behind her, the great eye of the light house lens was illuminated and shining out onto the ocean. The scene was clearly painted by some expert hand. It was easy to get lost in the picture, I could almost see the calm waters below the cliff changing violent under the impending storm above. I must have stood staring at that painting for several minutes before the sound of Aunt Rosie traveling throughout the house broke me from the spell it had placed on my senses. I quickly ran over to the spot where I was playing just moments before, and I pretended to be enthralled with the toy castle and several little plastic villagers that I was playing with.

Seconds later Rosie walked into the playroom wiping here hands in her apron.

“Ellie, do you like strawberry tarts?” She asked.

I smiled, relieved that she didn’t see me running over from the den.

“Of course!” I said.

“Good! We’ll have some to try after supper tonight.”

Aunt Rosie walked over to me, bent over, and kissed me on the head.

“Are you doing okay in here?” She asked.

“I’m fine.” I said.

“I’ll leave you to it then.” She gave me another kiss, and left the room. I watched her walk through the living room. As soon as I saw her turn the corner and head into the kitchen, I got up and walked back over to the den.

I meant to examine at the painting again, but something far more interesting caught my eye. Beside the yellow chair, was a small table with a lamp. In front of the lamp was a clear glass bottle placed sideways. Inside the bottle, was a small model of a grand and ornate ship. The wooden hull was trimmed in gold, and the sails were black, accented with white stripes. I had never seen anything so intriguing. The first time I laid eyes on that, my childish imagination ran wild. I didn’t understand how something was possible, I was confused on how exactly such a large model fit inside such a small space.

Aunt Rosie warned me to stay out of the den, it was one of the few rules at her house, but it was a rule I knew I was going to have to break. I didn’t know why, I just knew that I had to get a closer look so I could inspect the bottle up close. Before trying the door, I turned my head and listened hard for Rosie. I could hear pots and pans in the kitchen. I hoped that meant she would be occupied for a while. Silently I made a deal with myself to only go into the den for a moment. One quick look was all I needed, then I would be right out.

I took a deep breath, and tried the door knob. To my surprise, the door was already un-latched. When I pressed on the knob, the door simply swung slowly outward, creaking slightly and then stopping. I paused only briefly to listen, wondering if the noise was loud enough to alert my Aunt. I could no longer hear her in the kitchen, but I didn’t hear approaching footsteps, so I continued. The door was open only a sliver, but it was enough for me to squeeze through without the risk of making anymore sound. I slid quietly in, and moved as quickly yet as quietly as I could, concentrating hard on the glass bottle beside the chair.

Finally, I was standing directly in front of the table and the model ship, and I inched my face so close to the glass that my breath began to fog the bottle. I drew back only slightly, and marveled at the tiny ship inside the ocean of glass. It was even more beautiful up close. The white stripes on the black sails were drawn in intricate patterns by some expert hand. The gold trim around its hull gleamed even in the poor light of the den. Several minutes must have gone by while I stood staring, yet never daring to lay a finger on the glass for fear of doing more damage than I could fix. I was so enthralled, so focused on the beauty of what I was examining, that I hadn’t noticed until that very moment that something had changed in the room.

There was a distinct sound of a mower outside worked on their lawn when I entered the room, but all at once the sound became muted, I could still hear it, but it sounded very far away all of a sudden. The absence of sound broke my concentration, but I didn’t have long to think about what happened before something else grabbed my attention. The light filtering in from outside through the thick red curtains became dimmer, and the harsh red hue it created somehow, impossibly, became a cool blue. Slowly, I began to walk through the dark light to the window to see what was going on. The sudden shift in light and sound made me recall the feeling of being in a dream. It was a surreal and uncanny feeling, one that I’ve never again experienced anything similar to. Then, just before I made it to the curtains, I heard the creaking.

It was a long and ghastly sound that seemed to come from all around the den. It was unlike the creak of an old floorboard or door; this sound was strangely heavier. It was then that I made up my mind to leave and find my Aunt Rosie. I didn’t know what was going on, but I knew I didn’t want to be alone any longer. I was thoroughly creeped out but I kept my wits about me and begin to walk calmly toward the door. I took no more than a single step however, before my foot hit something. I backed away instinctively, looking down as I did so. It was the model ship inside its glass bottle. Somehow it had rolled off of the table and made its way through the coarse carpet and ended up in front of me. For a moment I forgot myself, and the odd transformation of the room around me. Once again, the little boat had distracted my child mind. I didn’t remember touching the table, but I must have bumped it when I turned around for it to end up so far from its resting spot. Luckily it looked like the ship inside was completely intact and unscathed from the fall. As soon as my hand touched the bottle, my peripheral vision spotted something familiar beyond the space between my legs. It was in that moment that the surreal, dream-like sensation from before had begun to twist. Now, I wasn’t in a dream at all, this was a full-fledged nightmare.

It is difficult to put into words the terror I felt, the absolutely petrifying fear that came in noticing the pair of bare and pallid feet directly behind me. They were wet and grimy, the toes were gnarled and broken in places, and what nails were left were shriveled yellow and black specks.

I remained in that bent position with my hand still on the bottle, not daring to move. Whoever was standing there made no move either, and I couldn’t even hear breathing. I don’t know how long I stood there like that in that awkward pose, but it was long enough that the strain on my back was causing pain. Even though I felt cold, sweat beaded down my forehead and fell from my chin in large drops onto the carpet. Then there was thick, broken, gurgling sound, almost like water spiraling down a drain, but more guttural. This sound was followed by three broken words.

“Turn around Ellie”

That was the last straw, I closed my eyes and bolted. I reached my hands out, remembering the door wasn’t fully open, and prayed to god that I could find the handle and dash out before my stalker grabbed me. I found the door and threw it open, only opening my eyes when I knew I was in the playroom, I was too afraid to catch a glimpse of the intruder in the reflection of the glass. I didn’t stop running through the house until I made it into the kitchen and found my Aunt Rosie. She’d been sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea, when she saw me on the verge of tears she shoved her cup aside.

“Ellie what on earth is wrong?” she said, holding out her arms.

I ran to her, and I blubbered out incoherent words as she embraced me.

“Ellie calm down, I can’t understand a thing you’re saying.” She said, but I couldn’t calm down, I was hysterical.

“There’s someone in the den!” I finally said

“What do you mean there’s someone in the den?” she asked frantically

“There’s someone in the den!” I repeated.

Aunt Rosie stood and walked over to the knife block on the counter, pulling a large butcher’s knife.

“Wait here.” She said, and left the kitchen. Rosie was gone only a moment or two while I waited in the kitchen shaking uncontrollably. When Aunt Rosie came back she looked me over holding on odd expression on a face that was ghost white. Then she went to the phone on the wall by the table and called my mom at work. A short while later, my mother walked in through the door, finding Aunt Rosie and I at the kitchen table, with two untouched cups of tea in front of each of us.

I remember waiting at the door while my mother and her sister shouted at each other in the kitchen.

“I don’t understand, what happened Rose?!” I heard Mom say.

“I can’t explain in Holly, I just can’t watch her for a while, I just can’t” Rosie said.

“Well thanks a lot for all your help!” Mom screamed, and stormed out of the front door with me in tow.

I didn’t see Rosie for a long time after that. My mother was furious that she’d have to start paying for a babysitter while her and my father were at work. Eventually though, I was old enough to look after myself, and Mom and Aunt Rosie patched things up. Rosie would even come over for visits every now and again, which was a relief. I had begun to blame myself for their spat. After going over the events in the den, and how dream-like it all seemed, I was convinced it was just a nightmare. I must have fallen asleep in the playroom, and dreamed everything that happened in the den. I rarely ever went to Rosie’s, she moved into a small apartment sometime when I was younger.

When I was seventeen, Aunt Rosie and I were talking amongst ourselves during my family’s New Year’s Eve party. We were in the kitchen, Aunt Rosie had been drinking, she was on her fourth cranberry juice and vodka, and we were laughing about how she always thought my father’s nose was just a bit too long. Then all of a sudden, she stopped. Her expression became serious, and she looked around to be sure we were alone.

“Ellie, do you remember the last time you stayed at my house when you were younger?” She asked.

I nodded.

“Can’t forget it.” I said. “But it was just a bad dream is all.”

Her face twisted, as if she was straining to hold back something.

“Can you tell me what happened then? In your dream?”

I agreed, and recounted the story about the den.

Aunt Rosie nodded,

“So, you saw the painting then? With the woman?” She asked.

I smiled.

“Of course, why?”

Before answering, she picked up her drink, which was more than half full, and finished it in two gulps. She sat her drink on the table, and said,

“I had that painting for years. It was your grandfather’s. It was one of the many things your mother and I got in his will after he passed away. But I burned it and moved out after I saw it that day.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Why?”

“The painting of the lighthouse hung in dad’s study for years, and it hung in my den for years more.  I loved that painting. And that’s all it was. A painting of a lighthouse. There was never, ever any woman.”

Within the Den

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