֎

Chapter 2:
Mysteries and a Library

It was sweltering at midday. The temperature had spiked over the last few days which didn’t help to improve Kairyna’s attitude. Having been forced to help work in the gardens, she was not enjoying the sweat that dripped down her face and the heat that pelted her back. She’d tied her hair back and donned a cap, but that didn’t seem to be helping much. The sunscreen she’d put on was likewise wearing off in usefulness. Too much longer, and she’d be as red as the streaks in her hair.

            “Kairyna, could you bring that pail over here?” Aunt Helen asked sounding breathless.

            “Why don’t you get it yourself?” she snapped back.

            “Please, Kairyna.”

She pointed at the pail her aunt was talking about. “It’s already closer to you. Why are you asking me?”

Helen rubbed her forehead with the back of the gardening glove she wore. “Because I want to finish off this bed as soon as possible and all you’re doing is glaring at the weeds anyway. Please, don’t fight me on this. It’s hot, and I’d like to get inside to take a break from it sooner rather than later.”

            “Yeah, because that will help,” she said sarcastically as she got to her feet. “Do you think I agreed to help you because I wanted to? I just used that as an excuse to get out of that place.” She grabbed the pail which felt like it weighed a thousand pounds even though it was empty. “There’s no air conditioning in there and it’s stuffy,” she continued in her complaint as she carried the pail to where her aunt was crouched. “If Madam Sporra’s so rich, then can’t she afford to keep her house cool?”

            “Maybe the heat just doesn’t affect her,” Helen said placing the pile of weeds she’d gathered in the pail. “Thank you.”

            “You’re welcome,” Kairyna grumbled.

            “Ooh, but it’s sweltering out here,” Madam Sporra said appearing suddenly on the back porch. “Why don’t you two step out of the heat and come have a glass of cold lemonade?”

“Thank you for the offer, Madam Sporra. We’ll be there right away. We’re almost finished the weeding in this section. Kairyna, could you pull those ones, please?”

With a heavy sigh, Kairyna did as she was asked. She was too tired to fight back.

            “You’ve done a marvellous job,” Madam Sporra continued. “I’ve said it before, but you must be miracle workers. I never thought these gardens could ever be helped. They’ve been overgrown for decades.”

            “Hooray for us,” Kairyna said with a roll of her eyes. She dropped the last weed in the bucket.

“That can stay where it is,” Helen said tiredly. “Let’s go get some of that lemonade.”

Kairyna accepted a tall glass from Madam Sporra as she sat down on the top step in the shade of the porch. Immediately, she took off her hat to fan herself. “Why’d you let them get like that anyway?”

            Madam Sporra was silent for a while as she stared down at her own glass of lemonade. Then her gaze drifted off into the distance as she began to speak. “These were my husband’s gardens. He always loved plants. There used to be so many different kinds of flowers. They were beautiful. He would often be gone on trips for work, but he always made time for the gardens when he came home. On days when it was nice out, he would take me by the hand, and we would stroll the grounds together. Those were the happiest days of my life.” Her gentle smile grew sad. “When he died, I just couldn’t find it in me to keep the gardens going. So, they fell into disarray and the weeds took over.”

            “Then why do you suddenly want the flowers back?” Kairyna asked still unimpressed.

            “Kairyna,” her aunt scolded.

            Madam Sporra turned her smile on Kairyna. “It’s a curious thing, isn’t it? To long for something after so many years. Perhaps I’ve grown sentimental in my old age.” She said this with a chuckle, but a tear slid down her cheek. “I guess I just want to remember him,” she said in a near whisper. “He always believed in me.”

            Ignoring her aunt’s scrutinizing gaze, Kairyna took a sip of the lemonade. It was surprisingly delicious.

            “Anyway,” Madam Sporra said sounding more lively. “Make sure to take a good, long break. No need to work so hard in this temperature and risk collapse from heat stroke. You’ve got to look after your health first. The gardens can wait. They’ve survived this long.”

 

֎

 

Kairyna stood looking despairingly at the hall she’d been assigned to clean. There were at least six rooms that she could see. The hall opened at the far end to split off in both directions. Who knew how many more rooms there would be? And they expect me to be able to clean all these by myself? Her shoulders drooped as she counted the doors again. With a groan, she turned to the first one and entered the dark room. Placing her cleaning supplies on the floor, she walked to the window to throw back the heavy curtains. As she did so, a cloud of dust rained down on her and she fell into a fit of coughs and violent sneezes. With one arm covering her mouth, she waved some of the dust away and then quickly wiped away the tears that had resulted from the onslaught.

            With the light now spilling into the room, she could see exactly what she was up against. It was obviously one of the guest bedrooms for she was standing in what resembled the common space in the suite she and her aunt shared. This one was set up differently, however. The bedrooms were separated to either side of the common area, each having their own private washroom. Everything was covered in sheets and thick layers of dust.

            “Well, this should be fun,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

            Tying her hair away from her face, she set to work. By the time lunch rolled around, the common area was mostly cleaned. The sheets were in a pile by the door, everything had been vacuumed, and the dust was gone from the shelves. The walls had been washed as well, and she was currently focusing on the windows. Wiping the sweat from her brow, she frowned at the grime packed in the corners. It wasn’t rubbing off. 

            A knock on the door made her start. She spun around, nearly falling off her precarious perch on the ladder she’d found to reach the top of the window.

Madam Sporra stood in the doorway holding a tray. “Sorry to startle you, my dear. I brought you some lunch.”

            Calming her racing heart, Kairyna lowered herself to the floor. “Thanks,” she mumbled.

            The old woman looked around the room. “I had forgotten how little these rooms have been used,” she said more to herself than Kairyna. “How marvellous to see them looking alive again. Perhaps when things are all cleaned up, we’ll be able to start a hotel business. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

            Kairyna had to force herself not to roll her eyes again. “I can’t imagine who’d want to stay here though,” she said under her breath instead.

            “You’d be surprised how many people would be willing to come just for the chance to stay in an old mansion,” Madam Sporra said placing the tray on the coffee table. “Maybe we could spread rumours about the place being haunted. Humans love a good ghost story, don’t they?” she said with a smile.

Something in her expression didn’t sit right with Kairyna. “Um, I guess,” she said.

“Well, I’d better get back to the kitchen. Helen and I are doing some rearranging. It’s taking more effort than I thought it would.” Her eyes took on a far-off look as she left the room.

            Kairyna shook her head. What a strange woman, she thought as she walked over to the tray. On it was a sandwich, a small bowl of fruit, and a glass of water.

            Once she had finished eating, she sighed and looked around the common room. “I’ll do the windows later,” she decided. “Maybe. If I feel like ramming my head through one of the walls.”

            Grabbing her supplies, she entered the first of the bedrooms. Some dust greeted her, but she’d been expecting as much and had tied a cloth around her face as a makeshift mask. Setting the supplies on the bed, she pulled back the curtains. With them tied out of the way, she opened the window to allow for air movement. Not that there was much, but at least now the stuffy air had a way of escaping.

            Deciding to start with the dresser, she walked over to it and opened the first drawer. What she saw surprised her. She had been expecting it to be empty or filled with linens, but instead she found clothes. With her curiosity piqued, she began opening the drawers one-by-one only to find more evidence of someone having lived in the room. She pulled out one of the shirts and held it up to the light. “Boys clothes?” she wondered aloud.

            Carefully, she refolded the shirt and replaced it before sitting on the bed to think. She stared at the dresser trying to make sense of what she’d found.

            A prodding at the back of her mind made her get up and walk to the next room. She headed straight to the dresser and found that it too was filled with male clothing. “Did Madam Sporra have sons?” she wondered aloud.

            She was about to return to the task of cleaning when something caught her eye. In the corner was something that looked like a piece of paper. She wouldn’t have noticed it except that a stray beam of light had bypassed the curtains to fall upon it as though beckoning her to see it. Picking it up and wiping off the layer of dust, she gasped. Two smiling boys stared up at her.         Gently, she carried the picture to where the lighting was better. The boys looked remarkably similar, obviously brothers. The younger one had to have been around her age. “He’s handsome,” she admitted staring at him curiously. “Who are you? And what happened to you?”

 

֎

 

It still seemed to be getting hotter with each passing day of summer. Looking out the window into the now mostly cleared out yard, Kairyna could see that nothing was growing. Perhaps they had started planting too late, but it was her opinion that the land was dead.

She took a deep breath and sighed. Over the last few weeks, she had finally finished the task of cleaning the many guest rooms assigned to her. During that time, she had searched for any other clues as to who the two boys could have been. To her dismay, she’d found nothing. However, there were signs of other people, whether relations of Madam Sporra or guests she didn’t know. In other of the rooms, there were clothes belonging to both males and females. Why such items had been left behind was anybody’s guess. She was disappointed, however, when she didn’t find any other personal items except for a thin-chained gold necklace with a small heart pendant.

            After finding the necklace, she had spent a long time shining it up until it sparkled in the sunlight. She held it now along with the picture of the two boys. The thought of asking Madam Sporra about the picture and the necklace had briefly crossed her mind upon first finding them. Instead of asking, she decided to keep them to herself. After all, a part of her hadn’t completely dismissed the idea of Madam Sporra luring people here to be killed. True, she hadn’t found a basement or any other creepy part of the house where such actions might have taken place. The old woman also didn’t really give off the vibe of a murderer. But then, she’d never met one.

            “There’s no one around to hear me scream if something were to happen,” she said to herself as she stared at the forest that surrounded the mansion. “And no one who would report Aunt Helen and I missing. Was it the same for you?” she asked the picture of the two boys. “I wish you were still here. At least then I’d have someone to talk to.”

            She flipped the picture over and absently rubbed off the last of the dust that still clung to it. A few smudges refused to be erased and she glared down at them. Something about them looked familiar. Holding it closer to her face, she realized that they weren’t smudges at all, but nearly indecipherable words.  

            “Demitri,” she read slowly, “and Jayce. Well, I’m no Sherlock, but I’m guessing those are your names.”  

            Turning the picture face-side up again, she smiled back at the two boys. “Now we’re getting to know each other,” she said quietly. “My name is Kairyna. I suppose we can be proper friends now that we’ve been acquainted.” She stared at their faces. “I don’t have any real friends anymore,” she told them. “It’s my fault, I guess. But it’s still incredibly lonely. If you could talk to me. . ..” She let the thought trail off. “Maybe this is for the best.”

            Being careful not to bend the corners, she placed the picture in her pocket along with the necklace. She took a moment to enjoy her secret before beginning the journey to the dining room where she knew supper would be waiting.

 

֎

 

Though another month passed, and summer was meant to be turning to fall, it was still way too hot in Kairyna’s opinion. She had abandoned her chores and now laid on the floor of the common area in the suite she and her aunt shared reading a book. It was slightly cooler on the floor, but the air was still heavy with heat.

            Putting the book down, she groaned heavily. “So bored,” she said rolling onto her stomach. “I need a new book. I wonder if Madam Sporra has a library somewhere. A big house like this ought to have something someplace.”

            With her mind made up, she decided to wander the halls on a quest to find something of interest. There were any number of guest rooms, broom closets, living areas, hidden nooks, and more throughout the mansion. As she walked, she couldn’t help but notice all the paintings that decorated the walls and the statues that lined the corridors. Most of these were eerie in their design.

“All the cleaning this place requires means little time for exploration,” she said eyeing a particularly confusing painting. “Why does she keep all this stuff?”

            She peered into another room and scrunched her nose at the musty smell that wafted out. There wasn’t anything interesting visible and anything that was out was either covered in bed sheets or thick layers of dust. She coughed as some of the dust caught in her throat and moved on.

            As she walked, she realized just how little of the house she’d been in. “How big is this place?” she wondered as she passed another unfamiliar hall. “Where is the library?”

            Feeling discouraged, she was about to give up her search for the day when she noticed something curious at the end of a hall she passed. There was a large set of wood paneled doors so different from any other’s she’d come across, she suddenly found herself standing in front of them admiring the detailed work that had been inlaid so intricately. Pulling her eyes from the artwork to focus on the surprisingly non-rusted brass handles, she hesitated before reaching out to grab them and give them a firm pull. They didn’t budge.

            “Of course,” she mused. “They must not be opened very often.”

            She tried again. Placing her foot against one of the doors, she braced herself and pulled with all her might. At first, nothing happened. Then, with a mighty groan, the door broke free. Kairyna was caught off-guard by the sudden give that she lost her balance and found herself sprawled on the floor.

            As the door opened, a wave of voices crashed over her. They were nonsense sounds, but they had the distinct pattern of words. A shiver ran up her spine as the voices faded, and she lay on the ground staring at the dark opening. “That was odd,” she said trying to make herself feel better. “Likely the exhale of a room long in disuse.” She wasn’t sure she had convinced herself, but she got back to her feet and peered inside.

            What she saw when her eyes adjusted to the dark made her gasp in awe. She had found the library. It was a massive space with shelf upon shelf filled with books. Feeling an overwhelming urge to touch them, she stepped fully into the room.

A cold breeze washed over her the instant she crossed the threshold, causing her to shiver. It was like she had entered another dimension. Everything was coated in the thickest layer of dust she’d seen yet.

Looking behind her, she could clearly see her footprints, as though she’d walked through snow. “That is so gross.”

            She turned back to admire the library. Due to the dark, she couldn’t appreciate its full magnitude and tried searching for a light. When there wasn’t one, she followed the bordering wall and opened every window. The daylight revealed to her just how massive the room was, and she could feel a giddy joy bubbling up inside of her. She even laughed; she was so happy. The sound was odd to her ears and she immediately covered her mouth.

Slowly, she wandered down aisle after aisle admiring the different books, pausing every so often to run her finger down one of the spines. This resulted in her fingers turning grey from the dust, but she didn’t care. Her excitement couldn’t be contained for long and she laughed again. It was the first time she’d felt this happy in years.

            After wandering the aisles for nearly an hour, she found her excitement draining. “Is everything in this library from the ancient word?” she asked aloud. “Honestly, these are all just relics that should be in a museum or the offices of philosophers and historians. Where are the readable books?”

            She sighed and looked at one of the larger books nearest her. The title scrawled down its binding looked like nothing more than scribbles. “What language are you in?” she asked the book accusingly. “Where are the action-packed adventure novels? The mysteries, the romances, anything with a genre outside of ancient philosophy?” She directed the question at the library as a whole. “I can’t read these. Not unless I want to bore myself to death.”

            She paused at the thought. Tempting.

            With another sigh, she decided to pull the book out so she could make a face down at its cover. Upon pulling the book forward, however, the whole bookshelf shook and moved backward. She squeaked, startled, and backed away from it, bumping into the shelf behind her. “Oops!”

Curiosity overtook her senses as the shelf slid to the side revealing an arched passage. “This is more like it,” she said in wonder. “I knew there had to be a secret passage somewhere.” Quite thoroughly interested in what might be hidden behind the bookshelf, she ventured in. It was dark, as expected. “I hope this isn’t how I die,” she said as she followed the passage. Her thoughts returned to the possibility of Madam Sporra secretly having a thirst for blood.

 The mysterious hall opened to a large circular area. Here, there was light. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much to the room other than the pillars that lined it and held up the domed glass ceiling, which was the source of the light. 

            “Incredible,” she said eyeing the sky.

            At the center of the room stood a large wooden podium. On it sat something covered by a silk blanket of deep purple. Somehow, she found herself mesmerized by the possibility of whatever lay beneath.

            A shadow moved at the corner of her peripheral. Instantly, her head shot up to look in that direction, but nothing was there. “Huh. Must have been my imagination.”

            Turning back to the pedestal, she walked toward it until she stood at its base. She was about to reach out to pull off the covering when she felt a weight on her shoulder as something grabbed it. She screamed and tried to jump away, but her foot caught on the podium and she fell onto the dust-free floor. The impact of her knee hitting the stone was sure to leave a bruise and she hissed at the pain.

            “Kairyna, are you alright?” a familiar voice asked.

            She looked up and saw Madam Sporra standing over her with a worried look on her face. “Madam Sporra!” she gasped. She hadn’t heard anyone come up behind her.

            “I’m so sorry to have frightened you, dear.”

            “No, it’s alright,” she said scrambling back to her feet and taking a safe step away from the old woman. “I’m sorry. I was just. . .. Am I not supposed to be in here? It’s just that I was bored of my books and was―”

            “─Looking for something to read?” Madam Sporra finished for her with a soft smile.

            “I didn’t mean to trespass or anything.”

            “It’s quite alright. I had noticed your obvious love for books and was hoping to show this place to you eventually anyway. But I see you’ve found it on your own.”

            Kairyna could only nod uncomfortably.

            “Unfortunately, there are no books filled with grand adventures like you read in this library. All these books are merely the random accumulations of an old booklover. I’m afraid I only have one story in my collection.”

            “You do?”

            “You wouldn’t want to read it.”

            “Yes, I would. I really would.”

            “My dear, enthusiastic child. The stories you read probably all start with, ‘once upon a time,’ and end with, ‘happily ever after,’ yes?”

            Kairyna looked at the elderly woman sceptically. “Not in those exact words all the time, but I suppose the concept is always the same.”

            “Then I must disappoint you. For this is not one of those stories. It does not have a happy ending where everything turns out right. Are you sure you still would like to read it?”

            By now, Kairyna was quite curious. “I have nothing else to read.”

            Madam Sporra gave her a hard look but then sighed. Slowly, she nodded and then removed the silk blanket from the podium to reveal a large, ancient looking book with a faded cover and dull gold pages.

            The moment the book was revealed, Kairyna felt something like a noose rope her heart and pull her toward it. She gasped as she inadvertently took a step forward. “Oh, it’s wonderful! I’ve never seen anything so . . . so . . . old!”

            Madam Sporra chuckled.

            “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean old. That’s a poorly chosen word. I mean. . .. It’s just.” There was nothing more she could think to say.

             “Do you really want to read it?”

            “Oh, yes,” Kairyna said her eyes widening as she stared at the book almost hungrily. The desire to turn the first page was enough to make her hands tremble.

            “In that case, I feel it is only fair to warn you.”

            Her brows drew together in confusion. “Warn me about what?”

            “This story has a way of sucking you in. Once you begin this journey, there is no going back. Only forward. To begin reading this book, you must understand that there is no escape.”

            “Escape?” Kairyna said almost too venomously. “The only story I wish to escape from is my own.”

            “I see,” Madam Sporra said in a tone of voice Kairyna couldn’t quite place. Then the old woman smiled sweetly and placed a wrinkled hand on the cover of the book. “This book is my most prized possession and dearest friend. I feel like after having had it for so long, a piece of me has stayed within the pages. Without this book I would die.”

            Kairyna watched as Madam Sporra stroked the book lovingly. “And I’m allowed to read it?”

            “Yes, indeed. Nothing would bring me greater joy. So many others have entered this book before you. Their lives were changed drastically because of it.”

            “Really?” Kairyna asked uncertainly. “Is this book that good?”

             “Are you ready to join them?”

            Slightly unnerved by the tone in which Madam Sporra spoke, Kairyna nodded. The effect the book had on her was unsettling, but she was too enthralled to notice the warning blaring at the back of her mind. “If reading this book means my life will be changed, then I’m ready.”

            Madam Sporra smiled. “Wonderful. Enjoy your read, my dear.” She motioned to the book and took a step back, waiting with anticipation on her face.

            “Okay.” Kairyna smiled back slightly and then moved to stand in front of the pedestal. She took a deep breath, not knowing why she suddenly felt nervous about reading this book. “It’s just a book,” she chided herself quietly. “I spent hours searching the library for this. No backing down now.”

            Curious to learn what secret world was waiting just beyond her reach, she opened the book and flipped to the first page. Excitement grew in her and her nervousness disappeared as she began to read.

            As she read, it was as though her senses were awakening and reacting to the story. She could feel the cold wind biting at her skin sending shivers down her spine, and a nauseating fear roiling in her stomach. This author is good, she thought. Scary good. I’ve never read anything that seemed so real before. I must remember to ask Madam Sporra for this author’s name.