The hallway smelled empty, a mix of discount degreaser and dust. The surfactant, used regularly on the floors throughout Richmond Hall, was liberally and sloppily applied semi-often. Layers of dust clung to fixtures mounted unreasonably high on the twelve foot walls holding up a ceiling of carved wood. No one with keys cared to come at night so they saved money on electric and made it policy to come in the day when the light shone through irregular window glass framed by lead. Naturally, those with keys stayed out of the rooms where no windows were. They said the rooms could be structurally dangerous, but the building was sturdy, so the lack of electric light served as a buffering excuse.
East facing windows lined this main hall on one side and on the opposite wall were regularly spaced doors. Cherry wood ceiling coffers, tired of their place matched these doors, which were a little too tall and a bit too narrow. Each door had a heavy cast iron plate with an etched number and a lock. Protruding white knobs held cut twine laced with the corresponding key for each door on a make-shift lanyards. This was for convenience, and nothing but nerves kept key holders on the hall side of things.
The sun was filtered through the property’s thick aged-pine property line before it penetrated the windows’ glass. The affected light shown softly on the tiles of the floor. A porcelain basin of a water fountain hugged a healthy potted fern fed slowly by a leaking spigot.
An antique rotary pay phone rang fifty feet past the fern. It’s bell was muffled at one point of contact and this flaw was beautiful to the caretaker. Her soft, gently wrinkled hand picked up the heavy receiver after the seventh ring.
“No, that’s ridiculous.” she said in a forced sternness.
She hung up and smiled, allowing her hand to rest extra long on the mahogany handle of the vintage phone, and as she released it she played with the spiral cord a bit before walking back to the pine handle of the mop.
Tom Feller, who answered mostly to “brother” by other townsmen, had a barbershop within Richmond Hall when a few of the spaces were still rented for small business offices. He had kept his keys all this time and the town didn’t much mind that he had done so. He called them the “keys to the city” and it was rumored he unlocked the front two doors every Halloween morning since the closure and title transfer, locking them again every November first. He spread the rumor himself because his stomach wanted to know why it was repulsed, but no teenager in over twenty years would humor him. He told the history differently, stories that often ended with “and we didn’t see so-and-so ever again”.
Grace Demóndenook was the current caretaker. She was granted the job when Tom’s friend, Laird Tennant, had decided to allow a long-buried guilt lead him to pancreatic cancer so he could confess to his deceased wife. Laird had been faithful in his wife’s absence but not during her life. He couldn’t allow her to watch his wrongdoing. Laird had died in the late 90’s to rattle Tamora’s peaceful rest, leave his sons a small estate to fight over, and give Grace a good job.
Grace didn’t mind the cleaning, and no one checked how well she did, but she gave an honest sixty percent effort more than half the time. This was beyond sufficient care for a building no one wished to enter. Her face, at rest, was stern. Lines drawn from her nose to her mouth were deep. She had never liked kids and this trait helped validate Feller’s lies; he would hint she cleaned up bodies without emotion. Today she mopped sloppily, the mop head felt heavier than usual to lift to the rinse bucket, so she lifted it less. Spots were missed, but no one had walked there since the last pass, so Grace forgave herself and continued the weekly job lazily.
Reaching the end of the hall and feeling the job’s closure Grace started to rejoice and think about lunch. She had mentally confirmed stoping in town at Grayson’s Deli for a salami and swiss with one of their homemade dills but as she turned to open the janitor’s closet, the one with the low tub to drain the bucket of muddy suds, she froze in confusion. Door five was half opened.
“What the hell?” she thought. Attempts to reasonably analyze the door rushed into her mind like water downstream, as if an explanation would float on a raft in the flood. It was impossible that someone had followed her in early this morning or that any key holders would come in without a discussion at the monthly review meetings third Thursday’s at the Donut Shoppe. She found herself walking toward Door five, mesmerized by mystery.
The hinges were closest to her so she could only see through an inch crack. Though she rubbed down the exteriors of the doors semi-annually, she had never actually opened one. the morning light seeped in enough for her to make out wallpaper and a chair rail in the room. the bottom half of the wall wainscoting and built in shelving. “what a waste of excellent craftsmanship” she thought. The sliver picture of the room was enough to make her wish to enter. She reached for the doorknob until she heard the loud grunt of dismay followed by frantic scratching of what seemed to be a pen on paper.
The blood of her face withdrew. She was paralyzed in confusion and she felt watched somehow. As soon as she remembered to breathe, which was arguably one full minute into listening to the rhythmic chi-chi-chi— of the pen, she inhaled deeply. The pen stopped. In a strong and quick reaction Grace shoved the door closed and with shaking hands shoved the key at the end of Door five’s lanyard into the key hole to bolt the door. In this small moment her ears reported the abrupt sliding of a chair and a few foot steps. the bolt secured with a loud click, she turned the key halfway to remove it, threw the lanyard around her neck and ran for the central dome’s two story entrance at the beginning of the hallway. Her legs, no longer young, lagged behind her energy. The wet floor challenged her balance and before reaching the flight down to the main entrance doors, she slipped. She felt her ankle buckle first before her right knee twisted too far. Her hands tried to catch herself but her upper body strength had diminished with age also so the pose did little good, and her face hit the ground. She remained conscious but lay still in pain and encompassing fear. The hall was eerily quiet. She closed her eyes and let some warm tears escape. At the other end of the hallway, the phone started to ring.