A Short Story by Melissa F. Kaelin
Work in Progress
Under fledgling leaves and young flower buds, Ellie cruised down the lane in a black 1969 AMX. The car might’ve been older than she was, but when she grazed the gas pedal with her foot, the response was slick. The engine rumbled as she cruised into her new neighborhood, admiring the spring colors on the different types of trees.
Ellie pulled into her new place, parked just out front, and carried in the last box of her things. The move had taken weeks, mostly because she’d spread out the packing and the transfer of furniture, while she took her time getting acquainted with the old brick house. Though Ellie thrived on change and the newness of her experiences, she had developed a habit of moving gradually through life, holding onto the past, while orienting herself to new people and new places one step at a time. The neglect she’d felt as a child saw her longing for stronger connections and left her hungry to find deeper meaning in each day. So, the wandering soul savored every detail around her. The chirp of every cricket. The blush of every crabapple blossom. The scent of every pine needle.
The branches of leafing trees danced just outside the windows, hugging the house in a green canopy. When she walked to the front door, she gazed up at the evergreens that towered above the roof. The mature trees must’ve been centuries old, and yet, the house could’ve been over 100 years old, too. In the brief time she spent viewing the place, asking after its age had skipped her mind.
She set down the box, a white container repurposed from an appliance purchase, and turned the key in the old wooden door. The locked clinked open, making lousy sounds because of the way the wood had warped in the frame. Ellie pushed the door open and carried the white box inside, placing it squarely in the center of the room as a reminder to unpack it promptly. Under vaulted ceilings, exposed red brick walls towered around her. Together with the walnut floorboards, they contrasted the white box with their rich color and rustic appearance.
This seemed odd in the midst of a global pandemic, when people across the world were struggling to contain disease by isolating themselves at home. Millions mourned the company of others. Yet, Ellie was meant to live here alone.
A solid construction, the house was lined with warm brick and wood throughout. It was just the kind of stability Ellie needed. Years of rapid change had left her spinning, after living in five cities in as many years, and she sought a solid foundation, one that could withstand the test of time. Yet, in spots, the design revealed the burdens of age.
The walls spoke of more than providing shelter, as if each individual brick bore an untold history, hid an unlikely purpose, concealed an unbelievable story. The aging interior gave Ellie pause as she walked into the far room, studying the walls for the best place to display her treasured portraits and the trinkets contained in the white box. She considered the layout carefully. Noticing an irregularity in the brick construction, she walked to the corner to study the wall. One brick, in particular, stood askew. Four or five bricks from the corner of the house, the mortar had cracked and decayed, shaking a single brick loose.
A cool draft in the house made Ellie shiver. Beyond the sunlit windows, the neighborhood glowed in a yellow-green, accented by pink blossoms that stood across the street. Even as the evenings had grown longer, the daytime temperature in the north had plateaued at a wintry 40 degrees. The house seemed almost cave-like, and even with the heat on, the rooms carried a chill. It was the kind of chill that was reminiscent of an abandoned cabin in the woods or the vacant set of a dystopian Hollywood movie. If Ellie was going to live here, she had to find the house’s darkest secret and expose it in the architecture’s natural light.
Ellie reached out to touch the red-orange brick. To the slightest press of her finger, the brick wobbled against the rest of the wall, which appeared to be firm. She lifted her other hand, touching the brick on both sides, and applied gentle pressure. The brick tilted backward, but not by much, and the room suddenly grew dark.
Looking behind her, she realized the only thing that’d changed about the interior lighting was on the exterior. A low bank of clouds had blocked the cascading sunlight from view. She shook off her surprise. It was natural, to be feeling strange in this situation. To be somewhere old and simultaneously new. To discover a house in this way, brick by brick. To be tentative at first, before letting the wood floors warm beneath her wool socks. She peered out the window for a moment, until the cloud bank separated, and the sunlight again shone through.
She turned back toward the brick, her hands still pressed against it, and she gave it a push. The brick dislodged, more than it had before. She gripped the edge on the top-left and pulled the brick toward her.
Ellie winced at the gritty sound the brick made as it moved, and she second-guessed her decision to disturb the piece, just as it slid to the edge of its slot. A sound of gushing water rose up around her, too, and with the brick held steady on the edge, she spun her head around, examining the room. She didn’t know what kind of prank the owner was pulling, but the sound appeared to be the heating vents, as water gushed into motion and filtered through the pipes, producing heat in a manner she was unaware of. The house sounded like a submarine going under the ocean.
Shaking this off, too, Ellie looked back at the brick between her fingers. Ever so slowly, she slid it away from the wall, revealing the age-old crevice that had encased the brick.
Light pierced into the room, with bright beams lining the floor in every direction. A strong aroma of magnolias crowded her senses. A gear-like noise sounded somewhere behind her, as if a mechanical door had opened on the reverse side. Then something drifted out of the crevice, and glowing in golden light, floated down from the wall.
Ellie dropped the brick, absent-mindedly crushing her toe.
The shout of her words startled her, in the near silence of her new home. She stood there, blinded, rubbing her eyes, trying to find some logical explanation for the impact on her senses, and wondering where she had stored the bottle of wine – reserved to uncork on the first celebratory night in the house. Or had she already finished it? And forgotten?
When Ellie finally had the presence of mind to steady herself and quiet her racing thoughts, she looked down at the floor. She didn’t give a fuck about her toe, which was undoubtedly broken, but instead stared at the mystery unearthed from the brick.
There, at her feet, rested a palm-sized scrap of paper. Ever so gently, she reached down to pick up the note, wondering if any writing could be found on the surface. As Ellie focused her gaze on the ivory paper, she discovered one cryptic sentence, penned in a cursive script.
The secret is in the sixth tile.
— End Part I —
TO BE CONTINUED…