Early in the darkness of Christmas Eve, on top of Capitol Hill, over by Volunteer Park in the old section where the mansions loom, four young women stood on an unlit porch, pressed against the door, their backs turned to a driving downpour.
In the front of the group Imani struggled with her keys, going through a few before finding the one that took purchase. A shriek cut the air, the hinges of the door complaining from uncommon use.
"Dudes," Imani said. "Welcome to my mansion."
They dumped their gear in the great room, each of them burdened as if they were off to spend a month in the woods. The house was utterly empty. No furniture, not a cabinet or rug.
A thunderous boom, and they spun to Eun standing wide-eyed just inside the door, where a habited house might have had a small rug.
"Sorry! The door closed faster than I thought it would."
"This place is insane," said Cat, pink hair falling against her cheek.
"Are you sure it's okay to be here?" said Sandra. "Like, we're not breaking any laws, or…?"
"Totally not," said Imani. "So, this place used to be owned by some non-prof? Or whatever? They had offices here or something and then they sold it to this Chinese holding company that hired a New York management firm that hired a San Francisco maintenance company that hired me to, you know, maintain the place. So, like, if some Chinese banker or shit comes through the door then we better get lost. But, otherwise? It's fucking Christmas Eve, bitches. We're gonna have us a time."
They laid their rolls and sleeping bags down by the tiled fireplace. Sandra opened her pack and pulled out a large black thermos, a piece of worn masking tape on the side bore her dad's name from when he used to take it to the construction site each day: "T. Mendoza." She lined up four white mugs and a bottle of Fireball.
That smell of cider! The steam made the echoing room around her pull in to almost feel cozy. She poured four measures, then topped them off with healthy shots of the whiskey. She passed them out, then offered a toast.
"Fuck going home for Christmas," she said, and they all drank.
Eun walked to the built-in bench by the window and tried to look outside. It was as if a black felt overlaid the glass, for the light was nonexistent. She thought she saw something — a quiver of light through a shivering branch, perhaps? She leaned close, her breath fogging the pane of glass. It was just a suggestion of movement. A vibration — how could it be so dark outside? In the middle of the city? The cold of the window radiated against her face.
Then a wash of hard rain drenched the window, and so startled her that she stepped away, sloshing a her cider over the mug edge. She put it down.
"This place has to be haunted," she said, and turned away from the windows to look instead at the grand staircase. She imagined the lady of the house making an entrance here, descending to a waiting crowd, during some Christmas party. They all had that vision, the lady in red coming down, the house decked and jovial.
"Oh, no doubt it's haunted," said Imani, finishing her cider, and putting down her mug on the floor. "Let us go scare them up! Hide and seek! Not it!" She ran, her boots pounding each step, and they could hear her taking the stairs two at a time, and then above them in the second floor, more pounding as she ran around, screaming in faux-terror, before suddenly the footfalls stopped completely and the rain was the only thing they heard.
"Is she serious?" said Sandra.
"Not it!" said Cat, and she, too, was gone in a flash.
"Jesus!" said Sandra.
"It's all you, doll," said Eun, and she backed towards the stairs moaning like a ghost, shooting imaginary bullets with six-gun fingers, and then she was gone up the main stairs as well.
Sandra, hands at her side, yelled at the top of her lungs "this is so fucking not cool you assholes!" She poured more Fireball into her empty cup, and downed it — the burn of the alcohol and the cinnamon killing her throat. Was it scarier to walk through an unknown house to find her asshole friends, or to stay here and let them freeze and rot while she drank their liquor and ate their food?
Yeah, eat their food totally alone. With no one to talk to. While the rain fell on the windows, and the house creaked and groaned around her.
"Fine!" she cried out. "Ready or not, here I come!"
She crossed to the staircase, but stopped before it. She had that feeling of not being alone — that somebody was watching her. She spun her phone around, shining a light through the empty dark house. The windows showed only the reflection of her glowing white phone light. Shaking off her raised cackles, she started up the stairs.
She was on the fourth step when it came. Boom! She grasped the bannister, spun around trying to find its source, her heart leaping out of her chest. Then again — Boom! Boom! Boom! echoing through the empty rooms. It was from the door, the front door. Someone was at the front door.
"Hey, uh, guys?" she said, but really it was so quiet that she knew no one had heard her. Then a cry, like an animal — no, a shriek. That door hinge. Somebody had opened the door.
It's gotta be the cops, right? Some neighbor saw them, saw lights in the house. Was totally nosy and called the fucking cops in. But if it was the cops, why no beams of light from powerful cop flashlights? She cried out, making her voice as low as possible. "Who's there?"
"Uh, hello?" came a reply. A man, but the pitch high and uncertain. Sandra willed herself to walk down each step, and turned the light of her phone to see a tall man, a skinny white man, completely underdressed in a swamped hoodie.
"Who are you?"
"I was invited," he said.
"You were invited?"
"It was Eun, wasn't it?"
"It was supposed to be kind of a girl's night, dude."
Sandra sighed. "Lock the front door so no one else just walks in, okay? And then you can help me. They're all hiding from me but I'm really freaked out about walking around this fucking house."
"Yeah," he said.
Cat had discovered the biggest bathtub in the world. It had to be nine feet long. She could lay completely flat, and there was at least two feet of clearance above her head, and another two below her feet. It was incredible. She could live in this tub. She could take baths with Sandra. They hadn't done that since they moved into the new apartment with its cramped little bullshit bucket of a tub.
The rain was quieter here on the second floor, on the east side of the house. Her breath comically loud against the tub walls, and she could see the pattern of bead board on the ceiling thanks to some neighbor's security light that just penetrated a tiny high window. She watched it and took hits from her weed vape pen, feeling the buzz wash down her body, watching the little light at the end glow.
Any minute Sandra was going to come up the stairs and into the bathroom. She would walk through to make sure no one was in here, and when she did Sandra was going to jump out and scream and scare the shit out of her. It was going to be amazing.
While she waited she imagined this house filled with life. A tree down by the fireplace, all trimmed and dressed. One of those huge trees that almost touch the ceiling, and so full they look like they're made from felted wool. Ribbons would run it, and since this place is so old, maybe candles, too. Unsafe, sure, but how pretty would they be? Some fancy gilt crèche on the mantle, garlands and cheer throughout every room. The table in the dining room dressed with white lace with stacked holiday china and silver at every setting. Servants bustling around, making ready for the party to start.
Boom! And a second later Boom! Boom! Boom! Then the front door opening, and Cat was wondering if she should go check on Sandra. But, without warning, the light in the bathroom snapped on. Cat would have sat straight up in the tub, but suddenly she couldn't. Her body was frozen — she couldn't move any part of herself. She was stuck. Imani said the electricity in this place was off, so what the fuck was going on? It was too damn bright. She wished she could cover her eyes, but her arms felt pinned down.
The unmistakable sound of heels on bathroom tiles, and a white woman walked by the tub close enough that Cat could see her. She had dark hair, long, and straight, dressed back with a burgundy ribbon. Her dress was silken and red, it dipped in the back, but what little skin it might have shown was covered in lace. It was just an instant Cat saw her, but she glowed in afterimage, like a flashbulb in a dark room.
Then Cat's back was wet. The faucet was dry, no water coming from it, yet somehow the tub was filling. Her shirt was wicking the moisture up her sides onto her stomach. The water unheated, arctic, shocking her everywhere it touched. Cat still couldn't move, as she felt fingers of water crest the sides of her neck and join in the middle of her throat. It came around her shoulders and crept up her sides, rising faster than seemed possible. Her face, for a moment, an island, and she drew a deep breath before feeling the liquid top her chin.
"Is anybody there?" she heard the woman say, her reedy voice echoing off the tile. "I have the oddest feeling that I'm not alone."
The water crested her nose and Cat was completely submerged when she saw the woman leaning over the tub to look in. A struggling muffled effort from her own throat was the only sound Cat could hear, and then noise of air bubbles escaping her frightened mouth. The woman's face blurred through the lens of the water. She saw, dangling from a chain on the woman's neck, a small brass key. The woman reached out, as if to touch Cat's face, and Cat opened her mouth to scream.
Imani wasn't even gonna try. Let them come find her, and fine, she'll get caught and go be it and chase those bitches down, because she knew this house inside out. Even if they got brave and went to the basement, she would find them and rout them out and drive them up and they'd go feast in the great room and have a fucking good night.
So she went to her favorite spot in the house, right out in the open: the window seat in the master bedroom. On a normal day, not like this wretched dark night, you could see the manicured front yard of the house, where it rose above the street below. You could see the other mansions that neighbored this one.
Sometimes she came and sat up here with her lunch, when she was doing her rounds. Wondered about that family with the famous name that built this place, wondered how their legacy lived on other than on street names.
Ghosts. In this house? How could there not be? But not some stupid Victorian specters. Just the ghosts of rich dead white people leaving their names laying around her city where she had to read them all the time. Ghost of Mercer, ghost of Denny, ghost of Boren. She drove on those ghosts every day. Of course this house has ghosts. It has the ghost of money made good.
A scream cut her thoughts. A piercing sharp cry. Imani ran towards it — down the hall. It came from the bathroom, and she entered to find Cat leaning over the side of the tub, gasping and heaving.
"What happened?" Imani said, leaning over her, putting a hand on her shaking back. "What in the world?"
Cat said nothing, but looked at her with darting eyes wide with fear. Eun was with them, then, and together they helped Cat out of the tub and Cat tried, not very well, to explain what had happened to her.
"Maybe you fell asleep," Eun said.
"No," said Cat, but there was enough uncertainty in her voice that the other women believed she at least thought it was possible.
And then Sandra was in the doorway. "You guys have to see this."
It was a square waist-high cabinet with low legs and a solid door. It had a small brass keyhole and a brass handle, which, when tugged, showed the front was locked. They were all inexorably drawn to it. It had its own gravity.
"I really want to know what's in it," said the man, voicing a thought they all harbored. "I really want to open this."
"Who put a man in my Christmas Eve?" Imani said, pointing at him.
"Eun did," said Sandra.
"Yes," said Eun, looking a bit confused. But she stepped forward and gave him a kiss, and rested her head on his shoulder. "Yes, it was me. I forgot to tell you all."
It all seemed so strange to Cat. She would have left right then, but Sandra held her hand and that calmed the animal of her so much.
"I thought you said this place was totally empty?" Eun said.
"I think even counting a cabinet it still is," said Imani. "I don't remember seeing this before, but I don't remember ever coming up to the attic either." She looked around and waved. "Hello attic."
"Do you think there's a key somewhere?" the man asked.
"It's not ours to open even if there was," said Imani.
"You could say the same about the house," said Sandra.
"I have the keys to the house," said Imani.
"Maybe they gave you the keys to the cabinet," said the man.
"They did not give me keys to a cabinet," said Imani. "I take care of properties, not objects."
"I know where the key is," said Cat, and everybody turned to look at her. She drew Sandra down the stairs out of the attic.
The rest waited. They circled the cabinet, and each laid a hand on its top. They didn't talk, and didn't look at each other.
"So, is she getting the key?" asked the man after a few minutes.
"I don't think she is," said Imani.
The three of them found Cat in the great hall pouring more cider and Fireball for her and Sandra.
"Did you get it?" Eun said.
"The key. You said you knew where it was."
"It's around her ghost's neck," said Sandra, but it was too dark for anybody to see if she rolled her eyes or not when she said it.
"It's not my ghost," said Cat. "And even if I had the key, I wouldn't hand it over. We are not opening that cabinet."
Imani poured cider into the other two mugs, and topped them off as well, then handed Eun hers. "She's right," she said. "We're not going to open the cabinet. We're going to eat our dinner and hang out here in the great room and have a wonderful evening, yes?"
"Yes," said Cat. "I'm never walking up those stairs again."
"Fine with me," said Eun.
"Whatever Cat wants," said Sandra.
"I dunno," said the man. "I mean, it's Christmas. Aren't we supposed to open things on Christmas? Isn't that the whole purpose of it all?"
But, seeing that none of the women were with him, he sat down by the window.
They drank more cider with whisky, and then there was wine. Cat passed around her vape pen and they all smoked out. They ate cheese and crackers and Salumi salami; olives, humous, and pita from Trader Joes; cookies and candies that Eun made herself that morning.
Sandra took out her guitar, and sang two of her own songs ("My Pussy is a Cauldron" and "Cradle of Strife"), then Cat leaned against her, and they did a duet of their favorite rape-culture song "Baby It's Cold Outside", their voices alive in the room, bouncing off the empty walls, and making everybody calm and feel nice with their sweet harmonies.
"I should come record in here," said Sandra, when they finished, and everybody agreed with silence. Then they all sang Christmas songs.
Eun asked Imani if she would recite a poem, and she read the one that was going to be published in the spring in a journal out of Bellingham, about standing with one foot on a mountain and one foot on a city.
Then they all just were quiet. The rain had let up, but the empty house howled as the wind crossed it, different pitched moans from the upper-stories. They got into their sleeping bags. The man laid down on the window seat covered with some of their jackets. Cat and Sandra had bags that zipped together. Imani had packed a whole grain-husk pillow in her bag, and it crunched under her ears when she shifted her head.
Cat, feeling safe and warm with Sandra's arm around her, thought back on her near drowning. Had she been dreaming? She could feel it, still — the water on her, the woman hovering over her reaching in. But Sandra gave her a sweet kiss the back of her neck, and her fears melted, and she felt herself slipping off.
It wasn't even midnight yet before they all fell asleep.
Imani woke with a rare awareness. Like, when a noise from outside called her from sleep and some part of her mind has already processed what it was. She looked around the room, and then not able to see anything, used her phone to illuminate. Sandra was snoring, in a kind of adorable way. Eun's arms were stretched above her head. The man was gone. Imani knew what had woke her was the sound of his footsteps on the stairs.
She followed, in her wool socks, up the main staircase. Then, along the hallway to the attic stairs. Up those stairs, and there he was, standing alone in front of the cabinet. A gust of wind called out in a low moan. A draft moved against her, and she shivered.
"I found the key," he said, not turning to face her.
"Where?" she asked, softly. Was he sleep-walking? Was this real? Who was he, again?
He held a hand up and there it was, a little gleaming brass key. "It was on the stairs. Can you believe it? Just laying there, on the third step. We all stepped over it at least twice."
"I don't think that's possible," Imani said, but she could offer no other explanation. "You know we cannot open that," she said.
"We have to," he said. "We have to see what's inside."
"Whatever is inside there is not ours to see," said Imani.
He kneeled, and he inserted the key into the lock. She felt it, when he did. Like the roof of the house disappearing and the frozen breath of outside crashing in. Like they were in some field stripped bare of foliage, only populated by winter. But that freeze was less about a landscape and more about humanity leaving their bodies.
"But I have the key," he cried, his breath visible. She was unsure if he felt what she felt, and if he did, if he felt it in the same way. She was unsure if he was saying this to her, or saying it to whatever spirit had turned them out onto frozen wasteland.
"It is not yours!" said Imani, emphatic, moving to him. Bringing her light up beneath them, so their faces were illuminated from the chins up and they could see each other. "Why would you do this? There are five humans in this house, and four of us said not to open the cabinet. Why would you think you get to open the cabinet when the four of us voted against it?"
He turned the key in the lock with a distinct click. The cabinet was unlocked. A terror struck Imani, then. A stark terror unlike anything she'd felt before; made of coldness, like a wall built by grief. She wanted to run far away from this cabinet, this house, this man. She could not believe he wanted this open when every fiber of her wanted nothing to do with it.
"I have the key. They wanted me to find it." He slid a finger through the loop of the pull, and started to open the door.
Imani slapped her hand on the cabinet and held that door closed. "And what makes you think that they have good intentions!" she said. "What makes you they want to help you?" His hand dropped.
"I don't know. I mean. Huh." His resolve was fading. "I don't know."
Imani turned the key, engaging the lock. She withdrew the key from the hole. She put a hand on the man's shoulder, suddenly feeling more warmly towards him.
"Whatever is in there is part of another person's story," she said. "And whatever it is, we must leave it." She would put the key back on the chain with the house keys. She would turn it over whenever she ended her work with the house. It was the owner's problem now.
"I was just so curious," he said. "I just had to look. I mean, didn't you want to look?"
Imani almost answered him, but how could she describe exactly how much she did not want to look? How could she describe how hard she would have fought to keep him from looking? How can she describe that he almost caused violence on this, of all nights?
They four women woke to a silent Christmas. "Oh my god, look everyone!" said Eun, sitting in the window seat. They all went over to see the world coated in white powder.
It was a clean morning, open and new, like the best of mornings. Full of any intention they could bring to it. Then they were leaving. Someone had Googled a nearby coffee shop that was open even today, so that's where they would have breakfast. Eun was in front, holding her bags, her boots crunching the first steps in the new snow. Behind her Sandra and Cat holding hands. Imani followed, but stopped before they had gotten a block away. A whisper in her ear of something forgotten.
"It's colder than I thought," she said. "I'm going to check the pipes. Make sure they won't freeze. Maybe leave some water on. Go on without me. I'll catch up."
Inside, she locked the door behind her. She dumped her gear in the entry hall and went back up the stairs.
It struck her that the key should stay with the cabinet, no matter what, not on a keychain where it might get misplaced or lost in translation to the new owner. She had a paperclip. She'd open it, bend it through the key, and then bend the other part through the handle.
The cabinet was so plain. It seemed unlikely to belong to somebody as rich as the the people would live in this place. She felt its top, cool and smooth. Then she knelt in front of it.
When she put the key in she braced herself for a rush of freezing wind, but nothing came. Not any strange feeling, not any otherworldly coldness, not a lack of humanity. Just a woman alone in a big empty house with a locked cabinet in the attic. Just Imani doing her job.
Last night was foggy in her mind. So much had happened. All of it could be attributed to nerves, right? To drink and smoke; to Cat's infectious phobias; to fear of the unknown, and a weird old house that seemed less funny the more time she spent inside it.
Then she remembered Cat's description of the woman with dark hair and the red silken dress with lace and it was like that woman was standing behind her as Imani knelt. The hairs on the back of her neck stood straight up. She was being watched, she was sure. And, as if she could feel it instead of hear it, the woman watching her reassured her.
This was put there for you, the woman said. It was brought here for you to find, and it will benefit you to open it and see what is inside. It will benefit your life and make your pain less, and your sorrows less, and your burden less.
Imani rested her hand on the key for the longest time. She could take that paperclip and bend it, and forever that key will be attached to the cabinet where it belonged, and then she could just get up and walk away and meet her friends for breakfast. Or, perhaps, she could turn it. She could turn it and pull open that door. It was Christmas morning, after all. Imani was sure there was a present waiting for her inside.