The Red Room – a Short Story by Vern Lovic

Read THE RED ROOM below.

The Red Room - short fiction story by Vern Lovic.

The Red Room

A Short Story

©2013 Vern Lovic. Exclusive worldwide publishing rights assigned to: Apornpradab Buasi.

* * * * *

Terry was a small, frail girl who grew up in a too cold part of the world. This petite and youngest girl, barely thirty pounds at four years old, had a couple older siblings who were jealous and taunted her for also being the prettiest girl in the family. Still, they sometimes had to give her a hand to pull her along through their less than glamorous upbringing.

Terry wasn’t as strong as her older sisters. She wasn’t a free-thinker. She did what she was told, and yet she had a free-spirit about her. Later she would dream about things her older sisters never imagined. She was filled with wonder. She wanted attention. She wanted to be happy. She was emotional. She was needy that way. Terry’s father, Rudy, was an overbearing, brutish man. Some called him a tyrant, though he’s been gone for forty eight years now.

Her mother, Nelly, worked a ridiculous number of hours maintaining their large, but simple house and family of seven. She struggled daily with, and often failed to meet Rudy’s bizarre expectations. Rudy drank. The town drank. One could even say the entire country during the early 1900’s drank itself numb on a regular basis. It was a new country for many of them. New beginnings didn’t come easily. Rudy drank whiskey bottles empty more nights than not. When he returned to their makeshift house after drinking himself stupid at the bar, he’d rule with his booming voice and swinging arms. All the kids would hold their bladders until morning instead of risk walking downstairs after he came home from the bar.

Nobody loved him much. They didn’t even have the will to look him in the eyes. Rudy was their provider, their ruler, their Stalin. Above all, he was to be feared and avoided as much as possible. The walls of their large but very basic wooden shell of a house where Terry lived with her two older sisters and two younger brothers were wooden planks set horizontally between vertical slats. They were sealed well enough for summer, but when the temperature dipped and the winds howled… freezing wisps of air bit the children’s skin, reddening it as they slept. They huddled together under wool blankets for warmth during cold winter nights from December to March.

Children died in those days from not having enough heat in the house. They called it crib death. What it meant, was that sometimes an adult forgot to pile the logs high on the fire to last long enough until returning from the bar. Pipes, frozen solid, sometimes cracked in the walls of their house. Witch’s tit cold doesn’t begin to describe certain nights in January. There was no choice for the family, dad decided to settle down in southwestern Pennsylvania and they had to deal with that.

Everyone dealt with it, and dreams were few. There was no running away. Where in the hell would a kid go? Life sucked at home, sure. The chance they’d find greener grass was slim to none. The green grass was frozen solid under a half-foot of snow. Run away over top of it, on the road to nowhere, and you’d break the glass menagerie. The spell broken and the reality of not having any home at all would bite you in the ass with all the fury of a black palm-thick forty-inch leather strap that hung next to the cricket bat sized wooden paddle with holes, in the tilted room off the dining room. The room they all knew as – the Red Room.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The Red Room didn’t exist. Yet. Hardworking families of this era never knew a vacation. Western Pennsylvania was filled with toiling immigrants from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Russia. Nobody had time or extra money to travel purely for fun’s sake. Their small town was the most exciting thing they saw for nearly two decades growing up before some of them escaped. The minds of people eighty odd years ago were different than ours today. Rudy focused on nothing but working in the mines and drinking away his sorrows and ghosts at every opportunity after work. Maybe he dreamed of vacations, of less back-breaking work. Maybe he thought he should be an artist… a writer, instead of working in the freezing mine shafts. Maybe he thought he had talent to become something requiring less grueling output from his strong, but rapidly failing bones. Maybe he did. Usually he just dreamed about where the next drink was coming from.

Nelly, like most mothers of the time, thought she had the worst life in the world, but she never complained a word about it. Total sacrifice for her children and submission to a husband who didn’t respect her and who heaped impossible demands on her, was her lot and she accepted it.

Nelly’s time was never her own. She had only a short moment to think as she fell asleep exhausted each night, after her whiskey-infused husband rolled off and passed out – having given it the best he had, which was only, just barely good enough for him.

Despite not trying, Rudy became a foreman at the mine, probably just for having been there the longest. Terry was six when they started building a new house. Rudy built it, almost to the brick – by himself, along with some help from her little brother, Mikey, and a couple neighbors. Toddy was too young to help, but dad wouldn’t have allowed it anyway. This new house was built just up the hill and closer to 7th Street than the original house. It was a major improvement, with concrete walls, insulation, and a roof that didn’t leak much. It was a couple of steps up from their first.

Terry’s father busted his ass and sacrificed bar time to get the home built. He didn’t let anyone forget it either.  When Terry was seven years old, their house was four levels high and towered over the other homes built on the same side of a sloping valley. There was even a large garage, made out of massive brown brick, each bigger than two gallons of milk. These unwieldy concrete blocks took very strong hands to lay perfectly. The garage too, had levels to it. Who ever heard of a garage with a cellar? This one had it. The underneath was filled with saws, drills, and other machinery, layered over with hundreds of miles of spider web silk and a years old layer of dust. It was always dark inside, having no windows and just one bare lightbulb requiring a jump to grab the hanging string to turn it on.

At night Terry and her sisters would sometimes talk quietly under the soft Afghan blankets Nelly had knitted for cold nights. With the exception of Toddy, all the kids usually slept in the upstairs room together. But, they left their brother Mikey out of their conversations. He was to stay on the other side of the room. They usually just waited until he fell asleep. Their chit-chat would start on nights when they hadn’t been worked to the point of absolute exhaustion. It wasn’t often they had energy after dark.

Only very rarely, and in the most hushed tone would the oldest girl, Marie, start telling about the Red Room. She was the only of them to know what the room really was. The door leading into the Red Room off the dining room was painted beige, like the rest of the dining room. There was a heavy padlock up high where the kids couldn’t reach it. Where the keys were for that lock, none of them ever knew. When the door was opened, a shocking scene awaited.

The room was bright blood red. I mean the entire room. The walls, floor, ceiling, back of the door, and also the bookcases, table, and the tape on the walls and floor that seemed to be holding the entire thing together. There wasn’t any part of that room that wasn’t shockingly, horribly, red.

Walking into the room you’d notice the loose construction of it all. It seemed to dip down some when someone stood in it. It was more than mildly disconcerting at best, and dangerous perhaps, but nobody ever fell through. The floor sloped at a good twenty degree angle down toward the backyard. The floor was flimsy like cardboard at the weakest far left corner. You wouldn’t want to have any drama in there, or either the floor would fall away in chunks, or the entire room would drop right off the back of the house, ending up in the haunted creek, the “Land of the Lost,” flowing twenty feet below.

So, very late at night Terry and her sisters would talk ever so quietly about the Red Room, and only a couple of times a year. It was all any of them could work up the raw courage for. They feared imminent death if their mother or father heard them speak of it. It was for this reason they couldn’t let their little brother hear any of what they said. One misplaced word let fly in front Nelly would have meant death to them all, they were sure of it. Marie’s friend, Anita was sleeping over one night, their brother had fallen asleep and the girls were all under the same blanket in the same bed and in the mood for a story.

Terry said, “Marie, tell Anita about the Red Room!” A soft, but quickly delivered slap rang out across Terry’s face. Terry’s hand lashed out in reaction, catching Marie on the side of the face, and the two girls, years apart, struggled and grunted for a couple of seconds until Margie, the frequent mediator of squabbles in the house, grabbed all four of their hands in her two hands to calm them down. “Shhh! You want mom to come up here? You remember last time she hit Mikey up here? Shush up! Don’t start anything or we’re not going to have any fun here at all tonight. Mom will send Anita home, you know she will.”

Silence for a few seconds as they all let that hang in the air. Anita broke it, “Ok, you know you have to tell me now. What about the Red Room? You mean the room behind the dining room, right?” Six eyes stared intently at Marie, waiting for her to crack. “Oh god, I can’t.” Marie whispered, meaning it, but quietly spinning the idea in her mind.

“Let’s take a vote,” Margie said.

“No!”

“Let’s take a vote, good idea,” Anita chimed in. Terry’s hand went up first, tenting the blanket over them higher. Margie raised hers at the same time Anita raised hers. Outvoted, Marie pursed her lips for a few seconds. Anita had been her best friend for more than six years. She’d kept secrets before. But this one was the biggest secret she’d ever known.

“Am I your best friend, or not?” Anita asked Marie.

Silence for twenty seconds. “OK,” Marie relented.

“But listen… Anita, you can’t ever tell anyone about this. You can never, in your whole life, tell what you hear here tonight.”

“I won’t, you know I won’t Marie.”

“I mean, NEVER IN YOUR LIFE. If I tell you this story, you have to swear on your Grandma Conrad’s dead body in St. Alphonsus graveyard.”

“I do. I swear it!” Anita agreed, ready to give a pint of blood if Marie asked it. She was now dying to hear the story. Marie began in full storytelling mode.

“OK, you all know the Red Room off the dining room downstairs? You’ll never guess what I know…”

Even Marie’s sisters, who had heard most of the story she was about to tell, were riveted to every word leaving her lips. When she told a story, time seemed to stop and they were all transported right there in the thick of it. All hands went up to their faces, ready to stifle screams if one were to be conjured up by Marie’s vivid storytelling.

“Tell us everything this time!” Terry squealed quietly.

“Maybe I will,” she teased. “Maybe tonight I’ll tell you the whole sick story. Maybe tonight after midnight I’ll take you down there to the Red Room and we’ll sneak in ourselves. You can run your grubby little fingers across the blood of animals. And other things…!”

All the girls squealed in horror at once, hands tried desperately to cover each other’s mouths, thinking for sure they’d be found out. The fear of being found out added a dark dimension to their secret meeting.

“SHHHH! I’m serious! I won’t tell you guys if you can’t keep quiet.” Marie said, her pointer finger held up to her mouth as seriously as she could muster. They repeatedly insisted they’d all keep better reign of their mouths, but in reality, and Marie knew, she’d just cranked up the level of interest in the story.

“You all know, that room was never opened in front of us. I mean n-e-v-e-r. It was locked with that giant black padlock.”

The girls shifted in place, moving closer to each other and giving Marie some space.

“It was January, freezing up here, the beds were cold as ice and everyone was sleeping, but I was shivering with a cold and some sniffles. I thought I’d go see if the pot on the stove still held some hot water I could drink to warm up. I crept slowly down the stairs and heard a weird noise. It was like a tiny squeal. It wasn’t human. I am sure of that…”

The girls slid even closer together, they were nearly one now as they waited on every word.

“It was, it was more like a mouse,” she whispered, “just like a little mouse. I stopped for a second, waiting for it to scurry across the floor. No mouse came. I looked down the hallway to the dining room. The lights were off, you know how dad was about saving electricity. But there was a glow coming from under the door of the Red Room.”

Her face twisted and her eyes started grew wide and scary. “I couldn’t believe it, but someone was in there at that hour. Since mom was usually sleeping anytime after 11:00 pm., and dad could be found drinking or drunk at any hour of the night, I figured dad was in there. What was he DOING in there though? Then, there were MORE WEIRD SQUEALS and a thump. It was absolutely quiet then. I got scared. I thought I’d better get my nebshit ass up the stairs before he came out and yelled at me, or worse. I was creeping back up the stairs backward when I heard a louder animal crying noise. What in the world WAS THAT? What was dad doing in there?”

They all held tight to each other.

“This was before we knew – right girls?”  Terry and Margie nodded quickly and silently with their eyes, their faces begging her to go on to parts they’d never heard before.

Anita couldn’t speak, her face held a look of shock and horror at what might have been happening in the room.” “WHAP!” Marie smacked her hands together at the same time she said it. The girls all stifled their screams, better than the first time, but they were all on the edge of a hysterical screaming fit, and Marie knew it.

“Know what he was doing Anita?” She whispered eerily. “He was cutting off the heads of our chickens, our rabbits, birds he shot in the backyard. He was cutting their heads off right there in that room on the blood red table. There must have been so much dried blood in that room that Grandma couldn’t wash it out. I was still a young girl when Mom painted that room. I remember her complaining to dad by yelling out the window to him in the backyard about something involving that room. She did it over and over, feeling bold that day, she surely was. Dad was starting to get upset. He finally screamed from the other side of the house, ‘PAINT THE DAMN THING RED, for all I care!’ And, you know what mom did? She did just that. Except, you know mom when she finally gets angry at him herself… she gave dad more than he wanted. She painted the entire room and everything that was in the room at the time – blood red! The next afternoon, it was a Sunday, I still remember it. I was in the backyard hanging laundry when all the sudden, out the dining room window I heard dad roaring with laughter when he woke up and saw what mom did to that room overnight as he slept.”

The girls breathed easily a couple of times, but dared not smile, they were sure there was something horrible coming.

“He never made her change it though.”

She wrinkled up her face at the thought, “there must have been blood so thick all over everything, and you know how hard it is to get blood stains off,” she whispered. Mom just used the blood that was there to help paint that room.” The girls were all obviously distressed by this, Anita was nearly hyperventilating. Their faces were all hidden in their hands, but they were hopelessly caught up in the hypnotic story. And that’s what the Red Room was used for. Dad came home late and killed our pet chickens and rabbits so we could eat them the next day in stews and soups. I don’t know why he did it when he was drunk, but after that I saw him in there many times after midnight when he came home and I dared to sneak down the steps to have a look and listen. “WHAP! WHAP!” Marie said, smacking her hands together slightly softer than the first time, afraid of pushing them to lose their minds too early.

WHAP! The kids grabbed each other and squeeezed tight, all of them, including Marie. They couldn’t move and Terry began whining some horrible noise like she was going to die.  Marie hadn’t made the loud noise. It had come from downstairs, and it shook the house. It came from somewhere around the side door. It was a hard thud, like a chair had been knocked over on the hard wooden floor. Nobody dared move, but Terry’s uncontrollable shivering in fear tensed the entire group even more. They heard the side door being pried open and their dad’s bass voice burst through the house. They all exhaled at the same time, relieved to know what it was, yet not feeling all together safe at the same time. Dad was obviously very drunk. They held each other tightly, the lingering effect of the unfinished story gripped them tight.

Rudy sang loudly, and sometimes incomprehensibly. “Old Daniel Tucker was a mighty man, He washed his face in a fryin’ pan. Combed his head with a wagon wheel And he died with a toothache in his heel. So, get out a the way for old Dan Tucker…”

And it faded out for a bit as he stumbled into the restroom. Their little brother, Toddy, four years old, was now wailing loudly from the room off their parent’s bedroom, two floors below the top floor where they huddled together. But the girls could hear his shrill cries crystal clearly. There was still a tension in the space between the covers, and though they held each other looser, they still weren’t brave enough to call it a night and climb into their own spaces. “Here’s old Dan, he comes to town. He swings the ladies round and round. He swings one east, he swings one west. He swings with the one he loves the best.”

“WAAAAAHHHHHH!” Toddy’s scream outdid their father’s drunken saloon song by twice as loud, causing him to quiet for a second.

“SHUT THAT LAME KID UP NELLIE! It’s “Old Daniel Tucker” night, not ‘listening to snot-nosed kids crying for a bottle night.”

Though Toddy’s mind was fine, he wasn’t like the other kids. He’d been born with a number of devastating birth defects that had left him incapable of doing much of anything for himself. He had one twisted arm with three fingers, and about half of two legs that just never grew feet.

He was an embarrassment to their father, and when Toddy cried, it was usually too much for Rudy to bear and he left the house in a rage so he didn’t need to deal with it. Mother had more patience, but still suffered silently at the prospect of what Toddy would amount to as an adult. To compensate for what she couldn’t control, she made sure to keep the rest of the kids straight as an arrow without sparing the rod.

While they were all quiet, the three sisters figured their father would climb down the next level to their basement and sleep on the clothes folding table, to escape Toddy’s cries. That was the usual routine. Toddy wailed just another few seconds, then a lull. Suddenly Rudy belted out, twice as loud as before, “Old Dan Tucker was a fine old soul, Buckskin belly and a rubber asshole. Swallowed a barrel of cider down And then he shat all over town.”

Toddy, not willing to be outdone, screamed full force in the middle of Rudy’s last verse louder than any of them had ever heard before. He was in magnificent form and there was obviously nothing at all wrong with his lungs.

The door to the downstairs opened and the girls could hear their father’s heavy and clumsy footsteps down the stairs, then a rapid beat as he must have fallen the last half dozen steps or so, bouncing himself into the room where Nelly held their tiny son Toddy. There was some grunting, and then screams as Nelly and Toddy were separated and Rudy stumbled up the steps with him. Nelly’s soft footsteps could be heard following the giant man up the steps.

The big black padlock to the Red Room clanked and fought back, but finally the door swung open hard, hitting the wall as it did. It slammed louder than it opened as Nelly wailed out like a woman possessed. The four girls squeezed each other tighter than ever and hadn’t opened an eye since Rudy fell down the steps. Of the four, only Marie could fathom the depths of hell they were all about to know in minutes. She wanted to give the others something positive, peaceful and calming, in the face of what she knew was going to happen, and yet there was nothing coming out of her mouth. Her ears were straining for the one sound she knew was coming.

WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP!

Four of the hardest whacks of the meat cleaver she had ever heard drew pictures in her head as she shuddered. Toddy’s cries had ceased with the first one. There was a chill running through them as they contemplated Pandora’s Box opening when Rudy came out of the Red Room. Two minutes of near absolute silence before Nelly’s soft weeping could be heard as she slid down the wall to the floor where she sat almost comatose.

“How’d he make Toddy stop crying Marie?” Terry finally asked.  There was no answer, as Marie hadn’t opened her eyes yet to face the reality of it.

“How Marie?” Terry implored quietly.

All the girls were crying now, but not making a sound, so as not to become victims themselves. None of them but one believed what had just happened, and they tried desperately to come up with some other scenario.

“Daddy killed Toddy with the meat cleaver,” Marie whispered, almost too low to be heard.

“You’re just saying that to make us scared Marie!” Terry whispered back louder.

“No he didn’t Marie, don’t say something like that, you’re going to hell for that!” Margie, losing her wits, told her older sister.

Crying into her hands, Marie couldn’t hold it in anymore. “Remember baby Angie?” “Of course we do! She was our sister! She died during childbirth, Mom said! Stillborn!

Don’t you dare make up another story,” Margie said.

“SHUT UP!” Marie grabbed at Margie’s hands maniacally, “Listen to me! I used to babysit Angie. She never made it past the second verse of Old Dan Tucker. That was the rest of the story I was going to tell you guys tonight.” Like a violin bow dragged across their shaking necks, the characteristic squeak of the hinges on the Red Room door shook them into uncontrollable shivers as they heard it slowly open.

*****************

THE REAL RED ROOM

It really was a room in my grandmother’s house. It was eerie and there was a lot of secrecy around it.

I was a child the first time I saw the door opened. My grandmother, Angela, or Nelly for short, opened the door a crack and slipped inside and shut the door behind her. I heard rattling around and waited under the dining room table for her to open it up again so I could verify what I thought I had just seen. She came out seconds later, after finding what she wanted. The room by this time was full of photo books of years past. Newspaper clippings someone thought was important. The black belt and paddle mentioned earlier were always there hanging from a hook as a reminder that, though Grandpa was gone, Grandma could still swing for the bleachers out in left field if you rattled her bad enough.

Terry told me dozens of times of the beatings someone had received at Grandma’s strong hand. I was my best at Grandma’s house, knowing how much my mother feared her razor thin temper. In the Red Room by the time I saw it, was heaps of junk. Though the house was very large, and everyone but Grandma’s youngest son, Mikey, had moved out, every spare bit of space was used up, even in the Red Room. Marie suggested once it was an attempt to cover up the evil that existed there. It was only by accident that I saw it the first time at around 5 years old while playing under the table where Grandma made eye-contact with me before she opened the door to the room. When she came back out – I stared around her, into the room – amazed that the room was bright red. There was a window facing the garage and yard, and a single flashbulb hung from the ceiling. I had never seen or heard of a red room at that young age. Even today, I’ve never seen anything like it in anyone’s home. I was shocked, but not horrified. I couldn’t have known the horror at that tender age. However, I knew there was something about the room that was more interesting. The secrecy surrounding it – drove me to it. As time went on, I tried desperately to see the room more often. I took to playing on the floors under the table by the Red Room so I could sneak peeks inside. I even snuck inside and closed the door a couple of times to check it out for myself.

I got my first supersonic backhand from Grandma at twelve years old, having just exited the room while she was coming out of the kitchen beside it – she ran smack right into me. I was guilty as anything. When she cracked my face for disobeying her order to stay out of the room, my face stung like I’d just walked into the side mirror of a pickup truck at speed. She had told me so many times, to never even look into that room, let alone go inside. She never said why. Nobody did. My mother too – told me never to enter that room or Grandma would ‘snatch the life out of me.’ Well usually she couldn’t catch me to do that, but she could quickly backhand me across the face while screaming “shuckkleff!” and other ethnic curses as I lunged forward to try to get out of her reach before she latched onto my arm and let me have it. I had never seen the devil in Grandma’s eyes before then. But there was no denying it. I’d trespassed in a place that was sacred for some reason. Sacred good, or sacred bad – I didn’t know at that age. It was to be years before I knew what the fuss was all about. My uncle went into it in great detail days before he died of liver cancer in the hospice.

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