25 Mar The Crooked Room
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"The Crooked Room"Written by Rick Pyle
Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
Call me Bramwell Alden. I can’t give you my real name because my prick of a family is too well known. My ancestor William Alden came over on the Mayflower, and my grand aunt has been bragging about it since the day the boat landed on Plymouth goddamn Rock – the old witch! My real last name screams old New England money and my first name has the same snotty douche ring to it as Bramwell. So, it’ll do for the purposes of this pretentious tale.
I’d been having the same dream for weeks before I returned to the family estate for “the Selection”. I’m trapped in a white room and can’t move. I try and try, but no matter how hard I struggle I can’t break free. I wake up howling like a wolf in heat, bathed in a cold sweat. It’s always the same dream and it always ends with my hair-raising awakening. This time, however, when I finally calm down enough from my nightmare- induced madness, I find myself in my old room at the Main House rather than my fashionable NYC penthouse address. Shit! I hadn’t slept here since I was eighteen – seven long years ago. My sisters, brother, and yours truly moved back to the Alden family compound after Dad had died in an accident at the docks. I’d been two years old at the time. A steel beam had fallen on his head from a high crane with slippery talons. In his defense, he was wearing his hard hat, but the I-beam gave no shits about that minor detail. My grandparents were granted custody of the Alden orphans, and I lived with them until my teenage escape.
The room hadn’t changed a bit. The pot smell had long gone away, but the same crappy goth posters still hung on the walls. A thick coating of dust lay everywhere. No doubt my doting grandparents had sealed off this particular embarrassment even from the service staff.
If you’re a discerning reader you’ve probably surmised that my relationship with my family is strained at best. On the other hand, you could say more accurately that it’s completely fucked seven ways from Sunday at worst. I won’t bore you with all the traumas and indignities of my childhood. Suffice it to say that I was born a sensitive and highly intelligent boy to a mother who had tried to claw her own eyes out shortly before I was born. After my birth, the family decided that an exclusive and exorbitantly expensive psychiatric facility would be best place to deposit my mother. Thus a troublesome daughter could be gotten out of the way and the sterling reputation of our esteemed family would be preserved. My stoic and cultured grandfather would’ve loved to have had a surgeon in the family. But do-it-yourself eye removal was most definitely not what he had in mind!
The reason I left the family estate after High School was to escape the claustrophobic walls of my family prison. The reason I came back to this place of family bliss was for a much less noble reason. Money. As a young man of philosophical and artistic bent I had decided that the drudgery of work just wasn’t for me. Luckily for me and for the world at large, as an Alden I was provided with a generous monthly stipend to cover my living and other necessary expenses. I was, therefore, free to indulge my tastes whether it be artistic creation or procreation with one of the society bar sluts that infest Manhattan like bedbugs. Unfortunately, an annoying addendum in the Alden estate mandated that every legal adult Member of our clan must return home for a family meeting called “the Selection” every quarter-century. Failure to do so for any reason or excuse save provable death would result in being cut off from the family teat forever. Considering the unappealing alternative, I decided to return to the loving arms of my long-forsaken family for our precious little reunion.
As I descended the cathedral stairs to the first floor, I could hear the nauseating sounds of family gossip and clanking dishes and silverware.
“Well, everyone,” my grandfather Bertram announced, “look who has decided to grace us with his presence!”
Seated around the table were 12 of my dearest family members. My Grand Aunt Beatrice you already know by reputation if not by name. Her broomstick lay in the far corner of the room as she huddled around the cup containing her smoking potion. Her face perhaps exhibited the best example of the pinched expression one makes when encountering an extremely malodorous smell. The rest of the Alden commune mirrored her look of disdain for my presence to greater and lesser degrees. My grandmother was seated across from my grandfather, who took up his familiar haunt at the tables head. In orders of pain in my ass, from greatest to least, were my twin sisters Paula and Rachael, brother Trevor, my aunts Mary and Madeline, Uncle Daniel, two cousins I’ll call Thing One and Thing Two because I can’t be bothered to recall their real idiotic names, and lastly my favorite uncle whom I hated least of all, Steven.
“Good morning, Alden cocks and twats!” I said. I thought my greeting very sunny for so early in the morning, but the shocked and disapproving looks I received from everyone but a smirking Uncle Steve seemed to indicate my cheeriness was not appreciated. Oh well, fuck me for being perky in the early morning!
It seemed everyone but Uncle Steve had finished their breakfast, or at least lost their appetite after seeing yours truly. They cleared out without another word, which was just fine with me. A servant served me some eggs and bacon with rye toast as I gave a shit-eating grin across the table to my uncle.
“You still know how to make an entrance, don’t you, you arrogant little shit!” Steve said.
“It’s a gift,” I mumbled, stuffing my face with food. I think you can probably already tell why I like Uncle Steve or at least why I despise him the least. He tells it like it is and doesn’t pull any punches. Typically, the Alden family way is to smile in your face while holding a goddamned jagged dagger behind their backs. I think he also harbors a secret admiration for my “go screw yourself sideways attitude”. I’d heard he’d been a real hell-raiser and dickhead when he’d been my age. It takes one master to recognize another, I suppose.
“Well, I hope you don’t lose that piss and vinegar you call a personality this afternoon. It’s Selection time, you know, Bramwell. And you’ve got the same one-thirteenth of a chance to spend a night in that room as anyone else,” Uncle Steve rasped.
At the mention of “the room” the eggs swimming in my stomach juices decided to say screw it and bolt for the entrance. Only a quick save by my teeth and gums prevented my breakfast’s escape. I forced the shits back down my chute with a gulp, leaving a sour taste behind. I’d heard rumors of some dark, weird shit going down in the room in the old, abandoned West Wing. What’s the worst they could do to me, though? Make me screw Grand Aunt Beatrice in some musty room all night? Have carnal knowledge of a donkey, like that show I saw in Tijuana, Mexico once? Whatever it is it can’t be worse than the hazing crap I went through to get into my college fraternity. I’d never before or since vomited up that large a quantity of cheap beer or engaged in as much ass play in my short life!
“See you this afternoon in the Drawing Room. It should be a fucking blast,” Steve said. With that last sarcastic pronouncement hanging in the air like a sulfurous fart, he took his leave.
I pushed my half-eaten breakfast away. I wasn’t hungry any longer. I watched my uncle as he left the breakfast room. If he wasn’t careful he might end up losing his place to Thing Two on my shit list.
The Alden 13 lounged about the drawing room in a lazy, disjointed half circle. Old Gramps stood by the mahogany mantle with a glass of brandy in his hand in deep meditation or constipation. With my beloved Grandfather Bertram, it was usually impossible to discover precisely which state he was experiencing at any one time. The rest of my relatives were imbibing a variety of customized poisons from the well-stocked bar except the evil Witch of the Northeast. Uncle Daniel must’ve mistaken his AA sober chit for a heavily-salted beer nut, because he was pounding back one single malt Scotch after another like the Highlands had given up distilling forever for Lent. Everyone pretended to be doing something other than staring at the glass bowl containing our thirteen names in the center of the room.
“You all know why you’ve assembled at the Estate at this time,” Gramps began. I usually call him Gramps or something similar in my head whenever I think of the old stick-up-his-ass fossil, because I know just how much he hated it when I called him such nicknames. He much preferred Grandfather Bertram. Which, of course, is why I never called him Grandfather Bertram. Anywho, Gramps was far from finished yacking yet. The ancient mummy always loved an audience, captive or otherwise.
“However, those who are new here today must be told the Alden family secret that binds us together in an eternal bond,” Grampy said. He looked about the room with his geriatric gaze resting first on my bitch sisters and punk-ass brother, then Things One and Two, followed by your humble narrator. For some reason, his brandy must’ve been off-brand, because his expression turned sour while looking at me over the top of his glass as he took a short sip.
“Jesus Christ, Dad!” Uncle Daniel exclaimed. “Let’s get this damn thing over with!” I think Uncle Dan might’ve been in a hurry because the bottle of Scotch he’d been rapidly inhaling was running on empty.
“Perhaps we should arrange for a pure alcohol IV drip for you, Daniel. It might quiet your nerves and toughen your backbone,” said old Grand Aunt Beatrice. Damn! Score one point for the Land of Oz.
“Screw you, you old vicious bitch!” said Dan. The Drunkpire Strikes Back! Cue John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra.
“That’s quite enough, Daniel!” said grandmother. Uncle Daniel studied the insides of his empty glass. “Please continue, Bertram.”
“Thank you, my dear. In the late Seventeenth century our ancestor, Brutus Alden, had drunk, gambled and whored his way through the family fortune. All his business ventures had failed, and he was down to his last Spanish dollar. Desperate to avoid total ruin, he enlisted the help of a wise woman or witch to help him regain his wealth. With her help, a pact with the Prince of Darkness was made. The soul of Brutus would be surrendered upon death to the Prince of Evil in exchange for a return to prosperity for himself and the Alden family forever. Unfortunately, upon his death, the Devil appeared to his wife and told her that the soul of Brutus was too miserable a payment for the eternal prosperity he had bestowed upon our family. He said that if the Alden bloodline wished to continue in its good fortune until the end of time, one adult member must be sacrificed every 25 years from that day forward by being locked in a particular room specially constructed for that singular purpose. And therein an Alden has spent one entire night from dusk until dawn every generation,” Gramps said.
“Holy shit!” I howled. “I mean, I knew there was some kind of mysterious punishment or torture or something, but I thought it was just some sick Alden sex or fraternity rush thing you had to do to keep the money tap flowing. The devil! What a bunch of prime grade-A B.S.!” I said.
“Shut up, Bramwell!” Uncle Steve commanded. “You don’t know shit!”
I looked about in disbelief. The seniors in the room were all looking at the rug or their drinks. My two aunts whispered to each other in a conspiratorial tone. My loving sisters looked confused, my brother was stunned, and the Things…screw them! Who cares what the Things thought?
“I assure you, Bramwell, I am deadly serious,” said Bertram. “Every 25 years an Alden has been chosen to spend a single night in the locked room upstairs in the abandoned West Wing of the house. Every Alden released from that room in the morning has either been found dead of heart failure or hopelessly insane. No one knows what happens to those placed within. The dead can’t talk and the insane won’t talk.”
A moment of clarity hit me hard as a kick to the nuts just as Gramps finished. Twenty-five years ago I was born to a mother hopelessly insane! “You bastards,” I began. “You put my mother, your own pregnant daughter in that room 25 years ago, didn’t you?”
“Bramwell, you don’t understand,” said Granpa Bertram.
“Bramwell, we had no choice,” whispered Uncle Steven. “Her name was selected from the bowl. She refused to let anyone take her place, despite her…condition.”
If I’d had a gun I would’ve shot every one of those pieces of human garbage with my last name in that drawing room. Instead, I just collapsed into my chair and sobbed quietly into my hands. Grand Aunt Beatrice put her arm around me as I sat crying. I was so messed up I didn’t even think to tell her to remove her desiccated, spindly appendage from my shoulders.
It took about a half-hour before I could finally seal the floodgates, and stop blubbering like a baby. Gramps took that as a signal to start the next act of this family tragicomedy. He nodded to the servant at the drawing room doors. A minute later two guys who looked like they’d graduated summa cum laude from Bouncer U entered the room, closing the double doors behind them. They wore the sleeveless “wife-beater” shirts that are part of the required club doorman uniform. Damn, I thought! Shit just got real.
“I’m afraid we must now move onto the Selection,” Gramps said. “First, I will pull out each identical piece of paper and lay it down on the table to confirm that each of our names have been prepared.”
One after another Bertram read off our 13 names neatly printed on each piece of paper. Brother Trevor studied each slip as if he was looking for some mark, folded corner, or code that might reveal a fixed game. Having been thrown out of Las Vegas and Atlantic City for cheating, I figured he was probably the best man for the job. The twins and the Things watched Trevor in awe like he was Indiana Jones studying the Ark of the Covenant. When he got to my name I couldn’t help but start involuntarily, and I wasn’t the only jumpy Alden in that room. Only Uncle Daniel was too anesthetized to react to his monicker’s announcement and the Wicked Beatrice was too aloof to give us the satisfaction of seeing her ancient bones startle. Once done, he spilled all the names back into the clear glass bowl. A lid was placed on top and old Bertram shook that glass container roughly like it owed him some money and wouldn’t pay up.
Gramps looked at the two gorillas in our midst, and beckoned one of them forward. “Sir, I require your assistance. I will remove the top of this bowl. I need you to turn around away from the container. When I say, I want you to reach your left arm behind you and quickly select just one slip of paper. Do you understand?” Gramps asked. The gorilla scrunched up its face to indicate its comprehension, and turned away from Gramps and the bowl of fate.
I felt like I was an audience member in a movie theater where they finally get to the point when the explosion happens and everything goes into slow motion as the heroes flee the growing blast just behind them. When my name was called out by the bouncer I think I left my body, floating above near the ceiling laughing at the unlucky asshole below. Until I fell back to Earth and realized I was that asshole!
“Okay, I guess it’s me then,” I stammered. The half-ass plan that instantly formed in my brain went like this. I make like I’m going willingly, all resigned-like. Then I sucker punch the bouncer who fingered the bowl and watch him fall like a ton of shit to the floor. Then I hit the last lurking gorilla with that Kung fu spinning kick move I sorta learned during that summer after eighth grade when I took classes at the dojo in the strip mall. Bouncer two would then collapse with a broken neck or something. Lastly, a quickly improvised clever catchphrase would cap off the whole shebang as I exited Alden Manor like James Fucking Bond!
Yeah, as the truly perceptive folks among my readers may have already guessed, my plan fell short somewhat. But only in the sense that my sneaky ninja attack on the first bouncer was deflected courtesy of his superhuman like reflexes, and I was slightly knocked out by his subsequent counterattack.
I came to as I was being unceremoniously carried by both bouncers who held my arms and legs. From my unique vantage point, I could see the cobwebs everywhere and the peeling wall molding. I began to plead and beg as best I could with the sledgehammer pounding in the side of my head, while my mouth and brain were making…words…not… good. I’d like to say I wasn’t scared despite the severity of my predicament, but I think the trail of piss behind me revealed my clever ruse to my bulky captors. The Bouncer holding my legs seemed to be the most pissed, both figuratively and quite literally.
We stopped at an oak door that looked old and weathered, but solid and sturdy nonetheless. There was a series of ten locks on the door. Some were quite antique, while others appeared quite new with shiny brass fittings. Old Gramps had a large circular keychain like the jailers in those 1930’s and 40’s movies used to have. The keys he used to unlock each bolt were as different as the locks themselves.
“I’m sorry I have to do this, Bramwell,” Gramps said.
“Eat me you old dick. I hope you burn in hell for this!” I said. I was tossed inside the room none too gently. From my newest vantage point, lying in a heap upon the floor, I noticed that neither of the three men who had “escorted” me to my place of execution had set even one toe past the entrance into the room. The last thing I saw as the ponderous door closed was the stony face of Grampy Bertram. Instantly, the locks clicked one by one. I tried pounding on the door and drop kicked it twice, before I realized the thing had the consistency of poured concrete. I wasn’t getting out of here that way for sure.
I took the flashlight the good Samaritans had left me and surveyed the room, searching for any imperfection I might capitalize on to escape. I found nothing obvious. What I did find was a room devoid of any furnishings, windows, or wall hangings of any kind. The whole room was a masterpiece of understatement, like Jackie Mason said once in the movie, “The Jerk”. The walls were painted white, but sometimes when the flashlight hit them at an oblique angle they looked multicolored or prismatic. The overall workmanship was for shit, though. One wall had a twelve-foot ceiling while the others had smaller, irregular heights. I had to gradually hunch down before I could touch the far wall. I surmised that whoever had built this room must’ve done so after a long lunch at the local bar.
Eventually, I grew tired and sat down. How long had I been in this room? It was hard to say. It may have been my growing terror messing with my sense of time and space, but I suddenly had the feeling like I’d always been here in this room…and always would be.
The walls slowly began to glow now as I stared at them, moving, pulsating, dilating and contracting like a mother preparing to give birth. My fear ebbed as I felt myself melding with the room in some sort of odd symbiosis. I could no longer tell where the walls ended and I began anymore. Hell, even the question itself became absurd and irrelevant to me.
A chaotic scene of color, shape, and sound assaulted my new senses. I saw my ancestor Brutus Alden making a deal with the Devil. No, I was Brutus and I was making the deal! I felt his animal fear as he stood before the Fallen Angel, and I experienced his joy as all his business dealings brought the family untold riches. I saw his slave ships with their fetid holds and suffering human cargo. I knew his whorehouses intimately where he forced his girls to perform all manner of sick and perverted acts to his high paying customers. I witnessed every cheat, theft, lie, and finally, murder, that Brutus committed to grow his fortune under his satanic magic shield. I even beheld his death in this very room as he coughed out his life from consumption as an old man. Shit, I felt his death! It was my lungs that were failing, my life-force ebbing while the ever-present pain sapped my strength and will to live. This last experience was just too much, too damn real! Oh, the agony as I struggled to steal one last breath from the Earth before I died.
The pain was over now. I, or was it Brutus, that was dead? I wasn’t sure anymore. All I cared about as we both, Brutus &Bramwell, Inc., floated by our body was that the suffering was finally over! At that moment a loud crack echoed throughout the room as deed owner to the soul of Brutus Alden slowly took shape as an amorphous shadow in the corner of the room. As the hellish shade spoke the words emerged as if from the bottom of a deep well.
“This is the pathetic soul for which I granted an eternity of wealth and good fortune?” The Dark Lord said. “I have been cheated for the last time by you loathsome apes! Henceforth, one member in every generation of your family will suffer in this room I shall mold and desecrate to properly compensate me for my boundless generosity!”
The walls of the room began to take on a fluidic consistency. Weird, unearthly colors, sounds, filled the ruined room. Angles foreign to our Earthly reality took form, only to melt away into new shapes as chaos seized command of this once simple room.
The demonic shade now surveyed Brutus and raised the obscenities that were his arms. Gradually, I began to hear the chittering sounds of a million insects whirring within the room. The sound grew in intensity until it reached the decibels that only a large jet can approach. Growing out of the floor like a cancerous mole was a portal tearing a hole into our dimension. I held my hands over my bleeding ears, vainly trying to block out the demonic din assaulting my sanity. Just when I thought I could bear it no longer, a host of cockroach-like humanoids swarmed out of this sable chasm. Their bodies were armored in brown and black chitin, and they skittered about on six legs. They were six feet long with faces, if those abominations could be called that, twisted into demonic leers with mouths filled with fangs like daggers. The creature’s eyes, however, resembled those of humans who had abandoned all hope of any release from eternal pain and unnatural bondage. The devilish servants seized the shrunken soul of my ancestor and dragged him down into the pit as he frantically struggled to avoid his loathsome fate. The Prince of Lies vanished from the room as the agonized wails of Brutus faded away into the ever-shrinking abyss.
I now understood, fully understood, the genesis and reason for the Alden family curse. I quaked in fear, hoping against hope that the worst was now over. However, once more the images reappeared. Only now I was each and every slave in those dark slave galleys. I experienced each and every second, minute, hour and eternity of their pain and anguish. I bled and died forgotten in a rotting wooden ship, my emancipated body dumped into the ocean like a piece of worthless flotsam. I was every mistreated whore beaten, strangled, scourged, and dying from syphilis that had contributed to the Alden treasure trove. I was the dying children starving because their father was paid poor wages by the family fisheries and shipyards. Joining the ever-growing legion of the damned tearing my soul asunder was every Alden relative who had spent a night in this hellish room. Lastly, I was my pregnant mother losing her sanity in this very room under the same cacophony of excruciating pain and mental anguish that was now drowning me under relentless, crushing, suffocating waves. I felt myself sinking lower and lower into the benighted depths. I prayed for the blessing of death with my last rational thought, but alas my heart was too strong to know when to quit. My mind, however, knew just when it was time to throw in the towel.
I’m in the dream again. You know the one where I can’t move because I’m trapped at the beginning of the story. The walls here I’m told are white also, but their workmanship is of much higher quality with a uniform height across the entire ceiling. I confirm this level fact every day during my exercise / pacing back and forth time. I like this dream room much more than the bad room. Sometimes I try to tell people about the Crooked Room, but although the thoughts are clear in my mind, the words always come out as high pitched squeaks and whines punctuated with half-strangled groans. I usually give up trying after a few minutes.
Anyway, this dream is infinitely superior, as I sometimes have the company of deep-voiced men and gentle women. If I’ve been good and hadn’t made a loud fuss that day, they sometimes read to me. I used to love to read whenever TV sucked, but it’s a little difficult now, because whenever they unstrap my jacket during examination time my eye sockets feel empty and all hollowed out.
Credit: Rick Pyle
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