The Tower House
by Ronald Polizzi
"The neighborhood kids call it the Tower House, for obvious reasons." The woman in the bright yellow blazer, the words Newcastle Realtors stitched over the left breast pocket, stuffed the bundle of papers under her left arm and waved her right hand in the direction of the round turret at one corner of the roof. Then she reached into the blazerís pocket and produced a set of keys on a wire ring.
"Caitlin might enjoy the bedroom on the second floor of the turret," she said, handing the keys to the thin woman with limp, mousy brown hair." If you remember, it offers a beautiful view of the neighborhood. Since the previous owners removed the section of wall between it and the attic, it is quite spacious. She would have ample room for most anything she might want to do. Of course, you and your husband will want to take the master bedroom on the ground floor".
"Caitlin is not very happy about the move Iím afraid, "said the thin woman quietly.
"Sheís hardly speaking at all. She doesnít eat. Sheís becoming very withdrawn."
The woman in the blazer glanced at the pouty girl standing off by herself, hands shoved in her jeans pockets. The girl wore a baseball cap with the bill pointed squarely to the rear -- either a tomboy or worse, a would-be female 'gansta'.
"Iím sure Caitlin will come around," said the realtor. "It's a great house, and a great neighborhood." She smiled, as if listening to the family woes of her clients was a normal part of the service, shook hands with the thin woman and her husband (Caitlin ignored her extended hand), and returned to her car.
She was happy to get this particular piece of real estate off her hands. The house had a nasty reputation among the locals. The place had given her the creeps every time she had shown it, though she couldnít put her finger on why...
But once, while waiting to meet a prospective buyer, she had heard a scratching, like claws on the slate roof. When she had looked up, she saw -- she thought she saw ? a dark skeletal thing, scrambling over the peak, down the other side. Obviously, it had been an illusion, the shadow of a passing cloud or a large bird. Or a squirrel -- the neighborhood was infested with the furry beggars.
She wished -- she really wished -- that she found any of those perfectly rational explanations convincing. But even if there was -- something -- odd about the house, that wasn't her problem anymore. She waved good-bye to the new owners.
The man and woman waved back. The girl continued to sulk.
The realtor prayed, as she sped away, that this time, she was done with the Tower House for good.
Caitlin watched the woman with the faked smile drive away. She was glad to see her go.
"Caitlin, where do you want the movers to set up your room? In the guest room next to ours, or upstairs, in that round room we looked at?"
Caitlin saw her mother standing next to one of the movers. They were both looking at her, waiting. She wished she were invisible, so they would leave her alone.
"I donít care, wherever," she said. She really didnít care. There was no way she was going to forgive her parents for pulling this stunt, forcing her to leave California and her friends. So what, if this was a career move for her father? He had made good money as a Department Head at UCLA. Why did they have to leave the place sheíd lived all her life, so he could be Dean of the College of Mathematics at the University here. It wasnít fair!
Of course, she knew the real reason. Her motherís drinking had become a problem, not befitting a professorís wife. It was resign, or be fired. She looked back at the woman who had caused all of this, angry tears spilling down her face.
"Put Caitlinís things on the second floor," her mother said. The man nodded and then joined his partner, who was unloading more boxes.
Fine, Caitlin thought, put me upstairs. The further I am from you the better. Upstairs would be perfect. Then she wouldnít have to deal with her mother's drinking, or her father's constant bitching. She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve. "I wish we were all dead,"she sobbed.
It was late afternoon before the movers finished. Caitlin had made it a point to stay out of the way. The sun was setting when she finally consented to cross the threshold of their new home.
Though she was familiar with the layout of the place, forced to tour it twice with her mother, then it had seemed empty and vast. The idea of moving was more abstract than reality. Now, seeing it filled with their furniture, the familiar sofa and chairs seemed like strangers in this new house, where they expected her to live.
She found her mother perched on the couch; legs tucked under her, a large tumbler of wine in her hand. She was watching a crime drama on their large screen television
Oh well, Caitlin thought, what did I expect? Sheís gone all day without a drink. Sheís just making up for lost time. Her father was nowhere in sight .He was probably holed up in his new study. At least he wasnít throwing one of his famous temper fits.
"I ordered a pizza for supper," Her mother slurred, her attention locked on CSI.
"Iím not hungry, "Caitlin said, brushing past.
"You need to eat somethin'--" her mother called without turning her head.
But Caitlin wasnít listening. She angrily mounted the stairs, two at a time. Halfway up she glimpsed the dark shape of her father in the dimly lit study. Like some monstrous ogre, he hunched over the computer monitor, a jumble of characters and numbers filling the screen.
Except for the bare walls, Caitlin found her room arranged exactly the same as in West Covina. The bookcase, bed, and computer desk were all placed exactly as she remembered them. Her posters were still packed in boxes, with her books, dolls and computer. Once she unpacked, there would be no difference at all between this room and her old one, except for the bow of the far wall. It curved in a bold arc. This was the section of the turret or tower. The former owners had removed the wall that kept the tower separate from the rest of the attic to create a dormer for their son. It was a sad story really, the real estate woman had said. Shortly afterwards, the boy had come up missing. The room had been closed off until now.
Caitlin walked over to the large ugly window, set dead center in the curved part of the room.
The woman in the yellow jacket had called it the tower window. She had said that this was the only original window in the house. "At one time, all the windows were casements, hinged on either side to allow them to swing out." Caitlin remembered the spiel, the real-estate lady's attempt at making an old dump sound interesting. "Over the years, all the other windows have been replaced with new double hung models, offering better insulation against the severe New England winters."
The window occupied the center of the curved wall like the belly button in some pregnant thing, ugly and glaring.
Weíre alike, Caitlin thought, both of us misfits in this place where neither of us belong. She gave the window a shove, but it held fast. She tried again, but the window refused to open. Inspecting it closely, she discovered someone had driven several nails into the center, where the two window sections came together.
On impulse, not really knowing why, perhaps because she needed to do something rebellious, she went down the stairs, to where she had spotted her fatherís toolbox. Retrieving the claw hammer from the jumble of rarely-used tools, she returned to the window and began extracting each nail, until she had removed them all. They were oddly shaped things, square shanked with a design embossed on the heads. She placed them in her dresser drawer. Now youíll open, she thought, giving the window a push. The window didnít budge. Apparently the nails had done their job too well, it was now frozen shut from disuse.
I hate this house, she told herself. Throwing the curtains aside, she peered into the darkness. From this height, she could see several streets over. The neighborhood homes cheerfully aglow in yellows and oranges. Two blocks away, a lone car made its way down a dark street, a fleeting trail of red, from its taillights, marking its passage. After a moment she lost interest, the reality of the move taking precedence over the novelty of the view. She flopped down on her bed, hands behind her head. All her friends were a thousand miles away; her mother was an alcoholic, her father, a lunatic obsessed with work. Feeling lost and alone, she let her mind carry her back to West Covina.
She must have fallen asleep because, Caitlin awoke to a cold wind blowing across her cheek. Stirring out of the last vestiges of slumber, she realized she was shivering. The room was freezing. She stumbled out of bed. Pulling the covers loose, she wrapping them around her, she peeped down the stairs. The house was dark. Her parents had obviously gone to bed. I must have slept for hours!
Fully awake, wondering what to do with herself, she noticed the curtains billowing, like big cloth clouds. They popped and snapped whip-like, riding wildly on the currents of air rushing through the window. She stared hard, surprised. The wind was blowing through the window, the open window! That was impossible. It had been jammed before, so much so that she was sure that it could not have been blown open or even forced open by her father or mother (in the unlikely event that either had bothered to look in on her), at least not without waking her up.
Outside, a strange fog, filled with dots of colored lights, hid the neighborhood. The lights danced and blinked; reminding her of the electronic game Simon. She had played it when she was younger. The game had four light-up buttons, each a different color. It would flash the lights in random order, and you had to remember the pattern and push the buttons in the proper sequence. Every time you succeeded, you were rewarded with another, longer sequence. What was happening outside her window was similar, but on a much grander scale, with dozens (maybe hundreds) of lights in different hues, all blinking on and off, and -- were some of them moving? The fog made it hard to judge...
Moments later, the lights winked out and the fog thinned. She was amazed to find the neighborhood replaced by a clearing and a distant forest. Spotlights, shining down from flying crafts, sliced the night sky. Their bright beams cut through the darkness like razor sharp blades. Directly below the window, twenty or so people gathered around a fire. The group was simply dressed. None of the adults appeared to be much passed their teens. Busily chatting, they ignored the spotlights that cut across the meadow.
Tall conical smokestacks, approximately the height of the tower, bordered the clearing in a circular pattern. At intervals, a blast of fire shot from one or another of the things.
I have to be dreaming, Caitlin thought to herself, but if I am, itís a nice dream. The people below seemed happy and that made her envious. They had something she was denied. Watching their simple activities, she imagined she was a part of them, losing herself in a vicarious daydream.
A crashing, tearing sound, deep inside the forest, startled her out of her revelry. The trees marking the edge of the forest begin to shake. The little group raced away, as one of the largest trees toppled forward, uprooted by a dark shape slithering into view. Large and slug like, it swung the front of its eyeless body from side to side.
Itís searching for something, Caitlin said, to herself, probably the people that were here.
Moving erratically, it brushed against one of the smokestacks. There was an explosion. The creature rolled away in fiery shower of sparks. A hoarse cry of pain sounded from the dark cavity of a mouth. Shaking its massive body, it jerked forward into the clearing, where it sniffed dog like, in the grass.
A flying thing, circling overhead, directed a beam of light at the creature, so bright that it seemed almost like a solid blade of energy. Others joined, surrounding the hulking beast with their razor like rays. The creature let out another bellow. Moving sluggishly, it turned away from the lights that dogged it, allowing itself to be herded it back into the forest. Soon it was lost deep inside the trees.
The group reappeared, taking their places around the fire. The children resumed playing, as if nothing had happened.
Fascinated, Caitlin leaned further out the window, hoping for a wider view. From her new vantage point, there was no evidence of the neighborhood at all. The house was surrounded by forest.
This is all so real, she thought, not like a dream at all.
The blanket she had wrapped herself in slipped off her shoulder, tumbling to the floor. Pulling back, she reached down to retrieve it. As she did, the window slammed shut.
That could have been my neck! It closed as if it wanted to hurt me.
Alarmed by how close she had come to being injured, she studied the window carefully. Through the thick glass, the neighborhood houses, their windows dark, stood sleeping, along tree-lined streets. There was no clearing, or forest, and no happy people.
Where did the people and the forest go? she wondered. Still, no matter how she searched, there was only the neighborhood outside the window.
Dragging herself to bed, she decided it had been a dream. The window couldn't have tried to hurt her. For one thing, it was swollen shut. So why do I still believe I saw -- what I saw? she wondered. She glanced back toward the window, but it remained closed, and the roof of the house across the street refused to dissolve into a forest at twilight, and she slept.
The next morning the dream was still on her mind. No matter how she tried, she couldnít get what she had seen the night before out of her head.
At the breakfast table, she tried to talk to her parents about the strange experience.
"Caitlin, were you in my tool box?" her father asked, pushing the subject of the window aside, as he chugged his coffee. " My claw hammer is missing. When you borrow a tool, I expect you to return it."
Caitlin shrugged. "I'll put it back," she said. "I was trying to get that old window open, the one I was telling you about --"
Her mother, seizing the moment, slipped away from the table taking up her customary place on the couch. Flipping through the channels, she searched for something to begin her morning diet of wine and soap operas.
"Monica, I hope youíre not drinking this early," her father warned, watching his wife creep off.
"Back off, Thomas," her mother growled back.
"Mom," Caitlin begged, running after her mother, feeling the need to relate her experience to someone.
"Not now, honey," her mother said, "Regis is on".
Disappointed, Caitlin climbed the stairs. Back in her room, she discovered the curtains riding on the chilly breezes, billowing merrily.
The window was open! She raced toward it, eagerly. Outside, stars twinkled brightly in a night sky.
But itís daytime -- downstairs, Caitlin thought. I guess everything is different out there. Peering down, she recognized the little group from the night before. They were seated in the clearing, circled by the cone shaped smokestacks. Someone had built a fire pit and now a large chunk of meat hung over the fire, roasting.
The aroma drifted upward, tickling Caitlinís nose, and suddenly she was hungrier than she had been since her father had announced the move.
A young man was tending the meat. Glancing up at Caitlin, he boldly met her stare, raising a friendly hand in greeting.
He can see me! She returned the wave, but too late, he had turned his attention back to the fire. Suddenly, the window slammed shut and mid-morning sunlight flooded the room with warmth.
"Caitlin, what was that noise? What are you doing up there?" her mother yelled.
"Nothing! I just dropped something," Caitlin called back.
"Well, keep it down! Iím trying to watch my show".
It wasnít a dream, Caitlin decided. There is another world outside this window -- at least when it's open. The problem was that the damn thing opened and closed on its own schedule, not when she wanted. How do I make it open for me? And can I do more than just look? The idea she might find a way to see the other world again -- and maybe more than see it -- filled her with secret delight
She was waiting for her father at the door when he arrived that afternoon from the University. Grabbing his hand she pulled him up the stairs.
"Dad, you have to see this!" The words rushed out a as they made their way up to the dormer.
"The window opens by itself. And, when it does, the outside changes. It becomes a different world"
"What are you talking about, Caitlin?" said her father, his voice rough with impatience.
"The window opens somehow and --.and -- the weather changes and -- thereís people in a circle -- you have to see this, Dad!".
Filled with excitement, she pushed him into the bedroom, toward the tall casement.
Please, please be there, she prayed. Pulling the curtains aside, she waited for her fatherís amazed reaction. Surely, he could see this was no ordinary window. He was a scientist, after all.
Instead, his face turned red, skewing his features. His eyes narrowed. "You dragged me all the way up here to show me this? Itís just a damn window, Caitlin, an old, drafty window that should have been replaced with the rest of them." Realizing he was shouting, he paused. Fists clenched tightly together, he mentally counted to ten before he spoke again.
"Caitlin, you are 14 years old. I thought by now, you would be done with imaginary friends and similar childish things. I see I was wrong. Either that, or you're trying to force us to move back to California. Well, it wonít work." He turned on his heel. "I donít want to hear another word of this nonsense ever again. Do you understand?"
Caitlin felt her face flush. Her eyes stung, but she refused to let him see her cry -- that would just prove that she was a child after all. "Yes, sir," she said.
He slammed the door behind him
Caitlin heard him stomp angrily down the staircase. Then her mother's voice, slurred as usual, asked a question that Caitlin couldn't quite make out.
"I donít know what Ďs wrong with the girl, Monica," her father bellowed.
So the question must have been "What's wrong with Caitlin now?" Because there was always something wrong with her, according to Mom, Dad, her teachers, and even her so-called friends.
"She was talking nonsense," her father continued, only slightly lowering his voice."I wonder if I should make an appointment with one of the universityís psychiatrists. Sheís obviously losing touch with reality."
Caitlin slumped onto the bed. Maybe her father was right. Maybe she had imagined it all.
Suddenly, the window flew open. Cold wind swirled around her, whipping her hair across her face. Brushing the hair aside, she saw the boy, standing on the window ledge. He reached out a hand, beckoning her.
Caitlin jumped to her feet and ran to him.
Taking her hand, he slipped out the window, pulling her along. She found herself standing on the top rung of an iron ladder set into rough stone, leading to the ground.
She followed the boy down.
At the bottom, he led her along a little trail into the clearing. There, she was greeted by the group she had watched from her bedroom. Standing among them, she took a last look toward her home. The turret stood proud and tall then blurred and vanished.
Caitlin could not say how long she lived with the people in the clearing. Time was reckoned differently there -- there was no night or day, only endless twilight. She learned that most of the people had found their way here just as she had, through a window, a doorway or a garden gate. They were all outcasts, searching for something better.
She also learned that she was on Earth, in spite of the alien-seeming giant slug creatures and flying things -- but so far in the future that the Sun had shrunken to a dim red star, and only the conical smokestacks kept things warm enough to sustain life.
"They transfer warmth to the surface, from deep below the ground," the boy who had lured her down from the tower -- his name was unpronounceable, although he spoke better English than she did -- said. "Without them, we would freeze."
There were other wondrous things about this place. The slug- like creatures were genetically engineered, hybrids of plant and animal. Traditional crops lacked enough sunlight to thrive. The slug-like creatures were the prime sustenance of the little group.
"We call them Lugs," said the boy. They were mindless things and much like cattle, they provided both meat and a sort of milk.
To Caitlinís disappointment, no one knew much about the flying things.
"Theyíve always been with us", the group said, "they help herd the Lugs. But we donít know if they are creatures like us, or simply machines."
Caitlin settled into a happy life among the group. And though they lived under dark skies, everything one could want was mysteriously provided. For the first time since she could remember, she was happy.
One day, the Tower appeared again, its stony faÁade tall and gray above the treetops. With it came memories of her old life, flowing into her mind like an oceanís tide. She remembered time she had spent with her parents and the memories stirred a longing to see them again. How had her mother and father had fared after she left?
Carried away with emotion, she followed the little trail, back to the base of the tower. Harnessing her resolve, she grasped the iron rungs and climbed the tower. At the top, she found the window open, welcoming her back, after her absence.
Surprised to find her room bare, she stood there confused, not knowing what to do. Should she simply slip back out the window? Return to her new home? She had come all this way. She should at least visit the downstairs one last time, she thought. She would glimpse her mother, perched on the sofa with the television blaring. She might even look in on her father, holed up in his study. He would be pouring over an endless list of statistics and inventories, like always. Her decision made, she crossed the empty room.
The stairway was deserted. At the bottom, a lone shape in a single chair, sat motionless in the dark room. The figure turned as she stepped into view.
"Dad? " she whispered.
"Dad? I was called that once, long ago, " the figure said." My wife was alive then. I had a daughter. Her name was Caitlin, I believe. It was so long ago. We moved here from California..."
"Dad itís me. Iím Caitlin Iíve come home."
The dark shape laughed sarcastically.
"I know who you are. Youíre one of the people from the window. Youíve come to taunt me again. You took her and now youíve come for me, but I wonít go, I wonít enter that room. Tomorrow men are coming. Theyíre going to seal that window with brick so you can never torment me again. Then I can rest ... I won't have to stand guard against -- ".
Caitlin stood silently on the foot of the stairs, saddened by what had become of her father. Despite the way he had treated her, her disappearance had affected him deeply. She imagined his world slowly contracting until it consisted of nothing more but anger and regret, and he planted himself there to prevent anyone else from using the window to escape.
She realized that there was nothing left for her on this side of the window. She was still young -- her reflection seemed barely any older than the fourteen-year-old who had climbed down the tower -- but it looked like decades had slipped by here. Turning away from the muttering figure at the bottom of the stairs, she climbed the stairs to the tower. A moment later she stepped out the window and into the perpetual twilight of home.
© 2008 Ronald Polizzi
Bio: Ronald Polizzi is a high school teacher with both a Bachelors and Masters Degree in Fine Art. He lives with his wife and daughter in Mobile Alabama. He is in the process of completing his first novel (working title ďHeart of Dixie").
E-mail: Ronald Polizzi
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