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The pain in his side grew larger and his breath came in long, gasping puffs.
Behind him the sound of footsteps on the hot cracked pavement grew closer. The boy was slowing; it wouldn’t be long before he was caught. He already knew what would follow. Past experience had given him more then enough knowledge. His body would be thrown, not unlike that of a doll, to the ground. Mocking words and cruel names would follow. The pain on his body faded. Often within the hour, but the scars left on his mind stayed longer, growing stronger with the more insults that were thrown.
So the boy ran.
The people he should have been able to turn to were unable to help. The insults went on behind closed doors, whispered, and when told were all to easily passed off as normal and a part of growing up. His parents were unable to help, and his school passed over the students with a blind eye. So the boy was left in what seemed like a desert with no water.
He turned to glance behind him and he tripped, falling to the broken asphalt street. Scrambling, he regained his footing, and raced off in a new direction through the woods that lined the road.
After a mile he wasn’t being chased anymore; he knew that. The other students had turned back once it was clear they wouldn’t catch him. The boy thought about going back, but continued to run. Instead he ran until his head felt light. Until he forgot why it was he was running.
Our story starts with a house.
No one knows who built it. No one knows who owns it, but it always has a faded and weather beaten FOR SALE sign posted on the unkempt yard. However it has always stood at the end of a long driveway, surrounded by trees. The house was damp and dark, its roof scattered with large holes, mold creeped up the walls and very few people dared go near it. The door was locked and no one cared enough to try and open it. In fact people were almost afraid of the prospect.
The house was big enough so that no one could be sure how many rooms it held. It stood vacant. No one was interested in buying it. To all it was a fire hazard. But whatever it was, perhaps that part of our imagination that loves a good story, the people couldn’t bear to tear it down. So they forbade their children from going close to it, and kept as far away as possible. This should have been the end of the house. It would have been left to rot for a hundred years, until it was torn down to make room for a new parking lot.
The boy exited the dense woods, finding himself at the base of this ancient house. He glanced up at the tall roof, filled with holes. Slowing his breath he walked to the back of the house. Partially hidden behind a tree was a door. He tried the handle.
The door swung open.
The boy stepped forward in the dark. The only light came from the small sliver of daylight behind him. The boy reached, hands trailing on the wall, searching for a light switch. Instead he found what felt like a doorknob. He turned the handle, and a door swung inwards. The boy figured it was a closet and spun on his heels to leave. The house, though if asked he would not have admitted it, was making his heart pound and his hands sweat.
He looked at the sliver of sun. It quickly grew smaller then disappeared with a bang. The boy raced forward and felt for the exit. He ran his hands up and down what was now smooth wall, searching for the handle, for the glimmer of light from before. A loud clang came from his side and the boy jumped, darting for the closet. He shut the door behind him, and waited as his heart pounded in his ears, certain that any moment some type of monster would creep up behind him.
This is the thing about old houses, or even houses that only look old. You can comfort yourself with the thought that it’s only a house. Ghosts do not exist in the sun. But as the sun dips lower in the sky, it is easy for the mind to see shadows where none should be. To hear whispers while alone.
The boy stayed in the closet for five minutes, then ten. When he was sure he was alone he stood. He was slightly surprised by the space behind him. There was no light seeping through the cracks in the wall, he fumbled for the wall behind him and found only empty space.
Curious, the boy took a step forward. Then another. Before he could pause and consider what it was he was doing the boy had begun a long and dark descent into the unknown. The closet was, contrary to what he had believed, a hallway, one that had no lights, and no joining hallways or rooms. The boy also realized he was on an incline.
The boy lost all semblance of time and space. Surrounded by darkness, his fear waned the more time he spent in the dark, but snapped back as soon as he heard a creak.
He created whispers. Hushed voices accompanied by the swish of cloth. A spark illuminating a face behind him in a flash of smoke. Several times he turned to face the murderer behind him.
The boy could take it no more. He ran as quickly as he could. He had chosen to go further into the house, for what reason he could not say. All he knew was that something was there, a heavy breathing accompanied by heavy feet. He did not know how long he ran, the exhaustion banished by the adrenaline pumping through his veins.
When he arrived to the end of the hall, he crashed into it. He stood, panting, the darkness stood like it’s own entity. It pressed in on him, suffocating. He reached out searching for a doorknob, a crack, something to let him know he was still on earth.
He found a small handle near the base of the wall. At first he pulled on it, then pushed. It swung open above him. He crawled through the small entrance, his eyes adjusting to the sudden light.
The boy turned. His eyes were unable to take everything in. Growing out of the walls and floor were wires, cables, cords and scraps of metal. Gears and batteries formed small mountains on the floor; unlike any the boy had ever seen. The boy walked deeper into the room, allowing the door to swing shut behind him.
The more he explored, the more the boy’s amazement grew.
After what felt like an hour, but in reality could not have been more then ten minutes, the boy found his way through the maze to the back of the room. He found a small space, clear of obstacles, where the boy found a large desk and chair.
Next to the desk was a small door, indiscrete except for the small placard placed in the middle.
Build the key that will fit this lock.
The boy turned the handle, knowing even as he tried it would not open. He frowned and turned to leave the room. Passing the treasure troves of metal, the boy felt a sad sense of longing. He reached the door he had come through. To his surprise he found a small note. It looked exactly like the first, but its message was more ominous.
Once you leave you can never come back.
The boy sat down. His family would miss him. They were probably looking for him already. He looked to the ceiling of the room. It was painted black, and small artificial lights gave it the semblance of the night sky.
He then thought of the bullies, the people in his life who would never leave, no matter how much he begged. The parents and teachers, who had brushed him off, turned a blind eye. The endless abuse and mental torture he had received. He thought of the message on the door. He stood knowing that before he had even started considering it, he had made his choice.
He would stay.
The boy walked back to the desk, picking up pieces of things he found interesting. He pulled the chair out and sat. He liked the feeling of importance that came with the desk. Placed on the desk was another of the notes.
Everything you do here is of importance.
All your mistakes will be remembered,
and all your accomplishments will never be enough.
This was the first lesson the boy learned, he would never be able to leave. The risk and gain outweighed everything he was leaving behind. The boy took to his task like a fish to water. His hands were clever and his mind even more so. He thought and pondered then thought some more. He did not sleep. He did not eat. Trivial things were no longer of any importance to him. He thought of his family often, but he knew that one day he would be able to make them proud with what it is he was learning.
When the boy was sure of his design he took it to the door and placed it in the slot that had appeared while he had been completing the finishing touches. He placed the key he had built and the slot swung shut. The boy allowed himself a smile. His work was complete, and all the that he had done would pay off.
The slot opened again, and a small card fell to his feet. The boy bent picking it up cautiously.
The boy sat back at the desk. Knowing he could fail, and having failed were two completely separate things.
He looked to the door at the entrance, thought about quitting. Then thought of the teenagers awaiting him. He thought of how they could accomplish this, how they were better then him. He thought of how he would continue to live his life, hiding, ashamed. He thought of how he could take revenge for all the fear and loathing he felt for himself. He then knew with a certainty he had never felt before that the only way to truly win was to be better than his peers. That was when he would feel safe. That was when he would be able to say that his lesson was learnt. That the bullies were no longer anything for him to fear. He thought of the confidence, self-respect and humility that he would receive once he was able to say, what you did was wrong, but I forgive you.
It was when he had accomplished what no one else could that he would be safe. It was when he was irreplaceable and noticed that he would be left alone.
The boy threw himself back into his task with no more thought of the outside. His mind began to develop; and he forget what he had once loved. The sun, the sky, the lakes and oceans, all became distant memories.
After he had checked and double-checked his design all he could, the boy placed his key into the door once again.
This time there was a click, and when the boy pulled on the handle it swung upwards.
The boy entered the room to find another note this time hanging from the ceiling at eye level.
The boy turned his attention to the surrounding room. Like the one before it was a maze, but filled with musical instruments. In the middle of the floor he found a music stand, it was surrounded by all the instruments the boy had never seen.
The boy sat on a wooden chair placed before the stand. He picked up the note.
Compose a piece that anyone could play, but none can master.
The boy began with the string section. He learned how every instrument was played and built. His fingers swelled and bled, formed blisters, until those blisters became calluses. When he moved to the wind instruments, his lips grew chapped, and mouth permanently dry.
A year passed and the boy grew older.
He found instruments he liked and others he hated, but he kept at it all the same. When he had mastered all the instruments the boy began to work on his composition.
The boy wanted to capture human emotions. So he cried, he laughed, he gave up, he found hope, he saw terror and love, he explored them all. Then, using the knowledge he had gained, the boy sang and wept and played. His fingers danced. His heart soared.
Through music the boy captured human emotion. And the door in the far corner clicked open.
Before the boy entered the next room he thought about what he was trying to accomplish. He thought of what he was gaining, and what he was losing. He thought of what he had felt for most of his life; the fear, the pain, the never-ending feeling of failure and being second best.
He stepped through the door.
As soon as he was through the door his breath caught. He was in a room at least ten feet tall. Each wall was covered in books. They were piled in teetering stacks. Scattered around they created a maze, that the boy was forced to tiptoe around, for fear of knocking one over. The boy wandered through the stacks, letting the door fall shut behind him. When he returned to where he had started he saw the door had become part of the room, it too was covered.
The books in the room were all of different genres and sizes; the boy suspected that every book ever written was in that room. It ranged from picture books, to poetry, to classics, to religious texts, to bibliographies and to human studies. The boy was amazed. In the center of the room next to a plush red armchair was the biggest book of all. On the cover was placed another card.
What makes someone human?
He removed the card and flipped through the pages. It was a list of all the books in the library and where it was they could be found. With no clear idea of how to start, the boy began to read. He began at the top, than worked his way down, skipping books he found boring and rereading those that were interesting.
Years went past. The boy no longer needed to speak, but if he did he would have been surprised at its lower tone. The boy did not care. He was lost in worlds never dreamt of; found himself in the characters who taught him. He became the villains, the heroes, the victim, and the bully.
And he thought. Sometimes he would sit and think for hours, before leaping up to check a fact or reread a paragraph. He explored and he wondered.
Eventually he knew the answer and with the spark of accomplishment in his heart, he whispered it to the room.
A bookcase swung open silently. And the man, for he was no longer the young boy he had been, left the third room.
The room was empty. It had a whitewashed floor and whitewashed walls. The man looked for the card. He found it lying in the middle of the room.
What do you want?
The man sat on the floor and thought about this. To be powerful was his first thought. Not to be afraid was his second. He flipped over the card.
Why are you afraid?
“I don’t want to be weak. I want to prove that I to have something to give the world. I don’t want to let someone push me around.” He said this to an empty room, but it did not feel out of place. He flipped the card over again.
Are you weak?
“Yes.” The man said at once. “No.” He said immediately afterwards. The man flipped the card one last time. Two words that had been driving his whole life, the two words that had kept him going.
The man was ageless. Young and old. Alive and dead. Foolish and clever. He was everything and he was nothing, and he smiled as he opened the final door, the one he now realized had never been locked.