Edmond Tallier rummages through the antique cabinet in the master bedroom, cursing at the kicked-up dust that invades his sinus passages. Finally, his fingers brush across the smooth, unmistakable texture of tanned leather. He closes his hand around the old journal and pulls it into the light.
It’s thicker than Edmond remembers, and although he recognizes the bizarre symbols embossed on the cover, the meanings are beyond him. However, he does know that the information he’s looking for is hidden somewhere in this unusual piece of family history.
He flips hastily through the yellowed pages, past rough sketches and haphazard notations, past blocks of text written in languages Edmond can't translate. Halfway through the journal, he finds a piece of lined formerly-white paper. The top edge is ragged, as if it was torn from a legal pad.
“Here we go,” Edmond mutters, unfolding the paper and reading the message written in familiar looped handwriting.
In case of emergency
call this number
use the phone in the upstairs study
Edmond takes a deep breath and closes the journal. Aunt Jocelyn would be ashamed if she were alive to see how her things have been treated, sold off or left to gather dust in places such as this curious cabinet with its unintelligible markings, the one she warned Edmond never to open by any other means than with the key she left to him. He vows to do better by her memory as soon as he deals with... whatever this is.
In Jocelyn’s study, Edmond picks up the receiver of the outdated phone. The weight of it is awkward in his hand.
It takes him two tries to dial the rotary correctly. He hasn't used this phone since he was a child playing at his aunt’s house. He used to be fascinated by her books and the tales of monsters they contained, quite unlike anything he checked out from the library.
He dials the sequence of numbers he found in the old journal and waits. He hears nothing: no dial tone, no relay, no clicks. Yet, somehow, he knows the line isn't dead.
“Please let this work.”
Edmond waits fifteen seconds. He's about to hang up when he hears a low tone followed by a peculiar hollow sound. Then, this:
“Code 442. SC 181 acknowledged. Please state your situation.”
The recorded voice sounds more mechanical than human, although it's nothing like the automated responses from corporate call centers and helplines. Edmond listens to the faint static for a few more seconds. He's come this far, he might as well see what happens.
“Um, hello.” He pauses before realizing it’s probably foolish to expect a response. “My name is Edmond Tallier. I'm not really sure who I'm calling, only that my late aunt told me to use this number if—well, if something…”
He needs a moment to gather his thoughts, to organize them into something close to coherence. If this works, great. If it doesn't, Edmond hopes no one ever hears how crazy he will sound.
“My aunt’s name was Jocelyn Campbell, and she told me to call this number if I ever saw a ghost.”
Behind her, the French doors to the balcony are thrown wide open, desperate to entice even the faintest breeze into the house’s former nursery. The air is always so stagnant in there, heavy with whisper and memory.
Fanciful. That’s what Max calls her when she says things like that.
Sayuri decided to turn this particular room into her office when they moved into this old South Carolina plantation house. Their real estate agent called this space a nursery, but Sayuri can’t imagine her baby within these four walls. The balcony she’s standing on is idyllic, Southern-charm perfection looking out onto the oak-lined avenue leading to the manor, but the space it guards is wrong, placed so far from the other bedrooms, a cracked ceiling, no natural air flow…
And that hideous yellow wallpaper.
The aged paper is visually abhorrent, a sulfurous forest of gnarled branches and vines choking invisible figures. Mustard thorns threaten, rotting flowers decay. A nightmare in brittle, peeling paper that haunts Sayuri long after she’s left the room.
When Max saw the wallpaper, he told Sayuri she ought to rip it out despite the agent’s caution against renovations. It’s only a rental, their agent reminded them. Regardless, Sayuri considered taking drastic action, but each time she tried to work up the gumption, the energy seemed to drain right out of her.
It will be a year until their new house is finished. Sayuri has seen the plans: a large home with an open floor plan situated on a waterfront lot in one of the neighborhoods closer to downtown Charleston. Until then, she has to endure twelve months living on this old, isolated estate because Max wanted the full Southern experience. Not that her husband spends any time here, his presence demanded downtown more often than not. The hospital wasted no time putting their new specialist to good use.
She wonders what drew Max to this property. Besides the rent being inexplicably low for a house this large. Their local agent didn’t have much to say on the subject, claiming it was because Nine Oaks was so far from Charleston. Sayuri has her suspicions, though. Her minimal online research hadn’t shed much light on the subject, only more questions involving a lack of heirs and legal troubles.
At first, the idea seemed romantic. Sayuri saw the possibilities—a new blog dedicated to Southern living, rediscovering her love of her work. That spark sustained her through the move only to be snuffed out on the first night she spent in the house. Restless and agitated, she told Max the house felt strange.
He blamed it on her overactive imagination and promised he’d write a prescription for a sleep aid as soon as he could.
She turns back to the view outside, wide grounds now fully enveloped by the darkness. Standing here, it’s easy to lose time. Soon, the barest hints of silver moonlight will descend on the oaks; a view that’s worth waiting for, even if she’s already uncomfortable. She’s sweating in the late spring humidity, black hair limp on her shoulders, thin green t-shirt clinging to her skin. Going back inside means facing those swirling ochre spirals that make her dizzy, so she stays.
Anna’s with the baby, her time paid for by Max’s new position, leaving Sayuri free to find ‘whatever makes her happy’. Her husband’s words. As if that’s what will help her out of her persistent mood. He’s a practical man, a scientist at heart; he believes Sayuri needs nothing more than fresh air and a chance to relax.
She stares out past the gravel drive, her eyes adjusting to the darkness. Between two of the oak trees, a pool of moonlight begins to ripple, shapes moving through the silver light. Almost as if the moon has found a hidden statue and unveiled it for the night to see.
Apparently Sayuri is more exhausted than she thought.
She snaps a photo with her phone. If nothing else, the picture will make for an interesting post on the blog she hasn’t felt like updating in days.
Closing the balcony doors, she does her best not to glance at the wallpaper on her way out of the room.
Outside, a pale and ephemerous hand emerges from the silver pool and reaches towards the balcony.