It’s official: I’m an old man.
For the last couple years, I’ve comforted myself by saying I’m in my “early 70s,” but math is simple and unforgiving. Today is my 75th birthday, and God, the years do fly.
I’m not here for your well wishes; this is hardly a milestone I’m excited about. I’m glad to still be here, of course, but I find I have less and less to live for with every passing year. My bones ache, my kids live far away, and the other side of my bed has been empty for just over eight months now. In fact, once I cast my vote against that goddamned Trump this November, I may have nothing to live for at all.
So spare me your “happy birthdays” and your congratulations, if you please. I’m here because I have a story for you, and it’s one I’ve never told before. I used to think I kept it inside because it was silly, or maybe because nobody would believe it. I’ve found, though, that the older you grow, the more exhausting it becomes to lie to yourself. If I’m being perfectly honest, I’ve never told anybody this story because it scares me, almost to death.
But death seems friendlier than it used to, so listen close.
The year was 1950; the setting a small town in Maine. I was a boy of nine, rather small for my age, with only one friend in the world to speak of—and his family, seemingly on a whim, decided to move 2,000 miles away. It was shaping up to be the worst summer of my life.
My pop wasn’t around and my mom was a chore-whore—boy, was I proud of myself when I came up with that one—so I wasn’t apt to hang around the house. With some hesitation, I decided the public library was the place to be that summer. The library’s collection of books, particularly children’s books, was meager to say the least. But within the walls of that miserly structure, I would find no undone chores, no nagging mother (God rest her soul), and perhaps most importantly, no other children with whom I would be expected to associate. I was the only kid with a low enough social status to spend his precious days of freedom sulking amid the bookshelves, and that was just fine with me.
The first half of my summer was even more dreadful than I had imagined it would be. I would sleep in until 10, do my chores, and then ride my bike to the library (and by bike, I mean rusty log of shit attached to a pair of wheels). Once there, I would split my time between unintentionally annoying the elderly patrons and deliberately doing so. One pleasant lady actually interrupted my incessant tongue-clicking to hiss a “shut the fuck up!” at me—the first time I ever heard a grownup use The F Word. Big fuckin’ deal, I know, but in those days it was unheard of.
The dreary days turned to woeful weeks. I had actually begun praying for school to start again—until I discovered the basement. I could have sworn I’d roamed every inch of that library, but one day, in the far corner behind the foreign language collection I stumbled across a small wooden door I had never seen before. That was where it all began.
The door was windowless and made from oak that looked far older than the wall in which it rested. It had a knob of black metal that quite literally looked ancient—I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn it was crafted in the 17th century. Engraved on the knob was what appeared to be a single footprint. I had the sense that whatever lay beyond this door was forbidden to me, and therefore probably the most interesting thing I would encounter all summer. I quickly glanced around to make sure nobody was watching me, then turned the heavy knob, slipped behind the door, and shut it.
There was nothing; only darkness. I took a couple of steps and then stopped, unnerved by the totality of the shadow which surrounded me. I waved my hands in front of me in an attempt to find a wall or a shelf or anything to hold on to. What I actually found was far more subtle—a small string, dangling from above—but far more useful. I grabbed it firmly and pulled it down.
Back in the day, lots of lightbulbs were operated with strings, and this was one of them. My surroundings were instantly illuminated. I was standing on a small, dusty platform that looked as though it hadn’t seen life in quite some time. To my left was a crickety-ass spiral staircase, made of wood and appearing ready to collapse at any second. The bulb was the only source of light in the room, and it was feeble, so when I peered over the railing to see what lay below, the bottom of the staircase dissolved into the darkness.
I was beginning to feel scared. This place—wherever I was—seemed to have no business in a town library. It was as though I were in a completely different building. But no nine-year-old likes to let a mystery go unsolved. Looking back, I wish I could tell my prepubescent self to turn around, go back, do anything else besides descending that staircase.
“You’ll be spared a lot of sleepless nights,” I’d say. But, of course, I didn’t know that then—and I may not have listened even if I had. So instead of turning back, I took a deep breath, gripped the railing, and glared resolutely forward as I began my descent.
The wood on the railing was dry and covered with splinters. I immediately let go, holding my hands out for balance as I carefully traversed the staircase. It was (or at least seemed) very long, and with only the dim glow from the string-bulb far above me, my heart pounded mercilessly in the darkness. Even kids can sense when something isn’t right, I think—they just don’t always give a shit.
By the time my feet reached the cement floor at the bottom, the light from the bulb above was very nearly a memory. But there was a new light source, and God, I’ll never forget it. Directly in front of me was a door, massive, and a deep shade of red. The light was coming from behind the door, and it shone out in thin lines from all four sides—a sinister, dimly glowing rectangle. For the second time, I took a deep breath and went through a door I shouldn’t have.
In contrast to the dank room I entered from, the room behind the door was blinding. When my eyes adjusted, what I saw nearly took my breath away.
It was a library. The most perfect library imaginable.
I gaped in wonder as I stepped, almost reverently, further into the room. It was beautiful. It was smaller than the library above, much smaller, but it seemed to be almost tailor-made for me. The shelves were packed with brightly colored titles, both armchairs in the middle of the room were exquisitely comfortable, and the smell—my God, the smell—was simply unbelievable. Sort of a mixture of citrus and pine. I simply can’t do it justice with words, so I’ll suffice it to say that I’ve never smelled anything better. Not in my 75 years.
What was this room? Why had I never heard of it before? Why was nobody else here? Those were the questions I should have been asking. But I was intoxicated. As I gazed around at all the books and basked in the smell of paradise, I could only form one thought: I will never be bored again.
In truth, boredom only hid from me for three years. It was on my 12th birthday, 63 years ago to this day, that everything changed.
Before that day, I visited my basement sanctuary as often as I could—usually several times a week. I never saw another soul down there, yet strangely remained free of suspicion. I never removed a book from that room, but instead would pick up a particular volume wherever I had stopped reading during my previous visit. I sat, always in the same deep purple armchair, and always leaving its twin barren and directly across from myself. That armchair was mine, the other was—well, I suppose I couldn’t have articulated it then much better than I can now. But it wasn’t mine, that’s for damn sure.
On my twelfth birthday, I arrived later than usual. My mom had invited a couple classmates and some cousins over to our house to celebrate, a gesture which I found more tedious than touching—really, I just wanted to spend my birthday sitting and reading and smelling paradise. Eventually, our guests went home, and I made it to the library about fifteen minutes before closing time. That didn’t matter; the workers never checked down there before they locked up. I was free to stay as late as I wished. This particular night, I was devouring the final chapters of an epic adventure; knights, swords, dragons, and the like. I didn’t smell it until I read the final words and closed the book.
The once exquisite aroma of that room had turned sour. I sat for a moment, unsettled. Objectively, I could recognize that the smell was actually the same as it had been before—that mixture of citrus and pine. I just perceived it differently, and I didn’t like it anymore. It was the nasal version of an optical illusion; you know, the one that looks like a young woman glancing backward, but all of a sudden you see that it’s really an old woman facing toward you? You can’t unsee that, and I couldn’t unsmell this. The spell was broken.
The odor also seemed, for the first time, to be coming from somewhere specific. With a fair amount of trepidation, I stalked around the room, sniffing the air like a crazed canine until I came to a shelf near the back. The shelf was perfectly normal, with the exception of one title—a large, leatherbound cover of solid faded maroon, with one striking black footprint at the top of the spine. This was the source of the smell. I opened the front cover, and saw one sentence scrawled neatly in blood-red ink atop the first page:
Rest your sorrows down, friend, and leave them where they lie.
I stared at this sentence, mesmerized, as I began to retreat to my chair. I turned a page. Blank. The smell became stronger. Another page, blank, and the smell grew stronger still. I stopped for a moment, suppressed a gag, and continued walking. Then, as I neared the armchairs, I turned one final page—and there, in the same sinister print, was the last thing I expected to see: my own name. I dropped the book. I began to sprint toward the door, but as I shifted my gaze forward, my heart leapt to my throat and I stopped in my tracks.
The empty chair wasn’t empty anymore.
An aged man in a suit sat before me, one leg crossed over the other, contemplating me with piercing gray eyes and a light smirk. This was all too much. I fell to my knees and expelled the contents of my stomach onto the carpet. I wiped my mouth, staring at my vomit, when I heard the man let out a chuckle.
I stared at him disbelievingly. “Who are you?” I asked, panic in my voice.
The man leapt to his feet, grabbed me gently by the shoulders, and helped me to my chair. He sat, once again, in his own. “I fear we got off to a bad start,” he said, glancing at the pile of sick on the carpet. “The smell . . . it does take some getting used to.”
“Who are you?” I repeated.
“Tonight, you will know hardship like you’ve never before known,” he said. “I come as a friend, offering you refuge from it, and from all other storms which lie ahead.”
I wanted nothing more than to leave at that moment, but I remained seated. I asked him what he was talking about.
“Your mother is dead, my boy. By her own hand, in her kitchen. The scene is gruesome, I must admit,” he said in sorrowful tones, but was there a playful glint in his eye? “Surely you wish to avoid this path. I can show you a safer one.”
My blood ran cold at the horrors this man spoke of, but I did not believe him. “What do you want with me?” I demanded, trying to sound braver than I felt. He laughed, an old, raspy yelp that seemed to shake him to his bones.
“Nothing but your friendship, dear boy,” he said. Then, sensing I found his answer inadequate, he expounded. “I want you to come on a journey with me. My work is noble and you will make a fine apprentice. And maybe, when I’m done”—he sighed tiredly, running his bony fingers through his thin white hair—“maybe then, my work can be yours.”
I stood up, shuffling toward the door but never breaking his gaze. “You’re crazy,” I told him. “My mom isn’t dead. She’s not.”
“See for yourself, if you must,” he said, gesturing toward the door. I threw him a contemptuous glare and bolted for the exit. As my hand closed around the knob, he said my name softly. In spite of myself, I turned around.
“Your road won’t be easy, friend. If it ever becomes too much for you, and I mean ever,” he said, pausing to sweep his hand over the room, “you know where to find me.”
I slammed the door behind me and took the decrepit stairs two at a time. I exited the library, clambered onto my bike, and high-tailed it home. The front door was wide open. I dismounted, leaving my bike in a heap on the ground, and approached the house cautiously. The old man was lying—he must have been. Still, tears began to sting my eyes. Heart pounding, I stepped inside and called for my mother. I heard no answer, so I turned into the kitchen.
To this day, I don’t know why she did it.
I’ve lived in that small town in Maine my entire life, although I’ve kept mostly clear of the public library. Once, in my late 20s, I summoned the courage to step inside. Life was good at that time, and my fear had begun to morph into idle curiosity. Where the door to my basement sanctuary once stood was only a blank wall. I asked the librarian what had become of that basement, though in my heart I knew the answer. There was no basement, she said. There had never been a basement. In fact, if she had her facts correctly, city zoning ordinances prohibited a basement in the area.
I’ve been haunted by that sickly-sweet smell, that poisonous blend of citrus and pine, ever since that long ago birthday. When I saw my mother in the kitchen that day, collapsed in a pool of her own blood, I smelled it. When a man claiming to be my father knocked on my college apartment door, begged me for money and beat me to within an inch of my life when I refused, I smelled it. When my wife miscarried our second child, I smelled it, and again when she miscarried our fourth. When our oldest son got behind the wheel of the family Buick completely shitfaced and got his girlfriend killed, I smelled it.
I began to smell it periodically as my wife became sick. She died late last year, and now, I’m alone for the first time in more than half a century. Now, I smell it every day, and it feels like an invitation.
A few months ago, I went back to the library and the small oak door with the ancient handle was there—right where it used to be. My evening walk has brought me past that library every day since, but I haven’t gone inside. Maybe tonight I will. I’m frightened to die, yes, but lately I’m even more frightened to keep living. The old man was right—my road hasn’t been easy, and I doubt it will get any easier.
Rest your sorrows down, friend, and leave them where they lie.
He promised relief. A refuge, he said. Was he right about that too? There’s only one way to find out. After all, I still know where to find him.
Credit: Jake Healey