The Thirteenth Door
by Kelly Zientek-Baker
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“Come to me.”
He heard the woman’s voice faint, sorrowful, and saw her face, framed by chestnut curls, her dark eyes soft with tears. He reached out for her but could not touch her.
“I’m here!” he called back, choked by his tears.
Her tears broke loose and spilled down her face. “Come to me.”
Chains as thick as his wrist embraced his ankles, anchoring them to a boulder behind him. He roared with the effort of dragging one foot forward. The boulder screeched across the ground. He reached. He took another step, veins and muscles bulging. Above them, the storm clouds rumbled.
“Hurry, my love,” the woman called.
Pain screamed through his muscles, sweat poured down his face. He reached again. The breadth of a hair separated their fingers, but it wasn’t close enough.
A soft mist began to fall. The first drops of moisture reached his skin, sizzling and smoking. He screamed, at first in pain, and then in horror as he watched his skin soften and melt into folds.
As the mist deepened into a thick rain, hair fell in chunks from his head and every joint seized with a searing ache, curling him over in agony. He gritted his teeth, and they loosened. One slipped past his lips, and he caught it in his shriveled palm. It was stained yellow and stank of decay. He dropped it at her scream. The rain fell like acid on her body, melting her skin and setting her hair afire. Her eyes squeezed shut against the agony.
“No!” he called out. “Leonora!”
The earth shook beneath him. She crumpled, and he lurched against the chains one more time. This time, the boulder shuddered and rolled. He reached out.
* * *
Caleb Monti gasped awake, and he found himself sitting in his bed, alone and sweating. He thrashed his legs out of the sheets and planted his feet on the floor. He held his hands before him. They were broad and smooth. It was a dream. It was the dream. For the eleventh night in a row.
He pulled open the side table drawer and withdrew a hardbound book with gilded pages. Gold titling described the book as an encyclopedia of Greek gods and goddesses.
Caleb peeled away the endpaper and sighed as he stared at the photograph glued to the board. Chestnut locks curled around a heart-shaped face where thickly lashed eyes stared back at him.
He brushed his thumb over the upturned corners of her lips. Flicking a tear from his eye, he resealed the paper and placed the book back in the drawer.
Standing on the heated ceramic tile of his bathroom, he leaned in toward a mirror that covered half the wall. Under the glare of the bulbous lights, he peered at his skin, turning his head side to side. Smooth.
He bared his teeth: straight, white, firmly in place. The memory of his wife’s face in the dream flickered before his eyes, and he frowned. At that, something in the mirror caught his attention.
He frowned again, leaning in closer and pushing against the skin around the corners of his lips. Faint creases. Damn. He peered at his eyes. Traces of crow’s feet. Damn. Damn! He couldn’t hold out any longer.
He reached into a drawer and withdrew a small glass flask with the number “eleven” etched on the side. He held it up to the light and shook the last drop inside. Uncorking it, he tipped back his head and opened his mouth.
The drop fell onto his tongue and was absorbed immediately. He let out a shaky sigh and watched the creases fade, leaving his skin once again smooth, firm, and resilient. His eyes glistened.
He carried the empty flask to the bedroom and lifted a framed portrait from the wall above his bed, revealing a recessed shelf upon which sat ten flasks identical to the one in his hand. Caleb pushed against the wall, hanging his head and clenching his eyes shut. His shoulders rose once, twice, three times. Faster each time.
Finally he stood, slammed the frame back into place, and strode halfway across the room, his chest heaving. He whirled and met the emerald eyes of the woman in the portrait. Her golden hair spun wildly around her head as she pouted at him with haughty lips. Around her neck hung a silver chain, at the end of which, nestled into the bosom bursting from the bodice of the turquoise gown, was a glass flask, no bigger than a matchbook. A roar spewed from deep within his lungs, and Caleb flung the flask at the portrait, watching it shatter against the ancient paint.
* * *
Twenty minutes later, Caleb descended the stairs of his second-floor apartment on Romulus Avenue, where he had lived for the past six months.
“Morning, Inspector,” the doorman said, as he held the door open.
“Morning, Charles,” Caleb said, stepping onto the sidewalk into the rush-hour crowd toward the office he rented for his private investigation agency, one that allowed him to keep to himself, to search endlessly, and to pick up and move at a moment’s notice.
He glanced down at the map in his hand and at the street he’d circled in red. After traipsing across entire countries, he was within a block of finding her. But time was dwindling, and if he couldn’t... He shuddered and pushed the thought aside as he flipped the collar of his leather jacket against the chill brush of wind.
* * *
He’d always had a knack for finding things. That’s what had gotten him into trouble in the first place. He was investigating rumors of a Fountain of Youth on behalf of the queen, who was ever terrified of losing power over her husband once her youthful beauty faded.
Caleb had left their land and sailed to distant shores, where he had encountered Alisandre, the goddess guarding the Fountain of Youth. He requested a vial of the water on behalf of his queen.
Alisandre, taken with the carelessly handsome young man, assented on one condition. Caleb blushed at the offer but declined. His heart belonged solely to his wife across the sea, something for which his men both derided and respected him.
So, Caleb left the Fountain garden without the enchanted water, but not empty-handed. At the edge of the garden, a breeze tickled his nostrils with a familiar aroma. A few steps off the path led him to a gardenia bush in full bloom. Thinking of the gardenias his wife tended with such pride, and imagining the joy with which she would receive another, he selected the smallest blossom and snapped it from its branch.
The goddess, already rebuffed, fumed at the theft. That evening, a storm decimated his ship and drowned his men. Alisandre found him washed ashore the following morning and offered him another chance. He refused. So she took him prisoner.
For thirteen years she held him on her island, and for thirteen years he refused her. One day, without explanation, she released him, along with a vial of enchanted water and a gardenia blossom. He rushed back across the sea, delivered the vial in secret to the queen and returned home to his wife.
Caleb scoffed at the memory even now. Such a fool he had been not to see through her plot. He had rushed into Leonora’s arms, tucking the blossom behind her ear, admiring the way her curls glistened against the creamy petals. He had barely felt the warmth of her body against his, when he tipped his head down and met her lips.
She began aging before he even pulled away. He watched her face crinkle before him. She cried out, and he watched helplessly as she shriveled and hunched and finally toppled to the ground at his feet. He held her while she took her last breath. When he looked up, Alisandre was standing before him in her eternally youthful glory.
* * *
Caleb turned the corner at the old Cadillac building and stopped cold. The brick wall, which normally extended unbroken down the length of the next block, now made way for a door. Caleb’s stride slowed as he approached.
Blue paint peeled off the wood panels. The bronze knob was tarnished to a drab brown. But the street numbers on the door were new, golden, reflecting the morning light. They formed the number “twelve.” His stomach roiled, and he leaned against the wall for support.
* * *
After his wife died, Caleb’s world became a haze. He remembered Alisandre stepping over Leonora’s corpse, and his world blurring to blotches of peach and turquoise as her arms reached for him, and then all was black.
When he awoke, he found himself on a bed of silk. He stared at the exquisite beauty that surrounded him; the crystal waters, the shimmering sun, the perfume of the exotic flowers that tremored at the haunting melodies of the birdsongs, realizing with a dull hopelessness that they had returned to the Fountain of Youth.
Alisandre nursed sips of enchanted water between his parched lips. She curled around him, her diaphanous robes draping over his listless limbs. As the weeks passed, she lost patience with his mourning.
When she could take no more, she presented an arrangement. Alisandre would see to it that Leonora’s soul returned to a mortal body immediately, rather than taking a rest, as was the custom after a stint of mortality.
Somewhere in the world, Leonora would live a mortal life and die, reappearing again and again while Caleb searched for her. Alisandre would keep him alive and youthful through thirteen flasks of enchanted water. He had exactly this much time, not only to find Leonora’s soul, but to convince her mortal form to love him again. If he failed, if he could not find her — or worse, if he found her but she would not love him — then he would give himself to Alisandre for eternity.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Kelly Zientek-Baker