Helen removed a large key from her coat pocket and inserted it in the lower of two keyholes on the front door of the old Sulphur Cure. After several attempts, the bolt finally turned, and the cracked, weathered door swung open.
Before she entered, she placed her open umbrella on the porch. Vincent followed suit.
A spacious lobby, with a reception desk in the corner, came aglow as she walked about and lit several candles with matches she had removed from a brass box resting on top of the desk. The marble floor was flawless. A large window opposite the front door had only a few panes of glass remaining, though a large tree branch provided enough cover to prevent rain from pouring in. The heels of their shoes echoed through the emptiness as they moved toward an expansive room—a dining hall or ballroom.
The buckled wooden floor—with all its peaks and valleys—matched the terrain they had trudged across to reach the building. Three chandeliers hung from the ceiling, all tarnished, none with bulbs. There was an unanticipated beauty in these rooms, as if the decay added realism, a tangible, relatable aspect one might otherwise overlook were the place pristine and orderly. These flaws interested him most as he focused on an area of the wall that had collapsed inward, the plaster cracked and the wooden supports poking through.
“Tell me about this place,” he said, looking around, the candlelight reflecting in what was left of the mirrored wall on their right, their images stretched and distorted as if they were watching themselves in a fun house.
She stood in the center of the room. Her eyes danced up and down, left and right, with no hint of the awe he felt. “I’d rather you tell me about this place.”
He smiled, as if she might be joking, but she remained expressionless and stood perfectly still.
“I grew up here,” she continued, watching her reflection, “and I don’t really see much beyond crumbling walls and broken glass.” She turned to him. “Maybe I need a different set of eyes, your eyes—a stranger’s eyes—to tell me what I should see.” She handed him the candle. “Tell me what I should see.”
He wasn’t sure what to say. Gauging her mood, her frequent changes of manner, proved a challenge.
“I could tell you its history, the legacy of this dilapidated shell,” she went on. “You might find it difficult to believe, but this was once a posh destination. Really the rage in its day. The waters here were supposed to cure everything from hives to pneumonia. People from around the world flocked here. Of course, that was almost a hundred years ago.” She folded her arms. “I’m sure you’ve never heard of it; nobody has anymore. My parents tried to keep it solvent, until my mother died and my father left. My grandfather—actually he’s my great grandfather on my mother’s side. I’m so used to calling him Grandpapa. Anyway, he refused to leave here. There’s more, but the long and short of it is, I have a difficult time finding much to marvel at.”
He walked around her, and looked up toward the ceiling. “I guess that sort of thing might cloud my judgment, too. But—” He raised the candle above his head, trying to shine as much light on the painted ceiling as possible. “I’ve never seen a place like this before. The architecture is so unusual, like nothing else in this area. I could wander around here for days.”
She walked back to the reception desk. “We’ve probably got an old brochure in here somewhere, if you’d like to see the place in its glory.” She started to rummage through drawers as he studied the scene above him. Though faded, there was enough detail to recognize the rendition of a tall waterfall spilling over the edge of a jagged cliff. The unusual use of yellow and purple that tinted the edge of the tree line and emphasized the movement of the water impressed him.
Difficult to describe, Vincent, but the freedom here ~ you remember at the lake, propelling ourselves from the edge of the yacht. The water has such power here, granting a feeling of floating, flying. The peacefulness and striking beauty of it all. So wondrous I sense already its vulnerability, its demise….
“Here we are,” she announced, pulling out a crinkled booklet. “This is from…let’s see….” She flipped through several pages. “1889. I’m sure you’ll appreciate the motto: ‘Fallen Springs Sulphur Cure: For the Most Healthful Vacation of Your Life.’ Now, this page shows the gymnasium, but that wing fell in a few years ago, so ignore that.” She tossed the booklet on top of the desk.
“Do you have any idea who painted this?” he asked, then added, “It’s brilliant.”
Her tone changed; a hint of reverence, but a careful reserve as if she were fighting the urge to praise the work. “I believe my great-great grandmother chose the subject, but I have no idea who painted it.” She touched her chin as she scanned one end of the ceiling to the other. He wondered whether she was trying to remember the artist’s name, or suppress it. “But I get the strangest feeling your obsession with this building extends beyond its ornamentation.”
He tensed. A subject he didn’t feel quite ready to broach. But then again, why should he be so guarded? What was he out to prove? Who were these people to him? More importantly, why should he worry about the impression he might leave? Hadn’t he fretted over such nonsense all his life, really, and…to what end? “If you don’t mind,” he said, forcing himself to press on, “I have something to show you.” Hopefully, bravely, anticipating what he held would be the key that would unlock everything, the bit of magic that would answer every question he’d been harboring the last fifteen years, he reached into the breast pocket of his coat and handed her a picture, curled at the edges from the wetness, but otherwise unblemished. His heart raced as she studied the photograph, the four of them standing on the front porch of the house on that steaming July afternoon: he and Theo, smiling teenagers; their father with his arm proudly around their mother; the photo taken by their grandfather exactly a year before Theo ran off.
“What a handsome family,” she remarked.
“Do you recognize him?” he asked, pointing to his brother, the slightly taller teenager, the more handsome face, muscular physique, perfectly combed hair. A striking lad, as Vincent often heard from relatives, friends, girls who he fancied but in turn fancied Theo.
She drew the photograph closer.
“Should I? Is it you?”
“No, no, it’s my brother,” he said, impatiently, as though she should already know the pertinent facts. “Have you ever seen him on the grounds?”
She hesitated. But after a minute she said, “He doesn’t look familiar to me at all. I can’t see any res—”
“He must look familiar,” he interrupted, realizing at once the rudeness of his impatience and frustration. “Take a close look.”
She offered back the photograph. “Mr. Rhodes, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to tell you, but I’ve never seen anyone in this photograph in my life. That is, unless one of the young men is you, but I couldn’t say for certain.”
He was stunned. “I know Theo has been here. He’s described so much of the layout here to a ‘t’.”
“I’m sorry, I wish I could give you the answer you’re looking for. But I can’t lie to you and say these are people I’ve met. Clearly, to my eyes, they’re not.”
He wanted to explain his reasoning, to explore her defiance, but she angrily raised her hand to silence him.
“I’ve said they don’t look familiar! I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. You’re just going to have to accept that.” She brushed past him and headed toward the dining hall. “Now, I must get the generator running.” Another change in tone, businesslike and detached. “I don’t want to leave the children in the dark.” She stopped and faced him. “Will you still help me?”
Stung by her anger, disappointed in her answer, he stared up at the ceiling a minute more, his focus elsewhere entirely, then tore himself away from the painting. “Yes,” he said, dejectedly, “of course.”
A setback, but he would hardly give up based on one photograph more than a decade old. She hadn’t even recognized him. Who was to say how much Theo might have changed?
She started toward what was apparently the old kitchen. The room stood empty, except for an iron stove in the corner, rusted from the exhaust pipe down, though the surface around the burners was in immaculate condition.
“The generator is one flight below us. You can come down a few steps, if you want, and hold the candle so. The foundation is a little unstable on this side of the building.”
He stayed close behind her. “No, why don’t you let me do this? You can direct me from here.” His offer was genuine, but he also felt the need to ease the tension that had risen between them by being all the more helpful. Not entirely removed from the feeling that used to overcome him after angering one of his parents, and offering to do an extra chore or two to make himself less offensive in their eyes.
“I appreciate the offer,” she said, smiling, “but it’s fine if you could just hold the light.” She handed him the candle, and then pulled open a door to the right of the stove. “Please be careful on these steps. They’re rickety about halfway down.”
As he carefully followed, he noticed several signs nailed to the wall. “To Gymnasium”…. “Sauna, Lower Level, Left”…. “Water Spa, Lower Level, Left, Employee Access Only on Floor One.”
Water flowed nearby—a gushing river, or waterfall, but sounded as if it were inside, below where they stood.
“If you could hand me that can from the shelf right there, no…the one to your right. And don’t come down any further. I don’t trust these steps.”
He spotted the shelf on the wall to his right and reached for a rusted can. Helen inched her way over toward a small alcove beyond the stairs.
“No worse smell than kerosene.” She took the can from him and unscrewed the top. She then leaned in a bit, and removed a cap atop the generator. “I’m always nervous about pouring fuel in this thing. One day I’m sure this generator is going to explode.”
A whoosh from below, a sudden flow of water: was it coming from inside the building? “What’s down beyond this level, if I may ask?”
She started pouring out the kerosene. “Hot springs. Our water system. That’s what gives us that wonderful sulphur odor.” As she emptied the can, she added, “but that’s the price we pay for effortless miracle water.” She stood upright and placed the can on the floor. “Could you flip that switch on the wall behind you, please?”
To his left was a switch marked “29.” He flipped it upward at the same time Helen pushed a switch on the generator. It sputtered to life, a low grinding noise followed by a sustained high-pitched hum.
“There,” she said, satisfied. “Grandpapa will no doubt complain, but I had you turn off the tower lights. Too much of a drain on the batteries. He has the rather foolish notion that if the Sulphur Cure is completely dark, it’s the death knell.”
She started back up the staircase. When she reached him, she took the candle. “Now, if you don’t mind, I need to get out of this building.” She pointed to the top of the stairs, and motioned him to head up. She tilted the candle to cast enough light for him to see.
As soon as they reentered the kitchen, she pulled the door closed, slamming it twice before it caught. Vincent listened to the rhythm of the generator—two pulses followed by a rattle. Yet he heard a third sound, more prominent than the din of machinery: the swelling of water. The curious system she had mentioned.
“I hate to hurry us through, since I see how this place enchants you, but I simply can’t stand being in here.” She didn’t wait for him to catch up as she hurried through and blew out candles. “Just step onto the porch and I’ll be right out.”
He knew better than to ask if he could help her. He surmised only when the task was impossible for one person did she seek assistance, and even then with reluctance. So he stepped out the front door and stood against one of the support poles, and focused on the light from the house, barely visible through the trees at the bottom of the hill.
The rain had let up a bit. The moon started to peek through the breaking clouds. Though chilly, the air wasn’t as bitter as earlier when the wind blew with such fierceness.
“That’s that,” she said as she stepped out, again slamming the door twice before the latch caught, apparently a trademark of the building’s doors. She glanced up at the sky. “Ah, good. The rain is stopping. At least we’ll have a more pleasant walk back.” She took the key out of her coat pocket and locked the door.
Though he never thought it would be so obvious—let alone she might guess what he was smiling at—she nevertheless stunned him as she reached down and handed him the umbrella, and said, “Are you amused, wondering why I bother locking the door to a building with broken windows and caved-in walls?”
Before he had a chance to answer, or more accurately, before he was able to recover from the shock of her quick and astute observation, she went on. “I imagine any kind of hurdle makes trespassing less tempting. But then, maybe the opposite is true. Especially with children. The challenge of it all.” She tested the knob to make sure the door was secure. “I know if anyone really wanted to get in, nothing short of a guard dog would stop them.” A nervous cluck of her tongue mirrored the staccato rhythm of drops striking the metal roof above them. “I didn’t mean to suggest….anyway, locking the door…well, I guess it makes me feel a little less insecure.”
She picked up her umbrella and walked past him. “Stay close. I’m going to take a slightly different path back. One with fewer hills and puddles.”
As she headed along a path that wound around the back of the main house and cut a sharp right, the faint moonlight illuminated her coat, producing a silvery-blue tinge. Vincent alternated his attention between the glow and the crushed stone path. The uneven surface proved challenging.
He struggled to keep up, and soon lost sight of her, a frustrating repeat of their earlier journey. She seemed in a desperate hurry to get as far away from the Sulphur Cure as possible. When the orchard came into view, he heard, to his right, the sound of a twig snapping, followed by a cry of pain.
Not Esson again, he prayed.
Silence, save the trickle of rain.
He heard movement ahead of him, beyond the last row of trees.
Could it be that lunatic again? He figured Esson wouldn’t simply walk away quietly. Whatever reason he had for tormenting them, it seemed the man wasn’t done with them yet.
His voice bounced off six stories of brick, mortar, broken glass and iron.
He realized his shouts were letting Esson know precisely his whereabouts. But he wasn’t about to stand mute and allow the depraved character to do whatever he had in mind.
“I’m over here,” she said weakly, finally, as he spotted her silhouette a few feet ahead of him.
When he reached her she was on her knees, her right hand pressed against her face.
“Are you all right? Is it Esson?”
“No, no. Just embarrassing clumsiness.”
He took hold of her arm and guided her to her feet. The breach of physical distance between them felt awkward and incorrect, and he sensed the same from her as her muscles tensed. Her uneasiness belied the surprising level of comfort she exhibited in the cramped shelter earlier.
“Can you walk?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever lost my footing like that before,” she said softly, grasping onto his shoulder. “I’m a little…disoriented all of a sudden. Light-headed.” She looked around. “The hillside is giving everyone a bit of a tussle today, isn’t it? And suddenly, we’ve reversed roles.”
At least it wasn’t Esson this time.
A yellow glow from the house filtered through the bare branches of the orchard. He started toward it, holding her arm firmly, his other hand tightly pressed to her back. He waited for her to take a step before he continued. She trembled slightly, but was it from the pain? The cold? Or perhaps it was from an awkwardness he could sense as well.
“I hope I haven’t changed your mind about dining with us,” she said as she carefully stepped over a large fallen branch. But before he could answer, she added, in a whisper, “This will all seem much different in the morning.” She looked up toward the sky. “Night and day are such different worlds.”
He hadn’t considered being around to see the grounds in the light of day. At least not from the guest room window. But then, he wasn’t sure that was the implication. Many things remained unclear, and he felt that all the unanswered questions that had arisen thus far were nothing compared to what he might encounter in the company of this clan, the owners of the Fallen Springs Sulphur Cure. He thought once more of the motto on the brochure, and the phrase echoed in his mind: For the Most Healthful Vacation of Your Life.