art by Junior McLean
The Blue Room
by Jason Sanford
Jason Sanford is an SFWA member. He has published many short stories in the British SF magazine Interzone, which devoted a special issue to his fiction in December, 2010. He has also been published in Year's Best SF 14, Analog: Science Fiction and Fact,Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Tales of the Unanticipated, The Mississippi Review, Diagram, Pindeldyboz, and other places. Jason was a finalist for the 2009 Nebula Award for Best Novella, won both the 2008 and 2009 Interzone Readers' Polls, received a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship, was nominated for the BSFA Award, and was longlisted for the British Fantasy Award. His fiction has been reprinted in several languages, including French, Russian, and Czech. His nonfiction and commentary also make Jason one of the important voices of the SF community. Follow him at www.jasonsanford.com
The plains rolled out before Aiesha, all buffalo grass and forever sky drowning to the dusk's easy light. Aiesha sat on the weather-worn porch of her grandpa's farm house, flipping page after page of her history textbook--unread, the words blurring to elsewhere. Away! they whispered. Go! they sighed.
Despite this urge, Aiesha knew she was stuck. Might as well sink her boots through the porch's half-rotten planks and never move again.
Since she'd arrived at her grandpa's farm last year, there'd been days when the sun didn't bake and the winds didn't howl and the storms didn't blow and the snows didn't drift, but Aiesha barely remembered them. Instead, she knew this land's hurt. First the coldest winter she'd ever felt, followed by spring storms which briefly electrified the air before disappearing to sky, then a hot summer which stung sweat from every pore of her body.
Now fall was here again and Aiesha wanted to scream at the repeat of the plain's damn seasonal cycle--at this house and land always repeating, turning on themselves in a sameness of days to come and days she'd already lived.
She looked at her history book, looked at the half-rotten porch, looked at Grandpa Loren mending a barb wire fence a hundred yards away even though the farm no longer had animals to fence in. Aiesha tossed her homework on the porch and stomped over to see if he needed any help.
"Bored?" Grandpa Loren asked, the pliers in his gloved hands cutting rust-breaking barb wire before twining the old wires back together. "I know you've got homework."
"I'll do it on the bus." Aiesha had long complained about the bus, which picked her up a quarter mile away and took an hour to reach high school. She was the only black person in the entire school, which was another thing to hate out here. She'd grown up in Cheyenne, and while that wasn't much of a city it counted for way more than now. At least there were other black people in Cheyenne.
As if knowing her thoughts, Grandpa Loren snorted. "When I was young, I fought those white idiots at school near every day. And that's after hiking through snow drifts to my hips, the wind turning my face to icicles."
"Are you joking?" Aiesha asked.
"About the walking. They had buses when I was a kid. Now my father, he swore he walked to school in ten-foot drifts, but he was also a damn liar."
Aiesha laughed as a big grin sliced Grandpa Loren's sun-toughed face. "What you want, Aie?" he asked.
What did Aiesha want? She wanted her parents back, and she wanted dead the drunk driver who'd killed them, and she wanted more than living on a nowhere farm where her father and grandfather and so on back the generations had lived and worked and died. But she had nowhere else to go. She was fifteen. Only a few more years until she was an adult and could leave.
When Aiesha didn't answer, Grandpa Loren turned back to the fence. He pulled two broken wires together and twisted the metal into a knot with his pliers. "Got something to show you," he said.
Aiesha waited for that something--a when, a what--but her grandpa focused on his work as if Aiesha wasn't there. She wandered back to the house, picked up her history book, and slammed it back on the porch.
They ate beef stew and potatoes while the fall wind whistled the gaps in the kitchen walls. Grandpa Loren muttered how this stew wasn't near as good as the stew he and Anna used to make, back when they'd still slaughtered their own cattle.
"Don't matter how it used to taste," Aiesha muttered. Besides, she barely remembered her grandma, who'd died when she was a little girl.
Grandpa Loren glared at her, and they ate in silence until the phone rang.
Only one phone in the place, an ancient rotary dialer, no cells or anything reaching out here, and it had to ring during supper. Aiesha glanced at the phone and wondered if it was that boy she liked at school. But Grandpa would throw fits if she answered during supper. The phone rang seven times before falling silent.
"They'll call back," Grandpa said.
They didn't. And worse, the wind knocked out the power, meaning no TV or computer. Aiesha climbed the worn stairs to her bedroom and sank under the pile of blankets and quilts on her bed. Dust danced to the sun's setting light. Musky smells from the blankets and quilts Grandma Anna had sewn and knitted decades back whiffed the air. But she was warm and didn't care and fell asleep even though it was too early for sleep.
Grandpa Loren woke her sometime after midnight. He held one of the green glow sticks they kept for when the power was off. "Time to show you that something."
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Aiesha glanced out from under the covers. Even though it was only autumn, her breath misted the air and cut her throat with cold going back in. Outside, the wind ranged in deep groans, or maybe it was the house groaning under the wind.
"Show me in the morning."
Before Aiesha could react, Grandpa Loren grabbed her legs and yanked her from the bed. Grandpa Loren was tall, almost six foot four, and strong even at his age. Aiesha thumped onto the cold plank floor. For a moment she wanted to hit him, but his laughing face rolled her anger away. "What is it?"
They walked the worn stairs to the kitchen--the glow stick lighting their way--and the kitchen stairs to the basement. When Aiesha's ancestor Jedebiah Meeks built the house, he'd cut the basement into the granite which welled up across this part of the plains. Aiesha had spent plenty of hours down here picking through the dusty furniture and mildewed belongings of past generations.
Grandpa Loren led her to a heavy-set wooden door, which was padlocked and bolted straight into the granite wall. Where the rest of the house seemed as weak and creaky as a rotten willow, this door whispered strength. Aiesha had tried in vain to open it the last time she was down here. Now her grandpa clicked the padlock with an ancient key.
Water. Electric blue water. An endless stairway through crystal water, backlight by a blue glow from the water itself.
Aiesha had never seen anything so beautiful. The water lay flat and still two steps below the basement floor. Aiesha leaned over and dipped in her hand. Cold. She raised a handful to her lips. Clear and clean.
"The water came up last night," her grandpa said. "Rose a hundred feet in a few hours."
"Does it always come this high?"
"Not often. Usually stays up a day or so before dropping back to the bottom."
"Why does it glow?"
"Just how the water is. Nothing's changed since Grandpa Jedebiah found these stairs when he moved here, back in the 1800s. Well, nothing but him building the door and house around it."
Aiesha dipped her hand into the water again. It felt alive--still water, but somehow alive. She fought the urge to dive in. To see how far down she could swim.
"You asked me once why I stayed out here," Grandpa Loren said. "This is why. Move to town, you won't have something like this."
"You say it'll go back down?"
Her grandpa smiled. "It'll go down. Soon as it does, I'll show you more."
Grandpa Loren called it the blue room.
When the water receded a few days later, they walked down the rough-cut steps--a hundred feet to the bottom, except it wasn't the bottom. The hole widened into a pool thirty feet across with the steps continuing through the water.
"Is this the blue room?" Aiesha asked.
Grandpa Loren shook his head and pointed down. More than a hundred feet below, barely seen through the water's faint blue glow, stood a stone arch through which the steps disappeared. What looked like carved symbols--maybe strange animal and human shapes--surrounded the arch, but Aiesha couldn't make out for certain what they were.
"That's the blue room," he said. "The water goes up and down. Sometimes it's so low you're almost close enough to make out the symbols on the room's archway. But it's never enough."
"Scuba gear," Aiesha muttered. "Get a wetsuit, a tank of air. We could explore all that."
Grandpa Loren didn't respond, other than to walk up the steps. Aiesha knew she'd said something wrong. But despite asking what she'd done no answer came.
When they reached the basement, Grandpa Loren closed the door and clicked the padlock shut.
Aiesha didn't see the stairs for another year. At first she asked Grandpa Loren every few days to open the locked door, but her request was always ignored as if Aiesha hadn't spoken. Soon she stopped asking, even though she occasionally heard him opening the door late at night. Once she heard him whispering in the basement, saying her grandmother's name "Anna, Anna" over and over in a sound not far removed from crying.
But soon Aiesha had other interests and forgot about the stairs. The boy who occasionally called the house began calling more than occasionally. His name was Coe Eiseley and they were both juniors in school. He also had a pickup of his own and didn't mind driving the long miles to see her.
"It's old," Coe said the first time he visited her house. "Means you have roots here."
Aiesha didn't know about that but she liked his words. She told Coe about her ancestor who built this house. Grandpa Jedebiah had come west with the Buffalo Soldiers, then stayed and built this ranch.
Coe listened, fascinated, although he didn't seem surprised by what she told him. They walked out to the old barn and fell into the dust and mouse-filled hay and giggled as they played.
Naturally, Grandpa Loren didn't like Coe. He looked over Coe's muscle-cut legs and arms, and teenage square of a face, and Aiesha knew he wasn't impressed. Her grandpa glanced at her as if to say, "Dear God, not a white boy." Still, he was polite, at least until Coe left.
"He's trouble," Grandpa Loren said. "Thinks he's strong and tough and already a cowboy. Watch out for him."
"He won't hurt me."
"Not what I meant."
Aiesha started to argue, that familiar anger rising in her body, until she noticed the key her grandpa held. He waggled the age-darkened metal in front of her face and grinned his yellow teeth.
"Time you had a key to the door, Aie," he said. "Just don't let me catch you using scuba gear to reach the blue room. We reach it the proper way--when the water allows us--or we don't reach it at all."
Aiesha merely nodded as he handed her the key.
That night, after her grandpa was asleep, she opened the door and walked down the stairs. A hundred feet below she stared into the water as the blue room's archway beckoned. Aiesha shucked off her clothes and dived in, the ice-cold water knocking her to gasps and throwing her body to shakes.
She swam as deep as she could but couldn't hold her breath long enough to reach the arch. For a moment she hung in the frigid, still water. She heard a chorus of voices laughing, the laughter dripping into something almost like her name, into something like the knock-knock jokes Grandma Anna told Aiesha as a child. Aiesha smiled, remembering how much Grandma Anna had loved those silly knock-knocks.
Then the water was silent again and Aiesha realized she had heard nothing but her own memories. She swam back to the stairs and dressed and walked up to bed.
Every morning and evening Aiesha walked down the stairs. Each day she swam deeper and deeper, able to hold her breath longer and longer as she grew used to swimming in the cold water.
She told Coe about the stairs on a Friday night as they sat in his truck at the local McDonald's. There was nothing to do in the little crossroads they called a town so the teenagers drove circles around the McDonald's parking lot, drinking beer and seeing who was there.
This was the first time Grandpa Loren let her go out at night with Coe. "Be careful, Aie," her grandpa said. "We've got as much claim to this land as anyone, but some of the families here don't agree."
As if to prove Grandpa Loren right, the moment she and Coe started talking to friends in the McDonald's parking lot a drunk walked by and muttered about "damn niggers." Aiesha turned, ready to fight, but one of her friends held her back.
But they forgot to hold Coe back. Coe slammed the drunk to the pavement before kicking the man over and over with his steel-toe boots. The crowd watched for a moment--stunned to nervous giggles--before two older guys pulled Coe off the drunk. "He didn't know what he was saying," one of the men muttered.
Oh, he knew, Aiesha thought. But she was too excited to care. When they sat back in Coe's pickup, Coe wouldn't stop ranting how he hated the fools in this back-ass county. How if he didn't love this land so much he'd have already dropped out of school and run off.
When Coe calmed down, Aiesha kissed him. Then, wanting to show her thanks, she told him about the stairway under her house.
"Amazing," Coe said. "Is it the Ogallala Aquifer?"
Aiesha knew of the Ogallala Aquifer, a thin sea of water stretching for hundreds of miles under the plains. But she didn't know if this was part of it. "I don't know," she said. "My grandpa said the hole was there when our ancestor built the house."
At the mention of Aiesha's ancestor, Coe fidgeted. "Can I see it sometime?"
"The water's up again. Soon as it goes down, I'll let you see."
Grandpa Loren wasn't thrilled Aiesha had told Coe about the stairway. "You never said it was a secret," she said.
"Shouldn't have to."
Aiesha kicked her right boot against the porch railing. The spring winds had melted the snows a month back, but a chill still bolted the air. Her grandpa sat on one of the two wooden chairs that had probably rested on this porch since Grandpa Jedebiah built the house. Aiesha sat down next to him and told how Coe stood up for her the other night.
Grandpa Loren was mildly impressed. "Guess he's not quite as bad as his family," he muttered.
"You don't even know him."
"Don't need to. I know his kind. The Eiseleys been after our family since we got here."
Aiesha didn't want to believe him, but as he fell into describing their family history she knew he wasn't lying. He told her about Jedebiah serving with the Buffalo Soldiers, which Aiesha already knew, and visiting this land while on patrol. Jedebiah so took to the place that after leaving the service he brought his new wife out here.
The first trouble they had was with the Eiseley family, who lived nearby and believed this land was for their cattle to graze. Grandpa Jedebiah wasn't scared--he showed them his deed, and held them off with his rifle when the need came.
"One night," her grandpa said, "the Eiseleys rode out here shooting. Grandpa Jedebiah fought back but they still burned the barn and killed one of his farmhands. After Jedebiah and his men wounded several of the Eiseleys, the Eiseleys pulled back.
"Now my grandpa's farmhands wanted to ride against the Eiseleys. But Jedebiah refused. Said things would sort out. And they did. A few days later, the Eiseley patriarch disappeared. His family found him at the bottom of their own well, drowned in that cold water. Only marks on his body the torn fingernails where he'd tried to claw his way out. People suspected Jedebiah of involvement, but there's no way he could have thrown that Eiseley down his own well."
"Coe didn't mention all that," Aiesha said.
"Maybe he doesn't know."
Aiesha remembered how Coe fidgeted when she'd mentioned her ancestor, and realized he knew all about their shared history.
Grandpa Loren sighed. "I guess it doesn't matter if you show him the blue room. I mean, that's why I gave you a key. It's yours to do as you please."
When Coe drove out to see Aiesha that Saturday afternoon, she knew he was chomping at the bit to see the stairway. But she grabbed his arm tight and dragged him to the barn, where she told him off for not saying anything about their joined history.
"And don't say you didn't know," she yelled. "Because you did."
Coe sat on a musty bale of hay that'd lain in the barn for years. He pulled off his cowboy hat and held it between his legs. "What was I supposed to say, Aie? 'Course I knew that history. Don't mean I'm proud of it."
"This why your parents don't like me?"
Coe lowered his head. "They like you some. I mean, your family's been here near long as mine, and that counts. But they hate being reminded how our family was back then. Like that damn well my ancestor drowned in. My family sealed it over long ago and hid it under sod, so no one would remember what happened."
Aiesha gently kicked her right boot against his boots and sat beside him on the hay bale. "You still thinking on getting out of here?" she asked.
"Sometimes, but I'll probably never leave. I don't like the people who live here but I love this land. It's in me."
Aiesha nodded, wanting so badly to convince Coe to leave this damn place with her. But that was talk for another day. She kissed him and led him to the stairs.
Coe and Aiesha swam and splashed in the cool waters, naked and goose-bumping and stopping every now and then to kiss.
"It's amazing," Coe said. "I mean, who knows how long this water's been down here. We're probably swimming through water that ran off glaciers. Been dripping down and down until it reached here."
Aiesha laughed. This was why she liked Coe--he was a romantic. She dove under the water and swam toward the blue room, delighting in how it did feel like she was swimming through history. People hunting mastodon on the plains. A mile high wall of ice booming thunder and lightning as storms built over the glaciers.
Aiesha surfaced, took a deep breath, and dove again, trying to reach the doorway. She wanted to see the carvings. To see the dire wolves and saber-toothed tigers hunting the scattered humans who'd crossed over to this land from Asia. Or to see the people--scared, huddling around campfires. Witnessing gods and demons in every shadow and night-time scream. Afraid of this new land they'd entered. A land without the history needed to protect and comfort them.
Then they found this cave and heard the water's comforting words. To honor it, they carved the steps and the blue room and created their own history beneath this land. And the water happily flowed with them, asking only that they occasionally return to...
"Aie, wake up!"
Aiesha gasped, coming back to herself. She hung deeper in the water than she'd ever gone, directly before the opening to the blue room. A strong current sucked hard at her body. On the stone archway she saw carvings of dire wolves and mastodons, of buffalo and sabre tooth tigers. And faces. Human faces. One of these she recognized from an ancient photograph as Grandpa Jedebiah. Another looked like Grandma Anna.
"Keep swimming, Aie," the voice she'd heard before whispered, sounding so like Grandma Anna. "The room's not after you."
Aiesha kicked hard but the current ripped her body, flowing sensuous like Coe's hands on her flesh. Thrashing even harder, she rose slightly--only to see Coe float by, a blank look in his eyes. She flipped and grabbed his body but he was too heavy to hold against the pull.
Instead of fighting, she kicked with the current, angling toward the edge of the archway. She and Coe smashed into the stone and she held him there as the current howled in her ears.
Aiesha's lungs screamed. She had only moments before she panicked in her need to reach air. She shook Coe but his eyes tranced to nothing. Holding him tight, she bit his shoulder hard, feeling the warm metal tang of blood boil into the current. Coe kicked and screamed, and in a panic swam toward the surface. Aiesha followed him.
They splashed into the air next to the steps and lay there gagging.
"What happened?" Aiesha asked.
"I saw them," Coe said between gasps. "Our ancestors. Fighting. Saw that old Eiseley man wake in the freezing well water. Saw him claw at the stone walls."
Aiesha nodded. She'd seen Jedebiah riding and fighting with the Buffalo Soldiers. Saw him discover the ancient stairs which led to the blue room's water. Saw him build his house over it, protecting his claim to history against any who dared steal it.
Unwilling to speak more of what had happened, Aiesha and Coe pulled their clothes over their wet bodies and walked stiffly up the stairs. Aiesha locked the door's massive padlock as Coe strode to his truck and drove off without a word.
That afternoon the winds screamed, shaking the farm house. Clouds bolted by, threatening rain even as none fell. The sky burned a dark green and Grandpa Loren muttered about tornado weather.
As they ate dinner, Aiesha wanted so bad to tell her grandpa what had happened with the blue room. To tell him about Grandma Anna's voice saving her. But she sat in silence until they heard a car pull up to the house.
It was the sheriff. Aiesha and Grandpa Loren walked onto the porch to speak with him.
"Loren," the sheriff said. "Aiesha. Hate to trouble you, but we're looking for Coe Eiseley. Either of you seen him?"
"He was here earlier, but left," Aiesha said. "Why?"
"We found his truck crashed on his land. Engine still running. Wasn't a bad crash or anything, but there was blood on the seat and he's gone."
Aiesha felt a swirl of water caressing her skin--just like in the blue room--and she fell against the side of the house. Her grandpa and the sheriff grabbed at her but she shook them off.
"He's probably fine," the sheriff said to reassure her. "Just need to find him."
Grandpa Loren thanked the sheriff for checking and said they'd call if they saw Coe. He led Aiesha inside as the sheriff drove off.
"The blue room," Aiesha gasped. "It tried to take us. It has Coe."
"Why would it do that?" Grandpa Loren said. "You two don't have the history to be taken."
Aiesha pushed her grandpa away, kicking at him with her boots. "You knew! Damn it, you knew!"
"Of course I knew. But you don't understand. This can't happen."
Aiesha calmed down, still feeling the slippery embrace of the blue room's current as Grandpa Loren explained. "The room is history, Aie. Real, actual history. When you've lived on this land for a long time, the blue room pulls you to itself. Makes you part of the water below. Part of this land's history."
Aiesha remembered the swirl of history she'd felt as she'd dived in the water. "I heard Grandma Anna."
"I know. The blue room took her one day. Called her down and took her. Spat her body back, but what was her was gone. She still talks to me when I'm down there."
"Then why'd it try to take me and Coe?"
"I don't know. I mean, it still won't take an old man like me and look at how much history I've lived."
"So you don't think that's why Coe disappeared?"
"It couldn't be. He wasn't even here when he vanished--the Eiseley's land is a ways off."
Aiesha nodded even as she still felt the blue room's embrace. When Grandpa Loren walked to the kitchen to clean the dishes she sneaked downstairs. Water seeped under the heavy wooden door. Aiesha unlocked the door to find water rippling even with the basement floor. A single ribbon of blood undulating small circles in the water like a dying snake.
Even without the blue room to tell her, Aiesha knew the blood was Coe's, from when she'd bitten him to save his life.
Aiesha knelt down and dipped her hand into the water. As the blood ribbon swam into her skin she saw her ancestor Jedebiah kneeling before the water, holding a bloody clot of soil in his hands. The blood was from an Eiseley man Jedebiah'd shot during the attack on his farm. He threw the blood and soil into the water.
"I've seen a lot," Jedebiah told the water. "More history than you can take in. Slavery. Civil War. Been all over this land with the Buffalo Soldiers. But if the Eiseleys drive me off, I won't share one moment of my life with you."
The water hissed and boiled, but Jedebiah stood firm as he closed and bolted the door. Furious, the water coursed through the aquifer until it found the Eiseley's scent. Licking at its taste of their blood, the water called to them. Sang a siren's plea until the eldest Eiseley walked to his own well and jumped in. Aiesha felt the man's shock as the cold water grabbed him. Felt his panic as the blue room's spell released him and he tried to claw his way back to freedom.
Aiesha stumbled away from the water. The water wasn't merely history. It was alive, living through the histories of the people it stole. A creature creating its own sense of time--a creature reaching from this moment back across millennia to that first caress of its waters by human hands, which opened the blue room to awareness.
But what if there were no more people to share their histories with the blue room? With a shock, Aiesha knew the room would slowly die. Would revert to the unaware state it had once existed in. And since Aiesha was the last of her family...
She ran upstairs. "Grandpa, drive out to Coe's house. He's in the old well where they found that Eiseley man."
Grandpa Loren tried arguing, saying that well had been sealed and hidden decades ago. But Aiesha ignored him. She rummaged through their emergency supplies until she found one of the glow sticks and ran back downstairs. She kicked off her boots as Grandpa Loren again asked what was going on.
Instead of answering, Aiesha dived into the stairwell of water.
The water rushed and pulled and in a blur she shot through the lower doorway, the carvings watching her with bemused smiles on their human and animal faces.
When she reached the blue room the current ripping her body paused. She hung there, feeling the same sensation as before of hands slip-rubbing her body. Except this time they weren't Coe's hand. Aiesha felt Grandma Anna and her ancestor Jedebiah and people she didn't know, people reaching back through history to where they were the history, all swirling within the blue room's waters.
Aiesha heard a faint chuckle. She remembered that chuckle--her grandma had often laughed like that.
"If you take me now," Aiesha thought, "that's it. I'm the last of my family. No more people coming. No more sharing our histories with you."
"The water doesn't want you right now," Grandma Anna whispered. "It's afraid is all. Afraid you won't come back when you're older."
"Is that why it took Coe?"
"Your thoughts of leaving torture us. We hoped if Coe was with us, you'd stay."
"If anything happens to Coe, I won't return. But ..."
"This is home. Give me time. I swear I'll return."
Aiesha felt the waters flowing back and forth as the swirl of consciousness stolen from her ancestors and others debated what to do. Finally, she felt a gentle hug. "We look forward to your return," her grandma said. "And when you see your grandpa, tell that old fool to stop mooning. He'll be here soon enough."
Aiesha started to ask about Coe, but suddenly she shot deeper into the water, going down and down into the aquifer. It was dark and she broke the glow tube to see but still couldn't see, and knew this couldn't be happening. She should have long since drowned, or been crushed by pressure, or ground to gravel by the stones.
Just when she thought she'd go crazy in the dark and the water, she shot up into the well. Gasping for air, she looked around by the glow stick's green light. Coe floated beside her, his pale face shaking. "Aie?" he asked weakly. "How'd you get here?"
Aiesha grabbed Coe and held him close. His skin was ice, his fingers bloody. Aiesha glanced into the dark above them and saw a tiny hole at the edge of the glow stick's light. The cap the Eiseleys had put on the old well. The blue room had sung its siren song to Coe, leading him here until he fell through the cap's rotten wood and soil.
"Hold on," Aiesha said, hugging Coe tight.
"Been holding," he whispered. "Holding too long, even with you."
Aiesha kicked harder, struggling to keep Coe's head above water, rubbing his body to warm him. But he was so cold he couldn't shiver, couldn't even smile as he died. At least, Aiesha prayed he'd have tried to smile. Instead, one moment the Coe she knew looked at her, and the next that Coe was gone.
"Nothing to worry, Aie," her grandma said. "He's with us."
Aiesha screamed and shook Coe's body and held him up for what seemed like hours, although Grandpa Loren would later say only forty minutes had passed. She heard the shouts, heard the smash of shovels on sod and rotten wood. Saw flashlights streaming through the hole far above.
She lashed the rescue rope around Coe's body as she cursed herself for ever trusting the blue room.
Aiesha and Grandpa Loren sat at their dining room table, eating beef stew.
"It's good," Grandpa Loren said. "You should try it."
Aiesha pushed her plate away, unable to eat. Even though Grandpa Loren had used one of his old recipes, she couldn't stomach the fresh beef the Eiseley family had given them as thanks for trying to save Coe.
Grandpa Loren said the Eiseleys had been suspicious when he arrived at their house and said he knew where Coe was. But then they found the small hole where the well had been and heard Aiesha yelling. Everyone believed Aiesha had gone searching for Coe and fallen into the same rotten hole that had trapped him.
"Grandma Anna lied," Aiesha said. "She said the blue room would save Coe."
Grandpa Loren looked near to tears and ground his boots into the floorboards before speaking. "I felt the same when it took Anna. We still had years together. And now..."
"That isn't Grandma Anna, is it? Down there."
"It is," he said. "Part of her, at least. Mixed with parts of hundreds of others. No one who joins the room's history is what they were before."
"Then why let it take you?"
Grandpa Loren shook his head. "When the blue room took her, I swore it'd never have me. I boarded up the house. Moved to town. But as time went by, I couldn't help thinking about the piece of Anna waiting down there. About having one last chance to embrace her. Maybe that's what the blue room's doing to you. Dropping a seed in, so one day when you're older you'll come back."
Aiesha nodded. She imagined herself near the end of her life, wondering about Coe after having experienced whatever she was bound to experience. Thinking on that boy she used to love. Wondering if she should take one last chance and join him.
Leaving her grandpa to finish eating, Aiesha walked downstairs and unlocked the door. The water was still up, rippling even with the floor.
Aiesha leaned over and placed her right hand in the water. She heard her grandma laugh. Heard Jedebiah's demand to keep this land. Heard words and deeds and history stretching across thousands of years.
Heard Coe say how much he loved this land as he pulled her close for a kiss.
She swirled the water before pulling out her hand ...
... and flicked the wetness off the wrinkles and calcium knots of her aged fingers.
Aiesha smiled as the taste of history slowly washed off her old body. Even as she came back to herself, the swirl of the blue room's ever-living history tempted her, caressing her arthritic bones with what felt like Coe's long-dead hands. She felt a lingering hug from Grandpa Loren and fought back tears at how much she'd missed him over the last seventy years of her life.
As Aiesha squatted painfully before the water, holding onto her cane for balance, she looked around. The basement was far older. The mildewed furniture and boxes of mementoes decayed beyond basic lines and shapes. The smell of urine and wet-fur hung in the stale air, as if generations of animals had lived and died down here after the house was abandoned.
Aiesha glanced again at the water. "Too bad you won't see the things I've seen," she whispered, making her decision. "The places I've been. The people I've met."
The water bubbled and hissed at Aiesha's rejection, but she ignored it as she leaned hard on her cane and slowly stood. She still felt the lingering impression of Coe's last kiss. Of her grandmother's laugh. Of the love in Grandpa Loren's sun-baked grins. Her grandpa had died in this house so many decades ago. Now it was obvious that, despite his anger at the blue room, he'd given in and joined it all the same.
But after having a final look at all she'd once loved, Aiesha had no desire to do the same. After all, none of those in the blue room were truly themselves. Not as they'd once been. Now they and their histories were merely part of this strange creature's slow, final descent into death.
The water called to her--urgent, begging--but the blue room lacked the taste of Aiesha's blood, without which it couldn't force anyone against their will. Aiesha leaned against the door and pushed the rusted hinges shut. From above, she heard the footsteps of her granddaughter walking delicately across the rotten kitchen floor. Aiesha padlocked the door as the girl ran down the basement stairs.
"Gramie Aie, Dad's mad at you," the girl said. "We couldn't find you!"
Aiesha smiled--her son was always mad, especially at having to drive to the middle of nowhere to see a fallen-down house which Aiesha refused to talk about. Aiesha's granddaughter glanced at the padlocked door and heard the splashes and drips of the water beyond.
"Is the door crying?" she asked.
Aiesha shook her head, remembering Jedebiah's demand to the blue room. To keep this land or he wouldn't share his life with the waters below. But she wanted nothing to do with that, now more than ever. "Nothing's crying but history," she told her granddaughter, "and that bastard's dead."
Her granddaughter tittered at the naughty word. Aie had no doubt the little girl would repeat the curse and that Aie's son would again complain about Aie setting a bad example for the child. But she didn't care. Life was history. Life was life. And she happily followed her granddaughter up the stairs and out of the house and into the rest of it.
This story was first published on Friday, April 1st, 2011
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