The Tell, Tell Mirror
My husband and I rented the century-old farmhouse for its rough charm at nine hundred dollars per month. The three-bedroom, two-bathroom needed help, and we signed a contract with the verbal agreement that if we fixed anything, the cost would come off our rent bill. The rental agent requested the first few projects be the bathrooms and the refinishing the kitchen floor. Our former experience fixing up properties gave us confidence in these jobs.
I prioritized the master bath. The stark walls and low ceiling offered no natural light through windows. Fluorescent bulbs and grime from earlier tenants cast the illusion of a claustrophobic jail cell. The toilet seat sat askew. Cracks split the shower floor pan and sides. I shivered every time I walked by the door, bypassing the basement stairwell, from my bedroom to the garage.
After dozens of hours scouring Pinterest and major home improvement store websites, we created a plan; remove a small wall, replace the shower stall and toilet lid set, paint it a warm hue, replace bulbs with LED options, and redo the floor. Straightforward. Simple.
One night, after getting our kiddos to bed and resolved to get a project started, we strapped on safety glasses and attacked the putty and drywall laid over the edges of the cheap, plastic shower walls. Nolan pounded the drywall enough to break it up and pull it away from the wall. Then I disposed of it in a large trash bag. As Nolan worked on the North wall, he got overzealous and swung hard. The hammer slammed through the drywall, and something crashed on the other side of the wall.
“Oops,” he said.
Peeking into the baseball hole he’d created, he squinted. Then he retreated and waved for me to follow him. We treaded the familiar path from the bathroom to our bedroom. He stopped at the wall he’d been sure the item fell from. Our pictures remained on the intact wall.
“Hang on a second.” He stepped into the garage and returned with a flashlight. Peering into the hole, he cursed under his breath. “There’s a shower in there.”
“What do you mean?” I gasped. “That doesn’t make sense.” I tried to look in the opening, but my height prevented it.
Nolan bee-lined for our bedroom again, examining everything as he zoomed past, and stopping in front of the awkward niche where mismatch cupboards offset the lone window in the room. He backtracked, measuring each wall with a bright yellow tape. He shook his head several times. I held a dozen questions swirling in my mind at bay.
“There’s five feet unaccounted for here. I thought it was part of the basement stairs, but it’s not.”
Nolan moved back to the niche. He tapped on a wall as he brainstormed, and an indistinct scratching responded. He froze. Fear climbed my skin. Nolan opened the cupboards and removed our things. We loaded ammunition, belts, and clothes into boxes, pausing now and again to listen.
Next, Nolan used a screw gun to remove the screws holding the cupboards and we pulled them away. The niche grew as it emptied. The wood behind the cupboards had been coated in steely gray to match the room. Rugged edges of plywood misaligned the drywall.
My throat tightened. Why were we continuing this crazy dismantling of the bedroom? That wasn’t part of our intent to redo the bathroom. I said as much, and Nolan grunted.
We tag teamed the plywood, loosening screws and yanking it free from the glue-like paint. Behind the board, a slim, interior door stood framed in a wall. All around the edges and in the crannies of the tarnished brass knob, yellow foam crusted with age.
The fingernail scratching sounded behind the door again.
I latched onto Nolan’s arm and willed my heart to stop galloping.
“Should – should we call the police?” I whispered.
Nolan shook his head. He fished out his pocket knife.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m going to –” he stopped at the third scratch beyond the walls.
I giggled. Not a flirty sort of sound. A nervous twitter.
Nolan left the room again, this time returning with a two-inch Spackle scraper. He pried at the foam, dropping chunks onto the bedroom floor.
He turned. The hush stretched.
“The Tell-Tale Heart.” I smirked.
“Shut up!” he joked and returned to his task.
The scratching stayed silent. I turned on music to fill the room and keep Nolan’s nerve intact. I collected a baseball bat as he ripped into the last edge of the sealing foam.
“It’s loose,” he finally stated, stepping back and setting down his tools. “Ready?”
He gripped the edge of the door for a second. He yanked. The dark room beyond yawned out stale, sickly air. Nolan grabbed the earlier cast-aside flashlight and spotlighted the gloom. Dusty, ghoulish wallpaper and a punctured base floor stared at us. We grasped each other’s hands and moved forward.
Glass had shattered in a single sink vanity in one corner, the evidence of Nolan’s accidental hammer intrusion. Its doors stood ajar, revealing two skull-sized rat’s nests, empty.
The shower stall Nolan saw through the hole he’d formed hid around a corner. Its glass door sat off its hinges and leaned against the water handle. A black donut seal marked where a toilet once stood. Seventies special faux bronze towel racks and rings countered the plastic-handled faucet.
“It’s an entire bathroom,” I breathed. “Who closes up an entire bathroom?”
“I don’t know,” Nolan said. “But I’m done for tonight.”
We closed the door and leaned a heavy chair against it. I insisted on leaving a lamp slanting weak light into the corners of our bedroom. Nolan agreed. It took a long time to settle. Just as I shut my eyes for more than an instant, the door whined. I snapped up in bed, seized the flashlight on my bedside table, and shone it against the door. No change. Sleep evaded me.
The next day, our property agent stated that she’d known a bathroom used to be there, but she swore the previous tenants had integrated it into the current bedroom and bathroom. With her permission, we spent six months converting both bathrooms into one big, bright open space. It offers modern lines in a double vanity, soft yellow walls, silver accent lights and fixtures, laminate floor, and two new doors.
Even with a beautiful bathroom, the tell-tale mirror story continues to haunt me. It invades my mind when a door randomly creeps open. When a cupboard creaks. When, like a moment ago, I hear the same faint, human-like scratching from the other side of an old, farmhouse wall.