By Roshani Chokshi
The puppy curled in Casper’s lap like a doughnut. He watched its silken tummy rise and fall, blissfully oblivious to the rain pelting the family minivan like shrapnel.
“We can’t make it to the lake in one day,” Mom muttered.
Dad sighed, “I think you’re right.”
“Tell me something new,” Mom laughed. “I’ll try and pull up a place for the night.”
Dad left the highway behind. The rain was still ruthless, but at least Casper could see something other than evil red truck lights. Outside he saw rows of rain-blurred magnolia trees and bright daffodils on square lawns. They drove through cobbled town squares and dim restaurants until they got to a flat stretch of road with no lights.
Casper was the first to see the bed-and-breakfast. It was custard yellow with a white wrap around porch and spiky plants. Stone gnomes lay scattered on the lawn with only plastic flamingoes for company.
But what really captured his attention was the flickering light in the left-most window of the third floor. It glittered and shimmered like a thousand incandescent threads. Casper desperately wanted to explore that room. He glanced at the sidewalk sign: THE MOIRA SISTERS’ INN.
“I want to stay here!” he announced.
Mom and Dad shared a look. Casper knew that look. It was usually followed by “This is not an age appropriate movie” or “Tell us the truth.”
“Are you sure, honey? There’s a Holiday Inn a couple exits away.”
Casper didn’t know what an exit was. But he didn’t mind. He knew plenty of other things that most people didn’t. He knew the Nile River ran mostly in Sudan instead of Egypt. He knew that if you opened a chrysalis too early, you’d only find butterfly soup. And he knew that birthdays were special not just because you get ice cream cake and the best seat in the movie theatre, but also because you get one wish. And all he had to do was say the magic words.
“But it’s my birthday.”
Casper watched his parents’ faces as they shared a different look. Casper knew this look too. It was usually followed by “Just this once” or “Fine.” Casper grinned.
“If you don’t like it, that’s too bad,” said Dad gruffly, “You made a decision, now you have to stand by its consequences.”
Casper nodded. “Can Bear come too?”
“Bear can come too. But if they don’t allow pets, we’ll have to go somewhere else.”
Casper frowned. Bear was not a pet. He was a bear. Dad took the porch steps two at a time and entered the inn while Mom, Casper, and Bear stayed behind. Finally, Dad poked his head out and waved at them.
“Come on, Casper,” said Mom.
Like Dad, Casper took the porch steps two at a time. He tried to catch a closer look at the left-most window on the third floor, but the rain kept getting in his eyes.
“Welcome, come on in!” said an old woman with a Southern accent. “I’m Essi Lach.”
“Oh,” said Mom. “Not Moira?”
Essi laughed. “Moira is my maiden name.”
Essi Lach smelled like soap and her hair was a little blue, so Casper liked her immediately. The outside of the house and the inside were not too different. There were stone gnomes inside, but instead of grass, they stood on funny pillars with bright green signs. The house smelled like sage and cinnamon and large tapestries hung along the walls in a spectrum of color. There was a tapestry where three dogs that looked like Bear were attacking a man that looked like Dad. There was a mural where a bird-woman that looked like Mom stood on a tree in the middle of the ocean. And there was an embroidered oval where a boy that looked like Casper sat in front of three women.
“Your décor is stunning,” breathed Mom.
Essi inclined her head politely, her eyes twinkling. “I appreciate a woman with good taste. So y’all will be spending one or two nights with us?”
“One,” said Dad, his eyes fixed on the picture of the man being attacked by three dogs.
“And what about breakfast?”
Mom and Dad looked at Casper who nodded enthusiastically.
“Sure, why not,” said Mom. “We’re going to be spending the day at the lake. Might as well go on a full stomach.”
“Wonderful, I love the lake,” said Essi. She shut the leather book. “My sisters always say that if you don’t know what to do, you should head to the lake.”
“Are your sisters here?”
“Yes, but I doubt you’ll see them. They sleep early, wake up late. You know how it goes with age. Your room is the left door at the top of the staircase. And I’ve put a bowl of water in there for the pup.”
Casper’s eyes widened. The left door? At the top of the staircase?
“With the lights?” he asked suddenly.
Mom and Dad stared at him.
“What lights, honey?” said Mom.
Casper hugged Bear a little closer. His ears felt hot.
“The lights on the third floor…”
Dad stared at him. “There’s only two floors, Casper.”
“I’m sure it’s just lightning and exhaustion,” said Essi quickly. “Did ya’ll eat? Lemme bring you something from the kitchen.”
Mom placed the back of her hand against Casper’s forehead and frowned. “Maybe we shouldn’t go to the lake. Are you feeling sick?”
Casper shook his head. “No, I wanna go. I’m fine. I promise.”
He didn’t talk about the lights after that. When they got to the room on the left, there were no more staircases. Mom and Dad walked around the room, touching the polished wooden bedposts and examining the picture frames. But Casper didn’t touch anything. He sat at the small desk, tapping his feet. Mom and Dad thanked Essi when she brought them chicken potpie and salted caramel cheesecake. But Casper didn’t eat anything. He fed bits of chicken to Bear and waited. When Mom and Dad finished eating, they stretched on the bed. But Casper didn’t join them.
“Got to wake up early, birthday boy,” yawned Mom.
Casper nodded. “I know.”
“Okay, off go the lights,” said Dad cheerily.
Casper waited for the lights to go out and scratched the downy fur behind Bear’s ears. He waited for his parents to snore before he snuck out the door. The moment it closed behind him, Bear whined.
“Hush,” whispered Casper.
He glanced at the end of the hall, his heartbeat fluttering. There was another staircase. Casper hesitated. Someone was singing and something was whirring above him. A nice song, like the tunes Mom hummed when she stuffed turkey or picked tulips. Not like the songs on the radio with their soporific digital purrs.
The stairs were not like the handsome wooden stairs of the first floor. These stairs were jagged and stony. They did not gleam or shine in the dim moonlight — they glared and sulked. Gathering Bear in his arms, Casper tiptoed up the stairs. In the left-most room at the top of the staircase, he saw the shimmering threads through a crack in the door.
The threads beckoned to him, calling his name. He could feel their light pulsing behind his eyes, roping around his waist like a too-tight hug. But then the light seemed cut off and Casper looked up to see Essi Lach standing in the door frame.
“You want to come in?”
Casper nodded and stepped inside. Hundreds of thousands of iridescent threads covered the room. Casper’s fingers twitched and a grin spread across his face. This was what the inside of a butterfly chrysalis should have looked like. Not soup. His gaze fell on a stone chair and two sticks in the middle of the room. The first stick had lots of white yarn on it, the kind his grandmother used for itchy scarves. The other stick was smaller and pointier and its thread didn’t look like it would make itchy scarves.
Essi followed his gaze. “My spindle and distaff.”
“What do you do with it?”
“Let me show you, Casper.”
Casper frowned. He hadn’t told her his name. Bear yipped happily, flopping onto his back and wriggling on the rug. Casper rubbed Bear’s tummy before following Essi.
“Touch the thread.”
He did. The thread shimmered, glowing beneath his finger and unraveling in silken skeins around his toes.
“Hmm, long life,” she said, picking up the thread and tugging it between her fingers.
Casper gasped, his throat tightening.
“Oh, sorry honey,” Essi drawled, “Force of habit. Always check the strength of the thread.”
Casper nodded, not sure what she meant.
“Want to see your parents’ threads?”
Without waiting for an answer, Essi took him by the hand and led him to a corner of the room where two pieces of thread — one gold and one silver — lay entwined, their ends knotted together. He frowned.
“Why are theirs shorter than mine?”
Essi laughed. “Not everyone is as lucky as you.”
The two short threads scared him. He touched them lightly and a shiver ran down his spine. When he closed his eyes, he saw Mom and Dad dancing. Mom wore white, smiling. Dad wore black, grinning. He liked them like that. But then he touched the end of the thread. He saw lake water lapping over them.
“I don’t like it,” he said, yanking his hand away from the threads.
“Why not, honey?” said Essie, crouching to his height.
“I just don’t. It should be longer.”
“Well that’s how the thread falls.”
Casper swallowed. The room felt colder. He didn’t like the threads that short.
“Nothing can make them longer?”
“Now, you’re talkin’,” said Essi. Her chair, which Casper was sure had been in the middle of the room, was now in the corner. “What will you give me?”
“I can’t take from your thread, it doesn’t work that way.”
Essi’s eyes fell to Bear sleeping at Casper’s feet.
“No, not Bear!” cried Casper, hugging the puppy to his chest.
“Let me hold him, child.”
Bear blinked wearily at Casper and whimpered as Essi drew him into her lap.
“There now, pup,” said Essi, “You don’t have a thread, but—” she bobbed him up and down like she was weighing a sack of marbles, “—I’d wager he has a good fifteen years in him.”
Casper’s throat went dry. Suddenly, he wished he had not climbed the stairs.
“What are you going to do to him?”
“Nothing.” Essi shrugged. “I’m not gonna hurt your pet, sugar.”
“He’s not a—”
“Not gonna hurt your bear cub,” corrected Essi, “He’ll always be here, with me and my sisters. We’ll take good care of him and give him some of our own thread so you can always visit him. I promise. And I never break promises.”
Tears slid down Casper’s face. “I can’t bring him home?”
“No,” said Essi softly. “Do we have a deal?”
Casper grabbed Bear’s face, kissed him on his furry muzzle and stroked his velvety ears. He squared his shoulders the way Dad did whenever he saw Grandpa and nodded. At once, the two threads lengthened.
Casper gripped the steering wheel tightly. The row of magnolia trees looked familiar.
“What’s wrong?” asked Alex.
“Nothing,” he said.
But each time he blinked he saw a room full of opalescent threads. Alex placed her warm hand on top of his. Because he loved her, the knot in his stomach immediately melted. Casper loved the constellation of freckles across her arms. But what he loved most was her hair, russet gold threaded with ruby strands.
“Are you excited?”
“For the lake, silly.”
“Yeah,” said Casper. Dog trees and daffodils lined the road and Casper could feel his palms turn sweaty. “What route is this?”
Alex consulted the map and shrugged. “I don’t know, it’s what was highlighted on the map. When’s the last time you went to the lake?”
“When I turned ten.”
“Oh,” said Alex quietly. “Was that when—”
“No … that was six months before I turned 18.”
Casper’s parents were celebrating their twentieth anniversary at the lake house. He remembered Mom ruffling his hair, tweaking his nose. He remembered Dad slipping him a beer and winking. He remembered dreaming that night of lake water lapping over them, and of an old woman with blue-tinged hair weighing Bear like a sack of marbles.
Alex looked at him, her eyes glistening. “I’m sorry…”
“It’s fine,” said Casper. “They would’ve wanted us to visit the lake house.”
Alex smiled. “Do you think they would have liked me?”
He stared at her. He wanted to remember her like this forever — slightly sunburnt, warm, freckled.
At that moment, the car seemed to sputter and cough. Minutes later, it refused to move at all. And as fate would have it, the nearest towing service would take twenty-four hours to reach them.
“We have to stay somewhere for the night,” said Alex.
“We can stay in the car?”
Alex’s green eyes narrowed as she consulted a guidebook.
“I found a place!” she said after a while. Casper’s throat tightened and he squeezed his eyes shut, hearing the words in his head before she said them, “Mee-ruh? Moe-ree-uh?”
“Moira,” said Casper quietly, “The Moira Sisters’ Inn.”
“How’d you know?”
“I stayed there once,” said Casper tersely.
“You don’t seem to like it…”
Casper shrugged. “It is what it is.”
“Well, it’s got decent reviews. And it’s the only place within walking distance.”
Casper swallowed his nerves. Already, he could smell the chicken potpie and salted caramel cheesecake. Already, he could see the stairs at the end of the hall and the glittering left-most room at the top of the stairs. But when they walked to the Moira Sisters’ Inn, he didn’t see a third floor. Only two. And neither floor had a bright left-most room. Or perhaps it was just too bright outside. The stone gnomes still lay scattered along the lawn with only plastic flamingoes for company. But this time tulips sprang between them. Casper waited for Essi Lach to open the door, but instead a girl with waist-length black hair greeted them.
“Chloe,” she said, clasping their hands firmly. “How can I help you?”
Casper stared at the inside of the Moira Sisters’ Inn. There were no stone gnomes inside, only sleek obsidian statues on black pillars with bright white signs. The house smelled like apples and thyme and large tapestries still hung along the walls in a spectrum of color. There was a tapestry where a man that looked like Dad and a woman that looked like Mom became a poplar and an ash tree. There was a mural where a young woman that looked like Alex wore a crown of stars in the middle of the forest. And there was an embroidered square where a guy that looked like Casper stood in front of three women.
“Our car kind of died on us,” said Alex. “Do you have any open rooms?”
Chloe consulted a leather bound book. “One night or two?”
Casper was on the verge of asking a question when a handsome coppery dog loped into the room. The dog took one look at Casper before wagging his tail, leaping up and down and circling him like a lost treasure. Casper knelt down, his hands trembling as he rubbed the dog’s velvety ears and kissed his crumpled snout.
“What’s his name?” asked Alex.
“Bear,” answered Casper.
Bear yipped once before flopping onto his back and wriggling on the carpet.
“He likes you,” said Chloe. “He’s rather pitiful as a guard dog, but he’s a good boy. So, as far as rooms go, we have one available. It’s at the top of the stairs on the left.”
Alex smiled and followed Chloe to the top of the stairs. She touched the polished wooden bedposts and examined the picture frames. But Casper didn’t touch anything. He was eyeing the end of the hall through a crack in the door, waiting for a trick of the light to reveal a third staircase. Alex thanked Chloe when she brought them chicken potpie and salted caramel cheesecake. But Casper didn’t eat anything. His stomach felt hollow, and each time he blinked he saw kaleidoscopic threads in a small room. When Alex finished eating, she stretched on the bed, and her tawny body looked more inviting than sleep to an insomniac. But Casper didn’t join her.
“I’m going on a quick walk before bedtime,” he said, leaning over her.
He kissed her sunset strands and freckled knuckles before closing the door behind him. Bear waited for him outside. He nudged Casper’s wrist with his wet nose and whined.
“I missed you,” said Casper, stroking Bear’s ears.
Above them someone sang in a throaty, bluesy voice that brought a blush to Casper’s face and left him aching. It was the kind of song Alex sang while showering or brushing her hair. He wanted to ignore the stone stairs, retreat into the warmth of Alex, but the threads wouldn’t let him. When he glanced at the end of the hall, the stone staircase lay before him. Casper and Bear took the stairs two by two and in the left-most room at the top of the staircase, shimmering threads gleamed through a half-closed door.
The threads beckoned to him, calling his name. He could feel their light pulsing behind his eyes, tying his fingers in a hundred forget-me-knots. When he looked up, he saw Chloe silhouetted by light.
“My sisters always say that if you don’t know what to do, you should head to the lake.”
Casper’s throat felt dry. “I’ve been told that before.”
“Must be paramnesia,” said Chloe.
Casper frowned. He didn’t know what paramnesia was. And he was old enough to know that there were plenty of other things he didn’t know. He didn’t know whether he liked his job. He didn’t know whether he could make Alex happy. And he didn’t know any magic words because too many birthdays had stolen their power.
“You don’t know what to do?”
Casper shook his head and Bear barked happily.
“Come in, but I warn you, I’m not like Essi. I don’t make bargains.”
He nodded. Even if she did, he had nothing to give. The room had not changed. The threads that stretched across the room twinkled. A tightness in his chest loosened fourteen years too late. Casper’s knees almost buckled beneath him, but Bear nudged him forward, wagging his tail. Even as the threads shimmered and danced, there was only one that called to him. Russet gold and ruby-red. When he touched the top of the thread, Casper felt weightless. He saw Alex bicycling, her brilliant hair cropped to her chin. He saw Alex dancing, her tawny limbs stretched star-like. He drew his hand away, hesitating as he touched the middle. He saw the clumsiness of their first kiss. He saw her shaky smile when he asked her to the lake. He saw her love him. Casper looked at the end. His own thread, still pearlescent and white, lay closely entwined with hers. He smiled. Relief and hope unfurled in his body like a spool.
“Don’t you want to touch the end? Don’t you want to see?”
“No,” said Casper hoarsely.
Casper sat in the passenger seat, while Olivia started complaining that no prom dress matched her hair.
“Your grandmother had the same hair,” said Casper.
“I know,” she grumbled. “But that doesn’t make it any easier to find a dress.”
Casper shrugged and rubbed his hands together. His hands were gnarled and sometimes he had to massage them for twenty minutes before arthritis loosened its grip. He twisted his wedding band, kissed it once.
“Why are we going to the lake?” complained Olivia.
“I’m not going. You’re going because you don’t know what to do. And when you don’t know what to do, you should go to the lake.”
“Why aren’t you coming with me?”
“Because there’s a place I need to visit.”
“Okay.” Olivia shrugged. “What is it? Some kind of geriatric shindig?”
Casper laughed. He knew all too well what geriatric meant. In his head, he pictured an ever-old Geras leaning forward on his cane and staring out of his rheumy eyes like a mystic. Casper knew other things too. But those things were fleeting, like spider silk in the light. One minute there, the next minute — invisible. And the things that Casper knew didn’t always have names. Instead they had faces, freckles, teeth, muzzles, songs and shoulders. He looked out the window and saw bent magnolia trees alongside squares of daffodils, tulips, and stone gnomes. There were more people than he remembered.
“Mee-ruh Sisters’ Inn?”
“Moira Sisters’ Inn,” Casper corrected.
“Isn’t that where you proposed to Grandma?”
Casper smiled and nodded. Olivia — who usually had something to say — said nothing. Instead, she tied up her russet hair and helped Casper up the stairs. His neck was stiffer than it used to be and he could not look up to see whether there was a third floor. An aging dog with copper fur slept on the porch. He looked at Casper lovingly, his tail wagging as he followed him inside. An old woman with hair like steel greeted them.
“Welcome, I’m Attri,” she said kindly. “How long will you be staying with us?”
Her hands were just as gnarled as Casper’s, so he liked her immediately.
“One night,” he said.
Attri smiled brightly. Her teeth were crooked. Some of them were gleaming white and others were stained like amber. The house smelled like pepper corn and linen and large tapestries still hung along the walls in a spectrum of color. There was a tapestry where a girl that looked like Olivia held a golden arrow. There was a mural where a woman that looked like his Alex sat in a throne of clouds. And there was an embroidered heart where a man that looked like Casper stooped beside three old women. Casper closed his eyes and waited for Attri to say the magic words.
“We have a room available at the top of the stairs, on the left.”
“My Grandfather has trouble walking—” began Olivia, but Casper squeezed her hand.
“It’s the perfect room,” he said.
Bear helped him up the stairs, nudging him behind his knees, barking when he almost slipped.
“Smart pet,” muttered Olivia.
“He’s not a pet. He is a Bear.”
“Alright, Grandpa. He’s a bear.”
Olivia called everything in the room “awesome” or “vintage” and took endless pictures. Attri hobbled up the stairs, bringing a plate of chicken potpie and salted caramel cheesecake. They thanked her graciously and devoured the food like wolves. Eventually, Olivia got up to leave and kissed him goodbye.
“See you later, Grandpa,” she said, throwing her ruby-streaked hair over her shoulder.
Casper nodded and yawned. He touched the gleaming wooden bedposts, scrutinizing the picture frames and then opened the door. Bear greeted him happily. There were more grey hairs on Bear’s muzzle then Casper remembered, but he seemed as spry as a puppy. They took the stairs one at a time. There was no light in the left-most room at the top of the stairs. The threads still shimmered, but they seemed muted. Or perhaps it was Casper’s eyesight. Attri sat in a rocker by the chair, a basket of spun thread at her feet and a pair of ivory scissors in her lap. There was another rocker for Casper and a downy pillow for Bear. Bear circled his bed before plopping onto the pillow.
“Well?” asked Attri. “Do you know what to do now?”
Casper nodded before twisting and kissing his wedding band.
“How was your stay, Casper?”
Casper smiled and took the pair of scissors. “Memorable.”
Roshani Chokshi’s short stories and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Loose Change magazine, Khabar, and The Feminist Wire. Her unpublished manuscript was a 2014 Daphne du Maurier finalist and her short story, “Memory Metric” was a finalist in the 2014 Katha Fictions Contest.