Family Secret

by Alice Woodrome

Cameron Brogue stepped down the creaky stairs to the cellar. The realtor would be coming tomorrow to see the old three-story house, and would want to see everything, including the room in the cellar that had been locked the entire 45 years he’d lived in the house. He couldn't let potential buyers go into the room until he knew what was there.

In his hand Cameron carried a hacksaw, while in his back pocket was the reassuring bulge of a flashlight—just in case. The stairs were barely illuminated by the the open door at the top of the stairs and a tiny window near the ceiling, shrouded by generations of dust. The afternoon sun filtered through a spider web strung between the water heater and an ornate carved headboard against one wall, casting a ghostly glow on the brick floor. There was no railing to steady his steps, but Cameron was loath to touch the filthy wall beside him. The dank room grew colder with every step as he descended. A shiver spread over his arms and down his back as he finally put both feet on the floor. He stood still for a few moments and looked at the padlocked door. It's just a door—it’s just a room.

Near the door several elaborate picture frames leaned against the wall next to a pile of gilded antique sconces, all of which were covered in a mantle of gray. A large spider, barely visible before him in the eerie light, ascended to the ceiling on a thread, drawing up its web as it went. Cameron ran his fingers through his hair and shuddered, imagining webs everywhere, as he stepped cautiously across the floor toward the door.

He was glad his son was upstairs reading. Cameron didn't want to be in the house alone. Though he hated to admit it even to himself, he was afraid. He had spent too many years feeling there was something wicked behind the door with the rusty padlock. Could Cory hear a scream way up in his room? Ridiculous! He had to get hold of himself. It's just a door—it’s just a room.

It would be good to move from the ancient house with its disturbing secrets. They only fed into his son’s growing preoccupation with death. Cory, nearing his 20th birthday, was his only child. The intelligent and talented boy had once seemed destined for success, but now it appeared none of his potential would be realized. For reasons Cameron did not understand, Cory had dropped out of college before his sophomore year was half over, though his grades had been acceptable. Cameron had been angry and they had argued.

“Don’t think you are going to lay around on your ass all day. You’ll be getting a job if you expect to live at home.”

Cory did find work, but quit after two weeks. He lost one job after another in the few months he had been home, spending most of his time reading horror stories and watching violent movies on television. He collected news articles about serial killers and ghoulish details of unnatural deaths.

The boy went out most nights, but where he went, what he did, and with whom, was never clear. Cameron seldom got the straight story on anything. Maybe moving to an ordinary house on an ordinary street would be the fresh start they needed.

Cameron felt like he was repudiating the family as he took the cold padlock in his hands and began sawing through the rusty steel shackle.

He didn't know if it was the secret that made his family strange—or whether the secret was the result of some malevolent streak that ran through the bloodline. No one in his generation even knew the secret, but he had grown up with the unsettling awareness that there was evil in the family’s past.

Cameron learned part of the secret early on when family members changed the subject any time the name Lucinda was mentioned. She was the younger sister of his third great grandmother, Rose. Without the mystery attached to her name, an ancestor who lived so many years ago would be just a notation in the family tree. But like most forbidden subjects, Lucinda’s story took on a life of its own and could not be forgotten.

Lucinda had come to live with her sister Rose after their mother died—to the same grand old house outside Richmond where, generations later, Cameron was born and had lived his entire life. He knew every inch of the living quarters and expansive grounds surrounding the house. As children, he and his cousins had played war on Saturdays, wearing oversized gear from the army surplus store. They had hid in closets and under beds plotting strategies. They ambushed the enemy from mulberry trees and behind shrubs, shooting air balls from guns bought at Woolworth’s.

The Georgian-style mansion had been in the family since before the Civil War, and in a way, it had been like a member of the family. At one time 18 people lived there, employing a staff of seven servants. Even during Cameron’s childhood, it was home for three generations, including his grandmother, a great aunt, plus an uncle, his wife and four kids.

The house was built by Everett Brogue, a prosperous tobacco planter and Cameron’s direct paternal ancestor. It was still decorated with the deep reds and hunter greens of the Victorian era. Dark wood molding and cornices matched the wood floors, covered with lush-patterned area rugs. The draperies were heavy, and trimmed with fringes and tassels. The rooms had once been crowded with extravagantly ornate furniture and accessories. The family had been forced to sell the farmland and excess furnishings to keep the stately home. Only practical pieces remained.

Over one of the five fireplaces, Everett Brogue’s dark frowning eyes overlooked the nearly empty parlor from a gilded frame. As a youngster, Cameron had stared at the portrait many times, convinced the frown was a warning to keep the secrets lurking in the family history. Both fascinated and frightened, he had imagined several stories that might explain why no one in the family would talk about Lucinda—why the mention of her name made his elders stiffen. His efforts to learn more were met with stony stares, and a few paltry facts.

According to the records kept in the old family Bible, Lucinda died in 1865 when she was barely twenty. A beauty by all accounts. The secret, it was sometimes whispered, concerned a romantic link with a certain Captain Parker of the Union army.

Cameron's great aunt Sophie had let it slip about the romance with the northern officer. "They say t’was a broken heart that kilt her. Broke by that Yankee—Captain Parker.”

It would have been a scandalous affair during those war years if the account was true, but hardly sinister enough to silence a family for generations. It may also have been a fabrication, since Cameron had been told earlier that Lucinda died of pneumonia. Besides, old Aunt Sophie had been senile, and didn't know what she was saying half the time.

Then there was the the locked room in the cellar. The children knew the cellar was off-limits from the time they could walk. No one ever said why. Cameron wasn't sure anyone knew.

It was unnerving to think there was any substance to the tale he’d heard as a child—that during the Civil War years, someone had been held captive in the room. A prisoner about whom the outside world never knew. In truth, Cameron wondered if the rumor might have been his own imagination—a story he whispered to his sister and cousins to make sense of the locked room and the warnings to never go in the cellar. The prohibition, nevertheless, was so ingrained, even as an adult, the thought of descending the cellar stairs made him break out in a sweat. Even when repairmen worked on the hot water heater, he hadn’t gone beyond the top of the stairs.

Cameron would have liked to forget all of the weirdness he grew up with, but that was impossible. There were too many other peculiar members of the family. Drunkards, relatives who talked to themselves, one who died in a prison for the criminally insane. Some who simply left and never came back. His family didn’t discuss any of them. Then there was his sister, who fancied herself a witch. She mixed potions with roots and rat's innards, read tarot cards, and crafted voodoo dolls for anyone willing to pay. It gave him the creeps to step foot in her apartment. He only went there when family business demanded it.

Cameron had thought a lot about his family since his father’s passing three months ago. The old man had ruled the household even as an invalid. His excessively proper mother had died six years ago, though her presence lived on. Mostly he thought about Cory, and wondered why the boy’s life was careening out of control after such a promising start.

The matter was never far from Cameron’s mind. He would have taken his son to a shrink if there wasn't such a stigma about being mentally unbalanced. People still whispered about such things, no matter how enlightened they pretended to be about mental illness. A person had to think about appearances—and the future. Appointments with a psychiatrist wouldn't look good in a permanent file.

But these days, Cameron had little time to dwell on his son’s problems. With his mother and father both gone, it was time to sell the old house. His father would never have approved, but Cameron and Cory were the only two living there now, the upkeep was expensive, and there were no more valuable furnishings or land that could be sold off.

Cameron thought of his mother as he drew the hacksaw blade back and forth across the rusty metal. She would have thought it a betrayal to pry into the past. As strange as the family had been for generations—and perhaps for that reason—maintaining a normal appearance had been paramount. The Brogues simply did not speak of unpleasantness.

His stomach fluttered when the blade finally broke through the padlock shackle. He dropped the hacksaw on the brick floor, then gripped the old lock with both hands and twisted. It took all his strength to force the rusty lock open wide enough to slide it off the hasp.

When it was free, he dropped the lock on the floor with the saw and reached into his back pocket for the flashlight. As he fumbled to turn it on, it fell at his feet, sending a bright stream across the dirty floor. A roach scurried from the beam as Cameron retrieved the flashlight

He held his breath and slowly pushed on the door. The rusty hinges groaned as it opened, revealing a windowless room. Cameron’s heart pounded as he directed the shaft of light into every corner of a bed chamber no person had seen in more than a hundred years. A heavy quilt of simple design covered a small lumpy bed, and against the wrought iron headboard lay one pillow with a drab eyelet slip. A simple desk and straight-backed chair stood next to the bed. He exhaled audibly and started to breathe again—the world hadn’t caved in. The musty air smelled of mildew.

He moved the light over the desk, up over a pewter candelabra holding the remains of three candles with spent wicks, and down to an old leather-bound Bible, writing quill, inkwell, and a small stack of yellowed paper. Crude shelves lined two walls stacked with deteriorating books and papers. An antique toilet seat was in one corner, and next to it, a small washstand holding a pitcher and washbowl. Spider webs spanned the corners of the room, and everything was covered with a thick layer of dust. Still, he had a sense the room had been kept neat and orderly when it was used.

Could the childhood stories about a prisoner in the cellar room be true? Someone had lived there—that was plain enough. Whether they had been imprisoned was unclear. It was sparsely furnished like a cell, but the eyelet pillowslip and pieced quilt did not fit. Neither did all the books. Whoever lived in the room was there long enough to read a great deal.

He picked up the mold-stained Bible and blew off the dust. The spine cracked when he opened the cover to thumb through the gild-edged pages. A yellowed piece of paper with hand-written message fell out onto the desk. He shivered as he carefully picked up the fragile letter, breaking off a brittle corner.

He labored to breathe as though the oxygen in the room had diminished. Cameron propped the door open with the chair, then with flashlight in hand, stood in the doorway and began reading the faded message. It was a letter dated, April 13, 1871

My dearest Reginald,

I doubt that your eyes will ever fall upon these words I pen to you this night. I must write quickly while my mind is clear and the voices are quiet. There are so few moments when they give me rest—so few times when I see things clearly.

In truth, my beloved, it is best you do not know what fate has befallen me since that day they sent you away. Perhaps, as I write these words, you will feel something in your heart that tells you I love you still. I have not forgotten you even though it has been seven years since my lips have touched yours.

So certain am I of the return of my affections, I know you have surely grieved that I have been unable to come to you. Perhaps it is best you do not know of my wretched circumstances. I fear the knowledge may be too much of a burden for you.

We can never be together, my love; my family has made sure of that. But I do not wish for you to live in the hell that has overtaken me since our last meeting. I've been unwell, my beloved, and bewitched these long years. I am beset by demons who have found a way into my body and my mind—to a degree that my family will not let me see people—to protect me, they say. But the demons say I am evil, that I am a disgrace, that I have brought shame on everyone I love.

They are right. It must be true, but I cannot bear their accusations. The hellions scream into my ears as I write at my desk and when I attempt to read, and when I try to sleep—until I can hear naught but that. I am cursed and in misery.

I have sought to kill the demons by starving them, but it is myself who grows thin and the voices grow louder. I've tried to rid myself of them by cutting them out, but have only weakened myself from the loss of blood. This torment is unbearable. The only way to end my suffering is to end my life. With my dying breath, my dearest Reginald, I will whisper your name and pray for your happiness.

Good bye my beloved, Lucinda Lee

Stunned and light-headed, Cameron sat on the dusty chair that braced the door. So, it had been Lucinda who lived in the room—hidden away from the prying eyes of neighbors. She hadn't died of pneumonia or a broken heart. And she didn't die in 1865 as recorded in the family Bible, but seven long years later. Lucinda had done something far more disgraceful in her family's eyes than have an affair with a Union officer: she'd gone insane. It was so unthinkable they had locked her away in shame, adding to her intolerable pain. No wonder she thought taking her life was the only way out. It was.

He stood motionless for a long time, holding the letter. Training the light around the graceless room, he tried to imagine what it had been like for Lucinda—her family so ashamed of her they held her prisoner, so mortified they told people she died to explain her absence. He sensed a heaviness in his chest and a hot wave enveloped his body as he felt her emotions: humiliation, confusion, panic, loneliness, despair. Did she kill herself soon after writing the letter? How? What was done with her body, since the funeral had been held seven years earlier?

He remembered the mound in back of the house by the rose bushes. The swell in the otherwise level lawn would be scarcely noticed if it weren’t for the rock at one end, so large it must have taken great effort to move. As a child he had been told it was the grave of a beloved pet from generations past. Why didn't he doubt that story, given all the weirdness in his family? Was the grassy spot near the flower bed Lucinda’s final resting place? Did they mourn when they discovered she had killed herself? They must have cared about her or they would not have provided her with books and writing material. But how could they consign someone they loved to such an existence?

And why had they not cleaned the room after she died? Were they so anxious to forget the wretched years of Lucinda’s imprisonment that they just locked it up behind a door and threw the key away?

He’d been right about the family secret: it was, indeed, wicked. But the poor soul who occupied the cellar room had not been wicked. She had been the victim—of an evil that had been more concerned with what others thought than doing what was best for their loved one.

He looked up at the cellar ceiling in the direction of his son's room.

Email Alice with Comments                 Back