Ripley’s house, our house, had a secret room. The door to it was tucked inside the back of what was my mother’s closet. The entrance to the suite opened into a long hallway, off of which were two bathrooms, his and hers, each of which contained walk in closets. Both closets were paneled with vertical cedar bead-board with many rods and hooks to accommodate sizable wardrobes. It was impossible to know it was there from inside the closet, as the knob was a closet hook like all the others, which were evenly spaced, and the vertical cedar boards completely disguised the outline of the door. It was part of the master bedroom suite on the second floor, where my parents slept until they’d had a chance to build another one downstairs at the other end of the house and they gave the room to me.
Ripley was apparently a paranoid, and had built this oddity as a safe room. It was just large enough for a cot and a chair. It had a tiny window of its own overlooking the pool area which was overset with stucco in a grid pattern and did not open. The room also contained a wall safe, and was used by my parents to store valuables. I loved to go see it on those occasions that my mother had to get something out of the safe. It was our secret, like a strange little clubhouse, and yet, I’d been told that Mr. Ripley had built it because he was afraid of someone or something. I felt just a little bit of his fear every time I stepped into it, and I never went in there alone.
When I turned ten, the new master suite was finished, and as the eldest daughter, I was given the room. Now, we kids and Greg had the whole upstairs area to ourselves. Carolyn, who had been sleeping in Greg’s room, moved in with Debbie. My mother, who loved decorating, redid my room in white French Provincial furniture with fabric and carpet tones of pink and pale blue, which she felt was more suitable for a young girl than the former black lacquer bedroom set. I was thrilled to have my own room with the new color scheme and furniture. I reveled in the space and sudden privacy- at least until nightfall.
At night, my bed was positioned in such a way that there was a full view into the bathroom and the secret door beyond. Leaning back against my pillow, I could see the hook that opened the hidden door, and I remember watching it, fearful that it might begin to turn. I would watch it so long that there were times I imagined I saw it move, which sent me invariably for the comfort of Greg and her small, but hospitable room next door. The trouble was, that I had to walk toward the bathroom in order to exit the room as the long hallway where it stood was the only way out. From the day the room was entirely mine, I slept in the twin bed across from Greg more often than I slept in my own room.
It was a torture to have to pass that bathroom as I exited. I have a memory of one night when I watched the hook in horror as it seemed to slowly turn on its axis. I sat bolt upright in bed unable to then avert my eyes. I was frozen in fear, unable to scream. The taste of metal filled my mouth and the breath went out of me as if a giant unseen vacuum was attached directly to my lungs. I wasn’t sure I could make it out. I tried several times to call to Greg, but I couldn’t produce enough sound to be heard. Trembling from head to toe, I managed somehow to make it past the door, but the hallway was long, and I found myself crumpled on the floor about five feet from the exit, completely depleted by the white hot fear coursing through me. I don’t know how long I was there, yearning for the closed door just in front of me. At last, a final surge of energy propelled me out of the room to safety. I never told Greg what it was that sent me so suddenly to her room that night. I knew it was just crazy, this fear of mine, thinking I’d seen the hook move. She never questioned my arrival, but seeing I was frightened, she offered me a place beside her in her small bed. With her ubiquitous hot water bottle between us, I fell asleep exhausted and grateful.
Thanks in part to that door, my own fertile imagination and perhaps an unauthorized trip with my sister Maxine at the age of four to an Edgar Allen Poe triple feature in New York City, I suffered terrible nightmares as a child.
My earliest nightmare involved a genie that I would discover with my parents in their bedroom. He would be standing above them, bloody scimitar aloft, each of them splayed across the bed gutted from throat to pubis, intestines spilling onto the blankets, shiny and red. At the moment of discovery, the genie’s eyes would turn to me, which brought a slow and sinister grin to his lips. And then the chase was on. I remember running as fast as I could down the spiral staircase, all the while screaming to my toddler sister Debbie, to come with me. With her hand in mine and the Genie closing in, the front door and safety were only inches away. Suddenly I could not move her. As I turned to look behind me, I could see that the genie’d gotten a firm grip on Debbie’s other hand. I could not free her, and in that moment, I had to decide to save myself and leave Debbie to a certain death, or stay myself and die too. At this point, I would always wake up. It was so real, I couldn’t get back to sleep. This dream repeated itself many times in my youngest years, always the exact same scenario, always waking at the same moment.
Throughout childhood, I had nightmares on a regular basis, all of them vivid and in lurid color, many of which recurred.
There was one recurring dream which for me, trumped them all. I began to have it after I had moved into my parents bedroom. In the dream, I lay in my bed unable to sleep. The large room was dark, and I became slowly aware that something was coming for me. In the dream, I was familiar with this being, whatever or whoever it was, as it approached me in the form of a creeping yellow fog that would begin to seep into the room. I knew it was coming. I could not move, nor cry out as it gathered over me, filling the ceiling, thickening and faceless. I could feel it in my bones, a sickening sensation that was as if the black plague itself was taking form above my recumbent body, hovering and preparing to infuse its conscious and evil essence into my own. It was fear itself that visited me those nights, unstoppable, inevitable, beyond rational description. I lay there waiting to be swallowed, enveloped in that queasy bleakness that sidled up and breathed its foulness into my own soul. It was immutable. I was beyond hope, beyond help and I could do nothing but lay there, a prisoner to this shapeless thing that was my special torment. At the point in which I knew for a certainty that something terrible was imminent, I would awaken, never sure if it was not still in the room with me. I would turn on the lights and leave them on, doing my best to go back to sleep.
The last time I had the dream after many years of its visitation to my slumbers, I was in my twenties. I was back in my old bed upstairs in Palm Beach, and as the dream progressed, the same feelings of dread and loathing returned as always. When at last, the culminating moment approached, the presence whispered into my ear, “Yesssss, it’s LOUISE.” I shuddered and awoke. Sitting bolt upright in my bed so many years and miles from my old life, I was suddenly amused and fascinated that this old “friend” had a name, and that it was female! It was as if she had come just one more time to introduce herself to me and say farewell. I never had the dream again.
At some point, years later, when the new owner was preparing to tear the house down and build anew I, went to visit the Palm Beach house one last time. It had already been stripped of most of its interesting architectural elements. But the secret room was still intact. I got permission from the wrecking crew to remove the entry hook and take it with me, a prize of sorts, for my childhood suffering. I have it to this day.