“I found it, I found it!” Mitchell panted between gasps as he burst into the bedroom, having just run up the stairs of his house.
His wife, Catherine, looked a little alarmed as Mitchel burst through the door suddenly. A headphone fell from her ear as she turned to face him. She was sitting on a pillow in the middle of the room, surrounded by pieces of wood, parts, and pages of the instruction manual. Her wavy red hair was escaping her braid, which made Mitchell suspect she was losing the battle with Ikea. “What?” she asked. “What is it?”
“This!” he shouted, as he knelt on the floor beside her. He unfurled the roll of wallpaper he was carrying and spread it across the floor to show her the pattern, running a reverent hand across it. Normally, he would have waited to show her before buying it together, but he knew the second he saw it that this wallpaper was perfect. A simple yet realistic forest was drawn in the distance on the paper. A teddy bear was walking away from the sketched forest, and the bear was looking up as he had apparently just let go of several blue balloons which drifted up, up, up into the bright blue sky.
“Do you love it as much as I do?” Mitchell asked hesitantly, tugging on the collar of his plaid shirt as if to loosen it.
Catherine smiled as also she ran a hand across the wallpaper, stopping when her fingers met his on the paper over the teddy bear. “Let’s put it up now.”
“Now? Together? Are you sure that’s safe?” he asked, glancing down at her stomach. He had been planning to put up the wallpaper on his own.
“Yes, now. I want to see it up,” she said, as she rolled onto her knees and pushed herself to a slow and wavering stand, thrown off by the change in her center of balance. Catherine turned to stare at the walls, as she planned their next steps. “I already asked my doctor about it when we decided we were going to wallpaper the baby room. She said that so long as we use non-toxic wallpaper paste that it’s no more dangerous than painting my nails. Let’s do this.”
Mitchell smiled as he stood, loving how driven his wife was; he should have known that they’d be doing it together as a team. “Let’s do this,” he agreed.
Following instructions they found online, they covered the floor with protective plastic before starting at the doorway. Catherine hung the paper and Mitchell then used the plastic roller to smooth out the bubbles. Each sheet they hung looked better and better as they improved with practice. Catherine unplugged the headphones from her music player, and they listened to Mozart together, at first just hoping that the music would make their child smarter, but then enjoying the way the music helped to get into a rhythm as they worked.
Suddenly, Catherine stopped working, though they only had a few more panels of wallpaper to put up. She didn’t say anything. She even seemed to be holding her breath.
Her husband leaned around her to see what she was staring at, expecting to see a spider but there was nothing. He asked, “Babe? You okay?”
“What...” she asked, pointing at the patch of wall in the center of the room, “Do we do with that?”
“Oh...” Mitchell said slowing, realizing now what she meant as he also looked at the outline on the wall. If he didn’t know it was there, he might have missed it as there was no handle or indication it was a door other than the outline. But he knew the room was there. Afterall, he’d been inside it before.
When Mitchell was a little boy, back when he still went by Mitch, he was undefeated at hide-and-seek. At least when he and his friends played in the Graham family home. He couldn’t remember who had told him about the home’s secret. Likely, a grandparent had shown him the room as soon as he was old enough to crawl into it. While his friends were looking for each other under beds and behind curtains, Mitch would be upstairs hiding in the secret place.
He wasn’t the first to hide here. Hundreds of years ago, runaway slaves had hunkered in the dark, trying not to make a sound as they peeked through the crack in the door to see if it was safe from slavecatchers. The Graham family home and its history as a stop on the Underground Railroad were passed down over the generations, with the room shared in whispered secrets to each new child in the generations. For most if not all in the Graham family, it was a source of pride as they helped those on the road to freedom.
As little Mitch hid in the room, content with the knowledge that his friends would never find him, he didn’t think about the dozens who stayed here once, risking everything for the liberty that he took for granted.
He didn’t think about them at all.
“This is a problem,” Mitchell admitted, as he put a hand on the door to the secret room.
“You see the issue too then, right?” Catherine mumbled as she bit her bottom lip. Her husband had mentioned the room in passing when she moved in, but she never gave it a second thought until now that the room was becoming a nursery. “I mean, this room is tiny and has a weird shape. We can’t pass it off as a closet, since there’s no way to hang clothes in it. It was obviously built to hide things.”
“Yeah, our son is going to ask questions about it,” he said, glancing at his wife’s belly.
Catherine put a protective hand over her middle. “And how are we going to answer those questions? How can we tell him that people hid in there once? He’ll have nightmares about it.”
“I don’t even know how we’d have that conversation,” Mitchell said, shaking his head. “How can I tell my son that people were once enslaved? I don’t want him to feel bad about himself. He’s just going to be an innocent kid. I don’t want him to find out about this stuff until he’s mature enough to understand the topic. And how can we protect him from this topic if he’s sharing a room with it every day? We have to hide this from him.”
His wife stared intensely at the hidden door for a moment, and then said, “The paper doesn’t feel like it’s enough though. Nail the door shut.”
Michell nodded in agreement before leaving to retrieve a hammer and pail of nails. They worked quickly together, and within an hour they had papered over the family secret.
A month later, Catherine and Mitchell would bring their son home. They named him Thomas but would call him Tommy. He was a happy baby, always laughing, and they knew instantly that they’d made the right choice with how they decorated his room as his giggles drifted to the ceiling like the balloons of the bear on the wallpaper.
Occasionally, they would look at the patch on the wall where they had covered up the family secret, afraid that one day Tommy would stare at it for a few seconds too long and notice it. They had used two sheets of wallpaper to cover the door just in case, making sure that none of the nail heads were showing. So far, their son hadn’t looked at the hidden doorway twice.
Tommy was a jolly boy, and he would continue to be so. When he was 5 years old and had started kindergarten, an invitation was sent to him for a birthday party for another boy in his class. The boy had an odd name though, which Tommy’s father didn’t know how to pronounce, so he threw away the invitation. There would be other parties and his son would make more friends. He would even invite them over to play hide-and-seek in the Graham family home just like his father, but he would be much less skilled at hiding than Mitchell Graham.
When Tommy was teen about to take Sex Ed class, his mother demanded to see the lesson plan before she would agree to sign the permission form. It was her right as a parent to know what her son would be taught, and she wanted to make sure that he wasn't being told anything she considered abnormal. Catherine never understood the point of confusing the kids with all that extra information they would never need.
Mitchell became friends with some of the dads of Tommy’s classmates, and one afternoon at a barbeque they were discussing how the school was handling the topic Germany during WWII. The school was presenting an unbiased view of both sides of the war. While some of the dads said that they wanted the school to go more in depth and take a stance on the war, Mitchell hesitated to agree. His dad had served during the war against the Nazis, but he also had distant German ancestors. If the teachers told Tommy that Germans were evil, then Tommy might hate himself. As Mitchell voiced his support of the school’s general and unbiased teaching of WWII and the Nazis, several of his friends took long sips of their beers. They wouldn’t be coming to the next Graham family barbeque.
By the time Tommy was in high school and going by Thomas again, his mother had joined the PTA. As a part of her duties, she rigorously scoured the library catalogue for any book her son might encounter that would upset or confuse him. She imagined him entering the library, picking up The Bluest Eye at random, and his beautiful blue eyes creasing in confusion as he read about a topic he was still too young to comprehend. Catherine didn’t know when she would consider her son old enough, but it wasn’t today. She riled up her meetings in a frenzy with this potential scenario, they wrote letters, and then shouted at school board meetings until every possible offending word had been removed from the school library.
Mitchell was reading the newspaper one morning as he enjoyed breakfast with his family. He read one passage aloud, happily announcing that Affirmative Action was dead, content in the knowledge that the college applications his son would soon be mailing would have a better chance. Thomas took a spoonful of his cereal, not listening or bothering to understand what his father was saying. Mitchell returned to his paper but was now distracted by a thought. When his son went to college soon, he would be hearing new opinions. How could Mitchell be sure that he was learning the right things, when he wasn’t around anymore to keep his son from learning the wrong ones?
Thomas was lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling and walls of his old bedroom. Over the years, the room had changed a lot, and he hadn’t noticed until coming home for Christmas. While he liked his spacious room a whole lot more than the cramped dorm he’d been living in for months, it didn’t quite feel like it represented him anymore.
The posters taking up every square inch of the walls were from bands he’d once found cool – Green Day, Metallica, Coldplay, and many more. He hardly listened to this music anymore, so he got up to peel down a poster of Jimi Hendrix, but behind him was wallpaper that made Thomas cringe.
Teddy bears and balloons? He guessed his parents had never bothered to redecorate since this was his nursery, but Thomas would do it now. He decided that he would paint the walls while he was home for the holiday, as a gift for his parents. And for himself. But first, the wallpaper had to come down. After taking down a few more band posters, he grabbed a corner of the wallpaper and started to peel it down. While it stuck more than Thomas was hoping, the glue was so old that it came down easily in places.
Then Thomas froze, after peeling off most of a patch that was covering the wall at the center of the room. It looked like the outline of a door. He used his fingernails to pick away a few more pieces of wallpaper around the outline, and then Thomas was sure of it. He’d heard about old houses like this having secret passages sometimes, but this was crazy. Did his parents know this was here? He thought more about it, but they had to know, since they papered over it.
As he examined the wall more closely, he noticed the nails that were sealing the door shut, and his heart started to race. What was this place? He had to find out.
Thomas ran to get his father’s toolbox and returned with the hammer he needed to extract the nails. He had debated getting his father but was afraid he’d stop him from opening the room. For the longest time, he heard nothing but the sound of his own breathing and the tinkle of nails as they rained one by one onto a pile by his feet. Then the last one fell.
The hammer was also useful in getting the door open, as it had no handle, but the claw of the hammer fit perfectly into the gap as he used it like a crowbar. One of the rusty hinges broke as he forced it open, but finally the door gaped open with a puff of dust, much like a mummy giving a rattling gasp as his tomb is entered for the first time in thousands of years.
Thomas looked inside, disappointed at first that nothing was there. He had been picturing gold coins for some reason, but perhaps he read Tom Sawyer too often as a boy. Something compelled him to look closer though at the empty space, and after checking for spiders by the light of his flashlight, Thomas sat down. He couldn't believe that this had been here the whole time, right behind his wallpaper.
He continued to examine the little room by the light of his phone as he ran his hand across a wall where someone long ago had etched a few lines. They were obviously old as the wood had darkened with age, and the lines spelled no words that Thomas could read. It felt like someone had just been compelled to make a mark, as if to say I was here. And now, Thomas was here too.
Thomas still didn’t know what this place was, but more than anything he couldn’t understand why it had been papered over by his parents. What had they been so afraid of?
Erica Lee Berquist has worked for KnowledgeWorks Global Ltd. as an Editorial Associate and Cloudmed Solutions LLC as a Recovery Analyst. Erica’s work has been published in Grub Street Literary Magazine’s volumes 65 and 71, Levitate Magazine issue 7, Sheepshead Review’s Spring 2023 Edition, OFIC Magazine issue 6, German Poems anthology by Poet’s Choice, Marathon Literary Review issue 24, and she has an upcoming publication in Nat 1’s anthology Star-Crossed and Other Tales of Intergalactic Love. In her free time, she enjoys making jewelry, researching family history for herself and others, gardening, and spending time with her cats.