I didn’t want to tell Dad about the changing room when I first found it. It was down in the basement, where I wasn’t supposed to be. Dad kept all of his scrap and spare parts from his odd jobs as the town fix-it man down there, he thought I’d get hurt. It was also where he spent a lot of time and he didn’t want me getting underfoot. Forbidding it just made it more enticing, though.
I’d sneak down when he was off doing work somewhere, usually mechanical or carpentry, the kind of stuff that’d take a few hours. I liked to wander through the piles of junk, laid out in a chaotic pattern only he understood, and pretend I was some kind of explorer discovering lost treasure. Usually I’d stick close to the stairs, in case he came home and I had to run back up real quick. But as I got more comfortable, I’d go further and further. Dad used the side entrance in the basement on his way to and from work, so I always had to keep an ear out for the warning jingle of his keys in case he came home earlier than expected.
It was when I was playing one of my make-believe games that I found the changing room.
I went as far back as I ever had, slithering around old bits of this and that, until I hit the back wall. I trailed along it, my fingers sliding through dust and cobwebs, when they caught against something. It felt oddly familiar. I frowned while trying to place it and squinted against the gloom. A door knob. I hadn’t known we had another room in the basement. I twisted it and it turned in my hand.
Slowly, my breathing nervous and shallow, I pulled it open.
The inside was dark. I groped along the wall, which felt like the same concrete block as in the basement itself, until I found a switch. It lit the room up in fluorescent light and I gasped.
Sheer, colorful fabric, like veils, decorated the walls, large pillows with golden tassels were thrown about the floor atop a thick rug. Tropical plants hung in cages from the ceiling. A single-armed chaise lounge, covered in red and gold velvet, was in the center. I stepped in, mouth hanging open, and spun in a circle. It was like something out of my new favorite movie, Aladdin.
I jumped on the lounge, rolled around on the pillows, smelled the flowers, only to discover that they were disappointingly fake. I didn’t know what this room was, but I never wanted to leave. I wished I’d brought books and snacks so that I could stay there and imagine I was Princess Jasmine in my palace.
But Dad would probably be back soon, and I didn’t want him catching me in the basement, especially not in this room that he was probably setting up as a surprise for me. My ninth birthday was the following month, after all. Gleefully, I sprang up and tried to reorganize the room exactly as I’d found it. I didn’t want him to know I’d already found it. I turned the light off again and slipped out, grinning from ear to ear.
If I hadn’t found the room by breaking one of Dad’s strictest rules, I probably would have had a hard time containing my excitement. I didn’t want to get in trouble, though, so I kept my mouth shut, and waited for him to tell me about it himself. I didn’t dare go back down, no matter how much I wanted to. There was too much risk that I’d get caught and he’d take it away from me, so I had to play it cool.
Days went by, then weeks, all without a single mention of the Jasmine room. It got harder and harder to keep quiet about it the closer my birthday got. I’d sneak looks at my dad across the dinner table, silently urging him to finally break down and tell me.
Then my birthday finally came.
I got a new Barbie from my grandparents, a new shirt with a cartoon polar bear on it from my aunt, and a purple bike with streamers coming out of the handlebars from Dad.
No one mentioned the room.
I had to spend the whole day pretending I was thrilled with the gifts and my party and cake, but all the while, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Jasmine room. Disappointed as I was, I had to wait another few days before I could visit it again, after Dad had gone to work and Grandma had fallen asleep while watching her afternoon shows.
I tiptoed down to the basement and carefully picked my way to where I thought the door was. It was dark back there and took some feeling around, but eventually I found the door knob again. With a pleased smile, I tugged it open and turned on the light.
The Jasmine room was gone.
Where the plants had been now hung sparkly stars and a moon and fake bushes had been lined up around a large nest of twigs, big enough for me to lie in. Small trees with little birds in them completed the forest scene. Confusion swept through me. If Dad had made this for me, why hadn’t he ever shown me the Jasmine room? I liked it much better than this outdoor theme he’d chosen.
With a disappointed sigh, I closed it off again and went back upstairs.
That night, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut any more. I stood in the entrance to his office, my hands knotted behind my back, and chewed my lip, trying to figure out how to bring up the topic of my new playroom.
“Something up, peanut?” Dad finally asked, looking up from his book.
“Kind of,” I mumbled.
He set his book down and waved me in. “What’s on your mind?”
“You’re gonna be mad.”
“I am? How come?”
“‘Cos I did something I’m not supposed to and found something that I think was gonna be a surprise.”
His brow furrowed. “Ok. What is it?”
“I know I’m not allowed in the basement, but I went down there.”
He waited, expression unchanged.
I stared down at my feet. “I found the room.”
It wasn’t an angry question, or surprised, really. It was mostly bemused. I looked up at him and he had his head tilted slightly to one side.
“Yeah,” I continued. “The one in the basement? With all the Princess Jasmine and forest stuff.”
Dad sat back in his chair. “Sorry, kid, you’ve lost me.”
“You know,” I insisted. “The one in the back that you were making into a playroom for me.”
But he shook his head. There was no playroom, he said. I told him I’d seen it. Not once, but twice! And both times it had been different. He had me describe exactly where the door to the room was and, while I stood at the top of the steps, he went down to the basement to investigate. It was a long few minutes, waiting for him to come back up. When he did, he had cobwebs stuck in his dark hair and some dirt streaks across his hands.
He hadn’t found any door, though.
After he washed up, he tucked me into bed. I tried to tell him that there was a door, that the room had changed. It was real! But he dismissed it as a childish fantasy.
“No more going in the basement,” he said firmly. “It’s dirty and dangerous and I don’t want you making a mess of my things, got it? If you do it again, there will be serious consequences.”
“Yes, sir,” I said meekly.
His serious expression relaxed into a sigh and he kissed my forehead. “Goodnight, peanut. I love you.”
He shut my door, leaving me in darkness, but more curious about the changing room than ever before. If he wasn’t aware of it, he wasn’t changing it, and I had to know what was.
I had to bide my time before I was able to go back down to the basement. I had to get back there and prove the changing room was real. Work away from home happened to be slow, however, so Dad was down in the basement a lot, working on his own projects. When he was upstairs, he was on high alert and keeping a close eye on my whereabouts. I made sure not to even get too close to the basement door in the kitchen so he didn’t think I was going to try and go back down. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get the chance again.
Not until Dad came storming up the steps one evening, swearing and clutching one hand to his chest.
“Call Grandma,” he said through clenched teeth. “Tell her I’m taking myself to the hospital, I cut my hand on the circular saw and think I need stitches. Stay in the living room until she gets here, it’ll only be a little while, ok?”
I nodded numbly, fixated on all the red dripping from his balled fist and sprayed across the front of his shirt.
A few minutes later, I was staring after his pick up from the front window while Grandma assured me she’d be there in just five minutes. She swept in in three, squeezed me in a tight hug, and quickly cleaned the trail of drops that had followed Dad out of the house, all while telling me he would be fine and home before I knew it.
“There, all better,” she said warmly. “How about I make us an early dinner, hmm?”
Having Grandma bustling around was very reassuring and I was soon able to shake off the shock of Dad’s injury. Thinking about it still made my skin crawl and I wanted nothing more than to give him a hug, but her constant chatter chased away the worst of it. I sat at the table while she made us pizza bagels for dinner and we sat in front of the TV to watch some of her evening programs.
“I’m gonna go to the bathroom,” I announced suddenly during a commercial break. It occured to me that now might be the best and only time to get back to the changing room and I had to take advantage of it.
“Ok,” Grandma said, holding her plate out to me. “Put the dishes in the sink on your way, please.”
I sprang up, happy for a task that would put me in the kitchen. I deposited our plates carefully in the sink and then crept as quietly as I could to the basement door. A peek out to the living room revealed Grandma’s show was back on and she was engrossed in the storyline. Biting my lip, I opened the door and slipped inside.
I skirted my dad’s blood on the steps and began inching my way toward the door. Knowing it was nighttime made the air in the basement feel heavier, more oppressive, and the familiar shapes of his tools and scattered parts cast long, strange shadows along the floor. Determined not to let my imagination chase me off from proving once and for all that the changing room was real, I scurried toward the back wall.
I was almost to the door when I heard it.
A faint scratching sound, like a mouse scampering across concrete. It was coming from up ahead, where the door was. I froze. It kept on; a weak, soft scraping sound.
“Hello?” I was surprised I’d been able to find my voice. Surprised more than I’d been able to use it.
The scratching stopped.
Maybe my first thought had been right. It was just a mouse. That was what I told myself as I made my feet move, closer and closer to the door.
It was totally silent now.
I waited for my eyes to adjust to the deepened black of that back corner and finally made out the door knob, but as I reached for it, heart pounding in triumphant excitement, another shape hanging above it caught my eye. I pulled my hand back sharply, scared for a moment that it might be a spider hanging from its thread. But it didn’t move, and the longer I looked at it, the more I was able to make sense of it.
A padlock, left unlocked but hanging in place so that the door couldn’t simply be opened.
If Dad said the door didn’t exist, why did he need that?
With my courage quickly pooling into a chill in the pit of my stomach, I reached up with trembling fingers and pulled the padlock from its spot. It scraped, metal on metal, and I let it fall to the ground as I reached for the door knob.
The door was yanked inward, out of my hand.
A howling figure scrambled out of darkness toward me, clawing at me. I screamed and slapped and punched, tearing myself away. It crashed after me, panting and wheezing and reaching. I could hear its heavy footsteps slapping against the concrete floor just behind me. I shrieked for my grandma and threw things from the shelves down between us, but still the thing from the changing room charged after me.
Its voice was low and burbling.
Grandma was halfway down the stairs when I leapt at her. She started to ask me what was wrong, looked over my shoulder, and then started dragging me up. I glanced back just long enough to see a flash of matted hair, streaks of red, and wide, wild eyes.
I was thrown into the kitchen and Grandma turned around.
“Grandma, no!” I shouted as she started into the basement again.
“Call 911!” she yelled back. “Hurry!”
She closed the door after herself.
Dad never got to come back inside the house. The moment he got home, he was placed under arrest by a swarm of officers who’d responded to my call.
A gurney was carried up from the basement. The woman on it, Elena Belrieve, survived.
She’d been his latest and last victim.
The changing room had never been a playroom for me.
It had been one for Dad’s clients.
While I had played upstairs, blissfully unaware, Dad had constructed a secret, soundproof room in our basement. He’d used it for years, crafting sets so that he could film himself torturing and murdering women according to his audiences’ twisted desires. The tapes were mailed out in boxes of junk.
An Arabian princess.
A forest nymph.
Nurses, school girls, whatever they wanted, he provided. He’d bring them in through the basement entrance at the side of the house in the dead of night, usually while they were drugged or drunk from a night at the bar. After so long and a dozen victims, all societal castaways no one would look for, he’d gotten careless. He’d thought I was too afraid to go down into the basement and no one else was ever down there without him, and he’d stopped locking the door between victims.
After I found it, he knew he had to move. Elena was meant to be his last in our house and then he was going to move the show. Rent a space. Something. He hadn’t figured it out yet. I’d put a wrench in his plans for the first time in a long time.
And then Elena fought back. He thought she was mostly dead and decided to get playful. He hadn’t expected her to grab the blade, turn it on him, manage to get a good cut of her own in. He later said he “thought he handled her” before he ran out, covered in only half his own blood. He’d thrown the padlock on as extra precaution, but didn’t lock it.
He hadn’t anticipated how badly Elena wanted to live, or that his daughter was still consumed by the changing room.
Now, he’s waiting to die, trapped, staring at the same four walls while the knowledge of his inescapable fate slowly crushes him.
Just like all his victims.