WANTED: Someone capable of the following: dish washing, laundry, cooking, and cleaning. Must be able to work in a group and coordinate events. Provided: room and board and a reasonable pay. MUST BE PREPARED FOR THE UNEXPECTED. If interested, please come to 493 Willow Lane.
This was where it all started. A dirty, depressed looking piece of sopping wet paper stapled to a telephone pole at the edge of a small town in Northern New York State. It was a Friday, mid-afternoon and it was pouring down rain. Claudia thought it was odd that the article listed an actual address rather than a phone number and a person to contact. She also thought it was odd that there wasn't a time listed with the address. Did they not care when people showed up to interview? Perhaps odder yet was the fact that this was the only flier advertising this job opportunity in the entire town. Why would anyone post a single advertisement in the place where people were least likely to see it? It was all very strange. That should have been her first clue.
But beggars couldn't be choosers, as the old saying went, and she was definitely begging at this point. There was only a month left of her junior year of high school and she desperately needed a job. Ahead of her stretched another endless summer, alone and bored. She stuttered at the thought. And so she was standing, in the rain, at the end of Willow Lane looking for a house numbered 493. The problem here was that the house numbers didn't go above one hundred. And so she stood, looking confused but mainly looking down the unkempt dirt trail that continued behind the DEAD END sign that abruptly ended Willow Lane long before the four hundreds.
Now, Claudia had lived in this town her entire life and she had spent large parts of each summer exploring the rugged outskirts of the town. If memory served her right, there was nothing at the end of this trail but a massive old willow tree from which the street got its name. But still, maybe . . . maybe there was a building down there that she had just forgotten. In fact, she was sure of it. A little old house for a little old lady who now needed someone to do housework for her. That had to it.
Her parents wouldn't notice her absence until very late at night, maybe not even until the next day, thus was their unending absence in her life. She set off down the trail, overgrown weeds clinging to the legs of her jeans, soaking them up to the knees. Her head and shoulders were already saturated. Her straight brown hair curled in the rain and clung to her face. Water droplets clung to her thick eyelashes in a way that made her greenish-brownish eyes look misted over. The trickling rainwater ran down her elegant nose and red lips. She had not anticipated this deluge when she had gotten dressed that morning. Her black tee shirt clung to her wiry, light frame in a gross-feeling way. She wanted to go home and postpone this endeavor until the rain subsided but she was here now and not ready to give up.
The trail wound on through a darker part of the woods. The trees were taller and closer together here, explaining the darkness, but Claudia couldn't help but feel that there was something else. A feeling of danger seemed to hang on every leaf and lurk behind every tree trunk. She wasn't particularly afraid but the feeling of being watched was never a good one. The trail was full of twists and turns and every time Claudia turned a corner she was sure she'd see the place she was looking for. And every time she was disappointed, she would say to herself, just one more corner and then I'll turn around and forget this whole thing.
As she continued her dizzying journey, the trail thinned and became so overgrown she could barely see it. Clearly it had been out of use for some time. There was no way that anyone lived in such a remote location without even a clear road into civilization. Something was wrong. Maybe the flier had been a joke to see if anyone was stupid enough to walk out onto the trail until they were lost. If that was the purpose, then the mission was very near to being accomplished. Ahead, she could see a thinning of the trees and hoped that, in the clearing, she could get her bearings and find her way home.
Pushing aside a layer of brush and brambles that snagged her legs and tried to hold her back, she broke into the clearing and found exactly what she was looking for, except, not quite. It was not the small house of a quiet little old lady who liked her privacy. It was a massive building, like a fort or a castle. It was made entirely of stone, several stories high, with three huge, arching wooden doors evenly spaced on the front of the building, each with steps leading up to it and a set of stone animals to guard it.
"Wow," Claudia said aloud. She had never seen a building this big in her life.
She walked up to the first door, which had a huge number 491 emblazoned in gold on it. The next had a 492 on it and, finally the last and farthest door was labeled 493. On either side of the door were stone gargoyles, hunched and ugly with their brooding, demonic faces, bat-like wings and wicked talons. As she approached, she was sure their eyes followed her and that maybe the one with the spiked dragon tail flicked it at her as she went by. It was all completely ridiculous she knew but in those dark and dangerous woods, anything and everything seemed possible. Cautiously, she knocked on the door.
It swung open with the faintest touch, despite its size and weight, and revealed the most amazing thing within. Until this point, Claudia had been unwilling or unable to believe that it was possible for several people to live in this building in the middle of nowhere. Not more than five people could have inhabited this castle, despite its size in her mind. And yet, before her was a veritable metropolis of people. At least a hundred, maybe more, all bustling about their business in a cavernous, magnificent hall with high arching ceilings. There were women carrying laundry baskets, men and women in business suits and lots of people in causal clothing who just seemed to be hanging around. It was like a world unto itself.
What kind of place is this?, Claudia thought, astounded. She gaped at everything with eyes as big as saucers. How was it possible that all these people lived here without the town's knowledge? As she gazed around in wonder, she did not notice the man watching her from a short distance away.