I sat with my back to them, keeping watch. Outside all I could see were outlines, darker shapes that somehow stood out from the pitch blackness of the night. Mostly I was just watching the trees swaying in the wind and trying not to freeze. All the air was rushing in through the massive doorway, and I sat in the centre of it huddled in a ball and tried to keep my teeth from chattering. The marble floor felt like ice.
“Well, this is the most glamorous place we’ve ever set up camp,” Emmi said, almost positive. I turned my head enough to give her a half-hearted nod and saw that she was lighting the gas lamps. Felix sat on his sleeping bag facing me, but not seeing me. He was staring off into his own world.
The space around her and Felix illuminated in a warm glow, revealing glimpses of the complicated tapestry and gold detailing that covered the enormous walls.
“This… is amazing,” Emmi whispered. She was on the verge of a complete geek-out. We wouldn’t be able to leave until she inspected every wall and every crevice. I resisted the urge to explore more, to see the massive house in its entirety. Instead I stayed put and focused my attention on our surroundings. Our dull and unchanging surroundings.
I heard a meek voice behind me say, “What does it look like?”
“You want me to show you?” There was a scrape of metal on the hard floor as Emmi picked up one of the lamps.
“Yes please,” Felix replied. There was shuffling; he was getting comfortable, preparing for the show. I even nestled myself against the doorway, shutting out everything except the empty canvas of the outside world and Emmi’s worn yet comforting voice.
“The floor is made up of lots of different squares. They alternate from black to white, black to white, over and over. They’re polished to perfection,” she elongated her words, making herself seem grand, “they’re like mirrors. I can see myself reflected by the floor. Every time I step it’s like someone else is stepping with me, trapped in an underground world that’s just like ours only reversed.” I could hear her feet tapping over the ground, stepping from square to square.
“But that isn’t the best part. The best part is at eye level. Do you know what a tapestry is, Felix?”
She mirrored Felix’s curiosity with the same excitement he was radiating. If only he could see what she saw.
“Aren’t they… paintings?” He guessed.
“Paintings? Well, sorta, but they’re better than just paintings. There are so many individual parts to them, like a puzzle. No matter how many times you look at them you always find something you haven’t seen before. And they’re everywhere in here. They cover every wall. The biggest one is over here,” there was shuffling as Felix tried to angle himself to her voice, “it covers the whole wall. There’s a group of people in it, a few men and a girl, looking for something and talking. You see, when I first saw it I noticed how similar they look to us. They look confused, but they’re walking on anyway.”
I looked down at my throbbing feet and my crumbling shoes. As I stared out into the night I could imagine us, walking. Emmi and Felix were always slightly behind and they never let go of each other’s hands. I’d just look out at the horizon.
“But now, I notice that the girl is making a particularly ugly face. That can’t be me,”
Felix giggled and it echoed throughout the room, bouncing off the walls and down the hall. I could hear it even after he had stopped.
“Everything is outlined in gold. The ceiling, the columns, the chandelier above us,” she must have looked up because her voice strained a little, “the tapestries themselves. It would be a shame if it wasn’t real gold,” Felix giggled again but it didn’t reach the walls, “It swirls on the walls and drips down from the ceiling. If it were daytime I’d have millions of other things to say about all this gold.”
Her voice tapered off and I heard a yawn behind me. It was such a small sound that it could only have come from Felix.
Footsteps and another rustle of a sleeping bag, Emmi went to sit beside him. By then the outside world had slipped away. All I could see were glints of gold and never ending paintings.
“What would it look like in the daytime, Emmi?” said a weak voice, weighed down by fatigue.
“Like another world, Felix.”
There was silence. The majestic world that had been painted onto my retinas began to fade. Spots of light started popping into my line of vision, above the mass of trees that formed both a barrier and a prison around our little safe haven. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness and the outlines had become more prominent, just as it had gotten colder and colder as I sat listening to Emmi’s voice.
It was easy enough to hear her approach but I still jumped when she tapped me on the shoulder. We’d gone through the procedure too many times. We didn’t even need to say anything to each other. We just switched positions. She took up my place in the dark and I turned to the warmth of the light.
When I turned I was able to see where we were, properly, for the first time. I could see it.
The marble floors, so cold beneath my feet, were dull and cracked. In the corners dust piled, as if someone had tried to sweep it away to restore the room to its former glory but gave up part way through the job. The tapestries were there, but they were ripped and unrecognisable. Behind them the paint was chipped and discoloured. The gold detailing hung askew in most places, either that or it was completely missing, leaving only a shadow where it was supposed to be.
I craned my neck to see the chandelier. It was stripped bare. Only the metal rings remained. There were no gems, no trickling gold. It hung from the dilapidated ceiling as a reminder of what the place should have looked like.
Where I saw destruction I could also see exactly how the room was supposed to look, how it had probably looked years before. Paired with Emmi’s descriptions I found myself putting the pieces back together in my mind. I stood there undoing the damage that had been done by reimagining for myself the room that Emmi had fabricated. Every repair I made was a lie. It just kept crumbling back down. No matter how many times I restitched the tapestries, they tore again. No matter how many times I swept up the dust, it collected again. Regardless of the fact that I was doing it all in my head.
Felix was curled in a bundle and tucked beneath his sleeping bag. The light from the lamp just reached his face, encircling him in its spotlight of colour. His eyes were closed, though it made no difference. There was a trace of a smile on his face as he slept. Was he dreaming of the elaborate house? Regardless, he slept in blissful ignorance of his true surroundings.
I could no longer see what Felix saw, but it was enough for me that he still had that image in his mind. I looked around at the ruin we had taken shelter in and no longer cared that it was falling apart around us.