To say the Ledbetter Museum rivaled larger, more metropolitan institutions would be a lie. Tucked into an insignificant corner of an insignificant town in a mundane and much maligned mountainous region of these United States, the Ledbetter seldom saw more than a hundred visitors a year – primarily school children. Day in, day out, the modest brick and mortar façade glared dolefully onto an ordinary street, blissfully blending into the background of the forgotten town of Job’s Lament.
Coal mining had dug the financial footings for Job’s Lament in 1816. The original name had been Briding’s Camp, named for the Briding Coal Company of Eastern New Jersey, but only craggy-faced historians could recall such a tidbit these days. Of course, if you were to ask the very same school children who made an annual pilgrimage to the Ledbetter to explain the reason for the town’s name change in 1840, very few would know the truth.
There were, however, stories of how and why and when. And what. It was always the ‘what’ that caused the children’s eyes to narrow as they whispered the words to the uninitiated one’s itching ear.
“They say it was the lightning what killed him,” the older child would announce smugly. “And it all happened right here!”
One such pairing of initiate and instructor walked into the Ledbetter on a Friday afternoon. Fall had arrived that morning with a rush of chilled air and dying ash leaves. The town’s modestly successful basketball team would be playing a home game that night, and Monica Kuppler wore her cheerleading outfit in anticipation of a bonfire and pep rally to follow the final bell. Classmate Stephen Chandler (of the Louisville Chandlers as he so often reminded his friends) accompanied Kuppler and seventeen second-graders into the museum’s cramped foyer.
“Keep up, Steve!” Monica whispered. She counted the heads of children as they passed. “Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. Ok! We’re all here! Now, I promised your teacher, Miss Winchester, that we’d go over the town history exhibits. Who can tell me where that room is?”
Hands pushed upwards, waving happily in the beams of sunshine that streamed into the mullioned front windows. Dust danced in the bright beams, lighting on fingers and bobbing heads. “I know, I know!” the children offered, each one eager to please.
“Betcha not one really knows,” Chandler muttered. “How about you?” he called to the smallest of the children. “What’s your name again?”
“Sam,” the boy lisped proudly through missing front teeth. “Sam Simpson.”
“Simpson?” Chandler repeated. “Do you have an older brother named Mark?”
The boy’s mouth widened into a deep-dimpled grin. “Yep! He’s on the basketball team!”
Chandler shrugged. “Yeah, he is. Tell him Steve Chandler – make sure you say Chandler – said he needs to stop double-dribbling.”
“Ok!” the boy answered innocently. “What’s double-dribbling?”
“I guess you don’t play much ball, do you, kid?” Chandler laughed, thinking himself clever, but to his surprise, the other children moved toward Simpson protectively.
Simpson’s grin faded, and he glanced down toward his toes. Metal braces climbed up the sides of both legs, encircling his calves and stabilizing his knees. Sam Simpson had never known a day without pain, nor had he ever enjoyed the simple schoolyard games his classmates considered a childhood right. Instead, Sam’s doctors marveled that he could walk at all.
Monica pinched Chandler’s shoulder as hard as she could manage. “Steve’s being silly, Sam. And we’re all real proud of your big brother! He helped us win against Truman last week, didn’t he kids?”
The group burst into a round of boisterous school pride, many slapping Simpson on the back as if the second grader had personally contributed to the decisive win the previous Friday. “Way to go, Sammy!” a copper-haired girl cried out.
Monica nodded. She had plans to study teaching after graduation, which is why she had signed up for the Senior Teacher’s Aid program. Sadly, for the children at least, when Monica had signed up, so had her constant and unwanted shadow, Stephen Mills Chandler – of those Chandlers. The do-little bigmouth had staked a claim on the homecoming queen early in their freshman year, and she seldom walked outside her front door without finding Chandler there.
“So, Sam, where’s the town history room?” Monica asked, returning to their reason for the field trip.
Simpson brightened once again. “You have to cross through the next room and turn right. Then it’s upstairs on the second floor.”
“Sounds right to me,” Monica replied, leading the pack toward the staircase near the center of the building. “Steve, you bring up the rear and make sure no one wanders off!”
“Sure,” Chandler called back as the cheerleading girl of his dreams sashayed ahead with most of the class close on her heels.
“You like her,” a small voice said simply from Stephen’s right. Chandler looked down to find Sam Simpson, making his way slowly toward the column of classmates. His braces squeaked with each step.
“Who me – like her? Gee, what’s to like, huh? She’s just the prettiest girl in school. Sorry about the mix-up, kid. I mean Sam. It’s Sam, right?”
Simpson nodded. “Yep. Short for Samson. Pretty funny, huh? My dad named me before he died. Mom said it was one of the last things he ever did, naming me, I mean.”
“Gee, I’m sorry! How’d he die – I mean, well, if you want to tell me.”
Squeak, squeak. The braces sang as they walked. “Car crash. I don’t remember it of course – I was only a few days old. Mom got a bump on the head, but Dad got worse. Mom was holding me on her lap, and I must have dropped to the floor or something. It got my legs. Doctors couldn’t save Dad, but they straightened out my legs – well, pretty much, they did. I’ll get to have an operation once I’m older.”
“Man, that’s tough,” Chandler answered. “We’d better get a move on. They’re losing us up the stairs. Do you need help climbing, Sam?”
“There’s an elevator off the old kitchen,” the boy answered, pointing toward the back of the museum. “Come on, I’ll show you!”
Amazingly, Simpson moved quickly toward a closed door marked, “Private”, his braces singing as his small feet scraped across the tiled floor.
“Wait up, Sam!” Chandler called, glancing back toward the disappearing line of sneakers and backpacks. “We ought to stay with the others!”
But Simpson had already reached the secretive door and pulled it open. Before Chandler could speak further, the boy had vanished into the private room.
With one last look toward the main column of children, Stephen Chandler of the Louisville Chandlers followed the handicapped child through the doorway and toward the last moments of life as he knew it.
“This is an elevator!” Stephen exclaimed as the door closed behind him. “But – it can’t be. Isn’t this the kitchen or something?”
“Mr. Ledbetter built this elevator for private use,” the boy explained. “It’s old, but it works real well.” The child closed the accordion gate and moved the brass operator’s handle past ‘2’, ‘3’, nestling it securely in the notch for floor number ‘4’.
“Four? That can’t say ‘four’! This building only has three stories!”
Simpson giggled. “It used to have four. Back when Job Ledbetter lived here. Before the big storm.”
Chandler shook his head. “No, I’d have heard that. I did a report on this place when I was a sophomore. Three stories – that’s all.”
“Four,” Simpson insisted. “The top floor was sheered off by a freak storm – on Halloween night, 1839. The wind took the house’s head clean off, you might say. Just like it took Job Ledbetter’s soul.”
“That’s a weird thing for a kid to say,” Chandler remarked as the elevator stopped, and the door slid open.
Chandler’s blood turned to ice.
Before them stood a ghostly room, outlined in iridescent, almost twinkling light. Phantom windows winked at the newly arrived pair from high above the translucent floor, but no sun shone through their panes. Only silvery moonlight and the melting gray shapes of living rain upon ancient glass.
The impossible room crouched upon the building’s familiar roofline like an invisible cat, and Stephen could actually make out the quilted roof tiles, some old, some new, below his shoes as the pair walked from the elevator onto the shapeshifting floor.
“It’s like a ghost room,” the boy said smiling. “Isn’t it pretty? Isn’t it wonderful?”
“It’s creepy,” Chandler answered with an audible gulp. “Is it some kind of science room or something? Yeah, that’s it. It must be a science exhibit!”
Simpson moved smoothly past the high school senior, his formerly halting gait oddly smooth now. The singsong of the squeaking metal little more than a memory.
“I love it. I’m much more at home here,” the boy said, as he pointed out the furnishings. “Ledbetter spent many secretive hours up here. He ran the town, you know. Job Ledbetter worked for the mining company as local chieftain and town Scrooge. He ran the company store, the medical clinic, and the school. He even claimed to own the church, if one can own a church that is. See that over there? That camera? He used that as part of his rituals.”
“His what? Hey, didn’t you have a limp before?”
Simpson laughed. “The camera was a gift, you might say. A very early working model of what George Eastman would be permitted to discover in 1884. You can see the glass templates dear Job used in the rituals. Photography is so much more than humans think it is. Fools that they are. But then you understand that, don’t you, Stephen? Your great-great grandfather did at least. Nehemiah Chandler – of the Louisville Chandlers, progenitor of a long line of snobs and simpering acolytes. We taught many of that fashionable crowd to dance. And now, you’ve come to me as well.”
Stephen’s heart pounded in his chest and ears. “How the hell do you know about my family?”
The imp laughed as the last bits of metal disappeared from his legs, revealing the goat-like shapes that formed his true form. “History is circular, one might say. And hell lies at the very center of the circumscribed arc, ticking away like the hands of an eternally repetitive clock, waiting for the return of former glories as well as just rewards. This room exists in such a loop, although I’m not permitted to offer you the scientific explanation for it. Such knowledge bears a very steep entrance fee. Suffice it to say that it’s akin to the strange phenomenon you humans call the Kirlian Effect.”
“Named for Semyon Kirlian, who used photographic plates to capture electrical fields. At least, that’s what he believed was happening. Reality is so much more than what you learn about in textbooks. Energy emanates from all creation – and from the entities surrounding it. Inter-dimensional communications leave their traces on all realities. What Kirlian captured with his technique can be applied to activities as well as objects – even dreams leave their marks. Once here, always here, you might say. Personally, I think this room remains because of Ledbetter’s activities. Now there’s hell for you! How dear old Job loved to watch the dead and dying, and – with the help of his magical camera – he opened wide the gateways into my world. It would have been rude of me to turn down such a perfectly constructed invitation, now wouldn’t it? Though, mind you, this town is a bit boring.”
Chandler blinked, and he slowly began to recognize the display of items that surrounded him. In addition to several large cameras, he saw ghastly arrays of bloodstained knives, thumbscrews, animal traps, black candles, and leather-bound books with pentagrams inscribed across their faces.
“We lovingly call this our little Kirlian Room,” the imp continued, picking up one of the cameras. “It’s our little joke. You were right about this building only having three floors. Now, that is. But it had four when Ledbetter built it in 1818. Old Job built this house as his personal palace. He lived on the third floor, while he operated a general store out of the bottom floor, bilking the locals out of hard-earned pennies. Publicly, Ledbetter served the mining company, but privately he served himself. In fact, he embezzled tens of thousands over the years. Honestly, if we hadn’t gotten him, the human courts would have. Now, the second floor had an assayer’s office and an accounting desk. It also served as the mayor’s office – that would be our friend Job, of course – and as a meeting hall for the town council (hand-selected men in the company’s pocket). The third floor, as I mentioned earlier, served Job’s personal needs, including nightly visits from whatever Sally Strumpet he fancied at the moment. Ah, but the fourth floor – this floor – remained shut to all but a select and most unlucky few. Those who breathed their last here did so with no one to mourn them – most were homeless, all were helpless. Ledbetter delighted in photographing their agonies, and in exchange for such offerings, I – and my companions – aided Ledbetter’s constant quest for wealth and personal gain. We made him rich. But unlike his Biblical namesake, this Job had no faith in his Creator. He believed only in self. He panicked in the end, realizing, I think, what he’d done, and where he was headed. He tried to smash the cameras. So, we had to act quickly – hence the whirlwind. Foolish, foolish man.”
Chandler could just make out shadows moving in the shimmering room’s corners. Dozens of crimson eyes stared at him, and Stephen could hear ravenous, leathery lips smack against dry, broken teeth.
“I’m sleeping – I’m dreaming!”
The imp grinned as he picked up a set of thumbscrews. “I’m sure you wish you were, my dear Stephen, but you’re very much awake.”
“Who are you?” the young man screamed, backing toward the elevator. “What happened to you braces – and your, your legs?”
The creature touched his misshapen kneecaps and clucked his tongue. “Pity, isn’t it? The boy called Sam actually died in that crash. It wasn’t so hard to take over his little body – and the accident – sure, we’ll call it that – served as a good explanation for my own inability to conform to the human physique. Besides, I like my real legs! Human women used to find my legs quite attractive, you know. These days, very few even know me when they see me, but we’re working on that. Your great-great grandmother found me to be hideous, but then she joined the other side. HIS side. She prayed way too much. You, on the other hand, have never prayed in your life, which makes you a perfect subject.”
Stephen rushed toward the open elevator door, but it slammed shut before he could reach it. As if by magic, the outlines of the elevator grew wavy, almost cartoonish, blending in with the sparkling outlines of the Kirlian Room.
“Why?” Stephen cried as the shadows advanced upon him. “Why!!”
“Why not?” the imp in the human skin suit echoed. As the hellish circle of demons fitted the thumbscrews into place on Chandler’s unwilling hands, the imp gazed into the back of the antique camera, the flash powder tray raised high. “This one’s for posterity, Stephen. Say cheese!”
Chandler screamed, the sound bouncing against the shimmering walls and echoing back to the hapless victim’s bleeding ears.
Below, on the main floor of the Ledbetter Museum, the long line of children filed past Monica on their way toward the front door and the waiting school bus.
“Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen,” she counted. “Wait a minute, where’s seventeen? Who’s missing? Linda, do you know who’s missing?”
“No one,” the red-haired girl replied. “Oh, wait – where’s Sam?”
The entire group turned toward the sound. “Sam! Where did you go? And where is Stephen?”
The ‘boy’ limped toward the class, his familiar dimpled grin pasted across his remarkably human face. “Sorry, Miss Monica. I got lost for a minute.”
“He’s probably lost, too,” the boy replied with a slight laugh. “But he’ll turn up. Eventually.”
Monica Kuppler shrugged, relieved to have ditched her constant shadow at last. Outside, the sun glittered upon jewel-toned leaves, and Monica counted heads one last time as the children boarded the bus. Stepping onto the worn metal treads, the cheerleader could have sworn she heard a faint, high-pitched scream rising high above the museum. She turned to face the building’s nondescript façade, and – for a fleeting moment – she imagined a fourth floor floating above the former Ledbetter house.
Someone tugged at her sweater, and Monica turned to find Sam Simpson waving a small photograph in his right hand.
“Souvenir?” Kuppler asked as she helped the boy back to his seat.
“Yep,” Simpson answered cryptically. As the bus pulled away, the imp in human form scratched at the mystic metal that cradled the fallen flesh of the legs once owned by the real Sam Simpson. “Maybe next time, I can take you to my favorite room,” he cooed as Monica sat beside him.
The cheerleader smiled. “Maybe,” she said, patting the boy’s hand. “Maybe I can come back next semester and take your class on another field trip.”
The boy pocketed the incriminating photograph and nodded. “Nothing would please me more,” he whispered. “Maybe I’ll take your picture, too.”
The imp closed his eyes, deep in thought. “Nice never entered my mind,” he muttered to himself, and the bus lurched into gear, leaving all traces of a human once known as Stephen Chandler behind – his disappearance soon to be puzzled over by police, lawyers, and ambitious news reporters.
But none would ever see the photograph that had joined so many others in a small leather and ivory box, locked within the yellow-walled room of a growing boy named Samson. A boy with plans. Plans that had only just begun.