The Affliction of Normalcy
Clark’s insides coiled uncomfortably. “Dead?” he repeated.
The corner of Rose’s mouth slid upward. “Yes,” she replied sweetly.
A multitude of choice words came to mind, none of them helpful in procuring information in a timely manner. So instead, Clark settled for a simple question.
Rose’s eyes glittered. “The outside world needs to forget you. She needs to forget you. This is your home now. You belong to me.” She turned around promptly, dismissing the subject and gliding down the hallway. “Come,” she beckoned. “I will show you the kitchen. You must eat.”
Clark stole a helpless glance through the paneled window, but neither Lois nor her car were in sight. Chances were nigh to impossible that Mad Dog Lane would believe any story about Clark’s death from a stranger. Especially without a body to prove such a thing.
“Just how exactly do I die?” Clark asked, resigning himself to follow Rose.
He was thankful his tone sounded calm in comparison to how he actually felt inside. He’d like nothing more than to yell and threaten Rose, but how did one threaten a person who had already died? If he wanted answers—and he sorely did—then he’d have to push his emotions aside and get Rose to talk however he could. Lois was somewhere inside this massive place, and he needed to make sure she was safe. That meant knowing the spirit’s plans.
“You don’t die,” Rose answered, gliding past the entrance door. “Not for a long while, at least,” she amended.
Clark fought the urge to purse his lips. “I meant how does Lois think I die? Is Miss Wingham involved?”
“What is she telling my wife?”
“She isn’t telling her anything,” Rose answered with an infuriating tone of secrecy, gliding past the receiving room.”
“But she’ll think I’m dead,” Clark persisted.
“How will she think I died?” he repeated.
“Why does it matter?” Rose countered, continuing down the hallway and directing them past the staircase.
Because I’m Superman, and a normal death won’t convince her of anything.
He refrained from sharing those thoughts, however. He didn’t need Rose thinking she had concocted a weak fabrication. Instead, Clark replied with another truth. “Because this is my life you’ve just destroyed.” He failed to keep the note of anger from his voice. “My wife will be distraught. I’d like to know how she thinks I died, especially since you see fit to keep me alive and imprisoned.”
“The manner of your death is irrelevant. You’re here now,” Rose emphasized. “You are mine, and that’s all that matters.”
Rose had stepped into the only entryway that stood past the staircase. Beyond that was a small, old-fashioned kitchen they now stood inside, but Clark hardly noticed. His gaze remained fixed on Rose who now turned to look at him.
“It matters to me,” he said quietly.
Rose regarded him for a long moment. “You’re very inquisitive.”
Clark nodded. “Yes, I am.”
Rose said nothing.
“If you want to keep me here, you should know that aspect won’t change about me,” he added. “I’m a reporter. I like information. I like to ask questions. I like to know things.”
Those green eyes bore into his. “You see knowledge as power, don’t you?” she asked.
“I see knowledge as a gateway to be able to understand many things,” Clark countered, speaking quietly. “I will want to learn about this new. . .” Clark hesitated, “. . . home of mine,” The words tasted bitter as he said them, but he knew they were what Rose wanted to hear. “But I also want to know how my wife thinks I will have died. How my legacy ended out there.” He jerked a thumb toward the front door.
Rose kept her gaze fixed on Clark for so long he feared she might not reply. Nonetheless, he silently challenged her and maintained eye contact with a patience he did not feel, showing her he was not easily cowed by authority.
Slowly, she smiled.
“You’re a brave one. I like that. I shall be curious to see how strong that bravery holds once you meet Levi.”
Clark bit his tongue in an effort to refrain from patronizing her avoidance at answering his one simple question.
“I’ll be interested to meet him. But my question, Rose?” he prompted, doing his best to keep his voice calm and neutral.
Rose sighed. “I don’t know. The magic that compels her to believe in your death draws upon her own imagination. It is your wife who chooses the manner in which you died. It works most powerfully that way so you can be forgotten.”
Rose then stiffened and looked past Clark. He turned his head, but could not find what had captured her attention. There was only the empty hallway leading to the entrance.
“Speaking of,” Rose said quietly. “I must go. I will return later.”
Alarm swelled within Clark. “Where is Lois? What is Miss Wingham doing to her?”
Rose’s gaze snapped back to Clark, fixing him with a hard glare. “It is not your concern.” Her eyes flashed, and several of the pantry cupboards in the room flew open. The refrigerator door swing wide. “Eat,” she demanded, and vanished before his eyes.
“Wait!” Clark shouted. “Don’t harm her!”
He whirled around, intent on giving chase, but the entryway in which he walked through was no longer there—it was solid wall. Baffled, Clark stepped up and pushed against the surface; it felt as solid as it looked. The anger that had been coiling inside now sprung free, concern for Lois aiding its release. With force that normally would have rent a large hole clear through steel, he banged on the wall, but his flesh met unyielding solid wood.
Not granite. Not iron. Wood.
The superhero was stumped by a lousy wooden wall.
Unwilling to give up, Clark looked around for a second exit; a window, a second doorway, anything.
There was nothing. The small kitchen now had four enclosed walls and no way to leave.
Clark’s hands balled into fists. “It is my concern!” he yelled.
Silence met his angry shout.
Something snapped inside, for reason and sanity left the famed superhero. Perhaps it was due to hunger, or weakness, or the sheer oddity of the situation, because nothing was normal in this mansion and Clark was certainly not the normal Kryptonian he knew himself to be. He looked down at the infernal red band that wound itself around his finger and pulled uselessly at it; it remained firmly wedged on his finger as ever before. Mostly, though, what drove him to the brink of losing himself was the fear of Lois caught up in this place and his inability to rescue her, to do anything. Some kind of dark magic was going to loose itself on his wife and she would think that he had died. What else was going to happen to her? How was that magic going to work?
Here he was, helpless. That thought welled up like a cresting tide, spilling over until he was pounding on the wall-that-shouldn’t-be-a-wall and yelling.
“It is my concern!” he shouted, beating against a solid, unyielding surface. He barely registered the pain, his anger too hot and his mind too absorbed in the helplessness he didn’t want to feel.
“Rose!” he yelled, fists banging.
An unseen force blasted him from his feet and carried him across the floor. His back smacked against an open pantry with a sickening thud. He slid to the floor, boxes of food falling down around him. A loaf of bread fell on top of his head.
“EAT!” Rose’s voice roared, echoing around the kitchen and filling Clark’s eardrums. He winced.
Somewhat stunned from the force of the impact, Clark just sat there breathing heavily. The high flood of emotions pouring out of him moments ago had now abated, the fall ironically knocking some sense into him. The reporter’s logical senses were returning, but right now, he could care less about eating. All he wanted to do was find Lois and make sure she was all right. He wanted to get her the hell away from here.
But he couldn’t.
For the first time in his life, Clark was well and truly normal. At a time when he sorely needed the aid of his Kryptonian heritage, he felt more weak and vulnerable than if kryptonite were invading his system.
A ghost—a deceased spirit—held power over him. It more than galled. Her strange mansion with its strange architecture seemed capable of making solid walls appear out of thin air; it listened to her infernal demand that he eat.
He didn’t want to, mostly for the simple fact that he didn’t want to follow an order from a ghost. And yet. . .
If his actions put her into further jeopardy. . .
Scowling, Clark reached for the loaf of bread that had fallen on his head. It sat on the white tiled floor a few feet away. He reached for it, tore open the plastic bag, and unceremoniously shoved a slice into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed, then shoved in a second slice followed by a third. His stomach gave a loud growl, announcing its happiness at sustenance. He hated that his appetite had awakened, but continued to shove slice after slice into his mouth, chewing and swallowing quickly.
With more than half the loaf now devoured, a stifling thirst gnawed at his parched throat. He stood up, ignoring the pains his back produced from smacking against the pantry and headed for the kitchen faucet which stood solitary and away from the stove. It was Victorian style with a long silver spout and two knobs for hot and cold water; its white basin was long and rectangular. Clark didn’t much care for detail under the present moment and merely turned the cold knob. Water flowed from the spout. Dipping his head, Clark drank deeply from the stream until the refreshing coolness quenched his thirst. Turning it off, the reporter used his sleeve to wipe at his mouth and turned expectantly toward the wall-that-shouldn’t-be-a-wall.
It was still a wall.
He’d eaten as instructed, so shouldn’t the entryway have opened up?
“I’m done eating,” Clark said, staring around hopefully.
Rose did not come.
And the wall still remained a wall.
Clark sighed and closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead. The headache that had shown itself earlier chose that moment to thump dully, alerting him to the threat of its return. He groaned.
“Go away,” he muttered.
“Well!” Rose’s angered voice sounded.
Clark snapped his eyes open in surprise.
Rose stood there, glaring daggers at him, her fiery red curls glowing. “You ought to be more respectful to the lady of the house, especially on your first day in your new home,” she snapped.
Clark gasped. “No! No-no-no-no,” he said hastily. “I didn’t mean—”
“I’ll let you figure out your first night in this place alone,” Rose overrode him. “Your tone had better be different in the morning.”
With that, she vanished, leaving Clark stuttering words into empty air. His feeble explanation about his comment not intentionally meant for her came to a halt when he realized the wall-that-wasn’t-a-wall had become an open entryway again.
He dashed through it.
He ran into the receiving room toward the bay window in the vain hope that Lois would happen to be outside. To his astonishment, she was. Back in her silver Suburu, she drove down the pavement, her expression oddly blank.
Clark banged against the glass, waving his arms.
“LOIS!” he shouted.
For all of the waving and jumping into the air he did, his efforts came to no avail. Lois drove on, her eyes fixed on the pavement. The blank expression in her face and in her eyes caused Clark to freeze with trepidation.
Rose’s voice echoed through his mind.
The magic that compels her. . .
Without a care or a backward glance at the mansion, Lois veered down the curving path, her vacant expression unwavering. Clark watched her vehicle until it drove out of sight. A minute later, he saw the black Mercedes-Benz take off down the driveway, following from a distance.
“What happened to her?” Clark addressed the empty room, sure that Rose was there and watching him. He could feel her stare, but when he finally peeled his eyes away from the window, the receiving room held no visible occupants, save him.
He now knew that didn’t mean anything.
“Rose, what happened to her? What did the magic do?” he asked again.
Clark sighed and brushed an agitated hand through his hair. It was tangled and disheveled. “I’m sorry I offended you, but I promise I wasn’t telling you to go away. Will you please tell me what you did with Lois?”
There was no reply.
It was then that Clark felt those unseen eyes slowly leave him.
“Rose!” he called.
Nothing. He could sense that he was now well and truly alone.
Clark let out another sigh. He never should have put on that confounded ring. Now he was powerless and held hostage in a labyrinthine mansion where he was told he’d be spending the rest of his life fulfilling some damnable curse. He’d allowed his emotions to get away with him, and now he’d unerringly offended his dead captor, leaving him alone with unanswered questions and burning concern for his wife’s well-being.
This was not his day.
Although, granted, now that the majority of his emotions had calmed down and he was thinking more clearly, he could more fully understand that he was the target, not Lois.
The objective had been to lure him here, and it obviously met with success. He was wearing the stupid idiot ring.
He had to reason that, although Lois clearly had some kind of magic placed on her, she was alive and had driven away unharmed. She’d been followed, but there was little Clark could do about that. It grated on him to admit it. He had no choice but to trust Rose’s word that all Lois had been brought here for was to be convinced of his fake death by the compulsion of magic.
That didn’t necessarily put her in danger. . . unless it hadn’t gone right.
But Clark couldn’t think like that. She needed to be safe, because he couldn’t be there to protect her. The danger he faced was his own powerless state in this mansion and Rose’s apparent control over his in-house arrest. He needed to rally his wits and figure out how to get himself out of a mess he had stupidly placed himself in.
Channeling his inner reporter, Clark knew the best way to find answers to any story was to gather facts. If he wanted to defeat Rose, he needed to get to know her. Since she was currently making herself scarce, his next option was to search the mansion for leading information about her.
This was his new home, after all—although he very much hoped he could make it quite temporary. He may as well explore it and see what he could find. Rose had said that with Miss Wingham’s aid, the expansion of her simple home into the mansion that now existed had been her dream. Becoming familiar with the mansion meant becoming familiar with Rose.
After making a return trip to the bathroom in the foyer hallway to take care of personal needs, Clark took to the stairs and began exploring.
He quickly learned that both Rose and Miss Wingham were certifiably insane.
This mansion was insane.
Now that he wasn’t chasing a spirit or fearing for the safety of Lois, he took better notice of the bizarre architecture and floor plan of the estate.
Labyrinth was putting it very mildly. In almost every room he walked into, every hallway he paced, something stood out that just wasn’t normal.
Like the tiny hallway that housed three doors, each of them leading into small half-bathrooms. Thinking he’d hit a dead end, he sought to exit through the original door he entered only to find the knob located on the left-hand side rather than on the right where it should have been and without an actual handle. He pushed and shoved, but it did no use.
It took far too long to figure out that the way out of the hallway was through the half-bathroom on the right. In front of the toilet was a small wooden pantry about three feet in height. Opening the door did not reveal a shelf full of hand towels or other bathroom essentials, but rather an entrance into a sewing room.
After that, Clark learned to look for the subtle—and often times hidden—ways around the mansion. Multiple ‘hallways’ disguised themselves as rooms with doors-that-didn’t-look-like-doors leading into another room and yet another one, finally opening to a staircase that went up or down and landed him in a normal hallway in which he could travel.
He discovered two more kitchens, one of them bereft of food and the other stocked with a singular bowl of fruit. He paused in his dizzying exploration and devoured the banana, orange, and two apples sitting in the bowl. This particular kitchen had a window that actually looked into the outside world, though it came as a shock to find the last trace of daylight disappear, ushering in the evening. That was when he realized that the lights were on. He couldn’t honestly recall when that had happened.
Looking out through the window, he glimpsed through the darkening sky and wagered that he was about four stories up. The kitchen overlooked a small courtyard with three large fruit trees and a bird’s watering fountain.
Clark stared absentmindedly at the silhouetted trees while gulping down a glass of water, lost in thought. He pondered the myriad of reasons why Rose and Miss Wingham had built a circus show mansion. The next room he visited, he half expected to walk in and find it full of mirrors or maybe clowns.
He hated clowns.
A loud thud sounded from up above, as if something large and heavy had fallen. Having spent the last several hours in relative silence, Clark flinched in surprise and looked up to the ceiling. The noise had come from directly over him. A series of smaller thuds began, followed by the piercing cry of a woman.
The superhero tensed and back up a few paces, staring intently at the ceiling. Were there other people in this place after all?
Cupping his hands to his mouth, he shouted, “Hey!”
Scuffling footsteps trampled about, too many of them to belong just to one person. Clark followed their sounds as they moved further away. Tracking their progress meant leaving the kitchen and entering the next room. Fortunately, the direction was one he’d just come from and knew to open the refrigerator door because it wasn’t really a refrigerator—it was a disguised entryway into a billiards room.
When he entered the room, he shivered unexpectedly.
It was freezing.
Instantly Clark noticed his breath puffing white vapor into the air. It had not been this cold when he’d entered it minutes ago—it had been minutes, right? Time seemed elusive in the mansion.
There was another loud thud directly over him, and then silence. Clark was about ready to call out again, but a man’s voice spoke instead.
“So. You’re the fresh new blood.”
Clark startled, his attention focused solely on what was happening up above. He snapped his head down.
There, standing right in the middle of the pool table was the torso of a man dressed in a loose-flowing white collared shirt and a bronzed vest. The lower half of his body was barely discernable through the table.
Clark didn’t need an introduction. He’d had two healthy viewings of the receiving room portrait to recognize the spirit standing before him.
The spirit smirked in answer.