The Vault -- a Story Starter

Everything she'd done this week had led to that moment.

"What you most want is within in that vault. But it's what you least need." The haunting words of her grandpa echoed through her head as she reached for the lock. What did that even mean? Her heart beat fast, pulsing in her ears. She must remain calm and steady or she wouldn’t be able to go through with this. Answers lay behind that solid metal door. Everything Erica had wondered since she was just a child. Yet, she hesitated. She recalled the fight they had had right before she had left. The old man that had raised her when her parents mysteriously disappeared when she was just five, tears glistening in his eyes.

“I must do this!” she had yelled. “I must know what happened and you won’t tell me!”

Calmly and sadly, he had responded, “It’s what you least need.”

Then what do I need? She rested her head against the vault. And why wouldn’t you give me any answers?

A week ago things had been calm, normal even. Erica was just finishing high school. Relieved to be done with final exams, the last week of school before graduation ceremonies wasn’t exactly demanding. The kids and teachers were all clearly ready for summer. Special events like graduation ceremonies brought up all the questions again though, as she saw the other kids with their proud parents. Erica couldn’t really remember her parents. Just vague images she could pull up. She looked a lot like her mom. Dark hair and dark skin. Deep chocolate eyes. Exotic, her best friend, Meghan, had described her appearance. Nothing else but the faded images remained. In their house, there were no pictures of her parents. No history of her life before she had turned five. Nothing. The old man that had taken her in, she called grandpa, but he wasn’t really related to her. When she was younger, she had asked him lots of questions about her parents. But he would never answer her. He would simply say, “life is the way it is. You need to just accept it and do your best.” Eventually, she gave up asking. And life really wasn’t bad. They lived in a big city in a small two bedroom apartment. The museum and art shops were nearby and Erica would often spend her free time there. She had a passion for photography and took her camera with her everywhere she went. She met Meghan right when she and Grandpa had moved into the apartments when she was five. Meghan lived in the apartment just down the hall and the two had become best friends immediately. Meghan was a lot livelier than Erica and often pushed into things she didn’t want to do. Sometimes for the best. Sometimes got them in trouble. She was insatiably curious about everything. Erica tended to be more conservative. And the two girls balanced each other out. But it was Meghan’s curiosity that had prompted the last lazy week of school to turn into much more.

It had started in the library. The girls were bored and messing around on the computers. Meghan had gotten into some old newspaper files and was looking up the history of their apartments. Hoping for some juicy stories to come of it. Erica was more absorbed in her camera and was looking through the pictures she had taken earlier in the day, deleting anything not up to her standards. She would absently nod as Meghan chatted away. However, everything suddenly was quiet. Erica looked up at her friend who had gone white as a sheet.

“Erica,” Meghan said in an eerie whisper. “I think you should see this.”

She pushed the monitor over so Erica could see. There was a newspaper article pulled up on the screen, dated, June 15th 2003, exactly 13 years ago. The headline read, Two Die in House Fire, Little Girl Saved. Next to the headline was a picture of a house that was partially burned. Below that a picture of a fireman carrying a 5 year old girl – carrying Erica! She gasped and stared.

“What do you think?” Meghan whispered.

“I don’t know what to think,” Erica replied. “Can I print that?”

Meghan hastily printed off the article. Erica grabbed and dashed out of the library running home as fast as she could.

Her grandpa was sitting at the table reading a magazine and sipping some tea.

Erica slammed the article down in front of him.

He glanced at it, no expression seemed to even pass over his face.

“Grandpa,” Erica said earnestly.

He simply went back to his tea and magazine.

“Seriously?” Erica snapped. “Nothing? What happened to my parents? What does this mean? You need to tell me.”

He slowly put down his magazine and looked over at her.

“I’ve told you before. You will know when you’re old enough.”

“Old enough? I’m eighteen! I’m not a child anymore!”

The old man simply shrugged.

“You can be so infuriating!” Erica shouted. “I find a picture of a house. My house presumably. If my parents just simply died in a fire, why wouldn’t you just tell me?”

The old man studied her for a moment. “Your parents did not die in that fire.” He said after a long pause.

Erica stared.

“Look,” he said. “You were entrusted to me for a very good reason. My job was to raise you and keep you safe. I have done the best I could on both accounts. The less you know the better off you will be. Your life is good. You have good grades, a lot going for you. You can be… do anything you want in life. The past doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me,” Erica insisted. “I want to know who my parents were. Who I am!”

He looked at her more intently. Finally he said, “I admired your parents very much. You are smart and determined, a lot like your mother. You are the person standing right here before me. The past … doesn’t matter.” As he said the last line, it seemed to Erica that his eyes grew a little watery.

He took another drink of tea and picked up his magazine.

Erica had gone into her room. Her grandpa had refused to continue the conversation any further. She sat on her bed the printout lying next to her. She had read it over almost a thousand times. It was short, one of those preliminary articles that the news puts out while waiting for more information. The house was burned. Two bodies were found. They were burnt beyond recognition. A little girl was found trapped on the stairs and rescued by firefighters. No idea if the fire was an accident or intentional. That was it. No mention of a follow up story. Her cell phone rang. She picked it up.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Erica.” It was Meghan’s voice on the other end. “Did you talk to your grandpa?”

“Yes,” Erica sighed. “He did say my parents didn’t die in the fire. But wouldn’t say anything else. The past doesn’t matter. Said that twice.”

“Well, after you left, I kept digging, hope that’s ok.”

“Yeah??”

“Well, I think I know where that house is if you want to go see.”

“Do I? I’ll be right over. Where should we meet?”

“Train station.”

Erica put the phone in her jeans pocket and grabbed a light jacket. It had been unusually cold for June and although the sun set late, the evenings weren’t very warm. Her grandpa was on his second cup of tea.

“I’m going out with Meghan.” Erica called as she left the house.

Meghan was waiting at the train station.

“Here’s the address.” She handed a piece of paper to Erica. “If we take this train to central station and switch to the metro line there. Shouldn’t be far off the third stop.”

The girls boarded the train. Erin’s stomach was a mess. Felt like a big knot of excitement mixed with fear mixed with uncertainty. Nothing made sense. Why wouldn’t her grandpa just tell her what had happened? Was it that bad? Were her parents spies? Or mixed up in something illegal?

As they got off the second train, Erica took in the surroundings. The neighborhood wasn’t as she expected. It was clearly old. The houses looked ancient and historical but everything was very well kept up.

“Wow!” breathed Meghan. “You lived here? Looks old, but rich.”

“I don’t know,” replied Erica. “If we find the house, probably.”

“Wonder what’s happened to it?” said Meghan. “I can’t really imagine it’s still there though. I was expecting a more run down place.”

“Me, too,” responded Erica. “Everything’s so nice. The house was probably torn down or remodeled. Wonder if anyone lives there now.”

The houses were all two story town houses very Victorian in style. They stood really close together and not many had driveways. Most probably built in the 1800’s when the town was first founded but each seemed to have touches of modern life. The historic styles had been preserved but things like the windows and fences were updated. The street was quiet in the evening. Seemed most people were in for dinner. Erica stopped still as they approached an old iron fence. The house from the picture stood right in front of her. Meghan rested her hand on Erica’s shoulder. It was identical to the newspaper except that the windows and doors had been boarded up. The sides of the house still showed signs of being scorched. The grass in the front was overgrown. The condition of the house stood in stark contrast to its neighbors.

“Well shall we?” Meghan asked, her hand on the iron fence.

“Shall we what? We can’t go in there!” Erica protested.

“We didn’t come all this way just to look at a house,” Meghan said. “Besides, it’s probably your house anyway. Don’t you want to see what’s inside?”

Erica hesitated. “I suppose there is no point of coming all this way not to have a look around.” She followed Meghan. The rusty gate creaked as they opened it. The stone path to the door was overgrown with weeds. The front door was firmly bolted shut with boards. They waded through the grass to the back of the house. One of the boarded windows was loose. Meghan pulled on it. They both climbed through. The interior of the house was dark. Only a few bits of sunlight streamed in through the cracks in the boarded windows.

“This is creepy,” Erica said.

“Yeah, it is,” replied Meghan with excitement.

The furniture was all singed and covered with cobwebs and dust. They had entered a living room with two couches a TV and a coffee table. Erica picked up an old Vogue magazine the pages were mostly burnt. On one wall stood a fireplace. Erica went over to the mantle. There were old picture frames lining it damaged from the fire. Most were burnt beyond recognition. Two were still mostly intact but looked like their photos had been removed. They moved to the next room in the house. The kitchen was mostly empty and also showed signs of the fire. The knives on the counter had rusted from the smoke. Nothing in there would have been salvageable. Off of the kitchen were some stairs.

“Up we go?” asked Meghan.

“We’ve come this far.”

Carefully the two worked their way up the stairs. They still seemed intact and strong. At the top a long hallway ran the length of the house with rooms leading off it. They went through the first door. It was a child’s room. The fire had touched in here worse than downstairs. The bedding was torched, the toys were destroyed. A dresser burnt with clothes hanging out of it stood in the corner. Erica went and opened the closet. A memory came to her mind. Smoke! She was coughing and scared. She was holding her stuff tiger close to her and huddling in the closet. Suddenly a figure stood over her. The old man she called her grandpa was there! He was crying and coughing. He was beckoning her to come out of the closet to go down the stairs. She crawled along the ground to the stairs. Suddenly the door at the bottom of the stairs burst open. I tall fireman in full gear was there grabbing her. Pulling her from the smoke. She took a deep breath coming back to the present.

“There’s nothing really here is there?” She sighed.

“Let’s keep looking.”

They moved to the next room. It looked like a master bedroom. Everything here was burned beyond recognition. Erica picked through the broken and burned pieces of wood that lay scattered on the floor. She moved across the room to the closet. The closet was larger than she expected at the far end if it was a door. She pulled open the door. Behind it untouched by the fire was small metal vault. She pulled on the handle but it didn’t open. Meghan came up behind her.

“Those are weird symbols. Looks like it needs a code or something to open,” she said. “Wonder if there’s anything in there.”

“I don’t know,” said Erica. “They look… Japanese? Could be though. Nothing in the house looks touched since the fire. Seems like anything important would be kept in there and still there. I need to talk to my grandpa again.”

The next day after a very long boring school day. Erica was anxious to get home. She found her grandpa outside on the patio tending to the small garden he had. Tomato sprouts and some herbs were starting to take hold in their pots.

“Grandpa,” started Erica. “I need to talk to you.”

He looked up from his gardening and brushed some dirt off his hands.

“I went to the house last night. The one in the article.”

He looked at her, waiting patiently.

“There wasn’t much there. But I did remember something. I remembered you were there the night of the fire. You got me out of the house. You were crying. And then you were gone.”

“It’s a night I don’t really want to remember,” he said sadly.

“Please, grandpa,” Erica pleaded.

He took a deep sigh. “Your mom had called me. She was in a panic. She said that there was a fire. That she and your dad were going to make it look like they died. It was the only way. You were in danger and needed to be rescued. They thought if they were out of the picture, if everyone thought they were dead. You would be safe. She begged me to look after you. How could I say no? I knew you since you were a baby. I was close to your dad and mom. I rushed to the house saw it was already ablaze and went in looking for you. I found you hiding in the closet. When I was sure you were safe with the firefighters, I went further in, but I never saw your mom or dad again.”

“Why would I be in danger? Did someone purposefully burn the house? What’s going on with my parents? Are they still alive?” The questions came pouring out. Questions that had plagued Erica for so many years.

The old man just shook his head. “I don’t know what else to tell you. I don’t really know anything. Your parents wished for you to be kept in the dark. They wanted a normal life for you. I’ve tried to give you that.”

“Grandpa,” she began again. “There’s a vault. In the house. It’s still intact. Do you know the code?”

He stared at her for a little bit. “No, I don’t. And it’s best if you leave all this in the past. There’s nothing left for you at that house. To really honor your parents would be to move forward.”

Erica stared at him hard. It seemed to her, he knew a lot more than he was telling her. Still she had never really had success getting information out of him. Not much more she could do.

The days droned on. Graduation ceremonies were set for Saturday afternoon. Friday was a shortened day. When Erica arrived home her grandpa wasn’t there. She wandered around the house a bit thinking of her past and how little she knew. She wanted answers and she wanted them badly. It nagged at her. She walked past her grandpa’s door and peaked in. His single bed, dresser and desk were always kept orderly and tidy. He didn’t own much. Just a single picture of him and Erica when she was small sat on his dresser. His desk to the side was also bare. She went in and started to look. She hadn’t intended on snooping but his constant refusal to let her in on her own past was making her irritated with him. She pulled open the drawers, pencils, paper, clips and sticky notes. The drawer on the bottom had a small box stuffed in the back. She opened the box. Inside were pictures. Pictures of her and her parents! Most were singed taken from the frames from the house. She pulled them out and looked intently at them. One was her as a baby. Her mom who looked like a slightly older version of herself was holding her tight a huge smile on her face. Her dad had a protective arm around her mom. He was really tall. He was fairer skinned with light brown hair and bright blue eyes. A few more pictures were there, family pictures taken a year apart. Underneath the pictures was a scrap of paper with Japanese characters. The code! A noise behind Erica startled her. She jumped up scattering the pictures the paper still in her hand. Her grandpa was standing in the doorway. Anguish on his face.

“How dare you go through my personal desk,” he said.

She held up the paper. “Is this what I think it is?”

He didn’t respond.

“I’m going back there. I’m going to find out what’s in there if you won’t give me answers.”

“No! I forbid it! There is nothing for you there. Nothing is left.”

“I need to find out! I need know what happened to my parents.”

“You are wrong, Erica,” he responded. “What you most want right now might be within that vault. But it's what you least need.”

Erica stared at him for a moment. “I’m going,” she said finally and stormed out of the room.

Not long after she found herself standing back inside the dark, burnt house staring at the vault in front of her. This must hold the answers I seek, she thought. Why would grandpa keep this from me?

Gingerly, she reached out and clicked the combination matching the characters from the paper. The lock clicked satisfactorily and the door swung open. Inside were passports. Piles and piles of passports. She picked one up. Her mom’s smile shined back at her. Georgia McIntyre it said. The next passport was her father. Gregory McIntyre. The next was her mom again but this one was under the name Kimberly Imerhoff. And her dad! Jack Imerhoff. Each passport was similar pictures but different names. And then she found hers. Pictures of a baby Erica. But not Erica. Julie Imerhoff. And Alison Rimeward. At least five different passports with different aliases for her and maybe twenty in total for her dad and her mom.

img credit: By foooomio - Old Lock, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47214075

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© 2017 by Lori Forrest. Graphics by Thi Nguyen (Houdi)