She rapped urgently at the door. There was no rush, other than to escape the howling southwesterly. He opened the battered wooden door so slowly it groaned under the duress and came face to face with the desperate looking young woman. Her frizzy burst of orange hair covered most of her face and added a new dimension to his unease.
“Hi, I’m Iris, Iris-Rose actually, although if I had my way it’d be the other way ‘round. Gosh, I love roses. I noticed you have some out the front, all sorts of colours. My favourite is yellow. Did you know the giving of a yellow rose denotes friendship? Anyway, you can call me Rose; I prefer it. Some people call me Iris and I don’t even respond you know, like it’s not even my name. I’m from next door by the way, Rose Cottage. I didn’t name it, I think it was fate. But I’m sure you already know that, about the cottage, not fate, that is. Do you believe in fate? Sorry, I should have said that part about being from next door before telling you about the other stuff.”
She put out her hand for him to shake. The physical gesture broke her verbal stronghold. He was used to peace and quiet and struggled to keep up with her.
“Gus.” He took her hand but didn’t quite know what to do with it.
Rose asked to come in before burrowing her way through the crack Gus was still peaking out between and before long she was in his living room on the sofa. A puff of dust filled the air. Iris covered her mouth and coughed delicately before beginning another tirade about how he mustn’t have many visitors. Gus, still leaning against the doorframe, ran his hand through his ebony hair and pushed it back from his forehead—an attempt to comfort himself in an unfamiliar situation.
“So Iris-Rose, Rose-Iris—”
“Rose, just call me Rose.”
“Rose, wh-what is it I can help you with?”
“Oh nothing really. I just felt like some company. We’ve lived next door for years now—don’t know if you’ve noticed, I’ve seen you around—and my mum just passed on, you know, so I’m a bit lonely. I thought we could be friends. We’re about the same age and we’re both all alone…”
She was staring intently at the fireplace and didn’t see his face tighten. The fire, now burning brightly, illuminated the flames erupting from her head. She pushed a handful of hair behind her ear and turned to face him.
“Sorry, I can be quite the talker. I had a brother once, and he didn’t say much so we had this agreement—I would try to talk a little bit less, and he would try to talk a little bit more to kind of even it out. We should try something like that, I am sure it would work a treat.”
Rose started to drop by most afternoons. She studied floristry in town during the day, and visited Gus on her way home of an afternoon to tell him all the meaningless things that happened in her day. He started to look forward to the company, almost as much as he struggled with it, and Rose even kept her end of their deal, letting him share his stories about writing and tending the garden.
One afternoon he joined her on the couch and she put her feet up onto his lap. They were laughing about someone in her class and he placed his hand onto her leg.
“Hey Gus-a-mus, what’s behind that door?” She was trying to be coy. “You always keep it closed when I’m here, and it’s the only one with a lock; like a serious lock. You must go in there because it’s right across from my bedroom and when I look out at night, I can see a light on.”
He didn’t know what to say, he had never had to lie about it because no one had ever asked.
“That’s not for you to worry about Rosie,” he said, brushing her hair back from her face and hoping his vague offering was enough.
“Rose, I’m serious, just don’t try to open it, okay?”
“Okay!” She giggled in an attempt to mute the frustration of the situation.
“Rose, promise me.”
She didn’t answer and they both took it to mean different things.
Later, when Gus was preparing dinner, something dropped to the floor with a thud followed by a drag. It was coming from the locked room. Rose jumped up and put her ear to the door. Nothing.
Gus was going into town for supplies and Rose, her curiosity insatiable, feigned a headache and left college early. His car was gone by the time she walked up the hill and his front door was dead bolted three times over. After knocking and waiting, just to make sure he was definitely out, she snuck around the side of the house to the window that was host to the nightly light. The autumn debris crunched under her boots and, although she knew no one would hear her, she was careful not to make any noise. She propped herself up onto her toes and tried to sneak a peak through the bars.
The glass was mottled but she expected to see some shapes, maybe even movement. All she could see was an inch over the timber lip of the window. Looking around, she found an old log waiting to be chopped into firewood and rolled it towards the window—it would give her just the right amount of height to peak through. She leaned into the side of the house for support and again rose onto her toes. She held onto the bars and her face neared the window.
There was no movement, no shadows, nothing. She was disheartened. The room looked empty, except for something that looked like a bed on the left. Then something jumped upright and two eyes fiercely glared out the window and met hers. It was blurry but they both looked as frightened. Rose fell backwards into a pile of leaves and scurried home, through the wire fence. There was definitely something, or someone, in that room, and Rose was determined to find out who, or what, it was.
She heard whispers around town about Gus, especially when she told people she lived up on the hill. Most of the time the stories were about his parents, who disappeared almost a decade ago. His mother was a famous scientist and his father, a writer who supplemented his income working for the railway. There were varying accounts of their mysterious disappearance—some said they ran away, others that one killed the other, and a few believed Gus was responsible for their deaths.
Rose was determined as ever to find out for herself and went to the town library one afternoon to search through old newspaper reports. There wasn’t much, it was a little surreal, but there weren’t many people who seemed concerned that a couple in their early fifties disappeared without a trace. One paper described how there wasn’t enough evidence to charge anyone with anything. The police searched the property a couple of times, as well as the surrounding bushland, but it all just seemed to go away when nothing new was uncovered. There had been several disappearances around town at the time including the Millers, a 17-year-old boy, and a seventy-nine year old woman—the previous owner of Rose Cottage. It’s as though the whole town put it down to a bad spell and moved on.
Rose had a restless sleep that night. She kept waking to the house creaking, voices echoing, and branches rapping on the window. She woke early the following morning to a knock at the front door, opened it and discovered a single yellow rose lying on the stoop. In anger, and aware that the culprit may still be nearby watching, she picked it up and carelessly threw it into the old pile of leaves beside the veranda. A couple of hours later she peeked out the window and the yellow rose was gone.
The next time Gus went out for groceries, Rose was at home waiting to make her move. She snuck the spare set of keys into her pocket the night before when he was busy preparing dinner. Rose wanted to understand who, or what, this thing was and why Gus was so determined to hide it. The frosts had already begun and she left footsteps in the crisp grass as she crossed the front lawn. As she stepped up onto his veranda she saw a bare spot in his yellow rose bush where a rose had been recently cut.
Aware that whatever it was could be roaming free inside, Rose was wary when she opened the door. She couldn’t hear anything but she could definitely feel something. She dusted the ice crystals from her boots, left them at the door and walked inside with her socks on, quietly pulling the door closed behind her. The floorboards creaked and she startled herself but she summoned the courage to walk towards the locked room. As she neared it she noticed the lock was different to the front door—it must be the key Gus had hanging on a piece of string around his neck. She tried to turn the flimsy old doorknob anyway and it opened.
Inside, a single bed was neatly made with linen that matched the pretty apricot-coloured wallpaper. There was a small white chest of drawers to one side, and a floor lamp beside a chair for reading in the corner. It must be the light she saw every night. A floorboard creaked behind her and she turned slowly only to see Gus standing at the front door watching her intently, unimpressed. He walked towards her. She froze, preparing herself for his anger, unsure how he would react. Gus reached out and drew the door to the apricot-coloured room closed. He stood boldly between Rose and her freedom.
“I’ve never asked much of you Rose, but I asked you to never open that door.”
“But why Gus, you never told me why. It seems harm—”
“It’s not harmless Rose. The room is for my brother, Brian. He’s a selective mute and severely disfigured. He doesn’t like company, I should have never let you into our lives.”
Rose didn’t remember reading anything about a brother.
“Wh-where is he?”
She heard a rustle coming from below the floorboards, in the cellar, and saw a shadow lurking beneath her. Rose understood it was time to leave.
She was no longer welcome next door but it left a Gus-shaped hold in her afternoons. Sometimes she stayed late at college to prep for the following day, other times she sat in a local café, watching the townsfolk walk by with somewhere to go and someone to meet. Rose couldn’t seem to shake the feeling of warmth she felt for the man she now knew was Brian. She was tempted to continue her research, to find out who Brian was, and why he was left out of all the news reports, but she had overstepped the line Gus had so clearly drawn in his house and lost a friend because of it. Rose understood why Gus was so protective of his brother; her own brother had once been so protective of her.
There were times when she walked home up the hill and slowed down out the front of his place, hoping Gus would open the door and invite her in for dinner. Then there were other times, when she felt the presence of Gus or Brian in the middle of the night. She would shiver and pull up her blankets willing the darkness to turn to light. One afternoon, when she was in the town library going through her study notes, Rose decided to ask about Gus and his family. She approached the librarian, a middle-aged woman they all called Mrs Chambers, about the Millers.
“Oh yes, poor young Gus, left alone to fend for himself. He is a strange boy though—writes all day, locks himself away in that big old house. They never did find his parents you know.”
“But what about his brother, Brian?”
“Brother? Gus was an only child dear. I think his father killed himself, suicide if you know what I mean.” Rose didn’t and held her tongue, waiting for more.
“You see, my husband’s a railway worker and they said someone, or something, jumped in front of a train not long before Janet Miller disappeared. Of course, they were unidentifiable whoever or whatever they were. They knew just the spot that the train started to slow down coming into town. You don’t know that stuff by accident.”
“And… no brother?”
“Nope, definitely no brother.”
“Sorry, I must be thinking of another family,” Rose said rather unconvincingly.
“Well, there was another rumour going around at the time that Gus had a… a lover… a boy named Ryan.”
Rose felt a chill sweep over her and it confirmed what she knew all along.
She banged on Gus’s front door, this time with an urgency that demanded his response.
“Gus, you rotten piece of shit, open your god-damn door!”
“Gus! Gus!” Then quieter: “Gus, I know about Ryan.”
The door opened and she slipped inside.
“Tell me, tell me now before I go running to the police.”
“Or before I stop you,” he replied coldly.
Rose motioned towards the bedroom and Gus grabbed hold of her arm. She wriggled but he had a tight grip around her wrist and wasn’t about to let go.
“Gus let go, you’re hurting me!”
He released her arm and she lost her balance, hitting her head on the corner of the staircase as she fell.
Rose felt his face, inches from her own, only there was no glass between them this time. She slowly opened her eyes and looked into the same pair of eyes that watched her only weeks earlier. They were Ryan’s, but he was barely recognisable.
“Ryan?” He nodded.
“We have to get out of here.” He shook his head, there wasn’t a way out, he’d been trying for years.
“You found me.”
“I did, although I wasn’t always sure it was you.”
“And mum? Where’s she?” It was Rose’s turn to shake her head.
“Mum died about six months ago, but she knew we were closer than we’d ever been to finding you. She never gave up hope that you were alive and needed our help.”
Rose tore her eyes away from his disfigured face and was blinded by the grim white light flooding in through the cellar window.
“What happened to you?”
“We don’t have time,” he whispered and she noticed the sound of shovelling above her. She saw Gus’s shadow, digging urgently.
“Ryan, please, I have to know.”
“We were lovers. Gus’s father was a drunk and when he found out, he was going to expose us. You know what it was like back then Rose, I had my football scholarship, and Gus was afraid.”
“I couldn’t have cared less.”
“Well the town isn’t made of Roses. Anyway, Gus followed his father to work, at the railway, to confront him. I don’t know the whole story but apparently they argued for a while and it ended when Gus threw his father under the nine o’clock train. Rose, you have to understand, I had no he had it in him. We were in love.”
“Holy shit!” She reached out to touch his face.
“So… what happened to you?”
“That came later, later that night actually. I snuck out to visit Gus and I saw the light on in the cellar. He was arguing with his mother. She’d known about us all along and admitted to stealing testosterone from work and slipping it into Gus’s food. Neither of us realised what she was capable of, but we both heard it come out of her mouth.”
Rose nodded, she had so many questions, but it was Ryan’s turn to talk.
“They started fighting, I felt a little uneasy about the entire situation and stepped in. She was startled, and suddenly outnumbered, so she reached for the first thing she could find to defend herself—a beaker full of acid. She didn’t think twice before throwing it into my face. While I was lying on the floor, writhing in pain, barely able to use my voice, Gus hit her over the head with a shovel. It killed her instantly and then we were both caught up in the nightmare.”
Gus nursed Ryan with the help of his elderly neighbour, Lois, who used to be a nurse. He explained how they both thought it best for everyone if it looked like he disappeared and Lois—with nothing to lose and a heart of gold—offered to move into the house and lived out her days caring for Ryan. There was no one left who knew about their love affair. Ryan’s life and football career were over, and they could finally be together. Then, about five years ago, around the time Lois passed away, Gus started to get over-protective.
“Rose, he’s crazy and he’s coming for you, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.” He held up his wrists, which were chained to the wall. The door opened voraciously and Gus walked in brandishing a gun.
“Shit, Gus, I won’t tell anyone. There’s been a massive misunderstand— ”
“No Rose, you got in the god damn way is what happened. I knew Ryan, was your brother all along, it’s why I tried to keep you away, then I just figured it was better to keep my enemies close. I can’t trust you, and that mouth of yours. This ends today.”
Gus lifted the gun, put his finger on the trigger, and took aim at Rose. Unsure what else to do, she put her arms up, to cover her face.
“No, Gus, let me explain.”
There was no time for explanations. Gus fired but Ryan freed himself just in time to jump in front of his sister.
“Ryan!” Gus ran to him, and saw the hole deep in his gut. He’d wounded a stag once when he was hunting and knew it would be over soon. There was no taking Ryan to the hospital; Ryan didn’t exist.
“Now.” It was the last word to leave Ryan’s mouth.
Rose, already holding the gun, didn’t think twice before pulling the trigger. Gus fell forward onto his lover, his friend, his prisoner, and they were both dead.
She placed the yellow rose on his grave. Her brother—her saviour—was gone forever. Rose still couldn’t quite come to terms with the idea. All these years, she knew he was alive; now he really was gone. After she explained everything to the police, and cleared Ryan’s name, they’d closed the investigation. Rose was cleaning out his old, apricot-coloured room and remembering the first time they caught sight of one another through the mottled glass window. She wondered if he knew then that she was coming for him, that she’d never stopped looking, and soon he would be free.