Chapter Two- The Welcoming Committee

Caroline stood outside of 177 Elm Street looking onto the 3-story colonial-era white clapboard house. For being a secret society, it looked rather normal.  She looked closely at all the windows, why would a secret society have windows?  Holding the card out once again, she confirmed the address.  Yes, 177 Elm Street.  She was at the right place. The street behind her was alive with late evening runners, dedicated coffeehouse patrons, and students hoping to find their favorite areas at the local college library to complete their research projects. For a second, Caroline watched the world come alive with its second wind and thought to herself that she could walk away and go to the coffee shop to write.  She could work on her next book, or finish the first novel that she still had hidden on her laptop. She could go home and walk Beacon, make some coffee and watch her favorite Netflix show before taking a shower and going to bed. She could stay content in the world that she knew so well.  She looked down at her watch, 6:58 pm.  The decision was hers still.  The comfort of the known, or the excitement of the unreal.  The Magic of an Ordinary Day vs. Alice in Wonderland. 

Caroline walked up the pathway to the door and knocked.

She waited nervously, wiping her sweaty palms on her jeans. Nothing. She knocked again a bit louder. Waited and still nothing. She stepped back, eyeing the black numbers 177 to the right of the door. Yes, she was at the right house. She knocked again, quite firmly. Again, not a sound.  Sher peered through the windows but was unable to see into the dark interior.   Disappointment washed over her as she made her way down the porch steps and out to the sidewalk. She turned back again frowned at the card in her hand ‘177 Elm Street’. Sher certainly was here on the right day and at the right time.

She glanced up and down the sidewalk, walking towards her was an older woman pulling a flower cart behind her. As the woman passed her, she said “You will never get there from here, my dear.”

“Excuse me?” Caroline called out, as the woman made her way down the street. My goodness, she was moving fast. Caroline rushes to catch up. “Excuse me, could you help me find 177 Elm Street? I seem to be …” she paused “confused”. 

The women stopped, smiled up at Caroline. “You are not confused, dear, you simply cannot get there from here. The only to get there is to go back.”

“I am sorry” Caroline stammered “I don’t understand. I received an invitation to 177 Elm Street tonight at 7:00p.m; however, no one seems to be home.”

The old women lay her hand on Caroline’s arm and patted it. “It’s all on the card, Caroline. You just need to look back.” 

And with that, the old woman continued her way down the sidewalk.  In the blink of an eye, she disappeared around the corner.  Only then did Caroline realize that the woman had called her by name.  She made her way back to 177 Elm Street and looked up at the house.  A large deck wrapped its way around both sides of the house. It was the picture of coastal charm, filled with white wicker chairs and tables, a large swing, and hanging flower pots filled with red geraniums.  A chalkboard sign read “Welcome to the Porch”. For a moment Caroline allowed herself to dream of owning such a porch.

‘What a magical place.’ She thought.                                                                                    

She looked back down to the card in her hand, its edges bent from being clenched in her hand.  You need to look back; the woman had said. Caroline turned the card over. There on the back of the card, she read- 177 Elm Street, The Back.   She stood there for a moment staring at the card, how had she missed this? She had picked up this card many times since she received it. Had she never once turned it over?  Glancing at her watch, she hurried up the steps of the porch and made her way around to ‘The Back’ of 177 Elm Street.                                                 

A smaller back porch overlooked a garden of flowers, herbs, and a small creek with a green Japanese bridge gave the feeling of being at Claude Monet’s home in Giverny, France. For a moment Caroline could imagine Monet painting his famous Water Lilies series right in front of her. She turned around and looked at the heavy oak door with a sign that read The Back, 177 Elm Street.  A tall thin man in a dark suit smiled at her as she approached.

“Welcome, Caroline, come in.” He opened the door wider and beckoned her inside.

Caroline did her best not to gape and greeted the man in the dark suit. “Hello”, she put out her hand, “my name is Caroline, thank you for the invitation, I…”

“Let me take your things.” He reached out to take her coat, purse, and umbrella.  “Someone will be along to take you to the library.” And with that, he was gone leaving Caroline alone in the lounge.                                                                                                                                              

The entire room was painted a soft butter yellow. Eight floor-to-ceiling diamond-shaped windows allowed a breath-taking view of the night sky. Scattered about were Tulip tete-a-tete chairs covered in rosewood fabric.  On tables everywhere, were vases of roses. Not a single vase was a duplicate.  Vibrant stained-glass vases, nestled next to stained wooded vases. Each vase contained roses.  The room was heady with the soft scent of rose.  It was a kaleidoscope of color and beauty. It was a living garden.  On the walls were large dark picture frames, craved with swirls and flowers, surrounding what looked on first the appearance to be pages from a book. She walked over to the furthest one, drawn to its home in the shadows of a large staircase, and saw that it was indeed a page from a book, with a small golden plaque with an itched name of the main character. Dream-Land by Edgar Allen Poe with the name of Eidolon.

      ‘Stranger and stranger’ she quoted Alice in Wonderful to herself. ‘Who would want to be known as a shadow?’ Caroline whispered as she read the dark and haunting poem.  It was one of her favorites, but one that she only indulged in when the sun was shining and she was sitting on a busy street. To read the poem at any other time would give her freedom to fall into its beautiful misery and be lost.

      “Not many are drawn to this particular portrait.” Caroline jumped a little and whirled around to see a man leaning against the rails to the staircase.  He was a striking man with ebony hair, deep-set dark eyes that almost appeared to be violet in color, a strong chin, and a muscular body.  He looked as if he was a true renaissance man dressed in well-cut jeans, a dark sweater, and a tweed jacket. “Welcome to the Raven Society.  You must be Caroline?” He questioned the intruder.

     Caroline walked over to where he was standing and offered her hand, “I think that I may be late. I was on time, but I didn’t notice that I needed to go to the back door.  I must have read the card a hundred times, and I never saw….” She stammered.

     “It does that sometimes.” He replied looking at the back door with faint amusement. “I am Eidolon.  It is a pleasure to meet you.  Won’t you join us in the library for drinks?”

     “A drink sounds wonderful.” Caroline was aware that she was blushing and sweating.  She had never been good at first impressions when first impressions counted.  One of the many ironies of life. Being placed in a position to have to meet and talk to many people, but without the internal knowledge of how to do it. Since she didn’t know what else to do, she stood a little straighter and followed Lucas through the double doors on the right and into the library.                                     

It was breathtaking.  The most beautiful room that Caroline had ever seen before.  Dark mahogany wooden bookshelves two stories high lined the walls, windows just as large filled the room with natural light, the fireplace stretch from the floor to the ceiling large enough to have 3 people sit inside of it.  A large painting hung over it of what looked to be the final supper, but with what look to be famous authors instead of disciples. The couches and chairs were lined with plush red velvet fabric, inviting enough to sit in to read but not enough to fall asleep. Large tables and writing desks stood along the edges as if beaconing someone to sit down and write the next great novel.  The ceiling was a painting of the Gods looking down at the occupants as if they were watching and waiting for the next miracle to happen.  The room smelled of coffee, paper, ink, and applewood smoke.                                                                                         

     Caroline stood in the doorway trying to take it all in.  Eidolon turned halfway through the room realizing he had lost his guest and slightly gasp at what he saw.  The light from the fireplace danced across Caroline’s face of pure happiness. She was instantly transformed into a mythical muse with the light from the large window shining a single ray directly on her spot.  The other members turned to look also, each one of them seeing the same sight.

     “Well, I guess we don’t need to do the interview anymore.  We just got our answer.” A man standing next to the bar stated to a beautiful middle-aged woman who was making herself a drink.

“Don’t be draft Watson, of course, we do the interview.  It’s tradition.” She took a drink and set the glass down eyeing the contents.  “One of my best if I must say.”

“Isabella, I have never seen you with a drink that you didn’t appreciate.”  Her companion laughed as she walked toward Caroline.

Caroline was still standing in the doorframe spelled bound when Isabella appeared at her side. “It is magnificent, isn’t it?  Makes you want to write, drink, and enjoy the pleasure of sin doesn’t it.” Isabella laughed at Caroline’s shock and confusion.  “I would introduce myself, but it is against the rules until after the official introductions. I wouldn’t worry about anything.  This part is more of a formality than anything, I have it on good authority that you were accepted before you even got your card.” She linked her arms with Caroline and started walking her further into the room towards the couches by the window. “Not like me, I had to plea, beg, and borrow to get invited, and even then, I was a nervous wreck on my introduction day.  I changed my outfit seven times and ended up coming as my character.  Looking back, I don’t think that I needed to do all that, but I did leave quite the impression.” Isabella smiled broadly as she sat down and patted the seat next to her “I think that we will be great friends.  I feel it in my soul, like a blooming of friendship budding in my toes.  You will be my Anne of Green Gables and I will be Diana.  Except, a bit more worldly Diana.”

Caroline could not help but smile at this strange character sitting down.  She was a whirlwind of words.  The bracelets on her arm danced lightly with all her movements, spell bounding Caroline as if she was sitting next to a pixie.  The most gorgeous pixie she had ever seen. Long, full blond hair that never stopped moving as if it was a river of gold flowing downward. She wore a light, flowing dress of mint green that was offset by her layers of long necklaces and multi-colored scarf. The perfect pixie face that boasted dancing green eyes and the perfect red lips.  No make-up.  ‘Damn it’ Caroline thought ‘she is a perfect beauty if she doesn’t need to wear make-up.’                                                                                                                                                       

A man in a gorgeous three-piece suit walked up to them holding two drinks. “I thought that you could both use a drink,” Watson said as he handed them to the two new friends. “One to calm your nerves,” he said looking a Caroline as she took the drink “two to tighten the loose tongue” as he smiled at the pixie.  ‘Is everyone here a God or Goddess?’ Caroline thought as she peered at the new stranger over her drink.  He is a Greek God.  His blond hair played over his eyes, the light stubble of growth on his face just heightened the perfect formation of his chin and lips.  His eyes were the most amazing golden brown that seems to dance like a fire. And the way that he looked down at Isabella, you could tell that there was friendship, and an undercurrent of sexual desire.  The new companion pushed his way down to sit in between them and casually placed his long arms along the back of the couch and stretched his legs out. 

“I wonder how long today will take?  I peeked into the kitchen and can tell you that the smells that were flowing out will take us all to a new level of heavenly delight.”  He looked at Caroline with concern “You do know who you are going to choose, don’t you?  Please tell me that you have someone in mind.  The last time we invited someone to the introductions, it took 3 hours.”  Watson looked at Isabella laughing.  “Do you remember that?  What is her name?  Wait, don’t tell me. Against the rules.” He said to Caroline with a smirk. He looked around the room. “I know that she will be here, poor dear has nothing else in her life that is remotely exciting.” He scanned the room for a few seconds.  “Ah!  There she is” he said quietly to Caroline.  “Standing in the shadows of the books, pretending to be reading the titles.” 

Caroline was shocked to realize that they were talking about Anna, the brazen leader of the Book Store Book Club.  The last time she had seen her she was surrounded by her friends and was the obvious leader of the group.  The person that stood in the dark corner was a complete transformation.  What had happened?  Caroline watched as Anna walked slowly along the rows of books, pretending to be engaged but instead watching the group in the room.  As if she wanted to join in, but was waiting for someone to reach out to her. 

Isabella leaned slightly forward to look at Caroline and whispered “She almost didn’t make it in.  She was all over the place with her answer.  Like she couldn’t decide who her character was and when she made the decision, she couldn’t explain it to herself let alone to the welcome committee.”

“Welcome committee?” Caroline looked at Isabella.  She was beginning to sweat and there was not enough in her glass to steady her nerves.  If Anna almost didn’t make it, with her overwhelming confidence, how was she going to explain herself? 

“Yes, the welcome committee.  They are the ones that will give you the rundown of the whole operation.  The ins and outs.  The dos and don’ts.  The good and the bad.  They are a bit ‘much’ if you ask me.  Always with the rules.” Watson said while taking a sip from Isabella’s drink.  “They are the keepers of the keys.”

“What keys?” Caroline asked. Watson started to tell her, but they were interrupted by the man who Caroline had met in the hallway. He had changed, and was wearing a cloak the color of midnight and dawn and draped the floor like a bride’s veil. The wearer of this majestic cloak glided across the floor and stood between two of the diamond windows.  As the wearer turned the stars in the night sky appeared as a crown around his head.  The man was at least 6 feet tall. His hair was so dark it matched the darkness of his cloak. His eyes were a deep blue almost violet.  His smile as he greeted the society lit up his entire face.

“Welcome, I am your host, The Raven.  Tonight, we will embark on a journey of stories.  Each of you, though you have packed no luggage, have come fully prepared to commence upon this voyage.  Your only required baggage is the character you have come with.  Henceforth, we will know each other only by our character name.  We will introduce and refer to each other only with those names.  Indeed, until we complete our introduction, no further information will be revealed.”                                                                                                                         

Caroline was spelled bound as a man and a woman suddenly appeared behind him; chairs were placed on a small platform for them to sit in. They looked very much like royalty sitting above their subjects in their cloaks and emotionless faces.  

“That’s the welcoming committee!” Watson whispered. 

“Knock them dead, love!” Isabella said as she reached over and squeezed Caroline’s hand.                                                                                                                                              

Caroline’s eyes swept across the room; her mouth suddenly dry.  She hadn’t settled on a character, not really. She had toyed with some, deciding on one, only to toss it aside the next day.  Now, here she was and they were demanding a decision. Anne Boleyn didn’t feel this much pressure sitting in front of her Judge and Jury. The hooded Master of Ceremonies was looking around the room at two other people who were betraying their nervousness just as much as Caroline. A strange thought occurred to Caroline- what if one of them took her character? She hadn’t decided what she would say yet, but what if one of them took one of the three? What if they got chosen with her character and she was forced out into the chilly night air? Would her two new friends hustle her out the door without a word?  She imagined it would be like being kicked out of the gates of Disneyland if she was booted by Tinker Bell and Prince Charming. 

“I am known as Eidolon and these are my partners- Winston and Emma.” The two cloaked members nodded in recognition. “They are bearers of the keys.  These keys are the symbols of opening and closing chapters in our lives.  It can mean the difference between freedom and an entirety locked in a symbolic death. To hold a key is to hold an indefinite number of possibilities.  Those of you who pass the first test will be given a key, unique in its creation as you are to the story that is being told in these rooms.”

Caroline was lost in his words, an overwhelming sense of need for a key.  If ever there was someone who needed and wanted a way to unlock destiny- it was her. 

“Come forward visitors and tell us your stories.”  A chair was brought to sit in front of the three-member welcoming committee. 

“Get up there!” Watson whispered pushing Caroline off the couch.  She looked at him with daggers of death as Isabella snickered.  “I will get you a drink as soon as you are done!” He promised.

‘Fat good that will do when I am escorted out like yesterday’s trash’, Caroline thought to herself as she walked to the formable group.  ‘Welcoming committee my ass, I felt more welcomed at my yearly women’s doctor’s appointment.  At least they played soothing music and had a nice picture of a sandy beach on the ceiling!’                                                                                  

Caroline forced herself into the awaiting chair and faced the execution squad with a small smile and sweaty hands folded in her lap.  She refused to look at the master of ceremonies and instead focused her attention on the one who was called Emma.  Caroline wondered if she knew that she looked like Professor McGonagall from Harry Potter.                                                             

“Visitor.  Tell us your story.” Caroline’s eyes unwillingly traveled to the center stage.  It was at that moment that she forgot all her previous choices.  ‘Crap’ she thought. This was the moment she had months to prepare and she wasn’t ready.  It didn’t surprise her, she always seemed to choke when it was time to be important. The last 30 years seem to fly through her subconscious, retelling every story of her failure. The lack of friends, the eating lunch alone in the lunchroom, the nights of school dances that she never got invited to, the day she realized that people in college were just as mean as in high school, lunch in the office break room when she was spoken too because people felt bad for her, the day that she quit her job and nobody noticed that she left. This was supposed to be the one area where she fit in.  These were supposed to be her people.  She was supposed to finally belong to something.  A wave of anger filled her.  She wasn’t nervous anymore; she was angry that she had to prove that she was worthy.  Damn-it!

“You can call me Kostova.  I am the dear and unfortunate successor of a labyrinth of my father’s and mother’s secrets and mysterious fate that is connected to an inconceivable evil hidden in the very depths of history. I am the keeper of letters that link the dark powers of humanity to a creature believed to be only a myth.  My journey proves that tales that are told in the secret of the night are reality if you are only strong enough to follow the plotline.” Caroline took a shaky breath. “My name is Kostova and I am on a quest, generations of historians before me have attempted to break the code to the mystery, but I alone can prove the myth-ism of reality.”

Caroline stopped talking and looked down at her hands.  She had no idea where that speech came from.  That is not what she practiced standing in front of her bathroom mirror. ‘If they kick me out soon, I will have time to run by the coffee shop and the ice cream parlor next door.’ She thought as she played with the hem of her jacket. ‘I will get an extra pint for Beacon; he loves cookies and cream. Tomorrow I will go for a run and write an incredibly sappy book about a young woman who blew her final chance for recognition and died alone in an apartment where she couldn’t even plug in a curling iron without the whole neighborhood losing power.  You know, a feel-good story of what not to be.’  

“Welcome, Kostova.  We look forward to your journey.” 

Caroline looked up sharply, eyes narrowing on the man sitting in front of her.  Did she just hear that?  Was this beautiful man playing with her emotions?  It wouldn’t be the first time. 

“You can take your place among your fellow travelers.” He waved her back to her original seat with Isabella and Prince Watson.  Caroline got up slowly and looked at Professor McGonagall, aka Emma, who was smiling slightly at her.  She walked over to her seat next to the two new friends who were jumping in their seats with delight and waving her back over.

Watson held out a mug in his hands. “You look to be the kind of person who prefers her strong drink mixed with coffee.  I thought that this could help.” He handed her the warm drink that smelled of strong expresso and Baileys and slid over so that Caroline could sit between them and whispered.  “Well done.  I had all but forgotten about that book!  He is always looking for the person who could find themselves in the strange and unusual. If I had to hear one more person who identified with the classics, I would have walked out to have a smoke break!”

Isabella gasped Caroline’s free hand and held it in her lap.  “I knew that you had it in you, love.  You looked like you were going to hit him when he asked you to tell your story.  We were placing bets on who was going to win the fight.” She looked at Watson with disgust “He put $10.00 on the Master of Ceremonies, but I never doubted you.  Hell has no fury like a woman put on the spot.” She concluded with pride.

A shushing sound came from somewhere in the back and all three new friends focused on the new tribute sitting in the Chair of Agony.  The man, with a look of a logger or maybe construction worker, sat with easy strength and knowledge that he was in the right place at the right time.  Caroline was jealous of his easy comfort of having all eyes on him.

“I am known as Sydney Carton. You may think of me as lazy, a drunk, cynical, unable to handle a desk job, unworthy of recognition or praise. There is more beneath the layers of dirt and grim. Some would even guess that I place little value on my existence, by the manner in which I dress, or the occupation that I have decided to follow. However, I see into the souls of the very people who most would overlook. I have loved deeper than most writers can even begin to put words to. I would willingly sacrifice myself for the greater good of just one person. Some would say that this capability of mine will eventually lead me down a road of redemption and resurrection of my sins.”

“I stand corrected.  There is one character from the classics that I would not be overly mad about. I feel like he is Sydney Carton.” Watson stated, slightly clapping for the lumberjack awaiting the decision.

“You could have knocked me over with a gin and tonic! And such a looker!  It would be a welcome addition- brains and brawns.” Isabella nodded with approval. 

“Welcome Sydney.  We look forward to your journey. You can take your place among your fellow travelers.” The Master of Ceremony said in dismissal.  Caroline felt strangely excited that he had been chosen, discreetly watching him as he stood from the chair and walked away.  As he sat down in a high back chair across the room, the lumber jacked looked at her directly and smiled as if in agreement. 

“Oh!  Someone has an admirer.” Isabella leaned closer to whisper in her ear.  Caroline swatted her away to pay attention to the final person taking their seat in front of the tribunal.  She was trying to pay attention to what was happening but found herself glancing at the man across the room.  Why had he chosen such a powerful but lonely person?  Granted, Sydney was the main character from Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, but he died never getting to experience a returned love.

“Welcome, Victor.  We look forward to your journey. You can take your place among your fellow travelers.” Caroline heard being said, coming back to the events unfolding in front of her.  She had missed the whole story, but from the look on her friend’s face, it was a gruesome description.

“I am intrigued,” Watson said as he got up to head back to the bar. “But first I need a drink.  This is the first time that I have ever witness all three visitors get invited to stay. I wonder what Eidolon is up to tonight. This will be a fascinating dinner.”

“Dinner will be served in 15 minutes.  Please get your drinks and join us in the dining room.” Emma announced from the double doors that led into another room.  As she disappeared into the softly lighted room, Caroline took her first real breath of the day. She needed a drink.  The first test was done, she made the cut.

“Well, I would have never have guessed that you would be invited.  Isn’t the world just full of pleasant surprises?” Anna had walked over and was standing in front of Caroline, wearing what Caroline was sure her best-forced smile.  “I had thought that the Raven Society took more influential and serious writers, but it looks as though they are extending their reach into the more juvenile realm.  Of course, there is always a need for writers that can speak to the younger and inexperienced generations.”

Before Anna could respond, Isabella glided over to stand next to Anna.  Her face betraying her distaste for the older women standing in her area. “Oh, dearie!  You came!  That is wonderful!  I was just distraught over how our last meeting went.” She reached out to hold Anna’s arm in a friendly gesture of friendship.  “I just know that there is a niche for writers like you in this world.  Were you ever able to meet with your agent and find a publisher that would give your latest book the time of day to look over?  I know just know that there MUST be an audience that would be interested in…. what was it? The farming techniques of the Dutch during the Industrial Revolution?” Isabella looked over at Caroline “I see that you have met one of our newest members, her expertise is in exploring…?”

Anna looked highly uncomfortable when she replied, “No, we have not been able to find a publisher, but my agent is feeling highly encouraged by some recent inquires.”

“Yes.” Isabella laughed slightly sending her bracelets softly signing in the movement, “Well, all of us have experienced a slight setback to at least one or two of our books. You just keep typing away and I am sure that you will be able to prove to the group that you are not in fact, a one-hit-wonder, as that ghastly man said at our last dinner.” Isabella turned to Caroline “Sometimes, writers can be just so nasty to each other.  Always competing when there is no competition. We as female writers just have to stick together and be our own support system. Would you not agree?” She asked turning back to Anna.

“Of course,” Anna replied with the look of shooting daggers. “I just came over to show my support to my old friend….”

“Now, now…you know the rules.  No introductions until dinner.” Isabella tisked. “It is highly unusual that we have two members that knew each other from the outside.  Let’s pretend that you don’t, or dinner won’t be as fun.” And with that, the three of them walked into the dining room together, Anna not too fond of how the conversation went but secretly relieved to be not walking into the room alone.   

“I am the thunder you hear. You missed the lightning- beautiful and terrible. Maybe one day you’ll see it. Maybe one day you’ll understand what you hear.”

Naveen Durgaraju

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