Hope waited for London at the doorway. He knew this place would be difficult. Many of his dreams had recently become realities, but somewhere along the line, the dreams stopped coming. He was seeking respite from it all. As he entered the dark house, he cast off his fear as well. The allure (and simultaneously the problem) with the house was its safety. In fact, London chose the Hazel House for this reason. No one would enter and take his dignity, but no one would come uninvited bearing love or gifts either. Even the mail could only be taken by plane to the nearby town, and there was no room for passengers. “I’ll wait here and heal,” he thought.
Months passed, and London spent his waking hours going over his past adventures-- his fearless moments and lovers that had gone their own ways. London was waiting in this dreaming space. Waiting for a light, some spark to guide him forward, to warm his bones and carry him on. He stared for days at photographs of his adventure companions, trying to gather for himself a bit of the fire in their eyes. Waking hours became dreaming hours and sleep became nothing but a necessity to be avoided.
London was not the first one to enter the Hazel House, nor was he the only one there at the time. Others were huddled in corners of the house, clinging tightly to artifacts from their past. When London became lonely, he would sometimes converse with the others. Usually they would whisper softly to each other, never leaving their respective corners of the house. They did not realize it, but they had all accepted a form of temporary defeat.
A young woman named Jodi was his favorite to talk with. Jodi sat in the room next to London, just around the door frame. They exchanged sentiments through whispers, and even tossed old photographs back and forth. London would only converse with Jodi when he felt the need, usually keeping to himself. But when they did speak, he felt his pain only marginally soothed. In the late hours, he imagined kissing Jodi, or running through a mountain meadow with her, falling softly into the grass together. Instead they stayed quiet for the most part, using the door frame to keep their distance.
London often fantasized about leaving the Hazel House. He imagined himself back in the army, a leader of men. He imagined the medals he would receive for his valor, and the people that would congratulate him. He imagined starting a family, being there for the birth of his son and what it would feel like to hold him in his arms for the first time. “It’s safer here,” he thought.
The Hazel House was mostly dark. The windows had been painted over and the light bulbs that remained functional were there from long ago, none had been replaced. One room was full of boxes containing MREs that must have been left there during the war. The residents passed the stale food between themselves, when their hunger won out over their wandering minds.
One month, London’s aching for a place beyond the Hazel House became so strong that he could no longer ignore it. The spark of inspiration he had long awaited had never come, and his whispering conversations with Jodi no longer brought him any relief. He told some of the others he would be leaving soon. Most didn't believe him, and many couldn't understand why he would want to leave. “It’s safe here,” said Jodi as she curled up tighter and stared into an old photograph, “I’m free to be whatever I want and dream however I please while I’m in this corner.”
London remembered his family and began to long for them. When he tried to recall his Uncle’s gruff demeanor that sometimes hid his deeply empathetic eyes, there was nothing left to picture. “I must have spent half a year in this place,” he thought, “or maybe it has only been a couple months.”
It was time to leave. However, upon standing up he quickly felt that his muscles had atrophied. They were so soft he could no longer make the walk home out of the mountains, let alone the room. He took a pen, and realizing he could not remember the date, addressed the letter.
I’m ready now to leave the Hazel House, but I am too weak to set out alone. Please come quickly.
It was done. The letter would be taken tomorrow. Far from the hero of battle he imagined himself during his long sleepless nights, London moved himself to a nearby couch that he had yet to use and fell into a deep sleep for the first time since he had arrived. He felt as if he was having one continuous dream, but he must have slept for three days waking only once or twice.
He dreamed of his childhood self, exploring the mountains. He was with friends hiking. It was springtime, a hot clear day, and the mountain lupine was in bloom. They passed through meadow after meadow, each separated only by a small stand of trees. High mountains towered over them. The sun was setting as they finally followed a stream back to camp.
London awoke in a cold sweat to the bright flames of torches, which illuminated the room fully for the first time. He saw the dark writing on the wall, the gruesome masks hung there, the bodies of the others wasting away. The couch he laid on was tattered.
They were dressed in white. London’s brawny uncle, passed his torch to one of the others, reached down and lifted London easily into his arms. The whole family was present. “We are going home,” said his uncle with a subtle authority. They left the Hazel House as quickly as they came, London dropping tears on the floor behind them.