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“Anybody in there?” came a man’s breathless voice from behind the closed door.

I nodded but was unable to speak, my effort producing only a gasp-like noise from deep in my throat. A few feet away, atop a small table was the severed head of a woman in her late 20s, blood seeping from the tattered shreds of her neck, dripping to the floor where it formed a pool.

The knob rattled loudly.

“Unlock the door, kid,” the man’s voice came again. His Chinese accent didn’t alter the familiar tone of an adult’s growing anger.

Locking my gaze on the woman’s head I reached behind me, grabbed the door handle and twisted.

“I can’t. It won’t open,” I cried in panic.

There was an audible sigh.

“I’ll be right back — I need to get the key,” the voice said. “Don’t touch anything.”

The man’s footsteps and incoherent mumbling trailed off into silence.

I squinted in the dim light. The severed head’s eyes were closed and her long, dusty eyelashes lay flat against her cheeks, reminding me of my grandmother’s antique curtain tassels. The woman’s skin was dry but smooth and was sickly gray-green with lips painted a dull red. The contrast in the colors made me queasy, but it was her hair that made me want to flee. Wiry and brittle, most of it reached the table in twisting curls covered in crusty blood.

I had the urge to run, to call for help, to claw at the walls in search of some way out. But if I turned my back I just knew that somehow it would trigger her awakening. I imagined that any movement from me was a signal for her to come back to life.

Above, hanging from a frayed wire, a single light bulb swayed as if I were in a dim underground cavern. The smell was of mothballs and also the sharp aroma of formaldehyde from opened jars that contained emaciated biological specimens like those I’d smelled in my science class.

I needed to look around the room but felt paralyzed. What other horror surrounded me, I wondered. Not able to stand it any longer I took a deep breath and slowly tore my gaze from her face to look around the room.

We had come to the wax museum in San Francisco for a school field trip. I’d learned that Thomas Fong had opened the museum in 1963 after seeing wax figures at the Seattle World’s Fair. Apparently the waxen figures depicted European royals, dead revolutionaries, and serial murderers and were based on the creations of an 18th-century French woman named Marie Grosholtz, better known as Madame Tussaud.

One of Tussaud’s claims to fame had been the widely held belief that she’d taken a wax mold of Marie Antoinette’s severed head immediately after she was guillotined on Oct. 16, 1793. Eventually Tussaud moved to the United Kingdom and opened one of London’s most popular attractions, “The Chamber of Horrors,” where she provided the gory details of life during the French Revolution.

Through my own extensive research (mostly asking Matt and Chad) I had learned that the secret behind creating lifelike figures was dipping actual human bodies in wax. So during the tour I’d slipped away quietly and searched for what I imagined might be an underground prison or torture chamber.

I found some stairs and descended until I came to a heavy door. The large iron doorknob turned easily and the door opened. The dim room appeared only a little larger than a walk-in closet. I closed the door behind me and heard a loud click.

Inside, the walls were lined with dusty burgundy-colored velveteen drapes. The floor was covered with rotting wood planks, but I couldn’t see the ceiling behind the mist of darkness above. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom I realized that the room was not a closet, as I had believed, but instead the start of a long hallway. Every few feet or so small tables — like the one that held the head — stretched into the distance until they were swallowed up by the blackness. Each table held a lumpy burlap sack.

A fluttering near my right ear made me jump. I looked back down at the woman’s head and then slowly stepped back, pressing my body against the heavy wooden door. On the table her head remained in the same position, but one of her eyes was now opened and fixed on me with a glassy vacant stare, while a half-twisted grin cracked open the corner of her lips just enough for me to see her toothless, boney yellow jaw.

My heart pounded and my mouth was dry. I opened my mouth to yell but nothing came out.

From behind the door I heard shuffling feet and the mumbling old man’s voice growing louder.

“Boy, you still OK in there?” he called. He sounded worried.

“She, her eye … ” I stuttered.

“We need to turn off the power for a moment to deactivate the alarm, but that will also turn off the lights,” the man said. “How did you get in there anyway? This part of the museum is off limits and behind locked doors.”

“Please don’t turn off the … ” I said, but I couldn’t even hear my voice through a loud ringing that had started in my own skull.

The severed head’s second eye began to flutter and twitch, seemingly trying to open. Her grin widened, showing a dark, toothless cavern behind.

“She … I … but … no,” I mumbled as I slipped down slowly along the door, pulling myself tightly into the fetal position on the floor.

“I am turning off the power in three, two, one,” the man called from behind the door.

What happened next was another story.

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Tim Carl grew up in St. Helena (class of ‘84). Left to join the Navy, came back, married his sweetheart and went to school. He ended up getting his Ph.D in biology at CU and became a Fellow at Harvard. Later, in 2006, he co-founded Knights Bridge Winery. tfcarl@gmail.com

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