No. 28: “Summer Place: Book Three of The Thunder Rise Trilogy.”
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you tomorrow!
Third in the “Thunder Rise” trilogy, “Summer Place” is a classic horror tale that blends fear of bugs and various creepy-crawly-things with a haunted house and a lingering ghost, Myron Valkenburgh. Bad news, that one. The good news? Protagonist Carol Callahan, who by the end of the book arc has been empowered.
The novel also serves as a sort of cautionary tale about an arrogant, narcissistic politician who puts his ambitions above his family. Hmmm…
Crossroad Press published “Summer Place” five years ago.
READ “Summer Place”
From the end of “Summer Place”:
``Come on up!'' Valkenburgh beckoned from the attic. ``Time is wasting!''
His voice beat against the inside of Carol's skull. She saw the image he'd planted inside her head: an image of an altar in an enormous cathedral. Hanging by the side was a beautiful wedding dress -- beautiful, and black.
``The guests are all here!'' Valkenburgh said. ``We must not keep them waiting!''
Carol opened the attic door. Candles flickered at the top of the stairs and in the background, an invisible organist played Bach. She smelled incense and flowers. How easy Valkenburgh was making it for her. How inviting. There was peace up there. An eternity of comfort and peace, Mr. and Mrs. Valkenburgh forever and ever in their beloved summer place.
Carol ascended the stairs, covered now by a red carpet, and was in the vastness of the cathedral. Valkenburgh was waiting. Not an old man now, but someone in the prime of his life. A handsome man, with black hair, a bewitching smile and the confidence of someone who had it all. He was wearing a tuxedo, of course. He took Carol's hand. She did not recoil. His touch was firm, warm, strong.
Now Carol saw it: a painting of his first Carol.
``We didn't divorce,'' Valkenburgh explained, ``and she didn't leave me, not in the manner that was widely believed. That was simply the story, the only one the world would believe. My Carol met a terrible end -- at the hands of those bastards. I buried her by the spring, where the cold of winter could never touch her. Where she could be warm forever.''
``I was powerless then,'' Valkenburgh said, ``but not now. I've learned the secret of their control, can't you see? I gave my life but God, in his infinite wisdom, has given me a second chance! I could hardly believe it when you arrived! Why, it was the very answer to a prayer! You will be safe with me now, my dear! Happy forever! Come! Join me in blessed matrimony!''
The spell was dissipating. Another image formed in Carol's head: Caleb and Sarah, in the hospital, calling her.
``May you rot in hell,'' Carol said.
She broke Valkenburgh's grip. For one fleeting moment, great sorrow was written on the much-younger Valkenburgh's face. Carol could imagine his heartbreak so many years ago, when his wife had died. Then the sorrow was gone, replaced by the purest evil. Young Valkenburgh was transformed into the gnarled old man of Carol's nightmares.
``You sickening thing!'' he hissed. ``You will be mine!''
``Fuck you, you old bastard.'' Carol went back down the stairs, slamming the door behind her.
Valkenburgh laughed. ``Go on!'' he shrieked. ``Try to escape! See where it gets you!''
Carol was trembling and her mouth was suddenly dry. Laying down a trail of lighter fluid, she descended to the first floor and went into her study. The fire would fan out in a leisurely fashion until nothing could stop it.
Outside, Marshall was banging on the kitchen door and Georgiana was calling her. Carol ignored them. She needed, at most, five more minutes.
At the head of the cellar stairs, she hesitated. He was down there now, she knew. Down in the dark with his precious bugs, with which he had reached unholy accommodation from beyond the grave.
``Come on!'' Valkenburgh shrieked. ``Come and meet your old friend! He came all the way from Boston to surprise you!''
What? Carol thought, but she did not let the thought get in her way. She started down, and was immediately mystified. The earthern floor should have been crawling with them -- but she saw only isolated insects. They had to be here, somewhere. A million bugs couldn't just disappear into thin air.
She stood, listening. There was a sound, faint and far-off. A scratching, like an animal clawing. No, it was more like a buzzing. The furious beating of diaphanous wings.
The dragonfly came from nowhere.
It strafed Carol's head, becoming entangled in her hair before disappearing up the stairs.
Her heart leapt into her throat.
``Calm down,'' she told herself. ``It's only a dragonfly.''
The sound had not gone away. It seemed to be coming from the root cellar, whose door was slightly ajar. Squinting, she got a glimpse of what was within:
A human skeleton, picked clean.
A skeleton, and a scrap of fabric she recognized as her panties.
Now it hit her:
And now she saw them, in the darkness behind the skeleton: beetles and yellow jackets, assembled in an obscene seething mass
Carol's heart leapt back into her throat.
``Surprised you, didn't he?'' Valkenburgh said. ``But isn't there a saying for that? What goes around comes around?''
Carol's temples pounded and she was overcome by that fetid smell again.
``A thing of beauty is a joy forever!'' Valkenburgh shrieked.
``Fuck you,'' Carol managed. The air left her lungs, and she was gasping. The stone walls, the beam ceiling, the floor -- they'd ceased to exist. It was only her and the root cellar, two points on a plane, moving inexorably toward each other.
Unconsciously, Carol reached into her pocket for the matches.
``Put those away,'' Valkenburgh demanded.
Carol's fingers separated a match.
``There is no need for that,'' Valkenburgh said, and now there was a hint of fear in his voice.
Carol struck the match. It flared, casting a surreal glow.
``No need at all,'' Valkenburgh said. ``We're in this together, remember? Just you and me, and our good friends the beetles, here in our lovely summer place.''
But Valkenburgh's voice had lost its power. The spell was dissipating.
From inside the root cellar, the insects sensed sudden light and warmth. It had been generations since the colony had seen fire, but some primal alarm was sounded. The message spread quickly through the assembly. The beating of wings, the clicking of jaws -- in seconds, it had all subsided.
They were at strict attention now. Another instinct was kicking into place now: Survival. Fight or flight.
The decision was flight. Unseen by Carol, the rear guard began retreating from the root cellar into the tunnel.
Carol held the match to the mop head. The lighter fluid caught.
``No!'' Valkenburgh begged. ``Please no!''
``Fuck you,'' Carol rasped, advancing toward the root cellar, mop held before her like a flaming sword.
``Stop!'' Valkenburgh pleaded.
``Let's see what your friends think of this!'' Carol said, sticking the mop into the root cellar. Flames lapped the door frame, igniting splinters of wood. The smoke made Carol's eyes water. Her skin was reddening.
But it was the insects that were most affected. Only one response was possible now: blind escape, the insect equivalent of panic. The fortunate ones made it safely back into the tunnel. The rest were incinerated.
``Take this, you bastards!'' Carol screamed, delirious. She swung madly, wielding the mop like a fiery baton.
``Stop!'' Valkenburgh squealed, but his voice had been drained of its authority. He was fading.
The root cellar was ablaze now. Fingers of flame reached to the joists; in another minute or two, they would be blazing, too. But Carol was not content to let the fire take its course. She ran for the stairway, touching the mop to the stairs as she climbed to the kitchen, then raced through the first floor, torching the furniture, the wallpaper, the rugs. The fire built steadily toward the inevitable inferno.
``Carol, stop!'' It was Georgiana, poking her head through the window Marshall had finally managed to pry open.
But it was too late. And even if it hadn't been -- even if there had been some way to save the place -- Georgiana doubted she would have tried. She understood.
And seeing the crazed look of triumph on Carol's face, was pleased for her friend.
They stood, the three of them, safely at the edge of the orchard. For a while, the only sign of what was happening inside the old house was smoke from the chimney, as if the owners were at home, seated comfortably around a wood stove. But soon the wisp became a plume, the plume a black billow. A cellar window cracked, then exploded. Flame poured out, shooting up the side of the house. A kitchen window exploded. One in the living room. Another in Carol's studio.
So many hopes pinned on that room, she thought, but went no further. She could get into the deeper meanings later. For now, she intended to savor her victory.
The flames climbed, blowing out window after window, obscuring more of the house until only the roof was visible. Carol was intent on an attic window. There was someone in that window -- she swore there was.
Young Valkenburgh -- a man who had had it all, but really had nothing. Just before the flames reached the last level, she heard him, screaming. Begging to be saved.
Georgiana and Marshall heard it, too. Heard Carol's name, being called by a voice they recognized from many years ago.
A voice that, by mutual agreement, they would choose to believe had been only the roar of the fire.