During the #coronavirus pandemic, I am regularly posting stories and selections from my published collections and novels. Read for free! Reading is the best at this time!
This 13th free offering is Chapter 67 of "Summer Place: Book Three of the Thunder Rise Trilogy," published by Crossroad Press in March 2013.
Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. Caleb felt it as soon as he and his sister crossed the threshold into the kitchen of the summer place. He felt it grow as they went room to room, calling their father’s name, getting no answer — only a spooky echo of Caleb’s voice that was like the time Mommy had taken them to the Museum of Art and he’d shouted down a long marble corridor. He could see the Dark Thoughts now, quite plainly: They’d returned from their hiding place the instant they’d come inside.
Something was wrong.
Well, Daddy was missing, that was wrong. That was scary, if you thought about it too much, which Caleb tried not to. He kept telling himself that Daddy must be in the barn, or maybe out looking for Paul, or getting help somehow. And he’d be back very, very soon.
No, it wasn’t just Daddy’s absence that had brought the Dark Thoughts out of their hiding place. It wasn’t the by-now-dull ache from where he’d been bitten. Bites were no fun, but they hurt a less than bee stings, and if you tried really, really hard — if you did what Daddy always advised, “grin and bear it” — you could almost forget about them.
So what could it be?
The house. It had to be something about the house. Standing on the second-story landing, holding his sister’s hand, looking down the stairs into the brilliantly illuminated living room, Caleb struggled to figure what, exactly, was wrong with the house.
On the surface, nothing was different.
All the furniture was where it belonged. His and Sarah’s toys were where they were supposed to be, in their rooms. There were dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. The candle they’d been burning was still in the living room, along with the empty cans of Raid. And those bugs — the dead bodies of the ones they’d killed were scattered around, and there were a few new live ones, which Caleb had dispatched to bug heaven with his remaining Raid. If anything, the house should have been less creepy — the power was on, and as they’d moved through the house, Caleb had turned on every single light. It was like daytime in here now, so bright there didn’t seem to be any shadows.
No, it should have felt OK. Should have felt good.
But it didn’t.
It was like someone was watching them. Like the house was watching them. Like the walls and the ceilings had trick mirrors and there was someone behind them, following them as they moved, listening, listening to what was inside his head... the Dark Thoughts... and waiting...
“Daddy?” he called, his voice thinning. “Daddy are you up there?”
He had not opened the door to the attic yet. Except for the barn and cellar, which wasn’t sure he wanted to check, the attic was the last place left. The entire first floor, the bedrooms, bathroom, even behind the sofa and in the downstairs closet — he’d looked, and Daddy wasn’t there.
Don’t have to check the attic, he thought. Daddy wouldn’t have gone up there.
But what if he had? What if, for some reason that made sense only to a grownup, he’d climbed up there and had an accident? Like Caleb had had that accident under the barn? What if he was up there on the floor right now, unconscious, needing to be rescued, the way Caleb had needed to be rescued?
For the first time, it occurred to Caleb that Daddy might not be OK. The realization terrified him. So many other bad things had happened this weekend, but Daddy — Daddy had been all right. Daddy had been invincible.
I have to go up. Even Mommy, mad as she was at Daddy, would have insisted he go up if she’d been able to advise him.
“Sarah?” he said, his voice a whisper.
Sarah did not respond. Her tears had dried up — she’d been crying so long and so hard there probably weren’t any tears left, Caleb figured — but she was still out there in another dimension. Since the car, she’d been like that. She’d followed Caleb obediently, without a whimper of protest, without a word of any kind, not even when he talked to her. It was like she was sleep-walking.
“Sarah?” he said again. “I have to check up there. I’m gonna just run up and come right back. You think you’ll be OK?”
Caleb squeezed his sister’s hand. She kept staring into nothingness.
“You’ll be OK,” he said encouragingly. “I’ll only be a second.”
He opened the door and turned on the light, illuminating the wooden stairs, where new cobwebs had materialized since his last visit. Just before he’d broken his ankle, he’d snuck up here to investigate those two old trunks that had come with the house. Both had been unlocked, and both were empty.
“Here I go!” he announced.
Up he went, favoring his hurt ankle, which all of a sudden was throbbing. He stopped at the top of the stairs. The bulb that lit the stairs didn’t work so well up here. Whole corners of the attic were shadowy, and some — in the rafters there behind the chimney, for example — were downright dark. But this would have to do. There was only one light in the attic.
But it wasn’t the shadows that sent a shiver through Caleb. It was the trunks, side by side by the tiny window.
The trunks were open.
He’d closed them after exploring that day.
He remembered that vividly, as vividly as he always remembered the details of his mischief, as his parents called it. Mommy had a real eye for that sort of thing. She was like Sherlock Holmes, finding all the clues. Seeing the trunks open when they were supposed to be closed — she’d automatically finger him. So he knew he’d closed them.
They were definitely open now.
He could not see inside yet, only the lining on the insides of their lids, a red cloth as soft to the touch.
Just like coffins, the Dark Thoughts shrieked at him. Your Daddy’s coffin. Your Mommy’s coffin. Mommy and Daddy, laid out in their best clothes, and cold as January. Would you like to see them one last time before they’re buried? Before they’re six feet deep? Before the worms crawl in, the worms crawl out, the worms play pinochle on their snout?
“They’re not dead!” Caleb screamed. “They’re alive!”
He was frozen now. He still could not see inside the trunks, but he did not want to. He wanted to go back downstairs, run out of the house, run to...
Run to where? To whom?
And what if Daddy was in one of the trunks? he wondered, his mind racing. Not dead, but hurt real bad? It did not occur to Caleb how improbable that would be. On the contrary, on this horrible weekend, Daddy in a trunk would almost make sense.
Caleb had to see.
And so he forced himself across the floor, forced himself to drag his cast and ignore how the light seemed to be dimming, the shadows growing longer, the walls pressing in on him. Closer to the first trunk, his angle of vision increasing, able to see more and more of the inside.
The first trunk was empty.
On toward the second one he moved, closer, hobbling, almost able to see to the bottom now, almost—
There was a body there.
A dead body, dressed in a fancy suit — a tuxedo, isn’t that what they called it? Daddy had worn one once to a wedding.
A dead body — old and gray. Worse — much worse — parts of him had been eaten. There was no mistaking it. The flesh was flecked and wormholed, the way garbage looked after maggots had gone to work. Eaten. Eaten. The eyes were gone, nothing but the sockets left. The hands, folded across stomach... they were bloody stumps, cartilage and bone only. And the mouth, the lipless mouth. It was open and something was inside, curled around its teeth. Something white and moving. A worm. Eating.
Eating. You could hear it.
Caleb’s bladder let go. His breathing was coming in fits now and he felt like he’d been punched. For the first time since the car, he wanted to cry.
Caleb knew immediately. Knew because he’d seen Valkenburgh’s picture in that article Mommy had Xeroxed at the library, an article he’d found snooping through the pile of books and articles and all the other stuff about bugs she’d hidden in her bottom drawer, under her sweaters.
Caleb screamed. He screamed and turned and tripped, hitting the floor with a slap. Crying, he got back on his feet. It didn’t matter that his ankle was shooting stilettos of pain through his body. He bounded down the stairs, hit the landing, and grabbed his sister’s arm.
“Come on!” he managed.
Sarah didn’t move.
But she could not be budged. Had withdrawn further into herself, into a catatonic state.
For a second, Caleb thought of going without her. Leaving her on the landing, to take her chances with... it. But he could not do it. He loved his little sister and he’d been raised believing it was his solemn duty to protect her. He couldn’t abandon her now.
He looked up the stairs, certain that Valkenburgh would appear there.
But Valkenburgh did not appear there. Caleb pleaded and begged, and one minute turned into two, and there was no sound, no Valkenburgh, only the feeling of being watched.
“We have to go!” Caleb shouted. “We have to find Daddy!”
Sarah finally stood. She stared emptily, as if her brother had become invisible.