Childish Things

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Chapter 14: Confrontations

Clay knew it wasn’t going to be that easy. He’d been hoping that he could just grab the can and blow this place to the ground, but the door to the outside slammed shut the second he turned in its direction. He spun around, trying to see if Maddy could help, but Maddy was gone, or at least the grown-up Maddy that he’d been seeing these past couple of days. That was probably the cruelest trick of the house, letting her pretend to be a grown-up, letting her put on an adult’s skin like a child playing dress up in her mother’s closet. She had never had the chance to be an adult in real life, and so he supposed he could see how the house would be seductive, giving with one hand what it had already taken away in the other.

In her place stood the real Maddy, not Madelyn Witcham like she’d told him all those years ago (the name of the street the house stood on, he realized) but Madelyn Perry, the little girl whose mother had tied a pretty pink bow in her hair and had told her to go play hide and seek with her brother. Her outfit was more dated than Clay remembered, patent leather Mary Janes instead of the hi-top sneakers she had favored when he’d first seen her, and other little touches that made him realize that she’d been dead long enough that she may have been older than his parents, had she lived.

“You ready, Clay?” she said in her high-pitched, younger voice. “One-two-three not it!” she shouted, and took off running. “Come and find me, Clay!”

Clay didn’t pay attention to where she’d gone. Instead, he turned around and tried the door again.

“It’s no good, squirt. You gotta play the game. It’s not nice to leave your friends hanging, you know,” Brady said, leaning against the wall casually. He shifted forward and looked at Clay with a crooked grin. Even after all these years, Clay recognized that smile. This was the smile that Brady used when he wanted to tell a dirty joke, or suggest something that would get them both in trouble if they got caught.

“You’re it, squirt. Count to ten and get looking.”

With that, Brady disappeared, and Clay was left alone in the living room.

Clay gave the door one final kick and began counting.

“One, two, three...”

“No peeking!” Ginny’s voice shouted at him. Clay closed his eyes obediently.

“Four, five, six...” Eyes still closed, Clay began to move towards the kitchen.

“Ready or not, here I come!” he shouted, and opened his eyes. The kitchen was empty, but Clay hadn’t really been looking for Maddy in here. Still, he made a show of checking in every single conceivable spot that he could before he casually, nonchalantly turned on the gas.

Clay checked the living room again, giving it the same once over before he twisted the gas nozzle on the radiator, as well. Upstairs, then.

The house was reverting to it’s former self, traveling backwards through time, and Clay could see the decorations changing, the TV growing larger and larger while the screen grew smaller and smaller. He passed a monolithic cabinet with what looked like vents in the front of it before he realized that it was the family radio. Clay continued up the stairs.

Clay checked the bathroom next, grabbing a plastic bottle of ethyl alcohol out of the cabinet before continuing his search.

His bedroom was next, and he grabbed his lighter off the side table before he left.

The last place to search was the guest room, and Clay braced himself for something from the house again, another dirty trick or another pack of lies. Even though Clay hadn’t seen the inside of a church since his father’s funeral, he stopped on the threshold to cross himself. That done, Clay took a deep breath and stepped inside.

The guest room had been transported back in time too. What had functioned as his parents bedroom when he had lived here was now a fully functional guest room, and everything looked untouched. There was a wrought iron bed that looked supremely uncomfortable, even with the fluffy down comforter that swallowed the mattress whole. There was a dresser in one corner, and there was a nightstand in the other with a small bowl of water. That was it. The room was empty. Clay stepped inside and looked around for a moment before turning around to leave. He had almost made it to the door way when he heard

(only thing they ever found was a pink ribbon)

Maddy’s voice. Not the girl that he was chasing, she was a construct of the house. The true Maddy, the one that he’d kissed on the cheek before leaving her to the house. He strained to hear her again, closed his eyes and listened. After a moment, he heard her voice again

(a pink ribbon on the floor behind a big dresser in the guest room)

and began to move.

The dresser was incredibly heavy, and Clay didn’t think he could shift it. How the hell did a little girl move this thing all by herself? he thought to himself.

Because it’s not really that heavy, squirt, he heard Brady saying now. The house is trying to make you think it is. It’s just another cheap trick, like the time I told you to help me pick up that heavy box that was really just an empty box and you darn near did a back-flip picking it up. Remember that, Clay? That was just a joke, Clay, and I never wanted to hurt you. But the house, it wants to hurt you. And it’s using these stupid tricks to make you stay here until you pass out from the gas. And hey, what better way to make sure you breathe it all in like getting you huffing and puffing like a rhino trying to move this itty bitty dresser?

Clay closed his eyes and relaxed. After a moment, he pulled again, and the dresser moved with ridiculous ease. Clay picked up the ribbon and yelled, “Found you!”

“Aw, you cheated!” Maddy yelled from behind him, giving him a playful shove. “Your turn, Clay. It’s your turn to hide.”

“Nope, I’m done playing, Maddy. Now let me go.”

“Uh-uh, Clay Whelan. Fair’s fair. Now go and hide.”

“And what if I don’t?” Clay asked.

“Then I’ll pull your goddamn head off like I did that rotten deputy,” Maddy said, smiling sweetly. Clay stood in place for a moment, until Maddy said, “Well?” Clay took off running.

He had no idea where he was going to hide, especially not in the next ten seconds. Who said a damn thing about hiding, son? Finish what you’ve started, his father said. Clay slammed down the stairs and skidded into the kitchen.

Sitting on top of the garbage can was his and Maddy’s beer bottles from the other night

(and did she really drink one, Clay, or were you double-fisting your drinks that night, he thought crazily)

and he grabbed one and started filling it with ethyl alcohol. He slid under the table, trying not to spill any of the alcohol onto himself. He’d gotten the bottle half full when he realized he didn’t have a rag. He looked around, saw a dishrag hanging from the kitchen cupboard. He grabbed it and slid back to his hiding spot, just as he heard Maddy shout “Ready or not, here I come,” from upstairs.

Clay heard her footsteps coming down the stairs, and he held his breath, trying to trace her progress. She heard him come down the stairs, obviously, as she hadn’t even stopped to look in his room or the bathroom. That meant she was going to look around the living room and then she’d be here any second.

As if on cue, Clay could see a pair of shiny black Mary Janes appear in the doorway.

Clay held his breath. There was no way she couldn’t see him, it wasn’t like he was really hiding at all, but the shoes weren’t moving.

“Found you!” Maddy shrieked, her head coming suddenly over the top of the table. Clay recoiled in fear, bumping his head on the underside of the table.

“I win, I win,” Maddy was saying now, doing a happy little dance in the center of the kitchen. “I win, and now you have to stay here forever, Clay Whelan.”

Clay crawled out from under the table. “Oh come on, that’s not how it works. Best two out of three?”

Maddy stomped her foot down petulantly. “No! It’s my house, and my rules. I say you have to stay, and I mean it!”

“No thanks,” Clay said, and flicked the lighter under the rag.

It didn’t catch.

Clay flicked it again and again, but it didn’t work. Clay held it up to the light and squinted at the bottom of it, where he could see, in tiny embossed letters, MFD. 2012.

“Figures,” Clay said, throwing the lighter at Maddy. She ducked instinctively and Clay ran past her. As he ran, he managed to snag a box of matches off the counter.

“Stop!” Maddy shrieked, trying to grab hold of him as he ran past. Clay kicked a foot out, and he felt it connect solidly. He ran to the door and tried it again. Still locked. He whirled around and saw that he was no longer alone. Everyone who had ever been lost to the house was there, watching him struggle with the door. Even worse, they all looked dead, the varying stages of decay showing on their faces. Maddy was worst of all, a bare skull with a single patch of skin, ready to flake off of her cheekbone.

Clay held up a match to the rag, his thumbnail ready to strike. “Let me go, or I burn the whole place to the ground!” he shouted.

“I don’t think so, Clay,” his mother said, taking a step down the staircase.

“You’re trapped, you know. You’ll never leave if we don’t want you to,” Ginny added.

“It’s not so bad, Clay,” Brady said. “We play all sorts of fun games here.”

“I’m warning you,” Clay shouted.

“No, Clay,” his father said, taking a step towards him authoritatively. “I’m warning you. We can make this easy and painless, or we can make you die a thousand screaming deaths before you join us. Your choice.”

Clay started laughing.

“You’re right,” he said. “It is my choice. You’re so insistent that I’m dying here tonight, and I don’t think I have the strength to argue any more. But not by your rules, you bastard.”

Clay struck the match and lit the rag on fire.

“One-two-three-not-it,” Clay said to himself, and cocked his arm back. His father took a step forward to stop him, and Clay threw the bottle as hard as he could. It hit his father full in the chest, and within seconds he was engulfed in flames. He stepped back, trying to put himself out, and brushed into Ginny. Ginny’s dress went up in seconds, and from there the stairwell was chaos.

Clay didn’t stick around to watch. Instead, he whipped a duvet off the nearby couch and wrapped his arms in it. Closing his eyes, he dived through the window.

Nobody in Carter’s Mill called the fire department that night. Most in town were content to let the house burn to cinders, and the only attempt to curb the fire was by neighbors, sprinkling their own roofs with garden hoses to keep the fire from jumping. Even this effort seemed unnecessary, as the flames seemed to have their own mind, and even though the ashes and sparks leaped and cavorted merrily around the house itself, not a single stray ember came anywhere close to any other house.

Clay Whelan managed to drag himself to the road and shout for help, managing to flag down a deputy heading home at the end of her shift. Deputy Lindholme took Clay to the county hospital over in Brighthook. Clay may have been interested to find out that his hospital was right next door to the children’s hospital that boasted the Eric Emerson Oncology wing. Then again, after the night he’d had, Clay Whelan might not have given the slightest of shits.

Clay had been in the hospital for three days when the Corville County sheriff’s department came knocking. They asked Clay what had happened the night of the fire. Clay told them the truth. He gave them the whole story, from driving into town to the explosion. Clay noticed that the whole time he was telling the story, there were no disbelieving looks, no interruptions to clarify. They believed him, every word. When Clay was finished, one of the deputies stood up and scratched at his jaw anxiously.

Finally, he said, “Well, sure. That makes sense. Sure as hell can’t take that to court, though.” Instead, the deputies had trained Clay what to say, and they came up with a flimsy story about how Deputies Cavelle and Whitecastle had stopped by Whelan’s house to try and convince him to leave town again. Upon arriving, they had smelled gas and tried to rouse Clay. They’d succeeded, but one of them triggered an explosion when out of habit, Deputy Cavelle had shut off the light upon leaving the house. This had triggered a spark that ignited the house and took the lives of two of Corville County’s finest.

It was a bullshit story, and Clay thought that it would never hold up in court, but the town inquest never even made it to the court stage. The Carter’s Mill Crier printed the story as fact, and everyone went about their business. The story didn’t even make the front page, instead getting buried between Garfield and Doonesbury in the local section. It was spooky to Clay, really, and he had the feeling that this wasn’t the first thing that Carter’s Mill had covered up in its time.

Three months, four days, seventeen hours and ten minutes after Clay Whelan drove into town, he left for the last time, fervently hoping that Carter’s Mill never had to cover up anything else.

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