Childish Things

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Chapter 8: Technological Marvels of the Year 1986

“Ya coming, squirt?” the voice asked for the sixth time today. This time, he was playing it for Maddy, who had come over as soon as Clay had called her. Maddy was sitting with her hands clasped in front of her face, eyes closed. She almost looked as though she was praying.

“And you didn’t get any of this on any of the other devices?” she finally asked.

“Not a bit of it. He doesn’t shut up on the tape, though. Almost 45 minutes solid of him talking to me. Or at me, I guess. I can make out my name, sometimes, but that’s about it.”

The tape was still running between them, although right now Brady was speaking in a nonsense language. That it was a language, there was no doubt. Brady had the cadences and rhythms of someone speaking naturally, but neither Clay nor Maddy could make any sense out of any of the words he was saying. Brady was talking in dreamspeak again.

“So I think that’s why my mother got rid of everything. To make this place feel more like home, more like it would have looked when Brady was alive. If he felt comfortable, then maybe he’d want to get chatty. I think my mother didn’t know what happened that night, either. I think she might have though my father was responsible, somehow. I don’t know if she thought that my dad killed Brady, or what, but I think she came back for the same reasons I did.”

He looked across the table at Maddy. She looked supremely uncomfortable, somehow. “So you think your mom was trying to make contact with Brady, then?”

Clay shook his head. “No, I think my mom knew how to make contact with Brady. Or at least she figured it out, like I did. And I think that once she figured out the truth about it, the house fought back.”

Maddy looked up at him then, an odd, unreadable expression on her face. “Clay? What are you saying?”

Clay looked down at the tape recorder for a minute, thinking about how to move on. “I remember thinking when I got the letter that I didn’t even know that my mom had been sick. But this morning, I realized something. My mother had been sick, when I was younger. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when I was sixteen. It was an awful time for us all. My dad started going bald at the same time. He didn’t say anything, but I knew that his hair was falling out due to all the stress. I’d go into the shower after he’d used it, and the whole floor of the shower would just be coated with his hair. Big, nasty clumps, that looked like Captain Kirk had gone nuts hunting Tribbles, you know? And he didn’t say anything to me about it, and I didn’t say anything to him. About a month after this started, my dad just shaved his head, down to the skin. Took a disposable razor and made it gleam.”

He took a long drink from a glass of water resting on the table.

“Dad never got his hair back, but my mom got over her cancer. Or it went into remission, I guess is the medically acceptable term. One day she was sick, and the next she wasn’t. It was like a miracle, and we all celebrated by going to Disney World that year.”

He stopped, taking a moment to run the glass along his forehead. His head suddenly felt feverish, and the glass seemed almost impossibly cool and refreshing on his skin.

“I lost touch with my mom after I graduated. We still talked, mind you. She’d send letters, and for the last little bit, she was sending out emails. It took her so long to figure them out, you know. I was still getting letters from her as recently as 2007. She’d send me stuff all the time once she figured out email, though. Every day, I’d get something from her, usually like a video about a cat falling down the stairs, or an email saying that Bill Gates was going to donate a hundred dollars to charity for every person that this email got forwarded to. You know, internet bullsh... Internet stuff. But in all those emails, I never got one thing saying that she wasn’t doing well. And before you say it, she would have told me that.”

Maddy had opened her mouth to say something, and she snapped her mouth shut at that. Instead, she leaned forward, her hands clasped loosely between her knees. Clay continued.

“We never were much for sugar coating, in my family. When my dad had his first heart attack, he told me that he’d talked to his doctor about how he could prevent another one. He told me that the doctor had asked him to give up salt and cigarettes, and how he knew that he wasn’t going to be able to give up either one, or even cut back. He looked me in my eyes, and said that he loved me, and that he hoped that I understood. I didn’t, for a minute. I didn’t understand until after he’d squeezed my leg and walked back into the house slowly, his hips giving him hell every step of the way, that he was telling me that he’d rather die than give up his vices. And my mom was the same way. I remember at his funeral she kept muttering something to herself, and I didn’t understand what she’d meant at the time. She kept muttering ‘I hope they were worth it, you damned fool.’ I understand now that Dad had given her the same talk, just like I understand that she’d tried to talk him out of it, that she’d spent all the time in between then and the funeral trying to get him to slow down even a little bit. And he wouldn’t. No, I don’t think he could.”

“So what are you saying, Clay?” Maddy asked softly.

“I don’t think my mother had cancer until she got back to this house, Maddy. I think the house brought it back. I think the house killed my mother.”

He didn’t see her move, but suddenly Maddy was on the couch next to him, holding his hand. Like the glass, her hand felt cool and refreshing in his. “Clay? You know that’s crazy, right?”

He nodded slowly. “I know. But ever since I’ve been in this house, everything feels crazy. And the part that scares me the most?”

He looked at Maddy for a long moment before he continued.

“I think it’s only going to get worse from here.”

Maddy was gone, had been for hours, and Clay felt like he’d been tossing and turning for days. He couldn’t sleep tonight. Perhaps it was out of sheer keyed-up energy, the thrill of finally making some progress in trying to contact his brother. The majority of it was gibberish, sure, but Brady was talking to him. His brother was talking to him, even though he’d been dead for twenty-five years.

He wasn’t sure when it had happened, but at some point Clay had fallen asleep, and now he was dreaming again. He was dreaming of the in-between time, the time that fell smack dab between Ginny’s death and the day Brady joined her in the great beyond. Summer was fading fast, had been fading ever since Ginny had died, as though the seasons were mourning her loss. It made sense to Clay, in a way. Ginny had seemed so alive, so bright in her pink dresses and her pigtails, that of course night would start moving in earlier as soon as she was out of the picture.

How she’d died was still just out of reach for Clay, something that he knew was buried in his subconscious somewhere, but he wasn’t going to extract it tonight. Tonight, he was going to remember that chilly late August night when he sat on the porch with Brady. School was supposed to be starting soon, late this year because the district figured there was no point in starting up school until after Labor Day. Clay and Brady were both sick of summer vacation, especially this summer vacation, but they still felt obligated to cram as much summer as they could into the shorter days that were left to them before school started. As such, they’d gotten permission to sleep out on the porch tonight.

Normally they’d be telling ghost stories by now, or roasting weenies over a fire that their father had built for them, or giggling at every little thing as they fought sleep tooth and nail. Tonight, though, they’d sat silently for too long, longer than either of them had managed to sit quietly for the entirety of their lives, let alone at a single stretch. Clay jumped when Brady had finally spoken.

“Did you see it happen?” Brady asked quietly. There was no need to ask what he meant by “it”.

Clay saw himself shake his head, but he knew somewhere that he was lying. He’d told Brady that Ginny was dead and not missing, but now he regretted that, because Brady had started asking a bunch of questions. He wished that he hadn’t said anything, but he couldn’t stop seeing it in his head (and at this point of his dream, Clay got a brief, tantalizing image that he could almost hold on to, an image of a hand holding a rope, and then the hand was gone, and with it the image), and he would have gone nuts if he hadn’t said something.

“Brady?” he’d asked after another of those suffocating silences. “Should I talk to the police?”

Brady had thought on this for a moment, then said, “No. I don’t think that’d be a good idea. Besides, I don’t think they’d believe a couple of kids.”

Clay thought that was silly, but he didn’t say anything. Weren’t the cops supposed to listen to everything anyone said, and figure out what the truth was from that? He’d seen plenty of TV shows where the crime was only solved when the detective realized that someone had said something funny, or given themselves away by saying the wrong thing. How would they do that if they weren’t listening to everyone all the time?

They had tried to make an effort to put recent events behind them, taking turns telling ghost stories for a long time before Clay decided to tell a real ghost story. Clay decided to tell Brady what had happened under the porch the day they’d arrived.

Brady had sat quietly while he’d told his tale, which was unusual for him. Usually he’d be full of questions and interjections, usually of the “Nuh-uh! No way!” variety, but tonight Brady sat stone-faced. After Clay was done, Brady had only asked one question.

“Have you talked to Mom and Dad about this?”

Clay shook his head. “No, they’d never believe me. They’d think I was fibbing.”

Brady thought this over for a moment, then said, “Yeah, I think you’re right. Don’t tell them about this, okay?”

Clay had nodded solemnly. After a few seconds, he looked at Brady and said, “Do you think I’m fibbing?”

Brady hadn’t answered for a long time. Finally, he said, “No, I don’t think you’re fibbing. About anything.” At that, Brady stood up and dumped the bucket of sand onto the fire that their father had filled for this exact purpose. The fire went out with a puff of smoke and dust, and like that, he couldn’t see his brother any more.

He could hear him, though. Very softly, through the darkness, he heard his older brother say, “Clay, I believe every word you said, but I wish to God I didn’t.”

There was more to the dream, but Clay didn’t get to see it. Instead, he catapulted out of sleep at the sound, very close, of a gunshot.

While Clay lay dreaming in his bed, Tommy Jay Cavelle sat outside in his personal vehicle, staring up at the house with a bottle of Jim Beam tucked between his legs. When he’d gotten here, the bottle had been full, but that had been over an hour ago, and now there was a little less than half of the bottle remaining.

He’d thought he’d moved past his cousin’s death. It had been so long ago that he could barely remember her most days. Some days, though, he could remember her as clearly as though he’d seen her yesterday. But seeing this smug bastard moving right back into the house that had killed his cousin, as surely as a bullet from a gun would have killed her, had shook something loose inside of Tommy Jay.

When he’d heard that Whelan bastard say that he had been the last person to see Ginny, Tommy Jay felt as though a volcano had erupted inside of him. The punch had been thrown before he’d even had a chance to consider it, but after it had connected, he’d wanted nothing more than to continue throwing punches. Maybe get the bastard on the ground and bang his head on the sidewalk a few times, see if he could make a few dents before Whitecastle pulled him off.

Of course, he didn’t get the chance to do that, and for that he was grateful. Too many people had come out of their houses then, and it wouldn’t have been good for the department if the public saw a deputy beating a man to death, or as close to death as time allowed.

But now, there was no one around to see him. And Whitecastle wasn’t here to pull Tommy Jay off the bastard, either.

Part of him knew how bad of an idea this was. There was no way he’d get away with this. He’d be suspect number one after the altercation not ten feet from where he was currently sitting, with half the town watching. But deep down, he’d known that this bastard had killed Ginny. He could play innocent all he liked, but Tommy Jay had seen it in his eyes. One way or another, Ginny died because of something that Clay Whelan did or didn’t do.

Tommy Jay pulled his off-duty pistol out of its holster and checked the clip. Plenty of bullets for what he planned to do.

He realized that he didn’t give a shit if he was caught. In fact, he was kind of looking forward to it. Whether they’d admit it or not, everyone in town would know he was doing them a favor. Two favors actually, because he had plans for the five gallons of gasoline sitting in the can on the seat next to him. First Whelan, then the house. After that, he didn’t know. He might just sit there and enjoy the fire, watching as the house that held this town hostage burned to the ground. That sounded just fine to Tommy Jay. That sounded fine as paint.

Tommy Jay took one last swig from the bottle and threw it out the window. The bottle shattered a few feet away, and in the pre-dawn stillness, it sounded impossibly loud. Tommy Jay froze with one hand on the door handle, waiting to see if a light came on in any of the houses around him.

Nothing. Everyone was still asleep, including Whelan. Tommy Jay grabbed his pistol and flashlight and stepped out of the car, taking great care to close the car door quietly. No sense making any more noise than he already had. Not yet.

Tommy Jay crossed the yard silently, trying not to step on any of the fallen leaves that were starting to carpet the ground. He made it to the front porch successfully and gingerly put a foot on the first step, testing it to see if it squeaked. When it didn’t squeak, he repeated the process until he was on the porch proper. Now it didn’t matter. He had the bastard, and noise be damned. Even if Whelan was awake right now, grabbing a baseball bat or something else, he was as good as dead. Tommy Jay didn’t intend to give him a chance to do anything other than scream.

He’d taken three steps when the porch gave way underneath him. It was only a short drop, but he landed awkwardly, and he could hear a brittle snap as he landed. Pain shot up his ankle, and he had to bite his lip from crying out. The flashlight and gun flew from his hands, and he cursed at the pain in his ankle as he tried to find them. After a moment of sweating and cursing in the dark, his hand closed around a tube. The flashlight, then. Quickly, he flicked it on.

First he assessed the damage to his ankle. Broken, he assumed, as touching it caused waves of sick pain to roll through his ankle and settle into his stomach. He tried to keep himself from passing out, and he gritted his teeth against the pain. The moment passed, and he pulled himself up to a sitting position.

The flashlight’s beam started to waver, and he banged it against the side of his palm a few times until it came back on, strong and steady.

Something moved in the far corner.

It moved too fast for Tommy Jay to catch it in the beam of light, but he thought he caught sight of a pair of shoes. In fact, he thought he recognized those shoes.

After all, he only knew one person who had favored those black hi-tops.

“Ginny?” Tommy Jay whispered. “Is that you?”

He knew the reputation of the house, of course. He’d been called out to no less than seven reports of intruders on the property that had turned out to be overblown ghost stories from panicked residents. The most common story was of a young girl that would run through the living room. In all the years he’d been taking those calls, he’d never thought that the girl could be Ginny.

But it made a lot of sense, now that he thought about it. After all, Ginny had spent a lot of her final days here at the house with Clay Whelan. Clay might even have killed her, so of course her ghost might hang around here.

“Ginny? That you?” he repeated, and tried to pull himself forward. There was a couple of decades worth of dead leaves under here, and they crunched and crackled underneath him. When they crunched, the leaves released a sickly sweet scent, very faint, that reminded Tommy Jay of the time he’d gone to the museum to see the mummies.

There was no response from the other end of the crawlspace, and Tommy Jay figured he’d been hallucinating. Too many damned ghost stories about this place, he thought. Time to get out of here. Ain’t no way I’m gonna get the drop on Whelan with my ankle all busted to shit. Tommy Jay took a deep breath and rolled over onto his back. Once the pain subsided again, he opened his eyes and shined the flashlight over the roof of the crawlspace.

The hole he’d fallen through was gone.

Bullshit, he thought crazily. Can’t be gone, unless I fell through a crack. I heard the wood splintering, I felt it give way. It can’t be gone.

Tommy Jay rolled over onto his stomach and started crawling again. After a few inches, he felt his hand come down on a broken two-by-four. He picked it up and shined the flashlight on the end. It looked raw and clean, like it had been broken a few minutes ago. He shined the flashlight above him again, suddenly sure that he’d just gotten turned around somehow, and now he was directly under where he’d fallen through.

The roof of the crawlspace was a clean, unbroken row of planks as far as he could see.

Bullshit, he thought again. There’s no way it’s gone, not unless Whelan got out here and did the quickest patch job this town’s ever seen. I just need to relax, calm down, and stop freaking the fu...

The thing at the end of the crawlspace moved again.

Tommy Jay shined his flashlight over to the corner again, and this time the thing didn’t shy away from the beam.

It looked like Ginny, up to a point. He recognized the shoes, with their long tongues hanging over the laces like a dog, panting on a hot day. He recognized the dress, even though it was much worse for wear than the last time he’d seen her in it. And why not? She hadn’t gotten a proper funeral, had never been found. If this was the dress she’d been wearing when she disappeared, then it had probably spent the intervening quarter-century exposed to all sorts of nastiness. When you looked at it in that light, the dress looked pretty good, considering.

What hadn’t aged so well was the face. If it was Ginny, then what had made her Ginny had long ago peeled and cracked away; leaving this rough, leathery countenance behind. The lips and eyelids were both gone, having long since rotted away, but the eyes were still there, impossibly. She shambled forward then, making soft shushing sounds as her shoes dragged through the dead leaves.

Tommy Jay jammed his fist into his mouth to keep from screaming. He backed away, not caring about the pain in his ankle now. He just wanted out of this damned crawlspace, and if he had to get up and run on his busted ankle, then he would.

As he was scrabbling away, his hand closed on something cold. He screamed involuntarily before realizing what it was.

The pistol.

Not quite what I wanted to use it for, he thought. I brought it to shoot the bastard that killed Ginny, and here I am about to put two rounds into Ginny myself.

He shook his head.

Nope. That’s not right. No matter what it looks like, that ain’t her. Ginny’s gone. She’s in a better place than under Clay goddamn Whelan’s front porch, where it smells like an old woman’s spice rack. He adjusted his aim, and squeezed the trigger slowly. I’m sorry, Ginny, he thought.

The hammer fell with a soft click.

Tommy Jay looked down at the gun, confused. He’d checked the bullets before he got here, so he knew the damned thing was loaded. He pulled the trigger again. Nothing. The Ginny-thing was still shambling towards him, and she was close enough that he could smell the lake on her. Goddamn, he thought. That’s why we never found her. She’s in Woods Lake.

The hammer clicked uselessly against the gun, and a creeping realization stole over Tommy Jay then. It’s not for her, he thought, and Ginny stopped. He looked down at it, and again he thought, Bullshit. I can make it. A busted ankle ain’t the end of the world.

Ginny started moving again. She was close now, and Tommy Jay took a swing at her with the pistol. It connected, and a large chunk of rotting flesh fell away from her cheek. It landed on Tommy Jay’s lap with a sickening plop. He screamed, and started to back away again. He threw the gun at her now, hoping it would do something, anything to get Ginny to stop. The gun went off, sending a bullet pinging into the wood somewhere off to his right.

Ginny was crawling towards him now, hands reaching towards him as she extended her grip, and then she’d sink her fingers deep into the dirt beneath her as she pulled herself forward. Tommy Jay scrabbled backwards as fast as he could, but the Ginny-thing still came towards him. His back pressed up against the latticework wall that separated him from the world beyond the crawlspace, and he turned around quickly.

The latticework was made out of flimsy wood, and he tried to pull a section of it out. It didn’t budge. Beyond caring about being caught now, Tommy Jay put his mouth to the nearest open section of latticework and screamed for help.

Outside, the world beyond the crawlspace slept on, with no hint that it had heard his cries.

Tommy Jay tried pulling the latticework free again, pushing against it with his good leg, the bad leg howling in protest. He didn’t care. In fact, he could barely feel it. Adrenaline was coursing through him, and he wouldn’t have felt it if a freight train had smashed into his leg at that point.

After what felt like hours of pulling, Tommy Jay was sent back on his ass, still holding a piece of latticework in his hands. Thank God, he thought. All I have to do is crawl...

He stopped. Even though he was still holding a large chunk of it in his hands, the latticework was still in place. There was no hole, even though there should have been an entire section missing.

Tommy Jay felt a single sob escape him. Before he could do anything else, he felt Ginny’s hand, impossibly cold and slippery, clamp down on his shoulder. Tommy Jay found himself wishing that he’d used the pistol when he’d had the chance.

A few seconds later, and Tommy Jay didn’t have to worry about the pistol any more.

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