Nobody at the dinner table moved, spoke, or even blinked for at least one minute following Sondra’s unthinkable confession. As each member of the Peck family sat frozen in disbelief, their jaws almost hanging down into their barely-touched plates, all they could do was shift their wide eyes around the table at one another, each of them knowing exactly what the other was thinking in the moment: Did she really just say the name that we think she said?But of course their ears were not deceiving them; they had indeed heard her correctly.
Breaking the awkward silence, Mr. and Mrs. Peck’s oldest child, Carl, announced on behalf of himself and his siblings: “We’re really sorry, Sondra. My brothers and sisters and I honestly had no idea that he was your father.”
Sondra immediately hung her head down without responding to the apology in hopes that the unanticipated topic of discussion that had arisen at the table would be switched. And perhaps the subject would have been changed had Mr. Peck not been so curious as to exactly why his son had just apologized to Sondra.
“Carl, how many times have your mother and I asked you to set a good example for your brothers and sisters?” Mr. Peck lashed out at the stubborn boy, who was known to be a nuisance to the public from time to time. “I know that you haven’t been bothering Mr. Brendle now, have you?
Without making eye contact with his fuming father, Carl just timidly nodded his head.
What did you do to that poor old man?”
“I didn’t ask you what your brothers and sisters did to him; I asked you what you did to him, because I’m sure you were the ringleader in whole ordeal.” Mr. Peck was coming down particularly hard on the boy not just because he had over and repeatedly asked him to cut out his troublemaking antics in the past, but also because he was now of the belief that one of the many victims of his son’s mischief was in actuality Sondra’s father.
Before Carl even had the chance to reply to his father, Sondra once again became the center of attention at the dinner table when she inexplicably burst out into a demented fit of laughter. Here she was being felt sorry for by an entire family that she had just completely duped: Her perverted accomplishment was highly amusing to her. She got off on making people feel sorry for her pitiable young life. Her need to play on the sensibilities of others was an unslakable addiction of hers. She had inherited some of her biological parents’ insanity traits, after all. While nobody at the table felt remotely comfortable enough to address her on her weird and spontaneous mood shift, the unconventional young girl continued to revel in her deranged thoughts for a little bit before picking up her fork and resuming dinner as though nothing out of the ordinary had just transpired. Mr. and Mrs. Peck simply allowed the strange occurrence to blow over, concluding that her eccentric behavior must have been reflective of the unimaginable atrocities that went on inside of the Brendle household.
Aurelius Brendle, a single, off-kilter gentleman, was perhaps the community’s poorest resident. Of the great number of individuals who had in recent years taken up residency across eastern Yarmouth, he was one of the very few who simply could not gain a strong financial footing during the lucrative wartime period. But perhaps that was entirely his fault; he preferred to keep to himself. Had it not been for the fact that he had to earn money to purchase food and drinking water from within the community, the chandler more than likely never would have made his rare trip into the bustling market area to hawk his second-rate wax candles and soaps.
His jerrybuilt shack had purposely been erected quite a ways away from the community’s overpacked 500 square-foot homes and obsessively-tended farms and was only visible to those nosey enough to travel three quarters of a mile to catch a glimpse of the magnetizing eyesore. The lengthy trip was one that Carl felt was worth the risk taking at least twice a month. Before embarking on any of these treks, he would get into a huddle with his brothers and sisters and make them promise him two things: 1) that they would make it back home with him safely and 2) to not break a word of what they had done to their parents. When Sondra unexpectedly walked into the Peck children’s lives, she too had to act in accordance to the laws of Carl. The same rules that applied to the bullheaded boy’s younger siblings applied to her as well.
The first time that the crew made their journey to Mr. Brendle’s residence with Sondra tagging along took a significantly longer period of time than Carl would have liked for it to have taken. Her inability to keep up with the rest of the gang put her at risk of being captured by Mr. Brendle if he was to make his usual brief dash after the young rascals to get them to clear off of his property. Although a voice inside of Carl’s head was telling him to call off this particular trip, his inclination to cause trouble overshadowed his better judgment. He continued to dauntlessly lead his platoon on to their destination over rocky, dusty, leafy, watery, and hilly terrain. The boy’s confident comportment and moxie transformed into sheer angst, however, when the rusty corrugated iron roof and termite-infested pieces of plywood that made up Mr. Brendle’s hovel came into view. But, in all fairness to the doughty young boy, anybody’s composure would have been flustered knowing that they were invading the space of an unpredictable, bilious hermit. Making Carl’s desire for a thrill even the more perilous was the lack of trees or tall underbrush within approximately 300 yards of Mr. Brendle’s house. The coy old man had found himself a rare glade in the vast Yarmouth forest to call home. Once beyond the cover of the dense forestry surrounding the well-hidden glade, trespassers made themselves vulnerably visible to the strange gentleman (as he could see all around his windowless efficiency through areas of the plywood that had been eaten through by termites) and became susceptible to whatever form of punishment he so chose to impose upon them. Mr. Brendle didn’t waste any time making it known to the scoundrels that he was out for blood. Once the first set of stones that Carl and his siblings had tossed at the rickety home had made contact, the intolerant recluse was instantly outside of his residence wielding a formidable ax. Carl was the first member of the pack attempting to escape Mr. Brendle’s wrath. As Carl made a quick glance behind him to make sure that all his brothers and sisters were right running with him halfway into his beeline dash for the distant forest, he saw Sondra being accosted by the fed up old man. For some reason, she was the only member of the gang who had remained behind. Stopping in his tracks, Carl spun around suddenly and yelled out: “Run, Sondra, run! You promised me that you would make it back home safely with me!” But to his dismay, the girl made no reaction whatsoever to his vehement urging, automatically placing him at a dangerous crossroad. The stark reality was that either he or Sondra was about to lose their life today. The instinct to live told him to leave her to fend for herself since she was stupid enough to just stand frozen in place in the face of danger. Then, abruptly hitting him like a ton of bricks, it reoccurred to him that Sondra wasn’t standing there out of fear - well, fear may have had something to do with her inaction - but she was physically incapable of getting away from the beleaguered ax-wielder no matter how bad she wanted to. It was clear to Carl at that point that his life would have to be the one that was laid down. He had put Sondra in that predicament; he would have to get her out of it. He would have to figure out a way to distract Mr. Brendle just long enough so that the girl could catch up with the rest of their brothers and sisters, who had by now made it to the safety of the forest’s edge and were looking on in complete disbelief and horror.
As the rays of the afternoon sun glared off of the blade of the ax’s sharp steel wedge, Carl quickly reconsidered his decision to save Sondra. He didn’t have too long to think, though: Mr. Brendle was now in striking distance of the helpless little girl, and he was readying his body to split her in two. Besides, if Carl had chosen not to go back to save her, his father was going to have his head when he got home. Either way he was a dead man walking.
As Carl galloped over to Sondra’s rescue, yelling and throwing his arms up above his head wildly to impede the hacking, a moonstruck expression took over the hideous face of Mr. Brendle. The boy was who he truly wanted to whack. Mr. Brendle had had more than enough of the brash kid’s shenanigans over the course of his residency in Yarmouth. To know that he had purposely constructed his home so far away from persons in an effort to avoid such unwelcomed and unwanted incidents of harassments like the one that just occurred gave him more than enough rights to go ballistic. His intention was to chop off Carl’s head and hang the crude taxidermic creation up inside of his shack. Smiling at the thought, the four discolored teeth inside of his mouth (one at the bottom and three spaced out teeth in the top row of his diseased gums) were made visible to Carl, who interpreted the smile to be Mr. Brendle’s way of smugly inviting him to his death. The sheer audacity of the odd man’s effrontery caused all of Carl’s fear to dissipate. If anything, he was the one who was going to be doing the killing now. Turning his attention away from the helpless girl, Mr. Brendle, who was no taller than five feet and no heavier than 100 pounds, utilized all of his upper body strength to hoist the ax up above his right shoulder in preparation to behead the fast-approaching young hero. At the same time, Carl reached into the right pocket of his britches and retrieved several of the stones that were originally intended for Mr. Brendle’s home. When he felt that he was close enough to toss the stones accurately at his target, Carl let them fly. But, unfortunately, he had been too concerned with his throwing accuracy and had gotten much too close to Mr. Brendle for his own good.
Carl’s breathing stopped and his pupils dilated when he realized that the ax’s blade was going to make contact with his vulnerable, defenseless body. In the heat of the horrific moment, he also suffered a slight panic attack which sent his heart into cardiac arrest.
Yup, it was the end. Carl had died. The brave hero had lost his life at the hands of the villain, just as he had envisioned he would have moments before he decided to attempt to save Sondra’s life. But in the end, his plan had failed miserably. He had failed to provide Sondra with ample enough time to get over to the edge of the forest where Timothy, Alicia, Brenda-Lee, and Miles were desperately counting on her to reach so that they could assist her with making it back to their parents’ home in one piece. Mr. Brendle was going to get himself two kills for the price of one. But the blade had yet to make contact with Carl; his bodily vitals only implicated death. His still-functioning brain was processing every image that his widened eyes were capturing. With the axe just seconds away from gruesomely severing him, time in Carl’s world slowed down dramatically. What his eyes captured next would have been a perfect reenactment of the showdown between David and Goliath had Mr. Brendle not been such a diminutive man. The lightweight stones struck Mr. Brendle about his face just split seconds before the axe was about to slice Carl in two. The forceful impact of the stones slamming into his hideous face knocked him off balance. The blow, coupled with the weight of the sizeable weapon, sent him tumbling to the ground, out cold. Taking full advantage of this good fortune, Carl turned his back towards Sondra, knelt down, and instructed her to wrap her arms around his neck and place her legs on either side of his body. He would have to serve as her pair of legs in this instance. Getting her arms around his neck was the easy part, but Sondra was having a bit of trouble getting her legs to do what she needed them to do. While she struggled with the abnormal limbs, Carl horrifyingly observed Mr. Brendle begin to recover from seeing stars.
“What’s taking you so fucking long to do something so simple, sis?” Carl shouted out nervously as he watched Mr. Brendle slowly start to move his head from side to side while massaging his eyelids with two of his stubby fingers.
“I’m trying really hard, Carl. Please don’t be mad at me.”
The boy was now sweating profusely, knowing that Mr. Brendle would be coming after them with even more vengeance than before once he got his axe back in his hands. Just moments following the dreadful thought, the boy’s daymare began to play out right before his very eyes. Mr. Brendle slowly began to pull himself up from off of the ground, prompting Carl to immediately spring up out of his crouched position and make a break for it. But his sudden, unexpected take off caused Sondra to lose her grip around his neck. She was about to fall and be left alone with the infuriated Mr. Brendle yet again. This time, Carl would be left with no other choice than to let her meet her demise. Luckily, the boy’s heightened reflexes immediately sensed her arms sliding apart. Quickly reaching up, he grabbed on to her forearms and pulled her arms back together, saving her from certain doom for the second time in less than five minutes. Had Sondra been able to get her legs to open up wide enough so that the crook of her knees married into the crook of Carl’s elbows, the boy’s attempt to reach the forest would have been a speedy one, but the extra weight on his back that her dangling legs created had greatly encumbered him. Looking back to see how far behind him Mr. Brendle was soon after he had started running for his life, Carl was quite satisfied with the distance he had put between himself and the maniac. When he took another look behind him about half a minute later, his stomach dropped. Somehow, someway, Mr. Brendle had significantly lessened the gaping space between himself and his two prospective casualties. Although he was already moving at his fastest pace, Carl found one final bit of divine energy inside of him and was able to push himself just beyond his maximum output. He was moving even faster than he was just a second ago, and all roads pointed to freedom. But the boy’s last-effort push was no match for Mr. Brendle’s sheer determination. When Carl pushed himself a bit, the old man pushed himself twice as hard. His legs were moving almost three times as fast Carl’s, and the long, thin, grey shoulder length strands of hair that encircled the bald spot of his abnormally large head flailed about wildly in the wind generated by his incredible speed. With the forest still a great distance away, common sense told Carl that Mr. Brendle was going to catch up with them any second now. He could no longer fool himself; he knew that Mr. Brendle had won the war. “Go on! Get home!” he yelled out to his brothers and sisters when he had made it halfway across the glade. “We’ll meet you guys at the house!” Fatigue had set in by this point, and Carl knew that he wasn’t going to make it much further. He didn’t want his younger siblings to witness the looming murders. Although his brothers and sisters didn’t always appreciate the way that Carl would treat them, they respected him. He didn’t have to tell them to leave twice.
Once they were out of sight, Carl shouted over his shoulder to Sondra that he was “no longer able to carry on.” That was all. He said nothing else to her. He figured that she was sensible enough to know what was coming next, especially since she had just stared death in the face a few minutes ago. His run for freedom had turned into an infelicitous saunter of defeat. From there, the burden of the load on his back caused his legs to give out. He fell down to the earth, with only one throbbing knee and two shaking arms keeping his body from collapsing flat to the ground. The intrepid young warrior wouldn’t dare allow himself to fall prostrate - not even in his most feeble moment. He was going to be a soldier until the very end. As he lie there on the ground on bended knee, he purposely stuck his neck out as far as he possibly could from his body, his posture suggesting that he wanted Mr. Brendle to do whatever he had to do quickly. Carl’s only wish in that moment was to be taken out first so that he wouldn’t have to hear Sondra’s useless pleas for help as she was hacked to death. To have her haunting squalls be the last thing running through his mind before he died would surely cause him to ask his Maker to eternally burn his soul in hell for the misfortune he had caused to come upon an innocent, defenseless child. In spite of the great amount of pain he was in at the moment, had Sondra still been attached to his back, he more than likely would have attempted to reach the woods one last time just so that he could have the satisfaction of knowing that he did everything that he possibly could to try and save a life. Now, all his final thoughts consisted of were regret and remorse.
The impact of Carl’s fall had once again caused the grip that Sondra had on his neck to loosen up, but there was nothing he could have done to save her this time; he himself was completely helpless. When Sondra had fallen off of his back, she ended up rolling over a few times before eventually winding up on her back, about a foot away from him. Paranoid, she immediately propped herself up on her elbows and began swiveling her head around frantically in an effort to locate Carl, whom she was banking on to protect her from the lurking Mr. Brendle. Locating Carl was easier than she had thought it would be, but when she saw the condition that he was in, that was when she really went into panic mode. She imagined herself being dragged from where she was resting back to the creepy shack at any given time now to be brutally murdered. But where was their pursuer? Hadn’t he just been behind them? The whole scenario was getting a little too weird for Sondra now. But one thing was certain: he couldn’t have just vanished into thin air. Then, in the distance, several bright flickers of light caught the girl’s eye. The light was being produced by the sun bouncing off of the wedge of Mr. Brendle’s ax. He was returning to his home. Mr. Brendle, who suffered from a rare form of dwarfism, had overexerted himself by engaging in such arduous physical activity. Moments before Carl had collapsed, he had to abandon his chase.
The mischievous Carl had dodged a close call. After recuperating from his fatigue, he sincerely apologized to Sondra for what he had just caused and promised her that he would never put her in harm’s way again. But most importantly, he beseeched her to keep her promise about not breaking a word of what had just taken place to his parents. Yet, here he was at the dinner table sticking his foot in his own mouth.
Since such little information was known about the peculiar Mr. Brendle, Sondra’s made-up fib about being his daughter was indeed plausible. What Sondra knew her surrogate family wouldn’t have found believable was her proclamation of who her actual family was. The story of Mr. Sillow and his innocent young victim Amanda had been a long-standing urban legend within the small town for decades, and Sondra had quickly been apprised of the fear-inducing tale by the Peck children shortly after meeting them. Nobody within the community had seen Mr. Sillow ever since he determined that his life was in jeopardy, and not a single soul had laid eyes on Amanda since her disappearance when she was just a young girl. Popular belief within the community was that the two were living together in an underground bunker. It was the easiest explanation for their disappearances. Although Sondra felt guilty about withholding the truth from The Pecks since she cared about them so much, she knew that she had to do what was in her best interest. If she was to come out with the truth, she was sure that she would have been banished by them. Instead, Mr. and Mrs. Peck told her that it would be okay if she moved in with them after agreeing that their household surely had to be a more beneficial one for a child rather than the household of Mr. Brendle. Not surprisingly, Sondra didn’t turn down their proposal. However, wary of the fact that she was living a lie and deceiving a family that was gracious enough to accept her as one of their own, she never again spoke of family matters with them out of fear that she would accidentally say something that she shouldn’t have. Thankfully, the Pecks never brought up the topic of her family again, either. But the startling urban legend that the Peck children had shared with her regarding her parents’ pasts remained a burning thought on her mind for years. In one of her last encounters with her mother, Sondra would try and get to the bottom of everything. No matter what it took, she wasn’t going to settle for anything less than the truth.