Thursday, August 15, 2013

Dusting Off an Old Yarn

I stumbled upon this (very) old story on a floppy disk. It was one of the first stories that I wrote and submitted to magazines. It may have even been submitted to an anthology or two. I was in my 20s when I wrote it and it never sold, of course.

Sometimes I dust these old stories off (when I chance upon them), and figure I'll post them here. For my own educational benefit. To see where I was at that stage of my attempt to become a writer--what I was doing right, and what I was doing wrong.

As I recall, I had in mind to make the protagonist of this story a continuing character. I wanted to write many stories about him and to some day see them gathered into a single collection. Also, I wrote this story so long ago that there was no such thing as a game called 'Simsville'. Thus, the now-awkward name of the small town in the story.

Oh, well.



HOUSE CALLING
By
James Robert Smith
                     

      The dead can be a frightening lot. Mostly, they're as quiet as can be. But sometimes...
      It's not funny how it happens; it's strange. I've been asked how, but I don't really know. It's just something deep inside that cannot be denied. Doo doo doo. Wah.
     I found the house on the first pass through Simville. What was disturbing about this particular calling was that I had been through this quiet little North Carolina town at least seven or eight times. Back at the turn of the century, it had been called Leesburg for about a year before the people voted the old name back in; there really hadn't been that much Confederate sympathy there. Simville was only a few miles past the Virginia border where I lived, just at the edge of the hills that lead way on up to the Blue Ridge. But this was the first time I'd felt that awful tug. That was the way it was, sometimes.
     There was a big, fading for sale sign in front of the place. The red For Sale was streaked with the white underpaint, but I made out the realtor's name and phone number; so I went by their small office and got a key. Then I drove back to the house.
     It was a very nice place. Two stories, 2,950 square ft htd space, 2.5 baths, two car garage, .9 acre lot. The house was situated in a neighborhood of similar homes, Caddies and Saabs and a couple Mercedes parked in concrete drives. Nice. But I wouldn't be taking this place. Not as is, anyway.
     The yard, I had noted, was in surprisingly good shape for a house that had been empty for as long as this one had. "Six years," the pretty little agent had told me. "You just take the keys and go look. I've got an appointment now, so just bring the keys back when you're done." She was lying. She had no appointment. It was just that she was sensitive to certain things; just a little bit of what I suffered with. I wondered what she had seen in that place. There was certainly some fear in her clear green eyes. "Um," she had added as I was leaving, "that small key is for the garage, but it's real dusty, so you probably don't want to go in there. I wouldn't suggest it."
     "Thank you," I said. "Thank you."
     I parked my own sedan in the street in front of the house, beneath a big old chestnut oak that made good shade in this summer sun. The whole street was lined with the oak's sisters: a parade of them standing on either side of the road. What a nice, old neighborhood. There were jays and mockingbirds screeching at one another. Little else disturbed the warm air. A lawn mower some blocks away muttered.
     There were three evenly lain red brick steps leading from the sidewalk to the yard. Whoever cut the grass had done so recently; but no one really cared for the hedges and azalea beds, so those particular plots of green were rather ragged.
     The house had a long, concrete porch. There were rusted hooks set overhead, waiting for hanging baskets. No rocking chair, though; one creaking in the breezeless air would have been a nice touch. Ah, well. I unlocked the white-painted door and opened it.
     Inside, the house smelled...empty. The air was stale, with a tiny hint of latex paint that had been fresh six or seven years before. Someone had liked pastels, eggshell blue and white trim all down the foyer and the wall leading up the staircase. The floors were varnished heart-of-pine. Someone had taken great care to sand and polish each and every section of that floor. The bannister was pine, too, rubbed smoothe and stained a muted orange-yellow that did not quite clash with the wall color.
     I went inside. And someone was with me. Ah, there was no doubt. A powerful someone, biding its awful time and watching me. There was arrogance there. It didn't realize what I was. But, it would, if I hung around too long. Once more, I wondered what the realtor had seen. I'm sure I would find out.
     The quiet was shattered with a plastic clacking as I hit the light switch in the foyer. I went on down the hall, hearing my hard soles on the heart-of-pine. The door was still open. Sunlight was preferable in such places; no protection, really, but soothing, at any rate.
     Slowly, I went round and round the place. That presence went with me, and I did my best to ignore it. They always know, if you acknowledge them, and then things can get nasty. Things would get nasty soon enough, so I didn't give it any satisfaction. I've even trained myself to disallow the hackles on the back of my neck. Takes quite a lot of will power; but I've had quite a lot of practice.
      The kitchen was a source of ill will. The cupboards were original equipment, and when I opened the one closest to the floor, I saw something red and wet. There were little fingers pale and stained amidst the mess. Clenching my jaw, I closed the cupboard, and the door thumped home with the workmanship all good carpenters exhibited eighty years ago.
     Next was the downstairs bath. I ran water in the sink and into the heavy, claw-footed tub. No water could ever remove those black stains. A child whimpered and sighed death. Someone chuckled. It took some courage, even for me, to tour the second floor. By the time I came back down those stairs, closed and locked the door, I was sure that the presence suspected I was more than what I seemed. Too late. Too late for both of us.
     I sat on the stoop of the front porch, drew a cloth out of my shirt, and I mopped my brow. Really, I was getting too old for this sort of thing. Why, I had barely even noticed that the young woman who had given me the keys was so pretty. Oh, and I thought of her as young. Me, oh my.
     A shadow on the street roused me: it was a little girl all dressed in yellow with lace frills. Buckled shoes and white socks; white bows in her hair. She looked fine for an Easter Sunday, if it had been an Easter Sunday. I watched her skip down the street.
     A boy came running after her. Could have been her brother, since he had that same strawberry hair. He was wearing slacks, but his shirt was off and he went racing past. Trying to find little sis for mom, I figured.


     The slope leading up the street produced eight year old boys on a pair of fine bikes. Antiques, really. Bikes like those could fetch a hefty price at an antique show. I watched them go away down the hill, their caps sitting solidly: two buddies going off together. Forever.
     And then the lad on his sled. I heard the runners hissing on the snow and boy and contraption came to rest on the sidewalk in front of the house. I looked at him, lying there all bundled up; his mother had taken great care to make sure he would not catch the Cold. He had his knees bent as he lay on his belly, and his big, dark boots heeled against his butt. His cap had earflaps that hung down over bright cheeks, a kind of hat that was already old-fashioned by the time I had been his age. We stared at one another. His eyes were big. Pale. Dead.
     I sat and looked into those eyes. It was all blank. What can be reflected in the eyes of a loved child whose last moments were of pain, whose last gift was death. I looked at him, surrounded by some snowfall gone in the decades. The street all behind him was covered by the recent storm; a deep one that made the place truly beautiful. Kneeling before him, I asked.
     "It won't let any of you go, will it?" The air was cold. My own cheeks were ruddy, and I was glad for my salt and pepper beard.
     "No." His voice was harsh. Whatever innocense he'd had was killed with him.
     "Does it have a secret? I need a weak spot if I'm going to help you."
     "It was the momma and daddy."
     "What? What do you mean?" Up the street, the snow was fading.
     "They all fooled everyone. All three of them."
     Before I could say another word, the boy was gone, and I was kneeling there on the sidewalk staring at grass reaching up through fissures. I stood and looked to the house. The front door stood open.
    ***
      Back at the realtor's, the young green-eyed beauty was there. We were alone: she at her desk, the door to the big man's office solidly shut. I stood there and held out the keys for her. She was staring up at them as she reached to retrieve them.
     "You didn't go in that nasty old garage, did you?" There was a clink as I dropped the two keys into her soft palm.
     "No. I didn't need to."
     She put the keys quickly down and looked up. "You didn't need to?"
     "No. I saw quite enough in the house, itself."
     "It's just an empty house," she said.
     "Oh, no. We both know better than that. What did you see in that garage, Ms. Locke?"
     Her reply was to draw open the top right drawer of her desk and toss the keys inside. "I don't know what you're talking about. It's just an old house with a very dusty garage. Someone needs to go over and clean out that garage." Her green eyes were downcast. I could tell that she didn't enjoy lying, nor was she very adept at it.
     "Who owned that house?"
     "The last owners were a couple named Hampton. Mr. Hampton worked for IBM and you know how they get moved around. They only lived there for a few months before he got transferred. Right after their little girl was born and."
     "They didn't like the place, did they?" I had cut her off. "Especially with an infant in the house, I suppose.
     "Whose house was it, Ms. Locke? I mean, I can go elsewhere for the information, but I think you probably know what I need to know." I waited.
     "What do you want to know about it? Are you a writer? You're not related to those people, are you? Well, I guess you wouldn't be asking me who owned it if you were related to them. What difference does it make?"
     While she sputtered, I pulled a chair up to her desk and had a seat. "Please. As long as there are no other clients about, tell me about the house. It will save me a lot of digging about in dusty records; and as much as I adore libraries, I'd like to spare myself the reference work."
     Ms. Locke pushed her chair back a bit, straightened her posture, and pressed down on her blue dress, adjusting the wrinkles in her lap. "It belonged to a man named Marcus Sim."
     "As in Simville?"
     "Yes. Well, he was a grandson, or great-grandson. I don't exactly know the family tree.
     "Anyway, he and his wife lived there. They both owned stock in Cannon Mills and about all they did was tend their house and raise their son."
     "A son."
     "Yes. His name was Alton James Sim. Apparently, he was sickly, or crippled in some way. They all pretty much just kept to themselves."
     "When was this?"
     "It was in the forties. The late thirties and early forties. Like I said, I don't know all the details."
     "They were well off, I expect."
     "Yes. But they were all dead by--I think it was 1942, or so."
     "Dead?"
     "Oh, yes. What happened was that there were children vanishing from around town. It didn't all happen at once, of course. But over a three or four year period, seven children disappeared off the streets of Simville. It was really bad for back then. I mean, if something like that were happening even today, it would be big news in Simville. We have a very quiet town here," she added, so accustomed to the hard sell.
     "I'm sure you do," I said.
     "I don't know how it happened, but a police officer kind of put everything together, and he figured that the kids who were missing had all been seen going toward the neighborhood where the Sim house is located. This guy was new to town, and when he tried to ask around, about the Sims, I mean, he got stonewalled. I mean, the elder Mr. Sim was a big shot and everything. They didn't socialize much, but he still kept his hand in at the lodge, if you understand."
     "I understand perfectly."
     "Finally, a kid vanished whose father had a stack of money, and he was ready to hear anything. The officer went to that man on the sly, and since he was about as rich as the Sims, he pushed to have the Sim house searched."
     "And what happened?"
     Ms. Locke glanced at the door, as if expecting her boss to suddenly enter and end the story. "Well, like I said, you have to understand that I don't have all of the details. But, from what I know, the elder Mr. Sim got wind of it, through a crony in city government, and knew the police were about to get a search warrant to go through his house. And he. Well. He killed his wife and his son. And then he shot himself in the head. In the kitchen, I think."
     "You think?"
     She rubbed at her eyes, and drew in a shuddering breath. "Yeah. The kitchen."
     "Where did they find the children?"
     "You didn't go in the garage, did you?"
     "No."
     I could see that there were tears in her eyes. "The garage has dirt floors. He had buried them in there. Seven graves. Six feet down. He had buried them deep so that there was never a problem of stench. No one knew."
     Before I stood, I reached out and patted Ms. Locke on the hand. "You've seen the children out there, haven't you?"
     "I. I saw something." And then, "Why are you so interested in all this? You don't want to live there, do you?"
     At the door, I turned to her. "Oh, no. No. But I think he's trying to come back. Some of them so hate to leave that they have to come back. And he's coming.
     "In fact, I fear he's already done it."
     Even I wasn't sure exactly what was up. But the evil dead have their ways.
    ***
      Simville had a pair of funeral homes, both of them long-standing and well established. There was Jenkins and there was Brown. In the phone book, there was a picture of the elder Mr. Brown, and his skin was, too, so I quickly ruled him out. No white man in 1942 in this part of the country was going to have had a black man as his mortician. So of course I went to visit the Jenkins Funeral Home.
     The building and chapel were located not terribly far from the house where Mr. Sim had committed his crimes. There were only a pair of cars parked in the lot, so I assumed there was nothing awfully busy going on. I left my own car in the designated parking area and went in. The place was carpeted in the requisite red pile, and the walls were appropriately pale and the air comfortably conditioned to a fall-like temperature. They obviously were expecting no one, for the music being piped into the foyer was flavored by the voice of Mick Jagger singing the praises of brown sugar.
     I stepped into the adjoining area, which was large and which was also being used as a showroom. An astounding variety of caskets were on display, all of them yawning wide, revealing their plush interiors. There was part of a vault, too, showing how your dear departed would be kept safe from further harm. Of course, I had seen vaults disinterred, and they were invariably so full of water after a short while, that it would take a large crane and winch to lift one free of the muddy earth. Better tell the buyer to pack a bathing suit.
     "Damn," I heard someone hiss. Mick Jagger immediately shut his enormous lips. "May I help you, sir?"
     I turned to see a man of half my age approaching. This could, at best, be the grandson of the man with whom I needed to speak. I offered him my hand. "Hello," I said.
     "I'm Clark Jenkins." He had much too cheery an attitude for this job. Of course he was probably doing quite well, so he had a lot to be happy about.
     I introduced myself, and when he looked confused, explained that I was from out of town. "I'm really only here to talk to, I would assume, your grandfather. Was your grandfather the mortician here in '42? It wouldn't have been your dad, would it?"
     "You're right. That would be Granddad. But he died five years ago." Died, not passed away; the boy was still learning. "My father might be able to help you out, but he's on vacation. Fishing up in Yellow Knife."
     "Oh. Oh, well." I sighed.
     "Maybe I can help you out. What's it about? Did we take care of a relative? A friend of the family? We keep very tight records here." He smiled. A genuine one.
     "Well. Maybe. Did your grandfather ever talk about Mr. Sim, who committed suicide in the early forties? The man who killed all of those children."
     Young Mr. Jenkins could not hide the look of shock that paled his smiling face. "Granddad never talked to me about it."
     "I was afraid of that."
     "But my dad told me everything. He was there. What do you want to know?" And he was a joker. Nice kid, really. Wrong business for him.
     "You don't mind talking about it? You have the time?"
     "Sure. Come on back to the office and we can have a coffee or a soft drink and I'll tell you what I can."
     In the office, which was as cool and plush as the inside of one of his coffins, we found cold soft drinks in the refrigerator and had them in plastic cups full of cracked ice. We sipped carbonated water while I waited for him to talk.
     "My grandfather was very busy after the killings. All of those children had to be disinterred. Autopsies had to be performed. He did all of the forensic work here at that time, too, you know. Most small town morticians performed that service in those days. It was disturbing, even for him. Bad business."
     "What I need to know are some of the details. How Mr. Sim killed the children. How he killed his wife and son. That sort of thing."
     "Well, first of all, Mr. Sim didn't kill anyone."
     "What?" I leaned toward the younger man.
     "It wasn't Mr. Sim who killed the children, and it wasn't Mr. Sim who killed his family. It was their child."
     "Their child?"
     "Oh, yes. You know, my grandfather had met the child a number of times. Always thought he was a strange boy. Thin. Pale. A weak kind of kid. Especially as a teen, he thought there was something terribly wrong with the boy.
     "Mr. and Mrs. Sim obviously thought so, too, because they pretty much socially retreated after the child was born. They kept it hidden away as much as possible. Brought in tutors, kept it out of school, and out of church. They just lived in that house. Granddad would go by their house, and sometimes see the child in the back garden. That was about it."
     "You keep referring to him as it. Was he deformed?"
     "Well," his eyes got shifty, as if he were about to divulge a great secret. "He wasn't actually a boy, although Mr. and Mrs. Sim dressed it that way, and presented it as a boy."
     "What are you saying?"
     "When my granddad undressed the body, he noticed first that it had breasts. Not large breasts, but very feminine. And there was a general lack of body hair. What you would expect of a young woman, not a young man.
     "And when it was fully nude, he saw a vagina."
     "The child was a girl?"
     "Well, mostly. He did a complete examination, and in the fold on the left side of the labia majora, he found a very tiny, rudimentary penis. There's a term for that, but I can't recall it. My father could tell you. The child was almost hermaphroditic. Just the mildest of surgeries could have taken care of the problem.
     "Out of curiosity, my grandfather performed a total autopsy. He was very curious. And the younger Mr. Sim was a woman. Vagina. Uterus. Ovaries. Fallopian tubes. Everything in order and in place. She just had that vestigal penis and scrotum that a quick snip of a razor blade could have taken care of. They tried to raise that child as a boy. And all along it was female."
     "My God."
     "The official story was that the younger Mr. Sim did away with all of those children and then the family was a murder/suicide. But that wasn't it, at all. The child did it all. My grandfather saw the gunshot wounds, and Mr. Sim could not have self-inflicted his; nor could Mrs. Sim. It was the child. Only the child could have done it. Of course, he just speculates that it killed all of those children, and that Mr. Sim only buried them after they were killed.
     "You can imagine what a person would be like who was raised as Mr. and Mrs. Sim raised that child."
     "Good God. How could they?"
  ***
      The day was gone. I had learned all that I could, and I had gathered with that knowledge what weapons I hoped I would need. Ms. Locke could not know it, but I had copied the keys: house and garage, too. The light was fading, but as I said earlier, sunlight really does nothing to protect one from the kind of thing I knew I would have to face. So the falling of night mattered little to me. I parked my car in front of an empty lot a block away from the Sim house, and I walked on down, timing it so that it would be completely dark by the time I arrived. It wouldn't do for a neighbor to see me entering the place at such a late hour.
     A dog barked some distance down the way. But when I stopped at my destination, it shut its trap. The neighbors who lived nearest the Sim house were either away, or had retired for the night. There were no lights on there, either. I decided to use the front door.
     As I went up those three little steps, I thought that I would begin to feel that presence that had made itself so evident that afternoon. But, there was nothing. Just my own breathing in the dark, and the far away barking of that same dog. The night was particularly dark, and the few streetlights on this lane were just hints of bluegreen through the oaks. I inserted my key in the lock and opened the door. A hush met me as I entered.
     Where was the assault that I had expected? Where were the psychic screams? The attempts at insinuation into my own fears? These were things I had encountered many times before, and which I expected now. But there was nothing--just the dark. Those faint creaks and groanings were indeed the natural complaints of such an old house, and only that. I closed the door behind me and peered down the long hallway, up the staircase.
     Nothing. I waited for a moment. Still nothing and nothing. After a minute or two, I went through the house, planting myself in those spots that had most disturbed me that day. In the downstairs bath, where I was certain at least some of the children had been bled, I saw not a thing and felt not the slightest pimpling of gooseflesh. In the kitchen, where Mr. Sim had had his brains blown out, there was only the pitch blackness of a moonless night in a house with no lights. Such a presence as this would surely not have flown.
     There was the garage. If the children had been there, perhaps that was where it most liked to reside. I unlocked the rear exit, peering out and toward the house next door which was hidden by a curtain of hemlocks. No one was there. With the grass hissing wet beneath my feet, I hurried through the remnants of the back garden and went to the garage. It was a large structure, built solidly of red brick and trimmed in white, like the house itself. There was a side entrance, which my key would open.
     The door stood wide, already.
     I quietly made my way to the door. Locks, I knew, were nothing to the kind of thing that resided here. But I took a good look at it, reaching out and examining the lock with my left hand. There was a key lodged there. No ghost used keys. To Hell with it. I spoke.
     "All right. Who's in here? Who is it?"
     I was answered by a muffled whimper. The frightened whimper of a child. I pulled out the penlight from my coat pocket and aimed it. There was a small tractor that the realtor must have used on the big lawn, and beyond it I could see a pair of legs jutting out. It was a child, bound at the knees with some kind of pale cord. The white skin was mottled with the dirt that made the floor of the garage; but they moved. And this was no ancient shade of a child killed in the days of singing cowboys: each foot bore a pair of slippers adorned with cartoon mutant turtles. Another whimper, muffled as by a gag. I stepped in, shining my penlight about the big room, trying to see behind every post and each shadow formed by stacks of wood and odd tools.
     To my left there was a flash of movement, and a familiar blue pattern came out from the shadows. My penlight speared a white face.
     "Ms. Locke! What are you doing?"
     Whang!
     The shovel barely missed my head. There were sparks as the head of it whizzed past my temple and rebounded from the brick wall behind me. I dodged, to defend myself, but she had already dropped the shovel and darted over to the child.
     I shined the light at her again. There was a knife in her hand, and she had it pressed firmly to the boy's neck, lifting him up into her lap, her left arm locked firmly over the child's chest. The boy, four years old or so, struggled to breathe through his cloth gag.
     "Stay away from me," she said. But it wasn't the voice I had heard that afternoon. Ms. Locke was gone. I was sure of it.
     "Alton."
     "Stay away from me. Stay away or I swear I will kill this boy. You know I will." The very sharp blade made a small cut that bled.
     "Alton. Let him go. I won't let you kill this child. I won't." I inched forward, but was stopped by new pressure on the child's neck. A small trickle came down his throat.
     "You can't stop me. No one could ever stop me. I never let them go." Alton's girlish voice hissed out at me through the dark. I kept my penlight trained on her eyes.
     "You have Ms. Locke, and you've kidnapped this child. But you won't go any further than this, Alton. I promise you."
     "What are you going to do? Kill me?" Her laugh was quite maddening.
     "Alton. There's no one left to blame you. Listen to me. There's no one left to hate you. Please. Let the child go. Free Ms. Locke. She never did you any harm." Although I pleaded, I stayed where I was.
     "Oh, yes. They all hate me. They're all still here. You. You hate me!"
     "Alton, please. I don't hate you. I swear. And just let the others go. If you let them go, they will not hate you. Your own hatred and fear is what keeps them trapped here with you. Let them go, and you'll see."
     Alton smiled at me with Ms. Locke's mouth. It was truly frightening. "No. You're lying. I'm going to kill the boy, and then I'm going to kill you. I'm young and you're old. I can kill you."
     The others were here. Suddenly, I could feel them all. They were all gathered about, held here by Alton Sim's unquenched hatred. They wanted free of that awful power, but were helpless before it; unable to go until Alton had left. I reached out, grasping for.
     "Alton." I channeled her in, her voice sounding in my throat. "Child."
     "Mother." Alton's face hardened. As did her grip on the knife.
     "Child, please. Let them go. Let us all go."
     "I hate you! I hate you!"
     "I'm sorry, Alton. I'm so very sorry."
     Alton stood, dragging the boy with her. She retreated further into the shadows. We followed.
     "Alton." It was his father, now. His voice rasped up through my own. "We're sorry. We loved you. We thought you would...become a man. We thought you'd be our son. We didn't understand, Alton. Please. We loved you."
     "Damn you, old man! You hated me! No one loved me and no one will forgive me!"
     The children. All of the children were there. I let them use me, let them channel through me. They were speaking.
     "We don't hate you, Alton. We never hated you." They spoke as one, a chorus issuing from my single throat.
     Alton had retreated to the back of the garage. We stood now over what had been the small graves. The tension was going out of the knifehand. The captured boy was edging to the floor, his body slumping to the earth. Alton was losing her grip.
     Still holding the penlight, I stepped quickly forward and took the knife from the slackening grip. The children reached out with my arms and held Alton. "We understand. You were in pain, Alton." For a moment, she made an attempt to struggle. I had dropped the penlight, and I could feel her against me, sobbing.
     "We forgive you." Their voices were in song. And then.
     They were all gone. All of them.
     Ms. Locke collapsed. I suffered a faint moment, but recovered in time to catch her. Carefully, I lowered her to the floor of the garage; and then I turned to the child. He seemed to be okay as I undid the knots that held him. The blindfold fell to the floor. Quickly, I carried him out to the lawn, and then retrieved a reviving Ms. Locke.
     In the night, as we sat there, the two of them confused, not unscarred by the experience, I looked up at the Sim house. It was empty, now. Someday, soon I hoped, I too would be able to go home...

2 comments:

Lawrence Roy Aiken said...

I remember you telling me about your concept for the Meddler back in 1987. I'd wondered what became of that. You might want to think of a cycle of stories you could write, with a "mythology" arc that takes him to a certain dramatic place. I really enjoyed this story.

James Robert Smith said...

Thanks!

Yeah, this was a story of "The Meddler". There was another one, also unpublished that I re-tooled and gave him a different name. Sold it to a magazine that was never printed. Those were the days!