In the Home.
That a home of any size is a cage is a lesson Theo Kane and Robby Cowperthwait learned, but not quickly. Both of their families belonged to that rare sort that knows it pays to be polite, and will go to any lengths to maintain the illusion of decency, however high the cost, and no matter how vanishing the reward, if only to say that they came out the more gracious and hospitable in the end. It began when the Kanes could not settle on a house as quickly as they sold theirs to the Cowperthwaits, whose situation was exactly the opposite. Ashamed of their dithering but more afraid of being perceived as deceptive, they were frank with the Kanes; and Arnold and Angie Kane, knowing well the situation of the Cowperthwaits, having gone through the same ordeal before Theo with their first apartment, assured them that it was no trouble at all. They would find a hotel to stay the week until things were sorted.
Jenna and Ben Cowperthwait exchanged significant glances, hesitated, and then suggested a week might not be long enough. Ben had been pink-slipped from his long-time job deep into the house-buying process, when the last thing they needed was to halve their current income, and thus there was a financial element to their inability to close on another house. A hotel would cause so much more inconvenience than the Cowperthwaits could ever be comfortable foisting upon the Kanes, especially when the house they had loved, and that the Kanes would soon, was perfectly capable of holding both families and more. Free of charge, too! So the Kanes moved in the following week, but incapable of taking without giving, Arnold and Angie demanded the responsibilities of dishwashing, laundry, and every other day of cooking, which the Cowperthwaits politely refused. But gradually, at the Kanes’ insistence, they broke down and allowed that each of the listed duties be split between the adults. That seemed to settle it until Arnold, in a fit of magnanimity, offered one night to pay the charges they incurred in electricity, heat, and water for the Cowperthwaits, unwittingly escalating their cold war of little kindnesses to outright blows of selfless charity.
Paying the bills was out of the question, Ben assured the Kanes, and for as long as they were to under the same roof, the Cowperthwaits would count no expense against the Kanes. It was, after all, the Cowperthwaits’s fault they were in this predicament at all, and so it was his belief that the Kanes should suffer no further penalty for mistakes they hadn’t made. But it was precisely for that reason, countered the Kanes, that they would take it upon themselves to help where possible. No one had helped them with their first apartment when it refused to sell, and the least they could do for the Cowperthwaits was what hadn’t been done for them. This was far too kind a sentiment for the Cowperthwaits to ever repay, they assured the Kanes, and so they could do little more than to backtrack to their original agreement of splitting chores. But the Kanes weren’t in it for sentiment, and certainly not for pay. Had the situation been reversed, Angie Kane confided, she was more than certain the Cowperthwaits would do just the same for them.
Cornered, the final blow dealt, the Cowperthwaits conceded at last to the Kanes and shook on it.
In the next room, away from the politics of generosity, Theo and Robby struck up a friendship more easy and natural than their parents prop-grinning at one another over pies and drinks could possibly carry on, and it had formed over the ratty deck of cards Robby filched from his father’s desk the day the Kanes moved in. Arnold Kane had taught his son Go Fish and War, and it had been their pastime in Georgia to play a few rounds under the porchlight, waiting for the lightning bugs to spark in the sticky blue dusk. Robby knew Go Fish and had learned solitaire from his mother, with whom he usually played after supper until the window by the sink got dark, but he had taken quickly to the simplicity of War. He was naturally a speaker and Robby naturally a listener, and so it wasn’t long before Robby was taking round after round from Theo, who was only happy to watch Robby’s skill develop.
Robby was on a hot streak today, and although he demurred whenever Theo dramatically threw up his hands and rolled his eyes, he could see that Robby was enjoying himself. Although neither boy had the words to express their friendliest affections just yet, they had relaxed into the sort of easy rapport and nonverbal cueing that could have gotten them mistaken for brothers one day, able to recount their troubles to one another without fear of reproach. This Theo recognized as the mark of a rare friendship, and yet, though he tried, he could not bring himself to tell Robby about the looks Ben Cowperthwait gave him when there was no one else to see.
He had tried to mention how, in the laundry room two morning prior where Arnold Kane had volunteered him to help while he went for groceries and their mothers palavered upstairs, Theo had noticed that Robby’s father would withdraw to let Theo do the work of loading the dryer, which required him to stoop. Theo, unaccustomed to self-awareness, had trouble under Mr. Cowperthwait’s attentive gaze. It became like a physical pressure, an interference through which Theo had to fight to move. He dropped clothing more than once, and although Mr. Cowperthwait was there to assist with a hand large enough to scoop his shirts and his mother’s jeans in one swipe, he brushed close enough to Theo for him to catch a whiff of the sweat behind his ears. When Theo spilled the detergent, Mr. Cowperthwait produced a rag and went on picking at the laundry, but he could hardly keep his eyes off Theo as he pushed the rag through the suds with his foot.
It’s quicker if you get down and scrub with your hands, Mr. Cowperthwait had said. Theo had hesitated, but confused by the intensity of his gaze and growing hot underneath it, took the advice. He still regretted it, but just as the means to describe his kinship with Robby were beyond his grasp, so the queasy, greasy sensations that Mr. Cowperthwait’s silent regard instilled were his to brood upon, and his alone. Theo could still smell Mr. Cowperthwait’s sweat. He put it out of his mind and returned to the game.
“You’re getting really good,” Theo remarked.
Robby smiled. “I’m just lucky today.”
“Sure thing. You better not be cheating!”
“How would I cheat?” Robby said.
“I bet you’d like to know,” Theo said. They flipped their cards and Robby took both, just as he had the last four rounds. “Ah,” Theo said, throwing his hands up again. “You sure you never played this before?”
“Hey, do you know how to play other card games? Besides Go Fish and solitary, you know any others?”
“You mean solitaire.”
“Yeah, teach me that one.”
“Um, that’s kind of a hard one. It would take a long time.”
“I learn quick. Did I ever tell you I can play guitar pretty good? My uncle’s been in a lot of bands, he gave me his guitar and he said I was the quickest learner he ever taught. I can play ‘Smoke on the Water.’ Probably still could if you had a guitar around.”
“What’s ‘Smoke on the Water’?”
“You don’t know Deep Purple?”
Theo saw a little flash in Robby’s eyes and how his shoulders hunched.
“No, I do,” said Robby.
“But you don’t know ‘Smoke on the Water’? That’s their song.”
“Oh, I know it.”
“How’s it go?”
“I don’t know,” Robby said. Theo had never known someone to give up so quickly and honestly, but where he would have given his Georgia friends hell for it, he felt instead a little sting of pity. Theo mimed the placement of his hands along an invisible guitar as he sounded out the rhythm, and was happy to see how Robby’s shoulders unsprung as he exclaimed, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what it’s called! ”
“Yeah, they rock,” said Theo, dropping his hands and sweeping the cards back up. “It’s harder to play guitar than it looks because you have to know where the frets are, and then you have to press ’em right when you’re strumming, too. It’s even trickier when you’re doing chords.”
“What’s a fret?”
“It’s like the little, um--they’re like the notes on a guitar, kinda, so you have to press the strings to the frets when you strum to actually get the note.”
“Yeah. But I picked it up quick. You probably could pick it up too, if I taught you right.”
Robby’s face lit up again. “I always wanted to be in a band.”
“My uncle is really good, he’s been in so many.”
“Let’s play solitaire.”
“Oh, yeah, teach me, I’ll pick it up quick.”
It took fifteen minutes before Robby and Theo concluded that Theo would not be picking it up quick, or picking it up at all. He had too little attention span and there were too many nuances to the game, which he found tedious and sterile. The only reason he didn’t say so ten minutes sooner was because he could see that Robby found in the patience and delay of the game what Theo found in rock music and War.
“I’m sorry, man,” said Theo. “I can’t do this.”
“It’s okay,” Robby said, pushing the cards back together. He didn’t seem fazed. “Wanna play Go Fish?”
“Do you have Monopoly?”
“No, I’ve been asking for it, but we’ve got Trouble. We’ve got Sorry, too. I think we have Scrabble, too.”
“I like Sorry,” said Theo.
“I just don’t know where it is right now,” Robby said apologetically. “We packed a lot of stuff and I don’t know which box is which except where our clothes are.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Theo. “Huh.”
They were quiet for a moment as Robby shuffled the deck. Theo started to rise, thinking he would ask his parents whether they might be able to ask for a couple of Capri Suns and sit out back. There was still some light left in the day, and he’d spied a creek nearby with rocks good for skipping.
But Robby snapped his fingers. “Let me show you something,” he said.
“In your room? What’s there I haven’t seen?”
“No, just come on.”
Puzzled, Theo followed Robby down the hall, sucking in the smell of cooking meat as they skirted the kitchen. It was Mrs. Cowperthwait’s day, and he was quietly relieved to see that Mr. Cowperthwait was not assisting, gone on an errand. There was far less to take pleasure in on the second floor, where the bedroom doors seemed grudgingly spaced along the narrow hall, as if the builders hadn’t intended the house to be inhabited by any more than some drifter or recluse. Robby led him past their shared room to the master bedroom at the end of the hall, and exhibiting none of his characteristic reserve, pushed the door open, crept in, and beckoned Theo along, who hesitated in the gloomy corridor. The Cowperthwaits had surrendered the room to Theo’s parents, but it was in his upbringing to respect the private spaces of others, especially of adults, and to not venture where he was not invited. But seeing Robby so fearless goaded his ego, so in spite of his reservations, he slipped in after Robby and approached the closet together.
“Look there,” Robby said, his voice low.
Without meaning to, Theo matched his pitch:
Robby went to the panel in the wall beside the closet and traced its frame in the plaster, but Theo couldn’t make heads or tails of what the panel was supposed to be. There was a small, dark hole where it was evident something had once attached to the wall. “Is it a safe?” he asked, thinking of how rich people in cartoons hid their money behind paintings in little safes. Robby shook his head. A smile went forming on his lips, but the gravity of his expression discomfited Theo as they stood there, speaking in low voices; trespassers in a place of adults.
“There’s a door to the attic in the closet,” Robby said. “I didn’t know we had one for a long time. It’s up there.”
“What’s up there?”
“The thing I wanna show you.”
“What is it?”
“It’s that,” Robby said, pointing to the mysterious panel in the wall. “There’s another one downstairs and another one down-downstairs, in the basement.”
Theo frowned. “Why won’t you tell me what it is? If it’s not a safe or something, what is it? Is it a door?”
“Kind of. Just come to the attic with me. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
The idea of Robby hurting him was so absurd that Robby’s assurance had exactly the opposite effect on Theo: his discomfort peaked, and he began to shake his head, casting glances at the doorway to the bedroom, where he was irrationally certain that one of their parents would materialize at any moment. It was Mr. Cowperthwait in his mind. The sunlight streaming dustily through the bedroom window exposed, but did not warm, a sensation to which he was not accustomed, and which quickly upset him.
“I’m going back downstairs,” he said. “Let’s just go to the creek and skip rocks. I don’t want to be inside anymore. We’re always inside.”
Robby’s face fell. Another sting of pity took Theo in the chest, but he was growing more anxious with every moment they spent before the closet, staring at that panel and its small, dark hole. “It’s a dumbwaiter,” Robby said, and for a moment, Theo hadn’t a clue what he might be referring to, and turned a nonplussed eye on Robby. “This thing,” Robby said, pointing to the panel. “In the attic. It’s a dumbwaiter. I thought…I don’t know. You can push these doors open from the inside and come out. It’s fun.”
“What are you talking about?”
Robby pointed again, quailing. Theo, unsure of how he could reassure Robby that he wasn’t upset with him but rather with himself, managed to grow even more outwardly upset as he worked vainly at the problem. All the while, Robby’s shoulders hunched protectively inwards.
“You can open it up from the attic and go...you know, down, all the way, and it’s...like kind of fun, you know,” Robby mumbled. “I thought it was kind of fun when I did it because you can go fast, pretty fast, if you’re careful…”
“You mean like an elevator?” Theo said at last.
“It goes all the way down,” Robby said, hardly above a whisper now. “Sometimes it even goes lower.”
“What do you mean?”
Robby didn’t seem to know how to answer, but he didn’t want to lose Theo’s attention. “It can go lower than the basement sometimes,” Robby said, and then didn’t know what more to add.
“What’s down there? Is it just another room?”
“Yeah. I mean, kind of.”
“Like a sub-basement?” said Theo. “Mac lives in a house that used to be a funeral home. Mac’s my friend from Georgia. He had two basements because one is where they would display the bodies, and the other one is where they would get them ready. Like embalm them.”
Robby frowned. “That sounds creepy.”
“Not really,” said Theo. “Mac’s parents changed up the whole place and closed up the second basement. You would never know. Was this a funeral home, too?”
“I don’t think so,” said Robby. “It’s old. Maybe.”
“It probably was. That’s probably why it has two basements. How do you get to the second one? I didn’t see any doors when I went in the basement.”
“It’s hard to see, but it’s there,” said Robby, adding quickly, “So you want to try it out? The dumbwaiter?”
“Okay,” Theo said.
“Yeah, show me.”
Robby hesitated a moment longer. Theo conjured up a smile, and that seemed to reanimate Robby. He let Theo slide the closet door open and then parted the clothes hanging inside with a boldness that further discomfited Theo again. But he didn’t act on it. He had already rattled the boy, and it wouldn’t do to drive any further wedge between them, so he let Robby riffle through his parents’ clothes and looked up at the trapdoor to the attic when he pointed it out. Theo tugged the string. It opened slowly on pneumatic hinges. A narrow wooden ladder segmented down, and Robby hoisted himself briskly up. Theo followed, glad and perplexed in equal measure to see him so visibly excited, so much so that he didn’t think it wise to tell Robby what he felt when he saw the chewed-over wood of the ladder rungs, softened and warped by disuse, or about the chill that stole over him when they surfaced into the constricted angularity of the attic. As he crept across the boards and under the rafters, following Robby toward a space to stand, he realized Robby had taught him two things today: solitaire and claustrophobia.
Once dusted and on their feet, Robby turned to the wall. Theo, a little taller than Robby, had to hunch to keep clear of the rafters. There was a narrow slit of a window set low to the floor that provided enough light by which to move around, and just as Robby had indicated, there was a panel identical to the one in the master bedroom. It was a dark and unreflective metal. Beside it was a short peg, and on it was hung a coil of rope.
“That’s it,” said Robby. He was breathy from the climb, and his words sent dustmotes whirling into the sunlight.
“We’re not going to fit,” said Theo.
“One of us stays here to get it going,” said Robby, pointing to the rope on the peg. Theo traced it up and into a hole in the wall, and realized it must connect to a pulley, and the pulley to the dumbwaiter apparatus. Quickly, he appraised his surroundings.
“I’ll do the rope. How do I do it?”
“But I’ve been inside it already,” said Robby. “You should go in.”
“I don’t want to,” said Theo.
“It’s bigger than it looks,” said Robby. “Look.”
Robby opened the panel and showed him the interior of the dumbwaiter, which would allow him to sit almost cross-legged--what still went by “Indian-style” in Georgia, and so in Theo’s mind, but was called “pretzel” here--and had plenty of wiggle room. The notion of sitting in a dark box when the door shut was not especially appealing, but he did feel a little better after examining the admittedly roomy interior, and let Robby know.
“I’ll get you going and then I’ll race you down,” Robby said, beaming. “Look, see that little knob? You can turn that knob when you want to stop so you can get out. Just push hard on the door and it’ll open.”
“You’ve done this by yourself?” Theo asked.
Robby nodded, then shook his head. “My dad helped me. He found it and told me about it.”
“He let’s you play in this thing?”
For the first time, Theo couldn’t interpret Robby’s expression, but his vague glance at the dumbwaiter told him all he needed to know about how often Robby used it. “We’re not supposed to be here, huh?” said Theo. Robby, shoulders hunching, shook his head again, but was surprised when Theo clapped him on the shoulder and flashed him a grin.
“Ain’t nothin’ good as a thing you ain’t s’posed to do,” Theo said, exaggerating his southern patois, and was glad to see Robby smile so readily in response. Theo clapped him again, and with his fears momentarily eclipsed, opened the dumbwaiter door and crawled inside. Robby unslung the rope and wrapped it around his hands.
“How do I know when I’m where I’m supposed to be?” said Theo, crossing his legs.
“You just count the bumps,” said Robby.
“And then I turn the knob?”
“You said this goes pretty fast.”
Robby shook his head. “I’ll make you go slow so it’s not scary.”
“Where are all the doors?”
“My parents’ room, dad’s office, and the basement, and then the--the sub-basement, if it goes through,” Robby said, counting on his fingers. He blinked as if something had unexpectedly brushed against his nose, but cleared up and wrapped the rope between his hands. “Just count the bumps and you’ll know where you are. I’ll race you downstairs.”
“Why wouldn’t it go all the way?” Theo asked, but Robby shrugged. “Sometimes it just doesn’t,” he said, picking at the rope. Theo thought about it, but settled back into the dumbwaiter, clasping his knees. “Send me all the way,” he said, “but you better climb down that ladder fast or I’ll beat you.”
“I will,” Robby said, and shut the door.
In the dark, Theo’s heart thudded at the same volume as the clanking of apparatus keeping the dumbwaiter aloft. With a short, sudden drop, Theo was on his way. He bit his lip as the pulley whined and the box swung inside the walls of the shaft, actively fighting to regain the calm that had come over him at Robby’s smile. He sought out the knob, running his fingers along the smooth wall until he found it, but that relief was small in the face of the growing realization that he had, without much forethought, convinced himself to sit pretzel in a box in a four-story shaft without light or room to stand. The sound of his thudding heart swelled, accompanied by the harsh rasp of his breathing, but he held onto the knob and clenched his other hand into a fist.
Count the bumps, he remembered. He listened, but immediately found himself second guessing. Had he missed one, preoccupied with the clanking and swinging of the dumbwaiter? It was difficult to gauge distance and velocity in the dark. Had Robby already let the rope go? Theo couldn’t hear much past his thudding heart, but the pulley was growing fainter, and he was certain the box was still descending. The knob pinched in his fingers was cold. He could stop and get out now, if he chose--
A small, unmistakable vibration rattled the dumbwaiter and interrupted his thoughts, but it only cast the first bump into further doubt. Had he imagined it? If he turned the knob and stopped where there wasn’t a door to open, would turning the knob in the other direction set him in motion again? And at what speed? There were no ropes inside the dumbwaiter, no means by which to control his descent, as far as he could tell, which was hardly--
Another bump. It was time to decide. If that was the second bump, he was passing Mr. Cowperthwait’s office. He could turn the knob now and get out. If, however, this bump was the third, he should be in the basement now and close to the end of the line anyway, but that didn’t seem to be the case. The bump, he reckoned, would have been more final, and he would not continue to experience the sensation of movement, however subtle--
Another bump. This had to be the third, but he waited, and then--the fourth. He was in the sub-basement! Theo turned the knob. He heard a dry click, and a tremble passed through the box. He caught his breath, but there was no further sound or motion, and with a ponderous exhalation, Theo concluded that the dumbwaiter had reached its terminus. He allowed himself another few seconds’ worth of peace before he remembered that Robby had almost certainly beaten him, making sure the dumbwaiter descended at so leisurely a pace that he didn’t need to race at all--and so, ego inflamed, Theo thrust his hands against the back of the panel.
It opened, and when Theo realized Robby wasn’t waiting for him outside the dumbwaiter, he almost cheered--and then simply stared in confusion across the room. The stairs, the same stairs down which he had lugged his hamper of dirty laundry, were right there. There was the low window that looked out level with the street. Grimy sunlight penetrated the gloom, splashing across their bottommost steps. The light teased out the roundness of the boiler and its geometry of exposing piping. The washing machine. The dryer. He had miscounted after all. Theo crept out of the dumbwaiter and listened for Robby’s footsteps, but after several moments of silence, he approached the stairs and stood by them another moment, listening for footsteps before he began to climb, wondering if Robby might have detoured to the bathroom. Perhaps, Theo thought as he reached for the door, he had stopped in the kitchen to beg a bit of food. He thought Robby would be just as disappointed to hear that he hadn’t made it to the sub-basement after all--
Theo’s hand wavered over the doorknob, but didn’t grasp it right away. In fact, it returned to his side and began to curl as he sniffed once, twice, carefully. Earlier, amidst relief over Mr. Cowperthwait’s absence, he remembered trying to guess what sort of meat Mrs. Cowperthwait might be preparing. He thought now that what he had smelled might have been pork, which cooked pungently and whose scent was slow to disperse once it set in. The basement door was just down the hall from the kitchen, and the smell of pork is not easily mistaken once identified; but as Theo took another, more attentive sniff, he registered a sour note that hadn’t been there before, an unpleasant undertone he could neither name nor stand to hold onto very long. It irritated his throat until, without warning, he coughed into his hand and took a step back down the stairs.
A shadow interrupted the line of light underneath the basement door, and a gust of that same sour smell swept by Theo. He gagged and took another step backwards, but missed the step and went tumbling, the wind leaving him in a rush as he landed flat on the basement floor. He heard movement at the top of the stairs and opened his eyes, but the grimy sunlight filled his vision with tears. Theo threw an arm across his face and used the other to drag himself out of the light, by which time the sounds had evolved into a soft pawing, and another sound that reminded him of the hushing noise a sodden bag will make when dragged across a hard surface. The light warmed his chin, his hair, and then vanished as he sat up. He opened his eyes and turned his head in time to see the door shake through a haze of leftover tears.
Theo scrambled to his feet, legs trembling as he stumbled back to the other side of the basement, heading for the dumbwaiter. Mr. Cowperthwait, he thought, and behind him, the door shook again. He heard its hinges rattle. The pawing stopped suddenly, and he heard the doorknob turn, the door swish open, and that sodden-bag sound again, louder and more detailed. He stuffed himself into the dumbwaiter and shut the door, glancing at the sunlight on the stairs--
Something passed by the window and the light quit as suddenly as if a switch had been thrown. In the half-second of total darkness on which Theo shut the dumbwaiter door in a spasm of panic, he heard the sound reach the bottom of the stairs. “Robby,” Theo breathed in the dark; and then, despite every reservation, he began to pound against the ceiling of the dumbwaiter, rocking the box, unable to say Robby’s name at any volume greater than a terrified sigh. The harder he pounded, the smaller the dumbwaiter became, his knees bumping the walls and his shoulders flattening against the back panel, his blows short and ineffective; but the harder he pounded, the less chance there was of hearing that sound, that wet undulation, as it approached the sheet of metal separating their darknesses--
The dumbwaiter shook and began to rise. Theo screamed, an unrestrained burst that seemed to well from the soul and left him weak and weeping even after it clicked that the dumbwaiter was ascending, not opening or being torn from the wall. He screamed again, in an aftershock of terror, and then crumpled as much as he was able in the confines of the box. He counted two bumps, a third, and prepared himself for the fourth, but the dumbwaiter climbed another floor and came to a stop, pulley creaking. He had miscounted again. He shuddered, collecting himself, and then shoved the door open.
But Robby wasn’t there. The attic yawned, dusty and cramped, as Theo spilled out of the dumbwaiter. He looked around in bewilderment, swiping his tears away, patting the basement dust out of his clothing, and chanced a look at the peg next to the dumbwaiter. The rope was coiled indifferently on the peg, as if it had never been touched. Theo stared, mind racing. Robby must have simply remounted the rope before racing down, but that explanation wouldn’t suffice with that stench still souring his mouth, and that sodden dragging sound still in his ears, seared in with adrenaline. He felt a noise building in his throat and fought it. Theo looked back into the dumbwaiter and thought about the bumps Robby had warned him to count. He thought very hard.
But this is the attic.
Theo’s eye went to the attic window, and he thought of its sister in the basement, of the light and how it had vanished. Had he paused on the stairs, the grimy window would have afforded him a view of the Cowperthwaits’ driveway, which held the street at a distance he knew his parents found comfortably reminiscent of the secluded country life they had always known, but which Theo found reclusive, even standoffish, in cluttered New England. It was as if the house had been built at a intentional remove, perched on a hill in the woodsy part of town. The windows of the house were large and welcoming, but they could only be found in the front and rear, squinting across the prohibitive length of the driveway and surveilling the backyard. There were no windows on either side of the house. One was taken up by a bulging chimney stack and the other had simply been left bare, a naked stretch of siding that went uninterrupted from base to roof peak.
Because Theo could see where the wall wedged into that very peak at the far end of the attic, he understood that the window at his feet must peer over the sloping downhill of the backyard, where he and Robby had made their bashful hellos a week ago while their parents chatted about the challenges such a slope would present to mowing. The yard ended at the treeline, but a little ways beyond it was the creek Theo had invited Robby to explore. He had spied it recently from Robby’s bedroom window, but he would surely be able to see it all from the height of the attic. One eye on the trapdoor at the other end of the room, Theo carefully lowered himself, wiping a coating of dust from the glass with the heel of his palm. He peered through the window.
And would have screamed if he’d had the air for it.
The day was edging toward dusk and the sun was reddening as it fell. As such, there was a sharp delineation of shade where the Cowperthwaits’ yard met the woods, and the woods were themselves growing dark with lengthening shadows; the sort of resplendent New England autumn that had proved irresistible to the elder Kanes. But the shadows were pointing in the wrong direction, defying the light, drawing Theo’s eye into the woods and beyond the creek, where the trees should have thickened and climbed the slope of the land but instead withered, grew scarce, and then gave way to a waste of scorched earth. Seated upon it was an unnamable thing like a mound of smooth flesh, towering far above the treeline, dwarfing the woods and stretching pallid appendages into the earth, multitudinous fingers writhing like worms in the underbrush. This sight alone would have broken Theo’s mind--he was expending so much energy clutching at its unraveling threads that he failed to hear the attic door quietly drop away, the ladder extend--but then, just as he saw it, he realized it had seen him.
And opened its eye.
Theo was able to scream this time, a bleat of primal despair that went on inside him even when his throat could no longer produce it, echoing until it blotted out all memory of language. He made no further sound even when the thing began to drag its impossible girth toward the house on the hill, heedless of the trees that folded beneath it, the snapping of their trunks arriving like the patter of distant fireworks to Theo’s ears. He watched as the shadows licked like black flames along its tremulous flesh. He watched as the eye grew until it filled the window, until it became the world. He tried to wrench his gaze away, and realized that there was someone else in the room with him.
Its fingers had swarmed up through the attic door, bearing a corruption of Robby’s face. It approached, twilit, terrible. The scream inside of him intensified, half his mind already gone to that hideous eye in the window, and when Robby’s face inverted and vanished into dozens of questing feelers, the other half nearly slipped away, too. They reached for him, their stench filling his nose and mouth with clammy salinity, and he might have submitted to them then and there if one of those vile appendages hadn’t knocked the rope off its peg in its eagerness to touch him, to violate the last barrier between himself and madness. A dry husking noise burst from Theo’s mouth and he leapt toward the dumbwaiter, scrambled into its black confinement, and drew the door closed as dozens and dozens of feelers writhed after him, each bearing a little piece of Robby’s face, Robby’s awful smiling face--
Theo grabbed the brake and turned it. The pulley shrieked, the ropes lashed, and suddenly the dumbwaiter was falling. He heard the first and second bump almost as one, and then the third, but he wasn’t fast enough to push the brake. There was the fourth bump, and then a fifth and a sixth in rapid succession, but the dumbwaiter did not hit bottom--it went on, dropping lower than it should go, each bump rattling Theo's teeth, driving another gust of cold terror in his guts--
Sometimes it even goes lower, Robby whispered in his memory.
No, Theo thought, and pushed the knob just as Robby had told him, but the dumbwaiter continued to fall, picking up speed no matter how he protested, no matter how he turned the brake this way and that. Its impotent click was audible even over the accelerating rush of wind along the sides of the dumbwaiter, its dire clanging as it knocked against the sides of the shaft. With an unceremonious twang, the knob came free in Theo’s hand, spilling springs into his lap as the box continued to fall, the wind rising to the same pitch as Theo’s scream, full and unbridled at last, screaming a stark denial at first, and then simply screaming; but the dumbwaiter continued to fall, moving at an ever more uncontrolled velocity, falling, and falling--
Sometimes it even goes lower.
Falling, and falling--
FEAR: Short Horror Tales From The Team
FEAR is a new column from the ML team that brings new short fictional horror stories to our readers, enjoy at your own risk