By: Damien Roos
Uncle Jared was nice, but we’d always thought him boring. We didn’t know about the dungeon in his basement until his house burned down. It was all that remained. The foundation was a maze of charred brick filled with devices made of steel, still hot from the fire: spikes, chains, and even a cage with crossing bars.
“Stay back,” Mother warned us. “It’s hot enough to burn you.”
A strong wind pushed across the prairie, lifting mother’s hair as tears filled her eyes. Ashes blew in compact swirls, gathering in the corner where a big black chair loomed above the growing pile.
“Where is Uncle Jared?” my sister asked, staring down into the blackened chamber.
“This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen,” I said.
Mother shot me a glare, but she looked too confused for anger, too upset for sadness.
Uncle Jared burned up in the fire. All the family came over to our house and hung around the shadows. All except for Bob, who sat at the kitchen table beneath the bright light hanging down. Uncle Bob was Jared’s brother. He sat there smoking Winstons, one after the other, just like Uncle Jared used to.
“You saw what?” he asked me, holding the cigarette up near his face. The light shone off the top of his head where he once had hair.
“A dungeon,” I said. “With spikes and chains on the wall. There’s even a cage.”
A neighbor brought fried chicken, which was nice of him to do. We didn’t know him, but he’d heard about the fire and came by with grocery bags full of food. He stood in the foyer, peering into the living room, before Mother finally came out and took the bags. She thanked him about a hundred times, but I thought she seemed annoyed.
“A cage?” asked Uncle Bob, leaning forward into the light.
“And a big chair,” my sister said, tugging at a crispy piece of skin dangling off the drumstick on her plate.
“Your brother used to frequent my bar,” the man said. “My condolences to your family.”
“I didn’t know Jared drank,” Mother said. “Anyway, I hadn’t even thought to eat. These are difficult times. I’m sure the kids are hungry. Thanks again. Thank you so very much.”
She turned into the kitchen with the bags, and the neighbor stood there in the bluish daylight sifting through the screen door. I could tell he wanted to join us. He looked like one of those fussy old men who smelled like beef jerky or maple syrup. I was glad when, after several moments of nosey observation, no one invited him in. He turned and left.
“That was very nice of him,” Aunt Lydia remarked. She was Uncle Bob’s wife. I looked over and saw her pale round face bobbing in the darkness we shared.
“You’ve spoken to Zachary?” he asked Mother.
Zachary was Father’s name. Father sold livestock feed for a living. Talk about boring.
“Yes,” said Mother. “He’s taking the red-eye back from Omaha. He’ll be here tomorrow morning.”
“Then we’ll all be here,” said Aunt Lydia. “We could have the service in the afternoon.”
“We will,” Mother said, pulling the items from the bags and setting them on the table. “We have food if anybody’s hungry. I’m pretty sure I’ll never eat again.”
Later, I was in the backyard on the swings with my sister when I saw Uncle Bob go out to his truck. He started the engine and rumbled off, probably to go get cigarettes. I wished he’d taken us with him. Uncle Bob had always been my favorite. But then, seeing Uncle Jared’s dungeon had me thinking he would’ve been my new favorite if he weren’t dead.
“I’m bored,” I said. Then, a new idea caused my heart to race in my chest. I leapt from the swing, high into the air, and landed smack down on both feet.
“Where are you going?” my sister asked.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go.”
We took our bikes out from the shed. I peeked in through the sliding glass door to make sure Mother wasn’t staring out the window. She was sitting at the table, with the phone held to her ear, scribbling something on a yellow notepad. I placed my sister’s helmet on her head, and buckled the strap beneath her chin. We pedaled along the edge of County Road Six, on through the blue afternoon that felt airless as I pushed into it, with the prairie rolling out endlessly in every direction.
“Are we following Uncle Bob?” my sister asked as the Gas & Grocery came into view over a small hill.
We took a right onto the narrow road, just before the store, then rumbled across a short bridge over a shallow ravine. When we rode over the tiny hill just beyond the bridge, I saw the remnants of the house that punctured the yellow earth. That foundation looked deep, like it was slowly pulling in the ground around it and sinking deeper as it did. Two big piles of debris sat on either side. As we rode up onto the scene, I saw Uncle Bob’s big red truck parked beyond the nearest pile.
“Why did we come here?” my sister asked. “There’s not even a house anymore.”
“Quiet!” I said, dismounting the bike. “He’ll hear us.”
We stepped around the pile, and I decided to climb it once Uncle Bob left. I found a spot where we’d be out of view. We crouched and waited.
“What are we waiting for?” my sister asked.
The wind had died completely since the morning, making it so quiet I could hear something move down in that charred space. Two gloved hands rose up from down below and gripped the top bit of wall, and Uncle Bob pulled himself up onto the ledge. He sat down on the nearest corner, shaking his head as he yanked off his gloves. His face was red with anger as he stared out at the prairie. He clenched his jaw.
“Bastard,” he grunted.
“What did he say?” my sister asked.
I was glad she didn’t hear the word, but then it seemed a strange way for Uncle Bob to react. Anyway, he’d gone down in it, meaning it wasn’t all that hot. I figured all those metal contraptions might be cool enough to touch.
Uncle Bob stood and stared down into the blackened pit, shook his head one last time, then started back towards his truck. His footsteps were loud on the gravel, and, hearing them, my sister slowly rose. She peeked over the pile and ran out to him.
“Don’t be sad, Uncle Bob!” she squeaked. “Stop being sad!”
“Lorrie!” I said, running out after her.
Uncle Bob’s red face turned immediately white, like it was the ghost of his eight-year-old niece coming at him and not the real thing. He even flinched as she embraced his legs.
“We came to cheer you up!” my sister bleated.
“Pumpkin,” Uncle Bob said, nodding down to her. His voice was shaky, all the tenderness he’d usually reserved for his “favorite”—his only—niece, completely gone. He squinted at me as I walked up.
“Hey, Uncle Bob,” I said, and my voice was shaky too.
“How’d you kids get here?” he asked. I could sense his anger coming back.
“Took our bikes,” I said.
He patted my sister’s head, but they were cold pats.
“Go get them,” he said. “Both of you.”
It was bad having Uncle Bob upset with us. I hoped he wouldn’t tell Mother. When we walked our bikes back over, he took each one and tossed it in the truck bed without a care. I felt relieved. Then, a different sort of dread grew within me. He turned toward the cab, opened up the door, and jerked his head.
“Get in,” he said.
I thought I might cry for the first time all summer when Uncle Bob slammed his foot into the gas and the truck lunged forward, spewing gravel behind us as we sped onto that narrow country road. When we came up to the fork near the Gas & Grocery, Uncle Bob seemed to not see the stop sign until the very last second. He jammed his boot down onto the brake, then threw his arm out to keep my sister and me back against our seat. When he did, I felt his strength in the gesture, all the power contained within him. We sat there for two calm seconds before jolting forward again, as he spun the wheel hard to the left.
“You kids rode your bikes along County Road Six?” he asked when we got back to the house. “That’s dangerous. Don’t do that again.”
I put our bikes back in the shed, and the three of us went inside. Mother looked up at us as we entered. She was still in the kitchen, her arms crossed over her chest like she was cold.
“Where have you kids been?” she hollered.
“They were with me,” said Uncle Bob behind us. “Went to get cigarettes.”
Mother released a slow, steady sigh.
“I told you,” said Aunt Lydia from somewhere in her shadow. “They love their Uncle Bob.”
The ceiling seemed real low in the two rooms, and I didn’t feel like staying underneath it. Everyone was being sad and lazy, talking in lonely phrases that seemed to hang for entire minutes before someone would reply. Mother was calling folks to tell them that Jared Winfield was dead, that he’d burned up in the fire, and that she’d made funeral arrangements for noon.
I ran up the stairs to my bedroom, fell down onto my bed and lay there for a good long while, staring through my open closet, where a pair of tennis shoes hung down off a hook by their laces. Summer would be over in two weeks, and I’d only gone to the pool once. Father hadn’t taken us camping like he’d promised. We were supposed to go someplace with trees and green grass, far from the dry, yellow, baked earth of the prairie.
I’d made a list, first thing when I got home from school on the very last day. The bus driver, Ms. Sandy, had handed my sister and me a purple popcorn ball each. We hurried down the driveway with them in our hands, charging, as if to escape the boring classrooms, the dusty black chalkboards, and the food that tasted like a dirty dish sponge.
I had burst through the door and climbed the stairs, and tossed my backpack in the corner, where it sat untouched all summer. At the desk beside the bed, I made a list of all the things I’d do in the months to come. The very first thing on that list was to eat that popcorn ball, so I sat and ate it as I listed the rest. That was the only thing I was able to cross off. I didn’t go to a matinee or eat pizza and ice cream with Joseph and Jimmy, because they hadn’t been around.
Anyway, I lost the list someplace. It was probably just under the desk, or under the bed. There was no point to seeing it ever again, finding all the great possibilities written in the cursive I’d worked so hard to master, with only a single line drawn through the dumbest one of all.
I thought of the dungeon again, those cool structures looking so perfectly crafted and placed, like some medieval museum on the prairie. A sudden hope rose within me. Two whole weeks. A boy could do a lot with that.
“You in there, Perry?” a voice called from the other side of the door. It was Uncle Bob.
“Yup,” I said.
“Can I come in?”
He opened the door and stood there, staring down at me. Seemed like ever since he crawled out of that burnt foundation, he wore a scowl that didn’t look right on him.
“How you handling all this?” he asked.
“Good,” I said. “I was bored from sitting in the dark with everyone else, so I came up here.”
“Sure,” said Bob, nodding. “It all probably seems sort of weird to you. Death is a difficult thing to understand. Believe me when I tell you that we adults don’t understand it any better than you. We try real hard to make sense of it, create these weird lies we hope will become true by telling ourselves them over and over.”
I didn’t really get what he was saying. To me, death was when the batteries ran out on the toy soldier that would crawl across my bedroom floor, and then raise his gun to fire at some invisible enemy. At some point, he’d just stop along the stretch of hardwood, lay there on his camouflaged belly caught in some motion he’d never complete. It was the easiest thing in the world to understand, if you asked me.
“Thanks for not telling Mother about us riding out there with our bikes,” I said.
“It’s dangerous,” he said. “You shouldn’t do that.”
He stood there staring into the corner of the room, where my backpack sat unused, since I’d tossed it down.
“You mind if I sit down a second?”
He stepped towards the desk, pulled out the chair, and sat down in it. I’d never thought of Uncle Bob as a large man, more sort of built around the stomach, where you always saw a trace of gut. He looked big just then, with that chair beneath him and his knees sticking out to either side.
“You remember much about your Uncle Jared?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “A little. He’d come around now and then for dinner and for parties. I remember he’d just sort of hang out along the edge of whatever it was we had going on, smoking cigarettes and looking, tapping the ash into empty cans of Fanta.”
“Grape soda,” I said. “He loved grape soda.”
Uncle Bob cringed at that, and I laughed. He didn’t seem mad anymore, and I was glad to have him over at the house.
“You remember much else?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I remember his moustache was crooked, and it always seemed to hang to one side on his upper lip. Uncle Jared was a lot more boring than you, but then there was this one time we were fishing with father, and he slipped on a rock while crossing a stream. His pant leg got all wet and he cussed out loud. My sister and I started laughing, and he looked back at us, said, ‘you think that’s funny?’ Lorrie said, ‘Yeah!’ and kept on laughing. I stopped laughing, because Uncle Jared looked mad. He squinted at us and said, ‘Well, watch this!’ and he hopped onto the bank and dropped his fishing rod and dove straight into a gully, where the water swirled deep and dark. He stayed down beneath the icy cold surface for ten good seconds, and then shot up and shook himself like a seal, while my sister and I laughed and laughed.”
Uncle Bob stared down at his feet. Just then, I seemed to sort of get it.
“I wouldn’t want to ever lose Lorrie,” I said. “You must be sad, Uncle Bob.”
He shook his head real quick, like he was trying to shake away the sadness on his face.
“Did he ever ask you to do things for him?” he asked in a frustrated voice. I didn’t really know what he meant. I hoped he wasn’t angry again, but I didn’t know why he would be.
“Do things?” I asked.
“Yeah. Did your Uncle Jared ever…”
He paused and looked at me, like he was expecting me to understand.
“Yes,” I said. “He came over one Sunday morning last summer with his tool belt and set the saw horses up after breakfast. Now and then, he’d pop his head in and say, ‘Give me a hand out here.’ Taught me how to use the tape measure and the big green power drill. You know that kitchen chair you sat in earlier? Uncle Jared made that, and I helped him.”
Uncle Bob nodded his head. He didn’t really say anything after that, just stood up and slowly walked into the hall, turned back and told me, “If you need to talk, I’m here.”
I watched him head toward the stairs and his shadow followed close behind. He’d left the door open, so I got up and closed it, then plopped back on the bed and started thinking about what I’d do.
Two weeks left of the most boring summer ever, but now I had those things that I could play on, those hunks of steel jutting out at all different angles, blackened with the soot from the walls that burned down around them. I couldn’t believe my boring uncle had set up a world like that. I’d tell the boys about it. We’d head out with ropes slung over our shoulders. Their jaws would drop when they saw it, and down in the burnt brick we’d have our very own fortress.
I fell asleep, and then woke up when Lorrie came in and climbed up on my bed.
“He’s back!” she shouted into my ear. “Daddy’s back!”
Morning sunlight gushed in through the window. I rolled over and sat up.
I took a bath, and all the while could feel the buzz below. The house was full of people. I even heard a man laugh. As I walked back down the hallway with the towel wrapped around me, I could hear Mother and Father arguing in hushed, urgent voices.
“You should’ve known better than to take them,” Father said. “What’s the matter with you?”
“I couldn’t leave them here, Zachary. Could I? I had to go see it for myself.”
“Our children didn’t need to see that.”
“I don’t think they understood a thing about it!”
Nothing new to hear them like that. I headed to my room and got dressed.
Uncle Bob made a huge breakfast, and it felt like half the town had come to eat it. Folks I’d known my whole life stood around drinking coffee and chatting with people I’d never seen before, all of them dressed in black, shiny suits and plain dark dresses. The windows were open and a cool, pleasant breeze wafted through the gathered throng. I saw my cousin Donald sitting with Aunt Lydia. Both of them were eating their breakfasts the exact way mother said not to, bringing their plates right up to their faces and shoveling the food in with their forks.
“Go on and eat,” my Aunt Kate said to me from the corner of the room, where the new morning light had cleansed the room of shadows, like a dust rag wiping cobwebs.
As I headed for the table where the food was out on platters, I saw Sheriff Johnston standing with the man who’d brought the chicken over the day before.
“It’s breezy mornings like this you need to keep watch on the sky this time of year,” the sheriff said. “That wind will push a storm right over your head in minutes.”
It was strange seeing the sheriff in a black suit instead of his brown uniform. I remembered once hearing that he and Uncle Jared went to high school together.
“Well, it sure is nice out at the moment,” the neighbor replied. “I’ll take any break from the heat that I can get.”
I ate four servings of scrambled eggs, six strips of bacon and a big heap of hash browns. Father came downstairs, carrying my sister in his arms. He was dressed in his work suit, but wore a black button-down shirt instead of a white one, and I watched him gaze around the room, before my sister pointed at me in the kitchen.
“Hey, Pal,” he said as they approached.
“Hey,” I said.
He set my sister down and crouched beside me.
“Where’s your suit?” he asked.
“It’s not black.”
“Lorrie doesn’t have to dress up,” I said, nodding at my sister.
I went to my room and changed into my light gray suit. Father stood in the doorway and watched me as I tied the laces of the uncomfortable shoes I’d only worn one other time before.
“You’ll be too big for that suit pretty soon,” he said, and then he came into the room and grabbed the tie from off the bed. “Come here. Stand up straight.”
I stepped towards him, and he flung the tie around my neck and fixed a knot in front.
“Uncle Bobby talk to you about all this?”
“Yeah,” I said.
I smelled his aftershave, dark with a tingling cool, as he leaned in to tuck the collar down around the tie. I was glad to smell it.
“Things might seem a little confusing. Don’t be afraid to ask me if you have any questions.”
There it was again. I didn’t get what there was to be so confused about. Uncle Jared was once my mother’s brother and the brother of my Uncle Bob. He lived a couple miles from us, in a house all by himself. He was a smoker. He liked Fanta and fishing and dungeons. He had a mustache. He burned up in a fire two nights ago. Now he was dead, and none of those other things mattered. It was the easiest thing I’d ever comprehended.
“Got it?” asked Father, grabbing my chin and raising it up.
“Yes,” I said. “I do.”
The funeral was the most boring thing I’d ever been to. All the people at the house drove along behind us to the church. Then we all got out and sort of kicked around the parking lot, then headed towards the big brick building. The church seemed like it was trying to look old, with stained-glass windows and a big stone archway, but was so new that there were little orange flags in the dirt around it where the grass hadn’t started coming up yet. I hadn’t been in many churches, but this one had walls so white they hurt my eyes and I could smell the fresh paint.
The pastor started shaking people’s hands. He approached with soft footsteps and an attempt at a hunched, sullen demeanor, hands clasped together as he directed us into a room the size of a gymnasium. My sister and I followed Mother and Father down a row of the brown foldout chairs, then sat and stared at the altar in the front. A lady stepped over to the keyboard just off stage, coughed several times into her hand, and then played a song with slow, sad notes that made my shoulders feel heavy.
I looked around the room and saw that almost all the seats were empty. Father gripped my shoulder tight. The young woman played another sad song. The pastor stepped up onto the stage and said that loss is very difficult and memory is very valuable. His words sounded like he’d said them all before, as if they were falling straight from his brain to his mouth, without any input from his heart. He stepped down and people got up, one after the other, and said things about my Uncle Jared.
My attention drifted away and turned to the thought of my dwindling summer and ways I might make up for all I’d not done. I thought of those devices down in that burned out shell of the basement, and hoped that Joseph had the rope we’d need to get down in it.
When finally the man who’d brought the chicken finished speaking, a quiet lull stretched over the entire congregation. Cousin Donald coughed into his hand and that was when I looked around to see that all the eyes were aimed towards my mother and Uncle Bob, his only siblings. Mother shot Uncle Bob a perplexed look and Uncle Bob shrugged. Father stood and cleared his throat.
“We thank you all for coming out today,” he said. He was the only one who didn’t step up to the stage to speak. “We really appreciate you being with us, helping us through this difficult time.”
He looked as though he was about to say more but then stopped, glanced over at Uncle Bob then at Mother.
My head began to ache from the paint fumes. I’d not known I was cold until we stepped back out into the sun and my skin tingled beneath the rays. As we got back in the car, Sheriff Johnston came over and patted me on the head.
“‘Bout a foot taller every time I see you.”
He turned to Father.
“Bobby says we all should talk.”
“You mind following us back, Sheriff?” he asked. “We’ll brew some coffee.”
Back at the house, the three men went into Father’s office and shut the door behind them. They seemed to have forgotten all about the coffee. I ate a sandwich Aunt Kate made me and sat out in the living room, listening to Donald chat with Aunt Lydia. It was boring conversation and it felt like I was sitting in a painting with the early, idle afternoon just sort of hanging on our heads. Through the large open windows the bright sun showed the yellow prairie with its rolling hills and big blue sky above, and on the horizon where the two met, I could just see these small gray tufts moving in. I felt that I’d been waiting, but then didn’t know what for.
The door opened up just then and the Sheriff, Uncle Bob, and Father exited quietly, Sheriff Johnston heading to the front door, clutching his broad brimmed hat that was part of his uniform and didn’t match the black attire.
“Guess I’ll go and check it out this afternoon,” he said, and when he placed the hat on his head it didn’t look as strange as I thought it might. “You folks try and get through this together. I’ll let you know what I find.”
He left, and the screen door went thwap! as it swung shut behind him. The waiting feeling wouldn’t leave me. I grew restless, impatient, and the thought of being stuck inside a painting made me want to stand and scream. Mother called Father upstairs to “have a word,” and Uncle Bob ambled over to the kitchen table to sit and smoke. I threw off my jacket and pulled the tie off my neck, then got up from the couch and went out to the back porch, where I found my sister playing with her dolls.
“That looks boring,” I said. “Come on. Let’s go.”
“It’s not boring,” she protested, clutching the larger, stuffed doll beneath her arm as she walked the plastic one along the wooden deck plank. “We’re having lunch.”
“That’s stupid,” I said. “There’s not even food.”
“It’s pretend,” she squealed. “Hamburgers and macaroni and chicken nuggets and chocolate cake.”
Restlessness boiled inside of me.
“Come on,” I said.
“No,” she replied. “We’re having lunch.”
I grabbed the stuffed doll from her and held it over the edge of the porch.
“No!” she shouted.
“Then come with me,” I said. “Please. When we come back you and the dolls can have dinner, with ham and mashed potatoes, and ice cream and apple pie for dessert.”
“Ice cream and apple pie?” she asked, and she seemed to consider it. “Fine. But only if you promise you’ll eat with us.”
“Fine,” I lied.
I handed her back the stuffed doll.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go.”
I quietly pulled the bikes out from the shed, and we walked them out around the side of the house where the grownups wouldn’t see.
A strong wind rushed against our sides as we rode up Six, and on that horizon to the west, the storm clouds were gathered like army battalions set to charge. We wouldn’t be long, and my heart rose in me and I pedaled all the harder as I stared down the line of black clouds.
We took the right at the Gas & Grocery real sharp, my tires even skidding on loose bits of gravel. Those clouds were far, but the breeze between us slapped my face, cool and electric, awakening the possibility of fulfilling my every unknown desire.
“What if there’s a tornado?” asked my sister.
“Quiet!” I shouted.
We crossed the bumpy bridge and soared up over the hill, where the foundation laid before us like a big, sooty boot print.
“What if Uncle Bob finds us?” my sister asked as we dismounted our bikes. We set them down beside the heap.
“He won’t,” I said.
“What about Mother and Father?”
“They won’t either,” I said. “Nobody’s going to find us. We’ll only be a few minutes anyhow.”
“I’m scared a tornado is going to come.”
“Stop it! Come on!”
We stepped up to the foundation’s ledge, just where we’d stood a day before, and stared down into the charred ruins at the various contraptions.
“What are they?” my sister asked.
I could scarcely believe their existence, like a part of me had been in doubt that my eyes could’ve seen what they did. The spikes appeared narrower, their tips sharper than I thought. They jutted out of the brick in a clean, neat row. The coils of chains sprouting from either side were made up of clunky black links as thick as my wrists. Beside them was the chair, the hulking iron back shooting up from the seat. Here was Uncle Jared’s craft, the skill he kept secret for reasons I couldn’t guess.
“We need to get down there,” I said.
The foundation’s walls contained no windows or ledges to step down onto, and there were ashy remnants of a jagged wooden frame where there’d been a staircase in the center. My sister and I walked around to the opposite corner, where I crouched and gripped the ledge with both hands, swung my leg over and dangled for a moment, before allowing myself to drop. My sister stood above me peering down, wide-eyed and nervous.
“Throw your leg over and dangle just like I did,” I said. “I’ll catch you.”
She sat down on the ledge and gazed across the westward stretch of prairie as the stiff wind blew across her face, lifting her light brown hair up from her small shoulders.
“It’s moving fast towards us,” she said.
“Quit stalling, Lorrie. Jump.”
She turned over onto her belly and lowered her feet down towards me.
“Push off the wall,” I said.
I caught her by the waist as she dropped, set her down, and we gazed at the strange new world around us, the blackened walls that seemed much higher now that we were in them. It stank real bad, a smell so strong it gripped me, and I was paralyzed for a moment.
I took my sister’s hand and we ran over to the side where the devices stood as if awaiting our arrival.
“How come Uncle Jared had all this down here?”
I walked over to the cage. It was smaller than I’d thought. I stepped in it and grabbed the bars, just like a prisoner in jail. They felt warm, almost hot, like the touch of fevered flesh. When I let go, I stared down at my palms. They were black with soot. The sections of the bars I’d grabbed gleamed with a fresh, steely luster. I stepped out of it, pushed the door and listened to the ominous squeaking hinges as the bolt clamored into the catch.
“My arms go right in these!” my sister yelled across the basement.
“A stock!” I said. “I didn’t know he’d made a stock!”
“The hole for the head is just my size.”
I heard the distant rumble of thunder as I hurried over to help her lift the top board made from thin, but sturdy iron. My sister placed her hands into the gaps on either end, then laid her neck into the large semicircle in the middle. I gently lowered the top and the two half boards met with a heavy clink.
“It’s perfect!” I said. “I can’t believe how well it fits, like he made these just for us.”
My sister stuck her tongue out and wiggled her fingers, causing us to both laugh hard. I raised the top board and she stood up from it, grinning wider than I’d seen all summer.
“Isn’t this better than dolls?” I asked.
She gazed around the room for the next thing to play with and her eyes found the chair rising up from the ash in the corner. She rushed over to it, giddy with excitement. Just as she reached it, I noticed the rows of spikes jutting up from the seat.
“No! Stop!” I shouted.
She paused just as her arms reached out to grab the clunky back. Thunder cracked as my sister looked down and saw the spikes.
“I think we’d better go,” I said.
Raindrops pattered all along the ashen chamber, spotting thirsty swaths of gray with shiny black beads. I watched my sister push her tiny hands into the pile beside the chair, and as I moved toward her, she embraced the mound and pulled some of it up. The raindrops fell and the smell in the dungeon deepened as my sister tossed the gathered ashes above her head, as if to feed the swirling storm. They rose up from her hands and cut a circle in the sky before fluttering downward, blanketing our shoulders with the weightless flakes.
“It’s raining harder,” I said. “We really need to go.”
But then, I found my own feet moving towards the pile, my arms reaching out to take a hunk of grayness. I flung the armful upwards, straight into a swell of passing wind. It took them up within its mighty stream, then sent them raining down upon our heads.
I caught a taste of death then, of bitterness so strong it stuck to my tongue. I spat and coughed, choking on the realization of the thing I thought I knew, until it covered over me, forcing knowledge through my mouth of blackness so bitter, its depth had no end.
Lorrie threw more handfuls of it high into the dark green air, the storm now thrashing fast and strong above us. I fought against its very presence, hacking and spitting, running my tongue along my shirtsleeve. It was more than a taste now, but an experience that could not be undone, a process that had introduced tar into the bloodstream and would forever slow my heart.
“We need to get out of here.”
The rain pricked my skin like cold needles, falling so hard now that all the dry gray world around us quickly devolved into a black bog. I grabbed my sister by the waist and hoisted her up towards the corner, but the ledge was too high.
“We need to try another corner!” I said. “My feet keep slipping.”
I took her hand and we ran over to the corner where we’d descended.
“Step into my hands,” I said. “I’ll raise you up and you can grab the ledge.”
I crouched down and laced my fingers together. Lorie placed her foot against my palms and I began to slowly lift her. The rain fell so hard now that it hurt my face to look up, so I stared down as I moved her foot up past my stomach to my chest.
“Can you reach it?”
“No!” she said. “Higher! You need to push me higher.”
As I pushed her shoe up past my chest, my arms began to strain. I leaned my shoulder up against the wall and kept on pushing, higher still, until my arms reached up past my head.
“Higher!” my sister cried.
My right foot slipped just then, buckling my knee and we collapsed, my sister and I, into the cold dark mud. A blue bolt of lightning slashed the belly of the cloud hanging low above our heads. Water poured forth in torrents from the wound. My sister landed on top of me, and as she climbed off, I heard her cry out as she sat there in the rushing stream of ashen mud, rocking back and forth, tears and raindrops flooding her terrified face.
“We need to try again!” I shouted.
My sister shook her head.
“You’re bleeding,” she said.
I looked down at my arm and saw the tattered skin, a scrape as bad as any I’d ever had. The watery blood ran down past my elbow and it seemed too thin and bright to be real. Too red. The rising water began to flood the chamber, forming a shallow gulf in the center of the room between us and the steel devices that glowered in the cleansing rain.
“Stop crying,” I told my sister. “We need to try again. We have to.”
I knelt down once again and my sister stepped into my laced fingers, trembling as I pushed her up along the slick walls. I shoved her up past my chest and I heard something above us.
“Holy Hell,” shouted a familiar voice from above. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Just then my sister floated up out of my grasp, and I looked to see my Uncle Bob and Father just above the ledge, their anguished faces pummeled by the rain.
“Come on!” shouted Father. “Jump!”
I leapt up and grabbed his hands, then felt a jolt as the two men lifted me up and out. Father hoisted me over his shoulder and we followed Uncle Bob, who carried my sister in a protective embrace, over to the truck.
They weren’t that mad, but more relieved they’d found us. Mother fell down on the floor when we came in, and she just laid there, breathing deep, staring up at us as the thunder boomed somewhere beyond the ceiling. Father took me upstairs and dabbed my wound with brown, stinging fluid. He put a bandage on my arm, told me not to get it wet in the bath, and that was all he said to me the entire night. I made sure to keep it out of the warm water darkening around me with the grime that it removed.
I thought that I would step back out and feel the way I did before, clean and young, bored as always, but then something didn’t wash off. Surely, I was getting sick, and as I dressed I glanced towards the corner of the room and saw the backpack sitting on the floor. I didn’t care about it or the shoes hanging in the closet or my stupid list. For the first time in my life, my sense of time was hazy. Two weeks were just two words without a stone to pin them down. I knew they’d float off with the breeze, flutter just above the prairie, and then vanish into the broad horizon.
Someone came into the house and the screen door went thwap! behind them. I heard the dull thud of heavy boots, the low voices greeting from the shadows that had reclaimed the living room downstairs, like some dark mold that grew right back soon as you cleaned it off. This strange sort of pang stung my insides, and it must’ve been the sickness coming on, except I’d never felt a sickness so bad and sudden. I needed to see my sister. I had to see her right away, to talk to her, although I didn’t have the slightest clue of what I’d say. I rushed out of my room and hurried down to the end of the hall. The light was on inside her room, a pink sliver of light seeping through the crack behind the open door. As I pushed it further open, I saw her stretched out on the bed in her pajamas. She was asleep and breathing softly, her posture stiff as I’d ever seen, legs rigidly together. Her hands looked carefully placed across the small body rising and falling gently beneath them.
The grownups were talking in the kitchen, their voices low and somber. I stepped back out into the hallway. The rain had stopped and everything felt loud without it, my head hazy as I tiptoed halfway down the darkened staircase and sat, peering through the balusters at the table where they were gathered. Sheriff Johnston sat at the head, his rain-soaked hat sitting on the tabletop in front of him. The edges of its brim had begun to dry, and were a lighter shade of brown than the rest. He was holding a coffee mug in one hand. The light from the hanging lamp dug deep into the lines in his face. I’d never thought him old until just then. The others sat in the surrounding darkness, including Uncle Bob, the orange cherry of his cigarette moving through the shadow as he reached down to ash in an invisible tray.
“No way to know for sure,” Sheriff Johnston said. “But then, I guess that’s good. To know would mean he’d done whatever he’d intended.”
Uncle Bob’s voice was shaky and low. “We know all we need to know.”
A deep silence clouded the room. My hands stayed clenched around the balusters and I held my breath.
“Well, then, maybe it’s that dying saved his soul,” said Father.
“Saved my children,” Mother said. “That’s all that matters now.” She paused for a long time and gazed at the wall, then looked back at them. “As far as I’m concerned, I never had a brother.”
The sheriff looked at her, perplexed at first, and then nodded. “That might just be the way of it,” he said. “That might just be it.”
They sat quietly, docile with a sense of resignation, all except for Father. He leaned forward on the table, glaring at the others in frustration.
“But who was Jared Winfield?” he asked. “I mean, just who the hell was he?”
Mother clenched her jaw.
“I don’t know,” said Uncle Bob, grinding out the cherry into the ashtray. “The name doesn’t really ring a bell, Zack. In fact, I’m sure I’ve never heard it in my life.”