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Childish Things

Clay Whelan grew up in his local haunted house. He’s come back to find out what happened that fateful summer twenty-five years ago, when his brother died, and why his mother spent the last six years of her life living there. But Clay’s not the only one with unfinished business at the house. Something is still there… under the porch… and upstairs…

Age Rating: 18+

 

Childish Things by Ben Higginbotham is now available to read on the Galatea app! Read the first two chapters below, or download Galatea for the full experience.

 


 

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1

Clay

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

Corinthians 13:11

The letter was brief and to the point, almost brutally so. It was long enough to knock the wind out of him, and short enough to leave Clay with several unanswered questions.

Clay’s mother had finally passed away after a long and ultimately futile battle with ovarian cancer, and had left Clay the home she’d been living in for the past six years.

The letter left Clay feeling shaky. He hadn’t even known she’d been sick.

Clay set the letter down and walked into the kitchen. Water, he thought. For a long moment, it was the only thought that would come, the only thought that he would allow to come to him.

Later on, when he’d had time to process the letter, internalize it and understand what it truly meant, then would come other thoughts. The realization that he was alone, now.

Feeling slightly liberated at that thought, followed by the sick feeling of shame at the idea that he was happy to be alone. And guilt, as his mind tried to tally up how many days it had been since he’d seen his mother.

Clay had lost touch with his mother a little over eight years ago.

He’d gone to his father’s funeral, not out of any sort of love, regret, sense of loss, or any of the things that Clay felt should accompany the loss of a parent.

Instead, there was a hollowness inside of him, a hole that felt as though it hadn’t been empty the last time he checked, and all he could do was wonder what happened to create that void.

He’d talked to his mother briefly at the funeral, but to a casual observer, he looked no different from any of the other mourners that stopped to express their condolences to the newly minted widow.

He’d stuck around long enough to make sure that she wasn’t going to swallow the rest of her pain medication when no one was looking.

He then retreated back into his work, always telling himself that he’d be home for Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or even Easter, but he’d never gone.

Something always seemed to come up, and now that it was too late to change anything, he found himself wondering if he hadn’t forced something to come up each time.

Clay looked around his apartment. The realization that he had no family pictures set out suddenly seemed significant, somehow.

The news of his mother’s death had shaken him, but what had really sent an icy wind blowing through that hollowness inside of him was when he found out where she’d been living.

His mother had gone back to the town of Carter’s Mill, and she’d bought a house there. Not just any house, though.

For the past six years, his mother had been living in the same house that his brother had died in, all those years ago. In fact, his mother had died there too, and now she had left it to him.

For a moment he’d briefly considered tearing up the letter, calling the executor of his mother’s will and telling him to sell the house to the first schmuck who waved a twenty in his face. Something stopped him, though.

That something was the computer screen, open to a word processing program, the cursor blinking serenely atop a vast expanse of dull, idiot white.

He’d been writing for Traveler’s Tales for twelve years now, hunting down unique places for hardy adventurers to spend the evening.

During the rest of the year, his monthly columns tended towards the more mundane end of the spectrum, but every October, he’d spend his allotted seventy-five hundred words describing his evening inside of a haunted house.

It was August 21, and so far, he hadn’t even begun researching where he was going to go.

He picked up the phone and placed a call to Jack, his editor. After he was done with that, Clay began to pack his bags.

Clay Whelan was going home.

“Mr. Emerson? Clay Whelan here. Listen, I’m on my way up to the house right now, and I wanted to take a look around. Do you still have the keys to the place?”

Clay listened for a moment as his mother’s lawyer dug around in a desk drawer. Finally, he heard Mr. Emerson say something that could have been “yes.”

Taking a chance on the affirmative, Clay smiled. “Perfect. I’ll be at your office in twenty.”

He’d arrived at the office a little more than twenty minutes later, to find Eric standing outside of his office, hands in his pockets.

Eric had taken him inside to sign some paperwork, and it was only in the light of his office that Clay realized how much this man had aged.

When Clay had last seen him, Eric Emerson had been a hale and hearty sixty years old, consoling his mother at his father’s funeral while also impressing upon her the importance of creating a will before it was too late.

Clay had chuckled at this despite himself. Old bastard can’t help but look for ways to make money, even at a funeral.

It seemed as though the Widow Whelan had taken his advice, judging from the piece of paper Mr. Emerson was holding in his hand.

He gestured for Clay to sit down, indicating a plump leather chair, covered in golden buttons and hard-edged seams. It looked supremely uncomfortable, and Clay said politely that he preferred to stand.

Mr. Emerson nodded, as though this was the usual course of things. Wearily, he eased himself down into a much more comfortable looking chair than the one he had offered Clay.

“Can I get you a drink, Mr. Whelan?” Emerson asked. Clay shook his head. Emerson nodded as though this was also the usual way of things and poured himself a glass of scotch.

The strong jawed, salt and pepper haired man was gone now, replaced by a drooping, wrinkled wraith. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Mr. Whelan,” Mr. Emerson was saying now, although his voice sounded tired.

“If there’s anything I can do to help you in these troubled times…” He trailed off, turning the statement into a question.

Clay didn’t hear him for a moment. He was looking around the room. It looked much the same as the last time he’d seen it, although his mother had been sitting in a different chair than the one he had been offered.

Emerson’s law degree held a position of prominence, of course, but there was no shortage of other decorations. Emerson shaking hands with the mayor.

Emerson posing with the point guard of the local high school basketball team.

Emerson holding an oversized pair of scissors, used to cut the ribbon at the dedication of the Eric Emerson Oncology wing of the children’s hospital over in Brighthook.

Emerson cleared his throat. “Mr. Whelan?” he asked, and Clay snapped back to himself. When Clay was looking at him again, Emerson repeated himself.

“Not right now, Mr. Emerson, although I do appreciate the offer,” Clay said. “Right now, I thought that I would just head down to the old place and see what it looked like.”

“I see. Would you like me to book you a room in town for the evening then?”

Clay paused for a moment. What an odd question, he thought. “No, that’s quite all right. I thought that I would stay in the house for a couple of days.”

Emerson was a man who did not show his emotions that often, unless it could help sway a jury.

(He’d once bragged that a single tear, shed by himself at the correct time, had spared a man from the death penalty.)

And as such, he was very nearly able to disguise the shock that went through him at the words. “Surely you’d be more comfortable in a hotel than wallowing in all those old memories,” he said.

“I think that after the loss of my mother, a little wallowing in old memories is actually expected of me.”

Emerson blushed a little at this.

“Of course, Mr. Whelan. I meant no offense. I just meant that I seem to remember some particularly… painful incidents that happened up there many years ago. Myself, I see no point in revisiting them.”

“I appreciate your concern, Mr. Emerson, but I would like to explore the house and see if I can remember anything about those painful incidents, myself.”

“Of course. And it’s none of my business, of course. Well, Mr. Whelan, I really should be getting back to work.”

With that, he reached into a drawer and extracted a set of keys that Clay recognized, with a sudden lurch in his chest, as those belonging to his mother.

Even though he thought that he’d come to terms with it, even though he had spent an entire evening locked in his apartment staring at the wall with his eyes slowly leaking…

The sight of her keys in Emerson’s hands drove the point home in a way that nothing else quite could.

He reached out for them, almost afraid to touch the keys for a moment, as if by accepting them he was fully acknowledging the fact of her death, and then he snatched them up with a quick movement and held them tightly.

He wasn’t aware of how tightly he’d gripped them until he’d gotten into the car and seen the marks they’d left in his palms.

“Forgive me, Mr. Whelan. I forget my place sometimes. At my age, I’m lucky if that’s all I forget.” Emerson waved a hand dismissively.

“All the same, I did my best. You can’t come back to me later, saying I didn’t warn you. Good day, Mr. Whelan.”

Clay knew a brush off when he saw one. “Good day, Mr. Emerson.”

Well, he thought as he stood to leave. That was certainly an odd conversation. Have to see if I can work it into my article later. I’ll have to get permission to quote him, though. Maybe on the way out of town.

He had his hand on the door when he heard Eric’s voice behind him. “Oh, and Clay?”

He stopped. Even as a young boy, he’d always been Mr. Whelan to Emerson. And to Clay, he’d always been Mr. Emerson. If this wasn’t the first time he’d been called by his first name by this man, it wasn’t far off.

“Yes, Mr. Emerson?”

Emerson smiled. “Have you given any thought to making out a will, by chance?”

 

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2

CLAY

Clay drove through town silently, lost in his own thoughts. Eric Emerson had exposed a hole in his life that he hadn’t realized existed until now.

He knew that he had a brother that died, of course. He could remember Brady clearly even now.

His favorite memory of Brady was Brady’s ninth birthday. Clay was six at the time, and he’d gotten up early that morning to surprise Brady with his present.

He’d been saving up loose change that he’d found around the house for months to buy Brady a fishing rod, as the year before Brady had suddenly become an avid fisherman.

It was only a thin plastic rod with Donald Duck’s face emblazoned on the reel, but Brady loved it.

They went fishing later that afternoon, after the candles had been blown out and the cake and ice cream had been eaten.

They walked together to the nearby lake with the sun hanging fat in the sky.

Brady carried his new Donald Duck pole jauntily over his shoulder, the deluxe rod and reel set he’d gotten for Christmas conspicuously left in his closet for today.

Memories of other times filtered in, as well. The Christmas before they’d moved to Carter’s Mill, when he and Brady had shared a single present because Daddy had been fired from his job in November.

Clay remembered crying, thinking that Santa was punishing them for something. Brady had elbowed him in the ribs, whispering, “Shut up, squirt.”

Clay had looked up to say something to his mother, tattling, probably, and the look on her face stopped the words dead. She was trying not to cry, he could see.

His father, too, although that couldn’t be right, and he remembered thinking daddies don’t cry, not even if they bust their legs or something.

Another time, a few months later, Daddy had come back from the pay phone that he used for business.

Although Clay didn’t know the details, Clay knew that his Daddy had given the number to a guy he had been waiting for a call from.

He’d given him the pay phone’s number because they couldn’t afford the house phone anymore, hadn’t been able to since February.

The TV had gone in March, and since then, more and more things seemed to go, and Mommy’s face seemed to hang a little lower each day.

Usually when Daddy came in, his face was hanging like Mommy’s, but not today.

Today he was smiling wider than Clay had ever seen him.

He’d picked Clay up and spun him like the guy who had danced with Jerry the mouse before setting him down and saying “Pack your bags, everyone, we’re leaving this dump behind.”

Clay remembered feeling excited and anxious all at the same time by these words, because he wasn’t quite sure what he needed, or even how to pack, for that matter.

Would he be able to bring his toys? Was Brady coming? These questions and a thousand others flew through his head like butterflies, settling heavily in his stomach moments later.

***

And these memories were what had exposed that hole, really. He could remember every detail of those days as though he was watching them unfold in high definition behind his eyes right now.

He could remember the excitement of the move, seeing the town unroll before him, and marveling at how quaint and picturesque the town was.

Even though at seven years old he wouldn’t have been able to pronounce either of those words properly, let alone have known what they meant.

He could remember seeing a candy store, not just a store with a candy counter up front, but a whole store just for candy. There was an old movie theater, but it wasn’t playing anything he recognized.

It was some movie starring a guy or a girl with a funny name. Is Errol a boy’s name or a girl’s name? he’d asked.

A boy, usually, his mother answered.

Why? Clay had pointed at the marquee as they drove past and said, Cause he’s in a new movie in town.

His parents laughed, and he puzzled over what he’d said that was funny. After a moment, though, he couldn’t figure it out, and figured it was a grown-up thing.

And by then, they were almost there, his dad had told them to look out the window because it should be just over… that… hill.

He could remember his first sight of the house, all of them getting out of the car and staring up at the giant house that should have been completely out of their financial reach, slinging his backpack over his shoulder and…

Nothing. Just that same great whistling void until memories came filtering back in, the usual patchwork of events and memories that made up everyone’s childhood.

A field trip to the local aquarium at age twelve, memorable only because Clay had first seen how small humanity really was, standing in the great gaping jaws of a prehistoric beast…

Wide enough to swallow Clay and three of his classmates whole. A party at fifteen, where Clay had kissed his first girl and started a long and so far unbroken string of disastrous relationships.

And so on and so forth, other bits of memory floating in and out of his consciousness. Clay drove on, absently trying to remember anything more about the house.

And then there it was, seeming to suddenly rear up out of nowhere, a dangerous animal startled by the appearance of a predator.

The house looked much the same as he remembered

(did it, though? he thought that there used to be another window up near the top of the house, and the roof itself looked different, somehow)

and he did remember a little bit more now, that first day in the house with Brady running past him, yelling

“Come on, squirt, I’ll race ya,” Brady says, and then he’s off running, much faster than Clay can run, but like always he turns around and says “Ya coming, squirt?”

Clay uses this opportunity to catch up the six feet or so that Brady has gained on him,

and then they’re both running up the gravel driveway, the stones crunching underneath their feet as they race to see who gets up to the porch first.

For the first time in his life, it’s Clay that wins the race, finding a final burst of speed that he didn’t expect.

He jumps onto the porch, raising his arms in a V for Victory pose, turning around and opening his mouth to shout something to his brother, but it never comes out.

There is a sharp crack as the wood of the porch gives way, and he drops four feet to the crawl space below the porch.

He is mostly fine, he thinks, only a few nicks and scratches, with a nasty splinter in the meat of his right forearm that will be removed later.

But all he can feel right now is the fear, the fear that came from having his joyous moment so suddenly and rudely taken away from him, and he begins to cry.

He can also hear his family in a panic, his father admonishing Brady not to get too close to the edges unless he wanted to be picking slivers out of his skin all night.

All of this seems impossibly distant, however, as all of Clay’s attention is now focused on the darkness he’s found himself in.

He can see very little, but what he can see is incredibly detailed, as though Clay has been granted some sort of hyper-clarity of vision.

He can see the leaves on the ground in exquisite detail, can see all of the bite marks left by hungry insects, can see the mottling on the leaf from when it had started to die and drop off the branch.

He can see this on every single leaf in the crawlspace, each one similar and yet incredibly varied, the difference between a snowflake in the air and a snowflake under a microscope.

He watches a dust mote dance lazily through the air in front of him, riding an errant beam of sunlight that has somehow found its way into the dark with him, illuminating very little, and somehow obscuring more than it shows.

He sees all this in some sort of distorted time, feeling as though it takes no time at all, and somehow feeling like forever.

Clay stops.

Something is moving in the darkness, or at least he thinks there is.

He hears something crackling amongst the leaves at the far end of the porch, and his mind catalogs any number of mundane things that could be making that sound.

His mind is hard pressed to come up with a similar list when he hears a deep snuffling sound. Something moves towards him ponderously.

He’s almost sure that he can hear a tail dragging along behind it, a soft shushing sound as it sweeps left and right, left and right.

Time slows down, stretching out like taffy, and after a while, it stops altogether.

Somehow, even though there is the sunlight filtering down from the hole he’s made, it’s dark down here, much too dark to see what is making that noise.

At best, he can see vague hints of movement in the darkness, shadows coalescing into thicker forms before disintegrating into nothingness.

It could be his imagination, just like those shuffling sounds could be. But Clay doesn’t think he’s imagining this.

A thump, experienced more in the vibrations it sends through his teeth than through any sound it makes, comes from only a few feet away.

Clay begins to panic as he realizes that it’s close enough that he can hear it breathing, a high, shrill tea-kettle whistle that sounds as though it can’t possibly be getting something this huge enough air to survive.

He feels only marginally better when he realizes that it’s not the thing he hears breathing, but himself.

He holds his breath, and he can hear something even worse, even more ponderous than that horribly stealthy thump. He can hear nothing.

He’s straining to hear something, anything beyond the shouts of his family, because he is now sure that he is no longer alone down in this crawlspace.

He can almost hear it moving again, whisper-slither-crunch as it crawls towards him, and he is sure that in just a few more steps he will smell it.

A combination of wet, decomposing leaves mixed with the sickening sweet scent of rotten pork. He starts to back away on his hands and knees, then tries to stand, and feels a sharp pain in his ankle.

He looks down at it to notice, with an almost clinical detachment, that it has swollen to the size of a grapefruit.

Now that he has seen the damage, he can feel the pain in full, nipping at his ankles with sharp, needle-like teeth.

He moans because he is too scared to scream, and he doesn’t want to die silently, doesn’t want to be snuffed out without having a chance to register his displeasure and fear at his sudden exit from the world.

He scrambles back a bit, and then he discovers that he’s not too scared to scream after all, as a hand clamps down on the back of his neck, he screams as loud as he can as he feels something pulling him by his shirt collar…

…and then he’s up and out of the crawlspace, back in the sunshine, and it feels as though it’s been years since he’s seen the sun, although he couldn’t have been down in that space for more than a minute.

His father is seated nearby, at the edge of the hole, and he is gingerly removing a long splinter that worked its way into his own arm when he pulled Clay back into the light.

His father removes it with a grunt, looking at the single ruby drop on the edge of the splinter with something like disgust before he throws it aside.

He says, “Goddammit, the realtor told me that they just remodeled the whole house. ‘Good as new,’ he said. I say bullshit.”

He spits down the hole that Clay has made, and for a brief giddy moment, Clay is suddenly sure that his father has just spit on whatever that thing was down there with Clay.

And there will be a flash of movement, a swift glimpse of claws and teeth and blood, and then his father will be pulled down into the crawlspace himself, only this time there won’t be anyone to pull him out.

Instead, his father takes off his glasses and polishes them for a moment, before setting them back on the bridge of his nose and running a nervous hand through his hair.

“You okay, buddy?” he asks, and suddenly the whole episode is too much for Clay, and he bursts into tears, and the memory mercifully ends there, and he finds himself sitting in his car,

gripping the steering wheel tightly. He took a deep, shuddering breath. Jesus Christ, where did that come from? he thought.

For a moment, he had not been just remembering the incident with the porch, he had been reliving it. But had it really happened?

The porch collapsing, sure, that had happened, he now had memories of his father picking up lumber to patch the hole in the porch, spending his evenings filling the hole until it was like it had never been there at all.

But the bit about the creature that had been down in the dark with him, that couldn’t have happened.

Another memory tugged at him then, a conversation that he’d barely overheard between his mother and father

(wasn’t rotted, wasn’t weak, no good reason for it to give way like that)

and then it was gone too.

Childhood delusions. An overreaction to what had admittedly been a traumatizing introduction to their new house.

Any of a thousand explanations for the memory flitted through his head, and yet none seemed quite so convincing as the small voice of childhood belief in his head, the voice that said with quiet authority,

I didn’t imagine it. That really happened.

He stepped out of the car, slinging his overnight bag over his shoulder and looked up at the house again, suddenly feeling the full weight of his memories

(Ya comin’, squirt?)

settling down on his shoulders. Something had happened here, and he knew the worst part of it, that he’d had a brother at the beginning of the summer and had become an only child by fall, but he didn’t know the details.

How had Brady died? For that matter, what had made his mother come back to a house that was the site of arguably the worst tragedy in her life?

The thought that he had decided to come here of his own free will, to write a Halloween article about the house that his brother had died in, somehow seemed both absurd and offensive now that he was staring down the reality of it.

How would he write an article about coming face to face with his brother’s ghost? That was what he was expecting, wasn’t it? That Brady was still here, moaning and rattling chains and causing drafts in windowless rooms?

You don’t have to do this, he thought.

Jack was against it, said that he’d already made arrangements for you to spend the night in the Winchester Mystery House, and that would make a hell of a lot more sense than to go back to the home where your brother died.

Spending the night in Hell itself would make a lot more sense than airing out the skeletons in your closet for the whole world to see.

All of that was true, very true, and he might even go and stay in the Winchester Mystery House, but that still didn’t change the fact that he needed to come here.

In fact, he wasn’t sure that the choice was entirely his anymore. It felt like he was being pulled to the house, had been pulled to the house ever since he’d found out that it was his.

He had to know why. Without any further thought, Clay picked up his overnight bag and suitcase, and walked into the house.

It’s strange being back in this house, he wrote. First impressions are important, they say, and my first impression of the house is that this is not the house I remember.

I’ll be the first to admit, I remember very little of the house, but the little bit that’s come back already doesn’t quite jibe with the reality of it. I’m not quite sure what is off, but it’s there. I can feel it.

Right now, sitting in what used to be the dining room, I don’t feel anything for it. It has as much meaning as any of a thousand hotel rooms that I’ve spent the night in.

The idea that I once called this vast, sterile space home seems alien to me.

Of course, that’s not the fault of my mother. During her last years, my mother seems to have spent her time recreating the layout of the home as it was all those years ago, back when my brother was still alive.

When I arrived, the furniture was covered in sheets, looking somehow funereal, like corpses in their burial shrouds.

I couldn’t stand the eerie feelings that the furniture put off, so I went around and took the sheets off the furniture in this room.

That’s when I first realized that my mother had gone to great lengths to turn this old, rundown ruin of a house into something resembling the home it had been twenty-five years ago.

I threw the cover off of the dining room table and came face to face with the chipped Formica tabletop.

I sat there throughout my childhood, consuming countless bowls of cereal and occasionally staring resolutely at the broccoli or Brussels sprouts that kept me sitting at the table until I ate them.

The chairs may be original as well, although they do seem slightly different than I remember them. If they are replicas, then they are close enough to do the job.

I have thrown aside a few other covers throughout the house, enough to know that I will find more of the same, more relics from a childhood that has a gaping hole where my memories of this house should be.

As for the town of Carter’s Mill, very little has changed.

It has been dragged kicking and screaming into the late twentieth century with the addition of a McDonald’s and a 7-Eleven, with a Walmart rumored to start construction in the spring.

But it’s resolutely refused to come any further into the future. Cell phone reception is spotty and mostly non-existent, and wireless internet is unheard of so far, even at the McDonald’s.

The Arcadia, an old movie theater dating from the late thirties, is still standing, and offers revival weekends, showing the films of Errol Flynn and Cary Grant, among others, at the low price of a quarter a ticket.

The concessions stand is the most modern thing in the whole building, with the prices firmly rooted in the present.

As cliche as it sounds, everybody knows everybody here. In the eight hours I have been here thus far, I have so far had two housewives dropping off, respectively, a casserole and a coffee cake, both freshly made.

They seemed a little crestfallen when I mentioned that I was only here to get my mother’s affairs in order.

I didn’t mention the article I was writing.

It felt too gauche to mention that I was writing an article about staying in a haunted house to a middle-aged woman holding a Tupperware dish containing her world-famous Cheesy Potato and Hot Dog casserole.

As for the haunted house part, thus far I have not had any unearthly experiences. There have been no loud bangs or shrieks, no rattling chains, and, thank God, no sightings of my brother since I have arrived. But…

But the night is swiftly approaching on velvet-soft feet, and with it comes the witching hour, when all things foul have free rein to caper about in the night air. And then, dear reader, then we’ll

see was how Clay had intended to finish that sentence, but there had been a knock at the door then.

Another hausfrau stopping by to offer me a loaf of bread, or a pound cake, or some other offering to the stranger in their midst, he thought, smiling slightly.

With that, he closed his laptop and went to answer the door.

Instead of the frumpy housewife he’d been expecting, with her hair carefully sprayed and moussed into place, he found a woman who could have been anywhere between eighteen and thirty standing on his porch.

Her hair had not been sprayed and moussed into submission, but instead looked as though she’d done nothing more than sleepily run a brush through it a few times and called it good.

Her hair was dyed a funky color somewhere between a pink and a natural red, and she broke into a good-natured grin as soon as he opened the door. “Clay Whelan?”

He nodded warily.

“Oh, come on, Clay, don’t tell me you don’t remember me. It’s me, Maddy!”

And with that one simple word, that childish nickname, a large mass of memories shifted, rumbled and fell from one of the shelves in his mental storehouse.

Meeting her at the river, talking about what we would do when school started, chasing each other around the playground all that summer, walking around and holding hands…

until Brady started chanting, “Clay’s got a girlfriend, Clay’s got a girlfriend,” endlessly.

And then the week before Brady died, hiding from the summer heat under the porch in that maddening crawlspace, talking and laughing until…

“Hellooo? Earth to Clay? You in there, sport?” she said, snapping him back to the present.

Clay grinned at her sheepishly. “Sorry. Just thinking over the good times. Of course, I remember you, Maddy.” And he did, now. Now that he remembered her, he wondered how he could ever have forgotten Madelyn Witcham.

She smiled back and threw her arms around him, laughing. “God, it’s been ages. I hear you write for some fancy travel magazine nowadays.”

Clay nodded. “I wouldn’t say Traveller’s Tales is really fancy, though. I mean, it pays the bills, but National Geographic it ain’t.”

She took a step back then, hand over her mouth. “Oh my God, that’s right! I read your article last Halloween, about spending a night aboard the Queen Mary! Weren’t you scared?”

Clay shook his head. “Not really. The way I see it, if there are ghosts out there, they’re just proof of life after death, and nothing to be afraid of.”

She wrinkled her nose at him. “Really? Not even the one that you said you saw that night that was holding his head in his hands?”

“Teenagers. Group of kids trying to scare me, one was an amateur magician, knew how to do the old ‘drop your head into your hands’ trick. It’s neat, but you can find a dozen street magicians that know the same trick.”

She frowned. “But if you knew it was fake, why did you leave it in the article?”

Clay smiled. “Wouldn’t have been a very good article without it, would it? Happy Halloween.”

She smiled back, and then just as suddenly swatted him with her purse. “You jerk. That scared me so bad I slept with the light on for two days.”

Clay grinned. “Just two days? I write those with the intention of making people lose sleep for at least a week.”

She smiled back. “So what brings you back to town, then? How long are you staying for?”

Clay’s smile dropped away, and he tried to think how to answer her honestly. “I guess I’m back for as long as it takes to sort out my mother’s estate, and decide what to do with this place. It’s mine now, if I want it.”

She nodded somberly at this. “So, are you going to sell it, then?”

Clay shook his head. “Honestly, I don’t know.”

“Well, surely you don’t want to keep it after all that happened here, do you?” she asked.

“That’s just it. I don’t remember what happened here. I mean, of course I remember the broad strokes of it, but, other than that…”

He trailed off for a moment, long enough that Maddy had time to wonder whether he’d zoned out on her again, and then he was back, staring at her. “Maddy,” he said softly. “What happened here?”

She went pale at this. “I don’t know what you mean,” she stuttered.

He grabbed her by the arms. “Please, Maddy. Tell me. How did my brother die?”

“I don’t think I’m the one that should tell you, Clay. We were both just children at the time, I hardly…”

“Tell me!” he yelled, his fingers suddenly tightening on her arms. She was frightened now, her eyes wide and starting to tear up.

“You’re hurting me, Clay,” she said, trying to twist free of his grasp.

And just as suddenly, he felt all of the curiosity burning inside of him wither away, leaving him feeling shocked and a little disgusted at himself.

Did you really just yell at her? he thought. Did you really just grab her by the arms and try to threaten her into talking? What kind of asshole does that?

He let go of her and she backed away from him. “I’m sorry, Maddy. I don’t know what came over me.”

She nodded, still backing away. “No, it’s okay. But I think I should leave now.”

Clay nodded. There really wasn’t anything else to say.

Maddy walked slowly down the stairs of the porch. Clay watched her go. By the time she’d gotten to the sidewalk, she was running.

 

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