Thursday, June 23, 2011

FICTION: Rewards By Philip Roberts

The three of them stood before the old, decrepit building. The two-story house had long ago succumbed to the elements, and the once white paint was all but gone. The overhang above the front door was only partially still connected, half of the wooden structure hanging so low they’d strike their heads against it if they weren’t careful.

Most of the lawn was dry, cracked dirt, while the few tuffs of grass that remained were quickly overtaking what had once been a cement sidewalk leading up to the front door. There was no fence surrounding this structure anymore, though the remains of a once white picket fence was noticeable, the wooden planks discarded throughout the yard.

Broken windows stared at them like black eyes. This was a source of legend in their town, and a source of nightmares for nearly every youth who had dared to walk by it. In their younger days they made dares to see who could walk closest to the door before they let the fear take them and could go no further.

“I heard about it from Mr. Harris,” Adam stated, and his two companions nodded their heads in understanding. Mr. Harris was one of the oldest residents of their particular suburb, and was considered the keeper of most urban legends. “The people who lived here were rich but no one ever found out what happened to all that money when they died. Mr. Harris said he thinks it’s still in there.”

“That was a long time ago,” Nate retorted, trying to make it sound as if his argument had nothing to do with any fear of entering the old house. “A lot of money back in Mr. Harris’s day isn’t much of anything now.”

“Hey, I’d take even a thousand bucks if I could get my hands on it. All we have to do is find it.”

“If no one else could,” Rob piped in, just as apprehensive as Nate about any journey through the house, “then what makes you think we could?”

Adam turned to face his two friends. With only the moon and a streetlight up the block to provide them with light, he could barely see their faces. The glare of his flashlight made Nate cringe away, but the flicker of light was only brief, and Adam was quick to put the light out.

The property was off limits, and if anyone saw them there they’d certainly report them, as had happened in the past to other brave teens daring to enter the house of legend.

“If I didn’t know any better I’d say you two were trying to get out of this,” Adam sneered.

“Do you realize how un-sturdy that place probably is?” Rob said. “I don’t feel like having a house collapse in on me while I go searching for buried treasure.”

“Then stay out here and piss your pants while Nate and I go find us some cash.”

“Well,” Nate began, his eyes flickering between Adam and Rob.

“Fine,” Adam spit at the two of them, “just god damn fine, I’ll go myself.”

He turned and started towards the house before either of them could respond. Let the cowards lose their share. He would gladly take it all for himself when he found that cash, and he was going to find it.

Mr. Harris spread a lot of tall tales, but he never strayed too far from the truth. Besides, something about the story just felt right, and what did Adam really have to lose?

The front door was locked. He had to duck below the broken overhang to get to it. He glanced up at the jagged, splintered wood just above his head, and heard the low creak of the building.

He’d brought a hammer just for this, and all it took was two good whacks to break the door open.

Behind him he could still hear two chicken shits shuffling back and forth as they watched him push open the thick, wooden front door and move through it into the house.

The first floor windows were the only ones actually boarded up. He had to use his flashlight once he was inside the house.

A thick haze of dust hung in the air, tickled his nose, but Adam stopped himself from sneezing. The floor was cluttered with chunks of wood, plaster, and other things he couldn’t distinguish in the poor lighting.

To his right was the kitchen, a table still sitting in the middle of the room, the refrigerator and stove rusted over from age. On his right he glanced in the living room, the few pieces of furniture that remained covered in white sheets turned brown from the thick dust.

The wood beneath his feet was rough, the finish long worn away from so many winters with poorly boarded windows that let the worst of the elements into the house. On that summer night the air was thick and humid. Without the soft breeze from outside Adam found his skin already growing slick.

He shined his flashlight up the stairs in front of him and the upstairs balcony, but chose to ignore it. They wouldn’t have hid the money upstairs. Instead he moved forward, beyond the stairs, and towards another door built far back under the base of the steps.

This door opened up into darkness. His flashlight seemed to struggle to penetrate the deep black down the stairs in front of him. For the first time Adam felt his own flutter of fear, and glanced back at the front door, partially open, and wondered if Nate and Rob were still out there.

The money, he thought. He needed that money. All he needed to do was flex his shoulders in just the right way to feel the bruises flare up across his back. Somewhere across town his father slept soundly, his knuckles slightly bruised. There was no wife to share his bed with anymore.

Adam couldn’t stay in that home for much longer. The day would come when things got just a little too heated, and one of them was going to pay for it. But if Adam had the money to get away from it all he wouldn’t have to worry.

He descended stairs into the impenetrable darkness of the basement. After three steps he heard the crack and felt his foot falling out from under him. His upper body pitched forward even as his right leg fell straight through the hole in the step.

The end result jarred his hip and sent a jolt of pain through his groin. The flashlight slipped from his fingers and rolled down the stairs, thumping lightly on each step until it stopped on the dirt floor.

Painfully Adam pulled himself free and moved more cautiously down the stairs to pick back up his flashlight. The basement was larger than he had expected, and ran the full length of the home. The darkness was too deep for his flashlight to penetrate all of. It looked to him as if the darkness devoured the light.

The ground was nothing but dry dirt, and the air down in the basement was much thicker with dust. He could feel his eyes begin to water as he took a step deeper into the darkness. There were no windows to give him any additional light. It wasn’t long before the little light pouring down from the open basement door was too far behind him to even be seen.

He thought about his father’s face, his eyes red and bloodshot, his lips still wet with alcohol as he pulled his fist back. And ever so briefly, alone as Adam was within that complete black, he thought about his mother’s last moments on earth as she let the aspirin poison her, until her eyes had surely grown heavy and dropped her into a darkness even deeper than the one Adam walked through.

“It has to be here,” Adam whispered to himself. If he had told Rob and Nate about his reasons for braving this, would they have reconsidered? Adam found himself quickly losing his nerve as he just kept walking only to find nothing.

His flashlight never found another wall. All he had was the dirt floor and the wooden ceiling up above to keep him company. He turned back the way he’d come, but the staircase was too far away to see anymore.

And then his foot struck it.

He stumbled over the object suddenly in his path and went face first into the dirt. He felt pain spike through his groin from his earlier injury and felt his eyes burn from the puff of dirt that found its way into them.

He saw the small metal box through a haze. Adam absently wiped away the dirt and tears to stare at the rusted metal box, a padlock firmly secured on the outside.

Quickly his eyes swept over the darkness. Just fifteen feet away he stared at the stairs he had descended down. They hadn’t been there before, just as this metal box hadn’t been there either. There was no way people could’ve failed to find something so out in the open. Something, Adam briefly thought, that looked as if it had been waiting to be found.

He slowly reached out his hand to touch the metal. Flakes of rust came off. Reddish brown covered the tip of his finger.

Only then did another thought occur to him. Up above when he had first entered he hadn’t seen any disturbance in the dust. From all the stories he had heard about other teenagers venturing into the house, he didn’t believe there wouldn’t be any signs of their entrance.

Even the lock on the front door had been rusted yet intact, so how had the other teens entered? Was there a back door Adam wasn’t aware of, or had all of them simply lied to gain notoriety? He had assumed at least some of them had, but all of them?

With a rusty metal box under his arm Adam made his way back up the stairs, and then into the kitchen. The backdoor was firmly closed. He touched the deadbolt still in place. When he turned it the metal ground slowly against itself, only to catch halfway and deny him access to the backyard.

No one had come through this door in years. No one had entered the front door in years, either, and all of the windows were boarded over on the first floor. The wood nailed to them looked just as ancient as the house itself.

All of them had been lying.

Most of Adam’s fear was transformed into a deep pride in himself for having braved what apparently no one else really had.

He set the metal box down on the kitchen counter and pulled out his hammer. A single blow was enough to break away the flimsy lock on the front of it. He closed his eyes before opening the box, his stomach in a knot he was so nervous at what he’d find.

“Please,” he whispered, seeing in his mind his father screaming at him. For nearly a full minute he refused to see what the contents were, opening his eyes enough to stare at the dirty wall in front of him instead.

When he finally looked down he saw only a single sheet of folded white paper inside the box. Unlike everything else he’d seen since entering the house the paper showed no signs of decay.

He unfolded the slip of paper and read the two words written on it.

Thank You.

He read them again before setting the paper aside to peer into the now empty metal box. There was nothing else inside. This was the only thing that had been locked away, a piece of paper that had managed to be spared any signs of decay, as if this slip of paper had only be placed in the box a few days prior.

A loud, low creak ran through the house. Any jubilance Adam had felt at braving the home and finding what he had hoped would be its treasure descended back into the realm of fear.

Because he couldn’t help but feel that the piece of paper was recently placed into that box. The thing wasn’t air tight enough to spare the paper from years of decay.

Suddenly Adam wanted to be away from the house. Maybe he’d return for another search to find the money, but for that night, Adam wanted to be away from it all.

Rob and Nate were no longer waiting outside for him. He stopped on the sidewalk in front of the house and glanced back at the broken overhang and dark upper windows staring at him.

The glare of a flashlight blinded him, and made him turn towards the right and the figure standing just a few feet away. Just as quickly the light was gone and Adam saw through a bright haze the face of Mr. Harris coming into view, a large smile spread across it.

He almost didn’t recognize him at first, the once wrinkled face filled with youth. The eyes were what allowed Adam to recognize who he stared at.

“Did you get my message?” Mr. Harris asked him with a voice far deeper than the raspy wheeze he normally uttered. When Adam didn’t answer Harris continued, “I’ve already returned the favor for your kindness.” His eyes lowered to the hammer Adam still had clutched in his hand, and Harris motioned towards it. “Is that what you use to open it?”

Adam nodded slowly, unable to produce speech even if he had wanted to. When Harris reached out his hand, Adam placed the hammer into it.

“I think I’ll keep it as a souvenir.” He turned from Adam and started to walk away, but Adam called out to him before he could leave.

“This is your house, isn’t it?” Adam asked.

Harris glanced back at him. “It was in another lifetime. Thanks to you that part of my life is behind me. You know, it was the youth in this town that once placed me in that horrible little box. I thought it would only be fitting for the youth of another generation to free me. Appreciate your reward. I don’t show such kindness very often.”

Adam didn’t say anything else as Harris continued on his way, until vanishing from sight altogether around a corner. Instead he turned towards his home and walked the two miles to his house.

There were no lights on inside the one story building. Similar to the house he had just left, the paint had long ago begun to peel from the structure, and Adam didn’t see his father fixing that anytime soon.

Deep down he already knew what he would find awaiting him inside. He called out to his father, even though he knew the man would normally be asleep. The light thump of something banging into the wall answered him.

Adam didn’t turn on any lights as he journeyed through the small house to stand before his father’s open door.

A light breeze blew through his father’s open bedroom window and sent the corpse swaying lightly, his father’s bare feet striking the wall over and over again. There was no sign of death yet in his father’s features, his face still, the rope around his neck making his father’s face appear fatter than it normally was.

Soon the body would bloat with decay, and the man who had driven his own wife to suicide would be found, an apparent suicide victim himself.

There was a life insurance policy on the man. Adam had money coming his way.

What was Harris, Adam only briefly asked himself? He had heard other tales that permeated the area, tales dating back before those of the fortune hidden within the house.

He had heard tales of brutal slayings in the days before clear records were kept. He’d heard of the people who were dragged away in the night, and of the demon people would swear they saw moving through the dense woods that had once surrounded what had been a small town.

But of course, those were merely campfire stories to scare the youths. There wasn’t any demonic creature roaming the city, just like there wasn’t any fortune hidden deep within a dilapidated home.

Adam asked himself how many deaths he could carry on his conscious before he couldn’t take it anymore.

He didn’t know. Sitting alone on his father’s bed in the dark room, a corpse swaying gently in front of him, and the stink of a future decay already beginning to clog his nose, Adam found he had no answer to that question.

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