COZY NOIR FIRST PLACE WINNER

A TALL HOUSE

By Bill Cameron


“David, take your lunch. You’re late.”

David sat at the kitchen dinette, English muffin and juice untouched in front of him. He gazed up at Elsa’s back as she stood at the counter closing the bread and peanut butter, wiping up crumbs. Her round shoulders and the tight grey hair encasing her head made her look like a football player. She put the bread and peanut butter in the cupboard, then turned to him, his sack lunch in her hand.

“You haven’t eaten a thing.” He followed her eyes to the clock above the sink. Eight twenty-six. “You’ll know better tomorrow. Now take your lunch. You’re late.”

David’s eyes remained fixed on the clock—a cheap plastic thing like you’d get at Fred Meyer’s. There used to be another clock, David remembered. An old clock, made from dark, carved wood with chain weights and a ticking pendulum, a chime every hour. He remembered long, long ago his mother let him pull the chains every Saturday morning. He’d liked the sound of the chime.

“David. Take your lunch. You’re late.”

He looked at her. “I’m not going,” he muttered.

Elsa’s eyes narrowed. “What did you say?”

David felt his stomach flip-flop. For a moment, fear of Elsa battled his defiance. It wasn’t the first such battle waged inside himself, especially in the months since he’d turned ten. But it was the first in which defiance won. He glared up at Elsa. “I’m not going,” he said, his voice rising. “I am not going!”

The strength of his words seemed to surprise Elsa almost as much as himself. Her jaw took on a firm set that made her cheeks bulge. Elsa Jaw. How often had David seen that? Elsa Jaw meant she was getting serious. It meant she didn’t intend to take any lip. It meant ear pinching and restrictions if David didn’t comply.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “Take your lunch. You’re late.”

She set the lunch sack on the table in front of him, put her hands on her hips in stern supplement to Elsa Jaw. But he only shook his head. “I’m not going. No matter what you say, I’m not!”

“David, if you don’t take your lunch this instant, I’m calling your mother.”

“Fine! Call her. I don’t care. I’m not going.”

Elsa’s jaw wavered. It wasn’t the first time she’d invoked the threat of a call to his mother, but he’d always backed down before. “David, you’ll upset your mother. You don’t want to do that. You must take your lunch. You must go to school.” Elsa’s jaw clenched and unclenched. “You’re late.”

“You can’t make me.” He looked back up at the cheap clock. Eight twenty-nine.

Elsa’s breath whistled through her nose. “You’re going to have to tell that to your mother,” she said tightly.

David felt himself perk up. “Can I go see her?”

“You know better than that.”

He sagged. “I’m tired of only talking to her on the phone. I want to go see her.”

“That’s impossible, and you know it. She’s terribly ill. She doesn’t want you to get sick.”

“That’s stupid!” David pushed his chair back and stood up. “You get to see her. You go up and down those stairs fifty times a day. You never get sick.”

Elsa pursed her lips and reached toward him. The pinching fingers. He ducked under her hand and retreated, pressed himself against the basement door. “How come you get to go see her and I don’t? She’s my mom. You’re just the stupid housekeeper!”

Elsa gasped, raised fingers to her lips. Sudden tears glistened in her eyes.

He’d gone too far. He realized it in a skipped heartbeat. “I just want to go see her,” he said. “That’s all.” But it was too late for defense. Elsa’s face betrayed only dismay. Without any clear idea of what might happen next, he fumbled frantically behind himself, grasped the door knob. Elsa reached toward him as he turned and pulled the door open. “David! Don’t be ridiculous!” He didn’t stop to flip the light switch at the top of the stairs, just charged down into darkness. He stumbled at the bottom. Backed up against the wall out of the light that fell through the open doorway.

“David—!” Elsa called out. “Stop this! Stop.” Elsa didn’t follow. He knew she wouldn’t. She hated the basement. Bugs and dirt, cobwebs in the corners—Elsa was very tidy. “David, come out of there. You’re upsetting your mother.” David stood in shadow, breathing heavily. “She’s very ill. Take your lunch, please. You’re late.” When David didn’t answer, she closed the door and left him alone in the dark.

David liked the basement. He liked its quiet, and he liked the smell of earth in the crawl space under the porch, of the mold that grew on the shelves that held Elsa’s preserves. He liked that she never came down here. It was his job to haul her canned vegetables and jam down and up the stairs.

But always with the light on.

His legs trembled with fear—fear of the dark, but also fear of his rebellion against Elsa. He listened to the sound of her footsteps as she paced the kitchen. He could hear her muttering to herself up there—a strange, bewildering sound. He wondered why Elsa didn’t just call upstairs to his mother. There was an intercom phone in the kitchen.

He’d never done anything like this before. In all the years she’d cared for him since his mother got sick and his father went away, David had fought Elsa only in small ways. Wouldn’t do his homework, wouldn’t eat his squash. If a restriction didn’t solve the problem, a call to his mother would. But this morning David had crossed a line. Elsa seemed to know it too. Maybe she was building up her nerve to come downstairs after all, grab his ear and haul him the heck out of there. At least she’d turn the light on. But then, abruptly, her footsteps trailed out of the kitchen and into the hallway from the dining room. He heard a distant door close, followed by the fading tap of Elsa’s feet climbing to the second floor.

Relief flooded through him. He pressed forward, his arms stretched out in the dark, breath in his throat. He found the stairs with his bare shin. Pain stabbed up through his leg and he crumpled onto the steps, strangling a cry in his throat.

He grasped his shin and felt wetness. Blood. A whimper escaped his lips. He was bleeding in the dark basement and the only person who could help him was Elsa. Tears dribbled down his cheeks and he wished he could run up to his mama, have her bandage the hurt. But after a moment the pain in his leg dulled to an aching throb. All he could think to do was avoid Elsa as long as possible. As he started up the stairs, he imagined leaving a trail of blood that Elsa would follow wherever he went.

He moved carefully but quickly. At the top step, he paused only long enough to listen for sounds of Elsa’s return. All was quiet. He pushed the door open and breathed as he stepped back into the light.

His lunch sack sat on the table, beside the remains of his breakfast. He glanced up at clock—eight thirty-five. He’d been downstairs hardly any time at all, though it felt like ages. He glanced at his leg, surprised to see only a small cut and tiny trickle of blood that hadn’t even reached his sock.

He wasn’t sure what to do. Take his lunch and go to school, maybe. But he was sure to be punished anyway, whether he went or not. He slipped out of the kitchen, through the empty dining room and into the living room. Maybe there was somewhere he could hide. In the living room, he stopped in front of the shabby couch under the huge front window. For a moment, he gazed sightlessly out the window as he considered possible hiding places.

It was a big, old house, on the dead end of a short block, surrounded by old trees. Elsa had told him what they were. Sycamore. Birch. Hawthorn. The hawthorn was a ratty mess, though David recalled a time when a man came and trimmed it. Elsa said they couldn’t afford that anymore, what with his mother’s sickness. His favorite tree was out back, a great white oak growing up through a split in an ancient boiler that had been abandoned in the backyard before it had been a backyard. The boiler was rusted and mostly hidden by mats of creeping phlox and wildflowers, but it was sturdy enough as a first step whenever David wanted to climb the oak. Elsa tried to keep him out of the tree, but he often climbed it when she wasn’t looking. It was the best climbing tree in the yard.

As he stood there thinking of the tree, the intercom phone on the end table buzzed. A part of his brain told him not to answer it. But he knew he wanted to talk to his mama, tell her that he just wanted to come see her—that’s all. Then he’d go to school. She’d understand. He picked up the phone.

“Hello?”

“Davey, what’s going on? Why won’t you go to school, honey?”

He didn’t know how to put it into words. He struggled for a way to describe the feelings he’d been having lately—about being the weird one at school with no father and a sick mother; feelings about living with Elsa alone, his mother so close and yet so far away. All he could think to say was, “I want to come see you, Mama.”

“You know that’s not possible, honey. I’m ill.”

“But what about Elsa? She never gets sick. If she doesn’t maybe I won’t either.”

He could hear her breathing. It comforted him to know she was breathing even when she wasn’t talking. He realized, suddenly, that he couldn’t recall her face, that he knew her only by the soft sound of her voice over the phone. The idea made him feel strange. “Davey, it—it affects children differently. I can’t take that chance. You do understand, don’t you?”

He didn’t. It sounded stupid, but he didn’t want to say that to his mama. Now it was his turn to breathe into the phone. She was so close, just up a flight of stairs, and yet all this time had passed. And nothing.

“Davey, sweetie? Are you there?”

He wasn’t sure why, but he said, “What happened to the old clock?”

“What’s that, honey?”

“There used to be an old clock in the kitchen. It’s gone. So’s the dining room furniture. We used to have lots of stuff, but it’s all gone. We don’t even have a TV anymore.”

More breathing, faster now. He’d made her nervous. After a moment, she said, “That’s not your worry, okay? You understand that? Your worry is to go to school.”

“I don’t want to go to school. I want to come see you.”

She started crying. Tears welled up in his own eyes. He couldn’t remember ever making his mama cry before. He felt like he should run to the kitchen, grab his lunch, run to school—just to make his mama stop crying. But it wouldn’t be that simple anymore. Something had changed this morning when he refused Elsa’s commands.

“Mama?” he said. “Please?”

“I’m sorry, Davey. You know I love you.”

He heard the phone click. She was gone. He gazed through the doorway into the hall. He could just make out the door leading upstairs. So close, yet so far away. He hung up the phone. Go to school, he told himself.

Then he heard a sound, footsteps on stairs. Elsa was coming. His impulse was to flee, but he could already hear Elsa’s hand on the doorknob at the foot of the stairs.

He scanned the room. There was only a low table against the wall opposite the couch. The living room had once been packed with furniture—a pair of ceiling-high bookcases; a hutch filled with china figurines; a piano. Now, all that was gone. Even the couch was different, small and tattered. But it offered him his only refuge. As the stairway door opened, he scrambled over the back and dropped down beneath the window.

Elsa’s footsteps clicked into the room. Just keep going, he willed. But Elsa was too elemental a force to succumb to the psychic energies of a ten year old boy. She paused, then crossed the room. He saw her hands grasp the back of the couch, then her face as she leaned forward and peered out the window. His heartbeat pounded in his ears.

“Oh, David,” she muttered. “What’s happened?” She raised one hand, trembling and uncertain, to her cheek.

David felt his stomach drop. Normally she was as strong as the old oak in the backyard, a stern word from her the only word. But now her voice faltered. It was beyond the scope of his experience. He shivered with confusion and dread.

She stared out, whispering, “David, you’re upsetting your mother. Take your lunch. You’re late.” She sighed, pushed herself up off the couch. “What have you seen?” she muttered as she left the living room. “You’ve upset your mother so…”

Silence descended, punctuated by the distant sound of the back door slamming. Tremulous, he slid out from behind the couch. The faint floral scent of Elsa hung in the air. He shuddered, but then he realized that nothing could stop him from going upstairs. Elsa had gone outside. He looked at the phone. His instinct was to call, ask his mother if he could come. She’d say no. She might not even answer. She couldn’t always handle the phone without Elsa’s help.

A shadow passed the window. David looked and saw Elsa on the front lawn. He quickly ducked into the hallway, then peered around the door jamb out the window.

She didn’t see him. She gazed up the street, her lips mumbling. Her eyes seemed unfocused, her cap of hair in disarray. She was looking for him, but before she could find him, he’d already be upstairs. He took a deep breath and turned into the hall.

Half fearful, half-excited, he crept toward the stairway door. His mama was so close. Just steps away. But the air in the hallway oppressed him, constricted his chest. The stairway door stood open a couple of inches. He couldn’t remember ever seeing it like that. His mother’s door was always shut. He reached out to grasp the knob, but his hand recoiled. In the dim light, he saw steps climb into darkness.

There had been a time, dimly remembered, when he had been allowed to climb those stairs. But the facts of his mother’s illness and Elsa’s rule had dominated him for too many years. He tried to open the door, but he couldn’t. He backed away, pressed himself against the door opposite his mama’s.

“I want to see you, Mama,” he said. If she heard, she didn’t answer. In sudden anxiety, he backed away, grasped the doorknob behind him, pushed the door open without thinking. And stopped. In a heartbeat regained his senses.

It was Elsa’s room. Quiet and clean, filled with muted colors and the smell of mothballs. A place as forbidden as upstairs.

David still remembered when Elsa first showed up, years before. There had been a fight. His mom and dad yelling at each other upstairs. Mama put him to bed early, because the fight started right after supper, and she always put him to bed when fights started. David didn’t know what the fight was about. He hardly remembered even having a father, let alone what he and his mama had fought about. But that particular fight stuck in his mind. It went on long through the night, the yelling from atop the stairs, muted by the walls but loud enough to keep David awake. He recalled the sickly feeling of listening to their voices, as though the sound would smother him. He tried hiding under his pillow, tried to imagine a time and place when they never fought again. They just kept screaming at each other, so close, so far away.

Then there was a final, lone shout, and silence. A long deep quiet that descended so suddenly that the ticking of the radiator seemed loud. After a while, his mother came in and kissed him, told him everything was fine. She promised it would all be okay. Just go to sleep and everything will be fine. She wiped away his tears, but a tear of her own dripped onto his face. She kissed him again, and left the room.

The next morning, when he awoke, Elsa was there—grey-haired and stern. Your mother is ill, she said. Something like that. You can’t see her, she’s catching. David didn’t remember exactly, but Elsa had repeated herself so many times that he was sure that was what she’d said. “She’s catching.” His father was gone, run off into the night. “A man who gives himself to alcohol has no business being around a family anyway,” Elsa told him. He never came back.

Elsa had moved into this room. Once the guest room, now it was Elsa’s, completely and utterly off-limits. If she caught him here, he couldn’t imagine the consequences. The bed was perfect, its white spread smooth as glass. It was hard to believe she slept in it. A glass lamp stood on the bedside table, centered on a lace doily. Another doily draped across the dresser, and on it sat a bible, its black leather cover crisp and shiny. David touched it but didn’t open it. A ceramic dish held a collection of hairpins, beside it an ivory hairbrush. David ran his finger under the clasp of a small wooden jewelry box, feeling the thrill of illicit intrusion. His own room was heaped with treasures by comparison—books, drawings, toys. He didn’t expect Elsa’s room to look like his, but this sterility baffled him. For a moment, the place radiated the apprehension he’d felt when he saw Elsa’s uncertainty from behind the couch.

The back door slammed and dread rumbled through him. He went to the door, heard footsteps in the dining room. He didn’t know what she’d do if she caught him in her room. He stepped out into the hall just as she turned the corner from the living room.

“David! My goodne—” Then, she noticed that her door was open. Her fingers twitched at her side and her jaw clenched and unclenched rhythmically. David wished he could disappear, run away—anything. But the force of Elsa’s voice kept him rooted in place. “David?—what have you been doing?”

“Nothing.” Automatic response.

She shook her head. “What’s going on? Your mother’s worried to death.” She advanced toward him, and he backed up until he pressed against his mother’s door.

“Nothing’s going on,” he muttered. He felt stupid saying it. He wanted to ask her why her room was so cold and empty, why he wasn’t allowed to go upstairs. But her hard face silenced him.

Elsa pulled her bedroom door shut. “I don’t know why you’re doing this.”

David stared at her. “I just want to see my mama.”

“You know better than that. She’s catch—”

“You always say that!” he blurted. A rush of heat and chill swept over him, as though his frustration and fear were battling for control. Elsa gasped at his outburst. “I’m tired of always hearing the same thing. You never tell me anything that’s real!”

She flinched, a gesture both strange and unsettling. “She—she has a disease.”

David felt himself start to quiver violently. “You always say that. You never tell me what disease. It’s always, ‘she’s catching she’s catching’ but everything’s just all weird.” He didn’t want to shout, but the words poured out of him. “All the furniture is gone and your bed is perfect! Do you even sleep anywhere or what?!”

“David. Please—”

“I just want to go see her!” He felt tears on his cheeks and fire on his neck. “I just want to see her and I’m going to go see her and you can’t stop me!” With a cry, he spun around and grabbed the doorknob. Elsa clutched at his shoulder, but he twisted and thrust the door against her. She grunted and stumbled away from him. He slammed the door around against the wall, then dashed up the steps into darkness, stopping only as he neared the closed door at the top. He looked back over his shoulder, but Elsa didn’t follow. He could see her in the open doorway at the foot of the stairs, gazing up at him, her body framed by light. Her face was dark, but the light glinted off her eyes.

“David, David,” he heard her say in a broken voice. “What have you seen?” Then she turned and was gone.

For a long moment he just stood breathing. Then the realization settled onto him. She couldn’t stop him. He grasped the doorknob, listened in the darkness. It was quiet on the other side. Perhaps his mama was sleeping. It didn’t matter. He was going to see her at last. He felt himself tremble as he pushed open the door.

It was a small room with three walls of windows. The white curtains were drawn, but let in a pale, diffuse light. He smelled a faint odor of mildew. Along the walls were stacks of magazines and old newspapers. Beneath the far window stood a battered dresser, its top a mess of lotion bottles, heaps of paperback books. The bed was old and sagged in the middle, its sheets dingy and its spread thrust carelessly aside. The bedside table was stacked with papers. A pale green robe hung from the bedpost.

“Mama?” he said quietly. There was a closed door off to the side, a bathroom, he recalled from the dim past. She must be in the bathroom. He went to the bed, sat gingerly on the edge to wait. His mama’s bed.

As he waited, he glimpsed his mother’s name on the papers on the bedside table. Idly, he picked up the top sheet and started to read, “…120 days past due. Please remit immediately…” The words confused him, and he looked at several more pages. Different kinds of bills, he figured, and all saying the same thing, past due, remit immediately. Whatever that meant. He set them down and stood up, suddenly uncomfortable. It was a money thing. That must be where all the furniture went. Something to do with money. But why would a money thing make his mother sick?

He didn’t want to wait for her to come out. She was being too quiet. Slowly, tentatively, he went to the bathroom door. “Mama?” No sound from within. He knocked, gently at first, then with more strength. “Mama?” Nothing. He drew a couple of deep breaths, and opened the door.

The light was on, but no one was there. He saw a bar of soap on the sink, a well-chewed toothbrush. There was a shelf over the toilet with a couple of bottles of shampoo and a piece of round Styrofoam like a head. He’d seen one before, through the window of that hair place on Hawthorne. A wig form.

He backed away from the bathroom door, and gazed around the empty room, and suddenly everything looked strange and terrible to him. “Mama?” he said into the silence. But no one answered.

He heard a sharp sound from outside. He went to the rear window and pushed the curtain aside. Down in the yard Elsa knelt before the white oak that grew up through a crack in the old boiler. She had something in her hand, a rock or a brick, and she was hammering at the hatch on the boiler.

“Mama?” He looked back through the open bathroom door at the wig form for a long moment, then he fled the room. He stumbled down the stairs and up the hall into the living room. He passed through the dining room to the kitchen. He could hear Elsa’s sounds more clearly now, the sharp rap of stone on metal. He went to the door and looked out. Her back was to him, but he could see that she was unkempt, her hair in disarray on her head.

David slid quietly out the back door and down the steps. As he drew near her, he could hear her breathe and mutter as she hammered. “What have you seen? You weren’t supposed to see anything. I told you to stay out of this goddamned tree.” She slammed the rock against the boiler again and something gave. The hatch popped open and cloud of dust pillowed around her. She bent down to gaze through the hatch, but her body blocked his own view.

“Mama?”

Her round shoulders jerked and she spun around. “Davey!” She stared at him, eyes wild. “Davey. David. Take your lunch. You’re late.”

He struggled to hold onto his tears. She looked back down into the hatch. Then she started to cry. “I didn’t want you to know. All these years—it was just an accident, but I thought you would stop loving me if you knew. I thought Elsa would make sure you’d keep loving me. You were never supposed to go into her room.”

David stared at her, her eyes sunken and dark, the wig askew on her head. “Davey, please, take your lunch. You’re late,” she said. Over her shoulder, through the open hatch of the old boiler, he saw a man’s leather shoe, half-rotten, and a collapsed trouser leg partly covered with dirt.

“Okay, Mama.” He turned away, headed around the house and up the street toward school. He forgot his lunch, but that didn’t matter. He didn’t feel very hungry anyway


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bill Cameron lives with his wife and poodle in the Portland, Oregon, where he also serves as staff to a charming, yet imperious cat. He is an eager traveler and avid bird-watcher, and likes to write near a window so he can meditate on whatever happens to fly by during intractable passages. LOST DOG, his first suspense novel, will be available from Midnight Ink Books in April 2007. Bill is a member of Killer Year, the most dangerous debut novelists of 2007. He is currently at work on his second novel.


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