The chronicles of harris.., p.14
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       The Chronicles of Harris Burdick: 14 Amazing Authors Tell the Tales, p.14

           Chris Van Allsburg
 
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  But Trent didn't exactly know. At least, not yet.

  ***

  They started drilling again, and this time they found metal behind all the walls on the third floor, including Lew's study. Trent snuck in there one afternoon with the drill while Lew was at the college and their mother was out shopping for the upcoming faculty party.

  Their mother looked very pale and drawn these days—even Lissa had noticed—but when any of the children asked her if she was okay, she would always flash a troubling, overbright smile and tell them never better.

  One of Lew's advanced degrees was hanging on the wall over his desk in a frame. While the other children clustered outside the door, nearly vomiting with terror, Trent removed the framed degree from its hook, laid it on the desk, and drilled a pinhole in the center of the square where it had been. Two inches in, the drill hit metal.

  Trent carefully rehung the degree—making very sure it wasn't crooked—and came back out.

  They drilled holes at intervals along the stairs to the second floor and found metal behind these walls, too. The metal continued roughly halfway down the second-floor hallway as it proceeded toward the front of the house. It was behind the walls of Brian's room, but behind only one wall of Laurie's.

  "It hasn't finished growing in here," Laurie said darkly.

  Trent looked at her, surprised. "Huh?"

  Before she could reply, Brian had a brainstorm.

  "Try the floor, Trent!" he said. "See if it's there, too."

  Trent shrugged, then drilled into the floor of Laurie's room. The drill went in all the way with no resistance, but when he peeled back the rug at the foot of his own bed and tried it there, he soon encountered solid steel ... or solid whatever-it-was.

  Then, at Lissa's insistence, he stood on a stool and drilled up into the ceiling.

  "Boink," he said after a few moments. "More metal. Let's quit for the day."

  Laurie was the only one who saw how deeply troubled Trent looked.

  ***

  That night after lights-out, it was Trent who came to Laurie's room, and Laurie didn't even pretend to be sleepy. The truth was, neither of them had been sleeping very well for the last couple of weeks.

  "What did you mean?" Trent whispered, sitting down beside her.

  "About what?" Laurie asked, getting up on one elbow.

  "You said it hadn't finished growing in your room. What did you mean?"

  "Come on, Trent—you're not dumb."

  "No, I'm not," he agreed. "Maybe I just want to hear you say it, Sprat"

  "If you call me that, you never will."

  "Okay. Laurie, Laurie, Laurie. You satisfied?"

  "Yes. That stuff's growing all over the house." She paused. "No, that's not right. It's growing under the house"

  "That's not right, either."

  Laurie thought about it, then sighed. "Okay," she said. "It's growing in the house. It's stealing the house. Is that good enough, Mr. Smarty?"

  "Stealing the house..." Trent sat quietly beside her on the bed. At last he nodded and flashed the smile she loved. "Yes—that's good enough"

  "Whatever you call it, it acts like it's alive"

  Trent nodded.

  "But that isn't the worst"

  "What is?"

  "It's sneaking" Her eyes were big and frightened. "That's the part I really don't like. I don't know what started it or what it means, and I really don't care. But it's sneaking.

  "I feel like something's going to happen, Trent, only I don't know what, and it's like being in a nightmare you can't get all the way out of. Does it feel like that to you sometimes?"

  "A little, yeah. But I know something's going to happen. I might even know what."

  She bolted to a sitting position and grabbed his hands. "You know? What? What is it?"

  "I can't be sure," Trent said, getting up. "I think I know, but I'm not ready to say what I think yet. I have to do some more looking."

  "If we drill many more holes, the house is going to fall down!"

  "I didn't say drilling, I said looking."

  "Looking for what?"

  "For something that isn't here yet—that hasn't grown yet. But when it does, I don't think it will be able to hide."

  "Tell me, Trent!"

  "Not yet," he said, and planted a small, quick kiss on her cheek. "Besides—curiosity killed the Sprat."

  "I hate you!" she cried in a low voice, and flopped back down with the sheet over her head. But she felt better for having talked with Trent, and slept better than she had for a week.

  ***

  Trent found what he was looking for two days before the big party. As the oldest, he perhaps should have noticed that his mother had begun to look alarmingly unhealthy, rubbing at her temples all the time, although she denied—almost in a panic—that she had a migraine.

  He did not notice these things, however. He was too busy looking.

  He went through every closet in the big old house at least three times; through the crawlspace above Lew's study five or six times; through the big old cellar half a dozen times.

  It was in the cellar that he finally found it.

  This was not to say he hadn't found peculiar things in other places; he most certainly had. There was a knob of stainless steel poking out of the ceiling of a second-floor closet. A curved metal armature of some kind had burst through the side of the luggage closet on the third floor. It was a dim, polished gray ... until he touched it. When he did that, it flushed a dusky rose color, and he heard a faint but powerful humming sound deep in the wall. He snatched his hand back as if the armature were hot and the curved metal thing went gray again. The humming stopped at once.

  The day before, in the attic, he had observed a cobweb of thin, interlaced cables growing in a low dark corner under the eave. Trent had been crawling around on his hands and knees when he had suddenly spied this amazing phenomenon. He froze in place, staring through a tangle of hair as the cables spun themselves out of nothing at all (or so it looked, anyway), met, wrapped around each other so tightly that they seemed to merge, and then continued spreading until they reached the floor, where they drilled in and anchored themselves in dreamy little puffs of sawdust. They seemed to be creating some sort of limber bracework, and it looked as if it would be very strong, able to hold the house together through a lot of buffeting and hard knocks.

  What buffeting, though?

  What hard knocks?

  Again, Trent thought he knew. It was hard to believe, but he thought he knew.

  Far beyond the workshop area and the furnace, there was a little closet at the north end of the cellar, which their real father had called his "wine cellar."

  Lew came in here even less frequently than he went into the workshop; he didn't drink wine and their mother no longer drank wine either.

  There was a padlock on the wine cellar door, but the key hung right next to it.

  He was not much surprised by the sour whiff of spilled wine that greeted him as he approached the door; it was just more proof of what he and Laurie already knew—the changes were winding themselves quietly all through the house. He opened the door, and although what he saw frightened him, it didn't really surprise him.

  Metal constructions had burst through two of the wine cellar's walls, tearing apart the racks with their diamond-shaped compartments and pushing the bottles onto the floor, where they had broken.

  Like the cables in the attic crawlspace, whatever was forming here—growing, to use Laurie's word—hadn't finished yet. It spun itself into being in sheens of light that hurt Trent's eyes and made him feel a little sick to his stomach.

  No cables here, however, and no curved struts. What was growing in his real father's forgotten wine cellar looked like cabinets and consoles and instrument panels. And as he looked, vague shapes humped themselves up in the metal like the heads of excited snakes, gained focus, became dials and levers and readouts. There were also a few blinking lights. Some of these actually began to blink as he looked
at them.

  A low sighing sound accompanied this act of creation.

  Trent took one cautious step farther into the little room; an especially bright red light, or series of them, had caught his eye.

  The lights were numbers. They were under a glass strip on a metal construct that was spinning its way out of a console. This new thing looked like some sort of chair, although no one sitting in it would have been very comfortable. At least, no one with a human shape, Trent thought with a little shiver.

  The glass strip was in one of the arms of this twisted chair—if it was a chair. And the numbers had perhaps caught his eye because they were changing.

  72:34:18

  became

  72:34:17

  and then

  72:34:16.

  Trent looked at his watch, which had a sweep second hand, and used it to confirm what his eyes had already told him. The chair might or might not be really a chair, but the numbers under the glass strip were a digital clock. It was running backwards. Counting down, to be perfectly accurate. And what would happen when that readout finally went from

  00:00:01

  to

  00:00:00

  some three days from this very afternoon?

  He was pretty sure he knew. Every kid knows one or two things happen when a backwards-running clock finally reads zeros across the board: an explosion or a lift-off.

  Trent thought there was too much equipment, too many gadgets, for it to be an explosion.

  He thought something had gotten into the house while they were in England. Some sort of spore, perhaps, that had drifted through space for a billion years before being caught in the gravitational pull of the earth, spiraling down through the atmosphere like a bit of milkweed fluff caught in a mild breeze, and finally falling into the chimney of a house in Titusville, Indiana.

  Into the Bradburys' house in Titusville, Indiana.

  It might have been something else entirely, of course, but the spore idea felt right to Trent, and although he was the oldest of the Bradbury kids, he was still young enough to believe completely in his own perceptions and intuitions. And in the end, it didn't really matter, did it? What mattered was what had happened.

  And, of course, what was going to happen.

  When Trent left the wine cellar this time, he not only snapped the padlock's arm closed, but took the key as well.

  ***

  Something terrible happened at Lew's faculty party. It happened at quarter of nine, only forty-five minutes or so after the first guests arrived.

  "What's the matter with you?" Trent and Laurie heard him yelling at her, and when Trent felt Laurie's hand creep into his like a small, cold mouse, he held it tightly. "Don't you know what people are going to say about this? Don't you know how people in the department talk? I mean, really, Catherine."

  Their mother's only reply was soft, helpless sobbing, and for just one moment Trent felt a horrible, unwilling burst of hate for her. Why had she married him in the first place? Didn't she deserve this for being such a fool.

  Ashamed of himself, he pushed the thought away, made it gone, and turned to Laurie.

  "Great party, huh?" she whispered, tears pouring down her cheeks.

  "Right, Sprat," he said, and hugged her so she could cry against his shoulder without being heard. "It'll make my top-ten list at the end of the year, no sweat."

  ***

  It seemed that their mother had been lying to everyone. She had been in the grip of a screaming-blue migraine for not just a day or two days but this time for the last two weeks. During that time she had eaten next to nothing and lost fifteen pounds. She had been serving canapés to Stephen Krutchmer, the head of the History Department, and his wife when the colors went out of everything and the world suddenly swam away from her. She had rolled bonelessly forward, spilling a whole tray of Chinese pork rolls onto the front of Mrs. Krutchmer's expensive dress.

  Brian and Lissa had heard the commotion and had come creeping down the stairs in their pajamas to see what was going on, although all four children had been strictly forbidden by Daddy Lew to leave the upper floors of the house once the party began.

  When they saw their mother on the floor in a circle of kneeling, concerned faculty members, they had forgotten their stepfather's firm order and had run in, Lissa crying, Brian bellowing in excited dismay.

  "Mom! Mommy!" Brian cried, shaking her. "Mommy! Wake up!"

  Mrs. Evans stirred and moaned.

  "Get upstairs," Lew said coldly. "Both of you."

  When they showed no signs of obeying, Lew put his hand on Lissa's shoulder and tightened it until she squeaked with pain.

  "I'll take care of this," he said through teeth so tightly clamped they refused to entirely unlock even to speak. "You and your brother go upstairs right n—"

  "Take your hand off her," Trent said clearly.

  Lew turned toward the archway between the living room and the hallway. Trent and Laurie stood there, side by side. Trent was as pale as his stepfather, but his face was calm and set.

  "I want you to go upstairs," Lew said. "All four of you. There's nothing here to concern you. Nothing to concern you at all"

  "Get your hand off Lissa," Trent said.

  "And get away from our mother," Laurie said.

  Now Mrs. Evans was sitting up, her hands to her head, looking around dazedly. The headache had popped like a balloon, leaving her disoriented and weak but finally out of the agony she had endured for the last fourteen days. She knew she had done something terrible, embarrassed Lew, perhaps even disgraced him, but for the moment she was too grateful that the pain had stopped to care. The shame would come later. Now she only wanted to go upstairs—very slowly—and lie down.

  "You'll be punished for this," Lew said, looking at his four stepchildren in the nearly perfect shocked silence of the living room. "I'm sorry for their misbehavior," he said to the room at large. "My wife is a bit lax with them, I'm afraid. What they need is a good English nanny—"

  "Don't be an idiot, Lew," Mrs. Krutchmer said. "Your wife fainted. They were concerned, that's all. Children should care about their mother. And a husband about his wife"

  Trent and Laurie assisted their mother up the stairs, and Lissa and Brian trailed along behind.

  The party went on. The incident was more or less papered over, as unpleasant incidents at parties usually are. Mrs. Evans was asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow, and the children heard Lew downstairs, enjoying the party without her.

  He never once broke away to come up and check on her.

  After the last guest had been shown out, he walked heavily upstairs and poked his head into Trent's room and measured the children with his gaze.

  "I knew you'd all be in here," he said with a satisfied little nod. "Conspiring. You're going to be punished, you know. Yes indeed. Tomorrow. Tonight I want you to go right to bed and think about it. Now go to your rooms. And no creeping around, either."

  Neither Lissa nor Brian did any "creeping around," certainly; they were too exhausted to do anything but fall asleep immediately. But Laurie came back down to Trent's room in spite of Lew, and the two of them listened in silent dismay as their stepfather upbraided their mother for daring to faint at his party ... and as their mother wept and offered not a word of argument or even demurral.

  "Oh, Trent, what are we going to do?" Laurie asked.

  Trent's face was extraordinarily pale and still. "Do?" he said. "Why, we're not going to do anything, Sprat."

  "We have to! Trent, we have to! We have to help her!"

  "No, we don't," Trent said. "This house is going to do it for us." He looked at his watch and calculated. "At around three thirty-four tomorrow afternoon, the house is going to do it all."

  ***

  There were no punishments in the morning; Lew Evans told them he would see them in his study that night, one by one, and "mete a fair few strokes to each," and left for work.

  The two younger kids were standing by the k
itchen. Lissa was crying. Brian was keeping a stiff upper lip, but he was pale and there were purple pouches under his eyes. "He'll spank us," Brian said to Trent. "And he spanks hard, too."

  "Nope," Trent said.

  "But, Trent—" Lissa began.

  "Listen to me," Trent said. "And listen carefully, and don't you miss a single word. It's important, and none of us can screw up."

  They stared at him silently with their big green-blue eyes.

  "As soon as school is out, I want you two to come right home ... but only as far as the corner. The corner of Maple and Walnut. Have you got that?"

  "Ye-ess," Lissa said hesitantly. "But why, Trent?"

  "Never mind," Trent said. His eyes were sparkling dangerously. "Just be there. Stand by the mailbox. You have to be there by three o'clock, three fifteen at the latest. Do you understand?"

  "Yes," Brian said, speaking for both of them. "We got it."

  "Laurie and I will already be there, or we'll be there right after you get there."

  "How are we going to do that, Trent?" Laurie asked. "We don't even get out of school until three o'clock, and I have band practice, and the bus takes—"

  "We're not going to school today," Trent said.

  "No?" Laurie was nonplussed.

  Lissa was horrified. "Trent!" she said. "You can't do that! That's ... that's... hookey!"

  "And about time, too," Trent said grimly. "Now you two get ready for school. Just remember, the corner of Maple and Walnut at three o'clock, three fifteen at the absolute latest. And whatever you do, don't come all the way home" He stared at Brian and Lissa fiercely. Even Laurie was frightened. "Wait for us, but don't you dare come back into this house," he said. "Not for anything"

  ***

  When the little kids were gone, Laurie seized his shirt and demanded to know what was going on.

  "It has something to do with what's growing in the house, I know it does, and if you want me to play hookey and help you, you better tell me what it is!"

  "Chill out, I'll tell you," Trent said. "And be quiet. I don't want you to wake up Mom. She'll make us go to school, and that's no good"

  "Well, what is it? Tell me!"

  "Come downstairs," Trent said. "I want to show you something."

  He led her downstairs to the wine cellar.

 
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