The House on Maple StreetStephen King
The House on Maple Street
by Stephen King
Although she was only five, and the youngest of the Bradbury children, Melissa had very sharp eyes and it wasn't really surprising that she was the first to discover something strange had happened to the house on Maple Street while the Bradbury family was summering in England.
She ran and found her older brother, Brian, and told him something was wrong upstairs, on the third floor. She said she would show him, but not until he swore not to tell anyone what she had found. Brian swore, knowing it was their stepfather Lissa was afraid of; Daddy Lew didn't like it when any of the Bradbury children "got up to foolishness" (that was how he always put it), and he had decided that Melissa was the prime offender in that area. Lissa, who was stupid no more than she was blind, was aware of Lew's prejudices, and had become wary of them. In fact, all of the Bradbury children had become rather wary of their mother's second husband.
It would probably turn out to be nothing, anyway, but Brian was delighted to be back home and willing enough to humor his baby sister (Brian was two full years her senior), at least for awhile; he followed her down the third-floor hallway without so much as a murmur of argument, and he only pulled her braids -- he called these braid-pulls "emergency stops" -- once.
They had to tiptoe past Lew's study, which was the only finished-off room up here, because Lew was inside, unpacking his notebooks and papers and muttering in an ill-tempered way.
Brian's thoughts had actually turned to what might be on TV tonight -- he was looking forward to a pig-out on good old American cable after three months of BBC and ITV -- when they reached the end of the hall.
What he saw beyond the tip of his little sister's pointing finger drove all thoughts of television from Brian Bradbury's mind.
"Now swear again!" Lissa whispered. "Never tell anyone, Daddy Lew or anyone, or hope to die!"
"Hope to die," Brian agreed, still staring, and it was a half-hour before he told his big sister, Laurie, who was unpacking in her room. Laurie was possessive of her room as only an eleven-year-old girl can be, and she gave Brian the very dickens for coming in without knocking, even though she was completely dressed.
"Sorry," Brian said, "but I gotta show you something. It's very weird."
"Where?" She went on putting clothes in her drawers as if she didn't care, as if there was nothing any dopey little seven-year-old could tell her which would be of the slightest interest to her, but when it came to eyes, Brian's weren't exactly dull. He could tell when Laurie was interested, and she was interested now.
"Upstairs. Third floor. End of the hall past Daddy Lew's study."
Laurie's nose wrinkled as it always did when Brian or Lissa called him that. She and Trent remembered their real father, and they didn't like his replacement at all. They made it their business to call him Just Plain Lew. That Lewis Evans clearly did not like this -- found it vaguely impertinent, in fact -- simply added to Laurie and Trent's unspoken but powerful conviction that it was the right way to address the man their mother (uck!) slept with these days.
"I don't want to go up there," Laurie said. "He's been in a pissy mood ever since we got back. Trent says he'll stay that way until school starts and he can settle back into his rut again."
"His door's shut. We can be quiet. Lissa n me went up and he didn't even know we were there."
"Lissa and I."
"Yeah. Us. Anyway, it's safe. The door's shut and he's talking to himself like he does when he's really into something."
"I hate it when he does that," Laurie said darkly. "Our real father never talked to himself, and he didn't use to lock himself in a room by himself, either."
"Well, I don't think he's locked in," Brian said, "but if you're really worried about him coming out, take an empty suitcase. We'll pretend like we're putting it in the closet where we keep them, if he comes out."
"What is this amazing thing?" Laurie demanded, putting her fists on her hips.
"I'll show you," Brian said earnestly, "but you have to swear on Mom's name and hope to die if you tell anyone." He paused, thinking, for a moment, and then added: "You specially can't tell Lissa, because I swore to her."
Laurie's ears were finally all the way up. It was probably a big nothing, but she was tired of putting clothes away. It was really amazing how much junk a person could accumulate in just three months. "Okay, I swear."
They took along two empty suitcases, one for each of them, but their precautions proved unnecessary; their stepfather never came out of his study. It was probably just as well; he had worked up a grand head of steam, from the sound. The two children could hear him stamping about, muttering, opening drawers, slamming them shut again. A familiar odor seeped out from under the door -- to Laurie it smelled like smouldering athletic socks. Lew was smoking his pipe.
She stuck her tongue out, crossed her eyes, and twiddled her fingers in her ears as they tiptoed by.
But a moment later, when she looked at the place Lissa had pointed out to Brian and which Brian now pointed out to her, she forgot Lew just as completely as Brian had forgotten about all the wonderful things he could watch on TV that night.
"What is it?" she whispered to Brian. "My gosh, what does it mean?"
"I dunno," Brian said, "but just remember, you swore on Mom's name, Laurie."
"Yeah, yeah, but -- "
"Say it again!" Brian didn't like the look in her eyes. It was a telling look, and he felt she really needed a little reinforcement.
"Yeah, yeah, on Mom's name," she said perfunctorily, "but, Brian, jeezly crow -- "
"And hope to die, don't forget that part."
"Oh, Brian, you are such a cheeser!"
"Never mind, just say you hope to die!"
"Hope to die, hope to die, okay?" Laurie said. "Why do you have to be such a cheeser, Bri?"
"Dunno," he said, smirking in that way she absolutely hated, "just lucky, I guess."
She could have strangled him... but a promise was a promise, especially one given on the name of your one and only mother, so Laurie held on for over one full hour before getting Trent and showing him. She made him swear, too, and her confidence that Trent would keep his promise not to tell was perfectly justified. He was almost fourteen, and as the oldest, he had no one to tell... except a grownup. Since their mother had taken to her bed with a migraine, that left only Lew, and that was the same as no one at all.
The two oldest Bradbury children hadn't needed to bring up empty suitcases as camouflage this time; their stepfather was downstairs, watching some British fellow lecture on the Normans and Saxons (the Normans and Saxons were Lew's specialty at the college) on the VCR, and enjoying his favorite afternoon snack -- a glass of milk and a ketchup sandwich.
Trent stood at the end of the hall, looking at what the other children had looked at before him. He stood there for a long time.
“What is it, Trent?'' Laurie finally asked. It never crossed her mind that Trent wouldn't know. Trent knew everything. So she watched, almost incredulously, as he slowly shook his head.
"I don't know," he said, peering into the crack. "Some kind of metal, I think. Wish I'd brought a flashlight." He reached into the crack and tapped. Laurie felt a vague sense of disquiet at this, and was relieved when Trent pulled his finger back. "Yeah, it's metal."
"Should it be in there?" Laurie asked. "I mean, was it? Before?"
"No," Trent said. "I remember when they replastered. That was just after Mom married him. There wasn't anything in there then but laths."
"What are they?"
"Narrow boards," he said. "They go between the plaster and the outside wall of the house." Trent reached into the crack in the wall and once again touched the metal which s
howed dull white in there. The crack was about four inches long and half an inch across at its widest point. "They put in insulation, too," he said, frowning thoughtfully and then shoving his hands into the back pockets of his wash-faded jeans. "I remember. Pink, billowy stuff that looked like cotton candy."
"Where is it, then? I don't see any pink stuff."
"Me either," Trent said. "But they did put it in. I remember." His eyes traced the four-inch length of the crack. "That metal in the wall is something new. I wonder how much of it there is, and how far it goes. Is it just up here on the third floor, or..."
"Or what?" Laurie looked at him with big round eyes. She had begun to be a little frightened.
"Or is it all over the house," Trent finished thoughtfully.
After school the next afternoon, Trent called a meeting of all four Bradbury children. It got off to a somewhat bumpy start, with Lissa accusing Brian of breaking what she called "your solemn swear'' and Brian, who was deeply embarrassed, accusing Laurie of putting their mother's soul in dire jeopardy by telling Trent. Although he wasn't very clear on exactly what a soul was (the Bradburys were Unitarians), he seemed quite sure that Laurie had condemned Mother's to hell.
"Well," Laurie said, "you'll have to take some of the blame, Brian. I mean, you were the one who brought Mother into it. You should have had me swear on Lew's name. He could go to hell."
Lissa, who was young enough and kind-hearted enough not to wish anyone in hell, was so distressed by this line of discourse that she began to cry.
"Hush, all of you," Trent said, and hugged Lissa until she had regained most of her composure. "What's done is done, and I happen to think it all worked out for the best."
"You do?" Brian asked. If Trent said a thing was good, Brian would have died defending it, that went without saying, but Laurie had sworn on Mom's name.
"Something this weird needs to be investigated, and if we waste a lot of time arguing over who was right or wrong to break their promise, we'll never get it done."
Trent glanced pointedly up at the clock on the wall of his room, where they had gathered. It was twenty after three. He really didn't have to say any more. Their mother had been up this morning to get Lew his breakfast -- two three-minute eggs with whole-wheat toast and marmalade was one of his many daily requirements -- but afterward she had gone back to bed, and there she had remained. She suffered from dreadful headaches, migraines that sometimes spent two or even three days snarling and clawing at her defenseless (and often bewildered) brain before decamping for a month or so.
She would not be apt to see them on the third floor and wonder what they were up to, but "Daddy Lew" was a different kettle of fish altogether. With his study just down the hall from the strange crack, they could count on avoiding his notice -- and his curiosity -- only if they conducted their investigations while he was away, and that was what Trent's pointed glance at the clock had meant.
The family had returned to the States a full ten days before Lew was scheduled to begin teaching classes again, but he could no more stay away from the University once he was back within ten miles of it than a fish could live out of water. He had left shortly after noon, with a briefcase crammed full of papers he had collected at various spots of historical interest in England. He said he was going up to file these papers away. Trent thought that meant he'd cram them into one of his desk drawers, then lock his office and go down to the History Department's Faculty Lounge. There he would drink coffee and gossip with his buddies... except, Trent had discovered, when you were a college teacher, people thought you were dumb if you had buddies. You were supposed to say they were your colleagues. So he was away, and that was good, but he might be back at any time between now and five, and that was bad. Still, they had some time, and Trent was determined they weren't going to spend it squabbling about who swore what to who.
"Listen to me, you guys," he said, and was gratified to see that they actually were listening, their differences and recriminations forgotten in the excitement of an investigation. They had also been caught by Trent's inability to explain what Lissa had found. All three of them shared, at least to some extent, Brian's simple faith in Trent -- if Trent was puzzled by something, if Trent thought that something was strange and just possibly amazing, they all thought so.
Laurie spoke for all of them when she said: "Just tell us what to do, Trent -- we'll do it."
"Okay," Trent said. "We'll need some things." He took a deep breath and began explaining what they were.
Once they were convened around the crack at the end of the third-floor hallway, Trent held Lissa up so she could shine the beam of a small flashlight -- it was the one their mother used to inspect their ears, eyes, and noses when they weren't feeling well – into the crack. They could all see the metal; it wasn't shiny enough to throw back a clear reflection of the beam, but it shone silkily just the same. Steel, was Trent's opinion -- steel, or some sort of. alloy.
"What's an alloy, Trent?" Brian asked.
Trent shook his head. He didn't know exactly. He turned to Laurie and asked her to give him the drill.
Brian and Lissa exchanged an uneasy glance as Laurie passed it over. It had come from the basement workshop, and the basement was the one remaining place in the house, which was their real father's. Daddy Lew hadn't been down there a dozen times since he had married Catherine Bradbury. The smaller children knew that as well as Trent and Laurie. They weren't afraid Daddy Lew would notice someone had been using the drill; it was the holes in the wall outside his study they were worried about. Neither one of them said this out loud, but Trent read it on their troubled faces.
"Look," Trent said, holding the drill out so they could get a good look. "This is what they call a needle-point drill bit. See how tiny it is? And since we're only going to drill behind the pictures, I don't think we have to worry."
There were about a dozen framed prints along the third-floor hallway, half of them beyond the study door, on the way to the closet at the end where the suitcases were stored. Most of these were very old (and mostly uninteresting) views of Titusville, where the Bradburys lived.
"He doesn't even look at them, let alone behind them," Laurie agreed.
Brian touched the tip of the drill with one finger, and then nodded. Lissa watched, then copied both the touch and the nod. If Laurie said something was okay, it probably was; if Trent said so, it almost certainly was; if they both said so, there could be no question.
Laurie took down the picture, which hung closest to the small crack in the plaster and gave it to Brian. Trent drilled. They stood watching him in a tight little circle of three, like infielders encouraging their pitcher at a particularly tense moment of the game.
The drill bit went easily into the wall, and the hole it made was every bit as tiny as promised. The darker square of wallpaper, which had been revealed when Laurie took the print off its hook, was also encouraging. It suggested that no one had bothered taking the dark line engraving of the Titusville Public Library off its hook for a very long time.
After a dozen turns of the drill's handle, Trent stopped and reversed, pulling the bit free.
"Why'd you quit?" Brian asked.
"Hit something hard."
"More metal?'' Lissa asked.
"I think so. Sure wasn't wood. Let's see." He shone the light in and cocked his head this way and that before shaking it decisively. "My head's too big. Let's boost Lissa."
Laurie and Trent lifted her up and Brian handed her the Pen Lite. Lissa squinted for a time, then said, “Just like in the crack I found."
"Okay," Trent said. "Next picture."
The drill hit metal behind the second, and the third, as well. Behind the fourth -- by this time they were quite close to the door of Lew's study -- it went all the way in before Trent pulled it out. This time when she was boosted up, Lissa told them she saw "the pink stuff."
"Yeah, the insulation I told you about," Trent said to Laurie. "Let's try the other side of the hall."
; They had to drill behind four pictures on the east side of the corridor before they struck first wood-lath and then insulation behind the plaster... and as they were re-hanging the last picture, they heard the out-of-tune snarl of Lew's elderly Porsche turning into the driveway.
Brian, who had been in charge of hanging this picture -- he could just reach the hook on tip-toe -- dropped it. Laurie reached out and grabbed it by the frame on the way down. A moment later she found herself shaking so badly she had to hand the picture to Trent, or she would have dropped it herself.
"You hang it," she said, turning a stricken face to her older brother. "I would have dropped it if I'd been thinking about what I was doing. I really would."
Trent hung the picture, which showed horse-drawn carriages clopping through City Park, and saw it was hanging slightly askew. He reached out to adjust it, then pulled back just before his fingers touched the frame. His sisters and his brother thought he was something like a god; Trent himself was smart enough to know he was only a kid. But even a kid -- assuming he was a kid with half a brain -- knew that when things like this started to go bad, you ought to leave them alone. If he messed with it anymore, this picture would fall for sure, spraying the floor with broken glass, and somehow Trent knew it.
"Go!" he whispered. "Downstairs! TV room!" The back door slammed downstairs as Lew came in. "But it's not straight!" Lissa protested. "Trent, it's not -- " "Never mind!" Laurie said. "Do what Trent says!" Trent and Laurie looked at each other, wide-eyed. If Lew went into the kitchen to fix himself a bite to tide himself over until supper, all still might be well. If he didn't, he would meet Lissa and Brian on the stairs. One look at them and he'd know something was going on. The two younger Bradbury children were old enough to close their mouths, but not their faces. Brian and Lissa went fast.
Trent and Laurie came behind, more slowly, listening. There was a moment of almost unbearable suspense when the only sounds were the little kids' footsteps on the stairs, and then Lew bawled up at them from the kitchen: "keep it down, can't you? Your mother's taking a nap!" And if that doesn't wake her up, Laurie thought, nothing will.