“Last chance to turn back,” Kodi said to Guy as he finished his porridge the next morning. “I know you, and I know very well you don’t like conflict. You’re still absolutely sure you want to remain involved?”
Guy sighed, biting into another piece of egg. Even if he wanted to still remain uninvolved, it was too late for that now– his altruism and drive to help her and Kodi had overridden that. He was already in too deep, anyways. She trusted him with this vital task, he knew very well she didn’t let down her guard for just anyone, let alone him. He ought to be grateful enough not to take advantage of that. “You still going?” he said casually, instead. “Maybe you can take some mug shots of the guy before we even catch him.”
“Very funny. But where I’m concerned, my mind’s been made up long ago.” Kodi rinsed his dish out before placing it in the drying rack. “I’ll be upstairs; I need to run and grab a few things before we head out.”
As Kodi sprinted up the wooden stairwell, taking two at a time, Guy couldn’t still yet help to marvel at the sudden and very large change in Kodi’s attitude–from sulking and moody to optimistic and more determined. He wondered briefly what the real cause could be, then shrugged it off. All that mattered was that Kodi was back to himself again: clever, calm, mature, artistic, and raring to go if truly necessary. He had been initially confused and very much disoriented when they’d first found him, poor fellow, with no memory of his past whatsoever. The only things he had with him were the clothes on his back, and a small backpack filled with a strange mixture of letters in what appeared to be a foreign language, a drawing tablet, and an assortment of paintbrushes and pens. No other clues could detail who he’d been back then. Kodi hadn’t even seemed to recognize any of the letters, although for all Guy knew, he still kept them hidden away someplace safe.
For someone without memories, Kodi naturally remained a bit guarded upon meeting his new “family,” but eventually started to warm up to them– especially Guy, who had personally carried him home on his back, after discovered Kodi had broken his left ankle. To this day he still retained a slight limp from the incident, although he could never recall exactly what had occurred. Or who his real family was. It seemed as though it would always remain a mystery.
Guy looked up from his half-devoured breakfast as Kodi thumped downstairs at an almost worrisome pace. “Careful,” he warned, “don’t want you to break your other ankle. One’s bad enough.”
“Ya think?” Kodi dropped his bag on the kitchen table, rummaging quickly. “I did some digging last night, about the Junk Collector, his whereabouts, and so on. I’ve read up on all her research on him. Gotta hand it to her; girl’s pretty thorough.” After sorting papers, he rezippered and slung it on again. “We can go over more details when we reach her place, since she’s obviously the head of this whole expedition.”
“You’d better write a note for the old man. I don’t know if we’ll be back late or not, but better safe than sorry.” The old man. Kodi’s favorite title for Dad; he’d always refused to refer to him respectfully as “Dad,” unless he was feeling sarcastic or was furious with him– or both. Kodi had never seemed to see the point in addressing someone as a parent unless he knew they WERE his parent. Guy knew it had taken him a lot to just think of Guy as an elder brother FIGURE in his life.
“How should I write it?” Guy said, picking up a pen and scooting over to a notepad. ” “Dear Old Man, sorry to tell you this, but we just decided to up and run off with some random girl who needs our help with something that is very likely to be illegal. See you down at the county prison soon. I’ll make sure Kodi also makes out his will to you. Sincerely, your brave and possibly very dense So–” ” Kodi punched him in the arm. “Don’t you say that,” he said, giving Guy, “The Look.” “I’M not his son. And quit goofing off about it and just WRITE the stupid thing, already! We need to skedaddle!”
“OK, OK…Don’t have to be a stick-in-the-mud.” Guy quickly scribbled down a short and hopefully convincing note for Dad, tacked it to the fridge, and set off with Kodi.
It was still a bit early out as the two neared Wren’s place, trekking through the woods. Guy suppressed a groan; he’d already forgotten that she lived near what was practically Sherwood forest, probably sprawling with creatures and poison ivy. He tried not to think about all that… Much.
Instead, he tried turning his thoughts over to Wren. Wren, and the infamous Junk Collector. Why is he called that? Is he merely a pack rat, or in charge of a great big junkyard? Scrap metal and stuff, maybe? What would someone like that want with two young girls? Then he stopped. Maybe it was a misnomer, to make him seem more harmless than he actually was. Maybe he had some sinister plot going on behind the scenes, something the police were somehow kept in the dark about, and–
He nearly tripped over a giant log.
Kodi chuckled. “Watch where you’re going.” He leaped spritely onto the same log, and jumped down rather gracefully. Guy snorted. For someone with a limp, Kodi had always still yet been quite agile. He, himself, on the other hand… He looked down almost self-consciously at his feet; they’d always seemed too big to NOT trip over.
His self-degrading thoughts were interrupted a second time by the sound of birds, singing, whistling, chirping, cooing, cawing, even screeching. He’d never heard so many different birds in one area. Above it all, he thought he heard something else. Something that sounded like… human singing?
He halted to listen. It sounded close by.
Oh, if only I could be
As those that chirp
In the majestic tree;
One day I know, one day I’ll see
My friends, and I, will all be free.
We’ll scope the hills, the valleys and
Spy the ocean blue, so grand
But I will not, no, cannot
Understand, why my dear friends
Have left me all alone.
Hungering for acceptance, and love, it’s true,
I’ll always have a want, a need for you.
The song was unlike anything Guy had ever heard before, so sweet and yet downcast he’d almost mistaken it for a sweet but sorrowful mourning dove. He rounded the corner to follow the music, seduced by the melody– and almost ran smack-dab into a flower trellis up-scaling Wren’s house’s wall, right beneath her bedroom window seat. Wren was seated by the edge, looking out as though in a daze, not seeing them. Guy decided the more dramatic approach would have to do.
“Oi, there, fair maiden,” he called up with dramatic flourish of hand, “would thee care to let down thy glorious, luscious locks of hair so that I may yet climb to thee’s rescue? Well? What say thee?”
She started, then quickly assumed an air of casual confidence. “Cool your little male hormones, Romeo, I’m coming,” she replied with what seemed to be an eye roll. “Nay, not Juliet, though thou art fairer than she,” he said again, “thou art– OW!” he said, rubbing his shoulder where Kodi had again punched him. “Give the girl a break; we’re here on a rescue-and-detain mission, not to ensure your courtship.”
“Hey, I was just kidding,” Guy protested, “besides, I figured she needed a little pick-me-up to start her day off right.”
“How VERY kind of you.” Wren stood at the summit of the rickety porch steps, arms folded, eyeing him warily and somewhat suspiciously.
He smiled. “Thou singest sweeter than a nightingale.”
“That was NOT for your ears,” she returned, but he could easily see how red the tips of her ears got. “But that’s besides the point.” She turned to Kodi. “I’m assuming you guys both have cell phones? And the papers I gave you?”
“Guy does,” Kodi said hurriedly, “and I brought them with me.”
“Tip for ya: Leave them at home. Or at least here.” She impatiently blew a strand of hair out of her way.
“Why?” said Guy, surprised. “Won’t we need them?”
“No, but that’s not the point. I’ve memorized the general layout of the area and his whereabouts, I’m pretty sure I know where to get in, and we all know about the Junk Collector in general. From other intel I’ve gathered, his place could very well be rigged, booby-trapped. If we end up getting separated, or worse, the papers fall into his hands, he’ll know we’re there, and onto him. He’d probably demolish us before we’d have the chance to confront him. We’d be playing right into his hands like action figures. It’s always safer to lock up stuff like that and hide it away.” She held out a hand, and Kodi hesitatingly handed her the documents.
“One question,” Guy knelt on the steps near her. “Why do you need us, then, if you’ve already got everything figured out?”
She snorted, tossing her ponytail. “Originally, that WAS my plan. However, I remembered one of our age-old Adventure Mantras of my younger years with Phoebe and Charlotte: “One pair of eyes is good. Two is even better. Three and you have the ideal team for splitting up, covering more ground. But four or more can easily become a hindrance.” Besides, you insisted on helping me, so here we are.”
“Wait a minute,” Guy objected, “You never said we were splitting up once we got inside!”
“Never said we weren’t, either. Why? You having second thoughts?… Don’t worry; I’m a big girl. I take care of myself all the time. How else do you think those playground knuckleheads end up with black eyes and even bloodied noses?”
“I didn’t say I was. Just thought there’d be safety in numbers, is all.”
“Depends on the situation. But let’s not make waste to the entire solar cycle by standing around yammering about it.” She tugged her ponytail snugly into place. “Let’s be off, shall we, gents?”
Guy stared up at the place. It was eerier than the newspaper photo. It almost looked like the definition of a haunted house in storybooks: Ancient, mostly decrepit, a few broken windows, a dilapidated brick chimney that looked like it had caved in on itself, all surrounded by a rusty but ornate, iron-wrought fence and gate. All that was missing was the for it to be nighttime instead of day, and the perfect thunderstorm, and they’d be set for a ghost-hunt. Not that it necessarily needed to be night– the thick, creepy fog that half-immersed the property was as sight-limiting as any darkness. Guy fought a shiver. “You SURE this is the place? Doesn’t look like anyone’s home.”
Wren rolled her eyes as she slung her bag over the fence. “Of course he’s home, you big chicken. Gimme a boost.” Guy sighed heavily. He couldn’t believe he was actually going through with this. He squatted down to let her climb onto his back, then helped to hoist her. He was suddenly glad the fence didn’t have spikes protruding from the top, like many old iron wrought fences often did. She quietly eased down the other side, landing softly in a large bush. “Good,” she said. “Now toss up Kodi. Make as little noise as possible.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier for you to just the pick the gate’s lock on the inside to let us in?”
This time, Kodi answered. “No, because it’s too old and creaky. It’d make too much noise to open, and anyways, the guy has a big view of the gate.” He gestured to all the windows in the front of the house. “If someone was in there, they’d see us immediately.”
“Well, give that kid a cookie. It’s comforting to know you aren’t both stooges.Still, we need to be careful; if someone catches us on top of the apex part of the fence, it’s all over.” Wren helped lower Kodi to the ground on the other side. That’s it… nice and easy…
Now it was Guy’s turn. If he was a bit taller than he already was– five-foot-ten– then he might’ve been tempted to just vault the thing. But he couldn’t afford carelessness in a situation like this. Not that he’d ever attempted an actual break-in before.Unless you counted the incident at Wren’s.
Taking a deep breath, he gave himself a boost, clinging to the bars, inching his way up. When he got to the apex, he swung one long, lanky leg over the opposite side– too hard. He froze and cringed at the small, “Clang!” it made. “Quiet up there!” hissed Wren. “We can’t risk blowing our cover!”
“I know, I know,” he whispered back, frantically trying to calm his horse- galloping heart.
He slowly twisted, bring his other leg with him, then eased down the fence. Wren snorted. “Try not to make this the noisiest break-in ever, OK?”
“Hey, I did fine. It was just that one time–”
“That one time could’ve made this your last, as well. Sit tight for a few minutes. We need to wait and see if anyone actually heard you.” They waited around for what seemed to Guy like hours, but he was shocked when he checked his watch– it had stopped altogether. And he’d only bought it, brand new, a few days ago. A chill rose over his skin, and it wasn’t just the morning mist. What is this place?
When Wren gave an all-clear signal– a special bird whistle she’d taught them on the way there, in case they had to separate or something– they cautiously crawled out of the brush, on all fours. Wren was in the lead, Kodi took the middle, and Guy was last. Guy wondered if it was a purposeful formation by Wren as the crept to the house, inch by inch. “I thought you said this whole place was rigged?” Guy kept his voice as low as possible.
“It is. We just haven’t had the misfortune to have any of our limbs blasted off yet.”
“Not all traps are booby traps. Some of them could very well be psychological. My guess is those were saved for inside the house, but I suppose it doesn’t hurt to be careful.”
“By the way, you might want to hold your breath in the next thirty seconds.”
“Why?” whispered Kodi.
“The fog surrounding the house is a special barrier designed to keep unwanted “visitors” out. My guess is, it’s either poisonous or designed to rig hallucinations, or something.”
Guy blinked. “Just how much experience have you HAD with this guy, again?”
“One-on-one? None. But I’ve done plenty of digging, research, fieldwork. I’ve observed and scrutinized everything about this place every time I’ve had the chance to non-suspiciously pass it by, even when I was with–” He couldn’t see her up front, but heard her voice catch. With her friends, he silently finished. “I thought you were supposed to be the quieter, more “nerdy” one of your friend group?”
“Times change. Circumstances change. And often, the classic combination of both changes people.”
Suddenly, their parade came to a very sharp and abrupt halt. He spied Wren craning her neck around their party, likely so they could see her. “Hold your breath and get ready to run for that basement window.” He just barely made out a small, half-opened window out past her pointed finger. “Ready? GO!” He heard her take a deep breath as if diving underwater, then press off the ground in a sprint. Kodi quickly followed suit. He heard a loud smash of glass, but he couldn’t see where they were, and found himself running almost blindly. The fog seemed to change before his eyes, its thickness and texture becoming denser and feeling almost mud-like. It was like swimming in a thick pool of mud with your eyes gouged out. Guy’s chest felt on the verge of exploding, and, without thinking, his body thought for him–Just one quick breath.
The instant he caved he regretted it.
The air and fog had seemingly become one in thickness, the moment he let out a breath, the fog and all its thickness was sucked into his airway. It felt like his lungs had all but clogged completely, and hardened. He hacked, on the ground, frantically trying to feel his way to the house, to the broken glass window. He felt a hand reach out and snake around his wrist, hauling him. He looked up, just able to make out Wren’s shape through the translucent-ness. His vision swam, head awash with excruciating pain.
Then everything went black.
“You OK?” Wren’s voice, her face, were faintly coming into his line of view. She actually looked mildly worried for him. “Wren?” His voice sounded like it’d been through a meat-grinder.
She smiled grimly at him. “Well, at least you seem to be breathing alright now. I told you to be careful, didn’t I?” She gazed out the window.
“Wait a minute… that window… didn’t you just–”
“Break it?” she finished. She shook her head. “I did, because it wouldn’t budge any other way. Probably a mistake though– it looks like the glass is self-repairing.” Sure enough, when he squinted, Guy saw with shock and horror that the glass was building itself up, inch by inch.
He almost felt breathless again. And this time there was no fog. “You mean the house can think or act by itself?” He remembered watching a movie as a kid, where the spirit of a deceased woman had taken over a house, and three kids became trapped inside, and tried to figure out how to destroy it without killing themselves. He was starting to feel sick.
“What?” said Wren in tones of annoyance. “You weren’t expecting as much?”
“They don’t have magic or haunted houses where we’re from.”
“Well, I’m betting they don’t have Junk Collectors around where you’re from, either. And I’m only going to tell you once– it’s not the house. It’s the Junk Collector. The house is just his plaything, his puppet that he uses to keep people at bay. Probably to hide what he’s really up to,” this she said with venom, “and also probably why the authorities haven’t really looked into any of this.”
Guy stared at her. “You’d think they’d call the CIA or FBI or something…”
“No proof. No one’s lived in here long enough to tell the tale, apparently, except him, and like I said– pure mystery. No bodies, no tales, no evidence. Although, for all the crazy traps, I wasn’t expecting that from the fog, though. Maybe the old geezer’s upped the ante…” She skirted the basement cautiously, as if any floor stone could be rigged. Guy realized she was looking for an entrance to another room.
“Carbon monoxide hidden in the fog?” guessed Kodi, eyes wide now.
“Clever boy that you are, no. It was some kind of specialized gas, designed specifically for suffocation, not to poison or to cause the victim to hallucinate. Acts to clog up and shut off all airways by swelling all that shut. Subtle, but very effective, I’d say. This only confirms what I’ve feared. And all the more reason we had to get out of there quickly.”
“How do you KNOW all this stuff?”
“When you go on enough adventures in these parts, you learn fast.” She waved them over. “C’mere, but be careful. The sooner we find an entrance to an upper-level room, we can make our move to the very top. I know that that’s where that snake is hiding.” With extra care, Guy and Kodi tip-toed over to her side. They all knelt near her. “OK, so what’s the plan?” Kodi said.
“I know it seems amateur, but since there’re no doors in this room, I would wager that there’s some kind of trap, hidden panel, or movable stone in the walls.”
“So you want us to go around testing each and every brick and floor stone until we find something?” Kodi twisted a small dread around his pointer, a habit Guy knew he practiced when he was thinking.
“What if there’s nothing, though?” Guy said. ” What if he just wanted to trap his enemies and seal off any chance of escape so they’d be forced to starve to death in the end?” He nodded at the window behind them.
“We won’t know that until we at least try to escape from this specific room, will we, Mr. Smart Guy?” Wren calmly retorted. “And d’ya really think I’d drag you along so we could just all sit in here and starve to death eventually? Nope.” She knelt again, fumbling around the edges of each stone carefully. “Now, unless you two want to stay stuck here the rest of your lives…”
Guy snorted. “Women. You always talk too much.” He started walking away from her, Kodi in another direction, but a sound in her direction suddenly halted their steps. It was a cross noise between someone slurping on a slushie, and surprised grunting. Guy spun, but found he was only able to half-turn around. The other half of him, namely his feet, seemed to be cemented to the ground.
Wren was crying out, her arms and and half her body partially submerged within the wall. It’s sucking her in.
“Wren!” yelled Kodi, trying to tug himself free. “WREN!”
Only her head and neck remained now. “You guys,” she gasped, “It looks like we’re splitting up after all, regardless of whether we want to or not. Try to find him, try to get to the–” She was gone.
“WREN!” Kodi screamed before getting absorbed into the floor himself. He hadn’t seemed to even notice he was that far in until too late. Guy felt the stone and cement floor swallowing him too, drinking him in like soda, rough, cold edges pressing down hard on his skin. He prayed he would be crushed to death quickly, before he too vanished.
When Guy awoke, he was shocked. He wasn’t dead; his heart was pounding, he was gasping for air like a fish out of water (for the second time now), and the floor beneath him felt solid (for now). But that wasn’t what stunned him the most. Instead of the inside matching the outside, decrepit for decrepit, it was like brand new. A brand new… his eyes crossed the novel scenery, trying to decipher it in the dark (was it really night already?), and knew it was a dining room when a glimpse of moonlight flashed across a table surface.
All alone. And in the dark.
To Be Continued….
Image Credit: http://www.ameristarfence.com/residential-ornamental-wrought-iron-steel-fence-montage