Thursday, August 9, 2018

Ten Days at Federal Hill: Chapter Seven

(To read previous chapters, please click on the Ten Days at Federal Hill page bar tab directly above.)



Chapter Seven: Dead Ends

If Cecil and Carla thought the opening beneath Julia’s windowsill would lead them to her, they were disappointed. They descended the ladder, felt the damp earthen walls, returned to the kitchen for a flashlight, crept into the hole again, and walked timidly and quietly into the space. The weak flashlight threw a faint, eery light along the bricks, and the vaulted ceiling remained dark. Cecil became baffled and then angry as the tunnel kept returning them again and again to the same destination: the hole beneath Julia’s window.

“It’s like a crazy circle!” he exclaimed. “But I know we’re not going in a circle. I can’t figure it out!”

Carla studied her brother and shook her head. “The tunnel doesn’t want us to go anywhere. It’s keeping us here.”

“Oh, stop it!” he hissed at her. “Stop acting like a tunnel has a brain. Hmmmph!” he said in frustration, and stomped into the tunnel once more. Now he was not cautious or slow. He flickered the light all around him. “There must be something here, something to let us get somewhere!” The tunnel curved slightly and he went out of sight. Carla stayed at the ladder. She was tired of hunting for nothing. She heard Cecil muttering to himself and sometimes saw a flicker of light as he examined the brick walls. She was nearly ready to climb back up into Julia’s bed when she heard a shout.

“Ha!”

“What?” she said into the darkness.

“Ha!” again. “Carla, c’mere! I’ve found something … a … I don’t know what!”

Cecil stood far down the tunnel staring up, the light from his flashlight pinned on a wooden panel, the trap door under the garden statue. Carla looked up too.

“What do you think it is?” she asked.

“No idea. I wonder if it opens.”

“Can you reach it?”

Cecil stretched his arm overhead. “Nope. I need something to stand on. But there’s nothing ….” And he shone the beam into every crevice along the walls, and then onto the floor.

“Look!” Carla exclaimed. She pointed to the small pile of bricks that Julia had stacked there.

“What?” And this time Cecil seemed to growl in displeasure. “That was not there before.” He turned scowling to Carla. “Those bricks weren’t there before! I hunted all along the base of these walls.”

She sighed. “I believe you. It’s like I said before. The tunnel wants us to find this spot now.” She picked up two bricks. “I guess we’d better open that hatch.”

Stacking bricks high enough to reach the wooden panel was difficult, and Cecil fell three times before he pulled the hatch down. It creaked stubbornly as its hinge rebelled, but as the panel swung down a rope ladder fell as well. It’s dusty rungs dangled next to Cecil’s legs.

“That’s handy,” Carla noted.

“Where do you think …?”

“I think we’re right under the lady statue.”

Cecil’s face clouded again. “But that’s useless! We already know about that!” He put one foot on the rope ladder and started climbing. “We’ll never find Julia this way.”

While Cecil climbed into the hiding place Carla leaned against the tunnel wall. While he groped into the corners of the cavity under the statue, she turned and discovered the smaller tunnel Julia had unearthed not long before. She shone the beam of Cecil’s flashlight deep into it.

“Cecil!”

“What?”

“I’ve found another tunnel.”

She heard scrambling and fumbling. Cecil fell down the ladder to the tunnel floor.

“What?!

“Shhh! Would you stop yelling?”

Cecil dusted himself off, and Carla pointed to the opening, which was about chest-high. He stuck his head inside.

“That’s a dirt hole.”

“I think it’s a tunnel,” Carla said. “I think it goes to the clerk’s office.”

“To the fireplace.”

“Yep.”

Cecil groaned and sat in the dirt on the tunnel’s floor. Carla squatted next to him.

“I can’t do all this again,” he said. “I don’t want to know where all these tunnels go. It’s just too scary.”

“I know.”

“Can’t I just go back to the pond and swim?”

“We have to find Julia,” Carla whispered.

“But why does it have to be us? Why can’t somebody else find her? Why can’t Teddy find her, or Ben?”

“Because we know where she is, Cecil. At least, I think we know where she is.”

He began poking the dirt with a twig. “You think she’s at the workhouse.”

“I don’t know. But I know she’s going somewhere else, and this tunnel feels a lot like our basement back home.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Oh, c’mon, Cecil! It’s no good denying it. It’s all happening again, and for whatever reason, we’re involved again. We can find out why later – why it’s us, why it’s always us.” Carla sighed again. “I hate it as much as you do. But this time it’s not just kids we don’t know. It’s our cousin. It’s Julia.” Carla stood up. “Let’s get back. It’s probably time for dinner, and we have to make some excuse for her.” Carla walked down the tunnel. It didn’t matter which way she went; both ways led to Julia’s room. Soon they were eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the kitchen with their cousins, telling them Julia didn’t want to put down the book she was reading and Carla would take her a sandwich. Ben’s foot was sore and he was bored. After dinner and an hour of T.V., the children again met in the Assembly room when the house was quiet. Cecil and Carla could not escape to investigate the tunnel.

“Where’s the squirt?” Frances asked.

“Frances --” Teddy warned.

She rolled her eyes and looked at Carla. “Is she coming? She never comes. She’s a strange child.” And Frances laughed.

“Let’s play Killer!” Abe blurted out.

This was a Christopher cousin favorite game, and everyone played many rounds with fits of laughter, stern hushes, and arguments about winking. Carla was always out first, and spent the extra time wandering around the spacious room studying the contents of the bookshelves. Most of the books were old, dry leather-bound volumes on architecture, horticulture, politics, or philosophy. A few shelves were contained in glass cabinets. Dusty mementos from long journeys overseas rested there – ivory and glass figurines, delicate baskets, wooden bowls, travel guides and journals. Carla picked up one small black statue of an elephant.

“Don’t touch that,” Frances called to her.

“Oh, leave her alone,” Teddy said. “She can’t hurt anything. It’s all old junk anyway.”

“You know what Mom said --”

Teddy turned to Carla. “Hey, don’t break anything, okay?”

Carla nodded and continued her investigation of the shelves. The game went on without her. The elephant was very beautiful, but she also liked a square crystal inkwell with quill pen and a soft leather diary with a broken latch. The inside was filled with miniscule spidery handwriting. The last book she examined was full of newspaper clippings, faded and thin. Most described local events – summer festivals, weddings, births, deaths, crimes, house fires, storms and floods. One narrow slip of paper fell to the floor. Carla picked it up. The newspaper reported a missing child, a little boy. Carla could hardly read the print, and there was no date. But at the top, someone had written in a faded hand, “Never forget!”

Missing Child

On Tuesday last a boy was reported missing north of Forest.
He wandered from his home in the early afternoon and remains
missing after two days’ search by local authorities. No
traces of clothing were found. Any information concerning
this disappearance should be reported to the police
immediately. A reward of $500 has been offered for any
information leading to the return of the child. He is three
years old with dark hair, brown eyes and a birthmark on the
left side of his neck. He was wearing a red sweater and
dark pants. The family asks for all possible assistance
from neighbors in the area to find the child.

Carla read the article three times and then carefully folded the paper and slipped it into her pocket.

After Killer, the cousins played Monopoly until Teddy won. Cecil and Carla parted ways at the foot of the stairs, but Cecil gave her a knowing look. It was 10:30. Frances went to bed without checking behind the curtain around her sister’s bed, but Carla knew Julia was still missing. A strong wind blew the branches of the cedar tree scratching against the window pane, and it began to rain.

At midnight, Carla and Cecil met on the stairs. Cecil was dressed in dark clothing and carrying the flashlight, but Carla was in her nightgown.

“I am not going back into that tunnel in the middle of the night during a storm,” she said. “I am not.”

“But --”

“I am not.”

“But … Julia!”

“I’m as sick about it as you are. I’m really worried. But I just can’t do it, not at night.” Carla was shivering. She sat on the step. “Besides, we don’t actually know for sure that she’s in there!”

“Yeah, we do,” he said softly.

“Cecil, I just can’t do it.” She picked at her nightgown. “I’m more scared this time than last time.”

“Me too.”

“I’m scared for Julia.”

At that moment they heard the sound of crunching gravel outside. A car door closed, and someone walked up the front steps of the house.

“It’s Aunt Velma!” Carla whispered.

The children scampered up the stairs and dashed down the hallway to the bathroom before their aunt could see them. As she ascended the stairs they backed into the shadows. What if she came down the hallway too? What if she was heading for the bathroom? Carla grabbed Cecil’s hand and pulled him into the bathroom, shutting and locking the door silently. Their aunt’s footsteps approached the door, and she rattled the knob.

“Oh, good grief!” she murmured. Her steps faded as she went to her room.

“Oh, man. That was close!” Cecil whispered.

“Shh!” Carla replied. She pulled him to the middle of the room and made him kneel. She pulled back the rug. Dim light from the fireplace in the kitchen flickered through the metal grate onto their faces. Carla knelt expectantly and held one finger to her lips, but beckoned Cecil to look through the grate. Together they watched their grandmother as she sat by the fire. Carla heard Cecil’s quick intake of breath.

Grandmother Julia held Toby, the little wire terrier, in her lap. She stroked his back slowly, rocking and tapping her toes on the floor. Only after a few minutes did the children realize that their grandmother was quietly talking to herself, talking and then crying, and then talking again.

Into the darkness at Federal Hill she whispered, “Oh, my boy! How could I have lost you? Precious little boy. All these years, and still I miss you as if it were yesterday.” And she cried again. “The pain never goes away. Why did they tell me it would fade with time? Precious little boy, I miss you now more than I missed you then.” And she cried again. She shook all over and cupped her face in her hands, weeping and moaning, although she was never loud. At last all she could say was, “My baby boy. My baby boy.”

(To read the next chapter, click here.)

[Ten Days at Federal Hill is copyrighted in its entirety by the author, M.K. Christiansen.]

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