Chapter 9: Houses Of The Fallen
There wasn’t much left of Jeff’s house. The explosion must have been larger than I thought. Could gas alone have done this or had there been explosives in the house to add to the blast? I was hoping there would be more rubble to sift through, maybe a wall safe, or a previously hidden alcove beneath the floor. Someplace a secret could be hidden, but there wasn’t much at all left and the floor itself was buried far beneath brick and plaster. The area was roped off with yellow Police tape, but I crossed it anyway. I kicked a few rocks around with my foot, knowing I wouldn’t find anything like this.
Summer just stood there watching me smugly as if to say ‘I told you there was nothing here.’ I knelt down and picked up a loose brick. I hefted it in my hand as if the weight of it could tell me something. But brick and mortar can’t speak. Sometimes I wish it could. Then maybe I would know why someone felt the need to destroy all this, along with Jeff Dennings life..
“Someone’s coming,” Summer said, bringing me out of my reverie. I looked up. It was a man with graying hair and a handlebar moustache. Tall and a little imposing, he managed to muster a small smile in greeting. I noticed his clothes looked a little disheveled as if he’d slept in them.
“Hello Winter,” he said.
I stood up. “You know me. Do I know you?”
“It’s Jacobs. Steven Jacobs.”
I did know this guy, but my slack jaw must have betrayed what I was thinking. The Jacobs I knew had been a cop. He’d been young, eager, a real firebrand. This guy looked old and tired. The last I seen him was when I resigned. I had walked from the captain’s office and by all my fellow officers, most who tried hard to understand my pain and loss. And why I couldn’t be a cop anymore. Steven Jacobs had looked at me then with the same look he had on his face now. A look that said ‘it never ends, the loss goes on forever.’
I finally smiled and held out my hand. His grip seemed weak. “I’m sorry, Jacobs, I didn’t recognize you.”
“I haven’t slept much lately,” he confided. “Especially since I heard you almost got killed.”
I nodded. “Yes, it was a close one.”
“You know, Brian Capps died two weeks ago.”
“No, I didn’t know that.” Brian had also been on the force with us, a good, decorated officer.
“Yeah, he was cleaning his gun and the thing went Pow! They say he went instantly.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Brian was a good man.”
Jacobs nodded. “After you get a certain age you begin to see all your friends going, and it does something to you. I’m afraid of how I’m going to go.”
I put my hand on the man’s shoulder. “That’s a natural fear everyone has. I guess the thing to do is to try not to worry about the end, but what you’re going to do today.”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“Sometimes,” I confessed.
Jacobs looked around as if to see if anyone else was near. He didn’t see Summer who’d been standing behind him ever since he came up. Maybe he felt her presence and that was why he was being cautious as to how he said the next thing.
“I heard about what you do now,” he said. “And I was wondering if you could tell me, what waits for us?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if we’ve done bad things, what comes after?”
I didn’t quite know what to say. Do I tell my old mate the truth, or do I try to soothe his apparently tortured spirit? Finally I settled for the latter.
“Well, I haven’t stood at the end yet, so I can’t say. But I imagine the key is to live the best we can right now and that if you feel you have done something bad then you need to make peace with yourself or whoever you did the bad thing too.”
“What if they are dead already? How do you make peace with the dead?”
I looked down. I couldn’t tell him the answer without making him feel worse.
“You can’t, can you?” he asked.
“No, you can’t,” I whispered. Then I looked him in the eye. “But you can forgive yourself for what you’ve done in life. And then you can go on living. Everyone does bad things. Everyone.”
He nodded. “I don’t want to die,” he mumbled. “Not by him”.
I looked at him curiously. Summer stepped closer to hear as well. “Him?” I asked.
He pointed to the rubble. “The one who did this.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about. This had nothing to do with you, or me for that matter. This was an accident.”
“It has everything to do with you,” Jacobs said. “It has to do with us all.”
“What are you talking about? Do you know something about this?”
“There will be more,” he said. “It never ends.”
And then he turned and walked away, as if he had some other place to be. Or maybe he just wanted to get away from this spot, or from me.
“Hey Jacobs, wait!” I called out, but he hurried away, breaking into a jog that eventually became a run, as if he were practicing to outrun the hounds of hell themselves.
The whole incident upset me, seeing one of my old pals in such a bad state. I’ve seen people afraid of death before, but this guy was petrified. I could imagine him sitting up in his chair all night, on the watch for death, jumping at every little sound, every creak of his house. I’d never seen anyone so afraid before. But what really bothered me was he seemed to know who was behind the explosion that took Jeff Denning’s life. And he believed it had something to do with me. Or was it all just ramblings of a man gone mad from lack of sleep and succumbing to his fears? Was he still on the force? In that state I would hope not. Maybe I could get one of the guys to look in on him later. I hadn’t talked to any of them for awhile, but maybe this was fate’s way of saying I should.
“So are we going to go find that tree house or whatever it is now?”
Summer was getting tired of standing among the rubble, and to be honest, I was too. I would find no physical clues here. “Yeah sure,” I replied and went back to the car with her trailing behind.
It wasn’t far to the train yards. After all this is an old train town. In the early days, passenger lines came through here regularly before being displaced by other means of transportation. Now the train lines carried freight. Mostly coal down from West Virginia. In fact the closer you lived to the train yards, the more it smelled of a mine.
We passed the yards and parked alongside Darrow’s Road, an old dirt road that workers still took through the woods and back across the tracks to home. Getting out of the car, we could hear the sounds of the trains moving slowly over track, that steady click clacking noise the wheels make as it rolls over a new section of railroad ties.
“Come on,” I said, and we cut into the woods. Summer was not trailing behind me now, but walking at my side. “I’d be willing to bet it’s back here somewhere,” I told her.
The trees and brush were thick, but you could tell where once paths had run through the wood. “When I was a boy, me and my pals used to play in these woods a lot. We’d ride our bikes down here every Saturday.”
“Small world,” Summer commented.
“Yes it is,” I agreed. “I figure the treeehouse, or whatever it is, from your fractured memory is here. The smell of coal. The sound of a whistling noise. The trees everywhere. I think I even know the tree house itself.”
“You do? But how could you know that?”
“Because I built it.”
“You built it?”
“Yeah for Lacey. When we were kids. I wanted to impress her.” I smiled wistfully at the thought.
“My ex-wife. Or I should say estranged. We didn’t divorce. But she was the only girl I ever loved.”
“That’s sweet. So why is she your ex then?”
I looked at Summer, so she’d stop this line of questioning. “Because sometimes love isn’t enough. Sometimes you have to actually be there.”
I was right about the tree house. We found it there in the woods, and it was the same one. Except now it wasn’t up in a tree somewhere. Now it was on the ground. Summer’s memory had served her right for once. It looked like the woods were overtaking it. In fact, now a tree was trying to grow out of its center. It didn’t look like this twenty years ago when I, along with the help of some of my friends built it. It was a wonderland then, a marvelous achievement for a boy who had never done anything for anyone except himself. My very first romantic gesture now lay on the ground, abandoned and decrepit. I wondered how many kids had used this place as their hideaway over the years. Had my imaginary palace in the sky for Lacey become a refuge for other children or misbegotten lovers? Was this where Summer and her friend Carla had come to be alone? Was this the only place they felt safe in their feelings for each other? Just as Lacey once ran away from home and lived up in the tree house for days, did Carla run away after her friend died? And did she come here? Some instinct told me she did. And if we were to go inside we’d find a message she’d left for anyone who’d traced her here.
The tree house never had a door. In the old days we’d just hung a curtain, but that had long ago been torn down or scattered to dust. I stepped cautiously inside. This place held many memories for me. This was a special place from childhood. My first kiss was in this very doorway. As teenagers Lacey and I slept on this same wooden floor on a starry summer night, wrapped up in each other’s arms for the first time. I had carved our names in the wall, as all young lovers are want to do. I smiled to think of these things, these forgotten moments that get lost in the quagmire of adulthood.
“I remember this place,” Summer said smiling somewhat wistfully.
“I do too,” I said, putting the thoughts of my days with Lacey as a young girl behind me. I ran my hand along the wall. I was right. I could feel the indentions that the knife makes when one carves their names. Many people had been here since my childhood. This wall was now like a dedication to first loves.
The tree house had been built as one single room, but over time it looked like someone had tried to make rooms out of cardboard boxes and old sheets. I peered into each of these small makeshift rooms looking for anything, a clue as to if Carla had been here. Summer right behind me, and nearly following in my footsteps, seemed almost apprehensive as to what I would discover next.
“Why of all the places I may have been, this is the only one I can remember so clearly?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I confessed. “Could be something very important or dear to you happened here. Something meaningful or traumatic or…” I stopped suddenly. I turned around and looked at her. “…Or because you died here.”
“Do you think so?”
“It’s possible. The memory of this place is strong for you. I don’t know why the memory suddenly came to the surface the way it did, but you knew about this place. I’m convinced you were here sometime in your life.”
“Why is that?”
I pointed to the floor at her feet. Someone had taken a can of spray paint and written something there. ‘Summer’, it read in day glow yellow.
“Did I write that?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, pointing to another spot painted in the floor. This one was neon green. ‘Carla’, it read. “I think it’s safe to say you both were here.”
“I think it’s getting ready to storm,” she suddenly said.
She was right. I could hear the breeze picking up outside, the way it does when a big rain is coming. I could hear the trees creaking in the wind, and the branches seemed to scratch against the old tree house. You could hear them scraping across the wood outside, almost like fingers on a chalkboard. As a kid I used to find that sound creepy, those high most branches brushing against the house.
But wait a minute…we weren’t in the trees anymore. The tree house was resting on the ground. We weren’t high up among the branches. So what was scraping back and forth against the house? I stepped over to the one window I had made years ago. It faced the back of the house. Someone had hung a big piece of cardboard in front of it. I could hear the branches, or whatever it was, scraping against it in the wind. I reached out and grabbed the cardboard. I pulled it away from the window frame to see what was out there. Summer screamed.
The body swung back and forth against the outside of the tree house. A rusty chain had been used for the noose and swung over a board that overhung the roof. The breeze had caused the body to rock like a pendulum, the victims fingers frozen in near rigor mortis scraping against the wood and cardboard. I looked up into the victim’s face. We had found Carla.
“Advocate For The Dead” 2017 Paul D Aronson. All Rights Reserved.