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Winter House: Chapter 3
Fiction by Christian Shuck Featured Image by Alia Shuck
Chapter Three June 11, 1958
"He slogged me in the gut!" Mike said, bent halfway over. Bobby turned and asked, "He what?" Mike coughed slightly, holding his middle with his arms wrapped around. "He slogged me. Man that hurt!" He was leaning over so much his brown and yellow striped shirt pulled up to show the small of his back. Bobby glanced over to Jerry. "What'd you do to him?" Jerry was standing proudly. He ran his fingers through his flat top and said, "He was bein' obnoxious so I tapped him in the gut," "You hit him?" Bobby asked. "Yeah," Jerry shrugged again. "But not that hard." Bobby looked back to Mike. "What'd you call it? You said he slogged you?" Mike stood and inhaled deeply. It was an exaggerated movement. "Yeah, I can feel my intestines bruising right now." "I thought a slog was like a swamp," Bobby squinted. "No, that's a bog," Jerry piped in, looking at Mike with a grin. The corners of Mike's mouth turned down. His shoulders moved back, preparing to pounce on Jerry. "Now wait just a second," Jerry said, giggling. "You kept movin' the box of nails and I nearly fell off the platform reachin' for 'em." He pointed at Mike with the hammer in his right hand. Bobby, still confused, asked, "What does that word mean?" "What word?" asked Jerry, taking a stance to defend himself. "Slog. Where'd you get that word from, Mikey?" Nostrils flared on Mike's face as he breathed heavily. "It's just a word. I dunno." He never took his eyes off Jerry. "I swear it means somethin' else," Bobby shook his head. "You sure it's not a swamp, or a creek or somethin'?" Jerry was inching backward around the platform, delaying Mike's attack. "Hey you two!" Bobby shouted, snapping back to reality. "We're ten feet in the air, don't be jackasses." "Well if he hadn't slogged me this wouldn't be a big deal!" Mike shouted back. Jerry chuckled. "Stop using that word, Mikey. Jerry, apologize for punching Mikey in the gut." "Sorry man," Jerry said as he stood up from his defensive stance. His chest shook, trying to contain his laughter. Mikey took a step forward. "It's fine," he said, reaching his hand out. As Jerry reached out in kind, Mike quickly shifted and landed his fist in the middle of Jerry's stomach. He doubled over, "OOOF!"
Mike laughed. "See, not so fun to get a slog in the intestines, is it?!" "Jesus, Mikey!" Bobby exclaimed. "Fine, now you're even. Get back to work, this treehouse isn't gonna build itself. And for Christ's sake stop using that stupid word!" Mike stepped back to pick up a box of nails. “Hey guys, we’re running low. What do we do when we run out?” Bobby stopped nailing a board onto the platform. He sat back on his haunches. All the boards they’d used up to this point had come out of his old man’s scrap pile. They’d dragged them all the way down to Jerry’s backyard because it was the biggest, and the field in the back was wide open. The boys had all agreed a tree house would give them all kinds of opportunities for army games, target practice with their beebee guns, and especially to keep an eye out for that jerk Alan Feffer and his cronie friends from over on Walnut Street. Moving the boards down wasn’t difficult but it wasn’t fun. They’d wasted almost a whole day marching pieces of scrap from one house to the other. Up and down the block for hours. Since Bobby’s dad slept during the day, he snuck a couple boxes of nails out of the garage. Using the old boards wouldn’t bring the belt, but wasting nails on a treehouse might. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “I can’t sneak any more nails out,” Bobby told his partners. Jerry seemed to think a moment. “We can make do with the platform once it’s finished. As long as we have that, it’s a great start.” “Really?” Mike asked, clearly disappointed in Jerry’s readiness to just give up. “What do we do with a platform? Just sit here? We have to have walls, what’s a clubhouse without walls?” “Or a roof,” Bobby added. “Where the hell do we get shingles for a roof, anyway?” Mikey asked. Bobby puffed his cheeks out like a chipmunk and then blew the air out, making a spitting sound. He was disappointed in himself for not thinking far enough ahead. “What time is it?” asked Bobby. “Close to lunch I’d guess.” Jerry held his hand to shield his eyes and looked up at the sky. “I’m hungry.” Mike sat down on one edge of the platform and let his legs dangle over the side. “Will your mom make us some sandwiches, you think?” “She might,” Jerry shrugged. “I don’t know where my sister is.” He leaned over to organize his hammer and the boxes of nails in anticipation of taking a break. “What’s that got to do with anything?” Mikey said. Jerry began to answer but was drowned out by Bobby hammering in the last two nails on a board. When he finished, Jerry gave his reply. “It doesn’t have much to do with anything, really, except that mom will want to know where she is, and will probably make us wait for sandwiches if she’s not around.” “Trina’s four years younger than us, it’s not like she left the house and went fishing,” Bobby said, setting his hammer down. “Let’s just go in and see.” Through the center of their newly constructed platform the boys climbed down the tree. The trek up to the house really wasn’t far, but it felt like a mile to Bobby’s legs. The tree they’d chosen was just at the back of the property line of Jerry’s house. Without a fence, you couldn’t really tell where the line was. That’s why the boys liked it so much. They could hit baseballs all day and never come close to another house. Once through the back door Jerry’s mother called from the living room. “Shoes off! I just swept the house and you won’t dirty it up again.” The kitchen was twice the size of the one in Bobby’s house. It had two doors, one that swung open into the dining room and the other that led to a closet, which also opened into the living room. The kitchen had a small table at the center for just the family meals. Dinner with guests was reserved for the larger dining table in the next room. Bobby’s family had to eat all their meals at the same table in the same dining room. “Mom, will you make us some sandwiches?” Jerry asked, kicking off his shoes. The other two boys followed suit. Then they all trudged into the dining room. Bobby noted he had not been in the house from the back door, only the front. And then, only to ask if Jerry could come outside. Five years of friendship and he’d never even spent the night in his friend’s house. Mrs. Stewart was standing in a plain dress with an apron on. A feather duster in one hand, she moved items off a bookshelf with the other to clean beneath them. She was fairly tall for a woman, Bobby thought. Long, shiny black hair laid plainly on the back of her head and curled at the bottom. “Where’s your sister?” she asked without turning around. Jerry turned and glared at Mike. “Don’t know.” “Go see if she’s upstairs. Bring her down and I’ll fix you something to eat.” Jerry turned around again to give his friends a thumbs up. “Okay, I’ll go get her.”
Bobby watched as his friend moved toward the steps. Mike turned to him and made a face to ask What do we do? Bobby motioned to follow Jerry. It was the first time either of them would be upstairs in the Stewart’s house. Bobby got excited, but he didn’t really know why. At the top of the steps a doorway opened into a bedroom that was obviously Jerry’s. His clothes were all over the floor. A shirt partially covered a model train set. To the left Bobby saw a bathroom at the end of the hall, and another bedroom. Jerry was standing in the doorway. “C’mon, Trina, mom’s gonna make us some sandwiches.” Bobby walked down to peek over Jerry’s shoulder. Trina’s room was drowning in pink. The curtains on the windows were pink with polkadots. The sheets on her bed were pink with flowers. There was even a rug that was pink and white swirling in circles. Bobby shuddered, thankful he didn’t have an eight year old sister. Trina was sitting on her bed, brushing the hair of a baby doll. She looked pale. “Trina?” Jerry asked again. Bobby glanced to look at Mike, but he was disappearing into the bedroom at the other end of the hallway. He backed away from Jerry to go drag Mikey out to the hall before Mrs. Stewart decided to come upstairs. They’d never be allowed upstairs again if he got caught. Getting whipped for taking nails from the garage would be one thing, getting caught snooping in an adult’s bedroom would be twice as bad. “Mikey,” Bobby whispered as he walked in the third bedroom. “You can’t get caught in here, c’mon.” Mikey was looking at a photo hanging on the wall. Bobby grabbed his arm and he seemed to be startled, as if he didn’t know where he was. “What?” Mikey asked Bobby. “What do you mean, what? We can’t be in here, c’mon.” Bobby tugged on his arm again. “Right,” said Mikey. He sounded like he just woke up from a nap. Bobby pulled Mikey to walk in front of him and out of the bedroom. He took a moment to see what Mikey had been staring at. The photo looked old. It was yellowed, and had a tear in one corner. Six people were in it, three men and three women. The women were seated in front of the men. He didn’t want to waste any more time, so he quick-stepped out into the hall. Jerry was still standing in the doorway to Trina’s room. “What’s the problem?” Bobby asked. He put his hand on his stomach as it grumbled. “Trina said she’s too busy playing with her new friend,” said Jerry. “Trina, you can bring your doll downstairs with you. Your mom said she’d make us lunch.” The girl never looked up from her doll. “Not hungry, and the doll isn’t my friend. I know it’s just a doll.” Bobby rolled his eyes and then noticed Mikey was just standing at the top of the steps, looking downward. “Please, Trina.” Jerry pleaded with her. Then Mrs. Stewart called up from the living room. “What’s going on up there?” “We’ll be right down, mom!” Jerry replied. Then, “Trina, c’mon, mom won’t feed us if you don’t come downstairs.” Aggravated, Trina put her doll down on her bed, and nearly slammed the hairbrush into a pillow. “Fine.” She glanced over to a corner of her room and said, “See you later Mr. Blueman.” Jerry and Bobby looked at each other completely confused. “Who’s Mr. Blueman?” Jerry asked. “That’s not his name, that’s just what I call him. He glows blue, like a Christmas light,” Trina said. “At least, he did when I saw him last night.” Again, Bobby exchanged looks with Jerry. They just shrugged at each other. Trina shuffled past them, around Mikey and headed down the steps. Bobby nudged Mike, who followed Trina. “Why is everyone acting so weird?” Bobby wondered out loud. He was glad to get into the kitchen and find Mrs. Stewart had already started on lunch. His stomach grumbled again. Working outside he hadn’t thought of eating until Mike had mentioned it. The same Mike who had not looked up from his feet since he’d been in Mr. and Mrs. Stewart’s bedroom. Jerry’s mom asked them about playing outside and what they’d been up to. Jerry told her all about the treehouse and their plan to make it the most amazing clubhouse in Basevale. She half-listened as she laid out pieces of Wonder Bread on the counter and scooped mustard out of a jar. The knock from the front door startled them all. “I wonder who that could be,” said Mrs. Stewart. She brushed off her hands and left to go into the front room. Damnit, thought Bobby. We’re never going to get to eat. The voice from the door was a man. Bobby thought it was probably just some salesman. “Hey Trina,” he asked. “You said you saw Mr. Blueman last night? Like in a dream?” “No,” she said, swinging her feet in her chair. “It wasn’t a dream, Bobby.” Jerry asked, “So there was a glowing blue man in your room last night?” Trina seemed to think for a moment. “I guess. I could see right through him. But he wasn’t scary.” Bobby tapped Jerry on the shoulder. “You never said your house was haunted. That why we’ve never had a sleepover here?” “It’s not,” said Jerry, a little concerned. “At least, I don’t think it is.” Both of them looked to Trina, and then at Mikey who had never taken a seat. “Mikey, come sit down,” Jerry said. He just stood there, looking at his feet. Then Mrs. Stewart came into the kitchen. “Boys, there’s a gentleman at the door who said he’d like to speak to you about your clubhouse.” The look on her face was a bad indicator that they were about to be in trouble. They got up from the table and followed Jerry’s mom into the other room. Standing in the door was a man wearing a bowler hat and a grey suit. Trina had also followed them in, probably to watch the boys get scolded.
“I like your suit,” she said to the man. “Pink is my favorite color.” The man looked at one sleeve on his jacket and then held his arm out. “You like the pink stripes on my suit? Me too, I like to think it makes me stand out.” Bobby was instantly uncomfortable. He knew men didn’t wear pink in their suits. “Mr., um-,” Mrs. Stewart seemed to forget the man’s name. “Bendermen,” the man grinned. “Yes, Mr. Bendermen, this is my son Jerry and his two friends, Robert and Michael.” Bobby looked around to see Mikey wasn’t with them. “Hello there boys, thanks for coming to chat with me.” Bobby nodded and so did Jerry. But, Bobby thought, they hadn’t really been given a choice to come and talk. “Where is your other friend?” Mr. Bendermen smiled again, but looked around the room. “He’s not feeling well, I don’t think.” Bobby spoke before Jerry could. “That’s a shame, I was hoping you could show me that nice clubhouse you’re building. See, I have a grandson and I’d like to help him build a treehouse in our yard.” This time Jerry spoke before Bobby could. “Sure, we’d love to, Mister. We planned it all out ourselves, y’know?” Bobby thought he would not have invited this strange man back to their project. “How’d you see it?” asked Bobby. “How do you mean?” the man asked. “How’d you see the treehouse?” “Why, I simply saw it from the road as I was walking by.” “Can’t see it from the road, we built it that way on purpose.” “Robert,” Mrs. Stewart began. “No need to be rude. But, Mr. Bendermen, maybe it would be best if you stopped back by when my husband is home. I’m sure he’d be happy to walk you back and he and Jerry can show you.” The man shot Bobby a look and his smile disappeared briefly. Bobby could swear he saw the man’s eyes change color. “Of course, I meant no intrusion. I live a few blocks away and thought since I was here I would stop. I’d be glad to stop by again, maybe after supper.” Bobby kept his eyes locked on the strange man in the grey suit. He felt Jerry turn around, probably looking for Mikey again. Then Jerry moved toward the kitchen. “Yes, I think that might be best,” said Mrs. Stewart. Nice of you to inquire though. I’m sure the boys would be glad to show you how they built their clubhouse.” “Of course,” the man said. He reached up in a gesture to tip his hat and bent slightly forward. Jerry reappeared next to Bobby, and Mikey on the other side of him. As he turned to look at Mikey, he saw he was still staring at his feet. “What’s wrong with you?” Bobby whispered, hoping the man wouldn’t hear. “Something wrong?” asked the man. “Told you he didn’t feel well,” Bobby said. Then for no reason, Mikey looked up at the man standing in the doorway. His eyes grew wide. His lower jaw dropped open and he gasped. Then out of nowhere, Mikey let out a shout of complete terror. He pointed at the man in the suit and continued to cry out. “My goodness!” Mrs. Stewart said. She rushed over to Mikey and kneeled in front of him. “Michael what is the matter with you?” She took his face in her hands and then yanked them away, like she’d been electrocuted. “You’re freezing cold, Michael, let’s get you into the kitchen.” Then she turned to Mr. Bendermen. “I think you’ll need to go, sir.” “Of course, of course,” the man said. Bobby watched him turn away, and also caught the grin on his face. Mikey continued to shout and point at the door even after the man had gone. Mrs. Stewart tried to put his arm down but Mikey wouldn’t budge. He just shouted. Jerry grabbed Bobby out of fear for their friend. “What’s wrong with him?” Bobby looked at Trina, who was covering her ears, and then she turned and ran up the stairs. Mikey’s face had turned the off-white color of an eggshell. It stretched out into his arm. Bobby and Jerry looked on as the color in their friend’s skin disappeared, and white spread up into his hair. When Mikey’s whole body had changed color, he finally stopped shouting and collapsed on the floor into Mrs. Stewart’s arms. Christian Shuck is a Greencastle native and Hope College alumnus who works in higher education as a major gift officer. Besides his contributions here, he also writes for his own blog cmshuckstories.com. He currently lives in Terre Haute.