“I didn’t. I do now. Stay away.”
We sat in silence for a while. At last I said I needed to listen to something that would soothe away the heebie-jeebies, and instead of one of the old vinyl platters, I put an album on the turntable, a collection of Glenn Miller’s best-known numbers. We liked rock ’n’ roll, but at heart we were throwbacks to another musical era.
Amalia listened to “In the Mood,” but just before the band swung into “Moonlight Serenade,” she said, “This isn’t going to settle my nerves. I’m going to bed and read. I’ve got this novel.” At the side door to the garage, she looked back and said, “Don’t stay out here after dark.”
“I always stay here after dark.”
“But not tonight,” she said. “Not for the next few nights.”
She was clearly frightened. I nodded. “Okay.”
After she had gone, I listened to “Moonlight Serenade” and then to “American Patrol,” after which I lifted the phonograph needle and returned it to the beginning of the album.
As “In the Mood” began, I left the garage and went into the alleyway. About forty minutes of daylight remained. I walked to the back gate of the Clockenwall property.
I was not a particularly brave lad of twelve. I well knew my limitations, and I was aware that if I ever got into a fight with another boy, I was less likely to beat him up than I was to knock myself out. In a confrontation with something supernatural, I would not fare well against an adversary more threatening than Casper the Friendly Ghost.
Nevertheless, I was compelled to cross the backyard of the Clockenwall place and climb the steps to the rear porch, because I loved my sister more than I loved myself, and I felt that it had fallen to me somehow to resolve this bizarre situation. I had never seen Amalia a fraction as disturbed as she had been when telling me about the lecherous teacher. She was fearless and resolute and more competent than anyone else I had ever known. I was loath to see her diminished by fear, and I was angered and depressed when I thought of her retreating to her bedroom and hiding behind a book, because that’s what it seemed to me she was doing, although I would never have told her so.
When I crossed the porch of the Clockenwall house, I was not surprised to find the back door ajar, as the front door had been earlier. Stepping into the kitchen, where less sunlight penetrated than previously, I boldly switched on the overhead lights. If the spirit of a dead man had returned home a month after his funeral, there was no way to prowl his house without his knowledge; I mean, surely a ghost is omniscient as concerns what happens in the place that it haunts.
The dish smeared with dry egg yolk and the dirty flatware were on the table, across which toast crumbs were scattered as before. Clockenwall had not returned to clean up after himself.
Switching on lights, I went through the house to the front stairs, where something invisible to the eye had earlier descended. Facing the first flight, I stood listening, but there was only silence so deep that the house might not have been located in the city any longer, might have been enveloped by some bubble in space—time and set adrift in eternity.
At last I thought to ask myself what I hoped to accomplish in that place. I wasn’t an exorcist. My family didn’t even attend a church. My parents weren’t atheists; they were just indifferent to the issues of God and an afterlife, as they were indifferent to everything except what could be eaten, drunk, smoked, and watched on television without inspiring too much thinking. I had no good answer to the question that I’d asked myself; therefore, with what passed for logic in a twelve-year-old mind, I decided that I had been brought to that place by intuition and that I should trust it as a dog trusted its sense of smell.
When suddenly I heard a rapid pounding, I cringed and retreated from the staircase, but only until I realized that I had become aware of my heart drumming. Disappointed in myself, chagrined, I thrust my shoulders back and lifted my head and, telling myself the incredible lie that the Pomerantz family tree branched broadly with generations of warriors, I ascended to the second floor.
One of the good things about being twelve or younger is that you tend to believe that you’ll live forever. Therefore, you take stupid risks with little hesitation, and sometimes the risk pays off. Except when it doesn’t.
Upstairs, door by door, room by room, I searched for what I did not know, trusting my intuition to lead me to some revelation, some knowledge or instrument with which Clockenwall’s spirit could be sent back where it belonged, if in fact it had returned from the Other Side to leer at my sister. In the Teacher of the Year’s bedroom stood a desk where someone else might have put a vanity, and I was drawn toward it as an iron filing to a magnet.
Then a disturbing thing happened. With no memory of having sat down or of having opened any of the drawers, I was in the desk chair and had before me a scrapbook containing newspaper articles about a girl named Melinda Lee Harmony. Sweet Melinda. She’d been a middle-school student who, three months before her thirteenth birthday, disappeared while walking home after classes. Some of the clippings were dated—all from 1949, eighteen years earlier. I pored through them with growing dread, but I couldn’t stop turning pages, as though I had forfeited control of my body. The police, assisted by a large contingent of citizen volunteers, had searched the school grounds, surrounding neighborhoods, and Balfour Park, which lay along the route that the girl usually took from school to home. They found no trace of her. A reward was offered, never claimed. Members of her anguished family, her pastor, and a few teachers at her school spoke highly of her, this gentle and intelligent and charming child of great promise. One of the teachers was Rupert Clockenwall. Three photographs had been provided to the newspapers, all taken soon before she had gone missing. She had been a pretty girl, blond and slim, with a gamine smile, and as I stared at her, I heard myself say, “Such a delectable little tease.”
I had no recollection of having put aside the scrapbook or of taking a thick diary from another desk drawer. As I paged through this new volume, in an almost dreamlike state, in the grip of cold fear but unable to act upon it, I saw that in handwriting of almost machinelike neatness and consistency, Clockenwall had recorded the events of Melinda Lee Harmony’s captivity, beginning on the day he’d offered her a ride home until—I was compelled to page forward—the day that he killed her, seventeen months later. This was a journal that celebrated depravity, and in the entries that passed before my eyes, he regretted nothing except killing her, lamenting the sudden loss of control during which lust and violence had become for him one and the same thing.
I heard myself say, “Such a waste, such a pity, she was still so useful.”
Again, I had no awareness of putting that volume aside or of retrieving from the desk another scrapbook, this one of more recent vintage. In it were articles clipped from the student newspaper at the middle school that Amalia had attended, the school where Rupert Clockenwall had taught English. They were poems and little stories that she had wri
tten for that publication. He had somehow obtained her seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade class photos. I noticed the silver cross on a chain around her neck, which she had taken to wearing in those days but no longer wore. There were as well photos taken with a telephoto lens: a younger Amalia sitting on the front porch, standing in the backyard, going to and from the garage that was her safe harbor and mine. Clockenwall seemed to have stopped adding to the scrapbook when my sister was fifteen, and as I came to the blank pages that he had never used, I heard myself say, without intention or control, “A tasty little piece of tail, but too close to home. Too risky. Didn’t dare. Didn’t dare. Wish I had.”
With no recollection of getting up from the desk, leaving the bedroom, and descending the front stairs, I found myself in the kitchen. I was holding a filleting knife.
I tried to throw down the knife, but instead gripped it more tightly than ever. If I was in terror of leaving that house and going home with some unthinkable purpose, I don’t recall. I remained in a dreamlike state as I crossed the kitchen to an inner door, opened it, switched on the cellar lights, and went down the steep stairs to that lower realm.
In that windowless place, entirely below ground, with its block walls and earthen floor, I found a small wooden table and two chairs, as well as a bookcase containing volumes suitable for a girl twelve-going-on-thirteen, stories of horses and romance and adventure. On the floor lay a stained and moldering mattress, and in the concrete-block wall above it was fixed a ringbolt from which trailed a chain and manacle.
In the corner near the furnace, I stood swaying, gazing down at the hard-packed earth, from which had over time fluoresced both bright white and yellowish crystals finer than salt in patterns that were vaguely reminiscent of voodoo veves. Now Clockenwall shared with me his images—memories—of burying the murdered girl in a deep bed of powdered lime to facilitate decomposition and to control the odor. In my mind’s eye, I saw him tamping a layer of soil atop the lime, weeping as he worked, weeping not for the girl but for the loss of his toy. Melinda had been in her grave for so many years that no foul odor lingered.
I looked up from the floor and stared at the knife, wondering for what purpose he had made me take it from a kitchen drawer.