The Mound Dwellers: Chapter One

 

Chapter One


Voices in her head had made Shannon come to the old family homeplace. Voices she'd heard for the last three months.

The house sat alone, atop a hill in the middle of a clearing. Cornfields and patches of woods quilted this rolling landscape of southern Ohio.

Shannon was running out of choices. Or maybe she was just running. Again.

She steered her dented Saab into the driveway and pulled up in front. When she shut off the engine and unfolded herself from the car, the silence of country roared in her head. It felt good to stretch after three days on the road.

This place wasn't much of an inheritance. No bars on her cell phone here. Not that she had anyone to call. Nothing here that would make a worthy subject for her oil paints. Hell if she knew what she was going to do with the place. Or with the rest of her life.

Search for her roots? The family was all dead.

She took a deep breath of the autumn air. Dried leaves. The crisp air felt thick on her flesh, as compared to the thin air of Denver that she'd left behind. Something disturbed this air, leaving her with the sensation of crawlies. As if someone watched her.

She glanced past the weeping willows, up toward the row of streaked windows. Something moved on the second floor. But no one had lived here since Great-Aunt Florence's last illness more than a year ago.

Get a grip, she told herself, heading up the buckling path to three uneven steps to the porch. A solitary petunia shot out a straggling vine where a seed had dropped. She remembered the flower's earthy smell.

Shaaayyy...

The voice blinked open a faint memory in her head.

* * * * *

Summer nights. Heady scents of petunias and geraniums. Warm fuzzies from the adults, lined up in their rusted gliders. Rocking and squeaking and cooing, they watch baby Shannon and her baby friend gyrate and gimble.

* * * * *

Shannon couldn't have been more than two years old the last time she was here. Who was the other baby? A cousin? Maybe finding that cousin was a place to begin her search.

The iron skeleton key the lawyer had sent her fit and tumbled the lock. The door opened easily with only a whisper of a creak. She stepped into a dark hall smelling of mildew. She allowed her eyes time to adjust to the dim interior. Daylight outside waned and trickled through curtains of coarse lace. In the gray gloom, she made out arching shapes of doorways and shadowy clutter receding into the depths of the house.

She took another step. A cobweb brushed her cheek, snaring her face and the ends of her bobbed hair. She flailed her arms, spun around, and stirred up dust.

The sound of gravel crunching outside stopped her spinning. She rushed back out the front door, onto the porch, and down the sloping walk to the willows that guarded the driveway. A car came into view from around the bend in the road. It was a brown sedan, a timeless model with knicks and rust. A cloud of dust mushroomed along behind the car. It slowed and turned into her driveway, and as it turned, it winked out of sight.

What the...??

The car vanished.

Dust still billowed. And the engine still rattled. But the car wasn't there. As if the air had swallowed it. A glowing red fog veiled the spot where the car should be.

Shannon blinked.

The air shimmered like heat waves, and then the car reappeared.

She blinked again, but there was nothing wrong with her vision. The brown sedan pulled up the long slope of her driveway and stopped behind the Saab. "U.S. Mail Carrier" marked its fender.

What had just happened? She hadn't imagined it. She hadn't. She hadn't.

The voices tittered, tickling her mind with a sense of excitement. Pleasure.

She took a deep breath, but that didn't stop the voices. Nothing had. Not since Mother and Dad's accident three months ago.

The engine clanked and cut off. The car ticked as its engine cooled. The driver, a man who sat in the middle of the front seat, slid over to his open window and leaned out.

"Howdy," he called, pushing the brim of a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap up from his forehead. "You the Roth gal?"

He seemed real enough, so she nodded, feeling a little light-headed. Maybe that's why his car had winked out for just a moment. Her perception had blinked out. She'd been on the road too long. "My name's Shannon Roth-Hartley. How did you know who I am?"

He was around forty, she guessed, and the sinewy muscles of his arms indicated a life spent mostly working outdoors. "I remember you," he said. "Besides, who else could you be? No one comes here no more. No one from Colorado, that's for dang sure." He nodded in the direction of her license plate. "We knew Florence had a niece out there somewhere in Colorado." His voice hung onto the "a" letter of the state, like he was gagging. "But we heard tell she died in some awful accident. Terrible shame."

"That was my parents," Shannon said, suppressing the tidal wave of grief that always lurked, waiting for an off-guard moment to sweep her away. "They died in a car accident a few months ago." At least now the grief had become suppressible. Progress.

The man shook his head, and after a pause, he continued. "Name's Pete. Pete Wright. Got me a place down the road about a mile. You passed it on your way, coming up here from Copperton. Only half a mile as the crow flies."

She peered into the red vinyl interior of his car, but she didn't notice any obstructions on the seat that would've forced him into his peculiar driving position.

He chuckled. "Sitting in the middle," he said, as if reading her mind, "is the only way to reach mailboxes and drive at the same time."

She digested that. She'd seen a lot of the world already, but she hadn't realized how foreign her own backyard could feel. "Do you have some mail for me?"

He laughed. "Naw. I'm on my way to Jamesv'lle to get ready for my route come morning. You expecting some mail I should be on the lookout for?"

Jared, she thought with a sour taste in her mouth. But Jared didn't know where she was.

"No," she said, a little too emphatically. She tried to make her voice sound lighter than her heavy heart. "I guess I just don't want to miss any mailers. You know. Like the ones for home repairs."

Pete's chin jerked up. "You got something in mind for this old place?"

"Not really. A little paint, a few repairs, a little gardening."

"You figurin' on staying?"

"At least for now."

He seemed worried about that. She took a step backwards, putting a little more distance between them. "You know where I can find the supplies I'll need? And some groceries?"

Pete's eyes narrowed to brown bullets, as if she'd asked for the components of a bomb. "You can't find nothing like that uptown in Copperton no more. We only got a drugstore. It has a few general store things, but not much more."

Her patience stretched. "Okay, what's the nearest town that does have supplies?"

"You got to go all the way to Jamesv'lle. Ten miles east, if you take the highway. Less'n that by the shortcut. You pick it up the other side of my place." He frowned, then added, "I'll tell you what. Sometimes it's best to settle in first, before you go tearin' up things."

Shannon listened, and then discarded his advice. "You know any handymen looking for work?"

"Depends. What you got in mind?"

"Depends on what I find."

Pete rubbed his brow, a pale band of flesh compared to the rest of his weathered face. "Check uptown with Colin. You'll find him in the drugstore. Tomorrow. You can't miss it, since it's all we got these days for a store. Heck, we used to have a whole string of ‘em. Stores, that is. But Colin will know, if anyone does."

"Okay, thanks for your help, Pete. I'll do that."

He leaned over and switched on the car's engine. "One more thing. I come up here to warn you. About Lucy. Sometimes folks say they see her wandering around up here from time to time."

"Lucy? Is that your dog?"

"No. She was...she's my wife. Some folks say - Ah, never mind, they're wrong. She's still my Lucy. I just wanted to give you a heads up, that's all. In case you see her. She won't bother you. Don't pay her no mind."

The car roared to life and lurched backwards, spewing gravel. Pete drove as if he couldn't get away fast enough. Like the hit and run driver who'd killed Shannon's parents, leaving her alone. Waiting for the dark to descend.

In a place with no cell phone reception.

Here at the end of her road.

She hated running. She'd grown up moving here and there, always running. All she'd ever wanted was a place to settle. Roots. At least she deserved to know what her roots were before she moved on.

Better have a look around the place. Her place. Hell. She'd never been a homeowner before.

She circled the house, inspecting the grounds first. She held her fingers up before her, shaping them into a rectangle viewfinder, searching for subjects to paint. That's really why she was here, after all, wasn't it? Discovering herself as a so-called artist. Near the back, she rounded a bed of rose bushes gone wild, and then tripped over the cement block covering a cistern.

Her finger viewfinder spotted the hill. A hill back behind the house.

No, it wasn't a hill. Not like the hills that surrounded this valley.

This hill looked as if someone had built it. And seeded it with grass the shade of green she'd get from mixing cobalt and lemon yellow. A mound, that's what her parents had called earthworks that looked like this. Places where the ancients had buried their dead. Her parents had shown her a mound once, somewhere in England.

But unlike that one, this mound rose up from the middle of a cornfield. Hmmm. An interesting composition. She measured with her thumb how far above the dried cornstalks that the tabletop summit of the mound towered. About two thumbs. She liked the value contrast with the woods in the background.

Tatatata..., whispered a voice. Or maybe it was the dried stubbles of corn rattling in the breeze.

Shannon hurried across the backyard, toward the edge of the cornfield. Crumbled remains of a low rock wall separated the cornfield from a weed-infested garden plot. She sat down on the wall and studied different angles of the mound. A cool breeze hit her. The air smelled faintly of bird feathers. Like the way the pet parrot stirred up the air in the florist's shop back in Denver where she'd worked.

According to the legal documents on the Roth property, which she'd inherited through her parents, the boundaries included one hundred acres. That was enough to extend well past the house and up into the hills. The cornfield and mound would be on her property.

Who cultivated corn here? Nobody her parents would've hired. They respected the dead, buried inside the mound for hundreds of years. Thousands, maybe.

Shannon sighed and returned to her car for her parents. They were reduced to ashes now, filling two urns and awaiting delivery to their final resting place.

Mother's urn was sea green with curlicue designs along the rim, reminiscent of waves washing to shore. She would've liked that, probably would've picked out this very one. Dad's urn was sandy brown, with the rough texture of unglazed pottery that fit well with the archeological artifacts he'd liked to collect from around the world. They'd loved their life together of travel.

They couldn't have guessed that their lives would be ended prematurely while they took time off from their travels to visit Shannon in Denver this past summer.

"You've got to respect the wishes of the dead," Dad used to tell her, "so they can find eternal peace."

Their wishes were to be cremated and scattered to the wind in the Mediterranean. Their favorite travel destination.

Okay, okay, she was on her way there. She was heading east, in the general direction, with an indefinite stopover in Ohio. What was she supposed to do with her parents in the meanwhile, put them on the mantle?

She lifted the urns out of the car and cradled them in her arms. Crap! One of them almost slipped and fell. She caught the slippery one - Mother's - and set it gently down on the ground. They seemed heavier than she remembered.

They weren't supposed to be this heavy.

She'd almost dropped them. As if they resisted going inside.

Get real, girlfriend.

Well, why not? Her parents had rejected this place. They'd left here that time Shannon was only two, and they'd never been back since. Refused to talk about it. Like they'd blotted out this place from their personal history.

Shannon readjusted her grip on the urns and carried them inside. She set them down on the warped floorboards of the front hall. Someone sighed. She didn't think it was herself.

None of the chandeliers worked when she punched the buttons on the wall switches. They weren't the little flippy doo-dads that her low-rise apartment in Denver'd had, but buttons. Probably stopped making things like this before retro was new, somewhere back in the 1930's.

Shit.

She reached into her purse for her key ring that held a thumb-sized flash for emergencies. Flicking it on, she followed the thin beam of blue light through three rooms downstairs and three bedrooms upstairs. Even the bedrooms had chandeliers. Not working, of course. Each light fixture looked like a cluster of upside-down jars of opaque glass, painted a different color in each room. Cadmium red medium, cerulean blue, and raw sienna upstairs.

If she were to stay more than a day or two, the red room would eventually become hers. Upstairs at the front of the house, the red room was the farthest bedroom from the bathroom downstairs. Its advantage, though, was that this room overlooked the gravel road. She didn't want to lose sight of the road.

The three bedrooms were fully furnished, untouched and awaiting guests. There was a four-poster bed of some dark wood, mahogany, maybe, in the red room. A quilt spread out taut, no wrinkles, showing a pattern of red rings looped together. No way would she sleep there tonight, though, not until after a thorough inspection of the mattresses and airing of all the rooms.

If she thought of this experience as camping out, then staying here, at least for a few days, would feel less creepy. Where else could she go, anyway? The last motel she'd passed on her way here was almost fifty miles back down the road. She liked to camp. Outdoors she could breathe.

Outdoors, where the air tasted of dried stubbles, the freshly dead remains following harvest, she spread out her foam pad and sleeping bag on the hard floor of the porch. She couldn't shake death from her mind.

Sitting atop her bag, she passed the last of twilight time sketching. Her fingers moved across the paper as if it were a Ouija board, and before she knew it, she'd drawn a woman's face. The same china-doll woman whose face lived in Shannon's head along with the voices. Shannon didn't know who the woman was. Maybe one of the voices belonged to this woman. The voices, the faces, were like demons inside Shannon, making her sketch. They'd driven her all the way here from Denver. To collect her inheritance. To find her roots. To figure out who she was and where she'd go next and what secrets her parents had been running from.

The insects' far-away trill carried a sawing pattern that lulled her. She lost track of how much time passed. Perhaps she slept.

Shaaayy...

Sometime in the middle of the night, a new sound interrupted.

A distant hum.

No. Not a hum. Not exactly. Certainly not the insects' rhythmic song. Swooooosh... Shweeeee...

Ah, it was only the wind.

Woods surrounded the house, and their dense foliage stirred in the wind. Dried leaves rustled. The nights were getting cooler as fall deepened. So cool...

The breeze carried a hint of musk, a smell of bird feathers. Again.

She felt herself being dragged up to her feet, as if some invisible force grabbed her by the arms. And then gave her a push. She padded over to the porch steps. The dark hillside sloped away toward woods that surrounded the house.

Something out there... Pulled her down the steps.

A spot of red shimmered out there in the dark. A glimmer of red sparked through her, ignited her soul, lured her closer. She didn't feel her steps as she drifted, floated, across the open expanse. Whatever awaited her, this was what she'd been looking for, searching the world for, her entire life. It was the missing piece that would fill her empty half. It was the force that had driven her here. Home, finally home.

Shaayy...

Voices cried and argued in her head. Dad's voice! She'd never heard him before, not in her head. Not with the others. Shock waves tingled through her. Her bare foot stubbed against that damned block of cement again. She jerked to a stop, heart pounding. Awake, alert, thanks to the pain throbbing in her toe. Cool blades of grass tickled her bare feet.

Grass? What the hell was she doing out here?

She blinked away whatever trance had captured her. She'd never seen a dark this friggin' dark before. How in the world had she gotten this far away from her sleeping bag without knowing?

Splashing sounds drifted before her, as if someone thrashed in water only a few feet away. But she didn't remember any pond here, behind the house. She felt dizzy with confusion. Then the sound echoed, like it would do in a tunnel, filled with water. Something inside, fighting to get out.

She stood beside the cistern, she realized. A cement slab covered it, and that's what had stubbed her toe. How could an animal have fallen inside, with a cover in place? She bent down to shove the slab aside.

"Hello?" she called inside. In case it wasn't just an animal.

Her voice echoed back at her along with the musty smells of damp earth. Then a curtain of misty air rose from the dark, like a swirl of smoke, only not smoke, because it was cool - no, cold - like wet ice, only it seeped through her skin and danced through her veins, twisting and turning through her inner passages, and...

"Ewww!" She lurched backwards, brushing at her skin to wipe away the creepy crawly invasion. The thing she'd let out of the cistern.

A flicker in the darkness lifted her attention up from the wet hole in the ground, up the sloping hill, to the mound. That's where she'd been moving, trance-like, across the yard. Toward some sort of beacon. It pulled on her now, tugging at her body.