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An Idolwood story
Start at the beginning of the Idolwood series
Within the crawlspace there stood a king, cradled in wool and steel.
Eight inches tall, it was crowned with a grinning skull of paste and ochre decorated with black tribal runes, like a Maori going to his death. It shone at the center of Isaac's flashlight, standing erect in the wavering circle as the boy slid forward on his pigeon-chest, exploring the underworld foundations of his new home.
"Hey!" Safely outside, Brandon kicked the slats remaining between porch and crawlspace. The two boys had removed several to allow Isaac entry. Isaac lurched in surprise, hooked the light to one side and lost the sparkle of those tiny, malevolent eyes. He snapped the light back to the figure and said nothing, a queer twist forming in his stomach as he studied its alien features. "Hey, why you stopping?"
"I found something," Isaac called, pushing a forelock to the side with one dirt-stained hand. "I think it's a doll."
"A baby doll?" Brandon jeered, "Just like you always wanted."
"Shut up, Brandon!" Isaac lashed out with one fist and struck the polymer boards near the older boy's feet. Still the crystalline eyes danced mockingly in the wavering light, set in the skull's deeply-gouged hollows. "It's this creepy thing. It ... it isn't right."
"Creepy?" That got Brandon's attention. He dropped to his knees and writhed forward to Isaac's side. His breath caught as he saw the idol. "Whoa."
"Well ... go on," he thrust an elbow into Isaac's side. "Go on, get it."
He had no answer. The two of them lay on their bellies in the half-darkness, prostrate before the queer doll thrust into the earthen foundations of Isaac's new home.
The wool which wrapped around it had unraveled slightly, thin tendrils batting without effect at the slight spring breeze. The thin steel rods which served as armature were crusted now with dirt, thrown up by errant rainwater and dried against the outspread arms which sang of rust, sharpness and disease. Those jagged twins pointed directly toward the boys, summoning and damning them in a single gesture.
It was the face, though; with its merest hints of features, which captured them both. That face, with the gouged hollows for eyes, the markings on the pale ochre which served as skin, the slight ridge suggesting a lengthened nose. Unconsciously, Isaac brought up a hand to wipe his own, felt the grit and dirt against the tender flesh of his upper lip. They were thinner than those of the idol, if their noses seemed similar; the idol's lips rising in a fleshy hillock which sent an unconscious thrill through both young boys.
"Get it," whispered Brandon with a nudge. "Give me the light."
"I'm not touching it."
Isaac shook his head. "You get it, if you're not scared."
"It's your house. You want to go to sleep tonight with that thing under you? I can just go home, but you've got to sleep here." Brandon lowered his voice to a growling whisper. "You'll know it's here, waiting to wake up, crawling up to your window ..."
"Shut up! I'm not scared. It's just a stupid doll."
"Then go and get it."
Isaac scowled, rubbed his nose again. He contorted himself to hand the flashlight across his chest while keeping the skull in clear view, and wriggled forward a foot on his elbows before stopping. "Swear you aren't going to turn out the light."
Brandon snickered. "Aw."
"I'm serious. Swear it on your mom."
"I'll swear on your mom."
Isaac kicked backward and caught Brandon's forearm, and the light flipped out.
"You did that on purpose!" Isaac shouted. The light was nearly gone outside, and being trapped in the darkness with boards overhead and cold earth below frightened him just as badly as the initial sight of the idol - like being dead, he thought, dead and buried.
"You kicked me, asshole!" The light flicked back on. "Do that again and I'll just crawl out and take the light!"
Frustrated and angry, Isaac thrust himself forward the last six feet. It was slow work, so near to the foundations, and he reached out quickly to seize the idol in one hand beneath its outstretched arms.
It was clammy in his grasp, the chill of cold iron seeping through the too-damp wool, and came from the earth almost unwillingly as he pulled. It felt, thought Isaac, like getting his boots stuck in heavy spring mud, or pulling apart heavy magnets in science class.
The light flipped off again with a snicker, but he had expected that and did not react. Instead, he began worming his way backward, careful to keep the sharp stakes of the doll's legs pointed toward the ground.
After a second, the light came back on. Almost simultaneously, the sharp bang of a door against the siding came from overhead, and the light jumped with a start as Isaac dropped the idol in sudden fear. "Fuck!" Brandon swore.
"Isaac?" The disapproval in his father's voice was as clear as it was familiar. "Where are you?"
The spell was broken. No longer captured by the strangeness of their find, Isaac grabbed for the doll and felt a brief, sharp pull against the meat between palm and thumb as the iron rod bit into him. Both wriggled back toward the entrance they had made.
As soon as Brandon's feet came into sight, Grey spoke again. "Stop. Stop right there."
Both stopped, holding their breath. Isaac looked back to Brandon, who switched off the flashlight. Both were now shadows in the deeper darkness.
"What are you doing?" Grey took the steps slowly, his voice pitched low with restrained anger. "Did you pull these boards off the porch?"
"I can put them back on, Dad, I was ..."
"Is Brandon with you?"
There was a moment of silence. "Yes, sir."
Grey put his foot on the boy's shoe and pressed down slightly with a slow pressure, unthreatening but delivering the message of displeasure. "So. Whose idea was this, Brandon?"
"Isaac's, Mister Jordan." As usual, Brandon didn't miss a beat in throwing Isaac under the bus.
"Dad, I just wanted to see what was under here."
"I've told you what's under there."
Frustration sank into Isaac's young voice. He was always being told things. "I wanted to see for myself."
Grey took his foot off of Brandon's. "Come out," he said in a sterner tone.
Isaac continued to shift himself on elbows, left to right, until he came into the dim light of the porch's lantern and turned to face his father.
They were alike in so many ways, father and son—squared-off faces with broad foreheads and heavy jaws, wide mouths with thin lips slashed beneath Roman noses. They were strong faces, easily set in stubbornness or disapproval, though Isaac's was still unlined with cares and malleable to the whims of his parents or peers. He was heavier in form than his father, sharing the broader build of his mother's side of the family, with the swelled chest and thick trunk that threatened to run to fat without careful attention. Grey's own leanness did nothing to lessen the severity of his profile as he glared down at his son's dirt-stained face, shaking his head.
"Get upstairs. Shower, then it's the guest bedroom. No dinner tonight."
"Don't. Just don't." As he looked the boy up and down, his forehead wrinkled. "What's that you've got?"
Despite his earlier fears, Isaac instinctively pulled the idol closer to him. "I found it under the porch."
"Hand it over. Are you bleeding?" Grey seized Isaac's wrist, pulled it forward and took the idol from him while turning the hand palm-up, his voice growing softer for a moment. "Oh, Isaac, just look at this ..." The thin red line of blood trickled from where the armature had scratched him. Upon the doll, the weak porch light hinted at wetness along the outthrust right arm.
"When did this happen?" His voice remained gentle as he used the pad of his thumb to wipe dirt away from the wound.
"It's nothing, Dad." The attention embarrassed Isaac. "I did it just now, when you opened the door. I dropped it, and when I grabbed it back, I got scratched. It's nothing."
"This thing ..." Grey paused, glancing at the idol. "This was under the porch?"
"Yeah. Stuck in by the foundation."
He turned it over in his hands. "It's revolting. And look, there's rust all over it. We're going to have to see when your tetanus shots came through."
"That means I'm going to have to call your mother." He spit the word, concern for Isaac melting into irritation both at the thought of speaking to Deborah and at the sight of Brandon, still standing beside Isaac. "Is that my flashlight? My SureFire? Christ, give that to me!" He grabbed the flashlight in his empty hand, using it to point to the door. "You, in. You, Brandon, get out. Go on! If I ever find you with my things again it's going to get worse, you understand?"
"Yes, sir." Both boys mumbled as they went their separate ways.
"Don’t bother coming back tomorrow, either."
"Asshole," muttered Brandon, casting a glance back to where Grey was already sliding the rails neatly back into place along the base of his deck.
"Fired?" Grey sat up straighter, his stomach dropping as his upper back tensed. "What ... I don't understand, Dave. What is this?"
Dave lifted his hands; spread them wide with a look of apologetic confusion on his own face. "They want me to cut someone. Not just me, every team, Grey, across the board. It's nothing personal, just the shitty economy."
Grey stared at his boss—at the ginger crew cut graying at the edges, the laugh lines, the sloppiness of the knot in his tie. "You can't, Dave. I mean, I get it, but you can't let me go. I just signed on the duplex, for God's sake. You know that."
"Yeah," Dave looked away, ran his fingers along the edge of his desk. "Hey, believe me, I wish I didn't have to, but what am I going to do? The numbers aren't there and it's not your people making the mistakes. Tammi and Rob are both hard workers."
Grey's lips tightened. "So ... really? I mean, really, do you know that Tammi's been taking extra time at lunch, every week, gossiping with her friends on Matt's team? That Rob's on a smoke break every half hour? I'm on nights, I'm on weekends, Dave, you see me online, and you know that."
"I didn't know about that, no. It hasn't kept them from making their numbers."
"No, we make the numbers because I push them to get the work done and keep the clients happy. Campbell's, Dave, that was ours. Awards. Bonuses to our whole group, remember?"
"Last year, Grey." He spread his hands again, tried to look helpless. "It's nothing personal."
"Dave. Listen. I really ..." The words choked him. "I really. Need. This job right now. Deborah's got the house and I've got the alimony, child support to pay. We did well last year, I mean, I know the company didn't, but my team made our numbers, you just said as much. We came in right at budget even with the cuts." His speech grew rapid, words tumbling from his mouth. "You've seen it, Dave, you've seen the numbers, and you know they manage it because I ride them. What are you going to do, transfer them to Matt? It's a mistake, Dave, you're making a mistake if you do that, and I know that's what you'd expect me to say but I'm telling you the truth. Dave. I need this job ... please, Dave."
"I can only say I'm sorry so many times, Grey."
"This is because of Ann, isn't it?" Anger flared in his voice and eyes, though he fought against it.
He groaned. "It's over, Dave. I mean, Christ, isn't it bad enough the whole company knows? The HR department investigated, and they decided she was the one who had to go. And it's over; I haven't seen her since before the divorce. We dated less than a year, and she's already cost me my marriage, and now she's going to cost me my job?"
"It's got nothing to do with your little affair." The dismissive words caused a rare flush across Grey's cheeks. "I know all about it, yes, everyone knows all about it, and I believe you when you say it's over. It was, what, four years ago?"
"Whatever, the point is, I don't care. It doesn't make any difference to me who you're sleeping with. I'm just doing what the higher-ups tell me."
"Christ, I bet your grandfather would just love that excuse, Mr. Burstein."
David stared as Grey slowly closed his eyes, his shoulders beginning to shake. Damn my temper, he thought, God damn it.
"Yeah, I think we're done here, Grey. Security will see you out."
He had told himself he wouldn't smoke in the new place. He had told himself he wouldn't drink in the afternoons. He told himself today was an exception.
The feel of the leather couch was comforting, as was putting his feet up. The bourbon, he thought, didn't hurt either. Brubeck's 'Audrey' filled the room, smoky bass notes circling through the blue smoke of his cigarette.
He began a mental catalogue, looking around the room. If he had to start selling things, the stereo system would stay. The leather living room set, definitely, one of the few concessions he'd won from Deborah. That couldn't go. The television wasn't worth enough to make a big difference, three years old now. Really, nothing he owned could replace his salary.
"Cut myself to the bone already," he muttered around the tumbler. "Christ."
The car, maybe. He could trade down, though the thought killed him. He'd need a new phone, too; with S&T taking the Blackberry away. They hadn't taken it from him yet, though, and he'd need to back up the contacts to his personal computer. Maybe one of his old clients was hiring.
Rising from the couch, he walked up the split-level stairs to his small office and plugged the phone in, the small electronic chirps overriding the music welling up from below. Then he went to the liquor cabinet for a small refill, added three more ice cubes, and carefully crushed the cigarette in the ashtray secreted among the bottles.
He looked to the side table by his desk, realized he had placed the doll Isaac found the day before there and forgotten it. The shots, he thought, I've got to call Deb and find out when he last had his shots. It brought a low, exasperated growl from him. She'd just love to hear that he'd been fired, that something else had been taken away from him. He took up the doll and considered it critically.
The iron was rusted, yes, but only in spots. It flaked away as he scraped at it with a thumbnail, setting his drink down on the mantel as he turned the doll in his hands. Was the head meant to be a face, or a skull? Were the features truly features, or mere suggestions of the same? He couldn't tell, as he poked at the small crystals set back into the eye sockets. It was a disgusting little thing.
He carried both tumbler and doll into the kitchen. Opening the doors below the sink, he tossed the doll into the trash can, those small yellow crystals winking in the slash of light afforded by the ill-fitting cabinet doors. That done, he returned to the living room and once more let the music and bourbon wash over him. In minutes, his head was nodding, exhausted from tension and worry. He kicked off his house slippers, put the tumbler on its coaster, and stretched out upon the sofa for a nap.
It was dark, and the noise was unfamiliar. Grey's eyes came open quickly, body jerking out of sleep. He'd slept the entire afternoon away. The music had ended.
Someone was rattling at the window on the basement floor.
He lay for a moment, straining his ears. It came again, a dull thump followed by uneven rattling. There was no mistake. Someone was trying to open one of the ground-level casement windows.
Grey swung his legs around, knocking his tumbler to the ground with another dull thump upon the carpet. He moved to the faux fireplace and groped for the decorative fire irons kept there, seized the mock coal shovel, and discarded it as too light.
The window broke with a high, bright sound. He grabbed the poker and moved to the stairs, reached for the light switch, paused. The intruder was swiftly clearing away jagged fragments from the casement. When he heard the sounds of actual entry, Grey flipped the switch to flood the lower level with light.
"HEY! Don't move!" He shouted down, keeping his back against the wall.
No response came, and Grey peered around the wall to see a black-clad leg being drawn quickly back outside. It was thin, twig-like. He took courage from that. "I said don't move! I'm armed!"
The leg was fully withdrawn, and Grey ran for the upper level. The spare bedroom windows looked over the broken one, and he could barely see the thief racing across the yard in the night. Then lights flashed in a neighboring yard as motion detectors caught the fleeing figure. It was dressed in black from stocking cap to shoes, and ridiculously slender. At a distance, it looked almost insectile, alien in its motions, too angular to be so fluid as it raced into the darkness of the forest preserve which Idyllwood backed onto.
Grey's heart was pounding, his breath coming too quickly. He turned on the lights in the spare bedroom, then the hall, then his office across the hall, flooding the house with light. He seized the cell phone and dialed 911, speaking rapidly to the dispatcher as he moved through the house, turning on every light in his wake.
Officer Porter was a short, barrel-shaped man with thinning blonde hair and a bad case of eczema. He scratched at a spot on his forearm with the same pen he used to take notes, running the same pen once or twice over the empty pane of the broken window.
"Only lived here three weeks, huh? No run-ins with your neighbors?"
"No. I haven't really seen anyone."
"Anyone who might have a reason? Recent breakup?"
Grey hesitated, and then shook his head. "I'm divorced, but that was a few years ago ... and she's taken care of without robbery." He waited a moment longer. "My son's got a friend I don't like him hanging around, but the person I chased off was far too tall to be him. He's only about fifteen."
"Bad age for bad kids." Porter scratched at his arm again, skin flaking onto the carpet. "Nothing was taken?"
"I scared him off when I turned on the lights, like I said. He didn't even get all the way into the house."
"Okay, Mister Jordan. That's all I need. Call your insurance company in the morning. Want the window boarded up? My cousin's a contractor in Waukegan. Porter Construction. You can find him online."
Grey nodded "Thanks. I'll walk you out."
As they opened the condo door, both started at the sight of the man in front of them. He was only slightly taller than Grey, but each of his massive arms was thicker than Grey's neck. His chest swelled with muscle beneath a sweat-drenched red tee-shirt which he wore over exercise pants. The tee had a stylized graphic running down one side, a tribal design that suddenly reminded Grey of the markings on the doll's face. The stranger had a gym bag slung over one shoulder and a set of keys in the other.
"Hey," said Officer Porter, "you live here?"
The big man looked surprised, blinking into the light which spilled from Grey's door with wide blue eyes. "Yeah. Is there a problem?" His voice held only the trace of an accent, vaguely European, all but erased by years of proximity to Chicago.
"Break in attempt. Mind checking your outside windows with us?"
He shrugged, set the bag down, and shook his head. "Sure. Lead the way, sir." His voice was respectful despite the laughable difference between himself and the little officer, and he remained a step behind as they circled the building. Grey followed both as the officer's flashlight shone onto every window along the lower and ground levels. There were no further signs of entry as they returned to the front.
The officer nodded. "What's your name, sir?"
"Alexei Pajari, but I go by Alex. Excuse me," he said, reaching into the gym bag. He withdrew a white plastic bottle labeled as a vanilla-flavor nutritional shake. "Sorry, but I'm on a schedule. Don't want to miss taking these. Did they steal anything?"
"No, nothing." The openness of the man's face put Grey at ease. For such a big man, his demeanor held certain innocence. Grey put out a hand. "I'm Grey Jordan. I'm new here."
"Yeah, saw you move in a few weeks ago. Nice to meet you. I'm glad you're okay. Never had a break-in here before."
The officer spoke up. "When did you leave the house, Mr. Pajari?"
"Ten o'clock." There was no hesitation.
Porter snorted. "You've been at the gym for five hours?"
"I hit the floor at ten-thirty. This is Monday, so one hour cardio, an hour and a half lifting, half hour abs, another half of cardio. Stretch, steam, shower and come home."
"That's a hell of a night."
"It's a Monday." Alex blinked and took another drink from the supplement bottle. "Wednesdays are heavier lifting. Tomorrow's just cardio."
"Well, God love a schedule, huh?" The officer rolled his eyes. "What gym you go to?"
"Lifetime Fitness for now. There's not many choices within jogging distance."
"Been there long?"
Alex shrugged, thinking. "Not long. Maybe a year."
"Okay." The officer put away his notebook and scratched vigorously at his forearm, turning back to Grey. "We'll be in touch if we can, but I'll be honest. Nothing was stolen, so there's not much chance of finding them. If it was a random burglary they're not likely to come back. Probably figures you've got an alarm system. If you need one, my father-in-law installs them. I got a card right here."
"Thanks. And thanks again for coming out."
"You all right?" Alex hefted the bag to his shoulder.
"Yes. I doubt I'll sleep, but thanks, yes."
"You ought to go for a run. Work off the nervous energy."
Grey snorted, a brief smile on his face which disappeared as something occurred to him. "Hey, pardon my asking, Alex, but do you have kids?"
"No. It's just me. Why?"
"Oh, my son found a doll under the shared crawlspace here. I wasn't sure if maybe someone in your family put it there accidentally."
"A doll?" Alex's brows contracted. "Like a Barbie?"
"No, no. Crude looking, like, handmade." Grey realized he had taken the man's accent and applied it to the handspun nature of the doll. Slightly embarrassed for himself, he said, "It's nothing, really. Just thought I'd ask. Maybe it was the family before me."
"No, it was another single guy before you. Brady. No kids from him, either." Alex shook his head slowly. "Hey, if you're okay, though, I'm heading in."
"Sure. You must be exhausted, huh?"
"No, but I need to get breakfast ready. I must head to work soon."
"Christ, don't you sleep?"
"In afternoons." Alex held out the hand again. "That's why I like quiet neighbors, huh?"
Grey's hand vanished in the grip. "Just pound on the wall once. I'll bet it never happens again."
Alex chuckled and moved off, leaving Grey alone and backlit by the porch lights. He quickly closed the door and headed in. With nearly three hours to daybreak, he didn't want to stay on the lower level with the broken window, but didn't dare stray to where he could miss a sound.
Alone now with his thoughts, Grey looked at the broken glass littering his carpet, at the spot where Porter had so casually shed his skin, the brown spot on the carpet where Porter's boots had tracked mud into the house. He thought of Isaac, of what would have happened had his son been home. He thought of thieves and strangers tracking into his home, his sanctuary.
It had only been three weeks, sure, but still, the place was his. He owned it. He had worked for it, worked for years to get to a point where he could balance alimony with a better monthly payment, to get out of the terrible one-bedroom apartment he'd rented in the years after the divorce.
Deborah got the house in Barrington, the one he'd always thought of as his, with its vaulted ceilings and marble countertops. He was still paying for it now, paying for her to live there even though she made a good living. Paying for someone else to live the lifestyle he ought to be living.
Now - no job. He'd be living off his savings, and trying to pay for two homes, and if he couldn't pay for both, it would be this one he lost.
"Who's going to take it from me?" He whispered to himself. "Christ, haven't they taken enough?"
The bank would take it, or some random thief would come in the night and take what was in it, or some stranger would track mud and skin all over everything, like an animal. There was nowhere he could make a home for Isaac, no place which would truly be his home, if he couldn't make this one work - if he couldn't focus on keeping it his own, keeping it safe.
Idyllwood was his last hope for making things right for himself and his son. He stepped forward onto one of the shards of glass and ground it purposely into the carpet, staring at the last jagged edge thrust from the broken window's side.
"This place is mine," he said to the darkness in a hard and quiet voice. "This place. This place is mine. And don't you fucking forget it."
The basement was unfinished, rough-hewn and poorly done. The concrete floor had slight ridges here and there, sharp edges waiting to catch an unwary foot, matched by similar seams along the slabs of concrete which made up the walls. The small awning windows peered into wells, allowing little light to seep in on the brightest of days and none at all in the hours of night.
The woman was skeletally thin, her ribs thrust out like knife-blades beneath the tiny nipples which served her for breasts as she tugged the black Lycra over her head. Her slender legs looked as if they would scarcely hold her, no muscle visible beneath the black tights she wore - only bone and skin.
As if in contrast, the bald man's breasts flopped over the hillock of his stomach. Though the woman's breath came in slight clouds from the chill of the air, he wore only a pair of sweat shorts which encompassed the tree-trunks of his thighs, and idly toyed with a half-mast erection as he watched her descend the stairs.
He sat alone on a metal chair in the center of the room, its tall, thin back and v-shaped seat vanishing beneath his bulk.
"Did you fetch it?" His voice was smooth and heavy, rich with unspoken promises. "Is it ours?"
The woman pulled off her mask and hood, eyes welling with tears. "No, love. I'm sorry."
The man took his hand from his genitals and brought it to his face, inhaling deeply. "What happened, Gamine?"
"He heard me coming." She brought her hands to her temples and shook elf-knots from her cream-colored locks, cut in a pageboy style which accented the severity of her sunken features. "I don't know how. I didn't make a single mistake. His room is farthest from the window I chose. His son was gone. His neighbor was gone. It was hours after he goes to sleep, love, and I know there's no alarm system set up."
"None save ours," sighed the fat man, shifting his bulk to rise. Veins as thick as a pencil bulged along his naked calves, and the folds of flesh spilled over the tops of his feet, as though his heaviness were some morbid costume worn over a smaller man's frame. "I need that fetch back, Gamine. I spun it of my own two hands. I worked my will upon it and spilled much of myself between its legs. So much life my little dolls hold, my love, and so much more they may."
Her eyes met his, fearlessly, as she reached to caress his cheek. It took her entire hand to span the smooth, cool flesh of his jaw, stroking it as she spoke. "I know, love. I know. Your work is beautiful. Please, love, forgive my failure?"
"I cannot," he said gently, bringing his hand to cover hers. He took hers away, turned her toward the chair and tugged it forward, gently but insistently. "I need the fetch back, child. I will spin others, but does a doting father choose among his beautiful children? Will he abandon a single one to careless hands or the winds of fate? Each is precious to me, and that fresh-faced man will pay for uprooting it so. It has so many more delicious webs to work upon him, and removed from his foundations, what power does it hold to twist and spin his fate?"
"It will return to you, love. One way or the other, it will return to you. I promise. I'll get it for you, just not tonight. Be patient for me. Be sweet for me."
His eager grey eyes glittered. "I cannot," he said again, and motioned to the chair.
Story by Ivan Ewert, Copyright 2011
Image by Amber Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2011