The rope tightened around my ankle and my right leg was jerked straight, but I didn’t move. I could feel the rope straining against the pillar I had inched around five feet behind where I was now laying. I would have to move back enough to go around the pillar and unkink the rope.
Caught in the bright glare from my headlamp was the man in the dirty cream-colored shirt and butternut pants. The cop. The man who looked like the cop. The man who couldn’t be the cop. He thrust the little girl aside. She cried out, ceased her weeping, and shoved her thumb into her mouth, her eyes wide, casting back and forth between the two of us.
He lurched forward, up into a crouch, leaning beneath the beams of the overhead floor, with the stuffing of dripping pink insulation. He assumed the position of a spider, ready to leap.
I inched back, holding the shovel up between us. As if that would deter him. If I could get past the pillar, unkink the rope, I could get away. Maybe.
He gathered himself, eyes narrowed. It was as if, in the bright glare, I could feel his intention a millisecond before he made the move. I dropped the tote bag.
He leapt forward; I slammed the shovel into his head. He fell back, the look of determination changed to surprise. Well, it surprised me as well. After the hit I threw the shovel at him and scrabbled to the left, which unkinked the rope. I heard it whizz against the pillar then, free, it jerked my leg back, me with it, crabbing backwards as fast as I could go, which wasn’t fast enough and my legs were yanked straight and I slid over the plastic ground cove, slippery from a thin dry layer of dust and dirt that had accumulated over the many years. I saw the man recover, toss the shovel aside and come after me. My hand rolled over a round shape, a rock, which I grabbed thinking I would hit him with it when he was close enough, and he was almost that close when Mark made what must have been a superhuman last-ditch effort and dragged me to the ledge over the deeper portion of the crawlspace where the furnace was. I fell off over onto the dirt floor.
“OK! OK! Stop!” I shouted.
I glanced back and Mark was crouched on the stone steps; if his face was pale before, it was stark white now and he was staring not at me, but beyond me, back under the house. I made it to my knees and looked back and saw the legs of the man scuttle around the corner of the pillar and disappear. I untied the rope.
“What the hell was that!” Mark asked. No humor in his voice now, no knowing, You’re-Full-of-Shit joking. “Who the hell was that?”
“Rafe said there might be another one under here. He was right. I told you about him. The cop. Only not the cop.” I noticed the fishing pole leaning against the wall. “Shit, the bones.” I realized I was still holding the rock. I handed it to Mark. A wail came from behind me. Ada. Or maybe it was something in my head, a sound of dread, maybe it was my wail.
I picked up the fishing pole and began reeling in the line. I felt it snag and stop. The goddamned pillar. I threw the pole down and grabbed the fishing line, feeling it cut into my skin as I pulled. It held, I thought it would break; slowly I felt the tote bag inch around the pillar and then it was free and sliding back to me as I reeled it in hand over hand. I caught the bag as it tipped over the ledge. The bones rattled. The bag felt, not full, but there was a substantial weight. Enough, I hoped. I turned, pushed Mark ahead up the steps and we came out into the night. I closed the door and threw the outside lock into the hasp. Not that it was going to keep anything in, or at least not anything that really wanted to come out.
I untied the line around the hood of my protective suit and unzipped it down the front. It tangled around my ankles; I peeled it over my shoes and kicked it away. It pooled on the grass. I pulled off the headlight.
We both stood, silent, gasping in the night air, grateful that it was a thousand times cleaner than the dust of the ages beneath the house.
“The cop, but not the cop,” he said.
“I can’t explain it yet, but I think I’m beginning to understand.”
Mark looked down at his hand. “Jesus, take this thing,” he said, handing me the rock.
Except that it wasn’t a rock, I knew what it was from the feel, but I turned on the headlamp.
A skull. Not a child’s skull, but that of a full grown man, dirt and bits of I don’t know what still clinging to the teeth, the crease down the length of the cranium, holding that skull rictus that we know so well from photographs and drawings, the ironic manic smile of the dead. I switched off the light, eager to not be looking at it. “Like I said, Rafe told me he thought there was another one under there. You saw it?”
“The man, yes I saw him. He was coming after you. Jesus.”
That was twice Mark uttered a swear word, a rarity for him.
He shook his head. “Jesus.”
Neither of us said anything as our night vision gradually came back online. My breathing and heart rate slowed back to normal, or as close to normal as it was going to get for a while. I thought. I made up my mind.
“You up for some more?” I asked.
“Some more what?”
“More of what we’re doing?”
“Are you really going back under there?”
The thing was, I was tired of continuing on the same path, wandering around the house in the night, the weeping, never knowing if it was going to end, keeping Sherry in the dark (as it were). I still had the plan; I was through the second part and had one last push to go. “I want to finish it. Tonight. Not under there.” I nodded at the door to the crawl space.
“The graveyard. I’m going to bury the bones.” I nudged the tote bag of bones with my foot. Gently. You could hear a soft dry rattle as they shifted against each other.
“You’re going to bury that?” Mark asked, nodding at the skull that I was still holding. I had forgotten it. Hard to forget an ancient skull.
“No, I don’t know what I’m going to do with this, but having it is a good thing. A protection, I think. Right now we’re going to bury Ada.” And finish it. As much as it can be finished.
“We’re going to give her peace.”