Benjamin Harking stood on the threshold of his home and knocked on the half-open door, reluctant to enter. The hollow sound was amplified by the size of the foyer and the lack of furniture. He felt awkward coming back to this place; even after almost two years it hadn’t yet become home to him. The sudden change in lifestyle had come so quickly that he still wasn’t used to the idea of being rich. His dad had been offered a major promotion and the next thing Ben knew, they had moved into this oversized house and he was off to boarding school to get a “proper” education. The house was so large that his family had once gone a full day at home without seeing each other. It was over a hundred years old, which made it a little creepy on late nights when everything was still and quiet. The creaks and groans were loud enough to stir them from a deep sleep.
The Victorian-style mansion was located in the northern panhandle of West Virginia, near Morgantown. They were miles from their nearest neighbor and even farther from any semblance of civilization. Ben missed his friends from Papillion, Nebraska, but he understood his father couldn’t turn down that promotion. He knew that he couldn’t blame his family for this, but it didn’t change how he felt. He wondered if they realized what they had asked of him, to give up his entire life in an instant, just to be dropped into a new and unfamiliar one. Did they understand what it felt like for him to have everything he loved taken from him and replaced with something new and unwelcoming?
As his suitcase hit the hard marble floor, he called out, “Is anyone here?” The sound of his voice had a slight echo in the vastness of the hallways and corridors, but no one replied. It was Christmas vacation; where was his family? Here he was, right on schedule. They knew he was coming home today, but the only thing to greet him was a massive Christmas tree with an assortment of wrapped boxes underneath. It was decorated, but without the gaudy of use of ornaments his mother was known for. Right then he knew that Charles, their butler, must have done it. Despite this, it still made him a little sad that they hadn’t waited for him like they used to. Their family traditions were whittling away more and more as the years passed. Disappointment was a growing trend in his life. His parents were always busy with work or some social engagement that he couldn’t attend.
“Hello?” he said again, louder this time. Still no answer came from anywhere in the house. A loud sigh escaped his lips as he saw something on the table next to the door. It was an envelope with his name written on it in big cursive script. He looked down at his cell phone to see if anyone had called, but it was clear of notifications. With a slow, hesitant motion, he picked up the envelope and opened it with little care for its contents. It was obvious that it was from his parents because of the handwriting on the front. A weight of grief sank his stomach a little when he read the words of his mother.
Your father had an important business meeting to attend to in the city. We will be home as soon as we can.
It was short and simple without any signs of affection or emotion. Even the word “love” seemed hollow and forced coming from a woman who spent more time on her cell phone than she did with her family. That was the way of his mother lately. Though he couldn’t figure it out, Ben knew that this newfound success had changed them all. His father was always busy and irritable and his mother was always working her ass off to become accepted in a group of women who (unlike her) were from money. Ben had vowed not to be changed by it, but he couldn’t help enjoy some of the perks and advantages it brought him. It was hard to ignore the sudden influx of money and resources. A new car had been promised to him for Christmas, and his allowance had tripled. This allowed him to buy more books and other pieces of entertainment to keep him company when there was no one else.
The letter drifted toward the floor as he picked up his duffel bags and carried them up to his room. Tired and winded, he had to sit down after lugging his suitcase up the stairs and across the house. Ben wasn’t a “fat” boy, but he wasn’t in shape by any means. The three flights of stairs alone would have left him without breath, but then add an additional walk to his room carrying twenty pounds of stuff, and he was beat. The fabric of his couch felt wonderful as the cushion gave under his weight. The furniture in the dorms at Pency Prep wasn’t even comparable to the stuff his mom had picked out for the house. She had made it her new hobby to decorate everything she could, and Ben had to admit she wasn’t bad at it.
Except for the furniture, the décor of his room was of his own choosing. Two of the four walls had floor to ceiling shelving, covered with books that ranged in topic from advanced reference to fantasy fiction. His interests were broad and he considered this room his own private oasis in the unforgiving desert of family life. When he was hiding, Ben would read for hours on end and usually fall asleep with a book in hand. All around the room were treasures from his childhood that he refused to get rid of. Ben wasn’t a hoarder, but he saw no reason to put away old toys and other childish hobbies just because he was getting older. The fact that this pissed his mother off was an added benefit.
In the top desk drawer, he found something he hadn’t seen in a while. Hidden under some disheveled papers was a silver medallion. The trinket, which was once worn as a necklace, was the last gift Ben’s grandfather had given to him, just days before the old man had died. It had meant a lot to Ben at the time, but now it just took up space in his cluttered little area. Engraved on one side was a three-legged crow. His grandfather had been an archaeologist and found these kinds of things interesting. According to him, the crow symbolized the heavens, humans, and earth, collected as one entity, and was meant to bring him strength in times of need. Just thinking about it brought back the feelings it had inspired at the time and for a moment, he was lost in the thoughts of his grandfather.
“Ah, good to see you are home.” Ben jumped. Lost in reverie, he had thought he was alone in the house. Placing the item back into the drawer, he looked up and saw a welcome face.
“Hey, Charles,” Ben replied, looking up at the grey-haired man peeking in from the doorway. Charles’ smile faded as he picked up on Ben’s sadness and stepped in. Ben knew Charles empathized with him. They both knew that these things happened, but neither wanted to deal with them. Ben’s parents had been pulling this disappearing act a lot over the last year.
“Don’t worry, Master Harking, they will be home soon.” The term “Master Harking” was something they had picked up when Charles first came to work with them. It started out as a joke, but it had stuck and somehow become something more. It signified both Ben’s reluctance to become jaded by all the money and the humor Charles found in his attitude. They would often hang out, and Ben would help him with his house duties when he was really bored. It was better than sitting alone in his room and it afforded Ben someone interesting to chat with. Ben was privy to a secret about Charles that many people didn’t know. The seasoned butler was a master storyteller, and he would fill the boy’s ears with tales of his life and other interesting things he had learned.
Charles was a good guy and in a lot of ways one of Ben’s only friends. He had allowed Ben to get away with certain transgressions over the past two years under the pretense that “boys will be boys.” With a mutual respect, they had formed a stronger relationship than the one he had with his parents. In times of personal trouble, Ben had even used him as a proxy guardian when he felt he couldn’t confide in his own family. Being on the cusp of manhood, Ben was at a pivotal time in his development as a person. Not having any kids of his own, Charles had taken the job, if only to make sure that Ben was in fact raised in a suitable fashion. The absentee parents he worked for tended to get on Charles’ nerves, but the pay was good and it allowed him time with Benjamin.
“I have to take off,” Charles said, looking at his watch. “Do you need me to make you anything for dinner?” The wrinkles in his face gave away the sadness that his deceitful smile tried to hide.
“Nah, I can make my own dinner. I will eventually make my way down to the kitchen. Will I see you again before Christmas?” Ben asked.
“No, you won’t. I’m taking these two weeks off so I can go on a trip, but I’ll be back before New Year’s. Maybe we can go searching for fireworks again,” Charles said, trying to sound upbeat and positive.
“Yeah, maybe we will. See you then,” Ben said. He noticed that Charles had a hard time walking away. Ben knew Charles felt bad for him, but there was nothing to do about it. The butler walked away, leaving him to sulk in his room. Sitting there in silence for awhile, he finally got up when he heard the front door close. The idea of food was gnawing at his stomach now, telling him it was time to eat. The trip home had been long, and the food at his school left something to be desired.
The large kitchen was on the ground floor, at the back of the house. It was filled with all sorts of modern state-of-the-art appliances covered in stainless steel. As he pulled open the massive refrigerator, he thought about how his good grades used to be posted, held up by the unusual magnets they had collected over the years. With a sigh, he opened the bin to pull out turkey and fixings to make a sandwich.
As he stood there spreading mayo onto the bread, he peered out the window, past the small potted plants and hanging curtain, and into the backyard. There he could see a large garden shed and a chain-link fence connecting it to the house. These were both new additions since he had last been home a month before. This place was different every time he came back. New additions were always a priority as his parents tried to match the house to their new level of success.
The kitchen seemed to be vast and empty every time he entered the room and it reminded him of the house they lived in before. Every Sunday he’d wake up, and his parents would be making breakfast while on their cell phones talking to the outside world about this job or that. The smell of pancakes or biscuits would always bring him down the stairs and the chirping sound of endless business jargon would send him back up as soon as he was finished. The resentment of this had taken its toll. But at least back then, they were around for meals.
After placing his sandwich on a plate, he climbed the stairs back to his room. He sat there for a while trying to enjoy the food as the TV blared with news and stories about the holiday and coming snowstorm. Ben wasn’t very excited about the prospect of being stuck alone in the house with nowhere to go, but without a driver’s license he didn’t have any options. He looked around his room for something to do, but everything there seemed unappealing at the moment. With the last bite of sandwich devoured, he picked up his cell and scrolled through to the M’s. “Mom” was the first number that came up, but instead of risking her not answering, he turned it off and threw the phone onto the floor in a fit of frustration.
After picking up his dishes, he walked out of his room and down the stairs. He made it to the foyer before he stopped, looked down at his plate, and in a weak act of defiance, placed it on the hall table. He picked up his mother’s letter off the floor, and just as he set it on top of the plate, the floor creaked and moaned and then broke underneath his feet.
“Oh, shit,” Ben said as he fell to the ground. His shin hit hard against the splintered wood, causing pain to race up his leg. It took a few seconds for the sting to subside and a few more for him to regain his composure. With a crack, he pulled his foot from the hole, bringing rotted pieces of floorboard up with it. Anger rose in his throat as all the small moments of his past compounded into one.
“God damn this house!” he yelled, holding his leg.
He hated this house, and this only gave more reason to feel that way. Everything in his life had changed, and this place stood only as a reminder of how unhappy he was. He felt more alone here than he ever had in his entire life. This wasn't a home for him, but rather a simple residence. It was nothing more than an unbecoming place to get mail—not that he ever got mail.
Looking down into the hole, he expected to see the vast expanse of basement. Instead, he looked into a small concrete room that that didn’t appear to have a door. It was almost empty except for a table and some stuff stored in the corners. It looked cramped and dusty, but his curiosity kicked in. With little else to do, the prospect of exploration was enticing. He ran up to his room and returned with a long black flashlight. He clicked it on and shined it into the hole to scan the room under the floor. The beam didn’t reveal a door, but he did see something resting on the table itself. It looked like a large, dusty book. With a slight shift, he migrated the light until something else came into view. There, grasping the book, was a skeletal hand, and attached to that, a corpse, withered to nothing but bone. Ben jumped up and rushed through the kitchen to the basement door with a newfound wonder in his eyes.
This room was an utter mystery to him considering the fact that Charles had shown him around the house. The tour he received when they moved had encompassed the attic, all three floors, and the cellar. There was never any mention of a hidden chamber in the basement. After rushing through the basement door and reaching the bottom of the polished wooden stairs, he surveyed the area, looking for any clue that could help him get into the room. The walls were white and branched out into a maze of hallways connecting to guest rooms that were never used. If it hadn’t been for Charles, most of the corners would be covered in spider webbing and dust.
As he searched, his imagination began to go wild with impossible questions. Why was there a skeleton in his house? How long had it been boarded up, and what was that strange book? This was the most excited he had been in quite awhile. In a single instant, his angst had turned into something more. The possibilities almost took his mind off his parents not being around when he got home, or how much things had changed when they were supposed to stay the same. He tried his best to not think about how excited his dad would have been, helping him look for this hidden treasure. There was a time when this sort of thing would have brought them together.
It only took a few moments for Ben to find a place in the wall that didn’t look right. It had a door-sized spot that upon close examination appeared to be painted an off-white color that didn’t quite match the rest of the wall. It was hidden in a shadowy corner away from the rest of the rooms, under the stairs. He stood there for a moment running his hands up and down the area, trying to figure out a way to get in. It wasn’t long before a single, brilliant idea dawned on him. It was simple, but it could possibly land him in some serious trouble.
The thoughts of any ramifications dissolved into the ether as he ran to the other side of the basement. The door into his father’s workroom hit the wall as he forced it open. Ben stood there for a moment, looking around, examining every inch. Tools of all shapes and sizes hung from the pegboard that lined the walls. His search ended as his eyes rested upon a cherry-red fire ax. Dad, like most men, loved his toys, but never had time to use them. This one in particular was brand new. With a smile on his face, Ben knew he was going to enjoy ruining its nice red finish.
Back at the wall with the secret door, he hesitated, pondering what he was about to do. The ax felt heavy in his hand, but the excitement and the rush won through as he held it.
If Ben had known what this act of defiance would lead to, he wouldn’t have gone through with it. Instead, he would have put the ax back up on the wall and walked away, willing to finish his mediocre evening without protest.
As it was, Ben was clueless. A bus-sized grin gripped his cheeks and he lifted the ax over his head and brought it down against the wall.