The Trophy Exchange: Chapter 1
Eight-year-old Charley Spencer bounded up the broad white steps of the porch of her curlicue-embellished Victorian home. She pushed open the heavy front door then turned back to the street and waved goodbye to her best friend Becca and her mother as they drove away from the curb.
She pushed the door closed and hollered, ‘Mo-oo-om, Ru-uu-bee.’ The smell of fresh baked cookies made her smile. She dropped her knapsack by the foot of the elegant, curved wooden stairway that led to the second floor.
The tantalizing smell drew her into the kitchen with the single-minded intensity of a dog to sizzling bacon. On the counter beside the oven, a baking sheet sat half-full of sagging but still rounded globs of cookie dough. On the island, a dozen chocolate chip cookies covered the cooling rack. She snatched one and sank her teeth in – just the way she liked them, crunchy on the edges, gooey in the middle and sweet enough to break a heart.
She gobbled the cookie up in record speed then grabbed another one. The second one she would savor, taking tiny bites letting the chocolate soften and ooze across her tongue and allowing each little crunch of walnut to release a separate burst of flavor.
She munched on the cookie as she went back into the hallway. She spewed cookie crumbs into the air as she shouted out again, ‘Mo-oo-om, Ru-uu-bee.’ She wiped her lips with the back of her hand as she climbed the stairway to the second floor. She called out for her mother and sister again as she entered Ruby’s bedroom. No one there. She looked in her own bedroom. Nope, not there. Then she headed to the master bedroom suite. It used to be two bedrooms but that was one of the things her parents had changed in the large, old house, taking out a wall and adding a walk-in closet and a huge master bath.
She saw no one in the bedroom. Poked her head into the bathroom and no one was there either. She walked into the closet and went to the back corner where a cubbyhole jutted off with more storage. Unease creased her brow and turned the cookie crumbs in her mouth into irritating pebbles. Then, she heard footsteps downstairs and grinned as she rushed down to the first floor. On the bottom landing, she jerked to a sudden stop. The front door was hanging wide open.
She sucked in a deep breath. I closed that door when I came in. I know I did, she thought. She expelled air in her lungs and headed over to the door to see if Mom and Ruby were on the front porch looking for her to come home. She saw nothing but the steps, the intricate white railings and a very still green porch swing.
She stepped back into the house, pushed the door shut with both hands, then turned around and pushed against it with her back for good measure. That’s when she noticed the door under the stairs was wide open, too. The door to the basement. Charley hated the basement. She didn’t like going into the finished area where concrete covered the floor of the laundry room and a washer, dryer and laundry tub stood ready for duty. Even worse was the unfinished part of the cellar with its dirt floor and spiderwebs. Just thinking about that part of the basement suffused her senses with primordial dread.
That was why she was uncomfortable in the brightly lit laundry room. Whenever she was there she was consumed by a painful awareness that the dark, musty underworld of the house lay just beyond the door. She imagined a realm ruled by legions of rats. She’d never actually seen one but her fantasy contained creatures with shiny demon eyes, fang-like teeth, thick, long, whip-like tails and claws capable of shredding flesh from bones in seconds flat.
She stood at the top of the open wood plank stairs and trembled. ‘Mom? Ruby?’ Her voice quavered. She heard a small whimper and forced a foot down one step. ‘Mom? Ruby?’ The words formed a lump in her throat as they escaped from her mouth. She took another step. ‘Mom? Ruby? Mom?’
She smelled the musty odor that reminded her of dark dreams and forbidden places. In the bottom corner of the stairway, she saw a brown six-legged predator dangling from the ceiling on a silken thread. It swung in small arcs in the draft caused by the open door. She shivered in revulsion. Goosebumps raced up and down her arms and legs.
She heard a sloppy wet sound that made her want to turn, run up the stairs, slam the door, hide under her bed. She breathed in deeply and exhaled hard. The calming breath jogged a familiar memory. The sloppy noise seemed the same as the sound Ruby made when she sucked her thumb. But Ruby hadn’t sucked her thumb since before last summer. ‘Mom? Ruby?’
She took another step and bent over. She peered through the banister to the basement below. She saw Ruby sitting on the floor, a thumb in her mouth. The fingers of her other hand were tangled in her hair twisting with quiet desperation. ‘Ruby!’ Charley shouted.
Ruby scooted back on her rump snuggling closer to the lump on the floor. The lump was their mother. Charley screamed. Ruby cringed and sucked on her thumb at a more furious pace.
Their mother was stretched out flat on the cold, hard slab. A concrete block rested flat on her face. Her arms were sprawled at angles from her sides as if she was caught in the act of making angels in the snow. Ruby pushed back farther into the triangle formed between her mother’s arm and her torso.
The rats fled from Charley’s mind. The real horror exceeded the capacity of her imagination and was right before her eyes. She raced down the remaining stairs. ‘Mom? Mom? Mom? Ruby? Ruby? What happened, Ruby?’
Ruby’s eyes widened, her black pupils swallowing her dark brown irises. She whimpered while she sucked her thumb. Charley knelt by her mother’s side. She touched her arm. It was still warm. But her chest did not move – no rise, no fall. She laid her ear below her mother’s breast listening for the sound of her heart beat. How many times had she said, ‘I hear your heartbeat, Mama’? How many times did her mother say, ‘It beats for you, Charley’. But now, it did not beat at all.
With both hands, Charley pushed on the concrete block, shoving it off her mother’s face and on to the floor. Where her mother’s face should have been, Charley saw a gory mass of shredded flesh and shattered bone. Charley’s hand flew to her mouth and she scrambled to her feet. At the laundry sink, she rose up on her toes, leaned over and heaved up the birthday cake and ice cream she had eaten just a short time before. She grabbed the old frayed washcloth that hung over the faucet. She turned on the water, wet the cloth and wiped her face with shaking hands.
She looked back at Ruby who had not yet turned and glimpsed the ravaged visage that used to host the warmth of their mother’s smile. She stepped in front of the three-year-old and stuck her hand out to her sister. ‘Ruby, come on.’
Ruby snuggled up closer to her mother and shook her head. Charley sucked in a straggly breath and kneeled in front of Ruby with outstretched arms. ‘C’mon, Ruby.’ Still Ruby would not come to her.
Charley slid her hands under Ruby’s arms and pulled her up. Her legs staggered under the weight of her three-year-old sister. She pressed Ruby’s face to her chest to keep her from seeing their mother’s face when she turned around and headed for the stairs.
Ruby wriggled to get free. When she failed, her thumb flew out of her mouth and she wailed. Her high-pitched squeal pierced Charley’s ears but she still held Ruby tight.
‘Ssssh. Sshhh, Ruby,’ Charley whispered as she patted Ruby’s back. She wanted to set her sister down and let her walk up the steps under her own power, but she feared if she did, Ruby would race back to her mother and see the carnage that was etched forever in Charley’s own mind. She held tight to her squirming burden and climbed, one shaky step at a time up to the top of the stairs.
She set Ruby down in the hallway. She shut the door. She turned the skeleton key in the lock. She slid the key into her pocket. Ruby hung on the doorknob with both hands. She rocked back and forth trying to force the door open. Whimpering. Sobbing. Shrieking.
Charley picked up the phone and pressed 9-1-1.
‘9-1-1. Where is your emergency?’
‘I’m at home,’ Charley whispered.
‘You have to speak up. Where is your emergency?’
‘I’m at home.’
‘Where’s your home?’
‘457 Cross Street.’
‘What is your emergency?’
‘What’s wrong with your mother?’
‘Someone hurt her.’
‘Can she come to the phone?’
‘No. No,’ Charley sobbed. ‘She can’t come anywhere.’
‘Is the person who hurt your mother still in the house?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Are you alone with your mother?’
‘Yes. No. I mean, my little sister Ruby is here. Somebody needs to help my mom. Please help.’
‘The police and an ambulance are on their way. What’s your name?’
‘How old are you, Charley?’
‘Do you know any of your neighbors?
‘Is there one that is safe? That your mom says is safe?’
‘Can you take your little sister and go there, now?’
‘You need to get out of the house right now and go straight to your neighbor’s house. OK?’
Charley dropped the phone on the floor and grabbed one of Ruby’s hands off the doorknob to the basement and pulled. Ruby clung tight with the other hand. Charley jerked it loose and dragged her kicking, screaming sister to the front door. She could still hear the sound of the dispatcher’s tinny voice coming out of the discarded telephone but could not understand a word she said.
Out on the porch, Ruby went limp. She hung like a dead weight from Charley’s hand. Charley hoisted Ruby up on her small hip and hurried down the front steps with her sister in tow. She wanted to do as she was told and escape to a neighbor’s house, but she was afraid to leave the yard – afraid to open the gate and step out on to the sidewalk. She coaxed her sister to the side of the porch. Around its base, three-foot-high lattice work covered a storage area for the lawn mower and garden tools.
Ruby’s thumb was back in her mouth but even with that obstruction, she was able to rub her dripping nose on her older sister’s shoulder. Charley hid her repulsion, stifled her scold and moved to the door in the lattice. She sat Ruby down on the ground. On her knees, she reached inside the under-porch and pushed on the lawn mower frame driving the machine deeper into the speckled darkness. She picked up Ruby again. She stooped over and pushed down on the back of Ruby’s head to clear the opening. She pulled the door shut behind them.
Charley sat down in the dirt with Ruby in her arms. She rocked back and forth as much to comfort herself as to quiet her sister. She put her lips up to Ruby’s ear and whispered a song, ‘Hush, little Ruby, don’t you cry. Charley’s gonna buy you an apple pie.’
While they huddled under the porch, Charley listened for the sounds of sirens. She imagined them several times before their clarion call was clear. Across the neighborhood, faces inside houses peered from windows, those outside turned their ears to the sky. All counted their blessings – except for two little girls in the dark.