The ceiling collapse was the first thing that put a damper in Dave’s day. Michael and Greg’s master bedroom was a disaster. Crumbled drywall and fiberglass insulation covered the room in a damp-smelling blanket. Maybe a leak in the roof? What he knew was that this was going to be an expensive repair.
The second thing that put a damper in Dave’s day was the human bones spilling from a trunk that had fallen through the ceiling when it collapsed. The impact had forced the box open, revealing its ghastly contents. If it had been stored just a few feet over, it might have landed on the mattress and not opened, maintaining its diabolical secret. But, it had fallen through, hit a dresser, busted open, and spread bones all over the floor.
The skull looked up at him from its bed of rotten drywall, pink fiberglass, and ancient gray hair.
Dave still had time to decide if he was going to get mixed up in this or not. The owners weren’t due home for another couple hours and he was done fixing the downstairs toilet. He had been loading up his truck when he heard the crash. He wasn’t the kind of guy to just leave when he heard a commotion like that.
And, now, Dave’s honorable nature put him between the homeowners—by all accounts, friends of his—and calling the police. The house was only twenty years old and Dave had been doing handyman work there nearly that whole time. Michael and Gregory built this house (well, had it built) and lived here since before the doors were on. There was no way in Dave’s admittedly limited imagination that they were unaware of the literal skeleton in their closet.
It was no Halloween decoration, either. Those were real teeth in that skull. It even had a couple of gold crowns.
On the other hand, Dave hated the police. Hated them. He didn’t trust a single one of those peaked-in-high-school, power-abusing, pig-faced, racist bastards. He had never in his life met a cop who wasn’t secretly—or not—a violent, corrupt monster. He had learned early on from his father’s run-ins with the police that they were not to be trusted.
“Davey,” he would say, “them pigs is mean-spirited garbage. You see ’em comin’, you go the other way.”
Dave always had and his life had been better for it. Or, at least, not worse for it.
And the Swanenburgs had always been good to him. Paid him on time, above market rate, gave him a nice gift every Christmas. They were good guys. Good men. Dave found it inconceivable they could have been hiding this body the whole time.
It didn’t make sense.
Yet, standing there, caught in a staring battle he would inevitably lose with a gold-toothed skull draped with remnants of stringy, white hair, Dave couldn’t make up his mind either way. Call the police for something he probably wanted no part of? Or walk downstairs, finish loading his truck, and pretend like nothing happened?
Before he could get to the next part of his internal debate, Dave realized he was locking the toolbox on the back of his truck. Well, decision made, he thought.
Dave was in his shed sharpening his lawnmower’s blade, listening to the morning show on the news radio when his phone rang. It was Michael apologizing for the early call, but requesting he come right over. “Greg and I got home late last night and didn’t want to wake you. The ceiling of the master bedroom’s fallen in. It’s just terrible. Do you think you can come over and have a look?”
Gold teeth and corpse hair flashed through Dave’s mind. “Yeah, sure. Got some appointments, but I can be by later. Anything I need to bring?”
“Just yourself for now. I suspect this will turn into something much larger and more complicated before it’s done.”
“Sure thing. I’ll be by later this afternoon, is that ok?”
“That’s great. We’ll see you then.”
Dave closed his cell phone, opened it back up, and dialed 911. His thumb hovered over the send button for longer than a moment, but shorter than a while. Then he shut his phone again and went back to sharpening. He couldn’t abide a half-finished task. Best to finish this chore and finish it right as there was no telling what was bound to happen later that day.
Anxious about his meeting at the Swanenburg house, Dave stopped at The Percolator, the town’s only non-chain coffee shop. He ordered the same small coffee and plain bagel he did every time he stopped there, but the tingle in his gut that went along with the order was missing. He stood at the counter in a daze, even after the coffee and bagel had been placed in front of him.
“Is everything ok, Dave?” asked Heather. “You seem a little, I don’t know, a little down.” Heather owned the place and if Dave was honest with himself he would have to admit that he didn’t even really like coffee or bagels. His regular trips were to see Heather. She’d owned the shop for years and there was something about the sparkle in her gray eyes that made Dave feel like a man younger than he was. Like, maybe, just maybe, there was still hope for him.
“Nah, just a little preoccupied is all,” he said and trailed off, watching a man with a dog walk in and sit at a high table in the front window. “Heather, can I ask you a question?”
“Course, dear. What is it?”
“You ever found out something bad, and I mean real bad, about someone you respected?”
“What’s this about? Are you in trouble?” she asked, coming around the counter. She took him gently by the arm and pulled him into the back of the coffee shop.
“No, no, nothing like that. But what if you found out a friend had a real dark secret? The kind of secret someone would never tell anyone else?”
“You’re scaring me, David.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to alarm you. Just having some trouble getting through this situation in my head.”
“How about this: I close this place in a few hours and I need to stay to do some paperwork. Why don’t you come back when you’re done with your call and I’ll fix you something you like better than that bagel. We can talk. Sound good?” The silver hair at her temples looked lovely in the soft, blue light coming through the front window.
“That sounds great. I got to stop at the Swanenburgs up on top of the hill. Then I’ll be right around.” He nodded, walked away, realized he had forgotten his coffee, went back for it, nodded to Heather again, and headed out the door before he could embarrass himself in front of her again.
He pulled into the house on top of the hill just before three in the afternoon. Clouds filled the sky, casting a blue pall over the world. Winds whipped up the hill toward the house. His knuckles ached, which meant they were bound for a storm later that day. He would be glad for the rain. The reservoirs were dry and the grasses were starting to look like so much kindling. And a storm would give him an excuse to leave, should he need it.
He was pulling his tool bag from the truck’s bed when Michael popped out of the front door. “David! Hello! So glad you could make it today before this rain starts.”
Dave greeted him and stepped into the house, scanning as subtly as he could manage for any trace of the trunk. But he saw nothing.
Michael led Dave up the stairs with tales of his Roman holiday from which they had just returned. Red wine in this place. Antique books in that place. A gondola ride in Venice. “So you can imagine how distressing it was to come home and see this mess,” and swept his arm over the disaster in their bedroom. Little had changed since Dave had been there the day before, but the broken trunk and the human remains were conspicuously missing.
“This is a real son of a bitch, isn’t it,” Dave said, affecting his most genuine consternation. Where did they move the bones?
“You’re telling me,” said Greg as he entered the room from behind them. “Cookie?” He held out a plate.
“No, no thanks,” Dave said, and then turned to Michael, “what do you think happened?”
“I was hoping you could tell us.”
A corpse fell through the ceiling. “I guess you could’ve had a leak in the roof that caused the ceiling drywall to rot over time. Was there anything heavy in the attic above the bedroom?”
“Only this mess of pink insulation and some holiday decorations. Nothing heavy.”
“Do you mind if I poke my head around up there? Joists look fine. Should be stable enough to walk on.”
“Is it safe?” Greg asked, fresh cookie in his hand.
“Safe as anything,” Dave said with a shrug. And then the power went out.
“What now?” Michael asked to no one. “I guess you should come back tomorrow?”
“Nah, no harm. Got a flashlight in my truck. Still plenty of daylight.” Something felt off, but Dave couldn’t quite articulate what he was feeling. The missing bones were one thing; he had been expecting that. But there was something else tickling at the back of his mind that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. Something ominous. Something wrong.
He walked out of the house and instead of heading to his truck, turned the other direction for the freestanding garage around the side of the house.
Where are those bones?
He pulled open the garage door as quietly as he could. It was one of those old-fashioned ones without a motor. The garage itself was a relic of the previous house that had been on the property, and was many decades older than the house it sat next to. When the original house had burned down, the garage had been left miraculously untouched. And when Michael and Greg had purchased the property to build the house they currently lived in, they had insisted on keeping the garage. Dave never had understood why. They had the means to build something nicer and more modern but they wouldn’t even entertain the idea.
If I was going to hide a skeleton, this is where I’d do it.
The men didn’t store a car in the garage, preferring to leave their automobiles outside. The space was filled with furniture and boxes and other personal knick-knacks. Quite a lot of stuff. There was barely any room to walk through the garage.
Dave started pushing aside boxes, hoping to push his way deeper into the garage. It must be back there somewhere, he thought. They couldn’t have moved it far so quickly. The Swanenburgs didn’t own a vehicle large enough to move the trunk, just a couple of small people-movers. Fuel efficient, but silly looking and lacking in utility.
“Looking for something, David?”
Dave jolted at the voice from the other end of the garage, banging his head on a piece of decorative cookware hanging from a shelf. “Oh, Michael, yeah. I recalled there was a ladder in here. Thought I would grab it.”
“It’s right here by the door.”
“Yeah, yeah of course.” Dave worked his way back to the front of the garage and grabbed the ladder.
Dave placed the ladder in the bedroom in a place where Michael or Greg, didn’t matter who, could stick their head up into the hole in the ceiling and talk without having to yell. Dave was balancing on the ceiling joists that made up the floor of the attic, using his flashlight to inspect corners where water might have intruded.
“See anything?” Michael asked.
“No, no nothing yet.” Dave carefully walked further into the attic toward the gaping hole. Most the attic was floored with plywood, but the area that had fallen in was not. The floored area was stacked with boxes labeled “Christmas” and “Easter” and “Halloween”, but no trunk.
He made his way out over the hole. Definite black mold which indicated the presence of water. Or blood. “You see here,” he said to Michael, “you’ve got this discoloration from where water was coming into the attic but,” and he shone his flashlight up at the ceiling, “I can’t see anything like it up there. I’m not sure where the water was coming in.”
“What a mystery.”
“Yeah, it’s something. I’ll have to come back when the power’s on so I can see better.” Behind him, the attic ladder slammed shut.
“Were you in the house yesterday?”
“Were you in the house yesterday, David?”
Dave pulled back and nearly lost his balance. “Yeah, I was here fixing the toilet. The downstairs toilet. You guys asked me to look at it, right?”
“Oh, yes, how could I have forgotten.”
“Should be working fine.”
“Were you here when this happened?”
“Ok. Why don’t you come down. Gregory and I are pretty worn out. Jet leg, you know.”
Dave walked over to the attic ladder and tried it. Stuck. He called out to Michael that he couldn’t get the ladder open. He tried it again, but nothing happened. Just as panic started to set in, the trap door opened to reveal Greg looking up into the attic.
“Was this giving you a problem? It gets stuck sometimes,” he said. “All fixed.”
Dave climbed down and walked toward the stairs. “Aren’t you forgetting the ladder?” Michael asked.
Dave nodded and grabbed the ladder. He carried it back to the garage. The rain was starting to fall now. Fat, heavy drops. Sparse. Infrequent. But threatening a great deluge to come.
He hung the ladder from the hooks by the garage door. He looked behind him to see if either of the other men had followed him, but they had not.
There must be some likely story to explain all this. Has to be. Your brain is just working overtime, Dave. Everything is all right, he thought. But Dave was a thorough man, and his search earlier had been interrupted. He looked over to the path through the clutter he had cleared earlier. One quick look wouldn’t harm anything, would it? Besides, those guys back in the house wouldn’t come out in the rain.
He pushed his way to the very back of the garage. But he saw nothing. Satisfied he was just imagining things, he turned to exit when the garage door slammed shut enveloping him in darkness.
“Hello?” he called. He turned on his flashlight and shone it around the room. No one there. But then a glint near the floor caught his eye. He sidled toward it and pulled a box back to reveal the lower jaw of the skull from the day before, its gold crowns shining in the flashlight’s glow.
Then something hit Dave from behind and his lights went out.
Heather sat at the window counter staring out into the dark, the tea in her hands long since gone cold.