copyright 2011 Ron Adams
Author's note: We don't usually submit our own fiction for our readers here at MB4, but thanks to my fellow writers, colleagues and friends Aaron. Marta, and Kim, I am pleased to offer this tribute to Edgar Allan Poe in honor of Halloween Week. Please feel free to leave a comment, good or bad. Who knows, there may be a copy of Key Lime Squeeze in it for you!
Sweat trickled down Charlie Murphy’s forehead as he dumped the dry mortar mix into the old steel mixing tub. Countless batches of mortar mix had been created in the ancient blue tank, scarred with dried mortar and dents, and this was just another dirty job. The dust clung to his face and arms as he reached for the hose hissing at his feet. He opened the sprayer to a light shower and added just enough to the mix. A flat spade shovel leaned against the half- built brick wall, and Charlie grabbed it with hands, working the water into the mix. His arms ached, his shoulders knotted with the days efforts. He figured this would be the last batch he’d have to make for this job. He was almost done.
A single bare hundred watt bulb illuminated the darkness in the corner of the basement. It was a little too bright, and if he wasn’t careful the light burned his eyes when he looked up toward his job. It cast long shadows into the corners, and past the wall he was building was as black as pitch. For a basement, the heat was almost stifling. Charlie couldn’t tell if it was the temperature of the room or the body heat he was throwing off, and didn’t care. He would be glad to get this done and get back upstairs to a cold beer and a shower.
He took his trowel and loaded it up with mortar, spreading a thick coat on the top of the bricks on the last course. His hands were rough and calloused from carrying loads of the red bricks down there, pressing them into place and making sure to clean the excess mortar between them. He had a bucket of water to clean his hands when the cement would cake on them, but mostly he stuck to his task. There was still the rest of the house to finish, once this particular job was complete.
Charlie bought this house just after the divorce. He never knew what hit him, until a server handed him the papers. The next thing he knew he was out of the house he shared with his wife of ten years and in divorce court. The entire process was swift, sudden and devastating. He came home one night after pulling a double to find her in bed with another man. They didn’t even try to hide, and the man brazenly brushed his shoulder as he left. They fought, for a time, but there was no use in fighting. He couldn’t live at that house; the past two years he was hardly there anyway, what with his schedule at work and overtime. He had to get away, and was only at his old house long enough to allow him time to find this country house out in Freedom. The irony of the name struck him sometimes. But in the end that’s truly what he had.
The old farmhouse needed some work, but Charlie could do most things himself. Nineteen acres of land surrounded the new home, giving him plenty privacy. Most of his neighbors had similar spreads, so he had a fair distance between the nearest ones. He lived most of his life in the city, on what amounted to a postage stamp’s worth of land, so this was a very welcome change. The air was fresh and clean, and he could enjoy a little privacy. He wouldn’t have to listen to the sirens and the noise from the neighbors. It was a good place for a new start.
The basement was the first project he had to do before he could finish the upstairs. The old couple that had this farm house before him saw fit to put in a large root cellar, an earthen pantry cut into the back basement wall, perfect for storing potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, whatever. But Charlie had no desire for the dank smell that permeated the basement, so the first thing he did was to finish building a cement block wall across the back and sides, effectively creating an alcove. He hated to lose the extra storage space he created by putting up this brick front, but it had to be done. He had the wall almost halfway built, when he realized he hadn’t eaten since last night. Good time to grab something, he figured, and ran his hands under the hose before ascending the stairs. Each step on the old wooden staircase shook and creaked, and some of the steps needed to be replaced before they rotted away. He would have to get to those soon.
The kitchen was bare save for a countertop with a boom-box style radio and the old Kenmore refrigerator. There was a pump bottle of hand sanitizer by the sink, and he used it to clean his hands before making a sandwich. The clean smell of the sanitizer liquid was a welcome change from the air in the basement. He grabbed a piece of cold fried chicken from the night before out of the fridge, and a bottle of Coors Light beer to wash it down. Charlie flipped on the radio to the local classic rock station, where Eric Clapton wailed on the guitar. He pulled at the breaded chicken breast, tearing a piece off before chewing it.
He took a long swallow off his beer, and leaned wearily against the counter. He had been working non-stop all night, and now it was almost noon. While he was working along, he felt fine. Once he stopped, once he rested a moment, he could feel the weight of his effort pressing down on him. He felt the exhaustion, wanting to lie on the couch for an hour. Then the need to get back to work, to finish what he started took over.
At the top of the stairs he could hear a groan coming from the bottom. He stopped, waiting to make sure of what he heard, then flipped the light switch. The bottom of the staircase was illuminated in that stark white light he had been laboring in all night.
“Who’s there?” a voice called. It sounded like a man’s voice, but weak, smaller somehow.
Charlie proceeded down the stairs and back to the wall he was building. The voice called out again.“Hello? Is anyone out there?”
“Hey, you’re awake,” Charlie called back.
“Charlie? Murphy? Is that you?”
“Why is it you smart lawyers only ask questions you already know the answers to?” Charlie replied. He added a small amount of water to his mortar mix, and used the trowel to get the cement back the way he could work with it. Satisfied, he grabbed enough bricks for three more rows and brought them over to the wall and started the next course.
“Charlie!” the man screamed. “Let me outta here, for Chrissakes!”
“Larry,” Charlie responded, “I’m glad you’re awake. I was starting to get lonely down here with no one to talk to.”
“What the hell is going on?” Larry demanded.
“Again, you know the answer to that one, too, Councilor.”
“So help me God, Charlie, I am going to…” Larry lunged forward and felt the cord around his neck tighten. He choked, and reached forward and found his arms similarly bound and connected to the concrete block wall behind him. He glared toward the opening in front of him, and found it narrowing.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked his captor.
Charlie worked quietly, continuing to add row after row of brick. “Do you remember when you and Mary Lou got caught naked in our bed, Larry? Remember how you told me you wanted to spend the rest of your life with her?”
“Yeah. But c’mon, Charlie, your marriage was pretty much over before then. You know it. Mary Lou deserved better than an out of work construction worker and part-time handyman. I could give her things you couldn’t.”
Charlie kept working steadily, only three more rows to go. He left one brick out of the row he was working on, and built right over the top of the whole.“So what, are you trying to scare me, Charlie? Are you so deluded to think the Mary Lou would ever want to come back to a loser like you? Well, I’m not scared, Charlie!”
“I wouldn’t try to scare you, Larry. I know you’re much too smart for that, you’d never fall for some scare tactic.” Charlie continued working on the row he was on. “Besides, you’re a lawyer. I could get in serious trouble if I harmed a lawyer. Heck, you might even sue me or something,” he smiled.
“Goddamn right, pal! Now get me outta here!”
“Were you screwing Mary Lou before or after you were her attorney? Because, if it was after, let me tell you she wasn’t the only one you screwed.” Charlie kept working, mortar then brick. The opening was getting smaller. He was thinking about the weeks he planned for this. They were never very good at being discreet, so following them a distance was child’s play. When they stopped at the Glen Rose Inn, he took the opportunity to disable the lawyer’s Mercedes Benz with a stiletto to the sidewalls of his right side tires. When the happy couple found themselves not only without a ride but without cell phone service to call for help, who should happen by but poor old Charlie?
Larry and Mary Lou knew he had moved out to the sticks after the divorce, so running into him with an offer of a ride was nothing more than a happy coincidence. Larry seemed a bit standoffish, and Mary Lou was as embarrassed as she was humiliated to see Charlie one more time. He kept to the high road, insisting there were no hard feelings. The sky began to open up, and a cold, hard rain chilled them as they mulled the decision. Charlie shrugged his shoulders, and slid behind the wheel. He turned the key, and immediately heard the couple rapping on the passenger door as they pleaded for his help. Once they climbed in his car, Charlie was again in charge of his life.
“You mean this is about the settlement?” Larry shouted. “Come on Charlie, you know she was entitled to everything she got. You shoulda had a better lawyer.”“I have one now.”“That’s not funny, you smug ....." Larry screamed. “You can’t do this to me!”
Being a proper host and an overall good-guy, he offered to let the couple use his phone to call for a tow truck. He even offered the two a drink, to prove there were no hard feelings. Mary Lou complained at first of feeling sick, and passed out on the kitchen floor. Larry was on the phone with the automobile club when he heard her drop, and spun around to see what happened. The combination of movement and valium in his beer caused him to fall, striking his head on the old farm house table on the way down. That was several hours ago, and Charlie was surprised at the weight of the two of them as he brought them down the stairs to his basement. Good thing I’ve been working out with those damned bricks, Charlie thought as he chained Mary Lou to the back wall, with Larry right beside her.
“You see, the thing is,” Charlie replied, “I am doing it to you. You and Mary Lou made it easy for me. I knew when you stopped in that bar outside of town. Were you two coming out here to gloat? Were you coming out to see how far I sank after you took everything from me? Oh I sank alright, right down to this basement. Do you like what I’ve done with the place?”
Charlie stepped away from the closing hole in the wall long enough to load his trowel. He brought a half a dozen bricks back to the wall, and looked in at Larry. From his point of view, Larry could only see half of Charlie’s head through the opening. Charlie smiled as he looked at his work. “Geez, Larry. You don’t look to good. In fact, I’d say you look like somebody spiked your drink and dragged you into a basement.”
“You’ve finally snapped! You’ve lost it! You can’t leave me here to die all alone!” Larry was panicking, realizing he was never again getting out of his newly constructed tomb.
“You know, Lar, that’s the first thing you and I agree on,” Charlie said, leaving one last brick out of the wall. He took a flashlight and shined it on the floor of the crypt. Illuminated was the body of his ex-wife, her lifeless form on the dirt floor just inches away from her lover.“I built this with room for two. After all, I’m just granting you your wish. Now you can spend the rest of your life with her.”
“Charlie!” he cried in despair.“Have a nice life, Larry. Enjoy your company.”
Charlie slid the last brick into place, muffling the cries of the doomed lawyer. The only sound he could hear was the radio upstairs, the haunting sounds of an old Pink Floyd song drifting down from above. He climbed the rickety stairs, and never heard the cracking of the step two- thirds of the way up.
He lost his footing and fell through the risers, twisting backwards as he fell to the floor. He landed on the side and back of his head, his neck making a sickening snap and crunch. He immediately loss all sensation and movement in his arms and legs. His head throbbed, and he tried to will himself to his feet. His body would not respond.
Charlie tried to move his head to look around at where he was The only movement he had was his eyes, which could scan just the half of the basement he had been working on. He was within feet of the only other person who could help, and Charlie made sure he couldn’t help.
Laying in the dirt and dust, he felt his breath becoming more ragged. He couldn’t cry out. Nobody would hear him. All he could do is stare at the wall, and listen to the radio. He was getting short of breath, no longer able to draw air in deep. As he started to black out, Charlie heard pounding coming from the back corner of the basement, and the final refrain of the song from the radio upstairs.
“All in all you’re just another brick in the wall…”