The April Selected Writer is Larry Hinkle
Please feel free to email Larry at email@example.com
THE HOUSE IN THE HILL
“Why do we have to live underground?” asked ten-year-old Reed. “The other kids said our house will have worms!”
“That’s silly,” I said, closing the lid on yet another moving box. “Just because our house is built underground doesn’t mean it has worms. Besides, it’s not even totally underground. It’s built into the side of a hill, but the front sunroom is almost all glass, so we can see the plains—”
“We can see planes?” interrupted eight-year-old Gabbie, holding her arms out like wings and running between the stacks of boxes.
“Not airplanes, Gabbie,” I told her. “The plains we’ll see are flatlands.”
When my wife Julie first showed me the listing, I did a little research and learned the nearby plains were once home to a mysterious Native American tribe who’d considered the foothills where our house was built to be sacred ground. Nobody knew much about the tribe, or what happened to them: most historians and archeologists assumed they’d melted into neighboring tribes as unending waves of white people washed over the land.
"The entire structure of the house inside the hill is completely sealed,” I told both kids as I taped the box shut, “just like this box. It’s built with Class Three vapor retardants throughout, and it’s framed with steel beams strengthened with carbon nano-tubes.”
“Daddy, I don’t understand any of that,” said Gabbie.
“Okay, let’s just say it’s really strong. Pretty much impenetrable, actually. And that means no worms can get in.”
“No sunlight, either,” said Bryce, our oldest daughter, who’d been against the move since day one.
We’d had this argument before, but for Reed and Gabbie’s sake, I explained again how the house got varying amounts of sunlight depending on the time of year and angle of the sun through the trees. The original owners had installed recessed lighting in every room, which, together with a half-dozen well-angled mirrors and an array of floor and table lamps, kept the house plenty bright. If necessary, we could always add more lamps, but to Bryce’s point, we were maxed out on natural light, since tunneling through 30-some odd feet of rock and dirt to add a couple skylights was beyond my DIY abilities. In typical teenage fashion, though, Bryce had made the move all about her: between living underground and the lack of natural light, she claimed we were practically forcing her to be a Goth chick.
“Let’s look on the bright side,” I joked, pun definitely intended. “We’ll be living in an actual house, not a cramped apartment like we had before. Everyone will get their own room, and there’ll be nobody else living above, below, or beside us. Just think of it as a big adventure. I’m sure the other kids are just jealous.”
“Yeah, everyone here in civilization is super jealous of our dark, wormy Hobbit house, Dad,” Bryce said before walking out of the room.
We’d been in the house for a few months when things started to get weird.
I heard Gabbie talking to someone, so I stuck my head in her room. She was sitting in front of the TV, which was showing static. “Who are you talking to, Gabbie?” I asked.
“My friends,” she said. “They’re Indians. They live in the ground around our house. It’s just like our old building, ‘cept there’s no Mrs. Rainville and that yucky sauerkraut smell.”
“Well, tell them I said hello, and thanks for not stinking up the house,” I said, then headed off toward the kitchen.
“Who’s Gabbie talking to?” Julie asked from the breakfast bar as I poured myself a cup of coffee.
“Her new ‘friends.’ Evidently, they’re Native Americans who live in the ground around our house.” I added some cream and fake sugar to my cup, then leaned back against the countertop. “Is that weird? Bryce and Reed never had invisible Indian friends. I don’t think they had any invisible friends, period.”
“No, it’s not weird. Some kids have invisible friends, some don’t. It’s totally normal.”
“She mentioned Mrs. Rainville from the old building. You think she misses living in the city?”
“That old lady who smelled like sauerkraut? I doubt Gabbie misses her. I know my sinuses don’t.”
“Yeah, I guess. I just wish she had some real friends,” I said.
“She’ll have plenty next year when she starts school,” Julie said. “Then they’ll all come over here for sleepovers and you’ll miss the invisible, silent ones she has now. You’ll see, it’s just…what the hell?”
Julie was staring at the breakfast bar. “Did you see that?” she asked, looking up at me.
“My apple just rolled across the counter. I went to pick it up and it rolled away. Here, watch.”
She picked the apple up and placed it back in its original spot. A few seconds later, it rolled six inches across the counter. “Do you think there’s something wrong with the house?” Julie asked. “Could it be leaning? It can’t collapse on us, can it?”
This was not good. Bryce was finally accepting the move. She’d even stopped playing our old CDs by The Cure and doing her makeup like Siouxsie Sioux. The last thing I needed was for my wife to start questioning our decision.
“There’s nothing wrong with our house,” I said, reaching down and picking up the apple before it could roll again. “Everything is fine. Gabbie’s even making friends now.”
“Yeah, invisible friends who live in the dirt!”
“You’re the one who said that’s normal.” I took a big bite of apple and smiled.
Strange guttural noises occasionally echoed through the ductwork. I was able to convince the kids that some of the louder pops and bangs were coming from the HVAC system. I had no explanation for what sounded like faraway voices in an unrecognizable language, so I just pretended not to hear them. Small items would disappear, and then reappear a few days later in a different part of the house. And through it all, Gabbie spent more and more time talking to her new friends inside the hill.
One day when I got home from work, the kids were playing Cowboys and Indians in the family room (Gabbie had insisted we get her a toy bow-and-arrow set so she’d fit in with her new friends), and Julie was making dinner. I dropped my briefcase in the office, told the kids to be careful they didn’t put an eye out, went to the kitchen, and grabbed a beer.
As I shut the refrigerator door, something wet and sticky hit me in the side of the head. I looked down and saw one of Gabbie’s rubber arrows, covered in some sort of greenish, viscous goo, land at my feet.
“What the hell was that for?” I asked, wiping what appeared to be runny snot off my ear.
“What was what for?” Julie asked, head down. She was at the counter, working on a batch of her famous meatballs.
“You threw one of the kids’ arrows at me, that’s what! And it’s covered in snot!” I grabbed a paper towel and picked the arrow up off the floor, then held it out so she could see it. “Did I leave the toilet seat up again or commit some other terrible crime against humanity?”
“Yuck!” she said. “Why would I throw a snot-covered arrow at you? And even if I did do it—which I totally didn’t—it would’ve been covered in meat, not snot.”
“Dad!” Reed yelled from the family room.
“Hold on,” I yelled over my shoulder, then turned back to Julie. “You know as well as I do that Gabbie has horrible allergies,” I told her, “so I think I know what snot looks like.”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you,” she huffed. “I didn’t do it, which means it had to be one of the kids.”
“You’re the only one in the kitchen.” I threw it back at her, but I didn’t mean for it to land in the bowl.
“Great, now the meatballs are ruined! Thanks a lot.” She wiped her hands on a towel, and headed for the living room.
I picked the rubber arrow out of the meatballs and threw it in anger. But instead of hitting and sticking to the wall, it disappeared into the wall.
I stood there, slack jawed.
Just then, the fire alarm went off and the ceiling sprinklers turned on, instantly soaking everything. Startled, I looked up at the sprinkler, the water washing down my face. The ceiling seemed to ripple, as if I was at the bottom of a pond looking up when someone skipped a rock across the surface.
I ran into the living room. “Okay, everyone, stay calm!” I shouted over the noise. “Let’s do it just like we practiced. Everyone head outside and we’ll wait for the fire department to get here.”
They all started down to the door, but I wanted to look at the rippling ceiling a second longer. I hoped no one else noticed the movement. “Go on!” I yelled. “I’ll be right there.”
The rippling grew more violent, and wet dirt, rocks and bones suddenly started pouring down into the room. A large, loose skull hit me in the head, my knees buckled, and I fell into the deepening pool of thick, wet mud.
My adrenaline raced as I realized the mistake I had made by hesitating instead of running out of the house.
More bones and packed earth continued to pound my back, threatening to bury me face down in the muck. Struggling against the weight, I managed to get back to my hands and knees. The fall had frightened me so badly I could hear the booming of my heart even over top of the alarm.
I saw Julie at the door. She was pulling on Reed, who was trying to run back into the room to help me.
That gave me a renewed burst of energy, and I stood up, shaking off a layer of sludge and bones. The mud, halfway up my calves by now, sucked at my feet, making each step harder than the last. I managed to stumble a few more steps when a completely intact skeleton fell through the ceiling in front of me. Incredibly, it landed on its feet and stood upright, swaying and shaking but effectively blocking my path toward the door.
Through the skeleton’s ribs, I saw Gabbie squeeze past Julie and Reed and into the hallway. She notched a rubber arrow, pulled back the bow, and shot the skeleton in the back of its head. Her aim was true, the arrow found its mark, and the suction cup stuck, wiggling, to the skeleton’s skull.
It was just a rubber arrow…the skeleton continued to amble towards me as I pulled myself through the mud toward the door.
I put up my fists and got ready to knock the skeleton out of my way, when I tripped over another skeleton buried in the mud. Reaching down to catch my balance, I yanked out one of its arms, which I swung like a bat at the skeleton still standing in front of me, getting closer.
The first hit sent its skull flying toward the kitchen. The second shattered its rib cage.
The third missed completely, but by then the skeleton was so disassembled that what was left tumbled to the floor and was sucked into the mud.
I found the door, and grabbed Julie’s hand as she guided me out into the blessed night.
In the distance, we could hear a siren from the town’s lone fire truck making its way up toward us. I looked back at the front of the house. Through the glass, I could see the sprinklers were still spraying, and the thickening pool of grave mud and bones had spread into the sunroom, pushing up against the windows. It was only a matter of time until the glass would shatter, spilling the contents of our living room into the front yard.
“Julie,” I said, “Gabbie’s friends were real.”
“I know,” she said.
By day, Larry Hinkle is an advertising copywriter living with his wife, two dogs and a cat in the suburbs of San Antonio, Texas. By night, he writes.
Larry’s work has been published in Suspense Magazine, Cemetery Moon, Theme of Absence, 365 Tomorrows, The Drabblecast, The Carnage Conservatory, Sanitarium Magazine, the anthologies Life of the Dead, My Favorite Apocalypse and Another Dimension. He’s also a slush reader for Sanitarium Magazine.
In no particular order, Larry loves beer, zombies, stand-up comedy, cynicism, Diet Coke, root beer, loud music, TV, skiing, camping, dogs, the colors purple, orange and black, horror, proofreaders, the Cleveland Browns, THE Ohio State University, my friends and family, and smart advertising.
He pretty much hates everything else.