Robb T. White

The July Featured Writer is Robb T. White

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by Robb T. White

They put hoarders on TV nowadays. Relatives weep and whine over their disturbed relative’s mental condition and schedule interventions. When I was young, people didn’t; you minded your own business. Hoarders lived out of sight, even in their own neighborhoods.

Ours was called “Mrs. Lukes” because we didn’t know how to pronounce the faded name stenciled on her beat-up mailbox out front: Lukačs. None of us kids had ever spoken to her. If the yellowed sheers over her front window were ever open, it was an event to be mentioned.  

Our house was cattycorner to hers on Franklin, and I often walked past it on my way to the corner store. Years of neglect and weather had blown off any remnant of color.

I had a view of her soot-blackened garage from my upstairs bedroom window. In summer, my bedroom was a blast furnace, I couldn’t sleep. I sat up in bed one July night, looking out the window, groggy from the heat, and noticed a flickering beam. It swept back and forth, as if being carried low in the hand by someone heading toward the Mrs. Lukes’ garage. I was completely awake and curious when that same beam swept the path back to the rear of her house.

I told Johnny O the next day, mostly for the attention I knew it would bring. He and I were alone that morning sitting on the curb across the street. “My mother said Old Lady Lukes keeps newspapers from the Civil War inside the garage,” Johnny said.

We hadn’t realized that the twins were behind us. “That so, Rifleman?” Arnie mocked. “This shithole town wasn’t even born until nineteen-oh-two.”

“My mom says she keeps—”

“I don’t care what your mother says, Mama’s Boy,” Mikko said.

“Yeah,” Arnie said.  “You two faggots shut up; you make me sick.”

I wasn’t a hundred-percent sure what “faggot” meant, although I must have heard it often enough in that free-wheeling era before online bullying and political correctness. But if it came from a Joikiniemi’s mouth, it was obscene.

The early-morning temperature was already making everyone perspire. “There’s money inside her garage,” I piped up. “Silver . . .”—I choked on the word—“coins.”

The twins’ heads slowly swiveled toward me as if attached to a single wire.

“What did you say, you little creep?” Arnie demanded.

“What was that he said, him, little shit-for-brains?” Mikko doubling up his twin.

“Treas—treasure,” I said, almost gagging on the word.  I didn’t have enough spit in my mouth and my brain was ratcheting to keep up with the lie.

“Say it again,” Arnie insisted and took a step toward me.

“Bags of it,” I coughed out. “That’s what Doug Gollard said.”

Dougie Gollard was fifteen and lived across the street from Mrs. Lukes with his older brother. I’d square it with him later if the twins confronted him. But right then, it was emergency time.  I hoped my face wasn’t blushing.

Lying was difficult for me. I had visions of hell from the teaching nuns at our school who were downright eloquent on the torments hell inflicted on sinners, even children. Clocks that ticked:  You’ll never get out, you’ll never get out . . .

As I caught my breath, my brain stopped its gerbil-like squirming, and I found it easier to embellish the lie, which was merely rumors I’d heard ever since my family had moved into the big green house on the corner of Walnut and Franklin.

“That settles it—” Mikko began.

“—we’re breaking in,” Arnie said, finishing his brother’s thought.

They told us exactly where and when to meet them that night; they left Johnny and me in the street contemplating our orders—and the threats they added if we failed in any of the particulars. 
“Oh, shit from Shinola,” I remember saying—a rare excursion into profanity—and a misapplied borrowing of my mother’s expression for stupid people.

I looked at Johnny who, for once, was speechless. He’d been thumped around by one or both twins in the past, rough-housing, but disobeying a Joikiniemi in this circumstance was tantamount to desertion in war time. My stomach felt queasy.

All I remember from that point on until nightfall was killing time alone in the brutal heat. My garage was designated the “staging area” for the forthcoming break-in because it was just a few dozen yards away from Mrs. Lukes’ garage.

The trick was to get out of my house. But that night, my parents made it easy.

Being Sunday, and a long-established, all-day drinking day for both, getting out at that late hour without being seen was no challenge. I merely had to walk down the steps avoiding the places where the boards creaked loudest and grip the door knob in both hands, turn it, open the door, and walk out. The slurred speech and familiar noises from the kitchen ensured my invisibility. Nothing short of a jet engine falling through the roof would have caught their attention.

I walked beside the house avoiding the rose bushes and ducking below the two bright kitchen windows. Once in my garage, I went to the place where the two-by-fours were stacked and pulled the gear I’d hidden that afternoon. I took off my white tee-shirt, folded it into a bag and zipped up a black nylon windbreaker despite the heat. My Levi’s were dark enough, and I’d taken the precaution on blacking out the white Keds’ circle on the sides of my high-top sneakers with an ink pen. A black skullcap and a flashlight from the basement rounded out my criminal ensemble.

A nearby tin pail provided a seat until the others arrived. Minutes ticked by. Johnny lived three houses over across the street. I could hear my parents’ voices rising and falling from inside the house in the all-too-familiar sing-song of verbal jousting. I never understood what they argued about. It was one of those mysteries I would never resolve.

Mikko and Arnie interrupted my reverie. They slipped inside the man door giggling like schoolgirls. They wore one-piece coveralls like garage mechanics, but the camouflage paint smeared across their cheeks gave them a sinister appearance. I knew in that moment we weren’t playing games. Arnie was gleeful, expressing something about the darkness of that night perfect for “busting in and stealing that old lady’s stuff.”

Mikko stared at me. “Whe-e-e-re’s Johnny?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t seen him since this afternoon.”

“That’s it,” Mikko fumed, “the little shit loses his share.”

“He’ll lose more than that if he says one word to anybody,” Arnie said.

He grabbed me by the front of my windbreaker and drew me up to his face. “You make sure he understands that, okay?”

“Okay,” I mumbled.

“Give him some paint,” Mikko said, “before he wets his pants.”

Arnie held out a tobacco tin that contained black grease. I dipped my fingertips into the goo and rubbed it over the bridge of my nose and around my cheeks. My face was already greasy with perspiration and I itched in a dozen places.

I led the way, our flashlights off, unneeded because the corner streetlight shed an upside-down pyramid of yellow lights onto the street. Otherwise the blanketing dark with only a sliver of moon appearing between ragged clouds was, as Arnie said, perfect for the crime I had unintentionally inspired. 

Mrs. Lukes’ was dark as it was every night. We used the hedges from her neighbors’ side to skirt the light from the street and hide us as we headed to the backyard. Soon, the uncut grass in back was smothered in dock weed and briars and reached to my waist. 

Mikko used his light to find the path that went from the back porch to the garage, and we followed it in single file, me stuck between the twins.

“Shee-yit, it ain’t even locked,” Arnie said.

He seemed disappointed. He carried bolt cutters and a pry bar secured to his belt by loops. We stepped inside, and I almost tripped over Arnie’s boot.

“Je-sus Christ,” Mikko whispered. “Look at all this shit.”

“God damn,” Arnie mumbled. “It smells like shit, too.”

A pungent odor clotted my nostrils. The stench of too much stuff hidden from sunlight too long—and something else on top of that, a hideous feral odor, a stench I’d never experienced before. We’d poked plenty of decomposing, flyblown carcasses of rotting fish and dead rats among the marshes. This was powerful in the same way but different.

We remained in single file because no one could move so much as an arm in any direction without touching something.

Johnny’s mom was right about the newspapers: stacks of them in wobbly columns higher than our heads. Cardboard boxes of all sizes heaped one atop the other as high as the rafters—like being in a jungle unable to see above the canopy—except that the foliage here was all made by human beings.

I sneezed from the dust and received a cuff to the ear, another cuff when I couldn’t get my flashlight to work. Our beams crisscrossed the contents of that garage, up and down, probing, sweeping from floor to ceiling, looping or lingering over some distant object stacked or resting on some pile of—what?  Rummage-sale junk?  Priceless antiques?

We were amazed at the sheer amount of stuff. Some of the boxes had writing in a foreign language. Arnie flicked his cigarette lighter all around but nothing made sense.

Arnie pulled down one box and discovered books with gilt binding and fancy lettering. Mikko pulled one out and exclaimed, “Holy shit, Nazis!”

My beam picked out the author and title on the spine: Rudyard Kipling’s Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories. The swastikas around the border were decorative. The publishing date was 1901, a time long before Nazis appropriated the Sanskrit symbol for their own purposes. The discovery seemed to set Mikko off; he began ransacking more boxes and bulled his way deeper into the interior, shoving teetering columns aside until they collapsed against one another like dominoes.

I thought of Samson bringing down the temple. More stacks collapsed and fell into others. He started laughing hysterically. Some boxes contained fragile items because we heard glass breaking. With a sweep of his arm, he brought down a whole stack of boxes containing pottery; ceramics exploded on the floor and shards flew everywhere. Our flashlights caught the millions of dust motes blooming in shafts of light. I erupted in a fit of sneezing.

Arnie shoved me aside so hard I fell against a box and something sharp raked my side as I went down.

“Mikko, damn you!” Arnie loudly whispered at his crazed brother who was still enthralled by the din and chaos he was creating, smashing about like a whirling dervish. “Stop making so much noise!”

My hand touched something metallic—Arnie’s lighter. It must have fallen. I grabbed it and stood up.

I don’t recall Mikko saying anything, but I remember hearing a voice. Not a human voice but a voice all the same. I don’t remember what the voice said or the words—or even whether or not  the words were in English. I just remember the tone: anger.

Then a crashing noise, a low growl. Animal? No…

Then screams. Mikko’s first, in agony, and then his brother’s in panic, two brothers screaming the other’s name.

I felt that sudden jolt in the belly adrenalin provides to us in danger. I stumbled, fell, collided, and groped my way backward from that hideous sound and the screams of the twins. Whatever danger Mikko and Arnie were in, they were on their own.

I ran for the door.

Sounds broke through my tunnel vision like the sound a generator makes when starting up, a crackling, electric sound on top of that. My legs churned through the debris all around and in front of me, my feet slipping, my body crashing into objects I could not see. Mikko’s mess disoriented me and the path back to the door was lost in the heaps of clutter on the floor. My flashlight was useless. I had no time to stop, probe my surroundings.

I slammed full-tilt into the garage wall, and my head bounced off something rubbery like a coiled garden hose. No, not a hose! The coil seemed to have metallic scales that raked my face and drew blood. 

I back-pedaled, fell against another column of newspapers, and tumbled backwards. I scrambled to my feet and careened off in another direction. 

My forearms and hands were fenders against the boxes that seemed to be tumbling at me instead of me colliding into them; sobs erupted from my throat. I was disoriented and fear paralyzed me. I’d lost my bearings in this crazy house maze and I wasn’t anywhere near the place where we’d entered. My fingertips were cut from sharp objects that reached out of the blackness to stick me, yet I couldn’t stop trying to feel my way to the door. 

And suddenly my brain caught up with my body. The insctinct for self-preservation took over. I found a niche amid an igloo-shaped pile of spilled junk and crawled inside it. I stopped gasping for air—and listened. I tried to control my breathing, to quiet it down, to hide from the creature.

My eyes adjusted to the dark well enough to allow me to discern an outline moving around in the blackness.

Something big. Very big. And not stumbling but for all its size, but gliding. A man, my brain said. But not a man. No human being could move like that.

From my hiding spot, I figured it to be over seven feet in height. A series of throbs or grunts were followed by a clicking noise—three clicks in rapid succession like the dry-firing of a pistol.
Arnie’s lighter. I’d dropped it behind me.

A tiny burst of flame in that impenetrable blackness seemed like the grand finale of a fireworks display, all the light left in the world. Popping spears of red-blue-yellow and then a tiny orange spiral that floated like a flaming butterfly. It fluttered for the merest instant near the face, or what had to be the face, of the large thing holding it aloft. It was no human face.

In that moment hunched in the pitch black, I knew the Joikiniemi twins were dead. I also knew the thing holding the lighter was searching for me.

Then a rectangle formed itself, a paler black against the deeper black. A voice spoke from outside the rectangle in a language I had never heard; it was part music, flutey like the triple notes of a mourning dove.

The thing responded to the voice in squeaks that belied its immense size. It lumbered into the rectangle, blocking my view. I realized the doorway was just a few feet from where I hid. I was ten feet away from it. The musical voice spoke again to the thing in a mix of sharps and flats. 

A small figure appeared in the halo of light from Arnie’s lighter, Mrs. Lukes. It had to be her. More words were exchanged; the lighter snapped shut, flipped in the air and fell within reach of my hand. I scooped it up.

Before the gliding thing could come for it and discover me, I grabbed one of the newspapers and twisted it to make a torch. One snap of the lighter and the desiccated paper exploded in flames. I burst from my hiding spot as if I’d been launched from a track starter’s block, my fiery torch aimed for the doorways.

I flew past the smaller figure, felt a hand grab at my back snatch most of the windbreaker off. My legs were pumping; I could hear someone sobbing and then realized it was me.

In the yard, I wheeled and aimed my body like a missile in the direction of my house. I plowed through the weeds. A twig lashed one eye shut just as I cleared the row of hedges. Back on the street, I slipped on the bricks and nearly slammed head first into the curb. I just managed to lift my head in time to let my chin take the brunt of the damage.

My parents were still arguing when I staggered inside the house. My knees trembled all the way up the stairs. I had to pull myself along the banister a step at a time. I nearly vomited on the landing at the top from my wounds and the adrenalin rush leeching from my bloodstream.

Sick at heart, still in shock, I fell asleep on my bed in my clothes. I was too exhausted to pull the remaining shreds of my windbreaker free.

In the morning, I woke with a high fever. The marks on my back had become infected and I had to get several doses of penicillin as well as blood transfusions to save my life. I spent nine days in the hospital. To this day, I have ten grooves, claw marks, of leprosy-white skin on my back to remind me of that night.

When I was released from the hospital, I saw that Mrs. Lukes’ garage had burned to the ground and been bulldozed flat.

“What happened?” I asked my father.

“A fire,” my father said, turning the corner of Franklin. “Doug Gollard’s brother spent three days cleaning up the lot. He borrowed a backhoe from the city. He got fired over it.”

My parents were still annoyed with me because my story of my injury made no sense. I blamed it on rusty nails from a fort.

Johnny came to visit. He told me rumors were going around claiming the twins had hitchhiked to California or stowed away on a saltwater ship berthed at the Pinney docks.

“Them guys, they always said they wanted to go live in Finland someday,” Johnny said.

I stared at him. “They’re not in friggin’ Finland,” I said, the first time I’d ever even come close to the f-word.

“I just said, man, cool it,” Johnny replied.

“And what about Mrs. Lukes? She just disappears along with them to Europe?”

I read back issues of our paper. Firefighters said nothing about finding charred bones, but they did suspect arson. I talked to Dougie Gollard; all he did was whine about being “gypped” out of two days’ pay by his brother Rusty for helping him—“and all because the guy who hired my stupid brother paid for only the one day.”

“Who? What guy?”

“Rusty didn’t know him,” he replied. “This jerk, he knocks on our door the day after the fire and says he’ll give Rusty a hundred smackers to clean up the place.”

The man he described was weird: short, talked like someone trying to sound like a teenager but didn’t get the slang right. He wore a striped suitcoat jacket despite the intense heat. “He looked like a ringmaster for a freak show, had this bowl haircut like Moe in The Three Stooges,” Dougie said.

I’ve gone over that night a hundred thousand times. The Joikiniemi twins were missing—and they’re still missing. The FBI paid me a visit and I gave them an abridged version of the story of the missing twins, leaving out the garage. I’m on some federal watchlist or in some database now. Someone to watch.

At times, I think maybe Old Mrs. Lukačs had a crazy son, a mutant she was ashamed of, whom she hid in the garage and fed at night. I believed that for a long time.

My “alien theory” had a shorter shelf life, but it kept me awake many nights thinking about it. Mrs. Lukačs was the slender figure, a shapeshifting alien in charge of a two-person crew observing life on earth. 

But my mind wouldn’t play that one out for long. An exoplanet with intelligent life capable of interstellar space travel at light speed—all to observe everyday life on Franklin Avenue in Northtown, a Midwestern speck of a town?

. . . Sure, the voice in my head replied, dripping with scorn, that’s exactly what any advanced civilization would do.

Maybe Arnie and Mikko did make it out of the garage and left town with their family. Maybe they said something that forced their family to pick and move without a word to anyone. Maybe I imagined them dying in the garage. Maybe the creature in the garage was just a giant harmless oaf related to Mrs. Lukes who reacted in self-defense when it—he, I corrected myself—thought he was being attacked in his lair.

No, it glided, my stubborn memory insisted. It didn’t move like a person, it had no problem with gravity, never mind the vision of one who abided alone in that pitch-black darkness. I never found a logical way out of the maze of my introspections from that long-ago night.

Decades have passed and I still don’t know. The scars on my back remind me of that night and the fear that rocked me to the core of my being. It still wakes me in a cold sweat at least once a week. 

Nothing looks safe. I live alone. I don’t trust my neighbors. I don’t know how much more horror remains hidden from sight, waiting like a volcano to blow its top or slip out of the darkness in a quiet neighborhood street and confront you just to see if you blink.

Robb T. White was born, raised, and still lives in Northeastern Ohio. He has published three novels in the Thomas Haftmann series, a pair of noir novels, and three collections of short stories of crime, mystery, and horror under the names Robert or Robb T. White. 

Special Collections, a digital novel, won the New Rivers eBook competition in 2014. Many of his crime stories have appeared in magazines like Yellow Mama, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Sirens Call, andNear to the Knuckle. His latest work is Northtown Eclipse (Fahrenheit Press, 2018). 

Go to his website HERE