Family is sooo special - Editor
Taken Back Home
by Philip Roberts
Cliff Crichlow had spent his youth being told to stay away from Raul Skenandore’s farm. At first he’d been afraid of the man, peeking through windows each time the backfire of Raul’s aged, rusted truck sounded. He always came at least once a week for food and other supplies, speaking only to Kirk Thompson who ran the general store. Most avoided the man with his leathery skin, browning teeth, and perpetual scowl, head topped with a cowboy hat, though occasionally topped with nothing but thin, wiry gray hair.
Wasn’t until Cliff turned seventeen and Raul was going on sixty that the flyer got put up in the general store. Most in town scoffed at the idea of working for Raul. Even if they hadn’t already disliked the man personally, talk got around of the odd colors one could occasionally see off in the distance towards Raul’s farm, or the sounds that carried in the still, summer air now and then.
Cliff had grown out of his superstitions. He left his house with his mother’s cries following him, telling him “That man will be the death of you.” He walked down the dirt road through the twilight until he came upon Raul’s modest home for the first time. The old structure with its squeaky screen door, faded brown paint job, and dry, cracked front lawn showed nothing of the wealth Raul had to have stuffed somewhere.
The living room stank of age and cigarette smoke. “Didn’t think anyone would take it,” Raul said in his dry voice. Cliff had always considered Raul’s voice to be one born from fifty years of a throat being drenched in whiskey. He never liked the man, not from the day he shook hands and accepted his first pay, or the day he hauled Todd Skenandore’s unconscious body into the barn out around back. They traveled across ten states to find the boy, a long lost son, Raul had said, and they’d waited in the darkness of the boy’s apartment until a light click of the lock marked his arrival home.
Eight years in Raul’s service had given Cliff more than enough muscle to take the scrawnier Todd down in a single blow, and heft around his body to wherever Raul wanted it.
“Wake him,” Raul said.
A bucket of water jolted the younger Skenandore, made his eyes fly open, fingers digging into the thin hay and dirt beneath him. A covered light directly above him along with the sunlight coming in through the cracks in the ancient barn lit up the disheveled Todd. Cliff could see the man’s nose wrinkle at the stench of the cows and their waste that was only recently cleared out.
All Todd’s movements stopped at the sight of Raul standing over him. The only thing Raul lacked was a giant belt buckle to complete the cowboy image. He wore his dusty boots, his denim pants, plaid button up shirt, and black hat. Raul’s face alone marked him as a Texan, though only a slight drawl could be heard in his voice, unlike Cliff himself, whose southern Texas roots had embedded his accent at a very early age. A hooked nose and ugly scar above the right eye added to Raul’s appearance, the remnants of a past Cliff had never quite had the courage to ask about.
“What’s going on?” Todd asked.
“Traveled far for you,” Raul said. “Always knew your mamma hated this place. Still, hadn’t thought she’d take you so far up north. No matter now.” He knelt in front of Todd, smiling darkly as he did. “I’m your father, you see. What happened to your ma?”
“My mother died in childbirth. Child went with her.”
“Uh…I only kind of knew him. After she died we drifted apart. She…told me my father was dead.”
Raul pulled himself upright, nodded firmly. “Figured as much. You believe me then?”
“I’m not sure. Can I-” his eyes flickered towards Cliff, “get up?”
Some family resemblance could be seen in the younger Skenandore, mainly when his eyes narrowed. The two men shared similar pronounced jaws and thin lips, even falling into vaguely similar stances, but all of Raul’s truly defining characteristics had clearly come with life’s troubles.
Now that the threat of violence had been pulled back, Cliff eyed the changes coming over Todd, his anger clear, but still held in check. “What exactly is this?” he asked once on his feet. “I mean, you knocked me unconscious? Christ, we’re all adults here. You can call and ask me to come see you.”
Raul shook his head, began to talk, but a fierce cough almost doubled him over. He brought a hand speckled in blood away from his mouth when the fit left him. “No time,” he wheezed. “Your place is here now, and I knew I couldn’t bother asking politely. Come, got something to show you, something you should’ve known about long ago.”
“I’m not going anywhere but home.”
Todd’s defiance drew a brief snort and a chuckle from his father. “You come on your own or my employee here will bring you for me. Ain’t no other way this’ll happen.”
Cliff smiled at Todd’s contemplation, his eyes darting between Raul and Cliff before nodding, beaten. They walked out into the harsh sun, Todd’s skin like a white beacon in the glare compared to Cliff and Raul’s deep tans. Walking around the back of the house, down the path between two small hills, into a bit of a basin, Cliff felt his stomach catching for the first time.
He hadn’t gone back this way since the first time Raul had taken him eight years prior, the only sound their boots crunching on the dry gravel back then just as it was now. Not even weeds grew in the crevice they emerged into, empty except for the small shack, ancient wood warped and cracked from who knew how many seasons.
The three stopped in front of the structure.
“Here’s your birthright,” Raul said, turned towards his son.
Todd looked at the shed incredulously. “What the hell is this?”
Raul sneered at his son before reaching out and pulling open the door to the old shack. Immediately the smell poured out, not only foul in odor, but also excruciating to breathe in, Cliff’s nostrils spiked with pain at the first whiff.
Cliff found himself more fascinated by the inside of that shack than fearful. He latched onto what he could understand, the idea of a short tunnel lined with squirming creatures, of the world on the other side, various mutated forms shifting in and out of view, in and out of focus.
None of the shapes appeared human, many little more than a mess of what he assumed were arms or legs, the tangle of limbs crawling rapidly around. The color of what he assumed to be the sky shifted constantly, and he understood this bright glare was what he had witnessed from afar on many moonless nights in his youth.
The thing that made the nagging dread crawl through him seemed to come from an unknown source within that strange existence. He could feel the prickles in his skin, his hair all but standing on end, eyes drying so badly tears streamed freely down his cheeks. And while even being in the presence of this other place affected him so physically, he still knew his fear came from an understanding of some deeply inherent violence this place offered, mind awash with images of raw flesh, or pulsing, bloody shapes, ears ringing with the shrieks of what he could only assume were people.
His earlier curiosity vanished in the wake of the growing terror overtaking every part of him, his world nothing but the gateway stretching out in front of him, squirming shapes now turning into wet eyes watching him, or sinewy fingers stretching outwards, his throat so dry he couldn’t scream for help even if he wanted to.
Then the slam of a door brought an end to what felt like his entire existence, left him huddled against the rocky wall behind him, shirt torn open and chest gouged by his own fingernails. Sweat plastered his clothes to his body and blurred his vision.
“Help me, God dammit,” Raul shouted, hunched low beside Todd’s convulsing form, his eyes nothing but white, skin like pale, dead flesh.
Experience helped Cliff recover faster from the effects of that shack. Still shivering badly himself, Cliff managed to get his arms beneath Todd, wobbly legs struggling to support his own weight, let alone the two of them, but determination got him through it.
While Todd sat on the edge of a couch in Raul’s living room, eyes clearly seeing nothing, sipping absently at a glass of water, Cliff stood in the corner and waited for Raul.
The deep thump of something heavy striking wood managed to break Todd out of his stupor. Cliff curiously watched the basement door when Raul came into view, hunched low, face strained as he lifted the chest up the final step.
“Need my help?” Cliff asked. Raul absently waved the request away, dragged the chest himself into the middle of the room. When he knelt down with a key, Cliff could see dried blood on the hand Raul used to pull off the padlock, and lift the lid open.
There it was, the fortune Cliff had always been searching for, the chest full of both rolls of money and bits of gold. He couldn’t imagine how Raul had managed to drag the thing up the stairs by himself, or even where in the basement it had been.
Todd stood up slowly, taking in the fortune in front of him, in awe of it, but not in the way he should be, Cliff thought. He saw no hint of greed in Todd’s face.
“What would I have to do,” Todd asked, met his father’s eyes. “This is meant as payment, isn’t it?”
“It’s inheritance,” Raul said.
“No, it’s payment. Don’t lie about what it is. So tell me, what did you show me, and what would I have to do?”
A small smile broke out on Raul’s face at the directness of Todd’s words, the firmness to them. “We’ll get to that eventually,” Raul said. “Look, I’ve got a year or so left in me. I’m sure of that much. Why I brought you in now, so I’d have time to go over all of this with you. You’re right that you have a job I need you to do, one you’re going to be doing the rest of your life. No choice in the matter there. This money is all yours once I die. Isn’t all of it, if that’s what you’re thinking, but just one of the chests. Never want for cash again.”
Todd glanced back down at the money, and then to the sun nearly set outside the window, nothing but a faint orange glow on the horizon. “I’d like some time,” he said.
Raul scrutinized him for a few seconds, fingers running over his bony chin. “Go up the stairs behind you. Last door on the left is yours. Take the night. We’ll have another talk about this tomorrow.”
Before Todd could leave, Raul took a step closer to his son. He put a hand on Todd’s arm, and Cliff saw a softness in Raul’s face he’d never witnessed before. “You were supposed to have been raised into this like I was and my father before,” he said. “I should’ve come for you a long time ago, but I didn’t think much about it then. I’m sorry you weren’t given more time to come to terms with this like I was.”
Todd held his father’s stare, nodded. “It’s okay,” he said.
Both men watched him climb slowly up the stairs. Cliff tried to act like he didn’t pay attention as Raul closed the chest. Raul didn’t bother moving it from the living room when he walked up to his own room an hour later.
Greed alone held Cliff in check. Only twenty-five years old, he intended to live a long life, and while the chest offered plenty of money, he kept thinking of the other chests Raul had mentioned.
Though he didn’t run off in the night with the money in hand, he still lay awake in bed, eyes locked on the ceiling above him when the commotion began shortly after two. Cliff had seen it coming, just as he suspected Raul had, and were it not for the miles of nothing surrounding the house, Cliff figured Raul might’ve chained up his son that night, as he surely would now.
Wearing only jeans, his boney chest heaving in and out, Raul slammed open Cliff’s door and blinded him with the overhead light. “Boy run off?” Cliff asked.
“You know it,” Raul said. He jabbed a finger towards Cliff, his jaw firmly set. “Don’t rough him up much. Double your pay for the week if he ain’t harmed.”
Cliff nodded and pulled on some pants and a shirt. The two men stepped out into the warm night. Off to the north they could see the glow of the only town within miles, the place Cliff had been born. “He’ll go for the town,” Raul said.
“I’ll get him.”
Took twenty minutes driving through the dry land before the hint of movement caught Cliff’s eye. Todd tried to hide, but when it became apparent Cliff was still heading right towards the outcropping he’d dropped behind, Todd made a run for it. Cliff got a laugh out of the sight, Todd’s pale face illuminated by the headlights, all but stumbling over his feet in his attempts to flee the truck.
His run didn’t slow until Cliff pulled beside him, shouted over, “Where the hell you think you’re going?”
Heaving for air, Todd came to a halt, hunched low, and both hands on his knees as he tried to get his breath back. Cliff left the truck on when he got out. “Can’t go back to him,” Todd wheezed.
“Going to get all that money and here you are running like a coward,” Cliff said, caught Todd across the face. He struck the dirt, cheek already swelling, a thin bubble of blood seeping from the middle of the bruise.
“He didn’t send you out here to bring me back,” Todd whispered.
“Well, isn’t that convenient then.”
Cliff knelt for a rock, gripped it tightly as he fell to his knees, and straddled Todd’s stomach, both men caught squarely in the glare of the truck’s headlights.
“You have no idea what you’re bringing on yourself.”
The rock struck Todd’s right eye, tore a gash into the skin, and shattered the eye itself in a deluge of liquid. Todd managed to scream in pain only once before Cliff brought down the rock again, broke most of Todd’s teeth off into his own throat, body convulsing in an attempt to breath when Cliff cracked open Todd’s forehead.
Cliff began to rise when the thick blood pouring down Todd’s face started to twitch, pulling itself together, small hands reaching up towards Cliff’s startled face. Red spread through Todd’s shirt, his whole body beginning to buck. What looked like a giant hand pushed up from under the shirt torn from Todd’s chest, just as a different, much darker pupil bulged out from the shattered eye-socket to stare up at Cliff.
His rock pierced through the newly formed eye. The top half of the skull cracked open right as boney fingers ripped through the shirt and dug into Cliff’s mid-section. His arm swung repeatedly without thought, mind numbed to pain and emotion until the head had been reduced to a mound of pulp and the creature Todd had become no longer moved.
Raul stood fully clothed in front of the porch light. “Have any trouble with him?” he shouted, smiling as Cliff pulled the truck to a stop in front of the house.
He still held the bloody rock in his right hand, unable to let his fingers loosen. Five gashes soaked blood into his shirt, but the cuts hadn’t been deep, already clotting over.
“What is this?” Cliff asked.
Raul smiled wider, wet red running down his wrinkly chin, the bright glare of the porch light behind him and the rim of his hat casting a shadow over his face. “The real Raul Skenandore was a very terrible man dabbling in dark things. The content of the shack was his greatest achievement. The boy you killed out there was his second greatest. The boy had been a safeguard. His wife had learned Raul’s secrets and tried to hide from him. She died in childbirth all right, because she learned too late it didn’t matter what man impregnated her. The child would always be Raul’s, so she ended her life along with Raul’s second son. What she didn’t know was that Todd’s very presence in this world would keep the portal open and growing.
“Raul had strong safeguards against us, too, but even a man as powerful as him drops his guard occasionally.” Another cough racked the body, sent a spray of red mist into the air. “I killed Raul two years ago, but I couldn’t touch Todd. None of us could. You took care of that for us nicely.”
Raul took up a seat on the porch, body racked with another fierce tremor, blood beginning to run from his eyes, down his chin.
“What happens now?” Cliff asked.
“You have no idea how much you’ve saved,” Raul croaked, skin drying more with each second, tightening around his skull.
“The money,” Cliff asked, and Raul uttered a dry laugh before slumping back completely against a post, mouth wide open, eyes dried, shrunken bulbs.
Cliff hurried past the decaying corpse into the living room and the trunk. He ripped open the lid, stared at the rolls of money, the chunks of gold, but when he pulled in closer and actually felt the cash, he understood it was fake. His pocket knife chipped away the paint on the false gold.
He kicked the chest hard enough to scatter its contents across the floor. Glancing towards the wall, Cliff ran out of the front door and through the muggy night. He hurried through the narrowed path between the hills and stopped in front of the decaying shack. The door opened to an empty room.
“You saved things,” he whispered to himself. Yeah, well, maybe he had, he thought, but he didn’t feel any sense of victory.
He turned from the shack and started back up towards the house, intent on walking home.