“Okay. So, basically this house is, like, infested with demons or something,” Shann told us.
Demonic infestations have a way of making guys feel not so horny.
“It’s in the Ealing Registry of Historical Homes,” I pointed out.
“People died here.”
“You should get that kind of air freshener shit that you plug into outlets so it masks the scent of death and decay with springtime potpourri,” Robby offered.
“Look at this,” she said. “There are doors that go nowhere, and I swear I heard something ticking and rattling inside my wall a moment ago.”
Shann used words like moment.
She wasn’t from Ealing.
One of the walls in her creaky room had two doors set into it. The wall itself was kind of creepy. It had wallpaper with flowers that seemed to float like stemless clones between wide red stripes. If I pictured a room where I was going to murder someone, aside from the instruments of torture and shit like that, it would have this wallpaper. If I was on death row, awaiting electrocution, I’d be wearing pajamas with the same pattern on them.
Shann went to the door on the left and pulled it open.
When she opened it, there was only the jamb and frame of the door, and then a wall of bricks behind it.
I could only imagine what was on the other side of the bricks.
Robby, naturally, felt compelled to say something less than comforting.
“I suggest you don’t liberate whatever’s imprisoned back there,” he said.
Shann was getting angry. I knew I should intervene, but I didn’t know what to say.
“Nowadays, people spend a lot of money for distressed bricks like those,” I said.
It was probably for the best that Shann wasn’t paying attention to me.
“And look at this,” she said.
When she opened the second door, a long, narrow stairway extended down into darkness on the other side. The chasm was at least twenty feet deep, but it dead-ended at another distressed brick wall, and there were no other doorways leading off in any direction that I could see.
“What can you expect from a house this old?” I asked.
It was a good question.
Ghosts and shit like that, was what I was thinking, though. You wouldn’t expect miniature ponies and trained talking peacocks that dispensed Sugar Babies and gumballs from their asses, would you?
“I don’t want to stay in this room by myself,” Shann said.
And that made me very horny again.
I also wanted candy.
Shann, obviously stressed, looked at Robby, then at me.
“I need to talk to you, Austin,” she said, and motioned for me to go with her down the candyless staircase of death and decay.
Robby took the hint. “Uh. I need to go to the bathroom. Maybe Pulse-O-Matic my teeth. Or take a shower. Or something.”
He made a tentative, weight-shifting creak onto one leg and I followed Shann behind door number two.
We sat beside each other on the staircase.
Our bare legs touched.
Shann had a perfect body, a Friday-after-school body that was mostly visible because she was barefoot, and wore tight, cuffed shorts with a cantaloupe-colored halter top. A boy could go insane, I thought, just being this close to Shann’s uncovered shoulders, wheat hair, and heavy breasts.
This staircase to nothing was a fitting dungeon for constantly erupting, real-dynamo sixteen-year-old boys like me.
“Why is Robby wearing your clothes, and what happened to you and him?”
While we sat there, three important things struck me about Shann: First, I realized that, like most girls I knew, Shann could ask questions in machine-gun bursts that peppered the male brain with entirely unrelated projectiles of interrogation. Second, it was often unstated, but clear by her tone, that Shann was jealous of Robby, possibly to the point of being a little curious about my sexuality. I know, maybe that was also my confusion, as well. Because, third, what was most troubling to me, was that despite all the fantasies, all the intricately structured if/then scenarios I concocted involving Shann Collins and me, whenever an opportunity to take action presented itself—like being alone with her in a nearly sealed dungeon—I became timid and restrained.
I couldn’t understand it at all.
History chews up sexually uncertain boys, and spits us out as recycled, generic greeting cards for lonely old men.
Dr. Grady McKeon was a lonely old man. I can only conclude he must have also at one time been a sexually confused, unexplainably horny teenage boy who erupted all over everything at the least opportune times. He was twenty-five years old, and well on his way to building an empire of profits when his younger brother, Johnny, was born. I once heard a tobacco-chewing hog farmer say that, in Iowa, folks liked to spread out their children like dog shit on a dance floor.
Dr. Grady McKeon would be Shann’s stepuncle, if there is such a thing, and if he weren’t dead. He was the last person to live in the historic McKeon house. He died when his private jet went down in the Gulf of Mexico. Its engines choked to death on ash from Mount Huacamochtli, the same erupting volcano in Guatemala that Robert Brees Sr. was filming a documentary on. And it also happened the same year Robby Brees and I smoked our first cigarette, danced together, and I fell in love with Shannon Collins.
Johnny McKeon never wanted to live in his dead brother’s old house. It took Shann’s mother about four years of badgering to get him to finally break down and take the place out of mothballs.
I held Shann’s hand, and we sat there in the dungeon with our legs pressed together, and I was so frustrated I felt like I could explode.
But I concentrated, and methodically went through the entire account of what happened to me and Robby at Grasshopper Jungle. I told her about our plan to climb up onto the roof of the Ealing Mall to get our stuff back.
“I’m coming with you,” she decided.
“Not up on the roof,” I said, so authoritatively my voice lowered an octave.
Sounding father-like to Shann in the echoing darkness of the staircase that led nowhere made me feel horny, demons or not. I scooted closer and put my arm around her so that my fingers relaxed and splayed across the little swath of exposed skin above the waist of her shorts.
“I’ll wait in Robby’s car. I’ll be your lookout.”
“Shann?” I said.
I almost had myself convinced to ask her if didn’t she think it was time we had sex, and the thought made me feel dizzy. I would force myself to no longer have any doubt or confusion, to not wind up recycled by history.
“This staircase really is creepy.”
And just as I pushed her firmly against the distressed brick wall and put my open mouth over hers, Robby swung the door wide above us and said, “The moving van’s here.”