What’d you find, Maury?
She stands over him and reaches out her hand.
He looks up at her as if deciding whether or not he can trust her, then he takes the object and puts it in her hand.
It’s a paperweight. A glass sphere with a flat spot so you can put it down and it won’t roll away. Inside the sphere is something that looks like a flower, ribbons of inky color twisted and turned into a radial pattern. She hands it back to him.
You knew right where that was, she says to him. You been here before. You remember it, don’t you? How long ago? You must of been just a kid.
He holds the thing as a child would hold it, coveting the feel of it, keeping it protected until he is safely alone so that he can then gaze into it and take the full measure of its beauty.
She feels something large inside her, something expanding, like a balloon blowing up in her chest.
I’m glad you found it, Maury. I’m real glad of that.
The dining room looks like it has been untouched for years—as though the tenants of the place had evaporated just prior to the dinner hour. Four places are set around the table, plates, forks, spoons, knives, napkins, all of it coated over with a torpid layer of dust. She draws her fingertip across one of the plates and a shiny strip of white appears.
Stay here, she says to Maury. I’m gonna look around.
She goes back to the fireplace and looks closely at the wood. Some of the logs in there haven’t been burning for more than an hour, she determines. On the other side of the front hall is a small sitting room with a floral upholstered couch and matching chairs. There’s a chessboard on the coffee table, and all the pieces are lined up in perfect symmetry. She has a hankering to take one of those horse-shaped ones and stuff it in her pocket, but she doesn’t. Maybe because of the museum neatness of it all, she feels that here, more than anywhere else she’s been, these things belong to someone. To take the horse piece would be stealing.
The kitchen is tidy as everything else. No signs of struggle or even of hasty evacuation. No signs of anything left behind, no chairs toppled over, no messages written to those who might come later, nothing. Not even any signs of daily life. No coffee mugs left in the sink, no dishes left behind in the dishwasher, no washrags left crumpled on the counter.
What goes on here? she whispers to herself.
She pries open the door of the refrigerator, which has long since burned itself out, and she finds shelves of ancient decayed food, blackened and shriveled beyond even the stink of perishable things.
Back in the dining room, Maury still sits in the corner, turning the crystal orb over and over between his thick fingers.
Stay there, Maury, she says. I’m gonna check upstairs.
At the top of the carpeted stairs, she hears a sound coming from down the hallway—a faint hiss that makes her think of water running through pipes.
Hello? she calls.
Her voice is brittle against the overwhelming emptiness of the place. It unnerves her to hear herself sounding so puny, and she determines not to speak again.
She moves down the hall, pushing the doors open one by one—standing aside as she does to avoid whatever might leap out at her.
Bathroom, bedroom, office, linen closet. She grips the gurkha more tightly as she approaches the room where the hissing comes from. The door is ajar, and she notices another glow, blue this time, coming from the room.
She pushes the door open with the hilt of the gurkha knife and finds a small den with a couch facing a large wooden entertainment center, the kind that takes up a whole wall and has a hundred little doors and drawers. The sound she’s been hearing is coming from a large television. The static on the screen fills the room with a sickly blue light, and a constant, invariable hiss comes from the speakers.
There hasn’t been an active broadcast in years—not since before Temple was born. And even if the television had been left on when the residents left, these tubes burn themselves out after a few years.
She considers the possibility that the house is haunted. She normally doesn’t put truck in such things as ghosts, but she’s coming all over with a certain kind of black feeling that she can’t identify. She’s never been this close to life before the slugs—and also never so far away. Her skin goes taut, and she wants to turn off the television, but she is afraid of disturbing anything—as though the spirit voices of the dead, the really dead, might admonish her.
She backs out of the den.
There’s one more room at the end of the hall, and she approaches it slowly and pushes the door inward. The master bedroom.
She has abandoned hope of finding the Duchamps in residence, but there they are. On the big frilly bed, atop the comforter and fully clothed in fine apparel, are two corpses lying side by side. They are not laid out on their backs like bodies in coffins. Instead, they are on their sides, curled up in fetal positions, the woman nestled in the S-shaped figure of the man, his arms wrapped around her torso in one of those forever embraces.
She approaches the foot of the bed. The two have been dead for many years. Death is all about skin, Temple knows. It dries to paper thinness, it shrivels and tautens around the knuckles and the other bones to create shrink-wrapped skeletons. It changes color—gray then brown then black, but it frequently holds its hair follicles in place. Another thing it does, it pulls tight around the face, which pries open the jaw and gives the dead an expression of wild and outraged laughter.
Two hysterical, laughing mannequins in dusty embrace.
The clothes, the corpses, the cobwebs—they are all inextricable from one another, adhered by dry decay that forms a scaly cocoon around all of it.
Jeb and Jeanie Duchamp, she whispers.
All the miles, all the long broken roads, all the blood she’s spilled.
She goes around to the bedside table and picks up a prescription pill bottle. It’s empty. She sets it back down on the tabletop, trying to place it exactly where it was—in the small coin-sized circle in the dust.
Then she kneels down to look into the face of Jeanie Duchamp. It’s like a wasp’s nest on the pillow—like something that would contain thousands of hidden burrows and cavities if you were to break it open. That’s where the past lives, stored up in the puny hollows of our heads.
Her eyelids are sealed shut and sunken, collapsed over the dried-out sockets. Her cheeks are flaky and coated with dust and remind Temple of the pages of an old photo album where the pictures have all come unglued. Her mouth is gaping wide and her teeth are like pearls. Laughing, laughing. Inside she can see her tongue, shriveled to a piece of beef jerky, like a stump in the floor of her jaw. Laughing, laughing. Shriveled tongue and flaky skin and teeth like big oyster pearls.