The house stood abandoned and half burnt at the fore of the apple orchard. The apple trees were in shambles, few were pruned. Many had broken limbs hanging down amongst the others and littering the once neat aisles between the trees.
Mark stood in the shadow of a tall pine, the sun setting slowly. He shifted the weight of his pack and watched the occasional car race by on Route 122. He stomped his feet and clenched and released his fists.
The last rays vanished in the tree line, and the orchard settled into darkness. A solitary pickup raced past, chasing its own headlights along the curve of the road. Mark watched the red rear lights slip around a corner. The evening sounds of the country made themselves known as he stepped away from the pine.
He moved quickly across the road, fully aware of the sound of his boots on the asphalt, then the whispered crush as he reached the long uncut grass. He walked steadily to the backside of the house where the cellar door stood open.
Mark squatted down, sliding his pack off of his back and onto the ground. From the front pocket, he took his headlamp and slid it down onto his forehead. The light fit snugly, and Mark flipped the lamp’s small switch to the left. A soft red beam burst forth. He zipped the front pocket closed and looked at the open cellar door and the newly illuminated stairs.
Mark picked up his pack and headed into the cellar.
Cobwebs greeted him, clinging to his face and chest and hands. He glanced around at the debris, old tools and scraps of wood, forgotten furniture and mildewed boxes as well as a few bits of clothing and scattered toys. A long dead raccoon lay in a box, and Mark moved deeper into the cellar’s depths, turning a corner and passing an old coal bin.
Beyond the bin he found the furnace and the electrical box, which was tucked beneath a set of stairs leading to the first floor. Mark stopped at the furnace and squatted down with his pack once more. He opened the main pocket and removed a pair of tightly rolled duffel bags. Sliding the rubber bands off of each, he unrolled the bags and opened them.
Next he took out a Dremel tool and cutting blades, those being followed by a pair of gloves and a set of goggles.
Leaving the pack on the floor he fit the Dremel with a cutting edge before putting on the safety gear. He thumbed the power switch, and the Dremel squealed into life. Turning his attention to the copper pipes leaving the furnace’s hot water tank, Mark began to cut.
He moved methodically, cutting even sections of piping and laying them first in one duffel bag then the other. He worked slowly away from the furnace but brought each piece back to be put away.
Fitting a last piece into the second bag he zipped it up.
The floor above him creaked.
Mark’s head snapped up as dust drifted down through the red light from the sub-floor.
Mark stood still, watching the dust trail come down across the ceiling. He kept his breathing slow and even. The footsteps faded away, and Mark remained still. He counted to one thousand before he risked straightening up.
Mark looked to the electrical box under the stairs and glanced up at the ceiling again.
Cautiously he took a single step towards the box, conscious of the sound of old dirt beneath his boots. He counted to one thousand once more, and, hearing nothing still, finished the short journey to the box.
The main power line had been pulled out, leaving the circuit breakers dead and the copper wiring leading out in thick braids free of current.
Mark adjusted his goggles.
A doorknob above him twisted, the sound loud and painful in his ears. Hinges squealed and Mark’s lamp light flickered out, leaving him in darkness.
Someone took a cautious step onto the first stair.
The wood squealed.
A second step followed, and dust fell upon Mark’s head.
Control of his heart and breath raced away from him.
A third step sounded and something landed on Mark’s cheek that danced away along his skin.
“Henry?” a woman whispered.
Mark’s head started to pound.
“Henry, do you need help with the wash?”
The hairs on Mark’s arms and neck stood painfully up. He swallowed dryly, clenching his hands. A fourth step assaulted his ear.
“Henry,” the woman whispered, “are you hiding under the stairs again?”
Goosebumps raced along his flesh and Mark fought to keep himself still.
“Come out now, Henry,” the woman said, and three rapid steps followed. “You know that your father doesn’t like you playing down here.”
Another two quick steps on the stairs.
“Come along, Henry,” the woman whispered, “your father has an awful drunk on again.
“Who are you?” the woman demanded. “You’re not Henry!”
Mark screamed as something cold touched his face.
He ran blindly for the stairs. Panting he found them. Mark thundered up into the darkness of the first floor. The cellar door bounced off him as he spun into a room. A crack rang out and the floor shifted beneath him. Mark found himself falling backward.
He landed on his back, felt the bones break, his ribs splay and his lungs empty of air as the sharp smell of old coal filled his nose. He coughed, and the sharp tang of blood hit the back of his tongue.
Mark took short, sharp breaths and found that he couldn’t move.
Cautious footsteps approached him in the pure darkness of the cellar.
“Best be careful,” a young boy’s voice whispered in Mark’s ear. “Pa’s got a drunk on.”
Somewhere in the house a door slammed.