In “The Time of His Life,” which appears in the February 2011 isse of Realms of Fantasy (here’s a PDF of the TOC), I answer that very question — at least for one man, who finds that life can quickly take a darker turn . . .
Please consider subscribing to the magazine; they’re the biggest full color fantasy magazine out there, with lots of great fiction and nonfiction. This is my third story to appear in their pages. You can also order individual PDFs from their website. Not sure if they’re publishing to Kindle and other e-readers yet, but I imagine they will be soon.
Here’s the opening of the story:
The Time of His Life
Scott William Carter
They actually bought the little house in September, right after they’d welcomed Jared into the world, but it wasn’t until the day after Christmas that Tim found the hidden room.
Life had been so nuts back then that he’d barely gotten all their crap from the apartment moved, much less put everything it its proper place. Not that life had gotten any less nuts now. That was the new reality Tim was slowly coming to accept. Whatever remained of his peace of mind — and any private time to himself — vanished the moment he heard his second child’s piercing wail echoing off those tiled delivery room walls of Rexton Memorial Hospital.
Case in point: Half the junk they’d brought with them was still buried in cardboard boxes, either in the one-car garage or up in his studio. Between changing diapers, warming bottles of formula, and waking up at God-knows-when-early to rock Jared back to sleep, they kept telling themselves they’d go through the rest of it, but what actually happened was that they only went digging when Maggie wanted something.
“Did you hear me, honey?” she said.
He blinked up at her, from his place down on the carpet with Alexa. They’d been playing ponies — or at least, she had. He’d drifted off at some point when the ponies were having a picnic in the new barn they’d bought her for Christmas, daydreaming about that new strip he’d doodled a few weeks back. He’d planned to work on it over the break, before school reared up again, but of course that hadn’t happened.
“Hmm?” he said.
From her perch on the couch, Maggie gave him the look, the one that made him feel like he was being a jerk, a certain tilt of the head and arching of the eyebrows. Even with the glare of sunset behind her, piercing through the spindly branches of the pin oaks, he could still tell she was giving him the look. She adjusted Jared, raising the bottle a little higher. The last dying notes of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” faded to nothing. The CD changer shuffled to another song.
“Those two sconces,” she said. “Could you go find them?”
“The sconces. You know, the ones we had in our bedroom?” When he continued to stare blankly, she added with a sigh, “The two silver things I put candles in that were over our bed?”
“Oh those,” he said.
“Oh those,” she said. “I think they ended up in that big Sony box.”
“I have no idea where that is.”
There was the look again. Any more protesting from him and she’d play her trump card, the whole I Bore Your Children routine.
Feeling weary, he kissed his daughter on her blonde head and trudged out to the garage. Frost ringed the paned window that looked out on the backyard. The cold, brittle air smelled faintly of the gasoline for the lawn mower. Rickety wooden steps led both down to the concrete floor, and up, to his studio. He checked his watch — Maggie’s present to him, not real gold of course, but still nice. He wanted to make it quick, but he knew he needed to give this at least five minutes.
The frigid concrete curled his toes. The boxes in the garage were stacked high and deep. In his search, he pushed aside bikes, studded tires, and their rusted barbecue, but he didn’t see the Sony box.
Upstairs, then. The room — and it was being generous calling it a room — was technically nine by twelve, but the sloping ceilings on either side made it feel much smaller. Since it wasn’t connected to the house’s heat, it was as cold as the garage. There were two paned windows, but the overgrown laurel bush outside squeezed off most of the light.
Still, it was his room. His studio. That’s what they’d agreed before they’d called the broker to make an offer. Sandwiched in among all the boxes were his drawing easel, his crane light, and his metal desk. The strip he’d been working on — about a bunch of animals living by a creek, inspired by the neighborhood park — was taped to the easel. In the crimson light, he saw that a layer of dust had formed on the paper. The dust of disuse.
No time for self-pity. He didn’t bother turning on the space heater. It took him only a minute to search the boxes in the room, but then he remembered the closets. There were two of them, one on each side, the doors barely four feet high because of the low ceiling.
He tried the first. There was no light, only what filtered in, and he waded through a sea of boxes in the near-darkness. No Sony box. In the second closet, he stumbled past an old Hoover, a metal sled, a kite choked by string, not one but two blenders, a bean bag Maggie told him he couldn’t have in the house — ending up at a wall of boxes along the far wall.
It was very nearly pitch black, but he saw no Sony box. He was about to turn around when he noticed that the boxes weren’t pushed all the way against the wall. There was a gap maybe a few inches wide.
He pushed on the boxes, but they didn’t budge. Something was back there, wedged between the exposed studs and the boxes. If it turned out it was the sconces, and he didn’t check, Maggie would never let him hear the end of it.
The boxes were wedged in pretty tight, so it took some doing move them. It was so dark he could barely see his own hands. He felt along the floor near the wall and was surprised when the floorboards near the studs were ice cold.
Now that was odd. A pipe right under the floor, maybe? That’s when his eyes finally began to adjust, and he saw the silver gleam of something jutting from the wall. It was the size of a small apple in the middle of the unfinished plywood.
Impossible. Unless his sense of direction had completely failed him, this was the exterior wall. He reached out and took hold of it — and a sizzling, burning cold shot through his arm.
He let go with a yelp. Now he was mad. Something like this should never have passed inspection. Was it a joke, or was there really a door that opened into the laurel bush?
He had to know. He rubbed his hands together, warming them, and then grabbed the knob.
The metal was so cold that it scorched his hand, but with a noisy rattle it turned to the right. There was an even louder creak and then a puff of frigid air. The shadows of the wall deepened, the hints of boards and beams melting to black. Palms outward, he reached with his hand, and his hand went deeper, still deeper, his elbow now where the wall should have been.
Tim felt the first pangs of fear.
Part of him wanted to venture farther inside, but caution held him back. He wished he’d brought a flashlight. He touched the floor inside the opening — plain, rough floorboards, no colder than the ones beneath his feet. It was definitely a room. A hidden room.
He also had the feeling he wasn’t alone.
The door creaked. He felt a rush of air — a stale, putrid odor, like the last breath of a dying man. He jerked his hand back just as the door slammed with a dull thud.
* * * * *
He scrambled downstairs. His heart was still pounding, and sweat trickled down his back. Maggie was now on the floor playing ponies with Alexa. Jared sprawled on a blue blanket, fixated on the rattle in his chubby fingers.
“You’ll never guess what I found,” Tim said.
Maggie looked up. “Did you find the sconces?”
“What? No. But I–”
“Darn it, Tim. Did you really look for them?”
“Maggie, I looked.”
“Sometimes you don’t look very hard.”
“I looked! I looked!”
“All right, you don’t have to yell. I’ll look myself later.”
He tensed. Translation: They’re out there, but you were just too incompetent to find them. The thing was, she was probably right. But he didn’t want to fight. He wanted to tell her about the room. He crouched next to her.
“Maggie, you won’t believe –”
“Man, you stink,” she said. “What were you doing up there? And what happened to your watch?”
“Look at it. We’re going to have to take it back.”
He looked at it. Sure enough, the hands were frozen. Five, ten minutes ago maybe, they’d stopped.
|| Continued ||