Upstairs, Amalia called my name.
Wide-eyed, wondering, Amalia came down the cellar stairs, her footfalls echoing hollowly off the plank treads. The novel that she had been reading failed to engage her, and she couldn’t be distracted from thinking about the voice that had spoken to her in this house earlier. As twilight approached, she had looked out of her window and had seen the Clockenwall house filled with light once more.
“I went to the garage,” she said, “you weren’t there, but an album was playing, and I just knew where I’d find you. It’s my fault you came here. I mean, what’re you going to do when I tell you to stay away from this place, you being twelve and a boy and careening toward puberty? You’re brave—okay?—but we should get out of here.”
She had glanced at the mattress as she came off the stairs, but the horror of it registered with her only on second glance, when she seemed to see the ringbolt, the chain, and the manacle for the first time.
Yet surely she couldn’t fully understand what had happened here. Maybe she’d never heard of Melinda Harmony, who had been kidnapped a year before Amalia was born. Remembering Mr. Clockenwall’s creepy interest in her, however, my very bright sister seemed to deduce that the chain and the manacle were evidence of imprisonment and that the filthy mattress had served not merely as a place of rest. The color drained from her face, although when she turned her attention to me once more, she seemed perplexed but not afraid.
Desperate, suddenly breaking into a sweat, I tried to tell her to run—run!—but I was denied my voice.
“Malcolm? What have you found? What’s happened here?”
“Delicious memories,” I said, and though the voice I heard was mine, I was not the one who had spoken.
I had been standing with the knife held down at my side, against my leg. Now she saw it. “Sweetie, what’re you doing with a knife?” She looked toward the furnace, into darker corners of the cellar. “Is someone here, are you in danger?”
Moving toward her, I heard my voice declare, “If I’d seen you first, I never would have bothered with the other girl.”
Amalia’s eyes widened further, and she backed away from me.
At the head of the stairs, the door slammed shut. I figured that if she could get to the top of the steps ahead of me, the door would prove to be locked.
She was my sister, beloved, who had stayed in my room around the clock when I’d been eight and suffered with a case of the flu that nearly killed me. She was my sister, whose clarinet playing inspired me to find the music in me, to settle on the saxophone, which had fast become the key to my identity. I loved her as I loved no one else, as no others had allowed me to love them, and if I were to kill her under the influence of some malign spirit, I might as well then kill myself.
I was the one who lumbered and stumbled through life, who lacked physical grace, but in this case, Amalia was the one who misstepped, fell backward, and sat hard on the third step as I raised the knife. Her green eyes were as deep as an arctic sea, shining with cold fear, sudden terror.
As the knife reached the apex of its arc, I saw around her neck the silver cross that she had worn in middle school but never since. She must have put it on before leaving our house, as if she’d known that she would not find me in the garage, that once again she would have to enter this hateful place.
As the knife came down, I realized that she had bought the tiny silver cross on the silver chain and had begun wearing it when she’d been thirteen, after the first time she’d caught Rupert Clockenwall staring at her, the day that she’d been in our backyard working on the art project. She must have wanted to ward off his evil, to feel protected in this world where none of us is ever truly safe.
Down came the knife, with less force than Clockenwall wanted, with a different target than he intended. When the blade thrust deep into my thigh, I screamed, and with the scream, I cast him out.
A shriek ricocheted from wall to wall, issuing neither from me nor from Amalia, and in that windowless room, where a mere draft could have had no source, there sprang up not just a draft but a wind, cold on that summer night, churning around the cellar, spinning up dust and the soft white and yellow crystals that marked the grave, a wind that was the embodiment of inhuman rage.
I tore the knife from my thigh, threw it down, dropped to one knee, bleeding but not yet in pain, clamping one hand over the wound.
Amalia came to her feet as the wind seemed to gather itself into a battering ram, whereupon it slammed into her with such velocity, such force, that the rubber band holding her ponytail snapped, and her blond tresses stood on end as if she were a candle and her hair the flame. I thought that she would be lifted off her feet, and the pendant stood straight out from her, to the length of the chain, as though it would be torn from her and blown away. She seized it with one hand and held it to her throat.
Then I heard again the sound that had awakened me and drawn me to my window the previous night, when all this began, a sound like steel stropping steel. As before, it came three times, but now it sounded less like a sword drawn from a scabbard than like some great metal door scraping open across a threshold. The roaring, whistling wind seemed to blow away through that unseen door, and the cellar fell quiet, still, all dust drifting toward the floor.
Because Amalia always was as resilient as she was strong, as strong as she was smart, she knelt beside me, and wasting no time exclaiming about what we had just witnessed, she said, “Your leg, the wound, let me see.”
Blood had streamed between my fingers, darkened the leg of my slacks, spattered the floor, but when I took my hand away from the wound, my trousers were not ripped. In wonder, I raised my hand and saw that the blood dripping from it a moment earlier was nowhe
re to be seen. The pants were no longer stained, the floor without a single crimson spatter. The blade of the knife gleamed, as clean as if it had just been washed.
I got to my feet, physically as whole as I had been before I entered that house. Amalia rose, too, and met my eyes, and neither of us could speak. She put her arms around me, and I hugged her, and after a while we went up the stairs to the kitchen.
Together, we went through the quiet house, turning out the lights that I had left on. Before we departed, I showed her the scrapbook about Melinda Lee Harmony, the diary, and the scrapbook to the pages of which her own middle-school class photos had been fixed with Scotch tape.
Still, neither of us spoke. We had no need to put our recent experience into words, for we understood the meaning of it in our hearts.
We closed the door, descended the porch steps. Night took the last purple from the sky as we crossed Clockenwall’s backyard.
At the rear gate, Amalia said, “So the Glenn Miller stuff didn’t soothe your nerves.”