an Excess of Light

Christian McKay has never published a story. Not on purpose. As he wanders through Salt Lake shrubbery, children listen to his mumblings, write them down, and then sell them at a profit to publications like Bewildering Stories, Danse Macabre, Well Told Tales, and Everyday Weirdness. Recently, he’s been mumbling about haunted foxes.  He has just been offered representation for his first novel, about children that used to eat brains together.

 

AN EXCESS OF LIGHT

By mid-August the house at the end of Weeping Fig Way looked ready to rocket to the moon. All the adornments—drains and gutters, columns and shutters, satellite and weathercock—had been removed. Bushes had been uprooted, trees pared back, and everything replaced with . . . other things.
The siding was covered with glossy plastic, the balcony lined with pink plush insulation, and the inside of the fence was slopped in a white goop. Large crystalline blocks leaned beneath the windows, which had been painted black since the Cs moved in. Mr. and Mrs. C was all anyone on Weeping Fig knew to call the residents, what with the single white letter peeling off their mailbox.
The residents of Weeping Fig Way never saw any materials going in or coming out. No people either. New things simply appeared or disappeared every morning. Almost as if the house were growing by itself.
Strangely, or not, only the children of the neighborhood seemed concerned about the recent changes to the home. When the twins, Liza and Isaac, brought it up with their parents, their mother said, “They’re probably just remodeling. You leave those poor people alone.” When Joanna, Jo, noted Weeping Fig adventuress, told her dad she was concerned that the end of the world was very much nigh and that it was going to happen in that monstering house, he said, “Honey, I love you. I have a headache.”
And so it was on a purple-sky evening that the only three concerned citizens decided to investigate the Cs’ home by themselves. They hugged the dry side of the C’s goopy white fence, which smelled faintly of the twin’s plastic wading pool, and tried to get a peek through the narrow cracks.
Jo huffed. “Ize, you’ve been staring so long I’m gonna grow tall enough to see over.”
“Do that then,” Isaac said, eye fixed to the only open knot. “Nothing’s happened, and it’s no fair if all I see is lawn.” He looked at a window well, mysteriously stuffed with cotton. “I hear they keep demons in the basement. The old woman grows them in little flowerpots. And at night, she sets them loose to collect blonde hair that she knits into tiny demon sweaters because it’s chilly outside of heck.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Liza said, combing her fingers through her blonde hair. She looked at the peeling letter on the mailbox. “What do you think the C stands for? I mean, what kind of people only have one letter for a last name?”
“Crazies,” Isaac said, answering both questions.
He stood and dusted the grass from his pants. Jo practically dove through the knot. It was Liza’s turn, but everyone knew that Jo won every argument in the universe.
Liza just folded her arms. “Jane told me that’s where they send kids who get suspended. It’s forever black in there, and you have to sit and listen to things crawl. She said if you don’t squeeze your eyes shut, plug up your ears, and pinch your nose closed with your knees, something will crawl inside you.” She let that information sink in. “Jane’s uncle told her that, and he’s a lawyer.”
“No way,” Jo said, still searching the knot. “Ari Walker would’ve told us about that after he got suspended for surprise-kissing Mrs. Cathburt on the lips.”
“Well, what then?” Isaac asked.
Jo stood and stared at the peak of the roof that peeked over the fence. “I think that house is getting ready to set sail. It’ll slide right across the lawn and down the road, melting the asphalt into a black tar river. The house will bounce from sidewalk to sidewalk like a boat from bank to bank, and Mr. and Mrs. C will stand on their balcony and cut kids’ heads off with machetes. And anyone who’s riding their bike or licking an ice cream cone or just soaking in the sun because they’re happy it’s summer will all of a sudden find themselves tumbling down the sidewalk for a few rolls until . . .” Jo snapped her fingers. “Lights out.”
The twins gaped. This was the most horrible solution of all, so it had to be the right one.
“We have to do something,” Isaac said.
“Kids’ heads,” Liza said.
They both looked at Jo, and she gave that look that so often preceded miracles—miracles that retrieved Frisbees from roofs, procured free Slurpees from 7-11, and once, brought a tire-squished toad back from the dead. It was the look that reminded them there was magic in the world, good and evil.
The twins waited.
***
Parents kissed, blankets stuffed, windows creaked, and pipes slid, Jo, Liza, and Isaac became part of the night. Jo slipped two black somethings over each of the twins’ heads, one over herself, and then a half moon found the three figures crinkle and slink across sprinkler-wet lawns. They stopped at the Cs’ hedges and peered through the greenery.
“I thought you said these would make us sleuthy,” Isaac whispered, tugging at the cut collar of his trash bag shirt, “not shiny and noisy.”
“Shh!” Jo said.
The Cs’ blacked-out windows looked like closed bruised eyelids. Only the leaves whispered in the night. Jo eyed the house’s foundation for signs of hellfire. When there was none to be seen, she whispered, “Okay, what’s the plan?”
The twins looked at each other, then back at Jo.
“What have you two been doing all day?” Jo asked. “Because I’ve been dreaming up trash bag shirts. I guess it isn’t enough to get us here invisible and in one piece!”
“Isaac was so nervous, he shook during dinner,” Liza said. “Peas went everywhere.”
“Shush, Lize,” Isaac said. “Jo, you’re the one who comes up with this stuff!”
Jo opened her mouth and waited for something brilliant to fill it. She didn’t want the twins thinking she didn’t have any ideas. And she definitely didn’t want them knowing that it was exhausting being the one to come up with everything all the time and that she thought that this must be what the president felt like.
But Jo was saved by a click in the night. The Cs’ front door creaked open. A figure stepped onto the porch. It wore a ski mask, turtleneck, goggles, snow pants, and kitchen gloves. Hardly August attire. The figure looked up the street once and then down and then it turned and hefted a folded black tarp that could have easily held a body, or a spaceship fin, or a cache of tiny demon sweaters. The kids said nothing, but their looks communicated unspeakable evil. And even better, the delight of finding it out.
With some difficulty, the overdressed figure slumped and bumped the tarp down the stairs and then dragged it across the stretch of grass around to the back of the house. The second it disappeared, Jo leapt to action.
“It’s worse than we thought! The Cs are moon people come to steal children and bring them back as slaves to dig out their moon caves—Or no!” Jo interrupted herself. “Isaac was right! They escaped from hell! And even the summer air is too cold for their demon bodies. They have to dress like Eskimos to keep their fire and brimstone from snuffing out!”
Liza was still frowning at the swear Jo said when Jo ran around the hedge. “Come on!”
“Are you crazy?” Liza and Isaac both said at the same time, but didn’t grump at each other, as usual.
“The door’s wide open!” Jo cried. “We couldn’t pray for a better chance than this.”
“If a crocodile’s mouth is open, do you jump in?” Isaac said. “Curiosity killed the cat.”
“Yeah?” Jo said. “Well, Jo killed the Isaac because he was such a wuss. Let’s throw wide the doors! Peel the window paint! Bring it all to light!” Her feet danced on the lawn. “He’ll be back any second! Now, are you coming, or are you gonna let me go and die alone?”
The twins stayed hunched like lawn gnomes.
“Fine,” Jo spat at them. She sprang across the lawn, up the stairs, and through the open door.
The twins looked at each other, Jo-less, and found that one was just as pale with worry as the other. Their legs were running after her before they knew it.
***
Walking into the Cs’ house was like walking into Africa. And Argentina. And Albania (if Liza or Isaac knew what Albania looked like).
The room was lit with red-draped lamps. Shadows leapt in every direction. Wooden masks glared empty-eyed from the walls. There were lion-carved chairs, boats in bottles, and stumps of marble columns. There were dolls with pigtails and clogs, naked dancing lady paintings, and oriental rugs so ornate they looked likely to swallow the twins’ feet up. Weapons of all sorts—spears and boomerangs, blowguns and muskets—pointed every which way from the walls, as if they were just waiting for someone to try and steal something.
Fortunately, the twins weren’t interested in culture just then. They wanted to get Jo, they wanted to leave with Jo, and they wanted that to happen before the potentially psycho, possibly murderous space person or hell escapee walked back through the door.
“Jo?” Isaac whispered.
There was a creak in the ceiling.
Liza tugged his sleeve so he was close. “What if there are more of them, Ize?”
“I dunno. Why’s it all red in here?”
“I dunno.”
All this not knowing sent a chill right up their spines and chattered their teeth.
“Jo!” Isaac hissed. “We’re gonna die, Jo. Come out from hiding!”
Jo came stomping down the stairs with the biggest fool grin either of the twins had ever seen. “There’s a man upstairs! He’s sleeping on sticks!”
Isaac seized her wrist. “Out the window! Out the back! I don’t care, just out!”
Jo shook off his grip. “You’ll have to knock me out!”
Isaac tried to grab her again, but Jo avoided him by ducking and squirreling through the room’s many keepsakes.
“Can’t you see I was wrong?” she said, sliding behind a Chinese dressing screen. Isaac lunged after her. “The Cs don’t chop kid necks! They would never! They’re the most romantic couple of ever!” She barely had time to put a fragile-looking vase between her and Isaac before he could snag her sleeve. “They sail from place to lovely place hording all the pretty things of the world!” She dove under a green-flower footrest. Isaac followed, but became stuck. Jo sat on it and grinned down at him. “Like beautiful pirates! They only paint the windows black so no one steals their treasure!”
Isaac struggled. “What about all those weapons then, huh?”
“I’m so glad you asked,” Jo said, strolling through the room. “They steal these and use them as decoration so that they won’t get jabbed or shot into anyone’s bellies. They turn war into art.” Jo patted a musket.
BLAM!
Shocked, the twins slowly took their fingers out of their ears and stared at the barrel of the musket. Smoke curled through the room. Plaster rained from above. Jo looked up at the hole in the ceiling, right below where the man had been sleeping in bed . . .
There was a thump on the front porch.
“It’s the moon person!” Liza said.
“It heard!” Isaac said.
“No duh,” Jo said, too shocked to move.
Before Jo, Liza, or Isaac had a chance to run, duck or hide, the owner of the house opened the door and stared at them with its goggled eyes. The kids’ faces went as blank and wide as the masks that hung around them. It was a long time before the person lifted up the goggles and revealed a beautiful pair of old lady eyes.
“Hello,” the old woman said.
“Hi.”
“Hi.”
Jo elbowed Isaac. “Ow. Hey.”
The woman pulled down her facemask. She looked up at the hole in the ceiling. “Are you here to rob me?”
The three kids looked at each other.
“No, ma’am,” Jo said. “We came in here because . . . because . . .”
“Because our kitten ran away,” Liza said, “and we thought we saw him run in here.”
Isaac swallowed his shock. He’d never heard his sister lie before. The twins had never even owned a goldfish.
“If a cat was in here, I’d know it,” the old woman said. “I’m allergic to them. There isn’t much I’m not allergic to.” She glanced from face to face with jumpy eyebrows. “What’s your cat’s name?”
“Mr. Mouse,” Liza said, not skipping a beat.
Isaac breathed out. “If there’s no cat here, then we’ll go now.”
He took a step toward the door and gave Jo a look. Jo pouted and followed. As they walked out, the old woman stayed close to the wall as if one of them might bite her.
“What are your names?” the woman asked.
Jo pointed.
“That’s Liza. That’s Isaac. Sometimes I call them Lisaac.”
“Jo!” Isaac said between his teeth. “Don’t give our real names!”
“Jo’s short for Joanna,” Jo said. “I’m not a boy.”
“Are you children from the neighborhood?” the old woman asked.
“Right down the street,” Jo answered. “Number 1848. They’re 1850.”
Isaac looked at the floor and shook his head.
Mrs. C gave the kind of smile that could only be seen with a magnifying glass. “I never had children.”
“Why?” Liza asked.
“Not you, too,” Isaac said.
“Well . . .” There was still a slight tremor in the old woman’s voice. “I think you bring a child into this world because you want them to see the beauty of it. But I’ve had a hard life. And if any child got the disease I have, well . . . I’d just feel like it was no good is all.”
None of the kids wanted to ask the question. None except Jo, that is.
“What’s wrong with you?”
The old woman slipped off one of her gloves, unveiling a hand as white as dandelion roots. “I’m allergic to sunlight.”
The children stared at the hand. A hand that never slathered on suntan lotion. A hand that had never blocked for shade. A hand that never had ice cream melt down its fingers in the warm summer sun.
“Goodnight,” Isaac said.
He took his sister and Jo by the arms and with every bit of strength in his ten-year old body, marched them straight out the door.
Jo wrenched free by the mailbox. “Are you crazy? We have to go back in there!”
“Am I crazy?” Isaac asked. “Allergic to the sun? Uh-uh. No such thing. She’s probably a vampire or something.”
“Vampires are prettier than that, I think,” Liza said.
“You don’t have to be pretty to do witchcraft!” Isaac said. “Did you guys even see what I saw? Chicken feet on the coffee table! Dolls with needles sticking out! Big . . . pots in the corners, filled with ashes or something!”
“The dolls didn’t have needles,” Liza said.
“Who cares?” Jo fumed. “Think of all the questions we didn’t ask! Like, how long has she been allergic to the sun? What does the C stand for? Is she allergic to the moon too? If not, why’s she wearing that freaky get up? Where’d she get all the awesome stuff? And the number one question we came to find out in the first place: Why is her house turning into a freaking rocket ship?” Jo pointed her finger in Isaac’s face. “If you can answer those questions for me right now, then I’ll leave with you.”
Isaac opened his mouth. Then he shut it again.
“Thought so.”
Jo walked back inside. Liza followed. Isaac started down the sidewalk.
“Let them get sucked into a black hole. Or melt up in heckfire. Or lose their heads!”
Then he remembered the time that Liza took the blame for eating the stick of butter. They both got into trouble, but because Liza was in trouble too, it was easier. Like he only got half of the screaming. The thought spun Isaac in an angry half circle. By the time he got back inside, Jo was already overflowing with questions.
“How long have you been allergic to the sun? What does the C stand for? Where did you get all this stuff? Does moonlight kill you too? And, and . . . oh shoot, there was one more.”
“Can you go to a tanning salon?” Liza asked.
“That wasn’t it,” Jo said, “but yeah, can you?”
The old woman smiled. “No, I cannot go to a tanning salon.”
She slid her goggles over her forehead and untangled the strap from her gray ponytail.
“What about the rest of the questions?” Jo asked.
“My name is Mrs. Cantaloupe. At least for today it is. Would you children like to sit down?”
Jo sat right on the floor. Liza knelt on a stool that looked like an elephant’s foot. Isaac stayed standing. He really hoped they all noticed.
***
“The moon is in cahoots with the sun to murder me,” Mrs. C said. She said it with such a big smile it tugged up a smile on each of the kids. Except Isaac, of course.
“Is that why you dress like an astronaut?” Jo asked.
Mrs. Cantaloupe nodded. “Lunar light is solar light reflected. Did you children know that?”
They looked at each other and shook their heads.
“Why’d you say your name was Cantaloupe, just for today?” Jo asked.
“Boy delivered the groceries today. It seemed like a sweet name.” Mrs. C’s eyes danced across the walls. “Sometimes it’s Cucanelli, sometimes Conales. Once it was Chavdarov. Funny. I can’t remember what it was originally. Or maybe I can, and it’s just too boring to say.”
Liza looked at the walls’ many grinning wonders.
“Do you like them?” Mrs. C asked. “My husband knew I’d never be able to travel the world. So he brought the world to me.”
“Where is Mr. C?” Isaac asked.
Jo glanced at the hole in the ceiling and held her breath.
Mrs. C gazed up the shadowy staircase. “He’s in the bedroom.”
“Is he sleeping?” Liza asked.
Mrs. C thought a moment. “More waiting.”
Isaac did not like the way she said this and told the girls so with his eyebrows. But they were busy watching Mrs. C, whose gaze floated around the room like an airplane soaring across the countries that mapped her walls.
“It began with Kenya,” she said, her voice as distant as a satellite. “I saw a documentary on the television. And I said, Oh! And Mr. C must have known that Oh! meant that my heart was filling up with giraffes and lions, savannahs and endless skies.” Her shoulders fell. “And disappointment. Africa seemed such a frightfully sunny place.” She stood and walked over to a miniature zoo of plastic figurines set up on a small table. “The next day he marched in with handfuls of safari. We spent weeks snipping construction paper for the plains and puncturing black velvet to make our ceiling a starry sky.” Her cheeks flushed. “Then Mr. C insisted on going native. When he came out in that loin cloth . . . I didn’t want him to be embarrassed so I joined him, stitchless and carefree as the day I was born.” She shrugged away her embarrassment. “And none of it mattered because the windows were blacked out.”
“What country came next?” Liza asked.
For once, Isaac did not shush her.
“England. The animals migrated to the wall. Loincloths went on wire hangers. The golden horizon was wallpapered over and carpeting rolled over the plains. We lived in high society with lace and teas and upturned noses. We used words like dustbin and tarry and the loo.”
“What’s a loo?” asked Jo.
“It’s the bathroom.”
Liza squirmed. “Can I use yours?”
“I’m afraid not, dear. You don’t want to go up there. It isn’t very pleasant.” The kids looked at each other with dark thoughts, but Mrs. C kept right on talking. “Every week a new culture. Whatever belief or customs they might have, we adopted whole-heartedly—walked it, spoke it, breathed it into our lungs. We shed or grew our hair, stretched our necks, starved ourselves, gluttonized. Brazil, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Ukraine. One day painted head to toe in war paint, hunting each other through overturned furniture. The next, carting wheelbarrows of sand, lying on hammocks, and spitting fountains of coconut milk into each other’s mouths.”
“I get it now!” Jo said. “You and your husband ran out of room. You went to so many countries that you filled up the walls. And now you’re going to decorate the outside of your house.”
Mrs. C avoided Jo’s eyes. “I think if everyone tried on different cultures like they tried on different clothes, then there wouldn’t be so much killing each other. How can you get angry at someone when you’ve spent a day in their shoes . . . or their loincloths?” Mrs. C gazed up the darkened staircase. “Our last journey was to Norseland . . .”
“Last?” Liza said.
“Norseland?” Jo said.
“That’s where Vikings come from,” Isaac said.
No one applauded him for his intelligence so he went back to sulking.
“For all their barbarism, the Viking people had some lovely ideas. They believed in an afterlife called Valhalla. Brave warriors were allowed to take their riches there after they died. The Vikings placed their heroes’ corpses on beautiful boats, and then sailed them out to sea with all their gold and treasure—even their women—and then they shot arrows aflame from the beach until one struck the mast . . . setting the whole thing alight.” Mrs. C raised her pale hand to the decorated walls. “Behold our riches.”
The kids felt a touch of cold in their chests.
“Why doesn’t Mr. Cantalope come down here?” Isaac asked.
Mrs. C. smiled. “Because he’s dead, dear.”
All their blood might’ve soaked right into the ornate carpet they turned so pale. Only Jo was a little relieved, knowing she hadn’t just shot a living person.
“Don’t be frightened,” Mrs. C said. “There’s nothing more natural in the world than dying. Everybody does it.”
“My salamander did it,” Jo said.
The old woman smiled.
“We should go,” Isaac said.
This time the two girls went willingly. Mrs. C walked them all the way to the door, but stopped before the harmful rectangle of moonlight.
“Thank you for visiting me,” she said. “I hope you find your cat.” The three turned in the middle of the lawn. Mrs. Cantaloupe squinted at the crystal blocks, the pink foam leaning up against the fence. “Is there a wind tonight, children?”
Liza licked her finger and stuck it in the air. “Nope.”
“That’s good.” Mrs. C smiled at their confused faces. “Don’t you think it’s appropriate that a life of darkness ends with an excess of light?”
The three kids nodded, unsure of what they were agreeing to exactly. And with that, Mrs. C clicked her door shut.
***
Isaac took off toward home at a brisk pace. Jo didn’t move from the lawn. Liza became stuck halfway between them, pinched in the center of an invisible, stretching rubber band.
Isaac looked over his shoulder. “Guys! C’mon! We have to call the police.”
“No.” Jo crossed her arms. “We have to go back in there and talk her out of it. Old people aren’t supposed to die that way. It’s too horrible. They should die in bed, old and wrinkled and warm, until their breath goes away.”
“Why call the police?” Liza asked, her gaze bouncing back and forth between the two. “Talk her out of what?”
Isaac walked back and put his hand on his sister’s shoulder. “She’s going to burn her house down, Lize. With her in it.”
Liza stared at the black windows, mouth hanging open.
“That’s why she put all that stuff on her house,” Jo said. “So she could burn faster. Her and her dead husband.”
She took one of Liza’s hands. Isaac took the other. “Come on,” they said at the same time and started in opposite directions. They both jerked to a halt.
“What are you doing?” Isaac asked, tugging his sister one way. “That crazy woman’s gonna burn down the whole neighborhood!”
“We can’t call the cops!” Jo said, tugging her the other. “They’ll take her and put her in some crazy asylum with big old windows and the sun will burn her up!”
Liza wished her body would just tear in two and have done with it. When that didn’t happen, she yanked both of her hands back. She had never stood up to her twin or her best friend before. Tagalong was written in her DNA.
But it was an evening of firsts.
Liza said, “I’m not the one who didn’t listen. You guys didn’t.”
“Yeah, I did,” Isaac said. “Flames! Fire! Kerfloom!”
“I did nothing but listen in there, Lyz,” Jo said. “And I heard a lonely old woman who wants our help. And wants me to be her best friend.”
“No!” Liza said, shutting her eyes and folding her hands in her armpits so they could not be grabbed. “Neither of you listened.”
“Liza,” Isaac said. “If you don’t help me stop her, then I’ll stop talking to you. I don’t care if you are my sister. I’ll never share anything with you again. Not my games, not my hair mousse, not anything. I’ll dye my hair and wear tall shoes so I don’t even look like you.”
“We’re running out of time!” Jo said, trying to pull Liza’s elbow toward the house. “Let’s take away the matches! Get the old man to a churchyard! We’ll buy her a naked mole rat as a pet. They hate sun, too, I think.”
Liza grimaced. She tried to see through the black windows as she remembered the sparkler that had bitten her thumb that 4th of July. She imagined what it would be like to get bit all over.
“What she said about other cultures. They do things the way they think is right just like we do.”
“That’s different,” Isaac said. “You can’t have an old lady burn herself to death and have it be a happy ending. You just can’t!”
“If this happens, nothing will be okay ever again,” Jo said. “We’ll remember this until we’re old.”
Liza walked to the porch and rubbed some of the pink insulation between her fingers. “Both of you just decided that she was evil before we even met her. She’s a space person! She’s from heck. Well . . . she’s not either of those things. Every night she’s been working hard in her anti-moon suit to make sure her neighbors wouldn’t burn up, too. See?” She pointed at the adornments around the house that she didn’t know the names of and made some guesses of her own. “Those are to stop the fire. And . . .” Liza hesitated as Isaac and Jo scowled at her. “And I’m gonna help her. You two can run inside and get burned up or call the police and get a nice old lady dragged away, but I’m gonna go get a bucket and I’m gonna make sure no flames try to crawl over that fence.”
Floom. Liza saw Jo and Isaac’s faces light up a moment before she felt the heat on the back of her neck. The three kids backed to the edge of the lawn as the Cs’ windows wept black and filled with the fire Jo had predicted.
“It’s too late for police,” Isaac said.
“Too late for naked mole rats,” Jo said.
And with all thoughts of cops or acts of heroism blazed away, Jo, Liza, and Isaac dashed for buckets and water guns. They squirted skittering sparks and stomped slithering snakes of flame. And then they stood on the street with the neighbors and the spinning red lights and the screaming sirens.
They watched the house burn, the flames fixing a fiery imprint on their vision. When the sun rose, Jo, Liza, and Isaac looked up. There was the Cs’ house floating in the clouds, like a bright purple Viking ship. They watched until the image faded in the dawning sky and their retinas.

 

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