Below, I've pasted a snippet from Stir the Bones. If you like what you see, pick up the book and find out what happens to Josie, Paul and Bear, as they struggle to cope with the aftermath of a tornado, trapped in what may be a haunted basement.
Stir the Bones
I still couldn’t get over how loud it was –the wind had shrieked and wailed and howled like lost souls escaping from the abyss, swirling around the house, ripping away shingles and siding and God knows what else. My husband said it sounded like a thousand fighter jets taking off all at once. He would know, since he’s an Air Force brat. Me, I was amazed that there’d been a tornado in Massachusetts.
Everyone, even those like me who were born decades afterward, still talks about the tornado that hit Worcester in 1953, so I guess today’s tornado wasn’t such an unprecedented event. However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t damn irregular. I mean, we get lots of thunderstorms in the summer, but nothing like a tornado. Nothing like that dark funnel cloud, spewing debris and destruction like an evil whirling dervish. There had never been anything like this.
When the rain started, my husband, Paul, and I hardly mentioned it, except to say that Bear would be unhappy when he went for his walk. Then, the wind picked up and the warning came over the local news, and the three of us hurtled into the basement. Then there was the noise, the horrible howling wind coupled with the sound of wood splintering and heavy things being tossed about. I wondered if our home had been reduced to kindling.
Now, the storm had ended but we were trapped in the creepy, cobwebby basement, being that some of the aforementioned flying debris had wedged the door shut. And, of course, we’d lost power and cell service. It wasn’t really a big deal; we had a second fridge in the basement, stocked mostly with Popsicles, old beer, and the other odds and ends not fit for the kitchen proper. Next to the fridge was a cabinet filled with canned goods, paper towels, and (luckily for Bear) a million pound bag of dog food. I figured we’d have cell service restored in a day, two at the max, and if the door remained stuck, we could call for help at that time.
Until help arrived, we were content to deplete our hoard of beer. Most of it was left over from various summer gatherings, and I couldn’t think of a better reason to celebrate than surviving a tornado. I used a screwdriver to open a green bottle of dubious origin, and grinned at Paul.
“I think this one’s German,” I declared after a quick sniff.
“Skunked,” Paul muttered as I waved it under his nose. “I bet most of that stuff’s bad.” He rummaged in the fridge and emerged with a bottle of his own. We poured a little in a plastic bowl for Bear, so named because he’s a gigantic brown mutt, and sat down by one of the narrow windows. “I wish the electric hadn’t gone out.”
“I hope we have a house left.” He didn’t have anything to say to that, and for a while we just sat there, drinking funky beer in the dappled light filtering in through the basement windows. I realized that the dappled light likely meant that the foundation shrubs were intact. It was a small bit of good news, but I’ll take what I can get.
We finished our drinks, had some Popsicles, then popped a few more beers. By now, the light was fading fast, we still had no cell signal, and our electric still wasn’t on. The only thing on was my buzz.
“Remember the wacko we got this place from?” I asked suddenly.
“Freak,” Paul muttered, because she was. The previous homeowner lived in this house for ten years, had an assortment of small caged pets (lizards, hamsters and the like) that she kept in the dining room, and had had a succession of husbands, boyfriends, and fiancés. According to the neighbors, eight different men lived here with her at one time or another. Must have really confused the mailman.
What was really weird was her love of concrete. We had this twenty-five square foot concrete patio in the backyard, our fence and deck posts were set in four foot deep concrete holes, and she’d raised the basement floor by two feet via her favorite medium.
“Too bad she didn’t put down carpeting,” my husband grumbled when I mentioned that last bit of trivia. We’d talked about finishing the basement but had never quite gotten around to it, and the concrete was pretty hard on our butts. The prior owner claimed the old floor was bare dirt, so in theory the concrete was an improvement, but I disagreed. Our basement was a cold, dark place, and it would take a lot more than a new floor to fix it.
After a while the sun went down, but it did nothing for the heat. The basement air was thick and wet, wrapped around us like a used dishrag. To add to our torment, we were in near-perfect blackness, and the lack of power made me worry that everything in the fridge was close to spoiling. Most miserable, however, was Bear. He didn’t like being confined, his thick coat meant that he hated the heat, and I suspect he was afraid of the dark.
“You think there’s anything over there that can hurt him?” I asked. Bear was scrabbling away at something in the far corner, behind the washer. Normally I wouldn’t let him scratch around like that, but I figured he was bored. I know I was.
“Nah. The detergent’s up high.” I heard Paul stand and make his way to the fridge, then the soft pop of a bottle opening. Normally, I would have something to say about this rampant drinking, but what else were we really going to do? Then he pressed a cold bottle into my hand, silencing me in his own way.
“It’s so creepy down here,” I said, hugging my knees to my chest. I’d never liked the basement, not when we did our first walk through and not now, after living on top of it for two years. There was something wrong, like the walls were watching. And, I don’t think they liked what they saw.
“Better than up there,” Paul said. He’d gone up the stairs and tried the door for the umpteenth time, verifying we were still stuck. Alive, but trapped.
“God, where is the power crew?” I got up and paced, which wasn’t a smart thing to do in the dark. I tripped, swore, then kicked whatever had tripped me and hurt my foot. Paul yelled at me to calm down while the dog barked his fool head off.
“Shut up shut up shut up!” I screamed. “Both of you shut up!”
Silence. Thank God.
I picked my way over to the washer and sat on the lid. I could just make out Bear in the moonlight, giving me that quizzical face dogs get after you yell. “Sorry.” I rubbed Bear’s ears, speaking loud enough for Paul to hear. “I’m just going a little stir crazy.”
Bear put his paw on my wrist; at least he didn’t hold grudges. My husband, now that’s another matter. I noticed Bear’s wet, sticky fur.
“Hey, babe,” I called. “I think Bear got into the detergent.”
Paul walked over and flicked his lighter. Bear had a thick, sticky liquid on his paw, matting down his fur. I bent closer, careful not to singe my hair on the open flame, and caught a faint metallic scent.
“I think he’s bleeding.”
Paul hauled Bear over to the sink and plopped him in; luckily, the water lines hadn’t been compromised. Bear’s no fan of water, but we got his paws rinsed off. After they were clean we inspected them as best we could with the lighter, but couldn’t find any cuts.
“He must have just gotten into something,” Paul stated in that brook-no-argument way of his. “Oil, or dirt.”
I nodded in the darkness. There wasn’t any oil or dirt in the basement, or anything else that would account for the dark liquid on Bear’s paws. However, the middle of the night after a tornado is not the time to explore the depths of the basement, especially this basement. I made another weak attempt at humor, and mentioned my theory that the last owner’s exes were the reason she raised the floor. Paul wasn’t having it.
“Will you get off that? There is nothing here. Nothing. Don’t you think the home inspection would have mentioned it?”
“Exactly what would it have said?” I countered. “Fresh grave in the northeast quadrant, financing denied?”
He blew out an exasperated breath and popped another beer. I considered one myself, but I wondered if alcohol was part of the problem. My fuzzy brain, coupled with this sweatbox that stank of dog and blood, was making me hallucinate.
Wait-we rinsed his paws. Why does it still smell like blood down here?
“Lemme see the lighter.” Paul tossed and I managed to catch it, and made my way over to the far corner where Bear had been scrabbling around. While the entire floor was a concrete slab, that end had some vinyl floor tiles affixed to it, a lame attempt at making the space livable. I crouched down and examined the vinyl. Bear had pulled up the corner and shredded the edges. There was more of that mystery liquid seeping up from underneath, and I wondered if we had a leak.
“Hey,” I called, “there’s some sort of goo oozing up through the floor.”
“Really?” Paul made his way over to me, peering over my shoulder at the black mess. “Is that oil?” I didn’t answer. Instead, I gingerly grabbed the shredded corner of the vinyl and slowly peeled it up.
I screamed. And screamed.
I leapt backward into Paul, now hyperventilating as I tried to tell him what was beneath our house. What our dog had found. I lost my breath, then darkness took me.
When I came to we were sitting halfway up the basement steps. Paul was holding me against him, and Bear was smushed up against my hip as if to guard me. Despite the heat, I welcomed the huge, furry mess of him.
“It was a stick,” Paul whispered in my ear. “Bear found a stick.”
“It wasn’t a stick,” I snapped, my voice raw. Had I screamed that much? I guess I had. “It was a bone.”
“It was not,” he insisted, but he was wrong. I remember seeing it there under the floor, red and meaty and gnawed on. It was bone, and it was human. God, I hope Bear wasn’t the one gnawing on it. I hope he doesn’t get sick.
If Bear wasn’t gnawing on it, who was?