PseudoPod 776: Papa’s Wrench and the Wind Chime


Papa’s Wrench and the Wind Chime

By Marianne Halbert


The patch of fog on the window, expanding and fading with each breath, was the only proof that I was still breathing as the school bus turned the corner. The driver slowed, and the brakes made a squeaking, squealing sound. It reminded me of the mice my brother used to feed to his snake. Of that sound they made before the fangs released a blessed silence. Most of the kids, including me, were sitting two to a seat. We were still a block away and had just passed the Dead End sign when I heard the wind chime. Dainty at first. It always sounded dainty at first. Then clanging as the breeze picked up. I knew what hung from that oak tree. We all did. And we knew what was making that sound.

Every time we drew near that house, I thought of this old album my mom put on the turntable at Halloween. Sound effects like creaking floors, screeching cats, and a thunderstorm played as a woman with an overly dramatic, yet convincing voice described a “dilapidated” house. It was only mid-September now, but I heard that woman’s voice in my head. I looked at the Monstrum place, with its drooping gutters, missing shingles, and peeling paint. I mouthed the word dilapidated, and the patch of fog on my window grew again.

The bus rolled to stop. The Monstrum kids stood motionless, waiting, behind a broken porch banister. They all had a certain look about them. Lanky, with long straight hair that had never seen a barber’s shop or a beautician’s blade. Some said they all wore black eye shadow on their upper lids, but I was among those convinced the lids themselves were a smoky black. The older ones wore gloves all the time, and spoke through practically closed lips. I watched the horde of them descend those warped front porch steps. In one motion, like a flock of birds, they moved across their overgrown front lawn. Dandelion seeds scattered on the wind, and a few of the Monstrum girls blew kisses after them. A shiver ran through me at the thought of those wishes being granted. Gunther, the oldest boy in the group, led the V formation.

My gaze moved from the horde to that tree. I studied the weapons dangling from its branches. I’d looked at those items, watched their numbers grow, even gazed through a set of binoculars as I huddled down in the seat a few years ago. All the usual items were there today. A rusted hacksaw. Hunting knives that had been scarred by whatever it was they’d stabbed. Tire irons, one of them bent in perpetuity at an awkward angle. Two long guns with jagged, splintered grooves in the wood, a bayonet, and a tomahawk. Hundreds more. I looked back at the clan. The older ones should have broken off from the group and headed toward their van by now. But they hadn’t.

Marla leaned in closer to me, gripping my arm.

“Ginny, what are they doing?” She was practically hyperventilating and her breath smelled like sour milk. Her voice was verging on shrill. “They can’t all be riding the bus today. They can’t…there’s too many of them.”

I looked at the rusted blue VW bus they usually drove to school. Something was wrong. It was lopsided. I let out a slow breath, fogging the window again.

“Flat tire.”

The weapon wind chime clanged again, and Gunther smirked, revealing just a hint of yellow teeth. One of his younger brothers, a raven-haired boy I didn’t recognize, broke from the formation and ran back into the house. The rest of the group had almost reached the bus. I could hear whimpers and gasps from my schoolmates. The few kids sitting on their own looked around, eyes frantic. They scattered and found safety sitting with friends. Marla scootched even closer to me. I glanced around and saw three empty seats. Three empty seats for the entire Monstrum clan. It wouldn’t be enough.

Gunther stepped up and into the school bus. His brown eyes darted around, his brown hair dangling over his shoulders. He stood aside, letting some of his siblings settle in to the three empty seats. But more were coming. They began to sit with other kids. Twin sisters, with matching scarlet gloves, and their white-blonde  hair elaborately braided together, took the seat in front of me. Once they were all settled, Gunther sauntered toward us. He sat down next to Marla. She let out a yelp and climbed over the back of the seat. I was all alone as he sat beside me.

I squeezed as close to the window as I could. I didn’t want to look at those weapons anymore. I didn’t want to know how they’d gotten there, how they’d gotten chipped or bent, or what had happened to their original owners. As the bus driver began to make his three-point turn, I stared down at the plastic pink ring on my finger. But a flash from the Monstrum yard caught my eye.

One of the twins mumbled, “Eugene’s not going to make it.” She craned her neck to look out the window, and because her sister was tethered to her via the braid they shared, she craned her neck also.

I watched the boy race  for the bus, his long black hair flying. He looked so pale. So frail. Kindergarten? First grade at the most. The bus had completed the turn and was trundling down the road, but the boy was fast. As we were about to make the turn, the Dead End sign behind us, he pounded twice on the door. The driver cranked the door release, and Eugene Monstrum clambered aboard.

He didn’t have any books or a backpack, so I couldn’t imagine what he’d forgotten that had made him run back to his house. The bus accelerated, but he remained steady on his feet. His eyes met mine and I froze. Not here. Not two of them. Please not two of them.

Eugene stepped forward. His small chest heaved twice. Whether he was recovering from his sprint  for the bus, or preparing to challenge his brother, I can’t say. But he looked Gunther in the eye. “This. Seat’s. Taken.” Eugene took two more deep breaths, and this time it made me think of how animals puff themselves up in anticipation of a challenge.

Gunther didn’t say anything for a minute. He didn’t seem angry. If anything, he seemed puzzled, and a bit amused. I could see that smirk of his in the driver’s rearview mirror. Eugene had to reach up to put one hand on the back of the seat. The look on his face, his posture, seemed to be saying “Are you going to make me repeat myself?”

Gunther shook his head and stood up. He swept one gloved hand in my direction. “She’s all yours, little man.”

I should have known by the smirk on Carl’s face that this was coming. To his credit, he let Papa finish saying grace. He even waited until the plate of pork chops had gone around the table before he started in.

“So, I heard the bus ride to school this morning was interesting.”

I felt my face flush. I kicked my brother under the table, but that only elicited a giggle from him. Papa was tucking his napkin into his collar when he turned to me. His brows were as fiery red as his hair, and he raised them as he casually said, “Oh?” 

I gritted my teeth, seething at my older brother.

“Apparently the Monstrum kids rode the bus this morning,” Carl said.

Mama shook her head. “The Monstrum kids always ride the bus. Those of us on the school board tried to put a stop to it years ago.”

Then Carl blurted it out. “All of them.”

I watched my mother’s  face. She held the gravy pitcher in one trembling hand. A blob of gravy plopped onto the white tablecloth and she didn’t even notice. I could see the wheels turning in her head. She knew Carl had gotten a ride to school with his friend Scott. She turned to me in slow motion, almost like she was afraid to look at me. Afraid of what she’d see.

“You were there?” She tried to set the gravy boat  down but missed the table and it shattered on the floor. “Did any of them get near you?” She was already rising out of her chair. “Did any of them touch you?” Her voice sounded thick, like she was trying to keep herself from throwing up.

Before I understood what was happening, she raced upstairs. The sound of running bath water drowned out her sobs. Now Papa’s red brows furrowed as he drummed his fingers on the tablecloth.

Carl was shoveling cinnamon apples into his mouth and smirking. I felt the need to defend myself. Like somehow it was my fault. But all I could offer was, “The tire on their van was flat.”

Mama flew back downstairs and grabbed my hand. A minute later I stood shivering in the nude, watching the stream rise, and waiting for the tub to fill.

I heard my parents in the hallway.

 “I’ll just run out there and change the tire—”

“Stan, no! You’ll do no such thing.”

“Barb, I’ve got plenty of tires at the shop.”

“What, you’ll give it to that…that thing, for free?”

I stepped into the scalding water and hid as much of myself as I could under the bubbles.

“Would you rather risk Ginny over a God-damned tire?”

The slam of the back door downstairs made the bathroom door rattle in its frame. Hearing Papa curse rattled me even more.

As I heard his tow truck pull away from our house, Mama shouting after him, I pictured Papa turning down that dead end road at night. How would it go for him? If the legends were true, those demon pets would come from the woods for him, while the Monstrum kids watched and salivated from shattered windows. But I knew Papa. He would go down fighting. I scrubbed until my skin was raw. In my mind, I saw myself on the bus, looking through the window at Papa’s wrench swinging from the oak, the wind chime having taken on a much sadder tone. I scrubbed some more.

The water had turned cold and my fingers were pruned . Mama came in and towel-dried my hair. She was careful not to touch my skin. She rubbed the towel over my ears . But she couldn’t drown out that sound. I slipped into a cotton nightgown, and peered out my bedroom window as the moon rose high. Papa’s truck hadn’t made its way back to our gravel drive. I fell asleep that night with the covers pulled tight and the sound of the wind chime in my ear.

The next morning, my dad’s truck zoomed past the bus as we approached the dead end. When we pulled in front of the house, I saw the VW bus. No longer lopsided. The older Monstrums were piling into it, and the younger ones got on the bus. I’d been sitting alone. I guess Marla had decided to share her sour breath with some unfortunate sixth graders. I wasn’t surprised. Mama had started painting her nails while I ate breakfast. As the butter melted on my pancakes, she apologized for not being able to give me a hug. Wet nails and all. I knew as the screen door slammed behind me, I’d be sitting alone on the bus today. Except for Eugene. He didn’t hesitate. He sat down like he owned the seat.

Things went on like that for weeks. Mama tried to make me catch a ride with Carl and Scott, but there was no way I’d do that. The younger kids in town walked or rode their bikes to school. The bus picked up those of us on the outskirts of the county and dropped us off at “K through 8th ” or the high school across campus. I was in eighth grade but Eugene continued to sit with me every day. And for some reason those blonde twins with the conjoined braid kept riding the bus too, always sitting directly in front of us. I thought Eugene was five or six that day he dashed back into the house for God-knows-what. But he grew taller each day. He didn’t shove. He didn’t tease. He didn’t talk about gross things boys generally talked about. In fact, he never talked at all. But he’d move to the aisle, and wait for me to exit first. With one look on the second day, he got every kid on the bus waiting for me to exit first.

It always seemed like Eugene’s irises  were looking ahead, but a second set behind them darted to the side for a split second if someone on the bus laughed or squealed or cried. Like he had one set of eyes to show to the world, and another he used to watch it. Sometimes when I giggled at my science teacher, or skinned my knee in gym, even if he wasn’t in the same room, I felt like those second irises were trying to fix on me. And on those rare occasions when I saw it, I couldn’t tell if he was responding to emotion or trying to understand it.

I don’t know how he got home in the afternoons. The twins rode the bus home, but I sat alone. I’d slide into our seat, and occasionally a surprise awaited me. A penny flattened by the 740 on the tracks. Half of a robin’s egg he had to have kept since last spring, since before he’d even known me. A round dandelion weed with fluffy dreams just waiting to be blown onto the wind.

I’d tuck these treasures into a shoe box under my bed, slide into my cotton nightgown, and look out my window. Papa’s truck was there in the moonlight, and his body roamed this house, but he’d never really come home after that night. Sometimes at dawn a barred owl would blend into the tree outside my window, its eyes watching me no matter which way I turned. Mama had stopped making excuses. We both knew hugs had gone by the wayside. I’d climb onto the bus. I’d fiddle with my pink plastic ring and pretend Eugene wasn’t there. Pale as a ghost, silent as the grave, you’d almost think he wasn’t. Except he was more there, more present, more aware, than anyone I’d ever known.

The only time I saw him at school was in the cafeteria. The Monstrum kids sat at their own lunch table under a “Class of ’72!” homecoming banner. Apparently, they all had a food allergy. They brought sack lunches, but held the bags so close to their mouths, no one really knew what made those paper bags squirm.

One morning, the bus bounced over a rut and a drop of blood fell from Eugene’s mouth onto his jeans.

“You’re bleeding,” I said. I heard the same concern in my voice my mom used to express for me.

He used his tongue to gingerly wiggle a tooth. Tears began to well in his eyes. I’d never seen him look frightened. That second set of irises darted about, terrified. I tried to reassure him.

“It’s going to fall out. We all lose our baby teeth. It doesn’t hurt.”

The twins turned all the way around to face us. “Ginny, that’s so cute.” One licked her lips and the other traced one gloved finger over hers. Then they said in unison, their crystal-blue eyes mocking me, “It doesn’t hurt to wose itty bitty baby teeth!” When they finished laughing, one said, “He’s not afraid of the pain. Believe us. It hurts. But it’s not teeth waiting to descend from his gums.” They rested their chins on the back of the seat between us, and parted their lips ever so slightly. They waited until the bus was screeching to a halt to spring their jaws open so it would mask the sound of my scream.

In early November, for two weeks, Scott’s mom called him in sick. Only we all knew the only kind of sick he had was waiting it out at juvy  while Widow Hanks decided whether or not to press charges over her broken bay window and missing silver candlesticks. Without a ride to school, Carl was forced to walk the mile to our bus stop with me.

“Don’t go thinking I’m going to sit with you.”

I stopped, drawing a cold November wind into my lungs. No one sat with me. No one but Eugene. The thought that my brother didn’t realize what was still going on was both a relief and a terror.

“You know how those weapons got there, don’t you?” he said.

I remained silent. I’d heard the stories.

We’d stopped at the crossroads. The whistle of the 740 carried through the woods. I pulled my red wool hat down tighter over my ears.

“No one’s ever killed a Monstrum. Not for lack of tryin’. But any weapon that strikes a blow will be taken as a warning. And the person who attacked them is never seen again.” Carl said this with the smug arrogance of a man who knew it to his core. I turned away, but he droned on. “Papa’s been warnin’ me since I could walk. Their mama, she’s a witch. Or a siren. Something like that. Turn even a good man bad. No doubt, the mom’s got the dominant genes. Sure, they get the texture of their hair, the shape of their teeth, and their ungodly claws from their mother’s side of the family. But have you ever noticed how that one’s bushy unibrow looks just like Mr. Danner from the bank? He went out there in his Cadillac on a spring morning to foreclose on the house. Six years later they’re still living in the house, and the kid’s in middle school. And how about those twins? No one has eyes that blue and hair that white except for Parson Barkly. Nine years ago, he went there to consecrate the ground. And those girls look seventeen if they look a day.”

I remembered that momentary glimpse those girls had shown me. Not wanting to harm me, just making sure I understood what was happening to Eugene. And that it would hurt.

I saw the puff of smoke over Gruber Hill and knew the bus would be here within a minute. The bus was as faithful as the train. I couldn’t stand the thought of Carl seeing Eugene sit down with me. That look in my mother’s eyes, or another shattered gravy boat. What caused my breakfast to rise in my throat was the thought of a fight breaking out between the two of them. What made me turn in my red plastic boots and walk the train tracks to school was the realization that I’d be rooting for Eugene.

A cold snap grabbed us just before school let out for the holidays and Papa made sure I bundled up. I’d pulled off my gloves and scarf and was putting things away in my locker when I overheard the fifth graders. That buck-toothed girl from the South side was sobbing as someone walked her down the hall. I felt someone bump me from behind. Scott towered over me and nodded toward the sobbing girl.

“It’s a real shame. If she didn’t want her bike to get stolen, she really should’ve put a lock on it.” He took my hand and moved it toward his lips. “Have a lovely day, my dear.”

I yanked my hand back. I slammed my locker shut. It was only after I’d walked down the hall and around the corner that I realized something was wrong. My hand felt empty.

“My ring.” I said it to myself. I breathed it as softly as the wind on the window. I turned toward the sound of the sobs and watched the girl’s friends comfort her. Eugene was at the end of the hall, but I saw his head whip around. I don’t think he actually looked me in the eye. I think his gaze traced the tear as it ran down my cheek.

Between third and fourth period, I stopped by my locker. The ring hung from the padlock. I put it on. I looked for Eugene in the gym. I looked for him in the cafeteria, and in the hallways. It was only as I peered out my window that night and saw the owl take flight that I realized something. Eugene’s hands that morning on the bus. It was the first time I’d seen him wear gloves. Somehow I knew the cold couldn’t touch him. He was changing.

We’d been back to school for over a week in January when a teacher asked me to take Eugene’s homework to him. He hadn’t shown up to school after the break. I started to ask why she didn’t just give it to one of his siblings, but then she began stuttering  and I took the folder.

I got off the bus past the dead end, aware of the eyes that watched me. My red boots crunched over the snow as I passed beneath the wind chime. I walked up the creaky steps. The screen door was closed but the main door was opened. Clearly, the cold didn’t hurt them. I knocked.

Mother Monstrum came to the door, one hand on her belly.

Now I was the one stammering, but I didn’t budge, even when a foot-long icicle dropped a few inches from me and shattered on the porch. “I’m Ginny. I’ve brought Eugene’s homework.”

She eyed me suspiciously. “You’re that mechanic’s kid.” Her hand rubbed her belly. “Come on in.”

I followed her into the house. It was the first time I’d seen her up close. Her gray hair was even longer than I’d realized. It trailed on the floor like a bridal veil as she moved ahead of me. It had picked up bits of leaves, dust, and dirt. When I saw beetles crawling through it, I felt my stomach churn. She turned to me, and in spite of that gray hair, she looked young. The only place I saw wrinkles was around her eyes. Her eyes looked so tired.

She took the homework assignment from my hand. She flipped the folder open and thumbed through the pages. The weariness in her voice matched her eyes when she spoke. “I had such high hopes for Eugene. But kids grow up so fast.” She threw the folder in the cardboard box that passed as a trash can.

I looked out the kitchen window, and saw some of her kids out there. Mother Monstrum looked at me and shrugged her shoulders.

“Digging for dinner. I don’t provide for my kids. It’s all I can do to carry ’em in here for a few months.” Her voice had softened a bit at that last statement. It seemed the only time she felt motherly was when they were inside her.

I heard melting snow shift on the roof, and water began to drip at a leaky spot in the kitchen.

“I need to get that fixed.” She sounded so resigned. “I’ll have to call a roofer.” She paused and draped one arm across her belly. “But not yet.”

No, of course not , I thought. No use having a man out to the house when you’ve already got a bun in the oven. Mama would wash my mouth out with soap if she knew I’d had such a thought. Still, I couldn’t help but pity the roofer’s wife.

Eugene’s mother let out a small “oh,” just then. She set her gaze on me, and smiled. “Do you want to feel it kick?”

No. I don’t want to feel it kick. I don’t want to see it dig for grubs or wonder what comes in when its teeth fall out.

“Come on. You’re a brave girl.” She motioned me toward her.

I felt myself entranced. A part of me did want to feel it kick. She took my hand and placed it on the swell. I waited. Our breathing fell into a synchronized rhythm. Her old, wrinkly eyes smiled.

“There.”

Whatever this creature would prove to be, whatever traits it inherited from its mother’s line or its father’s, right now, it was a miracle. Mother Monstrum nodded at my understanding.

“It’s our blessing and our curse. The only time a woman knows exactly where her child is every moment. When they move. These months. After that, you do the best you can. A roof over their heads. But you have so little control…”

Through the warped window, I could see the shapes of her other children, gathering their dinner.

“That day,” I said. “The first day Eugene rode the bus. What did he come back for?”

“A hug. From me. His first day of school. We can’t…I can’t, give them affection. Whatever warmth passes between us goes from them to me. I’m not a warm creature. I soak it up from whatever’s around me. Eugene, he’s said more with his eyes than scores of my kids have said with their lips. I’ve never heard Eugene speak. According to Gunther, he did say three words once.” She paused. “In fact, it was that same day. He wanted that hug. That warmth passing between us. Because in the passing of an afternoon either of us might change, and he’d never feel it again. He wanted to remember. So that once he’d matured, there would still be a part of him, somewhere inside, that remembered what love’s touch felt like.”

She’d sounded melancholy as the melting snow dripped onto her cracked linoleum. “But I’m not a hugger.” A brown tear welled in her eye but she brushed it away. “He never got what he deserved. My twins teased him about someone he wanted to hold hands with. Someone he’d given a ring to. But it’s too late. He’s gone to the woods now.”

She grimaced and grabbed her belly. Something wet and warm ran down her leg. Her eyes carried three sets of irises when she growled at me.

“My water’s broke, dear. You best head home. I get a little over protective when I’m birthing.” A swarm of cockroaches erupted from her hair and escaped to safety. I burst out the front door and heard the wind chime clanging behind me as I raced  for the woods.

I only slowed once I got to the tracks. As I walked along, I sensed someone, or something, following me. At first, I thought I heard footsteps behind me in the woods. But soon the sound came from higher up. As though something were moving through the trees.

I was going to walk all the way home, but through the trees I could see lights on at Papa’s shop. I was cold and exhausted and decided to get a ride home with Papa. But as I approached the back door, I realized the window had been smashed open and the door was ajar. I was about to run back toward the tracks when I heard a familiar giggle. I slipped inside the body shop. Carl stood there while his friend Scott loaded car batteries and tools into his car trunk.

“You can’t do that,” I said. Scott dropped something on his foot and cursed at me.

Carl’s head whipped toward me and he immediately slumped his shoulders in defeat. He turned to Scott. “Man, it’s over. Put it back.”

Scott shook his head. “No way. You know how much green this stuff’ll catch in Peoria? No eff-ing way.”

Scott looked around and found a weapon of opportunity. Papa’s wrench. He hefted it in his hands and a grin spread across his face.

I hated my brother. But to his credit, he stood up for me. “Dude, it’s over.” When Scott took a step toward me, Carl stepped between us. “Not worth it, man. That’s my sister.”

Scott used his practice swing on my brother. I heard a sick crunching sound as Carl’s collarbone shattered and he dropped to the floor of the garage.

A ’61 DeSoto sat nearby. It was on the lift dock but on the floor. I hit the switch and scrambled into the car. When Scott realized what I was doing, he swung the wrench at the car, but I continued to ascend. On the backswing, he smacked the chain of a bulb that began swinging wildly, casting dizzying shadows throughout the shop.

I peered out the window and realized something else had come in to the garage. A shadow. As the light bulb swung, I saw enormous wings. Scott swung the wrench, but claws grabbed it and snatched it away. Scott began screaming and kicking. He never realized his fatal mistake.

I don’t know what happened to the rest of Scott’s body, and I don’t want to know. Maybe it was given a proper burial. Maybe it was scattered over the grubs and was the accompaniment to the Monstrum kids’ next meal. But I know what happened to his foot. The one that became a weapon as soon as it struck out at the thing that came from the woods. My brother had to take the bus to school. He was afraid of me now but sat beside me. I know he saw Papa’s wrench hanging from the wind chime as clearly as I did. Right next to that booted foot and ragged calf dangling from black laces. Some of the kids wondered why Sheriff Graham didn’t do anything about it. But I remembered that time he tried to serve a warrant to the old lady for back taxes. I saw the similarity between his cleft chin and Gunther’s. And I knew why he ignored what hung from that tree.

It was that spring when I first saw the girl. The new runt of the V formation. Some of her siblings took after their fathers. And some went to the woods. I didn’t know which side she would eventually favor. I saw her red hair, the red hair my mother always wished my brother or I would have inherited from our father.

She paused in the yard for a moment, but then continued toward the bus. Gunther was nowhere to be seen. The twins held the keys and strode toward the VW, but glanced my way and gave me a nod.

The girl was hesitant when she stepped into the aisle. There didn’t seem to be a place for her. But I would make a place for her. I would leave my pink plastic ring on her padlock. When her eyes saw too much and the growing pains set in, I would tell her not to be afraid. I would hold her hand so she’d never forget. And if she went to the woods, I would walk the tracks just to keep her shadow company.

I turned to my brother and asked him to move. I’m pretty sure a second set of irises flicked when I said, “This seat’s taken.”

About the Author

Marianne Halbert

Marianne Halbert is an author from central Indiana. Her quiet horror stories have been described as “whimsical and terrifying” as well as “elegant and macabre”. Her latest collection is “Cold Comforts” (Crossroad Press, 2019) and is full of slow-burn horror stories. Marianne is a member of the HWA and was on the “How to Haunt a House” panel at V-Con (virtual Necon) 2021.

Find more by Marianne Halbert

Elsewhere

About the Narrator

Kitty Sarkozy

Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer, actor and robot girlfriend. Kitty is an alumnus of Superstars Writing Seminar , a member of the Apex Writers Group, and the Horror Writer’s Association. Several large cats allow her to live with them in Marietta GA, She enjoys tending the extensive gardens, where she hides the bodies. For a list of her publications, acting credits or to engage her services on your next project go to kittysarkozy.com.

Find more by Kitty Sarkozy

Elsewhere