There was a crash from the kitchen, the sound of dishes shattering, and Julia jumped, her heart lurching in her chest. Catching her breath, she hurried to the doorway, expecting,
to see that her mother-in-law had knocked over one of the boxes of dishes that had not yet been unpacked.
There was an overturned box on the floor. And the linoleum was covered with broken china and broken glass.
But there was no one else around.
A chill passed through her. She scanned the shadowy kitchen, eyed the closed, dead-bolted door that led outside, saw nothing out of the ordinary.
“Julia!” Gregory’s mother called from her bedroom. “Everything is all right?”
“It’s fine!” she called back, grateful to hear another voice.
She walked into the kitchen, bent down, and righted the box. Quite a few dishes were still inside, and many of them, thankfully, appeared to be intact. She must’ve put the box on the counter next to the refrigerator and it had just fallen off.
No. She distinctly remembered setting it on the table in the breakfast nook—on the other side of the room.
That was impossible.
She opened the cupboard under the sink, took out a plastic garbage sack and began picking up the broken pieces of china. She looked up at the counter. Obviously, she’d moved the box to the counter and simply forgotten that she’d done so. And she’d placed it too close to the edge and it had eventually fallen.
She tried to gauge the angle of descent.
Yes, she told herself. That must have been what happened.
But she could not make herself believe it.3
Babunya didn’t like the
and Adam didn’t either. There was something about the small adobe building that made him uneasy. It was what attracted him to the structure as well, though, and over the past few weeks he found himself returning to the abandoned bathhouse again and again.
Looking up from the shed snakeskin he’d been examining, he glanced toward the house, making sure that Teo had gone back inside, then took off, dashing around the carport and past the overhanging cottonwood tree. His sister had been hanging around him way too much lately, and while he didn’t really mind, since neither of them had met any other kids or made any friends yet, it did get annoying after a while. Sometimes he just wanted to be by himself.
Besides, he liked to go to the
He ducked under a tree branch and started down the path that led through the high, dry weeds. Their yard was massive, and the
was not even within sight of the house. It stood alone on the other side of the property, almost around the curve of the hill, past a small copse of paloverde trees and a jumble of oversized boulders. Beyond the
the cement foundation of an old house emerged from the weeds, bits of blackened board dissecting the empty space between low irregular walls.
He and Babunya had been the first ones into the
the second day they were here, and both had had immediate reactions to the place. The moment that she stepped over the threshold, Babunya had staggered as if struck, grabbing the wall for support. She’d instantly turned around and exited the bathhouse, breathing heavily, but when he followed her out, asking what was wrong, she waved him away and said everything was fine.
Everything was not fine, though. He, too, had felt the oppressiveness of the atmosphere as he’d walked through the door, a sensation entirely unrelated to the darkness of the small building and the natural scent of mold and must. It was a creepy feeling completely divorced from anything physical.
It scared him, but he liked being scared, and as soon as Babunya had told him that she was all right, he went back in to explore.
He had been back several times since.
Now Adam passed under the thin green branches of a paloverde and headed up the slight incline to the bathhouse, feeling the familiar foreboding in the pit of his stomach.
had obviously been abandoned for many years; the weeds that grew around it were almost as tall as the doorway. But inside, there were no spiderwebs as he’d first expected. The place was not crawling with bugs, and although it was not something that would have ordinarily occurred to him, he thought there seemed something ominous about the lack of pests. It was as if even insects were afraid of this place, and in his mind that only added to its exoticism and allure.
He had been in the
many times now, but he had never touched anything, never moved or removed a single object, and all was exactly the same as it had been that first day. He stopped for a second in the doorway, peering in. There were bones on the rough wooden floor. Not skeletons but individual bones, although the impact was the same. They were clearly not chicken or beef but were from other animals—coyote or javelina, rodents or rabbits or pets or pigs—and there was one that looked like a femur from a human child.
That was the one that intrigued him the most. He’d learned most of the bones of the body in school last year, and that particular bone had jumped out at him the first time he saw it. It looked just like a femur bone, a small femur, and whenever he came into the bathhouse he always stopped to look at it.
He did the same thing this time, crouching down before it, once again trying to imagine where it had come from, how it had gotten here, feeling a delicious tingle of fear pass through him as he examined the yellowing object.
But the bone was only an appetizer.
He stood, turned.
At the back of the structure was the thing that really scared him, the thing that had sent him running back out into Babunya’s arms that first day and had haunted his nightmares ever since. The thing that had made him break his promise to his grandmother never to go into the
It hovered on the adobe wall above the broken benches, bigger than life. The profile of a man. A Russian man with a fat stomach and a full, chest-length beard.
It was not a stain or discoloration, was not imprinted onto the wall, but was an honest-to-God shadow, and there was about it the insubstantiality of something that was only a shaded copy of an actual object.
Only there was no object. There was no source within the
or within the sight line out the doorway, no comparable shape that it was thrown by. The shadow existed in seeming defiance of the laws of science, and he’d thought about it and thought about it, tried to attribute its form to everything from the weeds outside to the wooden beams of the ceiling inside, but nothing worked. For one thing, the shadow was always there, clear sky or cloudy, its contours immutable and unchanging. For another, it was not an accidental resemblance. It was not a coincidental configuration of images that happened to form the semblance of a man but was a specific, definite figure that could not under any circumstances be interpreted as anything else.
There was something foreboding about the shape itself, about the man being portrayed, something stern and commanding about his thick body and the way his head was held so unnaturally straight, something intimidating about the figure that, combined with the shadow’s unknown origin, lent to the entire
an aura of dread.
Adam gathered his strength, looked up. He saw the silhouetted profile, the strong brow and thick beard, and he had to force himself not to turn away. His heart was pounding, and the air inside the bathhouse suddenly felt cold. The shadow seemed to deepen as he stared at it, the entire interior of the
growing darker around it, and for a fraction of a second it appeared to have three-dimensional depth.
He thought he heard a sigh, a whisper, and, his pulse rate shifting into high gear, he bolted out of the
and back into the sunlight, running as fast as he could, not stopping until he had reached the line of paloverdes.
It was the longest he had ever stayed in the
and he was proud of himself for that. He was getting braver. Always before, he had been out the door immediately after setting eyes on the shadow, but this time he’d been able to look at it for a moment before having to run.
He shivered, thinking of that sigh, that whisper, and quickly started back down the path toward the house.
Next time, he would borrow Sasha’s watch and time himself, see if he couldn’t stay in there a little longer each visit.
He slowed down and turned to look behind him, but the
was already hidden behind boulders and trees. He stood there for a moment, catching his breath, then continued on.
It was hard for him to believe that the bathhouse had ever really been used. Even if it hadn’t been scary, he couldn’t imagine himself going in there, getting naked, and sitting around with other guys while they whipped themselves with tree branches. Part of him felt embarrassed even to be
to people who did that.
But of course, that was not really anything new.
He’d often been embarrassed about his background.
Last year, they’d had an “ethnic pride” day at school, and it had been pure hell. They were all supposed to share the foods, clothes, language, and traditions of their families’ cultures with the other members of the class, and he’d brought in some borscht his mom had made. Mrs. Anders had insisted on pronouncing “borscht” the way it was spelled, sounding out the silent “t,” and no matter how often he said it correctly, she refused to vary her pronunciation. He had the feeling she was trying to correct him, as though she was hinting to him that
said the word wrong, and that made him feel even more embarrassed. It was as if she was making fun of him, something she did not do with Ve Phan or George Saatjian or any of the other kids in class.
He’d passed out the wooden spoons and small sample bowls of the Russian soup and had been expected to talk about the history of the Molokans as the class ate, to describe how they acted and what they believed in, and he’d said most of what he’d planned to say, but he’d been too embarrassed to bring up the pacifism. It was at the core of the Molokan religion, was what Babunya had drilled into his head since he was little, but it shamed him to admit to it. He honestly believed in those principles, deep down, but at the same time he didn’t really want to. Babunya had always told him that it was in man’s nature to kill, that Cain, the first truly human being in the Bible, the first made from the union of man and woman rather than by God, had killed his brother. It was an evil act, but after he had murdered his brother, he had been marked by God, protected from all human justice, and she said that this not only showed God’s mercy and forgiveness but indicated that God did not want humans to judge other humans, that He forbade revenge, that only He could mete out punishment. It was a prohibition against violence, against war, against the death penalty, and Molokans took their pacifism very seriously. They had left their mother country for it, and they had refused to fight in any of America’s wars because of it.
That was all well and good, and when he was in his bed in his pajamas and Babunya was telling him Bible stories, it was nice to hear, and he believed in it. But at school those ideas seemed not only irrelevant but embarrassing. It was impossible not to want to hurt people who hurt you, and more than once he had wished Jason Aguilar or Gauvin Jefferson or Teech Sayles dead. Hell, if he’d still said his prayers, he probably would have prayed for God to strike them down. But he had stopped praying several years back. He was not really sure why that was, but at some point he had just felt foolish clasping his hands together and asking God for favors.
It was not something he would ever admit to Babunya, though.
The truth was, he was not sure if he even
a Molokan. His family didn’t go to church anymore, and even when they had gone, when he was little, they’d gone to a Presbyterian church in Norwalk.
His parents also hadn’t taught him Russian, and he knew that was one thing Babunya was not happy about. He knew a few words here and there—
sweetie—but he couldn’t even remember the short Russian prayer his grandmother had made him say each Thanksgiving when he was younger. Even Babunya herself spoke less Russian than she used to. When he was little, his parents and his grandmother used to talk in Russian all the time, especially when it was something they didn’t want him to hear. When his dad used to talk to Babunya on the phone, his end of the conversation was often entirely in Russian. But that had changed over the years and now they almost always spoke English.
He walked past the cottonwood around to the front of the house. His mom, dad, and Babunya were now sitting on the front porch, his dad reading the newspaper, his mom reading a magazine, Babunya crocheting. Teo was playing with her Barbies on the steps. The sound of rap music blasting from one of the upper side windows told him that Sasha, as usual, was in her room.
He’d been planning to explore the front yard and see if he could find any more snakeskins, but the whole idea of all of them sitting around, doing family things together, made him gag, and he knew that he had to get away. His dad might be trying to get into all that small-town family-values crap, but on the off chance that a potential or future friend walked past on the road and saw them acting like rejects from the 700 Club, he needed to disassociate himself. He didn’t want to be humiliated.
There was nothing more uncool than hanging with your parents.
He walked up to the porch steps, grabbed the railing and looked up at his dad. “Can I walk down to the store?” he asked.
“Does it matter? They’re both practically right next to each other.”
“Why?” his mom asked.