Read Homebody: A Novel Online

Authors: Orson Scott Card

Tags: #sf, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Horror, #Romance, #Thrillers, #Supernatural, #Horror fiction, #Epic, #Dwellings, #Horror tales; American, #Ghost stories; American, #Gothic fiction (Literary genre); American, #Dwellings - Conservation and restoration, #Greensboro (N.C.)

Homebody: A Novel

Homebody
Orson Scott Card
Card, Orson Scott
Homebody

To Mike and Mary and Bernice

friends and fellow civilizers

of the barbarian hordes

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

My thanks to:

My wife, Kristine, who was my collaborator at the conception of this story; and to Emily and Geoffrey Card, Erin and Phillip Absher, and Peter Johnson, whose comments at the earliest stages helped give the first draft a better shape and substance;

Clark and Kathy Kidd for hospitality and more as I began the second draft; and Kathy again for reading that draft with fresh eyes;

Mark and Margaret Park, in whose guest bedroom I wrote and faxed away many a chapter;

Kathleen Bellamy, my assistant, who always waits to read till last, so she can catch the mistakes that everybody missed;

And (again and always) my wife, Kristine, and my children, Geoff, Em, Charlie Ben, and Zina, who have taught me what a house is for and what a home can be.

 

 

1

New House 1874

 

Dr. Calhoun Bellamy made it a point to stay away from his property while the crew was tearing down the old Varley house. He didn't want to remember scenes of destruction. All he wanted to see was each step in the construction of the new house, the one he had designed for Renée and for the children they would have together.

Architecture was all he had wanted to study, ever since his father sent him abroad after the War Between the States. It wasn't the grandeur of the great buildings of Europe, the cathedrals and palaces, monuments and museums, that made him long to be a shaper of human spaces. Rather it was the country houses of Tuscany, Provence, and England. In his mind they formed a strange amalgam: the rambling outdoors-indoors of the villas designed for the perpetual summer and spring of the Mediterranean, and the bright-windowed tight enclosures in which the English managed to frolic despite the bitter winter and the endless rain. He came home full of ideas for houses that would transform American life, only to find that architects weren't interested in new ideas. No one would take this mad young man as a student. At last Cal settled down to study medicine and follow in his father's footsteps.

But now, with his marriage less than a year away, he was granting himself one last indulgence. In consultation with an architect from Richmond, he had designed a house which seemed to be a conventional Victorian on the outside, but which on the inside preserved some of the ideas he had developed abroad. Nothing too strange, just a different use of space that made him dream of the swirling dancers at a country-house ball, with arches that reminded him of the open doors and passageways of the Riviera and the hills above Florence. The architect tried to persuade him that no one would be comfortable in such a house, but Cal responded with cheerful obstinacy. This was the house he wanted; the architect's job was to draw up plans for a structure that would last, as Cal modestly suggested, until the Rapture.

"Do you happen to know when that might be?" asked the architect, only a little superciliously. "I wouldn't want to waste your money on excessive sturdiness."

"Make it last forever," said Cal. "Just in case."

All that remained now was for the old Quaker family's house, which had been standing longer than Greensborough had been a town, to be cleared from the lot on Baker Street. The city was growing toward the west, and although this was not the wealthiest neighborhood, it was the most tasteful. It was fitting that the son and heir of the most prominent physician in the city should build his bride a house on such a piece of land. The wooded gully at the back of the lot would guarantee privacy and a wild-seeming, natural setting; the large carriagehouse and servants' quarters would separate the house from the neighbors on the one side; and shaded residential streets bounded the property on the other two sides. In effect, the house would stand alone, conventionally graceful on the outside, a place of surprise and enchantment within.

So Cal was not pleased when a servant boy came all out of breath into his offices and insisted on giving him a message from the foreman of the wrecking crew. "You best come, sir. What they found you gots to see."

"Tell them to wait half an hour—doesn't it occur to them I have patients whose needs are urgent?"

The boy only looked puzzled. There was no hope of his delivering the message coherently.

"Never mind. Just tell them to wait until I get there."

"Yes sir," said the boy, and off he ran again. No doubt the moment he was out of sight he'd amble as slowly as possible. That's the way it was with these people. You could make them free, but you couldn't make workers out of them. There was a limit to what Northern arms could impose on a prostrate South.

In truth he had no patients that afternoon and so it was only a few moments before he set out from his office, walking because it was such a fine day. He expected to pass the boy on the way, but apparently he was either more ambitious than Cal had expected or better at hiding.

Cal was not surprised to see the entire crew lolling around-getting paid, no doubt, for their waiting time. But if the foreman was at all embarrassed about wasting Cal's money, he showed no sign of it. "Something none of us was expecting, sir," said the foreman, "and there was nothing for it but to ask you to decide."

"Decide what?"

"I reckon you best come down into the old cellar with me and I'll show you."

With the house a ruin, it wasn't a safe enterprise, slipping down into the darkness of the cellar. Even when they got to the brightly lighted place where the floor above had been torn away, it was tricky walking without banging head or shins into some lurking obstruction. But at last the foreman brought him to a stone foundation wall with a small hole knocked in it.

"See?"

Cal definitely did not see. Not till the foreman took out several more stones and held a lantern into the opening. Only then did it become clear that there was a tunnel connecting the cellar with... what?

"Where does it lead?"

"Sent the boy down there, and he popped out in the gully. Looks like them Varleys was smuggling niggers out before the war."

Cal tightened his lips. "I hope you'll never use that term in my presence again."

"Pardon me, sir," said the foreman. "I meant nigras."

"I'm not surprised that a Quaker household would break the law in that fashion. I don't sympathize with their cause, but I honor their courage and integrity."

The foreman grinned. "Good thing they moved west, though, don't you think?"

"Without question," said Cal, smiling back, just a little.

"So do you want us to fill it in?"

Cal thought about it for a moment. It was history, wasn't it? Having a tunnel once used for hiding slaves would give his new house a bit of ancient lore. American houses rarely had a sense of age and history. His would.

"Keep it. We'll build the foundation in such a way as to preserve it. Perhaps use it as a wine cellar. Or a root cellar. Don't you think?"

"Whatever you want, sir."

"Keep it."

All the way back to his office, Cal felt the lingering glow of the day's discovery. My house will be new for my bride, but it will also be old like the catacombs of Rome.

 

2

Rediscovery 1997

 

The Bellamy House grew old along with the College Hill neighborhood. Prosperity in the nineteenth century had lined these streets with large, extravagantly decorated mansions. But by the time the Great War came, the rich were building their new mansions near the country club in Irving Park, and College Hill began its long, slow decline. While elderly widows continued to live in the houses their rich husbands built them, other homes fell vacant and were bought by entrepreneurs who began renting them out. Soon some began to be redivided into apartments, with kitchens and bathrooms added wherever they might fit. And as the decay grew worse, the rents fell until students at the growing university could afford them.

That was the end of the neighborhood. At first the students were all young ladies and therefore civilized, but no matter how refined their manners, they were transients, and the houses did not belong to them. Then came the end of segregation, and the women's college became the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Frats and sororities swallowed up the best of the houses near the growing campus. The rest of the houses were cut up into ever-smaller apartments, with students packed in shoulder to shoulder, or so it seemed. They cared nothing for the yards; the landlords seemed to care even less.

All of these things happened to the Bellamy house, including a brief stint as a sorority in the early sixties. But when gentrification came to the neighborhood in the early eighties, the Bellamy house was passed by. In 1987 the aging landlord moved to Florida, and in the vain hope that leaving it empty would help to sell it, stopped renting the rooms. It quickly became a derelict, boarded up, vandalized, lawn gone to weeds and only mowed a couple of times a year. The FOR SALE sign stayed up long enough for the red paint to disappear completely; then it fell over in a storm and no one put it back up again. No one wanted the house, it had been so badly deformed when it was cut into apartments. No one even wanted the land, with its corner location and a gully in the back yard. The landlord forgot he owned the property.

And, as if to rebuke the house even further, the carriagehouse and servants quarters next door remained in good repair. Long since converted into a residence, it was old but well tended, the yard neatly trimmed. It seemed to thrive as the Bellamy house itself withered.

Until the day in August 1997 when Don Lark drove by in his slightly beat-up red Ford pickup, then turned around and came back for another look. He parked on Baker Street, got out of the truck, and walked all the way around the house, sizing it up. He found the fallen FOR SALE sign, turned it over, and took down the name and number of the real estate agency.

The realty had changed names twice since the sign went up, but the phone number was still the same. Don stood at the payphone at the Bestway on Walker and explained to the woman on the telephone that the only FOR SALE sign on the property had her agency's phone number on it.

"I'm sorry, but we don't show an active listing for that address."

"What about a passive listing?"

"I'm afraid I don't understand what you're—"

"I don't really care who's listing it, ma'am. You have real estate agents there, right? And real estate agents are able to look up the ownership of property and tell buyers—namely me—who the owner is and whether he wants to sell and if so for how much. Does any of this sound familiar?"

"No need to get snide with me, sir."

"Sorry, I didn't mean to offend, ma'am. I just want to find out about this property and it wasn't me that painted your phone number on the sign."

"Hold please."

He held. He had to put in another quarter, he held so long. And then another woman came on the phone.

"This is Cindy Claybourne, can I help you?"

"Are you a real estate agent?"

"I sure hope so." A cheerful voice, gratefully heard.

"My name's Don Lark, and I'm interested in a derelict property on the corner of Baker and Motley. The FOR SALE sign had your phone number on it, but the sign was old and it fell down a long time ago. The receptionist said you didn't have a listing for it. An active listing, anyway."

"Well, it sounds like a mystery."

Don remembered Reverend Gardiner from his childhood, who used to answer Don's endless questions by saying, "Well, I guess that's a mystery."

Smiling, Don said, "Will we need a divine messenger to solve it?"

"No, more like Sherlock Holmes. I'd be glad to look up that property for you. Can I have your number?"

"You could if I had one."

"Business phone, then?"

"Like I said. I'm a legitimate buyer, cash in the bank, don't worry about that, I just don't happen to have a phone. So I'll have to call you or stop in and see you."

"Mysteriouser and mysteriouser," she said. "Tomorrow afternoon at five? Here at the office?"

"Where's here?"

She gave him directions. He thanked her and hung up. Then he got back into his truck and drove back to the Bellamy house.

Don Lark didn't see what most people saw, looking at Calhoun Bellamy's dream house. The weedy yard, the weather-chipped paint, the boarded windows, the half-painted-over graffiti, those were almost invisible to him. What he saw was a pretty good roof—almost miraculously good, considering the house's obvious neglect. That meant that the interior might not be water-soaked and warped. And neither the roof nor the porch was sagging—this suggested a sturdy structure on a solid foundation. It was a strong house.

He walked the property again, looking for signs of termites, break-in sites that would need to be closed off, and practical information like where the power and water entered the house. A coal chute at the back told him where the alley used to be; as for the ancient coal furnace, Don assumed that it was still in the cellar—who could move such a monster?—but that it hadn't been in use for fifty years at least. Good riddance. Nobody better get nostalgic for those old days of coal-fired furnaces. On one house Don had fixed up a few years back, he got curious, brought in a small load of coal, and stoked up the furnace. Besides the black filth all over him by the time he got the thing going, an astonishing amount of soot spewed from the chimney. Flecks of it fell like ash from Mount St. Helen's, or so it seemed to him. No wonder people stopped using coal the minute gas or heating oil became available. This stuff made car exhaust seem clean and healthy.

The more he saw of the house the better he liked it. The wood trim was beautifully made and, despite the fading of the paint, very little of it would need to be replaced. Where a board or two had weathered and sagged away from the windows, he could see that the original glass was still intact. Where were the neighborhood boys with rocks? Apparently the boarding up had been done before the vandals could get to work. The work this house required was enormous, but it was also worth doing. Whoever built this place had used only the best materials, and the workmen had clearly made it a labor of love. Restoring it to its former glory would be hard, intense labor, months and months of it. But when he was done, the house would be magnificent.

I want this place. Don hated to admit it to himself—he knew that this meant he would probably pay more than it was worth. But then, after so many years of neglect, it was possible the owner would be glad to get it off his hands. The price might be low enough for Don to pass the threshold: He might be able to pay cash for the place instead of borrowing from the bank. He had walked away from his last fixer-upper with almost a hundred thousand dollars. If the house came in for under fifty, he'd have enough left over for materials, the occasional subcontractor, and his own meager living expenses during the year it would take to renovate the place. No more borrowing, no more banks, no more money poured down the interest rathole.

And then, as always when he started feeling too good, he remembered one pair of eyes that would never see this house, one pair of feet that would never walk its floors and stairs, one voice that would never be heard calling out to him through the high-ceilinged caverns of the rooms or outside in a newly landscaped yard.

He walked back to his truck. Dark was coming on. He drove to a truckstop out on I-40, paid a couple of bucks for a shower, ate a lousy meal in the restaurant, and slept in the camper on the back of his pickup truck, bedding down among his tools.

 

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