Shiplap Plague

Shiplap Plague

by

Phillip McCollum

Sara’s bloody nose.

As Devin lay against the worn polyester couch in the hospital waiting room, immobile, vision blurred, the connection jolted him as if someone had hooked his spinal cord up to a car battery. Not that first signs mattered at this point, other than to appease Devin’s insatiable need to know. He tried to focus on his wife’s face, but the lenses of his eyes refused to cooperate. He could only see the faint outline of her body collapsed over that of a patient she had been checking on–what, maybe ten or fifteen minutes ago?

She always put others before herself. It’s why she wanted to become a doctor in the first place. It’s why they both became doctors.

And now they were the patients without anyone left to tend to them.

Thinking back to the morning, Devin realized his watering eyes were probably the second sign that something was very wrong in the town of East Warhaven.

Of course, they brushed the symptoms off as hay fever, all too easily attributed to the unusually dry air and wind they’d been experiencing. Spring pollen was in full effect this year.

The notion that something bigger was at play didn’t take long to come to him, though. At 9AM that morning, they had dragged themselves into short-staffed St. Margaret’s Hospital after a reserved, yet obviously urgent, call from the head of ER who informed them that an unusual number of patients were flowing into the hospital and they needed all hands on deck.

First, it was the elderly and young children. Bloody noses, teary eyes, and trouble breathing. By 5PM, there were more patients than beds and the town’s population had been slashed in half. The CDC was supposedly on their way, but Devin couldn’t recall who had said that and if it was even true.

Since he couldn’t dial in on Sara’s face or even generate enough force to move his body close enough to hold her hand, he closed his eyes and tried to remember happy moments of their life and the new life they had begun to build.

It was the kind of small-town life Sara would have dismissed a couple of years ago, but the nightly shootings, stabbings, and recurring drug-addicted patients had taken their toll and he had been able to convince her that a change would be good for them. On a visit last month to see family in Virginia, they came to the decision. It took them only one day to decide on purchasing a white plantation-style home with a wraparound porch and a beautiful view of the Blue Ridge Mountains, marred only by an old shiplap shed–the shiplap shed which they had reduced to rubble the evening before everything went to hell.

#

“You hide, we’ll find you,” Nate Henderson said. Robbie Silva’s head bounced up and down in agreement.

Katelin thought the boys were rowdy, but she didn’t have any brothers or sisters of her own to play with and the two of them were the only kids within walking distance. She thought it was odd that they’d want to play with her, given that she was ten and they were thirteen or fourteen. They’d also ignored her for as long as she could remember. But, a playmate was a playmate, so any qualms she had flitted away just as fast as they’d come.

Counting down from twenty, they hid behind a willow tree in the half-mile-long copse between her house and Nate’s. Katelin’s heels reached into the air and her baby blue dress caught the wind as she rushed into her backyard. She thought about hiding in her house and watching the boys through the kitchen window, but she worried that if they found out she was hiding somewhere off-limits, they wouldn’t want to play with her again. Looking over to the corner of the yard, sheathed in foot-tall bluegrass was her father’s workshed. It was empty. Papa had taken Katelin’s brother and Mama to town for groceries and to pick up some hardware needed for a new project. This was the second time Katelin had ever stayed home alone.

“You don’t leave the house. You don’t answer the door for strangers. Any trouble,” Papa had said, “you know where the rifle is.” Katelin didn’t know if her father expected a band of robbers to swoop down on the house as soon he left, but she only said, “Yes, Papa.”

Of course, ten minutes in, she was bored out of her mind with only three television channels, so when Nate and Robbie came knocking at her door, she jumped at the opportunity to play hide and seek. It wasn’t as if they were real strangers. They went to the same church, had gone to the same school before they went on to junior high, and their parents had known each other for even longer.

“Wheeeerreee areeee yoooou?”

Nate’s voice echoed across the landscape as Katelin quietly closed the shed’s wooden door. She stifled a giggle and looked for a good hiding place. It was dim inside. The only light came from a small window of frosted glass just above her father’s workbench. She climbed up onto Papa’s stool and saw the outline of the two boys creeping onto the property line. Quickly, she remembered the storage cabinet standing tall in the corner of the room. She was small enough to fit on the bottom shelf, so she ran over, opened the cabinet door and crawled inside. She closed the door behind her, tucked her legs up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her knees. Heavy scents of wood shavings, turpentine, and grease filled the air in the cramped space. She hoped the boys wouldn’t force her to hide there too long as the fumes were already starting to give her a headache.

It was only seconds later when the shed door squealed open on its hinges.

“Weeeee’re gonna fiiiind ya!” Nate said again.

#

The tiny excavator dug into the shed with its faded black claw. Dust flew into the air as one corner of the dilapidated shack came crashing into the ground.

Sweat ran down Devin’s cheeks. His lips were sealed shut in a grimace and Sara could see every vein in his taut arms peeking out from a worn, sleeveless gray t-shirt. A pair of translucent goggles covered the top half of his face and he had orange earplugs stuffed into each ear. He looked back at Sara who was standing on the porch, hands on her hips. As if he had been pulled out of deep thought, his expression changed quickly into a plastic smile.

Sara was surprised he wasn’t having more fun. In her experience, something in the male blood couldn’t help but get men excited when it came to knocking things down and breaking them into hundreds of pieces.

An hour later, the two of them stood at the kitchen sink. Sara wrapped her hands around Devin’s bicep and leaned into his shoulder as the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains rose in the distance, flooded in orange twilight and completely unobstructed. Despite some obvious adjustment time, Sara had to admit she’d fallen in love with the house and the whole notion of country living. She’d trusted Devin to find them a place, knowing that he’d grown up somewhere in the area. Given how quickly they’d come upon their new home, he’d obviously done his research.

“I know we’ll be happy here,” Devin said, gently stroking his wife’s head. “There’s not a single doubt in my mind that we made the right move.”

She looked down at the ugly pile of wood at the end of their property line. The junk guy would be by the next day to haul away the debris.

“I know,” she replied.

Feeling her nose beginning to run, she grabbed a paper towel from next to the sink and wiped. Devin looked down at her.

“Honey, you’re bleeding,” he said.

#

“Kaaaatelin.”

Through a crack in the cabinet door, she saw the two boys skulking around inside the shed. The floorboards creaked beneath their mud-covered boots while the two of them whispered to each other.

Nate’s auburn hair fell into his eyes and shaded the freckles on his face. Robbie had a nose like a pig’s snout and a gap in his two front teeth that created a little whistle whenever he said certain words starting with s.

Robbie looked at the cabinet and Katelin shrank back. Her head hit the bottom of the shelf above her and she bit her lip. She could still see them through the thin crack when Nate raised his eyebrows and they both flashed grins.

“What do you think, Robbie? She hidin’ in the cabinet?” Nate’s voice sounded exaggerated.

“I don’t know…Maybe we ought to check,” Robbie replied.

They crept over and stood in front of the cabinet. Katelin held her breath.

The cabinet door came flying open and Robbie ducked down to meet Katelin’s face.

“Boo!”

She shrieked and hit her head again.

The boys laughed while Katelin crawled out of the cabinet and dusted herself off.

“No fair!” she said. “You followed me.”

“Fair and square,” said Nate.

She rubbed the top of her slightly tender head. “Your turn, I guess,” said Katelin.

Nate looked at Robbie and Robbie looked at Nate.

“Okay, but let’s rest a minute first,” Nate said.

Katelin stepped towards the door, but Nate pulled out in front of her and leaned his back against it nonchalantly.

For some reason, Katelin didn’t feel right. She wasn’t sure if it was the vapors from the chemicals in the shed or something else. She tried to hold back a sense of panic. “I can’t stay out late,” she said. “My folks are gonna be home soon and I’m not supposed to be outside.”

“Hold up,” Nate replied, dipping his head toward his friend. “Robbie wanted to ask you something.”

With that ugly smile still stuck to his face, Robbie stared at Katelin. He inched toward her and put a hand on her shoulder. Katelin shrank back on instinct. The hair on the back of her neck rose up like a cat’s and she started looking around for a nail or something to throw at the boys.

“I gotta go,” she said, her voice quivering slightly.

“Go ahead,” Nate said to Robbie, ignoring her plea. “Ask her.”

Robbie didn’t say anything, just stared down at her with dumb eyes.

“You chicken, I’ll say it for you,” Nate said. He looked at Katelin. “Robbie wants to kiss you. He says if you don’t let him kiss you, he ain’t gonna play with us no more. And if he don’t play with us no more, than I ain’t gonna play no more either.”

Katelin wanted to puke at the thought of the gross boy’s lips coming anywhere near her. “No way!” she said. She wished her dad kept a rifle here too like he did at the house, if just to scare the two of them. “If you don’t let me out, Papa’s gonna get angry and come after you both with his gun.”

Nate laughed so loud, it hurt her ears. “Hear that, Robbie? We gonna’ get plugged by the old man. Well, if that’s the case, we’re definitely gonna need a kiss before we kick the bucket.”

Katelin heard the low whistle through Robbie’s teeth as he let out a soft, hissing laugh. Before she knew what was happening, Robbie’s sweaty hands squeezed her arms and pull her into him. His phlegmy breath cut through the other smells of the shed as he pressed his lips all over her face, struggling to make contact with her own lips as she flipped her head back and forth.

Robbie giggled like a lunatic.

She screamed her first scream, which was also her last because as soon as she started, Nate came barreling over and rapped a palm across her face, shocking her into silence. Her face grew hot from the pain. Had Robbie not still held onto her, she would have fallen onto the ground like a sack of potatoes.

“You shut your mouth and let Robbie kiss you,” he said. “And if you scream one more time, we’re gonna hurt you bad.”

Katelin started to whimper and tears dripped down her face. She tasted something metallic and realized that blood was streaming from her nose and into her mouth.

“Please,” she cried. “I won’t say nothin’, just let me–”

Her voice was cut off as Robbie pushed her down. The back of her head slammed onto the floorboards and her vision went blurry. Robbie felt so heavy on top of her and his breath was even more pungent then before, now that he was breathing hard. He lost his grip on Katelin’s right arm which she quickly brought up, grabbing ahold of Robbie’s ear and twisting it.

He screamed like a cat whose paw got caught in a mousetrap.

She thought she heard Nate yelling at him to shut up, but the only thing she truly noticed was Robbie’s elbow coming down on her throat like a blunt stick. She tried to scream again, but only a gurgling whistle came out. Katelin panicked as she found it hard to breathe. Robbie let go of her other arm and sat back on his knees, gripping his ear and wincing. Katelin grabbed her neck as if it would help open her airway.

Nate ran over, stared down at her and then looked at Robbie. “What the hell did you do?”

Robbie looked stunned, hand still on his ear, and said, “Nothin’! I was just….”

The taste of blood Katelin had noticed earlier was pooling into the back of her throat, making it even more difficult to breathe.

Nate’s head flipped back and forth, his eyes darting between her and the window.

“Let’s go,” he said. He grabbed Robbie by the shirt sleeve and yanked him onto his feet. Though her head swam and her everything sounded muffled, Katelin heard the fabric tear across Robbie’s t-shirt.

“It was an accident–”

“I said let’s go!” Nate said, throwing open the shed door, causing it to slam against the wall. His footsteps vibrated across the wood flooring, followed swiftly by Robbie’s.

Katelin was trying to cry but she couldn’t take in enough air which made her panic even more. She dug her fingernails into the floorboards, trying to overcome her sudden lightheadedness. Trying anything to get more air. For a few seconds, she hoped and prayed that her folks would be back soon but she knew deep down that it would be too late.

Finches chattered outside. Katelin stared at the outline of rafters overhead. Only bits of air worked their way in and out of her lungs. Blackouts came and went and somehow she knew that she was dying.

Emotions grew confused within her as she thought about being left alone out here. Surprisingly, she wasn’t sad. She was going to miss her family, but mainly, she focused her thoughts on the sickening smiles of Nate Henderson and Robbie Silva.

As she stared at the shed’s shiplap ceiling, Katelin felt only a red-hot anger at what the boys had done to her.

#

Devin fell in an out of consciousness. He was sure Sara was dead now. Visions of his life played randomly in his head like film clips.

His wedding on a beach in San Diego.

Turning his tassel at graduation from St. John’s Medical School.

His sister’s vacant eyes.

Replayed with vivid color and sound, it seemed like only yesterday when he found Katelin laying face-up in the shed. Barely dried tears ran down her blue cheeks. Blood streamed from her left nostril onto her upper lip. Images of his father rushing past him to pick up her limp body. His mother’s unearthly howl as she collapsed outside of the shed’s door.

He thought he could come back and make things better. A culprit was never found. The family moved away a year later, trying to pretend as if nothing had ever happened.

But Devin remembered. His dreams never let him forget.

Coming back to knock down the shed was something he had to do. Now he drifted into black and realized just how wrong he was.

Katelin had her own idea of closure.

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