Authors: Rodman Philbrick
The House on Cherry Street, Book One
Rodman Philbrick and Lynn Harnett
For Erin, Peter, Liza, and Lauren
You could see the house on Cherry Street from a distance. The old place was high up on a hill, surrounded by tall, whispery pines. As my dad turned the station wagon into the long driveway, I stuck my head out the window for a better look.
We'd be spending the whole summer here, and I was dying to know what was in store for me and my family. Mom and Dad and my kid sister Sally.
For a moment the house passed out of view, hidden behind the trees, and long shadows passed over the station wagon.
It was as if the sun had been erased from the sky.
“Well, there's certainly plenty of shade,” said my mom doubtfully.
“And don't forget there's a lake at the other end of Cherry Street,” said my dad, trying to sound cheerful.
Right then we came out of the shadows and suddenly there it was, much closer this time, looming over us.
The sun glinted off the windows, winking and flashing through the tree branches. So bright it was like looking into a flame. As we rolled up the driveway the whole house finally came completely into view. It was a rambling, gabled old place with a wide front porch. The porch roof sagged slightly and the house needed painting, like nobody had taken care of it for a long time.
It was easily the biggest house on Cherry Street. The other places we passed were all one-or two-story summer cottages, small and plain-looking. This was a real house, almost a mansion.
I was staring up at the second floor, wondering if we'd be able to see the lake from there, when I saw something strange.
Something was there in the house. Something was watching us.
“Hey, did you see that!” I said, pointing. “Someone looking at us from the upstairs window.”
“Maybe the cleaning lady is still here,” Mom said.
“Or a trick of the sunlight reflecting off the glass,” Dad said, easing his foot off the brake. “It doesn't look like anyone's been here in quite a while.”
Yeah, right. They always think I'm imagining stuff, but I know what I saw. Someone was there, and it wasn't a trick of the light. I searched the windows for another glimpse of the shadowy figure, but it was gone.
That's when my little sister Sally stirred, waking from her nap. She started squirming around in her seat belt, looking for attention. “There yet?” she asked. “There yet?”
Sally's just turned four and she'd been asking “There yet?” for the whole trip.
I told her we'd finally made it, and she started peppering me with a bunch of questions, but I wasn't really paying attention. I was thinking about what had been looking at us from the window. I'd only seen it for a moment, couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman or even a child. The shape had had a shimmery quality, and I might have thought Dad was right about a trick of the light if it hadn't been for the eyes. Because the thing in the window had eyes. Eyes that had bored right into me.
And now all the windows of the house seemed to be turned toward our station wagon, staring, sizing us up.
“Mommy, are we really there yet?” said Sally. She was wide-awake and fidgeting now.
“Yes, honey. Wait till Daddy stops the car before you take off your seat belt.”
I leaned over and straightened out Sally's T-shirt and she giggled and gave me a big grin. I hear some guys complain about having little sisters, but Sally is cool even if sometimes she is a pain, always asking questions and repeating stuff until your head aches.
The old garage looked locked up, so Dad parked the wagon by the side of the house.
“Oh, look,” Mom said. “A cherry tree.”
The cherry tree was close to the side of the house, almost like it was growing out of the house somehow, and the branches were full of small pink blossoms.
“Isn't it late in the year for a cherry tree to be in bloom?” asked Mom of no one in particular.
Dad cranked down his window and took a deep, satisfied breath. “Just smell that fresh air,” he said.
“Jason, would youâ”
But I was already out of the car and running for the front door. Looking around, I realized you couldn't see any other houses from here. It was like we were all alone in the woods.
It was a neat old house, that was for sure, and I couldn't wait to see the inside. So I sprinted up the porch steps like an Olympic hurdler and reached for the front doorknob.
Out of nowhere a blast of cold air hit me. I mean
air, so cold I couldn't move. Air so cold it felt thick.
I gasped as the frigid stuff flowed down into my throat. It tasted of earth, moldy earth. It smelled of the grave.
Shivering, I realized it was blowing up at me from under the front door. From inside the house.
I started to take a step backwards. Only my feet wouldn't move. I was stuck there! And the awful cold was seeping though my T-shirt and shorts.
I could feel ice forming around my stomach, creeping up my spine, icy fingers reaching for my heart.
I tried to turn my head and yell but my neck had gone rigid.
I was frozen to the spot and getting colder by the second.
Someone clapped a hand on my shoulder.
It was my dad.
“Come on, Jay, give us a hand unloading the car, then you can explore all you want.”
He reached past me and slipped a key into the lock.
The spell was broken. The icy grip had slipped away with my father's touch. I shrugged my shoulders, feeling the blood humming through my veins once more, warmth returning to my legs and chest.
What a relief! The cold, damp air was still coming up from under the door, though. The weird thing was that Dad, wrestling with the stiff lock, didn't seem to notice.
“Don't you feel it?” I asked.
“Cold air coming out through the door.”
Dad made a face and shook his head. “Jason, it's a beautiful summer day.” Suddenly he looked concerned. “Maybe you're coming down with a cold,” he said.
Suddenly the lock clicked and the door sprang open. My dad bowed and said, “After you, my dear Alphonse,” which is his idea of being funny.
I laughed despite myself and for a moment forgot all about the strange, cold air and what it had done to me. I could see only a little way into the house. The interior was dim and full of shadows.
Just looking inside made my stomach feel weird. It was as if time had been standing still inside the house. As if it was waiting for me to step over the threshold and set it going again.
“Go on, Jay. What's wrong?”
“Uh, nothing,” I said, and stepped through the door.
Behind me Dad said, “I'll go help your mother unpack the car. Have a quick look around and then give me a hand.”
Which left me alone inside the house. The weird feeling that had come over me made me think something bad was going to happen, but it didn't.
Once I was inside, the house seemed okay. What was I thinking, that time had stopped inside? Maybe I really was reading too many scary books, like my mom is always saying.
There was nothing to be frightened of, old houses always looked a little spooky, right? So I went a few feet into the hallway. Sunlight poured over my shoulder and made it so you could see the dust hanging in the air. Like a mist over everything.
The entryway was a wide hall with a long curving stairway leading to the second floor. On one side of the entryway was a living room. I looked through an archway and saw a large formal dining room with tall, stern-looking chairs around a long dark table.
“Why, it's beautiful, charming!”
That was my mom, coming in behind me. She was carrying Sally in one arm and holding a suitcase with the other, which reminded me that I was supposed to help unload the station wagon.
I ran back to the wagon and grabbed two of the biggest suitcases. I'm average size for twelve, but strong, and the suitcases weren't any problem, except where I had to hump them up over the front steps. I was so hot and sweating from all the work that I never even thought about what had happened with the cold air.
My mom had let up all the shades and sunlight slanted in through the tall windows. The living room looked shabby but ordinary. There was an old couch and a couple of old chairs and end tables standing on an ugly round rug.
Next to the stairway the hall narrowed and became a passage into the innards of the house. My mom's voice came from somewhere down there.
“Dave, come see,” she called excitedly to my father. “There's a room here big enough for us to use as an office!”
I went back and got the last two suitcases and lugged them into the entryway. There! Nobody could say I wasn't carrying my weight around here. I straightened up, stretching my tired muscles.
Light filtered down the front stairway from the rooms above. But somehow I didn't feel ready to go up there just yet.
My parents were rumbling around upstairs. Mom sounded delighted with the place. Obviously they hadn't found anyone strange lurking in the house.
I looked up as Mom and Dad came back down the stairs. Their progress was slow, since they were letting Sally set the pace. The sunlight caught in my mom's wavy blond hair, making it shimmer like a crown.
“All this place needs is a good airing,” said Mom, dimples showing on either side of her broad smile. “But we'll have to be careful of the furniture. Some of these pieces are quite valuable. Like that living room rug.”
A valuable rug? Was she serious? The thing was mouse-colored and threadbare. I didn't say it out loud, but it looked like somebody had puked all over it. Definitely.
Mom loved it. “It must be eighty or a hundred years old,” she said enthusiastically. “And handmade. Maybe we should roll it up, Dave. Store it in the basement or the attic.”
Dad shook his head. “It's too delicate. I'd be afraid the threads would tear. We'll just have to be civilized.” He caught sight of me and smiled. “You hear that, Jay? No eating in the living room and no muddy sneakers.”
“Jason! Did you do all this?” asked Mom, surveying the line of suitcases. “That's sweet of you, dear, but we didn't mean for you to do everything. Why don't you run upstairs and take a look at your room. It's the one on the left at the top of the stairs.”
It was now or never. I took a deep breath, grabbed my suitcase, and took the stairs two at a time.
“Careful putting your clothes away,” Mom called up after me. “That dresser is a valuable antique.”
I skidded into the room on the left and dropped my suitcase. The room was awesome. It had ceilings so high you could set up a basketball hoop. There were two big windows that looked out over the backyard. One of the windows was recessed into a dormer, a little alcove with a window seat.
Cool. I knelt on the cushioned bench of the window seat and leaned forward to look out the window. The yard sloped down the hill toward the lake. Or that's what I figured, even though you couldn't see the lake because of all the trees.
I swiveled around from the window and checked out my new bedroom for the summer. All this space! And hardly any furniture. Just a bed set high off the floor with four tall posts and a tall wooden headboard, a rickety old dresser (
was the antique?), and a beat-up old table that would be perfect for gluing up airplane models on rainy days or whatever.
There was a full-length mirror on the closet door. I grinned into it and it grinned right back at me. The mirror was old and kind of spotty and made me seem about twice as tall, which looked neat, like I was an NBA basketball player. The problem was that stretched out I looked even skinnier than I really am. My legs looked like knobby sticks, especially in my baggy shorts, and my arms stuck out like toothpicks.
Dork city, definitely.