Dunstable, July 1862
Jason looked up from the soldering iron, took off his magnifying goggles and stretched. The initial tests of his turbine had been positive. Stephan had seated it in a piece of pipe expertly and now Jason was doing the final assembly of the solenoid electronics. The assembly would be mounted near the sink although that was the stuff of negotiations. Jolene was not happy about giving up wall space for the vent. Stephan had convinced her more or less that venting was important and she would eventually appreciate the easily available hot water. Jason suspected that idea of plumbing a tub had helped soothe her. He wasn’t sure how Stephan would do that on the second floor, but that was not Jason’s problem. Right now he was working on his third try at mounting the solenoid. Stephan had rejected the first two as too haphazard and sloppy. Jason was now working with a minimum of solder and would cover only the leads. If they were going to cover the assembly, Jason could not understand the need for such neatness. Stephan replied, “I’d know. Besides, when someone else has to maintain it and they look at your assembly, what do you want them to see lad? That you are some lackadaisy who can’t be bothered to solder properly?” This was dramatically different from school. Most professors only wanted it to work and were less concerned with the aesthetics, so this type of practice was good for the real world. He placed the last lead wire in place and put just a dab of the solder onto the metal pole and wire. He arranged those so they were flush to the cabinet wall. He allowed the solder to bond with the pole and wire along the edge of the assembly in a straight line fashion. It looked precise and thought out in his opinion, but Stephan was the final judge. Jason said “Done”.
Stephan answered, “You’ve said that twice before lad and there has been some disagreement on the matter.”
“Actually, you said no and I had to redo them. But I believe this will pass your exacting standards.”
“Hmph. We’ll see”. Stephan donned his magnifying goggles and looked over Jason’s shoulder at the small box. He turned it left and right looking at all the ends. “Adequate – just. It is still too lumpy and your wires ought to be color coded and insulated. But anyone who opens the box will know you cared enough to do it right. You will do better on the next one.”
Jason had the mixed emotion of being glad to be done and satisfying Stephan, but wondered how he could have possibly done better. Rather that testing fate, he breathed a sigh of relief and screwed the cover of the box down.
“Ye that sure it will work?” Stephan asked.
“I suppose it’s best to test before I go too far,” Jason said.
“That’s right. We haven’t done a full test. After you know it works, then you can install the cover.”
Jason sighed and took off the cover. He was feeling like an apprentice redoing things until the master accepted. Jason and Stephan ran the final test that included water and the gas. The switches worked well with both the air and with the water. The gas switch always closed. Stephan nodded at the cover and Jason put it on. The unit was ready to mount.
Stephan looked at him, “Have you written your patents yet?”
“No, I was waiting to make sure we had a working model,” Jason said.
Stephan stretched and groaned. “This has been a long day. Tomorrow we do the paperwork to get your idea registered. If we don’t, you’ll be paying others to work on things you made. Clean your tools, record your work and take a break before you start Jolene’s dishes.”
Jason stood and looked at the almost done water heater. For some reason, he needed to make a different connection. He turned to Stephan and took a deep breath and said, “I’d like to see my parent’s house and workshop.”
Stephen stopped turning his wrench suddenly. He closed his eyes and then set the wrench down. “I suppose you’ve been patient. There’s not much to see. Do you want me to come? Or do you want to see it alone?”
“If you’ve got the time. The first time, I think I will need someone to explain what I am seeing. After 20 years, I expect it is pretty badly overgrown, “ Jason said. If he was to say more, he might have said he didn’t want to face it alone.
Stephan said, “Alright. I’ll let Jolene and the others know we’ll be late for lunch. Clean up, finish recording and we’ll head over.”
Jason recorded his info, observations, and the test results of the morning. He put a cloth over the open leads. He took off his goggles, put his gloves on the bench by his notebook, and hung up his apron by the door. Stephan finished tightening the bolts on the furnace. He set his gloves and goggles on the desk and hung his apron next to Jason’s.
Jason headed to his room upstairs to retrieve his coat, scarf and hat. He could hear Stephan talking to Jolene, “The lad wants to see his parent’s house.” He didn’t hear the reply. Just Stephan saying, “I don’t know how long. There’s not much left.” As Jason walked back down the stairs and into the kitchen, Stephan said, “I’ll tell him what I know.” Jolene gave Stephen a kiss the cheek. She said to Jason, “Don’t you stay too long. There is a stack of dishes and I am waiting on you to wash them.“ She patted him on the cheek and said, “Off with you two – you’ll get what’s left for lunch.”
Stephan had his coat and hat and the two walked through the darkened bar into the bright fall sunlight. Jason commented, “She didn’t seem real pleased that we are taking this walk.”
“The dishes wont’ be done before lunch and she will have to run the lunch meeting. She doesn’t care for disruptions,” Stephan said simply.
“It seemed a bit more than that,” Jason prodding and hoping for more information.
Stephan faced forward and answered in a slow drawl, “Well truth be told, I haven’t been to your parent’s place since the day after the explosion. I was pretty emphatic at the time that we needed to leave that place alone. I also forbade her from visiting. She may be a bit touchy about that.”
“Is she bothered by your going?” Jason asked.
“She might be bothered that I am going without her. The event was…upsetting and painful. I laid down some pretty strong boundaries. We had an argument or two afterwards. I think I was right, but maybe I was being too cautious and maybe I wasn’t real sensitive to her feelings. I had to relearn that whole relationship thing when I came back from contracting and I had barely understood it before I left,“ Stephan said.
They walked down Main Street for a block and made a left a turn. After three blocks, they came to a large nearly vacant lot on the corner of L Ave and 3rd Street.
Tall trees dominated the lot making it almost park like except for the lack of grass and the unkempt bushes. When Jason looked more sharply, he could see the grass but it was so tall it resembled bushes and was covered in seed heads. Set back about 30 feet was the remnant of a structure hiding in the small forest.
It had been a two story house with a porch. The right half of the house was missing or burned. The roof and the second story were sliding into the first story. Salvagers had removed the glass, windows, doors and just about anything of value. Ivy was starting to take over the broken half. In front of the house, a bird bath had somehow escaped the scavengers. Jason righted and set in the circle that seemed to be its original home.
Stephan commented, “Your mother was quite proud of the house. She had it done in blue and yellow. There was a proper fence around the yard. I think she was trying to make up for something in her childhood.”
“Is anything left inside?” Jason asked.
“I shouldn’t think so. What wasn’t taken is probably rotted. Besides, it’s hardly safe. Jolene would have my balls on a platter, your uncle would pummel me to a pink goo while your aunt cheered, and every waitress and my daughter would skin what remains if I let you inside that wreck.”
Jason smirked a bit over the remark and said, “You exaggerate with the waitresses and your daughter.”
Stephen shrugged and said with a completely straight face, “I think not. Let’s take a look at the lab.” They walked to the side of the house that was gone. Here and there, small signs of evidence showed that the house and yard had been cared for. There bricks tightly set in the walkway. A broken pot lay below a fallen pedestal. Jason could see the trees formed a path and all were long past needing a good trimming. Jason felt an odd sadness – there had been a home here. It had been his home. He had vague recollections of a swing on a tree and furniture on the porch. He looked at tall tree close to the house and might have seen the threads of a rope.
They arrived at a pond about 20’ by 20’ wide. There was a set of stairs towards the back that led down into the clear and dark waters. Stephan looked down into the crystal clear liquid. “I haven’t been here in a while. There wasn’t much water in the hole the first night.” The years of rain and other sources had filled the multistory cavity. Strikingly, there was no alga or other murk. A fine layer of dust and dirt coated the bottom. More properly, Jason noted, what appeared to be dust or dirt. The water was so still, the coating could have been paint. Stephan looked up from the pond and around and sighed. The area round around the pond was still barren for about 7 or 8 feet. Then Stephan kicked the ground with his feet angrily multiple times. “It’s dead. Has been for 20 years. It ain’t natural around here.” He looked around and said, “Damn idiots.” Then he shouted, “You idiots!” he turned away from Jason.
Jason looked up at Stephan. He could see the big man’s shoulders heaving. Jason stayed quiet for a moment and then put a hand on the shoulder, “Excuse me.”
Stephan continued to face away, but pulled a hanky out of his pocket and wiped his face he spoke to the open yard with Jason at his back, “Sorry lad. I don’t’ know what they were doing, but they stirred up something or someone. Your father should have known better. I tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t listen.” Frustration or something else stopped the talking. Jason walked to the house.
Jason stopped at the wreckage of the house. Stephan joined him looking at it and said, “That was the kitchen and pantry. Your mother may have been a scientific and engineering genius, but she was raised on a farm. She would make preserves out of the fruit from the trees and she baked bread. She would say it was the closest thing to science she could get to in a kitchen.”
Jason mused, “and what did Jolene say about THAT?”
Stephan closed his eyes and smiled, “First time I had seen Jolene put Martha to rights. Jolene said, in a quiet firm voice that I still remember, ‘Martha you haven’t spent enough time in the kitchen then’ Jolene shocked Sean, Martha and myself by proceeding to talk about emulsifiers, thickeners, cheese …Good Lord, did you know cheese was the result of enzyme action?” Stephan looked at Jason wide eyed as if he had just made this discovery.
“Not in those words, but it makes sense,” Jason said and turned back to the house.
“Martha had the best garden in town too. Sean had a regular workshop on the top of the lab – saws, drills, etcetera and he would make furniture. It wasn’t as good as old man Woodson’s, but it was fine for a simple house. I tried to convince him to work on that,” and Stephan’s voice checked.
Changing the topic, Jason asked, “Why didn’t you come back here sooner?”
Stephan took a deep breath and steadied his voice. “I was afraid. And I was a bit angry…maybe not ‘just a bit.’ I could tell what happened wasn’t right. If I stayed far away, maybe what happened wouldn’t happen to me and mine. It was the same reason we didn’t tell you anything. ‘Tain’t saying it was right – just explaining.”
“I am finding fear makes people do strange things,” Jason said as if he were observing a piece of bread gone bad.
Jason wandered a bit further back into the thicket. A densely overgrown rose bush covered a fallen trellis. Ivy climbed up the trees and house. Stephan looked and said, “Lord, your mother would have a fit if she saw this.”
Jason looked down and saw a bit of tarnished brass on the ground. It was a gauge from some device blown apart. He picked it up and brushed it off. The needle was far into the red. He looked at Stephan who said, “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s been there 20 years exposed to the elements. You want to see something meaningful? Look at that zone around the pond. It’s dead. It’s been that way for 20 years. You know chemistry – explain that.” Jason looked around the bushes some more. He found a bit of brass gone green with patina. It was about half a hexagon shape. The inside was convex and the outside was covered with what appeared to be weathered brass. The inside was a tangle of electronics, but had no reference in Jason’s experience. There were tiny wires and small dots of different colors that were connected to those wires. He handed it to Stephan who frowned and said, “Don’t rightly know what it is. I don’t think Sean could have made this with what he had in the lab. It doesn’t belong here.”
“It didn’t look like it. I’d like to look for more.”
Stephan straightened up, squared his shoulders and said, “And this is where I say, we need to head back. This is one of those things we ought to be afraid of Jason. We can come back later, but let’s take this back and take a closer look at it before you go finding all sorts of stuff that was better off lost. Besides, lunch is getting cold.”
Jason chafed at the deflection, but if they could look at the piece closer that would be something. Now that he had seen it, he would come back and get soil and water samples to analyze. The dead zone and the pond were curious. He nodded his assent and the two headed back to the pub in silence.
At the pub, most had finished their meals and were going over the afternoon assignments. Jason hung his coat on a hook by the door and grabbed a portion of meatloaf, potatoes and carrots from last night. A savory gravy completed the hearty meal. The warm solid meal tasted good after the cold walk and somehow filled a part that was feeling empty at the moment. This was a meal his aunt would have cooked.
Candace sat next to him after he started eating. He initiated the conversation by asking “What did I miss?”
Candace replied, “Tonight’s specials. Seamus is now limited to four drinks. Darts tournament will start next week so expect more drinking and smaller meals.”
“Nothing changes for the dishwasher,” Jason said in a small bit of self-mocking.
“Let us see what you say that after we have a special on cheese noodle casserole. That is simply impossible to clean,” Candace said with an evil grin.
“She makes a special of cheese casserole?”, Jason asked in horror.
“Winter months we get low on fresh produce and meats. Spring comes and we need to clear out the old cheeses.” Jason shuddered as he considered the stacks of gooey, cheese covered dishes.
“Enough business,” she said, “How was your walk?”
Jason focused on his food intently for a bit. “There isn’t a whole lot left. Truthfully, I have only the vaguest of memories of that house. Stephan acted as my guide. I guess I felt like I should have felt something and I didn’t. And now I am annoyed with myself for not feeling more. Stephan had more emotion about it than I did.” He put the spoon down. “You know I am not all that hungry.”
Candace looked apologetic, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to put you off your food. How old were you when it happened?”
“And since then your aunt and uncle have been raising you on a farm, not telling you anything about your parents or their lives. And you are surprised when you don’t feel much when you visit a house you left at the age of three?”
“When you put it that way, I seem a bit silly,” Jason said looking at the ceiling.
“Not silly, but not realistic. I suspect you may feel more with other visits. This first time was probably like visiting a museum,” Candace said factually.
“How do you know I am visiting again? You seem awfully sure,” Jason looked at her now.
“I don’t know for sure. But I think you will. The place gives me the creeps but you will want to figure it all out. Plus now you’ll want to see if you remember more,” she said brightly.
“Hmph. Where do you get your insights into the world of people?” Jason said trying his best to look skeptical.
“I am a barmaid. Remember? Everyone tells me their problems. I have to learn how to listen and respond if I want decent tips. Now eat your lunch. You’re too thin to skip meals especially when they taste good and they are free, “ she said pointing at the dish.
“Fine. Fine. Watch. I’m eating,” and he shoved a fork full into his mouth.
“I’d like to go with you on your next visit,” she said quietly.
Swallowing, he asked, “Why? It gives you the creeps and I’m not sure there is much to see there.”
“Curiosity. Thrills. We town kids thought the place was haunted. We would dare each other to feats of courage such as touching a doorknob. I suspect a goodly number of adults felt the same way about the place or less of it would be left.”
“I hope none of you urchins tried to drink the water,” he said.
“Oh I think one set of boys did that. They were on emetics for a week. The doctors threatened to leach them. After that, word passed – don’t drink the water. What do you suppose could have made them so ill? It was always perfectly clear,” Candace asked looking curious.
“Any number of things. I am going to test it and hope to find out. The reason it is so clear is that nothing is alive in it. That should tell you something,” he said.
“What would live in it? Never mind – I probably don’t want to know. You University types are full of information we probably don’t want to know. See – you are going back. I was right, “ she said in a satisfied tone.
Jason opened his mouth and then closed it and said, “Oh fine. I was going to go back tomorrow. You can come along if you can get away. “ Jason finished his meatloaf with a few scoops of the fork. “Now I have dishes to finish and Jolene to soothe.”
“Are you having a drink after work?” she asked quietly.
“I have a project with Stephan I am working on. I want to finish a few notes. I think we are going to mount it tomorrow.” Jason looked at her and saw something of frustration. For some reason, he felt bad for being busy.
Candace pouted a bit, “Tuesday nights are supposed to be fun.”
Jason stood up and shrugged and said, “It’s a different sort of fun. I appreciate you asking though.” He then leaned down and gave her a quick peck on the check and rushed off before she could jostle him, but she did manage to hiss, “Fresh”.
He gathered his plate and other items and laughed a bit, “I thought you liked surprises.”
Jolene shouted in friendly tone, “Hey you two. We run a respectable establishment here. Jason, I have loads of hot water and you are going to need it with that pile you let build up. Better get started or even Candace will be upset with you tonight.”
Amid shouts and whistles and tossed napkins and shocked protests by Candace, Jason gathered the piles of dishes and headed to the kitchen. The sink had pipes next to it that extended into the roof. Jolene had not been happy with the construction, but Stephan had promised a second unit for the bathroom if this one worked. Since things Stephan did nearly always worked, she relented in favor of regular hot baths. The gas line came from the stove. The space near it had brackets to hold the unit in place. Stephan had insisted on two sets of brackets and a “safety rope.” It seemed excessive to Jason, but Stephan said “There is no decent fire protection in this town. This has to last longer than that wall.” Jason said somewhat acerbically, “It probably will”.
The afternoon passed quickly as Jason cleaned dishes, pots and pans. Early afternoon blended into evening as customers came and went and Jason became busy with dinner dishes. The dinner traffic slowed and then stopped and Jason did the last platter and the silverware. Jolene and John brought the last pots and pans and a kettle of hot water. Peter came in, looked up and commented “Endless hot water you say.”
”That’s the idea,” Jason said. “Boiling water will take less time.”
Peter said, “and dishes will be easier.”
“And less competition for the stove in the afternoon,” Jason pointed out.
“Fair enough,” he laughed, “I shall heap praises if it works.”
“I don’t know about heaps, but a serving or two would be nice,” Jason said.
Jason scrubbed the last pots and set them to dry on the counter. He wiped down the sink and the stove. He poured some water into a bucket and began to mop the floor. He finished the last of the dinner dishes and set those to dry. The last orders of dessert had come an hour ago and the remaining people were now left were drinking. The time was about 9:30. He looked about, and hung his apron on the peg and put his head through the double doors. Kimberly was still serving a table. Candace and John were having a drink. Peter had already headed home. Jolene was at the bar starting to tabulate the day’s take and generally square accounts. Jason went to Stephan and said, “I am going to finish writing up the final test results and update the info.”
“That will wait until tomorrow,” Stephan said sharply.
“I suppose. But I really want it working for tomorrow,“ Jason said anxiously.
“And so it shall be. Sit and take a drink. I might like to discuss our walk a bit if you don’t mind,” he pointed to a seat at the bar.
Jason sat reluctantly. Stephan filled a stein and set it down in front of him. John sat down next to him and clicked Jason’s stein ceremoniously.
“So you went to the village haunt,” John said.
Jason said, “I didn’t know it at the time.”
“Any revelations or messages from beyond?” John said and made a creepy sound while waving his fingers.
“John, it was my parents’ house. I may not have known them well and I know you joke about everything, but this one is a bit touchy,” Jason said irritably.
“Sorry mate. You looked a bit tense and I thought a bit of light humor might help. My mistake,” John corrected himself and then took a drink.
Candace sat down on Jason’s other side, “Pay no attention to him, Jason. He is a chuff, “ and hit John lightly on the head over Jason. Her hand then stayed on Jason’s shoulder.
“But the nicest, well intentioned (and if I may say so) best looking chuff around, “John replied gainly. “Seriously, I was a bit of a boor. Sorry.“
Jason clinked his glass to John’s and then Candace’s and said, “It’s ok. I knew what you were trying to do and no hard feelings. Truth – I still don’t know what to think. Right now it is like another piece of some jigsaw that I only have half of. All I can say this about the place is that it is strange.”
John said, “Well it’s got everyone in this town looking over their shoulder.”
Stephan came up and started cleaning glasses in front of the trio, “Blame me for that. After those boys took ill, it seems I may have been right to be cautious.”
John protested, “But ghouls aren’t coming out of the ground at night. It is just a lot.”
“Is it lad? Next time you take a walk in that area, tell me how many birds you hear in that lot. Or if you find any fruit on those trees, tell me how they smell,” Stephan asked a bit defiant.
John looked simultaneously skeptical and a bit disturbed. Jason piped up, “I would like to do some analysis on the soil, plants and water to see what is going on.”
Stephan put the glass down and looked at Jason, “Can I convince you not to?”
Jason looked evenly at Stephan. The other two moved a bit away from Jason. “Not really, Stephan. This is how I understand things. It is a mystery. Let me explore it a bit. I don’t need your blessing, but I don’t want to work behind your back.”
Candace and John were quiet after the exchange. Stephan continued cleaning the glass. “What would you do first?”
“Simple assay of the soil and water. I’ve got some supplies for that. Do you have a microscope in that office?”
“I might,” he answered diffidently.
“I would look at the plants with that. I am also curious about that fragment we found,” Jason said.
“Leave that alone, “Stephan said. “It’s nothing you need to see. I’ve told you why.”
“Stephan. Hear me out,” Jason pleaded. “Let’s posit that my parents were playing by the rules.”
“I’ve no guarantee and some evidence they weren’t,” Stephan said sharply.
“But IF they were, but bending them a bit. That little piece says there was a fight. It is clearly broken and not…locally produced.”
Stephan paused and then set the glass down and leaned on the bar with both hands in fists. Candace and John leaned away while Jason leaned in, “I’ll play your game, lad. Now, let’s posit they weren’t playing by the rules. Now what does that fragment tell you?”
“They had an outside source. You said it couldn’t be made here. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Jason said simply.
“This conversation is better in my office, but not tonight. You’re good with the language and logic. We’ll take it up tomorrow. I will look. But I make no promises.” He looked up and glanced at Candace and John who were staring wide eye. “Now you two – if you could make sense of anything you just heard, best just to forget it. Agreed?” The two nodded mutely. “Good, Jason wouldn’t discuss it anyway, would he?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he said grinning.
“If you keep grinning like that, you are paying for that drink,” Stephan said gruffly.
There was a quiet in the wake of the conversation as Stephen moved down the bar to talk with Jolene. John moved to the other side of Candace saying, “I think it’s safer with something between me and Jason. Candace I think we need to review. Correct me if I am wrong. One –Jason argued with Stephan, large burly man, boss, short on words, long on strength.”
Candace nodded in agreement and looked at Jason, “Aye he did.” She looked him up and down. “He’s still standing.” She leaned over the bar and shouted at Stephan, “Stephan, does Jason still work here?”
Stephan grumbled back, “Until he gets that patent he does. I need the royalties. But if he keeps pushing, he will be cleaning the insides of beer vats with a sock.”
Candace said, “He’s working but there are reservations.”
John continued and Jason rolled his eyes as the tone became mock serious, “Two – Jason has retained his position although it is a bit unclear what position he retained.”
Candace leaned over the bar one more time, “Stephan – did Jason just win that little argument?”
Stephan grumbled, not looking up, “Candace, you ask one more question like that and you will be assisting him in the beer vats.”
She shouted back “Ooh. Could be fun!” She leaned back and turned to John in a mock serious voice, “Evidence suggests that he won said argument, but that is a bit unclear as well. “
John then leaned back and pounded the granite bar with fist and said in a conclusion voice that would make the University debating team proud, “There you have it, major shifts in our universe are underway. I shall check for pigs flying tomorrow.”
Candace responded, “and I shall expect Mayor Brown to announce his resignation to pursue a lifelong interest in needlepoint.”
Jason leaned over and hissed, “Will you two gits be quiet. Jolene argues with him all the time and wins.”
John replied quickly, “Doesn’t count – the Queen wouldn’t win an argument with Jolene and Stephan knows who is boss. However, we are wondering if you know where you fit in the hierarchy. “
Jason sounded frustrated, “Look, Stephan and I are working on a project together. The University tends to make one argumentative with colleagues.” He paused for a moment and scratched his head and continued, “A bit odd I will admit. But they were training us to believe in ourselves I suppose. Anyway on this matter, I treat him the way I treated my well respected professors.”
“But it is Stephan, “ Candace protested.
“Who is far smarter and capable than any of us knows except Jolene,” whispered Jason. “I am regularly corrected on my work by him so I know. He isn’t all about beer and business.”
“Candace, I believe this raises another matter. The two spoke in code intentionally obscuring facts and being annoyingly oblique,” John said in a conspiratorially tone leaning down and close to her ear.
Candace replied, “We can view this as normal behavior for Jason, but unusual for Stephan. I believe we can conclude that they are hiding something. I like my position too much to verify – it’s your turn.”
John leaned over and Stephan glared at him. John leaned back, “There is enough evidence to support this conclusion without verification. I would rather not do dishes for the next week or two.”
Jason stood up and got between John and Candace and pulled their heads in close to his, “Stephan is right about not talking about it. Let it go – it is the haunted house of Dunstable. Something bad happened and nobody knows what. Now drink your beer and talk about the darts tournament next week or I am going to write up my patent. “ He let them go and returned to his place. He nodded at Stephen silently and then took a drink from his stein.
John raised his glass, “Well let’s drink to our colleague’s survival even if we are underwhelmed by his good sense”
Candace said, “Here, Here, “ and the three clinked glasses