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#172

Precocity House



                Is there a limit to how long a driveway can be while maintaining its designation as a driveway? If so, then Arthur thought that this driveway would surely exceed that limit, this driveway would be one of those driveways that would have to be reclassified as something else, whatever the term would be for driveways that are too long to be driveways. Maybe that word would be “road.” A road that leads to only one place. Arthur wondered if this was the kind of thinking that Mr. Thackett wanted from him.

                The driveway – for Arthur still thought of it as a driveway despite his musings – twisted through dense forest, a blend of evergreens and deciduous trees with their autumn colors switched off for the night. Arthur’s son Reggie drove the car. For a 13-year-old boy who was only allowed to drive cars up driveways, this driveway was a godsend.

                “If we lived here,” said Reggie, “then I’d be as good of a driver as most 17-year-olds by the time I turned 15.” The car’s tires grumbled over wet gravel. “Because I’d get so much practice. Just from driving the driveway.”

                “Maybe,” said Arthur. He turned and looked out the car’s back window, the tail lights reddening their tracks and the woods beyond them. The time was just after 6 p.m. The weather was cold. The day had made no effort to dry out after the previous day’s constant drizzle.

                “How long do we have to stay tomorrow?” asked Reggie.

                “We can leave whenever we wake up,” said Arthur. “Mr. Thackett just wants us to be here overnight. Well, he wants me to be here. He doesn’t know I brought you.”

                “Would he care?” asked Reggie.

                “I don’t know,” said Arthur. “I’m not going to mention it.”

                The car popped out of the woods unexpectedly and mere yards from the large, dark house that Mr. Thackett referred to as his “thinking lodge.” Reggie stamped the brakes like an amateur, stopping too abruptly. The car’s headlights illuminated the windowless and wooden front door of the thinking lodge.

                “Should I put it in ‘park?’” asked Reggie.

                “Are you planning on ramming the front of the thinking lodge?” asked Arthur.

                “No.”

                “Then put it in ‘park.’”

 

                Arthur and Reggie carried their overnight bags to the front door and Arthur fished the key Mr. Thackett had given him out of his pocket. He had to jiggle it in the lock for a few seconds before he was able to open the door. Arthur stepped inside and fumbled for a light switch, found one, and turned on the lights in the front hall, revealing it to be lined on both sides with portraits of people who Mr. Thackett considered to be great thinkers. None of them were famous. They were all people who Mr. Thackett knew personally. They were all people who had, in Mr. Thackett’s estimation, done some quality thinking within the confines of this structure. He had paid them all to do so. Some of them did not have the traditional look of a great thinker. Arthur wondered if Mr. Thackett paid all the thinkers who stayed in his lodge the same amount.

                Reggie left his bag sitting in the hall and hurried off to explore the house. “Do I get my own room?” he called over his shoulder before disappearing through a dark doorway.

                “No,” Arthur called back. “That would give away the fact that there were two of us here.” He locked the front door, picked up his and Reggie’s bags, and followed his son deeper into Mr. Thackett’s thinking lodge, the thinkers on the wall not following him with their eyes for they were too deep in thought to be distracted by such mundanity as a short man carrying two overnight bags down a hallway, even though that man be destined to join their ranks in the very near future. Arthur’s portrait was already being painted. As a reference for the portrait, the artist was using a photo that someone had taken of Arthur at his wife’s birthday party six years ago. It was Arthur’s favorite picture of himself.

 

                An hour later, Reggie was still exploring. Arthur didn’t know where he was. Still in the basement, he thought, or maybe upstairs, maybe in the attic. Arthur did not want to explore. Anyway, it seemed like Reggie was having more fun without him. Arthur was content to sit on one of the couches in the den and peruse a magazine he’d brought with him from home while his friend texted him updates on the Multioak High School football game. It was an approximation of what he would have been doing if he were at home. At home, he would have been perusing the magazine while listening to the game on the radio. At home, his flip-phone would not have been anywhere near him. He had not come to Mr. Thackett’s thinking lodge in an attempt to break his nightly routine in any significant way. He had come to Mr. Thackett’s thinking lodge in order to make a little extra money so that he could justify the purchase of expensive concert tickets he had made while online and in a state of giddiness brought on by very good sports news. And although he was receiving sports news again tonight via the text messages, Arthur had learned his lesson and would not allow himself to exercise poor judgment as a result of good sports news again. Not that the sports news was very good tonight. His phone vibrated and he flipped it open to see if things had improved for the Marionettes. Things had not improved. They were now trailing Chopley by three touchdowns. Arthur snapped his phone shut and pushed it into his pocket. He would not look at it again until he was sure the game was over.

Arthur poured more autumnal beer into his mouth. He did not feel guilty about receiving text messages about the football game from his friend despite the fact that Mr. Thackett had requested that he limit outside stimulus as much as possible. That’s why there was no TV at the thinking lodge. That’s why there was no internet. That was also the main reason Arthur had brought Reggie along: he thought he might lose control of himself if he were completely alone with his thoughts in the thinking lodge for one night with no real means of distracting himself. Coincidentally, the flip-phone that Arthur was using to defy Mr. Thackett’s request to limit outside stimuli was the same flip-phone that had convinced Mr. Thackett that Arthur was a good thinker in the first place. “I like your phone,” Mr. Thackett had said. “A real thinker doesn’t carry a phone that will do his thinking for him.” Arthur knew that he had not yet achieved the level of thinking that Mr. Thackett had been hoping for tonight. He also knew that it was very unlikely that he would achieve that level of thinking at any point before heading home in the morning. But Arthur didn’t care. There was no way that Mr. Thackett would be able to prove that Arthur hadn’t done any serious, high-quality thinking in the thinking lodge. What Mr. Thackett couldn’t measure, he couldn’t refuse to pay for. Just another of the benefits of no one being capable of reading Arthur’s mind, and not even close to the biggest benefit.

                Finishing his beer, Arthur took the empty bottle to the refrigerator where he put it back into the 6-pack. Mr. Thackett had asked him not to leave any garbage or recyclables in the house when he left. Arthur took a fresh beer out of the 6-pack and turned to walk back to the couch in the den. But as he did, he noticed the sliding glass door leading out to a backyard patio. Arthur stood close to the glass door and looked out at the patio. He saw a grill and four chairs around a table. It was not a big patio. Beyond the patio, Arthur saw nothing. It was too dark. But on the wall next to the sliding glass door was a light switch. Arthur tried the switch and an outdoor light came on, illuminating a yard smaller than Arthur had expected, and also revealing a tree line much closer than Arthur would have preferred if this were his thinking lodge. But in the back, right corner of the yard, with trees pressing close on two sides, was a two-story playhouse. That’s what Arthur assumed it was, anyway. It had real siding, a real door, real windows, and a real shingled roof. But it was small. Child-sized. Or, in other words, only slightly too small for Arthur, who was just a shade under five feet tall.

                Arthur set his fresh beer on the kitchen counter, opened the sliding glass door, and stepped out onto the patio. He slid the door closed behind him. His coat was still hanging in the hall closet, but his sweatshirt was heavy and he ran hot anyway. And he didn’t intend to be outside for long, he just wanted to check out the playhouse. He walked across the patio and out into the yard where a layer of wet leaves covered the grass. Leaves stuck to Arthur’s shoes. From the woods came the sound of wind through increasingly bare branches, each new gust sending droplets of water raining down from upper branches to lower branches and from lower branches to the leaf-layer on the ground.

                Arthur stopped at the playhouse’s front door. The doorway was just a shade taller than he was, probably an even five feet tall. He felt compelled to knock before entering and did not resist the compulsion. No one answered the knock, of course. He tried the door and found it locked, but then recalled the key to the thinking lodge still in the pocket of his pants. The thinking lodge key worked on the playhouse door. Arthur opened the door and stepped inside the playhouse. It was too dark to see much. He reached out and ran his hand along the wall inside the door, feeling for a light switch. He did not feel one. Then he remembered where he was, what size of a place it was, how the place he was in was proportioned. He felt lower on the wall, at a height to which it was much more comfortable for him to reach, and found a light switch. When he flipped it upward, the lights came on in the playhouse. The lower floor of the playhouse was only one room, most of which had dark, hardwood flooring. Small couches lined the walls with small end tables between them bearing small lamps. The far left corner of the room had a tile floor instead of hardwood to mark it as the kitchen area. It had a small sink, a small refrigerator, a small stove, and a small counter with cupboards. In the middle of the room was a narrow spiral staircase leading up to the second floor. On one of the walls hung a picture frame, empty and small. Arthur closed the playhouse’s front door behind him and went up the spiral staircase, which would have been a difficult maneuver for an adult of average size. It may even have been a difficult maneuver for Reggie, who was seven inches taller than Arthur. But Arthur navigated the staircase with ease.

                At the top of the stairs, Arthur found the second story of the playhouse. There was a double light switch mounted in the spiral staircase’s center pole. After some brief experimenting, Arthur turned off the downstairs lights and turned on the upstairs lights. The floor of the second story was covered in deep, thick, dark-green carpet. On one side of the room, brightly-colored beanbag chairs were arranged in a circle on the floor. In the corner was a pile of rolled-up sleeping bags. On the other side of the room, two windows faced the thinking lodge. The windows were big relative to the rest of the playhouse and featured padded window seats with small pillows scattered across them. Arthur turned off the lights. The thinking lodge’s patio light came through the playhouse windows and provided enough illumination for Arthur to cross the room to a window seat with both hands raised over his head as he walked, his fingers trailing along the ceiling, something he had never been able to do in any other room before. Not in any other room that felt like a real room, anyway. He had once been in a closet with a very low ceiling, but that closet had not felt like a real room.

                Arthur sat down in the window seat on the left and looked out at the thinking lodge, resting one of the small pillows on his lap, striking a somewhat forlorn and romantic pose without meaning to. He wondered who this playhouse was for. He had been under the impression that Mr. Thackett had no children. Maybe this playhouse was for his nieces or nephews? For the children of friends? Arthur felt very cozy in the playhouse. He felt himself relaxing, even his hands, which were nearly always rigid and tense. He breathed easier. His thoughts loosened too, became less constricted, less squeezed. Arthur was tempted to spend the night in the playhouse, but Mr. Thackett was paying him to think inside the thinking lodge, he had been very specific about that. He wanted Arthur’s thoughts to weave themselves into the fabric of the thinking lodge’s atmosphere. That’s how he had said it. He hadn’t even mentioned the playhouse.

                Arthur saw a light go on in one of the thinking lodge’s upstairs windows. Then Reggie appeared in the window, pulling the blinds aside and cupping his hands around his face so he could look out into the back yard. Arthur wondered if Reggie was looking for him. He supposed he should go back inside in case Reggie was worried that he had disappeared. He waved at Reggie from the playhouse window, but Reggie couldn’t see him, of course. Not with all the lights in the playhouse turned off.

                Arthur was about to rise from the window seat to head back down the spiral staircase when he saw Reggie’s body tense in the upstairs window, then drop out of view. The blinds swayed back and forth in the wake of his departure. A few seconds later, the light in the upstairs window went out. Arthur hesitated, half-standing and half-sitting. What had that been about? He hadn’t been able to make out Reggie’s facial expression, but his body language had been alarming, or at least unnerving.

                Arthur felt his way down the spiral staircase in the dark. As he was about to open the playhouse’s front door and walk outside, something made him hesitate. Something specific: the lingering feeling he’d gotten from Reggie’s strange behavior in the window. It had seemed to Arthur as if Reggie had seen something that frightened him in the back yard, the same yard into which Arthur was preparing to step. He decided he should exercise some caution. Reggie was only a boy, of course, but not an especially fearful boy, so if he had seen something that had frightened him to the extent that he had appeared to be frightened, then Arthur decided a little caution couldn’t hurt. He cracked the front door of the playhouse and looked through it.

                A human figure stood facing away from Arthur between the playhouse and the thinking lodge. The figure was tall, had broad shoulders, and was almost certainly a man. Silhouetted by the patio light, the man looked menacing. Adding to that sense of menace was the fact that he seemed to be wearing a ski mask and, furthermore, he held a gigantic knife in his left hand. This was, in every conceivable way, an unwelcome development. Arthur tried to judge the man’s height. Arthur was good at estimating the heights of everyone taller than him, which was most adults. He was terrible at estimating the heights of anyone shorter than him, which was mostly children. The man was six feet and five inches tall, that was Arthur’s guess. He had also not moved since Arthur had begun to watch him; he was entirely focused on the thinking lodge. Arthur watched as the man’s left arm flexed, the tip of the knife rose, then the arm relaxed, and the tip of the knife dipped. It seemed likely that this man aspired to murder.

                Arthur softly closed the playhouse door and locked it. He took his phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, and looked down at it in his hand, his chosen background image of a funny-looking guy he’d surreptitiously photographed in line at the movie theater glowing grainily up at him. What would he tell the police? How would he tell them to find him? Mr. Thackett hadn’t given Arthur the address to the thinking lodge, nor had Arthur seen a mailbox with a number on it or a number on or next to the lodge’s front door. Mr. Thackett had written directions to the thinking lodge down on a piece of paper that was still inside of Arthur’s coat pocket in the closet in the thinking lodge. Arthur did not remember the directions. They were very complicated and they had been designed to send Arthur on a confusing, circuitous route. They featured a lot of guidance based on landmarks that someone who didn’t know Mr. Thackett better might find mysterious. For example, “Take the first odd-looking turn on the right.” Arthur had known to bypass the first few possible right turns while on that particular road because he had known by the sight of them that Mr. Thackett would not consider them odd-looking. The right turn Arthur had ended up taking had struck him as the kind of right-hand turn that Mr. Thackett would consider odd-looking. Would the police know that? Arthur doubted it. He couldn’t even remember how many potential right turns he had passed up before encountering the odd-looking one which had turned out to be the correct one. And that was just one small portion of the directions. Mr. Thackett’s insistence upon requiring a lot of thinking to even find the thinking lodge seemed especially flawed in circumstances like those that Arthur now faced.

                The call to the Multioak police was a disaster. Arthur had to repeat the term “thinking lodge” over and over, he could not give them any sane-sounding directions to the thinking lodge, and his description of the knife-wielding maniac did not motivate them to understanding like Arthur had hoped it would. Also, the fact that he felt he needed to whisper so as not to alert the man with the knife irritated the dispatcher very much. Arthur hung up on the police abruptly and without saying goodbye.

                Arthur’s next call was to Mr. Thackett. In some ways, it went worse than the call to the police had gone.

                “What are you thinking about?” asked Mr. Thackett.

                “That’s not why I called,” said Arthur.

                “You need to speak up,” said Mr. Thackett. “Unless that will disrupt your current train of thought in some way.”

                “I need you to call the cops,” said Arthur. “I need you to tell them how to get here.” He pulled a corner of curtain away from a window and peeked outside. The man with the knife was still standing there, still gripping and re-gripping his knife with his back to the playhouse.

                “The cops?” asked Mr. Thackett. “No, never. They might try to go inside. I respect law enforcement almost as much as the next guy, but those are not the caliber of thoughts I want happening inside my thinking lodge.”

                “There’s a killer here,” said Arthur, almost hissing. He called the masked man a killer to emphasize the danger of the situation, but Arthur didn’t actually know if the man had ever killed anyone before. If he hadn’t, then he wasn’t really a killer yet. He was just an aspiring killer and those were a dime a dozen. “He’s standing outside in the yard and he’s got a knife in his hand,” said Arthur. “He’s here to kill us, I’m almost certain.”

                “Us?” asked Mr. Thackett. “Me and you?”

                “Me and Reggie,” said Arthur. “My son. You have to call the police and tell them the address. We need help immediately. The killer could get inside at any moment.” Though worried for his son’s well-being, Arthur kept his wits about him enough to not reveal that he was not currently in the thinking lodge. He assumed that Mr. Thackett would be displeased with him for going outside.

                “You did not ask for permission to bring your son,” said Mr. Thackett. “That was not part of the arrangement. Arthur, this is all very disappointing. And on top of all this, it’s sounding like your thoughts are very superficial and scattered at the moment. Is your fright inspiring some level of creative problem-solving, at least?”

                “Call the cops!” said Arthur, struggling to keep his voice down more out of irritation with Mr. Thackett than fear.

                “Are you at least keeping your son sequestered in the precocity house?”

                “What? What’s that?”

                “The precocity house! The house I designed and built specifically to accommodate children who think well for their age, but do not yet think on the level of the great thinkers I accommodate in the thinking lodge! It’s a smaller house behind the thinking lodge that’s conducive to thinking for young minds!”

                “Please,” said Arthur. “Call the cops and tell them how to find us. We’re running out of time.” He paused. “Imagine the thoughts that will be thought inside the thinking lodge if the killer gets inside and murders us both with a knife. Imagine how clouded by pain and fear our thoughts will be. Imagine the incoherent, illogical thoughts of the killer, Mr. Thackett. Imagine the atmosphere of your thinking lodge once those thoughts are woven into its fabric.”

                Mr. Thackett began to breathe heavily, furiously. “Do not allow that deranged mind into my thinking lodge, Arthur! Do you hear me? I’m on my way!”

                “Bring the cops!” Arthur shouted into the phone, but it was too late. Mr. Thackett had hung up. Arthur, despondent, was about to make another probably-fruitless attempt to call the police when he heard a knock on the front door of the precocity house. The knock was insistent, but not impolite. Still, Arthur did not want to answer the door. He walked to the middle of the room and stood halfway between the door and the staircase, watching the doorknob. Then, both insistent and impolite, the door was kicked in. A piece of splintered doorjamb bounced off of Arthur’s shoulder. The masked man with the knife stooped down to peer in through the little, little doorway which was actually the perfect size for Arthur, assuming he wasn’t wearing a hat, which he never did.

                The man, with the knife still clutched in one hand, pulled a small flashlight from his jacket pocket with his other hand. He pointed the beam at Arthur’s face.

                Arthur squinted.

                “‘Bring the cops?’” said the man. “Seriously?”

               

                Arthur said nothing, but his mind raced from one potential solution to another, inspecting and rejecting, inspecting and rejecting.

                “Throw me the phone,” said the man. He pointed his knife at Arthur but did not come inside.

                Arthur realized that the man did not want to come inside. The ceiling was too low for him. If he were to come inside, he would have to stand with his neck and back bent. Arthur began to back toward the spiral staircase.

                “Stop,” said the man. “I’m serious. Slide your phone across the floor to me.”

                “Do you want me to throw it or slide it?” asked Arthur. “Make up your mind.”

                “Slide it,” said the man. “You have nowhere to run. If you don’t slide me your phone, I’m going to cut you open.”

                “Is that what the knife is for?” asked Arthur.

                “Yes,” said the man, suddenly wary of being mocked.

                “You’re a big guy,” said Arthur.

                “And you’re tiny,” said the man. “What’s your point?”

                “I’m just surprised you feel like you need a knife that big to do what you’re here to do,” said Arthur.

                “What else would I use?” asked the man. “What’s wrong with a knife?”

                “It’s impersonal,” said Arthur. “Not like a sniper rifle, but still. You’re not really killing. The knife is just doing your bidding.”

                “I’m holding the knife,” said the man. “I’m the one swinging and thrusting it!”

                “But you need it,” said Arthur. “Without it, all your victims would still be alive. If you even have any victims yet.”

                “Slide me your phone,” said the man. “This is your last chance.”

                “Wow,” said Arthur. “You really don’t have any victims? You thought tonight was going to be your first? And you’re wearing a mask. Like you’re already expecting witnesses to survive. Planning to fail. Unless being anonymous is part of your process?”

                The man said nothing, but he gripped his knife so tightly that it his arm trembled from fist to elbow.

                “You haven’t given it much thought at all, have you,” said Arthur. “No. You’ve thought as far as how you’re going to get away with it and that’s it. Beyond that, you’re just winging it. Experimenting.”

                “And what are you?” asked the man. “Some kind of expert? Some kind of tiny genius? Slide me your phone.” He sounded angry enough to finally follow through with his threat. He sounded very tall. Not in a good way.

                Arthur crouched down and slid his phone across the wooden floor toward the man, but didn’t put quite enough force behind it to get it all the way to the doorway. “Oops,” said Arthur.

                The man sighed. “Stay there,” he said. He shone his flashlight around the lower level of the precocity house once more, one last check for any signs of a potential ambush. Then he ducked inside the precocity house, aimed his flashlight at the flip-phone lying open on the floor, and crouched to pick it up.

                As the man reached for the phone with the same hand in which he held the flashlight, Arthur acted. He stomped his right foot as hard as he could on the floor, clapped his hands, and let out an ear-splitting shriek all at the same time. The man, startled, jumped up, entirely forgetting about the smallness of the room, and drove the top of his head straight into the ceiling with a thud that seemed to shake the whole precocity house. The knife and flashlight clattered to the floor as the man dropped to one knee, clutching the top of his head with both hands, moaning, almost tipping to one side before steadying himself by putting his left hand on the ground. Arthur took two steps toward him. The man, sensing Arthur’s approach, stood up and crunched his hand between the top of his head and the ceiling. Cursing, he shook the pain from his hand as he backed hurriedly to the door, woozy and off-balance, this time striking the back of his head and neck on the doorway on his way out into the yard where he stumbled and fell in the wet leaves.

                Arthur picked up his phone on his way out of the precocity house. He ignored the knife. He was not a knife guy. He was aware of Reggie watching from the sliding glass door, but he knew himself well enough to know that the fact of Reggie’s observance would not deter him now.

                The masked man sat on the grass, legs splayed out in front of him, still clutching his head through the mask, breathing hard. Arthur knew how uncomfortable the inside of that mask must be by know. All damp and warm and itchy. Miserable. Arthur pounced on the man and knocked him flat on his back, pinning the man’s arms with his knees on the insides of his biceps, his hands wrapping around the man’s throat, no blood flow, no air flow, just a dimming of the eyes starting at the periphery and working inward.

                “Arthur! Is that him? He didn’t get in the thinking lodge, did he?”

                Arthur looked up to see Mr. Thackett running across the yard toward him from around the side of the house. This distracted him. His grip on the masked man’s throat slackened, the man took a desperate breath, and managed to roll to one side, causing Arthur to lose his balance and topple. The man scrambled away, crawling on his hands and knees, his mask askew on his face, limiting his vision to one eye. Arthur did not pursue him. The man gained his feet and staggered into the tree line, crashing through the woods like a terrified buck with three arrows sticking out of his hide.

                “That was the one you called me about?” asked Mr. Thackett. He was wearing a trench coat over his thin, white pajamas. A red stocking cap completely concealed his bushy brown-and-white hair. He had not brought a weapon or any other means of fending off a killer.

                “Yes,” said Arthur. “That was him.”

                “Did he get into the thinking lodge?” asked Mr. Thackett.

                “No,” said Arthur. “He only went into the precocity house.”

                “That’s a shame,” said Mr. Thackett, looking wistfully at the precocity house. “The innocence of the thinking that occurs within the precocity house was one of its key features. It will have to be demolished now. It’s hopelessly corrupted, I’m sure. Still, I’m relieved that you diverted him to the precocity house and away from the thinking lodge. That was good thinking, Arthur. I hope you thought of that while inside the thinking lodge. I would love for a thought like that to be woven into the thinking lodge’s atmosphere.”

                “I did,” said Arthur, happy to indulge Mr. Thackett’s nonsense as long as it increased the likelihood of his being paid the agreed-upon amount despite bringing Reggie along without permission.

                Mr. Thackett turned to look into the trees where the masked man had disappeared. The forest was quiet now aside from the wind in the branches. “Do you think that man was The Diminutive Strangler we’ve been hearing so much about?”

                Arthur tried not to laugh. “Did he look diminutive to you?”

                “Well, no,” said Mr. Thackett. “But everyone looks tall next to you, Arthur.”




Discussion Questions

  • How do you feel about the complete and utter lack of spooky effects on my voice in the introduction?



  • Submit five possible terms to use for driveways that are too long to be referred to as driveways?



  • What is the absolute best thought that is woven into the fabric of the atmosphere in your bedroom? What about the worst? What about your kitchen?



  • What’s the dumbest criteria you use to determine who the greatest thinkers in your life are?



  • Does anyone every mistake intelligence for goodness? Or is that a thing of the past?



  • Do you think anyone, including you, will ever figure out the identity of The Diminutive Strangler?