by Mark Tullius and Anthony Szpak
Publisher/Date: Vincere Press, October 2013
It’s Grandma’s House – quiet, cozy, nestled on a little mountain in West Virginia. What could possibly go wrong? A lot, actually. So watch your back. Choose wisely. One misstep will get you and your little sister killed. To survive, you’ll battle creatures, beasts, and even your grandparents as you unravel the mystery of your older brother’s death in this interactive, graphic novel.
Mark’s a writer shaped by influences, too many to count. He grew up on King and Koontz while force-fed the Bible. He narrates Dr. Seuss and Disney nearly every night. Like you, he’s seen things he wished he hadn't, heard some truths he won't forget.
Writing is Mark’s heavy bag, the sparring partner that doesn't punch back. It's where he sheds his armor and casts off the blindfold, takes a look at himself and the world around him. The writing takes him wherever it wants. Dark alley or dinner table, classroom or morgue. Mark goes along for the ride and tries to capture the moment, show life like it is, and let you be the judge.
Anthony Szpak started stand-up comedy at sixteen, toured the country and has performed on Comedy Central. He has sold television pilots to Castlerock, FX, and 20th Century Fox. His award-winning blog, mygaymom.com, has been featured on AOL and The Ricki Lake Show. He currently lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their dog, Sunny.
Everyone’s shivering outside the diner. It’s starting to drizzle, and my little sister throws back her head like a Pez dispenser and groans.
Mom says, “Come on, David. It’ll be good to practice.”
I suck at driving in the rain and really need to work on it, but I can’t take the keys. I’ve only had my license for a month, and while I like being behind the wheel, I try to avoid it when I’m with Dad. He makes me too nervous and I always screw up, like missing our exit or cutting someone off. Even Mom says the minivan has terrible blind spots, but Dad says we’re just not using the mirrors correctly.
“Why don’t I drive?” my sister says, and Mom shoots her a look. My sister’s name is Samantha, but she insists we call her Sam. She’s tougher than any of the jocks at my high school and she’s only in seventh grade. I’ve seen her choke out boys twice her size.
“Come on, Deb,” Dad says. “We’re going to be here all night.”
Mom doesn’t look at him, just jingles the keys at me like I’m some unmotivated dog. “What do you say, David? Do you want to drive now or once we get off the freeway?”
“Don’t give him options,” Dad says. “If there was a flood, the boy’d drown picking out sneakers.”
“He would not!” Mom snaps.
But the truth is, I probably would drown. I only have two pairs of sneakers, but I spend an exhausting amount of time choosing which ones to wear. The inside backs of my blue high-tops are so worn the plastic cuts into my heels. When I peel off my socks, I just re-open the scabs. My green runners are comfy and light, but they make me think too much about my brother, Tim. He gave them to me when I was thinking about joining the track team. He’d broken every record at our high school as a freshman. College recruiters came to every meet. One told Mom that Tim would end up on a box of cereal.
But that was before he started hanging out with Bill Parker. Tim got arrested for stealing a car with Bill. Then he got expelled after breaking a teacher’s nose. My parents took him to a psychologist and even our priest, but Tim couldn’t stay out of trouble. It got so bad Mom sent him to live with my grandparents for the summer. That was two years ago, the last time any of us saw him alive. “He doesn’t want to drive,” Dad says. “Just give me the keys.”
Mom sighs and hands them over. We all climb in. I keep thinking about Tim. Yesterday was the anniversary of his death. There were search-and-rescue teams and bloodsniffing dogs. The body they found didn’t have a face, like it’d been clawed off. The cops said it was probably a coyote or bear.
Sam said it must have taken a whole pack of bears to bring down Tim. She wanted to go looking for the one Tim must have killed. She said we could mount it in our basement.
“Everyone buckled up?” Mom asks. She tries to fasten hers, but it won’t click. She jams it down a few times to finally lock it in.
My father pulls out of the lot and onto the road. I put my cheek against the freezing window and stare at the city lights. When we moved to Florida, I expected it to be hot and sticky all the time, but nights by the water, even during the summer, are some of the coldest I’ve felt. It’s like someone sliding icicles right into your bones.
Mom turns the heat all the way up. Within minutes the minivan is a sauna. Sam’s letting a couple of pet ants crawl around her hand. She collected a bunch yesterday at the cemetery. Sam and I went alone because Mom and Dad never want to go. Sam stole some flowers from another grave and put them on Tim’s headstone. We stood there and I kept trying to picture Tim’s face, the one he had before whatever it was tore it off, but I couldn’t. I only saw thisfuzzy, tanned blob on his shoulders. I wonder how long it’s going to take for me to forget his voice or the time he let me play hooky and snuck me into an R-rated movie.
Sam opens the sugar packets she stole from the diner and feeds it to the ants in her palm. She whispers something about how the sacrifice will bring in a good harvest. Tim taught her how to use the magnifying glass to send the little creatures to their flaming death. I just hope Sam doesn’t set the yard on fire like last summer.
Sometimes I feel Tim never really left, just entered Sam’s body. Thinking about it makes me jealous. They’re just so much alike. Tim never had a problem making decisions. A lot of them were wrong, at least according to my parents and the cops, but he never panicked. When he saw something he wanted to do, he did it. Grandpa Joe was supposed to break him of that, that was the plan, but I knew Tim would never let that happen. When he stole the car, the cops chased him for almost an hour. The only reason they caught him was he ran out of gas.
“I’m hot,” Sam says.
“Well, take off your jacket, honey,” Mom says.
Sam is yanking off her puffy black coat when she suddenly starts looking down at the floor. She’s clearly lost an ant, and I know I’m going to wake up tonight with it crawling around my bed. I can already feel it jittering into my ear and giving birth in my brain.
Dad takes the turnpike to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. It’s all lit up; a hundred cables bathed in yellowgreen light. Each one stretches to the top of the two towering pillars, creating alien-looking sails rising above the water.
In the rearview mirror, I see sweat beads rolling around my father’s forehead. “Take the wheel,” he tells Mom.
“I need to take my jacket off.”
“I’ll just turn down the heat.”
“No, I’m hot now.”
“Let’s at least get across the bridge.”
Dad forces her hand to the wheel and starts jerking back and forth to get his arm out of the sleeve. Mom’s hand is gripping the wheel so hard it’s like she’s trying to squeeze juice out of the thing. Her arm’s shaking and it’s causing the minivan to wobble.
“Tom, please, you know I hate this.”
Dad keeps grunting and shuffling. His whole body turns to the left and the engine revs. The cables of the bridge start passing by so fast I can’t even see the spaces between them.
And so are his arms, both trapped in his jacket.
Mom tries to gain control, but we end up swerving. A car honks. Dad’s foot must be pressed to the floor because we’re going faster and faster.
I look over at Sam who’s grinning like a devil.
“The brakes. Brakes!” Mom screams.
“What do you think I’m…” Dad trails off and the tires skid. We’re thrown forward, but we’re not stopping. The bridge must be too wet. The sound of rubber scraping against pavement is almost as loud as Mom’s shrieking. The blast of horns follows. More screeching. Headlights shine through the windshield then sweep out as cars swerve to avoid us. I see the railing of the bridge. It’s getting close.
Maybe ten feet. Five. Nothing but dark sky beyond the metal bars. The van pops up on the curb. We slam into the railing. It’s creaking and I can’t open my eyes. I know we’re heading over.
Mom just keeps repeating, “Oh my God…Oh my God…”
I clench my fists so tight it feels like I’m going to snap my wrists.
But the creaking starts to fade. I hear my parents’ breathing.
Sam starts laughing. “Way to go, Dad.”
Soon, everyone’s laughing. We’re not dead. It was just a wreck. The minivan’s totaled, but it needed to go anyway. Mom’s been saying that for months. The airbags didn’t even pop out.
Dad unbuckles himself and turns towards us in the backseat.
“Everyone all right?”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “But I think my ants spilled.”
Any other time, Mom would be freaking out, saying something about Sam knowing better than to take them out of their tank. But all Mom’s doing is looking at me in the rearview, her voice even more delicate than usual when she asks, “How about you? You okay?”
Dad’s laugh is a little shaky. “They’re fine. No blood, no foul.”
Suddenly, the van’s filled with light. It’s so bright I can’t even turn to see where it’s coming from. Dad’s eyes double in size. The blaring horn says it’s a semi. Eighteen wheels sliding, skidding right into our back bumper. The railing cracks and everything sounds muffled – the screams, the metal bars clanging off the sides of the van as we plummet down, down…
Dad’s arms are locked against the wheel as if he could actually stop this. We’re falling for so long I start to think we’ll never land, that we’ll just fall right through the planet and float out into space. But we hit the water and my hands fly up to the roof. Sam’s hair is sticking straight up. We must be upside down. Dad’s body crashes up on the dash and his head bangs the windshield. Blood seeps into the cracks spidering out through the glass. It’s spreading fast. Everything gets dark and cold and I know we’re completely underwater. The water is leaking around the doors.
Sam must have unbuckled herself because she’s suddenly on the ceiling crawling towards Mom. We’re still upside down. Mom is trying to free herself, but her seatbelt won’t unlock. Sam tries to help her. Their hands keep slapping and pressing, but it won’t unbuckle.
Water sprays in through the windshield. It’s going to burst any second. Mom sees it and frantically jerks at the buckle. But it won’t budge. Finally she gives up, grabs Sam’s face.
“You two have to go, honey.”
Sam’s little fingers keep pressing the button. “No, I can get it.”
“Samantha, stop! Look at me.”
I’ve never heard Sam cry like this before, and I realize I’m crying, too.
“I’m not leaving,” Sam says.
“It’s going to be okay. I’ll get your father. But you both have to swim.”
Sam screams, “David, help!”
I push my button, and for a second, I think I’m trapped just like Mom, but then I hear the click and my whole body thwaps against the ceiling. I crawl over to help, but it’s really stuck.
I don’t want to look at her.
“You need to take care of your sister. You swim out after the glass breaks.”
My fingers are still pressing the button. Mom takes my face in her hands.
“Promise me you’ll always protect her.”
I want to tell her to be quiet, that we have to keep trying, but the sound of splintering glass fills the van. Water is going to come like an avalanche. Mom yells at us to get behind the seats, but I don’t want to move. I don’t want any of this.
I’m not leaving Mom. I can’t. I don’t care how much she yells. I just need to wake Dad. He’s still up on the dash. Tiny streams of water spray his body, his face, washing the blood away for a second before it pours out again. He’s not moving
at all. I slap his arm. “Dad! Wake up! Please!”
I need him to tell me what to do. He always knows exactly what to do. I just need him to hear me. In school they said you’re not supposed to move someone with an injured neck, and there’s blood all over his collar, but the windshield is about to shatter. I try shaking him, pulling him.
Mom screams, “David! Just let him go! Please get behind the seat!”
I keep jostling his arm, his chest. I try not to focus on the cracking sound of the windshield. It’s about to burst. Mom and Sam are screaming and trying to unlock Mom’s seatbelt.
Mom says, “Sam, baby, please, listen to me, you have to go behind the seat.”
I’m not moving, but neither will Dad. I slide my hands under his armpit to get a better grip, but it’s awkward. I yank back with everything I’ve got, but I barely drag him an inch. If I can’t get him off, he’s going to crush all of us when the water rushes in. I’m pulling so hard every fiber in my neck feels like it’s about to snap in two. Mom’s grasping for me and at first I think she’s trying to help me, but I realize she’s just trying to get me to let go of him.
“DAVID! STOP THIS!”
I don’t want to open my eyes. All I hear is the windshield cracking. The streams of water pummel my face. I’m grunting so hard I finally drown out the screams and shattering glass. Dad’s starting to move a little. I think I might be able to pull him off, but I feel something hitting me in the back.
“Let go of him, David,” Sam shouts. She bangs her fists into my back. Now she’s pulling my hair, which isn’t all that long, but her fingers are tiny and tough. I wish mine were as strong.
Dad’s sleeve slips through my palms. If I let go, I’m going to ram into Sam. She’s practically hanging on me and screaming in my ear.
But even through her wails, the cracking grows louder…and louder…until it fills the entire van. The spider web is more intricate than anything I’ve ever seen. It’s sort of beautiful in the dark.
Suddenly, everything gets quiet. I feel my heart beating against my ribs. Sam loosens her grip. I don’t hear Mom. I don’t hear Sam. No one is even breathing. We’re all just watching the glass praying that it’s somehow going to hold.
My brother Tim once said, “When you get to the point when prayer is the only thing you’ve got, it’s already too late.”
The glass explodes. Water and tiny shards pulverize our faces. Dad’s big body finally flies off the dash and drives into me, and I knock into Sam. We go tumbling into the back while Dad plows into Mom’s outstretched arms. His foot bangs into her chest. Her mouth opens wide to gasp, but she’s silenced by the river water flooding her throat.
I flip and try to grab the seat, but the wave slams him into me. I’m trying to roll to the left, knowing if I don’t stop this, I’m going to crush Sam. But my hands can’t hold onto anything, and I feel her head against my back. It smacks into
the back door, her nose crunching against my spine.
The van is completely filled with water and I pull myself off my sister. Her eyes are closed, her skin seems so blue. I try lifting her up. Her body is limp. Blood pours out of her nose and clouds the water. I turn and see my mother’s eyes. She’s running out of air. My Dad’s body is still on her.
He’s unconscious and wedged in tight.
All I want to say is, “I’m sorry.” Why didn’t I listen? I could’ve saved Sam, pulled her behind the seats. I could’ve driven from the diner. We never would’ve been going that fast across the bridge. We’d all still be alive. But I screwed everything up.
I’m crying so hard my mouth just opens. The water comes so fast I can’t even cough, and everything gets darker. I try to keep my eyes open, try to force Sam towards the busted windshield, hoping she’ll wake up and swim to safety. But her body just floats a little, then sinks. We’re all dead.
Mom screams, “David, do it, now!” She’s pushing me with her cold hands and the shattering glass looks like a huge cobweb of ice. I feel Mom’s freezing skin for the last time, then yank Sam back behind the seat just as the raging waters burst through the front of the minivan. It fills up so fast.
Sam’s hair swirls around her face. I didn’t take a deep breath in time and I already feel lightheaded. Glass shards float around the van like flakes in a snow globe. I reach through and take Sam’s hand, pulling her towards me then up to the front, where Dad’s unconscious body is blocking the way. I have to force him through where the windshield used to be.Sam gasps and water floods her mouth. She looks at Mom, who helps me shove Sam out.
It’s dark and I can’t tell which way is up, but I see the air bubbles rising and I follow them. My brain feels like it’s being crushed and my arms are moving, but I don’t seem to be getting closer to the surface. It’s like I’m swimming through glue. Sam’s legs are kicking above my head and I keep driving my hands up through the water. My pants feel like they’re about to fall off and I lose a shoe. Sam’s feet slow, and I fear the worst. Her little lungs are probably already filled with water. I swim as hard as I can, and suddenly, the cold air hits my face. I gulp air and feel tiny electric tingles ripple through my body.
It’s freezing. The wind carves through us and we see people looking down from the bridge. They’re yelling something, but I can’t hear anything. My ears are clogged with water and Sam’s teeth are chattering so loudly it sounds like they might crack.
The bank is only twenty yards away. “Come on,” I say. We swim and drag our sopping bodies onto the dirt and rocks. Sam pukes out a bunch of water and collapses. I rest my hand on her back and tell her it’s okay, even though it’s not. I can’t even look back at the bay, at the dark water.
The sirens come rushing in from above. Two medics wrap us in blankets. There’s a helicopter. A diver jumps out feet first into the icy water.
A medic says, “Let’s get in you in the ambulance.” He checks Sam’s heartbeat, then mine. Sam’s fingers look blue.
They rush us to the hospital.
I don’t know how long we’re in the E.R., but it feels like months. Our neighbors, the Andersons, show up. They live across the street. Mom and Dad play cards with them on the weekends. They keep petting my hair and telling us how lucky we are. It’s about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.
The doctor says we can go home, but we go to the Andersons. Sam gets the spare room. I’m on the couch. I don’t sleep. I stare at the ceiling thinking about Mom and Dad, their pale faces underwater. I know I didn’t have a choice, that’s what everyone kept telling me. Everyone said there was no way Mom would ever allow another one of her kids to be lost.
During the next couple of days, people talk and I guess I respond, but I can’t grasp any of the conversations. Mrs. Anderson makes us pancakes for breakfast every morning, but I can’t eat. Sam rolls them up into little tubes and shoves them in her mouth with her dirty finger just to piss off Mrs. Anderson, who only offers a sad smile before finding an excuse to leave the room. Mr. Anderson just sold the house and they’re moving to California to be near their daughter, who just graduated from college. They’re ready for an early retirement. It’s clear they want us gone.
Next thing I know, it’s the funeral. The cemetery is kind of pretty until I think about the fact we’re walking over a thousand corpses. I’m wearing Tim’s old suit. It’s hanging off me. Sam refused to put on the dress Mrs. Anderson picked out for her. She’s in her overalls stained with paint and insect guts.
Our grandparents have arrived, and it’s obvious they wish they’d seen Sam’s outfit before the cemetery. They’re looking at her like she should be locked in a cage. I haven’t seen my grandparents in years, but they don’t look like they’ve aged. They’re still wrinkly, but there’s a fire burning in their eyes.
They live on a mountain in West Virginia, and they rarely leave. Mom said Grandpa Joe used to be a scientist for the Army. Chemical weapons, she said. His face is so hardened it’s tough to look at him without feeling weak.
Even my dad was afraid of him. My dad would say, “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir,” like a kid afraid of getting whipped.
Dad never wanted to send Tim to live with them, but Mom couldn’t take it anymore – the screaming, the sleepless nights. She was always afraid to get the final call from the cops or hospital, someone telling her that Tim was dead. When the call actually came, she didn’t even cry. It was almost like she’d imagined it so many times there wasn’t any punch left.
The preacher is reading from the Bible. Grandpa Joe stares at the caskets. He’s still got that military haircut and the posture of a statue. Grandma Barb wipes her face with her hanky, but I haven’t seen a single tear fall.
Tim’s headstone is next to the coffins. Dad bought the plots after Tim died. There are two more spaces for Sam and me. If we’d stayed in the minivan, we’d be in the ground, too.
The preacher invites us to line up and drop dirt into the graves. I guess he thinks if we help bury them as a group, it’ll somehow make this easier, but it just seems weird and gross. Sam pockets her dirt and tosses one of her Shrinky Dinks onto Mom’s coffin. It’s a four-leaf clover she made in our oven.
Mr. Anderson stands up and says, “Everyone, thank you for coming. You’re more than welcome to come back to our house for food.”
I don’t recognize most of the people here. Some must have worked with Dad at the eraser factory. He was a supervisor, and he used to bring home erasers from the office. There were bags of them all over the house. I remember a big novelty pencil, which had bold letters on the side, that read, “Alto Erasers – We’re #2!” Sam used to sell the erasers to kids in her class. She made almost thirty buckslast year and bought a bow and arrow, which Mom immediately confiscated.
Sam and I ride back in the limo with the Andersons. My sister won’t look at me. We’ve hardly spoken since the accident. I know she hates me for making us abandon our parents. The guests are shoveling food into their mouths at the reception or whatever this is. I’ve had to shake everyone’s hand and tell them thanks for coming. Mr. Anderson told me it was the right thing to do, but I’m not thankful. I wish it was just the people we know, and I’m sick of hearing how everything happens for a reason.
My grandparents sit in the corner avoiding these people almost as well as Sam, who went upstairs to use the bathroom an hour ago and hasn’t come back. Grandpa Joe is suddenly standing next to me. He smells like a fireplace. “Where’s your sister?”
“Upstairs, I think.”
Grandpa Joe looks up and I know he’s thinking about going to get her. Something doesn’t feel right. I don’t want to leave Sam alone with him so I tell him I’ll check on her. He grabs my arm, his thumb digging into my flesh, almost pressing to the bone.
“Don’t dawdle, boy. Your grandmother and I are ready to leave.”
I tell him I’ll hurry. I’m just glad they’re leaving. Being in the same room with them reminds me of Tim and I’m already filled with enough grief. I’m almost scared to breathe, like if I inhale a little too deep, my lungs will pop. The upstairs bathroom is empty so I peek inside the guest room. The window’s open and the curtains are blowing and I know Sam’s made a run for it. I hurry over, prepared to see her little body broken on the ground, but there’s nothing. Something’s shuffling above, so I lean out, look up, and see Sam’s sneakers dangling over the roof.
“What are you doing, Sam? Get down from there.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Yes, you will.”
“No, I’m not going.”
“Come on, you just have to say goodbye to Grandma and Grandpa.”
“Nuh-uh, they’re taking us with them.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That’s where we’re going. Mrs. Anderson says they have custody. She already packed our bags.”
“No, that’s… Let me talk to them.”
“They say we don’t have a choice, but I ain’t budging. I’ll stay up here until they have heart attacks. They’re already old, shouldn’t be long.”
My father used to say a mule would roll his eyes at Sam.
“Just climb back down, so we can talk about this.”
“You’re being a pain. Now, get down here.”
Sam just kicks her feet so little paint flecks come raining down on me.
“Damn it, Sam!”
“Just leave me alone!”
“If you don’t come down, Grandpa Joe’s going to come up. And if he sees you like this, there’s no way in the world he’s going to let us stay. We need to at least pretend you’re normal.”
Sam keeps kicking her feet, so I duck back in. I look at the door waiting for Grandpa Joe to burst in, but the only person who enters is Sam through the window.
She says, “I didn’t come in for you and your stupid plan. I’m sneaking out back and making a run for it.”
“Run for… Where would you go?”
“I’ve got a hundred dollars. We can go anywhere. Hop a train or something.”
“I’m not hopping a train, weirdo.”
“You’re the weirdo.”
Fighting with my sister is like trying to put out fire with spit. I tell her to follow me and to shut her mouth, but she won’t budge. Her anger is turning her face all red, especially the birthmark on her forehead, which looks like it might burst.
“Fine, stay here. I’ll just tell Grandpa Joe.” I start walking, and Sam grabs my arm.
“Please, David.” Her eyes are filled with tears. “I don’t want to go. They’re not nice, and they aren’t gonna let us stay here. We’re gonna end up just like Tim.”
“Don’t say that. They’ll listen to us. I’m going to be a junior this year, and you’re finishing up middle school. We have friends, stuff going on.” I’m trying to believe that I can convince them, but the truth is I don’t have much faith. Grandpa Joe never backs down. Mom used to say it’s what made him great in the Army.
I start thinking maybe we should just run for it.