The Secret door
The McKinsey home held all the secrets of a house built to harbor moonshine. There were small closets within closets, built-in drawers with deep spaces underneath, and cabinets with false backs that led into narrow corridors to other rooms. For a couple of kids, it was a playground of delightful hiding places. Then nine-year-old Mack found the secret door.
The farmhouse was a large two-story clapboard, a solid rectangle built in 1903 meant to be filled with children and liquor. The center staircase, with its hand-carved oak bannister, split into a landing three-quarters of the way up with an intricately carved oak bench in the middle of two sets of stairs. Mack loved his house. The built-in closets and cupboards made it perfect for a game of hide and seek with Kieran, his eight-year-old brother. They could play for hours, the tension building as the minutes passed. Mack delighted in hiding quietly in a dark linen closet and bursting out with a yell when he heard Kieran padding by, scaring his little brother into a girlish shriek every single time.
When he first found the secret door, Mack was thrilled. He discovered it on a rare day when he was playing alone in the forbidden library and Kieran was off with their father for an inspection. Caleb always took one of the boys whenever the government inspectors came in, to show theirs was a good family operation. While Kieran usually minded their father, Mack took every opportunity to sneak in where he wasn’t allowed.
The library was lined with heavy oak shelves built into the walls that reached to the ceiling. Everything was polished dark wood, with a heavy wooden table in the center of the room surrounded by oak chairs with dark green leather seats. The windows were kept shuttered to protect the books, some of them priceless with age but all of them forbidden to be touched by the boys. Mack was not interested in the books, but the floor. The hardwood was smooth and flat and perfect for marbles. He held his blood red aggie crooked in his finger and flicked it with his thumb across the floor with the most satisfying rumble as it traveled over the floorboards. He was destroying all his cats eyes with his aggie when he overshot and the aggie got stuck at the wall. He went over to investigate and found a small indentation in the floor, into which he had to stick his finger. There was a small space under this bookshelf.
Mack sat back, puzzled, and looked around. All the shelves were built into the walls, and there was no room underneath them, except here. He ran his finger around the inside of the shelf and felt a slight lip in the wood. Mack stood back and looked at the bookshelf. It looked identical to all the others. But it was not, he knew. This one was different. He spent half an hour pulling out various books, running his hands along the top and the sides before he found it—a small metal button that released a latch. He heard the faint click and pushed carefully. The shelf slowly rotated inward to a dark landing with cement steps leading down. Mack backed slowly away and stared. There was a real hidden passage in his own house. Mack didn’t know what it was, or where it went; he only knew he wasn’t supposed to know.
Caleb would whup his ass if Mack were found in here, but he couldn’t leave now. He peeked in a little farther, and found a flashlight clipped to the wall heading down the stairs. Before he could think better of it, Mack grabbed it and made his way down the steps, the temperature dropping as he descended into a damp, musty room with a cement floor. It was empty of the treasure Mack hoped for, but there was another door in the farthest wall that led to a passageway. His spine tingled as he thought of the war games he and Kieran could have down here. He’d have to be very careful, though. Kieran was terrible at keeping secrets.
Mack went through and found more chilly rooms with empty metal shelves. He knew there’d be a pay-off somewhere as continued down the dank passage, wiping away the cobwebs as he went. He could tell the tunnel was turning and he had a sudden panic of being caught down here forever. The flashlight batteries would die, he’d be in pitch black with nothing to eat and they’d find his bones one day, if he was lucky.
The damp made him shiver. He started to worry that Caleb would come home while he was down here. If his father wanted you to know something, he told you; otherwise you were to keep your mouth shut and your nose clean. Mack pictured the beating Caleb would give him and stopped suddenly; had he closed the secret door behind him? He wasn’t sure. Now he didn’t know whether to go on or go back. Maybe this would lead to somewhere worse. Maybe it would lead straight to wherever Caleb was now. Mack could feel the sweat running down into the back of his collar. He began to run forward. The unknown was always better than facing the certain wrath of Caleb.
Mack almost stumbled on steps leading up. He clambered against them and up to a door at the top. He pushed on the door but it did not open. He pushed harder, throwing his small body against it again and again until he was exhausted. There was no way he could beat Caleb back to the house now. He sat a moment on the top step and wondered if his mother knew about the passage. Surely she would come and look for him. A tear was threatening to spill out of his eye, and he angrily swiped it away. He remembered opening the door from the library. Suddenly he got up and pulled inward, and the door swung quietly open.
He could smell the hay, the familiar sweet scent of dry bales and see the dust motes he’d stirred up opening the door. He came out into an old feed bin in the hay barn. He walked smack into a black 1940 Ford V8 he had never seen, kept behind a partition in the back. Mack loved old cars, and he forgot to be scared now as he inspected the antique beauty. It was a two-door coupe, long and low and black, with a flat hood that narrowed to a point between the headlights. Mack climbed inside the car. It smelled strongly of iron, probably from the rust. There wasn’t much head room, and the windshield was missing. He got out and opened the massive trunk. It had a false bottom, and he barely resisted the urge to climb in it, although he knew he’d fit, and probably Kieran along with him. He slammed the trunk and stepped back. He’d read about these cars. You could fit a lot of gallon jugs of moonshine in that trunk. Besides those small bits of rust on the side panels, he thought the car was in great shape, except for the small holes in the driver’s side door. He stuck his finger in one before he realized they were bullet holes. Someone had shot the car up, but right. He should not be here.
There was a faraway whine down the road. Mack climbed over the partition that hid the car from the hayloft. He could see Caleb’s truck driving up the road to the house. He had to get out of here. Mack took off, running bent over and hugging the white rail fence along the path until he got to the road. Then he walked out to the road casually, wiping stray cobwebs from his pants and combing back his hair with his fingers. He forced himself to act unconcerned, but in his mind was the panic of Caleb finding the secret door open and thrusting him into the bullet-ridden car’s enormous trunk.
He walked in the house, past the library and found his mother in the kitchen.
“Look at the state of you! Where’ve you been, boy? You’re white as a ghost,” she exclaimed in her Irish lilt, coming over to put a hand on his forehead.
“You most certainly have been somewhere. What’s scared you so?”
“Is Dad home?”
“He’s in the library,” she paused, her eyes narrowing. “Did you have a fight?”
“And why are you asking after your father?”
“I don't know.” Mack tried to squirm away from her, but Maeve wouldn’t release him.
“What did you do, Mack?” she whispered.
“Tell me,” she said.
Mack could see a tiny flicker of fear in her eyes. He knew she would stick up for him against Caleb no matter what, but it was worse when she did.
“I have to go,” Mack said and sprinted up the steps to the bench on the landing. He sat down to think. He had a secret. But did Caleb know? Had he left the secret door open? That part terrified him. He thought of the bullet-ridden car, hidden right in their barn. That’s what secrets got you.
A bang exploded beneath him as Kieran jumped out from the cupboard under the bench with a load roar. Mack screamed, desperate like a rabbit fatally caught in a trap. As he clawed against the wall to escape his bladder let go. Kieran was on the floor laughing when Mack stood up and looked down. The warm wetness flowed down his legs and dark patches spread on his jeans. Kieran gasped when he saw Mack’s pants and ran away up the steps. Mack stood alone, wet and in shock. Kieran ran back down with a towel and put it on the bench, then pushed Mack quickly up the stairs toward the bathroom. Mack stood there in his wet pants, now growing cold against his legs. Kieran came back into the bathroom with a fresh pair of jeans, and began to peel the soaked pants from Mack. Mack suddenly realized Kieran was pulling off his underwear and pushed him away roughly, out the door of the bathroom and slammed it shut. He furiously tore off his pants and underwear and flung them away. Kieran had not brought him dry underwear but that didn’t matter. He fell against the wall with a thump in his haste to get the dry pants on.
“What the devil are you boys getting into up there?” Maeve yelled from the kitchen.
“We’re just playing, Mom,” Kieran yelled back.
“Don’t be tearing the house down.”
Mack flew out of the bathroom, stopped to wrap his soiled clothes in the towel from the bench and sprinted out the front door. He ran across the road and deep into the woods until he was hidden from the house and threw the offending bundle down in the dirt. He dropped to his knees and began to dig with his hands. When the hole was big enough, he kicked the piss-stained pants and ruined towel in and covered them, piling rocks on top. He sat back and looked around. At least Caleb hadn’t seen him screw up this time. He would have thrashed Mack for sure. He wiped his forehead and stood up, a flicker of defiance rising for the first time. So much wasn’t fair, but this most of all. It would be better if Caleb punched him right in the face than to be this scared of him.
Mack marched back into the house and stood in the library door. Caleb was sitting at the library table with a jar of moonshine.
“What do you want?” Caleb asked him. The secret door was closed, but Mack could see his aggie still wedged in the far corner of the floor.
“Dinner’s on the table, boys,” Maeve called out. Caleb stood, keeping his hand on the table and taking a swallow from the jar. His eyes narrowed, black pinpoints burning into Mack’s head.
“Ain't you got the look of the cat who swallowed the canary. Where’ve you been, Mack McKinsey?” Caleb stared him down, then walked past him.
Mack did not say a word at dinner. He could still see the car in the barn. Each bite landed in his stomach like lead as he realized the iron smell in the car was not rust. There were rumors of Caleb and his brothers bootlegging moonshine over the mountain before all the brothers disappeared. Mack’s gut seized up; this was not a secret he wanted. Maeve was afraid he was coming down with something so sent him straight off to bed after he’d finished a few bites.
Later that night, Mack woke to a movement in his room. Someone was in here, coming over to the bed. This was it, then. Caleb was coming for him. He’d done this before, stumbled into their bedrooms in the middle of the night and smacked the boys around when he’d dipped too far down into a jar of liquor. Mack sat up, ready for the blows. He formed his small hands into fists. Mack would fight back tonight. With a small plop something landed next to him on the bed and he jumped. His eyes now adjusted to the moonlight streaming in the window, Mack could just make out the outline of his brother Kieran padding silently out of his room. Mack ran his hand over the blankets and gathered a small lump. He carefully opened his fist to find his aggie.
Jennifer Jenkins has written for Parentheses Journal, Hippocampus Magazine, Curio Magazine, and earned two honorable mentions for the Fiction Award from Glimmer Train. She has also worked with Manhattan Theatre Club, Sondheim’s Young Playwrights and the PBS series Great Performances. Her plays have been produced in New York and regionally, and she serves as the public relations director at Kaylie Jones Books.