Jacob’s Ford Wagon lacked motor mounts. It shook when he drove it. Jacob’s curiosity as to how long he could actually drive this P.O.S. outweighed his need for a new car, but only slightly.
A month ago, Jacob’s father, Adrian, had a panic attack while Jacob and he were idling at a stop light, the car vibrating wildly. “Get me outta here!” Adrian said, gripping the oh-shit handle with one hand and palming dashboard with the other. Last week, Adrian’s attending doctor ruled his cause of death a “Massive Ischemia.” A blood clot prevented oxygen from reaching his brain. Jacob tried to tell himself that the panic attack wasn’t the cause of his father’s fatal stroke, but he couldn’t quash his obsessive, hamster-wheel thinking.
Rolling up to his parents’ house, his Ford Wagon convulsed so loudly that he startled Mrs. Weathersby, the old spinster with the lazy cats who was drinking lemonade in a rocking chair on her porch across the street.
“Sorry, Mrs. Weathersby,” Jacob shouted from the car, his windows rolled down—the air conditioning went out 100,000 miles ago. Mrs. Weathersby shook her head in disapproval.
During the past week, Jacob had been putting off going to his parents’ house. His father was dead after all, and he told himself he needed some time to “process” everything. This “process” was mostly drinking at Smitty’s until closing time every night and walking back to Curly’s Motel across the street to crash on a bug infested mattress. Sometimes, a few bed bug bites were better than facing reality.
Jacob walked to the front door. He’d made this walk thousands of times. He lived here from when he was 10 years old until he went to college at age 19. Jacob’s father had been a larger than life figure for the first 15 years of Jacob’s life, but he shrunk, both in stature and in demeanor, after his mother died.
The front door creaked as always—even WD-40 didn’t help. Jacob made his way past the foyer and into the kitchen. The fridge smelled of sour milk and he didn’t want to deal with rotten groceries right now. A year ago, Jacob promised his father that he would help him go through all the junk in the attic. This pledge went unfulfilled and weighed heavily on Jacob. After he checked the thermostat near the kitchen, Jacob walked to the hallway with the ceiling attic access.
Jacob pulled the string and heard the creak of the folding ladder. At Christmas, Jacob and his father often watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. They laughed the hardest at that scene where Clark Griswold watched family movies, in tears, after being locked in the attic. Clark was sitting comfortably on the attic ladder and fell to the ground when Ellen opened the panel, several hours later. When Jacob pulled the ladder panel from the ceiling, his father did not fall out like Clark did.
Jacob climbed up into the attic and saw what must have been twenty or so dust covered cardboard boxes, all full of his father’s personal effects. In quick Sharpie handwriting, Jacob saw his name scribbled across the front of a box that was set out in front of the others. Jacob opened the box. A single Polaroid lay at the bottom.
Jacob reached up and pulled the chain on the attic’s hanging light bulb. Darkness had obscured the photo, but the light brought it into focus. His parents, Lily and Adrian, embraced in the photo. In the inch of white space below the photo, the words “Colfax - 1980” were written in black ball point Bic. Lily and Adrian smiled at each other and looked happy. The photograph was taken five years before Jacob was born. Jacob felt a sinking feeling in his stomach, like his guts were being pulled from the great beyond and he had no one left in the world to call his own. Well, there was still Uncle Atticus, but he was kind of a dick.
Jacob turned the photo over. “DAMEL 615.9” was scribbled in red marker on the back of the photo. “Damel? What’s Damel?” he said aloud. Jacob slipped the photo into the front chest pocket of his t-shirt and inspected the other boxes. The first three boxes he looked at contained tax returns for 1995 through 2001. Jacob exhaled with a loud huff, partially in relief because most of the shit up here was irrelevant but mostly in disgust because he told his father every damn year that he didn’t need to keep more than the most recent three years’ worth of tax returns.
Jacob left the attic and returned to the kitchen. He dialed a number in his phone.
“Uncle Atticus. Hi, it’s Jacob. At your antique shop, do you sell a brand of figurine called a Damel?”
“No, Jacob. I do sell Hummel figures, but I don’t know of a Damel collectible. Why do you ask?”
“Can I come down to the shop to show you something?”
Atticus agreed, although Jacob could hear him sneering on the other end of the line.
After a drive across town, Jacob walked through the door of Atticus’ Antiques. A little bell rang as he crossed the threshold. Atticus stood in the middle of the store a few feet from the counter with his arms folded. Atticus extended his right hand to Jacob and Jacob placed the photo in Atticus’ hand.
“Beat’s me kid,” Atticus said after a good long look. “Adrian sure looks young in that picture, though.”
“What’s 615.9?” Jacob asked.
“Could be the old Dewey Decimal code?” Aunt Esther said from behind the counter.
“Like the library code?” Jacob said.
“Yeah,” Esther said.
“Does the downtown library use the Dewey system?”
“Don’t know. I get my books on the Kindle,” Esther said.
“What do you think, Uncle Atticus?” Jacob asked.
Atticus stood about twenty feet away from the counter, polishing his Hummel figures.
“Don’t give a shit,” Atticus said, not looking up from his mint condition Apple Tree Girl Hummel, rubbing her down with a felt dust cloth like he was caressing a beloved pet.
“Jake, don’t mind him. He’s been in a mood since Adrian died,” Aunt Esther said.
Jacob drove across town to the Colfax County Public Library, parked in the empty parking lot, and walked to the front desk. He rang the service bell, which was covered in dust.
“Hello!” Jacob said in a loud voice. His greeting echoed through the cavernous room.
“Shh,” someone said, far away in the stacks.
He pulled out the photograph and read the back, “Damel 615.9.” Jacob read the sides of the stacks and headed toward the 600 area. He noticed something in the photo he hadn’t seen before. His mother was wearing a daffodil in her hair, just behind her ear. Before she died, his mom used to keep a flower garden in the back yard. Every spring and summer, the garden teemed with daffodils, sunflowers, and daisies. The year before she died, the flowers did not bloom. Whether the flowers failed to blossom was because she stopped caring or whether she stopped caring because the flowers didn’t bloom was a mystery Jacob never figured out. One August morning, Dad found Mom drowned in the tub with an empty bottle of sleeping pills on the bathroom tiles nearby.
Jacob walked up on the 615 section of a gargantuan shelf system, complete with rolling ladder as to access the tomes at the top. Jacob scanned to 615.9, which was at ground level. And, there it was—The Toxicology of Household Chemicals by Felix Damel.
Jacob opened the book to a random page. Damel’s prose was very scientific, the kind of writing with too many big words and not enough pictures, given the subject matter. This particular page outlined “The Effects of Bleach on the Central Nervous System.”
“Can’t be good,” Jacob chuckled to himself.
Jacob rifled through the pages of Damel’s treatise. Just before putting it back on the shelf, he thumbed to page 19, where the page number was circled in Bic. That particular page highlighted the types of poisonous flowers one might find in a household garden, particularly Lily of the Valley and the Autumn Crocus. He continued through the pages and found page 80 with a circle around its number. This page featured secret combinations of common household items that formed dangerous compounds like “bleach + rubbing alcohol = chloroform.”
“It’s not a secret if it’s in the library, Damel,” Jacob said to himself.
Jacob thumbed a bit more and found page 135 circled as well. But this page just had one word on it, “space.” That word was the remainder of a sentence that Damel (or his publisher) just couldn’t fit on the preceding page. Jacob thumbed through the rest of the pages and found no other page numbers circled.
Jacob pulled out the photo again. His parents were smiling. In her last year, his parents were always at each other’s throats. Sometimes it was about money. Other times, it was just nitpicking the way siblings do when they’re stuck inside on a rainy day with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Jacob sat down at an empty table and mulled over the clues. He grabbed a sheet of paper from the table and began to take notes. “19 + 80 + 135 = 234,” he wrote. He raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and marked through the equation. He opened Damel to page 19 and wrote down the two featured flowers’ names: Lily of the Valley & Autumn Crocus. Next, he turned to page 80, which was titled “Secret Combinations.” He wrote that phrase on his paper. Finally, he wrote the word “space” on the paper, the only word on page 135. Jacob stared at the scribble before him for a good five minutes until, as if a light bulb had been turned on, his eyes widened and he gasped. He knew what DAMEL meant. He grabbed the paper and darted for the library door.
Jacob’s jalopy rolled, shook, and came to a complete stop at his parents’ house. Mrs. Whetherby was asleep on her porch, but her cats were awakened and startled by Jacob’s raucous arrival. Jacob darted from his car and ran to the back of the house. He dashed straight to the dilapidated 10 x 10 raised flower garden box in the center of the backyard. Weeds had commandeered the garden box soon after his mother died and had since established a formidable empire over the surrounding area.
The left side door of the backyard shed hung off its hinge. He flew to the shed, peered inside, and grabbed a rusty shovel from the soiled innards of the musty shack. He ran back to the garden, jumped on top of it, and zeroed in on the top left quadrant. That’s where his mother grew her crocuses. He brought the shovel up, like Merlin about to drive Excalibur into the stone, and brought it down with all his might into the dirt.
“Careful,” a voice said from the yard.
Jacob gasped and jerked in surprise. “Uncle Atticus? What are you doing here?”
Atticus pulled a handgun from his coat and pointed it at Jacob. “Whatever you’re about to find in there, it’s mine,” he said.
“A gun! What the—”
“Don’t push too hard with the shovel. You’ll break the Apple Tree Boy.”
“The Apple Tree Boy. The thing you’re trying to dig up.”
“Can you put the gun down, Uncle Atticus?”
“Why are you pointing a gun at me?”
“The Apple Tree Boy is mine. She had no right to it.”
Atticus shook his head. “Dig. But be careful.”
Jacob dug up the weed infested dirt. After a time, he hit the bottom, wiggled something lose, and pulled it from the ground.
“There it is!” Atticus said. He ran with abandon straight at Jacob, but he tripped on his own feet and fell to the ground. When he landed, he fell on his gun, shot himself in the belly, and screamed so loud he woke Mrs. Whethersby.
“Fuck!” Atticus said.
Jacob unwrapped the Apple Tree Boy Hummel from its plastic wrap. In between the left tree branch and the little boy seated upon it was a rolled up note, the size of a cigarette.
“That’s mine,” Atticus groaned.
“Here,” Jacob said, giving the Hummel to Atticus. His uncle wrapped his blood soaked hand around the Apple Tree Boy and passed out.
Jacob unrolled the note. It read, Dear Jacob, Hi, son. If you’re reading this, chances are, both me and your father have died. We loved you so much. Your father felt guilty for helping me kill myself, but I was already dead—brain tumors suck. We agreed that we’d tell you the truth after he died. I stole the Apple Tree Boy from Atticus because he tried to feel me up one time when I was looking at Hummels at his shop. I slapped him real good. When I told your father, he thought up this plan. I hope it wasn’t too much of a pain in the ass. Love, Mom. P.S. Be careful around your Uncle Atticus. He’s a real asshole.