Little More Than Bones ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
On the edge of town an empty house known to the locals as the Archer house (so named because of its original owner) was being torn down. At one time the Archer house was a perfectly fine house but had fallen into disrepair through neglect. Nobody wanted the house, but somebody wanted the lot, which stood at the top of a secluded hill, reached by a winding road.
Workmen first removed the doors and windows, the bathroom fixtures and the kitchen sink. Anything that might be used was salvaged. Most of the wood in the house was rotten and wasn’t of any use, so the workmen threw it into a large dumpster in the front yard. When the dumpster was full, the workmen had it emptied and then began to fill it again.
One of the main features of the Archer house was a large fireplace in the front room. A fireplace, of course, meant a chimney. The chimney was made of a light-colored stone and was largely intact. When the workmen began to dismantle the chimney, they expected to find old birds’ nests and other bird effluvia inside, but what they found instead was a dead body of indeterminate gender.
The workmen stopped what they were doing and called the police, believing they had unwittingly stumbled upon a crime scene.
To know whose body was in the chimney and how it came to be there, we must go back six years to a snowy Sunday in February.
Three miles from the Archer house, a young man named Perrin Borger lived with his mother and father. He had a job working in an office, but he despised his job and was generally unhappy with his life. He knew he should be living on his own away from his parents, but he somehow couldn’t make the move. He lacked motivation and ambition, and he believed he didn’t make enough money for a place of his own.
On this Sunday in February, Perrin Borger and his mother got into a fight—a small fight as fights go, but still a fight—and she threw him out of the house. When he told her he didn’t have any place to go, she told him she didn’t care; he could rot in hell as far as she was concerned. He threw a few things into a suitcase and got out of the house as fast as he could, hating her and not caring if he ever saw her again.
He drove around for a while, not knowing what to do with himself. The heater in his car didn’t work very well and the temperature was hovering around twelve degrees, so he wanted to get inside someplace where he could sit and think. He contemplated calling his mother and apologizing for the fight, but she was in the one in the wrong; she had started the fight and she ought to be the one apologizing to him. It would serve her right if he froze to death. He could see her standing over his casket at Foley brothers’ funeral home, putting on a good show of emotion as if she cared.
Feeling hungry—it was long past lunch time—he stopped at a pancake house and ate, voraciously, a plate of sausages and strawberry pancakes. After he paid for his lunch, he counted out his money to see if he had enough for a hotel room.
Wait a minute! Why should he spend all his money on a hotel room? Didn’t he have friends? He thought immediately of his friend Earl Declan. They had known each other since eighth grade and went all the way through high school together. They had a lot in common and had always been good friends. He knew Earl was renting the old house that people in the know called the Archer house. He figured that Earl would be happy to have a roommate, at least for a little while. They could share expenses; it sounded like a perfect arrangement. Nobody could say he wasn’t one to land on his feet when his mother or somebody else laid him low.
With a full stomach and a definite plan, he felt relieved and almost happy. He drove to Earl’s house and pulled into the leaf-strewn driveway and cut the engine. He leaned over the steering wheel and looked closely at the house but saw no signs of life. Could it be that Earl no longer lived there?
He climbed the steps to the front door and knocked several times until the knocking became pounding. When no answer was forthcoming, he called Earl’s name as loud as he dared without attracting unwanted attention, but still there was no response.
He walked around the house and knocked on the rough wood of the back door until his knuckles were raw, calling Earl’s name with each knock. He peered in the windows but wasn’t able to see much of anything except the leg of a table of a picture on the wall. It was obvious Earl wasn’t home.
On the verge of tears, he went back to his car and slumped down in the seat, trying to cocoon himself in his winter coat the best he could. He would wait until Earl came back from wherever he was. Maybe he only went to a movie or to do some grocery shopping. He would be home soon.
While sitting in his car facing the house, he began to look closely at the chimney. The chimney was big because the fireplace was big. Dropping down the chimney should be fairly easy for a person with narrow hips and shoulders. He would gain entry to the house that way and be waiting inside where it was warm when Earl came home. Earl wouldn’t mind. He’d be glad to see him. They’d have a lot of old times to talk over.
He walked all the way around the house to see how he might gain access to the roof without a ladder. He was able to shimmy onto the lowest point of the roof by the back porch, standing on a garbage can, and from there he climbed easily to the pinnacle where the chimney was.
Perched like a bird, he swung his feet into the dark hole of the chimney and lowered himself a few feet. It was smooth-going at first, but the chimney narrowed unexpectedly and he wasn’t able to go any farther. He couldn’t go down, and when he tried to go back up, he couldn’t do that, either. It was as if the chimney was gripping the lower part of his body. He struggled valiantly and said a prayer but wasn’t able to move. He rested for a few minutes and then tried again, but still wasn’t able to move an inch, up or down.
After struggling for what seemed like hours, he realized it was no use; he was not going to be able to free himself. His only hope was to yell until somebody heard him. When Earl came home, he’d hear him and get some help. The police and fire department would come and they’d lower a rope and extract him from the chimney like a cork from a wine bottle. He’d feel so stupid but also so glad to be free.
At about three in the morning, a drifter who was also a car thief happened along. He heard Perrin screaming inside the chimney, but he didn’t know where it was coming from, and if he had known he wouldn’t have cared. Since he was a thief, he easily opened the door of Perrin’s car and drove away stealthily in the night.
On Thursday after the Sunday that Perrin’s mother threw him out of the house, she began to have an uneasy feeling about him. She had expected him to come home, contrite, on Monday or Tuesday at the latest. She called the office where he worked and was told he wasn’t there. He hadn’t shown up for work all week and hadn’t bothered to call.
She immediately put in a call to the police and filed a missing persons report. A couple of officers came out to interview her, get a picture of Perrin and a physical description, and an account of the argument that prompted him to leave. The police began looking for him and his car.
Two weeks later his car was found in St. Joseph, Missouri, abandoned on a residential street. His suitcase was found inside the car with his pajamas, toothbrush, underwear and a change of clothes in it. There was no sign of violence or physical struggle.
Perrin survived in the chimney for thirty-six hours and then froze to death. No help was forthcoming. Right before he died, he saw his mother’s face and heard her voice; he hoped she wasn’t too mad at him.
She always believed he would someday come home. And, then, six years after he left, she received the unexpected phone call that revealed the truth at last.
Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp