We’re thrilled to be giving away three copies of Dennis Mombauer’s upcoming novella, The House of Drought. To get your in a spooky mood, we have a text excerpt along with a video of Mombauer reading from the novella up on Gingernuts of Horror.
The House of Drought: Act 1
“Uncle Ushu!” Jasmit ran down the stairs to the southern entrance hall. Her feet almost slipped on the hardwood steps, and she clutched the railing. “Uncle Ushu!”
The mansion at the edge of the jungle trembled. Bone china clinked in the cupboards, cockroaches scurried across the bathroom tiles. A lorry rolled over the dirt road from Anathakandu, and its trail of dust rose along the treeline.
“They found me.” Uncle Ushu closed the door and secured the bolt. “Someone told them.”
Jasmit raised herself on tiptoes to look out the window. It was evening, and the tropical night fell quickly into darkness. Twilight flooded through the trees and around the house, but no shadow foraged in its lighted halls.
Narun and the twins huddled around Jasmit, their eyes wide and bright with concern.
“Jasmit, akka, who are they? Who is coming?”
Uncle Ushu rushed to the other side of the room to rummage through the drawers of a cabinet, his balding head glistening with sweat. Above them, a fan turned slowly, and its hum merged with the engine noises roaring outside.
“They’re thugs,” Narun said, seemingly proud that he knew the word. “That’s what uncle Ushu said. Thugs. They’re here for his money.”
The twins shook their heads as one, nervously shifting from one foot to another. They were almost the same age as Jasmit and Narun’s twelve years, but the twins — both the girl and the boy — were smaller, more delicate, with spindly arms and legs. “Uncle Ushu doesn’t have money,” one of the twins said. “And why should he give to them?”
“He owes them. He told me he had a farm in his village, he took a lot of loans. That means he owes them money, doesn’t it?”
“But why? I don’t get it. If he had a farm, why did he need money?”
“He lost the harvest. He —” Narun fell silent as uncle Ushu walked past them with heavy steps, his frame almost as tall as the doorway.
“What do we do? What if they just want to ask questions?” The twins stared at Jasmit and Narun, but Jasmit had no answer. She was only one year older than them but they looked to her like an elder sister or even an adult. She frowned at them until they cast their eyes to the floor.
“The forest,” Narun said, taking Jasmit’s hand and dragging her toward the hallway. The mansion was big enough to have entrances on its southern and eastern side, and the hallways connected them across both floors. “The Sap Mother will protect us.”
“I told you —” Jasmit broke away, and they all stood panting at the edge of the hall. In twenty minutes, the forest would be pitch black and it was already hard to see through the thick foliage. “The Sap Mother doesn’t exist. If you go into the forest, they will find you. Or a leopard will kill you, or a snake, I don’t know. But you won’t survive.”
“She exists.” Narun curled his lips. “I’ve seen her many times. If you won’t come with me, I’ll go alone.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Jasmit said, turning away from him. She liked Narun, she really did, but he was the most stubborn boy she had ever met.
The steady shine of the mansion’s lamps brimmed the long corridors. Outside the windows, darkness washed over the grounds and through the high grass, fleeing the lorry’s headlights. Car doors slammed shut, and bootsteps clattered over the verandah.
“Children, listen to me.” The glinting chandelier animated uncle Ushu’s cheeks as he paced toward them. “You have to hide upstairs, you understand? Go to the master bathroom and don’t make a noise. Whatever happens, stay until I get you. I will be there soon. Go!”
Jasmit exchanged looks with Narun and the twins. “What about you, uncle?”
“What about me? Are you deaf? Hurry up, get out of here!”
Someone knocked on the door, the sound of knuckles dulled by a covering of leather. Jasmit felt the house shiver, its walls leaning against each other in search of protection. But there was something else too, a feeling of familiarity. The house had known heavy boots and hard knuckles.
The kids froze in the entrance hall, and uncle Ushu chased them off before he faced the door. “One minute! I’m coming.”
Jasmit gripped the banister and jumped onto the first step, turning to reassure herself that the others were behind her. The twins hurried past, but Narun stood at the landing and didn’t move. Jasmit held her hand out for him and waited. “Will you please come? I don’t want to see a leopard eat your sorry face.”
“There are no leopards. The Sap Mother is everywhere under the forest. It belongs to her. She will protect me, she promised. I can’t come with you.”
The door shook under the force of repeated knocking. “Open now!”
“Fine.” Jasmit withdrew her hand and took several steps. Narun suddenly seemed small with his thin arms and big ears. His dimples showed when he smiled. His hair stood up in all directions. “Please. Come with me, don’t go into the forest.”
“I’m sorry,” Narun said as he turned and ran, soon sprinting along the hallway toward the eastern entrance.
Jasmit wanted to grab him, but he was gone and she would not follow him. She cast one last glance at uncle Ushu, then followed the twins to the upper floor.
Loud voices rose behind her as soon as she stepped onto the landing. One of them belonged to uncle Ushu, but the others surrounded him like a pride of lions. What were they saying? Something about money, about repayment, about a debt that uncle Ushu owed to them.
“Jasmit. Hurry.” The twins peeked out from the master bedroom and gestured frantically. “Hurry, please.”
They closed the door and locked out the voices. Goosebumps bloomed on Jasmit’s skin, and she pressed herself against a wall. It was warm and soft and seemed to react to her touch as if it were alive.
Outside, the night had risen to the canopies of the kata-kela trees. At the window, Jasmit squinted into the forest, trying to find Narun amidst the broad-leafed ferns of the undergrowth. Questions churned in her belly: what would happen to Narun, now unprotected in the dark wood? What would happen to uncle Ushu? Swallowing hard, Jasmit rubbed her arms as she turned back to the twins.
“Uncle said to go to the washroom, Jasmit. Will you come?”
The master bathroom was huge, its tiles decorated with mosaics of tea leaves and water lilies. Small moss-colored lizards retreated before the children, vanishing below the sink and under a dresser. The two mirrors surrounded Jasmit with her own reflection, and she saw herself standing next to the shivering twins wherever she turned.
“Akka, where can we hide? When the men come upstairs, they will spot us, no? Why did uncle send us here? Has he lost his mind?”
Jasmit searched for a hiding place. The bathtub loomed like a porcelain grave, the under-sink cabinet was filled with pipes. There was no space behind the toilet or the shelves, no exit besides the small window.
The sound of heavy boots on the floor outside the master suite made Jasmit’s heart skip a beat. The staircase moaned under the weight of several men, and the tremor from the impact of their footfalls traveled through the mansion’s upper level. Whatever uncle Ushu had said to stall them, it had failed.
“Close the door.” The twins pulled the bathroom door shut and listened for sound in the adjacent room. Jasmit knew why uncle Ushu had sent them here. She remembered that time she had woken up in the night, soon after they’d arrived at the house. She knew it hadn’t been a dream.
She opened all the taps in the room as far as they went, watching water gush into the sink and the bathtub. The Dry House was real, and it would hide them from these men. But what would it want in return?
The giveaway is now closed and winners have been contacted. Congratulations to Ashley, Jen, and Shan. Enjoy your spooky summer read!