Here is another short story I am working on. I am going to have to let you behind the curtain so you can see how it is being assembled.
It started with a conversation with my wife about the failure of haunted house. I was speculating out loud that it would be good if you saw the things in the house before the people moved in. That the psychological tension would be cooler if you saw these 2 forces in one house from the beginning. I am sure it has been done before, but maybe I can add to it.
So I went to work on a short story (tick tock, I need 10 by December). I started it off with an odd family in the house, having a showdown with the previous family of the house, and the final reveal that one family is actually a bunch of spirits, forcing a re-read. But what I drafted didn't hit right.
The draft below is a tuning up of that. it is a little unfair to the reader, and that is why I am only calling it a draft. I am setting up the notion of a man murdering his wife and kids in a house, and then suddenly shifting to a story being told about a man, his wife, and kids. The reader will be off their footing for a bit. Also, I have incorporated a couple of horrible tells in a phone conversation at the beginning.
I like it, but I don't. The mechanism is pretty blatant, once you see it. Will my audience be able to hang on all the way through it? They will if I obscure my tracks PROPERLY. Speaking from experience, if the notes are false, the story falls flat. I have gotta sew in one more red herring here.
Speaking of false notes, I had a roommate once who would wrote short stories, back when I was young in the game. He wrote one about a man closing in on his enemy. The enemy was circling the man, chaos ensues. But at the end, when you learn that the "enemy" is a goddamn housefly. Something about misplaced dialogue. I think the dude yells "You will die!" or something, thereby placing the stinky kipper out and tricking the reader into thinking that this was a human exchange. It fell flat, however. I'm sure that if that dude reads this blog, he must realize that I am talking about 1989 here when (as far as I could tell) everything on the planet was young and sophomoric. I questioned the aspects of his storytelling at the time, but I was shot down. I couldn't articulate my issues with my high-school education. However, now I comprehend what the problems were.
Similar problems abound in the draft below. IN fact, I just got done reading through it and I see many things that need to be tightened. Most noticeably being the rage of the COntage family directed towards the father. You'll see. But I think that you will see that if I tighten it up in the right spots, it is gonna sing. Take a gander:
"That would be phenomenal." Ray said. His moustache, perfectly trimmed, kicked up at the right as he smirked into the phone.
"Ok, but afterward we need to discuss the McShiver Bungalo." Beth said.
"You know, we never talked about how weird that street name is. I just. Ummm. I want to get it back out there. Its not too soon." Ray said. Leaning forward into his desk. His paunch, rolling into his lap.
"Ray, I don't even know if its legal. I think that there is a law against this. You are moving too fast. Let me make some phonecalls." She said. She powered into her right turn, keeping it at 50 as she merged into the slow lane on the 101.
"Beth, I don't know what to tell you, its been three months. The only issue is that we have to be absolutely clear about what exactly happened there before we can rent it. The construction and facelift have been completed. New carpet. Fresh paint. We should rent it out now. We'll price it so far below market value, that we will have to secure a renter." Ray hoarsed into the phone. His right hand held a computer mouse, and he was drawing circles with the icon on the Windows 98 logon screen.
"I haven't been on that side of town for awhile. That house just gives me the creeps. I still find it hard to believe that the father killed his entire family because they were about to get evicted. By us." Beth responded. She was weaving through traffic now. Her black BMW was being handled with precision and she talked on the phone.
She was holding the cellphone to her left ear. When Ray, her real estate manager from Royal Blodell called, she got excited. She broke driving laws. That night had been fun. She knew he didn't care, but, he was still there. Maybe for later. Plus, Ray had illuminated the path for more money than Beth had ever expected to see as a beginning realtor. Ray had directly influenced Beth's double tax-bracket jump. The problem was that Ray also had her monitoring certain rental properties that didn't get her any percentage whatsoever. It was the give and the take.
"He was mentally imbalanced. Plus, they had no other family. No safety net." Ray said mutedly through the phone. He was now carefully making squares with the mouse on the login page.
"I really don't understand it. Its good that you don't either. We haven't really had a chance to talk about this, you and I." Beth said. She was at a red light. Her BMW dwarfed by a huge econoline passenger van on her left and a black Chevy Suburban on her right rear corner, trying to squeak by her and make a right hand turn.
"A man that kills his wife and kids is a man that is missing some key elements of his humanity." Ray said.
"Ray, I've gotta go. I'll get to work on it." Beth said. She clicked off and tossed the phone into the passenger seat, missing her purse.
The Contage family had been enjoying the house. They'd moved in 8 weeks prior and they were content. J. Contage, the father, had barely been there for the move-in. It was almost as if he'd left the onus of the settling in on his wife, Cheri. The two pre-teen looking boys had been very pleasant with the move.Mostly because their father hadn't been around. This hadn't been the family's first serious relocation, and the boys had settled in easily.
Cheri Contage didn't like to clean, but she did like to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. She'd allowed a bit of dust to pile up. In fact, she hadn't even dusted when they'd moved in. The family for the most part, had settled in and was happy. The house was a large, early '70s one-story bungalow with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, the aforementioned kitchen and a large dining area that led to a right turn into the living room. The house was at the top of a hill, on a cul de sac. There were several other houses on the McShiver Street, all built during the same era. The neighbors seemed private and "to themselves" enough. The area was quiet.
The Contage family liked the house. They didn't really step out of it during the day. Cheri hadn't even looked for schooling for the boys yet. In some ways, she couldn't be bothered. There were the things that families are supposed to do when they move into a new town and house, but the Contages didn't follow that list. They kept it very quiet. They'd been through a lot. They had some issues that they needed to work out. Cheri knew this. She was ready. Everyone was going to have to say their piece.
Even the boys.
They all handled the move-in very slow. Mr. Contage finally finished whatever business he had out of the area and took up full-time residence in the house after two and a half weeks. He knew what was coming. He'd lingered in some dark places. But he was home now, to face the music. This was what he had signed on for. When he came home, Mr. Contage didn't spend time anywhere else in the house but in the living room.
From there, Mr. Contage scrutinized the street, through the living room window, from the covered easy chair. Sometimes he stood, looking out like a sentinel.
When Cheri would enter the living room, and meet Mr. J. Contage in the eyes, she would scream. Loud enough for the neighbors to hear. High pitched yelps. Screams that said hatred and anger and unforgiveness. Mr. Contage would hang his head. He would shake it sadly.
Otherwise, Cheri dominated the kitchen. Applying her focus to the side of the house and the view that the kitchen window afforded her. The side yard, the overgrown grass, the fence, the stray cat and the neighbor's manicured lawn and idyllic house.
It was rare that Mr and Mrs Contage interacted. The screaming assaults that Cheri delivered were regular. A haunting berating, that Mr. J. Contage took, with no explanation. This family was going to process this. It was as if they had been in such a pattern for a century.
The Contage children, sweetly nicknamed Grub and Moss, tore through the house at all hours. Mrs. Contage and Mr. Contage seemed completely oblivious to the concept of disciplining their children for the noise that they made.
Most peculiar was the raising of shrill notes, the closer the boys got to their father. They would screech, and circle him. Looking up at him, trying to catch his eyes. Screeching louder. Mr. J. Contage would close his sad eyes, shaking his head slowly, as if saying no.
Sometimes, passersby outside would stop and listen perplexedly to the squeals coming from within. They would let it go. Finding ways to dismiss the shrill notes they had sustained.
Then the unwelcome pattern of visitors started.
First it was the black BMW parked out in front of the house. Mr. Contage knew that it was Beth the real estate agent in the car. He knew who she was. He was indifferent to her. She'd set him up with the rental house that they were in. She'd been fair enough, and honest enough. The problem had been with himself. He knew that. He'd handled it badly, and he was paying for it. However, with Beth parked in front of the house, questions were raised. Mr. Contage didn't verbalize these questions, however.
Mr. Contage simply preferred to sit in his easy chair (still covered with a sheet) and, face the front door, waiting for the day that a visitor would come. On the Monday of their 9th week, someone with a key opened the front door and entered the house. Mr. Contage stayed in his chair. He merely looked straight at the woman who had entered the house.
Beth, wearing a black, mid-length skirt, and a tight, white blouse looked into the house, past Mr. Contage. She breathed in deeply.
"This house needs to be dusted." She said.
Cheri Contage took a few cautious steps from the kitchen to the dining room to the living room. She peered around the corner to observe the unwanted guest. Beth took several steps into the house and stood in the center of the living room, not aknowledging Mr. Contage at all. Flustered, he stood. He didn't say a word either, he simply walked past the woman, who rudely ignored him, and he slammed the front door.
Suddenly Beth turned, to Mr. Contage. Wild-eyed. Mr. Contage slowly sideways shuffled back towards his chair, making a large arc around beth. He never took his eyes off of the woman, but she seemed much more interested in what he had done with the door than Mr. Contage. Mr. Contage turned three quarters to the right and caught Cheri's eyes, as they peered around the doorframe. Cheri stepped out from behind her polite waiting place and gesticulated to Mr. Contage to engage with the guest, using both hands, open-palmed, pushing at him lightly. Mr. Contage stared back at her, blankly.Beth, unaware of their interaction, paced quickly to the door, opened it, and stepped outside. At that very moment, Grub and Moss, in a mad game of tag with excessive tag-backs ran through the living room, shrieking and hollering. Louder and shriler as they got closer to Mr. Contage.
Beth stopped outside, listening to the squawking from inside. Finding a way to excuse it. Or understand it.Mr. Contage had turned it slightly, and then sat back down on his chair and was looking out the window. He saw that trespassing Beth had turned back to look at the house after hearing the boys.
Neither Mr. or Mrs. Contage shushed the children. They looked at each other though, and exhanged a look of sadness coupled with a knowing understanding head nod that was a direct reference to their close relationship with each other. Mrs. Contage covered her mouth. Tears started. She turned and went back to the kitchen.
The processing was going to have to wait.
The next day, Beth returned, with a husband and wife pair.
Mr. Contage was furious. He understood why Beth was bringing people by, but it made him want to react. He wanted to do something. Harmful.
When the door opened, and Beth, now wearing black dress slacks and a light creme colored sweater entered, Mr. Contage's face broke into a harrowing, heavily tendoned scowl. He stood up.
Beth and her guests slowly stepped into the house, uninvited.
"Yes, we heard the story. But the price you have it at is worth it. We want to start our own family." The man said.
"We think we can make better memories here." The woman added.
"We're both in school, with the rent this low, we can really live better." The man said.
"It is so spacious." The woman said.
"I understand why the low price, Beth. I really do." The man said.
Mr. Contage walked behind his easy chair. He placed his hands on the back of the chair and gripped the sheet.
"Yes, this place needs to be dusted. But my manager wants to get it out right now. I knew you were in the market. We had to make you a price you couldn't refuse." Beth said.
The couple placed themselves at her left and at her right side. The man was bigger than Mr. Contages. Physically, this man was Mr. Contage's superior. He looked ten years younger too, and was definitely in better physical shape. He was wearing a business suit, and his square, broad shoulders tapering to his slim waist were all accentuated by his expensive, light blue, silk jacket.
Mrs. Contages again, peered around the corner into the living room. She stared at the woman who had come in as a guest of Beth. Cheri looked at the woman's left hand and saw the wedding band. She observed the the fit of the woman's jeans, and her t-shirt. Mrs. Contage cocked her head, perplexed, trying to determine exactly who and what this woman was. But she had also heard the banter. She knew it was time to go.
Mr. Contage looked at Cheri. She nodded at him. Mr. Contage turned back to look down at his hands, gripping the back of the chair. Mr. Contage looked up at the three intruders. His face twisted into that scowl again.He stepped out from behind the chair. Walking directly toward the people that had entered the house. He walked through them, and through the front door.
Mrs. Contage turned and saw the two boys at her left side. They both looked up at her vacantly. She gestured towards the doorway. They both walked through the people in the living room and through the front door, just like their father had.
The people in the living room didn't notice Mr. Contage or his sons passing through them. In fact, they were having some sort of murmured conversation about the people who'd lived in the house before. Something about a murder suicide.
Mrs. Contage stepped out, around the corner, and followed her boys through the door and out of the house. She stopped, directly in front of Beth who was fumbling in her smooth, black leather purse for her cellphone. She had actually taken the strap off of her shoulder and was holding the purse with her left hand to rummage through it with her right. Beth looked straight through Cheri, down into her purse. Cheri, offended, then pulled Beth's purse from her hands and dumped its contents on the ground. Several business cards hit the floor along with a collage of make-up, cellphone, chewing gum, and tissue related mess that cascaded around it.
Cheri then walked through Beth, and through the front door.