So I’m having trouble with this short story, as I often do with short stories. I really struggle conceiving a plot to fit the limited length. My pacing seems off; things happen to quickly or without any authentically developed context. And my characters seem wooden, without depth. I know there’s nothing wrong with lovingly crafting a story (I think John Irving takes years to finish his novels), but short stories serve a specific purpose: deliver powerful prose in a compact space. I should be flooding the market with my short stories the way aspiring musicians offer demos. I want to be quicker, but I’m finding the results to be unsatisfying if I rush through.
And, if I’m being honest (which I always strive to be), I’m in Florida with family and there are a million and one setbacks and interruptions and obligations to be met. It’s frustrating, but as I wrote last time, I need to celebrate the small victories. So though this draft does not advance the plot persay, it does contain enough revisions to develop and deepen the narrative. Changes are marked via underline and change in text color (I switched it from black to red; hopefully it shows up?).
The Story (needs a title…)
The TV was loud, loud enough that Madeleine felt sure it would only be a few more moments before the neighbor downstairs, the angry and entitled woman with the pixie cut gelled to perfection, would be banging on her ceiling, banging through to Madeleine’s floor. That night, Madeleine decided the bitch could bang all she wanted – the TV was going to stay loud because the Ghost Gurus were doing a live, nationally televised paranormal investigation of an abandoned lunatic asylum somewhere on the east coast and she wasn’t going to miss a single second of it. She’d been watching the Ghost Gurus for six years and more than just encourage her love of all things spooky and creepy and odd, it got her through the divorce, through the weight gain and loss, through the move into the shitty studio apartment she now called home; Ghost Gurus got her through the worst times in her life. And she was gonna make damn sure she was there for them on one of the biggest nights of their careers.
The can of light beer beside her reflected the soft blue light that emanated from her desktop. Madeleine chewed on the end of the ring on the inside of her bottom lip, an anxious habit. She was ready for the investigation to start, and she was also eagerly anticipating a response from Johnny99. On the official website for the Ghost Gurus, there was a live chat happening alongside the investigation and Madeleine, under the alias “Casperette44,” had logged on just to lurk. She’d never intended to send a message, but when someone wrote, “Any advice on the best digital recorder for EVP work,” she couldn’t help herself. She wrote a quick message back to recommend the Sony ICDUX560BLK Digital Voice Recorder 1’ Black because it’s extremely easy to use and set up, and catches voices clearly. She advised against voice-activated recorders because the device could start in the middle of an occurrence, and as many EVPs are typically only a word or two, no one would want a device that could miss potential evidence. She went to light a cigarette but when she focused back on the screen, there was a private message waiting for her from Johnny99. He thanked her profusely for the suggestion and asked her if Zane, the lead investigator, could be any more melodramatic.
In her empty, lonely studio apartment, the message actually made her laugh out loud. She covered her mouth to muffle the noise, careful not to smear her heavily painted lips in dark crimson, and reread the message with a pleasant surprise of a smile. She agreed that yes, Zane was indeed over-the-top, but she loved him all the same and that his passion, with Adam’s proclivity to stay in especially terrifying places by himself, made her keep coming back for more.
They talked until it was after three o’clock in the morning, after the investigation was over and she’d missed the whole thing, after a lot of obvious flirting. They decided to meet the next weekend during a group investigation for beginners at the Reginald Davies Estate on the other side of town. It had been purchased by Dr. Reginald Davies in 1880 and became an instant curiosity. The estate was recognizable for its oversized features, gigantic upside-down corbelled chimneys, hooded “jerkin-head” dormers, and huge stick-like brackets on the porch. And the estate was apparently just as weird inside as it was on the outside. Dr. Davies was into the occult, and forced his wife and his spinster sister to partake in his macabre hobbies. There were many wild and horrifying claims about the estate, most of which were unsubstantiated but nevertheless grew into the stuff of urban legends. The most oversimplified explanation for the estate’s general ominous atmosphere is that Dr. Reginald Davies was trying to build a portal to Hell.
The town didn’t want to encourage the rumors, afraid the estate would attract satanists and witches and all different kinds of unsavory types. The town elders preferred the estate to be a well-known local family-friendly attraction steeped in culture and history that satisfied respectable, desirable tourists. Time changed as it always does, and unfortunately, that particular clientele did not visit the estate enough to pay the bills of maintaining the historic and unusual Victorian mansion, so the owners had to expand their horizons and eventually opened the estate to paranormal investigators. It ushered in a younger crowd and piqued the interest of locals who had been living near the place for years and years. Residents were buying tickets for tours to see if they could hear ghostly footsteps, disembodied voices, or even see the torso of a woman in Victorian garb rushing around the home. The profitable decision convinced the owners to open the doors to private groups of paranormal investigators, so long as waivers were signed and a sizable fee was paid.
Madeleine researched as much as she could so she could be authoritatively impressive in conversation with Johnny99, and the Wikipedia article detailing the history of the estate still glowed on her monitor at the end of the week while she stood before her full-length mirror, twisting this way and that to see her full reflection. Her hair was dyed black, courtesy of a box from a local drugstore, and her hair was straightened meticulously, to the point where the apartment was filled with the smell of slightly burning hair. Her dark eyes were outlined in even darker, thick liner. Her ripped jeans and faded band tee-shirt almost made her look ten years younger. She decided this was as good as it was going to get and sat to lace up her Doc Martens.
Nearly an hour later, her small blue Toyota Corolla rolled to a stop in a huge parking lot. The sound of crunching gravel announced her arrival, and Madeleine watched the already arrived group of paranormal investigators turn in unison to observe her. Wishing for a cigarette, she released shaky breaths as she climbed from the vehicle to stand in the brisk evening air. Johnny99, real name Bryan, said he’d be wearing a denim jacket with a smiley face pin. She scanned the crowd but couldn’t see anyone matching the description from the message. There was a tall, gaunt, pale fellow with lanky black hair; obviously, this wasn’t his first rodeo. There was a heavy-set couple with matching tee-shirts that must have been from somewhere in the midwest, judging by their misplaced enthusiasm and general cuteness. There was an older gentleman in a baseball cap and untucked flannel shirt with deep creases across his forehead. He didn’t smile or greet Melanie in any way once she made her way over, and she shivered.
“Well, hello!” boomed a jovial voice from the front porch, shattering the silence into unsettling shards. Everyone gasped and turned. “I’m your leader for this excursion into the beyond, and my name is Zander.” His chest swelled and he looked around at everyone with shining eyes. He paused, as if for applause, and then continued. “I’m a psychic medium and I’ve been featured several times on WINK News Channel 5,” he said, his eyes closing in self-satisfaction. Madeleine bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. She chanced a glance at the group, and the only pair riveted in the way Zander expected were the completely vanilla couple. They were watching Zander’s every move and whispering excitedly to each other. Madeleine rolled her eyes back to the parking lot. No new cars had arrived and her face grew hot as she realized she’d likely been stood up.
Zander started talking about and gesturing towards the electronics on the folding table beside him. Madeleine had only been partially paying attention, so when the group formed a line, she parked herself at the end. They were allowed to use as much of the offered equipment as they’d like. It was a smaller group that anyone anticipated, apparently, and Madeleine sighed with an aching disappointment before loading up with a flashlight, a digital recorder, and an EMF reader. She signed the required waiver and was about to follow the group inside when Zander grabbed her arm with an unexpected amount of strength. “Don’t go in,” he whispered. “Honey, trust me. If you go inside, you’ll never come out.”
Madeleine tried to pull her arm free. She searched his face and found his features were set. He wasn’t looking at her, but at something in the distance, like he was watching her demise in real time. It was a convincing performance and Madeleine swallowed a scream. When she finally tore her arm free from Zander’s clutches, she rubbed where his fingerprints had probably left bruises. “Fuck you,” she yelled. The group halted in its tracks. “This isn’t a haunted attraction, man! I paid my money, signed the waiver, and I have as much right as everyone else to go in! What’s your problem?”
The air was thick with anticipation, but Zander didn’t move. He didn’t speak. The group stayed frozen and Madeleine had a strange and sudden desire to run. But then Zander blinked and came back to himself. He smoothed the front of his shirt and cleared his throat. He looked at Madeleine and said, “I’m so sorry, sweetie. Did I offend? Did I say something untoward?”
Madeleine looked from Zander to the group and saw identical expressions of disbelief and apprehension. She slowly turned back to Zander. “You just told me if I go in the house, I’ll never come back out. You predicted my death.”
Zander’s face lost its shape and color. He looked just as appalled as everyone else. He recovered as gracefully as anyone would have been able to manage, given the circumstances, and pulled Madeleine close. “Just setting the mood, dear. Trying to get the heart rate going.” He was laughing, but it was a hollow and empty sound. When he pulled back from Madeleine, he shot her a meaningful look that vanished as quickly as it had appeared. Zander turned from her then, and urged the group inside, to continue on, with the familiar joviality of before. Madeleine didn’t know what to do.
Stupidly, she stood on the front porch, trembling. The last member of the group in line, the old man in the flannel shirt, was just stepping through the threshold and Zander was watching Madeleine with squinting eyes when a sudden rush of footsteps caused everyone to gasp and spin around. A gorgeous, breathless young man was pulling his long hair back from his face. “Sorry I’m late,” he said. The glow of the recessed porch lights danced off the shiny surface of the smiley face pin on his denim jacket, and Madeleine breathed a sigh of relief. “I got lost like four times driving up here.”
“No problem, no problem at all,” Zander said, smiling radiantly. He curtly yelled for the others to hold on, and then ushered Bryan, aka Johnny99, to the folding table. Zander was excited for another paying investigator and there was a hurried conversation of excited whispers and the sound of pen against paper. Madeleine stood still, smiling and watching Bryan situate his equipment about his person. When he finally felt her eyes upon him, he looked up, and the smile that broke across his face was like the dawn. “You must be Madeleine.” He extended his hand.
“And you must be Bryan,” she purred as they shook hands.
Comments? Questions? Suggestions?
I’m not sure where to go from here. I know I want it to end in mayhem and tragedy and chaos, but in an unexpected and engaging way. Do I …
- have Bryan turn out to be a satanist and kill Madeleine to open the portal to hell in the estate?
- have Madeleine kill Bryan in self-defense, or because she becomes possessed by entities in the estate?
- have Zander kill them both in a satanic ritual the group members are in on?
All of these seem melodramatic and uninspired, but what do you think? I’d love, love, LOVE to hear from you. Let me know in a comment!