It’s Short Story Week for our Local NaNoWriMo group, and I’m working on a piece that I hope to submit for publication. It’s part of a larger universe that I’m also working on. I have a fun character and a rudimentary plot, but I think it’s not as exciting as it should be. I guess I should finish it before I start giving up on it. The character is very cute.
The Required Elements
- A Dilettante
- Jello Wrestling
- A Moon Rock
She Couldn’t Find How To Push Through
When the ghost that lurked in her home was eaten by shadows, she began to doubt she had ever seen him at all.
The quiet old house became alien. She couldn’t make the finish on the second floor bannister match and three posts had to be re-turned. She began to doubt herself; she was a dilettante. Her plaster work was uneven, and she couldn’t sand and smooth it properly. Maybe seeing him was mold-induced madness from this house. Weeks passed. In frustration she left off restoration and began cleaning out the attic. She daydreamed of a beach somewhere warm.
It was April when she saw him in the mirror above the fireplace, when the moonlight hit it from the plate glass window in the parlor. Her own reflection was missing. His pale face was pressed against the glass; his expression one of terror, body hidden behind the fireplace as though it were a wall. She touched his hand against the glass and felt it give. She could feel him for a moment, until the shadows in the room behind him came to life and dragged him away as they had that night in the kitchen. The next night the same thing happened, and every night until the moon waned. Her reflection reappeared.
In May she was ready. The jeweled pin he left behind had no reflection either. She pressed it through the wavering glass, and he took it, but he couldn’t use it to banish the shadows. They swallowed him up each night, until the moon waned.
In June she used mirrors to direct the moonlight and saw him for five days instead of three, but couldn’t save him. She found his trunk in the attic. An army uniform, a sword, a photo and papers. His name was Delias. His sword had a reflection; he could not grasp it.
In July, she discovered a marble statue of Artemis from the attic had no twin on the other side. She placed a lunar meteorite in the parlor and the statue glowed an unearthly blue in the amplified light. She touched the huntress and fell inside her, and the statue grew and molded to her like armor. The air around her was thick, like wrestling through jello, but she forced her way to the mirror. Her face was unseeing stone. Catching up his sword, she heaved herself over the mantle and through into the mirror room beyond.
The shadows leapt forth immediately in response to her arrival. She stepped in front of him, brandishing his sword. A voice in her head said the weapon was wrong; Diana preferred a bow. But she did her best, cutting through the dark like fire. She banished the shadows back to where they belonged.
Danger past, she turned to him. “My darling!” he said, and put his hand to her face, but it passed through her skin. On this side of the mirror, she was the ghost.
“I’m afraid you’re trapped,” he said in sorrow.
Here is the spreadsheet of rankings for my story (judges names are blacked out) and the written feedback I received.
I’ve posted several questions about the spelling/grammar scores, given that I had the piece professionally copy edited, but I haven’t received any response about why they marked down to 9 what should have been 15. Lots of vague answers, but nothing specific, and a lot of deflection of my questions.
- An event that changes a character’s personality.
- A measuring tape
Carried Away by a Moonlight Shadow
His soul had been trapped in the jeweled box for a century. The hundred-and-thirty-year difference in their ages left gaps in conversation.
“We played tetherball in the Army in 1895…” he said, after she explained the Super Bowl.
“That’s not even a sport, though,” she said.
“I’m sure you would like haggis, my dear…”
“No, I googled that. I know what’s in it.”
She showed him Wikipedia and how to work the mouse with his semi-corporeal hand, and he spent hours filling the holes in his knowledge.
He never thought he would call a woman steadfast, but her confidence in her ability to release him from his ghostly trap earned it. Nothing about his old house (now her house) frightened her, either; not the bloody puddle on the stairs every morning, the measuring tape that turned into a snake and bit her, the rocking chair that wouldn’t stop. Or him, the ghost. She painted, swept, dusted, repaired until the house looked as it had when he had walked and breathed there.
She loved his square shoulders, the way he set a formal table and read books. He was handsome in a way that men weren’t anymore. He wasn’t sloppy, wrinkled or slouching. If she could finish the house, he would be freed, she was sure. Whether he would fall fully into her world or float to another was unclear, but regardless she had to work harder.
“Do you like this color?” she said.
“How do you live on your own?” he wondered.
“It’s my money. What could my parents say?” she shrugged, and painted.
His protectiveness was charming but like a blanket on a warm day, unneeded. Or so she thought.
Tattered curtains hit the dustbin, and the city beyond the windows she cleaned had transformed itself since he walked those streets. She had a party. He lurked at the edges, unseen. Her friends were like her, irreverent, charming and smart. In his age such women were loose. These women were jewels, and she was their center.
He almost surrendered despair. He almost believed he was free.
The trap she finally sprung with all her endeavors unleashed not him, but a terrifying smog. It billowed up from fragments of an old letter in the ashes she cleaned in the cellar. She thought it was a hallucination, but the very real teeth wrapped around her arm finally dislodged her fear. She beat it back and fled upstairs. He recognized the black thing chasing her, and for the first time she saw his anger. He stepped between her and the demon and fought. It overwhelmed him until he rose up larger — filling the room, a monster, his face a horrible mask of rage. He took the jeweled pin from his chest and lashed at the demon, and it exploded and disappeared.
Relieved, she sought his face, but he was still terrified. The evening shadows came alive and swallowed him whole.
No more puddle, rocking chair, tape measure or him. The house remained, and the jeweled pin, but he was gone.
This week I’m participating in The Iron Writer challenge, (I’m in challenge 102) a writing competition where you write a 500 word story using four elements that are provided to you – examples:
- An empty ATM
- A talking tree
- Toilet bowl cleaner
- A meteor
- A Zombie Apocalypse
- A 1936 Chevy Corvette
- A Coyote
- A Snow Plow
Once written, you submit your story and it competes against 4 others using those same elements for the prize. (The prize is esteem from your fellow writers and a chance to enter a tournament.)
The four elements can end up being setting, POV, actions, background details, or character elements. They can throw a monkey wrench into story ideas, set everyone up to write very similar stories or just cause a story to sound disjointed if it’s awkward to fit one of the elements in.
So of course I have to try to control the uncontrollable.
I decided I’d like to tell stories inside a framework that might allow elements to be swapped in without altering the overall storyline – flexible, but consistent so I could do more than one challenge set in the same universe. Also I can think up some story pieces ahead of time, like character and plot, so I’m not scrambling to do that in the four days I’m allotted when elements are assigned.
The framework I came up with is a ghost story about two lovers – she’s alive, and he’s dead. But they weren’t lovers before he died – she met him as a ghost, and the two fall in love with each other. Because he is dead, he can do all sorts of non-corporeal things – jump through planes of existence & back and forth in time, which I hope can account for some of the assigned elements. Because she’s alive, lots of action can take place around her real existence apart from him, and the conflict that creates with her maintaining a relationship with him. And of course, why is he haunting her? Is he haunting her, or is there some other reason why he’s here? Maybe he’s in purgatory and has to perform some action to move on, but because he’s fallen in love with her, he doesn’t want to move along. Maybe she’s there to help him get through something in purgatory that he has to accomplish, and she has to discover what that is. There are possibilities for moods that are funny (like the movie Topper) or sweet and wistful (the musical film Once) or mournful (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard), forboding (A Good Man is Hard to Find) or just really frightening (The Others).
Partway through sketching out what this framework might look like, I was listening to old music in my library and came across “Moonlight Shadow” the 1983 song by Mike Oldfield, sung by Maggie Reilly. The lyrics of the song tell the story of two lovers separated, and he is shot and killed. She is unable to “push through” to get to him. Lots of the description – moonlight shadow, “The trees that whisper in the evening” “vision forming” “silvery night” “The night was heavy and the air was alive” suggest something going on that is mystical and hard to see – maybe a vision she might see of what is going on in purgatory, where he is, but she can’t form a picture of what’s really happening, or how to reach out to him.
That imagery is lush and sets a wistful sort of mood, and could fit with the framework that I was pulling together for my story. So I’m using that song as inspiration.
Yes, I will write fan fiction ghost stories based on an obscure 1983 pop song.
The danger is if I seem like I’m throwing away elements casually or just really trying to wrench them into a format that they don’t go with. If the elements really just didn’t work together with this theme, I could pants it and write something else instead. But I have some basics in place if the elements fit together.
So these were the elements I was given –
- An event that changes a character’s personality.
- A measuring tape
I decided after a bit of tinkering that I could try to make those work in my pre-conceived framework, and I put my 500 words together and submitted my story today. When the challenge gets posted to the Iron Writer website in the next few days, I’ll link to it and ask that you read and vote for whatever story you think is best (which I hope is mine.)
I’m not gonna to admit to Maddie that the hotdog was a mistake. It was; it went right through me and I’m barely hangin’ on. But as soon as I head for the john she’s gonna know. If I can keep her from chit-chatting with this woman while we interview her about the missing… whachamacallit, we can get back to the office before… anything happens.
“Why are you so fidgety, David? You’re making me nervous.” She hits me with her purse when I open the door for her.
“Mrs. Mills! I’m Madelyn Hayes. You say you’ve lost your [thingamabob]?”
Didn’t introduce me, and for once I don’t mind. But I still don’t understand what they’re lookin’ for. What did she say?
“Ms. Hayes! Yes. Jerold and I were the only ones here, and the office door was locked. The [doohickey] was sealed in this box at 10 am to be shipped. But we opened it to add a packing slip at 3:30, it was empty.”
I pick the box up, turn it over, and start hunting around. Maddie walks over to talk to Jerold, and I feel sorry for the guy. Five-foot-seven of Chanel and determination coming ‘atcha is enough to make any guy… distracted from the current situation. She asks questions, but he mumbles what Mills said and stares at her chest. Frustrated, she turns to me and we put our heads together.
“Maddie, there are only a few solutions to a locked room mystery. #1 – Mills or Jerold stole the whachamacallit before the box got sealed…”
Her: “2: the thingamabob was stolen when it was opened…”
Me: “3: the doohickey is still there…”
Her: “4: the hoozy-whatzy never existed…”
Me: “5: the veeblefetzer was turned into something else…”
Her: “6: someone else was in the room and stole the thingamajig…”
Just when I think we’re on that back and forth where we work out the solution, I realize…
Me: “Wait. You don’t know what this thing is either?”
Her: “I thought you did! You took the first message!”
Me: “You called her back!”
Her: “She mumbled!”
Me: “We don’t know what we’re looking for.”
Her: “When do we ever, though?”
Wait, there was a stack of shipping boxes in the corner.
“Maddie, go look through those boxes. I’m going to… check out the hallway.”
She gives me that look-she knows. But I think better in the john. I’m there fixing my situation, when it hits me. No, literally it fell out of the ceiling tile and landed on my head. It’s a lacy doily thing. Whatever a ‘gehaakt cadeautje’ is – this is probably it. I head back into Mill’s office with it, holding it up in the air.
Jerold’s face lights up, but Mills makes a run for it. Maddie trips her and stands on her back until the police arrive. Jerold writes us a check for a cool $10,000. We’re driving home…
“Where did you find it?”
“Fell on my head.”
“Too bad it wasn’t an anvil.”
“At least I know how to say ‘anvil’.”
“Well, thank god for that hotdog.”
Note: A ‘gehaakt cadeautje” is (in the Dutch language) a small crocheted gift that you make ahead and keep a stash of, then give to friends as a token of friendship at various non-birthday or non-Christmas times of year. A little thoughtful present that says “I appreciate you.” An Americanized version of the term came up on the radio show A Way With Words Crocheted Gidote, and after much investigation, people figured out it was this dutch custom.
Lincoln Dunwoody is the guy who opens my cans for me. He likes to tell people he’s my owner, but that’s a bit of a delusion. Lincoln has trouble remembering his briefcase in the morning, and I’m building a weather machine in the spare room while he’s at work, so who owns who in this situation?
I know it seems contradictory that I’m building a weather machine and that I can’t open cans, but you’d be surprised how resourceful I am for a cat, despite the cursed lack of opposable thumbs. I can do a lot of things with my teeth, and I know how to apply basic physics – gravitational, electrical, and magnetic forces, friction, tension, air resistance, applied force, spring force. I’ve used them all in my science projects.
It’s just that damned twisting motion of the can opener that defies mastery. I tried meowing loudly near the television when the commercial for cat food that comes in pouches comes on, but Lincoln just pets my head and coos silly stuff at me like “I’m sorry, Truesdale. That is a pretty lady cat, but she’s just on TV. Someday we’ll both meet nice ladies to go out with.” I don’t need a lady, I need food I can fix myself.
Truesdale is the name Lincoln calls me. My actual name is Jake Mortlock, but it’s probably better that Lincoln doesn’t know that, in case I have to go on the lam.
Honestly, Lincoln is a bit of a lily pickle most of the time. He’s sort of round and squishy, and he hasn’t got much hair, except for a bristle of a mustache that he needs to trim more often because it ends up in his mouth when he talks. And he talks to me a lot. He likes to narrate what he’s doing, as if I can’t see it for myself as he fusses around the apartment.
Last night was really odd, though. Lincoln didn’t talk at all when he got home after work. Usually he seems resigned and drops his briefcase obliviously just inside the door, but last night he swung it merrily round in the air and flipped it on the table, did a couple of half-steps like he was dancing, and tried a little whistling. It came out odd, so he switched to humming, which sounded better, although I still couldn’t figure out if there was a tune. He dance-hummed his way into the bedroom and started undressing. I went in to watch, because it was 6 o’clock and not time for bed at all. In his underpants and t-shirt, he pulled a bag from the closet and zipped it open to lay out a black suit I’d never seen on the bed. Then he retrieved a shoebox from the closet shelf, and a square brush, and he dusted off a pair of shiny (stylish!) black shoes that I’d also never laid eyes on before. He foxtrotted into the bathroom, brushed his teeth, combed the few hairs he still had on his head, and to my shock, actually trimmed that silly mustache. He hummed his way into the spiffy duds and even tied a bright red tie, straightening it in the dressing room mirror, brushing off wrinkles and fastening cufflinks. With neatly folded pocket square tucked in, Lincoln Dunwoody looked downright dashing. Of course, then he spritzed on some cologne that made me sneeze, but nobody’s perfect.
He checked the time – 6:50 p.m. – and danced to the front door, turning to me as he left. “You hold down the fort, Truesdale. I have a date tonight.”
Will wonders never cease? I didn’t want to miss any additional action, so I decided to put my weather machine work on hold and add to my Minions Project in the kitchen instead so I’d be near the door when Lincoln came home. The Minions Project is where I gather up all my cat hairs into a ball under the refrigerator. When I get enough of it together, I’m going to chew through the lamp cord and apply some electricity to the hairball, animating it into a tiny baby cat that I can control with my mind. Eventually I will build a small army and we will take over the world.
I was still absorbed in my cat bath at 9:45 when I heard Lincoln’s heavy tread on the stairs. He was not dancing when he came in the door. He was not humming. Lincoln was sad. His head was down and his shoulders drooped. He didn’t even seem to see me; he just dropped his keys on the table, loosened his tie, and proceeded to the bedroom. He slowly put his happy suit of clothes back into the garment bag and zipped it up as though he was putting it away forever. Back into the closet went the shiny shoes and bright red tie, and Lincoln Dunwoody sat down heavily on the edge of the bed in his underwear, looking much older and more battered than the 45 years that he was.
Even smaller-than-average tuxedo cats with nefarious plans to rule the world have compassion. Who could look at this scene and not feel some sympathy? I don’t have a white heart shape on my chest for nothing. I curled myself around Lincoln’s ankles and purred, swishing my tail back and forth to pet him. Happily, he brightened up and leaned over to pet me. “At least I’ll always have you, won’t I, Truesdale?” Of course you will, you big silly billy. I need you to open my cans. And when I finish that Longevity Mechanism, we’ll both be immortal and I’ll need you to carry my sacks of money to the bank.
But for now I needed to work on a different plan.
The next morning when Lincoln opened the door to head out to work, I squeezed past his ankles and zipped down the hall. Lincoln came running after me, because he also suffers under the delusion that I never leave the apartment (I have a strategic hole in the bathroom screen) and would get lost if I were out (I have personally mapped half of Prospect Park). At the end of the hall, Apartment 5G belonged to Alice Coddington, owner of Eagle Magnetics, a company that does sheet metal fabrication for magnetic shielding. She inherited the company from her father, and she’s a looker, let me tell you. I heard about Alice from the Gerrold the Beagle in 5B, who said that Alice also inherited a fluffy white cat I should get to know. I heard her door opening at about this same time every morning, so I took a chance. Normally I like to think things through, but sometimes you have to roll the dice, and that morning I was in luck.
Alice came into the hall at precisely the right time. I immediately rubbed my head against her pretty ankles and then flopped on the floor at her feet, purring loudly. She bent over to pet me, and Gerrold was right, she was really pretty. I shamelessly curled up on her toes just as Lincoln arrived to fetch me. “I’m sorry. He never tries to get out; I don’t know what got into him.”
Normally I’d correct that nonsense, but I was pouring on the charm. “What’s his name?” Alice asked.
“That’s so sweet. Aren’t you a sweet kitty, Truesy?” Alice cooed at me, and I made a mental note to steal some extra treats from Lincoln later. I deserved them for this performance.
“I’m sorry; I’ve got to get to work.” Lincoln said, scooping me up.
“Oh, me too. Maybe you could bring Truesdale over this evening and he could meet my Sasha? She’s a sweetheart, too. I’ll bet they’d get along.”
Even from my perch in his arms I could see Lincoln’s face light up like a Christmas tree. I just kept purring like a jet engine.
Nobody puts a plan together like Jake Mortlock.