In which Alyssa begins to connect with her houses . . . in very different ways

The bathroom in Alyssa’s rented house would have been perfect with one of those old-fashioned club-footed bathtubs in it, especially with the sweet little octagonal stained glass window that was set high in the wall over the toilet, next to the sink. But someone at some point in the house’s history had put in a one-piece surround that was so cheap, it had a deep rust-coloured ring around it that no amount of scrubbing would remove. Alyssa had tried everything from her grandmother’s favourite, Comet, to Scrubbing Bubbles, to plain old bleach, but nothing worked. 

At the very least, she reminded herself with every shower, she knew it was clean. And it was only herself, after all. If she ever had company over, her pretty flowered shower curtain would hide the appearance of the tub. 

Turning the water on before undressing, she leaned toward the mirror to pluck away some unwanted hairs while the stream heated up. The warming air and steam were reassuring, but when she looked over at the tub, Alyssa sagged with disappointment. “Damnit, not again!” she cursed aloud. 

The water was red.

Stomping as she crossed back to twist the taps off again, Alyssa stifled an urge to kick the tub, knowing it would only result in a broken toe. “Stupid rusted pipes. Getting what I paid for, I guess.” She tried the hot water again, but it was clear. The cold was the problem: it flowed richly, darkly tinted, the flakes of rust swirling like clots of blood around the drain.

Alyssa turned it on full-force to flush the pipe. When it was finally clear, she let the tub drain fully, wiped it down with an already-stained old towel, and then started the whole process of finding her temperature again. 

By the time she stepped out, freshened and dripping, the sun was no longer shining through the stained glass. She realized with dismay that because she still wasn’t quite used to living alone, she’d forgotten to leave a light on downstairs again.

The bathroom was suddenly a bastien of safety, warmth and light, even with the awful red stain around the white tub. And the way the red stoplights at the intersection nearby gleamed through the sections of coloured glass, the window evenly partitioned like the iris of an eye. Suddenly Alyssa didn’t want to stay there, either. A shiver crawled up her spine, a half-remembered moment from a childhood sleepover. Something about Mary in the bathroom, and what you’d see in the mirror if you said her name three times. 

Alyssa avoided looking in the mirror. She snatched her bathrobe off the back of the door, gripped the doorknob, and took a breath.

“Stop it with the overactive imagination, Lyss,” she told herself, firmly. “It’s just nighttime. Nobody in the house but you. There’s no such thing as — as that.”

But there was the dollhouse, sitting in the darkness of her kitchen, its rows of empty windows staring out like dead eyes in the face of a skull . . .

Ashamed of herself, Alyssa vowed never to tell anyone that she was a big scared baby in her own home. She opened the door a crack, her hand faltering on the knob, and reached a finger out just enough to hit the light switch in the hallway. Her heart beat faster at the thought that something might brush her finger back, or be still visible in the light, but —

“I’m an adult!” she cried out. She swung the door open and stepped into the hallway.

Of course, it was empty. 

Retying her belt with emphasis, Alyssa jutted her chin high and marched down her stairs to make a cup of tea. And turn the rest of the lights on.

The white shell of the dollhouse was only creepy for the short time it took her to locate the switches on each of her living room lamps, but she studiously looked the other way, even averting her eyes when she walked past it into the kitchen. With the steady glow of electric light passing through its open, curtainless windows, they no longer looked quite so freakish. Alyssa filled her kettle and set it to boil, and then perched on her counter, one foot propped on a nearby chair, contemplating what to do with it next.

“I could always cover you with a sheet for the night,” she said to the dollhouse. “But picture you with light glowing through the windows and the sheet — kind of a reverse Caspar. Not sure about that. What if I come down for a midnight snack later, and I’ve forgotten you’re there? Big hulking white sheet in the middle of my kitchen, that’s going to give me a heart attack.” Alyssa shook her head, hopped back down from the counter, and went across to the pantry cupboard to choose her tea. 

Once there, she paused, her hand outstretched over the boxes of orange pekoe and lavender and chamomile. “That’s funny, I smell roses. But I don’t have any rosehips.” Alyssa turned around and saw a few dried petals on the floor. Realizing they’d fallen from the dollhouse and she’d stepped on them, she suddenly had a wonderful idea. “Oh, that’s PERFECT!”

Ignoring the faint warning whistle of the tea kettle, she dashed back up the stairs to the second bedroom, where she had some souvenirs from family events in a box. Among them was an old throwing bouquet from a cousin’s wedding, made of large silk flowers like peonies and daisies. She snatched it up and rushed back down to the kitchen, where she rescued the kettle before holding the lei up to the dollhouse’s windows.

“That is cool,” she told herself praisingly. The peony petals were long and wide enough to cover the windows like curtains, and their pale pink shades seemed to compliment the old-world paint textures. “Maybe with some glue, or tacks . . .”

Alyssa poured her tea, contemplating the best way to turn silk flowers into curtains that would fill the empty eyes of the soulless dollhouse.

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In which Alyssa brings the creepy dollhouse inside . . . Smart choice?

Alyssa had rented the little detached one-and-a-half storey house for the simple reasons that she liked her privacy and the money was right. If it had cost any more, she’d have had to look for a roommate, but the old post-war home was barely big enough for one person, let alone two. Her savings from her high school jobs and what her grandparents had left her in their wills had to last the duration of her internship, and whatever time it took to get a real paycheque coming in after that. Sure, it had two bedrooms on the second floor, but they were tiny by her standards. Two months into moving in, she still hadn’t quite decided whether the second bedroom was going to be her walk-in closet and dressing room, or an office space. 

If she could have turned the dirty dollhouse into a full-size home with some kind of magic, she would have in an instant, although it probably would have flattened the similarly compact homes to her left and right. 

She’d managed to be so productive over several weeks, emptying boxes and putting them in the crawlspace under the kitchen for moving back out, that there was no other place to put the damned plaything than on her kitchen table. She looked back and forth between the clean surface and the floor, debating the merits of setting it under the table but having bending over to pick it up again. Even if she put it on the table, she’d have to cover the formica first with a garbage bag or something, since she didn’t own anything as old-fashioned as a table-cloth. Alyssa bit her lip, uncertain as to her next move.

With the ache in her arms increasing, she made a quick decision. Using her foot to pull the two kitchen chairs together, Alyssa set the dollhouse down on their joined seats with a grateful sigh. Her next instinct was to wash her hands, but she forced herself to wait, opening the trap door by the stove (such a weird place for access to the foundation, but whatever) to retrieve a large-ish flattened box, dust it off, cut open a fold so it would lay flat, and align it to the edges of the tabletop so no corners would stick out and poke her on the way to the fridge or wherever she needed to go. That done, she transferred the dollhouse to the table, wiped down the chairs, and then, she scrubbed her hands. 

“That second bedroom’s definitely going to have to be an office,” she said to herself aloud. “Not going to get any paperwork or studying done down here, at least for a while.”

Thankful that she’d taped the landlord’s number to her fridge door the day that she’d moved in, Alyssa pulled out the trusty old flip-phone that she’d had since she was twelve to call and let him know about her find. 

“That’s strange,” she murmured, pulling it away from her ear. “Why are you all staticky? You’re a good phone. It better not be time to replace you — you’re a Nokia, for Christ’s sakes!”

As if in response, the sound of static increased. No calling out, then, because Alyssa hadn’t bothered to request a landline from Ma Bell. She’d figured her trusty cellular would be enough. Shaking her head, she went to put a reminder in her tablet to go looking for a new, perhaps refurbished, cheap mobile phone the next day. And then to take a shower. 

On her way up the narrow stairs, she looked back at the dollhouse now occupying her entire kitchen table, and did a quick double-take. 

Were those lights inside?

Alyssa backed down the few steps she’d mounted, and checked her front window curtains. No, they were closed, and there was nothing for them to reflect off of in the dollhouse anyway. No glass, no brass, nothing remotely shiny.

“Maybe just some late-season fireflies?” she wondered. “Sorry, guys. You’re not going to last long in this house, either.”

She saw a single light flicker and go out in an upper room. Tsking at the fate of the dying bugs, she turned around and went to her shower without another thought about it.

More creepy dollhouse story: setting the stage

When she finally cleared the dead and dying brush away from the dollhouse, Alyssa was surprised to see that it was, by and large, intact. The miniature Colonial had stout walls and the shutters had real, tiny hinges that squeaked when she tested them. The doorhandle was tarnished, suggesting that it was real brass, and as if that wasn’t unusual enough — she’d expected it to be rounded, like a pin-head — the miniscule latch on the handle worked, too. 

Someone had taken great care to build the toy. Alyssa didn’t have the heart to put it out by the curb, without any other reason than it was still a bit spoooky. It only smelled a little mildewy, and when she lifted it out of the earth to turn it around, there was zero evidence of live creepy-crawlies. A few old webs swung from the eaves, festooned with tiny bug corpses, and she thought she recognized spider nests by the chimney. But they weren’t problematic. Just gross.

In fact, she was less disgusted by it than fascinated, particularly in the remains of the doll furniture that shifted and slid around as she awkwardly set the thing down on the grass to get a better grip. Crouching on the damp ground, careful of the wet dead leaves, she found the latch to open the back side of the house and swung the wall open. “Maybe there’re some old antiques in here worth something to a dealer,” she muttered, craning her neck to peer inside. “What shape they’d be in, though . . .”

Instead of gnawed old walnut four-posters and moth-eaten upholstery, however, Alyssa saw to her great surprise  bed-sitters marvellously crafted from twigs and twine, their bedspreads of downy feathers fallen to the floor with the movement of the house. A sink made from an acorn top rested on what looked like a mushroom pedestel, although she didn’t think that could be possible. A flat stone, the kind she’d use to skip across a lake, had been balanced on frame of crossed twigs fashioned like the beds, but it had fallen and damaged its perch when she’d lifted the thing. She also saw to her great astonishment several cross-stitched and twig-framed samplers no bugger than her fingernail, some of which were still attached to the walls.

“Wow,” she said, sitting back. “Didn’t expect that.”

She poked a skillfully designed twig rocking chair, and noticed little trails of dirt down the first floor hallway and in the kitchen. In fact, there looked to be a wad of bulrush silk or goose down or something soft by the front door, markedly dirty and matted down in the middle. She supposed it could be a mouse nest, but it was curious that there were no droppings around it. “Poor thing, you probably got snapped up by some owl or a neighbourhood fox before you got to finishing it. Or a cat, those things are like serial killers.” Alyssa clicked her tongue, shaking her head. 

Closing the wall back up, she debated what to do. 

It was a darling thing, really. It just needed a fresh coat of paint, maybe some wallpaper samples and some cloth remnants to make it worth more than a week on the curb. Possibly the junk of her backyard could become someone else’s treasure . . .

Then Alyssa remembered that it wasn’t actually her backyard. She was just a renter, after all. What if this had belonged to the previous tenant, and she (or he, to be politically correct, she reminded herself) had not had time to come back for it? Life had a way of interfering in stuff like that. Maybe some little girl was begging her mom or dad to go back to the house before the winter buried it (never mind that the thing looked as though it had been there for several winters, or longer than that, even). 

Better to be safe and build a good relationship with the landlord than to be sorry, Alyssa decided. She picked the dollhouse up again, bending her knees with the awkwardness of the load, and carried it into the house.

Creepy dollhouse in the garden story, just because.

My grandmother Phyllis used to always talk about writing a story about a dollhouse in a garden. It’s a sweet idea, once that I’ve tossed around in the back of my head for years, but for some reason, the narrative always turns . . . creepy.

Here’s another attempt starting:

The dollhouse in the garden was there when Alyssa moved into the old farmhouse she’d rented. She could see the dark grey roof peeking through the tops of the wild raspberry bushes and the rhubarb leaves, and when the wind blew aside the masses of flowering yarrow, its weathered red shutters and bleached wood walls were visible, too. But in between all of the unpacking and sorting and painting and cleaning things to do, the garden in the small backyard was neglected and she never got around to investigating the dollhouse up close. 

But on days when the rain poured down, she felt it there. The word she would have used was “watching”, even though that was clearly sily. Dollhouses didn’t have eyes. Those glimpses through the waving greenery had on occasion showed glassless miniature windows between the decorative shutters, but that’s all they were: windows. And not even real windows. Facsimiles in 1′:1″ scale. She was an adult and it was a plaything. Ridiculous even to think that it had anything resembling a personality or — dare she say it — a soul.

So she went about her business, setting up her first real grown-up home and letting the grass in the backyard grow long and wild. 

Alyssa sat one night beside the gas fireplace with a glass of wine. The season had turned cold and stayed that way, but she’d noticed a change in the colour of the leaves so the chill in the air made sense. She’d lost track of the days, even with the calendar on the fridge firmly marking her first day of work at the new job. With fall coming, and her internship about to begin at the hospital, the backyard was soon going to be a mess of dead foliage and drying leaves. That would be the best time to clean it out, right before the snow flew and buried it all for six months.

And she would be able to set the dollhouse by the road for either garbage pickup or someone to try to fix.

Reflections on Writing for Tough Audiences: Them, and Me

One of the primary tenets of writing that I’ve learned over the last few years is the importance of writing for yourself, first. Good readers can tell when a book or a short story is written out of love and interest and dedication, and one that is forced, contrived, or tossed out to meet someone else’s expectations.

When I first started working on this snowmobiling story, the intent was to provide a short novel for my reluctant teenage readers that was based on their interests: snowmobiling, outdoors, survival stories, true stories. I’m using Crabbe and Hatchet a little as models, as well as my observations of local teenage individuals and their experiences.

Yesterday, I had some of those reluctant readers take a look at the unfinished draft, both to get their feedback AND because they’d forgotten their independent study novels at home.

Their first and main reactions were dismay at the pages of words I’d given them — “Aw, man, so many words. I don’t wanna read words.” They enjoyed seeing some of their slang in print — “Look, she’s been listening!” — and liked some of the descriptions, but they lost interest by page three. One said there was too much talking, and another said too much happening, and a third said not enough.

As disheartening as this was, I realized today that I’m actually really invested in this story, now. As difficult as it was for me to get into at first, working with a genre and style that’s unfamiliar to me, I really want to know how it turns out. I’m not sure how well any of it is working — the voice, the details — and I want it to be something that my former teacher and the esteemed writer William Bell would enjoy reading and recommend to people who like his books. I want Gary Paulsen to read it and say, “Yes, this works.” I guess I’m looking for reassurance that I’m on the right track.

I’m also about 5,000 words behind in my word counts at this point.

So, I guess the bottom line is this: I started writing something for others, and it’s turned into something for myself. Despite the change in my goal, I’m still feeling nervous and inadequate on this, even more so than with other works I’ve done. It will feel good to finish this. Even better if I can get someone in my class to read it and tell me they like it. Hell, if the kids I’m writing for are able to read it from start to finish, without giving up, I’ll have done something right.

Excerpt from my WIP Snowmobiling Story / Camp NaNoWriMo Project

*Desperately needs a better title! Even a better working title!

Have a look at a section of this YA fiction I’m working on for reluctant readers, and tell me what you think!

———————–

I heard once that when someone gets hypothermic, they take all their clothes off and dig a hole. No, seriously, that’s — well, it’s something that Penny read in an article online and then told me about. I didn’t get an urge to burrow or anything like that, but I got to a point where I just wanted to lie down and take a nap, and I didn’t much care anymore where I did it. But I knew that’d piss Penny off, ’cause she was waiting for me, and it was a stupid idea to lie down on the railroad tracks no matter what. My dad would kick my ass if I did that.

No, I don’t talk about my dad that much. He’s not home a whole lot. He’s not even really my dad, okay? Just like my sister isn’t really my sister. He works driving transports, so he’s always going across country or down into the States. The money’s good, so you’d think we’d be doing better, but after my mom got divorced she ended up with a whole bunch of debt, and he had some too from before they got married. They had a cheapo wedding, too, although I don’t know why they even bothered to do that. Should have just moved in together and been done with it, in my opinion. No offense, if you don’t think people should just live together, but it’s honestly cheaper than having a big party just to show off.

When my dad does come home, it’s all about showing off. Mom’s got to show that she’s got it all handled, and that means I have to keep my nose clean, not argue or leave messes, shit like that. It sucks. Why should I have to be someone other than myself? I mean, heaven forbid I leave some dishes in the sink when my dad’s home — I do it when he’s not home, too, and the world doesn’t end.

On the other hand, he’s been around since I was a kid, and like I told you before, he’s pretty cool at teaching me some stuff. He was with me when I shot my first buck, showed me how to dress it and got the rack mounted for me for my birthday that year.

That same year, I heard about this thing where you can put a penny on a railroad track and when a train goes by, either the penny gets flattened completely, or it’ll derail the train. Either way, it sounds pretty effing cool, so I took a penny to try it. I hung around for a while, waiting for the action, but it got boring, so I just left the penny there and went back later, after I’d heard the train go by. It didn’t crash, but the penny was squashed.

You know what’s even cooler than getting a penny flattened by a train? Getting a loonie done the same way.

Yeah, I don’t understand why I’d want a train to derail, but when you’re a kid, it’s just something neat and different. I get it now, why it’d be bad. At the time I was all into explosions and loud noises and stunts and shit. So I take a loonie out of my mom’s wallet, not knowing that my dad saw me do it — I thought he was just watching hockey and drinking a beer — and I go out to the train tracks again.

So the first thing I get in trouble for, after I get back, is stealing. And it was just a dollar! Man, can you imagine what he’d do to me if I got caught taking a twenty? Or one of his beers? That’s why I wait until he’s gone on a road trip again, heh. He doesn’t keep count when he’s gone.

Anyway, he kicks my ass for taking money without asking. And then he wants to know what I did with it. I’m just a kid, I’m freaked out, so I tell him. Dad hustles me back to the train tracks, holding me up by the back of the neck so I’m practically on my tiptoes the whole way, and we get the loonie back.

Then we stayed there, waiting for the train to go by. While we’re there, he starts telling me about this one time that he saw a drunk guy walking home on the tracks lay down or pass out, and got his legs cut off by the train. It didn’t even slow down. I didn’t ask whether the guy lived or died.

I did feel like puking, though. My dad’s a good storyteller. I can kill and gut a deer, no problem. I went all that way after getting kicked by a moose and I didn’t whitey even when I wanted to. But you get my dad describing something gory, and I tell you, my stomach just turns over. And you can totally tell how much he’s loving it while I’m turning white and trying not to listen.

“Adam,” he says, looking at me seriously. “There’s a reason why most of the time, houses aren’t built next to the railway tracks.”

Of course, that’s a lie. There’re houses up here that are right close to the tracks. Okay, so there’s a backyard between the house and the rails, but still.

He starts telling me about what a train derailment is really like.

“The cars knock together and push each other to the sides,” he says. “So it’s not just turning over to one side, there’s cars to the left and cars to the right. And as soon as the first ones stop moving, the ones behind them jump on top, ’cause they don’t have any other place to go. If those are passenger cars, you got people inside getting flung all over the place, getting cut by broken glass and squashed under iron wheels and trapped between the seats. They can’t hear themselves screaming ’cause the sound of metal screeching is too loud, but when it’s over, then they’ll hear each other. And if they’re really lucky, someone nearby will hear them and call 911.

“But if there’s a house or a car that’s too close to the tracks,” he goes on, pointing at the spots. “The train pulverizes it.”

That’s the exact word he used. Pulverize.

“It’s going so fast, and it’s made of steel so it’s heavy, that it knocks into whatever’s in its way and smashes right through. If there’re chemicals or gas or oil, and there’s a leak, the steel makes sparks and that causes an explosion. So whoever might have survived in the house or the car, if he lived through getting hit, gets burned alive by the fire.”

Yeah, at this point I’m just about puking.

“This is why you don’t put shit on the tracks to derail the train, understand?” He’s shaking me now, just enough to get me to look him dead in the eyes. “This is why you don’t play on the tracks, or lie on the tracks, or mess around anywhere near the tracks. You get me?”

Then he points behind me, and holy shit, there’s a fucking train coming. I nearly crapped myself. You’d think you’d hear it coming, but you don’t, not until it’s almost on top of you. We weren’t even standing on the gravel, but I could feel the wind coming off of it. You know how you can imagine grabbing one of the handles as it’s going by slowly, through an intersection? Well, outside of an intersection, it goes just a little bit faster. Scary faster.

So I’m walking down the tracks now, years later, knowing my dad will kick my ass again if he catches me, and kill me himself if I even just sit down for a minute, and I’m starting to wish I’d just taken the goddamned trail, when it happens.

Unfuceffing believable.

Coming toward me, way down the track, there’s a freaking train.

————————–

The premise of this novel is that a young man is out snowmobiling and ends up in trouble, first by encountering a moose, then by bogging down his machine. His experience only gets worse from there, with a events pushing him further from home and safety, and into more and more dangerous circumstances. I’m aiming for 50,000 words, currently at 35,389 at the time of this post, with 7 days to go.

WIP update: the snowmobiling story gets complicated and dark

The truth behind the skeleton is emerging. It’s not a pretty story. Also not what I expected — the tale is complicated, and perhaps open to debate. But it’s interesting.

I’ve decided to omit the use of a certain curse word from this YA WIP, switching it to “eff” instead. I’ve been playing with the style, as well, using text that’s been struck out here and there, to represent the idea that the young man telling the story changes his mind about what he wants to say or how he wants to say it now and again. I might do that with the swear words, in the manner that the kids do — starting to say the bad word, and if it all pops out, apologizing for it, or if they catch it in time, replacing it with a tamer version of the slang. But that will come after the whole draft is done.

I realized tonight, to my horror (slight exaggeration, although I was very dismayed) that I’d gotten four thousand words behind schedule. I’m closer to being back on track, having written 2,600 words this evening, and I’m tempted to keep going, but at the same time I will suffer in the morning if I push it too late.

Still need a title for this, too. If anyone has any ideas, or would like to read another excerpt to possibly offer suggestions, that would be amazing!