Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Short story time

The following is a first draft, very rough version of a new short story I just completed. Please give it a read and leave me a comment so I know where I need to do some work. Cheers!

Elder Lane by Bill Chandler

People still talk in asides and whispers about Peter and Iris Derleth. They moved into the neighborhood formed by the cul de sac known as Elder Lane several years ago, and though their residence lasted less than a month they are still the most famous residents of the normally quiet street. The end of their time on Elder Lane is of course the most often discussed subject when the Derleth name is brought up at dinner parties or poker games, but the things leading up to that end…they contribute just as much to the palpable chill that comes over any room in which that dread name is spoken.

Peter and Iris moved to Elder Lane in November right after the first snow fall, about two weeks before Thanksgiving. The whole neighborhood was a delightful mix of the smell of fireplaces burning, of the ozone scent of freshly fallen snow, and of baked goods which had been (and would continue to be) traded house to house from the weeks leading up to Halloween until well after Christmas. Nothing said more about the sense of community on Elder Lane than the welcoming scents which greeted visitors and new residents like the Derleths. The people of Elder Lane prided themselves on being the most neighborly neighbors in existence, and so would descend on any new people on the street with suggestions for dining, discounts to the local dry cleaner’s, sets of rules governing pet leashing and façade maintenance, and of course, entire baskets of food both homemade and store bought (Mr. and Mrs. Charles Betel, the oldest residents of Elder Lane at 82 and 80 respectively, always brought the finest gourmet bread they could find…both felt they were too old to be dithering about with a hot oven). Food was a point of cohesion for the people of the neighborhood. It was shared at wakes, births, anniversaries, and any other excuse the residents could find to gather en masse. And it was food that gave the first indication that the Derleths were unlike the rest of the people on Elder Lane.

The Derleths arrived with zero fanfare, and it was almost as if they had materialized on the street. For most of the year, #3 Elder Lane had stood empty. Some college kids had rented the place briefly, but moved soon after following a barrage of complaints (and a few heavily veiled threats) from the other people on the street about the late hours and loud noises that came with them. After the collegians left, the house seemed to become frozen in time – small, nicely maintained, but empty with a glaring “For Sale or Lease” sign standing in the yard like a repudiation of the normally friendly people who had driven away kids whose only crime was to be young. Some of them had the decency to feel bad about how the kids had been treated, but none of them were so broken up that they thought to seek the students out and apologize. So when the sign first displayed “Sold!” and then disappeared from the yard the first week of November, the people of Elder Lane breathed a collective sigh of relief that they would finally be able to return to their neighborly ways, and to make up for the actions of some of their more “zealous” compatriots.

So the welcoming committee was well and truly ready to greet the new neighbors with open arms, but never got the chance thanks to the way the Derleths arrived. Normally the moment a moving van pulled into a driveway, the new residents were flooded with welcome packages and offers of help to unload, but that was always assuming the new residents arrived during the day, which most did. The Derleths, so far as anyone could tell, arrived in the middle of the night and could have won the award for “Most Quiet Move Ever” had such a thing existed. One day the house was empty, the next it wasn’t, and no one had any clue that it was different except for the appearance of a small car in the driveway. Feeling themselves already out of sorts for having missed the newest arrivals to their small community, the neighbors gathered together to make their new neighbors feel welcome.

The group gathered on the front walk of the now occupied house, and Jack Marks and his wife Cindy took the lead (Jack and Cindy were one set of the Derleths next door neighbors, and so felt the responsibility to be the most welcoming). Jack rapped on the front door quickly three times, then stepped back and put his arm around his wife with a grin on his face, his equally friendly looking neighbors ranging behind him. Save for the presence of baked goods, coupon packs and broad smiles, this particular tableau could have easily been a repeat of the one that led the college kids to find a new house to rent. But their business today was welcome, and the sense of camaraderie flowing among them was palpable and alive.

It withered away and died when Peter Derleth opened the door.

Peter was a tall, thin man who wore small round framed glasses that caught and reflected the light in such a way that seeing his eyes was almost an impossibility; the viewer was simply blinded by the reflected glare and forced to look away before any determination of eye color (or kindness, or warmth, or any of the other myriad doorways into a person’s personality often associated with the eyes) could be made. Stranger still was his mode of dress. Peter wore plain, shapeless white linen garments that brought to mind priests and ascetics from throughout the ages. He wore no shoes, and kept his hands folded in front of him at all times. Even when Jack and Cindy held out their hands to shake, Peter kept his neatly placed in front of him, responding to their overtly friendly gesture with little more than a slight nod of his head. He greeted the people of Elder Lane in a polite but detached manner, meeting each person’s gaze briefly when his or her name was announced and responding with a simple, “Hello.”

Several people tried to steal glances inside the house, but due to the darkness from within and Peter’s frame blocking most of the small opening in the doorway, very little was determined about the interior of the house. Most people saw enough to realize that the house was almost empty of furniture. The living room, just off to the right of the front door, was furnished with nothing more than several large bookcases containing what appeared to be a large collection of very old and valuable looking books, and a large stone table in the middle of the room, about 7 feet in length. Nothing else could be determined from the tiny opening Peter allowed into his home, so the general immediate impression was that Peter Derleth was a new-ager, basking in the principles of Feng Shui and minimalism at the expense of what most considered to be basic humanity.

A woman’s voice inquired from within the house as to who was at the door, and Peter called her forward to meet the new neighbors. He introduced her as Iris, which many in the assemblage on the front walk felt couldn’t be more of an ironic name. Rather than the striking and lovely flower whose name she shared, Iris Derleth looked like a woman who had spent her entire life indoors, cowering from the sun or any other source of life and nourishment. She was pale and mousy looking, with long grey hair that was in dire need of a brush. The friendly greeting of her neighbors seemed to have the opposite effect of what was intended, in that it seemed to make her shrink further into the dark interior of the house. Almost as soon as she had appeared, she was gone, leaving Peter and the neighbors to blink uncomfortably at one another until Peter made some excuse and retreated into his house with only the barest of “Thank you”s before shutting the door. In the brief but highly uncomfortable exchange of greetings, no one had though to present him with the welcoming items they had brought. There was some discussion as to whether or not they should simply take the items back, but the need to appear overly neighborly led them to simply place the baskets on the front step and leave them there. The hope was that the Derleths would find this bounty and realize what a warm community they had entered, and respond accordingly.

The next day, all the items were left on the Marks’ front step, with a note in spidery handwriting that read simply, “Religious restrictions prevent us from partaking of these items. Peter Derleth.” Some people were offended and of a mind to speak out on the matter, but cooler heads prevailed with the thinking that religion should be respected, regardless of how cold it made one seem. They all assumed that an invitation to the neighborhood Thanksgiving potluck, a yearly tradition on Elder Lane, would serve as notice that regardless of religious or societal differences of opinion the people of the neighborhood still wanted the Derleths to feel a part of the community. The broad assumption that they would not come, thereby sparing the community the discomfort of having to deal with this odd couple, went unspoken but widely shared.

When Peter and Iris did indeed show up about an hour into the dinner, the gathered people felt almost offended at their presence despite the fact that it was their invitation which brought the Derleths to the event in the first place. But once again the sense of neighborly pride won the day, and the people set about welcoming the Derleths and trying to foist various items of food on them. Peter always answered in the negative for both of them, always referring back to the previously mentioned “religious restrictions”. When asked about their religion, Peter stated that it was an ancient religion which was nameless, and whose followers were very few but very committed. Several people commented on the fact that neither Peter nor Iris wore shoes, and that they had walked to the party through at least an inch of fresh snow but neither seemed to register any pain or coldness in their extremities. Peter told them this was due to the fact that a strict adherence to their religion gave them a, and here he paused as though searching for the right words, “command over the elements.” He refused to elaborate further. Shortly after, Mr. Betel (an avowed enthusiast of the written word) pulled Peter aside to discuss the books he had seen in the Derleth collection, and Iris was pulled into a small gathering of wives who wanted to find out everything they could about the newest members of their ranks.

After much wheedling and light badgering, the women surrounding Iris convinced her to try a small bite of a particularly popular dessert item in the neighborhood. Iris accepted the tiny morsel and, if the way her eyes rolled up was any indication, loved it. She had the look of a woman who had been on a deserted island for several months, and was only now taking her first taste of something other than coconut or fish. However, before the bite had been swallowed or the look extinguished, Peter seemed to appear out of nowhere and grabbed her by the upper arms. The two looked deeply into each other’s eyes but spoke not a word (some would later swear they were communicating without words, almost with a form of telepathy, because how else could Peter know that Iris was eating something?, but this was widely dismissed as “absurd”). The longer they stared, the larger the pool of tears welling up in Iris’ eyes grew, and the more frightened the people around them became.

After 2 or 3 minutes of this (the other people of Elder Lane watching uncomfortably the whole time), Peter released his wife and stepped back, once again assuming his removed and cold stance. After smoothing down his clothing and pushing his glasses up on his nose, he looked deeply into Iris’ eyes, and said “He waits.” Iris looked back at him fearfully, as though she knew what he wanted but was afraid to say it. Peter took a step closer to her, and in a lower and decidedly more ominous tone of voice, once again said “He waits.” After another brief hesitation, Iris looked up at Peter and responded “Yet He shall rise and His kingdom shall cover the earth.” Peter continued to glare at Iris for a moment, then gave the slightest of nods. He took Iris by the elbow and led her out the door without a single expression of thanks or regret for the events which had just occurred.

Tact had a hold on the neighbors, but only for a brief moment. The door had barely shut behind the departing Derleths before wild speculation and discussion of what they just witnessed took over. The Derleths were the prime subjects of conversation for the rest of the night, and for much of the rest of their time on Elder Lane. Over the next week, the community became more and more wary of the Derleths as more strange things occurred. Jack and Cindy Marks reported feeling a growing sense of hopelessness which disappeared as soon as they were away from their house and, more importantly, away from the Derleth’s house. Cindy was often seen standing on her front porch, staring at the house with a blank look on her face and tears dropping slowly from her eyes. Strange, alien looking plants sprouted in profusion along the walkway to the house, despite the cold and snow, and blossomed into flowers so dark they appeared black. Two Girl Scouts from a nearby neighborhood who were going door to door raising money for their troop were seen crying and running away from the Derleth house. When asked what had frightened them so, they would only point at the house and whisper “The darkness knew we were there.”

The people of the neighborhood were not blind to these things, and knew something was different about the Derleths, but none were bold enough to approach the couple’s house and demand an explanation of the strange events that had occurred since their sudden arrival. The boldness the neighbors had shown when ousting the college students had suddenly deserted them all, and now all they could do was gather together in small groups and whisper theories about the strangeness emanating from the Derleth house. Many were put forth – chemical weapons, mass hypnosis, lead – but no one felt any one theory explained all the things they had seen and felt. And none encompassed the night of their departure.

That day had been especially bleak. The sky remained clouded over, warning of a heavy snowfall approaching from the south. The mood on the entire street was palpably somber. The neighbors all felt led to gather together at the Betel’s house through some shared need for community, to try to fight away the emptiness they all felt. At one point Mr. Betel and a couple of other men from the neighborhood gathered up the courage to approach the house with the intent of speaking with the Derleths and determining once and for all what they were doing in there, and why it was filling the neighborhood with so much dread. They got as far as the sidewalk in front of the house before they stopped and turned on their heels, all of them ashen-faced. Mr. Betel said he had heard chanting in a strange language, and had suddenly felt as though there was no point to anything in life, a feeling which disappeared as soon as he stepped back onto the street. The men with him reported feeling the exact same thing. No further attempts were made to approach the house until that night.

Around 11 P.M., all the people of Elder Lane were returning to their homes when Cindy Marks screamed. Concern for their neighbor drove them all to run to the Marks’ house, despite its proximity to the Derleths. They arrived to find Jack on the porch holding a sobbing Cindy, who kept repeating “He waits, He waits, He waits,” over and over while pointing at the Derleth house. Suddenly they all heard the chanting Mr. Betel had mentioned earlier in the day, sometimes in Peter’s voice, sometimes in Iris’. The chanting was unusual and unsettling, but not nearly so much as the third voice they heard in response. The voice was the vocal expression of darkness and terror. It seemed to come from inside the house and inside each of them, and all knew they had been touched by something ancient and inhuman. A few of the assembled people had spontaneous nosebleeds, and most of them either started crying or felt a strong urge to do so. The chanting voices from the house continued to rise in pitch, but the third voice stayed level, a sense of dread coming off it in waves.

Suddenly, a bright light flashed through the windows of the Derleth living room. At the same time, Iris’ voice rose suddenly into a scream of utter despair, driving the neighbors back in fear. Peter could be heard babbling and crying, and though no one could make out all his words, they all heard his last scream.

“He waits in R’lyeh! All joy shall be wiped from memory! His eye watches, and His gaze will burn humanity away! Come, Ancient One, and reward Your servants!”

As the last word was uttered, they were all blinded by another great flash of light, and all the windows in the house blew out. Then, it was as though a great vacuum had come in and sucked out all the noise. The neighbors were left staring at the house, their mouths moving but no sound coming out. A shadow appeared in the front windows of the Derleth house, and the sense of dread and loss of hope overwhelmed them all, driving them to their knees. Somehow they all instinctually looked away from the house, as though knowing that to see the thing which made the shadow would be the end of sanity and life. The shadow drew away from the window, and as it did sound returned. Iris could still be heard screaming inconsolably, but now Peter had joined her. The third voice spoke, and the screaming stopped all at once. All the street and porch lights dimmed, and then the night was quiet. The people, still quaking at what they had just witnessed, took a moment to realize that the dread had lifted. They were still frightened and confused, but all felt that somehow, things would return to normal now. They stood on Jack and Cindy’s porch, and watched the house until the sun rose.

No one was willing to approach the house with the police who arrived the next morning. The officers spent several minutes looking around the interior and exterior of the house, but found absolutely zero signs of either Peter or Iris Derleth. The only thing left in the living room was the stone table, which one officer stated was so cold to the touch that it was as though it had sat all night in a deep freeze. The bookcases stood empty, the books that had been in them reduced to ash all around the living room floor. The rest of the house had clearly not been occupied, except for the master bedroom. No beds were found, other than two blankets and two pillows which sat disheveled on the floor. Drawings on the walls depicted a great winged creature hunched over an ancient temple, with tentacles sprouting from its face, and a look of pure and utter malice in its dark eyes. The remaining items were gathered up and taken to the police station, but the officers felt certain the Derleths had simply disappeared in the night. Since none of the neighbors were showing signs of illness or violence, the case was filed away as basically unsolvable.

The neighbors slowly returned to their normal lives, and though the events of that night were discussed in whispers at gatherings, little mention of the Derleths was made. The neighbors would occasionally discuss why it was that grass or any plant life refused to grow around the house, or why that end of the street always seemed colder by just a few degrees. A few people tried renting the house over the following years, but none stayed more than six months. Jack and Cindy Marks moved away the following year. Cindy was now prone to crying fits that would come over her without warning, and Jack felt a change of scenery would serve them both well.

The people of Elder Lane were changed by the arrival and departure of the Derleths. The sense of community retreated from them and the formerly frequent gatherings became, at most, once a year events. They knew they had witnessed something few humans had, but none felt privileged by this knowledge. They all tried to go about their lives as best they could, with joy and hope, but all of them knew that somewhere in the dark a great eye watched them all, and joy and hope would burn in its gaze.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

As always, I liked it. I feel like you have a very definite style. It’s got an overall sort of calm, yet ominous tone to it. You have enough character description to give me what I need, but not too much. I like the way the plot unfolds, giving me just a little more darkness as I go along.

I don’t have anything to offer in the way of constructive criticism. I’m just not super good at that. I will say that while I was reading it, I forgot that the writer was my friend Bill, and it just because about the story. I was sucked in at line one. You know that vacuum you can feel yourself going into and coming out of that goes along with reading a good book or story? You give good vacuum.


2:41 PM  
Blogger J.T. said...

I can't really comment right now, because I'm not yet over:

A)the trauma inflicted on my fragile psyche by this disturbing tale

B)my confusion as to why you haven't tapped this talent to yield untold riches (and, of course become sugar daddy to your ol' pal J.T.)

C)my overwhelming joy at new content of any kind on this blog

More to come...

1:06 PM  

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