TWA #16 – Short Story “Seventeen Ways Your Home Can Kill You” by Scotch Frye

 

Seventeen Ways

 

You could slip getting in or out of the bathtub and crack your head open on the edge of the sink.

Faulty wiring can spark up an electrical fire, especially in an overburdened socket.

An improperly maintained chimney flue or stovepipe can fill a room with carbon monoxide. It’s the Silent Killer.

—–

I first accepted that Pop was a wizard when he made Ma disappear.

I had known for a long time that there was magic in our old farmhouse. It was the kind of house where rooms would appear and disappear overnight, like the nursery next to my bedroom that isn’t a nursery anymore. But I didn’t know for certain that Pop could cast magic spells until an unseasonably warm night during an unseasonably wet September, when I heard it with my own ears.

I remember how the heat and the wet of that night made a fog rise up off the alfalfa, lit silver by a gibbous moon. It looked like ghosts coming out of the grave. I wondered if Pop’s magic was waking the dead.

I was staring out my window over the fields behind our house, when suddenly there was a rumble of muffled voices, and a loud bang. It sounded a lot like a screen door slamming, Pop’s spell did. So Pop was magic, and he made Ma disappear. That’s the only explanation that makes any sense, because I never saw her again after that.

Now, after all of it is so far in my past, I can hear those memories whispered to me like spells from the quietest corners of the house. I wrap myself in them. I sleep in their warm familiarity. These are the spells that keep me here.

—–

You could choke on a pork chop or a piece of candy and not be able to clear the blockage.

—–

Pop had often spent long nights in the basement. It was a forbidden room to me, and Ma only went down there to deliver food and bring up dirty dishes. Whenever I asked Ma what he was doing down there and why he spent so much time doing it, she only sighed, and kissed my hair, and sent me to my room to play.

I’d read enough fairy tales to know what that meant. Pop was a wizard, working on a new secret spell in the basement, and we weren’t allowed to talk about it until it was done. I only ever thought of him as a tinkerer, though, not a real magician. Pop was a handyman during the day, before work dried up. It was a different kind of magic, watching him transform lumber and nails into a porch swing like he did last summer. But it was nothing like making a whole person disappear.

Being the wife of a powerful wizard must be hard work, because Ma had always looked so tired in those last months. So tired, but so beautiful. I miss her every day.

—–

You could choke on a pork chop or a piece of candy, but manage to dislodge it yourself. This could crack a rib and give you some very nasty internal bleeding, because sometimes even saving yourself can kill you.

—–

Pop didn’t come out of the basement for a day and a night after he made Ma disappear. When he finally came aboveground, I was sitting at the kitchen table, trying not to drop soggy Cheerios on my school clothes.

He looked like a long stretch of bad road that day. That was a saying Ma used sometimes. It always made me giggle, but there was nothing funny about how Pop looked now. He had a week’s growth of salt and pepper hair on his thin cheeks, and his eyes were rimmed by foregone sleep. A stench swam over him, whiskey and stale sweat, and it made me think of those fog ghosts coiling out of the earth. When he shielded his eyes against the early morning sun, I saw that his hands were trembling.

It must’ve taken a lot out of him, casting spells, and maybe he had a drink or two. “Dutch courage,” Ma used to say. Maybe he was finally coming up for air now. Maybe he could shrug off his wizard robes and go back to being just my Pop. Maybe he would go out and find work again. It had been such a long time.

Maybe things could go back to the way they were last summer, when Ma spent lazy afternoons stroking her belly on the porch swing, and then stopped sitting on the swing, and then was just sad all the time. Before Pop started spending all of his time in the basement.

But Pop only blinked at me now, and told me that I wasn’t going to school anymore. He told me I was to never leave the house. Then he climbed the stairs to his bedroom and filled the house with snoring.

Wizards know things the rest of us don’t. He probably knew some terrible truth about the world, some lurking danger outside. That’s probably why he sent Ma away, to protect her. I decided not to question him. You can speculate all you want about the whys and the hows, but an ounce of common sense is worth a pound of theory. That was another of Ma’s favorites. And common sense told me that Pop must’ve had some dark magic in him.

—–

You could be taken by ghosts, as they are always present in every house with magic in it.

—–

In my dreams, I can see my Ma.

The earth under my feet is green and loamy, and flowers grow up past my knees, heavy with dew like gemstones in colors I never knew existed. They sway in a gentle breeze, refracting the stunning icy light of a sun I didn’t recognize. And she’s there, across a field so lush and rolling that I’m sure it must be a living, breathing animal we’re standing on. She’s the queen of a fairy kingdom, straight-backed and proud and crowned in forget-me-nots. She turns to me, smiles, and races, barefoot, across this alien countryside. She is a herd of wild horses, a warm wind bending the tall grass, a river cutting through rock. She’s so beautiful to watch that it hurts my chest.

When I wake up, I’m crying.

—–

Leaky pipes and roofs can let moisture into your walls, creating a perfect breeding environment for deadly black mold.

Rats leave parasites in their droppings. Cockroaches spread salmonella. Bats carry rabies. Everything in your walls can sicken you.

—–

I should be starting junior high school today. Or close to it, because I’ve lost track of time now. But two summers have come and gone, and I’m twelve now, and this was supposed to be the year I grew up. I’ve often wondered what that feels like, growing up. I’ve wondered if there are boys and clubs and parties in junior high. I’ve wondered if my best friend Millie is excited. I’ve wondered if she ever missed me after my father told her she couldn’t come over anymore.

Still, the first and last time I asked Pop why I couldn’t go outside, he grabbed my shoulders with a force and speed that belied his haggard, wasting body. It was like seeing him for the first time. Not the man I knew as my father, but a wizard out of his spangled robes. I recognized this as the part of the fairy tale where the spells backfire, and the wizard’s genius betrays him. It was the saddest part of the stories I once loved.

Pop just drew me close to his face and told me I was his entire world, and that I couldn’t leave him.

Junior high and friends and parties and boys. None of it seemed to matter much anymore. I never missed my Ma more than I did that day.

—–

Moldering boards in the attic could send you plummeting through the floor, and you could break your neck.

You try to dust behind a heavy bookcase, and accidentally tip it over onto yourself, leaving you pinned to the floor until you starve to death.

—–

In my nightmares I can’t run fast enough.

In my nightmares, I throw open my window and climb into the sweet alfalfa around our house. I point myself into sunrise, and run. Over the horizon, I see roads that lead to towns and cities in countries I’ve only read about. It’s all so tall, and the colors are rich, and bright enough to burn your skin. There’s a flavor on the air, like orange blossoms in summer, and it fills my throat.

But I can feel behind me that Pop’s magic is at work again, rumbling low in the pit under our house. His spells set the air on fire, and the orange blossoms turn to ash on my tongue. I can see this magic gleaming black and hot over my shoulder. I can see it roiling like smoke over everything, faster than I can run. The smoke eats the farmhouse, eats the fields, eats the roads and towns and cities. It eats everything. It swallows the sun, and me. I’m left alone in the dark and I can’t breathe.

When I wake from these dreams, I don’t cry. At least these dreams make sense to me. At least, after these dreams, I wake up knowing why I am so terrified.

—–

You could get blood poisoning, from a rusty nail or a splinter, or one of the shards of mirror on your bathroom floor.

—–

Pop and I grew more and more silent just as we were beginning to spend more and more time together. I think this is irony, but I’m not sure.

He taught me to be silent. No one ever came to the door except for the man who delivered food and supplies, but he knew to leave our cartons and go. Pop always brought the boxes in, after making sure I wasn’t around to sneak a look past our porch. He told me that it was dangerous to go outside, that our house was the only safe place. Here there be dragons, I thought.

So I trained myself to be very, very small, and wander the world that was our house. It hurt too much to look out the windows, to see all the places that were no longer for us, so we began keeping the drapes shut day and night. Those windows without drapes, like the big bay window I used to sit at doing homework, got a thick coating of dark paint.

Pop still spends a lot of time in the basement, but when he comes upstairs, he sits with me, and we listen to the silence of the house together. I pretend not to see him cry for her, for us, for the dangers that lurk on the other side of our front door. We listen to whispers like magic spells, and the lullabies rising like ghosts out of the dusty nursery, and we try not to remember what it feels like to be left behind.

—–

If it’s Winter, the pipes could freeze, leaving you without water to drink or cook with.

If it’s Summer, the air conditioning could fail, and you could roast alive within the blacked-out windows of your bedroom.

If it’s Autumn, you’ll be remembering, and drinking your father’s whiskey, and those stairs are narrow and steep.

—–

Pop cast another spell, on himself this time. This one must’ve been much more powerful, because it gave a louder shock of sound than I had ever heard, like a shotgun blast, and that was the night Pop disappeared.

At first, I wasn’t sure what it was that stirred me from my restless sleep. So I lay, swathed in the still, sweaty dark of my bedroom. Then I felt it in the air, the same frisson of energy I felt the night Ma disappeared. That was how air tasted when someone was gone, like ashes on the tongue.

I climbed to my feet in the dark of my bedroom and groped my way to the door. My hand paused on the knob, the tremor in my body making it rattle softly in the silent night.

Beyond that door was a smoke-black hallway, which led to a smoke-black staircase, which led to a smoke-black kitchen. And through the kitchen was the basement door. And behind that I would find the dusty bric-a-brac of a wizard’s laboratory, and a smoking smudge on the ground where magic zapped my Pop away to a fairy kingdom, next to a tread-faded smudge where once my Ma stood.

This is what I would find, so there was no reason to turn that door knob. No reason to open that door. No reason at all.

Pop must’ve gone looking for Ma. And when he found her, they would come home together. How’s that for an ounce of common sense?

All I had to do was wait for them, so I went back to bed.

—–

You’ll be fine in the Spring, if you can make it that far.

—–

Ma loved her preserves, and Pop’s supply order was a standing one, so I didn’t want for food after Pop disappeared, even if I did want for variety. The only thing I had to worry about was the smell coming from the basement. It didn’t bother me, though. It seemed to fit this house full of magic.

I suppose I could leave, if I wanted to. I could go to a neighbor’s house, but the nearest neighbor is over six miles away, across a pasture and a ravine that washes out when it rains as hard as it has been. In the other direction is the state highway, but it doesn’t get much traffic, and it’s unlit at night, and flagging down a car could take days.

The truth is, I am a tree now, growing roots deep into the floorboards of the parlor, and my branches graze the ceiling beams. I am a salamander, pink and green and ever-smiling, scurrying patterns over bedroom wallpaper. I am a cumulus cloud, floating low and woolly across the bathroom sky. I am air and water and earth. I am fire. The truth is, I am of this house now, as the spells have decreed. This is where I belong. Outside is the unforgiving vacuum of dead space in which my world floats.

The truth is, I don’t go because I can’t. When Ma and Pop come back, they’ll need me here. I can’t disappear too.

—–

You could be remembered by the people in town, and then they’d come to take you away.

You could also be forgotten by everyone who ever knew you existed. Being forgotten is just another kind of death.

—–

I miss you so much, Ma.

I could open up the house, shatter all the black-painted window glass. I could let the outside in. But it’s all empty, devoid of the gravity that keeps me safe inside. Outside is roads and towns and cities that taste like ash and smell like death. This is what I would find, so there was no reason to look outside. No reason to look. No reason at all.

I am still here, Ma, Pop, and I still remember you. I wrap myself in these memories. They are like prayers, which are just another kind of magic spell. They keep me safe in this house, where nothing can hurt me. There’s too much magic here, crafted by a wizard to protect his fairy queen and their little girl. The magic is what keeps me alive. The magic is what keeps me home.

I know this because it’s the only explanation that makes sense. It makes so much sense. It makes all the sense in this world. Why else would I stay? Why else would I be so afraid?

Why else would you be gone?

—–

You could wait there for someone, and wait, and wait, and wait.

 


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Scotch Frye is a cyborg, and so are you. He was constructed to serve as the fiction writing alter-ego of a doctoral candidate in a sociology department in the Washington, DC area. He studies science and technology, power, and resistance. He blogs about writing and politics and society and culture at scotchfrye.wordpress.com. He tweets at @fryescotch. He is making it all up as he goes along. He is learning all the time. He is genuinely glad to meet you.

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9 Comments

  1. I thought I was going to like this story, but by the time I got to the end I ended up loving it.

  2. Fascinating. I know absolutely nothing about the narrator, and yet I know absolutely everything. We haven’t moved – I feel like we’ve been stood in one place through the whole narrative – and yet we have.

    I’m haunted and fascinated, and thank you.

  3. Pingback: Thoughts on my story “Seventeen Ways” | the scotch frye samizdat

  4. Wow. That was pretty incredible. It’s rare for me to care so much for an unnamed character, but you did it. The sad and naive nature in which she copes was so well done.

    I dig it. Great job, especially on such a short time line.

  5. As the defacto editor around here I had a mini-heart attack when I first opened this story to prep it for publishing. A list of household accidents in bold to start us off? I was convinced for a brief moment that Scotch had just sent in a literal list of seventeen ways that people might die inside their own homes.

    Then I kept reading. And reading. And reading. I don’t think I did much editing, partly because the story was already well-edited, but mostly because I just forgot I was editing and I became the purest form of reader…happy to walk along with the storyteller at their pace and take in the sights of this tale the way they wanted to point them out to me.

    This was touching, terrifying, morbid, haunting, and unbelievably clever. The family’s descent into an utterly broken home being told through the eyes of a child who was unable or unwilling to process what was going on was brilliant. The list of possible ways your house can kill you slowly devolving into the psychological, into ways that a home can kill your spirit, were beautiful.

    This was just a perfect tale for me.

    Thank you, Mister Frye.

  6. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    Wow…..this was beautiful. Unique and mysterious, and beautiful.

    As I noted in the other thread, I am writing my comments this week without even yet having come to the decision as to where I shall cast my vote. Once again, the arena is uncompromising. Both entries are superb, and I loved both of them very much.

    This story felt completely new. As other commenters noted, my initial reaction of puzzlement at the very start of the story changed quickly to feeling like I understood this character with the very first sentence of the 2nd paragraph, the actual narrative. What an excellent introduction to this character.

    The deftness and patience with which this story was conveyed was richly emotional, it seemed the entirety of this character’s tragic life experience is told specifically in the way that she simply has no real grasp of them. To have this style be sustained throughout the story is an ingenious approach to storytelling.

    If I must be nit-picky about anything, it is on two points:

    The flow started to feel just a little off towards the end. At around the 3/4 mark there were at least 2 points at which it felt as if the story was suited well to end, very satisfactorily poetic. Further segments almost felt a bit like “more ending”, but I couldn’t argue against it if just for the fact that even still the writing itself was so beautifully done.

    But I guess that might also be my second point. The quality of the prose itself seemed out of touch with what one might expect from a pre-teen girl, let alone one that has lived in oppressive isolation away from society and presumably formal education for most or all of her life. I am not sure I would have wanted it written any other way, because the style of this writing is certainly one of the factors that made it a true joy to read. So even as I was journeying into the thoughts of this character, in the background I couldn’t get away from the sense that I was reading their story from a distance rather than becoming immersed in their experience more intimately. I repeat, though…that’s just nitpicking, and I’m not sure I would have appreciated this story quite as much had it been presented in some other fashion.

    I really loved this entry, and I am thankful for having had the opportunity to enjoy it as an Arena entry. Truly a beautiful piece of work.

  7. There are aspects of this story that remind me of a short story by Gary Anderson in the first issue of Jamais Vu Journal — not in the subject so much as in the manner of its telling. I love, love, love stories told in episodes like this where it’s left up to the reader to figure out what’s really going on. I love the way that the seventeen ways seem extraneous at first but wind up working into the plot of the story. They set up reverberations that find answering echoes in the prose.

    I wonder where the narrator gets her notions of fairy tales. Would it add anything if they come from stories her mother told her? I also note that time seems fairly compressed at the end of the story, but because the narrator lives in a kind of non-time, I think the jumps in time are fine.

    If I have one slight quibble, it’s that I didn’t realize that the narrator was female until about half-way through the story — which probably says more about me as a reader than anything. I wonder if telling this story in third-person would help with that (if one thinks it’s an issue really to be addressed), though first-person definitely makes the unreliable narrator technique easier.

    An excellent story, of exactly the sort that I love. Well done!

  8. I was going to save this story for later. Just read the opening paragraph, make sure it was worth coming back to, then go on with my day. I finished the first line, after the first three ways to die, “I first accepted that Pop was a wizard when he made Ma disappear.” and then I was just reading the story, grocery store, pharmacy, and post office be damned.

    The whole story has such an amazing structure, and a nearly flawless use of first person narration. Every line ripples with subtext just below the surface, a hundred things left unspoken yet perfectly understood by the reader. We’re lost in the POV entirely and utterly, and the breaks provided by the ways to die only serve to punctuate the horror, the mounting sense of seclusion and, perhaps most terribly, the creeping acceptance of the narrator.

    What a way to end the story. What a way to be killed by a house.

  9. Pingback: Monthly WIP: September 2014 | the scotch frye samizdat

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