Snowed In, (??)

So, I’ve been posting excerpts of a short story, “Snowed In.” It’s not an example of my best writing, and for all I know it may not even be an example of passably acceptable writing. But it’s fun and I find it entertaining and….I have no idea where to go from here. I’m at a dead stop in the story. Which, considering that nothing has actually happened is quite an accomplishment.

I started this story as a writing exercise: take a moment and write it. That moment was sliding down a snowy hill in a blizzard in Vermont. Did that. The fragment (what was posted as excerpt 1) sat for a couple of years. Then, about six months ago, I went back and filled in the rest of what I’ve got: a couple of faceless protagonists (one of whom seems to be kind of a jerk), a great, creepy, lunatic… something or other (Harold), and Stan, who has my favorite scene in the whole piece. But what is it all? I don’t know. I didn’t have a plotline when I started, or when I picked it up, and despite looking at it every couple of weeks or so for the past few months, I can’t decide where to go with it.

John’s upstairs in bed. Steve has brushed his teeth and has retired his underdeveloped self off to some other room in the house where he rests his insubstantial character amongst the shadows… Harold is downstairs happily munching away while watching some good tube.

But what next? I don’t know. What happens next? What the hell is Harold? I have ideas, but frankly, they all suck. And they’re stuck. All these lousy, cliche ridden ideas are jammed in my brain like so many messy cheezios… I can’t get past them to figure out what happens next.

If you have any thoughts, let me know. I may not pick them up as presented, but who knows? And maybe you can help break the logjam in my imagination.

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Snowed In, (4)

Previous:

Well, Harold was completely fucking crazy. Maude might have been OK. But Maude was a nurse who worked an early shift, so she was rarely awake when John and Steve came back in the evening. She could have been just as bat-shit weird as Harold and they’d never know it. John and Steve had pulled in at about four in the afternoon on Sunday, just three days ago. The day was bright and crisp and brittle with cold. Maude had been in the front by the garage splitting wood as John pulled into the driveway. Harold had been helping her. It had made Steve chuckle, little Maude swinging the six pound maul and giant Harold carefully placing the rounds of wood. As each piece was split, Harold would grab a new round of wood and place it on the stump. Then Harold would pick up the pieces and stack them. He’d grab a new round, Maude would swing… whack. Harold placed the new round, and the process would repeat itself. John and Steve pulled up in front of the Garage and climbed out. Thwack! Harold put a new round on the stump and looked up at them. “Hiya! You must be John. Welcome to Vermont!” He picked up the split pieces of wood and stacked them. Thwack! Harold grabbed a new round and put it on the stump. Maude brought the maul down and split the round easily. She looked up as the boys came closer. Maude stood the maul up against the stump and arched her back. Harold was bent down picking up the split pieces of wood and Maude could barely see over his back; she couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. As Harold stacked the wood, Maude took off a glove and held out her hand.

“Maude Crick, nice to see you!”

“Hi! I’m John Walters and this is Stephen Burger.” John shook Maude’s hand while Steve waved at everyone.

Maude’s grip was firm and her smile was wide, “This big lump here is Harold.” Harold was standing still with a vacant expression on his face. “Don’t mind Harold, he’s just catching his wind,” Maude said as she whacked Harold on the shoulder.

Harold seemed to jump a little as he was jolted back into life. Harold took John’s outstretched arm into his gloved hands and pumped vigorously. He did the same with Steve. “Good to meet you! Steve was it? Well! Mind our manners! Let’s get you boys something hot to drink!” With that, Harold ambled away and back into the house. John watched Harold go and then realized that Maude had been watching him stare at Harold.

“Don’t worry about him, boys. He’s just got a bad back, can’t swing the maul like he once could. I don’t mind it… keeps me warm. But Harold’s right, let’s get you boys in out of this cold! Got any bags?”

At first, the kitchen seemed bright and cheery. The counters were white and the cabinets were all pale blond oak. The appliances weren’t new, but they were well cared for and the walls were covered in a bright wallpaper bursting with little pink flowers. There was a little sign over the sink that said “Bless this home” and another one on the wall with a little blackboard underneath that read “Maude’s Kitchen.” Harold had put a kettle on the stove and was rummaging through a cabinet.

Maude was unwinding her scarf and smiling at the two boys. “That’s all the bags you have? Two little backpacks?”

Steve unslung his bag and said, “Yeah, the car is loaded up with gear, but this is all we really need.”

Maude nodded. “Ayuh. I guess it is. Well, let me show you your rooms! Harold, you get these boys something hot and sweet to drink.”

Harold nodded, “I’m gettin it mother, I’m gettin it.”

Maude led the boys upstairs, showing them two neat, spare little rooms under the eaves. The rooms were clean and smelled of cedar and fresh laundry. The paint was crisp and the hardwood floor well polished. The rooms were nice, but antiseptic. The bedding was conventional New England patterned quilt and the closets were completely bare. There were no dressers or tables, and no photographs at all. The walls were sparsely decorated with the kind of small watercolor prints that you buy at Walmart and see hanging in your dentist’s lobby. One room down in pastel blues and whites and the other in muted pinks and soft reds. The pink room had a large stuffed bear sitting in a rocking chair in the corner, the price tag still hanging from its ear.

John and Steve dropped their bags in their respective rooms and Maude ushered them back downstairs to the kitchen. Harold was setting the table with steaming mugs on little matching saucers. The china pattern was pink floral–almost exactly the same color pink as Harold’s scalp. As Harold set the last two pieces of the pretty pink coffee set down, a creamer and a little sugar bowl, Steve and John took their seats at the table.

“Drink it while it’s hot, boys! And would you pass the cream and sugar down this way, mother?” Harold settled into a chair at the end of the table.

Maude didn’t sit, but instead bustled into the kitchen. “Get it yourself you oaf, you forgot to set out some cookies!”

As Harold replied, he lifted himself partially out of his chair and stretched across the table to grab the creamer set. “You’re right, mother. You’re right, I plum forgot.” He added a good amount of cream to his cup. “Now, I know you boys must be right cold from the drive, so drink up. Maude will have some cookies out here too.”

Steve was sitting opposite John, holding his cup halfway to his mouth and staring into it. He looked up at John with an odd expression on his face just as John picked up his cup and took a small sip.

John coughed and sputtered, nearly choking on the hot grape soda.

Maude was behind him. “Oh, you OK there honey?”

John nodded, coughing and finally managed a strangled “I’m fine.” As Maude sat down at the end of the table with a bag of Oreo cookies in her hand. “Just went down the wrong pipe,” John said.

“Oh honey, you OK? Good. You know, I’m a nurse if you need anything.”

John shook his head.

“Try some cream in it,” Harold said. “Makes it just like a hot grape creamsicle.”

Steve was smiling, his cup back down on the table. “Just like, I’m sure.” he said.

After Maude had finished her hot grape soda, she’d gone upstairs to bed. She’d said she worked early in the morning and needed her sleep. They hadn’t seen her since. In that time, they hadn’t actually seen Harold eat anything but Oreos and grape soda. And now the Cheez Whiz. They hadn’t seen Harold wear anything else either, he’d been up before them each morning, waiting in the kitchen for them to come downstairs, just as he had been waiting in the kitchen for them each night. There was other food, of course. Each morning there were stacks of pancakes with sausages and eggs, and each night there was a hearty, wholesome dinner: roast turkey, pork chops, chicken. But Harold hadn’t actually eaten any of it. They ate early, he said, and Maude was already in bed. The first two nights, John and Steve had eaten at the table, with Harold making attempts at conversation.
Conversation with Harold was difficult because every few seconds, he’d go blank. Sometimes he’d go blank in mid sentence and everyone would sit and wait until he’d swing his hand over the back of his head and down over his face. Steve called it a reboot. The blank-outs were usually short, but every so often they’d last a little longer. The first night, John and Steve had been too dumbstruck to react and had sat at the table staring mutely at Harold for a full five minutes.
Tonight was the worst. Harold had touched him. The memory of those fingers on his neck made John shiver in his sheets. He didn’t know how much more he could take. They’d joked about it at the restaurant, saying that they were afraid to go down into the basement for fear they’d find a body. Or bodies. It was absurd, but John couldn’t shake his fear. Harold had well and truly freaked him out tonight.

It wasn’t just the grape soda, or the cheez whiz and Oreos, although that was pretty bad. It was the blank-outs, the hyper cleanliness of the house, and as Steve had pointed out, the complete absence of any photographs anywhere. There were little plaques with homespun sayings, “God Bless this House,” and some bad watercolors on a few of the walls, but otherwise there were no photographs of any kind. No pictures of kids, no family photos, no frames on the end-tables or bookshelves. John thought the house looked more like a set than a home: everything was there but it was too sterile, too… plastic to feel much like a home.

Snowed In, (3)

Previous:

John closed the door behind him and saw Steve sitting on the edge of the bed.

“Holy fuck,” Steve whispered. “He’s fucking insane!”

John dropped his bag on the bed and glared at Steve. “Shut up, Steve.” he said, “Maude’s down the hall.”

Steve stood up and walked to the door. “I don’t give a fuck where she is, that dude is seriously fucked up.”

John dropped onto the bed, “What are you doing in here?” he asked. “I thought you’d go to your room. Now you have to go back out again.”

Steve was listening at the door, his head pressed to the wood. He was quiet for a moment and then came back to the bed. “I was going to brush my teeth when I heard you start up the stairs. I ducked in here because I thought Harold was coming up after you.”

John laid back on the bed and closed his eyes. “God help me; I thought he was coming up after me too.” John lay quietly for a moment and then sat up on the edge of the bed. Steve was standing with his ear pressed to the door and his toothbrush in his mouth. “Steve, I’m gonna crash. You want me to wake you up at 6 or 6:30?”

Steve looked back at John and took the toothbrush out of his mouth. “Get me up at 6. I’m gonna want to shower tomorrow morning.”

John nodded and gave Steve a half-salute. Steve opened the door and stared back and John for a moment. He turned and was halfway through the door when he looked back over his shoulder, a big grin on his face, and said, “Sleep tight, Johnny boy.”

John got up and locked the door behind Steve. Not that it would do much good. It was the kind of lock that you could pick with a toothpick. John was tempted to move a chair under the handle, but there weren’t any chairs in his room. Maybe he should rest a bottle on the handle? John shook his head. What did he really think was going to Happen? Harold was weird and creepy, but surely he wasn’t violent? Right? I mean, Joyce wouldn’t have recommended this as a place to stay if Harold was violent. Right? John pushed the press-board nightstand in front of his door and then unlocked the window over the front porch roof. The table wouldn’t stop anyone, but maybe it would topple over if the door was opened and make enough noise to wake John up. Then maybe he could escape through the window… into the dark and the cold and the snow. Great. He shook his head at the absurdity. But after he changed into his pajamas, he packed his backpack, and put it by the window, just in case. He wanted to leave the light on too, but he’d never sleep. He flipped the switch by the door and crawled under the pale blue sheets with the little pink flowers.

John got the job from Stan, out of the blue. Stan was like that. You wouldn’t hear from for months, and then he’d call you with a job.  And the jobs were always different. Once, Stan had asked John to help him out with a “special project.” “Bring the Sony,” Stan had said over the phone, “I just need a second camera. I got all the lights set up already.” John had packed up the Sony, a couple of lapel mics, a tripod and a few random filters. He’d taken the subway out to Brooklyn and Stan’s little studio. When he’d knocked on the door, Stan had answered wearing a skin-tight metallic gold leotard, giant black combat boots, and a purple wig. John spent the next six hours filming Stan as he stomped around his studio terrorizing a convention of naked Barbie dolls. John didn’t ask any questions, he just filmed the action as Stan directed it. At the end of the day, after John had dumped the footage onto Stan’s editing rig, Stan had given him a check for fifteen hundred dollars. Two weeks later, John got a DVD in the mail. It was a music video for the band, Freakshow. About halfway through the video were some clips that John had shot. Nothing in the video made any sense and the music sounded like chainsaws shredding metal. Three months later, Freakshow won a Grammy and the video John shot played during the awards show. It was the closest John had come to fame.

This job was little more… mundane. Stan was shooting a show on craft painting for the local PBS affiliate and he needed location footage of this little old lady in her studio. Stan had shot the interviews and a lot of the primary footage in the city, but now he needed b-roll stuff of Joyce in her studio. Joyce’s studio was in Vermont and it was February and since Stan wanted to go to Florida and sit on the beach, he hired John to go to Vermont and film Joyce paint pretty trees and flowers. John figured it would take a week to get all the shots that Stan wanted and he wasn’t thrilled with the idea of spending that week alone. Ever since Jill had gone, time alone had been rough. So John hired Steve to come up and be his assistant. Which was all fine; Steve was a friend and he needed the work.

The shoot was easy enough. Joyce was a sweet old lady and even though it was February and a little under negative sixty degrees outside, Joyce’s studio was bright and warm and cozy. The days in the studio had been tranquil and relaxing, even peaceful. The setup was simple enough that Joyce could paint, John could shoot, and Steve could track the timestamps of each shot and adjust the lighting as needed, without much conversation. Everything was quiet and relaxing. Joyce lived in rural Vermont, at least twenty miles from civilization. There was a giant picture window in her studio that gave an unobstructed view of miles of pristine countryside. Between the fresh coffee that Joyce’s husband brought to them every few hours and the pastoral setting, the week would have been idyllic.

Except for the nights… since the nearest motel was thirty minutes away, Joyce had recommended that the boys stay with a family down the road. A couple whose kids had grown and were left with a big house and two empty rooms that they sometimes lent out. Maude and Harold Crick. Joyce said that when her son-in-law’s family had come out for Christmas a few years back, his parents had stayed with the Cricks. They’d had a great time, in fact, Joyce believed that they still stayed in touch with Maude and Harold. It was perfect. Twenty bucks a night for the both of them. Just a skip down the road. Nicest people you’d ever want to meet. Convenient, cheap, cozy. And completely fucking crazy.

Snowed In, (2)

Snowed In, (1)

John grabbed the small camera bag and held it close as he ran from the car to the porch. Like Steve, he was careful not to let the screen door bang as he stepped onto the porch. He shook the snow from his jacket and raised his eyebrows at Steve. Steve shook his head. Steve shrugged his head at the kitchen window. No luck. Harold was awake.

John sighed, “Steve, don’t leave me alone with him again. It’s not fair.”

“Fuck fair,” Steve whispered, “you’re not paying me enough to deal with him.”

John took off his gloves, “Fifty bucks if I can go straight up and you’ll deal with him.”

Steve was looking through the window. “He’s blank again. Make it a hundred and you’re on.”

John thought about it, but shook his head. He’d been serious when he’d offered fifty, but a hundred was too much. He wouldn’t be paid for the shoot for another three weeks and employing Steve cut pretty sharply into his budget. He was already two months late with Citibank and he didn’t want to slip any farther behind.

John steeled himself, grinned at Steve, took a deep breath and turned the knob on the door. Steve gave John a big smile and a double thumbs-up as John opened the door. John stepped into the kitchen and Steve followed. John set his bag down on the counter and turned to close the door as Steve nodded once, grunted something indistinct, and raced out of the kitchen and up the stairs. John shut the door and turned to face Harold.

Harold was sitting at the kitchen table. He was facing the door and staring vacantly at an empty space about three feet in front of John. Harold scratched the back of his neck and ran his swollen hand up the back of his neck, over the top of his bald head and back down over the front of his face. It was like a pantomime: Harold’s vacant expression wiped clean by those fat fingers and replaced with a doughy, sickly sweet smile. He stood up.

“Hey John! How was the day? Are you boys hungry? Maude made some chicken… we could heat that right up for you.” Harold hooked his fingers into the waistband of his frayed flannel pajama bottoms and hitched his pants up and down while he scratched at his belly.

John glanced up at the stairs after Steve and heard a door slam shut; Steve was already in his room. John looked back at Harold. “No thanks, Harold,” he said. “We already ate.”

Harold popped something messy and orange into his mouth as he shambled over to the counter and twisted a can of grape soda out of its plastic harness. “Thought you might have. Well then, grab yourself a pop and have a sit.”

Harold shambled back to the table and stood over his plate. The table was littered with little crumpled balls of dirty napkins. They were thickest where Harold had been sitting, partially obscuring a half-eaten bag of Oreos and a can of Cheez Whiz. Harold’s plate was littered with scraps and crumbs of his “special little samiches.” Harold set the can of grape soda down on the table, pawed at the bag of Oreos and fished out a cookie. He twisted it open and slowly, carefully, licked the two halves of the cookie clean. Then he grabbed the can of spray cheese and shot a ribbon of day-glo orange cheez onto the cookie. He assembled the cheezio and popped it into his mouth.

John realized he was staring and gave himself a little shake. Jesus Christ. He grabbed his camera bag off the counter and turned to the stairs. He was stopped by Harold’s hand on his shoulder. Harold squeezed and John turned, stifling a shudder.

“Young boy like you,” Harold said, “too early for bed!” Harold’s hand was soft and heavy. Harold moved his hand and caressed the back of John’s neck. At the best of times, Harold’s hands were a revulsion. His fingers were fat little sausages, unnaturally pink and greasy: bratwurst with dirty nails. Covered as they were now with flecks of day-glow orange spray cheeze, they looked and felt like a mass sweaty, pupating grubs writhing and squirming against the back of his neck. John pulled away and out from under Harold’s touch. “Really, I’m, OK,” John said.

Harold’s face went blank.

He didn’t frown or scowl, he just went blank. His expression died and his face went completely slack; his mouth hung open for a moment and his eyes lost focus. Harold brought his hand up to the back of his neck and wiped it over the top his head and down over his face. As his hand came down over his giant, shining pate, pale gray wisps of hair popped up from his scalp at odd angles. Harold was left with a corona of wispy gray-white hair flecked with bits of chocolate cookie and spray cheese. As his hand came down over his face, it was as if he was wiping away a flaccid latex mask: the vacant blank stare and slack-jawed gape was replaced. Harold was smiling again.

Harold popped a finger into his mouth and sucked off the cheeze. “Suit yourself,” he said. “I’m gonna stay up and watch some tube. Have some pop and samiches.”

John nodded. He was sure that if he opened his mouth, he would scream. Then he was gone, leaping up the stairs three at a time.

He heard Harold call up after him, “I love grape pop, Johnny! Hear me? I L-O-V-E love the grape pop.” John was opening the door to his room and Harold was almost shouting now. “Like the sweet kiss of a little baby boy. Like a sweet little baby. Sleep tight, Johnny boy.”

Snowed In, (1)

John could smell his rear tires burning. Christ, he thought. I’m burning rubber and it’s three degrees outside. He felt the back end of the car slide to his right and cursed. He pulled the wheel hard right and pushed the gas pedal to the floor. The skid slowed, and he felt the front tires grab the snow just before the damn car went horizontal. He couldn’t see shit. The snow had been coming hard for the past two hours and was getting worse. He had given up on his brights about twelve miles back; they let him see the snowflakes, but did absolutely jack for the road.

“Take it easy, John. Just pull to the right.”

“I am fucking pulling to the fucking right as hard as I can. This stupid fucking thing just won’t…” A car sped past, climbing the hill on the left.

“What an asshole. John, ease up on the gas.”

“Steve, if I ease up on the gas, we’ll slide into the embankment.” John could feel the rear tires spin on the ice. It had been snowing for about five hours, piling powder on top of the slush and ice that had covered the local roads for the past week. Driving had been bad since they’d gotten here, but it hadn’t been this bad. They’d picked a bad night to try for a dinner out. John let the pedal up slowly and felt the car begin to slide backward the hill. He gave it a little more gas, but the car slid right back into the embankment. The impact was slight, but it was enough to knock the rear end of the car straight again. With the car back on the road, John eased the car back down the hill.

“Steve, I’m sorry, but we’re going back to the Cricks.”

The rest of the drive was silent. As John pulled the car, a little too fast, into the unplowed driveway, Steve said, “Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll be asleep.”

“Don’t bet on it.” John glanced at the dashboard clock. “It’s only 9:30. He’ll be waiting for us.”

John watched the snow fall and wondered how the hell they were going to get the damn thing out of the driveway in the morning or if they’d be able to get out at all. He reached into the back seat for his jacket and saw that Steve already had on his gloves, his hat, and his scarf. It was a thirty-foot walk to the front door, but Steve was going to be well covered. Protection from the cold or from Harold? Probably both, John thought. Hell, he’ll probably pull that hat down over his face and go straight up to his god damned room. If Harold was awake, it would be John’s responsibility–again–to talk to him. John opened his door and grimaced as he braced against the cold.