The beast bit me and I sat down to start a gothic novel. I started about a week ago, and I’m about 19 chapters, and 92 pages in. Needless to say, I’ve been swallowed by the premise and I feel as if, if I were the reader, not the writer, I’d read this book. And that’s always a good sign.
The inspiration is a mix of Jane Eyre and The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s about a college student, Jade, who drops out of college after she finds another student murdered near campus. At first, the police suspect her, but they quickly decide she’s innocent. The rest of the students, and the town, however, have their reservations, though. So Jade decides to take a job at a creepy old house 4 hours away from home.
Here’s an excerpt from first chapter. Let me know what you think in the comments!
“Storyteller for hire. Must be good with adults. Pays well. Call 439-7920.” The newspaper ad is short and simple, and it strikes me as off, but I ignore everything except the “Pays well.”
I’m at $39.79 in my bank account, and I’m desperate for a job. Any job. This college thing isn’t working out. Who needs physics, and calculus, anyway, no matter what my mother says about what she calls “femininst power jobs.” Show the man the woman can.
I cross the street to the payphone and pull out a quarter before dumping it into the phone’s slot with a clank. The sky is a pale blue, light gray really, and there’s a smoky black cloud in the distance strangling half the sky.
I hear the line ring, once, twice, then a gruff, “Sever House.”
“Uh, yes, hi, hello,” I stammer. “I saw an–your ad, in the paper?”
I pause, but all I hear is breathing on the other end.
“Um, well, the storyteller–”
“Yes,” the voice interrupts. I can’t tell if it’s a woman or a man, but I think it’s a woman who smoked ten too many cigarettes.
“I, uh, yeah, I’m interested.”
“Can you tell stories? Good ones? To adults? Nothing too bloody, though.”
“I’m asking about adults. Not children. Children’s stories are easy. Adults, well, that’s a different beast.”
“Uh, well, I can interview? Maybe?”
I hate how I sound, unsure, uncomfortable. I need to run with the wolves more.
I clear my throat and stand up a bit straighter, even though the voice on the other line can’t see me. I spot my reflection in the payphone’s metal paneling, though, and I force myself to smile.
There, that’s better. A smile goes the extra mile. Another one of mom’s “self-improvement” quotes.
“I can come in and interview and–”
“Do you have samples?”
“I-actually, yes. I do. I won a local writing contest, and I can send you the newspaper clipping.”
“Do you have an email account?”
“Uh, yes, I–”
“Fax the clipping, I’ll take a look. I will send you an email with the contract if the writing is up to our standards.”
“Oh ok, yes, thank you. Uh, and where’s the House, exactly?”
“I can send you the address via email and a contract to look over. I’ll want a signed copy of the contract before you come. The position is for an in-house storyteller. You will live at the house for the duration of fall and winter, and then you may leave. The Master of the house prefers his stories with tea and digestives, sometimes with a little brandy in the tea.”
There’s a pause and then, “Your email?”
“Ah, right, yes, uh, m-a-l-a-e-k-a-2-1 underscore 2-1@AOL.com.”
“Check tonight for an email. If there is none, you did not get the job,” the woman says. I hear static and a groan, and then she adds, “You may send a fax to 763-3663.”
The line goes dead and I’m left holding a phone. I place it back on the receiver and, with a smile, I cross the street back to the daycare I’ve been working at.
If I can win a short story contest, I can get this job.
I visualize myself giving the daycare my notice, then shake my head of the thought. You don’t even know what the pay is for a storyteller. It’s probably less than the daycare.
Even so, I can’t help but feel a tinge of excitement. I’m getting out of here, I’m getting away from this place.
“I’ve gotten a new opportunity,” I whisper to myself, before I step back inside. “I am giving my notice.”
I take a deep breath.
“I’ve gotten a new opportunity, and this is my notice.”
I shake my head to clear the thought.
“I got an offer for a new job, and I’ll be taking it. Thank you so mu–”
I wheel around to find Kirsten staring at me.
“I–wasn’t talking to myself,” I say.
She stares a moment too long then says, “Right. Want to come back inside?”
“Uh, yeah, actually, I wanted to talk to you.”
“Can it wait? Jeremy’s mom is coming in today to talk about his “milestones and development,” Kirsten says, rolling her eyes. “She thinks we should be doing more to ‘develop his young brain,’ she adds, air quoting with her fingers.
“What does she expect?” I say, stepping back into the clangs and noises and gurgles of babies. “I mean, we’re a daycare, not even a preschool.”
“I know,” Kirsten says. “But, the parents pay the monies, and therefore the bills.”
The door opens behind us. A tall woman with mom jeans and t-shirt steps inside. “Candice,” Kirsten says with forced cheerfulness in her voice. “Jermey’s right there with Candice,” she adds, pointing in the center of the room where a short brunette is pressing buttons on a musical book with 9-month-old Jeremy. “Come into my office just around the corner,” I hear Kirsten say as she’s already leading Candice away.
I sigh, and turn back to the stack of paperwork I need to file.
I hear Kirsten’s too-cheery voice again when she opens her office door. Two sets of footsteps walk down the short hall back to the main office and playroom of Kirstie’s Care.
“I’ll be taking Jeremy home today,” I hear Candice say, “But I’m thrilled we’re on the same page.”
Cooing and ahing ensue as Candice moves to pick up Jeremy off the ground. He blows bubbles and Candice snuggles her nose against his. Candice flicks her eyes at me, and recognition registers. I notice she clutches Jermey hard enough that he squirms in her arms, and she shields his body a bit with hers.
“You’re that girl–” she starts. “The one in the papers.”
“I’m sorry, I must look like someone else–”
“No, no, I remember your picture. You’re the one that found that poor girl. How awful.”
“It was,” I say.
She leans in closer to me and drops her voice to a whisper. “You really don’t know anything about who did it?”
I swallow a scream and shake my head. “The authorities are still on the case, last I heard.”
She nods once and pulls back from me, still shielding her son’s body with hers. “I’m surprised they let you work here,” she adds.
“I have no criminal record,” I say.
But her eyes narrow at me. “Strange thing, you being the one to find her so late at night.”
“I’m a night owl.”
“I’m sure you are.”
Candice turns to go, the bell over the door jingling behind her.
Kirsten shambles over to me, apparently not having heard what Candice just said. “Can this day get any worse?”
“It’s just a parent,” I say, “You’re always so good with them.”
“Not just her,” Kirsten says, chucking her thumb in the door’s direction after Candice. “The supervisor’s coming and we’re due for a safety inspection.”
“Oh, well, I mean, we’re safe, right?”
“Of course,” Kirsten says, shooting me a dark look. “We just got checked like six months ago. Anyway, it’s been a stressful day, that’s all.”
“Sine you’re here, I’ve been meaning to talk to you.” She chews on her lower lip, and doesn’t quite meet my eyes.
“Oh yeah, what about?”
“You know enrollment has been low recently, and we haven’t been hitting our target numbers.”
I stop shuffling papers and stare at her. “You’re firing me.”
“I’m sorry Jadey. It’s been–well, I can only afford the caretakers right now. You’re a luxury, and a great one, don’t get me wrong, but I just can’t justify the cost anymore. I’m really sorry. As soon as we get our enrollment back up, I’ll hire you right away.”
“And when will that be?” I try to swallow my worry. The other job isn’t a guarantee, and not even Mark’s Market is hiring right now. And I know, because I’ve asked him if he needed an extra cashier, and he said “No.”
“I really don’t know,” she says, frowning. “I wish I knew–”
“It’s fine, I know you’ve been having a tough time.”
“I have been and I hate to drag you into my money woes, but this is where I’m at.”
I smile and hug her. “Thanks for giving me a chance when no one else would.”
“How about you go home,” she adds. “The parents will be here soon, anyway. Sonia, Misha, and I can handle them.”
“You sure?” I say.
Kirsten nods. “You’ve been staying late all week and doing extra. And here,” she adss, going around the desk and unlocking the top drawer. She glances behind her at the other caretakers and hands me an envelope. “Your cash.”
Kirsten’s been paying me cash to help out part-time at the daycare. “Thanks,” I say, and force myself to smile. “Really. I mean it.”
“I know. And,” she says, just as I’m turning to take my coat from the rack, “If you ever need anything–”
“–I’ll ask you.”
She moves to hug me, and I hug her tight back.
“‘Night,” I tell everyone and head home.
Home is just a ten minute walk away, and it’s silent when I open the door.
“Hello?” I call out. “Mom? June?”
Nobody replies as I remember my twin sister Juniper – June – is at the college we go– I went to–, and I lock the door behind me. She was here just last weekend, but left Sunday evening to get back for her classes the next morning. The house is dark and smells like stale incense. I flick on a light switch but even the lamp seems to cast a deep shadow in the hallway.
Outside, it thunders and rain slams against the window.
“Great, a storm,” I say, just as the lights flicker once, twice.
The PC is in dad’s office, the one he used for his architecture work before he died three years ago.
I turn on the computer, listening to it wheeze and whir on until the screen flickers to a blue background, with a picture of the four of us smiling brightly, squinting against the sun, comes up. I try not to make eye contact with any of the faces, even my own. That picture was taken just a month before dad’s car drove off the side of the road in some freak rainstorm when he was coming home from work.
Instead, I move the mouse and double click on the America On Line icon. I wait for the internet to dial up, the whirs and shrieks a bit too loud for the headache that’s come on suddenly.
And so is the fax machine. I quickly pull out the newspaper clipping I keep in his desk drawer.
“Okay, so, it’s this button, right?” I think aloud as I fumble with the fax machine. After some minutes, I figure it out and the fax is on its way.
I wait a few more minutes, puttering away on an internet forum for people who fancies themselves poets. I scroll past the neon colored marquees people have under their names, the ones that trail across the page, with my mouse leaving behind an afterimage of gold stars. The page is bright, using nearly every primary and secondary color, in every hue, especially neon. Everything’s blinking at me, and words keep changing color.
I keep checking my email, waiting for something from the storyteller job, but nothing comes through.
She did say later, didn’t she? Maybe she didn’t get the fax?
I try again, taking the newspaper clipping and sending another fax of it.
The clipping is only a few months ago, but it feels like it comes from another lifetime, maybe even someone else’s life.
There’s a picture of me, with a little blurb of my bio, that I helped write, of course, and there’s a snippet of my story that cuts off before running onto page 4….
The story continues, and at the end, the girl’s stalker kills her and leaves her for dead in a field behind the college the girl attends.
Two days after this article came out, there was a “Special Edition” OpEd on my story. For the rest of the semester, the other students gave me dirty looks, and no one came near me, not even my roommate.
“You think she did it?” I overheard a red-haired girl with a thin braid snaking down her back say. “She knew a lot of the details.”
“They were in the news, though, but maybe she knew the killer? I did hear she found the body.”
“I heard she was covered in her blood…”
I fold the newspaper and slip it back into the desk drawer, ignoring the second clipping with the OpEd tucked inside.
Instead, I go back to the forum I was surfing, reading through the comments about the latest Kurt Cobain song.
But finally, I hear the, “Welcome, you’ve got mail,” and I hold my breath. I double click on the little mailbox icon with the yellow envelope and the email I’m waiting for is right under a *~*ChAiN LeTtEr*~~* email from miss_cleo_sandra_8392. I roll my eyes but make a mental note to open my best friend’s email. She loves sending me those chain emails that say THIS EMAIL HAS BEEN CURSED. IF YOU DON’T SEND IT TO 10 PEOPLE, YOU WILL DIE.
But right under miss_cleo_sandra_8392 is a more severe looking email.
I double click the Job position contract: Please sign and… email and, still holding my breath, wait for it to load. The “contract” reads more like a vintage governess ad from the 1900s than a job contract, but I skim, then read, and then re-read it anyway.
A young woman, with no attachments, university experience in the arts. Quiet, not shy, can talk to people but can be left alone for hours.
This contract hereby commits you to six (6) months of labor as “Storyteller” of Severly House, hereto known as “Sever House” or “the House.”
As “Storyteller,” you will be expected to work Monday through Saturday, with Saturday evenings and Sundays off:
- Join at 8-9 o’clock breakfast, prepared with a short story, tale, or fable.
- Join at 1-2 o’clock lunch, prepared with a short story, tale, or fable.
- Join at 7-8:30 o’clock dinner, prepared with a short story, tale, or fable.
- Send to bed with a short story, tale, or fable. Chapter books preferred.
- At any time the Master of the House requires a story, one must be proffered immediately.
- Passages from books may be read.
- Stories told or read must be age-appropriate.
- If the Master should request an original tale, one must be proffered immediately.
- If the Master should request the presence of The Storyteller at House events, galas, parties, or any such event, the Storyteller must attend and must perform.
- If the Master should require any other duties, the Storyteller must perform, within reason, to the best of their ability.
Salary: $13564.66 for duration of six(6) months, to be paid weekly in cash. Lodging and meals provided for. Expected maximum working hours per week at 25 hours, excepting House events, galas, parties, or any such event.
224 Coven Rd,
Ring on the day you are to arrive, preferably by train, and we will have the Driver meet you at the station. Position is available immediately.
Any questions, please address to Amerly Seymour, Head Caretaker of Severly House.
Printed Name: _____________________________
I quickly calculate the math on the PC’s calculator.
6 months is 24 weeks, and 12,300 divided by 24 is…$565.19 a week, in cash.
With my $9 an hour, and 20 hours per week at the daycare, making $565.19 compared to $180 is more than tempting; it’s three times more tempting. I’d have more than twelve thousand in my bank account after six months, and I’d have food and no rent, and nothing else to pay. Not that I pay for things like that now, but mom’s been freezing me out after I decided to take the semester off, and Juniper’s been sending me way too many emails, trying to guilt me into coming back after all.
Though mom did threaten to make me start paying half the bills because I “dropped out of school,” as she says.
I keep trying to tell her, I didn’t drop out, I am taking a break. But she’s convinced, “Drop the ball and you lose all.”
But why are they paying so much?
And who is this Master?
I decide I don’t care. I’m bored with this town and my life, and I don’t even like kids.
I turn on dad’s old printer, and a couple minutes later, I have the contract laying stark white against the printer tray.
“Here goes nothing,” I say to myself, and sign my name.
Continue reading chapter 2 here.