Friday, January 30, 2015

Writing and outlining

There are writers who outline and writers who rely on minute-by-minute, impromptu inspiration. 

Put me solidly in the outlining camp. I believe that any complex writing project (including a business email) can be improved by outlining beforehand.

When I say "outlining", I don't necessarily mean the formal structure that most of us learned in school, with letters, numbers, and Roman numerals in both upper- and lowercase.

But writing typically goes better when the writer has a plan. More details in the video that follows:



Thursday, January 29, 2015

12 Hours of Halloween: Prologue through Chapter 3







The youths were consumed by the fire, so that no one was to hear their wedding songs.”

Psalms 78:63




Prologue

A funny thing about flashbacks: they come unbidden, and at the most unexpected times.
One moment I was standing in Walmart, and the next moment I was not: I was a twelve-year-old boy again, crouching beside the outer wall of a darkened house in a long-ago suburb, hoping that the shrubbery to my right and my left had adequately concealed my presence. A malevolent creature was intent on taking my head. He—or it—had an entire sack full of them.
That particular flashback is always especially vivid. When it overtakes me, I can feel not only the pervasive, all-consuming fear of those eternal minutes, but also the little details of my surroundings: the cold, damp ground beneath me, the scratchy feel of the barren shrubbery of late October.
This is one reason why I still believe that it really did happen—even after all these years. A delusion wouldn't include so many little details.


And then, in the next second, the flashback is gone: I’m no longer that crouching, quivering twelve-year-old boy. I’m a grown man in my mid-forties—solidly into middle age by any yardstick. I’m no longer crouching in the dark: I’m standing yet again in the fluorescent glare of the Walmart near my home in Cincinnati, shopping for a calculator.
Although I knew that I would come back (I always do!), it’s good to be back, nonetheless.
The calculator that I’m looking for is not just any calculator; it’s a TI-89 graphing calculator, one of the models that Texas Instruments designed especially for engineers. Don’t ask me how to use the thing, or about its features. I would have no idea. The calculator is for my daughter, Lisa. Lisa turns twenty on the third of November, during the week after Halloween.
Lisa is a student at the University of Cincinnati, and an engineering major. She’s a lot smarter than her dad, I don’t mind saying—even though her dad hasn't done badly for himself, all things considered. But Lisa gets her smarts from her mother, who has always been good at math.
Lisa has a younger sister, Hannah. Hannah graduates from high school next year. Hannah takes after her father more, which is to say she’s not so good at math. But she’s creative and more of a “people person” than her older sister. I look for Hannah to major in business administration or political science. Something like that. We’ll see. She has a year to decide.
Last week Hannah and I were talking about the future, and she shared her anxieties with me. It’s so competitive out there nowadays—nothing like the days of my youth, when any college degree would enable you to blunder your way into some sort of a professional career. And Hannah has always felt that she lives in Lisa’s shadow. Her older sister was always the one with the straight A’s—the one with the academic awards. Throughout grade school and high school, hardly a one of Hannah’s teachers failed to remember and mention her “gifted” older sibling.
“Maybe I’ll end up selling insurance with you, Dad,” Hannah said. She said this in jest, but it’s not a half-bad idea: My State Farm agency has brought in a good living over the past seventeen years. (I drifted into insurance sales after several false starts in other fields.) “Maybe you will,” I said. “Your old man would be glad to have you.”
Who knows? Hannah’s still in high school, and her preferences might end up channeled in one of any number of directions. But it’s something for us both to keep in mind.
I’m walking toward the Walmart’s electronics section when I catch a brief glimpse of the head collector in the rear area of the store—through the double doorway marked “Employees Only”. He’s standing there by a bare cinderblock wall, near one of the warehouse area’s fire extinguishers. The fire extinguisher enables me to gage his height: seven or eight feet, just like he’s always been.
I pause to rub my eyes, and look again: The head collector is gone, just as I knew would be the case.
It’s not uncommon for me to see the head collector at this time of year. I only see him briefly—and never up close. If I saw him up close, well, that might be enough to drive me over the edge. Far away, he’s an anxiety that I can live with.
Keep calm, I tell myself: I focus on Hannah and Lisa, and my wife of twenty-two years. I focus on purchasing the calculator for Lisa’s birthday.
Halloween is often a difficult time for me, though the flashbacks are only this vivid every third or fourth year.
The atmosphere inside the Walmart isn’t helping matters. There are only a few days remaining before October 31st, and the store is filled with every conceivable trapping of Halloween: There are cardboard black cats with arched backs and erect tails. Near a display of trick-or-treat candy, a mechanical life-size plastic witch with green skin and a jutting chin and nose twists back and forth. And everywhere there are jack-o’-lanterns: plastic hollow jack-o’-lanterns for collecting candy, inflatable jack-o’-lanterns to be used as lawn decorations—even some jack-o’-lantern-shaped candles.
My individual traumas aside, I note that Halloween doesn't change much. Well over thirty Halloweens have passed since what I consider to be my “last Halloween” in 1980 (the Halloween that I’m going to tell you about shortly); but the basics of that dark holiday don’t change much, do they? Halloween is impervious to the Internet, to the vagaries of politics and pop culture. Halloween is dark, eternal, and yes, strangely inviting. (That was why Leah and Bobby and I decided to indulge in that “last Halloween”, even though we were really too old for it by then. We didn't want to let Halloween go—not quite yet.)
I finally reach the electronics section. It has been my observation that Walmart’s “everyday low prices” are at least partly achieved by minimizing the number of sales clerks on the floor at any given time. But I’m in luck: there is a salesperson behind the electronics counter. She’s a young woman about Lisa’s age, maybe a few years older.
“I’m looking for a TI-89 graphing calculator,” I tell her from memory. (Again, I am absolutely clueless about such things.)
“Well, sir, we have that model in stock.”
It doesn't take long for me to select Lisa’s calculator and pay for it. The total comes to $146.78 with tax. Throughout our brief interaction, the sales clerk calls me “mister” and “sir” any number of times, pointedly reminding me of my age. Not that I mind. There is only one woman for me: my wife; so I don’t care if the young sales clerk thinks I’m an old guy. And if being called sir is the price of having two wonderful daughters, then may the whole world call me sir.
That done, I collect my purchase inside its white plastic Walmart bag, and head for the main exit. On the way out I pass another sales clerk. She’s a bit older and rather on the chubby side.
As I’m about to push one of the glass doors open I hear her say, “Hey, you’re going to lose your head!”
I whirl around, my heart suddenly beating rapidly. The head collector, I think.
But she looks at me innocently.
“You dropped your receipt,” she says, pointing to a small strip of paper on the floor. Now I understand: What the clerk had really said was, “You lost your receipt”—or something very similar.
I stoop and pick up the receipt.
“Thank you,” I say.
I’m out in the parking lot, glad to be done with Walmart and all those Halloween decorations. I think again about the head collector, and how I caught that brief sight of him in the back of the store. Would he follow me out here?
The skies above me are overcast and grey; but it’s a little after 10:00 a.m.—broad daylight. (Another perk of self-employment: You can do your shopping at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, when the rest of the world is otherwise engaged.) The head collector wouldn't follow me out here. That is not his way.
I start my car, a pearl white Toyota Avalon. Yes, it’s a middle-aged man’s car. Hannah jokingly refers to it as my “Avillac”. You get it? A combination of Avalon and Cadillac.
I drive home, thinking mostly good thoughts: My two nearly grown daughters, my wife. Maybe I’ll make love to my wife tonight, I think. (I may be a middle-aged man, but I’m a long, long way from being too old for that.)
But inevitably, I find myself thinking of the past, too. I think about Bobby and Leah. I think about the head collector, of course.
And I think about Matt Stefano. Yes, I really hate to think about him.

1.

“You wanna die, Schaeffer? You wanna die right now? Because I can kill you, you know. And there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. Would you like that?”
Although Stefano had no doubt intended the question to be purely rhetorical, I shook my head, even as Stefano tightened his grip around my shirt collar, making it more difficult for me to breathe. Nor did I really believe that Matt Stefano would kill me—though there were times that I wondered. But it would not be beyond him to hurt me very, very badly. Matt Stefano, I believed, was either seriously crazy or pathologically evil—and possibly both.
Behind me, I could feel the brick wall of the rear side of St. Patrick’s Elementary School. Why had I been stupid enough to wander back here after eating lunch? When you’re a twelve-year-old boy who is trying to dodge a bully, there is always safety in numbers. You want to be out in the open, where everyone can see everything and everyone.
The rest of the seventh and eighth graders—not to mention two or three teachers—were on the other side of the building. But they might as well have been a mile or two away. Back here, beneath the late autumn shade of the pin oak trees that dominated the rear of the school building, it was only Matt Stefano and I.
“Do you wanna die?” he repeated. “Do you?”
What did he expect me to say? I might have pointed out, for instance, that this was far from a fair fight. Matt Stefano was not only an eighth grader—but an eighth grader who had been held back at least once. (And there were persistent rumors that he had been held back twice along the way.) So I was twelve years old, and he was fourteen or fifteen. At that age among boys, two or three years of growth confers a big advantage.
Add to that the fact that Stefano was a naturally big boy. He was by far the tallest of the eighth graders, coming in at just over six feet and perhaps a hundred and eighty pounds or so. He could easily have been an athlete, but it was clear that Matt Stefano much preferred to be a hoodlum. He wore his hair long, even as long hair was now starting to pass out of style, a remnant of the recent sixties and seventies.
In those adolescent years in which the concepts of sex appeal and popularity are nascent, Matt wasn't quite a heartthrob. Not quite. That honor was reserved for the more clean-cut, mainstream boys who excelled at basketball and baseball. But Stefano definitely had a following among both the seventh and eighth grade girls.
While I waited for Matt Stefano to do his worst, I had a random thought: Why had my parents sent me to St. Patrick’s Elementary School in the first place—instead of the nearby public school, Youngman Elementary?
Certainly they had wanted me to get a Catholic education. At St. Patrick’s we wore the typical Catholic school uniforms: white shirts and dark slacks for the boys, plaid skirts and white blouses for the girls. We attended mass once a week, and one of our regular courses was indeed called Religion—a mixture of church history, Bible study, and current events from a Catholic perspective. My parents were both devoted Roman Catholics, so that was important to them.
But maybe, I thought, they also wanted to spare me the indignity of being held against a wall by a school bully like Matt Stefano. What was he even doing at St. Patrick’s, I wondered? Who had signed the papers that had allowed him in here?
This town, Withamsville, was not even a town, properly speaking, but a “census-designated place” not far from the Cincinnati city limits. Withamsville was a mixed income community where the old money neighborhoods of the city bled into a semirural zone of body shops, trailer parks, and pony kegs. Withamsville was neither city nor farmland, but a no-man’s land where newly built suburbs mingled with postwar tract homes, and still older, decaying neighborhoods inhabited by the sons of Appalachian migrants, and white-flight refugees who had fled the poorer sections of the city following the race riots of the 1960s. It was a world that was alternately refined and rough, where upper middle class kids like me often fell prey to working class bullies like Matt Stefano. 
That was about the time when we both heard the rock crash against the wall, not so very far from Matt’s left ear. The sound immediately captured both our attention, and Matt temporarily relaxed his grip on me. But he didn't let go.
Matt turned around, and there was Bobby Nagel. He wasn't on top of us, but he was within sprinting distance. The cavalry, I thought, or something like that.
“What are you doin’, Nagel?” Stefano growled. “Did you throw that rock at me?”
“Naw, I just threw the rock,” Bobby said evenly. “If I’d have wanted to hit you, I’d have hit you.”
I was more than a little amazed—and more than a little admiring—of the way Bobby stood there, staring down Matt Stefano. Bobby was only an inch taller than me, but he was a scrapper with a fair share of fisticuffs on his adolescent resume. Like Matt Stefano, Bobby came from what was then called “a broken home”. Although Bobby and I were friends, I had met his father perhaps once or twice; and Bobby claimed to see the man only rarely.
“Come on, Matt,” Bobby said. “Let him go. He ain’t bothering you.”
Matt now held me by the collar with one hand. He punctuated his next question by pointing his finger at Bobby.
“Or what, Nagel? Are you going to make me?”
Bobby paused to contemplate this. He was a lot tougher than I was; but he was no match for Matt Stefano.
“A teacher’s headed this way, you know,” Bobby said, dodging the direct challenge.
“Bullshit! You’re bluffing!”
“But what if I’m not, Matt? How many more demerits for you before you get suspended, huh? How many before they throw your ass out of here, and you’re off to Youngman Elementary with the other criminals?”
“You son of a bitch!” Matt yelled. “I’ll kill you!
The subtext of Bobby’s insult had not gone unnoticed. When he called Matt a criminal, he did not mean the term in its generic sense. Everyone at school knew that Matt Stefano’s father, Tony Stefano, had recently been arrested and charged with burglary in Cincinnati. The elder Stefano was presently doing time at Lebanon Correctional Institute, about fifty miles north of Cincinnati. Bobby’s reference, however oblique it may have been, had touched a raw nerve.
I was sure that Matt was going to charge Bobby, or perhaps take out this new wave of anger on me. Then Mr. Malinowski came into view. Bobby had not been bluffing about the teacher, after all.
I hadn’t seen Mr. Malinowski approach. That wasn't really surprising, though, given that Matt Stefano had me pressed up against the side of the building.
“What’s going on here?” Mr. Malinowski asked. That much was fairly obvious, wasn't it?
“Nothin’!” Matt said, instantly releasing me. Though Matt Stefano was easily the toughest and most feared kid at St. Patrick’s, he wouldn't directly challenge a teacher. That simply wasn't done. A hoodlum like Stefano might get by with thinly veiled sarcasm and the occasional lie; but had he physically confronted a teacher, he would have been out of the school and off to Youngman—or maybe even reform school. Just as Bobby had said.
“It didn't look like ‘nothin’’ to me,” Mr. Malinowski said. He was well into his fifties, but Mr. Malinowski was a big man. Moreover, I could tell that he didn't like Matt Stefano. None of the teachers did, really; but Mr. Malinowski’s tone suggested a degree of antipathy that extended beyond an educator’s professional exasperation with an incurable problem student. Reflecting on this moment years later, I would sometimes wonder if there had been a Matt Stefano in Mr. Malinowski’s childhood. That would have explained a lot.
Mr. Malinowski, ignoring Bobby for the most part, walked closer to Matt Stefano and me. Matt now took a deliberate step away from me, as if to demonstrate his innocence.
Without warning, Mr. Malinowski grabbed Matt by his shirt collar, and shoved him up against the building, much as Matt had been doing to me a minute ago.
“Picking on other kids again?” Mr. Malinowski asked, bringing his face to within inches of Stefano’s. “Maybe you ought to try picking on someone your own size—someone who can fight back.”
I know what you’re probably thinking about now: There is so much about this entire exchange that would be impossible nowadays, or would result in multiple lawsuits.
But keep in mind: this was the early 1980s. Nearly two decades before Columbine, schools were much less vigilant about bullying. Unless one of the victims really made an issue of a bullying problem, the schools tended to make students work out these problems among themselves.
And as for a teacher laying hands on a child in a threatening manner: Corporal punishment was still practiced in many schools in 1980, and no one thought anything of parents spanking their own children. Not like nowadays, when spanking has become a matter for media worrywarts and United Nations human rights lawyers.
I was half-expecting Mr. Malinowski to throw a punch at Matt Stefano, but instead he let the boy go and shoved him away. Even in the early 1980s, a punch from a teacher would have constituted an “incident”. I also wondered, briefly, if Matt would have retaliated at that point, and what the outcome might have been. At six-foot-three and maybe two hundred and forty pounds, Mr. Malinowski was somewhat the larger of the two. But Matt was younger, probably faster, and almost certainly meaner.
“Don’t let me catch you doing that again, Stefano,” Mr. Malinowski said. “And to help you remember, I’m going to write up three demerits for you. They should add nicely to your total.”
By this time I had moved away from Matt Stefano and Mr. Malinowski. I was standing next to Bobby. Mr. Malinowski turned to Bobby and me. “Why don’t you two boys join the rest of the students in the front area of the school grounds,” he said. “Lunchtime is almost over.”
This was a command, not a request, though both Bobby and I were more than happy to comply. I shuffled away, Bobby at my side, while Mr. Malinowski continued his lecture at Matt Stefano. The teacher’s intervention had been a mixed blessing: On one hand, I had been saved from immediate peril. On the other hand, though, I had (however indirectly and without fault) subjected Matt to three demerits and humiliating treatment at the hands of an adult authority figure. Matt would be looking for a payback.
“Why does that guy have it out for you so much?” Bobby asked.
I shrugged. “Doesn't he have it out for everybody, when you think about it?”
“I guess,” Bobby said. The truth, though, was that Bobby had never directly incurred Matt Stefano’s wrath. Matt might have been able to whip Bobby easily, if it came to that; but Matt’s favorite targets were the boys who lived in the newly built neighborhoods in Withamsville, the sons of attorneys, engineers, and corporate middle managers. It was a form of classism in reverse, though back then I wouldn’t have expressed the situation in those terms.   
We made it to the front area of the school grounds just as the other teachers were summoning the seventh and eighth grade kids back into the building for the afternoon’s classes. It was one of those golden October days that hover just on the edge of summertime warmth. (That brief period from mid-September through late October is the only truly beautiful season in Ohio.) There was a small breeze, and the big trees that ringed the school grounds were an explosion of red, bronze, and burnt yellow. Neither of us was anxious to go back inside, where we would sweat inside the basement classrooms.
“I guess we should enjoy our recesses while we still can,” Bobby said, as if reading my mind. At St. Patrick’s all students from grades one through eight were given twenty minutes of outdoor time in the morning, followed by approximately half an hour after lunch. “There’s no recess in high school. Not at Bishop Stallings. Not at Youngman, either.”
Although Bobby was referring to the weather, his mention of the two high schools raised an uncomfortable truth: After next year, we would be parting ways, as I headed off to Bishop Stallings High School, and Bobby headed off to Youngman High School, the high school equivalent of Youngman Elementary.
Bobby—like many of the lower income kids at St. Patrick’s—received defrayed tuition from a parish grant. But Bishop Stallings was a consolidated Cincinnati archdiocese high school, and it cost serious money to attend. While the tuition was not an insurmountable burden for my parents, it was hopelessly beyond the reach of Bobby Nagel’s mother. And as for his father contributing—well, that notion was so unlikely that it was never even broached. According to my mother, Joyce Nagel was lucky to collect two or three child support payments per year from Bobby’s errant father.
“You might wonder why I did that,” Bobby said, clapping me on the shoulder. “I mean—sticking up for you like that.”
“Of course I know what you mean,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Well, I didn't do it for you,” Bobby said. “I did it for me. I figure that Matt Stefano and I are bound to mix it up sooner or later.”
“Bobby. You can’t whip Matt Stefano.”
“Exactly.” Bobby clapped me on the shoulder again. “I figure I’ll show him that I’m not afraid of him now, while we’re both here at St. Patrick’s. Then when we’re at Youngman together, he’ll leave me alone.”
That logic didn't make sense to me. Matt Stefano wasn't the type to forget a grudge. On the contrary, he would spend the next two years calculating the interest on his vendetta against Bobby.
Moreover, while Matt’s “gang” at St. Patrick’s was limited to a handful of hoodlumish eighth grade boys, at Youngman he would be among his own element. By the time Bobby faced him there, Matt would be part of a regular gang of like-minded delinquents; and boys of that ilk had no qualms about fighting with unequal numbers.
It occurred to me that this might be Bobby’s way of making me feel less awkward than I already did about him functioning as my unofficial bodyguard.
I merely nodded. “Well, thanks anyway. I was in a jam back there.”
We were drawing near to the mass of other students now, who were filing into the seventh and eighth grade classrooms of St. Patrick’s in two single-file rows. The lower grades were taught in a separate building—a much older red brick structure that was built around the turn of the (twentieth) century. The junior high classrooms were housed beneath the church. That building had been built in the mid-1960s, so it was still fairly newish in 1980.
As was now my habit, I began to look for Leah. I had known Leah most of my life, and I had seen her on a daily basis since kindergarten, more or less. But that had all changed lately: each time I saw her it was now a special event. This was a season in my life in which I would often lay awake at night, wondering if Leah Carter might ever feel the same way.
I could not find Leah among the two queues of students. She must already be inside. Thankfully, no Matt Stefano, either. (The latter was likely still being detained by Mr. Malinowski.) I took my place in line, behind Stephanie Santangelo and Julie Brinson. I tried not to stare at their legs, which (as lots of campy male fantasy literature has made much of in the intervening years) were visible in their Catholic school girls’ skirts. Both sets of legs still bore the deep brown of the recent summer’s tan.
How long had it been since girls’ legs had been of any interest to me at all? Less than a year, I would say—and now I was all but obsessed with them. Not only girls’ legs, mind you, but their hair, their voices, and the degree to which they were “developed”.
Only a year or so ago, my sole concerns had been summer little league, comic books, and playing video games like pong and stunt cycle. (A few Christmases ago, my parents had presented me with a Telegames console from Sears. Crude by today’s standards, it was a forerunner of the Atari video game consoles that would take the country by storm within a few years.) But now I noticed seemingly every girl I came into contact with, and I was constantly trying to gauge their reaction to me.  
I followed the flow of people inside. We passed through the main foyer of the building, past the staircase that led up to the church proper. Looking upward, I caught a waft of incense, and a glimpse of the statue of the Blessed Virgin, her arms outstretched, a serpent crushed beneath her sandaled feet.
We students went downstairs instead, toward the classrooms. I was passing through the downstairs doorway, still sneaking glances at Stephanie and Julie when I felt a much larger presence brush past me, deliberately knocking me into the doorframe.
Matt Stefano surged past me without doing further damage for now, elbowing his way through the crowd. But he did take the time to look back and glare at me; and his message was clear: It wasn't over between us; no—it wasn't over by a long shot.

2.


I put Matt Stefano and my troubles with him out of my mind as I prepared for my afternoon classes. Yes—I was still afraid of him; but now I was also thinking about Leah, whom I would see in the first of my afternoon classes.
I walked down the hall toward Mr. Snyder’s classroom. The surrounding walls were decorated for Halloween: cardboard ghosts, jack-o’-lanterns, and haunted houses—all the usual clichés.
Was twelve years old too old for Halloween? I wondered. My father certainly seemed to think so. When I announced, several weeks ago, that Leah and Bobby and I were planning one last trick-or-treat, he gave me that gentle, fatherly disapproving look of his and shook his head. My father was a member of a very different generation, and he had some equally different ideas about the proper lines between childhood and adulthood. I was certain that I hadn’t heard the last from him on the issue.
And I was ambivalent myself about this year’s trick-or-treat being a threesome of Bobby, Leah, and I, even though it had always been so, ever since we were little kids. I would have much preferred it be just Leah and I.
As I walked into Mr. Snyder’s classroom, the teacher was jotting some notes on the chalkboard. This was seventh grade religion class. Although we sometimes discussed church history and theology, Mr. Snyder was one of those “free ranging” teachers who liked to incorporate plenty of discussions about current events, too.
And in that fall of 1980, there were plenty of contentious current events to discuss: Since the previous November, fifty-two American embassy personnel had been held hostage in Iran. That provoked the question: Should the U.S. bomb Iran, or try to make a deal? Most of the boys in the class seemed to think that the US should send in the bombers. Mr. Snyder urged a more cautious course.
“Don’t forget,” Mr. Snyder admonished. “President Carter did attempt to respond with force last spring. Operation Eagle Claw. And it was a disaster, wasn't it?”
In those days before CNN and the Internet, few seventh graders read the newspaper or watched the six o’clock evening news. So one day Mr. Snyder showed us a newsreel film about the botched operation: We learned how the U.S. aircraft sent to rescue the hostages had collided with each other and burned in the Iranian desert.
Discussions about the hostage crisis naturally segued into discussions about the upcoming U.S. presidential election. As Mr. Snyder had repeatedly noted, President Carter’s approval ratings had fallen as low as 28 percent. His administration was under siege not only from the Iranians, but also from the flagging economy.
All that made the victory of Ronald Reagan more likely. And with the election only days away, this was a hot topic in class.
I had no real grasp of current political topics like supply-side economics, East-West détente, and stagflation, of course. My parents were both Republicans; and in classroom discussions I supported Ronald Reagan out of a vague sense of parental loyalty. 
This was one of the few topics about which Bobby and I disagreed. Out on the playground one day, he had solemnly informed me that he was a Democrat and would be rooting for Jimmy Carter. When I asked why, he merely kicked up a little clod of dirt and said, “My old man is a Democrat.”
But on this day, it appeared that Mr. Snyder would not be discussing either theology or current events. Taking my seat, I noticed the exotic-looking words that the teacher had written on the chalkboard: Samhain, Crom Cruach, and Bwca Llwyd.
“All right,” said Mr. Snyder. He was a tall, thin man in his mid-thirties who had gone prematurely bald. He had a brown mustache that the more ironically inclined students often likened to a caterpillar. “We’re going to take a break from our usual flow of topics. Since Halloween is this Friday, I thought it might be a good day to talk about the origins of the Halloween holiday. And it does relate to church history, in some ways that might surprise you.”
I surreptitiously swiveled around in my desk so that I could steal a glance at Leah. She was seated two rows over from me. When I saw her I felt my heart flutter, as they say—and even at the age of twelve I had enough self-awareness to feel a little silly for this. As I’ve mentioned, I had been looking at her for all of my life.
After wearing her blonde-brown hair straight for years, Leah had of late begun wearing it in the feathered hairstyle that celebrities like Farah Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith had recently made all the rage. She had grown a few inches, too, so that we now stood more or less eye-to-eye. (My pubescent growth spurt, which would eventually bring me to my present height of 6’1”, would begin the following summer; but I had no idea of this at the time.) Leah’s legs were long, tanned, and lightly muscled.
She was by no means the prettiest girl in the St. Patrick’s junior high. But she could easily be counted among the most attractive ones; and I grew more than a little anxious whenever I saw other boys talking to her—especially the taller, stronger, and more aggressive boys in the eighth grade.
“Halloween,” Mr. Snyder began, “was originally a Celtic holiday in the British Isles, known as Samhain. The Celts celebrated Samhain after the fall harvest. Samhain represented the end of the growing season, and the beginning of the darker time of the year.”
I was mildly disappointed. Halloween a mere “harvest holiday”? The beginning of winter? So what? But Mr. Snyder was far from done.
“Of course,” he continued, “there was a lot more to it than that. This is a spooky time of year, isn’t it? Have you ever noticed that?”
I involuntarily nodded, and felt a little chill. I remembered the figure whom Leah, Bobby, and I referred to as “the ghost boy”; and I wondered if we would see him during our walk home today.
“The ancient Celts believed,” Mr. Snyder said, “that this season at the end of the traditional harvest, between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, was a liminal time.” Mr. Snyder paused, realizing that he had used a word beyond the range of the average twelve year-old vocabulary. “That means a time when the barriers between the world of the living and the world of the dead break down, or at least grow very thin. The Celts believed that the post-harvest holiday of Samhain was a time when the souls of the recently departed returned to their earthly homes, to visit their loved ones.”
Now I definitely felt the chill. I had been but a small boy when my grandfather and grandmother Schaeffer had died. My memories of them were fragmentary at best. If what the Celts believed was correct, then maybe they still visited us from time to time—perhaps on one night per year, perhaps more often than that. This thought was simultaneously comforting and unsettling.
Mr. Snyder talked on, and told us how the Celtic festival of Samhain had been co-opted by the Catholic Church, and transformed into the holiday known as All Saints Day or All Hallows. The modern Halloween, he explained, was actually a truncated form of “All Hallows Evening”, or the night before All Saints Day.
Then he told us how the jack-o’-lantern had been originally carved from a turnip, and then a gourd, and finally a pumpkin. The jack-o’-lantern was once thought to ward off evil spirits. 
But by now I was only half-listening, my mind wandering off onto other topics. I was reflecting on the fact that I had never had a girlfriend before. I was enumerating Leah’s qualities: Not only was she pretty—she was smart; she had the second-highest average in math so far this year, and seemed to breeze through every class discussion in our other courses, always prepared, always knowing the right answer.
I was wondering (for what might have been the millionth time) how many other boys had noticed her by now. How long would I have to make my move? I needed to ask her to “go with me”—as we said in those days.
That would require a previously unknown level of courage for me; I knew I wasn't up to it yet. How shattered I would be if she said no—that she “only liked me as a friend”.
And, of course, with the walk home only a few hours away, I was also thinking about the ghost boy.

3.


At 3:10 p.m. I met up with Leah and Bobby at the western edge of the school grounds, where Shayton Road bisected Ohio Pike. The latter road would, if followed west, take the traveler into the posh old-money eastern suburbs of Cincinnati, and after that, into the city itself.
Shayton Road was a two-lane highway that cut through farmland, pockets of residential housing, and endless acres of woods. This was the route that the three of us followed home everyday.
And more recently, Shayton Road had become the road of the ghost boy, if that was indeed what he was.
On the way to our rendezvous point, I spied Matt Stefano smoking cigarettes in a distant copse of trees past St. Patrick’s all-purpose athletic field and baseball diamond. I didn't believe that he had seen me. At any rate, he was otherwise occupied and I seemed to be off the hook for now.
When I arrived at the edge of Shayton Road, Bobby and Leah were already waiting for me. Before they saw me, I watched them interact: Bobby said something funny or sarcastic (which I could not hear), and Leah playfully punched him on the shoulder.
This sort of interaction between them would have passed unnoticed by me two years earlier. But things were different now, and I felt a little pang of jealousy, followed by stabbing feelings of guilt. Bobby was my friend, right? Right—of course he was. But I nevertheless wished that he had gone on by himself, and left me alone with Leah.  
“Hey, Schaeffer!” Bobby called out, having seen me. I hoped that he wouldn't mention my earlier humiliation at the hands of Matt Stefano. Not with Leah around.
“Yo,” I said perfunctorily.
“You look kind of down in the dumps,” Leah said, beaming. How had it gone unnoticed by me all those years when we were just kids, playing kickball and riding bikes around our neighborhood—how vivacious and lovely Leah would become?
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Jeff had a rough day,” Bobby began, until I cut him off with a sharp glance.
“What?” Leah inquired.
“Nothing,” Bobby said quickly, understanding dawning on his face.
“That’s right,” I said. “Nothing.”
“Hey,” Bobby added. “Every day at school is a rough day for Schaeffer here because he’s not exactly the smartest kid in the school, you know?”
Leah made a face at him. “Look who’s talking. Okay. Fine—whatever. I have the feeling that there’s something the two of you aren’t telling me; but if you want to have boy secrets, be my guest. Come on, let’s get going. I’ve got a lot of homework to do.”
“Only you, Leah Carter, would rush home to do your homework,” Bobby teased.
We walked for a while, leaving the school behind us and passing through a section of Shayton Road that was mostly wooded lots, and the occasional farmhouse. The subdivision where Leah and I lived was maybe a mile up ahead.
Yes—there was a school bus at our disposal, and we could have ridden home. This was 1980—not 1930 or 1950. But riding the school bus meant an extra hour of travel time, due to the way the route was configured. We therefore walked home whenever weather permitted.
We had walked not far at all when Leah broached the subject of trick-or-treat. The idea of going out for “one last Halloween” had arisen spontaneously among the three of us several weeks ago, and Leah had seemed enthusiastic about the prospect at the time. Her next words led me to wonder if she might not be on the verge of backing out.
“Are the other kids in our class going out trick-or-treating this year?” she asked.
“I’d say about half and half,” Bobby answered. Bobby’s assessment was probably accurate, more or less. “Why?”
Leah shrugged, hitching her backpack higher on her back. “No reason.”
Of course there had been a reason, though. And while I was willing to let the matter drop, Bobby wasn't.
“Should we take a—what do they call it—a survey, Leah? Would you feel better about going out trick-or-treating if you found out that Brian Hailey and Sheila Hunt were going, too?”
This remark caused Leah’s face to turn red, ever so slightly. Brian Hailey was the likely captain of the basketball team, an all-around athlete since little league. Most of the girls in the seventh grade had a crush on him. Leah probably had a crush on him, too.
Sheila was his female double, more or less. Little Miss Popular. All the boys had noticed her, whispered shyly about her on the playground. The girls, meanwhile, were divided: between struggling to imitate her and hating her.
“Bobby, Bobby, Bobby,” Leah said, shaking her head. To my surprise, Leah was smiling. Bobby’s remark had sounded fairly nasty to me; but Leah had found it endearing, apparently. “Never mind: We’re going trick-or-treating. My mother has already made my costume. I’d never hear the end of it if I changed my mind now.”
“There he is,” I said. I was secretly glad to put an end to their all-too-cozy banter. But there was more to it than that: The ghost boy was here today—as he had been about two out of every three days over the past week or so. We were still a comfortable distance away from him. But we would have to pass by him in order to make it home.
He was sitting where he always sat: on a fallen log beside a stagnant pond that formed the pit of a little bowl of land alongside Shayton Road.
The pond was not a proper pond, really, but rather a low point where rainwater had collected. The depression in the land had been the site of an old industrial building, a structure that had once been a slaughterhouse (so the rumors went), or maybe just a warehouse. In any event, the building had been very old, and had been vacant for a long time when it was finally demolished two years earlier.
Now all that was left here was a barren crater filled with miscellaneous debris, and a shallow pool of water. The scene looked vaguely like something from a war zone. A bomb might have landed on the now nonexistent building, rather than a crew of demolition workers and a backhoe.
The crater was inaccessible for all practical purposes: It was hemmed in by two steep, slippery-looking hillsides behind it, and a sharp drop-off at the edge of Shayton Road on the near side. We had never played in the depression, never seriously thought about exploring the banks of the sludgy pond. This place was foul and muddy; and venturing down there would have meant a twisted ankle, if not a broken leg.
The crater had never attracted our notice much at all—until the ghost boy had begun appearing there.
He was wearing what he always wore: an old army fatigue jacket, jeans, and beat-up sneakers. The ghost boy might have been fourteen or fifteen years old—a few years older than us. He was smoking a cigarette and watching us approach. Doing, once again, what he always did.
I tried to look for his reflection in the pond and couldn't see it, though a skeptic could have easily claimed this was a result of the position of the boy, the pond, and the angle at which we approached him.
What was more difficult to explain was the way the kid seemed to blend into the hillside behind him—a craggy, muddy incline of dirt boulders and scrub pines. We had all noticed this: it was as if he were alternately there and not there.
“Maybe we should just ignore him,” Leah said. We were drawing close now, though still just beyond earshot. “Maybe if we ignore him, then he’ll ignore us.”
Bobby snorted. “Fat chance. He doesn't want to be ignored. We’ve tried ignoring him before, haven’t we? But he always calls out to us.”
Leah nodded. “That’s true. But you know—I was thinking: He could be a dropout from Youngman. Or—maybe he’s already graduated. We’ve been scaring ourselves—telling ourselves that he’s some kind of a vampire or a ghost or something. But maybe he’s nothing more than an ordinary smartass, and we’re psyching ourselves out.”
“No,” I said. “There’s something about him that—isn’t right. I don’t know exactly what it is; but there’s something strange.”
“Don’t look at me, Leah,” Bobby said. “I think I’m with Schaeffer on this one.”
There was something about this kid that wasn't right. And it was more than his appearance. This kid knew things about each of us—knowledge that a stranger could not possibly possess in such an offhand manner. But the only secrets he mentioned were the ones that we were ashamed of.
One day the boy had asked Leah, “Hey, you—blondie! What happened to your sister’s favorite doll? Two summers ago. You know—that one she really liked.”
This had meant nothing to Bobby and me, of course. After we passed by the boy that day, though, we had noticed that Leah’s face had turned pale. “He knew,” she said. “I don’t know how; but he knew.”
When we asked her to elaborate, Leah recounted a quarrel with her sister, Katie, from two summers ago. Katie had an antique doll that she practically loved; it was not only rare and unique, it was also a family heirloom that had belonged to their grandmother.
“I was so mad at Katie that day,” Leah explained, “that I went into her room and stole the doll from her dresser drawer. I knew where she kept it. Then I threw the doll in the trashcan out by the curb. About an hour later I felt bad about what I’d done, and went to retrieve it. But by then the garbage truck had already collected the trash.” Leah hung her head. “Several days passed before Katie discovered that the doll was missing, and I played dumb. I’ve never told anyone about what I did. I still feel lousy about it.”
On another occasion, the ghost boy had asked Bobby, “Hey you, the tall one in the middle. Yeah, you: Why do you hate your dad so much?”
This had provoked an angry reaction in Bobby, and Leah and I had had to restrain him, to keep him from plunging down the dangerous embankment between the road and the pond.
“Don’t listen to that guy,” I’d said. “He’s just talking and making random guesses. He doesn't know anything about us.”
But of course, the boy had known things about us—he’d known about Leah’s secret disposal of the heirloom doll, which would have been virtually impossible for a stranger to have conceived through random guesswork.
Today, I would discover, I was the ghost boy’s chosen target. We walked by the edge of the depression, trying our utmost to ignore him, and he said:
“One of you has a secret today!”
Bobby gave him the finger. “Shove off, dickhead. We’re not buying into your crap today.”
The ghost boy leaned back on his log and took a long, thoughtful drag on his cigarette. For a brief second, I could have sworn that I saw solid earth and trees through his body; and then that illusion was gone. He was all there again—unusually pale and odd in any number of ways, but there.
“Oh, a tough guy, huh?” the ghost boy challenged. “Well, I’ll let you go today. After all, you hate your father, even if you won’t admit it to yourself.”
“Don’t listen to him, Bobby,” I cautioned. “He’s only trying to get a rise out of you. Like before.”
“Oh, ho, ho. A peacemaker, are you?” he asked, addressing me. “Well, it just so happens that you’re the one who has a secret today. Imagine that.”
This made me immediately nervous, because I knew that I was harboring secrets. I was feeling differently about Leah than I ever had, and I didn't yet know how to tell her so. Although Bobby was my friend, I was no longer content to have us hanging around as a threesome all the time. I wanted Leah to myself.
I didn't know how the ghost boy could have known any of this, but I was almost certain that he grasped my innermost thoughts. He had done no less in the cases of Leah and Bobby, after all.
That wasn't a conversation I was prepared to have. Almost without thinking, I knelt and picked up a rock. Then another.
The ghost boy smiled. In a voice that was a few octaves deeper than his normal adolescent boy’s voice, he said, “Go ahead, try it.”
So I threw both rocks. The results of that effort were almost as strange as the ghost boy’s impossible knowledge.
“Come on,” I said to Leah and Bobby. “Let’s get out of here.”
Simultaneously, we all resumed walking, quickening our pace to double time. Leah and Bobby had seen what I had seen, hadn’t they?
Our one lucky break was that there was a bend in the road directly beyond the pond. We didn't stop our forward march until we were well on the other side of that bend, and beyond visual contact with the ghost boy.
Leah said, breathing heavily, “Tell me you guys didn't see that, okay? I need to believe that was just my imagination playing tricks on me.” She stopped, unslung her backpack, and allowed it to drop at the side of the road. “So tell me that guys, okay?”
Bobby shook his head slowly. “If that was your imagination, then my imagination was doing the same thing. What about you, Schaeffer?”
I might have been visibly trembling now. Probably I was. “I saw it. I don’t know what to call it, but—”
“Just stop! Okay?” Leah shouted. “Can we just forget about it, already?”
Bobby looked at Leah, at me, and then back at Leah.
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s just forget about it. We don’t have to talk about it, do we, Schaeffer?”
“Nope. Nothing we need to talk about.”
“Okay then,” Leah bent down and hoisted her backpack again. We resumed walking.
In another ten minutes we reached the Shayton Estates subdivision, where Leah and I both lived, but on separate streets. Built on converted farmland back in ’77, Shayton Estates represented the march of suburbanization into Withamsville. Bobby lived farther down Shayton Road, in a little rundown farmhouse that he shared with his mother, and a dog named Bluebell.  
“See you later,” Leah and I both called after him, as we made the turn onto the main road of our subdivision.
“Later,” Bobby said, not looking back, but casting up a single hand in salutation.
Alone with Leah now, I felt that I needed to somehow maximize this time alone with her. But what could I say?
I naturally said the wrong thing.
“Listen, Leah,” I said. “If—if that bothered you back there, we don’t have to go trick-or-treating Friday. It’s okay.”
She stopped in the middle of the road.
“I don’t mind going trick-or-treating. Didn't I already say that I’m going to go? I simply don’t want to talk about—that—other thing again. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said. Jeez, I thought.
“Listen, Jeff: I’m sorry. But I don’t want to talk about that ghost boy anymore. Got it? And from now on I’m riding the bus home. At least tomorrow, anyway.”
“Okay, Leah,” I said. “You have a good night.”
“Have a good night, Jeff.”
We had reached Leah’s street, and she turned toward her house. After that exchange, I wasn't about to offer to walk her home (although I would very much liked to have done that).
The ghost boy had clearly upset Leah. He had upset me too, for that matter—and not only with his embarrassing secrets.
The rocks that I threw at the ghost boy had both found their mark, almost by accident. (In truth, it had been my intention for them to merely land close by, perhaps splattering him with mud.)
The ghost boy did not attempt to evade the projectiles, nor did he raise a hand in reflex, as most people would.
Leah, Bobby, and I had both watched in silent amazement as the rocks passed through the body of the ghost boy.
And when each rock passed through him, the ghost boy changed. For a split second he was no longer a boy at all: he was a rotting corpse with exposed rib bones, a grinning skull trailing remnants of long hair.
It was as if the rocks had broken whatever energy field sustained the illusion of an actual boy. That was the explanation I would give myself in the years to come, as I reflected back on that day by the little pond, when I threw rocks to avoid the revelation of uncomfortable secrets.
Those thoughts would become the reflections of a much older man, who could look back on the actual events with a certain degree of detachment. At the time, I pushed the few seconds of the nightmarish vision to the back of my mind. Truth be told, I was at that juncture more concerned with Leah: What would it take for me to move past my fear and make us more than “just friends”?

In a more normal year, my crush on Leah might have remained the defining event of the season. But Halloween of 1980 was to be a time of strange sightings for the three of us. And we hadn’t seen the last of them yet. In the very near future, it would be impossible for me to avoid confronting them.

End of excerpt.








Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The inspiration behind "Blood Flats"

Yes, Blood Flats is a Kentucky crime novel that involves drug trafficking. No, it wasn't inspired by the FX series Justified

As I explain in this video, if Blood Flats has a single literary inspiration, it would probably be Larry McMurtry's classic Western novel, Lonesome Dove






Monday, January 26, 2015

Reading: "12 Hours of Halloween" Prologue, Part 1

From my YouTube channel:

The first part of the prologue of my novel, 12 Hours of Halloween:







Amazon.com description:

The year is 1980. Jeff Schaeffer, Leah Carter, and Bobby Nagel decide to go out for "one last Halloween" before adolescence takes away their childhood forever.

But this Halloween is different, they soon discover; and an outing that was supposed to be light-hearted and fun becomes a battle for sanity--and perhaps even survival.

From the author of the reader-acclaimed “Eleven Miles of Night”, “12 Hours of Halloween” is a coming-of-age tale unlike any you have ever read.

A sinister teenager known as “the ghost boy” declares that Jeff Schaeffer and his friends will endure “twelve hours of trial” on Halloween. The three young people subsequently find their once familiar suburban surroundings transformed into a bizarre and terrifying landscape.

They discover that just beneath the surface of their middle-American neighborhood lies a secret realm of haunted houses, demonically possessed trees, and spirits with unfinished business. One entity, called the “head collector”, lurks the darkened streets in search of grisly trophies.

At the same time, Jeff is forced to confront new feelings for both of his old friends.

He believes that he is in love with Leah, but does Leah feel the same way?

Meanwhile, his friend Bobby, who had always protected him from local bullies, now seems to harbor a dark agenda that threatens to divide and possibly destroy them all.





Our House: a novel - the first ten chapters


Amazon.com book description:


Some dream homes are deadly…Appearances can be deceiving.
  
On the surface, 34-year-old Jennifer Huber seems to have it all: a handsome, loving husband, a six-year-old son whom they both adore. A respectable job.
  
Jennifer and her husband have just purchased their first house: The neo-Tudor house at 1120 Dunham drive appears to be their “dream home”.
  
But everything is not what it seems: The previous owner of the house has an unusual—and ultimately violent—attachment to the house. After the Hubers move in, sinister things begin to happen: Dead animals appear in closets, strange figures disturb the Hubers’ sleep in the middle of the night.
  
There is more to the house at 1120 Dunham Drive than meets the eye: As Jennifer uncovers the secrets behind the home’s history, she finds herself drawn into a web of lies, violence, and sexual betrayal.
  
All the while, Jennifer struggles to contain a secret of her own—and to combat an act of blackmail that could destroy her marriage. 
 From the author of the crime novel ‘Blood Flats’, and the horror novel ‘Eleven Miles of Night’, ‘Our House’ is a riveting thrill ride through the dark undercurrents that might lie beneath the placid surface of a suburb near you.



Read the first ten chapters here, or get Our House at Amazon.com

1.


To thirty-four-year-old Jennifer Huber, the house at 1120 Dunham Drive seemed pretty close to perfect. If only, she would later think, there had been something wrong with it—something that would have sent her and her husband Clint running, never to return.
That wasn't the way things worked out, though. On a sun-scorched Saturday afternoon in mid-July, the house at 1120 Dunham Drive drew the Hubers in. Or at least the house drew Jennifer in.
The seduction began in earnest in the realtor’s car, as Jennifer, Clint, and Tom Jarvis (the realtor) pulled into the driveway.
“It's a Tudor!” Jennifer exclaimed.
“And what would that be?” Clint asked.
“This style of home,” Jennifer replied. “This is what they call a Tudor style home.”
Jennifer had a fairly extensive knowledge of residential architecture, and she had studied the house’s spec sheet on the Internet the previous night. So she already knew that this would be a Tudor-style home. Her surprise had been feigned: It had simply been a gambit to prod Clint into showing some more enthusiasm about what they were doing today.
“You’ve got to admit, hon: It looks good from the road.”
“It’s a good-looking house,” Clint allowed.
Built in 1940, the house had a look that was simultaneously homey and classic: It had steeply pitched gables (a prerequisite of the neo-Tudor style), decorative half-timbering on the exterior walls, and brick inlays around the ground-floor windows.
“Let’s have a look-see,” Tom Jarvis said, turning off the engine of his Lexus and opening the front driver’s side door. Jennifer didn't wait for either Jarvis or Clint.  As soon as the vehicle was parked, she was out of the overly air-conditioned back seat and racing ahead of the two men.
“It looks like somebody really wants a house,” she heard Jarvis say conspiratorially to Clint.
Who wouldn't want a new house? Jennifer thought. That’s the sort of thing we work for, after all.
That thought reminded her of the job she hated and the secret that kept her bound there. She pushed these thoughts away. Today was a happy occasion. She wasn't going to think about her job at Ohio Excel Logistics. Not on a Saturday afternoon like this.
“Check this out,” Jennifer said, pulling her husband Clint by the hand. “Japanese maples.”
The front garden did indeed have three Japanese maples, plus several small pine trees and a whole lot of ivy. It was the sort of landscaping that took years to develop—either that, or a whole lot of money.
“Connor would like the yard,” Jennifer observed as Tom Jarvis bent down and retrieved the key from the lockbox on the front door.
“He probably would,” Clint replied.
“And best of all, it’s in the Mydale school district.”
Their son, Connor, was going to be a first-grader in a mere two months. The public schools in Mydale were regarded as the best in the Cincinnati area.
And then there was the most important thing about the house—the factor that made this a real possibility: The asking price of the home at 1120 Dunham Drive was within the Hubers’ range. Most of the homes in Mydale were a lot pricier.
By now Jarvis had unlocked the door. He smiled and held the door open for them.
Jarvis smiled again as Jennifer walked by and looked down. He wasn't overly obvious about it, but the realtor had clearly taken the opportunity to check her body out.
It wasn't the first such glance that she had noticed from the real estate agent. Nor was it all in her imagination. Clint had remarked the other day that Jarvis had taken so many liberties with his eyes during their real estate office meetings and home viewing excursions, that he owed them an additional ten percent off the asking price of whatever house they eventually settled on. 
She asked Clint if it made him jealous—Jarvis looking at her that way. Clint had scoffed in reply: Jarvis was an old guy, basically harmless.
Jarvis was indeed older than them, maybe in his mid- to late-forties. He was balding and could have dropped ten pounds; but he still carried himself with the swagger of an ex-jock. Jarvis had probably been a “hound” back in the day; and his manner strongly suggested that he still considered himself a claimant to that title.
As Jennifer walked into the cool house and out of the midsummer heat, Jarvis closed the door and briefly loomed over her. He finally looked away, but not before allowing himself a furtive glance down her blouse.
Okay, that one was a bit much, she thought, but did not say.
Since roughly the age of thirteen, Jennifer had noticed that a large number of men noticed her. That seemed to go along with being thin, blonde, and reasonably pretty. Most of the time it wasn’t a big deal; and for a period of her life it had been undeniably flattering.
But she had been married for most of a decade. She was a mom now; and she was devoted to Clint.
Or at least she thought she was. Would a woman who was totally devoted to her husband and son get herself into the jam she was in at work?
Is there something wrong with me? she wondered. Do I give off the wrong signals?
Her unpleasant thoughts were pushed aside by the interior of the house. The front hall was high-ceilinged and spacious. Their footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor. Unlike many older houses, this house wasn't dark and dingy. Quite the opposite, in fact, the windows of the downstairs flooded the first floor with natural light.
“I think I love this house.” Jennifer declared, setting aside what she knew to be her habitual skepticism about being sold anything at all. Clint, who was standing beside her, gave her a curious look.
Then the realtor said what Clint must have been thinking:
“Well, Mrs. Huber, you’ve only just seen the front yard and the front hallway. But that’s a good start.”  
It’s like he doesn't want me to get my hopes up, she thought. They had toured numerous homes with Tom Jarvis—most of them homes that Jennifer and Clint had preselected through exhaustive, late-night Internet searches. Practically none of those homes had given her instantly warm and fuzzy feelings.
But this one did. And Jarvis wasn't exactly right about her having seen only the front yard and the front hallway. Having spotted this house online and grasped its potential, Jennifer had poured over the available photographs of its interior and landscaping. Jennifer had bookmarked the home’s portfolio in Internet Explorer, and had returned to it numerous times, in fact.
On the drive over from the realty office, Tom Jarvis had said that the situation surrounding this house was “complicated”. He had started to explain; but apparently the act of giving an explanation was complicated, too.
“For now lets just keep our options open,” he’d said. But what exactly did that mean? Was Tom Jarvis planning to ultimately steer them toward another house? Maybe a turkey of a house that could only be unloaded on a naïve young couple making their first home purchase?
Well, she thought, the unknown motives of a self-serving and mildly lecherous real estate agent were not going to dissuade her if this house turned out to be as perfect as it seemed. Real estate agents were always working their angles, she’d heard. None of them, she had been warned by friends, were to be trusted.
She didn't want to make a negative generalization about an entire profession. Still, she and Clint would have to be careful. The Internet was filled with horror stories about dishonest and prevaricating real estate agents. Tom Jarvis knew they were first-time homebuyers. That might lead him to the conclusion that they could be easily led.
One thing was undeniable: For some reason, Tom Jarvis didn't want them to purchase this house.

2.

Tom Jarvis guided Jennifer and Clint into the main area of the first floor, where the living room, the kitchen, and the dining room all intersected. Every room on the first floor had cathedral ceilings; and the kitchen looked to have been updated within the last ten years.
Whereas Jennifer was transfixed by the interior details of the home, Clint gravitated immediately to the sliding glass double doors at the rear of the kitchen.
Mildly disappointed, Jennifer briefly studied Clint’s tall, lanky frame. His body was silhouetted against the sunlit glare as he cast aimless glances around the shrubs, the trees, and the ivy garden that dominated the back yard.
Her husband—the son of a union machinist—had spent his entire childhood in the same postwar-era tract home. Since their marriage, the two of them had lived in one rented condo and two apartments. Clint knew next to nothing about real estate. That much she could have lived with. What bothered her was that he did not seem very interested in learning. They had toured more than a dozen houses so far, and Clint had yet to ask what her attorney father would call, “a reasonably intelligent question”.
Jennifer ran her hand across the marble countertop in the kitchen. “The first floor, at least, is awesome,” she announced, mildly embarrassed for inadvertently reverting to a childhood word. The present owners of the house, the Vennekamps, were tasteful decorators. And of course, the house had been immaculately cleaned for showings.
“Want to take a look at the fireplace?” Tom Jarvis asked from the living room. Jennifer nodded, then walked past her husband and tapped him on the back. Clint turned around suddenly, giving her a blank expression that made her think of their six-year-old son, Connor. But he dutifully followed her.
Jarvis flipped a switch on the wall, and a little artificial flame shot up within the fake logs inside the fireplace. “Gas burning,” Jarvis said. “It can get a little expensive if you use it a lot, but it's a lot cleaner than the original wood-burning setup. And what’s more, you don't have to chop any firewood.”
Jennifer nodded, her attention drawn away from the fireplace to the pictures and knickknacks on the adjacent shelves. During the touring of prospective houses, she had often found herself inexplicably curious about the little details of the resident families’ lives. There was something vaguely improper and voyeuristic about this impulse, of course; but it was probably harmless. It wasn't like she was opening people’s private closets and drawers; she was only noticing what they had displayed in the open for the house showings.
Her gaze fell upon a framed photograph: a family of four posing for a studio portrait. This was Jennifer Huber’s first look at the Vennekamps.
“That would be them,” Tom Jarvis said in response to the unspoken question, “the current owners. Richard and Deborah Vennekamp. And their children, David and Marcia.”
“You were saying during the ride over,” Jennifer said, continuing to study the portrait, “that there was some disagreement between the couple about selling the home. At least that’s what I understood you to say. But the house is very clearly on the market. So what’s the story there?”
“The story,” said Tom Jarvis, “is that Richard Vennekamp is too sick to maintain the yard and he wants to move into someplace smaller.”
“What’s wrong with him?” Clint asked.
“Pancreatic cancer,” Jarvis said. “And no, I’m not sure if it's the kind that can be cured. What I do know is that Richard Vennekamp is no longer the man you see in that picture.”
The Richard Vennekamp in the portrait was, indeed, the picture of early middle-age male vitality. He was stocky with blond hair. His tight smile asserted a kind of quiet, calm masculinity.
“Richard Vennekamp had his own contracting business,” Jarvis went on. “He made out well during the construction boom, before the big real estate crash a few years back. But that all ended when he got sick. He had to sell off what was left of his business; and now he’s got to sell off this house, too.”
“That’s horrible,” Clint said.
“It is,” Jennifer agreed. Her enthusiasm for the house was now tempered by a vague sense of guilt. This nice home inside the Mydale school district was such a bargain because Richard Vennekamp was a sick—possibly dying—man, and the house was priced to sell.
Still, if the house had to be sold, then somebody had to buy it. And why shouldn't that somebody be Clint and Jennifer Huber?
“Plus there’s the fact that the Vennekamps’ children have long since moved out,” Jarvis continued. “The empty nest thing. David and Marcia would be well into their thirties by now. Possibly older.”
If that was the case, then this portrait of the Vennekamps was rather old. The David and Marcia Vennekamp in the portrait were both teenagers.
David Vennekamp was a moderately overweight, awkward-looking youth with thick-rimmed glasses. He must have combed his hair for the picture; but he still looked like he had just gotten out of bed. David seemed sullen, and his smile for the camera looked both coached and forced.
Marcia, meanwhile, was a mousy, diminutive teenage girl whose shyness was unmistakable, even in this old family portrait. She stared wide-eyed at the camera through glasses that were thankfully not as thick as her brother’s. Her smile was tight-lipped, as if she did not want to reveal her teeth. Jennifer wondered if the girl had been wearing braces.
Two teenage misfits, Jennifer thought, not uncharitably. She had thankfully never had to worry about “fitting in” during her high school or college years. But nor had she ever been one of the “mean girl” types who take a perverse delight in tormenting the David and Marcia Vennekamps of the world.
“That doesn't explain the conflict,” Jennifer said. “I mean, we’re both very sorry to hear about Richard Vennekamp, but—”
“The problem,” Jarvis said, “is that Deborah Vennekamp doesn't want to sell the house. Don’t ask me to explain exactly why. It seems that Mrs. Vennekamp has a sentimental attachment to this house. An excessive attachment, you might say.”
Jennifer could understand a sentimental attachment to a place where one had raised children, lived as a married couple, and passed through other milestone stages. She could understand it to a point.
However, the fact was that it made sense for the Vennekamps to downsize now, for all the reasons that Jarvis had enumerated. This was a big sprawling house that had been built for a growing family—not a pair of older empty-nesters. Deborah Vennekamp would surely get over her attachment to the house, once she and Mr. Vennekamp had relocated to a place that was more manageable and better suited to their needs.
“But the house is for sale,” Jennifer said. “Just like every other house that we’ve looked at.”
“Yes it is,” Jarvis replied. “But I can’t promise for how long that will be the case. Deborah Vennekamp is very strong-willed.”
Jennifer looked at the Deborah Vennekamp in the portrait. A thin woman with conservatively styled light-brown hair, she didn't look very strong-willed. In fact, Jennifer rather suspected that Marcia had acquired her obvious timidity from her mother. 
“Then we’ll need to make an offer on the house as soon as possible.” She noted the immediately raised eyebrows of both Clint and Jarvis. “Provided that everything else checks out, of course. Come on, let’s take a look at the rest of the house.”

3.

“And here we have the basement,” Jarvis said, leading the way downstairs. “Watch your step.”
They stepped gingerly down the basement staircase, their eyes taking time to adjust to the darkness. This was the last stop on the grand tour. Clint and Jennifer had by now been through the entire first and second floor, and made a circuit around the front lawn and back yard. The last of these revealed unexpected surprises: a deluxe tool shed that warmed Clint to the house considerably, and several rows of hedges in the back yard. These would provide both privacy and a natural enclosure in which Connor could play.
“Basements are usually the least exciting part of any house,” Jarvis said. “But the basement is important to some people. I’m sorry to say that if you were hoping for a basement-level recreation room or entertainment space, you’ll be disappointed.”
“The floor is dirt!” Clint said, once they were all down the stairs. This was true: Jennifer looked down at her feet to see a floor not of concrete, as she had expected, but hard-packed earth. The rest of the basement was equally basic from what she could see: The bare walls were unpainted brick. The only illumination provided down here came from a few widely spaced light bulbs. She looked up at the ceiling, and saw nothing but shadows and bare rafters.
“It is a dirt floor,” Jarvis said, confirming Clint’s observation. “Keep in mind that this house was built right before the U.S. entered World War II—in 1940. Dirt basements are more or less unheard of in any house built since the 1960s, and rare even before that in Ohio. There are usually too many drainage problems to allow for that in this part of the country. Dirt basements are more common in New England, where the soil is rocky and rainfall levels are lower. But even there, it’s mostly something that you see in older homes.”
“So this turns to mud when it rains?” Clint asked.
“No, not at all,” Jarvis said. “You’ll recall that we had a heavy rain earlier this week, and look at this floor.” The realtor kicked the floor with the toe of his penny loafer. “Dry as a bone. This house was built at the top of a hill, so the water all runs downhill, away from the basement. If you take a look at the walls, you’ll see that there is no evidence of water damage. But that’s something that the house inspector will be able to confirm for you. That is—if you decide to make an offer on this house.”
“Oh, I think we’ll definitely be making an offer,” Jennifer said. She was now way past the seduction stage. She had fallen in love with the house at 1120 Dunham Drive. While touring the upstairs bedrooms, a series of movies had been playing out in Jennifer’s imagination: She saw them moving in just in time for the new school year. Then she saw the house as the scene for key life events: their tenth wedding anniversary, Connor’s first day of high school—maybe even their retirement. Why not? The house gave them room to grow. This would, she believed, be the home into which Connor’s younger siblings would be born.
“I don’t know, Jen,” Clint said. “This dirt floor.”
“You heard what Tom said. This floor has been here since 1940 and the house’s foundation hasn't washed away in the rain. I’m sure that the basement will still be dry in 2040.”
“Mrs. Huber,” Jarvis said with a laugh. “With your ability to see the possibilities in a house, you really ought to consider a career in real estate.”
“I see the possibilities in this house, anyway.”
“Well, let’s give the basement a good amateur inspection, anyway,” Jarvis suggested. “I don't see you using this area for much more than storage—at least not in the short run. You could eventually put a concrete floor in, if you wanted. That wouldn't be cheap, but it could be done.”
Jarvis gave them an unexciting tour of the basement. Jennifer noted that Clint was inspecting the walls for water damage. She was delighted to see that he found none. There were not even any damp spots on the dirt floor. As Jarvis had put it, the floor was “dry as a bone”.
The only odd or unexpected sight in the basement was the little room in the rear corner—the corner farthest away from the stairs. It was not really a separate room, strictly speaking, but a makeshift enclosure of wood paneling. The room was about the size of a large walk-in closet.
“What’s this?” Clint asked, heading toward the little room.
“Oh, that’s a little storage space that Mr. Vennekamp built at some point. Wait a moment, let me go with you. I’ve got a penlight.”
Jennifer followed Jarvis over to the storage room. Clint was already standing in the room’s darkened doorway.
Clint stepped aside so that Jarvis could enter with the penlight. What the penlight revealed was a mostly empty storage room. The tiny beam of light shone on a small pile of bricks, some boards leant up against the room’s single brick wall, and some old cans of paint. The floor was mostly covered by several decaying pallets.
“Not much to look at in here,” Jarvis said. “It might come in handy for storage purposes, though. Or you might want to tear it down. Either way.”
They also examined the water heater, and Jennifer was relieved to find that it had been installed a mere three years ago. The house was certainly old, but most of its key elements were either in good shape or recently updated.
“Well,” Jarvis said, as he led them back upstairs, “what do you think?”
This time Clint preempted Jennifer. “I think we need to talk between ourselves—the two of us—and get back to you.”

4.

After 1120 Dunham Street, Jarvis took them to one other house. It was a ranch home that both Clint and Jennifer quickly rejected for a number of reasons. The house was outside the Mydale school district, the floor plan was awkward, and there was a suspicious smell in the basement that might have been cat urine.
“We really want to find a house in the Mydale school district,” Jennifer reiterated, as Jarvis drove them back to the real estate office. “That was a big factor in our selection of you as our agent. Your office is located in Mydale.”
Jarvis looked in his rearview mirror before responding to Jennifer, who was seated in the back seat of the Lexus with her husband. “And I thought it had something to do with my personal appeal.” The remark could have been interpreted as either routine salesman’s banter, or yet another attempt at flirtation.
Unseen by Jarvis, Clint smirked and shook his head. Jennifer replied: “You’re very charming, Mr. Jarvis, but please don't forget that we really want a house in Mydale.”
“Duly noted,” Jarvis said. “We won’t be looking at any more houses that don't have a Mydale mailing address, or that fall outside the Mydale school district.”
Mydale was a bedroom community that had been mostly rural only twenty years ago. Though technically incorporated as a city of 30,000, Mydale was actually a part of the Cincinnati metropolitan area. Despite the development spree of recent years, Mydale had not lost its feel of semirural prosperity; and there remained working farms a few miles beyond its borders.
Located twenty miles northwest of downtown Cincinnati, Mydale was far enough away to maintain its separate identity, but close enough to allow for an easy commute to the larger city, where both Clint and Jennifer worked.
But most of all, Mydale was known for its above-average schools. The town had been fortunate enough to attract a series of industrial parks in the early 1990s, and the tax revenues from the resident businesses allowed the Mydale school district to recruit the best teachers, to offer all the latest and most innovative educational programs.
In the parking lot of Jarvis Realty, Tom Jarvis invited the Hubers to come in for refreshments and additional discussions, even though he must have known that the day had reached its natural conclusion. It was past two o’clock, and they had to pick up Connor.
They had left him at Clint’s parents’ house. As was usually the case, Jennifer’s parents would theoretically have been a babysitting option, but Connor—with the typical candor of a six-year-old—made no secret of the fact that he preferred the company of Grandma and Grandpa Huber over that of his maternal grandparents.
This needled Jennifer a bit: Clint’s father was an older version of Clint—affable, not terribly serious, and vaguely childlike himself. Her own father, meanwhile, had been a partner in a Cincinnati law firm. Hank Riley loved his only grandchild, Jennifer was sure, but he was often stilted and remote when it came time to actually interact with him. Seventy-hour workweeks had absented Hank during much of her own youth. Jennifer’s fifty-seven-year-old mother, Claudia, meanwhile, seemed to be in denial about the very concept of grandmotherhood. Since turning fifty, Claudia had gone on a plastic surgery binge: botox, facelift, and even a mentoplasty on her chin. Jennifer often joked with Clint that breast implants were likely next on the list. 
“Another time,” Clint said, shaking hands with Jarvis. “We’ll be in touch, though. Thanks for your time today.”
The realtor shook hands with Clint and then with Jennifer. “You’re welcome. If I can answer any additional questions, or set up any additional showings, let me know.”
“And just to confirm,” Jennifer said, “the Dunham Drive property is still on the market.”
“It is,” Jarvis allowed. “Unless Deborah Vennekamp decides otherwise.”
“I’m sure Mr. Vennekamp will want to have a say, too,” Jennifer replied, proud of herself for not defaulting to the self-consciously feminist position. Moreover, the Richard Vennekamp in that portrait hadn’t looked like the sort of man who allows his wife to make all of the family’s major decisions.
Jarvis smiled enigmatically. “You haven’t met Deborah Vennekamp.”

5.

“Well, you seem to have made up your mind,” Clint said, starting the ignition of their minivan, a Kia Sedona that would take them another two years to pay off.
Jennifer could not tell if Clint was kidding or not. For years their relationship had been one long college romance, and this had continued during their first few years of marriage. Over the last few years, however, they had been forced to collaborate on more complex decisions regarding finances, childrearing, etc. At times they did not collaborate well.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked cautiously.
Clint shrugged, putting the minivan in gear. “Nothing, really. I’m just kidding, Jen. You just seemed so set on that one particular house. It’s like you’d already made up your mind.”
“Is there another one that you have a strong preference toward? Or do you have a particular problem with the Dunham Drive house—other than the basement? Because I think that Tom Jarvis pretty much answered that question.”
“No, I don't have a strong preference toward another house. And I don't have any particular problem with the Dunham Drive house—as long as Mrs. Vennekamp doesn't prevail on her husband to take the house off the market.”
“So we’re in agreement, then?”
“I didn't say that.
“Then what are you saying?”
“I’m saying that you’re kind of rushing ahead on all of this.”
“Clint: At some point we have to make a decision, and no matter which house we choose, our choice will be an imperfect one. Connor is going to be starting first grade in a matter of weeks, and this house is in the Mydale school district,”
“So you’ve noted,” Clint said, smiling, and looking much like his college-era self for a brief moment.
“Yes, I did. And this house—unlike every other house on the market in Mydale—is within our price range. And it's a good bargain for the money.”
“So this is kind of a no-brainer, you’re saying.”
“Yes, that’s kind of what I’m saying.”
She knew that a part of Clint secretly resented her taking the lead like this. It might be the second decade of the twenty-first century, but Clint had been raised to believe that taking the lead on major household decisions was naturally a man’s job.
And she would have been more than willing to let him take the lead—if only he would have done so. But her husband sometimes seemed oddly out-of-place in the adult world. They had been living in apartments and rented places for so long now, long after most of their friends had established themselves in homes with real back yards. All she wanted was for them to live like real adults.
But what did Clint want? Sometimes Clint gave the impression that he was still stuck in the mindset of the college milieu in which the two of them had first become acquainted nearly fifteen years ago.
In those days she had interpreted Clint’s easy nonchalance as a manifestation of masculine self-confidence. After all, Clint Huber had moved easily through the campus social scene. Both good-looking and personable, it had seemed that every woman had wanted to be his girlfriend, and every man on campus had wanted to be his buddy. Clint had not pursued a demanding major, so he had plenty of time to hang around campus bars and attend every party.
At thirty-four, though, that same nonchalance more often than not struck Jennifer as lackadaisical. She wondered sometimes if the man she had married was not a bit of a slacker.
“Well, then, I guess it’s settled,” Clint finally said. He sighed aloud, and she could sense that he might be coming around to her way of thinking. “And there’s no denying that the house is a bargain at that price. We’ll of course put in a bid that’s a few grand lower—even if the house is, as Jarvis puts it, ‘priced to sell’. They’ll be expecting us to do that, after all. We could save even more money that way.”
“Sure,” Jennifer said, as if this had not been obvious to her all along. “That’s a good idea.”
They were traveling toward the interstate now, the road that would take them back to Clint’s parents’ house, where Connor was waiting, and then to their rented condominium in the northern suburbs of Cincinnati.
She leaned across the space between the minivan’s two front pilot seats and squeezed Clint’s arm. “I’m so excited. It’s going to be great to have a real house of our own. You know how much I hate my job. At least home will be a sanctuary of sorts, a place where I can relax with you and Connor.”
“Sure, honey. I understand that. And I think that us buying a house is a great idea. It’s long overdue, in fact. But as I’ve said before, if you really hate your job that much, you should look for something else.”
Jennifer realized that once again, she had said too much and invited suspicion regarding her situation at Ohio Excel Logistics.
On the surface, Clint was right: If you really hated a job, if you felt yourself growing physically ill each morning as you drove into the office, then the sensible thing to do was to find another job. It was a free country, after all.
But Jennifer could not leave Ohio Excel Logistics—not without risking what meant most to her: her marriage and her life with Clint and Connor. For the time being she truly was stuck in an unworkable situation, and she was unable to discuss her dilemma with anyone—most of all her husband.
“You might be right, babe,” she replied. “Maybe I will update my resume soon. In the meantime, it isn’t that bad.”
“That’s what you’ve been saying for a long time now. But I sense that it really is that bad.” He shook his head. “I don't get it. I mean, if you hate it so much, you can even quit as far as I’m concerned. Do the stay-at-home mom thing for a while. Then maybe go back into the labor market when Connor is a little older.”
“Clint, we both know that we can’t get by on one income. Especially if we purchase a house.”
What she did not say was that they could not get by on Clint’s income. Her best friend, Moira, was married to a CPA who had recently made partner at his firm. After their first child had been born, Moira’s husband had urged her to quit. He made plenty of money after all, and he didn't want his wife to have to balance motherhood with the demands of a career. Moira had readily agreed. Besides, the whole “career” thing was much overrated for most people, once they got an actual taste of it.
Lots of college educated, married women were ditching their careers nowadays once their children were born. The newspapers had even written about the trend as a sort of post-feminist backlash. They had dubbed it, “the opt-out revolution”. 
But that only applied to women whose husbands were high earners. As a salesman at Glutz Machinery, Clint made about the same income as she did. And that wasn't enough money to support two adults, a child, and a house—not if they also wanted to put something away for retirement, and Connor’s education.


Connor was now buckled into the rear passenger seat of the Sedona, but rather than talk to his parents, the boy had drifted off to sleep. Six-year-olds were like that, weren’t they? Animated one minute, drowsy the next. Connor reported having had a great time at his paternal grandparents’ house. As always. Could he go back to Grandma and Grandpa Huber’s next weekend? Sure—if his parents went “new home hunting” again next weekend, he almost certainly could.
Clint Huber had decided not to press his wife any further about leaving the job at Ohio Excel Logistics—a job that obviously made her sick. He didn't understand what was holding her there, and numerous appeals to logic had failed to convince her. He had offered to help her find another job. They were both pretty good at researching things on the Internet; and if they combined their efforts, it wouldn't take long for them to have her resume in the hands of a hundred potential employers.
For that matter, she could go ahead and simply quit, no matter what she said. The problem was not that they couldn't live on a single income. The problem was that they couldn't live on a single income and live like her parents, or like her friend Moira, who was married to the accountant.
Clint recalled his youth: Clint’s mother had been a stay-at-home mom for most of his childhood, and she had worked part-time only after he and his brothers were all at least in junior high. They had all managed just fine on his father’s income—which Clint knew even then to be nothing to brag about.
No, you’re only making excuses for yourself, he thought. He knew full well that Jennifer was not his mother. Nor was she one of the girls that he had grown up with in his blue-collar, tract home neighborhood.
Jennifer had a different set of expectations; and he had known that when he married her—against the gentle admonishments of his own parents, and the barely concealed disappointment of her own. Hank Riley was a prominent attorney, and he had wanted his pretty, smart daughter to marry an attorney, or a CPA like Moira Prater had married.
Hank Riley certainly hadn’t wanted his daughter to marry the son of a union machinist, a man who barely made it through college with a degree in anthropology—a man who worked as a machine tool salesman.
But he and Jennifer had hit it off so well in college. She had been his “rich girl” girlfriend; and she had seemed to regard him as a project, a blank slate that she could mold and refashion into something slightly better.
Fifteen years later, though, it hadn’t quite worked out that way. He had detected the unspoken resentment in Jennifer’s voice when she had made the remark about them being unable to get by on only one (only his) income. Previously, she had made a point, it seemed to him, of announcing that Moira Baxter (nee Prater) would be quitting work now that she was a mother.
Maybe it’s my fault, he thought. Maybe I need to step up to the plate a bit more. I could find a way to increase my commissions at Glutz—or even find another gig. Maybe I’m the one who needs to look for another job, not her.
At any rate, this house would be good for them. It would make Jennifer happy, and it would be good for Connor, too. Clint imagined Connor playing in the wide back yard of the house at 1120 Dunham Drive. With its rich green lawn and maze of trees and shrubs, it was a back yard unlike anything that he could have imagined in his own childhood. The back yard of his childhood home had been a postage stamp with a scraggly lawn, covered with dandelions and crabgrass.
A man should want to give his family something better than what he had, Clint resolved.
Turning into the parking lot of their rented condominium, Clint took his wife’s hand in his own and interlaced his fingers with hers.
“We’ll put in an offer on that house,” he said. “First thing Monday morning.”


6.

But they didn't call Tom Jarvis with an offer on Monday morning. They called him later that same evening. Jarvis—a divorced middle-aged man who lived alone—didn't mind being disturbed on a Saturday night.
“Well, that was quick,” he told Clint.
“Well, we really want the house.”
“I can see that. Tell you what: Why don't you and Jennifer stop by my office tomorrow afternoon, and we’ll draw up the paperwork so that we can make it official. Since I’m the listing agent for the Vennekamps’ home, we won’t have to wait for another realtor to do his or her thing. We can make this move pretty quickly, if you’d like.”
“That’s what we’d like.”
Jarvis and Clint talked for a few minutes longer, with Jennifer listening in and occasionally interjecting. The realtor agreed that the Hubers could safely tender an offer that was a few thousand below the asking price. That was reasonable.
“But I’d urge you not to go more than three grand below the list price,” Jarvis said. “Like I told you, this house is priced to sell. Tell you what: be at my office tomorrow afternoon at two o’clock and I’ll have the offer documents ready for the two of you to sign.”


Jarvis called the Hubers Monday evening, shortly after they had finished eating dinner.
“Well,” Jarvis said. “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”
“Let’s hear it,” Clint said.
“Okay: I met with the Vennekamps today, and they rejected your offer.”
“How is that good news?” Jennifer asked.
“Richard Vennekamp wants to maintain the asking price, more or less. He informed me that if you can raise your offer to within a grand of that price, then he’ll be willing to accept it.”
“We can do that,” Clint said.
“No problem,” Jennifer said quickly. “Like you said, the house is priced to sell.”
“So what’s the bad news, then?” Clint asked.
“Well,” Jarvis sighed. “We’re back to the Deborah Vennekamp factor. During the meeting, she reacted rather violently to the idea of selling the house at all.”
“Wait a sec,” Clint interjected. “You said ‘violently’? What do you mean by that?”
Jarvis hesitated. Then he said:  “Let’s just say that Deborah Vennekamp has changed her mind about selling the house—in fact, she was never on board to begin with. For the time being, Richard is the one who’s calling the shots; but that might change at any time. Like I also told you, Richard Vennekamp is a sick man.”
“So what do you recommend?” Jennifer probed.
“I’ll be frank: I think that we have a small window of time to get this deal done, before Deborah Vennekamp exerts her will over her husband. My recommendation—assuming that you really want this house—is that we redraw the offer paperwork immediately. I’ll get the revised offer to Richard Vennekamp and he can take care of convincing Deborah to sign it. He seems to be the only person who has any influence on Deborah Vennekamp.”
 “It can’t be that hard to get a woman to agree to sell her house,” Clint suggested. “Not when her children are grown, and her husband is sick, and it makes the most sense for everyone involved.”
“You don't know Deborah Vennekamp, Clint. Anyway, I’ll get the new paperwork prepared and the two of you can stop by tomorrow evening. Let’s say…seven-thirty, if that works for you.”
   

Two days later the Hubers yet again found themselves in the Jarvis Realty office for an evening appointment. And once again, there was tentative good news.
Richard Vennekamp had prevailed on Deborah Vennekamp to approve the Hubers’ revised offer, and she had put her agreement in writing. But the house wouldn't officially belong to the Hubers until everything was signed off at the closing.
“So you’re saying that Deborah Vennekamp could still change her mind? The Vennekamps could still renege—just like that?” Jennifer inquired. She had not yet laid eyes on Deborah Vennekamp—not in the flesh, anyway—and she was already developing a strong dislike for the woman. This made Jennifer feel guilty, given Deborah Vennekamp’s unfortunate situation. But why did Mrs. Vennekamp have to carry on like this? Once a home was on the market, it was on the market—or at least it should be.
“If the Vennekamps reneged at this point,” Jarvis said, “then you might have a case for a civil suit against them, especially if you could prove that you lost money in the interim because you passed on another house—the ‘opportunity cost’ argument. Frankly, though, such cases are difficult to prove, and usually more trouble than they’re worth.”
“So the Vennekamps could renege, is what you’re saying,” Jennifer countered.
“I’m not going to lie to you two. The house isn’t officially, irrevocably yours until everyone signs the final contract at the closing. Nevertheless, each step further commits both parties. You’ve made a formal offer and the Vennekamps have formally accepted it. At this meeting we’re going to take care of the ten percent down payment.”
“Got it,” Clint said, removing an envelope from his breast pocket. The envelope contained a certified check that he had had prepared at the bank during his lunch hour. As the check was being typed up, Clint had reflected that the amount seemed impossibly large for a single purchase. And yet, this was only ten percent of the total financial commitment that he and Jennifer would be making.
“Excellent,” Jarvis said, sliding the check across his desk and depositing it in the desk’s top drawer. “The Vennekamps will have this tomorrow morning. You’ve got the rest of your financing lined up as well, right?”
“Yes,” Jennifer said. They had gone through their bank’s loan approval process weeks ago.
“All right, then. I had the house appraised when the Vennekamps came to me with the original listing, so we don't have to worry about a new appraisal, unless your bank specifically requests it. Our next step, then, is the inspection. Your bank won’t give the loan its final approval until the house has been examined by a certified inspector. And you should have that done for your own protection, as well. Do you have a home inspector whom you’d like to use?”
Jennifer and Clint looked at each other, momentarily puzzled. Here was a detail that they had not considered.
“Sorry,” Jennifer said. “I guess that we don’t.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. Home inspection isn’t the sort of service that most people use with any regularity. There’s an inspector I’ve referred to quite a few buyers, and they’ve been very satisfied with his work. His name is Lonny Jackson; he’s based in Cincinnati. Would you like me to call him to schedule an inspection of the Vennekamps’ home?”
Jennifer and Clint nodded in unison.
“Absolutely,” Jennifer said. “Because that house is going to be the Hubers’ home before long.”
   
7.   

Lonny Jackson was in a good mood: It was a sunny afternoon on a Tuesday in the middle of July; and he had only one more home inspection to complete before calling it a day.
Divorced and thirty-five, the job of home inspector suited Lonny Jackson perfectly. It wasn't a job that was ever going to make him rich, he realized, but there was more to life than getting rich. He was independently employed; the realtors and homeowners who paid him were customers—not bosses. (Several stints on company payrolls had taught Lonny to appreciate the difference.) For the most part, he set his own hours and made his own schedule. And he wasn't bound to a desk, cubicle or office—a distinct perk on a day like today.
Lonny parked his van in the driveway of 1120 Dunham Drive. Tom Jarvis had told him that the owners would be gone until evening, so he would have the place to himself. Jarvis had briefly mentioned that the man of the house was sick with some kind of cancer. Lonny felt the imprint of his Marlboros in his shirt pocket and felt a twinge of guilt. He had been procrastinating for some time about giving up smoking. Perhaps he should follow through on the idea.
But by the time he reached the front porch, he was already thinking about his plan for the evening: first a softball game, then a few beers at his favorite bar in Cincinnati. Then, if everything went well, he might be lucky enough to hook up with someone accommodating and female. He wouldn’t get his hopes up too much; but stranger things had happened.
The home’s lockbox was hanging on the doorknob, as usual. Lonny bent and dialed in the combination that Jarvis had given him and retrieved the front door key. He unlocked the door, stepped inside, and closed the door behind him.
Lonny had brought his “kit” with him: a hard plastic case that contained the tools of his trade: a voltage indicator, an electrical tester, a moisture meter, and some other diagnostic equipment. There were also some basic generic tools and several flashlights.
In addition, Lonny had a clipboard that contained his standard inspection checklist and the home’s disclosure statement: For a house built prior to World War II, there wasn't much wrong with it—at least that the owners were aware of. The disclosure statement listed some minor discoloration in one section of the kitchen floor and a small dent in the living room wall. The roof tiles had last been replaced a mere five years ago, so the roof would be problem-free for another twenty years. Not bad—but perhaps he would find something else.
Lonny went through his routine, beginning with the two upstairs levels, saving the basement for last. He turned on all of the electrical fixtures, and checked the voltage with his meters. He examined the piping beneath the sink and found no corrosion. (He noted with approval that it was copper piping—not the cheap polyurethane stuff that they used in houses today.)
Lonny did make a note regarding one of the first-floor windows: It probably had another three or four years left, but after that it would start to leak cool air in the summer and heat in the winter. It wouldn’t be a deal-breaker by any means, but the buyers should be aware of it.
Retrieving his ladder from the van, Lonny gave the roof a cursory inspection. This was the only part of the home inspection process in which, he knew, he sometimes gave his customers less than their full money’s worth. Lonny Jackson did not like heights; and he did not like walking around on roofs—especially roofs with steep pitches, like this one. But the roof was almost new, so Lonny checked “OK” on all of the roofing sections of his checklist and climbed back down.
He checked the attic: The insulation was sound, and there was no evidence of raccoons or wasp infestations.
He finally headed down to the basement, and he wondered (for the umpteenth time) why he always felt compelled to save the basement for last. Was he superstitious about basements—after all these years?
He recalled one of the homes of his early childhood, a house that his parents had thankfully sold when Lonny was ten. This house was old, and its basement was spooky, even during the daytime. Once during the year before the family moved, Lonny had run up from the basement crying, swearing that he’d seen a ghost. His older brother had given him hell for the next two years, and his father had scolded him for being a “scaredy-cat”. But Lonny had seen something. He was sure of it.
And so Lonny Jackson did not like basements in older houses. The basements in newer homes weren’t too bad—but the old ones occasionally gave him the creeps.
Turning on the light switch at the top of the stairs, Lonny began walking down into the basement of the house at 1120 Dunham Drive. He immediately noted that the overhead lights (simple bare bulbs) did not provide much illumination, so he would have to use his flashlight a lot.
The basement was cool and dank. At the bottom of the stairs, Lonny immediately noticed that there was no concrete floor, but only packed earth. He rarely saw dirt floors in basements; but this house was both older and perched atop a hill. He would have to diligently inspect for moisture, though.
Then Lonny heard the sound of movement from the far side of the basement. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He slowed his breathing and listened. The sound had been isolated. It might have been the house settling. Houses, he knew, were full of every manner of sounds; and it was easy to let your imagination run away from you—especially if you allowed yourself to think about what you saw in the basement of your childhood home when you were nine—
And damned if this basement didn't remind him of that other basement…
Then he stopped himself. He was no longer a child. Hell, he was in early middle age. Tonight he was going to play softball, drink beer, and maybe get laid. This basement was old and dark. That was all.
Lonny was about to exhale when he heard another sound.
This time he was able to pinpoint its source—more or less: There was a tiny sub-room at the far end of the basement. It was little more than a homemade enclosure, really. An amateur carpenter (probably the sick-with-cancer owner) had erected three walls of wood paneling against one of the basement’s brick walls. The little room had a doorway, but no door.
Something inside that little room had made a noise—something inside that room was watching him, even now. Enveloped in darkness, it could see him, but he could not see it.
This was ridiculous. He willed himself to think of summer and sunshine and softball. Of beer and women. But all of that was upstairs, beyond the walls of this house. He knew that he had to complete this inspection, and he also knew that he would be unable to complete the inspection until he checked inside the little room with his flashlight. His imagination would go crazy on him, and the room would become filled with every bogeyman of his childhood—most of all the ghost he had (he was sure) once seen in another basement, all those years ago.
Might as well get it over with, then…
Lonny pulled his flashlight from his pants pocket and turned it on. He made quick strides across the dirt floor and aimed the flashlight at the doorway of the little room as he walked. He could see the rear brick wall. There was nothing there, he was sure; but he would give the room a thorough look with the light before he inspected the basement.
Standing in the room’s doorway now, Lonny leaned inside with the flashlight.
And Lonny shrieked.
It wasn't the ghost from his childhood—but another ghost. A small, female ghost with angular facial features and a stern expression. It was the ghost of 1120 Dunham Drive.
But then Lonny, heart pounding, took a closer look.
It wasn't a ghost at all. She was a very much alive, very human woman. About fifty-five to sixty years old. She had graying light brown hair.
And very intense, cold blue eyes. She was staring at him, and making no attempt to explain her presence.
“You—you scared me, ma’am,” Lonny said. He noticed that she was squinting in the glare of the flashlight, so he discreetly lowered it.
She continued to stare at him. She appeared to be—hostile. But he might have been only imagining that. Surely he was only imagining that.
“And you’re in my house,” she said. “You’re in our house.”
“Then you’re Mrs. Vennekamp, correct?” Lonny noted that despite himself, both his body and his voice were still shaking.
“And you’re a shitbird,” she said. “A poo-poo head.”
Lonny was taken aback. Despite the absurdity of the woman’s remarks, her face and her tone made clear that she was absolutely serious. His heart and his lungs were still working overtime (he really had to give up smoking), but there was now a distinct glint of annoyance beneath the shock of this unexpected surprise.
“Ma’am, what are you talking about? I’ve got to inspect this house—including this basement. Including this room, as a matter of fact. Now, why don't you please go upstairs so I can finish?”
He added this last to assert his authority into the situation. Who did this woman think she was? It might be her house, but she had no cause nor justification for insulting him—even with a childish term like “poo-poo head”.
“No you won’t,” she replied. “Not in this room. This is my room. And it’s my house.”
Lonny was about to turn this into a full-blown pissing contest, when he noticed that both of Mrs. Vennekamp’s hands were behind her back.
“What do you have behind your back, ma’am? What are you holding?” Lonny asked.
The slightest hint of a smile crept onto Mrs. Vennekamp’s face.
“My house, shitbird,” she said.
Lonny allowed himself a few seconds to assess the situation. This woman was clearly off her rocker. And she was obviously holding something behind her back. She might be a small, late middle-aged woman, but she could easily plunge a dagger into his throat, or aim a gun, if she had one.
No inspection is worth this, he thought.
He looked quickly around the darkened, panel-enclosed room that Mrs. Vennekamp was occupying. There were odds and ends on the floor—paint cans, bricks, pallets. There was nothing in here that really needed to be inspected, was there?
I should simply leave, Lonny thought. I should pack up right now and get out of here.
But that would mean forfeiting the inspection fee, and possibly alienating Tom Jarvis, who sent as much business Lonny’s way as any other realtor. Besides, he really didn't know that this woman was holding some sort of a weapon behind her back. She might be holding nothing more than a family memento that she’d retrieved from the basement. She might be holding nothing at all. Mrs. Vennekamp might be completely bluffing him.
Lonny backed away from the tiny enclosed space. He decided to switch gears.
“You’re right, Mrs. Vennekamp. This is your house. And if you’ll let me inspect the rest of the basement, I’ll leave you to your lonesome in this room. Do we have a deal?”
Mrs. Vennekamp made no response, but nor did she further protest or threaten him.
Lonny made quick work of the remaining portion of the house inspection. He made sure that all of the requisite pipes were securely connected to the water heater and there were no leaks. He did check one corner of the basement with the moisture meter—but only one corner (and the corner farthest from the panel enclosure). Then he ran his flashlight across the ceiling.
No issues! Pass!
“I’m going back upstairs, Mrs. Vennekamp!” he called out, backing up the steps. For a brief moment he imagined Mrs. Vennekamp as a crazed apparition of a woman, roaring out of the darkened little room with a raised butcher knife and glistening eyes.
But Mrs. Vennekamp remained where he had found her. Her eyes followed him up the stairs, but she did not molest him beyond that.


Finally back out in his van, Lonny asked himself the obvious questions. He spoke aloud, as was his habit at times, and a permissible self-indulgence for man who works alone.
“What the hell happened back there? Was that woman frigging bonkers, or what?”
And then he silently asked himself another question: What difference did it make? He had completed most all of the home inspection by the book, Mrs. Vennekamp’s intrusions notwithstanding. He could complain, of course—but that would only come back on him in the form of lost business in the future.
Moreover, what could he really prove? He and Mrs. Vennekamp had been the only people in that house. No one had witnessed their exchange.
“Forget about it, Lonny!” he said to himself, starting up the van. “You’ll never see that crazy old woman again!”
Backing out of the driveway, he reflected that there was actually a silver lining here: Lonny’s softball and drinking buddies were always telling stories about their jobs. One member of his crowd was a cop, another a fire fighter. But Lonny’s line of work seldom produced anything but bland monotony, pleasant and undemanding though it usually was.
Lonny put the van in gear and drove away from 1120 Dunham Drive. As he stepped down on the van’s accelerator, he was laughing.
He finally had a work-related story worth telling his buddies.


8.

Clint and Jennifer were more than pleased to hear that the house passed the inspection with flying colors.
“There’s one minor issue,” Jarvis told them over the phone. “A window that might be a problem a few years down the road. But nothing worth making a stink about at this point. I assume that you two are still anxious to close on the house as soon as possible.”
“Uh, yeah. Can you schedule the closing for tomorrow?” Jennifer asked.
“Okay,” Jarvis laughed. “I get it.”
“No more problems from Mrs. Vennekamp?” Clint asked.
“Officially, no. I detect some tension between the Vennekamps; but that’s their problem. Mr. Vennekamp appears to be in charge still. Richard and Deborah Vennekamp have officially accepted your offer, and our next step is the closing. Now, let’s not jinx things.”
“No sir,” Clint said. “Not on your life.”


Jarvis was able to pull the closing together in only two weeks—remarkably fast for the habitually glacial real estate industry. The joint meeting between the buyers, sellers, and associated parties was scheduled for one evening in late August, in the office of Jarvis Realty.
The Hubers arrived early and sat with Tom Jarvis in the realty office’s main meeting room, and waited for the others. The representative from the title company, Belinda Davies, arrived five minutes before the appointed time.
Ms. Davies, a platinum blonde in her late forties, drifted into the room on a waft of perfume, carrying an armload of folders. Jarvis had warned the Hubers that both they and the Vennekamps were going to be signing a lot of documents today. “Be prepared for wrist and finger cramps,” the realtor had told them.
The closing had been scheduled for 7:00 p.m. It was 7:12 when Belinda Davies smiled awkwardly and asked: “Has anyone heard from the Vennekamps?”
“There they are,” Jarvis said, swiveling around in his chair and indicating the parking lot. The outer wall of the meeting room was all windows, and it afforded a clear view of the couple exiting the metallic blue Ford Taurus in the parking lot. Jennifer recognized the Vennekamps from the portrait she had seen in their house, though both were much changed.
They had aged, obviously, but the transformations ran deeper. Richard Vennekamp’s previously blond hair was thin and white, his exposed scalp a mass of blemishes. Jennifer didn't know if these were a result of his cancer, or simply aging. Richard walked with difficulty, supported by a cane.
Deborah Vennekamp had aged less radically since the portrait had been taken, but the face of the woman in the parking lot did not belong to the cheerful woman who posed for that long-ago portrait. Her lips showed not the faintest trace of a smile, nor levity. Her eyes were locked straight ahead. What did they call that? Oh yes: the thousand-yard stare.
Richard was wearing a pair of dress slacks, a dress shirt, and a blue blazer that hung on his thin frame. (He had also lost a lot of weight.) Deborah was wearing a wool skirt that had to be uncomfortably hot in the muggy, late summer twilight. On the lapel of her tan corduroy blazer was a large button with writing on it.
As the couple approached the main entrance of the realty office, Richard Vennekamp leaned on his wife for support.
He must be receiving regular chemo treatments, Jennifer thought. One of her great uncles, a man she had barely known, had died of esophageal cancer during her high school years. She had seen the uncle during his chemotherapy phase, and he had looked a lot like Richard Vennekamp: weak, drained, and in visible discomfort.
I hope we’re doing the right thing, Jennifer thought. But wasn't it clear that the Vennekamps had to sell the house, given Richard’s condition?
The Vennekamps passed out of view and the bell hanging over the front entrance jingled. Acting as host, Tom Jarvis stood and walked to the doorway of the meeting room. He smiled expansively and beckoned the Vennekamps forward.
The couple walked in, and Jarvis helped Richard Vennekamp into the seat nearest the door. No one mentioned the fact that the Vennekamps had arrived late.
Deborah Vennekamp sat down directly across from Jennifer. Now Jennifer could read the letters that were printed on her lapel button:

“Question? Ask your friendly Mydale Public Library Librarian!”

A librarian, Jennifer thought. How difficult can she be? In Jennifer’s experience, librarians were among the gentlest, most soft-spoken people in the world. It wasn't a profession that attracted the strong-willed or the confrontational.
Tom Jarvis began making the introductions around the room. He was introducing Belinda Davies to Richard when Jennifer heard the whispered profanity.
“Shitbird!” she thought she heard Deborah Vennekamp hiss, as the woman stared directly at her. Deborah’s stare was unblinking, nearly catatonic. Her lips were pursed tightly together.
“Excuse me?” Jennifer asked shakily. She wondered if anyone else in the room might have heard it. Then she realized that Jarvis, Belinda Davies, Clint, and Richard Vennekamp were distracted by the other introductions. Deborah and Jennifer were momentarily alone at the far end of the table. The older woman continued to stare silently at Jennifer, offering no explanation.
She couldn’t really have said that, could she? I must have been hearing things.
“Mrs. Huber,” Jarvis said, distracting her. “You’ve already met Ms. Davies. This is Richard and Deborah Vennekamp.”
She had already heard Richard Vennekamp explain that he couldn’t stand for introductions, but he explained again.
“Sorry,” he wheezed. “Hard to stand up. Glad to meet you, though.”
“I’m glad to meet you, too, Mr. Vennekamp.”
Jennifer detected not the slightest hint of malice or mental imbalance in the face of Richard Vennekamp, who gamely leaned across the table and shook her hand despite his pain. He smiled at her, in fact.
He’s just a normal man, thought Jennifer. A normal man who has been dealt a very bad situation.
She noticed that Jarvis had not directly introduced Deborah Vennekamp to anyone yet. Was the realtor afraid of her?
Well, I’m not going to be afraid of her. A librarian, after all. And we are buying her house…
“Mrs. Vennekamp, I presume,” Jennifer said. She rose and extended her hand in Deborah’s direction.
The other woman kept her hands folded in her lap. She briefly regarded Jennifer’s hand, then flinched and turned away as if it were something disgusting, something covered in dirt or excrement.
She heard Tom Jarvis clear his throat. The realtor looked at Jennifer and discreetly shook his head. Leave her well enough alone, was the message that Jarvis seemed to be conveying.
“Anyway,” Jarvis said. “We’ve got a lot of signatures to gather this evening, but we can hopefully have everyone out of here by eight thirty.”
What followed was an endless succession of documents. They were removed from various folders and envelopes, then circulated around the table for signatures. The Vennekamps and the Hubers had to sign almost all of them; many others also required the signatures of Jarvis and Belinda Davies.
They were interrupted when Jarvis’s twenty-something administrative assistant entered with a cart bearing a tray of finger sandwiches and an ice bucket containing bottled water, and several varieties of soft drinks.
“So,” Belinda Davies addressed the Hubers as the administrative assistant was placing the refreshments in the center of the table, “are the two of you excited?”
“Yes indeed,” Clint said. Jennifer noted—not for the first time—that Clint seemed to have warmed considerably to the idea of home ownership as the pieces of the transaction had fallen into place during the preceding weeks. “We’ve been living in rented places ever since we were married. It’ll be great to have a place of our own that we can call home.”
“Do you have any children?” Belinda Davies asked.
“One,” Clint answered. “Connor. Six years old.”
“How nice. Every child appreciates a back yard to play in. Especially little boys.”
“And we’re going to get a cat!” Jennifer interjected, with more enthusiasm than would ordinarily accompany such a declaration.
Clint rolled his eyes and groaned aloud. “Ugh, cats!
Jarvis laughed. “I detect that only one half of the Huber couple is a cat-lover.”
“I’ve never liked cats,” Clint admitted. “Nothing against the little critters, mind you. I’ve just never wanted one.”
“But I absolutely love them,” Jennifer said, leaning into her husband. She thought: This is the closing for my first home. That woman across the table is not going to ruin it, whatever her problem is. “Do you remember that cat my roommates and I kept in college? Mr. Patches?”
“Oh, yeah,” Clint said. “I remember Mr. Patches. He hated me. I still have scars on my shin.”
“Mr. Patches was only being protective,” Jennifer said.
“The damn cat nearly took my leg off.”
This last comment elicited laughter from around the room. Jennifer noticed that even Richard gave Clint an obligatory smile.
Deborah Vennekamp, though, gave no reaction. Her hands were spread out on the table, palms down. She was looking down at the space between them, even though that space was only a blank tabletop.
Still more documents were brought out to be read aloud and explained, then signed and initialed. Throughout this process, Belinda Davies’ cell phone chirped numerous times. Each time, she checked it but did not answer it.
“You know,” Tom Jarvis said (he had done the lion’s share of the talking thus far), “I think we could all use a break.” The realtor glanced at the wall clock at the front of the meeting room. It was already past eight o’clock. His promise to have everyone on their way home before 8:30 would likely not be fulfilled. “How about we take ten minutes, then meet back here and finish up?”
This suggestion was greeted with general agreement—most of all that of Belinda Davies, who hurried out of the meeting room, cell phone in hand.
After making a quick stop in the restroom and at the water fountain, Jennifer saw her husband leaning in the overhang of the building’s front stoop, just outside the glass double doors of the entrance. She walked outside and joined him.
“What do you think?” she asked, taking his hand. “Our first house is almost a reality?”
Clint nodded. He looked quickly around the parking lot, to make sure that no one was eavesdropping on them. “Let’s be grateful that Deborah Vennekamp didn't stage a last-minute protest and ruin the whole thing. I have the feeling that there is a lot of conflict between the Vennekamps right now, and that Tom Jarvis is aware of it but not sharing. Did you notice how he’s been avoiding Mrs. Vennekamp? He didn't even introduce her.”
“I noticed. And you should have heard what she called me.”
Clint seemed surprised. Apparently Mrs. Vennekamp had managed to utter her insult at just the right volume—so that Jennifer would hear it but no one else.
She told Clint what Deborah Vennekamp had called her. Clint shook his head in disbelief.
“Incredible. Do you want me to say something to her? Or to Jarvis?”
“No,” Jennifer answered emphatically. “Let’s just get this over with. Did you notice the button on Mrs. Vennekamp’s lapel? She’s a librarian, for goodness sake. She’s no threat to anyone—just a bitter woman who is having a difficult time adjusting to her reality.”
“I’ll say. Anyhow, I’m going to make a quick pit stop in the restroom before we wrap this up. I’ll meet you back there, okay?”
Jennifer walked back to the meeting room alone, expecting that she and Clint would be the last ones to return to the closing. She was mistaken, however. When she entered the meeting room, Jennifer found herself alone with Mrs. Vennekamp.
She considered turning around and walking back out. That would be easy enough to do. The others would return within a few minutes; and she could simply wait in the hallway until then.
Then she reconsidered. That would be cowardly, and more than a little silly. She was allowing this woman—this middle-aged librarian—to intimidate her. Or maybe she was merely intimidating herself. What could Deborah Vennekamp actually do to her, other than stare at her and call her a “shitbird”?
Then she thought again of Ohio Excel Logistics, of the petty blackmail scheme that she had allowed herself to fall into.
That cinched her resolve. Jennifer strode deliberately into the meeting room and took her seat directly across from Deborah Vennekamp. Deborah Vennekamp did not look at her. As before, she stared at the tabletop.
“Well,” Jennifer said, in an almost defiant attempt to make small talk, “this is almost over.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Deborah Vennekamp answered in a low, deliberate voice that was little more than a whisper. “This isn’t over at all.” Deborah continued to look downward, at the space between her outstretched hands.
“What do you mean by that?” Jennifer asked, in feigned ignorance. “There are only a few more documents to sign, based on what Mr. Jarvis said.”
Deborah looked up from the tabletop and stared directly at Jennifer.
“It’s our house. It will always be our house.”
Jennifer was genuinely shaken now. For the first time, she allowed herself to consider the notion that Deborah Vennekamp might be something more than a late middle-aged woman with a sick husband and a neurotic attachment to a house.
Then Belinda Davies drifted in, all smiles and bounce. Tom Jarvis followed closely behind her. He must have sensed that something was wrong at the far end of the table.
“Anything wrong, Jennifer?”
Jennifer forced herself to smile. No matter what Deborah Vennekamp said, this was almost over.
“No, Tom. Nothing’s wrong at all.”


They left the closing with the house keys in hand. The house was officially theirs.
“What do you think,” Jennifer suggested on the ride home, “do you think we should stop by tonight, just to check the place out?”
Clint laughed and reached across the front center console of the minivan to squeeze her hand. “I understand your enthusiasm,” he said, “but we have to pick up Connor from my parents’ house.”
They had talked about taking Connor to the closing; but they both finally agreed that there was no way a six-year-old could sit still in the lobby of a real estate office for two hours.
“I mean—just a quick check.”
“Why?” Clint replied. It was too late, really. He was already driving up the interstate ramp that would take them to Cincinnati.
Jennifer sighed. “Oh, never mind—I suppose I’m being silly. I was just thinking—you know—if Deborah Vennekamp were to set the house on fire as a final act of defiance, or anything.”
“If she did that,” Clint said, “then she’d go to jail. There are provisions in the contract to handle any mischief of that sort. Besides, I don't see her as the sort of person who would take things that far.”
“She didn't call you any nasty names.” Then she told Clint about her exchange with Mrs. Vennekamp in the meeting room, at the end of the break.
“Hmm. That does sound odd; and I don’t like the implied threat. But you have to remember that words are only words, after all. What’s more, Mr. Vennekamp strikes me as a perfectly rational guy, sick though he is. I can’t see him allowing anything like that to happen.”
She reflected that Clint apparently believed that no wife would do anything truly duplicitous behind her husband’s back. And that was probably true in the case of his mother. Clint’s mom practically worshipped the ground his father walked on, and it was hard to imagine Clint’s mother, Gladys, doing anything behind his father’s back. Anything at all…
Some women aren’t so good, she thought. Women like me…
She stopped herself from going down this line of thought, because she knew that it was not as simple as that. But she was struck by Clint’s simple faith in a cancer-stricken man’s ability to control his (apparently) mentally ill wife. She was relieved, again, that there were certain things Clint did not know; and these were things that she was determined he would never find out.
“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “Anyway, the weekend is coming up, and this time next week we’ll be moved in. Maybe we can find time to check the house tomorrow.”

9.

But they didn't check the house the next day. They were both distracted by their jobs, and taking care of Connor, and confirming the last-minute arrangements for the move. They discovered that neither one of them had called the utility companies to have the accounts switched over to their names. They had (wrongly) assumed that this was handled automatically when the house changed ownership. As they went down the items in their “move checklist”, they discovered several more items that needed to be handled as well, forcing them to scramble.
The day after the closing, Jim Lindsay—Jennifer’s boss’s boss at Ohio Excel Logistics—summoned her into his office for a “meeting”. He sent her a message on the company’s instant messaging system, so that his name popped up on her computer screen with the words, “Got a minute for a meeting? Could you drop by my office, please?”
Despite the interrogative form, both parties were aware that it was a command, not a request. Jennifer sighed and turned away from the trucking schedules that she had been examining on her screen, and steeled herself for the “meeting”.
When she stood up from her desk, her immediate supervisor, Angela Bauer, cleared her throat. Only the senior managers at Ohio Excel Logistics had private offices. Everyone else worked in a large open office space.
“Jim has asked me to go to his office,” Jennifer explained.
Angela smirked. “I guess you'd better go, then.”
Angela was one year older than Jennifer. She was unmarried, plain, and humorless. Although she had never articulated her suspicions, she made clear that she believed Jennifer was sleeping with Jim Lindsay. In Angela Bauer’s universe, this was apparently part of Jennifer’s long-term plan to get ahead “the easy way”. If Angela only knew.
Jennifer did not rise to Angela’s thinly concealed barb. She sighed and began walking toward the office. She could see Jim within the glass enclosure, discreetly watching her progress. As was always the case, Jennifer approached Jim Lindsay’s office as a slave forced into the gladiatorial games might approach the Coliseum. Or at least that was the way she thought of it.
Jim smiled ever-so-slightly, ever-so-knowingly as she entered.
“Jennifer, sit down,” he said, gesturing to the chair in front of his desk. Jim Lindsay was tall and in his mid-forties. He had a son and a daughter in college; but he had been divorced for the better part of ten years.
Here we go! she thought.
“I understand that you and Clint closed on a house last night,” Jim said, his eyebrows raised.
“How did you know that?” she asked.
“Oh, that sort of thing is public information, you know.”
Jim’s revelation confirmed one of her long-standing suspicions: That her boss’s boss was spying on her, using a variety of online and offline methods. She could complain to human resources, but she had no real proof. Besides, she had her own reasons for keeping this matter to herself.
“I guess you’re right,” she said neutrally. “I’m glad to see that you’ve mastered Google, along with your hidden video camera techniques.”
She knew that she really shouldn't bait him like this; but she was sick of it. All she wanted was to move into her new home, and live in peace with her husband and son. Why couldn't Jim Lindsay find another hobby besides her?
“Touché,” he said. “I’m sure Clint’s very proud of himself, finally moving into a home after so many years of marriage, with your son practically in high school.”
“Jim,” she corrected him. “Connor hasn't even started first grade yet. Not that it’s any of your business.”
She also knew that the walls of Jim Lindsay’s office were soundproof. Anyone who happened to walk by would see an ordinary corporate scenario—a manager discussing a confidential issue with a junior employee. Their facial expressions might hint at conflict, but that would be nothing out of the ordinary. Ohio Excel Logistics—a company engaged in the highly competitive field of transportation brokering—was a pressure cooker even without managers like Jim Lindsay.
“Well, I’m just happy for you, that’s all,” Jim said, as if backing down.
How could I have ever found him attractive—even if I were single? she wondered. Even for a nanosecond?
“Thank you. May I go back to my desk now? I’ve got a ton of work, and Angela doesn't like me very much, even without me engaging in extended meetings in your office that don't include her.”
Jim leaned back in his chair, removed a pencil from his shirt pocket, and began tapping on the desk’s blotter.
“Jennifer, Jennifer. What is it going to take for us to be friends? We were friends once, you’ll remember.”
“We aren’t friends, Jim. We’re coworkers. Or rather—you’re a manager and I’m a logistics planner. And you can stop already talking about us being ‘friends once’. Nothing happened, really.”
“Oh, I somehow think that Clint would say otherwise, if he saw a certain ten seconds of video.”
Jim had just named the source of all her anxiety over the past two years: ten seconds of video. Ten seconds of video that weren’t what they seemed, but could nevertheless destroy her marriage.
“How long are you going to keep playing that card, Jim? It isn’t exactly a sex tape, you know.”
Jim gave her another smile, clearly enjoying the cat-and-mouse aspect of this conversation. Jennifer had recently determined that her manager’s machinations were about much more than the normal masculine quest for sex. Slimeball though he was, Jim was a brash, decent-looking man who held an impressive job and hauled down a respectable income. He could have found other female takers. He was fixated on her because she had rebuffed him—and because he held a unique form of leverage over her (which she had given him with her own momentary lapse of reason).
“Oh, I think it would be enough of a sex tape for Clint,” Jim chuckled. “Fair enough, Jennifer, you can go back to your desk now. Let’s not drive Angela crazy.”

10.

It was Saturday—their move-in day—before they visited their new home at 1120 Dunham Drive.
They arrived early in the morning, hours before the moving van was scheduled to arrive. They had wanted to save the expense of hiring professional movers, but there was simply no way that Jennifer could help Clint move their heavier pieces of furniture out of the condo. Clint’s father—now in his mid-sixties—would have helped, but he had recently been suffering from lower back pain. Neither of them had considered asking Hank Riley; they both knew that Jennifer’s father would have politely but firmly demurred. Hank did not—and never had—cared for manual labor of any sort.
As recently as a few years ago, Clint would have been able to marshal the services of any number of college buddies. They would have made a day of it; four or five of them would have pitched in, and Jennifer would have made them all supper. The day would have concluded with a little party at the new house.
That circle of friends had mostly drifted away, however. About half of them had moved away. Others had simply retreated into their own lives, consumed now with the duties of marriage, childrearing, and mortgage payments. This realization made Clint more than a little wistful.
There were in fact a small number of them remaining in Cincinnati—a few that he still could have contacted. However, a little more than two years ago, he had gone through a phase of hanging around with his remaining college friends a bit too often. The situation had come to a head at home; and Clint had since let those contacts wither, too, focusing instead on his marriage and his relationship with Connor.
When the minivan pulled into the driveway of the new house, where the dew was still drying on the lawn, Clint could not resist ribbing Jennifer a bit.
“Well look at that,” he said. “Mrs. Vennekamp didn't burn the place down, after all. Looks like our new house is still very much intact.”
“I’m telling you, that woman stared at me with a look of absolute hatred during the closing.” Jennifer shivered at the memory. Since the closing, however, she had allowed herself to tentatively accept Clint’s notion that they had seen the last of Deborah Vennekamp.
“She’ll never look at you again, hon. Nor you at her.”
During the closing they had also gained possession of the house’s two garage door remotes; but these had both been inadvertently left in Jennifer’s car. They therefore made their first entrance as the official owners of 1120 Dunham Drive through the front door, as they had first entered as prospective buyers.
Clint opened the door and stepped immediately inside, expecting to be greeted by the coolness of the house’s air conditioning. Instead he stepped into a virtual furnace.
A furnace that smelled horrible.
“What’s that smell?” Jennifer said. She began coughing, both from the heat and from the cloying, putrescent odor.
“I don’t know,” Clint said. He walked rapidly down the hall toward the main thermostat.
“Here’s the problem,” he said, flicking several switches on the wall-mounted device. “The heat has been turned on.” He shook his head. “Now, why would someone do that in August?” He turned and faced Jennifer. “The heat had been set to ninety degrees—the maximum setting. I’ve turned the air conditioning on. It’ll take a while, but that will cool things off.”
Jennifer walked past him, into the kitchen, already realizing what Clint probably knew but had not said. The heat had been turned up absurdly high on purpose. This was a housewarming gift from Deborah Vennekamp—no pun intended.
But Deborah Vennekamp had not been content to merely turn the furnace on high during the height of summer. When Jennifer entered the kitchen, she noted that all four of the stovetop burners were bright orange.
She rushed over to the stove and clicked the burners off in rapid succession. She also turned the oven off. Deborah Vennekamp had turned that on, too.
Clint was beside her now. “I can’t believe this. She could have burned the place down.”
“And you laughed at the very idea. Thought it was a joke.”
Jennifer paused, stopped herself. This had not been Clint’s fault, and she was wrong to take it out on him. One of the former owners of their new home was deranged, that was all. She was feeling angry because Clint had not protected her from the unpleasant exchange with Mrs. Vennekamp at the closing, even though he had offered to intervene and she had explicitly told him not to.
She was being unreasonable.
“I’m sorry, hon,” she said. “You didn't deserve that. It’s just that—this is crazy, you know?”
Clint nodded, allowing the unprovoked reproach to pass unanswered. This made her feel even worse about what she had said. More often than not, it was Clint—and not Jennifer—who stepped back from an incipient argument, consciously avoiding escalation. “I know. It is crazy.”
“We can’t write it off as an accident, can we?”
“No, that definitely wasn't an accident.”
Moreover, there was still the matter of the smell: It was the deeply putrid smell of organic decay, an odor that made them both reflexively recoil. Now that the furnace and the stove had been taken care of, the problem of the smell became all the more urgent.
“It seems to be coming from the front of the house,” Clint said. “Take a little whiff and you’ll notice that it isn’t as strong here in the kitchen. It was stronger in the front hall, near the thermostat, and even stronger right by the front door. It’s as if we were intended to smell it the instant we came in the door—”
They both arrived at the same thought, more or less simultaneously: The front closet. Whatever was reeking so bad had to be in the front closet.
They walked double-time toward the front of the house, Clint leading the way. The smell definitely grew more intense as they approached the door of the front closet, in the foyer of the house. There could be no doubt that this was the horrific smell’s epicenter.
Clint reached forward to yank open the door, and Jennifer thought: Wait, maybe we should call the police! What if Mrs. Vennekamp, in her deceptive insanity, had murdered someone and stowed the victim in the Hubers’ front closet?
She did not express this thought, though, and Clint opened the front closet with a turn of a doorknob and a single jerk.
The smell wafted out of the open space, thick and nauseating. Jennifer felt her gorge rise.
They could both see the collection of dead animals in one rear corner of the closet: there were three mice, a grackle, a sparrow, and what looked like a frog. There was no way to know how long this gruesome menagerie had been there, but there was no doubt that they had been placed there deliberately.
Jennifer looked at the pile and retched. Before losing the oatmeal she had eaten for breakfast, she barely made it into the downstairs bathroom, which was luckily only a few paces away.
That vindictive old bitch! Jennifer thought to herself, leaning over the commode, her abdominal muscles aching. Suddenly she found herself bereft of any sense of charity she might once have held for Mrs. Vennekamp. What the woman had done was unforgivable.
She flushed the toilet twice and came back out into the hall. Clint, somewhat unbelievably, was already busy with the cleanup. He held a broom and a garbage bag, and he was wearing a pair of old work gloves. He must have retrieved these items from the minivan—which they had loaded with cleaning supplies, among other things—while she was in the bathroom.
“What are you doing?” Jennifer asked.
Clint smiled weakly. “What does it look like? I’m cleaning this mess up. I’m not going to let that old biddy ruin our first day in our new house.”
“Thanks. That’s very sweet of you. But shouldn't we call the police or something?”
“And tell them what? Tell them that we opened up the house, the furnace was cranked up full blast, and that there were a few dead vermin in one of the closets? There’s nothing we can prove here. All of this can be explained away, either as an honest mistake or an accident.”
“How do dead animals find their way into a closed closet?”
“Animals find their way into houses all the time, Jen. I’m sure it never happened at your house, because Hank had the money for a nice place that was fully insulated. But our house abutted a woods, and there were crevices where things could get inside. At various times during my growing up years, we had mice, bats, and once a raccoon.”
“So you’re saying that you think this was an accident, that these animals walked in here and died, like in some ancient tar pit?”
Clint sighed. “Of course not. Give me some credit. We both know that Deborah Vennekamp was behind this. But I’m talking about what we can prove—versus what we can’t prove.”
Jennifer was torn by two conflicting reactions. On one hand, Clint was stepping up, being the man, taking care of things. On the other hand, he was taking care of them in an almost escapist manner. She thought that some sort of a complaint should be filed—with Tom Jarvis, at the very least.
But then, she could also see Clint’s point: There was nothing here that Deborah Vennekamp was likely to be arrested for—and did she really want that, anyway? No, what she wanted was to forget that she’d ever met that woman, and focus on getting settled into their new house.
“I guess you’re right,” she said. “But what about the smell?”
Clint was leaning into the closet now, using the broom and one gloved hand to place the dead animals, one by one, into the garbage bag.
“We have stuff that will get rid of the smell. Even though this stinks, they haven’t been here for that long, and nothing has seeped into either the wall or the hardwood floor.”
“Are you sure?”
He nodded. “Once when I was a kid, we returned home from vacation and found that a raccoon had wiggled its way into our garage, and then into our laundry room. Don't ask me how. Anyway, it died in there, and the smell was absolutely horrible. Much worse than this. My father used some ordinary cleaning supplies and opened the windows for a while. The smell went away. You’ve been to my parents’ house hundreds of times, and have you ever smelled anything like a dead raccoon?”
“I guess not,” she laughed. If he had decided to make the best of this, then maybe she should, too.
“Okay. We’ll do it your way. What’s next?”
“Let me finish cleaning this up and spray some Lysol. Then I think we’d better check the rest of the house. Our good friend Deborah Vennekamp may have left us some other surprises.”


They first gave the rest of the first floor a quick inspection: The living room, dining room, and the kitchen (now that the stove was turned off) were free of any visible or olfactory signs of mischief. Their impromptu inspection was reasonably thorough: They opened the refrigerator and the freezer, the pantry, and all of the cabinets and drawers. These were all places where Mrs. Vennekamp could have stowed more gruesome mementos for them to find.
But there was nothing.
Finally, Jennifer opened the dishwasher. The interior of the dishwasher was spotless, but it made Jennifer consider another angle.
“What if Deborah damaged the house in some fundamental way? Like, what if she cut a water line or pulled some of the electrical wiring apart with a pair of pliers?”
“There’s a provision in the contract that gives us forty-five days to take recourse for anything like that,” Clint replied. “We need to check all of that, but we’ll have time to do that later. Right now I’m looking for the obvious.”
“Like more dead animals?”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
They also checked the upstairs bedrooms, including the master bedroom. Jennifer could imagine Deborah placing something especially hideous in the master bedroom, so as to ruin the site of their marital bed. However, they found nothing out of the ordinary upstairs.
“Do we need to check the attic?” Jennifer asked.
“Maybe just a quick check. Wait here.”
She waited while Clint hustled out to the minivan, and returned with a penlight. The attic could be accessed through a ceiling panel in the closet of the master bedroom. Conveniently, there was built-in shelving in the closet that Clint was able to use as footholds.
He climbed back down, replacing the ceiling panel behind him.
“Nothing,” he said.
“So what’s left?”
“Just the basement.”
They went downstairs, to the first floor, then into the kitchen, where the door to the basement was located.
They opened the door and turned on the light. No suspicious smells greeted them. Clint held Jennifer back while he swept the stairs with the penlight. For a person with a truly vicious turn of mind, the stairs would have been an ideal place for various trip hazards. But once again, they were relieved to find that Mrs. Vennekamp had not risen to the occasion.
“Maybe there’s nothing else,” Jennifer said, following Clint down the stairs.
“Maybe not,” he agreed. “Maybe she wore herself out catching those birds and mice.”
Nor were there any booby traps at the bottom of the stairs. Jennifer was beginning to feel secure in the conclusion that Mrs. Vennekamp really had done her worst in the upstairs hall closet. Her intention had been to register her displeasure—at the Hubers, and probably at her husband as well, who had the audacity to disrupt her life and her living situation by developing pancreatic cancer.
Then they saw the writing in chalk on the far wall: In all caps, Mrs. Vennekamp had written, “GO TO HELL!”
Clint shook his head, as if his capacity for amazement had already been exceeded. “I suppose that does send a message,” he said.
“No,” Jennifer said, her voice suddenly trembling, “that sends her real message.”
On the floor beneath the three words were three dolls: There was Barbie, along with her companion Ken. Since Ken and Barbie had been given no progeny by their Mattel creators, Deborah had chosen a different doll to represent a child: It was a Dapper Dan, a childlike plush doll that had seen its heyday in the 1960s and the 1970s.
Dapper Dan had been crudely decapitated, along with his parents, Ken and Barbie. The symbolism here was crude and unmistakable.
“That sick—” Clint began.
“Do you think we should call the police now?”
“And tell them what? Deborah Vennekamp will claim that the words have been there for years. And as far as I know, there is no law against destroying a doll.”
“Okay,” she said. “Have it your way.”
“What’s that suppose to mean?”
“It means: that woman made a mess in our front closet before she gave up the house. She wrote an obscenity on the basement wall here, and she clearly intended to convey a threat with these dolls.”
He turned around and placed both hands on her shoulders. “Jen, I know that you’re angry about all of this; and believe me—I’m angry, too. But let’s keep this in perspective: Deborah Vennekamp is a fiftysomething librarian. She’s a pathetic woman whose life is unraveling. First her husband gets sick, then she has to leave the house she loves—”
“Clint—it almost sounds like you’re taking her side.”
“No, I’m not. I’m simply saying that everything we’ve found here today is easily fixable. The mess in the hall closet has been cleaned up. These chalk letters will come off with one pass of a wet sponge. And we’ll throw the damn dolls away.
“What I’m saying, Jen, is that I don’t want to let this woman get under our skin. She’s gone now, she has plenty of problems of her own, and we’ll never see her again. This was her parting shot, her grand finale. This is over. Now—let’s forget about this crap, and focus on enjoying our new house. The movers will be here in a few hours. Deal?”
Jennifer was able to grasp what her husband was saying, and even see the sense in it, at a certain level.
But on another level, she could not escape the conviction that these dark gestures signified an underlying rage—a rage that went far beyond the ordinary, a rage that could not be explained away as a simple neurotic obsession with a house. To think otherwise was to engage in wishful thinking. They would hear from Deborah Vennekamp again.
However, Jennifer Huber was in the mood for some wishful thinking at that moment—in the mood to believe that everything was going to turn out all right, that this woman would never have the will to seriously threaten her family.
“Deal,” she finally said.


*****End of excerpt*******