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Untitled Southern Gothic Novel: Chapter One

Dear Reader:

If you are a writer, you understand the struggle inherent in being a writer. It is, the vast majority of the time, a very solitary experience. There is little to no feedback during the process, which is merely fine for some of us, and some of us very much prefer it that way. I find myself, at times, questioning every word on the page for most of the writing process. (I’m questioning the suffocating level of self-indulgence in this very blog post!)

I’ve decided to post my most current project on my blog, chapter by chapter. At first, I started writing it with the goal of eventually publishing it somewhere. To be honest, I have lost almost all my faith in gaining any sort of recognition or merely publication by any outlet other than my own website or self-publishing.

Perhaps, then, publishing or recognition is not what writing is about for me. It might only be an exercise to keep me engaged in something that isn’t solely inside of my own head. At least words on a screen or a page show me proof that I can do something other than think.

I am hoping that having a weekly deadline will allow me the motivation to keep writing. I have a bit of a head start, but plan to keep momentum.

Below is the first chapter of this currently untitled project. Thanks for reading!

-Cameron Harrie

1.

The sticky, dense heat was playing with his mind. The constant buzz of insects and the lack of a breeze made him feel claustrophobic despite the immense acreage they were travelling across.

The driver, Elroy, turned around, shouting over the engine, “It ain’t too much further now, Mr. Wilson!”

“Thank you,” Mr. Wilson replied. His full name was Skip Marion Wilson, III. He was a writer from Connecticut. He had begun to feel, back home, like he was unable to put thoughts together; any that might result in good work, anyway.

The South had called to him, or more aptly, whispered to him, through an acquaintance of his, Deandra White.

Deandra White was a Southern export, a society woman who “grew tired of the heat, and of the same old faces” in Georgia, and had moved north to make new connections and find a husband. Skip met her at a gala, where she, newly arrived, stuck out like a sore thumb and thus he was immediately drawn to her. Skip did not stick out, but merely felt like he did, a common ailment among solitary noetic types. They swiftly became thick as thieves, and only started to thin out into more casual acquaintances when rumors began to swirl that they were an “item.” This was a problem for the both of them, as Deandra was intent on finding a man to marry before she turned twenty-nine, and Skip was planning on retaining his bachelorhood as long as possible.

They ran into each other at a function during the winter, and when Skip mentioned needing a change of scenery, Deandra’s eyes lit up and she said, slyly, “I know a place where you can get away for a bit. A fabulous couple with a fabulous home. The Smiths of Cumberland Heights. They’re always looking for guests to show off to.” Skip figured the reason Deandra was so delighted to share this bit of information was that his getaway would grant her the optics of being truly single, and even more importantly, available.

The Smiths were wealthy, having inherited large sums of money and valuable property from each of their families. According to local lore, they had bonded over being only children and orphaned young adults, a rarity in Cumberland Heights. Three months after meeting, they eloped, sold their estates, consolidated their assets, and moved into the old Winthorpe Mansion, the most legendary home in the neighborhood. Gossip would have it that the Smiths sunk so much of their funds into renovating the Estate that they were now house poor, but Deandra knew better. “They’re swimming in money,” she said as she downed her third glass of champagne.

As the car made its way closer to the home, Skip could see why it had such a reputation. He felt it had been hours since passing the gate. Perhaps it’s merely the heat that’s dulled my sense of time, he thought.

“We’ve made it!” announced Elroy, spurring Skip to shake himself into a more perceptive consciousness. He looked up. The immensity of the house prevented him from taking all of it in, but what he could see left him dumbstruck.

“Quite the place, ain’t it?”

“Yes, indeed.”

Elroy hobbled up the stairs to the porch and drew his hand up to knock. “Ah, sir? Mr. Wilson?”

“Yes?”

“They’ve left a note.”

“Well, what does it say?”

Elroy scratched his head in a cartoon-like fashion and mumbled something unintelligible.

“Hand it here, then.”

Skip had to squint to read the impossibly tiny scrawl.

Mr. Wilson-

An emergency has drawn us to town. Should you arrive while we are out, please find a key under the rock that looks a bit out of place. We regret that we couldn’t be there to greet you.

-Mrs. Evelyn Smith

Perplexed, Skip straightened up and began to get a better sense of his surroundings. Lining the red-brick pathway to the porch were smooth, flat rocks, each of them tidily placed. He walked twice along the perimeter of each side, until he spotted one rock that appeared only somewhat out of place. He picked it up, and alas, under the rock was a key, encased in a folded sheet of parchment.

Once Elroy saw that the key had been found, he made his way to the car and began drawing Skip’s bags out one by one.

“Quite the haul you’ve got here, Mr. Wilson,” said Elroy. Skip looked back at him. Of course, it wasn’t polite for a driver to ask the driven for help unloading, but Elroy’s age was starting to show, and Skip took the hint.

“I’ll get the rest, Elroy. Would you unlock the door and leave it open so I can bring these inside?”

Elroy shook his head side to side. “I couldn’t do that, sir.”

“Yes, you can.” Elroy didn’t budge. Skip twisted his face in consideration, and then said, “As a guest of this estate, I grant you permission.” Elroy slowly reached his hand forward and grabbed the key. He hobbled back up the stairs, inserted the key, twisted it, and hesitantly pushed open the door. He ran back down the stairs and began to lug the bags up into the entryway of the house.

Once all the bags were inside, Skip reached up and closed the hatch, for which Elroy was grateful for; Skip had noticed he’d had a hard time lifting his arms much higher than his waist. They then engaged in the familiar routine: removing a few banknotes from the pocket, a quiet insistence that it was unnecessary, and a more stern insistence to take the tip, and thus conceding and pocketing the cash.

“Thank you for the ride, Elroy. I suspect I’ll see you in six weeks, when I’m set to leave.” Elroy tipped his hat to Skip, got in the driver’s seat, and started the engine. Moments later, the car was roaring down the gravel road and back into town. “So, I’m alone.”

Skip talked to himself on a fairly regular basis, only noticing it recently, for example in shameful moments at a shop when he’d remark to himself the unappealing nature of an item on the shelf, before looking over to see the shopkeeper had heard him. On days when he was feeling particularly assured, he would resume shopping and act as if nothing untoward had transpired. Other days, he would laugh offhandedly, and snake his way out of the shop, leaving whatever items he had accrued in places they didn’t belong. He figured the talking to himself was the result of him spending so much time alone, as writers tend to do.

Today, there was no one else around, and he was grateful, until he stepped inside and the enormity of the house swallowed his confidence.

“Hello!” he shouted, and heard the word echo back at him. “One simply must…” His voice trailed off as he walked slowly down the hallway, past framed photographs, immaculately painted portraiture, all hung on glossy white walls and crown moldings.

He then ventured to the kitchen, where the light hung over the room in a sad, stagnant way. The kitchen was too large and well-designed to be empty.

Skip found himself surprised at the lack of staff in the house. Every surface he could see was clean, and the home was tidy, but in all the houses of this size he’d been in, there was a crew of people running the kitchen, shuttling from room to room. The house felt un-lived-in. He began to scratch himself under his collar. He noticed that his breath was quickening, and decided to make his way to the parlor, to find booze. If I can’t have the company of the owners, I can have the company of their spirits. After a brief search, he happened upon the bar, where crystal decanters filled with brown liquids lined silver trays. Is it impolite? he considered briefly, before deciding it was more impolite for his hosts to be absent on his arrival than it was for him to imbibe without their presence. He found a glass and added two fingers worth of something. “Cheers,” he said aloud, and toasted the air, then took a sip of brandy. “I suppose I should get settled.” Just then, he heard the front door open and hushed voices.

“Mr. Wilson!” a silken, feminine, voice called.

Skip downed the rest of the brandy, quickly swiped the glass with the bar towel and quietly placed it back where he’d found it, then wiped his mouth. He straightened his appearance and made his way back to the foyer.

The first thing Skip noticed about Evelyn Smith was her dress. It was not the type of garment one expects to see on someone who had to rush to town due to an emergency. It was a white satin dress with a boat neck and no sleeves. Simple but classic. He looked next to her eyes, green as moss. He felt a discomfort immediately and averted his eyes from hers, but, he decided, discomfort was common when meeting someone for the first time.

“Mr. Wilson,” she repeated, quietly this time. She held out her gloved hand, which Skip took without hesitation, then paused. She retracted her hand. “You found us.”

He looked back to her eyes, which channeled a level of intensity that caused him to straighten his posture and gather his wits, then to take in more of her appearance. It was nearing the end of August, and Evelyn Smith was wearing the summer about her. Her hair was an amber brown, strands having been lightened by the sun, all tied back into a tight bun. Freckles lined her nose and cheeks, which were elegantly plump. They led his eyes to the sizable diamonds hanging from her earlobes.

“I apologize again, that we couldn’t be here when you arrived. However, I can’t imagine you’ve been here very long?” Skip realized that her husband wasn’t present. Sensing his thoughts, she said, “Mr. Smith is still in town. He seemed to be intent on managing things alone.” Skip could sense some derision in her voice. Just then, he heard some clatter from down the hall. “That’s Florence. She’s beginning to prepare dinner. Would you like a drink? I think I would.”

Skip said nothing, but nodded politely and forced a smile. She led him down the hallway, back to the parlor he had already made himself familiar with. She took two glasses from the shelf, and emptied some whiskey into both, one pour noticeably heftier than the other. He expected her to hand that one to him, but instead she drew the glass immediately to her lips. Then, she handed him the other glass, and said, “Cheers.” They knocked glasses and each took a sip. “I did see your bags were still in the foyer.” Skip opened his mouth, but was interrupted. “That’s fine, it can wait. I don’t expect them to grow legs. Let’s go sit out back. We won’t be able to enjoy these summer evenings for much longer.”

The parlor was covered almost completely in reddish wood, including the frames of the giant glass doors that opened onto the back patio. Skip, sensing an opportunity to be polite, twisted the large brass handle and pushed the door open. Instead of thanking him, Evelyn gave the slightest of nods, and walked out onto the deck. Skip followed her and closed the door behind him. The buzz of insects again overtook him, and he took another sip of his drink.

“Have you spent much time in the south, Mr. Wilson?” The question hung between them in the stagnant, dewy air. Skip was finding it hard to breathe. He quickly took another sip.

“None, in fact. Always wanted to, but never had the chance till now.”

“How lovely. Well, Deandra had only the nicest things to say about you. Although…”

“Yes?”

“Well, I pictured someone much different. Taller, maybe.”

“We can’t all live up to strangers’ expectations, I suppose.”

“That’s not a bad thing. It’s just a… just an admission. Would you like to know something, Mr. Wilson?”

Skip nodded.

“Sometimes I find the things we have to say to people we barely know completely intolerable.”

Skip was surprised by her honesty, but it made him feel at ease. He lowered his shoulders he realized he was holding almost to his ears. “I would agree.”

“I know you.”

“Pardon me?”

“I know you, and you know me. Immediately, when you met me. You looked into my eyes and you saw me, and I saw you. Everything we say to each other now is merely theatre.” She took another sip of her drink, and then giggled. “I should not be drinking on an empty stomach.” She tossed the rest of the contents of her glass over the deck and walked over to one of the chairs with its back to the house, and sat down. She placed her glass in front of her, then grabbed a fan from between the seat of the chair and began to fan herself. “Now that the ice is broken, I might also add, I expected someone who talks a little more. The way she speaks of you and your hi-jinx, you’d think you two were a Vaudevillian act.”

“Just about,” Skip said, as he walked over to the chair next to Evelyn’s. He sat down, and finished off the whiskey.

“Would you like some more bourbon? It’s good, no?”

“No. Yes, it’s good. No, I think I’ll wait until dinner.” Skip looked out onto the land, marked by giant, mossy oaks. “It’s beautiful. The piece of land, here.”

“Sometimes beauty hides darkness.” The buzz and the heat overtook the moment. “Excuse me, I’m going to check on Florence.” Skip was left alone with his empty glass, and twirled the glass between his fingers. So far, the trip was not what he expected. Not a bad thing, he thought.

He left his glass on the table and went inside to grab his bags. He walked to the foyer and there was nothing but the runner lining the hallway. For a moment, he had to question whether he’d moved the bags himself, but decided that wasn’t possible. He followed the noise and heat and went into the kitchen. What was before a completely deserted, almost hauntingly empty kitchen, was now roaring. The stove was full blaze, steam billowing from pots and pans. Who he surmised must be Florence was sautéing in a pan and stirring a pot at the same time, while another worker was quietly chopping vegetables. He didn’t see Evelyn. He cleared his throat. The kitchen was much too loud.

“Excuse me!” he said loudly. Florence looked up and smiled widely.

“You must be our guest. Welcome!”

“Thank you. Where is the lady of the house?”

“Oh, Mrs. Evelyn… I believe she is getting ready for dinner. Upstairs.”

“Do you know if anyone took my bags upstairs?”

Florence and the other worker looked at each other, shrugged, and went back to cooking.

“Thank you,” he said, and went back to the foyer. He walked up the staircase and began to quietly berate himself. He didn’t know where he was going or what he would come upon. He had no idea which room was his. Once he reached the landing, however, it was clear which room belonged to him. Every door was closed, except for one, which was brightly lit. He walked toward it, and then, just to be sure, he knocked. Nothing. He peeked his head inside and saw his bags lining the foot of the bed. Luckily, there was an ensuite bathroom, and he could quickly freshen up. He went to the bathroom and ran the water until it was hot, then splashed his face. Looking in the mirror, he took a deep breath, then grabbed a towel and patted himself dry. He then made a promise to himself not to jump to conclusions about how exactly these last several weeks of summer would go.

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Cameron HarrieComment