The Long Road to Home

27 Nov

The following short is for the monthly prompt on StoryDam, “Show Us Your World.” The assignment was to build a setting for a larger story. I chose to submit an except from a WIP that I have been struggling with. Scene setting as a whole is something that I continually struggle with, so this particular scene has been a challenge for me.

We all have that one place–whether it be a room, or a city, or a stretch of grass in a park somewhere–that we are drawn to for some unknown reason, a place that feels like “home.” Often, the connection seems illogical, but it is undeniable. That is what this location is for my character. Feedback would be wonderful. Thank you for reading!


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As they drove out of town and down the gravel roads that sliced through the flats and hills of the Nebraska countryside, Brayden kept up a steady stream of chatter from the backseat, telling Jimmy even the smallest details of his day. His voice and the gravel dust were doing for Jimmy what the beer he’d had at Captain Jack’s couldn’t. With every word the boy said, and every mile that passed, the tension in his body eased and the fear in his mind silenced.

Allman Falls was a small town of less than three thousand people, not much more than a mile wide in any direction. But some days, especially days like today, it was too much for Jimmy—too many people, too much gossip, too many questions, too many memories. The tree-lined streets that he appreciated on a normal day turned into tunnels, pressing in on him from every direction. His vision blurred. His chest tightened. The muscles in his shoulders and neck tensed, knotting tighter and tighter, constricting him in on himself, suffocating him until he felt like ripping away the buildings, and the cars, and the people, the noise and the confusion, with his bare hands. Once he was out of the city limits, with nothing but open air and Mother Nature’s clutter between him and the horizon, he could breathe again.

He had lived in Allman Falls for his entire life, yet he still had a hard time remembering which street the florist or the dry cleaners were on. He didn’t pay enough attention to lock those details into his memory. But the countryside was a different story. He knew every tree, every thicket of wild plum, every patch of switch grass, every creek, every lake—hell, every puddle of water with the possibility of a fish swimming in it—for a hundred miles in any direction. He knew every inch of gravel road that led out of Allman Falls better than the back of his own hand—especially the one that led to Chelsea Lake, the eighty acre, private ground and residence of his good friend and business partner, Dan Handley.

That day, instead of pulling into the driveway, he passed the house and drove the gravel around to the backside of the section, where the creek fed into the lake. Fishing with Brayden would be easier on the dock-side of the lake, but he didn’t want to be seen from the house. If Stacy caught sight of him out there, she would force him inside for one of her never-ending, seven-course suppers. He wasn’t in the mood to socialize, and she didn’t know how to take no for an answer.

As he was approaching the access gate that led to the lake, something in the opposite ditch caught his eye, causing him to slam on his brakes and fishtail to a dead stop in the middle of the road.

“Whoa!” Brayden called out from the backseat, his chatter stopped mid-stream.

“Sorry about that, buddy,” Jimmy said as he whipped around in his seat and looked back over his shoulder at the ditch. The sun danced off a flash of metal buried in the overgrown weeds and tangle of windblown grasses.

“We go boom?” Brayden asked.

“No, we don’t go boom. We’re ok,” Jimmy assured him as he reversed back down the gravel, keeping his eye to the ditch as he did. Barely visible, a rusted, green and white ‘Ross Realty and Auction’ sign peeked through the grass. But that was impossible. The Malek house was one of those properties that would never go on the market. He wanted it too bad for it to ever be a possibility that it could be his.

“Why we stop?” Brayden asked.

“I don’t know yet.” Jimmy turned the wheel and slowly pulled into the narrow, washed-out driveway. Feral cats skittered out from the underbrush as the truck tires bumped over deep ruts and crushed long-fallen, decayed tree branches. Twenty yards in, he came to a stop.

“Why we here?” Brayden asked as he strained against the straps of his booster seat to get a better look out the window.

“I don’t know yet…”

Jimmy threw the truck into park and leaned into the steering wheel, taking a good look around through the windshield as his mind reeled in disbelief. The longer he sat there, though, the more it felt right that he was there.

“I’m going to go look at something,” he said to Brayden as he unhooked his seatbelt and opened the door.

“I come, too?”

“No, you wait here. Ok?”

“Oh tay.” Jimmy could tell he was disappointed, but he didn’t argue.

Jimmy left the engine on, the air conditioner running, and the door open so he could listen for Brayden as walked around the property. If he had to guess, he’d say the land was twenty acres, but it was so thick with mulberry and Siberian elm trees it was hard to see the boundaries of the farmland that surrounded it. Rusting cars and farm implements littered the woods, decades of discarded trash filling the low lands. Eastern red cedars of varying sizes sprouted in odd places throughout the tangled landscaping, planted haphazardly by the birds, the seeds allowed to sprout and grow wherever they landed for at least the past decade.

An abandoned, five-bedroom, Queen Anne Victorian with a steeply-peaked roof and intricate trim that had seen better days sat solid and prominent in the center of the property. At one time, a curved, wraparound porch had hugged the south and west-facing sides of the house, but it had collapsed in on itself, detached from the main structure in a rotting mess along the foundation. Massive cottonwoods, spruce, and silver maples ringed the house, planted by man to provide shade and protection, but through years of free-will they had engulfed the structure, consuming it with their heavy branches.

He had dreamed of living in the Malek house for over twenty years, since he was a little boy. His father had brought him along when he had gone out to do an estimate on porch repairs for Old Lady Malek. Her lazy eye and raspy voice had scared the crap out of Jimmy, as did the rotten porch that swayed in the wind and cracked under his feet, but the house itself didn’t scare him at all.

To his six-year-old mind, it had been pure magic.

James had given Jimmy strict instructions to stay beside the truck, but the more Jimmy had stared at the house, the more it had called to him. As he stood in the driveway staring slack-jawed in awe at the beautifully-massive house, the yellowed, lace curtains in the attic windows had shifted in the breeze, beckoning him to step inside. Keeping one eye on his father, he had feigned interest in the rocks in the gravel drive, cautiously inching his way closer and closer to the house. The second James started haggling price with the old woman Jimmy had made a break for it, diving through a gap in the honeysuckle hedge into the backyard.

The heavy, wooden door on the backside of the house had creaked on its hinges as he pushed his way into the thick, stagnant air of the ancient Victorian. Jimmy was never one to consider consequences, but two steps in he thought better about what he was doing. The fear of retribution for disobeying his father, combined with the pungent, ammonia fog of cat urine, loosened his bowels so fast he about lost his Happy Meal lunch right there on the landing. He clutched his stomach and turned to run, but as he did, his foot had stepped on a loose board. The weary moan the house had let out sounded like a whisper of welcome relief, spoken just for him. He plugged his nose to the worst of the stench, and forgot everything except exploring every inch of mystery that old house promised.

In every room, the leaded glass windows had been papered over and draped in thick fabrics, darkening every corner of the house in deep, bottomless shadows. Occasionally, a ray of sunlight broke through a tear or a seam. Wherever it did, the sun illuminated the heavy dust hanging in the stagnant air, the random bands of light seeming to shimmer like diamonds. In the dining room, a single ray had played through the crystal teardrops on the chandelier, casting broken rainbows of color on the opposite wall.

There were secret doors between the bedrooms, alcoves in the attic, a dumbwaiter in the kitchen, and two sets of staircases. The one in the back of the kitchen was steep and narrow, lit by a bare bulb high in the ceiling, but the one off the entryway was curving and grand, with a rail made for sliding down. He hadn’t hesitated before trying it out. It was so much fun he ran back up the stairs and did it again.

When the crazy lady caught him snooping around, she had dragged him outside by his ear, and shoved him off the porch into the yard where his father steamed in fury waiting for him. James’s face had turned a terrifying shade of purple-crimson as words flew out of his mouth in sharp bursts of curses, all of them words Jimmy had heard James say a million times, just never directed at him. Even so, Jimmy’s elation over what he had discovered overpowered his primal fear of the punishment he knew he would get when they returned home. As they flew down the gravel back to town, Jimmy had begged his dad to ask the crazy lady if they could live in the house, but James had only glared stone-faced at Jimmy through the rearview mirror.

For the rest of the day, and the months that had followed, Jimmy couldn’t get the smell of cat piss out of his nose or the image of the house out of his mind. He drew it repeatedly in his sketchbook, again and again, until he had even the smallest detail down to perfection. Once he did, he had filled the rest of the book with sketches of its restoration. His mother had held onto that sketchbook for a long time before eventually tossing it away, the fate of all saved childhood mementos that lost significance over time, but he didn’t need it. He had that house memorized.

“Jimm-eee!” Brayden called out in sing-song boredom from the truck, snapping Jimmy back into the present. “When we go fishin’?”

Jimmy returned to the truck and climbed inside. “Right now, Bray.”

He took one last look at the house through the windshield, mentally calculating time and cost as he threw the truck into reverse. It would be un-godly expensive, and it would rape him of every free minute he had for at least a year, but it was definitely doable.

The only question remaining was whether or not he still wanted it.


6 Responses to “The Long Road to Home”

  1. Dr. Tom Bibey November 27, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    My world is physician bluegrass fiction and Harvey County. I did my best to show my world in my novel, “The Mandolin Case,” a medical legal mysery solved by musicians and a golf hustler friend.

    Dr. Tom Bibey

  2. DM November 27, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    This is beautiful, from the description of the road along his way to the house and the staircase rail fit for sliding down. I have not one drop of critique to offer you. You took this challenge by the balls and ran away with it. Lovely descriptions throughout that really bring it home to you. It’s like looking at an old photograph and having memories from it, then standing there all at once and remembering them all over again.

    Absolutely beautiful. Your writing really takes my breath away.

    • Donna November 27, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

      Thank you so much! I’ve been sweating over this scene in editing for so long now I fear I’ve gone completely grey under my Clairol. That feeling of unexplained nostalgia was what I was hoping to trigger.

  3. Brandon November 28, 2011 at 12:21 pm #

    Very nice! I liked this a lot. You say that scenery and building settings isn’t a strong point, but you do it pretty well, if you ask me!

    Ok, a little critique for you. (Not in order)

    – The sequence where Jimmy has the flashback of the time his dad took him to the house. I got lost. It was probably the James/Jimmy thing being so close. Maybe introduce James as his dad? A simple addition of the words “, James” in the sentence “His father ___ had brought him along when he had gone…” or similar would probably suffice.

    – In the passage “There were secret doors between…” you stop describing the house in any real detail. The passages before and after were very detailed, but this paragraph feels thrown in.

    Now, technically, by most writing “suggestions,” if the secret doors and dumbwaiters do not push the plot along or serve a real purpose, then you’ll end up editing them out anyway, but still. That paragraph could really come to life if they are used in the story somewhere else.

    – The last little piece I will give you is in the beginning where you use “decade,” then “decades,” that stood out to me. Maybe a synonym is in order. Then when you say “beautifully-massive” I would say look for a synonym that fits the description a little better there also.

    Overall, this really is fantastic, though! I truly hope you finish this. Looking forward to some more passages in the future! Yes? YES? 🙂 Great job!

    • Donna November 28, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

      More? Seriously? Well, sure, why not. LOL, If other excerpts fit in with the prompts, I will.
      Thank you for all the advice on this one!! I really, really appreciate it. 🙂 It’s funny what you say about the inside of the house should be more descriptive. At one point it was. I had whittled it down because I was afraid it was too vivid for a twenty-year-old memory. I kept what I thought a kid would think was cool about the house. I’m in word-chop-mode right now, so scrapping the entire paragraph is the more likely outcome.
      And, yeah, the James/Jimmy thing confuses me all the time, too. And I’m the one writing it. Ha!
      Oh, and it WILL be finished. I am on a mission with this one. So far it’s kicking my ass, but I will be the victor in the end. Rah, ha, ha!

      • Brandon November 30, 2011 at 10:21 am #

        I don’t know, I have vivid memories from when I was little. It’s possible, but I do see your point. I wouldn’t have thought of that. Good call. I was comparing the level of detail from one paragraph to the next, but being a 20 year old memory does make a lot of sense. Pretty smart…

        That’s right! Own it! lol!

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