“Pull” – A ghost story

It is a gorgeous, rainy morning here in the PNW.  I’m watching as the downpour takes out the few remaining orange and yellow leaves in the ravine, pelting them down to the forest floor.  And the ground out here is like a sponge–it initially soaks up all the rain, but once saturated, the fir needles start zooming down the sides of the ravine on little rivers, flying past ferns and ivy to the creek bed.

It’s close, and cool, and marvelous.

It also reminds me very much of one of my other favorite places in the world–London.

When I was in London this last time, the weather was unusually cooperative.  When I was at Hampton Court Palace, the sky rotated through shades of sun and rain, giving a faerie cast to the Tudor walls.  When I was at Highgate Cemetery, a solid downpour coated the stones and the ivy.  On my last walk through the city, I stopped at Holland Park and huddled under a holly bush while a drizzle passed by.

And in the evenings–nearly every one of them–a close fog rolled in and obscured just enough of my outer sight that I had to turn inward to things more mystical.

Over a few of these foggy nights, I wrote a short story called “Pull.”  It isn’t a story indicative of my usual voice, but it was fun to write and it broke through a short story drought.  When I returned to the states, I submitted it to a ghost story/supernatural writing contest, and although it didn’t win, it was good enough to garner some encouragement and feedback from the editor.

I went back and forth on what to do with it after that, and what I’ve decided is this:

Everything I’ve read recently makes the argument that authors should share bits and pieces of their process, letting readers in on not only their successes, but also their failures.  Even though this story didn’t win anything, it’s a good example of writing that is on the right track but missing that special “thing” that really makes it soar.   Namely, the editor loved my dialogue and description, but asked me to work on my pacing.

So, in case it would be useful to you to see what a story like that looks like, here it is, exactly as it was when I submitted it.  It’s a little embarrassing to share something that didn’t take off, but hey, we all start from somewhere.  Take a gander and leave comments, questions, or suggestions!

  *   *  *

“Pull”

I had opted out of an international data plan, rocketing myself back to a world without GPS, and I was beginning to wonder if I was hopelessly lost or if I was really about to stay in a place with a full-size fridge full of cats in the front garden. I sat down on the front stoop of No. 3, Stray Cat Mews, discarding the suitcase I had just lugged half a mile from the train station, and pulled out a wadded up printout of the directions. I was at the right place.

Wonderful.

I took a moment to resign myself to this fact, and then marched up the steps, and knocked. A man in a bright pink shirt opened the door and sighed. His mussed hair sighed with him, falling into his eyes.

“Anna is in 3A. Basement. Right around to the side.”

“Oh,” I said, before he shut the door.

I retreated down the steps and rolled my things around to the side of the building past the trash bins…even better. The cats followed me, batting at my luggage, and I shooed them off before working up the courage to knock again, this time at the garden apartment.

Anna opened the door, and after the awkward introduction dance, had me take off my shoes and carry my bags down a few steps from the landing. I surveyed the apartment as I did.

“This is totally lovely,” I told her, overwhelmed with relief.

“Oh, cheers, thanks, tea?”

I peeked around the corner into my room. It was quite small, but I’ve always loved small rooms. The beds are inherently cozier. “God yes, tea.”

She smiled and filled the electric kettle, and I padded through the living room and kitchen and up a few stairs to the conservatory. It was bright and sunny with warm hardwood floors and French doors open to the breeze. I took a seat at the glass-topped table and watched the clouds move across its surface, filtering through the tilted sunlight of the glass-paneled ceiling. A room of light and crystalline movement, as though half a Victorian gazebo had sprouted from the back of the three-flat. Tea landed before me. Anna smiled again and started peppering me with questions about my work, listening to the answers with real and careful interest. Her little girl dozed in a stroller just outside the doors. I forgot about the cat fridge. How could this place exist in even distant proximity to the cat fridge? Unbelievable. This was just about perfect. Its own little universe.

_____

The back garden was prettified in that absent-minded English manner. It was long and narrow with lanterns and lights strung across one side of the lot, mismatched and malfunctioning, coming on at random every now and again. There were vines, of course. Four strains were old enough to have been planted by previous renters, and the youngest was one of Anna’s. They all arced toward the back wall, covering the fence with green frills. There was a scraggly lemon tree in a large kiln-thrown pot—a whisper of eighteenth century orangeries—and a rather desperate-looking fern. The lawn chairs were wrought iron, giving them the look of tradition and permanence despite their scattered positions across the flagstone. And the clothesline was broken, opening up in haphazard sloping loops of loose rubber cord. The whole scene came down firmly on the side of charmingly dilapidated.

The only thing out of place was the back shed. It looked innocuous enough with weather-treated warm wood that matched the floors of the conservatory, a trellis up one side, and a window. But it exuded a sort of deep somberness that clashed with the haphazard life of the rest of the garden. Nothing grew on the trellis. The window was thickly boarded, with great padlocks at the top and bottom, and the door was dead bolted and also padlocked at the top corner, disallowing any leverage, even if you could work your fingers into the space between the door and the jamb.

At first, I figured all the padlocks were the result of cautious motherhood—Anna must have locked it all up to hide the gardening tools. But upon closer inspection, I discovered a little metal lean-to in the very back corner of the garden holding, among other things, a cupboard full of fertilizer, a rake, and a pair of bicycles.

So what was in the shed, then? I determined not to think much of it, which of course made me think of it all the time.

_____

The first few gestures were rather simple. The French doors swung open, for instance, without a breeze to blame. And when I looked up, startled at the disturbance, I discovered a stray cat upon the roof of the shed, staring me down. It stayed there for about an hour while I worked through my notes, making lists for the archives and all the while finding myself a little uneasy. But I’m not much of a cat person, and even cat people find cats unsettling at times, because cats.

A week later, my pint moved across the table. A can of London Pride, sliding silently toward the garden until I put out my hand to stop it. I looked across the garden to the shed, feeling its pull through the thick night. But I chalked the event up to a slant in the floor. Anna’s little one had been rolling grapes across it the other morning, and they had arced in that direction. Pretty sure in that direction?

I was a little unnerved, but in a compelling sort of way. Despite the strangeness, the conservatory and garden remained my favorite spaces in the apartment. When I was in the archives, I would think about returning to them, divesting myself of research so I could get home as soon as possible, gaze up over the flat between us and the motorway, and love on the way the sun set over rounded chimneys, piercing down into the garden. I felt a little odd in this obsession. I had flown across an ocean to photograph pivotal documents, and suddenly all I wanted to do was sit at a table, sip tea, and wonder at what would happen next.

Because, admittedly, I had come to think of the shed as magic. Rationality wasn’t cutting it anymore. The shed had a pull. It pulled at me. It just did. And it seemed as if it pulled at everything else, too. As if the Thames owed its tidal temperaments to this shed. As if something had been on its foundation, on its site, since the island formed, and someone had finally thought to shut it up in a padlocked shed, keeping it out of sight. Totally ridiculous, right? But as I walked over Kew Bridge at the end of each day and looked over the rows of homes, I knew I did not imagine the plume of birds circling around my homestay. I knew the neighbor across the alley in 4C didn’t keep her vigil candles facing out toward us for nothing. The shed had power, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to know what was in it.

My research frayed as the call of the garden heightened. What had been tolerable archive tedium became infuriating. I felt embarrassed watching the security guards go through my bag, thrusting their fingers into its pockets, riffling the pages of my notebooks, demanding that I open my laptop and expose its keyboard. I felt the interval of the card swiping machines—a minor second—grind into the back of my neck, and the sound of the sliding doors between the collection desks and the viewing desks, not unlike a bullfrog in the middle of mating season, drilled straight through my headphones into the front of my brain.

God, and the other researchers…the squeaking orthopedic shoes, the slack mouths with pencils hanging out, the coughing. The lack of hygiene. Or the reeking cologne. The Japanese man who went through a five-minute-long, vigorous callisthenic routine at the top of every hour, his arms flapping in the sunlight and sending shocks of shadow across my pages.

It all chaffed and agitated, reminding me that things were cooler and smoother and less stifling in the back garden, in the back corner, by the shed. Go to the shed. Go stare at it and think about what was in it. What was in it? I craved the question.

_____

I found the keys…

I’m no snoop. I hadn’t even been looking for them. One day I just glanced back toward the kitchen and there they were, right out on the kitchen counter where they hadn’t ever been before. I stared, transfixed, wanting to go to them and touch them, feeling the desire to do so buzzing through my palms. I stood up from the conservatory table. I would just touch them lightly, just to see if there was some kind of spark, or a jolt of recognition between the shed and I. I wouldn’t actually open it. I’d simply know that I could, if I wanted to.

I was down the steps and into the kitchen without realizing it, my hand extended over the keys, but right before I touched them the front door swung open, and there stood Anna, the back of her stroller crammed full of grocery bags. I skittered back to the conservatory, my heart pounding, calling out a shaky “hello.”

“Oh, hullo, back from the archive?” She let her little girl loose on the toy box and then started the kettle and began tossing things into cupboards. She was in a chatty, flippant mood, and I tried to keep up, nodding here and there, commenting where I was supposed to, trying not to be sullen. Trying not to look at the keys.

But, of course, I looked at the keys, and to my absolute horror, she followed my gaze and told me, lightly, as if it wasn’t earth-shatteringly important, “Those are the keys to the shed.” I blinked at her. “I used to use it as an office, but it’s rather too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, and…” she continued to tell me all about the shed, and its locks, which she’d bought on a sale, and how nothing would take to the trellis due to sand, and any other number of mundane and terrible things.

I stopped paying attention half way through her recitation and stared out into the mist toward the shed. Could it possibly be that normal? Had I just made everything up? What about the pull. I searched for it, waiting to be drawn in, but there was nothing. Anna had broken right through the spell. I fell back into my chair as everything dissipated. My little narrative crumbling around me.

“Are you alright?” I looked up and realized that Anna had joined me in the conservatory, her mug of tea in one hand and a little plant in the other. She was wiggling the small pot in her hand absentmindedly, the leaves of the new vine shuddering. “It’s called clematis,” she told me, when I didn’t respond. “I saw it in a neighbor’s yard a few streets over and thought I’d try a start. But I think it’s too late. Summer is over,” she declared. I prefer autumn, but as she raised her face to the ceiling and shook her sun-blonde head, her light top fluttering, her bare feet tapping on the floor, I decided not to tell her as much. She took the plant back out to the kitchen, depositing it next to the sink.

I determined I had to say something, and then I’d let it drop. “Hey.” I shored myself up for what I was about to admit. “The other night I could have sworn my pint slid across the table, and I didn’t see any condensation under it like you see sometimes, where glasses can slide down the bar on their own? What direction did you say the conservatory listed again? It was probably just that, but I couldn’t remember which direction it uh….it leaned…” I trailed off as she poured out the rest of her tea into the sink and chucked the mug into the dishwasher.

“I’m going out.” She smiled at me, attempting to make it look fond, but getting about as far as tolerant. Then she was off.

It took me a moment to shake the feeling I had done something wrong. I mean, I’m an academic, so this wasn’t the first time I’d been on the receiving end of a friendly grimace from a charitable extrovert. But there seemed to be something more to it. Maybe she didn’t like the implication of strange things happening in her home? Maybe she thought I was crazy? Maybe she knew I was right…?

Whatever, even if I was right, I was wasting valuable time. I clicked through the word docs at the bottom of my screen, finding that I hadn’t made so much as a single edit to my research in five days. Five days, just sitting and staring.

Had it really been five days? I ran a hand through my hair and checked my calendar, puffing out my cheeks as a knot of guilt worked its way around my stomach. So, I had a week left. Alright, that was at least enough time to finish the series I was on and pick up a few odds and ends in London. I hadn’t ruined everything. My cheeks deflated, and my mouth turned hard-lined and disciplined. All I had to do was stop making up stories and soaking up misty nonsense. Just do my work.

I gave a sharp nod and bent over my laptop, bringing up the archive search catalog. No time like the present to start reconfiguring. After all, it was the perfect sort of night for cozy endeavors. The conservatory was wrapped up in dwindling light, and it was easy to fold myself into the murky, rainy, foggy evening, blocking out distractions.

I raised my head up out of my hand, my face turning hot as I realized I had closed my lap top and gone off into daydreams again. I cleared my throat, opened my computer, and hit the power button, drumming my fingers nervously as it booted back up.

But then again, I only had a few more evenings in London. This could be my last chance to watch the vines become slick with rain—to catch that liminal moment where the slate shingles on the shed turned the same aching bluish-silver as the sky.

I closed my laptop.

I swallowed hard and opened it again. Hit the power button. Closed it again.

And as it clicked shut this time, I felt something within me unwind and release, scattering my presence far outside of my skin. Concern laced through me underneath the release, warning me that this was not the plan. I had other goals. But it just felt so good to live in this in-between space. The reflective surface of my table turned the same color as the rain. A flock of blackbirds skittered over its glass in reflection, quick flashes of the absence of light.

The pull returned.

I took a deep, shaking breath. The joy of the question—the desire to know what was in the shed—no longer felt mysterious and indulgent…it felt urgent. It felt like it was splitting me in half, vibrating against my rationality and slowly eating it up. And if there is one thing I prize, it is my reason. I had let it slip once. Not again.

With gargantuan effort, I stood, picked up my laptop, and turned toward the kitchen, away from the shed. A cat—not the initial intruder from prior weeks—fell from the sky, black as the birds, right out of the dusk, and landed with a thud above my head. He eyed me with distaste as I jumped and pressed my hand to my heart. And then he walked across the conservatory panels and turned out along the fence, approaching the shed. When he reached it, he hopped onto the roof, sitting suspended between the steely blue of the slate and sky, eyeing me with that intense, hateful malaise that only cats can manage. He waited while my heart stopped pounding, made sure he had my attention, and then dropped down to the other side of the shed and over into the next yard.

Immediately, two more cats landed on the roof of the conservatory—the fridge strays. They were really just kittens, and I couldn’t figure how they had managed to get into the back garden, let alone up onto the conservatory roof. All sorts of imaginary methods pelted my brain, and I waded through them for a sensible response. Perhaps Pink Shirt in 3B had taken them in and they had escaped out his window? I craned my neck to look up through the glass ceiling and back toward the apartments above. His frosty bathroom window was lit, but it was also closed. I glanced back out to the garden and saw that the kittens were now on top of the shed, their little tails intertwined, and then they followed the way of the others, down into the next yard.

A fourth cat dropped out of nowhere, and I determined it was time to move in to the couch and pour myself a hearty glass of wine. If I was going to best this daydream I had been inhabiting, I would need an excuse for all this cat apparition nonsense in the morning.

I made it to the kitchen, feeling like I was turning my back on pleading. I knew the shed wanted me to keep looking at it, to take the keys, to follow the cats, and I wouldn’t allow myself to do any of those things. I wouldn’t allow myself to go to the shed. Look in the shed. Go to the shed. I clutched the kitchen counter with both hands, staring down at my laptop between them. This was someone else’s home. I would not do it. Besides, everyone knows you do not “go down into the basement” when weird shit is happening.

“Nothing is happening, though,” I said out loud. “Nothing is happening.” I fetched a glass as a fifth cat fell, poured my wine, and resolutely turned to the living room.

As I did, a little toy hen slid from the ledge behind the couch, bounced from the cushions, and hit the ground, starting up a bunch of flashing lights and song about laying eggs. I rushed to it, and not finding a switch, I removed the batteries. I threw the hen in the toy bin and the batteries up on a shelf and took a long swig of wine, sitting still and silent until my hands steadied. And that took a while, because they pulsed and twitched in the direction of the keys.

Concentrating on my breathing, I slowly curled myself up into the couch, my laptop perched on the wide arm, cheerfully spinning my Netflix queue across the screen. I kept my wine in my lap, not trusting it to the radiator ledge and tried to focus on making a selection. But the way that the candlesticks fell over and the tapers slid across the bookcase made it difficult. Apples rolled up and over the edge of a basket on the counter, a shoe turned over onto its laces.

The keys fell off the counter.

Enough. I slammed my wine down onto the floor, making sure it was off the rug, in case it felt like sliding or tipping over or doing some ridiculous thing it couldn’t possibly do because it was wine for godsake and this was all utterly absurd.

I stood and looked at the shed. My heart beat once, twice, and on the third time, every single item in the apartment groaned and shifted, sliding everywhere from an inch to a foot closer to the shed. The fourth beat went missing, rising up into my throat. I walked through the apartment with severe discipline, disregarding the settling items and the keys to the shed. I picked up the set for the French doors instead, fitting one of the multiple copies into the latch, lifting the handle, and turning it with a click. The air chilled and went still, the pull stopped. I leaned my forehead against the cool door, streaking the glass with sweat.

From somewhere behind me came the sound of rough wood sliding across a carpet, catching the fibers, pulling them taut, and then snapping them out of the weave. Too petrified to turn, I watched the reflection in the glass. There was a direct line of sight to my little bedroom, and I saw that the storage box under my bed had pulled out, pushing the rug up against the wall. The lid slid back, revealing just a sliver of the interior, just the very corner.

That was all it had needed.

As I stood on the garden side of the French doors, I suddenly understood why Anna kept so many copies of the garden keys—no fumbling for the right one at the pivotal moment. But even though I had managed to step outside, they keys to the shed were still in the kitchen, splayed out on the floor, glinting silver. And my grasp on the door handle was loose, my fingers throbbing. The shed called to me to come to it. Pleaded with me to see what was in it. Begged me to go to it. Go to the shed. Come to the shed.

Be safe in the shed.

But it was far, far too late.

* * *

Anna returned home the following morning after failing to hear from her boarder. Leaving her little one to nap in her stroller, she went through the apartment and readjusted all her belongings, avoiding the guest room as long as possible. When she finally ventured in, she saw that the storage box was mercifully shut, and she pushed it back into place, purposefully ignoring how heavy it was. She smoothed the rug.

As she sorted through her latest guest’s things, deciding what to keep and what to donate, she fought a mounting frustration. She really thought she had saved one. She’d even left the keys to the safe house out in plain view and made it clear that under no circumstances were they to be used, leaving curiosity and magic to work their charms. She inhaled sharply. Academic. Academic curiosity. Rule abiding and rational.

“Shit.”

She shoved a few shirts into a Waitrose bag to haul off to the charity shop. Then she padded through the conservatory, finding the site of the slaughter on the other side of the French doors. She swore again and put the kettle on—two acts that often coincided—and then pitched the stupid, damn clematis as she waited.

Not that saving her boarder would have been an entirely selfless act. This had been her last chance to break the lease and secure the next caretaker, passing along the contract and all its stipulations and horrifying responsibilities. Now she was up against another long winter of feeding and mopping, waiting for the garden to awaken in the spring, beginning anew its siren song. She poured out and headed to the garden to start with the hose.

As the water came on, her back pocket buzzed. She fished out her mobile, letting the rusty red water flush off the stones and into the grass. A new guest requesting permission to stay. Some Wall Street yuppie on a pleasure spin. Well, at least, unlike previous renters, she got to feed it strangers instead of acquaintances. Bless 21st-century travel booking technologies.

She approved the request and kept hosing.

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Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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