A few years ago, after finishing my novel of suburban paranoia (which was then subtitled An American Horror Story), I started shopping it around to a few publishers. At the time -- cursed with the self-doubt that tends to gnaw at me every time I've completed a project and I'm still having a tough time deciding whether or not it's worth a crap -- I was concerned about the fact that the book's word count (approximately 60K) is quite a bit less than most publishers will consider (around 80K is the standard).
So I decided to "beef up" the manuscript a bit.
For no reason other than padding the word count, I added the chapters below. OK, so I felt the added wordage was justified because these particular scenes helped make the whole thing more believable; I told myself that the neighbors needed a bigger catalyst, a big BAM! moment that would propel the story toward its climax. Maybe -- I thought at the time -- the combined controversy of Andy writing gruesome horror tales and Andy finding the body of a murdered child and Andy's statutory rape charge from back in the day and now here comes the news that another child's body has been found at one of Andy's favorite haunts . . . that wasn't enough?!
I should have had faith in myself, in my work. I should have trusted what I believed when I sat down to write Animosity in the first place. I should have known that, these days, people absolutely would do this kind of thing. Folks you once thought were your friends -- they will turn on you and eat you whole, and they'll do it for a lot less than just because you happen to write "spooky stories".
So . . . these chapters were unnecessary. They were contrived, created solely for achieving a specific word count. My heart was never in them, and when all was said and done they read as exactly what they were: 100% FILLER.
I love this book. It's a very personal story to me, and on more than one occasion I've called it my "love letter to the horror genre, and to the often thankless job of being a 'horror writer'." I'm very proud of it, I am currently persuing a sale of the mass-market rights, 'cause there's no doubt in my mind that Animosity deserves to be read.
But I didn't love it when I -- temporarily -- added the following chapters.
They were unnecessary. The events in these particular sequences never "rang true" to me. So they were promptly removed.
And I've never missed them for a second.
All the same, I stumbled across these "deleted scenes" recently while doing a bit of "cleaning up around the office". And I thought you guys might like to see this stuff.
I'm curious to hear what you think. Did I make the right decision? Or would you have left these chapters intact?
* NOTE: The following occurs immediately before the neighbors converge upon Andy's property for the last time (where, in the version you've read, the catalyst for their attack is the news that another child's body has been found).
“What the hell?”
Once again, my train of thought careened off its tracks and exploded in a ball of flame. My muse – if the traitorous bastard had ever been there to begin with – perished in a fiery dance of death.
My novel was getting nowhere. Frigging nowhere. And the harder I pushed myself, the worse my problems became – like impotence. Most of the evening I had spent staring at the computer screen, accomplishing nothing. Ninety percent of the new material I had written over the last few hours I was quite sure I would trash during the editing stages. It was shit. All of it. Fucking worthless. No matter how hard I tried, I could not concentrate.
And now this . . . .
I frowned, stopped typing in the middle of another clunky, uninspired sentence. Turned down the volume on the Omen soundtrack playing on my computer and swiveled around in my chair.
I didn’t move. Didn’t breathe. Just tilted my head to one side and listened . . . .
It hadn’t been my imagination. Above the haunting strains of “Ave Satani” in the background, I heard it again . . . .
A low thud on my front porch, like the distant bounce of a basketball. A creaking floorboard.
“Dammit, not again,” I mumbled, as I stood to leave the office.
Like a blind man, I felt my way down the hall, into the living room. I rarely worked with the lights off, since staring at my computer screen in the dark usually ended up giving me a severe headache, but so much had changed over the last few weeks. After everything that had happened, I was afraid to leave my office light on past sundown. Doing so meant my detractors were privy to every move I made. I imagined I could feel their hateful eyes upon me as I passed by the window on my way to refill my coffee mug or go take a piss or pick out a new CD from the shelf on the other side of the room. Even with the curtains drawn tight, I felt exposed to the nocturnal world outside. Naked. Vulnerable.
I moved through the house slowly, quietly. As I entered the living room, I glanced at the clock on the DVD player.
Just a few minutes before one o’ clock in the morning.
Another creaking floorboard, on the porch. A footstep . . . .
I stood there in the darkness for several minutes. Staring at the front door. Wondering what the hell to do next. Trying to will my heart to stop slamming so frenetically in my chest.
It didn’t work.
Again, the sound of movement outside.
I knelt behind my favorite recliner, continued to watch the door. Wished I had grabbed the Mag-Lite or a meat cleaver out of the kitchen . . .
. . . because now I was quite sure I saw the doorknob move.
My reflection flinched within the sleeping gray eye of my television on the other side of the room. My face resembled little more than a ghostly, disembodied head floating there -- a pallid, sweaty visage with dark bags under its eyes and scruffy patches of sandy-blond stubble creeping across its chin.
A low, metallic rattle.
Yes, the doorknob had definitely moved. There was no doubt in my mind now, as I squinted through the darkness. Barely a quarter of an inch to the left, but still by God it turned . . . .
A rat-like scratching at the other side of door then: Scritch . . . scriiiiitch . . . scritch-scritch . . . .
I bit down on my bottom lip so hard I nearly broke the skin.
But then, suddenly, my fear was replaced by a furious, blinding anger. My bones seemed to burn with rage, as I knelt there listening to some brazen son-of-a-bitch attempting to break into my home barely forty-eight hours after they had murdered my dog . . . .
“You people don’t know when to quit,” I seethed.
I stood from my hiding place behind the recliner. Clenched my fists.
I no longer cared if I was in danger. My neighbors had gone too far, and I refused to take anymore.
I stomped across my living room, reached for the door.
Unlocked it and tore it open.
“What the hell do you bastards want this ti –“ I started.
And that’s when the crazy woman leapt upon me from out of the blue-black night.
Her eyes were wild and bloodshot, her hair damp, wormy strands of reddish-brown plastered to her skull. She wore nothing but a flimsy pink nightgown, through which her hard round nipples were starkly visible.
She was upon me before I had time to react. Together, we fell into the foyer in a tangle of limbs. The back of my head cracked against one corner of my coffee table, and a curtain of pain blurred my vision.
“You son-of-a-bitch!” the crazy woman shrieked. “I’ll kill you!”
Her threat was nearly unintelligible, her insane wail like needles lancing through my eardrums.
It was my turn to scream when I saw the massive butcher knife in her right hand. At first I hadn’t noticed it, but when she raised it high above her head, its shiny silver blade glistened like a sadistic wink in the shaft of moonlight bleeding through the window behind her.
I slammed a knee into her groin before she could sink the knife into my chest. It was a weak effort, a desperate gesture, but it did the trick. I shoved my attacker off of me, rolled to one side with a hoarse grunt.
The crazy woman faltered, but only for a moment. She blinked, stunned.
A second later she leapt across the living room like some skittering, inhumanly-quick spider-thing, and she straddled me like a long-lost lover.
“Bassssstarrrd,” she hissed. Her breath was hot on my cheeks. It smelled of a pungent mixture of salmon and strawberry wine.
She clutched the hilt of the knife with both hands, brought the blade down with a deafening screech.
I rolled to my left again, just in time.
She howled with rage when she realized she had missed, started attacking the spot on the carpet where I had lain less than a second before. Again and again, the knife bounced off the floor, its blade making an odd twanging sound with every strike.
Finally, she seemed to tire of that. She reached up with one hand, pulled out several strands of her sweaty auburn hair and threw them at me like some bizarre pagan offering.
They landed in my lap. I grimaced, brushed them away.
“Who are you?” I yelled at her. “What do you want?”
“You,” she panted, pointing the knife at me. Her voice was strangely gruff now, almost masculine. “Yuh-ouuuuu . . . . “
I scooted backwards on my ass down the hallway, trying to put as much distance between us as possible. Behind the crazy woman, my front door still hung open. The night was an ebony rectangle of freedom, so close yet so far away. A chorus of crickets beckoned to me from the lawn, their high-pitched call almost deafening even from a distance, and somewhere down the street a dog yapped angrily as if demanding we shut the hell up so it could get some sleep. I wondered if I should make a run for the yard, or if the bitch’s cold, hard knife would slide between my shoulder blades before I ever made it onto the porch.
“Who are you?” I asked her again. “Why are you doing this? What do you want?”
I wondered if she even understood me. She made a deep growling noise in the back of her throat, like something inhuman. Like a hungry beast circling its prey. She crawled toward me on her hands and knees, one pale hand still gripping the knife tighter than ever. Her gown rose up her thighs as she drew closer, and I saw a thick tuft of dark pubic hair peeking out from under there. But if she knew her private parts were exposed, she did not care.
“You,” she snarled again.
Then, as she backed me into the kitchen, and the bluish moonlight bleeding in through the window above the sink suddenly struck her face, I realized for the first time that my assailant appeared vaguely familiar. Did I know her? Maybe. But I couldn’t be sure. Everything was happening too fast. She might have been an attractive middle-aged lady if her murderous expression had not caused her to resemble some ghastly, skull-faced thing. Her eyes were deep, black pits of hatred, her cheekbones starkly pronounced beneath her pale flesh. Her bared teeth seemed too sharp, monstrous, like those of a bloodsucker from one of my novels.
“You did it,” she growled, and now I noticed she was crying. “Youuuu . . . . “
“For Chrissake, what is you think I di –“
“Shut up!” she shrieked. “Just shut your filthy fucking mouth!”
She slashed at me with the knife. It made a blood-chilling whisk sound in the air between us.
I recoiled and she did it again, missing my throat by less than an inch.
She had me cornered now. Against the kitchen sink. The handle on the cabinet door beneath the sink dug into my spine. There was nowhere else for me to go.
“Somebody help!” I bellowed at the top of my lungs. I didn’t know what else to do. “Please! Help! Somebody call the police!”
I prayed one of my neighbors would hear my plea. Prayed there was still someone out there who would care, someone who would come running at the sound of my scream, and not with the intention of assisting the screeching, wild-eyed banshee with the butcher knife.
“Gonna kill you,” the crazy woman wheezed, raising her weapon above her head again.
She brought the blade down in a silver blur.
“No!” I kicked her in the stomach, rolled out of her path. She slid across the linoleum with a little squeal. I jumped to my feet, but before I could make my escape I tripped over her legs on my way out of the kitchen. I collided with the wall. My shoulder went numb. An old framed weaving Karen had made when she was pregnant with Sam – BLESS THIS HOME, O LORD, AND EVERY ONE IN IT – fell from its mount above the kitchen doorway, bounced off my collarbone, and clattered onto the floor.
I made for the front of the house, but didn’t get far.
From behind me, I heard the crazy woman growl again . . . then footsteps, coming for me . . . louder and louder, a mad pitter-patter rhythm that matched the frantic beating of my own heart . . . .
“Ungh!” She tackled me like a quarterback, and I went down in the middle of the hallway. She seemed to weigh a ton, seemed to possess the strength of a thousand men. My chin hit the floor with an awful crack, and my mouth filled with blood as I nearly bit my tongue in two.
Any second now, I knew I would feel her butcher knife stab into the base of my skull.
I let out a desperate roar, rolled to the right, pinning my attacker between my body and the wall.
She squealed again, a sound that reminded me of a dying piglet. Her bony knees rammed into my kidneys. But she held on tighter than ever.
We wrestled back and forth in the middle of the hallway until I grew dizzy and could barely tell up from down or left from right. Before long I was on my back again and the bitch was straddling me. She brought the knife down, and I caught her bony wrist without a second to spare. Her sweat and tears dripped into my eyes as we struggled, as she tried to sink the blade into my face. I pushed up on her wrist with every ounce of strength I possessed.
The knife drew closer . . . closer . . . its tip was a tiny silver dot growing larger and larger, like an exploding supernova, as it came within millimeters of piercing the soft jelly of my eye . . . .
“Stop!” I grunted up at her. “Please . . . don’t make me . . . h-hurt y –“
“You did it,” she panted, spraying my cheeks with spittle. “They told me what you are . . . . “
New tears streamed down her face now, and her face contorted into an expression of heart-wrenching grief.
“You killed my baby, you monster!”
Her words stabbed into my soul with deadly precision. I blinked up at her. A series of chills ran up and down my body like the caress of a thousand frigid hands.
“Her Daddy’s a fucking wimp . . . he’d never do anything if it meant having to take a stand for once in his frigging life . . . but not me . . . I promised her . . . I promised my little girl I wouldn’t let you get away with it . . . promised I would make you pay . . . . “
“Oh, God,” I stammered. “No . . . y-you’re . . . . “
My resolve was suddenly ripped in half. I felt stunned, weakened by shock as well as an instantaneous bout of soul-crippling remorse. Tears filled my own eyes now, as the terrible truth of her identity became clear to me.
I suddenly found it more difficult than ever to defend myself, even as her butcher knife wavered before my eye . . . .
So much had happened to this poor woman. Her daughter had been the victim of an unimaginable crime. I did not want to hurt her. She had already suffered through so much, and her recent loss had shattered her sanity.
My neighbors, I was sure, had not helped matters either. They had obviously gotten to her with their malicious, misinformed gossip and their vile, unfounded theories . . . .
“Oh, Jesus,” I wept with her. “I’m so sorry. You’re . . . you’re Paula Lanning . . . you’re . . . Rebecca’s mother . . . . “
“Shut up!” she wailed. “Don’t you dare say her name!”
Her sweaty wrist slipped out of my grip. Again, she reared back with the knife . . . .
She gave me no choice.
I hit her.
My fist struck her jaw with a meaty smack. She fell back into the living room, sprawled out on the floor where our fight had first begun.
I winced, instantly hating myself for what I had done.
“You’ve got it all wrong, lady,” I wheezed. “I never laid a hand on your little girl . . . . “
She said nothing. Just lay there. Weeping so softly I could barely hear her. Her chest rose and fell with her labored breaths.
“I’m sorry,” I said, rubbing at my sore knuckles. “But you’ve got to get out of here . . . get out of my house . . . . “
I crawled toward her, cautiously.
“Rebecca,” she moaned, but she still did not move from her place on the floor. “Oh, Rebecca . . . . “
“I have a daughter of my own,” I said, fighting to catch my breath. “I can’t . . . I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like. But I only found Rebecca, that day. I didn’t hurt her. Don’t you understand? The people on this street . . . the things they’ve been telling you . . . they’re all liars. They . . . they think I did something I could never do. But they’ve got it all wrong. As God is my witness, I never laid a hand on your little girl. I swear it.”
Slowly, the dead girl’s mother sat up. She stared at me through her shiny mask of tears.
“B-but . . . they told me . . . th-they said you . . . . “
“They’re just looking for someone to blame. Everyone’s afraid. We’re all afraid. They don’t know who to trust anymore. But it wasn’t me. You’ve got to believe me. My neighbors . . . they’ve put things in your head that are just . . . my God, Mrs. Lanning . . . don’t you see what’s happening –“
Paula Lanning swallowed loudly, and now her expression of rage changed to one of confusion. Disorientation. She glanced around the room, as if she had just awakened from a long sleep and did not know where she was.
She looked down at the knife in her hand. She still had not dropped it, even after I punched her.
Finally, she stood. Wobbled back and forth in the middle of my living room like someone who has had too much to drink.
“I won’t press charges,” I said. “J-just . . . get out of my house. Please. You have to leave. Before -- “
She took a step toward me.
I tensed, preparing for another assault.
She continued to gaze down at the butcher knife as if it were some precious, holy icon. As if it held all of the answers to her problems.
“Rebecca,” she said. “My baby . . . . “
And then she stabbed the knife into her own wrist, as deep as it would go.
“Jesus!” I gasped.
She ripped downwards, drawing the blade through her flesh all the way to the inside crook of her elbow.
“For you, baby!” she screamed to the heavens. “For youuuuuu . . . . “
Her eyes rolled up in their sockets. She crumpled to the floor.
Everything seemed to swirl around me. I staggered across the room, my breath tight in my chest.
“Oh, G-God,” I wept. “N-No . . . G-God, no!”
She had landed on her stomach. Instantly, my beige carpet started turning crimson beneath her.
“Shit . . . oh, shit . . . what did you do? What did you do?“
I tore off my T-shirt. Crumpled it into a ball. Grabbed her ruined arm and tried to staunch the bleeding.
My efforts were futile. The wound was too deep. Too wide.
Only a few seconds had passed, and already her blood was everywhere. It covered my hands, my knees, my thighs, and more of it continued to splash from the ugly red-pink chasm in her arm onto my living room floor with every beat of her heart.
I had never seen so much blood in my life.
“Jesus, please,” I shouted. My throat was raw, my voice hoarse, but still I yelled it at the top of my lungs: “Somebody please fucking help me!”
Through the open front door, my frantic plea echoed up and down the street.
My hands quivered spastically and a terrible whine squeaked out of me from deep within my chest as I fought to save the life of this woman who had mere minutes ago tried to end mine. I glanced around the room, desperately searching for anything else that might help stop the bleeding. I pinned Paula Lanning’s leaking arm to the floor with my knee, maintaining pressure on the wound, and reached for an old purple afghan on the couch that my grandmother had made for Karen and me as a wedding present. I wrapped it around her arm. Still, the pungent, coppery odor of her blood grew stronger with every passing second, filling my entire house. It seemed to coat the roof of my mouth and the back of my throat as if I had swallowed a mouthful of new pennies.
“Come on,” I pleaded with the dying woman while I worked. As if she could hear me. As if it might make any difference. “Damn you, you can’t die . . . you’ve been through too much already . . . you have to get through this . . . for the rest of your family . . . they need you . . . they’ve already lost Rebecca . . . it’s not fair for them to lose you too!“
I could barely see what I was doing now through the tears that filled my eyes and dripped from my chin, mixing with her blood.
“Please,” I sobbed.
To my right, then: Footsteps on the porch. Movement in my peripheral vision.
I flinched, turned toward this latest intruder entering my home. What a sight I must have been, kneeling there in the middle of my living room with a woman dying in my arms. Naked to the waist. My face streaked with tears, my torso smeared all over with the dying woman’s blood.
I did not recognize the man in my foyer. He was large, husky, but walked with his shoulders slumped and his head down. At first glance, he reminded me of an injured bear searching for a place to lie down and lick its wounds. His thick brown hair lay flat on his skull, unwashed and greasy, and several days’ growth of scraggly black beard darkened his double chin. He wore rumpled blue coveralls with patches on each breast -- HARRIS POWER & LIGHT on the right, ROY L. on the left. Something that looked like motor oil was smudged across his cheeks and forehead, as if he had just gotten off work.
He did not meet my eyes as he stepped into my living room. He just stared down at the dying woman on the floor, covered his mouth with one massive hand.
“Oh, P-Paula . . . n- no . . . . “
“You know her?” I asked him.
He nodded, an almost imperceptible gesture. “She my wife.”
“Oh, God . . . . “
“You must be the writer,” he said. “The guy who . . . does those horror books.”
“Y-yeah,” I said. “That’s right. Can you help me? We’ve got to get your wife to a hospital now.”
“I should have known it would come to this,” he said. “She was fixated on you. Every time the news brought up your name, she went crazy. Started talking nonsense. B-but . . . God in Heaven . . . I never thought she would go through with it. I can’t keep an eye on her twenty-four hours a day, you know? I still have to put bread on the table, support my family, even though our little girl is gone . . . . “
He dropped to the floor beside me then. His knees made a sick wet squelching noise in the blood-drenched carpet.
“Jesus, woman, what have you done?“ he moaned.
“We have to get her to the hospital,” I told him again. “We can’t waste any more time. She’s lost too much blood already.”
He did not move to help me. He just sat there staring at her, his face pale, his entire body trembling with sobs.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” he kept saying, over and over.
“Sir!” I said. “Mr. Lanning? We have to call nine-one-one or your wife is going to die. Do you understand me?”
“She hasn’t been the same since Rebecca was murdered.” His numb gaze traveled over my bloody chest and stomach, then back to his wife. “I should have seen this coming.”
“Hold this against her arm,” I said. When he failed to respond, I grabbed his hand and forced him to help. “Here. Keep the pressure on it, okay? Don’t move. I’ll be right back. I’m just going to the kitchen, to get my phone. We have to call nine-one-one now.”
“That Dr. Wilkinson quack’s got her strung out on all kinds of antidepressants,” he rambled on, his voice slurred with shock. “I knew the drugs were only making things worse. But she wouldn’t listen to me. She accused me of not caring about our baby. Said it was all my fault ‘cause I was too busy working on the Chevy that day when I should’ve been watching Rebecca. She can hardly function at all anymore. She talks about you constantly ever since you found ‘Becca, like you’re some kind of demon . . . . “
“None of that’s important right now,” I said. “What’s important is that we stop your wife from losing any more blood. We have to save her!“
“I know you’re not a demon. I believe a man is innocent until proven guilty. I think you found ‘Becca – that’s all – and I’ve told Paula that from the very beginning. Is that wrong?”
“Hell no, it’s not. But, Mr. Lanning . . . we can talk about this later, okay? Listen to me. Hey. Roy!”
“We should call nine-one-one,” he said.
“That’s right,” I replied, nodding frantically. Relief washed over me as I realized I was getting through to him. “Good.” I couldn’t help speaking to him as if he were a baby. “You’re exactly right. You stay here, okay? Keep that pressure on her arm. Just like that. I’ll be right back –“
“No,” he said. “I’ll do it. It’s my responsibility. She’s my wife.”
“Okay,” I said, still nodding. “That’s fine. You do it, then. Hurry. The phone is --”
He reached into a pocket inside his coveralls. Pulled out a cell phone. But his big hands trembled like those of a man twice his age. As soon as he flipped the phone open, he dropped it. It bounced off my thigh and landed in the puddle of blood beneath us.
“Ah, Jesus,” he moaned. “I’m sorry. I can’t do anything right . . . . “
“No,” I said. “It’s okay. Roy! It’s okay. Keep yourself together, man. Help me. We can save her!”
“First I let my little girl die. Now Paula . . . . “
“Stop it. I’ll do it. I’ll call. Just . . . press down on her arm. Like that. Don’t let up for anything. Okay?”
He blinked at me. Nodded dumbly. The expression on his face seemed to indicate we did not even speak the same language.
He blinked at me. Nodded dumbly. The expression on his face seemed to indicate we did not even speak the same language.
I picked up his phone. It was sticky with Paula Lanning’s blood, but I did not care.
I quickly punched out 9-1-1 on the phone, placed my free hand upon the big man’s back.
“Paula,” he moaned, sounding not like a man at all but very much like a terrified little boy. “Why . . . . “
“Keep that pressure on her arm,” I told him again, sternly. “No matter what.”
I waited for my call to connect. Let out a long, distressed sigh.
About the time someone picked up on the other end of the line – “Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?” inquired a sexy female voice – I heard the urgent wail of police sirens down the street. It sounded like a hundred of them, at least.
Closer they came. Closer.
A second or two later, they drowned out everything else in the world.
The black night outside my open doorway suddenly receded, replaced by flashing strobe-alternations of red, white, and blue.
“Thank God,” I said.
Someone had called the police after all. Help had arrived.
“I need an ambulance at 217 Poinsettia Lane,” I told the 911 dispatcher, even as tires screeched to a halt and car doors slammed and police radios squawked and heavy footsteps approached through my yard.
“What is the nature of your emergency, sir?”
I sniffled, glanced down at Paula Lanning. Gently touched a fingertip to her cheek.
Her eyes were half-open, but her face was slack. Her body lay limp in her husband’s arms.
I couldn’t tell if she was still alive.
“Sir? Hello? What is the nature of your emergency?”
I turned away from the big man beside me, and my voice cracked as I whispered into his cell-phone: "S-Suicide. Please hurry."
I flinched, nearly falling out of my chair when a police siren whooped and died like a distorted half-scream in the street outside.
Then I remembered I was safe. Secure.
I moaned something unintelligible through clenched teeth. It might have been a curse, or a prayer. I did not know.
Through my open doorway, I numbly watched the chaos outside – an insane, bustling cluster of emergency personnel and police officers and sleepy-eyed but curious residents of Poinsettia Lane – and I tried to remember the last time this place had felt anything like home.
Only five or six minutes had passed since two somber-faced paramedics lifted Paula Lanning’s unconscious body onto a stretcher and carried her out of my house to an ambulance waiting in the driveway. As she went, I noticed her eyes twitched every few seconds beneath her eyelids, as if the poor woman were dreaming of more death and violence beyond what she had already experienced. I swallowed, felt the most heart-wrenching grief I had ever known. I wished I could help her. Wondered if she would make it. Didn’t feel good about her chances.
I ran one trembling hand through my hair, peered up toward the ceiling and murmured, “Jesus . . . does it ever end?”
Across the room, Detective Paul Hembry said softly, “Relax, Mr. Holland.” Tonight he wore wrinkled brown slacks and a baggy blue Polo shirt. His badge was clipped to his belt. The few sweaty strands of hair atop his head were combed over his bald spot in a feeble attempt to fool anyone who might notice that his hairline had vanished long ago.
“Everything’s going to be okay now. Just take it easy.”
I took a deep breath – a breath that was hot and thick, like inhaling a lungful of cotton – and I stared down at my arms. Paula Lanning’s blood was still caked all over my hands, congealed and sticky like a second crimson skin. The smell of it seemed to coat my nostrils, the roof of my mouth.
I glanced over at the ugly patch of dried brown blood in the middle of my living room floor where she had tried to take her own life.
“Jesus,” I moaned again, closing my eyes in an attempt to shut out everything around me.
It didn’t work.
I wanted tear off my clothes and run naked down the street, screaming at the top of my lungs. I wished I could throw off this silly veneer of sanity once and for all, and give in to the lunacy that had overtaken Poinsettia Lane.
But I couldn’t do that.
Because they were out there . . . .
I could see them through my open front door. Pointing. Whispering. Gossiping amongst themselves. Fighting for a peek inside.
Finding solace in their unified abhorrence of me.
“You say you were awake when you heard her trying to break into your home, is that correct?” Detective Norton asked me. He scribbled something in a small black notepad as he spoke, but somehow he was able to do it without ever taking his eyes off of me.
“That’s right,” I said. “I was working.” A tilt of my head, toward the hallway. “In my office.”
“You were writing?”
“A new novel?” said Hembry.
“Your new novel. What’s it called?”
“A Feast of Souls,” I replied, giving Detective Hembry the most perturbed expression I could muster. “Not that it matters right now, I wouldn’t think.”
“A Feast of Souls,” I replied, giving Detective Hembry the most perturbed expression I could muster. “Not that it matters right now, I wouldn’t think.”
The detectives glanced at one another.
“I was only curious,” Detective Hembry said, more to his partner than me, and if I had known no better I would have thought he looked hurt.
I started gnawing at a thumbnail, but stopped when I tasted Paula Lanning’s blood on my tongue. I grimaced, spat.
Detective Hembry’s hands stabbed into his pockets then, and he slowly wandered down the hallway toward my kitchen. He stopped in his trek every few feet, peering down at specific areas throughout the house where I had told them Paula Lanning and I had struggled. Once, he got down on his knees and squinted at a spot along the baseboard beside my office doorway, as if he expected to find some miniscule clue there that would prove I had neglected to tell him and his partner the whole truth.
For the umpteenth time since they had arrived, I wondered why the hell they were even here. Hembry and Norton were homicide detectives. This was a clear-cut case of suicide . . .
. . . wasn’t it?
Or should I worry about being in some kind of trouble? Were they interrogating me?
I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised, I decided. Nothing surprised me anymore.
Detectives Norton and Hembry couldn’t have shocked me if they slapped handcuffs around my wrists this very second, read me my rights, and hauled me off to prison.
In fact, I almost wished they would.
In prison, the people of Poinsettia Lane could not get to me. In a jail cell, I would be far away from this godforsaken neighborhood . . . .
“We’ve spoken with Mrs. Lanning numerous times since her daughter’s murder,” Detective Norton said. He finally put away his notepad, and now he walked in a slow, deliberate circle around that brown blob on the carpet where Paula Lanning had nearly bled to death an hour ago. “She knew from Day One that you were the person who found Rebecca, but she’s never said anything to us about suspecting you might be responsible.”
I just stared at him, unsure of what he was getting at.
“Don’t you find that odd?”
I fantasized kicking the smug son-of-a-bitch in the face. Several times.
I fantasized kicking the smug son-of-a-bitch in the face. Several times.
With a cocky little shrug, Norton added almost as an afterthought, “I’m merely making an observation.”
“Huh,” I said. “Well, allow me to do the same . . . . “
Both of them turned to look at me. Norton’s eyebrows rose in anticipation.
“I don’t doubt that Paula Lanning was perfectly rational when you spoke to her,” I said. “As rational as a grieving mother can be, anyway. But that’s been three weeks ago, Detective. How would you feel by now if you had lost a daughter, and the police hadn’t caught the piece of shit who took her away from you, they didn’t have a single fucking lead, couldn’t find one if their lives depended on it, but meanwhile every time you turn on the TV or pick up the newspaper you’re being told, ‘Look, here’s the face of the man who did this, he writes horror and he likes his women underage and he lives less than a mile from your front door –“
Norton held up one hand in a placating gesture. “Mr. Holland, it’s not necessary t –“
I ignored him. Pointed outside. To the white Channel 10 News van idling in the street, to the reporters and the cameramen and the photographers scurrying about on the edges of my property, perpetuating more lies against me with every passing second.
“This is happening because those assholes are being allowed to get away with this! Why is it so goddamn hard for you to see that? You know as well as I do that Paula Lanning was unstable. I didn’t need her husband to tell me so – I’d never met the woman before in my life, but I saw it for myself when she tried to drive her fucking butcher knife into my brain! I’m sure I would be a basket case too if I lost my little girl! But apparently it didn’t happen overnight. When all of this started, it probably never crossed her mind that I could’ve had anything to do with Rebecca’s murder. But then they planted the seed. Because of them . . . because of those fuckers on TV and the bastards insinuating whatever they want about me every single day in the Tribune . . . Paula Lanning is in the hospital right now, and she might not live through the night. She needed someone to blame. Just like every one of us needs someone to blame. And eventually she snapped. That’s why she came looking for me. Because she didn’t know any better. She came here because of them. Because they told her to.”
I looked off toward the street again when my rant was done. Shook my head. Felt as if I might spontaneously burst into flames any second, ignited by my anger.
“You know I warned your partner before?” I said to Detective Hembry. “I told him something like this was inevitable. But he wouldn’t listen.”
Hembry’s brow furrowed. “What are you talking about?”
In my peripheral vision, Detective Norton pointed a long, tan finger my way. “Now look, Mr. Holland –“
“No,” I said, turning to meet his glare. “You look . . . . “
Hembry’s jaw dropped, as if he had never before heard anyone dare talk back to his partner.
Calmly this time, I said, “I told you when we spoke on the phone a few days ago that I was afraid something like this might happen. I told you my neighbors were out to get me, that I feared for my life and I didn’t know what they might do next. But you didn’t listen. You sat there with your condescending tone and your flippant attitude and you did everything but accuse me of being a fucking drama queen. Didn’t you? You said you had better things to do with your time. Don’t deny it, Detective. Because you’re a liar if you do.”
Hembry stared at his partner. The expression on his face hinted that my chat with Norton was news to him.
Norton cleared his throat. Glanced through the open front door to the chaos in the street. Reached into the breast pocket of his jacket, pulled out a tube of chapstick, and applied it liberally to his lips.
He nodded when he was done. A move so subtle it was nearly imperceptible.
“I am sorry this had to happen, Mr. Holland,” said Detective Hembry. “It’s a damn shame things had to turn out like this.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It sure is.”
“Do you think you’re gonna be okay?”
“No,” I said, staring once more at that dark patch of dried blood in the middle of my living room. “I don’t. I don’t think anything is ever gonna be okay again.”
I blocked out what the detectives were saying then, and their meaningless chatter faded to a distant buzz as I glanced outside one last time. I noticed Floyd Beecham was arguing with a female cop just a few feet from my mailbox. Floyd wore dark green sweatpants and a red-white-and-blue T-shirt whose slogan proclaimed, POLITICIANS & DIAPERS NEED TO BE CHANGED FOR THE SAME REASON. He kept pointing at my house as he shouted in the pretty police officer’s face – something about “do your goddamn job” and “behind bars where he belongs” was all I could make out -- until she finally put her arm around him and escorted him off my property in the direction of his own home.
Another five or six minutes passed, during which Detectives Norton and Hembry asked me a few more questions. I felt numb, strangely displaced from the here and now, and each time I answered their queries in a dull monotone as if reciting a decades-old script I knew by heart.
Slowly, I shuffled to the door, preparing to close it despite the constant flow of law enforcement personnel still filing in and out of my home.
Halfway across the living room, though, I froze.
“What the hell is he doing here?”
Somehow I had failed to notice him before – or perhaps he had not been there until now -- but suddenly I spotted Officer Keith Whitmire on my front porch. He paced back and forth, his massive hands hooked into his shiny black gun-belt. He wore a navy blue windbreaker with POLICE DEPT. emblazoned in bright yellow block letters on the back.
A strange sense of déjà vu conjured a chill to my spine.
Just like the first time these two detectives had questioned me – on the morning I found Rebecca Lanning’s body – Officer Keith stood watch outside my door as if he owned the fucking place.
I wondered if his superiors had positioned him out there for my sake, to protect me . . . or to prevent me from escaping.
My guts roiled. My bones burned with rage at the sight of that dickhead.
Norton and Hembry both frowned. In perfect synchronicity, they turned toward the source of my discontent.
“You’re talking about Officer Whitmire?” said Norton.
“Yeah,” I groaned. “What the hell is he doing here?”
“Why, keeping the press at bay,” Hembry explained.
Norton added, “And since he knows your neighbors, we figured Whitmire would be the best choice for maintaining a safe –“
Hembry interrupted his partner: “Is there a problem, Mr. Holland?”
“As a matter of fact, there is,” I said, starting for the porch, my hands balled into fists.
I don’t know what I planned to do when I reached Officer Keith Whitmire, but it surely would not have been good. I guess it never occurred to me that an Assault On a Police Officer charge was the last thing I needed. But I was no longer thinking straight. I was blinded by my fury.
Detectives Norton and Hembry hurried to follow me.
“Hey . . . no . . . hold on a sec –“ The floor trembled beneath Hembry’s bulk.
Somehow, Norton beat me to the door. He blocked my exit.
“Whoa, now,” said the taller detective. “Easy does it.” One hand lingered conspicuously over the bulge of gun inside his jacket; the other came up between us, long fingers splayed open, almost but not quite touching my chest.
“I want this son of a bitch off my property,” I said.
“Excuse me?” Keith Whitmire whirled to face me now.
“Mr. Holland,” said Norton, “You’ve been through a lot tonight. Maybe you should just sit back down and –“
“Get him off my porch,” I demanded. “Now.”
“What’s your problem, buddy?” Whitmire goaded me, over Norton’s shoulder.
“He’s dirty,” I told the detectives. “I can’t prove it, but by God I know he is –“
“Why, you rotten –“ Whitmire looked like he wanted to come after me, to get his big, hairy-knuckled hands around my skinny neck, but that was impossible because of his superior standing between us.
“How much have you known, you bastard?” I asked him. “Did you help them trash my car? Maybe you played lookout while they poisoned my dog? You’re an officer of the law – at least, you claim to be -- but what have you done to stop all this, you piece of shit?”
Meanwhile, flashbulbs sparked more frenetically than ever in the night, pushing back the shadows behind Whitmire like miniature bursts of lightning in my yard, cameras snapping picture after picture of everything that transpired here. “Are you getting this, Roger?” I heard a female reporter call out to one of her companions in the street, followed by an excited clicking of high heels upon asphalt, “Please tell me you’re getting this . . . . “
“You’re crazy,” Whitmire spat at me. “Fucking psycho.”
But he did not meet my eyes as he said it.
“I want him out of here,” I told Detective Norton again. “I mean it. Get that motherfucker off my property this instant.”
“It’s okay, Officer,” Norton told him. “Just . . . go see if your companions need any help with the press.”
Whitmire stared at his superior, incredulous.
“Officer,” Hembry said, stepping forward now to stand beside his partner. The chubby detective breathed heavily, as if the excitement of the last few seconds had winded him. But his voice was no less stern as he commanded, “Go. That’s an order.”
Whitmire looked like a whipped puppy. “Y-yeah . . . okay. Gotcha.”
Before he stalked off my porch, though, before Detective Norton finally eased the door shut between us, Keith Whitmire gave me the nastiest look I have ever received from anyone . . . before or since.
There was murder in his eyes.
A promise that this was far from over.
And I believed him.
Later, just a few minutes before Detectives Erik Norton and Paul Hembry finally left my home and things got even worse, I collapsed upon my sofa.
I turned on the television.
I don’t know why. I knew I would regret it. But I had to know what they were saying out there . . . .
Hembry watched me from across the room as I used the remote control to flip past a jumble of late-night infomercials straight to Channel Ten.
“Do you really think that’s a good idea, Mr. Holland?”
I looked at him. Through him. But I said nothing.
“You know they’re probably not making you out to be a hero,” he said. “Do you really want to hear what they have to say?”
“What do I have to lose?” I replied. “Besides, it’s not like you’re gonna make them leave.”
“Now, Mr. Holland,” Hembry said. “You know we can’t do that.”
“You could start with her,” I said, stabbing one finger in the air toward the TV.
“You could start with her,” I said, stabbing one finger in the air toward the TV.
“She’s not even on your property,” Norton said, without looking at either the television or me. “That’s a state road. As long as she doesn’t step over the curb, into your yard, she can stand out there all night if she wants to.”
“Of course,” I said. “If she wants to.”
“Sorry, Mr. Holland,” Hembry mumbled, as he bent to inspect the patch of dried blood on the carpet along with his partner one last time. “We don’t make the rules.”
I shook my head, focused my fatigued gaze upon the television. But I didn’t watch it for very long. I couldn’t. Only a minute or two passed before I turned the TV off again in disgust, then threw the remote control at the screen.
Staci Gayle-Mathis stood in the street directly in front of my house, bathed in the bright glow of a news-camera’s light splitting apart the night. Her hair was the kind of blond that came only in a bottle, very curly but not a strand of it out of place. Her make-up was perfect too, her burgundy dress immaculately ironed. She wore a pink ribbon pinned to her lapel -- in memory of Rebecca Lanning, I assumed, and I wondered if she had purchased it down the road at Ronnie “Round Man” Miller’s 7th Avenue Stop-N-Shop.
The microphone in her hand was labeled WKLS, and the reporter’s expression and tone of utmost concern for the citizens of this neighborhood could not have been more contrived.
There was something so surreal, dream-like, about seeing my home from a different angle at the exact moment I sat inside. It seemed strangely unfamiliar, somehow, like a site where I had long ago experienced a handful of pleasant memories but it had never truly been home.
. . . a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there . . . .
The lights burned brightly in the windows of that house behind the reporter, and I could also see the flickering blue glow of a television through its drawn white curtains.
I was quite sure I glimpsed fuzzy gray humanoid shapes moving around inside there too. Maybe even my own silhouette.
That gave me a weird primal chill, as if I had suddenly discovered the power to be in two places at once. As if I had stepped outside of my body to view myself from afar.
On the television, Staci Gayle-Mathis was saying, “Again, police insist that the writer is not a suspect in this latest investigation, which has already been ruled a suicide. Thirty-six year old Paula Lanning, they say, attempted to end her own life tonight by slitting her wrists in Andrew Holland’s home as the writer looked on. Citizens of Harrison County will remember that Andrew Holland was the man who found Paula Lanning’s nine-year-old daughter Rebecca three weeks ago, mere minutes after the child was raped and murdered on a construction site at the end of the street where I now stand -- Poinsettia Lane.”
I glared at her. Hated her with every fiber of my being. She was the enemy. Staci Gayle-Mathis represented every yellow journalist who had caused all of my problems in the first place, with her endless insinuations and her irresponsible, sensationalistic approach to Rebecca Lanning’s murder.
“Meanwhile,” she continued, “The popular horror novelist’s neighbors are furious over what they consider a clear case of the Harris City Police Department ‘dragging its feet,’ if you will. Many on this formerly quiet, peaceful street are claiming that the police have blatantly neglected to do their job. I have spoken with several Poinsettia Lane residents here tonight, and I could feel the anger and understandable sense of sheer hopelessness that weighs upon the hearts of every one of these people – many of whom are parents themselves – in the wake of this terrible, ongoing nightmare. Take, for example, Mr. Floyd Beecham, whose ire was quite evident this evening when he demanded ‘justice’ from officers emerging from Holland’s house without the writer in tow. Mr. Beecham narrowly avoided arrest himself, according to one Harrison County Deputy Sheriff . . . . “
The reporter turned to her left then. The cameraman followed her movements smoothly, without missing a beat.
“Mr. Beecham?” she said.
Floyd Beecham stepped into the shot then. His eyes were wide, his face sunburn-pink with rage as Staci Gayle-Mathis placed one slender hand on my neighbor’s bony shoulder and urged him to speak his mind.
“Go ahead, Mr. Beecham,” she said. “I believe you – as well as all of your fellow residents of Poinsettia Lane -- have a right to voice your opinion in this matter.”
“Yeah,” Beecham growled. “Thanks. I appreciate it. Am I on TV?”
“You are.” She smiled. “Please, Mr. Beecham, go ahead . . . . “
“Look,” Floyd said, and now he took her microphone from her. His eyes were watery, his tone distraught as he stared straight into the camera. “I just . . . I think it’s a crying shame that these people are paid to protect and serve, ya know . . . our taxes pay their salaries . . . and yet it’s a proven fact there’s a man inside that house who has a record of –“
That’s when I quickly turned off the television.
I couldn’t take anymore.
I decided I was in Hell. And I would never escape . . . .
I ignored Detective Hembry’s raised-eyebrow glance my way, his I-told-you-so expression.
A minute or two after the television went silent, Detective Norton finally said to his partner, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t go ahead and wrap this up for now.”
His voice seemed to come from somewhere far away.
“Fine,” Hembry agreed.
“That’s not to say we won’t have further questions for you in the coming weeks, Mr. Holland,” Norton said. “You don’t plan on leaving town any time soon, do you, sir?”
I dropped the television’s remote control on the sofa beside me. Slowly turned to stare at the detectives.
“If I had anywhere to go,” I said, “Don’t you think I would already be there?”
I hated every last one of them, wished I could snap my fingers and make them all disappear: the detectives in charge of the case, with their endless parade of questions . . . the bitch at the curb with her microphone and her pancake make-up, her hyphenated last name and her fake fucking smile . . . the two lanky Sheriff’s Deputies at the end of my driveway, sipping from steaming cups of coffee and sharing a carefree chuckle with that asshole Keith Whitmire as if everything was all right in the world . . . and of course the throng of Poinsettia Lane residents congregated in the middle of the street, gawking up my home as if it were a real-life House of Horrors straight from a bad B-movie.
When would it end, this carnival of madness? When would the vultures decide that enough was enough?
Would the chaos continue through the night, I wondered? On into the next morning?
I prayed that wouldn’t be the case. I couldn’t take anymore.
Then again, at the same time, I realized I did not want to be alone. I did not want that crowd of emergency personnel, police, or even nosy, one-minded reporters to wrap this up and move on to business elsewhere.
Because somehow, hidden amidst the chaos, there was an inexplicable feeling of safety.
A merciful delay of the inevitable . . . .
With the silhouettes of so many dedicated professionals scurrying back and forth beneath the swirling red-and-blue psychedelia of the lights atop their vehicles, authorities maintaining a pretense of order and justice although the results of their labor were currently incomprehensible to me . . . at least things couldn’t possibly get any worse.
They would protect me.
However . . . when the mayhem subsided, when the street grew quiet once again and the thick, black night encroached upon my property . . .
. . . then, I knew, I would be vulnerable.
God help me, I did not want to be alone with my neighbors.