Thursday 26 October 2006

The Barrington House, Part One

The Barrington House is a short story of three chapters, posted over three days -- by me, your calendrically thematic host, Cheeseburger Brown.

This is a story for Hallowe'en, and it marks the anticipated return of Mike Zhang Cuthbertson, last seen alive and well in Night Flight Mike, last rumoured missing in action in The Reaper's Coleslaw.

And now, we begin our tale:


Bianca was a bad girl, and the neighbourhood wanted retribution.

There was Rachael Lippenbaum, who had suffered repeated attacks of gum in her hair. There was Arnold Drober, who was pushed in the muck every day he was unlucky enough to meet Bianca at the bus-stop. So too was vengeance craved by Leon Archibald whose books had been thrown on a roof, and Amanda Weller whose dress had been torn. Geoffrey Penobscot, Susan Chow, Merrick Inderwater -- all angry. But first in line was Dini Butler who had never fully recovered from her involuntary inclusion in a wet T-shirt contest in front of all her classmates when Bianca got a hold of the caretaker's hose at school.

"Bianca must pay," she hissed to the cadre of conspirators assembled in the alley behind the town grocery store, sharing stolen cigarettes and passing between them one lukewarm can of light beer borrowed from Mr. Butler's garage fridge.

"I hate her," contributed Arnold Drober, his pants splashed with mud from an encounter earlier that day.

"We all hate her," agreed Amanda Weller. "She's a lesbian or something."

"I know, eh?" chimed in Susan Chow. "She's like on hormones. What's with those boobs? Who does she think she is?"

"We're not here to bitch," said Merrick Inderwater firmly. "We're here to make a plan. We're here to teach Bianca a lesson once and for all. Right Dini?"

Everyone nodded. A few of them coughed, awkwardly balancing cigarettes between their short, child fingers. Even the kids who hated Dini Butler had showed up, demonstrating their willingness to attach themselves to the perceived lesser of two evils given a cause sufficiently compelling.

For his part, Merrick had found himself unable to go against Dini's bidding ever since the wet T-shirt incident. He woke up damp nightly, possessed by throbbing afterimages of the stark visibility of her training bra. "Okay then," he continued. "What do we do, Dini?"

"We strike on Hallowe'en," said Dini, turning to look at each of them in turn. "It's the perfect cover for pranks, and we're going to prank her big." She paused, licked her lip-glossed lips twice quickly, took a deep breath. "Bianca's going to spend the night in the Barrington House, and we're all going to make it happen."

At mention of the Barrington House there came a collective gasp, followed by more coughing. Dini waited patiently for the air to clear. Every kid in town had heard the stories about the derelict mansion on the hill at the end of Barrington Road -- whether depicted as haunted or peopled by witches or gangsters, the consistent theme was dread.

"I heard Jordan Cottle's uncle killed himself there in like the sixties or something," whispered Geoffrey Penobscot. "He hung himself in the dining room after his team lost the pennant."

"That's where Fast Andre and his gang killed the kids they kidnapped after the Big Bank Robbery in nineteen seventy-seven," said Leon Archibald with certain authority, adjusting his glasses. "The sheriff didn't even find their bodies, because Fast Andre cut them up and fed them to his dogs."

"My sister says Fast Andre still lives there."

"No way -- my dad says no one can live there because the poltergeist keeps them out. If you look in any mirror in the house your face looks like it's melting off. Seriously."

"I heard there's toxic waste in the ground under the house, and it makes the animals turn all rabid and stuff, and that's why witches do their rituals there, like all naked and perverted and gory on the solace."



Dini raised her hand for order. "Know what?" she asked rhetorically, brow raised. "I bet there's nothing in the Barrington House. I mean, not really. The point is that everyone is scared crapless of it, even stupid Bianca. We don't need anything to be there -- we just need to lock her in and let her imagination do the work."

There was a general murmur of assent.

Dini took a deep breath, which nearly caused Merrick to swoon. "Now," she declared, "let's decide who's going to do what."

Bianca was also the subject of discussion in her own home. It was being explained to her in no uncertain terms that she would be obliged to spend the Hallowe'en evening accompanying her younger siblings from house to house around town, protecting them from candy-nabbers, pumpkin-smashers and the pranks of drunk teenage hooligans.

Bianca frowned deeply. She had rather hoped she would be one of the pumpkin-smashing, drunken teenage hooligans herself. She was only thirteen but she ran with a high school crowd, and she had been looking forward to Hallowe'en as an opportunity to demonstrate to them just how hardcore she really was. She had been intending to go on a bad-ass free-for-all, and had even been contemplating letting Mark Norbert feel her up under her shirt.

For a week she'd been collecting drabs of liquor from various sources to combine them in a large juice bottle, and spiriting cigarettes away from behind the counter at the Smoke Shop while Mark distracted Eileen or Doris or whatever old hag was working there that day.

"Bianca, are you even listening to me?" cried Mother.

"Yeah, Mom," groaned Bianca, rolling her eyes and snapping her gum. She glanced over at her siblings with a pained expression: her white sister India and her yellow brother Mike smiled back uncertainly.

"I'm going to be a eukaryotic cell," squeaked India.

"You are so lame," noted Bianca.

"What are you dressing as?" challenged Mike, his eyes swimming through the thick lenses of his Scotch-taped glasses.

"I'm thirteen, Mike," snapped Bianca. "I don't dress up for Hallowe'en anymore because I'm not a little kid like you."

"I'm ten," Mike defended himself sullenly.

"Exactly," agreed Bianca.

Mother sighed. "Could you at least try to be civil to your brother and sister, Bianca? Please? This is an opportunity to show your father and I how mature you can really be. Don't blow it."

The sun began to set. Bianca fumed. Father and Mother helped get India and Mike into their costumes -- the former ensconsed in a transparent sac of cellular goo made from a refitted pool toy, and the latter feeling rather dashing in his black trenchcoat and sunglasses. Bianca sneered, "What're you supposed to be? The tax man?"

"I'm Neo from The Matrix," said Mike. Then he added, "Whoa."

Bianca clucked her tongue. "You do know that you're never going to get laid as long as you live, right?"

India furrowed her brow. "What's laid?"

Ten minutes later they came to the park at the centre of town, crossing paths with other bands of costumed kids carrying bags for candy and little cardboard boxes hanging around their necks for UNICEF pennies. The merry-go-round in the north-east corner was spinning, ridden by little witches, werewolves, droids and Spidermen. "Can we go for a ride on the way home?" asked India, tugging Mike's hand as she looked up at Bianca.

"You can do whatever the f you want," said Bianca. "I'll meet you back here at eight thirty, okay? And don't be late or I'll f'ing kill you."

Mike was anxious. "Mom said you were supposed --"

"I know what Mom said," replied Bianca icily, drawing a hand down her round, brown face dramatically. "Did you hear what I just f'ing said?"

"Well, yeah, but --"

"Good. Take care of India, Mike. Don't get into trouble. I'll see you at eight thirty."

Mike and India watched Bianca stride away from them, crossing the park, lighting a cigarette as she was progressively occluded by the rows of leafless oaks. India was concerned. "Doesn't Bianca want to trick-or-treat?" she asked Mike.

Mike shrugged. "I guess not."

"But we're still going to go, right Mike?"

"Yup." Mike stared after Bianca sadly, then turned back to his little sister. "Yup, we sure are. Let's go. We can start on Western, then walk toward school."

India grinned and gave Mike her hand again. As they walked her cytoplasm sloshed and her UNICEF box rattled with starter pennies she had begged from Father. They plowed through a pile of crispy, russet leaves, kicking at the flotsam in the day's last golden light. "I bet I'm going to get Lifesavers," India predicted.

"I bet," agreed Mike distantly, eyes cast over his shoulder in the direction Bianca had gone.

He smelled trouble.


Moksha Gren said...

I'm excited to see the Cuthbertsons again...but I have to admit...this story had me hooked as soon as I saw the picture.

Anonymous said...

I didn't even notice the Stormtrooper right away. But then I saw it and had a similar reaction.

I notice the theme of "something bad is about to happen" type statements at the end of each chapter. I feel that this gives the stories a pulpy or almost campy feel, because it happens so often that they start to feel like shtick. I'm reminded of the old Batman shows..."will Batman get out of the Riddler's Giant Toaster Oven of Peril in Time? Will Commissioner Gordon escape from the Penguin's massive army of brainwashed Squid? Tune in next time!"

On the one hand, I like it. On the other hand, I wonder if shtick is really the desired effect. On the other hand (said Zaphod), it doesn't really matter because I love the stories, and I'm mostly curious as to your design in using that device for suspense.

Thanks for making it fun to be a part of the audience.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Lukas,

There's no denying that it's a cheap old trick, but sometimes the cheapest tricks are old because they continue to fulfill their basic function.

You're right that it's classic serial laziness: the writer needs a hook to end on for a bridge of suspense to the next chapter, and, for want of anything better, falls back on cliche. It's right out of Flash Gordon.

Is it a strong device? Hell no. It's nothing but a piece of duct tape.

I know I've been apologizing a lot lately but I must apologize again: I'm being run just a little bit ragged right now between work, this blog, and home. The cheap tricks proliferate the more tired and hurried I am.

Be it masochistic or not, my dedication to continue churning out these stories remains unwavering.

With luck, I will soon find the time I need to sleep a bit and then work the posts over more thoroughlly, to bring the quality and consistency up to where I want it to be.

Thanks for your continued feedback!

Cheeseburger Brown

Moksha Gren said...

I'll agree, if you had ended previous story chapters with "He smelled trouble, I would have rolled my eyes. But this is a Halloween it up. Smelling trouble is a perfectly suitable cliffhanger when your protagonist is trick-or-treating.

Also, not to let you off the hook or anything, but have you concidered posting a story everyother day. It's one thing to post a personal blog every day. It's another thing to push out quality fiction that fast. I, for one, would not think less of you with a three a week pace.

Anonymous said...

"I've got a bad feeling about this."

You had me at the stormtrooper too, and as Moksha said lay it on thick and oozing. It is Halloween after all. However if there is any hint of schmaltz in your christmas effort I will sulk (I'll probably sulk anyway, I usually do at christmas.) Christmas is schmaltzy enough thankyou.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Moksha,

I think you might be right. As much as I want this blog to have fresh content daily, I don't think I can keep it up. As it stands now tomorrow's chapter will be posted later in the day than usual on account of the fact that I've not quite yet finished typing it out, and I'm so tired I can't focus on the screen anymore.

So I think I'm going to take your suggestion, Moksha.

Beginning in November, I will post new chapters three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

Perhaps this will mean we can all get into more fruitful discussions on Tuesdays and Thurdays (and weekends).

I hope this isn't disappointing to you. It's a little bit disappointing to me, but -- well, it's more realistic.

Cheeseburger Brown

gl. said...

i want to be a cytoplasm for halloween!

Moksha Gren said...

Oh, great! Now Moksha's "the guy who deprived the world of their daily Cheeseburger". I mean..I agree with your decision, CBB...but did you have to say, "hey, everybody, becasue of Moksha you're going to get much less content from me." I can almost hear the thousands of world-wide fingers typing hate mail to me as we speak. ;)

All I can say for myself, everyone, is that I'd rather have a fresh and juicy Cheeseburger served with love rather than some dried out husk of meat that's been over-cooked and sitting under a heat lamp for way too long just so it can be delivered the second it's ordered.

And CBB...get some sleep and dream of large breasted robots, my friend.

Cheeseburger Brown said...

Dear Moksha,

The thing is, most weeks I've been posting four times so a move back to three isn't really a massive reduction, but it will give me some breathing room.

Also, my wife agrees with you so everyone can blame my wife is that's their 'druthers.

Now, for my next trick: how to figure out how to finish of Chapter 2 at the office this morning...wish me luck!

Cheeseburger Brown

Anonymous said...

The stormtrooper looks like he has paruresis.