My wife was blogging the other day and found a contest from Tinhouse featuring Shirley Jackson, an author famous for her horror genre fiction. The contest requires you to finish one of Jackson’s unfinished short stories. I’ve submitted this, but I never win anything, so I thought I’d post it for everyone else to enjoy because I had a lot of fun finishing the work of a great female author. PS for ease of reading, I’ve draw a line where my work starts, about three pages in. Wish me luck, the winner is announced on Dec 13.
Let me tell you about this girl, she’s prettier than I am, but she’s my best friend. We have fun together. When we go to a party or to the country club dancing or horseback riding─we ride at Becket’s; no one rides at Wilson’s anymore─or ice skating or even just out for a walk, we make jokes together and tell each other everything. She’s got dark hair and dark eyes and she wears black a lot; her mother doesn’t mind. Her name’s Hilda. She’s fourteen, like me, and neither one of us believes in going steady. That’s no fun.
I try to do a lot of the things she does, but of course she’s always better. When I steal something from a store I always get caught and they call my father. Hilda has lots of things like slips and sweaters that she’s stolen from stores, and once she even stole a coat but of course she nevers wears it. We get all our clothes from the fashion shop. Everybody does. You just don’t wear a coat from anywhere else. She’s allowed to drink gin, her father’s a psychiatrist. I’m allowed champagne and a pink lady if my father makes it. My father’s a lawyer. It’s important what your father is. Also it’s important have a swimming pool only not the biggest swimming pool. One family moved into our part of town and right away they built the biggest swimming pool of all and of course no one would dream of going near it. But the most fun Hilda and I have is with the common people. The riffraff. The hoi polloi.
The way we have fun is this: we get a ride into town with someone, usually Hilda’s mother or mine, when they are going into the doctor’s or to a matinee, or on one of their shopping trips. Then we make all kinds of promises about when we will be home, and how, and usually when to meet somewhere to get home. Then we take a streetcar to some part of town where the common people live and go around and eat and talk and all the other things that people without advantages like them do. They drink beer─we’ve watched them do that─and buy clothes in department stores, and they talk to each other a lot. That’s where we have our fun, talking to the common people. They all have bad teeth. They don’t take care of themselves. They bathe, of course─everybody does, after all─but they don’t know how to cook. They eat hamburgers and french fries.
One day we got into town with Hilda’s mother and said we would meet her on the corner of nation and main at five o’clock and I guess she thought we were going to a movie. She said did we have enough money and Hilda said sure, and then she said well, have a good time, and we said sure. She never worries about our meeting bad men or something the way my mother does. My mother always wants to know exactly where we’ve been and whether any dirty men spoke to us, and Hilda and I always have to think of something to tell her, although I don’t remember ever seeing a dirty man in my life. Once we told her a man had spoken to us because Hilda had read about it in a book. She’s allowed to read anything she likes. My mother told my father and for a while they wouldn’t let me go anywhere except with people they knew. Now I’m fourteen, though, my father says it’s time I got used to the idea of the world being the way it is. My mother just says if any men speak to us we must run, unless there is a policeman nearby. Hilda’s mother doesn’t care, Hilda’s allowed to speak to anyone she wants to. This day Hilda’s mother brought us into town. She was annoyed because Hilda was wearing her brown coat, and Hilda couldn’t tell her that where we were going she couldn’t wear her fur. Anyway she let us off and said did we have enough money and then she drove away and Hilda and I stood on the corner for a minute arguing. I wanted to go downtown to some of the stores first, but Hilda had it in her mind that she wanted to go far out on the streetcar to the end of the line. Hilda won, of course; she always does because she says she won’t be friends anymore. We got on the streetcar and Hilda sat down next to a girl about twenty who was really dressed in a most ghastly fashion and I sat down next to an old man who smelled. We never got to the end of the line because Hilda kept looking at the girl next to her out of the corners of her eyes and kind of smiling and when the girl got up to get off Hilda waved her head at me and got up and we followed the girl off the bus. We like to follow people sometimes and this girl had taken Hilda’s fancy. “Did you ever see such clothes?” Hilda whispered to me when she got off the streetcar and I had to admit I never did. She was all kind of cheap perfume and everything too tight. “I think she’s a prostitute,” Hilda said, “and when we follow her we’ll find out where prostitutes go.” She was a very disappointing prostitute if she was one because she didn’t stop anyone or talk to anyone or anything, just went on down the street, and we walked along some distance behind her, talking and trying to pretend we weren’t following. We were in a very common neighborhood; there were little dirty stores and little dirty houses, and everything close up together and dirty in the streets. There were a lot of people, probably because it was a Saturday afternoon and Saturday afternoon is when the common people come out and sit on their front porches and watch ball games on television and drink beer. The girl we were following went right down the street without stopping and then she turned suddenly as though she had just thought of it and went into a little grocery store, so we hurried and came right into the store after her. It was a little store, and dark, and we stopped near the door because there were quite a few people inside and our girl standing waiting her turn.
I don’t much care for getting up close to people, and I certainly don’t like being close enough for them to touch me, but Hilda doesn’t care about anything, and so I kind of stayed near the doorway while Hilda went a little further in, kind of touching things and looking as though she had something she wanted to buy. Hilda has nerve, and she’s fun, and I wouldn’t do some of the things she does. If my mother ever found out I wouldn’t get a car for my birthday.
Anyway, Hilda was poking at loaves of bread and taking down cans and putting them back and no one was paying any attention to us because they were all talking and even the girl we followed had turned around to listen because one woman was doing most the talking and she was mad.
“No right,” she kept saying, “they hadn’t any right. I never knew the boy myself but his mother and father were decent people and they brought their kids up decent and no one had any right to accuse him without the facts.”
“They go to church, the Andersons,” someone else said, and the girl we followed said, kind of hesitating, “wasn’t it in the paper? They found some of the stuff in his room?”
“He never did a thing,” the woman who talked so much said, “I know for a fact that boy was brought up right, and when he says the other kids gave him those watches I for one believe him.”
Now I’ll show you how Hilda has fun. She kind of stepped up to the woman talking and shook her head and when the woman notices her Hilda said, very little-girl, “please, I couldn’t help hearing what you said and I guess you don’t know everything about it because we used to know the Anderson boy and he stole things all the time.”
“What?” said the woman and then, “I just simply don’t believe it.”
“It’s true,” Hilda said, nodding her head. “When I saw about it in the papers I just said so they caught him finally. He used to steal anything he could find. He stole from other kids. And once he tried to steal his own father’s car but he couldn’t get it started. I was right there and I saw him.”
“I don’t believe it,” the woman said, “I just don’t believe it.” Then she turned to Hilda and said, “What Anderson boy are you talking about? Are you sure you mean Johnny Anderson?”
“I certainly do,” Hilda said. “The one who stole the watches and said the other boys gave them to him and it was all in the paper. I used to know him and he stole things all the time.”
“Hard on his people,” another woman said, and someone else said, “No matter how hard you try to bring kids up right…”
“Well, I just never would have believed it,” the first woman said. She sighed and turned away to look at some things on a shelf. “He was always so polite, too.”
Someone started asking to have oranges measured out and the grocery clerks were putting things into bags and Hilda came over to me. “Come on,” she said, and we sneaked out. No one paid any attention to us, of course, and we went on down the street and Hilda squeezed my arm hard. “How was that?” she said, and I said, “ghastly,” which of course is our word meaning pretty wonderful. “Let’s do some more,” I said and then Hilda said, “well, it’s your turn next,” and I began to get nervous because I can’t do it anywhere near as ghastly as Hilda.
I thought I would try the newsstand on the corner because usually they’re easy, and I cheated by using an old game although of course it’s always fun. Hilda kind of stood back and I went up to the newsstand and the man behind it was selling a paper so I waited till he finished and then when he looked at me I said, “please, we’re lost, my friend and I. We don’t have enough to telephone.”
He looked at Hilda standing a way in back of me and then he looked at me again and finally he said, “Well, where do you live?”
I told him on Manica street which was all right because we had been there once and people lived there, and he looked surprised and said, “well, what are you doing all the way out here?”
This was where Hilda was always better. She would tell him something like we were trailing her father’s divorced wife, or we had seen a man kill someone and we were following him, and maybe he wouldn’t believe her but he’d kind of laugh and give in. I never had that kind of luck because I’m not as good as Hilda. All I could think of to say was, “we got on the wrong streetcar and kept thinking it would be time to get off at the right corner it was going the wrong way.”
You could tell he thought I was kind of foolish at my age to get on the wrong street car and come so far away from home but there was no real reason for him not to believe me so at last he said, “what do you want me to do?”
“We don’t have enough to telephone,” I said.
He looked at Hilda again and then at me and finally he reached into the moneybox under the stand. “Well,” he said, “I guess your folks will be worrying.” He took out two quarters. “Think you can find your way home without getting lost again?” He asked me, and I could tell he was still a little doubtful because I had done it so badly. I took the quarters and said, “oh, thank you, mister. We can get home now.”
“See that you go straight home, too,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said, and Hilda said “thank you,” and we went off toward the streetcar stop because he was still looking at us. “How did I do?” I said and Hilda said, “ghastly,” but we both knew it really wasn’t because no matter how I try I can never think of things the way Hilda can.
“I’m going to do a house,” Hilda said all of a sudden, and that really scared me because in all the time we had been having fun we had never tried a house before, but then I saw the house she was going for and I could kind of see what she had in mind. This was a little house, and it was unusual because instead of being right on the street with a little fence and all it was set far back and it had almost a garden and on one side of it was house that was clearly empty with no one living there and no curtains and the steps falling down, and on the other side was just a vacant lot.
Hilda’s so strong, she’s practically running towards the house. I know she’s made up her mind. The grass crunched as cut through, the garden which only had three kinds of plants. Hilda pointed an laughed at the the brown roses in the center, “Have you ever seen something so sad?” she asked.
I felt I had, but I said, “No.” The only thing alive in yard were these tiny yellow flowers that we crushed as we approached the door. Hilda’s great at this, she makes our adventures so wonderful. Then Hilda smiled and said, “Just you watch!”
The house was faded mustard yellow, almost quaint if everything around weren’t dilapidated. Hilda knocked on the door. As we waited something caught my eye from the house next door, I tried to make it out, but the windows were so dark. “Hilda?” I said, “Can you see though that window?”
She said, “I don’t know, I think it looks like dolls.”
“Dolls?” The door cracked and startled us. It opened wide enough to draw the chain latch taught, and behind the latch was a smiling old lady. Now I’ll get to watch Hilda work her magic, old people are so nice and trusting.
The woman kept smiling and said, “Can I help you?”
Hilda said, “Hello, yes. I’m so sorry to bother you, but our parents have gone missing, may we use your phone? The woman’s eyes narrowed and wrinkles gathered on her face.
“My dear,” said the old lady, “Why didn’t you use your own phone?” I thought the woman had stumped Hilda, but she shined as she always does—she replied back, “I would have but recent construction has left us without a phone-line. She shut the door and we listened as the latch was undone.
“You see?” Hilda said, “When we get in I’ll pretend to make to call, and you take something, then you make a call so I can take something.
“Ghastly!” The door opened.
The woman held out her arm as if to say come in, and said, “My name is Helen. Come in. Let me get you some water.” We both looked around, the house seemed so small from the outside, but it’s huge, and filled with things from everywhere: nick-knacks, rocks, shells, bottles of sand, all together next to the television. Shelves of books and plastic flowers, all coated in half a century of nicotine. It all smelled like a plastic ashtray.
“Thank you for the water.” Hilda said, “Where’s the phone?”
“Say again. My hearing’s going dear.”
“Yes, it’s right in here.” Helen said, leading Hilda to the kitchen. Hilda looked back and winked at me. I just stood there and looked at all the old things laying around. What should I take? I could hear Hilda working her magic on the phone: “Hello, detective, I’d like to make a report. My parents are missing.” I think she’s just talking into the phone, but it’s much better than anything I could say. She kept it up until Helen left the room, and Hilda ushered me on with a waving hand; go, go get something. I felt rising goosebumps. Hilda always talked about “the elderly” like they’re fading Daffodils, but this place feels like a Flytrap.
I peaked around the hall it was lined with framed pictures of dolls. I went down it like a fish for tackle. I heard water coming from what must have been her bathroom. Beyond the bathroom, a door was cracked. I could still faintly hear Hilda, “We must find them right away!” Her words were comforting but it didn’t slow my racing heart as I gazed into the room.
A sea of old painted porcelain dolls covered everything—floor to ceiling—with a bed in the middle. Sky blue wallpaper wrapped the room, all thoroughly lacquered in nicotine residue. There was only one empty spot, beside the window what looked like a wardrobe stood open. On the bottom of each side were gold labels embossed with the names: HILDA and MARY. My heart was pounding. I didn’t hear the water anymore. I didn’t hear Hilda anymore either. Then came the slow terrifying walk back to the kitchen. The desperate hope that Hilda’s just playing some cruel joke on me. She’s too good. Maybe she’s made this whole thing up. The phone’s hung up. Hilda’s gone and I’m all alone.
I knew we never should have come here. “Hilda.” I whispered, “Where are you?” As I searched, frantically. She’s not anywhere. Then I saw shadow in the corner of my eye. The house next door! I swore I saw something move in the window, it must have been Hilda.
I ran out the door, across the yard, and even managed to jump over the broken stairs. I couldn’t see anything through the windows. I burst into the house expecting to see Hilda waiting and smiling with that look she has when she knows she’s got me good. It’s dark, but I can hear noise from the basement. Through the cracks in the floor boards I can see a faint red glow. As my eyes adjusted to the dim interior of the room I found my self at the center of the living-room. It was fully furnished and the inside of the house looked brand new.
Crack! What was that? I followed the sound through the kitchen. Setting at the table, a life-size doll dressed up like a modern woman. I felt like she was looking right at me, but it couldn’t be. She was holding a newspaper, and the headline read “Carol Whitney Search Called Off”.
“Where are you Hilda?” I whispered. I continued toward the basement door it was wide open. The way down looked dark, but the floor was a deep red. I couldn’t help but take one last glance at the fragile woman at the table, it was the creepiest thing I’d ever seen. And I’m not so sure this is one of Hilda’s stories—I’m not even sure if this is a joke.
I took one step down and the wooden stair creaked. Then another, and a horrible long moan escaped from the wood and I heard Helen screech, “Who’s there? Is that you Mary?” She knew my name? My heart is racing again. I can’t do it, I can’t go further, but Hilda. I turned to run but I slammed into something so hard I saw stars. When my eyes finally cleared—I saw her, the doll from the table. She had me in her arms and this time she was looking right at me. I screamed and screamed, then I fainted.
Hilda could have done this so much better. She is so wonderful at everything she does. She’s my best friend.
I woke. It was terribly hot and I’m sweating, Helen is standing over me, her dark veiny eyes are glaring, and she has an almost crazy, toothy smile. She slipped her finger over her lips and said, “Shhhhh, you don’t want to ruin the most important part of your life do you? You and Hilda are going to be so beautiful.” She lovingly looked beside me and I looked over. My heart skipped, “HILDA!” I screamed.
“Shhhhhh, shhhh, shh.”
“Hilda, I’m here! Hilda!”
“She can’t hear you Mary.”
“How do you know my name?”
“You really don’t remember me? I understand, I’m just something you rich kids can look down upon like an insect.” Then I saw the doll who I’d run into approach from around the burning fire in a giant kiln which lay in wait for us. I felt the cold hands holding me down from behind. It’s a boy around my age, but ageless, glossed, cold, and strong enough to keep me from moving. Then other dolls emerged, and Helen is staring lifelessly at me. Then she said, “I’ve been doing this for a long time sweetheart, don’t think I don’t know when someone new is in the neighborhood. I’m hard of hearing, but I’m not blind.”
Everything feels slow now, hopeless. All I hear is my heart, lub-dub, lub-dub—if only Hilda could help me. “What do I do?” I whisper. Then Hannah yelled, “What?” Then I don’t know why, but I remembered the paper the modern dressed doll was holding so I whispered, “Carol?” Then Helen started to look like she was getting really angry, but I kept saying, “Help us please, you don’t have to do this. We can help you Carol. You want to be free don’t you?” Helen raised to hit me and I shut my eyes. Then nothing.
I opened my eyes and Carol had pulled Helen off of me. She was forcing her back toward the fire. The boy holding me had lifted his hands and stepped back. None of the other dolls helped, they just stood there. Helen was screaming, “NO, NO, STOP!” But Carols eyes never left mine the entire time. They were sad eyes. I reached for Hilda and tried to shake her awake. “Hilda. HILDA!” Nothing. I grabbed her and dragged her to the steps. I took a deep breath and a final look at Helen as Carol was hoisting her into the fire. I couldn’t watch. I turned my head and continued dragging her up the stairs. The floor boards echoed with Helen’s shrill screams. Finally, Hilda coughed and motioned as if just out of some spell.
I made it halfway through the vacant lot before I tumbled over, hitting the pavement in exhaustion. Hilda looked at me, and burst out laughing. She looked deep into my eyes as she grabbed my arm, and squeezed as she exclaimed, “Wasn’t that just ghastly!”