Crooked Little OPEN House

Hey guys! Some of you haven’t yet stepped foot inside my Crooked Little House, so I thought I’d hold an open house for #WorldBookDay. Please pardon the mess. It’s a little run down: the roof is old, and the porch is a little precarious. But it’s a great place for a young couple just starting out. Because when you move in here you’re never alone…

Prologue

The wood was wet, which only made hard work harder.

It had rained for nearly a week by then, and when the men emerged from their tents that morning they found the first powdery snow dusting the leaves. It wouldn’t be long now before the cold would drive them home to dry their feet and hope there was enough food for the winter.

Alfred clapped his reddened hands. Sharp pinpricks stabbed through his chapped palms. He barely felt his fingers. The tips had gone an alarming white, but there was no time to wonder at that now.

An icy gust lashed at the trees, the melting snow pelting down like rain. He wished for the hundredth time he’d let Margaret patch the hole at the knee of his denims, but that would have left the baby without long pants for the coming winter. There was simply no choice. He’d just ignore it until the chill numbed the exposed skin there, too.

He wound his ragged scarf tighter and said a quick prayer. Just a little more time. Please. Just time enough to stow away a couple dollars more.

As if in answer, a weak beam of sunlight fought through the heavy canopy above, and for just a moment he felt like things were going to be okay.

Get moving, Crooked,” a gruff voice said from behind him, and someone gave him a hefty shove. It was that bastard Romanov; he knew that much without looking. “One of these days,” Alfred muttered, but the threat died uncompleted in the icy air. With a name like Cruickshanks and a limp like his he supposed the nickname was inevitable, but there was no rule that said he had to like it. He thought briefly of stabbing Romanov while he slept; the site was scattered with old parts torn from the sawmill, some of which would undoubtedly be sharp…

But he’d be caught, blood on clothes he was unable to wash, and then there would be no one to take care of the family. He thought of Margaret, of her sister June, of their tangle of skinny dirty children all fighting for space in the one-room cabin. His feet carried him deeper into the woods. He couldn’t do much for them, not in his condition, but by God he could at least get them fed.

So long as the winter held off.

Please God.

Good of you to join us,” griped Carson, the site boss. “We need all the help we can get.”

Alfred winced. It was easy enough to read between the lines: he wasn’t nearly as good a worker as his brother Ben had been, and everyone here knew it. He wasn’t as strong, or as fast. Nor as smart, if he were honest. Until six months ago he’d never even touched a piece of lumber, but with Ben in the ground and the mill one worker short the foreman had made him a reluctant offer. It was one step above alms and everyone knew that too. He was a warm body and not much else.

The wind cut through his heavy wool coat as if he wore nothing at all.

You’ll be pushing today. Hope you ate your oats,” Carson said. A few thin chuckles rose from the men around him. The rations they’d started with had dwindled badly and the next delivery was days away. They’d watered the gruel until it ran like water, barely any taste let alone any sustenance.

Alfred put his hands on the damp rump of a log and shoved, willing his thin arms to stop quivering.

The saw pulled the wood hungrily, the metal screaming against the grain. This particular log had been stripped already, a fact for which Alfred was grateful. Soon enough he’d be pelted with loamy bark; he liked his first piece to be clean.

The blade bit into the heavy oak, cutting cleanly like a hot knife through butter. Alfred’s stomach growled at the thought. He tried not to wonder what the women were doing today, what they were eating, whether they had wood enough for the fire. Them, with a fire and no wood. Him, with all the wood he could ever want and no warmth at all.

Funny, how the world worked.

The log under his frozen hands had stopped moving. The saw was caught on a knot in the wood, most like. He shoved harder, ruddy face reddening darker with the effort. The blade whined.

Goddamn it.” He looked for help but the clearing was empty now. The other men had gone off, some to fell more trees, some to snatch a taste of the whisky hidden in their boots.

He went to the blade.

A fine white smoke was creeping up from the narrow cut. The blade shuddered, bucking every two or three revolutions. Alfred didn’t know exactly what that meant but he knew it couldn’t be good.

Need some help there, Crooked?”

The muscles in his back tightened. “No. I’ve got it.”

A mean chortle. “Don’t look like it.”

Alfred knelt in the frost by the base of the saw. He traced the movement of the gears, peered at the grimy bolts. Everything looked fine, but then again he had no idea what he was looking for.

Above him the whine grew shriller and the blade bucked again.

Get outta the way, Cripple. You’re gonna kill the thing.”

A strong hand on his shoulder.

The wet-dog smell of unwashed flesh.

Then he was on his feet, Romanov hoisting him like a child before shoving him out of the way.

Go on, now. Let a real man handle this.”

Alfred’s whole body tensed. He saw Romanov through a narrowing tunnel, one with darkness on all sides. Heat ran up his neck and settled in his ears. His knees threatened to give way beneath him.

Let a real man handle this. As if he hadn’t taken in his brother’s family. As if he didn’t lay awake at night, belly screaming empty just so he could send home a few cents extra. As if he didn’t give them everything they needed, no matter the cost to himself.

A real man.

His vision washed grey. Then red.

You son of a bitch!” Then he was on Romanov, punching as hard as he could, making up for his lack of fighting know-how with sheer angry brutality. He felt the man’s left eye go soft beneath his knuckles; he heard the telltale pop as one of his teeth let go.

Romanov held him close, trying to pin his arms, so he pummeled the back of his skull.

There were shouts from the woods but Alfred heard them only distantly. His ears were full of sloshing hot blood.

Then sick animal instinct kicked in and he buried his teeth in Romanov’s neck.

The man howled, the sound deadened by the tall trees around them. Romanov stumbled, trying now to push Alfred away, to break the horrible bond between them.

Romanov turned, his ankle snapping, and he fell.

Alfred fought for balance, weak arms pinwheeling in the frigid air, hot copper blood washing down his chin. He landed hard against the mill, narrowly missing the screaming blade.

He had three seconds to be thankful before the metal teeth grabbed his scarf.

So this is how it ends, he thought calmly, just before the smoking blade bit his throat. The gristle of his trachea was no trouble for the speeding steel; the knuckled bone of his spine knocked the saw back into alignment. Alfred’s body went past on one side, his head on the other, and the unjammed log pushed everything through.

Those days were tough. Waste would not, could not, be tolerated. Carson had one of the men sand down the log, and when the stubborn stains didn’t fade he shrugged and loaded the wood onto the edger.

The sawdust fell red and steaming to the frosty ground.

Chapter One

They had been saving for months.

At first it was a maybe thing, a future thing. Their own house. A ridiculous concept, really: all their friends lived in starter apartments, basements for some, lofts for the very lucky, and here they were looking for an honest-to-god house.

“Think of it,” Stella whispered in the dark. Her legs entwined, sinew and silk, around Denton’s. Her toes, always cold, bullied their way between his arches. He smelled her hair, the crown warm under his chin. She smelled like fresh green apples. “Think: our own place. I could have a studio at home. I can work anywhere, you know that. And you could have a big kitchen.”

“With a big price tag, to boot.”

She kicked him gently under the covers. “Don’t be so negative. You make good money, and I’m starting to, and really, we don’t spend much. If we just cut back—”

“We’re living in your parents’ basement. How much more can we cut?”

“Exactly! We don’t pay rent here. It’ll be easy; we just have to watch our expenses. Less coffee at the shop, more home brew. I’ve been reading all kinds of tips online. I’ll… I’ll keep a budget! We’ll have an envelope for groceries, and one for gas. I won’t buy clothes. We can make this happen.”

She’d propped herself up on one elbow, her profile a darker shadow against the room’s near-blackness. “I really want this. I really want to start my life with you.”

He’d sighed; they both knew she always got her way. And while he couldn’t possibly think of it working out (closing costs and home inspections and renovations, all so foreign to his mid-twenties brain) he knew that somehow they’d manage. And he knew that whenever he thought of his future, it always, always included Stella.

So he’d proposed, quietly, ringing her finger with his own. There, in the dark, on their too-small mattress.

 

 

And as weeks turned to months, their little bank account began to grow.

 

 

Stella eschewed a big ring, saying it was money better spent on the house. “You can buy me a fancy ring after,” she told him, “once we’re all settled.” So he bought her a simple silver band, with one tiny diamond chip that glinted only if you held it a certain way under certain light. She made all her friends admire it, as if it was five carats atop her slender finger. And when some were underwhelmed, she waved it under their noses. “Take a good look,” she crowed. “This is what buying a house looks like.”

She found a little ceramic house at the thrift store and put it by the bathroom sink, so that every day when they brushed their teeth they’d be reminded of their goal.

 

 

The account reached five thousand, more than either of them had ever managed.

 

 

Denton took on more shifts at the restaurant, staying to close and clean even though those jobs were well below his pay grade. Stella stayed up late at night, her laptop bathing a sleeping Denton in a sickly blue glow as she tried hard not to clack the keys too loud. She snapped up even the smallest gigs, the ones everyone else turned down. Quick sketches of weird anthropomorphic characters doing things she’d rather not think about. Logos for small start ups, whose founders were just out of high school. Manically happy cartoon accountants. She hadn’t done much pen-and-ink for months, but it was a hell of a lot faster than oils. She sketched in the grocery line, on the toilet, on the bus. She even picked up a few shifts tending bar at a shitty little pub, though the abuse was bad and the hours worse.

 

 

The account rounded ten thousand, then twenty.

 

 

Denton teased her that she was going all Martha on him; for the first time in her life Stella had ventured into a fabric store, emerging with armfuls of discounted cotton prints waiting to be made into throw pillows for furniture they didn’t yet own.

 

 

They contacted an agent, then another when the first couldn’t be bothered with a couple of kids.

 

 

Stella turned twenty three in the damp basement and vowed that she’d celebrate her next birthday with friends crowded around a heavy wooden table in her very own kitchen.

 

 

When September came they started seriously scouring realty sites. Crazy, Stella pointed out, how you could buy just about everything online. When her parents had bought their starter home, they’d trekked all over the city with a map and a thick red marker, checking off whole neighbourhoods. Instead, she crawled under the blankets with her new fiancé and they clicked their way into their future.

Nothing caught their attention, until it did.

The house looked a lot smaller than the others, though the lot it sat on was big. A small cottage, in every sense of the word: the ad pointed out the rustic wooden shingles (probably rotting, Denton thought) topping a weathered barn wood exterior. The covered front porch ran the width of the house, sagging badly in the middle, and Denton was shocked that it was able even to support the planters hung there. The front door was a screen and wood affair, the kind that slammed shut all summer long, and the storm door was heavy oak with stained glass. There were shutters (these boasted carved hearts) and a little red mailbox on a post by the curb. When Stella dragged the picture bigger, they could just make out a rusted weather vane: a rooster, canted drunkenly to the side, as though the breeze it was made for would knock it clean off the roof.

And Stella fell in love. Of course.

“It looks like it needs a lot of repairs,” Denton said. “And a hell of a lot of renovation, too.”

“But just look at it! It has a little garden—”

“We can put in a garden anywhere.”

“But this one’s mature. Look! I think those are peach trees! We could have our own peaches.”

“I hate peaches.”

“Yeah, well I don’t. I could… I could make jam.”

“You’ve never been anywhere near a stove.”

“You could teach me,” she said lightly. She flicked through the interior pictures, pointing out the spacious master bedroom, the claw foot tub (“Original!” as though it made a difference), the tidy little mudroom by the back door, just off the kitchen.

But when she got to the second-to-last picture, Denton felt a tiny zap go through him.

An attic. An honest-to-God attic, just like in the movies. Warm wood, smoothed but not finished, lined the tiny vaulted ceiling. Low shelves were tucked neatly under the eaves, and already Denton could see Stella’s jars of brushes and pens gleaming there. There was an old-fashioned circular window facing the street. Leaded glass, the kind no one made any more.

And there, sealing the deal, making it impossible to turn back: a workbench, flooded with light from the skylight overhead. He imagined Stella sitting there, sunlight shining on her hair, saw the happiness in her face as she turned, radiant, to greet him at the doorway.

Stella started to scroll to the next picture, but Denton caught her hand.

He pictured her sitting in that attic, worn moccasins on her feet and a mug of long-cold coffee sitting on the workbench beside her. He could almost hear the wind whispering past the eaves; could almost smell the comforting scent of rough-hewn cedar. He thought of chilly afternoons with the rain tapping gently on the skylight above. He thought maybe, just maybe, this could be what Stella needed to really get her career off the ground. No more distractions. No more excuses. He thought of how happy she would be there.

“I want this house,” he said, and coming from Denton, Mister Wishy-Washy, Mr Consider All The Angles First, the firm decree was like booming thunder.

 

 

Thanks for stopping by! I hope you enjoyed your visit. If you’d like to stay a little longer, maybe poke around in the attic (I mean, I wouldn’t, but then again I know what’s up there), the full book is available on Amazon and many other online book retailers.

Guess What Came in the Mail…

Crooked Little House

Crooked Little House comes out on Tuesday!

I’ll be doing a giveaway on Facebook, and you have to be a fan of my author page to enter. Swing by and show me some “like”; giveaway details to follow once I climb down from this cloud.

It’s finally here. I’m finally a novelist.

Will “The Conjuring”s Annabelle Have Her Own Movie?

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She might, according to IGN.com.

I’m not easily spooked; growing up Horror does that to a kid. But when I saw this movie this summer, and that fucking doll came on the screen… There’s just something about dolls, y’know? They’re everywhere, tiny lifeless versions of ourselves.

Lifeless, that is, until Hollywood gets ahold of them, and the next thing you know you’d better watch your back.

It happened with Chucky. It happened in Puppetmaster. And there’s something about Annabelle that’s just… off.

Look at that smug grin. She knows too much.

And hopefully, she’ll be coming to terrorize us again.

(Read IGN’s article for more info, and check out my own personal creepy Annabelle story here!)

“Elevator”, New Horror from Stefanie N Snider

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It’s late at night, and one by one the after-hours crew is sneaking out of the office.

Which would be fine, except now Sammi’s working alone.

And something is waiting in the dark…

Available on Amazon and Smashwords.

New Horror Story: “All You Can Eat”

BRAND SPANKIN’ NEW HORROR from yours truly!
Excerpt from All You Can Eat below:

“I heard about it through my boss; her daughter’s friend’s boyfriend knows the guy who hung the drywall.”

“I know the painter.”

“I read about it online.”

Jenny and her husband, Nick, heard the murmurs as they walked the endless line that wrapped around the restaurant. It was a standalone building, one that had been a series of failed clubs. It had sat empty for months; it had been forgotten. Then all at once tall wooden walls went up around it, blank walls with no hint of the business to open. People became curious, and the longer it hid the more curious they got. No one knew who’d bought it. No one knew what it would be when the walls came down.

There were rumours, sure; in a small city like theirs, everyone wanted to know everything. Most figured it would be another bar, a bad idea out on the edge of town. It cost too much to get a cab there. There was no subway. It would fail, they figured, like all those other businesses had before it.

Must be someone new to town.
Must be someone who doesn’t know better.
But how could you not? some said, Commercial buildings don’t sell cheap for no reason.
Must be someone just starting out.

But as the noise behind the boards grew louder, people started getting excited. It sounded like they were knocking walls down in there. Maybe they were adding walls, getting bigger, changing the whole structure. Maybe the new owner knew what they were doing, after all. Maybe it had a fighting chance.

The last of the trucks pulled out on a Thursday afternoon.

My sister said it’s ready to open.
My husband’s coworker thinks it’ll be this weekend.

It sat, hidden and waiting, in the cool May night.
It caused three minor accidents as drivers craned their necks for a peek.

Friday morning came, and the fortress of plywood still stood. By this time, usually, there would be childish scrawls of spray paint along the front, complicated illegible signatures laid under the cover of night. But the wood remained untouched.

Sometime on Friday afternoon, the walls came down and a sign went up.
EAT. ONE NIGHT ONLY.
What does that mean?

Some said they wouldn’t be caught dead in a place that couldn’t even manage a proper name.
Some wondered what the hell the “one-night” bit meant, and exactly what kind of idiot was running the joint, anyway.
Some quietly left work early, rushing home to their closets, desperate to be the first at the doors.

By four it had made the drive-time news. By five the lineup had begun. By seven, while Jenny was badgering Nick to take her out, the line had made its first tentative steps around the back of the building. By eight, when they arrived, it had made a full loop and people were stacked two-deep.

“We could go somewhere else.” Jenny grimaced at the hint of whine creeping into Nick’s voice.

“We could, but we’re already here. And I heard on the news that they’re thinking this place might be closed tomorrow.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

Jenny pointed at the sign above the door. “’One night only’. They were saying this place might only be open for one night.”

“That’s stupid.”

“No, that’s avant-garde. It’s the thing, now, in New York and LA: these places open for one night then close forever. I heard weirdo billionaires run them. So if we leave…”

“It won’t be here tomorrow. Got it. Doubt it.” Nick eyed the inner line of people; women in impossibly high heels and men in suits that stopped just short of tuxedo. “The food better be really frickin’ good, if we’re waiting this long.”

“It’s not the food, it’s the experience.” Jenny beamed as she took in the people around her. She’d worn her most expensive dress, a designer piece she’d gotten at an outlet the summer before. Even with the rip it had cost her almost five hundred dollars, though of course she’d never tell Nick. She’d bought it with the leftovers of the grocery money. It was the first time she’d ever lied to him. She hadn’t known then when she’d ever hope to wear it, but here, in the heavy twilight, she felt at home. She’d even caught another woman looking her over approvingly.

“We could have gone to a movie.”

Jenny sighed. Men didn’t understand these things. She’d never get the chance to eat here again.
Ever.
To be glamourous, if only for an evening.

“Yeah, well, we’re staying.”

“My feet hurt.”

She rolled her eyes. The shoes she’d paired with the dress had heels four inches high and they pinched at the toes. She wisely said nothing.

The line moved forward sluggishly, and given their starting point they passed the entrance as it snaked by. Jenny tried to see over the people going in, tried to snatch a glimpse of what awaited them. It looked dark inside. She thought she caught a glimpse of blue uplighting, but that was all. Then the doors drifted closed and she was left looking at the small woman who tended them. The woman looked back at her, coldly, and Jenny was embarrassed at having behaved so gauchely.

She squeezed Nick’s hand.

After a moment, he squeezed back.

Nick looked over his shoulder; there were dozens of people already lined up behind them. All were dressed for the red carpet. He smirked. “This whole thing is ridiculous.”

“Fine. You really can’t stand being here? Let’s go, then.” Jenny pulled on his hand, and for a second Nick really thought she meant to leave. He sighed dramatically.

“No, we can stay. I guess. But you owe me.” He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. She rolled her eyes.

They’d looped three sides of the building and were almost at the front again. This time they were on the inner track. Good thing, too, Jenny thought: the line was now three deep, long spirals of people speculating about what waited for them inside.

“Hey, wanna know what’s weird?” The tone of Jenny’s voice startled him.

“Mmm?”

“Where is everyone? I mean, we’ve been here an hour, and they keep letting people in but no one’s come out. Are they sitting on each other’s laps in there?”

Nick’s forehead creased. She was right: they’d been around the whole building and not once had they seen anyone leave the restaurant. A few people had been loitering in the parking lot out back, but that was it. He shrugged. “Maybe it’s bigger than it looks. They’ve gotta be fitting everyone in somehow.”

A cool, damp breeze blew past them, bringing with it the cold smell of damp earth. Jenny shivered a little and Nick put an arm around her.

At last they neared the doors. Only a handful of patrons stood ahead of them. Jenny tried to peer through the windows but the glass was blackened. The diminutive woman manning the doors scowled at her. Jenny smiled back nervously.

“At least she can’t spit in your food from out here,” Nick whispered into Jenny’s hair.

The last couple gained entry. Minutes passed, Nick and Jenny both desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the rabid little woman. She nodded infrequently, occasionally muttering so quietly into her headset that Jenny couldn’t make out the words. Finally she jerked her chin at them.

“Welcome to Eat, enjoy your meal,” she said mechanically, and pulled on the heavy brass handle.

Jenny froze, suddenly hesitant. She looked up at Nick. “I’m not hungry anymore.”

He grinned. “Come on, you simply mustn’t miss such an ‘avant-garde’ experience.” He stuck out his tongue and she followed him inside.

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From All You Can Eat, new horror from Stefanie N Snider. Available now from Amazon and Smashwords.