Distressed – Fiction Snippet

Helen sat calmly at the kitchen table, an oversized but distressingly empty coffee cup close to her left hand. Her right hand was drumming slowly against the table, the only sign that she was not as calm as she might have looked. Her eyes were locked on her husband of the last six years – and boyfriend for four before that – and her lips were pursed into a tight little smile that looked as though she’d recently sucked on a lemon.

“You already put in a bid,” she said. Her voice was low, each syllable perfectly enunciated.

Apparently unaware of what fragile ice he was stepping on, Keith’s smile beamed out, a thousand watt bulb to counter his wife’s sour citrus purse. His head bobbed up and down as if a mad puppeteer was yanking his strings.

“Yep! And the agent says it’s almost unopposed, so it’s pretty much a sure bet!”

Again running opposite to his wife’s slow and measured tones, Keith’s voice was bubbling over with enthusiasm. She hated it, and hated herself for hating it. She’d been telling herself for months that he needed a project, needed something to occupy his spare time. Now here it had come.

Still, he hadn’t even consulted her about it. Hadn’t even told her what he’d been doing. He’d just… done it. Gambled away almost a hundred thousand dollars. For what?

“You just said to yourself, ‘Hey, let’s buy a haunted house,’ and that was that? Called up Fred, said, ‘Hey, pal, how’s the credit score doing? Will it handle ninety-eight grand?’ Didn’t bother to call me?”

His smile dimmed slightly – dropping from a thousand watts to maybe eight hundred – as her icy tone finally got through to him. But apparently the idea of this house was so exciting to him that his enthusiasm couldn’t be curbed, and the brilliant gleam in his ice-blue eyes was hard for her to resist.

“Well. Yeah. I mean, we were talking about picking up a fixer upper anyway, and…”

“A fixer upper, yes. A bloody murder house, no. What are you even going to do with it? Try to flip it? Who else is going to buy the damned thing?”

He laughed, the sweet, innocent laughter of a child who’s found a new toy.

“That’s the best part! We don’t have to flip it!”

Her fingers stopped drumming and her empty mug commanded her attention. Determining that this was going to only go further down his midlife crisis rabbit hole, Helen stood up and marched over to the Keurig to refill her cup.

“Then what? Live in it? No thanks.”

“Nope, better. Guess what rolled up it’s doors and won’t be open this year?”

She blinked, picking up her cup and taking a sip. She felt like she’d missed some hairpin turn on a racetrack. A minute ago it was murder houses, now it’s closed businesses?

“I don’t know,” she said. “A lot of things have been closing this year. Hasn’t exactly been great for anybody.”

“Yeah, but this will be good for us, trust me. Besides, you know they’re saying things’ll open up by September. Just in time.”

“In time for what?” Her exasperation with him was reaching a boiling point, and the question came out more harshly than she’d intended. She took another sip of coffee and settled back into her seat. “Sorry. But enough with the games, just tell me already. Show me why it has to be this house, and what the plan is so I can stop being mad and remember you’re occasionally adorably excited.”

He laughed, probably because he thought he’d already won the point. She was less certain, but the idea that he actually had some sort of plan in mind had gone some distance to easing the worry about the hundred grand.

He settled into the chair opposite her, laying his left hand over her right. She almost pulled away out of reflex – his hand was icy cold – but she managed to quash the urge, not wanting to hurt his feelings.

“Art’s House. They’re not open this year. And he’s willing to sell pretty much everything except the house itself.”

Art’s House. Of course. Art was a local fixture, a foul-tempered and foul-mouthed yet somehow still lovable old cuss who lived at the edge of town. He always had his finger in some pie or another, usually raising funds for the Jaycees or the Boys and Girls Club, and his biggest pie had always been the Halloween season. Every year he turned his own house into a spookhouse, filling it with volunteer staff trained to scare the bejesus out of everyone they could. The old mansion had been the site of her and Keith’s first date, and had been the subject of many late-night conversations.

Keith had claimed that one day he’d convince the old man to step aside and sell the house. Apparently the house was out of the question… but the props and sets weren’t.

“So you want to… what? Uproot all the stuff from Art’s, transplant it there, then bank on the fact that an actual murder occurred to drive up the scares while you carry on the tradition?”

He shrugged, falling back in his chair with a petulant look that told her he thought she was mocking him. In truth, she was coming around. It was sort of sweet… in a morbid sort of way.

“Well. Something like that, yeah. I told you I wanted to buy Art’s. He’s just not selling the house. But if I can snatch up a distressed home on the cheap…” He spread his palms. “A couple days, a couple trucks, some personal tweaks and we’re good to go.”

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