A short story written before your very eyes
I’m about to write a story right before your eyes.
I have a writing prompt here, taken from the book Add Ten Words by M. M. Graham. I’ve used prompts from this book to write a few stories before, including “The Stolen Coat” and “Running Down the Track.” The prompt consists of a theme and ten related words. The idea is to write something, even a fragment of story, on that theme that incorporates all ten words. For my purposes, I often work in a few words at the outset, then forget the rest of the list and run with the developing story.
The prompt I’m using today is:
Stranger at the Door
Ready? Here we go…
Evening fell hard that night, its blackness descending almost in an instant while I struggled to balance my overdrawn checking account.
I didn’t write that sentence in one shot. I backed up and embellished it several times before it was done. First sentences are important. I hope it grabs you.
The night-chatter of frogs and hum of insects rose in the dark. I didn’t feel their presence until, about an hour after sunset with an orange gibbous moon rising in the east, I pushed back from my computer, ran my hand through my hair, and gave up. I was grateful for their unseen companionship. I had moved out here to the middle of nowhere, Montana to get away from people, but sometimes when the night closed in I could wish for someone to talk to.
I’m ready to set aside the word list. I’ve only used two of its entries, but I don’t need it anymore. I have a character now, not well-developed but reasonably intriguing, and I think I can run with him. I still need the theme, though, to make something happen to our protagonist.
A couple of influences come into play here. One is my interest in astronomy. I like to incorporate astronomical notes in my works. The description of the moon is accurate. A moon rising in the east shortly after sunset will be just past full — a waning gibbous — and can appear yellow or even orange depending on the state of the atmosphere. A second influence is a work I’m currently reading in which, near the beginning, a group of friends in a remote cabin are menaced by some strange intruders.
When I first came here, it seemed an idyllic existence. I had no family left, no real friends, not even any colleagues I particularly liked. A failed law student, for twelve years I’d shuffled papers and appointment calendars for a modest law firm in Denver. It paid well enough. If only I hadn’t ended each day feeling like I’d been run over several times by a sixteen-wheeler. Finally I realized the insanity of contenting myself with discontent. I chucked it all — job, condo, everything — and came here to make a living off the internet.
No, I didn’t go off half-cocked. I planned it. I knew what I’d sell, how I’d reap the rewards of placing ads on my websites, even wrote up a business plan. I just hadn’t realized how hard it was to translate plans into reality. And now? Insolvency loomed as large as the rising moon. What I needed, I thought with some desperation, was for some guardian angel to show up at the door.
Yes, I actually thought that. And immediately, the hammering on the door began, followed by a woman’s voice, filled with desperation, calling, “Is anybody home?”
All of this pretty much flowed out. In revision I might change or move some of it, as it strikes me it might be a bit slow. We’ll see what happens. The newcomer was, of course, planned based on the theme, “Stranger at the Door.” I hadn’t originally figured the stranger to be a woman, though. I made her female only when she showed up. One might expect a menacing figure to appear out of the night, but I like to contradict my own expectations from time to time, just to see what happens.
The coincidence was too much. After my initial startle reaction, I stared at the door during a lull in the pounding and only rose when it resumed. I flipped on the porch light and, without removing the chain, opened the door a crack. I’m not sure what I expected to see. A tall, ethereal beauty affixed with white billowing wings, maybe. In fact she was rather small, only five foot five including the thick brown hair she wore in a pony tail. Her dark eyes blinked at me in astonishment or fear. Dressed in a short green skirt and white blouse, she clutched a little white purse before her with both hands.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really sorry.”
Feeling like an idiot scared of his own reflection, I undid the chain and eased the door open. “For what?”
“Do you have a land line? I can’t get any reception out here.”
I peered into the night but couldn’t see a vehicle. She must have had car trouble out on the road, I supposed. My cabin was set a quarter mile up a gravel drive. Nobody would walk up here in the dark by choice.
I had to stop there to take my wife for cataract surgery. Seriously, I did. Life doesn’t stop just because you’re writing a story. Later that evening, I continued…
“Yeah,” I told her. “Come on in.” I held the door for her and closed it behind her. While she looked around my spartan one-room, I redid the chain. “Car trouble?”
“Ran out of gas. Stupid of me, but I really thought there would be a gas station somewhere.”
I gave the room a once-over, too, fearing it might be too messy for visitors. The kitchen in the back corner wasn’t exactly choked with dirty dishes, but I hadn’t cleaned it up today. My bed in the opposite corner — a queen because I liked having the space to flop around — was unmade, but didn’t look too disreputable. As it was a warm summer night, I hadn’t lit a fire in the tiny stone fireplace, but uncleaned soot and ash had accumulated there, it’s smell suffusing the air.
“You live here alone?” she asked.
It should have been obvious. “Yeah. Here’s the phone.” I led her back to the kitchen and snatched the device from the table.
She took it and studied it as though she’d never seen one before. “I don’t even know who to call.”
“Family?” I suggested. “A friend?”
She shrugged. “Don’t have any.”
“Me, either.” As soon as I said it, I wished I hadn’t. I had no interest in forming bonds, however tenuous. “I don’t suppose you’re a triple-A member?”
There was that shrug again. “I’m pretty hopeless, I guess. I don’t suppose you’d have any gas, like for a lawn mower?”
“Afraid not.” I didn’t bother telling her lawn mowers were of little use in a forest.
She pulled out a chair and sat, sighing heavily. “I guess I’m just stuck.”
Time to quit for the night. Can you tell where this is going yet? Neither can I!
“Don’t worry. I can find emergency service for you online.” My laptop was at the table, too, along with the uncleared dishes from dinner. And lunch. And breakfast. I pushed as much of it aside as I could and sat around the corner from her. “Sorry about the mess.”
Again that little shrug. “I don’t suppose it seems so important when it’s just you.”
“Depends on the day.” I entered the search terms into the computer and got a list of one, a place over thirty miles away. “Here we go. It’ll take them a little while to get here.” I turned the computer so she could see the number.
“Thanks.” She punched the number into my phone and waited. “Hi, I ran out of gas. Could you send someone out?” She listened, then gave our location, then listened some more before signing off with a resigned, “Okay, thanks.” She handed me the phone back. “Three hours.” She glanced at the door, then at the darkness beyond the kitchen window.
I didn’t want company. I came out here to get away from people. Why, I wondered, did she have to run out of gas in front of my place? But I couldn’t send her out into the dark on her own. “You can stay here,” I offered. “I’ll walk you to your car when the time comes.”
She smiled gratefully while objecting, “You don’t have to do that.”
“It’s okay.” Which it wasn’t, not exactly, but strangely I found her presence less of a burden than I would have expected. If nothing else, I’d have an excuse to ignore my financial mess for a few hours. “You want something? Coffee? Tea?”
“Coffee would be nice.” Again the smile, which I found myself returning. “But really, I don’t want to be a bother.”
“It’s no bother.” I got up, flipped on the coffee maker, and took a pair of mugs from a cupboard.
“But you don’t like people, do you? I’m an unwanted intrusion.”
I felt myself flush. Was it that obvious? “I’m a bit of a loner, I guess.”
“Where are your parents?”
“Dead. Their house burned down. Faulty wiring, the fire inspector said.” As the coffee dripped through the machine, I turned to face her. Why was I telling this to a complete stranger? “What’s your name?”
She gave me a coy smile. “What’s yours?”
“I asked first.”
“So you did. No brothers or sisters, I guess?”
I shook my head and turned away. I should have been irritated, but I couldn’t manage it. All I could feel was a deep hollow in the pit of my stomach, an emptiness that had probably been there for more years than I cared to admit.
“No woman in your life?”
She laughed. “Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em, right?”
The coffee finished brewing. Forcing a few breaths to steady myself, I poured and brought the steaming mugs to the table. “They can’t seem to live with me. Best you don’t even think about it.”
“Hmm.” She took the mug in both hands and seemed to melt in its warmth. “I’m not thinking anything. You’re the one who called me.”
I watched her drink the whole mug in one long swallow, steam curling about her face, her eyes never leaving mine. “What’s your name?” I asked again.
“Take your pick. I have so many. ”
The encounter had to turn strange at some point, otherwise it would have no interest. Now that it has, I need to take a small break. When I come back, I expect the end will materialize.
She held out her mug as if to ask for more coffee. I hadn’t touched mine yet, so I pushed it to her. “Your real one will do.”
With a nod of thanks, she wrapped her hands around the mug and lifted it to her lips. “Zoe.”
I laughed. “Like the second Doctor Who’s companion? You don’t look a thing like her.”
“She was named after me.” Zoe drank down her second mug in one long gulp, then delicately wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Who do I look like?”
I didn’t know, but something about the shape of her face and the turn of her mouth reminded me a little of my mother. A fragment of anguish rose in my throat and tried to choke me. I forced it back down. “I have a strange feeling you know.”
She held out the mug. “I don’t want to impose, but . . .”
I got up and gave her a refill, which she downed as quickly as the first two. Then, setting the mug gently on the table, she rose. “I should go. If I stay, I’ll run you out out of coffee.”
“Go where? You’re out of gas.”
“Nah, I just said that to get you to open the door.”
I watched her cross the cabin and undo the chain on the front door, then rushed after her. “Wait! I don’t know who you are. I don’t even know what you are!” Reaching her, I put my hand on hers to keep her from turning the knob.
“Oh, so now you want me to stay.”
Her words jarred me as though she’d slapped my face. “Well . . .”
She smiled and enfolded my hand in hers. “For now, that’s enough.”
A moment later, I was standing alone, not remembering when or how she had slipped through the door, or even if she had. She might have dissolved into mist and floated up the chimney for all I knew.
A lot of this was written while feeling my way toward the end. If you think I planned it all, you’re wrong. And I’m still looking for the finish. I know about what it is now, but not the form.
I thought about her a lot in the coming days. I even looked for her online, but with only a first name it was a fool’s quest. Thinking she might live in a town nearby — relatively speaking — I forced myself to go out looking, but to no avail. I talked with servers in mom and pop restaurants, gas station attendants, even a couple of librarians. Nobody had ever heard of Zoe or anyone quite fitting her description. Not with her thirst for coffee, anyway.
Strangely, the further I ventured, the less I craved my solitude. Not that I wanted to abandon it, but I began to discover — or rediscover —that connections had some value after all. I began to wonder if maybe I didn’t need the world at least a little, and if just possibly the world needed me in return.
In short, thanks to Zoe, I’m rediscovering life. It would be hard not to. She isn’t just any woman. I’m convinced of that. She’s . . .
Oh, look it up for yourself.
The end? Yes and no. The end of the first draft. Along the way I’ve done a bit of rewriting, but not so much as I usually do. Normally, I’d rework the story several times before showing it around. What you’re seeing is therefore rough around the edges. I’ll post the final version later, so you can see what changes.
Addendum: The final draft of “Zoe” is now available on Lit Up. You might like to compare it to this first draft.