Why I Fell Off the Ladder

Frozen Window from Flickr via Wylio
© 2014 Jakub Jankiewicz, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

This is the third installment of a story I’ve been throwing up here on the blog, just for the fun of it. If this is the first time you’ve seen it, I recommend starting in the beginning, which you can find HERE. I know I had said this would be the final chapter, but the story doesn’t seem like it wants to end right now, so I guess we’ll see.

I thought about that drawing for weeks, the image burned in my mind. Her finger up to her lips.


One night, after my wife had fallen asleep, I crept up into my daughter’s room. She was asleep, but her breathing was labored. Her allergies were coming on hard – swelling eyes and raspy breathing – and none of the usual medicines were doing any good. I pulled the blanket up and covered her arms, kissed one of her rosy cheeks, then turned to the picture. I hadn’t looked at it since the day we had moved in.

I picked it up and carried it over to the window so that I could see it more clearly in the moonlight. There she was: the large eyes, the cute little bonnet, the parasol over her shoulder. And that hand behind her back.


She didn’t say anything, though, not this time. She just looked at me, as if she was waiting for me to ask the right question. I took the picture back downstairs, down through the second level, down to the first level, through the kitchen, and then down to the cellar. That first step was a long one, and I reached my foot down to meet it.

I left her facing against the rough stone walls of the basement. I closed the basement door. I locked it. I slept much better that night.

* * * * *

A few days later I set out to clean the gutters that lined the front of our house. All around me the city of Virgil was alive with morning commuters and beeping traffic. The air was heavy and humid, and thunderclouds gathered in above the brick buildings, filling in all the negative space. It would be another warm day, and then it would pour, and then it would be another cool night.

The gutters had been neglected for so long that small plants had begun to grow in the dirt and leaves. I propped my ladder up against the metal surface, then climbed up, rung by shaking rung. I got to the top and gripped the edge of the gutter tightly with one of my gloved hands and used the other to scoop out all that muck and then drop it on to the sidewalk below.

Through the window to my daughter’s room, I could hear her coughing, and it concerned me. I made a mental note that we would have to take her to the doctor that afternoon. She didn’t sound right. It didn’t sound like “just allergies.”

I slipped and the ladder shifted to the side. My heart rate spiked and I grabbed on to the gutter with both hands. Thunder rolled in the distance. Small spits of rain started falling, and I could hear each heavy drop, spaced out, like the ticking of a clock. The morning traffic had died away, and the coming storm had emptied the streets.

“Whatcha doin’ up there, mister?” a voice asked, the voice of a little boy. I steadied myself and looked over my shoulder.

“Cleaning the gutters.” I turned back to the job at hand.

“I’m just taking a walk.”

“You know it’s going to storm, right?” I said to him over my should, without looking down.

“Do I know you, mister?” the boy asked.

I turned again and stared at his face. He did look kind of familiar. He had jet black hair that fell down over his dark eyes. He was pretty scrawny, the corners of his shoulders poking against his t-shirt. He was like a bunch of sticks held together by cloth.

“I don’t know. Do you live close by? Maybe I’ve seen you around.”

He laughed. Then his eyes grew big and his voice got all excited.

“You’ve had the picture!” he said, the same way a little boy might talk to a famous athlete once he recognized him.

“The picture?” I asked, but I knew what he was talking about. Right away. I knew.

“Man, you shoulda kept that thing,” he said. Then he shrugged and started walking away.

“Hold on!” I said. “Just a second.”

I started scurrying down the ladder but my foot got caught up in one of the rungs, and I fell backward in that slow motion movement that happens when something is going terribly wrong and you know it but it’s too late to stop it. My back hit the sidewalk, and I almost passed out. The impact knocked the breath out of me, and my vision got fuzzy. Red and black explosions. I thought if I stood up it would keep me from passing out, but I didn’t get any further than rolling over on to my stomach.

“You okay, mister?”

I nodded, gasping for air that didn’t come. The boy stood there quietly, oddly unaffected by my fall. Most kids his age would have been scared, or would have run for help, but he just stood there. Then he bent down and patted my shoulder.

“You’ll be okay,” he said. “You should have been more careful.” He wasn’t talking about the ladder.

“What do you know about the picture?” I asked, still gulping in air.

“It’s a shame you got rid of it,” he said. Where did he get this idea that I didn’t have it? And how did he know I had it in the first place?

“Have you been spying on us while we were moving in?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said, standing up and shrugging. Just then we both heard my daughter coughing from the upper floor window. It was raspy and deep.

“Like that,” he said, shrugging again. “She coulda really helped you with stuff like that.”

“Stuff like what? Who could have helped me?”

He sighed, then turned and walked away.

“What do you know about the girl in the picture?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, stopping and turning towards me. “The picture’s gone now.”

“You wait right here,” I said. “I’ll go get the picture. Then you have to tell me about the girl.”

I ran inside, back through the house, then down into the cellar. My back was tightening up from the fall, and that made me limp. But when I got to the bottom of the steps, the picture was gone. Nothing but a blank stone wall where I had left it. I ran back up the stairs.

“Georgie!” I shouted. “Where are you?”

“Up here,” my wife said from the middle level, and I ran up the stairs.

“Where’s that picture?” I asked, dashing into the room, limping, breathing heavy. She looked at me as if I might be losing my mind. I wondered if I was.

“What picture?”

“You know what picture. The girl. The one I don’t like.”

“Oh, that one,” she said, smiling. “I’m sorry I’ve been trying to force that picture on you. I was thinking more about it, and, you know, if you don’t like it, we don’t have to hang it up.”

She moved towards me and put her hand on my waist, drew me close.

“This is your house, too,” she said.

“So where is it?” I asked.

“The picture? There was some kid in the alley,” she said, turning away from me. “I set it out back by the trash, and he asked if he could have it, so I said sure, take it.”

“It’s gone?” I asked, and I’m surprised I could even get those words out. I had never been so devastated in all my life.

“What wrong, Jim?” she asked.

“Did he have black hair?”


“The kid you gave the picture to.”

She paused.

“Are you okay?”

“Did he have black hair?” I asked again. She squinted and looked at me through questioning eyes. I could see she was beginning to wonder if I had gone over the edge.

“Did he?” I asked for the third time.

“Yeah, I guess he did.”

I turned and ran down the steps, out the front door. The rain came down heavy and lightning split the sky. Drops fell from each rung of my ladder and trickled down the sides of it, like small waterfalls. I looked both ways, deep into the city of Virgil. Nothing.

I ran out into the rain and looked across the street, down one of the long, side alleys that some cars used as a through street. There he was, the boy with the black hair, walking slowly away from me. I dashed from the sidewalk and into the road. I never heard the car. I never even felt the impact when it hit me.

To continue reading, click HERE

The Man Behind the Drawing


Today I’ve written a short piece of fiction. If you can hang in there until the end, you’ll see that it goes along with last week’s piece (which if you missed, you might want to read first by clicking HERE).

Virgil was one of those small cities that felt both bright and dark. Light and heavy. On a Friday afternoon you might see a pleasant family of four walking along the cracked sidwalks, licking ice cream and smiling. Later that night you might see a shadowy figure slip into a side alley leaving a trail of blood like a scuff of red chalk on a blackboard. You just never knew.

Manny Maude would go looking for the darker side of Virgil, later that summer. Not many did that. Most who went into Virgil were content to catch only the light that reflected off the thin veneer, the lightness. But Manny would have his reasons for going. He had lost something that meant a great deal to him, and when you lose something, where do you look? In the dark spaces in between.

But that comes later.

If you traveled east on Route 29 out of Virgil, you’d have this feeling that the city was floating away, being replaced by mostly cornfields and ramshackle farms owned by farmers waiting to be bought out by the next big warehouse owner. There wasn’t any money in farming, at least not around Virgil, and all the sons of the farmers had left a long time ago. Some became truckers and others got blue collar jobs in the city and a few even went to college, although that much learning was cause for concern.

The only people left were the farmers slowly retreating before the thickets and weeds and wild raspberries. They plowed less land every year, and their wives died of heartache, and so the farmers were left rocking on their porches, looking out over their crumbling domains, reminiscing, or humming the old hymns to themselves, the slow ones about There is a River We Shall Cross Over and Oh, the Blood of Jesus.

If you kept driving east through that farmland for about forty miles, until even the farms started thinning out, replaced by small groves of trees and large, abandoned estates with rotting outbuildings, you’d drive up over two steep hills. In the hollow between the hills, that’s where 15-year-old Steve Borders crashed his father’s Mustang at three in the morning. He might have survived the wreck, except his girlfriend Ginnie Maude had screamed right before they made impact with the deer. Her scream had startled him more than the deer itself, so instead of hitting the deer head on and totalling the car (but walking away), he swerved off the road and slammed into a telephone pole that had just been put up the day before.

Ginnie Maude survived, even though she lost most of her right ear and bled like a spigot left on. She ended up working at Fran’s Diner the rest of her life, right there where 29 hits 82, what the locals call the North-South Highway. She fried up burgers or eggs and sometimes she took orders at the bar, but she never wrote anything down. Her memory was exquisite. There was a trucker named Eric Shaw who came through on a regular basis, and she slept with him from time to time, because she was lonely and because she never quite got over the loss of Steve. The locals didn’t approve of this arrangement, and neither did her grandfather, but sometimes folks get to a place in life where it doesn’t matter what people think.

Ginny’s grandfather, Manny Maude, was a farmer in those parts, and just about the time Ginnie got pregnant her grandfather signed over his farm to the great Trek and Banks Corp. They manufactured the plastic interiors of cars and were looking to expand. The owner of Trek and Banks had grown up in the city of Virgil – there was something of the shadow about him – and he had his eyes on Manny’s farm, right there at the corner of 29 and 82, an ideal place for shipping goods all over the country.

Manny had held out for at least ten years, but the money became too good to walk away from, his wife had died a long time ago, and he had no reason to keep the farm which, let’s be honest, was looking more like a forsaken wilderness than any kind of productive land. Manny’s son, Ginny’s father, had moved away a long time ago, and he showed no interest in the family farm. In fact, Manny hadn’t heard from him in years.

Manny Maude, having sold his farm, was a millionaire, and he had never been so depressed in his life.


After Manny sold the farm, his days settled into a routine, but to call it a routine wouldn’t be doing it justice. It was a rock solid schedule, interrupted by nothing, changed for nothing.

He woke up at 5:43am, even though he had set his alarm for 5:45. He put on the coffee, then went and took a quick shower, got dressed, brushed his teeth, and, with the aid of his cane, hobbled back out to the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee which he drank while he fried up two eggs, over easy, and two strips of fatty bacon. He poured himself a second cup of coffee which he drank while eating his bacon and eggs, sitting by the window, staring at the beams and concrete slabs which had been put in place for the new Trek and Banks warehouse. When completed, the warehouse would sit less than fifty yards from his house and completely block his view of the distant hills.

He put his dishes in the sink, then went out on his front porch where he sat in his rocking chair and watched the sun come up. The workers arrived. The tractors and the bulldozers and the cranes roared to life. He daydreamed every morning about how it would feel if the foreman would come over, carrying a thick stack of paperwork, and ask him to please sign these, they were aborting the project and the land was his again. But that never happened.

That’s not entirely true. It did happen once, in a dream, and a little girl, only a toddler, came walking out of the largest warehouse. She had a tiny little parasol over her shoulder and walked with one hand behind her back. He couldn’t tell if she was being prim and proper or if she was hiding something. She walked slowly through the haze of his dream, slowly over the crumbled ground and the sad fields. She walked slowly, and just when she got to him, he realized she had the paperwork behind her back, paperwork that would make the property his again, which was silly for more reasons than one, but mostly because of how small she was.

Then he woke up.

After he sat in the rocking chair and watched the sun come up, he walked out to one of the small outbuildings where he had started his new hobby: drawing. He had purchased a drafting desk, one that had a slanted top, and had placed it right up against a small window in the upper floor of the shed that faced the construction site. But when he was drawing, he never even looked up.

On that particular morning he was staring down the barrel of his 84th birthday, he pondered the drawing in front of him, one he had been working on for weeks. It was a picture of that little girl, and he couldn’t quite get the eyes right. Over her left shoulder she held a parasol, and he was just finishing her other arm, right where her hand vanished behind her back.

That drawing had seemed to take on a life of its own. The longer he worked on it, the more real she seemed, as if she had a story, as if her history was hidden somewhere there in that farmland forty miles outside of Virgil. As if she might actually be able to give him back his farm.

On that morning he looked at the picture, and he wondered to himself,

Now what in the world is she holding behind her back?

* * * * *

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed it, please click “Like” or share with your Facebook friends. You can read the next installment HERE.

“Shhh” (#FridayFiction)

I generally don’t share much of the fiction that I write, but in order to get over the fear, I thought I should try to post a short story here every once in a while. This is a one I threw together this week after spending the last few weeks moving. Which just so happens to be what the main character is doing in the story. I’m still tweaking it, but, well, here you go. I hope you enjoy it. It’s titled, “Shhh”. Let me know what you think.

The row house we had just moved into was long and narrow with tall windows along one side that let in stretching patches of light, at least until we drew the shades down against the summer heat – then everything was dim and unclear, and the long lines of sight down the hallways felt strange. It was one thing when it was well lit and you could see from the front door all the way past the living room, down the hall, through the dining room and into the kitchen, clear at the back. But when the lights were out and the shades were closed, every shadow between the front and back seemed strange, like a doorway into someplace different. Someplace else.

“Babe,” my wife called up to me from downstairs. “Can you hang this picture in Abbie’s room?”

I walked down through all those shadows, and they clung to me, like sweat. It was hot out, and we were trying to keep things cool, so we left the lights out most of the time, and daylight glowed through the slats in the blinds. Boxes sat patiently on the hardwood floors, lined the walls, boxes from a former life waiting to be unpacked, waiting to spill into the new one. My mom had the kids for the day, and except for my wife and I the house was empty.

“Really?” I asked, grimacing. “That?”

She handed me a large, framed picture of a girl holding a parasol. It looked like someone had drawn it about a hundred years ago with colored pencils. The girl looked like a doll, wearing a bonnet and an old-fashioned dress with a light blue flower print, but her eyes were abnormally large and she looked off in the distance, over my shoulder. The picture made me uncomfortable, always had, which is perhaps one of the reasons I had never gotten around to hanging it at our last house.

My wife laughed.

“Yes, really. I think Abbie would like it in her room.”

I looked at it again.

“If I would wake up to this girl staring at me, I think I’d piss my pants,” I said. “And what’s she holding in her hand?”

“It’s called a parasol,” my wife said, smiling.

“I know what it’s called,” I said, but in the back of my mind I was thinking, Not that hand – I’m talking about the hand behind her back. What is she holding behind her back?

But of course I didn’t say that out loud. I’m always looking back and wishing I would have said things out loud.

“It was my grandma’s,” she said, in that all too recognizable tone. “I like it.”

I gave her a skeptical look, but she just raised her eyebrows and poked me in the sternum with each word.


“Fine,” I said, sighing. “Abbie’s sleepless nights due to this thing will be your responsibility. That’s all I’m saying.”

I started to walk away and she turned back to the boxes she had been unpacking. I crept up behind her and pinched her butt, then ran for the stairs. She laughed and threw a small cardboard box at me.

“Maybe after I hang this thing,” I said, “you can meet me on the middle level.”

She laughed again.

* * * * *

The third floor was made up of a landing and two bedrooms, none of which had overhead lights. The house was built in 1906, and the third floor had been added sometime between then and now, so the only electric it had ran along the baseboards. I held the picture carefully as I walked up the narrow stairway, trying not to gouge the walls with its corners, but the frame was large.

As I came up into the already-dark landing, clouds outside the house quenched the sun and a distant rumble of thunder approached the city. I was glad the storm had finally come. I hoped it would cut the humidity, maybe bring cooler weather in behind it. For a second it was almost too dark, and I thought about going down to get a flashlight, but then the sun fought back, and dim light filtered in again.

I held the picture up against the wall and felt a chill when I saw the doll’s face, then I laughed out loud to shake the spell, but the sound of my own fake laughter only made the air seem strange, electric, like the lightning on the way. I sat the picture down, deliberately facing it towards the wall, then hammered in the nail.

Or at least I tried. But the nail would only go in so far, and then it felt like I was banging up against something metal. I tried moving the nail, but this time it bent and the hammer dented the drywall. I tried yet again, in a space right beside it. Before I knew it, I had done a real number on the wall, and the nail still wasn’t in very well.

What is going on in that wall?

I thought I had left a box of screws and anchors in her room somewhere, so I walked over to the small closet and opened the door. The doorknob was like all the other doorknobs in the house. They were a bronze color with a peculiar design on the handle, something that looked like a Celtic cross or a clover. There was something very ancient about it, something primal.

A few scraps of old carpet sat on the closet floor, shedding their edges. I pulled the carpet up and underneath it the floorboards were loose and creaking. One was loose. I peered down into the blackness wondering if the box of screws had somehow fallen between the cracks. Something darted from one side to the other. I dropped the carpet and shot up, banging my head on the shelf above.

“Ow!” I said. “This stupid picture.”

I walked over to the wall and slammed the nail in. It still wouldn’t go in all the way, so I bent it to one side. This is the kind of handy man I was. This is how all of my projects normally turned out.

Whatever, I thought to myself, hanging the picture on the damaged nail. Now I HAVE to hang it, just to cover that stupid hole.

I adjusted the picture to make sure it hung level, then walked away, rubbing the back of my head where I had hit it on the shelf. I stopped in the doorway and shouted down to my wife.

“If you have a second,” I yelled, “Come up and look at this picture. I don’t want to touch this thing again.”

“Yeah, right!” she said. “I know why you want me to come upstairs.”

I laughed.

“Seriously, come take a look,” I shouted back at her.

I turned towards the picture again, I guess to make sure it still looked level from across the room. But something seemed different. I walked towards it through the room, my feet creaking on loose boards, my eyes squinting. The sun slipped behind the clouds again, and the room dimmed. I had to get within a few feet of the picture just to double-check what I thought I saw.

“What did you say?” my wife’s voice called up to me from the ground level. She sounded like she was in the bottom of a well, or deep inside the earth.

But I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure what to say. The girl’s hand was no longer behind her back. It was up in the vicinity of her face, and her index finger, somehow too thin for a “girl” that age, was now up over her lips.


* * * * *

For the next installment, click HERE.