Writing About Fear
Scary stories need not be about vampires, serial killers or monsters. There is plenty about normal life that is scary. Scary stories are about fear and fear comes in many shades and shapes.
Fear can simmer or it can strike. Fear can rise out of the expectation that a situation or scenario will worsen – losing a job, pneumonia setting in, a neighbor getting drunk.
Fear can happen suddenly – a car accident, discovery of a death, a stranger knocking on the door. But fear can also be a daily occurrence which rises out of resignation or dread. Fear can be about helplessness –power given or taken away.
In writing about fear, the author must walk through it step by step with her character. Seeing what he sees, feeling what he feels.
Fear is heightened when it is placed in ordinary circumstances. Something pretty is defaced or defamed. The contrast is scary. And if the antagonist is a normal person with selfish intentions and little morality then you’ve got yourself a scary villain.
And Now the Story:
by Kathy Coogan
Priss grabbed her backpack, slipped into her jacket and headed for the door.
Her brother Raymond intercepted her. “I need some money.”
“Then get a job like me,” Priss said pushing past him.
“What? Babysitting? Bullshit. I just need a couple bucks.”
Priss reached into the back pocket of her jeans and pulled out two neatly folded dollars and slapped the perfect square into her brother’s hand. He curled his fingers around hers and twisted a little.
Priss pulled away and went out the door trying to remember when she started to fear her younger brother. Living with him was like waiting for the other shoe to drop. Mr. Towson, who taught her AP elective - Greek Mythology - had introduced his students to Dionysius and the Sword of Damocles. She had shivered when she read about the sword hanging by a horsehair thread above Damocles’ head.
When they discussed it in class, she kept silent but her mind churned with recognition of Damocles’ foreboding. Her classmates, all smart, understood the imagery but had no visceral connection to it. Most were too sheltered to feel the impending danger. Priss felt it always. Could some of them be hiding, too?
She jogged down the sidewalk feeling her relief grow as she got farther from her jumbled mess of a house. Her dad was long gone, replaced by the occasional visits of the guy who fathered her two brothers, Raymond and Felix.
The three kids - each two years apart had arrived like bizarre, dysfunctional clockwork. Their mother was a flighty mess, soft-hearted and soft-headed, capable of no decision except yes, sure, okay. Nobody in that house knew who was responsible for whom or for what. They didn’t coexist, they collided.
She felt some guilt, as the older sister, for abandoning her brothers to the careless care of her mother. But she justified her absence now that they were older.
Raymond, 15 and Felix 13, full blood- brothers were bonded by the DNA of a dangerous father. Felix followed his older brother around when he let him but otherwise kept his eyes glued to his X-Box screen, a world he could control with his racing thumbs. To each his own escape.
Priss slowed and walked the rest of the way to the corner playfield by the school. She had told the Hansens that she had some stuff to do at school, so asked to be picked up there. A small lie but one of many she told every day, necessities for her existence.
She allowed no overlap of her family life and her Hansen Life. She kept the Hansens secret from her brothers, who simply knew that she babysat and often demanded money from her. She gave it to appease them - feeling like a little kid giving lunch money to a bully.
She lied to her mother, too, about the Hansens, letting her believe that they were one of many families she babysat for. Her mother could taint anything and the Hansens felt sacred somehow. Priss’s mother never once asked about the families that she sat for, having no idea that parental responsibility might be involved. They could be meth addicts for all she knew.
Priss waited only a minute before Mr. Hansen pulled up at the corner.
“Waiting long?” he asked as she climbed in.
“No, just got here.”
He handed her another set of car keys. “Here take these so I don’t forget later. Tanks full but you won’t run off to Mexico will you?”
Ever since she turned sixteen the Hansens had let her drive the kids where they needed to go.
Priss smiled and said, “Nope, just to the twins’ soccer practice, McDonald’s and back, like always.”
They drove the few miles to the Hansen house talking about Priss’s school and the twins’ activities. Lucy and Luke, age 5, were waiting in the kitchen when they walked in. They ran to Priss for hugs and dragged her to the table where they had set three places with three juice boxes and three bags of Ranch Doritos, their favorite snack.
“For me? You guys are the best.” Priss said to each.
Mr. and Mrs. Hansen left with the usual instructions and usual joke, “No wild parties, huh, Priss?’ Of course they’d be calling while they were gone, but those calls were just routine check-ins with the assumption that everything was fine. They trusted her completely, believing she was the most truthful, responsible, ethical girl in the world. Perfect Priss. And she tried hard to play that role.
She loved being in this house alone with just Lucy and Luke and their old dog, Scamper, who mostly slept in his kennel in the laundry room. Here she could have peace. And, of course, she needed the money if she was ever going to escape her family.
At the Hansen house, like at school, she did exactly as she was told and loved the structure. She followed the established schedule that Mrs. Hansen employed for the twins which was abbreviated: Fed, Read, Bed. She fed them dinner, read them the story of their choice, then tucked them in. After a careful margin of time to be sure that they were sleeping, Priss had the house to herself. Everything was so easy here.
Priss no longer explored. She had meandered through every closet and rummaged through every drawer way back when. She had found some surprising sexy things and where Mrs. Hansen kept her jewelry and Mr. Hansen his extra cash and a pistol. She had only taken one thing, Mrs. Hansen’s sorority pin, fascinated by it, wearing it for a while pinned to her bra. But she eventually returned it, the pleasure not worth the worry.
On some of the long quiet nights Priss experimented with the bottles on Mr. Hansen’s bar. She had poured a little soda into some Scotch. Her cousins in Maryland called Coke soda so that’s what she added.
Scotch and coke tasted awful but then Scotch alone tasted awful. She figured flavoring it up or diluting it down with other stuff was what people did to make alcohol taste okay. Priss quickly learned that it wasn’t about the taste. It was about the feeling. And she liked that right away.
Since then she had tried different recipes She had almost got caught, a little buzzed, a time or two, in the beginning. She had to pretend to be sober by acting sleepy, plausible since it was very late when Mr. and Mrs. Hansen got home. She started keeping gum in her pocket after that. Alcohol reeked.
Her favorite was root beer and vodka, the root beer disguising the vodka’s purely chemical taste as the vodka did its relaxing work. She discovered gin was gin no matter what you added but Sprite at least made it drinkable, but you should never mix them in a martini shaker - the carbonation factor. Adding a few of the red cherries from the under- counter fridge made the cherries more delicious, cleansed of the babyish sweet taste that no longer appealed to her now more sophisticated palette.
Tonight she had all the time in the world since the Hansens would be staying in the City and coming home in the morning. Priss had proven so reliable that she had been sleeping over in the spare room so much that they called it Priss’s room. Lucy and Luke had given her little trouble at bedtime, programmed to be good children by their mother’s love of routine, exuberant playtime activities, fresh air and healthy genes.
Priss picked a bottle a random, removed the top and sniffed it, added ice to a glass and picked up the remote. She was trolling through the channels that didn’t have parental control locks when the doorbell rang.
She was alarmed to see Raymond and Felix standing there. She left on the chain but opened the door so she could talk to them.“What’re you guys doing here? Is Mom okay?”
Raymond laughed, “’Course,” he said.
“Let us in. It’s cold. We walked all the way,” Felix said standing with his shoulders hunched, his Levi jacket too thin for the November night. At almost twelve, he came up to Raymond’s chin, big for his age and husky as his father.
“No I’m not allowed to let anybody in. Go home.”
“Aw come on Priss, just let us warm up.” Felix whined.
“How did you know where I was?” Priss stalled.
“You left this,” Raymond said holding up the cell phone which the Hansens had bought for her, not wanting her driving the kids to soccer without one.
Priss patted her pocket and looked back at her backpack on the table but knew it was her I-phone in Ray’s hand. How stupid could she be?
Ray continued, grinning, “It was easy. They’re on your calendar like a thousand times and their address is on your contact list. Nice phone. Better’n my prepay one from Walmart. Thought we’d come to see you. Keep you company.”
“Give me the phone, Ray.”
“You let us in for a minute and I’ll let you have it. Besides, Felix here needs the john.”
“Yeah, I gotta go. Come on,” said Felix, squirming some.
“Use the bushes, like you always do,” said Priss.
“Not for this. I really gotta go bad. You know.”
Priss hesitated. “Okay but you have to stay outside Ray. Just Felix.” She took off the chain, opened the door and Felix stepped around her. As she tried to close the door, Ray pushed past her hard but stopped as he looked into the open family room with the giant flat-screen through to the stainless steel and granite kitchen just like on TV.
“Christ,” Ray said.
“Shut up. The twins are asleep.”“Ooo-oo the twins are asleep, Felix,” Ray mimicked. “Let’s go look at the twins.”
“No, I mean it Ray. Don’t scare them. Let them sleep."
“Me scare the twins? Do I scare you little brother?”
Felix pretended to quake in fear and said, “Ooo, I’m so scared, Ray.” He laughed enjoying the attention.
Priss said, “The bathroom’s down there past the kitchen near the laundry room. Go do what you have to do.”
Ray mimicked again, “Past the laundry room? The special room for just the laundry, no-washer-in-the-kitchen-no-clothesline-in-the-basement-room?”
Felix laughed, “I don’t have to go. I was just fucking with you to get inside.”
“My idea,” Ray said.
“Well you’ve gotta leave. They’ll be home soon.”
“Not according to this.” He held up the I-phone and looked at it, “You wrote Hansen in for Saturday and Sunday. I love this thing.”
Priss reached up and grabbed it, stuffing it into her pocket before Ray could grab it back. He spun her around by her wrist but she wouldn’t let him get to her pocket, squirming even though it hurt.
Felix saw that Ray was hurting Priss. Memories of all the times that Priss had helped him softened him some and he said, “Come on, Ray. Let her go.”
Ray did but turned on Felix, saying, “Baby boy want his big sister.”
“I’m not a baby,” Felix said. “She’s not gonna give you the fucking phone, Ray. You know how she is about her stuff. She’d rather die that let you ruin it.”
“We want something to eat and drink.” Ray said. “Let’s see what rich people keep in their fridge.”
Priss planted herself in front of the fridge and said, “I’ll fix you something but you’ve gotta be quiet.”
Raymond sneered, “Don’t wanna scare the babies, like Felix here.”“I’m not a baby, you asshole,” Felix said pushing up against Raymond.
Just then the phone rang. Priss said, ”You two better be quiet. It’s them.”
She answered it. "Hi Mrs. Hansen. Yeah, they’re asleep. Yep, we read Where the Sidewalk Ends. Yeah, me too. Oh no. Uh-huh, “ Priss turned her back to her brothers as she listened.“Okay. Of course. I’ll look. Okay. What about the twins’ room? Okay just yours, the bathroom and the hall out to the car.So sorry. I hope we find it. Okay. Nite,” said Priss. She hung up the phone and leaned hard against the counter, relieved that her brothers had cooperated.
“Look for what? “ Ray asked.
“No. Not nothing. Look for what?” said Raymond.
“You don’t need to know.” Said Priss.
“Okay, I’ll go ask the twins,” said Ray.
Priss grabbed his arm as he tried to walk by her, “No! Mrs. Hansen lost an earring. She wants me to see if I can find it. She’s pretty upset.”
Felix said, “Big deal, an earring. What a loser. Get it? She lost an earring? So she’s a loser.” He chuckled at his own joke.
“Shut up!” said Priss. “She’s gonna call back in a while to see if I found it so I’ve gotta look. You guys have got to leave.”
“We’ll help,” said Ray moving into the family room, eying the bar and seeing the ice-filled glass and open bottle that sat on the counter. “Oh boy, Perfect Priss is drinking her boss’s booze.”
Before she could stop him, he poured the liquid over the ice then looked at the label, reading it out loud, “Captain Morgan Rum.” He took a big swallow then coughed, spitting some of the rum onto the bar top.
Priss thought, God, this can’t be happening, as she ran to get paper towels.
“Mommy?” she heard Lucy calling from her bedroom.
“It’s Priss, Luce. I’m coming. Stay in bed, “ Priss called and turned to Raymond whispering , “Please stay here. And please shut up.”
Raymond said, “Sure, Sis, go take care of the twi-ins,” making it a nasty two syllable word.
Felix said, “Twi-ins, shhhh.” putting his finger to his lips to shush Ray, breaking himself up.
Priss hurried into Lucy’s room. She sat down beside the sleepy little girl and said, “Sorry I had the TV too loud. Go back to sleep, Luce.” Lucy snuggled deeper under the covers and closed her eyes. Priss kissed her on the head, walked out of the room closed the door and leaned against it trying to figure a way to get rid of Ray and Felix.
When she walked back into the family room, Ray and Felix were gone. She spun around looking for them, went to the front door and saw the chain on, so knew they were still here.
She ran down the hall to the master bedroom in the opposite wing of the house. Felix was lying on the bed, tossing a satin pillow into the air. He has slipped off his muddy shoes. Priss wondered where that instinct had come from. Certainly not from home.
Priss’s behavior and manners had been instructed by the beauty and order of this house the first time she entered it, too. Maybe it just rubbed off on some people. She let Felix lie.
She saw Raymond’s jacket on the floor leading to the master bath. His other clothes left a trail which she followed. Raymond was standing in the giant shower stall turning on the faucets.
Her impulse was to stop him but she knew it was too late for that. He’d be sixteen in a month but he was a full grown man, his strong back to her. Besides, she realized, though adult in body, Ray was still a troubled, uncontrollable kid and the shower was probably the most harmless place for him. She could clean up after him before the Hansens got home.
She had to look for that earring. Maybe Felix would be her ally. “Want to help me look, Felix?”
“Sure ,” he said, his voice breaking a little, his newly acquired testosterone still unmanageable and unfamiliar.
“You go into the family room. If you find it, I’ll give you a reward.”
“Whatever the Hansens were going to pay me for tonight’s babysitting is yours. Could be as much as fifty dollars. But this is between you and me. Not Ray. Understand?”
“Fifty…Fu..I mean yeah, sure, between you and me.”
“Look between the cushions on the furniture and in the carpet. It’s a dangly one, with a green stone hanging down. Try not to make a mess, okay. Then check the kitchen floor out toward the garage. It might have bounced when it fell. Thanks, Bud,” she said calling him by his pet name.
Felix would do a good job. He was motivated by praise and money, neither of which he received often.
Priss returned to the Hansen’s bedroom where the shower still ran. She reached into the bathroom to turn on the fan hoping to dispel some of the steam. She avoided looking at Ray, not wanting to know what he was doing in there.
She straightened the Hansens’ bed and picked up Felix’s shoes and put them in the hall. She searched the dresser tops then got down on her knees and ran her fingers under the dresser as far as she could reach.
She did the same under the bed, lifting the duvet to see as far as she could. On the nightstand she lifted the book that was lying open up-side down to mark the page. Mrs. Hansen always had a book and read whenever she had a minute, often while stirring a pot or when on hold on the phone.
Priss looked between the nightstand and the bed and saw something on the floor in the narrow space. Priss reached down and felt the bauble with her fingertips. She felt a surge of joy for Mrs. Hansen. She wore these earrings often and had told Priss that they were the gift Mr. Hansen had given her when the twins were born after many miscarriages.
Priss could see how it happened, Mrs. Hansen sitting on the side of the bed absent-mindedly reading a few last-minute pages in her book while putting on the earrings. This one fell and she never knew it. Finding it would further cement the Hansens’ appreciation for her. She held it up to the light and admired it anticipating telling Mrs. Hansen that her precious gift had been found.
Ray grabbed the earring from Priss’s hand as she daydreamed. He dodged her as she tied to grab it back. He pushed her hard onto the bed then stood over her wrapped in Mr. Hansen’s robe which always hung on the hook on the bathroom door.
“Give me that back.” Priss said, getting to her feet.
“Finders keepers,” said Ray.
“You didn’t find it. I did.”
“Yeah, but you couldn’t keep it,” he said. “It’s mine now.”
He dropped the robe and started to get dressed. Then stopped. He opened a few drawers and pulled out a handful of Mr. Hansens’ briefs. “Good enough,” he said. He let all but one pair fall to the floor and put that pair on. He finished dressing, tucking the earring into his jeans pocket.
Priss stood staring at nothing, stunned by the turn this night had taken. “Hey Sis, you get turned on watching me in the shower and getting dressed?’
Priss turned and left the bedroom, feeling the rage and helplessness surge through her. It was a feeling she knew but she had never experienced it here in this house, The Hansen House, her refuge. She felt contaminated and horrified that the contamination had spread here.
“Couldn’t find it, but I’m still looking.” Felix said when she walked into the family room. “That fifty bucks is gonna be mine.”
“I found it.”
“Ah, shit, you still gonna pay me for helping?”
“Yeah, Felix, thanks, I’ll give you something.”
She plopped down on the sofa. She had to think. She couldn’t let Ray ruin everything.
The phone rang. Oh God. She jumped to get it. It was Mrs. Hansen again.
“Hi. I’ve been looking but no luck yet. I’m really being thorough, you know?”
“Uh-huh. How about you call me in a little while and I’ll have looked everywhere you said.”
She heard a click on the line. Had Ray picked up? Goddamn him.
“Okay. Try not to worry. It must be here somewhere or hey! Maybe in the car?
“Oh. Yeah, Lucy and Luke are fine. Lucy woke up once. I think she heard the TV but I checked her and she went right back to sleep.”
“Yeah. Okay. Bye.”
Ray walked into the family room holding the bedroom phone, grinning. He said, “Good girl. Lying for your little brother.”
“I didn’t lie. At least not for you. You’re gonna give me that earring and leave.”
Felix piped up, “She’ll give you fifty bucks for it as a reward. She said.”
“Fifty bucks my ass. This thing’s diamonds and emeralds. Worth a fortune.”
Priss said, “Maybe. But not to you. A fifteen year old kid tries to pawn it? Nobody’d believe you didn’t steal it.”
“Sixteen,” said Ray, "Almost."
Priss really needed to think. She stalled. “You wanted something to eat. I’ll fix you a sandwich.”
“Got any pizza?’ Felix asked.
“No but how about a roast beef sandwich. It’s really good. And they’ve got good bread.”
“That Italian kind? With real Hellman’s? ”
Priss fixed two big sandwiches and put out some gourmet kettle chips, something that her mom could never afford.
Ray took his to the bar. Priss had forgotten about the bar. She had to do something. “Hey, how about I fix you one of my favorites?” She eased past Ray and got out the root beer and vodka facing the back bar. If he got drunk, who knew what would happen?
She got out a frosted beer mug. While Ray went around to sit on the bar stool, she pantomimed pouring vodka into the mug, actually pouring very little. She filled the glass with root beer and handed it to Ray.
Felix said, “Where’s mine?”
“Sorry Bud.” She filled another glass from the freezer with root beer and handed it to Felix. He was so impressed with the frosted mug, he didn’t notice that she hadn’t added vodka to his.
While they ate Priss considered her lousy options. Get the earring away from Ray somehow and get them out of here. Or lie to Mrs. Hansen that she had not found it, get them out of here and try to get the earring away from him later. Either way, she had to get them out of the house.
If the twins woke up and saw them here on the same night the earring went missing, Mr. and Mrs. Hansen would know something was fishy no matter how much they liked Priss. They weren’t stupid and they wouldn’t risk leaving the twins with her ever again. One strike – you’re out. Blood - thicker than water.
There was one other option. Buy the earring back from Ray with her savings. She had almost $3000 for college. It had been almost impossible to save since her mother was always short and depended on her to help out. But she had done it, dollar by dollar.
What was she willing to risk? What was more valuable to her, her Hansen life or her college money? She wondered if every other person in the world had to balance lousy choices to protect what they had, always losing more than they gained?
She could start out offering Ray a few hundred dollars. If he took it, she could put that back in her savings account in a few months if she was careful and if the Hansens continued to trust her. She couldn’t let Ray ruin that.
But now that Ray knew where the Hansens lived, was this just the beginning of his messing with her? She felt the desperation that she felt every single minute in her own house and she cursed Ray for bringing those feelings here. How could she have left her cell phone behind?
She watched her brother eat. He was a pig.
“How much do you want for that earring?” she asked him.
Ray laughed at her, showing her his full mouth. “What duh ya mean?”
“I’ll buy the earring from you. How much?”
“A million bucks,” he said.
“No really. How much do you want for it? I’ll buy it from you.”
“I’ve got some money saved. Ray, if you try to sell that to a stranger, what makes you think they won’t call the cops?”
He thought about that, his face still grinning but his eyes moving around the room.
“I can give you real money and no trouble, guaranteed.”
“Like how much?”
“Name your price.” Priss hoped that his number would be large by his standards but small by hers.
His mind was clicking. She could see the eagerness in his eyes. She imagined him thinking, “A bird in the hand…” but knew he’d never know that proverb.
“Dollars? For one earring? You’re crazy. Remember you only have one.” Priss said.
“Oh yeah,” Ray said realizing for the first time that he had only half the pair.
“Okay, $300. You give me $300 and I give you one earring.”
“Deal,” said Priss, thinking, that’s 1/10 of my savings. “I’ll give you the money when I get home tomorrow. Give me the earring.”
“You get it when I get my money’” said Ray.
“Listen, you idiot. The only reason I’m paying you is so I can tell Mrs. Hansen that I found the earring tonight and it will be here for her tomorrow. I swear I’ll call the cops if you walk out of here with that earring.”
Felix looked at Ray, “She means it Ray. Give it to her. She’ll pay you. I know she will.” He turned to Priss and said, “And you’ll give me $50, right?”
She didn’t hesitate, “Yeah, Felix, for your help,” meaning it.
Ray finished his drink. Wiped his mouth on his sleeve. Took the earring out of his pocket and tossed it to Felix who tossed it to Priss. She put it in her pocket before he changed his mind. Hepointed his finger at Priss and said, “I’ll be waiting for my $300. Don’t shit me on this. Come on, Felix, let’s blow this joint.”
Felix giggled, a kid loving profanity and said, “Yeah, Let’s blow this joint.”
When they left, Priss re-locked the door and put on the chain and stood shaking, her hand resting on the pocket of her jeans. The earring was so delicate that she barely felt it there. This was how her life worked. Her whole shitty life. You make one small mistake. You let your guard down for one minute and everything flies apart. All this because she forgot her cell phone.
She went to the bar and poured some vodka, not too much, into the mug that Ray had used. She drank it down. She wanted the awful burn it made. She wanted real pain to go with how she felt.
She walked down the hall and peeked in at Lucy’s room then Luke’s. Peaceful children sleeping in a peaceful cocoon.She went across to the other wing of the house to the master bedroom, stopping to get some Windex and Mr. Clean for the shower.
She wondered if it would be over-kill to clean the bathroom since Mr. and Mrs Hansen had showered before they left. She’d take a look and decide. The towel Ray used could be washed, dried and returned to the stack by morning.
She saw Ray’s dirty, ratty underwear and the clean underwear that Ray had dropped. They mingied obscenely on the perfect carpet. Ray was a pig. She picked up the clean ones and folded them and put them back in the drawer. Certainly one pair of briefs wouldn’t be missed.
She held Ray’s tattered pair in a wad at her side. She closed the drawer then stood there looking off into space visualizing something. Oh God. She ran her hands through the neat piles in the drawer. No, please no.
She walked to the john, closed the lid and sat down on it, feeling as if all her bones had been removed. She thought she had had it all fixed. The earring was restored to Mrs. Hansen and her Hansen Life would go on.
But once again her family, her awful, stupid family had ruined everything for her. Ray. While she worried about the lousy earring, while she figured out how to fix it all, Ray was way ahead of her. Was that why he had agreed to the money? He had something better, something more useful. He had Mr. Hansen’s pistol.
Priss got up and walked to the bed where she lay down. She knew exactly how Damocles felt seeing the thinness of the thread. She lay there looking up at the ceiling. Maybe Ray didn’t take the gun. Maybe Mr. Hansen had moved the gun to another drawer. She couldn’t know. Like all the bad things in her life, no matter how she tried, she had no way to control the others. She just did not know.
Would it be tomorrow when Mr. Hansen was getting dressed and saw the pistol gone? Or when Ray, idiot, stupid Ray used it? She’d have to wait for the sword to fall. Or not to fall but linger there spinning on its thread. She was helpless as it hovered.
The phone rang but Priss was too tired to answer it. She lay there watching the sword. It dangled and shifted with every breath she took. She was afraid to move, certain it would fall. She let the phone ring until it beeped. She heard Mrs. Hansen’s worried voice leaving a message, “Priss, Priss, are you there, Priss?”
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