The Work in Progress

This piece is what I call a vignette, something not long enough or fleshed out sufficiently to be considered a short story. I use these as writing experiments, allowing me to play with mood, setting, action, dialog, etc. This is the first of several that I will be publishing here over time. I hope you enjoy it.

It was a dark and stormy night. Wind howled in the trees and a shutter banged relentlessly against the side of the house like a half-crazed lunatic trying to get in. Lightning would split the sky like a white hot knife, or backlight the clouds with no warning. Thunder would rattle and shake the windows, doors, clapboard, timbers as it rolled and boiled through the air. This was not a night to be outside. This was a night to be in another town, another country, another continent.

Sam was out in it, desperately wishing he was anywhere else. But, wishing didn’t change the fact that he was forced to push and grunt his way against the wind while he trudged through the muck and the air on his way to the front door. Why oh why did he choose to do this job?

Another explosion of light and thunder caused Sam to stop in his tracks. His right hand holding his hat jammed to his head, his left hand keeping control of his trench coat, he once again soldiered forward, his objective in sight. The door. He sure hoped that there was some shelter from the wind, because he was going to need both hands, he was pretty sure of that. Given a choice between losing his hat, or not having access to what was under his coat, he would probably choose the hardware. Maybe. It was a tough call, because it was not only a good hat, it was his favourite hat, and more importantly, his only hat.

As he approached the house, the building offered some respite from the angry atmosphere. The going started to get easier, and Sam was able to straighten up and add some dignity to his stride. He decided to test his luck, and loosened his grip on his hat. Fortunately, he wasn’t that optimistic, because a gust of wind, seeing an opportunity for a new plaything, decided to take a swipe at it. Sam tightened his grip again, sighed, and continued toward the door.

The door. It was a door, like any other. It was wooden, painted in some bland colour, and was complete with a knob, frame and other accoutrements associated with a door. Any other person would never have given the door a second thought. But not Sam. This door was more than a physical door. It was mental door, a spiritual door, an entry into a new world and a new life, assuming he was prepared to step through. And assuming it was opened for him to enter.

“There are no guarantees in life” someone once told Sam. He paused again, reflecting on the possibilities, probabilities, and threads of future that were strung out ahead of him. That was a dopey thing to say. Of course there are no guarantees. He never asked for one. Anyone who did was optimistic, arrogant or stupid. Sam liked to think that he wasn’t any of those. But then, doing what he was about to do, maybe he was. Sam shook his head, quietly berated himself, “Idiot”, and then again forged ahead.

Finally, stairs! Sam lifted himself up to the porch one footfall at a time. The wind lessened further, allowing him to stand up to his full height, unbutton his coat and shake his left hand loose. Wind and air still snuck around the corner, testing loose ends, flaps and holes, so Sam decided that some security for his hat was still required. However, since he was right handed, he decided that he should switch his present grip, and proceeded to remove his right hand while trying to grab his hat again, this time with his left.

The wind was having no part of this, and managed to rush through and take the hat during mid-switch. Sam lunged, his fingertips just brushing the hat as it rolled and tumbled through the air, and disappeared into the night storm. Having his car barely make it here was bad enough. It still steamed and ticked and popped, and Sam could hear it, even with the roar and thunder of the storm. At least, he was pretty sure he could. Sam really hoped his four wheel chariot was going to get him home.

One problem at a time. Worry about the car later. Worry about now, well, now. Absent his hat, he had little to occupy his hands with, other than the task before him, so Sam was able to shake his coat a bit, causing water to spray and dribble off into the porch. Sam looked at his feet in mild fascination as the water joined the puddles and drippings already present. It was so much like his life, or anyone else’s. Just another drop of water in a small pool of water, which become parts of bigger pools, and on and on it goes.

No, he wasn’t going to be a drop of water. Some liquid lost into the night like any other droplet. Tonight would make a difference. Or doom his future forever. No, it would make a difference. Be positive. Negative is for losers.

Having finally achieved his first objective, Sam now prepared himself for the next step. Part of him was unsure of whether this was now what he really wanted to do. The rest of him, though, pushed that thought aside. He was happy to do this. Proud. It was an honour. He had chosen that this task be put before him, not someone else. The job didn’t choose him, he chose the job.

At least, he’s pretty sure he chose the job. When Mike and Wendy had asked for volunteers, no one said anything at first. Not even Sam. He did hesitate, didn’t he? Well, who wouldn’t? If this went as expected (or better yet, as planned), then it was going to be a bit messy, and it was going to change his life. Something like this had to. Assuming of course, the door would open and what was about to happen could happen.

Time to find out. Sam put his right hand inside of his coat, keeping it loose and ready. He brought up his left hand, and rapped loudly on the door. No answer. He knocked again. He waited. Nothing. He peered into the window to the right of the door. The room behind it was lit, and he could see lights elsewhere in the house. And he did remember seeing light in one or two windows in the upper story of the house.

Once again, he knocked, knuckles rapping on wood and threatening to dent the old, thin paint. Did someone yell at him to come in? Or was it the wind in the trees? He couldn’t tell. Sam tested the doorknob. It turned, and the door was free to swing. He pushed it open slowly, the hinges creaking and wood complaining as the door followed its arc back to he wall. It bounced lightly against the wall and came to the rest. The house was as quiet inside as it was noisy outside. The sound of the loud ticking of a clock could be heard. Something creaked as the house settled.

It was odd that, with the sound and fury of the storm outside, the inside of the house was so quiet. Sam slowly intruded over the threshold, head first. He called out softly.

“Hello?”

Nothing. Just the muted sound of the storm, the ticking of the clock. Sam put one foot into the hallway. He decided that a bit more volume was required.

“Hello? Are you here?”

Sam decided that it was all or nothing, stepped the rest of the way into the building, and closed the door behind him. He turned, looked down the hall, and listened to the noise outside, muted by the walls. He started to remove his coat, stopped, and decided against it. He might need to leave in a hurry, and it was bad enough having to go back out in that crap without a hat.

He stood, considering his next move. Suddenly, a loud whistling rent the quiet. Sam spun around, trying to be ready for anything, and feeling like he just failed. The kettle in the kitchen screamed its song to no one in particular, waiting for some kind of attention. Sam advanced, deciding to take action and end the whistle before it drove him insane.

Sam reached the stove, took a hold of the handle and removed the kettle from the stove. He then turned off the burner. Looking up, he waited, expecting someone to come down. Nothing. No one. No footsteps. Not a sound. Maybe they were asleep? Someone must be here. Someone was supposed to be here. Otherwise, this was all for nothing.

It was time to go further, to finish what he was about to start. Sam turned, went carefully down the hall, and first poked his head into the living room. Nothing besides the ominous and repetitive ticking of the clock on the mantle. A fire burned brightly on the grate. A couple of lights were on. A book lay opened face down in a wingback chair.

Sam turned, and looked into the dining room. Nothing but the gleaming expanse of a well-polished table, accompanied by the warm glow of wood of the china cabinet surrounding the stark gleam of porcelain and silver. Sam turned again, and headed toward the stairs.

He mounted the stairs carefully, cautiously, taking an ever-so-slight pause between each step to listen. From time to time, he would look back, down the stairs. The wind continued to make muffled noise outside, and the occasional banging from a loose shutter sounded like a muted thud against the outside wall.

Sam was halfway up the stairs, when a bright flash exploded outside, followed immediately by thunder that shook the very frame of the building, followed immediately by darkness. All of the lights went out. Sam froze. Now what?

Very carefully, Sam reached inside his trench coat, and further inside his suit jacket. Sam continued to scan back and forth between the top and bottom of the stairs and he reached, and slowly drew his hand back, his objective now in his grasp.

He pulled out a black flashlight. He snapped it on, looked first back down the stairs, then turned, and proceeded to move to the second floor. The torch cast an oblong pool of light in front of him, wavering and waggling as Sam moved up the stairs.

At the top of the stairs, Sam could see the doors of the bedrooms and the one bathroom. He thought he saw a flicker of light from under the far door, but it was hard to tell. Wait, there it was again. Nope, now its gone.

Sam moved forward, slightly on the balls of his feet, trying to be stealthy. He failed miserably. The floor creaked with every third step, he brushed against a chair in the hallway. To Sam, it sounded like an endless cacophony of squeaks, rattles and scrapes, drowning out everything except the increasing “thud” of his heart inside his chest.

As Sam got nearer the door, his heart sped up. He stopped once, took a deep breath and tried to calm down. That worked. For about 5 seconds, then it just started going again. Sam wondered if everyone on their first job had this same reaction.

During his approach, the occasional flicker of light continued to come from under the door. The lights were still not on. No noise came from the other side of the door.

Sam made it to the door. He put his ear close to it. He thought he might have heard cloth rustling. Sam wasn’t sure. He slowly, carefully placed his hand on the knob of the door and slowly turned it. It made numerous clicking and scratching noises as metal brushed on metal. At least it didn’t squeak. Another flicker of light came from under the door. Sam stopped, waited, then continued to turn the knob. After slowly turning the knob all the way back, Sam very gently started to ease the door open. It started to creak, and Sam stopped. He tried going slower, and it creaked much less. Eventually, the door swung open to its full width.

The curtains on the far window moved. As they did, light peeped through. The curtains fluttered and shook, gently, softly, slowly. Sam approached them, his right hand back under his coat. He slowly lifted one side of the curtain, and started to look behind it.

The moon shone through the now-broken clouds. Lightning continued to flicker in the distance, the muted boom of the thunder still audible despite the noise of wind through the trees and around the building. Sam could feel air moving from under the window sash, an incomplete seal through which the wind could push through into the sanctity of the building.

Sam hated this. This was taking too long. He wanted to get this over with, get back to town and report to Mike that the job was done. This was his first time. No one warned him that it could be this tedious. Sam figured it was easy: drive up, go in, one, two, leave, it’s done. Apparently not tonight. At least Mike hadn’t scheduled him for two tonight. There would never have been time. Sam had heard that the old-timers could do two, sometimes three in one night. Amazing.

Thump! A noise behind Sam caused him to spin in his tracks, flashlight tracing a pattern around the walls. He stopped, and two golden orbs glowed ahead of him, an indistinct shape around them.

Just a stupid cat! Sam shook his head, took a deep breath, and tried to get his heart to slow down again.

Was this going to take all bloody night?

There was another sound, further away. A metal-on-metal clank. It was barely audible above the wind, but Sam was sure he heard something. Time to stop fooling around.

Sam rushed down the hall, causing the cat to race a head and down the stairs. Sam followed quickly. When he got the main floor, he stopped. He listened. Again, a metal-on-metal clank, a bit louder, and coming from below him.

Click! The lights came back on, startling Sam. He looked around quickly. Nothing. He approached the door that he believed led to the basement. Carefully, he turned the knob, slowly pulled open the door, and then quickly turned to look inside.

Coats. Well, he found the closet. Feeling really, really stupid, Sam moved four feet to the right, and opened the next door. He wasn’t going to try to be careful with this one. He just opened it.

Stairs. This was more like it, and sure enough, that metal-on-metal clank again.

The basement was dark, and Sam fumbled about on the wall to find the light switch. Flicking it, light pushed the darkness off to the side. Sam was about to go down, and then stopped. If someone was down there, the light probably would have been on. It wasn’t. So why would someone be down there?

Sam stepped back up, turned off the light, and closed the door. He stood, considering his next move.

Sam had to get this job done, but the other person was not here. There was no one here but Sam, a cat and some undiscovered poltergeist banging pipes in the basement. Now what? Neither Mike nor Wendy had mentioned this as a possibility.

Oh sure, they covered the usual about the other person resisting, trying to put off the event, inviting you in for coffee, that sort of rot. Nothing about them not being home.

But they must be home. The lights were on. They had left a kettle to boil on the stove.

Where was she?

Then Sam remembered something. There was a garage. Maybe they were outside. Sam had no idea why someone would be out there, in this weather and at this time of night, but you never know.

Sam went through the kitchen to the back door, opened it, and nearly lost control of the door as the wind tried to make off with it. Sam shoved himself outside and into the stream of air, slamming the door closed behind him.

Sure enough, when Sam looked toward the garage, there was a light on. Sam scanned the rest of the yard. The wind was cold, but at least it wasn’t raining. Sam walked down the back stairs, and trudged toward the garage, his right hand back under his jacket. The large main door was closed, as was the small side door.

Sam went to the side door, and took a pause. He did a mental count: three, two, one, popped open the door and jumped inside.

There was a red sedan in the garage. The driver’s side door was open. Two stocking-clad legs jutted from under them, toes down to the floor.

Sam called out again. “Hello!” No movement. A slight breeze caused the edge of the pink housecoat hanging below the open door to flutter. Sam approached the door, and peered around and into the car.

There she was, face down, the centre console open as if she had been rooting around inside it for something. Her one slightly wrinkled hand was on her chest. Her face, careworn but still attractive, in a rictus of pain.

Damn!

Sam turned, made his way through the wind and noise, back into the house. He picked up the phone, and dialled 9-1-1, explained to the bored person on the other end that the occupant was in the garage, dead from an apparent heart attack. When asked to identify himself, Sam just hung up. He figured, given the distance from town, he had about 10 minutes. He took out a handkerchief, and proceeded to wipe down handles, door surfaces, the phone.

Of course, Sam wondered for a moment why he had bothered to call at all. It’s not like he had any particular obligation to the old gal. Even Sam wasn’t sure why he did it. But he did, it was done, and it was time to move on.

Later, Sam sat in his car. He had pulled it away and parked behind some bushes. He could see the red flashing lights of the ambulance, and the red-and-blue lights of the police. He could see them all bustle about in the wind, heading toward the garage first. Sam watched the proceedings for the half an hour or so it took for them to do their thing, saw the ambulance crew load a black bag on a stretcher into the back, then get into the front of the truck. It drove off first, no longer a frenzy of flashing and blinking lights. The cops stuck around for another twenty minutes or so, then got back into their cars, and drove off as well.

Sam waited about ten more minutes, and then started his engine, a look of anticipation and fear on his face. The engine turned and turned, and finally caught. As he began to pull onto the road, the rain started again. Sam’s face changed again to the combination of relief and disappointment he had felt for the past couple of hours. Mike was never going to understand. Sam was sure Mike would never let Sam try this again. He fully expected Wendy to never let him hear the end of it, and she wouldn’t be giving Sam the reward she had promised.

Sam’s car carried on down the road, taillights diminishing into the distance. Just as it crested the rise, the lightning flashed, strobing Sam’s car one last time before it disappeared, swallowed by the rain and darkness of the night, like a droplet of water joining a larger pool to disappear forever.