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All Trades Are Final

by JohnnyA 

Posted: 11 November 2006
Word Count: 2079
Summary: A dodgy transaction. Cold consequences.

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As frightening as it sounded, Lynda had made the decision to go. The man, who’d told her about the house, had also given her some photographs and a map. Apparently the old woman was only there once a year, every December twenty third.

Lynda’s friends had been around for her and Jack. Even her Mum and Dad had resisted the urge to say ‘I told you so’, and had been quietly supportive. She knew everyone meant well. Knew they cared and wanted her happy again. How could they understand the pain? The truth was, only George could make her happy. No one else could make her smile, make her laugh, make her feel special. That’s why she had listened to the man. That’s why she went to the house.

* * *

It looked empty from the outside. Covered with vines, encrusted with snow; nothing at all like the photos. Was it even the right address?
“This can’t be right,” she muttered.
“What’s that dear?”
Lynda yelped, falling sideways into a bush.

A short craggy old woman, wrapped from head to toe in a blue duffel coat, was standing over her.
“Sorry to startle you dear. I was just coming back from doing last minute Christmas shopping. You know how it is.”
“All too well,” Lynda replied spitting ice out of her mouth.

The old woman pulled her arms about herself.
“My bones feel the cold something dreadful! Join me for a cup of tea?”
Lynda nodded, scrambling to her feet, brushing bits of snow and twig off her coat. The old woman tottered off towards the front door, opening it quickly and disappearing inside. Lynda followed, trying to block out the squirms she felt in the pit of her stomach.

Tea was served up, in a tiny living room, lit only by a sparking fireplace in the corner. Lynda gratefully hugged the cup to her hands, breathing in the steam and her surroundings. The woman sat opposite, in an armchair several sizes too big, her duffel coat still on.
“What’s your name again dear?”
The woman nodded, pulling out a small notepad and pen from her coat pocket. She then retrieved a tiny pair of spectacles from another pocket, perching them on her nose.
“And are you aware of the price for what you’re asking?”
Lynda nodded.
“The gentleman I spoke with said I had to give you something valuable.”
The old woman chuckled.
“That’s…fairly accurate dear. You do understand that this isn’t like shopping at Sainsbury’s? I don’t offer twenty-eight-day-later refunds.”
“I understand.”
“Good, because once the deal is done, I cannot reverse it. It’s imperative you aren’t having second thoughts.”
Lynda sighed and leant forward.
“Trust me; I haven’t had any thoughts, except getting back what was taken from me.”

The old woman cocked her head to one side, regarding Lynda with eyes that glistened darkly in the firelight.
“Very well then. For a valuable of my choosing, I will ensure your husband returns to you by Christmas Eve.”
Lynda pursed her lips and nodded firmly. The old woman removed her spectacles and became all jolly again.
“Right then dear! Let’s get started shall we? First, I’ll need a sample of blood from your forefinger.”
Lynda shuddered, but held out her right hand. The old woman produced a thin needle and a small glass vial, again, from within her duffel coat. Lynda barely felt the prick, but saw the drops of blood slither their way down to the bottom of the tube.

The old woman then began taking more things from inside her coat. A mortar and pestle. Some strange looking dock leaves outlined in red. A small bottle of lemonade. She flung the leaves into the bowl, and tipped the contents of the vial after, mashing them together with the pestle. She then began to drip the lemonade in slowly, muttering unrecognisable words under her breath. Finally she spat into the bowl, mixing the saliva with everything else. Lynda watched it all, her face twisted in hope and horror.

After a few minutes, the old woman produced a wine glass from her coat, and tipped the contents of the bowl into it. She began stirring the liquid with a small teaspoon, until it reached a bright shade of fizzy red.
“Drink this dear, and your husband will return to you.”
Lynda gaped. The old woman rolled her eyes, sighing.
“It’s perfectly safe, I can assure you.”
“Right. It’s just, well; I saw what’s gone in it!”
“That’s why I added the lemonade. Besides, does it matter what the ingredients are, as long as it works?”
Lynda looked at the bright liquid spinning around in the glass. Slowly, she reached out and took it from the old woman.
“Bottoms up, I guess.”

It felt strange, as though she were suddenly aware of a million heart beats, pumping all at once. The noise clogged every cell in her body, and she could feel her own blood beating in rhythm. Then, the sound became manageable until she heard only two heart beats. She saw her husband George, laughing with the bimbo who had taken him away. The laughter stopped, and he became distracted, looking about the place as though trying to remember something. The old woman was also there, walking around the husband, studying him. Lynda felt a lurch, and it was over.

“Are you all right dear?”
Lynda was gasping, and saw she had dropped the glass.
“There, there, all done now. Your husband will be with you tomorrow evening. So, unless you want to help me bake some cookies, I’m rather tired.”
Lynda nodded, breathing deeply as she picked up her coat. She was about to leave when she remembered.
“Wait. You haven’t said what you want from me in return?”
The old woman’s smile deepened, making Lynda very uncomfortable.
“No need dear! It’s all been taken care of.”
“But I haven’t given you anything!”
“Dear, I’ve been doing this for a long time. Would you mind seeing yourself out? I feel like a little nap. Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas,” she replied, feeling odd and wondering if the old woman was mad or just senile.

* * *

The next day, Lynda awoke feeling wonderful. George was coming home. She could feel it in her blood. There was another feeling too, but it was like a dream she couldn’t remember. She couldn’t quite grasp it. No matter, once George was back, everything would be great again. They would laugh, smile, go to the pictures, and do the millions of other little things couples are supposed to. She had even invited her parents round in the evening for dinner, mainly to tell them that everything was all right, and show George off.

It was five o’clock when the knock came. Lynda’s heart skipped a few beats, and she held her breath all the way to the front door.
“Hello peaches.”
George was standing in the snow, on her doorstep. He looked just as handsome as she remembered. He had even shaved off the beard. She had often commented it was uncomfortable when kissing him.
“Hello George. What do you want?”
After all, he had left her. It only felt right to play the angered ex.
“I, I didn’t know really until yesterday. Suddenly I felt, I mean, I realised that I shouldn’t have left you. It was…a mistake? So I came to apologise, and ask if you’d take me back.”

The words she'd dreamt of hearing, were stilted and kept tripping over as they escaped his mouth. It was like an unrehearsed script, but she didn’t care.
“Why don’t you come in, and we can talk about it.”
She smiled as George slowly stepped over the threshold. By tomorrow he would forget all about that bimbo. He would know that there could only be her and Jack in his life.
“How is our son? I haven’t seen him since Easter.”
“Asleep in his cot. He was a bit grouchy this afternoon, so I put him down for a nap. Would, would you like to see him?”
George smiled, his face looking unsure as to why he was smiling, and followed Lynda to the nursery.

As they walked in, Lynda felt a chill. That other feeling was back again. The one she couldn’t quite catch. George stood looking around a moment.
“It’s just like we talked about,” he whispered in compliment.
He stood there staring around the room, taking in all the decorations, his face still wrinkled in thought.
“Jack’s a popular lad. I see he’s even got a Christmas card!”
Walking over to the cot, he stared down at little Jack, putting his hand in to stroke the child’s face. Lynda looked on admiringly. The cold feeling was still there, but she reasoned it was just left over from the day before. Watching her husband stroking their son was more than enough. So besotted with daydreams of the future, she almost forgot what he had just said.

“What was that?”
“I’m sorry?” George asked not taking his eyes off Jack.
“Before. You said something about a Christmas card.”
George looked up.
“Over there, by the nightlight. Cute picture of a reindeer on the front.”
Lynda looked to where he was pointing. True enough, a Christmas card with a particularly drab illustration of a reindeer was propped against the nightlight, next to Jack’s cot. Walking over she picked it up.

She read it a few times, mouthing the words silently to herself.
“I don’t understand. What…? “
Her voice faltered as she looked up. George had a hand over Jack’s face. His eyes were wild with madness, and sweat was pouring down the sides of his face. Lynda screamed and rushed forward, but it was too late. Jack's face was blue, and he wasn’t breathing when George finally lifted his hand from the child’s face.

“What did you do? What did you do?” Lynda wailed, dropping to her knees on the floor. She placed her own hands into the cot, slowly picking up the lifeless body.
“What have you done?” she sobbed, looking up.
What Lynda saw in George’s eyes caused her to gargle a scream. The eyes looking out from her husband, were not his, but the old woman’s.
“What have I done? It's what you have done...dear!"
George backed away from Lynda kneeling beside the cot. As he drew nearer to the door, he blinked, and his eyes returned to normal.

“Lynda? What are you doing? Is that Jack…,” the words choked, as he saw.
“Jack! Jack!”
George rushed forward grabbing the child from Lynda, and shook him gently, willing his son to breathe.
“Somebody help!” he shouted, his legs crumpling, his shoulders beginning to shake.

She could hear footsteps, thundering up the staircase. Her parents, early for dinner, appeared at the doorway, presents under their arms. Their eyes took in the scene before them. George was cradling little Jack. Lynda was curled up against a wall, laughing manically to herself, shaking her head.
“What happened?” her father asked.
“Lynda, I found her with Jack, she…,” George’s voice broke as her mother put a comforting arm around his shoulders. Lynda’s father just stood there, trying to look at his daughter.
“What have you done? My God, Lynda! What have you done?”

Lynda wasn’t listening. She couldn’t hear anything. Nothing was real. It couldn’t be. It was all a dream. A bad dream. She just had to try and wake up that’s all. Click your heels like Dorothy Gale. Three times and you’ll be home, just like in the Land of Oz

She was still crouched against the wall half an hour later when the police arrived. She didn’t listen to them. She didn’t resist. She just drifted willingly along, as they led her outside into the snow, gently placing her in a patrol car. George and her parents looked on, their faces broken, as Lynda was driven away into the night.

Upstairs, in the nursery, lay the only Christmas card little Jack had received. Only it hadn’t been for little Jack. It had been for Lynda. Now it lay, open and forgotten for all to see.

“Seasons Greetings! It was a pleasure doing business with you Lynda. I hope you’ll recommend me to your friends in the future. But remember what I said. All trades are final. You and your husband have a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!”

© John Allen 2006

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Comments by other Members

Becca at 07:10 on 13 November 2006  Report this post
Hi John,
Welcome to the group. What a grizzly story you've got here. The funny thing is that with some adjustments it could be far more gruesome, - and I wonder whether it would then be too raw. What makes the story palatable is that you've written it with a lot of cliches, but cliches are the very first thing to avoid in writing. Also, there are a couple of phrases which don't quite say what they mean, and that makes it less credible too. For example the old woman perches her specs. above her nose, ... do you mean 'above' or 'on', and also, I wondered, as reader, where else she'd put them. Further on you write: 'It was too much.', and this doesn't really mean anything, although we do know what it is meant to mean. Then, 'footsteps thundering up the staircase could be heard.' - by whom could they be heard?
I think writing exactly what you mean would make the writing less wooden. The story of the death of a little boy through evil influence wouldn't be an easy read, so while I'm talking about how to transfix the reader in the scene and make it all feel real, I'm not sure I'd really want to read the more 'real' version, Lol! Then I remember 'The Turn of the Screw.'
About cliches, I mean this: 'Then the old woman became a flurry of activity.' I don't think you do need to describe everything she does in her meeting with the MC, but 'became a flurry of activity' doesn't mean anything, it's short-hand, or cliche. Similarly, 'The possibilities were endless.' is a phrase that means little, eh? '... rooted her to the spot.' is again a well worn short hand phrase.
Cliches distance the reader from the work and it's hard to feel anything much about the characters when they're used. I didn't feel connected with the MC in this story, didn't feel empathy with her situation, -- it's all about how a story is written.
I'd be interested to know what you think about my comments.

JohnnyA at 19:53 on 14 November 2006  Report this post
'Kick a guy when he's down', was my first reaction to your comments. As always it's hard to hear criticism, but necessary. This is actually a re-draft of a shorter story, after I received feedback that stated it was good, but felt too squashed and rushed. At first I was lifted, as you start off by saying 'What makes the story palatable, is that you've written it with a lot of cliches...' ??? Either the English language has been updated when I wasn't looking, or I'm missing something. Doesn't 'palatable' mean 'pleasant to taste' and 'acceptable'? Did you mean unpalatable? Or does the story work because of the cliches?

Maybe I should stick to the orginal trimmed down version. I don't know exactly how to respond to all of the points you made, but I can see what you mean by some of the phrases seeming a little too cliched. "...old woman suddenly became a flurry of activity" "Rooted to the spot" could, and probably should be rewritten. I didn't realise the spectacle line could be misconstrued until you pointed it out, so thank you!

All in all, I think I've found your comments generally helpful, and good preparation for when my work comes under the eage eye of an editor. I feel for this story and am going to continue working on it - changing the Christmas setting as well, to increase marketability in case I run out of time before New Year. I'm sorry you didn't empathise with the character. I'll probably have to seek some more advice on how to increase the reader's feeling in her.

On a personal note, you are the first person not to like the story as a whole - and in trying to avoid vanity, I have had other published writers I don't know, read it as well. Which leads me to conclude that no matter how much we edit, tweak, play, alter, twist or change a piece, not everyone is going to like it! Ha Ha! Story of a writer's life! (sorry about the pun). Thank you for the comments, they are much appreciated, and I will address the points you have raised.

Becca at 06:43 on 15 November 2006  Report this post
Hi John,
Yes, but my comments are only one reaction, eh? But really I think if you iron out the cliches it really would lift the story up and make it feel more real! Good luck with it. You could write a note in the comments section of this group signalling the story up to help get some response to it. Or in the 'Introduce your Work' section of WW.

Becca at 17:07 on 15 November 2006  Report this post
Hi again John,
In answer to your question, I don't think the story works because of the cliches, because cliches don't make anything work. But you've removed them in this version I think, but the sensibilities in the story still haven't changed as I read it now.
I mean this is difficult, your request was 'Go on! I can take it!, and I think you can as well, and good for you for that. Let me see if I can say things more clearly, -- you're writing about the death of a child strangled by his father as he lies in his cot, and then his mother is blamed and goes mad. For me, as a reader, this is grave stuff. If you wanted me to talk about your ability to write in a technical sense, then I'd say you've a good grip on it. I don't even think I noticed one typo, or one grammatical oddity in the work, and I usually pick them up right enough. I guess you could then say it was a matter of 'taste' alone, -- but if you are to be published, isn't this also a consideration, even if, like me, you are a writer of dark stories?
Your story is a kind of mixture of magic realism and horror, more horror I think. I did like the image of the old woman in a huge duffle coat, and I did like the idea that she could take so many things out of the coat, including a wine glass, for heaven's sake! I liked that. Yes, I do think working on it's a good idea, but do you know what, at the back of all of it, you are actually saying? That's a question I ask myself every time I write something, -- what does this mean beyond the words on the page? And there has to be some answer to that whenever I ask myself, otherwise what have I got?

MF at 07:29 on 16 November 2006  Report this post
Hi Johnny, and welcome to the group.

I think that Becca makes some good points. This is, indeed, a grisly piece (interestingly, my story 'Oysters and Quince' also involved a child being [nearly] suffocated for rather different reasons - grim, eh?) and I think it's worth considering with whom, if anyone, we're meant to empathize.

The tale could be made much darker if the cliches were pared down a bit (the old woman mixing a concoction felt rather Snow White; a bespectacled pharmacist, for example, would be more sinister) - then of course, the challenge is justifying the twistedness of it. What's being said, ultimately? It doesn't have to be profound, and if it's straight horror that you're looking to create, I think you're nearly there. However, if it's to be about the fragile nature of relationships, the crushing burden of a monther's love, etc. (ok, I'm getting a little carried away), you might try to experiment with different scenes, styles and plot twists.

Best of luck with this. Looking forward to more,

JohnnyA at 13:59 on 16 November 2006  Report this post
Having just been to the Charity Premiere of Casino Royale, I must first recommend you both to go and see the film. It's the best Bond film I've ever seen and Daniel Craig is a worthy man to inherit the 007 status.

Thanks for the further comments. It's interesting that you've asked what it is I'm trying to say in this story. Well the answer is, I'm trying to tell a fictional story. Some stories, films and plays do have a second agenda and meaning hidden beneath their narrative, just as other stories, films and plays do not. When I set out to write this, it was to tell a good story, and meet the deadline for a competition - which I managed to do. I wasn't thinking about making a statement beneath the text. I just wanted to tell a story that would draw the reader in. A story that I might see in a magazine or book and want to read. The best stories that mean something to me, are more often than not, the ones that first and foremost have characters and situations that stay with me long after I've put the book down. You might laugh, but books like Stephanie Plum, Harry Potter, and The Bourne Identity, weren't written to beat the reader round the head with a specific message. They were written because the author had a story they wanted to tell. I think if you start to write a story with only the express intent to deliver a specific message, or make a point, then you have failed as a fiction writer. Stories are first and foremost, stories. They are there to entertain us. If they happen to deliver an interesting message or perspective on the world at the same time, that can be very good as well. However the most successful stories that do that, are the one's that have done it perhaps subconsciously. Story should always come first, in fiction. Characters and plot, will always come first for me. Once I've got them, then I can start to think about what they're going to do and say. That's when they start moving me around, and that's when something related to the world we live in, will usually emerge. But I don't think about it consciously. It's hard to explain, but I hope you know what I mean.

In any case, your remarks and comments have helped me to make this story stronger, so thank you. I think I'll leave it for a little while, and then come back to it in a few days. I might see something more!

MF at 16:05 on 16 November 2006  Report this post
Hi again Johnny,

I'm absolutely with you that character should come first - this is why the cliches that Becca initially mentioned are a problem. They distance the reader from the character, and make it more difficult to imagine a vivid, living person facing such a bizarre situation. So the plot twists lose their efficacy, and what you've got is a fairly "mundane" horror story. In this sense, I'd argue that Harry Potter is really rather derivative (I know I'm probably opening a can of worms here - for which apologies) in the sense that it's a tried and tested formula about good beating evil, in the guise of a pretty conventional orphan-hero combatting one-dimentional "bad guys". It may be a riveting read in the way that a comic book is - as in, "what happens next?" - but it's not great literature. If you want to stretch yourself as a writer, I think (and again, this is only my opinion) that you need to reach for something more than "will this entertain someone who picks it up in the doctor's waiting room?" That's not to sound patronizing or to downplay the worth of HP, or Reader's Digest etc. in their own right; but developing your skills as a writer should be about more than just meeting that status quo.

I definitely don't think that you need to have a message in mind as you're writing; writers who do risk sounding preachy or contrived, and I think that you're right to let the "meaning" come to you as you let the story devlop into itself.

Hope that's helpful,

Becca at 18:20 on 16 November 2006  Report this post
HI John,
I also agree that characters and situations need to stay with you long after you put the book down. I wouldn't laugh at you in the slightest about that idea, but I did smile at the thought of ever going to a Bond film!
Some short stories that really resonated with me recently were written by the poet David Constantine, [Under the Dam and other stories], I wrote a review of the book for WW a while back. His writing and his story ideas are simply beautiful. More crazy and wonderful might be the early short stories of Tom Boyle, who has a very strange middle name that he dropped, Corregessan, or something of the sort. He's an American, and I think he teaches in California, not sure about that, but again a fabulous writer I'd recommend.
It's not that stories always have to have a 'message' in the slightest degree, but I do think any writer needs to know what they are saying in a story, and it is true that the best writing speaks at more than one level. But I do think that 'horror' is the most difficult genre to write in and make something more out of than the 'status quo', - and I do agree with Trilby that that goal is essential for a writer.

Beanie Baby at 14:22 on 22 February 2007  Report this post
Hi John,
I have just come across this as a random read. I don't read a lot of short stories but yours caught my eye from the opening sentence which is always a good start.

Bless your heart for your reactions to Becca's initial response - our stories, after all, are our babies and everyone wants a perfect baby!

I am not going to go through all the points raised other than to say I agree with most of them and I think that a re-draft would certainly improve its chances if you were seriously thinking of entering it for a competition.

Criticim is never easy to take no matter how well intentioned it is, but it often does lead to a better finished product so it is always worth considering - once the hurt has worn off a bit.

The only thing I would say is that I knew from the moment the baby son was introduced, that he would be the ultimate price our leading lady had to pay in her desire to have her husband back.

I love a good scare and the atmospheric passages certainly did that so all is not lost.

And don't forget these are only my observations - nothing is set in stone.


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