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First pages

Other people might tell you they grew up in a haunted house. Maybe it’s a metaphor: haunted by alcohol or drug addiction or abusive parents. Or secrets that eat away at the whole family, growing stronger and stronger, the longer they remain unspoken.

That’s a kind of haunting, I guess.

Maybe somebody will make claims about the supernatural. A dead relative or former tenant rattles chains in the night, passes through walls, moans into the ears of people just drifting off to sleep.

But I’m not talking about metaphor, or some vague supernatural presence.

I’m talking about real ghosts and monsters.

You know: the kinds in the movies.

#

If you saw Budget Studios’ The Stone Stairway, you’ll understand what I mean.

I’ve seen that stairway. Walked on it myself. They filmed the movie in Melissa Preston’s house.

They filmed all the movies in my friend Melissa Preston’s house.

 

#

The Animator

 

Today I’m an animator. I’m in tenth grade, bored out of my mind. The teacher is droning on about a book I haven’t read, something called Green Mansions. To keep myself amused, I’ve decided to animate the items on my desk. I push the pencil slightly, remove my hand from view, then imagine the quick click of a camera shutter. I push the pencil again, another imaginary click, and the frame of film advances. The teacher says something about the color green and nature, and a few other students jot down notes. They’re doing something useful with their pens and pencils, and will earn a higher score on the test, so perhaps I should follow their example. But, if projected on a screen at 32 frames a second, my animated pencil would arc across the desk like a thrown javelin.

I don’t know if the other kids have read Green Mansions, but at least they’re familiar with the concepts from previous lectures. Civilization vs. nature, the exotic “other,” symbolism of the color green—even the teacher seems bored with the obviousness of that last point. It’s still mostly confusing to me, since I joined the class mid-book.

I’ve joined life already in-progress, which is a familiar feeling. I’m always having to catch up.

My animated pencil finishes its arc. There’s still a half an hour remaining in class.

I start to unravel a paper clip. A spiral, then straightened into a small metal snake. My movements are meticulous. I decide that I’ve studied the movements of different animals, to add realism to my animated effects. If I could afford a super-8 camera with a single-frame attachment, if I had skill with constructing a ball-and-socket armature, adding latex muscles and skin over it—if only I had talent as an artist—I know I could make an interesting film. Award-winning, maybe.

My seat neighbor, Geoff, reaches across the aisle and grabs the paperclip from my desk. He doesn’t really understand the game I was playing, the little mental exercise that was maybe connected to some childish filmmaker dream of mine. And it’s not like he’s ruined an actual film. But he knows he’s taunting me.

He holds the bent clip just out of my reach, knowing I’m not likely to lunge across the desk at him. He bends the metal back and forth, back and forth. Smiles.

#

On the bus ride home, some of the kids start picking on Geoff. He’d missed an easy catch during recess, made a stupid joke about “blue genes” in Biology—that kind of thing—and the natural high school progression leads them to insult his crooked teeth and the pimples on his forehead.

For once it isn’t me under the microscope of cruelty, and it seems like a good moment where I might join in. I plan to score a few choice digs, ingratiate myself with the pack. Besides, I’m still a bit miffed at Geoff’s interference during English class, and doubly annoyed he sat behind me on the bus, after assigned desks at school had already made me weary of his company.

So I swing my knees into the aisle and twist around, checking for physical flaws his friends have neglected. Geoff is taking the jibes in stride, nodding his head and shooting back comebacks—No I’m not. Sounds like you’re describing yourself—all so ineffective they merely stir up laughter and further taunts from nearby rows, Geoff half-laughing along with them.

Then I discover my opening shot. Can’t believe I haven’t noticed this particular detail before, and that his long-time friends had steered clear of it. “His eye,” I say. “The right one seems glazed over and doesn’t follow the left. Is he, like, drunk? Or half asleep?”

All laughter stops. I’d been poised to expect agreement—somebody else piling on about big ears, at the very least. Our section of the bus grows silent. The driver edges a little close to the curb on Dennison and the wheel goes up on one side, but everyone manages to resist making a snide comment about his steering.

Kevin, who’s made probably the meanest jokes about Geoff, acts like I’m the biggest jerk on the bus. “How could you be so stupid, Brendan?”

Until now, these other kids have barely registered my presence. In the half week at my new school I’d deliberately stayed quiet, to avoid exactly the kind of attention they’d been giving Geoff earlier.

They give it to me now. Some stocky kid I didn’t even know mimics my squeaky voice, and his friend says I walk funny; Greta, who until now seemed sweet-natured, points out that I’ve worn the same plaid shirt two days in a row, and it probably smells.

As if I’d have known the story about Geoff’s accident, how the whole school responded two years ago after his eye infection took a turn for the worse, each grade making a card for him, adding signatures and jokes and well wishes to cheer him up in the hospital. How, for two years, nobody ever mentioned it, hoping to preserve an illusion that his glass eye was indistinguishable from the other one.

I know I wasn’t blameless here: joining in with the taunts of a crowd isn’t an admirable way to introduce yourself. But honestly I hadn’t intended anything worse than what my peers were already doing. Why would I intentionally jab at some kid’s forbidden sore spot, with months of agonizing history behind it? Yet all their comments were deemed innocent, while mine was mean-spirited and heartless.

Damned if I hadn’t made a similar gaffe at my previous school. I’d joined there mid-year as well, and the assistant principal gave me a poorly mimeographed map, and assigned me to a “buddy” who would escort me to my classes the first day. Well, Buddy made himself scarce once we’d left the office, then kids spilled out of open classrooms, and all the halls looked the same. I turned the map 90 degrees, then 90 more, trying to figure out which way was north and what it meant that my locker was located on “Jefferson” corner, and I was nervous I’d be late to class and make a horrible first impression, all out of breath when I finally reached where my locker was supposed to be. Some lanky girl stood in front of it, her back to me, and I said Excuse Me, polite as can be, and she’s a statue, I repeated myself and got the same reaction until I finally shouted, What, are you deaf?

And of course, she was. Turned out she didn’t notice my rudeness, but everybody else in that crowded hall did, and they all stepped back, prepared to avoid me for the rest of the day, the rest of the school year.

A moment like that feels like some kind of cosmic conspiracy. Like that deaf girl was placed there by a cruel universe, at that specific moment, just to humiliate me.

Different school, same story. I’d tried to maintain perfect behavior from the start, but in one moment of weakness on the bus—not even meaning anything—I end up making the worst possible comment. A handful of people are disgusted with me, and I know they’ll share the story the next day, and it will spread faster than an announcement over the morning intercom. New Kid will be branded an insensitive jerk, before anybody ever gets the chance to know me.

#

The Twisted Face

 

Today I’m the Twisted Face of Edison High. I walk through the crowded hallway, and two tenth grade girls stand in front of the trophy case and share a joke. They are both laughing, and their smiles make them beautiful. The shorter girl’s attention flutters away from her friend, lands on me as I pass, and my hideous presence is enough to freeze her smile then contort it into an awful grimace.

Her friend turns as well, curious what could have produced such a visceral reaction. She soon regrets her curiosity. Her hand raises to cover her mouth, stifling a scream.

Neither of them has ever seen a face as deformed as mine.

They will never get used to it. I will always horrify them.

#

I’m remembering a movie I watched with my Dad when I was younger—an early production by Budget Studios with the evocative title, The Twisted Face. It’s filmed in black and white, with lots of shadows to cover flaws in the cheap production. The first half of the movie contains scenes filmed from an unusual perspective, as if through the eyes of the presumed killer. You see his hands struggle with a match then light a cigarette, and next smoke billows from the bottom of the frame. You see him open a desk drawer to pull out a large jagged knife. He lifts the knife and twists the blade, catching the light. A pair of superimposed eyes, simulating a reflection, appear in the gleaming metal.

You see him walk a night-shrouded street, heavy boots scraping along the pavement. A woman leans against a streetlamp, calls to him for a match, but the camera starts to pull back. C’mon, promise I won’t bite, the woman says, and he steps reluctantly toward her, head down, boots entering the circle of light on the sidewalk. The camera tilts up at her, and she finally sees him. Oh God, the Twisted Face! she screams, and then rough hands reach from the sides of the frame to strangle her.

Daytime scenes follow a police investigation, with other night-walking scenes interspersed as the investigation drags on. In a repeating pattern, the audience sees through the walker’s eyes; whenever he stumbles across other people, they react with disgust and fear, and strangling hands reach forward.

A change occurs halfway through the film, when a sequence from the killer’s point of view enters the day-lit police station. A woman in the waiting area screams, while a father covers his daughter’s eyes. The desk clerk grimaces and accidently knocks over a coffee cup. The camera moves into the main station area, where an officer’s mouth drops open, cigarette still dangling from the corner. Nobody stops the visitor as the camera heads straight to the Police Chief’s office, then a hand comes from the right side and forces the door inward.

The Chief is the only one who doesn’t register surprise, though it’s clear he struggles to maintain a calm exterior. “Have a seat.”

“I understand you’ve been looking for me,” the visitor says.

Finally the point-of-view breaks. First the Chief’s neutral face from the side, then a pan to the guest chair.

The monster sits there. We finally see the monster with the twisted face.

The title’s description is accurate. The man’s head sits large on his shoulders. A growth on his lower jaw twists the orientation of his lips so that his mouth is nearly vertical. More growths balloon his cheeks, the nose is bent crooked, and one eye peers through a bruised donut of flesh. The forehead juts out on one side, forming a horn-like point.

In the bright lights of the office, the facial deformities are shockingly realistic.

They should be, since the actor isn’t wearing a mask.

Bud “Budget” Preston, the producer, director and writer for most Budget Studio productions, made the controversial decision to cast Thomas Hendricks, an actor who suffered in real life from acromegaly—the same affliction made famous by The Elephant Man. Large cysts form on the skin, mutating the face, limbs and body. The growths sometimes press into the skeleton, twisting it into a grotesque posture. In fatal instances, these same growths can swell to crush internal organs.

Although Hendricks didn’t appear to have skeletal deformities, his facial distortions were a perfect fit for the horror-mystery genre—and of course, saved Budget Studios the expense of creating convincing monster makeup. The film company’s moniker doesn’t specify high or low budget productions, but it’s clear from even a cursory screening that the second adjective applies.

In some cases, however, a low budget contributes to a film’s ambiance. The night scenes of The Twisted Face have a washed-out, shadowy effect that mimics documentary realism. In addition to the shock-value of Hendricks’ appearance, the actor’s untrained performance manages to earn the viewer’s sympathy.

His character—spoiler alert—turns out not to be the killer. Instead, he cooperates with the investigation, and the police eventually capture a man who has been wearing a cheap fright mask that mimics Hendricks’ natural deformities. At the end of the film, Hendricks has a wonderful bit of dialogue as he bids farewell to the team of police officers.

“You think it must be awful to be me. Everywhere I look, I see people recoil in horror. You’d never trade places with me.”

There’s no music on the soundtrack as the actor struggles to force the scripted words through his twisted mouth. His puffed eye squints in suppressed rage.

“It’s actually not so bad,” he says. “My world has no illusions. When people react to me, I see their real faces.”

The film ends with a montage of faces from earlier in the movie, each fading into the next, all of them twisted.

 

#

The memory of this film provides a convenient escape during the school day. The other students avoid me, whisper behind my back. Perhaps the fault lies in the way they perceive me—rushing to condemn a single unthinking comment, as if it represents the inner workings of an evil mind.

I’m the New Kid, and they should be making an extra effort to welcome me. They should at least give me the benefit of the doubt.

My innocent-victim status is a little harder to sustain during English class. Geoff has his usual assigned desk beside mine, and at first I’m happy that he’s leaving me alone for a change. I move stuff around my desk as much as I want, sketch pictures in the margins of my notebook, and he keeps to himself. Meanwhile, Mr. Camen draws a Venn Diagram on the board, trying to make some point about intersecting cultures in a novel few of us care about.

Then I notice Geoff’s hand moves absently to his face, fingertips hovering near the eye I’d unwittingly mocked. I’m fairly certain I’ve not previously seen him make this kind of insecure gesture. He touches the glass eye as if worried it will fall out, or attempts a subtle movement to shift the eye’s gaze to match its functioning partner. At another point, his fingers reach higher. They pinch a strand of hair, clipped too short to hang past his brow, but he pulls the strand anyway, hoping it would cover his false eye.

I did this to him. He’d learned to accept his situation, and I’d made the injury fresh.

 #

In art class most students are involved in group projects that began before my mid-trimester enrollment. In practice, group work usually means that one or two people finish the bulk of any project while the others talk or wander the room, occasionally joining in to paint a small section of canvas or glue some clip-out letters to a mural. Group-work students sit on stools around large tables, similar to the lab islands in science class. A few students sit at isolated desks, permitted to draw independently in their sketchbooks. That’s what I’ve been doing.

I’m not very good. I mostly trace images from magazines, then add some half-hearted shading effects to give Mrs. Brinkton something she can pretend to praise. As teachers go, she’s got a pretty good quality: when she’s helping one student or group, her full attention stays focused on that specific project, oblivious to the rest of us. We can do whatever we want.

I’m near the side wall, keeping my distance from other kids as if it’s my choice. I thumb through an issue of People magazine to find other subjects to trace, while the teacher gives a color-wheel lecture to the painting group across the room. The students who already understand these concepts listen carefully; the others ignore her.

A folded scrap of blue construction paper drops into my open magazine. I didn’t see who dropped the note, but I’m pretty sure the student is nearby.

Should I turn around? Perhaps a whole gang of students stands behind me, waiting to watch me read the note. The note might tell me I’m a horrible person. It might contain a threat. Better watch your back, New Kid. Or, complete with grammatical error: Meet us after school, behind the north field. Your dead.

The teacher stands too far away. She waves her brush in the air as if conducting a delicate symphony.

My new enemies need not wait until after school. They could tear into me right now with items from the unsupervised supply cabinet: X-acto knives, clay-carving tools, taut pieces of wire.

I lift the folded paper. Flip it open with one hand.

Inside, white chalk marks form thick capital letters on the blue page.

DON’T SAY ANYTHING on one side of the fold.

DO NOT REACT on the facing page.

I feel a tap on my shoulder, and turn slightly in my chair.

A fist raises into view.

But it’s a delicate fist, not aimed toward me in a punch. The ring finger and thumb are curled to enclose a round, glistening object.

It stares at me.

#

My first thought is: I recognize that eye.

Not how unusual it was for an eye to appear in someone’s fist. Not relief that the gesture was too bizarre to be a threat. None of that. Just: I recognize that eye. Shortly followed by: Where have I seen it before?

Geoff’s sitting with the mural group by the window. They’re goofing around, but nobody nearby seems shocked enough to indicate one of Geoff’s eye sockets is empty. Perhaps he has a spare. It’s rolled out of his pocket across the floor, and some polite girl has tapped me on the shoulder.

Excuse me. Did you drop this?

Then I consider the way the girl’s forefinger and thumb encircle the eye, similar to the bruised donut of flesh around Hendricks’ squinting eye in The Twisted Face. That movie has been on my mind today, which explains why I make the connection, but that solution is hardly possible. Thomas Hendricks was a real person, probably long dead, and this girl’s fist couldn’t be holding a real eye.

And yet, I feel closer to the truth.

It’s not a real eye, so it’s something the girl must have made from art-room supplies. White clay shaped into a ball, dried then painted with pupil and iris and blood vessels, a coating of clear glaze overtop to make it shine.

Yet that explanation doesn’t answer why I recognized the eye. And the paint is faded in spots, like a book cover fades if left in sunlight. Some of the varnish on the surface has flaked off over the years.

It’s old.

I realize my connection to The Twisted Face wasn’t as far off-base as I thought. A few years later. A different movie.

Different monster.

One of the eyes of The Lake Monster.

#

“Took you long enough.”

Her lips curl in a slightly lop-sided smile. The girl lets her hand drop to the side, palming the eye like in a magic trick. She’s short and thin, with frizzy hair that hangs to her shoulders. Her skin is pale; her eyes are an unremarkable brown. I’ve seen her before, but never really noticed her. I don’t recall her name.

“I know I told you not to react, but it’s like you were frozen.”

“How did you…?”

I didn’t know how to finish the sentence. How did she get that item? How did she find me, the exact person who’d know what it was?

An actual prop from a Budget Studios monster movie.

#

I’ve watched this one with my Dad, too. The Lake Monster is actually the first Budget film I saw with him, back when I was eight years old. He turned the channel after I complained I’d already seen the Johnny Quest episode. Dad clicked through a religious program, then local news, and settled on Channel 20’s weekend movie slot.

On the fuzzy UHF image, two hands part the branches of a tree. The hands are as green as the leaves, and covered with scales.

When the monster walks into the spotlight, it’s wearing a sports coat and trousers—a typical Budget concession, to avoid the need for a full-body costume. Mask over the head, two gloves for the webbed hands, flippers for the feet.

Other movie fans might disagree, but I find the cheaper costume more effective than the elaborate, head-to-toe rubber suit Ben Chapman wore in Universal’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Sure, the make-up guys at Universal were master craftsmen, and they created an iconic, classic monster. But the incongruity of the human clothes and the monster elements in Budget’s version strikes me as a little more unnerving. Their Lake Monster wears clothes you’d see on people in an office building or shopping mall, or on the sidewalk outside your suburban home. A hideous scale-covered head sprouting from the collar of a J C Penney workshirt creates its own brand of uncanny shiver.

The mask itself was fairly gruesome, with a stretched fish-frown mouth, and gill flaps at the neck. A string of tentacles hangs like dreadlocks from the scalp. The eyes were the most startling feature. Instead of cutouts for the actor to look through, this mask had bug-eyes attached to the deep sockets. The eyes looked human, as if they’d been plucked from a man’s face to dangle glistening from the mask—a spherical, unblinking horror.

Mom walked into our rec room during one of the scare scenes. A woman sits reading in a chair, and she thinks her husband stands behind her. The camera pans up to reveal The Lake Monster. The tentacles on his head shake, and the eyes bobble as well. “Oh, turn that off, Scott. He’ll have nightmares for weeks.”

“Oh, he’s okay. Aren’t you, kiddo?”

I nod agreement, and the woman on the television screams.

My overprotective mother turned out to be right—those eyes, especially, those eyes!—but this was an important bonding moment between father and son. He sided with me, assumed I was mature enough to handle new experiences. Another kid might accompany Dad on a weekend fishing trip as a rite of passage. My Dad and I watched a fish-monster on Saturday-afternoon TV.

Maybe that’s why I like Budget’s monster better than Universal’s. I guess a sentimental reason is as good as any.

“That was kind of fun, wasn’t it?” my Dad said once the movie ended.

And he did a really cool thing after that day, finding a few more Budget films on Betamax video tapes and bringing them home for us. He kept tracking them down, and eventually we had a near-complete set.

Those movies are pretty much my only remaining connection to my Dad.

#

So I ask the girl, “Can I see it again?”

There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the real thing—a forgotten piece of film history.

“Not here,” she says. Her cupped hand stays at her side. “Maybe later.”

I glance around the room, locate the empty desk which is likely her usual spot. Another sketchbook misfit, like me. I’d never bothered to notice her.

“I’m Brendan,” I said.

“I know.” She doesn’t lift her hand to shake, considering it has an eye in it. She doesn’t volunteer her name, either, and I feel rude for not knowing it. I wish she’d signed her note. If I follow her to her desk, she might have written her name on a backpack or on the upper corner of a notebook.

“Why did you bring that…?

On the bus yesterday. That wasn’t fair the way people turned on you.

I search my memory, but can’t recall where she’d been seated.

All that fuss over Geoff’s eye,” she says. We all know about it. It’s not like losing it made him into a better person.” She gave me that half-smile again. I just thought it might be funny to show you.

Yes, funny—in an odd way. I smiled back, to acknowledge the joke. Then I attempted an innocent observation: You know what it kind of looks like, right? From a movie?

Of course. I saw one of your sketches. And in your lab notebook yesterday, you’d written a few of the names in the margins. Titles, I mean. Of my father’s films.

#

I’m still the Twisted Face of Edison High, an outcast among my peers. Perhaps my infamy will eventually slip away—a repulsive mask pulled off my head, revealing a normal kid, worthy of anyone’s friendship. For now the gossip is still fresh, and the other tenth graders mostly recoil from my presence.

But now I have an ally. I’ve learned her name is Melissa.

Can it really be Melissa Preston, daughter of the man who created Budget Studios? The idea seems impossible.

Melissa has boarded the crowded bus before me, and there’s no room beside her at the back. I end up sitting near the front, among a clump of twelfth-graders. During the monotonous ride home, I nod at her reflection in the driver’s giant rear-view mirror, but she does not seem to respond. I wonder which of the stops will be hers, which of us might get off the bus first.

The bus pauses at the edge of a field, and I see her reflection stand. Melissa and two other kids walk down the aisle toward the doors beside the driver. As she passes me, her hand lifts in a shy wave.

Judging from the intersection, I try to calculate how far Melissa’s home is from mine.

She’s invited me to visit sometime soon. I hope she means tomorrow.

#

The Fan

 

Today I am a Fan. For once, that status is enough. I don’t dream of becoming a special effects artist, a potential writer or director, a child star growing into a handsome matinee idol. I am simply someone who appreciates movies. I watch them, memorize my favorite lines and images. I am hoping to visit the home of my new friend, Melissa Preston, who just happens to be the daughter of my all-time favorite filmmaker. If I’m lucky, she might be able to locate a few other movie props to show me.

I won’t meet the director himself. Like me, Melissa lives in a single-parent household. Her father died a few years ago, during a location shoot for his final, unreleased film.

I can’t believe how lucky I am to have ended up in this town. And after I’d been so angry with my mother, whose government job requires us to move frequently. Typically, I’d join a school community long enough to make a lousy first impression, and never have enough time to recover and make lasting friends. This latest move brought us to Graysonville, Alabama, a place I’d never heard of. I’d dreaded it, complained in advance about this small southern town in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but a large, nearby Army base to recommend it. And then it turned out to be the town where Budget Studios got its start.

Why wasn’t that little detail listed on the “Moving Packet” my mother’s Pittsburgh boss had provided with her other reassignment papers? Why wasn’t there a billboard at the town entrance with the Lake Monster shaking his tentacle-dreadlocks at visitors? Alongside town square statues of Civil War heroes with unlikely names such as Bibb Graves or the Mighty Pelham, there should stand a statue of Thomas Hendricks from The Twisted Face—and a plaque beneath to commemorate his immortal screen words: “My world has no illusions. When people react to me, I see their real faces.”

Instead, I had to find out by accident. If Melissa hadn’t spoken to me, I might never have known. Her last name was common enough. I never would have suspected she’d be related to that Preston.

I have a momentary panic when I get home from school. The way she joked with me, the half smile and the teasing air of mystery. Perhaps Melissa was in league with the other kids. Once again, I’m the victim of some elaborate cosmic hoax.

I rush upstairs and pull the box of videos from under my bed. The Sony Betamax format was discontinued in favor of larger, more prevalent VHS tapes, and we no longer had a machine that would play them. I couldn’t watch the videotapes, but I kept them anyway—fond memories of the films themselves, and of watching them with my Dad while he was still around. The cardboard sleeves to the tapes were mostly in rough shape: faded, with bent corners; some of them with “Used” stickers or other tags obscuring part of an image or the synopsis on the back. I had most of the descriptions memorized, though, and let my imagination supply any missing words.

I lift the tape for The Space Visitor, since that was a rare one my Dad had found in “new” condition. The shrinkwrap is intact, except for a cut we’d made at the bottom to allow removal of the video cassette. The picture on the front displays a silver spaceship over a field, with a wide beam spreading out from the undercarriage. At ground level, the Visitor appears in the beam’s spotlight, transported to Earth. The alien figure stands in silhouette, a large yellow question mark over his vaguely humanoid torso. The lettering at the top turns the film’s title into a question: Who is…The Space Visitor?

I flip to the other side, with four color stills from the movie—none of them showing the Visitor, but a cool flying saucer image in one, and a car in the process of being disintegrated. Beneath appears the cast list, then the crew, ending with the usual “Produced, Written and Directed by Bud ‘Budget’ Preston.” The release year (1962) and running time (84 min). All of these details I’ve pretty much memorized, and of course a familiar logo, the Budget Studios name superimposed over a dollar sign.

Beneath that logo, in small print I’d never paid any attention to: Distributed from Graysonville, AL.

I breathe a sigh of relief. Melissa Preston isn’t playing a cruel trick on me. She really was telling the truth.

#

When Mom arrives home from work later that evening, she’s immediately suspicious when I ask about her day. Guess I deserve that, since any other time I’d barely expressed an interest. And there I am, meeting her at the front door, opening the hall closet to help her hang up her jacket.

“Still getting used to things.” She shrugs out of her jacket and takes the hanger I offer. “It’s a big change, the way they work here.”

“But you like it?”

“Oh, honey.” She puts away her jacket then closes the closet door. “Do we have to start this again? You need to give this place a chance. If you’re hoping I’m going to hate my job so we’ll move somewhere else, that’s not going to happen.”

“That’s not what I meant. I…”

Let me guess: something happened at school.” Her shoulders slump. She’s been waiting for this conversation, dreading it. Couldn’t we get through your first week without a call from the Principal, or some teacher note I have to sign?

“Nothing bad happened at school.” Not technically a lie, since my problems began on the bus ride. “I was just thinking that my bedroom here is a little bigger, and school seems kind of easier. It’s possible, maybe, that…” I smile, hoping it would serve as partial apology for all the complaining I’d piled on the past few weeks. “that I don’t hate it here as much as I thought I would.

“Well, that’s a switch.”

“So maybe, if your job’s okay, we might stick around longer than usual.”

Her expression falls, and I think she’s going to get angry again. Instead, she gives me a hug. “I’m sorry we’ve had to move around so often, Brendan. I know it’s been tough on you.” She pulls back from the hug, then lays her palm gently against the side of my head. “I have to follow where we can get government contracts. That’s my job. You understand, right?”

“Yeah. I know it’s not your fault.” I twist away from her hand, the way any teenager doesn’t want his Mom treating him like a baby. But I also let some bitterness slip into my voice. An undercurrant saying, Try, won’t you? This one time, try to keep us in the same town for a little while.

She heads toward the kitchen to pour a glass of Diet Rite. I follow, since I’ve already put two Swanson dinners in the oven for us. Practically cooking for her, so another suspicious instance of good behavior.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Two-time Bram Stoker Award-winner NORMAN PRENTISS is the author of ODD ADVENTURES WITH YOUR OTHER FATHER. Other publications include INVISIBLE FENCES, THE BOOK OF BABY NAMES, THE FLESHLESS MAN, FOUR LEGS IN THE MORNING, THE HALLOWEEN CHILDREN (written with Brian James Freeman) and THE NARRATOR (with Michael McBride). Visit him online at www.normanprentiss.com

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
A.
This novel was inspired by my life-long love of movies, particularly classic horror films and low budget shockers. I used to be that awkward kid who knew lots about movie trivia and movie fandom, but not so much about real-life relationships. The book's main character has a similar awkwardness.
Q. What was the hardest part of writing this book?
A.
The hardest part was balancing Brendan's story with the movies he loves and quotes from. I had to give the flavor of the Bud Preston movies, without letting them take over the book. As a compromise, I'm editing tie-in "novelizations" of some Budget Studio films, to appear alongside this novel.
Q. Where can readers find out more about you?
A.
Please visit my website, www.normanprentiss.com. For folks who sign up for my newsletter, I've offered free story collections in the past, and plan to provide free tie-in stories to LIFE IN A HAUNTED HOUSE (including THE DUNGEON OF COUNT VERLOCK, THE LAKE MONSTER, and THE SPACE VISITOR).

Next in:
Fantasy
The Secret of Blackthorn Manor
Who is haunting Blackthorn Manor?
Riddles of the Regent
Three heroes work expose a nefarious cult.
All The Heroes Are Dead
Boy attempts revenge on powerful villain.