Prompt: Write a story entitled “Treacle” where, ironically, the story’s pacing is quite the opposite – no backstory, no pondering protagonist, no narrator interjections – it howls along, leaving the reader gripped with anticipation to the big question: Why the hell is this story entitled “Treacle”?
By Connie Phlipot
She cut through her days, scissors and knives flashing, the edge of a yardstick against a sheet of paper. Rip. Things to accomplish, to achieve before night closed the case for another day.
Stockings straightened, ponytail tightened, shoes polished, briefcase full of papers already organized to lay out on her desk to begin work. Her shoes clicked with even steps down the sidewalk. A metronome keeping time to her mind sorting out the details of the first task of the day.
“Hello, Hello,” her colleagues chirped. “Coffee’s ready.” Kathleen poured a cup with one hand as she removed her coat with the other. Put a creamer in it with one freed hand, turned on the computer with the other.
A house to flip. In a previously good neighborhood, starting to go soft around the edges now that so many places were empty. Trash filling up in yards, windows broken by neighborhood hooligans or heavy autumn winds.
#1. Contact waste management services.
Kathleen pulled photos out of the file. The house was a four-bedroom, story-and-a half, imitation mansion with fake Doric columns. The windows and steps looked intact, but the interior photos were fuzzy.
#2. Send photographer over to house to re-take photos.
Good layout, large kitchen, modern appliances.
#3. Technician to check appliances, drains, faucets.
Two average sized bedrooms, one small suitable for nursery or study, and a large master suite on the second floor.
#4 Check comps and latest living survey. Is the grand MB still in vogue? Ditto for open kitchen/living room arrangement.
Kathleen opened the loan history file. A young couple bought it ten years ago, or more accurately, had borrowed way beyond their means to live in it a few years before the market collapsed and interest rate payments ballooned. Too bad, how could people be so stupid. Probably they believed in fairy tales and miracle foods, as well. Kathleen’s company had snapped it up after foreclosure, then waited until the economy improved before upgrading it and putting on the market.
#5 Procurement department to list in detail necessary repairs and prepare itemized budget.
Kathleen dispatched the instructions to the appropriate departments, washed out her coffee cup and ordered a cab. Before finalizing the flip plan, she always insisted on visiting the house herself. Alone. As good as all her colleagues were, no one had her eye for detail. And it was those small, unnoticed deficiencies that could sink even the most attractive property.
The cab driver punched in the address in his GPS. “Can’t seem to find the address, ma’am.”
“What do you mean? It’s in the Brambleshire neighborhood just outside of Creekside Estates.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll get as close as possible, then we can ask someone.”
Ah, for the days of drivers who knew the town like their own backyards. Of course, the sprouting up of new neighborhoods in the early aughts had not made navigation easy, even for the experienced drivers.
Kathleen studied the photographs again. Good thing she had ordered new ones. The living room shot was not only fuzzy, the wall opposite the fireplace was obscured by a blocky shadow. Could be covering up water damage.
“Here we are in Brambleshire, Ma’am. Can you spell the name of the street name for me?”
“W-Y-E-T-H. Wyeth. Number 49. Should be at the end of a cul-de-sac.”
“Oh, never mind. Just find the house.”
They rode up and down the streets. From Abshire to Canondale to Foxgrove to Zenith. No Wyeth.
“Young man,” the driver stopped a boy, his jeans riding so low on his hips, he tripped over the pants legs with each step. “You know where Wyeth street is?”
The boy pulled up his pants. “Well, maybe, it’s the next street. Over there,” he pointed, letting the jeans drop far below the waist of his underpants.
They’d been riding an hour. Kathleen had another appointment in 15 minutes. Her fingers tripping over the keys, she texted her assistant to re-schedule.
The phone froze. They were entering a narrow tunnel.
“Where are we going?”
“Seems this Wyeth road is on the other side of the expressway.”
“I remember, now. When they built Brambleshire, they miscalculated the acreage and because of the highway, they couldn’t buy adjacent land. And I guess they’d already gotten the financing based on all the streets — A to Z — being built.”
“And how far away is that?”
“In the next county.”
“You are kidding me, right?” Kathleen loosened her ponytail. “Or are you doing this to charge me an extra fare?”
“Oh, no, Ma’am. I got a dozen fares just waitin’ for me to pick them up.”
They drove along a tree-lined lane, more slowly than Kathleen had ever moved in a car.
“See, there it is.” One street in the middle of a hay-field, large single family homes, in the distinctive, pretentious style of the first decade of the century with the porches just slightly too small to seat on comfortably, pillars too thin to actually be holding up the porticos, gleaming cornices uncomfortably framing windows. And there at the end of the dead-end street, number 49, just as described in her file.
“Normally, I’d suggest you come back in a hour, but given how far away we are, maybe you better just wait.”
“Sure, but I keep the meter running.”
“Of course, just make sure you give me the receipt.”
Quiet, country atmosphere, only minutes from the city, good place for children. Kathleen ticked off the selling points. She could make this weird turn of events to her advantage. First, she toured the house from the outside, searching for signs of animal and insect infestations. God knows out here there could be groundhogs living under the porch, squirrels in the attics, whatever else lurked in these parts. Raccoons? But no sign of any hooliganism from the human or the animal world. Another plus to this location — far from the urban riffraff like that kid with his pants falling down. She took her checklist from her briefcase, even though she had memorized it long ago. Drainage, roof, downspouts, sink holes… all checked out.
The key turned easily, no sign of any attempts at forced entry. Bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen. Perfect condition. Kathleen couldn’t remember when a foreclosed house looked so good. Most people knowing they were going to lose their house quit caring for it — out of spite or just carelessness. In fact, #49 didn’t even have that dusty, faded look that even the best places had when they been empty for years. It was almost as if someone had been living here and taking excellent care.
No, that was impossible.
Kathleen went back into the living room to study it more closely. So impressed with the house, she had almost forgotten about the shadowy image in the photograph. Nothing out of the ordinary on that wall. Maybe it was visible only at a certain angle. Keeping her eyes focused on the spot in the photograph, she backed across the room away from the wall. Her heel caught on the transition moulding, throwing her backward onto her bottom and her head banging against the door.
Blackness began to close in on her until she took a deep breath. A knob had risen instantly on the back of her head, but there was no blood. Her back hurt too much to enable her to lift herself to a sitting position, so she rolled onto one side, then scooted over to the wall. She managed to stand up by shimmying up the wall.
Then she saw the shadow on the opposite wall. It was the shape of a young woman, a girl really. Her lower back stabbing her with pain, Kathleen tried to look behind her to see who might be casting the shadow. There was no one else in the room. The head injury, definitely the head injury, was making her see things. She would just rest a minute; the image would be gone and then she’d call the driver.
The shadow was unwavering. Kathleen rubbed her eyes and looked at it more closely. It was a bit like looking at an old photograph of herself. One of those early color prints that faded in a few decades. A girl of twelve or thirteen. Shy, but fiercely ambitious.
The living room had taken on a sweet, fragrance, like molasses or honey. A childhood smell of summertime, of cookies and slowness. Of having all the time in the world. Treacle. Kathleen sat back down on the floor and stared at the memory of herself.
Sunday Writers' Club Member
Connie draws upon her experiences as a former U.S. diplomat in her short stories, flash fiction and creative non-fiction. Her novel-in-progress is loosely based on her grandparents’ lives as Belarusan immigrants in the coal mining community of early 20th century America.