Monday, September 26, 2016

Return to Musty Manor

by Shari Randall

So, the real estate gods did not smile on us. The new house we wanted to buy went to another lucky couple. Note to self: It’s not a good idea to try to purchase a new home when you are on vacation on the other side of the Pacific Ocean from said house.

But the dear old beach cottage we’ve rented for the past year was available, so we’re back at Musty Manor. The grand old girl, built in 1915, a gorgeous money pit, didn’t sell over the summer. No complaints from me. Well, I could complain about the 50s era kitchen, the wonky doors, the peeling lead paint, and yes, the seaside aroma, but then I look out the front window and forget everything but the sailboats and the sunlight sparkling on the water.

Peace, thy name is Musty Manor.

Except for last night.

It’s been an unusually warm September, so we had the bedroom windows open. The crickets were slightly less annoying, winding down and packing up like the summer people who’ve already gone back home. The whistle buoy off Noank, which makes a sound less like a whistle and more like a husky moo, was doing its job, every ten seconds. Every. Bloody. Ten. Seconds. Just when I was considering the trade off of closed window vs. no whistle buoy, a different sound muscled in the window.

Shouting. Two voices, hoarse, words indistinct. I sat up and parted the blinds and squinted into the darkness. The beach was empty. Occasionally teenaged couples enjoy the moonlight there, but they’re usually quiet. I held my breath, straining to listen. One word became clear: Help.

Police lights - a sight you don't want to see near your house
I got up and threw on my robe. My husband awoke. I called the police. “Yep, we’ve gotten calls.” The dispatcher’s matter of fact tone was reassuring, but the voices outside were frantic. We hurried down to the beach. The shouts came from far out in the dark water, beyond the range of cellphone flashlights. Several neighbors hurried outside and word came down that two guys were heading out in kayaks, following the voices. “They’re coming!” we shouted into the dark. “Make some noise so they can find you.” We waved down the police car. He drove onto the beach, his spotlight cutting a gray slice across the water toward the voices but still we could see nothing.

EMS and a fire truck parked near the beach entrance and we retreated to the sidewalk. A neighbor in bare feet with a cardigan thrown over her pajamas introduced herself. This is how New Englanders meet: emergencies or snowstorms. Her husband launched his paddleboard and stroked out along the spotlight. “Kids,” she muttered. I didn’t think so. It was a school night and the deep voices sounded like they had graduated from high school years earlier.

More and more emergency workers crowded the beach – EMS, firefighters, police, volunteer firefighters. Headlights and blue and red light bars spotlighted backs straight in a poised waiting that was wisdom. The parade rest posture said they’d done this before. Save your energy. The water wasn’t that cold. The police boat would find them.

But then the shouting turned into gasps. I pulled my robe tighter. The green running lights of a police boat moved through the blackness, so dark I couldn’t discern water from sky.

“Make some noise!” The kayakers’ voices carried, along with the sound of splashing, then nothing. The silence and the dark seemed bigger than before, but then the green lights were heading toward the beach. Curt voices keyed on radios. People moved off the beach, making a path.

Two beefy, shirtless men in sopping shorts and sneakers walked under their own steam to the ambulance and settled inside. They moved a bit unsteadily, an unsteadiness that to me seemed the product of substances rather than the elements. Emergency vehicles eased away. Everyone exhaled. Quiet returned. The whistle buoy and crickets got back to work.

Honestly, it was a bit anticlimactic. I returned to my too warm bedroom, wondering how to pump up that beach rescue scene I’d started drafting in my head. Perhaps “a fireball roared off the yacht, the explosion rattling the windows of the sleepy old cottage….”

Has a real life event ever inspired a scene in your writing?


  1. Wow, Shari. What a way to meet the neighbors.

    As you may know, my father's death inspired my story "Stepmonster" in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning, which came out in April. The story is fiction, but certain parts are word for word from real life, unfortunately.

  2. You are indeed correct that New England neighbors meet by way of crisis. It takes that to thaw their natural tendency to mind their own business (or at least appear not to be minding yours).

  3. Oooh, I do hope you'll let us know the story behind the story, when you find out.

    Or maybe it's best left as a mystery!

    My recent short story "Abundance of Patience" in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine was inspired by my anger and sadness caused by layoffs in the newspaper industry. Sometimes you can get satisfaction on the page that you can't get in life.

  4. Shari, this story had me at the edge of my seat. Anything taking place on the water at night is doubly frightening. As Julie said, I hope you'll share the backstory when you discover it.

    There are bits and pieces of real events scattered throughout my writing. Death By Blue Water was inspired by a plastic bag floating out of an underwater wreck that morphed into a hand in my imagination. Zoned for Murder was inspired by real life threats made to the zoning inspector in the tiny town I lived in. As Rosanne Rosanne Adanna would say--it's always something!

    Glad the mishap, whatever it was, turned out well for the parties involved.

  5. I wrote "Once a Kappa" (Southern Writers Magazine) about the New Orleans Red Dress Run, an event my daughter had attended. I interviewed her, read news articles, and scanned hundreds of photos. I borrowed a character from an earlier New Orleans story, invented a protagonist and antagonist, and took off.

    I constantly invent scenarios, people-watch, and eavesdrop on conversations in public places.

  6. Gosh! What an adventure for the middle of the night. Maybe you could turn it into a story about drug smugglers or illegals trying to get into the country--or have them invade your house. The way you wrote the story captured my imagination. Good job.

  7. Shari, what a scary and interesting story. As for me, almost two years ago I found a body hanging in the woods on my morning walk. The man was standing on its toes with arms held out as if for a hug and his head bowed. At first I thought it was a hunter I'd kicked out of my woods the spring before when I found him sitting behind a log dressed in total camouflage with only his blue eyes showing. So I yelled at the man standing there to leave my woods, he was trespassing. And then I noticed the wire and wondered if someone had hung a dummy there to scare me, but he was too real looking. I left the woods and called the deputies from my son's house. He didn't want to go into the woods and get his shoes dirty so my daughter-in-law got him boos (the woods were totally dry) and with several volunteer firefighters, I got to witness a crime scene investigation - sort of. Another deputy called and wanted me to give my statement, but didn't want to get his shoes dirty so I left before I got to see him cut down. Anyway, it was a suicide, but I wrote a short story in which it was a murder made to look like a suicide. And yes, I still walk in my woods almost every morning. I planted daffodils where he died and stop and say a little prayer for him.

  8. Shari, reading this makes me look forward all the more to your upcoming mystery series. I know it will be wonderful. My legislative experiences have contributed to a couple of stories I've written. Fortunately, nothing as scary as you encountered!

  9. Hi Barb, Your story was amazing. Much more intense than this event, that is for sure.

    Hi Jim - I had to chuckle over your comment about the neighbors "not appearing to be minding your business" - this event proved that people were definitely paying attention.

    Hi Julie - I will definitely check out your story. I worked in a newroom many years ago, and it is a setting ripe with dramatic possibilities. I'm planning a visit to the post office today - the postmistress is ground zero for news. I'll keep you posted.

    Hi Kait - You know as a diver how dangerous things can get on the water - and how quickly. Especially when alcohol or substances are involved, as I suspect was the case with these two.

    Hi Margaret - I've definitely heard some interesting scenarios in coffee shops!

    Hi Grace - Great ideas - funny how the writer's mind works, isn't it?

    Hi Gloria - your real life story is so sad. It's wonderful that you made the spot beautiful by planting flowers and praying for him.

    Hi Paula - Thank you so much! I do love a good legal mystery, so I hope you'll put those experiences to good literary use!

  10. Yikes, what an exciting, scary night! The opening and part of the story line of Tagged For Death came from a conversation I heard in the airport. And I can't wait to read what you do with this!

  11. I use plenty of real life events in my stories, but change them to suit whatever is going on in the book. Everything from a 3 AM potassium cyanide spill at work to receiving a teenage foster child on an emergency basis become fodder for tales. And many of my characters are composites of people I know or have encountered.

    I have learned, though, that life can be stranger than fiction and many things that have really happened can't be used in fiction because they are just too unbelievable.

  12. Sometimes when I meet people I tell my wife I am going to use that person in a story. Sometimes years later, I do. My first novel, may it never see the light of day, was the result of anger that kept me writing all the way through.

  13. Lovely, evocative writing. So glad you're home and everyone ended up safe. That dream house is out there waiting for you, too.

  14. I love your writing in this scene, Shari, and look forward to reading the fiction you'll create based on it. My memories of being in a small boat during a squall and of capsizing in a catamaran hit by a wave led to my first published story, Chimera, in Chesapeake Crimes 3.