James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS: The Second Chapter

For those catching up with MoHG here’s Chapter 1, as well as the impressive peer review on the full manuscript from a submission that went pretty far with a publisher, but not quite far enough.

Here we meet Devin Rucker‘s co-protagonist Billy Steeple, another damaged character, but with his own peculiar set of difficulties. Like Devin, Billy seems buried in the past, struggles to relate to women, unable to move forward. But ‘relating to women’ in the case of this strange dude sounds even more dangerous than Devin’s penchant for drunk driving… a mild, NSFW trigger warning might apply here.


MANSION OF HIGH GHOSTS

CHAPTER 2

Fade in.

Words on a glowing LCD screen typed by big boy Billy Steeple, y’all, sitting there in his whitey-tighties, tight copper sculpted body like that of a magazine model. Billy, anxious and enervated at the notion of starting yet another screenplay, yet finding that working on scripts presented the only activity that felt wholesome, productive.

And so, what else a practitioner of badassery like him to do? Get high and watch the tube?

Billy made no apologies; failures aside, the writing took him back to a happier time, and in that sense, the work had become an end in itself. Satisfying.

Sometimes.

His head swimming with THC, Billy became distracted listening to a jamband cover version of ‘Will It Go Round in Circles’ on Southeastern University’s WSEU, and the uptempo tune stayed stuck in his head for hours, a tenacious bastard of an earbug. “Will it fly high like a bird up in the sky,” Billy sang, conscious of doing so, but only just-so. Bathed in the cool light of his laptop screen, the scribe stared straight ahead, two strawberry glazed donut holes for eyes. Billy, trying to empty his mind, to receive the muse. “Sky. High. Bird.”

The floor creaked in the room next door—Melanie Pinckney, the current bedmate, had begun to stir. Billy, knowing he’d soon be interrupted, sighed with annoyance. Now she’d probably want him to screw again.

SPROING!

Not.

Three goddamn months with this one . . . an eternity to be stuck with the same needy, groveling little twerp. But no surprise—not only had he taken Melanie to the highest highs right out of the gate, which was to be expected considering the awesome Billyness of both technique and physical stature that he brought to the table, but like clockwork Billy’d also gotten palette fatigue. He’d succumb again tonight, of course. Give her what she was after. But grudgingly, and rougher than she liked it, which for a six and a half footer like him was a good method of scaring many of them away.

Beyond the laptop screen, he pulled up the blinds to enjoy his view of the diminutive skyline, ten- and twenty-story structures glowing orange from thousands of streetlights casting heavenward—Columbia, South Carolina, a capital city to be sure, but by any standard a modest one. A hundred thousand city dwellers, a half million suburbanites. Hills, neighborhoods, the sprawling campus of Southeastern U to which Billy seemed joined at the emotional hip. Mayberry. Billy’s own building, one of the quote-unquote skyscrapers, found him looming on the fifteenth floor, about as high as one could get around here.

But home.

By day, Columbia, like a slice of Southern heaven: the light of morning would find the neighborhoods and thoroughfares redolent and verdant and color-splashed, shot through with clusters of honeysuckle and dusted yellow by pollen; Bradford pears blooming white, dogwoods blazing pink, Confederate jasmine like a spray of baby’s breath in an April wedding bouquet. Springtime, the first season in which he’d seen the city and the Southeastern campus, with its ungodly endless bevy of beautiful young women like no collection he’d experienced. Not growing up in the Northeast, in boarding schools full of born-to-the-manor blueblood twats thinking they were the center of the universe.

How wrong, these silly women. How myopic, Billy thought, then as now. He looked up ‘myopic’ real quick to make sure that was the right smart-boy word to use. Yep. He couldn’t remember this stuff. Words. He had bigger fish.

Spring, a season filling Billy—a man of sentiment, though loathe to admit so in mixed company—with a peace and seemingly permanent satisfaction, a feeling impugned upon only by the ineffable, occasional twinge of that which was missing.

Occasional as in several times a day. Sometimes cycling through the pain within the confines of a single hour. Sometimes thinking: madness upon me. Dismissing such nonsense. Billy. In control.

#

Billy, ignoring Melanie’s calls to rejoin her in bed, instead concentrated on the screen, cursed the cursor, drummed his fingers and wondered if he needed a better idea. Home from the archive for hours, he ought to be farther along on this new script than Fade In. With his job, the media librarian stuck way down in an annex south of campus, if he chose to he could work on screenplays all day. Not that he was getting them done.

But during the day no different from right now, when he’d deign to admit it to himself:

Unable to perform. Ghosts of the past, tugging at him. Trying to shake them off.

Wondering about Devin—what had become of him, where he was.

Googling his name, and not for the first time. Not finding a single hit.

As though his old buddy didn’t exist.

Cool.

Telling himself, though: Libby’s not here, Libby’s not coming. Devin could walk in any day, maybe; Libby, not so much.

Stop the foolishness and take advantage of this moment. Be here now.

A pep talk to replace a lost love. A best friend.

Fifteen years of thinking about this crap.

His goal of late had been to be done with past troubles by forty—forty!—which loomed in a few more transits around the sun. Between that and grandfather being sick—finally!—Billy’d be hitting his prime years done with nonsense and with his full inheritance—millions!—at the ready. He’d go out west like he’d planned so long ago, write scripts, take over the movie biz. He had to try. Had to do it for Libby. He’d been telling himself since 1990 that he had to do it for her.

But that was being chained to the past. Which he had to do. Had to honor her.

And so, to the work: a new, fresh screenplay idea, marketable, sellable—a rom-com, modest in scale, brief in duration. Ninety, ninety-five, a hundred pages tops, curtain, and out. Commercial. A winner. An audience pleaser.

Billy looked askance at the stacks—reams, actually—of draft this or version that of his previous magnum opus, all representative of the same, endlessly incomplete project. Over the years spent tinkering with the same script—he’d begun it in college, when he and Libby shared that precious special scriptwriting class—he’d retained everything ever written, stacking the pages up scene after scene, sequence after sequence, act after act. All had been printed on twenty-four pound bond, Billy feeling that even first drafts emerged so shimmering and polished, like the Florsheims and Weejuns in his shoe closet, that such pages deserved to be inscribed only on the finest of manuscript leaves. Billy, speculating that one day the project would at last climb all the way to the smooth, nine-foot ceiling. He wondered if he’d ever be able to say he was finished.

He wondered what finished meant.

What time was.

What writing a movie meant.

Once the movie of his script was finally unleashed upon the public, how he’d reminisce at the press junket about the leaning tower of pages, a witty anecdote repeated to each group of entertainment reports, repeated to death, repetition negating meaning, but freshening up the material by adding a digression: a monologue about a lonely childhood spent in the wealth and comfortable bosom of a powerful rich family, alienated from humanity, turning to music and the movies for solace. Chuckling and winking to the assembled press, compensating for his unsatisfying childhood by being a god in bed, a confirmed and inveterate pothead, if heartbroken over a dead girl.

For years.

Forever.

Too. Much. Information.

The dream project, the masterwork: lengthy, yes, but chock full of excitement, a high-concept sci-fi action epic featuring such awe-inspiring set pieces as a pre-credits, 007-style teaser depicting a thrilling jailbreak from a lunar prison run by the insidious forces behind a totalitarian, solar system-wide government; an extra-thrilling opening title sequence set in the Mars colony as our heroic, desperate protagonist seeks to save a hermetically sealed-off city from a disastrous dome breach; scene after scene of political intrigue peppering the talky-by-necessity sequences of complicated exposition; a bit of the old in-out here and there between the leads to break up the rhythm; three lengthy monologues (from two different characters) fully explicating the theme(s) of the piece; extremely desperate, enormous battles between mammoth, combat-hardened armies on the dystopian home world of Earth that included a breathless hovercraft chase through the overgrown, flooded canyons of an abandoned New York, an homage to Friedkin’s The French Connection, Miller’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Spielberg’s and Kubrick’s AI, Carpenter’s Escape from New York, and most obviously the Death Star canyon run from Lucas’ Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope, but also the asteroid chase from Star Wars Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back, and of course the pod race sequence from Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace; and finally, a gotcha! post-resolution action beat—a heart-stopping, indescribably desperate climb to the top of a giant laser cannon set on overload, a hidden, forgotten weapon that must be disabled before the readouts all go red and the digital timer counts down to zero hour and everybody still lucky enough to be alive after the huge, deadly, now penultimate action sequence ends up getting smoked, too. Which couldn’t happen, not in a movie. Not in a successful one. At least one of the heroes had to live. A moment of redemption. The hero’s journey.

In the denouement following the shattering heartbreaking climax, WE SEE that, on a personal level, the victory is but a pyrrhic one—the hero watches as the heroine makes it in time to disable the cannon, staggering back out, her body ravaged by radiation, the hero crying out, Kirk to Spock through the transparent aluminum of the engine room. The heroine, sacrificing herself to save them all.

Billy, suffering a lump in his throat during every rewrite. I will wait for you on the other side the current choice for the heroine’s dying line. I will wait for you. The heroine’s life-energy mixing with the radiation, a cloud of sparking pink diamond points drifting upward like the feather in Forest Gump.

Deep breath.

Yes: a breathtaking bittersweet grief-infused climax, a moment of supernatural, spiritual transcendence for both characters as well as audience: 2001 meets Apocalypse Now meets The Wrath of Khan meets Seven Samurai meets Raiders of the Lost Ark meets Dune (the books, not the movie, fear is the mind killer) meets The Prince of Tides (dark, suppressed memories in one of the protagonists’ pasts) meets the tragic romance angle from Cameron’s original Terminator plus the Leo DeCaprio Titanic death scene that’d left women the world over swooning and gasping and wet between their unfulfilled thighs.

As a result of all the time and tweaking, the current draft of Untitled Science Fiction Epic, as Billy thought of his script—he’d yet to come up with the just-right monicker—had now grown to a monstrous three hundred and twenty-six pages. Far too long for any one feature film production to contain. A freaking doorstop.

He’d considered pitching this masterpiece to SyFy as a mini-series, but without an agent—he hadn’t even tried to get one—all such notions remained in the realm of fantasy. As soon as the screenplay was polished and finished, finished-finished, only then would he start to shop the masterpiece around. Get some traction, get some action. Not for the money—his family already had plenty. To culminate what would, before long, represent twenty years of nonstop work.

All for her. For Libby. To make her proud. To lend meaning to her short tragic life. For Libby, a dedication that’d accompanied all the drafts.

Scripts, however, weren’t usually dedicated to anyone. Scripts, only a stepping stone to someone else’s idea of fully realized art.

Billy, sighing, felt a sharp pain in his chest. People: oblivious to his pain. No earthly idea.  . . . thinking he had his life together: smart, good-looking, a fat trust fund, hung like a stallion, a master of the modern age. But no one knew the real him, like a tenth-rate Andy Kaufman lacking both the courage to adopt false faces, as well as the innate talent to pull off such a hat-trick as manipulating reality. No one knew. Either a curse, or else by design.

#

If Billy were actually smart—and he knew this—he’d take the family pecuniary largesse almost kinda-sorta at his fingertips, forget about his ridiculous ‘career’ at the middling academic backwater that was Southeastern University, and upon the occasion of the next peach-colored Carolina sunrise? Hit the road for the left coast with the latest version of the script under his arm. What, pray tell, could stop him? Would have the stones to try?

A vision of an angel: Libby Meade, strolling these streets. Libby, falling in love with Billy, willing her to love him. Making it so. Before, that is, their love had been forestalled—first by Devin, and then months later by the tragedy that took her from all of them. The cool hand of death. Irrevocable. Inexorable. Both of those smart words at the same time. Maybe they meant the same. Couldn’t remember.

So, Billy, staying here. Walking the same sidewalks year after year, seeing Libby waving to him from the pedestrian bridge or in front of the coffee shop in which they used to sit in quiet conversation, knees bumping under the table, a memory of which nagged as representative of the most intimate and legitimate contact he’d enjoyed with her. Billy, seeing Libby in the young women tanning themselves beneath the benevolent Southern sun on the Elliptical, the park-like center of the two-hundred year-old institution, the blaze of fecund youth lying among the towering live oaks and the buildings exuding historicity: unlike the rest of the city, the old campus at Southeastern’s core, the horseshoe of green crisscrossed by a webbing of uneven cobblestone paths, had been a fortunate survivor of Sherman’s storied and terrible march through the Confederacy. Children studying, learning. Dreaming of the long life ahead.

That she never got to have.

Billy, sensing a piece of Libby in all them, seducing them, making love, furious and sustained like he’d never had the chance with her. Climaxing, but never getting to the place he knew they’d have gotten. Together.

If only.

If only.

#

Melanie, calling again, muffled. “Billy? Can you hear me? Hurry up in there.”

“Busy.”

“Doing what?”

Keeping his voice even and calm. “I’m working. Like I said was going to do.”

He heard her walk out of the bedroom and approach the office door. Trying the knob.

Locked. “You locked me out?”

“It’s for your own safety.”

“Ha-ha. Let me in.”

“No.”

A standoff. “Are you gonna let me in? Or what?”

“I said no and I meant no. Now let me get this done. I’ll give you what you want.”

“Promise?”

“You can depend on me, ma’am.”

“Gonna hold you to it.”

And so he would. But on his schedule.

Hitting the bubbler, the herb simmering, a tiny cauldron. A mood enhancer—maybe not the right drug, but all he dared sample. Billy, a man with appetites. A man who needed to stay in control, to manage indulgences. Doing so to avoid one of his troublesome accidents—which, when they occurred, were enormous pains in the ass to deal with and clean up and move on from without complications and rigmarole. Melanie, no; no accidents in her future. They’d been together too long, now. They’d been seen, all over the place. A couple. He might as well marry her as get rid of her that way.

Nah. No accidents. That such had almost happened with Libby ought to have been enough to get some help, back in the day. Figure out this little problem of his.

Forget it. Easier to get rid of the bodies, sure to stay out of jail that way. Not even Steeple money could keep him out of prison, not for murder one.

Murder? Who was he kidding. Billy, incapable.

Accidents. Accidents happened. This explanation worked for him. It had to.

Billy Steeple: in the house, y’all. He’d get his tangled lines unwound. Always did. Or maybe the right word was ‘never.’ He sometimes got the two ideas confused.

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About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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