Well, it would appear that my short story, The Poe Manual, did not win anything in the Writers’ Digest competition. Regardless, it was a fun way to get me writing and to finish a story that would have most likely sat untouched otherwise. Working within the 4,000 word count was really challenging, but also really great for making every word count. Click below to read the story.
The Poe Manual
Sara pushed through the heavy library doors on a bleak October day, unaware that she was about to be added to the list to die. She nodded at old Mr. Link, who sat at the check-out desk, as Charlotte and William darted around her and ran toward the back of the building for Tuesday morning Story Time, where among tot-size chairs and scattered books, a group of parents circled their children like zebras fending off lions.
Lynne Dwyer broke away and grabbed Sara’s arm. “Have you heard?”
Sara unwound the scarf from around her neck. “It’s tragic,” she said quietly. “Poor Annabel was so young. And she had a family.”
“She was so sweet,” Lynne agreed.
“Never more than a few overdue fines,” interjected Anita, the paunchy head librarian. She shook her head solemnly, though her eyes glinted with gossip. “Terrible.”
“I heard her husband found her,” Lynne said. “Just like the others—stabbed to death with her lips stitched shut and her eyes gouged out.”
The three women fell silent. Annabel Denison was the third murder in the small alpine community since the killings had begun the past winter and the only real local crime since the disappearance of an old man more than a decade earlier. The first victim was a girl in her early 20s, Molly Kerr. She was a ski instructor, had even coached a few kids from the Story Time group. The second, Helen, was older, in her late 60s. Her husband had succumbed to cancer the previous year, but it had only served to make her more outgoing; she’d recently won election to the Town Council and was pushing to lower speed limits in her neighborhood when a friend found her, her eyeballs no more than jellied holes. “The Squish-and-Stitch Killer” is what the kids were calling the murderer, according to Charlotte.
And Annabel. Poor Annabel had been a regular at Story Times. She’d been one of Sara’s first friends when she, Dan and the kids had moved to the big log home at the far end of the lake just two years earlier. Annabel had introduced Sara to her book club and their kids attended the same classes at the children’s museum. Annabel and her husband had a happy marriage, one that Sara envied slightly when she’d see them out to dinner or at the social events that she usually attended solo.
“She was in here the day before she died,” Anita said. “I was one of the last people to see her alive.”
Sara and Lynne exchanged glances. Anita was enjoying this far too much. “Is Story Time about to start?” Lynne asked.
Anita pursed her lips and turned abruptly.
“More child-like than the children,” Lynne muttered. “Come on Madison,” she called to her daughter. “Find a seat.”
Sara watched as Charlotte and William plopped onto beanbag chairs scattered around Anita with the dozen other kids. Lynne pulled out her knitting and settled herself on the small couch next to Brooke Maxwell, who was also in their book club, and Harley Hughes, a divorced general contractor who, in Sara’s opinion, spent too much time styling his thick dark hair. “There’s space,” Harley gestured to the small square of sofa beside his lap, but Sara shook her head. Her book club had recently finished Mark Twain’s Roughing It and she wanted something new to keep her mind off Annabel.
She wandered the aisles. Sara always found solace at the library—the cozy spaces, the thousands of books, the shushed voices—but today especially, she could feel herself relaxing for what seemed like the first time in weeks. She rounded a corner and bumped into a library cart, which in turn bumped into Mr. Link.
“Oh, excuse me,” Sara apologized.
Mr. Link readjusted his glasses on his wrinkle-lined face and smoothed his plaid shirt. “Not to worry,” his voice shook.
Sara watched as the old man carefully picked a book from the cart. He checked the call number on its spine and slowly shelved it before meticulously straightening the surrounding tomes. Sara began to move around him as he picked up the next, but his hand trembled and a thin paperback toppled to the floor.
“Here, I’ll get that for you!” Sara plucked it from the floor. The book was black, A Collection of Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe written in silver. “Poe,” she murmured. “I haven’t read him in forever.”
“That goes here,” Mr. Link pointed at an opening in the shelves.
Sara turned the book in her hands. “Maybe I’ll keep it,” she said. “Seems appropriate.”
Mr. Link shook his head. “Mrs. Denison returned that book just two days ago,” he said.
Sara felt a sudden closeness to her dead friend. “Really?” She flipped the pages. “I think I will read it.”
Sara let Charlotte and William each choose three books once Story Time ended. They checked out with Anita. “See you at the museum on Thursday,” Sara called to Lynne and Madison as she herded her kids out the door.
They stopped for lunch at Wild Cherries. In the wake of the murders, the bright little café felt unnaturally bleak and quiet. Sara ordered a pumpkin latte and three slices of quiche and waited at the counter while the kids ran to the children’s corner and began to play.
“Have fun at Story Time?” Sara hadn’t noticed Harley Hughes beside her. He nudged his son, Aiden. “Go play with Charlotte and William.”
The girl at the counter handed Sara her latte and Harley ordered a coffee, black.
“It’s nice to get out of the house,” Sara finally responded.
“That Anita is annoying as hell.”
“So what do you think about this Squish-and-Stitch Killer?”
“What do I think?” Sara asked. “I’m terrified. Isn’t everyone?”
Harley shrugged. “It appears he’s only targeting women so I’m guessing that I’m safe.” The girl handed him his coffee and he thanked her. “I’m just wondering if there’s any way to suggest my ex-wife as victim number four.”
“You are disgusting.”
“So you don’t think he takes requests?”
“I have to get my kids.”
She turned impatiently. “What?”
“I know that Dan is gone a lot.”
“Do you have a gun?”
“C’mon Sara,” Harley sighed. “You’re on the far side of the lake, surrounded by empty vacation homes. You’re stuck when it snows. Your husband is never around. If I was the Squish-and-Stitch Killer, you’d be looking like an easy target.”
“Go to hell, Harley.”
He grabbed her arm and twisted her around. She could smell his hair gel. “All I’m saying is that it wouldn’t hurt to have some extra protection.” He nodded towards Charlotte and William, who were laughing with Aiden. “If nothing else, think of your kids.”
Sara could feel the pinch of his grasp even after he let go. The girl at the counter raised her eyebrows as she set out the quiche. “Can I get a box?,” Sara glared at Harley. “We won’t be staying for lunch.”
Sara didn’t know if her jitters were from Harley, the latte or Annabel’s death as she drove the long winding road around the lake. Yes, her home was isolated. That was one of the things that she and Dan had loved about it when they decided to move to the mountains two years ago. Her neighborhood consisted almost solely of vacation homes; during this time last year, she loved the break between summer visitors and winter visitors when she felt like she had the lake all to herself. Now, she’d welcome the sight of tourists, but between the offseason lull and a serial killer, the second homeowners were staying away.
She pulled into the driveway. Dan was away. Again. That hadn’t been the point of the move. He was the one who wanted to live in the mountains, but now he was gone practically five days a week, always back at the Bay for work. She thought about what Harley had said. Should she get a gun? She’d always opposed the idea, especially once she had kids, but suddenly, opening the car door to absolute quiet and a chilly autumn breeze, she felt vulnerable, like she was being watched. It was only October, but the temperatures were dropping and forecasts were calling for snow next week. Sara shuddered, and ushered her children into the house.
Charlotte and William ran into the great room and plopped onto the warm leather couch with their books while Sara started a fire in the big stone hearth. She heated up some apple cider and served the quiches on the coffee table. As the children read and ate quietly, Sara pulled the thin Poe book from her bag. She opened to the first page and froze. The name “Helen” was scrawled lightly in pencil. Annabel had the book. Helen had the book. And now, Sara had the book.
Sara woke in the middle of the night. She’d been dreaming of something—the book, the library, Story Time. But what was the link? She crossed her arms and felt an ache. Harley! Her arm tingled where he’d grabbed her. There’d been rumors that he was involved with a younger woman, someone he met through his kid. Could it have been Molly? She couldn’t breathe. What about Helen? She had a flashback to him wearing an “Elect Helen” button. He’d laughed and said that he couldn’t stand the guys she was running against. He’d called Helen and her lower speed limits the least of the town’s evils. And Annabel? Sara pressed her hands against her face. Of course! Annabel and her husband had just remodeled their home a few months ago, updating the kitchen and turning an unused storage space into a guestroom. Harley had been the contractor on the job.
Sara slid down into her bed, pulling the down comforter high around her neck. Now Harley was asking if she had a gun. Her reaction had made it obvious that she didn’t. And to tell her that she’d be an easy target. What kind of game was he playing?
She finally fell into an uneasy, haunted sleep.
On Friday night, Dan came home. Sara watched him play with the kids and put them to sleep before confiding her fears.
“Harley Hughes?” Dan scoffed. “The guy’s an asshole but he’s not a killer. And he’s lived here most of his life. Don’t you think if he was going to start killing people he would have done it years ago?”
“He may have!” Sara insisted. “Haven’t you ever heard about that old man who disappeared a decade ago? It’s the only local unsolved crime. Plus, so many kids come up for the winter just to ski or snowboard, who’s even keeping track if one of them goes missing? Maybe he’s finally gotten comfortable enough to prey on people that others will notice.”
Dan poked the dying embers of the fire. “I know this has been tough on you,” he said as he sat back down. “I know that Annabel was a friend of yours. But you can’t just accuse people, especially ones who have been here longer than us.”
“Fine,” Sara said. “Don’t believe me. But I’m going to get a gun.”
She was surprised when Dan nodded. “We’ll go tomorrow.”
It would be a ten-day waiting period before Sara could pick up the gun, but she felt an enormous relief knowing that she was making the effort.
Afterwards, she and Dan took the kids to the playground, then to Wild Cherries. They were standing at the counter when she noticed Harley staring at her from the corner booth.
“Sara,” Harley tipped his head in her direction. “Dan, nice to see you’re in town.”
Dan smiled. “Another quick weekend home, I’m afraid,” he said. “Unfortunately, I need to head back out again on Tuesday.”
Sara stomped on his foot and Dan shot her a look of annoyance. Harley looked amused. “Sorry to hear you’re taking off again,” Harley sipped his coffee and stood. He pulled a card from his pocket and stretched it toward Sara. She folded her arms and Dan grabbed it. “Sara, call if you need anything,” Harley smirked. “I sure wouldn’t want to be all alone in that house of yours.”
“I’ll be back Friday night, so long as the storm they’re calling for doesn’t shut down the interstate,” Dan said. He zippered his jacket and kissed Charlotte and William goodbye.
Sara walked him outside. The air was colder and the lake was still. A few leaves clung to branches, like desperate girlfriends refusing to acknowledge a breakup. “Call me tonight,” Sara said as Dan started his car. He responded with a wave and drove away.
“We’re going to Story Time, right mommy?” Charlotte asked from the doorway.
Sara frowned. She was hoping to avoid all possible interaction with Harley Hughes. “How about we skip it this week?”
“No!” William stomped his foot. “I read all my books!”
“Please mommy?” Charlotte begged. “I love Story Time.”
It was too cold to be outside. “Fine,” Sara said reluctantly. “Play nicely and we’ll go.”
While the kids were quiet, Sara opened the Poe book to his first story, The Tell-Tale Heart. “TRUE! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad?,” it began. She’d read the story before; a psychopath, convinced of his own sanity, kills an old man and hides his body under the floorboards until, tormented by the sound of the dead man’s heartbeat, he tears up the planks and confesses.
Sara shut the book quickly. What was she thinking? Who reads Poe with a madman on the loose? She stuck it in her bag to return, deliberating ignoring the idea that Annabel had done the same thing just a week earlier.
A dreary October wind was swirling fallen leaves as Sara pushed into the warmth of the library. Anita was already rounding up children for Story Time, and Lynne gestured for Charlotte and William to join her and Madison in the circle. Sara sat her stack of books in front of Mr. Link at the desk and he began to check them back in.
“Poe?” Harley Hughes materialized beside Sara and she jumped. “A little on edge?” he laughed.
“I didn’t see you there,” Sara said.
Harley picked up the book. “Not very light reading given the situation,” he said. “Though I wouldn’t mind reading it myself. Sir,” he handed Mr. Link his card.
Mr. Link glanced quietly from Harley to Sara, but took Harley’s card, scanned the book and handed it back.
Sara headed for the Story Time circle and Harley followed. “So Dan’s out of town now?” he asked.
“Not something I’m advertising,” Sara hissed.
“Sara, listen,” Harley stepped in front of her. “I like you. I worry about you.”
She tried to step around him but he cut her off. “It’s not safe right now. I’d be more than happy to stay with you while Dan’s gone—not in that way,” he quickly responded to Sara’s disgusted look. “I did a remodel on that house years before you owned it. I know there are extra bedrooms. The kids could play together; it would be like a big sleepover.”
“No,” Sara’s voice was sharp and Anita paused in her reading to look over. “Worry about yourself. I’m fine.” Sara cut around him and sat in the circle, pulling William onto her lap and ignoring Lynne’s questioning stare. She heard Harley settle on the couch behind her. Anita’s tone sounded artificially bright. She’d barely finished the story when Sara yanked her children outside, where a light snow was beginning to fall.
Back at the house, Sara made a fire and then lunch, listening distractedly as Charlotte and William gave her the play-by-play of the Story Time book. After lunch, they walked to the lake, using fallen branches to draw pictures in the flurry-dusted street and sticking out their tongues to catch the flakes that were already growing fatter and coming down faster. Sara noted unconsciously that there wasn’t another track—animal, human or car—on the road besides their own.
The oncoming storm made the day prematurely dark. Sara sent the kids to the upstairs den to watch a movie while she cleaned up around the house. She was spreading a throw on the great room couch when she glimpsed something shiny in the cushions. She dug down and pulled out a brass bookmark embossed with the initials M.V.K. It must have fallen out of one of the library books, Sara thought, and in an instant she felt a chill as deep and strong as the snow-laden squalls now howling outside the window. Helen’s name was inside the book. Annabel had returned it the day before she died. And now the M.V.K. bookmark. Molly Kerr.
Sara felt like she’d been standing still for eternity. They’d all read the book. But what about it? What could the book possibly have to do with the killings? Sara picked up her phone. But who to call? Dan? And have him laugh at her fears again? The police? And say what? That everyone who died had read the same book? It was a small town. They’d probably all eaten at the same restaurants and skied at the same resorts and grabbed coffee at the same café. Sara set the phone down. She returned to the leather couch. And she stared at the bright flames, slowly turning the bookmark over and over again.
BANG. BANG. BANG. She jumped at the noise from the front door.
“Mom?” Charlotte was at the top of the stairs.
Sara forced herself to smile. “Everything’s alright, sweetie,” she said. “Finish with the movie and then you can pick a new one.”
The banging continued and Sara heard a muffled voice shouting her name. She waited until Charlotte had returned to the den, then slipped into the kitchen and grabbed a knife before tiptoeing to the door. “Who is it,” she tried to keep her voice from trembling.
“It’s Harley! You need to open the door.”
“Go away, Harley.”
“I’m serious. Let me in.”
“I have a knife.”
“I’m not going to hurt you. I have to talk to you. It’s about the book.”
“What about the book?”
“Harley, what about the book?”
Still no answer. Against all instinct, Sara slipped the blade into her back pocket and opened the door to a gray mist. She gasped in the frozen wind. “Harley?” The door closed heavily behind her.
“I took care of him for you.” Sara’s eyes widened at the sight of old Mr. Link, the elderly librarian.
“But, what-” she caught a glimpse of metal. A knife. Slowly her eyes turned to the body lying in the snow beside the walkway. “Harley!”
“He was next anyway,” Mr. Link waved the knife in Harley’s direction. “He read it, too.”
“I don’t understand.”
Mr. Link stood straighter, stronger. “Don’t pretend you didn’t recognize me,” his voice was a snarl. “You know, I thought I got away with it. Everyone just assumed the old man disappeared, and after time, no one asked about him anymore. I did just like the manual instructed me: I waited till he was asleep, killed him and put his body under the floorboards. I wasn’t going to make the mistake of telling people.”
He paused and fished something small out of his coat. Sara gagged. He was holding a spool of thread.
“I couldn’t have other people reading my manual,” he continued. “They would figure it out, know what I did. I couldn’t have people recognize me, or talk about me.”
He’s a madman, Sara thought. Even more insane than Poe’s killer. “You can’t do this,” she whispered. “I have children. They need me.”
“Then you shouldn’t have read my manual.”
“I didn’t know,” she said. “I’ll keep your secret. No one will ever know.”
Sara began to cry. “You can’t kill me beside my home,” she said. “I don’t want my children to find me.”
Mr. Link frowned. “Fine. Near the lake then.” He gestured with the knife. “Walk.”
Sara wondered if she could outrun him, but was surprised at how nimbly he navigated the slippery walkway. He wasn’t as frail as she’d always imagined. She suddenly remembered the knife in her pocket. Could he see it? He was trailing behind her; they were almost to the lake. She didn’t have time to think. She ripped the knife and thrust at the old librarian, the thick blade popping through his jacket and tearing into his flesh. He fell back then, to Sara’s horror, staggered to his feet.
“That’s it? You are going to poke me with a kitchen knife?” His laugh was shrill and wet, colder than the alpine night. “Even the old broad put up a better fight.”
He lunged toward her. Sara tried to run, but she slipped on the snowy surface. She groaned as he fell on top of her. She saw the snow turning dark with blood. She couldn’t move. She thought of her children. Their footprints had disappeared under the white blanket. She began to sob. She reached out, hoping to touch a tiny boot print when her hand hit something hard. One of the fallen branches they’d used to draw in the snow! Sara could feel the madman raising the knife above her. She grasped the branch and thrashed backwards. A loud CRACK split the snowy night as she made contact with the old man’s head. He fell off of her and she struggled to her feet. He started to rise. She snatched her weapon and struck again, beating him harder and harder, again and again, until the branch splintered and the old man lay silent.
Exhausted, Sara shuffled back toward the house. She knelt at Harley’s body; it was faint, but she felt his chest pulsing. She opened the door to the sound of her children’s screams, dragging Harley in behind her.
For months afterward, Anita greeted everyone who pushed through the sturdy library doors by launching into the story. “He worked here,” she’d say. “Old Eddie Link, the Squish-and-Stitch Killer. Talked to him every single day and don’t you know I never suspected a thing! One of those nice, quiet men that don’t seem like he’d hurt a fly. Of course, they found the old man’s bones under the floorboard of his house after that. Closed the case on the town’s only unsolved crime. Poor Sara Edelstein, she and her family left the next day for the Bay and never came back. Didn’t even pack up; they had someone else come up and do it for them. I heard she left a note at the hospital for Harley Hughes, he’s the sweet man who tried to warn her, but didn’t speak to a soul besides the police, just took the kids and left.”
She’d lean closer as she continued the story. “You heard the best part right? They never found old Eddie’s body. Most say the coyotes got him but believe what you will. After all,” she’d drop her voice to a hush. “I went to find that book. Harley Hughes had returned it to the library. That’s when old Eddie said something that set Harley off. Computer shows it was checked back in; I returned it to the shelves the next day, before I even knew the trouble that it caused.”
Here, Anita’s tone becomes one of contemplation. “And wouldn’t you know, I go looking for that book and it’s gone from the library. I don’t know what happened to it,” she’d say wistfully. “But as Poe himself says, the book—and that crazy madman—are now nevermore.”