I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I love the Writer’s Forum contests. They are reliable and the critiques are always well thought out, professional, and helpful. During my hiatus I wrote up another short story and submitted it, and here is the critique:
Taken by the Missing Hand
Thanks for entering the Writers’ Forum competition.
Presentation: Manuscript layout is good. You might find this post useful for dialogue punctuation: http://thewritersabcchecklist.blogspot.com/2011/01/punctuating-dialogue.html
Typos: lead/led movie/move payed/paid
Title: A good title; apt for the story and intriguing too.
Opening: Great set up. The opening introduces us to the main character and contains a hook that grabs our attention, giving us a reason to read on.
Dialogue: The dialogue works well to drive the story onwards and aids characterisation. The punctuation does need some work however.
Characterisation: The characters are nicely drawn and plausible.
Overall: The story has a good theme and a nice twist at the end but I have a couple of issues with the storyline and they are both related to plot devices (things that only appear in the story because they are needed to make a plot work). The first point regards coincidence; the first person Sandy speaks to just happens to be related to the woman who lived in the house before. Better if Cathy was able to point her in the direction of someone who knew more. The second point is when Sandy says she felt softness whenever she lay on the upstairs floor. It seems an unlikely thing to do, to be lying down that way.
Needs some work but has potential
You might find this blog post on rewriting after a critique useful:
Writers’ Forum, PO Box 6337, Bournemouth BH1 9EH • http://www.writers-forum.com • 01202 586848
And here is the story itself, so you can see what exactly is being critiqued.
Sandy Larkin was mostly truthful when she told her husband that she was visiting her hometown to ‘lay to rest’ the memory of the accident. She’d driven to the intersection of Madison and 3rd St. like she said she would, and gazed at the pavement she’d nearly died on. She took a selfie for her husband; her smiling and waving her prosthetic hand, the intersection in the background. Then she drove to the local cafe and donut shop to get to work on the real reason she was there.
The cafe hadn’t changed much since Sandy last visited, right before leaving for college. Hell, some of the donuts in the glass case looked like they might have been there for the past decade. She picked out a cruller that was only half-fossilized and ordered a frozen coffee at the counter. The elderly woman working the register didn’t even glance up at her.
“Hey,” said Sandy, “um, I don’t want to sound weird or anything, but do you know if anyone lives at 107 North Willow? I used to live there and I’m just curious.”
The woman behind the counter looked at Sandy blankly, and Sandy realized just how crazy her question sounded. She was about to dump her donut into a to-go bag and high-tail it out of the cafe when the woman spoke.
“No, no one there.” She said. She looked at Sandy, and her rheumy eyes slid from her face to her prosthetic hand. “You’re that girl that almost died in that car accident a while back, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I am.” Sandy had been curious, prior to coming, as to who would remember the accident. So far the old woman was the only one to mention it. In a small town, big accidents stick in people’s memories. Especially when those accidents involve a moving van being hit by a drunk driver going 80 mph through a red light. Sandy had been sixteen, had just gotten her license, and had just gotten permission from her father to drive the moving van from their old home a few miles away, to their new one. The accident happened just four blocks away from her new home.
“Why do you want to go back to that house?” Asked the old woman. Sandy popped a lid onto her coffee, and unwrapped a straw.
“I just have a lot of fun memories there. Wanted to see it again.” Said Sandy. The old woman looked at her, withered face expressionless.
“Why do you want to go back to that house?” She repeated.
Sandy got the distinct feeling she might have something in common with this woman. There was something about her voice; she sounded as if she were longing for Sandy to confirm something, wanting to have someone to share a secret with.
“Well, um, if you want the real story, I can tell you later. It’s kinda long.” Sandy Said. The old woman waved her hand dismissively, yelled to a young man to mind the counter, and lead Sandy over to an empty table.
“Talk.” Ordered the woman. Normally, Sandy would have told the woman to watch her mouth; young or old, there was no excuse for bad manners in Sandy’s book. Yet Sandy was eager to find a companion who shared her secret, so she took a skip of her coffee and started.
“You know how that crash took off my hand? I remember waking up in the hospital, and the first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t move my head. I was really scared, because I thought I’d been paralyzed and I started screaming, and this nurse came running in. She told me that I hadn’t been paralyzed and that my head was being held in position so that I couldn’t look down at my body. I was still kinda drugged up and it took me a second to realize I should probably ask why they didn’t want me to look down at my body. Once I did ask, a doctor came into the room and explained to me that I’d lost my right hand in the crash. They undid the strap from around my chin and I looked down and sure enough, there was a bandaged up nub where my hand used to be.”
Sandy bit into her donut and tried to remember what she had felt when she saw that nub, but through the haze of pain medication, she only remembered wondering what they had done with her severed hand.
“I spent a few days crying and getting antibiotics pumped through me. I think that’s when they interviewed me for the local paper, Ms…”
“Just call me Cathy.” Said the old woman. She sat with her fingers steepled, listening intently, and Sandy thought that she would make a very good counselor.
“Ok, Cathy. Well, once I was pretty coherent, the doctor came in and explained to me that I needed to get all healed up before they could get me a prosthetic, and that I could expect to have phantom limb sensations. He told me I would ‘feel’ things with the hand I didn’t have anymore, that if I dropped something where it used to be, I might get a surge of adrenaline because my body was expecting pain. He told me it was my brain’s way of coping with the loss of the limb. And he was right. Some nights I would be laying there and I swear I could feel the hospital blankets covering my missing hand. I started trying to feel the blankets with the ‘phantom limb’ every night. It helped me go to sleep.
“They let me out of the hospital, and I finally got to movie into the house I’d been driving to that night. I loved it; you know how beautiful it is, with that old brick trim and that wood balcony. I remember thinking that everyone would be jealous that I lived at the house on North Willow. Nothing happened the first night I was there, but the second night I couldn’t sleep. I was ‘feeling’ my blankets with my missing hand, when I swear to God I felt another hand touch my phantom one. It felt like someone with cold fingers patted it, like you’d do to a person you were trying to wake up. It scared the living shit out of me, and I spent the rest of the night in the living room watching infomercials.”
Cathy nodded sagely, and Sandy knew that she believed her.
“The next night it happened again, but I was too scared to move. I just pretended to be asleep, like a little kid would do. But then the cold hand wrapped around mine and just held it and stayed that way. After a few minutes I started to feel a lot less afraid. I’ve always believed in ghosts, Cathy, and I heard that a lot of them aren’t bad at all. I got the feeling that this was the ghost of someone who was lonely and scared. I gathered up my courage and spoke to it. I told it that if it felt scared it could hold my hand if it wanted to. Those ghost fingers squeezed a little tighter, and I was never scared of it again. It took me up on the offer, too. I’d be standing in the kitchen, and I’d feel it grasp my hand and just stay like that for a few minutes, then it’d let go. I started to get the feeling that maybe it was the ghost of a little kid.
“That went on for about a week or so, then one day I was sitting on the couch and it took my hand like usual, but this time it started pulling me. I think it got tuckered out, because I followed where it lead me, but after a few feet it just disappeared. I told it that it was ok, and that it was very strong. Just like you’d tell a little kid, you know?”
Cathy’s expression hadn’t changed, but Sandy thought her eyes looked a little watery. She wondered if maybe Cathy had a loved one that died in that house. She finished off her donut, and continued with the story.
“It started to try and lead me at least once a day. It grew stronger and stronger, and eventually it lead me all the way to where it wanted me to go; the bathroom. It would lead me right up to the tub, then kept pulling me until I stood in the tub, then it would disappear. Some nights, maybe twice a month, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and there would be water running in the tub. I was really confused at first, but then I put two and two together. See, ever since I moved into the house, whenever I would sit or lay on the floor upstairs, my phantom hand would always have the sensation of resting against something soft, instead of the hardwood floors. A few months before I was due to leave for college, I realized that it could be feeling something soft, because maybe it was feeling ashes.
“I have this idea that the ghost is the ghost of a little kid who died in a fire, that would explain the ashes, and wants me to stand in the bathtub full of water because it’s trying to save me from the fire. It was really sweet, and so sad. I just picture this little kid who’s still experiencing that fire, and who wants to stop me from getting hurt. Obviously, when I moved out and went to college, everything stopped. I’ve always wanted to come back, ever since I left. But when my parents moved to Alaska, I never had a reason to. That house has been stuck in the back of my mind for years, and I finally decided to just come back and see if anyone was there. Now that I know that there isn’t, I’m really excited to go there and see if my little friend still haunts it.”
Sandy didn’t know Cathy was on the verge of tears until the old woman spoke in a cracking, wavering voice.
“Don’t you go near that fucking house,” Cathy pointed a shaking finger at Sandy, who almost choked on her coffee. The two women sat in silence for what seemed like hours before Cathy dropped her head into her hands. She took several deep breaths, then looked Sandy dead in the eye.
“My older cousin lived in that house, back in 1964. She was an evil bitch. She kept shacking up with man after man, and popping out their babies like she was a human pez dispenser. She landed a big fat one once, the richest man in the state, or that’s what everyone said. She had his little brat, and of course he had to hide the whole thing from his wife. So he bought her that house, and she moved in there with her seven kids. Then she fell in love, very much in love, with some handsome man who worked a good job. He was too good for her, but he loved her back. He told her that he would have married her, if it weren’t for her kids. I remember how she’d called my mom in tears after he told her that. I listened to my mother trying to calm the bitch down, but she wouldn’t be helped. Two weeks later, the first of her brats died. Went missing entirely, and since he was about fourteen, everyone thought he’d just run away. Then the next disappeared, and the next. My cousin had a reputation, and everyone just figured she’d pawned the kids off to their fathers, until the police payed her a visit. When they interviewed her, they realized there was something fishy about her stories, so they told her they were going to launch an investigation.
“They came back nine days later with a warrant to search her house, but she didn’t answer the door. They broke it down, and saw that there was water flowing from the upstairs and that the whole house was starting to flood. They almost put their feet right through the floor boards, they were so soft with rot. They found her floating face down in the bathtub, bloated as an alcoholic bum and when they searched the back yard, naturally they found all seven of her children, drowned to death and buried.”
Sandy looked at her iced coffee. The brown liquid in the cup made her stomach spasm. Cathy seemed to understand, and took the cup away for her, dumping it in the trashcan, before giving her a final warning not to go to the house. Sandy nodded dumbly, then walked out of the cafe on shaking knees.
The world outside seemed far too bright and cheerful; it wasn’t even lunchtime yet and the midmorning sky was cloudless and sunny. A gentle breeze ruffled Sandy’s hair, but she barely felt it on her face. She walked back to her car, called her husband and broke down in tears. She never told him why she cried, only that she shouldn’t have come back. She let him assume that seeing the site of the crash had been too much for her. He told her how strong she was, and beautiful she was, and that if she drove home that night he’d hold her in his arms. He told her that she was very lucky to be alive. Sandy agreed that she was.
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