Short Story: James and Alice by Ken LaVoie

This is a short story I’m working on. Love to hear your feedback, and suggestions.

Chapter 1 – Hijacked Hearts

It was six years ago that Alice hijacked James’ heart. There were no demands, no ransom, but he would have given her the world. Instead, he promised her Paris in September. Only a piece of the world–half a world away–but one of its crown jewels; at least it was in the movies. Only the best for Alice. It’s funny how women have that effect on us men. One look, one hook into the meaty part of our hearts and we’re emptying our pockets or pulling out our swords.

Now, six years later, he was moments away from delivering on a trip that would make Paris in September seem as exotic as a night out at the Olive Garden. James was a little worried about how Alice would travel the first time. He’d been over there six times already without her knowing–just to test the waters–and had thrown up the first time, and only avoided puking his guts out the second time by sheer will and maybe the effects of the sea sickness patch he’d slapped on a couple of hours before stepping out from the old wine cellar in their basement onto a landscape that would change things forever.

Chapter 2: Where it all began

They’d bought the old Victorian in Central Maine two years ago. She’d loved it as much as did but worried about the work it needed. She kept bringing up a movie they’d seen some years ago called “The Money Pit” and she feared they would be writing the screenplay for the sequel. James was handy but had no interest in spending all his free time swinging a hammer and breathing plaster dust. So they’d decided to move slow. Alice’s aunt had left her nearly two-hundred thousand dollars in her will last year, but they wanted to preserve that for their retirement dream, which wasn’t fleshed out yet, but involved something like this; Settle down in some third-world-but-safe country where for a couple grand a month, they could eat out every day, fall asleep to the sound of the ocean and have a maid and an old sunburnt Spanish speaking gardener taking care of the household chores a couple of times a week.

And so, they’d learned to live in a “perpetual state of chaos” interrupted by bursts of progress in the interest of keeping their dream on track. The house was such a neat place, though. Really well-preserved despite being more than a hundred years old. A rambling 10,000 square foot Victorian Mansion with 3 stories, 8 fireplaces, a den, a real library, both formal and family living rooms, great room, full kitchen on all 3 floors and a formal entry bigger than any room in any home they’d lived in before. It was their shared dream to live in a house so big that they’d forget about some of the rooms for months at a time.

Chapter 3: A “might’ deep hole”

James descended the basement stairs carefully and stepped into the dank coolness. It was like wading into a swimming pool on a hot summer day. Refreshing but a little shocking at the same time. He waited at the bottom until his eyes adjusted to the gloom. Twenty one steps if he’d counted right — almost double most basements. “That’s a deep hole Jim,” his friend Bucky had said the first time he’d visited. “A might deep ol’ hole.” James loved Bucky’s redneck accent and his way of putting things. Not a mighty deep hole, a might deep one. Bucky had moved here from Georgia more than ten years ago and he and James had met here at the house. He and his wife Becky (Yes, Bucky and Becky… And they were such stereotypical lovable rednecks, that nobody ever gave it a second thought) were looking for a home at the same time as he and Alice, and they’d been booked on a double showing. Bucky’d wanted no part of the rambling structure and James had more than once wondered if Bucky had some sort of innate wisdom that belied his redneck exterior.

The word “basement” was not appropriate nomenclature for such a space. It was more like an ancient necropolis. It took up the entire foot print of the house and went on forever. Masonry pillars crumbling midway, making them look like stalactites and stalagmites meeting in the middle. Hewn beams and vaulted brick ceilings far above his head. At 6’2”, James could walk fully upright and not worry about smacking his head. A luxury that, curiously, made him feel “richer” than anything else about the place. A basement with a high ceiling. Red Mexican tile stretched in every direction. There appeared to be a hallway off to his left. It reminded him of the old pictures of European catacombs: Big beams forming the sides complemented by arched ceilings.

Straight ahead, a wood pile loomed out of the darkness, guarded by a combination wood/gas boiler. He’d have to get that checked, and he prayed– for the sake of their retirement fund–that it held out a few more years. He turned left and headed for the hallway. That’s a deep hole Jim. A might deep ol’ hole. After a few steps the opening clarified and he remembered that it was more like an old hotel corridor than a catacomb. Beyond the threshold of the arched entrance, the hallway stretched about forty feet and there were six doors on each side, the remnants of old sconces perched high near each. They looked like old castle doors, 8 feet high, solid wood planks with black wrought iron hardware and strapping and big skeleton key holes below fist sized doorknobs. The only thing missing were Gargoyle door knockers. The last door on the right was a little different, Jim noticed. There was a large modern looking padlock, and it looked fairly new. No rust or slime had started to form yet. He didn’t have time to fool with it now–Alice would be home soon. He tried the rest of the doors and found the expected bounties of lawn furniture, old files, boxes of Christmas ornaments from another era, a tool room–mostly gardening items. The room just to the right of the locked door yielded what appears to James to be a small artillery cache. Antique muskets, muzzle loaders mixed in with more up-to-date hunting rifles. Boxes of ammo and a bench along the narrow far wall complete with reloading supplies. Someone here was a serious hunter at one time. There appeared to be several handguns wrapped in oilcloth on a lower shelf under the bench. James looked forward to some serious weekend puttering in the coming weeks.

James had a thought and went back out and re entered the room where he’d seen all the tools. After a minute of rooting around, he hit pay dirt: an old, but serviceable set of bolt cutters. He thought they would do the trick and lifted them up out of the pile of tools. “Christ,” he thought as he hefted them, “These suckers are heavy. Men were men back in the day!”

He navigated the huge maw of the bolt cutters onto the padlock and squeezed down on the handles until beads of sweat popped onto his forehead, his arms quivering with exertion. He was just about to stop and get a better grip when he heard a “thunk” and the lock came loose, hasp cleaved neatly in two. He pulled the lock off and shouldered the door open part way, letting some light from the hallway spill in. A string appeared out of the inky darkness. He reached out and grabbed it and pulled gently down until he heard a click. The room was flooded with light.

Because the room was so securely locked, James expected to find something of value–or at least marginally interesting. Instead, the room was barren and pin drop neat. The walls were painted a neutral beige, plaster ceiling shone white and the vct tile floor looked like it had been buffed earlier that afternoon. A gray metal desk–the old military type–stood against the longer left hand wall.

The only other difference between this room and the others was a second door, similar to the first, set into the far narrow wall. Instead of a padlock, there was a large thumb catch, presumably a deadbolt, set about eye level.

James approached the door. As he did, he felt a strange sensation. Sort of like the time he and Alice were on that cruise in the Caribbean last year and they were following the tail of a hurricane. The big ship was constantly on the roll, not enough that you could see, or that made glassware slide off the table like in the movies, but just enough that you couldn’t ignore it. You always felt a little unsettled, your stomach ever on guard and the grace gone from your step. This feeling was similar but a little different, James thought. It was internal, mental, almost…emotional. Like a slime making his very essence dirty, grimy, and he felt an urge to shower like he’d never felt before. He assumed it was just him, something he ate, or the quality of the air getting to him or something. He paused, and got his sea legs, and took another step toward the door and grabbed the knob. With his free hand he turned the thumb latch which was also snugging the door in a little tighter. As he turned the catch, and the door seal released, A scent immediately came through from the other side, and…was that a warm draft? This door couldn’t lead outside, James thought, unless it was a bulkhead or “dog house,” but he’d been around the house fifty times and seen only one other entrance and it was entirely on the other side of the house.

The scent…some sort of blossom, like a lilac, and also the smell of water…lake? River? And the smell of gasoline fumes, like the smell of a busy lakeside resort. And…was that coffee? Carefully, James pushed open the door and observed the scene on the other side. That was all he could do really, because what he saw fell so far outside his mental capacity to accept that his brain all but ceased to function for a bit, other than to keep his heart pumping and his body upright…and James wasn’t sure how long that would last.

An expanse of beautiful green grass, like a park, lay before him. Here and there, beautifully formed trees, like Live Oak but without the moss, gave shade to couples and families on blankets, who ate, drank and read on the verdant expanse. Ahead, the park gave way to a pedestrian street or wide walkway, and beyond that, a balustrade separating the cobblestone walk from the wide River responsible for part of the scent coming through the door. “What the fuck is a river doing out here?” said James. He knew there was a small pond on the property but nothing else. It was spring fed–no river or stream fed it or ran from it. What the fuck was going on here?
Also, James just realized, it was raining when he came down here just minutes ago. Looking out, James couldn’t see a cloud in the sky and it had to be seventy degrees and high noon by the look of where the bright unfettered sun hung in the sky overhead. But it was 6 PM upstairs, back in reality. It was a deep cellar but not deep enough to be in a different time zone, James thought. That’s a deep hole Jim. A might deep ol’ hole.

Suddenly, a loud air horn shredded the daze that had fallen over him. He looked toward the river from where the sound came and saw a boat, at least seventy feet long, trudging its way along the river. He couldn’t believe his eyes. It looked like one of those Viking River boats he and Alice got pamphlets about last year. James could barely make out couples seated in state rooms, peering at the sites on the shore.

James felt dizzy and realized he hadn’t taken a break since he’d opened the door. He became aware of an ache in his right hand and realized he was still gripping the doorknob like he was on a roller coaster. A river boat. A damned river boat…what the fuck river is this? And what the fuck dream am I in?

James took a deep breath and stepped across the threshold separating the basement room from this view and nothing was ever the same again.

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