(CLUBHOUSE TIME MACHINE: 13/7/2022) What’s missing? – Jack Heath

I’m about to break a rule.

You can read as many articles and listen to as many podcasts and attend as many workshops as you want, but good storytelling is usually instinctive. Sometimes the rules will tell you to do one thing (use active voice! avoid adverbs!) but your instincts will tell you to do another, and you’ll have to choose. In my experience, trusting your instincts usually leads to better results than following the rules.

(I’m talking here about writing fiction. In my real-world activities, I’m very much a rule-follower. My superpower is “doing what I’m told”. Maybe that’s why fiction holds such appeal for me – it’s an opportunity to let loose.)

But the thing about instincts is that they’re opaque. You don’t know why something works; it just does. And you don’t know why something doesn’t; it just doesn’t.

I’m about to show you something that doesn’t.

The rule I’m about to break is this: never show anyone your first draft. Certainly you’re not supposed to publish it. But I’ve written the first chapter of a novel, and my instincts tell me it’s missing something. But because my instincts are subconscious, I can’t tell what. I’m hoping you can do better. Here we go:

Chapter One

Monday: 113 Hours Missing

Every town has a house like this one. Broken windows, missing roof tiles, peeling paint. A garden so overgrown you’d need a machete just to get to the front door. Rumours about asbestos, a poltergeist, a serial killer. No-one willing to buy it, however cheap it gets.

In primary school, Zoe and Declan used to dare each other to put a hand on the low gate and count to five before running away, screaming. Now Zoe is seventeen, and the house still gives her the creeps. She stands on the footpath, schoolbag slung over one shoulder. It’s heavy–she wasn’t sure what a missing persons investigator would need, so she packed everything she could think of. The wind billows her too-big maroon blazer around her hips, and blows her dark, wavy hair into her eyes. She tucks it back behind her ears.

‘Hello?’ she calls.

No sound from the house.

She’s just around the corner from Declan’s place. Either he walked past here last Wednesday afternoon, or he didn’t. If he did, then he probably made it home before whatever happened, happened. If he didn’t, then he could have been taken anywhere between here and Colling High School.

It’s unlikely that anyone lives here. Even more unlikely that they happened to see Declan pass by. A long shot. But Zoe ran out of short shots days ago.

Her glasses have fogged up. She takes them off, wipes them on her scarf, and puts them back on. They fog up again immediately.

She’s trying to work out how to open the gate when there’s a squeak from the house. Maybe a rat, or the rusted weather vane on the roof. But when she squints up at the second-floor windows, she sees a shadow glide past one of them.

Someone is here.

‘Hey!’ Zoe climbs over the gate. A rotting picket catches her jeans, leaving a dark smear on the denim. She pushes through the scrub towards the veranda. Sticky weeds cling to her sleeves, trying to stop her.

The planks of the veranda bend under her weight. Zoe bounces from one to the next, and soon reaches the front door. The handle is long gone, leaving just an empty circle. Zoe gives the door a shove and it opens on broken hinges, grinding along the floor.

Zoe creeps in. Her smartwatch beeps, letting her know that her heart rate is elevated.

She’s in an entrance hall with a high ceiling and a cobwebbed chandelier dangling overhead, the crystals long gone. On her left is a living area with the bones of a couch and an old, hollowed-out TV–it looks like someone has used it as a fireplace. To her right there’s a space that might once have been a dining room–the table has been smashed, but a couple of the chairs are intact. A fridge lies on its side in the corner. In front of her, a corridor leads to the back of the house, and a set of stairs goes up into the gloom.

Food scraps, crumpled cans and scrunched up balls of plastic litter the floor all around her. Zoe has heard people sometimes come here for wild parties, though she herself isn’t cool enough to be invited. But when she examines the waste, it doesn’t look like party food. Muesli bar wrappers, empty spaghetti tins, bread crusts. It looks like someone has been living here for a while.

Hope flutters in her heart.

‘I don’t want any trouble,’ she says. ‘I just need to ask you something.’

The house sucks up the words and gives nothing back.

She climbs the stairs. Some of them are missing, leaving gaps like the black keys on a piano.

At the top of the stairs is a landing, softened by a worn rug. Picture hooks protrude from the walls, but there are no pictures. Zoe turns left, creeping towards a closed bedroom door.

‘My friend is missing,’ she says. ‘He used to walk past here on his way home from school. I just need to know if you saw him last Wednesday.’

Silence. It occurs to her, much too late, that whoever lives here might not just have seen Declan.

They might be the one who took him.

Every instinct screams at her to run. She doesn’t. Instead she grips the brass door handle, the dust sticking to her sweaty palm. ‘Please.’ Her voice cracks. ‘I just want my friend back.’

She waits two more seconds, then pushes the door open. The hinges moan.

The bedroom looks abandoned, forgotten, looted and then forgotten once again. There’s a wardrobe with no doors, and a four-poster bed with no mattress. Mould creeps down the walls, like nature is trying to reclaim the building. The carpet is a Venn diagram of stains.

Zoe creeps in and looks around. No-one is here. She peers under the bed. Scraps of paper. She pulls them out. They’re receipts, the ink long-gone.

The wind howls at the broken window, making the curtains dance. Maybe that’s what she saw from ground level. Or maybe whoever was here had time to escape out the back door. This is the sort of place you’d only go if you were desperate to avoid human contact.

The disappointment is crushing. She turns to leave. The door has swung closed behind her. On the back of it, someone has scrawled a single word in red paint: MUTED.

She gets a whiff–a sour, metallic odour–and steps back.

That’s not paint.

What do you think? There’s a missing ingredient, isn’t there? If you know what it is, please, please, please sound off in the comments. I need your help!


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