‘Till Death Do Us Part, A Ghost Story’ is the short story I wrote for NYC Midnight’s 2015 Short Story Challenge. There were forty-eight heats in the first round and I was one of thirty entrants sorted into Heat 9. My first round assignment was as follows.
Genre: Ghost Story
Character: A divorce lawyer
This is my story, which placed 4th in the first round:
Till Death Do Us Part, A Ghost Story
Synopsis: A divorce attorney visits a wealthy recluse to provide a consultation in what turns out to be the most bizarre case of her career. Her client wants a divorce… from his dead wife.
It was evening by the time Sámi arrived at the Weiss estate. The cab pulled up to a gorgeous Victorian that looked like it could double as a ten room bed and breakfast.
Sámi smiled. Consenting to a house call had been wise. She paid the driver, stepped from the cab, and gazed up at the house.
She noticed a woman with pale blonde hair framed in an upstairs window. The woman’s expression was unclear but before she vanished from view, Sámi felt as though their eyes met. Unease washed over her, a brief fear so potent that she wanted to get back into the cab and go home.
She tried to shake the feeling and stepped onto the covered porch. As she approached the tall front doors, one of them opened and a small, neatly dressed woman stepped into view.
“Ms. Nilsson,” she said with a nod of her head. “Thank you for coming.”
Sámi extended her hand. “It’s my pleasure. You must be Helga Becke.”
The small woman seemed reluctant to shake Sámi’s hand, though her hesitation only lasted a moment. Helga’s hand was cold and dry, and she gripped Sámi’s hand firmly.
“Please come in.”
Helga waved Sámi into an entrance hall so large that every click and clack of her boots echoed back to her.
“This is a lovely home,” Sámi said, glancing through the nearest doorway at one of the large rooms that fronted the house.
Her brief glance revealed a tall blonde woman dressed in a blue pantsuit standing at the far end of the room. When Sámi did a double take, the woman was gone. Surely it wasn’t the same woman from the upstairs window; she couldn’t have gotten to this downstairs room so quickly.
“This way please,” Helga said curtly. “Mr. Weiss will see you in his office.”
Perhaps he wasn’t ill, after all. That had been her first thought when Helga had called to ask Sámi to visit the estate, that the man was too ill to visit her at her office in the city. Either that or he was some kind of eccentric shut-in.
She followed the neat little woman through the entry hall and past the staircase that led to the second floor. They turned left into a wide corridor and Sámi peeked into what looked like a large dining hall as they passed.
Inside, she saw the same woman from the entry hall, a tall blonde in a blue pantsuit. Perhaps the lady of the house?
They stopped at a set of double doors near the end of the hall and Sámi heard a muffled voice respond to Helga’s knock. She opened the door, stepped into the room, and held the door for Sámi.
Sámi stepped into the massive office and glanced around in admiration. Dark wood and lush fabrics enriched the space while leather-bound books filled numerous built-in shelves.
“Ms. Nilsson,” a deep voice said from her left, “thank you for coming.”
Helga impatiently gestured for Sámi to follow her to where Mr. Weiss stood behind a desk the size of a small country. Sámi mustered her best smile and followed, reaching to shake his hand as he rounded the desk to greet her.
“Jebediah Weiss,” he said warmly as he clasped her hand, “but please call me Jeb.”
“It’s a pleasure, Jeb. I must insist that you call me Sámi.”
“Sámi?” He still held her hand in his and his dark eyes inspected her closely. “That’s lovely. I thought you went by Sam?”
Sámi smiled again. She used Sam professionally, as clients often passed over women lawyers in favor of men. When she used the masculine sounding name in an advertisement or in a letter, people tended to take her more seriously.
“Generally, I do,” she said as she looked up into Jeb’s dark face. Not the face she would have expected to see attached to such a name, but it was a good face and she liked it very much. “I prefer to be more genuine with certain clients. You strike me as one who would appreciate that.”
His laugh as he released her grip was a rich sound that made Sámi’s skin tingle. “Indeed, I do appreciate it, Sámi. Thank you for your candor. That’s a rare thing to find these days.”
He paused and stared into the far corner of the room, his expression suddenly hostile. Sámi glanced in that direction. She saw only an empty seating arrangement beside a fireplace.
Eccentric shut-in it was, then.
“What can I help you with today, Jeb?”
“Will you excuse me for one moment, Sámi?”
“Of course,” she said and took the chair he offered.
She watched him gesture to Helga and the pair walked toward the fireplace, speaking in low voices. Sámi turned in her chair to watch them as they paused side by side next to the seating arrangement near the fireplace.
Sámi blinked when a few words reached her ears, “I need some privacy, can’t you wait elsewhere?”
He wasn’t looking at Helga. I fact, he seemed to be speaking to the empty chair.
At that moment, Helga noticed Sámi’s attention and she paled. She scurried to stand beside the armchair and looked up as Jeb gestured angrily. Though she adopted a chastened expression, she didn’t respond.
They’re both eccentric, then. Sámi shook her head and turned back to face the desk. It was gorgeous, made of dark wood and easily twice the size of hers.
The desk held a lovely stained glass lamp and several large picture frames. Sámi stood and leaned forward to look at the pictures. They featured Jeb and a tall blonde woman. The woman Sámi had seen in the house?
In one of the pictures, the couple was standing hand in hand on an empty beach. In another, they were amongst trees, shaded from the sun and surrounded by greenery. The roof of a house showed in the corner of the shot and Sámi wondered if the picture had been taken on these very grounds.
She noticed a third frame lying face down near the lamp and curious, she reached to pick it up.
Jeb called to her. “Would you join me by the fire, Sámi? We can discuss our business in comfort.”
She turned on her smile and made her way to the other side of the room. Helga was gone. Sámi took the offered chair and sat down to wait for Jeb to begin.
“You noticed my photographs? Is my wife not lovely?”
“She is, indeed,” Sámi said with a nod. “You both look very happy.”
Jeb, standing by the fireplace, turned toward her. Sámi almost flinched at the anger she saw on his face. Here it comes, she thought. There’s trouble in paradise and he wants a divorce.
She cocked her head at Jeb as he sat in the chair opposite her. “What is it, Jeb? Please tell me I’m not here to handle your divorce?”
She didn’t actually mean that. She very much wanted to handle his divorce. Divorce was what she did, and she did it well.
Jeb seemed to deflate as he sighed. “I asked you to meet with me here in my home because I have a condition which makes it extremely difficult for me to go… well, anywhere.” He eyed her, his expression considering. “Do you know what agoraphobia is, Sámi?”
There it was. This was why he’d asked her to come to him. Why Helga had asked her, rather. Jeb was agoraphobic. That wasn’t so horrible. She didn’t think it was horrible, anyway.
She nodded, her expression sympathetic. “I’ve heard of it though I admit that I’m not terribly familiar with the condition. Is that why you requested a consult here in your home?”
“It is. I don’t get out much.” He chuckled softly. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t get out at all. I haven’t left these grounds for about four years now.”
“That’s a very long time to stay at home,” she said.
“It’s actually not bad. I’ve had my work and various activities to keep me occupied. I’ve had my wife to help me, and Helga, and a few other loyal people on staff. I have extensive grounds so I do get outside for fresh air and sunshine. It’s been bearable.”
“It’s no longer bearable?” Sámi asked gently.
“Not since my wife died in a car accident last winter.”
“I’m so sorry to hear of your loss, Jeb.”
If he didn’t want a divorce, why was she here?
She thought of the blonde woman she’d seen. Was she related to the deceased? Perhaps this was an estate issue? Not her specialty, but doable. She took a sip of the iced tea that Helga had brought on a tray before she had slipped out again.
“My wife diagnosed my condition,” Jeb said, ignoring Sámi’s condolences. “I was in my thirties, attending an opera with a friend. I had an episode. It wasn’t my first such episode, but it was one of my worst. Gloria was there that night. She recognized what was happening and helped calm me, got me somewhere I would feel safe. That’s one of the worst things about agoraphobia you know, the feeling that you’re not safe, that you can’t escape.”
“It sounds horrible, Jeb,” Sámi said in her best sympathetic tone.
“Indeed,” he nodded, “but Gloria helped. She was a psychologist, you see. She offered an interesting treatment program… she married me.”
He laughed and Sámi laughed with him, though she wondered how marriage would help in the treatment of such a disorder. Love conquers all? She thought she saw movement by Jeb’s desk but when she focused her attention, she saw nothing.
“We bought this place just before the wedding and we built a life here. We made many good memories during our sixteen years together.” He nodded and looked around the room.
“Neither of us wanted kids. I have this condition, of course, and Gloria had her work. Plus, I’m not entirely sure that she wanted biracial children, to be honest.”
Sámi made a noncommittal noise, a soft “mmm”, and then a thump from the other end of the room startled her. She jumped slightly and looked toward Jeb’s large desk, but saw nothing.
Jeb didn’t react.
“Eventually, I stopped venturing off the grounds. Capable people run my businesses, so I don’t need to be present much of the time. When my input is required, I can handle everything through phone or video conferences. Technology is quite wonderful.”
“That it is,” Sámi murmured. She had the eerie feeling that someone was watching her and it was making her skin crawl.
“Gloria spent much of her time working, shopping, and traveling. I was often alone, which suited me.”
Sámi heard a sultry laugh. Her skin broke out in gooseflesh.
“That was then,” Jeb said darkly.
The blonde woman from the pictures on Jeb’s desk appeared on the loveseat opposite the chairs in which Sámi and Jeb sat. She just… appeared. The woman in the blue pantsuit.
“Sámi, meet Gloria, my dead wife. I’d like for you to handle our divorce.”
“Sámi, are you alright?”
“She’s fine,” said an ethereal voice. It sounded amused but annoyed.
Sámi ignored Jeb’s bitter response to the voice as he helped her to her feet and then to her chair. She felt nauseous and disoriented. This wasn’t happening. She wasn’t sitting in a crazy man’s office listening to him argue with his dead wife.
“Sámi, are you ready to continue?”
Jeb’s voice was gentle when he spoke to her, though it had been venomous a moment before when he’d been speaking to… when he’d been…
There wasn’t a ghost in a blue pantsuit sitting in front of her, smirking. Not a ghost.
This was a joke of some sort. A prank. It was a… it was…
She shook her head to clear it and pointedly refused to look at the smug not-ghost in the blue pantsuit.
“I understand that you’re upset and I apologize, but I need your help. There was no easy way to broach the subject, though Gloria was supposed to have given me more time.”
“Had I given you more time, you’d have had her naked on the rug,” the not-ghost said.
Sámi pretended not to hear the voice, though her cheeks flamed. Naked on the rug with this man sounded preferable to the nightmare she was currently experiencing.
“Or she’d have had you naked.” That sultry laugh again.
“Will you help me, Sámi?” Jeb sounded desperate. “It’s been eight months. I can’t take this ghost of a hag any longer.”
“You-you’re a widower,” she said hesitantly. She was trembling. “I can’t represent you in a divorce if there’s no marriage. Your wife is d-dead, so there is no marriage.”
Jeb glared at the not-ghost. “See?”
Sámi watched only him, refusing to acknowledge that they weren’t alone.
“Don’t you recall our vows,” the not-ghost purred. “Did ‘till death do us part’ mean nothing?”
Jeb made an inarticulate sound of rage. “Death came! It took you! We’re parted!”
“You’re still alive, love. You still bear my name. We took a vow and in my opinion, that means that we don’t part until we’ve both passed. So I stayed.”
Jeb’s doleful eyes returned to Sámi. “Please.”
“Jeb, no judge will hear this case.”
“Could you, perhaps, present this to a judge… privately?”
His eyes hinted at more. They implored her. He was asking her to lie.
“Possibly, that would work,” Sámi hedged.
“What? No. Don’t you dare, you little harlot!”
Sámi’s eyes hardened as they slid toward the not-ghost.
She jerked her gaze back to Jeb. “I’ll take care of it.”
He smiled and relaxed. “Good. That’s good.”
“If you divorce me, Jebediah Weiss, I want this house!”
An hour later, Sámi was more irritated than frightened.
“Why do you want the house? All you can do with it is haunt it!”
“I can remember!” Gloria Weiss screeched. “I can wait for you to join me in death while you go on living and dallying with… with hussies.”
She glared at Sámi, who pinched the bridge of her nose.
“You’d let our home fall to ruin, Gloria?”
“My home,” she pouted. “I want to keep all of our belongings, as well. It must stay just like this.” She sniffled dramatically.
Jeb didn’t reply.
Sámi squinted at him, hopeful.
He slumped. “Fine. Keep the house. You’ll remain here? You won’t follow me?”
“No. Though I’ll need… one of the staff. To talk to me, to read to me. Keep me company.”
“One. Twice a week.”
“Fine,” Jeb snarled.
Gloria’s sigh gave Sámi chills.
Jeb hesitated. ”Frederick.”
Sámi scribbled notes as they haggled.
“One last thing.”
“What more do you want, woman?”
“If you get the lawyer naked, can I watch?”
Sámi fainted again.
NYC Midnight Judges’ Feedback
WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY
1) The mechanics in this, in terms of sentence structure, punctuation, and grammar, are solid. In addition, there is diverse, character-specific dialogue once the ghost enters the room… “not-ghost” is a creative, fresh way of giving the apparition an identification without over explaining. Well done!
2) You’re a great writer. Wonderful scene-setting, strong character building, crisp dialogue, some laugh-out-loud lines (“Death came! It took you! We’re parted!”) mixed in with a slow-building creepiness made for an enjoyable read.
WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK
1) “Consenting to a house call had been wise” — why? Does she hate house calls? What does the condition of the house say to her? That there’s much more cash involved than normal, and why would Sami need that cash? At the opening, we don’t really know what Sami does (not until several pages in and that’s too late), what she does that shoe would make a house call; yes, the parameters of the competition state that she must be a divorce lawyer, but a reader who isn’t connected with the competition isn’t going to have that benefit. In addition, what is Sami’s personal journey during this? This has great potential for a character/conflict/crisis/change story, which would make it a more satisfying read. What if, for example, she doesn’t take house calls because of some incident in her past that happened to her on a house call, but if she takes this she gets three times the money she normally does and she’s broke because she’s a terrible lawyer who has no clients and if she doesn’t pay her landlord she’s going to get thrown out? What a conflict, what a challenge she now faces. Section 2 opens with a great deal of “polite” dialogue, and much of it, since it doesn’t advance the story, could be cut; at this point, it slows down the pacing. In fact, we don’t get to the central conflict until seven pages in. In a short story — in any story, really — it’s important to seize the reader with conflict right away. The story comes to an abrupt end; it almost feels as though it’s the first part of an unfinished piece rather than a whole.
2) I knew by the third page you weren’t going to be able to bring the story to a fully satisfying close in the space you had left. The pace is more suited to a novel than a short story— if you’re writing a twelve page story, and you wait until the fourth page to introduce your two main characters to each other, your plot will inevitably start to seem rushed by the end. The central dilemma is much too easily resolved—the couple barely needs Sami’s intervention to fix their issues, and there were a couple of important strands (the wife’s distaste for a biracial child; Jeb’s attraction to Sami) that were left undeveloped. I’d suggest playing around with expanding the story, and trying to come up with a climactic scene that hinges around some kind of action rather than the three characters sitting around talking to each other, which is a somewhat static way to reach a resolution.