Sunday, 11 March 2012

ASKING PRICE by Neil Ballard

Neil returns with a moving tale of hope... or is it?

Asking Price

The house was up in the hills. The road wound around in such a way that the front of the house faced away from the lake, and a porch wrapped around the back on the second story. The master bedroom, the office, and the games room all opened out onto this porch. The view of the lake from up there was superb.

It was probably the best house in the whole county, built in 1929 from the lumber of just two trees - giant sequoias felled by a San Francisco businessman who desired a rustic setting for his twilight years. The basement foundation and chimney addition were equally attractive, being constructed of granite from the Kelseyville quarry.

The listing price was positively criminal - truly a theft- compared to that property value. But Lake County folk were never what you’d call prosperous, especially in these troubled recent times, so the price of the house compared favorably to something you’d find down South.

They parked their van in the gravel drive. The estate agent, Mr. Kilton, had parked just ahead of them. He hopped out of his Olds and climbed the steps to the front door, jiggling the keys while he waited for mom to get her kids out of the car.

‘I’m not going in,’ Chelsea said, her arms crossed and her seatbelt still on.

‘Come on, we’re not going through this again,’ her mother said. Her father was standing with a grimace on his face and his hands on his hips.

‘No. If I don’t go in, then you can’t see the house, and we can’t live here. I hate it here. People are disgusting here.’

‘If you don’t get out of the car right now-’

Chelsea’s brother Jordan was waddling up to the house, his arms spinning in helicopter fashion.

‘Just look at the real estate guy, mom. He’s a total creep. All tall and skinny, with that gross little moustache. He looks like a skeleton.’

The estate agent plucked his trouser-pleats and settled down on his haunches when Jordan began clambering over the steps. He stretched out his arms, bracelets glinting in the sun, reaching for the toddler-

‘Jesus,’ Chelsea said, unbuckling her seatbelt and rushing over to scoop Jordan up herself.

‘Ohp,’ Mr. Kilton said with a chuckle. ‘Well, shall we go inside?’

Chelsea rolled her eyes and began talking to Jordan. Mom and dad smiled at Mr. Kilton and asked for the full tour.

‘Wow, look at this kitchen, honey, look at this old stove.’

‘Yep,’ Mr. Kilton said to mom, ‘that’s been here since the late‘forties, I believe. It adds to the whole old-fashioned charm of the residence, I think…’

‘Oh my god,’ Chelsea said from the back of the downstairs. ‘In the laundry room, come look.’

Mom and dad obeyed her summons, and Mr. Kilton followed. Chelsea, gently bouncing Jordan in one arm, pointed to the corner of the ceiling. A large, thick web held a wriggling moth.

‘Chelsea, that’s not so -’ her mother began, but the spider showed itself, rattling its giant web like a trampoline as it ate.

‘This house is a fixer-upper,’ dad said, ‘we knew that going in. Some new wallpaper here and there, maybe replace some of this old flooring. C’mon, Chels, you can’t be a squeamish homeowner, remember that.’

‘Oh my god! Aren’t you thinking of Jordan? What if he gets bitten by-’

‘C’mon, Chels,’ dad said, tugging on one of her piercings until she yielded. Mr. Kilton chuckled and led the way upstairs.

‘Mom,’ Chelsea said, ‘I’m serious, I don’t want to be here.’

‘You’re being a pain in the ass again, Chelsea. I’m serious. You just love to get in the way, don’t you?’

‘Well, tell you what, why don’t Chelsea explore downstairs a while, while I give you two the upstairs tour?’ Mr. Kilton said from the top of the stairs. He was crouched to avoid bumping his head on the overhang.

‘Oh, okay,’ mom said, ‘I think that’s a real good idea.’

There was plenty to see in the upstairs. There was more natural lighting than downstairs, what with all the skylights and French doors, and having the kids out of the way gave Mr. Kilton the opportunity to go over the boring details of the inspection, and the small matter of the septic tank (entirely corroded on account of previous owner neglect), the particulars of the deck refinishing, local amenities, so on and so forth.

Downstairs, Chelsea was afforded an opportunity to inspect the areas of peeling wallpaper and colonies of rot. The living room seemed very much to be alive, with several strains and species recognizable, especially in the area surrounding an ancient liver-hued couch.

Chelsea did not want to let Jordan squirm away for fear of spiders, so she soothed him with a song as they moved through the rooms. It was a sad pop song they always played at the laundromat, and she sang it because she too needed soothing. She hated Lake County, hated the way that guy at the deli back in town had licked his lips when she ordered a sandwich. He had bad tattoos up and down his arms, and there was a woman behind the counter with a drawn face and straw hair, sitting on a stool and swatting invisible flies. Not that visible flies were in short supply in Lake County, either.

There was a staircase leading down. The stairs were carpeted and it was dark at the bottom, Chelsea guessed that it led to the basement. She took Jordan to the kitchen, and they looked out the window. She had run out of lyrics to her song but Jordan was happy holding onto her, and the silence was nice. Clear Lake was really pretty, she had to admit. And it wasn’t like this would be any worse than the other places they’d lived.

‘Do you like it here?’ she asked Jordan. He had fallen asleep.

It wasn’t as though she had a choice in the matter. She remembered the self-help book she’d read at her aunt’s house, and remembered that the only thing a person can control is their own emotions and responses to situations.

‘Let’s check out the downstairs, maybe we could find a playroom for you,’ she said to Jordan. So they walked down the stairs towards the basement.

The steps were carpeted, and the walls were paneled with fake wood. Funny, given the redwood construction of the house. There wasn’t a light switch at the top of the stairs, and Chelsea struggled to find one at the bottom. There were two doors to her left and right. What she did see, where the switch should have been, was an odd symbol painted in a dark color. She decided to open the left door first, and they found a room with no windows. Fortunately there was a lightswitch in this room.

The room was cluttered with boxes and old junk from a few past decades. Ski sets and fondue pots and exercise videos, standard house junk. Chelsea was about to turn, to try the other door, when she noticed something. There seemed to be some bone thing in the back, behind the boxes. Like an antler or something. Chelsea was always fascinated by antlers, she used them all the time in her pencil sketches and watercolors. She wanted to get an antler tattoo of some kind as soon as she got to be old enough. She moved toward it.

It was a full elk skull, in perfect condition.

‘Cool,’ she said. She took another step into the room.

It seemed to be attached to the face of a clothed mannequin, but something more lifelike than a mannequin, six-five or taller, dressed in a corduroy shirt, leather apron and dungarees. There was a long knife in his belt.

Chelsea backed out of the room. In the corner, another moth flapped noisily in a dusty web. She tried to slam the door but it was made of flimsy plywood. Closing it in a quick motion just made it more air resistant, and in the added moment, she saw the man stand up. She started scrambling up the stairs, still holding Jordan. The man busted the door and stepped through, taking care not to catch the antlers of his mask-helmet on the jamb.

Chelsea threw Jordan up and he landed on the hardwood floor, crying loudly. It dawned on Chelsea too late that she should have been screaming. A hand clamped over her mouth and she was led down forcibly, through the other door, to the darkened basement.

Jordan was slow to start walking, but he had never evinced trouble around stairs, and that ability did not fail him now. He came to the top, wailing without words, running over to his mother, who took one last hit on the pipe before reluctantly offering it, the globe still half-swirling with the precious vapors of some prime crystals, to her husband’s outstretched hand. Mom picked up her child.

‘I already got some bedding for you,’ Kilton said, pointing to a couple of camping rolls and dirty sleeping bags, right next to the slashed and piss-stained pool table. ‘So you don’t have to worry about mattresses or nothing. And you saw the kitchen was kitted out, that stove don’t work but there’s a hot plate, and some paper plates. I think there’s a fork, somewhere…’

‘Appreciate that.’

‘So like I said, the price is right,’ Kilton said, ‘we just don’t get a lot of buyers who are willing to negotiate seriously.’

Dad gave Kilton his pipe and said, ‘Well, Kilton, looks like you boys have yourself a deal.’

‘Delighted to hear it. Shake on it?’

‘Sure thing. And let’s set the move-in date for early next week, is that enough time?’

‘I believe that’ll do nicely,’ Kilton said, giggling. He gave the still-shrieking Jordan a rustle on the head and escorted the good folks out to their van. They had some trouble getting the little one into his car-seat, but soon they were off, with the whole afternoon ahead of them to enjoy the sights of Lake County.

Kilton admired the view of the lake for a moment. He knelt to tie his shoe, but he had never really learned how. After a few minutes of that fruitless pursuit he turned and walked back into the house.


BIO: Neil Ballard, a young crime writer living in Northern California, has a smattering of publications not worthy of mention, for the roiling and nebulous internet gestalt has moved on. He hopes for a more profound success with a novel that he wrote in 2009 and is currently editing. It is about a witch.


  1. Man. For a while I was back at the drive in movie yelling "Don't go down there!" at the screen. But she did. Then I found out that "Up there" was worse. Surreal is an overused word these days, but boy, does it fit this story like a tight tailored wet suit Cool.

  2. My teeth are chattering as I type such is the chill Neil Ballard has given me.


  3. Darkly surreal and starkly real at the same time. The image of the man with a elk skull jumping up and casing her was horrific yet inspired. Old style under-the-skin terror. Really enjoyed it.