AUTHOR: Lake Lopez
TITLE: “Sinister” (first 5000 words) — a new chapter of this novel appears weekly on Lake’s website (Larry’s note: I love the subtitle/slugline he uses for his site).
GENRE: Really scary horror.
LOGLINE (more like a synopsis in this case):
1985, Manitou, Colorado: Anthony and Garren come from different worlds, but that hasn’t stopped them from growing up best friends. Now, on the verge of high school graduation, Anthony longs to escape the path his mother set out for him and build a life around music. Garren, always the misfit, always the loser, just wants to escape.The boys are together when Garren finds her, his first love – a dilapidated guitar that used to be red. Her neck is twisted, her pick-ups are corroded and parts of her look ready to splinter. But for Garren it’s love at first sight. Soon, both boys learn that this is no ordinary guitar.Anthony realizes it the first time he touches her, brushing the spider web pattern of cracks in her body, and hears a wicked melody scorch his soul. The addictive music is nothing, however, compared to what happens when Garren gives her strings and makes her sing. Anthony watches his friend’s musical skills grow, as if by magic, along with his obsession with the guitar. Not even Tory, a beautiful girl who adores him, can pry the guitar out of his hands – or his heart.Then people begin to die and Anthony must face the terrifying truth, that the guitar has a purpose and it’s one for more sinister than could ever be imagined…
THE PROBLEM: 5,000 words is a lot. Every reader knows whether or not they’re going to stay with the story far before they reach the 5,000 words mark. So what I’d like to know is whether or not the story grabs a reader around the throat and makes them want more… I know the horror genre isn’t everybody’s thing, but a compelling conflict can overcome that and, I want to know, if I’ve done my job right.
a novel by Lake Lopez
Part I, Boys
“Your music has a dark and troubling quality to it,” Mr. Thomas said. “If you’re going to be a professional musician, you’ll have to be cautious.”
In tenth grade I’d caught mono. When the chills and fever abated, I remained exhausted. My mother pampered me with bowls of soup and plain toast. During the day I watched talk shows and soap operas. At night I watched sitcoms and the movies she’d rented for me. Between the television marathons and VHS cassettes I slept. It was not the comforting sleep of the healthy, but a paralyzing slumber, a deadening of my entire body that frightened me as it sucked me under its dry riptide. I rotted like this, life in a bed, for a month of recovery.
“Yeah, it’s intentional,” I said.
I fell behind in all of my classes and spent long hours catching up in school. Algebra II, American History, all the classes deemed important enough to be required took priority and I’d dropped the one class I really liked – band. I’d had no choice but to let it go. So as a senior at Saint Michael’s Christian Academy I took Music–Independent Study with Mr. Thomas to complete my electives and graduate. I’d just played an original, piano composition for him.
“I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse,” he said.
I wanted the song to have a sinister edge to it. I imagined my C Sharp piece accompanying the opening scene of a horror movie one day. But his statements – and warning – made it seem like a bad thing.
“But I’ll give you an A plus for writing daunting music intentionally.”
He was one of the oldest teachers at the school. He wasn’t quite as ancient as Mr. Creedy, my Senior Composition teacher, but he was close. His age probably made it impossible to enjoy a song full of ominous tones.
“Have you talked to your mom about your desire to study music yet?”
He glanced at the white-faced clock. It loomed on the wall behind the conductor’s podium. The music room, with its rows of fat steps that mimicked a symphonic orchestra’s stage, was one of the few places I’d miss after graduation. It was the one place at SMCA I wished I’d spent more time in.
“Not yet,” I said. “I need to get my dad on my side first and I’ve got a plan for that.”
He stood up, signaling the end of our class. I was his only Music–Independent Study pupil and the class was held after hours. He was probably in a hurry to get home or to sneak a cigarette in his car.
“You’re talented,” he said. “I’ll keep good thoughts for you.”
“You said I needed to be cautious if I was going to be a pro,” I said. “So you think I’m good enough?”
“Piano, singing, whatever.”
“Well, Anthony, if a man wants to make a living with the talents God gave him, I believe that God will help him find a way to do so.”
Much of what was said at Saint Michael’s ended with something like God will help find a way. God didn’t care about my music career one way or the other. If there was a God, he remained an impartial audience member, neither cheering nor booing. After eight years of Saint Michaels schooling I couldn’t say that to him, so I played along.
“God probably wants me to get the Business Administration degree because my mother talked him into it.”
He glanced at the clock again. We’d spent an hour-and-a-half together. My father got his money’s worth when it came to this particular, forty-five minute class.
“What I meant by being cautious…”
I stuffed my hand-written sheet music into a folder and shoved it between two text books in my Saint Michael’s book bag; Music Theory for Advanced Students and Trigonometry.
“What happens when you turn up the radio’s volume in your car?”
“You enjoy driving a lot more.”
“That, too,” he said, “and you drive faster. Do you know why?”
I shook my head.
“Because the music forces you to,” he said. “Music influences emotions to the point of control. Sometimes it’s subtle and sometimes it’s not. It’s always there, though, waiting in the background. Advertisers and dictators understand this and professional musicians should, as well.”
He had a point, I supposed. I’d had a Scorpions tape blaring when I’d caught my first speeding ticket; forty-seven in a thirty-five miles per hour zone.
“You’re very young,” he added, “and the darkness loves the young.”
Mr. Thomas, like most of SMCA’s faculty, had an oddness about him that irritated me. The intellectual attitude of his words rang with condescension rather than wisdom.
“My regards to your mom,” he said.
“I’ll tell her.”
* * *
I had no homework and I left my book bag and blazer in my locker. My shoes echoed in the empty hall as I left the school. As I crossed the parking lot I unclipped my tie and unbuttoned my collar. Soon, I’d never wear a clip-on tie or anything that reminded me of a school uniform again.
Your music has a dark and troubling quality to it…
My dad, a man who drove hot cars like Z28s, classic Chargers and Mustangs, and knew the importance of a cool ride had saddled me with a Chevrolet Citation. It was sun faded blue with a torn up interior and weak four banger under the hood. He’d said with enthusiasm that it was a, “…Real fine car for a boy.” I stuffed my school tie in the glove box, turned on my stereo and let the music make me break the speed limit. I headed north, the base of the Rocky Mountains to my left, to take my best friend to the music store.
Darkness loves the young…
What did Mr. Thomas know about darkness, I wondered, and how could he even remember being young?
I envy dead things, an animal’s carcass, split open and bloody on the side of the road, wilted flowers in a jar of cloudy water, and people, pale corpses stretched out flat on their backs in silk-lined coffins. I’m especially jealous of dead people.
They say life is short. I fucking disagree. It’s all a matter of who you are while you’re alive because even the shortest life is inherently too long if you’re like me. I’d spill blood to be one of those people who think life is so fucking short.
Journal Entries, Undated
I found Garren on the steps of Manitou High School. He was cramped over one of his journals, head bent down towards the page he was writing on. I honked. He shot up and headed towards me lugging his backpack.
“What took you so long?”
“I had music class,” I said.
His eyes blazed as bright gas flames and made me smile.
“I’ve got seven hundred dollars,” he said, adjusting the backpack on his lap. “You think it’s enough?”
“For a new one or something used?”
“Used,” he said. “I like guitars with a little history to them.”
He slammed the door shut and I pulled away from the curb.
I shifted from second gear into third and cracked his leg above the knee with my hand. I was sure I felt bone, the flesh on him was that thin.
“If we don’t find something today you can keep playing my acoustic. It’s no big deal.”
“I know,” he said. “I just want something that’s mine.”
We’d been friends since we were little kids. Sometimes people come into your life and you know you’re going to keep them. My classmates at school were temporary. After graduation, I’d never talk to them again. But Garren, he was different.
“Hey, if we have any money left we can get a nickel bag or something. If you want to, I mean.”
Garren never referred to his money with the words “mine” or “my.” It wasn’t in him to do so. I was his friend and that meant, at least in his head, that whatever he had belonged to me, too.
“I’ll just take a bottle of something.”
Pot was okay. I liked it just fine. But alcohol was my preferred drug. It hit my insides deeper than marijuana. Besides, I never had to air the raunchy stink out of my room or my car after drinking.
I asked him, “You want to score that weed and stuff tonight?” I hoped he said yes.
“Can’t,” he said. “I told my boss I’d close that fucking taco shop. Maybe Friday after we rehearse?”
He stuck his index finger in his mouth and started biting the nail. He tilted the finger to get after the side, then forced his hands into his lap. He’d been devouring his nails since I’d met him. He gnawed them below his fingertips, then turned the edges into pulp. The biting distracted me and I almost missed the mall’s entrance. I had to slam on the brakes as I cranked the wheel and we bounced into the parking lot. Garren put one hand on the dash, bracing himself.
“Maniac,” he said. “Someday you’re going to kill me.”
Rock Garage occupied the corner space in a run-down strip mall. The parking lot was full, so I steered us through the lanes and slid into the first space I found.
“Don’t get out yet.”
I keyed the engine off. “Why?”
“I just want to hang for a second.”
I saw some kids loitering near a sporting goods store between us and the Grand Re-Opening sign pointing to Rock Garage. They were tall, wide shouldered kids in Manitou High School letterman’s jackets. Once in a while, Garren showed up at my house with a black eye or a split lip. When I’d ask him about it he’d smile and tell me something like, “Ran into an asshole, don’t worry about it.”
Were these lumbering jocks the type that would beat up on a skeletal kid like Garren? I could picture it. Some guys were born assholes and others learned how to be one. Either way, high school was the domain they ruled. I almost asked him, but the kids didn’t hang out for long. When they headed toward their cars I opened the trunk so Garren could store his backpack.
He stood it up on the trunk bed and unzipped a pocket. Then he pulled out a wad of cash and a pack of cigarettes. I waited for him to stash his journal, a battered composition book with a cheap pen sticking up from the pages. He didn’t.
“You’re going to do some writing while we look at the guitars?”
“You never know when inspiration will strike.”
Even if he hadn’t been frail, five foot ten and a hundred and twenty pounds with his pockets full of dirt, he would’ve been a target. It was the bad haircut, like he’d chopped at his hair himself and then used something like Vaseline to make it lay down flat. His plain brown hair was a mess of uneven edges and cowlicks. It was his cheap clothes, too; department store shoes worn down to the insoles and jeans he’d worn out but never replaced.
Then there was the backpack. He lugged that bag around everywhere, his overstuffed companion. In addition to his current collection of books, he kept a change of socks and underwear, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a package of beef jerky and small boxes of cereal. He’d explained to me, “You never know when you’re going to be really hungry for cereal or jerky.”
It was even more about the ever present journal and the ease in which he told people about it. “I’m working on a collection of poetry,” he’d say. Or, “I’m going to write some novels someday so I’m taking a lot of notes while I’m young.”
And finally it was his walk, his uncoordinated, unsure of himself gait. Maybe all those things were minor, but in the world of teenagers it’s the minor shit that gets you killed.
He lit a cigarette. I walked slow, giving him time to savor it, but he smoked it fast. He barely finished exhaling before he had it in his lips again, drawing smoke as deep as it would go inside of him.
“Thanks for driving me down here,” he said. “It would’ve been a long walk.”
When my mom met Garren, she’d called him, “The baby faced, blue eyed boy.” He’d kept that look. He beamed at me, his face still that of a child instead of a seventeen year old. His eyes remained a shade of blue that made me think of fresh water paint, when the kid’s set of colors is new and at its strongest. At least he had that going for him, eyes that girls would fall in love with – someday.
“Come on, let’s go,” he said and stomped the butt out.
Rock Garage rattled with noise. Guitars adorned entire walls and glass counters of accessories ran in front of them. In the center, amplifiers were stacked on top of each other. Someone was drumming in another room and not keeping time at all.
“This place kicks ass,” Garren said.
In the middle of the store, a guy in long-haired and a gas station shirt had a Stratocaster plugged into a black tube amp. He was ripping blues licks off the guitar’s neck and they made my insides stir. Garren headed right for him and I followed.
The guy had some spooky-good chops, I thought.
A burst of flashing light filled the room and I noticed the photographer then. She was my age and wearing tight jeans. She put her camera to her eyes, aimed at the guitar player and took another shot. Then, from my peripheral vision, I saw someone approaching us and turned to see who. His Rock Garage nametag said CJ.
“Nothing like some low down, devil music,” he said.
“What can I help you with tonight?”
“We’re just -.”
Garren blurted, “Look at that gorgeous girl.”
Then he walked fast, almost sprinted, past the guitar player to the back of the store. I noticed the bluesman grin as Garren strode by him, and thought nothing of it. I trailed after my friend and CJ followed me.
The “gorgeous girl” was propped up against the wall; a guitar so weathered that deep, spider web patterns of cracks covered most of its body. It had been a rich, crimson color at one time, but the paint had darkened to an ugly shade of rusty brown, like dried blood. It had no strings and, even from afar; I saw black corrosion eating at the pick-ups. The head stock had five tuning pegs, one being completely gone.
Garren looked back at me and uttered, breathless, “Isn’t she beautiful.”
CJ came up beside us as Garren kneeled down to look at the wreck of a guitar. His eyes were wide. “How much do you want for this one?”
“How much you looking to spend?” CJ replied.
Garren moved to pick up the guitar. I swatted his hand away before I realized I meant to do so. It had been instinct, a parent keeping junior away from the pretty candle flame. Garren didn’t register that I’d hit him, I guess, because his boney fingers went right back up and fiddled with a cardboard tag wrapped around the neck. He leaned in close to read it.
“Looks like somebody dropped it off for a repair,” he said.
“So it’s broken.” I slapped at his shoulder. “Okay, let’s look at something else.”
“Does that mean you can’t sell it to me?”
“I own the whole store including its abandoned instruments,” CJ said.
“I got seven hundred dollars.”
“No,” I said and kneeled down next to Garren. “Hold on a second, okay?” I lowered my head, trying to give Garren a silent shut-up look and shook my head – no.
He kept his gaze purposefully turned away from me.
“I’ve got a few specials going on right now, all in honor of the re-opening. For seven hundred dollars, I can almost get you into a new Kramer. That’s what Eddie Van Halen plays, you know.”
“Kramers are great, but I like her,” he said. “How much?”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Play it,” Garren said.
“You’ll have to restore it first,” CJ told him. “Have you ever restored a guitar before?”
“Have you ever played a guitar before?”
“He plays my acoustic whenever he wants,” I said.
“She’ll be the first one that’s all mine,” Garren said.
CJ started to say something, but the photographer walked up to him. We must have looked ridiculous, the store’s owner and two teenage boys kneeling in front of a broken-down, relic of a guitar. She looked us over, her serious expression unchanged.
“Excuse me a second,” CJ said and walked away with the girl.
I turned to Garren.
“That,” I said, “is a gorgeous girl. This guitar you’re drooling over… It’s a piece of shit.”
“You can disagree all you want, but it’s still POS brand.”
“To you it is,” he said, and his voice had a low tone that I’d never heard before.
He cleared his throat. “Nothing.”
“Let’s look at the Kramer guitars the guy was telling you about. We should see what used ones he has, too. We can probably find two used guitars for seven hundred dollars.”
Garren shook his head as CJ returned. I stood up, but Garren stayed put, kneeling in front of the guitar.
He asked CJ, “We got a deal or what?”
“That guitar’s dead, kiddo. Let it rest in peace.”
“What do you mean – dead?”
“Her neck is twisted. The pick-ups are smoked. There’s nothing to salvage except the body, and that’s got such severe water damage I don’t know if it’s worth trying.”
“Necks can be straightened and electronics can be replaced,” Garren said.
“Look, I’m just like you. The sight of an old guitar leaves me weak in the knees, like I’m looking at a naked woman. But this one -.”
“You can’t just leave her on the floor all dead and rotting.”
“I thought I’d make it into a piece of art and hang it up in the bathroom,” CJ said. “I was going to spray-paint it orange and stick a clock in it, something like that.”
Garren looked appalled at the idea.
“You want it that bad, you can have it. It’s yours.”
“It’s yours,” he repeated. “When you decide you want one you can actually play, come back and see me. We’ll find you something with a little life left in it.”
“You’re seriously giving her to me?”
He looked like he was about to cry; and it made my stomach churn up acid.
“Hold on, there’s a case for it downstairs.”
CJ went to find the case and I stuck my hand out. “Congratulations. You now own a dead guitar. I can’t wait to jam with you on that.”
“I can’t believe it. That guy’s so generous, isn’t he?”
“Considering he could’ve had a bunch of your money for a piece of trash he was going to hang over the toilet, yeah, that’s a good guy. You got lucky.”
“I did get lucky,” he said.
He stared at the old guitar, his eyes burning.
“I want the first time I touch her to be stuck in my memory.”
Then, slow and reverent, he reached out and picked it up.
“Killer sweet,” he said.
He stood, the old guitar cradled in both arms and held tight against his chest, its neck and headstock aimed toward the ceiling. CJ came back with the case. He carried it under his arm rather than by the handle and when he sat it down I saw why. All the latches were gone. I saw ragged tears in its covering, like torn flesh, where the screws and hinges used to be. Had he picked it up by the handle the cover would have fallen open. He set the case on the floor and lifted the lid.
A black book, cracked leather cover and yellowing pages, lay wedged in the space where picks and extra strings could be. Garren grabbed the book, opened it to a random page, then cast it aside. He set the guitar against the cases red padding and lowered the lid, inch by inch.
“Have fun,” CJ said.
“Honest, man, I can’t thank you enough.”
CJ stopped him with a wave. The store had gone quiet. The bad drummer had stopped pummeling the bass and snare. The bluesman was gone, his Strat left in a stand next to a black amp.
“Don’t forget your journal,” I told Garren.
He grabbed it from the floor and handed it to me to carry along with the leather bound book. He used both arms to carry the guitar, protecting his new treasure.
“I really do appreciate it,” he told CJ. “I think this is the coolest thing anyone has ever done for me.”
“You might feel differently when you try to fix it,” he said. “Thanks for coming in.”
Garren headed out and I lingered behind to tell CJ that we’d see him again. It was kind of a thank you for not taking advantage of Garren and accepting his money. He probably thought the kid was a mental patient or something.
“Look out for your little brother,” he said to me. “He’s got a bad case of something that’s yet to be diagnosed.”
His request made me laugh because Garren was, in many ways, my little brother. He was not the one I’d requested from my parents when they were still together. I’d wanted one that could play guns with me and wrestle without getting hurt and crying. But he was a year younger than me and the one I’d ended up with; and I took the responsibility seriously. He was also, without question, suffering from some sort of madness. He always had been. It may have been plain weirdness or something worse, but it was loveable, and good hearted. And I didn’t care.
“So you play acoustic?”
“I goof around with it mostly. Keyboard is more my thing, and singing.”
“The studio opens next week,” he said, motioning at the stairs. “If you’d like to do some tracking, let me know.”
“Will do,” I said. “Later.”
Garren had the guitar propped up against the back of my car and a cigarette burning in one hand.
“I told you I liked guitars with a little history to them,” he said, his eyes shooting sparks.
“It’s got plenty of history,” I said. “Too bad it’s too dead to talk about it.”
“She’ll be all right.”
“Whatever you say, weirdo.”
“I have to work tonight, so you have to drop me off at the restaurant and hold on to my girl.”
“I will,” I said. “You want to move it so I can open the trunk?”
He jabbed the cigarette between his lips and slid the guitar off my car. I opened the trunk. He motioned at the backpack so I hauled it out and he laid the guitar down inside. I dropped the book that had come with the case on top of it and slammed the lid.
“Don’t leave her in the trunk,” he said.
“Worried it might get cold?”
“What if someone steals your car?”
“No car thief would be caught dead trying to jack my car.”
“Just take her inside and keep her in your room.”
A car engine started up and I glanced in the direction of the noise. An old black truck growled out of its parking space headfirst and rumbled past us. Its driver was the guy who’d been playing the blues in Rock Garage. He grinned at us from behind the windshield, then lifted one hand off the wheel and waved.
I didn’t want that nasty old guitar in my room.
“Thanks.” He dropped his cigarette and twisted his shoe over it. “I got a really good feeling about her. And you know what?”
I watched the truck drive on to the street. Rectangular brake lights flashed two times in dull red as the driver taped his brakes.
“You’re a good buddy, even if you do call me names.”
* * *
I dropped Garren off at Taco Grande, u-turned and merged back onto I-25. Highway driving required loud music, no matter what Mr. Thomas thought, and as I broke the speed limit I poked my stereo’s on button. I’d had the volume way up, so the static that detonated in my car startled the hell out of me. It was an exploding roar, raw electricity being broadcast.
I twisted the volume knob, dropping the noise to hissing pops and cracks. Manitou sat between Colorado Springs and Denver. On the highway, I could pick-up radio stations from both cities. I pushed all the frequency buttons, hoping it was only KILO that had lost its transmission. All the stations gave me the same hissing crackle. My stereo was broken.
At least I knew what to ask for as a graduation gift.
When my parents were together, we moved around a lot. I remember the smell of fresh paint on moving day and watching my father’s friends carry our couch through an unfamiliar doorway during a snow storm. For the past eight years my mom and I lived in a two story townhouse. Our street was somewhere between the mansions the wealthy people owned and a neighborhood of run-down, single-story houses. Although some of my classmates lived in those gigantic houses, I’d found no friends among the rich. My peers, the people I connected with, scraped by in the dilapidated houses that never grew lawns.
I parked on the street behind my mom’s Honda and headed towards my front door. Then I remembered Garren’s guitar. A promise is a promise, especially to one’s weirdo best friend. The book had moved around during the drive, ending up in the trunk’s far left corner. I bowed and reached for it and, as I grabbed it, I saw that the case’s latches weren’t gone after all. The silver latches were in place, locked and keeping the case’s lid shut.
For a second I wondered why CJ had carried it in both arms and why I’d thought the latches were missing when I’d seen it on the floor. I knew I’d seen the frayed edges in the material where the hinges used to be. Then I realized I was shuddering and backed away from the car. I raised my shoulders up and down, ridding myself of the cold shakes. The book was in my left hand. I raised it and peeled open the cover:
Music Notes and Practice Journal !!
The words were handwritten in black pencil and underlined two times. The title had no date. The letters had faded some, but they stood out enough on the yellowed pages to be read. I flipped forward:
Decay – two types;
- 1. Impulsive
- 2. Sustained
His penmanship was terrible; each word a wide looping scrawl of letters that didn’t connect where they were supposed to. My senior English teacher had called my handwriting, “…That of a resentful twelve year old.” I wondered if all musicians made wretched letters.
Intervals – Harmonic and Melodic
Beware the Diabolus in Musica!!!
A third of the journal contained notes on music terminology and theory, all things I knew. The writing was no doubt a boy’s and after his notes he’d practiced making bass and treble clefs, quarter notes and eighth notes. His musical writing was, like my own, sharper than his cursive. I thumbed to the end of the book. The last several pages were missing. The margin was shredded, like someone had torn the pages out fast. I flipped backwards one page.
I am he
He is me
We are we
Must have been the start of a bad song, I thought. I closed the book and stepped back to the guitar, half-expecting the latches to be gone again. They were still in place, two shining pieces of unscratched chrome on the left and right sides. They were new. Garren had put the guitar in the case and carried it out of the store in both arms, handling it just like CJ had done. He’d done that because the latches had been gone.
Or maybe we’d both been mistaken?