Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Employing "Setting" in Creative Writing: Emptying the House

Fiction is often based on personal experience. The following story is purely fictional even though I've drawn on some personal recollections to create the two major characters and setting for this story. The goal of this particular creative writing assignment was to employ setting as an integral part of the story. 

Emptying the House

His parents were dead. The place that he had once called home was also dead. The worn carpets and dated 1960s decor added to the sense of decay. As Ben scanned the tidy living room with its faded floral sofa and matching love seat, he noticed the sheet-metal sunflowers that he had made in high school shop class so many years before. They adorned the mantelpiece, a place of honor, his mother had once said. That's something to keep, he thought, as he took stock of what items to discard. 

Ben wandered into the dining room where the sunlight dappled through the bay windows, illuminating the old piano where the family had once gathered. The sheet music was still out. What had his mother been playing, he wondered, as his eyes caught sight of Edelweiss and Somewhere Over the Rainbow, two of his childhood favorites and both oddly wistful. Suddenly, an image of his mother playing the piano, while he and his sister sang along, flickered across his mind adding to his melancholy. He felt sad. 

The house seemed alien. The paramedics and police had left the downstairs relatively undisturbed. Of course, the forensic people had added to the chaos in the master bedroom where the events had taken place. But once the investigation was complete, Ben and his sister removed the yellow barricade tape, stripped the bed clean, and scoured the floors, removing any traces of death's aftermath.  

“It's a beautiful old house, and it's in a nice neighborhood. It does need work, and some buyers might want to tear it down. These days, a lot of people want modern and energy-efficient,” the real agent said as he surveyed the wrap-around porch and tree-lined street.

Yes, thought Ben. Houses, like people, also outlive their usefulness. 

“Unfortunately, murder-suicide does have an impact on the price. Naturally, the facts will need to be disclosed. State law requires it,” the agent said offhandedly. “But don't worry, you'll get near the asking price.”  

Real estate had taken off, reflected Ben. And when you considered the other investments, he and his sister would get a tidy sum.  

Ben felt relieved. A burden had been lifted. No more worrying. No more heated discussions with his mother about putting dad in a nursing home.

“I promised your father that I would never put him in one of those warehouses,” Ben's mother had repeated like a mantra whenever he broached the subject. Even when his father became abusive and lost all sense of propriety, his mother stuck to her guns. 

His mother's health wasn't good either. She had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson's.

At first, his father's care had been minimal, but gradually, the burden increased as the disease progressed. His mother stopped going to her bridge club meetings, no longer met the girls for coffee, and stopped doing the shopping, a task left to Ben and his sister. 

Even when he and his sister had suggested a housekeeper, his mother steadfastly refused. “A stranger in my house. No sir, not for me,” she said. 

You could see the strain weaken her little by little. She'd lost weight and no longer took pride in her appearance. She'd had once said, half jokingly, that she'd never leave the house without her make-up. One night, 10 years ago, she'd actually applied her make-up before allowing herself to be transported to the emergency room. As dad's condition got worse, she'd hardly brushed her hair, let alone put on make-up.

It was his sister who had called it in, describing how she had found them. Both lying on the bed. Dad smothered by a pillow, and mom overdosed on sleeping pills and tranquilizers – that according to the autopsy report. There had been no letter. No indication of what had triggered the event.

The investigation had gone smoothly: statements from him and his sister, medical histories reviewed, and finally a pamphlet from the Hemlock Society found in mom's night table. A simple case of euthanasia and suicide. 

As Ben lifted a picture of his parents celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary from an end table, he reflected how easy it had all been. Only the causal attitude displayed by his sister had surprised him as she took the pillow and suffocated dad. Even as dad struggled, there was no hesitancy, no emotion.

When it was over, she merely said, “My part's done. Now, your turn to take care of the old lady.” 

Ben's part had been uncomplicated. A glass of wine with dinner, and then a cocktail of sleeping pills, tranquilizers, and Dramamine (to prevent vomiting) mixed into mom's hot chocolate. She drifted peacefully off to sleep.

Ben was shaking after he had placed the bodies into position. It had been his sister's idea. He had merely acquiesced. He felt remorse, even regret, and his sister saw it in his eyes.   

“It's over,” she said, gently, but perhaps coldly. “You know as well as I do that they could have gone on like this for years, making our lives miserable and spending all the money. Too late for worries.”

As Ben returned the photo to the end table, his reverie was broken. His sister, who had been upstairs, returned to the living room.

“Nothing worth taking upstairs. It's now up to the realtors,” she said brusquely, then adding, “All this work has made me hungry. I wonder if there's any pie in the fridge.” 

A chill ran down Ben's spine as he remembered his sister saying the exact same thing after removing the pillow from dad's lifeless face. 

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