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Authors: Susie Moloney

Things Withered

Praise for Susie Moloney

The Thirteen

“An eerie blend of
The Stepford Wives
,
The Witches of Eastwick
, and
Desperate Housewives
 . . . features a cast of bewitching characters and a creepy story that will stick with the reader long afterward.”

—Library Journal

“A deliciously wicked piece of work . . . Moloney continues to stretch the genre.”

—The Winnipeg Free Press

“Moloney has been called Canada’s Stephen King . . . 
The Thirteen
is a creepy-fun read, with characters ready-made for a Hollywood casting call.”

—Maclean’s

“. . . a compellingly uncanny narrative, binding the tropes of small town paranoia and cliquishness with the chokehold of family obligations and religious fervour, and the very real claustrophobia of poverty and desperation. . . . [L]ike a gonzo, mirror-universe, occult version of
The Stepford Wives
, with a dash of Stephen King thrown in.”

—The Globe and Mail

The Dwelling

“A refreshingly original take on the traditional ghost story. I sat up all night to finish it—and not just because I was afraid to turn out the lights.”

—Kelley Armstrong,
#1
New York Times
bestselling
author of
Omens
and
Wild Justice

“. . . downright terrifying.”

—Chatelaine

“Moloney is skilled at blending the expected with the original.
The Dwelling
shows a fine understanding of human nature.”

—The Globe and Mail

“Moloney manipulates the tension artfully, giving the reader glimpses of the house’s history and leading to a suitably grotesque ending.”

—Quill & Quire

“The author, while creating a living, pulsing and macabre structure, also treats her human cast of characters with great care. . . . This is a great psychological thriller written in good taste with a suitably imaginative conclusion.”

—Books in Canada

“If the best measure of a horror story is how scary it is, Susie Moloney’s new novel is a success. This book will scare the bejesus out of you . . . not via an excess of blood or violence, but by conveying a pervasive atmosphere of the macabre.
The Dwelling
, like most good horror stories, contains a large dollop of mystery . . . [and] stellar characters.”

—The Winnipeg Free Press

A Dry Spell

“A rare piece of work. . . . Reminiscent of early Stephen King. . . . A story that is heartfelt and contains a touch of myth.”

—Chicago Tribune

“A fast-paced . . . blend of ghosts, curses, bad weather, oddball characters and romance. Moloney is a gifted storyteller, drawing her likeable, credible characters with bold strokes and subtle touches.”

—The Globe and Mail

“A fine read. . . . Like joyriding rural teenagers aching to get airborne, we’re soon swept away by the breathless pace of Susie Moloney’s novel.”

—The Toronto Star

“Absorbing. . . . Moloney intertwines powerful psychological, supernatural, and sexual undercurrents.”

—Entertainment Weekly

Bastion Falls

“The setting and the characters alone make this worthwhile reading. . . . Take this thick white book home to read on a long winter’s night.”

—Geist

THINGS
WITHERED
STORIES
SUSIE MOLONEY
WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY KAARON WARREN

ChiZine Publications

C
OPYRIGHT

Things Withered
© 2013 by Susie Moloney
Cover artwork © 2013 by Erik Mohr
Cover design © 2013 by Samantha Beiko
Interior design © 2013 by Kerrie McCreadie and Dan Seljak

All rights reserved.

Published by ChiZine Publications

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

EPub Edition DECEMBER 2013 ISBN: 978-1-77148-162-5

All rights reserved under all applicable International Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen.

No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of the publisher.

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.

CHIZINE PUBLICATIONS
Toronto, Canada
www.chizinepub.com
[email protected]

Edited and copyedited by Sandra Kasturi
Proofread by Michael Matheson

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, which last year invested $20.1 million in writing and publishing throughout Canada.

Published with the generous assistance of the Ontario Arts Council.

D
EDICATION

For Gary & Dale,
who have given me a sense of home

I
NTRODUCTION

Susie Moloney is a revelation.

I love these stories because they’re about people who have lived, so that they bring all their experiences, all their past, to the story and this evokes a deeper response from the reader. It means that at the end of each story, I’m left momentarily stunned by what I’ve read, and somehow bereft that it’s over.

There are no clichés of storytelling here. Middle-aged, overweight women have as much right to a story as anybody else, and Moloney tells us so in no uncertain terms.

It’s gorgeous lines like this one in “Night Beach,” one of my favourites in the collection, that wreak the magic: . . . 
a great hairy man who reminded Laura of an uncle she used to like
. Moloney won’t give us the story of that uncle, but there is so much history in the line, so much hint of damage, that already the character has more meaning.

Some stories are like a slow burn and leave the same scars as burns do. In “Reclamation on the Forest Floor,” another favourite, the clumsy romance between Shara and Donald is almost painful to read, and Moloney’s description of Shara’s physicalities is truly horrifying.

Moloney captures the essence of what it is to be ordinary, to be trapped in a life expected. She takes the moments many will understand and she twists them, undermines them, until they fall to pieces. She writes in “The Neighbourhood,”
When I look back on my life now, I think of all those times when I was rubbing invisible dirt off something when I could have been reading a book, sewing; phoning my husband and hearing his precious voice a minute more
, and if that isn’t a truth for all of us, I don’t know what is. “The Neighbourhood” is the longest story in the collection, and Moloney uses every word to lead us inexorably to the powerful ending.

At times, in stories such as “The Last Living Summer,” it almost feels as if Moloney is chronicling a time in the future, when the world is tired and things have changed. This is a sad, melancholic, devastating story where, again, she gives us people with a whole life behind them, bringing this to bear in how we react to the characters and how things play out.

Things Withered
is a brilliant collection, showcasing the work of a writer everybody should be reading.

—Kaaron Warren
Canberra, Australia
October 2013

T
HE
W
INDEMERE

“You must be Stephanie.”

“Yes.”

The two of us stood just outside the wide awning over the front entrance. The sky looked about to break open.

“Shall we take a look?” I said. My doorman let us in with a remark about the weather. We took the elevator to seven.

She looked like a nice girl, legitimate, and I could feel my relief counter going up, checking out her Louboutins and her Prada bag. Too often I start out with great expectations only to find my client has brought three giggling girlfriends all decked out in their Macy’s best to look at a luxury apartment that none of them could afford. I allow myself this small relief because lately, I have to take it where I can find it.

“Nothing lower than six and at least one bedroom, is that right?” The girl smiled politely.

“That’s right,” Stephanie said, as the doors opened on seven.

The Windemere was nearly the oldest building in the neighbourhood, bested only by the Paramount, on the same block. The Paramount had been built by the family of the current Mayor, and had been in the news lately, mostly for code violations that were routine with a building more than seventy years old, but which were a fun read when your Mayor’s mother was quoted as saying, “Well, I’m certain we have people on that, don’t we?” in response to the collapse of a wall in an upper floor hallway. A real
cause célèbre
.

It was like being in the shadow of a more glamorous older sister. In fact, there were other differences that made The Windemere’s more low-key presence a bonus. Overwhelmingly the tenants of The Windemere were from very old families, some on leaner budgets than in their glory days, but more importantly, when their own scandal hit, it got far less ink than it would have, had it been The Paramount.

I would know. I live in the Windemere, 2C. A modest apartment, part of a larger apartment that had been split in the ’50s. Lovely nonetheless and I was a big booster of the building. I felt responsible for its projection in the community.

I opened 7A with as much flair as I could manage at my height and general unremarkable sparkle. The apartment, thank the gods, spoke for itself. I swung the door open and mentally offered a
ta-da
.

The view from the threshold was spectacular. It opened across from a bank of four floor-to-ceiling windows that from the 7
th
floor, overlooked a dozen mature, budding Gingko trees. Through them you could see the street, pretty and refined, quiet. Even the parked vehicles were genteel: Mercedes, BMW, Lexus.

Stephanie gasped, clapped her hands together, and went right to the windows. She hiked one open and leaned out. She giggled like a child.

I was very pleased.

She spun around and smiled happily at me, spinning back in a mini-pirouette and walked the length of the apartment, her bag swinging beside her.

An apartment like this one could be a tough sell. It was broad and wide, previous tenants at some time in the last forty years had torn out walls where they could, stuck in retaining posts, created the look of a studio loft in the place of what had once been a Victorian-style apartment, with a warren of smaller rooms. While it greatly improved the look and air of the apartment, with just one bedroom it was a hard sell for families. And at the price, it was tough to find single renters.

Ms. Prada bag and Louboutin shoes was just the kind of girl I was looking for.

“You have a friend in the building, is that right?”

“I do,” she said. “Tracy Killens and I went to college together. She’s in—”

“9A, yes, I know Tracy.” Stephanie flashed a smile full of very white, very straight teeth.

The mention of Tracy Killens relaxed me even more. She had been in the building a long time—maybe as long as ten years. Which seemed crazy, because Stephanie didn’t look out of her mid-twenties. With these people, though, it was all genetics.

Then it came.

“This is the apartment where the woman died, is that right?”

“A lot of our tenants are elderly. It’s to be expected.” The girl turned and looked me right in the face. She was still smiling, but there was an element of smugness to it this time.

And I thought: therein lies the difference between us and them, new girls and old ones. When they catch us in something, they like to point it out.

“The
other
woman,” she said.

“That’s right,” I said, caught.

“She jumped out the window.”

“Or she fell. I don’t think they really know. Would you like to look at the kitchen?” I turned to the east wall and did my game show sweep of the area. It was very modern, with a stainless steel fridge and stove. The dishwasher was hidden behind a cupboard panel. The counter was L-shaped, and jutted out into the open space like a cudgel.

She didn’t take her eyes off me; even as I smiled and pointed out appliances, I could feel her looking at me. I finished extolling the virtues of minimalist cooking and turned back to her, expecting of course, the inevitable request for the gruesome details, followed by a polite request to think about it, followed up with an email before the end of the day, bowing out.

Instead, she said, “I’m not squeamish.” She took a last spin, a near-pirouette like she’d done when we’d come in. “I’ll take it. When is possession?”

“Beginning of the month, May 1.” It was April 13.

Stephanie frowned. “Oh no. I need it sooner. Can you do something?” She looked disappointed. There was still the odd smudge of fingerprint powder on the window ledge. There were plans to paint. And the police had to sign off on it. It was probably just paperwork.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I told her. She beamed.

“Thank you
.
I won’t forget it.” She clapped happily and waved her arms around in the air, a strange little dance-like move again.

“I can sign today!”

And I thought
thank god.

I was ten minutes late for the weekly brokers’ meeting, or the Confederacy of Assholes, as my husband Kevin called it. He was a big fan of John Kennedy Toole, and a great paraphraser. On the way to the meeting I called Kevin and told him I’d made the commission and he was thrilled, always my biggest fan and supporter. Sometimes the things he said could bring tears to my eyes, especially if the day was otherwise a bad one. The weekly Assholes meeting was usually a bad day.

My weeks hadn’t been great in the last few months and I could feel the pressure. But this week, I had something to announce and I was very pleased. The Windemere was an unusual success, with tenants locked into leases for years, just sitting in their great rooms, getting older and older. It was essentially a deathwatch, that building.

Kevin joked on the phone thanking Alzheimer’s and gin. I chided him for the tastelessness, but chuckled anyway. Poor Clara.

Clara Burns had been eighty years old when she did the high diving act. It was a mystery to me, and continues to be to most, I suspect. She’d been spry and not at all soft in the egg, so how or why she’d flown out that window was suspect. Even the police theories were silly at best, that something might have fallen from the sill and she’d overreached to catch it; that she was leaning out to get some fresh air. That she might have waved to someone on the street.

Nothing was found by her body, not so much as a potted plant; what could she have been reaching for? It was a chilly day, even for spring. If she’d waved to someone on the street, would they not have seen her fall?

But there was also no evidence of anyone else in the apartment, no foul play, as they say. No note if it was a suicide. A mystery. But Kevin was right, it was a boon for me, and would bump up my figures for April.

I was late for the meeting and when I walked in everyone turned to look, expectantly. When they saw it was me, their eyes all shifted back to the droning at hand, disappointed.

My announcement of the purchase was met with the usual mandatory applause, if somewhat unenthusiastic and truncated, ruining it a little for me. Maybe I read too much into these little slights at the office, as Kevin would say. I wanted to believe that, but I didn’t, not really.

In the old days—and I was one of the few who would remember them—there was more inter-office support. The ’80s had been a kind of Golden Age. Everyone was making money and real estate was a glamorous occupation. Everyone was a tycoon. I was young then, and passably pleasant to look at, but the years had not been kind.

I am five feet, two inches tall, and weight had seemed to arrive out of nowhere and stick to me like scandal. I had lately developed a wattle that horrified me. My pants had long ago reached sizes that I previously hadn’t known were available without a prescription, and I was perpetually cheating on some diet or other. These days it was the soup diet. I was eating only soup, and peeing like an infant. Poor Kevin had taken to eating his big meal at his office, and I tried not to feel bitter when he came home smelling of Bolognese or BBQ. He was gracious over dinners of chicken soup, vegetable soup, onion soup (no cheese or croutons, just onions, sadly).

Over the last two years, as the weight gathered, I had taken to the fat lady’s diversion of overdone nails and over-processed hair. Recently I’d dyed my hair a luscious red, suitable, the stylist assured me, to my fair complexion, which was a nice way of saying “doughy.” The hair might have been a tragic error on my part. It was
very
red and in my worst late-night moments, I felt sure it was clownish.

But you can’t overthink these things. I am fifty-six years old and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to compete with prettier girls, slimmer girls, girls who sparkled. It wasn’t happening.

“Sparkle,” was our team leader’s favourite expression and he could work it into any circumstance. Apartments and buildings had to have “sparkle.” So did ads, addresses, sell-sheets, and most importantly, realtors. His favourite usage was,
you might want to try some sparkle.
The first time he said it, I had misheard it as “spackle.” Funny now.

Richard Maynard. Oh, how I hated him.

At the end of the meeting, Himself asked me to stay behind, like grade school.

“Anita,” he said, “Can I have a word?”

I had a feeling the word would not be
sparkle.
So while everyone else filed out, without even the decency to shoot me a sympathetic side-eye, I stayed plunked in my seat at the far end of the boardroom from Richard.

“Of course,” I said. I pasted a smile on my face, even though my gut was turning. It was never good, this kind of staying behind.

It started bad, and got worse. “One sale does not a career sparkle, Anita,” he said.

That would be me.

I had been having trouble sleeping lately. It seemed that I would drop into bed, dead on my feet, and crash into something deep and settling, only to wake up three hours later to stare at the ceiling for what seemed like hours before I fell asleep again. That was where I was at when I got the phone call.

Kevin was beside me, lightly snoring, probably dreaming of pork roast and gravy, because by then I was on Weight Watchers and actually doing quite well. I had lost about four pounds over two months, and that was the best I’d done in years. It wasn’t my weight that was keeping me up at all, but rather a desire to
sparkle
and bring up my numbers before the end of the quarter. I’d been warned by Richard and while it wasn’t yet at the dire point, I was likely within spitting distance.

The phone rang. I was awake, but I couldn’t help but feel dread. I looked immediately at the clock. It was after 3
A.M.

Kevin rolled over, eyes opened. He looked at me without speaking. When you get to a certain age, phone calls in the middle of the night never mean anything good. He took my hand.

“Hello?” I said. First there was nothing and then a little static. “Hello?”

I realized it wasn’t static at all, but crying.

“Anita? It’s Myrna Crane. I’m sorry to call but—” her voice broke with another deep sob.

“What is it?” Kevin sat up beside me, alarmed. I shook my head at him and covered the mouthpiece. I tried mouthing “Myrna Crane,” but eventually, I just shook him off with a wave.
Nothing.

“It’s Barney Kloss, on eight—he’s dead!”

“Barney?! Oh Myrna . . . what happened?” With that, Kevin groaned and fell back to the bed with a grand sigh. He shook his head and turned over onto his side.

“He fell down the back stairs today—he’s been trying to get
fit
for crying out loud, I told him he was just going to hurt himself—and he did! He fell down those damn stairs and had a heart attack. The ambulance took him. But the hospital just called. He’s gone—”

“I’m so sorry, Myrna.” Barney and Myrna were both building old-timers and rumour had it that they’d been doing it since Lincoln was a baby. Whether or not that was true, or whether they were just two people who’d become like family, I didn’t know and I guessed it didn’t matter now. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Will you come and sit with me? Just for a moment? That new girl is here, but—” Myrna’s voice dropped to a whisper, “—
I hardly know her
.”

“New girl?”

“From 7A. She called 911. Stacy.”

Stephanie.

“Oh. How nice.” I looked at Kevin. His chest was rising and falling with ease. He was asleep. It was now 3:15. I was unlikely to get back to sleep whether I went up to comfort Myrna or not. I said I would just get dressed and be up.

Myrna was tearily grateful. “That would be so nice of you, Anita. Thank you.”

I threw on yoga pants and a hooded sweatshirt. I didn’t look my best, but it wasn’t even dawn. I avoided looking at myself in the elevator mirror. The new diet had really kicked in, but I could feel the brie cheese cobbler I’d had for lunch a couple of days earlier.

The elevator doors opened on the 8
th
floor and Stephanie was standing there. We had a surreal moment of surprise, the tiny tick of misplaced excitement that you can sometimes get when you’re up and about when no one else is.

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