The October Country: Oct. 30: “A Hand to Hold” by Stefani Miller

In celebration of the month of October, I’ll be sharing 31 of my favorite spooky, eerie and creepy stories, one per day. The stories will range over an array of genres: horror, suspense, science fiction, mysteries and dark fantasy.

The October Country

that country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain…

— Ray Bradbury

October 30:

A Hand to Hold by Stefani Miller

Found In:

Unpublished, Winner 7th Annual Writer’s Digest Pop Fiction Award: Horror Genre

Opening Line:

“Eugene always liked the color pink.”

A Hand to Hold is a dark and haunting little gem, chosen by Joe Lansdale as the winning entry in the 2012 Writer’s Digest Pop Fiction contest for horror stories (my own entry, sadly, didn’t place…damn you Joe Lansdale). The story is all the more startling considering that Miller acknowledged that this was her sole foray into horror writing. Like Mary Shelley, she wrote her tale of terror on a dare.

Perhaps more young women ought to take on dares to write creepy stories.

A Hand to Hold begins with Eugene standing alone in a park, watching the young children play, and right away we understand that Eugene is not a very friendly chap.

“No mother would ever notice him standing in the distance, his eyes trained on her and her spawn.  No child dared run near him for fear of strangers. Or perhaps they, in their youthful acuteness, could see past the facade…He never planned which child to take.  It was purely based on chance encounters, small talk on the street corner or, like today, attracting his eye with a bright swatch of fabric.  His targets were anyone, everyone.  All they had to do was cross his path.”

Lydia has taken her young daughter, Jemma, to this very park. Lydia is a helicopter parent, always hovering at the edges. She knows she’s overprotective, but she refuses to be that mother who lets her child get snatched away.

Unfortunately, she’s already made a mistake, one she isn’t even aware of making.

“Just the other day Jemma broke free of Lydia’s grasp and ran to pick up a glove a man had dropped on the path. Well-dressed and a bit dashing, Lydia appraised the man as handsome and old-fashioned.  He patted Jemma on the head and whispered something to her.  At that precise moment, a shriek arose from the playground, and Lydia turned to follow it, missing her only clue.”

Eugene has selected his next victim.

What Miller does so well is presenting a truly hideous scenario in such a disembodied fashion. The sentences move from one to the next dispassionately, recording events in such a way that makes the reader squirm. Even the rhetorical flourishes are muted. Hitchcock said suspense was two characters at a table and beneath the table a bomb that only one character and the audience knows about. Miller executes this trick nicely, showing us Eugene, showing us Lydia and Jemma, and showing us the bomb.

Eugene, it turns out, is a janitor at Parker Grove Elementary School. But he wasn’t always a lowly janitor. He was once a pediatrician. The mother of a homeless boy he tried to save had stabbed him with a used needle, and Eugene contracted AIDS. A nasty turn of events that subsequently colored Eugene’s outlook on life. Since this incident, he’d taken a rather dim view of children and their parents.

“He’d wanted to move on the six-year-old sooner, but he’d been busy Saturday with a nine-year-old he’d caught stealing gum from the local grocery. Systematically he’d broken each finger on the child’s right hand at the knuckle; the kid denied stealing until the pinkie.”

Unfortunately for the boy, the pain doesn’t end there.

Jemma attends Parker Grove, where Eugene has watched her patiently. And when the time is right, he decides to make his move.

After disabling Lydia’s car at her home, ensuring that she will be late picking her daughter up at school, Eugene offers to wait with young Jemma for her parents to arrive. Once they are alone, he guides her to a maintenance shed that he has converted into his personal “workroom.”

“The girl opened her mouth to protest, her eyes suddenly widening with the realization that this was not what it seemed.  Eugene clapped a hand over her mouth.

Lifting three loose boards, he created a large black hole in the middle of the floor.  He shoved the girl down into the hole and followed on her heels.

But only he would emerge.”

In the depths of that horrid shed, Eugene strangles the poor girl to death. But not before performing a rather gruesome bit of surgery.

After a frantic and fruitless day of searching for their daughter, Lydia and her ex-husband arrive home defeated and spent. A box sits on their doorstep. When they open it up, Jay vomits upon the sidewalk. Lydia faints.

“Inside the box was Jemma’s little hand, between the fingers lay a note.

“For my over protective mother, the hand to which you so desperately hold.”

I’ve always understood what appealed to Mr. Lansdale about this story. He himself once said that in writing his own brilliant masterpiece, The Night They Missed the Horror Show, he strove to pen a “story that didn’t blink.” Few stories achieve such a goal. Even the most hellbent of writers tend to pull their punches. A Hand to Hold certainly does not. It looks bleakly and long into the dark abyss of the worst of our fears, and it calmly records whatever it finds.

Not the kind of tale to tell to grandma. But a noteworthy reminder that there is indeed evil in the world. Sometimes right next door.

More October Stories

For the month of October, you can download

Tyler Miller’s The Other Side of the Door 

FREE.

In celebration of my favorite month, I’m giving away my collection The Other Side of the Door. These are stories inspired by so many of my favorite writers: Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson.

Stories like the award-winning Til Death Do Us, about a man who believes he’s gotten away with his wife’s murder…at least until her severed finger is delivered to him in a box. Somebody knows the truth…

Or another first-place winner: Not Dead, Not Even Past, the story of a small-town sheriff confronted with a string of suicides he can’t explain. Each of the victims share a disturbing trait: no matter how they died, all of them have lungs full of water.

I loved working on these stories, and I truly believe that you’ll enjoy reading them just as much as I enjoyed writing them. Check them out. For the entire month, they’re free. What have you got to lose?

Except a little sleep…

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